Thursday, March 26, 2009

Eating As Harry Ate

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to one of the Harry Potter books while I cleaned the kitchen and heard, once again, of Harry's predilection for Treacle Tarts. I was ready to let this small detail pass by as usual, but then it occurred to me: I'm in England now. This book was written by an Englishwoman. This treacle tart thingy is English and I have English cookbooks!

Off to the bookcase I flew and yanked my National Trust cookbook off the shelf. Yes indeedy. There it was. Treacle Tart. I looked in another book, and another. I kept looking for what I assumed would be the main ingredient: treacle, that darker, denser English cousin of American molasses. I was surprised to see that most of the recipes didn't even have treacle in them. I determined to make a treacle tart, but as will happen with me, I became distracted with other things and it never got made.

Then tonight, whilst shopping at the local Sainsbury's, wandering the aisles like a food anthropologist, picking unfamiliar things up, staring at them, putting some in the trolley (USA interpretation: cart) and some back on the shelves, I found myself in the bakery aisle. After adding Hot Cross Buns to my mishmash of interesting items, a shelf of desserts caught my eye. There, nestled next to something called a Bakelite Tart, shining in golden loveliness out from from the center of a sunshine yellow box, was a lattice topped Treacle Tart.

"Oooo!" I thought. "Lovely!" and I almost clapped my hands with delight.

Without a second thought, I picked it up and placed it gently on the bottom of the trolley, making sure nothing would damage the little treasure, a happy smile upon my face.

When I got home, I immediately announced to anyone who would listen that we were going to sample a Treacle Tart! Sarah released the tart from its packaging, turned the brightly colored box over and read that it could be served warm or cold. We decided to try both. We split it in two, popped one half in the oven and divided the other half into fourths.

As I placed my little wedge of tart into my mouth, I felt a bit like I was having dessert at Hogwarts. I was eating a Treacle Tart, just like Harry Potter! It felt like A Moment, if you know what I mean. Like the melding of real life and fiction, actually tasting something I'd only read about.

It was nice, as they describe food here. It was tasty. I can see why Harry is partial to them. I could find myself partial to them, too. I think the most accurate description I can give is that it tasted like a pecan pie without the pecans. And definitely better cold than hot. Hot makes all the insides too liquidy.

And there you have it. Treacle Tart.

I feel a certain sense of odd satisfaction and with it, a renewed determination to bake a treacle tart all on my own. Maybe the one that actually calls for treacle in the recipe itself. Wouldn't that be novel?

Yea for these silly little happy experiences!

See what book-learnin' can do for you?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Just finished reading Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird (loved it) and realized that I've been playing it safe by not writing, or by writing about neutral things. And, I have suffered for it. I know that I think I know that writing keeps me sane, but I really didn't know it. Didn't make the connection between writing consistently and how clogged up I feel or how I sort of check out and walk away from the present, feeling lost and out of touch with myself and my life when I don't. Without writing about it, I somehow don't see my life as real or that it's an accumulation of decisions and actions. I just float somewhere in the ether.

I've said things about writing before, but I'm really struggling with overcoming the weird guilt I feel if I spend time writing. I think I've subconsciously labeling writing as "Indulgence" rather than "Lifeblood" or "Worthy Use of Time." I look around at our still not quite finished house and know that I could fill every single minute with "productive" work like organizing the kids' cupboards or sorting papers. But I don't. The irony of all this is, I could be doing that, and there are days that are filled with work, but I've lost my drive. I feel like my natural joie de vivre has a lot less vivre lately. I think at least some of feeling this way is because I haven't really written consistently in three years. Not even in journals. Sad considering all the life we've lived during said three years.

It occurs to me there is a distinct possibility that should I schedule writing time for me, I would probably use the other time more productively than if I didn't take the time to write at all. Maybe I should give it a go, as they say here. Give it a try, give it a go. Whatever.

Bleh. I don't know answers. I've passed the age where I think I know everything, but certainly by this age I should have a better grip on what I think or how I act. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blech.

Maybe something more interesting will occur to me to write about tomorrow. Something brave like the subject of babies or Gollum-ish longing for my beautiful preciouses that no longer belong to me. Yeah. Something easy like that.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An Observation

I was talking to my husband about the feeling of hopelessness that hovers in the atmosphere in England. It's especially prevalent with the younger generation, though the oldsters have their fair share.

Our teenagers stay at home in the evenings a majority of the time because most of their school friends have only two goals for their free time: get as plastered as quickly and as frequently as possible, and hook up with anyone they can get for wild, weird sex. Their friends don't seem to expect anything more from their lives. They have no goals, they have no sense that there is something better for them out there. They take what they can get, when they can get it. No long-term plans, no long-term relationships. They don't marry, they don't formulate plans for the future.

I told Tim that when I was growing up, it seemed like there was no limit to what a person could accomplish, that if they wanted something, they just had to work hard for it. There was always this sense of the possible. Here, it's like there's this chip borne on every shoulder. They resent anyone who has made a success of themselves, unless they have fame because of their recent appearance on Big Brother. Then it's A-okay.

My husband agreed and said he heard the following analogy on the radio, regarding this very thing. If an American sees a limousine parked somewhere, he'll admire it and think, "I can have one of those someday!" If a Brit sees a limo parked somewhere, he'll key it and grumble, "Too much f-ing money!"

Almost without exception, when someone asks where I'm from and I tell them I'm from America, they ask why in the world I'm living in England and then tell me they'd trade places with me any day of the week to live in America. They seem to think that Americans are better than they are, though they won't admit it, and they really resent it. It's not true, but that's what they believe.

I remember when I was young, I dreamed of traveling to England and to Europe and I thought how much more wonderful those countries must be, with all of their history and all of their incredible architecture and their real live castles. But I have come to realize that their history, as amazing and intriguing as it is, has also served as an all too strong reminder of class and place and societal position. Even though society in general has evolved in many ways, there is still a definite class system, where those with money are the lords and ladies and those without are the serfs, forever doomed to live in the shadow of the privileged.

While there are abundant opportunities for education and personal betterment in England, there are also so many opportunities for living off the government and for settling in to live exactly the same type of life their parents lived. This isn't unique to England, obviously. But I am surprised by how prevalent it is here.

I wonder if American brashness is more than a little genetic. It takes incredible intestinal fortitude to leave your homeland and the comfort of the known for the danger of the unknown. Maybe that's the legacy our immigrant forefathers gave us: the guts to believe there's something better and the courage to do something about it.

I just wish the people here could see that they live in a wonderful country too, and that they can have better lives than they settle for.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Sunday Thoughts

Writing a letter to our son in Ghana led to these thoughts. I hope they make sense.

During this last week I was reminded of two truths I realized earlier in my life (with the help of Gary Zukav) but had sort of forgotten a little lately. When I trust in these truths, as well as others, they have served to transform the way I look at things. They are these:

1. Heavenly Father is a benevolent God.

2. Everything that happens in our lives--the good, the bad, the ugly--is meant to bring us closer to Him.

Simple. Clear. True. If we truly understand and believe these things, we can trust God because we believe He has our best interest at heart and we can then look at the events in our lives through different eyes. If we're able to humbly ask Heavenly Father how a particular situation or event or person can bring us closer to Him (even in the throes of great sadness and pain), we will find ourselves expressing gratitude for everything, as we are so often counseled to do, because we can trust and know that somehow, we will come out the other side a better person, closer to God.

Choosing to have complete trust in God and choosing to be grateful in all things are two of the most transforming and powerful choices we will make in our lives. It doesn't take away the hard things, but certainly makes them more palatable and manageable. It also gives them a purpose, and that can make a huge difference in how we endure them. As we open ourselves to all that Heavenly Father offers us--all of it, not just the happy things--and trust that He has our best interest at heart, we are transformed. We grow in ways we never thought possible and in ways we never thought necessary.

Be willing to accept whatever Heavenly Father sees fit to challenge you with. Be willing to be knocked down and rebuilt. Be willing to trust Him, even if for right now you can only trust Him 30% of the way. That's enough for now. Be willing to express gratitude in all circumstances even when you can't begin to conceive of how to be grateful for something so painful. Ask for His help to be grateful and be willing to express it, even if you have to tell Heavenly Father that you're only saying you're grateful to be obedient. Obedience counts. It will get better.

Be willing to fling your arms open wide and accept and embrace all that you are offered. It will make all the difference when you do not place limits on what God has to give you, both in blessings and in challenges.


Funny how sometimes the things you need to say to someone else are the very things you so desperately need to hear...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Snow

So...we've been hit by the Greatest Snowstorm in Recent Memory! and while our older kids are ecstatic due to rampant school closures--including theirs--the younger two are disheartened. They attend a primary school that is pre-ghost Scrooge: it never closes. Never. I did let them off the hook by keeping them out of school on Monday so they could play, but they haven't had another reprieve. Chris' school has been closed three of four days and Sarah's school has been closed two out of four, but the little missies' school has stayed open. Wide open. The administration faltered slightly today by opening late at 10 am, but that didn't soothe the troubled hearts and souls of the young ones. So off they went this morning in their wellies, regular shoes tucked inside their bookbags, Sarah as their escort.

For those wondering how much snow must fall in order to close so many schools and even lead to headlines about London shutting down, let's just say that it's not as deep as Utah's snow. Not even close. Maybe a few inches. Maybe.

The problem is, in this part of the country, snow is pretty rare. It falls in a meaningful amount maybe once a year, if the kids are lucky. They're not prepared for it here so it feels a bit Chicken Little, as if people are running in circles shrieking, "The snow is falling! The snow is falling!" then trembling behind closed curtains at home, huddled next to the electric fire. Heavens. You'd think it was nuclear fallout.

And no, I haven't been out in it much yet. I did find two snowballs in the freezer though. Does that count?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chicken Enchildas

I've just finished filling three 9 x 13 pans with chicken enchildas in anticipation of serving dinner to 16 people tomorrow after stake conference. Crazy.

It started out innocently enough. I invited another family of four and they said yes, which boosted our normal amount of six people for Sunday dinner up to 10.

Then I realized that I should really invite their newlywed son and his wife who live around the corner, so I did. 12.

Then I remembered that my friend's elderly parents lived right near her and they would be coming to conference so we invited them, too. 14.

Then my friend called and said that a lady they were trying to welcome back to church had just asked them for a lift for her and her daughter to stake conference. So, it's 16.

So, three pans of enchiladas later...and I've still got to make the spanish rice (do I have to capitalize "Spanish" if it's a food??) and buy some salad fixin's to fill 'em up and to look like we have a balanced meal. They begged to bring dessert and I was magnanimous enough to let them. Ain't I generous?

The kids were curious about the approximate cost of this large meal and in the middle of figuring it out, son Chris piped up, "Oh and add the £500 you spent going to America to buy canned green chillis. Man, those are expensive enchiladas!" Yes. If you look it that way, they are pricey. Pricey but good. Mmmm. Chicken Enchiladas, with imported American mild green chillis. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Tale of Visiting Teaching

I don't think I like visiting teaching all that much.

I just got back from visiting this older woman who had polio as a child, so is mostly in a wheelchair. My visiting teaching companion has been visiting this woman for years so knows what's going on in the woman's life, knows her people and gets hugs and kisses from her. Well, we both get that, but I don't know her very well. She seems nice but sort of covertly demanding, so I feel a little wary. And also a little guilty for feeling wary.

So we're there. The nice older woman is blithely chattering away about the surgery she'll be having for her eye, about her electric fireplace that used to be gas that her now-deceased husband used to have to get down on his knees to start ("The darned thing!"), about how the new electric one has a handy-dandy remote control ("Let me show you!") that includes options like "Flame Only" and "Half Heat", about how the electric heater right next to the electric fire had to be that specific color because she's--in her own words--picky ("They had it in red and black, but it had to be green like my wallpaper!") and about her recent hospital stay for shingles on her face and head.

Shingles. I always thought that was one of those medieval types of diseases like the plague or rickets. Okay, rickets isn't exactly medieval, but I'm just saying. Isn't that mostly uncommon in developed countries? Isn't there another name for it that doesn't make it sound like the only ones who catch it are turn-of-the-century immigrants living in overcrowded boarding houses with stagnant water, moldy food, too many snot-nosed kids, and dingy laundry swooped all around their kitchen? I'm just saying.

So then the conversation turns to her latest doctor visit and how even though she's under 10 stone, (only in my dreams) the doctor wants her to lose more weight, and I murmur something that echoes the protests of my companion who is horrified and says so, because this woman doesn't need to lose weight really and then my companion says something about having put on some weight herself and her frustration at not being able to shift it and at that precise moment I hear an alarm go off in my head-- that hyper-alert social situation warning system that begins to screech, "Get out! Save yourself! Change the subject! Step away from the danger zone!" and I just know this conversation is not going to end well.

"So what adds to your weight? Are you on steroids? What are you on?" that old lady asks. Staring straight at me.

"Food." I answer with a watered-down version of what would have normally been a highly sarcastic tone. Because after all, I'm doing my visiting teacher and What Would Jesus Do?

I add, "Just food. That's what keeps the weight on." Like it needs explaining. My companion tries to laugh. It doesn't help.

"Oh," says the woman and immediately turns her attention to my much nicer and much kinder companion while I, in the meantime, try to calculate how many trillions of pieces the little old lady's hundreds of little knick-knacks would shatter into if I accidentally hurled them through her front window.

Then she asks us to post three letters for her and to put the black garbage bag in the black bin outside and the paper bag in the red bin outside and points to a white plastic bag in another corner and tells my companion those are presents for her and then asks/tells me to say a prayer. I do. A short one.

And then I grab the garbage bag and the paper bag and practically run the two steps to the front door (English houses are sometimes that small) so as to avoid the huggy kissy thing that she's doing with my companion and I pop the rubbish into the appropriate bins (while sorely tempted to get it wrong on purpose) and dash up the outside stairs to the concrete driveway and wave goodbye standing safely at the side of my companion's car which I'm silently begging her to unlock very soon so I can slip inside and we can leave again and not come back for another month.

I'm going to hell. For sure this time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

English Food

Ever hear of Bread Sauce? Me neither, until I moved here. It usually comes out during the holidays and yes, it is what is says it is. Bread. And milk. And stuff like bay leaves to infuse it with flavor. Made into a "sauce".

The first time my husband mentioned it I said, "So it's like soggy bread you pour over turkey?" I felt my gag reflex start to kick in and quickly began to hum tunelessly in a preemptive strike against full-scale vomiting.

Who came up with this revolting concoction?? This is my theory (and I seem to have theories coming out my ears lately): I think some overworked cook in a large country estate somewhere dipped a little harder into the Christmas booze than she should have and accidently knocked some drying bread (intended for stuffing the master's Christmas turkey) into a jug of milk. Then, so her wages wouldn't be docked for wasting food and ruining Christmas, she threw in some onion and spices, dumped it all into a pot on the stove, stirred it around a bit, and hoped the snobs she worked for would be convinced she'd masterminded some new foodie trend. Luckily, they bought it. Fools.

Back at the ranch--or back in the village we should say--word got out about this "delicious" sauce and, wanting to look like they could afford good food too, the locals sniffed out the recipe and spread it far and wide until all of Britain accepted the new "sauce" as a part of their own Christmas tradition.

A couple of years ago, our Relief Society put on this really lovely Christmas dinner for the sisters. Turkey, roasted potatoes--the works. As I sat down to indulge in this beautiful array of food, I spied a pot full of thick white-ish stuff that looked vaguely like lumpy, oat-y vanilla pudding.

"Please pass the bread sauce!" came the request a few chairs away from the woman clapping her hands with joy. She seemed to be speaking to me and I looked about, confused. "The bread sauce!" she called, frantically pointing in my general direction. Seeing my plight, one of my friends grabbed the globby gloop and passed it into her eagerly awaiting hands.

Bread sauce. I watched as it was slopped over the turkey and felt my hunger wane. Then I thought of that old adage about fearing fear itself, braced myself, subdued my overactive gagging reflex and asked for it back.

I carefully dropped a teaspoonful onto my place, cut a small piece of turkey, put it all together and popped it into my mouth.

To my great surprise, I did not hurl, nor was hurlage immediately eminent. On the contrary. Amazingly, this unholy union of tender, flavorful poultry married to pasty, milk-soaked dessicated white bread was actually not bad. Not bad at all. I even took another teaspoonful just to try again. Another vomit-less moment passed.

So, okay. Bread sauce handled. Revulsion conquered. Cultural barriers bridged. Kudos to me!

I'm still not letting my husband add it to our Christmas menu. Not a chance in hades.

Change

I am hesitant to breathe a word of this lest I break the magic spell, but over the last three days, my little Jekyll/Hyde has turned back into her sweet and adorable self! There is hope!

I am also hesitant to breathe a word of this lest I incriminate myself, but I think a huge part of that is a change in me. Isn't that always the case? We can't change those around us, but we can certainly do our best to change ourselves.

I don't think it's coincidence that while I was cleaning my bedroom cupboards a few days ago I found a picture of her that was taken at her preschool probably within weeks or months after her mum died. Her little face is so bare and open with loss and bewilderment that I can't look at the picture without feeling an ache in my chest and a fierce compulsion to comfort and protect her. It puts my heart back in the right place and helps me see her for who she is. Not the child who is lost and bewildered anymore, but a child who has come through this and emerged a loving, sparkling, witty and strong lighting bolt of affection and love and truth and a child who needs a mother. Who needs me.

I still waver sometimes between standing dead center within the stability of knowing I am right exactly where I should be, and that isolating nausea of wondering whether I will ever really and truly belong. Happily, the doubt happens less often than it did three years ago. It's when I am reminded of how we've all changed over the last three years through things like that raw and honest snapshot that I get the guts to dive back into the emotional water head first, and it is then that I can report honestly and truthfully, that the water is very fine indeed.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ironing

English women are in love with ironing: talking about it, doing it, complaining about it, comparing the amount to be done with the neighbors (and strangers, for that matter), and evaluating the quality of it.

When I first arrived in the UK and took on the whole husband-and-six-children thing, women at church asked regularly (every week) and in increasingly alarming numbers if I needed help with my ironing. I kept scanning my family's clothes to see if anyone was wearing anything obviously wrinkly, but no, it all seemed reassuringly smooth. I was befuddled as I wasn't aware that I had any ironing to do, though these kind women seemed convinced that I must. Sure there was that occasional white-shirt-for-church type of ironing or a skirt that needed a bit of attention, but overall, not a big problem.

After being asked for the umpteenth time, "Would you like some help with your ironing, dear?", confronted once again with that worried look and that calm but urgent tone, I finally pulled one of my friends aside and asked, "Is there ironing I'm supposed to be doing that I don't know about? I just don't have that many wrinkled clothes coming out of the dryer!"

My friend smiled and explained carefully, as you would to very slow child, that most women in the UK didn't even own a clothes dryer, let alone use a clothes dryer. And because all clothing must therefore be hung out on the line to dry, almost all clothing had to be ironed. It was naturally assumed, my friend explained, that I had copious amounts of piled-up ironing to do that I couldn't possibly keep up with.

Feeling a bit defensive about this perceived slight on my domestic skills I asked, "Why in the world would I not be able to keep up with my family's ironing??"

"Well, because you're an American, of course. Americans don't iron."

Ah, yes. The answer to most of our/my perceived limitations. My place of birth prohibits me from understanding the mysterious world of the iron and the inexplicable conundrum of wrinkle-free garments. It all makes perfect sense to me now.

You may be asking yourself why in the world a developed country like England doesn't make use of the "modern" technology of a simple clothes dryer. While I have happy memories of helping my grandmother hang laundry on her clothes line, smelling the distinctive scent of freshly-washed fabric, dodging in and out of the blindingly white sheets waving in the breeze, I have always associated it with a bygone era, my grandmother's generation, an old-fashioned practice.

I wondered and I queried. The short answer is, that drying clothes in a clothes dryer is not good for the environment. Evidently, it adds to the carbon footprint. And, the English are nothing if not environmentally aware. Who knew? Certainly not me.

Even with that righteous explanation, I'm not completely convinced it's the real motivation. I think the honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth, feel-it-in-your-heart reason they don't use clothes dryers is: if forced to give up ironing, the lovely women of England might not feel quite as English anymore. Disposing of weekly ironing duties would be the loss of a small but distinctive part of English culture, and a sense of personal English pride. Considering the disturbing trend toward the Americanization of any country that can afford our excesses and materialism, I think that's an even better reason to keep ironing than the "green" one.

Come to think of it, I know just the right place in the garden for a clothes line...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Once I Start, I Can't Stop

Why is it that I can't read all these amazing blog entries, and even the most normal mundane ones without the feeling that somehow I'm not living my life as vibrantly aware and awake and alive as the rest of the people I know? That I haven't read the right books or seen the right movies or adopted the right mindset? Will I forever be comparing myself with others and worrying that I come up short? My hell! I'm in my forties! I thought this would all be over by now, the comparison despair!

Of course, I am living in England with an incredibly-close-to-perfect husband (due to his own dang self, not to anything I've done) and parenting, to one degree or another, six really-well-brought-up children (again, me not having a hand in that part) with Basilton Park, Legoland and Windsor Castle within 30 minutes drive. I did see Paris recently.

By driving to the real White Cliffs of Dover AND

Hopping a ferry across the real English Channel AND

Driving onto real French soil in our own car.

Oh, and had my passport stamped...again. Yea for me.


I suppose it really IS all in your perspective and in how you look at things. Just like they always said. Whoever "they" are. Dang it. Another thing I'm personally responsible for. Communists.

I still miss easy access to cheap cake mixes. So sue me.

Monday, January 05, 2009

P.S.

The look of my blog is really, really boring. But as a techno idiot, I fear and tremble at the thought of changing it and losing anything. Perhaps that is what techno god husbands are for. Hmmm. Hadn't thought of that.

"Oh, Honey...!" she called, a smile playing upon her lips.

I miss...

...my friends. I've been catching up on blogs and have been so enjoying that feeling of being back in touch again, even though I haven't actually written to anyone or picked up the phone. (Damn that time difference.) That's one of the pitfalls of blogs I think. That sense that one can drop in or out of others' lives and it's all almost manageable and okay.

It's not okay, really.

I spent some time in the US recently (Nov) and was so wiped out and I think, so drained that I didn't see anyone except my family. I've wondered a lot about that, about why I couldn't pull it together to see people who mean so much to me. I have some theories. One sounds something like after several years of lots of stress and a damned heart attack on top of it all, I was simply completely tapped out. Another is that on my other trips to the US, I didn't spend enough time with my sisters and nieces and nephews and really, really wanted to focus on them. Theory Three is one that is emerging at this very minute because of what I saw on the blogs I read. It is this. I don't live there anymore and I can't have what I had before and maybe sometimes staring that fact straight in the eye is a little too much.

I see lives moving forward and relationships forming and happy, growing children and crafts and fun gatherings and happy holidays and I fervently wish that I was a part of them. I can so easily imagine us there, but we aren't. Is it a cop-out? Because we do have good things here and we did have a great Christmas and I finally, on my return after said US trip, felt really and truly that I had come home, which was a miracle unto itself. But my old life and my old hopes and dreams still tug at me and still remind me that I can't have it all.

I am grateful for my life. There's no doubt about that. And there are things I have here that I can't have there. Nevertheless, maybe I've just taken to hiding myself from possibilities and options that I can't choose. I don't know.

I do know that I miss my friends. And I miss the cool things going on in their lives, like making reindeer cans full of feed for Santa's herd. And I feel sorry that I haven't been in touch as much as I wish I could be.

There are times when my greatest desire is to be two people...