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october’s prayer

october sky

because i’m climbing on a train and then a jet plane at dawn tomorrow, winging my way to my firstborn’s last “parents’ weekend” at his leafy little new england college, i’m posting this a day or two early. here’s a bit of prayerfulness i wrote when my publisher asked for an october meditation. the sky above, rising across an autumnal prairie, is a bit of heaven on earth. 

If you believe, as I do, that Earth’s turning, the shifting of the kaleidoscope from one hour to the next, across the arc of sunlight and night shadow, across the seasons of the year, is God tapping us on the heart, whispering, “Behold the Beautiful, I’ve made this just for you, this dappled sunbeam, this birdsong of the dawn, this crack of lightning in the offing,” then it’s whole-body meditation to immerse yourself in the blessing of autumn, Season of Awe.

Be it slicing zaftig pear, or plopping on a mossy log deep in golden woods, be it gathering apron load of acorns or plucking pumpkin from the farmer’s field, October’s days invite us to harvest the bountiful. To begin the deepening toward winter. To stock the larder with all we’ll need to make it through till springtime comes, and with it the rebirth of that holy season.

I’ve made a quiet practice of nodding to the wonders of each interlude of time. I resist the urge to hunker down inside. I nudge myself out the door, into the shriveled diminishment that is the autumn garden, into the boggy woods where trees undress, where naked boughs finger toward the heavens. Where the stripping down reminds me to drop my own unnecessary armature, invite in the Sacred.

I find autumn to be the season when faith is sown all around. On bent knee, we tuck bulbs deep into the earth — that’s faith galore, surrendering to winter’s slumber, believing that come the vernal sun, the shoots will poke through loam, will bloom and nod, will glory us in hallelujah hours.

Some say this is the wabi-sabi season, so defined as that stretch of time that pulses with “the beauty of sadness, and the sadness of beauty.” I find breathtaking poetry in the imperfection and impermanence of the dwindling all around — the light, the leaves, the southbound flocks who carry song to where we cannot hear it any longer. Is this not spine-tingling reminder to embrace our own imperfections and impermanence, to cherish all the more the hours that are ours?

Revel in the jewel-toned tapestry of autumn, in all its luminescence and its shadow.

Breathe deeply October’s prayer: Come star-stitched night, tiptoe beneath the heavens’ dome, wrap yourself in the cloak of Glorious Creation and Creator. Behold the Beautiful. God’s made this just for you.

what’s your october prayer?

the saddest apology. though never too late….

teddy home umbrella

I still remember the phone call. I had a brand new baby, a baby whose birth had not been without one of those moments where the doctor calls you by first name, slaps you to attention, and with eyes darting between your unblinking gaze and the monitor measuring the baby’s dropping-down heart beat, she tells you this is what you’re going to do: You’re going to get that baby out in the very next push.

And you, knowing the vast canyon of cold chiseled truth nestled into that statement, knowing that she’s telling you you have a few breaths and one push to get this baby out whole and without harm, without your life’s dream whirling into the darkest abyss, you call on all the angels and saints and powers within and without, and you do just what she told you: You birth that baby in one triumphant, I’m-not-losing-him-now force beyond nature.

And then you wait. Wait through unbroken silence, seconds that feel like an hour, the quicksand of time. And then, from the shaft of light slicing through the darkness, his lungs fill with air and you hear him wheeze out a cry. A cry that deepens. A cry that says, without waver, “I am here.”

And from that blessed second on, you cradle that baby like nobody’s business. Not one ounce of his being here was ever expected, he is wholly a miracle.

But the voice on the phone that day, not long after you’d tumbled home from the hospital, she was shattered by your dream come true.

She, too, had wanted a baby. Wanted a baby more than anything. Had undergone more medical twists and turns than you ever thought a doctor would allow. She’d been poked and prodded and shot through with stimulators and repressors and countless variations thereof, all in the hopes of that one impossible moment where egg meets sperm and the dividing begins.

It hadn’t worked, not for her and not for her dream. Not in any of the last many, many, many rounds (I won’t say how many). She, like I, had one baby already. He was in second grade, as was my firstborn at the time and that’s how we met. It was the second baby she wanted. It was the second baby, with no medical wizardry, that I got. And not for one instant did that not feel anointed, feel blessed, feel beyond my grasp.

From the moment I realized there was a heartbeat pumping within, I was washed through with hushed holding my breath. The minute I called my doctor (at home on a Saturday afternoon) to tell her what the little pink stick from the home pregnancy test was telling me, she laid out the cold hard statistics for the “advanced maternal age” of 44 and counting: Odds of Down Syndrome, odds of miscarriage before the first trimester ended. Odds, odds, odds.

Not for a day, not for an hour, on the long road to delivery, did I forget those odds. Nor did I take one moment of any of it as a given.

But the voice on the other end of the phone could only see it through the pain of her bottomless wanting what I’d somehow gotten. And so, she told me, in bitterest words that she could never talk to me again. Never wanted to hear from me again.

I remember cradling the phone, feeling my knees about to give out. We’d not known each other for years and years, but she was big-hearted, huge-hearted, my friend. And we had found some solace in our shared hoping for one more round of mothering a baby. And, besides, she’d smothered my firstborn with her dollops and dollops of tender attentions — not to mention, killer matzah ball soup.

But the road forked — heartbreakingly so — when I found myself with child. I’d tried, oh I tried, to shield her from the pain that I knew would slice through her, in the quarter hour when I pulled her aside, held her hands tightly, and told her I could hardly believe it myself, didn’t know how long — or if — it would last, but my prayers seemed to have been answered.

In using those words, she would tell me in the bitterest phone call, I’d all but told her, she thought, that my prayers were heard, and hers were not, hers were not worthy, she construed it to mean.

From my end of the phone call, I said over and over how sorry I was. How I would give anything for her to have the baby she so deeply, desperately wanted. And I was so sorry the words I had carefully chosen had only made it more awful. She repeated, emphatically, that this would be our last conversation, that she never wanted to speak to me again.

Months earlier, when an adoption agency had called to ask for references, I told the questioner, with all my heart, that I knew my friend would be a magnificent mother, would wrap her very huge heart around anyone blessed to be slipped into her arms.

And once, years later, I wrote her a letter. Told her how many nights I lay there thinking of her, whispering prayers to stitch back together her shattered heart. Asked about her baby girl, the one who’d come — yes — from far, far away.

I never heard back. Never once heard her voice after the terrible, awful heartbreaking phone call.

A few months ago, as would occasionally happen, I started to think of her. Wondered how she was faring, she and her two boys (husband and son), and her beautiful girl, now 12 or 13.

I googled her. I found one of those pages for someone who’s sick, very sick, and is seeking donations. I gasped for breath and clicked “Donate.” Didn’t know if she’d return the donation. Didn’t know. Couldn’t believe.

She was too sick to write but her husband, the gentlest man, wrote a very sweet note. He said thank you.

I knew from one more blast email he’d sent that, by the end of June, she was back in the hospital, back in therapy to try to relieve the slicing-through pain that comes with late-stage cancer. They were hoping, he wrote, that once the pain subsided, once “the numbers” improved, she would begin a science-bending assault on the cancer.

And then I heard nothing. Not till yesterday afternoon, when I clicked on my email, and there was her name, first and last. I opened the email, and I started to read, the words tumbling one on top of the other, not making clear sense.

Here’s what I read:

“I know it has been a very long time and many years needlessly gone by.  I am reaching out to you…I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to contact you at this late date, but I have spent a good part of the last three months reaching out…Trying to mend fences where possible, with the hope of finding some type of closure for everyone involved.  I don’t have any answers as to what happened, nor any great insight. I do know that what transpired was wrong, you were wronged and that I was unable to effect the out come.”

I wrote back:

“i am breathless. i always loved [her]. she was so hurt by the way i told her i was pregnant with T. i only MEANT to shield her from the pain i feared the news would bring. and clearly i bungled it horribly…….and i have been so sorry for so many years. for years i would lay awake at night wondering if i could yet write to her…..”

And then I googled her once again. Up popped her name, first and last, with the final addendum: “obituary.” She had died, back in the summer. I don’t know the date, don’t know the details.

All I know is what came in the last email from her gentle-hearted husband:

“She passed away peacefully in my arms after staring down cancer for seven and a half years. She had been through a heavy ordeal, seven chemo therapies, three major surgeries and two clinical trials.…We were waiting to start [a newfangled] vaccine when she passed unexpectedly, we both thought she had another year or two. We were a couple at the end, I made sure she was not in any pain. She asked me before she passed, what happens now? what happens next? I told her, I don’t know baby, but what ever it is we are going to face it together and then she smiled and closed her eyes. She was not afraid at the end and neither was I as we were together. I have to stop writing now as i cant see through the tears.”

And I sat there, staring and shaking, shaking and staring. All I could think was that it was the saddest apology I’d ever read, the one that wasn’t too late, not at all. Not one minute too late.

I wrote back: “[she] was pure love. she died with me loving her. and i will pray that she knew that…..”

And I will pray. And I do believe that she knew that. And that she knew that I knew she was sorry. And I was, too. I was, I am, so sorry.

For those friendships that shatter. For words never spoken again. For years lived with distance, with silence. For sparks that don’t get to fly between eyes, between hearts.

For all of it, for my dear blessed friend who never met my miracle boy, nor I her miracle girl.

It is the sorriest saddest apology. And it might have come late, but I am so deeply grateful it came.

Rest gently, dear friend. All is at peace where our hearts beat as one.

because this one made me nervous, because i wasn’t quite sure how i could say it and protect my friend, i typed it first in draft form. thus, today’s rare capital letters throughout. it still scares me a bit to write this. but the point is it’s a meditation on forgiveness, on friendship, on heartbreak and stitching those hearts together again. it breaks my heart that as i type this my friend isn’t here to read it, to see it, to know that the love never died. it breaks my heart that all those years, i never heard her voice again. i think i called once and left a message, so she heard mine. the aching all those years. the bittersweet whole truth of life: in my arms, i cradled pure joy. yet it cost me a friend. that’s a steep price. an equation i’d not weigh in a balance. instead, i am offering up all my sadness, my heart, to the friend whom i pray has found, at long last, the peace she so deeply deserves. 

are there apologies in your life that you would wish would be spoken while there is time to stitch together the brokenness?

coming home to an empty house and other things that matter…

inviting in sacred

i was dripping from the shower, rubbing the fluffy towel around my ears, when i thought i heard the very last sound you want to hear at 6:15 in the morning: “r-r-r-ring, r-r-r-ring!”

the phone at this dark hour is never the nobel committee calling to say, “you won the prize!”

and i, being of celtic root, always suspect disaster. “oh no, this must be awful,” i muttered with certainty, as i leapt down two steps at a time to grab the phone, to take the blow i knew was coming.

“good morning, good morning,” came the first four words. and, then, my mother’s voice went on to tell me this: “i’ve been worrying.” (no news, there; she and i have a special knack in that department.) “i’ve been thinking about tonight, and i don’t want T coming into an empty house after soccer. i think i should skip your book thing. i would love to be there. but he shouldn’t be alone when he comes home. i should be there to give him dinner, keep him company.”

and in those short few words i heard, once again, love defined by my mother.

“don’t want him coming into an empty house…he shouldn’t be alone.”

i added those few words to the lines already etched across my heart.

the ones that include:

“i always felt the most important job i could do was take care of the family so the rest of you could go out and change the world.”

and: “once your father died, i told God i was dedicating the rest of my life to however God needs me.”

in my mother’s book of life, the litany of love reads like this: clothes pulled from the dryer, folded, stacked and delivered to your bedroom chair; hot dinner, complete with cooked frozen vegetables; houseplants given weekly dose of fluids; children driven — without grumble — to where they need to be; soccer matches attended — even if they’re in kingdom come at 7 in the chilly morning.

my mother, who quietly puffs her chest at the fact that she was the only one of her circle of friends deemed worldly enough and smart enough to date my father (this, by virtue of the fact that she subscribed in 1953 to forbes magazine), is not one to knock you over with pythagorean theorems, or deep analysis of the threat of ISIS on the world stage. she will, however, quote you lines from emily dickinson, or robert browning, till you beg her to stop. and she will recount every feather she’s spotted since daybreak in the boughs outside her window and at her 18 backyard feeders (that’s a tad of an exaggeration, the feeder count, but i told you i have irish roots; embellishment is our mother tongue).

and she will quietly, wordlessly, go about the business of taking care of your house — or mine. because to my mama it is in doing that we love.

it is in wiping dry the dishes i’ve left dripping in the rack. it is in ferrying her little blue plastic cooler to our front door every tuesday, always bringing along a zip-lock bag of this or that, the ingredients for dinner pre-measured at her house, in her kitchen to bring to mine. she’s driven 9.62 miles to mix, to stir, to crank the oven, to set the table, and not forget the salt and pepper shakers. she makes a nice hot meal, circa 1970 — the prime of her cooking years when she had six hungry mouths to feed, not counting her own, of course not counting her own.

my mother is not alone in stitching the tapestry of life with petit point, those fine-grained stitches not grand in scale, not at all, but the very threads that hold us all together, that make our lives just a notch more beautiful, more breathable.

talk to anyone who’s dying. listen in on what they tell you matters most: curling up with a child — and a picture book — pressed against each other’s curves. sitting one minute longer on the edge of the bed while tucking someone in at night. spooning one extra dollop of butter in the mound of mashed potatoes. hearing the click of the front door that signals someone’s home. catching the moonlight drool across the bedclothes.

have you ever heard how hard the dying pray, for just one more round of gathering the tiniest glories of a day?

so, last night, my mama was not in the rows of a charmed bookstore, one with paned windows and oriental rugs and books bursting from the walls. she did not listen to her only daughter read from the pages of her just-published dream-come-true. (she’s not yet been to a reading, so it’s not like she took a pass because she’d already sat there drinking it all in.) no, my mama was home to turn the hall light on. to press her hand to the door handle when a tired fist knocked. she was there to warm up the orange chicken she’d made two nights before. to scoop out peas in butter sauce.

and there she sat, with the boy we all love — so he wouldn’t be alone, while his mama was off reading, and his papa was far away gathering notes for a newspaper story.

my mama stayed home at my house because she knew — without words — that it was the purest form of love that she could ladle out for all of us — not least of all for me, always torn when pulled away from where i, too, know i most belong.

my mama, once again, taught us with so few words that there’s no headline-grabbing heroism in a certain brand of loving. but in the end, the very end, those small acts of utter selfless majesty are the surest holy gospel we could ever know.

and it’s why — to this very day — i understand so deeply that i’m most at home, most solidly rooted, when i too partake of the tender acts of stitching a certain kind of attention into the daily cloth of those i love so truly deeply.

dear mama, you are loved. by all of us whom you so ceaselessly love.

what truths did your mama teach you? 

p.s. as of tuesday this week, october 7, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door is a living-breathing published book. amen to that. 

the blessings of geography

accident of geography

this is the world as i see it out my front door. across the way, perched on a mound of earth (what passes for a hill in these glacier-flattened middlelands), there’s a house of gray, and when the lights are on the whole face glows. sort of like the great good souls who live inside.

some say neighbors are an accident of geography. i say not so. i say they’re a blessing. i say especially now, when so much of how we spend our lives is tucked inside, nose pressed to screen, fingers on keyboards instead of reaching out and lifting a spoon from someone else’s hand, instead of seeing the tear in someone’s eye, instead of softly brushing it away. and, swiftly, pushing away the chair to reach into the pantry to get the box of endless kleenex that we might just use up, on any given morning.

sometimes whole spans of time go by, and you know nothing of your neighbors’ lives except the lights go on at 6 a.m. and flicker off at midnight. you’ve no clue, often, of the fine grain whorl of their lives, of their heartaches. you might not know that someone’s mama is suffering. that there’s a kid who lies awake, unable to forget, afraid to meet the dawn.

but sometimes, some rare and rarer times, by virtue of years lived across the way, and unexpected discoveries — that you bristle at the same world news, that you find depths to mine in the pages of the same poets and thinkers — sometimes, because you’ve learned that there’s one someone who will show up at the ICU when your kid is lying there, or because you’ve had to throw your little ones into that neighbor’s arms when you were speeding to the ER, or because that very someone is the one who showed up on the frigid winter’s night, with hot-from-the-oven chicken pot pie, as you were stumbling in the door from a long day beside your mama’s hospital bed and your kid was hungry and you were tired, sometimes you find yourself slipping inside the fine grain whorl of that someone’s life.

you know, because you spy her sitting on the bench beside her front walk, with her shiny-maned sheepherding pup cradled in her arms, listless, barely breathing, you know that all week long the ones who live in that house are suffering. they are watching their beloved four-legged heartmate die. the pup’s name is edison, “because she lights up the world,” is how they first and always put it.

and because this blessing of geography allows you, sometimes, to sync your day’s rhythms with the ones across the way, you’ve had a chance this week to sit beside your beloved friend, and beloved edison, in the patch of late-september sunshine that, for one glorious interlude, shone down, set the amber-and-snow-white fur of eddie (that’s what they call her) to glow. i might remember that moment as the one when i saw eddie’s halo. and my across-the-way friend’s too.

death claims its own diminuendo. does not abide by any clock that might shed mercy. it can feel cruel in its legato, its slow dripping dying. when all you want is for suffering to end, while at the same time you’re holding on, unwilling to surrender, to let go. to let the moment slip away.

it’s the tug of heart that i’ve been witness to this week. as my blessed beloved friend has shoved aside her crowded list of things she must get done, and devoted her days and nights, long nights, to the midwifery of dying.

it all makes me wonder, makes me think, how much of life do we miss, do we drive by, as we scurry here and there and attend to a zillion things that, in the end, don’t so much matter. will anyone really wobble if the milk goes missing from the fridge? will the kid get kicked off the soccer team if he’s not wearing the right jersey? if it’s streaked with grass stains?

and so, by blessing of geography, this week and all these years, the interstices of parallel lives — mine rooted on my side of the lane, hers across the way — have become not just cross points on the map, but doorways into sacred, blessed interiors, into the light and shadow that fall across the unspooling hours of a life, of any life.

and we’ve chosen to tiptoe in. not to fix or cure or raise the dying (oh, though, if only we could!). but simply to spend a fraction of an hour sitting side by side, stroking the flesh of one fine companion’s final hours. bolstering the weary on a dark cold winter’s night. showing up with steaming platter. offering a seat on the rumpled couch.

exulting in the light and dark that is the script of any life. and which we’re blessed to witness, to enter into, by sheer and infinite blessing of contingent points on the map of life.

who do you count among your blessings of geography? and how, over the years, have you entered into each other’s joys and sufferings? and do you too wonder sometimes how much of life unfolds beyond our reach, and how much we miss in our hurry-scurry to everywhere and nowhere?

please whisper a little prayer for my beloved across-the-ways. they could use a fat dollop of grace right in here….

led by a deep, still voice

 

enter to grow wisdom

here is an essay i wrote this week for the nieman storyboard, a writerly nook of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard that explores the craft of longform narrative and storytelling in all its guises. this was an essay that took particular courage. you’ll read why. you can read it below, or see it here on the storyboard, where you might decide to poke around and find a host of marvels and morsels….

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention.

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. 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 it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and 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 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Don’t flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

It all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

veritas

mullipuffed

dandelion_gone_to_seed

…it is written.

those were the words onto which my eyes locked, as i turned to page 108 in the morning prayer service of the new union prayer book for the days of awe:

“on rosh hashanah it is written..” 

those words burrowed deeper than they might otherwise have burrowed, those words that inform us that God is on high, is etching our fates into the great book of life, of destiny; a refrain of the jewish new year that is ancient and every year new. it is the beginning somber note of a two-part doxology: on rosh hashanah, it is written; on yom kippur it is sealed.

weighty enough. but even weightier this year for me.

for far beyond the walls of the synagogue, where i bent in prayer yesterday, i knew that cardboard boxes were plopping on door stoops, sliding into the hungry maws of mail boxes. i knew because blessed friends had been sending me pictures. a book landing here, landing there. each one a birth.

indeed, it was written.

and that’s when suddenly the image popped into my mind: the wafting seeds, airborne puffs roto-coptering across the landscape, over farmer fields, over desert mountaintops, from sea to shining sea.

there’s a word that’s gone out of vogue, but i am on a one-woman campaign to revive it, breathe life back into it. it’s mullipuff, a delightful collection of syllables and spill-from-your-mouth cotton-ball consonants, and it is the word for the seed head of the dandelion, when its yellow fronds are spent, but its deepest job is just beginning: it’s about to take flight, and in that breathtaking way, transformation has occurred. it has seed dropping to do. holy act of faith, indeed. flinging itself to the winds and the rains. counting on calm blanket of air, of breeze, to carry it to where it might plop, sink in, begin the birth and rebirth.

mullipuff.

…it is written.

and so i find myself this morning, twirling and spinning the thought of all those books, of those pages being turned, and i know this is where i need to pray most mightily. this is where the holy act begins. the book is landing, and with it the words, the prayers burrowed deep down inside. lying in half-sleep this morning, i prayed that those words — like seedlets in motion — would begin their journey, their voyage, their sacred beginning….i imagined each word propelled, each one decked out with little flagella, those microbiological wings — propellers — that scurry amoeba along. if you’ve ever put your eye to the microscope lens, you know what i mean, the little flippers that make the droplets of pond water swim across the microscope slide.

so, i imagine, the words. so i pray for the words. now that they’re unloosed on the world, now, i pray, “please do your job.”

it’s what happens, i suppose, when you don’t set out to write literature, don’t sink your heart into plot twist or narrative arc. but when all you do is set out to unfurl your heart, to write a plainspoken book of common prayer. the prayer from one harried mama who is looking so hard for the holy. who, after practice and practice, is beginning to gather it, to fill her heart with it. to find the holy bliss she’s been looking for. looking for so very long.

and so, this morning, i hold my breath, i pray my prayers, i ask the heavens to take over where i can’t go. the words that i typed are dandelion seeds. they are wafting now. landing, burrowing down.

dear God, let the seedlings take root. let something begin deep in the hearts and the souls. a scratching the surface, and quietly quietly sinking deep down where wonder takes root. where eyes are widened, and ears are perked. let the holy begin to rustle. let it quiet the noise, and peel back the hard dull edge, make known the unnoticed. let the hours be mined for all that they hold — magnificence, mystery, luminescence and shadow. let us see the beauty, behold the beautiful. let the books that land on the doorsteps, let them be the field guide to what lies deep within. the wonder, the wisdom, the Sacred.

so now you’ve read along as i prayed out loud. saying your prayers aloud gives them a bit more heft, adds ballast. i’ve been blanketed in that prayer all week, as i knew that little book, the one called Slowing Time, was miraculously being boxed and shipped and delivered. it’s as if a hundred thousand prayers of my heart, the seeds of the mullipuff, are finally released, finally getting to work. and all i can do is pray that they land where they’re likely to burrow and bloom.

what constitutes the mullipuff you choose to blow into the world?

p.s. because i was enchanted by the noun, mullipuff, i turned it into a verb (up above), as in a weightless something blown upon the whisper of breath out across the landscape. mullipuffed. may what matters to your heart, be mullipuffed….

because i was wholly entranced, as i always am, by the prayers i find in the jewish prayer books, and because i was struck by how deeply i’ve been informed by the lens through which ancient jews marveled at the world, i carried home the prayer book, so i could share this prayer with you. it’s called, Your Endless Blessing, and it begins on page 82.

Great and holy Maker of all the living, 

You create the world, Your child, anew at every moment.

An instant’s pause in Your creative love, and all things would turn to naught.

But Your blessing glows in every spark of time.

Again and again the morning stars unite to hymn Your love.

Again the sun comes forth to sing Your light. 

Again the angels sing their sacred chant to You.

Again the souls intone their need for You.

Again the grasses sing their thirst for You.

Again the birds chirp their joy before You.

Again abandoned chicks voice their orphan-song to You.

Again springs softly bubble their prayer to You.

And still the afflicted pour out their complaint to You.

And still their souls’ prayer splits Your heavens. 

And still they tremble in awe of Your glory.

And still in hope they lift up their eyes to You.

One ray of Your light, and we are bathed in light!

One word from You, and we are reborn!

One hint of Your eternal presence, and we are refreshed with the dew of youth!

Author of life, as You renew all things, take us, Your children, and make us new.

Breathe Your spirit into us, that we may start life afresh, with childhood’s unbounded promise.

cradled

sunflowers

cradled (v.) hold something gently and protectively.

that’s the dictionary doing what it does: defining.

and then we come to the part i always love best, the underpinning of every word, its linguistic DNA, its etymology, its roots reaching back in time, across oceans, deep into the vault of centuries past. and here we read this (from my friends at the online etymology dictionary):

cradle (n.) “baby’s bed,” c.1200, cradel, from Old English cradol “little bed, cot,” from Proto-Germanic *kradulas “basket” (cognates: Old High German kratto, krezzo “basket,” German Krätze “basket carried on the back”). From late 14c. as “device for holding or hoisting.”

in the sixteenth century, circa 1500, the etymologists tell us, the noun slipped into its form as a verb, and that’s how i like it best. to be cradled. to cradle.

i was humming around in my head, coursing the bumps and the vales of my brain, in search of a word that means “what’s keeping me from wafting away.”

“grounded” didn’t work because it sounded like i’d been sent to the doghouse. “tethered” came close, but only if you pictured a space walker tied to a lifeline, the sort that NASA so solidly builds, a lifeline that allows for floating, drinking in the sights of the heavens. literally. “tethered,” if you pictured a leash, did not work.

and then, in that way that sometimes makes you feel there’s an angel plopped on your shoulder, leaning in, whispering words in your ear, suddenly, out of the vapors, “cradled” appeared. and all at once, i felt my shoulders go soft, in that exhale of a way. when you whoosh out your worries and cares, and all’s right with the world, as robert browning once put it (“song from pippa passes”).

and so i am — we are all — being cradled. each and every day. breathing or not. we are cradled in great tender arms that hold us. i particularly love the notion from the german Krätze, “basket carried on the back.” breathe that one in for a moment.

right in here — the past luscious whirling days — i’ve been feeling a wee bit lightheaded, and my heart’s been pounding so hard i worry, as i so often do, that it just might give up the ghost. so, as if my life depended on it this morning, i pulled myself out from under the sheets. and i tiptoed out to the holy cathedral just outside the kitchen door, the one that vaults to the heavens, the one that this morning was lit by a crescent of moon. looked to me, more than anything, like one big eye winking at me. God’s eye?

and all around me, the dawn’s soft cool blanket fluttered, as if on a clothesline. the cardinals, cloaked in scarlet as always, were up and chirping away — it’s fairly hard to beat a cardinal out of bed. the dew glistened. my toes took a bath when i tiptoed across the yard to fill the feeder with seed.

i stood there breathing. feeling the arms wrap around me. winking back at the moon. then, i looked to my old shingled house, melted at the buttery light of the kitchen, glowing. sighed a deep sigh of thanks for the house that never fails to keep me safe.

i stood there for a short little bit, unfurled my morning vespers, felt the soles of my feet sinking soft into the earth that holds us, always holds us. and then i puttered back toward the kitchen, where a lunch box awaited, and upstairs, a growing boy slept.

as i poured my first mug of coffee, i stopped to drink in a clutch of sunflowers that peeked from the old chipped milk pitcher. i thought of the blessed beautiful friend who had scooped up those wide-faced wonders from the farmer’s market. and then i climbed the stairs to wake the sleeping boy.

i pressed my cheek against his, longer than i usually do. i drank him in, my sweet sleeping child. and, as i’d been doing all morning, i leaned; this time, on him. i leaned on all of these wonders — winking moon, chattering bird, morning’s dew pearled, old blessed friend, and miracle child — and fortified myself for the hours to come.

i was cradled.

the cradle is there, always there. if we’re willing to climb to the basket strapped to the back — the glorious, heavenly back — that carries us, even on days when we’re dizzy.

what cradles you? as in what are the wonders that hold you gently, protectively? 

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. Co-hosted by Evanston Public Library. To reserve a seat, please contact Bookends and Beginnings at 224-999-7722.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

and yet another marvel:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation and Autumnal Joys

Women & Children First, a Chicago literary landmark in magnificent Andersonville, is hosting a reading, conversation and celebration of autumn, Season of Awe.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

7:30 p.m.

North Clark Street, Chicago, IL

womenandchildrenfirst.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. 

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