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.
Ready or not, I will write about simplicity.
But are you ready to read words on simplicity by a woman who lives in a 7-bedroom farmhouse on four-and-a-half acres?
Because even if I explain that three of those bedrooms are on the third floor. That they don’t all have closets. That the ceilings slope against the eaves of the roof so that it is hard even to stand up in places; even then, I am describing abundance and not simplicity, aren’t I?
Here is where you might expect me to say that simplicity is a matter of the heart. It’s what’s on the inside that counts!
I am not going to say that.
True simplicity does reach all the way into our hearts, but it is also very much about our stuff. Our houses. Our land. Our clothes and cars and gadgets and machines. Our credit cards and bank accounts and pantries. The number of bedrooms, the size of our kitchens, the bins stuffed with toys.
All of it.
Why did Jesus tell so many, so often to get rid of their belongings? To store up a very different kind of treasure?
He wanted us to live like flowers. Like birds. Free of everything that would weigh us down.
It isn’t only my freedom at stake.
I recently found an old shirt in my closet. The label said Made in Bangladesh. I remembered the garment factory fire. I remembered how only a few months later, another garment factory collapsed. I wondered if the hands that had made this shirt were still alive, still sewing clothing for western consumers hungry for bargains. How had those hands suffered?
My desire for stuff, and the choices I make when I spend money have far-reaching implications.
You know this. I know this. But who has the time, the energy, the knowledge to make only perfect choices?
It’s all so complicated. So hopelessly complicated. When what I want is peace. What I want is simplicity.
Of course, there is one easy answer. One simple way to begin: live with less.
Don’t buy it (even though it’s cheap). Give it away (even though I might need it some other day). Let it go (though I wonder who I am without this possession).
I think about letting go, and I suddenly remember something important. How could I have forgotten? It was letting go that led me here. Here, to this abundance of bedrooms and growing gardens.
I let go of a career. I gave away the dream that had fueled my living for so long. I cast my bread upon the waters and what came back was the bread I longed to eat. The bread I could break over and over and give away: seven bedrooms (every one of which will be full this weekend) and ground to cultivate (food to eat, food to share) and words of life (my book coming to you next February).
So much wisdom on living in simplicity begins with giving stuff away. Clean out your closet, purge the toy bin, carry it all to the thrift store. Feel yourself breathe.
But I never understood. I am not a born minimalist. I like stacks of books (the more the better), I like pretty bits and bobs with sentimental value. I like knowing I can throw a party for a crowd with the contents of those three drawers.
Giving things away also felt like cheating. Isn’t it much harder to stop accumulating things than to give them away once I have?
But giving things away is like a muscle in need of exercise.
Give away the clothes, the toys, some books.
Give away the car, the job, the dream. Break the bread. Spill the oil. Keep giving until you wake up one morning and realize you have given away your life.
Because that is the morning you begin to live.
People, look east!
The guest is on the way …
A hymn for this, the third Thursday of Advent.
“People, Look East”
People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest is on the way.
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there.
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose is on the way.
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.
Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as the sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Star, is on the way.
Angels announce with shouts of mirth,
Him who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.
Words: Eleanor Farjeon, 1928
Music: ‘Besançon’, traditional French carol
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.
Once upon a time, Mondays on this website were devoted to poetry. Because the small bites of poetry are about the only literary food I have time for these days, I’m reviving the tradition. Please tell me what you think. Would you like a poem each week?
To help you make up your mind, here’s one from a favorite poet, Luci Shaw.
It reminds me that my own “quotidian wilderness” (a land of baby bottles and cinnamon toast, children with sniffles and autumn leaves) is saturated with glory.
They asked, and he brought quails,
and gave them food from heaven. Psalms 105:40
I’m not asking for quails for dinner
and, if they flew in my window, at mealtime,
in a torrent of wind, I would think
aggravation, not miracle.
Time is so multiple and fluid. If I lose a day
flying the Pacific and gain it back
returning, perhaps the prayer I offered
this morning at first light
was known and answered last week.
You never know what a simple request
will get you. So, no plea for birds
from heaven. Rather, I will commit myself
to this quotidian wilderness, watching for what
the wind may bring me next –
perhaps a minor wafer tasting like honey
that I can pick up with my fingers
and lay on my tongue to ease, for this day,
my hunger to know.
– Luci Shaw