Where do you find comfort?

If there was ever a time in most of our lives when we craved comfort, this is probably it. The combination of the upcoming holiday season + a worldwide pandemic is bound to be stressful. For many of us, the shorter, darker days of winter add to our feelings of disquiet. It’s a universal human trait to seek comfort when life becomes difficult, but where do we find that comfort? What do we turn to?

You’ve probably heard people refer to their “Quarantine 15”. In a poll of more than 1,000 WebMD readers, nearly half of the women and almost one-quarter of the men said that they had gained weight since March. This trend is no surprise. Food is one of the most common sources of comfort that people turn to in times of stress. There’s even a physiological reason for this. Chronic or ongoing stress causes the body to produce higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which in turn triggers cravings for salty, sweet, or fried foods; foods that produce a burst of energy and pleasure.

Thankfully, this hasn’t been an issue for me. In fact, in times of distress I tend to lose my appetite. One of my main go tos for comfort is a cup of hot tea which is known to lower stress hormones. Since I drink my tea black, it has the added benefit of being calorie free.

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Soaking in a hot bath is another favourite source of comfort for me. There’s something about being surrounded by liquid warmth that soothes away anxiety and restores a sense of peace. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of returning to the womb! 

What are some other ways that you can comfort yourself, especially if you’re trying to avoid stress eating? Here are a few suggestions, but I’d love to hear your ideas in the comment section. 

  • Exercise. This one might be challenging if gyms and recreational facilities are closed in your area, but it goes hand in hand with the next suggestion. 
  • Spend time outdoors. 
  • Listen to music.
  • Do something creative… paint, sketch, knit, crochet, sew, embroider… the options are almost endless.
  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Practice mindfulness. Focus on whatever you’re doing at the moment. Notice the sights, sounds, and scents that surround you. 
  • Escape into fiction. Watch a movie or read a book. 
  • Work on a jigsaw, crossword, or sudoku puzzle.
  • Savour the routines in your life. If life seems chaotic, work on establishing some routines and focus on the comfort that you receive from that first cup of coffee in the morning, a regular devotional or prayer time, a few minutes of quiet reading or contemplation after work.  

We are living in tumultuous times and there seems to be no end in sight. We can’t see the big picture and have no idea how all this is going to work out for us individually or globally, but there is One who does know. Ultimately, true comfort is to be found in faith in God. Scripture is full of words of comfort. 

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A Covid Thanksgiving

If you use social media at all, I’m sure you’ve seen a myriad of memes and posts bemoaning the somewhat bizarre year that 2020 has turned out to be.

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Then there are the “If 2020…” memes. At least some of them add a bit of humour to our current predicament. 

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But has it really been that bad? I see posts from people claiming that 2020 has been the worst year of their life. If that’s the case, I’m thinking that perhaps they’re very young or maybe they’ve just lived a charmed life. I can think of at least three years in my life that have been worse than this one, but that’s not what I want to write about today.

Thanksgiving

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, traditionally a time for families to gather and enjoy a festive meal together. For many of us, it’s a very different and much quieter celebration this year. Here in Canada, we’re experiencing a second wave and many of the new Covid-19 cases have been the result of large family gatherings. Though we live in a rural area where the numbers have remained relatively low, all of our children and grandchildren live in urban settings where that is not the case. As a result, we’ve chosen not to get together to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. In spite of the fact that hubby and I are alone this holiday weekend, I cooked a tiny (8.5 pound) turkey with all the trimmings yesterday. It may be far from an ordinary year, but that’s no reason to completely forgo those things that bring us joy!

Without the happy sounds of children and no one gathered around a board game on the kitchen table, the house is very quiet, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have much to be thankful for. In the solitude of this unusual Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve had much opportunity to contemplate how very blessed we are. Even in the midst of a pandemic such as we’ve never experienced before, there is so much to give thanks for. I’m reminded of one of my favourite passages of scripture, Philippians 4:6-7.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (emphasis my own)

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Though the list of things that I’m thankful for is very long, this image pretty much sums it up for me. In spite of two cancers and several other diagnoses, I feel great and I’m able to live a full and active life. I have access to excellent, free health care. I have a comfortable home that’s in the process of undergoing a complete facelift. My family may be scattered today, but I’m so proud of the adults that my children have become and the spouses they’ve chosen. Of course, I’m also head over heels in love with the seven grandchildren that they’ve added to the clan. As sad as it was to lose my elderly father earlier this year, I’m grateful that he went before the pandemic struck, that we were able to be with him in his final hours, and that we could celebrate his life together with friends and family. And where would we be without friends? I’m so thankful for the ones that God has blessed me with, both far and near. Finally, there’s food. Along with safe, clean drinking water, food is something that we tend to take for granted, but I’m mindful of the fact that, while I can cook a whole turkey for two people, there are many in this world who don’t know where their next meal is coming from and who may be going to bed hungry tonight. No, for most of us, 2020 has not been that bad! 

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Why is it so hard?

As I’ve seen the news about pastors, like Rev. Tony Spell in Louisiana, who are insisting on their “right” to hold Easter services in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have to ask why is it so hard to obey stay-at-home orders that have been put in place to protect the lives of the vulnerable; the very people that churches profess to care about? Why is it so hard?

I fully understand people wanting to be with family and to take part in their traditional Easter celebrations. I’d love to be with my kids and grandkids too, but I’ve been pondering why we do what we do and why we think we need to. Nowhere in scripture are we commanded to gather together for Easter (other than the instruction not to give up meeting together in Hebrews 10:25 which, thankfully, we’re able to do virtually) or given any instructions about how to celebrate the resurrection. These are manmade traditions. Perhaps a quiet, at home Easter without all those extras is not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s a time for us to reflect in a more intentional way on the real meaning of the event which is not bunnies, eggs, and chocolate. It isn’t even necessarily going to church!

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the ways we usually celebrate Easter, but just this once, it’s okay to do things differently. In fact, we need to do things differently! As the church, we need to be obedient to the Word of God which tells us in several places to obey those in positions of authority over us. Romans 13:1 tells us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Regardless of what people like Rev. Spell proclaim, we are called to obey those who put the current social distancing regulations in place! Why is that so hard?

I’m reminded of the two Easters that we spent in non Christian countries. In Japan, we did attend a Christian church and celebrated Easter there, but outside the walls of the church, there was no recognition of Easter at all. In China, where we weren’t part of any Christian organization, I’ll always remember that we went out for dinner with a couple of our college students on Easter Sunday and ate roast duck and bullfrog! Not frog’s legs, the whole frog! It was delicious, but I digress! At the end of that day, I wrote this and I think it applies as well to our current situation as it did then.

“Easter isn’t really about what we eat or who we spend the day with. Whether we’re with family around a table laden with ham and all the trimmings or in a shopping mall in China eating bullfrog, as Christians, Easter is at the centre of who we are and what we believe.”

 

More of Lisbon

Yesterday morning we climbed onto a crowded city bus and set off to explore one of Lisbon’s most impressive landmarks, the Jerónimos Monastery.  Built of sandstone in 1502, the monastery overlooking the Tagus River was populated by 100 monks of the Order of Saint Jerome, whose spiritual job it was to give guidance to sailors and to pray for the king. Monks occupied the monastery until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1833 after which the building became state property. It was then used as an orphanage/school for the Casa Pia of Lisbon (a children’s charity) until around 1940 and is now a major tourist attraction.

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After leaving the monastery, we walked about a block to the the famous Pastéis de Belém, an amazing bakery with 400 tables that appear to be constantly in use as locals and tourists alike sample the delightful pastries and treats. We were there for the egg tarts, the Pastéis de Belém that gave the bakery their name. We were first introduced to this Portuguese delicacy in Macau about 10 years ago. The Lisbon bakery began making the original Pastéis de Belém in 1837 following an ancient recipe from the Jerónimos Monastery.

After indulging, we strolled along the riverfront first passing by the Monument of the Discoveries. Inaugurated in 1960, the 52 metre monument commemorates the Portuguese age of discovery and the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, who discovered the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde.

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Just beyond the monument stands the Belem lighthouse and a little further on, the Belem Tower, another high place for us to climb. 93 winding stone stairs took us to the top! Originally built between 1514 and 1519 to defend the city, over the years it has been used as a prison, a customs post, a telegraph station, and a lighthouse.

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That brings our quick visit to Lisbon to a close. Today we flew to Rome. More about that in future posts, but there is so much to see and do here that it may be a few days before I’m back at the keyboard to share our adventures with you!

Garbage soup

What do you do with your vegetable scraps? If you’re a gardener, perhaps you compost them and make good use of the nutrients that way. If not, this post is for you!

Food waste is an enormous problem worldwide. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.3 tonnes of food is thrown out each year. Here in Canada, according to a 2014 report, $31 billion worth of food ends up in landfills or composters every year. I’m terrible at math, but if I’ve done my calculating correctly, that’s over $870 per person! Shockingly, 47% of that waste comes from private homes, not restaurants. Fruits and vegetables account for the highest amount of food wasted. Instead of adding to this global problem, why not use your vegetable scraps to make broth that can be used in a wide variety of ways. It’s really very simple:

Think potatoes, carrots, celery, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, beets, tomatoes, cauliflower, pea pods, zucchini and other squash. The possibilities are almost endless! Since you’re going to make use of the outer layers instead of throwing them out, make sure you wash all vegetables thoroughly to get rid of dirt and/or pesticide residue. Remove the tops, bottoms, skins, and stems and toss them into a large Ziploc bag.

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Keep the bag in the freezer and add to it until it’s full. I also add bits of leftover vegetables after a meal is over. Frozen, the scraps will keep for 6 months or more, but I find that I can easily fill a bag in 2 or 3 weeks.

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Once the bag is full, dump it into a large pot and add enough water for the scraps to begin to float.

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Bring it to a boil and simmer for several hours.

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Strain the liquid off and discard rest.

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Your scraps can even do double duty if you choose to compost what remains.

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Every batch of broth is a little bit different depending on the composition of the scrap mix. Some are mild; others more robust in colour and flavour. I always do a taste test before using or freezing the broth. So far, I haven’t had to throw any away, but my daughter did have one batch that reminded her of stinky pond water!

The broth will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator or 4 to 6 months in the freezer. If I don’t plan to use it within a day or two, I freeze mine in containers of approximately 2 cups each.

Looks like I’d better defrost that freezer soon!

There are many recipes that call for vegetable broth, of course, but it has plenty of other uses as well. You can add extra flavour and nutrition to stews, curries, and even rice by using broth instead of water. Sometimes I turn a whole batch into a big pot of hearty vegetable soup by simply adding chopped onion, celery, an assortment of fresh or frozen vegetables, some barley or rice, salt, pepper, and other herbs or spices to taste. There’s something weirdly satisfying about turning your garbage into soup!

Grocery shopping Mexico style

As we were preparing for our latest travel adventure, many people back home on the cold Canadian prairie had a hard time understanding why we would go to Mexico and not spend our time at a beach resort. To me, the answer is easy. First and foremost, the friends that we’re visiting don’t live at the coast. Secondly, this trip is giving us a rare opportunity to see “real” Mexico and to learn how the people of this country live.

Shopping here is absolutely nothing like shopping in Tijuana or on 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Market areas aren’t inundated with cheap trinkets and we aren’t constantly accosted by aggressive hawkers. Everything here has set prices, so there’s no need to barter.

Wherever I go in the world, I like to see how and where the locals buy their groceries. Here in Coatepec there’s a Chedraui supermarket within walking distance that sells groceries, clothing, and household items; much like Walmart or Superstore back home. Chedraui is a huge Mexican supermarket chain that originated in nearby Xalapa. A person could easily do all their grocery shopping there, but Richard M and Colleen buy most of their food from small street side vendors and marketplaces that remind me of how we shopped in China. They also shop at tiny hole in the wall family run shops like the one just up the road from here. With it’s rough cement floor, shelves lining the side walls and a meat counter at the back, it’s smaller than our single car garage at home. In all of these places, the products are fresh and locally grown or produced. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this kind of shopping!

So, let’s go grocery shopping…

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There are also vendors who regularly come through the neighbourhood or to the gate selling foodstuff. Today we had delicious tamales for lunch that were purchased from one of these pedlars. Yum!

To Xico for lunch

After starting my day with a zumba class, I was ready for a hearty lunch. We caught a taxi in Coatepec and headed for Xico, a smaller town about 9 km away. Here’s the sight that greeted my eye as I stepped out of the car!

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Turning around, we crossed the street and headed down the newly restored pedestrian avenue lined with colourful homes and shops. It felt a bit like a step back in time.

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Toward the end, road construction was still underway.

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The restaurant that was our destination was located near the end of the street. Fortunately, shortly after we arrived, it was time for the construction crew to take their afternoon siesta. The machines shut down and the workers gathered in the shade across the street from where we sat in the sunshine on the outdoor patio. Again, I had to remind myself that it’s the middle of February!

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There’s very little English in use in this part of Mexico. Richard M and Colleen function fairly well in Spanish and are able to help us order from the Spanish only menus. There have been a couple of surprises, but they’ve both turned out rather well! On our first morning in Coatepec we went out for breakfast. I thought I’d ordered an omelette, but it was actually fried eggs in a very tasty sauce. Today, I was expecting a shrimp sandwich, but it turned out to be an absolutely delicious omelette! If the surprises continue to be this yummy, I hope there are a few more of them!

Eating Kosher

I knew that I would be asked what the food was like in Israel, so this time I was prepared and even took pictures! We ate all of our breakfasts and suppers at our hotels while lunches were enjoyed in restaurants wherever we happened to be at the time. I can say without hesitation that the food was delicious, nutritious and kosher!

So what does it mean to eat kosher? Essentially, it means eating according to the dietary laws given in the Old Testament, or Torah. I was already aware that this meant only eating meat from animals that both have cloven hooves and chew their cud, avoiding all seafood except fish with fins and scales, and avoiding eating meat and dairy together. I’ve learned, however, that eating kosher is much more complicated than that and that even amongst Jews, there are many different ways of interpreting and following the dietary rules.

For example, when it comes to meat, it isn’t only a matter of which animals are eaten, but also how the animal is slaughtered and how the carcass is prepared for butchering. Some birds are kosher, while others are not. The eggs of kosher birds may be eaten, but only if they contain no blood which means that each egg should be examined individually. All dairy products must be derived from the milk of kosher animals. Hard cheeses pose a problem because an essential ingredient in their production is an enzyme called rennet, which is normally derived from the stomach of an animal. Some rabbinic authorities maintain that the enzyme is so separated from its original source, that it should not even be considered a meat product. Therefore, these authorities believe that it is permissible to eat cheese that was made with rennet. Others, however, believe that rennet still constitutes a part of an animal, and thus cannot be mixed with milk. Eating processed food is particularly troublesome because one must be sure that every ingredient, no matter how much or how little the product contains, is kosher.

Generally, all fruits and vegetables are kosher, but again, we learned, in Israel, that it isn’t quite that simple. There, these products are only considered kosher if 10% of the crop is left on the plants, bushes or trees around the perimeter of the field or orchard at harvest time for the use of the poor in the community and if the land is left to rest every 7th year. Fruits and vegetables must also be very carefully checked for insects as they are not kosher. Drinking wine or grape juice that has been produced by non-Jews is also forbidden.

There are those who claim that God established the dietary laws to protect the health of His people and that, for this reason, we would be wise to follow them. I don’t believe this to be true. Though there may have been some health advantages to some of the laws in the days before refrigeration, there is nothing less healthy about eating camel or rabbit than eating beef or chicken. I believe that it was simply God’s intent to distinguish His people from those around them and to teach them obedience. I am, therefore, in agreement with those Jews who say that they eat kosher simply because God told them to and for no other reason. How thankful I am that as New Testament believers, we are not subject to the Old Testament dietary laws. God made that very clear to the apostle Peter in a vision while he was staying at the house of Simon the Tanner in Joppa. (Acts 10:9-16)

All meals served in the hotels where we stayed were kosher. Each hotel is under the supervision of its local rabbinical council and should they ever be caught serving anything non-kosher, the penalty would be severe.

So, what did we eat? The meals were similar at all four of our hotels. Breakfasts and dinners were sumptuous buffets with a myriad of wonderful choices. It’s only in the west that breakfast is an entirely different meal from lunch and supper. For example, when we lived in Japan, if we asked our students what they ate for breakfast, the answer would most often be fish and rice. If we asked what they ate for dinner, the answer would usually be the same. This appeared to be true in Israel as well. Though cereal and toast were available at breakfast time and our last hotel had a station where yummy looking omelettes were made to order, breakfast also included a complete salad bar! Cottage cheese, yogurt, various cheeses, buns and breads were also part of the breakfast menu, but so were fish, olives and a variety of hot dishes. Coffee and a variety of teas were also available.

I think I could have lived off the salad bars alone. I started each day with a plate filled with salad, a dollop of cottage cheese, a few slices of cheese and a bun or a slice of hearty bread. When that was done, I finished off with a taste of a one or two of the hot dishes.

We were thankful for the hearty breakfasts as our days were full and we did lots of walking and climbing. Lunch was most often a pita filled with either falafel (spiced mashed chickpeas formed into balls and deep-fried) or schawarma (roasted, shaved meat) and vegetables. Simple, but tasty and filling.

Dinner was usually fairly late. After a busy day, we were ready to load up our plates again!

Again, I filled a plate at the salad bar and then went back for a smaller serving from the many hot food choices. Meats most often included fish, chicken and beef. The dessert selections looked absolutely amazing, but I didn’t take any pictures as I didn’t want to linger over them too long! I managed to stick to my low sugar diet most of the trip. Three of our four hotels offered sugar free dessert options which was nice. When I didn’t see any on offer at our last hotel, I asked, and after a long wait, I was brought a piece of very dry, plain cake that was still slightly frozen in the centre. After that, I didn’t ask! I did break my diet twice, once when we celebrated our youngest group member’s 16th birthday with a lovely cake and once when I tried a teeny, tiny chocolate eclair because everyone else was raving about them. It was well worth it!

Though the reason for my diet is the fact that I’m pre-diabetic, I was pleased to discover that in spite of eating so well, I didn’t gain any weight while we were away!

 

Cultural surprises

Sheila has been with us for over two weeks already but she continues to be amazed by something new almost every day. In her eyes, my kitchen is a magical place. Most of the small appliances and gadgets that we take for granted are brand new to her. Like most Chinese kitchens, the one in her parents’ home doesn’t have an oven let alone a toaster, a bread maker or a food processor. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head the first time she saw me using my electric knife!

It’s not only the appliances that surprise her, however. Most of our food is also new to her. Though she’s familiar with a lot of the ingredients, we cook them entirely differently and even I’ve been surprised at how many convenience foods I use. We tend to eat a healthy diet avoiding a lot of processed foods but I do depend on things like pancake mix that are completely foreign to her. Breakfast cereal is also something she’s never eaten before. So far, Harvest Crunch, a sweetened granola with coconut and almonds, is her favourite. She’s accustomed to a spicier diet than ours and the ketchup bottle has become her best friend. In fact, she’s dubbed herself a “ketchupholic”!

The rest of the house contained many surprises for her too. Not unexpectedly, even though I’d explained the bathroom to her the evening she arrived, it took a flooded floor to remind her that the shower curtain must be inside the tub when you take a shower! That’s a common blunder for Asians when they first arrive on our shores as an Asian bathroom is basically an oversized shower stall and bathtubs are not common in China.

Laundry brought more surprises. Though we had a fitted sheet on our bed in China, Sheila had never seen one until we stripped the beds to wash the sheets! She thought I must have sewn the elastic corners myself. (In case you were wondering, fitted sheets were actually invented by an African American lady named Bertha Berman in the 1950s.) The clothes dryer also fascinates her as clothing is hung to dry in China.

That brings me to a topic that has been a big surprise to Richard and I. When we lived in China, we were amazed to see people in the street wearing their pyjamas. What we didn’t realize until Sheila came to stay is that Chinese people wear their pyjamas whenever they’re at home! Sheila only dresses to go out and immediately changes back into pyjamas when she gets home. Of course, if you’re just stepping out to run a quick errand, why bother changing at all? Sheila has been out with me more than once now in her pjs and I finally understand why we saw people walking down Little Street dressed that way!

While we continue to learn much about Chinese life from Sheila, it’s definitely been fun looking at our own lives through the eyes of someone for whom almost everything is brand new!

Little Street

According to the signs,the street below our apartment is called Lanqing Jie but to English speakers in the area, it’s known as Little Street. How can I possibly put it into words that will bring it to life for you? Pictures will help but without the sounds and smells, something is missing. Little Street really must be experienced to be fully appreciated but since you can’t all come to visit, I’ll try my best to describe it.

Close your eyes and imagine the sound of a crowd such as you might hear at a sporting event. Now add intermittent horns honking, the occasional rumble of an old truck or the sound of a motorcycle passing by, and if you can hear it, the sizzle of food hitting a hot grill. As darkness falls, add music pouring from the open doors of a nearby restaurant and the sounds of bottles clinking and voices rising as some of the patrons enjoy the open air seating across the street. Little Street is usually quiet for a few hours in the middle of the night!

Then there are the smells, most of them emanating from the various food stands along the street. Barbequing skewers of meat over hot coals is very popular and usually smells pretty tasty but sometimes billows of smoke fill the air. Occasionally the smell of overheated cooking oil forces us to close our windows.

You can buy almost anything on Little Street. In addition to the restaurants and food stalls, there are several fruit and vegetable stands and lots of permanent businesses as well as the vendors who simply set out their wares along the curbs to sell. There’s a pharmacy that’s clean, bright and well organized but most of the shops selling clothing, hardware and other household items are tiny and crowded. The scene is a constantly changing one. Where fast food was being sold a few days ago, a new beverage shop called Miss Milk is now celebrating its grand opening.

Though Little Street seems pretty unique to us, there are thousands of streets just like it in hundreds of cities across this country! It’s just one of the many faces of China.