Thursday, December 18, 2014

40 Days Of Thanksgiving--Final Dozen

My mother and I had discussed assembling dueling pans of baklava for a family taste-off this afternoon. I contend that baklava preparation is more an art than a science, and use unorthodox (hey, I'm Presbyterian) ingredients, from orange juice in the syrup to pecans in the filling, and I usually almost double the volume of nuts my most decadent recipe calls for. I've never had anyone complain. Mums, on the other hand, is parsimonious with nuts, stingy with honey, and religious as to recipes, choosing those favoring smaller portions.  Which explains why her baklava is so much less expensive to make than mine is.  But does it taste as good?

I didn't end up making any, as the robust Hamilton Beach food processor my brother gave me years ago, which has served me well through pounds of pecans, walnuts and unblanched almonds, gave up the ghost this morning, and I was forced to mince a kilo by hand. At least I had a spring-loaded chopper--wielding a cleaver and shooting nut meats all over the kitchen would not have been an encouraging start to the day. I did help Mums bake cookies, and the two pans of baklava she made were good, just different from mine, with more lemon and butter and less spice.

This evening was our choir Christmas party, at the home of our director and his wife.  June called me shortly before it was to begin. She was shaking and panicky--someone had run into the back of her car, and though no one was hurt (thank God!) both she and the girl who'd hit her were stuck in the dark on the side of a highly-trafficked two-lane road, shell-shocked and unsure of what to do next. I threw on the vintage velvet dress I'd selected for the party, got into my coat and sat down behind the wheel of my mother's SUV (in the rush, I couldn't find my own car keys), leaned forward to crank the engine, and riiipppp....the seam tore off my zipper from the small of my back to my shoulders. So glad my coat concealed this major wardrobe malfunction! After a nice policeman sorted the paperwork and the disposition of both disabled vehicles, I dropped off June at the party and hurried back home to change.

Our choir director's wife is an incredibly talented decorator. There were two full-sized Christmas trees and several smaller ones, lovely wreaths, garlands, and tasteful white lights festooned throughout the house.  The children's play area upstairs actually had a wardrobe, complete with coats, through which small folk could crawl to reach "Narnia", a well-lit reading nook with a multicolored rug and a stencil of a fruit tree on the wall.  In the larger room, there were life-size cardboard figures of a storm trooper and Boba Fett.  And a huge plush giraffe, books, blocks, and other necessaries.

I'd eaten so much cookie dough during the day, I couldn't fully appreciate the catered savories and sweets covered the dining room table, but I did like the fire they had burning in a grate on the patio, though my hair smelled like I'd bathed in smoke afterwards.

There were some carols playing via the flat screen TV in the family room, but aside from this, no music at the party, where several of my fellow singers confessed that pieces from our Sunday concerts had been running through their heads for weeks.  I've been whistling and humming selections non-stop, the brass and organ having blasted the tunes into my brain.

I have enjoyed some world-class, and international, music over the last couple of weeks! Between the Russian Embassy concert and Sunday's candlelit services, I had the pleasure of a Tuesday midday interlude at the Church of the Epiphany, just a block or so from the White House.  The program was music by Edvard Grieg, piano and violin, with lyrics by Henrik Ibsen.

Nick, the Chinese guy I'd enjoyed chatting with at Friday's party, told me about the Tuesday music series, and we agreed to meet there and then have lunch--he slipped into the pew just seconds before the first notes rolled out from the piano, while I had for once misjudged my transit time properly, arriving half an hour early, rather than proportionally late.  It was cold and raining outside, and inside, a dozen depressed and isolated African American homeless were dotted around the church, bundled in heavy coats and clutching overstuffed bags of belongings.  Middle-aged and elderly White music lovers slowly trickled into the sanctuary, supplanting the homeless, who shuffled out.  Most of the male audience sported mustaches and glasses, stereotypical upper-middle class academics. While waiting for the program to begin, some clutched the white trifold programs, others poured over thumbed paperbacks and "serious" magazines; one was reading a section from the New York Times while across the aisle three elderly fellows talked loudly about their ancestry, which one traced to the Mayflower. Truly, classical music lovers of venerable lineage.  Until Nick arrived, I was the youngest in the audience by some score of years.

The black grand piano was set up in the center of a huge parquet maze, behind it, a lacy ironwork gate replaced the pre-Reformation iconostasis in the archway between the transept and the chancel. At noon, the steeple bells began to sound ten minutes of chimes, some seeming hymn-based, but the squeak of wet footwear on the dingy marble center aisle confused my sense of the melody. When the bells fell silent, a British-accented gentleman thanked the pale and damp congregation for coming out in the "English weather", and the concert began.

Whenever the pianist paused, either of the two infirm individuals who had been assisted to the front row by their minority attendants groaned wordlessly, but it was not until the violinist--his strength evidenced by his economy of motion--applied tremendous pressure into the crescendo of a duet, as if fighting the piano for supremacy, did both disabled become agitated simultaneously and have to be earnestly soothed. When not rapt on the musicians, I stared at the stunning triptych-style stained glass window behind the altar, an intense combination of reds, blues and oranges in an upsweeping triangle, which I initially mistook for a Last Judgment or an Assumption, but which was in fact a Nativity.

The soloist (like the pianist and the violinist, a musician from South Korea), sang in an exquisitely clear soprano--I could almost hear the birds twittering and chirping in the background of the arboreal landscape she described. And then there were the inevitable references to waterlilies.  What explains the Impressionists' obsession with waterlilies?  Grieg did capture the liquid, sorrowful spirit of Ibsen's Song #4 perfectly, though.

Nick and I ate at a Korean restaurant just outside McPherson Square Metro. He proved a thoroughly comfortable person to be around, easy to talk to, and I ate an enormous plate of bulgogi with rice while we chatted about religion (he's Roman Catholic) and politics (he'd just met with an opposition leader from his home country, who was facing renewed house arrest on a trumped-up morals charge).  I did not attempt to use chopsticks with my meal, having severely embarrassed myself thereby on my last dinner out with an Asian guy!  It was a pleasant afternoon, and general well-wishes and "look me up if you're in town" suggestions were exchanged on parting.

I wasn't so comfortable at Sunday's candlelight services--not because of anticipating the advent of the fellow I'd invited (he didn't show), but because the children's choir members were carrying lighted tapers, and some wore robes so long that they were tripping on the hems.  I almost had a panic attack, visualizing the horrible burning scenarios. Happily, we all made it through without setting ourselves, anything, or anyone else on fire!

While the twelve days of Christmas have not yet begun, I need to finish my 40 Days of Thanksgiving with the final dozen that procrastination and melancholy prompted me to skip until this concluding post!

I am grateful that there were no accidents at Sunday's Lessons and Carols, and that the Muslim friend of a neighboring alto came to the second service--wearing hijab and with her five children!

I am grateful that neither my sweet Grandmommy nor my friend June were hurt in their respective recent car accidents, and that the necessary repairs to their vehicles are comparatively minor.

I am thankful for occasions to enjoy beauty, that these spots of joy need not be entirely divorced from pain to be recognizable.

I am glad that, even after a year, there are some people who are still praying faithfully that I will find a good and worthwhile job.

I am grateful for people who have had financial mercy on me and my unemployed (or underemployed) friends, from buying us groceries to writing off medical debts. God bless you many times over!

I am thankful that Anita's and my shows went well, that I was able to be reimbursed for my travel and components expenses.

I am happy to see pictures of my niece and nephews regularly! Their smiles brighten even the darkest winter days.

Befriending nice fellow believers, especially those who share my loves for classical music and intercultural communication, is a special blessing!

I am pleased that I have had opportunities to paint and make jewelry lately; I've used components that had been gathering dust for years, and I found a perfectly good wood table discarded near Anita's apartment that I brought home, stripped of its heavy mahogany varnish and am refinishing in red, black and gold.

I am grateful not to be homeless (I want to learn how I can help those who are).

I am thankful for dreams and hope! Many people become disillusioned and complacent as they grow older, allowing their worlds to shrink and their ambitions to falter. I am glad that as a Christian, the opposite can be true of me, that as I learn more of the height, depth and breadth of Almighty grace, my universe will continue to expand.

And most of all, I am grateful for God's gift of his son, Jesus, completely human and completely divine, to save me from my fundamental screwedupness. I am glad that he knows me!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Still Alive & Grateful

I think I am about a week behind on my "40 Days of Thanksgiving" series, not to mention ordinary blog posts, but these will have to wait until Monday, as I've been booked with social and sales engagements since my last writing, I drove back to GA from DC yesterday, and tomorrow I've got regular church in the morning and our "lessons and carols" Christmas concerts all afternoon and evening.

Since last Sunday, I've helped Anita with three jewelry shows, accompanied a friend to buy contraband candy, shared two lunches, a breakfast, an afternoon tea and a supper with various old comrades, attended a Scandinavian music concert performed by a trio of Koreans with a Mandarin-speaking Malaysian, shared hours of conversation and Armenian hors d'ouevres with one Greek, several Russians, two Hungarians and a German, and contributed to my team's second place finish in a bar trivia contest. I've sampled homemade Polish sausage and small batch Michigan maple syrup, wines, cheeses, and uncountable desserts (I probably gained a pound a day during my travels--so many opportunities to enjoy good food!).  A dear friend gave me almost 50 books to list online, and I returned to Augusta to find that though customers had not denuded my booth of items, enough had sold to justify bringing more from my stash at home.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Packing List & Parties (Or) 40 Days of Thanksgiving: Days 26-28

Almost every time I go on a trip, I forget something. I will have gone back indoors half a dozen times, grabbing items that I remembered just as I was shoving the key into my car ignition, but still I will completely overlook something obvious--or several. This time, I forgot business cards, price tags and my razor.  Previously, I've forgotten my medicine, or toothpaste, or makeup, or socks. I am religious about packing underwear, because once when I was little, my mother forgot to bring any for me, and I had to borrow Grandmommy's.  Never again.

I am glad that for the most part (medication excepted), if I forget something, it has been fairly easy to find a store that sells the product at my destination. But this can be a pain--it takes time and money better spent elsewhere, and on returning home, I have unnecessary duplicates.

Sometimes, finding replacement items can lead to interesting adventures, like when I ran out of certain toiletries at the end of my summer stay in Poland, before a week in Vienna, and the only Kmart I knew of where such things could be had was in Bratislava, Slovakia. So I took a train to Bratislava, did some sightseeing, almost got squished by a tram (a matter of inches between me and the precariously-parked car against which I was leaning), and got the things I needed at the Kmart before heading back to Austria.

I need a master packing list, kind of like the laminated preflight checklist cards that small-engine pilots carry (mine, with my old flight book, is still in the armrest between the front seats in my car--maybe, just maybe, I'll get to use it again someday...). It should have domestic, international and business variations. There's probably an iPhone app, but I think an analog, hardcopy version would be prudent to have as well.

The Russians know how to throw good parties. I spent yesterday evening at one of the reception halls in the embassy compound along with perhaps 500-700 others at their 2014 holiday party. Grandfather Frost and one attendant snow maiden were there for photos, and upstairs the catered savories (hot and cold) preceded the musical centerpiece, Tchaikovsky played by pianist Yuri Shadrin to accompany various Pushkin, Tolstoy and others' lyrics sung by Askar Abrazakov.  The concert was followed by dessert (apple blini with honey, sugar cookies iced to resemble matroshki). All points were thoroughly enjoyable--it was an exquisite example of soft power diplomacy. For one thing, there were no long speeches--the two before the performance were three minutes or less--and the closing remarks comprised maybe two sentences.  The atmosphere was festive, and the musicians superb (I'd heard recordings by Shadrin on classical radio, and liked hearing him in person). And, I met a nice Chinese Malaysian guy in the security line who was good company all evening.

I've been wined and dined (appetizered?) three nights straight. Thursday, I took a selection of Anita's and my pieces down to a posh ninth-floor law office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue for a benefit to raise awareness of child sex trafficking. Unfortunately, not only was it tending to drizzle outdoors, that was the same evening as the Capitol Christmas Tree lighting, and so traffic downtown was horrible. Only about a third of those who'd RSVP'd actually showed up, and sales were correspondingly slow. But the catering staff treated us vendors like guests, regularly approaching to proffer trays of tiny spinach quiches, bacon-wrapped dates, and the like, so it was hardly an unpleasant experience. And I met a nice Russian painter from St. Petersburg, with whom I enjoyed talking.

Tonight, I had dinner with Susan, Steven and Theo. After the marble halls of the law office and the crystal chandeliers in the Russian embassy, as much fun as visiting them was, it was a relief to be able to (literally) take off my shoes and enjoy the company of old friends.  Theo's vocabulary is extensive, and he showed off his ability to sing several nursery songs and the first verse of the hymn "Silent Night." He'll turn two in three weeks. He and I played with blocks and cars, then I was permitted to share in the bedtime ritual of singing, prayer and hugs. Such a sweet little guy!

Thus far, I've been able to spend time also with Rachel (tea Thursday), Leah and her family (baby clothes and Christmas tree shopping yesterday), Hannah (baby shower this morning for her soon-to-appear little girl--I went a trifle berserk buying tiny pink outfits and accessories) and my dear former estate sale boss (tea this afternoon). Tomorrow is a show to benefit a battered women's organization in Alexandria. The nice Chinese guy I met last night (he gave me his card--as aforementioned, I'd none with which to reciprocate) emailed me to ask me to the 7:30 PM mass at his Catholic church, but given that I'm attending the 8:30 AM service at my old Presbyterian church and then serving Mammon throughout the afternoon, I declined on grounds of sure exhaustion.

Cold rain has been slapping against the window of my room for hours.  I am grateful for warm, weather-proof vehicles and buildings, for unanticipated opportunities to meet friendly, multitalented people, and for the cheerful company of small children who guide you through their games.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Safe Travels; 40 Days Of Thanksgiving: Day 25

Although I was listening to a good audiobook (Death of An Expert Witness by P. D. James, the excellent mystery writer, who died just last week), my brain seemed determined to shut off during my drive to DC today, and I caught myself starting to doze several times before I made myself stop for a large cream-topped chocolate mocha and a refill of my Camelback water reservoir. The necessity of regular bathroom breaks thereafter, if not the caffeine, kept me alert the rest of the 9 hour trip.

I am thankful for safe travels--in 40 years, I've driven over 250,000 miles, flown overseas ten times and domestically much more (including 50 hours of personal piloting), ridden trains in the US and abroad, managed to stay in the saddle on numerous horses, sailed on small wind- and engine-driven boats, and of course walked and hiked many miles. Other than a few minor (in that nobody was hurt--the same couldn't be said for the cars) auto accidents and a pile of flat tires, all of this movement has been completed safely. Truly, this is a blessing from God--from inclement weather to equipment failure to human idiocy and error (my own and other people's), short of common grace, one couldn't expect to emerge unscathed. I hope I will continue to do so, but returning to DC traffic is terrifying! If nothing else, the adrenaline pumping through my system from even short periods on the Beltway will keep me fully awake when behind the wheel.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

40 Days Of Thanksgiving: Day 24

Today I am having a bout of melancholia, and wish devoutly that I had some warm and furry creature to whom to pour out my miseries. So, today's thanksgiving is for all the fuzzy beasts--some dogs, mostly cats--who have served as comforting confidants during some of the lonelier and sadder times of my life, as well as comfortable companions in happier periods.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Color! 40 Days Of Thanksgiving: Day 23

I am thankful for color, for its variety and intensity, and the creativity with which it is combined in various media to produce lovely images. Life is too short for dull, mass-produced artwork. I'm going to brag a bit, with selections from my own collection!

This oil of three apples and a milk pitcher was in our kitchen when I was growing up. When my mother sold the old house after my father died, she didn't want it, and so I transferred it to my own kitchen.

A Ukrainian lacquer box I bought in Kiev. I've always been fond of frogs, and the realism of this painting was incredible.

Even traditional-style lacquer box paintings can incorporate an amphibian theme--the whimsy of the frog blowing a dandelion puff was too pretty to pass up.

A consignment-shop coup, this oil on wood panel of the Archangel Gabriel came from late 18th century South America.

Detail of above.

My Jonas Gerard nude study, which I have hanging opposite my bed in my room.  Encourages me to go to the gym regularly!

A watercolor seascape--I'm particularly fond of the spiny urchin.

An antique Asian silk-on-silk floral embroidery with butterflies. Well before I got sucked into the addiction to K-Dramas, I was unconsciously assembling Southeast Asian artifacts.

I do not have a career in portraiture, but 13 years ago, I looked something like this. 

I never knew a Coke Zero can could be transformed into a quilted tapestry, but this combination of metal, fabric and buttons was awesome. 

The first piece of original artwork I purchased, this was acquired from my friend Anita within days of our meeting (I can't believe we've known each other for almost a decade!). This acrylic collage reminds me of Van Gogh. 

I've not yet been married nor been to Japan, but a silk Japanese wedding kimono called out to me almost ten years ago, and I've had it displayed on my wall like a giant pinned butterfly since.

Some of my friends don't like non-representative art, but as you can see, I'm an artistic omnivore; I got this abstract composition with its dripping orbs at an estate sale.

My mother hates this picture. She said I put too many colors into it, but I like it.

A portrait of my friend Paxifist (the cowboy in the back recalls her fondness for country music).

A portion of a map of Greece, three stamps and the greater and lesser lights make this seascape a reminder of and inspiration to travel.

My latest painting project has been entirely monochromatic: I finally finished refurbishing my oak desk chair!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

40 Days of Thanksgiving: Day 22

When my thoughts churn ceaselessly, I am grateful for the distraction of creative activity, the better if coupled with listening to some diverting story, though I will say Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus does little to soothe the soul.  I think I must have missed Titus on my first run through of the Shakespearean canon, because it's so memorably gruesome that it would have left a scar. Good ol' Will's tragedies often conclude with multiple deaths, but this tale is so loaded with rape, murder, deliberate disfugurement, adultery, cannibalism, betrayal and torture that it surpasses all the rest.  Four pairs of sons are killed--two have died before the curtain rises, and on their tomb another two are sacrificed, two more are beheaded on being wrongly accused of murdering their brother-in-law [meanwhile his wife is raped (and her tongue cut out and her hands lopped off) by the last two brothers, who will eventually have their throats slit in retaliation, their blood mixed with their entrails and fed to their mother]. Titus is tricked into chopping off one of his own hands in a futile bid to save his wrongfully accused sons' lives.  He manages to kill the evil queen after he feeds her a pie made of her sons, and knifes her cuckold husband.  Prior to this fatal meal, the revengeful one-handed father kills his tongueless, handless rape survivor daughter, and is himself killed thereafter. Finally, the queen's lover (the father of her bastard child) is half buried in the earth and left to starve to death.  There are only about four major characters that survive when the curtain falls--Titus' brother, son, grandson, and the unfortunate baby of the dead queen and her tortured paramour.  I'm not sure all this bloodshed made me less anxious, but I did get a few more pieces of jewelry made in the meantime. I wish I had another week to prepare for these DC shows!  I don't have nearly enough things made.  I need a massage (and a facelift and liposuction...the only thing I can semi-afford is the massage!).  I am not looking forward to the long drive north on Tuesday, but I am looking forward to seeing many of my DC friends once there.