Something wonderful happened to me yesterday. I got a call from the director of an organization I’ve been working with, who said that a check had arrived from an anonymous donor, earmarked to support the new book I’m working on.
My new book’s working title is But Beautiful: Art, Eros, and The World We Make. Its subject is something I’ve been speaking and writing about for quite a while now: a paradigm shift that transforms our collective understanding of art’s public purpose from the trivial status it now possesses to its true significance as the crucible in which we work out essential questions of identity and community, in which beauty and meaning are forged, from which their healing work emanates.
This book is a major passion and challenge for me, because I am writing it in a new way, integrating elements of fiction, weaving words with music and images, and touching on many fields of knowledge—from medicine to spirituality, from commerce to education—in which the new framework is emerging. My goal is to shine a light on truths that are manifesting all around us, but which haven’t yet come into focus for most people, because old ideas are still blocking the light.
I’m fortunate that my livelihood can be writing, speaking, and consulting on projects and subjects of importance to me, but of course, they must be important to others as well, or I wouldn’t be hired at all. So I’m accustomed to working on my most personal passions in the spaces between making a living, and sometimes those spaces are narrow indeed. This gift will enable me to buy a solid two months of my own time to focus on the book, an incredible luxury. I’m more grateful and excited than I can say.
An anonymous gift creates a unique spiritual opportunity. Unable to express my gratitude directly to the donor, I am roused to think of all the people who have acted, in one way or another, to direct positive energy toward my work, and to thank each and every one of them for the force that has directed this blessing my way. You know who you are: I see you.
This would bring a huge smile to my face whenever it occurred. But the smile dilates in this time of year, out of sheer contrast. You see, I tend to have a Scroogelike relationship to the holiday season. As the light dims, all the commercial piety and branded gaiety start to collide with my Jewish alienation, and I develop the fervent desire to fast-forward to January.
As I lit candles last night, the second candle of Hanukkah, I repeated the two blessings. The first acknowledges the mitzvah, the imperative to light the candles. The second thanks the source of blessing for the miracles the holiday commemorates.
That the ordinary world is full of miracles is easy to forget. The other night, I sat with a friend talking about my new book. A blooming orchid stood on the coffee table between us. In the candlelight, it resembled a colony of otherworldly moths performing a perfectly synchronized dance, the epitome of grace. We gazed in tribute to the awesome power of beauty in our lives, giving thanks to be alive, to have the use of our senses, to open them to the world, allowing beauty to act on us. This is part of what I wish to write about, and the personal miracle delivered to me yesterday will make it so much more possible.
There is another kind of light in the world, one that enters by the mouth, rather than the eyes. When days are dark and cold, this soup, the color of sunshine—indeed, the taste of sunshine—creates a small miracle of satisfaction, warming the stomach and the spirit. I wish I could make a bowl for my anonymous benefactor, but failing that, I will do what that person’s gift has done for me, bestow the means to create for oneself.
Yellow pumpkin or winter squash
Minced fresh sage leaves or dried sage leaves
Salt, pepper, cayenne
Grated Parmesan Cheese
You can make this in huge quantities or stir up a dinner for two. The amounts are calibrated for soup for six or more, using a large butternut squash, a small kabocha squash, or an equivalent amount of pumpkin. Don’t worry too much about proportions; let your tastebuds be your guide.
Start by cooking the squash. If you use a microwave, seed the squash, put a couple of spoons of water into the cavity, and cover with a glass bowl or plastic wrap. Microwave till barely tender: start with three or four minutes at full power, and test every two minutes until you can pierce the flesh easily with a knife. You can also put the halved, seeded squash in a baking pan with a little water, cover, and bake at 375 degrees until barely tender. Or cube the squash and add it to a pot of salted boiling water; return to the boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and test it after 10 minutes. Don’t let it overcook to the point of disintegration.
Meanwhile, in soup pot, sauté 3 or 4 minced garlic cloves in a tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of butter till just browned; swirl about 1 tablespoon fresh minced sage or 1 teaspoon dried sage into the hot oil. Add about 8 cups of water, a pinch of cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Don’t stint on the salt, or it will be too bland. Scoop the squash-flesh into the water and stir and mash until it’s mostly combined. Cook, stirring and mashing until it’s silky and everything tastes blended—maybe half an hour. (You can stop here and refrigerate if you’re preparing the dish in advance.)
About 45 minutes before you want to eat it, bring the soup to a boil. Add 3/4 cup Arborio rice. Cook, stirring frequently, until the rice is just done (it will take quite a while). Add hot water as needed to keep the mixture soupy. While the rice is cooking, put two teaspoons of olive oil and one teaspoon of butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add another 3 or 4 minced garlic cloves, and brown lightly. Taste the soup. If the sage flavor is as pronounced as you want, remove the skillet from the heat and set aside. If you’d like to taste a little more sage (I usually do), then add to the skillet about half as much fresh or dried sage as you used for the first mixture, give it a few turns, then remove from the heat.
When the rice is done, stir in the garlic mixture, adjust the salt and pepper if needed. Pass grated Parmesan at the table. Serve it to someone who has extended generosity to you, or to anyone who needs to feel the sun inside.
I am calling my new book “But Beautiful” for several reasons. The 1947 song by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen is my favorite standard, though of course it’s hard to have just one (here’s kind of a cool discography and analysis of the song). I love the way it speaks of beauty as an independent good, entirely separate from consequences, and the way it speaks of love seems deeply true.
Billie Holiday’s version is incomparable, but Betty Carter’s is probably my favorite. But, then, the very different deliberate grace of Shirley Horn’s rendition gets inside you somehow. And then there’s Johnny Hartman’s, Jimmy Scott’s, Etta Jones’s. Freddie Hubbard’s opulent 1960 instrumental version on “Open Sesame” knocks my socks off. This is another gorgeous instrumental by Stan Getz and Bill Evans, and here’s Tony Bennett, singing with Bill Evans in 1975. Listen to them all, a love fest for all benefactors, known and unknown.