pull up a chair

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

pulled by heart

lunch

the hour hand had just nudged itself past 5. the tableau out the window was black-on-black. the bedsheets, warm, toasty warm. the soft folds of the flannel, pulled snug against my shoulders, invited one last episode of sleep. all i wanted was one more hour. but then i remembered.

the light down the hall was already splintered through the crack under the door. the soft bells of an alarm were faintly chiming. the whoosh of the shower broke the pre-dawn hush of a house just beginning to rouse. i knew my firstborn was up and getting dressed. i knew he’d soon be barreling into the morning’s bitter cold. the headlights of his little black car would shine down the alley, turn toward the city, to the west side, to the streets where just a week ago a bullet pierced the window of the pre-K classroom in the school where he teaches. the bullet shattered glass. sailed across the room, ramrodded a metal pipe, ricocheted. hit no one. thank God. but the cluster of little 4-year-olds, who by the grace of God had been clustered at that instant on the far side of the classroom, away from the bank of sidewalk-level windows, they heard the blast, the ping, and at last the thud of the bullet dropping to the classroom’s hard tile floor. deadly sounds. sounds that shouldn’t be heard in a pre-K classroom. or any classroom anywhere.

a week ago, at 2:46 p.m., i got this text from my firstborn:

There’s been a shooting outside school. We are in lockdown, but I am okay, so are my students. Do not call, I don’t want there to be any noise in my room.

a mother’s heart all but stops when she reads those words.

it would be another hour till he called, till i heard the rush of air i knew as his voice. it was over now, he told me.

the children had all been shepherded into the hands of parents. or grandparents. or some adult who’d get them home. he, too, was headed home, he told me. shaken, so shaken by the news of what happened in the pre-K. shaken by the holes in the metal screen and the pane of glass. shaken by the glass that shattered in what looked like a cobweb of shards. shaken by the long hour’s lockdown, not knowing the whole time — as he tried to keep his sixth graders quiet — whether the shooter was inside or out of the building. shaken by footsteps that ran down the hall, toward his classroom, where the door had been locked. shaken by the news that a mother who’d come to school early to take home her young child had stepped out the school’s front door into the direct line of two men with guns chasing down the sidewalk, shooting. the mother threw her little one to the sidewalk, then threw herself — hard — on top. she waited, she’d told a teacher, lay stone still, not knowing if she’d be hit. fully expecting the thud of a bullet to her back. or worse.

monday, my kid came home with word that 46 kids of 180 kids hadn’t come to school that day. parents kept them home. they’re not used to bullets piercing classroom windows. not even on the west side of chicago. he said, too, that the only two white kids in the school, kids whose parents teach there, they’d been pulled. “a social experiment they weren’t willing to risk any longer,” was how he put it.

and then he said, “mom, if i tell you something, promise not to freak out.”

ooo-kay.

“there’s apparently a turf war in the neighborhood, and (school) is in the middle of it.”

and so as you hear those words, as they barely begin to settle onto your eardrums, onto your heart, you somersault into prayer. your every inhale breathes in prayer. your exhale begins the next, an endless loop of prayer after prayer.

you settle yourself down, slowly. over the course of hours, as you turn round and round the heartache, the insanity of it all, as you sift through the shards, examine from all angles. imagine the worst. consider the kids who call those streets home. who can’t leave.

you pray mightily.

and then, yesterday on the front page of the newspaper, there was a story with eery echoes. it was a story that happened last friday, just five hours after the bullet shattered the window of my kid’s school. it happened three miles due south. a bullet — out of nowhere — pierced the driver’s side window of a parked car where a young 25-year-old woman was sitting, talking on her cellphone to her dad in san diego. suddenly, he told the reporters who had called him, she started to say her head hurt, her head hurt. then the phone went dead. the dad in san diego couldn’t figure out what happened. frantic, he called his daughter’s boyfriend, who called her roommate, who ran out onto the street and down the block where she found the woman slumped, near dead. the woman died from a bullet that “came out of nowhere;” two men chasing down the street with guns. the stray bullet — a bullet not meant for her — killed her.

as i sat there reading the news story, tracing the lines that connected her story to the one i knew from my own kid’s school — same day, same short span of hours, same damn  scenario, guns and chasing and flying bullets — i shuddered at the tragedy, shuddered for the father who now told the story, who now tried to explain how — as she sat in her car on her quiet street on her way home from a job where she’d just gotten a promotion, in a city she loved and had moved to after college — he was now burying his daughter, “the only one in her preschool class who could read, a straight-A high school student, a magna cum laude college graduate,” the father told the reporters.

and so this morning, knowing my kid was getting dressed to go back to the school where the pre-K window is now covered in plywood, while they wait for new glass to come, while they all pray for calm in the streets, i yanked back the sheets, and i planted my wobbly feet on the cold wood floor of my bedroom. i shuffled down the stairs, and i opened the fridge. i piled turkey on slabs of bread. i tossed in an apple. i poured a tall to-go cup of coffee.

not for one minute could i send my kid out into the cold, back to school, back to streets where a gang war wages, and not do the feeble things a mama does: i slathered mustard on bread, i folded slices of deli turkey, i tucked it all in the little brown bag he uses day after day. i prayed the whole while. i prayed mightily.

when he tumbled down the stairs, and saw me standing there with my mustard knife in hand, he looked surprised. “mommo, what are you doing here?”

just packing lunch, was all i said. he knows me well, my kid of 22 years. he knew without me saying so that that sandwich was super-packed. stacked with prayer upon prayer. besides the turkey.

as i closed the door behind him, as i told him i loved him, called out,”be safe,” i traced a sign of the cross onto the back of his thick winter coat. it’s all i could do.

it’s the truth of motherhood, or one of them anyway: we’re armed with so very little. especially when up against a world of flying, piercing, life-taking bullets.

yet we don’t abandon our station: we rise before the dawn, we shuffle down the stairs, we do what little we can. we pack a lunch, with a motherlode of prayer.

we are pulled by heart out of slumber. we are pulled by heart into prayer. deep into prayer.

what will we do? what can we do? is there any way out of this insanity that spills blood on the front seats of cars, on front porches, and playgrounds, and too many sidewalks and streets in this city?

history: lost and found

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four of us, before there were five of us. 

i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).

it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.

i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.

on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)

by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.

there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.

all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.

i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.

i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.

and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.

has anyone gathered the stories at your house?

power of five. five.

and here is the fifth of our five, my forever dream come true.

any hour now

my papa and me, taking a walk.

proper porridge

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i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.

five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.

oats + water + salt.

that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.

oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.

i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.

but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.

while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.

here’s what i read: proper porridge prescription

WELL WORTH THE WAIT

porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.

it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).

and it captured my attention, all right.

deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.

i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.

consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”

which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:

“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”

mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.

snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:

“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing  against the microwave as appliance of oats.

or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):

“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”

and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:

“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”

i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.

but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.

and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.   

but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:

THE RECIPE
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
THE TRICK
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
THE TWIST
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.

and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.

are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats? national oatmeal season

radiant brokenness

cracked plate

someone i love was shattered this week. it shattered me.

and it got me to thinking about kintsugi, the japanese art of repair when a bowl or a vessel is shattered. in this craft as ancient — and poetic — as any still practiced on earth, the crack isn’t simply glued, the pieces reassembled. it isn’t hoped that no one will notice, that the brokenness will be hidden, kept secret.

hardly.

kintsugi

the crack and its repair are illuminated. literally. powdered gold, most often, but sometimes silver or platinum, is sprinkled into lacquer resin. the vessel is veined boldly, radiantly. if a piece of the vessel has been shattered into splinters, the missing piece — the absence or abyss — becomes invitation for abundant gold compound, a gilt vein pooling into eddy or island or pond. golden pond of patching together.

kintsugi plate

it’s a practice that dates back, at least, to the 15th century. and, so the story goes, it may have originated when a powerful japanese shogun by the name of ashikaga yoshimasa broke one of his prized chinese tea bowls, and sent it off to china for repair. what came back was a bowl mended with ugly metal staples. the shogun, somewhat shattered by the ugliness, ordered his craftsmen to come up with a more beautiful means of reassembling, of repair.

kin = golden + tsugi = joinery

kintsugi. golden joinery.

it’s the art of embracing brokenness. it’s craft, yes, but even more so it’s philosophy, a philosophy that draws from the japanese understanding of wabi-sabi, which is to behold the beautiful in imperfection, impermanence.

at heart, it’s a knowing that the fracture doesn’t mark the end of the object’s life, but rather embodies an essential moment in its history. it’s worn because it’s been woven into the fabric of daily life, and daily life offers up bumps and bruises and tears and tatters. the more it’s engaged in the depths of day after day, the more likely it’ll be knocked around, jostled, sometimes even broken.

so, too, the human heart.

“the vicissitudes of existence over Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 7.52.29 PMtime, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. this poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself,” writes christy bartlett in flickwerk: the aesthetics of mended japanese ceramics.

to be engaged in the drama of the human theatre — that place called being alive — is to be exposed to shattering.

yet isn’t the redemption found in the truth — resounding truth — of hemingway’s glorious line from a farewell to arms:

“the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

or, in the infinite wisdom of rumi, the sufi mystic:

“the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

so that, today, is my prayer. that the shards disassembled, strewn and scattered across the plains of life, in those darkest hours known to humankind, are not merely slapped back into some smoothed-over order, some half-baked pass at hiding away the fracture.

but that, as inspired by buddhist wisdom, we come to a deep understanding of the truth of golden joinery. that if perhaps we can find love for the whole of who we are — the broken, the fractured, the piece that’s forever lost — we might discover not simply strength but radiance in the stuff we find to patch ourselves back into a whole.

and in so doing we become all the more beautiful because of where we’ve been broken. and where the Light now finds a way in.

plate cracked

watch this kintsugi master at work (and, yes, it’s without sound): golden joinery video

i know, i know, i promised that proper porridge post. it’s bubbling away on the back burner, i promise. this just wasn’t the week for a clump of oats. although they fortify me many a morning.

have you ever considered the truth that our brokenness makes us more beautiful? have you discovered that, indeed, the Light pours in in those places where once we’d been shattered, that in gathering up the pieces, in patching the whole together, we might begin our repair by sprinkling flecks of radiance? aren’t these the precise fault-lines where God finds His opening, where God infuses the breathtakingly beautiful?

soulful pages: latest edition

roundup jan

i sometimes forget to post my roundups of soulful books here at the table, so this morning i am delivering the latest edition, which will run in this sunday’s printers row journal, the chicago tribune’s literary supplement. you’ll find it online now, right here, but i’m saving you the click, and posting below. and as the spirit moves me, i just might post a second post this morning…..i’ve a hankering to write about proper porridge. stay tuned. (turns out i decided to also post here — way down below — the tribune’s holiday gift guide roundup of what you might say were the six soulful books that most vociferously leapt off my bookshelf last year…) so lots of soulfulness to muse this wintry morning. put the kettle on, grab the fuzzy afghan, and commence the art of curling up with a great good tome….

Spiritual roundup: ‘Sabbaths 2013’ by Wendell Berry, more
Barbara Mahany

Sabbaths 2013 by Wendell Berry, Larkspur, 36 pages, $28wendellberry sabbaths

There are rare few times in the unfolding of our quotidian lives when we hold something in our hands and know, right away, that it’s sacred. To hold “Sabbaths 2013,” a hand-bound volume of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry’s poems in handset type with wood engravings by Wesley Bates, is to behold the sacred.

It’s as all the finest books on our shelves should be — a work of art, of exquisite attention, at every step of the bookmaking process. Larkspur Press in Monterey, Ky., is that rarest of small-press publishing houses. Gray Zeitz, the founder, is described as “bewhiskered, aproned, and ink-smudged.” He sets type by hand on clamshell printing presses, and his place of creation is said to be equal parts library, museum and workshop. Larkspur’s tagline: “Creating fine books one letter at a time.”

Certainly, these poems of Berry deserve to be unspooled with such care. Each of the 20 poems is a meditation, the closest we might come to modern-day Scripture. To encounter these lines is to brush up against the beautiful, the breathtaking, rooted in the everyday — the birthing barn, the generations-worn kitchen table, the old dog with her gray muzzle.

Consider, for instance, just this one line: “The years / have brought him love and grief. / They have taught him that grief / is love clarified, appraised / beyond confusion, affirmed, lifted / out of time.”

Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture and Christ by Heather King, Loyola, 224 pages, $14.95

Cancer is hardly the landscape where one might expect soliloquies on prayer. But prayer, the down-on-your-knees, heart-wide-open petitions that spring from the raw fear of dying and death, is what makes “Stripped” (the author originally titled it, “Stripped: Culture, Cancer, and the Cloud of Unknowing”) very much a book for the soul — and not only for those who’ve been excoriated by the words, “You have cancer.”

More than anything, it’s the quality of King’s writing that catapults this book off the shelf. Her words are sharp-edged as any surgeon’s knife, and, as with all the most powerful writing, hers has the capacity to slip in wisdoms and enlightenments without notice. You’re busy laughing, or wiping away a tear, and suddenly you realize you’ve pulled out a pen to underline words to keep for the ages.

This is not a cancer saga you’ve read before, and where King’s faith takes her is a place few might choose. (She submits to surgery, but decides against radiation or chemotherapy — decisions she made 15 years ago now, and she’s still alive to write about it.) It’s the journey, the straight-shooting, no-punches-pulled, intimate cry of her heart, that makes this a most soulful expedition. One you’ll not soon forget.

Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted by Yanki Tauber, Meaningful Life Center, 3 volumes, 944 pages, $54.99

It would be shortchanging this three-volume set to call it simply a meditation on time. More apt would be to call it meditations within meditations, a Russian doll of deep thinking on the sacred nature of time and the particulars of the Jewish calendar. What’s found here is a collection of deeply thoughtful essays, exploring the soul of time as defined by the Torah and seen through the lens of Hasidic teaching. You needn’t subscribe to a Lubavitch world view to be enlightened by the epiphanies found in these pages.

At heart, in Volume One, “Time and Its Cycles,” is the notion that Creation wasn’t a divine one-time act, but rather that God creates the world anew in every moment. (Volume Two considers the Jewish calendar from Rosh Hashana to Purim; Volume Three, Passover to Elul.) This notion of perpetual creation, Rabbi Tauber argues, is a powerful antidote to the hopelessness that plagues so much of the modern-day landscape. Most powerful of all, he writes, is the corollary that time is wholly concentrated in the here and the now, inviting a fine-tuned focus on mindfulness.

Consider this instruction, drawn from one of the many charming stories Tauber tells to illustrate his teachings: “We cannot make our days longer, nor can we add additional hours to our nights. But we can maximize our usage of time by regarding each segment of time as a world of its own.”

For the student eager to burrow deep into the great vault of Jewish sacred text, this is a book to hold our attention for a very long time.

Barbara Mahany is the author of “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

p.s. as i’ve spent the last hour riffling through my files to see how very many times i’ve not posted those soulful roundups here, i realize i must have some reticence about taking up space at the table when the roundups are not too hard to find on the tribune website. looks like i’ve only posted five of 10 roundups, or even included a link. oh my! one you might want to look up would be the gift guide, in which i picked the six books that most leapt off the shelf last year, in the soulfulness department. you can find that roundup here. or, on second thought, maybe i should post it here……

Gift guide: Books for the soul
From a book by Pope Francis to an anthology of world religions, these 6 books are ideal for the spiritual-minded.
By Barbara Mahany

It’s a glorious expedition to survey the spiritual landscape of this year’s books for the soul, to pluck the ones with richest deepest resonance. Poets and scholars, a pundit and pope, all rise to the top.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte, Many Rivers, 247 pages, $22

Poet and philosopher David Whyte constructs an alternative dictionary of 52 words — an abecedarian that stretches from “alone” to “vulnerable” — and, in so doing, invites the reader to explore the depths of each entry, beyond the semantic surface, burrowing into the poetic and the profound. It’s a form of prayerfulness, the meditative powers of contemplating a single word. Whyte takes us there in plainspeak, though his is a language that pulses with counterpoints of shadow and illumination. Surely, a certain road to soulfulness is paved with unexpected poetries and luminescence at every bend. Whyte takes you there by heart.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Volume 1 and 2, W.W. Norton, 4,448 pages, $100

Weighing in at 8.4 pounds, a whopping 4,448 pages, and tucked in a tidy two-volume book pack, this massive and monumental Norton Anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Miles, holds inspiration for more than one lifetime. At heart, writes Miles, it’s an invitation “to see others with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will. … In that capacity lies the foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom.” With more than 1,000 primary texts — Volume 1 covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism; Volume 2, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — this is an instant classic.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, Random House, 320 pages, $28

Before diving into modern-day parables in the form of biographies — ranging from Augustine to George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day — David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and opinionator for this oft-imploding globe, pens as fine an exegesis on sin as has been written in recent times. Our sin: “self-satisfied moral mediocrity.” It’s in those character studies of some of history’s greatest thinkers and leaders, 10 in all, that Brooks lays bare what it takes to cultivate deep moral character. And isn’t a moral core, tested in everyday trials, our one best hope at an everlasting soul?

Map by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, HMH, 464 pages, $32

Here, for the first time, is the English translation of all of the poems of Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s last Polish collection, including previously unpublished works. In all, “Map” gathers some 250 poems written between 1944 and 2011. While Szymborska, who died in 2012, focuses her attention on quotidian subjects — an onion, a cat — she plumbs them to probe life’s big questions — love, death, and passing time. And while she might not be as widely read in America as poets Mary Oliver and Mark Strand, her words bore deep. She is poet serving as spiritual guide.

Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis, Melville House, 192 pages, $14.95

This breathtaking amalgam of urgency and poetry mines the spirit and appeals to the moral core. It’s as essential a soul-stirring read as any recent manuscript. Billed as the pope’s pontifications on the environment, it is in fact a sweeping letter addressing a spectrum of global sins. The Guardian termed it “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years,” bespeaking its relevance beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama, Hodder & Stoughton, 192 pages, $23.95

This quiet book of contemplations by Belfast-based poet, theologian and peace worker Padraig O Tuama barely stirred a ripple in the marketplace of books, but where it counts — in the hearts of those blessed to turn its pages — it swiftly became a treasure. More deserve to be stirred by its deep currents. Putting to work poetry and gospel, side by side with story and Celtic spirituality, O Tuama explores ideas of shelter along life’s journey, opening up gentle ways of living well in a troubled world. The reader can’t help but be drawn in, slip-sliding into the harbor of the author’s soulful words.
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

A version of this article appeared in print on November 29, 2015, in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Food for the soul – Poetry and profundity in these true gifts” 

holding her in all the light i can kindle

candles at st. pauls'

i lit candles in every church, chapel, cathedral, abbey. all across london, every hushed chamber into which i walked. every one that offered candle sticks, twopence or a pound. a trail of dripping wax and smoky whiffs.

a trail of prayer.

because sometimes we are left to only words unfurled from lips, from heart. and i learned long long ago that i might supercharge my words if i latch them onto light beams, send them heavenward on the strands of flame that flickers.

i kindled that flotilla of wax and wick because i knew this day was coming, this day in which a woman i love — a sister i dearly love, my youngest brother’s wife — would be in the hands of three surgeons across the arc of eight to 10 hours.

i awoke long before dawn today. i woke in black of deepest night. and i could not stop the prayers. i prayed on my knees. i prayed once i’d climbed back under toasty covers. i prayed, for a short while, straight through my dreams. and now, awake, i am keeping apace my prayer.

she, along with too many others i love, is battling cancer, breast cancer. after six godawful months of chemo, today’s the day the surgeons get to work. it will be a long and intricate day. and miles and miles away, all i’m left to do is pray.

and so, preamble to this day of prayer, knowing well there can never be enough nor too much, i lit candles at st. paul’s cathedral, the domed magnificence of sir christopher wren just north of the river thames. and i lit candles in westminster abbey, where kings and queens are crowned.

westminstercandles

and now home, back at my old maple table, here in the kitchen of this old and drafty house, i’ve lit a candle to burn through all the hours.

candle

those of us who believe in prayer, and who believe in candle power, we partake of incantations, we strike a match to wicks that burst into stars of light and will not be extinguished. not until the prayers have made their way to the heart of God who listens, always listens.

please, God, listen hard to this one….

i’m getting email updates from my brother who sits alone in a cincinnati hospital surgical waiting room. my glorious sister-in-law sent out one last dispatch last night, one that captures her indomitable spirit, spells out how she thoughtfully curated her “off-to-mastectomy” outfit for the day (hot pink cincinnati opera T-shirt, under her lilly pulitzer zip-up), opining “it is important to wear something more than lounging pants to your mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.” my very favorite part of her curated collection: her “f*ck this sh*t” socks (*’s are mine, for the sake of delicacy; her socks spell it wholly out, vowels and consonants un-bleeped), which pretty much suggests her take-no-prisoners stance  toward obliterating every last cancer cell that dared to trespass her sacred boundaries.

please, whisper a prayer or three for her, and anyone else we know and love who is engaged in cancer obliteration. 

and a new year was born…

londonbooks

dispatch from london…

psst. while you were wrapped in the fading twilight hours of 2015, my curly-haired boys and i were due to be nestled along the banks of the thames (where midnight comes seven hours ahead of the place i call home), watching the sky explode with light and wonder (please God, only with this…).

soon as i settle back on these shores, these glorious shores, and shake off the jet-sag (that’ll be tomorrow by bedtime), i’ll tap a few musings from our days spent in london, where our little family has taken our first en masse trek across the very big pond. being the original nesty-girl, especially at christmas, i’m not one to yearn to leave behind my little tree, and all the boughs of red berries tucked about my house. but london at christmas? the visions of frost-dusted window panes danced in my head. as did the notion of tea at fortnum & mason. and waltzing the aisles of harrods. or, better yet, those quaint little shops, where as you push open the centuries-old door, step off the cobblestone sidewalk, a tinkling chime welcomes you in. a dreamy girl could go bonkers in storybook london. and to think i get to travel with my very own guide to architectural wonder (upon wonder after wonder after yet another wonder — pray for my legs not to give out, as our resident critic has penciled in outings from pre-dawn till day’s end, for days upon days). and, dearest of all, we’re inhaling it all with our sweet pair of boys! (an exclamation mark isn’t too often pulled from my writerly tool kit, but in this case it’s all exclamations.)

you can be certain my little heart was filled with a prayer as i watched the midnight sky of londontown bloom into radiance of the sparkly new-year variety. the prayer, no doubt, put to rest the heartache of the year we’ve now left. and it gathered up all the magnificence of those we love who didn’t make it beyond the year. the prayer, indeed, comes with a vow to live more emphatically in all the ways they would have lived, the ways the world so desperately needs.

at heart, my prayer for the new year is so simple, and yet so steep a climb: dear God, let there be peace, but more than anything give me the strength and the faith to love, always, as i would be loved. let us be the light — gentle, soft, certain — that will not be snuffed. let us be the light for which this world so achingly yearns.

may your every day be stitched with wonder. may your hours be blessed. and may your heart hear the whisper it longs for….

merry blessed new year.

now, let us begin…..one + one sunrise

what might be a wisp of your new year’s prayer?

hark!

hark

arms wide-open, it’s the dawn that follows the silent night. night of awe. dawn of darkness lifting. the dawn, i pray for you, when the outlines of all your blessings come sharply, crisply, indelibly into focus.

when, perhaps, you find yourself all alone, nestled inside the flutterings of your heart and your soul, and all the Christmases of all the years before come tumbling softly, and this particular one, perhaps, leaps out from the pile because this is the Christmas when you’ve unwrapped a particular glimmering knowing from under your tree.

maybe it’s the simmering of newfound love. maybe it’s the weight finally shrugged off your shoulders. maybe, after all the hours of darkness, you’ve found your way to the flickering light off in the distance, and you’re home now, finally home.

maybe it’s that the story of Christmas — the blessed virgin mother and holy child, the newborn babe laid in the straw, the star of wonder lighting the heavens, the beasts of the pasture poking their noses into the barn, drawn by all of the stirrings — maybe the story of Christmas this year awakens a place deep inside you that’s too long been numb to the hope, and the light, that nativity brings. that nativity lays quietly at the cusp of your heart.

come, open the gift. open the possibility of wonder. of glistening light. wrap yourself, for even just this one sacred hour, in the hush and the whisper of peace. peace on earth, please. but peace in your very own kingdom — you can make that happen if you take hold of wonder, if you chase out the noise, if you close your eyes (or open them wider than ever), and open your heart. breathe deep. inhale the Divine, animator of all that’s wonder-filled, that’s breathtaking.

that’s what i pray you find this blessed morning, under your tree, tucked in your heart. may this dawn of quiet at last, this day-breaking hour of stillness, seep deep into your every channel of wonder, into the depth and breadth and whole of your soul, and fill you with Christmas at its holiest.

amen. and merry blessed Christmas.

here’s one last little wintery blessing, from the pages of slowing time….

Meme-CountYourBlessings

may yours be a sumptuous, most heavenly day…..

wintery blessings

cookie baking wintery blessings

it’s in the air, i know it. it seeps in through those unsuspecting places, the nooks and crannies of the heart that must be so hungry.

hungry for quiet, for the magic of christmas — the original hushed and hidden-away story, one that brings me to tenderest tears every time. every time i really truly stop to think the whole thing through, to absorb every blessed drop of a story that begins in deepest humility: travelers, bone-weary travelers trekking by donkey, who can’t find a room, who settle in the hollow of night in a shadow-laced barn, where a baby is birthed, wonder child, and laid in the feed trough, where the lowing of cows and the bleating of sheep fill in for the heavenly chorus.

it’s a story that begs silence, the in-rush of awe. it’s a story that begs us to listen. to stanch all the noise and perk up our ears. and our hearts.

i found myself nearly glistening yesterday, wrapped in the gray of the afghan day out my window. christmas-y tunes cranking loud and emphatically. dumping flour by the cupful into a bowl where eggs had been cracked, vanilla dolloped, and my grandma’s cookies once again were soon to be pulled from the oven. kitchens, of course, are magical places.

and this is the season for magic. this is the season that sparks the little child inside us all. maybe that’s why we wrap it in tissue-y papers, and tie it with candy-cane string. maybe that’s why we loop glistening lights onto already beautiful boughs from the forest. and dig deep in the recipe tin. to unearth a little bit of the child we were and always will be.

yesterday, i marveled at the circles of life: marveled that my grandma’s century-old recipe was printed onto a recipe card that came with a book that i wrote, and i was once again rolling out that buttery dough for those cookies, this year to be ferried to the school, the inner-city break-your-heart school, where my firstborn is now a teacher, teaching children from kindergarten to eighth grade how to read. i don’t think the layers of christmas get much more christmas-y, much more blessed, than that.

this year, especially, i’ve noticed that christmas — and with it a host of wintery blessings — comes whirling through the air, whether you’ve decked the house, or tucked away boxes. or not. this year at our house, not many boxes are tucked away. we’ve somehow slipped into a fairly box-less christmas. we’ve certainly dialed down the mad-dashing. i suppose i’ve spent too many christmases plum tuckered out by the time i panted across what felt like a finish line.

and the beauty of that — i seem to have discovered — is that i feel just as filled with christmas, with the essence of christmas, without all the noise. maybe because there’s so little noise.

there is simply a blanket of sumptuous calm — a gift in december, indeed. it’s rare, and it’s blessed. and it calls us by name, and by whisper. come, savor this hour; this hour is holy, this hour is yours.

in the spirit of quietly sharing this unfettered gift — the abundance of heart that tumbles down from the heavens (not unlike the few flakes that, on cue, just started to fall out my window) — i thought i’d bring to the table this morning a string of the wintery blessings my beautiful friends at abingdon press (the fine folks who published slowing time) made for me to sprinkle across the december landscape.

they must have workshops of elves who whip up these sweet little morsels. they’ve taken lines from the pages of slowing time, and made them into delectable little picture postcards (that’s how i like to think of them, anyway; in current vernacular they’re called “memes,” a word whose origins escape me completely). (p.s. of course i had to look it up, and my online dictionary tells me it’s a term coined by controversial evolutionary biologist richard dawkins in 1976 to convey the way cultural information is transmitted. aren’t you glad you now know?)

anyway, i thought i’d sprinkle a few across the table this morning. and they’re yours to keep, to do as you wish. you could print them out to make a holiday card. or tuck them into the pages of your favorite book. you could pin them on a cork board, of the actual or virtual variety. or you could simply scroll by, and think, oh, how nice.

here’s one… Meme-SavorWintersDream

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, oh look, here’s another…

Meme-ComeAlive-2

and then there’s this sweet one….

Meme-RedBird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, at last, there’s this little bit of story time. so grab your mug, curl your toes under your bum, wrap in a blanket, and here’s little old me reading a wintery story……

those sweet elves made even more — a recipe card, among the stash — but that’s enough for this morning. if you care to see more, and happen to be on facebook, they’re being posted, blessing by blessing, on the Slowing Time page. or search for #WinteryBlessings.

for now, though, i’m slipping off to chase a few sugary sprinkles out of their hiding places. in the deep dark of last night, we had no real idea where the sprinkles were landing….

but first, deep-down wishes for the quietest, most blessed moments this season of stillness has to offer. may you find joy rushing into your heart, and awe filling your soul.

love, quietly,

bam

what do you count among your wintery blessings?

nine.

nine

we mark time to measure something far deeper than the number of days. we mark time to take stock of our soul. to plumb its depths. to trace across its undulations. to peek into the shadowy places, and bask in the patches of pure illumination.

tomorrow, the twelfth day of the twelfth month, this old chair will once again glide across the stretch of shadow and light on which it began. its ninth circle round the sun. nine years of keeping watch, of perking my ears to the faintest of whispers. the whispers of the heart, yes. but just as certainly the wind rustling the leaves. the blue jay’s squawking. the world holding its breath. the pounding of bare soles against hardwood planks, rushing to the door to welcome love home.

at the break of dawn on december 12, 2006, i tiptoed down the stairs to a little nook of a room where a screen glowed, a screen waiting to be filled with words, with pictures, with postcards from the front — the homefront, in this case. the heart and soul of the homefront.

i had no real idea how all of this would unspool. but i knew that i wanted to carve out a hollow of quiet, a tide pool along the rushing river of life, where you and i might plop our bottoms onto a rock, might dip our finger into the current, might watch the light shifting, listen for the crunch of the forest under the wee padded feet of the creatures who call the woods home.

i knew i wanted a sacred someplace. a place where kindness prevailed. a gentle place, a home for tenderness and telling the truth. a place where we could bring our brokenness, or, just as emphatically, our bold claims of hope.

it would be an enchanted someplace. or at least that’s what i prayed.

i’ve long believed in enchantment. long believed in the possible. and the power of divine imagination. you can, sometimes, if you’re spectacularly lucky and a whole lot blessed, will your way to the landscape of which you dream.

when i was little i spent long hours in the woods across the way from the house where i grew up with a motley crew of four brothers. i plunked sticks into the pond where the ancient turtle basked on a log. i splashed across the rocks in the stream where crawfish bobbed from deep down in the dark.

that’s where i learned to believe in so very much of what still matters — the sanctity of silence, the incandescence of heavenly light, the blessing of being alone, the joy of muddy boots.

and maybe, too, that’s where i learned to believe that, fueled by imagination and spiced with a good dash of faith, i just might carve out a holy place.

and if there’s come to be anything holy about this make-believe table, circled with so many old chairs, it’s thanks to the good grace of your company — your day-after-day, week-after-week, year-upon-year coming by to share a few words, or a story, or kindness or wisdom. and ladles of love.

looking back over the nine blessed years — and thanks to the wizards at wordpress who keep track of these things — i can see at a glance just where these 729 posts have taken us, a bit of a roadmap in reverse, a by-the-numbers snapshot of what’s captured our imagination: 39 posts have considered the angels among us, 16 times i’ve laughed at myself (clearly, no one was counting), stillness has been a subject 22 times, motherhood 101, motherlove 44, mother prayer 17. we turned to cooking — for comfort, for joy — 42 times. blessings have been the subject du jour 64 times, paying attention 51 times, worry 11 (yet another serious under-estimate), wisdom only once (egad!). savoring moments, at 89 posts, is solidly a leitmotif.

and in just the last year here at the chair, we’ve traversed death and grief, awe and hope and hearts that are shattered by the most intimate of devastations or those played out on the world stage. we’ve considered quiet and the eloquence of silence. and this year, blessedly, the trumpets blared at the prodigal homecoming of my firstborn. i’ve written of words and books and harper lee. but if i had to pick three posts that will stick with me forever, it would be the prayer of remembering, the day my little one tried his hand at healing the sick, and, more than any other this year, the magic day at the magic hedge, where my most beloved friend and i pressed each sacred hour against our hearts, knowing, too well, the hours — and she — would soon slip away, a hole in my heart will ache till the end of time.

bless you. and thank you. for every kindness. for every dollop of wisdom. for your patience, your faith, and your blessedness. for the times you make me laugh out loud. and for every time you’ve made me wipe away a tear. from my heart to yours, a never-ending embrace.

may we never give up on the promise to infuse this weary old world with all the love and goodness we can possibly muster.

much love, b.  images

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