Friday, March 20, 2009

Working towards humility

My Lenten observance this year is difficult to define and even more difficult to put into practice. I'm trying to give up attachment to my opinion. As with every sacrifice I make, it seems to underscore just how often I indulge myself.

At first I struggled with how to talk to people (family especially.) A conversation does not consist of one person sharing while the other makes noncommittal "listening noises." (Well, not real conversations anyway!) Nor can I simply phrase my opinion as a leading question, "Aren't you worried about the ethics of that course of action?" is just a fancy way of saying, "I don't think what you're doing is right." So I've been trying very hard to strike a balance that doesn't leave me nodding along or repeating whatever has just been said to me, but that lets the other person lead the conversation and elevates their thoughts above my own.

The exception to this comes in cases where matters of theology or virtue are at stake. I consider it my duty to voice my opinion to defend the Church, for instance, or provide a counter to the destructive viewpoints of the pro-choice, anti-God movements I encounter in my daily life. To be silent here, to fail to vigorously defend the position of Truth, is a missed opportunity to draw others into deeper reflection of the issues. But since it's not really my opinion (it is the Truth) I feel confident God does not want me to refrain from sharing.

I feel that God has been speaking to me lately, though, and saying something that I don't like to hear. "Your way is not My way." I feel a bit like Peter must have when he protested that Jesus could never fall into the hands of His enemies, and Christ rebukes him with "Get behind me, Satan!" I remember when my sister was in college and we were on the phone together, at one point in the conversation she interrupted me and said, "I don't need to you defend me to mom and dad. I can speak my own mind." As an older sister, I had been interfering and attempting to protect her from getting into trouble. But she was telling me that doing so was actually harming her, because instead of viewing her as a unique person with the ability to make her own choices and express herself, I was relegating her to the position of a small child that had no individual autonomy.

Lesson learned. I didn't defend her again, and she has proven herself to be quite a different person, one who has the courage of her own convictions and is proud of the way she lives her life.

There's something of the same feeling within me as I'm listening to God, and a strong confusion as to how I change. I am an interfering busybody. Period. I have always been this way. It stems from my desire to be helpful, but what it actually is is a form of narcissism. I can do it best, these people need me, I have to wade in and solve this problem. If only they would just listen to the wisdom I have to share, things would be so much better.

It's precisely this quality that annoys me in other people, and yet I am now very clearly seeing that I do it, too. (Isn't that what they say, that you dislike the qualities in other people that remind you of yourself?) It's the reason why I chose silence as my Lenten sacrifice, because the hardest thing in the world for me to do is NOT speak when I have something to say.

It's really coming home to me in a major way right now, because my parents' marriage is completely falling apart. Communication is nonexistent, people are talking about the D-word, lawyers are being consulted and finances are being split.

My brain is screaming at me to get my parents on the phone and tell them exactly what I think they need to do to save their marriage. I would say it lovingly, of course. My brain really and truly thinks this is a good idea, because they "needs to hear it."

My heart and my Lenten promise say otherwise. In speaking with friends about the issue, their wisdom is shining through: this is not my place, this is not my fight. My parents are autonomous adults who must come to their own decisions.

I am about to get on a plane and spend a week there with the kids. I cannot convey to you the fear and dread that is upon me at the thought. I am weak. Weak weak weak weak weak and undisciplined. I know I am entirely ill-equipped for this challenge God has placed before me. And that is the crux of humility. I must acknowledge that I cannot do this. Only God can do this within me.

I want to fulfill my Lenten promise. And even more, I want to grow in humility, recognizing that my thoughts do not need to be shared and that my role in life is not mediatrix extraordinaire. God does not need me to fix my parents marriage. If God is going to heal my parents marriage, He will do it without me. He will certainly have an easier time of it if I refrain from insulting my parents by forcing my opinion upon them.

It will not be easy for me to stay uninvolved. In fact, it may be impossible. My open, honest, European parents hide nothing from me. Nor have I ever been able to hide anything from their direct and deliberate questions.

I have been praying for them every day. I need to be praying for myself as well: praying that I will be humble and small, quiet and noninterfering, that I will allow God to do His own work. If anything, I think He wants me to love my parents, to show Christ's acceptance of the sinner rather than His judgment. I'm certainly not qualified to judge, anyway, with my own list of sins a mile long.

Please pray for me, and for my family.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Feast Day

Today is the feast day of one of my patron Saints: St. Frances of Rome. Our presider today said a few things about her, mainly that she had been married, had three kids (two died in infancy) and upon her husband's death dedicated herself to serving the poor.

What has always resonated with me, though, is her treatment of her marriage. Married to an unbeliever, and under the authority of those who thought her values were ridiculous, she neither gave up her faith nor turned to bitterness or spite. She didn't reproach her indolent family members or grow angry with her pagan husband. Instead, she embraced their expectations for her and willingly took up the roles of mistress of the household, Roman socialite, and devoted mother. By the end of her life, she had seen numerous miracles, including those that brought about the conversion of her husband and father-in-law, and been consoled with the presence of angels and visions of heaven.

Her life speaks to me of the two truths I struggle with most.

1. God's will happens in His time.
2. I serve God best by living wholeheartedly the life I have been given.

As she once said: "A married woman must often leave God at the altar to find Him in her household care."

St. Frances of Rome, by your tremendous example, help us to be obedient to God's will, to care for the people He puts in our lives, and to persevere with hope and faith through all our sufferings. Ask that the Lord might enflame us with zeal for His work and His people, as He enflamed your soul on earth. Guide us to good habits and assist us in those tasks we most dread. In God's name, we pray. AMEN.

Monday, March 2, 2009

10 Tips for Keeping Grocery Bills Down

I alluded to some of these in a previous post on living simply, but I think it's a good idea to codify some of the tips and tricks I've been using to spend less at the grocery store.

1. Carry a calculator with you.
I don't know how I'd ever stay within budget otherwise. It's just too hard to guesstimate what you're spending when you're rounding up or down to the nearest $0.50 and trying to keep the total in your head while responding to your kids' requests for whatever and telling the toddler yet again to sit down in the cart!

2. Rethink lunches.
Bread is so expensive. So are cold cuts and condiments and chips, especially if they're in those little individual packages. Forget juice boxes! If you're making your family a bagged lunch every day, shake things up a bit. Switch to salads with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dressing. Or leftovers. It's much cheaper to double your dinner and portion it out for lunches the next day than to buy separate ingredients for everyone's lunch. If you have kids at school who don't have access to a microwave for re-heating leftovers, try things like chicken salad (here's a great recipe) with crackers, or trail mix, or these oat-bars that taste like a cookie but are packed with protein and other good stuff. More ideas here.

3. Buy in bulk.
This isn't an option for everyone, but for families of more than 4 people or families with a deep freeze or second refrigerator, it can be a real budget-saver. I buy 5 pound bags of frozen fruit and use them throughout the month (blueberries in my daughter's morning oatmeal, strawberries for smoothies, peaches for cobbler, etc.) I buy an 8-pack of canned tomatoes rather than spending $1.79 per can every week. I also make use of the bulk bins at my organic grocery: brown basmati rice is only $1.79 per pound, but $3 if it's bagged on the shelf. These little savings might not seem like much, but they add up significantly over the course of the month. The only caveat: don't buy produce in bulk unless you're prepared to cook and freeze. The 10 lbs of carrots I got last December are limp and almost useless now. I'm going to make some carrot cake and some carrot soup and limit myself to the 2 lb bags in the future!

4. Do all the prep-work yourself.
This is a no-brainer. Cubed beef packaged nicely for stew is more expensive per pound than a thick slab of rump. If you take the time to cube it yourself, you'll save money. I buy dried beans and then soak and cook them myself in the crock-pot. (Overnight on high softens them perfectly, and they are ready to use first thing in the morning.) A can of cooked beans is sometimes $1 or more and packed with sodium. Yet a bag of dried beans will yield 3 or 4 servings, and often costs less than $1.

5. Plan your meals each week.
If you sit down before you go shopping and write out each days' meals, then make up your grocery list from that, you will buy exactly what you need and only what you need. (Bonus: you'll never stand forlorn and frustrated in the middle of your kitchen at 3:00 pm wondering what on earth you're going to make for dinner that night.) Also, pre-planning enables you to make use of bulk-shopping. If I know I'm about to buy a 5 lb bag of sweet potatoes, I'll plan several meals to use it, like black bean and sweet potato enchiladas, curried dahl with sweet potatoes and kale, sweet potato fritters, sweet potato bread, and roasted chicken with maple syrup and sweet potatoes.

6. Go Veg
Meat is more expensive than beans, not only at the checkout but at every step of the meat production process. The cost to our health, to the environment, and to the workers and animals themselves ought to give each of us pause before enjoying a steak. There is no doubt that meat contains vital nutrients, including protein, B vitamins and iron. However, Western society consumes much, much more than is necessary for good health, often at the expense of eating a variety of food (particularly vegetables.) In fact, we often have problems associated with too much meat consumption: "The American Dietetic Association says that vegetarians have 'lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; ... lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.' Vegetarians, on average, are about one-third as likely to be overweight as meat-eaters." From this site. There are many resources on the net for cutting down on meat consumption or going completely vegetarian, but the easiest way is to simply start looking up vegetarian receipes until you find one that sounds good to you (try not to replace meat with cheese, which can also be high in fat and cholesterol.) Then replace one meat meal with the vegetarian option. Experiment. Try different cultures. Indian and Asian food are mostly vegetarian-based, and the unusual blend of spices give full flavor to the dishes so you don't usually feel the lack of meat. Instead of cooking your favorite meal without the meat, try something completely different so your tastebuds don't know what they're missing.

7. Get Creative
See if you can make your meals better and your bills smaller by substituting cheaper items for exotic ones. If your lasagna calls for ricotta, you can often use cottage cheese instead. I've had great success substituting chipotle peppers in adobo sauce for chili powder. ($0.59 a can vs $4 a jar.) If the recipe calls for dried cranberries, try raisins. If it asks for pine nuts, try almonds. Kale is usually cheaper than spinach. Look for what's in season or on sale, and replace raspberries with strawberries, or asparagus with green beans, or olives with mushrooms, or apples with celery.

8. Make it from scratch.
If you're buying pre-made meals or packaged desserts, stop. They are overpriced and inefficient. They come in packages that create waste, and most of them have added salt and preservatives. It does take time to make your own meals, but if you plan ahead you can double and freeze for times that you are in a rush. I have made enormous pots of spaghetti sauce and frozen them in 2-portion containers so if I'm in a pinch all I need to do is boil some pasta and defrost. When I go away on a trip, I cook my husband mega-meals and freeze them in individual portions so he doesn't waste money eating out. A gallon of whole organic milk is $5 at my grocery store and makes 15 cups of plain yogurt. Buying 15 containers of plain organic yogurt would cost $11.85 (more than twice the cost of the milk.) You can buy oil in bulk and make your own mayonaise by blending egg, oil and vinegar. You can dry the ends of bread loaves into breadcrumbs. It is healthier and cheaper to shop around the edge of the store. If you can, try not to venture into the center aisles of packaged products. Your body and your wallet will thank you.

9. Eat less.
No, I'm serious. You don't need to starve, be unhealthy or deprive yourself of everything, but most of us are in the bad habit of eating because we can. Portion sizes are out of control in this country, and most Americans exceed the daily recommended calorie allowance for their age and activity level. Serving sizes are actually much smaller than most people think, as evidenced by this guide. One serving of pancakes is the size of a compact disc...which is significantly smaller than the sides of pancakes you're served with eggs, bacon, fruit and coffee at a typical diner breakfast. Many of us have to actually re-train our minds and bodies to recognize when we are approaching being full and stop eating then, rather than trying to finish everything on our plates. Snacks are another dangerous area. Much of our eating is emotional rather than physical; we feel like something so we open the fridge and fix a snack or grab a handful of chips or cookies as we pass the pantry. Often we get something to eat before returning to our desks at work or before sitting down in front of the TV. Yet eating while distracted or focusing on something else almost guarantees we will overeat and miss our bodies' cues. Limiting portion sizes, eating slowly at mealtimes, sharing meals with family members, and stopping before we are stuffed will likely result in our consuming less food, in general. It may even benefit our health.

10. Costco
'Nuff said.

For fun, go check out this woman's blog! She's eating healthy, nourishing, whole meals on $1 a day.