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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

first-world problem, indeed

that i am typing on a screen seems nothing short of a miracle. of course, this is not my trusty and lugged-around laptop. that ol’ die-hard is in the resuscitation ward, aka the genius bar at my neighborhood apple store, where a genius and near-goddess named gretchen is tending it nearly round-the-clock. she’s pumping bodily fluids into it. she’s taking its temp at regular intervals, and calling me with updates, since i am, after all, its next-of-kin.

no, this snowy morning’s typing comes courtesy of the ancient family desktop, a clunky hulk of a thing i’d thought served one sole purpose: tucked-in-the-corner gathering ground for dust and accumulated fur balls.

it’s been a long week, all right.

after weeks of slower and slower typing, and the near constant appearance on my screen of that nettlesome whirling color ball — the one that whispers, “shhh, we’re working on it, lady. cool your jets if you care to make it to the end of the sentence…” — it seemed that i was due for a once-over at the genius bar. what better time to check in there than at the preamble to the super bowl, that annual concussive rite i disregard except to make maximum use of cleared-out stores and shopping aisles, when i alone am out minding by own business.

it didn’t take long at the bar of genius stature for a nice genius of a man to plug in a diagnostic cord, and declare: “hard drive failing.”

i’ll spare you the agony except to say that the external hard drive i’d dutifully plugged in every single day for all the years i owned it, well, it too was failing.

as tears filled my eyes, another nice man at the genius bar bellyflopped his arm across my shoulder and whispered, “honey, this is a first-world problem.”

it is indeed. and i am wholly mindful of how a lifetime archive of lost photos and emails — accumulated across the childhoods of both my boys — measures up against a growling belly that can’t be filled and a litany of other sins and injustices that are too excruciating to even thoughtfully attempt to lodge into any sort of comparison.

suffice it to say i ached for what might be lost — and still might be, since the resuscitation is still ongoing. i couldn’t stop the roll call of lost treasures — the compendium of choice words and knock-me-out passages and poetry i’ve so carefully copied and pasted over the years. every email that ever made my heart go ping! every photo i’ve taken in the last 10 years. the PDFs of every tribune story i  deemed worth keeping as i shuffled out of the newsroom on my last day at what once called itself the world’s greatest newspaper.

and don’t you know that after four months of waiting for the very last round of edits on le book, my dear editor got back to me on tuesday — day 2, the cyber-hostage. and asked that i make the revisions by, um, wednesday. without my laptop, mind you. after carefully keeping other assignments at bay, so when the revisions finally landed in my lap i could devote all my attention to slowing time. (slowing time, by the way, is the title of le book, so that last sentence is deliberate double entendre, one my editor and i find to our liking.)

miraculously, and through the kindness of yet another saint in this saintly equation, i’ve managed to borrow a laptop with just the right accessories, and last eve shipped back what just might be the very last crossed t’s and dotted i’s of slowing time, the book.

funny how life has a way of not unfurling according to your best-laid plans. funny how you process loss — how it comes in waves, and one minute you think you can manage to rise above it — absorb it with zen-master acceptance — and the next minute, you swear you’re going under.

so, yes, my first-world problem turned my days and nights upside down. but here i am — almost on the other side of the cyber-chasm. i figured out  plans  B, C, and when needed, K through R, as well. i made the acquaintance of a saint masquerading as a goth-coiffed apple genius. and the long-awaited final edits on le book are signed, sealed and delivered.

i await a call from the cyber-nurse any hour now. then i’ll toddle off to pick up the rehabilitating laptop. i’ll spoon chicken zoup, or whatever’s needed, till my files and i are reunited. and back to first-world business.

in the meantime, i am beyond grateful to saint gretchen and her undauntability. and i’m plugging in my new external hard drive the minute it gets home.

hope your week was far better than mine. and that you repeat early and often: back up. back up. back up. 

no questions other than: over all the years, what treasure have you lost — cyber or otherwise — and how did you learn to get along knowing it was forever gone? for me there was once a typed letter tucked under my pillow, the night i was crowned homecoming queen, and perhaps the most open-hearted missive my father ever wrote me. for the life of me, i’ve never ever been able to find it — not at the bottom of any box, not anywhere. it’s gone but for the memory of finding it, and being stunned at his tenderness. my father too is gone now, long gone, 33 years monday. but he’s with me every day, in every keystroke, always.

poetry school

poetry school

when the school bell rings, i shuffle over to class in my holey-est slippers. and, dating my pedagogical style, i haul out my spiral notebook, my pen, and settle in. click a couple buttons, and poof! poetry school’s in session.

so it goes when you go to college from the comfy confines of your kitchen table. when you’re hauled out on field trips to the lower east side, and south street seaport, without so much as buttoning a sweater.

over the wintry weeks, i’ve grown fond of my professor — she tells us to call her lisa, even though she’s listed as elisa in the course book. (she lets on, in a cozy email, that only strangers call her by her full name, first syllable vowel-prefix attached; she seems to be inferring that we are now admitted to her inner circle — how kind of her, how generous. see why i like her already?)

she tells that to the thousands and thousands of us who click into class from wherever we sit on the globe, and learn a thing or two about poetry in america, and walt whitman, specifically.

thousands and thousands, you ask? yup, if they packed us all in a lecture hall it’d need to be about as big as beijing’s bird’s nest, that iconic steel-strung stadium built for the 2008 summer olympics.

back on the days when we were settling into class, when virtual papers were being passed out, and we were going around the room to introduce ourselves, i tried to scribble down all the countries we come from. i started with ukraine, scribbled india, UK, bangladesh, serbia, south korea, nigeria, netherlands, lebanon, swaziland, kosovo, even togo. i practically ran out of room after packing in itty-bitty letters clear to the bottom of the notebook page, and sideways up the margins. i just counted 49, and i’m sure i missed a few.

we are all huddled round our laptops, our iPads, our clunky desktops for a class called “poetry in america: whitman.”

think not that this is mamby-pamby read-along at home. this is sit-back-while-the-brilliant-professor — from the comfy confines of her book-lined office in the red-brick barker center just off harvard square — waxes-eloquently (and without notes) about the quintessentially american 19th-century poet. and when she wants to show us an original manuscript, she just hauls her video crew over to the rare books vault in harvard’s houghton library and pans the lens up and down the page. and when she wants us to know the streets whitman walked in new york city, she pops up yet another video and walks us up and down the sidewalks, pointing out the print shop where he set type, showing us his newspaper’s proximity to new york’s city hall, and even the back alley where whitman got to know the prostitutes and actresses of mid-19th-century manhattan.

this is hardly a hands-off matter. why, this fine professor insists on “two well-crafted paragraphs,” in open response to questions about the poems. she and her technical wizards have provided a nifty annotation tool, so we — the thousands of students, all of whom speak a thousand different mother tongues — can identify anaphora (repeating the same word at the start of successive lines) and parallelism (repetition of certain structures throughout the poem) and the latest poet-trick of the week, apostrophe (an address or salutation, as in O sun!). and we have to post these things in public manner. so anyone who’s in the class can scroll along and peek over our shoulder and figure out whether we are complete dunces or might be onto something.

in fact, this global classroom comes complete with office hours and TAs. and those brilliant almost-PhD’s actually scroll through the online postings, those “two well-crafted paragraphs,” and comment on our postings.

now, for a timid soul like me, one whose hand might be quaking in an early round of hand-raising in a lecture hall the size of kingdom come, it is scary enough to hit the submit button, and watch your thoughts on walt whitman’s “crossing brooklyn ferry,” or “song of myself” get all but nailed to the village crier’s blackboard. but even i can suffer the possible indignities and disgraces from the loneliness of my kitchen, so imagine how the soul doth swell, when hours later you circle back and find the nice TA has scribbled “you’re really onto something,” there beneath your humble words.

this whole exercise, in fact, might be far more than what i signed up for. i thought it was a vigorous way to dig deeper into the world of poetry that so captivates my imagination. but, slowly and certainly, i am discovering it might just be a brilliant bathtowel-rub of confidence and faith.

we all have a million reasons why we never think we’re good enough. the joke at harvard, we learned last year, is that nearly every freshman shuffling across the yard is peeking over his or her shoulder, wondering who in the admissions office made the mistake and let her or him in. “they must have mixed me up with the brainiac whose name was after mine in the applicant pile,” you can’t help but think — unless, that is, your mother gave you cans of ego-builder for breakfast with your eggs. (mine did not.)

so, i bumbled into this class in the ways i often do. first i wasn’t sure if i was allowed to sign up. (i was; it’s free and open to the public.) then i thought i wouldn’t take it for the nifty certificate that says i passed (i figured i didn’t need any more papers in my rat’s hole of an office, and besides, what if i couldn’t cut it?). and i sure didn’t think i’d ever muster the courage to say a single thing out loud (you could film a video introduction of yourself, or cobble a few penned sentences; i opted for the pen — aka keyboard).

but then, somewhere along the way, i started reading and thinking, and melting under the warmth of this professor with her deep love of poetry and her proclivity for messed-up hair and quirky field trips. and then i wrote what i thought, dug down not too deep — because what i thought had already bubbled up and wanted to be typed — and found myself deeply engaged in conversation with mr. TA and a few other students of poetry, who, for all i know, might be typing from a drafty hovel in azerbaijian or a dim-lit flat in kosovo.

it’s what happens when you go fling yourself into any one of life’s classrooms, the ones that don’t come with comfort guaranteed. you find a two-track curriculum — the one where you absorb the lesson plan, as penned by the professor, and the one that’s more of an independent study, and you find yourself quietly, wholly, learning who you are and who you might become.

walt whitman, i’ve learned, was the son of a carpenter who came of age during america’s building boom. he schooled himself in new york city, first as a newspaperman and, always, a flaneur, a fellow who strolled the city inhaling its street theater and its lessons.

but i’ve learned too that the wobbly-legged just-born thoughts that spill from deep inside, might “really be onto something.” and that’s a gold star i’ll carry closest to my heart.

word of the week, thanks to poetry school: amative — sexually potent. (i learned that whitman might be described as such. you decide for yourself how you choose to apply to your very own self or someone you admire.)

any hour now, i am sliding into my snow boots and riding the clackety el downtown to meet my dear professor in the flesh. yes, indeed, she is coming to the poetry foundation on chicago’s north side — that transparent cube of glass on aptly named west superior street. she is coming for conversation about whitman and gwendolyn brooks, chicago’s own poet wonder. i can’t wait to look into her sparkly eyes — the professor’s, i mean.

learn more about MOOCs (massive open online course) and EdX, in particular, by clicking on those hyperlinks. 

do you have a favorite whitman poem, or better yet, have you flung yourself into any discomfort zone this week, and did you find that you somehow stayed afloat? 

tea therapy

tea therapy

against the arctic whistle on the far side of the glass, the shrill siren of the tea kettle is all but marking shift change, with its regular rhythmic blasts. here at the old maple table all week, it signals: “in session.”

it’s the steam-driven bellows of the mugs of teas that punctuate a holy ritual taking place here. almost as if a shingle had been hung, with red neon arrows blinking, pointing up the bluestone walk, past the paned front door in shade of oceanic blue, lighting the way past snow drifts to the tucked-in table where the talk unfolds.

it’s been a blessing of this month of college interlude. my own sweet boy is long gone, now back in classes, but a host of other college kids, kids with heavy hearts and twisted potholed paths, kids who’ve lost their way, they are finding their way here, to this table, to this ample-bellied teapot where the water never empties and the teas are always spiced. my bowl of clementines is at the ready, so too the cookies under glass, where a swift lift of the domed lid offers sweet accompaniment for salty tears.

i find it a whisper of a miracle that kids have figured out they are always welcome here, and that there’s a heart who will listen without judgement, who makes a place for them to dump their worries and their fears. and who lives and breathes the promise that these dark days will end; there’s a grownup — right here in the flesh — who’s known the shadow and the great abyss, and who — with skinned knees all her own — found her way up the side of the steepest trail.

“it’s the 10-minute rule,” one wise tea-sipper intoned. she meant that she’d been taught to take on her overwhelming dread or angst or out-of-this-world anxiety in 10 minute chunks. endure it. know it has an end, and will not swallow you whole. and in a good 10 minutes, something deep inside will shift. or not. and you’ll enter into yet another 10-minute exercise in sheer survival. and soon enough, sure as sure can be, it will pass. the vista will change. and those baby steps — those 10-minute triumphs of straight-up enduring — they will, through simple additive powers, combine into hour- and then hours-long stretches of breathing. curled in a ball, perhaps. or with the self-propelled motivation to pick up a book, climb on a treadmill, call a friend, tiptoe to the kitchen to see if warm company might be found.

i’ve seen the gamut here this week, had kids whisper words, and follow swiftly with, “i hope that doesn’t shock you.” no, it doesn’t shock. no, no. never. it only breaks my heart that smart kids, gorgeous kids, kids with hopes and dreams  are nearly train-wrecked by the vicissitudes of hurdles set too high, of broken promises and betrayals, of a world in which no sin goes un-broadcast and there’s too little wiggle room for the fine art of making honest mistakes.

so while i steep in my own brand of guilt for not raking in freelance assignments, and while my bank account is on the decline and not the rise, i find more than a dose of solace that the pages of my life flipped forward to the chapter i long ago dreamed of: where i’m the old lady at the maple table, the old lady (not yet hunched-over, thanks be to the pharmaceutical gods who give us bone-boosting weekly white horse pills) whose shoulders are wrapped in the woven folds of woolen shawl, and who with lumps of sugar and dollops of milky cream doles out vast acreages of her heart and what scraps of wisdom she’s tucked into her apron pocket all along the way.

at long week’s end, i find myself bowed in prayer for these children, these wide-eyed pilgrims trying so hard to find their way, to find the shafts of light breaking through the tight space between the rocks. and i find myself so deeply grateful that my years of being lost now pay me back in solid company where it matters most: here at the old maple table, where hope is served around the clock.

no need to knock: i promise you, the door is always open. and so’s the heart.

word of the week: i believe i’ve let languish a promise made back in 02139 to bring you a delectable word of the week. well, here’s one for this week – salmagundi (provenance: nigel slater’s “notes from the larder”)  a hodgepodge is what it means, and it comes from a literal mix of chopped meat, eggs, flavored with oil, vinegar, anchovies, and onions. but used freely far beyond the bounds of the kitchen, as in “they were a salmagundi of old and young, wise and fool.”

and before arriving at the query of the week, another bit of poetic thought picked up last week in my online “poetry in america: walt whitman,” class, taught by professor elisa new of harvard college. in her introduction to poetry lecture, she riffed on poetic language, and its powers. i thought you might find it worth pondering, and so i snipped it to bring to the table, though i forgot to leave it here, as last week’s recipe took up so very many lines….here tis, from elisa new, harvard’s powell m. cabot professor of american literature (and wife of former treasury secretary and former harvard university president larry summers):

Poetic language is language worth pausing over. It’s language that slows down time. It’s language that takes us into corners of our experience we might have overlooked. It’s language that is conscious of itself as language. It’s language trying out and expanding and pressing at the borders of what language can do, just as in other media, in painting, painters think about how to use paint in new ways. In the world of music, musicians think about how to use tone and sound in new ways.

Poetry is language curious about language itself. To say that is, in a way, to put poetry at the very center of the humanistic enterprise, since human beings are the creatures who use language. When we study poetry, we think about what it is to be human, the ways in which our existence is mediated and created and advanced and expanded by language.

oh, to be so supremely conscious of the words we choose, and how we push the boundaries of human connectedness….

where do you dish out your best counsel? the kitchen table, the cutting board, the cookstove, the couch, the driver’s seat of your mobile, the bedroom, the work bench, the miles and miles upon which you walk? 

beef stew matters

beef stew

a confession: all week i’ve been considering the fine points of stew. i’ve pondered the layering of flavorful notes. ruminated over anchovies. weighed root vegetables. detailed the pluses of rutabaga, countered with low points of turnip. i’ve dwelled on umami, that quixotic elixir we’re all after.

i’ve settled at last on a roadmap. any hour now, i’ll be cranking the flame, putting grass-fed beef chunks to the iron-hot scald of my three-thousand-pound cook pot. it’s what you do when you want a fine stew.

now this stew won’t be spooned to anyone’s mouth — not unless you count the teaspoons i’ll taste as i stir and i fiddle — till saturday’s eve. and that’s the whole point. i want the whole universe contained in my pot to cross-pollinate, to send ambassadorial missions from, say, the rings of the leek to the eye of anchovy (do those little squirmers have eyes? i’ll soon know the answer, once i peel back the lid and give them a look-see). i want a marriage — not a divorce — of fine flavor. i want the chunk of the beef to waltz with the dice of the carrot.

why, you might wonder, am i plopping my self into such a pressure-packed cooker? why in the world does this simple potage so very much matter?

take your pick:

a.) a wintry stew, served to a hungry tableau, is the raison d’être of this season of ice and blustery winds and bone-chilling temps that makes us ponder the wisdom of bears who pack it all up and go under cover from, say, the thanksgiving feast till the rising of easter.

b.) i quake in fear of that hushed moment when forks put to mouths lead to the audible verdict. i’ve sat there before when only after a pause does some polite — and half-hearted voice — pipe up with a “oh, this is good.” or, worse: not a word.

truth be told — and we’re truth-tellers here — it’s b more than anything that has me engaged. cooking for me is not just a dalliance, not a way to whittle away a few friday afternoon hours. no, cooking for me is self-taught survival.

i am still, after all these decades, battling away demons you’d maybe not notice. did you know, for instance, how much pride i felt when i typed out the sentence about tasting spoonfuls? i’ve promised myself — as i’ve made so many promises before — that i will taste as i stir. that doesn’t sound one bit scary to you, i imagine. but it does to me. and it’s why that moment of fork-to-mouth, that very first taste at a table of people i love or especially a table of folks i don’t know too well, has at times left me feeling as if the chair’s been pulled out from under me. all these years i’ve cooked by feel, cooked without tasting — a veritable braille at the cookstove — and i don’t know till everyone else does if i’ve over-walloped the salt, or short-changed the wine.

but that was then, and this is now. i am nudging myself into a new chapter. i am filling my table with people i love, and a few who i only scantily know. i am a living-breathing believer in the power of putting ideas to the world, and the best place that i know for birthing fine thought, for bridging frames of reference, is the dinner table.

it’s curious, perhaps, that i invest so much faith in the gathering of great good souls to my table. but the way i see it, the dinner table is merely the classroom, the seminar chamber, set with knives, forks and a battalion of glassware.

so, if you want to bring together great stews of ideas, of stories, of wisdom, of light, you need to stoke the flame with the richest, most sublime assemblage of feast and drink and, yes, a darn lovely haul from the old plate collection.

it’s why i’ve been turning to my panel of master teachers, all lined up on the shelves of my kitchen — and a few who walk and talk and dispense real-life secrets. it’s why i am hurling martha stewart across the room, but sidling up to david tanis, a generous-hearted cook (formerly of chez panisse and a regular in the new york times, for heaven’s sake) endowed with a down-to-earth soul who finds perfection in a simple soft-boiled egg and who writes that the peeling of carrots and onions for a simple stew “can be meditative.”

it’s not about wow-ing. it’s about allowing the feast to speak for the part of my heart and my soul that breathes beyond words.

the equation i’m after, the blueprint i seek, is one that’s infused with humility, yet banks on the notion that dolloping grace and deliciousness — both in measures sublime — onto my table is bound to spiral the talk a notch or two, and kindle the room with a shared sense of the sacred: this table matters, what unfolds here is sacramental; and as the one who’s done the gathering, i’ve infused it with the very best i could muster.

i’m finding my way. even at this late date in the game. and, any moment now, i’ll be feeling my way — and tasting my way — to a beef stew that matters. perhaps, more than it should. but not really, not when you know all that’s infused in its making.

here’s the roadmap i’m more or less following, a revamping from two solid sources: food52, that amazing online kitchen of amanda hesser and friends, and the pioneer woman, who has proven herself to stand on two solid legs when it comes to the cookstove.

My Secret Ingredient Pioneer Woman Saturday Night Beef Stew

Provenance: Food52 + Pioneer Woman. annotations by bam (and remember, this is a work in progress).

Ingredients

STEW:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

3 pounds Beef Stew Meat (chuck Roast Cut Into Chunks)

Salt And Pepper

1 whole Medium Onion, Diced

2 Leeks, sliced

7 cloves Garlic, Minced

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 package (8 oz.) Baby Bella Mushrooms

6 ounces, weight Tomato Paste

2 Anchovies

Dried Porcini Mushrooms (1/2 ounce; Melissa’s packet)

4 cups Low Sodium Beef Stock Or Broth, More If Needed For Thinning

1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar

1 cup canned whole Tomatoes with Juice (or 1 can)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2 Bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

2 whole Carrots, Peeled And Diced

1 whole Turnips, Peeled And Diced

1/2 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

Pearl Onions, frozen; about a cup.

1/3 cup to 2 Tablespoons Minced Fresh Parsley

MASHED POTATOES:

5 pounds Russet Potatoes (peeled)

1 package (8 Ounce) Cream Cheese, Softened

1 stick Butter, Softened

1/2 cup Half-and-Half

Salt And Pepper, to taste

Preparation Instructions:

Pat dry, then salt and pepper stew meat. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Brown 1/3 the stew meat until the outside gets nice and brown, about 2 minutes. (Turn it as it browns.) Remove the meat from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it on a plate. Add the rest of the meat, in thirds, to the pot and brown it, too. Remove it to the same plate. Set the meat aside.

Add the leeks, onion and garlic to the pot, stirring it to coat it in all the brown bits in the bottom of the pot. Cook for two minutes, then add the carrots and mushrooms and again, cook for a few minutes. Add tomato paste AND ANCHOVIES to the pot. Stir it into the alliums and vegetables and let it cook for two more minutes.

Meanwhile soak dried Porcini mushrooms in 1 cup warm water.

Add wine vinegar, tomatoes with juice.

Pour in the beef stock, stirring constantly. Add salt, bay leaf and thyme, bring to boil. Stir in porcini mushrooms; then add beef back to the pot, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, add the diced turnips and carrots AND RUTABAGA AND PARSNIP to the pot. Stir to combine, put the lid back on the pot, and let it simmer for another 45 minutes to 1 hour. The sauce should be very thick, but if it seems overly so, splash in some beef broth until it thins it up enough. Feel free to add beef broth as needed!

When the ROOT VEGETABLES are tender, stir in minced parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate.

When cool, skim off much of the fat from the top. Reheat over low heat, letting the stew simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Serve piping hot in a bowl with mashed potatoes, letting the juice run all over everything. Mix in half of the parsley and garnish with the rest. Sprinkle with extra minced parsley at the end.

MASHED POTATOES:

Cut the potatoes into quarters and cover with water in a large pot. Boil until potatoes are fork tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then put them back into the same pot. With the heat on low, mash the potatoes for 2 to 3 minutes to release as much steam as possible.

Turn off heat, then add cream cheese, butter, cream, seasoned salt, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve potatoes immediately or spread them into a buttered baking dish to be reheated later. To reheat, put them in a 375 degree oven, covered in foil, until hot.

happy tasting, sweet friends.

it’s a scary thing to write as open-heartedly and honestly as i just did. but sometimes when i’m sitting here at the old maple table, i consider the connection we’ve all forged over the years, and i reach for the bottle of truth serum and swallow a spoonful. i feel like i owe it to the chairs, to not just write some mamby-pamby distraction about how i’ve whiled away a week, but rather, if you’re going to take the time to put eyes to these words, you deserve a dose of courage. it’s especially scary to tiptoe into this realm when i know my mothers — my own mama and my mother-in-law whom i adore (along with my father-in-law) — are among the readers. but when you write from the heart, you’ve made a commitment to not pussyfoot around. you straight shoot even when it makes you tremble. if you believe in authenticity — and i do — there’s only one path up the mountain. and it sometimes gives me the shakes. but in the long run, i just might find my way. and look out from that long-awaited vista. 

a multiple choice of questions (take your pick): a.) what makes you quake? or b.) what’s your go-to winter recipe? 

back to business

back to business

i nearly forgot how much i ached all day monday, the day my firstborn packed his bags, flapped his arctic wings and flew back to the hills of western massachusetts. i nearly forgot how the whole day felt like an uphill climb, and how each time my little one and i looked each other in the eye, we knew we were hollowed, were drained, had just had the plug pulled out of our sink.

blessedly, we birthed a tradition back on that uphill empty day. our dear across-the-streets were suffering the same heart drain, had just sent their elder child off to the vermont woods, and what with a vat of leftover beef stew in the fridge, and a pot of mashed potatoes to boot, we inaugurated what we think will become our annual “plus three instead of minus one” rite of soothing our oozing parts. and, as they walked in with a hot-out-of-the-oven blueberry-blackberry crispy-crumbly, all vapors of heartache up and went poof! (forgive us, you faraway children, it’s not that you’re a solid swap for fruits under buttery wraps, it’s just that, well, a dousing of sugar makes your leave-taking all the gentler to swallow.)

the polar cold didn’t loosen its hold till late tuesday night, so it took till wednesday for school to re-open and, thus, the real world to settle back in, the post-holiday, post-new year, back-to-business rhythms that i, for one, find as cleansing and invigorating as a frothy green drink chock-full of parsley and kale and mustardy greens.

why, i even hauled out the scrub bucket and mop. dis-assembled the yule tree. penned the thank you’s. tucked away the holiday dainties (to use a vintage wordchoice for confections, one i bumbled upon over the new-year stretch). turned in a book review. ironed the christmas-y napkins, tucked them away for a long winter’s nap.

i was gettin’ down to business in a scrub-dutchy way.

it is what january calls for, if you put your ear to the frosty winds and listen hard. diligent work, assiduous effort, those are the siren songs of the month at the top of the year.

in my case, it feels like it’s been far too long since i’ve gotten down to serious business. put nose to grindstone and cranked out a solid assignment. and, wonder of wonders, i find that i hum when working hard. when i can hold up a tangible something at the end of the day, and say, softly: “i did this.”

any day now, the last batch of edits are due from my little book’s editor, and then i’ll be sailing toward the copy editing desk. and i’ve promised myself i’ll get brave and dial up one or two assigning editors, in hopes of plunking some coins in my decidedly bony porcine bank, the one that’s teetering on nothing but fumes. in the meantime, i’ve signed up for an online poetry course, one that will hold walt whitman up to the light and bring a cambridge lecture hall here to my old maple table. and, for pure delight and because i believe in it as one of life’s richest assemblages, i’m picturing a dining table filled with madly opinionated, yarn-spinning chroniclers of everyday truth, wisdom and hilarity.

it’s january and the year is filled with promise. time to shake off the sloth, and see what i can pull from the depths of my deeply blessed soul.

how ’bout you? what’s on your i-promise-to-do list, not because you feel obliged but simply because it inspires? 

that framed moment above was just before my firstborn shuffled out the door with his duffle sack. the little one, leaning into him with all his sagging heart, not wanting him to go. ever. it’ll be months, and three full seasons, before he returns. these long pauses never get easier. and the heartache never dulls. so flow the rhythms of loving a faraway child. 

hummingbird birthday

hummingbird cake

with this day of birth tucked amid snow drifts, and clearly beyond the holiday statute of limitations, i long ago taught myself to upholster the day with wee delights, delights all my own, partaken of in modest degrees of solitude.

this birthday, the one my little one tells me is stellar because i am turning the number of the year i was born — that’s ’57 for those keeping track — has been bursting out of its seams and it’s only just a wee bit after dawn as i sit here at the table tapping on keys. keys to my heart, indeed.

there was a hummingbird cake last night, served up with a B of blueberries, all festive and lit, poised upon a one-footed pedestal. there was a fireplace crackling just over my shoulder, and i was nestled on a velvety couch with people i love.

hummingbird wish

and this morning, once i’d trudged through the snow with my old banged-up coffee can of seed for the birds, once i’d read the love notes left on the old maple table by my moppy-topped night-owls (boy 1 and boy 2), once i’d clicked on the christmas tree lights and poured my best blue willow mug with cinnamon-spiked coffee, i discovered this poem of perfection, written by my beloved mary oliver. it’s as if she peeked in my hearts and put words to my fumbles. and it is all we need here for all of us to launch into this holy new year. (but, since birthdays, especially ones that are stellar birthdays, are best done without that level-headed note of restraint, i am going to dig up the receipt (tasha tudor word for recipe) for that hummingbird cake i’ll never forget.)

so, first, mary oliver. followed by a fat slice of hummingbird cake. could there be a more perfect beginning to a year that had me on my knees last night, praying mightily for all good and heavenly blessings?

one last thing: thank you, always, for keeping me company here at the table. you are loved simply for listening. isn’t that all anyone of us wish for, deep down inside? to be heard….

and now…

Mindful
by Mary Oliver

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

“Mindful” by Mary Oliver from Why I Wake Early. © Beacon Press, 2005.

and now, for that hummingbird cake…

it’s a southern cake, one whose name might come from the whimsy that it makes you hum, it’s so heavenly. it’s known to be something of a symbol of sweetness, and it’s so rich it’s best sliced in thin and elegant fractions of the whole. my hummingbird cake baker said she used orange in place of some of the pineapple. and the toasted pecans gave it a hint of southern groves on a cold chicago’s night. here is art smith’s rendition of that south-of-dixie cake….

hummingbird cake, ala one unforgettable and stellar birthday

the recipe notes this: This cake is one of the most requested desserts at Art Smith’s Chicago restaurant, Table Fifty-Two.

Serves 12
Ingredients
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped ripe bananas
1 cup drained crushed pineapple
1 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs , beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped pecans
8 ounces cream cheese , at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter , at room temperature
1 pound confectioners’ sugar (about 4 1/2 cups sifted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions
To make the cake, position racks in the center and bottom third of the oven and preheat to 350°. Lightly butter two 9″ round cake pans, sprinkle evenly with flour and tap out the excess. (If you wish, butter the pans, line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper, then flour the pans and tap out the excess.)

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a bowl. In another bowl, stir or whisk the bananas, pineapple, oil, eggs and vanilla until combined. Do not use an electric mixer. Pour into the dry mixture and fold together with a large spatula just until smooth. Do not beat. Fold in the pecans. Spread evenly into the pans.

Bake until the cake springs back when pressed in the center, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the cakes to wire racks and cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks (remove the parchment paper now if using). Turn right side up and cool completely.

To make the icing: Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until combined. On low speed, gradually beat in the sugar, then the vanilla, to make a smooth icing.

Place 1 cake layer, upside down on a serving platter. Spread with about 2/3 cup of the icing. Top with the second layer, right side up. Spread the reaming icing over the top and sides of the cake. The cake can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and stored, uncovered in the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.

that’s it for today. what’s your birthday cake of choice? or your poem for the new year, or your stellar birthday?

well that was going to be it, but then i popped up from the couch to pour more coffee into my mug, and there before my wondering eyes appeared a kitchen table decked out for the broccoli girl’s birthday, with a load of brussels sprouts to boot. do my boys know me, or what? i nearly melted. the biggest boy of all, the one to whom i wed my life, he was puttering about while i sat here typing, not realizing what in the world he was up to, just beyond the cookbook shelves and the old ticking clock. hilarious. and more than worthy of this morning’s frame of glory…..brussels

hummingbird birthday

sated

sated christmas 13

sometimes — rare too few times — the most powerful prayer we can pray is the one where we pause long enough, quietly enough, to feel ourselves washed over in the knowing that we want for not one thing. that our hearts are filled. beyond measure.

it’s the poetry of pure contentment.

and it carries us straight to heaven’s door, where we whisper, resoundingly, amen and amen.

where do you find your heart’s pure contentment? i found mine on christmas morn, when two sweet boys nestled arm-in-arm in the red-checked happy chair. sending love this christmastide. xox

all i want for christmas…

all i want for christmas 09all i want for christmas 11

every year on christmas morn, shortly after the rustle under the tree, not long after the little one is certain he’s heard the clomp of reindeer hooves on the roof, there is a thud just over the cookstove, from the bedroom above. it’s followed by the pit-a-pat of little feets rushing to shake the man-child from slumber.

that’s the moment i enter the equation. wait, wait, wait, i holler. let me get a picture.

and so, the annual up-the-gullet-of-the-staircase, bleary-eyed christmas morning pose. boys in sleeping garb, gaining inches by the year.

and this christmas, more than in a very very long time, it’s the moment i am waiting to frame.

it’s all i want for christmas: two boys + one papa + one old house, steamed up from a christmas dawn’s cookery = contentment of the purring kind.

it’s simple, but not, all at once.

we’ve not all been together for christmas for two long years. we’ve not all been together — not in any which way, not the four of us — since way back in august. and much has unfolded, and much has settled deep into my soul. so much so that i’ve emerged with one humble christmas-y wish: dear God, let us all be gathered in one cozy room. that’s all, God.

remember — oh, do i —  how infuriating it used to be, when you’d ask your mama what she wanted for christmas (and you hoped for once she’d drop a fat hint, so you could scurry the department store aisles, beelining for some well-scripted bauble) but all she’d reply was what at the time sounded lamer than lame: oh, honey, all i want is health and well-being for all of us. and you stood there saggy-faced, as visions of sugarplums whirled down your drain?

well, it appears i’ve turned into a variant of that very mama: all i want — beginning to end — is the sound of three voices i love bubbling up and around the red cozy room where logs will sizzle and windows will steam. where i’ll huddle under my buffalo-check blanket, breathe deep, and sink into the holy whirl of immersion. of being no farther from my faraway boy than a hand reached ‘cross the couch. where no crackling phone line will blur the vowels and the consonants, static-charged syllables from half across the globe. where one more year’s memories will be laid deep down in the crevices of my heart, that vessel that allows for easy access come the cold february dawn when the ones i love won’t be within reach, when their hilarity won’t be animating my stirring of oatmeal, when i’d otherwise feel hollow through and through.

it’s a simple prayer, an unadorned wish. it’s love whittled down to its essence: just let us share the gift of an hour, a morning, an unbroken day. let us breathe the same oxygen, let us catch the twinkle in each other’s eye. and not give a damn if any one of the bunch catches their ol’ mama swiping away at a tear, a tear of Godly perfection.

were we not born to work toward, to revel in just that very fine brand of love, one cultivated through long hours of heartache and worry and triumph and faith? one that only gets stronger and harder to shatter, no matter the hurdles, the obstacles, the twists and the turns. one that sustains us till ever and ever. one that’s our life’s holiest treasure.

it’s the spark of Divine, fanned into infinite flame. it’s year after year. it’s mother and child, and holy reunion.

and it’s all i want this most blessed christmas.

may each and every one of your christmas wishes come true. my wish for you is that your quietest unspoken wish is the one you hold in the palm of your hand, and nestle to the core of your heart. how will you spend this most blessed day?

about the frames on high: the one on the left is 2009, when one sweet boy was eight and the other 16. on the right it’s 2011, the first christmas home from college for the taller of the two, and the little one thrilled beyond thrilled to have his best brother — his only brother — right back where he belonged, at the room in the bend in the stairs….

awash in grace

potpieon a cold winter’s night, after a long day in the hollows and dim-lit caverns of a hospital, where the smells are of ether, and the blinking and beeping and red-letter alarms leave you jangled and cored. on a cold winter’s night when your breath freezes in clouds as it puffs from your mouth and your nose, on a night as inky black and icy as that, there is nothing quite so heavenly fine as flicking on the lights to your dark old house, your empty house, and just as you’re beginning to stir about the kitchen, eager to feed your hungry, tired, shoved-aside child, suddenly the doorbell rings.

and there, wearing potholders as mittens, is your rock-of-gibraltar across-the-street neighbor and most blessed friend, a woman who since the night you moved in nearly 11 years ago has defined the art of being there. she is bearing hot-from-the-oven from-scratch chicken pot pie, comfort food enshrined in pyrex, comfort food the way the gods must have first dreamed it.

she is there with hot feathery islands of biscuit, floating atop an ocean of white-meat chicken and succulent broth. she’s chopped carrots, tossed in handfuls of garden peas and knobby pearl onions. she’s laced it with herbs snipped from her winter garden. and, as she stands there, ferrying the feast from the arctic blast at the door to the kitchen counter that moments ago had looked so forlorn, so empty, so begging for food, you feel a healing ooze deep down inside, deep down to where you hadn’t even realized it had all been emptied out.

only, suddenly, with this rock-solid, infinitely un-wobbable woman standing there, you realize that for the very first time all day you are leaning on someone, literally sagging your whole weight against her. you are breathing, exhale and inhale. you’ve just let out all your cares and your worries, your deep-down, tucked-away fear from that one awful moment when the breathing machine let out its shrill alarm of a warning. you have let it — all of it — whoosh right out of you, and as you lean into her sturdy down-coated self, you realize you are utterly, deeply letting her keep you upright. and she is providing.

and that’s how it is in those rare moments of grace, when the angels among us reveal their holy selves. when we are fed. when we are soothed. when we are reminded we needn’t bear it all by our lonesome, whatever it is that needs bearing.

and there is something especially otherworldly about the communion that comes with feeding, being fed, putting fork to lips, tasting deliciousness, feeling that warm lump slide down to the depths of our belly. it is surely sacramental. i’m guessing it’s why manna fell from the heavens, and not washcloths or soles for desert-worn sandals.

there are scant few times in our lives when we are so deeply hollowed. when we’ve been holding our breath for hours and days. might as well have been months. and someone arrives bearing food — that sustenance that takes flight where words fall off the cliff.

i remember those meals, will forever remember those meals, meals that bring me to tears, so deep a place did each of them feed me:  the salad brought to my hospital bedside, complete with china bowl, and silver fork and knife, after my belly had been sliced side to side, and i’d felt so emptied. the hot chicken pot pie ushered in with the arctic draft at my door the night before last.

these are the kindnesses, the graces, that serve as angel wings, that literally lift us and carry us. that prop up our wobbly selves before we fall splat on our faces.

this week has been a week of being awash in grace. every bend in a hospital hallway seemed to bring an unexpected, unscripted angel. the dear old man who ushered my brother and i from the waiting room to the tiny cubicle where my poor mama lay, caught in that netherworld of anesthesia and age. where she somehow mustered the presence of mind to lift her ring finger from amid all the tubes, and ask, scratchily, “can i have my rings back?” for they’d made her take off her wedding rings — hers and my papa’s — hers, for the first time since she’d slipped on that thick gold band back in october of 1954, nearly 60 years on her finger, that ring.

there was the kind-hearted friend who barely heard word of my mama’s surgery and wasted no time dropping off a plush polka-dot blanket, one lined in cardinal red. one that kept me wrapped while i waited, and now keeps my mama wrapped on the long hospital nights.

another cardinal-loving soulmate sent along a teapot painted with the scarlet-feathered breath-taker my mama taught me to love, the one i always think of as hope on a wing. in a gesture of kitchen sisterhood that melts me, two dear friends are huddling together at a cookstove tomorrow, and together whipping up a saturday night feast for me and the next brother who’s flying in to town.

the brother who drove five hours to be here. the one flying in now from faraway maine. the two even farther away who’ve been calling and texting as if we’re all on a string connected to juice cans.

weeks like this one remind you that deep down we don’t ever go it alone. angels huddle and plot out the game plan. whose kindness will come just when it’s needed. whose understanding — without words — will ease you over the hump.

the acts of compassion are infinite. their depth is immeasurable. they’re as essential as oxygen, as unexpected as lightning bolts in a winter’s storm. they keep us from withering. they take up the load that might otherwise grind us into swept-away piles of dust.

bless them, each and every one, through and through and forever.

dear chairs, i type through bleary braincells. and can barely wrap words around thoughts. i’m keeping one eye on the clock, on the arrival of u.s. airways flight 1991, carrying my beloved brother. the chair turned seven yesterday, 12.12. the chair seems to have grown into one of those gathering grounds for angels, who ALWAYS keep me propped upright. love to all. i’m off to the airport. xoxox

tell your favorite prop-me-up tales? what unexpected angels have landed on your doorstep? who’s graced you with kindness you would have dreamed of wishing for????

the necessary pause

the necessary pause

this sacred morning is anointed by quiet. it’s the sound of my soul breathing. which it certainly needs to be doing.

yesterday morning the cacophony came from the squawking of intercoms, and waiting room televisions cranked up to blaring, dialed to odd channels that give you a clue how the rest of the world stays tuned. on top of it all, the hollow sound of footsteps hard against hospital corridor. and the tingling sound of holding your breath.

this morning, the morning of saint nicholas at our house, a wintry sort of morning with half-lit sky and crimson berries still left on the bough (by nightfall my hungry birds might have plucked those branches dry), i am home alone and savoring the holy pause.

right in here, the pause is essential. is necessary. is filling up what’s been draining away.

necessary pause beach

i’ve said it so often i sound like a broken record, a record stuck on pause, on silent. but silence and lull are holy balm to me, are necessary to the going forward of the every day. i am soothed by downy-feathered sounds: the simmering of orange peel and clove, the ticking of my husband’s grandfather’s old dutch clock, the rushing exhale of the furnace that keeps me warm.

oh, i wouldn’t mind the crackle of pine cones on the hearth. or the tinkling of a teaspoon against the porcelain of the hand-me-down blue-willow tea cup.

i wouldn’t mind the poof of air when i punched down the cloud of risen dough in the old bread bowl.

but this morning i am far too lazy for ferrying in the logs, for dumping flour and yeast and melted butter in the bowl.

i am indulging in the lull of nothing more than the tap-tap-tap of keys. and writing, more than anything, is the potion i pull down from my heart’s apothecary.

i’ve been holding my breath for far too many reasons, for far too many days: a kid tromping around vienna (with three papers due by particular midnights; all turned in, all glorious. i should begin to learn to trust the procrastinating child); a mama who next wednesday will face the surgeon’s tool kit; a husband halfway across the globe, so far away, his day is my night, my day, his night.

so this rare morning of words and breath is just what i would wish for my best friend, if my best friend asked what might deeply cure the aching, the worry, the vivid dreams that unspool even when she wakes.

i do feel gathered here, knowing that in due time, and one by one, the chairs will be filled, and the great good souls who’ve woven hearts here, all will settle in, and offer words of tender wisdom, or simply the unspoken squeeze of hand to hand.

we are blessed, those who come here, those who understand the necessary pause. and how essential it becomes to fill our oozing aching heart with whatever balms patch us back together. whatever fortifies and sends us on our way, whole again, and emboldened to begin to ply the ministrations that heal the ones we love and hold together the scattered threads that begin and end at the very depths of our heart.

necessary pause st nick bfst

what are the sacred balms and potions in your heart’s apothecary?

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