Giving Thanks

It is a rare culture or group that doesn’t have some sort of day, festival, or worship service for giving thanks, or showing appreciation for labors and efforts. Harvest festivals are what most of us probably think about, or perhaps offering thanks to the ancestors for deliverance, or thanking a deity for independence, or victory, or the gift of Scripture and teachings, or something. It may be a day set aside on a ritual calendar, or just “when harvest is finished” every year. There’s always been a sense that someone, other than just the people who planted, tended, and harvested, or hunted, or fought, should be given thanks for the good thing that happened.

The US and Canada made that an official day on the calendar. Setting aside a national day of thanks was either the first or second executive order made by President George Washington (historians disagree). The day came and went, and then was made a permanent (this far) holiday, with a set date, in the 1900s. In some places, there are also separate religions days of thanks, like at the church I attended in Not-All-That-Flat state. It was a farming area and a farming town, and every year, when harvest ended, a special service of thanks was held. We also had special harvest and planting devotional guides, and prayer teams for harvest and planting. Yes, it was a very, very important event in the life of the people!

Then we’d have a sort of Harvest Home, minus the alcohol and “corn dollie.” Instead it was hot-dishes, Jellos, ham, and other good things, all cooked by people who did not farm. In part because the farm wives had been doing lots and lots and lots of cooking, and were tired. So the rest of us pitched in instead, and gave them and their families a break. We sang hymns like “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” and “This is my Father’s World,” and celebrated another year in the bin (as they say in that part of the world.) Harvest was close, it was critical, and we honored it.

Giving thanks means that you acknowledge something outside of yourself. It may be a deity, it may be people who helped you, it may just be gratitude to the world for being so beautiful and good. Looking outside of ourselves is important. It’s easy to get wrapped up in “us,” centered in ourselves in a bad way, and forgetful of what goes on around us. Saying “thank you,” acknowledging effort or generosity makes the way smoother and moves us out of our own heads, so to speak. Thus the frequent religious commands in most faiths that believers are to give thanks to the deity/deities for good things, and to apologize when that thanks is forgotten. It also binds people together in society.

Today, in the year 2021, it seems as if it is hard to give thanks, at least the usual phrases. Things are still off-kilter, more so than two years ago. For some of us it is better than in 2020, for others not so. But we are all here, and alive, and all of us have someone or something to give thanks for, even if it is colorful leaves and a beautiful sunset, or appliances that work and a car that runs, or a close family member still being with us and healthy.

So we in the US give thanks, eat festival foods, and think about the good things that we have been given. Who gave them? That’s up to you to say. I give thanks for readers and stories, for family and friends, for a non-leaking roof and a truck that runs, for a beautiful world with music and leaves and sunsets and amazing wonders in it.

Cornbread: Baked Good or Religious Denomination?

Well, it’s that time of year, and “cornbread” seems to be the topic of friendly but intense argument in the blogosphere in 2021. It ranks up there with “dressing or stuffing” among Americans from certain regions as a topic that can be – and is – argued with religious fervor.

A note for my readers from outside the US and Canada, at least those who have not encountered this particular dish before. What Americans call cornbread is made from ground maize. It is rarely eaten outside North America, as best I can tell. The grind of the grain is different from that used for polenta, and the grain is not treated the way maize used for tortilla flour is processed before grinding. The resulting baked good does not rise like wheat bread, and is more crumbly because of the lower gluten content. However, it is a native food, and in some parts of the country, was (or is) the main starch that accompanies many meals. So cornbread is yellow, low-rising, and generally crumbly. You can’t slice it the way you do wheat breads. But we love it anyway.

When you start asking people about family cornbread recipes, the line falls on “sugar in the dough” and “no sugar in the dough.” Some people will allow a little wheat flour and baking powder added in, others add egg, there’s “rye-n-Injun” which is a rye-cornmeal bread, and others prefer fried cornbread to baked cornbread. All discussion of those topics seems to pale when compared with the intensity and fervor that accompanies “with sugar or without?”

Purists insist that “bread” means “no sugar.” Unlike wheat breads, where the sugar helps encourage the yeasts to do their thing and cause the dough to rise, or sweetened breads that are supposed to have sugar (or honey, or molasses, or . . . ) cornbread does not need yeast-food. The chemistry doesn’t require sugars. Hot-water cornbread, the ne plus ultra of minimalist cornbread has nothing but very hot water, cornmeal, shortening (lard, bacon-grease, or vegetable shortening) and salt. It can be baked or fried. Cornbread is for workin’ folks, farm folks, it’s not fancy. Light-bread is fancy, and for special occasions only. Cornbread is what you eat to fill the hole when you start running out of bacon or salt-pork to go with the beans and collards (or turnip greens). Or the New England version thereof, because New Englanders leaned on cornbread for quite a while, back when.

Other people add a pinch of sugar, just because. The result should not be sweet. Others make a sweet cornbread, just like some people add canned corn to the mix, or cheese, or jalapenos, or other things. Flour can make a soft, not-crumbly cornbread, more of a fluffy quick bread with corn in it. But that’s not “real cornbread.” One of the blogs I frequent almost had a knives-out argument recently over sugar or no sugar. This is a place where we can talk religion, politics, handgun caliber, domestic or imported motorcycle, you name it (other than cornbread) without resorting to violence. Cornbread . . . is a sensitive topic among a group of Southerners, or at least people who grew up on “poverty food.”

At RedQuarters, we add a bit of sugar.

1 cup yellow corn meal

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour (not self-rising)

1/4 C. sugar (can be omitted. We leave it in.)

1/2 tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder.

1 egg

1 C. milk

1/4 C shortening.

Preheat oven to 425 F.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add egg, milk, and shortening. Beat until smooth. Bake in greased 8″ square pan in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes. Best served warm with butter and honey, or molasses, or sorghum syrup, or apple butter. Or served with butter to go with something that has a sauce that needs to be sopped up (collards, turnip greens, bean soup . . .)

To me, it does not taste sweet.

Note: this recipe does not keep well. It goes rancid in as few as three days if you do not eat all of it, refrigerate it, or use it in other things (dressing for the turkey/duck/goose/ham).

Edited to add:

“Jiffy” is a brand of cornmeal with flour and other things pre-mixed in. It’s like Bisquick™ for rolls, pancakes, and biscuits, except you use “Jiffy” for cornmeal-based baking.

A “chub” of sausage is the small, blunt-ended cylinder of ground sausage (breakfast sausage), usually packed in a soft wrapper so you can either trim off the end and squeeze the sausage out like toothpaste into a bowl or pan, or you can use a sharp knife, cut the chub into slices, and remove the wrapper from each slice. Then you have home-made, thick, sausage patties.

Is Your Goose Cooking?

You know, your Martinmas goose. What do you mean, you don’t eat goose on Martinmas? What are you, Protestant? American?

Today is Armistice Day, and Veterans Day, and Remembrance Day. It is also the feast of St. Martin of Tours, patron of soldiers, conscientious objectors, wine makers, tailors, and the poor. St. Martin had some . . . difficulties with one goose in particular, and so eating goose on his feast day became a tradition. This also happened to be a good time to start slaughtering livestock in many parts of northern Europe, so that played a role as well.

Image used under Creative Commons Fair Use. Original source:

In the US we remember the end of WWI by remembering all veterans, anyone who served honorably in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and Air Force. Memorial Day is reserved for the dead of all wars. In Britain and Europe, and the Commonwealth, November 11 is Armistice Day, when the dead of the wars are honored. (Germany sets aside a separate day as well, a Sunday, for commemoration and prayer.) At St. Angus-in-the Grass, we have a special chapel service with veterans speaking. Fr. Pax continued the tradition, and our current headmaster, Fr. Martial, is a former military chaplain. We have a number of alumni and parents and teachers who all served or are serving (Reserves, active-duty, National Guard.)

The US is a young country and we had a relatively “good” experience in WWI. Europe . . . didn’t. Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Canada, all sacrificed to help Britain, and bear similar scars, even if they didn’t suffer the bombings and severe deprivation that hit Britain. Armistice Day is Remembrance Day and is a grave, solemn event. In the US we honor the living on this day.

Thank you to all who served, and who are currently serving.

When Days Gang Up on You

So, I had a Monday. It was a Monday when a month of Mondays all decided to jump me at once. “One day at a time,” the gospel song has it, but the days didn’t want to wait that long. I staggered home feeling flat, miserable, and under the weather.

Since, apparently, my body had decided that, “Alma is going to rest. I am going to force the issue,” I rested. Mostly. As much as I can rest with stuff to be done. But I rested. And hydrated, because I got dry on Sunday. I volunteered to help with a Trunk-or-Treat. The dewpoint was low, the breeze was cool, the sun shone down, and I got dry.

I’ve been burning the candle too quickly, worrying about too many things, and it all landed on top of me. This isn’t all that uncommon, but usually my stress appears in a less dramatic fashion. Apparently my body decided that I was ignoring all the other signals, so Steps would be Taken. My body won.

It happened. I rested, relaxed, stayed away from the news and from pre-concert stuff (a source of growing stress) and concentrated on some things I needed to do for Day Job, that could be done at home.

A lot of us tend to go until we hit physical walls, or at least our bodies say, “King’s X, I’m downing tools.” And then we wonder why, oh, juggling four running chainsaws, while riding a unicycle and reciting “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” in Hebrew suddenly isn’t happening. Mind and body are interconnected, and the feedback gets to the breaking point. At least it does for some of us.

It shouldn’t take Drama in order to get me to relax, but it did. So I rested. I’d spent the Sabbath not resting. It was fun, and I enjoyed teaching, singing, and helping with the community service project, but that wasn’t rest. I know better.

Take a deep breath. Go walk out in the leaves, enjoy autumn if you can. Play with a cat or dog. Listen to relaxing music and let your brain float for the duration of the CD or album [No, Alma, following along with the score of {cantata of the week} is not resting!] Turn off the TV or internet, if you can, and watch the stars come out in the evening. Or read something entertaining and escapist. Disengage for an hour, or as long as you safely can, and just float. The last two months of the year are overloaded. Shed some load, if you can.

I went to bed early, acknowledging the inevitable. Rest matters. You can’t care for others if you are not functional. My characters say that over and over. I need to hear it, too.

Note: I have no patience with people who insist “I’m taking a ‘Me week/month/semester’ ” while forcing others to pick up the slack and more. I’ve had to work around that person. I’m talking about taking a day, hour, off, breathing, and then wading back into the fray.

Not Specifically Written for Halloween, but . . .

Mom used to sing this to me as a lullaby. It probably explains a lot.

Quiet! Sleep! or I will make

Erinnys whip thee with a snake,

And cruel Rhadamanthus take

Thy body to the boiling lake,

Where fire and brimstones never slake;

Thy heart shall burn, thy head shall ache,

And ev’ry joint about thee quake;

And therefor dare not yet to wake!

Quiet, sleep!

Quiet, sleep!

Quiet! Quiet!

Sleep! or thou shalt see

The horrid hags of Tartary,

Whose tresses ugly serpants be,

And Cerberus shall bark at thee,

And all the Furies that are three

The worst is called Tisiphone,

Shall lash thee to eternity;

And therefor sleep thou peacefully

Quiet, sleep!

Quiet, sleep!


The text dates to 1632, which suggests that early modern toddlers were no more sleepy than the modern version.

Happy Halloween!

Different Time, Different Minds

It’s hard to get a modern mind into a late medieval or even early-modern mindset. Especially for Americans (and Canadians as well, I suspect), our philosophical and cultural world is so very different from that of the late 1400s-1700 that it’s a wrench. Reading lots of documents and accounts from the time helps, a little, but those are often “official” and rather tidier than the average mental world of the run-of-the-mill soldier, sailor, traveler, or businessman. It takes work, and digging, and a deliberate effort to set aside what we know and to accept the framework of Back Then. And even so, it is an imperfect fit at best, because we lack some of the ingrained culture, the part of the iceberg deeply submerged.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, I discovered that some of my students have had certain language patterns ingrained in them, to the point that they don’t see why using a certain term makes zero sense in the context of what they are discussing. Two, it’s the annual “Europeans are horrible murdering conquers who were incompetent as well” furor. Three, working on the Merchant books requires me to put on a different mental “costume” of sorts and to force myself into a world that often collides with my own. [As an aside, Arthur has one foot in that world, which might explain a little of why he is so draining to write as a POV character.] It is a mental world where survival comes first, where casual violence is the normal state of things, not the exception, where death is an everyday reality, where women are very important but not equals, and where life is hard and short. Tarno Halson is just over thirty. If you saw him in person, you’d think he was older because of how he moves and his outlook on life.

So when I read the accounts of people like Columbus, and Bernal Diaz, or descriptions of the Thirty Years War, the world of Ivan IV (the Terrible) as written by people of the time, it can jar and jar hard. I think something that sums up far too much of the Thirty Years War (and warfare into the modern day, outside of Europe and the Anglo-Sphere) is the statue of the soldier and the woman that is one of the plates in Geoffrey Parker’s book about the Seventeenth Century. I’m not going to describe it, other than to say that it is an amazingly well done depiction of something horrible about to happen. But someone commissioned the sculpture, and kept it, and valued it. That, right there, makes me pause and wonder about mental worlds. But I do delve into that world, because if I’m going to come anywhere close to understanding what makes people do things, and how other minds see things, I need to try. It can be entertaining, and amazing, and terrifying. Sort of like making myself think through blood-and-soil nationalism. I understand it, I can explain it, I can even write it as a point of view, but it itches and doesn’t fit.

Our world isn’t that of back then. Our rational scientific answers for “why” would sound as strange to Columbus, or Hugo Groetius, as miasma theory and the need to balance humors, or the casta system of the Hispanic colonies sounds to us. Back then, they had reasons based on observation and extrapolation that made good sense, even if they weren’t correct. Today, we do the same. Some things that were morally wrong in the early-modern world are just fine today, and things we condemn today were accepted as normal. And some things were excessive for both of us. The conquistadors were most certainly not saints. After 700 years of warfare, then crossing the Atlantic looking for riches and glory, well, saints are going to be very, very unusual. You know things had to be horrific when even Cortez wrote that what his allies did to the last Aztec defenders was appalling. So I’m not surprised that the Spanish, Portuguese, and others acted the way they did. Disappointed, perhaps, but not overwhelmed with surprise. So Charlemagne had multiple wives and official (and unofficial) lady friends. As did Charles V, at least the lady-friends part. Um, they were powerful men with lots of money (OK, Charles had some budgeting difficulties. Moving right along . . .) What do you expect? I’d hope for better, but *shrugs*

The point being, when we demonize people from the past for not having our modern sensibilities, we’re demonizing ourselves. When we elevate one group in the past as the pure, innocent victims, and make the others into horrible monsters who should have known better, we warp the story and strip the humanity from both groups. Most Native Americans/First Nations/whatever we choose to call them were not saintly, environmentally perfect Children of the Earth. They enslaved, massacred, loved, dreamed, murdered, seduced, fought, and were people. Likewise the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and everyone else. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. That’s an amazing – and humbling – inheritance. Warts and all.

Eerie or Terrifying?

Ah, it’s the season for plastic skeletons, fake tombstones, spiderwebs all over, and rings of dancing ghosties. I like cute or fun Halloween decor, and eerie special effects. Gruesome, horrifying, and terrifying things don’t really need to be in front yards, in my opinion. Now, granted, one person’s “eerie” can be another person’s “terrifying.” But, um, let’s just say that gore isn’t really a great thing to impose on the neighbors.

This is one of those places where my “it’s your property, do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone or keep other people from enjoying their property” beliefs collide with “I don’t appreciate that and there are small kids in the neighborhood.” Skeletons are OK, fake tombstones are OK, obviously fake spiders and webs, witches who have collided with trees, dancing ghosts . . . Especially witty things, like the guy with the skeleton in a lawn chair holding a phone and a sign that reads, “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line.” Or the inflatable pirate ship, black cat, dragons, cute stuff that’s kid friendly.

The pretty realistic headless horseman on a horse still held together by scraps of muscle and sinew, with glowing red eyes? Um . . . I was impressed, it was spooky, and there are no young kids on that block that I’ve seen, so hey, go for it. The slightly too realistic dead dude in the tree with a motion detector that makes screaming sounds when someone approaches? No, please.

I suspect my difficulty is that I have an all too vivid imagination at times, and a low tolerance for fake gore. I’ve dealt with real gore, and real-life scary things. Halloween as a public festival should be fun, eerie, a little creepy for the older kids who like creepy. That’s great, and I enjoy costumes and corn mazes and the like. Halloween as a private, or at least indoors, event can be terrifying for people who enjoy that kind of thing. There are some local haunted houses (commercial type) that I won’t go into for love nor money. I do not enjoy that kind of thing, and my reaction to jump scares is probably not what other people want to see. Gore and fake blood isn’t witty or clever, at least not 99% of the time.

Likewise, horror is not a genre that I enjoy most of the time, especially not on screen. Splatter-fests just make me want to reach for firearms or other appropriate means of dealing with the monster of the week. Written horror can be better, but I avoid a lot of it because it pokes places in my mind that don’t need to be poked. Plus, many writers don’t seem to do psychological horror well, at least not the best-sellers I’ve sampled recently. Manly Wade Wellman and H.P. Lovecraft, early Stephen King, they all left things out, left mysteries lurking in the shadows, implied a lot that the reader could fill in for herself. That sort of thing I can appreciate, although King . . . His endings can leave something to be desired, in my opinion.

Bring on the wit, bring on the humor, bring on the spooky! Please leave the gore in the back yard, or indoors.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown today. For people of the Jewish faith, it is a day of very solemn contemplation and prayer, for fasting and sorrow. It is a day to consider one’s failures, and to bewail them, acknowledging where one went wrong, and how one failed to do his or her duty to the Most High and to his fellow men. It was the day of the scapegoat, the animal that bore the sins of the people into the wilderness. It is still for apology to G-d and remembering errors.

“Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” to mix liturgical languages.

There is also a sense of being close to the presence of the Most High through worship and prayer. Yom Kippur truly is the holiest of the High Holy Days.

To my Jewish readers, may you have an easy fast, and may you find that your name was inscribed in the Book of Life.

Image from:

” . . . a decent respect to the opinions of Mankind requires . . .”

Many of my readers can recite parts of the Declaration of Independence, and most people at all familiar with US history know the bit about “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The first two sentences of the second section are what people think about, argue over, and debate heatedly. Should Jefferson have stuck with Locke’s original “Life, Liberty, and Property?” What is liberty, anyway? What if your pursuit of happiness collides with my happiness? It’s easy to miss the next chunks, especially what comes after the right to abolish any government that infringes on inalienable rights.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The Declaration was drawn up in June of 1776, and ratified on July 1-2.* The shooting had started on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord. The Continental Congress waited over a year before declaring independence from Great Britain. Why? The paragraph above explains why.

It wasn’t easy. People had family in England, in Germany and Holland. Ben Franklin’s son ended up on the Loyalist side. Complaints about the Crown and Parliament’s actions went back to 1765, with the Proclamation Line limiting westward expansion, and the Stamp Act. People in England had every right to want the colonists to pay for their own protection and upkeep, since the folks back home already paid some of the highest taxes in the western world. Ten years had passed from the Stamp Act to “the shot heard round the world.” In that time, the colonists had begun shifting from thirteen independent and culturally different provinces into a block with a common sense of what government ought to do, and ought not to do. Not everyone agreed on everything, and some of the people who “should” have supported independence didn’t because someone they hated did favor breaking from England. Others used the chaos of the revolution to pick up old grudges (the Regulators War in the Carolinas and then the Revolution. British officers were horrified by what the back-borderers would do to each other.)

People would – and will – put up with a lot if they thought things would get better, or if they were just to focused on survival. But once a critical mass of people agreed that enough was enough, then all Dade County broke out and armies came into being. Armies of soldiers, armies of support, armies of clergy to explain why the Scriptures did not prohibit — or even encouraged — overturning an unjust government, armies of people who just stayed as far out of the way as possible.

The next part of the Declaration lists the things the King (and Parliament) had done wrong. If you compare the accusations with the Magna Charta’s 1215 edition and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, you will see that Jefferson and Co drew straight from English history and law. They are arguing as Englishmen that the King has failed to follow the laws that bind him, and thus forced the English people to take matters into their hands to fix things. Because of that:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Or, translated into modern English, “Guys, we tried, we warned you, we did everything we could by the laws we share to keep this from happening. You wouldn’t listen, the king became a tyrant, and so here we are. G-d help us, because we know what’s coming even if we win. Bye.”

*John Adams famously assumed that July 2 would be the date of Independence Day, if the colonists won. Americans being Americans, we went with the Fourth instead.

Citations from the Declaration of Independence are from the National Archives: