John Keats and “the spotted child.”

In one of his famously long, thinking-out-loud journal letters to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, finished and sent in January 1819, John Keats talks about cats:

There is another thing I must mention of the momentous kind;– but I must mind my periods in it—Mrs. Dilke has two Cats – a Mother and a Daughter – now the Mother is a tabby and the daughter a black and white like the spotted child – Now it appears ominous to me for the doors of both houses are opened frequently – so that there is a complete thorough fare for both Cats (there being no board up to the contrary) they may one and several of them come into my room ad libitum.

A cat lover myself, I first read this through the blurry lens of ailurophilia, gliding right over the phrase “the spotted child:” the daughter cat has spots and she’s the child of the mother cat, right?  But rereading Keats’ letters recently, that phrase leapt out at me, because I’d seen a “spotted child” in London a few months earlier – a human girl.  And Keats might well have known such children too.

The child in question is Mary Sabina, whose unsigned portrait, painted sometime in the eighteenth century, hangs in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.  The caption reads “The true Picture of Mary Sabina, who was born Oct 12 1736 at matuna, a Plantation belonging to ye Jesuits in ye City of Cartagena in America of two Negroe Slaves, Named Martiniano & Patrona.”  Like numerous other “spotted” or “pony”-boys or –girls pictured as medical anomalies or sideshow curiosities throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, she had vitiligo, a disease which causes the skin to lose color in patches.

Mary came to the world’s attention when Jose Gumilla, a Jesuit priest “visiting the sick in the plantation hospital,” saw a woman “who had with her a six months old child of so extraordinary an appearance that he was convinced he would be accused of exaggeration in his description of it” and “advised the mother to guard the baby very carefully lest someone should cast the evil eye upon it” (Dobson 273).  The priest thought that the presence of the mother’s black-and-white pet dog may have influenced the child’s coloring in utero, a similar reasoning to that offered by the twentieth-century vitiligo patient Frances “The Spotted Pony Girl” Lopez of Johnson City, Tennessee: “Physicians claim my condition is caused by my mother, being in a delicate condition, was frightened by a spotted pony.” According to the Hunterian’s website, “Mary Sabina does not appear to have been brought to Europe, but images of her were circulated widely – a kind of substitute exhibit.”

A&E Dips day 2007

Portrait of Mary Sabina (from the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.)

I’ve seen this portrait myself several times, since the Hunterian is my first stop on my study-abroad course “In Frankenstein’s Footsteps: The Keats-Shelley Circle in London, Geneva, and Italy.”  Still welcoming visitors at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, the Hunterian is based on the specimen collection of the pioneering surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793).  And it’s a pretty good stand-in for Victor Frankenstein’s lab.  As described in Wendy Moore’s excellent biography The Knife Man, Hunter was brilliant and relentless, so driven to discover and experiment that he infected himself with syphilis to study the progress of the disease and grafted a human tooth into a rooster’s comb to see whether it would take.  (It did – you can still see it in the Hunterian, since, like all Hunter’s casts and preparations, it’s amazingly well-preserved.)  I met Hunter years ago in Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novel The Giant, O’Brien, where I also met one of the Hunterian’s most famous residents, Charles Byrne, “the Irish Giant” (1761–1783).  Imported to London and exhibited as a sideshow curiosity, Byrne drew Hunter’s attention for his unusual height, over seven and a half feet tall.  Byrne realized he was in danger of becoming a specimen and begged his entourage to bury him at sea, so that his body could escape Hunter’s knives, yet after his death, bribes from Hunter ensured his place in the museum, where his skeleton hangs today.  Standing in front of Byrne’s time-browned bones is a wonderful place to tell his story to my students and ask them to think about where scientific curiosity might lead us – as it led Victor Frankenstein.  And just around the corner is the portrait of Mary Sabina, given to the museum in 1880.

Yet Mary Sabina was not the only “spotted child” whose image might have been known to Keats.  George Alexander Gratton, the “spotted boy” (1808-1813), was exhibited in London throughout “much of his short life…described as ‘the Beautiful Spotted Negro Boy’ and ‘a fanciful child of nature formed in her most playful mood.’”  Like Mary Sabina, his image was also circulated widely.  The showman John Richardson exhibited George to public and private audiences for a fee – sometimes, according to the Hunterian’s website, for “up to twelve hours a day.”  Born on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, George was somehow “transported to Bristol” and “delivered into the care” of Richardson – a squirm-inducing voyage at the tail end of legal slavery in the Empire.  (Richardson, writes the historian Lucy Inglis, “had apparently paid a thousand guineas for George.”  His parents’ feelings about the transaction are not recorded.)  Yet Richardson seems to have treated George with genuine affection, and when George died of a tumor of the jaw, age 5, Richardson buried him in his own family plot in Marlow, leaving instructions for George’s headstone to be linked to his own.


George Alexander Gratton by P.R. Cooper, sold by and after Daniel Orme, coloured etching and aquatint, published 11 November 1809;

The lives of Mary Sabina and George Alexander are part of a story of medical anomaly in Georgian England that expands and frequently horrifies our own historical and cultural imaginations.  Who can really know – really – how people of other times and places experienced their own bodies, the bodies of others, “difference,” “normalcy?”  We must acknowledge the spirit and unknowable, private complexity of individuals even as individual cases make us pause: an infant taken from his parents, who were slaves, paid for with a thousand gold guineas as an investment that paid off.  But little George was not unusual.  Tiny Caroline Crachami, “the Sicilian Dwarf” (1815-1824), whose skeleton also resides in the Hunterian, was essentially stolen from her father, an itinerant Italian musician in Dublin, and brought south to London to be exhibited.  (There are accounts of her crying and swatting away the hands of strangers as she stood upon a table.)  We’ve seen how Charles Byrne was brought from Ireland to be exhibited, too.  And “freaks” even had their political uses, as seen in two cartoons.  Daniel Lambert (1770-1809), England’s fattest man, became a symbol for Britain’s health and strength during the Napoleonic Wars, as “Boney” marvels, “I contemplate this Wonder of the World and regret that all my Conquered Domains cannot match this Man,” while Lambert replies proudly that he is “nourished by the Free Air of Great Britain [which] makes every Englishman thrive.”  (Wikipedia reports that Lambert was “highly respected for his expertise with dogs, horses, and fighting cocks;” at the time of his death, he weighed 739 pounds.)

lambert drawing.jpg

People with goiters, neck pouches resulting from iodine deficiencies, were exhibited as “Monstrous Craws” in the city, leading caricaturist James Gillray to comment on the perceived greed of the Royal Family (with the Prince Regent looking slyly on, poised between his parents).

monstrous craws from fash contrasts.jpg

‘Monstrous craws, at a new coalition feast’ (Queen Charlotte; King George IV; King George III), 1787

All this messy, fascinating medical anomaly – and the shadow of John Hunter, whose colleague, Astley Cooper, was still active at Guy’s Hospital – would certainly have been an active presence in Keats’ medical training and poetic imagination, given the omnipresence of “sideshows” in London and, in general, the greater susceptibility to accident, disease, and physical disfigurement in a world of hard physical labor and imperfect sanitation. The poet Dean Young wonderfully imagines this period of Keats’ life in “I See a Lily On Thy Brow” from his book Skid (2002):

It is 1816 and you gash your hand unloading
a crate of geese, but if you keep working
you’ll be able to buy a bucket of beer
with your potatoes. You’re probably 14 although

no one knows for sure and the whore you sometimes
sleep with could be your younger sister
and when your hand throbs to twice its size
turning the fingernails green, she knots

a poultice of mustard and turkey grease
but the next morning, you wake to a yellow
world and stumble through the London streets
until your head implodes like a suffocated

fire stuffing your nose with rancid smoke.
Somehow you’re removed to Guy’s Infirmary.
It’s Tuesday. The surgeon will demonstrate
on Wednesday and you’re the demonstration.

Five guzzles of brandy then they hoist you
into the theater, into the trapped drone
and humid scuffle, the throng of students
a single body staked with a thousand peering

bulbs and the doctor begins to saw. Of course
you’ll die in a week, suppurating on a camphor-
soaked sheet but now you scream and scream
plash in a red river, in a sulfuric steam

But above you, the assistant holding you down,
trying to fix you with sad, electric eyes
is John Keats.

 This is my favorite way to do scholarship, and writing in general: read a lot, follow apparently strange interests, and see how they connect. (I learned much of this information about physical difference in Georgian England while researching my dissertation, for instance.) In this it resembles life, and imagination: fill your brain, look around, read a lot, and you can see at least some patterns emerge.

So overall, it’s impossible to say whether Keats actually saw a “spotted child” in person – but given the plenitude of likenesses of George Alexander Gratton, his contemporary, he would very likely have held the image of “the spotted child” in his brain, so seasoned and enriched with bodily imagery and knowledge as to appear in his poetry years later.

Posted in body, Romanticism, the past, travel | 2 Comments

First clothesline day of 2016!

IMG_1871Clotheslining is a big deal here in Cheapskate-Intellectual-land, so the first warm and windy day is a big deal too.  As soon as I saw the sun and smelled the breeze, I knew it was time.  So familiar and delightful to pull that cord across the yard and hook it up and tote the basket out into the day.

Warm? Yeah, somewhere in the 40s, which is enough to get Midwesterners and Midwestern transplants all excited. Windy? Yeah, a little much, but not bad. Smell? Yeah.  Hard to describe, but everybody everywhere has their own version of this. Here it’s the way soil and wet grass and the plants that are just thinking about rising again are stirring and thawing and releasing the water and life that have been locked in scentless frozenness for the last few months.

The return of the senses.  Yes, spring is on the way.


Posted in attention, home, seasons | 2 Comments

The idiot box.

William Greiner: "TV in Bayou, Chalmette, LA, 1994."

William Greiner: “TV in Bayou, Chalmette, LA, 1994.”

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered… And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.   – Thomas Merton

We can interpret the ascendancy of a certain real-estate mogul, reality-tv celebrity, windbag demagogue, and presidential front-runner in many ways.  (No names, please: why help the ratings?)  Here’s mine: he’s the logical and disastrous result of the way screen-based “entertainment” dominates our personal imaginations and what civic life we still possess.  What did his supporters say, over and over again, as people all over the political spectrum realized with mounting alarm that this guy wasn’t going away? “He’s just so fun to watch!”

Even people who watch it will call TV the idiot box, laugh disparagingly about how bad a habit it is, mutter (especially if they have kids) about how there really should be more books around, but, you know, you get home at night and you just want to crash, right?  Sure, there’s genuine exhaustion and desire for comfort in a time when the average American is stretched thinner than ever, financially and emotionally.  But, as in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” from Republic can suggest, the TV habit breeds other habits that overtake us from the inside and hollow us out.

The Allegory’s a little parable about the nature of reality and the thing inside humans that makes us choose comfort and habit whenever we can.  Imagine a bunch of prisoners chained inside a dark cave with their faces to the wall; they’ve always been there, and they don’t know anything different. Across the wall pass shadows of objects held up by unseen people for the prisoners to view. The prisoners, of course, confuse the shadows with the real things. Then, one of the prisoners breaks out of the cave and ascends into the sunlight.  At first he’s stunned, blinded, confused, in real physical and psychological pain.  But as his eyes adjust, he realizes as he looks at the objects around him that he is seeing reality for the first time, and that it’s wonderful.  If he returns to the cave to share his discovery with the other prisoners, however, they won’t thank him.  Instead, they’ll try to kill him. Why? In my classes, students are quick to answer that. He makes them uncomfortable.  He makes them wonder if everything they’ve believed is a lie.  And people will do anything to keep making themselves feel safe.  And students aren’t slow to notice, either, that those shadows on the wall can look a lot like a TV screen.

The Greeks had a lot to say about illusion, reality, and private space.  Our modern word idiot comes from the Greek idios, meaning someone who has refused the duty of every (adult male) citizen, public conversation and engagement, because he is just not interested.  The idios has retreated to the “safety” of his own private world.  (And in 21st-century America, that private world increasingly includes home theatre.)  But safety does not come automatically from self-isolation. It comes from adult understanding of and good information about the world beyond one’s own hometown, from real engagement with people who are not yourself, from a realistic understanding of the world that will then let you make decisions about how to interact with it.  As someone who has traveled quite a bit, nationally and internationally, in the last five years, I know very well that the world is dangerous. But hunkering down in your own house – literally or figuratively, even as home and school also get more dangerous – just doesn’t work.

Significantly, idios also contains id, Sigmund Freud’s word for that chamber in each of us where our most primitive, selfish, and basic impulses live.  I want what I want, the id constantly sneers, and all the rest of y’all can go to hell.  If this is the worst impulse within a person (think about the times when you’ve hurt yourself or others, and you’ll see what I mean) how much worse is it within a whole country? And how are our habits of being thoughtlessly “entertained,” seeking only pleasure with no challenge or discomfort, feeding what is worse about ourselves and our society?

Think about it. When you’re slumped in front of a screen, surrendering to the flow of images and words, are you really your best self?  Are you really “spending time” with your family and other people in the house with you, or letting the fact that your bodies are all in the same room be your excuse?  (More than one of my students has told me, sadly, “My parents always say ‘I can’t wait till you get home at Christmas!,’ but then when I get there, they still just spend all their time at night watching TV or on their phones – they don’t really talk to me.”) Are you active or passive? Generous or selfish? Out there living your life or just waiting to be twitched by the next marketer (or politician) who wants something from you? Being challenged by difference or just ready to switch the channel if you see something you don’t like? And the big question to ask about everything in society or spirit: Is this life-affirming or death-dealing?

The rise of a reality-TV star to within striking distance of the American presidency represents a disastrous collision between two things.  One is reality as adults who engage with other adults out in the real world know it, who are reminded by our contact with others that we are not the only beings on earth, especially if we have ever traveled beyond our own home towns.  The other is the kind of blinkered credulity, naivete, and arrogance that blooms in our brains when we are alone just a little too long in our cavelike rooms with our televisions and their ads and programs and “celebrities” tailored with merciless marketing precision to entertain us by telling us exactly what we want to hear — that we, our prejudices and desires and egos, are all there is and all with which we need concern ourselves.  One is truth. The other is a lie.  And, disastrously, we — as the best-entertained and least-informed and most powerful nation on earth — are losing the ability to distinguish between the two.

TV shapes our imaginations around itself – even our vague dreams of liberation from the forces of conformity and corporate slavery we (still half-) sense it represents take only the form of another metal box with a screen. Check out this famous Apple ad from 1984, brilliantly co-opting George Orwell’s novel of the same name.

But even when The Screen pretends to be deep, it’s really not.  It is ultimately interested only in itself. It crowds out generosity and nuance and imagination. It thrives on rote gestures of obeisance to “objectivity” (Everybody knows the world is round, but here’s a flat-earther to show some “equal time!”) and mimes of real emotion (mother and daughter connect across the miles with their AT&T phone!)  It loves spectacle and noise and brute force.  It’s childish.  And we need adults to lead our country and our world.

So that red face and stiff rooster-comb (-over) of hair and bluster and insult and expensive suits and self-made mythology is not just a person. He’s the TV-fed and TV-bred id, bristling with buzzwords (Socialist! Muslim!) and jumping from one emotional hot button to the next.  He’s riding on misappropriated images (migrants in deserts, anyone?) and the myth that money is the greatest possible good of human life.  He’s the illusion that all of this is just a game.  That we will have plenty of time in the future to fix mistakes, even his.  But we don’t.  We are reaching and passing the threshold of 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, beyond which life on earth as we know it will not be possible.  This is fact.  Our next president — and we — will have to deal with it, honestly.

This is not funny anymore.  Reality TV is not reality.  TV is not real life.  A TV star is not a viable presidential candidate.  And this is not a game.

Museum Of Art Of Sao Paulo: “TELEVISION” Print Ad by DDB Sao Paulo

Posted in community, culture, politics | 3 Comments

Putting our hands on it.

Tourists take selfies with baby dolphin on Argentina beach

Today in Internet horror: rare Argentine dolphin dies after being passed around by a selfie-taking crowd.

Sticky and sandy and dry and eager, eager, seeking hands, all over that moist skin, sucking its moisture away in curiosity or excitement or wonder or unexamined narcissistic need, suspending it out of the sea until it heats and dies, positioning and repositioning themselves on that slick gray body with phones angled just right, then abandoning that body once they’ve used it up.  Despite some question – maybe the dolphin was already dead? — that does appear to have been what happened here.

Touching things can kill them.  The oils and acids of human hands can break the mantle of moisture on a water animal’s skin or stain a painting with a touch that eats the paint.  A butterfly’s wings bristle with thousands of tiny feathers that even the most gentle fingertip can crush.  (It’s a terrible inverse of Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter.”) And it’s not only our touch, it’s our sweat, our heat, our carbon-dioxide-pumping breath.  The heavily toured cave paintings of Lascaux are grown over with mold now.  To avoid a similar fate for the marvelous caves of Chauvet, a simulacrum of the whole cave — down to the 30,000-year-old bear skull  sitting on a rock, just where those other humans left it — will be built a few miles away for visitors.  (As filmed by Werner Herzog, the paintings are marked all through the cave by the same artist’s signature: a red handprint with a crooked little finger.)  Sadly, we’ve now got to ask whether Venice and the Sistine Chapel — just for instance — will survive all the love they get.

Yet as nature educators and Pope Francis remind us, we won’t love what we can’t put our hands on.  And if we can’t love it, we probably won’t feel the need to protect it, or to change our lives on account of it, which means we won’t really love it at all.  The word for the disciple usually known as “doubting Thomas,” who had to put his hands in the wounds to believe it was really Christ in front of him, can more accurately be translated as “touching Thomas.”  Like Mary and Martha begging Jesus to haul their brother’s body out of the tomb, or the woman “with the issue of blood” creeping up to grab his garment hem, touching Thomas shows us a stubborn human love built in bewilderment and demand for action and its flipside, a willingness to be convinced.  All that love begins with touch, just as teaching a child to love what we call nature begins with picking up the light body of a dead kildeer chick from the yard, showing her the light departed thing, flimsy as an eggshell: look, how fragile, how small. But how wonderful.*

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.jpg

Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” 1601–1602.

But I don’t give selfie-takers a free pass.  Nor do I soft-pedal the way we wreck what we say we love by handling it to death, or the way our doing, handy-making, techy brains and toys have made our humanness a destructive force.  I’m not convinced that that desire to photograph — get this image in my phone! — can be totally unhooked from that furtive possessiveness that led Hitler to hide his stolen Renaissance paintings underground, or a Minnesota dentist to bag a “trophy.”  Even travel becomes about feeding the self this way, positioning it narcissistically against a backdrop of international images to prompt a chorus of “likes” on Facebook.

This January I walked again with study-abroad students through Venice and the Colosseum and Westminster Abbey and, yes, the Sistine Chapel.  Fighting for a place to stand in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, we turned in circles to read the story from top to bottom: God separates water from air, water threatens to drown humans trudging up from the flood with furniture and baskets and food piled on their heads.  Photography’s forbidden there.  But three teenage boys in tight jeans and extravagant sneakers – barely bothering to hide their giant Samsungs – were taking pictures anyway.  “This bitch spoiled my shot,” complained one, in Spanish he didn’t think I could understand.  Settling on a bench, they huddled to sort and post the best of the photos they’d just taken, downcast faces lit in Facebook blue, Michelangelo’s raging architectures of color all around, unseen.

The artist Annie Katsura Rollins talks about her fear that we’re losing a certain type of “hand-wisdom” if we only tap and swipe, never cut, mend, weave, make, or touch.  There has to be a human touch that’s different from the minimal glance it takes to activate a screen, that is life-affirming rather than death-dealing to us and to the human and nonhuman beings with whom we share this earth.  Figuring out where the line is – that’s our job.  And in pondering this, I’m left with a single image from Herzog’s dazzling film:  that red handprint with its humble broken finger — recognizable, in its insistence,  its repetition, its brokenness, its touch, as us.


  • This is a little bit of self-plagiarism – you can read the essay from which it comes in this brand-new book.


Posted in animals, conservation, spirit, technology | Leave a comment

Creamed pearl onions.

Since y’all seemed to like the talked-through bacon and brussels sprouts recipe, here’s one more: creamed pearl onions, a Thanksgiving and Christmas classic from holidays at home that has won new converts up here, where it’s going to a friend’s house this afternoon. (Sorghum sweet potatoes and a hummingbird cake, the Southern- and fruit-infused cousin of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, are going with it. For the hummingbird cake, I use the recipe from My Mother’s Southern Kitchen by James and Martha Pearl Villas, which is so easy there is absolutely no reason, as some “hummingbird cake” recipes on the Internet suggest, to start with yellow cake mix.  Let’s just not even talk about that.)

Start with five or six jars of these small whole “holland-style” onions – in practice, this usually means taking all the jars the supermarket’s got on the shelf, or, in the South, beginning to hoard them a few months in advance.

007Empty the jars into a colander set over a bowl to catch all the juice.  Then empty all the drained onions into a casserole dish that’s large enough to hold them in a layer about an inch and a half thick, leaving a comfortable margin of space, because there’s going to be sauce in there. For me, this is my blue casserole dish about 9.5 inches square all the way around, maybe a little bigger.

Put the juice from the bowl into a medium saucepan and boil it. What you’re after is reducing the juice so you have less liquid but still an onion-y base for the sauce you will make to pour over the onions. You want to end up with about a cup to a cup and a half of liquid.  If you really want to, you can melt some butter in the onion juice, too.  (See one wild and precious life in previous post.)

Just let that onion water boil away and reduce itself down for a little while until you get about a cup to a cup and a half of liquid.  Then take it off the heat and — whisking all the time so it doesn’t clump — shake a tablespoon or two of flour into that hot juice.  Put a little milk or cream in there too. Stir it all together really well and pour it over the onions. You want their little heads and shoulders peeking up like frogs at the edge of a pond but mostly immersed.

001 (2)Crush up some Ritz crackers and mix them with some melted butter in a bowl.

Bake the onions at 350 for about ten minutes, or until they get hot and bubbly. Then pull them out, scatter the Ritz crackers over the top, and bake for a few more minutes until everything gets nice and brown, not too crispy or burned.

001 (3)

Set it on the table or buffet on top of a nice trivet, because it’s really hot.  Stick a spoon invitingly through the Ritz-cracker crust. And stand back. These creamed onions have been known to provoke strong feelings – including knife-and-fork fencing matches over the last spoonful left in the pan.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Posted in food, gratitude, home, seasons | Leave a comment

Bacon and Brussels sprouts.

sprouts 001Next time you want a quick, warm, good winter supper — or a dish for Thanksgiving — especially if you are a Southerner in the Upper Midwest, here’s what you do:

Go out in your garden and break off some Brussels sprouts. Brush off snow as necessary.  Bring the individual sprouts cupped in your shirt hem or just bear the whole stem, leaves and all, into the house, and, once back in the warmth, pry from under the crook of the leaves the little green knobs that have sprouted there and now been sweetened by the cold. (You can also buy some at the co-op or some other place that will have good, fresh sprouts that frost has had a chance to get to; the flavor isn’t otherwise as good.)

Defrost some bacon and heat up your pan.  Make sure it’s good bacon.

Steam the sprouts in a steamer basket inside a pan with a lid on top and about half an inch of water in the bottom. Once the water’s boiling, it’ll only take a few minutes. Let them get bright green and beautiful, as despite their humility Brussels sprouts genuinely are, but keep them just on this side of firm.  Too many people who say they hate Brussels sprouts have only had overcooked mushy ones that were poor quality to begin with.  Who wouldn’t avoid a vegetable like that?  Even though it’s not the vegetable’s fault?

Meanwhile, lay your bacon in the hot pan and cook it, medium-high heat, not too terribly fast. Once it starts to wrinkle, scatter brown sugar on it, as much as your conscience will allow. Turn it over, then back again, letting it get nice and brown on both sides as you lean dizzily over the stove and breathe in the aroma now rising from inside your house on an ordinary winter night. Isn’t it wonderful?!

(Yeah, it’s bacon grease. It’s also your one wild and precious life on earth. And since you have been skiing in that brussel-sprout-curing first snow, you’ll probably not die of a heart attack just yet.)

Using tongs, lift the bacon out of the now-brown-sugar-infused bacon grease and lay it off to the side on a plate on which it will soon be joined by the sprouts. Drain the water away from the sprouts and put them right in the pan with the grease. Scoot them around with the ends of the tongs to save washing an extra utensil. Brown them up a little – again, not too long. Maybe 3 or 4 minutes? Let the bright green darken to an earthy olive-green with the occasional char-spot where one has rested against the hot pan for a little too long. They’ll soak all that brown-sugar-infused bacon grease right up, matching it with their own sweetness, which the pan heat has only deepened.

Eat your sprouts warm, taking a sip of that random Riesling on your counter every once in a while. Is Riesling right with Brussels sprouts? Who cares?  It tastes great. Every so often, eat a piece of your brown-sugar bacon and shout for joy.

Be warm. Be well. Give thanks.

Posted in body, food, gardening, gratitude, seasons, self-reliance | Leave a comment

Entertaining angels, unawares.

I took my late grandmother’s nativity scene out early today.  It’s white ceramic that looks like china: three kings, a shepherd, Holy Family, and two sheep.  This could have been a graceful afternoon project I imagine my grandmother doing with her medical auxiliary or book club lady friends, her elegant fingers smoothing the glaze, placing the figures carefully for firing, scratching her initials into the bottom of each piece.  Surely they’d be laughing, sipping coffee, maybe tapping out a cigarette or two, wearing, just for once, the informal pants my grandmother still, into my childhood, called dungarees.

The centerpiece of her Nativity is an infant Jesus that actually lifts out of his manger, which is a sturdy wooden trough filled with hay, draped with a blanket flowing thronelike all the way to the floor.  The infant’s body is slightly curved to fit in the depression on top of that blanket, with both his hands and his legs stretched up.  When I was a little girl, this was wondrous. I stole up to the nativity set on top of the piano and held the baby in my hand, put him back, lifted him up again.  I wondered what God looked like and how I would recognize him. I wondered if Jesus looked like the ordinary fat babies I saw in the grocery store or like some other kind of baby, maybe even this china one with his tiny features, his little upstretched hands.

I struggled to figure out God then, and to listen for voices of what is true and right in a world steadily more confusing.  I struggle still today.

But now, I am an adult.  And here is what I know: adulthood is one experience after another of learning that the hard thing, the counterintuitive thing, the one that clutches you with fear, is very often also the right thing. This knowledge has been working in me, prying me steadily open in a season of stress and loss and great confusion.  Maybe prying isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s cracking.  I think of a story recounted by Parker Palmer in which a rabbi says God places his words upon our hearts, then cracks our hearts so that his words can fall in.  I don’t understand why suffering happens. But I know it does.  And I know that if you try to pay attention in our suffering world, you can be cracked open by what you see, and moved toward a state of mercy that’s hard to get to when you’re all locked up in ordinary heedless life.  This church sign in Brooklyn cracked me this week, completely.


photo via Joanna Solfrian

Cracked open. Angels unawares. A Middle Eastern family fleeing a ruler who unleashed chaos on his people. Into the night on a donkey or a raft or the back of a smuggler’s truck.

Last year I landed with 15 students in London on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. We walked past the British Museum as the last of the security that had just whisked Cameron and Merkel away from their press conference at a German-design exhibit – interrupted by news of the attacks – was clearing up.  In Trafalgar Square, we spotted the remnants of the solidarity rally: shreds of Je Suis Charlie fliers, bins and bins of pens.  Our proximity to the dark breath of terror, and the corresponding wave of friendship and hope, was dizzying.  I watched the news, I stayed in touch with those back home, I worked very hard to be aware and keep my students safe.  And I held tight to the words: I have not given you a spirit of fear.

Unfortunately, our current political climate is set up to breed fear, and to fatten on it, Moloch-style.  We’re mired in a swamp of proud know-nothingness that feels worse than it’s ever been, when smug demogoguery’s been given a platform of national prominence and a veneer of respectability that would have baffled and embarrassed Republicans like, say, my grandmother: That’s no way to talk. That’s no way to behave. Why, this man’s just a fool.  Even conservative columnist David Brooks is embarrassed: “Everything is connected. Which is why the presidency is for grown-ups, not rank outsiders.”

In the face of fear and challenge — and we have reasons to be afraid, reasons to fear the news from Paris and Mali and Beirut — we’ve got to remember how to be grown-ups.  That means taking a breath, looking at reality, and getting on with it in the face of one hard thing after another.  It means refusing to let fear alone take hold, fear alone be the thing that drives us.  It means considering, and doing the right thing anyway, choosing not to let the wrong emotions run us like a rogue dog running sheep.  Think about how this looks in your own life.  Think about the last time you faced a pissed-off colleague or family member and tried to state your position without yelling, straining against the seductive downward tug of fuck this asshole, what does he know?, I’m gonna take him OUT, unscrolling in your mind a list of all the things legally or otherwise you couldn’t unfold to him right then, and saying only Sorry you feel that way. Think about the way life bumps you against reality like a boat tethered to a dock.  You do the checkbook math, trying to make it work.  You hear, or say, I just don’t love you anymore.  You lose a father who was supposed to live to be a very old man and now never will, who was cut short of Dante’s threescore and ten.  Supporting struts are kicked right out from under your days.   And you keep on going.  You grade papers and counsel students and counsel more students and go on into the next meeting and the next.  You buy your groceries and change your baby’s diaper and tell your eleven-year-old that no, she may not have a pair of sweatpants with Pink on the ass, no matter how many of her friends are wearing them.  You shovel your sidewalk and fill up the bird feeder now that the snow is here.  It’s a hard, cold world for little things.

This is adulthood.  This is life.  This is choosing not to avoid what comes.  Not numbing out or defaulting to shouting or impatience or anger. Looking the hard thing in the eye and trying, trying, to choose to do right.

This is adulthood.  This is life.  This is also where every good thing happens, out of the grip of fear. Beyond the clenched fist, the self-protective hunch, the plan that will not admit for anything else to be welcomed in. This is adulthood: getting yourself under control, opening your eyes to see clearly, opening your hand, accepting that the world and our stories about it are not always the same. The world, and other people, will surprise us if we let them.

In his book CROSSING THE UNKNOWN SEA: WORK AS A PILGRIMAGE OF IDENTITY (2001), David Whyte writes: “Our work is to make ourselves visible in the world. This is the soul’s individual journey, and the soul would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s…. In work as in life, we must contemplate the loss of everything in order to know what we have to give; it is the essence of writing, the essence of working, the essence of living; an essence that we look for by hazarding our best gifts in the world, and in that perspective, all of us are young and have the possibilities of the young until our last breath goes out.”

We cannot risk anything of ourselves, thereby opening ourselves to the great good that may be waiting — or open ourselves to the needs of other human beings, or share our gifts, or fall in love — until we make ourselves visible in the world.  Until we open ourselves to the world, no matter how terrifying that prospect is.  The sixteenth-century French surgeon Ambroise Pare wrote, “For my part I have dispensed liberally to everybody the gifts that God has conferred upon me, and I am none the worse for it; just as the light of a candle will not diminish, no matter how many come to light their torches by it.”

We have so much. Too much not to share.

Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

I lift the baby Jesus up, put him back. Lift him up. Bear the uncertain weight of grace in the palm of my hand.  And pray for the strength to keep on choosing to open it.

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