Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas to all!

Picture Joy Christmas
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Spirit, Brought to you by the Ultimate Peppermint Ganache Brownies

So, this weekend I finally obtained the Christmas spirit, ushered in by a piney fresh Christmas tree, excessive carols, time to gift-brainstorm, and some of the most delicious brownies I have ever eaten or made!  It is only fair that I share the recipe with the world, especially since I managed to make them gluten, dairy, soy, egg, and nut free, as well as low sugar and low fat!  Hooray!  I'm really getting excited about Christmas this year, thinking about Ezra's first Christmas and how to start making things special for him, even though this year he won't remember anything, or enjoy these delicious brownies.  But you will!!

Ultimate Peppermint Gnache Brownies (as adapted from Kiss My Spatula)

    * 8 tbsp butter (I use applesauce for a low-fat version)
    * 6 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, broken into large chunks (I use Theo dark chocolate:
       organic, fair trade and does not contain soy or dairy)
    * 3 eggs (I find ENER G gluten-free egg replacer to be the best for baking)
    * 1 cup sugar (I use maple syrup for a reduced-sugar version)
    * 3/4 tbsp vanilla
    * 1/4  teaspoon  salt
    * 3/4 cup all purpose flour (There are many gluten-free flour mixes there.  Any all-purpose mix will
       do, or you can make your own.  I've done both, currently I'm using Better Batter which has a very
       unobtrusive flavor, unlike many gf mixes)
    * 1/4 cup cocoa powder
    * 1/2  tsp baking powder
    * 40 or more Starlight mints (I have not tried this with candy canes, but I intend to after recently 
       discovering Tru Sweets candy canes, which are seriously THE BEST candy canes I have ever 
       tasted.  This is saying something, since I consider myself somewhat of a candy cane connoisseur.
       Tru Sweets uses all natural ingredients, no artificial flavors or coloring, no corn syrup, is gluten
       free and kosher.  Happy Hanukkah!) 
    * 1/3 pound semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use Enjoy Life chocolate chips, free of all 8 major 
       allergens and still taste good!)
      * 3/4 cup whipping cream (Try Native Forest Organic Coconut Milk, classic for a non-dairy version.
        Changes the flavor slightly, but not in a bad way, and captures the right consistency in a way
        many imitations do not.) 


Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 9×13 inch baking pan. In a medium saucepan, stir butter and bittersweet
chocolate over very low heat with a heatproof rubber spatula until just melted--do not let simmer or boil. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.  In a large bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Slowly pour chocolate-butter mix into egg mix, whisking constantly. In separate bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder.  With a clean rubber spatula, gently fold flour mixture into egg mixture until just combined.  Spread batter evenly in baking pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until brownies are firm, beginning to pull away from sides of pan, and a toothpick inserted in center emerges with only a few crumbs clinging to it. Let brownies cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

Reduce oven temp to 300°.  Line a level, rimmed 11 1/2×16 inch baking sheet with parchment. With a pencil, draw a grid of 1 1/2 inch squares on parchment, leaving about a 1 inch border, and turn parchment over. Place a mint in the center of each square. Bake 15 to 25 minutes, or until completely melted into 1 large sheet, but remove before candy begins to turn yellow. Immediately score peppermint squares with a pizza cutter, using pencil lines as your guide. If scored lines don’t hold, rescore quickly. Let candy cool completely. Gently break into squares along score lines.  (You may want to make a test batch with 12 mints to see if you need to adjust oven temperature or spacing of candies).

In the top of a double boiler, combine chopped semisweet chocolate and whipping cream. Cook, stirring often, until melted and blended (In the case of coconut milk, allow it to cook on low until slightly thickened). Remove from heat and let ganache cool until just warm.  Pour ganache over cooled brownies in pan and allow to set until firm, about 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Place peppermint squares bottom side up on ganache, leaving enough room between squares to cut brownies. Cut brownies into squares along edges of peppermint tops, wiping knife clean between cuts. Remove brownies from pan, eats scraps, and return brownies to pan. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure wrap does not touch peppermint, and refrigerate 3 hours (candy will soften slightly).  Share at any holiday gathering--these will go fast!!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Delicious Gluten-Free (Everything-Free) Bread!!

I mentioned in my last post my frustrations with my new allergy-inflicted diet of nothingness.  Although I have managed to lose those last 6 stubborn pounds of baby weight plus 7 more, the real challenge has been re-learning how to cook, and finding the time to do it in!  But for those of you that know me know that I'm always up for a challenge and this one I've embraced wholeheartedly.  Let's be honest, I love to eat, it is a physical, mental, social, and at times even spiritual experience that I'm not going to give up on just because everything that tastes good is off-limits!  The holiday season is coming up and it is the food highlight of my year.  I'm gonna be busy.  Fortunately, God the Creator made us in his own image, so its time to kick those CREATIVE juices in high gear!!

My first step was to read labels.  After reading labels I realized in frustration that almost nothing is safe.  Even stuff that looks safe has hidden codes like: flavors, emulsifiers, and stabilizers, that automatically put me on the red alert.  So I've gone back to the basics and had to break things down by ingredient.  Fresh foods are my friends!  Grilled chicken, rice, fresh veggies and olive oil were staples for a while.  Homemade smoothies, hummus, and organic corn tortilla chips were my best friends.  But the same fare day after day gets pretty old.  And there's just one thing that was always missing...

Every culture has it.  That one food staple that if you took away their entire nutritional pyramid would crumble.  Their restaurants would close and ovens go cold.  For the Irish its the potato.  The Chinese have their rice.  Mediterranean cuisine has the pita, and Mexico the tortilla.  And we are no different.  You already know where I'm going.


We find a way to insert our favorite carbohydrate in almost any meal, sometimes in multiple forms.  It doesn't feel like a meal without it.  I can eat a steak and plate full of vegetables, and still wander around the kitchen looking for something to cram in my mouth because no matter how full I get I just don't feel satisfied.  So, on this gluten-free diet I've gone weeks without feeling satisfied.  That is until I found this post for delicious gluten free, dairy free, egg free, soy free bread!  

I was skeptical at first.  What exactly is in this bread anyway?  How can it possibly taste good?  But the comments at the bottom of the post shouted their approval.  So, it seemed worth a try.  

First step, gathering my ingredients.  That part was relatively easy.  Even my local grocery store has a small specialty section that holds a host of gluten free flours.  And the one thing I've found is that in replacing flours in any recipe, you can't just take out wheat and replace it with something else.  There is a delicate combination of flours that must be attempted and it is quite a balance!  I'm thankful for everyone that has done the legwork for me to find the right combos so that I don't have to do it.  I'd have given up long before discovering sorghum flour, that's for sure!!

Shopping bag in hand, I approached my kitchen with trepidation.  I had never tried to make homemade bread before.  I have had a breadmaker since my wedding 5 years ago, a cherished gift that I have been too intimidated to use.  The blog promised it was easy.  The directions are for oven-baked bread, not breadmaker.  So, conscious that I was entering into some sacred rite of passage, I followed the recipe doing my best and....Ta-da!  Bread--actual delicious bread that was good enough to cry over.  And I had done it all by myself!  With that triumph, I felt empowered to get creative.  And the confidence to go after my cravings, the beautiful food that I forced out of my mind for the next 8 months as I continue to nurse my everything-intolerant son.  

The recipe that I came up with is inspired by Macaroni Grill's deliciously addicting bread.  A couple years ago, when Joel and I were first married our close friend and neighbor worked at the Macaroni Grill.  He would come home with fresh loaves of bread, their aroma seeping through their paper bags just begging to be doused in olive oil and eaten that night!  It got to the point when, like pavlov's dog we would begin drooling right around closing time.  Mmmm.

It's been several years since I've been to a Macaroni Grill, but I found myself craving those flavors again.  So, I made myself some bread, and even my gluten-eating husband was in for a happy surprise!  I only made one loaf and it did not last the day.  

We tried it warm dipped in olive oil and basalmic vinegar.  Mmmm...
A sandwich!!  How long has it been??  Delicious barbecue chicken with grilled onions, homemade mayonnaise, cucumbers, and lettuce.  Yum!
like I said, did not last long...
Having conquered the challenge of homemade oven-cooked bread, I finally tried my breadmaker.  Let's be honest, my inborn lack of patience plus the demands of an infant means that I will ALWAYS cheat my bread on the amount of kneading as well as time to rise that it requires.  This bread doesn't require a lot, but still my breadmaker attempt was just a bit fluffier when it came out, and ever so much easier!

Here is my recipe, (which as I mentioned is adapted from Sally Parrot's blog):

Yields: 1 loaf of bread

* 3/4 cup millet flour
* 1/4 cup teff flour
* 1/2 cup sorghum flour
* 1/2 cup cornstarch
* 1 cup potato starch
* 1/2 cup tapioca flour
* 2 tsp xantham gum
* 2 tsp salt
* 1 tsp fennel 
* 1 Tbsp rosemary
* 1 Tbsp garlic powder
* 1/4 cup sugar
* 2 tsp yeast
* 2 tsp olive oil
* 1 1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp warm (105-110 degree) water

Combine all flours, starches, xantham gum, salt, and spices.  (I have a canister of already prepared flour.  I took the amounts listed above and multiplied by the greatest common denominator to make a mix that I keep on hand (and have used for other recipes) which makes it even easier to make!  All-in-all this bread takes me about 12 minutes to get together and the rest is up to my Breadman Ultimate.)  If you don't have a breadmaker, from here on out follow the instructions listed in Sally's blog.  If you are using a breadmaker, you are basically there.  Pour water and olive oil in bottom of breadmaker.  Add the sugar (this recipe is yeast-based so it needs sugar; I'm not sure how substitutes would work), followed by flour mixture.  Make a small well at the top and add yeast, making sure it is not touching water.  Close breadmaker, set on whole wheat, medium crust, rapid rise, wait 2 hours and voila!  Be ready with butter or oil or whatever you want, and make sure you came with an appetite!! 

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!!

**Edit: for a golden crispy crust, coat in butter or olive oil and toast for 10 minutes or until crispy**

Giving Up a la Mom

I mentioned several posts ago that my body is a temple.  One thing I've discovered since becoming a mom--its certainly not a temple to me!! A lot of things go missing from your temple when you have a child--some things obvious, others not so obvious!

You start losing things with the pea still in the pod: curves in the right places, sleep, bladder stamina, lung space, and comfortable positions to sleep in.
Later, once the baby is out, you find you've lost some more things: sleep entirely, bladder control, personal time, showers, abdominal muscles, and that thick, luscious hair you developed while pregnant.

The one thing I was excited to hang on to was that super-boosted metabolism I developed while cooking the little bun.  At least for a few months anyway while breastfeeding.  A ravenous appetite and finally no limitations to what I can have!  Or so I thought....

Then Ezra decided to develop persistent stomach issues.  How did we discover this?  The way you discover a lot of problems with babies--poop.  I won't go into details on what it has looked like, but basically I have spent the last 3 months with my nose buried in dirty diapers, gooey, smelly, sometimes fizzy diapers.  Ugh.  If that wasn't enough to kill an appetite, the diagnosis: food allergies.  Most likely culprit? Milk proteins.  So I had to eliminate dairy from my diet.  Along with dairy went its likely partner in crime--soy.   Giving up dairy and soy was pretty killer--they are in EVERYTHING.  And I LOVE ice cream.  And cheese.  And chocolate (did you know there is soy in almost all chocolate?  I almost wouldn't have survived if not for Seattle-made Theo Chocolate bars, which at $4 a pop are a rare but worth-while treat!)

Unfortunately, dairy and soy were an improvement but not quite enough.  So that mean TOTAL ELIMINATION.  No, I haven't quit eating entirely.  But total elimination means giving up all 8 major food allergens, dairy, soy, wheat/gluten, eggs, peanuts, nuts, fish, shellfish.  Once symptoms disappear I can slowly add them back in, one at a time, minor offenders first.  So I've done it--for the past 2 months.  Yes, this makes me an awesome mom and no, I won't let Ezra forget it.  But it is so hard!  I am hungry all the time!  And I just want some cheese, please.  I have no idea what an emulsifier is, all I know is that I can no longer eat it, and it is in a lot of yummy things!  And eating out has become such a chore, where I have to talk with managers, scour menus, and even after all that work Ezra often still seems to react to something..  What does that leave me you ask?  Rice.  And meat.  An hours to shop, prepare, and cook from scratch.  I'm back in Mauritania and I can't even throw in a Maggi cube for flavor because many spices have soy as a stabilizer!!

I guess this is one way to lose the baby weight.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The True Grace of Southern Womanhood

Lately I've been embracing the 1950's woman in me.  It may be a phase, a way to process motherhood and this stage of life as a homemaker.  It may be a way for the type A side of me to excel at something--even not working.  It may be a result of living in a new house and the opportunity to fix it up more than any of the previous apartments we have lived in.  I don't know how long it might take for me to get bored as a stay at home mom, or yearn for the more academic, social, or physical fulfillment that I have been accustomed to pre-Ezra.  But for now, I am actually having fun!

I've never coveted the title "Stay-At-Home-Mom."  In my mind, that phrase is synonomous with "Just a Mom."  But in the past several months, I have begun to learn that there is a true art to homemaking, something that can be done creatively and is worth taking pride in.  Like most things of late, this has been triggered by Ezra--my desire to have a spotless home (as he lays on the floor and chews on everything), the need for a specific healthy diet, his pleasure in observing his surroundings.  Conveniently, over the past year, I have learned a lot about homemaking from my in-laws (My own mother is amazing, a fantastic mom, immaculate housekeeper, excellent cook, ran a tight ship growing up, and excels at building home and hearth.  One of her gifts is definitely hospitality.  But for some reason I would never have classified her as a "homemaker."  She'd probably take that as a compliment.  Somehow the things she'd accomplish always seem nothing short of magic, with a result that leaves me mystified on how to replicate it.  This is probably why I am still okay even as a grown woman with letting her clean my kitchen whenever she visits).  Joel's family members are solid Texans, culturally speaking, without any of the obnoxious over-the-top Texas-worship for Texas's sake.  Blame my honest Yankee upbringing, but observing different aspects of their cultural gender roles have at times rankled.  I mean, how hard is it for a man to fix his own supper, wash a dish, or throw a load of laundry in the washer (or at the very least PICK UP his own laundry off the floor)?  While I do enjoy having doors held for me, I'm quite capable of getting them myself and really would rather skip folding the clothes every now and then.  As I've gotten to know my in-laws better, however, I've realized its not so much negligence or male chauvenism on Joel's father and brothers parts as it is an art form practiced by his mother and sisters.  I have myself reaped the benefits of coming to the Duncan household hungry, pregnant, tired, whatever the state, and been cared for with completely unassuming and unpretentious acts of service.  I have learned bits about the grace of homemaking from each one of my female in-laws. 

-Mom Duncan prepares food in epic proportions, specializing in healthy, organic, and hearty ingredients that can nourish and sustain her army of a family.  I will never be able to match the amount of precision that goes into her preparation and would never be able to manage even the grocery shopping!  I have no idea how her house has survived 9 children, let alone seem clean and open, channeling light and warmth no matter the amount of foot traffic.

-Elise can throw together a plate of food (something I have always inwardly protested as something I can/should do for myself) that is not only painfully delicious but exquisite enough to be magazine-worthy in the ways that she drizzles sauce, spices, and garnishes to perfection.  She has managed to learn the individual preferences of each family member enough to know that I will always perk up at the mention of avocado and lime, whereas Joel 10 times out of 10 will go for bbq or hot sauce.  This is no easy feat when you realize that there are 18 immediate family members to keep track of, and any number of surrogate family members as well. 

-Michelle quietly picks up the slack in any area that needs it and intuitively fills in the gaps without complaining or even needing to be asked.  She has the gift of making you feel instantly at ease, of being welcoming and hospitable without ever feeling forced or like the hostess.  From the sacred to the secular, the spectacular to the mundane, she always seems interested in what you have to say. 

-Rachel has this elusive middle-child quality that I can't quite put my finger on to explain, but for lack of better words she is such a presence.  I don't know how to describe it best except maybe through its absence.  When she is gone, there are huge empty gaps in the house.  She is not a noisy person, yet there is an eerie quiet.  She is not an overly-energetic person (the kind that energizes you when they are there but leaves you exhausted when they are gone), but there is a distinctly subdued atmosphere when she goes back to school.  And, she can bounce a baby for hours.  LITERALLY.  I get tired and am desperately looking for a pair of arms to pawn Ezra off on long before she does. 

-Aleya has embraced her artsy side, but instead of being emo and completely closed off into that (most of the time :o) she is always catching beauty and sharing it with others.  She has a way with words, with pictures, and an ability to reach out to anyone on any level without seeming judgmental or "better than."  People who feel alone or misunderstood are very drawn to her compassion. 

-Shannon is a woman of so many talents and gifts it is hard to name just one, but she has a depth of emotion and is full of "big thoughts."  Although I've been on this earth for more than a decade longer than she has, she constantly challenges me to engage with ideas that I prefer to ignore.  Plus, she is really fun to spike a volleyball at (or just hang out with :o).

-Youngest of all there is Claire.  Spunky, sassy, sensitive Claire.  She is quick to give her opinion, quick to tell a joke or a story, and quick to apologize.  She's held Ezra for me until her arms were breaking.  I've seen her play with other kids that I know are absolutely driving her nuts, but she doesn't let on at all. 

-Before I finish, I would be remiss if I excluded Amanda, the newest Duncan sister.  She has taught me so much about the power of surrender!  She is the intellectual equal of anyone I know but is a master at defusing tensions through humility.  Sometimes it is her silence, or the way she gracefully allows others to share their opinions without backing down that ultimately wins the battle. 

I started this post intending to share some of the awesome ways I have recently learned to embrace my inner-homemaker.  But somehow this has turned into an ode to the in-laws.  In college I had an experience that soured me on GRITS (Girls Raised in the South), but I've learned a lot about being a southern woman and I am grateful that my husband has such an awesome family that I can get along with and learn from, even if we have different backgrounds and at times very different opinions on things!  I miss my family every day, but it is such a blessing to have people that love me and Joel and Ezra, that welcome me home, even if it isn't Orth Drive.

UPCOMING:   My ventures into the intimidating world of homemaking, a mother's love and my diet of nothingness, amazing homemade gluten-free soy-free dairy-free egg-free nut-free allergen-free bread and the best sandwich in the world!! 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Beloved Son

"For God SO loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."

All my life, I thought I knew what those words meant.  I thought I could understand that kind of love.  I thought I knew why Jesus would die for me.  I mean, I'm pretty special!

Not so now.
I have a son.  His name is Ezra.  My only son.  My only begotten, beloved son.  Would I give him up in a sacrifice for someone?  Heck no.  Without even blinking an eye, no matter the situation, I would walk--no run--away from that situation.  Not for my brother or sister, father, best friend, or even my mother and my husband (sorry guys)!  Even for all of them combined!!  Would I consider it for the sake of the world?  For a mess we'd gotten ourselves into and consequences we deserve?  Would I even consider sacrificing myself, sweet, beautiful, innocent, beloved Ezra?  Let somebody else do it.  Even should he want to make that decision for himself, I would want to take him and hide.

So how in the world did God Himself give up His son, God in the flesh, to die for us?  Someone so much more loveworthy than my own son (it hurts just to type that).  Some might discount the tough love of the father (ahem, mother).  However, I think it is instead His absolutely overwhelming love for us, a people so fallen, so uncreative and crude I don't even understand it.  And yet, it happened.  

All of a sudden this begins to have more meaning too:  "Greater love hath no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends." John 5:13

And this: "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die." Romans 5:7

Ezra cannot help but love me.  Yes, he already gets mad at me sometimes, and I'm sure we will have our share of tough times when he hits those teenage years.  But I have poured (and continue to pour) all of my love into him, and I can see it when his face lights up in those gummy smiles, or when he looks all around the room with his wobbly neck to find me, only me, his mother.  

That's the kind of relationship that is described in 1 John 4:19: "We love because He first loved us."  My capacity to love has increased so much over the last 3 months, more than I thought possible (like the Grinch).  I am being taught to love by the Creator of love.  And for the first time I am amazed the way I truly should be at His incomprehensible love for us.  And ashamed at my lack of response to it.     

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Body, the Temple

Over the past few months I've been dwelling a lot on the passage in Corinthians that says: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body." 
As a child, I took that in a purely decorative sense: dress modestly, avoid tattoos, piercings, or other outrageous displays that might not represent Jesus.

I was reminded of this verse again today in the checkout line of the grocery store.  I had bought a loaf of bread, and as it went down the conveyor belt I thought--mmm...sandwiches!!  In one short week I can eat all of the deli meat and soft cheeses that I want!! 

That may seem like a weird thought, but when you are pregnant there are a lot of seemingly benign foods on the no-no list: soft cheeses, deli meat (including my favorite--chicken salad!!), hot dogs, alcohol, caffeine, and certain kinds of fish.  And those are just the big ones!  As I've been caring for this new life inside of me, I have been SO much more aware of the things I've been putting in my body.  Processed foods, fatty foods, high fructose corn syrup--any ingredient that I can't pronounce!  The things I choose to consume go directly to my child, and the toxins that I encounter on a daily basis hit him at a much higher level in proportion to his tiny growing body.

It's not just foods, either.  I look at stretch mark cream that is intended to be rubbed onto my belly and absorbed into my skin, and it has paraffin and other chemicals that are not always good for you--sometimes even carcinogenic!  Do I want to have that absorbed directly into the area that my child is resting?  The same goes with the chemicals in cleaning agents and even perfumes--things that my highly sensitive nose is very attuned to lately.  I rush past my neighbors who sit smoking every night, practically on my front porch. 

The list of things I've gotten into the habit of avoiding over the past 9 months is large, but what about things that I've been practicing?  Exercise, good sleep habits, eating frequent meals, drinking a LOT of water, and trying to reduce stress.  All of these are things I've been consciously trying to implement as my body has been housing this little one that I love so much. 

Now that I know what it is like to physically have another being living inside of me, it makes me wonder--have I really put into practice that verse from above?  My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit--who lives inside of me!  My body is his dwelling place.  That should go far beyond not wearing tight or revealing clothing.  The Hebrews decorated their temple inside and out.  It was a HOLY and PURE place of reverence.  Do I maintain my body in that same way?  Do I keep my body healthy in order to glorify God in His temple?  Do I consider what I eat and drink, what I say, the music I sing, and the things that I do all in perspective of my precious Lord?  Right now every thought is on protecting and honoring my child in every way that I can.  But even after he is born (which should be any day, praise God!) I want to continue these practices of setting aside my body as a temple.  No, I am not going to give up deli meat permanently (I'm pretty sure the Holy Spirit is ok with a sub every now and then).  But I do want to maintain the same reverence that I have had for my body as a vessel of something that is greater than myself, that is meant to be holy and pure, and that I have been entrusted to maintain to the best of my capabilities while here on this earth. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Valentine

So my sister-in-law actually posted this on her blog, a picture of true Love.  If you have time to watch, bear with the first minute and a half, it seems a little bit cheesy I know, but the overall performance is well-worth watching:

I know this is not a perfect representation (and I'm sure I will get comments about it).  But it's the type of love I think everyone's looking for.  Here are the lyrics in case you missed them:

Find me here, speak to me
I want to feel you, I need to hear you
You are the light that's leading me to the place
Where I find peace again
You are the strength that keeps me walking
You are the hope that keeps me trusting
You are the light to my soul
You are my purpose
You're everything
And how can I stand here with you
And not be moved by you
Would you tell me how could it be any better than this
You calm the storms and you give me rest
You hold me in your hands
You won't let me fall
You still my heart, and you take my breath away
Would you take me in take me deeper now
And how can I stand here with you
And not be moved by you
Would you tell me how could it be any better than this
And how can I stand here with you
And not be moved by you
Would you tell me how could it be any better than this
Cause you're all I want,
You're all I need
You're everything... everything
You're all I want
You're all I need
You're everything... everything
You're all I want
You're all I need
You're everything... everything
You're all I want
You're all I need
Everything... everything
And how can I stand here with you
And not be moved by you
Would you tell me how could it be any better than this
And how can I stand here with you
And not be moved by you
Would you tell me how could it be any better
any better than this
And how can I stand here with you
And not be moved by you
Would you tell me how could it be any better than this
Would you tell me how could it be any better than this

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Is That All You've Got?

I mentioned in my New Year's post that work has been getting me down.  If I'd been writing this a month ago I would have said that I despised my job.  I would have mentioned that the only thing keeping me at my job is that every Sunday when I begged Joel to let me put in my 2 weeks notice the next Monday morning he asked me just to stick it out until he had a stable job teaching.  And for a while I really thought I hated it!  Lately things have been better, but I think it's been more a result of my change in perspective rather than anything different at work.

It's not that I don't care about my job. Far from it!  I am very happy to be back working with a resettlement agency, because it is such important work, and being active in the global community is really important to me.  But as a job developer, sometimes I feel like I am being asked to do the impossible, as though I am the very last chance for our refugees to make it in this world. They have come here from circumstances that most Americans can't even begin to wrap our brains around, and their resettlement here is supposedly a compassionate response--Welcome to America, the Land of Opportunity! Yet instead they find themselves here in Houston, living in apartments infested with bed bugs and vagrants, trapped in government assistance programs that at times hardly pay enough to cover their rent and tick like a time bomb while they race to learn English and fight the ever-widening job pool of qualified Americans for a job that pays minimum wage!

Every day I have a case manager come to me with their sad story, about a single mom or family with 7 kids or a disabled patriarch. They advocate for their clients, fight to keep them in the forefront of my mind as I petition employers and sweet-talk HR directors. Daily I am asked if I have anything for someone who doesn't speak any English and I find myself laughing in their faces (unprofessional, I know, but what else do I do to keep from crying?). And every person that we fail to aid in the integration process, every person that fails to find a job and every family that ends up on the street is my own personal nightmare--someone that came here promised the world and that I let down. And then I have dreams at night, dreams that master those moments where I could have done more. After one such dream I even offered our spare bedroom to my resettlement director (another of my wild schemes that my crazy and adoring husband accepted without question) but he refused.

Sure, I know there are a lot of aspects that go into a person's transition here to the United States. I know there are a million different factors that can make them fail or succeed. I know every interaction from volunteers, caseworkers, neighbors, and friends helps along the way. I know their ability to grasp English, prior education, and the effort they put into going to class make a huge difference. I know their character, personality, presentation, determination, and sheer good luck each contribute to their process of starting over here. But somehow, it all seems to culminate in finding that job, and that is where I come in. The measure of their success starts and ends with me!

Maybe I feel it strongly because I've been a stranger in a new country where people wondered what the heck I was doing there (even though technically, they were the ones that brought me there). At times they could even be hostile! But at the same time, I never worried that we wouldn't make it. There no one registers for food stamps or medicaid and then has to wait months to receive said "benefits" (and here we stumble across yet another example of my favorite pet peeve, that is, the way our language is used to isolate and alienate at-risk populations so that the "average American" just can't relate, widening the gaps in our society that much further...who does it really "benefit" to receive a measly TANF payment that only helps your family sink further into poverty? just like identifying undocumented workers and immigrant as "illegal aliens" evokes imagery of crazed little green men in space suits trying to take over our entire country! sorry, long aside...I won't go into it further right now...). Anyway, in Mauritania, people help each other out. Even the strangers.  The few occasions where Joel and I were having a tight month, friends and neighbors stepped in by lending us money and inviting us to meals.  There is no massive bureaucratic sinkhole that sucks in the unfortunate never to be seen or heard from again! Not that the Mauritanian government (aka military) has things better figured out than we do, seeing as they tend to screw up pretty much anything they get involved in. Maybe that is the point?....

Ok, so I'm starting to ramble a little bit.  All I really wanted to say was that although my job makes me exhausted, stressed-out and frustrated, I don't hate it, at least not anymore.  I am constantly at a loss of what to do with the college-educated, professionally-experienced clients we have that can't seem to manage to land anything better than a manufacturing job.  And I'm at a loss of how to show employers that hiring these clients is not a social service, but a wise business move.  And I'm also at a loss of how to show my other co-workers that I am not here to compete against them, which seems to be the current mode of operation, but that I'd really love it if we could work together!!

I should point out that my job is something that I've been really grateful for. Not only was it a huge blessing just to find employment of any kind in order to keep a roof over our heads, but this job is an engaging and also laid back (most of the times :o) environment full of coworkers that I have grown to really appreciate and like! I love hearing the different languages circulating through the office, especially trying to pick up what I can of the Arabic that I hear.  I get to learn about different cultures every day.  And some of my only friends in Houston are from my work, and it helps to not feel so lonely all the time!

My goal for this year is to be better at my job, which means finding more jobs (the economy could help with this if it would just get its act together!).  Also to keep from being isolated, which has been hard to avoid in a new place with Joel working whenever I am not.  But I tend to keep a better perspective when I'm surrounded by people to keep me in line, and to keep me from obsessing (and being depressed) about situations at work.  So I'm going into 2010 with a new attitude, and I'm bouncing back.  Is that all you've got, YMCA?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ringing in the New Year...

New Year's Eve.  A celebration full of fun, anticipation, good times with friends, and excitement over a fresh start in the year to come!  And I made it to approximately 11:50pm last night before falling asleep. 

Don't get me wrong.  2009 was a big year (even if it went out as a bit of a flop).  I look forward to 2010 being even bigger, if for completely different reasons.  But by 11:50 last night I could completely relate with old man 2009, staggering along barely even caring that baby 2010 was about to be born!  Because I am completely exhausted!  I feel like the last few months I've been living like a person in a coma, and I have no idea what has been going on around me.

I attempted to write a blog about it, which turned into my personal memoirs, so I'll just summarize some of it here, and maybe post the rest in subsequent entries (not for the faint of heart).

In short, 2009 was a marathon that left me exhausted.  In 2009 I managed to hit 7 different countries, crossed the Atlantic 6 times, finished up some major projects in Mauritania (including getting my theater club en brusse and helping with several murals), saw my roommate get married, had a whirlwind COS, said goodbye to dear friends both Mauritanian and American without promise of ever seeing them again, travelled back and forth from Texas and Wheaton 6 or 7 times, unpacked all of our belongings, repacked them all, drove to Houston, unpacked everything again, started a new job which drives me absolutely crazy, watched my husband re-start an old job at the Dirty Bird which also drives me crazy because it keeps him out most nights, and I lost my cat--whom I love and still makes me sad! (did I mention she also traversed the Atlantic Ocean, 3 different countries, and 9 different states only to disappear during a Texas thunderstorm, never to be seen again).  I was also here for the birth of a new niece and a nephew, and in September came down with a bug of my own that I've been dealing with ever since! 

There is probably more that I am forgetting, and even though I didn't make it to midnight last night, I did spend today day hiding out in my apartment deciding what the next decade will look like.  So I came up with a couple of resolutions for the year: 

--Find a place in Houston that recycles so we can finally empty out the trunk of our car that has been accumulating paper and cardboard for the last 4 months.  Yes, I live in the least environment-friendly city in the country. 

--Not belittle david (or others, but mostly david I think) for doing things that I do myself (such as make new year's resolutions...)

--Gain 20lbs (Hooray for Heman!!!!!)

--Be a better wife, a better daughter, a better mother (can you be better at something you've never been before?), a better friend, sibling, and coworker

--Last but certainly not the easiest: find and record 1 reason per week to appreciate where I'm at and what I am doing (current state of mind-this is going to be tough)

Well, those are my resolutions.  Feel free to call me on them and keep me on track!  Especially if you know a convenient place for me to recycle.  A girl can only have so much cardboard furniture!!

Bring it on, 2010.