pull up a chair

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

a centenary of thank you…

november sky

as i type, a boy i love, one just home from college, is lumpily sleeping on the yonder side of my typing room’s ceiling. that’s a blessing come true, a thank you of the very first order. while he warms the sheets, i’m down below, pounding away on a litany of 100 thank you’s. enchanted by celtic and jewish and ignatian understanding that we are called to anoint the holy hours of our every day with blessing — 100 blessings precisely, in the case of the jews — i decided to unspool my own centenary of thanks across the arc of a day.

this counting of blessings was sparked because i was asked to bring a sheaf of prayer to a thanksgiving vigil, and this seemed an apt response. in this season of bountiful thanks, as we gather roots from the ground, and fowl from the field, i march through time, sewing blessing into the whole cloth of my day. (it’s a might bit long, so you might want to take this in doses, a swallow here, another there. forgive me for counting clear to 100…)

a centenary of blessing, of deep and undying Thank You…

In the liminal landscape between asleep and awake, thank you, Holy One, for heart still beating, for breath, for first thought, the one that tickles us into consciousness. Thank you for darkness before dawn, morning after morning a reawakening to the metaphor, the truth, that in our darkest hour we might hold on just one more minute, for surely the stars will dim, and horizon’s edge will be doused in tourmaline and tangerine, and finally radiant gold. (4)

Thank you, by the way, for celestial paint set.

Thank you for bed, and blanket. Thank you for the one I love who lies beside me, whose breathing I know by heart. Thank you for the lump that’s warm, that’s there when I reach across sheets in the night, in the morning. Thank you for deepening love and the long winding road that brought him to me, to my heart.

Thank you for the dawn itself, that sacred cloak of in-between, when crescent moon dangles just above, but night gives way to morning’s light, and heaven’s dome, at the seam of earth and sky, soaks up scant threads of all-absorbent amber rose. Thank you for the stillest hour when all that moves is barest breeze that rustles leaves, and far off, the stirrings of the lake that never cease. (13)

Thank you for this old house, with arthritic floor boards, ones that creak at just the same juncture, with just the same footfall. Thank you for kitchen, and heat that is cranked. Thank you for whiny old cat there at the door. Thank you for coffee beans and hissing pot, and the old chipped mug that fits snug in my palms. (20)

Dear Maker of All That’s Blessed, thank you for the sound of those footsteps clomping onto the floorboards above, and the certitude that — so far this day — all is well. Thank you for shower, hot and pulsing and shaking off sleepy-eyed resistance to standing upright.

Thank you for porridge I stir at the cookstove. Thank you for the sustenance I dollop in spoonfuls, the alchemy of cooking for those we fuel for the day. Thank you for faith in the vespers unfurled, in between handfuls of raisins and walnuts and jewel-toned dried fruits, the ones we toss with abandon into the bubbling pot.

Thank you for clementines, and sugary cinnamon. Thank you for butter, slathered and melted. Thank you for school bus drivers who wait. Thank you for the click of the door when at last the morning rush is over, is ended, and no one is reaching for car keys, muttering under her breath.

Thank you, Blanketer of Wonder, for the quiet stitched into the morning’s hours, the quiet so thick I can drink in the tick and the tock of a grandfather’s clock. And the squawk of the bluejay, and the chatter of sparrows. (35)

Thank you for work to be done. Thank you for dishes piled in the sink, whose scrubbing and rinsing gives me a moment to think, to ponder the day. Thank you for typewriter keys who call me, and fingers that play on the alphabet rows. Thank you for sentences that write themselves, and words that are birthed from deep down inside.

Thank you for wisdom, the sort that comes in unexpected flashes, when you only know you’ve found it as you feel your heart go thumpety-thump, and you sit bolt upright, or feel the goosebumps sprout up and down unsuspecting flesh. That wisdom might come reading along the pages of news, or in a poem slipped under your transom, or from a stranger passing by. Plenty often, it comes through the holy gospel of a wonder child, as you catch one last phrase tossed over a shoulder at the schoolhouse door.

Thank you for all that’s poetry — wisdom-steeped or just plain beautiful, breath-taking. And thank you for Gospel of any brand — be it birthed from holy child, everyday saint, or even the so-called kook who stands on the street corner, proclaiming through a megaphone.

Thank you, yes, for telephones, for that rare sound of a voice that nestles against the tenderest heart. That, within the first breath of the very first syllable, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness, amplifies the hours absorbed in coming to this holy bond of deep knowing each other, inside and through.

Thank you even for the bits of news — of whatever ilk, good or bad or nasty — that percolate the hours of each day, make one slice of time so vastly different from the next, stitch drama to the script of life, offer us the chance to absorb each and every frame from an angle never before perceived. (45)

Thank you, most of all, for the deep down knowing that you, Holy Depth and Gentleness, never leave me adrift. Never let my quakings take me down. Ever bring me light, and tender touches. Ever hold me up, against the chilling winds. And bring me to communion with all that’s glorious and bountiful in this rugged, rugged landscape.

I might be among the few who salute the cloudy skies of November on my long list of thanks. Ah, but those angora gray skies, they comfort me, harbor me. I’ll take the somnolence, the introspection of a gray day any day. So thank you for cloudy and gray.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how thankful I am for hearts that continue to tick, day in and day out, despite the trials we toss their way, as we worry and fret, then, without notice, shriek in deep joy and excitement. Poor ol’ heart, the one that landed in me anyway, it might not have realized it was signed on for a roller-coaster ride of such seismic proportion.

Speaking of ticking, thank you for the schoolhouse clock that does just that, minute by minute, hour upon hour, heartbeat against the wall.

Thank you, too, for windows. And for the flutterings and flashes just beyond the glass, as clouds of gentle creatures take off and land, from sky to limb and back again — each time, lifting just a little bit of my soul.

Thank you for doors, the ones that let in unexpected someones, someones we love. And keep out the wind and the cold.

Thank you for fires that roar and logs that crackle. Thank you for the one that’s turning the so-called sleeping room, across from the kitchen, into a chamber of flickering gold. Thank you for the two lumps under blankets, snoozing by the fire as I sit here, now typing. (59)

Thank you, Lighter of Night, for the cloak of darkness that comes early now, velvety backdrop for twinkling of stars, and moon that holds me, most every eve, in its trance.

Thank you for dusk, dear Lighter of Light, the far edge of the day, beginning of nightfall, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, are rosy.

Thank you for dinner hour, and the blessing of slow simmering stew. Thank you for the bounty of greens from your earth, and spices from pods and seeds and stamens.

Thank you, God, for the trees and the gnarly limbs, and the hummingbird now buried deep in my garden.

Thank you for candlelight. And the lights of Your making: moonlight and sunlight and dappled radiance scattered like seed across the landscape. Thank you for twinkling stars and streaking ones, too — chalk marks etched across the slate of the night sky. (76)

Thank you for drifting off to sleep, and dreams that color our imagination. Thank you even for revelations that come to us in the awful interludes of tossing and turning. Thank you for wanting to wake up again, to climb from the bed. Thank you for the blankets we tuck under the chin of our sleeping child.

Thank you, dear God, for the child. For the breathtaking chance to infuse all that’s good in this world. Thank you for lessons taught while holding a hand, or wiping a tear. Thank you for band-aids that quell the hurt, and words that do the same. Thank you for everyone who lifts up our child, the teachers who inspire, the coaches who are kind. And the lady down the block who never fails to plant a fat wet kiss on that child’s pink cheek. (90)

Thank you for the year drawing to a close, and this pause to nod our heads and whisper gratitude. Thank you for the kaleidoscope of turning season, the ever-shifting call to attention. Thank you for crunching leaves, and tumbling snow flake.

Thank you for love in all its iterations. For birth, and death, and all that animates the interstitial hours. Thank you for those who walk beside us, who put a hand to the small of our back, or reach out to carry us across the bottomless abyss. (100)

Thank you, God, for all of this. And more. So, so much more.

in this octave of blessing, i have a most special request: a dear and old friend of mine suffered unthinkable heart-shattering this week. she is a seeker of joy, and she finds it. but this week, she was tested beyond measure. i have faith that she will gather up the shards of joy all around. but i ask you to hold her in your prayers — and, too, her beloved, now gone from this earth.

what do you count in your centenary of thanksgiving?

the chambered nautilus that is home…

chambered nautilus coffee cup..

like some sort of sea squiggler slithering into my coiled shell, my safe place, nestled among the coral and seaweed, down deep where the waters are dark, are still, i made my way home last night.

in deep-dark murky midnight black, i put one wobbly foot in front of the other (i’d been three hours in the passenger seat), and crept along the meandering brick walk, past the gnarled crabapple fingers that don’t take kindly to passersby (more often than not, they reach out to make you bleed, or snatch the earring clear off your lobe), past the nodding anemones (now naked of bloom), the anemones i’ve not yet tidily clipped, not tucked into bed for their long winter’s slumber.

eons earlier yesterday, when we’d headed out for the very long day (driving one sweet boy to a plane at the airport, motoring across the state line to a charmed bookstore in the dairy state’s capital city, reading and talking, then turning ’round to come home, all in one day), i’d left the back lights on, the ones that cast their soft molasses glow on the steps so i’m less apt to tumble, the glow i always can spot from the alley, calling me home, beacon through fog.

fumbling with keys, with too many somethings stacked in my arms, i turned the brass in the lock, and stepped inside, safe inside. i was home. finally home.

i’d been waiting for that moment — for that deep sigh of “at last” — for what felt like weeks and weeks. and i couldn’t wait to slither back into all that’s familiar, that’s home: the old jammies with holes. the robe that should have been tossed a few tatters ago. the creak in the stairs as i come round the bend, and plant my sole on the arthritic plank, the one that complains every time.

not ready to sleep, i popped a few kernels, enough to fill a bowl. i drank in the tick and the tock of the old grandfather’s clock, the one sighing the midnight hour. i plonked myself down at the old scratched maple table. and i breathed. deep breathed.

and this morning, after the cat rudely awoke me with the sound of his retching at 3 bells past midnight, i tossed and i turned till i finally surrendered. i arose, took a hot shower (the very best balm for a night of few sleeps), slid into my oldest stretchiest muck-about pants, and, just before 5, i tiptoed down the stairs, the ones i know by heart.

even the simple act of coffee poured into a mug — the mug i love best, a chipped old vessel, one that’s red and dimpled with wee tiny white hearts, one that soothes me like no other when cupped in my palms — it’s medicinal in its powers to quell.

and it’s all a part of the rhythm, the song, that cues up our deepest contentment.

it’s this compendium of simplicities, one pure familiarity strung next to another, that serves to weave and re-weave the womb, the nest, the cradle that rocks us back to equilibrium.

we are, some of us, creatures of habit, of the familiar. we set out to upholster our every day in the somethings rubbed smooth from use and re-use. the jeans with holes in the knees. the blanket long ago snagged. the particular chair where our bum snuggles deepest.

oh, i know there are those who live for the new, the exotic, the never-before. and i don’t mind a dash of surprise, eccentricity.

but give me my druthers and i’ll reach for the old, the weathered, the worn through with love upon love. the dog-eared till tender.

even, apparently, in matters of heart-pounding, head-swirling lifelong attraction. upon meeting the man i would eventually marry, my mother heaped upon him the highest praise in her book, declaring him “an old shoe,” the sort who fits like a glove, who knows your rises and planes and sidles up seamlessly. the sort with no pretense. one utterly at home in holey-soled loafers and seersucker shorts with sagging-down hem (his apparel of choice for that maiden encounter with the one who would become his mother-in-law). one who’d not mind a lifetime of pre-wrinkled shirts, warmed-over stews, and a station wagon too often mistaken for heirloom.

and right in here, you see, i’m hungry for all that anchors me, tucks me in to the nooks and the crannies of my own chambered nautilus.

of late, i’ve been out on a bit of a voyage through unfamiliar waters (it’s that wee little book, the time-slowing tome, birthed five short weeks ago). i’ve been trolling farther from home, and in ways a tad beyond my comfort zone.

why, just the other eve, i found myself talking quite plainly — in front of however umpteen many households were tuned to a particular chicago public television channel — about something i’ve not talked about to seven-eighths of my dearest friends, a long ago mystical something, my so-called “miracle,” one that unfolded in the upstairs chapel of a faraway convent when i was all of 16 (see page 35 of said book, if you’re now curious). but there i was, on a sound stage, with cameras rolling, and the words of my heart and my soul being cast across airwaves, scattered like so many seedlings through miles and miles of midwestern heartland. egad.

no wonder i needed my shaggy old pj’s. and my banged-up coffee cup besides. it’s rather a miracle that i’m not wadded up in tattered blankets, burrowing deep beneath some coffee-stained couch pillows.

thank goodness the calendar for a whole stretch of days holds nothing more drastic than rising from bed, and tumbling to sleep. i’ve come at last to a somnolent spell. and i need it.

a home body, a comfort seeker like me, must return to the roost. must deep breathe the old and familiar. it’s in sinking into the rhythms we know best that we are freed to be our unfettered whole. we needn’t peek in the mirror. needn’t quake at the sound of our own voice, echoing clear across a room.

we are home. we are where we belong. we are unadulterated glory in the eyes of the only one who truly sees us, the one who set sublimest design upon us, back at the essential beginning.

when we’re home, when we’re safe in the confines of the golden spiral, the chambered nautilus, that’s when we reclaim our moorings, quiet the shaky insides.

it’s how we guzzle the holy, how we refill the vessel so we’ve got what it takes to return to the seas and conquer new vistas.

dear chair friends, writing on three hours of sleep is not very smart. so please forgive weak spots and tangles above. i’ve got a quiet spell for the next couple weeks, and a boy coming home in less than a week for the very best holiday. i’ll restock the larder. i’ll deep breathe the beautiful. and be ready to roll again.

in the meantime, do tell, what is it you do to anchor your soul, and set your wings back to soaring?

sacramental supper

sacrament supper

it came over me as if i’d been out on a splintering raft in the middle of the swallowing seas, as if for days and days i’d not seen dry shore. nor steady mooring to cling to. but there, not too far out of my reach, was the sea-battered timber planted in the sandy bottom. the end post of a barnacle-crusted dock i couldn’t quite make out, and it came out of nowhere.

looked like hope to me.

so i reached for it. reached into the meat bin at the bottom of the fridge. hauled out the pack of cubes of cow (so sorry, cow). then i hauled out the cook pot, the one so hefty it could break a toe. a pack of toes. i glopped in a spill of oil, olive oil slick across the now-sizzling surface. and in plopped the cubes of beef. i browned and hummed. that’s what cooking on a thursday morning does.

i was burrowing into the holiness, the sacrament of middle-of-the-week, because-they-need-it, because-we-all-need-it supper. it would be ladled at long day’s end, when, for a moment, hands would be clasped, prayers raised, then forks. and a certain emptiness, filled.

that’s the mystery and alchemy of all-day puttering at the cookstove. it’s the only thing some days, some weeks, that beelines to the crannies in our heart where words can’t go. that seeps into hollows hungry for so very much.

since this was sacramental, after all, i set the altar while beef cubes sizzled: old chipped blue willow plates, ratty napkins that could use a spin through the sewing machine. cobalt glasses, ones that all day long catch the light, spill streams of blue across the old maple planks of the handed-down kitchen table, the one that still wears the imprint of third-grade homework from back in 1965 (or so i calculate, judging by the particular child’s scrawl and the certain words pressed into the wood).

sacramentum, the latin dictionary tells us, means “sign of the sacred.” is it sacrilegious, then, to call a plain old supper, one that simmered on the back burner all day long, one thought through, from splattered sheaf of follow-along instructions, clear through to pop-from-a-tube biscuits, is it sacrilegious to call a lump of root vegetables and beef, ones swimming all day long in thyme and bay leaf, crushed tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, is it sacrilegious to call it sacramental?

i think not.

to serve up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and irish butter, “i love you dearly, and i’m so sorry i’ve been distracted. so sorry i’ve been heating up old soup, chicken pot pie from a box.” to say, with store-bought pumpkin pie, under a swirl of canned whipped cream (i splurged on the one that shouted, “extra creamy!”), “forgive me for making it seem like something else might have been more top-of-the-to-do-list than carving out the holy half hour (let’s not be greedy here) when we all sit down and savor pay-attention cooking. and each other.”

because, really, i think we can taste the difference. oh, umami is umami. and sweet is sweet. but don’t the hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through — not whipping it off in the last 10 minutes before the hunger sirens screech — doesn’t it all find its way deep down into the deliciousness that doesn’t come through short cut piled atop short cut?

yesterday, the day was afghan autumnal, all gray and woolly, the sort of day when you hunker inside, when the cookstove yodels to you. when the burners itch to be cranked. and the bins of rutabaga and turnip and parsnip — all those underground offerings that soak up what the earth’s deep dark soil has to share — they beg for vegetable peeler, and chopping block, and long hours surrendering to flame.

it was the sort of day-after-hubbub when quiet invited me in for a long slow visit. nothing rushed about the day. a day to breathe deep, breathe slow. to fill my lungs with quiet prayers, the prayers of lavishing love on the ones so dear to me, the ones who deserve nothing less than the very best dinner i could chop and stir and taste-test along the way. and while i’m at it, why not take it up a zany notch? just because there’s never enough oomph in an ordinary day. and what day, really, deserves to be plain old ordinary?

by supper time, when the tableau beyond the panes of glass went inky black, when the glow of the kitchen lamp spilled gold across the table, the vapors that rose from the big red smash-your-toes cook pot, the hot breaths that trespassed out of the oven, they crept up the stairs to where homework was being done.

before i’d said a word, the stovetop’s incense was deep at work. the house was filled with something surely holy, for what else can you call it when you claim a whole long day to aim for higher?

to say in smell and taste and temperature and touch what words alone just might not say: “you are worth it to me to spend a whole day cooking, just for you. i’ve not lost sight of my holiest calling, to carve out a hallowed space here in this place of walls and windows and creaky floors and solid roof, to be the one reliable source of all that’s good, that’s edifying. to fill you with warm spoonfuls — as much as you want, there’s plenty here. and i’ve made it beautiful because you are, because beauty speaks to the deep-down whole of us. and you so richly deserve each and every morsel i can muster.”

the day was chilly brisk. i did what i could to make the kitchen glow, the holy light of heaven here on earth. and to fill those who came to the chairs at long day’s end.

far as i can tell, that’s a sacrament, a sign of the sacred. with a fat splat of butter drooling off the plate.

beef stew

like all the best recipes, i start with something on paper, and then i riff. i zig when instructions say zag. add a dollop instead of a dab. the beef stew recipe i’ve decided is the one worthy of a long day’s cooking is one from that gloriously down-to-earth pioneer woman, ree drummond, and it’s one she calls “sunday night stew.” even on a thursday.

your thoughts on the sacrament called slow-cooked supper? or how do you best dollop extra helpings of plain pure love? 

burrowing begins…

burrowing begins fruit

winds are howling. the chimney is hiccuping (rather rudely), with every passing blast of gale-force updraft. cigar pods from boughs on high are poinking needle-like into the heads of anyone fool enough to tiptoe outside. the last few berries from the american cranberry, the scant few that haven’t been gobbled by blue jays and high-wire squirrels, they’ve been slammed to the ground in a bloody blob this morning.

a few minutes ago, i glanced out the window and thought it was raining itty-bitty locust leaves. then i rubbed my eyes and realized it was a hallowed eve’s snowfall. snow blustering, maybe.

the sky is pewter. the air so cold even the cat is howling in protest.

all in all, it seems surround-sound signal from the seasonal trumpeter: time for burrowing to begin.

autumn as october teeters towards its close, as november waits in the wings, when golden glow gives way to stovepipe gray, when stripped-bare branches scratch at endless sky, autumn is the season to hunker down, to draw in, to turn our attentions toward the essence deep within.

all this dialing down, buttoning up our nubbiest sweaters, slithering on socks for the first time in months, it’s all a call to haul out the soup pots from the back of the cupboard, to reach in the fruit bin for the season’s offerings — the ones that, in keeping with autumn’s ethos, reveal their succulence only after peeling away, digging in, extracting.

if it’s true — as a wise man taught me last week — that God wrote two books, one of which is the Book of Nature, then we’d be fools not to read along, not to inhale the verse of the shifting light, the shadowing that autumn’s depth brings.

if it’s true — and why wouldn’t it be? — that God in God’s Infinite Genius imbued every corpuscle of creation with a map pointing to the interiority of the ones charged with making sense of all this, the ones for whom understanding leads to illumination, which leads to enlightenment, then wouldn’t it follow that one of our holy callings is to heed the wisdom of the bough and the sky and the crunch underfoot?

and so, to steep myself in autumn’s teaching, i step outside into the whirl of this hallowed day’s preamble to winter: i feel the bumper crop of goosebumps on shoulder and thigh and nook of my neck; i inhale the faint whiff of logs burning from somewhere not far away; and, without much dawdling, i scurry back inside and do as instructed.

i pull on another sweater, i plonk on the couch, and survey the stack of pages waiting nearby. i begin to consider pumpkin — and not for carving, for roasting. i press my nose to the glass, set my gaze skyward, watch gray clouds scuttle by.

contemplate the coming depths.

i might be calling it quits on puttering about the garden. might tuck away the hose, the trowel, the watering can. might gather up the bird houses, replenish the bird-seed bins. the deepening is upon us. time to consider those who depend on us to make it through bitter days ahead.

the wisest thing to do, i reckon, is begin the prayerful coiling, the tending to what’s inside and too long left cobwebbed. it’s the season of introspection, and i’m settling in to do as so divinely ordered.

because tomorrow is all saints day, a feast day best honored by honoring the saints who populate our living breathing days, i’m beginning the nominations here with a beloved neighbor named sarah, who moved home a few years ago to care for and feed sumptuous nightly feasts to her aging mama and papa. just yesterday, sarah’s mama could not be awakened. she was breathing, but un-rousable, so an ambulance came and carried her away. she’s now deeply sedated in the ICU, where sarah and her papa kept vigil all day. late last night, sarah finally ferried her papa home, sat him down to feed him, then, in an act of compassion that purely took my breath away, she “rigged up his bed with pillows, so he can feel like he’s bumping into her” all through the night. sarah is saint number one in my book this year. please whisper a prayer for sarah’s mama and papa, and, deeply, for sarah.

who’s on your list of everyday saints? no need to name names. just a story will do…..and question number two: how do you begin your burrowing? what’s on your winter’s reading list? 

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 159 other followers