During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.
I shared a special photograph on facebook this week.
My son, a small smile, and a slice of warm, wheat bread.
After nine years with no bread or pizza crust, no pasta or ice cream cones, our boy successfully completed a food challenge for wheat at the children’s hospital.
No more allergy.
I started baking bread the very next day.
There are other allergies. More severe allergies. There will be more food challenges. But this is something new. Something wonderful.
I once wrote about my son and his allergies for the website Deeper Story. It’s one of my favorite things.
I’m sharing it again, and on my own website, because the truth I was trying to discover then feels even more important now as we navigate this change.
We haven’t arrived at the end of this story, but we have begun a new chapter.
The full story remains complicated. A little bit beyond my grasp. I am comforted to remember that the very best stories are never the easy ones. Not the easy ones to tell. Not the easy ones to hear. Certainly not the easy ones to live.
Here is that old, still continuing, story.
“Finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”
– Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
I know two ways to tell this story.
The first way follows a trail of brokenness. Like a mountain path marked by rubble.
I don’t like to tell it this way. It feels so negative, even somehow un-Christian. But I do sometimes tell it like this, especially when you ask me directly about my son’s food allergies.
The twin themes of this story are loss and fear.
This is the story of eight years with no bread or pizza. No ice cream or cheese. No peanut butter-and-jelly, no granola bars. No yogurt. No mac-and-cheese or fish fingers or chicken nuggets. No birthday cake at the parties of his friends.
This is a story about epi-pens and calls to 911 and too many visits to the E.R.
I might leave out the details of that one mother-son date when I forgot the epi-pen. No happy ending (in this case, a stranger with a pediatric epi-pen in her purse) can erase the horror of five minutes spent listening to death rattle in your little boy’s throat and knowing it is entirely your fault.
The central episode of this first story might be the year my son spent eating lunch alone at a table on the stage of the school cafeteria. The only kid in the “nut-free” zone.
The second version of the story is more positive. You might call it pie-in-the-sky. Or, possibly, head-in-the-sand.
I’m not sure the story told this way is any closer to the truth, but it is easier to tell and easier to hear.
Highlights of this story include the gluten-free bakery only ten minutes from our small Pennsylvania town. They make pizza crusts and hamburger buns and even cupcakes without wheat or dairy or nuts. The pizza crusts are a little sad, but I will leave that part out.
This second story will make your mouth water. I will tell you about our special fried chicken and meatballs made without bread crumbs. I will tell you about a little concoction we call “pizza rice.” I will tell you how much my son adores his seaweed snacks. I will tempt you with my recipe for pumpkin bars.
Neither story gets it right. Neither one touches the heart of our experience these eight years. The first points out all that is missing. All that is twisted and wrong. The second tries to distract you from the brokenness with a pile of deliciousness.
Both versions leave me hungry for the truth.
I think the true story follows a third way. As so many of the best stories do.
I’ve been feeling out the contours of this other way for years, as if searching for a secret place. The place where loss is still loss but is also, somehow, gain. The place where grief remains grief but where it is also the color of joy.
How do you tell a story built on contradictions?
I can’t send my son to summer camp, but my son lacks no good thing.
I pray every day that my son will be healed, but I believe the answer I’ve long been given: he is already healed.
Our family table is ringed round with fear and loss. Death and sickness. We never sit down to eat without noticing those shadows at our feet. And yet the food we eat at this table is good. Each bite tastes like a gift.
How can I ever account for the wonder of a table prepared in the presence of my enemies?
When my son tells the story of his old school, he tells it like this:
“Mom, remember when I ate lunch on the stage in the cafeteria?”
“Yes,” I say. “How could I forget.”
“I was all by myself. It was like eating on top of a mountain! It was so quiet there.”
Watching him tell his story, I see a far-off gaze. I see something around his mouth. It is like the memory of a smile.
As if he’s glimpsed some other, hidden world. Some truer place.
(this post contains affiliate links)
Is just so full.
The peonies are heavy, and ruffled, and scented. I have a jar tumbling with pale pink beauties right at my elbow, and I keep stopping to take deep, deep breaths. Like I’m dying of thirst, and this smell is cool water.
The strawberries in the vegetable garden are ripening so quickly I find at least a few mushy fruit no matter how often I pick. I keep keep them netted against the birds, and I try to gather most of them before the kids come home from school. It’s the only way I can guarantee at least a few berries for myself.
The blueberry bushes are small but loaded with fruit, and I’m ashamed now to remember just how angry I became when I caught the two-year-old stripping green berries off the branches. Now when we walk past, she looks at those bushes, shakes her little head, and says, “Mommy so sad.”
Spring allergies are wrecking me, most of us have had pink-eye, our dishwasher finally died (after a long, not-very-valiant struggle), and we’ve already had so many warm, humid days that I’m starting to get very nervous about the summer.
I read Kate Atkinson’s beautiful, mind-bending, heart-wrenching new book called A God in Ruins: A Novel (Todd Family). I’ll have a bit more to say about that in an upcoming installment of These Farmhouse Bookshelves, but I’ll tell you now that Atkinson, already one of my favorite writers, just keeps getting better and better.
Probably, I’ll also be recommending Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest: The Buried Giant: A novel. Only a third of the way in, I’m already stunned. Ishiguro is a master, an exquisite stylist and a compelling storyteller. I’m afraid my family is in for a weekend of being ignored, because I can’t stop reading this book.
All winter I sipped tea while I read, but I’ve switched to cold-brew iced coffee. I was once a pro with a mason jar and a fine-mesh sieve, but I am loving an early birthday gift from my mom. The Toddy Cold Brew Coffee Maker With 2 Extra Filters makes the cold-brew process – already easy – even easier, and the lidded carafe keeps the concentrate fresh longer. You certainly don’t need a gadget like this for cold-brew, but, let’s be honest, sometimes a messy bit of cheesecloth or a sieve that isn’t quite fine enough are all it takes to send you to the pros at the coffee shop.
Tonight is pizza night in our house, but for the first Friday in weeks we won’t be putting asparagus on our pizzas. Our backyard harvest has ended for the year, but if you still have asparagus around I highly recommend sauteing a few spears in extra-virgin olive oil before laying them right on top of fresh mozzarella (I recently shared our quick-and-easy crust recipe at Grace Table).
On instagram, I’m sharing flowers, flowers, flowers, plus the occasional cute kid. I’m also taking time to step out into the last of the golden light even though it means changing the mud-streaked pajamas of the two little bedtime-avoiders who always follow me outside.
It really is too much. I can’t handle it all, but I suppose that isn’t the goal, is it? Not to handle it. Not to manage it. But to live it.
Which means, I think, to keep your eyes open, your heart broken, and the words thank you always on the edge of your tongue.
A week ago Friday, Maplehurst’s kitchen was the scene of a pizza party.
Rice flour crusts turned crisp in the oven while puffy dough rested on the counters. Oregano snipped from the pot on the steps turned tomatoes, garlic, and oil into more than the sum of their parts. We sliced fresh mozzarella on one board. We scattered dairy-free cheese substitute on another. We browned sausage from Axel, our local farmer, in the cast-iron skillet.
We baked and sliced and baked again as seven children held out their hands for more.
The pizzas were delicious, but that doesn’t explain the looks on the faces of two mothers who hovered near the table.
“He’s never shared pizza with a friend,” she whispered.
“Never,” I said.
The kitchen table.
It’s a symbol of hospitality. Of togetherness and community. Except, for us, it’s the place where fear draws up a seat. The table doesn’t bridge the divide. It reinforces it.
We say no to potlucks. We decline the invitation to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. If we say yes to the birthday party, I bake our own pizza and cupcakes ahead of time.
We don’t often say yes.
A young girl in California is given three injections with the epi-pen but dies anyway. Fear scores one more point.
Always there is another reason to be afraid.
In the daily sifting of life (this is good, this is bad), life-threatening food allergies are our constant Bad Thing.
The pizza party came during the week we hosted good friends, a mother with two daughters and a son. Our big girls were once babies together in Chicago. Their family left the city soon after that, but our lives have run on parallel tracks ever since. Epi pens and questions. Fear and hives. Uncertain blood tests and frighteningly close calls.
Most importantly, we share little boys. One has a grin slightly wider than the other, but they both carry medicines and their own packed food wherever they go.
This shared Bad Thing brought us together for a week, but it turns out Good and Bad can’t be sifted so neatly.
Our week together was perfect summer weather and long drives over green hills past storybook farms. Our week was three little girls laughing and noisy, nightly sleepovers. It was a week of good conversations. Of childish voices singing together during our own at-home Sunday morning service. We swam in the creek. We visited a new Amish farmstand every day.
And the food! Two ears of corn for each person at the table. Watermelon for breakfast, afternoon snack, and dessert. Garden squash even the children enjoyed (the secret? Julienne into matchsticks and cook it up in a pancake).
We ate Japanese fried chicken and ribs cooked on the grill. We dipped spring rolls fried in coconut oil into a no-sugar-needed apricot sauce. We licked our fingers over garlicky green beans, and we smiled over a rainbow of tomatoes dusted with salt and cracked pepper.
I don’t think a week like this would be possible if we handled our fears well. I don’t think it would happen if we tucked them neatly out of sight.
I think we arrived at this week because we felt the full weight of fear on our backs, but we kept on walking. We acknowledged our fear but asked, “Isn’t there more?”
It turns out there is more. Much more.
I’m no longer so confident about naming the good and the bad in my life. What do I know, really? I know that food allergies are terrifying but pizza shared with a friend is the most delicious pizza around, whether or not the cheese is real.
I think even a life lived in the valley of the shadow of death can be beautiful. I don’t fully understand this. I may never be able to explain it or account for it. But I am grateful.
“… the rising sun will come to us from heaven / to shine on those living in darkness / and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Food is my love language.
Isn’t that one in the book? No? Well, I’m convinced food is my love language. I know my mother loved me because she sometimes surprised me during the after-dinner homework hour by sneaking into my bedroom with chocolate pudding. Yes, Mom, I still remember the chocolate pudding.
I show my kids love by feeding them.
Which has, on more than one occasion, resulted in a call to 911 and an epi-pen. Which just goes to show that love is complicated.
Making something that is healthy, non-allergenic, and liked by all is my holy grail of cooking. Actually, it’s my holy grail of motherhood. But, like any epic quest, mine is marked by failure, disappointment, and only occasional victory. Like the knights of old, I am not giving up.
Books like these inspire me to get up and give it another try. Books like these remind me that food and its enjoyment are among the very greatest gifts of our creator.
First, (for those whose taste buds have been set dancing by the photo above) is Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. Yes, that photo shows actual bread baked by the actual me. In my actual home kitchen. And, it actually tastes even better than the picture looks.
In addition to the cookbook, you will need a digital scale and a cast-iron combo cooker (though I think a dutch oven would also work). Then, simply follow directions. Robertson takes us step-by-step from making our sourdough starter through his basic country loaf and on to variations that include everything from pizza dough to English muffins.
I am generally something of a disaster in the kitchen, but this book makes me look like I know what I’m doing.
Next, is a book I suspect many of you have read. It’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. If you haven’t yet read it, then I am thrilled to be the one to give you that final push. Because read it you must.
Do you like food? Do you like memoir? Then you will like this book. Kingsolver chronicles the year she and her family spent eating only locally grown foods, most of them foods they had grown or raised themselves. Kingsolver talks politics, global warming, and the state of American agriculture, but at the heart of this story is good food, family, and love.
This is a book about tomatoes. How we care for them. How we harvest them. How we spoon them out of jars in the middle of winter and remember warm, summer days. This is a book about bread. About what it does for our families when our homes smell of fresh-baked bread.
This is a book about celebration.
Finally, a new-to-me book I admit I’ve only just begun. Two chapters in, and I’m smitten. It’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. Generally, I won’t recommend a book I haven’t yet finished, but this is one of those books you start telling all your friends about before you’re even halfway through.
Adler is funny and wise. She begins with the simple act of boiling water, and I am now convinced that a big pot of bubbling, well-salted water is the start of all sorts of magic.
This is a book for those of us who love food but get bogged down in long, complicated recipes. It’s a book to make you believe that you, too, can create, not restaurant masterpieces, but the stuff of life. Good, nourishing food.
Which is, of course, the whole point.
Just the other night, I sat on the front porch and wished I had a sweater. The calendar may still say August, but, around here, summer is definitely tipping over into fall. Our weekly delivery from the local CSA orchard is shifting more and more from peaches to apples.
My daughter says, “I smell fall!” I tell her, “I can hear it,” curled, yellow leaves crunching under my feet.
During our two years in Florida, I missed autumn most of all. We still had summer (beautiful but long). There was spring, just more gradual and gentle than any northern spring. Our first year there we even had a winter, of sorts. But there is no autumn in Florida.
Each season has something important to say. Right now, the world is still very green, but, when the wind blows and the air suddenly fills with yellow leaves, this truth is revealed: there is no escaping death.
This is a season for dying.
It’s also my favorite season.
Maybe that’s because it tells me that death is a lie. We may imagine death as the end, but in fall we know that this dying is leading us toward a blaze of glory. In dying, we are walking toward beauty.
Our new home is beautiful. In the evenings we go for drives through a vibrant green, rumpled-quilt sort of landscape. There are creeks, tunnels formed by trees, old stone, Quaker farmhouses at every crossroads, and road signs that say, “Caution! Horses and hounds.”
We drive for the beauty, but, in honesty, we also drive to put our 3-year-old to sleep. Put him in a bed and he’ll stay awake for hours. Put him in a carseat, no matter the time of day, and he’s snoring within minutes.
A sleep-deprived preschooler isn’t my only frustration. There are also allergies. And asthma, that same nemesis that kept me bed-bound all last winter in Florida.
Nearly every breath I’ve taken in this new place has hurt. The baby doesn’t wake me up at night, but the coughing does. And I wonder, why this serpent in my Eden?
But, if death is a liar, so is trouble of every kind. Sickness, disappointment, difficulty: they all say God is not so good.
Here is something wonderful about having walked through deserts and having enjoyed the good, green places: Paul’s words in Philippians 4 finally make some sort of sense.
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
He is the secret. Our God of peace.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if this jar of clay has failing lungs. It is Christ who lives in me. Lives!
And nothing touches me without passing through his hands.
So I can live unafraid. I can live grateful.