pull up a chair

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

the pure oxygen of prayer

pause hydrangea

shortly before i fluttered open my eyes this morning, i steered my rumbly-tummied self into the safest place i know: the arms of who i know to be God.

i’ve been doing it, i realized, all my life. in all the tight squeezes and lightless tunnels, in all the passages when to-do lists drive my day, and i demonstrate a masterful knack for conjuring worries of assorted size and shape and girth. now, for instance. with one week till my sweet boy’s bar mitzvah, and somewhere in the offing, the pages of my book being spilled with words i’ve typed from my heart for years and years, this patch in here has been an adrenaline-stoked doozie.

i awake each morning to a to-do list that slowly, surely, gets chiseled away. but i have to keep the lasso near at hand, for i’ve an inclination to tumble forward in time and go breathless. i picture myself catapulting forward with little oxygen on board. i’ve known myself long enough to know that i’m not so good at shaking the small stuff. i get consumed by the small stuff. don’t want to forget one water bottle by the side of either of the house guests who will be sleeping here for the weekend. don’t want to drone on too long when i stand before the room and ladle love in great dollops to each and every blessed soul who has shone a light on the boy we know as T.

never mind, too, that my sweet boy is as nervous as nervous can be. never mind that he takes soccer balls blasting at his face at 50 miles per hour, and thinks nothing of diving face-first into them to keep them from soaring into the goal. when i tried to suggest he dip into that same well of courage, he explained quite matter of factly that podiums in front of synagogues and goal posts on a soccer field are wholly different realms, and one brand of courage does not bleed into the other. point, taken.

i do what mamas do in such instances: i take on his wobbles, too. pile them mightily on my own over-packed jalopy, and putt-putt along the potholed lanes with his worries strapped on top of mine.

which makes me a bit haggard these days. and if you look closely, you might see my shoulders sagging. and my jeans a wee bit loose around the hips.

so here’s the secret, the cure-all potion for those moments when i am certain i’m perched at the precipice, about to fall headlong into the bottomless inky pit: i sink into a hole all right, but it’s one illuminated in holy light. it’s the arms i practically feel wrap around me. it’s the near-whisper in my ear.

it’s God. my old old friend God.

and God applies balm to my heart, and snips the jangled nerves. God, with that twinkle in God’s eye, reminds me that i am being silly. and letting the runaway worries run away. God gently taps me upside the noggin, and reminds me: I’ll be there. I am there. I’m here, right here. And I’m not leaving.

i know we all imagine God in our own extraordinary ways. those of us blessed to do such imagining. my knowing of God, i realized this morning as i felt myself sink into the feather down of God’s embrace, my capacity for catapulting myself into that safe place, that harbored place, has something to do with my capacity for time travel born of all the pages that i turned when i was just a little girl, and i plopped upon my quilt-square coverlet, and tiptoed along the rose-tangled lanes and secret gardens of England’s countryside, or into the big wisconsin woods where laura ingalls wilder lived with ma and pa and mary in their little cabin.

that was the genesis. the beginning of a power to believe. and so that capacity to make like a hovercraft and transport myself, my soul, into another sphere, another space, it’s been exercised all my days.

oh, sure, my sense of God has grown up alongside me. but at heart, it’s that tender transporting, that moving me from fear and wobble into safe and wrapped that is at the heart of why, worry after worry, year after year, i plunge for the hands, the arms, that hold me, whisper soothing holiness.

and, too, over the years, i’ve discovered the world is stitched with what amount to “on switches,” brushstrokes of beauty that unlock the channels, and draw me straight to the heart of the Divine. my rambling garden. the just blooming bottle-brushes of late-summer’s hydrangea. the pit-a-pat of rain. the sound of my firstborn’s footsteps from the bedroom just above, knowing he’s home, and i’m awash in deepest gratefulness. the morning song of mama wren. the chatter of the sparrows who’ve made their home just above the front door, in a little cove they’ve pecked away with their insistent sparrow beaks.

i’ve grown wise enough to know that i need to stay close to all these channel openers in my life. when i feel myself getting dizzy from worries, i tiptoe out the door, and plonk myself on the bluestone stoop. i sit and breathe. watch the sunlight dance upon hydrangea leaves. follow the flutter of the august butterfly. fill my lungs. feel the arms of God surround me.

drink in the holy whisper. remind myself i’m not alone. never alone.

and all i need do to feel the squeeze of God beside me is slow down, deep breathe, and fill my sorry lungs.

how’s that for an exercise in heart-baring? i’m not quite sure what prompted me to try to write about what it feels like to reach out to God, and feel wrapped in the holy blanket of God’s presence. but now i’ve gone and done it. because that’s what this is, a place where the first draft of the heart and soul is unfurled. it’s but a sketch pad, after all. one week’s attempt to try to wrap words around the ineffable. along the way, maybe i stumble on a moment of incandescence. maybe it’s all a blur. but it’s the trying that’s the point. 

how do you describe reaching out for Holiness when you’re wobbling and awash in worldly worry?

boy, becoming…

teddy fitting room 13

he is trying it on, my boy in the three-way mirror. trying on what comes next: the gulch between boyhood and manhood. the years when certain nicknames are dropped and stuffed bears get tucked away in shadowed boxes. the years when bedtime comes later and later, long after mama’s in dreamland. the years when testing the fates begins to occur. the years when it all — sometimes — comes crashing deep down inside.

my little one is no longer. he’s 13 today. and while the statute of limitations on that tender name — “little one” — has worn out its welcome, i feel the urge to mark the moment here at the chair with a swift look back at my muse, the one whose moments i captured here where words are the butterfly net, here where the tenderest heart took hold in the cracks between letters.

my little one was all of five when the chair first pulled up to the table. he was a kindergartener who hadn’t quite figured out how to hold onto a pencil. or tie a shoe. or string all the slashes and blobs on the page into what might be called words. he climbed into bed, back in those days, outfitted for battle, slaying monsters with light sabers — all while he slept, apparently.

he went off to first grade here at the chair, armed with red hearts in his little jeans pocket. i kept one, too. mine was in my pocket, and all day long through the torturous hours of school, we squeezed on our wee little hearts, a morse code of the very best kind — “i love you.” “i miss you.” “i’m right here.”– were the messages we squeezed back and forth.

my little one and i went for moon walks. we gazed at the stars. and i captured his wonder.

captured his questions too, his questions without answers. “mama, what will happen when i die? will you die? will daddy die? who will die first?” the rat-a-tat-tat of truth-seeking missiles.

over time, and once he realized the world beyond his doorstep was occasionally reading along, he issued a declaration: i wasn’t allowed to write of his wisdoms and ponderings and wobbles and blips without first submitting draft form before the committee of one — the committee of T. he would read, rule, issue edict: publish or no.

what i’ve found — in that magical playground that is the stringing of alphabet letters into words into sentences into thinking out loud — is that the surest way to discover nooks and crannies in your own heart, and in the heart of the one you attempt to capture in brush strokes and shadings — not unlike the art student sketching the pose of the deftly-draped model in the drawing studio — is to circle back, again and again over the years, to put it to paper, to trace over and over again the outlines, the depths and the illuminations. to stand back over the years, and to see what you’d not seen on first go-around. to hold in your hand the faintest yet sharpest glimpse of the child who populates your hours, your heart, your deepest imagination.

to fall in love all over again is a gift to whomever beholds it. i fell in love, over and over, holding my little one up to the light. and now, my little one is at the brink of something quite big: he’s adding a “teen” to his numbers.

thirteen soft august eighths ago, i was perched in a hospital bed, cradling my very own miracle. the babe who defeated all odds — at every step of the odyssey, from conception to birth canal. i remember how keenly i studied him. his delivery had had a few bumps, the sort that can steal your sweet dream and turn it into a nightmare. in the flash of an instant. in a heartbeat skipped.

prayer — and the mightiest push that ever there was — delivered him. a babe in my arms at 44-and-3/4 years. take that, doctors (and actuarial tables) who swore it would never happen!

all these years, that notion of something outrageous, the blessing of beating the odds, it’s held me tight in its focus. i’ve a gift, we’ve a gift, all of us who melt at the tender words that ooze from that heart, or the way he rubs circles soft on your back. he’s a gift, the boy now crossing the great gulch to manhood. here’s praying we draw on all of our wisdom, and acres of love, to guide him safe to the other side.

bless you, sweet T. happy birthday. and with all of my heart, thank you. thank you for coming along….

one of the blessings of having typed here all these years, is that i’ve managed to capture a string of word snapshots: my boys growing up. and they are among the most precious treasures i know — the boys, certainly, but also the snapshots. i never set out to frame these moments in time, but that’s what’s happened. and it’s why i back-up and back-up. why i wish i could carve these in stone, so no cyber-thief, no computer blow-up, could ever steal these fragments of my heart. 

but since you don’t come to listen to me ooze about my beautiful boy, i thought i’d leave a little birthday present for anyone interested in the art of paying attention. here’s a glorious passage from robert bly, observing a caterpillar. it’s so exquisite in its powers of focus and concentration, i just thought i’d leave it out on the table — a morsel in words — for your delight. savor.

A Caterpillar on the Desk

by Robert Bly

           Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily-or perhaps summer’s insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

“A Caterpillar on the Desk” by Robert Bly, from The Morning Glory. © Harper & Row, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

and what such magnificent observations have you made today?

the day begins here…

day begins here vase blackeyed

before i’d even tumbled out of the bedsheets, i felt the low-down wobbles. happens sometimes. even on a morning when birds are in the boughs just beyond the window panes. it’s almost as if the sediment of whatever shattered in the day before is settling down, after a short night’s slumber, into the pits of your veins and your belly — and your knees, always the knees on a wobbly morning.

it’s almost as if, before your braincells awake, your body cells remember. they know there’s unsettling. they know the darkness rolled in before the day was done. needn’t be big things. sometimes the things that wake you up wobbling are simply a potage of rumbles and worries, spiced with bits of unwanted news.

once i’d splashed the cold water on my bed-wrinkled face, once i’d slipped into the shirt with the least number of holes in the elbows, i turned to tramp down the stairs.

there in the kitchen, the morning’s light awaited. the garden nodded, all dappled with dew drops.

i made a mistake in checking my phone: there lurked one of those emails you don’t want to find before the first gulp of coffee. but there it was, so i read it. and then, i glanced at the dining room table, all strewn with hundreds of pages and a fat red pen. i’ve a day of page proofing ahead of me. the last go-around with these pages that have seeped deep into my soul. these pages on which i whisper a prayer every time i begin again, start at the top, read through to the bottom, on alert, high alert, for typos and runaway commas.

i was now in high wobble.

so i did what any wobbly girl with sharp garden clippers would do: i walked straight out of the house where the wobbles had gathered, and i started to snip — the garden, that is. a long neck of yarrow here, black-eyed susans there. snip, snip, snip. next thing i knew i was clutching a fistful of august delight. and the wobbles weren’t so wobbly anymore. or at least for the moment, i’d buried my nose in the ticklish bouquet, and i wasn’t paying the wobbles much mind.

that’s what a holy morning can do for you. that’s the magic of ringing your old tired house with billows of bloom. folks driving by might think you grow bundles of things for the color, or the je ne sais quoi. ah, but you know. you know the secret: you are growing your very own apothecary out there. it’s all healing balm, and wobbly cures. it’s buoyant and tender, all at once.

it’s the deepest blessing of this holy earth: the power to heal what ails us, whatever it is.

all you need do to prompt it along is tuck a few roots deep in the dirt. then add sprinkles of rain. a few prayers and crossed fingers certainly help. never hurt. oh, and then you muster up patience. you wait. and you wait. and the globe spins around, and next thing you know it’s august, the launch of black-eyed susan season. the glorious crescendo of the midsummer garden. all the growing things — the yarrow, the hydrangea, the susans — they’re all rubbing shoulders, shoving and pushing to steal your attention. all they want is to stick out their necks, to bloom, to soak up some sunshine.

and what they give in return is pure bliss. gentle bliss. quiet bliss. a bliss that promises to bathe you in all that you’ll need to weather the day.

here’s the gardener’s pose of acceptance, accepting the gift of the garden: bend at the waist, stick your nose in the powdery parts where the yellow rubs off, now take a deep whiff, and reach for your clippers.

so it went this once-wobbly morning, when i marched out the door and into the billows, armed with my felco no. 2 clippers. i clipped and i snipped, and next thing i knew i was ready to face this fine day, not quite so wobbly this time.

what’s your garden doing to fortify you this fine day? and if not your garden, what’s your secret potion for facing a wobbly day? 

a bit of the backstory here is that i’m plowing my way through final page proofs, as that ol’ book, Slowing Time, has locked in its reservation with the printing presses, and is due to roll by the end of the month. that means every wiggle and blip on the page is demanding attention, lest it roll off the press, blips and bloops intact. 

an attentive life

fern attentive life

because i’m motoring up to my college reunion today, here’s an essay i wrote for the summer issue of marquette magazine, in which i realize how that jesuit curriculum was the birthing ground of paying attention, most especially, for me, in the college of nursing…

An Attentive Life

An Essay By Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79

Until I heard my husband’s voice, sounding rattled on the answering machine, it had hardly been a newsworthy morning. I’d been out squishing through the soggy kitchen garden. I’d noticed a few green nubs poking through the thawing earth. I’d watched a mama sparrow dart this way and that with the dried-grass makings of her nest.

And then I scrambled to my email to read the news that had put the tremor in my husband’s throat: A dear friend, one who’d just finished a year of god-awful chemo, a friend who is mother to a 17-year-old who only a week ago had scored the trifecta of Ivy League acceptance letters and to a 13-year-old who’s not too tough to cry when soccer flattens him, had just gotten word that her cancer is back. Back with a vengeance. And her doctors now narrow her hope: only to stretch out her days so, for now, she can pack her daughter’s college trunk and send her son back onto the soccer field for one more season.

The words that won’t stop rattling through my breath, my brain, my every heartbeat are these: The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.

If our days are numbered —and they are, though it sometimes takes the urgency of a day like today to sharpen the edge of that raw truth —we really can’t afford not to notice, not to bristle at the brush strokes of the divine that sweep up against us, leave us with goose bumps, remind us that the holy is all around and that if we listen, really listen, we just might hear the sacred breath that whispers, “Here I am.”

It took me the better part of a half-century to figure it out, but I’ve come to believe that prayer is the practice of paying attention.

Like the chambered nautilus I unearth from the sandy shore, the uncoiling of wholly attentive prayer is at once simple yet intricate. A discipline never easy, nor is it insurmountable. It’s a mindfulness, a sensory awakening that opens all the channels coursing straight to the pulse point deep inside, the one that attunes us to true knowing. It can feel sometimes as if someone is squeezing our hand in the dim darkness of our days or wrapping us in mighty muscled arms that will not let us stumble or turn to run and hide.

At heart, the prayer of paying attention is a deeply human act that ushers in the otherwise unknowable. It’s what fills in the emptiness of our otherwise hollow living-breathing selves.

It comes in many forms. It’s the wide-eyed scanning of sky that prompted me, one late summer’s night while driving home through a leafy woods, to notice the rising cheddar wheel of a moon and drive like a madwoman to the edge of a lake, where I watched that lunar orb ooze tangerine strands across the inky waters, arcing toward the high point of heaven’s dome. Slack-jawed, I marveled all the while.

Or it’s the keen-eared concentration that allowed me not to miss when a man sitting down the row in a shadowy auditorium mentioned that, soon after his wife died, he explained to his young son: “The reason people die is because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

I can’t imagine the text of my life absent such heaven-sent wonder and wisdom.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, writes: “Attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the golden-glowing woods or startle to the night song of the spring peepers rising from the wetlands is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

“I want to live my life in epiphany,” says poet and Renaissance scholar Kimberly Johnson. “I want all my pores open.” This way of living at full attention, she says, “is unmediated experience. My antennae are tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.”

It’s why she’d gladly spend a day nestled beside a gurgling brook on a mountain trail. It’s a way to gulp down undiluted holiness, never watered down, not dimmed by the cacophony of a world that seems to be forgetting how to listen.

The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.

Celtic tradition puts a name to the places in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, where the whispers of the divine are most discernible: “Thin places,” the Celts believe, are the places to which we are pulled as if tide pools where we can bathe in that for which we are so parched.

The first time I heard the phrase, I was walking between rows of runner beans with a farmer friend whose firstborn son, a U.S. Marine home on leave from Iraq, had been killed when his old car missed the bend in a country road and he drowned in a pond not five miles from his mother’s central Illinois farm. My farmer friend pointed to the hayloft of the old barn, a gap-toothed slat-roof barn where shafts of light streamed in, a mosaic of illumination and shadow. “That’s my thin place,” she told me. “That’s where I go to cry in the arms of God.”

Curiously, Celts and Jews and Ignatius Loyola, among others, share that pulsing sense that every moment of the day — the most ordinary moments of every day — are vessels of the holy. And all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer.

So for Jews, there are some 100 blessings stitched across the hours of the day, from the blessing for awaking to the one for slipping on undergarments. In Celtic tradition, prayers are whispered for getting up, lighting the fire, milking the cow and on through the day, until the prayer for snuffing out the candles when the house is darkened for the night.

A glorious expression of that Celtic belief in abounding holiness is the insistence that we “learn to play the five-stringed harp,” that being the five senses that will bring us nose to nose, skin to skin, ear to ear with the divine.

In the Ignatian way, the credo is clear: Find God in all things. Not only all good things. All things. The great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “… for Christ plays in ten thousand places … ” Thomas Merton put it: “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In a word, it’s “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet. It’s all around, and it’s a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. We’re not tripping over a novel concept here. This is no New Age enlightenment.

“It’s one of the most fundamental spaces in my life, this space where the horizontal, the secular, meets the vertical, the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross,” says Guggenheim Fellow, poet and best-selling author Eliza Griswold, the journalist who wrote The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. “That’s poetry, where everyday time is punctured by the sacred. And my calling is there, the places where sacred and secular meet.”

I’ve long been a student in the great school of God’s world as it surrounds me. I’ve long been hellbent on breaking open the fragile — and the monumental — offered up by the limbs and the leaves and the rippling streams and the star-stitched night sky.

There is metaphor all around. It’s deep and it’s profound, and I am drinking it in as if cool waters through a straw.

And more than in John Muir’s woods or on the banks of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, my ears have perked to the scritch scratch of heaven on earth right here in the dappled sunlight as it pools across the wide pine planks of my old house or plays peekaboo among the tangled vines of my rambunctious secret garden just outside the kitchen door.

I needn’t travel far to find the holy. Though it did take time — the better part of decades — to learn to listen for the sacred murmurings, to let them soak deep down to where I was hungriest, most hollow, to figure out that all along I’d had the fine-boned instrument to draw the music in.

And, recently, it struck me that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of Marquette’s College of Nursing, back at the old college, the one appended to St. Joe’s Hospital. There, in shiny linoleum-tiled classrooms in the fall of 1976, the whole lot of us began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once that white cap had been bobby-pinned to my curly locks, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer whose origin I can’t recall. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath and which limb hurt too much for me to lift.

And on and on the learning went. As I watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of a 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder while he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths. At the crosshairs of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination.

Some three decades ago, because by then I was working in a newspaper newsroom and forgot to pay attention to the paperwork of my life, my nursing license expired. So, short of retaking my boards, I can’t claim to be a registered nurse any longer.

But, the truth is, I needn’t hold a license to practice the exquisite art of paying attention. It’s a hard-won curriculum, indeed. But it’s one that’s dissolved the hard edge between heaven and messy earth. It’s the undercurrent of all my prayer. And it’s what aligns my every breath with all that is most holy.

Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79, once a pediatric oncology nurse, is a freelance journalist and the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), to be published in October 2014.

and how, dear friends, did you learn to pay exquisite attention? 

attentive life MU mag

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

summer’s succulence

sky lights

it’s the morning after the night exploded.

it’s gentle out now. the pop and fizzle are long gone, replaced by mama wren singing. and mr. and mrs. cardinal chattering, as they imbibe on the annual inebriating feast of plump purple serviceberries, dangling from the bough.

i’m inhaling all of it, as i try for one short spell to push away the worries, the deadlines, the cobwebs in the corners.

this is what summer is for, the reason it exists: to catch the rhythm of your breath, to notice how it flows in time with tide, with water gurgling toward the lakeshore sands, then rolling out again.

this is a day for slicing watermelon, for scooping little balls of sweetness from soft and juicy flesh. for popping back blueberries by the fistful. for paper napkins catching all that dribbles — because you’d never get the fruity stains out of cotton squares or linen.

this just might be a day for cranking up the oven. and the grill, of course. but one short blast of cake baking just might be what the declaration of independence does declare.

because it’s a holiday, because we’re practicing the art of stepping out of time, and into the hallowed hollows of timelessness, i’m making like this here is a backyard with picket fence, and i’m leaning across the fence to hand you a recipe for the finest chocolate cake this side of the iowa state fair.

a dear college friend drove down from wisconsin a week or so ago, with a sheet pan of devilish deliciousness and the spelled-out recipe to boot. she left the whole darn cake when she packed up to head back north, and my boys declared it the finest chocolate cake they’d ever slipped between their lips.

with no more hoopla, and one sweet promise: here’s a slice of delicious summer’s succulence, brought to you courtesy of judy smith, who was motored here by one maureen haggerty warmuth. they’re two of the treasures i’ve held onto from my college days. and here’s the treasure to tuck inside your banged-up, battered, much-used tin of recipes. (fact is, this is all-season’s succulence, but since we’re at the fever-pitch of summer, we’ll tag it one for summer’s glory. seems just the thing to ferry to the independence day cake stand.)

minnesota chocolate cake

provenance: my friend judy smith’s dear friend tammi baumann

2 cups flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking soda

ADD:

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg, slightly beaten

2/3 cup oil

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup coffee brewed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat together your litany of ingredients — batter will be runny.

Pour into greased and floured 9-by-13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

frosting:

In saucepan, dump:

1 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. corn starch

1/2 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. cocoa

1 cup boiling water

Cook over medium heat while stirring, till thickened.

Remove from heat, and ADD:

1 tsp. vanilla

3 Tbsp. butter

Cool frosting and pour over cake.

grab fork. dig in. declare this a day for summer’s succulent sweetness — in all its many flavors.

p.s. there was a rumor wafting about the kitchen that this chocolate-y deliciousness might have won blue ribbon at one of those fine midwestern country fairs. fact or fiction, it won just such an honor here in our humble kitchen. so pinned by the boys who left not a crumb behind on the cake plate…

and what will you be ferrying to your independence day feast? and what’s your definition of summer’s succulence? how would you spend a holiday away from all that weighs you down?

 

it all snaps into focus

june rambling rose

long ago, at the start of this fog-shrouded day, i thought i was going to type a sentence about waiting for the tow truck.  then, once the tow truck rolled away, and the flat-tire car rolled with it, i wandered back to my little typing hole. i started looking for a social security card that i could not find, which led me to discover that i couldn’t find a passport.

i was twisted in knots about these silly paper trails when an email came in. an email from a friend i adore. from a friend whom i’ve been accompanying to chemo on mondays. i pick her up, we drive to the big hospital downtown. i watch her IVs get started. we sit and talk about important things. sometimes we look out onto the lake, and the vast stretch of sky that you can see when you are tucked inside a high-rise hospital not far from the lake. we talk about not-so-important things sometimes. it’s what you do when you are living a life suddenly overpopulated with cancer, damn cancer. sometimes the talk is deep and clear and the words are truth-seeking missiles, boring straight into the caverns of the heart where all that matters dwells. sometimes they are everyday words, because you can’t swallow a steady diet of life-and-death.

but today my dear friend got back news that she and i and everyone who loves her had prayed she would not get. i pitted red dints into my knees yesterday, kneeling so long and hard as i unfurled my petitions heavenward, while she marched bravely, warily, into her whole-body scan.

she emailed me to tell me what the doctor said. she said she is numb. and she said she is gathering the tiny circle of ones she loves, so they can all be close today.

it’s what you do when news comes. when news is of the most awful kind.

i am trying to type carefully to keep my friend shrouded in privacy. but i’m typing to say what we all know: the lost passports and social security cards of our life, the flat tires and the tow trucks, the long to-do lists, the groceries not yet in the fridge, none of them matter.

it’s perfectly clear as i sit here this awful morning: in the end, it’s all a gift, the chance to wake up, to face another tumbledown of hours, of hearts entwined, of wings that just might set us soaring for a few short interludes of any given day. it’s all a precious, lung-filling gift. it’s ours to behold.

behold the holy hours of this day. behold the ones you love. forgive the petty tangles of the heart. do something that deeply matters today.

this holy hour is the one into which we can stitch the deepest meaning, the most expansive love. the blessing is in the now. make it matter.

amen.

in the whispers of your heart, consider how you might rearrange your day, to embroider the holiest of holies into your otherwise ordinary day. 

turning 21: a mother was born

willie baby with kiss

nothing had ever — has ever — so deeply captured my attention. you can see it in the gaze above, the eyes locked between mother and child. you can see it in the parted lips, my lips, can almost hear the gushing in of breath, of pure and utter undiluted amazement.

deep down, i think, i never really believed it would happen. had so little faith in my body — in the flesh and bones that made me who my vessel was — i gasped when they handed me that bundle. i so distinctly remember drinking in his eyes, whispering, “hullo, my sweet, so here i am, and here you are, answer to my deepest prayers, my dreams come true beginning now.” and then, before i could stop myself, i zeroed in on the thighs. the thighs i am blessed to report were duly “pudged,” rolls of flesh and perfect fat, a fat so deliciously dimpled it nearly melted me off the birthing bed.

i’d been afraid i might grow a baby without the requisite fat. in fact, i doubted my capacities as birthing chamber all along. in one long weekend, after an early set of ultrasounds, i convinced myself my baby had no brain. all you could see inside the skull was black space, blank black space. oh my god, i thought, they’ve not yet broken it to me, but i think my baby might be missing his brain. i even called a radiologist friend — on a sunday — to find out if he’d confirm my fear.

he confirmed it not.

and in fact, on the sultry start-of-summer tuesday when at last that babe was born, he was a whopping eight pounds, nine ounces — a good chunk of that birthweight duly tucked in the cranial cavity, where in the years since he’s proven how undeniably that brain was where it needed to be, doing precisely what it was wired to do.

my beautiful beautiful boy turns 21 on sunday, and while my letter to him will be deeply private, the one i’m writing here is the one in which i proclaim to anyone who pulls up a chair how very deeply his birth birthed the depths of me, allowed at last the core of who i dreamed i could be, who i prayed i could be, to begin to take form, to emerge in light and shadow, to rise from the gauzy netherworld, to be defined in sharp outline and tender spots, and to be forming still.

it just might be most every blessed mother’s story: we stumble upon the best that we can be, sometimes, when living, breathing, squawking, ever-hungry babe is cradled in our arms. our trembling arms, to be sure. our arms that grow stronger, surer, over all the sagas and the chapters and the countless hours of two lives entwined.

when i think back over the 21 years that he and i have been essential factors in each other’s equations, i stand in wide-eyed wonder. i bow down low in deepest gratitude. i wince at my mistakes, moments i’d give anything to do over. and i marvel at the times when i stepped to the edge of the precipice, mustered all my courage, and leapt — that eternal life-saving instinct nestled deep in every mother’s heart, the one that propels us to put form to whatever is the holy vow we take when we’re first told that life stirs within.

it’s unbreakable, the mother bond. it defines our days, puts order to our must-get-done list, sets us off to the ends of the earth, if need be, in search of the essential whatchamahoojie — be that the medical specialist who can peer inside a child’s shattered bone or merely the USB cable that’s gone missing from his laptop at the very hour the paper must be printed and turned in for a full semester’s credit.

and it keeps us awake, long night after long night.

we learn, once motherhood comes upon us, just how long we can go without so much as a spoonful of cereal (it took me a couple weeks to figure out how to inhale breakfast with a baby wailing in the infant seat), and how many consecutive nights we can curl up on the bathroom floor cradling a fevered child or one who’s upchucking till the wee wee hours.

when necessary, we discover we can make the scariest of phone calls, can dial up the mother of the slumber-party bully, can look the teacher in the eye and say, i’m sorry, i don’t think you understand my kid. we can even will our knees not to buckle when the ER doctors start tossing around words like “airlift” and “cervical fracture,” and “severed spinal cord.” we can make promises to God — ones we swear we’ll keep — when, for longer pauses than we ever thought we could endure, we’re begging to be spared a kid who can’t flinch a muscle from his neck down to his fingers and his toes.

in rare sweet moments, we find out how it feels to catch the wind and soar. we turn and see the kid we love dashing down the block to hand a crunched-up dollar bill to the homeless guy he knows by name. we nearly fall in the river as the kid who couldn’t catch a fly ball now rows mightily across the finish line. we read the words his college professors send to us in emails that knock us off our chairs, and leave one of us brushing away the streams of tears.

we hope, we dream, we pray. we reach down deep, deeper than we ever reached before. we listen till the birds of dawn begin to sing, if that’s what it takes some long dark hollow nights.

we find our voice along the years. we exercise our heart. we wrack our brains. we love, and love some more.

and suddenly 21 years have happened. countless picture frames loop before our eyes. words and stories bubble up and fill page upon page. our hearts are 21 times the size they used to be — at least.

we have paid most exquisite attention, to each and every breath and utterance all along the way. we’ve driven ourselves nearly mad. we’ve cared beyond reason. in fact, there’s little room for the rational when it comes to this particular brand of love story.

we were handed a treasure. we owe it to the treasure. we owe it to the bequeathers of the treasure.

i, for certain, was handed the treasure of my life. june 22, 1993. the day the best of me was born.

a work very much in progress. the best work in all my oeuvre.

i love you, sweet will, with all my heart and all my soul and everything that dwells between.

chair people, thanks for indulging me in this morning’s labor of truest deepest love. i found the photo above — my sweet boy’s forehead stamped with a “stork kiss” from my beloved obstetrician, who made it a habit of smearing on bright red lipstick to mark her babies shortly after birth — while working on a little picture project. i’ve been compiling a little something for my sweet boy’s birthday and this frame floated to the top.

feel free to tell what birthed the best of you along the way….

never enough will

 

summer starts here

summer starts here lemonade

across town, the bell will clang one last time. little hearts will cartwheel inside ribcages that hold it all in — too tight — for most of the year. school buses will rumble down the cobbled streets, well before lunchtime. at every corner, kids will bound off, as if a new lease on life.

it’s that rarest of mornings when the exhale is deep and long and the launch pad for unbroken weeks — or at least a few hours — of hassle-free summer.

for the curly-haired wonder in this old house, it means the stacks of seventh-grade homework will finally dwindle. it means no more 6:30 alarms. no more school buses to be missed. it means, any minute now, the front door will burst open and in will tromp a herd of not-so-little feets. big plans have been hatched for stacks of syrupy pancakes at the diner down the lane, where the screen door slaps and the flat-top sizzles, egg after egg after egg scrambled or fried or flipped over easy.

even for the mama, it’s joy undiluted. that moment when summer begins remains enshrined, tucked high on a shelf, safe in a plexiglass cube. it’s the closest thing to carefree i can conjure. all these years later, i remember rushing into my own growing-up kitchen, end-of-year report card in hand. i remember the certain sparkle in the air. i remember my mama, putting down the day’s errands and chores, just long enough to pile us all in the wagon, and take us out for a drive. out for lunch at a formica-topped counter. not unlike the one my own little fellow will wander off to today.

there aren’t so many carefree moments left anymore. so this one, this one that’s caught in the crosshairs of all the counting down, it’s one worth deep-breathing. it’s a moment to savor. it’s a place to begin the fine art of slowing time. sucking each droplet of wonder and joy out of this one sweet morning that spills into afternoon’s adagio. and might even last till tomorrow.

slowing time, the essence of summer.

here’s a short list of ways i might dip my toe in that most essential seasonal wonder:

take off my shoes. tickle my toes in the grass.

sign up for summer reading at the library. or, pick one fat book that’s long overdue on my i-need-to-read-this list and pledge to turn page after page till i get to the end.

keep close watch on the old rambling roses, on the brink of bloom any hour now.

tuck myself in the old screen porch, and drink in the soundtrack of summer — the baby birds out for their first fledgling flights, the wren who calls out her glories from high in the pines, the roar of the lawn mowers that never go quiet.

pile a saucer with juiciest berries. pop into mouth, one sweet succulent shlurp at a time.

unfurl a beach towel across the grass that is my make-believe beach. slather on sunscreen — mostly because it smells the way summer is meant to smell — and bake there till i can’t stand the heat. that oughta last 10 minutes or less.

consider long tall glasses of glistening waters, aswim with plucked-from-the-garden mint and slices of lemon.

pile the grill with farmer’s market bounty.

ferry dinner out to the summer porch. light candles as the sun goes down. sit there, watching, till the firefly show begins. be sure to invite the neighbors, the ones who turn the simplest joys into most cherished hours.

weigh the virtues of sleeping outside. remember the neighborhood skunk. reconsider.

once, just once, head to the beach with a thermos of coffee, a fat sunday paper, and the promise to practice relaxing.

do not promise to slip into a bathing suit and promenade at the village pool.

when summer rains slide into the forecast, prepare to make the best of it: inhale the raindrops’ pit-a-pat from inside the screened porch, or better yet, slip on rubber galoshes and plop around the puddles, making like you’re seven again.

eat so many fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes you’re bound to sprout a canker sore or two. negligible price for summer’s juiciest trophy.

what will you scribble onto your summertime wonder list? and what’s on your summer reading list?

welcome to summer

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