Matthias: Lucky Dog?

The feast of St. Matthias was about a week ago (Feb. 24). Now, before you get this idea that I constantly know whose feast days are when…I don’t; but for some reason (probably because it’s near some important birthdays), I remember this one.

But who was Matthias? Well, some might say he was a “lucky dog.”

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Speaking of Lucky Dogs…

Here’s the setting: Jesus had just ascended into heaven. The Apostles who-once-were-twelve were now just eleven due to the suicide of Judas Iscariot. They chose to possible replacements, prayed about the situation, and then cast lots.

Matthias was the winner, and became one of the Twelve. He, like the other possible replacement (Joseph, called Barsabus or Justus), had been a follower of Jesus from the beginning of the ministry, but he lost the coin toss. Matthias won the Apostolic Lottery.

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St. Matthias

I wonder how Joseph/Barsabus/Justus felt about that. Did he take it in stride? Did he shrug it off? When disciples were sent out to the ends of the earth, did he remain sullen, thinking “OK, God, so I’m not good enough,” or did he say “put me in, coach?” Was he disappointed, even a little? Or did he breathe a silent sigh of relief, having a sense of the danger they were in? Did he fade into the dust of history?

Tradition says that Joseph Barsabus was one of the 70 disciples sent out to spread the news. Tradition also says that he became bishop of Eleutheropolis, an area in Palestine, and eventually was martyred. Matthias was also reportedly stoned to death (perhaps being chosen wasn’t so lucky after all). Both men were martyred for their faith, although neither knew what fate held on that day when the luck of the draw dictated who got an apostolic promotion (and probably a few more churches named after him).

How often do we face situations like that in our lives? Two equally deserving candidates are considered for a position. One receives a promotion, the other does not. Is it harder to bear when such things are based on pure luck? Do we see such luck as a statistical coin flip, or as Divine Intervention?

The way we answer that question has a lot to do with what we do with (and how we see) the lots drawn in life.

Joseph Barsabus could have slunk away in disappointment, saying ‘wow…God sure made that clear, I’m not wanted.” I have no way of knowing if he was a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full kind of guy. Either way, the community of believers could have been supportive in this situation.

The Guys At The Camp come to mind. How might they handle such a thing?

“Hey, man, it’s ok. You know we love you.”

“Look, you’re still coming with us on the road. Pack your stuff.”

“That Twelve stuff is symbolism for people who need that kind of thing. But there’s a lot of s**t to be done, and we’re counting on you. We NEED you. Um, and bring your tools.”

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A Couple of The Guys At The Camp.  You never quite know how God is going to get someone to make a path for others…

“Yeah, man, there’s plenty of room in the boat. And if not, we’ll take Franz’s boat. Don’t worry about that, it’ll all work out.”

It’s great to have a strong inner core, that knowledge, that passion for doing and following a path no matter what obstacles fall into the way. We admire people who do that; they inspire us even as we might envy their focus. We want to be more like that – have more conviction, as my husband would say. But even the most dedicated and passionate among us can have their hesitations – and could use a boost.

Maybe it’s the “lucky dog” that needs encouragement – and maybe it’s just “one of the guys/girls” that could use a little encouragement to realize and utilize more of their gifts. I’m reminded of the ending of The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy’s companions all learn they had everything they really needed and wanted all along – they just needed a little shove, acknowledgement, encouragement. What if Matthias was the guy who needed the encouragement, the designation?

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Be someone’s encouragement.

In the long run, both Matthias and Joseph used the gifts God gave them. They served Jesus and the early church by preaching the Gospel, telling the story of the resurrection and planting seeds of faith. They did what they were called to do, the best they could, and God took care of the rest.

No matter what our own individual gifts, experiences, wins and losses – we can do likewise. Each of us has a ministry of some sort; a calling to show the love of Christ in some way. Sometimes our call is to be the cheerleader or the wizard for someone else, at other times, another will do that for us. We do what we can, do it with love and passion, and let God take care of the rest.

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A Rule of Life

I recently decided to begin the path to becoming an associate of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee, Tennessee.  I met members of this order of Episcopal sisters through friends Diane Moore and Vickie Sullivan, and last spring, Joshua and I performed at a fund-raiser at University of the South for their Organic Prayer Intern Program.  We stayed with them for several days, and were wrapped in their hospitality and the rhythms of their convent life.  I wrote about the time in this post.

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In the garden at Community of St. Mary

As an associate of this Benedictine community, one writes one’s own Rule of Life, based on Jesus’ great commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A Rule of Life.  I’ve been wondering about what exactly that might look like for me.  My initial responses to writing such a rule were akin to making New Year’s Resolutions – which I don’t make, by the way.  I exercise regularly,  my eating habits tend to be somewhat cyclical but generally healthy, and I usually have some inspirational reading at hand.

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Peace. Pax. At the Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman, Alabama

Then I thought a rule of life might resemble a Lenten discipline.  Well, maybe it does, but not of the “give up” type – at least, I hope not, because (with one notable exception) I haven’t given up anything for Lent in years.  I focus on doing something instead of not-doing-or-having something. (The one recent exception was when I gave up whining for Lent.  That was powerful, and had some long-lasting consequences.  A good thing.)

Then, inspiration came.  Back in January, I went on retreat with a retreat leader I’d met before, Pasha Hogan.  The retreat was hosted at a friend’s home, my friend Lyn who hosts the Sacred Center.

One thing that came clear for me during the retreat was that I really tend to put myself down.  “I don’t deserve it” is a mantra that I know is left over from childhood.  “Deserving” is ridiculous, anyway, in the face of divine grace and mercy – we don’t deserve any of that, but we get it anyway.

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I don’t deserve this scene from the yard, but I am grateful for it.

Who, then, do I think I am to think that I am apart from that?  Am I so specially dreadful that I am Uniquely Undeserving? Just who do you think you are?!?! Do you think you are in a special class of wretchedness?

Nah, I’m just your regular garden-variety wretch, thank you very much.  No special treatment here, just Standard Salvation.

I joke about the fact that in my growing up and college years, I had more religion classes and Religious Studies courses than most do unless they take holy orders.  I joke that it made me lose my religion!  The truth behind that joke, though, was that I felt so much focus on the fact that my mere existence was something to be ashamed of. That made no sense, because our human nature is to be – well, human – and therefore prone to mistakes.  Hopefully, this makes us learn from experience.  I was confused, as I would also hear that we were made in God’s image.

At some point, I started over by accepting only one premise: God loves us. God loves me. From that healing starting point, my faith and spirituality grew.

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On the path.  (Natchez Trace)

However, I realized that I sometimes just pay lip service to accepting forgiveness. I still need to forgive myself for not being perfect, AND forgive myself for expecting myself to be perfect!

So, my Rule of Life.  I based it on an adaptation of some things Pasha shared with us on retreat.

Just for today….
I accept myself as I am, allowing Divine Love to work through me
I am my own compassionate witness
I allow myself to make beautiful mistakes.
I ask for and receive Divine Help and Grace.

This may sound all about loving self, but I think it’s a total package – loving God, neighbor, self. If I don’t create time for my spiritual and creative life, I am only “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  That segment from Paul’s letter is usually interpreted to be about loving neighbor and God, but I wonder – now that I think about it – if he wasn’t including love and caring for ourselves. How can we love God and neighbor as ourselves if we don’t love ourselves?

Accepting myself as I am, and accepting God’s forgiveness and help to do better, I become an open channel for Divine Love to work through me.  I feel gratitude. I feel blessed and want to share blessings with others.  As a beloved child of God, I recognize others as being the same, in spite of our differences. As a beloved child of God, I recognize that my body and mind and talents are all Divine Gifts (as is our earth).  We care for God’s gifts out of joy and gratitude, and share our talents and time from the same love-filled heart.

I invite you to do the same, just for today.  Accept and love yourself as you are, allowing Divine Love to work through you.  And see what happens.

The beauty of y’all

In choir practice this morning, Leon (who hails from Mississippi) made a comment about the word y’all, and how we just seem to forget that “you” can also be plural.

It made me think about a training class I’d attended earlier in the week.  The trainer was from somewhere “up north,” and said she hadn’t ever gotten used to saying y’all, so she hoped we were OK with “you guys.”

Sigh. Well, ok, but just not from my lips. Y’all is a lovely and infinitely useful word. You see, I am a Southerner.  I know that on the 8th day, God created coffee, crawfish and grits (in that order). And God looked at Creation, and said:

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Now…a couple of very important (and oft-misunderstood) points about the word y’all:

1) Y’all is a contraction of the words “you” and “all.”  Therefore, the correct spelling is not ya’ll, but rather y’all.

2) Y’all is not singular. Ever.  See #1 above.

The word y’all is much more pleasant to the ears than the term “you guys.” The former is a soft, easy short “a” sound, and the word rolls off the tongue like velvet, no matter how quickly or slowly it is uttered.  You guys, on the other hand, invites nasal sounds and even, depending on the speaker, a possible dipthong on the word “guys.”

I remember my shock in grade school when we were learning about contractions, and how to spell them…and that y’all was not a “real word.”  Excuse me? And as noted above, it is only plural, in spite of how it may be used in the singular by those trying to “speak southern” (bless their hearts).

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Y’all is not only polite; it is genuinely inclusive.  While “you” can be plural, it may be confusing when used in a group.  For example: “You come for gumbo this evening, OK?” This is fine if you are speaking to an individual without anyone else around.  However, if the invitation is uttered to a group that way, you may wind up with only one person showing up (and the rest of the group being insulted).

Y’all come for gumbo,” however, makes it quite clear. If you want to reiterate that the invitation is indeed meant for the group (in case there may be any doubt, or someone might think the invitation was for the individual and their family), “y’all all come” is perfectly acceptable, in spite of its apparent redundancy.  Think of all y’all and y’all all as slightly similar to using a reflective pronoun.

Y’all all come, make sure you bring your mom ‘n ‘em.” (Or you could say “papa ‘n ‘em” or “Marie ‘n ‘em” or whatever.) This means brings everyone y’all were just talking about, or “bring your usual entourage.” (It also means you made a whole lot of gumbo.)

I would love to see a southern revision of the Book of Common Prayer:

The Lord be with y’allAnd also with you. Lift up y’all’s hearts…

Y’all welcomes everyone with a smile.  It is itself an invitation to slow down, to relax, to breathe.  The Shema begins with the words “Hear, O Israel!” In the New Testament, Jesus uses those words when He proclaims the greatest commandments.  I think he was basically saying “all y’all listen!” While that may sound odd, it’s easier to imagine than his saying “OK, you guys…”

shalom-yall

Peace be with y’all…with all y’all.

For an interesting geographic discussion of the use of y’all, visit
http://www.floatingsheep.org/2014/05/hey-yall-geographies-of-colloquialism.html

One (not so) Little Word 2017

I’ve never before officially participated in the #onelittleword challenge.  There have been many times when I’ve set an intention for a specific period of time – whether a day, a week, a liturgical season…but not officially for the whole year.

Recently, though, one of my Sacred Sisters posted something about it on facebook.  We were semi-serious, as it was a stressful time and we were managing to laugh at the stress.

Then, I got to thinking.  I like this #OneLittleWord idea.  I’ve never been much for New Year’s Resolutions, but one word to sum up intentions for the year – I like it.  So, what’s my word?

What started as a joke actually has, after quite a bit of thought, become my word for 2017:  Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

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Seriously. This one not-so-little word pretty much sums up my intentions for 2017.  Before you click away from this page thinking I’m making fun of #onelittleword, I assure you I’m not. Let me explain: The word is an antidote. (If I’m making fun of anything, I’m making fun of myself.)

It was made popular in the movie Mary Poppins. This children’s classic (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) was groundbreaking for its time with its use of animated sequences and live actors in the same scenes.  Mary Poppins had just won a horse race, and she’s asked for her response. There’s a word to sum it up, she says, and they break into song: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! An amazing word to sum up an amazing feeling.

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Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

I want amazing – in 2017 and beyond. I want childlike awe, joy.  I want to dance and laugh about the good things in life, whether big or small – because there are always good things.  There are many negative things in the world, but there are always good things in God’s creation. I am realizing that the word is also a sort of shield for me. The littlest things can be good, joyful, worth laughing about.

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Talisman.

One day recently, a group of our Sacred Sisters met, prayed, and burned what we wanted to release from our lives. We sang together, and shared our words for the coming year.  I suddenly realized that I’d been thinking that I SHOULD have a sensible, serious word for the year – I don’t want anyone thinking I’m poking fun at the idea! But once again, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious danced in my brain, and I realized… it is my antidote for should.

You see, SHOULD is not the voice of conscience for me; rather, it is a hoax, a pretender, a thief.  It is sly, masquerading itself as good when it is, in truth, an attempt to derail my true self.

In prayer, I have asked that Divine Guidance use different terminology when nudging me to act or not act.  The results have been interesting.  My soul whispers “you might want to….” or “consider this…” I listen, I pray, I consider, and often act. However, if I hear “you SHOULD…” I take a very careful look at the suggestion, for should negates free choice. Should is coming from somewhere other than Divine Guidance.

I didn’t realize this particular characteristic of being an antidote of my chosen word until we stood at the fire pit and shared our words and how they came to us.

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Sometimes things just…pop into consciousness.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The word itself is nonsensical, meaning (according to various dictionaries)  “fantastic,” “awesome,” “something totally indescribable” or simply “the longest word you can come up with.”  Wikipedia (as well as a few other sites) break it down into roots, and come up with something along the lines of “atoning for educability through delicate beauty,” which to me sounds like something found on a poorly-translated fortune cookie.

Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman have described the word as similar to one from their youth, and that the final form of the word as we know it came from their actual songwriting process. Ah!!

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Christmas Day 2016 in south Louisiana.  Don’t we all need some silliness at times?

So my “one not-so-little-word” for 2017 began life as a nonsense word, which was finalized in the craft of songwriting.  Through the magic of creativity, it took on a life of its own.  As a magical word, it becomes my shield.  It connects me to childlike wonder and reminds me to slow down to see the beauty in the world.   It reminds me that I don’t need to take myself so seriously. It reminds me to act out of love rather than out of rigid duty. It slays the shoulds.

The other day, after sharing my word (and reasons for it), we all broke into song:

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious
If you say it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious,
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

…at which point, Patti and I started dancing and continuing with “dum diddle diddle ay dum diddle ar, dum diddle diddle ay dum diddle ar…”

I’m reminded that God has a sense of humor, and that yes, we are made in God’s image.

Here’s wishing you a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious year.

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.”

tree-topper

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.