Firm in my Beliefs

Souper Bowl Snacks

My two 20-something co-workers never saw it coming. I quietly stirred my pot of soup and listened to their conversation until the wisdom soaked up through decades of hollow striving and longing boiled over.

We were in the conference room, the table converted from desktop to buffet table for our company-wide Souper Bowl Lunch. I was warming up the Italian wedding soup I’d assembled that morning, filled with hand-rolled meatballs made from locally sourced chicken and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, organic broth, and vitamin-rich spinach. My love would pour out with every ladleful.

BurgersThe women surveyed the full table, noodle soups and chili, salsas and creamy dips, Tostitos and  Wheat Thins, and pronounced all the food – except their salad and dip – off limits. These Paleo women shunned this blatant display of carbs. As I stirred my offering, I saw its other key ingredient swirling around, a cup of orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, and knew that it was as evil to them as the brownies across the table.

The food dismissed, the women talked next of exercise and getting rid of their cellulite, then of keeping their skin firm. “I use anti-aging cream every day,” said the smooth reed next to me.

Hot Dogs“You use anti-aging cream?” I tried to keep my voice neutral, to hide my surprise and, worse, my judgment.

“I need to stay ahead of the wrinkles.” She spoke with conviction. “As soon as I see any, I’m getting Botox.”

“You’re already considering Botox?” My voice and eyebrows were on the rise.

“For sure. I’m not going to let myself get old.” Her companion agreed.

“Botox. Wow.” I looked at their trim bodies and smooth faces and imagined the fallen soufflé of my own body, all doughy, saggy and rutted. But my mind was keen, springing back from the blow of their firm beliefs in staying firm. “You won’t ingest food like beans or bread or pasta, but you’ll inject poison into your face?”

“I am not going to look old,” she insisted.

Fruit plate“Oh, ladies” – I really wanted to call them girls because I was feeling a bit maternal, sad they had embraced our culture’s lies about beauty and how to maintain it, but I’ve scolded others, even the owner of the company, that we females are women, not girls, and that we really shouldn’t have to keep fighting that battle – “ladies, I wish you could see what I see when I look at you. You’re young and smart and beautiful. You’re hard-working and ambitious. You’re fun and adventurous. You’re awesome, and I don’t want you to miss all that because you’re waging a war you can’t possibly win. You will get wrinkly, but that’s okay. You’re so much more than the smoothness of your skin, and it’s those other qualities that really matter.”

Remarkably, one of the women was smiling at me: “You sound just like my mother.”

“Thank you.” I welcomed the comparison, glad another sister got stirred up in the effort to show our daughters their worth. And if she’d been in the room, I’m sure she would have been as ready as I was for a spoonful of cheesy meatballs and pasta plump with rich chicken broth.

Some Reassembly Required

“How are you caring for yourself?” The question came from a friend, one of two I meet with most Thursday afternoons for encouragement and accountability. I had just finished talking about my uncertainties in dealing with a struggling loved one – a struggle these caring women know firsthand. Together we are learning that we can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves and how we respond to them. Rather than letting their trials consume our thoughts, worries, energy and money, we are trying to take care of ourselves.

How was I doing that? The answer came without thinking: “I’m walking every day and watching what I eat.”

After they left, I considered my response. Yes, I was caring for myself by eating less and moving more, but why did I go immediately to diet and exercise? Why not the other healthy practices I began or continued over the past year?

  • I meet weekly with these women, who listen and understand and gently encourage me to love better.
  • I’ve filled the house with Christmas carols, ornamented the tree with memories and invited family and friends over.
  • Craig and I share this blog and are challenged to post every week on it.
  • I’ve established a morning routine of walking, reading, praying, writing on some days and tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle.
  • I’m cooking more locally raised and seasonal foods.
  • I worship on Sunday mornings with a community of friends who affirm and challenge me.
  • I practice yoga.
  • I spend time with a granddaughter who delights to be with me.

My physical body is only one part of me. I am also a mental, emotional, relational and spiritual being. To be healthy, I must recognize the importance of caring for all these parts. At times it seems daunting, just more to-dos that leave me feeling guilty when I don’t do them. But now that we’re empty nesters and others’ schedules (and food preferences) aren’t dictating ours, Craig and I are feeling a freedom to develop a new life rhythm, one that pulses with our heart’s desires rather than the lock step of duty.

It’s a rhythm that needs movement and stillness, solitude and community, inward reflection and outward service, truth and grace. Comfortably moving through my days with this dynamic tension is a lifelong mission. It keeps me dependent on God and grateful for the loving people in my life.

As I look over my list of healthy habits, I don’t see much in the area of service. I’ve had seasons of intense service but right now am more focused on time for writing and time with Craig, our family and friends. But seasons change, and as the new year begins, I’ll be watching for my next movement. Maybe a nudge will come during a cold morning walk.

Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.


* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.

Morning Song

The scent of bread and vanilla beckoned me to roll out of the guest-room bed. For some strange reason I was salivating as I stumbled past the open door. I bumped down the hall, my shoulder knocking the photos lined as straight as soldiers along the family wall of fame. Ahead, molten light enveloped a robed silhouette and guided me forward. The light was pure white, fiery sunspots dancing around the figure, the angel, my mother, made all the more welcoming by the gurgling coffeepot harmonizing with the birdsong from the east window. Fresh-baked rolls and fresh-brewed coffee were the right blend to awaken my slumbering imagination.

As I neared Mom and observed her contemplative devotion to the baking task before her, I imagined a halo holding her long gray ponytail in its bun. With my eyes now fully open, I was transfixed by the sugary butterhorns fresh from the oven, soft crescent puffs, the bread of life in my family. I was at the kitchen altar laden with the elements of family Eucharist.

My timing was lucky. Mom had just pulled the final dozen from the oven and was applying the last of the buttercream frosting, a sacred ritual she had performed thousands of times before. As I watched, I felt like a star-struck groupie who had just met Paul Simon for a private concert. With a heavily loaded spatula in her right hand and the fresh pillow of goodness in her left, she spread out the sweet covering like a crisp bedsheet. It was cool on warm, each one painted thickly and then placed on the tray to cure. The frosting puddled down, like snow and ice shifting in the spring sunlight on a Wisconsin lake. I wished for a moment that I had sunglasses.

So it was done. Without a word spoken, she met my inquisitive eyes with “Yes, you can.” So I did. Just then I realized I was not dreaming. It was going to be a good day.

Photos by Craig Lueck

If you want to have a good day but don’t live near my mom, Joanne Lueck, you can click here for her recipe.

Meet Rita, Eat Kolache

I’m so thankful to Rachel Held Evans for including my story about my mom, Rita Brdicka, in her Women of Valor series today. Please click here to go to Rachel’s blog and meet Mom, and then come back to see her in action in her kitchen.

Mom at 80 celebrating.
photo by Jessi Lueck

If you’ve known my mom any length of time, say a week or so, you’ve likely tasted her sweet, flaky fruit- and nut-filled yeast horns. She’s been making them for 60 years and is asked to bring them to almost every lunch, dinner, party, picnic, quilting bee, baby shower and neighborhood meeting she’s invited to. She’s also mailed dozens of batches to me, my siblings and our kids who aren’t fortunate to live nearby and eat them straight from the oven. She and the recipe were even featured in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago. They’re that good, and she mixes, rolls, fills and bakes them with ease.

The recipe came from her good friend and neighbor Rose Kolenich, who got it from her Czech neighbor. Our whole family calls them kolache, but that’s not technically what they are. Kolache are made from a sweet bread dough cut the size of a dinner roll, flattened out with a dollop of fruit or poppy-seed filling in the center, like a puffy Danish. Mom’s kolache have a similar filling, but the dough is flaky like pie crust and rolled up like a crescent roll.

But why am I trying to explain them when Mom can show you herself how it’s done? Craig captured her in action during a visit we had with her and Dad at the beginning of the month. Click here for the recipe, as featured in the Chicago Tribune (scroll past the herb and cake tips). The recipe calls for 2 cups of butter, but Mom uses half butter and half margarine. 

Full-Flavored Enjoyment

It’s apple and pumpkin season, so naturally I want to devote one more post to tomatoes. Today I’m revealing the two most important practices I follow to ensure maximum tomato enjoyment, one of which I alluded to yesterday. The first is particularly timely now that locally grown tomatoes, here in the Midwest at least, are not as available.

  1. I don’t buy tomatoes at the grocery store. I’m just not all that fond of the taste of sawdust. Tomatoes at most stores were picked green and shipped across who knows how many states or how many oceans. I once learned in a lecture by a horticulture professor that some commercial tomato growers choose varieties more for their transportability than their flavor. I encourage you to enjoy the full flavor of tomatoes bought from local growers in the summer. The rest of the year experiment with other vegetables on your salads and sandwiches.
  2. I don’t refrigerate tomatoes. They lose their flavor and taste like sawdust, only colder. If your tomatoes are starting to develop age spots or attract fruit flies from sitting too long on the counter, make a giant salad and eat them up. Or saute them in olive oil with an onion, garlic and basil for a simple pasta sauce. Or eat them the best way possible, biting into one just like you would an apple. Just be sure to hold a napkin under your chin to catch the juice.