pull up a chair

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

to name them is a prayer…

the thought struck me, as thoughts often do, as i got to the last line of a poem that read (to me anyway) as a prayer.

the last lines were these:

I take refuge in You
from the inextricable mischief
of every thing You made,
eggs, milk, cinnamon, kisses, sleep.

it was in the quiet of the quotidian, the kisses tucked in between the cinnamon and sleep. the noticing the eggs and milk. that’s what took my breath away. nine hundred times out of 10, eggs and milk might be mere scribbles on a grocery list, but really, when you pause long enough, when you think about it, when you find them there on the shelf of the icebox, and don’t find yourself dashing to the store to grab the eggs to make the french toast your kid home from college is hungry for, their being there at all is a blessing, a grace, a reason to whisper hallelujah, which is just a jubilant form of thank you.

it’s in the fine grain, again and again, that some of the most sumptuous gratitudes—graces—are found. the hundred and one barely perceptible goodnesses that cross our paths each day. but if we don’t name them, do we notice them?

to name them is a prayer.

more often, too often, when we sit down to count our blessings, we sweep across the broad terrain of our lives, grab the big stuff, swoop right over the infinitesimal, and, well, we lose ’em, lose their power to inject a jolt of realizing just how darn blessed we really truly are.

talk to someone who’s never heard a cardinal sing the world to sleep. or the pit-a-pat of rain on the roof. talk to someone who can’t push up from a chair. or saunter down to the mailbox. or taste the tart-sweet pop of a pomegranate seed. ask them how hard they might have prayed for that sound, that step, that sweetness.

what we don’t notice, all the things that we forget to count, just might be the out-of-reach to someone else. just might be the thing for which they pray so mightily. day after holy, holy day…

seems right to up our game, our paying-attention game. it’s a praying pose, after all.

and so, in this season of counting up and gathering a motherlode of blessings, i decided to give it a whirl, to put my eye to the fine-grain ones, the ones that come without bullhorn or billboard, the ones that simply quietly punctuate the day. i kept watch across the week. and knowing that to name them is a prayer, i named them, each and every one. here’s an abbreviated census:

  • my answer man of a brother, the one i know i can call midway through turkey prep to get an educated opinion on whether to leave the naked bird to air dry in fridge, or leave him (the bird, not the brother) shrink-wrapped for another cold dark night.
  • the husband who sees the joy in a vintage turntable on which to play rescued vinyl from his youth, and thinks nothing of driving 38 miles on thanksgiving eve to fetch it from the one store that happens to have a single one in stock.
  • the rare, rare gift of standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the cookstove with my firstborn, (well, really, my shoulder hits him at about mid-rib) instead of being connected by the long, long-distance phone line. 
  • knowing two boys are in beds up above my head as i sit here tap-tapping on the keys, and the sheer joy of knowing they’re stirring when i hear the floorboards creak.
  • the heating and cooling guy who two years ago promised he’d get us a new vent for over the stove, and at 4 o’clock on the eve of thanksgiving called to say he was on his way over. and then promised no schmutz would flutter down into the pots already simmering away on the stove….
  • the lull on thanksgiving eve, when the potatoes have been mashed, the naked bird is air-drying, and the choreographed list awaits the dawn….
  • and on the day of feasting itself, nothing beats the sheer hallelujah of finally, finally having every last morsel out of the oven, off the stove, and on the table. and as you plop your bum in the chair, pour your knob of prosecco, you look across the maple planks, set with hand-me-down plates and rescued candlesticks, and drink in the faces of those you so deeply, dearly love.
  • the pink wash of dawn that veiled the garden this morning as i hauled out the bulging bags of recyclables from a long day’s imbibing and inhaling…
  • and one last one, just found tucked in the mailbox, from the darling darling little angels who live across the street, and who make my heart do cartwheels every time our days entwine:
  • and no proper list would end without this: the incredible warmth and the wisdom that never ever fails to burst through the glass screen of any laptop or phone, from all the wonderful “chairs” who ring this globe. you–yes, YOU!–are among the dearest in my life, and you never ever cease to melt my heart. thank you for always being kind, always bringing wisdom, and making this the sacred place we all believe in….

what fine grains are on your list?

praise song for november

ever since the jersey sojourner landed safely back home here along the shores of our great lake, this old house has been awash in crumpled-up wads of packing paper, and boxes, and bubblewrap. i’ve been up to my hipbones wading through it all, trying to find tucked-away places for treasures now in our keep, relics salvaged from a faraway house now awaiting its death blows. 

and that’s when, while sipping a time-out tea, i scrolled through the mail and stumbled upon a praise poem, a praise poem so lovely it made time expand, a few short minutes turned into what felt like a goodly chunk of time, and i carried the praise poem with me while i worked. 

here’s the poem worthy of praising:

Praise Song

Praise the light of late November,
the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones.
Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees;
though they are clothed in night, they do not
despair. Praise what little there’s left:
the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls,
shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow
of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory,
the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky
that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down
behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves
that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum,
Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy
fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.

~ Barbara Crooker ~
 (Abalone Moon, Summer 2004)

next time i took a break from all the stripping away of papers and the swiping away of cobwebs in the places i’d found for storing, i decided to dig into a bit of knowledge about this literary genre that pulses with pure and unfiltered heart, one praise practically tripping over another. 

here are but a few bare bones, mostly dug up from my friends at britannica (the encyclopedia, that is): praise poetry first stirred in medieval literature, especially during the renaissance, when it poured forth worship of or admiration for heroes, kings, or deities.

it seems the praise poem––also called mlenmlen, oriki, or praise name––is one of the most widely used poetic forms in africa, a series of laudatory epithets––descriptive word-pictures or word-paintings––applied to gods, men, animals, plants, towns, you name it. the point is to capture the essence of whoever or whatever is being praised, and to lavish praise.

think not that just anyone is inclined to get up and start praising, at least not in the african homeland. professional bards––akin to a court poet––are the ones ordained to chant praise songs, with the reciter taking position in an open space, visible to all assembled. the reciting begins in high voice, rhythmic backbeat sometimes provided by spear stomped against ground, a punctuational note that would get my attention. metaphor is a key device, so too poetic license for coining new words. (i’m in with anyone who’s making up words.)

it’s an oral form that, not surprisingly, found its way to worship in the american black tradition, and, now rooted there, fills the sanctuary of many a black church. you might remember elizabeth alexander’s glorious “praise song for the day” written for and recited at president obama’s first inauguration, on that cold yet hopeful january day in 2009. (so far in the distance now, it almost seems like another america.)

inspired by this notion of rolling praise, especially in this season of gathering gratitudes, i decided to try my own, mindful that praise is another name for anointing through blessing. the beannacht is the celtic version thereof, the bracha is how jews unfurl their blessings. all the earth and its inhabitants, certainly the ones humble enough to know we’re not here of our own making, seem hardwired to nod, bend knee, and bow. i beg permission to attempt the tradition, and hereby begin:

Praise the homecomings of late November, the footsteps you know by heart, the ones that tell you someone you love is just one floor above, and any minute now his bear-like hungers will awake, will startle, and he’ll come foraging into the woods of your well-fruited refrigerator. 

Praise the mottled gray November skies, the herringbone of heaven and cloud, infinite afghan we draw round our shoulders, as November signals its call to begin the turning in, the deepening quiet of winter coming. 

Praise the molasses light of waning November, pooling across floorboards, magnifying the smudge and the splatters of each and every unwashed windowpane. 

Praise the gathering table you’ll set for the first time in a too-long time. Praise the remembering that comes as you haul out the once-a-year dishes, as your riffle through the recipe tin, bring to the feast heirlooms––and long-gone stirrers of pots––of kitchens past. 

Praise the voices soon to rise from the room where the forks and the knives will scrape against plates, where stories will unspool, and laughter—praise be—will punctuate the convening, weave the disparate souls of the room into one. 

Praise the stripped-bare essence of autumn’s end, the disrobing almost over now. Limb and bough and trunk, exposed against the palette of sky. Praise the way we see more now, as less is there to get in the way. Let that be our guiding vision.

Praise the wisdom that comes with November’s close, these days ripe for inner harvest. When the orchard’s gone sleeping, the fields have gone fallow, sift through the loam that’s rich in your soul. Root around, take in wisdom, turn the page, listen to the forest, or the grasses that rustle to the song of winter’s-coming. Let it sink in, sink deep, all through the slumbering months.

here’s a variation on praise, a heavenly one, albeit written in deepening shades of darkness, from one of my very favorite poets, w.s. merwin. it’s titled simply, “thanks.”

Thanks

W. S. Merwin – 1927-2019

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

From Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 1988 by W. S. Merwin.

both the crooker praise poem and possibly the merwin (should you care to make a point, to stir a somber note into your table’s conversation) might be welcome at your gratitude table. or you might be inclined to pen your own. either way, from my old maple table to your table in whatever its form, blessings, blessings, and praise be to the chairs. 

do you have a praise poem you love? what praise would you pen should you be so inspired? 

equinox of the heart

My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.

On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day  and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International. 

He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.

And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond. 

It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height). 

My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.

I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again. 

And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading. 

Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.

funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shuffling around in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…

photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.

the boys i love, the one coming home tuesday on the left. standing in the front yard of their grandparents’ house on the day of their grandmother’s funeral.

how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow. how do you find a stillpoint?

the rare company of an especially fine book

long, long ago, the one certain place where i escaped in the house where i grew up, where i all but opened the window and soared out through the oaks, was beneath the covers of a patchwork quilt in my upstairs room where i’d hide for hours on end in the pages of an opened book.

the very architecture of a book is built for drawing you in: there’re the pages opening like spread-wide angels’ wings, there’s the tucked-in gulley where those pages are hinged to the spine, the gulley that demands ocular acrobatics, as your eyeballs make the leap from one page’s bottom to another one’s top. it’s an enclosing space, the sprawl of a book, a paper-and-glue construction akin to being wrapped in the long arms of a hug.

garth williams’ pig barn and charlotte’s web

back in the days when the books i read were washed in watercolor from the brushes of tasha tudor, or in the black ink of garth williams, i could get lost in a book from sun-up till starlight.

tasha tudor’s thumbelina

i’d wager a bet that those were the pages that imprinted on me the storybook poetries that have shaped every room of my grown-up house — the ticking and chiming of old schoolhouse clocks, windowpanes that peer into trees, birdhouses on poles, amply padded armchairs upholstered in checks, teapots that whistle, and logs that crackle in hearths.

that itch to escape — really, more of a pang or an unstoppable pull — still lures me, especially as the affairs of the world seem to crumble, as the ends of my nerves feel rubbed raw with brillo and steel wool. it might be why the walls of this old house are stacked, floor to ceiling in plenty of rooms, in tight-soldier rows of spine after spine. books are the balm, the antidote to so much of the madness beyond our front doors.

especially so is a book i tumbled into only this week. it’s a book for the soul, if ever there was. it’s a book for the tenderhearted, to which i most assuredly and emphatically admit. it’s diary of a young naturalist, by dara McAnulty, who not only is a teenager (a northern irish one) but one with extraordinary voice and vision. he’s autistic, he lets you know before you’ve come to the end of the prologue. but before he tells you that, he describes himself thusly: “i have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.”

count me as a kindred spirit.

even more so, he lets on again and again how trampled his heart often feels, how porous it is, and how solace for him comes in the tendernesses of the unfiltered natural world.

the book has bedazzled the literary world. young dara, all of fourteen when he penned these glorious pages, won the wainwright prize, britain’s blue ribbon for nature writing, for this, his debut work. that his words found their way into a book, let alone a prize-winning book, is a feat in and of itself; “quite amazing,” he writes, “as a teacher once told my parents ‘your son will never be able to complete a comprehension (a mandatory exam in the british educational system), never mind string a paragraph together.'”

well, string paragraphs he has done. has done, indeed. has done to the tune of 222 pages.

he’s been compared to the incomparable greta thunberg, perhaps the planet’s fiercest defender and an unfiltered critic of our devastations thereof. the guardian of london sang the diary’s praises, calling it “miraculous,” writing that it’s “a combination of nature book and memoir, a warm portrait of a close-knit family and a coming-of-age story,” in which McAnulty’s “simple, gorgeous sentences unfurl, one after another.” the poet aimee nezhukumatathil called it “at once a lush and moving meditation and electric clarion call to action.” reviewers, in the UK and here in the states, have heaped it with praise. “it really is a strange and magical experience,” wrote a reviewer in the daily mail, before comparing McAnulty’s writing to that of the poet ted hughes. another reviewer, one in the guardian, said McAnulty’s writing reminded him again and again of the great WH Hudson, a brilliant and eccentric nature writer “who lived with the same deep and authentic sense of emotional engagement with nature as McAnulty.”

weaving across the arc of a year, paying exquisite attention to season upon season, McAnulty drops us all to our knees, as we behold, along with him, the wonders of barn owls, cowslips, corncakes, and the summer’s first blackberries.

of the poetry of a blackbird’s morning sonata: “When the blackbird came, I could breathe a sigh of relief. It meant the day had started like every other. There was a symmetry. Clockwork.”

of dandelions: “Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from so much of the world,” he writes, “either because it’s too painful to see or feel, or because when I am open to people, the ridicule comes.”

a hidden pond: “…reflecting the sky and squiggling with shadows galore, darting in and out of the light. A convulsing mass of tadpoles, and with them the epic cycle of life, anticipation and fascination.”

springtime: “The ebb and flow of time punctuated by the familiar brings a cycle of wonder and discovery every year, just as if it’s the first time. That rippling excitement never fades. The newness is always tender.”

for a girl whose jangled nerves and galloping heart are soothed and slowed by the poetries of startling never-before-so-captured language, McAnulty is bliss by the spoonful. he describes his family as “close as otters,” and in describing a soaring white seabird he writes of “the art deco lines” of the gannet. caterpillars move “like slow-motion accordions,” and a goshawk chick looks “like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter.”

as if that’s not more than more than plenty, here are but two excerpts:

Prologue
This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change in county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was a baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family……

I started to write in a very plain bungalow surrounded by families who kept their children behind closed doors, and empty-nesters who manicured their gardens and lawns with scissors – yes, I actually witnessed this. This is where sentences first began to form, where wonder grappled with frustration on the page, and where our garden (unlike any other in the cul-de-sac) became a meadow during the spring and summer months, with wildflowers and insects and a sign that read ‘Bee and Bee’ staked in the long grasses, and where our family spent hours and hours observing the abundance that other gardens lacked, all of us gloriously indifferent to the raised eyebrows of neighbours that appeared from behind curtains from time to time.

Wednesday, August 1
We watch in wonder as countless silver Y moths feast on the purple blooms. Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion. The feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver, are shimmering with starry dust, protecting them from being eaten by our other nocturnal neighbours. I find it fascinating that silver Y fur can confuse the sonar readings of bats, and even when they are predated they can escape, leaving the bat with a mouthful of scales. And here we all are, the McAnultys congregated in worship of these tiny migrants. Soon they will make the journey to their birthplace, silver stars crossing land and sea to North Africa.

The night crackles as the storm of flitting moves off. We jump up and down and hug each other, tension leaking out. We chat and look at the sky, sparkling with Orion, Seven Sisters and the Plough. This is us, standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and relived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering stars calmed a storm in all of us.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist

part of the miracle of McAnulty’s writing is that he writes as evocatively about his neurocognitive otherness as he does about the dandelions, the otters, and the caterpillars. he is something of a spelunker into the unexplored wilds of the world seen through an asperger’s lens.

again, from the prologue, where he writes matter-of-factly:

“Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, all except Dad [a conservationist] — he’s the odd one out, and he’s also the one we rely on to deconstruct the mysteries of not just the natural world but the human one too. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, really. We’re as close as otters, and huddled together, we make our way out in the world.”

he writes, bracingly, about being bullied. about how, under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he feels “boxed in, a wild thing caged.” he writes of the foul-mouthed insults hurled his way. simply because he’s not like the others.

i’d say he’s beyond them.

reading his stripped-bare sentences, my eyes stung with tears. and in his aloneness, i felt the walls of my own heart reaching toward his. i found not merely comfort, but the rarest of company.

how blessed is the world that from his distant landscape of otherness, he makes art from life’s murkiest shadows to its patches of purest white light.

McAnulty’s latest book, wild child: a journey through nature, a multi-sensory jaunt through the wilds especially for children, was published last summer, and described as a “dreamy dive” into the natural world. he’s planning another book about his wanderings around ireland, connecting nature with myth. i’ve taken a number and am already standing in line for that one.

for i’ve found, in the pages gloriously inscribed by a boy who writes in tender tones, who sees the world in ways that make me truly see, a kindred spirit, a diarist who makes me feel safe and warmed in the clutches of this holy, holy earth.

what are the titles that bring you comfort in these trying times? and how precisely do they do so?

wilbur the terrific

when magical powers are no longer…

used to be i could fix things. when the lunch box was left at home, i could drive it to the schoolhouse door. the ladies in the office always obliged, and, knowingly nodding, got it delivered. when the mercury on the thermometer soared, or someone’s rosy red cheeks broke out in bumps, i slid open the medicine drawer, pulled out just the right fix-it concoction. when a red crayon snuck into a pocket that went into the dryer, i spent a whole afternoon plucking streaks of red wax from the tumbler. by sundown, you’d never have known. 

there was nary a thing i couldn’t patch back together, couldn’t replace, couldn’t make right by the end of the day.

but then the kids on whom i fixated my fix-it powers, they grew up. and while my doctor just the other morning announced that i’d shrunk by nearly an inch, i think she might have overlooked the fact that my magical powers are no longer. they’ve expired. passed the date on the side of the label. must have let out a gasp like air escaping from tires.

now, when a kid with a heavy heart calls late in the night, all i can do is listen. and mutter a swear word or two. (lest you tsk-tsk, the truth of the matter is that i’ve somehow managed to teach my nonagenarian mother the sheer satisfaction, the gleeful release, of a short swift four-letter word. we swear in unison now, my mother and i. one of our few shared pursuits.)

most of the time — thank the holy heavens — the things that bang up the heart of someone you love aren’t necessarily life or death. sometimes it’s a stupid clerical error that mucks up the works. and triggers hard-to-swallow outcomes. leaves a kid on the sidelines. figuratively or otherwise.

more often than not — knock on wood — the things that shove us into the ditch are things from which we recover. another chance comes along. time passes. someone reminds us to laugh. the sky, one night as the sun sets, paints itself a shade of papaya. 

it’s the immediate wake that’s tripping me up. it’s what comes after you hang up the phone. when you remember the old days, the days when it was your job to be the cleaner-upper, the fixer, the homegrown sorceress who kept all the goblins at bay. 

you realize your heydays are over. you can’t really fly in on your broom anymore, can’t kiss the hurt, and make the sting go away. 

you know — because you’ve read it in books, heard it whispered on benches at playgrounds — that it’s your job now to let your kid figure it out. employ their own fix-it powers. exercise resiliency. suffer the blow.

so you do as instructed. you stand back. feeling the lump in your throat grow bigger and bigger. wondering why your chest hurts so much.

you wish you could pick up the phone. call the college. or the boss. explain the injustice. beg for mercy, like any self-respecting grownup would do. 

but then, once again, you remember there’s another self-respecting grownup these days; it’s the kid you raised to not topple, not go weak in the knees every time life throws a hook. you tried your darnedest not to over-coddle (though coddling, i’d argue, is just another name for fiercely protecting, and i’d made a vow, a heavenly vow — silly as it might seem — to protect to the death the children i bore. i once actually — naively — believed that if i loved them fiercely enough i could keep them from every last hurt. turns out, the joke was on me).

i miss the days when i could all but fling on my cape, swoop in for the rescue. slice an apple in crescents, grab a fistful of pretzels, stir chocolate in milk. snuggle close on the couch. tuck someone in bed, plant a fat wet kiss to the cheeks. make it all better again.

i wish i’d realized back then that those were the days, the sweet days, when what ailed, and what brewed was within my magical powers. and i could turn out the lights knowing that all was, indeed and in fact, better again. the monsters were chased from the room.

it’s what happens when mothers grow up. though not quite as fast nor as sturdily as their beautiful, beautiful now grown and resilient long-ago children.

our magical powers give out, quite before we’re honestly ready. 

*of course i am simplifying here to make a general point, to muse on the achy part of feeling ourselves shoved from one stage to another. certainly there are times when the heavy hearts of my boys demand all i’ve got: not only my listening, but my leaping on planes, tracking down every last possible lead, and whatever else the worry or quandary or setback requires. it’s just that more often than it used to be, i’m merely the backdrop, the listening board, the human sponge for the sadness, dread, disappointment, you name it.

once upon a time, did you too expect that magical powers must be a clause in the motherly job description? did those powers fizzle over time, and what do you do with the ache when you realize your magic wand has given up the ghost?

holy comforter

maybe you haul your wounded self to the water’s edge, to where rocks punctuate the water’s otherwise-unstartled flow, and set things percolating, gurgling. perhaps it’s the roar of the water falling, tumbling down ledges. or the susurrations of a creek rushing through grasses. 

maybe you park your bum in the golden glowing woods, squat on a fallen trunk of maple or oak, a log now home to mosses and mushrooms. or you press your soles to the slope of a mountain, hard against granite or igneous rock, where, as the woodsman John Muir (who advised climbing barefoot) once noted, we’re wise to absorb the sacred essence “with our heels as well as our heads.” 

the other morning, knocked about by a phone call i’d been both chasing and dreading, i sought triage and solace out where the autumn light slanted in on my garden’s last gasps. holy comfort i found there with my clippers in hand, untangling my thoughts along with the last of the tomato’s serpentine withering vines, soaking in the morning’s few waning sunbeams. 

i all but wrapped myself in the strands of this earth’s balms. holy comforter, indeed. the warmth of the harvest sun. the unparalleled green. each late-season leaf expiring its last bits of life-giving balm, or what the twelfth-century mystic and herbalist hildegard of bingen termed viriditas, the divine healing power of green. she once wrote, “there is a power that has been since all eternity, and that force and potentiality is green!” in other words, the surging “thereness” of God, life source of all. and, oh, i basked in it the other morning. 

there is something particularly soothing — nay, healing — about the comforts of the late-season garden, about the comforts of each and every season, really. 

it’s as if the earth presses itself hard against my hollowed chest, against the faint beating of my worn-thin heart. it soothes without words, the whole of the creation does. doesn’t try to fill in the silence, offer quick fix. the earth, holy comforter, simply is present. stands in certain unwobbling encounter. makes real the declaration: “i am here.”

benevolent, earth offers healing by multiple choice: should you not feel the radiant heat on the bare skin of your arms, inhale the pungent spice-notes of marigold or spearmint as you break off a stem. or catch the fluttering shadow of october’s south-bound monarch playing with the breeze. or the chatter of sparrows, incessantly sparring. 

each and every sensory channel stands at the ready, inviting the way in. 

there’s a presence, grander, more tender, than i’ve otherwise known. it’s the enveloping bosom of this holy healing earth. or the soft shoulder against which i lay my weary head. 

it’s where i turn when the hurt is too big, or not yet sorted out, not pegged into words. and i’m as certain as anything that it’s the one i call God who enwraps me when i step into the wilds, when i carry my banged-up sorry old self into the balm that is this holy comforter earth. 

***

Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. / Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. / Now, think. / What delight God gives to humankind / with all these things….

—Hildegard of Bingen

how has any aspect of the whole of creation comforted you of late, or in particular?

in search of diamond country

sometimes i feel like a pilgrim without certain destination. i left a shore that no longer feels like home, like safe harbor, and i’m either adrift or paddling like hell toward parts unknown. i need to remind myself that not knowing does not equal nowhere. 

i’m speaking of the realm of religion; i’m speaking of a search for something beyond creed and dogma. i’m speaking of the search for something truer, for something eternally sacred, not outlined within the confines of human imagination, human motivations ill-begotten or simply mistaken. or cruel.

i firmly believe i’m pulled toward and by the pulsing heart of the purity i know as God. but, still, it’s shaky out here beyond the boundaries. beyond the catechism i was so dutifully taught so long ago. 

i suppose i’ve always been drawn to margins, to the outer rim of wherever i wandered. i remember a third-grade essay that got me in trouble. i remember watching a long litany of others get picked for red rover. i remember how in the halls of my high school, i huddled often with those sitting alone on the benches outside the lunch room. i remember i was certain it was why i was homecoming queen; i’d rejected the confines of cliques. 

and then, in a newsroom years and years later, i fell in love with and married a man of another religion, an interweaving not without hurdles and hard spots. we were squarely on the uncharted margins.

but i never let go of my core beliefs, never let go of my own guiding principles: turn the other cheek; love as you would be loved; welcome the little child; do for the least among us. seek the face of God in all faces, seek the sacred — in all peoples and places and things. 

and over and over, my mother taught me one indelible thing: don’t let the church get in the way of God. 

and so, in stumbling along, in my wanderings that in some ways mimic the ancient celtic tradition of peregrination — setting sail into the unknown — i gather up my own lifeline of wisdom seekers whose words illuminate my zigzagging way. they’re my personal pantheon of saints. some, i read about in the pages of books. some i meet in the checkout line.

which brings me to kenneth white, a scottish poet, and modern celtic prophet. born in 1936 in the slums of glasgow, he’s spent most of his adult life in france, teaching modern poetry at the sorbonne, and, though not all critics concur, he’s been hailed there as “one of the foremost english-language poets of today.” his poetry, it’s been said, holds traces of william carlos williams, ezra pound, and walt whitman, and, too, it weaves in filaments of zen buddhism and american transcendentalism. 

what i love most, in the not enough that i know, is that he points us toward seeing the shining deep in the natural landscape and seascape and skyscape. that shining, he teaches, is the light of the divine. he calls it “the diamond country” in the heart of all things. he sees it, writes j. philip newell, “glistening in earth, sea, and sky.” 

in a poem titled, “a high blue day on the scalpay,” white writes:

…the sea shimmering, shimmering

no art can touch it, the mind can only 

try to become attuned to it

to become quiet…open…still…

knowing itself in the diamond country, in

the ultimate unlettered light.

white belongs in a long line of thinkers who subscribe to an ancient theology known as the Book of Nature, a theology i’ve written a book about (though it waits still for an editor to send me her notes), a theology that holds that God’s first text was and is in and through creation, a text spelled out in the alphabet of leaves and stones, stars and sunlight, and the dawn and dusk of each day. a text birthed anew with each breath of creation.

it’s a theology that draws heavily from ancient celtic threads, threads that trace their roots to ancient eastern religions, to desert mothers and fathers of egypt, to persia and beyond. it’s a theology that subscribes not to pantheism but panentheism, God in all things. 

white, like emerson and thoreau, merton and all indigenous peoples, sees the natural world as a sacred text: “the sound of the wind in the treetops, the roaring of the waves, all these are sacred voices,” he writes.

put simply, it’s being awake to the sacred in all its iterations and voices, understanding the divine glistens and shimmers and stirs deep in the heart of all that is of this earth and its heavens. 

judaism teaches that at creation every drop of divine light was contained in a single vessel, but the vessel couldn’t contain it, so it shattered, scattering shards of light throughout the cosmos. our job, the rabbis teach us, is to search for and gather up those shards. 

kenneth white teaches so, too. “look for the shining in the deep of all things.” white is no romantic. he knows that the world is both “terrible and joyous.” (that’s an especially apt description of the now, though white wrote those words at another moment in history; terrible and joyous, a refrain without end.) yet beneath the glory and pain, the beauty and suffering, the pulse point, the epicenter, is always the deep, deep shining. the sacred eternal. the glistening of the diamond country.

he writes:

the loveliness is everywhere

even

in the ugliest 

and most hostile environment

the loveliness is everywhere

at the turning of a corner

in the eyes

and on the lips

of a stranger

in the emptiest areas

where there is no place for hope

and only death 

invites the heart

the loveliness is there

it emerges

incomprehensible

inexplicable

it rises in its own reality

and what we must learn is

how to receive it

into ours

i find solace in white’s promise, comfort in the embrace of his sharp-edged seeing. he’s not glossing over the pox, not disregarding the brokenness. he’s reminding: the sacred is ever-present, God doesn’t retreat. even when we cannot, for the life of us, make out even the faintest of outlines.

and there’s our pursuit, our life’s work: seek the loveliness, find your way to the diamond country. the sacred is stirring, is waiting….

gather the shards, glistening…

name a shining you’ve noticed of late. name ten shinings if you’re so stirred….

*photo above by will kamin

sweet, sweet earth

it was gasping for air, really.

i’d loped to the garage, grabbed the crusty old trowel, grabbed my prophylactic spritz bottle of stay-away-squirrels spray, and headed out to the secret sinuous side garden where i looked for a desperate patch crying for hope. crying for something to rise up in the spring, on the far side of the harsh and impending winter.

i was armed with a battery of bulbs, bulbs in various girths, fat ones that promised me daffodil, itty-bitty wisps of bulbs who promised me the tenderlings, snowdrops and siberian squill, and those space-age globes of allium, in this case promising a puff ball of blue. as pretty a thing to bury my nose in as i could imagine.

i’d somehow gotten the itch to give back, to give back to dear mama earth what she so unfailingly offers me: tender and certain shelter, jolt of resilience, undying promise that even if daunted she’s not going away. not yet anyway. not if we can muscle the forces to cease and desist with the trashing of the one glorious blue marble long, long ago entrusted to us.

a few mornings before, amid the cleaning and clearing and worrying, i’d leapt into the old red wagon, the car that takes me wherever i aim it, and i’d motored over to the store with the rows and bins of springtime bulbs, an adventure that’s something like a trip to the candy counter, only without the threat of cavities. i’d filled my arms, judiciously putting aside the bulbs that would have cost as much as a pound of burgers. and then, when the urge struck, i’d be stocked and ready to dig, bury, and someday behold.

i’ve always found it sacramental, the dropping to my knees, gashing into the surrendering soil, shaking a powder of bulb-boosting fortifier, and then carefully lifting just the right bulb for the purpose: to tuck in for the winter the concentrated pouch of promise. the thing that looks like a dried-up onion, laying it to rest in the shadow of autumn, nestling it soft against the earth’s curve, the earth’s cupped hands, the earth’s promise: i’ll take it from here.

and all winter long, through the ice and the wind that will pound at my windowpanes, my bevy of bulbs will be silently doing their thing, shooting down roots, stirring within.

the tasks of autumn are the stockpiling tasks, the turning-in ones. slip on an extra layer of sweater, slow roast the last of the tomatoes, make them last through the long months ahead. upholster the garden with unseen but certain patches of promise.

when your heart hurts or is heavy, i’ve found, it helps to ply tender ministrations to whomever or whatever falls in my path. this week it was my paltry patch of earth. there’ve been times when it was one of my boys, one whose knee or whose heart had been banged up and bloodied. or a friend who needed little more than a hot mug of tea and an hour of listening.

but the taking care of this holy earth is bigger even than that. it’s understanding how sacred it is at its core, and in its every blessed breath. go silent for a minute or two (or three or four) and simply keep watch: listen for the mournful cry of the geese veeing the sky. watch the leaves go gold. plop yourself at the water’s edge and marvel at its infinite rhythm.

i’ve just started reading a marvelous book by john philip newell, one titled, sacred earth, sacred soul, and like newell’s earlier books, it’s an exploration of celtic wisdoms, a reawakening of the ancient and eternal truths long ago snuffed nearly into extinction. it’s a book i’ve already managed to slather with my inky underlinings, page after page.

newell, once the warden of iona abbey, a sixth-century monastery rising up from a wee island off scotland in the roar of the north atlantic, beckons us to listen for the beat of the sacred deep within ourselves and one another, and deep within the body of the earth. sacred, he writes, “is not bound by religion.” sacred is the soulful knowing, the keen awareness, that deep down in all things — in the earth, and in everything that has been born — there pulses an inextinguishable holiness. it’s our task, our holy task, to sense it, to seize it: to see it, to feel it, to honor it. to make way for it, make an altar for it, hold it up high.

my bulb-burying the other morning might have been seen as just another autumnal chore. or, through the celtic lens, the lens of an ancient wisdom shared by all the world’s great religions, it’s that i was quietly tucking in visible manifestations, reminders come spring, that what pulses deep within the earth, deep within each of our souls and our selves, is something unflaggingly beautiful. and holy. at once tender and resilient.

digging those bulbs, turning newell’s pages, brought me back to a peaceful holy calm. and i filled my lungs with pure blessed air.

what brings you breath? what’s your understanding of sacred? and how do you sense the sacred within?

the dangers of not letting go. and the dusty path toward redemption.

the homestead, circa 1957

this is not a story about religion. though it’s a subject with zealots and slackers.

marie kondo, the porcelain doll of a declutterer, calls it sparking joy (and swears it can change your life). i call it getting covered with cobwebs. and eye-watering dust. and reminding myself of my proclivities for not letting go of the sentimental. 

but i took a trip to new jersey, to a white-clapboard house that might have been built in the early 19th century, and might have been there (in one form or another) as early as 1789. 

and everything changed. 

inside that old house were dozens and dozens of orifices, each one packed to the brim. to open the door to the attic was to trigger a domestic avalanche, the sort you might find spelled out in the weekly gazette, where some poor soul was buried alive beneath decades-old shoeboxes, crumbly yellowed news magazines, and strings of christmasy lights that might never have burned. 

when your job is to pack up the kitchen, to wrap not only the skinny-necked goblets, but to sift out toothpicks, circa 1960, and mismatched tupperware lids by the dozens, you swiftly absorb an abiding commandment: thou shalt not leave behind a house stuffed with stuff thou hast not had the courage or chutzpah to preemptively toss. 

you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.

marie kondo, whose best-selling tidying book i once was assigned to survey, makes the closet-clearing task sound downright zen-like, as if standing before overstuffed shelves, blithely sorting and chucking and plucking for joy — would that be placing the object in the palm of one’s hand, awaiting the wee bit of voltage that’s the signal for “keep me”? — is the next best thing to a trip to the spa. (no wonder i tossed aside that pretty little spark of a joy-jolting book, the book that sparked little but befuddlement back in my stuff-keeping days.)

the truth is, i found packing up the kitchen of someone i love a hauntingly heart-tugging endeavor. i unearthed the red apple-shaped placemats she must have delighted in setting on her breakfast table, or when a struggling student she lovingly tutored came for after-school cookies and milk. i pulled from a drawer the crystal-handled cake cutter that might have sliced into chocolatey layers on countless occasions, and i heard once again the peals of laughter that echoed through the house’s post-colonial walls. i discovered my mother-in-law’s absolute obsession for all things valentine’s day; heart-shaped candy dishes, red paper doilies, and 101 variations on heart-speckled pink paper napkins. 

it’s as if a life is being unspooled wordlessly, a silent reel of thing upon thing. each one with a story you can only imagine, each one a frame still palpably pulsing, but only just barely. and you feel the slipping away all over again.

i kept picturing my mother-in-law peeking over my shoulder, wincing each time i tossed a tchotchke into a trash bag or pitched some trifle to the give-away pile. i felt guilty. i felt tender of heart. i wiped away dozens of tears. (and i kept those few things that belong in the family treasure heap: a dough cutter (highly likely unused), a trio of age-worn red plates (the ones i ate off dozens of times), the red-plaid apron i long ago sewed for her birthday, and now frayed at the ties.)

but then, stripped of my long-held tossing hesitancies, emboldened to not bequeath such a task to my own two boys, i came home and applied my newfound thick-as-reptilian toughness to the orifices i call my own. all week i’ve been standing akimbo in closets and tucked-away corners, dispatching and discarding with gusto. whole bags have been filled as i’ve scoffed at the millions of times i’ve stashed some odd something away, long deluding myself that some day i might find reason to put into action whatever was the odd esoterica. i now know that someday never comes. 

and my new best allies are the fine fellows at goodwill industries, who handily roll out the big blue bins every time they see my red wagon pulling into the lot. 

it’s hard work for the heart. and i don’t mean the muscle that’s doing the pumping. i mean the ineffable filaments of said organ that cling too mightily to the objects of everyday living. the invisible cords that — in some of us anyway — tug too hard in the attachment department. 

to excavate the closets and cupboards of a life long lived is to sweep across the narrative told in dusty old things. in the story told from the long life i hope is mine, i want the people i leave behind to lift up each object and know it sparked me pure joy. 

but more than that, far more than that, in the now, i want my life to not be buried under the crumpled weight of stuff that niggles at me, taunts, “why on earth are you holding onto me?” why not let go, and be freed from the crushingness of closets that threaten to topple, drawers stashed with missing and misplaced parts, and the generalized sense that i live in a house that might split at the seams? 

i want only the things that conjure a someone or sometime or someplace i loved. i want to live lean and clean and not take up more than my share of the room. i want a house without the ghosts of fibber mcgee. i want a lightness of being.

mostly, i guess, i want to pare it all back to the essence, the true essence of joy — unencumbered.

turns out, marie kondo was right after all.

how do you rate in the declutter department? are you a stasher or trasher? if you told your life story in objects, what might be the most treasured pages?

all around, a burrowing in…

the shadows crossed the line this week. the equatorial line that cinches the earth’s belly at the waist. those of us on the upside of that line, we’re in shadow now. minute by minute, inch by inch, we’re tipping away from the sunlight, into the deepening, lengthening shadow.

it’s autumn, season of molasses light. season of hauling out the sweaters, putting seed back into the feeders, hauling out cook pots we’ve not seen maybe in months. it’s the season when deep-down parts of me come humming back to attention. everything about it — the scents, the slant of light, the goosebumps of early morning — seems to me a call to begin the in-burrowing.

i was home alone all week so autumn’s call had little distraction. i did as instructed: sifted through the bins of bulbs, cut back the ramshackle runaway garden, plucked the last of the bright orange tomatoes off the vine (it’s a game of where’s waldo, really, rummaging through the tangled vines in search of the ones so certainly orange, i know their time has come). inside, in the kitchen where i ply my alchemies and my otherworldly ministrations, i glugged olive oil, chopped fennel, carmelized onions. i invented things to do with figs.

today i amble to the airport, to fly back to the corner of the jersey shore, tucked between a pond and a river, where my husband is sifting through the decades of his family’s home, the 19th-century house where untold stories are being resurrected every day: a wedding album never seen (not by me or my husband, anyway), a dashiki worn on a south american concert tour, a baseball bat commemorating willie mays’ 600th home run. i am eager to be alone in the house of the woman i am very much missing, while my husband is out attending to the thousands of things on a list when you are closing a chapter of lives fully lived.

my job is to sift through her kitchen, to pull from the shelf the mug she always shared with her husband of sixty years, each one taking a sip of the morning’s coffee, passing the mug back and forth across the maple table, all to the quiet tune of news pages turning. the sort of sacramental moments that unfurl across the span of a lifetime, of a marriage of decades. i will sift, too, through her cookbooks, the ones i hardly think she ever cracked, for cooking to her — a woman who came of age as the feminism of the 1960s was tearing down the eastern seaboard — was pure distraction, and dinner was apt to be a thawed-out Tastee burger (bun and all tossed in the freezer after a run through the drive-in, especially if selling on discount, and i’m told the pickle never really warmed in the toaster oven that served as her main kitchen appliance). i hear there’s a Settlement Cook Book, circa midcentury, i’ll add to my jewish cookery shelf. i’ve reason to believe it will be in pristine condition, not a single splatter of schmaltz (unlike the one already on my shelf; one given to me when i married my jewish beau). there will be pangs that hurt, and moments that make us laugh till we cry. and moments, too, that do both.

all of it — the days home alone, really alone, and the somber-toned trip to new jersey, where a for-sale sign is now staked in the yard — has drawn me deep down more swiftly than in most autumns. i’m finding i need to work a little harder, tread more vigorously, to keep from going under, into the darker shades of the shadow. once again, there’s little to distract me. so i’m listening to the wisdom of the season. i’m surrendering to the call to burrow in, to put the garden to bed, to stock the cellar for winter. to batten the hatches, throw a thicker blanket onto the bed. to not get in the way of the work of the lengthening shadows.

how do you respond to the shadows of autumn?

carmelized onion and fig confit, upon which i rested a chunk of roast salmon with late-season rosemary sprigs from my garden: dinner for one, a la autumn.