Planting with Purpose

Writing and gardening are closely intertwined in my life. I graduate, in July, from Fairfield University’s limited residency MFA program in writing. And I just laid claim to this patch of ground on the side of our house. For fifteen years it was in the shadow of a huge pine tree. When the pine tree came down, I was assured that the soil was so changed that nothing could grow. But when I came back from last summer’s ten day residency away from home, this vegetation greeted me. I have no idea what half those plants are. I love that they prove that something can grow in the space. But now it’s time to go for what I really want.

For Mother’s Day, I asked the young men in our house to please help me by preparing our vegetable garden (a small patch of ground roughly the size of a double bed) and this newly liberated area for planting. The vegetable garden has always been a little wild. My husband and I work at several jobs but none that pay much, so the “landscaping” of my garden depends heavily on discarded construction materials and ingenuity. The beans grow on trellises forged of tomato stakes and vinyl lattice trimmed from porches; the front border is made of cement blocks whose holes each contain a different herb.

This new space, however, will be something altogether different. I bought plastic fencing and fertilizer, mulch and rose bushes. The men and I pulled weeds, and they rotor-tilled the hardened ground, put up the border, spread the mulch and manure. On a day when the writing wasn’t going well, I took a shovel and dug four holes, one for each rose bush. I planted seeds I had chosen at the store, surprised by the combination I settled on. We watered the patch. We are waiting.

Before I applied for the MFA program, I was already a writer, had been paid to write, had edited an online magazine, had articles and even a podcast published, and had given speeches. Why, then, did I undertake an MFA in writing? For the same reason that it was important to weed, fence, and prepare the soil for the new flower bed. The vegetable garden feeds the body. The roses, sunflowers, cosmos flowers, petunias and lavender that I planted where that chaos had reigned will feed something else. But they couldn’t grow without the structure. And I applied for the program because I needed the same preparation.

I had taken a hiatus from active publishing and lost touch with my writer friends while my children were teenagers. When I came up for air, I needed peers, mentors, new technical skills, and inspiration. I found them all in this program, and now I am applying what I’ve learned about writing to my life, for which gardening supplies so many metaphors. When I am launched, in July, into the pool of gracious, generative, funny and talented alumni who have helped me so during the past four semesters, it will be time for me, also, to bear fruit.

I welcome the strange plants that appear in my mulch pile, and if they are hearty and desirable, I transfer them to the garden. But I have learned that if I do not plan and plant, weed and tend a garden, something will grow there, and it won’t be what I want. It might not even be something I recognize.

And so I embrace serendipity in my writing, at the seed rack, in my garden, and in my life. But serendipity works better if you’ve first rotor-tilled and mulched, set up a border and defined what it is you want to grow. There have been years when both my writing and my garden  had to lie fallow.  But now, it is exhilarating to plan and dig, to till and weed, to write and edit, to plant, and to submit.

I look forward to sharing what grows.

Photo: This is the before picture of my new attempted flower garden. Copyright: Ann McLellan Lardas

 

Sermon, Orthodox Easter

Among Protestant ministers, one of the hardest tasks of the year is writing the Easter homily. The Orthodox Church solves this problem by allowing only one, the same each year. It’s so good and so timeless that you can listen to it every year and learn something new. It’s just the right length, so that a busy priest, who has been in church for several long services every day for most of Holy Week is not forced to come up with something novel or brilliant to win the hearts of those who do not always come to church.

It is not “timely” or “topical” or about “hot issues of the day,” but rather about the nature of God, man, resurrection, mercy, and love.

It covers everything.

Here is that sermon.

Source: http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sermon.htm

This sermon is read at the Paschal Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of the Resurrection. It was written circa 400 AD by St John Chrysostomos

If any be a devout lover of God,
let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
let him not be afraid because he comes so late.

For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.

Let none lament his poverty;
for the universal Kingdom is revealed.
Let none bewail his transgressions;
for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb.
Let none fear death;
for death of the Saviour has set us free.

He has destroyed death by undergoing death.
He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.
He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he cried:
Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below;
filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing;
filled with bitterness, for it was mocked;
filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown;
filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains.
Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen! And the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen! And life is liberated!
Christ is risen! And the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power, now and forever, and from all ages to all ages.
Amen!

No Way to Talk to Oneself…

I had to sigh and stop myself this morning.

Once again I had fallen into the trap of saying things to myself that I would not allow anyone (including and especially me) say to one of my children.

You know how it is. You make a mistake, or something goes wrong, or an experiment fails, and the words “stupid!” and “always!” are launched inside your head like misdirected torpedoes.

I wasn’t going to to do that any more.

But it is a habit that has to die. Really, this is beyond a “giving it up for Lent” thing. This is a thing that all of us, and perhaps especially women, have to work on. Yes, on some level, we all have to be our own severest critics (though surely there are people who seem to have volunteered, in all of our lives, for that position). But the law of kindness has to be in our heads before it can be on our tongues.

Rewinding the tape, re-evaluating my evaluation. Breathing, and not letting That Voice win the day.

Pascha Cheese

One of the traditional Russian Easter dishes is “syrnaja pascha,” or “Pascha Cheese.” It is a cheesecake like dish which is molded in a special pyramid shaped mold and which is served on slices of kulich, a rich, eggy sweet bread.

You make the Pascha cheese with the farmer’s cheese whose recipe I posted here earlier.

Here is my favorite recipe for Pascha Cheese.

Matushka Irina’s Russian Pascha Recipe

Young girl holding pascha cheese and eggs
Young girl holding pascha cheese and eggs

5 lbs farmers cheese
7 sticks unsalted butter–softened
8 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
1 pint heavy cream
4 cups of sugar
zest of an orange
11/2 piece of vanilla bean scraped

Put the cheese through a sieve
Add all the ingredients and mix
Put in double boiler and with a wooden spoon mix until it looks like
thin farina. Cook until hot—DO NOT BOIL. It will be quite liquid.

Put the pot in the sink and surround with ice. Let cool and mix occasionally. It will firm up.

Wet cheesecloth (or cloth). Put it in your mold. Fill with pascha.
Cover the top of the mold with more cheesecloth.

Now, here opinion divides. The person who gave me the recipe doesn’t use a weight on hers; I put a can of beans on top of mine to hasten the draining process. I guess it’s your choice here. Leave this in the fridge until it firms up.

If you don’t have a pascha mold, a clay pot makes a decent substitute. Because it is, to some degree, cooked, this recipe stays fresh longer than other pascha recipes I’ve tried.

This is what it looks like when it’s in the refrigerator waiting to be opened and served:

Pascha cheese in the refrigerator under weights.
Pascha cheese in the refrigerator under weights.

And this is what the serving dish looks like after people have had some:

Pascha, after.
Pascha, after.

That Lenten Chocolate Cake

That Lenten Chocolate Cake

Purists mix this in the pan, but I use a mixing bowl, to keep the floor clean.

Stir together the dry ingredients:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa powder (friends use more)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Add the moist ingredients:
2 teaspoons vinegar
2 tablespoons vanilla (friends use way more)
2 cups warm water
¾ cup vegetable oi

Sift together flour, sugar, cocoa, soda and salt into mixing bowl. Make three holes; in one put vanilla, in one put vinegar, and in the last hole put
oil. Over this pour warm water and mix back and forth until all is mixed. Do not beat.

Pour into:
one nine by thirteen baking pan, or
two 8″ or 9″ round or square pans (eight inches will be taller, nine inches thinner) or
one bundt pan, or
make a dozen cupcakes.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Top with frosting or sprinkle with powdered sugar.
(To do this, put some powdered sugar in a small strainer and shake it gently over the cake.)

Variations on the Theme

Mint Chocolate Cake:
Frost with mint frosting.

Chocolate Chip Cake:
Omit cocoa and add up to one cup chocolate chips.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip cake:
Add up to one cup of chocolate chips.

Chocolate Cherry Cake:
In place of water, use all the juice from a jar of maraschino cherries plus enough water to make two cups. Chop the cherries (or don’t) and add them at the last minute.

Apple Sauce Cake:
Omit the coco powder.
Use applesauce instead of water.
Add 2 teaspoons (okay, tablespoons) cinnamon.

Photo credit: serenejournal via Foter.com / CC BY