When I picture in my mind this turn from Advent to Christmas, it looks like a stream of water becoming larger and faster until it pours itself out into a big, beautiful sea.
And, I do think it is like that. But, it is also like sitting next to a friend at the Christmas Eve church service. It is getting up and making the traditional Christmas morning cinnamon rolls. It is heading to the kitchen to prepare the turkey or ham or (in our case) the Beef Bourguignon soup. It is cleaning up the mess of wrapping paper. It is a big sandwich made with leftover everything and eaten in front of the fire.
In other words, Christmas is both extraordinary (like frosty starlight and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) and beautifully ordinary (meals cooked and shared, phone calls made and received).
We all know this. We have all lived this. We have seen Christmas come and go, again and again. But I mention it because it is so easy, with the waiting and the longing, to forget that what we have been waiting for is mostly already with us. Not entirely, no, but more and more every year Christ is with us and his kingdom is more fully realized.
Perhaps, what we have been waiting for is not more of Jesus, necessarily, but eyes that are open more widely to the fact that he is always and already with us – in so many seemingly ordinary ways.
And so I wish you an ordinary Christmas. A Christmas of friendship and special food and thoughtful gifts. A Christmas of candlelight and carols and maybe a hand to hold or, if not that, a very good book.
I wish you a Merry Christmas.
Autumn is a time for hoarding books. Like a squirrel and its acorns. Like my children and their Halloween candy.
Winter, the reader’s favorite season, will soon be here. And, yes, despite what we might say, winter is our favorite season. We can admire the beauty of fall, the fresh breezes of spring. We can enjoy mucking about in our gardens come summer. But, as readers, we are always at our happiest curled up with a book.
Short, dark days are welcome because they let us off the hook. What else is there to do but pull the blanket closer and go on reading our book?
Here are a few recommendations to help pad your winter reading list.
The first is welcome throughout the year, but I usually only remember it come fall. The Autumn Board Book, by Gerda Muller, is one of four wordless board books focused on the seasons.
I’m afraid I lost some of you when I wrote board book. But this is no ordinary board book.
As one of my favorite picture book characters would say, board books are the raisins and zeros of the book world. Condemned to be chewed upon. Containing only simplified, shortened versions of classic stories. I like to have a few lying around for the actual baby, but, otherwise, I give them a pass.
Except for these.
Muller’s four books are exquisite. I keep one nestled in with the candles and bowl of acorns on our kitchen table. It’s the kind of book you will want to pick up and enjoy for at least a few minutes every day.
These books make great first gifts for a new baby, but they are wonderful for older children, too. A good friend with grown children recently purchased all four. She told me she’s setting them aside for future grandchildren, but I’m quite sure she’s enjoying them in the meantime.
Autumn … the year’s last, loveliest smile. – William Cullen Bryant
One of my favorite things about this hinge season between summer and winter is the food. No more quick pestos or sauteed garden veggies. Now is the season for slow-simmered curries and meaty sauces and cranking the oven back to high.
Whether or not you care much for food or cooking, you will enjoy Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House Reader’s Circle). Reichl, a celebrated food writer and restaurant critic, is the exact right person for memoir. Not only is she a great writer, but she is curious. She collects stories and experiences like I collect books.
This memoir is full of fun and sweetness, but it tells some hard stories, too. I realized while reading it that quite a few of my favorite memoirs are written about girls growing up with mentally ill mothers. I have no idea why this is. I do know that Reichl’s book is an excellent addition to a list that includes memoirs by Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls.
The most powerful things about this book is the way it makes you care. First, for Ruth, and then for her family and friends and even the stray characters who cross her path. Reichl sees the world (and writes about it) through a lens of love. And I believe we only see the world, other people, and our own lives truly when we look with love.
My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was ten I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner. – Ruth Reichl
Luci Shaw is one of my favorite poets. I’ve mentioned her here before. She is a poet of faith and substance and beauty.
What the Light Was Like: Poems is a perfect collection for this season of shifting light. Reading poetry slows us down, something I always long to do this time of year, and Shaw’s work, especially, calls us to notice the natural world and to listen to its messages.
Light has a peculiar quality of transforming what it touches, like gold foil over wood. In Hebrew the word for glory has the sense of heaviness, as if light adds to the bulk of its significance. When I see the road that runs in front of my house and the bushes along the sidealk touched with sunlight, even the black tarmac and the faded winter leaves look glorious. – Luci Shaw
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.