Stinky Cheese

As I prepared to have friends over for dinner, it occurred to me that I hadn’t planned the meal properly. I looked through my options and found a large bag of cheese in the freezer–French Raclette (pronounced it rack- let’)I vaguely recalled the clerk telling me it was a special cheese served melted.

I pulled the cheese from the freezer and heated the oven to melt it, before calling my friend, Bruce, a gourmet chef, to find out what to do with it. He told a charming story about a time in Switzerland when he first had Raclette. He helped me select a wine to go with it and determine the best way to cook and serve it in the limited time.

Did I mention the smell?

I don’t know if the smell of this cheese is common to Raclette everywhere, or if the specific batch I purchased was peculiar in this regard, but a mildly off-putting aroma when pulled from the freezer (through two freezer bags) grew to mammoth proportions when heated.

By this I mean that the house smelled “like infection.” The most vile foot odor from the sweatiest teenage boy would be dwarfed by this smell. But I had vegetables roasting in the oven, bratwurst to go on the grill, pasta salad, freshly made, with kalamata olives from the olive bar, fancy crackers, and a nice Riesling.

Over these scrumptious delights, the aroma–nay smell, nay stench–threatened to gag my guests. My husband and my daughter were convinced that someone had gotten violently ill. This most certainly did not smell like food.

My confidence in this dish was shaky at best, but I trust Bruce, so despite the general complaints I soldiered on.

As the cheese heated up the smell increased, thickened, and morphed into something truly awful. Bruce, was right, though. Once served with fresh cracked pepper ground atop the pan, to be eaten with whole grain crackers, a pile of roasted vegetables, and Riesling, somehow the same food that overwhelmed the nose, was quite pleasing on the palate.

I have no grand conclusion, just surprise. Apparently, this cheese has meals and even restaurants named for it–meals that have a long tradition and a reputation for much fellowship and gastronomic delight. There are potatoes names for this cheese. And diners will engage in serious debate over the proper way to eat Raclette, just melted and gooey, or browned on top.

I’ve had these discussions over the proper way to cook and serve bacon. (BTW, cooked slowly until crisp but not completely dried out is correct.)

For my part, I am content that the dish tasted good, despite the odor; glad I trusted my friend glad I used the excuse to call him and hear his memories, and glad that friends and family gathered around my table in conviviality.

That smell has entered that meal into historic family lore. I have laughed until I could laugh no more, wiping tears from my eyes and reaching for my inhaler.

And now I have my own Raclette story to tell.

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Shards of beauty

Shards of beauty lie silenced on the floor.

A precious gift of friendship shattered.

My heart pierced a hundred time–no, more!

Silent screams fill my head as anger flares, molten, as the fires from which this gift was born.

How oft my fingers stroked those graceful lines, tracing the delicate arc of beauty. How oft I raised it and with a dainty shake released silver notes against my ear. Each touch, each timbre, stroked kindred sinews of my heart, those of friendship’s sounds and memories.

My anger is the back-side of the intense loss I feel, as if I lost the friendship, not the bell. I must remind myself that this thing, precious as it was, is still a thing. It was a blessed token of friendship, not the friendship itself.

The precious friendship is not damaged, though my heart hurts at the loss of such beauty. I would feel loss if I had purchased this for myself, as the loss of such delicate grace, of the delightful work of the glass blower would always have been a sorrow, but all the more this is imbued with knowing that this friend especially wanted me to have something of hers. It bears her eyes, her smiles, her laughter. It was precious to her, and is doubly precious to me as a result.

But I must resist the urge to place this object above my relationship with the child who broke it. It was an accident, pure and simple. I did not foresee it.

And as I examine how intensely I feel, I have to examine my tendency to be overly attached to things.

I am ashamed that I did not think that this was vulnerable. I feel unworthy of the trust my friend had when she placed this item in my keeping. It is as if I did not treat our friendship with the care it deserved.

I don’t know what to think about that.

Why

“Why do you have chairs?”

“Why do you have a backyard?”

“Why did you make us bread?”

“Why did you put nuts in the bread?”

“Why does the dog have legs?”

“Why do you have like lights?”

“Why do you have flowers?”

“Why do you like ‘Grandma-Birdie Days?'”

“Why do you have a porch?”

“Why did you get me a bike?”

“Why do you have a flag?”

Five hours and a thousand questions later, his mother returns. I am amazed but the volume of Why questions, a seemingly never-ending, bottomless well of curiosity in him. I am wrung out.

When does that relentless questioning end? Does it? Or do we begin to seek out the answers on our own in an eternal questing to know and understand?

Vigil for the Dead

At 11:40 the church was ablaze with lights, a shining, welcoming jewel in the darkness. I had changed into dress pants and blouse out of respect for the solemn, sacred duty ahead.

I rattled the front door. Locked. Checked the side entry. Also locked. I returned to the front and, being early, waited outside. The warm wind whipped through my hair. It was late, but comfortable enough to spend a few minutes seated on a bench awaiting my time slot. I wanted there to be some overlap in case there were instructions to pass on.

At ten ’til I rapped on the door. Moments later, a woman opened the door, scarf wrapped around her hair, still reading out the Psalms from the psalter she carried.

The deceased lay in his coffin, peacefully facing the altar area, the faces of Christ, the Theotokos, angels and saints surrounding us. Above him the beautiful chandelier, imported from Eastern Europe, is ablaze, brass shining. Candles flicker from candle stands, from tall, narrow jars beneath various icons, and next to the readers stand.

As the clock flipped to midnight, the reader finished one Psalm and handed off to me. As I began, she made her reverence to the icons as we usually do when entering or upon leaving a service, and hurried off into the night.

I enjoy chanting. Chanting in this temple is a delight. The architecture allows the voice to fill the space with little effort. Something happens as I pray, read, chant, or sing. It feels as if my voice is joined by something unseen.

My head turned to catch a perceived movement from the corner of my eye. Though I saw nothing, I felt something there–something glorious, ethereal, warm, bright, otherworldly. At this point, it would have seemed normal to find angels winging overhead.

The newly departed looked peaceful. He had not been embalmed, so I was surprised to find him looking like this. It was an honor to chant the Psalms for him on his last night above ground.

Have you ever noticed how many of the Psalms talk about death? Standing vigil, you become aware in a new way. Reading aloud of God’s goodness, His faithfulness, His mercy, and His glory in the presence of the dead imbues it with a sense of depth, of eternity, of…dare I say, holiness.

There aren’t proper words for what happened last night. The departed, asleep in his beautiful handcrafted casket, resting in this peaceful ceremony, so full of humanity in its best form, and in the divine, the veil between this world and the heavenly so thin it seems a mere breath could pierce it and heaven blaze through…it seemed entirely reasonable and to be expected for the deceased to sit up, to rise from his casket and join in praising God.

I was surprised he didn’t.

This duty, this task, despite chanting myself hoarse, did something unexpected. I went, thinking I was doing a service for the deceased and for his family, but left feeling honored and privileged to have been able to participate. Something happened there that is more than reading, more than praying, simply more. I sense that I am changed in some way. I feel more…human.

Quiet Radical-Drafts From the Past

I am at heart a quiet person. I like stillness; I enjoy silence. I like quiet talks with friends and I love to sit and read beside other people I love who are enjoying their own quiet pursuits.

I enjoyed a quiet walk to the beach with my brother and his wife on a recent weekend. While I would enjoy knowing what my brother thinks on a wide variety of subjects, we are not people who speak easily of deep things, particularly if we are contemplating or meditating on things. Mid-contemplation is not when we are able to speak, or so it seems to me. I, at least, am unable to have discussions on ideas and situations which I am musing on. So often, having spoken before I was ready, or expressed a strong opinion which I later thoughtfully reversed, I am ashamed of my haste. Having in the past published some of those opinions, I am presented, from time to time, with evidence of my former self. I’m not sure I like her very much. But I read, beneath the strident tone and harsh words, the fear that gripped me. I was afraid of so many things, but probably of myself most of all.

It is so easy to be fearful and anxious in these days where the world is loud and insistent, full of it’s own troubles and wanting to make them yours. Red-faced politicians and pundits holler at us, social media assaults us with perversity. People assault my heart with their anger.  I’m not suggesting there aren’t things to be angry about, and I’m so pleased with people who can DO SOMETHING about the things which disturb them, but I am suggesting that I needlessly let my inner stillness be broken by the clamor of the outside. I don’t want to live in a bubble and I don’t think I do.

The way I deal with the homeless problem is face-to-face, one-on-one, as I am faced with the homeless man outside 7-11 on a frigid day. When I am faced with the young couple who appear to be carrying all their worldly goods on their backs, or the woman pushing her cart full of the things that make her feel safe, even though she swelters in the summer and shivers in the winter. When I come to the woman in her wheelchair, the one who is rumored to live in the woods, this is where my thoughts must become action. If I pass her by, that is one action. If I stop and talk, or bring her water, that is another. And while some people might simply act, my acts are usually results of contemplation. Facing who I am takes time. Changing my thought processes takes time. I struggle to talk in those times, to grasp thoughts that vanish like mist, to explain concepts I see vaguely, like an unfamiliar landscape through fog. I have to wait until the thoughts solidify, till the concepts are seen clearly.

Weird Guy-Drafts From the Past

I think of him as “weird guy.” You know, as in that weird guy who never looks at you, and never responds when you say “good morning” or “hi.”

She is “Cruella DeVille.” I call her that because with her particular hairstyle and big fur coat (probably faux) she resembles the villain from 101 Dalmatians movie.

I think of this woman I know as “she who must be obeyed” because she likes everything her own way and gets upset if anything is moved. She acts as if she is in charge of absolutely everything.

These are my confessions. I tend to think these things are funny, but today I’m struck by the thought that I must be kinder than this. I am mocking these people in my own mind, and thus I am not treating them with the respect I should give to another human, made in the image of the divine.  If our thoughts determine our lives, if our thoughts emanate from our hearts, then my heart is critical, prideful, and mean.  Lord have mercy!

I have excused this as humor, and it IS funny.  I can be VERY funny. But it is cruel.  Would I call that woman Cruella Deville to her face?  That would be mean.  Why is it acceptable to call her that when she isn’t present, even if it is in the recesses of my heart? It isn’t!  This is the point.  And to retrain my mind and heart is the task of today and tomorrow and every day thereafter.

How to do so is another matter.  It’s okay to have nicknames for people, but I need to make them something positive, charming, lovely.  I recently re-read a series I wrote some time ago chronicling my adventures in a diner near my office. It was funny, true, but now I cringe when I read it. The nicknames I gave to people were so mean.  “Stalker 1”, “Stalker 2”, etc., as a sampling. The thing is that I would never have said those things to their faces. That is what tells me it was wrong. And if you aren’t into value judgments like that, perhaps you can teach me how you do it.

Chapter Titles-Drafts From the Past

“I’m writing a new book.” His voice and face displayed the triumphant expectation of deserved adulation. “It’s about our family.” He waited for my praise.

Horrors. 

“What family? Do you mean Grandma and Grandpa and how the whole family emigrated from Sweden and Norway? Or do you mean you, Mom and us kids.” My stomach churned.

“It’s about us!” he said, “Me and your mother and you four kids. I have so many stories to tell.” I looked at mom from the corner of my eye. She had a tightly controlled expression that would conceal her dread from most. I made careful note of it without letting anything show in my own expression.

He continued telling all the great stories as he remembers them.  His memory has been kind to him, it seems. And he edits out the ugly stuff. I think he edits those things not only from his manuscript, but from his memory as well. My memory is not so cooperative.

For a long time I did not want him to work on this book, but now I think I do. I don’t want him to publish it, but to give me the rights to the book so that I can edit it and get it ready to print.  I don’t think he would be happy with my revisions, however. I see this book as a sort of parallel Bible.  His version, then my version, or at least a combined version compiled by all of us kids.

For instance, to hear my dad tell it, my mom decided, at 7 months pregnant with my older brother, to make “one last backpacking trip” on the Pacific Crest Trail while she still could. This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of my mother, who dislikes backpacking, despite the decades of doing it. She would NEVER have suggested such a trip while pregnant or at any other time. It’s rather hilarious that he really has convinced himself that it was her idea. “You know that’s not true?” my mom questioned in a quiet voice. “Of course,” I laughed.

This came about during a visit that had stressed me greatly. My parents were not only distressed that I joined the Orthodox Church, but my dad was openly hostile and combative about it. My mom was less open about her anger, but let it show in quiet barbs, small nasty comments, verbal jabs that a polite woman leaves unchallenged.

I have spent considerable time thinking of potential chapter titles and, sadly, mine are often pointers to traumatic events that I’m sure Dad would leave out. Let’s not go into those. There are others that are amusing, “Mom Buys a Milk Truck”, “Chasing Fire Trucks”, “Vienna Sausages”, “Chores: or, Dog Poop and Vomit”, and “Killing the VW”.

Maybe it’s normal to rewrite history, remembering the stories in which we are heroes and forget the bad stuff. Maybe as I get older I will see myself as sweet and kind.