Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Comforts, Quirks, and Company

Hoosier Winter
This Christmas is very much a working holiday. I'm striving to complete my final dissertation chapter by December 31, so I'm not indulging in nearly as many movies, walks, or visits as I normally do when visiting Indiana. However, even while racing toward my deadline, I have been able to appreciate many of the good things about being here, in my first of all homes:

1. Kind Inquiries from Federal Employees: As I stepped onto the porch to retrieve the mail on Tuesday, the postman stopped and shouted, "Well, how is Baby Bear? Get good grades this semester?"
2. Things that Do Not Change: For more years than I can remember, my mother has used the same wrapping paper to wrap my presents. I suppose when you save a certain paper for one person, it can last a long time.
3. Creature Comforts: Writing a dissertation is much more pleasant with a purring cat curled up on my lap (or, less conveniently, in front of my keyboard)
4. Other Things that Do Not Change: My parents' Christmas tree will always be, in my estimation, the best of all trees.  Every ornament has a story. I especially like the angels made from aluminum foil, which Mama made when she and Daddy were first married.
Grocery shopping with Mama
5. Deliciousness: On Wednesday, Mama made eight casserole dishes full of homemade party mix. As far as I am concerned, this is our Christmas feast.
6. Quirks I Did Not Realize Were Quirks until I Left Home: On our living room walls, my parents have maps of Narnia and Middle Earth, but there is not a single family portrait to be found on any wall in the house. 
7. New Delights: Daddy is reading Harry Potter for the first time (he's just started the sixth book), and I love hearing his first-time reactions to the stories.
8. Quotidian Grace: Mama and I spend quality time together by running errands.
9. Sartorial Redemption: The Helping Hands thrift store in West Terre Haute, Indiana yields many treasures.
10. Good Company: Miscellaneous college and international students are in and out of the house at all hours.
11.  Ties that Bind: I spent last night and most of today with Lennon, Amy, and Andrew--kin by so much more than blood. (Amy, by the way, is a fabulous baker and blogs her creations here. If you're in central/southern Indiana, you should hire her to bake you a cake!).

Lennon, Amy, and Andrew with "Aunt Bethany"
A more typical glimpse of our time together.

Where are you this Christmas? What are some of the good things about being there?

Waiting my Way Home

"Ben, you're my last hope," the station agent said into the phone. "You see, I've got this passenger who needs to get to Ft. Worth and--oh. You're in San Antonio? Oh, never mind, then."

After five hours of waiting for a train, this was not what I wanted to hear from the Amtrak station agent. My northbound coach, the Texas Eagle, was schedule to depart from McGregor at 11:50 AM on Sunday, but an accident north of Austin had led to a series of delays. All the passengers who had been on the train were loaded onto buses, and train service was to resume in Ft. Worth. After a series of frustrating conversations with operators, who seemed to know about as much as I did about what was happening, I finally learned that one of the five buses knew I was waiting in McGregor and would be coming to take me to Ft. Worth.

Waiting for another train, July 2007
By 5 o'clock, however, the station agent was beginning to worry that the bus had either forgotten me or was not going to arrive in time to get me to Ft. Worth.  Just before he called Ben, I had overheard him say as much to Maria, the station agent at Temple, Texas. "Do you know where he is?" my agent asked. "No, I can't hail Billings, either." The inability to "hail Billings"--the driver of the bus that was supposed to come for me--had become the last in long series of obstacles to my journey home for Christmas.

I should pause here to note that my wonderful, amazing, patient housemates had been waiting with me all afternoon, and when Jennifer realized that Billings-the-bus-driver was incommunicado, and that Ben-the-taxi-man was in San Antonio, she said, "Could we take her to Ft. Worth?"
"Could you?" the agent replied, relief visible on his face. "That would be best, because we just can't seem to hail Billings....and Amtrak could reimburse you for the gas."
"Okay. We'll do it. When would we need to leave?"
"Well, um, right now."

And so Grant and Jenn, who had originally planned to wait with me for fifteen minutes, drove me two hours to Ft. Worth, arriving about ten minutes before the northbound train pulled out of the station.  The generosity, patience, and love they exhibited was more than I could have asked for, and they, bless them, didn't even make me ask. They simply saw my need and met it without fuss or fear.

At the beginning of Advent, I wrote about how I have found it difficult to be faithful in waiting (read the full reflection here). Writing that entry humbled me because for most of my life I have thought of myself as being fairly good at waiting. In college, I liked to quip, "Delayed gratification is good for the soul," too often dismissing my friend Rachel's protest: "Yes, but it is hard on the heart."

My long day at the train station reminded me that waiting is much easier to bear with friends. This is hardly an original observation, but it is a truth that has come to dwell with me this year. Often, people describe life as a journey, and friends as our companions on the road. It is wonderful to have friends travel alongside me, but in some ways I am more encouraged when I realize that my friends are waiting with me as circumstances, sickness, or uncertainty stand in the way of progress.

And so tonight, safe and warm in my childhood home, I am thankful for Grant and Jenn, who waited with me all day, hugged me when it looked like I might not get home at all, then took action as soon as they saw a way to speed me on my journey.

I am also thankful for all the memories of other friends who have waited with me. I remember the spring I was preparing for my preliminary exams, when Adrienne would  come over and study with me, to help me stay calm and hopeful. Steph stayed up with me all night as I graded a mountain of essays and exams. And then there was that wonderful piece of pie Liz brought to the library during my second year of grad school. I was working frantically to finish a term paper, and she came and sat with me until the wee hours of the morning. In college, I once became sick on a night my friends and I had planned to cook dinner and watch a movie. They put me to bed upstairs, and whenever I would wake, one friend or another--first Rachel, then Keith, Mari, or Mark--would be sitting across the room, waiting quietly in case I might wake and need something.

As a single adult, I do not expect anyone to wait with me for a train to come or for a night to pass. No one is obligated to tend me if I am sick, to drive me to Ft. Worth, or to keep me company if I must work late into the night. Consequently, whenever a friend does wait with me, I know their waiting is a form of grace. When they wait, they say, "We believe this will end -- we believe you will get home, you will finish this essay, you will be well again."  But they also say--and this is such a gracious mystery--"This moment is good, too. "

At Advent, and during all our  seasons of waiting, we need such friends. Their presence reminds us that our savior's name is "Emmanuel"--God with us.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Handed Down and Made by Hand

"Why do we give gifts at Christmas?" My friend Dustin asked this question as he led discussion in Sunday School this week. During Advent, our church has been studying the Advent Conspiracy, a campaign that calls Christians to make Christmas celebrations vivid and effective testaments to the Gospel. (Click here for the Conspiracy's most recent promo video). The tenets of the Advent Conspiracy are that we should "Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All" in ways that counter the glut of money, time, and anxiety most Americans spend on Christmas presents.

As our Sunday School class discussed ways to live out these ideals, I spoke about the gifts my parents used to make for me. In response to my recent post about traditions, many of you wrote that making Christmas presents helps you celebrate. As a child, my favorite gifts were things my mother or father made for me. The first Christmas I can remember, I awoke to a toy kitchen my father had built. Often, I would catch hints of these projects during the months leading up to Christmas. From a time before I was old enough to see over the kitchen table, I can remember marveling at the pieces of fabric and yarn that would eventually become Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Years later, I would sneak into the basement to peek at the doll's trunk my father was building, or I might catch a glimpse of calico that would somehow become a little dress by Christmas morning.

Making or buying handmade gifts certainly answers some of the Advent Conspiracy's calls. By making gifts for me, my parents spent far less money than most American parents, yet they gave me gifts I will always treasure for the time, care, and thoughtfulness they required.

Homemade, matching nightgowns, so Bethany can be just like Mama, 1987.
However, these happy reflections didn't quite answer Dustin's question. Can making gifts teach me about worship?  Can any kind of Christmas gift-giving help us experience and proclaim the Incarnation?

 Before I had an answer to these more difficult questions,  Jeremy spoke up from across the room. "I think giving gifts can teach us about the Incarnation," he said. "Ideally, any Christmas gift should remind us that Christ's willingness to live among us was a gift. But think about Bethany's story -- she saw signs of the gift long before it came. From the hints and signs in her house, she learned that good was coming, and that one day those bits and pieces would become something wonderful because her parents loved her. Maybe that's one way giving gifts can teach us about Christmas -- by reminding us that something more is coming from one who loves us."

The more I think about Dustin's question, the more I like Jeremy's answer.  Making a gift for someone requires the kind of love that God has for us: I should know the colors that catch her eye, the shape that will suit him best. I should notice that she shivers on our evening walks, or that he always plays that certain song after long days. Once I have found a need or desire I have the power to fulfill, I look for the finest materials and select the most skillful pattern. Then I work in secret, anxious to fill my friend with joy, but waiting for the proper season. Once finished and given, these gifts are one small way I can send some of myself with my friends--all so scattered and far. The gifts I make are signs of my hope that busy schedules and long miles will one day pass away, and we can enjoy all our work and rest side by side. Unlike God, I don't have the power the make that hope reality. However, the love that grounds the desire is divine.

Jackie learned the pattern as a girl in France.
This Christmas, I have scores of ideas for gifts that can help us recognize aspects of God's creative, generous image within us. However, some of my readers will soon be recipients of these gifts, and so I will save most of those ideas for the new year. Instead, I will share one project idea that is going to someone I am sure does not read this blog.

This gift is a pair of knitted slippers. I love knitting, in large part because it leaves the mind open for conversation or prayer. I transcribed the pattern from Jackie, my surrogate "grandma." Jackie came to America from France in the 1940s, and each Christmas I look forward to receiving a cup of tea and an hour of stories from her. I am excited to share this pattern with you because it could be the emblem for these ruminations of handmade gifts. Jackie once gave me a pair of these slippers, and I wrote the pattern down at her kitchen table last December. My notes, a strange composite of English and French, provide a very rough prophecy for the warmth the actual slippers will provide, and I love the idea that I am passing the pattern to you as it was passed down to me.

You can find the pattern by clicking here for Grandma Jackie's Slippers.

I think it has a rather pleasingly elfin look to it.
 I still have many gifts to finish before Christmas, and sometimes I think how much faster it would be to buy a gift I could put in my friend's hand today. For mere mortals, waiting can be difficult for the giver as much as for the receiver. I hope I am learning that in the patience and waiting it requires, making gifts offers yet another lesson in experiencing the slow hope of Advent.

What is the most meaningful handmade gift you have ever received or have given? Do you think giving gifts at Christmas can teach us anything about the Incarnation?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas Giveaway Winner!

Many, many thanks to all who shared Christmas traditions in response to my most recent giveaway. All your traditions inspired me, and the winner of the random drawing is.....

Christmas is a time for good books. Mama and me, 1989 or 1990.

Rachel, who wrote about keeping an Advent calendar and reading Scripture with her family. Congratulations, Rachel! I hope you find some wonderful new traditions to establish in A Foxfire Christmas.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Christmas Giveaway!

I have been far more cheerful since writing my last entry on Advent as a season of waiting, thanks in large part to all the kind words I received from my friends and readers. Cozy sentiment can obscure the fundamental strangeness of Advent and Incarnation, and the fact that circumstances are challenging the "mood" I expect from Christmas is medicinal. Waiting in hope should be one of the ways Christians bear witness to the Gospel, and I am determined to be defiant once again: I will be merry, I will shout "tidings of comfort and joy" even if  I don't always feel that comfort myself.

Today's entry is a very little (but very happy) way of indulging that defiance. To one reader, I will give away a copy of A Foxfire Christmas: Appalachian Memories and Traditions. This little book is dear to me for several reasons. First, although a Texan and a Midwesterner by birth and upbringing, yearly trips to North Carolina instilled in me an early love of Appalachia. Attending college in East Tennessee deepened this love, and when I am weary or tired, the retreat I imagine is usually a cabin hidden somewhere in the Smoky Mountains.

The Foxfire series began as an effort to preserve the folkways of Appalachia, and to bring students into contact with the resources and stories of the past. According to the series website
"Foxfire" is the name that an English class picked, in 1966, for a student-produced magazine they chose to create, containing stories and interviews gathered from elders in their rural Southern Appalachian community. [...]

 "Foxfire" is the name of a series of books which are anthology collections of material from The Foxfire Magazine. The students' portrayal of the previously-dismissed culture of Southern Appalachia as a proud, self-sufficient people with simple beliefs, pure joy in living, and rock-solid faith shattered most of the world-at-large's misconceptions about these "hillbillies.

I have two Foxfire books, and they delight me. Not only do I love "hearing" the voices of the men and women interviewed for the project, I take a comfort in knowing that in the event of some apocalyptic, survivalist kind of emergency, I have a book on my shelf with instructions for building a spinning wheel and butchering a hog. A Foxfire Christmas selects the best Christmas stories, recipes, and ideas from the Foxfire series and compiles them into a little compendium of traditions and tales. In it you can find plans for a pine-wood race car and cloth doll; recipes for gingerbread, dumplings, and popcorn balls;  and recollections about traditions of Christmas past. Because so many Appalachian families celebrated Christmas in spite of extreme poverty, many of these traditions provide simple and beautiful alternatives to big Christmas productions and high-cost gifts.

Home is a place we create and sustain traditions, and Christmas is one of the best times for renewing our holy-day (holiday) habits. If you would like to be entered to win a copy of A Foxfire Christmas, leave a comment below that answers this question: What are some Christmas traditions that help you experience the joy of Christmas? Are there any new traditions you would like to start with your friends and family this year?

Be sure to leave an email address so I can contact you if you are the winner. Contest ends on Wednesday, December 7 at 11 PM.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Season of Waiting

I have been dreading Christmas this year.  My eight-year-old self would be horrified at such blasphemy; my twenty-eight-year-old self is certainly not pleased to admit how grimly I have watched December's approach.  Ever since I can remember, I have exulted in the approach of the Christmas season. Beginning in kindergarten, I began recording Christmas "radio" shows, complete with carols, special guests, and thrilling dramas about motorcycle gangs (yes: motorcycle gangs. Don't ask me why.).

Living on an academic calendar my entire life only enhanced the inherent joys of Christmas. Before I started school, Christmas marked the season when my parents' lives calmed down for several weeks, and once I entered school, the holiday break provided long and blissful days for listening to Orson Wells narrate A Christmas Carol or hosting Christmas tea parties.

Even grad school, so often an enemy to comfort and joy, has never before jeopardized Christmas. I have endured many sleepless nights finishing seminar papers or grading exams, but by the time Christmas itself comes, I have always been able to leave my work alone for a week or two, at least. Christmas has represented a clean break between semesters.

Why, then, has this year's holiday filled with me such reluctance, even dread? Because for once, I cannot pretend that Christmas is my reward for a semester of superhuman activity. Certainly, I have been working hard--painfully hard, unceasingly hard--on teaching, my dissertation, and job applications. My dissertation is coming along well, but job applications have unsettled me far more than I expected.  Whenever anyone asks me how the process is going, I hear a sanguine voice say something about "exciting prospects" and "trusting God," but somehow I don't sound so chipper when talking to myself. I have sent out more than twenty applications, and now I must wait. Many preliminary interviews for academic positions occur at national Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention at the beginning of January, and not knowing whether or not I will have an interview has been overshadowing my eagerness for Christmas.

Waiting for news about interviews reminds me how many other things I am tired of waiting for: I am tired of waiting for a job that does not require every waking moment, for some sense of where I will be at this time next year, for reconciliation with a friend. 
Always waiting
 Only this week have I recognized the root of my discontent: I refuse to welcome Christmas--the feast of the Incarnation--because I am sick of waiting.  I do not want Christmas to come because I am not ready: I have not worked hard enough, it seems, to earn a fruitful and peaceful Christmas vacation.

Despite my reluctance, I began my traditional holiday reading on Sunday--selections from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. The voices the editors of this book gather--from Bonhoeffer, Donne, Hopkins, L'Engle, Romero, and many more--have been my guides toward Christmas for years. Last night, the reading was from Henri Nouwen, and his words made me ashamed of my selfish impatience. After observing that waiting is a very unpopular attitude in our culture, Nouwen writes
...waiting is even more difficult because we are so fearful. One of the most pervasive emotions in the atmosphere around us is fear. [...] Fearful people have a hard time waiting, because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are. [...] It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke's Gospel are wiating. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Mary is waiting. Simeon and Anna, who were there at the temple when Jesus was brought in, are waiting. The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in some way or another hear the words, "Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you." These words set the tone and the context. Now Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon and Anna are waiting for something new and good to happen to them. (27-29)

This time before Christmas, Advent, calls God's people to wait. Simeon and Anna did not look forward to the coming of the Messiah as something they could accomplish, but as something they waited for God to do. Their role was to wait faithfully and watch carefully, doing the work before them.

I am faithless if I let my own impatience and anxiety deprive me of the joy that comes with Christmas. So I am waiting. So my future is uncertain. So I may not have done "enough." The Word of the Lord has come to dwell among us, and that Word says, "Do not be afraid. Good is coming." Maybe in my life that good will take the form of news about a job interview. Maybe not. Regardless, Nouwen and other messengers-of-the-most-High challenge me to wait in hope, and when Christmas comes, I will remember that this hope is about much, much more than my job prospects or a vacation from school. Freedom from selfishness, salvation from fear, the redemption of all creation--these are hopes much better than anything the MLA could offer.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Young Adult's Guide to an Awesome Thanksgiving
(compiled from four years of wonderful Waco celebrations)

My nook, Thanksgiving 2006
1. Stay where you are. If home is a place we go for holidays, be intentional about celebrating in the place where you live, work, or study.  Celebrations are one way to consecrate a place as home.

2. Be extravagant with your cooking. Buy the best and finest food, and prepare it with care and courage.

3. Invite anyone you can think of who might be alone or lonely. 
Thanksgiving 2011 Photo by Kt

4. Let the kitchen fill up with food and people and merry chaos.
Thanksgiving 2009

5. Serve sweet tea and tamales along with the turkey and dressing.

4. Try to celebrate with an equal number of family members and friends. Introduce your teenage cousins to your grad-school colleagues.  Recognize that the highest bonds of kinship are far above blood, nationality, or common interest.

5. Sing your prayer before eating. "For the Beauty of the Earth" makes a perfect Thanksgiving blessing. Don't be afraid to demand all four verses. 

Thanksgiving 2011 Photo by Kt
6. Go for a long walk after feasting and lingering at the table. Point out beautiful doors and interesting trees in the neighborhood. Say, "Happy Thanksgiving!" to everyone you see.

7. Try all the pies.

 Photo by Stephanie Harris Trevor
8. Give thanks for all the Thanksgivings past. Remember what it was like to sit at the kids' table. Try to name the songs Casey played when he came up from Ft. Hood for Thanksgiving in 2008.  Let Grant and Jenn know how much you appreciated being rescued from a solitary Thanksgiving last year. Laugh at the way Jon never let your wine glass go empty during that first holiday with friends.

Room for more, 2011. Photo by Kt
9. Let yourself be sad for all the miles, years, or hard conversations separating your from people you love. Cry a little if you must, but then imagine that your table is growing longer and longer, and that by the time dessert is served, every seat will be filled with some faraway friend.

10. Write letters to people you are thankful for. Name specific reasons you give thanks to God for them.

Thanksgiving 2008

11. Rest. Don't be ashamed to drift off to sleep as the room fills with low conversations or the buzz of a football game.

12. Don't fret about how or where or with whom you will celebrate next year.  Give thanks for the hope that God will bring you to some glad table, whether as host, guest, daughter, or friend.

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving 2008 My strangely pinched smile does not do justice to my very real joy at this meal.

Another Thanksgiving, another weird smile. The grad students, Thanksgiving 2011.
Thanksgiving 2011. All is well.

How did you celebrate Thanksgiving this year?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Treachery of "Enough"

"Enough" masquerades as a humble word, meekly slipping into sentences that suggest humility, restraint, and wholesomeness:
     "No, I won't take another slice of pie. I've had enough."
     "We may not be rich, but we have enough to get by."
     "Time for bed--you should be sure to get enough sleep."

I know better. "Enough" is a traitor. The word ought to connote security, sufficiency: qualities that help form a stable sense of home in a relationship, place, or profession. Some strong-willed speakers (generally of the scientific bent) can force "enough" to behave by applying it to subjects such as "How much Vitamin K is enough for an average adult?" But for some people, "enough" betrays these ideas of satiety by constantly edging out of sight and off of the horizon.

I am one of those people. (Surprised? No, of course not.) I have never feared failure in any dramatic sense: I have always been pretty good at the things I care about, and with the exception of high-school physics and some early culinary efforts, I have always managed to succeed, if not excel, at whatever I put my hands to. But I fear "enough." I fear disappointing the people who believe in me. I fear wasting my talents. I fear suffering by comparison. Ever since leaving college the specter of "enough" has haunted me. As I near the end of my doctoral work, this specter is growing downright ghoulish, interrupting my reading, my meals, and my rest with questions:

Have you read enough books?
Have you applied for enough jobs?
Have you published enough articles?
Have you walked enough?
Have you given enough money away?
Have you attended enough conferences?
Have you thought enough deep thoughts?
Have you prayed enough? 
Have you spent enough time preparing lesson plans?
Have you made enough professional connections?
Have you written enough?
Have you spent enough time with your housemates?

There are, of course, sensible and rational ways to answer each of these questions, and different mentors and friends in my life have often helped me establish these answers in wise and realistic ways. Unfortunately, I am not always a sensible and rational person. I allow fear to tell me that the only way to do "enough" is to work non-stop, forgoing walks, friends, and even proper meals for the sake of doing just a little bit more. Pride, meanwhile, gilds my trembling with a false glory, telling me that I should boast of the number of hours I worked last week, and that the sleep I lost from over-diligence is a sign of virtue.

I have learned that even on days when I am neither sensible nor rational, I can be grateful, and gratitude is one of the best ways to chase away the unattainable idea of "enough." When I remember that everything--from the bread on my table to the thesis of my next chapter--is a kind of grace, my striving after "enough" gives way to something much better: the recognition of abundance. 

Consider this weekend. My dissertation director praised my arguments in Chapter 2. I went to the Farmers' Market with two dear friends, and had money in my pocket for a basket of pears and a bunch of brilliantly-colored swiss chard. I walked through the neighborhoods surrounding our house, and picked up leaves golden and scarlet from the sycamores and crepe-myrtles. My colleagues congratulated me on a forthcoming article.  My students came and discussed their papers with, then laughed with me about the news on campus. Friends came to the house to celebrate my birthday.  I had a part in all of these things, but their beauty required more than my effort, my wisdom, my work. They are more--much, much more--than enough.

How do you decide what is "enough" in your home, work, or relationships?

Friday, November 11, 2011

November Grace, Day 4

 We laughed, still holding hands and keeping our eyes closed.  Tiffany had not intended to make a joke during our prayer, but we couldn't help giggling along with her.  Had we been children, someone might have shushed us, but we are the adults now, and the laughter was too sweet to chide. If anything, it sounded our thanks and our hope in ways words alone could not. Still smiling, I listened as the women in our circle, and the men across the room, continued to lift heavy words into the light: "tests...sickness... essays... jobs....family."  When silence fell, I began the Lord's Prayer, and everyone joined in.

 Today, I am thankful for my lifegroup.  We are still a fairly new community, having only begun to meet in September (you can read about some of my past experiences with small groups here and here). However, the group is coming together--is being drawn together--in holy ways.

 Tonight, I heard that holiness in our laughter. If "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8.26), I wonder if that Holy Ghost ever teaches us to pray with a mirth that defies our heavy hearts and weary days.

Monday, November 7, 2011

November Grace, Day 3

from the OSU Special Collections and Archives
"Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings see what God has done..." I grew up singing this song, but I've never been very good at counting. I am, however, an expert list-maker, and as this new week begins, I am offering the catalog of grace that is giving me hope for this week.

 Today, I am thankful

  • that my amazing mother was able to visit me this weekend
  • that she will be back in two weeks for Thanksgiving
  • for rain
  • for autumn days that are low and rainy and require music such as this
  • for tea
  • for little Texas churches in little Texas towns
  • for a functioning car
  • that I was able to submit another job application today 
  • for fingers that type and knit easily and without pain
  • for leftovers from yummy meals
  • for friends who ask if I want to come study at the library

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, November 4, 2011

November Grace, Day 2

Carroll Science Building, Baylor University
"Miss Bear," she said breathlessly, "have you ever read a book called Mere Christianity?" Those who know me well will understand why this question nearly made me laugh. My parents starting reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me when I was three years old; by the time I finished high school I had worked through almost all of C.S. Lewis's fiction and non-fiction; and even my dissertation is on a man whose writing helped shape Lewis's turn to faith. However, not wanting to interrupt my student's enthusiasm, I simply smiled and said "Yes. Why do you ask?"  My eager freshman began to explain how our class discussion--an analysis of what makes an argument ethical or unethical--had reminded her of a passage from Lewis's book, and her eyes were shining with the delight of making an unexpected connection.

Today I am grateful for my students.  In more ways than they realize, my students have shown me that teaching is my greatest joy and privilege. When I taught my first course four years ago, I was terrified that I was too young and inexperienced to teach a college writing class. My students, however, were unfailingly respectful.  Even though I wanted to giggle whenever they would say, "Yes, ma'am," the fact that they saw me as a capable, competent teacher shaped the way I saw myself. In the semesters since, they have continued to honor me with their honesty, courtesy, creativity, and diligence. College is such a fascinating and urgent time, and I love watching young men and women grapple with questions that may shape their entire adult lives. I live for the days they follow me out of class to discuss our reading or to ask me a question about a book. I treasure their peculiar spirit of levity and earnestnes.

I wish I could say that every class ends with a student chasing after me with questions about C.S. Lewis, but even on the days when all our talk is of thesis statements and paragraph unity, I am profoundly, joyfully, humbly grateful for my students.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November Grace

Photo by Gisela Francisco
Several years ago, I led a Bible study on grace.  Being a word person, I spent quite a while exploring the history and meaning of "grace" itself. One of my happiest discoveries was the link between the words "graceful" and "grateful."  Etymologically, the words are identical; both come from the Latin "gratia," meaning "beauty," and "favor, goodwill." In English, the words have evolved to articulate the symmetry of grace: to say one is "graceful" means she has received gifts of beauty, strength, or goodwill. To say she is "grateful" means she has acknowledged offered thanks for these gifts.

My favorite definition of grace is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, obsolete.  For a time in English, "grace" referred to "the part in which the beauty of a thing consists." I think this definition is ready for renewal.  As fallen men and women, our beauty does consist only in the grace we have from God: the grace we have of being made in God's image; the grace of the Christ, who restores that image in us; the grace of love, which the Holy Spirit bestows so that we may love one another into beauty. 
For the past several years, I have come to see November as a season for remembering what it means to be full of grace. Thanksgiving is, more or less, a secular holiday, but I have come to celebrate it as the golden day in a holy season of gratitude. Along with many others, I have set aside November as a time to publish the reasons I am thankful.  For the next month, until ordinary time surrenders to the watchful hope of Advent, I will be posting short entries each day on the reasons I give thanks to God.  

I invite you to spend this month naming grace with me.  Only by looking carefully at the gifts we have received can we see how beautiful our lives really are. 

Today I am grateful for peculiar ways of showing love.  Last night, Jenn and I realized that we show love to one another with tea leaves. You see, we drink lots of tea in this house, and rather than tea bags, we usually brew our tea from loose leaves. One advantage to using loose-leaf tea is that you steep the tea more than once. The second infusion, however, is usually weaker than the first. It is a small but real act of service, then, when one of us gives the first-steeped cup to the other.  To someone who does not drink tea, this act of love might go unnoticed. But we notice. Not only I am grateful to live with people I can serve and accept service from, but I am grateful that as a household, as a peculiar little family, we have already developed our own unique ways of showing love. When Jenn offers me the first cup, I accept it with thanks, breathe in the fragrant steam, and take the first sip of grace.   

What are you grateful for today? What fills you with grace?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Home Sweet Homecoming

October 20. The window panes are cold. My fingers trace ridges and valleys across the dark glass, trying to remember the architecture of the mountains we saw yesterday. Tired and peaceful, I think that tonight could almost be a college night. After a long day on campus, we lingered over a late supper, and now I am working at the computer late at night, a marked-up manuscript on the desk beside me. Lauren and Charlie are just across the hall; Emily and Kevin could hear me if I called their names. Tomorrow we'll meet Eric at First Baptist for church, and Jeremy might join us for lunch afterward.

It could almost be home. The familiarity of this night, this place, is bewildering and consoling all at once because tonight is not, after all, a college night. We are all nearer twenty-eight than eighteen, and instead of a dorm, Kevin and Emily's house is our gathering place. Sharing a meal with these friends is no longer a common joy, but a rare event--it has been years since we were gathered around one table, and it may be years before it happens again. This is not home, but homecoming.

My dear friends Dave and Mandy live here in our college town, and on one wall of their living room, they have painted the words "Home is..." in large letters.  They and their friends have written other words and phrases to complete this sentence all around the wall, and Saturday was my turn. I contributed a curious line from George MacDonald's Lilith.  "Home," I wrote, "is ever so far away in the palm of your hand."

This is the paradox of homecoming. We return to a place and a time that was home, traveling across memory, miles, or both, but we know we have not come to stay.

 Walking in the shadows of familiar buildings on Saturday, I began to catalog all the friends I would need to see walking to the cafeteria, or perhaps headed towards the dorms, before I would feel that I had really come home. This was not mere nostalgia; I don't wish I were eighteen or twenty-two again, and I would not come home, even to my beloved college, to meet my friends unchanged. I want a more-than-Facebook vision of the people they have become, with real voices telling stories about work and ideas and families. I want hugs and handshakes and looking-in-the-eye. I imagined all these friends gathered around Kevin and Emily's dining room table, but even as I indulged in my fantasies of reunion, I could not ignore the distances that were keeping us apart.  For some of the friends who once made Carson-Newman home, finances, jobs, and miles prevented their pilgrimage to the east Tennessee foothills. And there are other kinds of distances that, I knew, would have followed even my dearest friends back to our alma mater.  We might gather, but there would be subjects tactfully avoided at dinner, questions left unasked as we recounted the recent news. Home, I often think, is ever so far away. 

I was prepared for these distances, braced against awkward conversations and tentative reunions. I had resigned myself to any number of tepid "remember whens?"  Instead, I spent all weekend overwhelmed to see the ways in which the virtues that first drew me to Carson-Newman had grown in the lives of my teachers and friends. As a high-school senior, I had my choice of full scholarships to several colleges and universities.  I chose Carson-Newman because everyone I met there invited me, in one way or another, to become the sort of person I longed to be. I was a shy, neurotic, self-absorbed teenager, and by the time I finished high school I was very nearly sick of myself. When I visited Carson-Newman, I met young men and women who were brilliant without pretension, kind without condescension, fun without stupidity. Their confidence, kindness, and service attracted me more than any number of brand-new residence halls or manicured flowerbeds. Returning as an alumna, I realized how remarkable and rare these virtues are. I came home, after all, to friends who plan October picnics of pumpkin stew and ginger tea; who wash up the supper dishes without being asked; who spend their days teaching high school students to love reading or math; who go out of their way to include others in a conversation; who stand up for their convictions about the environment; who train dancers; who raise children to love truth, beauty, and goodness. I came home to the faculty who inspired me to be a professor--wise, compassionate men and women who greet their students with eager questions and hugs after half a decade.

All weekend I found myself wanting to hold on to everyone I met, literally to wrap my fingers around their wrists and to touch their faces. I want to be among these people, I thought. I want to live my life with their courage, grace, and kindness. I felt the same rush of hope and longing that led me to this school. This, I realized, is the reason for homecomings: not to retire from daily strife, not to escape into nostalgia, but to witness and remember what it takes to establish a home. It takes Emily's curiosity. Shannon's enthusiasm. Kevin's steadiness. Jeremy's thoughtfulness. Eric's fidelity. Lauren and Charlie's merry kindness. Dave and Mandy's creativity and convictions. Mari's courage. Mark's lovingkindness. Keith's wit. Rachel's compassion.

 As a student, I always cried at the end of each semester, and my flight back to Texas could have been one of those bittersweet journeys from one home to another. My heart was heavy as a thousand miles unfolded between me and Carson-Newman, but some of that heaviness came from the weight of gratitude. The home I have made in Texas owes so much to what I learned in college. I have no idea where my next home will be, but I will be proud if it, like Carson-Newman, is a place where people become more than they knew they could be. When we find such places, we do not always have the privilege of staying for long, but somehow, our true homes have a way of following us. Through faith, hope, and love, through friendship and imagination and determination, you may be startled to discover that home is in the palm of your hand.

Eric, me, Lauren, Charlie, and Kevin. Home sweet homecoming, indeed.
With Emily, fall 2005
With Emily, fall 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Come Rest

"Aren't you exhausted?" Jenn asked as I waited for yet another kettle of water to boil.
I laughed, wanly, perhaps, because I had just decided that I was going to begin this post with the line, "I am so tired."

Reckoned simply according to hours, there's nothing unusual about the amount of work I am doing this week, but Jenn's question reminds me that I have good reason to be tired this semester. Two weeks ago I was spent several 15-hour days working on dissertation revisions, and last week, while it brought a break from Coleridge and MacDonald and literary tradition, was soon full of cover letters for job applications and essays to grade.

I don't write this as a complaint. I love my work and know that I am privileged to make my living as a scholar and a teacher. However, Jenn's question has set me thinking about how I work, and how my work habits shape my understanding of home.

As the child of campus ministers, I did not grow up with any concept of a separation between work and home. When your dining room is piled with monthly reports, and students knock on the porch for counsel at 2 o'clock in the morning, being at home is also being at work.  My adult life has also lacked these divisions. Especially when I lived in a two-room apartment, establishing separate spaces for work and rest became very difficult.  As I have moved through graduate school, I have tried to learn how to make home a space for both work and rest. The work part is easy. I come home trailing lesson plans, and my dissertation haunts every bookshelf.

"But how do you do it?" Jenn asked as I poured the now-hot water over the tea leaves. "How do you keep these hours every day?"
This happens at nearly every party I attend.
In college, I had a number of wise and determined friends who made sure that our campus was a place I worked and played. I didn't need to make my own times and sites for rest, because sooner or later someone would kidnap me for a mountain-road drive, or come and demand that I exchange paper-writing for supper with friends. As a proper grown-up, I have to be more intentional about making rest a part of my homemaking.

And I have been intentional. As I tried to answer Jenn, a number of coping strategies came to mind.  I keep Sundays as a Sabbath from any kind of school work or business. If I am working from home, I keep grading and dissertation work in the office, away from my bedroom. I go for walks, do yoga, ride my bicycle. I schedule time with friends. I even indulge in the blissful numbness of television every once in a while.

Some days, however, these things are not enough to give me the joy, peace, and strength that I know are the fruit of real rest.  Although I know it is healthy and humble to stop working at least a little while before bed, I still feel guilty whenever I put my papers or books away before ten or eleven.  Pride and anxiety often compel me to work more than is wise or even effective, and my to-do lists nearly always overestimate the number of hours in a day. As a single person, I can sustain days and days or work because few people think they have the right to demand that I stop and spend time with them. I like to think that when I am done done grading this next set of essays, or done with job applications, or done writing my dissertation, that I will rest. But those are treacherous thoughts. I need to learn to rest now. Matthew 11.28 says, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." I want to know what that rest. I want to surrender to it and find myself renewed. I want to ponder that invitation, to feel the cool smooth weight of it like pearls in my hand.

But that will have to wait for another day. Tonight, I am too tired to think clearly about how to rest well, and there is still work left to do. 

Is a home a place of rest for you? Is resting from work ever a challenge? How do you build rest into your life?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Writing a dissertation, applying for jobs, leading a new lifegroup, preserving time for  friends and  solitude: these are quick and beautiful days, but very, very full. Until I make some time for writing (writing that isn't my dissertation, that is) here are two glimpses of home I'd like to share with you. These pictures should help you understand why I love living with a woman who has an eye for beauty and a heart that ministers to others, and with an an engineer whose quiet sense of humor is one way he cares for his friends and family.

Jenn brought me this rose from one of the weddings she coordinated.
In the middle of making bread, I had to leave for a few hours. When I returned, this is what I found.

Thank you, God, for days that are full of good work, and homes that are full of grace.

What does your home look like this autumn? How are you and yours spending your days?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Settling the Solitary in a Home

Two weeks ago, I delivered this testimony during worship at Calvary Baptist Church of Waco, Texas. Many of these stories and ideas have appeared elsewhere on my blog, but I think it is worth repeating in whole.

“God settles the solitary in a home.” Five years ago, these words from Psalm 68.6 were difficult for me to believe. I had just arrived in Texas to begin my graduate studies, and this cross-country move was the culmination of a disorienting year: in a matter of months, I had attended the funeral of my last grandparent, broken up with a boy I could have married, graduated from my beloved college, and now I was more than a thousand miles away from my friends and parents. An introvert and an only child, always quite happy to be alone, I suddenly found myself, at twenty-two years old, deeply and truly lonely for the first time.

The people at Calvary were kind from the first morning I visited, and when I joined a lifegroup later in the fall of 2006, I learned that God was going to use this church to teach me that the Gospel brings us into a body, a kingdom, a home. On my first visit to that lifegroup, I arrived a little late, and as I crept shyly through the front door, I could see that everyone was already seated in a circle, sharing a meal. “She’s here!” someone said. “Come in,” they called, “We’ve saved a chair for you.” When I heard those words, I felt as though I had walked into a parable.  Is this what the kingdom of God is like? I wondered.  To arrive at a stranger’s table and find they have saved a place for you?  Ephesian 6 tells us that through the Gospel, the Gentiles are co-heirs with God’s chosen people, strangers made at home in the kingdom of God. Through my experience with lifegroups, I was a witness to this mystery every Thursday night.

In so many ways, the members of that lifegroup were ministers of the Gospel to me during my first three years in Waco.  Especially during that first lonely season, they met the physical and spiritual needs that so often come with young adulthood: our lifegroup suppers were usually the only meals in a week I didn’t eat alone.  And holding hands during our prayers was the only time in a week that anyone touched me.

When school was discouraging, they assured me that my work as a teacher and scholar could serve the kingdom. When I fell in love with teaching, they rejoiced with me.

This would be a partial testimony, however, if I only gave an account of my own consolation. My lifegroup taught me to turn my own sorrow into compassion, my own joy into an invitation. Listening to my friends share their stories, I was able to step outside of my narrow fears and loneliness. Praying together, we endured illness, unexpected pregnancy, medical school applications, depression, job decisions, and family strife as one body. Celebrating together, we gave thanks for new life, acceptance letters, and reconciliation as one body. Studying and discussing together, we tested ideas, hoping to find words and actions that would bear witness to our faith.

These memories are so precious to me that I hate to admit our group’s quiet but painful dissolution. Jobs and school took many members away, leaders changed, and somewhere along the way we forgot that the Gospel demanded that we be more than a supper club and support group.  Our prayer times became brief and vague, our discussions drifted from questions about faith and practice to intellectual squabbles, and most dangerously, we forgot that we were supposed to be serving the church, Christ’s body, not ourselves.

As I prepare to step into a new lifegroup this fall, therefore, I am both eager and watchful. I have seen lifegroups wither and fade, but I have also seen them make the kingdom visible.  I have seen God use them to settle the solitary in a home. I have seen, as Pslam 84 says, that  

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.

Beloved, we are so many sparrows perched upon the altars of our Lord. God forbid that we neglect  any good way to establish one another here, as heirs of this kingdom, as children of this home.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

And the Winner Is.....

Hear ye, hear ye!  I am happy to announce that Lauren is the winner of my first-ever book giveaway! Lauren selected one of last December's "Christmas Storytime" posts as her favorite, and now my head is full of ideas for sharing stories this Christmas.

Enjoy your copy of Living More with Less, Lauren! Thanks to all who entered. I have at least one more giveaway planned for this fall, so check back soon.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More with Less Giveaway!

This could be you!
(Cat, mask, and pleasant living room not included.)

I have truly enjoyed the responses my recent posts on learning to live "more with less" (read them here, here, and here) have inspired.  I an anticipate more entries on this theme in the coming months, and in the meantime, I would love to put a copy of Living More with Less into your hands. Few things are more delightful than receiving a book in the mail, and I'm eager to share that happiness with you. I have an extra copy of the original edition, and I would love to express my gratitude to all my faithful readers by offering this compelling book as a giveaway.  

Here's how to enter the Living More with Less drawing:

1) Look through my blog archives (I'm nearing my one-year anniversary!) and pick your favorite entry.  Post a link to this entry on facebook, tumblr, Google Connect, etc.

2) Come back to this page and leave submit your entry through the comments section (below). Tell me your first name, the name of the entry you posted and where you posted it, and an email address where I can reach you if you turn out the be the winner. 

Enter by 11:59 PM on Wednesday, September 14. I will announce the winner on Thursday.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

You, Me, Light Inside

"You have a light," she said, pointing to the candle in my hand. "Like this, light inside. You, me, light inside. Life. Together."  The woman struggled for the right English words. She gestured to her heart, then her head, and said a word in Spanish. "A light inside," she repeated. "You a pretty girl. You, me, light inside. Some -- no light. Something wrong. They cry, need, need something. Life. Life, light, together."

Still smiling, the woman took the remaining candle and walked away. I turned, baffled. I had not expected to meet a Spanish-speaking mystic in the laundry aisle of the grocery store, but some mornings just turn out that way.

All day I have been full of such joy and such gratitude that if Waco had mountains I would climb one and shout the words I rather awkwardly called after my laundry-aisle prophet: "God bless you!"

Home should be a place that fills us with grace, and I am full, my friends, so grateful I can't go to sleep until I tell someone about this beautiful day.

Jenn and I left for the store shortly after seven this morning, blaring Mumford & Sons as we drove down Bosque Boulevard.  The fierce music rang like a prophecy for our golden Texas morning ("awake, my soul!"), and together we filled our cart full of good things: peppers, sweet potatoes, milk. We saw a mother with a small child and an elderly man, pushing his buggy in a suit and tie. His basket was filled with apples, peaches, bananas, and pears.

Returning home, I made a cup of tea, prayed, and wrote a letter to a friend. By nine I was at work on my dissertation, and I spent the rest of the morning reading, writing, pondering ideas about faith, literature, and nature. Jenn sat in the living room, hard at work on her wedding planning business. The morning was cool, and we kept the door open to the wind and the light.

This afternoon I met with my "dissertation club," which includes two fellow graduate students who are at a similar point in their writing. Steve, Jeff and I exchanged chapters last week, and we spent three hours providing questions, criticisms, suggestions, and connections for one another. Their comments for my chapter were insightful and practical, pointed and encouraging. We dwelt in one another's ideas, tested and pushed and sharpened the good we all found in each text.  What a privilege, I thought, to call these brilliant men my colleagues and friends. What a help, to receive their honest and thoughtful comments. What a comfort, to discuss the perils of the job search, the joys of our vocation, and the future of our discipline. In addition to our dissertations, we discussed job applications, cover letters, interviews, and bigger questions of higher education.  These things have driven me to stress and tears on many Friday nights, but the more we talked, the more I felt that light within me growing.

I left that good gathering for another--homemade pizza with a giddy group of friends--then went home to a house where people cared about my day and were glad to see me.

I don't know that words on a screen can communicate the deep and dazzling joy of this day--all the more dazzling because I expected none of it. I anticipated the gentle peace of an ordinary Friday, perhaps the satisfaction of a task or two completed. I did not expect a stranger to call out the light within me. I did not expect friends to name that light and to demand that I be brave because of it.

Perhaps they know that all too often, I forget.

I am writing this because I wonder if you, too, forget or do not know of such a light. I am writing because I overwhelmed by the grace of  food, music, friends, colleagues, work, rest. All today's good things have grown from my life in Christ, my participation in his body, the Church: the trip to the store with a friend-turned-housemate; the meeting with other young scholars who take their work--and mine--seriously; a dinner with friends whose laughter helps me forget myself.

I am writing this because I wonder if you, like me, have been sad and lonely. I want to tell you that lonely seasons can pass. They may linger for months or even years, but then, one day, the wind changes, the clouds scatter, and the light surprises your weary expectations.

I am writing this because I love this city and season of my life, yet I know that in the next year I may move to another city, state, or even country.  At this time next year, I may need this day to stand as an emblem of hope, a testament to grace.

This has been a good day, my friends. I pray it has been for you, too.

You, me, light inside. Life. Together.

Friday, August 26, 2011

More with Less in the Kitchen

As a college senior,
I seem a little startled to have pulled
this Cornish hen from the oven. I actually
had to call the 1-800 number on the hen's
wrapper to find out how to cook it. 
For most of my childhood, I was banned from the kitchen. Determined to create "original" food, I refused to follow recipes, and while my seven-year-old self was quite happy with my "Alien Cake"  (a pinkish-gray combination of Kix cereal, peanut butter, strawberry NesQuik) and similar concoctions, my mother deemed these experiments wasteful. She told me I was not allowed to cook until I was willing to submit to a recipe, so for the next several years I stayed away from the kitchen.  My premature desire to invent foods eventually faded, but even in college cooking was something of a novelty for me.  I was always so pleased and proud of myself when I cooked anything that I would make my roommate take a picture as proof of my success.
Gazing with loving pride
at a fruit-and-yogurt Bundt cake

Knowing my sketchy culinary background, you might appreciate how ironic it is that after my last post  I received many requests for ideas about planning meals to correspond with my grocery-shopping values.
My marvelous friend Kt, among others, asked for some ideas regarding what to do with all the wise, thoughtful food we buy once it is in the kitchen.

As I reflect on the ways I plan my meals, I realize that I usually make my cooking choices based on the following values. Ideally, a meal will fulfill at least four of these criteria:

Meals should be nutritious 
Meals should build on my staples
Meals should follow the seasons 
Meals should be convenient
Meals should teach me

Meals should be nutritious

I still have much to learn about nutrition, but I do try to create meals provide good sources of protein, usually in the form of a grain plus a legume or dairy product. Less often, the protein comes from eggs or meat. Then I add vegetables. I tend to use broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, and leafy greens quite a lot.

Meals should build on my staples

One advantage to using More with Less as my core cookbook is that I have many good recipes for the basic staple goods the cookbook recommends. This means that I can plan a meal by checking my cupboard, picking one of my staples, and going from there. If I'm in the mood for rice, I might pair it with a green vegetable curry. If I want something less time-intensive, I'll simply cook the rice with red beans, butter and salt for a tasty and simple meal. If I have a loaf of bread in the kitchen, I can make a light lunch by drizzling the bread with olive oil, topping it with salad greens and parmesan, and then toasting it in the oven.  If I am cooking for others, I know how to turn stale bread into a basic souflée. Lentils can be baked with honey and a bit of bacon in the dutch oven, or turned into a soup.  Having at least four or five meals based on each of your staple dry goods ensures that you have an array of options when it comes time to plan a meal.

As a corollary to this value, I also try to cook meals that use up what I already have in the kitchen. I consider it a victory if I can prepare a meal without any last-minute trips to the grocery store.  Yesterday, for example, I decided to make a rice and lentil dish called kichiri. The recipe called for potatoes and cauliflower, but since I didn't have either, I used canned chickpeas instead of potatoes and the last of the salad greens instead of cauliflower.

Meals should follow the seasons 

Following the seasons can be a challenge, especially if you live in a place where fresh food is only available during the summer.  However, with a little research you can find out what foods are growing in your area, and many grocery stores and farmers' markets will suggest recipes for in-season foods (click here for a really cool "peak-season" food map, with recipes and tips for each food listed).  I love the sense of rhythm and reward that comes with eating in season. Enjoying high-summer tomatoes, autumn squash, and winter greens helps me pay attention to all the beautiful changes that come with each season. 

As an added resource, the publishers of More with Less have released a book about seasonal cooking, Simply in Season. Sadly it is not yet part of my library.

Meals should be convenient

While I do love to cook, I don't love it enough to spend hours each day in the kitchen.  I tend to prefer straight-forward, unfussy meals, and I have little patience for dishes that collapse, explode, or scorch if I try to step away from the stove. Certainly, I have tended pots of buttery risotto, made pâte à choux from scratch, lured boiling vats of caramel into submission, and topped pies with homemade whipped cream, but I only cook like that for special occasions.  Everyday meals should require one or two pots and minimal preparation. Thus, I cook many of my favorite meals in my life-saving Crock Pot (this blog features a whole year's worth of slow-cooker recipes). In the winter I make several soups each week, and I like to freeze portion-sized containers of soup for easy meals at the office or on busy days.

Meals should teach me

Ever a student, I enjoy learning as I cook. Sometimes this means learning about the places where "Groundnut Stew" or kichiri are "daily bread." Good little Baptist girl that I am, I have always enjoyed learning about different cultures and countries through food.

At other times, I will plan meals that teach me a new skill. For example, I love soup, and so I often will try a new soup recipe if I think it will teach me a new secret for making good broth.  In the same way, because baking bread has become an important part of my homemaking, I often plan meals around a new kind of bread I wish to learn how to make.

The meal I cooked last night gives a good idea of how these principles can come together. Peaches were in season and on sale at the grocery store, and I bought some because I've wanted to learn how to make fruit chutneys for a long time.  However, since chutney doesn't really work as a main dish, I used my Extending the Table cookbook to find an Indian entree that called for ingredients I already had. Kichiri is a kind of stew using rice and lentils, and I have plenty of both. Add flat bread to go with the chutney, and my meal was complete!

These values will evolve as my home and circumstances continue to change, but for now they provide me with a flexible structure for planning, cooking, and learning.

What values or criteria do you use for meal-planning? What are some "musts" for the meals you make?