Anne Lamott, and Why The Masthead of This Blog is a Raggedy Quilt.

Anne Lamott totally stole my metaphor.

No, not really. But her new book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, plays with the metaphor that made me choose that particular photograph for my masthead and, moreover, explains my love of quilts, especially the kind made from bits of cast-off clothes or leftover scraps that aren’t good for anything until they are stitched together into something beautiful. On the wall of my mother in law’s house hangs a gorgeous old ‘crazy’ quilt that was nearly tossed into the trash; it’s likely over a hundred years old, and that’s probably my favorite kind of quilt: jaggedy lines, clashing colors, and unusual embroidery tying it all together into a startling mosaic of color and texture.

Crazy Quilt Mosaic via Flickr. By Buttersweet.
Crazy Quilt Mosaic via Flickr. By Buttersweet.

Anyway: Anne Lamott’s newest book is very small. And it came out so soon after her last book that I was tempted to dismiss it, like, “how could anything good be produced so quickly?” Recently I read a review in which the reviewer dismissed Anne Lamott, saying that each of her books is basically the same. I admit that I wondered if this was just going to be a volume of so much recycling. And while all the classic Lamott themes are there, this book moved me more deeply than perhaps any of her spiritual essays since Traveling Mercies. It’s small, but it really packs a punch, not least in dealing with the problem of pain in a way that’s conversational, witty, and wise.

Here are some of my favorite lines and passages:

When something ghastly happens, it is not helpful to many people if you say that it’s all part of God’s perfect plan, or that it’s for the highest good of every person in the drama, or that more will be revealed, even if that is all true. Because at least for me, if someone’s cute position minimizes the crucifixion, it’s bullsh*t. Which I say with love.

Christ really did suffer, as the innocent of the earth really do suffer. It’s the ongoing tragedy of humans. Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn.

My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.

Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and the catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth.

Pretending that things are nicely boxed up and put away robs us of great riches.

Screen shot 2013-11-25 at 12.38.42 PM

To get back to what this all has to do with crazy quilts and such: there is so much brokenness in the world, and our ability to stitch it all up is incomplete and impermanent. But while we are waiting for all things to be made new, we find hope and healing in the connections we make with one another, and with God: paying attention to the extravagant beauty in the most ordinary things, sharing a meal, being kind. These are stitches. This is grace.

I highly recommend it, but Mom: don’t buy yourself a copy. I’m sending you one for Christmas.

Unexpected Theological Richness in a Picture Book That Deserves to be Better Known

When I first read Mick Inkpen’s picture book, Nothing, my kids were still too young for it–it’s a bit text-heavy–but I was immediately captivated by it, and have returned to it again and again to read to myself.

It is charming and witty, earnest and playful. It is beautifully–beautifully–illustrated.

It is also, unexpectedly, a deeply theological meditation on identity, community, renewal, and hope.

“The little thing in the attic at Number 47 had forgotten all about daylight. It had been squashed in the dark for so long that it could remember very little of anything. […] So long had it been there, even its own name was lost. ‘I wonder who I am,’ it thought. But it could not remember.”

GraemesCard 2Through a series of events, ‘Nothing,’ as the little creature begins to call himself, manages to escape from the attic and out onto the roof:

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.27.38 PM“How do you think you would feel if you had been squashed in the dark for years and years. And then you squeezed through a tiny hole to find yourself under the big starry sky? Well, there are no words for that kind of feeling, so I won’t try to tell you how Nothing felt, except to say that he sat on the roof staring up at the moon and stars for a very long time.”

Through a series of events, Nothing finds himself in the lap of the old grandfather to whom he had once belonged. He remembers his name. He is restored to the being he was meant to be, and, in fact, always was, even if he himself had forgotten.

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.30.59 PMScreen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.38.02 PM“And this, with the help of a good wash, some scraps of material, a needle and some thread is how he became Little Toby once more.”

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.40.11 PMScreen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.40.28 PM“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” (Rev. 21:5)

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1)

{While Nothing appears to be out of print in the USA; many used copies are available here.}

Comfort the Afflicted

So my friend Mr. S–who is in his nineties–is in a great deal of pain. He has been in pain for most of his life, in fact, because he fought in the Pacific during WW2 and received a wound that has remained open, painful, and constantly infected ever since. But now he’s got some kind of affliction (cancer, maybe?) on his face and he is almost completely blind. When I saw him on Saturday night, he was in so much pain that he would pause, close his eyes, and be silent for a moment before continuing to speak.

this has very little to do with the post except that my son’s dinosaur/dragon drawings really do make the kitchen a happier place to cook and blog!

He’s never been a complainer. Not ever. Maybe that comes from being an old-fashioned Yankee; maybe from being part of the Greatest Generation; maybe that’s just who he is (and maybe some of each.) But lately, he has been more willing to admit that he is in pain. He has even mentioned some of his war experiences–something I’ve never known him to do. He feels very alone and forgotten. (Mrs. S is there, of course, but staying in a nursing home can still be pretty depressing and lonely)

Bringing dinner on Saturday nights, then, feels like much too little. It can’t take away the pain. In fact, he’s in such pain that he can’t manage to eat much anyway.

We keep going, of course. With food. Because even if he gets down just a few bites, it’s a few bites of something that tastes good and, hopefully, brings just a bit of comfort.

(I should add that Mrs. S has no problem enjoying her food. She eats quietly, deliberately, and heartily.)

This week, I was going to make a variation on the Tuna Noodle Casserole in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (11th. ed.), substituting canned wild Alaskan salmon for the tuna. However, I forgot to put the salmon in, so it was simply Noodle Casserole. It was, if I may say so, quite good. But it wasn’t much like the recipe in the book. (I’ll share it soon. Spoiler: is topped with crushed potato chips, which you leave off at your peril.) Mrs. S. loved it. Mr. S. took only a few bites, but pronounced them ‘good.’

these are LOCAL potato chips! makes them healthier; I’m convinced of it. Oh! And another delightful monster drawing.
can’t believe I forgot the salmon. my mom wisely pointed out that having salmon in might’ve filled us up too much and cut into our appetite for chocolate mousse.
fresh mint and “french dressing” (a vinaigrette)

I wanted to start the meal with some kind of salad that would be seasonal and easy to eat, so I pulled a few beets from the ground, plucked some fresh mint and made a beet and mint salad with vinaigrette. (I don’t even like beets that much–except for beet cake, of course–but this was good, too.) To my surprise, Mr. S. ate almost all of his. Beets can be comfort food! Who knew?

beets are such a great color.

Of course, I had to make something chocolate for dessert because Mr. S. loves chocolate and because a creamy noodle casserole just calls for some kind of chocolate pudding as a finishing course. So we had a French chocolate mousse, made with the help of my beautiful new Kitchen Aid mixer that my mom got me for my birthday. Oh, yum. I made it with Dutch-process cocoa, sugar, butter, brandy, and eggs. (Mr. S. ate a good bit of this. Mrs. S., who is very quiet, gave a hearty “yum!” after her first bite and scraped the dish clean.)

I love this kind of cooking: it’s comfort food–soft, easy to swallow, creamy–from real ingredients. And when you’re cooking for old people and sick people, what can sometimes be comes a liability when cooking for others (for example, lots of cream and butter) is actually an advantage (calorically-dense foods are often just what sick folks with poor appetites need.) I love cooking for my old friends.

I’ve known some kids whose doctors prescribed that they drink this stuff straight. I have to use coffee as an excuse to drink it myself. #loveheavycream

I don’t kid myself that this food is going to work any miracles. Sometimes, for Mr. S., at least, hunger for food is obviously a distant second to hunger for company. This past week, I was pretty sure he would’ve preferred a dish of pain meds to the dinner I brought.

But maybe the comfort is not just in the food. Maybe it’s in the fact that with the food I bring hot, black coffee–his favorite–into a nursing home where the coffee is weak and tepid. Maybe it’s the way my mom insists on helping him cut his food and tells him that he’s not allowed to argue about it. Maybe it’s that we bring cloth placemats and real china and make a big fuss over them in a place which provides quality care but no extra touches.

Maybe we can’t eliminate pain in this broken, hurting world. Actually, I’m sure we can’t. But maybe we can offer each other comfort–the temporal comforts of hugs, puddings, hot drinks–that points to an even greater Comfort–the hope of One who shared our brokenness to the point of allowing himself to be broken, but rose again, securing our healing and wholeness and that of this whole broken world.