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hours of sorrows

silence on day that darkens

amid this breathless week of passover seders and holiest hours, amid trying to pack lunches kosher for passover, and waking up early to stir and bake passover coffee cakes (in which it’s the egg white that’s relied upon for alchemy, to lift the leaden matzoh into something that falls on the tongue with delicate bite), amid wondering what to serve our muslim houseguest when she’s here for easter brunch while we’re keeping kosher for passover, today is the day i deep breathe.

today, good friday, holy friday, friday of sorrows at the nadir of the week, this is the day when the noon hour comes, and the sky darkens (at least in my searching imagination it does), and i retreat to my quietude. and my sorrows.

sorrows not my own, but sorrows for the world. sorrows of which there are too, too many. the more you read the newspapers, the more you turn the pages of memoir, the more and more you realize the world is shrouded in darkness. darkness that demands whatever energies we have to battle it back. to insist we’re not letting it win. we’re not standing by in abeyance. we’re not washing our hands, turning and dropping the ball, leaving the dirty work to anyone else.

on this day, in these hours of sorrows, i turn to that ancient and ever-birthing instrument of petition and promise: i pray. i pray on my knees (till my old bones tell me to stop, anyway). i pray curled by my window, my eyes deep in the words on the page. i pray all alone, just me and the God who is listening. listening, i’m certain.

this year, i’m bringing along a wisp of a book, a book originally published in 1955, before i was born, a book i searched for and found this year because its words had so stirred me, sitting in the pews at a church not far away in miles, but legions away in raw earthy truths. it’s a church filled with a few dozen languages and skin from pitch-black to blotchy from tears. it’s a church where i go to feel naked, to feel in communion with the messy stuff of humanity. i’ve seen old women, bent and bowed, rocking with tears, and mumbling half out loud. i’ve seen fat brown-skinned babies dunked in the holy waters. i’ve seen walkers and wheelchairs and crutches and canes. the whole lot of God’s sorrows streaming up to communion.

the book, this book that speaks to me, speaks to all who gather at st. nick’s and beyond, it’s “the way of the cross,” written and illustrated back in 1955 by caryll houselander, and you can find it from liguori publications, down missouri way.

way of the cross

now this caryll houselander, she was a bit of a rabble-rouser (a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing 20th-century british catholic mystic, artist, woodcarver, prolific author, teacher of disturbed children, counselor of the war-traumatized, widely known as “the divine eccentric”).

she liked her religion messy, she liked it to speak from the hollows of the human heart. and she lifted it out of millennia and into the moment, for me anyway. she puts me there in the dust at the side of the via dolorosa, the quarter-mile road in old jerusalem where jesus carried the cross, falling not once or twice but three times under the weight of those shoulder-crushing timbers. up the hill to calvary, where, upon that cross, he cried out, “father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, with his mother weeping at the foot of the cross, he let out the gurgly rattle of death, and he died.

we all have words in our lives with magical mystical powers, words that unlock some soulful place in us. caryll houselander’s “way of the cross” does it for me.

here she is on veronica, the compassionate woman who burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus. here she is, caryll houselander, with the pleading to God inspired by veronica wiping the face of jesus, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

 

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

quietly, i leave you to enter your own pleadings and sorrows.

may this be a day steeped in the Holy. may your hours of sorrows draw you into a depth of compassion that lifts you beyond your own full deck of worries.

another road into compassion:  a few months back, i mentioned here that i was working on a story about a 20-year-old former star swimmer and water polo player who suffered a brain aneurysm in the fall of his senior year of high school and now lives in the hell called “locked-in syndrome.” the story just came out in marquette magazine, and web wizards masterfully interlaced film clips throughout the words of the story. if you are hungry for a bit of humbling today, you might want to click on patrick stein’s story here, as published in the magazine. 

how will you spend the hours of sorrows? 

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

road trip: words upon words, stopping at the intersection of faith, doubt and ink in between

ffw-logo-shadow

before the sun rises over the steel mills of gary, indiana, tomorrow morn, i’ll be motoring toward motor city for a three day festival of words, words and more words. with a fat dash of big questions stirred in for good measure.

i’ll hit the brakes before i hit the outskirts of detroit. in fact, i’ll be stopping mid-mitten, at just about the palm of the hand, to pull into the fine burg of grand rapids. i could roll down the windows and listen for the voice of anne lamott, a faith-filled writer you might have read. but i’m actually a bit more keen on listening closely to uwem akpan, the nigerian catholic priest who penned the haunting “say you’re one of them,” five short stories of african atrocities told through the voices of children; or amy leach, a shy and brilliant essayist whose debut book, “things that are,” is a madcap collection of nature essays encouraging communion with the wild world (she’s been said to be “a descendent of lewis carroll and emily dickinson,” be still my heart — a girl after my very own chambered vessel, indeed).

a clutch of poets will be in the bunch, and i intend to be in the room when mary szybist, the author of “incarnadine,” winner of the 2013 national book award for poetry, tackles “reverence without curtsying.” or when jeanne murray walker, poet and playwright, talks memoir, or okey ndibe, the nigerian poet, novelist, journalist and political commentator,  takes on “negotiating between the visible and invisible: deities and writing.”

i’ll have notebook flapped open and pen perched (for i’m among the last of the pen-and-paper note takers) when guggenheim fellow eliza griswold, best-selling author of “the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam” steps to the podium, or when james mcbride, author of the brilliant “the color of water: a black man’s tribute to his white mother,” and most recently, “good lord bird,” a comedy about the abolitionist john brown, which won the 2013 national book award, settles in for a thursday night’s conversation.

it’s called the “festival of faith & writing,” and who knew that such a gathering of great minds has been convening every other year on the rolling campus of calvin college — smack dab between the literati-littered coasts — since 1990. and that over the years, elie wiesel, john updike, maya angelou, salman rushdie, annie dillard, kathleen norris, and donald hall — to name but a handful — have been putting voice not to unwavering belief but the far more animated living-breathing blurred boundary between doubt and hope.

it’s that very crack in the veneer of faith, the place where shadow seeps, that birthed the festival in the first place.

“because of a long interest in writers between the cracks — writers who struggle with and deal honestly with the challenges of human experience, while writing with skill and poise and quality. these are not people who are easy believers, but that is part of what makes reading such authors worthwhile. we can learn a lot from these folks and their honest portrayals of the human experience,” says dale brown, the former calvin english professor who dreamed up the festival, one literary invitation at a time, and presided over it until he left the college to run the buechner institute in 2007.

it’s a mere 204 miles away, and it’s a landscape i’m learning, one page at a time.

if laptop and lulls allow, i’ll post dispatches from the front. fine thoughts, stirring questions, readings you might want to track down. if not, click on any of the above links and partake in a virtual festival of faith & words, all on your own.

in the meantime, what writers/thinkers/poets might you drive a couple hundred miles to encounter, page to page?

 

old blue rides into the sunset. end of story.

old blue. sunset

some time today, a hungry tow truck will roll into the back lot of kenney’s automotive on coates avenue in south deerfield, massachusetts — some 771.668 miles away on the odometer — and the scrunch scrunch scrunch of the metal tooth biting into the rear bumper of an old blue wagon will pierce my heart, all the way from here, inside the old gray house nestled along the alley from which that old car drove away just last summer.

car died a smoky death, rolling into the left turn lane of a country road, near midnight the other night. i found out when the little phone by the side of my hotel bed jangled me awake, and my heart ripped through my chest when i saw the name pop up and heard some degree of alarm as the voice on the other end of the line, a voice i know to be my firstborn’s, yelped: “mom, the car’s smoking. how do you pop the hood?”

he explained, in a bit of a rush: “we’re heading to a diner (at midnight, mind you). and all of a sudden the ‘check engine’ light went on. when i touched the brake, the whole dashboard lit up and smoke started pouring.”

how odd that just the night before, under the halo of a streetlamp in a soggy college parking lot, we’d all made a pilgrimage to that old wagon, paid our last respects — though we didn’t know it at the time — all under the premise that i was applying the $101 village sticker to the windshield and the kid brother, who is sentimental about these things, said he really missed the old car and just wanted to stretch out in the back seat for a minute or two. never mind that the college kid — who’s never been keen on housekeeping — tried to convince us that, really, the car wasn’t in shape for visitors; there were a few remnants strewn around the seats, items the kid brother wasted no time in spying, inquiring about, loudly — in service of his father’s enlightenment and the college kid’s deep chagrin.

i, motherly and not trusting that the job would get done before the old sticker expired, climbed behind the wheel — a wheel i’d climbed behind umpteen million times in the 20 years since we’d bought the sturdy scandinavian vessel — and slapped on the sticker. looked around. climbed back into the pouring rain. the kid in the back seat inhaled — breathing deep of the rare perfume of sweaty rowers who’d made the car into their team shuttle — and then he sighed. he didn’t want to leave the car alone, there in the college lot. fact is, he wanted to take it home.

but we had a big city — boston — to get back to, and a long two-hour’s drive in pouring pouring rain. the car would be home in a few months anyway, when it was motored back for the summer.

when the call came in on sunday night — when whatever it was did whatever it smokily did — my second thought, after telling the midnight caller to be sure not to stand on the side of the road, was “thank god, he didn’t drive into cambridge (the original plan), or this smoky thing would have likely happened while he was alone on a god-awful rainy night along the side of the mass pike where guard rails keep you from driving off what midwesterners would call ‘the cliff.’”

fast forward through a flurry of phone calls, and a keen friendship struck up between me and dear gerry, the massachusetts car mechanic who tells me “the news is bad”: the car we bought before our firstborn’s first birthday has finally bit the dust.

we might get $250 for parts.

now i know it’s little more than a heap of scandinavian steel and a few still tufted cushions, but that old car ferried us clear through two splendid childhoods: drove one little boy to preschool, kindergarten, straight to college. drove the other one home from the hospital, for crying out loud. and every day after. until the car itself went off to college.

at about year three, when we thought there’d never be a little brother and a cat seemed a solid substitute, it drove one mewing striped kitten — stuffed for safe carriage inside the cardboard slot of an ice house beer six-pack — from farm to city house. and it made like an ambulance the bloody afternoon we got the call that the firstborn had somersaulted over the handlebars and was found lying limp on the side of a trail in the woods. from the front seat, that boy whose neck we didn’t yet know was broken, moaned: “mom, am i going to die?” and the little one in the car seat one row back just whimpered and prayed his mighty little prayers, he would later let me know.

it’s the car in which one boy learned to drive. and where i do believe he sealed a first kiss. it lugged groceries by the ton, and broken bikes, and giggling boys. it’s where one or two of us have turned when a good long ride, with the radio on loud, was the surest cure to chase away the blues. it’s carried us through storms and snow and crying jags that would not stop. it always got us home.

it almost hurts to peek at the picture up above, a beauty shot if ever there was. and i can’t bear to imagine the grinding of the gears as the tow truck hoists the wagon to a tilt and rolls it to the burial ground of old, much loved and trusted carriage rides on wheels.

with its bumps and bruises, it’s rolling off in glory. a car that earned its honor. never once did one of us get hurt inside that vessel. it did the job it promised: it rolled two boys, one cat, a mama and a papa safe and sound through all the twists and turns, the hills and downslides of being a happy family that dearly loved what was hoisted on its axels.

i’d planned on telling you about our adventures back in the land of 02139, where for five intoxicating days we inhaled dear friends, cobblestone streets, even a shakespeare class in old harvard hall. but the death knell for the old blue wagon tolled. and i can’t much think beyond it. it’ll be a long sad summer pedaling my bike. my heart will always pine for old blue, the car that turned me gray.

do you have a car you loved? a set of wheels that carried you much farther than mere odometer miles?

the blessing of an eeyore day

eeyore day

count me in the company of arthur wellesley, 1st duke of wellington, and eeyore, the donkey with the pinned-on tail. mistake us not for misanthropes of the first order, but rather aficionados of the rainy day. the gloomy day. the day when it seems the heavens have dropped down an afghan the color of soot, and punctuated it with the drippings of a long and leaky pipe.

wellesley, you might recognize, was the fellow who thought to rubberize his war boots, back in the early days of the 19th century — voila, “the wellie.” eeyore, well, hopefully, you know him from the early pages of a.a. milne’s “the house at pooh corner,” the titular house being the one constructed of sticks and twigs to give poor gloomy eeyore a place to cower from whatever poured from high above.

it’s been months and months since anyone around here woke up to the ping-ping-ping of precipitation pouncing against the downspouts. or rat-a-tat, hard upon the windowpanes. and when’s the last time the squawking voice in the radio box spewed the onomatopoeic forecast “drizzle,” all morning long? pureed with fog and mist.

to borrow a line from john hersey’s “hiroshima,” maybe it’s merely an “irresistible atavistic urge to hide under leaves.” or maybe it’s the irish in me, most at home when the thinning between heaven and earth is all a blur, and we face the day cloaked in skein upon skein of sheep sacrifice.

i fear i might have been the little child who, when faced with a crayola super pack of 64 waxen sticks, grabbed straight for the shadowed hues, charcoal gray and periwinkle (colors added in 1949), ignoring altogether the sunnier, carnation pink and aquamarine (both ’49ers, as well).

it’s the depth of texture i find in gray days, in sodden days. there’s something to sink into, to rub up against — even if it waterlogs your socks.

perhaps it’s my fondness for worms, which come out to play when sidewalks slick and water gurgles up from the thawing terrestrial ooze.

but i’ve a hunch it all circles back to page 11, of pooh’s corner, the page on which the world of children’s literature, and generations curled on mama’s and papa’s laps, first met the sad-eyed donkey, in this little exchange that might be the battle cry of the glass-half-full brigade:

“hallo, eeyore,” said christopher robin, as he opened the door and came out. “how are you?

“it’s snowing still,” said eeyore gloomily.

“so it is.”

and freezing.”

“is it?”

“yes,” said eeyore. “however,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”

who could not fall hard — and forever — for a four-legged prognosticator who works so hard to find a shard of light amid the endless shadow?

no earthquake lately, indeed. nothing but the silent falling snow. and cold that takes your breath away without a word. so what’s not to delight with the noisy brand of precipitation? the pit-a-pat that lulls you into dreamland, and syncopates your morning’s rhythm?

it’s but a whisper in the world beyond our windows, but it’s one that draws me in, and holds me close. and i consider it a blessing. the blessing of an eeyore day.

short, sweet, simple. more like weather dispatch with a bit of muse. or maybe just excuse to pull an old favorite from the bookshelf. i’m headed out for worm patrol any minute now, that long-held mission to save all squirmy things from dry-docked death. 

when you were little, what color did you grab primarily from the crayon box? and what might that say about your natural-born palette? and in the silly questions department, who was your favorite character from the 100-acre wood? pooh? piglet? christopher robin? or, mine, eeyore? (truth is, i love them each and all.)

official enough: Slowing Time

slowing time

the manuscript is off in copy editing. and just this week, i discovered a name that i’ve long known, long answered to, has been added to the “authors” roster.

so that must make it official enough.

and there it is, almost like getting a peek at the amniotic-slicked crown of a baby’s head as it wedges through the birth canal.

almost.

it’s slowing time, a book with my name on the cover. and pages and pages of my heart inside.

and it will be in bookstores come october. or maybe even september.

and for a girl who long ago sat tucked between her twin beds, splayed upon the braided oval rug, folding blank pages in halves and quarters, drawing pictures, pressing pencil to page to add sentences and paragraphs, it rather makes my heart thump to see that this time someone other than me is doing the work of rolling those pages off the presses, stamping that copyright on the page with the bit about the library of congress.

it’s a book that was born here, at the old banged-up maple table, where for so many mornings now we’ve pooled our wisdoms and our paying attentions. i think the page that made my heart thump the loudest as i was writing it, was perhaps the dedication page. that’s where you dig down deep and pull out the plumpest roots, the ones without which your heart might wither and die. you’ll find the chair sisters nestled there, in that abbreviated roster of literary midwives, the ones who propped me up on days when i might otherwise have wilted. or crumbled. or run away to hide.

what that means is that you and you and you are among the winds that blew me forward, that would not let me fade away and give up hope.

it’s not so easy putting words to the whispers of a heart. but what i found is that the more i typed, the more i believed.

what i love best about slowing time is that it’s a compilation of the quiet art of paying attention. and paying attention, i’ve found, is a silent — yet deeply animated — form of prayer. it’s tiptoeing through the holy hours of the day, of the seasons, and opening your heart wide enough to feel — and shlurp up — the brushstrokes of the Divine.

sometimes that comes in the words of a five-year-old boy who asks, “mama, what will happen when i die?” and follows rat-a-tat with: “will you die? will daddy die?”

sometimes it comes in keeping watch as mama bird builds her nest, as she scans the clumps of rustling grasses, plucks the fattest one and flies it back to the hatching branch. and, all the while, she’s teaching you a thing or two about resilience. and inexhaustibility. and faith, no matter the pounding of the springtime’s downpour.

often, for me, a lifelong churchgoer — one who pedaled her bike six weeks straight to early-morning mass the lent that i was eight and working hard to put shine to my halo — the Divine has skipped across my heart as i tiptoed into synagogue and wrapped myself in prayer at once ancient and timeless.

the undiluted premise of slowing time and the heart behind it is that the Divine is all around, if we slow down and pay close enough attention. it is a life of prayer lived in the thick and the messiness of the everyday.

it’s pure wonder that mary oliver, my poet priestess, graces the book’s first page, and it’s no accident that emily dickinson — “some keep the Sabbath going to church/ i keep it, staying at home” — is my patron saint.

my prayer is not bound by religion, but thrust heavenward by heart and because i’ve learned — stumbling all along the way — that most essential element of every prayer: the unspoken line where we are deeply listening.

here’s a peek at the publisher’s catalog for slowing time.

and bless you every one who pulled up a chair, and shared a wisdom — silent or otherwise — here where we call it holy communion. with a splash of cream.

how do you practice the art of slowing time? 

why we do it…

why we do this. T comes home pic

i’d just pulled the sheets up toward my nose when, from the far end of the house, the ring rang. the little guy, from his bed across the hall, announced: “mom, your phone’s ringing.” i mumbled back, “i’m asleep. i don’t answer phones at all hours of the night.”

then the old black phone beside our bed rang. this time we answered.

it was the college kid. and at 10 o’clock on a sunday night, he decided he wanted to talk. needed to, is what it amounted to. and so, for most of an hour i lay there, flat on my back, holding the phone to my ear until wrists and elbows got stiff, got achy, so i’d rearrange the cradling of the little black box that connected me and my faraway boy.

after a while i started to notice that the sleeping lump beside me was doing just that: sleeping (or trying to, anyway). so i flipped back the sheets, hauled my tired self out of bed, and spent the next good hour curled in a chair in the college kid’s room, where he and i wound to the end of the list — the things that must be discussed at midnight on sunday, at the end of a very long weekend, at the end of a very long week.

it’s why i call this the most important job i will ever do.

it’s why, two days later, when i went to visit a dear dear friend who’s just had a new baby, her first, i marveled as i watched her besotted in love with her sweet breathing, gurgling, occasionally squeaking baby. i saw that look in her eyes. i felt the wonderment. i recognized right away how, suddenly, this little nine-pound wad of hunger and doze, it consumes you. you might keep charts of which breast is on tap, and for how many minutes the little guy sucked. back in the day, i did so with paper and pen, and a safety pin i tried to remember to move from one nursing bra strap to the other; my dear friend clicked her uber-smartphone, and there the breast-feeding app kept time for her, tracked which side was which, and how long he was at it, the guzzler.

in that glorious meld of weaving her old life into her new one, i smiled as i looked at the piles there on her bed. she was propped up with pillows, the baby reclined on the niftiest nursing contraption i’d ever seen (looked not unlike a lifesaving flotation device, except one with pocket for tissues and strap for a binky, i guess, all wrapped in quaint baby cloth). but all around her were the sorts of deep reads for which my friend lives. she’d been reading aloud pages of the atlantic monthly and “road song,” natalie kusz’s  heart-wrenching nonfiction tale of trauma and loss and redemption, because what newborn baby isn’t lulled by the sounds of his mama’s voice, and why not start the literary steeping on day one of his life?

i stayed as long as i could, till the light from the west slanted in, slanted down, slanted thinner. watching her, listening to her and husband recount twist after turn in her 38-hour labor, i couldn’t help but be lulled back in time, to the start of this ancient and timeless arc, the whole-body immersion into motherhood.

by miracle of accumulated years, i suddenly find myself 20 years away from my start. and thus, whirling inside me, i had the breathtaking knowledge of why those first hours and days are so vitally sealed. why, as mothers, we practically need to be vacuum-swooped down the vast and cavernous tunnel of love that is the adventure of a lifetime, that is cradling a life, soon taking it by the hand, and eventually letting it go, to soar and to dip and to dive all on its own. and to be there, on the end of the line, when the ring rings at 10 in the night. or 11. or 1. or beyond.

to fall madly in love, to feel fingers the size of a matchstick curl and cling to your flesh, to come to know the particular snorts and the grunts of that loaf of blanket and fuzz strapped across your chest, across the place where your hearts pound in echo. to spend your waking hours clocking his input and output, it is all a part of the alchemy that seals mother to child. and keeps us in for the long haul.

what else could so fixate us, could so call out to that seed buried deep in our hearts, the one that’s been waiting since the day we were born, we were cradled, to turn and do the same, to return the grace of generation upon generation? to mother a child through all the tight spots and twists that tumble onto the miles and miles from nursing pillow to college diploma, and each day ever after.

if it wasn’t for hearts hermetically-sealed from the get-go how else could we stick with this uncharted program? who’d sign up for a road trip that, at any turn, might find you splayed on the bathroom floor at 3 in the morning when a little guy’s retching his guts out, or when the bath needs to be drawn while the birds warble their morning song because the mercury on the thermometer reads 105 and you’re scared out of your wits, and willing yourself to not crumble?

what else would keep you upright when the phone rings and the next thing you know strangers are talking of airlifts and ambulances and necks that are broken in multiple places? or keep your knees from buckling when your lanky kid is lying there in the ICU half-buried under a web of IV tubes and oxygen lines running this way and that, and you count as many as six different needles shoved under the skin of his banged-up and bleeding forearms?

motherhood is not for the faint of heart, and the heart needs to triple in size, so it seems, to pack in the requisite vast and infinite wisdom — and patience and sheer calculation and imagination and stamina and worry and second-guessing and, yes, full-throttle pangs of remorse when we get it wrong, time after time.

and motherhood holds no escape clause. we’re in it for keeps. which is why we sometimes find ourselves mumbling aloud, as we shake fist to the heavens and ask why-oh-why we are once again searching the house for the shoe/the soccer ball/the library book that somehow escaped from its last-known location. or driving umpteen hundred miles to drop off precious load at the side of some far-flung soccer field. or sending a note to the teacher, asking if maybe we could meet after school, to find out why this fourth-grade math is so very mind-bending.

but what other adventure known to humankind might find you taking a little child by the hand,  just after a soggy afternoon’s rain, and heading out the door in search of worms that might need rescue, plucked up from the unforgiving concrete sidewalk and tenderly placed in the oozy garden? or have you witnessing, from the very front row, the moment when mixed-up alphabet letters on a page suddenly rearrange themselves into equations called words, and the child is off and reading?

oh, it takes love, all right. deep-veined love. the sort that re-routes all the wires inside you. that literally re-scripts your dreams, gives center stage to the newest dearest soul in your life, one you suddenly realize you can’t live without. and for the first time ever, perhaps, you know what it feels like to know that you’d throw yourself, in an instant, between a car or a train or a boulder barreling toward that babe who looks in your eyes as if his life depends on you.

because, truly, it does.

that old snapshot above is one of my favorites, from the very day the little one came home from the hospital, and his big brother held high the umbrella, the first of many shieldings from the elements. 

i am wholly aware that parenthood isn’t everyone’s path, and that every single one of us finds our passion one way or another, and devotes the better parts of our hearts to that very something. i simply turn to motherhood because for me it’s been the keeper of all the most essential lessons, and the blessing that’s lifted my heart to the heavens.  

what’s the thing that’s brought your life its most essential truths?

it’s the light

it's the light pillow

like the birds in the bushes who’ve flicked on their vernal soundtrack, and the flower heads who nod toward the arcing solar orb, i too follow the light.

and this week, as i dragged through the dregs of my soul, fearing i might never emerge from my doldrums, i finally, miraculously, felt an uplift inside. as if a spark plug was at last being triggered. as if, just before the final sputtering out of what was left of my oomph, something deep down went kerplunk, a sort of holy rejuvenation. i took it to be a hand extended from on high. i all but felt the Divine yank me out of the murk and into a passing-by sunbeam.

it’s all the wonder of a globe that spins on an axis, a globe that moves us into and out of shadow. and our time out of shadow is coming, is inching our way. minute by minute, hour by hour, we are leaning into the light.

and while i love winter as much as anyone — save for the moose or the elk who stay out all night and romp to their hooves’ content — and while, even amid the mountains of charcoal-gray piled-high snow cliffs, i am still able to marvel at the ice-crystal diamonds scattered across the morning’s white-scape, i admit that all these long months with not enough sunbeams had taken its toll on my spirit.

i was lagging. was heavy with worry and doubt and confusion.

and then the flutter came. the flutter of lightness, deep down just under my heart. suddenly, my feet weren’t so heavy. nor my shoulders so flinched.

hope was the thing that stirred. hope that the lightness was coming. that, soon, the bare naked branches would slip on their vernal green gloves. the nubs of resistance would push through the hard frozen crust of the garden.

spring would arrive, would demonstrate the power of birth after death, after long winter’s doubt.

it’s as if the message is distilled into each of the light beams, the ones that now spill through the smudged panes of glass. the ones that pour across floorboards, daring us to look down and notice. to pay attention. to remember: light follows shadow. even deep down in our souls.

especially deep down in our souls.

because, year after year, spring after winter, the truth comes again and again: there is light. and there’s life all over again. all tender and fledgling and new.

and if you keep your eyes and your heart attuned to the heavens, and what spills from above, you — like the sprouts reaching up from under the snow — will come to know, once again, the holy exhalation of being deeply alive.

its the light daffodiland so we turn a page, and turn forward our clocks. it’s time for more sunlight to seep in to the cracks and the crannies so starved in so many ways. any hour now, my house is filling with faraway and deeply-loved family, so i’m bustling along. scooping up light beams wherever i go. 

blessings to you this light-filled week. anyone else at the end of their dim-lit ropes before this week’s saving grace reached in and rescued?

 

crack the books

crack the books

any minute now, i’m hoping, the red truck might pull up to the curb — or what was the curb back before the mountains of charcoal-gray polar crust accumulated there, and eclipsed the sharp edge where front yard meets street.

if all goes as planned, there will be a larger-than-life rectangle poking out from under the blankets that billow, blankets intended to keep the rectangle’s smooth white planks from getting splattered with road salt as the red truck sped down the tollway from the pig barn just this side of the state line. the pig barn is where the planks and the nails and the smooth white baseboard and trim turned into a bookcase, all at the hands of my old friend jim. jim who wields hammer and jigsaw and who for the past 15 years has been building our dreams, one nook and one cranny at a time.

that is all to say that i’m at long last due to get that bookcase today. one i ordered up months and months ago ( i might not splurge on haircuts or pairs of jeans without holes in the knees, but i will fork up the cash to buy me a wall of pressed-tight spines). it’s a bookcase that’s soon to be home to the five unpacked book boxes hauled home from veritas U., and the dozen or so tumbling towers of tomes i plonked on my office floor in those long-ago weeks (two years and counting) when i left my downtown newspaper office and made this old garage my forever writing room.

there’s hope that i’ll be home alone for a good chunk of this weekend, and my fingers are itching to get at those books, to pull each one from the depths and the dark of its shipping box. to flip through the pages and sink back in time, back to the couch in cambridge where i looked over rooftops and scrawled in the margins. made notes. thought with my pen, in ink. where, for one sumptuous year, i tumbled and soared over the landscape of learning — learning of poetry and slave-trading, jim-crow atrocities, abolitionists and everyday saints, as well as the art and craft of narrative writing.

all those books — all those old friends: the poet donald hall; frederick douglas; virginia woolf; zora neale hurston; the list goes on and on — are tucked inside, and pulling them, one-by-one, from the shadow, hoisting them up to a shelf, will be an exercise in remembering, in discovering all over again just why as a civilization we believe in the sealing of words to the page.

it’s testament, all of it, to the power of being shaken to tears, the delight of traipsing upon a brand-new accumulation of letters whirred into a word we’d never imagined, the riveting thought that stirred me to pulling the tip of my pen clear beneath the words, as if to memorize, to absorb, to never forget the electrical force of that particular idea.

i boxed the books by semester, so with each tearing back of the seam, i’ll enter a particular epoch in the year that unlocked channels in my mind and deepened my heart and my soul. you can’t open a book, can’t draw your eyes across line after line and not emerge with new layers of knowing, of wondering, of hungering. not if the book’s worth the ink soaked into the page.

and that’s why it matters that those books emerge from their boxes and their vertical teetering stacks. a book belongs at arm’s reach. a book begs to be pulled from the shelf, to be shared, to be slipped in the hand of someone who might want to know, to discover. or to be sprawled once again across your very own lap, so you can read and repeat and recite. memorize a particular collection of words, and the wisdom for which it’s the key.

they’re overdue, all those tomes, to rise from the floor and climb up the walls. soon as the red truck rolls along, they’ll get on with their reason for being: to offer, over and over, the very words that lead us into the heart of truth, beauty and wisdom.

best done when perched on a shelf, ready for dispatch with determined tug of the spine.

some days writing is sheer exercise. you rumble your fingers in hopes of keeping them limber, and the brain cells to which they’re connected. this was one of those days — with 85 distractions, here, there and everywhere. 

because i can’t bear to leave you with such thin offerings, i am turning to one of the books from another shelf in this old house: abraham joshua heschel’s “i asked for wonder: a spiritual anthology.” the editor, samuel h. dresner, culled heschel’s writings for those passages — “so compelling are his sentences that a paragraph literally chokes from wealth,” dresner writes — that are the heart of the matter.

here’s one titled, “degrees”:

…Awareness of God does not come by degrees from timidity to intellectual temerity; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.

and so i leave you with heschel, and keep my own eye trained out the window. searching and hoping for a sighting of the shiny red truck and the rectangle certain to put my life back in order. or at least some fraction of it, perhaps.

what books do you pull most often from your best-loved shelf?

one + one + (a step-stone arithmetic to joy…)

one + one sunrise

i’m not one for self-help. (actually, i tend to seem to excel at self-demise, throwing myself down the proverbial dark stairwell before i’ve given myself a chance to trod two steps up, or sweet-talking myself out of risk-taking for 1,001 safe, solid reasons before i’ve so much as squirmed from my cozy armchair.)

so wasn’t i surprised — flabbergasted, flummoxed, fill in the exclamatory modifier — when this week i found myself reading along in a book i’d long been meaning to peek inside.

the book is lovely, is this:

one thousand giftsthat’s ann voskamp’s poetic, riveting, often soaring flight to ecstasy, bound under the bird’s nest cover and quietly titled, “one thousand gifts: a dare to live fully right where you are,” (zondervan, $16.99). while the writing alone is worth the ride, it’s the simple profound premise at its core that just might launch a revolution of the soul. (my soul, anyway.)

voskamp dares you — dares me, dares herself — to train a scrutinizing eye on the everyday, and begin to count to 1,000. that’s one thousand blessings — points of joy, moments of grace — in the course of one holier-than-you’d-imagined year.

she begins:

1. Morning shadows across the old floors

2. Jam piled high on the toast

3. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce

she doesn’t even bother with periods at the end of her 1, 2, 3s (though she does employ upper-case starts to her each and every blessing). and she sits easy with the notion that her jottings are rooted in the quotidian, the messy, the right-before-her-blurry-eyes. this is not some celestial divination going on. just sponge-mopping up the poetry that spills and splatters and muddies up the daily works. and counts for joy.

she explains that what she’s doing is “eucharisteo,” giving thanks, the word in ancient greek, a word whose very root is charis, meaning grace. she writes that eucharisteo also holds the derivative, the greek word chara, meaning joy.

grace, thanksgiving, joy, “a triplet of stars, a constellation in the black,” she writes. “a greek word that might make meaning of everything?”

it’s a sacred calibration: the height of joy, she calculates, dependent on the depths of eucharisteo, thanks.

she stumbles on what turns out to be this holiest of paths because she’s found herself plopped, of all places, in a chair at the beauty salon, and the woman next to her is reading the best-seller, “1000 places to see before you die.” that gets voskamp — voskamp, a canadian farmer’s wife, mother of six, woman who witnessed her baby sister get crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck back when she, voskamp, was a mere child of four, and who felt her heart and soul slam shut in that very bloody instant — it gets her to thinking about why it is we think we need to travel far and wide to gather up armloads of wonder.

she writes: “isn’t it here? the wonder? why do i spend so much of my living hours struggling to see it? do we truly stumble so blind that we must be affronted with blinding magnificence for our blurry soul-sight to recognize grandeur? the very same surging magnificence that cascades over our every day here. who has time or eyes to notice?”

and you know it wouldn’t be a book, bound between those lovely covers, if she hadn’t found the answer to that rhetorical question. so what she does, on a blithely-flung dare from a friend, is she begins to track her grace notes. and in time, in not so much time, she realizes “this daily practice of the discipline of gratitude is the way to daily practice the delight of God.”

once she’d counted past the halfway mark, had teetered past 513. Boys jiggling blue Jell-O, she realized she couldn’t stop. she was “always looking for just one more in this unfolding of a chronicle of grace, our life story in freeze frames of joy.”

maybe it had a sudden and deep resonance with me because i’ve been a list maker my whole life long. i’ve called them wonderlists, and they’ve served as blueprints and launching pads for a life i dreamed of, and they’ve been the inventory of a day i’d hoped would come. i tick through lists of of blessings all around. but i’d never set out, as if a lepidopterist equipped with long-poled net, to catch myself a year’s — let alone a day’s — flock of godly wonders.

i’d made the mistake of list-making as wishful thinking, failed to exercise the possibility of list-making as blessing counting.

but i’ve started to think that voskamp — a writer whose sentences often make me stop, stare, hit re-wind and read again, for the sheer joy of discovering such wonder packed in words — has hit on something at once profoundly simple and simply breathtaking. something that just might fill the glass with wonder. even when it’s half empty by worldly measure.

if we can count our joys, pick up pen, jot words to paper, consecutively, one + one + one, we’ll soon arrive at a notepad account of accumulated and undeniable graces. we’ll hold it in our tight-clenched fists. we’ll read it, black-etched words on unbleached paper.

you might see fit to snatch up a moleskin pad or two. or perhaps at the grocery store, you’ll scoop up nothing fancier than a spiral-bound lined-rule pocket notebook.

the point is, you’ll be engaged in the exercise of combing your every day for the poetry of grace, as it falls across your old pine floors, your whisker-worn bedclothes, or even the orange-juice-splotted kitchen counter.

i’ve a hunch you too will be caught up in the counting. in the accumulated wonder that won’t escape your gaze.

once we teach ourselves to pay attention, the 1s and 2s and 3s come tumbling swiftly.

next thing we know, we are deep in the 300s, 500s, 800s, counting our way to seeing what’s always been there: heaven’s grace seeped into the cracks and crevices of a life we might have mistaken for humdrum and rather parched.

when really, all along, it was spilling over with joy upon joy upon a thousand joys. God’s way of whispering, “you are so abundantly awash in love.”

start counting…

anyone inclined to begin the 1, 2, 3s? and if so, the space below is a fine place to jot whatever snippets of the divine you’ve captured in your counting net….

p.s. ann voskamp is a blogger, too; in fact, that’s how i first heard about her, when a friend sent the link to ann’s blog, a holy experience, and said she thought i’d love the writing and the gorgeous photography. that friend was right. and though i’d known she had a book, i’d not found it in the library till last week, when i had reason to scan the daily-blessing bookshelves. 

the tangerine sky, above, is one recent morning’s first tabulation of the brush stroke of wonder, just beyond my windowpanes….

 

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