A Room With a Couch

Drawing is not my forte, so ignore the messed up perspective.
Yesterday, after church, I spent some time wandering around Lancaster in a (somewhat) desperate search for a place... I stopped in some of my regular haunts, but none of them had what I was looking for. After one-and-a-half hours of futile searching, I returned home, still antsy and restless to find the room that existed in my imagination. Because I couldn't find my room in the real world, I decided to draw it. I got out my crayons (yes, crayons), and started sketching out my cozy nest. Afterward, I wrote this description in my journal:

"In my mind, there is a perfect, cozy room. It has a giant, cozy fireplace: big enough that you could cook a pot of stew in it. A stone fireplace would be best, but wood or brick would be fine as long as it's huge. On the mantle, there is a lovely painting or framed photograph, preferably something with bright, happy colors. Around the room, there are round wooden tables that hold lamps and photos and books. The hardwood floors are scarred by years of boot heels and are covered by hand woven rag rugs. Several bookshelves, full of everything from Shakespeare to C.S. Lewis to Ina Garten, line one dark purple wall. Yes, dark purple. Maybe with hardwood wainscoting.

"The most important part, though, the detail that would make or break this room, is the couch. The chairs could be straight-backed wooden affairs for all I care, but the couch (or, even better, couches!) are hugely overstuffed... so large that a person could disappear completely if she curled up in the corner with a good book.

"My room has a feeling of peace and comfort. Whenever someone enters the house it's in, he or she is immediately drawn to the comfort of this room. Music, conversation, and crackling fires are the only sounds that break the silence. One day, this room will be mine."

One day...


For those of you who don't get why my last two posts have had random number titles: it's advent - the beginning of the church calendar, the time during each year when we await the birth of Christ. Obviously, I'm already behind on posts, but I don't care and I don't think you do either.

Over the years, I've often wondered why we bother "waiting" for Christ's birth. It's already happened. What's the point in pretending? But this year, as I wait with some expectancy for a job offer, I am beginning to see the reason for this time of preparation. Sometimes we need to consciously slow down so that we don't miss the great thing that's coming. This measured approach to the Christmas celebration makes the day itself more meaningful and, in some ways, more joyous because we are reminded what it's all about. If we are mindful, our eyes should be wide open by the time Christmas Day arrives and no amount of consumerism or family angst or stress will be able to distract us from the joy of this season.

May all five of you be blessed with times of slowness and rest during this advent season.

The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of the serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

-Isaiah 11:6-9


"Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up," says the Lord; "I will place them in the safety for which they long." Psalm 12:5

Go Ahead. Ask me!

Over the past few months, I've had interviews with several different churches for positions in youth ministry and/or Christian education. This post isn't really about that, but I wanted to let you know I'm jobless and that you should pity me, unless, of course, you are also jobless. In that case, we should commiserate. Or, if you're a church that's hiring, you should check me out. I'm thoughtful and articulate. Anyway, on with it.

Most of the questions interviewers ask are pretty standard fare (as is to be expected).

"Describe your call into Christian ministry."

"What is your vision of youth ministry?"

"How would you recruit and train volunteers?"

There are other questions that could only be adequately answered after weeks or months of thought and would be most effectively expressed in writing (maybe 5-10 typed pages), but that I am expected to answer on the spot in five minutes or less. Then there are the clever questions: the ones that seem deep, but really offer little to no insight into me as a person, employee, or minister. Some questions, though, make me think not only during the interview, but for a long time afterward. For the most part, it's the questions that seem most innocuous that have this effect on me.

During one of my recent interviews, a fellow asked a question of the latter variety: "What kind of music do you like?" I think it was meant to be a throwaway, something to lighten the mood.

It wasn't until after I'd insulted country music, divulged my love of bluegrass, and listed a few of my favorite Indie groups, singer-songwriters, and artists popular in the 1960s and 1970s that I realized it was a trick. Okay, he wasn't really trying to trick me, but he was definitely looking for a specific answer.

After a moment's silence, he looked at me (or my image on the computer screen) and asked, "What about contemporary Christian music?"


I think the next words out of my mouth may have put at least one nail in the coffin of any hopes I'd had of working with these good folks. Perhaps I shouldn't have been such an elitist prig...

"I prefer not to listen to music that's marketed to a captive audience. Too many Christian groups are successful because parents won't let their kids listen to or good church folk feel guilty listening to or buying anything not labeled 'Christian.'  And, unfortunately, much music labeled Christian is a sub-par imitation of other music."


I know this is not a new rant. Every audiophile Christian and her brother has told us that music bearing the label Christian is (far too often) bland, uncreative pap (just like so-called Christian art - but that's a whole other issue). So, anyway, I won't get into that. What I'd like to do is offer some beautiful, honest, creative music written and/or sung by Christians who didn't take advantage of a religious label to boost sales. And I'd like to thank that fellow, who may or may not have intended to make me think for weeks after hearing his question. This one's for you!


Please offer some of your own suggestions. I love to find new music or be reminded of great old stuff!

Try It, You'll Like It

Having grown up on the typical American diet of meat and potatoes (with an occasional foray into the world or rice), I wasn't introduced to tofu until high school. Not that I tried tofu in high school, but I heard about it and was convinced that it couldn't possibly be delicious. In college, I tried the "blackened tofu" that our cafeteria offered. It was detestable: firm tofu sprinkled with cajun seasoning and grilled. It even sounds disgusting.

Finally, in seminary, I was served pan-fried, extra-firm tofu and fell in love. Marinated in a small amount of soy sauce and sesame oil, I could have eaten it like popcorn. In fact, after using it to top our salads or stir fries, the extra bits would disappear quickly. These perfectly crisp, delectably seasoned bits of flash-fried goodness constituted the perfect re-introduction to a food I once considered unfit for human consumption.

Since my re-introduction, I've enjoyed tofu in many forms, but it wasn't until very recently that I prepared a recipe that included tofu for myself. Inspired by my vegetarian friend, Matthew, who promised to post any number of hippie tofu recipes on Recipe Awesomeness, I decided to post one of my own. I would love to claim this as my own creation, but it comes from The Commonsense Kitchen, by Tom Hudgens, my favorite cookbook of the past few months. This Curry Tofu Salad is terrific as a sandwich filling or served atop a delicious lettuce.

1 pound firm tofu
3/4 teaspoon of salt, plus more as needed
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons canola oil of other vegetable oil
6 large white mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed, halved, and sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons mild or hot curry powder
1 small carrot, peeled and finely shredded
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 medium stalk celery, finely diced
1/4 cup mayonnaise, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, parsley, or cilantro (optional)

Crumble the tofu finely in a medium bowl, sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt, and mix well.

Finely mince together the ginger and garlic. In a wide skillet over a medium-high flame, heat the oil. Throw in the garlic and ginger with a pinch of salt and saute, stirring, for 20 to 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms with a pinch of salt, then add the curry powder and cook, stirring, for another minute. Add the tofu, continuing to stir as the tofu heats through and excess water evaporates, 4 to 5 mintues. When there is no more excess water, remove from the heat and let the tofu cool completely in the pan, about 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients: carrot, green onion, celery, mayonnaise, mustard, soy sauce, lemon, black pepper to taste, and optional herbs. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, lemon juice, or mayonnaise to balance. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Ten Times Better than Kraft Dinner

Yesterday, I let you all in on my newest passion: good food. Well, the two best ways for me to share that passion seem to be sharing food and sharing recipes. Since I can't pass a plate through the computer screen, I'll do the next best thing - share a recipe.

Since mac 'n' cheese was the dish that finally convinced me of the superiority of fresh ingredients and deliciousness of cooking from scratch, it seems appropriate that it be the first recipe I share here. So, here goes!

1 lb. pasta (any kind you like, but fun shapes are always better)
2 cups shredded cheese (2-3 kinds with complementary flavors, not pre-shredded - cheddar and monterey jack are good ones to start with)
3 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp flour
1-2 cups milk or cream
salt (anything but table salt...blech)
freshly ground pepper (white if you don't like black flecks in your cheese sauce)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Generously salt the water and add the pasta. Stir to avoid clumping. Pay attention to how much time your pasta needs to cook. Overcooked pasta is one of the worst parts of boxed mac 'n' cheese. When it is finished cooking, drain the pasta, but do not rinse it.

As the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it's completely melted and bubbly, add the flour, some salt and pepper, and a dash of nutmeg (This is called roux, pronounced "roo." All the best cooking words are French). Stir continuously to ensure that the flour doesn't burn.

After about a minute, slowly add the first cup of milk. Using a whisk will help you avoid lumps in the sauce. When the milk is fully incorporated and bubbly, slowly add the cheese, a handful at a time. Stir in a figure eight pattern to avoid slopping the sauce over the edges. If the sauce gets too thick, add more milk. If it's too thin, let the heat work its magic of evaporation.

Taste the cheese sauce to determine whether it needs more seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed. Some folks like to add mustard for a little tang. Hot sauce and garlic are more my style. When the sauce is finished to your taste, toss it with the pasta and enjoy. This amount will probably serve 4-6 people (more as a side dish).

Once you master this basic recipe (a matter of making it once or twice), experiment. One of my favorite variations includes onions, carrots and celery that have been sauteed in butter (a.k.a. - mirapoix, another fancy French cooking word). Another involves the addition of chopped ham or bacon. When I was working as a nanny, I would add a bag of mixed vegetables to the boiling water three or four minutes before the pasta was ready and brown some hamburger. Mix it all together and you've got the most "incredible hamburger helper" ever. I've never tried it, but I imagine various nuts and fruit could be delicious depending on the cheeses you use and your level of culinary adventurousness.

The point is, once you've got a recipe under your belt, you own it and can change it however you like. Go crazy, people!

Good Food

Over the course of the past couple years (particularly the past few months), I have become a bit of a food snob. No, I don't eat much in the way of exotic foods. Caviar and foie gras hold little appeal for me. My snobbery takes a different form; I can't abide mediocre food.

Why dump canned, boxed or frozen food into a pot and call it supper when only a little more work would produce an infinitely more delicious meal? Though I once hearkened to the siren song of time-saving convenience foods, the experience of scrumptious, yet uncomplicated dishes has convinced me that a little more effort is worth the abundance of flavor gained.

The dish that finally convinced me was macaroni-and-cheese. One night, I decided that Kraft dinner just wasn't cutting it anymore and purchased the ingredients to make some mac 'n' cheese from scratch. As the pasta cooked, I made the sauce, flavored with three cheeses, nutmeg and mustard. By the time the pasta was done, the sauce was also ready to go. In the same amount of time it would have taken to prepare a boxed mix (in which the pasta is inevitably overcooked and the sauce made from neon orange powder), I had a delectable, creamy, tangy, utterly satisfying meal. To make it even more satisfying, sometimes I add a little ham or some veggies or both! Of course, not all from scratch food takes the same amount of time as the boxed version, but the difference in satisfaction level between the two is light years apart, though. At least, for me.

So, anyway, I just don't get the point of food that's merely good enough. If we have to engage in a particular activity multiple times each day for our survival, isn't it worth our while to make said activity as enjoyable as possible instead of just getting it done?

Stop feeding yourself the slop the TV tells you is delicious. Buy ingredients instead of prepared foods. Make a fresh version of a boxed meal and marvel at the difference. Don't waste your time or calories on good enough. Life is too short for mediocre food. Join me in my food snobbery that demands robust flavor, wonderful texture and complete satisfaction.

Waking Up

Sometimes I hesitate to write my thoughts where everyone can see them. Words are so important to me - posting them for mass consumption can feel too vulnerable, like giving something away that I can never get back. But, today, I was overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings that flood my mind around this time every year. Fall is a restless time for me, a time when change seems not only good but necessary for survival.

This morning, I was thinking about the feast I'll be making for Sunday dinner and remembered that I needed to get some more apples for the bacon-apple crisp that I'm making for dessert (as if anyone will have room after the roast chicken, spaghetti squash with spicy eggplant and tomato sauce, home-baked bread, and cabbage salad). So, I set the alarm on my cell phone as a reminder and headed out to work. After hammering home some grammar rules with an exceptionally bright student, I headed home. Getting apples from the local orchard required a detour from my usual hypnotic route, however, and I soon found myself cruising down a small highway lined with flaming trees, empty cornfields, and signs for ham suppers (take-away only!).

The surroundings coupled with the perfect autumn afternoon light (that is never harsh because it's always sloping in rather than shining down), reminded me of fall days in my childhood when we would head to Burrville Cider Mill to watch them make the yummy brown liquid we were dying to sip. As we drove up the impossibly steep hill the mill sat on (which may only exist in my childhood memory), my brother and I would begin to salivate at the smell. While we were there we would enjoy as many free samples as we could sneak before being herded back to the car loaded down with apples and donuts and at least one gallon of cider.

That memory inevitably triggered another: this one from my junior year at Houghton. I don't remember who came up with the idea, probably Barry, since he was from the area, but a bunch of us took advantage of one perfect fall day by tromping around Letchworth State Park and visiting a local cider mill to get apples and pumpkins. I remember laying in the leaves and singing "How Great Thou Art" at the top of our lungs. I remember enjoying cups of hot apple cider once we got back to campus. I remember loving the people I was with and the sweaters and jackets we were wearing and the colors of the world around us.

My friends in seminary and I went apple-picking each year, too, at Terhune Orchard, where every weekend was apple festival. Every year, there was a new educational display to wander through, some bunnies to pet, incredible caramel apples covered in Reese's Pieces, and a necessarily lame corn maze, ruined by the impatient folk who walked through the stalks rather than finding their way out. I think I went three times my senior year.

Most of my best memories are from these months of chill and crunch and slanted sunshine. For many people, this time of year signals an ending. The awakening of springtime is long past, when skin is first experimentally bared after the long months of freezing. The heat and playfulness of summer have been extinguished. Winter lies just beyond the piles of dried leaves.

But, for me, fall is the time I wake up and want to move. I love winter. Maybe that's why I don't mind the first signs that she's on her way. Spring is lovely, but its usefulness to me is in that it starts the process that will provide abundant harvests as the summer dwindles. And summer, oh summer, how I loathe her heat and humidity. While most people dance for joy in the sunshine, I hide my delicate skin and sensitive eyes from the sun's burning rays, just waiting for the time I can once again don my well-worn hoodie and enjoy some time outdoors.

It's as if each leaf that falls is another message begging me to get out, to drive, to visit, to look, to walk and to listen. I revel in the perfectly crisp and juicy apples waiting to be plucked and eaten, the orange pumpkins and warty gourds and multi-colored mums that fill carts to overflowing at the local orchard, and the hay rides and corn mazes and hot cider by a fire while it's still just warm enough to be outside at night. Some produce comes in as early as May and June, but autumn is the real harvest season, when a sense of urgency pervades waking life, insisting that we put away all we can before it's time to hibernate. Fall is a time when we all get to nest like expectant mothers, anticipating the slower months of winter by stocking our pantries and getting out while it's still convenient and doesn't involve all the extra preparation of traveling with the threat of nasty weather.

Say what you like about this being the season of death and decay. Everywhere I look, I see life, life and more life.