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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?

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

this old house is so much more…

 

not long after nine the other morning, an army of painters pulled to the curb and launched what appeared a military-level operation on this old house. ladders upon ladders were hauled from the lid of a van, drop cloths were draped over bush, tree and stoop. brushes were slid from plastic wrapping, buckets of paint shimmied up ropes, dangled from hooks that swayed in the breeze. in all, 15 painters had at it, each with his eye on the darkening skies, the skies that threaten a freeze by daybreak tomorrow.

it’s been 15 years — at least — since this old house was slathered in beechwood semi-transparent stain all across its shingles, its windows and mullions traced in white white, its doors in van deusen blue. that was back in the long-ago days, back before high school and colleges and law school, back before a broken neck and assorted orthopedic adventures, back in the days when a fat cat prowled the so-called acreage. back when we were deep in the grain of making this old house our own.

this old house has harbored much in our short slice of its 78 years. it’s become the place we come home to, the place we miss when we’re away. a few weeks ago, when the tree cracked in half in the dark of the night, both boys — faraway now — wrote home with alarm. they begged for pictures, needed to see for themselves; hauled out the exclamation marks on their keypads. even from a distance — long distance — they did not cozy to the notion that their old house and the tree that harbors it had suffered a blow.

home is like that. home roots us. home is our ballast in the storms — and, oh, there will be storms. we come to consider home — the old house with its particular creaks and moans and recalcitrant sashes — something of a character in the life of our family. its floorplan is the one we trace in our imagination, the narrative throughline of all of our stories. we picture it, no matter how far we roam. sometimes we physically ache to run our palms down its bannister, to click open the door that insists on a shove. sometimes, when we’ve been away a long while, we begin to feel its pull, its true magnetic pull, soon as we come through the underpass, take a left at the smoke house, retrace the leafy lanes, see the place standing, just as we’d left it. sometimes, we can’t get the key in the lock to turn quite fast enough. sometimes we don’t fully breathe till we’re standing there in the old front hall, and we inhale the smell of home again.

there’s a book on one of my shelves titled, a home for the soul: a guide for dwelling with spirit and imagination, by anthony lawlor, who happens to be an architect and author of the acclaimed the temple in the house. in the opening pages of home for the soul, lawlor writes:

from the moment we are born, we seem compelled to travel homeward. in places and people, we seek that elusive feeling of being welcomed. home is the goal of the epic journeys of the human spirit. jesus returns to his heavenly father. moses leads his people to their homeland. buddha reaches the immovable spot of enlightenment beneath the bo tree. 

i like it even more when lawlor turns to a lakota medicine man named Lame Deer who writes of the sacredness right under our noses, a sacredness woven into the everyday fibers of home, yet a sacredness we sometimes forget to see.

writes lame deer:

what do you see here, my friend? just an ordinary old cooking pot, black with soot and full of dents. it is standing on the fire on top of that old wood stove, and the water bubbles and moves the lid as the white steam rises to the ceiling. it doesn’t seem to have a message, that old pot, and i guess you don’t give it a thought. [but] i think about ordinary, common things like this pot. the bubbling water comes from the rain cloud. it represents the sky. the fire comes from the sun, which warms us all. the steam is living breath. it was water; now it goes up to the sky, becomes a cloud again. we sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. we see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life. we try to understand them not with the head but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning.

the painters are gone now. they’ve folded up their drop cloths and hauled them and the ladders away. our old house this morning is redolent of eau de semi-transparent stain. when i wandered out to gather up the newspaper at the curb, i turned to ogle the beechwood shingles and the van deusen blue door in the first light of the day. i’m certain this old house is standing just a little bit snappier today. it’ll be good for at least another chapter, this one that now echoes too often and too loudly with the sound of not quite full.

where do you find the sacred pulse point in the place you call home?

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the painters tied up the bushes so they could paint my window to the world

playing house

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as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.

decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.

then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.

and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.

keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.

i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.

this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.

i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.

there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.

with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?

i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.

and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).

the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.

only it’s not make-believe.

and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

it’s the question that stirs me night and day….

what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)