contemplative life, domestic arts, everyday parables

a room in the kingdom

There’s a room in the kingdom where your sisters are weaving.

No one’s speaking now, not after days of late-night talks and early-morning laughter, of sermons and studies and gathered meals. Instead, some read, some write, and others tend their little looms, weaving bands with colors like a winter sky. Someone at the piano recalls the song we sang last night, when the lights went out under roaring wind and thunder.  This morning, as sunshine dyes the hour gold, they hum along, “…all I have needed, Thy hands have provided…” And their hands pray with thread and rag, drawing the weft like hours and days and years, ordinary moments given form and glory by the upright cords of the warp: covenants that neither bend nor break.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where your friends are feasting.

The tables are heavy with brisket and chicken salad, fajitas and rice, lemonade and Dr. Pepper. The family could have circled close, hiding their grief in seemly privacy. But they know their father better: beloved host, he would open the doors, tell his children to bring their friends home, too. After all, who else will eat this food? And so they laugh even as they weep, telling stories, explaining the intricate display of cotton bolls, the feed-sack, the photograph, the family legend and dear history.

They eat well, affirming the resurrection with second helpings, until, as they house empties, they turn to you and say, “Tell us.” And even here, even in their grief, they listen to the hard choice. Offering no easy answers, betraying no awkward impatience, they listen deep and wide, wide with the love of those who grieved, deep with the hope of those who believe.

And so, having feasted at their father’s table, you find yourself outside, four friends holding one another against the cold. They pray for you beneath the blazing stars, upbank from the river that can bless and flood. Four friends against the cold, and then — a fifth draws near.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where strangers are meeting.

You can hear the drums before you leave the house, and the firelight tells you where to find them. Circled already: neighbors, friends, and strangers linked by firelight and rhythm. They would burst the seams of your little house, but here around the fire there is room: room to beat a drum with jubilation or shy intensity, room to slip out for a cigarette or a dance, room to join or wait.

Bring your banjo and tambourine, your bucket or pot, your tingling bells or child’s drum. Bring your clapping hands and timid feet, surrender to something beyond your power, something beyond your right to start or end, manage or maintain.

***

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

(Matthew 4:17 ESV)

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baking, faith

tiny oven, full table

The oven is tiny. Each use requires that I crouch down try, often unsuccessfully, to kindle the pilot light. I don’t really ever know what temperature it has reached. And yet: from this little heat-cave comes good food. Even better: we have friends, nearly every night, to come and share the feast with us. Not once has there been too little to share.

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cooking, domestic arts, everyday parables, faith, marriage, recipes

Tasting hope

“This,” said my husband, putting down his spoon, “is really Tom Bombadilish! It’s the ideal that every jelly tries to be, and fails!” Of course I smiled. How could a lover of Plato and Tolkien–not to mention a new wife–fail to be pleased by such a comparison? Taking another bite myself, I knew he was right. The taste could only be called wild: richly flavored, baptized with sweetness, vivid with the memory of tree-high vines, spider webs, and early-morning sunlight.

Grape jelly is not a food I’ve spent much time or energy pondering. Lacking the symbolic heft of bread, for example, it seems, at best, a marker of childhood lunches, peanut-butter-and-jelly days of untroubled desire. As an adult, I’ve kept my love of peanut butter but tend to skip the cloying jellies in favor of honey, cinnamon, or apple butter.

Why, then, did this jelly mean so much? Why did my husband taste in it something of Middle Earth? And why did I come back to my six little jars of it five times yesterday, simply to look into its purple depths? Because when I savored its wild sweetness, its complex goodness, I knew I was tasting hope.

Hope can be complicated when everything is new. On the one hand, new doors open all around, inviting dreams and desires. But you also lose the settled expectations of the old order. The relationships you can rest in, the view out your window, the nature and value of your work — all these can become impossibly fragile. At least, that is how I have often felt during these first months of my new life. How can I hope towards a beautiful home, when my house is an RV, pretty enough on the inside, but nothing compared to the beautiful old house I owned in Alabama? And how can I hope into my vocation, when I am not teaching –the one expression of my calling which I was sure I did well?

When questions are too big to run away from, sometimes the wisest course is to run into them. When my narrow walls make me fretful, I rise early and go run. I watch the tiny homes go up, play with the kittens, say good morning to the chickens, bless the gardens, and remember that I am living in a beautiful place, so much larger than my private domestic aspirations. I run through the gap in the fence, into the neighboring subdivision. Passing house after house, I find an unexpected nature trail. The serendipity of this discovery makes me love the canopy of green, the steady sound of crushed granite beneath my feet.

Last week, Steven came with me to see the trail. As we walked, he noticed a vine of wild mustang grapes. “I can’t believe they’re still here so late in the season,” he said, plucking one. The skin was thick and sour, but the pulp inside was tantalizing and sweet. We continued our walk, dreaming together. The next morning, I returned. The vines tangled far deeper into the thicket than we had realized the day before. They climbed high into the trees, and with their purple fruit they hung like beaded curtains between the trail and the little clearing within.

The foraging was sticky, scratchy, spidery work, but after an hour I returned home with five pounds of fruit. Over the next two days I worked with the grapes, my hope growing with each step: soaking, washing, pureeing, cooking, preserving. When it finally came time to taste, I was wide-eyed, ready to eat spoonful after spoonful straight from the pot. Such goodness, waiting among forgotten trees. Such grace, bought without coin or credit. I remembered God’s call in Isaiah 55.1:

Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price

The greatest enemy to hope is the idea that the fulfillment of hope depends on my power. I should know better, really; my dissertation, if nothing else, taught me that hope empowers my work and self-sufficiency, not the other way round. We can and must work toward the objects of our hope, but in the end, God’s abundance supplies all the goodness we can bear.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food

(Isaiah 55.2)

Last week, God’s grace came in the form of wild mustang grapes. Surprised delight made my hands wise, and they created something beautiful. This is the wildness of hope: it gives us so much more than we could ask or imagine.

***

Wild Mustang Jelly

Ingredients

(adapted from the PickYourOwn.org instructions, here)

5 pounds wild mustang grapes

4 cups sugar

3 Tbs + 1 tsp Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin (this is important! Use regular pectin and you’ll end up drowning out the tang with too much sugar)

Instructions

Wash the grapes. I did this by placing them in a large dishpan of cool water, letting them soak for a few hours, then draining them. Sort out any grapes that are wrinkled or rotten.

Puree the grapes in a food processor. (You can do this by hand with a potato masher or food mill but a processor will do a better job of releasing the juice from the skins and fruit).

Put the puree (pulp, skins, and even seeds) in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, and add just enough water to cover the grapes. Heat with high heat, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the grapes. You can do this in a number of ways. Jelly purists use a very fine strainer, such as a jelly bag or even a muslin pillowcase, to obtain a clear juice. I actually prefer having some of the fruit pulp in my jelly, so I simply poured the puree through an ordinary kitchen sieve. (I also set aside the already-strained pulp in a bowl, and found that once it cooled, I could pour off even more juice). Altogether, your five pounds of fruit ought to yield 5 cups of juice. If you have less than this, you could always make up the difference with some organic grape juice.

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Return the strained juice to the pot and add the pectin. Bring to a full boil over medium or high heat.

Once the mixture has begun to boil, you can test the jell by dipping an ice-cold metal spoon in the jelly. If the jelly becomes really thick as it cools to room temperature, you’re ready to proceed. If not, try adding a bit more pectin.

Preserve the jelly. Pour your jelly into hot, sterilized jars and process in a water-bath canner according to the directions on the jars or the pectin. Once processed, remove the jars, let them cool, test the seal, and then find a friend with whom to share your treasure.

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domestic arts, everyday parables, fiber crafts

The tension and the tedium

“I’ve tossed everything together.”

“I’ve woven everything together.”

What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first suggests haste, casualness, even indifference. The second sentence, on the other hand, connotes order and care, whether “everything” means ideas or paperwork or relationships.

While tossing has its place (salad, anyone?), we tend to use the verb “to weave” when describing things of great value: we speak of “weaving dreams,” or of a new husband and wife being “woven” together through love. Hardly trendspeak, these phrases have shaped language and thought for centuries: the ancient poet Homer, for example, uses weaving as a metaphor for human cunning and wisdom. So while most modern people have never seen anyone create real cloth on a “definite loom” (to borrow John Updike’s phrase), weaving has, for thousands of years, represented wise planning, careful arrangement, skillful execution. Even more, the products of weaving–cloths and fabrics of all kinds–can be emblems of the good things human culture can produce. Both literally and symbolically, then, “to weave” suggests a patterned beauty, a structured strength. It reveals a longing for care, intention, and integration.

When our ancestors first used weaving as a metaphor, they did so with deep knowledge of the processes and products involved. Unfortunately, with inherited language we are always in danger of letting our symbols grow ignorant and vague. Thus, while I can deploy the metaphor “to weave” with great confidence, I am only beginning to learn the wisdom of the literal craft.

Even as a novice weaver, I have already found so much buried in its most basic skills. At first, I was impatient for the exciting part — the shuttle moving from side to side, over and under, each pass building an intricate and beautiful pattern.  I quickly learned, however, that a lot of work must precede that swift and satisfying work. This preliminary process has the ominous name of warping, and it means to stretch a number of vertical threads, under very high tension, from one end of the loom to the other. Even on the simplest of looms, the warping process can be incredibly tedious: some threads must be remain stationary during weaving, while others must be free to go up and down, and these different groups must be attached to the loom differently, thread by thread. At the same time, the weaver must attend to the colors of the threads, and how the vertical hues will interact with the weft (horizontal threads) to create the final pattern. The more complex the loom and pattern, the more demanding this warping process becomes. Finally, once the threads have been arranged in the proper patterns and colors, the weaver must tighten the threads with considerable pressure. If these vertical warp threads are not taut, they will tangle with the weft, creating a slack mess rather than a clear, structured design. If the threads cannot withstand the stress of tensioning before weaving, they will inevitably break during the friction and movement of the weaving itself.

Because I am in a season of so much newness–new marriage, new place, new forms giving shape to my calling–even these elementary lessons in weaving have challenged and comforted me. Do I resent the paperwork involved with moving, changing my name, switching insurance companies, and turning my Alabama home into rental property? Does the anxiety of networking temper my enthusiasm for new enterprises here at the Village? Does the long work of revision feel laborious compared to the thrill of a published piece? To each of these questions, the answer can be yes. Even the most satisfying work has its tedious hours, its stressful encounters and accountability. These tasks can feel like intrusions upon the “real” work, the satisfying heart of our labor. And yet, they form the bones of our crafts, whether that means creating a home, writing a book, starting a business, or weaving a strong piece of cloth. Hurrying through the humble or frightening work now, creates waste and confusion in the long run.

As I look with satisfaction at the first pattern to come from my loom, I resolve not to resent the paperwork or preparation. Rather, I’m learning to give thanks for the time, ability, and courage to do the work behind the cloth. We live in a world of tangled philosophies, careless habits, and shoddy work. Attending to what is difficult or mundane bears witness to another, better form of life, preparing the way for the patterns of God’s hidden kingdom.

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domestic arts, education, life together, marriage

Coffee breaks and the kingdom of God

As a scholar, a teacher, neighbor, and friend, I know who I am. As a wife, I am newborn, and my husband with me. Though already in our thirties, with coherent values and ambitions as individuals, we have just begun to understand what it means to be wedded, married, espoused, yoked. We have been at home together for two weeks, and have already spent hours discussing what it means to be with and for one another in this new, shared life.

We know, however, that we both can too easily get lost in our heads, soaring through intuitions and ruminations that may or may not come to any embodied good. And so, even in these early days, we have tried to build habits that can train our desires to love what is good, not just for the sake of our marriage, but so that we might long for God’s kingdom with our tongue and gut as much as our intellect, emotions, or imagination.

One of my favorite rituals is our afternoon break for tea and coffee. Living here at the Village, Steven can walk twenty yards or so from his makeshift office to join me for lunch at middday. He comes back, around three o’clock, for a coffee break, and I, too, set aside my writing, reading, or planning for half an hour, before we both turn to the last few hours of our daily labor.

For someone who easily develops tunnel-vision when a project is before her, this practice promises to be a delight and a challenge. Since my teens, I have been consistently guilty of valuing my work above my people: skipping meals, postponing phone calls, and even actively hiding, for the sake of squeezing a bit more work out of the day. As Steven and I have agreed to break each day, we recognize that it makes us less “productive” according to our “to-do” lists. Perhaps we both have even felt a little silly, as if we might be indulging in newlywed fondness that will fade with time.

Certainly, there will be days when neither of us particularly wants to stop for coffee at three. We may feel a special urgency or interest in the work at hand. We may be annoyed with one another, reluctant to sit face to face. We may doubt that the other really wants to hear about what we’ve been doing. A thousand thoughts and moods may interfere, and this is precisely why making it a daily practice becomes so vital: because it is the practice itself that will train and strengthen our desire to be together and to participate in the other’s work and rest.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that if we are to be people who love rightly — that is, loving God and our neighbor — we need cultural practices and habits that teach us to desire what is good. Smith challenges Christian educators, in particular, to consider how desires and habits, rather than disembodied ideas, ground a life rooted in ἀγάπη (agape, love). However, his claims have implications for Christian households, as well. Ideally, the practices we create to encourage love–love of God, of neighbor, and of one another–will attract others, who can then enter into them with us. Yesterday it was one of Steven’s friends, a craftsman doing work on the property. Today it was my friend Jenn, sipping iced chai with me while Steven savored his coffee. I have begun to save my best tea and favorite morsels for these meetings, so that my tongue will be wise enough to come to the table, even if my heart isn’t.

Too often we leave our bodies out of our spiritual ambitions, foolishly imagining that with just a little more mental or emotional  discipline, we could live up to our ideals. There is grace, however, in realizing that the habits of our bodies–even if they sometimes feel like merely “going through the motions,”–can bring us back to what is good. Today it was chai and raspberry jam that called me back to daily, difficult, glorious work of love. The recipe for the chai is below (and I’m pretty proud of it), and so my challenge to you is to make a pitcherfull, savor its sweetness, and imagine how you might let your tongue’s desire for something good draw your heart toward something even greater.

Summer-Spiced Chai

Makes approximately 2 quarts of concentrate

Ingredients

8 cups water

1 stick cinnamon

1-1.5 inches of fresh ginger, coarsely chopped (no need to peel it)

10-15 whole cloves

1/2 tsp freshly-ground nutmeg

10 tsp loose-leaf black tea  or 10 black tea bags

2/3 cups raw sugar

1 Tbs honey

1 Tbs vanilla (use the real thing! Artificial vanilla won’t give the same creamy flavor)

Instructions

Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add all the spices and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and add the tea. Let steep 15-20 minutes. If using loose tea, strain out tea and spices. (If using tea bags, remove bags and strain the rest only if desired. I actually prefer to leave in the whole spices because they continue to flavor the concentrate over several days). Add sugar and vanilla, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Pour into a jar or pitcher and chill for at least two hours.

When ready to use, mix two parts cold whole milk to one part concentrate.

Once you’ve made the basic version, play with other spices. You might try adding a star anise pod, cardamon pods, or even black pepper (about 1/4 tsp would be plenty) for more complex flavors.

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baking, everyday parables, prayer

Prayers Like Pie Crust

“Promises, like pie crusts, are made to be broken.” So goes the old saying, and it’s hard to dispute the analogy when you spend much of a November morning rolling out rich, thin dough for Thanksgiving pies. You think you’ve shaped the pastry to the perfect circumference, only to see a hole forming where the dough has been stretched too thin. Or the dough sticks when you attempt to transfer it from the counter to the dish. Or you set it in the oven to bake and watch the crust slide down the sides of the plate, muddling into a buttery lump in the bottom of the dish.

However many ways there are to break a pie crust, I think I discovered them all this week. However, as I mixed the dough, rummaged through the cabinets for a rolling pin, rolled and re-rolled, pressed into a pan, it was not promises, but prayers that I was imagining.

Prayer was much on my mind as I prepared for Thanksgiving this year. While I mixed extravagant quantities of butter and flour, my parents and my fiancé were traveling hundreds of miles from the north and the west. This would be their first meeting, and while the particular concerns of each person around the table is family business, the fundamental truths would be true for nearly any table in the world: we were gathering in gratitude, but also in brokenness, our hearts stretched thin by disappointments, fears, and cares.

As I watched and waited for my guests–my family–to arrive, my prayers seemed as fragile as my pie crusts: they were messy, oddly-shaped and stretched much to thin. I would begin one, then doubt its strength, scratch the whole thing and try again. It seemed impossible that my requests for guidance, or peace, or love, could cover all of us. I worried that they would not bear the heat of our need.

In the end, however, I found hope in my little kitchen parable. So my crusts were frail and broken: what else could they be, coming from human hands? Of course, I could have gone to the store and purchased pre-made crusts, buying peace of mind instead of working for it. My prayers were uncertain, too timid, and seemed much to small, but as I prayed them, they reshaped my own heart, pulling into something more strong and vast than I have ever known it to be.

Feeling this strength, I did not give up on my prayers, just as I did not give up on my pie crusts. I took a deep breath and put them to work, filling them with rich pears and spicy ginger, homegrown pecans and hearty sweet potatoes. When we brought the pies to the table, everyone could see and smell that they had done their work. Everyone, whether joyful or fretful, took a bite and pronounced them good.

Prayers, like pie crusts, are made to be broken, not because they are weak, but because it is only in the breaking that they feed us. Like human hearts, like Christ’s body, when our prayers break, they begin to transform us. Break, taste, and see.

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Watching for these everyday parables has become one of my most challenging and rewarding spiritual disciplines, and I find that I notice far more about the life of the spirit when I am working with my hands. If you’re interested in exploring how prayers are like pie crusts–or if you simply want a delicious, easy pie crust–here’s the recipe I love to use.

Bethany’s Simple Pie Crust

(adapted from Elise Bauer’s No-Fail Sour Cream Pie Crust)

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 sticks unsalted butter, cubed

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar (omit for savory recipes)

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

Cube the butter and set aside. Whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar (if using). Add the butter and use your hands to incorporate the butter and flour mixture. Continue mixing until you have a crumbly dough with only a few chunks of better visible. Using a fork (or your hands) to mix in the yogurt. Mix until the dough is consistent in color and texture.

Form dough into a ball and cut in half with a knife. Flatten each half into a disc and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least thirty minutes.

Before rolling out, sprinkle your work surface with flour. Each disc will roll out to 12-14 inches, enough for a single 9-inch pie plate.

Use the crust according to your own purposes: if you do not pre-bake the crust before filling, you may wish to place it in the freezer for 30 minutes, so that it sets before you fill it. Unless your recipe says otherwise, the crust will bake to done in about 20 minutes in a 350° oven.

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