pull up a chair

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

the blessing of beginnings

new year sky

i’m just in from my morning rounds, my make-believe that i’m the caretaker of the dawn. the nubs of my fingers are nearly numb, for i stayed out too long. i was breathing in the heavens, breathing in the star-stitched sky, scanning for the disappearing moon, the moon playing peek-a-boo this morning.

the world was just rustling out of its bedsheets — or so it seemed. the trees whispered. off in the distance, a train let out its morning moan. i might have caught the stirring of the cardinal’s wing. or maybe it was a night critter, finally ambling home to bed. something in the bushes moved.

i know no holier way to greet the day, the morning light. i know no holier way to unfurl the carpet for the year that’s new, that’s just beginning. today, the dash between the first and third, the dash between the world’s new year and mine (my birthday is a string of primes: 1.3.57), is wholly a day of quiet rapt attention. i’m crouched down low, tucked off to the side, scanning the year ahead, the days of possibility. i’m considering what might come — what might break my heart, what might take my breath away, what might bowl me over with pure sheer joy.

i’ve come to think that my time-delay birthday is one of the gosh-darn blessings in this life that pretty much dropped down upon me. sort of like the curly hair that i’ve come to realize has saved me zillions of dollars in pink sponge rollers i’ve not had to buy, or hours not spent in the beauty parlor chair where alchemy and goop put curl to other people’s stick-straight locks. i had nothing to do with odd birthday or curly locks — or any of what amounted to my starter package, really. but, along the way, i’ve learned to make the most of it.

so my year comes on tiptoes. my year slinks in around the bend. no crash-bang-boom for me. i take my new year launch in itty-bitty baby steps. i’ve three days to consider the turning of the page.

and there’s little i love as much as a new beginning, a chance to start again. to dust off my knees, inhale a deep and cleansing breath, and make a vow: this time, dear God, i’ll try even harder.

try harder to bite my tongue when the words are bunched up in my throat, just ready to launch a harsh, “will you PLEASE hurry up! will you PLEASE clean your room! will you GET OUT OF BED!”

try harder to breathe deep the mantra of dorothy day and st. therese of lisieux: “by little and by little.” as in, by little acts of kindness, by little courage, by little acts of love in the face of awfulness, we stand our one best chance to take up a notch this life that sometimes scrapes our knees and gives us hives and burns our eyes with stinging tears.

because it’s worth a pause within the pause, here’s a passage from robert ellsberg’s brilliantly edited and annotated, ‘dorothy day: selected writings':

“simply, it consisted of performing, in the presence and love of God, all the little things that make up our everyday life and contact with others. from therese, dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ. we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. these were the loaves and fishes. we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. it was all a matter of faith.”

i suppose, because i seem to circle back to it every year, it’s becoming my new year prayer. it’s the only way i know — by little and by little — to take the mountain climb.

i’m certain there’s a wise person somewhere who realized the only way to change the world was one baby step at a time. in my scant few moments of insight — when the world before my eyes snaps crystal clear and sharply focused, instead of all a blur and hard to comprehend — i suddenly grasp that most folks who are making a difference, a big fat difference, are doing it with no more magic than you or i possess. they’re simply smart enough — or unfazed enough — to realize that one step firmly planted in front of another, that one phone call made, or one question bravely asked, or one trip across the street or across the ocean (it hardly matters which, sometimes), just might be the one that starts to pile up, to tilt momentum in the direction of holy change, in the difference between a world that is and a world that just might be.

maybe it’s time to steal a play from the smart-people’s play book: the baby-step guide to living. maybe it’s time to line up in the baby-step brigade.

for one thing, there’s less of a realignment when, inevitably, i flub it. taking a deep breath and trying again is a whole heck of a lot easier when all you need do is “take two” in the baby step department. but baby step + baby step = toddler step. and toddler step + toddler step = well, you get the math.

so here’s my prayer for this new and not-yet-scripted year:

dear Holiness, cast your rays of sparkling light — of shaft of sun, and dappled moonbeam — across my pot-holed path.

give me grace to hold my words, to not engage in prattling on about the wacky folk who try to topple me. give me grace — and wisdom, and a dash of far-sightedness — to live each day as if it’s my one last chance to leave a trail of the world as holy as i imagine it could be.

give me one last puff of energy on the evenings when i’m drained, and the phone rings and it’s someone i love who needs to talk it through, whatever is the hell the one i love has just encountered.

give me forgiveness in dollops. give me, please, enough to share it with abandon — most especially on those who try to take me down, who call me names that break my heart, who whisper unkind somethings.

dear God, thank you for bringing me once again to the crest of this next hill. thank you for the chance to look out upon the undulations of years past and days ahead. hold me in your tender palm, and those blessed unshakable arms. be the hand i squeeze when i get scared. and the pure fresh air that fills my lungs.

dear God, help me take it up a notch. and be ready with the band-aids when i fall and skin my knees.

much love, always, b.

dear chair people, can you see the itty bitty dot of light in that picture up above? just above the filigree of tree? that’s the ringed wonder, saturn. and just before dawn it was shining in the southeast sky. now, i have just about the dumbest little camera known to humankind and it never ever takes the dots of light that i’m hoping it will capture. but today, miraculously, it did. well, if you get out your magnifying glass, you’ll see it did. a small wonder like that is enough to start my day with a skip to the heart. so i hope it’s a contagious skip, and you too encounter a star-stitch of wonder today. 

so, what’s your blessing for the new beginning?

morning house

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

longest night: the blessing of december’s darkness

prayer for new year

amid the darkness, this flickered in this morning’s dawn. it’s a gift for the turning of season, winter’s solstice, the longest darkest night, when we need to look deep to find the light within….

“Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. And, in the northern hemisphere, December’s darkness invites us inward. A lesson in wonder, an elegy for light, and a call to pay attention for the unbroken darkness of a December night.”

so begins the gift i stumbled on this morning, one i share with you here. the words above are the introduction to an essay i wrote on the blessing of december’s darkness…

and here’s a bit of the back story: a couple weeks ago, i wrote here about my quivering knees as i was about to get up to a squawky microphone in a glorious downtown chicago old-guard club, the union league club, to say a few things about the gifts of the darkness, december’s darkness. ever since, i’ve been wanting to bring to the table the words i spoke on that first friday of advent. but i’ve been patiently waiting. i’d been given an inkling that a wish might come true, and those words might be posted online at OnBeing, the home of blessed krista tippett, and glorious trent gilliss, who fill the NPR airwaves and cyberspace with wisdom, and contemplative truths. they ask big questions, and mine the landscape searching for answers, or lamplights, along the way.

this morning, with some measure of astonishment, i found the essay, indeed posted in the public square that is OnBeing, the words beautifully draped in breath-taking images. you can find the words and pictures if you click on the link to the essay they’ve titled, “The Invitation of December.”

or, you can read along here, where i’ve unfurled the essay. (i say click the link, because OnBeing has made it so very pretty….)

The Invitation of December

By Barbara Mahany (as posted on OnBeing, the blog)

There is something about December, all right. And I call it a gift.

It might be my ancient Celtic roots, or maybe it’s my monastic inclinations, but give me a gray day, a day shrouded in mist and peekaboo light. Give me a shadowed nook to slip into, and I wrap myself in the cloak of utter contentment.

It’s dark all right, come December, month of the longest night, when minute by minute our dot on the globe is darkening. Today, December 21st, darkness shrouds all but nine hours — give or take a few minutes and seconds — of mainland America’s hustle and bustle.

Yet darkness to me is alluring; it calls me to turn inside, to be hushed, to pay attention. And mine is a lonely outpost.

December, most everyone else complains, is unbroken darkness. And they’re grinding their teeth when they say it. The way I see it, though, maybe the saddest thing is, we’ve blinded ourselves to the darkness. Cut ourselves off from the God-given ebb and the flow of darkness and light. It’s poetry, the rise and the fall of incandescence and shadow, measured in lumens per square foot. But, mostly, it’s lost on us — bright lights, big city.

Fact is, we live in a lightbulb world: LED, CFL, halogen, fluorescent — blaring, glaring, blinking 24/7, especially in modern-day December. When’s the last time you tiptoed out your kitchen door, or onto a fire escape, and took in the sky show? It’s there every night: the stars and the moon, waxing or waning, a night-after-night lesson in fractions. Lesson in wonder.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, the intellect and the imagination.

Consider how attuned you are to sound and touch and danger when it’s late at night and you can’t find the light switch, and you’re groping your way up an unfamiliar staircase. Or, you’re out in the woods trying to clomp from sleeping bag to gosh-darned outhouse without falling into the brambles — or the icy-cold creek.

The truth is: Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled ‘round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counter-culturism, and do not succumb.

Plug your ears the next time you hear Muzak Jingle Bells. Instead, fill your iPhone with Gregorian Chant or the 12th century symphonia of mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Be in the cave. Away from the crowd.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday. Look to Jesus, for starters. Bread and wine, everyday agrarian foodstuffs, he made into the most sacred sacramental feast.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Ditch fast food. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

A dear friend of mine laughs about being a person of “smells and bells,” and by that he means a certain affinity for the burning of incense and chiming of carillons. The candle, the tintinnabulation of the bells, it sets off a deep-down stirring in a Catholic or an Anglican of certain age, it echoes of our not-so-distant past. And what I love about the coining of that phrase, “the smells and the bells,” when I pause and really think about it, is that it reminds me that deep in the heart of our spiritual DNA, we are hard-wired to respond to the liturgical, to pulse with reverence at a life lived sacramentally, slowly, marveling at the magnificence, yes, at each and every turn.

Maybe we’re most purely and purposefully alive when we turn our backs to — press against — a guzzled-down life that pays no attention, that goes with the flow, that “kills a few hours,” that takes it — all of it, any of it — for granted.

And why? Why are we screeching the brakes, dialing down all the noise? Why are we ardently not joining in on a December punctuated by office-party folderol, and speed-dial shopping, and holiday cards canon-balled out of the printer, without so much as a touch of the human hand?
Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. December is God whispering, “Please. Come. Closer.” Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg — finally —to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the Great Horned Owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I.

Maybe, so do you.

And December, at the cusp of winter, season of fury and stillness, December demands our attention. It is a month draped in myth and legend. It is a month that rings with the power of the simplest story, the one we wait for — childlike, rapt, noses pressed to the window, scanning the heavens for bright and shining light.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths in which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath.

glories bush at night

wishes for christmas

wishes for christmas

ever since i was little, ever since i’d scurry to bed and begin my nightly imagining, ever since i pretended i lived in my little old log house, the one tucked in the trees i pretended were woods, ever since i pretended i was a little girl growing up on a prairie, and my upturned coffee can was a cookstove, and weeds from the ditch were hay for my cow — my make-believe cow, of course — i’ve been rather accomplished in the department of make-believe.

and so, this particular interlude of days, the ones tucked right before christmas, they’re particularly fine for a girl of make-believe inclinations.

these are the days when you curl in an armchair, when you burrow under the thickest of blankets, when you drink in the crackle and pop of the logs on the hearth (“hearth” is a word a make-believe girl believes in, rather than the more pedestrian “fireplace,” which doesn’t hold nearly as much storybook punch, nor poetry).

once the snowflakes tumble, and the steam rises from the mug of hot coffee, well, you are in heaven on earth if you’re a make-believe girl. the magic swirls all around you.

so what you do is you grab your nearest writing device — the seasonally- charged red pen will do. and you start to unfurl your wonder list, your list of wishes for christmas.

if you’re me, and your heart holds more weight than your piggy bank ever will hold, you scribble yourself into a trance, making believe you could make wishes come true, and counting as high as you possibly can, listing the wishes you wish for.

1. i wish i had a star anise tree outside my kitchen window. i’d have harvested a bumper crop of the nose-tingling intoxicant i’ve been sizzling away in the banged-up pot on the stove. it’s my december’s indulgence.

2. i wish i’d thought to save cute little jars all year long so that now, when i’m wishing i could deliver wagon loads of christmas-y cheer to each and every glowing house near and far, i’d have just the right vessel to fill with star anise (see no. 1), and cinnamon sticks, and orange peel and cloves. i’m pretty much a failure in the martha-stewart department, so i make up for it by pretending i could do these cute little things.

3. i wish i could give my lumbering mailman, the poor fellow who slogs through whatever the weather gods rain down on him — sweltering heat, piles of snow, cats-and-dogs precipitation — i wish i could hand him a desk job. for at least a few days. or a shiny gold coin, because those stories in the news pages always make me all misty-eyed, when the unsuspecting soul reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wee disc of gold bullion.

4. i wish sometimes that my words had magical powers, and that whenever we spoke, our words were heard in the very way we intended. there’s no more heart-shattering moment than realizing what you thought you said, what you meant, was not heard that way at all.

5. i wish people who say mean things would stop for a minute and imagine how those words are going to feel when they pierce someone’s heart like a poisonous arrow.

6. i wish i could bundle up all the weight bearing down on my firstborn’s shoulders, and deliver him soundly and safely to the 13th of january — the day after his senior thesis is due, all 80 pages.

7. i wish i could make the tumors in my dear friend’s lungs please, please, go away.

8. i wish i could tiptoe just outside the kitchen door of all the wonder-souls who’ve been so deeply kind to me these past few weeks, as i wobbled and tried to be brave, as my wee little book took to the world. i wish i could string a hundred thousand lights in each someone’s back yard, in the shape of a giant blinking red heart, and, writing in long strands of itty-bitty bulbs, spell out how much their kindness, their faith, their “you got this!” has meant to my chest-bursting heart.

9. i wish i could wipe away the heartache in everyone i love, especially the very dear friend who’s facing this very first christmas without her beloved.

10. i wish my sister-in-law, the one in far-off maine, lived down the lane. i wish my family room floor was the place where her two little munchkins unwrapped their christmas-y mischief. and that the mug she liked best was ever perched just by the teas, so whenever she flung open the door, she knew i had time to pull up a chair, to discover the joys and the occasional troubles that pound in her heart.

11. i wish i could wish all day. i wish i could make these wishes come true.

12. i wish most of all that every dear and tender heart who stops here, who takes the time to pull up a chair, and drink in a few lines, i wish each and every one of you the great gift of imagining a more blessed way to live and breathe.

maybe, just maybe, if we all make a wish, if we all make a promise to pick just one random act of whimsy or kindness, if we pray hard for the impossible to melt into possible, we’ll all find an extra dollop of magic as we tiptoe ever so quietly toward christmas.

and, by the way, merry merry. may your days be dusted with heart-hoisting joys, and may the quiet of christmas settle in deep in the nooks and the crannies where the blessed is born.

what do you wish for this christmas?

the lesson of eight: follow the whisper

eight. plate

i remember the morning. i remember the dark. i remember the quiver, there in my fingers. i remember the pounding in my heart.

i’d tiptoed out of bed, taken a deep-down breath. and then i started typing, started believing.

i’d pulled up a chair for the very first time. and i’d no clue where that typing would lead. heck, i wasn’t even sure i’d find the end of the very first sentence. but i did. sentence after sentence. so many sentences now — eight years of sentence. of fragment. of shards of my heart.

the words that are tucked away here, in this place that — for me — amounts to a treasure box, an unlocked treasure box, one that holds virtual sheafs of paper, and snapshots i lift from the stack, study as if dust motes floating across a shaft of light, the words here have been my butterfly nets, as i lope and stumble and try — oh, i try — to capture the moments of life passing by.

it’s the closest thing i know to lifting up these holy hours, to etching the words of my boys, of passing strangers, of friends, onto this screen that i pretend is parchment. that i write as a relic of life loved well. life loved deeply.

to write in the dark of the just-dawning day, to write when the sky out the window is first soaking up light, starting out black, turning to blue-tinged haze or cottony gray, depending on clouds, to write when the shadows and shapes of the trees fill in, the birds first rustle the branches, is to write at the cusp of consciousness.

this is the hour when the heart and soul, perhaps, are most porous, so what oozes through is closer to truth than anything else we might know all day.

this is the sacred hour, the hour of stillness.

and so, this hour is the one when i’ve learned to slide into my explorer’s boots, when i’ve hauled my butterfly net from the jam-packed closet, and loped around the premises to see what i catch, what i find.

and then, like a child whose attention is held, is rapt, by a ladybug landed on a leaf, or a fuzzy caterpillar inching along, i crouch down low. i pull out my looking lens, and i examine. i marvel. i wonder.

eight years. eight years today. 12.12, the chair’s birthday.

when this old chair first scratched across the kitchen floor, my little one had just turned five, my older one was nearly 13.5. i only wish i’d started before both boys were born, because then i’d have the whole cloth, and now i’ve got only a portion. priceless portion.

because more than anything this is a stack of love letters to my boys. this is a record of who their mama was, and how she loved them. it’s the surest way i know to give them the gift of my heart. because in my book, words equal heart equal love — exquisite, breathtaking, stumbling and fumbling. love that tries so hard, and yet still blows it. love that aims and misses. love that dusts off her knees and tries it again. love = a work in perpetual progress.

but beyond this place as a keeper of heart, it’s taught me one other thing, if not 100 other things, or 1,000.

it’s taught me to follow the whisper.

back when i first sat down to type, that trembly shadowed morning, i had no idea where i was going. i was typing into the dark. but i believed in the light.

i wasn’t sure where or how i’d find it. but the one thing i knew was that the surest way through the dark was one word at a time. one word quietly, boldly, sometimes trepidatiously following another.

word after word equals sentence. sentence after sentence equals moving toward truth. and in time, whole cloth is unfurled.

this is who i am, the words start to say. this is what i believe.

it’s called finding a voice. but it’s also divining for heart. if you quiet the noise, the distraction. if you muffle the ever-chattering doubt, you just might stumble upon the poetry that breathes at the pulse point of all of us.

we are infused with whisper. that’s where our dreams begin. and when — despite all the back talking we can do to ourselves, all the convincing ourselves we might as well throw in the towel, call it a day, pack up our toys and shuffle off home — when we keep our ear to the whisper, when we go with the heart that’s pushing us forward, the heart that says, over and over, “don’t mind the darkness, just live toward the light,” we’re tracing the course to the deepest-down truth. we’re becoming the blessing we are most meant to be.

maybe your whisper is dance. maybe your whisper is healing the sick. maybe your whisper is pleading: “please lift a paintbrush, tickle it into the azure, the cobalt, the tourmaline, and, please, paint a sunrise or sunset.”

my whisper told me to write. write for the depths and the shadows. examine the light. see the poetry. wrap your words around the breathtaking essence of each and every day.

my whisper said, “just keep writing.”

so i did. and along the way, oh, the beauties i’ve gathered. the beloved friends whose whispers heard mine. the ones who whisper back.

eight years later, and there’s a book in the world, the one being “mullipuffed,” even now as i type. God bless mullipuffs.

i’d long dreamed of armchairs pulled round the hearth. and kitchen tables splattered with crystals of sugar, and cream-stirred rings spilled from mugs of hot coffee. i imagined a world where kindred spirits pulled chairs to a circle, and talked about the holiness that animates their every blessed hour.

i have no clue, not an inkling, how many such tables and chairs are out there right now. but i have a picture i keep in my head, in my heart: i close my eyes and out of the darkness, out of the black velvet cloth that wraps the globe, night after night, dawn after dawn, i see golden lights glowing. dabs of candlelight here and there, all haloed together. a shimmering, glimmering necklace of light. lanterns of flame. old kitchen fixtures. maybe simply the roar of the fire, the logs of the forest offering up their incandescence — blessed sacrifice, indeed.

i typed in the dark, dawn after dawn, for eight blessed years. an octave of typing. i followed the whisper to wherever it led. it led me to here, the place where my heart nestles so soundly.

and, here in the dark, in the shadow of dawn, i’ll keep fumbling for keys and the truth. i’ll keep typing, i promise.

bless you each and every one of you who has ever pulled up a chair. bless you for listening. and following along in the dark.

what is your whisper telling you? 

eight

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

red bird pie: a recipe of courage

red bird pie before

perhaps its name is misguided, a culinary blunder nearly as stark as the dough with the mind of its own.

perhaps in calling it red bird pie, instead of the more ingredient-precise — say, peeled-granny-smith-with-occasional-appleseed pie — i’ve sent you and your brain cells tumbling down the very wrong path. perhaps you envision a meat pie. a pie filled with bird. i can’t even bring myself to type “red bird” when typing in this particular vein. for that would be a slaughterous pie, and we’ll have none of that here, not in this teetering-on-greens-only house.

it’s all just poetry, the poetry of pie naming. and once i discovered i could play with my pie dough, could press my old tin cutter, a wee red-bird cutter, you see, well, i was suddenly in joyful terrain. i pressed and i lifted and plopped. i was going gaga for the red birds i pressed in my pie top.

and deserving was i of this romp and reckless dough-cutting. for it had been a long way to red bird.

and thus is the story of the red bird of courage.

you see, as long as i’ve been alive i remember the words of my mama: “i’m afraid of pie dough,” she once said (though the minute i type that, i expect the phone to ring and denial to ring out across the land). for the sake of maternal peacemaking, let’s just say that someone once uttered the words, pie dough = fear, and they stuck.

if my forebears in the kitchen were fearful of dough, well, then, i too held ancestral right to be fearful.

so, all these years, i’d never done it. not until the day before yesterday, that is. the day before thanksgiving 2014, the day my dough dread crumbled. and the red bird rose to my rescue, served as my bent-tin medal of courage.

red bird cutter

it so happens that this happens to be my season of conquering fear. and one of the very last bastions was the one splayed across the now flour-streaked pages — clear from page 24 to far yonder 44, a full 20 sheafs of schooling in butter + flour + water! no wonder i shook in my tattered-and-splattered over-head apron!

i’d turned in my hour of fear-mounting to “the hoosier mama book of pie,” a nestled-to-the-bosom book of pie tutelage if ever there was (though ms. paula haney, the hoosier mama herself, does seem to revel in raising the rolling pin higher and higher with each and every pie-baking instruction).

pie page instruction

why, before the day was done — and it was a long one — i would have fumbled my way through these fine kitchen verbs: i macerated. i reduced. and i chilled. i would have pulsed, but the food processor also is among the kitchen wares i dread (or simply hate to haul from the pantry shelf), so i rocked with old-fashioned half-moon pastry cutter. i sprinkled “crust dust” (who knew?). and before i’d so much as frozen the butter, i’d stalked the grocery store shelves in search of tapioca starch. (i went with minute tapioca. oh, well. chalk it up to kitchen transgression.)

apparently, i’m not so good with numbers, either. at least not when it comes to butter. i grabbed two sticks, but promptly forgot that the wee little fraction tucked alongside the 1, there in the ingredient roster, spelled out 3/4 — as in less than a whole, as in fraction of buttery stick. so my virgin voyage of pie dough had an 2 extra Tbsps. of land o’ lakes unsalted butter.

you might wonder why if i started this whole rigamarole at 2 in the afternoon, i didn’t pull that ol’ bird-pocked pie from the oven till half past 10 in the night? well, it seems ms. hoosier mama believes in slow baking. meaning every step was punctuated with full stop — freeze for 20 minutes, rest for 20, macerate at least 25, drain for 25, chill for 20, freeze for yet another 20; 130 full minutes of pause, pause and more pause.

in which, i suppose, the ponderous baker is supposed to deep breathe the wonders of all this mindful attention to butter and flour and water laced with red wine vinegar (the better the chances to shorten the protein strands, ms. haney explains, the ones that make your pie dough tough to the tooth).

seeing as this was my first run-through, i more or less sighed deep sighs of exasperation at each and every prescription to pause. by dinner time, when everyone’s tummy was growling, and i was still pausing to freeze or to drain, i’d gotten to calling this “apple pie interruptus,” for the way i seemed to take two steps fore and one step to the side.

and i flubbed plenty along the way: besides the mistake with my buttery math, and despite the fun i had thwopping the cold ball of dough with the girth of the rolling pin (lest all the rolling toughen it into one hard-bitten bird), my dough circles never did reveal themselves (more like a raggedy-edged oblong was the best i could do).

so i did what any self-respecting virgin pie baker would do: i scrimped. scraped the doodads of dough right off the cutting board. dabbed droplets of water there at the seam, where dough met dough, and i made like a band-aid.

and then, at last, i got to the side note, the one about cutting to vent, and that’s where all my years of flipping glossy pages in foodie tomes came to bear: i plundered my mostly-unused-but-abundant collection of old cookie cutters, and there, at the way bottom of the basket, lay a toppled wee red bird.

and that’s how i wound up reveling in pie dough, just before the 10 o’clock news. i pressed myself a whole flock of dough birds. i had red bird holes in my pie top. and red bird doodads of dough, rising up to a second dough layer. i had so very much fun with my birds i barely noticed the disastrous crimp to my crust. nor did i mind the splotches of dough bandage.

which leads me to think that, as with all acts of courage, the recipe reads something like this: shove up your shirt sleeves, take it one step at a time, don’t flog yourself for dumb mistakes and necessary U-turns, and let rip when it comes to the part where you’re in your glory.

in the end, does anyone other than you give two whits that you’ve mastered the thing that you feared?

but once you find yourself grabbing the hot pads and oven mitts, and you’re yanking your prize from the sizzling oven rack, all you need do is deep breathe the truth that, step by step, blunder upon blunder, you’ve inched your way over and across the very terrain that once made you tremble.

life is like that. pie-baking is too.

red bird pie after

and what fears have you conquered of late? the ones you’ve batted down with rolling pin, or ones of whole other ilk? and how did you muster the courage?

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? 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 206 other followers