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

day of deep stillness

notredame fire

radiant crucifix: notre-dame in the wake of inferno (photo credit: Philippe Wojazer of Reuters)

the soundlessness must have been haunting. a timber still cracking. a stone falling. ash settling down. the faint few echoes of footfall as one or two tiptoed in, in the first light of dawn, to begin to measure the devastation. the loss.

and there, radiant, rising from out of the billows of smoke, caught in the slant of the beams of light: gold cross glowing.

it refuses to die.

and this is the image i carry forward. this is the image i heave to my shoulder, bring to my landscape of silence, today the day of deep stillness.

the world this week stared in horror. the spire of notre-dame snapped like a pencil, teetered, crashed into the molten sky. tongues of flame, rising inferno. millennia lost, masterpiece burning. but the lasting image, the one i can see with my eyes closed, is the radiant cross — not tinged, not charred, still hanging.

seems to me the world might begin to focus on those rare few things that survive the conflagration, the fire. the dross left in the crucible. those things that can’t be burned. the ones meant to last. radiant cross rising.

seems to me this humble little planet might be wise to consider the sacred acts of starting over. rebuilding. sifting through the ashes and rubble, finding those rare few gems on which to begin again. rising out of destruction.

such is the backdrop to these holy days: the ones that draw us back to the narrative of agony, prayer, betrayal, crucifixion. the ones of exodus, too. escaping the plagues, crossing the red sea, running from slavery.

resurrection. rising. breaking into freedom.

before i get there, though, i have hours to cross in deep silence. it’s always my way on this day of remembering the dying and death on the cross. the hours of darkness, noon till three, till the heavens roil and split wide open, the hour of final surrender, when the one on the cross cried out, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, “father, into thy hands i commend my spirit.”

words i could ponder for hours and days and weeks and years on end. words i will ponder in silence, the posture of monks and poets.

because i’ve been burrowing in the bookshelf of silence, i’ve learned of an ancient practice, one with deep eastern orthodox roots, called hesychia, “a graced depth of inner stillness.”

one of the great monastic wise men, a fellow known as saint joseph the hesychast, wrote, “the aim was hesychia, quiet, the calm through the whole man that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun. to be in true relationship with God, standing before him in every situation—that was the angelic life, the spiritual life, the monastic life, the aim and the way of the monk.”

one of joseph’s fellow monks, abba alonius echoed, “unless a man can say ‘i alone and God are here,’ he will not find the prayer of quiet.”

as we enter into the silence, i will wrap myself in text and verse, the literary nooks and folds that hold me, blanket me. for the last six weeks, all of lent, a priest friend and i led a small circle in readings that drew us deep into the still center of the season — t.s. eliot, wendell berry, mary oliver and mary karr, pauli murray, the great civil rights lawyer and episcopal priest, were all in our lenten lectionary. we ended our weeks together with mark strand’s breathtaking, “poem after the seven last words,” a work originally commissioned to be read between movements of haydn’s opus 51, which happens to be titled “the seven last words of christ.” the performance of strand’s poem and the brentano string quartet’s haydn premiered here in chicago in 2002.

although strand, the u.s. poet laureate and pulitzer-prize winner, didn’t pretend to be religious, he turned to the gospel of thomas to find the seven last lines of jesus on the cross, and masterfully wrote lines that all but pull me onto that cross, into the darkness and depth of the hours of crucifixion. every line is a burrowing deep into the whole-body living of that crucifixion. we taste and see and hear moment after moment. strand positions us on the cross, and carries us through the agonies, through the love (glances from mother to son) and the faith (crying out to the Father), delivering us, spent and exhausted and crushed, to the final commitment, when strand writes: “to that place, to the keeper of that place, i commit myself.”

here, for your own hours of silence, perhaps, is mark strand’s meditative masterwork:

Poem After The Seven Last Words
Mark Strand

1
The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
We tell it and retell it — one word, then another
until it seems that no last word is possible,
that none would be bearable. Thus, when the hero
of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,
‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are
the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea
is not answered, we shall be spared. So the story
continues. So we continue. And the end, once more,
becomes the next, and the next after that.
2
There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns
and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees
that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there;
and those already arrived are happy to be the silken
remains of something they were but cannot recall;
they move to the sound of stars, which is also imagined,
but who cares about that; the polished columns they see
may be no more than shafts of sunlight, but for those
who live on and on in the radiance of their remains
this is of little importance. There is an island
in the dark and you will be there, I promise you, you
shall be with me in paradise, in the single season of being,
in the place of forever, you shall find yourself. And there
the leaves will turn and never fall, there the wind
will sing and be your voice as if for the first time.
3
Someday some one will write a story set
in a place called The Skull, and it will tell,
among other things, of a parting between mother
and son, of how she wandered off, of how he vanished
in air. But before that happens, it will describe
how their faces shone with a feeble light and how
the son was moved to say, ‘Woman, look at your son,’
then to a friend nearby, ‘Son, look at your mother.’
At which point the writer will put down his pen
and imagine that while those words were spoken
something else happened, something unusual like
a purpose revealed, a secret exchanged, a truth
to which they, the mother and son, would be bound,
but what it was no one would know. Not even the writer.
4
These are the days when the sky is filled with
the odor of lilac, when darkness becomes desire,
when there is nothing that does not wish to be born.
These are the days of spring when the fate
of the present is a breezy fullness, when the world’s
great gift for fiction gilds even the dirt we walk on.
On such days we feel we could live forever, yet all
the while we know we cannot. This is the doubleness
in which we dwell. The great master of weather
and everything else, if he wishes, can bring forth
a dark of a different kind, one hidden by darkness
so deep it cannot be seen. No one escapes.
Not even the man who saved others, and believed
he was the chosen son. When the dark came down
even he cried out, ‘Father, father, why have you
forsaken me?’ But to his words no answer came.
5
To be thirsty. To say, ‘I thirst.’ To be given,
instead of water, vinegar, and that to be pressed
from a sponge. To close one’s eyes and see the giant
world that is born each time the eyes are closed.
To see one’s death. To see the darkening clouds
as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning. To be the one
mourned. To open the dictionary of the Beyond and discover
what one suspected, that the only word in it
is nothing. To try to open one’s eyes, but not to be
able to. To feel the mouth burn. To feel the sudden
presence of what, again and again, was not said.
To translate it and have it remain unsaid. To know
at last that nothing is more real than nothing.
6
‘It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it,
the words almost a whisper, then not even that,
but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come
from him, but from elsewhere. This was his moment,
his final moment. “It is finished,” he said into a vastness
that led to an even greater vastness, and yet all of it
within him. He contained it all. That was the miracle,
to be both large and small in the same instant, to be
like us, but more so, then finally to give up the ghost,
which is what happened. And from the storm that swirled
a formal nakedness took shape, the truth of disguise
and the mask of belief were joined forever.
7
Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and the wind
moving through it. And soon the sun’s gray disk,
darkened by clouds, sailing above. And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.

(from Man and Camel: Poems, 2008)

how will you enter into the silence, today or any day soon? how close have you come to that deep, deep stillness, the one the monks describe as “like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun”?

may your Easter weekend and your Passover be blessed…..

blessed interweaving: jesuit girl with jewish soul

brisket making

a few months ago, i decided it was time to find out once and for all if a speck of me was jewish. i had convinced myself i was. how else to explain the profound holiness i find inside the nooks and crannies of all things jewish — the prayers, the writings, the blessing of the candles and the challah every friday night at our old maple table? most of all, the sanctification of time. of turning of the earth and all that glimmers under heaven’s dome?

turns out, there’s not an iota of jewish DNA inside me. alas. but i decided to sit myself down — at that very maple table — string together a few sentences, and bravely knock on the window of America Magazine, the great national jesuit review. i happen to come from a long line of jesuit-schooled folk: my papa, my uncles, my brothers, my very own self. in the catholic world in which i grew up, all things jesuit were spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. their intellect, most of all. anyway, America Magazine decided to green light my little essay, to post it online and run it in the print pages, too. because the world we live in now demands that a writer “share” her work on the few social media sites that might draw one or two more eyes to the equation, some of you might have seen my posting on facebook (a rare return) or twitter. but not all of you — and certainly not my mama nor my beloved mother-in-law (whose birthday is this weekend!) — so for you, i’m posting here, direct from the pages of America Magazine. 

(next week in this old house we’ll be weaving passion week and passover once again, and i’ll be deep in matzo balls and easter baskets, so the timing is especially fitting. here tis (i’d titled the essay something along the lines of “The Jewishness That Stirs My Soul,” the America editors wrote their own headline)):

How Jewish spirituality enriches my Catholic faith

By Barbara Mahany

I propped myself against the kitchen sink not too long ago and spit into a clear plastic test tube the size of my pinkie finger. I spit and spit and spit, following directions to be sure I would sufficiently trap my DNA. Once the accumulated spit crossed the “fill to here” line, I gave my test tube an emphatic shake (again, precisely as told) and popped the whole shebang in the pre-labeled shipping box. Post haste, I motored to the drive-by mail chute in my little town, tossed my parcel into the open maw of the postal box, sat back and awaited revelation. 

Over the years, I’d had a hunch that grew and grew, and I was submitting my hunch to science. Any day now, I figured, the friendly folks at DNA Central would lift the lid on what I had decided must be a long-kept ancestral secret. Surely, I must be some percentage Jewish. At least some fraction of a fractional percent. 

That chromosomal uncovering might shed light on just why it is that I—a girl schooled by the Sisters of Loretto and a phalanx of Jesuits, a girl with a rosary for every occasion—had found, all these years later, my sense of the divine so animated by the sacred Jewish lens of wonder and wisdom. All encompassing, it is one intricately tied to the turning of the earth, the sun, the moon, the shifting of the stars stitched in heaven’s dome. 

It is as if the ancient call to Hebrew prayer has reached out across the millennia and awakened all my senses. I am stirred by the command to whisper a blessing at the unfurling of a rainbow, at the first blossom of the almond tree. I am stirred by the command to scan the night sky till I spy the first three evening stars, and only then kindle the Havdalah candle, pass the spice box and recite the prayers that draw the Sabbath to a hushed and blessed close. 

I had convinced myself that deep in my DNA there must be buried some short link confirming my genetic claim to Jewish soulful lineage, aside and apart from my nearly three decades entwined in a Jewish-Catholic marriage. 

Alas, there is not. Not one strand of Jewishness to my Irish-Catholic name, not Ashkenazi, not Sephardic. How then to explain the soul-deep burrowing into the nooks and crannies of Jewish spirituality for this lifelong post-Vatican II Catholic? 

Sure, I had married an observant Jew some 28 years before. And we had raised our two boys the only way we knew: immersed in both their Judaism and their Catholicism; first Communion and Bar Mitzvahs for both, with priests and rabbis all along the way. 

Our older son, in first grade at the time, once exclaimed that interfaith Sunday school, where the curriculum taught all things Jewish and Catholic, was not enough; he wanted more, more fluency in each of his religions. So we signed him up for CCD and Hebrew school, as well as Jewish-Catholic school, and Sunday mornings meant an eight-mile dash down Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, from Old St. Pat’s in the West Loop to the Hyde Park synagogue where he learned his alefbet and all his Hebrew prayers. (That child, now a 25- year-old at Yale Law School, has trained his legal sights on the intersection—no surprise—of law and religion.) 

My own trek into the Jewish interior began with Shabbat, the holiest of Jewish holy days, one God offers at sundown every Friday, when we are commanded to kindle lights, bless bread and wine and, most of all, put down toil for the sacred arc of 25 hours, sunset to sunset plus a smidge for holy measure. The practice of slowing time, slipping into timelessness amid the cacophony of the modern-day world, is one that literally stopped me and, from the start, stirred a deeper soulful hunger. 

It was not long after our wedding under the cathedral of oaks in my mother’s garden, when I was but a young unpracticed bride, that I set our first Shabbat table, tentatively placing amid the dinner plates two Israeli candlesticks, a kiddush cup for wine and a braided loaf of challah (which I would learn to bake over time, at the side of a Holocaust survivor who became my Shabbas friend). A rite at once domestic and sacramental, Shabbat became for me a tucked-away cloister of anointed time. 

It is God whispering, I like to think. God cocking a finger, calling us home, each and every one of us. Come, be where it is still. Put time on pause. Savor this moment, this holy stretch of hours, savor each and every sense, savor and embrace the ones you love. And so, around the globe, as Friday’s sun slips from the sky, as our world dips into darkness, there is, house by house, table by table, the kindling of sacred illumination. 

At my house, I hear the whisper early each Friday. Over the years, I have tiptoed into the kitchen at dawn to begin the alchemy of yeast and flour that becomes the challah. Awaiting its pillowy rise, I crack into the cookbooks of my various adopted Jewish mothers, peruse the spiral-bound recipes of temple sisterhoods from around the country (Bella Abzug’s Matzo Balls, among my clippings). My kitchen ministrations usher in the quietude, the prayerfulness, that has become my coveted weekly office. By the time I have set the table, ferried plates to the dining room, pulled out chairs for whoever has shown up (our Shabbat tables have often been populated by an eclectic roster of professors and scribes), I am, curiously, the Catholic who finds “church” in the holiest of the Jewish holy days. 

Time and again in synagogue, on Friday nights or during the long hours of the High Holy Days, I find my soul soaring as the cantor lifts his voice in the minor-key call to prayer, as my husband beside me bends his knees, bows from his waist, wraps himself in his prayer 

shawl. The rhythms of the Hebrew prayer, even when the words escape me, tap the sacred within. I perk my ears to the still small voice that calls us, each and all. Sh’ma Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel,” begins the holiest of all the prayers. And my soul listens. 

That blessed once-a-week Sabbath interlude—and an urge to know more, to follow some sacred cord—led me into the Jewish bookshelf, where I discovered, among others, no finer poet of Shabbat than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote: “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogenous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” 

Heschel only whetted my appetite for deeper and more nuanced reading—even of the Torah. I explored such sacred instruction as the one for the harvest festival of Sukkot when, through the roof of the sukkah (a temporary shelter built for the eight-day celebration), we are commanded to be able to see the stars in the heavens. Or the Talmudic teaching to recite 100 blessings every day, a call to attention if ever there was. Inscribed in Jewish text, there is a blessing for hearing thunder, another one for when you see a shooting star. 

It is this ancient, agrarian-rooted call to see God’s wonder all around that I find woven into Jewish spirituality, and it is now an inseparable thread of my own, though I remain Catholic as ever. 

Perhaps it is the echo of ancestral Celtic spirituality or the Ignatian instruction to see God in all things, that pulsing sense that every moment of the day is a vessel of the holy. According to Celt or Jesuit or Jew, all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer. 

In a word, it is “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet, a “manifestation of the sacred,” a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. What stirs me most about Jewish hierophany is that it is infused with the astonishments of the cosmos, a core belief that creation is God’s first best text. Or in the words of Psalm 19, verse 1: “The heavens are telling the glory of God / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” 

It is this understanding that even before the Word, God gave us the litany of Genesis. And if we read closely the book of nature, if we surrender to the rhythms of season unfolding into season, if we allow ourselves to startle at the nascent vernal shoots, the newborn green pushing through the thawing crust of winter’s end, if we heed the mournful cry of geese in chevron streaking autumn sky, hold ourselves rapt when first snowflakes fall, if we witness the hand of God in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of wonder, we cannot help but feel ourselves cradled in the outstretched palm of the one who breathed and birthed it all. 

And so it is, in the particular and timeless attention Jews pay to the turning of earth and heaven’s dome, in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk and depth of night, hours the Jews consider the holiest of holy, that I find myself wrapped in the most sacred prayer shawl, one I had never known was mine. 

But now, it deeply is. Even if my DNA claims otherwise.

as published in America Magazine, April 9, 2019

on the soulful journey that is your own, have you been surprised by where you’ve found epiphanies and hallelujahs?

p.s. happy blessed birthday, VPK, and ellabellabeautiful, too!

cherish: these are the days i’ll forever miss

TK _ WK hug

something like feathery-flaked fairy dust — just a pinch, mind you — has descended on these days. there’s a palpable sense that we are living in hallowed time, on the permeable cusp of still holding on, but soon letting go. of liminal space, of a threshold when all the now is magnified, each fine grain of holiness amplified by the undercurrent of knowing these hours are numbered, this proximity will slip away.

cherish is the word that rumbles round my head — and my heart. it’s the sacred instruction whose imperative i follow.

fourth quarter senior year of high school started just the other day. for the kid born when i was barreling toward 45. for the kid i never ever ever thought i’d get to cradle, to fold in my arms. for the dream i feared i’d lose when his delivery got bumpy and a phalanx of top-notch neonatologists slithered into the murky shadows of the delivery room.

you never get over a miracle. i know i won’t.

even on the days when we’re nearly late for school because he won’t budge from under his covers — and what a miracle that that’s about the worst i can come up with — i never really lose touch with the blessedness of his existence.

truth be told, i get the sense that he too has an inkling of what’s coming, and he too is holding on just a wee bit tighter. even though for months now he’s teased me mercilessly about the fact that his days here are counting down.

in the last couple weeks, word has descended from college admissions offices far and wide and even close to home. friend after friend has decided, declared, committed. the boy we call our own, he is still deciding. we’re making one last trek to a couple campuses this weekend. taking one close look, and hopefully driving home knowing (although rain and more rain is in the forecast, which makes for dreary looking). maybe seeing a bit more clearly the outlines of what lies ahead.

but even without his own certainty yet, it’s the certainty of kids all around him that’s seeping in the sharp edge of truth: high school, this era he thought would never end, it’s over, done, finished, just the other side of this quarter that started this week. it’s a two-digit countdown if counting by days; it’s now less than two months away.

all of which dials up the urge to pay close attention. to savor. to cherish.

which makes this all the more, the tender season. there’s always something about springtime that pulses with a certain poignance. i always feel the equal parts light and shadow in these weeks of quickening. there’s hallelujah, there’s heartbreak, there’s loss, there’s triumph. there’s death and resurrection. nubs of newborn green at the end of the branch. mama bird in her nest-building frenzy. baby bird fallen from the nest. tender shoots bent under the crush of late-season ice or snow. the bush that didn’t survive the winter. the bulb that rises anyway. the fragile frond unfurling. the song of the wren.

i’ve written (here, and in the pages of slowing time) of the enlightened wisdom of the japanese who teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom — sentinel of spring — is its evanescence. “the very fact that at any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they’re keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long.” nor forever.

nor these numbered days of childhood, the chapters that all unfold beneath one shared roof. the chapters where, night after night, you can perk your ears to the sounds of someone shuffling off to bed. those long-ago nights of bedtime stories and lying still beside him, in hopes that sleep would come to him before it came to whichever grownup had drawn the short straw that night, those nights are now but memory. the ritual these days is to listen for the click of the front door somewhere round the midnight hour. and not too long from now there will be no noise at midnight, nothing but the sound of a single sheet being pulled up round our noses. his room, the one at the bend in the stairs, it’ll lie untouched, un-messed-up for long weeks and months between college breaks. i’ll wander in, run my hand across the un-hollowed pillow. maybe sift through piles left behind. i’ll wonder how we got to such an empty room so fast…

i will hardly be surprised by the hollowness of those days to come. the ones where i work once again to re-wire who i am in the world. once again expand the imaginary boundaries of my mother-ness, expand to include however many miles stretch between me and my newly-faraway boy.

what’s surprising me is how tender these days are. how a softness has descended. an unspoken tenderness between us. how he calls out one last time “i love you,” before clicking shut his bedroom door, or as he climbs the stairs on his way toward homework. these are not the words he tosses willy-nilly. these are words that seem to be gurgling up from the undeniable truth that he and i have always, always sensed that we were living inside an answered prayer. and despite his disinclination to say so, he’s the bearer of one voluminous and deeply tender heart. and it’s feeling this tug in the surest quietest way imaginable.

i’ve been reading — in a glorious book titled, “the soul’s slow ripening,” by christine valters paintner, a poet, artist, and modern-day mystic now living in galway, on the western coast of ireland — that thresholds held particular attention for ancient irish monks.

“thresholds are the space between,” paintner writes, “when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in times when our old structures fall away and we begin to build anew. the celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”

(i love learning that the monks literally sought out “edge places,” in the desert, on the margins of civilization, in the wide-open windswept burren, “at the very fringes of the ancient world,” where they might most deeply embrace the perspective it allowed them.)

it makes me scan the terrain of this “edge time” i find myself — and my sweet boy — living in. it makes me wonder if the pinch of fairy dust, the extra-porous tenderness, the gentle grace that animates each day, as my senior in high school holds on tighter as he gets ready to let go, it makes me wonder if we’re wise to pay attention to the “thinning,” and recognize the holiness of heaven intermingling in the everyday earthliness of this very last high school chapter?

it makes me wonder. and it makes me hold tighter to each and every hour of this blessed thinning time and space…

what thresholds capture your attention? have you a sense of the thin place, where heaven and earth hover within reach? 

rufus sings a morning song

Rufous_Sided_Towhee

my friend rufus

the plot out back, the one i pretend is my so-called “acreage,” is, at this moment in its history, nothing more than a pastiche of variegated browns, in shades of drab and drabber. (and that would be the politest way to put it.) it’s stick upon stick, dry grasses tumbling in the wind, detritus from the alley scattered hither and yon. as far as gardens go, it’s something of a shipwreck, desiccated timbers strewn upon a sandy cove. it’s faded, tousled, worn from winter’s torment.

in a word or two (or four), it’s the farthest thing from hopeful. at least by botanical standards.

when it comes to animation, however, my sorry plot is awash, aswirl, alive. it seems rivers of airborne currents have carried north a whole new flock of feathered passersby. if you close your eyes and ignore the goosebumps on your arms, you might pretend you’ve landed in a lush big-leafed aviary, a bath of birdsong launching each new day.

here’s the soundtrack of this morning:

among the curiouser and most ear-catching of my vernal crew was one whose high-pitched trill broke through the chatter. i couldn’t help but leap from my typing post to press my ear against the glass. its call was certain and insistent. and it came again and again and again. but i could not, for the life of me, find the megaphone from which it poured. ah, but then it got thirsty — all that warbling dries a fellow’s throat — and it hopped right before my eyes. i’d never seen anything like it. even for an unschooled bird girl like me, the sight of someone altogether new to the neighborhood makes for quite a morning’s thrill.

i did the only thing i know to do when bird spotting is the challenge. i called my Original Mother Nature, aka the one who birthed me, and who at 88 is a master of her bird identification tomes. i put in my description: long tail, white belly, looks like a rose-breasted grosbeak only it’s got robin-redbreast pumpkin-colored patches on its flanks, where the grosbeak sports a splotch of rosy raspberry.

i held the phone up to the wind, so my mama could catch a swatch of this fellow’s mellifluous song. and, presto, not an hour later, my mama was back on the line with full ID: this warbly bird was Rufus, aka rufous-sided towhee. rufous, i’ve since found out, comes from the latin, rufus, for red. it’s the color of a rusty nail, an oxidized-iron sort of orange. but then, in an ornithological twist, just as i was poking under branches scrounging around for so-called Rufus, i found out that while it’s true he remains a rusty-spotted species, the ornithologists have gone and ditched that part of his name. nowadays, all the Rufi in the eastern half of the u.s. landmass are named, simply, “eastern towhees.” in some parts of the country, they’re called “chewinks” because that’s what it sounds like they’re singing. others insist they’re singing, “make your tea.” (i heard no such thing, but i am listening now, i tell you…)

have a listen for yourself.

i find this rush of flight and feather invigorating as all get out. there are loop-de-loops, and swoops galore out there. games of catch-me-if-you-can. doh-si-dohs and pas de deux, of the birdly variety. even my housemates, home for spring break, have taken to pressing noses to windowpanes.

the reinvigorations of the spring come in waves. it’s all as if to say, hold on to hope, the cavalry is coming. what was dormant, sound asleep, is rousing. the birds, keen to shift in sunlight, keen to earthly repositioning, they know what we’ve yet to comprehend: the promise of the spring is in the works. the world will pulse with beauties soon enough. our hearts and souls will soon be dizzied, up-swooped by the glories of the world reawakening.

rufus says so.

a poem for today,  blessed reminder that even the most ordinary acts of each and every day are ripe with sacramental possibility, and ours to anoint with our simple attention:

Daily
These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips
These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares
These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl
This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out
This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky
This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it
The days are nouns:  touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world

~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~
(The Words Under the Words)
what sacramental blessings define the contours of your day? and what’s stirred your vernal soul this week?
fun factoid from the ornithological nomenclature department, especially if you like your birds to have a foreign flair: in french the little fellow is known as “Tohi à flancs roux,” towhee with red flanks. i still like Rufus best, 

and so we wait…

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down where the earthworms stir, there must be stirring. all the science books say so. but from here, at my kitchen window, it takes some convincing to buy into the notion that this here is springtime.

i know the calendar says so. i know sun and planet earth did their vernal doh-si-doh, as big ol’ sun inched its way north across the equator at 4:58 p.m. (chicago time) day before last, and suddenly spring had sprung. but round here, there’s not much springing to be spied. we’re in the crouch-down-low days of earliest spring, when your knees have to get in on the act if you really want to catch mama earth in her opening numbers.

the surest sign that earth is a rumbling is what’s happening up in the trees. and i don’t mean the leaves. i mean the cardinals, flitting and chasing and carrying on like red-feathered banshees. males chasing males. aerial cartwheels. rabid games of catch-me-if-you-can. male and female flirting like nobody’s business. pheromones must be filling the air. the occasional female butting in on somebody else’s romance. (oh, the vociferous protest!) it would be safe to assume baby cardinals — flocks and flocks of them — will soon offer proof of unseen ornithological joinery.

me, i’m just stationed here at my old maple table, filling my hours with words — birdsong as backdrop. my lifework seems to have settled into the sedentary task of reading and writing. my eyes and six of my fingers seem to be the only moving parts of me many a day. my brain, though, and my soul and my heart, they’re all deeply engaged. it’s just that, from the outside, you can’t see them expanding. sort of like the hard work of mama earth in springtime. sort of like what’s happening down where the earthworms wriggle. (or start to think about wriggling, anyway.)

the stacks by my side seem to grow taller and taller. occasionally teeter. if i’m not careful i’m going to turn into a hoarder. a hoarder of big ideas and snippets of poetry. not a bad affliction. this week alone i welcomed these fine friends to my flock: the late essayist and editor brian doyle (a book of uncommon prayer: 100 celebrations of the miracle & muddle of the ordinary and god is love: essays from portland magazine); historian and storyteller extraordinaire jill lepore (these truths: a history of the united states; brilliant!); diarist etty hillesum (considered the adult counterpart to anne frank, her diary and letters, written during the darkest years of nazi occupation, testify to the possibility of compassion in the face of devastation, and the combined work —  diary and letters bound in a single volume — is titled an interrupted life: the diaries, 1941-1943 and letters from westerbork); two jewish books of blessings called “benchers,” prayers and songs in hebrew and english (for a class i’m teaching). and finally, and emphatically, mary oliver’s long life: essays and other writings. in the wake of her death, i have found myself reaching back into her bookshelf, finding titles i’d not known before. long life is a beauty, one from which i scribble and scribble, taking notes like a chimney — a poetry chimney — puffing up bellows of something like holy incense.

here are just a few bits i couldn’t help but add to my Mary O. litany:

30. “What can we do about God, who makes then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?” — Long Life, p. 17 

31. “I walk in the world to love it.” — Long Life, p. 40

32. “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.” — Long Life, p. 88 

and then there are these two longer passages, which i tucked into my ever-growing file, titled “book of nature notes”:

“This I knew, as I grew from simple delight toward thought and into conviction: such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning. So I began to consider the world as emblematic as well as real, and saw that it was—that shining word—virtuous. That it offers us, as surely as the wheat and the lilies grow, the dream of virtue.

“I think of this every day. I think of it when I meet the turtle with his patient green face, or hear the hawk’s tin-tongued skittering cry, or watch the otters at play in the pond….” (Long Life, p. 87) 

“A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It is the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world — especially to that part of it with which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate….  

“Opulent and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis, and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly. … And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is the multiform utterly obedient to a mystery.

“And here I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a  field to rise from. To deepen, I must have a bedrock from which to descend.…  

“It is the intimate, never the general, that is teacherly. The idea of love is not love. The idea of ocean is neither salt nor sand; the face of the seal cannot rise from the idea to stare at you, to astound your heart. Time must grow thick and merry with incident, before thought can begin.

“It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape — between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety. We need the field from which the lark rises — bird that is more than itself, that is the voice of the universe: vigorous, godly joy.”  (Long Life, pp. 89-91)

and thus, my dispatch from the muck days of spring….

what’s expanding your soul this week?

my ancestral irish blessing, slathered with butter.

shannon soda bread

he came to me, as all sprites always do, when i wasn’t looking. just popped up one day inside the gremlin-filled flat-box that is my 21st-century laptop. it’s as good a place to find an enchanted character as ever there was.

he’s my sprite of an irish cousin — third cousin, in fact (i let him do the math) — and he came to me out of the ether, and filled me ever since with doggerels and ballads and pictures and stories, all thick with a brogue. he’s filled in — as much as he possibly can — the wide and deep vacuum of history on my papa’s side of the family. the straight-from-ireland side. the side i knew least about, but wondered most about, because it’s the side i see when i peek in the mirror, and it’s the side that belonged to my pa. and, well, it’s mythic to me.

it’s a tale filled with ocean crossings, and childbirth deaths, and heartbreak hard upon heartbreak. one uncle was struck by lightning, when he ran to hide in his kentucky tobacco barn from a midsummer storm of biblical proportion. (the uncle who found him — his kid brother — might have drowned his sorrows, dying of liver disease years later.) another was slashed in his tent in a midnight attack on the japanese island of iwo jima. before he shipped off to war, that uncle — danny was his name, my dad’s oldest half-brother — ran the legendary calumet (horse) farm, just outside lexington, kentucky. and the triple-crown champion, whirlaway, was one of his stable.

in my cousin paddy’s telling, there is plenty, too, to make your chest swell. and your eyes grow misty. and some that just plain raises your eyebrows. among the latter: there’s the uncle who served as a jailer in a wee kentucky town, and while trying to lock up one of the infamous hatfields or mcCoys found himself bit in the head by the rascal. (no fool, that uncle up and hightailed it to the california coast, far as he could get from hillbilly feuds).

a few months back, dear paddy sent along a treasure in the form of a slip from the ancestral recipe tin: the very irish soda bread served at the family homestead hard by the bridge in kildimo south, in the county of clare, in the west of the great verdant isle.

if you’ve poked around here for more than a minute or two, you know that i consider the kitchen a mystical magical place, a room where you can bring old souls into your midst through the simple stirring or sifting of flour and soda and sugar.

so it was that i found myself the other afternoon with fists deep in the pillowy mound of flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk that is the beginning and end of the true irish soda bread. no sugar! no raisins! paddy exclaimed, shaking his fist at the kitchen profanity.

as i brushed the mound with the last dabs of buttermilk, and, not an hour later, pulled the golden loaf from my sputtering oven, i good as felt my grandma mae peeking over my shoulder, her breath on the back of my neck. close as i’ve ever felt to the one whose genes are mine (in a rare moment of heart-baring, my pa once told me how much of her he saw in me — she’d died years before i was born; and i sensed over all the years that he said very, very little because it hurt too, too much).

because paddy himself is inimitable — and purely lovable in his unfiltered tongue — i’m unfurling the recipe just as he wrote it, swear words and all. his vernacular spice takes it up more than a notch in my book; a soda bread with swears is the way it should — and ever will — be.

be sure to slather with good irish butter.

Paddy’s Irish Soda Bread

(West Clare Recipe)

There are only (4) four ingredients in Traditional Irish Soda Bread, Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Buttermilk. No More No less. I don’t give a tinkers hoot in hell what you’ve read, eaten, or heard! You put anything else in it you are not making Irish Soda Bread. I first had this bread served by Great Aunt Katherine Ni Shannon Marrinan at the Anna Bridge House in Kildimo South, Clare in 1970. She baked it over the turf fire. Yep had the Irish Butter and the Orange Marmalade for the first time as well with strong cups of Irish Tae. Kitty Ni Shannon Downes also made it for me at the Half Door in Miltown Malbay and it was just as grand. It’s especially good after a night of drinkin’ the porter…….settles the stomach before ya go to bed.

Ingredients

(Use a Dry Cup Measure for the flour – Not a Liquid Measure)

4 cups(16oz) of Gold Medal Bread flour

1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Salt
14 Oz of Buttermilk

  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk. Using a spatula or your hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft but not wet and sticky.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. Knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, then pat the dough into a round, about 1 1⁄2 inches thick. Place it on a baking sheet and using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the center of the dough reaching out all the way to the sides. Then brush over the loaf with a bit more of the buttermilk.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped, about 30 minutes longer. Serve warm. Cut in semi-thick wedges.

4. Now then get yourself a couple slabs of Kerry Gold Irish Butter. Yes it really does make the difference when eatin’ Irish Soda Bread. And I don’t want to hear from any Mick blatherskite goin’ on about it being too “Dear”. Shut the hell up Paddy and cough up the shillings.

5. Orange Marmalade. King Kelly was the best. Came out of California. I used it for over 30 years. However, Smuckers bought them out then discontinued the King Kelly Brand and Recipe. My friend from the County Mayo likes the “Dundee” brand but what the hell does a bitter ole Mayo Man know about anyting? If ya like the bitter side of tings then get it. I suppose I’m stuck with Smuckers until I can find something even vaguely close to King Kelly….Jayzus…..Dundee Indeed…..

6. Now go buy some Irish Tae. Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea or Plain Barry’s Irish Tea. I like Barry’s Irish Breakfast but sometimes it’s just not available. I’ve been known to drink Tetley’s Englash Breakfast Tea but keep your gob shut about it. I may be a Traitorous gobshite but you’d be an Informer!

Bonny Petute Paddy Shannon

may your days be filled with the swirls of long-ago tales, and homespun heroes. and this:

May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

what’s your family heirloom, of the kitchen variety? 

this one’s for paddy, who has unfurled his heart and filled mine. much love from your ol’ cousin babs…

if you look closely enough……

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you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

balm for the late-winter blues

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maybe you, too, feel pummeled. pummeled by the news. pummeled by the daily screech of nasty. the abundance of bully. maybe the unrelenting ice (and the cracks and the creaks in the bones that go with it) has left you gasping.

at our house, there’s a nasty case of shingles, and i’m walking around in a hard plastic splint, thanks to aforementioned ice. i don’t mean to be the human embodiment of eeyore, my favorite misanthropic donkey.

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

but, yeesh, february took a very long time to come to its last gasping breath.

i was gasping, all right.

and of course three-quarters of the pain is self-inflicted, since i’m the one who tuned in early, and never did leave, the shenanigans on capitol hill. the ones where over and over all day wednesday we witnessed displays of ugliness and partisan baloney the likes of which had me muting half the day, and wiping away tears at the end. sometimes the news of the day makes me think we’re back in ancient rome, crammed in the coliseum, watching gladiators tear each other to shreds. tearing us — and the moral fabric of this national experiment in hope and humanity — into tatters as well.

good thing an old, old friend, a friend who is the antithesis of all that is ugly in the world, good thing he was pencilled in for a long, slow overnight visit. the sort of once-in-a-rare-while visit that requires — no, invites — a whole day’s attention to all the arts of the hospitable heart. there were fresh sheets to tuck onto the bed, and sinks to be polished, besides. there was lavender water to spritz onto pillows. and a table to set with old fine blue-willow china. just-opening daffodils were slipped in a vase on the sill of the window in the room where our dear friend will dream. the dinner, slow cooked, will serve as invitation to a long night’s nautilus of deep conversation.

an overnight guest is the chance to step outside our everyday rhythms, while at the same time drawing another into the intimacy of those very quotidian rhythms: kicking off shoes after work, rinsing dishes after dinner, turning out lights for the night. falling asleep, each in our rooms, to the shared lullaby of an old house’s hisses and snorts.

or maybe it’s simply that to open our home — truly open it — is to open our heart. a muscle that demands regular exercise ( and not only of the cardiovascular kind). a vessel that begs to be filled with a good surge of love. the center-point of our soulfulness that, once in a while, does well to be reminded of its capacities.

all i know, at the start of this newly born month, at the end of the longest shortest one, is that it’s balm to my late-winter blues to crank up the flame on the stove, smooth the sheets on the bed, and await the face at the door of the old friend who, time and again, has shown us the best of human connection.

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

and what are the balms you reach for in your soulful apothecary?

book of delights, indeed

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there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.

IMG_1332professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.

the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.

before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.

in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)

but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.

listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):

I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what’s too high or what’s been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck – at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise – always.

“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”

“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”

that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.

caretaking:

–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.

–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of  “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.

–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.

–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.

what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.

and they matter. more than we often realize.

because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.

what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?

love story of unlikely plot line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

well, then.

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

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

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

holy cow! that is some service!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no wonder i saved it.

it saved me.  and us.

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

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the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts

will you tell a love story?