Flight, Qwirkle, Hot Fudge Pie, and the Egg Bowl

Our kids aren’t visiting for Thanksgiving this year so we’re going to have a non-traditional celebration. We’re going out for lunch with friends who are also without their kids this year… to one of my favorite restaurants in Memphis—FLIGHT. It’s downtown, about 5 minutes from our house, has valet parking, wonderful atmosphere, and delicious food. Afterwards the four of us will come back to our house for my homemade hot fudge pie with ice cream, and play Qwirkle. (Great fun—if you haven’t played it, add it to your Christmas gift list!)

Flight_Home_Hero

 

Ole Miss(2)We’ll spend the remains of the day watching the “Egg Bowl” on TV. Go, Landsharks!

I just read through my Thanksgiving posts from the past few years, and also reminisced about my favorite Thanksgivings at my Aunt Barbara Jo and Uncle Dan’s home in Jackson, Mississippi. Barbara Jo’s famous cornbread dressing recipe is in one of the posts from 2014, below.

Thanksgiving and Gluttony (2016)

Dealing With a Weight-Loss Plateau (2015)

The Best Thanksgiving Ever! (2014)

The Best Cornbread Dressing Ever! (2014)

Skipping Thanksgiving (2013)

Thankful People (2011)

Grandchildren, Godchildren, and Thanksgiving (2010)

Thanksgiving (2009)

636468843640325496-112317-Ramsey-EggBowl

I’ll close with a few words about gratitude from a fellow Mississippi author:

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” – William Faulkner

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow

St Nick Day Snow coverThe talented children’s author Charlotte Riggle has done it again. With help from the gifted illustrator, R. J. Hughes, “Charli” has given us a colorful, poignant look at a beloved historic figure through the eyes of two families who celebrate his life in The Saint Nicholas Day Snow (Phoenix Flair Press, October 27, 2017). The story does have an Orthodox Christian setting (and characters) but it will capture readers of all religious and cultural backgrounds. Anyone who loves Christmas and tradition and children and story.

Charlotte Riggle, author

Charlotte Riggle, author

Although Charli no longer lives in the South, she was born in Oxford, Mississippi. Her mom used to go horseback riding with William Faulkner’s daughter. Her grandfather was the dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. She’s currently living in the Pacific Northwest, between Seattle and Mount Rainier. We met through Saint John Orthodox Church here in Memphis, where she was a member for many years before moving to the Seattle area. My husband and I are Godparents to her youngest child, and I’ve been blessed to be her friend for about twenty-five years.

When Charli’s first book, Catherine’s Pascha, came out in 2015, I knew she had found her niche. Not that this is the only niche available to her. Charli is a brilliant and gifted technical writer and is knowledgeable in many fields. It takes that kind of genius to write a good children’s book. Genius coupled with an intense love for people—especially children, and even more especially children with special needs and disabilities.

If you’d like to hear more from Charli about this project, read her blog post, “Why I Wrote the Saint Nicholas Day Snow.”

The Saint Nicholas Day Snow will make a terrific Christmas gift for your children, grandchildren, Godchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids. Read a description and order the book here or from Amazon.

The Great Blessing of the Waters—the Mississippi River!

Coptic icon of Christ's baptism... the Feast of Theophany

Coptic icon of Christ’s baptism… the Feast of Theophany

Today is the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church. Historically it’s been as big a feast as Christmas, with several services on the calendar to celebrate it. Yesterday morning we had the “Royal Hours,” and last night the “First Blessing of the Water” and Divine Liturgy. This morning at 9 we’ll have the “Second Blessing of the Water” and another Divine Liturgy. The water blessed at these services is used throughout the year in various ways—priests use it for house blessings, to bless icons, crosses, waters for baptisms, etc. Parishioners take some of the Holy Water home with us for use in our personal prayers and when we are sick.

 

Blessing Waters in Russia

Blessing Waters in Russia

This year our parish—Saint John (Antiochian) is joining up with priests and parishioners from Annunciation (Greek) and Saint Seraphim (OCA—Orthodox Church in America) parishes for a “Great Blessing of the Waters” down at the Mississippi River. We’ll gather at noon on Saturday, just a few blocks from my house, where prayers will be said and a cross will be tossed into the river. In warmer climates—especially in Greece—young men and boys actually dive into the waters to retrieve the cross. Brrrrrr! (I think our pastor is tying a rope to the cross and pulling it back out.)

 

Great Blessing of Waters by Boris Kustodiev

Great Blessing of Waters by Boris Kustodiev

It’s interesting that this first year that we are keeping this tradition is the coldest weather we’ve had this winter—it’s SNOWING In Memphis today! But our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, noted in an email to the parish that it’s not as cold as it often is in Russia (see photo and painting).

 

Now that the twelve days of Christmas are over and we are moving into a new season of the Church—and very soon a new “season” for our country—I pray for God’s blessings and for peace in our hearts and in our homes.

 Blessed Feast!

 

The Making of a Book

bk_brown_binding2_lgHappy New Year! For my first blog post of the year, I’m simply going to share an amazing video. Grab a cup of coffee and WATCH THIS to see how books are made by hand, the old-fashioned way.

 

 

 

p12-130613-a2And on this 9th day of Christmas, I offer you 9 ladies dancing. In church lore, they represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].

Cheers!

On the Fourth Day of Christmas…

four-gospels… my true love gave to me: four calling birds! In the Church’s tradition, those birds represent the four gospel writers—the holy apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (seen in these icons). They are “calling” to the world to hear the message of Christ’s incarnation.

So how am I celebrating the fourth day of Christmas? We just got home last night from spending a wonderful Christmas in Denver with two of our kids and all four of our grandchildren. So we are tired but happy. Of course I’m unpacking, doing laundry, and grocery shopping today (and starting back on exercising on the elliptical)… but it’s also a day for Christmas cardsopening more Christmas cards and reading through so many wonderful Christmas letters from friends and family near and far. Sending Christmas cards is one of my favorite traditions, and receiving them is such a treat.

This year I didn’t come up with a creative way to display them, so I just spread them out on our dining room table as they arrived. This morning I captured them in photos, then I took down last year’s photo cards from the bulletin board in the kitchen and replaced them with this year’s. Well, some of them. (They don’t all fit!)

It was fun to group some of them:

children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews

children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, great nieces, and great nephews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cards with original artwork (children and adults)

Cards with original artwork (children and adults)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spiritual/religious cards

spiritual/religious cards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

kitchen bulletin board (with some of our 2016 photo cards) will stay up until next year's cards arrive!

kitchen bulletin board (with some of our 2016 photo cards) will stay up until next year’s cards arrive!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much to everyone who was thoughtful enough to send us a card and/or a Christmas letter this year. I hope you are enjoying this tradition as much as we are!

A Thrill of Hope… the Weary World Rejoices!

imagesA couple of weeks ago I did a post about a favorite Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This morning I woke up thinking about another favorite, “O Holy Night.”

O Holy Night wasn’t traditionally sung in the Presbyterian church of my childhood. It was saved for special solos and performances outside the regular church service. At least in my experience. But my favorite memory of this hymn is from Christmas gatherings (and also Thanksgiving gatherings) at my aunt and uncle’s house in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s through the 1980s. Aunt Barbara Jo was the “glue” in our extended family. Ten years younger than her older brother—my father—Barbara Jo was always more like an older sister to me. She loved family and she loved having us all in her home. Uncle Dan was a military man with a career in the Mississippi National Guard. But he had a softer side, and the most beautiful tenor voice I’ve ever heard. My father was also a tenor. When my Aunt Joy was visiting from Texas, she would play the piano (by ear) and we’d all gather around and sing Christmas carols. At some point everyone would get quiet and we’d know it was time for O Holy Night. As Joy played, my father and Uncle Dan sang the most beautiful duet, always moving me to tears.

So, this morning I did a little research, learning something of the song’s history. It was written in 1847. In light of our country’s (and the world’s) current political unrest, I found it interesting that the history of this beloved Christmas song is also filled with politics and war. Here’s more of the story, from a post by Tsh Oxenreider at (in)courage:

A parish priest in a small French town commissioned a local poet and wine commissionaire, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, to write a poem for the village’s Christmas Eve mass. Cappeau read through the birth of Christ in the gospel of Luke en route to Paris, and finished the poem O Holy Night by the time he reached the city.

Cappeau turned to his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose the music to the poem, and three weeks later, the song was sung in the village on Christmas Eve. Initially, Cantique de Noel (the song’s French name) was widely loved by the Church in France, but when leaders learned that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams a Jew, the song was uniformly denounced as unfit for church services. But the common French people loved it so much, they continued to sing it.

The song came to the U.S. via John Sullival Dwight, an abolitionist during the Civil War. Moved by the line in the third verse, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” he published it in his magazine and quickly found favor in the north during the war.

Even though it was banned in France, the song was still popular among the people. On Christmas Eve in 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War, a unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked into the battlefield, and started singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the song’s first line in French.

After singing all three verses, a German solider emerged and started singing, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will,” the beginning of a popular hymn by Martin Luther.

Fighting stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day. Soon after, the French Church re-embraced O Holy Night.

My wish these days leading up to Christmas is that we would embrace one another, and that the fighting would stop.

Click here to enjoy Jordan Smith’s wonderful tenor voice in this arrangement of O Holy Night.

Not My Sister’s Baby! (or The Best Christmas Pageant Ever)

bcpe-640x360In the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, I wrote and directed the annual Christmas pageant at our church here in Memphis, St. John Orthodox. Our own kids were in elementary and middle school during those years. The participants in the play each year were between three and about twelve—sixth graders being the oldest. (The high school kids did a different play each year—one about Saint Nicholas.) I have such wonderful memories of those pageants and the children who brought them to life each year. One little boy was a trouble-maker during practices, but always came through with a great performance in the end. What I didn’t recognize at the time was his higher intelligence… he was bored at practice and didn’t see a need to put forth any effort or follow any rules. Today he’s happily married with a creative and successful career. And one year one of the mothers of several children in the play gave me a copy of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and I read it every year for a while…. Wish I could find it again.

And then there was the year I almost (or did this really happen?) caught Sarah Mashburn’s hair on fire. She was playing the part of Saint Lucia, who had a crown of candles on her head. One year we had musical instruments—the three wise men played their recorders (plastic tonette flutes they learned to play in school) and two girls who were studying ballet did a lovely pas de deux as Mary and the Angel Gabriel. I remember each of these events with less clarity about the details but great emotional imprint. And of course there were often moments of humor. But none so funny as what happened yesterday

Xmas play closeupSo, yesterday at St. John, a different generation of children offered the Christmas pageant to a packed house in the nave (sanctuary). Terrific costumes. Booming, clear voices reciting their parts. Lovely choir of angels singing both Orthodox and traditional Western Christmas carols. And then there was drama over Baby Jesus.

Claire, the director of the play, cast her oldest daughter, Zoe as Mary, and her younger daughter, Audrey, was one of the little lambs. Zoe was a terrific Mary, saying her lines clearly, remembering her movements as she entered and exited the solea (stage area) several times, first when she was greeted by the Angel Gabriel, later greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, and finally journeying with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem, looking for shelter.

Once Mary and Joseph arrived at the stable and Jesus was born, the excitement began. Baby Jesus was placed in the manger, and the wise men and shepherds and animals came to worship him. The youngest children were the animals. So when little Audrey came in with the sheep, she hurried to the manger where she tried to grab baby Jesus. Mary (her big sister) had to struggle with her, swatting her hand away from Baby Jesus as Audrey tried to climb up on the chair with Zoe and tugged at the Baby until Claire (her mother) finally had to come up on the stage and take Audrey out. The cause of the ruckus? One of Audrey’s dolls had been cast as Baby Jesus. Later Claire recounted the story on Facebook and said that all the way home in the car after church Audrey kept saying, “That is NOT my sister’s baby!”

Xmas play full cast

 

Humor is always a welcome element in any drama. And the shining faces of the children as they brought their gifts to Jesus in their acting and singing reminded all of us that He really is the reason for the season. I hope you and your family are catching this joyful spirit as you prepare to celebrate His birth.

 

Much love to all.

Journaling Through Advent

My friend Julie Cantrell (who happens to be an award-winning author) has been posting Advent Journal Prompts on Facebook every day since December 1. When I first started trying to participate, I was a bit overwhelmed by the depth of Julie’s words. (She should hang a shingle.) I thought I would write from her daily prompts, but quickly realized it would take an hour or more each day, and I decided not to participate at that level. I have continued to read them every day, though, and even thinking through what I might write has been helpful.

adventjournalslice1

 

Julie leads us through a journey back to our childhoods, to our happy memories, our sad memories, traumatic events, and victories. She asks us to remember who was at our side during all of these times—who cheered us on, but also who might have been jealous or not supportive at times. This might sound negative, but she goes on to encourage us to not only be thankful for the support we have received in our lives, but also to forgive those who haven’t been supportive, or who have hurt us. Although I’ve already worked through many of the “steps” she is suggesting, I did find it helpful to be reminded of my journey.

I love what Julie wrote on Day 1:

I believe every spirit was brought into this life for a reason. Your life is no accident. You are no mistake. Search your soul. Why has God really brought you here? What is your true purpose in this life? …. And then ask, am I on the right path to achieve that missions? If not, what steps can I take today to reach that goal?

I found this to be extremely helpful. Life offers so many options, including choices that can lead us off the best path for our lives. I’ve definitely strayed from that best path many times in my 65 years, and I’m sure I’ll continue to make some bad choices in the future. But focusing on what my “true purpose” in this life might be really helps.

P1010320For some people, their true purpose is revealed to them clearly—through a career, or being a parent, or a caregiver, or living a life that involves helping others. But for those of us who are artists—writers, musicians, painters, etc.—I think it’s harder to be clear about this. Making art can be a solitary pursuit, and it’s easy to feel selfish spending so many hours every week alone with our work. We don’t even have the opportunity to reach out to coworkers and maybe be the light they need in their lives, since we don’t go to an office and we don’t have coworkers. This is probably the thing I miss most about working alone. So I have to consciously reach out to find others with whom to interact. In my younger years I found these people through my children’s parents at school, soccer games, and other activities. As the children grew older and away from me, I found these people more through church activities. In recent years, I’ve found them right outside my door, in my neighbors. And also in my writing community, although we communicate more through emails and Facebook than in person. I am thankful that one of my neighbors is also a writer and has become a close friend. And I am thankful for my writing group that meets monthly, not only to critique one another’s work, but for that interaction we all crave.

In Julie’s Journal Prompt for today (December 7) she asks us to look back at challenges we have survived that we thought we wouldn’t be able to handle. And also:

What accomplishments have you achieved that you once believed were out of your reach?… Write an entry in honor of your beautiful, brave, survivor spirit. Celebrate the fact that you have already endured many of life’s greatest battles….

And then she asks, “What has kept you going through the hard times? When you felt most alone, most unloved, most afraid… what got you through to your next breath? Do you have a name for that? Would you call it God? Why or why not?”

I love that she points us in such a positive direction after a week of pretty heavy soul-searching (Journal Prompts 2-6, which I didn’t write about here). As a survivor of sexual abuse and cancer, and a daily struggler with eating disorders and depression, I can say that although sometimes it is a person—a friend, or my husband, or one of my children—who gets me through each of these hard times, at the end of the day it is God. The God of my childhood, my early adulthood, and now, of this later season of my life.

Thank you, Julie, for guiding us through what can often be a difficult season (Christmas holidays) with your wisdom and kindness. I look forward to continuing the journey.

Ransom Captive Israel!

o-come-o-come-emmanuel-1-638This morning I took my coffee into the living room and sat down at my electronic piano keyboard. I browsed through a book of Christmas hymns arranged by The Piano Guys, and began to play an old favorite, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Its haunting melody fits the pre-Christmas mood… the time of preparation for the celebration to come. But it was the words of the second line that gave me pause:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel.

Why is Israel “captive”? What does she need to be ransomed from?

The lyrics continue:

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee O Israel.

Mankind was in mourning, in exile, until God sent His Son to us. And we still experience a degree of that mourning until we are united with Him again in Heaven.

The next verse talks about freeing us from Satan’s tyranny and giving us victory over the grave—the ultimate goal of Christ’s incarnation. And then there’s the verse that lifts our spirits when we are suffering temporal struggles:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

il_570xN.883268784_oizeI know five people who have lost loved ones in the past few weeks. Two of the deceased were elderly—in their 80s and 90s—and had lived full lives. But the pain was still heavy on those who loved them. But three were young people in their twenties, overcome by emotional and mental struggles that led at least two of them to take their own lives. As I listened to our pastor’s words yesterday, acknowledging what a difficult time it was for those who were grieving, I heard him talk about trust. That in the face of our sorrow, God still asks us to trust Him.  To believe that He loves us.

The music helps. You can listen to a beautiful arrangement by The Piano Guys, with piano and cello here.

I love Anya’s voice. So clear and hopeful.

And this is a beautiful traditional choir version.

I’ll share reflections on another Christmas hymn soon. Stay tuned, and thanks always for reading.

Make Ready

CD with Orthodox Hymns of Christmas http://www.svspress.com/make-ready-o-bethlehem-orthodox-hymns-of-christmas/

CD with Orthodox Hymns of Christmas http://www.svspress.com/make-ready-o-bethlehem-orthodox-hymns-of-christmas/

One of my favorite hymns that we sing in the Orthodox Church during the Nativity Season is all about preparing… preparing to receive Christ in our hearts and to celebrate His birth:

Prepare, O Bethlehem,
For Eden has been opened to all.
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha,
For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the fruit divine;
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ is coming to restore the image, which He made in the beginning.

 One version says “Make ready, O Bethlehem.” Make ready. Make what ready? I guess the main thing is to make our hearts ready. To be at peace with one another. To fast (if that’s your tradition) and feed and clothe the poor and hungry. To spend more time with family and doing things that bring joy to our hearts and to others.

 We don’t all make ready in the same way. Some people focus more on the spiritual activities I mentioned above. But others make their homes ready with beautiful decorations—inside and out—to remind themselves and others that something special is happening. Bright lights and colorful, shiny balls and fragrant green trees inside, or even in our yards. We are making ready as we “adorn ourselves,” as the hymn says.

christmas-shoppingSome folks get upset when people—and especially stores—start decorating for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I don’t know why… in the Orthodox Church we begin the Nativity Fast—and thus our season of preparation—on November 15. Having the American (not church) celebration of Thanksgiving during this season just heightens the spirit of anticipation and joy for me. It’s not like the two holidays are competing for our attention.

I guess the main culture clash between the Orthodox Christian tradition and other Christmas traditions is that our church encourages fasting from November 15 to December 25—with many days of no meat, dairy, and even wine and fish. It’s difficult to keep this fast and join with our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends for holiday parties where so many of our favorite foods and beverages are served. Instead of waiting to have these parties during the “12 days of Christmas” between Christmas and Theophany, most people begin celebrating during what is for Orthodox Christians supposed to be a time of preparation. This used to be a struggle for me, but over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable joining in with those early celebrations. Who am I to judge another’s traditions? And I certainly don’t want to appear Scrooge-like, which wouldn’t seem very loving, joyful, or Christian. Yes, I’m Orthodox, but I’m also American.

christmas greeting cardsSo I’m having a wonderful time “making ready”—preparing to mail out Christmas cards with our annual Christmas letter; wrapping gifts (finished shopping!); making cookies for a neighborhood cookie swap, taking toys to contribute to the Memphis Interfaith Association’s annual Christmas store (where parents in need can find free gifts for their children); and decorating our home. I hire someone to help put up lights on our beautiful Japanese Cherry Blossom tree in our front yard, and also our lighted angel, since my husband and I are too old to be up on ladders or climbing trees! Our neighborhood’s annual Christmas parade ends right in front of our house, at “Christmas Tree Park,” this coming Sunday. Santa will be there for photo sessions with the kids, and there will be hot chocolate and cookies and golf carts decorated with blinking lights. I know it’s not Christmas yet—but what a fun way to make our hearts ready as we share in this joyful tradition with our neighbors.

Make ready, O Bethlehem!

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