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

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

in which we all begin to live like monks

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because i don’t mess around with red-ringed buggers, i perked my ears at the first mention of this spiky-edged invader. i all but pulled up the draw bridges. all but clambered under the bed covers.

but then i decided that rather than quaking under said covers i might be wise to consider this my short-term spell in monastic living. call me brother babs.

i rise before the sun, step outside as first light seeps across the inky edge of night. drink in the gallons and gallons of birdsong. it’s ambrosial out there (a word i picked up in all my monastic reading this week, a word that aptly describes the velvety notes of interlaced and twining love songs from the trees). i don’t hear a single human-made sound, except for the far-off whoosh of a morning train, and even that is drowned against the clamor rising from the itty-bitty lungs of all the flocks declaring start of reproduction season.

i could stay out there all day, the one sure place where i can breathe. where i don’t imagine the virus chasing after me. (the grocery store i find an exercise in weave and dodge, surrounded by masses wearing masks, imagining with my x-ray vision whole crops of red-ringed dots splattered all across whatever i’m about to pluck from bins or shelves. you now witness how my days in microbiology labs come back to haunt me, how they exercise my far-too-active imagination. how my special powers allow me to see otherwise invisible objects.)

i’ve been down on my knees for good spells this week, but not so much in prayer as in scouring-the-earth mode. i’ve heard reports from parts south that spring is actually rising, breaking forth from slumber. here in the heartland, here not far from the great lake michigan (which i can hear quite clearly these days from my so-called hermitage), there’s barely a hint, though i’ve been raking back the leaves, all but coaxing vernal stirrings. unwilling to dawdle while spring takes its time, i’ve pulled out the clippers. hauled in what looks like armload of spiky sticks. but in fact it’s my annual exercise in forcing, forcing spring, all the more essential this time round, in this the corona siege. (see above.)

i have been known to leave the premises. to take a morning constitutional, to ply the sidewalks. that’s where i ran across this: IMG_1391

praise be the children and their chalk. praise be the ones who spread the gospel of faith and hope and calm.

because i believe in stockpiling but not the toilet-paper kind, i’ve been busy all week tucking away bits and morsels for your consumption here at the virtual kitchen table. i’ve clipped smart paragraphs and poems that packed a punch. here’s some of what i’ve hoarded just for you:

margaret renkl is a writer from outside nashville, now a once-a-week columnist in the new york times. this week she wrote about the balm for jangled nerves, the balm that oozes from the earth:

The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context.

a few paragraphs later she wrote this: …reminds me of Alice Walker’s words: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

and then there was this: The scent of freshly turned soil works on the human brain the same way antidepressants do.**

that last bit from margaret set me off on a bit of a goose chase to dig into this scientific finding that turning over trowel really does do wonders for the soul. sure enough, i found:

Researchers from Bristol University and University College London discovered using laboratory mice, that a “friendly” bacteria commonly found in soil activated brain cells to produce the brain chemical serotonin and altered the mice’s behaviour in a similar way to antidepressants.

When they treated mice with Mycobacterium vaccae they found that it did indeed activate a particular group of brain neurons that produce serotonin – in the interfascicular part of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRI) of the mice, to be precise. They established this by measuring the amount of c-Fos in the area, a biochemical marker whose presence indicates that serotonin releasing neurons have fired.

Serotonin, also known as 5-HT (short for 5-hydroxytryptamine), is found in the gut, brain, nerves and blood of humans and other animals. There are 14 different receptors that bind to serotonin each working a different property of this highly multi-functional chemical messenger.

The friendly bacteria in this study appear to be having an antidepressant effect in a third way, by increasing the release of serotonin.

and because poetry will always be sacred text to me, because poetry has a knack for seeping into those unspoken nooks and crannies that make us who we are, i found this from one of my favorites, dorianne laux, who calls herself something of an unschooled poet, a poetess who worked as a sanitarium cook, a gas station manager and a maid before earning a B.A. at 36, and whose poetry is said to be “compassionate witness to the everyday.”

because in some ways we are all carrying the load of grief, because we all teeter on the edge of holding it together or otherwise, this poetic bit of wisdom and truth struck me hard this week. we are all in this together. the kindness of strangers just might be our saving grace. as we move through our so-called monastic days and nights….

For the Sake of Strangers

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly.  A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another–a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even

to be waiting, determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them–

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

–Dorianne Laux

because i imagine we’re a table of survivors and stockpilers of another sort, what saving graces have you stocked up on this week?

and before i go, i am stockpiling all the birthday love in the world for two of my favorite people in the whole wide world who happen to have back-to-back birthdays today and tomorrow. they are both best friends forever, and they both live and breathe the purest most radiant love that ever there was. happy birthday sweet P, and happy almost birthday auntie M. xoxoxoxoxo

may you be safe and strong in this week ahead. look back here for any particularly urgent (and delicious) morsels i find in the days ahead. i tuck them down below in the comments. we are all in this together, each and every gentle kindness our path toward the light on the other side…..

maybe we need to open the smoke hole

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there’s a siberian myth that when you close the smoke hole in a reindeer-hide tent — that orifice opening up to the sky — God can’t see in anymore. when you close the smoke hole, you break the connection to the divine — to the heavens and clouds and stars in the sky.*

when you close the smoke hole, you go mad in the whirl of unending toxic vapors.

maybe the world needs to go quiet to open the smoke hole.

have you heard that dolphins are once again romping in the waters off venice? (the oversized — dare we say obscene — cruise ships are gone.) blue skies and birdsong are back in parts of china that hadn’t seen them or heard them for years. (factories gone silent, cars parked at the curbs; pollution cut off at the knees.)

the earth, amid a pandemic, is healing. you might say it’s the soul that’s pushed its way to the fore.

have you noticed how your inbox is full of invitations from monks and museums and the metropolitan opera? a journal i love — emergence magazine — is, like so many rushing into the abyss, offering “free of charge, online sessions [that] will include: a book club that will meet online once a week, virtual fireside chats with Emergence contributors, a nature journaling course, and facilitated workshops and discussions.”

last night i joined in meditation with a monk and his singbowls at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore — along with two dozen soulful others whose faces appeared in squat boxes at the top of the screen, and who were strewn all across the continent. (singbowls originated in the himalayas more than 2,000 years ago, and the sound that rises from the mallet gliding the rim of a metallic bowl is scientifically documented to change our brain waves, and so is thought to be healing and soothing and all of those “ings” we need right now.)

the other morning i sat at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, while the priest at my church spoke of the samaritan woman during the sermon of sunday morning liturgy. last night, my priest popped in again, and mentioned that rather than singing the birthday song twice as she washes her hands, she likes to recite the jewish blessing for the washing of hands (it’s 10 seconds, so repeat twice): “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

there are many, many hours to fill in the space between stepping into my haz-mat attire and bravely boldly facing the grocery stores aisles where, more often than not, whole aisles are cleared, picked over as if a cotton field in the wake of the weevil. and so, being human, we itch to find ways to fill those hours.

i say, take this time and seize it: pick up a rake, if you have one idling in the garage or the shed. tenderly pull back the winter’s detritus, marvel at the tender green nubs insistently pushing through the crust of the earth. listen to the birdsong, now that the soundtrack of cars and most trucks (save for the poor amazon delivery squad), have gone silent.

one of my most beloved friends is teaching me, via links to websites and a vat of bubbling goo she’s promised to leave on my stoop, how to befriend that curious alchemical mix of flour and water and floating-by spores (how lovely to think of a wafting microbe as friend and not foe in these red-ringed times) called sourdough starter. there’s something eternally hopeful about the notion of make-your-own yeast, and bake-your-own breakfast.

last night, the college kid among us pulled out a board game, fired up his laptop to connect with his faraway brother, and together — through the wizardry of this wireless age — we all played round after round of word games. when’s the last time we all huddled at the kitchen table to put our collective heads together in game?

i’m making it my most important job to stitch the normal into these days, and to take it up a notch and embroider the moments with whatever delights and high-order embellishments i can muster: i’m tossing lavender packets into the dryer so clean sheets smell like provence herb gardens. i’m cracking open packets of biscuits, cranking the oven, filling the house with buttery inhalations. defrosting stews long tossed to the back of the freezer. the soul when its gasping for air is especially receptive to beauty.

and in between the attempts to make this time something of a break from the madness, i’m paying closest attention to the unbridled kindnesses, to the light that insists on seeping through the cracks.

maybe the smoke hole is opening.

maybe we’re finally noticing how hungry our souls have become. seek vigil not isolation, might be our watch phrase. don’t cut yourself off from the marvelous. from the undeniably beautiful. from the blessed.

open your eyes and your heart, the heavens are beckoning in ways never ever imagined. shabbat is upon us. uninterrupted.

enter in peace.

how are you keeping open the smoke hole?

from time to time across the week, i will bring delicious morsels here to the virtual kitchen table. you’re welcome to do the same….as we join hearts and forge on together. we will emerge and be stronger for seeing the world through new smoke-cleared eyes…..

*credit to martin shaw, mythologist and storyteller from devon, england, (extolled as “a thirteenth-century troubadour dropped into our midst”) for bringing the smoke-hole myth to my attention…..

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1905 Scientific American, documenting Siberian wilderness culture

those immutable ballasts

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super worm moon 2020, just when we needed a night light

the other night, back in the days when i was still driving to the train most evenings to ferry home the fellow working downtown, back before the red-ringed virus found its way into the glassy tower where he works, back before they–and the rest of the world–sent everyone home, the moon hovered just over the fence line. the moon—big and whole and bright in a way a screen never will be–it stopped me in my tracks.

the moon made me weep the other night.

the moon wasn’t budging. not a kerfuffle in the world could get in the way of the moon doing what it’s done since the beginning of time. and, somehow, that certainty saved me. gave me just enough breath to fill up my soul and my air sacs.

felt like it all but reached out to tap me on the shoulder (or maybe the heart), to save me, to steady me, to give me the something to lean on i needed.

there it was, at the end of a long blurry day, when schools were closing, and produce aisles were beginning to sound a wee bit risky, there it was, taking up more of the sky than i could remember. it was, to my little mind, as if God–or whatever you call the abiding holiness–had pinned it there. just for all of us to see: it wasn’t going anywhere. it had shined before over terrible times. over atomic bombs, and world wars and crusades. it had shined over riots and the night the cities burned down. the moon, and those forces that hold it in place, they weren’t going anywhere. we could count on that one thing.

next morning, just as the sun was peeking over the same horizon–endless cycle, one rising after another–the woodpecker flew to my feeder. as did the cardinals. and the blue jay. their flutterings were not interrupted; they carried on. and so should i, so should we. all of us. maybe more together than we’ve been in a very long time.

maybe, at long last, the glues that bind will come out of hiding. maybe we’ll realize the one true thing is that nucleus of goodness that lives in our hearts. maybe reaching out (elbow-bump style) will be the thing that not only saves us, but carries us onward and upward.

maybe when we’re a little bit rattled, maybe when we’re scared, we can stop all the posturing and pretending we’re not in it together. maybe it’s taking a germ to shake us free from the ugliness, from the us-versus-them, that’s been choking us. truly been making it harder and harder to breathe. maybe this is the germ to wipe out the toxins. or some of them anyway.

in the last few hours, my virtual mailbox, the one i can open without shuffling down the sidewalk, it’s been filling with words from around the world really, words that just might serve to save us, to remind us how much of a difference a kindness will make.

this from a rabbi: rabbi wisdom

this from my priest:

In this time of pandemic, I am reminded of the parts of our scriptures that speak to people who were facing the most frightening thing imaginable in their time–the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple–apocalyptic scriptures that seem hyperbolic until we too are in a frightening situation and those words of God’s providence and presence amidst crisis are somehow just the thing I was thirsty for but didn’t know it. We couldn’t have predicted that Lent would be a period of unknowing and wilderness in quite this way, but here we are; so we enter in.

right now, when we’re holed inside our houses (or at least that’s where the public health experts hope and pray that we are), when we can’t literally squeeze each other’s hands, words might save us. words are breath put to sinewy cords, words are breath that rises from lungs, from the pit of the soul, really.

words, sometimes, are those intangible tangible ballasts and vessels that break through the barrier, shatter the walls we erect. words put breath to kindness, to empathy, to saying aloud, “i’m just a little bit scared. tell me we’ll all be all right.” words carry joy, carry laughter. words make us laugh out loud–and we can use a good dose of that now. words sometimes make us weep; sometimes in the very best way because they put syllables to the truth of who we are: we’re all alone except for each other, and the one immutable force, the one unconquerable truth is that love wins, love heals, love washes away whatever needs rinsing. love binds. love travels far and wide and without the laws of physics. love is the mightiest breath that ever there was (ask anyone who’s grieving; they’ll tell you the depths of the ache and the anguish, they’ll tell you how sometimes–out of the blue–it’s an updraft that fills them and lifts them again, as if the someone they loved just swept them up by the heart).

so, for the duration of this red-ringed hiatus, let’s put those words to the business of loving. of reaching out. of checking in. of whispering soothing certainties. of making each other laugh out loud. of reminding: the force of our love, collectively, is an immutable, indomitable thing. we might be felled by a fever, but no one, no one can suck the love from our hearts or our souls. together, we rise.

just as the moon and the sun. again and again and again. amen.

if the spirit moves me in these long days ahead, i might post a few extra words here at the chair. maybe down in the comments, maybe in posts that don’t come only on fridays. these are uncharted times, begging uncharted adventures. 

how are you faring, and what are some of the words in days past that have given you hope or joy or a sure sense of belonging to the great and glorious ring of indomitable human family?

public health announcement: the surest equation to “flatten the curve” (that is slow the incline of coronavirus cases) is to minimize contact with those beyond the house where you dwell. this might last for a month; no one can tell us for certain. no need to wipe the grocery shelves clean; no need to hoard (my brother stood in a grocery line behind a woman with a cart filled with new york strip steaks–go figure!). get good sleep. wash your hands. sit in the sun (vitamin D is an immune booster). flush yourself with plain old water; try to keep your mouth from getting dry. the more religiously we can stick to the stay-out-of-crowds plan, the sooner we make it to the days of life after corona….

blessings to my beloved maureen, who sent along the words from the rabbi; to my priest, kat, who is ever wise. blessings to one of our wonderful chair sisters who–egad!–was bitten by a rattlesnake the other day, and is suffering terrible pains (and might be out of the ICU by now). may everyone who wanders by this ol’ table and chairs be safe and well, and surrounded by love. xoxo

my bunker of books

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it’s dawned on me, as i haul my load of books from nook to nook, that i just might be building myself a bunker of books, a wall of words to crouch down beside, steer clear of bombs and missiles shrieking overhead. all these long and fractured months, the one sure solace, the one oasis is the place i go when i crack a book, haul out a pen (if the book belongs to me and not my kindly library), turn page after page.

i tend to read in stacks, one book begets another. one wise soul points me toward another, and like a sparrow pursuing trail of seed, i follow. hungrily.

the corner of the world into which i’ve staked my flag–of late–is the landscape at the intersection of the sacred and the natural world. it’s a country with permeable borders, ensuring easy entry into neighboring poetry, and down the chute of saints (modern-day sectarian as well as the medieval and monastic kind). the immediate agenda is research for a book i just might write, but really it’s because i could spend all the days of my life catching up on books and minds i missed in my earlier blurrier chapters.

it seems a safe bet, does it not, that the minds that have survived across the ages might be the ones with something wise to say, to remember, to press against my heart. and so i backfill with the classics (john muir and c.s.lewis, and even justice william o. douglas, in the current stack), and move fluidly through the ones hot off the press.

against the backdrop of the daily news, it’s a much quieter terrain. surely, a sacred one. one infused with those rare things, in case of fire, we’d grab and run: shimmering epiphanies, the ones that shimmy open the chambers of our hearts; words so wise we commit them to memory almost as soon as they fall across our lips; poetries that soothe the soul, while simultaneously making us see anew, snapping the whole tableau into finer-grain focus.

it’s the underpinning of my everyday, my subplot to live simply, nearly monastically, amid a world of noise and unceasing distraction. no wonder they call this the age of attention deficit disorder. when’s the last time you sat on a log in the woods, drinking in the symphony of birdsong and silence?

all this to bring me to the latest soulful book i reviewed for my friends in the books section of the chicago tribune. it’s my one excuse for reading that comes with (scant) paycheck. i still pinch myself to think i get to read for work. and every once in a while one of those books takes me to a kingdom i never knew. there seems to be a backlog at the tribune these days, and one of the most glorious books i’ve read in a long while is still sitting on the runway. (here’s a peek into the future: it’s the late great brian doyle’s one long river of song, a collection of take-your-breath-away essays that will leave you gobsmacked at the capacity of the human heart and soul. and if i was allowed to post here before my review runs in the tribune, i surely would. but alas, not allowed…) in the meantime, here’s the review that just posted the other day, a collection of the sermons and speeches of chicago’s very own, rev. jesse l. jackson, sr.

‘Keeping Hope Alive’

By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr, edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Orbis, 256 pages, $25

Jesse Jackson’s sermons, now collected, stir the soul

By BARBARA MAHANY |CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The pages of “Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.” are separated into two sections; one for sermons, delivered in churches, and another for speeches, delivered in arenas most aptly tagged “political.” The thing that leaps out most emphatically, though, is that the separation doesn’t matter at all: For Jackson, one of the great orators of the civil rights movement in America and around the world, religion is political, and politics is religion. One without the other is rootless and decidedly dismissible.

Over the last half century, Jackson — the Chicago-based founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, ordained Baptist minister, and twice Democratic presidential candidate — rightly earned his slot as one of the soul-stirringest preachers on the national stage. He proudly occupies his podium at the intersection of religion and politics: He lives and breathes the Gospel as well as the moral imperative to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reach out to the oppressed, the stranger, the ones unjustly shoved beyond the margins.

As he beautifully writes in his concluding remarks (perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection), “When I traveled I stayed in people’s homes instead of downtown hotels. Coal miners’ homes. Meat cutters’, housing projects, gang bangers’ in LA. And when I was speaking I saw them. My refrain at the time was, ‘I understand.’ I knew who I was talking to — the woman, the coal miner …. And I wasn’t quoting Scripture, I was scripturing.”

jesse jackson book

Indeed, Jackson’s most profound gift seems to be his capacity for not seeing the line between religion and politics. The Jesus found in these pages — a selective sampling of those rare few sermons (six) or speeches (19) actually written down, compiled for the first time and edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion — is a deeply personal Jesus, one Jackson seamlessly translates into one who knows the pain and struggle of whomever Jackson is preaching to. “Jesus was the victim of the most horrific lynching on a tree,” Jackson declared in an Easter sermon at his Rainbow PUSH headquarters in 2003. “The cross was Rome’s electric chair,” he says later in the same sermon, dissolving the line between persecutions ancient and current.

As powerful as each sermon or speech is on its own merit, it’s the sweep of history that most startles and gives weight to nearly every sentence gathered in these pages. Jackson was there, just below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in April 1968. Jackson was there, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail on Robben Island after 27 years locked behind its prison gates.

His is a hard-won, authentically lived moral authority, and now, Jackson writes, “I’m old and I have Parkinson’s, but once I was young. I went to jail with my classmates when I was nineteen, trying to use the public library, and now I’m seventy-seven …. After all these years, what remains for me is God is a source of mystery and wonder. Scripture holds up. The righteous are not forsaken. We’ve come a long way since slavery time. But we’re not finished yet. Running for freedom is a long-distance race.”

Reading Jackson, absorbing the clarity of his moral vision, should be required. It’s fuel for the miles yet to be run. “Keeping Hope Alive” is the place to begin.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

what books are in your bunker?

we all leap…

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wrestling time seems to have preoccupied the human species since the dawn of, well, time. time itself ceaselessly flows. the heavens, though, mark it with sun and moon, light and shadow. we, scribblers that we are, we draw lines on pages, make them into little boxes, count them one by one. it’s a russian doll of time boxed. we have boxes in all sizes: millennia, century, year, month, day, and of late (in the scope of human history, that is) we have day-minders that make itty-bitty boxes, one for each hour or quarter hour, depending on your busyness. one box slips inside another. we now know at-a-glance just how booked our tomorrows will be.

hipparchus.

hipparchus

all this time wrestling long ago left the mathematicians and sky gazers with a little bit of a problem. a leftover, in fact. or in second-grade subtraction lingo, a remainder. once wise folk like hipparchus, considered the greatest astronomer of antiquity, started squinting toward the sun, hauling out their rudimentary measuring sticks, they mapped some sense of the heavens. hipparchus, the fellow who gave us trigonometry (something you might or might not celebrate), is the one who first pinned time to the revolutions of the sun, to the dance of planet earth in tango with the biggest star. he’s the one who must have whooped, aha! when he calculated the time it takes for one spin around the sun. and here’s the rub: it takes 365 days and 6 hours to make the round-about. that pesky leftover is what brings us to tomorrow — february 29 (a date pulled from the special-reserve shelf).

if you’re going to put time in a box (or a whole calendar of boxes) what shall you do with that quarter of a day left behind? well, said the wise sky scribes of long ago, let us bundle those quarter days into a single package, one that rolls around every four years. (it gets even trickier for us, and for those ancient numbers dudes, once hipparchus pointed out the pesky little fact that their bundling left yet another remainder: every four years, there’s an extra 44 minutes, or three days every 400 years (as ever, it’s the leftovers that all but foil us). so, geniuses that they were, they once again did their math and this time reached for subtraction, deciding that those years divisible by 100 only get a leap day if they’re also divisible by 400. (meaning 1600, 2000, 2400 are leap years, but 1700, 1800, 1900 got gypped.) (and further proving that you can bend rules to do just about anything you so desire.)

so, basically, we should all bow down to long-ago hipparchus for this construct of the leap day. theoretically, it’s the mathematical solution to the boxing-up of time. but for us seekers of the deeper truths, it begs a russian doll of questions, all pivoting on one essential one: if you were handed a gift box of time, if hours were added to the measure of your life, how might you squeeze the holiest holiness from those ticking seconds, minutes, hours? how might you make it most count?

one of the mystical truths of time is that often we get our clearest vision of the gift when it’s taken away, or so threatened. have you ever held your breath waiting for results of a scan? have you paced the halls outside doors marked “surgery: do not enter,” waiting for word of what was found? have you watched the clock move glacially as you await the phone call that’s not coming? have you begged for one more yesterday, most emphatically with someone loved and lost?

what tumbles through our whole self is the begging sense that if only we could have one more day, a few more hours, we’d do this and this and this. say these words we’ve left unsaid. i heard joe biden, someone who knows volumes about loss, say not so long ago that the truth is that in the end cancer patients aren’t asking for years and years, their pleas boil down to “doc, can i make it till the baby comes?” “can i watch her walk down the aisle?” “maybe make it one more christmas?” it’s chiseled to the precipice of the humblest increments of time, of possibility counted out in minutes.

so what will we do with our so-called extra tomorrow? isn’t this our once-a-quatrain chance to practice sacramental time? to lift up each hour, to hold it to the holy light, infuse it with intentionality (that modern-day queazy term for “paying attention,” as ancient a sacred practice as ever there was).

imagine you are handed a basketful of time. as you unwrap each and every hour, each section of an hour, how will you choose to live it to its most abundant fullness?

that’s the question. contemplate your blessings…and, soon enough, it’ll be time to take the holy leap.

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the question above–how will you make the very most of the gift of tomorrow, or today, for that matter–is the question i leave here on this morning’s table….

mapping the sun hipparchus(p.s. the image at the tippy-top here is the cover of william cunningham’s 1559 Cosmographicall Glasse, a compendium of engravings of the known principles (at the time) of cosmography, geography, navigation….among the details is his engraving of hipparchus scoping the sun…)

 

in the dregs of winter, follow along…

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it was, to put it somewhat crudely, the armpit of the week, in the armpit of the winter. it was a wednesday night and one of us had broken out in spots. it was february and the snow could not decide to come or go. and the hoary shade of gray out the window was unrelenting.

so i turned to that source of so much solace (and heartache) over the years: the pages of the news. specifically, to the squat square pages the new york times had generously tucked into sunday’s paper. ONE pot|pan|skillet: 24 brilliant recipes for everyone who hates doing the dishes. while i am not among the doing-dishes haters, i am hot on the trail of hauling only one vessel from the depths of where i stash those things. i flipped pages till i came to this: IMG_1327

perhaps it was the orange and red mosaic that reached out and grabbed me. perhaps it was the whisper of my lovely doctor, nudging me to eat more fish, to interrupt the endless nights of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. perhaps it was that nip of spatula en route to plopping a mound of mouth-watering hake onto my dinner plate.

mostly, i think it was the february doldrums, the pitiful sight of the man i love covered in spots we thought were shingles (turns out, they were not), and the simple hope that i could cook myself out of the late-winter rut.

i set out with shopping list, promptly scooped up peppers red and orange and yellow. zipped past the vinegar shelf and got myself a jug of sherry-tinged such stuff. stopped by the olive bar and scooped up a quarter pound from the briny vat in which they swam. oh, and i waited in line for the fishmonger to pluck from his case a hefty chunk of midwest hake (aka plain old cod).

i’m not usually a follower of recipes, but this day — in need of being pulled deep into something other than the news squawking from the box, and the spots at home — i sunk right in. i played along. step 1 to 2, all the way to 5.

IMG_1319i chopped myself my own peppery mosaic, in shades matisse or van gogh would have applauded. i skimmed the itty-bitty leaves of thyme right off their stems. and then i chopped (chopping in the end of winter is highly therapeutic; i recommend).

at last, as the chilly afternoon turned to chilly twilight, i cranked the oven. there began the shifts of submission, as heat turned peppers into succulence, and then raw fish — and olives and olive oil and scattered bits of thyme — became magnificence, as if lifted from aegean seas, and the kouzina of someone’s expert greek grandma.

what wound up on dinner plates was nothing short of wait-who-made-this?! had he not been busy scooping up every last bit with knife and fork, the gent across the table might well have lurched to his feet, and pressed palms in rapid-fire rat-a-tat (aka applause). instead, we both took certain note of what a difference a bit of concentration in the kitchen, the mere act of following instruction, submitting to excursion in the land beyond routine, could do to an otherwise humdrum wednesday.

it’s those nearly invisible moments, the ones we lift out of the ordinary, make sacramental through the sheer gift of our attention and our intent to lift them up, to hoist them from the ho-hum, that in the end makes each day count. and turns out swell eats, besides.

should you care to play along, here’s a very fine place to begin:

Sheet-Pan Roasted Fish With Sweet Peppers By Melissa Clark

YIELD 3 to 4 servings (i made for two, cutting quantity of fish in half, but keeping all the peppers)

TIME 40 minutes

Quick to make and very pretty to behold, this easy weeknight dish has more verve than most. The roasted bell peppers turn sweet and golden, while olives add a salty note that goes nicely with the mild, flaky fish and a garlicky parsley dressing. If you can’t find hake, cod or flounder make fine substitutes, though you may have to adjust the roasting time. The thicker the fillets, the longer they will take to cook. (i cooked cod at 475-degrees for 8 minutes.)

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INGREDIENTS

1 small bunch lemon thyme or regular thyme

1 1⁄2 pounds hake fillets (for two, i used 3/4 pounds cod)

Fine sea salt and black pepper

3 large bell peppers, preferably 1 red, 1 orange and 1 yellow, thinly sliced

4 1⁄2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1⁄4 cup pitted, sliced black or green olives, or a combination

1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, plus more to taste

1 garlic clove, grated

1 cup loosely packed Italian parsley leaves, chopped

 

PREPARATION

Step 1 Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pull 1 tablespoon thyme leaves off the bunch and finely chop.

Step 2 Season fish all over with a large pinch or two of salt and pepper and rub with chopped thyme leaves. Let rest at room temperature while you prepare peppers.

Step 3 Spread peppers on a rimmed sheet pan, and toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the black pepper to taste. Top peppers with the remaining thyme sprigs. Roast, tossing occasionally, until peppers are softened and golden at the edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 4 Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Push peppers to the edges of the pan, clearing a space in the center. Lay fish out on that empty space and drizzle with oil. Scatter olives over the top of fish and peppers. Roast until fish turns opaque and is just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes.

Step 5 Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette by combining vinegar, garlic and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, then whisk in parsley. Taste and add more salt or vinegar, or both, if needed. Serve fish and peppers drizzled with vinaigrette.

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i intend to cook my way through at least a dozen of the double dozen choices the times has laid down before me. we’ll be almost at the cusp of the vernal equinox by the time i’m there, and that, i’m certain, will all but save me.

what’s your sure cure for late-winter doldrums? have you heard the shift (and acceleration) in birdsong? that’s hope on a limb, if you ask me…..startles me with joy each and every morning…..

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counting: an exercise in loving

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my brother started it. my brother who wasn’t yet 20 the night we all got phone calls, urgent phone calls, to get to highland park hospital. it was dad, we were told in those long-ago calls. and it didn’t look good.

there was a blizzard that night, but we all drove through it–two from milwaukee, two from downtown chicago (one was already there, the youngest; he’d walked in the room steps ahead of my mom, and he saw the team bent over my father’s bed, as they tried to start his heart again). i remember holding my breath as snow flakes fell and blew. i remember thinking the edens expressway, the most direct route from my little apartment to the hospital where we waited, i remember thinking it would never end.

three of my four brothers, especially, were too too young for the news–one, the youngest, had only just turned 13, the other two were in or in and out of college, finding their way–too young for the news that would come when the doctor walked stiffly into the hall, gathered us, and we all leaned in as he looked down at the shiny tiled floor, and said only, “i’m sorry.”

that was not enough for me, the one who needs things spelled out, in more refined detail, so i spurted out, primally, “did he die?”

he did. and so five children and a widow walked back into the snow storm, with a plastic bag of his “effects,” a cold and clinical word for the relics of the one you loved.

all these years later, my brothers especially, try to resurrect the faint outlines of the one we loved and lost. my brother, now the father of a feisty second-grader, he especially reaches into the vapors for the father he never got enough of, none of us got enough of.

this week, on the eve of the 39th february 10 since that snowy awful night, my brother sat down and made a list. a beautiful list. one raw, and unfiltered. he wrote all the way to 39, one moment captured for each year since we’d lost the great gregarious eugene shannon, felled by a heart attack, a massive one, at 52.

my brother’s litany of moments was nothing like mine. so i sat down and wrote my own. and my other brother in arizona, he wrote one too. he wrote his on paper and when he lined up the pages to send us a picture, the pages stretched from one end of his living room clear out into the hall.

in all, we counted out a portrait of the man we loved.

the one, i wrote, who “unwrapped from squares of wax paper his chicken or tuna salad sandwich from the Wesley Pavilion Auxiliary Tea Shop at the side of my hospital bed, almost every day, the entire month or five weeks i was there.” i wrote how, that whole long month in june of 1975, he walked down michigan avenue, from his shimmering big-city ad agency, ducked into the hospital gift shop, bought his sandwich, chips and iced tea (tall with lemon), carried his white paper lunch bag up the elevator to the fourth floor, which everyone knew was the psych floor, and came to my room on the north side of the hall, where he pulled up a chair, and sat beside me. he sat beside me the whole while, as i tried to make my way through whatever was under the metal lid of my hospital tray. we ate side-by-side. i was anorexic, and in 1975, no one knew what to do with a girl who’d all but stopped eating, so they signed me in to a psych unit, and my dad came every day. it remains the tenderest definition of love i know.

i wrote, too, of my dad and his affinity for the backyard hammock strung between two oaks, and his red-plaid christmas pants, and his pride in a closet full of brooks brothers three-piece suits (for a kid who grew up in paris, kentucky, with a train engineer for a father, and a country schoolteacher mama, it had been a long and shining road to brooks brothers’ chalk-striped suits). i wrote of the scar that ran down his bald pate, left there by a german shepherd when my dad was six, and climbed a fence he shouldn’t have.

and i wrote about coming home from the hospital that snowy february night in 1981, “finding dad’s creamy cable-knit tennis sweater, the one with the v-neck rimmed in stripes of blue and red, draped over the kitchen chair (i’d always thought it must have been dropped there when he went off from tennis to the ER that saturday morning, and it still hung there tuesday night).” i wrote of “wrapping myself in the sweater, and literally not wanting to take a breath because I didn’t want to breathe in any air from a world not inhabited by dad.”

we wrote on and on, the three of us. and we all wept reading each others’ litanies. it was, in the week that pauses for love, quite an exercise in bringing back to life the ineffable, the ephemeral, the love that slipped away too soon.

we counted our way into the very depths of love. we brought threads of our father back to life just long enough to wrap ourselves in the thick of it, in the heart of him. love doesn’t die, we proved again, counting the whole way.

i know there is grief gathered round this table, and i wrote this in part because the list-making proved so resuscitating, at least for the short while we were hard at work remembering, conjuring, lifting moments out of the vaults of our heart. we typed through tears. we gathered words as traces of a time now slipped away. the time might be behind us, but the love is living, breathing, even now.

how would you begin to count, your exercise in loving?

and may the swirls of love — lost and present — rise up and swirl around you this day of hearts. 

insert (relief) here

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amid a long stretch of blur, amid headlines of “bloodbaths” at the newspaper that basically birthed the whole of this family, amid a washington moment that left me wanting for a lysol bath (in the infamous line my mother once uttered upon a trip home from a las vegas convention, the woes of the ad exec’s dutiful wife), amid deadlines that have me typing from darkness to darkness, the tall bespectacled fellow with whom i reside (aka my lawful wedded husband) casually glanced out at the snows as i motored him off to yesterday’s train. “it’s my half-birthday today,” he informed, as if that alone might be enough to save the day.

and it was, and it did, in its infinitesimal way.

the moment, which i latched onto, which i considered as i went about the eventual business of melting ice cream, hauling out a heart-shaped cookie cutter, as i sprinkled ghirardelli chocolatey chips–plonk, plonk, plonk on the plate–sliced strawberries in quarters and halves, was not unlike a wisp of a comma in a long, long paragraph of words: easily missed, but emphatically necessary (ask any third-grade teacher of grammar).

the sense indecipherable without it.

necessary, because in the seasons of life, some feel impossibly uphill; others, more feet-off-the-pedals-whiz-down-the-lane hardly an effort at all. necessary, because the human species is hard-wired for a break in the weather, a break in the onslaught. (i often wonder if that’s why God invented seasons, and the turnings therein.) and sometimes we have to decidedly, determinedly, do that–engineer the breaks–all by ourselves. it’s our job. we have to insert (joy) here. insert (relief) there. insert (closest thing to whimsy) precisely here.

my first wave of response, loosely holding the wheel, craning my neck to get a look at the half-birthday boy’s face, was to utterly melt. to be charmed that the long-standing practice in this old house of making a fuss over fractional birthdays (as recently as noting someone’s 26-1/2) had rubbed off on the tall one. he’d never before in all these years mentioned his half birthday, though it comes a mere two days before the one we’ve been noting for the last 18 years. (don’t think i didn’t try to mail half a birthday cake to faraway college…)

my second wave of response, the one that’s stuck with me all day and over the night, is the not-so-big thought that sometimes it’s up to us to take the reins of our joys, and our whimsies, and push away the worries, the angst, the unrelenting questions, for enough of a pause to let in a dribble of light.

otherwise, we go dark. endlessly dark.

IMG_1275and there’s something particularly joyful about making your joys all by yourself. home-spun joy. joy barely noticed. joy that comes from scrounging the pantry (too many deadlines to rush to the grocery). from reaching into the freezer and thinking ahead to melt the tahitian-vanilla-bean ice cream (okay, so i had to take two passes at that part when i forgot i was in the middle of melting and found myself with a pint of oozy liquid vanilla). from reaching into the basket of heart-shaped cookie cutters, pulling out just the right one. from turning the lights out, striking a match, ferrying a heart + berries + chocolatey chips and flickering candle over to the half-birthday boy.

it was the tiniest wisp of a moment–surely a comma in a long string of words (try reading without that ink swirl on the page we know as the comma). but it ushered in an exclamation mark of momentary joy. and that, at the midpoint of a year in the life of someone you love, is perfectly, positively necessary. and good.

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how might you insert (joy/relief/wonder) here, today or any tomorrow?

redoubling

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sign in a shop window on a busy street nearby

redouble re·​dou·​ble | \ rē-ˈdə-bəl \ v. 1. make or become greater greater, more intense, or more numerous; make twice as great in size or amount. we will redouble our efforts. 2. a. (obsolete) to echo back. b. (archaic) repeat.

 

dear people, these are our marching orders. and we do need redouble today. redouble. quadridouble. centidouble. be fruitful and fruitful and multiply.

be kind and kinder. be fierce in your kindness. unclench your fists, resist the urge to punch at the walls. rise above the lowest common denominator. set a new holier bar.

as i dipped into silence this morning, stared out the window at the blessed quiet of this snowfallen morning, where only the cardinal and a few of his acolyte sparrows are animating the tableau, i thought of what this day will bring, what this weekend might be steeped in. i remembered that we are a nation of vitriol at this too-long moment in time. i remembered how crushed we might feel, and how in times of feeling the hard boot heel of history pressing against the breakable bones of our ribcage, the prewired instinct might be to fight back. to wield weapons in kind.

so this is an appeal to resist and redouble. to not knock down vitriol with more vitriol. to put our faith in the longer game. to rustle up every voter you know. to drive them to the polls. bring a bundt cake for good measure. try to believe that goodness might once reign again. that we can be rinsed of this age of disregard, of indecency, of school-lot bullying. in the meantime, write a thank you note. call up the white-domed Capitol, and ask for whoever it is you want to pat on the back. tell them in no uncertain terms what a hero they are. and how you are so eternally grateful. how you hope your kids grow up to be half the hero they are. how they filled you with hope, watching, listening. how contagious their courage was and will be. how you promise you’ll pay it forward, the courage you saw in the face of unthinkable pressure.

there’s an expression–kill ’em  with kindness; i say melt ’em. melt ’em with kindness in the hours ahead. try to make sense, and let your simple acts of kindness be your foot in the door. even with tears in your eyes.

there are corners of the world, not far from our very front doors, where mercy is needed. be merciful. seek out the ones who have no one to turn to. be the face of kindness, be kindness in the flesh. listen to those who are talking into the wind. be the short burst, the certain burst, of goodness dropped from the heavens. we’re all born fully equipped. God gave us two arms so one could reach out while the other held tight. redouble your kindness. redouble your hope.

be the instrument of peace. clear a path in your world and pave it with act upon act of tenderest mercy.

some days, some moments in time, it’s our only hope.

how will you redouble your kindness today?

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