Sunday, September 10, 2023

Making an auspicious Icelandic cake for my daughter's wedding

                                                    "Let them eat cake"--Marie Antoninette

Since my daughter and her fiance are not overly fond of cake, they asked if I could make an Icelandic Vinarterta dessert for them. Vinnaterta is a popular dessert originating in 19th-century Iceland. It is a traditional multi-layer dessert made by alternating thin layers of buttery shortbread with a cardamon and dried prune filling. But our family mostly gave up the prune filling long ago. We like to substitute the prune filling for raspberry jam, Nutella, and, most recently, lemon curd and tart cherry jam. We Vinarterta bakers believe in alternations and substitutions for every occasion.  😀

When I was about ten years old, I did a report on Iceland at school since our ancestors are from the Land of Fire and Ice. At the time, I wanted to make an Icelandic dessert to take to my fifth-grade class, so I asked my grandma what Icelandic people ate for special celebrations. After listening to my probing questions, she made us the first vinarterta that I remember, and our family has not stopped making them since that time--especially at Christmas time. Grandma would always bring them around to the different families for the holiday, and then we started making them ourselves.

Every Christmas, our family has made this special cake--reminding us of our heritage. It brings back memories, especially of my grandmother, Emily Vatnsdal Myres. Since we lived abroad for many years, I have made a vinarterta dessert and taken it to many Christmas destinations--wherever it was for that year. These hearty cakes are very notable when they are wrapped up, and they stay fresh for weeks. You can even freeze them for a few months and then bring them out for a special event or holiday. I have hand-carried them to Oman, Vietnam, Spain--all over the world or around the United States. Christmas would not be Christmas without Vinarterta. It reminds us of home, our ancestors, and being together. 

In the weeks I have spent making the vinarterta for my daughter's wedding, I have been reflecting on my grandmother's love as I mix the dough and roll it out. But there is another person I have been thinking about, too--someone that seems very unrelated to the story. Yet, she fits perfectly into the wedding tale: my dear Muslim neighbor, Abeer (with whom we shared a wall for five years in Doha, Qatar), and whose pans I made the cake in.

 I kept wondering about how to make an ascending cake and where to get the pans from, and then I remembered Abeer's red circle pans that fit snugly together--ranging from large to small. It seems appropriate she was part of the day since she prayed many times a day at Mecca for my children to find the right partner for them. 

Icelandic people love vinarterta for various celebrations, like weddings, so it was fun to make it happen at our special wedding. Grandma Emily would have been smugly pleased. And I can hear Abeer saying, "See, I told you it would happen."

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Mental Health Awareness Month: Winston Churchill's art and fighting the black dog of depression

If it were not for painting, I could not live; I could not bear the strain of things--Winston Churchill, 1921

When I get to heaven, I intend to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. --Winston Churchill in an interview with Life Magazine in 1946

Painting is like taking a paintbox off on a joyride to lift the blood and tears of the morning. --Winston Churchill

In Churchill's art studio at Chartwell, his home of 50 years. 

                                           In front of Churchill's art studio on a beautiful spring afternoon

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight Winston Churchill. Why Churchill? When one has a son with autism who loves Winston Churchill and art, one learns a lot about the private, more silent man behind his nearly 500 paintings. It was our shared dream for a long time to go to his beloved home and refuge, Chartwell, about one hour from London. We wanted to roam the grounds and house, but mostly to view his art studio--a brick, light-filled building about 75 yards from the house. 

Churchill captured many chapters of his life in almost 50 years of painting. Although he was one of the great statesmen and communicators of the 20th century, he also left a prodigious collection of images that confronted his fears, conflicts, and fascinations. He was endlessly intrigued with composition, texture, and color. It allowed him to enter a creative world of refreshment that absorbed him when he felt melancholy and overwhelmed. In his suitcase, he often toted his paints and easel as he traveled. One can see the pyramids of Giza, sunrises in Marackesh, Morocco, and dappled rivers in the Cote of Azure in Southern France, among many others. His art studio is filled with paintings that allow us now to get a lens into Churchill's world--a world that was often in tumultuous upheaval. 

Everyone knows Winston Churchill was a gifted statesman, but he was also unquestionably, an accomplished artist. With his susceptibility to depression, he learned what could bring his unloosed moorings to anchors again: it was painting. His heroic stature during World War 2 is well-known when Britain withstood Hitler--giving hope to a nation under siege. But many do not know the private turmoil he suffered for about 25 years before bombs started falling on his beloved England. It sounds familiar. None of us really knows the private pain and anguish of another, isn't that right?

In his quiet times, he could become sullen and sad--remembering the colossal failure of his military quest at Gallillipoli in northeast Turkey during World War I. Because of his failed military tactics as Head of the Navy, about 45,000 British men lost their life. This dark tragedy deeply scarred him. It was through a relative encouraging him to paint that he brought out the colors, canvas, and brush. He learned that painting coaxed the cheerless spirit out of him--again and again. He referred to his depression as "his black dog." And when that "black dog" came around the corner, he consciously, deliberately, I think, got out his paints. Observing nature, deciphering shapes and lines, and putting brush to canvas made him feel alive again--ready to conquer his own inner world and ultimately, the battle-torn world during WW2. He was ready and prepared to take on much of the world's struggles. But I believe art got him there. 

Andrew Marr, the British BBC commentator and hobbyist artist said about happiness in the documentary  Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Oil Paint, about Churchill's artwork "I think there is a 'flow' in all of us--an essence of happiness. It is finding and being engaged in something as intensely as you can, doing it as much as you can, as hard as you can, but something that is difficult and not easy, but that you can do it. It is a release valve. Doing it can keep us alive in a flickering, iridescent reality that gives us awe and amazement. Art saved Churchill's life and I think it can rescue all of us."

 It does not have to be art, but I believe everyone needs something that relieves mounting pressure. It is discovering what works for you. No one really teaches you, unfortunatley, you have to discvoer where you derive your joy. That means putting head, heart, soul, eyes, and hands together, and then standing in amazement at your creation. Finding that "flow" of happiness is the answer. Churchill is a great example to me of persistently trying to overcome his inner struggles--and finding unbounded joy and beauty in the journey. 

                 Churchill in his garden fish pond on the Chartwell grounds--a pond he made himself. 

                                          On the walk between Chartwell, the house, and Churchill's art studio

                        Churchill in his beloved art studio where he recharged his spirits again and again.

                                                              What it looks like today...

                         This is one of his last paintings--a more loose Impressionist style of his goldfish pond. At this point in his early 90s, he had had several strokes and could not see very well anymore. 

                                       His painting, brushes, and paints as he left them

         It is definitely worth a visit to see someone who relentlessly pursued painting in his private world--a pastime he knew kept the "black dog" at bay. And with that insistance to not cower, he brought so many beautiful worlds for us to now see. As he said, "If it were not painting, I could not live. I could not bear the strain of things."

Monday, May 1, 2023

American Samoa: The Endless Possibilities of Discovering and Excavating Our Own Oceans

     Celebrating my birthday on a perfect day in American Samoa at Sadie's Beach

    I have always liked this painting Elias painted when we lived in Doha--conveying all the diverse unseen, undiscovered layers under the ocean. And it is the same with us--so many endless possibilities that are often hidden until we decide to uncover them.

Until I got here two months ago, I had not snorkeled for a long time. Up to this point in my life, the Red Sea had always been my favorite memory to snorkel, but now it would definitely be American Samoa. You don't have to worry about big waves, or riptides (as long as you choose the right beach and watch the tides), and the reef is very close. The fish and coral are different each time you go under the ocean's surface here. The experience of discovery is different every time: a new fish, coral, or seeing thousands of fish at a time feed on fish eggs. On a few occasions, the ocean has been churning and the visibility is murky, but most of the time it is invitingly clear. But isn't life like that too? Cloudy, shadowy, but then wala, a ray of sun suddenly shines through to lighten up the dark crevices all around us. 
Last week, I was snorkeling in the late afternoon with my son. After I had only been in the water for about ten minutes, a sea turtle swam past me. I gleefully followed it for a minute or two. It was almost like he was turning his head around, and inviting me to follow him. I thought, "I wish Elias could see one too." No kidding, but about five minutes later, another turtle came drifting by, and I motioned to Elias to come and see my discovery. We accompanied him for about two minutes, as he escorted us to underwater reefs that brought more awe. 

Swimming with a turtle is the most magical experience. But to share the memory, of course, gives you this magnificent connection with another person. We came up, elated, that we had been able to follow this turtle and have an adventure with him. This fun-loving turtle swam like a bird, but playfully glided, back and forth, zig-zag, like he was enjoying himself too as he welcomed us into his underwater territory. 

Every time I snorkel and peer into the layers underneath the ocean, I am reminded how each of us has so many untapped, unrevealed layers to find. And just as we have many possibilities of potential to discover, every person around us, for that matter in the world, has that same promise. Often, we don't see beyond the surface; the layers are often invisible to ourselves and others. But as we are willing, humble, and determined, we can unravel our own potential and even see others' latent capacities. 

One of the things, I think that holds us back is fear. We are afraid of the initial plunge to truly see; sometimes that fear paralyzes us. I remember a young man who was in my semester abroad long ago. One day, he told me he could not swim and was extremely afraid of the water. He was overweight, but desperately wanted to see the world under the surface since he loved drawing landscapes. As an artist, he was captivated by the beauty of the earth and wanted to see the wonder underneath the ocean. 

Several of us encouraged him to learn to swim so he could view the world under the ocean. In those months we were there, he lost weight and learned to swim because he was so compelled to see the colorful fish and coral we all raved about. I will never forget snorkeling with him in the Red Sea and coming up to see his smiles of exhilaration and joy. He was not the same after breaking the surface of his accustomed vision. Immobilizing fear was pushed away so he could excavate new layers of discovery in himself.  
If we take the time, there is so much beauty to be seen in ourselves and others. Just like my turtles who occasionally glide by, we also can have beauty and wonder be revealed to us too. It's all about being willing to go under the surface to really, really see. Otherwise, we just keep seeing the same known things.

I believe God wants us to unlock the divine mysteries and awe in ourselves and try to behold others in new ways. The joy we find in unveiling potential in ourselves and others is our birthright if we choose. It is the happy way to live. 

                                  Snorkeling with friends and family. It was a bit murky that day. 

 As beautiful as the seashore is in American Samoa, even boasting a National Park, it is a must to go and see the layers under the ocean--a whole new world to discover. 

                                                               A favorite snorkel beach

                                     Joseph, a kayak surfer, takes it to the limit with the waves.                                       

                 This New Zealand man and his wife own an eco-lodge in a secluded cove that is a marine sanctuary for fish and coral. As I spoke with him, I was fascinated by his life. He trained as a swimmer for the Olympics in the 1980s but then came to this cove and found work and decided to stay. In the past over 30 years, he has rescued 150 people in the small bay near the restaurant and eco-lodge. A few did not make it, he sadly said. His knowledge and respect for the ocean inspire me. He has learned to see when someone is in trouble: he runs down the beach, out to rock, waiting for the right moment to jump in and catch the current under the riptide. And then he holds his breath all the way, to rescue the person who is no match for the sea. Now, he insists if you want to go out to the cove to see the fish, you must go with some floating devices while he accompanies you.  I told him saving 150 people from that inlet was better than saying you swam in the Olympics. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Down Syndrome: Nothing Down About It!

For me this child is a grace; she is my joy. She helps me to look beyond all the failures and honors, and always to look higher. God has given her to us and we must take responsibility for her, wherever she is and whatever she will become. Without Anne, I could have never perhaps done what I did. She gave me the heart and the inspiration. --Charles De Gaulle, the WW2 French general and president whose youngest child had Down syndrome)

Sara teaching me how to braid a napkin first before I could braid the bread. She has her own bread business--the best bread you could ever imagine.

 As a child, I lived across the street from Joey, a young man with Down syndrome. Since I was quite young, I noticed he went on a different school bus than I did, but he was thoughtful and laughed a lot. He always tried to help everyone in the neighborhood, like bringing in groceries or moving furniture. Often, he would seem to appear when we needed help in the yard or someone just needed a smile. I could not always understand his words, but I remember I wanted to. My child brain was saying, "Who is this person who is so kind and free of the concerns of everyone else around him?" More than anything, he was happy and constantly smiling.  He was everyone's friend. We all loved Joey.

Later, when I was in high school, I volunteered at a school for children with special needs because I wanted to know others like Joey. The headteacher told me I was too lenient and not rigid enough with the students--that I let them get away with too much. She said, "They have you wrapped around their finger." But I did not give up on my childhood intrigue with people with Down syndrome. They have magically kept appearing in my life. Perhaps, it is because I was the one who needed to learn about what love means, as Charles De Gaulle did. I know having a child with autism has made my family's life better. We always say, "There is a special window for us that we can see through when we meet people." 

Since I have lived in eight countries now (and China twice), I have met and been friends with many Down syndrome people from other cultures, but the one I have known the best is a young 29-year-old woman named Sara who has a bakery business and serves food at a school cafeteria. She is resolutely independent and wickedly funny. Last summer, I asked her to be a leader at a Girls' Ranch I direct when we had our first Down syndrome camper. She elevated the camp to a higher level of fun, humor, and love. I can honestly say that all of the other typical campers embraced and loved her.  Several said, "I have always been separated from the special needs kids. They always were in another classroom. Now I will reach out more when I see them because I know I can be friends with them."

I met Sara when she was about three months old when I met her dear mom so I have known her all her life. My kids grew up with Sara. For many years, my husband who is a perinatologist has had a photo of Sara in his office when he counsels patients who will have a child with Down syndrome.  She is the poster child of how wonderful life can be to have a child with Down syndrome--how a family can be enriched and learn to love in new and unimaginable ways. Sara is the eighth of ten children in a family that knows how to give with many layers of love. 

In the last eight years, I have taught art to special needs students in both the Middle East and China.  The students, ranging from about age three to 33 have shown me what giving with all your heart means--whether it is their smile or bequeathing an art volume of all their drawings to me.  The act of giving of one's self is purely intuitive; they just know how to give joy without asking for anything in return. It is preposterous to think that they are all the same if you know one Down syndrome person. Some are quieter, others more outgoing. but they all know how to give and love--without any strings attached. 

One of the reasons Charles De Gaulle's story inspires me is that at the time Anne was born in 1928 in France, there were few people who kept these children at home. Until the early 19th century, many of them only lived until they were about ten years old.  Later, however, many people still did not bring them on family outings or outside the home with them.  De Gaulle challenged the norm of the time and refused to give up his daughter to a care facility or hospital. Instead, he even took her to Lebanon and other countries to live before he was a WW2 general. Somehow he realized that the bond they shared was enabling him to be a better person than he would have otherwise been. When she died at age 20 after the war, he put her framed photo in the back of the car. In 1970, it was this photo that saved his life when someone tried to assassinate him. The frame blocked the bullet! He always said she was his angel. 

De Gaulle on the beach with little Anne in the early 1930's 

I am heartened the world is (but we have a long way to go) bringing these children and adults to the forefront--to not only understand what we can give them, but what they can teach us. Of course, our pace of life will slow down when we interact, teach, and work together. We will need to speak slowly, be patient, and repeat a direction or two. But it is oh, so worth it. I wish everyone could have Joey live on their street or grow up with Sara or Mary. Living in this world is more joyous and fulfilling when we have all kinds of friends who are different than us. 

These two grew up together--Sara and one of my sons. He took her to two proms. When his younger brother brought her, she asked him, "I wish Jonathan were here. He is more handsome than you." 😆


We had a painting class together and this is her picture. She loves to create.

Sara being a leader at camp

I really liked the theme of camp, We Are One.

        Mary, our Down syndrome camper, and her sister, Elizabeth, singing Baby of Mine from Dumbo

Mary coloring with one of the campers
When I left China, this student gave me all his drawings. And he would not let me refuse his generous gift. 

Always hugging...