Last month, I sat in a lean-to just big enough for eight people, listening to high schoolers tell the stories of their lives. The lean-to sat on a hill overlooking Long Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. The sun had set, the bugs had come out, and we were huddled around a small candle, its flame flickering dimly on our faces.
These students had it hard. Their lives have held darkness and isolation, just as every life does, but still, my heart ached for them. I myself had traveled there with my own burdens, preoccupied with myself and tunnel-visioned by my anxiety. We were a bunch of lonely, melancholy, anxious people.
That same evening, after we had finished eating and cleaning up camp, we read Psalm 104 together. Our voices rose along with the smoke in a chorus, harmonizing with the loons, proclaiming the glory of God made manifest in God’s creation, in the earth, full of God’s creatures. After a day in the wilderness, we unreservedly praised God for the canopied sky, for the expanse of the lake, for the well-watered cedars of the Adirondacks, for nighttime in a forest, for the life born out of God’s Spirit.
Over the next few days, we lived in that psalm. We read it together again. We meditated on it on our own. When we watched the sun fall gold and white into the night, I whispered, “You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers upon the waters.” When we were rained out by a storm that lasted all night, we laughed and said, “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.”
And somewhere between Sunday and Saturday, the little boats of our lives started to change course. When I’d ask a student how he had changed since we arrived in New York, he’d say—without fail—that his heart was lighter, his spirit brighter. A sense of companionship, of hope, of confidence had begun to blossom within him.
For too long, we had each been caught in our own little eddy in the stream. Stuck. Spinning in circles. Some of us were working frantically to paddle out, but to no avail.
With the help of the psalm, though, we started to look up, to see what was around us, to notice the expanse of the sky, to see our companions on the water. One of our leaders pointed out what a small role humanity plays in the psalm. Instead of reinforcing our isolation, the psalmist invites us to take in the spacious, glorious created world.
When we lifted our eyes from the nose of our boat to the horizon and up to the green-garbed mountains, it became easier to steer out of the swirling water. Our view suddenly included the whole of creation—from the clouds to the cattle to the coneys—and we gained perspective on our troubles.
But it was more than the mountains that lifted our spirits. If mountains themselves were that powerful, the remedy for depression and heartbreak would always be to escape to the backcountry. Instead, the reason that the mountains carry that kind of power is because of the one who dwells there, the one to whom we lift our eyes. The Lord. Our help.
From his lofty abode, he waters the mountains. He clothes the lilies of the field, watches over the birds of the air. He opens his hand, and his creatures are filled with good things. The earth is satisfied with the fruit of his work.
The psalm depicts a God who cares for his creatures. Over the course of our days in the wilderness, we began to trust that God would carry us out of the stuck places. We looked to God to give us our food in due season. We were hungry for something new, and God fulfilled our yearning.
He fulfilled our yearning by sending forth his Spirit and creating us anew.
Who can say exactly how God’s Spirit moves, because all we see is the way the trees rustle in the wind, and the way our souls grow spacious. But I knew it was God’s Spirit, being sent forth into our huddled little group as we canoed down the river. Because we were moving. Things were changing. We were being created anew.
That kind of creation doesn’t happen without a great big exhale of the Spirit.
The same Spirit that hovered over the waters in the beginning and brought order out of chaos was hovering over us. The Spirit gave bounds to the water and ordered it not to overcome us. The Spirit held the dark waters at bay and made room for Christ’s light.
Our lives, which had seemed unendurable, were thrown open to the light. Our spirits were filled with hope, which is exactly what we were hungering for.
We returned home to Michigan, leaving the mountains behind, but retaining the space the Spirit had created in our lives. The same sun sets up its beams on this water. Clouds still bloom white as sails in the sky. Here, too, God extends his hand, shines forth his light, sends out his Spirit, and we are created.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!
When you travel across the country to San Francisco, you have certain expectations about the trip. You’ve paid for travel and lodging and food as well as the experience, and you expect—even demand—that it lives up to your exotic, delicious vision of the place. Pay in, get back.
But no one promises that easy exchange. Sometimes your beloved sprains his foot while hiking the trail you’ve been looking forward to all week. Sometimes the money you wanted to go to a magical dinner at Chez Panisse gets redirected toward a taxi so you don’t have to hike the five miles back. Sometimes the foot gets progressively worse rather than better, and even standing on the bus is painful, so that you two are confined to a small, three-block radius in a funky neighborhood in San Francisco, far from the coffee and bakery and dinner and ice cream destinations of your dreams.
It doesn’t compute. I paid in! you think. You calculate all your expenditures. You set your experiences on the other end of the scale. The scale sags under the weight of the expenditures. You start to get bitter. You mewl, mope, manipulate. You make your husband limp to the places you wanted to go. But you have no fun. Your terrible heart is two sizes too small.
Your own June gloom swoops in. You cross your arms, recount all the bad parts: the delayed flight that lost you your first reservation at Chez Panisse, the standby flight you thought was a perfect fix until it separated you from your bags, the hunt for evening light on a vineyard that got you stuck in the forest until the sun had already set, the pointless bus ride to the far end of the park for a bakery that’s closed on Mondays. A waste, all of it. All horrible. (You are prone to dramatics.)
But slowly, with a little prodding, the sun peeks through: you recall the dark burnt undertones of your salted caramel Bi-Rite ice cream, the free tasting of very fancy wine you charmed out of the sommelier who saw in you his sister at your age, the everlasting loaf from Tartine, Grand Budapest Hotel from seven stories up, a mug of beer under a wool blanket and a canopy of lights at Biergarten, the ancient mossy trees in Muir Woods, the soft swish of long golden grass on a hillside, the fog-snug night waiting for the bus, billows of bougainvillea, a chic shower, two candles lit in prayer, friends over a languorous evening of wine and ceviche, and your first tender bite of B. Patisserie’s famed kouign amman.
At church on Sunday, you sing of life’s assured difficulty: flesh will fail. Bones will break. There are no guarantees, no one promising that if you pay in, you’ll get something wonderful in return. The scales are never balanced. You cry from identification with that truth.
God doesn’t promise unbroken feet. He doesn’t promise that if you pay for your ticket, he’ll take you to the best restaurants. He doesn’t prevent citywide bus strikes just so you can do everything you want on your vacation. God is not particularly concerned with your idea of a a tidy transaction.
And thanks be to God for that. Instead, God, who is faithful and just, abides by a different system. His scales aren’t balanced, but the difference is that his scales generally fall in your favor. Not, of course, in the sense that you’ll win the lottery and get a private tour of San Francisco and its best food and most satisfying hikes and most charming bookshops.
But in this sense: there is the promise, contained in an arc of color, that the waters will never again overcome you. That part of the contract doesn’t hold, either. You look out over the runway to the colorful, hazy band, a strip of pure grace given at the end of a strange and wearying trip, and you swear you are going to take off into it, pass through the curtain right where yellow meets green, and enter into a world you didn’t pay a single penny for, a world a thousand times more brilliant, where everything is grace! grace! grace!
You cry again, this time out of a new kind of recognition and gratitude, out of longing for that world. When will you finally stop hobbling around on useless feet? When will your heart of flesh quit shriveling up like a hard, hollow walnut? Like the rainbow, that new world seems always to hover just beyond your reach; just when you think you’ll pass through its beams of light, it jumps behind the next mountain. Like so much of your trip, no amount of cash will make it yours. Like the bread and bougainvillea, it will come not on your terms but another’s.
The covenant of grace. So simple. Requires none of your tabulating. Doesn’t demand exact change. The covenant of grace, if you keep your window open and your eyes on the horizon, will spring into view and usher you onto the cable car of your dreams, taking you round and round the city, waiting while you taste each ripe peach at the farmers’ market, letting you stand arms outstretched on the bridge and catch fog with your hands, recommending all the best ice cream flavors (which are the only flavors in that world), and kindly extending the night into tomorrow so you don’t have to leave the canopy of sonorous conversation, swollen with contentment, for quite a while yet.
I watch the trees, decked out in their pink, white, burgundy leis, and I beg them to stay. You are magic! You are beauty! You perfume the air with your gentle scent. Please do not go green.
Tiny white petals are heaped in the gutters, in cracks in the sidewalk, in every cranny they can find. When a gust of wind passes through, it lifts the branches and carries the soft white rounds in a billowing, streaming flurry of springtime fairy snow. The petals are scattered everywhere; ordinary walking feels like a special occasion.
Stay, stay. Don’t succumb to uninterrupted green.
But already on the branches the pinks are sharing space with green. Leaves are splitting open everywhere and crawling along limbs. The tulips have become old women, graying around the edges, losing body, fading. Only straight green stalks remain, like stiff soldiers milling around the flower beds and fields. The forsythia is long gone, the magnolia only a few stained tissues on the ground.
In the garden: GREEN! Leaves aplenty—sage, lemon balm, ox-eye sunflower, the rose I thought was a goner, sedum, thyme, hydrangea, purple coneflower not yet purple. Will color return before we move? Will the rose offer its minute yellow buds before July?
Thankfully, inside, in the long planter, every last salad green has found its way out of the seed and is climbing toward the window. We will take these with us, bring the garden along. If we have to leave home, we’ll take home with us. By July, mesclun, arugula, lavender, basil, chives, cilantro, parsley, rosemary.
Stay, stay, I say to the redbuds’ red buds. Stay, I say to the lilac. Stay, I say to myself. Three years we’ve lived here. Don’t leave. Don’t leave these walls that have collected wild yeast and scuff marks and drill holes. Don’t leave these floors that have bowed under the weight of so many hundreds of beloved feet. Don’t leave these ceilings that have overheard secrets and prayers and have thrummed with music and laughter.
Oh, my heart is sad. Don’t be silly, I say to myself. You’ll be just a few blocks away. But a few blocks! That’s the difference between spring and summer. Between what has been and what will be.
What will be will be good, I know. But I’m bringing my plants along just in case.
This rose bush ought to be dead.
It endured life-threatening thirst last summer, to the point that it was no more than a bundle of bone-dry branches.
It braved a midsummer transplant into sandy soil, where its desire for water was teased but not satisfied.
It suffocated under four solid months of snow, no one caring whether it was winter hardy.
Anywhere in the last twelve months, the rose could’ve given up the ghost. We would have understood. Drought, ill-timed transplant, relentless winter—any one of those would have been reason enough for the rose to sigh and sink into the oblivion of worm-crossed soil. This world is too, too hard.
But when the roses speak, I pay attention.
And this one is saying, “Quit your bellyachin’.”
“I survived without water. I weathered your foolhardy transplant. I waited out the winter.”
“It’s easy to pray for sustenance, home, sunshine. It’s much harder to pray that your spirit will endure when those things are not as you’d like. It’s easy to justify your anxiety, fatigue, belligerence, blaming it all on the tough times. It’s much harder to overcome those vices of spirit despite the conditions.”
Lord, have mercy.
Bring new life.
+ + +
When the Roses Speak, I Pay Attention
“As long as we are able to
be extravagant we will be
hugely and damply
extravagant. Then we will drop
foil by foil to the ground. This
is our unalterable task, and we do it
And they went on. “Listen,
the heart-shackles are not, as you think,
death, illness, pain,
unrequited hope, not loneliness, but
lassitude, rue, vainglory, fear, anxiety,
Their fragrance all the while rising
from their blind bodies, making me
spin with joy.
Spring is finally unfolding here in Holland. Remembering the thrill of noticing nature’s first green-gold from a great big window on the sixth floor of the seminary library last spring, I have checked every day for one tiny green burst on some tree.
Thirteen days into April, nothing. Fourteen, this:
In those rupturing buds, so much possibility! hope! promise!
So tied am I to seasons that the arrival of spring and the approach of summer always herald an opening in my spirit. My dreams grow. Days that seemed intolerable become delicious. And this year, knowing that we’ll be at Hope come fall, I can receive these seasons fully and freely. Oh, the books on my list! The mornings to be given over to writing! The prospect of someone I love dearly moving to Holland!
And after a long winter of not-writing, now writing.
Not much, yet.
Fifteen minutes a day, up from ten.
But I’m writing. And for the most part, it’s feeling better. Like I’ve moved from huff-puffing around the block to jogging a mile. Some days I still don’t want to write, but the momentum’s there. I can say with integrity that I’m writing.
To keep us all from faltering, my friends Colin and Anna and I are meeting to write together and to hear each other’s writing. To encourage, mostly. Colin’s encouragement was this, wisdom from Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life:
As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”
Everyone has their way of screwing up the courage to write. In our college writing workshop, Heather was always reminding us that we are made up of two parts, a half that wants to write and a half that doesn’t, and our work is to trick the half that doesn’t into writing. (If you’re wondering who she’s scolding in that most recent post, it’s us.) My friend Adam’s strategy is to picture writing like a jet ski, which, once you’ve fallen off, is much easier to climb onto if the jet ski is moving. Momentum breeds stability.
I’m picturing the lion, wild and fierce, and determining not to let it overcome me. For two weeks, it hasn’t. One night, on my way to bed without having confronted the lion for the day, I checked my e-mail and found a note from Colin saying I had to write before I slept. He says I can’t skip a day for at least a month. Maybe two.
My methods of tricking the not-wanting-to-write part are varied: a timer, a notebook and sublimely silky pen, friends, metaphors, books on creativity, a writing group, and, most recently, Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. A whole three days of spreading my arms wide and receiving whatever wisdom, spurring, and osmotic aptitude these writers had to offer. Twenty pages of notes trying to capture that wisdom, spurring, and aptitude. (Next time, I’m going to try sketchnoting.) A heart bursting with hope.
I want to tell you all about it! I wish I could recreate the conference and its effects on me. I feel wiser, spurred on, and more capable. I’ve decided to not be afraid of language, to use luscious words the way Amy Leach does, to explore metaphor, to write what I don’t know about what I know, to write a lot because there’s no end to the creative abundance in this world.
That whole weekend, I mulled, I simmered, I gushed and gobbled more. I buzzed from session to session, flitting over book tables here and there, finding quiet spaces to eat and sort everything out.
Meanwhile, the apples I had brought to snack on froze in the hotel fridge. And once removed, thawed to mush. Totally unappetizing. Fortunately, Molly came to the rescue with a roasted applesauce recipe that might’ve been the only way to salvage these sloppy, spongy apples. I only had five, but cored and quartered, they fit perfectly into an 8×8 pan and took just under an hour, giving me ample time to write. I need those clear wedges of time; writing is simultaneously delightful and difficult. It doesn’t always come naturally.
I need structure, discipline. I need to be forced sometimes. Even forsythia will bloom when it’s cold out. Give it a mug of water and a window, and here it comes!
with thanks to Molly Wizenberg and Judy Rodgers
Spring is on its way! Apples are on their way out. This is the perfect way to send winter off with love.
as many apples as you want (at least a pound or two)
1/2 tsp. sugar per pound of apples
1/2 tsp. salt per pound of apples
1 Tbsp. butter per pound of apples
Preheat your oven to 375ºF. Quarter and core your apples. I forgot to peel mine, which made them harder to mash into applesauce but added a delicious dimension. Do what you will.
In a baking pan—8×8 or 9×13, depending on the number of apples—toss them with the sugar and salt. Snuggle them against each other and scatter little bits of butter across the top. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and put it in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until they’ve begun to soften.
Crank up the heat to 500ºF, remove the foil, and return the pan to the oven for another 10 or 20 minutes. (I had lots of bubbling juice in the bottom, which I poured into a cup before putting the apples back in to allow them to get dark rather than damp. I added this back in at the end.) When the edges have caramelized and the apples are browning, pull out the pan.
Use a fork or pastry cutter to smash the apples, or, for a silkier consistency, use a blender.
“Sometimes I take a book of poetry because walking suits poetry.”
—Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
I had lunch with my college roommate, Alissa, this week. She confessed that she had a hard time being still. She dances with a company in Chicago and between rehearsals and performances and teaching, she’s always on the move. How do you manage to be content with just reading or praying or sitting, Grace?
I laughed. I’m just as much a busybody as she is. For exercise, I’ve preferred running to walking because it burns the calories more quickly and I can be on to the next thing. At work, I’m always sprinting from one meeting to the next. At home, dusting and tidying always prevail over reading. A free night? I’d rather call up a friend and fill the evening than stay home and be still.
But I did tell her that I’ve been trying to keep wide margins in my life, to preserve open spaces. I’ve been walking more lately. Every book I’ve read in the last year on creativity or writing recommends daily walks: everyone from the choreographer Twyla Tharp to Steven King, who was out walking when he got hit by a van (I’ll stick to sidewalks, thank you). Madeleine L’Engle always seemed to be walking.
My friend Josh once told me that he thinks even walking moves us too fast. Stillness, or at least leisurely ambling, is better. It allows us to take in more of the world. How will we notice the chives that are finally stretching through if we’re always dashing in and out of the house?
Walking and sitting are useful habits for writers. In her book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland actually commends idleness—”long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering”—as a practice for writers and other creatives. She suggests simply sitting at least half an hour, although, she says, “two hours is better and five is remarkable and eight is bliss and transfiguration!” In that space, ideas are conceived, nurtured, birthed.
And walking: it’s hard to do much else when you’re walking, except perhaps learn a poem or talk with a friend. Notice the trees, the air, the cracks in the sidewalk. Slowness encourages attentiveness, and attentiveness begets creativity.
After breakfast yesterday, I got a text from Alissa: “Today’s rainy, rainy day is good practice for me to be content with ‘being’ and not going anywhere…!”
So, in the spirit of rainy days and just being, here’s a loaf of bread. Slow mixing, slow kneading, slow rising. Slowness for attentiveness. Slowness for creativity.
Take a nap while the sponge is developing. Take a walk during the first rise. Write during the second. Be idle. Be creative.
inspired by Edward Espe Brown’s The Tassajara Bread Book
Here’s a sunny, light loaf for a rainy, dreary day. We were making chili, so I wanted something reminiscent of cornbread; after fiddling around with two recipes from The Tassajara Bread Book, I landed on this butter-colored, millet-freckled bread. The millet is pretty crunchy, so if you want yours softer, consider cooking it completely beforehand or soaking it overnight. Otherwise, soaking it just before you bloom the yeast will do just fine.
A word about scalding milk: the original recipe calls for dry milk, but I wanted to use up the milk in our refrigerator. I did a little research because I’ve had trouble in the past getting milk-heavy breads to rise well. I discovered that scalding milk (heating it to 180°F) apparently denatures proteins that prevent gluten from forming. There’s no consensus on whether it’s necessary to scald milk these days because it’s already pasteurized, but I didn’t want a stumpy loaf, so I went ahead and scalded the milk. My loaves rose—hooray!
1 cup whole millet
1/2 cup very hot water
2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to just-warm
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 Tbsp. dry yeast
1/4 cup (85 g) honey
2 cups (250 g) whole wheat flour
2 cups (250 g) all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. table salt
1/4 olive oil
2 cups (240 g) corn flour (I used masa harina, but you might try finely ground cornmeal)
1/2 – 1 cup (125-250 g) all-purpose flour for kneading
In a small bowl, pour 1/2 cup very hot water over the millet. Set aside. In a medium pot on the stove, heat the milk over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. When the milk has been boiling wildly for a few minutes—don’t let it boil over!—remove it from the heat and let it cool.
In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup lukewarm water. Let it sit for 5 minutes.
When the milk is no hotter than 110°F, or warm but not hot, pour it into the bowl with the yeast and stir in the honey. Then stir in the 2 cups of whole wheat and 2 cups of all-purpose flour. With a wooden spoon, beat it about 100 strokes. Let the strokes dig deeply into the bowl and lift out of the dough to aerate it. Cover the bowl and let the sponge rise in a warm place (the top of your refrigerator, near a pot on the stove) for 45 minutes.
After 45 minutes, fold in the salt, the oil, and the soaked millet. Then add the corn flour and stir until combined. At this point, you can begin kneading with the stand mixer or by hand. With the mixer, knead for about 5 minutes. By hand, about 10. The will have a consistency somewhere between bread and corn tortilla dough. If it’s especially sticky, add up to a cup of all-purpose flour until it holds together. Leave the dough in the bowl and cover for 50 to 60 minutes until it has doubled in size.
After that rise, punch it down by pressing your fist into the dough about 15 times all over the surface of the dough. Cover the bowl again and let it rise another 50 to 60 minutes. If you’re pressed for time, you can omit this second rising, but you can expect a denser loaf.
Divide the dough in half, shape into loaves, and place in two greased and floured loaf pans. Cover and let rise 20 to 25 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
Bake the loaves for about an hour. When they are golden, remove them from the oven. Let them cool for about half an hour, then remove from their pans and cool completely. Serve with butter and honey alongside soup.
It ain’t spring, folks.
Though most of the snow has melted in our yard and garden and we can actually get to our car on the street without having to walk down to the corner and then wrap back toward the house, it’s still only 24º out there. Snowflakes were falling a minute ago.
And while most of our friends and acquaintances have, at some point in the last few months, jetted south, toward heat and sunlight and the hope of summer, we headed north this weekend. Three and a half hours north, 10 degrees colder.
Our motto: To endure winter, burrow deeper.
I remember Heather telling us, with all the force of Robert Olen Butler behind her, to go to our white-hot center and write from there. Don’t look away. Don’t avert your eyes. Keep looking, staring, peering deeper into the parts of you that need to be told but want to hide. Don’t let them hide. Face them. Follow them into their hiding places. Follow them to your white hot center.
I say: Do the same for winter. Go to the white (cold) center. Pursue that center with everything you’ve got. Don’t look away. Don’t escape to warmer climes. Dive right into this snow, this cold, this wind. It has something to tell you. It’s not done yet.
Let’s go there, Michiganders, to our cold white centers and not avert our eyes. Brace yourself and face the cold. Don’t flinch.
I can’t decide if that’s poetic wisdom or if our trip to frigid Petoskey was good just because it made Holland, at 24º, seem a heck of a lot warmer. But I’m embracing winter. At least until April 1. Then all bets are off.
I like it in things—baked things like cakes and pancakes, but I can’t handle it straight because I can’t get over the word curdled. The word sounds like it’s congealing right there in your mouth. Curdle. That flat, low-in-the-throat “ur.” And -rdle: girdle, curdle, turtle. Weird words. Lemon curd, too. It’s the most marvelous spread, but honestly. Curd?
So, buttermilk: I never keep it around because of that terrible, sour combination of sounds, though now that I think of it, I haven’t actually tasted it straight since I was maybe ten, which isn’t a reliable guide for food preferences. In the meantime, I’ve come around to such basic things as onions and mushrooms (still a little squeaky-freaky raw), ketchup and salad dressing. Also ground beef in my tacos and cheese on my burgers. I even convinced myself to like plain whole milk yogurt, which has in fact turned me against thin, strawberry-flavored yogurts in cute packaging.
You’d think I could work up the courage to take on buttermilk. I do like it for baking, which is perhaps where my love can begin. Buttermilk transforms whatever it’s in into something magnificent—tender and sweet, tangy but not tart. I usually make do with lemon juice plus milk, which works alright, but ends up simply curdling (!) the milk without imparting any of buttermilk’s luxurious, tangy beauty.
If I learned to like buttermilk in its own right, it might earn a regular spot in the Claus fridge, one that would make it available for buttermilk baked goods all the time. Until then, I’ll do the lemon juice / milk trick or, on special occasions, buy it in small quantities, just enough for a recipe.
And these pancakes are a special occasion. They don’t need one. They make one.
They start the night before, preparing while you sleep to make your morning what I wanted that one to be. Perhaps because they’ve had the night to get a running start, they make good on their promise. These pancakes are buttery and hearty and delicate all at once. They take well to banana pieces or chocolate chips or blueberries. They suggest maple syrup but don’t require it. They love to be cooked in bacon fat and accompanied by bacon. They give an opportunity for buying a little extra buttermilk than necessary and learning to acquire the taste.
adapted from Molly at Orangette
A while back, I substituted buckwheat flour for the all-purpose that the original recipe calls for, and I’m so happy I did. Buckwheat and oats complement each other, plus the buckwheat flecks the pancakes all through and gives the batter a lavender hue. If you don’t have buckwheat, use all-purpose or give some other whole grain flour a try.
2 cups rolled oats
2 cups buttermilk
½ cup buckwheat flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. table salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled a bit
butter or bacon fat, for greasing the pan
maple syrup, for serving
Before you go to bed the night before, stir together the oats and buttermilk in a large bowl, coating the oats well. Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge.
In the morning, pull out the oats from the fridge and set aside to warm up. In a small bowl, combine the buckwheat flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Stir the melted butter and the beaten eggs into the oats. The butter will probably harden against the cold of the eggs and oats, but that’s okay. To that, add the dry ingredients, and stir everything until just combined. The batter is very hefty.
Melt a pat of butter or a spoonful of bacon fat in a cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. After a few minutes, fling a fingerful of water onto the surface of the pan. If it sizzles, the pan is ready. Pour the batter by the quarter-cup onto the pan. When the edges of the pancakes have started to turn lacy and set, flip them. The backs should be gorgeously golden.
Serve with butter and maple syrup. Makes about 15 pancakes.
Scripture tells us that the Word of God
is living and active,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
piercing until it divides soul from spirit,
joints from marrow.
It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
In the light of this word, we are laid bare before God.
The good news is that the one to whom we must give account
is the same one who has died for us,
the same one who was raised,
the same one who sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.
So, beloved, let us approach the throne of grace with confidence,
so that we may receive mercy
and find grace to help in our time of need:
you created the world in wisdom,
brought us forth from it,
and in wisdom, you set us within limits.
Yet we rebel.
We think we have no bounds.
We run wild, like prodigal sons and daughters,
refusing to heed you.
Silently we confess our rebellion and our foolishness to you.
. . . Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
you created all things from the overflow of your generous heart,
and you ask us simply to love you
and to love each other.
Yet we hate.
We let bitterness grow,
we scorn you and slight our neighbor.
We break the law of love.
Silently we confess our hostility and grudges to you.
. . . Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
you wrap yourself in light
and banish the night with your very presence.
Yet we hide.
We prefer the darkness
and its reveling,
its drunkenness and debauchery,
its quarreling and jealousy.
Silently we confess our secret sins to you.
. . . Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
People of Hope,
we have entered the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,
by the new and living way that he opened for us.
He has given us a true heart in full assurance of faith,
sprinkled us clean from an evil conscience,
and washed our bodies with pure water.
You have been forgiven.
Now hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who has promised is faithful.
Sometimes you just need a nap.
Which is apparently what I needed last weekend. After a long week and a late-night campus event on Friday, Dan and I had planned an unhurried Saturday breakfast, the slow sort of breakfast that we rarely make time for (although no one’s complaining about our usual toast or granola), a breakfast both savory and sweet, half eggs and bacon, half pancakes and syrup. I imagined a sunny Saturday, spacious and easy. No plans, except for breakfast. A day of rest and relief, a day of joy and peace.
Well, we made the breakfast—these heavenly, soft-scrambled eggs (watch the video; you won’t regret it), a strip of bacon apiece (all we had!), and banana chocolate chip pancakes, and then the day started to bear down on me. We proposed a few ways to spend the rest of our day, but I couldn’t handle them. Every idea seemed terrible, not what I wanted. They were perfectly reasonable ways to spend a Saturday, but I couldn’t manage to imagine them into my day. I cried. I was incapable of movement, decision, maturity. Everything was impossible.
I told Dan I was going back to bed. Maybe I could restart my day. I didn’t really believe it would work, but what else could I do? Sit at the table while my sweet husband cleaned up the kitchen and tolerated weepy me? Drag myself into some Saturday project that would almost certainly end worse than it began, which was already bad enough? Take a shower? Not yet—I wanted to go for a run first, though I hadn’t the energy.
So back to bed I went. Back to our new bed, I should add, a thick, pillowy, dreamy affair whose mere existence beckons. It’s hard to stay out of.
Swaddled in down, I tried reading for a while. I’m midway through Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk in preparation for her visit to Holland in March. Much of the book has resonated with me, but on Saturday, my eyes themselves glum, I found it hard to concentrate. I closed the book, rolled over, and let sleep carry me.
A hour or two later, I woke again. The sun was brilliant, filling the room with clean, happy light. Believing I should be refreshed, but feeling as listless as ever, I lay there. I couldn’t make myself move. I started to wonder—not worry, just wonder—if I was showing signs of depression: wanting to cocoon myself in bed, being unable to summon energy though the day itself was bright and sunny, feeling battered by merely the possibility of activity.
Kathleen Norris speaks of something like this feeling in The Cloister Walk. The feeling of interminable, insufferable days, the weight of malaise, the paralysis of mind and body. Following the monastic tradition, she calls it the noonday demon. It appears at midday, in that harsh, direct light, and oppresses with lethargy. Acedia.
I turned over the possibility of acedia in my mind. Could it be? It wasn’t depression exactly. I hadn’t felt a full six weeks of low spirits, the measurement offered by the anti-depressant commercials on TV. But that one day! It was heavy, too heavy to endure. And it was long, too long to bear. It was noon, and the demon had come.
I rolled back over to sleep.
A while later and I woke for a third time on that single day. The room, though bright, was too cold for me to leave the bed yet. I burrowed deeper into the covers. I still didn’t have much energy to read, though I tried. I coasted—that word that my grandma uses for the half-hearted drifting, the in and out from wake and sleep.
Somewhere in that swelling and ebbing, the thought may have come to me that though the noonday demon is real and powerful, it should not be coddled. I might not have the resolve to banish it entirely, but I didn’t want to welcome it, either. It was within my power to ask it to step aside. I thought I should probably go for a run. Running wasn’t what I wanted to do at the moment, but I knew that it would help push the demon from the living room to the entryway, and maybe eventually out the door. So I rolled, this time, out of bed, slipped into running clothes, and padded downstairs.
Dan, reading on the couch, greeted me. His voice had kindness in it, something I didn’t expect from someone whose wife had spent the morning grumpy and the afternoon asleep. I told him I was going for a run. He agreed that was a good thing. I tied my shoes and left the house.
The run didn’t need to be long to work its magic. A few blocks in, and the demon was on its way out. Maybe it was the physical movement, maybe it was the Romans 12 I recited as I ran, maybe it was nothing more than the fresh air.
When I arrived back at the house, I was eager to let Saturday be what it would. It may have been 4:00pm, but I was ready to start the day. In the exact opposite mood from the morning, I kissed Dan, showered and dressed, and then suggested we take cribbage to Lemonjello’s.
Strangely light, we practically floated there, ordered our drinks (free with our full punchcards!), spotted a table, and set up shop. After one hand of cribbage, our friend Ben came over and kept us company, entertaining us with his wit and running commentary. (We love you, Ben.)
We ended the day with stuffed shells, an episode of the West Wing, and the first half of Risk, a game whose length would’ve horrifed me 12 hours earlier but now excited me. I hadn’t played since fourth grade.
I want to say something profound about Saturday. I want to say it signaled a deep darkness in me that needed to be exposed and addressed. I want to say I overcame the demon. I want to make meaning from it.
But I honestly have no idea. I have no idea what Saturday was. It was odd and disconcerting, but also hopeful. There was a demon, but it didn’t linger. Maybe I did just need a nap. Maybe winter has been too long and blinding stark. Maybe our bed has mystical powers. Who knows.
I do know that Dan deserves a thousand thank-yous for his grace and patience, and that demons aren’t exorcised by the strength of the person they inhabit but by the power of community—in my case, unwitting Kathleen, Dan who promises to love and to cherish, and hilarious Ben. We have one body but many members, and not all the members serve the same function. So we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually are members one of another. Thank you, members.