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sick days

the countryside i’d been hoping to see before a fever felled me this week….(photo by elizabeth marie black)

Wednesday I woke up with a fever. Thursday I woke up with a fever. And now it’s Friday, and I am still lying here with a fever. It’s not covid! But it’s not very friendly. And it’s the second time in two weeks my bones have ached so much I considered trading them in.

Sick days when you’re long past school days aren’t much fun. Excitement comes in the form of planting a thermometer under your tongue, and waiting for the beep. I try to guess if the numbers will be up or down.

I was supposed to be out in the country on Wednesday. But the cows will have to wait. And the waist-high grasses glistening in September’s sun. 

Once upon a time, I never minded a sick day. Once or twice I might have rubbed the thermometer against the threads of my bedsheets, registering a fever that gave me excuse to stay home from church and tucked under the covers reading a book I couldn’t put down. In a family of five getting to ring a little bell, beckoning gingerale or saltine crackers, meant for a little extra notice from the folks running the show. 

But nowadays, I sit by the window watching the sunlight and wish I was playing outside. 

In the meantime, a thousand prayers for everyone in the wake of Ian, the terrible horrible hurricane. The world is fevered, all right. 

what’s your tried and true cure for the days when you’re felled by a bug?

because i hate to leave you short, here’s an autumnal salad from my dear friend emily nunn, who started the “Tables for Two” column at The New Yorker, and later worked at the Chicago Tribune, and is side-splittingly hilarious and whose department of salad: official bulletin is worth every penny of its annual subscription, or free for an abbreviated once-a-week edition. and read even more about her here when dear emily graced the cover of the new york times food section.:

*RECIPE: An Autumnal Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Radicchio, Pecorino and Pepitas
from the inimitable Emily Nunn
Serves 4-6

2 small sweet potatoes, roasted in their skin until fork tender but not mushy, then refrigerated unpeeled; emily does this at 400°F, for about 50 minutes to an hour
1 medium head of radicchio, leaves separated and torn into bite-size pieces (you may also shred the radicchio as if for coleslaw, which is delicious and beautiful, but it won’t stay as crisp, something to consider if you’re interested in resilience here)
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced (emily used her mandoline), tossed with fresh lemon juice (a tablespoon or so)
1 tart fall apple, cored, quartered, thinly sliced crosswise (no need to peel; again, emily used her mandoline), then gently tossed with lemon juice (a tablespoon or so; don’t break your apples when tossing)
1 very small shallot, minced (or 2 tablespoons finely diced red onion)
Pecorino (or Parmesan, if you wish), a 2 to 3 ounce chunk, shaved with a vegetable peeler (emily likes a lot)
1/2 cup or so roasted salted pumpkin seeds (or pepitas)
Chopped chives, a half cup or more
Torn basil leaves, a half cup or more
Prosciutto, one or two slices per person, on the side (optional but recommended)
Flaky sea salt
Molasses Vinaigrette (below)

  1. Peel and slice your refrigerated sweet potatoes into 1/3-inch rounds, then into half-moons or quarter (I used rounds in the photo simply because they were pretty; you’ll get better distribution with halves or quarters).
  2. Line a platter or shallow bowl with the torn or shredded radicchio (you may wish to toss it with a few tablespoons the dressing first).
  3. Decorate the radicchio with the sweet potatoes then strew it all with the fennel, apples, shallot or red onion, and generous pecorino shavings; scatter this with the pumpkin seeds and herbs. Drizzle generously with the Molasses Vinaigrette and bring to the table, accompanied by the extra dressing in a little pitcher, a dish of flakey sea salt, and a small plate of abstractly folded slices of prosciutto, for those who wish to enjoy it alongside their salad.

    NOTE Another way to do this: Gently toss all the ingredients—except for the cheese, pumpkin seeds, and the prosciutto—together with some of the dressing (about half, to start; add more to taste) then top with the cheese and seeds; serve the extra dressing and the prosciutto on the side.

Molasses Vinaigrette
⅓ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 small clove garlic, grated on your microplane
2 teaspoons molasses (emily buys the basic grocery store stuff used for baking; she says it’s delicious but powerful)
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ to ¼ teaspoon cayenne (one or two pinches)

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all the ingredients and shake until well emulsified. You may want a touch more cider vinegar or lemon, or more salt; do this now and re-shake.

i’m especially saying prayers this morning for marsha in low country who’s expecting a walloping from ian today, and janet who might be down florida way but might still be safely tucked on the shores of a wisconsin fresh-water lake. and the millions we don’t know in the sweep of ian’s devastation.

grounding

birdhouse awaiting its post, in my new walled garden
pants for which my mother might disown me.

I wasn’t long off the plane, the suitcase barely unpacked, the clothes not halfway down the chute, and I was leaping into my oldest, most tattered, hand-me-down shorts (I seem to have a whole wardrobe of tattered ill-fitting hand-me-down shorts, these are the ones with the hem that dangles in front and disappears somewhere behind) and the t-shirt so ancient it’s bearing the name of a slick Andy Warhol launched in the very late ’60s. I call these my gardening clothes. The muddier they get, the more merrily I and they hum.

I had grounding to do. Grounding for me is quite literal. It’s a psychological balm and it comes with a trowel. I literally slice into the earth to draw out what amounts to a steadying potion, the closest I know to nerve-soothing elixir. 

September had gotten away from me. I’d intended a few weeks of quiet. So go such intentions. The holy communion of saints must be guffawing up in the clouds. 

So out I trotted into my back twenty; what once seemed endless expanse is now (thanks to the neighbors’ newly-erected 6.5-foot solid-cedar wall) most generously described as a wee jewel box of growing potential. My plot has shrunk, so it seems, but the newly defined outlines merely raise the ante. It’s a petit point of a garden I’m after. A tapestry of tiniest botanical stitches. 

I was soon on my knees. Fitting in ferns with their feathery fronds. Tucking in anemones with upstanding names, names that made them feel like royalty (Honorine Jobert — I imagine an empress) and names that sound like poetry in motion (Whirlwind — imagine them asway in September’s gentle breezes). 

Balms come in a thousand disguises. There are balms to swallow, and balms to chew. Balms that cover you in sweat, and balms that make you smell of chlorine. Took me a long, long time to find a balm that didn’t hurt me (plain old eating vexed me for decades). At last, though, I found healing balm in the sacred ground that surrounds this old shingled house. I found it watching the shadows play catch-me-if-you-can. And I found it watching the red bird alight on my window sill. I found it pretending I live in a cloister, and this is my garth. My prayer bench draped in clouds; my kneeler in clumps of compost. 

Maybe it was the long time coming that makes it more sacred. Maybe it’s remembering how emptiness once felt. And how distant that hollow is now. Maybe it’s facing the truth that there will still be days when the emptiness rises, when I feel my nerves starting to jangle, and tears are on the verge. Those are the days when I need to remember that something akin to a heavenly flow is just beyond the kitchen door. And I can tap into it with merely a trowel.

It’s quietly waiting there in the garden, my potpourri of barely detectable perfumes (lavender and heirloom hyacinth) and ones that knock your socks off (Korean spice viburnum); and leaves in shapes that might have been scissored in some far-off French lace factory. And then there are all the wild things who know they need no invitation. They’re the animators, the ones that chirp and chatter and squawk and belt out their twilight arias. Wide-bellied bees gather gold dust right before my eyes; butterflies flit and flutter and all but land on my shoulder. Even hummingbirds roll through town, on their way to tropical jungles where they’ll blend in with all the other primal screams of ruby and gold and shimmering emerald. It’s a menagerie out there, and I play the role of devoted observer, the one who quietly putters, poking plants here, there, and anywhere I can squeeze one more in. 

It’s all merely excuse for getting as close to the thrum of the earth as I can. It’s there where the worms wriggle, and the trees find their succulence, where the anemone roots and the chipmunks play chase, that I hear the undeniable, deeply permeable notes of heaven’s indelible undying song. 

I am grounding myself for the winter ahead. Grounding myself from the September and the summer behind….

welcome to autumn, the season of turning within….

for reasons that escape me, i seem to have decided that i will employ the shift key on my keyboard from time to time, and occasionally tap out a sentence complete with capital letters. sometimes makes for easier reading, i’d imagine. so i am — on occasion — giving it a Whirl. 

where or how do you find grounding? was it hard for you to find?

lemonade

New York City is not the shabbiest nor drabbest place to find yourself when, in jetting half across the continent with barely a few hours’ notice, you’ve packed so swiftly you’ve forgotten your toothpaste and grabbed the one pair of hand-me-down shorts that might fall to your knees if not for a safety pin (which you’ve also forgotten).

So, when the Big Apple called eight days ago now, and the caller was the first human I’d pushed from my womb, I leapt into MamaGear at the very first mention of the awful words“spinal tap.” By the time I’d arrived, the scariest of things (we won’t mention those ever again) had been tucked off to the side, and it’s now a matter of doing a whole host of things to avoid unseemly surgery. Those things entail navigating the labyrinth that is the American health insurance system. So, eight days in,we still seem to be spinning our insurable wheels. Of course the boy would take no pause in his drafting of complex legal opinions, so when I’m not listening to the Muzak of phone-systems seemingly stuck on permanent “hold,” I’ve done the unlikeliest thing I’d ever imagine I’d do with these out-of-the-blue, faraway days: I’ve made lemonade. Of this pile of lemons, of course.

After an apartment cleaning of whirlwind proportions––when nervous I find that scrubbing dust bunnies out from the nooks and the shadows is as soothing a balm as ever there was––I decided to use my non-nursing hours to make like a Big City Girl in the liveliest city that I’ve ever known. 

First off, I embraced the behoozies out of the love of his life who had raced to the ER when I couldn’t get there, and then dodged her way out New York Fashion Week (she works as an editor at one of the very big fashiony slicks) so she could stick by his hospital bedside (even in the room with the, ahem, handcuffed roommate who turned out to have a whopping case of the red-ringed virus, Omicron edition). 

And once we got the dear boy home to his aerie, and he got on with whatever he could of his normal existence, I’ve used these days on the far side of the country to hop onto trains, and to hoof it for miles, spending long hours of time with some of my most favorite souls in the world, several of whom happen to have found themselves rooted in this island afloat in the near Atlantic. 

I’ve found myself sitting in City Hall Park with a soul I adore as a sister, a sweetheart I long ago babysat on Saturday nights. And more than once the other afternoon, as the New York sky sprung a drizzly leak, I felt tears in my eyes, and a panoply of lifetime picture shows flashing across my synapses, barely believing that two long-ago girls from Brierhill Road now were kneecap-to-kneecap on a bench near the foot of the great Brooklyn Bridge. And the afternoon before that, I was out on Long Island, joyriding alongside one of my long-ago bridesmaids, a beloved soulmate and sisterly friend who’s suffered unimaginable losses in recent weeks, months, and years. Those hours we spent, side by side, and rarer than rare, were as delectable as hours could possibly be. And we seized them with all the gusto we’ve got.

Not only once but twice I’ve sat across a café table from my very chic and heavenly sister-in-law, and delighted in seeing the city through her very wise and deeply-studied eyes. I’ve made friends with the neighborhood shoe repairman and dry cleaner and pharmacist and plenty of doormen (even the building’s dryer repairman when my six heavy loads of washing and drying, um, nearly triggered the fire alarm), and I’ve stood drop-jawed as Fashion Week and its legions of oddly-coifed characters have jammed doorways and intersections and staircases and street corners with their paparazzi and haute couture paraphernalia.

And through it all I’ve done what mamas do best: kept very close watch on my boy who is hurting (and who still cannot feel or flex his left lower leg or his foot). Absorbing the rhythms of his every day (even if those rhythms appear highly counter to any semblance of stress-free living) is rarer than rare in this long-distance world that is ours. To see up-close what he juggles each day, to trace some of his footsteps, the people he knows, the people he loves, it’s a window of grace that was never expected, and decidedly unplanned. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even a fresh tube of toothpaste. Or a pin to hold up my pants.

Flying home later today. Bless you for your umpteen prayers, candles, love notes. All will be well, as Julian of Norwich insisted.

Have you stirred any lemons and sugars and icy waters of late?

From New York, with love

season of turning

my friend: red-breasted nuthatch.

all around, i see daubs of russet and pumpkin. at the tips of the branches. on the leaves of the vine. even on the chest of my nuthatch, the one that followed me around the garden the other day as if he wanted to plop on my shoulder and whisper a secret. (in the case of the nuthatch, though, a red-breasted nuthatch, he wears russet all year round; he’s not sporting ephemeral seasonal garb). for the leaves, the russet and pumpkin, soon to be crimson and gold as the deepening deepens, as the chlorophyll scrapes the paint-barrel bottom, the brushstrokes of autumn are signs that we’ve entered the season of turning. 

the jews, a people from whom i have gleaned volumes of sacred attentiveness, seize every turning of this holy earth, and this season of turning is its own holy time: Elul, the month that opens the gates to the holiest of holy days, the Days of Awe, the new year and the day of atonement, coming at the next new moon. 

this is the month, these amber-drenched days and moonbeam-bathed nights, when our one anointed task is to attend to the work of cleansing our souls. jews take repentance seriously. no whispered, hurried, sloughed off “so sorry.” to truly repent is to a.) look deep inside; b.) shake off the shame, the excuse, or whatever it is that keeps you from telling your truth; and then, c.) the hard part: stepping up to the plate, looking the ones you’ve hurt or cut short, the ones for whom you’ve been too often distracted, looking them straight in the eye and saying here’s what i did, and i am so sorry. and i will change my ways. or try to anyway.

and here’s a wondrous thing, a something that makes it just a wee bit more promising to take on the hard work of repenting; wise words spoken by one of our rabbis just the other Shabbat. she was preaching about the season of turning, and she made the point that God — the God in whom i believe, a God of compassion, a God who reaches deep down into the parts of me that hurt the most, into the parts of me that get tangled, tripped up, and sometimes make a big mess of what needn’t be messy — that holy God is primed and ready to meet us way more than halfway in the repenting department. 

the sages of the Talmud gave us this marvelous teaching about repentance:

“God says if we open a door as tiny as the eye of a needle, God will widen it and make it large enough to let carts and horse-drawn carriages drive through.”

in other words, God’s got skin in this game. God doesn’t expect overnight miracles. we aren’t meant to turn into superheroes of saintly proportion. we’re plain old bumble-brain humans, after all. and the talmudic teaching is, in my mind, as if God sat us down, knee-to-knee on a park bench, perhaps, and said, look, here’s the deal, just give me the faintest slightest attempt at saying you’re sorry. just one tiny opening, that’s all i ask. the beginning of something that looks or smells or sounds like contrition. an honest-to-goodness “i screwed up.” you give me that, and i’ll take it from there. i’ll swipe open your heart, let the sweet stuff roar in. give you a sense of just what it feels like to let loving abide. 

maybe just maybe, the teaching is saying, we can discover the weightlessness that comes when the guilt washes away, and with it its ugly cousins: worry, or shame, or that godawful sense that we’ve hurt someone or something when we hadn’t intended to do any such thing. 

one of the things i love about jewish teachings is that there’s an almost breathtaking knowing of the complexities of the human soul and psyche. there’s no simplistic aphoristic glossing over of whatever it is that makes us tick. it’s not a magic-wand religion, not inclined toward three E-Z steps to HappilyEverAfterLand. 

it doesn’t avert its gaze. doesn’t whitewash the ask. names the hard parts. and somehow believes we’re up to the task, every last wobbly one of us.

take this teaching on the demands of the season of turning, a teaching i found in the prayer book for this month of Elul: 

Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful. It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways. God, help us to turn––from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around and bring us back toward You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other––for in isolation there is no life. 

Rabbi Jack Riemer (emphasis added)

the jewish understand of the soul is nuanced, its prayers often stop me in my tracks. utterly breathtakingly beautiful. and blessed. 

no matter how or what you believe (or even if you don’t), it seems there is something in this turning season that calls us into a deeper and quieter contemplation, an inkling that we are all wrapped in a golden-threaded prayer shawl of awe.

Mishkan Halev: prayers for Elul

to the author of this prayer (again, a prayer i found in the Mishkan Halev, or prayer book for Elul), the days and weeks in which we now find ourselves are something of a holy island in the year. may you find its shore, and be harbored in its holiest coves.

An Island in the Year

Before we slip too quickly into the Season of the Soul––
let there be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the heart. 

Before the music of Creation’s majesty––
let there be a silent praise of existence.

Before the feast of sanctified words––
let there be a poetry of solitude.

Before we enter the palaces of prayer––
let us find within ourselves a place of calm.

Before we revel on the wondrous and sublime––
let there be an honest, inward gaze.

Before the rites and ceremonies of Awe––
let there be quieter days,
an island of attentiveness.

what are the ways you find yourself turning in this holy season?

beautiful people, i never really write chairs a day ahead, but for some reason i did yesterday, and today it turns out i am flying to new york city on the next flight. my beautiful boy was admitted to the hospital last night, and i am going to be there. no idea for how long. but this is where mamas belong. say a prayer for my Will.

it’s the-light-will-save-you season

it wafts in, gold dust, falls in rivulets across the table, broad swaths and shafts through the windowpanes. it’s molasses light, the amber season, the light of autumn coming that just might save me. it holds alchemical powers, makes my heart quicken, might even push out the walls of my veins a wee bit. i imagine it expands the little red blood cells ferrying molecules of oxygen all around my labyrinthine insides. it makes me more alive than any other season’s sunlight. and it’s coming day by day.

the sun is slipping is how we put it. but, really, that’s not the science. that’s the egocentric way we humans always try to think: putting ourselves in the core of the equation. really, it’s just plain old geometry, all about the angles of earth to sun, and axis to angle. we’re spinning at our cockeyed angle, and come autumn, when we’re leaning out from the sun, the angle shrinks from summer’s straight-on-from-on-high 90-degrees to the slenderer 23.5 degrees, meaning the sun no longer shines straight down in an intense tight cone, but rather the light’s diffuse, the shadow longer. the sun––should you imagine it as a flashlight shining on a table (should you care to do a bit of third-grade science, here)––is not shining from straight above, but now (imagine moving your hand and the flashlight lower in an imaginary arc) it’s shining from off to the side, and the light cast is, per our hypothesis, less intense, more spread out, and––here’s the magic, if we’re talking earth and not flashlights and tables––more golden.

dylan thomas said we should “rage against the dying light.” mary oliver called it “the old gold song of the almost finished year.” i call it molasses light. and i won’t rage against it. i will all but gulp it down. heck, i’d lick it off the table like an autumn lollipop if i didn’t know how impolite that was.

it’s the-light-will-save-you-season, and it’s saving me.

it comes with its cousin, tinge-in-the-air. or at least it does here where i live, not far from the shoreline of that great lake michigan. as one long summer sings it’s almost-finished song, i will relish the next one on the song list: the song of autumn’s gold, with a chaser of goosebumps-in-the-morning air…


commonplace corner: i tend to read in tandem, two books at once; sometimes more. and it’s magic when one book finds itself in conversation with another, unbeknownst to all of us till we stumble on the paragraphs that talk to each other. that happened this week when the subject was how we learn to tell stories. and it’s making me think hard and long about the places in my life where i learned what it meant to sit at a table and be transfixed by the ones from whom the words were pouring, the one with the magical capacity to make a whole room laugh at the very same moment, as if a giant feather had just tickled all our funny bones. at once. how miraculous is that, to make a whole room laugh? to make a whole room cry? to make a whole room think? i can’t think of anything more magical. maybe other than making someone walk who’d never walked before.

here are two sumptuous paragraphs that made me think this week. one’s from erskine caldwell, an american novelist and short story writer whose father was a home missionary at the turn of the last century who moved from place to place in the clay hills of georgia, so young erskine absorbed the dialect and wisdoms of the impoverished sharecroppers where his papa preached. the other’s from kerri ní dochartaigh, a breath-taking writer born on the border of the north and south of Ireland, whose recent memoir, thin places: a natural history of healing and home (pointed to me by beloved chair sister sharon b.) seems to be taking the writerly world by storm. deservedly so. she too has written a sumptuous paragraph about the storytellers in her life. maybe they’ll make you think about the story spinners in your own sweet life…

Erskine Caldwell

I was not a writer to begin with; I was a listener. In those early decades of the century, reading and writing were not common experiences. Oral storytelling was the basis of fiction. You learned by listening around the store, around the gin, the icehouse, the wood yard, or wherever people congregated and had nothing to do. You would listen for the extraordinary, the unusual; the people knew how to tell stories orally in such a way that they could make the smallest incident, the most far-fetched idea, into something extraordinarily interesting. It could be just a rooster crowing at a certain time of night or morning. It’s a mysterious thing. Many Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.

from Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe––storytellers––never really tell you anything, though. They set the fire in the hearth, they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn’t fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will. 


“‘Consider the lilies,’” Emily Dickinson said, “is the only commandment I ever obeyed.” Some days, that one is enough. More than enough.


and finally in this week’s version of the chair gazette, a celebration this week of shifting sunlight and words that awaken us, i need to leave one last bit. some but hardly all of you play on the various social media playgrounds — facebook or instagram (i try to do little of either) — and my job as a person with a book in the publishing chute is to tell the world it’s coming (which i intend to do as quietly as my publisher allows). and this week the marketing folks at broadleaf books sent me my “blurbs,” those words of kindness that early reviewers send along. because i promised those marketing wizards that “the chair” would always be my core people, i need to quietly leave those blurbs here to keep up my end of the promise. if you’ve seen ’em in a little post i left on facebook, well then apologies. if not (and my mother counts among those who’ve not seen them elsewhere) here’s the lineup that frankly broke me out in goosebumps. the kindness of these five, all of whom are heroes of mine, pretty much made the last two years worth it….

some heart-melting kindnesses from early reviewers of The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text

“Regardless of where one’s spirituality (or lack of it) may lie, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature is a deeply rich celebration of the ageless overlap between religion and the many faces of the natural world—the ‘Book of Nature’ to which mystics, monks, and others have turned for insight into the sacred. Best of all, this thought-provoking exploration is wrapped in Mahany’s luscious and luminous writing, which makes every page a delight.” 
—Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

“Attention is among the deepest forms of integrity. In The Book of Nature, Barbara Mahany pays attention. She doesn’t look through nature; she looks at nature and, there, sees the mysteries that make and unmake us. In an age of environmental threat and neglect, Barbara Mahany’s book is a theological, poetic, and devoted plea for attention to our most fundamental constitution: matter—and everything that comes from it, including us.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, host of Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios

The Book of Nature is an invitation to step into the newness of each day: sunrise, garden, forest, waters, nightfall. These pages reflect both awe and heartbreak, a pause when our world feels on fire and the climate crisis calls us to collective lament, communion, and action.”
—Mallory McDuff, author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice

“Following in and deepening the footsteps of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature invites you to engage with nature as the body of God: to know that all life is the happening of a nondual Aliveness  called by many names. Calling to a humanity drunk on transcendence and desperate to escape from Nature and our responsibility to Her, The Book of Nature reveals the sobering immanence of God as the Source and Substance of all reality.” 
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Judaism Without Tribalism

“Lovely and smart reflections—the perfect book to slip into a rucksack on a day you’re planning a wander through the larger world!”
—Bill McKibben, author The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon

and that, dear friends, is that. page proofs are due tuesday, so i’ll be back–perhaps–to more regular chairs, less gazette (though it’s been deliciously fun to assemble morsels every week) and more single-subject essay.

but in the meantime, spill your thoughts about autumn sunlight, storytellers, or words that’ve stirred you this week as we move into golden time….the season of the light that just might save you….

of walls and bridges…

before: when sunlight had a place to play

been thinking a lot about walls and bridges this week, because it seems the only thing to do about a wall is to try to build a bridge. something of a wall––a six-foot-three-inch, solid-cedar wall––was dropped into our little world this week. it’s a wall i’d known was coming. a wall i’d been warned was on the wishlist all of three years ago. that’s a lot of breath-holding, spring to fall to summer, again and again and again. but held it i did. savored every drop of sunlight shafting in. counted my blessings in dapplings and plashes of sunshine’s incandescence, delighted in the way the light danced upon the wicker and the shingled walls of the little room we call “the summer house.” stood there just soaking in the breeze.

after…

it’s gone now.

and once i cried (the day i heard it’d been ordered, paid for, and soon to be arriving), once i dried those tears, i did what mightier folk than me have shown me what to do, and how to do it: how to build a bridge. starts with chin up, and turn the better cheek. if a wall was coming and i couldn’t stop it, i pretty much shrugged my shoulders and decided i’d take it like a grownup, take it with as open a heart as i could muster. and i’ve been mustering. all summer we’ve been gardening side by side, my next-door-neighbor friend and i. i dug up all the plants that wouldn’t grow in the dark at my house, and now they’re growing in the light at hers. on her side of the six-foot-three-inch fence.

since i’ve been at this digging thing for a few decades now, i’ve told her the few secrets and wise things i’ve learned the hard way. fact is, she’s smart as a whip and a whip-crack study, figures things out in a flash. and best of all she’s not afraid to get her hands muddy, or to spend a whole darn day on her hands and knees scrubbing. i’d say there’s grown genuine affection in our weeks of garden talk. we’ve sprouted something even a wall can’t eclipse.

and then this week the fence was no longer something i needed to picture in my head; it’s right outside, the whole long stretch of it. i wish it was a picket. i wish it let even a little dab of light through, but it doesn’t.

once the sun slides low, it gets dark out there. the light no longer plays.

so i got to work digging. dug myself a garden plot where before there’d been an isthmus of grassy lawn that stretched without end, it seemed. my old garden––along the western edge, a patch of peonies, an oak leaf hydrangea, some happy happy ferns––it’s pinched and stunted in mid-sentence it seems. things will need to be moved, and the few i moved already, to escape the metal posts being banged into the ground, they seem to have died in protest.

but i’ve a new garden now. one that will catch the morning sun. one i’ll delight in, once it starts to bloom. once the butterflies come in, and the birds nibble at the seed, and the bumblebees imbibe the succulence. and three years ago i bought myself a fantabulous bird house that will rise up on a bird-house post from somewhere in that garden, and it will be the pretty thing my eye is drawn to, the birds are drawn to. and i intend to come to love what i’ll pretend is my cloister garth. my place to soak in the sacred that animates this holy earth.

it’s not the only bridge i had to build this week, which got me to thinking hard about the ways i want to live my life. i will always always try to be the one to turn the other cheek. to search for the glowing heart of humanity –– or do i mean the sacred? the divinity? –– buried deep down inside, in the shadow of whatever hurts and scars have made it hard to see. i turned to thinking about the long line of blessed radicals, even the one whose name has been so deeply abused by so-called christians. i thought about the good samaritan. i thought about gandhi and martin luther king, jr. i thought about how, in the face of hurling hatreds, they listened only to the sound of love. how they always, always chose the bridge, and broke the walls.

what it really means to practice love is to do it when it’s hard. when things you dearly love are being taken away. when ones you love are sometimes even the ones doing the hurting. whatever are the million things that make it hard to muster, to offer, to model, to practice love.

we all need practice. it’s try and try and try again. stumble, skin your knees, and try again. the question is: will we try, or will we walk away, and leave a trail of hurt and hearts that only serve to harden?

and while i was thinking of all that, i stumbled on these words that fell right in line with all my thinking of walls and bridges…

SOMETIMES

we need a bridge and sometimes we are the
bridge. No one I know has escaped
troubled waters, rough seas and challenging,
scary days. There are times in our lives
when we could use a little help, and other
times when we are given the chance to be
that help for someone else. It really doesn’t
matter where you are right now. What
matters is that you remember we are
stronger together, and taking a hand is
just as important as offering one.

paul boynton

what bridges are begging to be built in your world this week? (a question for quiet contemplation….no self-disclosure needed…)

so far i’ve built a path of limestone stepping stones in what’s now a skinny gangway between garage and fence, but it’ll some day have a picket gate, and i plan to line that stretch of fence with avian residences (aka bird houses) and i need to find wee plants that don’t mind growing in the dark. and today, since my page proofs still aren’t here, i’m headed to the nursery to pluck myself some bushes that will bloom in spring and blossom into berries when the autumn comes. and there’s a long list of perennials i’ve always wished i had a place for, and now i do. so my bridge promises delight even in its earliest iterations.

the sodden state of summer’s back-to-school days . . .

it’s been getting heavier and heavier all week. my heart, that is. the boy i love—or one of ‘em anyway—is heading off again. one last time. to school, that is. we’ll be playing follow-the-leader, interstate-style, this weekend, when he pushes off with a trunk filled to the gills, and i follow not far behind with a wagon equally jammed. i’m enlisted only for my skill at hospital corners (a nurse’s way of tucking in bedsheets), and my knack for stuffing things in the teeny spaces that qualify as dorm-room closets. 

all week, amid a blur of other complications, i’ve felt my heart grow heavy with tears not yet spilled. the country roads the whole way home––just me and some fine book on tape––will make for a bucolic sponge for salt-water spillage. 

that boy is the best of company, that boy of the very big heart and the disposition best described as super chill, and ever animated. the boy fills this old house, and every heart in it.

so, once he’s left behind, back here at the homestead it’ll feel hollow once again till we get used to the long pauses of silence, till we get used to a room where the door isn’t sealed shut to hide the disarray inside. 

a wise someone once told me that if i thought high school blurred by in a blink, i’d find college blurred in half a blink. and so it is. eight years after dropping off his big brother one last time, it’s time for the caboose to part as well. this is it: the end of tuition checks and dorm vernacular, the end of considering time in back-to-school and semester allotments.

there’s perhaps a better chance that this one will find his way back home, to call sweet chicago the place where he belongs. but till then, nine months will trickle by. 

it’s the leave-taking that always bumps me up. the saying goodbye is not my strong suit. my trouble in that department dates back to when i was five and my papa got a big new job in a city far away, and every sunday night for the rest of a school year, he slid behind the wheel of his turquoise ford falcon and headed down the drive while i sat slumped on the concrete stoop there in the garage. i remember crying till my cheeks hurt. and going to bed with tummy aches. till he came home on friday nights.

nowadays i cry while spritzing the bathroom mirror, and when luring dust bunnies out from under the college kid’s bed, once he’s emptied it, once he’s faded into the faraway. then i try to find my way again, to find the joy in silence, in the slower pace with which the fridge and pantry empty, in the fewer loads of laundry. in that bathroom mirror that never splatters.

it’s come and go, all life long. and we’re wise to make the most of those blessed hyphens in between.

in the weeks ahead, i’ll be busy plotting my new cloister garden as a six-foot wall is being erected (straight through a chunk of what had been my garden, and hard up against our once-breezy screened-in summer porch) even as i type. i’m thinking of it as my monastery wall––the cedar barricade shutting out all the troubles of the world. but the thing i’ll miss most is the slant of sunlight at the twilight hour, as the great orb sinks low and the shafts of light get long and longer. it’s a golden glow that makes my summer porch seem gilded with celestial stardust. 

and because the last round of page proofs got delayed till next week, i’ll fill my quiet hours with the intense concentration those pages demand. and then it’s off to the printer as i await the day the box of books lands plop on my doorstoop. 


cook’s corner: here’s a truly nifty thing i bumped into this week (if meat lovers thrill to find a way to use every bit of the beast, from tongue to tail, then we who love the produce patch thrill just as mightily to find there’s more to the vine than just the fruits!). as one with a plethora of tangled vines, and one who sniffs deeply of my finger tips after plucking my daily tomato harvest, this enlightenment brings double the delight from those vines. and it’s all about the leaves…

How to Cook with Tomato Leaves

Tomato leaves contain 2-isobutlythiazole, a compound responsible for the plant’s distinctive aroma. Commercial tomato products, like ketchup, often include an isolated form of that compound to boost fresh tomato flavor.

If you have a garden full of tomatoes, though, you’ve got a great source of 2-isobutlythiazole right in your backyard. Here’s how to use tomato leaves to boost your sauce’s flavor.

1. When you harvest your tomatoes, pluck a handful of leaves from the plant.

2. Toss the leaves into the sauce and steep them for 10 minutes.

3. Remove and discard the leaves. 

Taste your sauce, and you’ll find that the tomato flavor has been both heightened and made more complex and earthy.


commonplacing:

from poet and pacifist William Stafford, found in his son Kim Stafford’s intimate portrait, Early Morning: Remembering My Father:
every day Stafford would write a page in his journal, his response to what he called “the emergency of being alive.” 

we are all of us deep in the emergency of our being alive…


a little bit of Buechner, in memory of the blessed man who died at 96 on monday. 

Frederick Buechner

a few years back, in 2016 to be precise, i counted a new collection of writings from theologian frederick buechner, with introduction by anne lamott, as one of the best books for the soul that year. his death this week made me pull that review from the shelf, and perhaps it’ll prompt you to pull a bit of buechner from your own bookshelf or that of your nearest library. 

Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner

By Carl Frederick Buechner, Introduction by Anne Lamott, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred, in equal brilliant measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights, by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner — a table of contents that includes excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, The Alphabet of Grace; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are introduced to, or immersed in, the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s literary and soulful gifts. 

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.”

That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages. What I know is that this world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that work as poetry, shimmying through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101


poet’s corner:

two poems worth pressing against your heart…

Field Guide

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

––Tony Hoagland

Moon

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

 It’s as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby’s face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth’s bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

 And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

––Billy Collins


listening nook: because i’ll be coursing through the countryside in my red wagon this weekend, i’m bringing my reading nook on little discs. here’s the stack assembled from the library shelves:

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean: i once was graced to work alongside Norman’s son John, a fine fine bespectacled gent with a much quieter, more studious demeanor than many of the newsroom characters. his father’s masterwork  stands as one of the great “evocations of nature’s miracles…and a probing of human mysteries.”

The Abundance, Annie Dillard: a landmark collection from the writer i consider my north star.

Five by Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald: i’m ever trying to expand and deepen my knowledge of the American canon and F. Scott deserves more of my attention. 

Dear Ann, Bobbie Ann Mason: mason, like me, is a kentucky native, so i feel it my native obligation to inhale her prose and her poetic ways of unspooling a story. i read my first bobbie ann mason so long ago, and it’s been ages since, so where better to reacquaint ourselves than the rolling countryside of the heartland we both call home?

Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora Ephron: ephron makes me laugh so hard i’d best keep an eye out for rest stops along the way. en route to one parents’ weekend, we listened to Heart Burn, her tale of woe from her years married to and divorcing from none other than journalistic legend Carl Bernstein. we loved listening so much we were sort of bummed we had to stop the car in ohio, where our kid was a freshman in college, and couldn’t roll along till, say, the atlantic seaboard, where we could have gotten a few more hours of ephron under our belts….


a bit more buechner, because there’s never enough:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else 
is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that 
is often just what we also fear more than anything else. 
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . ”

Frederick Buechner

and with that, this week’s edition of the chair gazette is a wrap. question of the week: how will suck the succulence out of summer’s august sweetness?

college kid this week, on the brink of one last back-to-school.

summer’s dalliances and a hodgepodge of other curiosities

some thoughts on summer attention: 

carrying a tray of napkins, forks, and knives out to the summer porch the other night, i noticed a silence. a new silence. the cicada, my favorite understory of sound signaling summer starting to close, had gone quiet. instead there were crickets, only crickets, relatively placid compared to the frenetic energies of the cicada, who are mortally pressed for time with only 24 hours to wake, procreate, and succumb. 

summer’s waning, i thought. and, darn, i missed the last chirr. 

(turns out the day it was quiet was a day less than 80 degrees, and the next day when it warmed up, they were back again. makes the pair of amateur entomologists who dwell in this old house think that maybe the ‘cadas had snuggled under their blankets, put their fiddles and strings in a case, awaiting a day with a little more burn in the air.)

straight off, it made me think of a glorious essay i’d read some months ago about paying exquisite attention, paying such exquisite and fine-grained attention that one is attuned to even the moment the cicadas cease their clattering, silence their love song. i’ve searched and searched all week for that misplaced essay, and can’t find it anywhere (maybe i too should call in the FBI for a search of my basement storage room). 

but even without the essay in hand, it still made me pause to think hard about those barely perceptible miracles that constitute the whole of each day. and made me construct my own litany of things worthy of my attentions: 

the moment in spring when the grass sheds its winter brown and slips on its verdant green.

the moment the nestling takes flight.

the moment the monarch emerges from his cocoon.

the moment the wedge of moon fades away in the dawn.

what if we were to notice? what if instead of numbly whirring through time we slowed to adagio and drank in even a half (or a teaspoon) of the everyday dose of miracles and wonders? what if even once a day we counted one thing we’d otherwise not see, not hear, not sense? what if we awoke to the mystery that’s animating every minute of every hour, day after day, year upon year? 

isn’t to see, isn’t attention, the first step to devotion? wouldn’t our life be infinite unfurling prayer if, as often as we breathe, we were awake to blessing?

have you noticed the day when the tomato turns just the right red for plucking?

have you heard the first or last note of the cardinal at the dawn or at nightfall? the moment when silence gives way to sound, or sound to silence?

have you noticed the firefly turn off its blink for the night? 

have you noticed the someone who’s hoping you’ll sit down and listen to one of his or her stories? 

the summer is fleeting, it’s begging we notice….


wee bouquet

summer dalliance: i’ve a thing for little bouquets; always have (ever since my mama taught me to pick lily of the valley or daffodils for the teacher, wrap them in wet paper towel and then a sheaf of aluminum foil wrapped tight into a baton). i love to pluck blooms from wherever i traipse in the garden or alley, and tuck them loosely into jars or pitchers or wee tiny vases. i find the gatherings of color and form, petal and leaf, tickle my fancy. so i pluck and i tuck with abandon. and then i scatter my abandonments all over the house. 


book news: hardest task of the summer for me, far harder than scanning pages for blips and bloops, was sending off queries to authors whose work makes me tremble it’s so dang good. i was instructed to ask these legends to read my book, and send back a few words of kindness, a thing in the book world called “blurbs.” it was an instruction that trembled me. but the task, now completed and turned in to my editor, might have taught me a thing or two about being brave. and the kindness of pure strangers. i can’t pull back the covers on what they wrote (not yet anyway), but i can tell you to whom i will forever be grateful; most especially to: Pádraig Ó Tuama (the poet, peacemaker, and host of Poetry Unbound from OnBeing Studios), Scott Weidensaul (ornithologist and best-selling author of Living on the Wind and, more recently, A World on the Wing), Bill McKibben (environmental activist and legendary author), Rabbi Rami Shapiro (poet and podcast host who wrote skeins of prayer in our synagogue’s prayer book), and Mallory McDuff (another environmental activist and author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice). equally kind, though they wrote back to say their plates were too jammed, include terry tempest williams (brilliant essayist and conservationist), susannah heschel (scholar and daughter of the late great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) and margaret renkl (a New York Times columnist who often writes about things i’ve been thinking), belden lane (theology professor emeritus and esteemed author), and fred bahnson (brilliant essayist). a few, who shall remain unnamed, never wrote back. oh well. the kindness of those who did is what will glow into the evermore…..


reading nook:

technically, i’m between rounds of page proofs which gives me time to indulge in my rabbit-hole school of reading, which this week has lured me into the writings and poetries of molly mcCully brown, a brilliant essayist and poet born with cerebral palsy who writes unforgettably about her intractable and ever-changing body, and who makes us think hard of the miracle of mobility, something we might take for granted unless we too were faced with a flight of stairs or an ancient cobblestone lane that kept us from the places we so longed to enter. somehow i’d never before known of sigurd olson, called “one of the great environmentalists of the twentieth century,” who wrote of the boundary waters, the northwoods, and the surrounds of lake superior. he won the john burroughs medal (the most esteemed prize in the world of nature writing) and made me think i just need to read my way through the lifetime list of winners. i’m beginning with The Singing Wilderness, described as the most poetic of his nine published books. on its back cover, it’s described as “an essential antidote to the trials of modern life.”


what’s cooking:

i find myself dizzy with summery sides from the vegetable patch this summer: corn, tomatoes, cukes, purple onions, frondy fennel (the crunch with a tassle), basil, basil, more basil. doused with vinegars, olivey oil, lemons, limes, oranges, and now a curious new douser: chili crisp, a sauce that’s sweeping the country, straight from the kitchen of Tao Hubi, owner of a popular Guizhou province noodle shop in China, who began selling her famed homemade chili sauce under the name Lao Gan Ma (found at whole foods, and, yes, on amazon). apparently the summer’s salady hit is nothing more complicated than tomatoes tossed with a splash of rice vinegar, a glug of olive oil, a pinch of flaky salt, and a generous spoonful of the magic sauce. it’s the gist of height-of-august deliciousness. and it’s called chili crisp tomato salad.

here’s an amazing twist on plain old green beans…

Side of Beans (Green):

from The Cordony Kitchen (Amanda Cordony is an Australian food stylist and recipe inventor, and she’s amazing!)Cook time: 4 mins | Prep time: 5 mins | Serves: 3 (as a side)

Ingredients
2/3 cup green beans – top and tailed
3 Tbsp + 1 tsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves – minced
1 orange – zest and juice
1/4 cup of raw almonds – roughly chopped
 pinch of chili flakes

Garnish:
Mint leaves, olive oil

Method.
1.
Get a frying pan on medium to high heat with olive oil. Place your beans, garlic, orange zest, orange juice and sea salt. Stir for 2 minutes.
2. Take off the heat and sprinkle in the almonds and chili flakes.
3. Serve and add mint leaves, olive oil, salt, and pepper.


so those are the curiosities of the week, as i get back to proofing later this morning. thanks for indulging my gazetteian tendencies these past few friday mornings. i believe only one more week and then i send off the proofs to the printing presses, where they will whir off the presses and onto real pages….

what are the curiosities and wonders that strike you at august’s peak? and what will you notice that you’d otherwise miss?

p.s. happy height-of-august birthday to our very own hardshell aficionado and keeper of wisdoms, karen the wonder woman, whose birthday is any day now, though i don’t know which….

when summer starts to run away…

the tangle that is my plot of runaway vines

in which we continue in gazette-ian style, with bitlets and chunks from the week that’s just whirled by…..(as i roll toward end-of-summer editing deadline, the gazette affords the chance to gather up bits in between long hours of proofing pages and rethinking the occasional passage. the other big job of the summer is sending off queries to authors whose works are the high bars i reach for, including unproofed copies of the manuscript, humbly asking if they’d be willing to, ahem, read the whole darn thing and send along a few words, aka “blurb” the book. it’s a task that makes me tremble, but a dear friend reminded me to channel eleanor roosevelt, she who implored that we do something each day that scares us. and so i’ve been eleanoring. results: forthwith. but for now, a few bits from the week…)


trying to be tomatoes

if one’s farmer plot is in any way a mirror of one’s soul, i’m in trouble. my tomatoes are tangled with my cukes, all of which have invaded the raspberries. the thyme has up and died. and the dill is dangling on what’s left of a skeletal spine. you know it’s bad when a friendly neighbor who regularly ambles down the alley inquires if she might apply her know-how to your tangled mess. that’s how it is here in suburbia: even your back plot is subject to scrutiny. you can’t hide your agrarian mishaps under a cloak of anonymity, and you sure can’t pretend the plot is not yours. all of which has prompted me to clean things up out there, save what i can, and assuage my ignominy. i suppose i could chalk it up to occupational hazard, one that comes from stuffing your nose in a book––especially a book of your very own making––rather than digging into nightly rounds with clipper and twine. 

it might just be that we’ve slammed smackdab into the dervish days of summer, when the heat is on high and the humidity’s higher. maybe the thrill of new growth has expired, and i let too much slide. or maybe the vines had a mind of their own, stayed up late in the night scheming how to outrun me. 

the worst problem is that for all their tangled overabundance they’ve overlooked their original job: they’re flunking the fattening drills, wherein those delicious tomatoey energies plump up the wee little orbs that, according to instructions, are supposed to turn from green to amber to red. and plumpen all the while. instead, i have clusters of nouvelle orbs, orbs the size of a miniature overpriced grape, when what’s intended is a candyland red (a proliferous cherry tomato) to pizazz your whole mouth. or a cherokee carbon (an heirloom slicing tomato) a good knife might sink into. 

i suppose the lesson my old plot is teaching this month is one that comes with double dose of humility. daren’t think that any old soul can muscle a trowel into earth, and make fruitful abundance appear. seems i should have gotten to work earlier on, nipping and pruning my runaway vines. perhaps it was a latent stinginess that kept me from cutting; not realizing the ancient truth that less almost always leads to more….

no matter the original sin; looks like i’ll mostly be bulking up on tomatoes the time-tested way: standing in line at the real-farmer’s market. where those who tend this blessed earth know bible and verse how to get vines to behave. 

in the meantime, my scant bits of herbs are being put to work morning, noon, and night in a panoply of summery sides. see below for the latest iteration of cooking with mint. 


when commonplacing is a way of being…

it’s a habit i can’t seem to curtail: an insatiable appetite for spotting and plucking fine little bits––poetries, wisdoms, epiphanies. as if a schoolgirl equipped with bottle of glue––might you remember those glorious clear glass bottles of amber-hued glue, with the pig snout of a pink-rubber slit-top through which the amber glue oozed?––i snip and i paste into my virtual scrap book, endlessly turning and filling the pages.

here are just a few of the snippets i’ve gathered this week: 

from Karen Armstrong’s, The Case for God:
Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (as he explained to the court that condemned him to death) Plato’s Apology (i like knowing that no less than the old philosopher ordered us to pay close attention.)

“Socrates once said that, like his mother, he was a midwife whose task was to help the interlocutor engender a new self.” Plato, Theaetetus

Buddha to curious Brahmin priest (at end of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God): “Remember me as the one who is awake.”
––
Thoreau’s journal, August 6, 1853
“Do not the flowers of August and September generally resemble suns and stars?—sunflowers and asters and the single flowers of the golden­ rod.”


this week’s reading:

finished karen armstrong’s The Case for God; started The History of God, but switched to Joseph Campbell when my brother told me he was reading Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (on order from my friendly librarians). whilst i wait, i’m diving into campbell’s Thou Art That: Transforming the Religious Metaphor. i find it an especially lovely thing to read in tandem with someone you love. and reading alongside my brother david is an act of pure love. he has one of the deepest classical bookshelves i’ve ever known, a harvest from his years working with a rare book collector. a beloved cousin sent a magnificent copy of james farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and it’s about time i commit a few of those lines to memory. recounting the tales of a south side irish punk, it’s a book whose every sentence i can hear oozing through the faint brogue of this beloved and quixotic cousin. and for dessert, i’m indulging in all the john burroughs i can get my hands on; Signs & Seasons, and The Gospel of Nature, is where this latest trail of burroughs begins….


Smoky Eggplant Salad With Yogurt and Mint
By David Tanis, NYT
YIELD 6 to 8 servings

sumptuous is the word that comes to mind for this. i was intrigued by the smokiness, and the joy of spinning an orb of eggplant atop the flame. i made it for Shabbat a few weeks ago, on a night when i was grilling salmon (we have fish for almost every Shabbat, a testament to our Jewish Catholicism, or would it be our Catholic Judaism?) and i swore i almost levitated off my chair. i happened to have a years old bottle of pomegranate molasses in the fridge, and thank heaven the label specifically assured “will keep almost indefinitely in the fridge.” i took my molasses at its word. could not be easier. nor more delicious. 

INGREDIENTS
2 pounds medium-size eggplants
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1⁄2 cup plain yogurt (i used nonfat, cuz that’s how i am and that’s what i had)
1 teaspoon crumbled dried mint (i used fresh)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses, optional
1 tablespoon roughly chopped mint, for garnish
1 tablespoon roughly chopped parsley, for garnish
Red pepper flakes, for garnish 

PREPARATION
Step 1
Put the whole eggplants on a barbecue grate over hot coals. Turning frequently, cook until the skin is completely blackened and charred and eggplants begin to soften and collapse, about 10 minutes. Alternatively cook them directly on a stovetop burner or under the broiler. Set aside to cool. 

Step 2
Cut eggplants in quarters top to bottom and carefully separate the flesh from the skin with a spoon or paring knife. Discard the charred skin. Chop flesh roughly with a large knife or in a food processor and put it in a fine-meshed sieve to drain excess liquid. 

Step 3
Transfer eggplants to a mixing bowl. Add salt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, yogurt and dried mint. Mix well, then set aside to rest for a few minutes. Check seasoning and adjust. 

Step 4
Put mixture in a low serving bowl. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses, if using, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle with chopped mint and parsley and a pinch of red pepper flakes. 

and that, dear friends, is the jumble of the week. is summer running away from you? how are you trying to catch it??

at our house, summer’s runaway is punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of early-august birthdays all strung in a row: my long-gone dad; my beloved brother; sweet blair; and teddy who turns 21 on monday. how in heaven’s name did that happen, the joy of my heart, the answer to my wildest prayers, for all of these heavenly years??? happy birthday, all you beautiful souls. xoxoxox

summer’s fever pitch

i feel it, as if a whoosh about to come, when suddenly i’ll be sitting wrapped in a sweater looking out at the glistening autumnal goldenness, asking myself “where did the summer go?”

maybe we all feel it. maybe that’s why there’s a fever pitch in the air. squeezing in those few things you would not let pass by in these summery months: the sitting outdoors with a breeze in your hair, as you order your food and let someone else do the cooking; the staying up late, under the stars, talking the night away with the college kid who, once he’s gone, might go weeks without finding time for a phone call; throwing a towel on the sand, baring your arms and your legs, sensing the splash and the roar of the waves just inches away, and hours later, perhaps when sliding into your jammies, unplucking the last stubborn grains of sand from in between your toes. because summer is all of those things. 

summer is for savoring because summer, like any season when we’re keeping close watch, is fleeting. evanescent, a fancy name for flashing by. 

we all have our own definitions for the season of indolence, the season when sloth is not only allowed but welcomed. what makes it special in my book are the moments i dare to break rules, do what otherwise might count as overindulgence (oh, my catholic childhood––just post-baltimore catechism––does continue to hold me in its clutches). 

i remember as vividly as anything the summer’s night when my mom and i sat in the dark of the kitchen, our backs pressed against the fridge, with an aluminum pan of chilled fudge (the kind you made from a box) and two spoons and we giggled like schoolgirls trying out truancy. 

sometimes what makes summer summer is simply its sense of abandon, the que-sera season, i’ve called it.

i remember chasing through the yard with a glass jar and a lid poked by a nail, in quixotic pursuit of the flickering lights of the firefly. (speaking of fireflies, how’s this glorious expression thereof: “To behold the skywriters tracing poesy in summer’s vapors, to decipher their sticky sweet nothings, their blinking reminders that we are meant to shine in our short time.”) i remember running barefoot, something i’ve not done in a long, long swath of years.

nowadays––now that trays of fudge are no longer, and chasing through grass in the dark would count as orthopedic risk––summer is finally getting to sink into a book once the work of the week is turned in. summer is piling high whatever i find in the fridge, and calling it “salad for dinner.” summer is waking as soon as the birds start to sing, so i can sneak into the day ahead of the blistering heat. 

mostly nowadays, summer is holding on tight to the hours i’ve got before the boy i so love packs up and goes. back to college, one last time…

how do you define summer? and what are the summery moments you’ll never forget?


summer reading:

these are the books i’m diving into once i turn in my latest round of pages scoured and scrubbed of all typos and bloops. my stack inspires me….

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd, introduced by Robert Macfarlane, afterword by Jeanette Winterson: a masterpiece of nature writing, first published in 1977, describing Shepherd’s journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of her native Scotland.

The Beginning and the End, and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers
The Selected Poetries of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt: The bard of the California coastline, a giant of modern letters who somehow has gotten a bit overshadowed, but whose capturings of words crash against me like the Pacific surf.

Early Mornings, by Kim Stafford: A biography of the great poet William Stafford,  a pacifist who called himself “one of the quiet of the land,” written by his son, a poetic force all his own.

The Odyssey, by Homer: Because it’s about time.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition: Because it’s every page-proofer’s best friend. Or it should be.

i also just started karen armstrong’s The Case for God, and oh dear gracious, it’s blowing my mind. i’ve borrowed it from the digital library, but i already think i might need to grab a page-turning copy cuz just a few chapters in, this is already a book screaming for marginalia…

a snippet of summer poetry:

‘Can we learn wisdom watching insects now,
or just the art of quiet observation?’
from ‘Summer of the Ladybirds’ by Vivian Smith


summer cooking, er, non-cooking: 

i’m trying this for tonight, perfect in a week when there’s not much cooking time in between hours and hours of page proofing

Corn Salad With Tomatoes, Basil and Cilantro
By Genevieve Ko

INGREDIENTS
5 ears of corn
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 lime
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil Salt
1⁄4 teaspoon minced seeded fresh habanero or other very hot chile (optional)
(*i’m adding a pinch of ground ancho chile peppers; maybe more than a pinch)
1⁄2 cup fresh basil leaves
1⁄4 cup fresh cilantro leaves 

PREPARATION
Step 1
Microwave the corn in their husks on high for 3 minutes. Shuck the corn — the silks will come off easily. (If you want to boil or steam the corn on the stovetop, you can shuck the corn first then cook just until brighter in color, 2 to 3 minutes.) Cut the kernels off the cobs, transfer them to a large bowl and add the tomatoes. 

Step 2
Finely grate the zest of the lime directly over the corn mixture, then squeeze the juice from the lime all over. Add the oil, a generous pinch of salt and the chile, if using. Mix well, then tear the herbs over the salad and gently fold them in. Season to taste with salt and serve, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 day. 


until i wrap up this little old book in the works (final deadline, end of august), i’m continuing on in the spirit of the gazette, that old-fashioned compendium of things worth tucking under your belt for the day (not that any of my scribblings above so qualify).

and while we’re at it, and in case you’ve ever wondered where in the world the word comes from: gazette is “a loanword from the French language, which is, in turn, a 16th-century permutation of the Italian gazzetta, which is the name of a particular Venetian coin. Gazzetta became an epithet for newspaper during the early and middle 16th century, when the first Venetian newspapers cost one gazzetta.”

and, with that, may yours be a summery week. however you define it.