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Category: friendship

the illuminating work of the modern-day manuscript

IMG_0011on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.

to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.

my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.

but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.

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admittedly, my drop caps are not quite so frilly…

it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).

along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.

in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.

so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).

if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.

it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.

mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…

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Mary Ellen Sullivan, author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: An Invitation to Intentional Joy,” ISBN coming soon. (photos courtesy of Maureen Butler)

have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?

the very last school bell: a litany of thank you, thank you, thank you

 

i’m guessing you thought i might explode by the time today came along — today, the day my once-upon-a-prayer miracle child, the Egg Who Wouldn’t Take No For An Answer, the one who made me an Old Mother in the obstetrical books, born just shy of 9-11, the kid who all but grew up here at the chair (he was new to kindergarten the day this began), today’s the very last day he saunters out the door to high school. the day you might say my front-line duties are downgraded/diluted/shoved to the side, as i move one step back to where i mother from a little bit farther away, from impending long distance, from text and phone call flung from cell phone tower to cell phone tower clear across the heartland, 357 miles kitchen door to college door. 

i actually thought i’d weather it without too much percussion. 

i was wrong. 

somewhere in the last couple days — maybe it was when that sweet boy reached his lanky arms across this old maple table and said the before-dinner prayer the other night, the last Grammy Tuesday of a quarter-plus-century, when he thanked God for a Grammy who was there every step of the way, to take him to toddler gymnastics, most every soccer match he ever played, who pored over spelling books with him, and helped him figure out his math, and then cooked his very favorite orange chicken or her famous 3-4-5 stew, to boot. or maybe it was the night before last when he paused in the dark at the top of the stairs and asked if he could give me an extra-tight hug — it hit me. washed over me like the tidal wave i should have expected. 

all i could think of was thank you. thank you, Universe and heavens above, for this unlikeliest Wonder that i’ll ever know. the one i’ll never ever get over. 

thank you to the whole litany of heroes big and small who have made this adventure in loving and growing a human so very extraordinary. 

thank you — for there’s no finer place to begin — to the mighty big brother who, long ago, declared the impending wonder his “dream come true!” and never once wavered from thinking so. and never once acted as if the late-stage expansion to our little family was an interloper, or any sort of nuisance. (heck, in all these years, i’ve never heard either one yell at, poke, prod, or otherwise seriously incense the other; that eight-year buffer does much to dilute filial rivalry.)

thank you to the five-star teachers, the coaches, the counselors, the school-bus drivers, Other Mothers, and tribal elders who’ve aided, abetted, and leapt into Superhero togs and tights on an as-needed basis. thank you to the dispensers of band-aids and bubble gum, forgotten soccer shoes and sharpened pencils, all along the way. to the school nurses who quelled the queazy tummy and oh-so-calmly called me at home when he got klonked on the playground. thank you, thank you, to the kindergarten teacher who made him giggle each and every day (and whom he declared his “very favorite ever” till well into high school). the first-grade teacher who tucked love notes in his pencil case, and chased away the butterflies. the second-grade teacher who called no attention to the fact that alphabet letters were not lining up into legible words, and certainly not into readable sentences. to the third-grade teacher who never taught him cursive (it’s a lost art, i’m told), but taught volumes on kindness. and on through to the seventh-grade social-studies teacher he wants to grow up to be.

and then there’s high school, where a phalanx of first-rate teachers and stellar human beings — biology, debate, and american studies, in particular — made him love even impossible subjects, and imparted wisdoms far beyond text books. and where anyone willing and brave enough to steer an american teen through the labyrinth — and pitfalls — of modern adolescence is more than a superstar in my little book.

to the brilliant journalist and editor and outside-the-box thinker in cambridge, MA, who invited us all to spend a year of sumptuous thinking in 02139, and gave the kid a chance to live out his never-say-no, “We Need to See the World!” philosophy. one that gave him a flotilla of friends from around the world (and a mighty fine Common App essay for college, besides). 

to the glorious one who, early on, helped him figure out how to tie his shoes, hold a pencil, and cut with a knife, when those dag-nab things confounded him. and who, to this day, has never stopped looking out for him. to the extra-special soul who taught him all about puns, and irony, and the first few chapters of critical thinking, and to whom he owes his very proud (albeit scant) claim to Game of Thrones origins (that glorious teacher’s very own kid just happens to be showrunner, writer, and co-creator of Thrones, and back in the day she regaled us in real time with tales of the curious show in the making — one whose name i never failed to mix up, forever calling it Crown of Thorns, which it was certainly not). 

thank you to the brilliant pediatric nurse practitioner who nursed our boy back from a nasty concussion (or two), and defended his case before the high school’s board of inquisitors. thank you to every single wizard who helped him iron out the kinks of growing up in a deeply digital, over-pressurized world. thank you to those rare and heavenly friends of mine who have always, always, talked to him as if he was their peer. and who dialed up the shine in his eyes. (wink-wink to the one who sent him the many-paged letter of wisdoms he keeps tucked in his bedside drawer, and to the one over whom he now towers and loves with all his heart as she fuels him with big ideas and ways to wrestle injustice in the world.)

thank you for the grandma and grandpa from far away who have sent love notes and trinkets and holiday treats — and countless knock-knock jokes and infinite, infinite love, year after year, phone call after phone call, since the hot august day he was born. thank you for the upper-east-side aunt who is, hands down, the very best giver of ahead-of-the-curve boy gifts that ever there was. thank you to the auntie now in maine who once upon a time, among other weekly adventures, wrapped him in aluminum foil, and led him by the hand into the world of unlimited arts and creation. and to the cincinnati aunt who drives as many hours as it takes to be here for most any special occasion — or plain old sunday brunch. and to the uncles who have loved him up close and long-distance for all of his years. especially the ones who sit down beside him and engage in deep and long-winding conversation (and don’t mind at all being listed as the one to call, God forbid, in any emergency). and make him laugh out loud at their bottomless jokes.

there really aren’t words to capture the love that’s grown between my sweet boy and my mama. it’s one of the breathtakingest loves i’ve ever seen. he simply adores her. takes her by the hand and whirls her in circles, their own imaginary waltzes. sets aside most saturdays for lunch with her, treats her to hot dog and fries and silly conversation. sees in her a tenderness that she might have reserved just for him. 

and thank you, of course and emphatically, to his most beloved band of brothers, the comrades in arms who together have taken on the ups and downs of boyhood, straight through to high school graduation. the antics they try to hide from parents, and the ones we’ve watched wide-eyed — and proud. a boy couldn’t wish for more loyal — or hilarious — or tender sweet, true-to-the-end friends.

thank you to his papa, who has loved him lavishly and wisely. and without whom i’d be lost. (and whose particular thank yous are spelled out in real-time, in words spoken not typed.)

and thank you, most of all, to the God who gave him to us. who gave me one more chance to try out these mothering tricks, to traverse the twists and turns of the tight mountain pass. to test my patience, and melt me all over again. to leave my mark on the world, in the indelible form of the Boy with the Extra-Big Heart. 

watch over him, angels, saints and heaven above. he’s my treasure. and he’s just about ripe for the world.

amen.

forgive my diving into the long and winding particular here. i’d meant to make it more decidedly universal, but got caught along the way, in all the nooks and crannies of remembering. i could have strung together a litany of “chairs” from over the years, monster fighter, reading by the light of double DD, heart to heart. all of which are sealed here — and, some, in the pages of my trio of books. 

my beautiful brave friend robbie died this week. her wisdoms are sealed against my heart. she was so rare, and so very very brave. here’s a bit of her beauty, her capacity for pointing us toward what most mattered….may her memory be a blessing forever.

who are the heroes — especially the unsung ones — in the world that is yours? the ones who might never realize just how much they matter?

waffling

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waffling, as in waffles (and bacon and hash browns and berries, etc., etc.) by the dozens and dozens…

i’m doing my arithmetic. multiplying quarter cups and teaspoons by multiples. i’m firing up the waffle iron. dumping hash browns in a vat. i’m making first-friday, end-of-high-school brunch for however many high school boys decide to swoop through the front door any hour now.

mostly, i’m squeezing every last drop of joy out of this bumper crop of boys i love. boys i’ve known, some of them, since they were wee tots. i’ve watched first days of kindergarten, first school-bus ride, first loose tooth, first sleepover, first at bat and strike out, too. i’ve watched this crop from almost the beginning, the whole lot of them. i’ve been nothing more than a bit player at the margins of their childhoods, but i’ve been keeping close watch, and i’ve been listening. i’ve known of dark shadows haunting some of them, and scary monsters that would not go away.

across the years, i’ve grown to love this brood. i’ve watched as they’ve reached out to weave a tapestry of love, a band of brothers, if ever there was. i’ve watched them surround the boy i love the night he got cut from soccer. i’ve watched them pile out of a van, bearing ice-cream cake and cookies, the night the kid i love got sidelined in the middle of tryouts, after getting kicked in the head in a scramble at the goal, and the trainer could not let a would-be concussion back onto the field. i’ve listened as i drove them mile after mile. remember back to second grade, when one tried to teach the others the intricacies of quadratic equations. heard them race to read 100 books one summer. watched them run around the neighborhood giggling, chasing make-believe superheroes on their phones. and, in the latest interlude, i’ve listened closely as each one reached for college dreams, listened closely as heartaches came and they leapt in to console each other, to bear the hurt together, share the load, shake it off, and laugh the night away after all. they are each other’s front-line rescue squad of heart and soul. theirs is a deep-grained bond, a glorious brand of friendship i wish could be bottled, sold on supermarket shelves. we’d all do well to learn a thing or two from their thick-or-thin inseparability, their faith in each other’s goodness, their forgiveness at ordinary bloopers.

it’s a blessed thing to love not just your own, but a whole flock of little rascals. to blink your eyes and see them not as little rascals shyly coming to the door, but grown men (with shoes twice the size of mine) now looking me in the eye, engaging in nuanced conversation about the politics or the heartache of the day.

i’m going to miss the lot of them — their cacophony rising from the basement where they gather with nothing more risqué than pretzel twists and gatorade, where they drape themselves amoeba-like on arms of chair, on beanbags, on the treadmill track (unplugged and motionless, at least most of the time). i’m going to miss the way they swarm the kitchen, locusts sucking up whatever crumb of carb or sugar they can find. i’m even going to miss the rides to school, where conversation keeps time with NPR, and we engage in everything from venezuela to william barr or the latest bit of drama from the high school halls (i only catch the latter if i’m listening really really closely).

they’re a bunch of boys so good, so unblemished, it gives me hope — a bumper crop of hope — for the world.

missing the whole lot of them might make it a bit more tolerable to imagine missing only one. the one and only who’s been haunting these halls all by his lonesome for the last eight years. ever since the steamy august day we dropped his big brother off at college, and motored down the highway, wiping away the tears that would not end.

we take our goodbyes in sips and bits. makes it far more bearable than one big final gulp. we animate those leave-takings with the wrappings of joy. with one more excuse to fire up the waffle iron, crank the oven, haul out the maple syrup by the gallon.

long ago, when i too was a high school senior and my mom and dad were out of town, i somehow invited every single girl in my class (that would be a few hundred) for may day breakfast before the school bell ring. i somehow thought of that the other day, and thus the invitation for the flock of high school senior boys. thank goodness it’s not the entire class. i’d be neck-deep in waffles, if it were.

i’m getting off easy here this morning. waffles for 20 oughta be a breeze.

what are the rites and rituals of goodbyes that have animated your years? and while we’re at it, anyone have a simple plot for keeping waffles, bacon, sausage and hash browns hot and to the table?

balm for the late-winter blues

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maybe you, too, feel pummeled. pummeled by the news. pummeled by the daily screech of nasty. the abundance of bully. maybe the unrelenting ice (and the cracks and the creaks in the bones that go with it) has left you gasping.

at our house, there’s a nasty case of shingles, and i’m walking around in a hard plastic splint, thanks to aforementioned ice. i don’t mean to be the human embodiment of eeyore, my favorite misanthropic donkey.

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

but, yeesh, february took a very long time to come to its last gasping breath.

i was gasping, all right.

and of course three-quarters of the pain is self-inflicted, since i’m the one who tuned in early, and never did leave, the shenanigans on capitol hill. the ones where over and over all day wednesday we witnessed displays of ugliness and partisan baloney the likes of which had me muting half the day, and wiping away tears at the end. sometimes the news of the day makes me think we’re back in ancient rome, crammed in the coliseum, watching gladiators tear each other to shreds. tearing us — and the moral fabric of this national experiment in hope and humanity — into tatters as well.

good thing an old, old friend, a friend who is the antithesis of all that is ugly in the world, good thing he was pencilled in for a long, slow overnight visit. the sort of once-in-a-rare-while visit that requires — no, invites — a whole day’s attention to all the arts of the hospitable heart. there were fresh sheets to tuck onto the bed, and sinks to be polished, besides. there was lavender water to spritz onto pillows. and a table to set with old fine blue-willow china. just-opening daffodils were slipped in a vase on the sill of the window in the room where our dear friend will dream. the dinner, slow cooked, will serve as invitation to a long night’s nautilus of deep conversation.

an overnight guest is the chance to step outside our everyday rhythms, while at the same time drawing another into the intimacy of those very quotidian rhythms: kicking off shoes after work, rinsing dishes after dinner, turning out lights for the night. falling asleep, each in our rooms, to the shared lullaby of an old house’s hisses and snorts.

or maybe it’s simply that to open our home — truly open it — is to open our heart. a muscle that demands regular exercise ( and not only of the cardiovascular kind). a vessel that begs to be filled with a good surge of love. the center-point of our soulfulness that, once in a while, does well to be reminded of its capacities.

all i know, at the start of this newly born month, at the end of the longest shortest one, is that it’s balm to my late-winter blues to crank up the flame on the stove, smooth the sheets on the bed, and await the face at the door of the old friend who, time and again, has shown us the best of human connection.

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

and what are the balms you reach for in your soulful apothecary?

the call to come together

the invitation was simple: come for coffee. the invite list was the neighbors who surround me, a few of whom have moved in within the year or last couple years, and who i barely or didn’t even know.

all i did was brew a vat or two of coffee. pull out favorite plates. tuck flowers in vases. vacuum cobwebs out of corners. dump clementines and figs into bowls — bowls given to me over the years by some of those very same neighbors. the things we stack in cupboards — many of them, anyway — tell stories all their own. nearly every single thing in my house tells a story. i collect stories, not things.

it all started because the air turned crisp, and light turned amber — or at least that’s the way it always looks to me. there is a light in september that sometimes feels to me as if the heavens open just a crack, and someone tosses down a holy shaft. a shaft that’s almost a stairway back to whence it came.

the date i picked on the calendar was the date that holds a quiet sort of holiness for me: it’s the day my friend ceci died, three years ago, and the birthdate of my friend mary ellen, who died not long after….

it turned out to be the date dr. christine blasey ford took her terrors and her fears and stepped before the senate judiciary committee to tell her awful story, to peel back the layers of the wound she’d tried so very hard to escape.

for a while there, i thought my timing couldn’t have been worse. i’ve long been something of a news junkie and i didn’t want to miss hearing her words, the tremor in her voice, in real time. it felt like we all, as a nation, needed to encircle her, stand behind her, to say emphatically, “we hear you, and we believe you.” and we are here, as literally as possible, reaching through the screen, with our palms pressed against your back, squeezing your hand, touching you softly on the arm, one last time before you take a breath and begin.

i’d decided that i’d leave the tv on — softly — over in the corner, where it’s tucked inside an old armoire. as it happened, one by one, a few of us circled close to listen. we ebbed and flowed from coffee to nibbles to capitol hill testimony. and then, christine blasey ford cleared her throat, pushed back that swatch of hair that insisted on covering her left eye, and a circle of us moved close. as if by instinct. we leaned in. we held our breath. i noticed that we all had wrapped our arms across our own chests, held ourselves tight. anchored ourselves. the looks on our collective faces was a portrait in pain and empathy i’ll not forget. i don’t know, because we didn’t talk about it, how many of us in that circle had our own version of a christine blasey ford story to tell. and that didn’t matter, because we were there — leaning in, listening — for her. to put the power of our hearts, our intellects, our faith, behind the courage it took for her to stand up to power and softly tell her truth.

if i’d been home alone, i would have been glued in front of that screen all day, all by myself. instead i found myself in the company of women, lovely women, women who’d shown up with scones they baked, and pumpkin dip they’d stirred and poured in antique bowls. we told our own stories — how we got here, who we were, what made our children stir. i watched as clusters leaned in and women whispered. or laughed aloud. i watched the company of women weave together those disparate threads that make a whole cloth out of mismatched parts.

instead of going through the day alone, instead of absorbing the nation’s pain all by ourselves, we gathered in a circle, stood — literally — shoulder to shoulder. as i studied the pain-wrought faces of the women watching, absorbing every word of someone else’s nightmare, another woman’s indelible pain and trauma, i saw — without words — how deeply tied we humans are. how much we suffer in the face of suffering.

in the company of strangers, we can find our deeper truer selves.

it made me wonder if we need to climb more often beyond the walls we build around ourselves and our stories. all it takes, sometimes, is vats of coffee. and the invitation: please come….i’ll not spend this day holed up inside my private woes and worries….

what parts of september 27, 2018, will you not forget? which words or images are etched now across your heart? do you find comfort in company? do you need to give yourself a little nudge to get out from behind the comforts of your solitude?

makes me think we might need the occasional occasion of pulling up chairs in real time, say at my house for those who live within chair-pulling distance?

smoky mountain runaway…

smoky mountain stroll

long ago, and far away. strolling in the smoky mountains. my big brother and me, when i was three and he was four, and we called knoxville home….

dispatch from 37383, specifically a roomy porch in the nooks of the smoky mountains, looking out over the undulations of sewanee, tennessee…. 

i’ve run away to the smoky mountains. for a few days. to absorb the rhythms of poetry and southern-steeped prose at the sewanee writers’ conference, where the likes of alice mcDermott, marilyn nelson, and bobbie ann mason bring their writing wares. and where plain folk like me wave our paper fans to stave off the summer’s steamy heat, and drink in undiluted verse.

my dear friend katie (thelma to my louise) picked me up while the stars and moon still blinked, at four bells the other morning, peeling through the city, and down the interstate before too many truckers even roused from their big-rig bunks.

i climbed aboard with visions of a wide front porch, and mountain sounds lulling the night away. i climbed aboard because when nestled alongside an old dear friend, endless conversation melts away the miles. before we’d ticked even halfway through the list of things that must be explored, dissected, analyzed, and plain old pondered, we’d hit the nashville city limits, and not long after, the sign for sewanee, 93 miles, and up, up, up, along the winding mountain road….

the first sound i uttered — upon racing to the promised porch and drinking in the strata-upon-strata of leafy-knotted mountainsides and tops fading in the far-off faraway — was wordless: nothing but the sound of breath rushing in, the sound of drinking what you’ve thirsted for — for so so long you can barely remember a time when you weren’t so parched.

since then, it’s all been as gentle an unspooling as any day — or string of days — can offer.

that porch, equipped with wicker rocking chairs and ceiling fans whose paddles stir air as thick as meringue in the making (at midday, anyway), is Runaway Headquarters, the post from which all stirrings stir.

long stanzas of pure silence — save for birdsong in the morning, and crickets in the thick of night — punctuate the hours. the orb of moon over the mountains, the only speck of light for miles and miles and miles, grows fuller by the night.

dawn begins with softening of inky night. haze settles in the cleaves of mountainside. it’s all soft, slow, seamless, from start to finish, from first fluttering of eyelid to that uncharted moment when at last the sleep surrounds. and there’s no finer first breakfast course than just-brewed coffee and a prayer cast wide across the precipice.

mid-morning, we motor down the winding half-mile gravel drive to the many winding miles of road that deliver us to “the domain,” 13,000 acres of leafy campus, the pride of Sewanee, The University of the South, a literary mountaintop mecca. one that just happens to be the sole beneficiary of Tennessee Williams’ literary estate, and, since his only sister’s death in 1996 (long institutionalized, she was the one on whom williams modeled his character laura in “the glass menagerie”), Sewanee is the holder of the copyright to every play, screenplay, poem, letter, and story the twice-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ever penned. curiously, his papers went to harvard and columbia universities, but Sewanee got all the dough and this: his patio furniture, his breakfast plates, a working toaster, and a small bronze nude, tucked away in the archives.

it’s a place dotted with an architecture my favorite critic dubbed “Appalachia Ox-bridge,” modeled after the oh-so-erudite Oxford University (as in the one in England), only here it’s Tennessee limestone in shades of khaki and caramel. oxonian bell towers, complete with parapets, ring out on the quarter hour. rose windows shimmer in the late afternoon light. and nearly every walk leads through or to some medieval surprise — a cloister, a fountained courtyard, a spiral stair to who knows where.

four times a day, all the good folk of the writerly conference plus townies like us gather in a quaint old hall, where oddly dying hydrangea bushes (whole bushes, potted, not stems blithely plunked in a vase) flank the podium. writers, poets, teachers rise and read, recite, preach the holy word of literary craft. i’m not alone in madly scribbling notes, and looking starry-eyed toward the rafters. trying my darnedest to seize a certain turn of phrase, or some truth just lobbed our way, one that begs for at least a moment’s pause.

our collective breath was taken away just yesterday when a southern gentleman in straw hat, seersucker jacket, and French sailor’s striped T, a fellow by the name of allan gurganus (author of “oldest living confederate widow tells all”), rose to read his latest genius in the making, a chapter from a novel he says is titled, “the erotic history of a country baptist church.” while we all rose to a rare (i’m told) standing ovation, i leaned in and whispered to katie, “that alone was worth the 800-mile drive.”

canned-ham camper cafe

you needn’t much else amid such sustenance, but we couldn’t resist the roadside stand, and lunched on perhaps the finest sandwich summer offers: sliced heirloom tomato, piled thick atop oatmeal bread, bare except for shake of salt and a grind or three of pepper. and last night’s porch supper was perhaps the finest tennessee gazpacho ever poured from a roadside canned-ham-camper-turned-cafe.

i’ve never been a natural wanderer; my nesting inclinations, hard to bend. i left a boy back home who filled me up with far more hugs than usual the day before i left; he told me plenty times that day that he’d miss me — words not often spoken by a kid a year away from packing up for college.

but sometimes a mama needs sustenance, needs silence, and poetry and birdsong to fill in all the cracks. i found it here in the mountains, here on the broad front porch from which i count the shining stitches in the night sky.

it’s been a long long time since i was home in the smokies. but, oh, sweet reunion it surely is.

thank you, beloved katie, for plucking me from the summer’s long dry stretch, and quenching me with mountain air and sewanee magic. and for this rare and wondrous chance to pull up a wicker rocking chair this week…xox and, emphatically, to katie’s sister beth, who so generously shares her slice of smoky mountain heaven….

where’s your summer runaway or retreat? and what unfolds once you’re there?

a gift from the mountains….(from maurice manning, Pulitzer-finalist poet, born and bred in Kentucky, and who had me on the edge of my seat at Thursday night’s reading.)

An Orchard at the Bottom of a Hill

by Maurice Manning

Why don’t you try just being quiet?

If you can find some silence, maybe

you can listen to it. How it works

is interesting. I really can’t

explain it, but you know it when

it’s happening. You realize

you’re marveling at apple blossoms

and how they’re clustered on the tree

and you see the bees meticulously

attending every blossom there,

and you think the tree is kind of sighing.

Such careful beauty in the making.

And then you think, it’s really quiet,

but I am not alone in this world.

That’s how you know it’s happening,

there’s something solemn and wonderful

in the quiet, a slow and steady ease.

Whether the tree is actually sighing

is beside the point. It’s better to wonder,

you needn’t be precise with quiet,

it just becomes another thing.

It isn’t a science, it’s an art,

like love, or a dog who’s pretty good,

asleep in the grass beneath the tree.

xox

p.s. i’ll add postcard-worthy pics to this post once home. for the life of me, i can’t add from afar….

sewanee kindness

the marvel of the capacious soul

i’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re down here on this messy planet, this planet that sometimes feels overpopulated with goons and wise guys, is that on occasion, as we mill about among the masses and misfits, we run into the occasional breathtaking specimen from whom we will undoubtedly learn a thing or three.

i bumped into one this week, and once again i scribbled notes into my chunky fat notebook, the one titled, “how to be a better human. volume 61.”

the most accurate way to phrase it, quite honestly, would be to say that i didn’t so much as bump into him — he’s a time zone away, after all — but rather that this gorgeous soul pretty much flung himself onto the skinny little trail i was traipsing through the day. and it took all of a fraction of a second for me to read his words, feel the breath sucked straight out of my lungs (in that marveling sort of a way), and remember why oh why i’ve always adored him, and would like to be like him when i grow up.

he arrived, my old friend did, in an out-of-the-blue email, one announcing that he — whose wife had died just 10 days before, and whom we’d not seen in years and years — was jumping on a plane to chicago, where he and his wife had lived a couple decades ago, back when both of us were starting out in this experiment called “how to birth and raise a child.” we had all succumbed, his wife and i and our respective mates, at just about the same moment in history. they sped off to the birthing room first, and we followed fairly close behind. then, they sped again shortly after us, so we all spent a few years there cradling newborns, trading tales and names of pediatricians. in fact, the day the chicago tribune decided to unveil a room (more like a rehabbed closet) for “lactating reporters,” my friend’s wife and i showed up to pose for pictures with our little guzzlers well attached (clinging to our shoulders, people; all of us fully clothed and covered, merely suggesting that we young mothers might at some point put down notepads and plug into breast pump (i forsook the whole endeavor and worked from home, with nary a pump in sight)).

i digress.

back to this blessed friend who dropped in this week. he wrote this:

Hi guys,

Corey and I have sort of tumbled into a Chicago comfort trip. He’s there already, and I am flying out in a few hours.

It’s exceedingly last minute, but he and I would love to see as many of you as we can in a gathering of some design. I’ve been thinking brunch Saturday or Sunday, at a restaurant or (if one of you has the stomach for it) a home (I’d ecstatically cover the catering).

Let me float the idea of 10 am Saturday or Sunday. Other times will in truth be tougher (I’ll be doing things with/at the theater, etc.).

Maybe we can reply-all in order to see whether this might work?

I adore you all, and thank you for words and sustenance over months, weeks, and years.

Love,

(old friend)

i should mention that this old friend is a professor of shakespeare in new york city, and from the first day i met him he has used the english language in measures that far exceed just about anyone else i’ve ever known. he matches his eloquence with an effusion of the human spirit that is, frankly, a force of nature. something akin to sharing a room with a hurricane of most glorious refinement.

amid a world of ways of mourning, i was bowled over by this friend’s instinct to surround himself — immerse himself, really — with stories, tears, and laughter. to reach out for old, old friends. to throw himself onto a plane to shrink the distance, to not wait to lather himself in the healing balm, to quite emphatically wrap himself in the company of those who’d lived and breathed the chapters before cancer trod his heart, and stole his lifelong love.

it’s why capacious is the word that best fits his soul, his spirit, the magnitude of how he exercises love and life and full-throttle humanity. “having a lot of space inside; roomy,” the pocket OAD tells us. my friend is roomy, all right, and he makes room for the whole whirling wild climate zone of grief and grieving.

i imagine that tomorrow morning, when my kitchen is filled with lox and bagels and stories tumbling atop stories, when the coffee flows endlessly and big bowls spill with the fattest sweetest berries i can find today, it will get messy. there will be rivers of tears. and once or twice someone might laugh so hard they’ll spit strawberry across the table. i’ve been around enough grief to know it’s uncharted.

what i’ve not often seen, and what i love and what finds me marveling, is this old friend’s willingness to plunge right in, to immerse himself in the anguish and the joys that old friends know by heart. almost none of us witnessed up close the past few years of surgery and chemo and the inevitable dying, but we were all there for the thick of what came before — the births, the strollers, the raucous Shabbat dinners, the summer sunsets from their rooftop terrace.

and we have stories in which to wrap him, and tears to bathe his broken heart, and great good laughter on which to lift and carry him.

from deep inside his fog of pain and loss and rudderlessness, he thrust out a hand, and called on an old unbroken circle of the heart. we will hold a shiva here tomorrow. and there will be prayer in the form of story. and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be shared in the company of those who remember well the days long before the whiff of cancer slid into the room, and took away our old friend’s truest deepest love.

may his capacious ways remind me to never shrink from the confines of the soul so blessedly breathed into each of us at the moment we were first imagined, and sent forth to fill this planet…..

who are some of the ones in your life who teach you how to be? and in what form have some of those lasting lessons come? 

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

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“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those words, spoken above the din of a crowded downtown aerie, with the city lights twinkling outside, with the clatter of forks against plates, stopped me. startled me. gave me a deep gulp of hope, the deepest in a very long time.

the man who spoke those words knows a thing or two about hearts — not least because he’s an intensive care doctor. not least because he works in hospitals in aleppo, in bomb-rubbled syria. in aleppo where bombs rain down in triplicate, a tactic intended to kill the rescuers as certainly as those in the midst of being pulled from the ruin.

just minutes before, the man who spoke those words — a gentle man with deep brown eyes that bore deeply into me as we spoke, inches away from a table spilling with pigs-in-a-blanket and shrimp and asparagus in long green shafts — had been telling stories to the crowd about being in an underground hospital in aleppo last summer — before it was too dangerous, before death was too certain to stay. he’d been telling stories of a mother of four, who’d been hit by a barrel bomb (a makeshift bomb filled with shrapnel, and chlorine gas), a mother who’d lost her unborn child and two of the three (ages 9, 7 and 5) who’d been huddled beside her.

i listened, rapt, as he told the stories, as he pulled the memories in real-time from inside the vault of tragedies now locked in his mind.

i’d listened a few minutes earlier as another syrian, a therapist who’d come to this country eight years ago, talked about the first months when a family is here in america. how everything — from the alphabet, to bus tickets — is practically indecipherable. how each morning, you awake in something of a daze, in that instant before you remember you’re far far from home. lost in a foreign landscape.

and, here’s the part i remember most, she said that the smallest kindness, the invitation to dinner, the gentle word at the checkout counter, the guiding hand at the bus stop, is never to be forgotten. you will never forget the face of the someone who was kind to you — never, ever.

i wasn’t taking notes; i was listening, so i can’t remember exactly how many syrian families are now living in chicago, forced here by war and unthinkable horrors. i want to say it’s 140. i do know the number is slowing to a trickle, and soon stopping (because of the so-called muslim ban that effectively puts up the “not welcome here” sign). i do know that each of those families, some clustered on chicago’s north side, some in suburbs to the west, have lived through hell, and traveled through hell to get here.

the syrian families who’ve been here longer, since the 1960s and 1970s some of them, when an earlier wave of mostly doctors and engineers packed up their families and moved here, they’re leading the network, the syrian community network.

they’re asking for the simplest list of supplies: rice in 10-pound bags; chickpeas in 28-ounce cans; sugar in four-pound sacks; flour, five pounds; oil in 48-ounce bottles; tomato sauce in cans of 28 ounces; and tea bags, too (no size or amount specified). they’re asking that the foodstuffs be dropped at one of two pantries — saturday, tuesday, and thursday, in glendale heights; saturday, monday and wednesday, on devon avenue on chicago’s north side.**

and they made the nifty card up above, with a whole menu of ways to help: from donating a CTA bus pass, to hosting a dinner. there’s word that someone is organizing an effort — 100 dinners in 100 days — to emphatically urge hospitality, to gather good souls, strangers soon to be friends, at the dinner table. to spend the day cooking, and serving up platters of very fine food. food to fill the belly, but more so the heart.

i’m awaiting word on the dinners. i want my house filled with the sounds of conversation, starting out slow and in delicate tones, and then rising, rising across the arc of a night, into the combustive discourse of joy. of gentleness. of one hand reaching for a water pitcher, or a platter of coriander-spiced lentils, bumping into another. and in that instant of hand bumping up against hand, i want eyes to look up, to look shyly, and then melt in the confidence of newfound friendship.

those are the miracles that unfold at the platter-filled table. those are the joys of a jumble of chairs squeezed round the plank of a dining table. it’s the arc from uncertain handshake at the start of the night, to hug that won’t let go as the guests finally walk out under the starlit dome.

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those are the words the doctor spoke to me. those are the words of which he was certain. and his certainty reminded me what i’ve always believed: one little heart, one undeterred heart, it can be more than plenty to begin to change the course of history.

one dollop of love at a time. it’s the only place to begin.

how might you use your heart today to begin to change the world? 

sending much love to my friend A who organized the gathering of syrian friends at her sky-high abode, and who opened the door to infinite hospitality.

** if you’re interested in dropping off groceries at the food pantry, leave a comment below, and i can email you the precise address. 

and in case you’re inclined to help make a home for a syrian family, here’s the list of what’s needed. 

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baking bread: essential communion

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i baked bread a sunday ago. all day. with a beloved friend. and in the rhythms of yeast and friendship — yeast leaping into action, yeast rising, yeast resting, interlaced with the pas de deux of courage instilled, folly shared, revelation of heart — i found an elusive blessing, one necessary, curative, in these steep and shaky times.

it began with the humblest of offerings (as all friendship, all holiness does): wheat milled into flour; grains from the field; seed from the sunflower; honey, the bees’ sweet contribution; and yeast, God’s gift to the belly — and parable, too.

by the time the oven was blasting its gas-fueled insistence, we’d savored the blessing of pushing up old sweater sleeves, one friend reciting instruction, the other (uncertain and seeking conviction) following along, the blessing of slow time, of deep unspooling conversation, and an afternoon in which the slant of light slipped imperceptibly away. all punctuated with a thick slice of grain, slathered in soft salty cheese.

it’s as determined an equation for healing as any i’ve stumbled into of late. it was the gift of the sharing of hours — not a phone call squeezed in between errands, not a text passed in the night — that held the miracle. it was the rare chambered nautilus of friendship, a structure within which we could burrow, nestle into sacred uncharted spaces.

perhaps, too, it was the particular alchemy of shared labor — engaged task — across those hours. we’d started from scratch and were working our way — together — toward shared triumph. it was altogether richer than my usual preferred art of sitting side-by-side or foot-to-foot under blankets, sharing words and stories and mugs of spiced tea.

indeed, the tea kettle would sing before the afternoon ended, before two toothsome loaves would be pulled from the oven. and ever since, each time i pull a slice from the loaf, each time i sit down to lunch, i return, at least a part of me does, to that fine afternoon and the knowledge that i can bake my own bread, leaning all the while on the sturdy friendship of the rarest of companions.

there is something breathtaking about baking with a friend. something in sharing a kitchen, a cookstove, something in finding our way together. i grew up afraid of two things (my inventory here is confined to fears in the kitchen): yeast and pie crust. the former i thought i could kill, a notion that felt murderous to me; and the latter i thought would crumble in my indelicate fingers. so i did what any deep-fearing girl would do: i stayed away. steered clear. bought my bread, more often than not, from the very nice baker who shared not my particular fears.

for me to enter the kitchen, to haul out the mixer with bread hook and paddle, to tear open the packet of yeast, to try not to wince when i submitted said yeast to the bath my friend promised would not kill it, leave it gasping for breath, well, that was, in fact, a small act of courage. and i find i’m in need of courage-building these days. there is a world that needs our voice — our calm and gentle and deeply considered voice. and there is a world that needs our conviction, our conviction put into action.

it came as something of a surprise that my starter class in courage, my beginner’s curriculum, unfolded in the kitchen. yet there i found steadier footing. it all came in the certain embrace of a friend to whom i could bare my uncertainties, my qualms about yeast and life far beyond. it’s friendship that weaves the strong with the faint. none of us come to the kitchen, to the world, with all threads emboldened. we are, each one of us, tapestries; some threads glimmering, some threads too thin, too easily frayed. and in the submission to friendship, the willingness to say aloud, “i’m scared of this” (be it yeast or life or speaking up in the face of opposition), and then dive in anyway, well that’s what finding courage looks like. and courage is the thing we need — in double doses, at least — if we stand half a chance of making a difference, making our one small life matter, of leaving this world more filled with even one drop of grace, of goodness, of kindness, of light.

and so i started with wheat + yeast + the dearest of friends, and i wound up with two fine loaves, and the wisp of knowledge that i’d moved a baby step or two closer to finding my way across the rocky landscape.

in these times that tear at my heart and my soul on a daily or hourly basis (depending on the news of the day), i found something holy, i found essential communion, in the baking of two loaves of power bread. and i did not kill the yeast.

my annotated recipe: power bread from food52
by someone who goes by the name boulangere

makes 2 large loaves

1/2 cup kamut*
1/2 cup buckwheat groats*
1/2 cup pearled barley*
3/4 – 1 1/2 cups tepid water
1 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
2 ounces canola oil
2 ounces honey
1/4 cup chia seeds
1/4 cup golden flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
1/4 cup polenta

*my dear friend tells me that you needn’t follow precisely the rules (see why i love her); any combination of grain will work, as long as you start with a total of 1-1/2 cups uncooked. i for instance skipped the kamut altogether and then forgot to double the buckwheat, and all ended well anyway.

Place barley, kamut, and buckwheat groats in saucepans with ample water to cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until not quite done through. They still want to be a bit toothy when you take them off the heat so that they retain their integrity in the dough. Kamut will take the longest, about 1/2 hour; barley about 15 minutes; and buckwheat groats about 10. When done, strain off water and allow to cool a bit before adding to the dough.

img_8884To mix dough, pour water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. (my dear friend tells me 25 seconds in the microwave gets water to just the right non-murderous temp.) Add yeast and whisk to blend. Add all other ingredients, including slightly cooled grains. Mix on lowest speed until dough comes together and looks homogenous. This will be a sticky and fairly soft dough, but it should generally leave the sides of the bowl, so add some bread flour if necessary; just don’t add so much that it is too firm. (here we have the debate on whether to use the bread hook or the paddle on the super-stand mixer; we tried both, first hook, then paddle, then quickly back to hook.)

When dough comes together, stop the mixer and wrap a piece of plastic wrap around the top of the bowl. Let the dough have an autolyse for 20 minutes. (that’s a scary word to me, but my friend tells me not to be afraid, just let the dough have at it.) This will allow the whole wheat flour to become fully hydrated, and also allow the water in the grains to settle down. If you overknead this dough, you’ll essentially start squeezing water out of the grains.

After the autolyse, remove the plastic and again begin kneading on the lowest speed. Within a few minutes, the dough should come fully together, leaving the sides of the bowl. Knead for 5 minutes, then test for a windowpane. It will not be as thin as what you’d expect from a dough without all the grainy content, but it will form a general windowpane.

Transfer dough to an oiled bowl large enough to contain it as it doubles. (my friend tells me to use the largest possible bowl. i used one that might have bathed a plump tot.) Turn dough over once, then cover bowl with plastic, not a towel. Let it proof at room temperature until doubled in size.

img_8892Flour your work surface – remember, this is a sticky dough! Gently turn dough out onto it. Keep your piece of plastic! Divide dough in half, and shape each as you wish: either shape it for conventional bread pans (my friend says don’t forget to oil your pans), or shape as hearth loaves. Dust the top of each with flour (I love that rustic look!), then drape your piece of plastic over them. While your bread is proofing again (and the second proofing goes faster, so keep an eye on it), preheat oven to 375 degrees.img_8893

Just before putting bread in oven, decoratively slash the tops a good 1/2″ deep. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating loaves halfway through. This bread is deceptive – it tends to look done before it is. When done, an instant read thermometer inserted in the middle should read 180 degrees. (or, says my friend, who is now your friend, anywhere between 190- to 210-degrees Fahrenheit.)

Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Because of all those great, moist grains, and a touch of honey, this is an excellent keeper, and also freezes just fine. While it is still warm, cut a slice, butter it, maybe add some honey or your favorite preserves, and get ready to power up!

notes from food 52 and boulangere:

Food52 Editors’ Comments: Boulangere’s multi-grain bread is hearty and delicious. The combination of grains and seeds makes the bread both flavorful and texturally appealing. I had to use the upper end of the water amount for my dough to have a good consistency. I was unable to find chia seeds, so substituted millet instead. One of the beauties of this recipe is its ability to accommodate different grains and seeds based on what you have in your pantry. It makes 2 pretty huge loaves of bread. I made mine 2 days ago, and have been nibbling on it ever since. I highly recommend giving this bread a try — you won’t regret it! – hardlikearmour

I developed this bread originally using spent grains from a friend who is a gifted and endlessly creative artisan brewer, along with a mix of seeds, depending on what I had on hand. I never knew exactly what the mix would be, but it always made bread so deeply good that people would call ahead on bake day to reserve loaves of it. I adapted it for the Bulk Bin project to replace the mix of spent grains with some of my other most favorite grains and seeds. I still call it Power Bread for the intrinsically wonderful protein, fiber, and EFA qualities of kamut, buckwheat, pearled barley, chia and golden flax seeds. And I always toss in some uncooked polenta for a bit of crunch in every bite. It makes great toast, and a killer grilled cheese sandwich! As you read through the list of ingredients, if you think the water measurement seems unclear, bear in mind that you’re going to cook the whole grains, and though you’ll also drain them, they contribute a lot of hydration to the dough, depending on how thoroughly you drain them. Don’t press water out of them, in other words. And feel free to add additional water to the dough if need be. – boulangere

and a note from me, not about bread but about the state of the world and what i write about here: dear beloveds, because long ago i set out to make this a sacred place, a place that keeps close watch on the world, and close watch on the soul, i am trying to thread a very fine needle here and keep politics off the table. i know we come from myriad perspectives, and because i want to preserve the sense of shared communion, of a place where we can all breathe deeply and purely, away from the everyday noise and congestion, i am aiming for matters of the soul. you might have gleaned that these are hard times for me, and that would be an accurate assessment. but because i can’t stand the dissolution of conversation i see in so many places, because i can’t stand the sense that division is the math of the moment, i’m trying for inclusion, trying to weave and not tatter, staking my hopes on the deep faith that we have many places in our hearts that spark to the same beauties, crack at the same shatterings. i hope we all speak up for justice and never ever muffle our outcries against what we see as injustice — and i won’t muffle here. i emphatically aim to live a gospel of love, an instruction found in every holy book of every world religion, and, yes, in the books of those who claim no religion but follow a sacred light. as a journalist i have long practiced the art of keeping my politics out of my stories, and so even here, especially here, where my aim is deeper and higher at once, i continue to pray that this is a sacred place, a place for everyone of gentle heart, fierce belief, and carefully considered thought. 

your thoughts? or if you prefer, your bread baking tips? or, perhaps, what you’ve found as the most delicious ways to deepen a friendship. xoxox

pausing for hello

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it’s as old-fashioned a gathering as any i know. the one where — instead of just waving while hauling out the trash, or yelping a how-d’-do as you dash three-bluestones-per-leap up the walk — you let out a holler, a hospitable one, up and down the block, and invite the whole flock to your kitchen, warm mugs palmed in your hands, stories brewing.

i’ve not hauled out my vat of a coffee percolator in a very long time.

but it’s time. we’re long overdue. that’s what we all said, as each and every reply trickled in.

on the block where i live, we used to find ourselves in each others’ kitchens, oh, at least every few months. there was summer theatre in the alley, where the kids, the whole lot of them, sang and danced and sewed, learned their lines, built their stage sets, even rigged up contraptions for flying. there were new year’s day parades, with the tykes all bundled and barely able to shuffle, what with the layers and layers that padded their limbs. there were the occasional no-real-reason gatherings, and the annual swedish extravaganza for santa lucia’s feast day (complete with candlelit caroling and bottomless kettles of svedish meatballs and lutefisk).

we all knew each other as deeply as neighbors might. we thought nothing of calling in the middle of the night if need be, and yes, there were nights when the needs wouldn’t wait for the dawn. all our kids grew up rubbing elbows and shoulders and wits. growing into each other’s hand-me-down pants, and more than one blazer that had barely ever been worn. more than one kid might have had a wee crush on another, learning love over the backyard fence.

but then, one by one, houses changed inhabitants. kids grew up, moved away. every once in a while a kid hit a rough patch, and we all prayed mightily. and then, without a word, we would give the mama room and time to untangle the knots, and drop off dinner once or twice with no need for a thanks.

and not too long ago, the house next door to mine, it welcomed new folks for the first time in 47 years. so, this time, i’m the one plugging in the industrial-sized caffeine machine. and cranking the oven. and slicing the pumpkin-cranberry loaf.

they’re all making their way to my kitchen. only for a short spell of time — a mere couple hours — on a friday morning, as the week draws to a close. but i want my new next-door neighbor to know the good souls who surround her. i want to make sure this circle of mostly old friends takes time to pause, to not only learn her name, but some of her story as well. i want her days to be stitched with the small wonder of a neighbor who drops a sack of just-picked tomatoes onto your doorknob. with the joy that comes when the lady down on her knees in the mud of her garden shouts out something so hysterically funny you find yourself chuckling for the next three hours — or days. want her to know who she can call in the middle of the night should, God forbid, she ever need to.

we’ve tumbled into each other’s lives through accident of geography. because we all found a particular house, a place where we’ve nestled our dreams and fluffed a few pillows besides, on the very same block in the very same village, in the very same era of time.

life does that: throws you together. makes you bump up against each other in the comings and goings of your humdrum day. and, soon enough, once you’ve caught the gleam in someone’s eye, once you’ve licked a spoon of the apple butter they leave at your backdoor, once they’ve cried with you over the death of your cat — or your very best friend, or your mama or papa — or shown up at the hospital just to see if you need anything, you find yourself falling in love. with this one patch of earth that seems to ooze old-fashioned kindness and goodness of heart. and the very good people who grow there.

i’m hoping that by the time my new neighbor strolls home, after a mug or two of high-octane coffee, after a spear of pineapple, and maybe a clementine, chased with a steamy mound of hot-from-the-oven cheesy strata, she’ll know a bit more deeply just how priceless was her real estate find.

so while i dash to the kitchen to chop the pineapple, pile high the clementines, and slice a few loaves of autumnal breads, i’ll leave you with a taste of what i’m pulling from the oven: the recipe for the spinach-cheese strata i’m serving all the mamas of maple avenue, the ones i’ve known for a very long time, and the ones who are new to the brood.

Spinach-Cheese Strata
from Gourmet magazine
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 10 hr
Ingredients
• 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
• 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
• 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
• 2 3/4 cups milk
• 9 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preparation
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cooks’ note:
• Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

have you paused to make a new friend lately? and, what’s your favorite welcome-to-the-‘hood recipe?