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.

a-crushed-outside

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.

a-bagasse

Ground cane being processed

a-grinding

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.

a-boiler

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.

a-centrifuge

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.

a-warehouse

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

a-truckload

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.

Making Sugar

I live in the heart of sugar cane country.  I am literally surrounded by cane fields.  From my front porch, I have a view of oak trees and cane fields and in the summer, you can indeed hear it grow (the cane, that is).  Our  world has changed so much over the past decades that more and more people don’t quite realize exactly where their food comes from.  Well, I can tell you a bit about sugar.

Right now it’s harvest time in south Louisiana.  We actually have a relatively short growing season – cane is planted in the late summer of one year and harvested in the fall of the next.  Most sugar consumed (sugar, not corn syrup or other sweeteners) comes from sugar cane (about 20% comes from sugar beets), which is actually a grass.  A grass that can grow really, really tall.

c-cane-standing

Sugar cane in mid-summer.  Tall, but still with some growing to do.

In some growing areas of the world where the cane has a longer season, it flowers.  Wow! Not in south Louisiana as the cane must be harvested before it freezes.  Harvest time, or “grinding,” starts around the beginning of September.

c-cane-cart

Harvested cane in carts await unloading at M. A. Patout sugar mill in Patoutville, LA.

Cane is cut, loaded into carts or large (18-wheeler) trucks, and brought to the mill. In years past, the cane would be burned after cutting and before loading in order to remove the leaves. Fortunately, newer harvesting techniques results in “billet” cane which is chopped shorter during the harvesting process – eliminating most (but not all) of the need for burning the cane.  It may be a pretty sight, but it does put a lot of smoke and soot into the air.

c-burning-cane

Burning fields at dusk between Lydia and Patoutville, LA

Anyone driving on a two lane highway in south or central Louisiana knows to “watch out for the cane trucks!” because they do tend to move more slowly than regular traffic. A pet peeve of mine is the folks who zoom around them recklessly or who complain about the trucks.  What, you’re late for work?  You should know better this time of year, and the person driving the truck is at work already.

sterlingoutside

Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA

Sugar mills are where the cane is crushed, juice is extracted, then boiled down to yield sugar crystals (and molasses).  Sounds simple? Well…the idea is simple, but sugarmaking is as much of an art as it is a science.  But first things first.  Cut the cane, load it, haul it to the mill and unload it there.

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A truck filled with cane arrives at Cajun Sugar Co-op, New Iberia, LA

Methods of unloading cane are pretty impressive.

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At Cajun Sugar, the truck body is lifted to dump the cane.

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Sometimes the entire truck is lifted!

sterlingdumpcane2

At Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA, it’s a similar process.

But wait…I’m getting out of order a bit.  When the trucks arrive at the mill, they are weighed (they are weighed again after the cane is dumped).  A “core sample” is taken at that time as well.  Think giant hypodermic needle and you get the concept.

d-core

The core sampler at Cajun Sugar.

The sample goes directly to the core lab where it will be analyzed for sugar content.  Samples are tracked by barcode, and the load-specific barcode is generated when the sample gets to the core lab. That info is tracked in the mill’s database so that each farmer can be paid properly. Pretty neat, huh? (I remember my grandfather at the mill, counting his truck arrivals – a common thing back then.)

Once the core sample is taken, the trucks are unloaded and the cane is stacked up in a massive yard.  From there it is transported into the mill for grinding.

cajunclaw

Not quite a “big ol’ rock candy mountain,” but a mountain of sugar cane.

The cane is chopped more before going into the mill.

sterlingcrushcane

Between the cane yard and the actual mill.

On the way into the mill, the cane will be on a conveyer belt and “make a pass” under some giant magnets.  A stray piece of metal can mess up the mill, and possibly harm a mill employee.

Generally speaking, the cane will be chopped, smushed, macerated, and more or less rendered into mush/goo/yucky looking stuff and the juice extracted. Hence the term “grinding!”

But how does the juice from this overgrown grass become sugar?  Ahh, that’s the next segment of this series, as I’m now going to have a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar.  Stay tuned!

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

Stay grateful, my friends.

Here it is, Thanksgiving Eve, and I’d like to say that I’ve written an insightful, well-thought-out, finely-crafted post on gratitude.

However… an outdoor fire and a margarita called my name. I’m weak, human, and subject to temptation. Instead of writing, I sat around said fire with the margarita, family and friends, and a Sonic hamburger (and mosquitoes).

We’ve much to be grateful for in the simple things.  So instead of writing, I thought I’d just share some photos of just a few of the many everyday things I’m grateful for.

canal

An evening walk with my dog.

2016-flood-la

The August flooding didn’t get bad at all here.

planting-cane

Planting cane.

turtle

This little guy by my office. Fortunately, he’s not far from home.

avery-island-birds

Bird sanctuary at Avery Island, Louisiana.  Yep, I’m 15 minutes away from where they make Tabasco.

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Sugar cane, by home.

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Harvest time, hauling cane to the mill.

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This little fella by my kitchen door. He sings, too.

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A route in Pecan Island, Louisiana.

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Rain for the cane. (Sugar cane fields)

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Sunset seen from my front porch.

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The view on my morning walk to work.

Life is filled with challenges, trials, fearful things, obstacles and broken dreams.  There will always be an unsoothed ache, a hidden hurt, a lost chance.

Thankfully, there will also be more beauty, chances, hope and love in life, in plain sight, waiting for us to grab it, share it, celebrate it.  The choice of where to look is up to us, and I prefer to see the beauty and hope in the world.

Stay grateful, my friends.

Live Steam!

For some years my brother Greg has been after me to attend the Soule’ Live Steam Festival in Meridian, MS.  Now, you’d have to know my brother (and some of you do). Like my husband has the “guys at the camp,” with Greg it’s “the guys at the shop.”  The guys at the shop, however, have an affinity for steam engines and just about anything that’s large, heavy, made of iron and runs on steam.  (Or gasoline. Or diesel.)

The Soule Live Steam Festival is an annual event held at the historic Soule Steam Feed Works / Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum the first weekend in November each year. It’s a delightful, educational, family-oriented event, and visitors will see many steam engines at work.

soule-sign

Greg and his friend Eddie brought several of Eddie’s steam engines, and they weren’t the only exhibitors.  But the heart of the event is the Soule Steam Feed Works itself.  The company manufactured machinery and steam engines for the lumber industry from the late 1800s through the first part of the 20th century.  At that time, steam was king – and it was portable.  Soule’ built a rotary steam engine that was portable.  A visit to the factory/museum is a step back in time, but not quite so far back as one might think.  Steam is still used in manufacturing – in south Louisiana, steam runs the sugar mills that grind cane and product syrup and raw sugar.

At Soule, steam fans come together, along with railroad afficionados.  The railroad station is close by the steam works, and the weekend also hosts Railfest, a short walk away from Soule Steam Feed Works.

some-steam

Some of the more portable engines on exhibit at Soule’.

I attended on Saturday, and in addition to steam engines and a look into a not-so-distant  manufacturing past, the event hosted several attendees and exhibits from the Carousel Organ Association of America.  THESE INSTRUMENTS ARE COOL.  I’ll admit, this was a deciding factor for me.

Greg: “lots of steam engines!”

Me: “more than you and your friends have?”

Greg: “Yes.”

Me:  “ARE YOU SERIOUS?”

Greg: “They also have carousel organs. They’re neat.”

Me: “I’M IN!!!!”

carousel-organ

Yes, it’s a functioning baby pipe organ.
There was nonstop carousel organ music in one of the large workshops.  At one point, two organs played a duet – which was fairly excruciating, because one was tuned to C and the other to Eb.  Ouch. Somewhere Over the Rainbow sounded more like Somewhere under the Stormy Weather.

I can also say that I’ve now heard Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on carousel organ. I couldn’t stop laughing. (You can find out more about the carousel organs here: http://steamfest.weebly.com/ ) A gifted bagpipe player also provided wonderful musical entertainment on the grounds. (I love bagpipes, so this was a real treat!) The museum had historic printing demonstrations, a spinning and weaving display, and a broommaking machine. I even brought home some freshly ground cornmeal, ground on site by one of the exhibitors.

steam-engines

Two of the many engines on display in the museum.

Right before sunset, Alabama Art Casting held a demonstration of melting, pouring and casting iron.  “Industrial heritage”is a term you don’t hear everyday, but think about it.  Progress is made by industry, and industry is born out of humanity’s desire to make life better and easier.  The “Industrial Revolution” isn’t just something taught in school; this is how our country – and others – were built.

iron-pour

Molten iron, poured from furnace into a heated crucible.

Later in the evening, we attended the volunteers’ dinner at the Temple Theater.  This is an historic theater, built in the 1920s in “Moorish Revival Style” by Shriners.  The barbeque was delicious, and just being in this beautiful place was a treat. Visit their website at https://templetheater.wordpress.com/

But it got better. After dinner, we were treated to an organ recital and silent movie – with live organ accompaniment.  The theater has its original Robert Morton organ, and we sat back to watch a Buster Keaton classic – with a live organist providing the soundtrack.  What a treat!  Greg, Eddie and I agreed that it was an outstanding weekend, with the guys pronouncing this the “best ever” of the numerous Live Steam Festivals they have attended there. Visit their website here: http://www.soulelivesteam.com/home.html – if you can’t make it for their festival, they offer tours throughout the year.  It’s well worth a visit.

I drove home Sunday in a car scented with cedar – one of the exhibitors had a large lumber saw set up (powered by a steam engine) and was milling lumber.  Leftover cedar shavings were there for the taking, and they’ll provide great garden mulch. All because of the power of steam! sawmill

During our regular weekly prayer group the other day at the Sacred Center, we had a guided meditation that brought up the image of fire.  My recent steam adventure came to mind. Nearly everything I’d seen last weekend had been powered by steam and fire.  During our subsequent discussion, I mentioned my trip to Meridian and the Soule Steam Festival.  These are massive machines, all run on steam power. We can think of fire as being consuming, cleansing…but also transformative, an agent of change, and a source of power and energy.  Just as fire can provide incredible energy, a spiritual fire can refine us, and it can also magnify our strength to do what may seem impossible.

– – – –

See some sights and sounds of the event, including Bad Romance on a carousel organ:  https://youtu.be/RS2Xl_tGB1Y  (you may have to copy and paste)

 

The Quagmire

I told myself months ago that I wasn’t going to get into political musings on this blog. So this isn’t intended as a political discussion, but rather my own musings on trying to “remain untainted” by the dirty business of politics in our flawed world.

I often hear comments like “I avoid politics” and “I vote, but that’s it.” Sometimes I think that may mean “I vote, but don’t actively engage in supporting specific candidates.”  Fair enough.  Or perhaps it means “I don’t want to talk about it.”  I can understand that, too.

happy-dog

To ease the pain of a political post, here’s a photo of a happy dog. You’re welcome.

But what if it means “I’m going to vote the way I always do because I don’t want to be exposed to the negative energy of the election?” Therein lies the spiritual challenge to each of us.

In writing this blog, I try to apply spiritual principles to everyday life.  I subscribe to the idea that I am what I think about most – and who wants to think about politics?  It never ceases to amaze me how we can wind up with so many candidates for so many offices that disgust us so much. “I avoid all that! I don’t want to go there!”

Neither do I, but I do. It is one of the challenges of living as a part of a community, one of the lessons we as humans must learn. To say one is disengaged from the political process “but vote, and that’s it” is to abdicate power and participation in the process.  It’s irresponsible.

We hear much in the media about “uninformed voters,” which can mean “someone who doesn’t vote the way I do.”  Unfortunately, most major news outlets are extremely biased, and even closely following major news outlets does not necessarily result in being informed.

Personal disclaimer: I did not vote for either presidential nominee in the primary. So, I am one of those who may be tempted to not vote, or to write in the name of my initial choice.  But I won’t. (Didn’t. I voted early.)

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Louisiana’s “I Voted” sticker. Not necessarily a political commentary…

WikiLeaks.org and projectveritas.com have released (and continue to release) bombshells.  I won’t use this space to dig into the findings of either of those websites – why deny you the fun of doing it yourself?

Here’s where our challenge comes in.  United States citizens have a right to vote.  It is also a responsibility, not to be taken lightly.  Don’t give up the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the candidates presented because it’s depressing and you really don’t like either one of them.  If we took that attitude towards all distasteful tasks, the human race would have died out long ago because dealing with babies means dealing with a lot of merde.

whew

I also urge you to avoid the easy way out.  “_______ is a ________!”  Ask yourself truly: am I just repeating a soundbite?

No candidate is perfect.  We are all flawed human beings, and most of us do NOT live our lives planning a run for political office.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve pissed some people off with careless comments.  We may have mismanaged our own affairs – which provides one with great lessons.  Some of the “regular” questions are easy to ask: What has A achieved?  What is B’s stance on C?  

The big questions facing us about our candidates are ones we never thought we’d ask, and hate the idea of having to address them: Has X seriously endangered national security?  Can Y be bought?  Did Z commit treason?

Am I making the right decision?  Is there a right decision in this election?

Yes, I do believe there is. There is no perfect candidate, so each must voter choose an imperfect one. I am reminded of Louisiana’s 1991 gubernatorial election: “Vote for the crook, it’s important.”  A choice between Edwin Edwards (who was later convicted for racketeering and served 10 years in a federal penitentiary) and former KKK wizard David Duke taught me to never say never.  I didn’t like Edwards, but I held my nose and voted for him anyway.

Jesus hung out with sinners, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors and took on the establishment of his day.  He didn’t let the “bad energy” dissuade him from bringing light into the world.  King David was a pretty flawed guy, but did great things for God anyway.

I’ve always said you couldn’t pay me enough to run for political office – I wouldn’t even run for dogcatcher, as the saying goes.  (I’d want to take all the dogs home!) Politics challenges us as individuals, and as spiritual beings.  We want a world with peace, equality, hope, opportunity, love, religious freedom.  We don’t want to have to go “slumming” in the stinking gutter of the political quagmire and would just rather steer clear of it all. We don’t want to have those discussions with friends that vote differently from us. We say why can’t we just all get along?

This is the human condition, so participate. Pray for the process, our country, and the candidates. Don’t sink low. Realize that you can dive into the yuckiness of politics and still be a light in the world.  In spite of her flaws, America is still an example of freedom in the world.  Exercise your free will and vote.

reagan-quote-spiritual

Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.
–Ronald Reagan

Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

A couple of years ago I wrote about singing at Temple Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, La. There is a small Jewish congregation here, and I have been blessed and honored to sing for their rabbi-led services for some time.  Fall is the season of High Holy Days, which encompass Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur.

This is a Reform congregation, who uses the New Union Prayerbook.  There are many beautiful prayers within the covers of the regular book as well as Gates of Repentance, used during HHD.

Monday, during the morning service for Rosh Hashanah, these words leapt off the page at me:

“Be among those who cherish truth above ease, and whose prayers are shafts of light in the darkness….Aspire to be loving, compassionate, humane, and hopeful.  Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.” *

Become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

Sounds deceptively simple.  It’s certainly challenging.  I know I am often overwhelmed with day-to-day minutiae, and tend to get onto the “just get-it-done” track.  I’m not rude, cruel, dishonest or treating anyone badly, I’m just…getting things done.  Work. Errands. Housekeeping. Paying bills. Doing laundry. Autopilot.

peace-window-temple-gates-of-prayer

Peace window in memory of Jack Wormser, who was a man whose life was his prayer of peace.  Temple Gates of Prayer, New Iberia, LA

The apostle Paul wrote:

Rejoice always, pray continually. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-17

What if we were to become the prayer?  I cannot bring peace to the world, but I can be peaceful.  I may not be able to cure someone, but I can be a healing presence. Kindness towards others – even a smile – can be prayerful.

Intention is the difference.

Now, more than ever, our country and our world are torn by voices of division.  We hear so much about what’s wrong, about oppression, aggression, unfairness, shaming, blaming, hatred.  Individual pain is exploited for political gain, and groups and individuals become game tokens in power plays.  Individuals wonder what can I do?

snail-1

Make a difference.  Even this snail makes tracks.

Do what you can. Be open and aware.  Set an intention for kindness. Show gratitude.  Smile.  Pray continually.

Then, become the prayer for goodness your lips have uttered.

~~~~~~~~ * 1984, Central Conference of American Rabbis: Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe.  P. 187.  (New York)