pull up a chair

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

twelve: a dozen years of chairs

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can you imagine the early morning inferno if i’d decided to light those birthday candles tucked in the fir boughs?

twelve years ago, this old house awoke to the sound of someone clack-clack-clacking in the old one-car garage-turned-maid’s chamber-turned-writing room. i was clacking in the dark, while upstairs a kindergartener slept, and three steps below him, at the hard bend in the stairs, an eighth-grader dreamt. i tried not to make noise, didn’t really want anyone to know what i was up to, so uncertain was i of whatever this was, wherever i was typing toward in this uncharted landscape.

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“the little one” when he was five, and the chair was being born…

i birthed the chair that cold december morning of 2006. and now, as i type this, the eighth-grader is off in law school, almost halfway through i keep reminding him as he grinds toward the end of first-semester-second-year finals. and the kindergartener, he’s holding his breath, waiting to hear from colleges! any hour now.

where, oh where, did the years go?

they unfolded here, is where they went. i’ve sat down 892 times to try to snare some passing-by moment in my writer’s net. some of the moments caught are among the most precious of my life, of my boys’ lives. some got away.

over all these years and all these posts, we’ve — all of us — woven together sacred threads — thoughts and comments, stories, prayers, snippets of poetry, a recipe or three — into a cloth that wraps us, gives us pause and comfort from the melee and the cold just beyond.

it was december 12, 2006, a tuesday, when i sat down to begin. i began with these words, this promise, this vow i lived to keep:

…like all births, i have no idea what’s coming. no idea how all this might unfold. only, i have hope and an idea. i hope that this place becomes a touchstone for a whole circle of us, that we will drop in, pull up a chair, share some thinks, as my beloved friend and doula of this site, sandra sweetpea, so perfectly always puts it.

as every conversation worth diving into is one that wends and winds, turning this way and that, this too will be a stew. we might marvel at a new children’s book. we might have to swap recipes for that pumpkin bread on my table. i might share a prayer, or a snippet of poetry. i might tell you the very cool thing i just read about pouring a good stiff drink for your paperwhite bulbs so they won’t grow so floppy, and bang against the glass, up there on the sill. if i stumble into a magical shop where handmade or one-of-a-kind things will delight you, you can bet i’ll let you know where and how to get there.

the mighty mississippi of all these tributaries, the force flowing ever onward, will be this: we are looking for everyday grace. i believe that in quietly choosing a way of being, a way of consciously stitching grace and Beauty into the whole cloth of our days, we can sew love where before there was only one moment passing into another. making the moment count, that’s what it’s about here. inhaling, and filling your lungs and your soul with possibility. learning to breathe again. learning to listen to the quiet, blessed tick and the tock of your heart. filling your soul with great light so that, together, we can shoosh away the darkness that tries always to seep in through the cracks, wherever they might be. please, pull up a chair….

and pull up a chair you did. and i did. and we became the collective we set out to be.

along the way, we’ve held up those monumental moments — birth and marriage, death and dying and brokenness of so many kinds — and we’ve marveled at the barely-noticed ones (monster fighters, the crooked way home, snow when it’s still white). we’ve considered hope and faith and crushing blows. we’ve felt the brushstrokes of God across our brow, and goose-bumping down the crook in our neck as well.

i’ve learned to live — as mary oliver, our patron saint, instructs — wide-eyed for astonishments, as she reminds us that “attentiveness is the beginning of devotion.” or, as the 15th-century philosopher and theologian nicolas malebranche put it: “attentiveness is the natural prayer of the Soul.”

keep watch, the saints and mystics insist. the holiest hour is the one upon you now. make it count, make it count. practice kindness. love as you would be loved, the essence of it all. be still, so still, to drink in all the wonders all around: the stars and moon above, the light and shadow splashed upon the earth, the stirrings of the blessed creatures and the tender growing things, and most of all the unspoken prayer and longing of the ones who populate your every day. those are the few small truths we’ve made into our creed, here at this old table.

more than anything in the warms-my-soul department is the fact that not once at this table — not once in 12 whole years — has a harsh word been laid down here. it’s an unbreakable rule here: we trade in gentle kindness. you can be kind and honest at once, if your heart’s in the right place. and hearts here have always, always been just right — wide-open and all-enveloping, pulsing in purest empathy.

twelve years ago i never imagined i’d still be typing here where we pull up chairs. never imagined three books would flow from this old table. nor that i’d make some of my dearest friends, deepened other older friendships. i’ve bared my heart here, and my soul. i’ve laid out plenty of my quirks (there are volumes to be written there). i’ve trusted all of you. trusted you with my truest truths, ones i’d not before put to breath and form.

while i’ve never missed a friday, and know there are plenty more fridays in me, i might tweak things ever so slightly and, if there’s nothing deeply stirring, i might simply offer silence, or a line of poetry that’s caught me in its hold across the week. i know i’ll write across the months till T — my once-upon-a-time “little one” — packs up and plants himself in some far-off college dorm. but chapters have come and closed. and i think it wise to not take up oxygen unless i truly have a thought or two worth carving into words.

it’s a wicked world out there some days. and this will always be a refuge, and a holy respite, too. that, i promise you. if you click “follow” down below, you’ll always know if there’s been a stirring over here. especially if you click the follow format that sends an email to your mailbox.

before i tie this in a bow, i must bend knee and bow down low in deepest gratitude. you’ve wrapped me in something sacred all these years. your kindness is unmatched. you’ve become the dearest of soulmates, even if we’ve not spoken a word. the mere fact that you visit here tells me you understand. we’re an odd lot those of us who huddle here — we won’t give up on those rare few radiant lights that illuminate the way.

with all my heart, for all these years, and all these rambling un-refined thoughts, thank you, thank you. may you be deeply richly blessed and wrapped in all that’s holiest.

love,

b., the chair lady

PUAC 12 cookie dome

where were you 12 years ago? and how’s your story deepened?

a special special thank you to those few who have been here, faithfully, from the very very beginning.

TK _ WK hug

the ones who infuse it all…

extra special edition: glorious books for the soul

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this is the second of two posts today because, silly me, when i posted season of stillness earlier this morning i didn’t realize the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul — really fine books for the soul — was already posted online. egad. 

so here tis, a double dose for this friday snuggled in the depths of hanukkah and advent and  however you mark the deepening of winter to come….

if you put just one book on your wish list, or your giving list, i’m thinking i’d pick one of these. see if you can guess which would be my number one? 

Christian Wiman’s memoir reflects on years as editor of Chicago-based Poetry magazine, plus Anne Lamott, Elaine Pagels

Barbara Mahany

“He Held Radical Light” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $23

The epigraph, perhaps, whispers the secret of what’s to come in the pages of poet Christian Wiman’s latest soul-searing memoir, “He Held Radical Light.” The epigraph, from Juan Ramon Jimenez, reads: “The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists.”

So begins Wiman’s wrestling with art and faith, faith and art, driven by the question, “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?”

The book follows Wiman’s earlier, brilliant memoir, “My Bright Abyss,” composed in the wake of his 2011 bone marrow transplant. In this latest work, Wiman — who teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School — offers a volume that is part memoir (his years as the Chicago-based editor of Poetry magazine), part anthology (a compendium of poems lucidly critiqued), and, delightfully, a recounting of close encounters of the most curious kind with a Who’s Who of Poetry. He recalls Mary Oliver stuffing half a dead pigeon in her pocket, Seamus Heaney leaning in at a crowded dinner table and beginning an intimate conversation about faith, and A.R. Ammons refusing to read in front of an audience.

Early on in this book that reads like an unfiltered tete-a-tete, Wiman writes that when he left college, he set out to be a poet who would write “a poem that would live forever.” He has done that with this magnificent, radiant memoir.

“Almost Everything” by Anne Lamott, Riverhead, 208 pages, $20

Before you’ve turned even two pages in Anne Lamott’s newest, “Almost Everything,” you might hear yourself thinking aloud that, surely, she’s been peeking in through our windows, diagnosing the terrible straits of our souls. And, thus, she’s dive-bombed this balm straight down the chimney, just in the nick of sweet time. How’d she know how hopeless it’s felt? How bottomless? How’d she know these were the words we so needed?

Over the decades, through her 10 earlier nonfiction books, plenty of us have grown to trust Lamott’s spiritual compass. We settle in quickly here, knowing just around the next sentence she might pry open our heart, and pack in truths we will mull long after we’ve put down her pages.

“It is hard here,” she writes, with bracing honesty, and by “here,” she means this moment on planet Earth. Her subject is hope; she offers it in lines like this: “our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day.” Again and again, Lamott steers us in and out of the canyons and potholes of despair.

“We have all we need to come through,” she assures. “Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter how many messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.”

“Why Religion?” by Elaine Pagels, Ecco, 256 pages, $27.99

Elaine Pagels, one of the great voices in American theology, plunges her reader into an abyss of grief before even the midpoint of her latest work, “Why Religion? A Personal Story.” But fear not.

As Pagels masterfully interweaves her personal story with her profound insight honed through by a career in academia, she offers her reader a lifeline toward hope, toward light after darkness. Along the way, she answers her titular question — Why religion? — by illuminating an ancient truth of human experience: religion, a construct of cultural beliefs and traditions, holds at its core the power to “heal the heart.”

In “Why Religion,” Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, departs from the scholarly writing that propelled her earlier works, “The Gnostic Gospels” and “Beyond Belief,” to critical and popular acclaim. Here, in a memoir that wrenchingly recounts the slow death of her 6-year-old son, Mark, and a year later the mountain-hiking accident that killed her physicist husband, Heinz, she bares her incomprehensible, nearly unbearable grief.

Pagels’ fluency and nimble excavation of the wisdom found in the Gnostic Christian texts is what gives her — and her readers — a certain glimpse of a redemptive truth, and an exit route from the griefs that are sure to come to us all.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

season of stillness

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not so many years ago, my writing room at this time of year took on north-pole proportions: spools of ribbon, bags of this and that to slip inside other bags or boxes, layers and layers of tissue papers, itty-bitty cards. lists abounded. i was a walking-talking maker and checker of lists.

not so much these days. and not because i’m scrooge.

simply because the sanctity of stillness is what i’m after in this season of deepening darkness. i punctate the night — the shroud of black that grows with every passing whirl around the sun — with my litany of sacramental simplicities.

the dawn is longer, blessedly, giving me more time to stitch those hours with the fine few invitations to bring in what’s hushed, what’s holy. i scoop my old tin coffee can with fat black seed, slide my toes into clunky boots, my arms in puffy sleeves. as the shock of morning cold splashes up against me, i fill my lungs with one quick gulp. then i march across the frozen stiff blades of grass, the mud that’s now succumbed into icy form, and perk my ears to hear the flutter of a wing, the rustling of a bough. i pause to scan the heavens, count the stars, spy the fraction of the moon. i’ve written a thousand times of how i make like i’m a farmer filling my trough, as i pour the seed in the feeder high above my head, stretching my arm far as it will stretch, raising up on tippy-toes, too. i’ve come to realize that the rush of pouring seed must be a call to all the birds, akin to “coffee’s on, come and get it!”

on the stillest mornings, the holiest ones, a cardinal or a junco might flutter in before i’ve stepped away. as if the gentle creature knows we’re in communion here.

perhaps i’ve learned, in my years — now three decades — of braiding jewish threads with catholic ones, to sanctify time, even more than place. abraham joshua heschel, whom i count among my constellation of north stars, writes: “judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” he goes on to draw out that point: “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the romans nor the germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate…”

point, well taken. point, deeply taken.

i consecrate the holy hours — the ones of dawn and dusk and deepest night.

and so, this season is no longer a mad dash, but a countercultural adventure in stitching in stillness. in simply kindling light, one by one, an arithmetic of brightening, night after night, as both menorah and advent wreath burn against the darkness. our house is not filled with shiny boxes. santa’s list is not an annual exercise in accumulation. hanukkah at our house is brisket + latkes + jelly-filled donuts on the first night, candles and dreidels each night after that.

year by year, i dial down the noise, and amplify the hush that ushers in the stillness.

how do you consecrate your holy hours?

when the writing tide rises around you…(so of course you think of cookies)

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gulp. that’s the sound of me deep against a deadline. i’m a wee bit underwater here, with a 2,500-word story in the works. and a clock ticking loudly, telling me to crank it up, crank it up.

whatever leisurely tale i might have told you here this morning, it’s being scuttled by the overdrive that writing brings. when sleep becomes a playground for sentences that romp around your head, and you rise to gurgle coffee and down it by the mugful.

tis advent time, the season of quietest anticipation, a season i love and will enter deeply, once the clacking on the keyboard quells.

because i wouldn’t want to leave you high and dry, while i pull verbs and nouns and nifty transitions out of a hat, i thought i’d leave you something rather earth-shattering: we’ve a  new cutout cookie recipe over here, and after decades making my grandma lucille’s rolled cutout cookies, the ones she blanketed in wax paper sheets, tucked inside her cookie tins, her cutouts swapped for seasonal appropriateness, she’s been one-upped. there’s a new cookie in town, and my cookie-scarfing 17-year-old (a kid who knows) has deemed them better than the best.

this fine road to buttery perfection came to me — why, of course — at a hanukkah baking workshop on a recent rainy saturday afternoon at our synagogue. i was enticed to sign up because i’d thought i might learn the secrets to old jewish cookie treasures, some hanukkah morsel to bring to the table when we light the menorah on the first night of the festival of ever-burning light. instead, i got an ultra-upgraded butter cookie, one whose magic might rest in the milk (or cream) or vanilla my grandma never used, or perhaps it’s the baking powder, one of those cooking alchemies whose magic i don’t quite grasp. because i’m a girl who likes to get to the bottom of things, and maybe you do too, i’ll leave both recipes here on the table for you to peek at, pore over, and perhaps dive into.

but i’ll let you in on a secret that might amount to family treason: the new one, the one from marlene, my best new baking buddy, who all week checked in on me to make sure i’d not run into any lumps, is — shhhhhhh — the one i’ll reach for from now on. i baked these in the middle of the week, shortly after turning in my first draft of that darn story i’m still writing — or rewriting, to be precise. and i tell you, pulling out the cookie-cutter basket, remembering the tale of how each cutter came to me — a double bass for my longtime bass player, a teddy bear for, well, my very own TB — it was sweeter to me than the three and three-quarters cups of sugar i dumped into the mixing bowl. but those are stories for another day.

(a recipe note: i’m particularly charmed by the little asides in marlene’s instructions. you can almost hear her peeking over your shoulder, gently pointing out a better way, a shortcut, a trick she learned from years and years behind the rolling pin. i hope you’re as charmed as i am, and ever will be…)

Sugar Cookies from Marlene Carl (Directions 2018*)

*p.s. i love that marlene dates her directional revisions, as this cookie baking science is not to be taken nonchalantly…

3 and ¾ cups of regular flour a bit more if using egg beaters instead of regular egg

1 and ½ cups of regular sugar

2 teaspoons of real vanilla

1 and ½ teaspoons of baking powder

1 stick of unsalted butter and 1 stick of Can’t Believe It’s Butter margarine.  You can use all butter but the batter seems to roll better with the combination of half of each.  However, I do use all butter as I love the more delicate taste.

1 large egg or I use ¼ cup of egg beaters   (when baking with children who like to taste the raw batter, egg beaters are a safer option than real egg.)

2 and ½ Tablespoons of milk, (there are 3 teaspoons in one tablespoon)

Cream the butter until soft and blended, add the sugar and blend well. Then add the egg or egg beater, followed by the vanilla.

Mix the flour and baking powder together in a bowl, then add some of the flour, then some of the milk blending on low speed, continuing adding and blending until thoroughly  blended and mixed. The dough will begin to form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl.  Add a bit more flour if the dough seems very sticky.

Form three balls with the dough and press flat.  Wrap in plastic wrap and put into fridge until ready to use.  36 hours is the longest I have done so and it was perfect. You can also freeze the dough until ready to use.  Be sure it is double wrap and use within a month.

Bring the dough to room temp when ready to make the cookies.  Flatten one ball of dough between two pieces of wax paper the size of your cookie sheets and roll to about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick.

Using cookie cutters form into shapes, then remove as much of the extra dough around the cookies as possible. When you have done so, place in freezer or fridge (freezer about 10 minutes, fridge maybe a little longer amount of time).  When the cookies are cold it will be easy to pick them up and then place the cookies on a different cookie sheet and repeat the process.   Smaller cookies can often be removed without chilling them.

Leave about ½ inch between cookies.  I usually wait until I have used all the dough and made all the cookie forms before baking two trays at a time in a preheated 400 degree oven.  I use convention mode and they bake in about 6 to 7 minutes the edges turn a nice golden brown color.  Regular bake mode will take longer maybe 8 to 10 minutes.

Take the cookies off the tray immediately and place on cooling rake.  I usually only bake two trays at a time as the cookies are hard to get off the tray if they cool too much. If that occurs, place the tray back in the oven for about 30 seconds and the butter will soften the cookies and they will become easy to remove again.

When you roll the dough between the two pieces of wax paper, (if the dough seems to be sticking to the top piece of paper), you need to add one heaping tablespoon of flour.  Then knead the flour into the circle of dough.  It should not leave any particles of dough on the wax paper.

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and because i promised, here’s my grandma lucille’s. like my grandma, it is clipped and to the point, no frilly asides in this one. my german grandma meant business, and business we got. even in her recipe tin.

Lucille’s Famous Rolled Cut-Out Cookies

1 cup shortening

½C. brown sugar

½C. white sugar

1 egg

2 Tbsp. lemon juice and grated rind

2 C. flour

¼tsp. baking soda

¼tsp salt

Cream shortening. Add sugar. Cream well, egg, flour, soda, salt, lemon juice and rind.

Chill about 3 hours (or overnight).

Roll ¼-inch. Use cookie cutters {Editor’s note: most notably turkeys, bunnies, Santa on sleighs, at appropriate seasons of course. Put raisin in turkey’s eye; same for bunny’s nose.}

Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes.

cookie baking wintery blessings

do you have a stand-out family cookie recipe in your tin, one that comes out at least once a year, or perhaps every other week? how does your family favorite stand up to the one dear marlene just bequeathed me? 

hearts opened wide…

cranberry pear

aunt brooke’s cranberry-pear relish in the making. because, why not?

it seems to come more flowingly with every passing year. that’s how it feels anyway.

this year it comes amid news that one friend i love, a friend who’s been the rock of life for countless legions for countless years, as she alone found ways to eke out hilarity despite the rules, (dressing up in yellow rubber boots and raincoats, stringing orange construction-paper duck bills across our mouths, marching clear across campus and into the college president’s office, straight past the military-grade secretary, to trick-or-treat and commandeer his afternoon, among the early antics i recall), she had a heart attack the other day. i sat here wiping away tears when i got the news. heart attacks have always held a certain fear for me, the daughter of a man felled by one at 52. my friend is 61; her heart, a prize that should not ever be attacked. (she’s home now, thank God, but feeling like she was “hit by a truck.”)

it comes as another friend sends breathtakingly beautiful spools of poetry from the brink of death — her own. which she is facing with more grace and majesty and transparency than i have ever witnessed.

it comes amid a world that convulses my heart and soul on what sometimes seems like a quarter-hourly basis. (my mother last night counseled that i should just turn off the damn TV and say a rosary with my spare time. i appreciate her instincts here, but i’m too far gone, i fear, to trade in MSNBC for a string of glory-be’s.)

when i feel the quivers coming on, when the longview across the landscape gets to be too much, i leap into something akin to being my own cinematographer, and i pull back the camera from wide lens to up close and stitch-by-stitch. it’s a lesson learned from the pantheon of saints who populate my brain cells — dorothy day, anne lamott, therese of lisieux. and a host of other holy folk who remind us that there is no more certain route to faith (just another name for knowing the Divine has brushed up beside you, swooped in and tapped you on the noggin, shown you in vivid detail that heaven’s just the other side of the filagree, in holy whisper, in flap of feathered wing, in the way the sunlight pools on crimson maple leaf).

that’s when my litany of gratitudes comes spilling out. when, in tiniest, most obscure details, i can fill up my heart with little joy upon little joy (another name for blessing).

for 12 years now, we’ve huddled here at the table, on the morning after the great day of giving thanks, and cobbled our own litanies of gratitude. we’ve counted to 100, the centenary of thanks. and dialed back to a modest couple dozen. the count, of course, is not the thing. it’s the exercise of scouring the landscape, and plucking the otherwise unnoticed, uncounted, and tallying, one by one, the plus signs that propel us through the day. there is no too-small a joy to lift us breath by breath.

it’s barely eight o’clock, and already i count these:

the twin bed and rumpled quilt mounded around the kid who yesterday morning announced, “mom, this is my last thanksgiving,” delighting in the wince that must wash across my face every time i’m caught in countdown. i am so grateful that come monday morning that bed will still be rumpled, and its primary inhabitant will be running late for the ride to school that i so willingly — if occasionally grumpily — provide, complete with hot breakfast on a plate.

the golden-filtered light streaming in the windows, washing across the treetops, because i got up an hour later than usual, and the color shifts by the minute at the dawn, luminescence seeping into daybreak’s early acts.

the fridge that’s filled so full we practically needed a bungie cord to keep the doors from bulging open. and nothing short of strategic puzzle-solving skills wedged each last leftover safely in its shelter.

the utter lack of shopping on my mind, as we buck the national over-consumptive rite of greedily gobbling up whatever is on the sales-rack shelves.

the friends i love who hold their breath for a child deep in pain. their over-capacity hearts are a marvel to behold. i watch them ride the turbulence, keep the faith, climb on airplanes and into cars, to cross the miles to be by their children’s sides, and i witness motherlove in its most defiant, magnificent, dare-to-stop-me forms. if God loves half as fiercely as these mothers love, we are all saved already. that, i promise you. if you some days despair that there’s a God who’s listening, just scan the crowd for a mother — or a father — keeping vigil in the ICU, at the rehab center, parked outside the county jail (i know all three, and the cumulative power of their love could not be measured on a richter scale); that’s what love beyond our wildest imaginations looks like. i’d posit that’s a fraction of how God loves. and how certainly God is scrunched elbow-to-elbow by our sides, even when we can’t see to the other side of the waiting room door and feel stranded all alone.

some mornings my blessing is no fancier than the feel of my old familiar coffee mug cradled in my palms. somehow the choosing of the morning’s mug has become a rite that sets the joy of the day. for at least that fleeting instant.

scanning back across the year, i think of all the what-ifs that swooped away: the mammogram that turned out clean; the kid i feared had driven in a ditch, gotten mugged, blown the deadline, missed the plane — all worries dissipated.

on and on the blessings come. if i slow down long enough, allow the quiet to seep in, and pay close attention to the fine grain of the holiest of hours: this one we’re living now.

you catch the drift, now add your own to our litany of blessings….

pear-double cranberry-apple lattice

pear-double cranberry-apple lattice pie: my first.

telling our truest true stories

writing school

for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.

it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)

i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.

or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.

what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”

put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”

i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”

or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”

and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.

if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.

what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?

thurman books

** and while we’re at it, here’s the latest chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul, published nov. 1:

Powerful collection from MLK’s pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books

“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25

Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.

It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”

The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of phi­losophy at Morehouse College.

Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.

“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16

How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.

He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.

In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95

For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.

What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.

It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

baselines of hope

baselines of hope

these times, they are shaky.

that’s one way to put it, waking up, catching the first snow fall on my nose as i lope outside with coffee can and birdseed in tow, on a mission to make my first act of the day one of tender caring, even if the caring comes in the form of feather balls who float on the wind, who fill the air with chirps and cheeps and fluttering wings. and then, while that peace-filled breath is sinking deep in my lungs, in my soul, i lope back inside, click this lit-up clamshell that brings me the news — oh, the news — of the world, and just now told me of atrocities in melbourne, australia. australia, a nook and cranny of the world we like to think of as too far from the madness, somehow immune, inoculated. if only there was a vaccine against having our hearts blown to shreds.

every day now, it seems to come. to find its way in. to shake us, rattle us, frazzle our hope and sometimes our faith, deep to our core. australia. thousand oaks. tree of life. kentucky kroger grocery store. pipe bombs across america. (and that’s just the shorthand of horrors for the last 30 days.)

but i stumbled into a lifeline this week. or a little something that might just help.

by the grace of God, i have this crazy wild job that puts me in the front line of books for the soul — i read them, lots of them, and pluck out the ones especially worth passing along — and every once in a while that means i get an early crack at a book that just might save us — or at least give us a place to eddy our hearts for awhile. that’s how it happened that anne lamott’s newest, “almost everything: notes on hope,” came to be following me everywhere i go.

because she’s the master of embedding rocket blasts of wisdom unsuspectingly into the middle or ends of a sentence (p. 45: “help is the sunny side of control”), distilling knock-your-socks truths into words or combinations of words you’d never before known could work in that way (p. 47: life is “like free theater in the park — glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us…”), lamott is someone to read with pen and post-its at the ready. you’ll want to scribble in the margins, and up and down the end papers, too. (best not to play this game with a library book, so i’d urge you to buy your own copy so you can play along without racking up ginormous library fines.)

one of the tripwire lines she’d buried deep in one of her sentences was one that — as plotted, i’m certain — stopped me in my tracks and got me to thinking. (the very best books for the soul can take a very long time to read start to finish because they are filled with cul-de-sacs and ridge trails that force you to plop down on the side of the mountain and look out over the valley, far and wide and clearer than you’ve ever before noticed.)

she was writing about how even when life seems to be humming along, “the cosmic banana peel awaits.” in other words, stuff happens. bad stuff. stuff that makes us feel like our heart’s been blown to bits. banana peel stuff. “without this reality,” lamott writes, “there would be no great art or comedy.” and then she goes on to remind us to “savor what works when things are sort of harmonious.” the million and one things that don’t steer us into the ditch, don’t trigger the air bags.

it’s these little-counted miracles — the toe that wasn’t stubbed when you nearly walked into the bathroom door in the night, the pink dot by your eye that didn’t turn into a sty, the vote tally that did fall in your favorite faraway candidate’s favor — these “fleeting, lovely satisfactions” that lamott writes give us “a baseline hope.”

baseline hope.

it was as if she’d twisted the kaleidoscope just enough for me to see from a whole new angle. it was white-on-black instead of the usual black-on-white. take one minute (or be radical and take maybe five, or 10), consider the census of everyday barely-noticed things that do go the way you’d want them to go if you were the one in charge of your plot line. the things you barely pause to realize have saved you from falling into the rat’s nest, the ant hill, the gutter.

the baselines of hope.

i’ll go first: there might be a recount in florida. the furnace is humming, not sputtering. my slippers are fuzzy and warm. my hopefully-college-bound kid got his essays written on time. the computer did not crash as he was submitting said essays to college. the kid i love who’s in law school, he put down the books long enough to go to the symphony last night (a sign he’s learning to live like a human, and not just a caffeine-fueled freak of high-stakes angst).

you catch the drift, i’m certain.

these days the world can and does bombard us. it’s incoming always. and it’s not often pretty. but underpinning our everyday, more often than not, the furnace is working, the gas tank is filled, someone we love remembers to call us.

baselines of hope.

what’s required is the root of all sacred practice: pay attention. pay close, close attention. harvest the joys and the wonders and the narrowly-missed calamities. those fine few things that keep the trap door from ripping right open, catching us, tumbling us down to the cobwebby cellar.

consider the miracle of most of the time….

what constitutes your baseline of hope?

aubade: love song to dawn. or, perhaps, salvation.

dawns first light

aubade (o-bad), n. [Fr., from aube, dawn.] love song or poem to dawn, or about lovers separating at dawn; distinguished from serenade, or nocturne, love song to, at, or pertaining to night.

so says the dictionary, that plainspoken repository of meaning and use. but turn to a literary teller of meaning, and you’ll find definition with deeper-grained truths: “welcoming or lamenting the arrival of dawn.” a word given to us by the medieval french (who else would assign a whole category of poetic lament for lovers not wanting to part?), a word adapted from the spanish, alba, for “sunrise,” which borrowed from the latin, alba, the feminine form of albus, meaning “white.” aubade is a word first used in 1678, a word pinned on these particular proliferous poems, of which you will find 44,478 aubades tucked in the files of the poetry foundation. which, of course, is a lot of folks paying attention to the dark edge of daybreak.

i’ve long been drawn to this hour — that interlude when one minute it’s inky and silent, not even a ripple of breeze, as if the world hasn’t yet roused from its sleep, and the very next instant the stars have faded, the light’s seeped in, and the first warbles of bird can be heard.

this week, for reasons having to do with an imagination that would not stop imagining the scene in a synagogue just as the bullets rang out, the heads bowed in prayer in the sacred suspension of time that is shabbat, and for reasons having to do with worries about children applying to college, i woke each morning at 4. and i could not find sleep again.

so i rose. one morning i reached out my arm and instinctively clicked on the radio. right away, before my eyelids had clicked fully to “open,” i heard the radio squawking about opioid addictions and police activity at that ungodly hour. i clicked off the radio; the assault was too early, and i was too raw. the first sounds seeping in needn’t be awful.

so i tiptoed downstairs in the dark. i didn’t flick a single light switch along the way. i headed straight for the back kitchen door. stepped into the chill of that soundless hour, and i looked up and into the heavens. i stood there, soaking in the night’s last offering: the star-stitched canvas above. the moon, all crescent and brilliantly white. i basked in the stillness. the sense that i alone was awake and paying attention. the sense that this time belonged only to me and my soul, and the great breath of God flowing into and out of my whole.

then i partook of my sacrament with seeds: i turned back to the house, reached into my birdseed bin, filled the banged-up coffee can with sunflower seed, and returned to my stash of feeders. there is something holy about making the first act of the day one of tending to others, especially when the others are weightless and feathered and seem to exist only to fill you with song. and the delights of their darting hither and yon.

by then, the goosebumps were cropping up. and my bare feet (for i’ve not yet decided it’s the season for shoes) protested. so into the house i hurried, into the early-morning percolations of a house beginning to wake: furnace starting to hiss, coffee pot gurgling its soon-to-come promise.

in times like these we all need tucked-away coves that shield us and shroud us and keep away the goblins. in times like these — and for centuries it seems, all the way back to the middle ages when the first aubades were inscribed — we humans seem drawn especially to the hours when “the curtain-edges will grow light,” as the poet philip larkin famously wrote, or “the encroaching skyline pecked so clean by raptor night,” as christian wiman even more brilliantly put it.

it’s the margin, the demarcation, the abyss followed by the eternal promise, the rising of the sun. it’s our emptiness quietly, certainly, being filled up again. it’s the hour when we’re quiet enough to hear ourselves breathe, and perhaps, if we’re blessed, to catch one or two whispers from the still small voice that never, ever is quelled.

what’s your sacred hour? and how do you carve out the stillness so necessary for what amounts to salvation?

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

papa letter

the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

not your mother’s pot roast

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back when i was peeking into the kitchen, the room where my mother ruled, what happened to pot roast happened once every couple weeks. and, seeing as my papa was an ad man in the mad men days of american advertising, a three-piece-suited man who came home on the train with a brief case sometimes spilling with mystery boxes, boxes marked X, boxes we were meant to try, i came to count myself on the front line of the post-industrial-space-age kitchen revolution. which means i was among the first to suspiciously nibble hamburger helper, bundt cake in a box, and — our favorite — space food sticks, those tootsie-roll-like batons sheathed in crinkly silvery paper; “breakfast in a bite.”

is it any wonder my culinary quirks got cross-wired?

back to the pot roast. as best i recall, pot roast meant my mama was ripping open packets of dehydrated onion soup (thank you, NASA), spinning off the lids of cans, exercising her dumping skills. (i’d like to imagine that when no one was looking, she poured in a glop of old red wine, but that was likely the kitchen down the street, where my best friend’s mama was likely to pour a little red wine into, well, her first mug of coffee.) the whole pot-roast caboodle was entombed in aluminum foil, and set in the oven till the 6:30 train pulled into the station, my pa motored home, and we all sat down together to hear the highlights of the day downtown where the ad men re-wrote the national narrative, in 60-second pitches with the catchiest tunes.

another thing about the pot roast: i’m pretty sure we never called it pot roast. i think it had a name that ended in “steak.” when you were feeding five kids, and trying to stick to your weekly grocery budget (those were the days when my ma prided herself on a week’s worth of groceries for seven, paid for with $100 bill — and change to tuck back in her pocket, change that became her “funny money,” money to spend as she darn well pleased), you named whatever you could a name that ended in “steak.”

which is how i came to not really know what in the world a pot roast was. all i knew was that it sounded like something donna reed or dick van dyke’s laura petrie would make.

which is all an even longer-winded way to say i was mighty intrigued when i spied a food52 instructional guide for something called “pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic.” if you ever want to grab my attention, toss in any sort of big number. i’ve always liked playing with numbers, and 40 cloves of garlic had me, truth be told, at 10.

as i count down the dinner hours with my sweet senior in high school, i seem to have slid into an ulterior plan of feeding him in ways he’ll never forget. ways that might seep in as he stands in yet another cafeteria line with a dishwasher-splattered cracked plastic tray, awaiting a ladle of whatever swims in the hot metal bins. (it’s sneaky, i know, but we mothers must out-think our offspring, especially when they grow to be big enough that they don’t like to be smothered with our hugs and our kisses and the little red hearts we used to scribble onto their lunch bags.)

which is where we arrive, at last, and once again, at the pot roast. something about “pot roast” seemed to ping that place in my brain that’s on the prowl for unforgettables. a boy who sits down to dinner on a thursday night, or — back up the clock — a boy who walks into a house where 40 cloves of garlic have been infusing the kitchen, front hall, heck, making their way down the whole dang walk, all backed up with notes of grass-fed beef, and chunks of carrot, onion, and vegetable broth (with a splash of red wine, because i learned watching my best friend’s mama….), well that is a boy who might remember his mama — or at least her pot-roasty roast once in a while.

so i set out on my mission. secured me three pounds of grass-fed beast, peeled garlic till my fingers called for time-out, chopped and seared, and cranked up the oven.

because i never want to keep these little miracles to myself, i am herewith sharing my secrets. this comes from my friends at food52, those geniuses of community recipe gathering, where so many cooks have their fingers in the pot, you’re assured that whatever makes it onto the site is vetted up, down, and sideways. and usually delicious.

pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic

Serves: 6 

Prep time: 30 min 

Cook time: 4 hrs 30 min

Ingredients

2 tablespoons canola (or other neutral) oil
3 pounds boneless beef chuck, patted as dry as possible
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
40 peeled garlic cloves
4 cups vegetable broth

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Set a large Dutch oven on the stove over high heat. While it’s getting good and hot, season the beef all over with salt. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Sear the beef all over—figure 4 minutes per side—until the outside is deeply browned and crusty. Transfer the beef to a plate.
  3. Add the onions and carrots to the pan. Toss in the rendered beef fat and season with a pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, another pinch of salt, and toss. Cook for another 5 minutes.
  4. Nestle the seared beef on top of the vegetables, then pour the broth around the perimeter. It should rise about halfway up the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pot and get in the oven.
  5. Roast for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, flipping the meat halfway through. You can start checking the meat at 3 hours—exactly how tender or toothsome you like it is totally personal.
  6. Before serving, remove any butcher’s twine (if it was there, holding the meat together) and use 2 forks to tear and pull the meat into big hunks and shreds. Season with more salt to taste.
  7. Serve with something starchy. This keeps perfectly in the fridge for leftovers all week. I also love freezing portions for pat-on-the-back weeknight dinners down the road.

so there you go. have at it. i can gleefully report that for a minute there last night dinner was silent. silent in that way that the taste of what’s at the end of the fork is so unusually good, the taste buds take over and the vocal cords go mum.

and that’s the story of pot roast. and how i added one notch to the score board, the one marked, “reasons to come home from college. or at least miss my roast-searing mama.”

what’s your secret sure-fire hit to lure those you love back home to your kitchen?

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