Hi from here.

I write to you from the black hole that is my week.  I have been struck down mighty hard by the flu.  Good thing viruses don't travel via internet, 'cause man, it's a doozy.  I intended to write this post ages ago, and even now, still on the couch, not having left the house in days, I wonder if any of it will make sense.  It's set me back on all my last-minute gifting and holiday baking, and I fear in all the illness, I may have lost the Christmas spirit.  But before there was the flu, there was this...

I've been dying to share this recipe with you that my good friend Tricia passed along.  My family celebrated Christmas early this year due to travel, so I made these for our gathering: white chocolate cranberry blondies.  They are amazing.  It sounds almost too simple to be so delicious, but I promise you, they're not. My sister was something of a white chocolate skeptic when I mentioned this recipe, voting for the dark chocolate brownies instead.  Well, I made both and the brownies were quickly swept aside while everyone grabbed for the blondies.  They make a very festive Christmas presentation to boot.  

Adapted from Taste of Home

3/4 cups butter, cubed
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
3/4 t. vanilla
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dried cranberries
6 oz. white baking chocolate, chopped (I just used white chocolate chips)

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 T grated orange peel
6 oz. white baking chocolate, melted
1/2 dried cranberries, chopped

In a large bowl, melt butter in the microwave; stir in brown sugar.  Cool to room temperature; beat in eggs and vanilla.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.  Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture.  Stir in cranberries and white chocolate.  The batter will be thick.

Spread into a greased 9x13 baking pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 18-21 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let cool.

For frosting, in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese, confectioners sugar and orange peel until blended. Gradually add half the melted white chocolate; beat until blended.  Frost blondies with an offset spatula. Sprinkle with cranberries.  Drizzle with remaining melted white chocolate (I skipped the drizzle because I ran out of white chocolate...it just for looks).  Cut into bars (you may want to chill before cutting, the frosting will be soft).  Store in the refrigerator.

In other December tidings, I attended an advent-inspired church gathering a couple weeks ago at our local Catholic church.  One of my favorite ways to mark the short season of advent.  We "passed the light", making a pilgrimage to the center of the church with our candles, where they could glow and burn collectively.  

The church's advent wreath is breathtaking.  It hangs, vast and delicate, from the church ceiling, with ribbons draped  down to the pews.  And of course, in time, the candles are lit.  I walked beneath the advent wreath and let my hands brush the tips of the ribbons.  It reminded me of the tassels worn by orthodox Jews.  


Shine bright

There are things, for all of us, that we love and may not readily admit that we love, may even be a little embarrassed that we love it as much as we do.  But we can't help it.  We love it anyway.  Everyone has an album or two in their iTunes library that you'd rather not share on Facebook - you listen to it (loudly) when no one else is home and you're still in your pajamas.  No one needs to know.

Well, I love Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.  Always have.  I also, strangely, love the 1994 film version with Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder.  I watch it every Christmas.  Susan Sarandon is exactly how I imagine Marmee.  This may have something to do with the fact that I feel I can relate to Jo March.  We are kindred spirits.  I had my annual viewing of Little Women the other night, while baking shortbread cookies, and I was struck as I always am by Marmee's wisdom and insight.  

One of my favorite lines from the film is when Jo is struggling to sort out who she is and where she's headed, Marmee says to Jo, "You have so many extraordinary talents, how can you expect to lead an ordinary life?"

How can you.

I keep thinking about this as I wrestle with my own sense of who I am and where I'm headed.  I don't presume to think I have the "extraordinary talents" of Jo March, but sometimes I do fight with my own self over the desire/fear of leading an ordinary life.  Sometimes I want ordinary so badly, because it is easy to live and explain and put on a resume and your grandparents understand it.  But most of the time,  my out-of-the-ordinary self fears the colorless life.  Even if it means heartache and struggle, endless explanation, an unorthodox resume, and grandparents who will never get what you do.

Ah well.

I have this book that I always pull out right about now.  It's a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas called "Watch for the Light."  There are some really amazing poems and stories and excerpts from some really amazing writers.  I love this one from Sylvia Plath, Black Rook in Rainy Weather (it's a little long, bear with me).

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then - 
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love.  At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow.  I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality.  With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts.  Miracles occur,
If you dare to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles.  The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For the rare, random descent.

I love how she finds light on the wing of a rook, enough to capture her attention and offer respite from fear of the unremarkable.  Miracles occur.  I love the waiting and anticipation of the season of Advent.  I think it parallels so much of what we've experienced in our own stories, as we watch for the light.  You, me, Sylvia Plath, Jo March, Scout Finch, Asher Lev.

Sending you love and light in this season.  
Peace on earth, goodwill toward men, as they say.
I hope you will return the kindness, in some way.


The art of making

You know that old adage, "With great power comes great responsibility" - I'm wondering if it works in the reverse.  If you feel a sense of responsibility for something or someone, like a human life or global poverty, are you then empowered to do/fix/change/advocate for those things?  Do you think the people who are genuinely compelled for a cause or a purpose are given the ability to honor that urge?

I feel like there are a lot of folks out there with a spark for something, who may not have been given the means to do good by their ambition.  Perhaps lacking in time, resources, or the proper platform. Remember Lincoln's words, "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition."  My question is, what do you do that that peculiar ambition?  And how do you get there?

I'd like a pair of those omen-reading stones from The Alchemist, Urim and Thummim.  

One thing I am compelled to do and I believe may play some part in bettering the world, is create.  A couple weeks ago I had my first go at soap making - a batch of orange olive oil and lavendar, respectively.  Like little soldiers, they're standing on a sheet pan, curing for four weeks before they can be used for bathing. Last week I made 108 Parker House rolls for Thanksgiving dinner.  And I've been working on a few paintings that have been germinating in my mind for months.  For me, these are all a part of what makes artistry a lifestyle and not so much an occupation.  It lies deep in your bones and calls out to you to make.  Perhaps it is also that bone-murmuring that speaks to an earnest connection with our Maker.   

On of my favorite artists is a guy from South Africa, William Kentridge.  He makes these amazing charcoal drawing videos - these incredibly transitory and ephemeral images set to music, inspired by South Africa's devastating history and remarkable hope.  He says this about drawing, "I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing, the contingent way that images arrive in the work, lies some kind of model of how we live our lives.  The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and or how we operate in the world.  It is in the strangeness of the activity itself that we can detect judgments, ethics, and morality."

I'm hopeful that in some of my making, I'm learning a bit more about how to live life, gaining a greater understanding of who I am and how to work out my purpose in the world.

I'll be showing (and selling) some of my work at a friend's neighborhood holiday bazaar in a couple weeks.* Here's a preview of some of what I've been working on:

Collision (Between heaven and earth)
Collage, charcoal, watercolor, and guache on paper
8" x 8"

*If you'd like more info on when and where I will be showing my work, I'd be happy to oblige.


Heavier by the weight of where I've been

Here we are again.  I'm not doing much going lately, mostly staying.  Which is strange for me. That said, I have been thinking about a lot, in my staying.  This is the gift and curse of the stay.

It feels as though I've been on a steep learning curve.  The universe keeps hurling things my way, and I barely have time to process a question before another is crashing into me.  Little bits of the world have been whirling around and, as usual, are far more connected than we could have imagined.  
Lately, this is what keeps me up at night:

1.  Did you ever consider how if you live alone, you can go an entire day (a week, even) without touching another human being?  It's been awfully quiet around here.  I've been living alone for the past couple weeks, and while I am a noted fan of silence and solitude, it can make you incredibly hungry for human interaction. This got me thinking about the value of human touch.  We can ache for it with such longing that, whether good or bad, we cannot help but crash into one another. In Brasil, we greeted each other with a kiss - not one, but two, on either cheek.  Friends and strangers alike.  Which meant, no matter the day, you were known by someone.  I miss the richness of that culture, of being "known" so unconditionally.

2.  When you are alone, a mouse can keep you company.  Even if he is unwelcome.  This is a fact.

3.  Remember the story of Lazarus?  The sick guy who died and then Jesus brought him back to life.  I've always thought it was strange how the Gospel of John says, "When He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was."  Why would Jesus, knowing his friend was sick and dying, stay two more days?  Maybe it was because Jesus didn't want to just heal him, he wanted to resurrect him.  I wonder what Lazarus thought of his silence.  

I guess the silence is actually the answer.  The Master of the Universe entrusts us with His silence.  "When you cannot hear God, you will find that He has trusted you in the most intimate way possible - with absolute silence, not a silence of despair, but one of pleasure, because He saw that you could withstand an even bigger revelation."*

4.  This popped up on my daily TED Big Questions:  Why don't you stop thinking and simply enjoy it?

5.  A few weeks ago my sister passed along this great article in National Geographic that I keep coming back to.  It is on death and travel, respectively.  In it, the author speaks of how in the face of certain death, travel kept him alive - how he learned to open his eyes to the world, wide with wonder.  To say yes, even to the bad stuff.

"Isn't it wonderful to know, beyond any doubt and with infinite, unearned grace, that the world holds so much, that what we take most for granted in our lives - even the very shape of the land beneath us or the sky above - can change according to how we're willing to see it, to greet it?"

And this, from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space, doesn't it fill our hands differently with it's return: heavier by the weight of where it has been."**

6.  It's the small things.  And sometimes it takes a while.
I stopped by the Donut Vault on my way to the Art Institute today and had the most amazing pumpkin donut and coffee.  This place has forever changed how I feel about donuts.  Like mice, donuts can also keep you company.  At the Art Institute, I stood before Monet's Haystacks and realized something:  it took Claude Monet twenty-five paintings of haystacks to understand the light.

*Thanks to Oswald Chambers for these insights, from My Utmost for His Highest
**Read Edward Readicker-Henderson's complete essay in National Geographic here.


It is 1939. Death has never been busier.

Several years ago I met a book that changed my literary life (how pretentious that sounds - but I mean it in the purest, most genuine sense).  With a story I would never forget and always love.  I was haunted by The Book Thief, just as it's narrator is haunted by humans.  Remember that line from East of Eden about Tom and his book-reading?  How "he crawled and groveled between the covers, tunneled like a mole among the thoughts, and came up with the book all over his face and hands."  Well, that's how I read The Book Thief.

Markus Zusak changed the way I think about story and poetry and metaphor and reality and how they all layer together.  I love the risks he took in writing a story that was both too charming and too horrifying.  It is a story with some of the greatest, most vulnerable, real, and human characters in modern writing.  It is a story of a girl - a stealer and writer of books, an accordionist, a best friend, of Germans and Jews and one of the most nightmarish times in history, of a man with feathery hair and the human capacity to go on.

I was so pleased when The Book Thief was chosen as the fall 2012 selection for One Book, One Chicago and further elated to hear it was taking stage at the Steppenwolf Theatre.  I saw the play this weekend, extremely curious for how they would transform such a complex and compelling story into a live production, much less depict Death as the narrator and storyteller.

It was an incredibly simple, small, and intimate show.  Death, or "Him" as he is called in the playbook, takes the stage and really never leaves.  A remarkably vulnerable, compassionate, yet dutiful collector of souls, He introduces the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief.

"It's one of the small stories I carry, each extraordinary in its own right.  Each one an attempt - an immense leap of an attempt - to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it."

Kind of like Les Miserables, I had read and heard and loved so much about the story, that I made it near impossible for the theatrical production to live up to such standards.  I read an interview once with Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), where he said, "A book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader."  

Regardless, I loved it.  It is a book and a play strewn with gems, lines I wish I had written.  And half the theatre was in tears at the climax of the show.  

The story concludes with our narrator's final encounter with Liesel, the stealer of books: 

"I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality.  But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know?  I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race - that rarely do I ever simply estimate it.  I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

None of those things, however came out of my mouth.

All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know.  I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.

I am haunted by humans."


Make baguettes, not war

Enough of all that.  

All that?  You know what I mean.  All that out there.  Enough of it.

Back to. . . bread.  When I can't figure out how this world works, I always go back to what I know. And one of the things I know and love is bread.  Also, uniquely, it's something that everyone loves, understands, and needs (in the "daily bread" sense).

What could be a more beautiful epitomization of bread than the baguette?

A dear and thoughtful friend sent me a baker's couche for my birthday - it's this wonderful linen cloth used to make those fabulously crusty baguettes.   Once your dough has been kneaded, risen once, and shaped into that baton-like shape we all know and love, you tuck the shaped dough into the folds of the couche for their final rise ("proof").  Something about the support of the folded linen and the yeasty, floury history of the cloth you never wash creates the perfect baguette.  
(Side note:  while a baker's couche is lovely, you can just as well use folded dishtowels for your proofing loaves - that was my go-to for a long time)

Thanks to the lovely folks at Saveur magazine, I discovered a four-hour baguette recipe that turns out three beautiful loaves, adapted for the at-home baker (those stunning 24-30 inch long traditional loaves don't fit in the home oven, nor do our ovens produce the steam required to delay crust formation long enough for the loaves to fully rise).

Adapted from Saveur magazine

1 1/2 cups (12 oz) tap water, heated to 115 degrees
1 tsp. active dry yeast
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Canola oil, for greasing bowl

1. Whisk together water and yeast in a large bowl; let sit until yeast is foamy, about 10 minutes. Add flour, and stir with a fork until dough forms and all flour is absorbed; let dough sit to allow flour to hydrate, about 20 minutes. Add salt; transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Transfer dough ball to a lightly greased bowl; cover bowl with plastic wrap, and place bowl in a cold oven (I turn the oven light on to warm things up a bit). Let dough rest until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

2. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and shape into an 8″ x 6″ rectangle. Fold the 8″ sides toward the middle, then fold the shorter sides toward the center. Return dough, seam side down, to bowl. Cover with plastic again, and return to oven; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

3. Remove bowl with dough from oven, and place a roasting pan on the bottom rack of oven; position another rack above with a baking stone.  Put a kettle of water on to boil.

4. Heat oven to 475°. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface, and cut into three equal pieces; shape each piece into a 14″ rope. Thoroughly flour a couple of dishtowels, creased and folded for three loaves; place ropes, evenly spaced, in folds of the towels. Lift towels between ropes to form pleats, creating supports for the loaves. Cover loosely with plastic wrap; let sit until it doubles in size, about 50 minutes.

5. Uncover; flatten towels to space out loaves. Using a sharp razor or knife, slash the top of each baguette at a 30–degree angle in four spots; each slash should be about 4″ long. Slide/roll the loaves from the towels to a peel/rimless baking sheet and slide onto the pre-heated baking stone; use a spray bottle filled with water to briefly and thoroughly spritz the loaves (so we can get a beautiful rise and a gorgeous crust). Pour boiling water from the kettle into the pre-heated roasting pan (this produces steam that lets the loaves rise fully before a crust forms) and quickly close the oven door, retaining as much heat in the oven as possible (that initial blast of heat is important for the loaves to rise). Bake the baguettes until darkly browned and crisp, about 30 minutes; cool before serving (or don't, but beware, you will eat the whole loaf).

When I pulled the loaves out of the oven they were crackling.  Is there any better sound than that of a bread that is so bursting with yeast and heat that it is cracking and pushing against its own crust?

I'll be honest.  I had my doubts.  I did not think it was possible to achieve that perfect balance of crunchy crust and soft, chewy inside at home.  I thought it best left to the French (the jury's still out). But,  heavens, did I surprise myself.  There's nothing like tearing open a warm baguette, smearing it with a pat of butter - maybe a wedge of sharp cheese, a nice piece of apple, and a glass of your best wine.  Bliss.

P.S.  For the past few years, my sister and I have run the Bastille Day race here in Chicago.  I'll never forget the geriatric gentleman plodding along the course, with his baguette raised high, sporting a t-shirt with these words, "Make Baguettes, Not War!"  This makes total sense to me.


There must be a better way

About a month ago I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to vote in the upcoming election.  It was too much.  There was just so much hatred and disgust and fear surrounding it that I no longer wanted to be a part of it.  Tired of logging onto Facebook and reading yet another hastily written post blustering about one thing or another, so much of it rooted in fear.  I was ashamed for this nation. For how we have chosen to represent ourselves to the world and one another.

I have yet to reconcile my thoughts about it all.  We've mucked it all up so grandly.

I've been thinking and praying a lot about what it means to follow Jesus and be engaged.  Every time I think I've finally sorted it out, something or someone comes to mind that adds another layer.

God.  There must be a better way.

I read this essay recently that has helped me in my angst and apathy.  In it, the author* talks about the role of theology in political thought:

All political regimes are utopian.  Communist, socialist, fascist, monarchic, and democratic.  All of them.  They all make promises to be the ones who will deliver the goods.  They all promise that, without them, you are lost.  They all claim to have "arrived," to represent the culmination of the human drama, to be the true light, a city on a hill, that which bring you and all humanity true peace and security.

That is what eschatology means.

Eschatology means: "We have brought you to where things are as they should be.  You are at the place where you can now - finally - have reason to hope.  Trust in us.  Fear not."  Eschatology means the pinnacle of true humanity, where wrongs are righted, all is at peace, and the human drama comes to its fullest expression.

They all say that.

When we fear, or rage, or are depressed about politics, it means we have invested something of our deep selves into an "eschatology" - into a promise that all will be well, provided you come with us.

[We] should not adopt the rival eschatology that this or any political system or politician is of such fundamental importance that the thought of an election turning sour or the wrong laws being passed mean that all hope is lost.

...Regardless of where things play out politically, we know that no political system can actually deliver the goods, try as they might...  Our "citizenship is in heaven" - not "up there somewhere" but the kingdom of God come to earth in the crucified and risen messiah, which is never caught up in political systems, but stands ready to work with them or deeply critique them depending on what is happening at the moment.

This entire line of thought goes back to the Old Testament prophets.  They preached, harassed, and annoyed Israel's leaders not to fear the nations around them, nor to trust that any of them will make things right and give Israel lasting peace...  The prophets said, "hope is elsewhere."

All of this raging and sounding off and moaning is rooted in deep fear.  And it is this fear that our political authorities feed off of.  Do you remember what is more powerful than fear?  Hope.

There are a few thoughts that I surround myself with in these moments:

First, love always wins.

Second, from the poet Frank O'Hara:  "We fight for what we love, not are."

And thirdly, a gem from C.S. Lewis:  "If I discovered within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

*Big thanks to Peter Enns for these thoughtful words.  Read his complete essay here:  Dear Christian: If the thought of either Romney or Obama getting elected makes you fearful, angry, or depressed, you have what we call a theological problem.  On a personal note, I believe these things to be applicable and true for all of us, not just Christians.


These nightly demons

Hi from here.  It is officially October, folks.  And STUNNING.  I had the joy of driving up through Wisconsin this weekend and it was breathtaking.  The colors and the smells and the crisp, fresh air laced with the sunshine only autumn brings.  The perfect weekend to celebrate fall and the start of a new month.  I went to Trader Joe's and bought nearly every pumpkin/apple/autumn-y thing they had, I have a half bushel of apples to sort through, and a beautiful pumpkin to carve.  What a gift.

It's funny, even the brightest and most beautiful of seasons can bear its own ills.  Doubt and fear are powerful vices that can visit frequently in these long, dark nights.  I find it is in these most vulnerable of moments, when the eyes and ears are free of the spectacles of day, that my mind and heart swirl with questions and unease.  These nightly demons - I must dig deep in the light of day to pack warmth and confidence and hope around my heart, knowing that in the shadows, the woes persist.

I think of the Old Testament's Jacob and his wrestling with God.  Jacob is camped out, preparing to meet and make amends with his brother Esau, when a man (God) wrestles him through the night.  He emerges broken and bruised, with a hip that would always serve as a testament to his struggle. Immediately following their encounter, God gives Jacob a new name - Israel, it means he struggles with God.  I love that God brings Jacob to a place of weakness, in order to name him, in order to grant him a greater purpose, so that he might bear the thread of redemption and receive the grace of his brother.  The name Israel carries a story, it reveals the history of a struggle and a hope.

Hope.  It is uniquely and remarkably more powerful than fear.

This is what keeps me.  When I emerge from my own bout of loneliness, doubt, and disquiet, I remember Jacob's struggle with God and the gift of weakness.  It is such a pivotal part of Jacob's story and a decisive moment in his personal legend.  I hope the same is true for us all, and that we will have the foresight and wisdom to submit to a weakness that bears such promise.

Amidst all this struggle and autumn-living, I have been loving on the new Mumford & Sons album, Babel.  It is filled with both darkness and hope - which, I think, is where art stands.  There's this song on the album, "Ghosts That We Knew" - it speaks to the nightly demons and the hope that we cling to.

And you knelt beside my hope torn apart
But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view
And we'll live a long life

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold on with all of my might
Just promise me we'll be all right

But the ghosts that we knew made us black and blue
But we will live a long life
And the ghosts that we knew will flicker from view
And we'll live a long life


On Autumn's Eve

Happy Friday.  You made it.  Not only is it Friday, but it is the last day of summer.  Which makes tomorrow the Autumnal Equinox (the First Day of Fall).  A glorious thing.  It appears this weekend may actually live up to it's name even - usually it's too hot or too cold to feel like the season it's supposed to be.  I'm looking out the window now, and I see the slightest change in color on the tips of the leaves outside.  We have had smells of fresh apples, sweet potato chili, and olive oil and maple roasted granola in the kitchen this week.  Breath deep, folks, this is the life.

On the docket for this weekend:  I plan to pick up a squash or two at the farmer's market tomorrow and another peck of honeycrisp for the week.  I'm making a roasted squash soup with curry to ring in the autumn joy - we're doing fondue at my sister's.  Fresh homemade brioche, sweet and sour apples for dipping, a bowl of steaming squash soup, and a bottle of home-brewed beer?  Yes, please.  What more could you ask for.

If you can't tell already, this is my season.  

So, I've been thinking a lot about autumn and about this essay I read the other day on Eden, humanity's struggle, and the persistence of memory.  The author opens with this lovely poem from Robert Frost, appropriate for the change in seasons, and poses a question I think I've always wondered, on our memory of Eden and the tenacity of both sin and goodness.

"Nothing Gold Can Stay":

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf's a flower
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So eden sank in grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing Gold can stay.

For all of us, Eden's loss hits hard.  A snake comes into every garden, interrupting innocence with a divorce, a death, a shaming moment, or a terrible violation.  It may have been dramatic or it may have been subtle, but whatever it was, it signaled Eden's demise, the loss of innocence.

I wonder - if Adam's sin courses through my veins, perhaps so does his memory of Eden.  Could that be what it means to have "eternity written in our hearts?" - that we've been there before and its goodness has been imprinted on our souls?


He decided not to speak

When I was a senior in high school I took a multicultural literature class.  I remember very little from high school, but I remember this class and I remember my teacher.  She was young and had recently returned from a year traveling around the world.  She assigned us to read a book called The Alchemist.  She loved the Alchemist.  She talked about how important it was for her to read the book after seeing the world, in the midst of transition.  And she wanted us to read it, as seniors, sitting on the precipice of the universe, at the start and end of a journey.

So I read it when I was 17 years old.  And I loved it.  I was so inspired by my teacher's experience of the book that I was determined to have the same experience as her.  I was probably one of very few students in my class who really understood the story, but even I couldn't begin to value the story of the boy and the pursuit of his Personal Legend.

I find myself once again in transition, staring out into the universe, with the world at my fingertips.  A coworker reminded me of The Alchemist and gave me a copy to re-read.  I've been reading it now with completely different eyes, with a whole bushel of experiences at my back and a taste of my own Personal Legend.

My favorite part of the book is when the boy and the alchemist are held in the military camp and the boy is asked to prove himself by turning into the wind.  So he comes before the desert, the wind, and finally the sun, petitioning for their help in his great task.  The desert, wind, and sun do all that they can to help the boy, but the sun finally says that despite his wisdom, he does not know how to turn the boy into the wind.

"Then whom shall I ask?"

The sun thought for a minute.  The wind was listening closely, and wanted to tell every corner of the world that the sun's wisdom had its limitations.  That it was unable to deal with this boy who spoke the Language of the World.

"Speak to the Hand that wrote all," said the sun.

The wind screamed with delight, and blew harder than ever.  The tents were being blown from their ties to the earth, and the animals were being freed from their tethers.  On the cliff, the men clutched at each other as they sought to keep from being blown away.

The boy turned to the hand that wrote all.  As he did so, he sensed that the universe had fallen silent, and he decided not to speak.

A current of love rushed from his heart, and the boy began to pray.  It was a prayer that he had never said before, because it was a prayer without words or pleas... He could see that not the deserts, nor the winds, not the sun, nor people knew why they had been created.  But that the hand had a reason for all of this, and that only the hand could perform miracles, or transform the sea into a desert...or a man into the wind.  Because only the hand understood that it was a larger design that had moved the universe to the point at which six days of creation had evolved into a Master Work.

The boy continues his journey across the desert to the Pyramids of Egypt, following his Personal Legend in pursuit of his treasure.  When he at last reaches the Pyramids, having lost everything, he discovers his treasure was back home, at the crumbling church where he started his journey.

The boy turns to the heavens and shouts, "You old sorcerer.  You knew the whole story.  The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters.  Couldn't you have saved me from that?"

"No," he heard a voice on the wind say.  "If I had told you, you wouldn't have seen the Pyramids.  They're beautiful, aren't they?"

Similarly, I find myself turning to the Hand that wrote all, with my hand over my lips.  Better not to speak.

We cannot begin to know all the reasons for the turns and travails in our own Personal Legends.  But I think perhaps it is enough, to have seen the Pyramids along the way.  Had we known where we were going all along, we would never have seen them.  They too have been created with a purpose, if only to inspire awe.


Summer's finale, her crown of jewels

If there's one things that marks the end of summer besides the deafening buzz of cicadas, it's zucchini in abundance.  If your zucchini plants are as healthy as mine, than you're in the same predicament as me.  I think I've made 4 or 5 different recipes of zucchini bread - one that was dry, one with cocoa, one with chocolate chips, and my recent favorite made with orange marmalade.  It's a lovely little recipe I discovered tucked in amongst the array of gorgeous pastry in the Tartine baking book.  There are dozens of other recipes to try, most far more decadent than a humble zucchini bread.  My visit to the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco last spring was the culinary highlight of my year.  So I figured, if anyone has a recipe for my burgeoning veg, it's Tartine.  The marmalade adds an extra level of moisture and flavor.  For the breads, I usually scrape out the seeds and the mealy center portion of the zucchini (especially if it is long and fat), grating it with skin on for extra nutrients and those lovely specks of green.

Zucchini Tea Cake with Orange Marmalade
Yields 1 large loaf

1 3/4 cups + 2 T all-purpose flour
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
2 eggs
1/2 cup + 2 T vegetable oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup orange marmalade (or apricot jam!)
2 1/2 cups grated zucchini
1/2 t sea salt
1 cups chopped, toasted walnuts (optional)
sugar for topping

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly oil and flour the bottom and sides of a loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.  Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon into a mixing bowl and set aside.

In another mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, oil, sugar, and marmalade until combined.  Add the zucchini and salt and again beat until combined.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the flour mixture and beat until just combined.  Add the nuts if using and mix until incorporated.

Transfer batter to the prepared loaf pan and smooth the surface.  Sprinkle evenly with the sugar.  Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 60 to 70 minutes.  Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 20 minutes, and then turn out the bread from the pan.  Let cool completely on rack before slicing.

NOTE:  You can prep the ingredients ahead of time, but you must bake off the batter as soon as it is mixed.  Otherwise, the sugar macerates with the zucchini, which pulls out all the moisture, giving you a very watery batter.

Even with all this summer squash, I've been enjoying the last fruits of summer at the farmer's market.  August is a time of plenty for the fruit and veg farmers.  Their piles of produce are breathtakingly beautiful and I couldn't help but capture some of their abundance.

We owe all this color and plenty in part to the work of the dear honeybee, who have been hard at work all summer.  We looked in on our own family of bees just recently.  Would you like to meet our queen?  Our little hive has been battling their way through this hot, draught-ridden summer, struggling to produce much of anything.  We were a little worried because their progress has been slow, but it's always reassuring to spot the queen - she is the center of their little bee world.  See if you can spot her on the below frame - she's just above that little patch of empty cells at about 10 o'clock.  You can't miss her, with her long torso and gilded crown.


Let's go do that together

There's a difference between knowing something and knowing someone.  You may know and believe and understand a particular subject or matter, but it is another thing altogether when there is a someone connected to that thing.  It's incredibly easy to make up your mind one way or the other about an issue when you don't personally know anyone connected to it.  But a relationship is far more complex.

I've realized the further you are from people, the easier it is to keep things black and white.  The moment a human relationship enters the picture, all the lines grey.  The more removed you are from a subject, the more likely that the conclusion you've come to about it/them, may not be quite right.

Knowing people has always been really important to me.  It's how my family has always operated.  My parent's taught me to think about issues as they related to real people.  And for that I am forever grateful.  But I think it is only with age that I have truly begun to understand the value of this way of thinking  Any conclusions I may have made about belief or politics or lifestyle have been completely shattered the moment I met that belief/opinion face-to-face.  It is a deeply transformative and humbling experience.  And I think it is a far richer, more authentic way of living.

The flipside to all this is, once you become aware of the need to know someone in order to know something, you start realizing how much of what you see and read and hear is surmised millions of miles away from a true relationship.  The danger of this is how quickly it can lead to judgment and critique.  Sadly, we are a judgmental people and it takes diligence and intentionality to move with grace instead.  

I guess the solution then is to broaden our circles of relationships.  Our tendency is to surround ourselves with likeminded people.  Which is good - it's exhausting to be the only one.  A friend of mine just returned from a trip to an area of the US that has a very concentrated population of thinkers - good thinkers, mind you, but very much the same.  She remarked how good and lovely it was but how anxious she was to get back to the city, back to a diverse community of thought and lifestyle.  I thought that was incredibly wise.

The hard part comes in being open to a change in what you may have always thought to be right.  Maybe even the opposite of what you thought before.  Or maybe you had it right all along.  I'm not so sure we'll really know until much later.  And later, it probably won't matter.  It may not even all matter now.  So be careful how much weight you shoulder behind those opinions.  And if you're not sure, my instinct is to just listen.  I'd rather listen and learn something, than speak and miss out on something truly magical.


The Madonnas

I've been reading this great little book.  A literary gem, The Madonnas of Leningrad.  It's about a woman who works as a docent in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and suddenly finds herself in the terrible fall of 1941.  Germany is on Russia's doorstep and the masterpieces of the Hermitage are quickly crated and shipped off for safekeeping.  The empty frames are left on the walls as a symbol of hope that the paintings will return. The faithful docent, Marina, builds a "memory palace," her own personal Hermitage - holding each of the paintings in her mind.  The city is littered with snow-covered rubble and ghosts of what once was.  As Marina recalls the Madonnas, her city turns to dust.

"No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared.  What is left that is heartbreaking?  Not death: death is ordinary.  What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp.  Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers.  What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world."

I can remember studying many a Madonna and many a pieta in my art history classes.  I don't suppose I thought much of it then.  20th century art history was far more relevant to my art practice than the Italian classics.  I have no idea what it is like to experience death as ordinary, and so I don't think I have near the insight into Mary's plight that Marina of Leningrad has.  Marina watches her uncle succumb to sickness and starvation. Her aunt cradles his shrunken body and she is reminded of Veronese's Pieta,  a 16th century Italian masterpiece depicting an emaciated Christ hanging in the arms of Mary. She had thought the light and drama exaggerated, but there it was.

My little guy, Silas, was baptized yesterday.  His sweet little face surprised as water dripped from his head.  Watching Jody hold Silas as he was baptized, it reminded me of Da Vinci's Madonna and Child from the Hermitage.  A young girl with a holy child.  Like Marina's pieta, there it was: an Italian master's 15th century madonna and child in the flesh.  A story of redemption: from the Madonna and Child to the Pieta and back again.


We are half-hearted creatures

I read something in a book the other day that keeps coming back to me.  From fellow writer and pilgrim C.S. Lewis:

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

Most of the time I consider my desires or aspirations too great, that I am asking too much, dreaming too big.  I fear sometimes that my resolve toward a greater sense of purpose is a selfish dissatisfaction.  But perhaps I've been wrong.  Maybe it's just that what I imagine is too small, my desires too weak.  Am I far too easily pleased?

I do think there is a difference between a human desire or a thoughtless dissatisfaction and a spiritual longing.  The desires that our Lord finds too weak are the ones rooted in who he created us to be, the ones that bring us infinite joy and a life of wholeness.  I am constantly challenged by the need to check my humility and reposition my hunger toward the One who wants to give us the moon.

Infinite joy.  I hardly know what to make of that.  But I guess my prayer would be that God would grant me the vision to see what he sees, to imagine the holiday at sea.  

I want to live a life so rich with wonder that this story cannot help but bespeak a Maker who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.


A dill bread to really shout about

Lately, on my days off all I want to do is sit at the poolside (where I close my eyes and imagine the ocean).  Summer is a Chicago resident's opportunity to do things you can't do for the other nine months of the year.  This means you live outside and swim and cookout and eat fresh.  We have such extreme seasons, we must stand together and make the most of this, the hottest summer of all time!  This is what I imagine the midwest battle-cry to be.

I spent my day off this week tending the garden.  It was in need of some focused care and determined weed-pulling.  It looks lovely now, if a little overgrown and unorganized.  My dill plant was beginning to flower, and I just couldn't keep up with it's skinny little shoots growing higher and higher.  I kept imagining the dill we saw while camping, which was taller than me.  Anxious to use up my dill and work with yeast again, I sought out a lovely little dill yeast bread recipe in my Simply in Season cookbook.  For whatever reason, my expectations for this bread were low, and I'm happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.  I decided to take advantage of the humid heat outside.  Shrouded in white, the yeast worked its magic on our back porch, just steps from where the dill grew.  I love this proximity.  

I think this is closer to how things were created to be, how God intended them.  I imagine Adam and Eve enjoying a salad straight from Eden.  I love the idea of cultivating and eating a thing so close to its origins.  My sister and her husband just returned from Italy, where they had wine made from grapes that were grown on the hillside out their window. The essence of eating local.

The recipe calls for minced onion, I used a shallot because that's what I had and it was delicious.  It also uniquely calls for cottage cheese, a source of fat and moisture for the dough.  I think it could be made with any number of herbs.  I've got chives and rosemary ready and waiting.

I recommend a warm slice of it with a nice piece of cheese, a fresh green salad, and a glass of sauvignon blanc - my favorite summer wine.  
Well hello summer, here we are making the most of it!

Yields 1 loaf

1 tablespoon dry active yeast
1/4 c warm water
Stir together to dissolve yeast.  Set aside.

1 cup cottage cheese
In small microwavable bowl heat until warm (not hot); place in large mixing bowl.

2-4 Tb fresh dill (chopped; or 2 teaspoons dried)
2 Tb sugar
1 Tb butter melted
1 Tb onion/shallot minced
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 egg
Add to cottage cheese and mix together.  Stir in yeast mixture.

2 1/2 - 3 cups bread flour
1/2 cup corneal
Add, using enough flour to handle easily.  Knead 8-10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in greased bowl, turn to grease both sides, cover with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled in bulk (here is where I set mine outside, well shrouded to protect from curious birds and squirrels - your bread will rise quickly in the heat).  Punch down and place into a well greased and floured 9x5 inch loaf pan.  Garnish with a sprig of fresh dill. Cover and let rise again until doubled, about 45 minutes (less if it's proofing in 95 degrees - mine took about 30 min). Bake in preheated oven at 350F for 30-35 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool on wire rack.


Won't you ride on with me?

My dear compadres, I can't remember a hotter summer.  I feel like that's the only thing we've really talked about this summer:  how hot we are.  We just endured a truly miserable camping trip at a blistering average of 100 degrees.  With a two month old nephew and a big fluffy dog in tow.  This is the stuff of champions.  When I think back on it now, I wish two things:  One, that we had a video camera rolling for those four comedic days, because it would have made for a great show and testimonial.  Second, I wish we had t-shirts capes with our respective superhero titles:  "Silas, Prince of 105" or "Winston, Master of the Kiddie Pool", our powers being the not-so-slight endurance of a camping trip heated to a rolling boil.  I think if there was an award for Most Miserable 26th Birthday, I'd have a pretty decent chance at it.  And not because my wonderful family didn't celebrate but because they were up against the heat and sadly, the rising mercury won.  To make up for it, we spent the Fourth of July in a pool, quite literally, all day, our imaginary capes afloat.

My bread baking has suffered incredibly this summer.  I cannot fathom turning the oven up to 500 degrees.  In my search for something light, fresh, and relatively cool to make, I ran across a slew of recipes for grilled pizzas/flatbreads.  We actually made them on our camping trip with prepared pizza dough from Trader Joe's.  You can essentially top them with whatever is in season and available; the grill gives it incredible flavor.  I made one just the other day with what I could glean from the fridge.  

Grilled Caprese Pizza
Makes 4 individual pizzas

1 lb pizza dough
cherry tomatos or sliced romas
pearl mozzarella balls
a handful of fresh basil
olive oil
salt & pepper

Fire up the grill.  Split the dough into four equal pieces and roll/work into a rough circle with a rolling pin (or if you're camping, with your hands) and a bit of flour.  Brush with olive oil on both sides and throw it on the grill.  Cook 3-5 minutes on each side, until dough is puffed and cooked through.  Remove from gril and layer with basil, tomatos, and mozzarella.  Return to grill briefly to melt cheese and heat through.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

I picked my first home-grown zucchini of the season this week - just before the rabbits got to it.  It has teeth marks.  My sister Jody calls me Mr. McGregor.  I think it's destined for another recipe I've got for a pizza with grilled zucchini, scallions, and ricotta.  I love summer.  I love it for its fresh produce and its pool-side reading.  I've been hard-pressed to find a good read this summer, so I've been re-reading some of my favorites.  Scared at first that what I once deemed one-of-the-best-books-of-all-time would be just average the second time around, I hesitated to start Peace Like A River.  But I guess my literary senses are keen because it's just as beautiful as I remember.  The author begins with this dedication, which I think fitting of this season's adventures:

The country ahead is as wild a spread
As ever we're likely to see

The horses are dancing to start the advance    
Won't you ride on with me?


If you aren't mindful

A summer solstice.  Longest day of the year.  It is a nod to the light.  Marking the beginning of summer.  We've had plenty of summer already - 12 days this year in the 90s, and it's the middle of June.  This is far from normal.  But so typical Chicago - a city of extremes.

We celebrated the solstice with a beautiful green salad from the summer's first lettuce.

I spent a few days in Michigan last week.  I came home with a bag full of some of the state's select cherries.  Every farm and orchard mentioned how horrible this year's crop has been.  I was saddened to hear how they've all been struggling in this strange spring and summer season.  I was reminded of how incredibly dependent we are on the earth's rhythms, at the mercy of nature's movements and perhaps the result of our abuse and neglect of it all.

A friend was reminding me today of the need to pay close attention.  We should be keenly aware of the people and things and events in our days and respond relevantly.  Lately I have been moving through days and weeks with little to no expectation.  I, more or less, walk, see, and do the same things.  As a result, I think I have made a habit of responding the same, regardless, and expecting nothing of myself or anyone else.  

This, friends, is a great sadness.  And a great shame.

I fear I've missed out on a great deal.  I refuse to accept this as what just is.  I am drawing on the spirit deep within me to fight this sense of apathy, because I believe we were created to see and feel and sense distinctly, acting uniquely.  Yet, I imagine this is something that happens to humanity all the time.  We are creatures of habit, and most of us fear what we do not know.  

But, someone lead me recently to this realization:  I like the freedom of the unknown as much as I fear it.

There is a great deal of my faith and spirituality that I do not fully understand.  If I consider my Creator, he must be much greater than my reality or reasoning, otherwise he would not inspire such awe.

I've been re-reading Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, wanting to refresh my memory before seeing the film recently released.  In his chapter on worship, he closes with these words:

"At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay.  And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow.  I don't think there is any better worship than wonder."

Wonder.  I've been talking about it a lot, but I don't think I've been paying enough attention to even experience it.  If you aren't mindful, you will miss that sense of marvel.

So today, I wonder at this:  the sun's ability to set at 8:30pm.
And maybe this: