pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

an invitation

an invitation

the invitation is broader and deeper than simply offering you a date and a time and a place. yes, there is that (details below). but the invitation i’m gently laying here at the table, it’s a doorway, an entering in….

the invitation is to slow time, to savor, to pay attention, to carve out quietude in the rush and the whirl of your every day.

we’ve been circling around those notions for years now, here at the chair. and somehow, in a mystical, magical, marvelous way, those quiet ideas have tucked themselves into the pages of a book, a book that might plop onto my front stoop any hour now. while i’ve not yet lifted it out from a box, haven’t felt its weight hard against my palms nor flipped through its pages, haven’t marveled forward and back that words typed here in the murky first light of so many mornings have found their way off the screen and onto the page. spelled out in ink — a newsgirl’s primary intoxicant.

but i’ve seen proof that those pages are finally off the printing press. they’re bound, slipped between covers.

any hour now, i’ll christen those pages with my freshly spilled tears.

so it’s time for the invitation.

for starters, consider the book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 7, 2014), a portable iteration of this old chair. why, you can take it wherever you go. you can bring it to bed, tuck it under your pillow. you can spill it with crumbs (and not have to worry that your keyboard gets jammed with a bit of a cracker). you can climb into a tree, and turn its pages. you can even slink in the bathtub (and not have to worry about glug-glugging your screen under the bubbly suds). it’s the chair unleashed. the chair on the loose. we’ve snipped the cords and numbered the pages.

ah, but there’s something even more enticing than the fact that Slowing Time, the book, can follow you anywhere, can go where’er you go.

and that’s where the invitation begins: my prayer all along has been that what’s tucked in the pages of Slowing Time is simply a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours. my hope is that it might become your whispered companion. a place to begin to contemplate how your life might look and feel and radiate if we dial down the noise, hit pause, and sift through the mess for the shards of the Sacred.

it’s a sketch pad, really, in which the flickers of half-baked ideas clothe themselves in words. and those words become the stepping path into the woods, into the depths. or at least point you in intriguing direction.

professor elisa new, beloved poetry scholar at harvard, talks about how a poem is a “communal resource, a convening space — written in a language we all understand.” it’s a place, she says, “where one human being has tried to make meaning, using a tool — the language we all share — that belongs to all of us. and so, by entering into inquiry, discussion, and interpretation of that poem, we can fully engage in that activity so central to the humanities, that activity of human conversation about what it is really to be human.”

and so, too, with the words you find spilled on the pages of Slowing Time, it’s an invitation to “shared inquiry.” and its words are, at heart, prayer unfurled in plainspoken prose. one someone’s prayer searching, searching for companion — be that gentle journeyer God, or the soulmate you find along your stumbling way, or sitting just inches across from you.

after all, the geometry of the old maple table, and the chairs that are tucked up against it, is the circle. heart linked to heart, hands within squeezing range, eyes close enough together that we can catch the sparkle on a joy-filled day, or the empty hollows in the hours when sadness or grief has eclipsed the light.

it is in those circles of our life — the circles we create out of love, or even when carved by accident of geography — that we find communion. and our own plumbing of the depths becomes shared inquiry, scaffolded exploration. a safe zone, where even our rawest tender spots can be laid before us, with no fear of harm or scorn or raised eyebrow.

still, though, it is in solitude, and in the sanctuaries of time we’ve hollowed out of the day, that the deepest paying attention begins.

as with so many spirit-filled vespers, slowing time — here at the table over the years, most lately every friday morning — has become a practice. practice, as in trying over and over and over to hew closer to the anointed edge at our most blessed core. practice, as in a ritual that surrenders to a rhythm. and, as with all holy acts, the holiness is found burrowing into the nooks and the crannies of a place — an interior, our interior — at once familiar and still to be explored.

it is the nautilus of prayer.

and it is the invitation that pulses at the heart of Slowing Time: use these words, little more than one pilgrim’s prayer, to lead you deeper into your own heart’s vault. settle in. deep breathe. catch the light. embrace the shadow.

and, once you’ve breathed Holiness in and in and in again, lift your eyes, and discover the light of the circle around you, within you. there is Holiness abounding, and it’s ours, radiant with grace.

and here’s the date-time-and-place invitation:

Slowing Time begins here: Reading, Conversation and Book Signing 

Wednesday, September 17 (feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval mystic, composer, writer, visionary)

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Francis Xavier Warde School at Old St. Patrick’s Church

120 South DesPlaines Avenue, Chicago

(leave it to Old St. Pat’s to prompt the heavens to rain down books before the publication date…)

yet another reading, after the actual publication date of Oct. 7, is now inked onto the calendar of a marvelous magical bookshop in Evanston:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation

Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, a magical bookshop tucked in an alley that feels as if it’s popped off the pages of Harry Potter.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

more readings to come…..stay tuned.

and now a question: how do you slow time? (oh, and what will be your crumb of choice to spill onto the pages and clutter the book binding gulley?)

slowing time cover

tracks to my heart

engines of youth

the email slipped in with no more than the ubiquitous ping. it came from my faraway brother, the one with a boy of his own now, a fine little lad rounding the bend toward two.

the email couldn’t have been clearer:

“Hey Babs, we are thinking of getting a train set for milo. I recall you guys had a great Thomas Train set up. If you still have it, would you be open to our borrowing it for couple years?  We would pay all packing and shipping both ways. Saves us buying new.  I totally understand you might not want to let it go. Just wondering.”

in an instant, the snapshots came tumbling: my own firstborn’s second birthday, a summer’s day so hot and sticky he wore just a onesie as we tiptoed down the stairs to see what the birthday fairy had tucked in the living room corner. my heart nearly burst as i handed him the very first box i’d ever gone out and bought for him. it was a box so heavy the little guy couldn’t lift it. he needed his papa and me. inside: an oval of track, wooden track; one ivy-wrapped train station; and a little blue engine named thomas, thomas the tank engine, a train who’d ascend to a starring role in the celluloid loops of one boyhood.

for years and years, the consummate posture in our house was a boy perched in a crouch, his fine little fingers curled over the spine of a train as he moved it this way and that, spinning tale after tale, spewing noise after guttural noise (for that’s what trains do when they speed or they crash). one by one, we collected engines and track and bridges and tunnels. we collected stories, and friendships there on the floor where the tracks morphed from circle to oval to intricate geometries that looped and ducked and rose and forked. back in the day, the little TV by the kitchen table played over and over the tales of the trains of the island of sodor, all told in the lilting tongue of one ringo starr, who to these children was simply mr. conductor, while to his parents he was the rockstar drummer, now curiously cast as trainman. (ringo gave way to george carlin — or maybe it went the other way, carlin to starr — either way, a bizarre bit of telegenics, one that endears both gents forever.)

our sweet boy loved trains more than anything. for years, we rode them cross country, falling asleep to the sway of the bunks as we rolled through the heartland, the hudson river valley, or the rise of the rockies. we drove to where we could watch the lumbering locomotives, switching back and forth on the side tracks in the yard where they were hosed down and polished. we climbed aboard on sundays and rode up and down the “el” line, or around “the loop,” chicago’s train set for grownups.

more than once, our little trainman plopped his head to the pillow and drifted to dreamland clutching one of his engines. he rarely left home without his striped engineer’s cap. and when he was four, and we drove to a farm to fetch a striped six-week-old kitten, our little trainman inserted “choo-choo” as the mewling’s middle name.

one christmas, the very same brother who now wonders if we might send our train set his way stayed up the whole night, sawing and pounding vast planes and chunks of wood, a train table with sawdust-sprinkled landscape, one that stood on four stout legs, and rose to the precise height of one little boy’s waist, for maximum stretch of his train-steering arms. that blessed brother’s all-night labor made for a christmas awakening never to be exceeded.

and then one day, the train table was collecting dust. the trains hadn’t moved one inch in the yard. they were tumbled all in a pile. and, in time, tossed in a bin and tucked at the back of the toy shelf.

for years now, they’ve cowered in the dark. too treasured to be relegated to the attic. too forgotten to see the light of the murky playroom downstairs.

but still that bin holds so many sparks of a boyhood, i can nearly hear its whispers. maybe more than anyone in the house, i’m the one still clutching the tracks and the sweet-faced engines.

but around here we believe in hand-me-downs. and not only because it stretches a dollar. because a hand-me-down is history. is layers of story. of love. is animated even its stillness.

and so, this morning, i will sift through the train bin. i will pluck out thomas, the blue one, and james, who is red. edward, i recall, is the kind engine (and thus, always, my favorite). and toby is a troublemaker. how could you not love the cast of your firstborn’s childhood? how could you not treasure the trains that, often, came to dinner? made lumps in the bed clothes? filled little-boy pockets? spouted faucets of tears if left behind, ever?

that little train man is far from home now, 1000 miles away from the train table that is no longer. he’s all grown, and he told me just last week, with a thrill in his voice, that the window of his senior-year dorm room looks out on a train track that runs through the woods of his leafy new england college.

and just a bit farther north and east, in the little town of south portland, maine, there is a little boy who doesn’t yet go to sleep dreaming of trains. but he will. oh, he will.

as soon as i slap the shipping tape onto the cardboard box that waits in the basement. soon as the nice mailman scoops up the parcel and plops it onto a faraway stoop. soon as sweet milo crouches down in that way that boys do, and curls his fingers just so, round the spine of the train. and, full steam ahead, chugs through a childhood.

bless the tracks and the trains, and the boys who so love them….

what are the treasures from your childhood? or the childhood of someone you love? do you recall bequeathing that treasure to the next keeper of treasure?

bushed.

bushed teddy exhausted

it’s not familiar terrain. not a channel to which i am often tuned. not among my minimal daily requirements.

fact is, i’m not often bushed. not even tired, particularly.

most days, i rocket-bolt out of bed. spend the day pinging from R to Z to Q — often curlicue-ing around the Q — then ponging back to B, C, and maybe W for the end-of-day denouement.

what i mean is: tired, the state of being, is not notched in my gear shift. i was born with my eyes wide open, i’m told (for i’ve little first-hand recollection thereof). and nowadays i’m married to a fellow who thinks one of the funniest things about me (and, yes, his list is long) is that i can’t stand to sleep with the shades drawn. i might miss, say, the first tumbling snowflake. or the pit-a-pat of plopping rain. might not be tickled awake by the first shard of dawn’s light.

full-throttle is my natural gear. and it’s where i’ve been hovering for the last few weeks, as the tick-tock toward my sweet boy’s turn on the bimah (that’s hebrew for altar) drew closer and closer. why, there were flowers to plop onto tables, and argyle socks to pull from the drawer. there were old friends flying in for a few nights’ rest under our eaves. and whole flocks of butterflies to chase from my little guy’s tummy. i was lucky if i’d get an hour or three of big ZZZs before bolting awake. and then i’d just lie there, drumming up worries, till finally i’d surrender and haul myself out from under the sheets.

no wonder me and the sweet boy above have assumed a similar posture: sprawled out and weary. pretty much unable to flinch even a muscle.

took me a few nights to dial down the rev in my engines. didn’t catch a full night’s sleep till just last night. meaning it’s been close to a month since i snoozed more than just a few hours. meaning my days have stretched on and endlessly on, running on fumes, my tank teetering precipitously toward E for empty.

i’ve been craving dark green leafies. and considering frying up liver and onions (far as i got in that department, was the consideration and swift dismissal). i wondered if red blood cells might be in order, a booster pack infused via least nettlesome route.

fear not, i’ll right this old teetering ship. i’ll find my mo-jo again. all it’ll take is a few slow turns of the globe. a few nights curled under the sheets. i’ll be good as new in no time.

which makes it excellent timing that just this week the latest issue of northwestern university’s alumni magazine is spilling out of mailboxes across the planet. back on the very last page, under the heading, “purple prose,” a pun on the school color more than a diss on the exaggerated writing, there spill a few words, all penned by me.

while i practice my deep-breathing exercises and shop for those dark leafy greens, i thought i’d leave you with yet another essay on the art of paying attention, and why it so matters.

without further ado, from the pages of northwestern magazine, curl up and consider this:

STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN

By Barbara Mahany

It was in the murky shadows of an auditorium, on a wintry Sunday morning when I might have wished I’d stayed under the covers, that I noticed the man down the row who raised his hand to add to the voices talking about God and death and the fathomless unknown.

Because I know this man to be wise, and not one to speak unless there’s something worth saying, and because I know this man buried his wife when their two little children were barely old enough to go to school, I listened. Because the man speaks in a rasp — sounds like chunks of gravel chafing against each other deep in his throat — it took determined listening.

This is what I heard, unspooled in one unbroken tendril: “When my son asked why people die, I said, ‘Because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.’ ”

And suddenly I knew I’d heard the words of a prophet there in the shadows on a Sunday morning. And, suddenly, I was so deeply grateful I’d climbed out from under the covers.

I couldn’t stop thinking of what he said — “… we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

Nor could I stop thinking that he’d first spoken those words to a young boy who’d lost his too-young mother, a boy who would no longer climb into her lap, feel her arms wrap around him, a boy who’d had no choice in absorbing the astringent truth of his father’s lesson: Our days are limited, pay attention to how you live.

I’ve been a disciple of paying attention for years. I’d known — because my own father died, too young at 52, before I had a chance to say goodbye — that our days are numbered. But it was in the way that raspy voice framed those two truths into a single conditional equation, that it stirred me as never before.

In fact, it was the very gift of paying attention — of not turning to my so-called smartphone during yet another Sunday morning’s conversation at the synagogue — that allowed me to take in the words of the wise man a few seats to the east of where I’d plopped with my paper cup of cardboard-box coffee.

It’s become more urgent than ever, this practice of paying attention, especially in this world so terminally distracted by Attention Deficit of the Worst Disorder.

It’s the only way I know — short of climbing behind the monastery walls — to slow the mad-dashing, to quiet the incessant noise, to breathe in and out deeply. To awake to the sacred that surrounds us, that lifts us out of the meaninglessness that numbs us, that corners us into thinking there’s no sin in “killing a few hours.”

We have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.

Here’s how I try to stitch holiness into the quotidian hours of the everyday: I set my alarm an hour earlier than I need to be roused. I tiptoe down the stairs and out into my garden. I quiet my soul. I might catch a sliver of moon. Or the first shards of sunlight. I drink in the birdsong. I crouch down low, take in the poetry of the morning’s dew, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it, illumines the dawn.

It’s that first hour that fine-tunes my soul for the day. And it’s a rhythm, a depth, I try to hold onto, no matter what the day hurls my way.

It’s become what’s aptly called “a practice.” Practice for slowing my deep inner clock. Practice for opening all of my pores — each of the sensory channels, those vessels that draw in the holy — for the countless moments of grace that might otherwise escape me. Practice as in something I try again and again, hoping one of these days I might get it right.

Nearly every world religion, or any mindfulness for that matter, insists on the wisdom of looping back at regular intervals, hitting the pause, blocking out chatter and tuning in to the still, small voice that you might only hear if you’re quiet. Truly quiet. And paying exquisite attention to the whispers all around. The ones that remind us of our own small place on the globe. And our too-short stay here.

The ones who, in the murky shadow of a Sunday morning, might call out from the darkness, and utter the few short words that, months later, urge us — still — to deeper and deeper attention:

“We have a limited number of days,” spoke the father to his motherless son. “So how we live matters.”

And we listened.

Barbara Mahany ’82 MS is a longtime Chicago journalist. Her first book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), will be published in October.

dear chair friends, how do you re-juice your tank when it’s drained to near empty? 

p.s. photo above is young T shortly after stepping down from the bimah, and his chanting of the Torah. fairly certain he was lifted by angels up there, for he soared to heights neither he nor i had ever imagined. 

susurrations: the blessed rinse of a summer morning’s rain

gift of morning rain

it came without throat clearing. no rumble off in the distance. no dark skies, foretelling. in fact, the golden orb of sun was rising through the branches of the pines.

but there it was, just beyond the screen, the back door opened to welcome in the summer morning’s offerings.

a drip. a drop. a plop. another plop, plop, plop.

the susurrations of a summer morning’s rains.

the ping that hit the skylight confirmed it: the heavens had sprung the softest, lulling-est leak.

and all at once, i felt my shoulders sigh. heard a gentle whoof of air bellow out my lips. it felt, once again, as if God almighty had reached long arms through the clouds, applied mighty finger tips to brow, and began to make the little circles on the plane above my eyes, the ones that always, always rinse away the worries.

thank you, i whispered, and whisper still, as the gentle benediction of the summer rain soothes on.

i’d been up early, as i’ve been of late; out from under the sheets once the 5 blinked onto the clock’s face beside my bed. i was fumbling for the coffee beans, had already opened the screen door to let in the morning air and the first dabs of light soaking into the inky dome of waning night.

and that’s when the first plop dropped. and i perked my ears. perked my soul, too. starting feeling not so all alone in the dim light of my kitchen ministrations. i walked to the door, inspected the brick walk, and sure enough, the water spots spread like chicken pox on a baby’s bum.

now, i’m 300-percent certain that my strung-out nerves did not figure into the morning’s celestial weather convocation. no one made a motion to be sure to crank the faucet just above my house, in hopes of dousing the wildfires that threatened to scorch my inner wiring. but there are moments when you discard all reason, and you roll with the whimsy that the rains were meant for you. that someone somehow knew just the meteorological prescription for your morning’s maladies.

so i dodged the raindrops, and wandered out to my summer porch, where the wicker chair offers the best perch for taking in the surround-sound of a morning’s wash. a gentle rumble or two finally did announce that this rain was real, and might linger for awhile.

and instead of worrying about the kid whose mama had called last night to tell me about the whopping case of head critters just discovered at her house and on her kid’s head (a head that had been in close proximity to my own kid’s, just the night before), and instead of worrying about the picture show that might or might not work at my little one’s dance party, and instead of worrying about whether my little guy might collapse into a dead faint as he gets up to chant the Torah (so very terrified is he of this call to the bimah, the Hebrew word for ‘altar’), i sat and soaked up the susurrations of the summer’s rain.

in between the plops, i heard a holy whisper: be not afraid. the heavens surround you, hold you, will not let you wobble.

and then, a final psssst, and this: might not be a bad idea to douse yourself in tea tree oil, the sure combatant for those creepy-crawly things that, at the mere mention of their existence, make your hairs stand on end. 

amen to summer rains, and end-of-august worries, as the school year races toward us, as the long-awaited bar mitzvah is upon us, and our old house fills with beloved people who love us enough to interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to strap on seat belts and fly our way. i figured today might be better than tomorrow, friday, for tap-tapping at the keyboard, and then the rain came and tickled my brain. i’ll be changing sheets, and choreographing airport runs tomorrow morning, and you needn’t listen in on all that noise. next time i type here, one boy will be back to college, and eighth grade will have begun for another. i’ll be home alone, and the to-do list won’t be quite so long. though, just the other side of this bar mitzvah, that blessed book, Slowing Time, promises to demand my attentions.

till then, the only prayer request that matters: dear God, please keep T’s knees from buckling, and may his chanting be heard all the way to new jersey, where his beloved grandpa, who cannot be among the flock who flies here, will be listening with all his blessed heart. 

the pure oxygen of prayer

pause hydrangea

shortly before i fluttered open my eyes this morning, i steered my rumbly-tummied self into the safest place i know: the arms of who i know to be God.

i’ve been doing it, i realized, all my life. in all the tight squeezes and lightless tunnels, in all the passages when to-do lists drive my day, and i demonstrate a masterful knack for conjuring worries of assorted size and shape and girth. now, for instance. with one week till my sweet boy’s bar mitzvah, and somewhere in the offing, the pages of my book being spilled with words i’ve typed from my heart for years and years, this patch in here has been an adrenaline-stoked doozie.

i awake each morning to a to-do list that slowly, surely, gets chiseled away. but i have to keep the lasso near at hand, for i’ve an inclination to tumble forward in time and go breathless. i picture myself catapulting forward with little oxygen on board. i’ve known myself long enough to know that i’m not so good at shaking the small stuff. i get consumed by the small stuff. don’t want to forget one water bottle by the side of either of the house guests who will be sleeping here for the weekend. don’t want to drone on too long when i stand before the room and ladle love in great dollops to each and every blessed soul who has shone a light on the boy we know as T.

never mind, too, that my sweet boy is as nervous as nervous can be. never mind that he takes soccer balls blasting at his face at 50 miles per hour, and thinks nothing of diving face-first into them to keep them from soaring into the goal. when i tried to suggest he dip into that same well of courage, he explained quite matter of factly that podiums in front of synagogues and goal posts on a soccer field are wholly different realms, and one brand of courage does not bleed into the other. point, taken.

i do what mamas do in such instances: i take on his wobbles, too. pile them mightily on my own over-packed jalopy, and putt-putt along the potholed lanes with his worries strapped on top of mine.

which makes me a bit haggard these days. and if you look closely, you might see my shoulders sagging. and my jeans a wee bit loose around the hips.

so here’s the secret, the cure-all potion for those moments when i am certain i’m perched at the precipice, about to fall headlong into the bottomless inky pit: i sink into a hole all right, but it’s one illuminated in holy light. it’s the arms i practically feel wrap around me. it’s the near-whisper in my ear.

it’s God. my old old friend God.

and God applies balm to my heart, and snips the jangled nerves. God, with that twinkle in God’s eye, reminds me that i am being silly. and letting the runaway worries run away. God gently taps me upside the noggin, and reminds me: I’ll be there. I am there. I’m here, right here. And I’m not leaving.

i know we all imagine God in our own extraordinary ways. those of us blessed to do such imagining. my knowing of God, i realized this morning as i felt myself sink into the feather down of God’s embrace, my capacity for catapulting myself into that safe place, that harbored place, has something to do with my capacity for time travel born of all the pages that i turned when i was just a little girl, and i plopped upon my quilt-square coverlet, and tiptoed along the rose-tangled lanes and secret gardens of England’s countryside, or into the big wisconsin woods where laura ingalls wilder lived with ma and pa and mary in their little cabin.

that was the genesis. the beginning of a power to believe. and so that capacity to make like a hovercraft and transport myself, my soul, into another sphere, another space, it’s been exercised all my days.

oh, sure, my sense of God has grown up alongside me. but at heart, it’s that tender transporting, that moving me from fear and wobble into safe and wrapped that is at the heart of why, worry after worry, year after year, i plunge for the hands, the arms, that hold me, whisper soothing holiness.

and, too, over the years, i’ve discovered the world is stitched with what amount to “on switches,” brushstrokes of beauty that unlock the channels, and draw me straight to the heart of the Divine. my rambling garden. the just blooming bottle-brushes of late-summer’s hydrangea. the pit-a-pat of rain. the sound of my firstborn’s footsteps from the bedroom just above, knowing he’s home, and i’m awash in deepest gratefulness. the morning song of mama wren. the chatter of the sparrows who’ve made their home just above the front door, in a little cove they’ve pecked away with their insistent sparrow beaks.

i’ve grown wise enough to know that i need to stay close to all these channel openers in my life. when i feel myself getting dizzy from worries, i tiptoe out the door, and plonk myself on the bluestone stoop. i sit and breathe. watch the sunlight dance upon hydrangea leaves. follow the flutter of the august butterfly. fill my lungs. feel the arms of God surround me.

drink in the holy whisper. remind myself i’m not alone. never alone.

and all i need do to feel the squeeze of God beside me is slow down, deep breathe, and fill my sorry lungs.

how’s that for an exercise in heart-baring? i’m not quite sure what prompted me to try to write about what it feels like to reach out to God, and feel wrapped in the holy blanket of God’s presence. but now i’ve gone and done it. because that’s what this is, a place where the first draft of the heart and soul is unfurled. it’s but a sketch pad, after all. one week’s attempt to try to wrap words around the ineffable. along the way, maybe i stumble on a moment of incandescence. maybe it’s all a blur. but it’s the trying that’s the point. 

how do you describe reaching out for Holiness when you’re wobbling and awash in worldly worry?

boy, becoming…

teddy fitting room 13

he is trying it on, my boy in the three-way mirror. trying on what comes next: the gulch between boyhood and manhood. the years when certain nicknames are dropped and stuffed bears get tucked away in shadowed boxes. the years when bedtime comes later and later, long after mama’s in dreamland. the years when testing the fates begins to occur. the years when it all — sometimes — comes crashing deep down inside.

my little one is no longer. he’s 13 today. and while the statute of limitations on that tender name — “little one” — has worn out its welcome, i feel the urge to mark the moment here at the chair with a swift look back at my muse, the one whose moments i captured here where words are the butterfly net, here where the tenderest heart took hold in the cracks between letters.

my little one was all of five when the chair first pulled up to the table. he was a kindergartener who hadn’t quite figured out how to hold onto a pencil. or tie a shoe. or string all the slashes and blobs on the page into what might be called words. he climbed into bed, back in those days, outfitted for battle, slaying monsters with light sabers — all while he slept, apparently.

he went off to first grade here at the chair, armed with red hearts in his little jeans pocket. i kept one, too. mine was in my pocket, and all day long through the torturous hours of school, we squeezed on our wee little hearts, a morse code of the very best kind — “i love you.” “i miss you.” “i’m right here.”– were the messages we squeezed back and forth.

my little one and i went for moon walks. we gazed at the stars. and i captured his wonder.

captured his questions too, his questions without answers. “mama, what will happen when i die? will you die? will daddy die? who will die first?” the rat-a-tat-tat of truth-seeking missiles.

over time, and once he realized the world beyond his doorstep was occasionally reading along, he issued a declaration: i wasn’t allowed to write of his wisdoms and ponderings and wobbles and blips without first submitting draft form before the committee of one — the committee of T. he would read, rule, issue edict: publish or no.

what i’ve found — in that magical playground that is the stringing of alphabet letters into words into sentences into thinking out loud — is that the surest way to discover nooks and crannies in your own heart, and in the heart of the one you attempt to capture in brush strokes and shadings — not unlike the art student sketching the pose of the deftly-draped model in the drawing studio — is to circle back, again and again over the years, to put it to paper, to trace over and over again the outlines, the depths and the illuminations. to stand back over the years, and to see what you’d not seen on first go-around. to hold in your hand the faintest yet sharpest glimpse of the child who populates your hours, your heart, your deepest imagination.

to fall in love all over again is a gift to whomever beholds it. i fell in love, over and over, holding my little one up to the light. and now, my little one is at the brink of something quite big: he’s adding a “teen” to his numbers.

thirteen soft august eighths ago, i was perched in a hospital bed, cradling my very own miracle. the babe who defeated all odds — at every step of the odyssey, from conception to birth canal. i remember how keenly i studied him. his delivery had had a few bumps, the sort that can steal your sweet dream and turn it into a nightmare. in the flash of an instant. in a heartbeat skipped.

prayer — and the mightiest push that ever there was — delivered him. a babe in my arms at 44-and-3/4 years. take that, doctors (and actuarial tables) who swore it would never happen!

all these years, that notion of something outrageous, the blessing of beating the odds, it’s held me tight in its focus. i’ve a gift, we’ve a gift, all of us who melt at the tender words that ooze from that heart, or the way he rubs circles soft on your back. he’s a gift, the boy now crossing the great gulch to manhood. here’s praying we draw on all of our wisdom, and acres of love, to guide him safe to the other side.

bless you, sweet T. happy birthday. and with all of my heart, thank you. thank you for coming along….

one of the blessings of having typed here all these years, is that i’ve managed to capture a string of word snapshots: my boys growing up. and they are among the most precious treasures i know — the boys, certainly, but also the snapshots. i never set out to frame these moments in time, but that’s what’s happened. and it’s why i back-up and back-up. why i wish i could carve these in stone, so no cyber-thief, no computer blow-up, could ever steal these fragments of my heart. 

but since you don’t come to listen to me ooze about my beautiful boy, i thought i’d leave a little birthday present for anyone interested in the art of paying attention. here’s a glorious passage from robert bly, observing a caterpillar. it’s so exquisite in its powers of focus and concentration, i just thought i’d leave it out on the table — a morsel in words — for your delight. savor.

A Caterpillar on the Desk

by Robert Bly

           Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily-or perhaps summer’s insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

“A Caterpillar on the Desk” by Robert Bly, from The Morning Glory. © Harper & Row, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

and what such magnificent observations have you made today?

the day begins here…

day begins here vase blackeyed

before i’d even tumbled out of the bedsheets, i felt the low-down wobbles. happens sometimes. even on a morning when birds are in the boughs just beyond the window panes. it’s almost as if the sediment of whatever shattered in the day before is settling down, after a short night’s slumber, into the pits of your veins and your belly — and your knees, always the knees on a wobbly morning.

it’s almost as if, before your braincells awake, your body cells remember. they know there’s unsettling. they know the darkness rolled in before the day was done. needn’t be big things. sometimes the things that wake you up wobbling are simply a potage of rumbles and worries, spiced with bits of unwanted news.

once i’d splashed the cold water on my bed-wrinkled face, once i’d slipped into the shirt with the least number of holes in the elbows, i turned to tramp down the stairs.

there in the kitchen, the morning’s light awaited. the garden nodded, all dappled with dew drops.

i made a mistake in checking my phone: there lurked one of those emails you don’t want to find before the first gulp of coffee. but there it was, so i read it. and then, i glanced at the dining room table, all strewn with hundreds of pages and a fat red pen. i’ve a day of page proofing ahead of me. the last go-around with these pages that have seeped deep into my soul. these pages on which i whisper a prayer every time i begin again, start at the top, read through to the bottom, on alert, high alert, for typos and runaway commas.

i was now in high wobble.

so i did what any wobbly girl with sharp garden clippers would do: i walked straight out of the house where the wobbles had gathered, and i started to snip — the garden, that is. a long neck of yarrow here, black-eyed susans there. snip, snip, snip. next thing i knew i was clutching a fistful of august delight. and the wobbles weren’t so wobbly anymore. or at least for the moment, i’d buried my nose in the ticklish bouquet, and i wasn’t paying the wobbles much mind.

that’s what a holy morning can do for you. that’s the magic of ringing your old tired house with billows of bloom. folks driving by might think you grow bundles of things for the color, or the je ne sais quoi. ah, but you know. you know the secret: you are growing your very own apothecary out there. it’s all healing balm, and wobbly cures. it’s buoyant and tender, all at once.

it’s the deepest blessing of this holy earth: the power to heal what ails us, whatever it is.

all you need do to prompt it along is tuck a few roots deep in the dirt. then add sprinkles of rain. a few prayers and crossed fingers certainly help. never hurt. oh, and then you muster up patience. you wait. and you wait. and the globe spins around, and next thing you know it’s august, the launch of black-eyed susan season. the glorious crescendo of the midsummer garden. all the growing things — the yarrow, the hydrangea, the susans — they’re all rubbing shoulders, shoving and pushing to steal your attention. all they want is to stick out their necks, to bloom, to soak up some sunshine.

and what they give in return is pure bliss. gentle bliss. quiet bliss. a bliss that promises to bathe you in all that you’ll need to weather the day.

here’s the gardener’s pose of acceptance, accepting the gift of the garden: bend at the waist, stick your nose in the powdery parts where the yellow rubs off, now take a deep whiff, and reach for your clippers.

so it went this once-wobbly morning, when i marched out the door and into the billows, armed with my felco no. 2 clippers. i clipped and i snipped, and next thing i knew i was ready to face this fine day, not quite so wobbly this time.

what’s your garden doing to fortify you this fine day? and if not your garden, what’s your secret potion for facing a wobbly day? 

a bit of the backstory here is that i’m plowing my way through final page proofs, as that ol’ book, Slowing Time, has locked in its reservation with the printing presses, and is due to roll by the end of the month. that means every wiggle and blip on the page is demanding attention, lest it roll off the press, blips and bloops intact. 

an attentive life

fern attentive life

because i’m motoring up to my college reunion today, here’s an essay i wrote for the summer issue of marquette magazine, in which i realize how that jesuit curriculum was the birthing ground of paying attention, most especially, for me, in the college of nursing…

An Attentive Life

An Essay By Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79

Until I heard my husband’s voice, sounding rattled on the answering machine, it had hardly been a newsworthy morning. I’d been out squishing through the soggy kitchen garden. I’d noticed a few green nubs poking through the thawing earth. I’d watched a mama sparrow dart this way and that with the dried-grass makings of her nest.

And then I scrambled to my email to read the news that had put the tremor in my husband’s throat: A dear friend, one who’d just finished a year of god-awful chemo, a friend who is mother to a 17-year-old who only a week ago had scored the trifecta of Ivy League acceptance letters and to a 13-year-old who’s not too tough to cry when soccer flattens him, had just gotten word that her cancer is back. Back with a vengeance. And her doctors now narrow her hope: only to stretch out her days so, for now, she can pack her daughter’s college trunk and send her son back onto the soccer field for one more season.

The words that won’t stop rattling through my breath, my brain, my every heartbeat are these: The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.

If our days are numbered —and they are, though it sometimes takes the urgency of a day like today to sharpen the edge of that raw truth —we really can’t afford not to notice, not to bristle at the brush strokes of the divine that sweep up against us, leave us with goose bumps, remind us that the holy is all around and that if we listen, really listen, we just might hear the sacred breath that whispers, “Here I am.”

It took me the better part of a half-century to figure it out, but I’ve come to believe that prayer is the practice of paying attention.

Like the chambered nautilus I unearth from the sandy shore, the uncoiling of wholly attentive prayer is at once simple yet intricate. A discipline never easy, nor is it insurmountable. It’s a mindfulness, a sensory awakening that opens all the channels coursing straight to the pulse point deep inside, the one that attunes us to true knowing. It can feel sometimes as if someone is squeezing our hand in the dim darkness of our days or wrapping us in mighty muscled arms that will not let us stumble or turn to run and hide.

At heart, the prayer of paying attention is a deeply human act that ushers in the otherwise unknowable. It’s what fills in the emptiness of our otherwise hollow living-breathing selves.

It comes in many forms. It’s the wide-eyed scanning of sky that prompted me, one late summer’s night while driving home through a leafy woods, to notice the rising cheddar wheel of a moon and drive like a madwoman to the edge of a lake, where I watched that lunar orb ooze tangerine strands across the inky waters, arcing toward the high point of heaven’s dome. Slack-jawed, I marveled all the while.

Or it’s the keen-eared concentration that allowed me not to miss when a man sitting down the row in a shadowy auditorium mentioned that, soon after his wife died, he explained to his young son: “The reason people die is because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

I can’t imagine the text of my life absent such heaven-sent wonder and wisdom.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, writes: “Attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the golden-glowing woods or startle to the night song of the spring peepers rising from the wetlands is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

“I want to live my life in epiphany,” says poet and Renaissance scholar Kimberly Johnson. “I want all my pores open.” This way of living at full attention, she says, “is unmediated experience. My antennae are tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.”

It’s why she’d gladly spend a day nestled beside a gurgling brook on a mountain trail. It’s a way to gulp down undiluted holiness, never watered down, not dimmed by the cacophony of a world that seems to be forgetting how to listen.

The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.

Celtic tradition puts a name to the places in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, where the whispers of the divine are most discernible: “Thin places,” the Celts believe, are the places to which we are pulled as if tide pools where we can bathe in that for which we are so parched.

The first time I heard the phrase, I was walking between rows of runner beans with a farmer friend whose firstborn son, a U.S. Marine home on leave from Iraq, had been killed when his old car missed the bend in a country road and he drowned in a pond not five miles from his mother’s central Illinois farm. My farmer friend pointed to the hayloft of the old barn, a gap-toothed slat-roof barn where shafts of light streamed in, a mosaic of illumination and shadow. “That’s my thin place,” she told me. “That’s where I go to cry in the arms of God.”

Curiously, Celts and Jews and Ignatius Loyola, among others, share that pulsing sense that every moment of the day — the most ordinary moments of every day — are vessels of the holy. And all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer.

So for Jews, there are some 100 blessings stitched across the hours of the day, from the blessing for awaking to the one for slipping on undergarments. In Celtic tradition, prayers are whispered for getting up, lighting the fire, milking the cow and on through the day, until the prayer for snuffing out the candles when the house is darkened for the night.

A glorious expression of that Celtic belief in abounding holiness is the insistence that we “learn to play the five-stringed harp,” that being the five senses that will bring us nose to nose, skin to skin, ear to ear with the divine.

In the Ignatian way, the credo is clear: Find God in all things. Not only all good things. All things. The great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “… for Christ plays in ten thousand places … ” Thomas Merton put it: “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In a word, it’s “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet. It’s all around, and it’s a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. We’re not tripping over a novel concept here. This is no New Age enlightenment.

“It’s one of the most fundamental spaces in my life, this space where the horizontal, the secular, meets the vertical, the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross,” says Guggenheim Fellow, poet and best-selling author Eliza Griswold, the journalist who wrote The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. “That’s poetry, where everyday time is punctured by the sacred. And my calling is there, the places where sacred and secular meet.”

I’ve long been a student in the great school of God’s world as it surrounds me. I’ve long been hellbent on breaking open the fragile — and the monumental — offered up by the limbs and the leaves and the rippling streams and the star-stitched night sky.

There is metaphor all around. It’s deep and it’s profound, and I am drinking it in as if cool waters through a straw.

And more than in John Muir’s woods or on the banks of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, my ears have perked to the scritch scratch of heaven on earth right here in the dappled sunlight as it pools across the wide pine planks of my old house or plays peekaboo among the tangled vines of my rambunctious secret garden just outside the kitchen door.

I needn’t travel far to find the holy. Though it did take time — the better part of decades — to learn to listen for the sacred murmurings, to let them soak deep down to where I was hungriest, most hollow, to figure out that all along I’d had the fine-boned instrument to draw the music in.

And, recently, it struck me that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of Marquette’s College of Nursing, back at the old college, the one appended to St. Joe’s Hospital. There, in shiny linoleum-tiled classrooms in the fall of 1976, the whole lot of us began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once that white cap had been bobby-pinned to my curly locks, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer whose origin I can’t recall. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath and which limb hurt too much for me to lift.

And on and on the learning went. As I watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of a 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder while he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths. At the crosshairs of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination.

Some three decades ago, because by then I was working in a newspaper newsroom and forgot to pay attention to the paperwork of my life, my nursing license expired. So, short of retaking my boards, I can’t claim to be a registered nurse any longer.

But, the truth is, I needn’t hold a license to practice the exquisite art of paying attention. It’s a hard-won curriculum, indeed. But it’s one that’s dissolved the hard edge between heaven and messy earth. It’s the undercurrent of all my prayer. And it’s what aligns my every breath with all that is most holy.

Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79, once a pediatric oncology nurse, is a freelance journalist and the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), to be published in October 2014.

and how, dear friends, did you learn to pay exquisite attention? 

attentive life MU mag

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers