Happy Valentine’s Day! I thought to share with you one of my favorite poems. It’s an old one – you’ll recognize it – and it’s just so beautiful.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee with the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from phrase.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints – I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love the better after death.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm, and cloudiness?
It seems that in much of the western hemisphere, February is an unpopular month. It’s deep winter, one of the coldest months, and apparently bleak by many standards.
I happen to like it. It's a month of football and rodeos, Punxsutawney Phil and Mardi Gras. You don't have to be able to ski down the blacks or even down the bunny slope. It doesn't matter if it's mild or freezing outside. There's plenty in February for everyone.
But why do we call it February? Not everyone does, obviously, but variations of Februarius are used in many countries.
We got it from the Romans, of course. They were everywhere, dispersing their customs and their language far and wide. January and February were the last two months added to the Julian calendar. February was named because it fell during the time of year that the Romans did a Spring cleaning of sorts. It was a purification ritual called Februa, certainly pre-Christian, which I find interesting. Lent, a time of penance and purification for many Christians, most often begins in February. This was not one of those convenient scenarios where a Christian occasion replaced a pagan one. Februa fell on the same day every year. Lent’s timing depends upon Easter’s, which depends upon when the spring equinox falls. Purification, februum, is clearly an ongoing process.
There are lots of saints and Christian holidays in February, to name a few:
February 1 – St. Brigid of Kildare, patron saint of Ireland
February 2 – Candlemas or Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple
February 9 – Feast of St. Maron, father of Maronite Catholics
February 14 – Saint Valentine’s Day
February 27 – Great Lent begins, Eastern Rite churches
February 28 – Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras
March 1 – Ash Wednesday
The word “shrove” comes from “shrive”, which denotes absolution. Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday is a day to be shriven or absolved of sins, a day of cleansing in preparation of Lent. In many places, the cleansing part has become the focal point, most notably when the day is called Mardi Gras. Isn’t it amazing how the cleaning out of pantries in preparation for Lent turned into a day (or weekend) of feasts and carnaval?
Before I close, I confess to one and all that I am a tree-hugger. I have, in fact, hugged lots of trees. I love them. I mention this because in the Jewish calender, there is a holiday, Tu B’Shevat that is the New Year for Trees. On this day, it is customary to eat fruit, especially to eat of the “seven species” mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 -- wheat, barley, grapes (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (honey from dates). Some of the faithful try tasting a new fruit on this day, others might plant a tree. It is a day of blessing the trees and thanking God for His goodness.
a monastery garden in Lebanon
Have patience with all things, but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You are a perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs and tribulations can ever change that.
St. Francis de Sales has always been one of my favorite saints. Priest, bishop, spiritual counselor, and Doctor of the Church, he is known as the "gentleman saint," and patron of the hearing impaired, writers, and journalists.
The very reason he is one of my favorites is because of his writings. They are beautiful, flowing, loving, encouraging. In an effort to draw people back to the church, he wrote and dispersed religious leaflets; as spiritual counselor to many, he wrote volumes of letters to individuals. He was eventually persuaded to gather his teachings into a book, Introduction to the Devout Life. It was meant as a guide for ordinary citizens, direction as to how to be pious and peaceful in our daily lives. The love, simplicity, and wisdom of his words had a profound impact not only on my life, but on millions of others through history.
He was eloquent. He wrote with purpose and conviction. His words made an impact that has resounded through the ages. As a writer, what more could I wish for?
He was kind and gentle, encouraging and faithful. He worked tirelessly for the good of all and most importantly, he loved. He made a positive difference. As a human being, what more could I hope to achieve?
Saint Francis de Sales, pray for us.
For me, 2017 has started off with a purge. I realize that that’s not exactly unique, but at our house it has been rather extreme this year. We moved my husband’s office to home and it has wonderfully resulted in a lot of tossing out, donating, and rearranging.
In moving so much "stuff," I had to relocate some paperback books from a cabinet to a bookshelf, creating a double row. Yes, it is unfortunate that there were books in a cabinet in the first place, but having more books than shelf space is not an uncommon situation among readers. It is, however, an uncomfortable situation for a “less is more” sort of person like me (with the notable exceptions of books and plants) and thus we have arrived at the topic of this post: ereaders! I find myself astonished, exasperated, and sometimes amused when otherwise sensible individuals insist that they just can’t read on them, that they ruin the reading experience. Often, they carry it further, proceeding to question my reading habits and my approach to life in general.
Finally, I protest. Enough of this nonsense! I don't know how all ereaders work, but I love my Kindle. If you have a different favorite, please feel free to substitute your preferred choice where appropriate. Most ereaders share similar conveniences. Let’s talk about those as opposed to “traditional” or “physical” books. I honestly don’t know which term I like less. There are new traditions as well as old, after all, and I’m not entirely convinced that a digital book is any less physical than a non-digital one (ha).
Multi-device accessibility is awesome. I love that I can read a book on my phone while in line at the grocery store, enjoy a reading break on my iPad when it's convenient, and pick up right where I left off with my Kindle while relaxing in my garden, at the beach, or tucked in bed at night. Each time, on each device, it syncs to the last page I read if that’s what I want. Granted, my Kindle is so light that I could carry it anywhere without a problem. But I don’t have to.
Touch screen technology also enhances the reading experience. Not all ebooks have an efficient table of contents, but lots of them do. Granted, there's nothing really hard about using a table of contents, but the touch screen makes it easier than ever, especially with big books. Take the Bible, for instance. I confess that I still have to flip pages a bit at times. The book of Hosea is between . . ? With my e-version of The New American Bible, I merely tap and I'm there. Lazy? Nope, not If my goal is to read. In answer to any lofty observations that the search would be good for me (“the journey”), that I might stumble upon more than I was looking for by flipping pages, I say that my Kindle's ease of use is just as encouraging. That goes for the built-in dictionary as well; it’s encouraging. Stumble across a word you're not familiar with? Press on it and the definition pops up. My Kindle offers a wonderful variety of free dictionaries to choose from. I can also highlight passages, bookmark pages, flip back and forth -- by touch! Another favorite option is font size.
But what about the tactile aspect? Of feeling the book in your hands? The smell of paper? Okay, so while I’m definitely not as nostalgic as the next guy, I get it to some degree. There's something particularly magical about old, cherished books. There's also something particularly dusty about them, not to mention flat out musty. Achoo! Oh, the mellow, yellowed pages! Since when is yellowed anything particularly desirable? Personally, I'm not a fan. And how about the feel of a heavy book collapsing on your face when you fall asleep reading? That's a tactile experience worth remembering. Consider how nice and light an ereader is. It's also a lot less awkward and physically more comfortable to hold while reading in bed. That’s not an opinion; it’s an inarguable fact. How about holding an entire library while reading in bed? Why not give that a go?
But you have to charge an ereader! Oh, no! Imagine that, using electricity and a battery for convenience! If you are going someplace where that might not be an option, by all means take a hard copy and read in the light of a lantern or candle and enjoy your time-travel.
And back to that purging, that space-saving notion. I have hundreds of books on my Kindle that I’ve read and more that I will read. It's just so easy and convenient. It's neither a goal nor a prediction, but I'll likely have a thousand before the year is out. I do have a substantial hardback library at home, but I don’t have that much space. Even if I had one of those spectacular, multi-storied libraries requiring a rolling ladder or two, isn't it easier to just tap my Kindle? Yes, it is! Can't fall off a Kindle, now can I? What about purses, briefcases, suitcases? An ereader is usually lighter than a single volume and I carry a library wherever I go.
In case you aren't aware, you can now borrow digital books from online booksellers as well as your local library. You can also read magazines, periodicals, and documents on your ereader, all on that one wonderfully light, thin device. You can read with all the lights out, not even needing a clipped book light because e-readers are backlit.
Disclaimer time, just to be clear. I do know there are a lot of books in this world not (yet) available in digital form and that there are some places and situations where electricity really isn’t an option.
Obviously, that’s not what I’m talking about. You know what I’m talking about. Yes, you do!
I should also admit that there are some books that are simply better hardcover. Kindles don't make for great coffee table books. Books with photos are more easily appreciated in paper or hardback. For me, those would include most cookbooks with mouth-watering photos, how-to books, gardening, and travel books. Also, books with maps, charts, and/or graphs may or may not be easier to study in a larger format.
But for general reading purposes? For novels? My ereader wins every time.
You could always have both, of course. For example, I am fond of small, leather-bound prayer books, but even with this dear little exception, I like to have a backup Kindle version if it’s available. Now, Kindle offers a Matchbook program. For books in the program, of which there are plenty, you can buy the old-fashioned version and the Kindle version becomes available to you for $2.99 or less. Isn’t that nice?
So, all you romantics, old-fashioned hardliners, and under-informed, wake up, lighten up (literally), stop being snobby -- or don't! Go ahead and lug some heavy tome through two or three airports and back because you're stubborn. Good for you that books and reading mean so much to you. I mean that sincerely. Just don’t try to convince me that it’s a superior, more soulful option. I might heartily agree that you’re a better person than I, but let’s leave my Kindle out of it.
Happy New Year! It's that time again, the time for resolutions, exercise, and all sorts of fiscal stuff!
But why does the year begin in January? Do you ever ask yourself that question? No? I have, especially while trying to work off holiday feasts! To that end, starting anew after a month of reveling makes sense to me.
Not everyone celebrates the coming of the New Year in January, of course. The Chinese New Year, also know as the Spring Festival, will be January 27 through February 2. Yep, that's seven full days of New Year's cheer. It marks the beginning of Spring in China and is a very old observance. It will be the Year of the Rooster, by the way. Likewise, Iranians celebrate their New Year, Norooz, on the vernal or spring equinox, this year March 21. Beginning the year in springtime, a time of renewal in the natural world, seems reasonable to me.
It doesn't coincide with the beginning of a liturgical cycle, either. Catholics do have an important feast day January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. But it's not a new season in the church; it's still Christmas. Don't take down that tree or pack away the nativity set just yet! Some Orthodox Christians, in accordance with the Julian calendar, will observe Christmas, New Year's, and Ephipany later this month, respectively January 7, 14, and 19. In the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah happened to end on New Year's Day this year, but it did not mark the beginning of the Jewish New Year. That would be Rosh Hashanah, which falls September 20.
It's not the beginning of anything astronomically, meteoroligically, or religiously. Whose calendar are we following, anyway?
The ancient Roman's, of course!
In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar institued his new and improved calendar, the Julian calendar, and decided that the month of Janus, Roman god of Doors and Gateways, was an appropriate time to begin the new year. Janus was always depicted with two faces, one to the past and the other to the future. His month became the gateway to the New Year for the Romans.
Not everyone cared about the Romans or their calendar, far from it. Once that famed empire fell and Christianity became more widespread, New Year's Day was sort of fiddled around with, especially in Europe. Some countries tried observing it in spring, around Easter, but since the vernal equinox changes from year to year and the Julian calendar wasn't keeping up, it got complicated. It took several centuries and Pope Gregory XIII's calendar, the Gregorian calendar (1582), with its leap years and less room for error, to bring more people around. The pope wasn't particularly worried about New Year's Day; he was more concerned with Easter. Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar first, Protestant countries eventually did so as a matter of convenience, and until this day it is not universal.
So now we know. We celebrate the beginning of the year in January because of some random Roman god and Julius Caesar's whimsy, sort of by default, really. No problem! I don't think that the whys and wherefore make much difference. Insomuch as it is up to us, January and the months that follow will be what we make them. Let's make them great! Here's to January, to 2017, and to you!
Image of Janus, public domain, from Alexander Stuart Murray's Manual of Mythology, 1873, Oxford University
Wow. How could I miss a such great food blog? Not only was it voted Readers Choice Best Cooking Blog by Saveur in 2014, it won the magazine's Editor's Choice award in 2016. Moreover, it's maintained by a couple living in Austin, Texas, which is just down the road a ways. It seems that Jeanine does most of the cooking, blogging, and photos, but her husband Jack helps out a lot, too.
The food photos are simply gorgeous. The recipes are healthy and wholesome, with an eye to fresh ingredients and the seasons. They are also largely vegetarian.
They have some great side dish recipes for Thanksgiving. Since I just discovered this fabulous blog, I haven't had a chance to try any of the recipes yet. I can hardly wait. But honestly, you don't need my recommendation. I was the last to know! Besides Saveur, it's been featured in Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Self, among others. They've also published a cookbook by the same name.
A favorite quote from Jeanine on their "About Us" page: I like bright, seasonal food that's very often finished with a squeeze of lemon.
So do we.
Desecrate: to violate the sanctity of; to treat disrespectfully, irreverently, or outrageously
Ever since I was quite young, I wanted to travel to Istanbul to visit Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, also called Ayasofya in Turkish and Sancta Sophia in Latin. This past spring, I finally did. My husband and I enjoyed a short and wonderful visit to Istanbul. Given our time constraints, we did not venture beyond the major tourist areas, which might have had something to do with our comfort level. Throughout our stay, we were met with smiles wherever we went and felt very welcome and safe.
It's not my intention for this post to give a full history of Hagia Sophia, but I can share a few tidbits. It was constructed from 532 to 537 A.D. at the order of Emperor Justinian. That was a long time ago, before they used steel in construction, yet it's massive. It is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture and for a thousand years was the largest church in the world. The original dome was of solid gold and collapsed in 558, possibly due to an earthquake. The second, current dome was finished four years later, steeper than the first, and has survived many earthquakes since then, among other things. As a matter of personal interest, I was surprised to note that within it are eight magnificent, ancient columns that Justinian had moved from the Roman temple complex at Baalbek in Lebanon. They're also huge, by the way. Hagia Sophia has survived many wars, the city's destruction by the crusaders, and was converted to a mosque in 1453. During its time as a mosque, the iconostasis was removed and magnificent icons were plastered over. Minarets were added to the exterior. In 1935, the first Turkish president Mustafa Ataturk declared it a museum.
In the past few years, there have been pushes and pulls to return it to a church or mosque. I suppose that I must hope that it remains a museum, since that is the most peaceful solution. But how did I find the experience of visiting this magnificent building I'd wanted to see since before I was even a teenager?
First of all, I was grateful to be able to see it, to be in this specific place where so much history had occurred. I was overwhelmed by its size and by the beauty of the icons. My engineer husband marveled at the feat of engineering and architecture.
Structure, building. . . notice the vocabulary? I did not feel for a moment that I was in a church. I don't blame the Turkish government. Making it a museum was a generous compromise. But there was a sadness in the building, a lack of holiness for all its history, and that sadness communicated itself to me. It also made me think.
How often do we commit acts of desecration? I say more often than we'd like to admit. There's no need to look so far as war or terrorism or even to the abominations we commit as societies. Let's make it a smaller, more personal examination. How often do we as individuals violate the sanctity within another person, treat others disrespectfully, discriminate? Just as with Hagia Sophia, there is a terrible sadness in that.
I am reminded of a video that a good friend, Antoinette Chahine, recently shared with me. The video is from Momondo, an online travel service. The company, founded in Denmark, sponsored a worldwide "DNA Journey" contest. Once the contest was over, they made a video. The message is simple and it is a good one.
The YouTube link for the video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyaEQEmt5ls
If you are interested in learning more about the video, the contest, or Momondo's travel services, their great website: www.momondo.com/letsopenourworld/dna
Hagia Sophia has stood the test of time with great dignity. I am glad to know there are still lessons to be learned from it, that Holy Wisdom is timeless.
Don't those fries look scrumptious? Here's the link to the recipe, in case you don't want to waste another second.
This week's favorite food blog currently ranks in the top ten of American Food Bloggers "America's Best Food Blogs." It's Lindsay and Bjork Ostrom's Pinch of Yum. Despite the ranking, I was hesitant at first. Lindsay and Bjork don't live in a major foodie hotspot like NYC or San Francisco. They live in Minnesota. They are neither chefs nor restaurateurs.
Lindsay is the blogger. She cooks, writes, creates. Bjork is the tech support and deals with the money. They're an awfully cute couple and they actually post the blog's monthly financial reports. So successful is their blog that Lindsay has quit her day job as an elementary school teacher.
The first thing I noticed was that she's a great blogger. Her voice is friendly, upbeat, confident, and funny. How often do recipes make you laugh out loud?
It's Lindsay's recipes that have kept my attention. As she says herself, she just loves food! It works for her, too. She experiments a lot and has created plenty of wonderful, doable recipes. Bored with breakfast? Check hers out. Do you like pasta? You've come to the right place. From what I can tell, she's also rather partial to "bowls". She has a whole section for them in her recipe index.
Then, of course, there are those street cart fries. . . That's more than a "pinch of yum", if you ask me!
Pinch of Yum -- just yummy!
I enjoyed a peaceful interlude this afternoon, quite by accident. As if taking a walk or a drive, one good turn led to another. I realize that the phrase is usually applied to good deeds. My good deed of the day will be sharing my discoveries.
I'm still learning about all things Scottish and it is a fascinating journey. I recently ordered a book by Scottish photographer Andy Hall. In his long and illustrious career, Hall has published some highly-acclaimed photo essays about Scotland. The book I just received, "Scotland's Still Life," is filled with spectacular photos of Scotland and excerpts from Scottish literature. I saw images I had never imagined and read passages I didn't know existed. Books are lovely like that. I was so thrilled with the book that I just had to check out Mr. Hall's website. That's where I found a video presentation featuring photos and excerpts from Hall's book and music from Duncan Chisolm. You can view it on the website or go to YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO2uFQCsfK8
The music was so beautiful that I wanted to find out more about Duncan Chisolm. I learned that he's a talented, popular Scottish folk musician who has produced extraordinary music. His Strathglass Trilogy -- Farrar, Canaich, and Affric, is an award-winning musical series evoking the historic lands of Clan Chisolm. The creation of the three albums was a personal journey for the artist. Since Glen Affric just happens to be where my work-in-progress opens, of course I checked it out. It's been a while since I listened to music while writing, but I guess now I've found the perfect accompaniment.
Continuing my journey, I found that Chisolm had joined in composer Craig Armstrong's premiere of "Ballantyne," a Gaelic psalm. Craig Armstrong is well-known for such musical scores as "Moulin Rouge" and "The Great Gatsby." But what's a Gaelic psalm? It's a psalm sung in Gaelic. It's a lovely and old Highland tradition.
Today's exploration had to end there. I have to say, it was great!
Actually, this blog belongs on the all-time favorites list. Clotilde Dusoulier, a French food writer based in Paris, started her blog "Chocolate and Zucchini" way back in 2003 and it is fabulous. It's published in English as well as in French, so take your pick. She offers recipes and resources, blogs about food, travel, cooking with kids. She has two children of her own, so she writes from personal experience.
She's written several books. Her latest, Edible French, received rave reviews and made Oprah's list, "The Best Cookbooks of Summer 2013."
As for her blog, I just love it! Her English is flawless and modern. She lived in California for a couple of years. I was just glancing through her "top ten reader favorites" posts. Among them are "58 Ways to Use Your Cucumbers", a tutorial for "Homemade Cloth Napkins", and a recipe for "French Scalloped Potatoes." Personally, I'm going to try her recipe for "Feta and Fresh Herb Quick Break" asap! chocolateandzucchini.com/recipes
If you haven't already, be sure to check out Chocolate and Zucchini. You'll be glad you did!
Surely, the past, present, and future connect in this miraculous state we call life. In this light, history and all human experience are ever-present. Wouldn't it be nice, then, if we could enjoy each other, if we could appreciate and celebrate our differences? Let us love! Let us have fun. Let us toast each other and wish each other well. Now, in our awareness, is the time to be happy, to do our best, to live fully to our purest, highest standards.