Sunday Dinner #5 – Melting. It’s not just for cooking and green-faced witches.

On a recent Friday morning drive to work, I had a complete and total meltdown. Like butter in a hot pan.

Lately, my life has been like one of those cinematic devices used to show the passage of time on TV shows or in movies. You know the ones where they put the progress of days or months or even years on a loop set to music that features fast moving, split screen images of typical, daily events like the person brushing their teeth, going to work in their car, on the train or bus, eating dinner, going to bed, and rising the next morning to repeat the whole process again. And it loops. Over and over again.

Clearly, I had been on autopilot. Just trying to plow through the most difficult days of the year; those days leading up to the now second anniversary of Paul’s illness and death. The meltdown, my friends, was epic. That’s what you get you keep shoving the feelings down instead of letting them go as they bubble up. I know better, but so many things about this second year have been harder. I was tired of wrestling with the grief all the time; thought I could just put it in a box for a little while, please God, just a little while. But I paid the price.

And you know, after that meltdown I felt better and have continued to feel somewhat better. This next part amazes me still, but I promise you it actually happened. As I was sitting in the car desperately trying to compose myself, there on the radio was one of our favorite songs, “I Can See Clearly Now”, originally written and performed by Johnny Nash in 1972 but made more popular when performed by Jimmy Cliff in 1993. It’s one of a slew of songs that make up the soundtrack to my grief . The comprehensive list of songs is fodder for another post. Turns out that people sing about grief a lot. There might be something to that.

Paul was teenager in 1972 and just discovering his love for music of all kinds. In 1972, I had not yet had my second birthday, but this song was always a touchstone for both us. When it came on the radio that meltdown morning, I was stunned, and my tears were stopped in their tracks. Clearly, God had allowed me a message from my husband, and it gave me the courage to continue with my day.

“I can see clearly now” was so popular and sing-songy. I’m sure many of you are humming it now and know the lyrics by heart, but here they are just in case you don’t. They are, in my opinion, lyrical genius in a nearly Rogers & Hammerstein kind of way. The beat is reminiscent of the Caribbean and marries perfectly to the message.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

***

I did indeed make Sunday Dinner for my family recently. But the meal itself was actually just a typical weekday meal for our family back in the day. You know the day; the day we went to work, rushed through homework while Daddy cooked, ate together, piled the dishes in the sink and breezed out the door to baseball, boy scouts, church, a school event, or just went for an early spring stroll down wide sidewalks and long streets all the while chasing fireflies in the gloaming before the street lights start their losing battle against the dark of night.

No recipes this week. Just meals from memory. Meals I know by heart.

I started by making Paul’s Pimento Cheese. This is one of those dishes that is made a little different and tastes a little different every time, but it’s always good. Use whatever kind of cheese you like. Be creative. Use different cheeses every time you make it. We certainly did. You can shred the cheese yourself from a block or wheel or buy it already shredded. Finely or coarsely shredded makes little difference. Use as much or as little cheese as you need based on the number of people you are serving. This time I used 2-3 cups of cheese, but I have made as much as eleven pounds at a time. The secret to Paul’s Pimento Cheese is that it doesn’t even have any pimientos in it! True story. Instead of pimientos, Paul always used roasted, red peppers. The charring on the roasted peppers adds a smoky flavor to the cheese that makes all the difference. Many people say it has a certain flavor that they just can’t put their finger on. The roasted, red peppers are the source. Again, there’s no right or wrong amount here. I just keep adding peppers until it looks like it has enough. Add 2-4 tablespoons of Duke’s mayonnaise to get the ball rolling and then add some more a little at a time until it’s a good consistency; sticky and scoop-able but not wet. If it’s wet, you’ve gone too far. No matter. Add some more cheese and the day is saved. The final ingredient is another one that makes Paul’s Pimento Cheese unique, a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. It amps up the flavor of the cheese. Serve with crackers of your choice. A hardier cracker works best.

The main course was roast pork loin, mashed potatoes with gravy, butter beans, and a cornbread muffin. Nothing makes me feel like a straight-up 1940s housewife like a roast in the oven. I poured a little olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish and rolled the loin until it was smeared on all sides. Then, I coated the loin in salt, black pepper, and red pepper. I covered it with tin foil and baked it in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half. Always use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat. I like an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for pork. I let the roast rest before serving to soak back up all the juices that were expelled during cooking.

For homemade mashed potatoes, peel and cut up the potatoes into roughly one-quarter to one-half inch pieces. You can use any type of potatoes and you can leave a bit of the peel on, too, if you like. Bring the potato pieces to a hard boil, and use a fork to test for softness. When fully cooked through, drain the water off by using a colander, and transfer the still hot, boiled potatoes to a bowl. Add salt, butter, and milk to your liking, and beat with a hand mixer to your desired thickness. Use caution with the milk or your mashed potatoes will be potato soup. In a fix, we have been known to use half-and-half, cream, or even sour cream instead of milk. You can use a store bought gravy, or you can use the liquid from the roast thickened with corn starch or flour to make a gravy. We did either depending on how much time we had.

Fresh butter beans are best but sometimes fresh frozen beans are all that’s available. They work, too. Our family always starts a pot of beans with a piece of what we call fat meat or salt meat. In the south, this is mostly referred to as fatback, but I have found that to be a general term used to describe any hunk of mostly fat that has been salt cured. Some people just use a couple slices of bacon or a ham hock. Either way, it adds flavor and a little oily moisture to the beans. Bring to a boil and simmer as long as you like but make sure the water doesn’t boil away.

Cornbread muffins instead of biscuits are especially good when the meal is hardy or heavy. The sweetness and lightness of cornbread balances out the weight of a more savory entrée.

For dessert, I made strawberry shortcake. Strawberries are ripe in the fields at this time of year so it seemed like a natural choice. I cored and sliced the strawberries and placed them in a lidded bowl. I added one tablespoon of sugar, stirred, and placed in the refrigerator to chill. The moisture from the berries combine with the sugar and makes just enough of a light syrup to soak into the cake or bread you choose. In this case, I chose an egg-white, or angel food, cake for my base, and then stacked with strawberries and homemade whipped cream.

Paul had an aversion to store bought whipped cream in a tub or aerosol can. He said they were phony or fake so he would always take the time to make it by hand. It’s not hard. It just takes a little time.

Use a pint or a quart of heavy whipping cream depending on how much you need. Pour into a larger bowl than you think you need or you’ll end up with cream splattered all over everywhere including you. Trust me. Use a hand mixer on the highest setting and let it roll until the cream is thick enough to scoop and stick to a spoon without falling off when turned over. Some people add a teaspoon or two of sugar while mixing, but our family does not.

***

On nights like this, I always pause for a moment and look at my family all gathered around our table, talking, laughing, smiling, sharing their lives with each other, the big moments and the small, eating, enjoying, remembering, and it all just feels so right. I am so grateful. The gifts my husband gave me continue to bear fruit in my life and in the lives of those we love. It makes me want to shout, “Look, honey, I’m doing good! I’m really doing good!”

Malia

Sunday Dinner #1

Let’s get cooking! This is the first in series of posts that will feature meals that my late husband made for his family and friends throughout our lives together. He was a great cook and really enjoyed it. I also think it was his way of providing for us. It was part of his love-language, and oh, boy, did we feel loved!

My reasons for this adventure in cooking are threefold.

First, it’s a growth goal for me on two fronts. For one, it’s a sort of last hold-out in terms of what daily life looks like without Paul. I have really resisted cooking for myself and others because it is a daily life-task that wholly belonged to Paul. Stepping into a role that was so completely his domain would be full acknowledgement of his absence and a major milestone in my grieving and healing process. Also, we’re moving into a new season of family life with the birth of my second niece, the marriage of my son, and the anticipation of grandchildren in years to come. Our little family is growing! I want to cook for myself and my growing family. I want to share big family meals together, cherish our memories of Paul, and make some new memories of our own.

Second, it’s a way to memorialize Paul and preserve a beautiful aspect of our family life for future generations. Each meal has memories and love attached them; the food, the smell, the taste, the table-scape, the dishes. Food and love, passed around the table.

Finally, it’s therapeutic. Cooking has benefits all its own, the ability to heal a broken heart. A New York Times article from many years back, “Cooking is therapy:  Making meals helps reduce stress, heal a broken heart, among other benefits”, aptly describes the many benefits of spending time in the kitchen.

Now, I am not pretending for a second that any of these meals are gourmet or as healthy as they could be. They are not going to cure your psoriasis or lower your blood pressure. I am simply serving up memories for myself and my family, home-cooked goodness that satisfies and soothes and honors the person we loved. It’s home-cooked healing, comfort for a grieving heart.

For this particular Sunday Dinner, I prepared red rice with pork chops, green peas, cinna-minny apple sauce, biscuits, and cheesecake with a blueberry sauce for dessert. I prepared the meal just like Paul. I did it the same way I watched him do it hundreds of times over so many years. Going through his motions in making the meal was really comforting to me. I felt like I was close to him, like I was spending time with him again, and like I was preserving a part of who he was and what he meant to us.

***

First, I browned the pork chops in a bit of oil on medium-high heat. Next, I removed the pork chops and set them aside. Then, I added stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, a cup and a half of water, and one cup of rice. Finally, I placed the pork chops back in the pan, covered it, and let it cook on medium-low for about 30 minutes. A frequent variation for us was to use kielbasa style sausage in place of pork chops.

Side dishes included green peas, apple sauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and biscuits.

I baked a cheesecake for dessert. Cheesecake was not in Paul’s repertoire, but I wanted to include it because it’s a recipe that a member of my GriefShare group gave me. Each time I bake it, I remember and honor the members of my GriefShare group, how much we shared and supported each other, and the loving care I experienced with them at a time when I was really vulnerable.

***

This cheese cake is so easy! Crust is optional. You can grease/butter the pan, and sprinkle it with crushed graham crackers for a light crust.

For the filling, simply mix together two and one-quarter pounds of cream cheese, one and one-third cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 4 eggs.

Bake at 200 degrees for three and one-half hours. No need for a water bath. Give it the ol’ jiggle test before you remove it from the oven. Let it cool. Then, place in the refrigerator overnight or at least for several hours.

For this cake, I made a blueberry sauce, but it could be topped with any fruit. I have used whole, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries in the past. The blueberry sauce was quick and easy. I heated two cups of blueberries, half a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and half a cup of sugar over medium heat until bubbly. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and added it to the blueberries. The cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce. Finish by stirring in one-half teaspoon of vanilla.

Honestly, this first cooking adventure was so much fun! I found both joy and satisfaction in cooking for my family.

***

In other news, it seems that everyone has a New Year’s post of one kind or another, but this is not my new year. My new year begins the day after the anniversary of Paul’s passing, March 18. However, my thoughts are already wandering in that direction, anticipating the marking of the second year without Paul, and, oh goodness, acknowledging new possibilities. I have no idea what that looks like, but I know I have grown tremendously and more than ever I am looking forward. Just that. Looking forward.

My friends, healing is the new grieving, Malia

It’s the little things.

In loss, there is pain. It’s debilitating. The good news is that the worst of it is temporary. It’s what remains after the worst-of-it that takes real work.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 comforts us not to grieve as those who have no hope. We are encouraged to carry on despite the heartache, despite the hurt and despair. We.have.hope. And His name is Jesus. My family is the bedrock of my human existence, my sisters and brothers in Christ love and support me spiritually, my friends and colleagues are my ballasts, but the personal friend I have in Jesus is what carries me through each day. He is hope. He is why I don’t give up.

It’s been a little more than a year since Paul died, and I am only recently starting to watch TV again. I know how strange and silly that must sound, but it was about 10 months before I could even sit on the couch let alone watch a show. Likewise, NPR was a staple in our cars for decades. We enjoyed the news and game shows and especially Prairie Home Companion. I walked out of the hospital the day Paul died, got into my car, and immediately changed the radio to a local rock station because I could not bear to listen to NPR, and I haven’t listened to it since. I do miss it, but I just can’t.

Those are just some of the little things I couldn’t or still can’t do. There are also things I won’t do. The grocery store, as evidenced by the recently posted picture of my very empty and very embarrassing refrigerator, is something I won’t do…along with cooking. Paul loved to cook. It was his domain throughout our marriage. It was a contribution to our family life in which he took great pride.

In some ways, I am still operating under the conditions of my former life. I just leave things around the house to be done. I don’t know who in the world I think is going to do them or if I’m waiting for Paul to come back and pick up where he left off. It’s the madness of grief. I can do laundry, wash dishes, and pay bills like a champ, but that’s because those were the tasks that previously belonged to me anyway. It was these little divisions of labor that evolved within our relationship over time that made our household work. These little things are really the last hold-outs of my former life perhaps because they are the most deeply embedded in my day-to-day living. The grocery store and cooking were exclusively Paul’s tasks. I think to myself, “I shouldn’t have to do this. I won’t do it. That’s Paul’s job.” There is an angry, stubborn, rebelliousness to it. I don’t know how long it will take me to accept this new reality and really take ownership of these tasks, but I am indignant and not in a hurry.

It’s been about a month now since my return from the Camino, and the adjustment issues are lingering. Initially, it had a lot to do with the time change, but it’s been so enduring that it can’t just be that. I think it’s me. I think I’m different. I think I am fundamentally different. The pace and rhythm of my daily walks on the Camino have filtered into the pace of my life.

I am continuously making connections between my daily routine and my Camino experience, faster here, slower there, the need for careful steps, what it’s like when the day is smooth or rough, connecting to others, when to dig deep, to finish strong, to stop and rest, to be quiet, to observe, to look for signs. It’s all here in my daily life. On the Camino, I had to physically adjust to many of these things.  In my daily life, I am making the connection to adjusting mentally and spiritually. It continues to be a journey and a profoundly interesting experience to witness in myself.

We’ve also had some really good things happening lately. My son has graduated from college, gotten engaged, and been accepted to graduate school. He and his fiancé have moved to the same city that I live in, and I am so excited to have them close by. My Camino experience was everything I hoped it would be and more, and I have recently earned a new, exciting and challenging position at work that I am very happy about. We’ve had a lot to smile about and celebrate which is wonderful, welcome, and certainly a change from the year that has preceded it. Some folks even say, “After the year y’all have had, you deserve it”, or “Y’all were due some good news!” or “God owed it to you after what y’all have been through.” When I hear sentiments like this, I smile politely most of the time because I know that people love us and mean well and are genuinely happy for us, and I am so grateful. But here, in this post, I feel like I need to set the record straight. We have done nothing to deserve anything. No one, least of all the Lord God we serve, owes us anything. It is, in fact, we who owe Him everything as much today, or even more so, as on the day we took our first breath and even on the day Paul took his last breath. We don’t deserve it……but by God’s grace, Paul and I had thirty years together. We were able to learn and grow from each other. We were gifted with the stewardship of another one of God’s children, our son. We had the opportunity to seek forgiveness from one another when we fell short of the promises we made each other. There’s no way to earn God’s favor. Faith, no matter how great, does not spare us from adversity. You see, both plenty and adversity, are worthy of our gratitude to God. I seek only to Glorify God and use my experience as an opportunity to tell others that any strength and grace of which I am possessed are not mine but His. It is a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God comforts me, and, for me, true healing means that after all the suffering and pain, we will say, “The Lord has been good to me.”

Now, I am not naïve. I know that this stance is counter-cultural. In American society, the denial of self comes with a sad sort of pity for a person who is unwilling or incapable of tooting their own horn. Some may even say it is anti-intellectual whatever that means. I take that back. Let’s be clear about what that means. That sentiment comes from folks who are trying to be socially correct and call other people dumb or backwards in the same breath. Either that or it’s an attempt to pigeonhole other people into a place where they are perceived as valuing the spirit over intellect, but I reject the either-or model and embrace the both-and model. I am both intellectual and spiritual. I value intellectual approaches to problem solving and seek the wisdom of the Spirit, and I think there is plenty of evidence in this blog to support that assertion.

I’m going to leave you with Romans 5:1-5 which really could be a sort of road map to my experience, my theme song if you will. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy spirit who has been given to us.”

But by God’s grace, I am standing! Malia

Good Grief! The Truth about Psychic Injury

People say there is not a right way to grieve and I agree, but I also believe there is a wrong way because I did it the wrong way once and can clearly see the impact of that on my life. I have had two significant episodes with grief during my life. I am not talking about losing a grandparent or dear friend who has reached the end of their natural life span and dies an expected death. I am talking about the kind of life altering grief that comes with an unexpected, tragic death. My mother died in a car accident when I was twelve. I struggled with grief for years. Actually, I take that back. I made grief my friend. I used it to drive me in fact. I was comfortable with it because it meant I didn’t have to let go of my mother and move on. The problem was there’s really no way to suppress one emotion and not the others. So, while I had a lid on the grief, there was also a lid on my ability to experience joy. Eventually, the trade-off wasn’t worth it. With the help of my husband and a good counselor, I was finally able to come to terms with my grief and find joy in my life and relationships again. However, when it came to my relationships, my people, I still operated under the false belief that if I took care of them well enough, loved them enough, made all the right decisions, that I would not lose the ones I loved again. Yeah, I know, irrational, but grief has an element of irrationality to it and without some objective checks and balances the grieving mind can convince itself of anything in order to feel safe and attempt to avoid being hurt by loss again.

This time was different. I knew I had made mistakes in how I previously dealt with grief, and I was determined to get it right. I began seeing a grief counselor the week after Paul died and continue to do so. I joined a grief group at church called GriefShare. I read books about grief. I confronted the painful stuff head on, early and often. I took a deep dive. Some people call this leaning in. I’ve worked hard at it, and the experience has been powerfully different.

Let’s talk about psychic injury. Grief is an injury to the brain, the psyche. You have been injured and steps must be taken in order to heal properly. When you break your leg, you get treatment, a cast, medication, physical therapy, and see a doctor regularly to monitor the healing process. Your brain, your psyche, needs the same attention. Grief can be defined as a transient state of mental disorder. In my opinion, that is fair. The word disorganization could be substituted for disorder. There is a fog that comes with grief. It is difficult to concentrate or think straight. In the early days after Paul’s death, several people told me grief comes in waves. I had no idea what they meant. Now, I do. In fact, sometimes, in my mind, I am standing on shore, and I can see the wave coming in the distance. There’s nothing I can do. It’s coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop that wave of grief and overwhelming sadness any more than I could stop a real life wave coming toward shore on a day at the beach. It’s coming. The only real question is How long will I be under? How long will it toss and tumble me beneath the surface before I am able to come up for air. When the wave arrives, crashing through my mind and my life, some of the things I hear myself say frequently are “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do any of this!” and “My thoughts are not my own. Thoughts, images press in without being invited, and I can’t push them away.” My husband’s illness and death was traumatic, and I experience flashbacks. I have moments when I am back in his hospital room, and it is real. All of my senses are involved, and I can feel every moment of it again. I have learned that this is normal, and as time has gone on, the flashbacks are fewer and farther between. Grief can also be complex. It can be complicated by identity and attachment issues. I met my husband when I was very young having just turned eighteen years old. We spent 30 years together. A lot of my personal identity was wrapped up in our relationship. Complex grief apparently occurs when the departed and the bereaved were unusually close to one another. Hmmmm, I would say we definitely resemble that remark.

Here’s what you can do to take care of yourself while your psyche heals.

  • Rest as much as possible. Grief is exhausting! If you need medication to help you sleep, that’s ok, but do so with the intention of it being temporary. Put an expiration date on any medicinal intervention. Take time off from work as needed, if possible. If it’s not possible to take time off because, well, life happens, then make time during the day to have a mindfulness walk or a mindfulness moment. My mindfulness walks include three phases: gratitude, reflection on places where I have fallen short, and petitions.
  • Exercise is crucial. It doesn’t matter what it is, but consider something that is social because building new relationships and making new connections is also crucial. I enjoyed playing tennis before Paul passed away, and I made sure to continue, but I also started walking or running daily. I took it a step further and joined a local running club. I enjoyed yoga before Paul died, too, and continued that as well. ANY exercise you do will help in all kinds of ways. I even tried “goat yoga” and a kickboxing class! Talk about working out your emotions! My main tip here is to just not take it too seriously. You might have to make yourself do it, but you won’t regret it. You will feel better!
  • Eat healthy foods, or at least don’t eat too much junk food. Remember, your mind is in the midst of a healing process and needs good fuel.
  • Learn as much as you can about grief. Reading about the grieving process and listening to the perspectives of others can be very reassuring that your experiences, while unique, are a normal and natural part of being human. It is also reassuring to know that people do recover and you can, too!

If you are reading this blog and grieving the loss of a loved one, please know you are not alone. I am thinking of you, and praying for you!

Malia

Goat yoga!

Introduction

“Paul had a generosity of spirit. He drew people to him. He was always so easy to be around and had such a great, if a little wicked, sense of humor! Paul loved to cook and go fishing. He loved being out on the boat, rivers, and beaches of the Lowcountry where his soul shined. He loved music, all kinds of music, but what he loved more than anything was his family. He was a devoted father to Aaron and an adoring husband to his wife of 26 years, Malia.”

That’s an excerpt from my husband’s obituary and this blog is about the grief process, but a death and the subsequent grief can take many forms. My mother died when I was twelve years old. My husband died. Those are physical deaths, but there are other types of death. The death of a relationship, divorce or uncoupling. The death of a dream, a career, a beloved pet, and we grieve those losses in ways very similar to the physical loss of a loved one.

This sharing so openly is not easy for me. I am by nature an introvert, not expressive. My friends and colleagues would tell you that I am a very private person, but writing this blog feels like a very necessary element of the grief and healing process. The transparency may be raw and painful at times, dear reader, but my hope is that something I write, something I share will somehow help someone else along the way.

Yours truly, Malia