All in Feast

For a long time, I did not love poetry.

I read poetry. I memorized poetry to get me through a job that left me weary from boredom. I tried to understand poetry. But I didn't love it.

I loved words. Any words. Words in books, words in songs, words on the shampoo bottle. I loved stories long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. I loved metaphors. I even loved select poems. But I did not love poetry.

Keeping the Feast

It was a world — a life — that disappeared with divorce and vows gone wrong, as the garden did under the parking lot. With it went the abundant veggies and flowers, the girlfriends' nights of canning and freezing the harvest, a certain style of gathering friends and family around the walnut table.

 All the more richly strange that anyone should gather — in both the old way and the new — at the walnut table nicked now with thirty years of feasting which, though it has changed styles, continues. A table hosting faith and doubt, pain and joy, betrayal and commitment. 

Mothers, Daughters, and Meatloaf

For the last year I’ve been trying to understand my mother in a deeper way. I’m confused by so much, even my inability to see things for what they were. I don’t have a lot to help unlock the mysteries, so I hold tightly to the things I do have that represent her life and tell her stories: the photo albums and scrapbooks, an interview I did with her in 1976 for a college class, and the recipes.

Consider the Oven

As I apply salve to the blisters, June Carter Cash's song petitions the circle to be unbroken in her Southern-honey voice. We light the candles and sit down to supper. We consider the gift-oven's miraculous powers and presence — gifts I did not give us by “fixing” the situation, but which came to us through the generosity of others.

Sometimes I am frustrated with the way my denominational tribe approaches the Lord's table. (Sometimes I am frustrated with the ways single people are invisible in the church.) Occasionally I sneak off for what I call "a maintenance dose of liturgy," to a place where everything in the service builds to the table, and we literally approach it, getting up out of our seats and walking to it and holding out our hands. (Occasionally I sneak off to someplace where I expect to be invisible.) I did that a few Sundays ago. 

For the first time in my life, I did not know what was next. I only knew that it was time to lay low, rest, and wait. I was dried up inside and felt like I had very little to offer anyone around me. As it turns out, for the first three weeks of the year, I really didn’t have anything to offer as I was sick with a cold the whole time. I thought that I was going to start my sabbatical by doing all those things you never have time to do when you are working, like crafts and cooking and working out in the middle of the day. Nevertheless, my body was screaming at me to stop doing and start being. So I slept. A lot.

Waters of Refreshing and the Joy of the Heirloom Tomato

The watering came in unexpected ways. Sometimes the Lord’s refreshing comes through a change of scenery — the resting place of a vacation, a Sabbath day of ceasing our worry and work, a retreat at Laity Lodge. Sometimes it comes through a change of countenance — we are literally righted from the inside out, brought to clarity, given new perspective and strength. Sometimes we’re made compassionate again, given a new imagination and concern for people’s needs, or a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.

We lived under the same roof for less than two months. The short time gave us many answers to the question, “What makes a house a home?” Shared meals and laughter became the foundation. Courage to tell each other our hard life experiences formed a beautiful entryway. Talking while cooking and cleaning side by side put up an internal framework that remains. 

Philip woke at eight the next morning and started the percolator. Around nine we decided that we wanted to treat everyone to coffee in their rooms, so I assembled the trays with pretty mugs and sprigs of holly and cream and sugar and, each carrying one, we ascended the stairs, grinning at one another like children. We delivered their coffee with bright greetings, and Philip started the fires in their rooms so that they could relax in bed for a while before breakfast. I told them we would eat in an hour: already the sacrosanct aromas of my mother’s Christmas Morning Breakfast Casserole, reserved for only the most special of occasions, was filling the air with invitation.   

Fruitcake lovers tend to be quiet whereas fruitcake haters tend to be loud, but most fruitcake haters I know have never had good fruitcake (and some have never had any fruitcake at all). So it seems that makers of fruitcake either must either hide their wares under a bushel (no!) or share them with evangelical fervor. Thus, I have decided to become an evangelist for fruitcake. Because everyone (especially my brother-in-law who requires more prayer, for he has yet to refrain from making disparaging remarks while the rest of us groan and ask for more) needs to know how wonderful it is.

Taking the Long View in a Life of Hospitality

When visitors come into the well-supplied kitchen of our home, The Art House, with its 60” Wolf range and side-by-side refrigerators, they often rightly ask, “Do you like to cook?” I almost always stumble over a simple yes or no answer. After living most of my adult life feeding hungry people, I am very interested in food and cooking. But the interest has come alongside the necessity. Cooking has been unavoidable, a skill developed with use. Thankfully, I was inspired early on to see the kitchen as a wholly creative and meaningful place to work, so I have leaned into all the need with an imagination formed by those ideas.

With Bread

Company. Campaign. Champagne. Champion. Companion. Familiar words that sound so alike because they all spring from the same medieval French and Latin roots. “Com” = “with” and “Pan” = “bread.” “Camp” (champ) = “open country or field.” These words are cousins in etymology and function. To be a companion is literally to share bread with someone. To share bread with someone is to keep their good company. To keep their good company is to be their champion. And to be their champion is to be their defender, to walk among them and eat with them. 

Now, certainly I am grateful for the cheerful mechanic who diagnosed and replaced my broken alternator last Christmas Eve. And I owe a great deal to the tailor who salvaged the almost-brand new red leather shoes I’d spilled jojoba oil on. But that does not diminish my own satisfaction from improvising an oil plug gasket by sewing together part of a leftover ring from a battery-cleaning kit. Nor does it dim the delight of successfully building a new pad for a seatless chair frame I found on the street.
For the force of hunger is a movement toward life, a movement of life. These pangs of hunger are evidence of hope, a sign to keep looking for things not yet seen, not yet at hand. If I were full, would I need to keep traveling? The pilgrimage might come to an early end.
In a time threaded with liminality, all I have to offer is my finite, fallible self, my defenseless skin, and I try to hold onto my capacity to be faithful to the inexhaustible opening of time and whatever glories or agonies attend it. I think about the coming months, this precarious stretch, my parents and my infamous traveling Crock-Pot, the urgencies of art, stacks of sentences that require me to wrap myself around silence and suffering and joy's quiet possibilities so closely that I recognize myself in every note of grandeur and desolation.
In my letters I tell him, “I wish you were here so I could make dinner for you.” I daydream about how when he is released, eight years from now, I’ll have mastered new cooking skills and will prepare him whatever he wants, however much he wants. I imagine I’ll hold a spoon coated in sauce or frosting up to his mouth and say, “Here. Taste this.” And he’ll close his eyes and taste it and then smile, like we were in a movie or something.
We lined the jars on the familiar countertop, but first things first: blanching and cutting the tomatoes. It takes some waiting, I discovered, but only after scalding my fingers — too impatient to let the water cool down. When I asked Grandma how she knew how much salt and sugar to add to the jars, she looked at me and said, “I do it that way because that’s what my mama always did.” There is no written recipe, only paying attention.

I use it sometimes now, when it’s my turn to bless our food before dinner and I am tired or worried or simply can’t think of anything to say. The familiar rhythm of the words comforts me, carrying with it echoes of the many people who have prayed it before me, and those who still pray it around their tables. It brings me back to those summer days at Mimi and Papaw’s, standing barefoot on the kitchen tile, hand-in-hand with the people I loved the most. Now, as I face my husband across our own dinner table, it sums up everything I want to say:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed.

I dabble. This is partly to do with a lack of focus and, at times, plain old laziness. But sheer curiosity holds the lion’s share of this scattershot creativity. It’s not enough to enjoy a good book — I want to write good words. To drop five bucks on the counter for an artisan loaf of bread or to savor a craft brew and not experience the process is to leave something incomplete. A question remains unvoiced.

On the day I was making stock, I was also taking stock. No doubt many of us do that this time of year, with the old year gone out the back door and the lock turned behind it, the new year just over the threshold, still slipping off its coat.

One way to consider and savor a year: Whom did I meet? What new friends did I collect and get collected by? What correspondents became a face and a voice and a delightfully embodied presence?