Spring thrusts its face through the fog of war and disaster the way those delicious green fuses, asparagus spears, drive upward through the earth.
Even in circumstances that beggar imagination, this season brings consolation, green shoots rising to the promise of renewal. Despite the blows it has sustained, the earth abides and grants us a home.
A book, a bite, a beat: read on for three ways of bringing spring close.
Have you ever seen asparagus growing?
One of my grammar-school classmates lived with his family directly across the street from the house where I grew up. His mother planted a vegetable garden, including asparagus. In the spring, when the spears came up, his little sister used to crawl about the garden on all fours, like a puppy, nibbling the asparagus tips down to the earth.
Years later, he and I became friends again. Comparing notes, he confided that his rather repressed German Lutheran family used to sit in the living room of their tract house listening to the members of my loudly furious Russian Jewish family scream at each other at a volume that carried across the boulevard through two layers of plate glass. What he and I had in common was a profound relief at having escaped the contrasting straits of our childhoods, two very different—but equally confining—pigeonholes that could never contain our expansive natures.
That sense of escaping house arrest is personal, of course, but it rhymes with something that seems to be woven into the fabric of reality: the yearning for freedom expressed by spring holidays that attune our awareness to the deeper meanings of this season. For me, the most powerful is the story of the exodus from slavery retold at Passover: the halting journey toward freedom, the people’s own fears reinforcing the despot’s desires to hold them back, their deep desire leading them to risk everything anyway. One teaching likens the process to a baby being born: a series of painful contractions making a tight place even tighter, expelling the new soul into a colder, freer world, the ambivalent start of a journey that lasts a lifetime.
My friends Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman have just published Freedom Journeys. This richly layered re-envisioning of the Exodus story renews our understanding of Pharaoh, the exodus from slavery, and the forty years of wandering in wilderness. The retold tale is illuminated by contemporary issues such as the liberation of women, same-sex unions, new and more democratic understandings of Spirit, the reality of power as an addiction, the persistence of war, the unity of spirituality and social action, the torture inflicted on this planet and its consequences, the hope of sustainability.
“It is not enough for a people to become free just once,” they write, “any more than it is enough for the grain to sprout or the lambs to be born just once. Over and over, year after year, rebirth, regrowth, must come again.”
[Full disclosure: I have the honor of serving as Board President of the organization Arthur Waskow founded and directs, The Shalom Center.]
The exodus story is an important part of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings. Freedom Journeys ends with essays by Christian and Muslim teachers, situating the story in their own histories and traditions. As we see in so many places today, the desire to burst free of whatever forces us to be smaller than we are is intrinsic to the human subject. Just so, leaves of grass bursting through even the thickest concrete remind us that growth is intrinsic to the ever-renewing green world.
No matter what is happening in the world—despite the terrible events in Japan, Libya, in our own communities and so many corners of this world—as March ends in the northern hemisphere, the earth begins to warm, coaxing seeds to sprout and the pungent green spears of asparagus to ride their determination into the sunlight.
The pleasures of being alive in a body remind us each day of the gift of life and the desire life carries to push beyond the narrow places into freedom. Remember this as you give yourself the supreme springtime pleasure of filling your plate with roasted asparagus, each bite a reminder of too many things to name.
Roasted Asparagus with Garlic and Parmesan
3 pounds thick asparagus spears
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Trim a little bit off the ends of the asparagus, and peel the white, woody sections of each stem with a potato peeler. (You can skip this and just break off the woody parts, but you will miss the most succulent tastes and textures if you do.) Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Put the olive oil and garlic in a large roasting pan, and add the asparagus spears, with half the spears facing in each direction. It’s okay if they don’t all fit in one layer, but they shouldn’t be piled up high. If you don’t have a large enough pan, use two pans or make a smaller batch.
Salt the asparagus spears and toss them in the oil until all are coated. Cover the pan with foil, and put it into the hot oven for 5 minutes. Remove the pan, lift the foil and turn the asparagus. Replace the foil and put the pan back into the hot oven for 5 more minutes. Remove the pan, remove the foil, and sprinkle the asparagus thickly with grated Parmesan, distributing it evenly.
Return the pan to the hot oven and roast until the cheese is brown in spots. Serve hot, giving each person some asparagus topped with melted cheese and some shards of toasted cheese from the bottom of the pan. Serves six as a separate course.
NOTE: You can make a lovely risotto using the same technique and leftover roasted asparagus. Instead of discarding the mass of asparagus peelings, cover them with water or broth and simmer to create an asparagus stock. Use the stock to make your favorite basic risotto recipe. When it is almost done, stir in leftover roasted asparagus—as much as you like—cut into 1-inch chunks. Some will disintegrate as you stir, some will remain intact, making a nice contrast of light and dark green. Pass more Parmesan at the table.
There are so many amazing versions of this song, but for me, Betty Carter owns it: Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.”