Pumpkin pie and the bigger questions

By Erin Dunigan

It was Thanksgiving. This year my family could not make it down to La Misión, as has been our custom for years – Thanksgiving in Baja. My mom always makes the mashed potatoes and the green beans. Melissa and Steve, my compadres, are in charge of the turkey (even though Melissa is a vegetarian!). Martha, who is like my second mom, makes the southern style cornbread stuffing and the most important item of the day – the pumpkin pie. Because of this family tradition, I have only once, when I lived in Scotland, actually made any of the Thanksgiving dinner myself. It’s not a bad deal, really. Until, of course, your family can’t make it to Baja for the holiday. As the holiday approached I didn’t really even think about it. That is, until the day before Thanksgiving. That is when it hit me – the undeniable craving for a piece of pumpkin pie. And that was when it also hit me – wait, even though my family isn’t coming, the truth is, I could make a pumpkin pie myself. It was as if a chorus began to sing hallelujah. Yes! I will make the pie – and even better, I won’t have to share it!

So, I set about looking for the perfect pumpkin pie recipe. I didn’t want to bother Martha by asking for hers, so I let google be my guide. I found one that seemed to be just right. I went to the local market and made sure that my ‘manteca’ was the vegetable kind, not the pig kind – pork pumpkin pie is an experiment I’d rather leave for someone else. As I began on the crust I realized I had hit an impasse – it called for parchment paper on the raw crust, which then needed to be filled with weight such as uncooked dried beans to keep the crust from ballooning when being precooked. I knew I didn’t have parchment paper. Where might one get parchment paper? Perhaps the new Climax in Puerto Nuevo might carry it, but I had just got back from buying a turkey breast there and didn’t want to hop back in the car, especially with the rain coming. So, I turned to google again, seeing what I might use as a substitute. No luck – no clear answers. Foil didn’t seem to be a good option, nor did wax paper, which I did happen to have, albeit from the 1970’s. So, I decided to turn to the expert – Martha. I sent her a text asking her what I could use instead of parchment paper. She had a few follow up questions but then asked, “How long does the recipe say to pre-cook the crust before you put in the pumpkin mixture?” I looked and reported back. That was when she sent me a photo of the recipe from her cookbook – the same one she’s been using since 1955.

Prepare pastry.
Chill thoroughly.
Combine ingredients for filling.
Pour filling into chilled pastry and bake in a hot oven until the center is done.

Wait! No parchment paper?! No pre-cooking of the crust?! Just ‘pour the filling into the chilled crust and put in the oven.’ Cue hallelujah chorus a second time.

The thing is, without realizing it, I had been asking the wrong question all along. I was focused on the specifics of what I lacked – “What can I use instead of parchment paper?” In so doing, I neglected the larger question, “How do you cook a pumpkin pie?” I even had an expert in my corner, so to speak. But the 60+ years of experience that my expert provided did me no good as long as I was asking the wrong question. It made me wonder, in life, how many times do we get stuck in the details, or focused on what we lack, and so miss the larger question that might actually lead us to what we wish for? In this case my goal was a humble one – pumpkin pie. But it was also one I almost didn’t realize for my failure to ask the bigger question.

It made me wonder, what are the bigger questions, just waiting to be asked?

Erin Dunigan is founder of Not Church. For more information regarding gatherings and events, please see www.not-church.org or www.facebook.com/notchurchbaja

On Duty and Delight

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
—Howard Thurman

It was summer. The last place I wanted to be, if I admitted it, was in the hospital. But that is where I found myself, not by choice. The good news was, I wasn’t there as a patient.

A summer chaplaincy internship was one of the requirements for my graduate program and since I had avoided it the summer before by taking Greek, if that gives you any indication of how much I wanted to avoid the summer hospital chaplaincy. I had heard horror stories about it from others who had gone before me – dealing with intensely traumatic situations, screaming family members, fear, grief, anxiety, anger – none of which said ‘summer’ to me.

But there I was, in the hospital on a bright sunny Southern California day. My ‘job’ was to cover the third floor, knocking on doors and asking the patients something along the lines of ‘how are your spirits today?’ Kind of like the people who come knocking on your front door selling their God or religion or their politics – except these poor people were confined to hospital beds and couldn’t pretend not to be home. It was awful. What made it worse was that when I introduced myself as the chaplain many people assumed that the chaplain visit could only mean one thing – they were dying – and so panicked. It was awful.

So, on this particular sunny summer day, I made an executive decision. I would ditch. Not completely, as I needed the internship credits and couldn’t justify leaving the hospital. But I would ditch my door to door work on the third floor and head down to the hospital lobby where I knew there to be a coffee cart. An ice blended mocha sounded like the perfect solution to my predicament.

With my deliciously chilly ice blended mocha in hand, I looked for a place in the lobby to sit down. “If I sit down and talk to someone, then I can justify ditching in case my supervisor walks by,” I thought.  I know, not the best of motives, but alas.

So, I spotted an older woman sitting alone and went to sit near her. She too was drinking something and we struck up a conversation. She was a delight. As it happened, she was there waiting for her husband, the patient, to have some tests. We chatted about life. When she asked what I was doing there I explained that I was working as a summer chaplain. “Oh, I hate chaplains,” she responded, not intending any ill will toward me, just stating her obvious opinion. We continued chatting. As we neared the end of our drinks she said, “Why don’t you come with me to visit my husband – I’m sure he’d love the visit.” I was dumfounded, but agreed. We walked down the hallways on the first floor until we came to his room, where she introduced me to him and I sat down. About an hour later a nurse came in to do some more tests and so I took my leave. “Please come back and visit again tomorrow if you’d like,” he said as I was leaving.

Again, I was dumfounded. What had just happened? A woman and her husband who ‘didn’t like chaplains’ and ‘weren’t at all interested in religion, church, or religious people’ had just asked the Presbyterian chaplain to come back for another visit. But more than that, the Presbyterian chaplain (me) who didn’t want anything to do with cold calling people in their hospital beds had not only just had a delightful ‘chaplain’ interaction, but was agreeing, willingly, to go back for more the next day. What I thought had been cheating – going to get an ice blended mocha instead of dutifully fulfilling my assignment – had actually turned into the most life giving interaction I had had all summer. I had viewed my responsibility as one of duty and drudgery.

But the real magic happened when delight snuck in the back door.

Erin Dunigan is founder of Not Church. For more information regarding gatherings and events, please see www.facebook.com/notchurchbaja

cornucopia and southwest airlines

CornucopiaDoug warmly welcomed the group and requested healing thoughts and prayers be sent out to our friend and neighbor, Betty Davidson for a full and speedy recovery from an aneurysm.

Kathy encouraged us to be a little bit better with a variety of thoughts and quotes on the theme of cornucopia.

The universe operates through dynamic exchange . . . giving and receiving are different aspects of the flow of energy in the universe, and in our willingness to give that which we seek, we keep the abundance of the universe circulating in our lives. ~Deepak Chopra

See more of Kathy’s quotes from Dr. Paul Farmer, Maya Angelou, & Paul Coelho on the Inspirations page

As a prelude to a brief meditation, Ron recounted his week’s experiences from the highs of time with loving grandchildren to the lows of losing friends and shared a dream that brought a reminder of constant need to attend to our powerful egos.

Ross played a thoughtful selection of swinging tunes from the late 30’s:  Over The Rainbow, God Bless The Child, Pennies From Heaven.  How fortunate we are that Ross is so willing to share his abundant talent.

Terry shared thoughts on gratitude and happiness and her explanation of how conscious gratitude has brought her abundant happiness despite six bouts with cancer was truly inspiring!

And Erin found a way to turn a personal adventure on Southwest Airlines into an entertaining allegorical tale on the topic of abundance:

Not long ago I was at the San Diego airport, again, waiting for a flight. This is not a new experience for me, though this time was actually somewhat different. Normally, in order to accumulate miles and elite status, I fly United Airlines or one of its partners. But on this particular trip, flying to Reno, Nevada, United was much more expensive, with much less preferable flight schedules. So, I wound up, for the first time in a long time, on Southwest Airlines.

Just the thought of Southwest Airlines makes some people nervous – no seat assignment? Will I have to fight for my place? Somehow the opening of the Hunger Games comes to mind – with everyone fighting over his or her share of the cornucopia…

Being the somewhat privileged traveler that I am, I took advantage of paying an extra $12 to get bumped up closer to the front of the line – not the front, but at least not the back. Since I was only to be gone a few days, all I had was a carry on rolling suitcase – of the small, able to fit in the overhead style – and a purse. Actually, that’s what I fly with almost always. When I fly United I know that I will have room for my roller bag as my status gives me privilege in boarding the plane. But this time I was on Southwest and I could feel myself getting a bit nervous as the boarding time neared.

Boarding SouthwestThat was when I noticed it – or, rather them. A number of signs spaced evenly, with numbers on them. 1-40, 41-60, etc. I looked on my boarding card and saw the number A 39. Oh, I get it – that is how we line up. We don’t have seats, but we line up according to our numbers. Soon I saw people getting in line, so I did too, just ahead of the pole that marked ’40.’

That was when I began to notice something – in myself, but also in the other passengers. Or, rather, notice the lack of something. There was none of that sense of frenzy that accompanies boarding a United flight. None of that sense of heightened anxiety that I normally feel as the time to board approaches. Even though I know I have a spot toward the front of the line, somehow I feel the need to jockey for position. As do, it seems, the rest of the passengers, who often don’t let the families with children or those needing assistance to pass through, so closely are they guarding their spot.

Being me, I posted something about this to facebook, so fascinated was I with the vastly different vibe that was present as we began to board that Southwest flight.

Is it the fact that I have a number, a place in line, that makes it different? I wondered out loud. Is it that we all know our place and can’t really do anything to change it that makes this boarding process so much calmer than they normally are? It seemed counter-intuitive that boarding without a seat might be more peaceful than boarding with one. So, knowing you have a place in line is more important than knowing you have a place on the plane? That somehow didn’t seem to make sense.

And that was when it hit me – the difference. It wasn’t about having a place in line, or about having a place on the plane – those both are virtually guaranteed.

It was about stuff. Namely, luggage.

overheadYou see, the other difference with Southwest is that they do not charge for checking a suitcase. Most other airlines do. Not only do they not charge for bringing a suitcase, but you can check two bags on Southwest, completely free. What was different about that Southwest flight was that those who were waiting to board were not, in their positioning, trying to get on board before everyone else so as to have a spot in the limited overhead space.

It felt like a sort of epiphany to me. There was no fear. No sense of scarcity. What there was, instead, was a sense of ‘enough’ – a sense that I did not have to jockey for position to ensure my space, but that there was abundant room for all.

It made me wonder how much of our lives we spend like those United passengers, struggling to get our place to ensure that we have space for our stuff, that our stuff is secure, taken care of, vs. Those Southwest passengers who seemed content, trusting that there would be room for all.

Our theme this month is ‘cornucopia’ – I have to admit, I did not pick it. When I first heard it I thought, huh? So I asked for some more clarification from the person who suggested it.

You know, abundance, plenty, enough – as opposed to greed or hoarding or scarcity.

Wow, I thought. Now there’s a theme.

Of course we are near Thanksgiving and cornucopia’s are a well known symbol of that holiday – as is the feeling of needing to loosen ones trousers and lay down on the couch after eating too much turkey.

It got me wondering – do we live our lives out of abundance? Or do we live our lives out of a scarcity mentality? Do we trust the ‘enoughness of life? Or do we let fear lead us to hoard, to control, to worry that I won’t get my fair share? If you get more, does that mean I get less? If you win, does that mean I lose? And, is it easy to trust abundance when life is good? What about when life is challenging? What about when we are brought to the very edge? What then? Is abundance possible?

I’m an only child – let’s just say, sharing can be challenging for me. I actually act more like a child in a family of ten, worried when food to be shared is placed on the table that I won’t get my fair share. I’ve never gone hungry – this is not a fear based on any actual reality.

And, moreover, is it easy to talk of things such as abundance when we feel that all is going in our favor? Can we find abundance, a mentality of enough, of trust, even in the midst of the challenging times in life?

Linda & Jerry BonannoLinda and Jerry Bonanno bid us all a fond farewell with a beautiful Apache Prayer as they prepare to move from Baja, closer to family in Florida.

“May the sun bring you new energy every day.
May the moon softly restore you by night.
May the rain wash away your worries.
May the breeze blow new strength into your being.
May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life.”

We will miss them and wish them the same!

Thank you to Jim Hawkins for a great topic and as always to David Gee for his generous hospitality.  Thank you everyone for another provocative, entertaining & inspiring Not Church!

September 14, 2014

Strawberries Ripening © Erin Dunigan

Strawberries Ripening © Erin Dunigan

For most of human history, it’s as if we have had long spring-times and only the briefest of summers, a lot of time to put down roots and sprout but almost none to mature. But now, around the world and especially in the developed countries, more people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. Our normal life span, which stayed at an almost steady twenty years for most of human history , has leapt in an evolutionary eyeblink to seventy-eightyears in the West. Why is this so important? Think about how helpless we are as infants and children compared to other species. It takes us so long to be able to live without our parents’ support, so very long to develop our intelligence and adaptability and skills, to grow in our capacity for compassion and wisdom, good judgment, and discernment. To put it bluntly, it takes all of us a frightfully long time to grow up and many of us never do.

The sudden spurt in longevity over the last fifty years has changed the landscape for growing old. Doesn’t that make you wonder what these years are for? That’s precisely what I’ve been wondering for the past twenty years: How do I make the time ahead count? How can my generation and the ones coming after us not just fritter our later years away, not doze through our aging?  – Sherry Ruth Anderson, “Ripening Time.”

The question I bring before us this morning is a simple one – as we journey through the chronology of our lives, are we ripening, or are we merely rotting? The rotting, of course, is inevitable – the ripening is not.

The next question is, what will we do about it?

What does ripening look like? How does it happen?

BananasMost of us are familiar with the situation of fruit in our grocery stores – bananas that come from Ecuador, picked green – I’ve seen them there at the port in Guayaquil – and shipped around the world. This is done since a green banana travels much better than a ripe one. So, they are kept intentionally immature so that they travel better. Once they reach their destination, the ripening process can be induced – artificially. The primary chemical that is at play in ripening is ethylene – it is that which is fostered when you put your fruit in a brown paper bag to help it ripen. It’s enhanced if you put an apple core or a banana peel in the bag – increasing the ethylene and thus the ripening.

What’s the big deal? It seems to work, doesn’t it? The fruit can travel better, then it ripens on demand – sounds ideal.


tree-ripened-peachWhen fruit is allowed to ripen on the tree, or the vine, or the plant, it’s ripening happens from the inside. When fruit is picked too early – for commercial and cosmetic reasons – that process ceases, and the ripening that happens is from the outside in. This second process resembles the first, more or less. But if you’ve ever tasted a peach, picked right from the tree and bit into on a summer day you will know that though the process might seem similar, there is something categorically different.

It is sweeter. Juicier. Tastier.

So, you may be asking yourselves about now – have I come to a horticultural presentation, or to Not Church? What does this have to do with anything?

I’m glad you asked…

We are, of course, all aging. We are all getting older. Our culture is full of ways to convince us that that doesn’t have to be the case. That aging doesn’t have to be inevitable, that getting old is just another problem to be fixed with the right cream, the right powder, the right pills. You can stay young forever! That is the claim. That is the promise.

But is it the truth? Is it reality?

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for being young at heart, for enjoying life to its fullest – and I am the first one to hope that people, when they guess my age, get it about ten years wrong in the direction of 29.

unripened peachesBut do we really want a bunch of perfectly hard peaches lining the shelves of our world? Durable, sure. Not showing any age spots or blemishes. Not showing any of the inevitable bruises of life. But tasteless. Bland. Lacking sweetness. Lacking depth of flavor, of color.

kenny-rogersI can’t help but think of Kenny Rogers – whose music I love, but whose face has lost all expression, to quote a line from the Gambler – his eyes forced in a perpetual perkiness.

Is this what aging is all about? Or is there something more?

Many of you know Glenn, who can’t be here today as he begins teaching for the new school year tomorrow up in Palm Desert. Those of you who know Glenn know that he is quite the horticulturalist.

Sunflower © Erin Dunigan

Sunflower © Erin Dunigan

In my conversation with Glenn he told me this: “The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation. Plants, in that way, are always sort of forward thinking.”

I began to wonder – is it the same for us? Sure, of course, technically on a biologically level it is true – if someone is not reproducing we are not going to continue. But on a more mystical level, or a spiritual level, or a metaphorical level – is this true?

The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation.

Many years ago I was working with a youth group – I was just out of college, the students were young teenagers. We were on a work project in a poor rural area in the east. On our day off we headed to a local river to go white water canoeing. I’ve got to admit – I’m something of a chicken. I know I might not present as that, but it’s the truth. So, as I sat there looking at the canoes, and at the rushing river, I began to consider who I wanted in my canoe. The youth group leader, of course. He was more than a decade my senior, big, strong. But as the assignments were made I was shocked to realize – the younger students wanted to go with me for just the same reasons I wanted to go with the leader. Wait a second, I remember thinking, how did I turn into an adult?? It was a rather shocking realization, this sense that instead of the one receiving it was time for me to be the one giving, to step into that role.

Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Why would any of us ripen until it is demanded of us?”

Bernie Zimney (June 2014)Sherry Ruth Anderson in her book, Ripening Time: Inside stories of aging with grace suggests that we are at a time in our collective lives in which we are hungry for ‘elders’ – and into which we are being called to become those elders for others who will follow.

If it is true, what does it mean? What does it ask of us or invite us into?

How do we let ourselves be shaped and transformed – how do we let life ripen us if it will?


In my pondering and research on ripening I came upon a rather geeky chemistry related conversation. Is ripening a physical or a chemical change? I thought, “Who cares?” But being the inquiring mind that I am, I figured I’d read a bit further and see what it was all about.

The consensus is that ripening is a chemical, not a physical change. Again, you might ask, as I did, why do I care? A chemical change involves the alteration of the physical and chemical properties of the substance. You can’t get the original back through physical means. Once you ripen, you can’t go back.

Last month I shared with you a quote from an author named Shane Claiborne “Most good things have been said far too often and just need to be lived.”

It is not merely by listening, reading, or discussing ripening that we get there – if we stay at that level we are in danger of being like parrots repeating what we hear from gurus or teachings, without converting the intellectual knowledge into our own experience. The way for us to ripen is to convert these teachings, like the starches converting to sugar. Instead of being something we say, they become who we are. But this ‘becoming’ is not an end in and of itself – no, the ripening of the fruit is for the dispersal of the seed. This becoming is meant to be shared.

Two points I’d like to leave with you – the first is that often ripening is enhanced through wounding. A fruit that is gashed or otherwise ‘damaged’ in some ways is actually able to ripen better than one left untouched. Lest we think that ‘ripening’ is all butterflies, rainbows and puppies – hardly. It is a transformation of our very being. It is not without a cost.

The second is this – you know the phrase, one bad apple spoils the bunch? Well, it is actually true. But true in a positive way as well. Once one fruit begins to ripen, others in its vicinity also increase their capacity for ripening. Exponentially. It is, in a sense, contagious.

The entire purpose of a plant is to produce seed. The purpose for producing seed is the dispersal of that seed. Everything the plant is geared for, created for, is to promote the next generation.

As we journey through the chronology of our lives, are we ripening, or are we merely rotting? The rotting, of course, is inevitable – the ripening is not.

The next question is, what will we do about it?

[While you’re thinking, take a listen to one of Ross’s inspiring selections, Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night]