Lighting the fire

It’s the last few hours of 2016. It’s been a drizzly day, and I have a pot of blackeye peas on the stove for tomorrow. Fireworks, various pyrotechnics and fires in general have long been a family tradition around the turn of the year, and this year has been no exception in spite of the rain. Long before the “garden firepit” came onto the scene, we built fires in the backyard.

Each Christmas saw my brother and me heading to the hardware store or fireworks stand to carefully select penny skyrockets, roman candles, and other goodies. Firecrackers were best suited for blowing up crawfish castles (the small chimney of mud that remains above ground when crawfish set up housekeeping). We still enjoy fireworks, and in recent years have undertaken a bonfire tradition.

There’s something primal about a fire, this momentary return to the light as the days grow ever-so-slightly longer. We in south Louisiana don’t have to deal with long periods of darkness, but even so, we love our bonfires, campfires and fire pits. A friend made a fire kettle that is suspended from a tripod. Spent ashes fall through the hole, and fresh wood is added to the top. In the fall and winter, we often hang out around the fire in the evenings. I find myself soaking up the peacefulness – or engaging in discussion about anything from theology to politics to history or philosophy – you know, the fun, lightweight stuff.

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Cast iron firepit, site of many lively discussions.

Yesterday we had our end of the year bonfire. (Said bonfire can be any time we have enough wood, energy, and dry, cool weather around Christmas / New Year / Epiphany. If those things don’t converge, we don’t have a bonfire.) David (husband), Greg (brother) and Bubba (music partner/friend) outdid themselves in the planning and execution.

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Scrap wood used for shipping is bonfire fuel.

The plan was to start it burning at the top so that it would burn evenly and not collapse too soon.

Fireworks (bottle rockets) were strategically placed along the top, pointing in safe directions. Firecrackers were tucked inside. Of course, our bonfire site is in the open, well away from anything that could catch. Fortunately, south Louisiana isn’t the tinderbox situation that exists in some areas.

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My brother, always the ham.  I don’t blame him for being proud of this one, though. They added a “porch,” decorative top and bottle rockets prior to lighting.

Gumbo, potato salad, mulled wine, family and some friends made it a great way to celebrate the return of the light. I can’t help but think of how many families and communities since the dawn of time have celebrated the promise of renewed light with a fire. (Power tools only a recent invention, too!)

 

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Starting at the top of each section.

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Whoosh!! If 2016 was a good year, celebrate!

This past year was a good one for some, a bad one for others, and a mixed bag for most. Each year, regardless of how the year has been, we celebrate the return of the light at Christmas. We turn inward during the dark of the year. We can either join the fear of the dark, or celebrate the light.

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And if 2016 was a bad year, torch it!

The other day I was in a store, browsing some after-Christmas discounts, and a woman walked by and said “you see a lot of stuff left this year – that’s because no one has any money! People don’t have any money!” I recognized her frustration, and her fear. The repercussions of low oil prices have rippled through Louisiana and beyond, leaving thousands without jobs. For many, unemployment benefits have run out. Some are relocating against their will. Many are fearing this darkness, as well as the darkness elsewhere in the world. We turn to faith and the promise of Christmas.

And we light a fire, whether for warmth, light, or just fun. In doing so, we connect with ancestors of long ago and not-so-long ago as we watch the flames, knowing that light will always dawn again.

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Light awaits.

It is the season of light and miracles. We are still in the “12 days of Christmas” as we move towards Epiphany. This year, the first day of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Day. I pray on this New Year’s Eve that these ancient celebrations of light and miracles bring positive changes, peace and the ever-growing light of love to all.

Better than a movie.

Tired, overwhelmed, maxed-out shoppers.  People trying to “get everything done.” Kitchen overload (at least here in the land o’ food, south Louisiana). Choirs and choir directors ramping up for Christmas, wondering why the season with the best music is also one of the shortest liturgical seasons.

Hot chocolate, giftwrap and Hallmark Christmas movies.  NOW we’re talking…

Thursday’s end-of-workday chatter focused on Hallmark Christmas movies.  My husband has seen every one of them (more than once).  I’ve managed to see quite a few, and it seems that quite a few of the folks at work watch them, too.

Sappy?  Sentimental?  Trite? Formula?  Who cares? Christmas movies (Hallmark and otherwise) remind us that we humans yearn for happy endings.

Christmas, though, is a season of happy beginnings.

There are many people who struggle with depression during the holiday season.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s…all are milestones, and the years are marked by memories.  Family gatherings can be joyful – or bring out the friction.  We hear endless talk about “the reason for the season,” yet live in a world where many people hesitate to show faith.

Well, heck.  I say Merry Christmas (unless I’m singing at the Temple or texting my adopted brother, in which case the greeting is a sincere Happy Hanukkah, and this year the dates coincide.) We can bemoan the “commercialization” of Christmas ‘til the cows come home (OK, cornball manger metaphor there), but there is a big commercial element, like it or not.

I refuse to moan.  I take joy in giving, and remind myself to receive gratefully and to not wonder if my gift in turn was “good enough.” My white tree #1 is turning a bit…yellowish. The popsicle stick and gold glitter Star of David made by one of my children in first grade (they each did that craft, and I don’t know whose star is up there this year) is my tree-topper, which I find very appropriate.  It’s not Home & Garden, but it is spiritually and biblically satisfying.  I don’t expect much holiday company, but if they show up, they will be offered whatever’s in the fridge – probably chocolate cashew milk or red wine – and whatever leftovers are hanging around.  In other words, “treated like home folk.”

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As for old memories – well, we can be sad by what is gone, or we can rejoice in what is.  And what IS is…

…God incarnate, man divine. Jesus, the miraculous fusion of God and human, relatable to us AS us.  Savior for all, way-shower for a path of love and our guide to the kingdom of heaven. We are reminded, with the passing of the winter solstice and the celebration of the birth of Christ, that light returns. We look around, see our fellow humans’ (and our own) best and worst sides all on full display around the holidays, and make a concerted effort to find the good because hey, it’s Christmas.  We deal with our own struggles in life and keep rooting for the underdog in the spiritual and global war of good versus evil. Sometimes we wonder who or what is winning.

Christmas, though, reminds us that there is always a new beginning.  Christ is born, and we can welcome His changing power of love in our hearts, and His healing presence when we are overwhelmed with doing too much or remembering too much. When we welcome the Christ Child fully into our hearts and lives, the question of “which side is winning” becomes a no-brainer.

This is better than a Hallmark movie, because it’s real.  In the end, love always wins.

I wish you all the miracles of Christmas.

Making Sugar (part 2)

In Part 1, we got the cane from the field, unloaded it at the mill, chopped up, and now… into the mill it goes.

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Cane is crushed before it even enters the mill.

The cane is pretty much pulverized along the way, and the juice extracted.  In another part of the cane mill complex, a core laboratory is analyzing samples from each load of cane to determine sucrose, moisture and other factors which indicate the sugar yield from each truckload.  The cane is pulverized through the mill – usually involving a series of rollers – and the juice is extracted.  The remaining pulp is called bagasse, and is usually incinerated to fuel the running of the mill.  There’s an awful lot of bagasse, though, and the sugar content means it will ferment quickly – there’s that stench a lot of people complain about.

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Ground cane being processed

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Ground cane being processed (more!)

The juice itself is like any other raw juice – a thin liquid, and frankly, not exactly clean.  It’s cleaned up with slaked lime, and the dirt settles out and is usually returned to the fields.  The juice heads off to evaporators so that it can be boiled down.

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Bubble, bubble, boiling sweetness!

If by now you have the idea that a sugar cane factory is a large, hot place with a lot of very massive machinery…you’re right.  Most of the “smoke” people see billowing out of the plant is steam, and both air and water exhaust is monitored and must meet environmental regulations.

Making sugar is an art as well as a science.  It’s one thing to boil the juice down into syrup; it’s something else to coax it into crystalization. It’s a tricky process.

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Checking crystals

Once the magic of crystalization happens, the syrup heads to centrifuges where the crystals are separated from the liquid.  Voila! Raw sugar, which is dried and sent to a warehouse.

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Taking a quick sample from a centrifuge.

Louisiana is home to 11 sugar factories which produce raw sugar, which is sent to refineries that will produce refined sugar and similar products.  Because of the sugar content of the cane, it must be processed quickly after it is cut.  The raw sugar is usually stored in warehouses until it can be shipped to a refinery.

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Cane goes from the mill to a warehouse on a conveyor belt. It pours into a mountain of sugar.

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At the warehouse, the sugar is transferred to dump trucks, which take it to barges, which will take the raw sugar to a refinery.

I often wonder who figured out that the tall, thick cane held this amazing sweet stuff in it.  Since cane was introduced into Louisiana, I don’t think it was the same brave soul who looked at a crawfish and said “I wonder how that tastes?”

So when you sit down to enjoy something sweet this Christmas or Hanukkah, take a moment to think of all those who had a hand in your holiday baking. Chances are many of those folks are at work on Christmas day, because grinding doesn’t stop until all the cane is done. Think about all of those who’ve had a hand in your entire holiday meal, no matter how extravagant or simple, and say a prayer of thanksgiving.

Now I’m going to post this and bake some Christmas cookies with – yep, you guessed it – home-grown Louisiana raw sugar.

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Epiphany Gifts

I’m sure I’ve seen a meme somewhere online that says “Keep Calm and say Merry Christmas.”  As I prepare this post (to be posted on January 6, the feast of Epiphany), it is still Christmas, although most people give strange looks if you wish them “Merry Christmas” after the first of the year.  Heck, they look at you funny if you say “Merry Christmas” on Dec. 26 – by that time, the accepted greeting is “Happy New Year” and spent Christmas trees are already beginning to pile up.

Rather than bemoan the fact that the liturgical Christmas season is short (so much great music! So little time!), I’ll take a moment to consider what Epiphany means in a broader context.

Christians know this is when we traditionally celebrate the arrival of the Magi. Their gift-giving has been transmuted into the crazy Christmas gift rush that we love to hate.

Adoration of the Magi

Christmas invites us to consider the meaning of the Incarnation in our everyday lives. Each year, we are asked “what gifts can we give to the Christ Child?” Epiphany invites us to consider our own gifts.

What gifts have you been given?  What talents and passion do you have and use to make the world even just a little bit better? The gifts we are given are the seeds of what we give to others, for we cannot give what we do not have and we cannot give without knowing how to receive.

We admonish small children who anticipate Santa’s arrival.  Is that all you can think about, we adults say, what Santa is going to GIVE you?  What about poor children who have nothing?  Somehow we manage to taint the excitement of receiving a gift with guilt over receiving it.  Maybe I’m way out of line here, but I’d like to think that we are meant to be excited about gifts. The apostle Paul spoke of receiving gifts of the Spirit, that’s certainly worthy of excitement!

Some gifts are eagerly accepted, and some are not.  There are many things in life that we may not see as gifts.  When I worked in oncology, I knew many people who felt their cancer was a curse, and many others that felt it was a gift.  (Most of the time, it was a combination of feelings!) The term “mixed blessing” indicates that such reactions are a part of the human experience.

Epiphany is the perfect time to take account of our gifts, the obvious ones and not-so-obvious ones. How can you use your own gifts this year to shine Divine Love in the world?

Emmanuel, God with us

It was one of those priceless Christmas pageant moments.  There they were, the children of our parish, all decked out in costume from the ankles up (never mind the historically inaccurate footwear), portraying Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and kings. This year, we had several babies in the congregation available for the part of baby Jesus.

It was good that baby Jesus had understudies, because this particular baby Jesus was fussy.  Crying-spit-out-noonie-fussy.  Finally, after it was clear that baby Jesus wasn’t going to settle down, he was discretely whisked away by his mother.  Um, the actor’s mother, that is.

The pageant continued without pause.  Another baby Jesus was tucked into Mary’s arms.  And wouldn’t you know…this baby Jesus got fussy too.  The actors and narrator continued; the kings strode up the aisle of the church as baby Jesus was swapped out – several times.  How many baby Jesuses did we have? Three?  I lost count, but the entire cast received a rousing round of applause at the end.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Incarnation.  God with us, God in us.  Multiple baby Jesuses?  No problem.  What better illustration that Christ is in all of us, no matter how fussy and cranky we may be? Emmanuel, God with us.

We are all members of the Body of Christ and we carry this Divine Spark.  So does all of humanity, no matter how buried or ignored the spark may be. Can it ever be truly extinguished?

On this day when we Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, I think of the words of a young Jewish girl who has been one of my heroines for most of my life:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” — Anne Frank

May the love of Christ be with you and yours this Christmas day and every day.

A Christmas gift of music for you:  Rock My Baby Jesus