Saturday, December 31, 2011

Aging as a Spiritual Practice

So, another year slips past and a new unsullied calendar hangs on the wall. When I was five I thought New Year meant all the stars fell out of the sky and the whole cosmos changed. I begged to stay up to see it. My father carried me outside from the warmth of the room where the family was singing Auld Lang Syne and held me as I reared back and watched the midnight sky overhead. I heard the cheering that meant the year had turned and I waited for the shower of stars that never came.

Having seen my fair share of skies which never rained a shower of stars at midnight on any New Year's Eve, I've come to see New Year's as one day in a string of days. Like Mala beads that slip, one by one through your fingers. You look up from your keyboard at 5:30 and ask, "Where'd the day go?" Where did the week, month, year - all those yesterdays of my life go?

Recently I saw the title of a book I want to read, about aging as a spiritual practice. It's something we talk about. We both struggle with significant health issues which bring with them muscle weakness, pain and serious physical limitations. At times the frustration of not being able to reliably (or spontaneously) do the most basic of tasks is almost overwhelming. We snap and growl like a couple of bears arguing over the same den.

It's not something we like doing. It brings us both to tears sometimes, not from what has been said, but because we cannot bear to be cross with each other. This is what we've been talking about, how do we use this process of illness and aging as catalyst for growth? How do we incorporate the realities of aging into spiritual practice?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Joy to the World!

While we are unable to dispense very much joy , we can help lift the burden of poverty just a bit for one or two others who are not as fortunate as we are.

Through KIVA we are able to reach far beyond the four walls of our little condo here in Calgary to people around the world.

Are we deluded into believing we are great benefactors of mankind, and those we loan our pittance to feel some undying gratitude? Certainly not. We have been small business people ourselves, and know that a loan is both a blessing and a burden. It can enable, but it lays anxiety on your back at the same time.

But the key word is enable. Without that small lift up, there is no possibility of growth, no digging yourself out of the hole you are in, no matter how hard you work. So this month our KIVA loan, our 33rd, goes to a farmer in Armenia, a married man who supports his elderly father. Karen raises cattle and is a beekeeper. Karen asked for a loan because he needs to purchase calves and additional beehives. This expansion of the farm will help Karen to increase his income and support his household.

Ian gave me a KIVA gift card for Christmas, which I have already invested - loan number 34 has been extended to a group of farmers in Kenya. This group is part of an innovative farming support program called One Acre Fund which acts as a sort of farmer's cooperative . One Acre Fund has an integrated agriculture package, which includes training, procuring and offering quality supplies (fertilizer and seeds), credit and insurance. Clients enroll between July and October for the following planting season, which begins in February. By purchasing the needed supplies between July and October One Acre Fund is able to take advantage of the low seasonal prices for supplies.

Julius is the facilitator of the Mukunduzi B farmer's group which also includes Francis, Elias, Mellab, Neriah, Sachini, Tom. In the photograph, Julius is pictured with his group members and standing on the far left is the field officer.

Julius and his group joined One Acre Fund in the year 2011 and will re-enroll in the 2012 program. In 2012, the members of Mukunduzi B group will each plant maize plots between ½ and 1 acre of land.

Julius takes care of five children at home. He joined One Acre Fund to increase his yield of maize (corn). He works hard to produce enough income through growing corn to provide nutritious food for his children and send them to school. In the recent 2011 season, Julius had an excellent yield, harvesting eight bags on corn from his ½ acre of land. Before joining One Acre Fund, Julius was only able to harvest four bags of maize on ½ acre of land.
Julius plans to continue educating his children and hopes to expand into raising livestock in the future.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Catmus!

This has happened more than once in our house.
Cats really know how to celebrate.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December Strikes Again

I've grown to dread December. There's a strong December tradition in our family - a pact of sorts. It's unstated but understood. Called "Die in December", you can also get credit for carrying on the tradition if you die in the last half of November. However if you linger until the stroke of midnight January 1st, you obviously haven't felt the burden of familial duty.

This year it was my cousin Mack who carried the familial tradition forward by passing away on the 5th of December. Mack was a stellar guy. We shared a childhood a lifetime ago when summers were ten years long and the Oklahoma twilights were filled with fireflies.

Mac was several years older than I, big for his age (he topped out at 6'5") while I was still wearing child's size three dresses at age seven. He was red-headed, blue-eyed, freckled, the perfect model for a Norman Rockwell painting of the All-American boy of the late 40's and 50's. But he was as a child, and as a man, a gentle giant.

He grew up to be a career military man, and for many years we had no contact. But about a decade ago I tracked him down on the web and we began writing back and forth. It was as if the years between hadn't happened.

He was laid to rest with full military honors on Sunday. He will be missed by his wife, seven children, many grandchildren and a cousin who remembers how he carried her on his shoulders and ran, laughing with each bounding step, through the long long memories of yesterday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How Do You Eat a Tutu?

Many years ago on my way out of the library I stopped to browse the "books for sale" table and bought for the princely sum of 50 cents The Book of Latin American Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. The fact that this cookbook was first published in 1969 and is still in print and for sale today should give you some idea of how wonderful it is.

Its only flaw is that it has no tamale recipes, but then, as my mother-in-law was fond of saying, there's no perfection in this world. What it does have is 338 pages of recipes drawn from countries all over Latin America. For dinner last night I made one of my favorites, the Brazilian dish, Black Beans Minas Gerais style or Tutu a Mineira. Over the years I've adapted this recipe a bit. It's a simpler version of Feijoada Completa, Black Beans with Mixed Meats, which has oranges as a garnish or side dish. I added the oranges and limes from that recipe to the Tutu recipe.

Now I'm hungry. I'm sitting here wishing we hadn't been such pigs and eaten every last scrap of it last night, because I'd sure like some more right now. (Note to self: Do not invite a guest next time you make Tutu - you fool!)

The traditional way to serve Tutu is in a large flat casserole, but as I seem to be missing my large flat casserole I used a round pie dish instead. I piled the egg/bacon mixture in the middle and placed the orange slices around the edges, with the lime slices in the middle for colour. The kale had to go in a bowl on the side. It didn't look quite as spectacular, but it didn't deter any appetites. Everyone dove in for thirds and then Tony made some lame excuse about it being a shame to put such a small amount in a container in the fridge and finished what I might have had for lunch today!

Anyway, here's the recipe, should you be inclined to try this Tutu for yourself:

Black Beans Minas Gerais style, Tutu a Mineira

Casserole base:
6 cups cooked black beans
1 medium onion diced
2 cloves garlic
1 tbs dried red/green pepper flakes
1 tsp tabasco sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tbs olive oil

3 eggs
6 slices bacon
2 naval oranges
1/2 of a lime
1 bunch kale
1 tsp tabasco
1 tbs oil (divided)
1 tsp red wine vinegar

Mash cooked beans, adding water if needed to make consistency of mashed potatoes. Saute onions and garlic in oil until transparent, add to beans, along with other seasonings. Place seasoned beans in flat casserole, put in 300 degree oven until hot through.

While beans are heating fry bacon, drain and crumble. Fry the eggs and cut into strips. Cut kale into strips and cook until just wilted. Slice oranges into thin slices, slice limes into half slices. Mix 1 tsp of oil, tsp of vinegar and tsp of hot sauce together.

Mix egg strips and bacon together and lay a strip down center of casserole on top of beans, lay kale down one side, dress with oil/vinegar/hot sauce, put orange and lime slices down the other side.

Stand back....

Monday, December 12, 2011

What Did You Eat This Week?

As Christmas approaches I have begun to prepare our traditional Christmas dinner, which is a far cry from the turkey and dressing which will grace many a North American table in ten days time. Anyone who's suffered through this blog for more than a year or two know that Christmas dinner in our house is Tex-Mex, that blend of indigenous Indian, Spanish food with an Anglo twist found along the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California borders with Mexico.

But as I looked at the food bulging from pantry and fridge I was reminded of a photo essay I'd seen earlier by Photojournalist Peter Menzel called, What the World Eats.

In 16 photos Menzel moves across the globe, from Japan to North Carolina, from an African refugee camp to a mountain village in Peru and a dozen places in between. In each photo Menzel shows a family in their home, with the week's food arrayed around them. The weekly food budget is given, and the families favorite foods are listed.

It's a fascinating look at global cultures, and at how ubiquitous some items are. Some families eat almost nothing except processed, packaged foods, some eat no packaged or processed food at all. There are very few families who do not have at least one or two bottles of Coca Cola among the week's provender, and sometimes there's a pyramid of the stuff.

As I make my tamales, mole negro and carne adovada, preparing dishes for loved ones who gather at our table, I will think of other families around the globe, and the foods on their tables as we bring this tumultuous year to an end.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Yorn in Cambodia - KIVA Loan for Dec

Yorn, on the far left in this picture, is 43 years old, and lives in Cambodia. She has three children who work for other people grinding corn. Yorn's family doesn't have an easy life. For more than ten years, Yorn's main income source has been growing corn. In order to feed her children she must sometimes also work for others.

Yorn leads a group of four female members applying for their first loan from KIVA. She will use her loan to buy agricultural tools such as hoes and a plow for her farm work. Having sufficient tools will allow her to increase the amount of corn she is able to grow. Through increased production she hopes to be able to better feed her children.

This is our 32nd KIVA loan, and our small fund of about $150.00 spent over two and a half years has enabled 32 people in disadvantaged circumstances to invest in themselves and their businesses. In those 32 loans only one has not been repaid, and that was because a typhoon wiped out the village where our borrower lived.

As the loans are repaid, on a regular schedule, the money is available to reinvest, or to withdraw if you decide to leave the program. We follow our borrowers each month, and it's always good to read a report that their goal of increasing their income and improving their families lives has been reached, in part because we shared our pensioner's mite.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Who's Paying You to Be Here?

Gurdjieff was a late 19th century teacher. Students came to study and live with him on his estate near Paris. There was one man in the community no one could stand because he was impossible to get along with. He complained constantly and had such a short fuse that you never knew when he was going to explode over nothing. He made everyone's life a misery and the other students just wished that he would go away.

Gurdjieff taught by making his students do things that were completely meaningless - with the purpose of making them pay attention to their reactions and learn from them. It wasn't the useless tasks that were important, it was the students' inner experience that mattered.

One day the students had been told to dig up an area of lawn growing on one side of a path and replace it with lawn growing on the other side. This was too much for the man that everyone disliked. He screamed that he was fed up with Gurdjieff's useless chores, threw down his shovel, stormed to his room and got his suitcase, got in his car and drove away, swearing never to return. The rest of the community was delighted to see him go, and cheered as he drove away. But when they told Gurdjieff what happened, he said “Oh, no!” and went after him.

Three days later they both came back. That night, when he was serving Gurdjieff his supper, his attendant asked, “Sir, why did you bring him back? It was so much more pleasant with him gone.” and Gurdjieff answered very quietly, “Between you and me; you must tell no one. I pay that man to stay here.”

This annoying person, and people and experiences like him, are life's therapeutic irritations. They exist to wake us up. Like the sand in the oyster that is the seed of the pearl, therapeutic irritations stir a reaction in us. We can choose to resist them, or we can use them as chances to awaken. They teach us what it is not possible to learn when surrounded by ease and harmony.

Though it's not easy and I frequently fail, I try to let these therapeutic irritations show me where I need to pay attention, areas like developing patience and controlling my angry temper. [Usually they show me exactly how impatient and ill-tempered I really am, but that in itself is a lesson.]

Obviously I need the practice because someone is paying several people to be in my life right now. So far so good, but I'm beginning to get a headache.

Story from Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, Shambhala, 1994

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Winter in Calgary

Calgary's forecast for tomorrow is -25 C. Looking for ways to keep warm from the experts? Here ya go, the tips Calgarians tweeted to the CPO when they asked how you keep warm when the temperature dives in Calgary.