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Honestly, in the cold winter weather, I often wonder what I’d do without it. This is especially true during busy weeks like the one just ended; it’s not uncommon for me to use my crockpot two or even three times over the course of seven days.
So you can imagine my dismay when I came home two nights in a row last week to an under-done crockpot meal, and had to admit that my 30-year-old appliance (a birthday gift from my parents when I was young, single and had just moved into my first apartment) had seen its last meal. The meat had cooked through, but on both nights, the veggies were still too crunchy. Now ordinarily, I like my vegetables tender-crisp, but not in a crockpot meal; as a result of the vegetables being undercooked, the overall flavour of the meal suffered because the fullness of the flavours hadn’t seeped out of those vegetables into the surrounding sauces.
Fortunately, my wonderful hubby knows how much I rely on this little appliance, and he surprised me with a lovely new one.
So this week, I used my new crockpot for the first (and second!) times.
On Wednesday, we all came home to a house filled with the aroma of a hearty, savoury, garlicky Sausage Minestrone. It’s a recipe I had cut out of a magazine ages ago, but this was the first time I’ve ever made it.
If you like Italian sausage, this is definitely worth a try. You need only add your favourite loaf of fresh, crusty bread and a green salad to make the meal complete.
My family are meat eaters, so I doubled the quantity of sausage called for in the original recipe, upped the amount of garlic slightly, and used an Italian Seasoning mix instead of the straight oregano as called for. I’m also lucky enough to have my own garden tomatoes in the freezer – stewed up last fall with fresh basil and green peppers (also from the garden) – so I used those instead of the canned variety. Since this recipe is meant to be cooked on top of the stove, I simply browned the sausage meat, and then threw everything into the crockpot together (with the exception of the pasta, which I forgot to add). Mouth-wateringly delicious!
2 T. vegetable oil (I eliminated the oil altogether and just sautéed the sausage in a pan coated with non-stick spray)
3 mild Italian sausages, casings removed
1 onion, chopped
1 c. each, diced celery and carrot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. oregano (I think I used about a tsp. of Italian Seasoning)
1/4 tsp. each salt and pepper
1 can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes
1 can (19 oz.) red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 c. dried alphabet pasta
Method: In Dutch oven, heat 1 T. oil over med-high heat; sauté sausages, breaking up with spoon, until browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to paper towel-lined plate. Drain fat from pan.
Add remaining oil to pan. Sauté onion, celery, carrot, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper until softened, about 5 minutes.
Return sausages to pan. Add tomatoes, beans and 8 cups water; bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in saucepan of boiling salted water, cook pasta until tender but firm, about 6 minutes. Drain and add to soup.
Makes about 10 cups or 8 to 10 servings.
… than the desire that our lives should count for something? That just by virtue of our having been on the planet, the world might, somehow, be a slightly better place upon our exit, because we were here for a while?
I admit that wanting to make a positive difference has been a driving force in my own life. And yes, I realize it’s a desire that’s likely rooted in pride, or at least in the self-indulgent kind of thinking that’s only possible because I’ve lived my entire life in the affluent West. For I wonder if the thousands of souls that perished in Haiti recently had the luxury of wondering if their lives were making a difference? Or were they so consumed by the harsh realities of the day-to-day struggle for mere survival, that there simply wasn’t opportunity for such reflection?
Making another comparison, when I contrast my own existence to that of people like these folks (whom my friend Peter writes about) I am acutely aware that so much of my life – and so many of my choices – have been centered around my own needs and desires and those of my immediate family.
And yet, the desire – to make a difference – is there. And I know I’m not alone. I see the same compulsion in many, if not most of the people I meet. And I think that wanting our lives to count could be the root cause of the ambition that leads some to seek fame or fortune, others to build organizations, businesses, buildings or congregations. I think it’s often what motivates people to try to be great parents, raise great kids, sign petitions, volunteer, write books or blogs, or create beauty through art, music or dance. It could even help explain what motivates some people to accumulate vast numbers of “friends” on Facebook; the need to affirm that indeed, our lives do matter.
I’ve had two experiences in recent days that have caused me to reflect on the difference my own life is making: the first was visiting a funeral home to show support for the family of a young man I didn’t know. He was the brother of friends of mine. Only 27 when cancer claimed him, he was a beautiful young man whose death will leave an enormous hole in the lives of those who love him.
I know that because my friends are shattered. And I know it because the night I went to the funeral home, I was only one of about 800 people who were there. It was a cold evening, and the line of visitors was so long, it snaked back and forth, back and forth inside the building, before spilling out the front door, down the walkway, around the corner and down the city block. It took an hour of shivering in the cold, gradually inching forward in the line-up outside before we made it through the doors. It took another hour of solemnly, silently, respectfully inching forward inside following the snaking line, before we – who’d gone to pay our respects – had the opportunity to shake hands, share hugs, and express our sorrow for his family’s monumental loss.
The second experience was something I’d experienced 48 times before. I celebrated another birthday. But before this particular birthday was even hours old, a thought occurred to me: if I were to die this year, it would be said that I’d died in my “50th year.” And somehow – even at the ripe old age of 49, “fifty” sounds so much riper and older.
The thought led me to reflect on the number of years I might have remaining. My father died at 70. If I knew I only had 20 years left to live, what changes would I make? What would I do differently? Am I using my time well? Am I living my life and using each waking hour in such a way that I’m caring for others to the degree that I should? Am I demonstrating gratitude to the One who gives me the gift of being able to awaken with every sunrise, to draw breath each new day?
They’re powerful questions, the kind of questions that can send me searching beyond myself to greater sources of wisdom for answers.
One of my favourite such sources is the Bible. And as I’ve been pondering my own life choices, and the influence they enable me to exercise on my world, I’ve been reminded – through the words of an ancient prophet – of God’s wonderful mercy, compassion and grace. And I’ve been reminded that perhaps the answers aren’t really all that difficult after all.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”
- Micah 6:8
I really enjoy my children’s friends. Almost without exception, I find them to be funny, interesting people. And since they appreciate my kids, well, I appreciate them.
On a recent visit home, my eldest daughter Stephanie was silently reading email, when she suddenly laughed out loud. Of course I was curious as to why, so I asked, and she shared the contents of her friend’s note. It set me to laughing too, so I asked Steph if I might share it here. She checked with her friend, and they’ve both given their blessing.
Here is the original text:
“back when we were looking at condos there was a possibility of one on the 14th floor. well, my father informed me the ladders on fire trucks only reach 10 stories. so his plan was to take me to mountain equipment coop. and (oh yes, this happened) buy me ($600 worth of) mountain climbing gear. helmet, rope, body harness thing, the works. and then some wall climbing/ knot tying lessons. the purpose? so i could propel off the balcony and down the side of the building in the case of a fire. boing, boing, boing.”
Now that’s what I call a caring dad!
I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I wrote my first stories in grade 1, decided in grade 3 that I wanted to be a mystery novelist (Nancy Drew books – truth be told), wrote poetry in high school, and essays that earned me “A’s” in university. I love writing.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about moving my fingers on a keyboard and seeing my thoughts take shape in front of me. But reaching for words isn’t what I love most about writing.
What I love most about writing – is research. But not just any kind of research. I love that I get to talk to people. Or rather – that I get people to talk to me.
Writing magazine articles, newspaper columns and scripts for television programs allows me the incredible privilege of being able to pick up the phone and ask all sorts of people all sorts of questions. Leaders and lawyers, people working in the trenches and academics.
I have a soft spot for academics – people whose job it is to think about big ideas – because they’re generally so willing to share them.
And sometimes, the tidbits that they share stay with me – rumbling around in my brain – for days, weeks, months, even years afterwards. I’ve had a few such rumblings recently, so I thought I’d share them with you.
When I had the opportunity to interview Nancy Nason-Clark for this piece in Faith Today magazine she told me that while women of faith aren’t any more vulnerable to abuse than those in secular society, when they are abused, they are more vulnerable. That struck me as profoundly sad.
Last week I had a telephone conversation with Richard L. Gorsuch, while researching the psychology of religious extremism. He told me “it’s not only important what people believe, but what they believe in.” That struck me as simply profound.
Also last week, I had a conversation with Clint Curle. He’s a fascinating fellow who’s passionate about comprehending and advocating for human dignity. He inspired and challenged me with this thought: that faith cannot be too “individual and interior.”
“While there’s good aspects to that sort of piety, it’s lopsided,” Curle told me. “We need to be communal and exterior as well.”
Good food for thought as Haiti continues to dominate the headlines and most of my “rumblings” as well …
Am I the only one who found this morning’s paper sadly, pathetically, ironic?
There – on pages A8 and A9 of today’s National Post, right in the midst of full colour coverage of the devastation in Haiti are two ads for TD Waterhouse / TD Canada Trust (one on each page). The two ads combined probably consume 7/8 of one page. The (also full colour) ads depict typical Canadian dreams of the ideal Canadian retirement, on a golf course and at a ski resort. The ad headlines are clever: “When can this be my morning drive?” asks the text positioned beside the image of the golfer mid-swing, while the words above an attractive older couple riding a ski lift ask, “When can this be my full-time job?” The rest of the copy is warmly inviting; “Let’s figure it out,” it beckons.
It’s got to be some layout editor’s sorry idea of a joke. Or more likely, the layout editor was trying to make a point.
For on the same two pages, under the headline “Faces of Despair” are a dozen photographs of the faces of anguished Haitians. The words of a foreign aid worker in Haiti are quoted in bold type: “Money is worth nothing right now, water is the currency.”
The juxtaposition of those ads - enticing readers to prioritize a fantasy retirement – with the harsh reality of what’s going on in the poorest nation in our hemisphere was just too much for me.
Maybe if we in the West – and I’m including myself here – didn’t spend so much of our energies storing up wealth to ensure our own future comfort, there’d be more to go around and Haiti wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today. This is a country, after all, where countless people endure on less than $2 a day.
And as I wrestle with my own guilt over the relative ease and comfort in which I live, while seeing the images of people whose suffering seems to know no end, I am reminded of some words of Mother Teresa’s that moved me once to the degree that I copied them down. And I wonder if the answer might be as simple as those words seem to imply it is. She said:
“You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world that makes gods out of power, riches and pleasure make you forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and to be loved!”
Interestingly, U.S. President Barack Obama is also quoted in bold type in the newspaper’s coverage of the tragedy. His words are placed directly above the “golfing” ad.
“To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction, you will not be forsaken, you will not be forgotten.”
And I find myself wondering – given the realities of their lives and ours – why Haitians should believe that?
Since writing about brownies a couple of days ago, I’ve had some requests for my favourite recipes for the delectable treats.
This first recipe is the one through which I learned to love the chewy squares. When I was a young girl, my best friend Sandra and I mixed up this particular concoction on dozens of occasions. With three cups of brown sugar, it’s not a brownie for the faint of heart or diet conscious. They’re also not as chocolatey as I like my brownies today. In fact – though I’m providing the original recipe below, if I were to make them now (I haven’t made them in years), I’d be tempted to increase the quantity of cocoa to 3/4 cup.
Extremely chewy. Best frosted (as if they needed any more sugar!) but a nice, rich, chocolate frosting adds to the overall decadence.
I remember as 13-year-olds, my friend and I used to laugh hysterically whenever we made them, referring to them as “Donkey Drops.” (That’s because one day while baking, we came across a recipe by that name – truly – and ever after, as we’d plop great dollops of the chocolate-brown batter into the pan, we’d exclaim, “Donkey Drops!!!” thereby amusing ourselves. What can I say? We were 13.) Wondering if a recipe for Donkey Drops could be still be found today, I conducted a quick search and found this one.
But back to the brownies. By request,
3/4 c. butter or margarine
3 large eggs
3 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. cocoa
1 c. chopped nuts
Method: Melt butter. Beat eggs well. Add brown sugar, vanilla, and melted butter. Stir until well blended. Add flour and cocoa and mix well together. Add chopped nuts. Bake in a 9 X 13 pan at 350 degrees for 25 – 30 minutes. Frost and cut while warm.
My sister Sandy discovered this next recipe during our young, single years when we shared an apartment in downtown Toronto together. She’s made them as a gift for me on more than one occasion – but the time that really stands out in my memory was about 12 years ago.
I’d literally just lost my best friend, Mary-Lou, when she and her family moved from their home about five minutes from ours to a new home in Red Deer, Alberta. The day after the moving truck pulled away, I awoke feeling completely bereft. But Sandy showed up at my front door with Heaven In A Pan, something she’d planned to do in discussions with Mary-Lou before the move.
Those brownies came to me as a hug across the miles from my friend, and as a hug across the threshold from my sister. They were a reminder to me of my friend’s creativity, my sister’s love, and that people who care for one another can find meaningful ways to show it, no matter how near or far they are.
They have been my favourite brownies, ever since.
Sandy’s “Heaven In A Pan” Brownies
1 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. white sugar
3/4 c. cocoa
1 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
Method: Melt butter. Add sugar and cocoa, stirring constantly. Add eggs and vanilla. Stir well. Sift dry ingredients together. Add all at once. Pour into a non-greased 9 X 13 baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees, for 30 to 35 minutes.
… really does make so many things better!
Especially the kind of chocolate that comes mixed up in a pan full of brownies. I love brownies. They’re my favourite way to make the world right when everything seems wrong.
My enthusiasm for the delectable, chewy, chocolatey treat began at the age of 13, when my best friend and I discovered the joys of baking. We’d get together at each other’s homes to while away a Saturday afternoon – or for a couple of hours on a weekday after school – and ask that age-old question kids often ask each other when they’re bored; “Whadda you wanna do?”
“I dunno. Whadda you wanna do?”
Baking was our default activity. If we couldn’t figure out anything else to do, at least we could create something wonderful to gorge ourselves on. Invariably, the something wonderful we’d bake was something called “Yummy Brownies.” And they were.
As a young, single woman, I shared an apartment with my sister. She discovered a new brownie recipe called “Heaven In A Pan.” And they were. On more than one occasion, Sandy made those brownies for me when she knew my world was off-kilter. A pan full of Heaven In A Pan was her way of saying, “I care.”
A couple of days ago, my world was starting to feel off-kilter once again. After having our eldest daughter Stephanie home for the past month to celebrate the holidays, we were preparing to take her back to university for second semester.
I’m realizing having university-aged kids means a constant adjusting; you adjust to them leaving, then adjust to them coming home for holidays, only to find you need to adjust all over again when they leave once more! It’s not that you mourn them when they’re gone, exactly, for you do find a new “normal.” It’s just that having them around feels like the really normally normal – or like “normal” should be.
I don’t dread Stephanie’s departures, exactly, because I know she is where she’s supposed to be. But I like having her home. So I often find as the time for her leaving draws near, and I look ahead to that other “normal” descending, I’m aware of an almost imperceptible feeling of sadness rising inside.
I was ever so slightly aware of it Saturday morning, when the entire family set out on the three-hour drive to Kingston. We were looking forward to making an outing of our day – with ice skating at City Hall – but the closer we got to Kingston, the more I found myself dreading saying “good-bye.”
Any feelings of melancholy evaporated, however, the instant we walked in the door of my daughter’s other home.
For just inside the door, on the table, was a note from Stephanie’s roommate, Katie. The note read “Welcome Home!” The first of the four roommates to arrive back in Kingston, Katie had left her message of love, welcome and friendship on a small square of plain white paper.
And in two pans of homemade brownies.
Stephanie and I squabbled tonight. Of course, it was over something completely stupid, but tempers were flaring. And so while we had planned to take a walk together after dinner, we wound up storming off separately.
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. I charged down the street. It was cold out, and the first few blocks I walked into the wind. My cheeks stung and my ears ached in the cold, but it felt good to purge adrenalin and emotion.
The streets were mostly deserted. I power-walked for about 20 minutes, and then turned towards home. As I did so, footsteps approached from behind. Slowing my pace slightly and moving right, I thought the person would pass. The footsteps came closer, but remained behind. Then, a noise, “Ahem.” And again. Finally, a voice said, “Aren’t you going to turn around?”
I turned. A black, middle-aged woman met my eyes. “I used to live in New York – you should always look around,” she said. “You never know what’s behind you.”
By that point the worst of my negative emotions had burned off, so when she matched her pace to mine, I felt receptive to chatting with the stranger and we began to talk.
She seemed glad for the company. Her name was Beverley. A mother of four children, she said she walks to keep her blood pressure under control. And tonight, she’d had words with her teenaged son before she left, so apparently when she’d set out, she’d been stomping too.
The coincidence of our common circumstances birthed an instant camaraderie, and we laughed as we walked. By the time we bid each other good-bye, I think we were both feeling better. Beverley’s arrival by my side – into the darkness of the evening and of my mood – felt like a gift.
Stephanie came in the door a few minutes after I did, having also gained some needed perspective. She made us both a cup of tea. We talked and we laughed, and then shared a hug.
“Not all worries end up as water under the bridge or over the dam. Some evaporate.”
Ever come away from a conversation feeling like you just might have been changed by it, forever?
That was my experience before Christmas, when I had the privilege of interviewing Tim Huff. Tim spent 10 years working on the streets, in the back alleys and under the bridges of Toronto, seeking out and befriending homeless youth. Today he spends much of his time advocating for the homeless, speaking, writing and consulting with organizations caring for the poor.
He’s seen it all, and probably heard and experienced even more. For Tim’s is a heart that loves freely. He’s been wounded and he has the sensitivity to prove it. But he believes in justice and he’s determined to hope. You might say he’s “bent” on it.
He’s also a man of deep thoughts and deeper compassion. Towards the end of our conversation he told me he doesn’t like the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Only because it sounds like God has extended his grace to some people and not to others,” he explained. “If you’re on the other side of that statement, what does it sound like? The person who lives on the street might say, ‘So God’s given his grace to you and not me.’”
Evidence of that sensitivity. And a profound thought besides. Tim is a man of many such thoughts.
He shares some of them in his book Bent Hope: A Street Journal. He shares more online, here.
I began reading some of Tim’s work in anticipation of our conversation. In one essay titled “Scraps and Leftovers” he writes, “I have never seen God present, or the face of Jesus revealed anywhere like I have with those who have no home.”
I asked him why he thought that was.
“I guess there’s something incredibly resonant about the fact that Jesus was born homeless,” he began, and went on to say that many of the homeless people he’s known are people of deep faith. “They are so authentic. Many of them will talk about God, and they’re not talking about him from a comfortable couch but from a heating grate.”
We touched briefly on the reasons people find themselves on the streets and Tim made this observation, “I have yet to meet a person on the street – particularly a young person – who was not homeless long before they were houseless.” Then he shared a story with me, of a time he found himself sitting on a heating grate near Toronto’s Eaton Centre with a friend who had no home. Together, they watched people walk by. People, said Tim, “who – even if they wanted to – couldn’t give any change because their hands were too filled with shopping bags.”
That image has played itself over in my mind repeatedly since we spoke. An endless movie on a loop. I’ve seen myself in it. And I’ve wondered how many times I’ve walked by people who have no home, my hands too full or my schedule too harried and hurried to reach into my pocket or purse in order to share a little from out of the abundance I’ve been given.
And when I headed downtown later that day – and on every trip since – I made sure my pockets were full and my hands were empty. Just in case.
“Either we are all beggars, hookers and junkies, or none of us are …
“Every day I play the role of a beggar. I look to the charity of others, seemingly wanting something for nothing to feed my ego and the overwhelming need to belong. Every day I play the role of a hooker. I try to sell the words, ideas and actions I think might make me desirable to others, often against my own better judgement, in order to get the emotional validation I need to survive. And every day I play the role of a junkie. I feed my addictions, supplying relentless cravings with products, entertainment, daydreams and relationships that are bad for me. Thus, when rendered solely in vulgar human slang, I believe we are all beggars, hookers and junkies. And if raw humanity existed as the only gauge, I know for certain that I am all of these.”
- Tim Huff in Bent Hope: A Street Journal