vulnerable path

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A taste of gratitude

There is a scene from the classic holiday film, Home Alone, where Kevin McAllister goes out to find Santa Claus.  Kevin has spent several days home alone, without his very large, annoying family.  He has enjoyed every minute of the solitude, eating whatever he wants, watching movies he would not be permitted to watch, and even going shopping on his own.  Yet he seeks out Santa Claus to ask for only one thing this Christmas:  he wants his family back.

Life is like that sometimes.  We only realize what we are grateful for when it’s gone.

About a year ago, I began a gratitude practice.  I decided to take a moment at the end of each day to focus on what I am thankful for.  There’s an “app” for that – I downloaded “Gratitude Rock” to my smartphone and set a reminder to make an entry in its journal every day.  The holidays can be a very depressing time of year for some people.  And I was surprised to find myself feeling blue, in spite of all the festivities going on around me.  The gratitude practice really helped.  It didn’t take long for my mood to turn around.  And I noticed something else too.  It wasn’t “stuff” that I was grateful for – it was people.

I was thankful for my family who helps me with my Christmas tree tradition.  Even though they have their own tree to deal with, they take time to help me.  We set out very early on a Saturday morning, bundle up, and trudge through a local tree farm to cut down the perfect Spruce.  My sister and brother-in-law and my niece help me set the tree up in my tree stand and get it turned around just right.  Then they go off to do the same thing at their own home.  My Dad joins in too, helping me get all the lights on it.  Then my daughter and I spend several weeknights decorating it.  When it’s all done, that sparkling evergreen is a wonderful symbol of family connection and love.

There is no better reminder of the abundance in our lives than when we sit down to a massive table spread with Thanksgiving dishes.  Our senses are overwhelmed by all the colors, textures, and flavors of this special meal.  We are compelled to sample everything!  Along with our turkey this year, we had cranberry sauce, potato filling, sausage stuffing, green beans and asparagus, creamed corn, and salad with hot bacon dressing.  The people in our lives are a lot like this.  Some tender, some sweet, some kind of sour at times, and maybe one that’s a bit burnt around the edges.  Yet I appreciate all of them and the lessons and love they have given me.

In honor of this mixed assortment, and with a heart filled with gratitude, I give you another installment of Kitchen Therapy.  Here’s the recipe for my contribution to this year’s Thanksgiving spread.

wild_rice_collageWild Rice Stuffing

6 T butter

18oz. frozen pearl onions

4.5 C chicken broth

3 T chopped fresh thyme

1.25 C wild rice

1.25 C white rice

6oz. chopped dried apricots

1 C dried tart cherries

1 C raisins

1 C chopped pecans

onionsMelt 2 T butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add onions and sauté until browned, about 15 minutes or more.  Season with pepper and a little salt.  Never rush to caramelize your onions.  All those browned bits of deliciousness are the signature of this dish!  Set onions aside for later.

Bring 4.5C broth plus 1 T thyme to a boil in a large stock pot.  Add wild rice, bring back to boil.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.  Add white rice, cover, and simmer until all rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes longer.

Stir in apricots, cherries, raisins, and up to 2 T of thyme (to taste).  Cover and simmer 3 minutes.  I love this dish for its contrast of sweet and savory, along with the mix of textures.  The wild rice and pecans are crunchy; the aroma of thyme and saltiness of the broth are balanced with the sweetness of the fruit.

Stir in onions and 4 T butter.  Mix in pecans.  Transfer to a greased casserole dish.  Serve immediately.  Or keep at room temperature and re-warm in oven prior to serving.

stuffing_editedDon’t worry; this dish makes enough so you will have leftovers!

© Vulnerable Path, 2014


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What do I know about stereotypes?

I think I’ve lived a sheltered life. I grew up insulated from many of the challenges that people face in the world.  I was born into a white, working class family.  We didn’t live in luxury, but we certainly had what we needed.  There was always food to eat, and clothing to wear, and a warm bed to sleep in.

I went to a school with a bunch of other working class white kids. I honestly don’t think there was one Black or Hispanic or Asian child in my high school graduating class.

I lived in a community of Christians — Protestants and Catholics. I did not have any friends who were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist.  I didn’t know what Quakers practiced.  The only thing I knew about the Amish or Mennonites was that they rode to church on Sundays in a horse-drawn buggy.

I grew up during a time when homosexuality and gender identity were not discussed. I don’t think I even knew what “gay” was until I went to college.  The AIDS crisis was just becoming national news during the early 80s, which forced homosexuality upon the broader American consciousness.

Inside my insulated world, my parents taught me the norms and values that I just assumed everyone else had too. In our house, it was the Golden Rule:  Treat others the way you want to be treated.  If my parents had been racists, and hated Blacks or Hispanics, I think it’s pretty much a guarantee that’s what I’d have become as well.  Because children are like little pots of soil – they will grow whatever seeds you plant in them.

The good news about this upbringing is that I never felt subjected to stereotyping.  The bad news is that it would be a few more years before I really understood how it made other people feel.

My college had a strong theatre and performing arts department. Warning:  stereotype ahead!  You know the theatre department is full of gays!  Of course, this wasn’t really true.  But either way, I didn’t care.  I decided to earn my minor concentration in Theatre.  Dramatic literature and performance studies fit well with my English major.  During my time in the theatre program, I became friends with several gay men.  In fact, I became room-mates with two men who were theatre majors.  One was straight and one was gay.  They were both very different, yet we all had an absolute blast together.  Max, the gay one, often worked on school productions as a stage manager.  Not only was he gay, but he was also Latino.  He loved to play into the stereotype of the effeminate gay man.  There was a sway in his walk, a twinkle in his eye, and always a smile on his face.  He was comfortable in his own skin; I don’t think he cared what other people thought of him.  And Jim, the straight one, specialized in lighting design and was a Rugby player.  He was kind of rough and crude, but underneath there was a heart of gold.  If I had let stereotypes or first impressions get in the way, I would not have had two great friends in my life.

I also had another friend in college who was an art student. He was popular; everybody knew him.  He had California good looks, tanned and bleached blonde.  He was athletic, skiing all winter and surfing in the summer.  I can still see him cruising around town in his vintage orange VW Bug, with the Talking Heads’ song, Burning down the House, blasting from the radio.  And the party started when he showed up.  Mostly, that was because he brought drugs.  He always had a supply of something.  I caught up with him a few years after college.  He told me that by the time he left school he had lost all his friends.  When I asked why, he said it was because he quit drugs.  His “friends” were really just acquaintances who wanted something from him.  He definitely had an addiction, and I give him a lot of credit for managing to quit.  But there’s more to his story.  Many years later, I learned that he had spent his whole life trying to deny the fact that he was gay.  He never confided it in anyone.  He never acted on his feelings.  He numbed it with addiction.  He masked it in the straight world that he so desperately wanted to fit into.  He was a middle-aged man by the time he was able to acknowledge it and courageously be his true self.

People are scared of stereotypes. No one wants to be labeled as the dumb blonde, or the Black street thug, or the welfare free-loader, or the Arab terrorist, or the effeminate gay man, or the butch lesbian.  Those seeds may have been planted in us as children, that an entire group of people are bad, wrong, or evil.  We are afraid that if we are labeled as such, we will not be worthy of love or belonging.

Shame is the fear of being unworthy of love and belonging. Our fear can lead us to keep life-long secrets.  We fear that our parents won’t love us, or our friends will reject us.  People who struggle with shame and fear are more likely to engage in destructive and hurtful behaviors.  In fact, according to Brene’ Brown’s research, “Shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying.”

What do I know about stereotypes? I know this world would be a much better place if people didn’t need to worry about being stereotyped or judged.  I know that no one should be afraid to be who they truly are.  I know that the only way to ever be free of shame and fear is to be brave enough to confront it, and to openly share our stories.  We need truth.  We need courage.  And we need love.

© Vulnerable Path, 2014


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Fitting in, falling down, and finding true friends

Define Journey.  In simplest terms, it means to go on a trip; to travel from one place to another.  The purpose of this seems clear.  But how do we define a spiritual journey?  And what is its purpose?  I believe we undertake spiritual journeys when we try to understand our choices and our emotions.  This is a life-long process.  Spiritual journeys serve to help us develop character, strengthen our faith, learn new things, bounce back stronger from adversity, and step out of our comfort zone.

I love that Girl Scouts has created “Journeys” for girls and young women to help them work through their feelings, develop strong values, and make good choices. We didn’t have “Journeys” when I was in Girl Scouts. But I’m thrilled as an adult to be bringing these programs to my own daughter and her Girl Scout sisters.  This year, we are taking a Journey called aMAZE.  It’s about navigating the twists and turns of friendship and how to deal with peer pressure, stereotypes, jealousy, gossip, and all those kinds of things that get in the way of having healthy relationships.

This got me thinking about my own Journey through friendships.  Here’s my story.

I attended the most rural elementary school in my district.  Most of my classmates lived far away from me in the countryside.  I did not have friends who lived right next door.  I couldn’t walk to their houses.  So I was a bit of a loner and had to find ways to entertain myself after school.  I spent a lot of time outdoors, climbing trees and wandering around the woods and fields behind my house.  I used my imagination and created my own world in my backyard.  I had a tree house.  It was named the Blue Goose.  I played with my dog and my cat.  When I did socialize with friends, it was through church, or Girl Scout meetings, or making special play dates to go to a friend’s house.  I don’t remember ever feeling like I didn’t fit in with my elementary classmates and friends.

All that changed on the first day of seventh grade. My rural classmates and I were merged in with kids from two other elementary schools that were in more suburban neighborhoods.  It was culture shock.  I was mortified.  I looked nothing like any of these kids.  I didn’t dress like them, talk like them, or act like them.

seventhgrade_editedI was barely off the school bus that first day when I began to rebel against everything my parents were providing for me. Because, all of a sudden, I was keenly aware that I did not fit in.  I was not going to be accepted by anyone if I showed up again wearing knee socks with a skirt.  (Yes, that’s a photo of me from the first day of seventh grade.  And that’s my dog, Skamper.)

I wanted a Farrah Faucet hair style. But I had a, um, I’m not sure what you’d call that!  I wanted designer jeans with fancy embroidery on the back pockets.  The kind like Brooke Shields modelled.  But I didn’t own a pair of jeans at all.  My mother sewed most of my clothing by hand.  My personal style was just not going to change overnight.  So I had to accept my plight.  I had to deal with it.

Two of the most popular girls in school were in my class. Compared to these girls, I saw myself as a big nerd.  I desperately wanted to fit in with them.  So my strategy was to befriend these girls.  I was somewhat successful – accepted, maybe, but not really one of them.  They were not mean to me; I wasn’t bullied by them.  Eventually, I did become better friends with one of them and hung out with her outside of school a few times.

But I was friends with the nerdy kids too. The geeky, awkward, not so pretty, not so skinny ones.  I could relate to this.  I treated them the same way I treated anyone else.  I managed somehow to get along with just about everybody.

Yet, like most teens, I kept trying to fit in somewhere. I was never really sure where that was for me.  I wasn’t a cheerleader, I didn’t play sports, and I didn’t play an instrument in the band.  My high school years were a battle ground of social standings – I was standing in one place and aspiring to another.  I never really felt like I made any progress.  I didn’t have any real strong friendships in high school.  Because I never got too close to anyone, I wasn’t betrayed by anyone.  All that would change soon enough.

I couldn’t wait to go off to college. I wanted new freedom and the chance to make new friends.  And a college dormitory is certainly a good place to get to know people.  That’s where I met Maura.  She was the most outgoing, crazy, fun person I had ever met.  She was beautiful too.  And she had a girlfriend, as in female intimate partner.  But I didn’t judge.  She was a free-spirited art student.  I was an uptight English major.  We were yin and yang.  We rented neighboring apartments in the same building downtown.  We hung out all the time, cooking meals together and partying.  I idolized her.  To me, her life was perfect.  She had great clothes, and she let me borrow them.  She was always happy.  Things always went well for her.  And she spread this effervescent energy everywhere she went.

Eventually, her same sex relationship ended.  And I introduced her to my boyfriend’s brother, Bill.  They fell madly in love with each other.  I was so happy for her!  I imagined us graduating from college, getting engaged to our boyfriends, and becoming sisters-in-law someday.  The future was bright.

After graduation, Maura moved in with Bill. But my relationship became long-distance — like, over-seas long distance.  My boyfriend moved to London to start a branch of his family’s business. I spent almost a year racking up expensive phone bills, trying to keep our relationship going.  Then I quit my job, packed up everything I owned, stuffed it into my parents’ garage, and flew to London to be with him.  But we were still doomed.  We never got engaged.  I moved back home with Mom and Dad.  He broke up with me right after Christmas.

I was distraught. I had no idea what to do with myself.  I would come home from work each day and curl up in my room and cry.  My poor Mother did not know how to console me.  I could have used some comfort and reassurance from Maura.  But I didn’t get that.  Instead, she made it clear that she needed to choose her man over our friendship.  She was planning her wedding.  It would be too uncomfortable to have me around now that my relationship with her future brother-in-law had ended.

I’m not sure which one of them hurt me more. Now, I knew betrayal.

So, here’s what I learned on my journey, and what I hope my daughter learns too.  Good friend don’t need to be pretty, or popular, or have cool clothes you can borrow.  It doesn’t matter what sport she plays or what grades she earns.  She doesn’t have to be your Facebook friend or Instagram follower.  You can probably count a lifetime of true friends on one hand.  She is rare and precious.  She gets you.  She likes you in spite of yourself.  But the most important thing I hope my daughter learns is that she needs to BE the kind of friend she wants to have.

Eventually your friends will prove themselves to you.  You won’t know your true friends from the fun times.  You will know them when they are still standing next to you during the bad times.  A good friend will prop you up, lend a shoulder, and be a good listener.  She is the one who will say, “Hey, I get it.  This sucks.  But I am here for you and we’ll get through it.”

© Vulnerable Path, 2014


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Four things I was surprised to learn from being a Girl Scout Leader

That I can accept failure

My involvement as a Girl Scout volunteer started out simply enough. I was asked to manage the Daisy troop checking account.  A couple years later, the Brownies needed a leader.  Without knowing what I was getting myself into, I just said yes.  I was a Mom with good intentions and some extra time on my hands.  I jumped right in; this is a good job for a control-freak/obsessive-compulsive/perfectionist. I assumed, wrongly and naively, that this would be easy.  It didn’t take me long to learn that this is a vulnerable place.

Afraid_editBrene Brown gave a speech about criticism and creativity http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-JXOnFOXQk in which she said this about vulnerability:  “If you want to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee.  And that is that you will get your ass kicked.”  She was referring specifically to creative people such as artists.  But I think this is a universal truth.  If you put yourself out there, whether it’s in a leadership role, or as an artist, or student, or business person, you will face judgment, criticism, and failure.  But if you truly love what you are doing, you have to accept the good with the bad.  My volunteer work has really taught me this.  Ideas I loved haven’t jelled with the girls.  I have overestimated their maturity and their skills.  I’ve faced criticism from parents.  I make mistakes all the time with the spotlight shining on me.  Yep, embarrassing and humbling.  But it hasn’t stopped me from wanting to show up and be seen.  Thankfully, I am surrounded by friends who pick me up and dust me off, as Brown says.  The joy of working with these girls far outweighs my fear of failure.

That our differences aren’t a barrier to belonging

This group of girls is like a bag of licorice all-sorts. They come in every shape, size, color, and flavor.   It amazes me how these vastly different girls can come together and create a bond.  We have different family structures, cultures, and personalities.  We have different skills, abilities, and interests.  Some are shy and quiet.  Some are loud and outgoing.  We have ice-skaters, dancers, singers, musicians, swimmers, volleyball players, cheerleaders, artists, cooks, and heavy equipment operators!  My daughter will show up with her hair uncombed, wearing sweatpants, and listening to classic rock on her iPod.  Her best friend will have perfectly coifed hair, a very girly outfit, and will listen to the latest boy band.  So different, yet best friends.  Don’t get me wrong, they do have their share of disagreements!  But I have never seen them be intentionally cruel, hurtful or unaccepting of each other.

The same is true for my adult Girl Scout friends. These are amazing women that I may never have known if not for scouting.  We too have drastically different interests and don’t always agree.  But they are my mentors and confidants.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me. This is one goal of Girl Scouts, to teach acceptance and respect for others.  But I know the world isn’t like this.  I know our girls face bullies in school.  I know they will face challenges as adults in the workplace and in their grown-up relationships with others.  It’s not easy to find where you fit in, where you belong.  I’m so grateful that our Girl Scout group has become that safe place for us.  We are a living, breathing example of the Girl Scout Law – being a sister to every Girl Scout.

That being a Girl Scout Leader is my most meaningful work

It was an unexpected realization.  An “aha” moment.  I LOVE what I’m doing – this is so rewarding.  It wasn’t about my job of 20 years, it was about my volunteer work.  It came to me one day when I was putting together photographs of our activities on a display board for an event.  Looking at all the great experiences these girls have had, I realized that I was instrumental in that.  I could see that I have helped them step out of their comfort zones – on a ropes course, or in a kayak, or in a tent.  I could see their pride in themselves – from planting a garden, or building a parade float, or working with younger girls.  It’s hard for me to come up with something I could do that would be more meaningful.  And it doesn’t even pay the bills.

IMG_3170It’s easy to get caught up in thinking, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” How awesome it must be for people who accomplish this.  But I realized I didn’t need to put that pressure on myself.  The work that really gives my life meaning doesn’t need to come with a paycheck.  It actually comes with something much more valuable – a sense of purpose.

 

 

That we need to be silly

I take my Girl Scouting pretty seriously. I have a strong belief in the mission of Girl Scouts.  Girls today need strong female role models, showing them how to be brave, confident, and accept no limits.  So I try very hard to get the meaning and message of the program across to my girls.  But there is one thing I forget sometimes.  They are still children.  They need to be having fun.

IMG_1009It’s important to make time in our lives for just being goofy. We have to lighten up.  Well, at least I know I need to.  Things don’t have to be so serious all the time.  We spend our days handling the pressures of long to-do lists and tight schedules.  There needs to be a release.  We all need a dose of the sillies once in a while.  And in spite of my efforts to keep us on track, my scouts invariably need to get their ya-yas out during our meeting times.  I’ve been fighting it for a long time.  But they’ve got me thinking.  We need to set aside time for this, not only at Scouts, but in our everyday lives.

One of the things I remember most about being a Girl Scout as a child was singing funny songs.  I loved “Going on a Bear Hunt.”  Thankfully, these traditions are still alive and well in Scouts today.  We need to sing loud and off-key.  We need to dance wildly and not care who is watching.  We need to tell silly jokes and laugh hysterically when someone shoots juice out of her nose!  I’m taking this new attitude to my next Girl Scout meeting.  I think my girls will be pleasantly surprised.

© Vulnerable Path, 2014

“Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”


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I belong with Pig Stomach

 

My family has a unique tradition.  We celebrate my Father’s birthday with a special meal — Pig Stomach.  If you are German, or Pennsylvania Dutch, you might have heard of this dish.  But more likely, you think we’re nuts!  Yet, this is what we do every February.

My Father turned 87 years old this year.  As he tells it, this was a dish that his Mother used to make.  He’s not quite sure how it became his special meal.  After he married my Mother in 1950, she learned how to prepare it.    The actual stomach of a pig is stuffed with diced potatoes and sausage meat.  It is sewn shut and either boiled and then browned in butter, or baked to a golden brown.  The once a year feast also includes Angel Food Cake and Pineapple Delight for dessert.  We have been making this meal for our Dad for as long as I can remember.  When my Mother passed away in 1992, the torch was passed to my sister.  She and her husband are foodies, so the recipe has been jazzed up to include peppers, onion, various types of sausage, and different blends of seasonings.  There is often a fruit cup appetizer, endive with hot bacon dressing, vegetables, and bread as well.  No one goes home hungry.

 

IMG_3039Our family not only converges for my Father’s birthday, but also for a few other birthdays, holidays, and summer picnics.  It’s not unusual for some of us to not see or speak to each other except on these occasions.  Our busy lives have taken us in different directions.  We live far apart.  But we still pick up right where we left off.  We catch up on careers, school, kids, pets, activities, and travels.  We are all very different.  But this is our common bond.

It’s fun to invite a newcomer to Pig Stomach dinner.  If they can accept Pig Stomach, they will probably make it OK in our family.  Otherwise, that’s not a good sign.  That person might not value family tradition the way we do.  I’m not saying all of us just love the stuff.  There have been years when someone refused to eat it.  There have been years when we have made a roast on the side!  But respecting the tradition is what matters.

Pig Stomach isn’t the only special meal either.  There is also my Grandmother’s pork loin platter, mounded with mashed potatoes, and encircled with creamed spinach, carrots, hard boiled egg slices and bacon strips.  There is Filled Noodles.  There is spaghetti and meatballs with triple almond fudge cake.  My sister and brother and I cherish these family traditions, and we have taught our own children their importance.

IMG_1732It’s been said that we cannot give our children what we don’t have.  Our parents had an abundance of love.  The kitchen was always filled with it.  The orchestration of a family dinner was how our Mother and Grandmother  literally fed us love.  Love was stuffed into that Pig Stomach.  It was baked into that pumpkin pie.  We were marinated in it like a pickled egg.

Love and belonging are something we all crave but sometimes find lacking in our lives.  The world, or at least a few of the people in it, have rejected me at times.  Heck, I have rejected myself a few times!  But it’s within our families where we first learn love and belonging.  Family traditions like ours continue to reinforce it as years go by.  Family gives us stability, security, and our sense of identity — all part of the recipe for healthy, grounded children.  It was truly what my parents fed me that gave me the strength to handle the things life brought my way.  I always knew who loved me.  I knew who accepted me in spite of my mistakes.  No matter what has happened, I have found kind words, reassurances, and encouragement in my family.  It’s where I am worthy.  It’s where I am healed.  A good Pig Stomach dinner will always nourish my soul.

 

© Vulnerable Path, 2014

 

Want to join the conversation?  I’d love to hear your comments.  What does love and belonging look like in your life?  Do you find it within your family and family traditions?