Always A Bridesmaid and Never a Bride

12698453_805008379644694_4219333476885333484_o (1)Last week, my good friend Shari posted a guest post I’d written for her blog. I wrote 500 words  about something I don’t hear a lot of conversation about. I wasn’t planning to post it on my blog, but here we are, in a more-or-less quarantine, on-line more than normal, with more free time than normal. I don’t usually ask for  interaction from readers, but there again, we’re breathing different air right now.

So let’s talk.

“My church doesn’t know what to do with me.”

I’ve heard this line from singles many times. Maybe it’s the default setting in a sub-culture that greatly values marriage and family, but it always makes me sad. However, I’m deeply grateful for a church that gives me a place and lets us singles feel welcome, equal, and human.

Some things they do to give us a place:

  1. The ladies look for ways for us to be together—ladies’ evenings when the men have brother’s meeting, women’s retreats, extra ladies’ nights when we relax and laugh and tell stories.
  2. The men meet my eyes and shake my hand after church. They regularly publicly honor and praise single and married women’s contributions to the families, school, and church.
  3. Families invite me for meals and tuck leftover food into my bag as I leave because they know I don’t have all day to cook.
  4. They treat me like an individual with a life: they remember my birthday and ask about my family. They care about my dreams.
  5. The men generously give advice and assistance in their area of expertise: purchasing and maintaining a car, phone, house, or garden, which can include pest control, yard work, or a mechanic’s number.
  6. They send us reports of their brother’s meetings.
  7. Church treats us like people who have something valuable to contribute, and so we’re on the hostess list and the church cleaning list and the list of people for jobs on reorganization night. And no, I don’t like the job they gave me but it means they believe in me.
  8. They compliment my clothes. They remember I was gone last week and ask about the trip. They remember to ask about things we’ve talked about before.
  9. They don’t ask us singles to serve the Valentine’s banquet.
  10. They invite me to join their family in the fellowship dinner line.

Some time ago, in another place, I was helping to host an event and several men acted as if I wasn’t there. Were they wanting to prove their loyalty to their wives? Was I intimidating or dangerous? I got a taste of my friends’ lines: “They don’t know what to do with me,” and I felt newly thankful for the conversations, camaraderie, and support the men in our church give to me and other single women.

A key part of this is that healthy relationships are two-way streets. I aim to give more than I take. I need to contribute, not just consume. I must plug in, make effort, invest, because the good life is not about me and my comfort. I often don’t feel like going to cell group or bringing food for an event or doing my assigned job, but who does? And who will have the richest life—those who stay home and curl into a ball when they feel like it, or those who push themselves to do hard things and love their people?

It goes both ways, but if you know a single in your church, think about how you could love her well and let her feel like she matters and belongs.

Now back to you:

What would you add to this list of 10? Which ones do you feel aren’t important?

What keeps you from engaging with someone with a different marital status than you?

What do we singles do that makes us seem threatening or dangerous to marriages?

To be clear: extended singleness isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. It’s not a crisis situation, and there are much, much worse, harder scenarios to live in. But singleness IS a disenfranchised grief. There are no sympathy or thinking-of-you cards that address it, and singleness doesn’t keep getting better every year like a good marriage apparently does. So it’s a lonely place for most of us, and one where good role models are scarce, and it’s hard to talk well about it without sounding bitter or desperate.

So.

Let’s hear each other, ask questions, and walk toward wholeness and mutual understanding. This isn’t a platform for bitterness or accusation. We all need each other and we’re all far more alike than we are different.

We all want to matter, to make a difference.

We all want to know we’re beautiful and loveable and not obnoxious.

We all are hungry for more connection and less isolation.

What would you add to the lists of commonalities and ways to integrate?

Nested and Ready

Some years ago, in the days between Christmas and New Years Day, a handful of us took the train from Warsaw, Poland to Berlin, Germany. In addition to taking in charming Christmas markets and glorious coffee, we took a walking tour based on Berlin in World War II. We met our tour group at the gates of the world-famous Berlin Zoo (but didn’t go in, so I want to go back) and walked around the city for the next three hours.

Our guide was a passionate college history student. Among many  things, he showed us the Reichstag building, the enormous Hauptbahnhof, remnants of the old Berlin Wall, and ended at a parking lot under which Hitler had his last bunker and killed himself.

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Reichstag building

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Hauptbahnhof: Berlin central station

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a playful bear between remains of the Berlin Wall

I often think about part of the tour where the tour guide had us stand on a sidewalk and look at the shops lining the street and apartments stacked above us. He told us to imagine how it was for a housewife who lived four stories high during the war when the Allies’ planes dropped bombs on the city. The housewife would cook and take care of children and do the grocery shopping with ration cards, but every minute, she had one ear open for planes and the air raid sirens.

When she heard the sirens scream, she’d turn off the burners on her stove, bundle up her children, trundle them down the steps, and head down the block to the nearest bomb shelter. She would wait there in the dark with strangers and sick, terrified children until they heard the all-clear sirens. Then she could go back home but never knew what time of day or night the sirens would go off again.

The level of stress, fear, and traumatic memories had to scar that generation beyond what we will ever know from history books.

These days, another era of devastation is happening in Syria, Turkey, and Greece, with traumatized men, women, and children running away from fire and bombs and being refused a safe place to stay. They’ve left everything they love and own, but people shoot at their boats to keep them from landing safely.

When I see those pictures and hear those stories, it makes me cry and feel like the richest girl in the world. Our current distress of endless disrupted plans and shelter-in-place restrictions is nothing like the trauma of being homeless and escaping bombs.

There’s a valid sense of loss and grief, but let’s keep some perspective. I don’t want to be glib because this IS real hardship for a lot of people, but we have food (not rations), soft and warm beds, electricity, and WiFi to connect us to our loved ones. This is hardly trauma–not the kind that rearranges our neural pathways and transfers to the next generation. It’ll be in the next history books, and it’s taking awhile to find our way, but MOST of us aren’t fragmented and devastated like a country in war.

A couple weeks ago, before the social distancing restrictions, a sweet friend hosted a painting tutorial party. It was the best way to spend an evening, and our teacher said she enjoyed it more than anyone, which was hard to imagine because we had so much fun.

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While we painted, we talked about words we could put with it. Everyone had different ideas for words they could use. Several days after painting it, I cautiously wrote some light, feathery words on mine then took it to my office.

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He will cover you with His feathers.

 

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Now with the COVID-19 upheaval, I keep thinking about how we’re in a nest. It’s a little dark and prickly in spots and confining, but we’re utterly safe. We’re fragile and clueless, but the enduring nurture, tenderness, and gentleness of God’s feathers cover and carry us. We have access to healing and rest and comfort beyond words.

We’re not going to do this crazy era perfectly. We’ll get impatient and frustrated and feel odd compulsions, and it’s ok. Crisis brings out the worst and best in us, and we can give each other space to fail.

But what I love about this is that, unlike World War II, this is not one nationality pitted against another. The pandemic is global and it’s unifying humanity like we were created to be.

Christians should be leading the way to model what Kingdom citizens do in crisis: respect, serve, love generously, sacrifice, create, work in tandem with God to make His power and glory visible.

Like a great stage master behind the scenes, He has already been working to put the broken world to rights. We are covered with His feathers, and He had this wild idea that we could partner with Him in that enormous work. (Ok, the metaphors are getting muddled here, but think about it!)

I don’t know everything that partnering with the Almighty means but I’m in! It will probably not include heroics. It will probably mostly involve little, hidden decisions to do the next right thing and push against comfort and toward love for others.

Join us?

A Lifescape

I work at Faith Builders, where we provide learning experiences that nurture love for God and neighbors. Part of the program for Christian Ministry and Teacher Apprentice students is their internship, a five-week stint in an established school or ministry. Whenever students ask me for advice as to where to go for internships, I tell them to go, go, go. Outside their zip code. Outside what’s instinctive and comfortable. Outside the country.

I have this theory that we don’t change or grow if we’re always comfortable. But that’s another post for another time.

This week students gave short reports about their internships. One had been in Greece, and another in Ireland. Both made me cry. I felt this deep, wordless connection with their stories that condensed into tears. They weren’t just reporting. They were taking me back. I’ve been to those places, breathed that air, ate that food, loved those people. The girls’ experiences tugged at my heart strings that stretch taut to those places.

Several years ago, I saw this painting at my friend Dervin’s house.

Dervin

I thought it was striking even if I don’t like gray, and he said Susanna, a mutual friend, had painted it for him in preparation for an art lesson, and it shows the places he’s lived in.

Cha-ching! I knew my next project.

It would be a way of illustrating the places I’ve lived in and loved. It would help organize my story and help me make sense of it. I pinned the picture to my To Paint board on Pinterest and looked around for similar designs. Susanna shared her art lesson plan here. About a year later, I toyed around with design and color, and came up with this.

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Oddly enough, it sits on the floor behind my office door. It’s the story of my life, and it sits on the floor. There might be a subliminal message there, but I don’t dwell on that. I love the cool, lively colors peaking out from behind the door when I’m working.

Childhood

This is the tree swing of my childhood and the mountains in VA where I was born.

Ireland

This is Ireland, a round tower that became a rich symbol to me of God’s protection, a rambling castle, and the cove where we’d swim.

Poland

This is Poland and my favorite old church in our town.

The water stands for all the water I’ve been in, at least the Irish Sea, the Baltic, Lake Erie, the Aegean, the Mediterranean.

Greece is on the far, misty horizon.

More than a fun art lesson of shades and tints, perspective and silhouettes, I love how this briefly tells the story of my life. In another 20 years, I hope the painting will look different, but this my current story.

I also like that it shows how each element is a part of the whole, and can’t be isolated without loss to the whole. I live in Pennsylvania but part of me is still far away and it’s rare when my worlds overlap. Which I guess is why I cried during the intern reports.

Morning Comes

I was teaching English in Poland in 2013, the year my health spiraled and I needed major surgery. That year was a saga in itself, and not one to tell here except to say that God and His people took care of me in ways that still choke me up.

The day of the surgery, December 4, was easily the worst day of my life. They’d planned for the surgery to be one hour, but it lasted three hours, and my body went into shock in the recovery room where I stopped breathing twice. I was so annoyed at the nurse who shook my shoulder roughly each time and said, “Breathe, breathe!” because I’d finally been comfortable and resting, and I didn’t want to breathe because it took too much effort.

Later, they trundled me into the room closest to the nurses’ station so they could keep a close eye on me, and they clunked a brick of ice onto my stomach, over the incision, and I was out of my mind with pain and freezing cold and anesthesia. Lolita hovered above me and asked what I wanted, and I said, “Music.” She opened my computer and found a few choral hymns that I always loved, but when she turned them on, they were terrible. Tinny and chintzy and awful. I forgot about music in the long, terrible evening as the nurses and doctor tried to get me warm and the pain under control.

My sister came too, with chocolate, and called my family several times to keep them updated. Before she left, she helped me think about what I’d need for the night, and put the stuff in a little tray within arm’s reach. I was confused, and didn’t know what I needed, but she was patient. Swabs. Call button. MP3 player and earbuds.

The next morning, I already felt better. Still lots of pain and achy and awful, but better, and the sun was shining, and it was snowing! I went to this song on my player and listened to it with one earbud on the quietest setting because two earbuds made it too loud. It was exactly right.

In the next days, the cloud of pain and anesthesia cleared and the only music that connected with me was that song, “Morning Comes When You Call,” and an album by Voices of Praise. I forget the title of that album, but I especially loved “I’m in His Care-Oh” and I always skipped “America the Beautiful.”

Two years later, I saw this picture in a little booklet,

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and I knew what to do with the latent memories of that worst day of my life. On a wintry Sunday evening, I took my chalk pastels and card stock to a well-lit table, and made this:

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My favorite feature is the yellow of the sunshine edging into the scene and bouncing off some trees. I asked a friend to do the lettering because I wasn’t confident enough to do that, and she said it was an honor.

The picture shows the crisp, snowy sunlight the day Ria came to see me in the hospital. She didn’t want to hurt me so she hugged me gingerly, after walking in from the bus, and her black wool coat was still cold, with drops of melted snowflakes.

The picture shows the contrast of light and shadow, the night and morning, the clouds and stunning light I experienced in that terrible, wonderful week. The day after the surgery, the surgeon checked in on me, and as she left, she said, “You were a very sick girl. Now work on getting better!”

I didn’t get all better that day. Recovery took a long time, and mild PTSD has stayed with me, but it’s improving. I keep thinking that, on every level, I feel healthier now than I ever was in the last ten years. I don’t have enough words to say how wondrous the on-going gift of healing has been.

To be accurate to my experience, the shadows in the picture should be darker, the night more visible on the horizon. But I like that that’s how it is with healed memory—it mostly sifts out the terrible, and the predominant memory, arching over everything, is light and joy and deep peace.

Fingerpaints of Venice

For something different, I’m starting a little series about the artwork I have in my house and the stories that go with each piece.

Four years ago, I was a student at Faith Builders and figuring out how to live in the US again. I flew here with just enough belongings to settle into a small dorm room and be a student. I didn’t have an envelope when I wanted to send off an application and I didn’t have a jar or rubber band to make kefir in my dorm room. (I’d brought the grains though: priorities.)

Apparently customs officials had riffled through my suitcases and found what seemed to be a large nut, and threw it away, but it was actually a dear little carved nativity scene that had been gifted to me, and I still miss it. I’m not that attached to stuff, but it still felt like a loss. The biggest loss was my rich connections with people who now lived an ocean away.

It was a topsy-turvy season, shattering and bewildering. Many, many good things happened, but mostly it was hard.  Beautiful, loving people surrounded me but I felt like my heart was mostly vacuum, hollowed out, shivering. There were weeks when I cried every day.

About eight months into re-entry, we had a group activity where we divided into teams of four. Using poster paints and our fingers, each team replicated their choice of painting from the Impressionist masters. Our team chose Monet’s Sunset in Venice:

Monet

Claude Monet [Public domain]

We started dabbing colors onto the margin of the big poster paper.

“I’m not an artist.”

“I don’t know how to do this.”

This is what some of my team mates said, but they went to it as if they’d done it all their lives. They studied the original, dipped their finger tips in paint, and dabbed it carefully. I flitted around, sketching briefly, maybe mixing some colors.

I don’t remember which part I did, but my predominate memory is that I cheered and cheered for how their success surprised them, and my fingers and palms were smeared with great colors, and I started breathing deeper and easier than I had for a long, long time.

We ended up with this:

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My favorite feature is the rippling reflection of the spire:

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We left it to dry overnight, and I felt like a new person.

All the teams displayed their paintings in the hall for several months, then threw them away, but I couldn’t part with ours. I found a frame for it, and I don’t have wall space for it, so it’s propped against the wall in my hall. Maybe sometime it’ll find its way to the dumpster, but not yet.

I wonder if I’m more attached to stuff than I thought.

Practical Principles about Virtual Reality

I felt offended the first time I went to a McDonald’s and couldn’t place an order with a person but had to order at the digital screen. I felt it was an affront to our humanity to have a screen mediate our transaction, and I’ll probably never be ok with it.

When I think about how to spend my limited resources of time, money, and technology, I want to live out of an abundance mentality, rather than scarcity. What good and beautiful thing can I throw my energy into? When God dreamed me up, what did He intend for me to be? I know He didn’t intend me to be a dour, nay-saying person.

What’s my biggest YES?

God and His purposes are the the non-negotiable part of my life. Beyond that, my biggest YES is connected to people and words.

Being sure of my main YES is wonderfully clarifying. I’m convinced that He intended me for:

  • Action rather than passivity
  • Creativity rather than consumerism
  • Interaction rather than spectating

These convictions help me sort out what to say YES and NO to regarding technology and devices. It even shapes my policy not to use the self-check-out machines at Walmart, because they cut out one person that I could interact with.

Passivity, consumerism, and spectating tend to shrivel and diminish a person—not what God had in mind when He dreamed up humans.

In contrast, action, creativity, and interaction make us fuller, better, healthier people.

Flourishing would describe it, and is surely what God designed us for.

Below are some practical ways that demonstrate my ideals and my main YES. When I know what to say YES to, it filters out clutter. I have more time for what I really love. I get to live in abundance, not scarcity.

But first a qualification: I really enjoy social media. I love Instagram. Also, I know loneliness and the magnetic pull for more, more, more faces and profiles and witty exchanges. Dopamine is a chemical we all like to feel, but the soul translates its absence as loneliness, and I feel it too. I’m not speaking out of a distant, Luddite attitude. Not at all.

I mostly watch videos only  if they’re classical music, choral music, painting, or lettering because they speak to my creativity. Who has time for cat videos? How are cats connected to anyone’s big YES? Oh yes, the people who work in catteries. But I’m not a kill joy, honestly. I love a good laugh. Oh yes, and I love, love, love Nathan Pyle’s Strange Planet because he makes me laugh every single day.

Housecleaning

I’m very Marie Kondo about my feeds. If something doesn’t spark joy, I unfollow it. Simple. I followed a very talented artist, and learned from her, and liked what she did, but she complained all the time, and I decided I don’t need that negativity. Same way for someone who consistently rants about their pet grievance or enthusiasm. If it’s about politics or multilevel marketing, it’s out. It’s nothing personal but it’s a boundary that gives me space to interact with the people I really want to hear from.

Friends or strangers

I accept most friend requests because I’m an author and welcome interaction that extends beyond the book. But with little or no exception, I don’t follow people I don’t know in real life, unless it’s a public page relating to creativity or people. Nobody is keeping track of how many friends or likes I have, and if they do, they must not get out much.

Real people vs virtual connections

People are colorful and unpredictable and quirky. They have all these stories and insights covered up in their souls, and I refuse to miss out on that by burying my face in my phone. Are some people boring? Yes. But they stay boring if I don’t engage with them.

And yes, interacting with real humans can be awkward and risky on all kinds of levels.

But how can people live their hours behind a device and then be vibrant, wholesome, contributing, flourishing husbands and wives and church members and mentors and artists and teachers and committee members?

Passivity and consumerism bleed into crippled, selfish relationships where I must feel good and cozy all the time, or I’ll escape into a device. Saying YES to interacting with real humans now exercises the muscles necessary later to love the difficult son or daughter, the awkward small group member, the selfish committee member. Refusing to interact in real life results in shriveled, diminished humans, which is an ugly alternative to what God dreamed for us. Is interaction with real people easy? Nope, not always.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Be all here

My phone shows only my Whatsapp, Messenger, and email notifications on the lock screen. I don’t need anything else when I’m working or socializing. I don’t have to know what’s going on on Facebook or Instagram until I’m alone and have time to open the app.  If I leave for an evening and I’m not the driver, the phone usually stays home. Others have heavier responsibilities than I, and don’t have the luxury of being as untethered as I am. But if they’re not a Person of Pressing Responsibility, I wonder why the phone can’t stay on their table a few hours until they get back.

This extends to taking pictures. We’ve all seen the circle of friends who are looking down into their phones at the pictures they’ve just taken instead of out into each other’s eyes. Or they’re contorting themselves to take a Instagram-worthy picture instead of internalizing the moment.

It makes my heart hurt to see that, but I feel the rub. Last Monday evening I was in a choir rehearsal. I’m so excited to be in an 80+ voice choir for Larry Nickel’s “A Cappella Christmas Cantata.” Part of my job is to publicize the event, and pictures do that best, right? But I felt so conflicted because I could either be a good choir member and stay engaged with the singing. Or I could take action shots. But I couldn’t do both, and when I tried, I failed on both fronts. sigh

Then yesterday I spent the day with a small group of pals critiquing writing projects. It was a lovely atmosphere, and I kept thinking about how I could capture part of it in a picture. After several hours of being all there, I tried surreptitiously to take a picture, but it wasn’t a good one and it still derailed the conversation toward styling a picture and talking about #vscobasics. Some conversations can afford to be interrupted with a camera, and some can’t. I’ve decided that my best moments don’t make it to the internet because they’re so sweet and precious, not for public consumption, and too valuable to interrupt with a camera.

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The disrupting shot

There are people in my life who have shaped me enormously, and they do it by being completely present with me. When they talk to me, they make me feel like I’m the most important person in their world. They ask thoughtful questions that show me they remember our last conversation even if it was a long time ago. They’re not grabbing at a pocket, or glancing at a screen when it dings. They have a million other things to do, but in that moment, they’re with me, and my soul is soothed in a way that no screen can mimic. The tilt of the head, the squint of the eye, the wink, or touching my arm tell me that they are all there, and I find it deeply restorative. We don’t have a selfie to document the moment but something real and lasting happened inside me.

This is the kind of presence and intention that will shift a person, a community, a world, and I want to be part of that.

Join me?

Last week, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about practical ways to approach life and technology. This is the expanded version of what I shared there. I’m also indebted to my co-writers yesterday who helped shape this into better coherence. It was a case in point: presence over electronics!

Autumn Epiphanies

I had an epiphany recently. Actually, two.

Every fall, I hear women making endless happy sounds because it’s PSL weather, and time for cozy sweaters and boots, and happy fall ya’ll, and my favorite season is pumpkin spice latte season, and pumpkins/candles/fuzzy socks/coffee, and fall shows us how beautiful it is to let things go, ad nauseum.

It makes me want to curl up in a corner and whimper.

I don’t care about any of the hype. I don’t care about the positive spin. The leaves are brilliant, and I love, love, love all their colors, but I can’t cheer because it’s fall.

Fall means things are dying and we’ll have more night than day, and we have to put on  eight to ten layers to go outside and I see nothing to be glad about any of that. Even the word FALL is negative. The British have something over us because they call it autumn.

The first epiphany was this:

Only the privileged get to chortle about their favorite season.

Most people in the world don’t have the luxury of choosing a favorite season and changing their wardrobe and décor accordingly. Most people are just trying to survive, find enough food for the next meal, and have enough shelter from the elements to stay alive.

If I complain about the season, it shows how privileged I am, how entitled I am to feel comfortable all time, how I deserve to reject or praise whatever season I want to.

It’s ok to have an opinion. I have lots of them.

But it’s not ok to be grumpy or complaining because something about the season doesn’t suit me. This epiphany has the potential to change my life because I’ve done more than my share of complaining about mice moving into the house when it gets cold and snow keeping me from driving where I want to and six-month long winters.

I still don’t like orange, and I still wince at inconvenient cold and I still get super stressed driving in snowy weather. I will probably never stop fantasizing about living in Italy or Greece. But I’m rich beyond belief, and have more than I deserve, and I should never complain.

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Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed. –Mary Oliver.

My friend Hannah did this calligraphy on a chalkboard and I cried when I saw it because it’s so beautiful and true.

Then, the 2nd epiphany:

I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes because spice doesn’t belong in coffee.

Coffee belongs in coffee (and maybe cream) but spices belong in tea. So bring on the spicy chai! I dream of pots and pots of creamy, spicy chai every week for the next six months. Take that, winter.

This was the first one, in a tall mug, with friends at a darling coffee shop in Manheim, PA.

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I discovered I can make a mean batch of chai. It wants to be made in a batch, not just a single serving. In case someone else out there shares my sentiment for un-spiced coffee, you might like this alternative.

This is not a recipe, but a guide:

Count on 3 tea bags per cup you want to serve.
Put them in water that comes to half the amount you want to serve. (The other half will be milk. The idea is that you’re making super strong tea.)
Turn on high to bring to a boil.
While the water and tea bags warm up, add:
Cinnamon (about 1 tsp. per 3 servings)
A very small sprinkle of cloves
A knob of grated fresh ginger (or 1 tsp. dried ginger–you must have ginger, or it’s not worth drinking, as I discovered recently when I served mediocre ginger-less chai to friends)
About 1.5 cardomom pod per serving, or a generous dash of ground cardomom (this is where the magic comes: the wispy, ethereal aftertaste that’s almost there, then gone)
A good sprinkle of black pepper

Simmer all of this for 20-25 min. Taste to check the spices, taking in account that it’s going to be bitter and strong. But does it have the right spice balance? This is the question.

Remove the tea bags, leaving in the cardomom pods for maximum effect. This is your chai base, to use now, or refrigerate for later.

To serve, warm the chai base, add approx. 1/4 cup brown sugar, and enough milk to nearly double the volume. If it’s too milky, it’ll cover the spice, so be conservative with the milk to start with. The point is to have it spicy enough to be almost peppery, but sweet and milky to be warm and comforting. Heat until steaming (if you let it boil over on the stove, you’ll be sorry, as I was many times), use a whip to stir and froth a bit, and serve. You might want to strain the spices out or you can just let them settle.

You can take it to the next level by squirting whipped cream on top and drizzling caramel sauce over it.

Probably no Indian or African would claim this as their chai. It’s pretty blatantly American, but ever so warming and comforting.