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Category: simple joys

the simple blessing of a snowy morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God answered. and the red bird flew.

where did you find grace this morning?

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

to name them is a prayer…

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

the last lines were these:

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

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

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

to name them is a prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

what fine grains are on your list?

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….

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?

coming home.

coming home kitchen

i slipped back in as if gliding my arms through the sleeves of the oldest soft-knit sweater from the back of my closet. the sort of sweater you reach for when it’s the end of the day, and you want the goosebumps to go away, but even more you want woolen threads that breathe against your skin, woolen threads that whisper to your soul, “here we are, home.”

that’s pretty much how it felt to unlock the door after a few days away, to plop the duffel in the front hall, to wander about in that way that one does, to check for what’s happened while you’ve been gone. i saw right away that chipmunks must have upturned a brick or two at the steps that lead down to the garden. and the old house all but hollered to please open the windows, to let the hot dry air back out where it belonged.

wasn’t long till i found the note left on the kitchen counter, the note written by a dear, dear friend — the one who’d stayed at our house while we were away, since she needed a place to sleep and we had one. she wrote:

“in this house, one is always aware of time. the ticks and tocks, the chimes of multiple clocks evoke shared joys, episodes of comfort and sorrow, presences long gone but still close to our hearts. the rhythms of those machines wake me in the mornings, lull me to sleep…and call me to return.”

it’s a fine thing to hear your house through the ears of a friend, a soulful friend, a friend who has always put words to page with more grace than nearly anyone i know. my blessed friend’s words only amplified what i already know. what i know every single hour of every single day i live here.

coming home — even when there’s not a note to remind you — sharpens your ears, and all of your senses. wakes you up once again to this place you’ve spent your life making — making home.

home, for those of us lucky enough to have one, is that place that over time has come to hold the living breathing narrative of perhaps your most essential essence, those threads in your life you hold to be sacred.

my old house is one layered with story upon story. each old clock tells a story. the sounds that ooze in through the windows — the fact that i almost always leave a window open at least a crack — the birdsong, the breeze rustling the leaves, the faraway train whistle, the dog down the block. those are the sounds of home to me. i know its gurgles and burps so intimately that if one is off-kilter i know it’s time to call the plumber or the fellow who stokes the furnace. i am the guardian of my old house, and my old house returns the favor: my old house guards my heart and my soul.

and so coming home to it was coming home to a friend i’d left behind. we’d gone off to see the boy we brought first into the world. we’d packed a two-week visit into four short days — whirled our way through the hottest days DC has seen in a mighty long time (and lived to tell the tale, though for a while there we were gasping for air and long, tall quenchable waters). i’d be lying if i didn’t admit to wiping away a tear (or more) when we said goodbye to the sweet sweet legal-scholar-in-the-making, the one who was working so hard he couldn’t even take in the fourth of july fireworks. and while i wouldn’t trade a single one of those days away for anything, the sweet joy of finding myself back in this place where i most belong made the absence more than worth it.

i’ve come to know my particular custom for coming home: right away i dump the laundry down the chute, i gallop off to the grocery store, tear through the stacks of mostly-junk mail. i’m a madwoman restoring order. and then the puttering comes: i pour drinks down the gullets of my garden. i reach for the clippers and snip here, there, and yon. i stuff the old pitchers again, and tuck a fresh batch of cookies under the shiny glass dome that sits atop the pedestal (my nod to the ’50s diner).

i always take time to listen. to breathe in the ticks and the tocks and the chimes and the rhythms. to be quelled and lulled by all of the quirks of this place i so know by heart.

by the time i plop my creaky bones atop that old familiar mattress, perk my ears to the night sounds seeping in through the screens, whisper my litany of thank-you prayers, i am thoroughly deeply home. and more than grateful to call this old friend by that most blessed of names — home.

thank you, sweet home.

what’s the thing you relish most when you come home? and, just because i’m curious, do you have a quirky way of reacquainting yourself with the place once back from where you’ve roamed?

here’s a little extra morsel, a link to a story about retro and vintage cookbooks i wrote for the chicago tribune. it ran on the fourth of july, a day not too fit for browsing through the news pages. it’s a story whose reporting made me swoon — for the fine cast of characters from the literary kitchen, tamar adler, graham kerr (the famed “galloping gourmet”) and a very fine baker with a yen for updating retro pies, cakes and confections.  

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

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

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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

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….