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Northern Minnesota

It’s not quite dawn as I write. Even here in the main room, inside the thick log walls, drafts chill my arms and neck because the wind outside is so bitter. In the wood stove just a few feet away, pine and aspen logs burn hot, and a pot of water softens the chilly dry air.

We sleep in a loft above the main room. At five, when we wake up, our bed feels soft, black, deep and warm. My partner sleeps quietly. I touch his skin. His back feels strong and warm under my fingertips. Above us, the roof and the eaves slant into corners, but I can’t see them. I roll over.

Beside me, tucked away under the roof, is where I meditate. There’s a candle, a bench to kneel on, some reminders of times when I felt God.  A silver cross from the Chimayo sanctuary near Santa Fe, an image of what Mary Magdalen might have looked like, a porcelain angel from the woman who taught me violin, a shattered wedding present that I made into something new.

I remember dozens of these moments. If I could fill a basket with my secrets, I’d put in at least one lock of hair from each of my daughters, the feathers of three brilliant dragons who fly in arcs that make me laugh out loud. There is no joy for me like the joy of my daughters. I’d keep a scrap of the pastel-striped quilt from my first baby, the one who died, because it would be the only real-life thing left after all these years. Yet the radiance from that grief has given me such a beacon. I’d put in the sound of my grandmother’s quavery voice as she hummed “Oh Holy Night” and the bright light on my mother’s face when she ran outside to watch crackling lightning and stand in the wind’s roar. I’d put in the lilt of my first husband singing ghazals and my second husband’s one-of-a-kind Italian and French accent as he explains multiple universes. Through it all I’d hear a string sinfonia around me, my brother singing “They sailed on the sloop John B” and church hymns. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty.” “Morning has broken.”

Coming downstairs into the cold, dark house, I clean ashes out of the wood stove. When I set the ash bucket outside, the door handle burns my fingers with cold. It’s -40 F now. The air feels vicious. I build a fire. We sip tea and coffee while the fire starts to blaze. Today the bitter air pushes back, even with a hot fire. But soon the room warms.

We watch the fire. Outside it’s cold enough to die. There’s hay and grain for deer, suet for ravens and woodpeckers, and a bit of meat for pine martens and foxes.  But right now, I see no animal at all. Not even the chickadees and nuthatches have come out to whirr around the sunflower seeds. The deer must be huddled deep in the woods. Maybe the fox has a den. The pine marten sometimes digs in deep under the loose pile of wood next to the woodshed, warm under the wood and snow.

My partner turns on a lamp, pulls a blanket over his lap, and opens another holy book, slowly letting the words in. I climb back into the loft to do my practice, to kneel in silent meditation on a little bench under the eaves. I sink into my breath, lean back into God’s lap, and reach for the Source.

I have knitting to do, a sweater to finish. The wool is camel. My partner bought it from nomad women at a bazaar in Mongolia near the Gobi desert. Like the girl in Rumpelstiltskin, I knit whatever I can, however I can. My knitting is a little wild, not precise or disciplined. The sweaters turn out to be rough stories, anecdotes he can wear. But it’s what he likes, and I feel I’ve given him a gift. Next I’ll knit up the scraps into something for myself, bits of all the trips he and I have taken, something to wear that does not fit properly into a category.

I have cooking to do for a young mother who brought her new baby home on a day when the afternoon high was -15 F. Sweet rice pudding, fish curry—not at all the food of the people who first lived in these woods.  No wild rice, no smoked fish, no jerky or maple syrup. Nothing either from the Finnish, Slovenian and Cornish miners who settled here, none of the potica and pasty doughs they brought from Europe.

The curry carries me back 50 years to India, where I was a college student. I remember the thrill of watching women squatting in the kitchen, frying ginger and rolling chapatis. I make a saffron rice pudding and remember how hard it was 50 years ago to understand boiling buffalo milk for hours. Mustard seeds pop in the hot oil. I think of my Indian sister in law, her bubbling laughter, how she tossed her head. I hear from her even now when her daughters write to me. The world stretches easily, even today in the bitter cold. Frying ginger crackles a little in the hot oil, and there’s no distance between the cooking fire in the courtyard of an old house in India and the gas flame here, now, where I stand stirring spices as they fry.

We drive miles out from town to drop off the food, passing frozen bogs and woods where the black tree trunks make long marks in the soft whiteness. Today there’s skim ice even on moving water. The baby’s house is far from town, made of new wood. She’ll know wolves as she grows up. When we get there, the grandmother’s face beams like a kind moon as she takes the food. Strong as a muscle, the baby moves and cries while her dad carries her like a trophy, beaming and chatting about her diapers. The mother’s sureness, even today as an exhausted brand-new mother, feels like it can be trusted.  My church has had three new babies this winter, all born to open parents who already know how family roles have to bend almost in half to keep them from breaking.

In my kitchen, as I move my hands through warm sudsy water, the old cooking smells melt into  the scent of a fresh white dish towel. My partner plunks out eighth notes on the piano while a metronome clicks nearby. Practice itself is joy: three-octave scales on violin and viola, lilting melodies that matched my dreams, chords that crunched like final decisions.

Practice itself has carried me. Practice cooking, stirring eggs as a five year old, kneading bread as a teenager, measuring the wine for a sauce when I was forty.  Practice pulling the clean sheets just right on a bed, practice singing in the choir, practice kneeling in darkness, falling into “don’t know.” Doing love on ordinary days, again and again. God beats the measure of my life, again and again, and I practice.

At last I sit watching the fire in the wood stove as night sets in. One daughter tells me that she sat in the hot sun on a little boat, bobbing on the Pacific waves, laughing as whales breach nearby. Another daughter grows like a fast vine, reaching out for bright sunshine. A third has found some ease, a balm that changes the day.

It’s good to accept the joy that comes. Today’s joy rests on me. It shines through but I don’t know why or how. Practice does that. The music just comes.

by Jean Gendreau

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