hearth & home

I am a person who thrives in the familiar comforts of home, a nester, a sanctifier. Since earliest childhood I have marked and claimed spaces — from the fairy cave beneath a weeping willow tree in my grandmother’s backyard, furnished the summer I was four with soft striped blankets, china tea cups, and stacks of picture books, to the rambling green shingled house on a short cul-de-sac that my husband, sons, and I inhabited so fully and for so long that none of us thought we would ever, could ever, live anywhere else.”

— from The Gift of an Ordinary Day

I remember typing those words for the first time and then pausing, startled. Had I just summed up my temperament in a paragraph? Apparently there was a long, circuitous, yet unbroken connection between my earnest little four-year-old self fashioning her cozy abode under a tree, and my domestic adult self, still irresistibly drawn to the humble comforts of hearth and home.

My guess is, I’m not alone in this.

If you were here right now, hanging out with me in my kitchen, I’d offer you some of my favorite spicy tea (brewed according to my yoga teacher’s classic Indian chai recipe) and a slice of warm lemon cake.

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We’d carry our snacks out to the porch and sit on the creaky, ancient glider I rescued from the old summer cottage that was our first home when we moved to New Hampshire, nine years ago. The butterflies would come and go in the garden, the light would tilt toward dusk, and pretty soon our conversation would turn to talk of home – that elusive sense of welcome that satisfies our universal longing for connection, intimacy, and embrace.

Perhaps I’d share a bit more of the story I wrote about in The Gift of an Ordinary Day, about the challenges of leaving our beloved green house and putting down new roots elsewhere. And how, if the journey from suburbs to country taught me anything, it’s that one life or one place isn’t better than another after all. Home is where we are and what we choose to make of it.

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Home, as you and I both know, is more than an address on the mail box. More than a place to sleep for a few hours, grab a shower, a change of clothes, and a bite to eat before dashing back out the door. In our frenetic, overcrowded, over-stimulated, over-wired culture, each of us needs a place to nurture an inner life. We may dream of flying, but we’re even more compelled to build a nest.

And yet, if you’ve ever made a bed or mowed a lawn or scrubbed a toilet you also know the stark truth of home-making: it takes sustained effort simply to stay a step ahead of the mess and on top of the endless to-do list of chores and repairs.

Somehow, amidst all the other demands on our time – earning a living, driving the carpool, paying the bills, getting the kids from point A to point B – we must also find time to wash the floor, fix the leak in the roof, and attend to all the other spaces in between.

I believe, with all my heart, that the effort is worth it. Home is still the last, best place we have for caring for our souls and the souls of those we love. And yet we all need reminders that the beauty of our lives is right at hand — in the empty kitchen sink, in a bowl of tomatoes from the farmer’s market, in the bath towels folded and stacked in the hall closet, in the tasks and textures of our lives as we live them.

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My two young sons were my first mentors in finding fulfillment in everyday chores. Seeing our world through their innocent eyes, I began to notice the wondrous in the ordinary. As I wrote in Mitten Strings for God, while I was busy rushing around in the kitchen, my little boys marveled at the inner workings of the pepper grinder, begged to push the buttons on the electric mixer, and were amazed by the transformations that occurred on top of the stove. (Batter + heat = pancakes!). Of course they wanted to help! And although it would have been easier and faster to say “no thanks” and get the work done, it wasn’t long before my agenda shifted.

Henry the chef

I came to see that if I slowed down, drew them close, and went about my mundane daily tasks with joy and mindfulness, my children would grow up knowing how to do these things, too. Not only that, they might learn something even more valuable: to take pleasure in their work rather than resenting it.

All these years later, with those little boys grown and gone, my challenge is both completely different and exactly the same. Where once I made an effort nearly every night to get dinner on the table by six, after both sons had left home, I wasn’t sure it was even worth it to make dinner any more, let alone set the table, fold the cloth napkins, or light a candle. (Cold cereal, anyone?) I missed our old family rituals and felt bereft of new ones.

Of course, the voyage of midlife discovery and renewal I began in Magical Journey has led me full circle — back to a marriage, a life, a laundry basket, and a home that has changed with time yet still requires my imagination and attention. I am learning all over again that the chores are never finished – at least, they won’t be finished until I am finished, and that day, I hope, is a long way off. But the attitude I bring to each task is, as always, mine alone to choose.

And so, I ponder the inescapable truth of impermanence and give thanks for the work at hand, whatever it is, and for the strength of mind and body to do it. Someday, I know, it will be otherwise. When the kids are home and the whole family gathers round the table, we light the candles and hold hands and say grace as we always have, and my heart fills with gratitude. And when the house is empty again, I change the bed sheets, settle back into the quiet, and carry on.

If my writing is stuck and the words just won’t come, then I close my computer, put down my notebook, and head for the kitchen; I can always bake some ginger cookies instead. When sadness overwhelms, I sink to my knees and find some solace in washing the floor, the best way I know to allow grief its due. There is always something, or someone, needing my care, my attention, the touch of my hand. To let go of one moment is to open up to another.

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“Wherever you live is your temple,” the Buddha wrote, “if you treat it like one.” Like everything worth doing, this takes practice. And I still believe the effort is worth it. So, I go about the daily work of living here, of being here, with reverence and gratitude, aware that the environment I create is simply the outer reflection of my own inner state. Tending to these rooms, to this land, to this place, to our visitors, and to all the living creatures who call this piece of earth home, is good work for the body and for the spirit: love made manifest.

Click here to visit my entire archive of posts about Hearth & Home — a growing collection of recipes, reflections, and thoughts about cultivating companionable relationships with the earth, our homes, and the precious beings who share our lives.

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