Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tina, I miss you

Tina LilligA Tribute to Valentina Lillig (May 28, 1945 - December 13, 2009)

Visionary religious educator, wife, mother and grandmother Valentina Lillig died early Sunday, December 13, 2009, at Loyola University Hospital in Maywood. She was 64.

Ms. Lillig, who was known by all as Tina, had been hospitalized since Friday afternoon after suffering a stroke while working in her office at the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Oak Park.

A longtime resident of Oak Park, Ms. Lillig was born Valentina Varias in Hyde Park and grew up in the Galewood neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side. She attended St. William grammar school, where she was class president, and Trinity High School in River Forest, where she was president of the Sodality and Vice President of her class. Ms. Lillig, who was of Italian and Filipino heritage, was fond of telling her sons that she was the first non-Irish girl to serve as a class officer at Trinity, whose students were overwhelmingly Irish at the time.

After graduating from Trinity, Ms. Lillig attended Loyola University, traveling to Rome, Italy to study Loyola's Rome Center Campus. While in Rome, Ms. Lillig learned to speak Italian, which aided her in her later graduate studies and in her professional and personal correspondence with Italian theologians and religious educators. Ms. Lillig would sometimes resort to Italian expressions to counsel her sons or to explain ideas that she felt English could not adequately express.

Ms. Lillig left Loyola in 1965 without finishing her degree to begin teaching in Catholic schools, which was allowed at the time. At the age of nineteen, she taught first grade at Our Lady Help of Christians Grammar School on Chicago’s West Side. Ms. Lillig’s class, which had 52 students, was the start of a lifelong career of teaching and working with children. In 1967, she married John Lillig, a teacher, former seminarian and Help of Christians parishioner whom she had known since she was fifteen. That year, she taught kindergarten at St. Attracta grammar school in Cicero. She later taught at Providence-St. Mel High School and worked as a copy editor for The New World, the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

In 1968 the first of Ms. Lillig's three sons, John, was born. He was followed by Matt (1970) and Thomas (1973). As a young mother Ms. Lillig was active in La Leche League. The family lived in Help of Christians parish until 1972, when they moved to Oak Park. Ms. Lillig raised her three sons at home, and Mr. Lillig worked as a Chicago Public Schools teacher. During this time, Ms. Lillig contemplated returning to finish her college degree and perhaps eventually working as a librarian.

In 1976 Ms. Lillig entered her three-year-old son Thomas in a local Montessori-based religious education program called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, part of a program founded by the Italian educators Gianna Gobbi and Sofia Cavelletti, the niece of Pope Pius XII. This simple act would change Ms. Lillig's life. Thomas was enthralled with the rituals and songs presented to him at catechesis, repeating songs and prayers at home in the family dining room. Ms. Lillig was profoundly affected by her young son's behavior, which validated her longtime belief that even very young children enjoy an active spiritual life, and it inspired her to register for a training course to become a teacher, or catechist, of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She was able to take the course only because it fell within a three-week period during which her husband, a CTA bus driver in the summer, worked an all-night shift and could stay at home with the children during the day.

Ms. Lillig devoted the rest of her life to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, eventually becoming its national director and teaching courses to train other teachers throughout the country and in Europe. She worked as a catechist at St. Giles Family Mass Community, St. Giles Parish, and Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park. Under her visionary leadership, the Catechesis grew into an expansive worldwide organization, with a curriculum used in thousands of Catholic and Episcopal parishes worldwide. In 1998, she published a book, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a Parish Setting, to guide religious educators who wished to implement a Catechesis program in their own parishes. Over the years, she served as an editor and advisors to many other religious educators who sought her editorial guidance in publishing their own work.

In 1980, Ms. Lillig returned to Loyola to complete her undergraduate degree in Theology, commuting several nights a week to Loyola's Lewis Towers campus. She went on to earn a Masters Degree in Pastoral Studies from Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park.

In October, 1999, Ms. Lillig was preparing to lead a Catechesis training course in Rome, Italy when she slipped on a marble floor getting out of bed, breaking her hip. Taken to a local Italian public hospital, Ms. Lillig lay unattended and without anesthetic or water for several hours before a friend from the training course discovered her. The friend was able to arrange for a transfer to a private hospital which served American diplomats, where Ms. Lillig stayed for a few days until her husband came to Italy and flew her home, immobilized, to undergo hip replacement surgery in Chicago.

In 2002 Ms. Lillig became a grandmother for the first time. The first grandchild would be followed by five more within a three-year period. Ms. Lillig delighted in her grandchildren, especially enjoying reading to them and taking them to her bedroom to show them the small crucifixes, candles, and religious statues that she kept carefully tucked away in her drawers. Ms. Lillig's love for her grandchildren allowed her respite from a variety of painful conditions which she began to experience in her last few years. While she was often in significant pain, almost no one around her except her husband realized it because she never complained or expressed any resentment about her pain, and it failed to slow her tireless work at the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or any other aspect of her active life. While painful, her conditions were unrelated to her fatal stroke, which came suddenly and without warning.

When she died, Ms. Lillig was in the midst of an ambitious new project, developing a comprehensive website for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that would provide, online, the numerous books and teaching materials that she and other catechists had written or helped publish throughout her career.

Ms. Lillig leaves her beloved husband, John Lillig, three sons, John (Anna Lee), Matt (Laura Salvarini) and Tom (Cindy Ivanac-Lillig), her six grandchildren, Eun Hae, Tae Won, Juan, Mariana, Meche, and Coleman, her brother Angelo (Denise Fedewa) Varias, and her mother Frances Fiscella Varias. She was preceded in death by her father, Gonzalo Varias and her sister Graziella Figi.

Visitation will be on Friday, December 18 from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. at:
Drechsler-Brown Funeral Home
203 S. Marion Street
Oak Park, IL 60304
(708) 383-3191
The Funeral Mass will be on Saturday, December 19 at 10:00 a.m. at:
Ascension Church
808 S. East Avenue
Oak Park, IL 60304
(708) 848-2703

Interment will follow the Funeral Mass at:
Maryhill Cemetery
8600 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Niles, IL 60714
(847) 823-0982
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to:
The National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
P.O. Box 1084
Oak Park, IL 60304

This tribute was originally published here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Et incarnatus est

Et incarnatus est is one of the two pieces of music that Fr. Pietro played for us during the Advent Retreat on Sunday. It is an aria taken from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, from the Credo, and refers to the moment in the Creed when we pray, "And became man." Here is information on the recording and an excerpt from Fr. Giussani's reflection on the piece:

Spirto Gentil music series founded by Fr Luigi Giussani - n. 24

Grand Mass in C Minor K427
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Deutsche Grammophon
Herbert von Karajan
Berliner Philarmoniker

The Divine Incarnate

This spectacular work by Mozart, which culminates in the song Et incarnatus est (And was made flesh), is the most powerful and convincing, the simplest and greatest expression of a man who recognizes Christ. Salvation is a Presence: this is the wellspring of the joy and the wellspring of the affectivity of Mozart’s Catholic heart, of his heart that loved Christ.
Et incarnatus est is singing at its purest, when all man’s straining melts in the original clarity, the absolute purity of the gaze that sees and recognizes. Et incarnatus est is contemplation and entreaty at the same time, a stream of peace and joy welling up from the heart’s wonder at being placed before the arrival of what it has been waiting for, the miracle of the fulfillment of its quest.
There came a Man, a young Man, who entered the world in a certain town, a certain place in the world that can be identified on a map, Nazareth. When one goes to the Holy Land, to that little town, and enters the shadowy hut where there is an inscription on the wall that reads Verbum hic caro factum est (the Mystery of God, here, was made flesh), he is overcome by shivers. This is the Man Jesus of Nazareth, chosen to be the humanity of the Word, the humanity of God, God who is the answer to the heart of man whom He created, the complete, superabundant answer to the cry of the heart He created; the cry that reverberates in the mystery of the Trinity through the presence brought about by the spirit of a Jewish Man, born of a 17-year-old woman.

(Excerpt from the introduction by Luigi Giussani to the booklet enclosed in the CD)

Why I Garden

death and the art of digging beneath the surface

I used to hate gardening. I hated measured, ordered flowers. I saw something so militaristic and tacky and even unjust about imposing artificial geometry on something that already has an intricate, hidden order. Base fear seemed at the heart of the antiseptic impulse to remove what Nature so abundantly bestows on the earth -- I took the gardener's imperative to weed as a personal affront. I happen to be a scrappy survivor type with blunt fingers, an iron stomach, and large feet. So, if I were a plant, I'd probably be a weed. How like the worst impulse in humanity to kill one thing to encourage some artificial and biased standard of botanical beauty. Why rake? Why remove stones and briars? Let the earth go natural! Why tamper with God's green earth? That was my philosophy.

But on some level, I knew it was a philosophy of convenience. Because beyond any philosophical revulsion, I particularly hated the feeling of dried dirt on my hands. Dust on my skin sends shivers through me the way that the sound of squeaking chalk on a blackboard does. And the way it gets beneath your fingernails and drives a wedge between the nail and the skin makes me feel almost sick. I hated the posture I had to assume to weed: squatting or kneeling in the awful dirt, with the sun beating down on you. My attitude was inconsistent: occasionally I would color my hair or impose curls on what nature had made straight. Colors that God had never designed for the human face would sometimes appear on my lips and eyes. Perhaps a barely felt awareness of my inconsistency made me resentful.

Also, my experience had educated me to believe that I had a dispositional lack of patience; thus, I took this poverty of virtue for a component of my soul, and after the habit of all good narcissists, I promoted it as a valid state of being. I call myself a narcissist, because in those years, "I" was the only point of reference I could safely describe and feel certain about. If I was to view my self, that is to say, my starting point and end point, as "good," then anything that requires patience must be "bad" -- at least from the subjective (the only "valid") perspective.

None of this is very pretty, and it isn't the root of my distaste for gardening, either. What I have thus far described is more the soil in which the root was buried. The root itself received water and a kind of negative nutrition from this noxious humus and also released toxins that could support other growths that bore unsavory and poisonous fruit.

I used to hate gardening because I feared death.

When I was fourteen and living in Hong Kong, I was the proud mama of two African violets. It required all my attention and dexterity to water them in such a way that no drop of moisture fell on the velvet surface of their leaves. I observed their color and the tension in each hidden stem from day to day. When a leaf began to rely too heavily on the edge of the pot for support, or when its color faded even a shade, I would gently work it loose from the plant, for the good of the whole. Each new bud that started as a dark knot in the secret, leafy heart was greeted with my own quivers of joy, and the days during which it slowly arose from its bed of foliage, swelled and lifted its chin from its chest, and opened its glistening violet soul wide to the cosmos were altered in their very substance. Every moment of my experience was washed with the subtle glaze of anticipation, which transformed even the quality of sunlight and the intensity of its reflection on everything it yanks into life.

Life, indeed all substance, in this phenomenal world is temporary and provisional. Only the light is eternal, but I didn't understand that then. All I understood is that my family would be moving across an ocean and a continent, to someplace called "home" that contained more unknown variables than any ordinary tomorrow. The wash of color vanished and sunlight dimmed. Exercising dexterity, which was essentially powerless to prevent the rot of anxiety from eating my own insides, reminded me too much of its limitations and quickly came to nauseate me. Even brushing my teeth brought on the kind of existential nausea that Jean-Paul Sartre described with so much morbid precision.

So, the violets died, and with them, any trust I had in a world of shifting shades of green. I experienced this as a profound guilt. I had betrayed something, "some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing," that had depended on me.

Well, is it any wonder that I began to sneer at small minds that conceived of tidy garden beds decorated with uniformly spaced hothouse flowers marching in orderly columns, took up the banner of "going natural" in order to trumpet the survival of clumsy, impatient weeds like myself, and crowned the whole ugly mess by complaining of the discomforts of handling dirt?

What overcomes fears, lets us tell ourselves the truth, gives us strength to promote life? What allows us to breathe?

* * *

discovered, while digging

In the basement, in boxes:

1) A man's platinum wedding band
2) A pair of high magnification reading glasses
3) Black and white photo of a high school senior named "Michael" from Wilson High School's 1954 graduating class
4) A CIA bronze medal awarded for "meritorious service"
5) Several letters of condolence addressed to "Wally" with carbon copies of response letters, signed by "Wally" attached with rusty paper clips
6) A map of Arlington Cemetery with a red X marked in Section D.
7) Death certificate for a man who died of a crushed skull

In literature:

1) The Fat Lady, in Franny and Zooey, for whom one can sing
2) The end of all our exploring, in Four Quartets
3) A daughter who is mother of her son, in I Synge of a Mayden
4) Myrrh and how dead wood blooms, in Trilogy
5) How to stain the water clear, in Songs of Innocence and Experience
6) An onion, in The Brothers Karamazov
7) A baby's sneeze, in Anna Karenina
8) Fresh woods and pastures new, in Lycidas
9) the godless , in proud of his scientific attitude
10) Gold to airy thinness beat, in Valediction: Forbidding Mourning
11) What happens to prophets no one believes, in Elektra
12) The one who anticipates desires, in Paradiso
13) A bed, in The Odyssey
14) A burning boy, in Casabianca
15) Dying frogs, in Water and Land Animals
16) Rooms within rooms, in In the Western Night
17) Palimpsests

In my mother's address book:

1) Contact information for Fred, who was Mike's college roommate

In a photo album:

1) A picture of myself, sitting in the front pew, at my parents' wedding
2) A set of four images that together tell the story of how I once fell off a swing

In the woods of Virginia and Pennsylvania:

1) A night filled with as many fireflies as there are sequins on a cocktail dress
2) Trees with limbs that twist and writhe black against a slate sky
4) A crayfish I mistook for a baby lobster
5) An allergy to mold

While walking through a door on a Tuesday morning:

1) My future husband

In an ugly church in the suburbs of Philadelphia:

1) The skin on Jesus' feet
2) A white handkerchief
3) A reason for tears

In my friend's refrigerator:

1) Six bottles of cheap beer
2) A reason to stop counting

In Paris:

1) Chanterelles
2) A copy of Playboy magazine that mentioned Mike and Wally
3) The Bagatelle
4) Ten cousins I never knew
5) A taste for coffee
6) Giverny
7) Nine varieties of potato
8) The Medieval castle under the Louvre museum

In children:

1) Love

In parables:

1) A light by which light may be seen
2) A drop of water that spreads to the edges of the Infinite
3) The bean that sprouts beyond the clouds
4) A pearl with which I could buy back my life
5) How to wait

* * *

living things and the art of digging for them

I dug two holes, one on either side of the steps leading to my front porch. With one gloved hand, I had taken hold of a young rose bush, gripping it at the thickest part of the stem, right where it met the surface of the dirt. With the other hand, I gently nudged at its plastic pot, working the cylinder of soil loose from its container. Just then my neighbor, who is a philosopher by trade, called from across the street, "Planting flowers?"

If he was surprised by what I was doing, it was nothing compared to my own amazement. "Yes!" I answered, "Roses!"

Giving my project a critical once-over, he asked, "Is that how you do it? Just dig a hole and stick it in?"

"I guess so," I said. I mean, what did I know about gardening? Those two rose bushes were my first plantings. Two days later my husband had to dig them up and replant them because I hadn't put them deep enough in the soil.

So then I fell madly in love with gardening, and the roses and I lived happily ever after.

No: I just had to write out that particular sentence, to finally get the lying thought out of my head and keep it instead, where I can see it. In actual point of fact, I did not begin to love gardening for at least another year. For many months I was pleased with myself for having bought the roses and stuck them into the ground (albeit, ineptly), and then I was amazed to see them come back again in the Spring. During the following summer, each time I looked at their frilly, pink blooms I experienced an emotion that can only be described with the words, "Will you look at that?"

Taking all my courage into my hands, I planted more flowering perennials. I didn't do it out of love or because the roses were a "success" that I wanted to repeat, but rather because I felt something was missing in the garden. I was new to the house when I planted the roses and had inherited with it a few unusual and beautiful plants, as well as scores of horrid hostas. A friend was kind enough to dig many of them up for me and relocate them to a place where they could be enjoyed, but now the flower beds were pitted with craters, which I attempted to fill, one by one, with plants that wouldn't require any effort or care after I did them the small service of covering their roots with dirt.

But performing even one small service to aid some helpless and innocent life form can change the way we look at it. Or cause us to look at it at all. The first thing that I began to love about the garden was the way it invited me to look at it. And the act of looking, looking with love, seemed to vivify the plants. Before I went away for a three week vacation, I asked a friend to water my garden for me. She asked if there were any special instructions, and when I told her the most important thing was to look at the plants, she thought I was crazy (so she told me later). But I still maintain that there is something holy about looking at a thing: "He has looked on the lowliness of his servant" (Luke 1:48). And soon after Mary's prayer, Zechariah uses this strange idea of being looked on by God, too: "He has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them" (Luke 1: 68) -- elsewhere in the Bible, the Greek word for "look" is translated as "visited," "has broken" (as in "the dawn from on high will break upon us"), "to select or to choose" (from Acts 6:3), and "to care for" (see James 1:27). Well, I know what happens when the sun from on high "breaks" on my flowers: they are fed on light and they thrive.

This house is my twenty-third residence. I have lived in it for a little over two years, and still we have many unpacked boxes in the basement, the attic, and my bedroom. With each move, it seems to take longer for me to unpack the boxes. There are some boxes I have never unpacked, through the past several moves. They stay sealed, get loaded onto a truck, and then come to rest in a new basement. What is in those boxes? Old letters, the bulk of my postcard collection, certain items of clothing, family photos...yes, and what else? It seems to be a function of my psyche that I don't want to have a mental catalog of what lurks in all my literal corners.

The interior corners are a different matter, though, and so are the exterior ones. In fact, my gardening seems to gravitate to corners. On the northeast corner of the property, at the foot of the retaining wall that makes a nice sharp angle to echo the street corner beyond it, I have planted three blood red poppies that pop from their green fuzzy pods, and toss their petals, like the skirts of Spanish dancers. Above them, just inside the wall itself, I planted two rows of lavender -- different varieties -- that send sprays of stiff, narrow bloom stalks up over formless mounds of greenery. The effect, from a distance, is to soften the sharp lines of the stone wall with a continuous bluish, pinkish, whitish and purplish cloud of perfume. Then, tucked into the elbow of these two lines of lavender, a cluster of peonies rise to offer up an embarrassment of pink froth, so heavy that their showy heads bow down to earth when they are wet. As the eye moves diagonally back from the corner, there is a young dogwood that bears a whole constellation of white stars. Further in and further up, at the corner of the front flower bed, a baby lilac bush stands erect while yarrow, blue daisies, and violet verbena dance in a circle around it. Behind the lilac, a venerable old syringa, dotted with tiny pale green leaves, hides the corner of the tiled porch. Within the wrought iron railing, two flower boxes, filled with geraniums, peachy snapdragons, and pinwheeling zinnias, crowd the porch corner with color. Finally, on the windowsill at the same corner of the house, lantana and dahlias tap at the glass, asking the inner world to acknowledge the unexpected. The other corners of my garden are equally dizzy with tiers of color that work their way in imprecise diagonals toward and away from the house.

I did not plan this pattern, nor any of the others one might discern with a critical eye. Friends have praised my "English" garden, but I did not set out to create a special type of garden. From my perspective, the over-all effect is a messy, riotous metaphor for something that was never determined in advance.

I am still preoccupied with the question of how I went from hating gardening to passing so many timeless hours stooped and kneeling with the sun beating down on me. How did I come to like the smell of dirt? Why do I not mind when the mud cakes and dries on my skin, ruins my shoes and pants, even sometimes gets into my nose and eyes?

1) Breaking the seal on one cardboard box led me to a cemetery where human bodies were planted in geometrical, "militaristic" rows, and where I found questions, red as blood, then

2) Combinations of words yielded clouds of meaning, radiating like halos of cloud around figures of speech, until

3) A single unexpected address began a process of discovery that turned death into someone with a name, a face, and a history as rich and complex and full of hope as blooms that are crushed in a storm, so that

4) Staring fixedly at family photos until they yielded up their secrets helped me locate the mystery in others who danced a circle round the figure of myself in a pew or on a swing, then

5) Paths through woods and along creeks showed me sequins in the air that could birth mythical shapes in the stellar universe, then

6) Peering through doors brought me face-to-face with fatherhood, in all its dimensions, such that it could generate me in every instant of my existence, until

7) Anointed feet brought me an invitation to look up into eyes that were new and great with life, so that

8) In refrigerators, I found my own littleness and dependence, then

9) Mushrooms and potatoes and all the colors contained in the petal of a white water lily revealed to me all the multitudinous contradictions hidden in the heart, until

10) Love led me to the Infinite, who tapped at my glass until I looked upon his garment sewn with seeds and pearls.

Because I am earnest to a fault, I must admit that I made all that up, on the spot, which doesn't mean that any of it is untrue. Just that my flowers could tell you another story, or another. And that is why I garden.

This post is in three parts. The first two parts ("death and the art of digging beneath the surface" and "discovered, while digging") first appeared as stand-alone posts. The entire essay was first published 12/5/07.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why I Cook

Cooking begins with hunger...

I typed the above words three days ago, and then I minimized this window. Every time I came to the computer, I looked at those words and then minimized the window again. Too busy cooking to write about it.

But so, cooking begins with hunger, but it doesn't end there. I began to cook seriously as a result of a huge shift in my self-understanding when I was pregnant with my first child. This shift was dramatic and multi-layered, but at first I only experienced the drama. I found that I could not eat the same food twice. Once I'd had a meal, the thought of that particular flavor combination made me sick. By the end of two weeks of this, I had exhausted my repertoire of recipes, and I began to order carry out. This solution was a stop-gap measure, at best. The budget wasn't bottomless, and neither were the menus of our local restaurants. Soon all our paper take-out menus were annotated in my handwriting with comments beside different items that read, "yuck," "superyuck," "abominably yucky." It was time to hit the cookbooks. What I sought most were recipes that used ingredients that I'd never tried before. In those months, I tried mustard greens, broccoli rabe, radicchio, arugula, celery root, Belgian and curly endive, white peaches, and fresh fennel for the first time. It wasn't that I couldn't eat celery root twice, but if I had it once in a gratin with new potatoes and gruyere, then the next time I would have to prepare it with tomatoes and garlic. But new factors entered into this particular drama that could not be explained by the problem of nausea. For instance, it seemed that I enjoyed making fresh pasta, and this enjoyment had nothing to do with the experience of eating it when it was done. I simply received great pleasure in the give and take of the dough, the dust of flour on my fingers, the golden color that the egg yolk imparted to the flour and water mixture, the fruity smell of the olive oil. What I loved most were the various new ways in which my hands were learning to move. First pressing into the elastic mass with the heels of my hands, then gathering the edges up in my fingertips and pulling them to incorporate them back into the ball, sliding the strips of dough between the rollers of the pasta machine, turning the crank, and pulling out the long, smooth tongue of soft pasta, using the pads of my fingers so as not to create dents. Being able to detect changes in temperature in the steam that rose to my face, or feeling a sauce thicken through the handle of a wooden spoon, or discovering exactly how to hold the knife in order to take the yellow off the peel of a lemon and leave the bitter white pith behind -- these all gave a particular sensation of happiness that surprised me. Then one day, when I had seven pounds of peaches to peel and slice, I could not ignore the complete astonishment I felt as I picked up the first peach, feeling its warm, soft weight in my palm, slipped the tip of my paring knife under the fuzzy layer of skin, and began slowly working the blade in a spiral around the fruit. Thick, pale orange juice oozed between my palm and the fruit, and I stood with my hands over the sink, smelling the warm peach that sat wet and slippery in my fist, and I almost blushed, the pleasure was so acute. How many times had I peeled peaches in the past? It was always a chore to complete, a job for the lowly kitchen helper, but here I was, discovering for the first time in my life, a secret that no one had tried to hide from me. Peeling and slicing peaches was one of the sweetest pleasures given to humanity. From this new insight, I began to be able to see the pleasure in less intuitively positive kitchen experiences -- handling raw meat, the scent of crushed garlic in the pores of my skin, or stripping the tiny leaves from a sprig of thyme.
It took some deep pondering for me to understand finally that my hands enjoyed working just as much as my mind did, and I began to be conscious of all the various ways that my hands keep themselves occupied throughout the day.
After my daughter was born, my hands were pretty content just to be touching her, patting her, fiddling with tiny buttons, rearranging wisps of hair, rubbing the soles of her feet with my thumbs, and the pleasures of food took a back seat to these new found delights.
During my second pregnancy, though, my love for food was reawakened. This time, however, it manifested in a new way that I can only characterize as a passion for excellence. I bought an oven thermometer and would shift it to different positions within my oven so that I could know the precise temperature in every particular corner of it. Not content to measure dry ingredients precisely by the dip-level-pour method, I began to use a kitchen scale to weigh everything and standardize my recipes. I would make the same recipe several times in a row, altering quantities or techniques each time, in order to find the perfect combination. It was during this period that I came up with a recipe for the perfect chocolate cake. This new passion also required that I make new friends who would receive the many cakes that flew from my kitchen. I began to think in advance of who would receive the cake I was about to make, and then all the pleasures, both sensual and mathematical, would be dedicated to the person who would be receiving the final product.
I also began to plan meals and menus particularly suited to the persons I had invited to enjoy them. I would collect details, likes and dislikes, combinations of flavors, favorite restaurants and cuisines, about each of my friends, so that when I served them, the meal would perhaps tell them a story about themselves -- or even better, about us. I even began to acquire enough skill in the kitchen to be able to tell subtle jokes with the food, communicate ideas, and even bring about reconciliations that had been impossible with mere verbal methods. Cooking was like a prayer, or a simple piece of music, or one of the best conversations.
During my third pregnancy, my grandmother died. All the cousins paid a visit to her house to choose an object that had special meaning for them. I wanted to take her huge gas stove, but I had no room for it in my suitcase, so I chose the white milk glass salt and pepper shakers. They were each still half full. When I got back home, I filled both to the top and then resolved never to let either empty completely. That way, there would always be a trace of Grandma's salt in what I ate.
I had a recipe for Italian Anise bread I'd been making for a little over a year, and it produces a nut colored, braided loaf studded with golden raisins with a faint scent of licorice. That Christmas, I decided to make enough loaves to give one to each of my friends. However, by loaves eleven and twelve I was very discouraged. Like numbers one through ten, they were destined never to be eaten. For some reason, my dough would not rise, and I produced, instead of bread, small, braided nut colored bricks. I began to plan construction of a garden wall by Easter, by which point I thought I'd have all the bricks I'd need.
I tinkered with every aspect of the recipe, measuring the temperature of the liquid with a thermometer, adding ingredients in different order, switching yeast, kneading first by hand and then with the mixer. For all the variation, the loaves came out identical to one another.
Grandma's idea of a recipe was never more precise than, "Well, you take your onions and you cook them in a little oil..." Measurements were in handfuls, fist-sized bunches, little fingers, ladles. She also believed in ghosts.
I didn't want to admit that I thought the bread was haunted. Of course, Grandma would have said it was. And if I could have her here now, telling the story of the year I couldn't make the bread rise to save my soul, she'd have me believing in portents and signs and laughing at the small and large ironies of life until she'd brought enough leavening to raise the roof.
So, if during my first pregnancy I learned to communicate with myself through food, and during the second I learned to communicate with others, during the third pregnancy I learned to use food to communicate, even with the dead.

Originally published 11/24/07

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."