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Category: simple joys

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…)

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

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 day begins here…

day begins here vase blackeyed

before i’d even tumbled out of the bedsheets, i felt the low-down wobbles. happens sometimes. even on a morning when birds are in the boughs just beyond the window panes. it’s almost as if the sediment of whatever shattered in the day before is settling down, after a short night’s slumber, into the pits of your veins and your belly — and your knees, always the knees on a wobbly morning.

it’s almost as if, before your braincells awake, your body cells remember. they know there’s unsettling. they know the darkness rolled in before the day was done. needn’t be big things. sometimes the things that wake you up wobbling are simply a potage of rumbles and worries, spiced with bits of unwanted news.

once i’d splashed the cold water on my bed-wrinkled face, once i’d slipped into the shirt with the least number of holes in the elbows, i turned to tramp down the stairs.

there in the kitchen, the morning’s light awaited. the garden nodded, all dappled with dew drops.

i made a mistake in checking my phone: there lurked one of those emails you don’t want to find before the first gulp of coffee. but there it was, so i read it. and then, i glanced at the dining room table, all strewn with hundreds of pages and a fat red pen. i’ve a day of page proofing ahead of me. the last go-around with these pages that have seeped deep into my soul. these pages on which i whisper a prayer every time i begin again, start at the top, read through to the bottom, on alert, high alert, for typos and runaway commas.

i was now in high wobble.

so i did what any wobbly girl with sharp garden clippers would do: i walked straight out of the house where the wobbles had gathered, and i started to snip — the garden, that is. a long neck of yarrow here, black-eyed susans there. snip, snip, snip. next thing i knew i was clutching a fistful of august delight. and the wobbles weren’t so wobbly anymore. or at least for the moment, i’d buried my nose in the ticklish bouquet, and i wasn’t paying the wobbles much mind.

that’s what a holy morning can do for you. that’s the magic of ringing your old tired house with billows of bloom. folks driving by might think you grow bundles of things for the color, or the je ne sais quoi. ah, but you know. you know the secret: you are growing your very own apothecary out there. it’s all healing balm, and wobbly cures. it’s buoyant and tender, all at once.

it’s the deepest blessing of this holy earth: the power to heal what ails us, whatever it is.

all you need do to prompt it along is tuck a few roots deep in the dirt. then add sprinkles of rain. a few prayers and crossed fingers certainly help. never hurt. oh, and then you muster up patience. you wait. and you wait. and the globe spins around, and next thing you know it’s august, the launch of black-eyed susan season. the glorious crescendo of the midsummer garden. all the growing things — the yarrow, the hydrangea, the susans — they’re all rubbing shoulders, shoving and pushing to steal your attention. all they want is to stick out their necks, to bloom, to soak up some sunshine.

and what they give in return is pure bliss. gentle bliss. quiet bliss. a bliss that promises to bathe you in all that you’ll need to weather the day.

here’s the gardener’s pose of acceptance, accepting the gift of the garden: bend at the waist, stick your nose in the powdery parts where the yellow rubs off, now take a deep whiff, and reach for your clippers.

so it went this once-wobbly morning, when i marched out the door and into the billows, armed with my felco no. 2 clippers. i clipped and i snipped, and next thing i knew i was ready to face this fine day, not quite so wobbly this time.

what’s your garden doing to fortify you this fine day? and if not your garden, what’s your secret potion for facing a wobbly day? 

a bit of the backstory here is that i’m plowing my way through final page proofs, as that ol’ book, Slowing Time, has locked in its reservation with the printing presses, and is due to roll by the end of the month. that means every wiggle and blip on the page is demanding attention, lest it roll off the press, blips and bloops intact. 

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

summer’s succulence

sky lights

it’s the morning after the night exploded.

it’s gentle out now. the pop and fizzle are long gone, replaced by mama wren singing. and mr. and mrs. cardinal chattering, as they imbibe on the annual inebriating feast of plump purple serviceberries, dangling from the bough.

i’m inhaling all of it, as i try for one short spell to push away the worries, the deadlines, the cobwebs in the corners.

this is what summer is for, the reason it exists: to catch the rhythm of your breath, to notice how it flows in time with tide, with water gurgling toward the lakeshore sands, then rolling out again.

this is a day for slicing watermelon, for scooping little balls of sweetness from soft and juicy flesh. for popping back blueberries by the fistful. for paper napkins catching all that dribbles — because you’d never get the fruity stains out of cotton squares or linen.

this just might be a day for cranking up the oven. and the grill, of course. but one short blast of cake baking just might be what the declaration of independence does declare.

because it’s a holiday, because we’re practicing the art of stepping out of time, and into the hallowed hollows of timelessness, i’m making like this here is a backyard with picket fence, and i’m leaning across the fence to hand you a recipe for the finest chocolate cake this side of the iowa state fair.

a dear college friend drove down from wisconsin a week or so ago, with a sheet pan of devilish deliciousness and the spelled-out recipe to boot. she left the whole darn cake when she packed up to head back north, and my boys declared it the finest chocolate cake they’d ever slipped between their lips.

with no more hoopla, and one sweet promise: here’s a slice of delicious summer’s succulence, brought to you courtesy of judy smith, who was motored here by one maureen haggerty warmuth. they’re two of the treasures i’ve held onto from my college days. and here’s the treasure to tuck inside your banged-up, battered, much-used tin of recipes. (fact is, this is all-season’s succulence, but since we’re at the fever-pitch of summer, we’ll tag it one for summer’s glory. seems just the thing to ferry to the independence day cake stand.)

minnesota chocolate cake

provenance: my friend judy smith’s dear friend tammi baumann

2 cups flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking soda

ADD:

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg, slightly beaten

2/3 cup oil

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup coffee brewed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat together your litany of ingredients — batter will be runny.

Pour into greased and floured 9-by-13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

frosting:

In saucepan, dump:

1 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. corn starch

1/2 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. cocoa

1 cup boiling water

Cook over medium heat while stirring, till thickened.

Remove from heat, and ADD:

1 tsp. vanilla

3 Tbsp. butter

Cool frosting and pour over cake.

grab fork. dig in. declare this a day for summer’s succulent sweetness — in all its many flavors.

p.s. there was a rumor wafting about the kitchen that this chocolate-y deliciousness might have won blue ribbon at one of those fine midwestern country fairs. fact or fiction, it won just such an honor here in our humble kitchen. so pinned by the boys who left not a crumb behind on the cake plate…

and what will you be ferrying to your independence day feast? and what’s your definition of summer’s succulence? how would you spend a holiday away from all that weighs you down?

 

one + one + (a step-stone arithmetic to joy…)

one + one sunrise

i’m not one for self-help. (actually, i tend to seem to excel at self-demise, throwing myself down the proverbial dark stairwell before i’ve given myself a chance to trod two steps up, or sweet-talking myself out of risk-taking for 1,001 safe, solid reasons before i’ve so much as squirmed from my cozy armchair.)

so wasn’t i surprised — flabbergasted, flummoxed, fill in the exclamatory modifier — when this week i found myself reading along in a book i’d long been meaning to peek inside.

the book is lovely, is this:

one thousand giftsthat’s ann voskamp’s poetic, riveting, often soaring flight to ecstasy, bound under the bird’s nest cover and quietly titled, “one thousand gifts: a dare to live fully right where you are,” (zondervan, $16.99). while the writing alone is worth the ride, it’s the simple profound premise at its core that just might launch a revolution of the soul. (my soul, anyway.)

voskamp dares you — dares me, dares herself — to train a scrutinizing eye on the everyday, and begin to count to 1,000. that’s one thousand blessings — points of joy, moments of grace — in the course of one holier-than-you’d-imagined year.

she begins:

1. Morning shadows across the old floors

2. Jam piled high on the toast

3. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce

she doesn’t even bother with periods at the end of her 1, 2, 3s (though she does employ upper-case starts to her each and every blessing). and she sits easy with the notion that her jottings are rooted in the quotidian, the messy, the right-before-her-blurry-eyes. this is not some celestial divination going on. just sponge-mopping up the poetry that spills and splatters and muddies up the daily works. and counts for joy.

she explains that what she’s doing is “eucharisteo,” giving thanks, the word in ancient greek, a word whose very root is charis, meaning grace. she writes that eucharisteo also holds the derivative, the greek word chara, meaning joy.

grace, thanksgiving, joy, “a triplet of stars, a constellation in the black,” she writes. “a greek word that might make meaning of everything?”

it’s a sacred calibration: the height of joy, she calculates, dependent on the depths of eucharisteo, thanks.

she stumbles on what turns out to be this holiest of paths because she’s found herself plopped, of all places, in a chair at the beauty salon, and the woman next to her is reading the best-seller, “1000 places to see before you die.” that gets voskamp — voskamp, a canadian farmer’s wife, mother of six, woman who witnessed her baby sister get crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck back when she, voskamp, was a mere child of four, and who felt her heart and soul slam shut in that very bloody instant — it gets her to thinking about why it is we think we need to travel far and wide to gather up armloads of wonder.

she writes: “isn’t it here? the wonder? why do i spend so much of my living hours struggling to see it? do we truly stumble so blind that we must be affronted with blinding magnificence for our blurry soul-sight to recognize grandeur? the very same surging magnificence that cascades over our every day here. who has time or eyes to notice?”

and you know it wouldn’t be a book, bound between those lovely covers, if she hadn’t found the answer to that rhetorical question. so what she does, on a blithely-flung dare from a friend, is she begins to track her grace notes. and in time, in not so much time, she realizes “this daily practice of the discipline of gratitude is the way to daily practice the delight of God.”

once she’d counted past the halfway mark, had teetered past 513. Boys jiggling blue Jell-O, she realized she couldn’t stop. she was “always looking for just one more in this unfolding of a chronicle of grace, our life story in freeze frames of joy.”

maybe it had a sudden and deep resonance with me because i’ve been a list maker my whole life long. i’ve called them wonderlists, and they’ve served as blueprints and launching pads for a life i dreamed of, and they’ve been the inventory of a day i’d hoped would come. i tick through lists of of blessings all around. but i’d never set out, as if a lepidopterist equipped with long-poled net, to catch myself a year’s — let alone a day’s — flock of godly wonders.

i’d made the mistake of list-making as wishful thinking, failed to exercise the possibility of list-making as blessing counting.

but i’ve started to think that voskamp — a writer whose sentences often make me stop, stare, hit re-wind and read again, for the sheer joy of discovering such wonder packed in words — has hit on something at once profoundly simple and simply breathtaking. something that just might fill the glass with wonder. even when it’s half empty by worldly measure.

if we can count our joys, pick up pen, jot words to paper, consecutively, one + one + one, we’ll soon arrive at a notepad account of accumulated and undeniable graces. we’ll hold it in our tight-clenched fists. we’ll read it, black-etched words on unbleached paper.

you might see fit to snatch up a moleskin pad or two. or perhaps at the grocery store, you’ll scoop up nothing fancier than a spiral-bound lined-rule pocket notebook.

the point is, you’ll be engaged in the exercise of combing your every day for the poetry of grace, as it falls across your old pine floors, your whisker-worn bedclothes, or even the orange-juice-splotted kitchen counter.

i’ve a hunch you too will be caught up in the counting. in the accumulated wonder that won’t escape your gaze.

once we teach ourselves to pay attention, the 1s and 2s and 3s come tumbling swiftly.

next thing we know, we are deep in the 300s, 500s, 800s, counting our way to seeing what’s always been there: heaven’s grace seeped into the cracks and crevices of a life we might have mistaken for humdrum and rather parched.

when really, all along, it was spilling over with joy upon joy upon a thousand joys. God’s way of whispering, “you are so abundantly awash in love.”

start counting…

anyone inclined to begin the 1, 2, 3s? and if so, the space below is a fine place to jot whatever snippets of the divine you’ve captured in your counting net….

p.s. ann voskamp is a blogger, too; in fact, that’s how i first heard about her, when a friend sent the link to ann’s blog, a holy experience, and said she thought i’d love the writing and the gorgeous photography. that friend was right. and though i’d known she had a book, i’d not found it in the library till last week, when i had reason to scan the daily-blessing bookshelves. 

the tangerine sky, above, is one recent morning’s first tabulation of the brush stroke of wonder, just beyond my windowpanes….

 

ministrations of waiting

bulbs

they are the necessary lulls. the pauses between breath. the sometimes awful, often angst-filled hours of not knowing. of waiting.

of not yet filling in the blanks with answers just around the bend.

i am waiting now. waiting now that one editor has signed off, has passed along a final manuscript to another, to the one who decides. who deems yea, or hmm, maybe you should take another crack at this….

and if you are composed of the filaments and synapses that are mine, this is where all sorts of goblins filter in. you begin to imagine conversations. you picture emails. most of them begin, “i’m so sorry….”

you imagine the worst. you imagine, because at some deep sad level it must reflect the deepest reflection of your vision of your soul, that you’ve not measured up. will never measure up.

i’d thought it might be wise to not put these words to paper (so-called paper, anyway). but then i thought, oh geez, too many of us share this plight. we doubt ourselves before we’re given one chance to rise up, to shine.

so here i wait. and while i wait, i realize that the wisest thing for me to do — besides turn the dial on the little voices that fill my head, that convince me of my unworthiness — is to get about the business of tending to the oft-pushed-aside quotidian. the season’s turning calls to me. the night’s chilled air begs attention. there are bulbs to tuck into the gashes of the earth. there are long-frond ferns who beg for warmth inside, who promise green through winter. or at least through thanksgiving.

i missed last year’s call to tuck in for winter slumber. i was far away, and could not tend to the bulbs, the fronds, the birds that have come to depend on me. so i’ve been out already this morning, out since well before the inky dawn was rubbed away. i was out with my buckets of seeds, i was out unearthing bulbs from the layers of crinkled newspaper that blanket them, that i pray kept them safe enough through the night that grew colder while i was not paying attention.

the earth does that: turns on and on without heed to whether we are paying attention. if we notice, if we tuck the bulbs before they freeze, well then glory is the prize come springtime. if not, if we blew it, weren’t worthy of the glory, well then the earth will not crack, no green shoot will rise, no heirloom hyacinth or bread-and-butter daffodil will trumpet.

i will soothe myself with the apothecary of the home and garden that i’ve claimed as my surest cure for almost anything that ails me. i will slow cook. and dig in the garden. i will sit in dappled light, with sweaters round my shoulders. i will drink in arcing sunlight, and winged shadow. i will tend the tender shoots and leaves that depend on me. i will practice believing that the pause is not about my falling short, but rather simply for another reason.

i will try. this practice doesn’t come without its stumbles. this practice is emboldened with a sturdy trowel, and a box of bulbs begging to be tucked where they will thrive. after a long winter’s pause.

do you too suffer the plight of the deep gnawing misgiving? the cursed lack of faith? the scourge of never thinking you are good enough? 

heartbeat of this old house

old garland

coming home stirs deep appreciation. seeing through fresh eyes. as i wander about the house, sink back into the rhythms of living here, unfolding my day here, i find myself drawn, day after day, to particular sounds, particular light patterns. i open windows, just to flush the house with outside sounds. the chirping of the cardinals. the trill of someone else. i tiptoe into rooms, stand there, watching the way the sunlight plays through vines that have trespassed across the windows.

but more than anywhere, i am drawn, near suppertime each day, back to the old garland, my not-so-shiny stainless-steel dowager of a cookstove. she feeds us amply. she feeds me deeply.

i think of her, it appears, in the feminine — muscled, un-fancified, generous, forgiving.

weighty, she holds down the kitchen. she offers heat, flame at the turn of a knob. she is this old house’s heartbeat, and not just because of the click-click-click she sputters while the flame prepares to catch.

broad-lapped, with six burners and a grill top, she whispers no pretension. she was anchored here back in the 1970s, long before it dawned on anyone that an industrial-grade stove might belong amid a hungry family.

she was born to feed masses. and masses she did feed. first up, a family of seven, then a family that huddled three generations under this old roof. and for the last decade, merely us. with but two growing boys, i hardly feel deserving of her generous proportion, her capacity to provide. i’d always dreamed of a gaggle. but, as wise people sometimes say, God gives you what you can handle, and i suppose i was cut off after my lucky bookends, my eight-year span of boy.

so i up my ante through invitation. stay for dinner, i tell the little boys who wander by. the little boys with hand under cake dome, come three or four in the afternoon.

in recent afternoons, after long days reading and writing, i find myself stirring as the clock ticks toward five. i start poking around the fridge, seeing what’s available (or more often, what’s on the verge of wilting if i don’t use it maintenant). i eye the cutting board, and hear a beckoning. i’ve room aplenty, near acreage, it seems, after a year in the not-so-sprawling apartment kitchen. i’ve got my drawer of accoutrement again, a gaggle of whatchamahoojies and thingamabobs that help me get the job done. the cucumber peeler, the garlic crusher, the strawberry huller (a new addition, inspired by the little fellow who HATES a leafy cap adorning his juicy fruit and finds it a sport to sink in the hungry teeth of the huller and glide out the nettlesome middleparts).

after a year in which i confined cooking to a rare few nights (otherwise it was more along the lines of dumping trader joe’s oft-frozen magic in a skillet, and calling it dinner), i’ve rediscovered the therapeutic balm of chopping to the tune of NPR’s “all things considered.” although the syrian backbeat to the sauted apples last night proved a wrenching side dish.

i find i hum when cooking for my boys. and my old stove sings right along.

she and i, we’re quite a pair. she steams ahead where i stumble. tries not to scorch when i forget, get wooed away by the ringing telephone, let things blacken on the pot.

last night i was cooking merrily. whipped up all my little one’s favorites. straight through to baby peas in butter sauce, the fancy kind that come tucked inside a see-through pouch, one that bobbed along in boiling vat — deep-sea peas ensconced in thermal safety suit.

and, one by one, i was cooking for no one. the little one called to say he’d been invited out for dinner, and he was so so sorry, he really wished he could be there. then the tall fellow, the one now back to newspapering, he called from the chambers of city hall, whispering that he was elbow-deep in witnessing a landmark debate, and wouldn’t be rolling in till at least the 9 o’clock train.

no worry, no chagrin. i smiled at my cooktop, crowded with pans that were going nowhere. the buttered noodles with my grandma’s butter-bathed bread cubes, they were happily napping off to the right. the apple sausages swimming in cinnamon-spiked apple slices, they dozed. and the baby peas, ala jacques cousteau, they couldn’t have cared less.

by 10, the pots were cleared, their contents tucked in tupperware. no one had been around for the duet, me and my old stove. but that didn’t detract, not one iota, from the joyful percolating deep inside.

i was home, back at lady garland, and she and i twirled splendidly, all alone, entwined again.

what part of your house makes you hum? performs a lively duet with you, day after live-long day?