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inaugural promise

photo by Jason Andrew/NYT

“we must end this uncivil war…”

as soon as his breath propelled those words across his lips and out into the snow-flecked january cold, i inscribed them on my heart. i hadn’t quite framed it that way, in those four words, so profoundly, so poetically, so imploringly. 

and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the wise old soul whose very fiber has been forged in the white-hot furnace of grief compounded by grief, he all but unbuttoned his coat, pulled back his ribs and showed us what burns in that cavity: “my whole soul is in it,” he said, as if speaking to each and every one of us, as if elbows were plopped on our very kitchen tables, eyeballs gazing at eyeballs, mugs of coffee just off to the side, instead of there in the sunlight and shadow of the nation’s capital. then he all but whispered it again: “my whole soul is in it.” and that’s when i whispered, “mine too.” 

having just witnessed — from the edges of our seats — how close this fragile experiment in democracy came to crashing into splintered bits, having lived under a poisonous cloud of daily assaults on decency, straining to stay steady, to keep from being sucked under in the shifting quicksands of moral decay, of a nation under the false premise that license had been given to spew venom from the checkout line to the capitol steps, i am more certain than ever that this is not a one-person parade. if we stand a chance of shoving this moment in time toward the light we claim, toward the peaceable kingdom we believe is possible, well then every last one of us needs to get to work, to chip in, to put one foot before the other in a slow walk toward mercy and justice for all.

my inaugural promise is this:

i will cloak myself each and every day in humility and gentle spirit, the surest vestment for the hard and holy work ahead. for months now i’ve tiptoed in the darkness to my kitchen table where i’ve lit a candle and whispered the words of confession. “most merciful God…” i begin. “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

i will not reflexively shut my ears, close my heart, turn my cheek the wrong way. i will hear them out, whoever it is. i will try, oh i will try, not to leap in with my insistent retort. not to interrupt. not to wield the sharp sword of assumed superiority, not think that my way is the right way, and all else is wrong. i will try, i will try, to step into the other guy’s shoes. to imagine the hurt, or the fear. to look for a gentle way in, to open just a little bit wider the doorway to some common ground. even if only fraction by fraction.

i will actively step into kindness. into imagining the unexpected waft of goodness that might just turn the tide of someone else’s dark day. i will model the thousands of kindnesses that have come my way — the sacks of apples left on my stoop, the tray brought to my hospital bedside, the steaming hot chicken pot pie once delivered on an arctic cold night, to name just a few. 

i will carve out time even amid the whirlingest of days for whoever taps me on the shoulder, looks me in the eye, and whispers, do you have a minute? 

i will — in some way, shape, or form — seek out foreign terrain, the realm of those who might be quick to dismiss me: too white, too old, too left-leaning. and begin with the light-seeking questions: what keeps you awake at night? what do you dream? what brings you joy? what makes you cry? where does it hurt? who do you consider to be the most heroic human you’ve ever known? and how so? what’s one act of kindness you’ve never forgotten? 

because i realize my impotence for change-making at the structural level, i will pinpoint one not-for-profit effectively working toward solution — be it reuniting children separated from parents at the border, or ferreting out all vestiges of racism and bigotry from the nooks and crannies of america, or protecting wetlands from the ravages of greedy exploitation — and i will commit to shaving off a dollar here, a dollar there from my weekly spending and send off occasional bundles from my consciously set-aside sum.

photo of Amanda Gorman by Patrick Semansky

but even more than dollar bills, the currency i commit to this campaign is the craft i ply each and every day: mine is a calling to words, words as instruments of peace, words as the silken thread that weaves together uncommon hearts, words that open doorways into long-locked corridors. as the beautiful and blessed national youth poet laureate amanda gorman so perfectly put it in the wake of her inaugural poem: “words matter. we’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated.” she sought, and i seek with her, to “reclaim poetry as that site in which we can repurify, resanctify the power of words. and to invest that in the highest office of the land.” to invest that in every office of the land, elected and otherwise. from the humblest foot soldier to the commander in chief. and to that, i say amen, amen. 

we must end this uncivil war. and my whole soul is in it. 

what’s your inaugural promise?

not the end, a love story

Amid the haunting tremors of this national moment, and the bone-chilling worry that something awful could erupt, the dreadful sense that we are teetering at the precipice of something precious being lost, I interrupt the breathlessness, the imploring for peace, mercy, justice and truth, to turn ever so briefly to one of the countless personal narratives that unfurls against this shadowed backdrop. Someone with whom I’ve carved a life is turning the page on one of his most consequential chapters, and, as the family historian and archivist, it must be duly marked. 

This is a love story.

It begins long, long ago, inside a vaulted cacophonous chamber inside a gray stone Gothic tower, one that hugs a river’s edge as it courses toward one great lake, in the crosshairs of the American metropolis that rose defiantly from the endless prairie. 

A tall bespectacled gentleman, cloaked in appropriately puddle-splashed and newsprint-stained London Fog trench coat and holey-bottomed penny loafers, strides with his signature mix of certainty + humility down the newsroom’s center aisle, past desk after factory-assembled desk, each one equipped with typewriter, ancient desktop computer, and, chances are, one of the big-city news hustlers straight out of central casting (half-drained whiskey bottles hide in file drawers, stashed behind the extra pair of brogans down where dustballs grow; ashtrays brim with stubbed-out cigarettes; expletives punctuate the rumble, a slurry mix of ringing phones, clackety-clacking teletype machines, and the endless bark of irascible editors and the copy kids who dart and dodge at every bark before it turns to bite). 

Our protagonist, the bespectacled one, is noticed by a young Irish-American nurse-turned-scribe, one whose presence in that very newsroom is as unlikely as anything in her curiously-scripted life. She especially perks her ears when newsroom talk spreads word that this new fellow — this 6-foot-3 Ivy Leaguer who’s arrived by way of Des Moines, and is reputed to write “like nothing you’ve never seen” — boldly exits the newsroom on Friday evenings at six o’clock sharp (akin to walking out of surgery just before the scalpels dig deep into flesh, as Friday night is when the big bulging Sunday paper is “put to bed,” and all hands usually on deck). Word is that the reason for his unnewsroomly departure is to sprint to synagogue for Friday night service. This unorthodox (for a newsroom) orthodoxy is a.) impossible to miss, and b.) highly impressive to the religiously-intrigued Irish-Catholic ecumenical one. 

(Turns out, don’t you know, he was dashing out to the door not only to bow his head and pray, but also to keep a sideways glance on any nice Jewish girl who might wander into the synagogue’s so-named Singles Shabbat, a mix-and-mingle for the 20-something minyan set. Our unreliable narrator here obviously mistook urge to mate — or at least to J-date — for religious fealty.)

It’s not long into this newsroom tale till she — our narrator — falls for him. It is longer, markedly longer, till he returns the favor. But this is not that love story. 

This is her ode to his third-of-a-century dedication, devotion, middle-of-the-night perseverations to the journalistic craft, to his unswerving eye toward excellence, toward equity and justice for all in the urban grid, from the greenswards to the cloud-poking steel-and-glass arisings. 

Back in the beginning of this Chicago story, he worked the city desk, just like the legions of fresh-faced cub reporters who started out eager and naive to the wily ways of Second City aldermen and crooks (sometimes one in the same), ears trained to the police scanner, ready to leap with hat, coat, and scribbler pad to the scene of the nearest atrocity, disaster, or ambulance chase. 

First time the Irish-Catholic and the new-to-the-newsroom Shabbat devotee found themselves dispatched to the same breaking news was the night ol’ Eddie Vrdolyak, an aldermanic stalwart of Chicago’s famed Democratic Machine, broke loose and turned Republican, stunning his Southeast Side constituents who filed into the Serbian Orthodox church hall with their bundt cakes and their murmured words of world-is-upside-down consternation and congratulations. She soaked up color, ambiance, mood; he stuck with the facts. (A telling distinction, one that in some ways would never really fade.)

From there, the hard core of the city desk, the one who’d studied hard the intricacies of balustrades and board-and-batten, casement windows and Corinthian columns, who’d versed himself in architectural volumes from primitivism to Postmodernism, dutifully bid his time pounding Chicago pavement, but he never took his eye off that glittering ever-shifting skyline. 

In the fall of 1992, a mere five years after slipping on his Chicago Tribune ID badge, he was crowned the title he had long, long yearned for: architecture critic of America’s First City of built masterpieces and no little plans. (Note: For all my wanting to, and with all my years cobbling sentences and spinning yarns, I cannot do justice to his 28 years “on the beat,” as newsroom parlance would put it. Oh, but I shall try.) 

He’s sized up the likes of Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, Jeanne Gang, and the iconoclastic-in-every-way Stanley Tigerman, among the many, many. 

He’s marched into architectural battle with no less than Mayor Richie Daley (e.g., the infamous Meigs Field midnight raid, bulldozing Xs through the runway, among his many go-arounds with Da Mare), Mike McCaskey and the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field brouhaha, or in our critic’s inimitable description, “Starship Enterprise crash-landed on the Parthenon”), the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field, and specifically the Toyota sign planted in the bleachers, a “wart on the face of baseball’s grande dame”), Star Wars director and Hollywood legend George Lucas (a “cartoonish mountain” of a proposed lakefront museum the critic likened the “giant lump” to a “bloated Jabba”), and, of course, the Developer in Chief, Donald John Trump, who first courted then skewered our friend the critic.

Our critic’s story began long before the summer of 1987 when he loped into the Tribune Tower. He’d grown up in a newsroom, starting out at 13 on the night shift — writing obits by night, body surfing on the Jersey Shore by day — in his father’s newsroom, a classic PK, or publisher’s kid, in Red Bank, NJ. He’d interned in newsrooms in Newark, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston. And paused long enough for a masters in environmental design at Yale. This curious chemistry of take-no-guff news hound + aesthete and well-trained critic’s eye proved a formidable match for the rough-and-tumble of Chicago, where not even the arts are shielded from shenanigans and shysters.

This explosive combo, well, exploded. Often. In shouting matches with City Hall, delivered at full throttle and no words minced. The leitmotif (toned down for tender eyes or ears) went something like this: “Don’t give me that [baloney]! Tell me the truth!” It is reported that as these shouting matches unfurled for quarter-hour chunks of time, the heads of young reporters would pop up from behind their screens around the newsroom, “like gophers from their gopher holes,” to ogle the sight and sound of a scribe at top bellow. 

Truth, most often, won out. Which might explain how, along the way, the critic’s sharp eye and voluminous and tireless reporting on the inequities of the city’s bejeweled lakefront — well-appointed and abundant on the North Side, decrepit and inaccessible from poor Black neighborhoods on the South Side — would in time reshape the city map. Bulldozers literally shoved parkland to where before there had been none. And millions once unjustly cut off from the great Lake Michigan shoreline now romp on beach and trail, “forever open, clear and free,” in accord with the 1909 edict of the Illinois Supreme Court that has become the rallying cry for decades of lakefront protection. Hands down, the opening up of the entire swath of lakefront is the critic’s proudest moment. That redrawing of the lakefront came in the wake of his 1998 series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” six parts in all, that won him what a young friend of ours once and indelibly declared, “the Polish Surprise” (sound it out swiftly, and you’ll know what I mean, especially to the tender ears of a 5-year-old child).

Together, after all those decades in the same newsroom, the Irish scribe and the tireless critic (one of the rare perpetual newsroom bondings, wed in 1991) paired their names on only three double-bylines. One, named Will (now 27, and a brand-new lawyer — just yesterday sworn in virtually to the Illinois Bar from a Portland, OR, courthouse), and another, Teddy (19, and trudging through college). And yet a third: The mother of those double-bylines was asked by the critic to tag along when the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened and ready for architectural critique, since after all, the critic pointed out, she was the one who’d pushed out the double-bylined babies in the original hallowed Prentice hospital.

And now, for some undetermined chunk of time, the indefatigable and as-yet-unnamed-here critic (long ago, I made a vow that I would not write of him or our marriage, except for occasional sidekick insertions, as he was something of a public figure who deserved full control over his private life), is hanging up his London Fog, and kicking off those holey loafers. He announced his leave-taking on Twitter the other night (see tweets down below). And with lump in my throat, and tears not only in my eyes but running down my cheeks, I partake of the great newsroom tradition of clapping him out as he exits the building and the beat. 

As he wrote in his own last column in the Tribune, which ran practically hidden in the inside pages of the Business section on Thursday:

When I became the Tribune’s architecture critic in the fall of 1992, there was no Millennium Park, no Museum Campus, no downtown Riverwalk, no Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and no St. Regis Chicago. There were no planter boxes in the middle of Michigan Avenue and few bike paths other than those on the lakefront trail.

Hulking public housing high-rises still stood at Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. State Street was an ugly transit mall. Little planes still landed at Meigs Field. Sears Tower was still Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world.

I am chest-burstingly proud of the brilliant work he’s written under his byline, of the countless midnights when he slunk out of bed to fix a sentence or deepen some particular thought. His devotion must rank among the rarest in the business. His love for his city and his readers kept him writing long after counterforce made quitting the easier option. We’ve seen him trailed by TSA agents at O’Hare who wanted to keep up some architectural conversation, straight to the boarding gate; stood by as he was tapped on the shoulder as far away as London or DC by a reader who recognized him and didn’t want to miss a chance to say thank you, ask an architectural question. It’s that devotion — and infinite unsung kindnesses extended to readers and would-be someday critics — that is perhaps his shiningest prize, the one that comes with no crystal paperweight, and no plaque to hang in a back corner of his book-lined office. 

He’s our beloved Blair Kamin, of whom we are soo soo proud. And who has left an indelible and breathtaking mark on the city he loved, the newspaper for which he wrote for 33 rollercoaster years, and who has written his best and most lasting lines in the narrative that is our blessed little double-bylined family.

But that’s the not end of this love story. Only this latest chapter.

***

Here’s how he broke the news on Twitter last Friday night:

After 33 years at Chicago Tribune, 28 as architecture critic, I’m taking a buyout + leaving the newspaper. It’s been an honor to cover + critique designs in the first city of American architecture + to continue the tradition begun by Paul Gapp, my Pulitzer-winning predecessor.

During these 28 years, I have chronicled an astonishing time of change, both in Chicago and around the world. From the horrors of 9/11 to the joy of Millennium Park, and from Frank Gehry to Jeanne Gang, I have never lacked for gripping subject matter.

Whether or not you agreed with what I wrote was never the point. My aim was to open your eyes to, and raise your expectations for, the inescapable art of architecture, which does more than any other art to shape how we live.

So I treated buildings not simply as architectural objects or technological marvels, but also as vessels of human possibility. Above all, my role was to serve as a watchdog, unafraid to bark and, if necessary, bite, before developers and architects wreaked havoc on the city. 

I am deeply grateful to my newspaper, which has never asked me to pull punches. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with talented editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers. They have been a huge help. Journalism, like architecture, is a team enterprise.

What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.

It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off. Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny. -30-

you’ll note i put aside for this one time my disinclination to hit the shift key and write with capital letters (writing here in lower case is for me something akin to kicking off my shoes and shuffling around in slippers), but for the upstanding critic, i decided to pull out my big-girl keys and give him ups and downs on the keyboard scale. i’ll return to slippers, no doubt, though i do note it makes for easier reading when you can spy the peaks and valleys in each and any sentence.

in the tweets above, you might notice mention of Jon Stewart, the late-night genius, who once saw fit to enter the Chicago architectural fray, a little back-and-forth, you might say, between our hero here, the critic, and the comb-over developer who would go on to rule the Oval Office…watch here the clip of Signfeud, from the Daily Show…

i have now overflowed this space with a kitchen sink of Kamin esoterica and folderol. it is with all the love in the world, and bursting giant heart, that i thank the Chicago Tribune (where, combined, we toiled for 63 years) for bringing me the other half of our double byline. it’s been some rocket ride, and i’ll hold on tight for wherever this takes us next.

much love, BK. i am — in the great Tribune tradition of “clapping out” your final exit from the newsroom — standing and applauding. xoxox

and here’s a final twist for this week’s chair: how bout this, you ask the question this week, and i will try to answer….the annals of the newsroom are now open for the curious…..

looking for the light

maybe the reason i lurch myself out from under the layers of flannel and cotton, and sometimes wool, in the inky hour before the light comes suffusing through the trees off to the east, is so i can tiptoe out under heaven’s dome in the dark, so i can train my eye on the spot where the sky first hints at what’s coming. the spot where we get to the part of the story where it all begins again, where the sun rises and the light creeps up and through the sky, like a wine spill to a white linen napkin.

it’s that first crack of light that always thrills me; the moment right before, when you wonder if really it will come again. and then–so far, anyway–it does. and you can check that worry off the list for the day.

maybe that’s why papa cardinal is always out there too. maybe papa is keeping watch on the sun, making sure it does its job, does what’s expected. maybe papa’s the sentinel of dawn, the one charged with letting us know if there’s ever a day when the sun sleeps in. so far, hasn’t happened. but always good to have someone in the lifeguard chair.

so this business of keeping watch for the light to creep in, it’s a skill that comes in mighty handy. i’d call it essential for the human spirit in dark epochs. which this sure seems to be. if you keep watch on the headlines, anyway. if all you count is the sweeping arc of the narrative, the parts where the death toll mounts day after day, where the holy relics of the “citadel of liberty” were shattered and smashed and carried straight out the door and down the capitol steps, steps that have given me goosebumps every time i’ve so much as pressed the sole of my shoe to their age-worn edges. the part where the soundtrack is so hateful you wonder if you’ve woken up in rome just before the collapse, or vietnam in the middle of an ugly war. or germany. or the boston harbor before the tea went in the drink.

so pretty much the only thing worth doing right now is looking–hard as you can–for the teeniest sliver of light coming in through the cracks in the door.

because i happen to keep close watch on the doings of our nation’s capital, because i sometimes see it as a laboratory of human character–who’s got a spine, who’s got a heart–it tends to be one of the places where i gather my evidence for how much hope might be worth counting on. i promise you i look broadly, across party lines. if i spy decency in human form, if i hear a tale of heroic-level goodness, if i see someone rise amid a sea of protest to say, “i’ve scoured my conscience, and here is the truth, guided by timeless moral code,” i listen up. pay close attention. get ready to take a deep breath and start all over again. rather than collapsing in a moment of utter moral depravity and defeat.

so happens, it was there just yesterday that a little bit of hope came trickling in. well, more than a little. and it wasn’t actually in washington where i spied it. it was off in what’s now become the staging area of a presidency to come. over in delaware, where, on a stage all bedecked in blue, i saw a man who shook himself from his grieving a couple years back because he felt a call to restore the soul of america. and i saw him explaining to a nation (quietly, in not-fancy words) why justice for all matters so much, so deeply fine-grainly much. and then i heard him say who he trusted more than anyone to press his shoulder against the long arc of justice to try to muscle it toward where martin luther king jr. and saint john lewis and barack obama promised us it would bend. and i watched merrick garland, a man who might have spent the last five years with a really bitter taste in his mouth, i watched him quietly, humbly, step to the podium and consent to the task. i watched him agree to step into the arena where the blood stains of injustice are soaked deep into the floorboards, where the pile-up of truths need hours and hours of sorting through, and i saw something like light out of the far corner of my eye.

and that’s not the only place where i look.

i look right here in the nooks and crannies of my little life and i find slivers of light coming in from the oddest angles. i find light where i hear the things my college kid remembers to add to his litany of prayers right before dinner. i find light when a brother i love leaps out of his own sack of worries to bedeck my birthday with nothing short of an explosion of joy. i find light in the pages of old, old books on my shelves. and, sometimes, not so old ones.

these are the lines i’ve recently tucked in my “words and lines worth keeping” file (it’s the third of three such files, because i tend to find many many words worth keeping):

“God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” Martin Buber

“‘When the evening of this life comes,’ says St John of the Cross, ‘you will be judged on love.’ The only question asked about the soul….‘Have you loved well?’”

“Each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.” St. John of the Cross from Daniel Ladinsky. Love Poems from God.

‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

and, because i am feeling a wee bit queazy here this morning, i’d best sign off, and ask where do you find the light creeping in?

turning the page…

before the light on this new year falls, i am bent at the old maple table, prayer unfurling. the incense simmers on the stove, an extra fat star anise tossed amid the tumble in my spice-stocked pot. i am straining to fill the air with those few pure things, those hopes, those determinations that this year — this nother round of possibility — might bring, other than the cinders we’re shooshing out the door.

i’m no fool, been knocked around enough to know that there’s no prestidigitation in all the world that will suddenly wipe clean the slate, cast all sin, open wide the barn doors for all those gentle kind and tender things we espouse.

but i’ve not lost hope, not every shred. and in finding the words of dear alfred lord tennyson on my doorstep here this morning, i am reminded that in the archeologies of time, strife is the stuff of human existence. it’s always been a battle of forces — of evil versus noble, of stingy versus bountiful, of cruel versus the world those gathered here do believe in.

tennyson, deep in grief at the ringing in of the new year after the death of his dearest friend in 1833, wrote these words in his great elegy, In Memoriam (in sum, tennyson’s masterwork is 133 poems — or cantos — in one), beginning canto CVI, or 106, “ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky…” and he went on to implore a rinsing, an ablution that rings eerily in echo of the now:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

and in the last lines of this canto, tennyson implores:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land…

i sign on with tennyson. and believing in simple math — that the smallest increment adds to the aureole of goodness spilling across the undulations of our lives — i commit to baby steps.

sometimes, that’s the hardest truest place to begin. it gets us in the craw of who we are, and muscles up against who it is we aim to be.

so, in part, here goes:

i commit to shrugging off the unkind tone, the odd stumble in a conversation, not garnishing it as ammunition for a cockamamie theory that that someone never liked me in the first place, and thus it’s fair for me to assume defensive posture next time round. i commit to taking a deep-down cleansing breath and resolutely ringing the doorbell of the neighbor who seems to flinch from human contact, delivering without need for words a tin-wrapped loaf of kindness, or whatever seems the wisest gentlest peace-bridging offering. i commit to looking the lost, the hurt, the invisible, in the eye. i commit to picking up the phone, even when i’m dishrag tired. i commit to listening. and i commit to going first when i’m sorry are the words so needed.

if we want a world unlike the one hellbent on taking over, we need be the ones in the trenches. the ones who won’t retreat, relent, surrender.

i’m not talking sweeping social change, or abrupt reverse of course in the global policy department. i’m not so equipped. not steeped in all the necessary tomes for such bold move. i have figured out my place in the chessboard of this life, and i am all the more determined that it’s the fractional advance, the barely perceptible softening of the heart, the extension of the hand, the saying, i see you, i see your pain and i am here for you to lean on, i am here to embolden you, to put courage to your conviction. i am here to sit beside you, for however long it takes.

the daylight is up now, casting faintest shadow on the snow. it’s taken me that long to scroll the annals of my heart, to fix my spot on the map of the new year now upon us. more than anything, as the news pings roll in, as i hold my breath for the days ahead, as i pray the world begins to tilt in the favor of goodness, truth, and, yes, the deepest mercy, i turn to the heavens, i fall to my knees and i echo the good lord tennyson, ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand, dear holy blessed Adonai, ring out the darkness of the land.

light is what we beg for. light is what we need.

let us be the wicks you spark this day. and the next and the next….

what might be the baby steps to which you commit? no need to write them here, but in your hearts, perhaps?

true Christmas morning prayer…

that first Christmas, the one that for millennia we have gazed upon, meditated over, infused into our sugar-spun dreams, was as stripped-down as the ones perhaps unfurling under our own roofs this year.

there was no garland, only straw. no sparkly tree, only the boughs of whatever bush nestled against the flimsy walls of the barn. there were no carolers, only the lowing of the cow, and the clucking of the miserly hen who laid but one egg each dawn. 

what was was a mother in labor, her anguished cries of birth echoed decades later in the anguish of beholding a necessary crucifixion, one ordained by the heavens. one that might have filled an earthly mother with undying rage. certainly the mother who types these words. but in the barn that inky night there was no rage, only cries that shattered pitch-black darkness, only cries of mother and, in time, the child.

what was was the bloody birth, the newborn soaked in waters of the womb. 

what was was the gaze, eternal gaze, between mother and child, mother and the face of God. does not every mother see the face of God in the one pushed from her womb? in the one she calls her own, no matter how the child comes?

and so this Christmas, when all else is stripped away, when there are empty chairs at the table, when the oven holds less than half its usual Yuletide feast, when our arms cannot reach round the shoulders of those we love, when we cannot feel another’s heartbeat pressed against our own, we are flung into the whirl–the holy whirl–of empathies.

this is how Christmas feels to many. this is morning after morning when you awake to wanting. 

and so my prayer this quiet Christmas is first and most for all those whose hearts ache, those who forage in the back alleys of this uncaring world, who go to sleep longing for a hand to hold in the hollow of the night, those who cry for justice from behind bars not of their own making. 

my prayer is for those whose Christmas lullaby is the beep-beep-blip of some machine that keeps them alive. 

my prayer is for the cold, cold of flesh and bone, and cold—so cold—of heart. 

my prayer is for those whose gaze is washed with tears, stinging tears, all-alone tears, tears of please deliver me.

my prayer for each and all is that the blessedness of Christmas—the truth of newborn hope birthed after long hard labor, cradled heart against heart, entwined in love beyond measure from before first breath—my prayer is that the blessedness of Christmas settles deep inside the chambers of your soul, and that you look out upon a day, a world, in which radiance erupts through darkness, dawn after dawn. and all is holy, and holy is all.

merry blessed wonder of true Christmas.

xoxo

a hundred blessings from here at the old maple table. sleep this year is in short supply, as we are spanning time zones from middle america to pacific northwest, filling the hours with as much Christmas as you can pack in itty-bitty phone lines. i wished for phones with smell last night, so my own firstborn–my heart’s pure joy–could inhale whatever was wafting from the oven. he said last night that he couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas without the scents of bread pudding–the cinnamon, the egg + milk, the chunks of orchard apple. nor could i. but here it is. and next Christmas, God willing, it will be all the sweeter for its absence here this morning.

may your day be blessed. how will you make Christmas, true Christmas, come true this year?

image above, way above, is Albrecht Dürer’s The Nativity, 1511; image below is our little Christmas tree: what happens when you’re the last one to the tree lot (cuz you couldn’t bear to buy a tree till all your loves were home, and you finally realized that wasn’t going to happen this year….)

archipelagos of calm amid a roiling sea

ar·chi·pel·a·go /ˌärkəˈpeləˌɡō/ noun

noun: archipelago; plural noun: archipelagoes; plural noun: archipelagos

  1. a group of islands. “the Indonesian archipelago”
  2. a sea or stretch of water containing many islands.

early 16th century: from Italian arcipelago, from Greek arkhi- ‘chief’ + pelagos ‘sea’. The word was originally used as a proper name ( the Archipelago ‘the Aegean Sea’): the general sense arose because the Aegean Sea is notable for its large numbers of islands.

alternative definition: calmus interruptus, in which rocky protruberances, barely discernible in dimension, arise from roiling fluid surface, providing flash of terra firma before which desperate swimmer loses grip, plunges once again into tempestuous sea — alone, afraid, intent on staying afloat. sanctity provided, ephemeral at best.


we turn to the mapmaker’s lexicon — complete with dictionary definition and etymology — because it was the faint and far-between dotted line of rock piles (aka the archipelago) that leapt to mind as the fittingest metaphor for an otherwise nearly indescribable heap of twists and turns, as i tried in vain to keep from keeling over amid this week’s drama of near historic family proportion.  

it went something like this:

round about the middle of tuesday, the geography of my interior life morphed suddenly and without warning from restless squatting on the shores of big-enough occasional islands of calm (the sort where you might slow your breathing for as long as five-minute stretches, and in which you might temporarily put at least a shred of worries to the side) to swimming breathlessly through an archipelago of tiny anxious island dots, each one offering maybe a moment’s lull before the waves kicked up again. before i found myself paddling madly to not go glub-glub-glub.

while awaiting the biopsy results of brother No. 2 (see last week’s news), beloved brother No. 3 up and had a heart attack. a real one, a not-so-small one. oh, lordy. (i only have four brothers, so these odds are getting stiff.)                                                

brother 3 — four years younger than me, the father of two young and glorious children — had called mid-afternoon that day (as ordinary as a tuesday might be when awaiting a second biopsy of someone you dearly love), wondering what to do about a terrible case of heartburn, a dyspepsia he was blaming on the banana pepper and hot sauce he had tucked into his lunch and the preamble pot of coffee that had started his until-then ordinary weekday. next thing we knew — and i mean within minutes — there was an ambulance and ER, swiftly followed by OR and days in ICU, all deeply laced with prayer upon prayer. 

and i mean hard-knees-against-the-floorboards prayer. the highest octane of beseeching known to this prayerful sister. 

as of this writing, brothers 1 and 4 are idly sitting in their homes, where they’ve been instructed to not move, not lift so much as a pair of scissors for fear of fate tap-tapping at their wintry windowpanes. 

quite frankly, i’ve found it hard to breathe at various twists and turns in this wildly unspooling narrative. i was reportedly circling room-to-room-to-room the other afternoon, muttering, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” in more exclamatory than prayerful tones. (and i was not previewing the Christmas story.)

a mere week ago, i was finding episodic solace in simple kitchen tasks — slicing onions, plucking cloves. this week, that all went whirling out the window, and i could not have cared less if we swallowed air for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

there is only so much adrenaline one’s itty-bitty fight-or-flight pump can spurt and swoosh through veins. and i’m about to call a truce, to leave my shaky nerves stranded on some unassuming island. which is where the archipelago — or interrupted line of splintered refuge — comes in. 

cling is the more appropriate verb in describing my posture when, amid hyperventilation or dizzying projections down the pot-holed road ahead, i catch my breath via one of my ever-shrinking litany of soothing balms. (hot bath; hot bath; hot bath.)

we humans do seem to have a godly bottomline default, a trapeze net for those stretches of our lives when all hell seems to be breaking from the quiet room where we try to keep it handcuffed to the chairs. in those rare quiet spells, when i might be sitting in the dark watching the dance of the candle flame, or folding one lone shirt from the dryer, or glancing toward the moon while taking out the trash, i find my inner gyroscope settling still. i manage an in and out breath. i might even think of something that makes me laugh. (gallows humor is a saving grace; brother 3 mentioned in a text from the ICU that, after a weekend conversation about Faulkner, he’d requested “As I Lay Dying,” from his local library. and then he drolly mentioned “it awaits me now,” fully acknowledging said gallows. God bless his never-ceasing wit.)

the reprieves were short, so short, the fractions of a minute when breath was caught, when fog of fear fugaciously lifted. the rocky seas between made it seem i might not ever get there. might be swallowed whole by swirling waters, pulled down by stubborn riptides.

i’ll get through this tight passage, as we always have before. but, oh my, this december at the start of the twenty-first century’s third decade…it’s a doozy. 

here’s hoping we return soon to more quotidian rumblings round the chair. 

i mean not a word of this lightly, and fact is, the palpitations just beneath my ribs have not yet quelled. i seem to have twisted myself into a knot of nerves that, as the author of a tome on stillness, is making me feel a wee bit silly. i am employing all my stillnesses, and for the momentary peace they bring, i am deeply deeply grateful. my brothers and i are deeply blessed to be so close, to march through life (especially of late) arms locked and bent into whatever winds we face.

all i need now is for child No. 2 to turn in the last of his string of finals, to prowl the Christmas tree yard for the humblest branches on the lot, and to await the word that things are taking turns for all that’s good and blessed and ripe with hope.

i wish the same for you.

when you’re at wits end, what wraps you in a cloak of calm?

in the darkness, it’s the familiar rhythms of the heart that soothe…

As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.

When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.

My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.

He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.

We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.

Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.

In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.

For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.

And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.

While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.

I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.

As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.

So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.

Xox


In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….

Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.

Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?

of prophets and poets, and the sacred instruction: let the light be from within

maybe you read the newspaper every morning. maybe you even read the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that birthed most of the most precious threads in my life. but chances are — reading the studies that come, one after a sad other, from the journalism think tanks — you don’t. the sound of the rolled-up sausage of a newspaper landing with a thwop on the front stoop is nearly obsolete. but this week, my old newspaper made room for a little essay i wrote, one birthed in the pages of Stillness, that beribboned little book that seems to be winging its way to armchairs and reading nooks in various vicinities around the countryside this december.

given the unlikelihood that you would have stumbled across this little essay — a variation on the opening essay, “December: Sacred Invitation,” in Stillness — and given that my little laptop has a crack-of-dawn doctor’s appointment at the genius bar, i figured i’d give the essay a whirl here. it comes with the hope that you find all sorts of ways to fill the december darkness with flickering flames, and tongues of fire that leap from the hearth. the ones in your home, or the ones in your heart.

Commentary: In December’s darkness, the prophets and poets guide us toward the light

By BARBARA MAHANY

December’s darkness is coming like never before.

Oh, sure, as the sun arcs into its wintry descent, as the night grows to its longest, and day after day a minute is shaved at the dawn and at dusk, the sunlight ebbs and the shadow grows. There’s that darkness.

But cloaking all of it this year is the darkness of knowing we can’t kindle the light in gathering kinship.

We will be more alone this winter, perhaps, than ever before.

But there is a bright side, or at least a blessed side.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, intellect and imagination.

Celebrate the quietude. The stillness that comes in the hours of solitude, that state of grace sought by the ancient mystics and saints, by Zen priests and the Desert Elders of Egypt, by Hildegard of Bingen and Henry David Thoreau, deep in the woods of Walden Pond, the ones who dialed down the noise and distraction, pressing their ears into the silence, awaiting the murmurings of the still small voice. As Meister Eckhart put it: “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”

The truth is: Stillness and darkness draw out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

Stillness, as all the enlightened have known, in the paradox that might be a Buddhist koan, is the fullness that comes only through emptiness.

This December, both will abound. We’d be wise to welcome them.

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, 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, strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counterculturalism, and do not succumb.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half-hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. Most especially this December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well, bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the great horned owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And she reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I. Maybe, so do you.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of 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.

Barbara Mahany, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, is the author of four books; her latest is “The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season.”

so there’s the essay. and here is the question: how might you live sacramentally? how do you lift the ordinary into the sacred; those humdrum quotidian tasks of the everyday, how do you imbue them with intention and attention, raise them into the realm of the holy so that this one pass at december is lived in ways that awake us as never before?

a hundred from-the-heart thank yous…

all week i’ve been counting, gathering my gratitudes by the dozens. by the hundreds, in fact. maybe you’ve played along. done your own counting up to one hundred. it’s an exercise in excavation of the heart, digging up the way-down blessings, the ones we call to mind each and every hour of each and every day, and the ones we stumble upon in some ephemeral flicker of momentary praise-be to wonder. turns out, it’s something of a diary of the year, this whole long COVID-pocked, election-torn year. it’s been a doozy. and, believe it or not, it’s left me filled with gratitudes. a hundred of ’em. here goes…

dear holy God, and giver of all good and glorious things, consoler in hours of deepest sorrow, the one whose hand i reach toward whenever i’m trembling, whose arms i fall into when the long race is finally ended, dear God, find yourself a cozy chair to sink into, cuz i’ve got a list for you. for all this, i say bless you and thank you. oh, thank you…

for Melissa, Queen of the Sick Call Grocery Delivery, the guardian angel of my college kid’s dining hall who went way beyond the call of duty when she whirled off to a miles-away grocery store, shopped like a mama would shop for her own, and showed up at my fevered child’s sickroom door with six bags of infirmary essentials: crackers and soup, 7Up and microwaveable rice, ginger ale and chamomile tea, packets of oatmeal, and on and on and on, when he was sequestered in quarantine with a whopping case of mono. (funny, how the first one to leap to mind this year is a woman i know only through her undeniable goodness, and her going the most extra mile. if love heals, she gets first round of credit for the mostly recuperated kid who sat at my thanksgiving table last night.) 

for election judges, and every single American who stood in hours-long lines, in rain, in sleet, in cold, in undiluted noontime inferno, to put muscle to the great American contract: to slip a single sheaf of X-marked paper into the slit of the ballot box. to make each vote count.

for the two little girls across the way, who have endlessly charmed since the day they moved in, and especially since COVID, as their front yard and driveway have become their play yard and imagination station. sweet little angels (3 and now 5) who dream up goodbye parties for a maple tree that had to be felled, and prance about in their plastic shields as if princesses and warriors from another planet. and for their mama and papa who tag-team their workday to endlessly fill their girls’ COVID-bound days with the old-fashioned sorts of adventures i’d long feared had been lost to obsolescence.

for the big heart of my down-the-block friend who every night goes out into the dark and the cold to feed a duet of stray cats with nowhere else to go.

for the woods where i amble everyday. and the golfballs that — so far — steer clear of my head.

for the moving crew who, despite a few wrong turns, finally found my firstborn’s apartment.

for the law school diploma that now sits on a bookshelf, proving the kid reached the summit of a very steep climb.

for the checkers at my Jewel, the truck drivers, and shelf-stocking crew, the baggers, the cart sanitizers, those blessed frontline workers who never imagined that ringing up groceries would become an act of faith and a stronghold against starvation. as well as the one permissible place to gab beyond the bubble, almost like old times.

for my mailman who never failed. 

for my UPS driver, who this year has more than let my fingers do the walking from the safety of my keyboard, and delivered the most curious assortment of necessities i managed to find online.

certainly, for my younger one’s freshman roommate from China who supplied us with a box of N95s before anyone here in America knew much about the masked wonders.

for the ambulance drivers, and the ER crew in the Buckeye State’s far-from-home hospital, who delivered my second-born child safely and soundly, and quickly discovered his sky-high fever was fueled not by COVID but rather by mono, and a whopping dose of it. 

for the ER crew here at home, who — in Round Two of this unfortunate adventure — were put to the test to quell the fever that would not go down.

for my long-ago college roommate who turned to page 206 in my new little book, and baked, wrapped, and mailed a box of my grandma Lucille’s turkey cookies. complete with raisins for eyes.

for the editor who kept pace with my decidedly accelerated writing speed, the brilliant designer who rounded up a woodland flock of critters to grace most every page, and for whoever decided to go with the place-holding ribbon, a rarity in book publishing these days. and in the end, brought us The Stillness of Winter.

for all the great thinkers and poets and mystics who’ve filled my bookshelves and my imagination this year, especially Henry Beston, Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, Annie Dillard, Joy Harjo, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert MacFarlane, John Phillip Newell, anonymous who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, David George Haskell, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson — all of whom make me reach higher and deeper in quest of words that illumine and thoughts that arouse. 

for Emergence magazine, and Image journal, and Orion, and the EcoTheo Review, whose boundless intellect and inspirations, breathtaking writing and generous spirit ground me to this holy earth, and launch my highest hopes for healing to come to this wounded planet.

for the wise priest, the monk, and the rabbi to whom i bring my insatiable hungers, my curiosities and questions, and the depths of my soul. for evocative prayers and eloquent sermons, especially the ones threaded through with the cloud of witnesses — the writers and thinkers, poets and everyday saints — who propel me to pull books from the shelves, to search for their stories and truths. for the epiphanies that so often come. and the dots so divinely connected.

for those marketing and p.r. mavens who do the parts of book peddling that make me break out in hives.

for the tangle of bittersweet i found in the woods. and the rusty but trusty clippers that brought a few branches home. 

for the occasional news story that infused me with hope again. and the election that tried to.

for the dawn, that light-infused vessel of prayer i step into each morning.

for the ages-old Book of Common Prayer and the crinkling of its tissue-thin pages as i turn them, morning after morning, beginning my day cloaked in holy quietude, in confession of sin, and blessed thanksgiving at the close of each dawn’s intercessions.

for the Cloister Walk candles from St. John’s Abbey, an apothecarial blend of geranium and lily of the valley, sandalwood, patchouli, and cedar that sends me and my prayers wafting toward the heavens.

for cricket song, that hypnotic hum of the ridged-wing critters that seems to rise out of the earth as the late-summer sun begins its daily descent, and the never-seen choristers quite frankly go gangbusters with their nightly rendition of clanging and banging. 

for the way the sunlight streamed in and ignited my summer porch as each day drew to a close. 

for the zillion ZOOM courses, and poetry readings, and retreats, and workshops with writers that drew me into living rooms and studios and aeries all around the globe….

for the college professors who so compassionately gave my sweet boy flexibility on deadlines for papers and projects. dispensations that might come to haunt us, when he’s typing away on the eve of this Christmas.

for the park district work crew who, last summer, taught my second-born seasonal landscaper the wonders of the midday siesta and flautas made on a portable grill.

for the science writers who so clearly explained COVID, and gave us explicit instructions for how to steer clear of the sometimes deadly, always mysterious, and frankly frightening red-ringed mutating virus.

for the bookshop owner who virtually hosted a throng of beloved bibliophiles the night my little book was launched from the cozy confines of my kitchen — and no one knew i was wearing flip flops and yoga pants under my fine woolen shawl.

for the red birds who bring me such joy, and the blue jays who squawk, and the chickadees and nuthatches and even the flock of humdrum sparrows who delight me hour by hour.

for my prayer bench that so generously offers me a place to sit, tucked under the leafy arbor of my so-called secret kitchen garden.

for my brothers (four) and their wives and fiancé for being my front line of defense when life tests from all sides.

for my next door neighbors who have not yet erected the 6-foot-high fence that will forever cut off that holy slant of late afternoon light. 

for my “tird” cousin, Paddy, whose DNA mingles with mine, from back South Kilmo way, at the house by the bridge in County Clare, and who over the year has showered me with everything from the Celtic tunes i play by the hour, to the 20 pounds of basmati rice, and the 18 rolls of toilet paper he had shipped from China, just to be sure i was never without.

for the glorious women in my tribe: my mother, my mother-in-law, my adorable and endlessly effervescent aunt, and all of my sisters by marriage or heart. 

absolutely and without hesitation, for those blessed souls, spoken and unspoken, who gather here at the chair. 

for those friends who, like me, respect the heck out of the red-ringed virus and don the mask, keep the social distance, scrub hands for at least two rounds of happy birthday, and never ever roll their eyes at my nurse-level cautiousness.

for old friends who always, always understand (no matter the matter at hand). and even if they don’t, go on loving anyway. 

for the herbs in my garden (the ones i pluck to this day, adorning my turkey bird just last night with fresh-from-the-farm parsleys and rosemary). and, root of it all, for the brother who insisted i farm, who even tracked down the lumberyard where i could get my 12x2s, and my 24 bags of compost and potting soil.

for the sunrise that never forgot. the stars that always shone. the moon that, month after month, teaches the basics of math: addition, subtraction and the fine art of fractions.

for my window seat, and the hours spent there, curled into the corner where wall meets window.

for bookshelves that bend but do not break.

for that rare string of summer days when each night for two whole weeks, the four of us — a complete set in this house — fell asleep under the same single roof, awoke to the same morning stirrings, and reminded me why this little family i love is the most precious treasure in my whole entire life.

for planes that stayed in the sky, until time to land, for plastic shields and sanitizing gel that did their part to keep my continent-crossing people aloft and free of the virus. 

for the long-distance phone lines that kept us connected through the long and lonely — sometimes scary — hours of sheltering in place.

for the deadlines and bylines that put purpose to my writing life.

for lightbulbs that shine so i can read the page.

for all the orchards near and far that turn blossoms to fruit, so harvests might be picked and i might bite into my daily dose of Jazz, or Envy, or Honeycrisp.

for the pie people — and especially Richard, my pierced-ear pie peddler at the farmer’s market — who keep us stocked in a summer’s worth of pie, and who have stocked my freezer full of six — count ‘em — six Thanksgiving-to-Christmas pumpkin pies….

for the fever that finally went down.

for the prayers that hold me in the great abyss of the night. and propel me out of bed each and every morning. 

for those rare magnanimous souls who forever keep us laughing, cranking joy out of the cracks and crevices of our lives.

for vote tallies that tilted toward justice and truth.

yes, for the uncluttered calendar of this COVID-strange year, for the Saturday nights when we don’t even need to put on our shoes, and no one needs worry about getting lost on a long drive home. 

for the gaggle of boys who’ve grown up at my kitchen table, in carpools, on the soccer fields i watched from the sidelines, the boys who now text me from college, who promise me they’re now immune to COVID and it’s safe for my non-immune boy to join them round backyard campfires, over these long winter months to come…

for the genius microbiologists inventing their way to life-saving, soul-saving vaccines.

for every voice broadcasting the message that masks and social distance are imperative, even when those voices are met with eye-rolls. or worse. 

oh, yes, for the sound of footsteps and creaking floorboards in the room up above, telling me someone is home, safe under his covers…

for not waking up on thanksgiving to a mind racing with mile-long to-do lists, and tables to set and refrigerator 3-D geometries to unpuzzle, for awaking on the national day of over-indulging not worried about cooking for a mere three. to this surreal year, with a light at the end of the long long tunnel…

for the sheer stresslessness of cooking for three, in a house with a roaring fire, the referee whistles of football, and the breast of turkeybird who — after nearly twice the projected cooking time — finally succumbed to golden perfection. and for the prosecco by the glassful that washed it all down.

for Eugene Beals, the sheer genius of the five-member California Turkey Producers Advisory Board, who, back in the early 1970s, invented the little red pop-up turkey thermometer, in hopes of rescuing a hungry nation from the dried-out birds being pulled from ovens from sea to shining sea. 

for the pine trees and maples who laid down their lives to go up in flames in our soot-stained hearth. 

for the God who gives me this breath. and the next — or so i pray. 

for the God who doesn’t so much command my attention but rather taps me gently just behind the ribs, on the wall of that vessel that holds so much, sometimes taking my breath away at the sight of a star-stitched sky, or a mama robin beak-feeding squiggly worms to her babies, or the dawn breaking open the indigo night.

for my holy trinity; my three musketeers; my heart, my soul, my everything: my blair, my will, my teddy…..

for all this, dear holy Maker and Infuser of Breath and Beauty, i drop to my knees, open my heart and whisper a most emphatic blessed be thank you……

(sadly, only two of these three were taken this week; the one on the far right is from way back last Christmas….)

and what might be a few of the things for which you are so deeply grateful?

(depending how i count, i seem to be teetering at about the 118 mark in the litany above. oh well. i am certain i will fling off my sheets in the middle of the night suddenly realizing i’ve forgotten the most important 119, 120, 121…indeed the trials of counting your blessings: you cannot stop once you’ve begun…)

counting my way: a centenary of thanks in the making, prayer shawl for hard times

a few years ago — i thought it was three, but in fact it was six — i stumbled into the making of a gratitude list and found myself counting to 100, which made it a centenary of thanks. i fell in love with the word, of course, and the notion of reaching toward a number so high it took concentrated attention. simone weil, of course, tells us that attention is the launch pad of prayer. only she says it more poetically. she says this: “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

pádraig Ó tuama, the brilliant north ireland peacemaker and poet, says this about prayer: “i do love praying. like prier from french, ‘to ask.’ and what i love about that word is it doesn’t require belief. it just requires a recognition of need. and i think the recognition of need is something that brings us to a deep, common language about what it means to be human…”

and so, this year especially, when the wounds are deep, and the fears shimmer just below the surface, the sacred act of weaving ourselves and wrapping ourselves in the shawl of a gratitude litany — prayer purled — seems not only wise but necessary. surely an armament against the cold winds that will not abate.

i begin with the woods. i’m drawn there first for its tabernacle of sheltered silence, for the stirrings so faint you can hear tree trunks creaking, as if old bentwood rocking chairs, who let out a bit of a pinched and arthritic cry as they bend in the wind, rub hard against their fallen brethren.

i begin with the light there, the way the shadows play. one day dappling the leafy floor into odd-shaped checkerboard geometries, the next day diffusing the whole — the undulations of rises and hollows, the tangle of vines still holding tight to their berries — in a radiance that might be a kind of mystical halo.

the woods, a grove of old-growth oaks and a tumble of decades-old anonymous stumps, runs along a canal just a short ways from my house. i’ve taken to wandering there, squatting myself on the logs and the stumps that seem like children’s play blocks strewn from a leviathan’s toy chest. i listen and watch. a prayerful pose, if ever there was.

the litany of gratitudes tumble into my notebook, for i always carry a notepad and pen. these days, the woods are just about the holiest place i know. a tabernacle tucked under the trees.

the woods, it seems, are a fine place to sit in a time of pandemic. you might traipse through a meadow. or plunk in the sand and the sharp-bladed grasses along the lakeshore. or perhaps you’ve a river that bends, that offers up its whispering current, that serves as your launch pad for prayer.

these are the places that pay no mind to the cacophonies of the world, to the political banshee cries, to the ungodly images from inside the ICUs where breath itself verges on the impossible.

i turn, in times like these, to those carved-out holy places of God’s making. the opening in the woods, the prayer pew along the river bank or the lake’s soft edge. under the great star-salted dome of the night sky, just beyond my kitchen door.

but i might find holy altars even on the inside of my old house. at the cookstove, most certainly. that place where i stand, stirring, intermingling my incantations with the steam rising from whatever’s bubbling. call me crazy, but for me cooking, cooking for the ones i love, is nothing short of a prayer. sometimes i get lost in the launching of my litanies, and i wind up more or less burning my prayers. i’m rather infamous around here for my long record of burning the broccoli.

all this seems to be a circling around of the centenary itself. i’ve yet to get to the counting here. so perhaps the wisest thing to do is to slow count this year, to make it a week-long practice of paying simone-weil-level attention.

i’ll have an abundance of grist here: a boy i love is coming home from college, clear till the first of february. he and his papa will be motoring across the farmland of the great buckeye state, soon as we get the green light, soon as the precautionary COVID test comes back from the lab, with nary a worry.

the table this year will be sparse. only three of us. with our most essential fourth far beyond the reach of my hand, too far. but blessedly he won’t be alone.

we’ll partake of the traditional thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, only we’ll be stationed outside. on her sidewalk, perhaps. or in the circular drive. and there won’t be any picking away at the turkey platter at her house. nor even the swapping of slices of pie.

but i promise i will make it to 100, cross that prayerful line of demarcation (i wouldn’t want to call it a finish line, as that might imply a stopping, and i’ve no intention of doing so). perhaps you might choose to play along. perhaps you’ll count to 100, too. weave your own centenary. if there are turkey trots galore this time of year, those early-morning chases down pathways and lanes, a preamble calorie burn to make room for more stuffing, there might just as well be a numerical exercise in the petitions department.

i will leave you with the breathtakingness of our friend pádraig Ó tuama who wrote this about prayer, in an essay entitled, “Oremus,” which means, in latin, “let us pray.”

“…let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. let’s lick the earth from our fingers. let us look up and out and around. the world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. let us pray.”

i invite you to pray to one hundred….

blessings and blessings upon us, in these hours of blessing to come….

even if you don’t count to 100, perhaps you’ll pay closer attention to the petitions you hold in your heart in this blessed season of gratitude. but i will see you here next week, with my centenary in hand, or rather at heart…where, and with what, will you begin?

p.s. that tepee above is a little miracle i stumbled upon in the woods yesterday. an architecture of sticks, gathered from the heap pile of fallen limbs. it hadn’t been there before and so it stirred a thousand questions: was it something for a boy scout badge? are there still children who play in the woods? was it some ancestral lodge in the making, a place from which smoky petitions might rise?

oops! i forgot that i was thinking of leaving a little something here. the other night there was a “book launch” for Stillness, and given these pandemic times, that meant a virtual gathering. so, from the cozy confines of my kitchen, we all gathered robustly. AND the wonders of technology made an instant recording, which you can click any time to play along. here’s the key to get in! (just click the word “key” and it’ll magically open the door)