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Homesickness for Mexico comes in waves, and for the past few weeks the tide has been high. As a remedy, I tried to list the things I don’t miss. The list is pretty short.

Making do with a makeshift kitchen. We bought some kitchen goods when we got there, and even brought a couple of items along that we didn’t think we’d be able to find (we may be the only people ever to carry a mushroom brush across an international border for purposes other than import), but it was still a pretty bare-necessity kitchen, which gets old when you love to cook and you’re there for six months.

Small gas tank / water tank. Neither gas nor hot water flowed in great quantities, so that it was hard to get the oven up to baking temperatures, and our gorgeous big bathtub filled to only 4 inches of depth before the hot water ran out.

Lack of good Chinese food. We made our own, but once in a while you just want a real Chinese dumpling made by an real Chinese person. There was good Chinese in Mexico City, but not in San Miguel. We went to dim sum several times in the week before we left for Mexico, and again in the week after our return.

The heat. Even in San Miguel, which is at about 6000′ and has weather not dissimilar to San Francisco’s, it can get pretty hot. May and June would have been more comfortable for me if I’d adjusted to the idea that I should just hunker down and stay inside for a few hours each midday.

Limited reading material. I didn’t come close to running through the English language collection at San Miguel’s impressive biblioteca, but still, I sometimes missed having easy access to books that, in the U.S., would have been no farther away than the main library.

Having a child under stress. There’s no question that living in Mexico was great for the munchkin, and she adjusted admirably to being uprooted from the places, people, and cats she knew for what must have seemed to her 3-year-old’s perceptions to be close to forever. Nevertheless, she showed signs of the strain. After all, as much as she liked school, she had no friends there or anywhere who spoke her language. Looking back, we realize that the high incidence of tantrums during those six months was probably not due purely to her developmental stage.

Being far from friends and family. We got a fair number of visitors from home, but there’s no substitute for seeing your mom every couple of months and your closest friends every week.

I can’t help noticing that most of these are not only trivial, but could be mitigated quite easily. Not to mention that they don’t outweigh the many things I do miss (see any entry from July 2010). I guess I’ll just have to wait for this particular wave of Mexico-missing to recede.

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I’ve been on study leave this week, and pursuing projects under three categories:

Reading:  From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, Christopher Finan, and In Between: Memoirs of an Integration Baby, Mark Morrison-Reed. Maybe a book on strategic planning in congregations too.

Spanish: Remember the old days of language lab? Now you get CDs with your textbook–much better. I keep the CDs in the car and do the exercises while I’m driving, but I’d gotten past the chapters that I’d studied, and didn’t understand the grammar the CD was trying to make me practice. So, I’ve gone back to the textbook to review the subjunctive, discover just how much basic conjugation I’d forgotten, and at last learn the imperative properly. That plus some vocabulary about clothes from the same chapter will help me practice with Munchkin as she’s getting dressed in the mornings. Together we’re going to become bilingual.

Cleanup: Okay, this probably doesn’t count as a study leave project. But it is a wonderful feeling. Joy threatened to throw out any of those old boxes of my stuff that were still in the garage come January 1. I welcomed the challenge, knowing I’d never go through them if I didn’t have a firm deadline. Some of them have made several moves with me, unopened; not surprisingly, most of their contents turn out to be completely unimportant. My spiritual guide as I decide what to keep and what to toss: an elderly man at church who said he had a dozen packed file cabinets in his house and never looked into any of them.

New Year’s resolutions are usually just one more thing to start feeling guilty about, usually by February. I love Woody Guthrie’s list, but it seems a tad ambitious.

So I am going to make just one single, simple resolution: eat three servings of fruits and four servings of vegetables a day. Some days that might mean apple, apple, apple, carrot, carrot, carrot, carrot. Or apple, chocolate, apple, chocolate, apple, chocolate, carrot, chocolate, carrot, chocolate, carrot, chocolate, carrot. Whatever. I’ll have made good on my commitment as long as I fulfill those servings. Ready, set, go.

My Christmas Eve homily from a few hours ago.

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photo by Emma Pease

Last night’s midweek service, which was about Hanukah, was preceded by a latke feast, and I invited people to come even earlier than that to join in making the latkes. Over a dozen did, and we had a great time.

I billed the dish as the World’s Best Latkes and then had to come up with an actual recipe, since the way I really cook these would go more like, “Buy twice as many potatoes as you think your family can eat. Peel and grate. Add enough grated onion to make it look right. Add enough egg for it to stick together . . . ” etc. Not very helpful, though my great-grandmother in the Old Country would approve. Attendees and cooks asked for the recipe, so here is what we did last night. The only way to improve on it would be to make sure you always have a dozen fun people to cook with.

I forgot to tell everyone last night that there’s a reason latkes are the quintessential Hanukah dish: you are supposed to eat fried foods as a tip of the hat to that miraculous oil. That’s what we call a handy theological excuse. Now, in addition to the miracles of a small army defeating a large one and the oil’s lasting for an extra seven days, do you suppose there’s a miracle by which the calories from oil in which latkes were cooked disappear?

Or let’s just appreciate this miracle, pointed out by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield:

that people dared to light that tiny bit of oil and trust that somehow things would work out. Perhaps the enduring miracle which Hanukkah celebrates is that there is always more light than we first imagine and that the fuel to create it is really there when we look hard enough and dare to trust its power.

Amen to that, and Happy Hanukah, everyone!

The World’s Best Latkes

A radio story interviewed prospective voters in the GOP Iowa caucuses, coming up in a couple of weeks, to answer the breathless question of who would be the Mike Huckabee of 2012–Rick Santorum? Michele Bachmann? Ron Paul? The reporter did not ask why anyone would want to be the Mike Huckabee of 2012.

Huckabee, of course, did not get his party’s nomination in 2008. Nor are Bachmann or Santorum or Paul likely to get it this year, even if one of them wins in Iowa. Caucuses, even more than most primary processes, favor the extremes, and the GOP has seldom gone with its rightmost option. Yet here is the Iowa caucus, threatening to knock out what passes for a centrist in the Republican party in favor of whoever can please right-wing evangelicals the most.

So I went and looked up just how much of a bellwether Iowa has been for the GOP. It’s not impressive, but it’s not bad.  Asterisks indicate the winner of the nomination.

  • 2008 – Mike Huckabee
  • 2004 – George W. Bush*
  • 2000 – George W. Bush*
  • 1996 – Bob Dole*
  • 1992 – George H. W. Bush*
  • 1988 – Bob Dole
  • 1984 – Ronald Reagan*
  • 1980 – George H. W. Bush
  • 1976 – Gerald Ford*

Six out of the last nine Iowa winners won the nomination. But it doesn’t look even that good when you take out the candidates who ran unopposed: Reagan in 1984, George H. W. Bush in 1992, and George W. Bush in 2004.  That leaves six years of contested caucuses, with only three predicting the eventual winner.

  • 2008 – Mike Huckabee
  • 2000 – George W. Bush*
  • 1996 – Bob Dole*
  • 1988 – Bob Dole
  • 1980 – George H. W. Bush
  • 1976 – Gerald Ford*

I don’t think any Republican candidate should lose sleep over losing in Iowa. What we all might lose sleep over is why the party gives so much power to the extremists who can’t get their favorites to win on the national stage. In 2008, John McCain rose to prominence as an honorable moderate (a reputation he subsequently threw away by embracing every crazy idea, not to mention every crazy VP candidate, that came along–he’s scrapped the rest of his principles since, in his determination to oppose anything supported by the man who defeated him). This year, who of that description has survived even to the first primary?

There’s been no one drawing I’m very happy with over the past few weeks, but certain bits make me say, “That’s what I’m trying to do”: in the shadow of a hand, the folds of skin under a breast, the pressure of a finger on a shoulder, the wrinkle of an elbow, the veins of a foot, the fall of a shadow.

We state the short version of the purpose of our congregation in every service: to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. I wrote this much longer version in one feverish journal-writing session about a year ago, and shared it in three consecutive newsletter columns this fall.

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Yesterday evening’s service was about control and letting go. I played everyone a song by Suzzy Roche about being in a plane in a lightning storm, and repeated my favorite line: “There’s a whole lot, baby, you can’t control, so put your seat back and roll, Mag, roll”–“Mag” is her sister, I’m guessing. (At that point E. said, “Were you thinking about today’s windstorm?” I hadn’t heard about it. Turned out there were 100-m.p.h. Santa Ana winds in Southern California, a historic storm.)

We meditated on the song and on a couple of quotes such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known “serenity prayer,” and I led a meditation in which we literally made fists as we envisioned gripping tightly whatever we seek to control, then relaxed and let go so it could float.

The hardest thing I could have chosen would have been my daughter. I focused on something a little easier, but then I got to my final words, introducing a song we often sing in this service, “Ubi Caritas”–

The words of our song mean, “where there is love, there God is.” It doesn’t say holiness lies in control, or certainty, or permanence. It lies in love, which is sometimes about holding on and sometimes about letting go, and usually about both

–and I choked up, and thought of a passage I’d just read, in the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book. He’s speaking of writing the last couple of pages.

And my eyes stung, momentarily. It was then, and only then, that I saw clearly for the first time what I was writing. I had set out to write a book about a childhood–it was Bod’s childhood, and it was in a graveyard, but still, it was a childhood like any other; I was now writing about being a parent, and the fundamental most comical tragedy of parenthood: that if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away. And they have lives and they have families and they have futures.

It is a happy book, and a happy thought that our daughter will go on to have a life and a family and a future beyond us, but my eyes stung, too, reading this paragraph. It’s hard to imagine that I will be ready when she is.

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