Birthdays are Milestones to Celebrate

Stephen and Tasha bday 2        When I was a child there was a game called musical chairs that was often played at birthday parties. Enough chairs minus one, to represent the number of children present were placed in one or two rows and as a tune was played on the phonograph, participants marched or scurried around them. When the music stopped you had to find a seat. One chair was removed each time until by the end the winner was the person who sat in the remaining chair. I disliked the game intensely. I wasn’t an aggressive child and often lost out early. I hope it has fallen out of fashion. We never played it when my children were growing up.

When the games are enjoyable, birthday parties can be lots of fun. Our country is about to celebrate another birthday and so is my husband Stephen. His mother didn’t quite make it to the 4th so his is the 3rd. We always have a party and invite friends to come share in our celebration. In addition we usually take the entire week off. We avoid housework except for what is truly necessary like laundry, cooking and shopping. We also take the week as a time to get away from ongoing writing projects and seek out things to do for fun. Occasionally we go to movies or interesting restaurants, sometimes we revisit places we’ve lived and take a walk together down memory lane;.

The birthday of our country is a grand occasion throughout the United States, with concerts, fireworks, and gatherings as well as parades. I lived once in a town that had a big parade every 4th and every year to my family’s delight it marched down our street and past our door. We were able to sit on our front lawn in folding chairs and watch the marchers, the bands and the floats pass by. Later in the day that same town also later held games and races for the children, and there would often be a carnival to enliven the festivities as well.

Called Independence Day, the birthday of the USA was first celebrated on July 4 1777 in Philadelphia with bells, bonfires and fireworks. The glorious 4th is also an occasion for political speeches and posturing as various politicians seek to gather votes and voters with an eye to the elections in the fall. Orations by Daniel Webster, john Quincy Adams and many others throughout our history have enlivened the day. I can remember picnics by the beach and local politicians enlivening the air with their promises and/or excuses.

Celebrating birthdays whether one’s own or that of someone else is fun. It’s important to mark the milestones in one’s life with special emphasis. The older we get, the longer we live and the greater the achievement in doing so. However if I don’t take care of myself on the way to my milestones, once they have accumulated I may regret it if my health has deteriorated. It’s important that Stephen and I get enough exercise, eat foods that are healthy and nourishing, and make sure we have enough sleep. That way we really have something to celebrate every year when our birthdays come around.

Pleasure Can Take Many Forms

As regular readers of my column know by now, my mother really did not like to cook. She did what she had to do to feed her family. However, at least as far as I can remember preparing meals gave her no pleasure. Nor did she want my father to cook because, she said, he burnt everything. Perhaps he was impatient or perhaps he wasn’t watchful. I don’t know because I never saw him in the kitchen except to mix cocktails.

The only household chore I ever knew him to do was to polish the silver. My mother refused to do that and I do not blame her in the least. It is a dirty, tedious job. My father however seemed to enjoy it. I have a memory of him in an apron made from black and white striped mattress ticking material, vigorously polishing some of the lovely silver items he had inherited or been given by family members.

I on the other hand have always derived great pleasure from preparing food, baking, and providing meals for loved ones. For years I collected recipes. In the 80’s I wrote a cookie cookbook as well as a completely refined sugar free general cookbook with many recipes I had created. In those desserts I used only honey or maple syrup. Now even that kind of baking, along with a lot of other recipes I enjoyed making over the years, is history.

Recently I was diagnosed with a medical condition that requires severely restricting my carbohydrate intake. This has resulted in a major upheaval in both my eating and my cooking. In addition to sugars I have had to stop eating rice, pasta and potatoes. Thus I have had to eliminate many favorite comfort food recipes. I can no longer eat the Chinese fried rice I specialized in, the home fried potatoes or the shrimp scampi I enjoyed making as well as eating.

Then along came some difficult news. This caused a reaction I did not expect. I found myself in a depressed state and developed new aches and pains. I kept asking myself why was this happening? Then I realized I had been limiting most of my pleasure to cooking and eating. This is not to say I wasn’t doing fun things or having enjoyable experiences other than with food, however, I had concentrated principally on food related pleasure. I no longer regularly practiced other experiences I found pleasurable, like playing my harp or coloring.

Pleasure can rebalance the body’s ph and help keep us healthy. So now I am working to discover ways besides eating and cooking to give myself pleasure. In so doing I have rediscovered hobbies from the past like embroidery and begun to watch favorite old TV shows we have on DVD. I am spending more time with my harp, simply playing for the pleasure of it rather than working to learn tunes. I got out my coloring books and blank paper pads and began to color and as well as to draw. As time goes by I expect to enjoy new pleasures as well and look forward to discovering them. Meanwhile I already feel better.

Celebrating Special Days with Special Treats

Cake imageThe joyful birthday of our country on July fourth happens to be right next to and between my husband Stephen’ birthday on the third and our wedding anniversary on the fifth. Over the many years of our life together what a wonderful time we have had with our celebrations. In the past we would share what we used to call our three days of peace and love with friends. They would come from everywhere and stay for the three days, overflowing our large home and even camping in the back yard. The pool and the hot tub were frequently in use. They were joyous occasions.

Today we live more quietly, yet we still celebrate and have friends in to join us, though not so many or for so long. Special recipes are always fun to share for these occasions. One of Stephen’s favorites is a cake made with Almond paste or Marzipan. The main ingredient can be purchased at almost any market. This cake is not the kind to be frosted however you could also decorate it with fruit. In my case if I decide to make it this year I might spell out Happy Birthday Stephen with pieces of strawberry.

Marzipan Cake for Special Occasions

Preheat oven to 325

Grease and flour, or grease and line with parchment an 8″ round cake pan.

Ingredients:

7 or 8 oz almond paste or marzipan

¾ cups butter

2/3 cups sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

¼ teaspoon almond extract

¼ tsp baking powder

1/3 cup all purpose flour

Method: Crumble almond paste into bowl. Add butter. Beat well until blended. Gradually add sugar and beat well until mixture is light in color and texture. Add beaten eggs, continue beating for 3 minutes. Add flavoring. Sprinkle in baking powder by pinches. Fold in flower. Scrape batter into prepared baking pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until firm and browned on top, and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes on a rack. Slide a thin knife around and under the cake to detach from pan. Invert on rack then turn right side up and finish cooling. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

This cake is a wonderful treat, and can easily be made gluten free by using a flour mix from Bob’s Red Mill or another one you might like. It really helps to have a mixer, as it would be very labor intensive to mix it by hand, though it would also be excellent exercise. Whether I make this recipe or another I am fond of, I know I will enjoy celebrating these special days.

Taking Account of the Gifts of the Moment

fall-leavew-and-light

          The maple tree outside my window has been late in turning. I worried the leaves might fall off before they changed color. Then one morning as I pulled the curtain aside I saw they had indeed made their transition to gold. Later in the day the sun shone through them and the brilliance of the leaves was a sight to behold. I stood gazing at them, grateful for the beauty of that moment and of the very special loveliness that is fall in New England.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in this beautiful part of the country. Fall has always been special to me. I remember as a child collecting bright leaves and ironing them between pieces of waxed paper to preserve their colors. I did the same with my children when they were small, and we would hang the leaves up in a window to let the light shine through them. When I went thorough my mother’s correspondence amongst the letters was one from me with some colorful leaves. Being in Florida she said she missed them, so I sent her some.

Lately driving on the country roads near where we live I find it difficult to keep my eyes on the road. The scenery is breathtaking. The foliage of the trees makes billowing waves of color; the rounded mounds of the distant leaves heaped one upon the other simply take my breath away. How easy it might be to get lost in my inner dialogue and miss this.

My mind, like most has a way of getting busy with thoughts concerning what is or is not to be done, or has or hasn’t been finished. Lately I’ve improved. I used to find myself making lists in my head and missing out on a lot of what I might have appreciated had my eyes had been focused outward rather than inward. Once I got into the habit of noticing what my mind was doing it became easier to tame its tendency to run away with my attention and keep me from seeing what was happening around me.

When I take the time to look there is always something interesting to see. Naturally when I am driving I must keep some of my attention focused on what I am doing. Providentially, while looking to the road itself I see what is in front of me. Too, when I am with someone if I pay attention to what he or she is saying or how they are feeling instead of thinking about what I am going to say next, it is much easier to be fully present and aware of my companion.

I’m coming up on a birthday this month, and what I realize about getting older is that it gets easier each year to be patient, to be aware, and to be present insofar as I am able. For this I am thankful. I may never know what I have missed in the past when my mind wandered off and took my attention with it, yet I can make it a practice to keep myself in the here and now. That way I can appreciate whatever there is to be enjoyed in any given moment.

Take care for each breath and love each heartbeat, Tasha

 

 

 

 

Spring Has Truly Sprung

Spring blossoms, white          When I was a child in grade school, each year our music teacher organized May Day celebrations. Every class participated, and a May Queen was selected from among the girls in the ninth, the topmost grade. The younger children had their own maypole. I found it hopelessly confusing. You had to go over one and under the next as you wound your ribbon around the pole, weaving it into the others until there was only a little left. After rehearsals, much to my relief I wasn’t chosen to do it.

There were dances and songs–I still have a printed paper program from then in a scrapbook made for me by a devoted relative. The songs were of British origin and invoked the days of “lasses and lads” who met and parted though the specifics were a mystery to my young mind. No one talked of the fertility symbols or the meaning behind the rituals centered around the day we were celebrating.

The first of May is the midpoint between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Nature is pushing forward. The increase of the light from now forward reflects the brightness of the days that begin their most obvious decline around the first of August. In the northern hemisphere there are many celebrations associated with this date. They reach far back in the history of humanity, symbolizing our connection with the earth and its fertility.

Most recent is of course the “May Day” workers’ celebrations of the former Soviet Union. My mother and I were in Moscow on that date twenty six years ago. I remember the colorful flags hanging everywhere, and the crowds of people in Red Square. However, from far back in human history, May Day has been one of the great spring celebrations of Europe and the British Isles. It is associated with fertility for both crops and farm animals, promoted through ancient rituals, many of which involved fire.

In these modern times we believe more in fertilizer than in fertility rituals. Few people these days will dance around a maypole–an obvious phallic symbol, or go off into the woods with a partner to insure that the fertility of land and pasture will continue. There is no need. Supermarkets are stocked all year round with almost every seasonal vegetable and fruit–no need to wait until June for strawberries or fall for apples. Those who have never experienced this timing cannot miss it, but in some ways I do.

Yesterday Stephen and I drove along a wooded country road in the sunshine. The light illuminated the unfolding blossoms of the trees clustered around it. The cloudless blue sky above and the sunlight filtering through the branches above us lifted our hearts and filled us with joy. Summer with its own delights is in the wings; spring is on the stage revealing its special beauty now. It seems important to take time to notice this delicate time of unfolding.

Peace At Christmas, by Tasha Halpert

Johnnys tree2Even as a small child I was aware of the chaos of war. During the second World War my mother’s parents were still in Germany. My mother had not heard from them for almost ten years. Finally when the American forces broke through, her parents were able to communicate. I watched her wrap packages with food, clothing, and other necessities. Although there was still chaos and difficulty in Germany, at least my mother’s heart was at peace.

My cousin who lived in Cuba in the forties endured strife growing up. She wrote me of how shots might ring out and everyone took cover. I grew up without any direct experience of this kind, and I was fortunate. Now it seems that no one in the USA is safe from warlike behavior. What can we do to combat the fear that has begun to pervade our once peaceful atmosphere? I believe that on one hand we can raise up our courage and refuse to be intimidated, and on the other that we can work for peace within our own lives, most especially now.

The words “Peace on Earth” resonate throughout our Christmas carols and scriptural messages, and even our Christmas cards. Yet to think about peace amidst the hectic shopping, baking, wrapping, mailing hustle bustle of the holidays seems difficult. However I can promote peace in small ways.

I can invite a friend to Christmas dinner, bake cookies for the kind man who takes care of my car, listen sympathetically to someone who needs an ear. I can hold the door for someone or the elevator, volunteer to be of help where help is needed. Equally important, I can nurture peace in myself through meditation, eat well for a peaceful stomach, and of course, get enough sleep.

Taking time for myself is vital to my sense of peace. Remembering to breathe deeply, especially during a nature walk helps me feel peaceful. So does hugging a tree. When I am on my feet a lot I take fifteen minutes to lie on my bed with my legs straight up against the wall. This feels wonderful and it pacifies my body. When I feel more peaceful within myself, I influence the atmosphere around me to harmonize with my peacefulness.

I can talk all I want about the need for peace and the lack of it in the world, and that will change nothing. Alternatively I can set about making peace myself, promoting peace in my own way. I can be of service in the cause of peace. While I cannot influence nations or even large groups of people, I can be of help in small ways and thus help make peace.

There is a story about monkeys on an island learning to wash their food. When enough monkeys did that, those on neighboring islands began doing the same. There was no communication between them yet they were influenced. When we are peaceful within ourselves we help others to become more peaceful. When I work for peace in my own life, I am also working to bring peace in the world around me, and perhaps, who knows it may even spread out from there.

Gifts of the Moment by Tasha Halpert

Drops caught 2 If I hadn’t been paying attention to my surroundings, I wouldn’t have noticed it. I was standing at the supermarket counter choosing some fish for the chowder I was planning to make for later in the week when I saw the lobster on the low shelf in front of me. It had already been cooked, packaged and priced. Stephen loves lobster and this week it was on sale. Since I had nothing special planned for supper I immediately thought how the lobster would make a fine treat for him. Happy to be able to provide him with this nice surprise I picked it up and put it in my wagon.

I had other groceries pick up and so I continued on my way, collecting them and checking off the items on my list. When I finally finished, I made my way to the checkout to pay for my groceries. How glad I was that just at that moment I had been aware of the lobster and seen it waiting there for me. If my mind had been wandering and my thoughts elsewhere I might easily have missed that opportunity to provide us with an extra helping of joy. Bringing someone you love a special treat constitutes a treat for the giver as well as the person receiving it, a win/win situation.

I have noticed that when I focus on where I am and what I am doing I often see things that represent a kind of gift for me. An interesting cloud formation, flowers growing by the wayside on my morning walk, the first touches of color in the trees as I drive on the highway, a snatch of song that I enjoy playing in a store as I walk in, all these and more are little presents I receive when I am aware in the moment.

However, the gifts that lie within any given point in time are only available to me when my eyes are looking around to see and notice them. If my mind is occupied with thoughts or speculations, with worries or apprehensions there is no way I can pay attention to what is around me. At that point my eyes are figuratively turned inward, paying attention to whatever I am thinking of, not looking outward at what is there. I remember once when I spoke to someone about the lovely colors of that year’s fall, she looked at me sadly and confessed that she had been so lost in her thoughts and concerns she had never noticed.

Meditating regularly has certainly helped me stay mentally focused. Observing my thoughts as I learned to do in meditation gives me the option of letting them flow as they will or of refocusing my attention on where I am and what I am doing. Sometimes it is perfectly all right to let my mind wander about. As long as I am not driving or doing something else requiring my full attention my mind can do what it pleases. Even so, I find that keeping at least some of my attention on the present moment can often pay off in gifts.