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Category: caretaking

packin’ it in. . .

at one point yesterday afternoon, five of six burners were occupied on the carrier ship of a cookstove that occupies this kitchen: one boiled a vat of water for soon-to-be-roiling pastas; one simmered the beginnings of roux; one held a pot of tomatoes and basil and a chunk of parmesan cheese; one simmered chunks of apple and pear and cranberry into a compote; and one awaited the tea kettle’s whistlings.

even the cutting boards had taken assigned seats: one for the stinky onions and garlic; another for apples and pears.

we were packin’ it in.

stuffing as many favorites onto the stove, into one afternoon, into one ultra-condensed week of days jam-packed together. four of us––aka, all of us––are home this week. bedsheets are tossed in two of the rooms, the floors seem to be serving as closets and drawers. why unpack when you’ll soon be packing again, heading back out the door, into the air, and home to those faraway places?

packing it in seems as apt a way to live a life as any i can imagine. squeeze in as much as you can. (as long as those super-thick times are bracketed with spells of the monastic quiet that seems my most natural habitat.)

when it comes to loving, i’ll attach lavish every time. i don’t think an hour’s gone by this week––or maybe in my whole motherly lifetime––when i didn’t deep-down marvel at the miracle that two human beings were born to me. born from me, as a matter of fact. a feat i somehow never ever thought my wobbly old body would be able to do. i’d never put quite enough faith in my physical capacities. finish lines felt far beyond my reach; i wasn’t one to get where i needed to go by sinew and bone. and, besides, i’d mucked it up plenty along the way.

and so, the sound of their newborn cries in two dimly-lit delivery rooms is a sound that lifted me out of my body. it’s never faded.

in birthing both of them, volumes and volumes were birthed in me. i began to redefine love. and loving. i was filling in blanks, inserting my own particulars, and reaching toward the surest truth i’d ever been told: love as you would be loved. it was sacred instruction made flesh.

and all these years now––decades now––i’ve been stumbling, and bumping into walls, and trying and trying to do just that. my boys have become my paradigm for loving. my living-breathing exercise in empathy. i might try too hard sometimes. but i’d rather err in that direction than in not quite enough. not enough can feel achingly empty.

and so, here at the brink of a newborn year, another chance at trying again, it’s not a bad time to consider the ways we choose to live our days: will we pack it in? lavish a little bit of love? or as much as we can muster? will we put up with the jumble, and the noise, because it means we might squeeze in a few bits of truth, the truth that rises up from the deepest residue of the heart and the soul? will we pay close attention? will we savor our one more chance to live the love we all pray for? to be the love we imagine, we believe in?

my prayer for the new year is ancient and infinite: dear Holy Breath, that i may love as i would be loved. again and again and again. in ways never noticed, and in ways certain and strong. amen.

how will you live your days?

(the sweet boy above had promised he’d send along a photo of the jam-packed cookstove, with all its burblings and gurglings, since i was far too busy stirring to snap one, but as of friday morning press time, said photo hadn’t yet appeared, so we’re running with the one frame i managed to snap, in all its blurry glories. tis the famed mac ‘n’ cheese i’ve been making for 28 years.

p.s. long as i’m here, might as well pass along the mac ‘n’ cheese that has my boys crowding the cookstove….

mama mac ‘n’ cheese

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995, pages 200 -201; the issue that just happened to be lying on my kitchen table the day I sat down to plot the festivities for my firstborn’s second birthday.

Yield: Serves 8 children.

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter

3 ½ Tbsp. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. paprika

3 C. milk

1 tsp. salt 

¾ pound wagon-wheel pasta (rotelle)

10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 ¾ C.)

1 C. coarse fresh bread crumbs

* Preheat oven to 375-degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better).

* In a 6-quart kettle bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta.

* In a heavy saucepan melt butter over moderately low heat and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes and whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

* Stir pasta into kettle of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce and 2 cups Cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick, when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of birthday jollity). 

* In a small bowl, toss remaining ¾ cup Cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture {Note: My boys insist you go heavy on the extra cheese here, it makes it better, and my boys are ones who like their cheese to supersede their bread crumbs}. 

* Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: Dig in.

may all of our 2023s be blessed. . .

’tis always the season for futzing . . . (at the cookstove, anyway . . .)

a hundred thousand years ago, at a bend in my life when i was mostly a dreamer, and under a rather dark cloud, i hoped i might grow up to be the sort of someone with friends who come for saturday lunch. i’d also hoped i’d live in a house where the walls were stacked in books, rows upon rows of them. and, for reasons that escape me, i dreamed of a bespectacled mate, one with his nose often in books; something of the professorial sort. check, check, and check, lo and behold.

not a day goes by that i don’t all but bend my creaky knees, and press them against the floorboards, whispering not only thank you’s, but practically screeching, holy mackerel how did my dimly-lit hopes come tumbling true?

but about that saturday lunch: there is something in particular about company lunch on a saturday that seems so, well, civilized. cultured, even. people with big ideas come for lunch. to get a jump on the thinking perhaps. to cogitate and prognosticate by the light of the sun. (people who want to plop on a couch inhaling hotdogs and football, they come for lunch too, but they’re not the ones of my attention today.)

dinner by candlelight is a whole nother thing, a thing that might entail the tucked-away china and silver. lunchtime, though, is cozier, maybe with a soupçon of euro-sophistication (it’s long been a way of life in paris, barcelona, or rome to insert a midday pause in the chaos, and relish a slow, sumptuous feast, unfurled in the afternoon’s heat.) and, besides, anything more haute than PB&J suggests true commitment to kitchen wizardry.

those who come for lunch, maybe can’t wait.

lunchtime company kicks off their shoes. settles in for old-fashioned simple foods. bounties built on the basics: soup, cheese, bread, fruit, unfettered sweets. (i suppose my tastes––even in menus––tend toward the monastic.)

but it’s not something i’ve ever done much of. not the sitting-down sort of a lunch. the lunch that’s not pulled from a grease-splattered paper sack, or laid out on the rickety old door of a table i refuse to retire out on our porch (the protests rise higher and higher, summer after summer, as the rickety door grows more and more rickety, but i like it too much to admit its demise).

at six-point-five decades and counting, i am still very much stumbling along. trying to make good on a few more of my dreams before my time is expired.

so it’s no small deal that company’s coming for lunch on the morrow. this particular company is coming with a wee baby, the most scrumptious sort of company i can imagine (especially since i’m not seeing any babes anywhere on the horizon here at this old house). this company is someone i dearly love though i’ve only just known him for the last several months (it was pretty much love at first zoom). he’s a new papa who is achingly in love with his new baby boy. and because he wrote me a bracingly beautiful, deeply vulnerable, letter the other day, i know this lunch will commence in the deep end, where feelings hew close to the heart, and eloquent words are put to the truths. i imagine there might be a tear or two, adding a droplet of salt to the menu.

in dreaming up the sort of lunch that might set the mood for the day, i settled on high comfort: grilled cheese and tomatoey soup, though i’m taking both up a whole notch.

grilled cheese is truly straightforward: bread + butter + cheese. sizzle low and slow for high-level melt. my aim is to dream up a scheme to make these ahead, and slice them into fingers, thus giving me the chance to stack them into a geometry of puzzling dimension (think: jenga of oozy-cheese strips).

and the soup prompted a deep dive into the cookery books, where i’ve settled on a non-negotiable trinity: san marzano tomatoes (tinned, as the lovely brits would put it), basil in leaves and stems, and rind of parmesan. a dribble of red-pepper flakes, an ooze of olive-y oil, a few cloves of garlic, and an overnight slumber in the fridge should provide a bowlful of summer in the darkening days of early december.

because i’m an inveterate futzer, and usually can’t manage to leave well enough alone, i almost never take one recipe’s word for the matter. i like to peruse and muse, and mix things up, culling my plot till it’s just the right calibration. in my mind, i’m cooking before i ever step near the cookstove, before i’ve laced up my apron strings.

because we’re at the cusp of the darkening season, with a few more weeks till the longest, darkest night of them all, it seems a fine moment to haul out the soup pot, and commence the stirring.

here, should you have reason for a saturday lunch, and find yourself in the mood for a summery bowl, is my game plan for provencal tomato, basil, parmesan soup, brought to you by a cooking collective.

Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup, a collective effort…

call me a futzer, or call me a fiddler (or maybe even a muddler), i cannot keep from plucking a little this, a little that, to reach for the stars. And so it goes at the cookstove, when more often that not i stand with an array of roadmaps and mull over the smart way to go. a parmesan rind from Column A, stems of basil from B. 1 + 1 = 3 in my arithmetic book. 

here’s my final equation, when the assignment was a splendid tomato basil soup with undernote of parmesan for saturday lunch with a friend….

Provençal Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup

By Martha Rose Shulman and Ali Slagle and Babs

Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves four 

Martha learned to make this soup years ago when she lived in France. She tells us that if there are no fresh tomatoes at hand, use canned. And she thickens with rice or tapioca, which we’re forgoing, at least on the first go-round. Ali chimes in: “What if you could have a tomato soup that was as plush as a cream of tomato but tasted like pure tomato? Enter Parmesan. Simmering tomatoes with a Parmesan rind is like seasoning a bowl of soup with a shaving of cheese 100 times over. It gives the soup an undercurrent of savory fat and salt that only bring out tomato’s best sides. Many specialty groceries sell containers of rinds, but if you can’t find any, stir 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan into the final soup (or cut off the rind of a wedge you’re working through). Rinds will keep in the freezer for forever, so start saving.” Babs echoes and amplifies both, having plucked the very best bits from each of the kitchen geniuses.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 to 6 garlic cloves (to taste), minced
1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes
Salt to taste
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with juice, or 4 pounds tomatoes, cored and diced
Pinch of sugar (optional)2 large sprigs basil, or about 16 leaves, plus 2 tablespoons slivered basil for garnish
[i’m skipping Ali’s call for 1 quart water (or 1/2 wine, 1/2 water), because i’m doubling up on San Marzano tomatoes]
6 ounces Parmesan rind
 Freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup rice or tapioca (optional; i’m trying without it. if necessary, we’ll float our grilled cheese bits in the tomatoey pond.)

For the Garnishes
Garlic croutons (thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted and rubbed with a cut garlic
Grated or shaved Parmesan 

PREPARATION
—Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about five minutes. Stir in half the garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar (if adding), basil sprigs or leaves and remaining garlic. Cook, stirring often, until tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, 15 to 20 minutes. 

––Add Parmesan rind and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer 30 minutes. (If adding the tapioca or rice, add it at the 15-minute mark, then simmer for the remaining 15 minutes until tapioca is tender and the soup fragrant.) Remove basil sprigs and Parmesan rind. Puree in a blender in small batches, taking care to place a towel over the top of the blender and hold it down tightly. (Martha adds: If you used fresh unpeeled tomatoes and want a silkier soup, put through a strainer, using a spatula or the back of a ladle to push the soup through.) Return to the pot, add pepper to taste and adjust salt. Serve garnished with garlic croutons and/or Parmesan, if desired, and slivered basil leaves. If serving cold, refrigerate until chilled. 

Tip:
 Advance preparation: The soup will keep for two or three days in the refrigerator and can be frozen. 

what wintry recipe will you be bringing to your lunchtime table?

the clarity of puzzling

i am, as i so often am, late to the game. it’s a game i’ve not played since the long-ago years when a fat-fingered toddler might be plopped on my lap, as he and i searched for the fat wooden pieces, maybe seven in all, and slid them into their hollowed-out shapes on the puzzle board. little boy blue, i remember. and thomas the train. 

but this week, stirred by winter snows and stitches in my paw that kept me from typing too much, i found myself pulling from the cobwebby corner a 500-piece jigsaw sent my way a whole year ago by my very best friend, my friend who spent all of wednesday in surgery. 

i was pulled at first by a faint curiosity, a wondering why she and so many i love seem entranced––almost in meditative spell––bent over card tables of cardboard squiggles and bits, allowing images to emerge out of what starts as some iteration of chaos, albeit colorful. 

sometimes mesmerizing, quite often maddening, it’s a picking-up-pieces sort of a game, a game particularly apt for these times that make so little sense, these times that feel in such tatters and broken-up bits. the whole point of this puzzling pursuit is to make of its maddening and disjointed parts a seamless whole that slowly, serenely comes into view, soul-satisfyingly so.

it didn’t take too many days before i found it all but impossible to stay away from the spillage on the dining room table. in very large measure, i felt pulled deeper and deeper by a wanting to be connected––all these thousands of miles away––to the one who’d shipped me the box. by the time it was wednesday, the day framed squarely in the lens of her surgery, the pieces of puzzle had become some sort of pressed-cardboard prayer bead, an amulet of wiggly edges and bright splashes of color. i was puzzling for something akin to protection, in that way that two very best friends sometimes imagine, wielding shield and sword for each other, willing to leap tall buildings if that’s what it takes.

if piecing together the puzzle she’d sent—a charming illustration of a braided-hair girl reading a book to the birds (its title, en français, charmingly: la fille qui lisait aux oiseaux; in english, quite plainly, “the girl who reads to birds”) from the french illustrator nathalie lété––somehow drew me into the inner sanctum of my puzzling friend, allowed me to slip in like some sort of guardian angel, then the hours of her surgery could pass with certain focus, and most determined purpose. 

as the faraway surgeon deftly excised the cancerous nob, i focused more and more sharply on the pieces before me, magically thinking that my high-voltage zeroing in might somehow guide the hand and the blade of the surgeon. i aimed for nothing short of textbook precision. i wanted my dear and gentle friend, my friend who sends puzzles by long-distance post, a children’s librarian fully fluent in the charmingest of pages, a wonder of a human who knows by heart the storybook hits of all of the ages––i wanted her clean and unbound from all cancer. 

as the long afternoon drew longer, and the minutes ticked numbingly by in my head, i discovered that puzzling is as much as anything an exercise in fine-tuning attention. but that isn’t all. there slowly emerged an even more pressing call to attention. it’s not merely visual, the narrowing field of super-fine focus. there seems, along with the eyes, to be a training of the mind, a sharpening of cognitive mettle, a nifty little syllabus for teaching your brain not to leap to conclusions, not based on scant bits of shape, size, or color: sometimes what you see is not what it is. a squiggle you’re sure is the claw of a bird, just might turn out to be the twig of a tree. and the point, over and over, seems to be some sort of lesson in keeping an open mind. not shoving the piece where you think it belongs. only to find that you’re wrong. that seems a wisdom that reaches far beyond the puzzle corner.

at the start, as the 500 pieces tumbled onto the table, all i saw was a dizzying morass of undulating edges. the first few passes were sieved simply by broad swaths of color: pinks over here, blue-and-white stripes shoved to one side, and whole other piles neatly haystacked all round the table: stippled bits of yellow and brown, the reds of a bird, followed by blacks and browns and golds and blues, and all the greens of the various leaves. 

but the longer i kept at it, i found my focus shifting from broader swaths to barely visible daubs and dots. i noticed the shifts in the flow of the paint brush’s bristles. and soon enough i realized i was teaching myself how to see, how truly to see. and how to patiently wait for puzzling clarity. in time, the puzzles give way to emergent precision. an indecipherable brushstroke of brown suddenly manifests as the branch that it is. what appears an odd variegation of white dashes on black suddenly makes sense as the wing of a towhee. 

it’s all in keeping the focus, honing in on the subtlest of clues. working hard to keep open your mind. allowing the truth to slowly emerge.

it took hours and hours. no short cuts in puzzling. no short cuts in seeing the whole.

it finally came, though. where my eyes had been spinning, my pupils near bursting, there suddenly was the deep satisfaction of the whole greater than any or some of its parts. those dashes and dots had turned into fine-feathered birds. the brushstrokes of the yellow and brown, the braids that spilled to the little fille‘s frock.

and now, the last piece inserted, my beloved best friend home in her bed, i’m ready to puzzle again. it’s an insatiable pull, the puzzling clarity that comes in a box, 500 bits at a time. 

shall i go for 1,000?

fini!

do you puzzle? and have you a pastime that teaches the secrets of seeing? and keeping open your mind?

a little bit about nathalie lété:

a one-woman whimsy factory, madame lété. it’s been written that she sought refuge from a troubled family life in the make-believe world of european fables and chinese legends; she was an only child––“sad and solitary”––shunted between a german-czech mother and a chinese father “who did not get on,” as she’s told it. though she now lives and works in paris, the walls of her tucked-away cottage in fontainebleau forest are alive with playful folk-life motifs. it’s a bit alice-in-wonderland sprung to life: a giant papier-mâché toadstool serves as a console table. a door is fringed with ceramic “moss.” a pink bedhead, adorned with hearts and birds, and tree trunks hemming the edge of the doors. it’s all inspired, she’s said, by the bloomsbury group, who painted across walls and floors, over and under furniture, including lampshades, and carpets, and the bindings of books—a palette without end. hers is a hand-painted world filled with “an air of fairy-tale wonderment,” according to the slick world of interiors (she’s also been profiled in harper’s bazar UK, and chinese edition of vogue and cosmo, and of course france’s le monde).

prayer corner: prayers for the puzzler in sunny la, and prayers for sweet P, a dear and beloved friend of the chair, getting herself a brand new ball and socket this morning. xoxox. and giant giant happy birthday prayers for my beloved “baby brother,” the one who was and is my dream come true, born 2/4/68, the perfect pair to my odd numbered 1/3/57.

p.s. quite a morning here, with back-to-back phone calls starting at 7 a.m., including one from my favorite law clerk who called to report that he’d bumped into none other than the real sarah palin (sounding “more tina fey than tina fey,” he reported) as he ambled into the courthouse this morning. thus, the delay. so, so sorry.

barreling on, gently…

christmas-morning bread pudding, eight days late

it wasn’t the winter break it was supposed to be. or the christmas. or the new years. two of us were behind closed doors for days on end. one of us is still shuffling from armchair to armchair, plopping down for little puffs of air. another one has blotchy red spots on the back of his hands, covid rash they call it. the other two of us strained to keep two steps ahead and out of the path of the red-spiked intruder.

but we barreled on, the four of us. christmas-morning bread pudding finally billowed in the oven on january 2. and ever since we’ve been trying to shove the train back onto the rails, to make the most of these 10 days before flights and calendars dissipate us once again.

it dawned on me in the middle of the night, as i shuffled through the dark to trace my way to the bathroom down the hall, that we were––at that very moment––all four of us safe under one single roof, as is my most settled equation, as is the variable i’ve prayed for, waited for, for two long years. and it hit me just as quickly how the four of us, over the years, have grown to be our own impenetrable force, a circle of loving each other fully and thoroughly through thick and thin and whatever the whims of life hurl our way. 

we’ve worked hard at that. it doesn’t come without determination and practice. it’s a living, breathing exercise in turning the other cheek, in forgiving, in listening, in quietly knocking on a bedroom door and asking, “can i come talk?” it’s long long hours on the long-distance line. it’s jumping in the car and driving hours, if necessary. it’s showing up, again and again. it’s being willing to admit, i blew it. i worry too much. i got scared. (or whatever is the foible of the hour.)

it’s believing in the best of each other. and giving yourself the time to see it. it’s figuring out that if someone else sees the best in me, maybe the best is deep down under there, after all. 

it’s a lifelong practice in practicing. in knowing there will be days when you don’t quite do your best. when your voice comes out in sharper tones than you’d intended. when you wish you lived alone. when tears sting your eyes, and eventually you hold each other tight.

it’s a testament to loving played out in episodes that take your breath away: the time the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, strewn on the bike path; the time your kid called to say he got into the law school of his dreams; the time the brand-new driver slunked in the house and handed over the speeding ticket he’d just gotten on his first friday night out; the time your mom turned to you and said they’d found a tumor, and weeks later your then-little one proposed a hat party to make a little bit of joy out of grammy losing all her hair. 

those are the strands that make a family, that stand a chance of weaving something whole in a world of rampant brokenness. it’s the little asides at the dinner table, or while stirring onions on the cookstove, the gospel spelled out––again and again––in certain truths you dare impart. it’s the notes you slide under the bedroom door. the stories they hear you share at the kitchen counter, or listening in on one of your phone calls. that’s the slow-unfurling whole of who you are, and what you believe, what you stand for, that gets spelled out, inscribed, passed on without a slip of parchment. 

families are made by choice or by birth. both stand strong against the cold winds of history. families take endless work, and infinite joy. at our house, it’s the laughter that is the certain glue. the antics that punctuate the pure delight. sometimes, too, it’s tears, the willingness to cry. always, it’s the listening, and the curiosities that drive the questions. hours and hours of questions. of true and telling replies.

it’s the most important work i’ve ever done. making a family, day after day after blessed loving day. it’s the hardest work, and the work that lifts my soul more than any other aim i’ve reached for. 

my definition of family is nothing like it was when i was little. i used to look to the scrubbed and polished clans who filled the church pew, all in matching hats and coats, lined up like stepping stones in graduated sizes. a lifetime of paying attention clobbered that flimsy facade. now the ones who teach me how it works are the ones who weather heartache, who do not give up, who tell the truth, don’t hide the hard parts.  

i remember in the hours before my firstborn was born, i was sitting all alone at the kitchen table, and i whispered words to God, promised to envelope that sweet child in all the love i could muster, to harbor him from every hurt. i’ve found out over the years that you can’t keep the ones you love from hurt, from heartache. but you can build a mighty shield, you can build an unbreakable ring of love and light, and you can be there to catch ’em when they falter, you can wrap them in your arms, rest their heads against your heartbeat, and you can promise them your love is one inextinguishable force, and your light will always always burn for them. and you can always make ’em laugh. and listen to their secrets, their hopes, their dreams, their prayers. 

and when the days don’t unfold the way you’d wished, the ways you’d dreamed of, well, you can wait till the darkness ends, and you can tuck a new bread pudding in the oven, and you can shuffle to the kitchen table, join hands, squeeze tight, and whisper, thank you God for bringing us this holy, holy moment, and letting us weather all of life––its best, its worst––with each other at our backs, our sides, our wholes

every family is its own story, is a vessel for a hundred thousand stories, some passed down from generations, and it’s hard work to make a tiny community of similar-but-unique human beings coalesce into something whole. how do you get through the hard parts? what’s your one essential ingredient? (questions need only be for your own personal reflection, as is always always the case.)

tis january, a month of new beginnings, and a happy birthday blessing to the one and only MJH, loyal reader, dear friend of this ol’ chair, and to my longtime beloved comrade MBW, whose birthdays are today!

when magical powers are no longer…

used to be i could fix things. when the lunch box was left at home, i could drive it to the schoolhouse door. the ladies in the office always obliged, and, knowingly nodding, got it delivered. when the mercury on the thermometer soared, or someone’s rosy red cheeks broke out in bumps, i slid open the medicine drawer, pulled out just the right fix-it concoction. when a red crayon snuck into a pocket that went into the dryer, i spent a whole afternoon plucking streaks of red wax from the tumbler. by sundown, you’d never have known. 

there was nary a thing i couldn’t patch back together, couldn’t replace, couldn’t make right by the end of the day.

but then the kids on whom i fixated my fix-it powers, they grew up. and while my doctor just the other morning announced that i’d shrunk by nearly an inch, i think she might have overlooked the fact that my magical powers are no longer. they’ve expired. passed the date on the side of the label. must have let out a gasp like air escaping from tires.

now, when a kid with a heavy heart calls late in the night, all i can do is listen. and mutter a swear word or two. (lest you tsk-tsk, the truth of the matter is that i’ve somehow managed to teach my nonagenarian mother the sheer satisfaction, the gleeful release, of a short swift four-letter word. we swear in unison now, my mother and i. one of our few shared pursuits.)

most of the time — thank the holy heavens — the things that bang up the heart of someone you love aren’t necessarily life or death. sometimes it’s a stupid clerical error that mucks up the works. and triggers hard-to-swallow outcomes. leaves a kid on the sidelines. figuratively or otherwise.

more often than not — knock on wood — the things that shove us into the ditch are things from which we recover. another chance comes along. time passes. someone reminds us to laugh. the sky, one night as the sun sets, paints itself a shade of papaya. 

it’s the immediate wake that’s tripping me up. it’s what comes after you hang up the phone. when you remember the old days, the days when it was your job to be the cleaner-upper, the fixer, the homegrown sorceress who kept all the goblins at bay. 

you realize your heydays are over. you can’t really fly in on your broom anymore, can’t kiss the hurt, and make the sting go away. 

you know — because you’ve read it in books, heard it whispered on benches at playgrounds — that it’s your job now to let your kid figure it out. employ their own fix-it powers. exercise resiliency. suffer the blow.

so you do as instructed. you stand back. feeling the lump in your throat grow bigger and bigger. wondering why your chest hurts so much.

you wish you could pick up the phone. call the college. or the boss. explain the injustice. beg for mercy, like any self-respecting grownup would do. 

but then, once again, you remember there’s another self-respecting grownup these days; it’s the kid you raised to not topple, not go weak in the knees every time life throws a hook. you tried your darnedest not to over-coddle (though coddling, i’d argue, is just another name for fiercely protecting, and i’d made a vow, a heavenly vow — silly as it might seem — to protect to the death the children i bore. i once actually — naively — believed that if i loved them fiercely enough i could keep them from every last hurt. turns out, the joke was on me).

i miss the days when i could all but fling on my cape, swoop in for the rescue. slice an apple in crescents, grab a fistful of pretzels, stir chocolate in milk. snuggle close on the couch. tuck someone in bed, plant a fat wet kiss to the cheeks. make it all better again.

i wish i’d realized back then that those were the days, the sweet days, when what ailed, and what brewed was within my magical powers. and i could turn out the lights knowing that all was, indeed and in fact, better again. the monsters were chased from the room.

it’s what happens when mothers grow up. though not quite as fast nor as sturdily as their beautiful, beautiful now grown and resilient long-ago children.

our magical powers give out, quite before we’re honestly ready. 

*of course i am simplifying here to make a general point, to muse on the achy part of feeling ourselves shoved from one stage to another. certainly there are times when the heavy hearts of my boys demand all i’ve got: not only my listening, but my leaping on planes, tracking down every last possible lead, and whatever else the worry or quandary or setback requires. it’s just that more often than it used to be, i’m merely the backdrop, the listening board, the human sponge for the sadness, dread, disappointment, you name it.

once upon a time, did you too expect that magical powers must be a clause in the motherly job description? did those powers fizzle over time, and what do you do with the ache when you realize your magic wand has given up the ghost?

on kindness, kerouac, and tolstoy

leo tolstoy

i will be backing into this if i begin by quoting a russian intellectual and novelist. but so i begin.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Leo Tolstoy

the subject, once again and always, is kindness.

it was unknown to me, and perhaps little known more broadly, that at the turn of the 19th century leo tolstoy neared completion of what he considered an imperative life’s work. not anna karenina, not war and peace, not the death of ivan ilych. but rather something he considered more timeless, more lasting: “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” as he described it.

or as cultural critic maria popova once put it, “to be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. to be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.” tolstoy’s book, she wrote, was to be “a reliable springboard for these moral leaps.”

in the middle of his 55th year, in march of 1884, tolstoy had set out to read and reap from a circle of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders who had shed light on what was most crucial in living a good and righteous life. he dug deep across millennia and miles, reading epictetus, marcus aurelius, lao-tzu, buddha, pascal, the new testament — a reading list he deemed “necessary.”

it was to be his florilegium (a compilation of excerpts from other writings, “mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine, or idea,” writes popova. the word comes from the latin for “flower” and “gather;” a bouquet of curated wisdoms). tolstoy saw it as something of a roadmap, daily sign posts pointing the way toward “the Good Way of Life.” in a letter to his assistant, he explained his project thusly:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

he spent 17 years at it, and shortly after the birth of the 20th century, in 1902, he completed his manuscript, under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. two years later, it was published in russian, and nearly a century later, in 1997, it appeared in english translation, all 384 pages of it, under the title A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. for each day of the year, tolstoy plucked, or gathered, quotes by great thinkers, then added his own musings and connective tissue on the subject, with kindness as the sinew and spine of the book’s moral sensibility.

i bought the book yesterday, in the long hours after i had once again dropped my beloved husband at the curb of terminal 3 at o’hare airport, as he set off once again to race to his mother’s bedside, to honor her, to fill the hospice room with his prayer and his unending grace. in the serendipities of a long afternoon that turned into a longer night, maria popova, she of BrainPickings, the cultural compendium and literary candy counter, dropped in (to my email) with her musings on kindness, a heaven-sent subject in the hours of deep vigil i was keeping for my mother-in-law whose signature and lasting memory is exponential kindness.

i read this entry from tolstoy:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

i read this from jack kerouac:

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.

and that’s when i decided i would not merely buy the book but practice it. every day. in honor of my beautiful, blessed mother-in-law who died in the wee hours of this morning, friday, july 2.

her memory will be a perpetual blessing, to me and to all who fall in the radiance of her kindness practiced each and every day.

ginny kamin made lives more beautiful by her practice of perpetual kindness.

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” a life’s instruction, brought to you by leo tolstoy and one ginny kamin….imagine how you might live it today, one kindness at a time….

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….

abominable winter

excuse me if i sound grumpy today, though i do think it’s fine to know that moods come in all sorts of colors. and my color today is grumpy gray. i might be suffering a slight case of the housebounds, in which we’re more or less stuck in the house thanks to the veritable stalactites of ice that have formed just above our front door.

to enter or exit by way of the ice cave is an obstacle of death-defying proportion. there’s the dripping from way up above, and the stoop where you’d step is a sleek sheet of bone-breaking ice; the buckets we’ve plonked there under the drips seem to fill by the hour. i fear the leaking to come once the layers of snow begin their unrestrained melt—but that’s getting ahead of the worries (a particular knack i’m not proud of).

we’d be utterly stuck in the house if not for the snowman i married, who courageously set out across the tundra to get to the store in his snow boots, trekking down the middle of streets, the only path cleared by the snow plows. he saved the day, yes he did, when he ferried home 10 pounds of ice-melting salt.

after a day of gently and safely making some headway, i decided not to leave well enough alone. i decided to get in on the act, ignoring the fact that my bones are quite thin and quite brittle. and for reasons that now escape me, i decided to bang on the bucket of ice with my fist. one swift thwack and i realized quite clearly my ignorance. 

as i sit here typing with ice pack wrapped round my wrist, and a makeshift splint holding it tight, i’m scanning the forecasts for any degrees higher than freezing. since typing makes me wince, and i’d best store up for the pages i’ve yet to type for that book in the works, i shall once again make short of it here, and leave you with a sure cure for the housebound blues (or the grumpy grays, should that be your color of choice).

once upon a healing soak, a do-it-yourself hot-water escape…

try this: fill your tub with the hottest water your naked limbs can take, plop in a few shakes of DIY bath salts, instructions courtesy of an old homesteader below. dawdle there till your skin wrinkles like raisins, or you feel your mood starting to lighten (whichever comes first). if this doesn’t work, play polynesian tunes, and sway in your towel, as if on the beach on a faraway island.

you’ll need: 

  • ½ cup epsom salts
  • ½ cup sea salt
  • ½ cup baking soda
  • 10-15 drops of essential oils (find variations and formulations below)

mix the epsom salts, sea salt and baking soda together in a bowl. add your essential oils. rule of thumb here is 10 drops per cup of the salt mixture, so in this case you’ll need15 drops of whatever your essential oil. use less if you like things on the milder side.

scoop it into a jar with a lid; any washed-out vessel will do. save the extra for your next gray or blue day.

now, a few essential oil concoctions for your DIY bath salts; take your pick, depending on whatever it is you’re after, a little tranquility, petal-soft skin, or the chance to take a deep cleansing breath:

tranquility blend:

10 drops lavender oil

5 drops vetiver (the oil of tranquility, apparently)

a blend for petal-soft skin:

5 drops lavender oil

5 drops frankincense

5 drops palmarosa

  • you could use 10 drops lavender + 5 drops frankincense if you don’t have palmarosa on hand.

deep-breathing blend:

10 drops eucalyptus

5 drops tea tree

i could be coming to you next week from an ark, should these bergs start to melt with alacrity. in the meantime, do tell of your cures for the deep-winter blues.

p.s. the wholly unsurprising what-came-next (or, can’t quash a mama’s urge to tuck her chicks beneath her wings. certainly not when one is burning up with fever…)

in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….

in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.

the tale of woe and mono continues…

round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.

which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.

halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.

in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”

“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”

and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.

synagogue choir, ala YouTube

the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.

monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.

before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.

so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).

all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.

there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.

it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.

just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?