Sunday, January 3, 2016


This story is from Nepal, as shared by Tuula Valkonen in her book Deep Talk:

There was a monastery at the edge of the desert, where the people and animals gather around the water and trees.

As a teacher and his students were beginning their evening meditation, the cat that lived in the monastery began to make a lot of noise.

The teacher declared that the cat should be tied up for the duration of the meditation.

Years later, the teacher died, but the cat was still always tied to the post every evening.

When the cat finally died, they got a new cat which was also tied to the post every evening.

Centuries later the teacher's follower's followers wrote theses about the religious significance of tying the cat to the post during meditation.

I wonder what traditions we have in our community.  I wonder what are necessary.  I wonder what are not necessary.

Tradition, familiarity, comforting actions are all important to us as humans and as members of a community.

Mothers teach their children how to hold their mouths when they make biscuits so that they will have the fluffy yummy kind and not the hockey puck kind. Fathers teach their children to wear the stinky jersey and sit in the right seat when watching their favorite team play so that the team will win. Parents teach their children how to pray in the right way, not a frivolous or superstitious way (like the neighbors).

New Year's Day, I ate Hoppin' John, pork, and collards because it is the tradition.  I learned that other people MUST eat black eyed peas, but they don't make them into hoppin' john.  I learned some people think it's bad luck to do laundry on New Year's Day, a fine tradition in my mind.

Unless we freak out if our tradition is not followed or unless that stinky shirt is REALLY stinky, we can have our traditions and superstitions and quirks without harming ourselves or others.

Tradition can be very important.  They are part of our story.  Who we are.  Moses and the Hebrew people didn't spend 40 years in the desert because God was using Google Maps.  They needed time to learn what it meant to be free people of God.  They needed time to learn their traditions.

The break down of tradition can be chaotic.  Colonialism destroyed the traditions of the indigenous people, often putting a broken, illogical tradition in their places.  When the Colonizers left, they left a void that was often filled with a patch-work of half-remembered traditions and new ideas that didn't always fit.  And so we have the Taliban and Isis, and authoritarianism instead of community.

When someone dies, mostly you don't have to come up with a way of celebrating life and grieving loss.  We have traditions.  We have traditions for weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras, and graduations.  We have traditional food and festivals.  We don't always follow them, but they are there to fall back on.

Tradition helps us know how to act.

And then their are The Traditions.

The ones that exclude.  The ones that belittle.  The ones that are dangerous.

The priest is always a man.  It's a tradition.
Only white people are members of this club.  It's a tradition.
But we always make freshman drink until they puke.  It's a tradition.

We find reasons for our traditions, we write theses.  It's always been like that.

Our family traditionally drinks its collective self into a coma and dies just after procreating. It's tied to our ancestry as great warriors and farmers.   It's always been like that.  It's a tradition.

Our voters traditionally choose the dimmest bulbs on the porch to make laws --- it keeps them busy so they won't ruin the family business.  It's always been like that.  It's a tradition.

Our church traditionally is lead by clergy and lay people who consider themselves to be as close to flawless and possible and therefore feel comfortable casting the first, second, and third stones. They are confident in their knowledge and goodness.  It's always been like that.  It's a tradition.

I wonder which of our traditions have value.

I wonder which are cats tied to posts at the edge of a desert?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year World

My New Year's Eve tradition is... well nothing.  Sometimes I go to a party, sometimes I hang out with my sister (which is always a party), and sometimes I read and go to bed early because there is nothing on television except New Years Rockin' Eve and I don't know any of the musicians.  It works for me.

New Year's Day is my day. I  make pork loin, hoppin' john, and collards for my family and for my sister's family --- for whoever is awake and eating. My brother and his husband are in Denmark, which is part of their tradition.  Not necessarily Denmark, but travel.

In my family, we usually divide cooking duties at feast times.  On Thanksgiving, one of my favorite days, my brother does something exciting with turkey and dressings and a couple of other things.  My sister makes an incredible bourbon sweet potato casserole (no marshmallows) and brings a ham.  I make cardiac mashed potatoes (whipped potatoes, Greek yogurt, white cheddar, butter, cream cheese, garlic...), probably green bean casserole, and maybe a pumpkin cheesecake.  Although certain foods are required, the traditional part is that we all pitch in.

Christmas Eve, my brother makes a wonderful wild rice and ham soup.  In the past two years, we've enjoyed it after our church Christmas Eve service where my husband and grandsons sing.  That's working out for me.  It's relaxed and happy.  The soup is delicious.

Christmas Day, my sister makes "Do-ahead breakfast" from a recipe our mother got from a friend in the days when breakfast casseroles were new.  It is bread, sausage, cheese, eggs --- soaked together over night and baked in the morning. It's the best. Although, like the soup, we could have it another time, we don't usually.  Tradition.

And here we are for New Year's Eve.  Pork for health (nothing ironic there).  Collards for money.  Hoppin' John for luck.  Corn bread to sop it up.  Pineapple upside-down cake because I said so.

We have had this meal since we were children, although in the past it was, frankly, not the best meal of the year.  Mom hated collards, but we ate a tablespoon in the hopes of getting money in the coming year. The whole house stunk from over-cooked collards, which were slimy and limp. We usually commented, I wonder how bad it'd be if we didn't have that much? Not taking a chance though. Dad made the Hoppin' John, which in his case was Uncle Ben's perverted rice and a can of black-eyed peas with salt and pepper.  The pork was usually pork roast.

The thing about tradition, as with all of life, is to figure out what is essential to you, what is non-negotiable, and then to play with the rest.

I make two (at least) pork loins that are marinated in something wonderful.  I cook it until the second it won't kill us, and take it out.  It usually works.

My Hoppin' John starts with the trinity of celery, bell peppers, and onion cooked in bacon grease.  I use the bacon in the hoppin' john and the collards.  And breakfast.  I use jasmine rice and (yes) canned black-eyed peas.  I could soak the damn peas, but who cares?  I use black pepper and a little salt, and also cayenne, cumin, and turmeric (because I put that in everything these days.)  Sometimes I use red, yellow, and orange peppers because they are pretty.  I'm thinking of chopping some tomatoes because they are there.

My collards are not cooked enough for many people, but just enough for most in my family.  I add bacon but I toss the leaves in olive oil and throw the whole mess in a pot.  I season with nutmeg and whatever else smells good (hmmm, what about turmeric?).  It has to cook longer than spinach, but not so long that it looks like the cat threw up a lizard.

This year I'm making Jiffy Corn bread and a pineapple upside down cake.  Well, I say I am.  If my stove doesn't break and if I don't get too involved in my book and if I don't start too early on the mimosas.  Because traditions are important.

Happy New Year!