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Category: home

baking en masse: when you need to jumpstart your holiday heart

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the calendar was cajoling. winking, taunting. counting down the days till Christmas. and there i was, slumped in my red-checked armchair, curled in what amounted to the fetal position that even the president (the one still dwelling in the white house) advised was not a wise position (and not because he was worried about my posture or my crooked spine). no matter how hard i tried, i just could not muster the oomph the holidays demand.

so i did the surest thing i know to beat back the mid-december blues: i cranked the oven. i hauled an armload of oranges from the fridge. grabbed the canisters of flour and sugar. soon found myself slamming my grandma’s rolling pin against a sack of walnuts (therapy with a mighty bang!). already, i was starting to feel a little oomph in my kitchen dance. i grated. i measured and dumped. i inhaled the sweet scent of orange. delighted at the garnet bits swimming through the mixing bowl of batter. i was baking my way to Christmas. and on the way, i found my merry heart.

there is something deeply therapeutic about not just baking, but baking en masse. making like you’re a factory of one. i lined up all my baking pans. buttered, floured in one long sweep. i found it much less onerous to tick through required steps in quadruplicate, so much more satisfying than one measly loaf at a time. there was some degree of superpower in seeing my butcher-block counter lined in shiny tins, a whole parade of Christmas possibility. i found a magic in the multiples. in not just joy times one, but joy by the dozen.

i made a list of folks i love, and folks i barely know. folks who might do well to find themselves cradling a still-warm loaf of cranberry-orange-walnut (sometimes pecan) holiday bread. it took hours, of course. because each batch demanded an hour in my crotchety old oven, the one that deals in approximation rather than precision. the one that might respond to Fahrenheit, or might play in Celsius. it seems to change its mind day by day. all the while i cranked the Christmas tunes (truth be told, i played “Mary, Did You Know?” till even my little radio called it quits, fritzed out from all the times i clicked “replay”).

and therein came the joy. the simple act of drumming up a recipe, ticking off the short list of recipients, wishing more than anything i could wander down the lane to souls i love who live miles or time zones away. suspended in a day’s long animation, in the act of making plump golden-domed loaves from scoops of this and pinches of that, it was december’s holy balm.

this seems to be a season, in this particular whirl around the sun, when old tried-and-true rhythms and routines just aren’t working. but scooping your way through a whole sack of flour, grating the zesty peel off a whole orchard of oranges, it held out hope. it nudged me from the dark shadow of ho-hum into the more glimmering terrain of well-it’s-Christmas-after-all. and at every house where i rang the bell, and left behind a loaf, i felt a little thump inside my heart. every once in a while, someone was home, which led to invitation to step inside, to shatter the cloak of isolation that harbors all of us inside our solitude and day-long silence.

it’s a merry tradition, the merriment that’s spread by the baker’s dozen. the simple act of creation — not just for me or mine, but for folks beyond my own front stoop. the simple equation of making to give away. addition through subtraction.

midday i found myself thinking i should take this up for all sorts of holidays, for groundhog day, perhaps, for flag day. for the annual first wednesday in september (a holiday i just declared). point is, sometimes the distance between loneliness and shared company is no farther than the few footsteps from my front door to a door across the way, or down the block. it’s no farther than the mailman’s empty hands once he drops off my daily pile of circulars and bills. no farther than the garbage fellow whose heart-melting smile is carrying me through these days.

it’s not escaping me this year that the deeper i burrow into my own silence, the harder it is to extricate my soul.

and sometimes a simple place to begin the cure is with the canisters that line my kitchen corner. and that cranky oven that lives and breathes to warm my kitchen — and, indeed, my soul.

what’s your recipe out of the doldrums this year? 

and merry almost Christmas to each and every one of you, and happy blessed almost Hanukkah, too. here’s hoping you find scraps of joy, and bundle them into just enough to carry you through these ever-longer, darker nights till the solstice comes, and light creeps in, minute by minute, day by day.

by the way, here’s a link to the cranberry-nut-bread recipe (from gourmet magazine, via epicurious) that got me started. i vamped, as always, from there: more orange zest. more nuts. 

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summer’s clubhouse

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when i was little, summer commenced when martha hackney and i would take to the woods. or the cardboard box cupboard. a boggy wood stretched between our two houses, complete with babbling brook, and stepping stones, and a pond we named “green,” because it was carpeted in teeny-tiny french knots of muck. if we’d inspected with magnifying spectacle, we’d likely have noticed they were lilliputian lily pads, perches for froglets the size of half your pinkie. once in a while, we’d stretch out on a log and inspect. and try not to plop in (for that would certainly lead to tuberculosis. or worse. so we feared in our nine-year-old minds).

i can’t remember a summer in which martha and i did not devote every waking hour to the construction of one of our clubhouses. the woodsy variety. or the ones where we spent hours upon hours with scissors and glue and snippets of fabric, and leftover rolls of wallpaper, too. and boxes. boxes by the boxload. we upholstered. we carpeted. we strung make-believe lights. we made resplendent rooms for our miniature dolls. we daydreamed the day away, hands smudged with glue.

perhaps those are the roots of my summer-y inclination to tuck away in a spot that’s away from it all. under a willow tree might be ideal. but i’ve no babbling brook near this old shingled house where, more often than not, i’m the one in charge of flipping grilled cheese and stoking the fridge. so the clubhouse i call my own is the one at the end of a short winding walk, a brick walk that leads from the house through the garden to the slapping screen door. there, just inside, is a steep-ceilinged room, one with a fan that undulates the summer’s breeze. and old wicker chairs, ones i once scooped from the alley (yes, i did; rescuing the flock from unseemly demise), tucked to one side, while an old wobbly door, perched on four legs, now makes for a wobbly table.

IMG_7681we call it the summer house, for that’s what the real estate lady once called it. it’s a name with far more pizazz than really it musters. if you don’t mind a rip in your screens, if flaky paint from the chairs doesn’t bother you, if a teetering dinner plate doesn’t ruffle your feathers, well, then, we have a room for you.

IMG_7682this week, in a week that might be labeled “intensive care” (for the task of the week was intensively caring for one un-done heart), it’s the place to which i skittered away. i carried my load of summer reading. i settled my bum in the old wicker seats. and before i could turn a single page, i was wholly absorbed in the magic of that odd little place. a mama wren flitted in and out of the birdhouse (she was tending her thimble-sized brood, delivering wren-sized delectables on a quarter-hourly basis). a cardinal paid me no mind, heralding the dawn, and later, the twilight.

a place to escape is a critical place. a place that, perhaps, no other season so offers. but summer, after all, demands it. promises it. it’s the one time of year when you can stretch out your legs, cross your ankles, and know you’re doing your duty: you’re summering. however you define it.

for me, summering is a verb with pages to turn. it’s sipping slowly from tall sweaty vessels of lemony water. it’s slapping away mosquitoes, and keeping watch for the firefly. it’s taking time out and not feeling guilty. it’s feeling like friday afternoon stretches for days. it’s relishing: a balsa wood baskets of berries; fat spears of asparagus charred from the grill; a book i don’t want to end; daybreak with a hot mug of coffee; mama wren enchanting with her motherly duties; nightfall with a flute of prosecco.

it’s the one time of year that begs us to savor the succulence. to consider the high art of nonchalance and lull without purpose. it’s the deep down knowing that if you’re turning a page, staring into the distance, or keeping watch on a wren, you are more than doing your job. you’re inhaling the whole of the blessing, the one that now is upon us: welcome to summer.

how do you define summering? and what’s your tucked-away spot?

summer starts here lemonade

proper porridge

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i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.

five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.

oats + water + salt.

that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.

oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.

i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.

but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.

while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.

here’s what i read: proper porridge prescription

WELL WORTH THE WAIT

porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.

it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).

and it captured my attention, all right.

deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.

i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.

consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”

which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:

“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”

mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.

snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:

“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing  against the microwave as appliance of oats.

or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):

“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”

and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:

“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”

i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.

but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.

and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.   

but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:

THE RECIPE
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
THE TRICK
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
THE TWIST
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.

and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.

are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats? national oatmeal season

“don’t be afraid of the dark”

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i heard the words, suddenly, as if instruction. it might have been late afternoon, a day or two ago. the details are murky now. i know i was in the kitchen, not far from the window, and i know the dark hadn’t yet rolled in when i heard the words, as if a celestial whisper.

“don’t be afraid of the dark.”

i never am. afraid of the dark, that is. my celtic soul is one of the ones that, most of the time, shimmies into the darkness, as shoulders into a soft-knit sleeve. dark invites mystery. invites deepening. dark is where shadows dance. dark is where faint outlines appear, the chiaroscuro of night.

but somehow, deep down in my soul, maybe i knew this might be different. maybe i knew this year’s season of darkness, as globe turns away from the sun, as our point on the planet lies mostly in shadow, the faint slant of light more diluted than summer’s blaze, maybe i sensed that this year it might be tougher to shoulder.

so the instruction crept in, out of nowhere. the sort of whispered coaxing that might make you look up to the ceiling, to see if it came from above. or, maybe, truly, it might make you pause, put ear to your heart, and know it came from within. the still small voice that whispers. and every once in a while shakes us by the shoulders, says (more or less), “listen here, i’m talking to you, and i don’t want you not paying attention.”

so there you are, about to swing open the door of the fridge, reach for a tub of cottage cheese or some other plebeian foodstuff, when all of the sudden you’re shaking your head, trying to knock off the cobwebs that must be messing with your ear drums, and next thing you know you’re thinking hard about darkness, and how it’s coming, and how you’ve just been instructed not to be afraid.

all right, then. so i won’t be. i’ll try, hard as i can, to peek out the window at four in the afternoon, and look for the beauty in the purpling hour, when the world outside goes violet, awash in sinking sunlight. maybe i’ll crank the stove a bit earlier, a bit more heartily. maybe i’ll stack candles along the window sill, the armament of light from within.

maybe i’ll keep the afghans close at hand. maybe i’ll pencil in night walks. maybe i’ll memorize planets and stars.

there’s an enchanted picture book, a book for children who might be eight or 85, and it’s one i keep close by, on the bookshelf here in the room where i type. it’s titled, “caretakers of wonder,” by cooper edens, the glorious illustrator whose work with the magical publishing house, “green tiger press,” served as my muse through the 1980s, back in a decade when life was walloping me this way and that. back when mr. edens (let us be wholly respectful of this master of brush and charcoal pencil) was a child, his principal sent him home from school (for the year, not the day!), telling his mother he was “too creative.” his mother, wise woman, sat him down for the duration with a set of crayons and stacks and stacks of coloring books. it wasn’t long till he began channeling van gogh and monet, and his works have always swept me away.

IMG_6148he might best be known for the bedtime book, “if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow,” but the one i love best is “caretakers of wonder.”

it begins with these words: “this very night, while you lie quietly in your bed, open your eyes. now, look out the window! for even at this yawning hour, so many of your friends are working to keep the world magical.” (now, turn the page…)

“yes, they are the ones who make new stars and put them up” (illustration of two fine caretakers climbing into the wicker basket of a hot-air balloon — how else to float to the stars?) (turn page again…)

“the ones who light and keep the stars burning.” (and here we see the heart-air balloon, and the extra-long wick that kindles the night stars…)IMG_6149

sometimes all it takes is one reading, one brush of words up against the soul, for whole new paradigms to be born, whole new ways of seeing, of glistening. and so, perhaps, ever since i first brushed up against cooper edens’ whimsy and wonder, i’ve found the night all the more enchanting. to think there are caretakers flitting about with their miles-long wicks, and their night work of wonder….

it must be the make-believe part of me that’s never faded away, the ember that would not extinguish.

and so, this very morning, beginning to reacquaint myself with the wonder of darkness, the darkness that’s coming this very weekend when we turn back the clocks, i tiptoed outside with my dawn-viewing equipment: my slide-in shoes, my fat mug of very hot coffee, my old tin can of birdseed filled to the brim for the birds who were still off nodding at that early hour.

i looked up. that’s all it takes, a simple crank of the neck, chin pointed skyward. and there it was, dawn awaiting. gibbous moon, ringed in a halo of violet and rose and peek-a-boo cloud (one of those early morning mysteries whose science i do not understand, nor do i need to). planets emphatically spotlit (venus, mars, and jupiter pinned to the southeastern sky). stars on the brink of fading away.

it was breathtakingly beautiful, all of it.

and i’m fairly convinced the beauty is ours for the taking, yes, deep in the darkness. if we take in a chest-filling breath, and wrap ourselves in the whole of the long night’s offering, the invitation to burrow deep inside our souls. and bring on the night candles, the flame, and the blankets.

what particular beauties do you find in the darkness? will you steel yourself against its early coming, or welcome it with rapt attention?

when all else fails…turn to page 200

mac n cheese

for two decades now, ever since may of 1995 when i was plotting my firstborn’s second birthday fete, and i flipped open the pages of my monthly infusion of delicious, gourmet magazine — before it was ruth reichl’s gourmet magazine, before it was defunct, folded into the crypt of long-gone magazines, magazines that shaped our culture and then withered and died, the sad fate of so much of what’s printed in ink on the page — page 200, the page where the binding is coming unglued, the page crusted with splatters of roux, it’s been my no-fail, last-ditch, best-hope-of-filling-a-hole-in-a-heart-by-way-of-the-belly cookery map.

so it was yesterday, a crisp october day, when the sun poured in as if from a flask of molasses, so it was on a day when the boy who’d loped from the car at the school house curb was a boy with a leaden heart. he had so much homework, was so worried about homework, that he’d decided to skip the end-of-the-season soccer gorge on pasta and pizza. instead of hanging with friends, he’d decided he should come home straight after practice.

to make matters a tad bit worse, i wouldn’t be home when he got there. i try hard to keep my nights away to a serious minimum, but last night was a night i’d promised to be elsewhere, in a dim-lit watering hole and song hall, actually, reading words from a page for a very fine purpose, all to raise funds for a most noble cause.

i’m always torn when tugged away from my boys. and at the end of this week, this week when the lights in the kitchen never went out before midnight, because a young soccer player was trying hard to finish all of his homework, often accompanied by the sadness that lingers in our house, it was especially hard to be away.

so i reached for my holy salvation: the plainly-named “Baked Macaroni and Cheese,” ala page 200. it’s a cheesy-buttery bath stirred round and through tubes of wide-mouthed pasta, each tube filling with ooze as much as being wrapped in it. it vies, in our house, with bread pudding, as the neck-and-neck nos. 1 and 2 comforts on a spoon.

over the years, the making it — for me, anyway — is as soothing as it must be for my boys to polish it off in one sitting. assembling its components — the butter, the cheddar, the flour, the milk, the salt, paprika, bread crumbs, and parmesan shavings to finish it off — i slip into priestess mode. my old black cookstove — an industrial-grade contraption that somehow slipped into this old house in the 1970s, never to be removed — is my altar.

i begin my incantations and prestidigitations right there, where the flame is cranked, and the concoctions in my pots begin to bubble, not unlike vats of heavenly potions. with the oven cranked to 375, the kitchen begins to warm. everything about this kitchen ritual is warming. soon, my old sweater is off, and as i stir i imagine my sweet boy coming home to find the big white ceramic souffle dish perched atop the stove, my hand-scribbled note just to the side.

is there a more certain way to say i love you than to have cooked all afternoon? to have reached for the cookery shelf and pulled out the one thing a kid asks for on those nights when his sleepy head hits the pillow but the worries won’t be extinguished?

because a big old vat of mac n’ cheese wasn’t enough, not on this particular day, in the thick of this particular passage, i pulled out the produce bin and piled a mound of apples atop the cutting board. i chopped honeycrisp and granny smith, i didn’t peel — why bother? — and i tumbled the slices into the pot, added a splash of honeycrisp cider, a shake or two of cinnamon, and once again, applied flame to the equation. wasn’t long till the whole house was swimming in eau de apple and buttery-cheese. even the cat ambled back in from the garden.

then i set the table. is there anything that says i was thinking of you quite so quietly, certainly, as coming home to a kitchen table that awaits you, that has your very own napkin and napkin ring at the place where you always sit?

it’s the rhythms we carve into the grain of the day, of the months and the years — simple rhythms, unadorned rhythms, nothing so fancy as a napkin and fork at a place that is yours, set by someone who thought about how it might be to come home harried, and worried, and tired to the bone — that makes coming home feel as if someone just handed you your oldest, comfiest slippers. and a fuzzy sweater to boot.

i’d left the stove light on, and the mac-and-cheese under a foil dome, as i slipped out the door and turned the key. then, not a block from home, i got a message: the soccer player had decided, after all, to skip coming home. he’d hang out with the soccer team, inhale store-bought pasta and delivery pizza.

such is a mama’s existence.

so much for stirring and chopping, in hot pursuit of healing a tattered heart.

but here’s the holy truth: i was the one whose heart was soothed in the long hours of love at the cookstove.

and, besides, mac-n-cheese cold makes for excellent bedtime snack. when the lights go out at midnight.

what’s your when-all-else-fails cookstove concoction?

that moment when…(and this summer more than ever…)

summer feets

all week i’ve been feeling it. that moment that best can be likened to the glorious fraction of time when you’ve been out in tippity teetering heels all night, when your toes have been practically yelping in protest and the bones in your feets have been threatening to cut you off at the ankles, when every ounce of you wanted to wriggle out of this unnatural state of constraint, but you had to make like a grownup and prance around in footwear that does its best to topple you, and sometimes makes you chew on your cheek besides. but then, finally, the night and the torture come to an end, and there in the dark, and practically running, you round the bend, you lurch toward the door and you begin the release for which you’ve been throbbing: you scrape the toe of one pointy shoe against the penned-in heel of the other, and you kick the darn foot-clamps clear across the kitchen.

you stand there, for a minute or two, just drinking in the feel of your bones falling back to their pre-ordained order. you listen to the flow of the blood trickling back to the tips of your squeezed-colorless tootsies.

you savor the long-awaited rush of relief. the busting-out-of-whatever-bound-you.

which, pretty much, is how it feels around here. more so than in a very long time. because summer in this old house has arrived with a groundswell of holy hallelujah. boy one is finished with college. boy one is hanging around. boy two just finished with grade school. ergo, this is a summer that comes with a full ladle of finish. and, perhaps, an extra-deep dollop of purest enchantment.

this is, more than any summer that i can recall, one of those moments when the hours make like salvador dali had at them. they warp into stretched-out proportions. they expand, not contract. they breathe. and sometimes, like sunday afternoon when my firstborn and i plopped into old wicker chairs and stayed there for the better part of three hours, they stand perfectly utterly still.

i am, in this seasonal opening act, indulging in time. i am whirling, deep down inside, in the rarest of joy, the feeling that somehow i’ve cupped my hands, sunk them deep in a font of holiest waters, and come up spilling; splattering drop after delectable drop.

i’m not worrying, for heaven’s sake, about what’s for dinner, i’m not looking at clocks. (though i am watching ice boxes magically empty, and i am setting world records for laundry.) i’m feeling the lumpety-thump of my heart when the sound of the footsteps comes down the stairs at times when i’m usually alone and the house is usually silent. like a kid on christmas morning, i’m peeking through cracks in the door at two sleeping boys with no need for hurry.

maybe i love it all the more because i know it won’t last. and not only because i’ve been around the block enough times to know that, soon enough, the days will be so hot and so sticky we’ll all be wishing for igloos. and popsicles will seem a sensible breakfast.

maybe it’s all the sweeter because i never imagined we’d all have one more summer together. i hadn’t pictured four cereal bowls plopped on the table, each one blanketed in warm-from-the-field farmer berries. i hadn’t imagined the windows rolled down in the old station wagon, and me and my boys blaring the radio, wending our way to no particular anywhere. i hadn’t considered boy upon boy curled up on the couch, arms and shoulders entwined, words of brotherly wisdom being imparted in whispers.

for now, it’s one fleeting drink-it-all-in suspension of time.

we’re back to the place, and the moment, when the letting loose rubs you all over. like a terry cloth towel before it’s worn thin. it’s that magical interlude when the season is new, when we’re just on the cusp, and everything is raw and deep and our pores are wide open and we’re guzzling it down. right in here, in this opening act of summer’s production, the season of so few cares, we’re hard at work simply savoring.

and this particular summer it comes with a brand of relish that i’ll never ever forget.

this just might be the summer whose frames i’ll play and replay till the last gasp i breathe on this earth.

well, goodness gracious, i got a wee bit sidetracked — make that a lot sidetracked — here this morning when my ferocious jungle cat (he who seems to be showing off in recent days, proving to any and all that he might be old but he ain’t over yet) carried into the house — into the very middle of the family room’s old persian rug, mind you — a still-wriggling, but-not-for-long critter, clutched in the sharp-toothed grip of said hunter cat. i let out a yelp, as is my usual inclination, and hip-hopped in circles till i got the duo to skitter back through the rip of the old screen door. it set me to quaking for a few minutes there, and then i needed to settle back in to the rhythms above. and, oh goodness, the wonders of summer took on whole new dimensions. 

and in further keeping with this slow-time summer, i’ve just spent the last hour plopped on the post-college kid’s new navajo rug, chatting about his early morning adventures procuring yet another job. normally i fidget till i hit the friday-morning-publish button, but not today. today i know that all’s in due time. and if it unfolds slowly, it’s all the more glorious….

finally, before i go, a most blessed birthday i wish for my beloved friend cecilia and her forever love, gary, who serendipitously and marvelously share the same birthday. this is a big one for ceci, a day of more than usual import. i send love and prayers in double dose.

so before i sign off: what do you savor most at the start of this laid-back season……

welcome to summer

heartbeat home

heartbeat home clock

it’s quiet here this morning, too quiet. it’s been that way for 10 long weeks.

the only sound is the susurration of the furnace. poor overtaxed furnace. burning kilowatts to try to keep us warm, to keep the goosebumps at bay.

the missing sound is the tick that follows the tock that follows the tick. and on and on and on.

there’s a clock, an old old clock, one once packed up in a florida house, laid carefully atop a formica-slabbed kitchen table, not unlike a baby after a bath, wrapped in towels, slipped in a box, and carefully carefully sent from west palm beach to chicago. where, once it arrived, we lifted it, hung it, wound it, and listened.

i’ve been listening ever since.

i’ve aligned my heart to the tick and tock of that old clock — a clock whose provenance we have only guessed at. i thought dutch. a clocksmith told me “mexican.” what i do know of its provenance is that my beloved, that tall bespectacled fellow, had a grandpa who loved clocks. and that grandpa’s pride and joy — or the ticking one, anyway — was his wall of clocks from across the time line and the world map. that wall, in that house down florida way, it clanged and squawked and chimed, a ticking-tocking  quarter-hour reverie.

i never met that grandpa, but the grandma to whom he’d long been paired, she became, in one fell swoop, the dearest grandma i ever knew. i might have spent the rest of my happy days bopping around as the irish catholic granddaughter of a teeny, wrinkled, jewish fireball, but she died 11 years ago this week, far too soon even though she was pushing 93 and change. they called her the “teaneck tornado,” my jewish grandma, the one who took college classes into her eighties, the one who once threatened to fly a slab of cow in her suitcase so she could teach me how to make a brisket. the one whose squeaky “barb!” — a puncturing pronunciation that launched every long-distance rapid-fire tete-a-tete — i still can hear, without even closing my eyes to crank the long-gone volume.

that grandma — her name was syl — she shipped off the clock, and twice a week for 23 years, i wound it. the rest of the time, i counted on it to keep the rhythms of my hours, to be the heartbeat of our house. it moved, in the back seat of the station wagon, from our city house to this old house out where lanes are leafy and the lake is near enough that, on a windy day, i can make out the rhythms of the waves shooshing against the shore.

and there’s no sound that says “i’m home” more certainly than the tick and tock and quarter-hour chime of that old timekeeper.

so when it slowed to the silence that follows the tick, when i realized the tock was not coming, we all stared wide-eyed at the wall. as if there’d been a death in the family. certainly, there’d been a silencing. the heartbeat of the house was gone, erased, snuffed out. and in a house where these days most every purchase is weighed, is considered, we didn’t take lightly the news that this clock’s stay in the timekeeper’s infirmary would tally quite a bill.

but, not unlike the ancient cat who prowls the soft spots of the house, the house’s heartbeat is beyond domestic calculation, outside the accountant’s domain. if your striped old cat is ailing, you wrap the furry fellow in a towel and you ferry him to the vet. so, too, the clock.

i swallowed hard as i lifted the old clock from the wall. and, yes, i wrapped it in old bath towels. i parked as close to the door of the timekeeper’s shop as i could get — anything to slash the chance of me and the clock skittering to the sidewalk, in a thousand irreparable pieces. and i turned it over with all the solemnity of a mother sending off her little boy for a tonsillectomy (okay, maybe minus the tears, but trembling nonetheless).

we endured a christmas without a clock, and the new year too slid in without the ceremonial clang-clang-clang (our old clock never has been aligned with the hours). heck, we bumbled right through ground hog day without the metronome of time passing audibly. and here we are, the clock is coming home today. any hour now, i’ll strap on my snow boots, maybe even add the yaxtrax to keep from slipping on the ice, and i’ll plow through mounds and glide on icy patches to fetch my clock and bring it back where it belongs — home, hanging on the red-red wall that’s been achingly absent its old, old ticker.

all this, of course, has got me to thinking. thinking about how it is that humans are hard-wired to the song of the heartbeat. how it’s the first of the sensory awakenings in the unborn child. long before the eyes have anything to see, the human eardrum begins its lifelong percussive beat (if, God willing, the auditory system is developing as hoped and prayed). somewhere between the 17th and 19th week in a mama’s womb, the unborn baby’s world is wakened to the sound of breath and heartbeat, rhythm and vibration at their most elemental, most soothing i’d imagine.

the wonderful scientists who study these things have found, among other pulse-quickening wonders, that the baby’s heart echoes the mother’s response to music. when the mama hears soothing dulcet tones, her baby’s heart settles into slow steady intervals. when the mama is jarred by cacophony, by dissonant screeching, the baby’s heart rate accelerates, startles.

hearing, we know, is the last of the earthly threads to be severed when death is but a breath or two away.

so is it any wonder that in the blessed interval between in utero and death, we humans turn to heartbeat — be it of a clock, or the drip of rain, or our own ear pressed against the chest of whoever it is we love deeply enough, tenderly enough, to be invited to the chest wall’s quiet ticking?

and is it any wonder that some of us are soothed by whatever brings us back in time and rhythm to that one first murmuring, that percussive pounding, that told us we were safe, enwombed, nestled up against a mama’s ever-pulsing heart?

what are some of your favorite soothing sounds? 

long ago, back in 2007, on the jewish “new year of the trees,” known as tu b’shevat, which we marked this week, i wrote a meander called vernal whisperings. because it’s a moment of the jewish calendar that i find especially breathtaking, i’m offering it back here at the table.

here’s a bit of tu b’shevat’s deliciousness, as taught by 16th century mystics:

“known as the kabbalists, these deeply spiritual thinkers believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life.

“oh my.”

old sweater: ode to wrap-around-you love

old sweater vertical

some mornings, in the swift fractions between bare foot to floorboard, shuffle across the bedroom rug, and tumble into closet, i just know: it’s an old sweater sort of day.

a day when i need to feel my arms slide through the nubby sleeves, feel the wool scratch against me, pull the torso tight around my chest. i need to feel the wrap-around-you love that comes from pulling on an old, old sweater. a sweater that once belonged, and still — if you breathe deep and with all your heart — holds the sweet scent of the someone long ago who wore it. whose chest filled out its threads. whose warmth inhabited. whose whole self animated, in a way that — standing alone in the dark, cold closet — you still can see, as if a picture show before your eyes.

it’s been one of those weeks around here.

every day, an old sweater. truth be told, every day the same old sweater (fashion-forward is not a name you’d put to me, queen of holey jeans and banged-up clogs, and T shirts worn till rags). it’s a navy one, with suede patches on the sleeve. one the maker calls its “shaggy dog.” other than calling it a teddy-bear crew neck (one minus knitted-in images of bears, thank you), i can’t think of a better name for a sweater that fills its particular prescription: dust off the lonely flakes, embolden for the day ahead, stick close and keep the cold at bay. and not necessarily the temperature. more like the draft that comes when you feel all alone, a bit lonely, searching for that particular someone who steadies you, brings ballast to your wobbling hours.

it’s winter here. deep winter. a season i love. but the fellow who inhabits this house with me, the one i married nearly a quarter century ago, he’s been away. so it’s just me and the little one, faring for ourselves. and while i love the quiet hours stitched into each day, i find myself a wee bit lost. i find myself braving winds and cold. i’m without the markers at the start and end of each long day, when usually the door clicks open and in walks the lanky fellow, his glasses frosted up from cold. his cheeks pink from wind. his stories fresh, and filling up the room.

i’ve thought a lot this week about those i love who are missing someone. everyone misses someone sometime. sometimes for the rest of your living breathing days. you can’t go too long in this life before death comes, or leave-taking of some other kind steals the one you love. there are a million algorithms that all wind up with a big fat hollow at the end. there’s a kid i love who’s gone away, simply because he grew up and found a leafy college, far far from here. there’s a dad i loved, with all my heart; he up and died. no goodbye. just a blizzard and a phone call and a doctor standing in the blazing white corridor, saying, oddly, “i’m so sorry.” there’s a grandma, who wasn’t even mine by birth, just by heart. and every time i tumble in my closet, i see her cherry red, gold-buttoned cardigan. i don’t often put it on. but i love knowing that it’s there, in the stack of old sweaters just waiting to do their job: wrap my arms and chest, make like soft-looped armament, a shield that holds me tight, that makes me remember a certain hug, a certain chest against which i leaned and pressed my ear, drinking in a steady heartbeat. a heartbeat that steadied me, that launched me, that served as grounding rod and metronome for the songs i’d yet to let loose from the canyon of my hopes and dreams and wobbles.

sometimes in life we need to grope for tangible knowing that we’re not alone. not deep down, anyway. there are someones from the past, who swirl around us still. who pulse through us. and sometimes simply shoving a fist, an arm, down a narrow sleeve, it’s all the rubbing-up-against-us we need to convince ourselves that, once again, we can face the day. we can march out of the bedroom closet, armed for what the day will bring.

no one can see the someone we’ve tucked into for the day. but we know. we know we’re not alone. and the stack of old, moth-worn, years-stretched sweaters, they’re there to guide us on our ways. to enfold us. to brace us from the chill that’s sure to blow through all the cracks.

what armaments do you reach for when your day begs for emboldening? or your heart just needs an extra layer of fortitude, of resilience, of remembering how deeply it is loved?

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

the chambered nautilus that is home…

chambered nautilus coffee cup..

like some sort of sea squiggler slithering into my coiled shell, my safe place, nestled among the coral and seaweed, down deep where the waters are dark, are still, i made my way home last night.

in deep-dark murky midnight black, i put one wobbly foot in front of the other (i’d been three hours in the passenger seat), and crept along the meandering brick walk, past the gnarled crabapple fingers that don’t take kindly to passersby (more often than not, they reach out to make you bleed, or snatch the earring clear off your lobe), past the nodding anemones (now naked of bloom), the anemones i’ve not yet tidily clipped, not tucked into bed for their long winter’s slumber.

eons earlier yesterday, when we’d headed out for the very long day (driving one sweet boy to a plane at the airport, motoring across the state line to a charmed bookstore in the dairy state’s capital city, reading and talking, then turning ’round to come home, all in one day), i’d left the back lights on, the ones that cast their soft molasses glow on the steps so i’m less apt to tumble, the glow i always can spot from the alley, calling me home, beacon through fog.

fumbling with keys, with too many somethings stacked in my arms, i turned the brass in the lock, and stepped inside, safe inside. i was home. finally home.

i’d been waiting for that moment — for that deep sigh of “at last” — for what felt like weeks and weeks. and i couldn’t wait to slither back into all that’s familiar, that’s home: the old jammies with holes. the robe that should have been tossed a few tatters ago. the creak in the stairs as i come round the bend, and plant my sole on the arthritic plank, the one that complains every time.

not ready to sleep, i popped a few kernels, enough to fill a bowl. i drank in the tick and the tock of the old grandfather’s clock, the one sighing the midnight hour. i plonked myself down at the old scratched maple table. and i breathed. deep breathed.

and this morning, after the cat rudely awoke me with the sound of his retching at 3 bells past midnight, i tossed and i turned till i finally surrendered. i arose, took a hot shower (the very best balm for a night of few sleeps), slid into my oldest stretchiest muck-about pants, and, just before 5, i tiptoed down the stairs, the ones i know by heart.

even the simple act of coffee poured into a mug — the mug i love best, a chipped old vessel, one that’s red and dimpled with wee tiny white hearts, one that soothes me like no other when cupped in my palms — it’s medicinal in its powers to quell.

and it’s all a part of the rhythm, the song, that cues up our deepest contentment.

it’s this compendium of simplicities, one pure familiarity strung next to another, that serves to weave and re-weave the womb, the nest, the cradle that rocks us back to equilibrium.

we are, some of us, creatures of habit, of the familiar. we set out to upholster our every day in the somethings rubbed smooth from use and re-use. the jeans with holes in the knees. the blanket long ago snagged. the particular chair where our bum snuggles deepest.

oh, i know there are those who live for the new, the exotic, the never-before. and i don’t mind a dash of surprise, eccentricity.

but give me my druthers and i’ll reach for the old, the weathered, the worn through with love upon love. the dog-eared till tender.

even, apparently, in matters of heart-pounding, head-swirling lifelong attraction. upon meeting the man i would eventually marry, my mother heaped upon him the highest praise in her book, declaring him “an old shoe,” the sort who fits like a glove, who knows your rises and planes and sidles up seamlessly. the sort with no pretense. one utterly at home in holey-soled loafers and seersucker shorts with sagging-down hem (his apparel of choice for that maiden encounter with the one who would become his mother-in-law). one who’d not mind a lifetime of pre-wrinkled shirts, warmed-over stews, and a station wagon too often mistaken for heirloom.

and right in here, you see, i’m hungry for all that anchors me, tucks me in to the nooks and the crannies of my own chambered nautilus.

of late, i’ve been out on a bit of a voyage through unfamiliar waters (it’s that wee little book, the time-slowing tome, birthed five short weeks ago). i’ve been trolling farther from home, and in ways a tad beyond my comfort zone.

why, just the other eve, i found myself talking quite plainly — in front of however umpteen many households were tuned to a particular chicago public television channel — about something i’ve not talked about to seven-eighths of my dearest friends, a long ago mystical something, my so-called “miracle,” one that unfolded in the upstairs chapel of a faraway convent when i was all of 16 (see page 35 of said book, if you’re now curious). but there i was, on a sound stage, with cameras rolling, and the words of my heart and my soul being cast across airwaves, scattered like so many seedlings through miles and miles of midwestern heartland. egad.

no wonder i needed my shaggy old pj’s. and my banged-up coffee cup besides. it’s rather a miracle that i’m not wadded up in tattered blankets, burrowing deep beneath some coffee-stained couch pillows.

thank goodness the calendar for a whole stretch of days holds nothing more drastic than rising from bed, and tumbling to sleep. i’ve come at last to a somnolent spell. and i need it.

a home body, a comfort seeker like me, must return to the roost. must deep breathe the old and familiar. it’s in sinking into the rhythms we know best that we are freed to be our unfettered whole. we needn’t peek in the mirror. needn’t quake at the sound of our own voice, echoing clear across a room.

we are home. we are where we belong. we are unadulterated glory in the eyes of the only one who truly sees us, the one who set sublimest design upon us, back at the essential beginning.

when we’re home, when we’re safe in the confines of the golden spiral, the chambered nautilus, that’s when we reclaim our moorings, quiet the shaky insides.

it’s how we guzzle the holy, how we refill the vessel so we’ve got what it takes to return to the seas and conquer new vistas.

dear chair friends, writing on three hours of sleep is not very smart. so please forgive weak spots and tangles above. i’ve got a quiet spell for the next couple weeks, and a boy coming home in less than a week for the very best holiday. i’ll restock the larder. i’ll deep breathe the beautiful. and be ready to roll again.

in the meantime, do tell, what is it you do to anchor your soul, and set your wings back to soaring?