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Category: home

grounding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welcome to autumn, the season of turning within….

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

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

make room for joy. always make room.

from what i know, from what i hear, and from what i gather, there’s a miasma of gloom hovering over the landscape, not unlike an early morning fog that forgets to scuttle away once the sun burns down. 

it’s a despair in general and in particular. it’s a despair that has long been casting its shadow, as we seem to be dwelling in an epoch of upheavals. from a rage that’s spilled even into the lanes of the little village where i live (did i really deserve a middle finger for driving exactly the speed limit on a curvy hill?) to venom poured onto airwaves and social media feeds (excuse me for backing away from all but a quick scroll for news), it’s gotten harsh out there. and institutions we counted on seem to be pulling out the rug.  

but i read something this week that reinforced what’s become my saving grace, though reading it helped me to see more clearly that i needn’t feel guilty for reaching toward my apothecarial shelf of simplest balms. i’ve been making a practice of stitching the tiniest joys into my day, and pausing long enough and deeply enough to let them sink deep down into the crevices, the nooks and crannies and channels of the soul where the life spark burns. 

i might pause in my dashing down the walk to listen to the gurgle of my bubbling fountain. i might plop in a wicker chair to watch the slanting sunlight turn golden a flapping hydrangea leaf. i might catch mama wren ferrying a worm to her chirpy little ones. they’re the littlest wisps of joy, the things that percolate my heart and soul and each and every summer’s day.

what i read this week were wisdoms from mary pipher, an american clinical psychologist, long rooted in lincoln, nebraska (which in my book certifies her down-to-earth wisdoms as deep as the roots of the prairie dropseed that rolls across the miles). pipher, whose wisdoms are too boundless to be bottled, is best known for reviving ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls, her 1994 rescue guide for an america she calls a “girl-destroying place,” and more recently she’s written women rowing north, a book on aging gracefully. (note to self: please read.)

this week, though, she wrote an op-ed for the new york times, in which, after outlining the simple joys with which she unfurls her day––a morning cup of coffee, watching the sun rise over a lake, listening to the sounds of sparrows, the commonest of common birds––she writes that she is “leading a double life.”

Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So, we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless.

Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson.

As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.

Mary Pipher

she goes on to write that in an age where ukraine and afghanistan and yemen are everyday news, and the horrors therein threaten to numb us, where the american political landscape some days resembles an extreme-wrestling match, nothing short of world-class coping skills are called for. and thus she lists three of her wellsprings: her grandmother who raised five children on a ranch during the dust bowl and the great depression; thich nhat hahn, the buddhist monk and zen master; and her years-long study of psychology. 

her wisdoms are these: her grandmother urged her to “be the person you want to live with every day of your life,” and on the last day of her life she told mary that her life goal had been “to leave the world a better place;” from thich nhat hahn, who’d witnessed great suffering in vietnam, she not only absorbed his practices of mindfulness, anchoring herself in the present moment, but also his deepest teaching about our interconnectedness with all of life, a worldview that finds healing through reaching out to the frightened, the hungry, the ravaged in all its forms; and, from psychology, pipher learned that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it, feel it in our bones, explore it, extract its meaning, and then muster the resources to move forward. here she prescribes: “find ways to balance our despair with joy.”

maybe take a minute to let each one of those soak in. . . 

“be the person you want to live with. . .”

“present moment. beautiful moment. . .”

“action is an antidote to despair. . .”

Most of us cannot be great heroes. However, we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes.

to be an ordinary hero is to find someone close to home who’s hurting, and be the healing balm. resist the urge to flip back someone else’s insolence. even on a day when you might prefer pure silence, invite in someone whose days are defined by loneliness. make your front stoop or your back porch a place where the welcome sign is often posted. 

go about the business of gathering up simple joys; know that they’re the fuel to carry you across the long and lonely miles. revel in the red bird who alights just beyond your window sill, and serenades the coming darkness. follow a butterfly across your garden. watch the night stars turn on. keep an eye out for the fireflies’ first flickering. 

make room for joy. joy is a necessary oxygen for both soul and psyche. without it, we shrivel, furl inward, gasp for breath amid the not-unlimited allotment of days we have here. 

those joys needn’t be grand, needn’t strike up any band. we’re on the hunt here for simple joys, barely detectable threads of joy; weave them through your day.

they just might embolden you for the long haul, the long and seemingly unbearable haul. 

where will you find joy today? how will you make room?

i just yesterday got page proofs for my next book, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (pub date: march 21, 2023), and that means i will be underwater for the next two weeks making sure there are no runaway commas, or words wrongly landed amid a sentence. it’s nerve-wracking and eye-straining, but it moves me closer to the finish line. i might not get a chance to circle back to reply to comments for awhile, but sooner or later, i promise i will. and soon as i can i’ll show you how pretty someone made the pages of my little book. till then, take care, and take joy, as tasha tudor always insisted…

photo above by will kamin.

p.s. here’s a little joy that slipped under the transom yesterday, when my beloved brother brian found my little book available for pre-order in — get this!!! — park slope and switzerland. excuse me while i gulp. (the actual cover, which i’ve not yet been told i can share, is peeking out from under the pre-order banner on the community bookstore, now a shop added to my must-visit list. xoxoxo thank you little bookstores, online and real-world.)

the simple blessing of a snowy morning

it is as close as i’ve ever come to waking up inside the pages of a picture book, or an enchanted forest, the waking up to fat flakes falling, to heaps and meringues of snow on every flat plane, every bough and twig; even the lumps in the walk get a dollop of beautiful. everything sometimes deserves to be adorned. everything sometimes yearns to be simply lovely.

the days of waking to grace feel numbered of late. more often i awake with a lump in my belly, a worry grown big and bigger in the dark and the tangle of sheets. almost like a sourdough rising, the way the night worries grow. but today is not one of those days. today it begins with nose pressed to the pane. i long to step outside in the thick blue light of it, the silence of it. but i’ve a silly thing about not wanting to mar the tableau, not wanting to plunk my boots in the seamlessness of it all. so i keep to my side of the glass. and i let the snow and the quiet fall unbroken.

i marvel always at the ways the world––grace, God, unseen sacred stirring––steps in just as i need it. the way the prescriptive fills every hunger and hurt. it’s as if all creation is apothecary for the soul. and when we quiet ourselves, and allow its medicinal balms to seep into the cuts and the lumps and aches, the healing comes. the respite of catching our breath, making sense of the madness.

just this morning i awoke with the knowing that a longtime beloved friend had awakened yesterday to find her husband still in his chair from the night before. he’d died, alone. he was 67. no one saw it coming. the night before, wednesday, had been any old wednesday; my friend had made meatloaf for dinner, hadn’t a clue that one single thing was not as it should be. life shatters without making a sound.

my faraway best, best friend is going to surgery next week, her second time in ten years with a surgeon and an oncologist she calls her own. a third friend, one of my bridesmaids, is sitting by her sister’s bedside in dallas, where the cancer has crept into her brain, and where upon finishing a CT scan last week, her sister (four years younger than me) had suffered a stroke. right there on the gurney. right there in the middle of an already terrible cancer.

i ache for every one of them, ache in ways that push against the walls of my heart. ache in ways that crowd every other thought out of my head. ache in ways that make me pay more attention than ever to the most ordinary of miracles.

and this morning i sit here absorbed in the lull that follows an overnight snow. it’s as if all creation understands we need silence between all the noise. we need the holy pause that allows us to catch our broken breath, to be still as we gather up the shards, put the pieces back together again.

the world aims to comfort us; it’s one of its marvels. it aims to shake us to our core, too. another one of its marvels.

how blessed are we that we live in a world of creation, sacred creation, a world where the woods are a balm. where the red bird alights. where snow falls without sound. where, dawn after dawn, the sun rises. and stars stitch the night sky.

the blessings abound. all we are asked is to notice.

dear God, thank you for the balm of this holy morning. may grace fall in thick meringues on the ones i love who are so deeply hurting. and afraid. and alone.

and just like that i looked up, and the red bird came. just beyond my window in a nestle of branches puffy with snow.

God answered. and the red bird flew.

where did you find grace this morning?

in case you need a quiet walk in the wintry woods here’s a little miracle sent my way; last night i gave a talk on the stillness of winter, and opened the evening with this moment of beauty. not all of you live in snowy climes, so here’s your taste of it, too. may it bring you peace, this walk in the snow-laden woods

to name them is a prayer…

the thought struck me, as thoughts often do, as i got to the last line of a poem that read (to me anyway) as a prayer.

the last lines were these:

I take refuge in You
from the inextricable mischief
of every thing You made,
eggs, milk, cinnamon, kisses, sleep.

it was in the quiet of the quotidian, the kisses tucked in between the cinnamon and sleep. the noticing the eggs and milk. that’s what took my breath away. nine hundred times out of 10, eggs and milk might be mere scribbles on a grocery list, but really, when you pause long enough, when you think about it, when you find them there on the shelf of the icebox, and don’t find yourself dashing to the store to grab the eggs to make the french toast your kid home from college is hungry for, their being there at all is a blessing, a grace, a reason to whisper hallelujah, which is just a jubilant form of thank you.

it’s in the fine grain, again and again, that some of the most sumptuous gratitudes—graces—are found. the hundred and one barely perceptible goodnesses that cross our paths each day. but if we don’t name them, do we notice them?

to name them is a prayer.

more often, too often, when we sit down to count our blessings, we sweep across the broad terrain of our lives, grab the big stuff, swoop right over the infinitesimal, and, well, we lose ’em, lose their power to inject a jolt of realizing just how darn blessed we really truly are.

talk to someone who’s never heard a cardinal sing the world to sleep. or the pit-a-pat of rain on the roof. talk to someone who can’t push up from a chair. or saunter down to the mailbox. or taste the tart-sweet pop of a pomegranate seed. ask them how hard they might have prayed for that sound, that step, that sweetness.

what we don’t notice, all the things that we forget to count, just might be the out-of-reach to someone else. just might be the thing for which they pray so mightily. day after holy, holy day…

seems right to up our game, our paying-attention game. it’s a praying pose, after all.

and so, in this season of counting up and gathering a motherlode of blessings, i decided to give it a whirl, to put my eye to the fine-grain ones, the ones that come without bullhorn or billboard, the ones that simply quietly punctuate the day. i kept watch across the week. and knowing that to name them is a prayer, i named them, each and every one. here’s an abbreviated census:

  • my answer man of a brother, the one i know i can call midway through turkey prep to get an educated opinion on whether to leave the naked bird to air dry in fridge, or leave him (the bird, not the brother) shrink-wrapped for another cold dark night.
  • the husband who sees the joy in a vintage turntable on which to play rescued vinyl from his youth, and thinks nothing of driving 38 miles on thanksgiving eve to fetch it from the one store that happens to have a single one in stock.
  • the rare, rare gift of standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the cookstove with my firstborn, (well, really, my shoulder hits him at about mid-rib) instead of being connected by the long, long-distance phone line. 
  • knowing two boys are in beds up above my head as i sit here tap-tapping on the keys, and the sheer joy of knowing they’re stirring when i hear the floorboards creak.
  • the heating and cooling guy who two years ago promised he’d get us a new vent for over the stove, and at 4 o’clock on the eve of thanksgiving called to say he was on his way over. and then promised no schmutz would flutter down into the pots already simmering away on the stove….
  • the lull on thanksgiving eve, when the potatoes have been mashed, the naked bird is air-drying, and the choreographed list awaits the dawn….
  • and on the day of feasting itself, nothing beats the sheer hallelujah of finally, finally having every last morsel out of the oven, off the stove, and on the table. and as you plop your bum in the chair, pour your knob of prosecco, you look across the maple planks, set with hand-me-down plates and rescued candlesticks, and drink in the faces of those you so deeply, dearly love.
  • the pink wash of dawn that veiled the garden this morning as i hauled out the bulging bags of recyclables from a long day’s imbibing and inhaling…
  • and one last one, just found tucked in the mailbox, from the darling darling little angels who live across the street, and who make my heart do cartwheels every time our days entwine:
  • and no proper list would end without this: the incredible warmth and the wisdom that never ever fails to burst through the glass screen of any laptop or phone, from all the wonderful “chairs” who ring this globe. you–yes, YOU!–are among the dearest in my life, and you never ever cease to melt my heart. thank you for always being kind, always bringing wisdom, and making this the sacred place we all believe in….

what fine grains are on your list?

equinox of the heart

My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.

On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day  and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International. 

He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.

And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond. 

It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height). 

My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.

I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again. 

And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading. 

Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.

funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shuffling around in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…

photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.

the boys i love, the one coming home tuesday on the left. standing in the front yard of their grandparents’ house on the day of their grandmother’s funeral.

how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow. how do you find a stillpoint?

the dangers of not letting go. and the dusty path toward redemption.

the homestead, circa 1957

this is not a story about religion. though it’s a subject with zealots and slackers.

marie kondo, the porcelain doll of a declutterer, calls it sparking joy (and swears it can change your life). i call it getting covered with cobwebs. and eye-watering dust. and reminding myself of my proclivities for not letting go of the sentimental. 

but i took a trip to new jersey, to a white-clapboard house that might have been built in the early 19th century, and might have been there (in one form or another) as early as 1789. 

and everything changed. 

inside that old house were dozens and dozens of orifices, each one packed to the brim. to open the door to the attic was to trigger a domestic avalanche, the sort you might find spelled out in the weekly gazette, where some poor soul was buried alive beneath decades-old shoeboxes, crumbly yellowed news magazines, and strings of christmasy lights that might never have burned. 

when your job is to pack up the kitchen, to wrap not only the skinny-necked goblets, but to sift out toothpicks, circa 1960, and mismatched tupperware lids by the dozens, you swiftly absorb an abiding commandment: thou shalt not leave behind a house stuffed with stuff thou hast not had the courage or chutzpah to preemptively toss. 

you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.

marie kondo, whose best-selling tidying book i once was assigned to survey, makes the closet-clearing task sound downright zen-like, as if standing before overstuffed shelves, blithely sorting and chucking and plucking for joy — would that be placing the object in the palm of one’s hand, awaiting the wee bit of voltage that’s the signal for “keep me”? — is the next best thing to a trip to the spa. (no wonder i tossed aside that pretty little spark of a joy-jolting book, the book that sparked little but befuddlement back in my stuff-keeping days.)

the truth is, i found packing up the kitchen of someone i love a hauntingly heart-tugging endeavor. i unearthed the red apple-shaped placemats she must have delighted in setting on her breakfast table, or when a struggling student she lovingly tutored came for after-school cookies and milk. i pulled from a drawer the crystal-handled cake cutter that might have sliced into chocolatey layers on countless occasions, and i heard once again the peals of laughter that echoed through the house’s post-colonial walls. i discovered my mother-in-law’s absolute obsession for all things valentine’s day; heart-shaped candy dishes, red paper doilies, and 101 variations on heart-speckled pink paper napkins. 

it’s as if a life is being unspooled wordlessly, a silent reel of thing upon thing. each one with a story you can only imagine, each one a frame still palpably pulsing, but only just barely. and you feel the slipping away all over again.

i kept picturing my mother-in-law peeking over my shoulder, wincing each time i tossed a tchotchke into a trash bag or pitched some trifle to the give-away pile. i felt guilty. i felt tender of heart. i wiped away dozens of tears. (and i kept those few things that belong in the family treasure heap: a dough cutter (highly likely unused), a trio of age-worn red plates (the ones i ate off dozens of times), the red-plaid apron i long ago sewed for her birthday, and now frayed at the ties.)

but then, stripped of my long-held tossing hesitancies, emboldened to not bequeath such a task to my own two boys, i came home and applied my newfound thick-as-reptilian toughness to the orifices i call my own. all week i’ve been standing akimbo in closets and tucked-away corners, dispatching and discarding with gusto. whole bags have been filled as i’ve scoffed at the millions of times i’ve stashed some odd something away, long deluding myself that some day i might find reason to put into action whatever was the odd esoterica. i now know that someday never comes. 

and my new best allies are the fine fellows at goodwill industries, who handily roll out the big blue bins every time they see my red wagon pulling into the lot. 

it’s hard work for the heart. and i don’t mean the muscle that’s doing the pumping. i mean the ineffable filaments of said organ that cling too mightily to the objects of everyday living. the invisible cords that — in some of us anyway — tug too hard in the attachment department. 

to excavate the closets and cupboards of a life long lived is to sweep across the narrative told in dusty old things. in the story told from the long life i hope is mine, i want the people i leave behind to lift up each object and know it sparked me pure joy. 

but more than that, far more than that, in the now, i want my life to not be buried under the crumpled weight of stuff that niggles at me, taunts, “why on earth are you holding onto me?” why not let go, and be freed from the crushingness of closets that threaten to topple, drawers stashed with missing and misplaced parts, and the generalized sense that i live in a house that might split at the seams? 

i want only the things that conjure a someone or sometime or someplace i loved. i want to live lean and clean and not take up more than my share of the room. i want a house without the ghosts of fibber mcgee. i want a lightness of being.

mostly, i guess, i want to pare it all back to the essence, the true essence of joy — unencumbered.

turns out, marie kondo was right after all.

how do you rate in the declutter department? are you a stasher or trasher? if you told your life story in objects, what might be the most treasured pages?

it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…

in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….

well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.

so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).

one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled my belief: essays on life and art.

hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:

Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…

Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.

I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!

These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art

he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.

the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.

and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.

i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.

i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.

for this i pray.

what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?

*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….

praise song for putting to bed a fine summer’s garden

the folks at freeze-warning central don’t talk pretty talk. they’ve no use for adjectives, ditch any hint of gentility. they mean business, scare-the-pants-off-you business.

and so it was that the fine folk from warning central tapped at my laptop yesterday morn. barely bothered to knock. just parachuted in with these dire words:

Freeze Warning issued October 15 at 2:35AM CDT until October 16 at 9:00AM CDT by NWS Chicago IL

  • WHAT…Several hours of sub-freezing temperatures, with lows in
    the upper 20s and low 30s. Some of the coldest locations may
    briefly drop into the mid 20s.
  • WHERE…North central and northeast Illinois away from the
    heart of Chicago and northwest Indiana.
  • WHEN…From 1 AM CDT /2 AM EDT/ to 9 AM CDT /10 AM EDT/ Friday.
  • IMPACTS…Frost and freeze conditions will kill crops, other
    sensitive vegetation and possibly damage unprotected outdoor
    plumbing.

and so, with a sigh, i knew it was time. time to amble out with my many-pocketed vest, time to pluck and harvest as if there was no tomorrow. for, in the land of orange zinger, cherokee purple, big boy, and that saucy san marzano, there was not a tomorrow. this was the end, the coda, the last gasp of summer’s voluptuous bounty.

while i played my last round of what amounts to where’s waldo (the tomato edition), searching in between and under and through the tangles of vine for any plump or lumpen orb with the faintest hint of a color other than green, i whispered a long litany of glory be’s to the incredible edible farm that had burst from the clods of earth out along the potholed alley, in the shadow of the utility pole and the too-tall fence of the neighbor next door.

it had been our virgin voyage in the agricultural realm. my beloved brother in maine, a fellow with know-how oozing from his hands and his heart, he insisted months ago that i get to work building me a plot, one raised from the earth, one that i wrapped in a wee picket fence, one i pampered with thrice-daily (at least!) devotions, once to see what had burst into glory overnight, once to sate its thirsts with a good sweet drink from the hose, once to harvest for salad or dinner. i learned the arts of staking (i’ll need an advanced class on that over the winter, for my vines wound up twisting themselves into tangles and knots of goldbergian proportion). i never bothered with pest control, the farm was there for whoever needed or wanted (only once did i find a critter had ambled in for a midnight picnic of half-chewed tomato).

but all summer, i made like a modern-day hildegard of bingen, she of the great medieval herbarium. i’d planted herbs-to-tomatoes in a 4:1 ratio, an indulgence that had me awash in nightly mounds of tarragon and dill and rosemary, too. and basil and marjoram and oregano — and thyme and chives and cilantro and great wisps of fennel to boot, and every breakfast was sprinkled in spearmint or lemon verbena. the tomatoes, a competitive bunch i discovered, were not to be beat by the delicate herbs. they merely upped their nightshade ante, and burst forth with such gusto i found myself trolling the cookery tomes, searching for ways to roast and sun-dry and stir into sauce and stretch into winter. the resident architecture critic took to dousing his daily mound of lunchtime cottage cheese with handfuls and handfuls of zingers, those orange little morsels the size of a gumball, the 25-cent — not the penny — variety.

and just the other day, the critic himself was leaping into his little-used adjective file, pulling out superlatives, waxing poetic about the wonders of watching your lunch rise out of the earthen mounds. he marveled as much as anyone in this old house at the nightly leaps and bounds of the vines as they reached for the heavens, and escaped up and over the fence.

it’s a beautiful thing, he declared, to witness the miracle of the seed tucked into compost back at the start of the sun-drenching season. to measure the almost-hourly rising, to witness the bloom bulge and birth into fruit, to taste the zing you can’t find in a plastic-wrapped pack from the grocery.

it’ll be a long winter without it, but as i put it to bed with my trowel and my vespers, i’ll unloose a long and loving litany — a canticle even — to the glories and wonder of the vines and the leaves and the delicate blossoms, the tangles and orbs and heaven-sent scents of the plot that fed us all summer.

bless you, and thank you, dear farm on the alley.

what are the blessings of the season past for which you are whispering your thank yous? or for the blessings of now that all but knock you to your knees when they burst open before you?

and a p.s.: just hours before the freeze-alert was due to kick into gear, i looked out my kitchen window and found this glorious morning glory unfurling its last-ditch trumpet call into the world. it’s still there now, alive through the night. the glory of heavenly defiance, not to be done in by the cold….

an old maple table and the command to build a “little sanctuary”: a holiness story

our mikdash m’at

“over 2,000 years ago,” our rabbi began last night, “our people mourned the destruction of the temple.” the temple, of course, had been the place of worship, of prayer and sacrifice. it was the holy place of the jews. and in the year 70 of the common era, it was sacked by the romans. destroyed to dust and ashes.

but “our people” are resilient people. they are the people of the diaspora. they know what it is to wander, homeless, in the desert. to be strangers in a strange land. they know — deep in the marrow of their bones — the history of exile, the history of holocaust. of nations turning their backs on a holy people.

our rabbi went on: she taught that in the wake of mourning their holy temple’s loss, the rabbis of the time urged the people to build mikdash m’at — little sanctuaries — in their homes, to bring their prayers into where they lived and ate and drank and bathed and slept. and so, all these millennia later, when once again we have been banished — by an invisible virus — from our temples — and our churches, and our mosques, and all our holy shrines — my rabbi was urging us, on the cusp of the holy days of awe, to build mikdash m’at in our circa 2020 houses.

***

mikdash m’at
From the Talmud, Megillah 29a: The verse states: “Yet I have been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they have come” (Ezekiel 11:16). Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This is referring to the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia. And Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to the house of our master, i.e., Rav, in Babylonia, from which Torah issues forth to the entire world.

מְעַט (n-m) heb

  1. littleness, few, a little, fewness
    1. little, small, littleness, fewness, too little, yet a little
    2. like a little, within a little, almost, just, hardly, shortly, little worth

***

i’d signed up for our synagogue’s workshop on creating a sanctuary in our homes for the high holidays because i am always up for carving out a sacred space. and i listened closely to the instruction: pick your prayer space, a place where you might feel elevated, outside the ordinary, at one with the sacred. a sanctuary, our rabbi explained, is a “space that’s holy or set apart.” she went on to define the ways we might fulfill God’s command, “make for me a sanctuary that I can dwell in.”

and so, once i’d sauntered back to the kitchen, as i was chopping eggplant and leaves of basil, dousing grilled peppers in balsamic glaze, i began to babble about this holy assignment. i recounted the instruction to the tall, bespectacled one with whom i share this creaky old house. i told him — in that way an eager student does — that we must pick a holy space. because, of course, the rabbi said so. and then i asked him where that might be. where would be our sanctuary for the holy days of awe? where might be the place where God — and we — could dwell?

and in that knowing way of his, in that quiet, certain, deeply-rooted-without-a-drop-of-drama-ever way of his, he lifted his finger toward the old maple kitchen table tucked in the corner, and he nodded. case closed.

there was no holier place in our house, of course, than the nearly century-old, hand-me-down maple table, the table etched with imprints of penmanship from ages-ago schoolwork, the table scrubbed bare in patches of whatever stain was long ago applied by some long-ago carpenter. the table where, since moving here almost 18 years ago, umpteen thousand prayers have been unspooled, night after night, morning after morning, midday after midday. countless stories — funny ones, hold-your-breath ones, rip-your-heart-out ones — have let rip here; tears, too. deliberations have been parsed here; life courses, corrected. midnight bowls of cereal have been gobbled down, and blazing birthday cakes presented on pedestals. books have been written here, and law school papers, too. we have mourned and rejoiced here. laughed and sometimes stormed away.

as poet laureate joy harjo so gloriously put it in her kitchen-table poem, “perhaps the world ends here,” “this table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.”

and it will be for us, in the unbroken days of awe ahead — the blessed new year, rosh hashanah, and the holiest of holy, the day of atonement, yom kippur — my bespectacled beloved and i will wrap ourselves in our prayer shawls and our prayers, we will lift ourselves out of the ordinary, and reach for the star-stitched heavens, we will hunker down at the years-worn, scruffed-up slab of old maple tree, and we will aim to dwell with the Almighty.

as it is commanded.

where would be your holy place, where would you build your little sanctuary, your mikdash m’at?

rice pudding trials

rice pudding trials

it must trace back to the breast. yes, the original suckling breast. (forgive me for shocking so early in the morning, but, yes, this is where we begin.) imagine the soft fullness of the mother’s breast, engorged with milk, tubes and ducts surging with all a little one needs. imagine the heartbeat just beyond the milk. imagine the baby’s cheek pressed against flesh; pillowed, you might say. imagine the countenances, eyes locked in a channel of concentration, mother to babe and back again. imagine the wee little curls of finger, grabbing hold and not letting go; flesh entwined with flesh.

that must be the original comfort food: sustenance. warmth. insistent and unceasing rhythm of heart, the original lullaby, non?

and so, we humans are hard-wired to seek it.

it should not surprise, then, that in a moment of global paralysis, when you can’t get out of the house where you grew up (and your mother and father have nothing more to do than indulge you in their too-lavish attentions), when your college campus is far beyond reach, when the springtime you imagined has gone up in red-ringed vapors, there might come urgency in the department of cooking.

comfort cooking might be the call of the day. comfort cooking might teeter on the sharp edge of survival. comfort cooking might be the handiest cure for the stuck-at-home blues.

which brings us, oddly, circuitously but certainly, to the subject of rice pudding.

what began as almost an afterthought at the grocery store, a last-minute swipe for some plastic-tubbed goo on the shelf, a goo labeled “rice pudding,” took on a bit of a life of its own. it started with an off-handed, “i wonder if you can make that” (for one of us grew up in a house in the space-age food revolution days when true kitchen liberation was found in the form of boxed mixes for everything, and scratch-cooking was so yesteryear; in the house where i grew up, brownies came from betty crocker’s red-spooned box, and not once did i witness rice stirred into pudding).

because one of us is in the business of gobbling down whatever is put before him, and another of us is especially in the business these days of reaching beyond the ho-hum, trying valiantly to infuse a touch of indulgence into the day, it became something of a quest in this old house to stir our way to rice pudding perfection. or, at least, a pudding sans gelatinous lumps, a pudding with just the right kiss of sweetness, a pudding so lick-your-lips-able that it might have you sneaking into the fridge in the wee, wee hours. a pudding with raisins, of course.

despite my protest and preferences, brown rice was immediately ruled out. forbidden, more like it. if this pudding was going to provide one ounce of comfort it was going to be washed out and white through and through. in a pinch, mark bittman (our go-to guy so very often, for he lures with his promise of “how to cook everything“) provided the road map: water; rice; salt; milk; sugar; cinnamon.

what resulted was soft, sweet, and passable. but that only taunted. we somehow locked onto the notion that what was needed was something spectacular. something so comforting it just might fill up every null and void, just might make us forget for one flash of a moment (as long as it takes to swallow a mouthful of pillowy softness) how hungry we were to get on with our once-ago lives….

and so the pudding trials commenced.

we sought out a coterie of experts: nigella lawson (she indulges with double cream, arborio rice, and muscat wine). the pioneer lady (she soaks her raisins in whiskey, for heaven’s sake, adds a splash of cream and — because she’s the pioneer lady — dollops a fat pat of butter). ina garten, aka the barefoot contessa (she takes it over the top with dark rum, basmati rice and — get this — 5 cups of half-and-half). we had ourselves a holy trinity of comfort makers, each with her own derivation.

and then, along came an heirloom from a friend, an unsuspecting formula for rice pudding confection. we knew it might be a winner as soon as we saw that the provenance was simply, “mother.” as in a nursery recipe passed from mother to daughter, one of the kitchen bequests that brings back whole moments in time, conjures up storybook scenes of kitchen comfort. that after-school moment when a pudding is spooned in a bowl, and along with fat grains of rice, afloat in a creamy perfection, there is a mother’s voice, soothing. perhaps even a hand rubbing the back, kneading the knots out of the shoulders clenched from a long day of worry or heartache.

that’s what an heirloom recipe does. that’s what comfort cooking is all about. it’s alchemy in its very best form: the power to heal, to chase away the blues, to restore your faith in the long days ahead.

here is my friend’s unadorned, utterly simple roadmap to rice pudding perfection:

Raisin Rice Custard
(Mother)

3 eggs
2 1/2-3 cups milk
2-3 T. sugar for each cup of milk (make as sweet as you like!)
1 t. vanilla
generous pinch of salt
nutmeg
1 cup or so cooked white rice (day old is best)
1 cup or so raisins

Scald the milk (heat slowly until little bubbles around edge of pan). Beat eggs lightly, add sugar and salt. Slowly add the scalded milk, stirring. Add vanilla and about 1/4 t. nutmeg.

Pour this mixture over the rice and raisins in a buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake custard in a pan of hot water at 350 for 50-60 min. or until knife comes out clean.

and here is nigella’s (note: it’s written for cooking in merry old england; translation necessary):

Nigella Lawson’s Muscat Rice Pudding
“I am not suggesting that the basic, plain version of rice pudding is in any way deficient,” says Nigella, “but this muskily ambrosial version is mellow heaven. Perfect dinner-party comfort food.”
Ingredients
500ml whole milk
500ml double cream
50g unsalted butter
150g pudding or arborio rice

250ml muscat wine
50g caster sugar

Pinch of salt
Fresh nutmeg to grate

Method
Preheat the oven to 150°C/gas mark 2.

Combine the milk and cream. In a 1.5-litre, hob-proof casserole dish, melt the butter over a medium-low heat, add the rice and stir well to coat, then add the muscat. Stir well and let the syrupy liquid bubble away for a couple of minutes. Then pour in the milk and cream and add the sugar and salt, stirring as you do so. Bring it back to a gentle bubble, stir well again and grate over some fresh nutmeg.

Put in the oven and cook for 2 hours, stirring after the first 30 minutes. Check the dish after 11⁄2 hours – the depth of the dish and the nature of your oven may make a significant difference. The rice should have absorbed the liquid, but still be voluptuously creamy. Remove and cool for at least half an hour before eating.

what’s your roadmap to comfort on those days when you’re ground to the bone?