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george booth has died and other news of the week…

George Booth, the New Yorker cartoonist who created a world of oddballs sharing life’s chaos with a pointy-eared bull terrier that once barked a flower to death, and sometimes with a herd of cats that shredded couches and window shades between sweet naps, died on Tuesday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 96.

so begins the new york times obituary of a man who infused my childhood. no, he didn’t frequent the five-and-dime in our leafy little town. he didn’t populate the pews of our native church. he came in the mail. every week. and in the weeks when he graced the cover, or was tucked inside the confines of william shawn’s new yorker (known as “the holy grail for cartoonists”), you could count on tracking down my mother if you traced the vapors of her out-loud laughing to where you’d find her giddily all but hiding behind the glossy pages of the slick. she would laugh, back then and even now, in a way that made you think there was something almost-naughty about those pages, which of course made us, her troupe of five, scamper to its pages soon as she abandoned it on the stack of mail, where hours later our ad man of a dad (who never met a joke or pun he didn’t relish) would saunter on the scene and chuckle at whatever was the funny. 

george booth proved to us that our mother — the very one who trained us to eat our peas and lima beans without complaint, and never tell a lie, to ne’er ignore the dinner bell, and always look both ways –– had a secret compartment full of almost-naughty humor. and if we kept close watch, we too might figure out the shortcut to some eternally redemptive funny bone. 

thus, coming upon the news that mr. booth has died this week, and that his wife of 64 years had died a mere six days earlier (such tales of love and lives that end in stunning unison nearly always make me weak at the knees), i felt a thud to the heart that only certain deaths elicit. 

there is a minor cast of characters in every childhood — the names that brought applause, the ones whose books most frequently recurred, the ones whose movies brought us the rare chance to blow a bedtime  –– who indelibly marked our evolution, and maybe formed the foggy outlines of who we aimed to be when we grew up. or at least what attributes we might try on for size. 

if i close my eyes and tick through the litany of those my mother ushered in, the ones held up in near heroic halo, it’s george booth & co., the new yorker cartoony cast; peg bracken, she of the i hate to cook cookbook; it’s doris day and julia child, all of whom made my mother giggle. it must have been the giggle that so allured. it was a merriment i must have longed for, and long for still. laughter belongs to a human register all its own, audible proof of joyful stirring deep inside. w. h. auden once observed: “among those whom i like or admire, i can find no common denominator, but among those whom i love, i can: all of them make me laugh.”

thank you, mr. booth, for bringing laughter, so much muffled laughter, to the house where i grew up.

in other news, i find myself absorbing the miracle of 70-degree november days. took me a long time — too long — to learn to freeze-frame pure joy and deep-down contentment. but now the hours of my days are as if beads threaded on a string, not unlike the rosaries i long ago learned to pray: mysteries joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous. not a bad paradigm for living. learn to live bead by bead, moment to holy saturated moment. allow each orb to shine in all its constitution, be it radiant or shadowed or somewhere in between. and the beauty of these days, when the leaves are blazing paint-pot hues –– aubergine and persimmon, pure gold and harvard crimson –– they tap me on the soft shell of my soul, and whisper: this is holy time. behold it well. 

george booth would make me laugh at that. but he’s no longer here. so it’s on us to find the humor hidden in the chaos of the every day. 

who comprised the minor cast of characters in your growing up years? who made your mama laugh or cry, who or what did you aspire to be when you grew up and moved away from home?

this is booth’s cartoon in the immediate wake of 9/11, when the new yorker had decided no cartoons for that issue, but george submitted this anyway; the cat covering its face with its paws, the usually animated fiddle-playing miss rittenhouse (a recurring character modeled after booth’s mother), head down, hands clasped in prayer, sadly silenced by it all.

musings on sainthood . . .

soon-to-be-beheaded st. babs

i’m actually in amherst, massachusetts, this morning, about to traipse over to the homestead, the butter-yelllow brick house where emily dickinson was born and penned her nearly 1,800 poems, and i’m even hoping for a peek into the upstairs room where it all flowed from her inkwell, a room not normally on the itinerary of those who tiptoe in hushed tones through the hallways of emily’s house on the hill. but with an eye toward next week’s all saints day (a day that’s always captured my imagination), i spent a bit of this week musing on sainthood, just another name for what this world needs abundantly, urgently, in the form of plain old honest-to-goodness holiness, empathy, unheralded kindness, and megadoses of humility.


saint (n.)

early 12c. as an adjective, seinte, “holy, divinely inspired, worthy of worship,” used before proper names (Sainte Marian Magdalene, etc.), from Old French saint, seinte “holy, pious, devout,” from Latin sanctus “holy, consecrated,” past participle of sancire “consecrate.” It displaced or altered Old English sanct, which is directly from Latin sanctus.


i’ve had my eye on the saints since i was a wee thing. in the catholic imagination of my first and second grade, i thought hard about the haloed ones held up in the pages of my religion books. we were schooled to be demure, kind (endlessly kind), and enamored with Jesus (always dashingly handsome with his ambered skintones and long flowing locks in the full-color catechism primers, which wisely omitted most of the stories of tortures to which the anointed had had to submit). 

every night, i prayed to be saintly and attempted what i thought might be a postural shortcut: i began by smoothing my patchwork covers, then i’d lie as still as the mummies that scared me in the darkened chambers of chicago’s labyrinthine field museum of natural history, and then––the clincher––i clasped my hands in my best saintly imitation and hoped to move not even a squiggle during the night, to awake still clasped in prayerful pose. it seemed the first in a series of requisite feats on the dusty pilgrimage to sainthood.

by day, i practiced my fledgling aspirations on a lady bug, my fumbled attempt at assisian communing with all of creation. i built her a village––complete with steepled church––and ordained her high priestess of the cardboard hamlet. i checked on her last thing at night, and first thing in the morning, making sure her wings still opened and closed, and that she hadn’t succumbed to inside air. then i let her go. opened the window and unfurled the chant: “go little lady, go free!” and off into the orchard behind our house she flew, the happiest well-loved ladybug that ever there was. 

since i’ve long been an ecumenicist at heart, and don’t subscribe to any of the ecclesial hoops and tangles that dictate who’s in and who’s out in the saintly department, i go about my saint-watching by intuition and impulse. i know a saint when i see one or sense one. a saint to me is just another name for someone whose deep-down goodness is pure as pure can be. while catholics insist on a step-ladder to sainthood, other world religions seem just as intent on holiness but without the boxes to check. according to page 8033 of the thomson gale encyclopedia of religion (2nd edition):

“Historians of religion have liberated the category of sainthood from its narrower Christian associations and have employed the term in a more general way to refer to the state of special holiness that many religions attribute to certain people. The Jewish hasid or tsaddiq, the Muslim waliy, the Zoroastrian fravashi, the Hindu rsi or guru, the Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist shengren, the Shinto kami and others have all been referred to as saints.”

the best of the saints (hasids, waliys, fravashis, gurus, bodhisattvas, shengrens, kamis), in my book, are the quotidian ones. the ones whose everyday garb keeps them from being noticed. except for their kindness, the certain radiance they leave in their wake, the sense that something holy has just brushed by, you might not notice the saintly among us. 

but they leave behind a mark, a certain mark, a change of heart, a new expanse of seeing. we become better, bigger of heart and soul, kinder, gentler, maybe quieter, certainly softer, because of them. that’s saintly to me. 

among the saints i’ve known in my life, there was the old wrinkled man who perched on a fire hydrant befriending the pigeons. “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today,” joe zeman, the pigeon man of lincoln square once told me. 

and there was the foster mother who’d taken in nearly 100 newborns, and who was sitting by a hospital crib when she looked up and told me: “i’m no mother teresa,” she insisted, wrapping her fingers around a metal rung of the crib, as her littlest toddler was being infused with drip after drip of cancer-fighting chemo. “i always think of something i saw in the New World (a catholic newspaper) in which a columnist was saying, `i’d hate to be in line at heaven’s gate behind mother teresa when God looks down and says, `you could have done more.’”

even now, when it’s no longer my job to scour the landscape in search of those sorts of souls whose goodness leaps off the newspaper page, i find saints in the unlikeliest places: behind the cash register at the grocery store; in the catering office of my college kid’s dining hall; at a check-in gate at america’s busiest airport; in the lady down the alley who never dresses in anything fancier than her mud-stained sweats but who routinely writes checks for thousands of dollars for families in trouble, be it escape from afghanistan or domestic abuse. (a secret i discovered only by listening closely, and connecting a dot or two.)

so what makes a saint a saint, or a hasid a hasid, or a bodhisattva a bodhisattva

is it answering to an otherworldly call, the whisper of the holy divine? is it believing that the glimmering lights of the public square are simply distractions; turning instead to a quieter code, one infused with boundless empathy more than anything: love as you would be loved? is it the courage to call out injustice, to muster the chutzpah to say, “this isn’t right. you’re treating her poorly. your words are scarring her, leaving welts where they’ve hit her.” is it emanating a peacefulness, a serenity, that comes from knowing yours is a timeless eternal, a blessing for ever and all time?

what makes a saint a saint, what makes holiness holy? 

it’s a question worth asking, but mostly it’s a question to put to work. what are the scant few things you might include in, say, a manual for the would-be saint, the very title of a poem i left here on the old maple table a few years ago, after coming upon them in a book i was reviewing for the tribune. i’ll leave the first lines here again, as a place to begin your own musings on sainthood. 

Manual for the Would-Be Saint
by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.
The second: The air calls us home.
Third, we must fill the bowls of others
before we drain our own wells dry.
The fourth is the dark night; the fifth
a subtle scent of smoke and pine.
The sixth is awareness of our duties,
the burnt offering of our own pride.
Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.
Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.
The ninth takes time: it is to discover
what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…but you might be inclined to pen your own…)

because i’m so worried about the world, and the evils and horrors that seem to be steamrolling goodness, i’m thinking we might put forth a collective effort here, outline a framework for how we might bring a bolus of holiness into this world. have at it. i’ll chime in too…

what do you see or sense when you encounter someone you’re sure is steeped in a certain holiness, another name for the sainted?

emily d., the belle of amherst

contemplating hope . . .

In Any Event

If we are fractured
we are fractured
like stars
bred to shine
in every direction,
through any dimension,
billions of years
since and hence.

I shall not lament
the human, not yet.
There is something
more to come, our hearts
a gold mine
not yet plumbed,
an uncharted sea.

Nothing is gone forever.
If we came from dust
and will return to dust
then we can find our way
into anything.

What we are capable of
is not yet known,
and I praise us now,
in advance.

Dorianne Laux

i am contemplating hope, as it seems to me — and maybe to you, too — that we are living in a darkening world. a world whose headlines are chasing me away, whose headlines often sicken me. i find myself feeling the urge to draw within, to curl into a tight mollusk, a chambered nautilus of the soul. i look at flickers of the news and hear the echoes of history, a boomerang of hideousness i never dreamt would come this way again. 

i am giving thought to how to live in a world where darkness gathers, how to keep an ember glowing. in my soul and in my world. can random acts of kindness be enough to keep the incandescence from extinguishing? is unending prayer enough to shift the course of history, to undermine the ugliness that seems without end or purpose? has it ever been?

i’d been thinking more humility was the desperately-needed imperative, the very thing this self-obsessed world — intoxicated by celebrity, by overblown parading in the public square — most emphatically calls for. i still think so. humility in a world of supersized ego is as countercultural as can be. and it just might expand our gaze, allow us to see past our own blinding appetites, make us more willing to quietly, determinedly turn the other cheek. to be the necessary instruments of peace, to sow pardon where there’s injury, love where there’s hatred. it’s a centuries-old prayer, the prayer of st. francis, and it is true for me each and every morning. now more than ever.

but read a little further in the prayer, and it calls for hope where there’s despair. 

despair is spreading like a cancer. it undergirds the cynicism everywhere. it’s the magnetic pull toward apathy. it’s surrender punctuated with slamming of the door. it snuffs out every shard of light.

so now i’m thinking hard about hope, the counterforce of gloom, despondency, profound sorrow (each and every one, another name for despair). where does hope begin? how might we stir it? feel its updraft catch beneath our wings? 

i don’t have answers. 

in time, though, i may stumble on inklings.

but there are poets, now and ever. poets like dorianne laux, whose words came to me this week and made me feel that fetal kick that might be where hope begins. when someone wiser and deeper draws the faint outlines of the life ropes we just might need. 

dorianne laux

dorianne laux, who worked as a waitress, a sanitorium cook, a gas-station manager, and a maid before getting a BA in english at 36 from mills college in oakland (and has gone on to be a pulitzer finalist, and a guggenheim fellow), and who is absolutely one of my most beloved poets, begins with “fractured” in the poem above. 

fractured is how i sometimes feel. fractured has sharper edges than just plain broken. fractured is what bones do when they split and crack. sometimes hairline, sometimes compound. fractured makes a snapping sound. fractured is low-down broken. sometimes shattered.

but dorianne doesn’t leave us at fractured. she turns our gaze swiftly toward the stars, which are fractured too, but into pretty little points. and it’s the points of stars where the shining, twinkling comes. it’s where the light pings or oozes i don’t know which; i’m not a physicist of the heavens. i’m only someone who watches and wonders. maybe it’s where the light –– twinkling, shining –– bounces off the brokenness. it’s the brokenness that makes for the dizzying luminescence. stars in their brokenness are bred to shine in every direction. maybe that’s something to think about.

and then dorianne goes on to tell us that it’s not time yet to lament. “there is something more to come,” she promises. 

our hearts still are goldmines to be plumbed. our little bitty self-contained vessels of all that’s good, all that’s holy; no one’s got a right to reach in and steal those hearts, to tap those hearts of all that’s bottled up inside. all the sweet succulence of all the kindness we’ve known in our whole lives. all the times we’ve been forgiven. all the times someone gentle looked our way and whispered words that might have made us feel beautiful, and seen. don’t abandon those sacred hearts, turn over the keys to whatever evil awfulness might flatten you. guard those good and plenty hearts as if your life depended on it, as if the good world depended on it. because it does, it does. 

and so, dorianne was just the lifeline i needed as i began to consider hope, as i set out to figure out how to live wisely and luminously in a world where dark skies are growing denser in the distance. 

my considerations of hope are only just beginning.

What we are capable of
is not yet known,
and I praise us now,
in advance.

where do you find hope? does it come in faint traces, or in bold strokes that sometimes bowl you over? do you sometimes feel the hairline fractures in your heart or your soul? 

i let it rip this week. once upon a time, this would be the very sort of meander my mother-in-law would have met with deafening silence. too dark, she’d diagnose it. and leave me to second-guess the whole day long. should i have held back? but to ignore the chasms that rend us apart, push us away from one another, to ignore the fallout that inevitably shrouds the tender among us is to let the rot seep in till it’s too, too late. i am determined in my searching for hope. and thank you, dorianne, for pointing me in hopeful direction….

something screwy happened when i was typing and all of the sudden everything shrank. i tried and tried to fix it, but it might still be screwy. i’ll keep trying to fix it. till then, put on your magnifying lenses……

turning the page with a tug and a pull

we are definitely turning the page here at this old shingled house. the bespectacled architecture critic no longer calls me from the office at 8 at night, saying he’ll be stuck writing for a few more hours. there are no carpools to coordinate, no getting up at 5 in the morning for soccer matches in kingdom come. i’ve gotten used to the new geographies in my head, the ones that have me simultaneously keeping track of news, weather, and covid in new york city and the middlelands of ohio, the current turfs of both of our birthlings. 

somehow, without notice, without even a sign posting the warning, we’ve moved into the loveliest calmest quietest chapter of our married life that ever there was. (do not think of even uttering a syllable of the R word, the one synonymous with hanging up one’s professional hat; one of us has no intention of putting away the keyboard and the other seems to have taken up full-time swimming, biking, and running across finish lines). underscoring the shift, this year we’ll be racking up plenty of lasts in the kid department: the last college drop off. last parents weekend. last winter and spring breaks. last graduation. last packing up the dorm room. last whopping tuition bill. 

we are, very much so, on the final verge of true empty nesting.

it’s a mix tinged with poignancy, and a good measure of disbelief. time passes so swiftly, you suddenly realize. after years and years of thinking the routines will never be broken. poof, and they’re gone! 

we’re late to this party, only because i found myself in a delivery room when others i knew were there awaiting their grandbabies, but i was there because of what felt and always will feel like i somehow squeaked through the maternity ward as the very last egg was being cleared from the deck. and, as with so much in my life, i’ve been soaking it in from every which angle, taking none of it lightly, extracting as much as i possibly could at every twist, turn, and trial along the way. 

ours, these days, is a quiet life by choice. my favorite hours are nestled in books and on my knees in the garden, over coffees with people i love, and the dinners at the end of the day when we weave together the threads we’ve both followed all through the day. i know full well that every drop of it is pure blessing, a benevolence no one deserves, for life is not doled out in rewards and punishments. we just get what we get, and it’s ours to savor or squander. i’ve had more than enough hours staring into the shadowed abyss, imagining sudden endings, to perk up my relishing gears. (the bright side of being a doomsayer is that any and every happy ending is reason for rousing hallelujah. don’t mind my scrambled up wiring. seven decades in, it works for me just as it is.) 

anyway, this weekend’s the last-ever parents weekend, that glorious mix of scintillating speakers and professorial panels, long strolls across a campus straight out of the picture books, and delivering a pile of groceries and pies and blankets and boots only a college kid’s idiosyncratic tastes would relish or request (who else would send a middle-of-the-night text asking for portwine spread cheese, rubber-soled boots, and someplace good to go out for dinner?). i plan to savor every sweet drop, knowing not long from now i’ll pine for the chance to make-believe i’m a kid savoring college. (as long as i don’t peek in the mirror, and wonder who in the world is the one with the locks now the color of silvery moon.)

i know, because life has taught me over and over, whole new adventures await, and none of this will ever get dull. but i’ve loved this part where you hover fairly closely over the shoulder of the kids you’ve brought into the world, and feel your heart grow by the week and the month and the year. i know, because life is already teaching me, each of their new adventures becomes vicariously mine, and therein lies a whole nother joy. but now, here i am at the precipice looking both ways. and mostly i’m grateful for this heart that finds it hard to let go….


because we’re motoring back and forth in three short days (the weekend cut short by a work trip to houston for the one more apt to be running or riding these days), i’m keeping this short, and will leave you instead with two little morsels: a peek inside the little book that landed on my stoop the other night, and a soup i plan to make on one of the autumnal days next week when the critic is chowing down on texas barbecue. slow cooking is in sync with my slow, savoring ways. 

first, a peek at the Advanced Reading Copy of The Book of Nature, with a look at the cover, the table of contents, and the first page of the foreword.


photo by Bobbi Lin, NYT

Creamy Cauliflower Soup With Harissa Tomatoes
By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
Yield: 6 servings

INGREDIENTS
1 large head cauliflower (about 3 pounds), trimmed and cut into 1-inch florets (about 12 cups)
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) and freshly ground black pepper
1-1⁄4 teaspoons ground coriander
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 small bunch thyme (about 10 sprigs)
1 pound plum tomatoes, halved, seeds scooped out
2 to 4 tablespoons harissa paste
3 large bunches scallions, whites and greens thinly sliced (about 21⁄2 cups)
1 jalapeño, seeded (if desired) and coarsely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1-1⁄2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
6 cups vegetable stock
3⁄4 cup chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus more for optional garnish
1 lemon

PREPARATION
Step 1
Heat oven to 425 degrees and line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.
Step 2
In a large bowl, combine cauliflower, 1 teaspoon salt, a large pinch of black pepper, 3⁄4 teaspoon ground coriander, 3 tablespoons oil and half the thyme sprigs, tossing everything until well coated. Spread the cauliflower evenly across one of the prepared pans.
Step 3
Using the same bowl (no need to wash it first), combine halved tomatoes, 1 to 2 tablespoons of harissa (depending on how spicy your harissa is; taste it first), 2 tablespoons olive oil, a large pinch of salt and the remaining thyme sprigs, and toss gently until the tomatoes are well coated. Spread tomatoes on the other baking sheet, cut-side up.
Step 4
Place both sheet pans in the oven and roast for 20 minutes, then stir the cauliflower but not the tomatoes. Continue to roast until cauliflower is golden brown and tender, 15 to 20 minutes longer (35 to 40 minutes total roasting time). Transfer cauliflower pan to a rack, and discard thyme sprigs.
Step 5
Using tongs, gently flip tomatoes over so their cut sides are down. Using the tongs, pinch off the tomato skins – they should slip right off – and discard. Brush 1 to 2 more tablespoons of harissa onto tomatoes and continue to roast until shriveled and condensed, about 15 to 25 minutes (35 to 45 minutes total roasting time).
Step 6
While tomatoes are roasting, make the soup: In a large pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium. Add scallions (saving 1⁄4 cup scallions for serving) and jalapeño, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly colored, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add another 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt, black pepper to taste, cumin and tomato paste, and cook until tomato paste darkens and caramelizes, 2 to 3 minutes.
Step 7
Stir in roasted cauliflower and stock, and bring to a simmer. Cook, partly covered, over medium-low heat until all vegetables are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. (Alternatively, you can purée it in batches in a food processor or blender.)
Step 8
Transfer the roasted tomatoes into a mixing bowl and add cilantro. Using a Microplane or other fine grater, grate zest from about half the lemon into the bowl, then stir in 1⁄2 teaspoon coriander and reserved scallions.
Step 9
Using a fork or spoon, break up some of the tomatoes as you combine everything. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze a little into the tomatoes, then taste and add more salt and lemon juice as needed. It should taste well seasoned and a little tangy.
Step 10
To serve, squeeze in the juice from half the lemon. Taste and add salt, pepper and lemon if needed. Ladle soup into individual bowls and dollop harissa tomatoes on top; top with olive oil and more cilantro, if you like.

how do you savor the most succulent parts of your life? and do you, like me, find turning the page a bit of a tug and a pull?

an ode to figs, the “bursten” fruit

in which for no reason other than pure whimsy and succulence itself, we behold the fig—to my taste, the essence of autumn, and the finest fruit borne from the boughs of any earthly tree….


few are the foods for which i churn an honest-to-goodness hankering. foods that might wake me up in the night, and turn my tummy to growling. the fig of october is one such specimen. i am not one to dream of cakes, couldn’t care less for a mousse, and turn up my nose at anything chocolate (yes, yes, i count these among my mis-wirings). and while there are foods aplenty that i eat day after day—broccoli, apples, nonfat greek yogurt, frozen bananas (the banal list of a thoroughly unadventurous eater)—rare is the edible that stirs me from stupor or slumber, yearning to nibble. (midway through wednesday’s yom kippur fast, and deep in my recent string of high-fevered days, i found myself longing for even one succulent fig. and that’s when i knew i needed to compose a commonplace ode to the Ficus carica, a fruit ancient and timeless.)

yes, rare is the fig, which i pile on my plate but for one short season a year. well before we get to its taste, the way it melts across the tongue and glides down the gulch with a honeyed-sweetness all along the way, i find the fig a mouthwateringly beautiful object, a bulbous aubergine orb, streaked with brushstrokes of plum and sienna. and that’s only the outside. 

to split the fig from its umbilical nub into quarters is to expose its sumptuous flesh, densely seeded, nearly R-rated. it’s no wonder renaissance painters often found ways to tuck a fig into the frame (almost a where’s waldo of painterly fruits). inside or out, it’s summa botanica.

it’s a fruit at the root of all the world’s religions. did not adam and eve reach for the leaf of the fig the very instant they realized their nakedness? the original pasties, i suppose. even now, the fig leaf is the very symbol of flimsy modesty, of shabbily covering that which shames or embarrasses but which is more or less in plain sight anyway. hardly shamefully, the fig was the tree that shaded Siddhartha Guatama for the 49 days during which he enlightened his way toward becoming the Buddha. his fig tree was the Bo, or Bodhi—Ficus religiosa, a species known to grow ninety feet tall and live for two thousand years, and whose leaves are shaped like hearts. 

for the more than the nine thousand years the fig has heavied boughs in the global garden, it’s been considered a “keystone species,” one critical to the survival of a disproportionately large chunk of an ecosystem, and without which that ecosystem would be drastically changed. no fewer than twelve hundred different kinds of animals depend on figs, including one-tenth of the world’s birds, and, yes, a certain wasp that takes its name from the fleshy fruit, the diminutive fig wasp.

you might be surprised to know that figs are actually inside-out flowers, hundreds of flowers trapped inside that aubergine casing. and if perhaps, as a young child, you were scared off from figs because someone told you that if you bit into it you’d be biting into a dead wasp wedged inside, here’s the real story:

the female fig wasp, dusted with pollen from her own birth inside yet another fig, wriggles her way into an unripe fig by way of the opening at the round base, called the ostiole, whereby stripping off her wings in the process. (imagine a piling of itty-bitty diaphanous wasp wings there at the base of every wild fig tree.) she is a wee waspy thing—roughly the size of the tip of a pencil or crayon (an aubergine crayon perhaps, from the original 64-color crayolas that stand as pert bright-colored soldiers all in their rows)—and she lives for only two days, during which she is duty- and DNA-bound to safely penetrate the fig and lay her eggs among the tiny flowers, thus pollinating the flowers. she dies shortly after. (fear not, the enzymes of the fruit dissolve what’s left of the wee wasp; and fear even less because nearly all figs you might find in the fruit bin these days have been domestically produced, and are not of the wild waspy variety.) of the juice left behind, post waspiness, pliny the elder termed it “the best food that can be taken by those who are brought low by long sickness.” (case in point: my febrile hankering.)

figs, it’s been said, are “extra, full of drama.” cleopatra, it’s told, ordered that the Egyptian cobra she intended as her suicide weapon, be brought to her hidden in a basket of figs. alexander the great claimed that ten thousand of his soldiers sheltered under a single fig tree. and d.h. lawrence, whom i never knew was something of a raunchy ol’ fellow, compared an overripe “bursten” fig to a prostitute “making a show of her secret.” 

here’s the poem where he plays with that…

the first few lines of his 1924 poem, titled simply, “figs”…(and said to be confirmation of why this man of letters was considered one of the most risqué writers of his time…)

The proper way to eat a fig, in society
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist,
honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put  your mouth to the crack and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.

now i’ve not ever considered the fig in a trollopian way, though i can see how its sweet succulence might push it toward the precipice of such considerations. 

while my one and only way to eat a fig is straight-up; rinsed, quartered to reveal its “bursten”-ness, speared with tine of fork, and inhaled in a single shwoop, you might take your figs more encumbered, or rather baked into something beyond deliciousness. if you’re of the latter class, here’s an almond and fig cake for you….

almond and fig cake
from mrs. larkin’s kitchen on food52
Serves 6

8 – 10 small ripe figs, stems removed, sliced in half vertically
3/4 cups slivered blanched almonds
1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on top of batter
zest of 1/2 large orange
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

*Set oven rack to upper third. Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter an 8″ cake pan and line with parchment paper.
*Process almonds, 2 Tablespoons of sugar and orange zest until finely ground.
*Beat butter and remaining sugar together at high speed until pale and fluffy. Add vanilla and combine. Add eggs, beating well after each addition. On low speed, beat in the almonds, flour and salt.
*Spread batter in cake pan. Place fig halves in concentric circles, evenly spaced, over the batter. Press in slightly. Sprinkle some sugar (about 2 tablespoons) over the entire surface. Bake on a sheet pan until cake is firm and nicely golden brown with darker edges, about 25 minutes.
*Cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Invert cake onto a dish, remove parchment, and re-invert onto a serving plate.

what might be the fruits that lure you to the fridge (or the tree) in the deep of the night, or the heat of the day??? and how do you like them best?

with a little poking around, i found the taste of the fig described thusly, as if a high-end wine assayed by a fine-palated sommelier: NPR describes its “honey-like sweetness with a subtle hint of berry and fresher shades of the flavor you might recognize from a certain cookie.” a restaurateur says figs taste something like a “berry dipped in a honey glaze.” one poet wrote that the taste of a perfect fig “cuts straight through time.” how might you describe it?

p.s. i am, i believe, cured from whatever the heck ailed me for six straight days. whatever it was, it wasn’t covid, and it was nasty. but it’s history now, and the month of october awaits….

sick days

the countryside i’d been hoping to see before a fever felled me this week….(photo by elizabeth marie black)

Wednesday I woke up with a fever. Thursday I woke up with a fever. And now it’s Friday, and I am still lying here with a fever. It’s not covid! But it’s not very friendly. And it’s the second time in two weeks my bones have ached so much I considered trading them in.

Sick days when you’re long past school days aren’t much fun. Excitement comes in the form of planting a thermometer under your tongue, and waiting for the beep. I try to guess if the numbers will be up or down.

I was supposed to be out in the country on Wednesday. But the cows will have to wait. And the waist-high grasses glistening in September’s sun. 

Once upon a time, I never minded a sick day. Once or twice I might have rubbed the thermometer against the threads of my bedsheets, registering a fever that gave me excuse to stay home from church and tucked under the covers reading a book I couldn’t put down. In a family of five getting to ring a little bell, beckoning gingerale or saltine crackers, meant for a little extra notice from the folks running the show. 

But nowadays, I sit by the window watching the sunlight and wish I was playing outside. 

In the meantime, a thousand prayers for everyone in the wake of Ian, the terrible horrible hurricane. The world is fevered, all right. 

what’s your tried and true cure for the days when you’re felled by a bug?

because i hate to leave you short, here’s an autumnal salad from my dear friend emily nunn, who started the “Tables for Two” column at The New Yorker, and later worked at the Chicago Tribune, and is side-splittingly hilarious and whose department of salad: official bulletin is worth every penny of its annual subscription, or free for an abbreviated once-a-week edition. and read even more about her here when dear emily graced the cover of the new york times food section.:

*RECIPE: An Autumnal Salad with Sweet Potatoes, Radicchio, Pecorino and Pepitas
from the inimitable Emily Nunn
Serves 4-6

2 small sweet potatoes, roasted in their skin until fork tender but not mushy, then refrigerated unpeeled; emily does this at 400°F, for about 50 minutes to an hour
1 medium head of radicchio, leaves separated and torn into bite-size pieces (you may also shred the radicchio as if for coleslaw, which is delicious and beautiful, but it won’t stay as crisp, something to consider if you’re interested in resilience here)
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and thinly sliced (emily used her mandoline), tossed with fresh lemon juice (a tablespoon or so)
1 tart fall apple, cored, quartered, thinly sliced crosswise (no need to peel; again, emily used her mandoline), then gently tossed with lemon juice (a tablespoon or so; don’t break your apples when tossing)
1 very small shallot, minced (or 2 tablespoons finely diced red onion)
Pecorino (or Parmesan, if you wish), a 2 to 3 ounce chunk, shaved with a vegetable peeler (emily likes a lot)
1/2 cup or so roasted salted pumpkin seeds (or pepitas)
Chopped chives, a half cup or more
Torn basil leaves, a half cup or more
Prosciutto, one or two slices per person, on the side (optional but recommended)
Flaky sea salt
Molasses Vinaigrette (below)

  1. Peel and slice your refrigerated sweet potatoes into 1/3-inch rounds, then into half-moons or quarter (I used rounds in the photo simply because they were pretty; you’ll get better distribution with halves or quarters).
  2. Line a platter or shallow bowl with the torn or shredded radicchio (you may wish to toss it with a few tablespoons the dressing first).
  3. Decorate the radicchio with the sweet potatoes then strew it all with the fennel, apples, shallot or red onion, and generous pecorino shavings; scatter this with the pumpkin seeds and herbs. Drizzle generously with the Molasses Vinaigrette and bring to the table, accompanied by the extra dressing in a little pitcher, a dish of flakey sea salt, and a small plate of abstractly folded slices of prosciutto, for those who wish to enjoy it alongside their salad.

    NOTE Another way to do this: Gently toss all the ingredients—except for the cheese, pumpkin seeds, and the prosciutto—together with some of the dressing (about half, to start; add more to taste) then top with the cheese and seeds; serve the extra dressing and the prosciutto on the side.

Molasses Vinaigrette
⅓ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 small clove garlic, grated on your microplane
2 teaspoons molasses (emily buys the basic grocery store stuff used for baking; she says it’s delicious but powerful)
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
⅛ to ¼ teaspoon cayenne (one or two pinches)

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all the ingredients and shake until well emulsified. You may want a touch more cider vinegar or lemon, or more salt; do this now and re-shake.

i’m especially saying prayers this morning for marsha in low country who’s expecting a walloping from ian today, and janet who might be down florida way but might still be safely tucked on the shores of a wisconsin fresh-water lake. and the millions we don’t know in the sweep of ian’s devastation.

grounding

birdhouse awaiting its post, in my new walled garden
pants for which my mother might disown me.

I wasn’t long off the plane, the suitcase barely unpacked, the clothes not halfway down the chute, and I was leaping into my oldest, most tattered, hand-me-down shorts (I seem to have a whole wardrobe of tattered ill-fitting hand-me-down shorts, these are the ones with the hem that dangles in front and disappears somewhere behind) and the t-shirt so ancient it’s bearing the name of a slick Andy Warhol launched in the very late ’60s. I call these my gardening clothes. The muddier they get, the more merrily I and they hum.

I had grounding to do. Grounding for me is quite literal. It’s a psychological balm and it comes with a trowel. I literally slice into the earth to draw out what amounts to a steadying potion, the closest I know to nerve-soothing elixir. 

September had gotten away from me. I’d intended a few weeks of quiet. So go such intentions. The holy communion of saints must be guffawing up in the clouds. 

So out I trotted into my back twenty; what once seemed endless expanse is now (thanks to the neighbors’ newly-erected 6.5-foot solid-cedar wall) most generously described as a wee jewel box of growing potential. My plot has shrunk, so it seems, but the newly defined outlines merely raise the ante. It’s a petit point of a garden I’m after. A tapestry of tiniest botanical stitches. 

I was soon on my knees. Fitting in ferns with their feathery fronds. Tucking in anemones with upstanding names, names that made them feel like royalty (Honorine Jobert — I imagine an empress) and names that sound like poetry in motion (Whirlwind — imagine them asway in September’s gentle breezes). 

Balms come in a thousand disguises. There are balms to swallow, and balms to chew. Balms that cover you in sweat, and balms that make you smell of chlorine. Took me a long, long time to find a balm that didn’t hurt me (plain old eating vexed me for decades). At last, though, I found healing balm in the sacred ground that surrounds this old shingled house. I found it watching the shadows play catch-me-if-you-can. And I found it watching the red bird alight on my window sill. I found it pretending I live in a cloister, and this is my garth. My prayer bench draped in clouds; my kneeler in clumps of compost. 

Maybe it was the long time coming that makes it more sacred. Maybe it’s remembering how emptiness once felt. And how distant that hollow is now. Maybe it’s facing the truth that there will still be days when the emptiness rises, when I feel my nerves starting to jangle, and tears are on the verge. Those are the days when I need to remember that something akin to a heavenly flow is just beyond the kitchen door. And I can tap into it with merely a trowel.

It’s quietly waiting there in the garden, my potpourri of barely detectable perfumes (lavender and heirloom hyacinth) and ones that knock your socks off (Korean spice viburnum); and leaves in shapes that might have been scissored in some far-off French lace factory. And then there are all the wild things who know they need no invitation. They’re the animators, the ones that chirp and chatter and squawk and belt out their twilight arias. Wide-bellied bees gather gold dust right before my eyes; butterflies flit and flutter and all but land on my shoulder. Even hummingbirds roll through town, on their way to tropical jungles where they’ll blend in with all the other primal screams of ruby and gold and shimmering emerald. It’s a menagerie out there, and I play the role of devoted observer, the one who quietly putters, poking plants here, there, and anywhere I can squeeze one more in. 

It’s all merely excuse for getting as close to the thrum of the earth as I can. It’s there where the worms wriggle, and the trees find their succulence, where the anemone roots and the chipmunks play chase, that I hear the undeniable, deeply permeable notes of heaven’s indelible undying song. 

I am grounding myself for the winter ahead. Grounding myself from the September and the summer behind….

welcome to autumn, the season of turning within….

for reasons that escape me, i seem to have decided that i will employ the shift key on my keyboard from time to time, and occasionally tap out a sentence complete with capital letters. sometimes makes for easier reading, i’d imagine. so i am — on occasion — giving it a Whirl. 

where or how do you find grounding? was it hard for you to find?

lemonade

New York City is not the shabbiest nor drabbest place to find yourself when, in jetting half across the continent with barely a few hours’ notice, you’ve packed so swiftly you’ve forgotten your toothpaste and grabbed the one pair of hand-me-down shorts that might fall to your knees if not for a safety pin (which you’ve also forgotten).

So, when the Big Apple called eight days ago now, and the caller was the first human I’d pushed from my womb, I leapt into MamaGear at the very first mention of the awful words“spinal tap.” By the time I’d arrived, the scariest of things (we won’t mention those ever again) had been tucked off to the side, and it’s now a matter of doing a whole host of things to avoid unseemly surgery. Those things entail navigating the labyrinth that is the American health insurance system. So, eight days in,we still seem to be spinning our insurable wheels. Of course the boy would take no pause in his drafting of complex legal opinions, so when I’m not listening to the Muzak of phone-systems seemingly stuck on permanent “hold,” I’ve done the unlikeliest thing I’d ever imagine I’d do with these out-of-the-blue, faraway days: I’ve made lemonade. Of this pile of lemons, of course.

After an apartment cleaning of whirlwind proportions––when nervous I find that scrubbing dust bunnies out from the nooks and the shadows is as soothing a balm as ever there was––I decided to use my non-nursing hours to make like a Big City Girl in the liveliest city that I’ve ever known. 

First off, I embraced the behoozies out of the love of his life who had raced to the ER when I couldn’t get there, and then dodged her way out New York Fashion Week (she works as an editor at one of the very big fashiony slicks) so she could stick by his hospital bedside (even in the room with the, ahem, handcuffed roommate who turned out to have a whopping case of the red-ringed virus, Omicron edition). 

And once we got the dear boy home to his aerie, and he got on with whatever he could of his normal existence, I’ve used these days on the far side of the country to hop onto trains, and to hoof it for miles, spending long hours of time with some of my most favorite souls in the world, several of whom happen to have found themselves rooted in this island afloat in the near Atlantic. 

I’ve found myself sitting in City Hall Park with a soul I adore as a sister, a sweetheart I long ago babysat on Saturday nights. And more than once the other afternoon, as the New York sky sprung a drizzly leak, I felt tears in my eyes, and a panoply of lifetime picture shows flashing across my synapses, barely believing that two long-ago girls from Brierhill Road now were kneecap-to-kneecap on a bench near the foot of the great Brooklyn Bridge. And the afternoon before that, I was out on Long Island, joyriding alongside one of my long-ago bridesmaids, a beloved soulmate and sisterly friend who’s suffered unimaginable losses in recent weeks, months, and years. Those hours we spent, side by side, and rarer than rare, were as delectable as hours could possibly be. And we seized them with all the gusto we’ve got.

Not only once but twice I’ve sat across a café table from my very chic and heavenly sister-in-law, and delighted in seeing the city through her very wise and deeply-studied eyes. I’ve made friends with the neighborhood shoe repairman and dry cleaner and pharmacist and plenty of doormen (even the building’s dryer repairman when my six heavy loads of washing and drying, um, nearly triggered the fire alarm), and I’ve stood drop-jawed as Fashion Week and its legions of oddly-coifed characters have jammed doorways and intersections and staircases and street corners with their paparazzi and haute couture paraphernalia.

And through it all I’ve done what mamas do best: kept very close watch on my boy who is hurting (and who still cannot feel or flex his left lower leg or his foot). Absorbing the rhythms of his every day (even if those rhythms appear highly counter to any semblance of stress-free living) is rarer than rare in this long-distance world that is ours. To see up-close what he juggles each day, to trace some of his footsteps, the people he knows, the people he loves, it’s a window of grace that was never expected, and decidedly unplanned. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not even a fresh tube of toothpaste. Or a pin to hold up my pants.

Flying home later today. Bless you for your umpteen prayers, candles, love notes. All will be well, as Julian of Norwich insisted.

Have you stirred any lemons and sugars and icy waters of late?

From New York, with love

season of turning

my friend: red-breasted nuthatch.

all around, i see daubs of russet and pumpkin. at the tips of the branches. on the leaves of the vine. even on the chest of my nuthatch, the one that followed me around the garden the other day as if he wanted to plop on my shoulder and whisper a secret. (in the case of the nuthatch, though, a red-breasted nuthatch, he wears russet all year round; he’s not sporting ephemeral seasonal garb). for the leaves, the russet and pumpkin, soon to be crimson and gold as the deepening deepens, as the chlorophyll scrapes the paint-barrel bottom, the brushstrokes of autumn are signs that we’ve entered the season of turning. 

the jews, a people from whom i have gleaned volumes of sacred attentiveness, seize every turning of this holy earth, and this season of turning is its own holy time: Elul, the month that opens the gates to the holiest of holy days, the Days of Awe, the new year and the day of atonement, coming at the next new moon. 

this is the month, these amber-drenched days and moonbeam-bathed nights, when our one anointed task is to attend to the work of cleansing our souls. jews take repentance seriously. no whispered, hurried, sloughed off “so sorry.” to truly repent is to a.) look deep inside; b.) shake off the shame, the excuse, or whatever it is that keeps you from telling your truth; and then, c.) the hard part: stepping up to the plate, looking the ones you’ve hurt or cut short, the ones for whom you’ve been too often distracted, looking them straight in the eye and saying here’s what i did, and i am so sorry. and i will change my ways. or try to anyway.

and here’s a wondrous thing, a something that makes it just a wee bit more promising to take on the hard work of repenting; wise words spoken by one of our rabbis just the other Shabbat. she was preaching about the season of turning, and she made the point that God — the God in whom i believe, a God of compassion, a God who reaches deep down into the parts of me that hurt the most, into the parts of me that get tangled, tripped up, and sometimes make a big mess of what needn’t be messy — that holy God is primed and ready to meet us way more than halfway in the repenting department. 

the sages of the Talmud gave us this marvelous teaching about repentance:

“God says if we open a door as tiny as the eye of a needle, God will widen it and make it large enough to let carts and horse-drawn carriages drive through.”

in other words, God’s got skin in this game. God doesn’t expect overnight miracles. we aren’t meant to turn into superheroes of saintly proportion. we’re plain old bumble-brain humans, after all. and the talmudic teaching is, in my mind, as if God sat us down, knee-to-knee on a park bench, perhaps, and said, look, here’s the deal, just give me the faintest slightest attempt at saying you’re sorry. just one tiny opening, that’s all i ask. the beginning of something that looks or smells or sounds like contrition. an honest-to-goodness “i screwed up.” you give me that, and i’ll take it from there. i’ll swipe open your heart, let the sweet stuff roar in. give you a sense of just what it feels like to let loving abide. 

maybe just maybe, the teaching is saying, we can discover the weightlessness that comes when the guilt washes away, and with it its ugly cousins: worry, or shame, or that godawful sense that we’ve hurt someone or something when we hadn’t intended to do any such thing. 

one of the things i love about jewish teachings is that there’s an almost breathtaking knowing of the complexities of the human soul and psyche. there’s no simplistic aphoristic glossing over of whatever it is that makes us tick. it’s not a magic-wand religion, not inclined toward three E-Z steps to HappilyEverAfterLand. 

it doesn’t avert its gaze. doesn’t whitewash the ask. names the hard parts. and somehow believes we’re up to the task, every last wobbly one of us.

take this teaching on the demands of the season of turning, a teaching i found in the prayer book for this month of Elul: 

Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red to orange. The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South. The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter. For leaves, birds, and animals, turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy. It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful. It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways. God, help us to turn––from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith. Turn us around and bring us back toward You. Revive our lives, as at the beginning. And turn us toward each other––for in isolation there is no life. 

Rabbi Jack Riemer (emphasis added)

the jewish understand of the soul is nuanced, its prayers often stop me in my tracks. utterly breathtakingly beautiful. and blessed. 

no matter how or what you believe (or even if you don’t), it seems there is something in this turning season that calls us into a deeper and quieter contemplation, an inkling that we are all wrapped in a golden-threaded prayer shawl of awe.

Mishkan Halev: prayers for Elul

to the author of this prayer (again, a prayer i found in the Mishkan Halev, or prayer book for Elul), the days and weeks in which we now find ourselves are something of a holy island in the year. may you find its shore, and be harbored in its holiest coves.

An Island in the Year

Before we slip too quickly into the Season of the Soul––
let there be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the heart. 

Before the music of Creation’s majesty––
let there be a silent praise of existence.

Before the feast of sanctified words––
let there be a poetry of solitude.

Before we enter the palaces of prayer––
let us find within ourselves a place of calm.

Before we revel on the wondrous and sublime––
let there be an honest, inward gaze.

Before the rites and ceremonies of Awe––
let there be quieter days,
an island of attentiveness.

what are the ways you find yourself turning in this holy season?

beautiful people, i never really write chairs a day ahead, but for some reason i did yesterday, and today it turns out i am flying to new york city on the next flight. my beautiful boy was admitted to the hospital last night, and i am going to be there. no idea for how long. but this is where mamas belong. say a prayer for my Will.

it’s the-light-will-save-you season

it wafts in, gold dust, falls in rivulets across the table, broad swaths and shafts through the windowpanes. it’s molasses light, the amber season, the light of autumn coming that just might save me. it holds alchemical powers, makes my heart quicken, might even push out the walls of my veins a wee bit. i imagine it expands the little red blood cells ferrying molecules of oxygen all around my labyrinthine insides. it makes me more alive than any other season’s sunlight. and it’s coming day by day.

the sun is slipping is how we put it. but, really, that’s not the science. that’s the egocentric way we humans always try to think: putting ourselves in the core of the equation. really, it’s just plain old geometry, all about the angles of earth to sun, and axis to angle. we’re spinning at our cockeyed angle, and come autumn, when we’re leaning out from the sun, the angle shrinks from summer’s straight-on-from-on-high 90-degrees to the slenderer 23.5 degrees, meaning the sun no longer shines straight down in an intense tight cone, but rather the light’s diffuse, the shadow longer. the sun––should you imagine it as a flashlight shining on a table (should you care to do a bit of third-grade science, here)––is not shining from straight above, but now (imagine moving your hand and the flashlight lower in an imaginary arc) it’s shining from off to the side, and the light cast is, per our hypothesis, less intense, more spread out, and––here’s the magic, if we’re talking earth and not flashlights and tables––more golden.

dylan thomas said we should “rage against the dying light.” mary oliver called it “the old gold song of the almost finished year.” i call it molasses light. and i won’t rage against it. i will all but gulp it down. heck, i’d lick it off the table like an autumn lollipop if i didn’t know how impolite that was.

it’s the-light-will-save-you-season, and it’s saving me.

it comes with its cousin, tinge-in-the-air. or at least it does here where i live, not far from the shoreline of that great lake michigan. as one long summer sings it’s almost-finished song, i will relish the next one on the song list: the song of autumn’s gold, with a chaser of goosebumps-in-the-morning air…


commonplace corner: i tend to read in tandem, two books at once; sometimes more. and it’s magic when one book finds itself in conversation with another, unbeknownst to all of us till we stumble on the paragraphs that talk to each other. that happened this week when the subject was how we learn to tell stories. and it’s making me think hard and long about the places in my life where i learned what it meant to sit at a table and be transfixed by the ones from whom the words were pouring, the one with the magical capacity to make a whole room laugh at the very same moment, as if a giant feather had just tickled all our funny bones. at once. how miraculous is that, to make a whole room laugh? to make a whole room cry? to make a whole room think? i can’t think of anything more magical. maybe other than making someone walk who’d never walked before.

here are two sumptuous paragraphs that made me think this week. one’s from erskine caldwell, an american novelist and short story writer whose father was a home missionary at the turn of the last century who moved from place to place in the clay hills of georgia, so young erskine absorbed the dialect and wisdoms of the impoverished sharecroppers where his papa preached. the other’s from kerri ní dochartaigh, a breath-taking writer born on the border of the north and south of Ireland, whose recent memoir, thin places: a natural history of healing and home (pointed to me by beloved chair sister sharon b.) seems to be taking the writerly world by storm. deservedly so. she too has written a sumptuous paragraph about the storytellers in her life. maybe they’ll make you think about the story spinners in your own sweet life…

Erskine Caldwell

I was not a writer to begin with; I was a listener. In those early decades of the century, reading and writing were not common experiences. Oral storytelling was the basis of fiction. You learned by listening around the store, around the gin, the icehouse, the wood yard, or wherever people congregated and had nothing to do. You would listen for the extraordinary, the unusual; the people knew how to tell stories orally in such a way that they could make the smallest incident, the most far-fetched idea, into something extraordinarily interesting. It could be just a rooster crowing at a certain time of night or morning. It’s a mysterious thing. Many Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.

from Thin Places: A Natural History of Healing and Home by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped my life, were about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe––storytellers––never really tell you anything, though. They set the fire in the hearth, they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn’t fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will. 


“‘Consider the lilies,’” Emily Dickinson said, “is the only commandment I ever obeyed.” Some days, that one is enough. More than enough.


and finally in this week’s version of the chair gazette, a celebration this week of shifting sunlight and words that awaken us, i need to leave one last bit. some but hardly all of you play on the various social media playgrounds — facebook or instagram (i try to do little of either) — and my job as a person with a book in the publishing chute is to tell the world it’s coming (which i intend to do as quietly as my publisher allows). and this week the marketing folks at broadleaf books sent me my “blurbs,” those words of kindness that early reviewers send along. because i promised those marketing wizards that “the chair” would always be my core people, i need to quietly leave those blurbs here to keep up my end of the promise. if you’ve seen ’em in a little post i left on facebook, well then apologies. if not (and my mother counts among those who’ve not seen them elsewhere) here’s the lineup that frankly broke me out in goosebumps. the kindness of these five, all of whom are heroes of mine, pretty much made the last two years worth it….

some heart-melting kindnesses from early reviewers of The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text

“Regardless of where one’s spirituality (or lack of it) may lie, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature is a deeply rich celebration of the ageless overlap between religion and the many faces of the natural world—the ‘Book of Nature’ to which mystics, monks, and others have turned for insight into the sacred. Best of all, this thought-provoking exploration is wrapped in Mahany’s luscious and luminous writing, which makes every page a delight.” 
—Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

“Attention is among the deepest forms of integrity. In The Book of Nature, Barbara Mahany pays attention. She doesn’t look through nature; she looks at nature and, there, sees the mysteries that make and unmake us. In an age of environmental threat and neglect, Barbara Mahany’s book is a theological, poetic, and devoted plea for attention to our most fundamental constitution: matter—and everything that comes from it, including us.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, host of Poetry Unbound from On Being Studios

The Book of Nature is an invitation to step into the newness of each day: sunrise, garden, forest, waters, nightfall. These pages reflect both awe and heartbreak, a pause when our world feels on fire and the climate crisis calls us to collective lament, communion, and action.”
—Mallory McDuff, author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice

“Following in and deepening the footsteps of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Barbara Mahany’s The Book of Nature invites you to engage with nature as the body of God: to know that all life is the happening of a nondual Aliveness  called by many names. Calling to a humanity drunk on transcendence and desperate to escape from Nature and our responsibility to Her, The Book of Nature reveals the sobering immanence of God as the Source and Substance of all reality.” 
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Judaism Without Tribalism

“Lovely and smart reflections—the perfect book to slip into a rucksack on a day you’re planning a wander through the larger world!”
—Bill McKibben, author The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon

and that, dear friends, is that. page proofs are due tuesday, so i’ll be back–perhaps–to more regular chairs, less gazette (though it’s been deliciously fun to assemble morsels every week) and more single-subject essay.

but in the meantime, spill your thoughts about autumn sunlight, storytellers, or words that’ve stirred you this week as we move into golden time….the season of the light that just might save you….