the folks at freeze-warning central don’t talk pretty talk. they’ve no use for adjectives, ditch any hint of gentility. they mean business, scare-the-pants-off-you business.
and so it was that the fine folk from warning central tapped at my laptop yesterday morn. barely bothered to knock. just parachuted in with these dire words:
Freeze Warning issued October 15 at 2:35AM CDT until October 16 at 9:00AM CDT by NWS Chicago IL
WHAT…Several hours of sub-freezing temperatures, with lows in the upper 20s and low 30s. Some of the coldest locations may briefly drop into the mid 20s.
WHERE…North central and northeast Illinois away from the heart of Chicago and northwest Indiana.
WHEN…From 1 AM CDT /2 AM EDT/ to 9 AM CDT /10 AM EDT/ Friday.
IMPACTS…Frost and freeze conditions will kill crops, other sensitive vegetation and possibly damage unprotected outdoor plumbing.
and so, with a sigh, i knew it was time. time to amble out with my many-pocketed vest, time to pluck and harvest as if there was no tomorrow. for, in the land of orange zinger, cherokee purple, big boy, and that saucy san marzano, there was not a tomorrow. this was the end, the coda, the last gasp of summer’s voluptuous bounty.
while i played my last round of what amounts to where’s waldo (the tomato edition), searching in between and under and through the tangles of vine for any plump or lumpen orb with the faintest hint of a color other than green, i whispered a long litany of glory be’s to the incredible edible farm that had burst from the clods of earth out along the potholed alley, in the shadow of the utility pole and the too-tall fence of the neighbor next door.
it had been our virgin voyage in the agricultural realm. my beloved brother in maine, a fellow with know-how oozing from his hands and his heart, he insisted months ago that i get to work building me a plot, one raised from the earth, one that i wrapped in a wee picket fence, one i pampered with thrice-daily (at least!) devotions, once to see what had burst into glory overnight, once to sate its thirsts with a good sweet drink from the hose, once to harvest for salad or dinner. i learned the arts of staking (i’ll need an advanced class on that over the winter, for my vines wound up twisting themselves into tangles and knots of goldbergian proportion). i never bothered with pest control, the farm was there for whoever needed or wanted (only once did i find a critter had ambled in for a midnight picnic of half-chewed tomato).
but all summer, i made like a modern-day hildegard of bingen, she of the great medieval herbarium. i’d planted herbs-to-tomatoes in a 4:1 ratio, an indulgence that had me awash in nightly mounds of tarragon and dill and rosemary, too. and basil and marjoram and oregano — and thyme and chives and cilantro and great wisps of fennel to boot, and every breakfast was sprinkled in spearmint or lemon verbena. the tomatoes, a competitive bunch i discovered, were not to be beat by the delicate herbs. they merely upped their nightshade ante, and burst forth with such gusto i found myself trolling the cookery tomes, searching for ways to roast and sun-dry and stir into sauce and stretch into winter. the resident architecture critic took to dousing his daily mound of lunchtime cottage cheese with handfuls and handfuls of zingers, those orange little morsels the size of a gumball, the 25-cent — not the penny — variety.
and just the other day, the critic himself was leaping into his little-used adjective file, pulling out superlatives, waxing poetic about the wonders of watching your lunch rise out of the earthen mounds. he marveled as much as anyone in this old house at the nightly leaps and bounds of the vines as they reached for the heavens, and escaped up and over the fence.
it’s a beautiful thing, he declared, to witness the miracle of the seed tucked into compost back at the start of the sun-drenching season. to measure the almost-hourly rising, to witness the bloom bulge and birth into fruit, to taste the zing you can’t find in a plastic-wrapped pack from the grocery.
it’ll be a long winter without it, but as i put it to bed with my trowel and my vespers, i’ll unloose a long and loving litany — a canticle even — to the glories and wonder of the vines and the leaves and the delicate blossoms, the tangles and orbs and heaven-sent scents of the plot that fed us all summer.
bless you, and thank you, dear farm on the alley.
what are the blessings of the season past for which you are whispering your thank yous? or for the blessings of now that all but knock you to your knees when they burst open before you?
and a p.s.: just hours before the freeze-alert was due to kick into gear, i looked out my kitchen window and found this glorious morning glory unfurling its last-ditch trumpet call into the world. it’s still there now, alive through the night. the glory of heavenly defiance, not to be done in by the cold….
we’re ankle-deep in october already, and the woods and the skies and the last vestige of garden are enmeshed in the verbs of autumn: gilding, disrobing, graying, withering.
while the world all around is exulting in the yin and yang of the seasonal shift, lurching from summer to winter, hewing the razor’s edge of autumnal juxtaposition — the last vestige of bone-baking warmth to the goosebumps of dawn’s early chill — while the chipmunks are making like there’s an acorn-stuffing contest, and he with the bulgingest cheeks wins, and the chatter of sparrows rises some days to a deafening chorus, the last of the summer’s songs have vanished.
and i didn’t notice till now.
the blanket of cricket song, a rising crescendo that all but tucked me into bed each summer’s night, it’s stilled. silenced. taken away, tucked on a shelf somewhere, awaiting the heat of next august.
the last of the cicadas’ 24-hour love song for survival. it’s gone too. snuffed out. it too rose to a deafening roar, and then with the flick of a switch that i didn’t bother to witness, it melted away.
now, when you open your windows at night, there’s little to hear save for the possums knocking over the watering can. or the night winds rustling the leaves before they loose from the limbs.
what with all the commotion — of the world, of the news, of the worry — i didn’t notice the absence till i stumbled into the thoughts of someone who’s paying closer attention.
sacred attention, i’d call it, a religion i aim to practice.
i read these words, and felt the ache in my chest:
My intention every year is to listen for the last cricket, the explosion of silence after its ridged wings have struck their final chirp. I imagine it as somehow akin toBashō’s temple bell whose sound, after the bell has stopped ringing, comes pouring out of the flowers. I have no reason for wanting to mark the occasion other than a poetic temperament and a feeling that the mindfulness required of such a task is its own reward.
The idea usually arrives in September when the crickets are at their most frantic. I toy with the thought of camping out the night it seems likely they’ll stop. I imagine myself keenly attuned to the hypnotic lull, aware that if I fall asleep, even for a moment, I could miss it. The novelty appeals to me. The invention of such an inconsequential drama. It would make no difference to anyone whether I succeeded, or if it took me years to accomplish. The achievement would be mine alone. Sometimes to up the ante, I imagine decades of failed attempts until maybe one night—when I’m an old man, stumbling, bearded, blind, bereft of all hope—a Zen-like oneness with the woods sets in and from nearby, under the bark of a rotten log, I hear the teeth of a cricket wing crackling the air, and listen, knowingly, as the world resolves itself in silence.
Steve Edwards, “The Last Cricket,” OrionMagazine, Autumn 2020
mr. edwards’ elegy to the cricket song made me think of all else that i’d missed. it seemed an exercise that drew me — and maybe you — into a necessary meditation. an exercise in paying attention, for this is our one sweet moment to clasp our gaze, and our listening, on the beauties offered up in this one ephemeral whirl around the blazing star.
it’s a canticle worth our attention.
have you noticed…
*the moon gliding across the sky, still clinging to its post as the sun comes along, both sky lights sharing heaven’s dome?
*the stars turning on, any one particular night?
*the moment when God hauled out his paint set and brushes, and the first leaf turned amber or garnet or the color of pumpkins?
*did you happen to catch the river of monarchs riding the winds, flapping their stained-glass wings as if their life depended on it — because it did?
*did you stare into the indigo darkness, into the etched silhouette of what looked like endless punctuation marks crossing the moon, the night the tens of millions of birdsongs flew overhead, miles and miles into their autumnal sweep southward?
*have you paused in genuflection when the chevron of geese called out from the heavens with their spine-tingling minor-key cries?
*have you watched the sparrows upholstering their wintry homes with blades of dried grasses and tufts of runaway cotton?
*have you found where the cardinal sleeps in winter?
it’s all the wonderment out our window, in the woods, in the world where we’re not looking. and all it asks is that we notice. that we pay quiet and unbroken attention.
it’s all we need some mornings to remind us the world is still intact. to remind us we’re safe in the bosom of this holy and most sacred earth. our ears pressed against its soft chest and the heartbeat of the One who keeps it working.
what wonderments have you noticed, from the autumnal litany above, or from the zillions of moments i’ve not even mentioned?
p.s. my sweet boy is still on the mend. slowly, slowly. tray by tray of home-cooked mac-n-cheese, bread pudding, applesauce and water bottles by the case. slow walks around the block. long interludes of napping in the quiet of leafy suburbia. it’s all aiming to get him back to college before the already abbreviated semester lurches to an end. thank you, so much, for your love and your care, and your prayers. xoxox (p.s.s. i was a wee bit late here this morning, because my friend, the patient, beckoned, and the computer was playing all sorts of tricks….)
in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….
in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.
the tale of woe and mono continues…
round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.
which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.
halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.
in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”
“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”
and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.
the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.
monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.
before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.
so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).
all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.
there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.
it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.
just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?
this angel story begins with a stuffy nose on a sunday evening, five days ago. the nose belongs to my second-born, the one tucked away at college in the age of COVID (on a campus where — wisely, prudently — no one — well, no interlopers, bystanders, or pesky parents — is allowed in or out).
a stuffy nose is barely bothersome, and no one — save for your mother — might notice it. i, though, am said mother. so i noticed it. and mentioned it — in an otherwise matter-of-fact sunday evening phone call. the stuffed-up one all but brushed it off, said he might go to bed a little early. that was about the drama of it. zilch.
next morning, though, the phone rang. early. before 7. which in college time is middle of the night. he’d taken his temp three times, he reported, and it was hovering around 101. to whiz forward in this angel tale, we’ll skip straight to the part where he called midday that day to say the college doctor had stuffed a swab down his throat, taken a COVID test, and was promptly dispatching him to quarantine, at the old comfort inn hotel the college has taken over for the year, for the sequestering of sick kids, COVID kids, to be precise.
until my stuffy-nosed sophomore was proven otherwise, he was stamped, “pending” for COVID. he had one hour to pack two plastic bins with whatever he might need for the next two weeks, and soon found himself in a room with two queen-size beds overlooking an empty parking lot. in the middle of rural ohio.
the stuffy nose was getting out of hand. it was doing fever tricks, making it climb straight up the mercury hill (in the old days, when i went to nursing school, mercury — that slippery silver element — was the thermo-register of choice). the stuffy nose was swelling up his eyes, and making dark circles all around.
by tuesday evening, when the fever crossed the line at 103-point-something, the stuffed-up one called the front desk, and talked to the football coach in charge (yes, two assistant football coaches — sweethearts! — keep watch over the comfort inn, which i now lovingly refer to as “the covid inn.”) the football coach made some calls, and suddenly an ambulance becomes the focus of this too-long-winded tale.
yes, it was decided that an emergency room was on the docket and to get there, an ambulance was called. the mount vernon fire department ambulance. egad. hearing the wail of a siren, coursing through small-town streets, heading straight to where your kid is cowering under the covers, shaking with chills and fever, is a sound you do not want to hear. it’s a sound you won’t forget. especially as it comes closer and closer to the phone on the other end of the line, the line you are clinging to, trying to squeeze yourself through via the itty-bitty invisible wires you’re sure connect you.
since we’re trying to get to the part of the story where the angel comes in, we can boil down the ER part to simply this: they started an IV, zapped him through the x-ray machine, drew lots of tubes of blood, gave him a giant dose of ibuprofen, and declared him a ripe and ready case of mono, as in mononucleosis, an infectious disease that comes in two flavors mostly — mild and wicked. looks like we’re in for wicked.
by 2 in the morning, he was delivered back to the comfort inn, where he slid under the sheets and tried mightily to sleep. the fever though was having none of it. and for the next two days, it teeter-tottered, climbing to the very edge of 104.
we’re almost at the angel part:
all the while, during his days locked in room 229, the college was sending over trays of food from the dining hall a few miles away. (this comfort inn is in the next town over, so the commitment to feeding any far-flung sick kids — ours was the only one in the whole hotel — suddenly entailed a car and driver.) problem was, buffalo chicken sandwiches and breakfast sausage don’t work so well with fever and swollen glands swelling to the size of apricots on either side of your neck.
in trying to zip this story along here, i skipped over the part where the dean of students had called us at home as the ambulance was whisking our fevered child to the county hospital. she was heavenly, and she certainly is among the angels of the week. (there are several; i’m singling out only one for the long-distance-mama’s gold-medal-of-the-week.) early the morning after the ambulance ride, i sent my new friend the dean a little note, and asked if maybe the dining hall could send over those mama staples, the things you always pulled from the pantry when a little one was sick: saltines and gingerale. and maybe a little packet of honey to boot. (ice chips and honey somehow became our cure du jour in this old house.)
well — cue the drum roll — when our sweet fevered boy finally awoke from his long and awful night, he stumbled toward the door of room 229, opened it just a crack, and lo and behold there on the table where they always left his tray, he found not one, not two, not three — but six! — bags of groceries, custom-fit for a fevered kid. it was filled with a veritable wish list of things you might try when you can barely swallow or lift the spoon. there were soups and teas and saltines! and gingerale and 7UP, to boot. there was a teddy-bear squeeze bottle of honey, and cups of instant oatmeal and rice and ramen noodles. someone, some holy blessed someone, had up and left the dining hall, driven 5.7 miles to the kroger super-store, strolled every single aisle, all but filling a cart.
our holy blessed angel’s name is melissa. and as she wrote to me later in a note:
I have a 10 year old son. I cannot fathom him being away from me in a “normal” world let alone in this crazy world we are currently living in. For [T] to be so far away and going through such a terrible time must be excruciating. My heart hurts for you and I wish we could do more! I’m sure it is a constant worry and this is something we can do to take a little of that burden from you. We will do whatever we can to help ease your stress and give [T] a little TLC.
her words — her heart — make me cry, even now, two days later. she lived the holy heart of it all, of every holy book and ancient text ever inscribed. she literally slipped herself into the holy act of “what would make ME feel better if I was far from home, burning with a fever, all alone and stuck in a hotel a few miles from all my friends?” the very words i made sure to write, and sent straight up her chain of command, straight to the desk of the college president, so he’d hear firsthand just what a bunch of saints he was shepherding.
so that’s the story, and here’s the holiness: even in a world where every day the headlines tear us apart, and leave us gasping for breath, even in — especially in — those spells of darkness that surely come, right when you’re teetering at the precipice, worried sick and feeling more helpless than in a long long while, the universe always makes room for an angel to squeeze in, to slip in through the cracks. to bring bucketfuls of light. to adorn us with the blessed healing touch. the simple act of reaching beyond the borders of our sorry selves. of going the extra mile. of loving as we would be loved.
melissa, the director of catering at kenyon college, a mom whose job it is to feed the fancy folk and fuel the everyday special occasions, she slipped herself into my scared shoes this week, and she doled out love and saltines in an act of kindness and goodness and through-and-through heaven-ness now seared into our hearts.
angels always seem to come. this world is filled with them, though most often they go about their business without so much as a wink or a nod — and certainly not with trumpet blasts.
but if not for the angels, those messengers of real-live, in-the-flesh blessings, we’d all be piled in the dust. exhausted, hopeless, worried out of our wits.
as i type, my sweet boy is finally asleep. the COVID test finally came back: negative. and today he leaves the quarantine hotel, and gets a ride — via campus security — back to his little cottage in the woods, aka his dorm away from home. if needed, we’ll motor down and bring him home, where i can be like melissa, and ply my boy with whatever his sweet and blessed hurting heart desires.
who are the angels in your week this week?
and, dear melissa, to whom i just might send this, a hundred thousand thank yous till the end of time…..bless you, bless your heart. signed, the mom whose shoes you filled this week.
across the years, i’ve been swept into the river of an ancient time. i wear it, almost, like a prayer shawl. wrap myself in its silken threads. inhale the sweet spice rising up from earth’s release, as summer breathes its final breaths and autumn rushes in.
it’s in the morning air, the chill that makes me pull the covers tight round my shoulders; it’s in the thin bronze light that casts its amber shadow, long across the floorboards. it’s in the withering of the garden, the last green tomato clinging, holding on for just another ray of sunlight. will it turn before the freeze?
all around, you can feel the shuddering of season folding into season, of the turning of the prayer book page.
when the new moon, in its indigo darkness, rises tonight, a holy people — the blessed jews — all around the globe will spark the first flames of the new year’s light in the kindling of the rosh hashanah candles. i will strike the match at this old house. and only two of us will bless the light, the wine, the spiraled raisin-studded challah.
we need the new year prayers more than ever, this gasping year. the burned-out brokenness is everywhere, the globe (or vast acres of it anyway) is shrouded in ashes, a more fitting metaphor it’s hard to imagine.
hope though comes in prayer — and, spine-tingly, in the science that tells us there are forest pines whose seeds can only burst new life when exposed to flame. may our prayers be those forest seeds.
prayer, for me, has become something of a force field. we fire up our deep-down jet-pack of incantation; we might, some of us, fall to our knees (a posture sure to super-launch those prayers, to propel with oomph through all the turbulence along the way). we do our part, our lowly simple part. and we realize that the more of us who fire up our prayers, the more fiercely, more mightily we put forth our voices, we just might forge an opening in heaven’s door, and our petitions — our saying we are so so sorry for the state of things, our vow to spend our living, breathing hours in pursuit of all that’s good, that’s holy — might find the way to the heart of the God to whom we are praying. it’s a collective effort, really, an all-out, all-of-us campaign to light the light, to open up the spigot of holy goodness, to let it rain down on this parched and burned-out earth.
there’s an ancient teaching, taught by long-ago rabbis and mystics, that in the beginning the light God made was so blindingly bright, it burst out of its vessel, and the shards, the sparks, the bits of flame sifted down to all creation — not unlike the embers raining down in all the smoldering forests, maybe. and from that shattering of the vessel came the first and holiest instruction, the one to carry all of humankind from that day forward: seek the shards of light, look deep into the souls of each and every someone you meet, look into the morning’s dew and the constellations strewn across the heavens, look where you least expect to find the shard, and in those places where you can’t help but see it.
and when you find it, when you gather up the bits and shards, bring your light harvest to the table, where we will all lay down our gleanings, where we will stand back and marvel. in awe. in awe for what we’ve all done, all on our own and all together. in awe for all the light that’s here to be pulled from the shadows and the darkness. in awe of how luminous it might be.
awe is what these days are called — the holy days of awe — in the great and holy tradition that unfolds at the cusp of the jewish new year. from tonight’s setting of the sun and the rising of the new moon, clear through to ten days from now, on the day of atonement, we stand in awe. we marvel at the light, holy light, that’s mustered from all the cracks and broken places in this still-holy, ever-holy earth.
it’s how we heal the world, how we make it whole — tikkun olum — repair the broken shattered world. it’s God’s command. and we begin to sew it whole with our prayer, our harvest of the light, and our undying awe.
will you join the prayer collective, do your bit to scrounge up shards of light wherever you go today, and tomorrow, and every day after? will you bring your bits of light to the shared table, so we can all of us stitch together the whole cloth of incandescence this broken world so deeply desperately needs?
“over 2,000 years ago,” our rabbi began last night, “our people mourned the destruction of the temple.” the temple, of course, had been the place of worship, of prayer and sacrifice. it was the holy place of the jews. and in the year 70 of the common era, it was sacked by the romans. destroyed to dust and ashes.
but “our people” are resilient people. they are the people of the diaspora. they know what it is to wander, homeless, in the desert. to be strangers in a strange land. they know — deep in the marrow of their bones — the history of exile, the history of holocaust. of nations turning their backs on a holy people.
our rabbi went on: she taught that in the wake of mourning their holy temple’s loss, the rabbis of the time urged the people to build mikdash m’at — little sanctuaries — in their homes, to bring their prayers into where they lived and ate and drank and bathed and slept. and so, all these millennia later, when once again we have been banished — by an invisible virus — from our temples — and our churches, and our mosques, and all our holy shrines — my rabbi was urging us, on the cusp of the holy days of awe, to build mikdash m’at in our circa 2020 houses.
mikdash m’at From the Talmud, Megillah 29a: The verse states: “Yet I have been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they have come” (Ezekiel 11:16). Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This is referring to the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia. And Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to the house of our master, i.e., Rav, in Babylonia, from which Torah issues forth to the entire world.
מְעַט (n-m) heb
littleness, few, a little, fewness
little, small, littleness, fewness, too little, yet a little
like a little, within a little, almost, just, hardly, shortly, little worth
i’d signed up for our synagogue’s workshop on creating a sanctuary in our homes for the high holidays because i am always up for carving out a sacred space. and i listened closely to the instruction: pick your prayer space, a place where you might feel elevated, outside the ordinary, at one with the sacred. a sanctuary, our rabbi explained, is a “space that’s holy or set apart.” she went on to define the ways we might fulfill God’s command, “make for me a sanctuary that I can dwell in.”
and so, once i’d sauntered back to the kitchen, as i was chopping eggplant and leaves of basil, dousing grilled peppers in balsamic glaze, i began to babble about this holy assignment. i recounted the instruction to the tall, bespectacled one with whom i share this creaky old house. i told him — in that way an eager student does — that we must pick a holy space. because, of course, the rabbi said so. and then i asked him where that might be. where would be our sanctuary for the holy days of awe? where might be the place where God — and we — could dwell?
and in that knowing way of his, in that quiet, certain, deeply-rooted-without-a-drop-of-drama-ever way of his, he lifted his finger toward the old maple kitchen table tucked in the corner, and he nodded. case closed.
there was no holier place in our house, of course, than the nearly century-old, hand-me-down maple table, the table etched with imprints of penmanship from ages-ago schoolwork, the table scrubbed bare in patches of whatever stain was long ago applied by some long-ago carpenter. the table where, since moving here almost 18 years ago, umpteen thousand prayers have been unspooled, night after night, morning after morning, midday after midday. countless stories — funny ones, hold-your-breath ones, rip-your-heart-out ones — have let rip here; tears, too. deliberations have been parsed here; life courses, corrected. midnight bowls of cereal have been gobbled down, and blazing birthday cakes presented on pedestals. books have been written here, and law school papers, too. we have mourned and rejoiced here. laughed and sometimes stormed away.
as poet laureate joy harjo so gloriously put it in her kitchen-table poem, “perhaps the world ends here,” “this table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.”
and it will be for us, in the unbroken days of awe ahead — the blessed new year, rosh hashanah, and the holiest of holy, the day of atonement, yom kippur — my bespectacled beloved and i will wrap ourselves in our prayer shawls and our prayers, we will lift ourselves out of the ordinary, and reach for the star-stitched heavens, we will hunker down at the years-worn, scruffed-up slab of old maple tree, and we will aim to dwell with the Almighty.
as it is commanded.
where would be your holy place, where would you build your little sanctuary, your mikdash m’at?
in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…
The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line.
The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year.
Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again?
The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly!
So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders?
I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves.
As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month.
The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.
Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection.
And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods.
The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed.
I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.
But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.
I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting.
Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….
so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…
and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…
*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:
December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.
December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?
December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.
*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):
The January Kitchen:
As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge.
Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon.
(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)
Elixir (Bread) Pudding
Cure-All Mac and Cheese
Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice
Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange
*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)
A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar
Fourteen Blessings for February
Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.
Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights.
Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.
Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.
hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.
questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?
and by bold i mean one something, anything, in the name of bending that stubborn arc of justice. by bold i mean do one certain something today — maybe even within the next hour — that you otherwise wouldn’t have mustered the will or energy or courage to do.
feeling the full weight of what we’re up against in this world that is not letting up in this long hot summer, so many mornings feeling knocked back, feeling impotent, frozen in the face of injustice, in the wake of sirens and spilling blood and streets chaotic, i turn — as i so often do — to the words of dorothy day, who in turn had leaned into the holy wisdom of therese of lisieux, the little saint who preached a spirituality of “the little way,” to mine her everlasting, every day truth:
From Therese, Dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured might ease the burden of others….We could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. It was all a matter of faith.
Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg
it’s a place, and a way to begin, for us little people, the ones of us who know full well the real battlefield that calls us every day is the one not too far from our front door, the quotidian one, the one whose players we might know well or not at all. the strangers within our reach. the ones who might be taken wholly by surprise by a sudden gust of kindness, out-of-nowhere kindness. the ones who might find courage a little bit contagious, who might pick up the pieces and pass it on.
once upon a time, stoked by pictures of starving children from biafra, fueled by the stories in time magazine i’d take to my room to read when no one was watching, i used to dream i’d cure world hunger. i imagined i could lope the globe, fill bellies, spoon unicef gruel into mouths open and hungry, like little birds.
it hurts plenty to shed those dreams, to watch them wither away, to realize you were pie in the almighty sky, and some crazy fool besides. what gets tough, gets real, is to station yourself squarely in the middle of your humdrum life, to look out across the landscape, and seek the moments where you might infuse your own cockeyed brand of dorothy day’s little kindness, little strength, little courage.
this bedraggled world needs every bold (but little) drop.
i plopped myself on the couch, there as the pink and the gold drained from the summer sky. as the burning bulbs of the night sky turned on, i stayed glued. i was drinking in a nectar i’d almost forgotten. almost gave up for lost.
i’m talking about hope, a balm and a necessary human ingredient, one missing in action these last many heartbreaking months.
hope, for me, came on strongest in moments from names we might never remember, but whose words, whose stutter, whose message, whose moment, we’ll never forget: a kid who stutters but went on anyway; a little girl whose mom was taken away, leaving behind two little girls and an ex-marine dad who feels deeply betrayed; a security guard whose everyday job is ushering important people, people who more likely than not leave her feeling like little more than a conduit, a necessary ellipses from point A to point B, mostly invisible. but not the man she was there to nominate for the american presidency. he’d made her — in the couple of minutes it takes to ride from a lobby to an executive suite — feel seen and feel heard. feel unforgotten, un-shoved aside.
it’s a very fine line, the line between hopeless and hope. sometimes we barely notice it draining away. get used to the feel of walking around with boot heel to belly. sometimes it’s only in its trickling in again that we realize how long and how deeply we’ve missed it.
i plopped myself on the couch not as a student of partisan politics but as a student of human decency. an ardent student. one who just might take it too seriously. it’s a lesson i remember my grandfather teaching me. at a gas station on a hot summer’s day in southern ohio. my grandfather, in one of his buicks, maybe the old riviera, with a stash of grandkids packed in the back, had just spent the day with all of us at an old-fashioned place called coney island, a paradise of roller coasters and sno-cones and hot dogs slathered in mustard. my grandpa needed gas for the old guzzler, and back in those days that meant someone was there to pump the tank for you. while the gas guzzled in, my grandpa got out of the car, carried on with the fellow pumping away as if he was a long-lost best friend and lifetime associate. the man pumping gas was black. my grandpa was white. it was southern ohio in the 1960s. we were old enough to know that not everyone would play out the scene as it played out before us. and then my grandpa slid back behind the wheel, turned his gaze just over his shoulder, peered unblinkingly at the whole flock of us, and in less than ten words preached his everyday gospel, the one he lived till the day he died. i can’t remember the exact words, but the point was the same one inscribed in every holy and sacred text that ever there was: be your brother’s keeper, love as you would be loved, live and breathe undying compassion. and the way my grandpa said it, he meant we’d better not ever forget it.
the big-eyed, pigtailed little girl wedged between brothers and cousins on a sticky summer’s day, i pinned the words to my soul, made of them my divining rod, every day forward.
which is part of the why my tank has felt emptier by the hour in the america of recent history. every single day yet another brillo pad to the soul, yet another mocking of someone. yet another ugly volley of words. i’ve been withering under the weight of it. and running out of oxygen. or so it started to feel.
and so, this week, i tuned in not knowing what or how it would all unfold. i feared it could sputter and fumble. i’d gotten used to the taste of dejection.
what happened was, moment by moment, as if someone had wedged a fulcrum under my heart and my soul, i felt myself rising, inch by measurable soul-filling inch. testimony of kindness after testimony of nearly invisible someone being seen, being plucked from the margins, being called in pure goodness by cell phone late in the night. it was a four-day crash course, a reverse course, in human kindness. in decency. in resilience. in reaching down deep and pulling out our very best selves.
frank bruni, a writer of bold and beautiful strokes, wrote this this morning:
Look at America right now. My God. We’re hurting like we seldom hurt. We’re quarreling like we seldom quarrel. We’re exceptional in our death count, in our divisions. It’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s hard to press forward.
the life of one of the men america is now considering for the highest office in the land, bruni went on to write, his “life is a parable of resilience.”
and goodness and kindness is the mortar tucked into the brick walls of that life. and goodness and kindness — in intimate moments and in sweeping policy revisions and advances — is the mortar this crumbling country needs. especially now. especially as the death toll has mounted unfathomably, “exceptionally.” especially as kids and teachers — from kindergarten to college — are scared to death to go back to their classrooms. especially as the virus of incivility — of outright murder born of blind hatred — has spread like a cancer that can’t be removed.
lessons in resilience we could use too. resilience is a commodity we can never have too much of. we’re a people who stumble, a people with knees that are more than scuffed up. we could use a good dose of remembering how good we can be at picking ourselves up from the dust. those banged-up knees? they straighten, stand back up again, almost as sure as they sometimes fold under us.
which brings us back to hope.
hope is the thing i’ve found wrung from the landscape of late. i almost forgot what it was to not get crushed by every day’s news. the human spirit devoid of even a whiff of hope is a sorry pile of ashes and soot. we don’t do well as a species when we can’t make out even a flicker of light making its way through the murk.
and it doesn’t take much — not more than the certain whisper, pressed against our ear or our heart — to perk us back up again. to put the wind at our back. the story of an unstoppable stutterer. the unstoppable bravery of an 11-year-old girl who told a whole nation — and the president who leads it — “you tore our world apart.” the unstoppable kindness of simply being seen and heard and recognized in the short whisk of an elevator ride.
we can be a people of hope again. we can be a nation that trades in kindness, stands up to bullies, reaches our arms in embrace. we can be our very best selves.
that’s what i remembered again. that’s what i learned this week.
a disclaimer: i promised a long time that i would keep this a space free of partisan politics. and so i didn’t tread lightly into today’s meander. i entered into this arena today as one where the message i was mining for was not one of political discourse, but rather an exercise in mutually agreeing that hope and goodness are necessary commodities in the national discourse, especially now as we are staring down the oncoming fall and the fears of a spike in coronavirus, in the face of so many uncertainties. hope is our divining rod. hope is the very thing we need to carry us into the light, just peeking over the dawn’s horizon…..
my voice is only one whisper. my fingers, just one at a time, tap along the rows of these keys without sound. but the lump in my throat is ready to burst. and my heart is too.
stop the ugliness, world. stop the hate. stop the made-up lies and the mudslinging. tear yourself away from the impulse to tromp on the neck of the one you perceive as your enemy.
doesn’t need to be this way. doesn’t need to be a national throw-em-to-the-lions.
the world doesn’t need to wake up every morning searching for the ugliest route to the trail head.
there are moments, plenty of ’em, when i picture myself marching to the steps of the u.s. capitol, unfurling a parchment, invoking a code of radical decency, insisting the ugliness cease and cease now. oh, what i’d give to back some of these fools into a corner, to poke em on the chest, look em in the eye, and ask if really, really, they want to expend their God-given breath on slicing and dicing each other to bits, trampling truth, teaching children the ways of the playground bully.
i got sick of bullies back in first grade. never outgrew my distaste.
all these months i’ve retreated deeper and deeper into a realm where the rules of the world are not the ones with discernible weight. i dwell much of the time in a monastery of my own making. it’s quieter there. and gentler. i take time for the monarch butterfly, leave out saucers of sugar water, scatter seeds for the milkweed that makes for a butterfly landing pad.
in the quietude i wrap all around me, the rules i live by are the ones of an otherworldly iconoclast. the code is the one inscribed by a God who asks only one thing: love without end. love as you would be loved, love every last inch and ounce of creation. behold the wonder. of each other. of the monarch. and the dawn. and every last shimmering light in the night sky.
and, sometimes, to love means to put breath to the words that are stuck in your throat. to march to the capitol steps, to reach for the microphone, to try with every ounce of your might to shake sense into the senseless. the ones dizzy with power, or the pursuit thereof. it’s a sickness and it needs to stop. it’s as contagious, it seems — and as deadly — as this invisible virus, the plague that’s upon us. maybe more so. maybe it’s worse.
because once upon a time i was a nurse, because i’ve stood at the side of a hospital bed in the hours just before a last breath was drawn, i know something of deathbed confessions. i know how, at last, the veils of the everyday are pulled away, and what’s left is the essence. holy essence. how the sins and the glories float to the surface. how one last sweep of the soul, of a lifetime, is what carries us off to whatever comes next.
our time here is fleeting. do the ones breathing fire and lies, do they really want to fritter away the hours allotted? is that churn in their belly the only way they know to crawl from their beds? is bitter the singular taste of the day?
the choice is quite simple: make of your life an instrument of peace, of goodness, of attainable holiness. or let it extinguish in smoke and in flames, in pride and deceit, in ugliness out-of-control.
we make our choice minute by minute, day after day.
what will you choose, world, what will you choose?
if you were writing a code of goodness, decency, and gentle kindness for the world, what would you inscribe? what would constitute breaking the law?