Peace & the Second Sunday in Advent

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. The four advent candles, for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, stand for hope, peace, joy and love. Every week in this season of waiting we light another candle. The world gets a little brighter and we think on these things: what it is to hope, what a hope of peace looks like, how it is to feel joy, and the great love we believe God showed us in becoming human to be one of us.

Candles & LEDS - the oldest and newest light sources
Candles & LEDS – the oldest and newest light sources

This weekend my family prepared ourselves for Christmas. We selected the tree. We brought down the boxes of ornaments. We hung one advent calendar and filled a second one with Hershey’s Kisses. We played The Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” and Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album. We told the children the stories of the ornaments as we hung them: the sad stories, the funny stories, the happy stories. We discussed optimal ornament hanging strategies, and enjoyed the new LED lights we got with purple instead of pink making the tree significantly less orangy this year than last year. We watched Scooby Doo in a fit of nostalgia brought on by Thane’s Scooby Doo ornament, and the children were shocked to discover that it is actually pretty good.

Decorator and decoratee
Decorator and decoratee

Our halls decked, Adam and I decamped to my holiday Christmas party where I got to sing on the stage at the House of Blues, which was something I didn’t know was on my bucket list until I was standing under the bright lights singing.

All dressed up with somewhere to go
All dressed up with somewhere to go

I love this time of year so much. And I think what I love most about it is that it’s a joyous contradiction. It’s the season of lights, but instead of bright 100 watt bulbs we light our homes with, with have tiny 13 lumen candleflames. It’s the season of warmth as we turn up collars and look to the first snow-commute-disaster of the year. (Tomorrow, according to one report I read!) It’s a time busy with parties and cookies and cards and caroling and…. but it’s also a time of year when we slow down a little. We sit a little and look at the lights. This year I’m feeling the magic of the season in full force. Perhaps it’s because this year for the first time my children are full collaborators in the creation and appreciation of the time apart. We shall see.

Peace is a rare commodity in this world. The world keeps throwing up sorrows. Just this week, one of my friends was dead for two hours when his heart stopped Thanksgiving night. And blocks from my work, in the blink of an eye sixty people became homeless as their Christmas trees went up in a grand conflagration. In Aleppo, the last voices of the crushed citizens are going silent. Where is the peace? And if I find it in the walls of my own house, with my family and my tree and my Christmas music, well… should I? What right do I have to peace when so many live without it?

But then we come back to that first candle. I still cannot believe that despite two hours without a pulse, my friend was saved. (He just posted a hilarious status update “In my defense, I was dead at the time.”) Through a miracle past knowing, no one was killed or seriously injured in a fire that called firefighters from 20 neighboring towns. There’s no silver lining for Aleppo, but there is a sliver of hope at Standing Rock, where the Army Corps has decided to find a safer route.

The peace we have comes from the hope, not from the existing perfection. And we look forward to joy – the rarest of emotions – and to love, the foundation stone for our lives.

Shall We Gather at the River?

Raise your hand if you’ve read this Facebook status update some time in the last few weeks:

Hey folks, for my own personal mental health I’m logging off Facebook for a while. I love you all – be kind to each other!

I’ve read a lot of them. (Heck, I’ve posted one or two of them.) In the last few months Facebook has stopped being a guilty pleasure and started being a painful habit. I’m not sure why that is. Is it that the algorithms have started condensing the things we see to pound us with one emotion – and that emotion right now for so many of my friends is fear and anger and pain? Is that all we’re posting to Facebook because it seems if we don’t post our fear and anger and pain we’ll seem unsympathetic or uncaring? Is the Facebook algorithm just showing that, in favor of our usual diet of cat pictures and travel selfies?

I don’t know. But I can feel the community I’ve had in Facebook breaking apart. I know what it feels and looks like, because it’s happened before.

When I first left college, my social collection was a mailing list. There were about eight or nine of us, all friends from college, who were on it. We emailed each other ALL THE TIME. We probably exchanged one or two hundred emails a day. (We mostly worked from home on computers.) We knew everything about each others lives!

Then we all started getting LiveJournal accounts. That was probably the greatest flowering of “internet friends” for me. It was all psuedonymous (eg. we only knew each other by username, not by actual name. There are still some people who think of me as Oriana, so strong was that connection and identity.) It lasted a long time – maybe 6 or 7 years – and we had extremely strong relationships with each other in these intertwining dialogues. I called 911 for LJ friends who needed medical intervention (which is extra challenging when you don’t know their real name or where they lived – I solved that by knowing who they knew In Real Life and reaching out to those people). I invited LJ friends to my home, and many remain dear and beloved friends.

But at some point around 2010, the LJ community fell apart. It stopped working, people wrote their goodbyes or just drifted off. Where my friends used to post about 100 posts a day, that same list now rarely has more than one or two posts a day – and most of those are syndicated from other sources like blogs. It was frankly a huge loss. I still miss it, although I was one of the drifters. I got a job that didn’t allow for massive amounts of dinking around online and switched my focus to a long form blog that I updated less often but more intentionally. (This one!) “My Truant Pen” is lot less interactive and dialoguey than Livejournal. But according to my stats, not that many people read this blog any more either.

Now I think Facebook is dying, but unlike when LJ died I don’t know where they’re going. Are we digitally disconnecting? There are upsides and downsides to that. Spending less time glued to screens is no bad thing, especially when replaced with coffee dates and quality time. But taking away that community and filling the void with isolation is a bad thing. For me, I want a group of friends in lively online community that I can know and be known by, who share and care about each other. Ideally this has a big overlap with my group of proximate friends I can hang out with.

I’ve propose G+ (look me up at https://plus.google.com/u/0/+BrendaFlynn) as a place to connect. Somehow that has not been met with universal approbation. So I’m genuinely curious – what are you doing? Have you completely unplugged from social media? Did you switch platforms for connection – and if so to what? Do you miss the connection? Do you think after the dust settles people will go back, or is this a permanent migration. Where can I go to be with you?

Appliance addendum

The garbage disposal sprung a major leak during our Mocksgiving cleanup.

I’ve lost count of how many appliances we’ve had to deal with in the last three months. (Do cars count as appliances?) I’ve told my boss I’ll be working from home one day a week indefinitely to deal with whatever contractor related issues arise.

He says that sounds like a reasonable response.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing

This has been a hard week for me, and for people I love. For example, I have a dearly loved family member who is transgender and gets life-saving medication with their coverage through the ACA. For them, the current president-elect is an existential threat to their life. And other than my support, I don’t know how to help.

I find that one of my usual consolations – my friends on social media – is full of pain. And I need solace, and to remember the good things in the world.

I'm proud of my church for working to do good in the world!
I’m proud of my church for working to do good in the world!

One of those good things is coming tomorrow! The seventeenth (I think) annual Mocksgiving is tomorrow! I took today off work to bake (and tend to my schooless Thane – Grey is at a church field trip to the Heifer Farm.)

Anyway, I always miss “you guys” on Mocksgiving prep day. I talk to you a lot in my head – but this day especially. As a complete distraction from weightier concerns, I’m going to live-blog my prep for the 31 adults and 20 children who will come to my house in fellowship to be served tomorrow.

Stuffed Squash (with opportunities for garlic, butter, bacon & cheese)
This is a new recipe to Mocksgiving. Part of being a CSA member is defensive recipe gathering. I found this one last year, and blessed my lucky stars!

Recipe & project plan
Recipe & project plan

My cooking got an early start this morning because I had to drop Grey off for church. I’m not a morning person. Usually I’d start my day off at like 9 or 10. I started this one at the appalling hour of 7. (Shudders). I have a complex schedule today, mostly because this is the only time in a one month period I can actually get my hair cut, so I need to get a bunch done before the haircut, but nothing that needs tending between noon and two. So I usually start with bread, but not today.

Instead, I began with the squash. My plan is to adjust the recipe to twice-bake the squash instead. I baked it with butter and garlic. I’ll wait for it to cool completely then prepare the filling. (Mmmmmm bacon…. although I’ll probably make one vegetarian instead.) Then I’ll stick it back in the oven to warm tomorrow while the turkey is resting. It should be noted that pretty much all my cooking prep during Mocksgiving relies on an enclosed porch and cold overnight temperatures to double as a poor person’s ‘fridge.

Pies
Squash cooking, I turned my hand towards pies. Now I am caught on the horns of a pie dilemma. I have three different pie crust recipes at my disposal:

Butter & Vodka
This has been popular lately. It has the advantage of reducing the water content of the pastry (the vodka burns off). It tasted pretty good. It’s reasonably flaky. It’s a pain in the butt to make the starter for. And it’s moderately finicky to work with. Basically – I use this recipe when I have to but it’s my last choice.

Lard
This stuff is like a dream. It’s super easy to work with. It’s delicious. It’s flaky. It is the ideal, ultimate pie shortening. It’s also, um, not vegetarian. Not even a little. Nor is it friendly for anyone with religious based dietary restraints. (See also: bacon). So if I’m making pies for my own consumption, I’ll use this 100% of the time. But by my count I have five vegetarians coming tomorrow, and stealthmeats in dessert is a cruel thing to do. So lard is right out.

Crisco
For many years, this was the only way I made piecrusts, using the recipe my great-grandmother had made before me. It’s a very “short” recipe (high shortening to flour ratio) making it extremely flakey and light. Then Crisco took transfats out of its recipe. I spent a few Piemases and Mocksgivings in tears, trying to understand why the pie crust I’d used for literally a hundred pies couldn’t be worked. It took me a while to figure out the correlation.

But when I went home this summer, my mom said Crisco had changed their recipe again and it was working for her. This is the idea compromise between vegetarian and pain-in-the-rearness. So I’m going to try Crisco again and see how it goes.

First up, pecan pie
First up, pecan pie

2 pm Update
Well, I got my hairs cut. They are now shorter. Mission accomplished.

My pie plate collection. Many of my standard pies have standard pie plates they get made in every year.
My pie plate collection. Many of my standard pies have standard pie plates they get made in every year.

I’ve been cooking pretty much all day. This is the depressing part. Here’s where we are…

Completed:
1 Pecan Pie (I sometimes make two)

In progress:
Twice baked squash (need to mash up the insides and add bacon and cheese)
Lemon meringue pie (fun fact – I always misspell meringue as merangue) – crust made
Bread – dough kneaded and set to first rise

Not yet started and needs to be finished today:
Blueberry pie
Monkey bread if I decide to do it. (Votes? Do y’all want me to try it, or should I use that time for “cleaning” or “sleeping”?

Lemon meringue crust - came out ok. I had to roll it twice and it was really brittle
Lemon meringue crust – came out ok. I had to roll it twice and it was really brittle

Premium pecan placer
Premium pecan placer

A mere hour or so later, I’m in a much better spot. The bread is on the second rise. The blueberry pie is about 5 minutes from done. Before cleaning up the pie stuff, I decided to make another pie. For most pies, the crust is the hardest part. My blueberry pies, for example, are made during the year when Farmer Dave brings me blueberries and kept in the freezer until pie time comes. I tried increasing the water in the starter and it’s handling much better now. I think there’s so much shortening in it, that it looks wet enough when it’s not. So that’s good!

So my bonus pie is a raspberry apple pie. I had raspberries in the freezer from this summer’s haul (not enough to make a batch of jam from alas). And this is the time of year where apples are inescapable. So we’ll see if it’s any good. No huge loss if it’s not.

The lemon meringue is left to be done. It’s the exception to the above “the filling is the easy part” rule. I have the crust ready to be filled and it didn’t shlump too much. Lemon meringue is my favorite.

I remember when I was a kid I used to be appalled at my mom’s lack of creativity in creating pie vents. Here was this amazing decoration opportunity and she just cut slits! Such lack of imagination.

Of course, now I find myself staring down a blank pie crust and wondering if slits are just traditional. I usually inscribe a pi symbol that looks like a smiley face if you see it upside down!

Time to clean up!
Time to clean up!

Well, the kitchen’s a disaster and my back hurts, but everything has been done but the lemon meringue filling. (Guess what the most pain in the rear thing is?) I’ll pull the bread in about 10 minutes. I got the squashes stuffed. I have three completed pies.

It seems patently unfair that this is the time where I need to ask that age old question… what am I going to serve my family for dinner?

Butternut or acorn, bacon or vegetarian, asiago or gruyere
Butternut or acorn, bacon or vegetarian, asiago or gruyere

You’ll be happy to hear the meringue has been meringued. It didn’t set right. I suspect some of the flour on the beaters from the bread fell in and messed up the set. I couldn’t bring myself to remake it. It will still be delicious!

I always feel sneaky when making lemon meringue pie. The yellow doesn’t come from the lemons – it comes from the egg yolks.

The yellow things in lemon meringue pie
The yellow things in lemon meringue pie

In other news, Civilization 6 has civ called Congo, and Congo has Mbuji-Mayi in it. This is a city that is famous in my family history – it’s where the language school my parents attended to learn Tshiluba is – but I’ve never seen a reference to it in any material. Ever. But it’s in this video game.

Mbuji-Mayi
Mbuji-Mayi

Thane at 8

Halloween eight years ago marked one of my better costumes. Adam had spent all day in the basement putting together a robot costume for our then three year old eldest son. It had light up LEDs on the chestplate and wiggly arms. Grey wept bitter tears because he couldn’t put his arms down. (Oops.) He wore the prior year’s costume.

Not a happy kid
Not a happy kid

But my costume at that Halloween party with friends was an accessory. Specifically, a pumpkin I was carrying in my arms. The day Adam had been making Grey’s costume, I came home from the hospital with my wee Thane. He was a sweet child from the very start. He was little – just over six pounds. He had dark hair and dark eyes. And extremely large feet. He pretty much immediately stopped being little (he’s lurked between 70th – 90th percentiles for height), and dropped his dark brown hair for blond curls.

Look! Brown hair!
Look! Brown hair!

He still has gigantic feet. 8 years old – size four.

Thane has been a joy to parent. He’s joyful, loving, sweet and cuddly. My favorite part of the day is when I get to snuggle him to wake him up the morning. I’m really enjoying this year with him, because while he’s independent and capable he still has some of the sweet innocence of childhood to him (if you ignore the poop jokes).

My youngest has a personality that has two settings: calm focus and exuberant bouncing. He’s a kid who can’t walk because he’s skipping, jumping, hopping or dragging his feet because he’s soooooo tired. But when he sits to focus, he has an incredible ability to zero in on one thing and focus for hours – usually singing to himself while he plays. He also has a long history of being obsessed with one thing: puzzles, dinosaurs, Scooby-Doo (that one lasted literally years). His hyper focus is more spread out now. Current favorite things include Pokemon (he’s my Pokemon Go buddy) and a return to Legos.

One of my favorite pictures of a young Thane
One of my favorite pictures of a young Thane

This year was a breakout year for Thane with math. He showed early promise with his ability to do spacial reasoning problems (like puzzles). But first grade gave him enough of a math vocabulary to start tackling bigger problems. His mental arithmetic is about as fast as mine for the addition, subtraction and multiplication. (OK, he’s actually faster than me on some multiplication.) Division he can do, but has to think about it harder. He went to the Winchester branch of the Russian School of Math for the end of the year and a summer program, and in his first set of homework worked out the Fibonacci sequence (which I’m not sure I was *ever* actually taught). After the summer program he didn’t want to do it anymore because it wasn’t fun. I was disappointed but sympathetic. Forcing him to do it doesn’t seem like the right way to encourage him to love the subject, but I’m hoping that he finds his way back to pushing his knowledge of the subject.

Sunday, he wrapped up his fall soccer season. I’ve just started realizing that both boys have been playing for years – even if neither one has ever fallen in love with the sport. Thane was a major contributor on his team – especially as a defender who will challenge for and take away the ball. He has improved massively on the “randomly falling down” metric. He doesn’t love activity and exercising, but he’s done well by it.

Thane and the Puppy Family
Thane and the Puppy Family

Thane is a cheerful, resilient kid. He seems to not even feel pain. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that his joyfulness covers a very thoughtful mind and kind heart. He’s not a quiet kid by any stretch, but he’s undemanding in many ways. But don’t underestimate his strength, wisdom or insight.

I love this kid with all my heart.

He designed and implemented this pattern of perler beads himself
He designed and implemented this pattern of perler beads himself