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

the necessary pause

the necessary pause

this sacred morning is anointed by quiet. it’s the sound of my soul breathing. which it certainly needs to be doing.

yesterday morning the cacophony came from the squawking of intercoms, and waiting room televisions cranked up to blaring, dialed to odd channels that give you a clue how the rest of the world stays tuned. on top of it all, the hollow sound of footsteps hard against hospital corridor. and the tingling sound of holding your breath.

this morning, the morning of saint nicholas at our house, a wintry sort of morning with half-lit sky and crimson berries still left on the bough (by nightfall my hungry birds might have plucked those branches dry), i am home alone and savoring the holy pause.

right in here, the pause is essential. is necessary. is filling up what’s been draining away.

necessary pause beach

i’ve said it so often i sound like a broken record, a record stuck on pause, on silent. but silence and lull are holy balm to me, are necessary to the going forward of the every day. i am soothed by downy-feathered sounds: the simmering of orange peel and clove, the ticking of my husband’s grandfather’s old dutch clock, the rushing exhale of the furnace that keeps me warm.

oh, i wouldn’t mind the crackle of pine cones on the hearth. or the tinkling of a teaspoon against the porcelain of the hand-me-down blue-willow tea cup.

i wouldn’t mind the poof of air when i punched down the cloud of risen dough in the old bread bowl.

but this morning i am far too lazy for ferrying in the logs, for dumping flour and yeast and melted butter in the bowl.

i am indulging in the lull of nothing more than the tap-tap-tap of keys. and writing, more than anything, is the potion i pull down from my heart’s apothecary.

i’ve been holding my breath for far too many reasons, for far too many days: a kid tromping around vienna (with three papers due by particular midnights; all turned in, all glorious. i should begin to learn to trust the procrastinating child); a mama who next wednesday will face the surgeon’s tool kit; a husband halfway across the globe, so far away, his day is my night, my day, his night.

so this rare morning of words and breath is just what i would wish for my best friend, if my best friend asked what might deeply cure the aching, the worry, the vivid dreams that unspool even when she wakes.

i do feel gathered here, knowing that in due time, and one by one, the chairs will be filled, and the great good souls who’ve woven hearts here, all will settle in, and offer words of tender wisdom, or simply the unspoken squeeze of hand to hand.

we are blessed, those who come here, those who understand the necessary pause. and how essential it becomes to fill our oozing aching heart with whatever balms patch us back together. whatever fortifies and sends us on our way, whole again, and emboldened to begin to ply the ministrations that heal the ones we love and hold together the scattered threads that begin and end at the very depths of our heart.

necessary pause st nick bfst

what are the sacred balms and potions in your heart’s apothecary?

a bubbling up of gratitude

giving thanks 2013

any minute now, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots. it’s take-to-the-woods day here at our house. no malls, no credit cards need apply. we’re decidedly not interested in all things consumer-esque. the only things we care to breathe in today are cold air, wide-open sky, and the sound of our boots crunching dry prairie grasses.

but before we zip the triple-thick parkas and slide into the fattest mittens money can’t buy, it’s the hour of bowing our heads and unfurling gratitude.

i begin this year, and this particular season of life, with deepest thanks for all that’s conspired to take it up a notch. and the notch that matters most around here is the devotion to paying attention. paying supreme attention. in so many ways i’ve taught myself to live in a way that holds most frames of life up to the light. i’ve gotten quite skilled at stopping time, hitting the pause, relishing the breadth and depth: the way the light scatters across my wide-planked kitchen floor, beholding the scarlet flash as papa cardinal settles into the branches just beyond my kitchen door, absorbing the metronome of the schoolhouse clock’s tick and tock, the soft tickle of my little one’s curls against my cheek when he climbs in bed — still — for one last cuddle before i drift into slumber.

but in the past week, as my mama and i have stepped into this new corridor of time and holiness, i’ve noticed something new: it’s as if veils have been lifted, and conversation is purer than it’s often been. stories are unspooling abundantly. there’s a gentleness. forgiveness. it’s as if our hearts have melted toward a common purpose: we are forging into the unknown. we don’t know what’s around the bend. but what’s now is a newborn chance to relish. relish time. relish each other’s gentle company. relish the gift of an afternoon spent rolling out my mama’s mama’s butter-cookie dough, pressing the tin gobbler just so, dotting tail feathers with raisins, and through my mama’s keen invention of spatula and speed, airlifting from cutting board to baking sheet before the doughy gobbler loses half his heft.

it is the velvet underside of uncertainty, of doctor’s diagnoses stirring you from sleep, of waking up with a wobble in your belly, because you don’t know these woods. don’t know quite where the brambles are.

it’s the gift of reawakening. realizing all over again that every blessed hour is a miracle. and that you can choose just how to live it: rush it, or relish every drop.

thank you, Maker of All Holiness, for the noodge to relish.

thank you, too, for the gift of being home. for being back in this anointed old house that seems to know me from the inside out, to soothe me, and some days keep me from toppling. thank you for the red-checked chair with ample arms that invite me in, for the straight-backed sturdiness, across from where the logs crackle and the flames leap high and mesmerizingly.

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

thank you for telephones, for the rare sound of a voice that nestles soft against my heart. that, within a syllable, brings joy, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness, amplifies the hours spent in coming to this holy bond of deepest knowing.

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

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

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

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

so that’s the starter list, the scattershot splats of gratitude. here and there, hither and yon, as my heart and head skip here and there. as always, take up the gift of unfurling whatever makes you deeply grateful….

stack o turkeys

the power of five

power of five. four at zoo

this is us.

power of five. five.

this is the rest of us.

there are five of us. four boys + me. i’m number 2, and these days, the only one living near our center of gravity, our mama.

my mama ran into a little bump a week or so ago. and ever since, the five of us have been circling her like electrons to the proton that started it all. which, scientifically, she more or less is.

my mama, you know, if you’ve been pulling up a chair for a while, is one deep-of-the-earth mama. she’s often reminded me of those heavy-bottomed tipsy toys that never fall over, no matter how hard you push. (and before you go imagining my mama with a big heavy bottom, STOP!, she has nothing of the sort. she always prided herself on how she had to eat a whole pan of fudge to keep some weight on her skinny bones. what i mean is she’s taken more than her share of hits over the years, and she never ever wobbles. it’s rather uncanny.)

i’ll never forget one scene with my mama: it was at the kitchen door of the house where we did most of our growing up. the long black funeral car, the one that would carry us off — the five of us plus our mama — to the funeral home where we’d say one last rosary over my papa, before he was carried off — in a hearse — to the church and then to the cemetery, that funereal car had just pulled into our circle drive. you could hear its somber idling, telling us it was time, time for what we so deeply dreaded. but before she put her hand to the knob, my mama gathered us in a tight little circle. i was sniffling back sobs, and i know i wasn’t the only wet-eyed one in the bunch. but not my mama. she looked us solid in the eyes — mothers of five have a way of looking straight into five pairs of eyes all at once — and she said four words that i’ll never forget: “do your father proud.”

there’s another scene that i can’t help recalling: it was shortly after i’d miscarried my sweet baby girl, and the doctor kindly let me keep her beautiful little self. so i’d tucked her into the most beautiful wood box i could find, and with all the ceremony of yet another funeral, we drove — my husband, my firstborn, and me, clutching the box — into the cemetery, and up to the spot where, in the rain, we spotted my mama, with her foot to the blade of a shovel, standing atop my papa’s grave. she was digging a spot for her unborn granddaughter, right on the chest of my papa. “she’ll always be safe,” my mama whispered. and before we left, she handed me the sack of flower bulbs she’d brought along, thinking we might want to tuck in more beauty, along with our sweet little girl.

those are only two scenes. but they’re pretty much all you need to know about my mama to understand why the five of us — scattered just about as widely as you can be in this country and still be in the same country; from maine on the northeast, to long beach in southern california, from the mountains of northern arizona to the plains of toledo, ohio — tightened our orbit around her, soon as word went out that, in her words, she’d “flunked her physical,” on the eve of her 83d birthday.

somewhere deep inside, without anyone ever saying it, we all know that we are her lifeline (as she has ever been ours), and, marvelously, we all have a job. i’m the nurse, so it’s a good thing i’m closest in miles. i’m in charge of reading all the medical gobbledygook and driving to far-flung diagnostic outposts. brother number 2 is the one who will always always make her laugh, laugh so hard you just might wet your pants, but we won’t talk about that. another brother, the caboose at number 4, is the one we call the encyclopedia. he looks everything up, and knows the answer before the question is asked. and there’s the artist, brother 3, whose depth is immeasurable, and who always has had a connection with our mama that makes me think that in a past life they were strolling the side streets of paris together, ducking into ateliers of painters and thinkers, both of them in their french berets, their gauloises cigarettes dangling from chic cigarette holders. and then there’s the oldest, the one who takes his birth order to heart, and tries mightily to keep us in line. he’s the one who remembers every birthday, and slips in a $20 bill for each of his nephews, harkening a brand of uncle that is increasingly rare — and delectably sweet.

we’re it, the whole of the life squad. and, deep down, we know it. and, despite the miles and difference in time zones, and thanks to the miracles of texting and email, and the occasional phone call, we’ve all felt the centrifugal tug that’s pulled us tightly together. so tightly that before the doctor had even come into the wee little examining room yesterday, brother 4 had looked up and sent a link explaining the funny word i’d spotted on the medical report. by the time the doctor strolled in, i’d swallowed whole the national institutes of health take on this matter.

but the best part flowed in the hours after that appointment, after my mama and i walked out with sheafs of paper, and a date on the calendar. i’d be lying if i didn’t say our hearts felt a few pounds heavier in our chests. i’d be lying if i didn’t say i felt rather alone and a little bit wobbly (i’m still a student in my mama’s wobble-free school), and suddenly december was looking as gray as the snow clouds building in the late november sky.

but then, without asking, brother 4, the one with whom i’ve always shared far more than just that explosive BAM monogram, he announced he’d be here, right at our side. and not too many hours later, brother 3 said he too was mulling flight options.

and suddenly all my aloneness was wiped away, in that miracle that comes when you’re one of a gaggle. when your mama once looked you all in the eye, and admonished: do your father proud.

we will do our papa proud. we will be right there with our mama, as he so tenderly would have been. we will kiss her on the forehead as they roll her through the double doors, and we will try to keep the comedian from making her laugh so hard she tugs at her stitches. we are fully equipped, the five of us, to hold each other up, and most of all, to hold up our rock-solid sweet blessed mama, the one who’s always always there to rush to our rescue.

it’s what life brings when lived to the power of five.

so that’s the news of the week, here at the old maple table. pray for our mama, who will recover and be strong as an ox, as ever. undaunted by the week’s news, she’s joining me tonight in the kitchen of the homeless shelter where we’ll cook for folks whose lives are far more of a struggle than we’ll ever know. that’s how my mama keeps teaching lessons. she’s the tipsy toy that won’t topple, and she’s taught us all to try to live that very way.

when you travel through life’s tight spots, who clenches your hand and carries you forward? do you have brothers and sisters who lighten the load?

locked-in

patrick and mary jo

it all came rushing back to me this week. how, over the years and years, i’ve stumbled on the deepest meanings of this glory called life when i’ve had a notebook in my hands, a reporter’s notebook, and when that notebook served as front-line ticket to the most extraordinary unfoldings of human character. of life at its most unimaginable, and the human capacity to thread the needle, not merely survive but triumph. not merely endure but discover laughter. wipe away tears, hold trembling hands, feel my own soul up and catapulted. i’ve walked away a million times asking, “could i do that? could i be so brave? so profoundly capable of discovering the beautiful beneath the devastating?”

all week i’ve been immersed in reporting a story about a 20-year-old kid with locked-in syndrome. what that means, he says, is that it feels like — for the past three years, ever since an aneurysm in his brainstem ruptured during surgery — he’s “locked inside a freezer.”

what it means is that this kid, named patrick, the captain of his high school’s swimming and water polo teams, woke up in the early morning hours of 10-10-10 with a killer headache after his senior-year homecoming dance. and, somehow, he got dressed and made it to his mother’s bedside where he told her it was a 9 out of 10 on the pain scale, and they needed to get to the ER.

what it means is that that headache turned out to be a bulge in the artery that flowed blood into his brain; he’d had an earlier aneurysm — that’s what the bulge was — when he was 10. he’d had surgery back then, and except for a ban on “collision sports,” he’d gone on as ever. a red-haired eddie haskell of a kid, one who’d charm the pants off all the grownups in the room, but soon as no one was looking, launch one of the antics for which he remains legendary (the six moving violations he managed to accumulate on his first solo driving expedition; the time he locked his junior high teacher out of the classroom; the night he snuck out of the house at 3 a.m. to work out at the gym, ignoring the fact that his mother had forbidden it since he had a final exam that morning in a class he was just barely passing).

what it means is that 15 hours into the 22-hour brain surgery to repair the aneurysm, just after the surgeons had stepped away from the operating table to study an image on a screen, to try to figure out how to untangle this tangled mess, the darn thing blew, meaning it bled for 45 minutes into his brain stem — the control tower of the brain — and his lower brain.

what it means is that when patrick woke up from that life-or-death surgery, he was, as his father puts it, “in between,” a place no one had ever considered. it means he was wholly paralyzed except for the blink of his eyes, and the capacity to move his eyeballs up or down.

and within the week of his waking up, everyone realized he had full cognitive powers — even though he couldn’t utter a sound, or even swallow. he could still make you laugh, he still wielded his full armament of four-letter expletives, and eventually, he would be able to write 1,000-word college papers, some of them funny enough to take to the stand-up comedy stage (which his beloved nurse, mary jo, has done).

patrick is “locked-in,” a rare syndrome most poignantly and poetically described in the book, “the diving bell and the butterfly,” (also a movie of the same title) by jean-dominique bauby, who before he suffered a massive stroke in 1995 had been editor-in-chief of french elle, and who composed his memoir one blink at a time, the very same way patrick now communicates. using a color-coded “spell board,” in which the lines of the alphabet are arranged in five different-colored blocks, each beginning with a vowel, letters are recited until patrick shifts his left eye up, meaning “that’s the letter i want,” and the letter is recorded, a string of blinked spellings that make even a four-letter word an exercise in slow-mo determination.

anyway, that’s what i’ve been immersed in this week, and the thought that washes over me — as i consider that i have a boy the exact same age, who on 10-9-06 suffered a broken neck that by the grace of God did not leave him locked-in — is how blessed every tiny blessing is: the gift of getting out of bed, or brushing our teeth, and tiptoeing down the stairs into a waking-up kitchen. the gift of making a sound. the gift of taking a bite out of a sandwich.

i’m on deadline this morning writing the story of patrick and a filmmaker putting voice to his story, and someone i love just walked in to say she needed to talk, so i am suddenly utterly distracted, and my heart is pounding through my chest: i think i am about to remember all over again, what a blessing it is to be wholly alive….sometimes i have no notebook in hand when what matters most hits me.

spellboard

that’s patrick way up above, under the blanket, with his beloved and glorious nurse, mary jo, and the filmmaker. colleen, and yet another caregiver. and just above is the spell board, patrick’s sole link to utterance of any sort. here’s how it works: someone recites the colors, “red, blue, yellow, green, gold,” and when you get to the color of the line that holds the letter, patrick looks up; then you begin reciting the litany of alphabet letters in that particular line. again, when you hit the letter patrick wants you to add to the spelling-in-progress, he looks up. over and over it goes till the word, the sentence, the paragraph is spelled out

consider your blessings. every little one. that’s the profound simple message this week

bit by bit (or, the wisdom of being lost)

bit by bit TK flyaway

the hard perch of the airport chair was where i sat for a good half hour after he’d slipped down the gullet that led to the plane that would carry him into the pink-soaked sun-setting sky.

i wasn’t budging till that plane rolled down the tarmac, till it pulled him into the twilight, into the far off far off.

i thought much during that chunk of an hour of how the heart is a vessel that needs determined attention. a heart doesn’t stretch to its widest capacity, not without a long curriculum of tending and exercise. not without short chapters in being pulled to the pinching point, and then finding our way, home through the maze.

my not-so-little one took his first solo flight into yesterday’s sunset. flashed his own boarding pass, lugged his own suitcase, squeezed no one’s hand this time when the plane lifted off, that glorious gallump from earthbound to air.

he’d been hoping and wishing and pining for a chance to go back to a place he loves, back to the global village he called home all last year, back to friends who’d wrapped him in their arms and their hearts and carried him through a landscape that forever changed his worldview. he squeezed me so tight the night i clicked on his ticket, i thought i’d teeter down the stairs. this week, as monday turned to tuesday and wednesday, and finally to thursday, he could barely keep from counting down every last hour.

but then, at gate C 27 at the far end of the concourse at the world’s second-busiest airport, he realized just what he was about to do, what he’d never done before. and once i kissed him — loudly, too loudly — on the forehead, once i’d discovered the angel named “christina” who promised to get him where he needed to be on the other end, in boston, he looked away, into the place where you look when you’re blinking back tears, and talking down all the worries that have come tumbling out of your heart and settled solidly in the pit of your throat.

i watched that young boy of mine, that boy whose heart carries him straight into the face of his fears sometimes, i watched him hand his boarding pass — a bit crinkled by then — to the nice man at the door to the jetway. i watched him tug one last time on his suitcase on wheels. i watched his little boy legs, decked out in hiking shorts and basketball socks, and i felt my heart melt away.

i know it’s not easy for him to get on a plane, to sleep on someone’s hard floor. i know he gets horrible headaches sometimes.

but i know, more than that, that this is a kid who leads with his heart. and who, despite the wobbles and the oh-what-did-i-get-myself-into’s, never backs down from fear. he gives a tug to the wheels and doesn’t look back. he turns round the bend and into the mouth of the plane.

i sat there, nose to the vast span of glass, and saw this short trip for a good bit of what it was: an exercise in finding his way, an exercise in letting a boy discover deep down inside just how resilient he is, just how deeply he can count on the heart that pounds in the chest of his 80-pound self.

his biggest worry as we’d driven to the airport was what if, once he got off the plane, he couldn’t find his way to the baggage claim? what if his dear and wonderful friend — and the whole seventh-grade welcome committee — couldn’t convince the TSA agents in boston to let them slide through security to get to the gate where the intrepid traveler would be getting off the plane?

you’ll find your way, i told him. you’ll stay calm, most of all. you’ll use your brain. and your common sense. and you’ll look for signs. and ask for help if you need it. there are kind people everywhere.

not a bad prescription for all of us, for all of life, come to think of it.

and maybe that’s why, more than anything, i could hold my own breath and let him walk down that accordion-pleated tube all on his own: because as much as i want to hold him tight — no, more than i want to hold him tight — i want him to feel the rush of wind at his cheeks, i want him to know the sturdiness of those well-muscled calves, i want him to know the intricacies of his own inner compass, and the invincibility of that very fine, very deep heart.

isn’t that one of the many definitions of love: to put wings to dreams? to launch early soarings that build to some day’s long flight?

isn’t all of childhood a trajectory of ascend and retreat, climb and tumble, kiss the hurt and try all over again? aren’t we always aiming to loosen the training wheels, to give the children we love the power and knowledge that there is not a hill  too high to try to crest? and how will they take in the view from the mountaintop if we don’t plonk them on the starter slopes, whisper in their ear that we know they can do it, and we’ll be here to catch them if and when they need us?

just last week i read a fascinating article about the latest frontier explored by howard gardner, the harvard educator who first advanced the notion of multiple intelligence. in a new book titled “the app generation,” gardner and his co-author, katie davis, consider the ways kids growing up with infinite apps at the touch of their smartphone screen will navigate this new world. the professors probe “app-dependent” versus “app-enabled,” and try to steer us toward the latter.

but the point they made that’s had me thinking all week is when they mentioned how, in a GPS world, kids today barely stand a chance of getting lost, of finding themselves directionless (in a literal, compass-like sense), and thus how they might never get to know the glorious rush of bewilderment followed by clarity. of walking aimlessly and without mooring, before digging deep, relying on internal and external cues to find their way out of the maze — be it city streets, or out in the woods. or in the A terminal of boston’s logan international airport.

so, sitting there in the hard airport chair, training my eyes on the plane that did not budge, i relished this moment, this breathtaking adventure of letting my big-hearted boy dip deep into the vast tool box that’s already his.

he’ll soar home through the stars come sunday eve, and there at the gate will be his papa and i, open-armed and ready to wrap him in once again. the brave sojourner, back where — for now — he belongs most of all.

godspeed, sweet traveler. you teach your mama so very much. xoxoxo

the art of getting lost: do you remember a time when you hadn’t a clue where you were, and needed to find your way? is it a lesson you’ve considered passing along? and do you remember your first solo flight? and what wisdom did you bring home, tucked in your traveler’s bag? 

make-believe b & b

company coffee

if you put your ear to the floorboards around this old house, you might pick up a hum. a particular hum. a hum that’s more like a purr. (it would be found amidst the gnarling and churning that comes with waiting for news, editor news.)

that hum, i’ve come to determine, is the purr of an innkeeper in the making. a girl who makes believe she’s running the best sort of b & b. not one for money, but one for pure love. in recent weeks, we’ve had a long and sumptuous string of company. company of the very best kind: overnight, nestling deep into the morning. sometimes, day upon day.

overnight company affords moments that in-and-out company does not. overnight company affords these things: curling under a blanket, on the couch, as the stars turn on, burn deep into the night; ferrying trays of coffee and cream and wee little vases of wee little blossoms up to the bedroom door; settling in for long conversation that courses through the homework hour, as you practice the fine art of juggling your math tutoring skills along with your conversational curiosities. overnight company makes a wednesday night prestidigitate into the feel of the night before christmas.

overnight company is being wrapped in angora threads, throwing the blanket of friendship across both of your backs — yours and that of your overnight friend — and each of you pulling tight on your end of the threads.

overnight company allows for slow unspooling inspection of every last inch of the heart and the soul. or at least a good hearty guffaw deep in the hours of darkness. and, sometimes, a revelation or three.

because home is the wellspring of my heart, welcoming people i love into these chambers is the highest art in the art known as hospitality, a word with 14th-century roots, one that wends its way through old french and on into latin, where it’s derived from hospes, “guest,” and has come to mean “friendliness to guests,” (or if you mis-read as i first did, friendliness to ghosts. egad).

it’s the french knots and tiny twists embroidered into the course of the stay — be it a mere 18 hours, or as long as five days or even (gasp) two weeks. it’s filling the fridge and the pantry with the very deliciousness a particular friend savors, a secret you know because you’ve spent the years of your friendship paying attention. it’s stacking fluffy towels on the broad-lapped armchair, and punctuating the stack with a dark-chocolate sweet, and a french herbal soap. it’s tucking a water bottle and a vase of bright blooms at the bedside, because you’re aiming for beauty and full-throttle comfort, and stumbling in the dark for a drink in the night is hard on the toes and no fun, besides. it’s planning a dinner that’s at once unassuming and deeply satisfying, one that’s best if slow-cooked and accomplice to the trick of filling the house with wafting clouds of garden-clipped herbs and spices and fruits of the season.

it’s waiting at the train station. or driving into the city to fetch your overnight visitor. it’s clearing the deck for as much or as little conversation as the friend has hours or inclination.

it’s the blessing of hearing the footsteps from overhead as you’re down in the pre-dawn kitchen, slicing pumpkin-y bread, and popping the garnet-jeweled seeds out of the pomegranate’s oozing belly. it’s knowing the next face you see coming round the bend is one you’ll never get enough of. and there, over early morning swirl of caffeine, you begin the day, emboldened by this rare gift of starting the hours together.

over the years i’ve learned that i’m far more inclined toward one-on-one conversation. will take a tete-a-tete over a horde any old day. give me deep. never mind a room that’s buzzing with noise.

i savor a conversation that doesn’t drown out the tick or the tock of a clock in the next room over, a conversation that allows the pauses to speak as robustly, as tellingly, as the pop and the sizzle of the words. i am drawn to burrowing, deep in the heart, as well as under the deep stack of afghans tucked by the fire. and i find it best done in ones and twos.

it’s all the romance — and, really, the architecture — of friendship. of considering each and every sensory vessel a channel into the heart, into the endosperm of why we’re here in the first place: to find our shared thoughts, to hold our visions up to the light, to march in each other’s company, to hear the sound of our footsteps in tandem. to discover we’re not all alone. not always, anyway.

much of it comes, i’m certain, from my years curled up with fairy tales and picture-book pages. i was a dreamer early on, and always will be. maybe it comes from wanting so deeply to be tucked under the covers at night. or maybe it’s simply because the sound of a china teacup tinkling against a saucer or spoon, is a song that sings to my delicate heart. maybe it comes from knowing how enchanted it felt to be ushered into a wise woman’s greenhouse, one tucked at the back of a great gothic castle long long ago, and the crisp-edged memory of being served from a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice and offered a plate of pepperidge farm buttery cookies, all dappled in afternoon sunlight. all whispering into my ear how very welcomed i was — how much i mattered — in that magical envelope of time and place.

or maybe it’s simply that i feel bound, sometimes, by the walls of my heart, and i turn to whole-body expression to tell the ones that i love just how deeply i love them: i cook for them, clean for them, tuck treats onto pillows or trays and carry it all to their door. i can’t always find all the words, so i wrap them in the swirl of all that i love.

it’s a bold hope that they won’t leave this old house without this knowing tucked in their heart: they are loved without bounds, forever and ever. amen.

how did you learn the art of hospitality? who were your shining lights and teachers? and what are the little remembrances — the french knots and tiniest stitches of hospitality — that melted your heart and made you know you were so very welcome in the life of someone you love? 

gobsmacked by everyday prophets

Dew Drops

proph-et (n.) 1. (in some religions) a person believed to have been sent by God to teach people about his intentions. 2. a person who predicts the future. 3. a person who promotes or supports a new belief or theory.

and so it is that as we motor along the patched asphalt roads of our everyday, suddenly we screech to a stop when we realize, right before our eyes, a wise soul, a prophet, a shaker-upper has flung his or her wisdom splat in the middle of the lane. stuck there, not able to never mind, not able to turn the wheel and steer around it, we succumb to the roadblock. loosen our grip on the wheel, stare wide-eyed through the windshield, soak up every last tidbit of what’s there in a pile clogging the throughway.

sometimes that’s what it takes to get us to pause, to pay attention.

and so it was, not so many days ago, when sitting in the dim-lit auditorium where our synagogue holds the talk part of sunday school. the rabbi was up at the front, at the mike, sipping his starbucks grande whatever. and, once again, the conversation seemed to be steering into one of those ones i’ve heard far too often. the topic, more or less: how in the world do you talk to your kids about God, when you’ve no clue who or what that might be?

i’ve learned to sit on my hands. to mostly not raise one or the other. over the years, i’ve made it clear on several occasions that i DO have a clue who that is. that i find the Holiness all around and within. that it’s there at the dawn when i tiptoe outside and find the heavens alight with pinpoints of stars. that it’s there when the voice on the other end of the line breathes hope into my emptiness. that it’s there when the words that spill from the mouth of the child i’m tucking in bed hit me with a compassion i’d not expect from a grownup, let alone a 12-year-old who can’t for the life of him untangle the distributive property upon which his pre-algebra homework is hinged.

i’d more or less surrendered to the conversation, felt myself sinking lower and lower — in spirit and chair. but then, the long lanky fellow a few seats to the east in my row, he raised his hand. now, i know this fellow to be wise, and i know he’s lived through some tragedy. his wife died when his children were little, one still in diapers, one just past toddling. he speaks with a gravely voice, the result of a cancer.

here’s what he said: “when my son asked why people die, i said: because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters… 

i sat there, low in my spring-loaded chair, and suddenly bolted upright. humbled. stunned. turning the words over and over in my head, as if marbles i held to the light. examining, absorbing.

how we live matters….

these words from a father to son, a son who’d just lost his mother.

i did what i do when i know i’ve heard wisdom: i reached for my backpack, i pulled out a pen and my red little moleskin. i loosened the elastic snap that holds open the next empty page. i scribbled. i suddenly was wide awake and taking in every word of this conversation, no longer the same old, same old.

all week i’ve drifted back to that moment. when suddenly, out of the almost dark, a gravely voice spoke words that stirred me, top to bottom, inside to out.

i was knocked over by what he said — especially since i’ve too heavy a dose of black irish soul, the sort that too often fears the end is just around the next bend, and this notion of using that as a wedge to take it up a notch, to live each blessed day as if it could be the last or the second to last, is rather a zap to the noggin, to the soul.

but even more i was knocked over by the blessed truth that we never know where the wisdom will come, we never guess the prophets around us. and that’s why it matters that we stand at attention. that we live on the lookout — for wisdom, for truth, for gentlest kindness and full-bodied compassion.

if instead of sinking low in our chairs, if instead of surrendering to the ho-hum humdrum we think is unfurling, we stay awake to the possibility that someone far wiser than we’ll ever be is about to brush up against us, pass along a kernel of all that’s holy and wise and forever.

and that’s why this mystery called life is so utterly and wholly capable of taking our breath away — without drumroll or siren — and filling it in with high-octane Holy.

so, who’s your prophet of late? and what wisdom was plopped in your lap?

photo credit above: my sweet will kamin. a morning’s dew captured in magnificent light. not unlike the gift of the prophet….

ministrations of waiting

bulbs

they are the necessary lulls. the pauses between breath. the sometimes awful, often angst-filled hours of not knowing. of waiting.

of not yet filling in the blanks with answers just around the bend.

i am waiting now. waiting now that one editor has signed off, has passed along a final manuscript to another, to the one who decides. who deems yea, or hmm, maybe you should take another crack at this….

and if you are composed of the filaments and synapses that are mine, this is where all sorts of goblins filter in. you begin to imagine conversations. you picture emails. most of them begin, “i’m so sorry….”

you imagine the worst. you imagine, because at some deep sad level it must reflect the deepest reflection of your vision of your soul, that you’ve not measured up. will never measure up.

i’d thought it might be wise to not put these words to paper (so-called paper, anyway). but then i thought, oh geez, too many of us share this plight. we doubt ourselves before we’re given one chance to rise up, to shine.

so here i wait. and while i wait, i realize that the wisest thing for me to do — besides turn the dial on the little voices that fill my head, that convince me of my unworthiness — is to get about the business of tending to the oft-pushed-aside quotidian. the season’s turning calls to me. the night’s chilled air begs attention. there are bulbs to tuck into the gashes of the earth. there are long-frond ferns who beg for warmth inside, who promise green through winter. or at least through thanksgiving.

i missed last year’s call to tuck in for winter slumber. i was far away, and could not tend to the bulbs, the fronds, the birds that have come to depend on me. so i’ve been out already this morning, out since well before the inky dawn was rubbed away. i was out with my buckets of seeds, i was out unearthing bulbs from the layers of crinkled newspaper that blanket them, that i pray kept them safe enough through the night that grew colder while i was not paying attention.

the earth does that: turns on and on without heed to whether we are paying attention. if we notice, if we tuck the bulbs before they freeze, well then glory is the prize come springtime. if not, if we blew it, weren’t worthy of the glory, well then the earth will not crack, no green shoot will rise, no heirloom hyacinth or bread-and-butter daffodil will trumpet.

i will soothe myself with the apothecary of the home and garden that i’ve claimed as my surest cure for almost anything that ails me. i will slow cook. and dig in the garden. i will sit in dappled light, with sweaters round my shoulders. i will drink in arcing sunlight, and winged shadow. i will tend the tender shoots and leaves that depend on me. i will practice believing that the pause is not about my falling short, but rather simply for another reason.

i will try. this practice doesn’t come without its stumbles. this practice is emboldened with a sturdy trowel, and a box of bulbs begging to be tucked where they will thrive. after a long winter’s pause.

do you too suffer the plight of the deep gnawing misgiving? the cursed lack of faith? the scourge of never thinking you are good enough? 

holy lights

holy lights

you might think i was lighting vigil lights for my exhausted self, trying to keep the juices flowing just a few more sentences, a few more rounds of edits and revisions. but, in fact, i dipped into my files to find a snap from one of the holiest places i have ever knelt: deep inside the thick stone walls of the monastery by the bend in the charles river, far off now, in 02138.

i’m lodging it squarely on the page this morning because today, as i madly type, at least one more day, i am bringing to the table two bits of holy wonder: the first is a peek inside that monastery, a lovely video clip of a day in the life of brother geoffrey, brother superior of the society of st. john the evangelist. it’s the closest thing i’ve found to taking you by the hand, shoving open the oh-so-heavy oak-timbered doors, and tiptoeing across the hushed stone floors. for those among us who hunger for the occasional dose of monasticism, here’s your peek inside.

the next bit of wonder — and it truly is nothing short of modern-day miracle — is a mind-blowing interview with the new pope, francis, as he sits down with the self-proclaimed atheist founder of the italian newspaper, la repubblica.

there is a deep ecumenical thread to what’s brought to this table, and i certainly haven’t had much to bring from my old catholic church in recent years, but this pope francis is worth a watch. a close watch. and i am watching more and more closely all the time.

at rather a quick clip, he is racking up reasons to pay attention: he reaches into the throngs and embraces the disabled (he lifted into his arms a boy with cerebral palsy, a modern-day pieta, indeed — and on easter sunday, no less). he washes the feet of the sinners. he flicks away the papal apartment, opting instead for austere and simple digs. he drives a used car, for cryin’ out loud (and urges all priests and nuns to do the same). and, best of all, he wouldn’t know a prada if it hit him in the head.

well, check out this latest: he calls up common folk — that’s right, he dials them on his own, gets them on the line — and invites them over for a splash of coffee and conversation. and he sure doesn’t limit his phone calls to confirmed believers. he reaches out to anyone who’s reached out to him, or who might simply offer a stimulating hour’s conversation.

but even more than what he’s doing, it’s what he’s saying that makes me lean in close, listen hard, widen eyes, and fist-bump the heavens, holy hallelujah.

of gays, he said: “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will — well, who am I to judge him?”

on abortion and contraception: church hierarchy has been “obsessed,” the word he used, the word that stole headlines.

but i think it’s in the next few lines that the true wisdom is found:

“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

here’s the link to the whole of that interview, in the jesuit magazine, america.

and my favorite line from that entire interview:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds….”

…the church as a field hospital after battle….heal the wounds, heal the wounds…

ah, but it’s the latest interview, the one in the italian-language repubblica, that i set out to bring here (it’s dizzying, there is so much unfurling so swiftly from the vatican…).

even the big thinker andrew sullivan had his socks knocked off, by the latest. called the pope nothing short of “revolutionary,” and what he said, “miracle.”

i’m thinking that’s precisely the prescription for these times, a revolution laced with miracles.

one last bit of papal poetry, a line worth etching into your living room walls:

“God is the light that illuminates the darkness, even if it does not dissolve it, and a spark of divine light is within each of us.”

finally the link to andrew sullivan’s musings in his blog, “the dish,” and the repubblica interview itself.

as sullivan puts it: “I urge you to read it, whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a believer or anything in between.”

and i do, too. get comfy. please, pull up a chair.

now, back to typing, stirred by revolution. your thoughts on the vatican’s radical resident, the first in a very long time?  

the holiness of work

holiness of work this

the dry spell had been long. the dust, collecting in my throat. the days of wondering where i was meant to be. aching for a path, a sense of how to find the clearing, through the thicket, up the side of the mountain.

some days i swore i’d lost my soul. found myself pounding out tales of how to clear a plugged drain (talk about ironic). oh, sure, i liked the plumbers all right. didn’t mind learning a thing or two about the ways of my sink. but really? i’d left the bedsides of dying children, picked up pen and notebook, to find myself 30 years later, making sure the world knew how to un-plug that drain.

clearly, that was not my steady diet. i spiced it up with the occasional soulful musing. saying goodbye to kids headed off to college. saying goodbye to my own. but it was, more days than i wanted it to be, an exercise in driving me to madness.

i could barely remember those days this week as i sat, morning after morning, in the shifting light. heard the chatter from just beyond the screen, as the sparrows had it out with the cardinals. and no one appreciated the stalking ways of my fat striped cat.

but there i was, red pen in hand, poring over pages that are typed-out vessels from my heart. more like prayer cards, each and every one. it’s called editing, but really it’s distilling. distilling to the essence, paring away excess. cutting to the bone.

it happens to be essential to the craft of writing, but really it’s essential in this odyssey called life.

we are each of us, processing machines. we wander through the day, absorbing this and that, taking in that long tale, and this winding one. if we’re thinking, paying attention, we are always on the lookout for the essence, the gospel take-away, the distillation of heart and mind and soul.

one by one, we take the offerings of the day, hold them to the light, sift and sort. decide which ones serve up sustenance, which ones merely upholstered the day in wit and whimsy.

so that’s the task i’m attending to right now. whittling down page after page, sentence after sentence, to its essence. its holy spark, if there is one. others will be the judge.

and as i slowly turned the pages, as the red pen traced progress in the margins, i found myself bathed in an undiluted sense of the holy. maybe, just maybe, it’s baptism, all over again. a new beginning. maybe after all the years, i’ve stumbled on the deep pure vein that connects me, that i’ve been trying to find for what feels like forever.

holiness. it’s why i set out on my journey long ago. it’s the wind beneath my wings.

and it came up and tapped me on the heart this week. seeped in through the holes in the screen door. filled the kitchen.

there’s work to be done, from now till tuesday, when the next deep round of edits are due. this whole month is pretty much a blur of tight deadlines, one cascading atop another. thank God i live with someone who understands the urgency, and the long long dry spell that preceded it.  he seems to know that it’s a prayer i am offering to the heavens. because really that’s what this is.

and it’s the holiest work i’ve ever done.

thank God it found me. i’ve been searching for so long.

so that’s the update from here at the news desk. whirling madly toward the deadline. a dear friend visiting for the weekend, the joy of trying to sustain calm amid deep-down palpitations. so i’ll simply pay closer attention to whatever it is i’m doing in the moment. extract more essence. 

and the question: what’s your holy work? and how did it find you?

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