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

soul pickings…

book pickings

pray tell, you might ask, what is she doing now? perhaps, given the tower of pages above, i’m devising a rube-goldbergian contraption for felling the wintertime ants that dare to cross my kitchen table. or, perhaps, it’s the latest in literary aerobics: hoist this pile off the tabletop and see how many jumping jacks i can count — before dropping the load on my poor baby toes, or tumbling under the weight of the heart-pumping challenge.

or, perhaps this: in the plummest assignment a girl could dream up, my old newspaper, the chicago tribune, has asked me to basically peruse the literary all-you-can-eat and fill my tray with the juiciest morsels — month after month after month. now, you’ll not find me weighing the caloric wonders nor the narrative arc of sultry page turners. and i won’t be digesting the latest in graphic novels, or avant-garde fiction. my little assignment, which runs on the pages of the tribune’s literary supplement, printers row journal (special subscription only), is called “round up: books for the soul.” and i’ll be lassoing soul-stirrers every four to six weeks.

and, in case you hadn’t already guessed, my definition of soul is a broad one, a deep one, so watch out bookshelves, i’m coming right at you. i’ve been asked to mine the lists of just-published pages to pluck out the ones that stir me — and maybe you — the most deeply. in my book, that means children’s picture books are near the top of the pile. and so too is the 8.4-pound, 4,448-page, two-volume whopper, the norton anthology of world religions, a collection i could — and i will — spend the rest of my days inhaling. it means poetry and essay, and even a book of black-and-white images with very few words, if that finds a way to the depth of the place that stirs us, inspires us, sets us wanting to right the world’s wrongs (or at least to course-correct the fumblings that hold us back from all whom we were meant to be).

at the moment, i’m whittling my latest short list down to the final three, and i’ll be defending my picks in short pithy blurbs — all to be handed over to my editor by monday morn. while i can’t let on here what’s next on the docket, i can pass along the trinity of titles that were picked for the perch of the new year, the first installation in what promises to be a perpetual devotion.

a marvelous and hilarious side note on the list just below. when dear, marvelous, and often quite wacky anne lamott spied the review online (i had no idea it had even been edited, yet alone posted) she went bonkers with joy, and declared it “the single best review anyone has ever gotten in the history of publishing,” which made me chuckle on an otherwise gloomy new-year’s-eve day, and slam-dunked my certainty that hyperbole is a jocular, life-giving art. when last i checked, a mere 24,362 of annie’s beloved friends had “liked” the review on facebook, and i for one was simply tickled that ms. lamott felt the love, as it were. (may we all know the joy of being loved out loud, over and over and over again….)

here, with no further ado, is my first round of round ups: books for the soul. i cannot emphasize emphatically enough how wonderful each title is. nor how very much i love this assignment that has me back in the news pages i love. (i’ll post the link, but i don’t think it will work if you don’t already have a tribune subscription. just in case, though, click here.)

Round Up: Books for the Soul 
By Barbara Mahany

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
By Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $22.95

Anne Lamott is practically a household word in the peeling-back-the-soul department. She’s utterly disarming. She’s hysterically funny. One minute, you’re falling off your chair laughing, and the next, you’re gasping for air, because Lamott has just unfurled a sentence that cuts straight to the heart of what you really needed to know. She’s been doing that for so many books now (this is her ninth nonfiction title), I keep thinking she’ll run out of ways to take my breath away.

Which is why I didn’t expect to see her latest collection of essays tumble into my short list of soulful treasures. I was wrong, so wrong. Lamott is one in a million. Who else would make this leap, writing of a moment that’s so serene and holy, “I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama.” Or: “I thought such awful thoughts I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Hers is an inimitable mix of irreverence and deep-down holy wisdom. Her wit is so sharp, her synapses fire so quickly, she deftly connects the dots and vaults across the spiritual landscape like nobody else. Never suspecting we’re about to come around some light-drenched bend, we practically sputter when she steers us head-on into one of her wild-eyed illuminations.

Lamott grounds the holy in the messy, hilarious, madcap adventure that is her life. And she sees the truth so piercingly perceptibly, we’re left slack-jawed and wiser in her wake.

Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
By Karen Maezen Miller, New World Library, 192 pages, $15.95

This little slip of a book, like the best of all soulful books, slips deep in your soul practically unnoticed. Suddenly, you’re sitting bolt upright, because you’ve been reading quietly along and you realize you’ve just inhaled a sentence that packs a spiritual wallop.

As in: “We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts and — if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh,” writes Miller, a Zen priest and teacher, in an essay about crossing the threshold of fear. “All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.”

Miller’s plainspoken wisdom, the essence of her Zen Buddhist practice, is couched in the story of discovering and tending a long-neglected 100-year-old Japanese garden, the paradise in her own Southern California backyard. Amid a landscape of rocks and ponds and pines and orange trees heavy with fruit, Miller doles out Zen lessons on fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance and contentment.

“This book isn’t really about Zen, and it isn’t really about gardening,” writes Miller in the prologue. “It might seem like I’m talking to myself, but I’m talking to you. Now, about this paradise. You’re standing in it.”

Indeed, you needn’t be a gardener, nor inclined to long hours of meditation, nor a disciple of Zen. And you certainly needn’t travel to the nearest Japanese garden to unearth the truths Miller so generously lays at your mud-sodden soles.

The Lion and The Bird
By Marianne Dubuc, Enchanted Lion Books, 64 pages, $17.95

A so-called children’s book, a picture book, among the most soul-lifting books of the year? Why, yes. Emphatically yes.

Tripping upon this marvel of a book, by French Canadian designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc, is to tumble into a tale of unforgettable tenderness — the story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight, a winter’s convalescence of warmth and friendship that banishes loneliness, for lion and bird. It’s one that tears at and stitches together again the heart.

Words here are spare, as are the pencil-shaded drawings, and thus the tempo is slow, the mood quiet. It’s the intimate details that draw in the reader, and thus the reader’s heart — the wounded bird pecking seed off a dinner plate, little bird dozing the night away curled inside lion’s bedside slipper, bird peeking out of lion’s winter cap as the two lumber off for a romp in the snow.

By spring, when bird is healed and its flock returns, a nod to the sky is all lion needs to know that it’s time for bird to leave, to put flight to his wings. And so, the summer is passed — lion alone. Come autumn, lion can’t help but wonder, can’t help but study the canvas of sky. And then, after two achingly empty pages, a musical note exalts on a page. There’s bird, perched on the limb of a tree. Lion’s heart leaps — and so does the reader’s.

It’s a lesson in unspoken, ineffable love. And it unspools in gentlest wisps. Sometimes, that’s all the soul needs.

Barbara Mahany is the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 2014). Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and what books would you add to a list of those fine for the soul? even though i’m limited to just-published titles, you can add all-time favorites, classics, can’t-live-withouts to this ever-lengthening list…..(and i promise to keep posting once the round ups take their twirl in the tribune…)

old sweater: ode to wrap-around-you love

old sweater vertical

some mornings, in the swift fractions between bare foot to floorboard, shuffle across the bedroom rug, and tumble into closet, i just know: it’s an old sweater sort of day.

a day when i need to feel my arms slide through the nubby sleeves, feel the wool scratch against me, pull the torso tight around my chest. i need to feel the wrap-around-you love that comes from pulling on an old, old sweater. a sweater that once belonged, and still — if you breathe deep and with all your heart — holds the sweet scent of the someone long ago who wore it. whose chest filled out its threads. whose warmth inhabited. whose whole self animated, in a way that — standing alone in the dark, cold closet — you still can see, as if a picture show before your eyes.

it’s been one of those weeks around here.

every day, an old sweater. truth be told, every day the same old sweater (fashion-forward is not a name you’d put to me, queen of holey jeans and banged-up clogs, and T shirts worn till rags). it’s a navy one, with suede patches on the sleeve. one the maker calls its “shaggy dog.” other than calling it a teddy-bear crew neck (one minus knitted-in images of bears, thank you), i can’t think of a better name for a sweater that fills its particular prescription: dust off the lonely flakes, embolden for the day ahead, stick close and keep the cold at bay. and not necessarily the temperature. more like the draft that comes when you feel all alone, a bit lonely, searching for that particular someone who steadies you, brings ballast to your wobbling hours.

it’s winter here. deep winter. a season i love. but the fellow who inhabits this house with me, the one i married nearly a quarter century ago, he’s been away. so it’s just me and the little one, faring for ourselves. and while i love the quiet hours stitched into each day, i find myself a wee bit lost. i find myself braving winds and cold. i’m without the markers at the start and end of each long day, when usually the door clicks open and in walks the lanky fellow, his glasses frosted up from cold. his cheeks pink from wind. his stories fresh, and filling up the room.

i’ve thought a lot this week about those i love who are missing someone. everyone misses someone sometime. sometimes for the rest of your living breathing days. you can’t go too long in this life before death comes, or leave-taking of some other kind steals the one you love. there are a million algorithms that all wind up with a big fat hollow at the end. there’s a kid i love who’s gone away, simply because he grew up and found a leafy college, far far from here. there’s a dad i loved, with all my heart; he up and died. no goodbye. just a blizzard and a phone call and a doctor standing in the blazing white corridor, saying, oddly, “i’m so sorry.” there’s a grandma, who wasn’t even mine by birth, just by heart. and every time i tumble in my closet, i see her cherry red, gold-buttoned cardigan. i don’t often put it on. but i love knowing that it’s there, in the stack of old sweaters just waiting to do their job: wrap my arms and chest, make like soft-looped armament, a shield that holds me tight, that makes me remember a certain hug, a certain chest against which i leaned and pressed my ear, drinking in a steady heartbeat. a heartbeat that steadied me, that launched me, that served as grounding rod and metronome for the songs i’d yet to let loose from the canyon of my hopes and dreams and wobbles.

sometimes in life we need to grope for tangible knowing that we’re not alone. not deep down, anyway. there are someones from the past, who swirl around us still. who pulse through us. and sometimes simply shoving a fist, an arm, down a narrow sleeve, it’s all the rubbing-up-against-us we need to convince ourselves that, once again, we can face the day. we can march out of the bedroom closet, armed for what the day will bring.

no one can see the someone we’ve tucked into for the day. but we know. we know we’re not alone. and the stack of old, moth-worn, years-stretched sweaters, they’re there to guide us on our ways. to enfold us. to brace us from the chill that’s sure to blow through all the cracks.

what armaments do you reach for when your day begs for emboldening? or your heart just needs an extra layer of fortitude, of resilience, of remembering how deeply it is loved?

once, i had a dream…(or slowing time in real time)

harlene slow time

reading cornerslowing time circle

the wintry night couldn’t have made it more daunting. the roads were thick with snow, hadn’t seen a hungry plow. the winds began to whip. the flashing sign on the highway warned that it would take two hours, nine minutes, to snail our way (a mere 11 miles) to the spaghetti bowl of interchanges that only then could shoot us out the next long stretch of byway.

we were, with all our might, trying to get to the little town that once was home to frank lloyd wright and ernest hemingway. a bungalow, candle lit by then, would soon be filled with folk who’d come to taste a wintry eve of slowing time.

we’d be lucky if we got there by 10. and the evening was slotted to unfurl at seven bells. our bellies lurched as we did the math, realized the full throttle of our predicament. and then the car began to shake — convulse, more like it. i thought perhaps it was on the verge of blowing up. or, perhaps, merely screeching off the icy bridge. turned out to be the wheels protesting the ice that stood between the tire treads and traction.

by stroke of side streets, and the zany map in which chicago plows the backroads but not the main roads, we managed to get there at the stroke of half past seven. we’d zigged and zagged and beat the doomsday clock.

once we walked inside the golden-glowing house on grove street, we were soothed. slowed. wrapped in candle light and logs crackling on the fire.

the one who’d done the dreaming up of all of this — a lovely woman named harlene who lives to find the common thread that weaves us all together — she was stirring at the slow time pot, the name she’d pinned to the cauldron of three-bean chili, thick with chicken, zinged with squeeze of lime, the one she’d cooked all sunday.

i got predictably teary-eyed soon after walking in. i only knew four of the 30-some folk who were huddled round the wine, the chips, the hearth. they’d come, i whispered to my flabbergasted self, to hear a bit of slowing time.

oh, it takes a rather packed equation to make a dream come true. but what stirred as i slowly made my way to the stove, to sidle up to the one stirring the chili, was the knowing that i was walking through a dream.

the dream, born long ago, was something like this: what if, in a world that chatters so noisily few can make out any sense, what if we quietly carved out a sacred place, a safe place where words and hearts were shared, and harshness never was invited? what if we could mine the landscape of our simple ordinary lives, our messy stumbling fumbling lives, the one where day after day we try again to get it right? what if we might gather kindred spirits, and hold each other up, on the days when we wobble, yes, but even on the rarer days when we swear we just might glow a little hallelujah glow?

what if, from time to time, the holiness leapt off the screen, or off the page, and took shape in real time, with the flesh of human hands reaching across the table, or real tears slowly mapping their way down a cheek, across a lip, and off the precipice of chin?

what if there were real circles of real chairs in real living rooms? what if stories flowed, and hearts opened, and voices dared to speak beyond the whisper of talking to ourselves?

and there i was: inside the dream. surrounded by smart and soulful women. surrounded by women who’d left behind their day jobs, their kids, their noisy little lives to brave the bitter cold, the whipping snow, and the slip-slidey front steps, to slow time long enough to share a wintry evening’s conversation, to turn a page or three. and, not too much later, to step back into the icy night, behold the glowing arc of moon, and feel a heart a wee bit fuller.

these past few months — the months since slowing time (the book) was birthed — have invigorated and tested, and stretched and stung from time to time. but all of it, every butterfly in my belly, every sleepless hour of the night, even gasping aloud when i was called a “very pagan wiccan,” (yes, ouch), it’s all been the road to last night’s dream come true. and the even-longer potholed path to putting life to hope, to faith, to believing that — whatever it is — it might be done.

so here’s the wondering aloud: might we all not birth a dream? a simple dream, perhaps; maybe just to make it through a morning without the sound of harsh screeching from our throat. or maybe, take it up a notch and declare we’ll paint, we’ll write, we’ll knit till kingdom come — whatever is the shape and form you put to your creative genius (and, oh, yes, it’s genius, all right. every one of us was born with speck of genius, and is it not our job to figure out just how to let that genius out from wherever it’s been hiding all these years?).

what if we envision a world where unlike minds sit in quiet conversation? what if we pray all in one room — jews, muslims, buddhists, christians, wiccans, and, yes, druids, too? whether it’s filling the empty belly of one hungry child, or disrupting the hollow loneliness of the old man next door who sits all by himself, hour after hour. whether it’s tackling tolstoy at long last. or committing to memory every last line of emily dickinson, or maya angelou, or w.s. merwin.

what if we dig down deep and pull out our wildest dream, and then day after day, sometimes after weeks have slipped away unnoticed, what if, little by little, we added flesh to the bones of that dream, and one cold winter’s night, we walked into a bungalow, where bowls of oranges and chocolates waited by the door, where chili bubbled on the cookstove, and women’s words whirled through kitchen and keeping room, dining room and parlor?

what if we all believed that, given time and hope and the great gift of friends who pick us up every time we stumble, skin our knees, or feel our hearts get knocked around far too achingly, even our wildest little dream might come tumbling true?

what’s your dream?

libationslowing time kitchenharlene at the chili pot

and how might you begin to make it come to life?

and here’s an invitation: perhaps you too have a circle of souls you love — or even ones you barely know — and you, like beautiful harlene above, might put a pot of something bubbly on the cookstove, pull chairs into a circle, and softly, quietly, openly, invigorate the night with what you know to be beautiful, and holy, and deeply needed in this aching, sometimes scary world…(p.s. of course i don’t mean a slowing time night, per se, just a night in which you gather with great good souls and carve out time for what deeply matters. in real time. slow time…)

and from the bottom of my heart, harlene, bless you and thank you and thank you…..

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?

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