God Bless Your New Beginnings

A friend is leaving a job that she loves, to do more things she loves, and because I had been helped through this, years back, I knew what to say.

Back in the day, I was miserable.

It was near the end of my senior year at Commonwealth School in Boston and all around, people were planning the next year, without me. Spring air wafted in through open windows while people discussed the new classes being offered and the classes I loved that were being cut because the teachers who created them were moving on to colleges also. Old books were being discarded, new books arriving in large boxes. As I worked one of my last few sessions in the school kitchen with Ila Moore, the chorus in the next room was singing, with vigor but without seniors, Mozart’s Laudate Pueri Dominum, which we had sung when I was in ninth grade. It’s a rousing piece, but in my cocoon of misery I sang along softly as I chopped carrots and mourned. The bell rang, and I went upstairs, but nothing was quite familiar. The building had already been painted in anticipation of changes. The carpeting was new, the beloved couch in the lobby replaced. The lockers had been emptied, bulletin boards stripped. The founding headmaster, Charles Merrill, was retiring, and had largely dismantled his glorious office, putting trinkets from all over the world outside for students and faculty to take as a memento. “It’s like a free yard sale!” a friend exclaimed. But it felt more like a selective eviction, with some people staying.

As part of daily life Commonwealth had us students work for the school on teams in rotation, two weeks of a meal job, two weeks of a non-meal job, and two weeks off. The building becomes yours when you don’t just use it, but also maintain it. I had swept these floors and dusted these stairs and bookcases. The artwork, freshly rehung, was a mixture of reprints of classics and original works by faculty and students. I had seen some of these painted, and had helped to hang others. How could I think of leaving this place? How could they think of carrying on without us 41 seniors, the largest class in the school’s history at the time? How could Mr. Merrill leave? How could we let him? What, if anything, were any of us thinking?

Walking around what felt like the detritus of my education, I remembered that I hadn’t asked my “little sister” to sign my yearbook. Azania’s mother was one of the first alumnae or alumni to have a child attend the school, and like me, she had come from the Boston Public Schools, which made the rigor of Commonwealth something of a shock. But she was hard working, kind, and had common sense and a cheerful nature which made it a joy to be around her. She was firmly a part of the weave and weft of the school now. I found her on the third floor, just outside my advisor’s classroom. Mr. Hughes called me in for a quick chat while Azania and her friends signed my yearbook.

Mr. Hughes had the corner room, overlooking both Commonwealth and Dartmouth. He had a four-sided spinning bookcase from which he often pulled books to read from to us. He had taught me how to write clearly but in my own voice. He had comforted me in times of crisis and had explained exactly what I was doing wrong when I’d run aground. Today, he was almost playful. He lowered his glasses on his nose to see me better and with his huge smile that suggested delightful surprises ahead, asked, “So, what classes do you anticipate taking at Wellesley?”

The question startled me. I had been busy with preparation for AP tests and finals, and then I was blindsided by the changes around me. I frankly had not given the matter much thought yet.

I chose the College because it had a good English department and offered Russian, so part of my schedule was a foregone conclusion.  I needed to take a science, so I chose Chemistry. I wanted to teach, so I would have to take Psychology. But there were gaps which I could fill in by choosing almost anything once I arrived on campus in the Fall. I had forgotten — there would be so many more classes than even Commonwealth could offer. Wellesley had a sprawling campus full of  buildings devoted to and equipped for subject matters — science, music, academics — so many faculty, so many subjects, and almost all open to eighteen year-old me!

Paradigm shift had begun. My mind had left its dark place and drifted up Route Nine to the college that awaited me. Proverbs 15:23 came to mind; “[…] a word in due season, how good is it.”

But there was more.

When I stepped into the hallway, Azania handed me my yearbook and ran off to her next class. I opened it and read what she had written.

“God bless your new beginnings.”

More things I had forgotten.

Wellesley’s two mottos had inspired me. One, “Non ministrari, sed ministrare” (which the volley ball team proudly translated on their tee shirts as “Not to be served unto, but to serve,”) was in complete accord with everything my father had taught me about our purpose in life, to love God and love each other and to show that love through service.

The second motto, “Incipit nova vita,” now came to mind.

A new life begins.

I took in a deep breath of Spring, books, the familiar, and a hint of the unknown, and smiled.

How exciting.

I had been calling the ceremony we were preparing for “graduation,” but it had another name: commencement. We were commencing.

And life in the old place would go on without us, not in spite of us but building upon what we did.

When something ends, it is so something else can begin.

And so to my friends facing retirement or relocation, upheaval or a new place and way to serve, let me share the good words which change everything.

God bless your new beginnings.

Photo by MerelyRachel on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Photo by MerelyRachel on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

When They’re Ready

This was a summer unlike any other. We have moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and sold our house in Connecticut with the huge yard and garden. We are living in a townhouse apartment so new that the GPS cannot find it. It was under construction when we visited to sign the lease. We are getting used to being able to make toast and use the microwave at the same time and not having to mow the lawn or shovel the snow. Ironically, now that we have a patio instead of a back yard, I have done more gardening than I had in three years. It started out as a way to get to know my new State.

I went to a plant sale at the local high school at the beginning of the summer and purchased some plants, thinking that this would give me the typical local vegetables. However, it turns out that people who want normal plants go to the normal places like plant nurseries and box stores; the school plant sale was for exotic varieties. And so instead of grape and Roma tomatoes, I had yellow baby tomatoes shaped like a butternut squash, and yellow Roma tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes were just the beginning. I had never successfully grown okra before — in Texas I was too busy and in Connecticut it was too cold. So I bought three okra plants. The flowers were gorgeous — rather like hibiscus flowers. But the okra pods were not green; they were red. A tag on the plant, which I found only after I picked the first three okra pods, said it was Red Velvet okra. We don’t have a garden hose or a water source on the patio, so we have been hauling water from the kitchen to the patio almost daily.

However, it’s been a troubling summer. I keep index cards next to the computer to write down prayer requests from friends. I had to get bigger index cards. Most of it is what Aslan would call “someone else’s story,” but friends with sick children and grandchildren, friends with sick parents, friends whose friends have died suddenly or are gravely ill. In the middle of all that, we haul the water out to the patio daily and pick the beans, the squash, the cucumber (only one made it), the yellow tomatoes, the red okra, the new fruits of a new place. Different but good; we are learning. The routine gives shape to the day and makes me follow the weather.

My husband sometimes waters the plants for me and takes an interest in the daily haul. When I brought in a handful of strange produce, my husband asked about how I know they are ripe. “If the tomatoes never turn red, how do you know when they’re ready to be picked?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy. I hold my hand beneath the fruit and wiggle my fingers. If the tomatoes fall into my hand, they’re ready. If they cling to the vine, they aren’t.” I opened my hand and we ate the sweet, strange tomatoes.

And I thought of one of my favorite icons. This is a fresco in a church I’ve never been to, but I have it in my “Comforting Images” file to look at when I am stressed. It is an illustration of a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” The souls, depicted as people used to be prepared for burial, in winding linen cloth, rest in God’s palm while Angels approach bearing yet more souls. These souls are not alone or unsupported.

I love this icon and love that I thought of it. The people about whom I had been worrying, and for whom we had been praying, seemed safer. God’s hand is beneath them, waiting. Sometimes, God wiggles His fingers. They don’t bruise, they don’t force; they test and invite. After all, these hands know us; they have made and fashioned us.We don’t fall into His palm until we are ready.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; such a safe and beautiful place to be at rest.

Where else could we want them to be?

Who Goes There? A Pascha Story

How do you welcome strangers when you aren’t home?

Photo credit: foter.com

I have been away, visiting my brother and his amazing family, and so I haven’t posted in a while. However, I have a short little remembrance from when my children were little. We lived in Texas in the 1990’s, and often had only one car. We had made new friends, a husband and wife, who were Orthodox, and they were coming to the house. But an emergency arose, and my husband needed to be someplace. I drove him, so I could have the car. But, the children would be home alone when our friends arrived. I wasn’t sure how the children would recognize them. They couldn’t really reach the peep hole in the door.

I made my cross, prayed, and smiled.

I called the children into a huddle, gave them instructions, took off my apron, put on some shoes, and drove.

My friend told the story to my brother, who reminded me of it. My children were about nine, eight, and four. Our friends arrived and saw no car, but they rang the bell, and heard a muffled sound, in response.

“I can’t hear you!” the husband said.

There was a murmured consultation, and then the same response, a little louder, but not clear.

“I’m sorry, I still can’t hear you,” the husband said.

There was a longer consultation, and the deadbolt was turned. The door opened, but the chain stayed on. Three mouths appeared at the door. In unison, the children called out, “Christ is Risen!”

It was in the Paschal season. In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for great feasts by abstaining from meat and dairy, and then we celebrate the feast for a long time after. And so we greet each other for the forty days of Pascha (Easter) with “Christ is Risen!” to which one replies “Truly He is Risen,” or “Indeed He is Risen,” depending on your parish’s preferred translation.

And so our friends called out, also in unison, “Indeed He is Risen!” The children consulted again, and closed the door, unchained it, opened it, and welcomed the guests into the house, into our lives, and practically speaking, into the family. That happens, especially in Texas. “If you don’t have family in Texas when you arrive,” my brother-in-law had explained when we moved, “you create family.”

Christ is Risen!” It is a greeting to bring joy, to proclaim victory over death, and to draw like minded people closer together.

Christ is Risen!

Pity Kulich

My husband and I stood on the porch under an umbrella, not quite out of the rain, ringing Evdokia’s doorbell. (Her name isn’t really Evdokia, of course.) We knew she was home — she was blind, elderly, and never went anywhere — but she refused to answer.

She knew why we were there.

We were getting damper and colder, despite the fact that it was Orthodox Easter Sunday. We were on a mission, delivering baskets to the shut-in’s, and you don’t get more shut-in than this. My husband dried his hand on his jacket, handed me the umbrella, and took out his phone.

“Evdokia Makarovna, eto ja, otets Giorgi!” “It’s me, Father George,” and he explained that he was here with a basket that the children had made for her. She doesn’t have to come downstairs, if she just buzzes the lock, he will bring it in.

Yes, she knew who he was and why he was there, and she didn’t want the basket. Give it, she said, to someone who DOES need it. And she hung up.

At this point both of our faces were dripping and my headscarf was soaked through. We looked at each other and laughed, and went to the diner alone together for coffee, our annual treat before we went home to finish celebrating the biggest feast of the year with our children.

The basket was small but had all the traditional Russian Easter foods — a hunk of kielbasa, a small cup of pascha cheese, a red egg, and some candy. We had driven all over the Greater Bridgeport area dropping them off, and Evdokia’s was the last stop.

There had actually been some controversy about the baskets. These were given to widows and to shut-ins, but many of the widows didn’t want one, because they could still bake for themselves and indeed, for everyone else. They brought large baskets to church to be blessed for their own families and handed out smaller parcels to others at church, including the fortunate clergy. These women could bake!

The parcels my husband distributed were a group effort. The Sisterhood made the foods, the children made cards and eggs, and we brought them to people. It wasn’t just the goodies that made them special, it was the idea that the church still remembers those who cannot get there often. Sometimes my husband would stay for tea, and catch up with the elderly, filling them in on current doings at church and learning more about the parish’s history.

Sometimes we missed someone — we didn’t know that someone was sick or in the hospital. Sometimes people didn’t want to be contacted. And sometimes a person requested a basket. “She might be a widow, but she still gets around and can cook!” one elderly woman said, while passing on her friend’s request. Well, if someone feels the need to have the priest show up with goodies and stay for tea mixed with sympathy, it’s a need. One more basket is not hard to make.

The baskets were distributed on Pascha and during Bright Week, just before the blessing of graves that takes place the following week. And so it was a time to verify who was buried where, and to gather names of the deceased, as well. Granted, it was also one more thing to do after the most exhausting and exhilarating time of the year. But it was an important ministry.

Some people declined a basket out of shyness. Others didn’t want to see the priest. And then there was the implication of receiving a basket. It’s makes a person part of a category that not everyone is ready to join. Evdokia, whom I never met in person, had been adamant about not needing a basket. Yes, she was blind. Yes, she was a widow. Yes, she couldn’t get to church. But she could still provide. The Sisterhood, whose members were all women who were younger than Evdokia, insisted that we bring her a basket. We were squished in the middle of an intergenerational war, and it seemed better to err by bringing Easter cheer than to risk offending people by not doing so.

It had a difficult Easter for me. I felt like less than a perfect hostess, because while I had made my cheese and dyed my eggs, I had not made kulich.

Kulich is the traditional Russian Easter bread, and it is baked in cylinders (coffee cans, special beakers, empty oatmeal boxes, according to your budget) and is frosted. It contains many of the things we give up for Lent — eggs, milk, butter — and provides a sturdy platform for large helpings of the pascha cheese. But this year I couldn’t knead the dough, because I’d sliced the side of my right hand.

Like most injuries, it was stupid. My children all made their own lunches, and the youngest had decided that “green bean juice on white bread tastes just like steak.” I didn’t see it, but as long as he also brought a protein and a fruit, I had no problem with him packing a baggie of green beans in his lunch. He didn’t need a full can of them, though. So one morning when I was cleaning up the post-exodus mess from four children making lunches to take to three schools, I saw there were a few lonely green beans left in the can. I stuck my hand in to liberate them (and eat them), and when I turned my hand, I sliced it on the edge. I didn’t bleed long, but I bled a lot, and I didn’t want to risk bleeding into dough made with six cups of milk, a dozen egg yolks, saffron, sugar, etc. I bought a tsoureki, instead, from the Greek church. News of my injury reached parishioners and friends, who gave me what my daughter termed “pity kulich,” most of it better than mine, and I bought a Potemkin kulich from the Russian store to grace our basket.

The next day, we were about to eat supper when the doorbell rang. It was Evdokia’s son-in-law. He was holding a large bag, and he looked very, very nervous. He apologized to my husband, held the bag as if it contained a decapitated head and said, “Mama said I need to come.”

Looking much like a nun who was asked to repeat a swear word, he gulped, and continued, “Mama says that she knows you hurt your hand.” He nodded at me briefly but would not make eye contact. “She said that she’s not the one who needs a kulich, you are. She said that even if she can’t see, she can still bake. And she said I should bring you this.”

My husband opened the bag, and pulled out one of the largest and most luscious kulichi I have ever seen. It was golden and smelled of yeast, eggs, and butter. The son-in-law looked like he wanted to sink under the floor boards, and my husband had not yet recovered his power of speech. So it was up to me.

God bless Evdokia. People tried to tell her she was one thing, she maintains she is not, and she decided to prove it in the tastiest way possible. “I am taking notes,” I thought. “This is how one refuses to go gently into the night.”

The son-in-law still stood before us, looking miserable. I had it in my power to fix one thing. I dried my hands on my apron and extended the right one for him to shake. “Please, please thank your mother-in-law for me!” I said. “I’m healing nicely,” I said, showing him the thin line on my hand, “but I was so disappointed that I couldn’t bake, and that looks absolutely delicious. I’m so grateful to you. I appreciate you bringing it to me.”

The son-in-law looked up with relief, and, still not making eye contact, shook my hand, got my husband’s blessing, and fled. It was a glorious kulich, and it lasted us many days. And the next year, and all the years after until she died, none of us ever dared try to bring Evdokia another basket again.

Alas, she never made me another pity kulich.

But I do have a recipe that’s good, I’ve had several more years practice now, and I am truly capable, once again, of making my own. I don’t always take the time to let them cool properly, they may break, but they fill the house with a yeasty miasma, they taste good, and the preparation makes me feel like part of a long line of women laboring to make the celebration palpable for the people around us. We are not Manicheans; the Church blesses Things — bread, water, eggs, cheese — because God’s creation is good, and He allows us to participate in the joy of creation by making things with our own hands to share, in love, in imitation of Him.

Evdokia knew this, and was not going to let anybody tell her that she’s out of the game.

Here’s the recipe for kulich. I quadruple it, but you might not have to.

Enjoy.

Kulich

One and a half cups scalded milk
1 envelope dry yeast (= 2 teaspoons)
4 egg yolks
1 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup grated lemon rind (I don’t use that much)
pinch saffron (I soak this in brandy or rum for more uniform color)
2 (46 ounce) juice cans, washed (remove labels!)
5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
1/4 cup warm water
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup chopped blanched almonds (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup seedless golden raisins (more or less — you decide)

Scald the milk. Let cool, remove the “skin.” In a large bowl, combine milk and 4 cups flour. Soften the yeast in the 1/4 cup of water; then stir into the flour and milk mixture. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour).
(This gives you time to separate your eggs, melt your butter, etc.) In a small bowl, beat the yolks with sugar until light and thick. Add butter and blend well. Stir in nuts, lemon rind, salt, saffron, and raisins. Gradually stir in enough flour to make the dough firm enough to handle. Turn out onto a floured board and knead well (this is hard work!) until the dough is smooth and elastic, working in more flour as
needed.
(We discovered that it’s “enough” flour when your hands are no longer goopy with dough.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (The recipe says 370 but mine burn if I use that high a temp.) Divide the dough in half and place in cans. (Some people grease the cans with white shortening (Crisco-type stuff or even spray them with Pam) and line then with brown paper. I used to use grocery bags, but that’s not safe any more — some have pesticides — so I buy parchment paper. Other people use butcher paper. The paper should extend above the can. Be sure to cut out a circle for the bottom of the can also.) The cans should be half full. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. KEEP THEM OUT OF ANY BREEZES! I had a batch one year that looked gorgeous, but was raw in the middle.

Place cans of dough in a preheated oven. Bake about one hour and fifteen minutes, until golden brown.

Allow kulichi to stand for about five minutes. Take them out of the cans by tugging out the paper. Good cooks roll them back and forth so they are perfectly rounded. I don’t. Mine list, like friends who’ve been carousing, but it’s all good. Peel off the paper and wrap the kulichi each in its own clean towel to cool.
When cool, stand the kulichi up and cover them with lemon glaze (let it trickle down the sides).
Some people decorate the tops with “XB” in candied cherries. Others just use candy sprinkles. Our Ukrainian parishioners use a fresh rose, which is also pretty.
Lemon Glaze: In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup confectioners (powdered) sugar, 2 teaspoons hot tap water, and one teaspoon lemon juice. Start with less juice and use more only if needed. The frosting should be thick, like fondant.


You can make these in a variety of sizes by varying the cans you use. One quart juice cans, frozen juice concentrate cans, 11 oz. coffee cans, etc. all work.


Remember that smaller kulichi will take less time to bake, and larger will of course take longer. If the tops of the paper start burning, cut them off or ignore it, depending on the danger of them bursting into flame.


Kulichi can be frozen in thick zip lock bags. To serve, cut off the top, then slice the cylinder. Serve the round pieces first, always putting the top back on like a cookie jar lid so the bottom slices don’t dry out. Serve with Pascha cheese.

Next year, you can order good kulich from here!

“Tree at My Window”

(In honor of National Poetry Month)


Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.


Robert Frost