Thursday, December 15, 2011

Everyone's Dancing Merrily in a New Old-Fashioned Way

I had a great aunt, now gone, who wrote the best Christmas letters ever. The card would arrive and I'd grab the nearest object which would theoretically be used as a letter-opener and go at it. Sometimes I'd use my index finger and get the expected paper-cut without complaint, such was my excitement. And there would be the letter, in all its unremitting glory. This woman was lovely and cheerful; the few times I met her in person, she struck me as a generally good egg and a great dame, but she worked on the assumption that people were most interested in the awful bits. Each letter was another year of my distant relatives in rehab, having miscarriages, getting divorced, entering hospice care or just up and dying. In my admittedly fault recollection, there was not a single piece of good news for a decade. It was like a Christmas letter written by Job. 

I felt as if last year's Christmas letter to you all was homage to my Great-Aunt Edith. But, in my defense, it was a year of loss and loss must be recognized. Loss is the roux upon which the gumbo of life is based, the darkish constant presence which might not be delightful on its own but gives meaning to everything on top of it.

[Yes, it's a stretch, but I just glanced at Bryan Batt's new book on decorating in the New Orleans way and have Big Easy on the brain. Could have been worse; I restrained myself from declaring loss to be the okra of the vegetable world.]

So, loss is roux and it's important and all, but it doesn't mean I didn't go into this year without a certain trepidation. Was 2011 going to be another year of goodbyes?

Turns out, it wasn't. Around this house, 2011 was not a year of loss, but a year of gains. Extra work-stuff for Consort, the book for me, challenging new online classes for Daughter, three new volunteer jobs for me and, of course, a rabbit. There have been many times in my life before this year where I've been beetling along, getting small things done, when I've been struck with the profound guilt that There's so much more I could be doing! I have much more energy I could be expending on getting things accomplished! Entropy is speeding up because I'm not helping someone somewhere! Well, while the Congressional Library couldn't hold all the other things I believe I should be doing, I can say honestly I'm probably at the upper limit of what I could be doing.

When I stop to consider that I forgot Daughter and I were due at church Sunday morning for altar-attending, I grant everyone permission to suggest I'm actually slightly beyond what I'm capable of doing.

In February-when I was signing the book contract- I scheduled my year and told Consort I wouldn't have an actual unaccounted-for day through June, 2012. Then we laughed, because that was absurd. It is absurd. It also happens to be true.

It's a funny year for my family; I'd say we're all a little burnt-out and yet somehow we're not unhappy. We're running everywhere, doing everything, noticing how more time and more money would make the whole process so much more effortless, but we're smiling. I think if you have a year of loss before a year of gain, there's always a small still voice in your head in the middle of the chaos reminding you you're alive, and that's a good thing to be. Maybe I take on everything because I know those people who've left would love to be back here, feeling useful, being alive.

Everything in my life needs me right now, which sometimes annoys me; I might periodically grumble about my volunteering, but I also know that because I show up, things get done. Maybe not perfectly-definitely not perfectly-but they get done, and I walk away feeling as if I've added something good. Seems like a small price to pay for all that I've been given. When I look at Daughter, her education, my relationship with Consort, my work, my life, my small, still inner voice sings softly And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Have a joyous holiday season and I wish everyone a 2012 of productivity and peace.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Sugar, Oh Honey, Honey

Every winter, Consort and Daughter make cookies together. And then Consort and I eat them. So in solemn commemoration of when I could fit into my skinny pants, I offer you all the best recipe for Hermits I've ever found. Say after me; It has nuts and raisins in it, so that's healthy, right?


2 cups flour (plus a little extra, if necessary)

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar

1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature

3 tablespoons molasses

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/2 cup dark raisins or currants

2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped

Crystallized ginger (optional)

For the egg glaze: 1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water


1.Get out one or two large, heavy cookie sheets -- preferably shiny ones. (Just one sheet will be in the oven at a time, but having two sheets will streamline the baking.) Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit each sheet, then cut those pieces in half, length-wise. You should end up with four rectangular pieces of parchment. Heat the oven to 375°.

2.Sift 2 cups of flour, all of the spices, the baking powder, the baking soda, and the salt into a medium-size mixing bowl. Set it aside.

3.In a separate large bowl, use an electric mixer for a few seconds to soften the butter. Add the brown sugar to the butter roughly in thirds, beating at medium-high speed for 1 minute after each addition. Add the egg and yolk, and beat for another minute. Add the molasses and the vanilla, and beat for 1 more minute, until the batter is smooth.

4.Using a wooden spoon, stir 1 cup of the dry mixture into the creamed ingredients. Stir in the walnuts, the raisins (or currants), and the crystallized ginger, if you're using it. Add the remaining cup of the dry mixture a half cup at a time and stir after each addition. The dough should end up fairly dense and hard to stir. If it seems a little soft, mix in another 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and divide it into 4 equal pieces.

5. Working with well-floured hands, roll the first ball into a log about 12 inches long. Roll the log onto one of the pieces of parchment.

6.Place the log (with the paper) lengthwise onto the cookie sheet, leaving room for a second one beside it. Slightly flatten the log into a rough rectangle so the dough is about 3/4 inches thick and 1 1/4 inches wide.

7. Repeat the rolling steps for a second piece of dough, then use a piece of parchment to place the log on the other half of the cookie sheet (a) before flattening it (b). Using a pastry brush, paint both bars with the egg glaze. This will give the cookies a nice, shiny finish.

8. Bake the bars on the center oven rack for 11 to 12 minutes. While they are baking, prepare the rest of the dough and place it on the second sheet, if you're using one. (If you're using just one cookie sheet, be sure to let it cool thoroughly before you place any dough on it. Put it outside in cold weather or in the refrigerator to speed up the process.) When the bars are done, they will have flattened out somewhat. They might seem a little squishy and underdone, but that's okay: they'll continue to cook a little longer and will get firmer as they cool.

9.Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack. Let it cool for 10 minutes, then lift the parchment pieces with the bars and place them onto a large cutting board.

10. While the bars are still warm, cut them into 1 1/2-inch-wide sections with a pizza cutter or a sharp serrated knife. Cool the hermits thoroughly, then store them in an airtight container. Makes about 32 hermits.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

First and foremost, I have FINISHED MY REWRITES ON THE BOOK! Not only that, but I DID NOT BREAK MY STREAK AND MADE MY DEADLINE! Yes, it’s a geeky thing to be proud of, but when your entire childhood was a never-ending version of the same academic song, “Quinn has no self-discipline and doesn’t budget her time well,” it’s nice to be able to define myself as The One Who Makes Deadlines, Often With Hours to Spare. I have one more pass at the book, after the copy-editor cleans it up, but I can say that while it might be a better book, it’s very nearly the best book I could write.

Enough of that, back to my being an idiot. When last we left me, I was the supervisor of a nest of altar-attendants at church, the competent parent/supervisor I was supposed to be learning from not able to make it that Sunday. The Sunday in question was All Souls Day, the only day of the year our church uses incense, a troubling thought for an asthmatic like me.

I arrived at church and headed towards the attendant holding-pen, which has a better name but I don’t know it. As a matter of fact, there are special names for lots of things in church and I usually don’t know them. This rarely affects me. The attendants milled around the pen, getting into their robes and eating donuts. I stood there and tried to look quietly authoritative. Bryan, the usual primary supervisor, arrived to drop off his daughter before his meeting. He caught my eye and smilingly said, “It’ll be fine,” which leads me to think my “calmly authoritative” look was neither. Josh the Youth Minister arrived and rubbed his hands together. “Welcome and thanks for attending the hardest service of the year,” he announced. The what now? I flashed a look at Bryan, who mouthed the word “Sorry” and vanished.

All Souls Day, I came to learn, occupies its own place in the church. There are different walking patterns, different music and different accessories (I think I just blasphemed). Josh slowly walked the Senior Attendant Rebecca and me through what to expect. Here’s an embarrassing secret about me which hasn’t come up before on the blog; I can’t take directions. Rather, I can’t take long directions. If I am lost and I pull over and ask someone how to get to where I need to go, I pray the instructions will be “Get on this freeway, the one right here. Go two exits. Get off. You will see the building from the offramp.” Anything more complicated and I start to drift. I don’t mean to, I’m focusing with all of my being, but by Step #5, I’m wondering if the new Vanity Fair will be there when I get home. I nod vigorously, I thank my benefactor, and then I drive the three steps I remember, stop and ask someone again. So you know how excited I was to find out All Souls Day has no fewer than twenty prompts, many of which involve words I had never heard before in my life.

“At the end of the Flarg, you’ll take the first attendants to the Gleef, have them stand before the Harb and wait for the choir to finish the second Deus Yart and then have them sit down again. But don’t let them sit before the Draknog.”

I nodded and hoped I could pull over halfway down the aisle and ask another person. I looked to Rebecca, who has been an attendant for two years; she had the bored, slightly removed expression of a frequent-flyer listening to the flight-attendant explaining how to fasten a seat-belt. This bode well; all I had to do was follow Rebecca and I wouldn’t be smote. Josh said, “And, of course, the thurifer. Oh, here she is.”

I sensed the smoke before I saw it. A sweet-faced teenage girl, a girl I’ve seen sitting braiding the hair of some younger girls, walked in carrying a teardrop-shaped smoldering thing. The smell wasn’t actually unpleasant to me, but my bronchi begged to differ. I lunged from the room and took a puff of my inhaler. Josh brought all the kids together for a quick prayer before the service. I prayed to not screw anything up noticeably, thanked God for the product Albuterol, and rounded up my charges, keeping a wide berth from the thurifer. The last thing Josh did was press a printed list of the prompts into my hand and remind me to “...make sure to get them out in front of the choir during the processional. Throw them if you have to.” His tone led me to understand I had been told this at least twice already but that it had come in during the Drifting and Thinking about Magazines at Home time. I nodded. All attendants must be before the choir. Got it.

The procession was somber and silent; no music this week. I watched as Rebecca grouped her attendants in subsets of twos and threes in ways which seemed obvious but only after she did it. My throat seized up a second before I smelled smoke. I looked behind me to see the thurifer-girl was trying to get where she was supposed to be, which was exactly where I was. I moved as far I could from her, which wasn’t very far, what with about forty people waiting in a room meant to hold fifteen. Rebecca looked at the thurifer-girl and whispered, “No, you go after the altos, stand over there,” pointing to next to me. I inched away again and tried to remember how often I could use my inhaler. Slowly, the group processed. Thurifer-girl distractedly, as another person might jiggle her leg, waved her thurifer. My brain informed me I was about to break the respectful silence with a loud hacking cough, possibly involving phlegm. Quickly, I raced outside, gulped some non-sanctified air and raced for the door leading to the apse.

The service passed in a haze for me. First of all, there was the constant moving of attendants, pushing this child and that towards what I could only hope was Gleef or the Harb. Second, I was mildly hypoxic from the smoke and so ramped up on Albuterol that all I wanted to do was unzip my skin and run around the room, which means I wasn’t exactly focused on details. And then there was thurifer-girl. If for some reason this child ever chooses to go hiking in the Angeles National Forest and gets lost, if she happens to be carrying her thurifer, I will find her in a matter of minutes. I couldn't stop finding her. To get some fresh air, I’d dart out the side-door, or down a back hallway, or into the closet where they keep the crosses and there she’d be, freshening her smoke. I’d look panicked, grab my inhaler and lunge away from her, heading exactly in the opposite direction, only to find thurifer-girl standing there as well, looking apologetic. It seemed I was privileged to witness a genuine miracle, the multiplying of the thurifer-girls.

Standing outside, huddled against the wall, I glanced at my prompt-sheet and saw that the procession was to come next. The list indicated there would be attendants, then the choir, then some attendants. I raced back in just in time to see Rebecca take her half of the attendants from the Communion table to walk in front of the choir, who were marching off to form the processional through the entire church. Thurifer-girl passed by me and headed to the front. I waited alertly to put my half of the attendants, who had been sitting in the apse, in. Rebecca caught my eye and subtly mouthed “What are you doing?”

What am I doing? I’m possibly contracting emphysema and waiting to be useful. She tipped her head discreetly towards her group and I understood the prompt-paper was wrong. This was the part Josh had been talking about, about getting your attendants in front of the choir, by catapult if necessary. I grabbed the first of my attendants and tried to weave her through the choir towards the rest of the attendants, but it would have been as likely to pass these kids through a wall. The choir would not be separated, they moved as a single entity. I shrugged in panic at Rebecca, who managed the tiniest, most Christian sigh and eye-roll I’ve ever seen. She discreetly put her hand toward me; stay where you are. I sensed her feeling was I’d do less harm there.

Imagine you’re in a church. Imagine the minister and everyone is walking around the aisles, leaving you with an empty church to contemplate, a metaphor for the sense of finality and loss which death brings. So empty up there. Not a single person.

No, wait. There’s Quinn and four pre-teenage girls, staring in horror at the congregants.

The four girls were Daughter, Daughter’s best friend (whose mother is the Rector’s secretary), the daughter of Bryan, who usually does this job and Bryan’s niece. The service lasts only an hour, but I’m pretty sure we were up there alone for at least six weeks. Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground in a penitent way. Sometimes, I’d catch someone’s eye and sort of wiggle the prompt-paper in my hand, hoping it would indicate that the fault lay not with me but with the paper. Sometimes I’d just grip my Albuterol and take a small pleasure in these moments when the thurifer-girl wasn’t an inch away from me.

Eventually, everyone came back. We were no longer alone; Rebecca sat next to me, although I’m pretty certain she had inched to the far side of my seat. Thurifer-girl walked past us, swinging the smoke. She looked at me sympathetically. I waved my inhaler at her in a communal way. We all had our tools.

All Souls Day is meant to be a reminder of frailty, of limits. There are certain inevitabilities we might as well recognize: we’re mortal; some of have rotten lungs; getting distracted during the hearing of instructions means you miss things. But then we are encouraged to leave our sorrow in church and go forth with the dualism that while some day we will all die, today, right now we are alive and that should make life all the sweeter. Likewise, some day-probably very soon-I’ll be an idiot again. The odds are good this will be in front of a large group of people and maybe also God, but that just makes any moment I’m not humiliating myself in public so much more exquisite. Some days we can do no more than hope tomorrow will be better and take about three showers to remove the thurifer-smell from our hair.

Now, go in peace. And mind the Harb.