Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Anniversary to me, to us, to NSS

Happy Feast of St. Francis de Sales and Happy Anniversary to Not Strictly Spiritual. It was four years ago today that I decided to launch this blog, choosing the feast of the patron saint of journalists and one of my personal favorites as the perfect day to jump into the wild and wacky world of blogging.

Back in the early days, my blog was housed on my website, which you can see by clicking HERE. Then I moved it over to blogspot. It has ebbed and flowed with my life. When I'm writing books, as I am right now (two of them, in fact), NSS suffers a bit. When I have a little more time, I'm back at the NSS keys. Truth be told, writing on this blog is really one of my favorite "jobs." I love talking to you and sharing my faith journey -- and my recipes and photos.

This anniversary caused me to go back and look at some of my earliest posts, which gave me a good laugh at where I've been and a sobering reminder of the places where I haven't made any progress. We had THIS photo of Chiara at work while I blogged, and THIS post about trying to get through Mass with a cranky toddler (how quickly we forget those days). And then there was THIS post about being "politically homeless," especially during a presidential election year. It's deja vu all over again.

Who knows what the next four years will bring? I can guarantee that in the coming months you'll be hearing about my new books, one from Ave Maria Press and one from Penguin. And I know you'll get regular updates on my kids, my cooking, my gardening, my travels, and, of course, my spiritual journey, which twists and bends and changes with each passing year. I'm always amazed at where it takes me, where God takes me.

So thank you for joining me here whenever you can. I truly appreciate your friendship and loyalty to this blog, even when I don't show up for days at a time. And now I thought I'd end this post the same way I ended my very first blog post, with a favorite prayer written by St. Francis de Sales (one I have hanging on my bathroom mirror):

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;
rather, look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are,
will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it,
God will carry you in His arms.

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
the same everlasting Father who cares for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace,
and put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination.

-- St. Francis de Sales

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Striving to become your 'true self'

My latest Life Lines column in the current issue of Catholic New York:

It amazes me sometimes how a casual comment, a familiar smell or the sound of a name we haven’t heard in a while can send us spiraling back in time to a place or event we’d long ago forgotten. Memories linger on our hearts. Some we’d like to preserve forever; some we wish would stay hidden. Good or bad, they are too often the things that shape us.

I was at lunch with some friends recently, laughing and sharing stories, when one line, uttered in passing, hit me like a brick. I was suddenly on the playground in elementary school, feeling unwanted for reasons I never quite understood. As I had during those sometimes painful times of my past, I kept a dim smile on my face, hoping to hide the fact that I was aching inside, not because what was said was intentionally hurtful but because it spoke a truth I’d rather not admit.

We all want to be loved, even if we don’t show it or say it. We want to feel accepted, appreciated, and while that sometimes seems important on the surface—as evidenced by the popularity of accumulating Facebook friends by the hundreds—that kind of goal only serves to take us farther and farther from our truth.

Life is not a popularity contest, and the road to sainthood is not paved with compliments and friend requests. Trying to fashion ourselves in someone else’s image is just about the worst thing we can do. It’s really no different from what I tell my kids as they face their own struggles on the playground or in the classroom, and yet I think we adults sometimes forget that it still applies to us. Too often we think becoming successful or loved or holy means becoming someone different than the person we are at our core, the person we were created to be.

Jesuit Father James Martin, in his book Becoming Who You Are, talks about our penchant for wanting to become better by becoming different:

“Early in the novitiate, I thought that being holy meant changing an essential part of who I was, suppressing my personality, not building on it. I was eradicating my natural desires and inclinations, rather than asking God to sanctify and even perfect them…As strange as it sounds, I thought that being myself meant being someone else.”

I think that same line of reasoning is true for most of us. We look around and make comparisons and see ourselves as “less than.” Comparisons lead nowhere, at least nowhere good, but that no-win proposition of keeping up with the Joneses—materially, professionally, socially, spiritually—is about as American as apple pie, or Facebook.

“Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire,” famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote, reminding us that the only way to conquer the world is to renounce it.

We can’t all “renounce” the world in monastic fashion, but we can renounce all those things that pull us off our true path, that convince us we need to be somebody else in order to be good enough, to be loved.

Truth is, we are loved exactly as we are, by a God who holds us in the palm of his hand no matter how many Facebook friends we have or how much “stuff” we have or have not accumulated.

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said. So often today our “masters” are not just money and possessions but the comparisons we make and strive to live up to, the desires we have to be someone we’re not, the longing to be loved not by God but by the world.

God alone. When that’s enough, no memory can knock us off our path or send us reeling because we possess the only thing that truly matters. What is the end you’re living for?

To read other Life Lines columns, visit my website at www.marydeturrispoust.com

Join me for Theology on Tap tonight!

Attention all New York Capital Region readers:

I'll be talking about spiritual friendship at Theology on Tap at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Jan. 19) at The Orchard Tavern on North Manning Boulevard in Albany. Please come by, grab a drink, and stay for the short talk and discussion.

The talk is based on my book Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship (Ave Maria Press, 2010).

See you at the Tavern...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Foodie Friday: Kale, it's what's for dinner

I went a little kale crazy this week, buying two different (and rather large) batches, so afraid was I that I wouldn't have enough for my planned dishes. Kale is one of my favorite dark leafy greens, and, surprisingly enough, it's also a favorite among my kids. So it's a winner all around.

My first use of kale this week was in vegetable soup (Stone Soup), which I posted about in this space last Friday. I used only half the batch for the soup, so I clearly needed to make some other kale-centric dish. Beans and greens was added to the menu, but as the day neared, I worried that the half-batch I had on hand wouldn't be nearly enough. So off we went to buy an even bigger bunch. Now I had too much, although I would question whether you can ever have too much kale.

So...Beans and greens. So easy. So delicious. So healthy. But, wait, before, I made that entree, I whipped up a batch of kale chips. First time for that. Big hit. I'll try it again soon. Here are the two easy kale recipes:

Kale Chips
Preheat over to 250 degrees.
Wash kale leaves, remove center stems, dry thoroughly.
Toss with a little olive oil.
Sprinkle with salt.
Place on a cookie sheet and pop in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until crispy.

Beans and Greens
Like my Stone Soup recipe, this one changes every time I make it, depending on what I have in the pantry and fridge. Here's the version I made this week:

1 big batch of kale, rinsed, tough stems removed, cut into wide ribbons
1 can white beans, rinsed and drained
A handful of sundried tomatoes, soaked in boiling water to reconstitute and then sliced
Baby bella mushroom, sliced
Six cloves of garlic, thinnly sliced
A splash of white wine
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta, something short and chunky -- ditalini, farfalle, shells, even rigatoni
Parmesan cheese (for the table)

Put a pot of water on to boil. Meanwhile, prep the rest of your ingredients.
When water comes to a boil, salt it and toss in kale to blanch quickly. Just a minute or so. Then drain and set aside. (Keep the water so you can boil the pasta in the same water/pot.)

In a large frying pan, add a swirl of olive oil and heat the garlic slices.
Add mushrooms and sundried tomatoes and saute for a bit over medium heat.
Don't allow garlic to brown.
(Around now you should be putting the pasta into the already boiling, kale-scented pasta water.)

Add the beans to the frying pan and saute a minute or so more.
Throw in a splash of wine (if you like) or a splash of veggie or chicken broth.
When the pasta is close to done, add the kale to the saute pan.
Season with salt and pepper.
If it seems dry, take a little pasta water and add it to the saute pan.

Drain the pasta when it's al dente and add it to the saute pan, if it's big enough.
Otherwise, dump all of it into the serving bowl.
Serve with grated parmesan cheese on the side.

Add a nice salad and some crusty bread and you have an awesome dinner. (And at our house, the meat eaters had a link of chicken-pesto sausage on the side. Olivia and I had a tofu sausage, but it really didn't need it.)

You could also skip the pasta and make this as a side dish.

So there you have it: kale, the wonder veggie. Do you have any favorite kale recipes?

Coming up next week: Quinoa cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, which is on tonight's menu for the vegetarians. (Meat eaters are having pork pizzaiola. Dennis will need to start a blog if you want that recipe.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Manic Monday: Returning to 'normal' life

Our Christmas tree came down last night, along with the rest of the decorations. The magi hardly had time to settle down in front of the creche when I shipped them off to the basement. Such is the end of the season, at least around here. By this time of year, I'm ready to return to ordinary time and Ordinary Time.

So here's what's on tap on this Manic Monday...

The above YouTube clip is a follow-up to last week's 'Twinkle' post. Someone captured the kids playing at Mary Jane's funeral. (Thanks, Pam, for sending that to me.) When the clip is rolling, Olivia happens to be visible on and off over on the left in the cream-colored top.

Bookshelf: I'm reading about a dozen different books all at once as research for the two books I'm writing, but there's one that stands out right now, a recommendation from a Facebook friend. It's called Listening Below the Noise: A Meditation on the Practice of Silence by Anne D. LeClaire. Loving it so far. Here's one piece that resonated with me because I have experienced it so powerfully myself:

"Over the years I had prepared meals in quiet rooms, in accidental silence, as I would later come to call it, but I was discovering that intentional silence brought a focus to everything. Ordinary acts -- measuring oats and water, chopping walnuts, scooping out a handful of raisins, stirring oatmeal -- were transformed into meditations simply by the attention stillness brought to the tasks. Later, scrubbing out the gummy saucepan, I found unexpected pleasure in this simple job. I was experiencing what Buddhists have always taught: Silence, along with the attention it fosters, is our anchor to the present, to the here and now."

Perfect. Today when I make my silent oatmeal, as I do each weekday, I will do so with those words ringing (silently, of course) in my head, reminding me that this practice of still, slow eating truly does allow me to bring a depth and calmness to my day that is absent when I skip this favorite ritual. My meditative breakfast has become, without question, one of my best prayer moments of any day.

Soundtrack: Dreamland by Madeleine Peyroux, something Dennis discovered on The Coffee House on Sirius. A bunch of it's in French. Very cool. Check it out.

Viewfinder: Below is a shot of my Christmas gifts, or most of them, collected on the dining room table. Makes you wonder if perhaps I'm planning to open a monastery or a retreat center. We've got prayer flags up front; the official Abbey Psalter from the Abbey of the Genesee; Yoga Prayer DVD by Father Thomas Ryan, CSP; Landscapes of Prayer: Finding God in Your World and Your Life by Margaret Silf; a cross candle holder; a Himalayan singing bowl; incense, lots of it; a tea set with Zen tea. I did get some other goodies that had nothing to do with prayer or spirituality, like the Midnight in Paris DVD and a flameless candle, although that last one borders on spiritual, too, doesn't it?

My Christmas bounty.

The lovely Abbey Psalter.

Visiting my grandmother, who turned 99 on New Year's Day.

Birthday boy.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Have you picked your word of the year yet?

A few days ago, I happened upon a post at the lovely Abbey of the Arts blog suggesting I pick a word as a theme or focal point for the coming year. Or, more accurately, that I let my word pick me. At the time, I was working at my basement computer with all three kids buzzing around just on the other side of the little cloth folding screen that is part of my somewhat futile attempt to create a separate office space. In reality it has created the third ring in our little circus.

Anyway, as I read the blog and pondered what my word would be if I could hear it over the mayhem, I decided there was no way I was going be picked by a word this year, and, if I was, it would probably be forced. So I let it go.

The next morning, I decided to resume writing my Morning Pages, which is part of The Artist's Way exercises. As I wrote about the start of the new year and my spiritual life and my journey in general, suddenly there it was:


My word reached out and grabbed me and then shook me a bit for good measure. There was no denying it. This was my word. It had found me after all, in the brief quiet space I try to create every morning before I sit down to my silent breakfast.

Why did this word resonate with me so when I heard it? Because for the past year, or past several years, I have been desperately trying to listen more, to hear that still, small voice. Those of you who read this blog regularly are probably all too aware of this desire of mine. But this time, the need to listen goes beyond that.

Yes, yes, I absolutely need to listen for the Spirit, and, in order to do that, I need to make regular quiet time for just me and God. But as soon as I heard that word in my head, saw it in my journal, I realized that for 2012 the need to listen goes much deeper.

I need to listen to my children. Really listen. Look them in the eyes when they speak to me, not type an email and nod as they talk somewhere behind me. I need to listen for what they're trying to tell me, not only with their words but with their hearts. I need to listen to my husband, to my family, to my friends without interrupting or fashioning a response in my head while they are still speaking, or multitasking while I talk to one of them on the phone. I need to listen to my work, to the world around me, to my life unfolding before me. That's a lot of listening.

Such a simple word and yet so profound. It seems so easy to listen. But are we listening with our heads or are we, as St. Benedict instructed, listening with "the ear of our heart"? Too often I save the heart listening for prayer, when I really need to be doing that kind of listening all the time. Contemplative listening, even when there's absolutely nothing contemplative about my life. That will be a real challenge for me, I promise you that.

That's the theme of my year then. To listen. With the ear of my heart.

If you'd like some help exploring your word possibilities, head over to the Abbey of the Arts for that and so much other wonderful stuff. Just click HERE. And, when you find your word, or your word finds you, come back and share it with the rest of us.

Foodie Friday: Stone Soup

For dinner last night, and again today for lunch, I enjoyed a steaming bowl of what has come to be known at our house as "zero" soup or "stone soup." It's so named because, like the charachters in the book of the same name, I am able to make it out of nothing, or what seems like nothing. And it's perfect for a cold winter's day.

First let me share with you a tip I learned from a chef at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Save all your veggie scraps in a container or bag in the freezer. I keep a Ziploc in the freezer, and every time I chop onions, mince garlic, peel carrots or dice celery, I take all the odds and ends and even the papery skins off the garlic cloves and onions and dump them in my freezer bag for a rainy (or snowy) day. This stuff makes THE best vegetable broth ever, whether you're making a soup or using the broth in another recipe. Just be sure not to save clippings off veggies that will give the broth an odd or strong flavor -- peppers, eggplant, broccoli. I stick to the bare-bones basics, and since I use fresh veggies so often, I almost always have a supply for making broth.

So...dump all the frozen scraps (still frozen) into a soup pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer and let it go for a few hours. The longer the better. Remove from heat and strain all the scraps out so you're left with a lovely dark broth. Now you can put that in a new pot and start the soup.

I usually take the first pot (since it's already dirty and I don't want to do any more dishes than necessary) and I use it to briefly saute the veggies that are going in the soup. Here's what I chopped up yesterday, but, remember, Stone Soup is about making something from nothing, so scavenge in your pantry, fridge and freezer and see what you can come up with to make your own version. Mine is different every time. I used:

1 giant onion, chopped
6 or 7 carrots, peeled and sliced in rounds
3 celery stalks, diced (use the leafy tops)
1 small pack of Baby Bella mushrooms, sliced
A couple of handfuls of frozen string beans
Several giant handfuls of fresh kale
A splash of tomato juice (because it's here and I needed to use it up)
A splash of soy sauce (because it's here and why not?)
A pinch of thyme
Salt and pepper

I threw everything except the kale and string beans into the pot, brought it to a boil, turned it down, and let it simmer for a couple of hours. When it got close to serving time, I added the kale and beans so they'd still have a bright green color.

Finally, I typically add a cup of some tiny pasta to the soup at the very end -- ditalini, acini pepe, orzo. But last night I decided to use some of the Basmati rice leftover from another night's dinner.

Voila! Stone Soup made from nothing, or whatever was in my way. It was delicious. You can add whatever you like or have on hand -- zucchini, canned diced tomatoes, cannellini beans or chick peas, snow peas. You get the idea. It's a free-form soup. You can tinker with the flavoring as well. Sometimes I add red wine instead of soy sauce, sometimes basil instead of thyme. It all depends on my mood, which makes it fun, although it sometimes drives my family crazy because I can rarely re-create the same soup twice.

Nice part is that we almost always have leftovers of this soup since I make such a big batch. So I had it for lunch today and there's plenty more for lunches this weekend. Add a bright, shiny Clementine orange and light a little candle and you've got a healthy, balanced, simple (and hopefully peaceful) meal. Mangia.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mindfulness Bell: The Sound of Silence

I have a little (easy) exercise for you to do today, or this morning. For the next few hours, pay attention to all the noises you hear. Not just the talking from the next cubicle or the voice on the other end of the phone, but the smaller, less obvious noises.

The ding of emails coming in, tweets being posted, texts being sent, Facebook chats being initiated.

The melodic tune played by the washer and dryer when they finish a cycle. The whir of the dishwasher. The rat-a-tat-tat of construction workers. The music on the car radio. The honking horn of the truck behind you.

Whatever sounds float your way, make note of them.

How many of those sounds stir a little angst in you, maybe without you even realizing it at first? The email dings, and you worry that it's about that project you're struggling with. The phone rings and you fear one of the kids is calling from the nurse's office. Now, how many of those sounds can you remove from your life? Some of them are easy, others impossible. But begin to turn off the unnecessary stuff.

I recently went into my program preferences and turned the audio off on my emails, instant messenger and other programs so I won't be distracted by the constant dinging of work piling up as I try to write a book or do yoga or meditate. (Coffee maker just beeped as I was writing that last word.) Clearly, some sounds we just have to live with, but we can begin to actively work to quiet our world, and our lives.

In keeping with all of this, I decided to add one sound to the mix in order to bring about more silence.

Sounds contradictory? At first it felt that way, but now it is doing exactly what I had hoped it would do. About a month ago, I downloaded something called the "mindfulness bell" after seeing it listed in the resource section of a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The idea was that the bell, which sounds like a Himalayan singing bowl being struck just once, would ring at the top of every hour as a reminder to stop for just a few seconds and re-center myself, whisper a short prayer, and move on. I also activated a second bell program that would ring at the start and end of a set 20-minute time period, figuring this would be my meditation marker so I wouldn't always be wondering if I'd reached 20 minutes yet, which can be very distracting during meditation. (Not that I can fit in a full 20 minutes very often.)

Well, somehow I did something that had these bells ringing a little too frequently. At first I found myself frustrated. Bells, bells, bells. This wasn't making me mindful; this was making me crazy. But then I clicked around and got it to where it needed to be. Once an hour. Now I'll be working away, looking at my deadline board, feeling a little frantic, and the bell will ring. My shoulders sink away from my ears and the furrow on my forehead smooths and I breathe.

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," I whisper before I return to my work.

Yesterday afternoon, as I was chopping vegetables at record speed and throwing them into the slow cooker in a desperate attempt to get dinner made before I had to run out the door, I heard the bell ring from a floor away, and I smiled. Suddenly my chopping became less manic and my breathing slowed and nothing seemed quite so urgent. In a short time the bell has gone from unnerving to comforting.

Obviously this kind of thing resonates with people. Just two days ago I posted a brief Facebook status update about my mindfulness bell experiment and the next thing I know it showed up in a blog post. In our chaotic and noisy world, people are hungry for whatever they can find that will bring them back to the still point, that center of calm in the midst of life's storms.

The trick is to learn -- eventually -- to allow all those other noises in our lives to become mindfulness bells in their own right. When we become centered enough, through prayer and awareness and, well, mindfulness, evening the dinging and honking and beeping can become calls to calm.

Pick one of the noises you can't turn off and make it your own mindfulness bell.

Every time you hear it, stop for a second and breathe deep. Maybe whisper a prayer or a word that calms you. Find that place of silence you crave.

Become the silence...

My mindfulness bell just rang downstairs. I'm not kidding. I think that's a sign to end this post and have my silent meal before setting to work. Peace.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Last wishes and little stars

The new year began with a funeral, which sounds sad but ended up being so uplifting. Mary Jane had been Olivia's violin teacher, first in elementary school and later privately. Last summer, the day before Mary Jane was scheduled to have brain surgery for the cancer that was taking her bit by bit, she insisted on giving Olivia a lesson at her home. A week after the surgery, she called to schedule yet another lesson. At first I tried to insist that we hold off, but then I realized that this was exactly where Mary Jane wanted to be, with one of her students, doing what she loved to do.

When Mary Jane died last week, the school district sent out an email inviting her former students to come to St. Thomas the Apostle Church the day of the funeral and play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" 10 minutes before the Mass was to begin. We emailed back immediately, saying that Olivia would be honored to play as long as there were other children there with her.

I loved the fact that one of Mary Jane's last wishes was to have her students play one of the first songs she ever taught them. Not Beethoven or Bach, but a childhood favorite, probably the simplest song they would ever learn, ensuring that even her youngest students could participate.

The morning of the funeral we arrived 30 minutes early, as requested, only to walk into a sea of orchestra students, hundreds of children ranging in age from middle school through college. I was crying before I even helped Olivia take off her coat. What a testament to the power of a great teacher. We left Olivia with her current instructor to tune up and found our place in a pew.

A few minutes later, the children filed in -- more than 50 cello players, at least 100 violins and I don't know how many violas and basses. They filled the side chapel and stood ringing the entire main church. Then Mary Jane's sister read the letter she left for her students. More tears. "When you can play Twinkle," Mary Jane wrote, "you know you've made progress."

The children lifted their bows, played the few short lines of the simple song, and then they filed right back out, but the beauty of what we had witnessed lingered long after the last note had ended.

Any teacher who has ever doubted the power he or she has to shape young lives and our world needs to remember this story. Those children didn't come out to a funeral to play a few lines on their last day of winter break simply because Mary Jane had been a great teacher but because she had been a great person. She loved her students, really loved them. And she loved teaching them, and that clearly came through to those kids who wanted to be there to pay tribute to her.

Now whenever I hear "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," I'll think of Mary Jane and of her reminder to her students -- and to all of us -- that sometimes mastering the simplest thing is a sign that we are making great progress.

Rest in peace, Mary Jane. You will be missed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Birthday, beautiful boy

Noah will officially turn 15 at 7:11 p.m. (technically that's Central Time). I cannot think of his newborn days without thinking of this song. The two of us danced around our Texas living room to the beautiful words and melody by John Lennon, with me crying the whole time. Even now, tears are rolling down my face as I listen to it while posting. It reminds me of those early days, my first days as a mother, and it reminds me how quickly life passes us by if we're not careful to pay attention, and even if we are.

Happy Birthday, darling Noah. Here's our song. (I've threatened to dance to it with him at his wedding some day.)