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

love story of unlikely plot line

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it all started when the dishwasher broke. well, not the whole story. but this latest installment in the look-back machine.

the little green light on the old reliable dishwasher, the one that’s scrubbed up after graduations (grade school, high school, college) and christmas and bar mitzvahs (twice), the one that’s worked monday through sunday for a good 13 years, it started to blink incessantly. i tried every trick in the book but could not get the blinking to cease. so i looked it up in that all-purpose answer box, the internet, and discovered the blink that won’t stop is short for “call the repairman.” so i did.

when he arrived in the depth of the latest cold snap, the kind man with the toolbox asked for the instruction manual (not so sure it’s a very good sign when the repairman wants to check the manual). that’s what led me to the cobwebby corner of the basement, where one creaky file drawer led to another and suddenly i was staring at a row of neatly filed manila envelopes, each one bearing my scribble. each one with a label of sorts: “bk beginning,” “+BDK msgs,” “memories — BAM/BK.”

this certainly wasn’t the clue to how to work the dishwasher, but i was decidedly sidetracked there in the dark in the basement. i reached for the stash titled “memories,” and out slid a slice of my long-ago past.

the very first thing i found, in a crisply typed envelope addressed to me at the chicago tribune, was a letter from one of the loveliest priests that ever there was. a long lean gray-bearded runner with the gentlest dark-blue eyes, an irishman who walked about the neighborhood in his irish cable-knit sweater, doffing his irish-wool cap and pausing to  listen to all sorts of sidewalk confessions. father fahey was his name, father john fahey, and the letter i held in my hands, the letter he’d typed in april of 1989, it literally, was a letter that would change my life.

not too many weeks before he’d written the letter, that gentle-souled priest had answered the door of the rectory, and ushered in me and the tall bespectacled fellow i’d fallen in love with. the one who was decidedly jewish, and not at all sure what to do with an irish catholic — this one, in particular. we’d knocked on the rectory door because we were looking for answers, looking for a way for a jew and a catholic to begin a journey we never wanted to end. we had an inkling that we’d found in each other something we might have always been looking for. except for the part where i was catholic and he was jewish. that twist in the narrative plot was making it tangled.

we knew father john to be wise, the sort of soft-spoken fellow to whom you could bring your worries and woes. so we climbed the grand winding staircase behind him, and sat ourselves down across from his armchair, up in his study at the top of the stairs. father john listened. and spoke only three words: “follow your bliss,” he told us, as if a buddhist koan we were to decipher. we’d climbed to the top of the priestly stairs to be handed a three-word instruction.

well, then.

we tucked those words snugly into our pockets and chit-chatted just a little bit longer. then we left and, some weeks later, the letter arrived. paper-clipped to the letter was the “business card” of another priest (do priests have business cards? well, in this case, in the case of a priest who always claims “i’m in the god business,” a business card it was).

gentle john the priest wrote that i should “take [my] love for Blair, and [my] search for God into [my] heart, and patiently, prayerfully wait for the answer to come.”

and then, in the very next paragraph, he typed: “God may be responding immediately.”

holy cow! that is some service!

father john then proceeded to tell me that he’d just bumped into a priest who happened to mention that he’d pulled together a group, “jews and catholics, who are living through the religious test which their love presents.”

“i think that some are married,” father john wrote, “some are thinking of marriage. i immediately thought of you, and so i asked for the priest’s card.” call him, he tells me.

and so i do, i do call the priest with the business card, and the tall bespectacled one and i knock on his rectory door. and he, too, ushers us in, and sits us down in chairs, and tells us words we’ll never forget: “i’m in the god business. god is love. you’re in love, so how can i help you?”

we explain; he responds: “there’s one God. you both pray to the same God, but you pray in two different languages.” he paused long enough to shoot us a look that meant he meant business. in short order, he shooshed out the door: “go with God and go in love.”

so we did. the priest with the business card has been there all along the way. and so was a rabbi, the one who two years later would marry us (along with another priest, an old friend of the family). they were both there in our tiny back garden, in the days just after 9-11 when the whole world shuddered, but we cradled a newborn baby, and it was the day for the baby’s blessing, which is like a baptism, but it comes in two religions. they were there at two first communions, and two bar mitzvahs. they’ve been there again and again.

and that was 30 years ago. and 31 years ago tonight, the tall bespectacled one walked into my apartment for the very first time. i can still see him rolling up the sleeves of his white brooks brothers button-down. can still see him taking a seat at my tiny circle of a kitchen table, can remember how while i pulled foil-wrapped salmon packets from out of the oven, he told me of a thai soup he’d eaten the night before and how it “was a symphony of flavors.” i remember my ears perked at the description. i remember how something else perked at the rolling up of the sleeves.

i can’t say i’d spent much time before then considering the notion of love at first sight, but i know i felt a thump in my chest that night, almost the minute he walked in the door. and sitting here now at this old, scratched maple table, listening to him pull the carton of milk from the fridge and the special K from the pantry, i can conjure that thump in a heartbeat.

and i gaze over at that letter, the one father john typed, sealed, and slipped into the mail chute all those years ago. and father john is gone now. (by the way, he too followed his bliss, left the priesthood, married a widow (his best friend’s widow), moved to northern california, and died a few years ago…) but his letter, unearthed just this week from the dark of a drawer in the basement, it’s a treasure.

no wonder i saved it.

it saved me.  and us.

happy 31 years to the bespectacled one, though this day does not mark the day that you fell for me. that would come later, months later. i’m the one who counts this day as the very beginning. i knew what i knew when i knew it. in time, you knew it too. 

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the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts

will you tell a love story? 

keeping company with waldo & friends

by the hour, i sit behind my wall of books, reaching from merton to thoreau to emerson, deeper and deeper into the folds of wisdom. it all started because of merton, aka brother louis. or maybe it all started because of mary O. or maybe it all started because of my mother.

my mama, who goes to mass every day of her life (a week ago, during the depth of the polar vortex, i called, and she was in her armchair at 8 o’clock sharp, watching mass on the telly. i shouldn’t have been surprised, and i wasn’t; but i melted a bit at her devotion), she must have been my first rabbi (rabbi in hebrew translates to “master,” or “teacher”).

she’s the one who woke me each morning, flinging the blinds, warbling lines from browning or dickinson — “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” (browning, song from “pippa passes”); “some keep the sabbath going to church — / i keep it, staying at home — / with a bobolink for a chorister — ” (dickinson, 236).

she’s the one whose home movies always drifted away from the faces of her five cherubic children to the iridescent-blue indigo bunting, or the neon-red scarlet tanager darting in the boughs over our heads. some 60 years ago, when in a single day a realtor toured her through half a dozen lovely houses along chicago’s north shore, she bought the one with the most trees. and the creek gurgling in the woods across the street, and the green pond where the frogs croaked and the turtles sunbathed on logs, and the country club directly across the way, with its wide-open vista, promising her a lifetime of sunsets.

she must have been the one who first planted the seed. the seed that has grown and grown. the seed that now is a towering, undeniable, inescapable force, the one that draws me into the woods, under the star-stitched dome of midnight or dawn, the seed that draws me to windows where i can keep watch — on the birds, on the wind, on whatever is falling from heaven.

turns out i am hardly alone in this congregation of woods-goers. i’ve been hot on the trail of something called the Book of Nature, a text i’d never known by name, though i’ve been reading it since before i learned to assemble alphabet letters into words that came with particular sounds and meanings. i’d first learned of it — by name — when a rabbi i was talking to on the radio a few years back said of my first book, slowing time, “it’s midrash to the Book of Nature.” (midrash is defined as ancient commentary, often rabbinic, on Hebrew Scripture; it makes connection between text and lived reality, so says my all-things-jewish dictionary.)

hmm. i’d never known that a girl with a confirmation name, and a patron saint besides, could put a pen to midrash. but my main intrigue centered on this Book of Nature, a title i certainly wanted to get my hot little hands on.

over time, and through the years since, i’ve burrowed deeper and deeper into this ancient wisdom. there’s a whole theology that centers on the notion that the Book of Nature, unfurled at Creation, is God’s first holy text. (called the Two Book Theology, it’s the belief that God is revealed through a pair of complementary sources: the Books of Scripture and Nature; Genesis followed by Word.) this first text even has a latin name, librum naturae, and it traces through the millennia, an idea explored by the ancient “church fathers,” among them augustine of hippo, origen of alexandria, galileo, on through martin luther, emily dickinson, clear to merton’s gethsemani doorstep and mary oliver’s walks through the cape cod woods.

a fellow by the name of sir thomas browne, clear back in the 17th-century, aptly wrote: “there are two books from whence i collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant, Nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all.”

just a few years ago, pope francis wrote: “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.'” and before him, pope john paul declared: “the visible world is like a map pointing to heaven… we learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures.

all i knew was that i love nothing more than to stand, stone still, under the night sky, drinking in the moon and the glowing orbs of heaven. or to sit burrowed in sand and stiletto-sharp dune grasses along the shore, counting out the undulations of the lake’s watery pulses. or to marvel at the mama bird dutifully and vigilantly building her nest, one shriveled stick or grass or ribbon at a time.

i knew and know that i feel the hand of God there. feel the telltale tingle up my spine. i know God’s nearby when i catch the goosebumps breaking out along my arms and my thighs.

so, acolyte to Wisdom, i follow the trail deep into the pages where wisdom is recorded, where it’s spelled out in words that hold me like a vice, or would it be as a spelunker? this week found me in the Transcendentalists: first thoreau, then the master, r.w. emerson, who i learned preferred to go by his middle name, waldo. (henceforth, waldo it is.)

i’ll begin though with a few notes drawn from thoreau, first from richard higgins’ thoreau and the language of trees:

…The winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to Thoreau, a place for contemplation. He walked them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….All its motions… must be “circulations of God.”

and from thoreau himself: “if by watching all day and all night i may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?”

or: “my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

maple trees, thoreau called “cheap preachers,” whose “century-and-a-half sermons” minister to generations. 

at his funeral, thoreau’s friend and teacher emerson said that despite thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion.” 

which drew me straight to emerson, absorbed for days in his signature essay, Nature. and these are but some of the notes i scribbled into my notebook:

Chapter IV Language:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.

A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

Chapter VII Spirit: 

[Nature] always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us. The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship. 

…the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.

…Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?

Chapter VIII: Prospects

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.

no wonder mary oliver called herself a student, first and most, of emerson, who taught her — and us — that “the heart’s spiritual awakening” is “the true work of our lives.”

and with that i leave you to your own musings on the true work of our lives, the Book of Nature, and its most brilliant disciples and diviners….

who are your wisdom teachers, from the pages of the Book of Nature, or otherwise?

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one stack among many

survival, astonishingly

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the artistry of dawn, frozen against the windowpane

the weather people soothe us now with reports that it’s all of 9-without-a-minus-sign degrees. but the thermometer outside my kitchen window insists otherwise. it says 5, and not a micrometer higher. either way, that’s eons better than the -22, or 45 below with wind chill. and here along the windy shore of lake michigan, wind counts mightily. it always counts.

our house the other night was burping. or so it sounded. every once in a while through the night a thud arose from who knows where. sounded to me like things were crashing to the roof. i got up to check out the window, to see if i could see a falling something, to see if ice chunks were hurling toward the house. the next day’s news brought word that these ominous noises — these noises that had people rushing to their windows, to see if glass had shattered, limbs had fallen, or maybe stars had tumbled from the heavens — these noises were a phenomenon known as “frost quakes.” so defined as: “a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice.” egad. yet another quirk to be added to the weather woes. count me among the ones who do not like “seismic events” in and under and all around my house.

at our seismically-burping house, as we whirled into the abyss of the polar vortex, we settled our worries on anyone or anything who might, for some godforsaken reason, be stuck outside. we worried mightily about the folks who sleep in tents under viaducts and along the banks of the chicago river, and in flimsy encampments near the railroad yards, in hollows of the city where the forgotten stake their claim in pockets of oblivion. we prayed that somehow someone might convince those folks to leave behind their propane tanks and blankets and the cardboard boxes they call home. and just for one night — or until the vortex whirled away — deign to climb aboard a warming bus, or a cot inside a shelter. dear God, please do not let there be a child out there, i whispered over and over.

closer to home — right outside our kitchen door, in fact — our heap of fears focused on the tiny feathered flocks who dart and flit all day, every day. we knew that we had blankets, and a fridge filled with clementines. and a tea kettle that could whistle on command. but what about the red birds? what about the little juncoes, those snow monks of the winter? and what about the sparrows, the unassuming brown birds whose chatter never stops.

if i could have, i would have opened wide the kitchen door, invited them all in. but i knew that was whimsy. pure wishful whimsy. as if a flock of cardinals would roost above our dinner plates, or huddle high up in the pantry. i was not alone in my worrying. the tall bespectacled fellow who shares this house, he’s the one who first named the little birds when we bowed our heads to pray before tuesday night’s dinner. he did the same on wednesday and thursday.

we could not for the life of us figure out how those tiny-footed creatures — the ones who weigh all of five aspirins or one and a half slices of bread (that’s 1.5 ounces or the same as a papa cardinal) — how in the world would those tiny wisps of heartbeat survive through the long dark arctic night?

it was an equation of survival stripped to its essence. it’s not every night we boil it down to life or death, just beyond our kitchen window. and hope against hope for life to be the victor.

i couldn’t bear to imagine the little things hovering, tucked away in some bough of some fir tree that hardly blocked the wind. i pictured tiny frozen red birds fallen to the snowdrifts by morning. i couldn’t sleep.

once the daylight came, once the sun against the snow made it hurt to stare into the glare, we kept watch anyway. nothing moved out there, save a snow-capped branch blowing in the wind. i’d trudged out early, dumped a can of seed — just in case. but nothing and no one budged. all day on the coldest day, the yard was still.

at last one chickadee appeared. darted toward the seed, nibbled, flitted off. but no one else. then nightfall came again. and dawn. and nothing. not a single bird.

and then, as i kept watch through the morning, as the bespectacled one peered from his upstairs window, at 10:57 yesterday morning, there it came: the flash of muted red that is mama cardinal. she clung to a branch not far from the feeder. and then, at last, she swooped in. as she pecked away at the sunflower seeds, along came her backup squad: one red bird, aka papa, and two more mamas. survival

there was jubilance in our kitchen. the mere shock of red against the white-on-grey tableau, it was victorious. nothing short of a death-defying feat. it was still, at that mid-day hour, -12 degrees. and yet, somehow, the little birds survived. had made it through the wind-whipping night, had endured a cold they’d never ever known, and tucked away in some unknown-to-us cove, employing unimaginable survival skills. we should show such grit. we too should defy the insurmountable when it’s heaped against us.

i stood in awe. the mysteries of the woodland escape and astonish me. the masterwork of creation is what floors me, over and over and over.

we’ve pummeled this holy earth, with our chimneys spewing smoke, and the poisons we’ve poured into the waters, and yet, on a polar vortex night, the papa cardinal clung on, he didn’t freeze to death. he doubled the air mass in between his feathers. he slowed his breath. and before the mercury climbed to zero, he flashed across the yard. the red flash, triumphant.

thank you, Great Protector. and hallelujah cardinals. and all who have survived.

what’s your survival story from this long and bitter week?

enwrapped, still, with mary O

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it’s a tundra out there. i’ve just crunched across the hard crust of snow, coffee can of fat black seed in tow. if ever the birds depend on me, the pewter-haired one who clangs around as if the keeper of the flocks, it’s on a dawn like this. even the wind is shivering.

inside this toasty-warm old house, we’re dwelling in the rarest of quiet pauses. the soon-to-be college kid has turned in his last exam, and might sleep till dusk. it’s the first day in eons that there’s not a single essay or snatch of homework for me to pester him about. he has literally zippo, zilch in the to-do pile, which means i, too, am off whatever hook we mothers impale ourselves.

i’m going nowhere on a day as cold as this. and, till nightfall, have every intention of plunking myself right here, at the old maple table, where i keep watch on flash of scarlet at the feeder, in the boughs. i’ve got all i need within reach: a mug that’s warm and filled with morning brew, a stack of books so tall it sometimes teeters.

img_1249all week, i’ve been deep in the pages of mary oliver. one by one, i’ve pulled her books off my shelves, and pored over line after line. i’ve been drawn especially to her prose, the long sentences as stitched with poetry as any of her verse. i inhaled upstream: selected essays, and a poetry handbook, her 1994 master class in the making of a poem.

reminded me — as i scribbled notes on sound (did you know our alphabet is divided into families of sound? and that besides good old vowels and consonants, there are semivowels and mutes? a mute, it seems is most important in the realm of poetry; a mute, mary tells us, “is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and” — here’s the interesting part, where the little bitty alphabet letter seems to take on menacing character — “suddenly stops the breath.” the mutes are k, p, t, as in ak, ap, at.) — and as i was saying before i interrupted myself, being inside the pages of mary oliver’s masterclass reminded me of the glorious semester i spent studying poetry with helen vendler, the great literary critic and mastermind of poetry, who every monday and wednesday at 1 o’clock on the dot, marched into harvard’s emerson hall, plonked her satchel on the desk and dove in. with nary a hello. we had 60 minutes to squeeze in all there was to know about lyric poetry — from ancient to modern — and she would shave off not a second for distractions such as long-winded greetings. helen vendler was one of those treasures, a lioness of american poetry, whose every poetic utterance you knew was met with full-stop attention far beyond the cambridge city limits, and had she not been such a gentle-souled professor in her sensible shoes, dabbing tissues at her nose in between recitations of pound and eliot and coleridge, you might have shuddered in her presence. but in fact we all sat hushed, even the snotty little harvard first years who hush for almost no one. (i was already pewter-haired, as this was amid our nieman year, our year of living sumptuously, when we all went off to college at the ripe old age of 55.)

and, yes, it’s something of a magic trick, a measure of her writerly powers, that mary oliver could make the pages of a book feel as alive as a living, breathing, whole-semester class.

it was in the fresh wake of her death — just a week ago — that this reading felt almost sacramental. it was a reverential rite, absorbing her wisdoms with a measure of urgency, a sense of hurry-before-she-slips-too-far-away. read against the sharp edge of the final bracket of her life, her words and wisdom felt infused with the prophet’s cry. and, certainly, in her returning over and over to themes of the eternal cycle, life to death to life in newly configured form, there was a peace that rose from the pages, from the knowing. if anyone who’d walked among us was welcoming that last great surrender, it was mary O who all along had seen the glistening beauties in the mystery of death, who lived and breathed the truth of life’s brevity, who asked again and again, how will you live this one wild and precious life?

because i’m reading mary O with an eye toward a talk on thomas merton and the Book of Nature, i took notes, lots and lots of notes.

here are just a few that insisted they make their way into my notebooks — and now, perhaps, yours too:

“Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.” So writes Mary O in Upstream, and then she goes on to witness the dawn of day across a 20-acre field in winter: “The sun has not yet risen but is sending its first showers over the mountains, a kind of rehearsal, a slant light with even a golden cast. I do not exaggerate. The light touches every blade of frozen grass….The still-upright weeds have become wands, encased in a temporary shirt of ice and light….It is the performance of this hour only, the dawning of the day, fresh and ever new. This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular.” (“Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world….I will hear some sound of the morning as it settles upward.”)

Later, she writes: “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water….To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created. Then the occlusions begin.”

A bird, she writes, “was, of course, a piece of the sky.” “…This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.”

Of a great-horned owl, swooping through the forest, she writes: “When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of mystery….”

Knowledge, she writes, entertained her, shaped her, and ultimately failed her. “Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worthy of my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my spiritual state.”

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family….we are at risk together. We are each other’s destiny.

“For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

and this, the closing lines of poetry handbook, is the one i’ll leave with you to ponder for the day:

 “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” 

—Mary Oliver, “A Poetry Handbook” 

may our own occlusions be swept away by wonder and the telltale tingle of the spine that reminds us we’re in the presence of the holy, the infinite, the ever….

which line above from mary O most stirs you? or which did you unearth this week?

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?

 

taking up the challah challenge

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years and years ago, when my kitchen confidence was far wobblier than it is now, i tried my hand at friday challah baking. i wound up with paddles of braided bread that appeared amphibian and reptilian. there were a couple weeks of challah masquerading as crocodile. challah as lobster, with vengeful claws reaching across the table. my challahs looked anything but edible. my challahs begged for names. and cages.

so i surrendered, bought my weekly challah at the grocery store. but, because it comes only in sizes fit for half a synagogue, we almost always have leftover loaves hardening in the corner. i have a slew of ways to use it: i’ve frozen so many picked-over loaves a peek in our freezer might make you think we eat one and only one foodstuff — challah in varying stages of ice age; i’ve mastered bread pudding and french toast (can do both with my eyes closed); we’ve sliced it for a million saturday PB&Js; and of course our squirrels get a steady diet (i wouldn’t be surprised if our squirrels know the hamotzi, the challah blessing, by now).

and every friday night i’ve sat across the table from that oversized soul-less loaf, and dared myself to take up the challah challenge: “take a deep breath, and a humble packet of baker’s yeast, and see if you can once again find it in yourself to pull two golden braids from the oven, adorn your friday night shabbat table with bread you’ve kneaded and blessed with silent incantations all on your own, start to finish.”

yesterday, in full trial mode, i dove in. i am here to tell you that instant yeast is nothing to be afraid of. (this declaration is nothing short of revolutionary for a girl who grew up in a house where yeast was spoken of in hushed tones, as if a living-breathing creature that might wreak uncharted havoc if not treated kindly and gently enough. and, yes, my mother baked bread often in those radical suburban ’70s, so the misappropriation of fear and loathing is all my own. she is hereby declared innocent of that particular quirk of mine. now pie crust, that’s another story….)

i turned once again to the step-by-step instructions of my challah-baking friend and long-ago ally, henry, who with his family had escaped nazi germany, and who regaled me with tales of his mama’s friday baking and her magnificent golden braided loaves back in the old country, before all was shattered. though the pages now have yellowed, i found henry’s instruction clear and encouraging as ever, as i pulled his three stapled sheets from my cookery file, and followed along, triumphant at each and every stage. because i was baking challah on a thursday, there was something of an experimental air to the whole shebang. didn’t matter if i flubbed it. didn’t matter if it never rose (though i would have felt my heart deflate right along with the lack of yeasty rise).

and i was all but jubilant when, at quarter to three, i pulled from my wobbly old oven (it gets as hot or warm as it’s inclined on any given day, paying no mind to the faded numbers on the oven dial), two sturdy loaves. two loaves studded with sesame and poppy, onion bits and garlic, too (i had bagel topping in the pantry and figured it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle with abandon — i was later informed to ditch the bagel topping, “this isn’t a bagel, mom,” and go the purist route: sesame or poppy, not both, not ever again).

i’m hardly exaggerating to declare my two loaves adorable. (see photo above!) after admiring abundantly, the taste-testers dove in. besides the plea to ditch the bagel-y topping, there came a request to please make it “eggier.” i’ve already consulted “the bread baker’s apprentice,” written by the master of bread, peter reinhart, aka brother juniper. he’s got a roadmap riddled with eggs — two whole + two yolks, and a host of other instructions besides.

so next week it’s challah 2.0, and i’ll keep at it till i’ve mastered these doughy batons. not long ago i met a woman who bakes like a fiend and, come friday afternoons, she piles her back seat with challahs galore, and drives and delivers to a circle of loved ones numbering into the 20s. i’d like that. imagine myself, pewter hair flapping out the driver’s side window, as i steer my station wagon — aka the challah mobile — hither and yon, flinging loaves as i go.

it’s all part of a scheme to infuse more intentionality into my days. to conquer those wee quirky fears, the ones that stand in the way of the bigger more daunting ones. slay a little dragon, and perhaps you muster the muscle to take on the giants. and in the meantime it quiets my fridays, ushers in the holiness of shabbat in the hours when i’m alone. i know enough of the meditative calm that comes with kneading and waiting, waiting and punching down dough, waiting some more. to bring to the table a loaf, blessedly braided, a loaf into which i’ve infused my prayers, a loaf just the right size for the two of us who, henceforth, will be the two main players at our shabbat table, once the youngin shoves off for college. it’s holy, all right. and triumphant besides.

and it sates a hunger of the most soulful kind.

 

a few fun challah facts from my friend brother juniper: garnishing the loaves with seeds, either sesame or poppy, symbolizes the falling of manna from heaven, and the covering of the challah with a cloth as it’s served on shabbat represents the heavenly dew that protects the manna. how lovely is that? so lovely.

what little dragon might you already have slain, or determined to slay, in this blessed new year, a chance to rise again?

wonder year

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sometimes we walk in circles before we find our way. or at least i do. maybe the last few months have been circle-walking. maybe the way forward is threaded by wonder. maybe what i’ve been looking for, a way into that deep-down still place inside, the place that’s a wellspring of the divine, maybe we get there by opening our eyes, putting our pulse up against the heartbeat of creation. maybe the quieter we go, the stiller we become, the more certain the sacred pulses inside and through and around and beyond.

maybe the place to begin — and this is the season for new beginnings — is right here where we are. maybe the way to begin is to be as still as we can possibly be, and plunge ourselves into those places where wonder can’t help but rub up against us.

this is hardly new revelation. i’ve been deep in the writings of thoreau these past couple weeks, poring over, underlining, making stars in the margins of a collection of passages and essays keenly observing the trees in and around walden pond and the woods of concord, mass. it’s a glorious collection of words and black-and-white photographs, gathered by the photographer and writer richard higgins from the two-million-word journal of the great transcendentalist and poet laureate of nature, henry david thoreau (1817-1862). it’s titled “thoreau and the language of trees,” and in it the instruction begins (for this is as much a guide to living as it is a historical recounting) with these guidepost paragraphs:thoreauandthelangaugeoftrees

“old trees connected thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility….

“and they were his teachers. although he called the shedding of leaves each fall a tragedy, he knew that the leaves that fell to the ground would enrich the soil and, in time, ‘stoop to rise’ in new trees. by falling so airily, so contentedly, he said, they teach us how to die.

“thoreau wrote prolifically about trees for a quarter century, from 1836 to 1861. he observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. he respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. for thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy and emerged in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.”

more and more of late, i am being drawn to a deeper understanding of the Book of Nature, a belief both catholic and jewish, a belief of many many faiths, that God first wrote the Book of Nature in creation, and then, in words, gave us the Torah, the Bible.

the pages of the Book of Nature are before us always — if we open the valves, the channels — the eyes, the ears, the soul — that detect and absorb the holy all around. the wisdom, the lessons, it’s all there to be extracted. it’s the wonder that catches our attention, that draws us in, holds us in its grasp. and then comes the pondering, the meditation, the sifting and filtering, the sieving and panning for glimmering gold.

but to notice, to pay attention, we need to go quiet. to still the noise. quell the cacophony. go to the woods or the edge of the shore. go to where the waters rush or trickle or flow in and flow out. stand under the stars of a cold winter’s night. we’re wrapped in the holiest text, the calligraphy of the great Book of Nature. God’s book. the book that beckons. the ancient and timeless antidote to the madness of civilization.

“the winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to thoreau, a place for contemplation. he walked in them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….

“thoreau also detected the divine in the woods. ‘nature is full of genius, full of divinity.’ all its motions — ‘the flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind’ — must be the ‘circulations of God.’ ‘if by watching all day and all night i detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch,’ he asked, alluding to the recurring motif in the psalms of the watchman who calls out in the morning. ‘to watch for, describe, all the divine features which i detect in Nature. my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”‘

and so, at the cusp of this blessed new year, this moment when beyond the woods the cacophony rises, i am following the trail in and through, in search of the wonder that makes clear what might otherwise escape me.

where do you find wonder? 

happy blessed newborn year to each and every one, as we all pack away the holidays, the glitter and shiny paper, and shuffle back to the extraordinary quotidian….i’m finding myself a wee bit heavy-hearted this morning as my firstborn, home for the first time in a year these past two weeks, flies off tomorrow, into what promises to be another steep climb up the next mountainside….thank goodness the so-called little one will stick around till he too shoves off when college calls early next autumn…..

p.s. ice crystals above, clinging to the roots of a fallen tree, discovered yesterday along lake michigan’s shore when my beloved and i went out for a late afternoon’s winter walk, but one of the wonders marking my annual return to the day i was birthed….

prayer for the new year just round the bend

new year sky

it’s almost upon us, here in the hush of the in-between days. new year’s coming. new hopes, new dreams, new promises.

new beginning. old habits. can we shed even one? break one chain that binds us? worry less? hope more? trade in gentle for harsh? can we be kinder, beginning with our sweet old selves? can we sketch out, at last, a plan for moving us closer to the ways we want to be, to live?

i’ve no idea who invented the notion of starting over, but it’s a notion to which i’m deeply indebted. the whole year gets to start all over again. one after another. slate gets wiped — or so we pretend, so we make ourselves believe under the noise of the new year’s whistles and horns.

as i settle in for a quiet turning over of the page, i think of the ones who aren’t with me. the ones who’ve lived their lives large, with abundance. who filled every crevice with courage, with joy, with conviction. i think of the look in their eyes as their hours drew to a close. how they implored: don’t waste this. it’s not lasting forever.

i’m drawing all of them close. each and every one who didn’t live to see 2019. i’m thinking of one magnificent friend who at any hour might breathe her last. i’m poring over the lessons she’s been teaching ever since her cancer came back, ever since she’s been bravely, transparently, hold-nothing-back “nearing the edge.”

i’ve been digging around my old notes, and found a prayer i prayed once upon a new year. if i boiled it all into one single whisper it would be this, i believe: give me the grace, please, to make this as holy a world, as gentle a world, as the one you, God, first imagined when you breathed it all into being.

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

amen. love, meDSCF0322

*i decided the longer version of my new-year prayer was simply taking up oxygen, so i boiled it down and left only one line standing. the one about band-aids, for the hours and days when we fall from our deepest-held hopes…..

what’s your new year prayer?

out of darkness, the first radiant light

prayer for new year

imagine, long before telescopes and science tomes, what must have rumbled through the minds of those keeping watch on the heavens. how a time came when each day was darker and darker. when the hours of midnight-blue-toward-black blanketed farther and wider across the landscape. imagine the terror it might have stirred. are we edging toward endless seamless darkness?

and then, one day, at the darkest hour, a stirring happened, a stillness barely noticed. the waxing darkness ceased, the light broke through, and day by day, minute by minute, there was more of it. ebb and flow. wax and wane. addition and subtraction. the arithmetic of heaven, earth, and all creation.

and into that cosmos of push and pull, the ones who felt the spirit, the ones who believed the heavens were stirred by the hand of the Creator, they infused the darkness with the Christmas story. they made this the time of year when the Great Scripture opened in Nativity. a babe was born. in quietest, cast-aside manger. it’s a narrative whose shining light begins on the margins, celebrates the marginal. it is in every way the antithesis of splendor. it’s a straw bed where the moans and cries of labor are punctuated with the mews and bellows of the barnyard flock. where sheep and ox kept time.

it is a story that turns everything — darkness, splendor — on its head. the holiest one is born in a barn. there’s no room at the inn, not even for the one who brings the light. it’s a tale whose tropes never ever fade. year after year, they permeate hope. year after year, the dark hours before the solstice serve to quiet us. draw us in. invite us to explore the unlocked chambers of our hearts, the ones we sometimes never notice.

i’ve come to wrap myself in the little-noticed threads of Christmas, the quiet threads. the ones lost in the folderol and rump-a-pum-pum. the Christmas i love is all but invisible. you can’t unwrap it. it unfolds all on its own, deep in the stillest places in my heart. i do everything i can to amplify the quiet. i tiptoe down the stairs earlier and earlier. i make a point of opening the back door and stepping into the dawn. i shlep my tin can of birdseed across the frozen grass, under star-stitched dome, and thrill to the spilling song of all that sunflower and safflower funneling into the feeder. i simmer orange peel and cinnamon stick, clove and bay leaf, star anise too; my kitchen’s incense, calling me to quiet prayer.

on mornings like this one, i listen for the muffled thud of three distinct footfalls. it’s a sound that now comes but once a year. it’s a sound that means three beds — not two — are filled in this old house. i want nothing more than the sound of those footsteps, and the long day’s cacophony that follows. i want the whispered conversations at the kitchen table. and the hilarious ones that might punctuate hours round the Christmas tree. i want the sleepy-eyed listening in on the words weaving back and forth between two boys who call themselves brothers, and live and breathe that alliance as if it’s forged in titanium. i want to feed them, and make them laugh. i want to reach across wherever it is we are sitting and squeeze the flesh of their now-grown hands. i want to catch the glimmer in their eye when we pull to a stoplight in the night, and the street lamps catch the animation i can’t see across the long-distance-telephone miles.

if Christmas is the time when radiant light breaks through winter’s darkest night, i want to wrap myself in all its threads. if Christmas is love born anew, if it’s quiet — as quiet as the first one truly was — then all i want for Christmas is what burns bright and still inside me. and my prayer then would be to hold that light, to carry it long beyond the Christmastide. to animate my every day, to hold the stillness, the quiet, the kindled inextinguishable flame, and let its lumens fall across my winding path, illuminating my every hour.

for that, i beg the heavens. amen.

may your Christmas be blessed, and as quiet or as rambunctious as you wish. may your solstice hour carry you across the threshold from dark to first inkling of light. 

how do you make Christmas in the quiet of your blessed heart?

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my christmas captured: two mugs, not one, awaiting morning’s coffee. my sweet boy’s home…and these mugs are invitation to a long morning’s reverie….

twelve: a dozen years of chairs

PUAC 12 tree

can you imagine the early morning inferno if i’d decided to light those birthday candles tucked in the fir boughs?

twelve years ago, this old house awoke to the sound of someone clack-clack-clacking in the old one-car garage-turned-maid’s chamber-turned-writing room. i was clacking in the dark, while upstairs a kindergartener slept, and three steps below him, at the hard bend in the stairs, an eighth-grader dreamt. i tried not to make noise, didn’t really want anyone to know what i was up to, so uncertain was i of whatever this was, wherever i was typing toward in this uncharted landscape.

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“the little one” when he was five, and the chair was being born…

i birthed the chair that cold december morning of 2006. and now, as i type this, the eighth-grader is off in law school, almost halfway through i keep reminding him as he grinds toward the end of first-semester-second-year finals. and the kindergartener, he’s holding his breath, waiting to hear from colleges! any hour now.

where, oh where, did the years go?

they unfolded here, is where they went. i’ve sat down 892 times to try to snare some passing-by moment in my writer’s net. some of the moments caught are among the most precious of my life, of my boys’ lives. some got away.

over all these years and all these posts, we’ve — all of us — woven together sacred threads — thoughts and comments, stories, prayers, snippets of poetry, a recipe or three — into a cloth that wraps us, gives us pause and comfort from the melee and the cold just beyond.

it was december 12, 2006, a tuesday, when i sat down to begin. i began with these words, this promise, this vow i lived to keep:

…like all births, i have no idea what’s coming. no idea how all this might unfold. only, i have hope and an idea. i hope that this place becomes a touchstone for a whole circle of us, that we will drop in, pull up a chair, share some thinks, as my beloved friend and doula of this site, sandra sweetpea, so perfectly always puts it.

as every conversation worth diving into is one that wends and winds, turning this way and that, this too will be a stew. we might marvel at a new children’s book. we might have to swap recipes for that pumpkin bread on my table. i might share a prayer, or a snippet of poetry. i might tell you the very cool thing i just read about pouring a good stiff drink for your paperwhite bulbs so they won’t grow so floppy, and bang against the glass, up there on the sill. if i stumble into a magical shop where handmade or one-of-a-kind things will delight you, you can bet i’ll let you know where and how to get there.

the mighty mississippi of all these tributaries, the force flowing ever onward, will be this: we are looking for everyday grace. i believe that in quietly choosing a way of being, a way of consciously stitching grace and Beauty into the whole cloth of our days, we can sew love where before there was only one moment passing into another. making the moment count, that’s what it’s about here. inhaling, and filling your lungs and your soul with possibility. learning to breathe again. learning to listen to the quiet, blessed tick and the tock of your heart. filling your soul with great light so that, together, we can shoosh away the darkness that tries always to seep in through the cracks, wherever they might be. please, pull up a chair….

and pull up a chair you did. and i did. and we became the collective we set out to be.

along the way, we’ve held up those monumental moments — birth and marriage, death and dying and brokenness of so many kinds — and we’ve marveled at the barely-noticed ones (monster fighters, the crooked way home, snow when it’s still white). we’ve considered hope and faith and crushing blows. we’ve felt the brushstrokes of God across our brow, and goose-bumping down the crook in our neck as well.

i’ve learned to live — as mary oliver, our patron saint, instructs — wide-eyed for astonishments, as she reminds us that “attentiveness is the beginning of devotion.” or, as the 15th-century philosopher and theologian nicolas malebranche put it: “attentiveness is the natural prayer of the Soul.”

keep watch, the saints and mystics insist. the holiest hour is the one upon you now. make it count, make it count. practice kindness. love as you would be loved, the essence of it all. be still, so still, to drink in all the wonders all around: the stars and moon above, the light and shadow splashed upon the earth, the stirrings of the blessed creatures and the tender growing things, and most of all the unspoken prayer and longing of the ones who populate your every day. those are the few small truths we’ve made into our creed, here at this old table.

more than anything in the warms-my-soul department is the fact that not once at this table — not once in 12 whole years — has a harsh word been laid down here. it’s an unbreakable rule here: we trade in gentle kindness. you can be kind and honest at once, if your heart’s in the right place. and hearts here have always, always been just right — wide-open and all-enveloping, pulsing in purest empathy.

twelve years ago i never imagined i’d still be typing here where we pull up chairs. never imagined three books would flow from this old table. nor that i’d make some of my dearest friends, deepened other older friendships. i’ve bared my heart here, and my soul. i’ve laid out plenty of my quirks (there are volumes to be written there). i’ve trusted all of you. trusted you with my truest truths, ones i’d not before put to breath and form.

while i’ve never missed a friday, and know there are plenty more fridays in me, i might tweak things ever so slightly and, if there’s nothing deeply stirring, i might simply offer silence, or a line of poetry that’s caught me in its hold across the week. i know i’ll write across the months till T — my once-upon-a-time “little one” — packs up and plants himself in some far-off college dorm. but chapters have come and closed. and i think it wise to not take up oxygen unless i truly have a thought or two worth carving into words.

it’s a wicked world out there some days. and this will always be a refuge, and a holy respite, too. that, i promise you. if you click “follow” down below, you’ll always know if there’s been a stirring over here. especially if you click the follow format that sends an email to your mailbox.

before i tie this in a bow, i must bend knee and bow down low in deepest gratitude. you’ve wrapped me in something sacred all these years. your kindness is unmatched. you’ve become the dearest of soulmates, even if we’ve not spoken a word. the mere fact that you visit here tells me you understand. we’re an odd lot those of us who huddle here — we won’t give up on those rare few radiant lights that illuminate the way.

with all my heart, for all these years, and all these rambling un-refined thoughts, thank you, thank you. may you be deeply richly blessed and wrapped in all that’s holiest.

love,

b., the chair lady

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where were you 12 years ago? and how’s your story deepened?

a special special thank you to those few who have been here, faithfully, from the very very beginning.

TK _ WK hug

the ones who infuse it all…