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Category: winter

storm’s comin’

i don’t even need to turn on the news to hear the squawkin’ ’bout the weather. don’t really need to turn to the back page of the newspaper, the one with all the arrows and the polka-dotted map and the adjectives to scare the dickens out of any sorry soul who’s lost her woolen mittens.

all’s i have to do is look to where the sky is turning marbled gray, the color of the pigeons who, right now, are gobbling up all the seed that they can wrestle in their beaks.

or, before the pigeons came, shooshed away the cardinals and the jays and all the sparrows, there was the buzz in the grocery line. you can tell a lot about the day looking at what is rolling down the check-out belt.

today there was not a lot of fuss over, say, artichokes or lamb chops. oh, no, this was a milk-by-the-gallon, and orange-juice-too sort of day.

this is a day to batten down the hatches, simmer soup, crank the oven, stock up on sidewalk salt. you can feel it in the cracklin’ that’s making hairs, and fur, and feathers, too, stand on end. you should see the squirrels vacuum-cleaning crumbs and crusty donut bits, as if there’s no tomorrow.

you see, here where arctic winds hurl their bowling balls of snow and ice down the alley called the great lake of michigan, here before the towers–hancock, sears and all the rest–do their muscled best to block the mighty gusts, we stand ready to shiver and shiver hard, as day turns to dusk turns to stormy whirling night.

worst drop in temps in a quarter century–fiercest, fastest downslide, they are saying–is due to hit any hour now, with winds whipping up to 50 miles an hour (“punishing winds,” my weather page tells me). it’s enough, they warn, to turn rush hour into a hefty bowl of blanc-en-blanc potage.

and i, a girl who loves some drama in my winter doldrums, say bring it on.

there’s nothin’ that gets me stirring quite like the hurl of howling winds. snow pelting on the window panes. the whiff of snow day in the air.

i woulda made one fine pioneer, i tell you. i hunker down, i brace for storm, like i am annie oakley’s long-lost sister.

i caught wind of what was brewing early on today. i made my way straight to the store. stocked up, i did, on milk and popcorn kernels, the two staples of extended hibernation.

before i unzipped my coat, flung my mittens to the pile, i was chopping, sauteing, starting me a toothsome corn-and chicken zoup.

i’ll not let my children starve, not let them shiver either. i’ve got blankets at the ready, and muffins in the oven. oh, lord, this day is a day for making like a mama bear bolting for the cave. we will bathe in what is warm and fortifying. we’ll not let the storm, well, take us by storm.

while stirring onions, beans and broth, i mused a bit about this winter blessing. the forecasting of winds and cold that gives us quite a warning.

what of life, though, i thought, that we don’t know, ever, when a storm is just around our bend.

in plain old life–not the life of weather maps and wind chills–we pick up the phone, and poof, there’s a winter storm on the line. we are driving here or there and, kebang, we just skidded off the road.

life gives no warning, unlike arctic rustlings.

and so, in life, we are left to be always stocked deep down inside with whatever it takes to weather whatever life throws our way. be it a broken neck on growing child. or an email baring threats. one day we think we’re basking in the balm of spring, and, kaboom, the next we are chilled and shaking in our wintry boots.

it is resilience, then, that we must line our inner shelves with. and unswerving faith, stored in gallon jugs, that we need on hand to make sure we can ride out any storm.

i’d say we do best with a host of friends, the ones who appear, as if by blessed magic, at our front door, the hospital bedside, or even as they rush our broken, bloodied child to the ambulance.

we need to live, this makes me think, stocked and ready, for what ever roiling winds come our way.

what a blessing, then, that when it’s merely ice and snow, we’ve got all the warning in the world.

oh, there’s the buzzer now. my muffins–chock full of apples and cranberry and a good dose of mother love–are golden brown, and ready to emerge, just before the winter storm starts swirling out the window.

do you like winter storms, or any brewing, bubbling weather as much as i do? and what would you say is essential to keep in the larder of your life, so you can weather winds that blow far harder, far more fiercely sometimes than any arctic puffer?

huff’n’ puff’n’ house

got new lungs around here this week. yup, ’s’true. this old house been wheezin’, coughin’, chillin’ too. so cold you went to bed in blankets, wrapped like wieners in a bun. slid your wiener self between sheets so cold even they had goosebumps.

then you pulled up covers–more and more feather down than on a flock of geese, so help me–and, what with all the layers, and the barely room for mouth, some nights you needed to insert a straw, bend it like a periscope, or maybe a chimney, so you could bellow in and out. or else the whole of you would be as blue as them there tootsy-toes.

well, heck, we just thought that was the way it was, when your house is old and it’s planted in the north. latitude 42, i think. means it is c-c-c-c-c-cold, come january nights.

turns out, our old furnace had gone and turned asthmatic. had cracks, besides, all over its coiled insides. poor thing couldn’t breathe another breath. made it through the coldest weekend yet, but then, come monday, it let out its last sad sigh.

i called the doctor, yes i did. they came and made a house call. (thank heaven, i would hate to be the one to load the furnace in the car, motor off to where the furnace clinic is, where they put up the stethoscope, listen close, then shake their sorry heads–hey lady, this ol’ bellows has breathed its very last).

mr. fix-it scurried down the stairs, black bag and muddy boots, besides, right there to where the gasping wasn’t, in the house’s stone-still underbelly.

and you know it’s not to show you something pretty when they call you down the stairs.

yoo-hoo, ma’am, can you come take a look? was what he said. more or less.

and then he showed me on the scope, five cracks, one bolder than the next.

gulp, said i, watching my tahitian fling go up in smoke and slither out the basement window.

he laid the news down straight and simple: you’ll need a new one, he said pointing to the house’s lungs deflated.

and so, we hemmed and hawed all day–make, model, power, price, they spun so many choices. everything but color (it came in only basic black; we now inhale in utter elegance). i tell you, i know more today about btu’s than i ever knew before.

and then, once they scared the dickens out of me, i tried real hard not to breathe (try that wheezy trick for 24 hours). told me, yes they did, carbon monoxide was surely leaking in the house.

but not to worry, they announced; until you hear the shriek from the alarm, you know it’s not too late. (to which the snide contractor–here to put in basement floor, of course; the timing could not have been much worse–he whispered: “by then it’ll be too late.” and then, i swear, he snickered.)

ahhh, but as i type today, i am nearly warm and toasty. as toasty as you can be when you are not a slice of rye.

we’ve all new lungs breathing in this house. and it is something very fine to know, at long last, that you stand a chance of sleeping through the night without awaking to pour hot water on your toes.

and all at once now, this old house feels rather, well, grownup, feels settled in its skin. as if, at last, we can lay claim to the whole of its pure essence.

you see, we’ve nipped and tucked since we moved in, but never really tinkered with the guts.

a house’s heart, of course, comes from all the ones who live there. its innards are the pipes and how they run, or don’t run. its lungs though–how it breathes–is pretty much the stuff of basic respiration. it’s windows cracked, doors swung open, and in the winter it is all that flows from what would’ve been, in days of old, a fine pot-bellied stove.

the days of stoves, i sadly note, are mostly too long gone. i do know a soul or two who heats her house with only logs. but me, i’ve succumbed to btu’s–i can now precisely tell you, 135,000 in every blessed hour.

like the pair of pillowed puffers buried in our chests, the breathing of our house is not something to which we pay much attention. until it’s no longer breathing in and out. or the breath is labored, cold as ice, i’m here to tell you.

but, as i’ve shivered in the frosty breath this week, i’ve come to know again: it is most essential, the moving in and out of air, the life that comes with oxygen exchanged, hardly noticed, wafting on the breeze.

and on this frigid freezing day, i blow a ring of holy smoke to the breathing all around: to lungs inside my chest, and big black sturdy new one huffin’ and puffin’ down in dingy cellar.

may all who enter here breathe deeply, wholly, warmly, this frosty winter’s day.

just a little tale today. nothin’ deep. unless of course you are stirred by stories of the thermal sort. have you ever been sans heat in the place you call your home sweet home? doesn’t take too long to thank God for simple things, like toes and fingertips that wiggle. by the way, God bless tony and bernie whose blessed hands got us warmth again, and breath-filled house.
p.s. since everyone likes to show their travel slides, i am showing you up above, the only snapshot i’ve got of what would’ve been my tahitian fling. it’s a furnace guaranteed for the next 10 years. come on over and warm your toes with mine. maybe we can play some beach songs and pretend we’re on the sands.

when chill, er, arctic winds blow…

with all its might that mercury is push-push-pushing, trying with every ounce of january muscle to get up to where the one meets the zero, calls itself a brisk ten above.

even the rhododendron leaves, just outside my window, are curled tight into a rod, curled as if their life depends upon it, which in fact it does.

the feathered traffic at the feeder is slow to none, and, mostly, sparrow shiver in the pines. i think they’d like to call for carry-in, or better yet delivery. but the lines, i fear, are iced.

the morning when the world is frozen is a morning when you’d prefer, perhaps, to catch the nearest plane to tahiti. but, dang, that would entail walking to the curb–at least–to catch the taxicab.

so instead, why not do what i love best, and make yourself a list. a list is a beautiful thing. a romantic thing. you sketch your hopes and dreams. tick them off in little snippets. barely even have to finish your thought. you know what you mean. it’s you, for cryin’ out loud, making that there list.

so, then, with no ado–it’s too cold for adoing–here is the way i’d like to spend a ch-ch-chilly day at the end of a long, long, long, long week:

*crank the brand-new tunes my manchild made for me, the soundtrack, perhaps, from “once,” the movie a dear old friend told me months ago would inspire me. he was right. and now i can’t stop mumbling with all the words, my own odd version of pretending i too can sing along. which i can’t. just ask my boys. even the cat took to under the bed.

*fill the troughs, pour hot water into bowls for all the critters. there is nothing so satisfying–for this faux farmer girl–as making sure that all God’s creatures are duly fed and watered. i’d distribute little blankets if i could, but instead i put out extra christmas trees so they could harbor in the branches. more real estate, the better for those birds, way i figure it.

*grab the mcdonald’s coupon books, and drive to where it’s dark and even colder. pass out books to every hungry hand that reaches your direction. give the folks on lower wacker drive a place, and means, for getting in and out from this coldest cold. God bless my mama who gave me those books for just this purpose. God bless the soul who inspired her, whose story we found out only when he died, how he spent his winters doling out hundreds of dollars in vouchers for a hamburger and fries, and a hot, hot coffee that bought a seat where heat was all but guaranteed.

*once back home, grind the beans and get your own hot coffee going. stoke the steel-cut oats, while you’re at it, too. i’ve got the grandest formula these days: scottish steel-cut oats, 1/4 cup; water, 1 cup; sprinkle of salt (don’t ask me why, all i know is it works); flaxseed, 2 tsps.; sprinkling organic raisins, cranberries, apricot, chopped; 1 walnut, 1 almond, chopped; dry milk, 1/3 cup; cinnamon, a good stiff shake or three. now, get the water and the salt a bubblin’, stir and dump the oats, then all the rest. let it simmer half an hour. dump it in your favorite bowl (mine is red with fat white stripe), grab a porridge spoon (mine is wooden, and it sailed in from old vermont). take a seat at the kitchen table, staring out at birds, who might be staring back at you. invite them in, for heaven’s sake. they might love the porridge.

*whisper benediction for the oats, the birds, and all the souls far colder than you have ever been. pray to God that warmth blows in, deep and boldly to their souls. don’t let them die, God, frozen to the city’s underbelly.

*and, besides all that, the best idea for how i’d like to spend an arctic day is invite a house full of folks i love. cook all day the day before, and fill the vases with blooms galore. stack the logs to make a fire. putter here and there, making it a house that shines, and shouts: warmth dwells here. come in, come in. leave your cares outside, where chill winds won’t stop blowing.

peace i wish you at the end of this long week. and warm toes besides.

do you like lists as much as i do? what would you do on a chilly arctic day when the poor old mercury makes it up to 10, then dwindles back to less than zero?

red alert

i didn’t notice the first day. and not really the second day. but, by the third day, the third bitter cold day in a row, the third day when the unfurling of scarlet as it darted from pine bough to naked magnolia was decidedly absent, i started to worry.

now, worrying, in case you don’t know, is something i do exceedingly well. comes naturally. like breathing, only in staccato. only in spending the morning with an eye out the window, watching, combing the sky and the branches. on fullest alert.

as i watched without reason to hope, as i thought of the bitterest cold, i remembered the words of my mama telling me how so many birds from her flock had been lost, in the deep snap of cold.

“couldn’t survive,” she declared in that way that she does, unspooling for all of her nestlings all the mysteries of nature, of life and of death. she seems to know things that come from a long life of breathing in sync with the birds and the woods and the clouds.

and so, as the image of a little red bird, fallen somewhere, on the unforgiving crust of the snow, made the hairs on my neck rise, i thought of climbing in boots, commencing a search. imagined the crunch through the snow, pulling back branches, poking through all of the grasses, now frozen and matted and frankly quite knotted, that i’d left in the yard for the winter, for the birds who might savor their seed, or their harbor, on a day not too cold to put wind to their wings.

then i thought of the hawk. the great cooper’s hawk, the one with the tail so big and so thick i once mistook it for an owl–and that was merely the tail. add the head and the wings and the muscle-bound chest under all of those feathers and you’ve got a bird you should fear.

and fear it they do, all my fine feathered friends. one mere swoop of the hawk through the sky, clears all of the branches of birds. they scatter, i swear, when that hawk is a mile away. they know, before i see a thing, that death in the clutches of indiscriminate beak, or in talons the size of a three-penny nail, is a death to avoid.

and then, always, there is the cat. the cat that i feed twice a day. the cat who curls up on my lap, and purrs like a chevy with ’58 fins. that cat, i pretend, knows better than to touch a red bird. if that cat crosses that line, comes home with a dried bit of feathery red there where he does all his licking, that cat will be dispatched to the dungeon. and i like to think–though i’m sure i’m kidding myself–that he’s too tender-hearted to torment me so cruelly, to partake of papa the cardinal.

while all these horrible endings swirled in my head, i ached for the red bird–papa, i call him–who, whenever he darts through my day, brings me a deep knowing that i’ve been touched by a something divine.

i can be pouring a tall dose of coffee, there by my little side window, and, poof, there’s papa, his bright scarlet frock nestled right there in the bushes just inches away.

or, as i haul out the trash, or dash to an errand that should have been started nearly an hour before, there’s papa. cheer-cheering from top of the oak. or playing peek-a-boo in the pines.

wherever he comes, whenever he flashes his colors, my soul breathes a sigh that makes me feel wholly at home. he brings the divine down to the earthliest minute.

now, i know that a bird is not mine. these birds all around me belong to the heavens. and the trees they inhabit, just happen to be near to me and my four-walled nest.

but, over time, a particular possessiveness creeps in the equation. they are mine, i am theirs. together we do a fine dance. a dance i’m not willing to end.

and so, in the hours when i’d noticed his absence, when i raked all the limbs, when i scoured the ground, i felt the depth of that dance in my heart, realized the intricate wiring between me and my red-banner bird.

it is, perhaps, the shock of the color itself, heart-stopping, really, against the bleak gray of the winter undressed, or the white of the winter, fully attired.

it is that sign from above that amid the humdrum, the everyday, there comes, without warning, without siren, the scarlet cloak that whispers, “your day was just touched.”

it is hope when i need it, a charge when i’ll take it. it is, some lonely hours, as if the Holiest One is tapping there at my window, the answer to an unwhispered prayer.

and so it was, when, after three days that felt like three weeks, that flash once again caught me unawares. i was minding my business–i’d forgotten if only for a bit of a while that i needed to worry–when, suddenly, there at the feeder perched papa.

i moved close to the window, as close as i could without startling my too-long-gone friend. close enough to see his little heart pounding, there under the reddest of breasts. my heart pounded as well.

for a minute there, the other day, me and a bird from somewhere on high, we beat the same song with the whole of our hearts. papa was home, was safe, wasn’t buried, stiff in the snow.

his absence now over, i’ve not yet let go of the sense that i–and he–was saved from a terrible sorrow.

sometimes it takes a bit of a scare to remember how blessed we are.

sometimes we don’t feel the depth of a plug in our heart, until it is pulled. until there’s a hole and it’s gaping.

only then, sadly, do we realize that without that something we love, that something we count on, our breathing is not wholly ours. it depends on grace all around us. it depends on the touch under the sheets in the night, on the peck on the cheek in the doorway, or the flash of a wing in the branches.

the red bird out my window taught me that lesson this week. gentle bird, messenger bird. bird in heavenly red. bird that beckons attention.

have you seen a sign lately? a celestial sign? some sign from above that reminds you the earthliest truth? have you come to know, only too late, how deeply you miss some grace note you’d taken for granted? any one else feel a particular kinship to the reddest bird in these parts (save for the tanager who seems too scarce for everyday musings)?

the sound of snow falling

sound of snow falling

it is december’s gift. a world now hushed, now left to whispers. a world caked with white meringue. as if all the eggs, sans yolks, and all the cream of tartar were whisked into the froth that kept on coming.

whole clouds of it fell last night. started with a flake or two, barely noticed, in the gray of afternoon. by dinner time, the limbs, the walks, the feeders for the birds, had lost their definition, were taking on a girth that might have made them groan.

except the world was wordless.

the world, when i slipped on my snow-exploring shoes, zipped up my puffy coat, was so silenced by the spilling from the sky, i could, without straining, make out the sound of snow falling.

it’s a sound, quite truly, that makes your ears perk up. and your soul, too.

unlike the pit-a-pat of rain, it is wholly unexpected. wind we know is noisy. humidity, except for moaning of the ones who find it hard to bear, is not. but that comes as no surprise.

the sound of snow falling, then, is singularly soothing and startling. it is a titillation for the ears, a tickling of the nerves that makes them, well, stand at full attention.

a sound not heard so often, certainly not in months and months, it came like water to a thirsty traveler. and i could not get enough.

i cocked my head. stood still as still can be. i took it in in gulps.

while drinking in the pit-pit-pit of falling bits of icy snow, i opened wide my eyes. without moving a whole muscle–save for the ones that shift my eyeballs–i was a machine in complete and total operation.

except the machine–the hearing, seeing parts–served one function only: the talking to my soul.

there is a stillness in the first of every winter’s snow that feels to me like coming home. it is in that unrippled place, that place where quiet is complete and whole, that i, and maybe you, feel as if the hand of God is reaching down, is showing me the way through snowy woods.

sometimes, too, i think i hear the sound of God, putting gentle finger to soft lips, shushing.

shhhhhhh, i hear God say. be still. be filled with only what is sacred.

what else, i wonder, could slow a world that can’t move fast enough? who else can keep the cars off of the road? the cell phones from incessant baying?

there was not a soul outside last night, not when i was there at least, and i was there for quite a while.

this morning, then, is quiet squared.

not even snow is making sound. it is simply, i suppose, taking in its new perspective on the world. used to be way up high, now it’s down where mortals play. and it looks intent on staying put.

not a bird is anywhere in sight. i think they know what the weather seers know, only without all the supersonic radar. i think all my feathered friends are safely tucked in cozy places. at least i hope so. i would like to think the birds are in their checkered armchairs, nestled by the fire, sipping cocoa, like i intend to do, any minute here.

it is december’s gift, this early snow. it is just in time to serve its highest purpose. to shush a world in full staccato. to make us perk our ears, to see if, this blessed day, we might hear the song of snow falling.

my snow-flaked friends, your thoughts this morn…
as i type now, one boy up and fed and off to school, the world has rustled from its sheets, thrown off the blanket, the world is hardly quiet. dang. that didn’t last nearly long enough. i hear the sound–the dragon mouth–of snow blower somewhere down the street, and the scraping of the shovels against the walks. but i also hear the solitary cheep-cheep-cheep of the scarlet papa cardinal come to scout around.
did anyone else hear the snow falling last night? did you take to your boots, and like papa cardinal himself, do some scouting in your ‘hood?

oh, a word about the magic pictured up above…that’s a gingerbread house just around the corner from me. when we moved here i realized i could see it from my bedroom window. i thought, well, lucky me. if i can’t live there, i can at least spend my life gazing at its cheery face. and if i lived there, i couldn’t keep an eye on it all night or day. the streetlamp, the snowy branches, the ginger cottage strung with little lights….hope you too found it delightful. and caught, perhaps, the sound of which i write….the magic sound of flakes aflight…

snow, when it’s still white

i know. i know. it’s a little raucous out there. a bit like walking into a bowl of vichyssoise, whirring.

and once the world rustles from its dumbfounded look out the window, slams on the snow boots, trudges to the car, or the train, or the bus, it’ll all be so much blkkh. that gray-black mess of crusted-over car dirt, tire rub, city street, all tossed together, tumbled. left to leave us thinking this snow thing is a terrible nuisance, a blight upon the trek to wherever we have to be. end of story.

only this is not about that. this is about snow before the blkkh.

this is about snow when it’s still white. when it’s still.

this is about slipping into your mukluks, and giving snow the due it deserves: step out and just stand there. go nowhere, really. meander aimlessly. pretend its moon dust and tromp through it. crane your neck, watch it swirl toward you.

then do this: drink it in. listen to the snow sound. then listen more closely still, listen with your soul.

the snow, i am convinced, is God’s way of putting finger to lips, pursing, whispering, “shhhhhh.”

snow, if you listen, speaks loudly. but only in a way that the soul is equipped to hear. the snow is telling us to slow. to behold. behold wonder. behold mystery.

behold the miracle of mere air and water and the cold of a cloud, coming together, falling down. tumbling. a 15-minute ride from the sky to the tip of our tongue, if we, like a child, try to catch it. scientists clocked that. i’m not making it up. some day soon we will consider the universe of each little snowflake. apparently, it’s a sport. watching snowflakes. i’ve got a book, right here on my desk, a field guide to snowflakes, and it says so, likens it to bird watching, only colder.

but today is about the blanket of white, the blanket of quiet. the blanket shaken before us, every intricacy of every limb and twig and pine needle shrouded in, swaddled in, white.

to go out in it, to crouch under the bough of a tree, to watch it come down, down onto your eyelash, is to be filled, once again, with the mystery of the heavens coming down to our midst. intermingling, the divine and the utterly earthly.

maybe that’s why young children thrust themselves into it, onto it, prostrate, making snow angels. maybe they understand in a way we forget when we’ve had too many snows under our boots. maybe they sense the godliness in each six-sided flake. if you could dive into the celestial, wouldn’t you want to rub your arms and your legs, your whole being, through the thick of it? once again, look to the children.

albert einstein, a guy smart like the children, wrote this in 1930, in a paper titled, “what i believe:”

“the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. it is the source of all true art and science. he to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

open your eyes, my friends. open your eyes. the snow, falling all around us, is begging us to drink in, to taste, to behold the mysterious. to realize, in one single snowflake, we hold onto the infinite. in a whole world of snowflakes, the infinite holds onto us.

if we open our eyes…

tell a snow story. tell a tale of beholding the wonder of the world of snow when it’s still white. or, if you must, spit it out. tell us how the blkkh got in your way, made you mad. made you sputter. then, once you spew here at the table, you might feel all better. might then be able to slip on your muks, step out the door, sink into the wonder…..

oranges-and-chocolate brigade

i got to thinking about frozen people. got to thinking about folks with no choice about being in the cold.

what got me thinking were the folks i was passing as i made my way through the bone-chilling day. the crews cutting down trees, their limbs barely moving as they hoisted their saws in their orange puffy suits. a guy, red-cheeked, frost-bearded, standing in the middle of the road with a pole, measuring something that couldn’t wait ’til a day with bearable temperatures.

i thought of the mail carriers, the garbage haulers, the firehose aimers. i thought of the crossing guards, the meter readers, the ruptured water main fixers. i thought of my friend who bundles up like an inuit, she says, and walks 20 minutes to work, her cheeks so numb she probably can’t smile when she gets there, not for a good half an hour.

then i really got to thinking about frozen people. i started thinking about dirt man and tax man and refrigerator man. i thought about shorty and squeaky and a guy named everett, who’d built himself a multiplex of boxes up on a platform so the rats couldn’t get in, down in the bowels of the city, down under lower wacker drive.

i met the whole civilization of under-street inhabitants a year or so ago, when i tagged along with two saints, named frank and kay fennell.

frank and kay do an amazing, uncomplicated thing: they flip open the trunk of their car, they fill it with boxes of home-cooked food, and every thursday night, for 17 years now, they drive down to the depths of the city.

they cruise the streets of lower wacker, park, stick their heads around corners, poke behind pillars. they open their trunk, spoon hot food on plates, pour glasses of water. they feed the hungry. and this time of year, they feed the near frozen.

you might have heard all the news bulletins. the city is begging the homeless to come in off the streets, off the sidewalks where they stretch out on a pile of flimsy blankets, inch as close as they can to the heating vents at the bases of shimmering towers.

well, the folks who call the streets home, aren’t much interested in leaving. they’ve got reasons aplenty why they can’t stand the shelters. and if you ask questions, if you listen, you hear the pain, you hear the fear that keeps them locked where they are.

i wrote here the other day that my first instinct when arctic winds hit is to hunker down, to draw into my cave. well, sometimes, i told myself as i thought about frozen people, you need to dig beyond that. sometimes you need to pull up your second instinct.

and that’s when i hatched what you might think is a laughable idea.

but, heck, this world needs something to laugh about almost as much as it needs something else: the courage of plain old anybodys to get up, to get out of their houses, to walk up to a stranger, a cold, hungry stranger, to hand him or her a brown paper bag, a bag filled with oranges and chocolate and the solid conviction that if we don’t notice the cold hungry stranger, if we don’t let him or her know that he or she isn’t forgotten, we might as well pack it up, call it a day, shut out the lights, sign off the planet.

i call it the oranges-and-chocolate brigade.

my guardian angel in these matters, kay fennell, once told me: “we decided it was our job to sustain [these people] for whatever their next step would be. and that might be just to stay alive for the next 24 hours.”

so i went to the store, got oranges and hershey bars, reese’s cups, too. grabbed a stash of brown bags and started to fill. this morning i’m headed down to the bowels of the city, where dirt man and tax man were last seen on the grubby old blankets inside torn cardboard boxes, desperately trying to keep their flesh and their blood at least half alive.

before i even get there, i know, i’ll pass the men who hawk papers in the middle of oncoming lanes. or one of the folks who hover at intersections, dodging green lights, with the signs in their raw, frozen fingers. “homeless, please help.”

it’s not much, oranges and chocolate in a brown paper bag. but it’s fuel in the cold. and it might be something a little more than that.

it might maybe say, in case anyone’s listening, that we will not let the cold and the hungry lay down one more night thinking the world has forgotten, the world has gone cold. that’s a lot to ask of plain oranges and chocolate. but if we don’t ask, who will not wake, frozen, all through?

here’s the plot, simply: take a few lunch bags. toss in oranges and chocolate, anything else that you fancy. haul ‘em into your car. you don’t need to drive to the depths of the city to find cold folk. how ‘bout this: when you see someone out working, someone without much of a choice, roll down your window, stop your car. reach out your arm, get out from behind the wheel, even. put your brown bag in his or her hand. smile. say what you will. then go on your way. or bring ‘em home for a hot home-cooked dinner. your choice. always your choice.

report back…

hunker down

when the little man who lives in the radio next to your bed rouses you from your slumber with the rooster-squawking news that your world, it is abysmally freezing, that there’s nothing between zero and you but a scant shallow degree or two,well then there’s nothing to do but hunker down.

since pulling up the covers and six months’ hibernation is not an option for the homo sapien species, you do the right-thinking thing: you grab all the clothes from your closet, you pile them on, then you waddle down the stairs, the abominable mother.

deep inside you this mad cave-woman thing is stirring you on: you want to grab all your loved ones, even the birds and the squirrels and that ol’ fat raccoon, and you want to haul everyone and everything to the back of the cave where you, in a cave era gender leap, will rub some sticks, start a fire and keep flesh, feather and fur all warm and all toasty.

but, alas, there’s no cave and you’re not good with sticks, so instead you start fueling your flock for the day.

in the deep arctic cold, you step into the purplish light of pre-dawn, armed with your coffee can brimming with seed. you pour seed for the cardinals, seed for the sparrows. you fill water for everyone, scatter bread, scatter popcorn for squirrels.

back in the house, you repeat the routine for the little ones sleeping up over your head. it’s oatmeal for the sapiens, oatmeal studded with every imaginable fruit on the shelf. you are filling their tanks for long walks to the train, to the bus, to the playground. calorie-packing, the arctic climbers call it, and you call it the same, as you pour almonds and wheat germ and fat juicy apricots into the porridge. if you invest oatmeal with amulet powers on a 30-degree day, you should see what you do when the digits come only one at a time.

the whole day will unfold with similar bone-chilling caution. all errands are nixed, unless earth-shatteringly essential. no child of yours shall be dawdling at bus stops. each being who steps out of your house will be so wrapped in cloth, it’ll be nearly impossible to move even a muscle. but you’ll insist.

and then you’ll get on with the business of stoking their furnaces. you’ll rub your numb fingers, yank supplies off the shelves. it’s visions of soup, bread and cookies, all steamy and yummy, all straight from the oven, that swirl in your head.

so pull up your long johns, fasten your ear muffs. we’ve a cold day ahead, arctic winds to contend with. remember the birds. crank your crotchety ovens. it’s hot cookies for all, and for all a good day.

for the birds…

it is the day of the longest night, and so it seems fitting, it does, that this be the day we remember the birds and the little beasts that dart and that frolic out in the not-so-wild of our leafy backyards.

for years now, feeding the birds for christmas has been one of the quaintest moments on my calendar. alone in my kitchen, or with little hands weighing in from the wings, i plop out the peanut butter, smear on the cones, roll in the seed, tie with a string. sometimes i swear that patron saint of wild things, st. francis, that is, is there too, peeking over my shoulder, leading me on in this sacred creation. feeding the little winged things. making a tree for the birds just out my window.

i have searched high and low, looking and asking, isn’t there a particular one day of the year, somewhere in the world, set aside for this cutting out bread hearts, rolling peanut-butter pine cones, all in the name of returning the birds’ favor? so far, i’ve not found a day, so i am declaring it this one, the day of the long winter’s night. the day of the solstice.

so if you or your little ones might be so inspired, what you need, simply, is this: a stash of pine cones, slices of bread, a jar of good peanut butter, a tinplate of seeds. should you care to make a haute tree, ask your friend the butcher for a paper-wrapped packet of suet, a.k.a. the fat sliced off a good chunk of cow. if you go the suet route, you might want an old pot, for pity the poor soul who warms up his soup in the pot that last melted the suet.

have at it. cookie cutters make fine shapes of the bread, which then can be smeared in pb&j fashion. dunk in your seed pile, thread through a string, and, voila, my friend, you have a treat for your bird. pine cones are a variation on that same winged theme.

to make a suet cake, melt the fat, pour into muffin tins, add seed to thicken the plot, stand back and let harden. you might want to have left a once-knotted string or a raffia in the cup before hardening, or simply thread through after the fact. it’s all very simple, and that is the point.

it is the simple act of loving God’s creatures, saying thanks for the delight they bring to your heart, that makes it so magic.

that, and knowing as you settle your head for the longest night’s sleep that you warmed the belly of the great winged flock. and most likely, the heart of the one who first gave flight to those feathers.

bless you and yours this long winter’s night.

it’s brisket weather…

borrowing amply from mr. capote, who in his delicious and utterly memorizable 1956 treasure, “a christmas memory,” tells us of his eccentric sixty-something-year-old cousin who presses her nose to the kitchen window, gauges the novemberness of the outside tableau, and exclaims, “oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!…it’s fruitcake weather! fetch our buggy. help me find my hat.”
and at our house this weekend, i woke up, sniffed my nose in the air, and proclaimed, “it’s brisket weather.” with that i trotted off to the butcher who had cleaved and wrapped seven and a half pounds of pure red steer, laced heavily with adipose. he marked it, mahany, and as he handed over the white-paper-wrapped log, he raised one eyebrow and quizzed, “that jewish?” well, no, mister meat man. but my husband is, my boys are half and half, and we do hanukkah.
the thing about being an irish catholic mother in a jewish-catholic family is that you have no long lineage of recipes you call your own. you have, forgive me for braggin’, something far better than that: an amalgam of adopted jewish mothers and the best of their best. i’ve got ina’s matzo balls, aunt joni’s tips on storing, freezing and reheating latkes, liat’s hamantashcen, audrey’s “tzimmes with potato kugel topping,” that one cut from the los angeles times, now yellowed and long ago scribbled with audrey’s thoughts on how to improve it.
brisket i’ve got in triplicate: susan’s famed brisket, one boasts; sandra’s working-woman’s brisket; and the one i now call my own, brisket from harlene ellin’s mom. now, mind you, i have met harlene ellin’s mom once–at the side of a pool at a 7-year-old’s birthday long long ago, where the meeting was doused liberally in chlorinated pool water. but harlene’s mama and i, once or twice a year, we make brisket together. listening closely as she insists it must be heinz chili sauce, nobody’s else’s. following carefully as she guides me through the rinsing and patting dry of the beef slab.
last night, i leaned heavily on mama ellin. she swears you need 50 to 55 minutes per pound in a 325-degree oven. do the math: that was 6 and a quarter hours. being a good catholic girl, i did what i was told. even though after a while i started doubting the wisdom of all this baking and baking. was i en route to the leatheriest brisket ever served at a hanukkah dinner? as i unearthed said brisket from the oven, well past bedtime, and noted the bayleaves had started to blacken, my knees how they trembled, my calm how it shattered.
quick, i grabbed mark bittman. he tells me how to cook everything. he said nothing about brisket being cooked for a full quarter of a day. i googled brisket. the longest stretch there was five hours, for a five-pound brisket. but i had the motherlode of all briskets. my meat man set me up with 7.5 pounds, for cryin’ out loud. i had no option last night but to stay the course with mama ellin. i did as i was told, vaulted it from roasting pan to refrigerator pan, tucked it in under a taut aluminum blanket, turned out the kitchen lights and hoped for the best.
frankly, my brisket dreams did little to soothe me.
called the butcher first thing this morn. he swears i did the right thing; only he cautions a low long oven is the best route to brisket heaven. he goes overnight at 200 degrees. has brisket by the mound for breakfast, he does. maybe i should have turned down the heat.
all i know now is it smelled a bit like heaven around here for six-plus hours on sunday, all chili sauce, red wine, cloves and those bay leaves. i wasn’t about to lower the burn on that celestial scent.
we had 12 coming for brisket tonight, but little tedd has a fever of 103. so, for now, me and my brisket we are on hold. we are whispering prayers, jewish and catholic, for fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth, mind-if-i-help-myself-to-more. dinner is rescheduled for wednesday. we’ll let you know if our brisket prayers they are answered.
here’s how harlene ellin’s mama and i go at it, year after year:

Brisket
3 pounds first-cut brisket (these things a Catholic girl must learn, who knew from first-, second- or even third-cut?)
1 C. Heinz chili sauce
½ C. brown sugar
¼ C. dry red wine
¼ C. water
1 small or medium onion, sliced
3 cloves, whole
6 black peppercorns, whole
3 bay leaves

Rinse brisket and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl combine chili sauce, brown sugar, wine and water. Mix well. Pour ¼ of chili sauce mixture into a roasting pan. Place brisket on sauce, fat side up. Place onions, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaves evenly over brisket. Top with remaining chili sauce mixture.

Cover roasting pan tightly. Bake brisket in preheated 325 degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes per pound, or until meat is fork tender. Remove meat from pan and place it in a container. Remove bay leaves, peppercorns and cloves from gravy, and put gravy in a container. Refrigerate meat and gravy for several hours or overnight.

To reheat brisket, slice against grain to desired thickness and place in covered casserole dish sprayed with cooking oil spray. Remove and discard any congealed fat from gravy. Pour the gravy over meat. Cover and reheat in a 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until heated through. (Brisket can be reheated in microwave.)

Serves 6

feel free to add your brisket thoughts to this melt-in-your-mouth conversation….