Monday, November 28, 2011

What Season?

You hear it everywhere: 'Tis the season! But what season? As a friend of mine on FaceBook commented, there are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of winter holy days that happen between now and the secular New Year. While I don't celebrate them all, I do honor many traditions.  In our home, we celebrate Advent in the Christian tradition, Yule in the generic pagan tradition, Solstice in my Hellenic tradition, Hannukah in the Jewish tradition, and sometimes Bodhi Day in the Buddhist tradition. Each has its own tenor, its own feel to it, and each is holy and true and wise and full of lessons for us. Perhaps the goal is not so much to celebrate all the time, but to see the celebration in every day.

It's hard to believe that it's Advent already. We lit the first of the four Advent candles at church yesterday, and focused on the theme of peace. Our pastor suggested that Advent as a whole is a time to become more aware, to be awake, to focus on what we have while being open and ready for new opportunities. After all, we get what we expect, and if our minds are dragging and our spirits are low, that's the best we'll be able to do. He used the image of Tigger and Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh series. Tigger is almost always happy, bouncing from place to place, finding the bright side of life no matter what's thrown at him. The result is that he sees the world as a happy, peaceful place and so, to a certain extent, it is. Eeyore, on the other hand, sees a rain cloud on every horizon and an earthquake on every nice day. Hence, he is always depressed, expecting the worst. Even if a good day happens, it's only a precursor to what will likely be a horrid day tomorrow. These become self fulfilling prophecies.

The other thing our pastor brought up was a lecture by Randy Pausch, done at Carnegie Mellon University just after his diagnosis with terminal liver cancer. It's called The Last Lecture but not because of his impending passing. The lecture series he was presenting for had held that name for many years, the idea being to present something that would be your legacy, as if you had only one last lecture that you could give to the students. As he puts it in the video, "I finally nailed the venue, and they changed the name!" I haven't watched the whole lecture yet (it's an hour and a half long, and it demands your full attention) but what I have seen is incredibly inspiring. Live in the day is the basic message. You can't change tomorrow, you can't change yesterday, so make today count. Enjoy it for what it is. How many of us can say we do that? And we're not dying.

So what IS Advent, anyhow? The word 'advent' means 'coming' or 'long awaited' or even 'just arrived.' We talk about the advent of the computer age, and the advent of the automobile without blinking. The Christian Advent is simply the beginning, or coming, of the Christ Child. It's more a symbolic (in the version I practice) than literal - most Biblical (and other) scholars now agree that it is almost impossible that Christ was born during the winter, and moreso that there likely wasn't a lot of snow in his area of birth anyhow. The story of the birth of Yeshua is a long one, convoluted, often mixed up. The four Gospels and associated extra-biblical texts give very different versions of the whole ordeal. The story that has become so popular (census, trip to Bethlehem, birth in the stable, Wise Men showing up, gifts of priceless things, Herod, flight to Egypt, in that order) is almost completely fictionalized. Whether you believe in Yeshua as a human figure or a myth doesn't really matter. The story really doesn't bear much resemblance to what's in the Gospels. At best, it's a mashup of the assorted texts, jammed together to make a crazy quilt of a story that sounds good in children's books.

Just as your average Hellenic polytheist doesn't believe that Zeus literally slept with and bred with everything that moved, and that Hera was a total shrew all the time, the average Christian doesn't believe that Yeshua lived the story as told. It is a mythology that is steeped in history almost as old as the story itself. It's been manipulated and changed by kings and popes and printing press letter setters until it's become a comfortable old favorite.

For me, this is a time of incubation. The colder weather keeps me indoors more often, and I'm cleaning the house for (and from) the holidays. I'm preparing prayers and services for my various gods. I'm counting the days until winter solstice. I'm creating presents for my loved ones, cooking and baking and otherwise nestling happily in my home. I see it as a time of "pregnant pause," time to think about my life and what I've done in the past year, and what changes I'd like to make in the coming one.

What is this the advent of, for you? What begins for you when the snow falls? What starts when mid-winter draws near? Where were you last year at this time? Where have you come to? Where are you going? Are you happy? If not, why not? Find your inner peace, the peace of faith, regardless of your religion (or lack thereof). Embrace it, sit with it. Take the time to breathe. After all, sometimes all you can do is keep breathing...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Finally... home.

When we left our old house in Hinsdale, NH, we were in a bit of a rush. Our new house wasn't ready, and we had to be out of the old one by a specific date, so we were forced to store much of our stuff up on a friend's land. We covered it well with tarps and stored only in good quality hard rubber bins, but we couldn't have expected a hurricane to blow through. Our tarps were still mostly in place, but had allowed water to get in and pool at one end which was a bit downhill. This resulted in several of our boxes being submerged completely. The ones that were uphill did fine (except for a couple that collapsed under the weight of the water on the tarp above them), but those lower ones were simply under water. The tubs did great at keeping things dry and clean during a rain storm, but not so much when completely under water. One of the boxes that got filled with water was filled with much of my important ritual gear.


It wasn't a total loss. Some of my papers went to the gods, but most of what was there turned out to be brass and silver, and a few fabric things that had to be thrown away because of the mold on them. My stole, thank heavens, was able to be saved (thank you @CT!!). As you can see in the above picture, though, the brass was in pretty sad condition. The silver and pewter wasn't much better. So yesterday, I sat down with both silver and brass polish, rubber gloves, a toothbrush, lots of paper towels and linen rags, and set to cleaning.

And clean!
The end result was exceptionally pleasing. Most of my brass is now clean, and all of the silver has been restored. There are 3 brass candlesticks and a couple of pewter offering bowls left to clean, but I ran out of steam (and my sinuses couldn't handle the stink of the polish anymore). I decided to dedicate the day to fixing up my altars, since I've now been in the new house for well over a month and had only put together temporary mini-altars to my gods. It was time to do it, and do it right, and so I proceeded to empty boxes, clean things, mount shelves, launder head coverings, and set up the altars the way they ought to be set up.

My altars in their alcove.
My room is a bit oddly shaped, but I do love it. With its natural wood walls and ceiling, I feel as if I'm inside a log cabin, a sensation which is heightened exponentially when it is raining or snowing hard outside. It's a bit chilly, since there's no other house walls around me, but I just don't care. I can pull on extra blankets, after all. This picture was taken from my doorway into my room. The end of the bed (a built in platform bed!) segues into the alcove which has become my altar area. In place of the stacks of big rubber tubs that were there earlier in the day, I now have my old bedside table (refurbished into a small altar for the ancestors) and a large but low bookcase (the top of which is dedicated to my lady, Hecate). On the wall are some pictures and candle sconces, my drum, and the built-in shelves which have been cleaned and turned into proper small shrines for various gods.

For my ancestors.
My ancestors altar has been completely revamped. In the new digs, I just don't have the room (mentally or physically) for all the pictures that were around my old ancestor shrine. Instead, I have a red table runner (which has always been used for ritual) on top of which is a picture I took at Arlington Cemetery, a chunky red candle on a large holder, and two offering bowls (one for liquid and one for solids). It's simple... but once I set it up and said my prayers over it, it felt RIGHT. To the right of the altar is a small cupboard, recessed into the wall, with a door. At the moment it's not clean, but once it is, it will become a storage area for extra ritual tools and such. Likely it will contain the large amount of brass candlesticks that I have, as they're difficult to store elsewhere and I like to be able to access them easily.

Zeus and Hera
The top shelf of the small altars is for Zeus and Hera, who I honor as the ones who watch over marriage and relationships. For me, they are the essence of strong marriage, which has to overcome the trials and tribulations of miscommunication, unintentional misdirection, and the occasional white lie. The myths have Zeus and Hera at odds constantly, and while I see those as moral tales not necessarily representative of the gods themselves, for me it's a strong indication that marriage is not meant to be "made in heaven" but lived here on earth, with all the tribulations that come with it. And so they sit at the top of the heap, so to speak, King and Queen of the gods.

Slightly below Zeus and Hera is the only other Olympian that I really give much honor to (except Hestia, but she's in the kitchen, as befits) on a regular basis. The small stuffed snake coils around an obelisk, happily watching all that goes on, looking for all the world like a serpent on a staff, a caduceus. There is a large amethyst rock there, and healing prayer beads that were made for me by a dear friend of mine. And beside that, a delicate clay rattle that sounds reminiscent of rain falling when shaken, and which was explained to me as being a healing rattle. When I or a family member is ill I will ask Aesclepius to bring us healing.

For Yeshua
Then comes the altar/shrine that will make my pagan peeps cringe: the one for Yeshua, aka Jesus. I am still working on that myself, because I spent so many years being "decidedly not Christian" even though I was never dealt any emotional blows as a young person by any incarnation of the church. Yet Yeshua tapped me, and I cannot deny that call anymore than I could deny the call from Hecate or the others. So for the first time he now has his own small altar. It's a bit sparse at the moment, as I slowly figure out the things he likes, but again, it feels RIGHT.

At the bottom of the shelves there is Dionysos, also a bit sparse because I haven't yet found all the items that usually go on his altar. He has taken a backseat to others, of late, and yet I still owe so much to his presence in my life. I remember being told that Dionysos was a "gateway god" and that he might disappear or fade a bit after a while, and how much that bothered me. Now that it's slowly happening, it isn't painful, though there's a bit of an ache. I doubt he'll ever entirely disappear from my life; we have too much history now for that to happen. Still, his altar is at the bottom both because he is more outside the rules of purity as I worship him, and because that bottom shelf is so close to the big altar for Hecate, which is where he's always been. Eventually there will be more things, too.

Long shot of altars.
Above the shelves is a copper pressing of the Parthenon, something I picked up in a box of art books many years ago at an auction. It's one of my most prized altar images. I'm sure it's just a cheap reproduction of something more expensive, but it has real energy to it, a real feeling of connectedness. I apologize for the slightly blurry quality of the photos, but I'm reduced to using the camera on my Android phone since I dropped a rock on my good camera and killed it (sob). Still, at least there are photos, right?

I'm very pleased with how my little altar area turned out. I wasn't sure what I was doing until the very last minute, when I asked @CT to help me drag that heavy bookshelf upstairs. It sits well there, though, and really completes the whole thing. I toyed a bit with putting it under the shelf altars, but realized that Hecate doesn't mind being next to the ancestors, and at least in my own mind there's a certain reason for her altar to be between the ancestors and the Olympians.

Capable of shrouding.
It isn't often that I shroud my altars. I generally spend my time worshipping Hecate, who doesn't care if I have contact with ancestors or dead things or have my hands on things considered ritually impure. I have no need to shroud her space. However, I like to be able to shroud my shrines to the Olympians, out of respect for them, and so I built in a shroud this time. The green cloth you see there can be tacked up to cover all the small altars, shielding them completely from view. And yet again, I knew it was RIGHT when I did it.

Head coverings
Across from my altar alcove I have several small pegs that I used to hang up my head coverings. I use these in many of my rituals and prayers, almost as a Jewish person would use a talit. In a way, they almost replace my old Wiccan robes (which I still have). Those I would put on to remind myself that I was "between the worlds" during ritual, and these I wear to remind myself that I am in holy space. They are not so different... in a way, they are a symbol that I carry that holy space inside me, always.

There, now it is done. I have enjoyed sharing these pictures with you, and I hope you enjoyed seeing them as much as I enjoyed sharing! Blessings to all!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hungarian Pork Goulash

Slice your onion.

One of my all-time favorite Hungarian recipes (yes, I know, I say that of all the ones I post up LOL) is Hungarian Goulash (also known as gulyas leves). Goulash is named after the herdsman (or gulyas, in Hungarian) who made it out of whatever meat they had at hand. My family comes from the north eastern section of Hungary, and pork is the traditional meat of choice for this recipe. There are quick ways of making goulash, but honestly, the longer ways are much better. This is NOT a good crock-pot soup, however you can make it a day ahead, and then let the finished product stay heated in a crock pot almost indefinitely without losing anything. Usually, I serve this with a nice crusty bread, hopefully hot from the oven. It's topped with a thick dollop of sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste.

Onions and garlic and paprika!
Ingredients (goulash):

  • pork (tenderloin or steaks, cubed)
  • onions
  • garlic
  • carrots
  • potatoes
  • peas
  • paprika
  • butter and/or olive oil
  • broth (make your own from pork bone, or beef)
Ingredients (noodles):
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 pinch salt
  • enough flour to make a very stiff dough

Diced pork tenderloin.
Heat a cast iron or other large pan on the stove and melt a little butter or olive oil into it. While waiting for that to be ready, cut up your onion(s). I use one large onion per pound of meat usually. Take off the ends and peel the onion, then cut it in half, and put the cut side down on your cutting board. Cut the half in half (ie two quarters), and then slice thinly to make small curves of onion. Repeat with the other half, and slide the slices into your oil. Cover with one or two tablespoons of paprika and saute for a few minutes until the onions are soft.

LOTS of paprika...
While the onions are cooking, chop up two cloves of garlic and then add them to the onions. When the onions begin to brown a bit, or are very soft, slide into a soup pot. Dice up your pork into one inch or smaller cubes.

In the pan, drizzle a bit more olive oil or butter and add your diced pork, and coat it liberally with paprika (3 or more tablespoons!). Cook just long enough to brown all sides of the meat thoroughly, but not enough to cook it all the way through. You are sealing in the juices before making the soup, so that the pork will be tender and delicious when it is served. Add the seared pork to the pot with the onions and garlic. 

Carrots and spuds.
Peel and coin your carrots, and add to the pot. I use about 3 large carrots per pound of meat, but you can adjust to taste. I also added two large potatoes, diced (skin on, but again, you may want to peel them). Now add in enough broth to just barely cover everything in the pot, and bring it to a full boil. When it is boiling, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, and then cover and cook for 3+ hours.

Usually, we also put little hand made noodles into this soup. In America they'd probably be referred to more as dumplings, but in Hungary they are called csipetke, which means "pinched noodles." They are pretty close to Polish spetzle, and are cooked right in the soup (although if you like them they can also be sauteed up with butter and onions and served as a side dish!). 

Everything in the pot.
To make the noodles, crack one egg into a mixing bowl and beat it well. Add a pinch of salt, and then add a few tablespoons of flour. Mix well, and continue adding flour until you have a very stiff dough that can be turned out and kneaded gently on a table. Using both hands, flatten the dough until it is about a quarter to a half inch thick. 

Bring your soup back to a boil, and then begin pinching off bits of the dough and dropping them into the soup. The "noodles" should be about the size of a lima bean, and it's just fine if they're irregular in size and shape. Once they are all in the soup (one egg worth of this dough is enough for a large pot of soup), lower the heat a bit and keep it at a heavy simmer for about five minutes to let the noodles thoroughly cook. 

The finished goulash.
This soup should be ladled into wide bowls and have a large spoonful of sour cream added to the top. For visual purposes, you can add a sprinkle of paprika to the sour cream if you like, though it isn't necessary. Serve with hot bread and butter, and fresh dill pickles. The flavors blend well, and will keep people coming back for thirds and even fourths, long after they ought to stop. 

A short note for those who may not have real paprika in their cupboard. Please consider purchasing some real paprika. Hungarian paprika has a distinct, smokey flavor that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the red powder that is American paprika. Hungarian paprika also comes in two kinds: sweet and hot. This recipe is made with the sweet paprika (though it has a tiny bite to it when used in the quantities called for here), but if you want more heat to your flavor, you can add a pinch or two of the hot paprika, too. 

The finished product, with sour cream.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Witch of Stitches

The Witch of Stitches is a blog I've been reading for a while. She's got quite the sense of humor, shares her beliefs freely, and is currently doing a give-away! :) Since I happen to be a priestess of Hecate, I decided I ought to enter this one. ;) Have a peek - I think you'll like what you see!