So I can avoid posting in two places, I would love for you to join me at my main blog, “Everyday Extraordinary,” from now on.
I haven’t blogged in sooo long! I feel like I’m slowly waking up from a dream. In the dream, snowflakes were falling. I was sitting under a huge domed ceiling in Chicago’s theater district, aglow with tiny gold lights, while on a stage in front of me, lithe figures jumped and twirled and colors seemed to explode. Also in the same dream, I saw my little boy turn one, dig his pudgy fingers into a cupcake, examine a musical truck for the first time, laugh, and take his first steps. I held my best friend’s baby, watched Elf with my husband in a tiny hotel room, saw my mother unwrap a sparkling gold locket, and wore dangerously high heels as I sipped shiraz at a New Year’s Eve wedding. The dream was long and happy, but you always have to wake up.
Now it’s January, frigid and gray, and I am unhappily awake. The dream keeps flashing through my mind like a movie montage. Those first few weeks after the holidays always feel to me like a mourning period, or like someone has flipped on the lights and you see all the broken, dingy things sitting there right where you left them. Of course, to counter all this, is the fact that it is a New Year, and that brings with it a certain degree of anticipation. There are other celebrations waiting on the church calendar. There are toddler milestones that have yet to be accomplished. There are cherry blossoms right around the corner, and recipes and wines and shoes that I haven’t tried yet. There are a million times that my husband will make me laugh. So as much as I loved my holiday dream, I have a lot to look forward to.
I hope you are starting your New Year off with hope and a little bit of wonder. The older I get, the more I struggle to believe I can change, or that I can change the things around me. But I hold onto that piece of innocence and naivety and faith that maybe I will be better and things will be better and I will learn something that makes me open my eyes wider and my heart bigger. Maybe I will learn my biggest life lesson yet.
I hope you find this year to be unforgettable.
My favorite writer, Anne Lamott, encourages her students to write about school lunches when they complain of not knowing what to write. She says this in her book Bird by Bird. She has an essay about school lunches in there that is, of course, brilliant. I am trying to write every day, starting today, and I have been thinking about school lunches—a bizarre enough assignment that it just might work. So here is what I have to say about school lunches.
In grade school, I didn’t have the normal school lunch experience. I never pushed my tray along a buffet line or helped myself to Cheetos and chocolate milk. I didn’t sit at a table with my friends and swap gossip along with cookies and Snak Paks. In fact, my school lunches didn’t take place at a school. I ate them around the kitchen table in my parents’ house, in the daily company of my mother and little brother. I was homeschooled. That changed everything in the lunch department.
My mother didn’t let us eat junk food or drink pop, a fact I am now grateful for but at the time, like any red-blooded American child, resented. Every day we had a single sandwich on plain whole-wheat bread, sometimes on still-warm slices of round loaves she had taken out of the breadmaker earlier that day. We had thin-sliced ham with mustard and a little mayonnaise. We had leftover meatloaf daubed with ketchup. We had peanut-butter-and-banana on bread crispy from the toaster. Occasionally, we had basic peanut butter and jelly, always with the bread buttered first (or peanut butter and honey in my brother’s case), and turkey lunchmeat with a piece of lettuce and a tomato. My mother was creative in her sandwich making. But the constant was an apple, peeled and sliced with my mother’s signature rounded edges and lined up neatly around the circumference of our plate. A white napkin, folded in half, was tucked beneath the left side of our plate, a plastic plate with a faded-gold sunflower passed down by my grandmother, no doubt.
If we were lucky, we got some generic potato chips, crunchy and yellow with deep ridges. These were a salty treat. I remember savoring them down to the crumbs in the bottom of the bag. We usually got a cookie after lunch. These were homemade and most certainly the best chocolate-chip, molasses and no-bake cookies in the Midwest. These cookies waited quietly in their tins until we consumed all of our sandwiches, except perhaps the crusts. We were allowed only one cookie, which explains why we could eat them daily and not gain weight. All in all, it was a very satisfying lunch that befits slightly dorky kids in a small town a few miles from the Wisconsin border.
What did we talk about during those lunches? I have no recollection. In my memory, I have only a general sense of waiting, a desire for what was next. If it was winter, we couldn’t see out of the windows, which were covered in plastic to retain heat. We had a sense of being immobilized, enclosed, by the snow pressing up against the walls. If it was spring, the kitchen door might be open and outside sparrows were hopping, ants scurrying and a neighbor’s dog barking. I’m sure my eyes drifted to the world outside that door, the world that awaited me once I finished muttering Latin verbs and diagramming sentences in which people with predictable names did predictable things. I longed to run very fast away from my schoolbooks and jump and twirl and get as dirty as possible, playing house under the bushes in the backyard or basketball with kids from the neighborhood. My brother and I sometimes played catch in the driveway. And if it was fall, and the afternoon light was shifting to forebode the coming cold, we might hear the wind rattling the chimney and the soft skidding of leaves along the ground.
It’s funny what you remember about a lunch.
What kind of man was Zaccheus?
In my mind he is small and portly, wearing rich, cumbersome robes. His sharp, beady eyes don’t miss a thing. For the past 20 years, he has put in his time to become chief tax collector; he knows the business, how to twist arms and get what he wants. He is a know-it-all, probably because he is well traveled, well educated and well read, and his voice is refined with an edge of snobbery.
Reading this story in the lectionary today, I couldn’t help but let my imagination run wild.
Zaccheus couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something undignified. He carried himself quite stiffly, and over the years he’d perfected the art of remaining expressionless, even when the hateful stares and mumbled taunts were impossible to ignore. Being dignified and impenetrable was part of the job, the coveted job of chief tax collector in a thriving city like Jericho.
Why exactly was he fascinated by the rumors circulating about the Messiah? Zaccheus wasn’t quite sure why he even paid attention. He was in fine health, and richer than anyone he knew. A traveling Nazarene sounded like somebody he wouldn’t normally associate with, and he was probably dirty and smelly from all the walking he did. But if the whispers around town were true, that this man was truly extraordinary, Zaccheus didn’t want to be left out. He knew that he had to see this man for himself. His natural cunning, his discerning eyes, would tell him everything he needed to know.
The morning Jesus arrived in town, Zaccheus knew immediately because of a quiet tingle in his bones. And strangely, he felt lonely, sitting alone in his large, opulent house. He wanted to talk to someone about Jesus, share his unexplainable anticipation, nod in understanding of the whole bizarre situation. The whole town, however, had already turned out in expectation of the potential Messiah’s arrival. In fact, Zaccheus had just dipped his quill into a jar of ink, ready to note some figures on a piece of parchment, when a whole family ran past his window. They churned up so much dust it took a moment for it to settle.
Zaccheus stepped out into the street and shaded his eyes, trying to see through the milling crowds. He decided he needed to get a bit closer to the action, remaining inconspicuous of course. He wouldn’t allow himself to hurry though; he kept his posture even stiffer and his steps more mincing than usual as he approached the city square.
On the fringes of the crowd, Zaccheus found himself staring at a forest of shoulders. Once again, he cursed his hereditary shortness. He was so much shorter than everyone else that all his life, he’d been literally looked down upon. But always ambitious, he had found ways to compensate. How else could he have achieved his position and prominence at such an early age? It was all about devising unlikely solutions to seemingly impossible problems.
There he is!” a woman shouted. “Jesus, Jesus, have mercy on me!” a man screamed at the top of his lungs. Everyone lunged forward, nearly trampling one another. Excitement burned in Zaccheus’ throat, excitement he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. He had to lay eyes on this man. But he couldn’t see a thing.
Just then a breeze rustled the branches of the expansive sycamore tree overhead. Zaccheus knew immediately what to do—possibly the most undignified thing he could imagine, but one that all the taller people were clearly overlooking. His pudgy face set with determination, Zaccheus began worming his way through the straining masses, unafraid to use his elbows and stomp on feet. When he touched the rough bark of the tree’s trunk, he grasped the lowest branch, hitched up his robes and began climbing.
It was cool and shady in the arms of the tree. The higher he climbed, the more Zaccheus felt pleasantly removed from the mayhem below. At last, he pushed aside the leaves and saw, making his way toward the very tree he was clinging to, the man he was so mysteriously compelled to see.
He looked normal, rather unlike the noble figure Zaccheus had been imagining. He was clad in a threadbare, dusty robe, with the stocky build of a laborer, and he was laughing and smiling with those close by. Not hiding behind his entourage, not performing the lauded miracles, not inciting the crowd. Totally unimpressed, Zaccheus grumbled under his breath, “That is the Messiah?” What a waste of time. He decided to just withdraw into the tree and wait until the crowds cleared to come down.
A few minutes later he heard his name. “Zaccheus.”
It was a voice he didn’t recognize. It was obviously referring to someone else.
But then again, firmly and distinctly: “Zaccheus.”
Zaccheus parted the branches and peeked out. Everyone’s faces were upturned, staring at the tree—his tree! His breath lodged in his chest like a stone. Directly below him, stood Jesus, looking into his eyes as if it were perfectly normal to greet someone hiding in a tree, someone invisible to all other eyes.
“Zaccheus,” Jesus said warmly. “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
It took a moment for Zaccheus to process what he was saying, the fact that Jesus knew his name … that he was addressing him personally! Him, the most unpopular person in town! Then, he quickly slithered down from the tree in the most undignified fashion possible, scraping his knee and tearing his robes and landing with a thump in front of Jesus.
“Of course,” he panted. “You are welcome in my home! I’d be most utterly honored, Jesus … Shall … shall we go?”
Jesus smiled. “Show me the way.”
October sharpens my senses; it always has. If I’m feeling sad, I feel very sad. If I smell wood smoke, ripe pumpkins or Halloween candy, I tumble back in time 20 years. If I step outside into a frosty morning just after sunrise, the atmospheric hush is almost unbearable. And everything feels very fragile, whether it’s the fading light after supper or the spines of the leaves or the midday heat. Also my heart. It’s like October is the month that strips away all our pretenses and shows us what we are. Anything is heart-breaking against the bright blue of the sky as it gathers itself for winter. Finally, we slip on our sweaters and our hearts are insulated again.
But before that, we give ourselves totally to the fleeting pleasure. I tap my foot to bluegrass music and spend hours wrapped in a blanket on the front porch. I show my son how seasons change and hope he remembers the brittle grass and bright colors. I sit on the porch swing with my husband late at night while he smokes a pipe.
This week had so many wonderful parts.
First of all, I’m writing an article about community gardens. So on Monday I drove to Old Hickory, Tennessee, to see a community garden grown by a tiny, very old Baptist church. When I walked into the church, I smelled the history, or maybe it was the musty hymnbooks and the old wooden pews, sun shining faintly through big colored squares of stained glass. I interviewed the most wonderful man—I almost want to cry thinking about him—in his 50s, retired Airforce from California, who spends much of his time in the garden, growing various kinds of tomatoes and peppers and filling the water tanks with a hose he runs across the street from the church building. I walked on the crunchy woodchips among the 30 plots, each one organically farmed by a person in the community. I am totally a city girl at heart. But being in that small town, I almost wanted to pack up and move to a quiet, shady street where my neighbors bring me fresh produce and everyone sits on their front porch in a rocking chair, watching the sun set. Almost.
Second, the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry reopened last night after the flood with a sold-out show! I love country music and this is such an important staple in Nashville culture.
Third, I saw my spiritual director yesterday, and it was good for my soul! We talked about saying goodbye to the person you think you “should” be, and actually writing HER a goodbye letter. I haven’t begun writing it yet, but it will be along the lines of “Dear Miss Perfect at Everything, get out of here.” Then I will bury it. I’ve become a proponent of mystical and symbolic sorts of things these days.
Fourth, we’ve begun planning Jack’s baptism. After participating in our friends’ daughter’s baptism a few weeks ago, and talking about it in our small group, I think it’s going to be awesome. There’s so much to say about it. But I can’t wait.
Fifth, our windows! Erik opened the windows in our living room yesterday that had been painted shut. I wasn’t home but apparently it was complicated. But this was a perfectly timed idea, as last night was cool, black and fall-scented, and the air pouring into our house was quite intoxicating.
I also have to mention the extraordinary breakfast sausage I ate the other day. Yum.
Some friends recently turned me on to The Food Revolution, hosted by the utterly charming chef and food activist Jamie Oliver. He travels to West Virginia to single-handedly reform the most obese city in the country one school lunch at a time. It’s truly a mesmerizing show. And I’m very excited to learn today that it won an Emmy! Well done, Jamie, well done. Now if I could just hear him say “Hello gorgeous,” or “Hello darling,” one more time…
I know it sounds weird, but I have been having the best time rehabilitating an old cast-iron skillet from the Goodwill. The skillets and saucepans I usually use to cook are T-Fal, which we got for our wedding and I am completely unimpressed by. Not only do the screws come loose at least once a week, the Teflon coating is starting to get scratched off and we all know how toxic that is. Maybe that’s my fault because I put them in the dishwasher fairly regularly.
So last week when I was poking around the Goodwill, I saw this lonely little 10-inch cast-iron skillet on a shelf. It was covered with some sticky, sap-like goo, which may have been someone’s attempt to season it, but it really looked and felt like somebody poured syrup into it and let it harden. I put down the $7 to make the skillet mine, and took it home to begin the cleaning process. I didn’t know much about cast iron or caring for it, so I read a lot online. This was my favorite how-to.
First I scrubbed the skillet with dishsoap and hot water. There’s actually a pretty heated debate over using soap on cast iron—some people say only water and kosher salt—but I just brought this pan home from the Goodwill, so I’m going to use soap. I washed it about 13 times to get the goo off, and then I noticed the whole inside bottom of the skillet was rusted. So I used steel wool to scrub the rust off. I tell you, cleaning that pan was so much fun. I can hardly describe it. Probably goes back to my fascination with makeovers. Anyway, finally I dried it thoroughly, used a paper towel to rub some vegetable shortening all over the inside of the skillet, and baked it upside down in the oven for an hour at 350. I’m doing this for the second time now. Apparently this will season the pan and achieve the “shiny black patina” that is so desirable for cast iron.
The first thing I cooked in the skillet was eggs, which I now realize was a really bad idea, because you’re supposed to cook something greasy, like bacon, which will help the seasoning to set. The eggs required a lot of scraping and in the process, I could tell I took off some of the seasoning. No worries, though. I will season ‘er again. I believe this skillet to be quite old. It looks like something Laura Ingalls Wilder would have used to fry chicken.
Little did I know that cast iron is the cook’s best friend. It conducts heat evenly and dependably. It can last several lifetimes, if cared for properly. And although it’s not naturally non-stick, seasoning will accomplish that goal without poisonous Teflon. My new goal is to find a 12-inch cast-iron skillet at a resale shop. Sometimes a 10-inch just isn’t large enough, and I want to phase out the T-Fal as soon as possible. The only slightly worrisome thing is that the cast iron requires more specific TLC than the cheap Target versions. I’ve read all sorts of tips: Don’t soak your cast iron. Don’t pour cold water into a hot pan or it will crack. Wash it immediately. Don’t use soap. Don’t scrape. Dry thoroughly. Heat in the oven or on a burner to draw out any remaining moisture. Blah blah blah. So if I can remember to do all those things and get my dear hubby to do them too, we might be on the road to becoming cast-iron cooks.
Summer is a great time to read. Though I’m not floating in the middle of a pool with an umbrella-studded drink in my hand, sitting down to read is so wonderfully opposed to multi-tasking, it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Here’s my vast and varied summer reading list.
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (reading this with my book club)
I was blown away by this ground-breaking social experiment in the 1960s. It’s shocking how racism gripped the Deep South in the not-so-distant past. Another eye-opening read on race relations is The Help by Marilynne Robinson. Loved that one.
Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (reading this with my small group)
I’m not far into the book, but it’s already challenged my idea of heaven as this place up in the clouds where we’ll “go” when we die. Instead, Wright argues, it’s more like a new world order coming down to us. I’m incredibly interested in heaven and the after-life, which is the book’s focus; I sometimes even think I have an unhealthy preoccupation with death. But learning more about heaven and what we can reasonably expect when we get there might prove exciting and comforting. I hope so.
So Long Insecurity by Beth Moore (reading this with the girls in my small group)
Like a lot of women, I’ve spent a lot of my life battling insecurities. I also tend to take them out on my husband and get lost in a forest of introspection. One day I just got fed up with it. A dear friend gave me this book for my birthday, and I dove in eagerly. I haven’t been disappointed. My favorite chapter so far has been “A Cocktail of Ego and Culture.”
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D. (reading this to learn how to make Jack take naps)
Let’s be honest: You don’t exactly read books like this for fun. But I’ve had a lot of fun reading this book. It’s delightfully authoritative and practical, and contains an encyclopedia’s worth of information on sleep. I am currently learning about night waking.
W.R.I.T.E. 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. By Karen E. Peterson (reading this because when I’m not on assignment, I perpetually have writer’s block)
My husband got me this book while we were dating, and I put it down without finishing it. However, I recently picked it back up and found it to be exactly what I needed to cure an insufferable bout of writer’s block. The first several chapters detail the battle between our equally demanding left and right brains and how we can actually “trick” our brains into more successful writing. I know, it sounds kooky. But it’s really quite fascinating. It’s kind of changed my life.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (reading this because I love her)
To me, Anne Lamott is a warm blanket I want to curl up in and a jolt of caffeine at the same time. She is my favorite author, hands down. This book includes everything she knows about writing—and that’s a heck of a lot. This one occupies the honored spot on my bedside table. I read it every night before bed and always fall asleep feeling hopeful.
You’re right—it’s a lot of books, but I am going to finish them all. Promise.
Happy spring! I’m working downtown today, and I’m loving the sight of fresh, leafy tree branches against the brick buildings and concrete parking garages. If you sit in front of the courthouse to eat your lunch, as I sometimes do, the flat pool with its sparkling fountains is like a tropical oasis in all that gray stone. Even the yellow hardhat of the man working on the water mains provides a welcome splash of color.
This spring I’ve been spending most of my spare moments on my front porch swing, watching bumblebees and breathing in the smell of cut grass, holding my 3-month-old baby in my lap. I’m aware of how big and new and wonderful the world is through his eyes, and somehow it makes it seem that much more big and wonderful to me. In Nashville, spring quickly gives way to sticky humidity, so I am treasuring these moments when I can still go on an afternoon walk or leave the front door open. I hope you find little ways to treasure springtime too, even if it’s just a bouquet of flowers on the table in an empty Juicy Juice bottle (thanks to my husband for that sweet little touch!).
And if you can, put on a bright shade of lipstick and high heels and go out into the warm, fragrant night for a birthday dinner and drinks with friends. That’s what I’ll be doing tonight! Cheers!