Monday, October 21, 2013

A Faith for the Fallen: Gratitude

Even before October 13th's readings and homily about Namaan and the ten lepers, I had been thinking about gratitude. Why? Because of my cat. Bear with me a moment, as I'm sure you're wondering how I could possibly be learning about gratitude from a cat. Cats are notorious for being finicky, independent, and self-absorbed, and they certainly can be all that, but not this cat. I've written about Biscuit before, but she continues to impress and teach me. The biggest lessons I have been learning from her are about trust, adaptability, and gratitude. 

Having been a stray, struggling to get enough food and stay safe, it would have been easy for her to overindulge or horde food, especially since she shares food and bowls with Bilbo; instead she is willing to share, so that both have enough to eat. Over the past four months, as Biscuit has come to trust us, she has showered us with affection. When Robin is yowling at back door, wanting to go outside, Biscuit will come over and rub against him, but when we let Robin out onto the deck, Biscuit has no interest in following him. I can only believe that having lived "out there," she knows that what she has here, with us, is better. In so many small, feline ways, Biscuit continually shows her thankfulness for her new life with us.

Sometimes I am really good about giving thanks for all the wonderful blessings I have received; other times, I become so focused on what I don't have that I forget or ignore what I do have. Our need to do something to try and emerge from this struggle can make it incredibly difficult to maintain a focus on how we have been blessed. With infertility, those time consuming somethings can be charting, testing, doctor's appointments, chart reviews, dietary changes, coping with side effects of medications, or researching treatments or adoption, amongst so many more. If your struggle is continued singleness while you desire marriage, the time and focus consuming somethings could be singles events, networking to meet more people, or online dating. It is so, so very easy to focus on what we can do instead of what we already have. Our more focused culture certainly exacerbates this. Even worse, in focusing on what we don't have, we can take for granted what we do have. 

I have certainly taken my husband and family for granted at times during this IF struggle. When I talk about my husband, I am frequently told how lucky I am: he cooks, helps with the cleaning, listens, and even insists on doing what I want. He works hard so that I can stay home. He encourages and supports me getting involved and volunteering, even when it takes away from our time together. Not only do I not always feel lucky, I don't even say "Thank you" or show appreciation as much as I could. I have been much more likely to show my irritation than my gratitude. Though my mother doesn't really understand what we are going through, she has made a consistent effort to listen and support us, even to the point of helping pay for tests and treatments. Without her help and commitment to continuing to help I would not have been able to leave the job that was causing me so much stress. I would have had to stay in that position, despite our belief that the stress was contributing to our IF, in able to afford continuing treatment. 

Recently I have made a commitment to be more thankful and to show my gratitude more often, both in prayer and to those around me. While I'm starting to improve, I still have a long way to go; I hope you will join me in trying to cultivate a stronger sense of gratitude.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Gluten Free Me

To say that going gluten free has made me cranky would be an understatement. However, I have been blessed in that I have been able to go to two different GF tasting events within weeks of being told to go gluten free. So far, I have been able to keep the buying and discarding to a minimum, thankfully. Bad enough to be spending a fortune on GF products, but even worse to spend that much on something that I won't eat. Here is my assessment of the products I have tried so far; please share your recommendations of what is worthwhile and what to avoid in the comments. I'm using a one to five star scale.

Flour/Baking Mixes

  • Grandma Whimsy's Rice Flour (Bread Flour coming out soon) ***** By far the best that GF flour/baking mixI have tried so far, with the caveat that I have not actually tried cooking with it. The products offered to sample at the Celiac/GF fair were indistinguishable from products made with wheat.
  • Jules' Gluten Free Baking Mix *** We have a large bag of the baking mix; so far we have tried pancakes and waffles with it. If the pancakes had instead been labeled crepes, I would have been happy with them; however, as pancakes, they fell flat. (pun intended) The waffles weren't bad, but the batter consistency was a little odd. (My husband liked the waffles.)
  • Gluten Free Bisquick **** The pancakes were good. First my husband made a quarter recipe of the GF pancakes for me, then he made a quarter batch of regular Bisquick pancakes for himself. He got to do the side by side taste test, while I just compared the appearance of the two types. The GF pancakes were roughly as fluffy as the regular pancakes, though they did absorb syrup a whole lot faster. According to my husband, the GF pancakes were slightly chewier/less cake-like. I was more disappointed with the GF Biquick biscuits, but that could be due our need to substitute other fats for the shortening. The biscuits seemed a little gritty, though adding jam made them easily edible. I'll be interested to see how they turn out when we try making them again using shortening.
  • Pamela's Pancake and Baking Mix **** When they say individual serving size, they aren't kidding! We bought a small packet to try it, and it made exactly 4 pancakes. They were definitely light and fluffy, not gritty at all. The texture may have been a little chewy, and like the GF Bisquick pancakes, they soaked up syrup like a sponge. Oddly enough, the one I had reheated the next day may have been better than the one I had fresh. My previous exposure to Pamela's baking mix was the wonderful cake that Rebecca brought to IF cookout, which everyone loved. 
  • Against the Grain Baguette ***** The best GF bread I've tried so far, but it's $9 for a baguette. Needless to say, this will be an indulgence only rarely taken.
  • The Gluten Free Oven Sandwich and Multi Grain Sandwich Bread ***** Very good bread, so close to regular wheat containing bread, but it's also $8 to $9 per loaf (and not located nearby), so not something I will partaking of regularly.
  • Bloomfield Farms Cornbread & Muffin Mix *** Good, no texture problems.
  • Silvana's Arize Italian Bread * The texture wasn't very good.
  • Schar
    • Ciabatta Rolls **** Very good, but following the heating directions precisely is an absolute must. I tried just toasting one in a rush to get out the door and was a bit disappointed.
    • Sub-sandwich rolls ***** I wasn't able to find their hot dog buns, so we tried using the sandwich rolls for hot dogs. It was a happy experiment. 
    • Hamburger buns **** While the texture wasn't quite that of a standard hamburger bun, it was definitely similar to that of certain types of buns/rolls and was highly acceptable. (to borrow my husband's phrase)
  • Market District GF Buckwheat Blueberry Waffles * I threw 2 in the toaster to eat en route to bible study. I only ate one; the rest of the box is going in to my husband's work place. They're young, male, and hungry - they'll eat anything, right?
  • Vanilla Chex *** The only reason why my rating is so low is that it was way too sweet for me. 
Pizza/Pizza Crusts
  • Against the Grain Frozen Pizza ** For all that I loved their baguette, their frozen pizza was as cardboard-y as bad frozen pizza can be. I will definitely not be spending my money on it.
  • Jules Gluten Free Pizza Crust Mix *** We have a second bag to try, which will help us determine whether the odd flavor came from our substituting a different type of vinegar for the apple cider vinegar. It wasn't bad, but when making the pizza, the crust was insanely sticky. The finished product was close, but not quite right. (Also, I'm a pizza snob; I love Lou Malnati's and Giordano's. Yes, I'm from Chicago.)
  • Kinnikinnick Personal Size Pizza Crust *** It wasn't gritty and had the general texture of a frozen pizza crust.
  • Glutino Premium Pizza Crust * I couldn't even finish the little sample sliver at the grocery store. Yuck.
  • Namaste * Gritty and disgusting; I couldn't even finish the sample.
  • Schar ***** Very good pasta, with sauce and cheese I couldn't tell it was a GF product.
  • Delallo ***** The best GF pasta I have had so far; even served cold in a salad, it was good. They are supposed to have a gnocchi coming out soon, which I am excited to try.
  • Jovial Brown Rice Pasta ***1/2 The directions were very firm about not overcooking, but taking the pasta out after 9 minutes left them chewier than al dente. Served with the same sauce and cheese as the Schar, it was good, but not quite as good.

Sweet Treats
  • Sunny Bridge Natural Foods & Cafe 
    • Pumpkin cupcake with cream cheese icing ***** Yum!
    • Flourless chocolate cake **** Good, but not as good as some that I have had. (Flourless chocolate cake is flourless chocolate cake with or without the GF label, at least to my level of sensitivity/caring.)
  • Truly Wize (
    • Gluten Free Iced Lemon Cake * The texture was gritty, which was a disappointment given how good the other products were.
    • Gluten Free Cinnamon Coffee Cake ****
    • Gluten & Dairy Free Chocolate Decadence ***** Incredibly rich, a small piece would be all you would need.
    • Gluten & Dairy Free Chocolate Roll ****
    • Gluten & Dairy Free Pumpkin Roll ****
  • Bloomfield Farms
    • Cake Mix ** Very light, but slightly gritty
    • Brownie Mix ***** Excellent
  • Schar Vanilla Sandwich Cremes ***1/2 Good, but not great. I'm not sure I would buy them, but I had no problems eating them.
  • Glutino Chocolate Covered Pretzels *** First complaint, the pretzels were too crunchy; the texture wasn't quite right. Second complaint, the balance between sweet and salty was nonexistent; it was just sweet. Chocolate covered pretzels have been one of my big weaknesses for a long time, so I was definitely disappointed that these were not really chocolate pretzel-y. The pretzels themselves were sweet rather than salty, almost graham cracker-y.
  • Enjoy Life Chocolate Chip cookie **** I'm usually more of a soft cookie person, but it did taste and have the texture of a crunchy chocolate chip cookie.
  • Sarris' Gluten Free Chocolate Covered Pretzels **** These were so very much better than the Glutino Chocolate Covered Pretzels; however, the balance of sweet to salty still wasn't quite right, and the pretzel was still a little crunchier than I would like. I think I may need to find a new favorite sweet treat. Maybe chocolate covered caramels or English Toffee...
  • Snyder's of Hanover Pretzels ***1/2 Can a pretzel be too crunchy? In my book, yes. These small pretzels were crunchier than a regular pretzel, though not as tooth-busting as the thick sourdough type. 
  • Lundberg Bean & Rice Chips - Pico de Gallo **** Satifyingly crunchy and with good flavor. However, they aren't the kind of chip you can eat very many of at a time... but is that a bug or a feature?
  • McKenzie's Original Hard Cider ***** When I studied in Ireland my junior year Bulmer's Hard Cider was my drink of choice; in my many years back here in the States I have been disappointed by the hard ciders available here. They are always too sweet, not quite right. McKenzie's is by far the closest to a UK cider that I have; I cannot recommend it strongly enough. (On a side note, their Green Apple Hard Cider was not as good as the Original.)
  • Gluten Free Clubhouse ( This is a sampling club for GF products; the idea is really appealing, but a month's membership is $49.95 plus shipping. It does give you 4 or 5 non-perishable gluten free products to try each month, as well as coupons and recipes. 
  • Bakery on Main Street Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars * Disgusting - I ate two bites, then gave it to my husband, who also considered it utterly disgusting.
  • Envirokidz Berry Blast Crispy Rice Bar *** More like a Rice Krispie treat than a granola bar, but edible. The berries were small and didn't add much.
  • Food For Life Brown Rice Tortillas ***1/2 Quesadillas and wraps are staple quick and easy main courses at our house, so giving those up completely is not an option. I was happy to find these in the freezer at our local grocery store, even though they are by far the largest tortillas I've seen. So far we've only used them for quesadillas, and they were good. There was no grittiness, and they crisped up nicely. The texture was a little different from that of a flour tortilla, somehow both crispier and chewier. (No, I don't know how that works.)
Overall, Schar has been the most consistent brand I have tried. I wouldn't necessarily say that their products are the absolute best in any category, but they have all been very good. I would feel comfortable buying any of their products.

Lastly, I am finding that I am generally happier with foods that are naturally gluten free than GF versions of normal foods. Why? 1) It's cheaper. 2) I don't feel like a freak. 3) There's no compromising on quality or texture. I am profoundly glad that I gave myself permission to go back to eating sushi a while ago. Rice, potatoes, and popcorn are my friends. (Yes, I am making sure to eat lots of fruits and veggies, too.)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Many Paths to Heaven

During introductions at the start of bible study, one of the ladies was introduced by another member as "Saint M," for her patience and generosity. She has 10 children, including one with special needs, and yet she still finds quite a bit of time to help out in the parish. I don't know her well, barely know her at all, but that introduction gave me that twinge. You know the one, right? The assumption that parents of many children are more holy than the rest of us twinge. It isn't my place to say whether she is a saint or not; in fact, it's not my place to judge her (or anyone) at all. Only I really, really hate the assumption that parenting a large family is an automatic entry to heaven, perhaps even the best way to heaven. Yes, the Bible says:
"Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. " Genesis 1:28, NIV
 Yet St. Paul writes:
" I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
"Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.  But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." 1 Corinthians 7:7-9, NIV
You would hope that would remind people that not everyone is called to follow the same path. In fact, all you have to do is look at the saints' lives to be reminded that there are multiple paths to heaven; some saints were married and had children, others were celibate; some were martyrs, others lived long, peaceful lives; some saints were born wealthy, others poor. It would be pretty boring reading if every saint's life followed the same exact pattern. All I need to do to see the differences in the saints is look at the two saints for whom I was named: St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who lived a long life serving the poor. (The proximate reason for my first name is my father and grandfather, but ultimately the reason for the name goes back to St. Stephen. And yes, I know Mother Theresa hasn't been canonized yet.) It would be hard to find two saints with more different stories; one lived when Jesus walked the earth; the other was alive during my lifetime. One male, one female; one was martyred, the other died peacefully; one is known most for proclaiming the Gospel, the other for serving the poor. But both of their paths are ways to heaven. I can only hope and pray that we can help others see how many and varied are the paths to heaven.

Lately one Scripture passage has stuck with me:
 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him...
"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matthew 6: 1-8, 16-18, NIV
Many of us have complained about how IF is an invisible cross and how it's invisibility causes added suffering, largely through the assumptions and thoughtless statements of others. Instead of rueing the invisibility of our cross, though, perhaps we should be glad for it. As is said in the Scripture passage above, "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." All those times we struggle to show joy for others while quietly sorrowing for ourselves are seen by our Father. Though we may not have thought of it that way, we are precisely following Jesus' instructions to hide our fasting and suffering.

I've already run on far too long, but I wanted to close with a quote from Blessed Mother Theresa.
One thing Jesus asks of me: that I lean on Him; that in Him and only in Him I put complete trust; that I surrender myself to Him unreservedly. Even when all goes wrong and I feel as if I am a ship without a compass, I must give myself complete to Him. I must not attempt to control God's action; I must count the stages in the journey He would have me make. I must not desire a clear perception of my advance upon the road, must not know precisely where I am upon the way of holiness. I ask Him to make a saint of me, yet I must leave to Him the choice of the saintliness itself and still more the means that lead to it.