Sunday, February 26, 2012

How often is enough?

If you're keeping up a healthy diet, and I hope that you are, you eat dinner seven times a week.

Now, those seven dinners can be a chance for you to try out a new recipe, go to your favorite restaurant to unwind from the daily grind or maybe the twenty minutes you have to put some fuel in your body before you rush off to study for that midterm exam.

Regardless of how you spend those seven dinners, it's important that you are conscious of what you choose to do with that special hour of time towards the end of your day. Even more so, it's important to think about who we choose to spend that time with. And if everyone is eating dinner at some point during the evening, that means that every day we have an opportunity to share a meal with someone.

How do you spend most of your dinners? Are you sitting in front of the TV watching a marathon of "Real Housewives" episodes? Are you aggressively wrestling a burrito out of its microwave- safe wrapper, shoving bites of refried beans into your mouth as you fumble for a bottle of hot sauce? Or maybe the thought of preparing dinner for a guest stresses you out so much that you throw down the spatula and reach for the phone to tell them there has been a change of plans.

Not that we don't all need a little down time where we just look to nourish our bodies and have a bit of a quiet evening, but think about all of the possibilities you are denying when you choose night after night to eat dinner alone! Maybe sharing dinner with someone means more to them than meets the eye? What if you thought of each dinner as a chance to let someone into your life and provide a bit of care that they haven't received in, perhaps, a long time?

Makes those seven dinners seem a little more meaningful.

How are you making those seven evenings count? Are you allowing memories to be created or waiting for them to come to you, if it's convenient or if you finally get the house cleaned?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Who aren't you inviting?

I know my dinner guests.

Their faces pop into my mind as clear as a freshly cleaned window. Before they even arrive I can hear their voices, the various inflections in their laughter and the expressions they'll most likely exclaim when they take a bite into a dish they think is especially delicious.

I know them so well because my dinner guests are my friends, or friends of friends. I invite them over because I want to spend time with them, to hear about what their week has been like and what simple moments have made them stop and smile when they least expected it. I create a meal because I want to share with them, to give them a taste of something home-cooked, maybe the only non-prepackaged food they've had all week. I delight in their company and I want to cultivate a space where they feel welcome to talk about what's on their heart while simultaneously nourishing their bodies with real, whole foods.

However good these intentions may seem, I realized they're only lukewarm.


Yes, lukewarm. While I feel so much joy cooking dinner and eating with those I really care for, most weeks, I'm sharing these experiences with people that probably expect to get an invitation. Even though they might feel the same joy that I do when we come around the table each week for our Friday Night Dinner, they have already known for weeks that this opportunity awaits them each Friday. They've grown comfortable, and so have I, with the idea that we will share this meal together on a consistent basis.

However, each week I'm missing the chance to ask those who really need an invitation to dinner. Maybe it's the student from South Africa who has come all the way to IU to study theatre, leaving behind their family and friends and left to eat alone in their dorm room each night. Or perhaps it's the boy who you've talked with occasionally in psychology class, a guy who you know likes the St. Louis Cardinals and rock music, but who you have no idea desires to meet new friends that make healthy choices. It could even be the barista at Starbucks who knows you like extra hot chai tea lattes, but has been dying to do more than make coffee and start dabbling in cooking. All she wants is someone to share her creations with, but she doesn't know who to turn to.

Those examples don't even begin to touch the long list of people we come into contact with on a daily basis. We might not give too much thought to what these people might do, or not do, around the family table each night, but maybe they are the people who we really need consider when we invite guests to our family table.

It's easy to give to those who are close to you, who you feel comfortable around and know they will more or less accept your kindness. But how often are we reaching out to those that actually need our care?

In Luke, chapter 14, Jesus talks about the importance of who we invite to gather around our table. To his host, he says, "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" 14:13

Who do you know that might need a home-cooked meal, an opportunity for fellowship or a simple reminder that they are cared for? How can you bless those who are in need? If we don't take the time to do this, are we really giving our love to those who would benefit from it most?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Radical hospitality

Does this image look familiar? Most of us have seen the Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast. Maybe it was during our childhood, perhaps we caught it when we were babysitting, or even as an adult who couldn't help but love animated cartoon animals and household gadgets that teach life lessons while simultaneously singing and dancing.

Amidst the twirling teapots and sashaying silver wear, I think all of us can admit that we were dying at the chance to receive an invitation to dine at the Beast's castle. When that symphony of place settings belted, "Be our guest! Be our guest!" we were all secretly shouting, "Yes! Please, pick me!"

If you don't remember this feeling when you first watched Beauty and the Beast, I'll confess that this was my reaction. When I was 6, the chance to dine with Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Pots would have been reason enough. However, looking back on this fanciful scene, I realize there is greater meaning than I once thought. The characters reveal to us what is means to show radical hospitality.

Now, most of us don't greet our dinner guests with choreographed numbers, nor should we, but we do have the potential to really make them feel wanted, to show them that we're excited to be sharing our homes with them for the evening. I'm not suggesting that it has to be an exhausting effort to show your enthusiasm; I'm asking you to think about whether you truly are happy to treat your loved ones to a home-cooked meal, that you are mindful of the awesome experience that you create when you ask people to join you around the table.

Yes, our weeks are busy and most times we throw our hands up in praise when we make it do the dinner table after a long day of work, but are our lives that busy that we can't express our love for one another by inviting friends to the table for a single night's meal? And more than that, are we too caught up in our own lives that we forget to act out the joy we feel when we gather together in communion?

Maybe it's time that we pull out our VHS copies of Beauty and the Beast and rekindle that magic of what it's liked to be treated as a guest!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Short & Sweet

When I say "sweet," you think icing, pink sugary frosting that licks the tops of round cherry-chip cookies. When you bite into one, a rush of candied-fruit flavors floods your mouth. But one cherry-chip cookie is simply not enough to satisfy your hunger for something sweet, so you keep searching...

Maybe "sweet" makes you think of a childhood friendship, that girl you sat next to at lunch who would always trade food with you. One half of your pb&j would morph into pastrami on rye. The two of you would giggle as you ran out the door to go to recess, dashing to the swings where you'd pump your legs with superhuman force in order to swing high enough so that your toes would touch the clouds. That's a sweet memory...

Or is the "sweetest" thing an act of compassion, a time when you knew someone was having a rough day so you decided to go work early and surprise them with a handwritten note that you propped-up next to a caffe latte. When they walked in and saw their small gift, you didn't even have to be looking at them to know that somewhere deep in their heart, they were feeling a sensation of warmth because they were thinking about how someone cared for them.

We often hear the phrase "short and sweet." It really is true that the "sweet" moments in life tend to be on the short side. It might be as fleeting as the taste of frosting on a cookie, the sound of children laughing on a playground or surprising someone with a random act of kindness, but regardless of its length or form, those sweet things bring us meaning.

When I have friends over every Friday night for our weekly Friday Night Dinner Party, I often think about those two or three hours of the week that we choose to spend with each other, sharing a homemade meal, conversation and just having fun. There are 168 hours in the week, yet these few hours stand out for me. It makes me realize that it doesn't take that much time out of our schedules to create a sweet occasion - a moment where we give of ourselves to those we care about, a moment where we show love without the expectation of being loved in return. The moment is sweet because it comes from a good place in our hearts. Even if it is short, we know it's worth it.

Create something "sweet" this week. Savor it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A powerful table

As the small, flaky wafer slowly dissolved on my tongue, a man on stage spoke a message that caused me to hold my breath.

I was sitting in church, taking communion for the first time in my life, and asking that God open my heart and mind to what this experience could bring me. But the thing is, I wasn't really sure what to expect. During masses at my Catholic high school, the priest described the bread and wine as actually transforming into the body and blood of Jesus when people received communion. Because I didn't believe that the bread and wine actually transformed, I decided not to take communion. Even in college when I started attending Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, when it came time to take communion, I would pass the bread and juice, trying to hand it off quickly to the person sitting next to me so that they wouldn't notice that I wasn't taking one.

But then I started to reflect on Jesus' message that he told his disciples during the Last Supper. By sharing in the process of eating the bread and drinking the wine, they could consciously think about the sacrifice he was about to make, giving his life to deliver us from our sins. Through their experience of sharing a meal around the table, they could use that time to reflect on the gift of life itself - the ability to live a life where we can experience the unconditional love and joy that God has for us each day. In the Christian teachings, the table is a place of thanksgiving, praise and awareness.

In my passion for the family table, I was struck by how strong of a connection there is between the act of taking communion and sharing meals around the table. My excitement about eating together at the family table could really take place on Sunday mornings as well. Even if we don't sit around a table during a service at church, as we come together each week, we do share food and drink that reminds us of how blessed we are to be so loved and to share that love and compassion with others.

By now, you're probably wondering what the man said that Sunday that really got my attention.
Although I had heard this man speak on previous Sundays, the message he spoke felt like God was whispering words of inspiration in my ear. He said, "Come to the Lord's table dressed with a loving heart, a cleansed life and a willingness to serve."

How often do we come to the table with that mindset - that before we even sit down in our chairs, we have chosen to fill our hearts with love, that we've made choices that reflect a healthy lifestyle and that we are ready to serve our friends and neighbors. Most nights, I am so eager to eat with my roommate, I practically skip to the table, bounce down on my stool, grab my fork and dive in! Before I take that first bite of chicken and dumplings, my thoughts are more along the lines of, "This smells delicious! Would this recipe be a good thing to serve at our next dinner party?"

But what if I walked to the table and visualized my heart being filled with love and joy, so much so, that it was overflowing. And when I sat down at the table, I would be thinking about what a miracle it is that I was even created and how I hope that with each day, each action I take, it would be inspired by a spirit of love and compassion. All of this, I could think about each time I come around the table to share a meal.

The family table has power, but only when we are conscious of what we bring to it. I hope that this week, we can be aware of our choice to come to the table dressed with a loving heart, a cleansed life and a willingness to serve.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pearl at the table

"There are two pearls," my dad told me. "Well, two that I've found so far."

Pearls? My eyes widened and I craned my neck forward, waiting to hear about where these little white pearls were and why they were so special. My younger 13-year-old self didn't realize at first that my dad wasn't referring to the elegant stone produced from the soft tissue inside a mollusk. He was talking about the pearls of wisdom - the insightful statements that provide advice and guidance; the words that ring in our ears when we're making a difficult decision; the mantras that keep us anchored when the rough seas of life are crashing around us.

When I understood what these metaphorical pearls were, I was curious as to what pearls my dad thought were so important and why he remembered these two. Surely these statements had to be the secrets to a happy life, or at least wisdom to keeping your head held high come Monday morning.

"The first pearl is that there are pearls of wisdom and that you need to be looking out for them," he said. I thought this was pretty straight forward, but I could tell by the way his hands were clasped and how he looked at me with such a steady gaze that his first pearl was a good reminder to be aware of the knowledge we gain from our experiences.

He moved his hand across the width of our knotted oak table, gripping the corner as his finger tips rounded the curved edge. "The second pearl," he said, "is to keep relationships alive."

I wrinkled my nose. 'Keep relationships alive,' I repeated in my head. I looked down at his big hands that were still holding the table. I needed a little more explanation. He began to talk about his days of backpacking through Europe. It was the late 60s and he had just graduated from Indiana University. On his journey, he befriended countless people, from shepherds to Spanish flamenco dancers. While he carried little with him, the people he met graciously shared, inviting him into their homes to enjoy a cup or English tea or a meal of cheese and sausage. Even when my dad came back to the States, he kept correspondence with his new friends through letters. While he never went back to visit any of them, his memories of them remained vivid, even some 30 years later.

As we sat at the table that night, talking about these pearls of wisdom, I imagined that he would have loved to have shared another meal with the families he met, or better yet, have invited them to our house in Portland, Oregon for a taste of the Northwest.

While I try to listen for other pearls of wisdom that come across my path, I have really held on to the idea of keeping relationships alive. After graduating from high school, I moved to Indiana, not knowing anyone else at IU and leaving all my high school friends back in Oregon. Despite the distance, I have stayed close with a few of these girls; I'd even venture to say that I have become closer to them since our high school days. It's during times of the year like Christmas that we reunite and catch up on all the details of our lives that we've been dying to tell each other since we last visited in August. Nine times out of ten, we get together around the same familiar place: the table.

Last Friday, a group of us gathered to savor our favorite winter comfort foods - puffy vegetable pot pie, roasted squash, cinnamon apple crumble and velvety, thick hot chocolate. As we raised our glasses of Soave in a toast to our friendship, which has been going strong for the last seven years, I couldn't help but think about that pearl of wisdom and picture my dad sitting at the table, his mind drifting back to his memories of sharing food with his European friends. Even if my friends and I are only separated by 2,000 miles, instead of 5,000, the few times a year we can be together are secured in our love of the family table, a place that will always be there to house our reunions, whether we haven't see each other for four weeks or four months.

Today, I'm passing on my dad's pearls of wisdom to you. I encourage you to make relationships a priority in your life, even if you think you have little time and far too much work still left to do. It doesn't take too much effort to invite your close friends over for a night of cheese and wine, an afternoon of chewy ginger cookies or a morning cup of coffee.

Keep the friendships going; keep the family table alive.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tradition, tradition!

Photo Courtesy of

A man with leathery skin, wearing a well-worn tweed vest and a prayer cloth, ladles fresh milk into a dull tin canister. His name is Tevye, a father of five daughters and a humble milkman by trade. His town is bustling with activity: men are sawing beams and sheering wool, Papa is butchering meat, Mama is baking fresh challah. As Tevye delivers milk to a woman in a small, wooden house, he says, "And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word... Tradition."

Sound familiar? This scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" is a perfect illustration of the pride we have for our traditions. While most of us may not burst into song when we think about them (unless your tradition is performing musical theater), deep inside, we attach them to strong emotions and memories.

The word "tradition" has become somewhat synonymous with the holiday season. Whether your family has always burned a yule log in the fireplace for Christmas, or the Mexican hot chocolate you drink every Christmas Eve while watching "It's a Wonderful Life," your traditions mark the season with moments of bliss. And it just wouldn't feel right if you neglected them. The table would seem empty if you didn't make your great grandma Alice's Christmas jello salad. The magic would be missing if you didn't put piles of chocolate coins on the table when the kids were playing spin-the-dreidel.

In the last week, I attended two Christmas events where the theme was "traditions." I reminisced about my Mom's German pancake that we ate each year on Christmas morning. Once placed inside the oven, the golden pancake curled up the sides of the cast iron pan, beckoning to be filled with a steaming serving of spiced apples or doused with lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar. It's a sweet tradition - one that I hope to continue in the years to come.

But when someone posed the question as to what traditional foods would be on my table for a holiday spread, besides the German pancake, I couldn't think of any dishes that would be absolute essentials. At first, I was worried. Is it odd that I don't have any Christmas foods that I can't live without?

I listened to the others share their foods. One family eats summer sausages and cheddar cheese after Christmas morning service. Another girl said her mom lives to make her family's recipes that were brought over from Syria. They all sounded great, but there weren't any threads that linked the dishes together. The common denominator was that these people ate them year after year with those they loved.

Then, it hit me. At a "traditional" Christmas dinner, the food is arbitrary. Sound blasphemous? Maybe not. While it may not feel the same if you substitute Chinese takeout for the honey-glazed ham, as long as you're sitting around the table, visiting with those you care about, what difference does the food make? I believe the tradition is not as much in the specific foods as it is in the practice of sharing it in a communal setting.

So this year, whether you plan on making your family's time-tested eggnog recipe or creating a new dish you saw on the Barefoot Contessa, as long as you're sharing it with family and friends, you are most surely carrying on the tradition.