A very good work

I am a pathetic excuse for a writer. This may be the longest stretch it's been between posts since I started this blog. I attribute this entirely to the very disruptive first term of graduate school at The Seattle School.

That little red building has caused so much angst and tears and weariness, and also great love, beauty, and wonder. Former fishery, previous luggage factory, and current molder of graduate student minds and hearts. 

It's pretty impossible for me to put into words just what the last few months have been like. It has been a very hard labor, but I believe, a very good work. We have been asked to write, read, reflect, and wonder about a great many extraordinary and challenging things. I tell people, my time is not my own. It belongs to graduate school.

In other news it's been a really stunning fall here in the PNW. Really long and lovely. But I was thrilled to wake up this past Saturday and see snow on the ground. You can't take the midwest out of me, and I was missing that beautiful first snowfall in Chicago. It has now turned appropriately cold and wintery here, which is a welcomed seasonal preparation for me before going home in a couple weeks. We have started marking our apartment with bits of Christmas. It gives me something to anticipate and look forward to on the other side of the final exam, group project, and two final papers on the docket for next week.

In the midst of all the labor and fatigue, there has been much beauty:

I sometimes am so awed at the privilege it is to live here, to witness such beauty. It is what reminds me of my place, of the promise of hope, and the great and wondrous story being told right before our eyes.

This week I am especially grateful for the new and lovely friends that have breathed such life into my time in Seattle. They are a testimony to God's goodness. He hears the lonely ache of our hearts and demonstrates love for us in the human souls around us. I am learning to bless the hard times, learning to lean into the wounds and consider sacred the loneliness. Yet, I continue to be astounded at God's kindness. 

These words from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet have been ringing true for me these past few months:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

I am trying to practice a love of questions and have patience with the unresolve in my heart. It is a hard work, an unfathomable task. But there's something magical in the mystery of it. And I believe that we become stronger, truer, healthier when we let ourselves dwell in that space. We can wrest our way towards the answer and still bless the struggle and silence. 


Accompany us, then

I'm in my last day of reading week. This week has been a much needed break from class – which has mostly meant catch up on all the reading and papers coming up. But I've also been able to spend some quality time with friends (!) from school, which was just what this lonely soul needed. I continue to long for community in the deepest and truest sense. I know that I don't go it alone, though. And God has done a really great job of reminding me of that this week.

Reading week also meant great timing to celebrate fall in all it's fullness. My roommate and I trekked out to a pumpkin patch in a more rural area of Washington – which felt so much like the midwest I may have teared up a bit at the rows and rows of corn. We picked the finest pumpkins we could find and totally dominated a corn maze in less than the average time. I may or may not have eaten 3 warm apple cider donuts. Worth it.

We came home with a sack full of squash. Perfect for my friend Sue's butternut squash soup recipe, which was a welcomed warmth in the un-endingly wet and cold week.  I really detest group projects; so when the week called for a group meeting, I baked pumpkin bread crusted with sunflower seeds and slivered almonds, in hopes that our group project would somehow be more fun. And the spicy-sweet squash bowl from Pinch of Yum is a go-to fall recipe for me. Perfect for weekday lunches.

But what I really love to do on a wet and cold day is crank the oven up to 500 and bake bread. I woke up the other day feeling a little disoriented, stuck in the cognitive space of a brain that's working on over-drive to get through the day's reading, exhausted and emotionally drained. I needed to do something with my hands, something simple and rooted. I've heard bread making spoken of as a spiritual practice, which I think I'm on board with. Sometimes, we need to do things that pull us back to earth, that ground us and remind us of the weight of the earth beneath our feet. That's how I feel when I sink my hands into a bowl of dough. It felt so good to do something that didn't require a book, a conversation, or a coherent thought. And as I mindlessly shaped my dough into loaves, it was as though the bits of my mind and spirit that had been scattered, started to settle into place. I could make some sense of the world again.

I was telling a friend this week how these days feel a bit like a wilderness. At school we talk a lot about the need to name the hard thing for what it is, to live into the difficulty, pain, or tragedy of our lives in order to experience healing. We are being asked to the hard work of lament, of not rushing through to the other side, but allowing ourselves to dwell in the not-ok for a while. Which is not really that fun. Often, to name something that seems unnameable costs you something. It is a laborious task. But, I am coming to believe, a necessary one. I'm naming the wilderness for what it is. Like Israel, I believe the pillar of light goes before me. And I have a hope. A hope in the promise that is on the other side. He has rescued before; he will rescue again.

This morning at the church I visited, we sang Bob Dylan's song Pressing On. It's not only super rad that Bob Dylan played a role in my experience of worship this morning, but it's a really great song. A side of Bob Dylan not often heard. In it, he sings, "What's lost has been found, what's to come has already been."

The poet Julia Esquivel says we have been "threatened with resurrection"and this is what keeps us up at night.

Accompany us, then
on this vigil
and you will know
how marvelous it is
to live
threatened with resurrection.


What you hope in

Can you tell I'm a grad student by how long it's been since I last wrote? I can. Lame. So there's that – the whole back-to-school thing – and then there's the craziness of coordinating a conference for 2,500 people and traveling through 3 time zones to the total opposite side of the country to work like mad 24/7 and then fly back to a new-ish city to be a grad student again.

So yeah. I guess I've been a little busy.

One of my brilliant professors, the great Dan Allender, says what you hope in, you will bleed for.

I hope to be a great writer. But I guess I don't hope in it enough to bleed for it. Right now I just bleed for school. Because I also hope to finish grad school. I sincerely hope in a great many things, but I find myself having to be very selective about the things I practice.

Another of my professors asked, if practice is who we are becoming ... what are 2-5 things you practice? This made me want to be far more intentional about the things I practice. She challenged us to do one thing every day that feeds our soul.

So, I'm trying to practice feeding my soul.

I spent 2 blissful days with my family en route to Raleigh for the great conference. It was nice to see a familiar skyline and be with people who feed my soul.

Raleigh was the culmination of a year's worth of work for me and multiple years for many of our local members. What a gift to be able to share in the joy and goodness of the Spirit with 2,500 friends working in community development. I am privileged to be a part of such an incredible community.

I flew back to Seattle late. It was strange to be flying "home" to Seattle. I had to take a cab home, which felt even stranger. I felt a little like I was starting all over again, as a visitor in my now home-city. It still surprises me to drive over a bridge to downtown Seattle and see the Space Needle. I still kind of expect to see the Sears Tower. Since then I have felt the acute ache of loneliness. Granted, I am not actually alone. I have a wonderful roommate and a really lovely school community. But what I ache for is to be deeply known. Which I fully recognize comes with time. I imagine many of my school compadres feel the same ache. So this week I've been praying specifically for that, for all of us.

My aforementioned wonderful roommate has the hookup at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island, where we spent last weekend. It was truly a balm for the weary soul. We stayed a mere stroll from the water, surrounded by trees beginning to change, and witnessed the best sunset I've seen maybe ever.

The phenomena of visiting or living on an island is totally new to me, as a girl hailing from the land-locked midwest. Ferries and islands are a big thing in the PNW. And it's kind of great. Waiting for the ferry forces you to slow down a bit. A mere 2 hrs from Seattle, Whidbey Island felt like a haven.

We drove the long way around to get home so that we could go through Deception Pass, which I had no concept of until I saw it. It is this stunning part of the island that makes a sudden drop to the water. The water swirls frighteningly far below the greenish bridge. It is breathtaking.

I am so privileged to be in a place of such beauty. It lessens the ache.

Another thing my prof Dan Allender said in my Faith, Hope, & Love class has been ringing in my head ever since. He was talking about the nature of hope. He said hope is remembering the future. We have this promise: God has rescued before; He will rescue again.

This is something I believe we must remember and live into daily.
So wherever you, whatever story of tragedy, fear, love or apathy you may be living, know that he has rescued before and he will rescue again.


Since then

It's been three weeks since my mom and I drove in on "the 5," as West Coasters call it. Since then I have become a student again. I've also baked my favourite maple and olive oil granola and an almond fig galette, because it's really good to practice the familiar when it seems there is nothing familiar about your life. Fig season is very short, and I've been very pleased to discover a different Seattle neighborhood farmers market nearly every day to satisfy my fig/apple/peach/tomato craving. Since then I have also discovered Discovery Park, whose bluffs look across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island and the majestic Olympic Mountains beyond. We also got a stellar glimpse of Mount Rainier, peeking out to the South of us.

I've also realized that running in the evening is best in these parts because you get a stunning sunset over the Sound. I've ended many a run with this view, which is sometimes just the stillness and balm the soul needs. I am grateful that days do indeed come to a close and that tomorrow always rises anew.

Last weekend I was officially matriculated into the Seattle School, adopted into this community of learners with great semblance and ceremony. We gathered in the stunning St. Mark's Cathedral, where the staff, faculty, and select alumni of the school surrounded the gathering of new students, offering an official welcome and invitation. Fittingly, one of the readings was from the book of Deuteronomy, the shema, as it is known in Jewish tradition, reminding us of the words that we carry around with us, impress on our hearts and souls and in one another. We also celebrated communion, presented to us by two of our professors of theology. As I went forward to receive communion, I was stirred by the greatness of the moment. It struck me just what a privilege it is to be a part of this community, surrounded by my now peers and professors, in this sacred space, being offered the elements of the eucharist. In that space, I felt both the weight of my humanity and the luminous love of my Creator.

Since then, I have felt difficulty, overwhelm, awe, doubt, and grace. The newness of absolutely everything about this experience is exhausting. It requires constant engagement. I have been praying that God would allow me to find a sabbath rest and rhythms that offer stillness and peace. I know that it is in our most vulnerable moments, when time and money are tight, when family is far, and when community is lacking, that doubt and fear creep in. And it is in those moments I pray I'll be reminded of the one who calmed the storm.

This week, I read Mary Oliver's final poem in her collection Thirst. She concludes with a poem by the same name, which I swear she dug from deep within my heart this week:

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has 
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expecting
to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

PS. In my last post, I neglected to give a huge shout-out to my mom. She was the best road-trip companion. She put up with me for 30+ hours in the car, manning the atlas and the iPod like a pro. She never protested when I insisted we camp along the way, and together, we discovered the beauty of the Badlands, the Black Hills, Bozeman, Couer d'Alene, and finally, the great state of Washington. And she stayed, just long enough to unpack boxes, make my bed, and get a brief glimpse of Seattle. It was truly an honor to share the experience together. I am beyond grateful for the endless love and support of my parents and siblings. I realize now more than ever that it is a gift, a proximity I will miss dearly. What a privilege, to be a part of this family.


And here I am

Greetings from the Emerald City!
Already I am finding that the grass is greener, the air is cleaner, the roadways are filled with kind and considerate drivers (a breed that does not exist in Chicago), and everyone really does drive a Subaru.

I've been making this Sea-side town my home for a week now, after my mom and I wove our way through the west, riding the blessed I-90 for over 2,000 miles.

It was the kind of trip you might include in a memoir, years later.

We packed up my 13 year old Subaru Outback with my most beloved of belongings, wedging in books along the window, proclaiming the Right to Write across the western United States like a good grad student.

We swept through Wisconsin and Minnesota, made our way across the great state of South Dakota – making a stop to see the Badlands.

Here's what Frank Lloyd Wright had to say about the dry and windy bad-ass lands:

Let sculptors come to the Badlands. Let painters come. But first of all the true architect should come. He who could interpret this vast gift of nature in terms of human habitation so that Americans on their own continent might glimpse a new and higher civilization certainly, and touch it and feel it as they lived in it and deserved to call it their own. Yes, I say the aspects of the Dakota Badlands have more spiritual quality to impart to the mind of America than anything else in it made by man's God.

We wove our way through the breathtaking Black Hills of South Dakota, stopping to see the four stately gentlemen carved into a rocky mountainside. 

From the Black Hills, we entered Big Sky Country, meeting my dearest friend from college in Bozeman, Montana, exactly ten years after we moved in across the hall from each other in Grand Rapids. She also happens to be from my grandpa's hometown outside Bozeman. We walked to the church where my grandpa was baptized, and nearly 82 years later, we played on the swingset outside.

It was a beautiful drive from Bozeman into the Rocky Mountains. We stumbled across Coeur d'Alene, an unexpected Idaho gem with it's breathtaking views, glassy lake, and charm.

The great state of Washington greeted us with an unforgettable view of Mount Rainier as we drove through the Columbia Basin. My mom and I ogled the bountiful dahlias of Pike Place Market and sipped some of the Pacific Northwest's finest joe.

It's a little surreal to finally be here. I was talking to a friend the other day while wandering the Seattle streets, a friend who has walked alongside me in the journey of questioning, wondering, and discerning that brought me here. He remarked on how not three months ago I was questioning everything, anxious over what to do and how to get there, where to live and all the anxieties that go with a complete life upheaval. And here I am. Making the Emerald City my home. With a fine apartment and a wonderful roommate and a story to live out. I am counting my blessings, that's for sure. I have never felt so undeniably cared for by God. 

I was reading Psalm 124, which begins, "If the Lord had not been on our side –" followed by a string of horrible things that would have happened to Israel if the Lord had not been on their side. If the Lord had not been on my side – we could have been stranded on the side of I-90 in the middle of nowhere; I could have moved here with no place to live; I could have ached with loneliness; I could have questioned and doubted. Not so. I have been protected, guided, and shielded with the utmost care and faithfulness. I have been welcomed into this new city with grace and kindness. 

Sunsets like these, dipping low and quiet into the sound, are a daily testimony to the faithfulness of the hand that wrote all. It is a gift. For what? To remind me that I am known and loved. Deepest and truest of all, by the Master of the Universe.

I was reflecting on the gift that it is to known, one we take advantage of mostly. It is only when you move to a new place, where you are known by next to no one, that you realize the value of being truly known by another human being. It has rattled me, to be in this new place I call home, without that assurance. It can cause you to question who you are. You realize the incredible risk it is to let someone know you truly. My prayer is that before too long, I will be known in this new place. And loved, perhaps in spite of myself. 

I am honored to be here. Privileged to be a part of this grand story. Praying that I would do the story justice by living awake and grateful, kind and gracious.

I remember the stirring from among Mary Oliver's trees: "It's simple," they say, "and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine."


This liminal space

I'm down to just one more day in Chicago. I don't feel like I've done a very good job of soaking up all of the best parts of this town in my final weeks. It's funny how everything looks rosier when you begin your goodbyes. I've never felt so nostalgic about my apartment and my noisy neighbors than in these last days as I've packed up my things and started my farewells.

I have been living in the shell of an apartment. It is a strange thing, this liminal space. I feel as though I am without a home or routine, on the threshold of something, in an almost paralyzing state of transition. It has made me grateful for the familiar, for what remains of a routine, and for perspective.

For more than 10 years, I've gathered with the Taize community in Oak Park. When the cantor heard this month's prayer was my last before heading to Seattle, he insisted I take a meditation bench made by the brothers in Taize, France. He couldn't have known this was the perfect gift for this liminal space.

In a moment of doubt and despair last week, a dear friend encouraged me to make use of my new meditation bench and sit quietly for a few moments each morning, in an attempt to still my mind and center my spirit.

It has been a much needed posture of surrender and reverence, remembering the one who works together for the good. The physical act of kneeling, even on the hard floors of my echo-y apartment, has reminded me of the origins of this journey and that in my doubt and despair, surely I speak of things too wonderful for me to know.*

In between the packing and planning, I was making blueberry peach pie for my grandpa's 82nd birthday. We gathered in my parent's backyard oasis to mark the occasion and celebrate summer and family with a latticed pie filled with summer's finest fruits.

Baking a pie was like kneeling on the meditation bench. It was an act of quiet familiarity, an opportunity for me to create and remember who I am.

My meditation bench and my pie plate will be packed into my Subaru along with my other things, starting the trek west with me and my mom on Saturday. Praying for traveling mercies. Praying that Seattle, and all the people and places along the way, will receive us with grace.

So long, Chicago. You will always be my home.

*Job 42:3


And then I found something

Here is the good news: I know where I'm going to live in Seattle. 

Here is the rub: a lot needs to happen in order for me to get there.

My "moving to-do list" has essentially exploded over the past week. I sometimes get up out of bed to write something down because I can't sleep knowing I'll forget the thing that just popped into my head by morning. I am not an accomplished lister. I make lists but have a tendency to half-finish them or put them in my pocket on my way to Target and then my list gets washed along with my jeans.

I was woken up at 4:30 this morning by the activity of my neighborhood, carried over from the night before. And immediately my mind begin to move. I lay awake until I was reminded to rest in the fact that two days ago I didn't know where I was going to live in Seattle, and now I do. I have been praying for weeks, along with many others (thank you!), for a good housing opportunity, something that would be the right fit and would give me peace in the midst of this transition. And then I found something. It is on the high end of my budget, which is where everything in Seattle is sitting in my budget, so far. But as I was praying for the right roommate, a good fit, I realized that in saying that prayer I also needed to exercise trust. This journey thus far has been about practicing the faith and trust that is so much easier to write about than do. Several people reminded me that in the petition for peace about housing, I needed to trust that God would provide. Because he can. And he does. 

I have been meditating on two of David's most personal writings, Psalms 91 & 139. They have reminded me of God's withness and forness

A dear soul and fellow writer/reader shared these words after my last post:

Most of the best things in life come with a little fear and trembling. "It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going."

And I know where I'm going. Which I realize now, is a gift, because God could have asked for the same step of faith from me as he did Abraham.

Preparing to move across the country is overwhelming. Making brioche is not. Sometimes you just have to do what you know.

So I baked up a couple loaves of brioche in the midst of my packing and smeared it with Trader Joe's fig butter, which has become such a hit in my family. I sat with my brioche and my coffee this morning – two of life's greatest comforts – and continued reading Mary Oliver's poems, settling on this remarkable piece on Praying:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try 
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.


Something big on the horizon

Here we are, nearing the end of July. It makes me cringe to say it, because I could swear that it was July 4th yesterday. There is this fear going around – possibly a midwest fear – it's the fear-that-summer-is-going-by-too-quickly-and-will-be-over-before-I-know-it. And it's not healthy. It's enough to make a person anxious. Especially when you have something BIG on the horizon and there are only a few short weeks left of summer in Chicago.

I accepted an offer to graduate school just a few weeks ago. An offer to attend graduate school in Seattle. Which means I have a giant leap to the Pacific Northwest on the horizon. A giant leap in the middle of August, in fact. And here is where my heart starts pounding, because that feels too soon and it feels too big and too crazy.

Truly though? I'm stoked. (And utterly terrified.) I spent months working up the courage to even apply to graduate school. When I finally decided to apply to two graduate programs, I thought sure my acceptance into one program over the other would help my decision process moving forward. But I was accepted into both programs. Which meant a few weeks of discernment, hemming and hawing, and a decision.

It was a really tough decision. In all honesty, I think God has been preparing me for this transition in so many ways. I am a very thoughtful person. When I come to a big decision like this, I like to sit with it for a while. Even when I felt like I had come to a decision about school, I sat with it quietly for about a week, without telling anyone, just to see if it felt "right" in my spirit. And it did. So I said yes. I am moving forward into the proverbial open door, into the void that is the great unknown and the journey ahead.

In the midst of my hemming and hawing, a friend encouraged me to take a step back, to look at the trajectory of my life, at the story God is weaving, and to hold that before me as I move forward. For a long time I was pretty sure that my job and my family and my Chicago community were the biggest factors in my decision, but as I was reading the story of Abraham, I realized what's most important is honoring the story being told with my life. God leads Abraham into a new land, and he does not promise it will be perfect, he does not promise it will be without trouble, but he does promise to be present and to bless him as he moves according to this divine and incredible call.

I suddenly felt the weight of my adulthood. And I did not like it. No one was going to make this decision for me. I make this decision and move as an individual, the sole person responsible for my actions. It's enough to paralyze you into not making a decision at all. But then I realized, this is not how you live. You live into your fear, without regret. You pray for courage and clarity, and you pour yourself out, hoping that the world will receive you with gentleness and grace.

There are a whole slough of unknowns before me. Especially in these next three weeks as I prepare to leave one place and make a new city, a new community my home. I am praying for protection over my heart, courage for my spirit, and eyes that will see with wonder and awe. I am praying that there is a people and a community being prepared for me in Seattle and that through the magic of technology, my great love and joy with and for my family here will not diminish. I know that it will be hard. I know that it will be good. And I know that I do not go it alone.

You hem me in behind and before.

I am grateful for a God who is with and for, who goes before and behind us. It is a mystery, especially for friends like Julie Mitchell, who puzzle when someone so profoundly near and dear is taken from them, but He works for the good. We take courage because thousands of years ago and today, the Master of the Universe said He goes with us and He will never leave or forsake us.

P.S. If you know of a good home for someone like me in Seattle, do let me know.


They know me best

It's really really hard to believe it's July already. What happened to June?! I feel gypped.

My birthday really snuck up on my this year. It's at the end of the month, so usually I have plenty of time to get used to the idea. This year it felt like June rushed us right to the end and into July. It may also have something to do with the weather – apparently, we live in the Amazon.

I was just remembering that last year, my birthday landed on my gram & gramps' 60th wedding anniversary bash. They celebrated 60 years of marriage and family, while I marked 27 years of life. This year's day was a bit quieter. For the first time in a long time, I woke up and started the day alone, which made me feel far too old and adult-like. Later, my mom recounted the story of my birth, as she always does. We cooked and ate and sweat in the humid jungle air. We passed around Ada Jo and played cars and trucks.

I believe God puts people like family and siblings and best friends in your way to affirm and encourage and celebrate with. They know me best. They know I really would love a cool, fresh salad and stuffed portobello mushrooms and that there's really nothing better than a lemon blueberry tart to mark a summer birthday. And they know it's been a good, though challenging, year.

My brother John asked me a couple thoughtful questions while we ate our stuffed mushrooms:

What is the most memorable place you've ever been to?
Brasil. Because it was such a rich, authentic experience of a place, a people, and a culture. And because I was a part of such a dear, beloved Brasilian community. Cheering for Brasil in the World Cup has brought that Brasileira verve for life back.

If money wasn't an object, where would you go before your next birthday?
Two places come to mind: one area of the world that I've always wanted to know is the Middle East. Egypt. Israel. Turkey. Morocco. The history and hurt, suffering and life, it would be incredible to experience. And for the other: I'd love to hike the Camino de Santiago, through France and Spain, as a pilgrimage to the cathedral where St. James' remains are buried.

What is the most memorable birthday gift you've received?
My bike. Partly because it's so cool. And partly because of the story – I was heartbroken when it was stolen, only to run into someone riding it at the grocery store 3 days later.

If there's one thing I've learned as I've gotten older it's this: honor the story you've been given.

Stand back and look at the trajectory of your life. Be true to the story God is weaving. Remember who you have been created to be. And always ask: what stirs my soul? And do that.

My dad, who knows me so well and is one of the greatest blessings in my life, gave me a collection of poems by Mary Oliver for my birthday. It's called Thirst. I read this beautiful poem the other day; it is a good benediction to go forth into the year of 28.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into this world to do this, to go easy, to be filled 
with light, and to shine."


We stayed friends

I have known my oldest friend for 27 years. We are both also 27 years old. She lives in Modesto, CA, where I was born and lived until 4 years old. Our families were friends, and so we became pen pals as kids, eventually graduating to email and cell phones and the occasional real-life visit. Through all of our years of school and travel and living, we stayed friends and it's still really good and easy to be together. Which I think is pretty neat.

I got to see this dear, 27-year friend last week. We found ourselves on the streets of New York City. Wandering Manhattan and Brooklyn, doing every wonderful Big Apple thing we could in a few days. And a few not so wonderful but genuinely New York things, like sweltering in the subway, wearing cute shoes that made your feet hurt, switching to a different subway line because the one you need is running on a different track, and entertaining a drunk on the subway because it seemed like the right thing to do. But mostly, just good things, like Shakespeare in the Park – which was magical, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset and eating at Grimaldi's pizza. 

We walked around the charming Greenwich Village, eating the best falafel at Mamoun's, fresh bagels, and Bleeker Street Pizza. We ate a lot of good food, which I believe is the best way to experience a city.

We wandered up the Guggenheim, which sits across the street from Central park. My favorite part was how this tree cast a shadow on the creamy spiral:

And when it rained, we wandered the Met, which was awe-inspiring – what an incredible collection of sculpture. We asked many people to take a picture of us – most of them are terrible, at best – but this is my favorite. It is New York in a nutshell:

We walked to the 9/11 memorial in Lower Manhattan. I was surprised – it's breathtaking. A smaller recessed pool within a huge recessed pool. From the side of the bronze wall inscribed with names, you can't see the bottom of the inner pool – it is a seemingly endless void. I looked up the artist statement from the memorial designer, he says this about it: "They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence." He also planted rows of trees as a symbol of life, regeneration, and to mark the public's space. He nailed it. It's beautiful.

From there, we ferried to Ellis Island, where I looked up my great grandpa in the registry. I found the original ship manifest: Axel Ägren arrived in 1924 from St. Tuna, Sweden. A farm-laborer headed to Chicago with $25 in his pocket. Wow. In the registry room, we gazed at the same tiled ceiling. 

Appropriately, we capped off our adventures with cappuccino and cake at Café Lalo on the Upper West Side. We sat by the open windows, the trees outside twinkling with lights. Shout-out to You've Got Mail for highlighting this gem. I would absolutely meet Tom Hanks here with a rose and a copy of Pride & Prejudice. And yes, yes I do think daisies are the friendliest flower.

(Forgive the endless scroll of photos. I couldn't help it.)

Thanks to my lovely, long-time friend for this memorable time together.

On a final note, if you're looking for a great book this summer, I absolutely recommend Shotgun Lovesongs. It's a fantastic story about a group of friends from rural Wisconsin doing life and growing up together. Very well-written, funny, and charming. This midwest girl loves a good midwest story.

Happy summertime.


Stand back and see

Sometimes you have to decide. You have to decide what's a big deal and what's not, what's worth mouthing off about and what's better left unsaid. My Strengthfinders test told me that connectedness is one of my top five strengths. This means, among other things, that I believe things happen for a reason, that things are linked together for a purpose, and that every event or opportunity is the result of a series of actions or lack of actions. A consequence of this strength is that I tend to dwell, ruminate and process small bits of life more than others. But you do still have to decide, what's worth it? I was woken up at 2:30am the other night by a few neighbors hanging in the street, listening to Prince loud enough for all of us to get up and dance. I was awake and annoyed. But it wasn't worth it. Good thing one of my other strengths is adaptability.

Here's the thing – most of the time, the stuff we worry about, the stuff we lay awake at night anxious over, the stuff that runs through my head as I run or stand in the shower – most of the time it's not worth it. You should never make big decisions in the middle of the night. Will it be there in the morning? Yes. Will it seem less big, less overwhelming, less of a burden? Probably. Nighttime is an incredibly vulnerable time for your mind and spirit.

I realized suddenly that most of my present anxieties and fears were actually for and with other people (that's my empathy strength talking). I was concerned about how my actions or lack of actions would effect the people around me. The connectedness in me was really worried about how my story was impacting or failed to impact the people around me. (Apparently, connectedness compels you to consider not only how what you do and say affects people you know but also how it affects individuals you will never meet. This can be a blessing and a burden.) Then I heard these words come alive in my spirit:

That's not your job. Who told you to worry about that? You have been given a great story, and your only job is to live it well. Who gave man his mouth? Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?

Ah yes. I put my hand over my mouth, better not to speak.

I was talking to a friend the other day, a friend who has been on a somewhat parallel path these past few years. It's really easy to get caught up in the day to day, to see only your immediate surroundings, but my friend encouraged me to take a step back and look at the story as it has unfolded. It's incredible. We looked at all the ways that our lives have intersected, all while our schools, jobs, and travels have taken us all over the world, and there is no question that it is with great purpose that our journeys run parallel now, if only to be present and to remind one another to be true to the story laid before us.

I'm grateful. I'm grateful to be reminded of my place, to have friends who are with and for, to stand back and see the great story and know that it is so for a reason.

* Special shout out to my friend Susan, for encouraging and inspiring me this week, for reminding me why I write.


What a privilege

News, I have such news! This past week a very tiny little girl finally entered our world. Welcome.

Ada Joellyn. Isn't she perfection? She is the third of my niece/nephew trio. Currently the smallest and quietest. Also, she has the BEST older brother an Ada Jo could ask for. This cool cat:

He made his first appearance on this very blog just two years ago. Crazy. Anyway, Ada is an absolute gem, and we're all in love with her. I'm so proud of my brother and sister-in-law for being such great parents and for making such cute kids. When Silas was born someone told me that becoming an aunt changed her in some way, that it was one of the coolest things life had handed her. I absolutely get that now. It's a remarkable thing, perhaps especially so for someone who doesn't have any children. These guys bring such joy and life and laughter to our family. I can't wait to see the life and light of Miss Ada Jo, to watch her personality unfold, to witness a girl grow into who she was created to be. We'll teach her to sing Jesus Remember Me and the Wheels on the Bus and probably Boom Boom Pow. We'll teach her to blow kisses and give high fives. We'll probably read her The Runaway Bunny and Quick as a Cricket. We'll watch and listen as she grows into her own, honoring her unique spirit. What a privilege. 

I had a last-minute opportunity to see the play Wit on stage at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater this weekend. We sat in an intimate theatre of no more than 50, watching the story of a renowned professor of John Donne's poetry with terminal ovarian cancer – it stood in such contrast to the beautiful newness of life in Ada. Wit remains one of the most unforgettable films I've seen. My favorite scene is when her college professor visits the dying Vivian in hospital and reads her The Runaway Bunny – she calls it "an allegory of the soul." It's heartbreaking, and beautiful.

This is the stuff of real life. Celebrating the birth of Ada and hearing stories of Rwandan genocide survivors from my dad's recent travels, it puts things in perspective. It reminds me to hold everything lightly. Because this girl – well, she's just great. But the Rwandan genocide is a very real thing and the violence in my neighborhood is a very real thing. I believe we are meant to know both realities. I think we must remember, celebrate, and reach beyond our grasp to the heavens above. We have a Creator who revels with us and mourns with us –

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don't be afraid.


A small but mighty wonder

My neighborhood is coming alive. That's how I know it's spring. Sometimes it literally feels like people are pouring out into the streets. After school, there are kids everywhere – they have a tendency to "gather" right outside my building. Which is awfully neighborly of them but just a tad loud. It's what happens when you've been cooped up for 6 months straight – you get a little crazy. Ah well, most of the time I can live with it. I'm not sure they'd be too stoked if I started hollering out my window. So I just turn my music louder. 

But seriously, be praying for the city of Chicago. With warmth comes violence. On the warmest weekend of the year so far, there were 36 shootings in as many hours. Such a strange way to welcome spring. I pray for my neighbors and these broken, beloved 'hoods daily. Join me in the petition for peace.

In other news, I'm feeling a little behind on my spring veg eating. So this week I roasted and ate an entire bunch of asparagus. Last night's dinner was cold stalks of roasted asparagus with hummus and olive oil, because it was strangely 90 degrees and I needed quick, cool, and easy. We marked spring and our first meal outside – Easter dinner – with this really incredible spring salad from a favorite food blog: avocado, spinach, pea shoots, almonds, and feta, with a zesty lime yogurt dressing. I've only had it once, and it's already one of my favorite salads. Pea shoots are now on the Trader Joe's grocery list, thank you very much.

I also got to hang out with some really cool folks in some really cool neighborhoods of Chicago last week. Can I just say, there are people out there doing great work in tough places and dedicating their lives to transforming other people's lives. It's amazing. I heard stories from a psychologist at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center – I mean, wow. I walked away thinking, "She is a saint." I also learned that it costs over $200,000 per year to imprison a juvenile. This is craziness. I could not believe the stats and stories I heard. There's a whole lot of injustice in the justice system.

I'm grateful for little communities like Canaan Community Church, who is a powerful presence in Englewood. They are a small but mighty wonder.

When I think about these stories, these places, I wonder if we are expecting God to do greater things than he's done before. Or are we just eating out of our own hand, doing things on our own initiative? The great Oswald Chambers says this is a downward path. We have lost the vision.

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

If he can pour the waters from a jar and tell them where to stop, surely that same God can give us the courage to expect the same faithfulness and might, to reach for the heavens, here and now.


Stay here and keep watch

This week, I remembered the power of the resurrection. It has the ability to touch and transform our daily lives. God's desire to renew all things is as much for the earth as it is for the heavens. "The power that comes from God is ready to be brought into our human situation, and in such a way, as to transform it."

Yesterday we remembered the journey to the cross and sang, "Stay here and keep watch with me; the hour has come. Stay here and keep watch with me; watch and pray." It was an incredibly poignant time together, as we prayed, remembered, sang, and sat silent. We closed with a mass pilgrimage to the altar, an open invitation to kneel at the cross with your prayers and burdens. The three o'clock sun streamed in the high church windows as people queued quietly. I was struck again, as I often am on Good Friday, by the current of hope among the people. We sing somberly and hear the heart-wrenching story of Jesus' journey to his death. The mood is solemn and earnest. But as people rise to go to the cross, there is a profound hopefulness. We know that we keep watch not only for the seven last words of Jesus, but we also watch and wait for the resurrection. Because Sunday's coming. We have the gift of living on this side of the cross. And after 40 days of spring-tide and a holy week, we're ready to celebrate.

"I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.' "


Here's the thing

I forgot how much I love couscous. I've been eating a lot of other kinds of grain – bulgar, coconut rice, wild rice, orzo (pasta disguised as a whole grain), Israeli couscous – and while I love all those grains, tonight I'm really digging regular couscous.

It's been a hell of a week. There's no other way to put it. Actually, that statement stands for this week and last week. It's been a while since I've slept through the night. I was awake from 3 to 4:30am the other night, because once I was awakened by my neighbor getting ready to go to work, I started thinking about the state of the world. My coworker asked me if I then wrote a "state of the world" address. Probably. I just don't remember it. I'm sure it was very thoughtful.

I was so inundated by various forms of communication today, that when I finally made it to the fitness center to run off the stress of the week, I turned my phone off. I forget sometimes that I don't have to interrupt my run/shower/solitary dinner/or daily clips from the Tonight Show to respond to my phone. Here's the thing: almost always, it can wait. After taking calls and answering emails and responding to chats and sitting in meetings all day, I'm sorry, I don't have it in me.

That said, as it turns out, you can fairly easily make couscous while on the phone. And stir fried veg. My goal this week was to a) survive, and b) eat up the this-and-that floating around my fridge and freezer. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but it's all thanks to Trader Joe's jar of Peanut Satay that tonight's phone-made couscous with stir-fried veg was such a success. I don't usually do pre-made stuff, but this peanut satay sauce is really incredible. It's essentially what I like to do with Thai chili paste and coconut milk and peanuts, just already done – so that I can be on the phone making dinner at 8pm and still eat by 8:30. I'd say that's a win.

As Jimmy Fallon would say, "Thank you, Trader Joe's, for rescuing my dinner from being a bowl of cereal."

As previously stated, this little moment in life's history has been a real treat. I was telling a friend recently that it felt like there was this crazy under-current of bad and messy and exhausting that seeps into every. single. day. Then today Chicagoans woke up and it was 34 degrees and pouring rain and dark. Uh, no, thanks, I'm good; I don't need anymore gloom or doom.

I've been working on a writing project for the last few weeks, with a word count to meet each night as a means of motivation after I've trudged home from work or the fitness center, showered (maybe), made some toast or hard-boiled eggs or couscous(!) and lost all focus. I've met this self-proclaimed goal exactly 2 out of 5 nights this week. That's not a very good record. Can you blame me? If you think of it, maybe say a prayer for focus and energy and magic, in hopes that something writerish will happen.

Amidst all the "weight" of this week, and by this week I mean the last few weeks, I've been steadily prompted to keep perspective. Almost never is the stuff that we're stressing about life-or-death. And when it is, all the other rubbish doesn't matter a whit.

I was reminded of these wise words from the Gospel of Matthew, "And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?"

I'm grateful for people like Rachel Held Evans, who reminds us that we have this in common:

We are resurrection people.

Our God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if we want in on God's business, we better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world – including those in our own hearts – because that's where God works, that's where God gardens ... It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.

We may be deep in the season of Lent, dear friends, but the party's fast approaching.


It is the gift of utter clarity

In this, the second week of Lent and what is springtide, I read something about winter that really resonated with me:

Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being... It is the gift of utter clarity.

It is brutal. I caught more than a glimpse of the earth that has been buried beneath snow and ice for months, and it is the ugly and honest ground of our landscape. Utter clarity, as Parker Palmer calls it, is not always pretty. But it is a gift. And I believe it prepares our souls for the life and flamboyance of spring.

The 40 days of Lent can feel like an acutely long time. But if it is a journey to the broken body and the crown of thorns, where we stand without illusion or self-delusion, then it is hardly long enough. The tides of God move contrary to our human nature, requiring a profound act of surrender to a deep skepticism of self and self-distrust — so that our confidence and trust in God might prevail.

In this season of springtide, where the ground of my being is revealed, I am deeply grateful that the character of the Master of the Universe is just that, his character. It is not an ability — the grace, mercy, and love of our Creator is not dependent on my compliance or acknowledgement. When I have reached my human capacity to love my neighbor, the Spirit of Helpfulness can move in spite of my self, because it is in his character to do so. By the same token, the love of my Creator is not dependent on my obedience. Because it will take me every bit of these 40 days to stand before the cross without illusion.

In a reflection on Lent, Edna Hong writes that there is no motivation for acts of love without a sense of gratitude, no sense of gratitude without forgiveness, no forgiveness without remorse, no remorse without a sense of guilt, no sense of guilt without a sense of wrongdoing. We are impelled to act with love and to work for justice out of gratitude for the forgiveness of our wrongs.

It is with this in mind that I pray we be given a greater sense of our brokenness, without delusion, so that we might be spurred on to acts of love.


From ashes to ashes

The cross of ashes painted across my forehead never fails to remind me of my humanness. It was as though I could feel the weight of my soul, my feet heavy to the ground, as I stood before the altar, the rector brushing sooty palms above my eyes, reminding me that I am dust and to dust I shall return.

I was listening to NPR yesterday when they did a piece on Ashes To Go. They interviewed a rector from a nearby Episcopal church who stood at several street corners and an El stop on Ash Wednesday, offering "ashes to go" to passersby. The interviewer balked at this as "church in a hurry." But I couldn't help but agree with the Bishop of the Chicago Diocese's response. He spoke about ashes to go as an opportunity for people would never consider stepping into a church, people who have been hurt by the church, to receive ashes and to participate in a sacred act. It is the church, meeting people where they are at, coming to the streets, armed with a bowl of ashes and a white robe, to offer a symbol of repentance, brokenness, and the beginning of a lenten journey. The rector who stood on the street corner said she had experienced moments of sincere emotion and reflection with the people she had offered ashes to.

There's something really magical about this idea of bringing the sacred out into the ordinary, removing the walls that declare a place holy. As I reflected on this idea of ashes to go, I was reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

I don't often think of the El platform or the corner of Cermak and Pulaski as holy. But it is aflame with the very same holiness and reverence that Moses encountered at the bush in Egypt. I wonder how my words and actions might change if I began to think of the common spaces around me as such. I wonder how much greater of a lover of God and neighbor I would be if I remembered that the space on which I stand is holy, that even the 'hood in which I live may be crammed with heaven.

I was reading Kathleen Norris' reflection on repentance last night. She recalls the story of little boy in a parochial school where she was an artist-in-residence. She was reading the psalms aloud and asked the children to write their own psalms. This little boy wrote a poem called "The Monster Who Was Sorry," in which he admitted he hates it when his father yells at him, but in the poem his response is to throw his sister down the stairs, wreck his room, and finally wreck the whole town. He concludes the poem: "Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, 'I shouldn't have done all that.' "

Kathleen Norris writes, If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?


Here's the honest truth

This past week has been so scattered and so full; I've been trying to write this post, with fits and starts, for the past four days. Pathetic. Every time I sit down to write I am either interrupted by work or a new video from the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, like this one.

So, here's the honest truth: I don't even know what I'm writing about any more, but if I don't actually post this blasted thing I'll feel even guiltier than I do right now for neglecting my writing for weeks. So here is my collection of reflections, reading, and the things that have stirred my soul of late:  

I've been reading these two really remarkable books over the past couple weeks. When I was in Seattle last fall, someone recommended Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak. It's about calling and vocation, and listening to the deepest and truest version of yourself. Parker Palmer is a Quaker, and as such, he writes a lot about listening as an essential piece of discovering who and what you were created to be—something that my phone, calendar, and workplace don't allow much room for. I was relieved to read his perspective on the importance of knowing just as well where you don't see yourself in five years as where you do. "There is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does—maybe more... We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials." I'm grateful to him for those words. And these words, that seem to save us from the thinking that we may choose "wrongly" or that the trajectory of our lives doesn't impact the world:

Every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking us toward the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need. The world needs people with the patience and the passion to make that pilgrimage not only for their own sake but also as a social and political act.

According to Palmer, the world needs us to discover our truest self just as much we do. 

In an effort to do just that, I picked up Susan Cain's book Quiet in the airport recently. It is a fascinating and insightful read on The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I already feel indebted to her for putting these insights out into the world. She begins by identifying people in history who were creative, influential, and remarkable because they were introverts. Susan Cain marks the societal loss when we undervalue introverts—largely as a result of the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the 20th century, which has permeated our culture, education system, and standard of success. She debunks the myths that friendly = extrovert, leader = extrovert, successful = extrovert. I find myself nodding and "hmm-ing" as I read, resonating so deeply with the way she talks about our culture and the counter-cultural way of the introverted soul. 

She opens the book with A Manifesto for Introverts, which I love. I was really struck by #3, which is something of a societal charge: 

The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strength.

I was at the food pantry last night. It was an oddly slow day for distribution, but it gave me a chance to interact with clients a bit more than usual. A woman came in who I learned was the mother of the 3-year-old child who died in an apartment fire on the west side last weekend. Her 4-year-old child, rescued from the fire, is in critical condition. The 14-year-old brother of the two children tried to save them both, but couldn't. I had seen him on the news, tearfully telling the story of his failed rescue. 

Our pantry manager spoke to the mother, who shared that she didn't have enough money to bury her child. Some of the pantry volunteers pooled together some money to give her, because we just couldn't begin to imagine this mother's struggle.

I'm not very proud of this week. The days have been long and hard, and I can't seem to shake the festering gloom. But this young mother's story put things in perspective. The week's struggles shrunk, and I was ashamed for my attitude. I'm grateful that God gives us opportunities to see beyond ourselves. When he demands that we look up from the little plot of ground we stand on, we can't help but see the hurting neighbor beside us. 


It's that good


I made this a few weeks back when my sister, brother-in-law, and little Elsie were coming over for breakfast. It was sort of impromptu, and she told me not to fuss. I was going to just whip up a batch of muffins or something. Until I saw this! Totally worth the extra effort.

And then we had a snow day. So I made it again. Because this is what everyone should have for breakfast on a snow day. 

I made a beautiful Braided Cardamom Pulla bread a while back. This Cinnamon Roll Pull Apart Bread is very similar—the same kind of dough. It's light and buttery and lovely. And surprisingly simple to make.

If you have a KitchenAid mixer, the dough pretty much makes itself. I have made it both by hand and with the aid of a mixer. As the recipe stands, you have to get up at like 5am if you want to have this for breakfast, which is pretty standard for bread bakers but definitely not standard for a snow day. So I made my dough the night before and refrigerated it overnight, for the first rise. It's probably wise to punch your dough down once or twice in the first couple hours in the fridge, as it is still warm and will rise as it cools in the fridge. But the next day it is easy peasy to roll out the dough, sprinkle the filling, slice, and bake! The log is sliced partially through, on an angle, and the pieces alternately pulled to one side. It makes for a really gorgeous presentation of something exceptionally delicious.

I recommend having it with a cup of Chemex coffee—the popular brew in my family right now. It has made its way through our family as a Christmas or birthday gift, and now we can't seem to drink anything else; it's that good.

If you need a good book to read while you're enjoying a piece of warm cinnamon bread and a cup of Chemex, I just finished another great novel from Jojo Moyes, The Girl You Left Behind. I read Moyes' previous novel, Me Before You, last year and loved it. She's a great writer, with really interesting characters and captivating stories. I was pleasantly surprised by her second novel, a sort of historical fiction story about a girl and a painting and what you'll do for the things or the people you love.

Speaking of, I read this post from writer Anne Lamott today, on the slog that often is the act of writing:

I don't usually count on inspiration in my work. I count on the belief that if I show up, keep my butt in the chair, hold a potato gun to my head, and make myself sit there, something writerish will happen. 

Sentiments I can relate to. Usually by the end of it, I'm glad I sat down and put the potato gun to my head. It's entirely possible that most of what I've written is complete crap. And I think I'm guilty of putting too much weight in "inspiration." Waiting for when it "feels right" to sit down and write. It's kind of a crapshoot, honestly. I'd like to be better at doing it the way Ms. Lamott does. Making it a habit even if you don't always like it—like flossing—because it's good for you and the tiny little writer that resides in you needs to come out and play more often than when all the stars align.

Let's be honest. I've been working on this post all week. I've been putting it off for two weeks—with some very excusable travel apprehending me. I've been battling some wicked respiratory infection for weeks. And I'd rather just watch last week's Downton Abby or make a batch of cookies. 

But I sat my butt down and did it. I'm always glad I did in the end.

I did a really horrible job at articulating, much less sticking to, any new year's resolutions this year. But I guess I'd like to be better about sitting down in hopes that something writerish will happen. Even if it sucks. So thanks for sticking with me.

On that note, I believe there's a recipe or a book or a cup of tea waiting for me. Cheers.

Cinnamon Roll Pull Apart Bread
Adapted from Pinch of Yum and Bea Ojakangas
Makes 2 loaves*

1 package (2½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, beaten
8+ cups bread flour (don't over-flour!)
½ cup melted butter
4 tablespoons softened solid butter (not melted)
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup sugar **

For the Glaze:
1 egg, beaten
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk or cream
½ teaspoon vanilla

Make the Dough: Dissolve the yeast in the warm water; it should be frothy. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer. Add and mix the milk, sugar, salt, eggs, and 2 cups of flour and mix on low speed until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add 3 cups of the flour and mix at a slightly higher speed; the dough should be smooth and glossy. Add the melted butter and mix again until the dough looks glossy. Mix in the remaining flour until a stiff dough forms.

Rest and Knead: Turn out the dough onto a surface dusted with flour. Gently toss it around a few times so it becomes lightly coated with flour. Place back in the mixing bowl, cover, and let the dough rest 15 minutes. Knead until smooth and satiny (10 min by hand, 4 min in the mixer). Place in a lightly greased mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour until doubled in bulk.

Roll and Cut the Bread: On a floured surface, divide the dough into 2 parts to make 2 loaves. For each loaf, take one part at a time and roll it into a large rectangle. I didn’t ever measure mine but it was probably 9×13, about ½ inch thick. Mix the cinnamon and sugar together. Spread 2 tablespoons butter onto each dough rectangle, sprinkle with just enough cinnamon sugar to cover, and roll into a log starting on the long side. Place seam side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cut diagonal slices like pictured in the post, almost down to the bottom of the log. Arrange the cut sections so that they lean to alternating sides. Let rise for about 20 minutes to puff up a little bit. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bake: Brush the loaves with the beaten egg. Bake for 20-30 minutes on a baking stone or baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Do not overbake or the loaves will be too dry. Remove from the oven when a light golden-brown. Let cool slightly. Whisk the powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla together to make a glaze. Pour over the loaf and let set. Slice or pull apart and serve.

*This recipe makes TWO loaves. I halved the recipe both times I made it, because I couldn't be sure I'd use the dough quick enough. It will keep in the fridge for a day or two. Or you can attempt to freeze half the kneaded and risen dough; just thaw it on the counter overnight. Let your dough warm up a bit before attempting to roll it out. Note, your 2nd rise time will be longer if your dough is cold. 

**I lessened the amount of sugar for the filling, after halving the recipe, and even then it was too much. So just use enough to cover the dough, not burn your pan.


All Good Things

What could be worse than the post-Christmas, post-New Years, back-to-work-and-reality season? Everything red and green and glittering has been taken down. No party's to plan or people to cook for. It's true, what my mom says, that the anticipation is better than the thing itself. Man, this is starting to sound like a real bummer.

All good things must come to an end.
(But my little Christmas tree is still up and holiday Pandora stations are still streaming. Don't judge.)

The city of Chicago put a cap on the holidays and dove into several days of sub-zero temps and the most snow at one time that we've seen in a while. It was beautiful for a bit, then it was a burden, then it was dangerous, and then, in true Chicago form, it was filthy. By the end of the weekend, it will be a city of slop. Blech.

I learned something new this week: the city doesn't plow the streets in the 'hood. Regardless of how much snow we get. Just one of many of the injustices. I've been ever so grateful for a car with all wheel drive this week.

Since the end to party season is just too much to bear, my parents hosted an open house last weekend, showing off their new digs. And I made Chocolate Almond Sablés.

Part of my post-Christmas mourning has been my regret at all the recipes I didn't have a chance to make. I had dog-earred this Chocolate Pistachio Sablés recipe in my December issue of Bon Appetite. So I pulled it out for the open house dessert platter, swapping almonds for the pistachios. Easy, foolproof, and flavorful. Don't let the blahs of the times keep you from making them!

In an effort to fight the dim and the dreary, I've been on the search for bits of culture or creative news. When I asked a friend to "tell me something cool!", he suggested I check out the new Head and the Heart album "Let's be still". So I'm giving that a good listen today. Already loving the title.

I started the year off with this crazy new book from Marisha Pessl. And I mean crazy. I read her first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, last year purely based on a reliable bookstore recommendation. Special Topics blew my mind. And I haven’t forgotten it since, recommending it to any avid reader willing to take on 500+ pgs of pure genius. I expected nothing less of Pessl’s latest book Night Film. I just didn’t expect it to be so creepy.  It’s a story of suspense and mystery, about the death of the daughter of a renowned horror filmmaker.  Not my usual choice of reading. When I was 300 pages in, I was so creeped out that I couldn't read it before bed and started questioning my literary judgment. By page 600, I was glad I stuck with it, awed and amazed at such writing talent.

Also on my coffee table are Eric Wahl's Unthink, in an attempt to rediscover my creative genius, and Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak, in hopes of further understanding the trajectory of my life.

Now here's a real gem for you to start the year off with: I recently discovered this food blog by Mimi Thorisson, Manger. I first learned about Mimi in a gorgeous spread in Bon Appetite a few months back. I was instantly envious of her French countryside life, photographer husband, heaps of children and dogs, and gorgeous dinner parties. For whatever reason, maybe because I was just so green with envy, I failed to look up her blog. I'm a little embarrassed that it's taken me 'til now to re-discover her. Now you can drool over her recipes and photos and perfect life too. You're welcome.

In other news, this week marked 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. It was really quite something for the president to make this kind of statement in the midst of his State of the Union address. A man who grew up in poverty himself, the issue of poverty in America was a personal one for LBJ.

“Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope, some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America... It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."

That's quite a statement, from a man who left quite a legacy. So I wonder, what will we do with such a history?  We are not where we were 50 years ago, in many ways. LBJ called it an “unconditional“ war. Which means we have a responsibility to take part in the fight, regardless of political, economic, or social circumstance. Empathy, compassion, and human kindness should be without condition and unreservedly offered to our neighbors.

What are those words we remembered during Advent?

Peace on earth.
Good will toward men.

We started the year off gathering to pray for peace at Taizé. I had the honor of reading and remembering this passage from Philippians:

Let your gentleness be evident to all.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Something I want to hold in the forefront of my mind and heart in the year ahead.

Chocolate Almond Sablés Recipe
Adapted from Bon Appetite's Chocolate Pistachio Sablés

2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1¼ cups (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1¼ cups (lightly packed) light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg white
5 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup unsalted, shelled raw pistachios, coarsely chopped
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)

Whisk flour, cocoa powder, kosher salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat butter, brown sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Reduce speed to low and gradually add dry ingredients; mix just to combine, then mix in egg white. Fold in chocolate and pistachios.

Divide dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into an 8”-long log about 1½” in diameter, pushing dough together if it feels crumbly. Wrap tightly in parchment paper and chill until firm, at least 4 hours. (The colder your dough, the easier it will be to slice.)

Place racks in lower and upper thirds of oven; preheat to 350°. Working with 1 log of dough at a time and using a serrated knife, cut logs into ¼”-thick rounds and transfer to 2 parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing ½” apart.

Sprinkle cookies with sea salt and bake, rotating baking sheets halfway through, until set around edges and centers look dry, 10–12 minutes. Transfer to wire racks and let cool.

NOTE: This dough freezes really well; freeze instead of chilling. Slice frozen logs into rounds just before baking.