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

Month: September, 2009

on high

not so long ago, i was poking around the back shelves of a dear friend’s flower shop, back where vases teeter tipsy-topsy, and vast pots are stacked so high they scrape the pressed-tin ceiling, when suddenly i tripped upon her.

oh, no, not my friend.

the new little darling i shove onto every counter, every corner of the kitchen table, every nook and cranny that will have her.

heck, i’d plop her by the bathroom sink, if i could, perch the toothpaste on her flat-planed saucer, her offering plate, her dish that coos, “come try me. i waft above.”

let me attempt here to convey her loveliness: she is old, very, very old. and she’s cracked right through the middle, a crack i didn’t notice till i got her home. but i loved her by then, so she’s here to stay.

she’s all cut glass, with–ta-da!–a DOME, a see-through bell-shaped lid, with little knob, that makes ceremony of the mere act of lifting. and down beneath, the part that puts her in a class above any old cake plate, is the oyster-pink perch upon which she pirouettes.

oh, she’s a looker, all right.

she makes me swoon.

and i am hoisting everything i can think of onto her raised-up parts: cookies from a plain old bag, the kind cranked out in some ho-hum factory, not even the ones you stir and slide into your very own oven, the only kind you’d think were worthy of such elevation; muffins, ones i make, or ones i don’t; even apples sliced, laid out in fan decks, one crescent wedge of granny smith nestled up against a sweet pink lady. under glass, always under glass.

i must confess: i think i might have crossed another one of those invisible lines here, the ones that whisper in our ear when we’ve gone a little loopy. a bit beyond the beyond.

i am mad, it seems, for foodstuffs with altitude. even when it’s only measured off in inches. i am, perhaps, a tad too keen on the launching pads that raise up what we nibble on, the kitchenware that might as well be a drum-roll: the cake stand, thank you very much.

i could–if no one kept close watch on my wallet–acquire them in droves. i’d slide them here and there throughout my house. like imelda marcos, i fear, only without the stiletto. and not in pairs. my obsession stands on just one leg.

but here’s how i’d defend myself in the court of odd fixations: there is, your honor, something inherently proud–downright generous, i’d posit–about a serving piece that doesn’t cower in the corner, one that steps right up and preens. stork-like, on singular appendage.

it makes for yet another one of those wee small moments in a day when the ordinary stands to be transformed. when an inch, sometimes, goes the mile.

we are, every one of us, here but for a spell. and with the gift of each and every day, we have this choice: we slog through, or we pick up those feets and skip along.

we toss food on paper plate; we call it fuel. get by.

or we stitch, one thread and needle at a time, regard for the holiness into everything we do.

okay, so maybe everything is stretching it a bit. maybe three times outa ten we pay attention.

maybe when the ones we love, or even our little own selves, come panting ‘round the bend, we meet them there with what amounts to gracenotes: cookies on a cake stand. under glass.

parsley tucked beside the scrambled eggs (because it’s growing just beyond the door, darn it, and why not snip it off, take it up a silly notch, make for the beautiful instead of plain old pedestrian).

maybe my altitudinal tendencies, at heart, are all about the knowing, through and through, that what we do here in the places we call home, that the itty-bitty barely-noticed tweaks and joys, are all but a part of the sacred vow we put to task each day: to live out our earthliness with an eye, at every turn, on high.

and to shine that holiness on those we love.

even when it’s just a store-bought cupcake. one that finds itself up off the counter, and under glass.

not so shabby, a life’s work for a cracked old cake stand.

not so shabby, not at all.

what are the itty bitty ways you lift up your humdrum days? make ceremony of the simply act of living, and loving? i wait to see who wanders by this week. p.s. let me know if you too have a thing for any odd kitchen ware…..i’m wondering.

turn and return

it is holy time again.

well, it always is. especially on these honey-dripping days, when the september sun warms us with its deepest amber drops. and the nights turn where’s-my-sweater chilly, and the morning’s dew is enough to make you curl your toes.

it is holy time in any autumn hour.

but never holier than on these the days of awe, now mine as much as my beloved’s.

i do believe, long, long ago my irish peoples were not the ones who’d once been druids, worshipped rocks and stones.

i’ve an inkling that maybe my people, once upon a time, understood the rhythms and the seasons of the hebrew moons and stars.

i believe my people might have been among the wanderers, wandered right up and settled down on that island to the north, far north. the one where craggy rocks erupt from mossy meadows. where sheep graze and clog the country roads, stop the motor cars from motoring. might as well turn off the petrol, for there is no shooshing along a sheep. not one with munching on its mind.

oh, i am catholic through and through.

(though lately i’ve been longing for a drop or two of anglican, what with all those women making noise up on the altars, and a world view that’s maybe looser with the rules, a bit more inclusive in at least a few departments. why, i muttered not too long ago, i could even be ordained. but the one i married will not have it; one thing, he laughs, to have married a catholic, whole ‘nother thing to be married to a priest.)

and, yes, too, i am defined now by the rise and fall of sun, the turning of the moon, the seasons of the planting and the harvest. i kindle lights at sundown on shabbat. i inhale the spices at its close, cling all week long to the sharp, sweet notes of clove and star of anise, allow my nose’s memory to whisper through the weekdays that holy time will come again.
the pause of shabbat is God’s command to put down toil, lift up holiness. marvel at the simple gifts of consecrated quiet. it is God’s promise, too, to fill the holy chalice that is us, leave us thirsting for not a single blessed drop.

oh, there is much poetry that pulses through my heart these days. passion, too. and much of it is stoked by the prayers i read while i sit in synagogue, turning pages, lost in my own reverie.

it is, to me, all a spiral. the geometry of climbing. the ladder of a soul that reaches toward the heavens.

it is time to turn and return. so says the prayer of each shabbat. and, the ones for rosh hashanah, too.

even the bread, the challah of these holy days, is freed from its ordinary flat-planed braid, and lifted into ever-rising spiral.

we are told, in prayer and golden-crusted foodstuff, to come back to where it all begins–to turn and return–but take it up a notch. don’t be satisfied with status quo. don’t let dull the sharp-edged hope.

the days of awe begin tonight, when the sun slips down beyond the curve of earth, and the stars turn on, lighting up the nightsky.

it is time here in this house that is ours to turn again to page 82, the lamb-spattered page, the page where cinnamon has fallen, and kosher salt has settled in the gulley of the binding. it is lamb-stew time, the one single recipe upon which this union was begun. upon which it will, God willing, always rise.

just home from honeymoon, 18 years ago, encamped in an upstairs apartment in a tiny blue-framed house, the man i’d just married opened up the book i’d given him years before, before i ever dreamed i’d be his wife, and settled on the stew that would become our touching-stone. that will be stirred upon our stove, as long as there are arms to hold the long, wooden spoon. to sprinkle leaves of thyme. to cut up apple into chunks. to dump in raisins by the cupful.

it is, as we grow year upon year, a sense of coming home. we stir and we remember. we set the plates and pomegranates on the table, and we bow our heads in prayer.

we turn and we return.

it is all about the spiral. the holy coil that lifts us on our journey. that brings us back, again and again, but never to the place we’ve been before.

there is, we realize with every passing year, unparalleled beauty in coming round again to that moment in the days, the weeks, the months–the season–when all the world echoes: we’ve been here before.

and here’s your chance to savor it again, to learn again. or maybe for the first time.

it is holy and sacred, this spiral-marking, and it comes at the moment when my heart is ripe to bursting. when every pore of me wants to slurp up the molasses light that’s pooling all around.

i am inclined in these days of awe to walk wherever i must go. i want to feel my soles slap against the earth, feel the bumpy acorns, catch the light as it pours through golden-turning leaves.

it’s almost as if i can’t get enough of the gift: the gift of the spiral, the coming back to the essence–the joy and the beauty, the pure holiness–again.

it is time, now, to close my eyes in prayer. to inhale the holy vapors from my stove, my plate, the spice box.

it is hard not to want to leap into the holy rushing waters of this sacred river passing by. it’s an upflow, i am certain. and an updraft too.

i am soaring here, on a spiral fueled with cinnamon and cloves. these are the holy blessed days, the days of awe.
and i do as i’m commanded: i stand in awe, turning and returning….

may these most holy days enwrap you as they do me. may your every pulsebeat skip to the Divine that’s draped around us–from the branches of the trees, to the ever-dwindling slant of the sun, from the mounds of apples, to the holy prayers. may awe come to you, as you turn and gift it to the world in which you dwell.
your prayer for the blessed new year?

trusting the man with the blade

we’d been talking for a long time about carving out a day, he and i and his pruners and loppers.

that’s garden talk for some very sharp edges.

my friend david knows what to do with a very sharp edge.

so he drove up today in his truck, dumped all his blades at the curb. gave me a hug.

can’t say i didn’t peek over his shoulder, made sure early on the blades weren’t part of the hug. that’s when i noticed the sharp edges dumped. squeezed a bit tighter there in that hug, once i knew the blades weren’t entwined with us, too.

david is one of my teachers. i tend to acquire teachers in the subjects i most love.

i’ve had teachers who taught me–still do–how to be a mother. and teachers who’ve taught me a thing or two about words, especially the art of cobbling them, one banged up against the next, making sharp edges with those strung-together alphabet letters, crisp corners. a snatch of poetry, too, here and there, every once in a while. or, well, trying at least.

i’ve a whole faculty when it comes to my garden, that holy sacred place that’s as close as i come to religion these days. like being in church, or a pew, or a temple on any shabbat.

dappled light in my chamber of prayer comes in, not through stained glass, but through deep-veined leaves, and the cracks in the fence.

preacher comes in the wren who warbles so clear and so true she makes my heart shiver. and my knees, too.

of all the heavens i know, the one place i most want to be on these golden-drenched days of september is out where the sun warms the earth that runs through my fingers.

it’s the one place where i hear the words of my soul rising in whole-body grace.

and, since tackling the woods and the weeds of my overgrown chapel is enough to knock me down flat, well, i reckon i could use whatever learning i’m offered.

and david, the son of a dairy farmer. david, a painter. a classical music freak. a chicago cop, for cryin’ out loud. david is a teacher i’ll take any day he’s free from the beat.

he’s one of those rare souls who, in between milking the cows and belting out arias, soaked up the latin and common names of just about every growing thing that ever there was–at least on the rolling prairies that stretch from just north of the illinois-wisconsin state line, clear down to the south side of chicago.

he knows where to plop a bush and make it look like it’s always wanted to be there. knows which way to turn a weeping, gnarled-spine hemlock, so you swoon when you come round the corner and your eyes rest upon its S-shaped parabola. knows which ferns like it dry, and which will tolerate a wee bit of wet under their toes.

so david came by today. spent the whole day, he and his loppers and pruners. i worked right beside. soaked in every bit of the lessons. and plenty of wisdom besides.

why, he started the day talking philosophy, launched right into how the underpinning of all gardens is the urge to control nature.

talked about how he particularly admires the english romantics, who understood from the start that it was all about the control thing. had no pretense whatsoever that a garden was in any way a natural endeavor.

“the post-modernists,” he continued, deadheading a daisy, “they like to think we’re returning to something, returning to nature. we’re not.”

he spewed stories everywhere we stepped in the garden. when he started in on the arbor vitae–that flat-branched evergreen that, in a semi-circle of five tall trees, like ladies lined up in big-skirted ballgowns that all these years have shielded our backyard from the brick house next door–he asked if i’d ever heard his no. 1 favorite garden tale?

i shook my head no, scrambling behind him, cutting up into sticks the long branches he was starting to pile high on the bricks.

he crunched up a fistful of the greens. told me to sniff, asked what i smelled. i started to guess, “pineapple,” not really sure why. but before i could sputter out the wrong answer, he told me the right one: “lemon,” he said.

only then, tipped off by the teacher, did i pick up on the citrus-y notes of a branch full of lemon.

he told me how back when the french explorers–jesuit priests, he made certain to note–back when they were trekking through the forests near the great lakes, and the winters were hard, and all sorts of illness was thinning their ranks, the native americans came along and taught those priests how to make a very fine tea of the evergreen branches. and how, because it turns out it’s higher in vitamin C than just about anything that grows in the woods, all the ailing explorers got better, and the jesuits, being big on latin, named the evergreen, arbor vitae, “tree of life,” because the trees and the teas had kept them alive.

it was that sort of day in the garden, where all day long i learned at the hand of david.

only the biggest lesson i learned, the hardest one too, the one that made my heart pound, and made me take a deep breath two or three times, was what he did with those very sharp edges, and the stand of arbor vitae, the ballgowns, that until today had spilled thick and deep onto the brick terrace out back.

he cut away at the branches down low. cut back the limbs only barely alive. the trees i’d thought were fat and full of crannies for all of my birds, he snipped away the skirts at the bottom. showed some leg.

the shaggy-bark trunks, strong-limbed architecture, really. he bared it. gave back a good two yards of terrace.

only i gasped at first when i saw what he’d done. nearly blinked back a tear when i noticed the pile. branches, bare, nearly bare. branches with plenty enough green to make it hard there to swallow.

but as the minutes wore on, i warmed to what i saw. discovered the beauty behind what turned out to have been false fronts; in all the nearly seven years i’ve lived here, i’d never seen that possibility before.

by day’s end, i realized just what david had done: he taught me, boldly, the essential lesson of life and pruning, cut back to bare essence. expose what’s at the heart of the matter.

only then do you discover the canvas for true beauty to bloom, to be planted.

as i drift off to sleep tonight, i’ll be deep in my woodland cathedral. imagining the dappled light. and the tender shade-loving creatures that i’ll tuck and tend there, where i never knew the space existed before.

it’s what happens when you wholly trust your teacher. when you don’t argue, don’t balk. but go with the lesson as it’s unfolding.

you discover the beautiful right before your eyes. where you never imagined it before.

the day has been long, the cutting deep. i have scratches all over, and plenty of scrapes.
i almost thought of not writing today, on this 11th day of the 9th month, the day none of us will ever forget. i walked out into the deep quiet of this morning. heard a plane overhead. couldn’t help but shudder. the man i married, when i told him i was thinking it might not be right to write today, maybe i should keep the silence, he said, ‘no, you have to keep living.’
so i cut and i learned. and now i wrote. day is done.

who are your teachers? and what are the subjects you love most? what lessons have you learned at the hand of a master?
p.s. dear david, profoundly: thank you.

in search of the brain-building muffin

we are inept most of the time.

unable, really, to leapfrog into the lives of the ones we love, make things right, stop that boy in the next desk from kicking under the table. stop the teachers from piling on 200 pages of reading. per class. on a wednesday night, due thursday.

and so, we–the ones left behind when the school bus rumbles away, when the car door slams and the tall man-boy lopes down the sidewalk, back into the gaping mouth of the high school, where we sometimes fear it could swallow him whole–we take in deep breaths, and we get to work where we can.

in the kitchen, often as not.

heck, it’s the one room in the house where when you mix and you pour, and you blend and you play like a chemist, it’s the one laboratory where maybe, as you yank open the hot metal door, step clear of the 400-fahrenheit cloud, pull out a pan or a tin, you’ve something to show for all of your worry and stirring.

so it was, as this school year, this ominous school year in our house where the tall one is buried under the weight of AP this and AP that, and the prospect of college is not too far away, so it was that i got down to the science of shaving off seconds from the pre-dawn rush out the door, while calculating maximum protein-load per bite.

this year, i sighed, the soggy bowl of cornflakes will not suffice.

i imagined those brain cells, the ones that once upon a time i’d studied so breathlessly just after an ultrasound when all i saw was cavernous black in the space where i thought a brain ought to be, and thus by the end of the weekend i’d convinced myself that maybe the brain–or surely a lobe of it–had somehow gone missing.

yes, i imagined those brain cells, all right. thought hard about all the late nights they’d be putting in, the teeny-tiny letters on the thousands and thousands of pages they’d have to make sense of, the never-ending calculus equations that just might drive those brain cells to send up red flags, call for the coast guard.

i imagined those cells and i got to cookin’.

which at my house begins on the bookshelf. and often gets stuck there for long days on end.

i had decided, in that way that mothers and other crazed caretakers do, that if i could come up with a particular formula, i could bulk up those brain cells, make ‘em smoke all through the morning, and late, late into the night.

why, i imagined my quixotic muffins might hold the holy grail of what every hard-driving junior in high school longs for, minus the steroids.

i invested prestidigitous powers in whatever i’d sift, blend and stir into that cheery red mixing bowl. i pictured popeye, ‘cept i’d swapped out the spinach for super-pro muffins.

i tell you if i could have poured whole cans of straight-up protein and brain-stoking elixirs into that batter, i woulda done so.

in a jiffy.

as it was, i stumbled over page after washed-out page of what amounted to little more than starter muffins. brain food for dummies, heaped deeply in sugar. not nearly what was needed to get a 6-foot-2 bleary-eyed boy up and out the door, 50-pound book sack in tow.

so i futzed and i figured. subbed out a half cup of this, for a big scoop of that. in the end, we believe–my subject and i–we’ve arrived upon something quite fine, a muffin worth sharing with you.

along with the muffins, which i’ve vowed to bake every sunday, to store in the fridge, for two or three at a 6:50 gulp, smeared deeply in almond butter, i hard-boiled eggs.

learned a trick there, too, from my old friend mark bittman, he who teaches me “how to cook everything.” (psst, that’s the name of his bible, all 944 pages, many of which are splatted and smeared at my house.)

take a pin, sterilize (which means light a match to the pin and let burn till the tip turns red). poke into the rounded, not the pointy, end of the egg. slowly–lowered down on a spoon, as if a queen going for a swan ride, with that much dignity, please–immerse into a pot of gently boiling water. all this poking and tenderness results in an egg that boils perfectly (10 to 15 minutes’ll do it) and sheds its shell with nary a tussle (dunk in a cold bath for a minute or two, just after lifting from the boiling swirls).

so there you have it: brain-stoking muffins, hard-boiled eggs, a banana if needed. washed down with a big swig of milk. all you need do is open your mouth, dash out the door, and mama’s hard labor takes care of the rest.

here’s the recipe, should you too have a brain that needs building.

brain-building muffins
adapted from quite a few places
yield: 12 muffins
5.4 grams protein per muffin, only 92 calories apiece
• 1 1/2 cups oat bran (swap out 1/3 cup whey powder–meaning subtract 1/3 cup of the oat bran and replace with equal amount whey powder–if you are inclined to super-bulk the protein)
• 1 cup egg whites (from container) or 6 egg whites
• 1/2 cup canned pumpkin
• 1/2 cup applesauce w/ cinnamon
• 2 Tbs. almond or peanut butter (all-natural is best)
• extra dash of cinnamon & nutmeg
• 3 tablespoons (or 2 long squeezes) of honey
• 1 banana, mashed
• 1 cup frozen blueberries
• extra almond or peanut butter (to spread on top before eating)
1. preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. mix all ingredients together until well blended. add the blueberries at the very end so they don’t get too mashed up.
3. bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.
4. let muffins cool on rack. slather with nut butter, if so inclined, before eating. store in fridge.

run out the door, brain cells hummin’ along.

so there’s my breakfast homework for the week. what’s your secret-formula high-potency mind-builder? what are the ways you boost the ones you love?

see you below.