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

soulful pages to be turned

books feb 18

in weeks like this, when what’s churned up on the national stage leaves you raw or hollowed or simply enraged, it’s not so easy to find solace. the balms for the soul are running thin. in weeks like this, i’m grateful for small measures of kindness. each and every one is magnified in the halo of now. last night i watched my sweet boy stir brownies for a friend with a broken heart. the night before, my dear friend from down the alley came by, offering the makings of dinner, clear down to dinner rolls. we will forge on, all of us who live and breathe on the lookout for mercy, all of us who shrivel at the shrill cry of evil and hate, we will forge on, fueled by the indefatigable goodness of those hearts and souls that surround us, the ones that won’t surrender. the ones that insist there is tender to be found, and gentle is the implement of choice, the one that unfurls the petals of the heart, and breaks open the world into some kind of beautiful.

and in the meantime, i’m grateful for pages to turn, and blessed thoughts and ideas and snippets of poetry to bury my nose in….

here, then, is the latest batch of books for the soul, brought to you courtesy of the chicago tribune. perhaps you’ll find balm in the pages…

To Hear the Forest Sing: Some Musings on the Divine
By Margaret Dulaney, Listen Well, 252 pages, $15

A fine way to encounter the musings in this first collection from Margaret Dulaney, a playwright who started the spiritual spoken-word website, Listen Well, back in 2010, would be to read them aloud. They are words meant to be heard, yes, but they’re words that work their magic whether absorbed by listening, or in the silence of reading.

“To Hear the Forest Sing,” is a gathering of essays from 25 years of Dulaney’s morning walks in the woods of Bucks County, Pa., with her frolicsome dogs. She trains her thoughts, her fine-grained poetic thoughts, on an “open faith,” a faith she alternately describes as “Christian-Buddhist-transcendentalist,” and “Everythingist”—“that is, one who is in love with all of the great faiths.”

A storyteller at heart, Dulaney writes with grace, and it doesn’t take many page-turnings to feel you’re in conversation with a true and honest friend, one who tells you she was long ago labeled “learning disabled,” and unflinchingly bares her stumbles. Nor does it take too many pages to discover you’re in the presence of a lively mind, one filled with the epiphanies of an awakening soul. She writes: “I have given up looking for the thunderous, and look only for those quiet, tiptoeing revelations that I have learned to recognize.”

Many essays later, she writes this about faith and doubt, and following some holy code: “We are dragging ourselves out of our sleep-drenched beds every morning in order to learn a little bit more about God. The fog will clear someday, the weather brighten. Trust this, and keep on showing up.”

My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown
By Meera Lee Patel, Tarcher Perigee, 176 pages, $18

If your idea of church is plonking down in front of the big screen and tuning into SuperSoul Sunday, “My Friend Fear” might be your prayer card. A luminous, watercolor-splashed prayer card, it’s a meditation on fear, and a short-course tutorial on working your way to the other side. It’s the latest from Meera Lee Patel, a self-taught artist and author, whose bestselling “Start Where You Are,” an interactive journal of creativity, mindfulness, and self-motivation, earned an emphatic “must-read” from Oprah.com.

It begins with a deeply confessional exploration of fear, one Patel enters into by exposing the “irrational beasts” of her youth, her fear of being seen as odd because her immigrant parents kept to their old-country ways, the bodily shame she felt because of a 17-inch scar that runs up the back of her leg, one she says looks like a “poorly placed zipper.”

Because she dares to take head-on this subject that many dodge, and because she writes with a child-like open-heartedness, a porousness that unwittingly draws in the reader, she serves her subject well. If you’re willing to put down your own defenses, “My Friend Fear” has the power to move you.

Besides her insistence that your fears might illuminate your deepest vulnerabilities, make plain those things you so emphatically wish for, Patel offers this bold plea: Find the things that scare you, and do them anyway. Tackle your fears, one after one. Find yourself more alive than you’d ever imagined, penned inside the fear-filled cage.

“Like a constellation lit brightly beneath a foggy night sky, it didn’t stop shining just because you couldn’t see it,” she writes. “Acceptance is inside you. It’s been waiting for you to find it.”

Almost Entirely: Poems
By Jennifer Wallace, Paraclete, 128 pages, $18

When the names Scott Cairns, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman — great and soulful poets all — are drawn for point of comparison, are flags marking the perimeter of another poet’s domain, that is a poet whose work demands attention.

Jennifer Wallace’s poems, gathered here in “Almost Entirely” — a collection that toggles between the sacred and profane, faith and doubt, love and unrequited love — clearly earns the comparisons, and the claim to her own poetic country.

A poet, photographer, and teacher living in Baltimore and rural western Massachusetts, Wallace edits poetry for The Cortland Review, and her religious orientation is described thusly: “after decades of avoidance and experimentation, she decided in her 50’s to get serious about her spiritual practice and is now, mostly, happily settled within her Christian roots.”

What pulses through these prayer poems, besides an abiding knowledge of grief coupled with a palpable faith in the afterlife, is the residue of Catholic imagery, a childhood of nuns and priests and Latin prayer.

Any one of Wallace’s poems might be a morning’s meditation, or analeptic on a sleepless night.

Unlike most religious or spiritual writing that “tends to fall into the trap of being either willfully obscure, or too quickly cutting to ‘God’ as the general answer to all particular vexations,” observes Brother Joe Hoover, poetry editor of America Magazine, “Wallace strikes a lovely balance.”

Yet another critic, the poet David Rigsbee, lauds Wallace’s poems for “reclaiming the sacred in the steady rumor of its eclipse.”

As in this haunting stanza, from “Requiem,” her seven-part poem: “Perhaps we are here to make of earth a minor heaven / where birds will glider higher / in an air made more full / by the dead’s barely audible sigh.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in 2017. Her new book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” will be published in April. Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and since this is a morning of simple offerings, here’s one more lovely little something sent by a friend: words that seared me in a spine-tingling way.

fireproof

may you find solace in books and words and random acts of the beautiful….

what are the balms for the soul you bumped into this week?

we will not be numb…

i can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up the morning after. and the morning after that. and every morning thereafter.

but i know that i woke up — 1,300 miles away from the nightmare — on the morning after, and the one after that, and couldn’t help but try to slip into the faintest, chillingest of outlines: imagined that in that first blur of an instant, when you haven’t yet pulled yourself out from the depths of nighttime’s disorientation, you might have the barest instance of not yet being shrouded, and then, before even a blink, you would be sucked down into it, into that raw remembering: oh my god, it happened. she’s gone. he’s gone. and you would realize that the nightmare you couldn’t imagine was the one that was yours now. and you couldn’t go back. you could not, for the life of you, not ever again, go back to the moment in time where you weren’t racked, gutted beyond imagination, gasping for air.

or maybe you don’t even sleep. maybe, not even for an instant, do you slip out of consciousness into the anchor of sleep, of distance, that shore you can never again reach, the one where you aren’t skinned alive, the one where you breathe in and out without your chest hurting, the breathing’s so hard.

maybe you pray harder than you’ve ever prayed — to trade places, so you’d be the one who’s dead, and the someone you love is the one who goes on.

maybe you can never ever pray another prayer. maybe the line goes dead. and you spend the rest of your life a hollow shell.

or maybe resurrection comes in remembering. remembering the beauties, the animating stories that rise out of the ashes. maybe resurrection comes in wrapping yourself in the cloak of making a difference. making the death not be the end, but the spark of a blaze that will not be doused.

it’s all mostly impossible to imagine beyond the faintest of outlines. empathy can only carry us so far.

but i’ve found the most bizarre glimmer of hope here. it rises up out of the horrors of scenes caught on kids’ phones. i’ve watched video clips in the last day that i will never ever forget. if you’re brave, if you’re willing, here’s one, a montage from the new york times. it’s not the rawest one i’ve seen, but it’s awful beyond words.

so where’s the glimmer? the glimmer is in the documentation, it’s in this nightmare playing out in real time in front of kids who are digital natives, who instinctively pick up their phones and record, so for the first time, maybe, for a very long stretch of minutes, we — the faraway witnesses — we are drawn into the classrooms, we are watching the hands that are quaking in fear, we are hearing the whimpers, the wails. the children are witness, and thus so are we.

it’s a wholly different thing to be immersed in the minutes of blood bath in a high school classroom, to see the ragdoll-limp legs of a teen, and to see the red ring around her spread bigger and bigger. it’s impossible watching practically. it’s wholly different than watching the noiseless scenes from a helicopter looking down from above; even the frames of kids marching out of the school, hands up, stumbling in fear, those are sanitized, stripped of layers of horror, compared to the scenes that played out in real time inside the classrooms, the closets, the hallways.

and here’s the glimmer: maybe this time we won’t forget. maybe we won’t go numb. maybe this time the footage, caught on hundreds of cell phones, plus the voices of kids who are screaming that they were the ones huddled in closets, hearing the echo of assault-rifle carnage just beyond the classroom door, they were the ones sending texts home, “if i don’t make it….”

they are the ones who insist that we listen.

parkland textand those kids are screaming that this is all about guns. those kids are screaming that unless you were cowering in the coat closet, praying for your life, you have no right to tell anyone it’s not about guns. it’s all about guns, they are saying. and their videos are making that utterly, wrenchingly impossible to deny — or to ever forget.

maybe this will be the time that breaks the cycle of national amnesia. maybe this time we can all make a promise: we will not be numb. we will not forget the hell to which too many have entered.

maybe the voices of kids who prayed for their lives, maybe they won’t be quelled. maybe we’ll listen. and, lest we start to go numb, we can play back the scenes they caught on their phones, and not let those deaths be in vain.

may the memory of those 17 souls ever be a blessing. and the 26 in sandy hook. and the 49 at the pulse night club. and the 26 in the church in sutherland springs…..

the holy cloak of stillness

snow morning

view out my window at daybreak

the day was abuzz with the news: it was coming, beware! by twilight, the first shreds of evidence appeared — couldn’t have been more gentle, scant flakes tumbling, every once in a while caught in the porch light. and the broadcasts blared on: this winter’s big snow, enough snow to cancel the school bells, enough snow to bring on battalions of plows, it was coming. children — especially a high schooler i know with a giant biology test due for today — let out a whoop and slammed closed the text books. meiosis and mitosis would have to wait.

i went to bed. with the blinds up because there is nothing i love so much as awaking to snow fall. no matter the hour. the earlier the better.

and so i awoke to the holiest sound i know: still silence. not a peep or a plow. the barest whoosh of air swirling through snow-covered limbs. i stood there and drank it all in. only now, an hour or so after the light seeped in, only now is the faint chorus of chirps beginning to stir. not a plow. not a shovel. not a footfall.

a morning like this, i often think, is the closest God comes to putting a finger to lips, whispering, shhhhhhhhh. 

be still. 

open your ears, open your soul. drink. drink in the stillness, the quiet, the pause. settle your soul. put aside the rumblings that rumble. this dawn, this start to the day, is reminder: the holiest sound in the whole wide world is the sound of just listening. remember to listen.

what do you hear?  

it’s prescriptive, a snowfall like this. of all the choices in the meteorological tool kit, no other one comes with the soundtrack of silence. except, i suppose, pure sunshine. but then, for me anyway, that comes with an undercoat of moaning. too much sun and i start to wilt. i’ll take a brisk pure snow any day.

i intend to listen all day. i intend to pull out the blankets and mugs. i intend to settle onto the couch with my sweet boy who runs this way and that. he’s caught in the snow trap today. everything is cancelled. hallelujah!

just now, a bolt of scarlet feather flashed by the window and settled down on the snow-mounded feeder. i took it as a call for breakfast — a bird call, that is — so i shoved my toes into boots, and scooped up a can of sunflower seeds. it goes against my grain to unsettle snow, but i grabbed the shovel anyway — the cardinal was hungry, you see. and i shoveled myself a path. there’s at least a foot of snow out there. and with more abandon than usual, i dumped. there is now black seed speckling my snow because i decided to share with the squirrels, and the big red fox should he decide to show up today. (he’s been ambling by more and more often; the other morning, in fact, he curled up for a long winter’s nap — a good three-quarters-of-an-hour nap — smack in the middle of the yard, circling this way and that till he found just the right lump for a pillow.)

and now, as the snow drips from my hair, the flakes out the window have plumped to double or triple their original size. no wonder when we were little we liked the idea that the angels were having a pillow fight. and the heavenly feathers were spilling all over. i could sit here all day, announcing the shift in the flakes and the fall.

and maybe, just maybe, i will….

a day of pure stillness is ours. and i intend to savor it all. and quiet my soul while i’m at it…

what will you do with your day? snow day, or rain day, or day of pure sunshine, depending upon your spot on the weather map?

-30-

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in the newspaper world, -30- means “the end.” at the bottom of every reel of type flying off the typewriter, once upon a time, a big-city scribe tapped four keys to signal the end, so the typesetters knew to move onto the next big story in their end-of-day unreeling of the hot breaking news.

all these years, the -30- stuck. only i grabbed it from my typesetting keys this morning not because of an ending, really, but because a bespectacled scribe i happen to love, one whose flight i’ve witnessed from an up-close unedited perch, he’s been waiting and waiting for today. today is the day he gets his 30-year watch. thirty years of calling himself a “chicago tribune reporter.” thirty years of chasing down just about any I-beam that dared to move in this old town. thirty years of thumbs-up or thumbs-down on wild-eyed architects’ intentions to make no small plans.

but more than what’s beautiful, soaring, inspiring, or not, he sees the way the carved-out hollows and high-rises of a big american city might move the human species into communion, or tear them apart. he understands the nuts and bolts of design, but he’s keen on justice and social equity; he understands the political powers and petty feuds that sometimes stand in the way of what makes a city — and its peoples — work, or not work.

and he’s spent three decades teaching all of us, teaching anyone who turns the pages of every day’s news, to do the same. it’s a way of seeing he’s intent on not keeping to himself.

and ever since the hot august morning of 1987 when he strolled into the chicago tribune newsroom in his navy brooks brothers blazer, white oxford, and khakis — aka “the uniform” — i’ve been watching. took another year till i rose to my rank as “girlfriend,” and then another three years before “wife” was affixed to my status (we had a lot to figure out, mostly in the religion department, during those long should-we-or-shouldn’t-we years).

so i know, more than almost anyone, just how much it means to him to have hit the sweet 3-0. to know that tonight, at the annual bacchanal that is the tribune awards hoopla, he will, at last, get his chicago tribune watch. actually, in a move that is so classily elegant and fair-hearted and loving as to be a signature BK move, he’s getting two tribune watches tonight. he put in an order for a pair, one for each of our boys, so someday, both will have a relic from their papa, one he wrote soooooo many stories to snare, one that in some scant way captures the nights after nights that he kept watch over stories, called in corrections to the desk, gave up a friday night dinner, surrendered a holiday, took yet another call from a “source,” chased a hot tip. because when you’re the son of a newspaper man (and he is) getting the news and getting it right, and never ever backing down from the truth, well, that’s religion to him. and he is devout, if anything.

and that might be the beauty of nights like tonight: they squeeze you into the think-back machine. have a way of making you stop in your tracks, think back across the long arc of your history, sift for those gold nuggets of meaning. (and you know i never ever miss a chance for gazing back over my shoulder, for rubbing my palms against the fine grain of time, squeezing out every succulent drop of “significance.”)

it’s the pause in the plot that always, always holds the possibility of taking life up a notch. that slows us down long enough to realize this isn’t just a race to the finish line, but rather a slow contemplative unspooling that is best lived and best understood, most certainly held up to the radiant light, if we pay close close attention to all the unspoken strands, the subtle and poignant shifts along the way, the moments where we rose up to champion status, where we lived with every ounce of hope and faith with which we were created and dreamt into being, and where we humbly account for our stumbles, realign our compasses and set forth again.

it’s a magnificent reel, this thing called our life, and it’s most closely savored when every once in a while we watch it in slo-mo, stop-gap, how’d-we-get-here, hallelujah style. and then, to anoint the moment, we bend knee, bow head, and whisper a holy thank you.

never, ever, in a million years did i imagine this 30 would bring my bespectacled scribe — and me, and thus W and T (our two and only double-bylines) — along this most blessed road to here.

a billion blessings, BK. and thank you.

-30-

BlairKamin4-1

have you hit the pause button lately, to look back on the road to where you are now? what have you gleaned, and what lessons might you carry forward?

p.s. an emphatic post-script to clarify, clarify, clarify: BK is NOT leaving the tribune, merely collecting his 30-year watch. he will be writing and writing and writing. so sorry for leaving wrong impression. it’s a tribune tradition that you get your watch and get right back to work. so so sorry if i left anyone thinking this was The End…..

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

any hour now, the house next door, a house where an old man of 92 has lived alone for a few years, a house the old man has been trying to sell for months and months (with not a single offer), a house where just a few weeks ago the old man told me he feels as if he’s gone before a judge and been sentenced to life in jail only the jail is his home, that house will have some bustle today.

two women will be pulling cans and boxes and thingamajigs from shelves in the cupboards. not because the old man is moving out finally. but because an old friend is moving in. an old friend of mine. a friend i knew to be needing a place to live. a rich and wonderful friend who for a host of reasons is in between houses. and desperately needing a place to call home, a place where she can breathe, and look out the windows at sunlight. or snowflakes. or dawn.

after a week or two of nearly comical round-about “talks,” the two of them have reached a deal that already hints of heart more than wallet. she will be renting what amounts to an upstairs suite, two roomy bedrooms, a bathroom, and closets. he will be gaining the comfort of footsteps up above, the rustling in the kitchen as she whips up one of her amazing effortless feasts.

and that’s not all: my friend drives a car, and the old man next door — his name is george, and i don’t think he’d mind my using it — he lost his old white oldsmobile last summer when it got crunched by another car. george escaped with bumps and bruises, but the lasting blow was the car got towed away, and taken away — for good. as part of “the deal,” my dear friend will be, among many things, george’s newfound wheels. she will drive to the market when he cobbles a list (long a fellow who marketed for himself on the fly, an ad-libber of marketing, he claims to be not so good at list-making and, at 92, is intent on teaching himself this new skill). she will drive him to the doctor. and, as seems to happen every once in a while, she’ll give him a lift to the emergency room.

but here’s the thing about that last point in particular: just a week or two ago, i was sitting with george on a day he’d woken up dizzy. i’d run over after he called, a scene that unfolds not infrequently, and was perched beside him in a hard metal folding chair (he’s cleared the house of nearly every piece of furniture, the saga of trying for months to sell a house that won’t budge), when he told me in something of a whisper that, really, he thought the chest pains and shortness of breath might just be from the stress of living alone, of not being able to sell this house that he loved, a house he built for his beloved late wife who for years and years struggled to breathe, a house he’d filled with countless “upgrades” to make her breathing easier, to make it easier for nurses to come and to go. a house he didn’t want to sell at a bargain-basement price. to george, that feels like an insult. an insult to himself, yes, but more so a slap at the memory of his most beloved wife (in the great room of his house, the only room still with furniture, there are exactly four items: a recliner chair, a metal tv tray table, a big screen tv, and a faded picture of his late wife hanging from the wall). it’s his unwillingness to settle for what he considers an unconscionable price that has shoved him into this jail-cell of a situation, and how he’s come to spend months and months alone in that house, and now months and months without a car, or a way to get around. and all the while the pains in his chest have gotten worse and worse. and the dizziness comes and goes.

and as i sat there listening, wishing like anything i could figure out how to lift his burden, it dawned on me that maybe there was an outside chance of a way.

my old friend had just moved out of her own longtime house into a rented room, a tight-squeezed room in a townhouse where a little dog (not hers) had free rein and hospital pads were scattered about the floors in case the wee dog hadn’t time to do his business outside. even though i knew she’d just unpacked boxes and boxes, even though i knew she’d just signed off on the first month’s rent, i could see the light in her eyes was dimming. i was haunted long after i drove away and left her to squeeze a few files onto her makeshift desk.

it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, my two old friends — one a friend by accident of geography, the other a friend who’s been something of an auntie to my boys, and a lifesaver to me — could make a quirky equation, could be each other’s short-term solution. so i spoke up. i mentioned first to my friend my quirky idea. she paused and considered. then i brought it up to george’s daughter, the one who’s been slumped under the weight of her papa’s affairs, and driving countless miles from her house to his many times a week, and often at the drop of a dime. she too saw the possibility. so i wandered over and asked george myself.

and by the middle of next week the upstairs room with the light that has barely shone in all these years, it will be glowing above the garage. it will be glowing down onto the picket fence that runs between my house and george’s — and, for now, hers, too. my old friend will have a whole upstairs all to herself. she’ll have shelves and shelves for her books. and sunlight or moonlight pouring through the tall, tall windows.

george will have the comfort and joy of being not alone. already, i’ve been told, he pokes his head round the corner when my friend is there (figuring out what will go where), asks if she’d like him to make her a cocoa. (see what i mean about this being more heart than wallet?)

it’s a happy ending in the making, i’m certain. i feel it in my bones. and not because i will now have a dear friend next door, one with whom i can share old new yorkers, and whatever i’ve whipped up for dinner. but because in this old cold world there still exists the possibility of kooky solutions, and hearts can be pulled together tighter than any wallet or real-estate guide might suggest. fact is, the two of ’em — george and my friend — both happen to be among the dearest souls on the planet, and right now both are in tight pinches that neither one deserves.

it all reminds me that we live, all of us do, on the thin membrane of possibility day after day after day. our charge, if we take it, is to live and breathe the belief that 1 + 1 just might = 3, to know that love and light is just beneath the surface, aching for a soft spot, a place to break through.

despite what the naysayers insist, we do not dwell in a zero-sum world. my gain is not your loss, nor vice versa. if we decide to live a life of looking for doors that might be opened, dots connected, threads interwoven, if we believe in looking up and looking out for the other guy’s sweet victory and triumph, well, then isn’t the world one stitched by generosity and not stinginess? isn’t that the way we all win? and doesn’t that tip the globe in the direction of light not shadow?

it’s always boggled me, and heavied my heart, to know that this is not the way of the world. but we can make it be. we can spend our days on the lookout. on the lookout for love, for light. for the arithmetic of unlikely sums.

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

do you have a tale of doors being opened, and love rushing through?

when muttering under your breath isn’t enough…

2croppedMaggieKuhn_1953

“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” —Maggie Kuhn, social justice activist, founder of the Gray Panthers

despite the fact that i came of age in the 1960s, can remember chillingly the assassinations of JFK, and bobby kennedy, and martin luther king jr., can remember being afraid when draft numbers were called and boys i knew were whispered to be leaving for canada. despite the fact that mahatma gandhi and mother theresa were the faces i cut from the pages of magazines and taped to the inside of my spiral notebooks, i’ve not spent much time with soles to pavement, marching with a picket sign.

so i turn to maggie kuhn, the gray-haired activist and founder of the gray panthers, whom the new york times once described as “a tiny woman who wore her hair in a prim bun that gave her the look of an ideal candidate to be helped across the street by a Boy Scout.” maggie fought it all, every discrimination, oppression, and injustice she ran into. and in her 89 years, dying in april 1995, a mere two weeks after joining a picket line for striking transit workers, she ran into plenty.

it’s been a year now, since the chill january morning when i awoke in prayer, and soon found myself writhing on the couch, listening to an inaugural address that steam-engined through “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and “students deprived of knowledge,” and “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives,” all rising toward the crescendo that “this american carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

i was aghast that morning. and at least a hundred other mornings since. i’ve felt hollowed and gutted and stripped of hope. i’ve cringed. and heard the thump of my heart pounding in my ears, as blood pressure rose and i watched in disbelief. how, i’ve wondered time and again, have we gotten to this low?

it’s all of it: the language, the lies, the schoolyard taunts. the bullying. the lack of backbone all around. the refusal of sycophants and hangers-on to call a spade an ugly spade. it’s so much more than politics that makes me boil, it’s the degradation, the shredding of decency, the depravity. it’s needing to turn off the tv if kids are in the room, because i don’t want them hearing the words spoken by the fellow in the oval office. i don’t want them reading of porn star affairs, while a wife is home cradling her newborn son. i don’t want pussy talk. the moral compass is seizing, is spinning without north star.

all year, i’ve muttered and mumbled, and all but thrown shoes at the tv screen. i’ve composed letters to the president in my head. i’ve imagined myself plonked on the steps outside the west wing, just beneath that portico where all the hotshots come and go. i’ve wondered if i implored loud enough, would he listen? could i tell him quite exquisitely enough just how vile i’ve found this year-long unraveling of those rare few things i believe to be essential?

in my day to day, i’ve employed those tools i’ve always counted on: i’ve typed, tried to gently whisper truth. i’ve upped the everyday acts of kindness. i’ve tried to be a heart-seeking missile of empathy, looked more folks in the eye, listened more intently to their stories. prayed and prayed some more. tried to untangle discord. turned the other cheek.

i’ve no idea if the scales of justice have moved one iota, if one voice, one pair of lungs, one heart, one imagination can make a dent in the ocean churning with each toxin.

so i’m tossing my lot toward compound interest, the magnifying power of multiples: toward clogged streets of voices, toward the impact of the aerial photo, and the fine-grain, on-the-ground collective of stories heard, faces watched closely.

i’m donning my triple layer long johns, shimmying on my walking shoes, spinning the turnstile and hopping on the “el,” chicago’s answer to a polyglot on rails. i’m headed downtown tomorrow to the hordes who will be taking to the streets for a hundred thousand reasons, all falling under the rubric, “enough is enough.” it’s time to put breath to our hopes and prayers and protests. it’s time to reclaim civility and justice. time to leave behind our couches and our clickers and bring our voices to the public square. it’s time to tell our children we did not sit silently while the national conversation crumbled, and what passed for fairness, for decency, for equal rights for all, was in shambles.

i am one voice, and mine might be shaking. but one plus one plus one just might bend the arc toward that justice, that fairness, the radiant light of pure and gentle love that i will not ever stop believing in. nor working toward.

so help me God.

who taught you to use your voice, and how will you use it?

dreams cannot be left to die…

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a formal portrait of MLK, Jr., appeared many times in the new york times. it was shot during the summer of 1963, on the very day when protestors hurled eggs at dr. king as he arrived at a church in harlem. earlier that day, he had criticized black nationalists, arguing that their call for a separate black state was “wrong.” some believed those comments spurred the attack that night. allyn baum/the new york times

i was thinking of writing a little meditation on the return to rhythms, the ebb and flow of everyday routine (er, ritual) that holds some of us snugly in the confines of our lives. how the deepening grooves of particular habits and ways bring comfort in familiarity. i was going to write how we are creatures, some of us, of what’s known, practiced. i was thinking about how slip-sliding into deep cleaning, sorting files, tossing trash, reorients us at the head of the trail through the newborn year. 

but then i stumbled onto this little known speech given by david dinkins, a friend of martin luther king, jr., in the days just after king’s assassination. dinkins, you might recall, went on to become mayor of new york city, the first–and, so far, only–black mayor. but before that, long before that, he walked stride-for-stride alongside MLK Jr., a man who lived and died for a dream. i decided that, on the eve of the national holiday that now begs us to pause and consider the power of nonviolence, the power of putting breath and muscle to a dream rooted in love, these few words held far more than mine could ever hold. in the wake of the travesty of a president referring to african countries and haiti as “sh**holes,” king’s dream and the dreams of those who follow him need–beg–oxygen and airtime. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a speech by David Dinkins (from April 1968)

Martin Luther King is dead now, and we, the mourners and losers, are left with his dreams—with decisions to make. He is dead now, and there are no words we can say for him, for he said his own. He is dead now, and any eulogy must be for us, the living.

Martin Luther King is dead now, so for him there is no tomorrow on this earth. But for us there are tomorrows and tomorrows. He painted a picture of what our tomorrows could be in his dream of America. This past weekend painted a picture of how that dream could become a nightmare should we lose sight of his principles.

Martin Luther King is dead now, but he left a legacy. He planted in all of us, black and white, the seeds of love of justice, of decency, of honor, and we must not fail to have these seeds bear fruit.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and there is only time for action. The time for debate, the time for blame, the time for accusation is over. Ours is a clear call to action. We must not only dedicate ourselves to great principles, but we must apply those principles to our lives.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and he is because he dared believe in nonviolence in a world of violence. Because he dared believe in peace in a world of conflict. He is dead now because he challenged all of us to believe in his dream.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and we cannot allow the substance of his dream to turn into the ashes of defeat. If we are to build a tribute to what he stood for, we must, each of us, stand for the same things.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and I ask each of you, the living, to join him and me, to go from this room and keep the dream alive. We must now commit ourselves, we must now work, we must now define what kind of America we are going to have—for unless we make his dream a reality we will not have an America about which to decide.

Martin Luther King is dead now—but he lives.

how are you keeping the dream of justice and love alive? tomorrow and tomorrow?

yet again, i turn to the ellipses…

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i just realized that the ellipses — that trail of ink blots across a page — is perhaps my preferred punctuation. i’d been thinking, all week, that today would be the period at the end of a particular sentence. but then i realized, like so many things in my life, i prefer my punctuation in multiples, an abundance of dots rather than one. i prefer the soft close to the abrupt end, the holding on to the letting go, the voice fading into the distance, one last echoed “i love you” before it all falls to silence…

the boy i love is leaving today. flying to what is, in many ways, home. back to law school, back to friends who populate his thoughts, animate his days, friends to whom he’s stayed connected through the pings of his phone for the last 17 days, ever since he bounded down the escalator at o’hare international and folded me into his very big heart.

i know he won’t be back soon. likely not till next christmas. and that, to me, feels like a very long time.

which is why i’d been thinking of this as the period — punctuational stop sign — at the end of a particularly sumptuous sentence. two-plus weeks of late-night conversations, and the signature boom of his feet bounding down the stairs sometime mid-morning (or later), when the night-before’s leftovers would be pulled from the fridge, considered ponderously, studiously, in ways you might expect from a cerebrum in training, and then, only then, transformed into something distantly related to breakfast (or at least the feast that ended the long night’s fast).

neither he nor i nor any of us, really, has moved too far these past days. we took our cues from mother nature’s deep freeze, and burrowed under blankets. we are in some ways sated (there is only so much hibernating, so much foraging for leftovers, and even the fraser fir is starting to droop), but with each passing day of this last string of days i felt my heart taking charge here. my heart got more and more leaden. my heart sometimes seems to double in weight. it doubled this week. and, yes, yes, snappy vessel that it is, it will soon return to cruising mode, it will come back to equilibrium. life will go on. dramas will come and will go. my heart, bless it, will play right along.

but right now, in the page-turning time, when this one sweet spell is still within my hold, and i know the letting go will come before the day is done, there at the concrete curb amid the crush of traffic at the double-glass doors marked “departures,” i am decidedly sputtering. wiping away a tear or two when no one is looking. reminding myself that this is what comes with modern-day motherhood. this is how it is to love a kid who is out doing the very thing you spent hours and days and weeks and years teaching him to do: stretch his wings, leap. wait for the soaring to come.

i will, of course, return to my everyday mode, the one where i now live with a heart in two places. the one where i pay as close attention as i’ve always paid to the heart that formed inside me. even when it’s 764 miles away.

indeed, as happens in a life that runs only in one direction — forward — i will live my days emphatically, be pulled into this narrative or that, very much in the here and the now. heck, in the past 36 hours alone, one of us got a newly-minted driver’s license, another scored a summer job, and another blew out another year’s birthday candles. the new year brings a percolation of promises and plots in the making…

but on my way to finding my bearings, in the midst of putting balm to the sting, i will immerse myself in what’s come to be my cleansing ritual, now woven into the choreography of every departure: once home from the airport, i’ll climb the stairs and turn to the room there at the top, the one where my sweet boy has stayed, the one that once was his little brother’s. i’ll change the sheets, vacuum the alphabet rug, dump the towels in the laundry. i’ll prop the pillows, and set it all just so. the room, then, will be ready, will be waiting. awaiting his someday return…

whenever that comes…the room and my heart will be ready…

at this cusp of the new-born year have your days been filled with goodbyes and teary departures? endings sure to follow beginnings…and what are the ways you’ve found to soothe the hurt, the missing of someone you love?

hibernation station

book corner

reporting from my arctic cocoon, where the mercury hovers at a brisk -3, which the weatherfolk tell me feels something akin to -19, which explains why nary a bird is in sight and the bumps on my flesh are reaching architectural proportion…

if you propped up a camera at my house and did something of a time study, clicking the bulb every five seconds, it might appear that i’ve not moved in five days. the hide of the couch has given way to the rounds of my bum, the blanket lurches off to the side on those rare few occasions when i rise — for a drink or a nibble or a night’s sleep in full recumbent position — awaiting my certain return, where it folds itself just so round my knees and all of those knobby parts that protrude from the human equation. i am the very definition of “to cocoon,” or better yet, “to slither into dormant state where the turning of a page is perhaps the most taxing of movements.”

and so it goes in a week when you’ve intentionally left the calendar unmarked — not a doctor’s appointment or deadline in sight. all you’ve to do is hunker down with the ones you so love, the ones whose appearance by your side becomes rarer and rarer as the years and the miles pull you to faraway points on the map.

just yesterday there was an actual moment — an hour or more — when four of us were all nestled in the very same room, all under blankets of our own choosing, and all turned pages (or, truth be told, clicked through screens), while the logs in the fire crackled and hissed and occasionally whistled. it was — we were — the very picture of post-pioneer home entertainment.

i’ve been hunkering down with three glorious friends — john mcphee, john o’donohue, and my newest friend, robin wall kimmerer, a plant scientist, potawatomi, and poet who is taking my breath away by the paragraph, with her brilliant collection of essays, braiding sweetgrass, a book that’s been lined up in the queue between bookends that sits atop my desk, but only just now shoved its way to the front of the line and into my lap. i take turns with the three of them, as if in deep conversation with friends across the kitchen table. i read mcphee, draft no. 4, a collection of essays on the craft of writing that reads something like a masterclass, for whole chapters at a time; it’s that good that a whole hour can sweep by and i’ve not moved saved for the scritches and scratches and exuberant stars i’ve penned in the margins.

it’s the rarest of times, the depth of the pause that comes in this bend in the year, the days wedged between christmas and new year’s. and, by golly, the weather outside is playing right along. i trudge outside only to dump seeds for my hungry feathered friends, the ones i worry about, especially when there’s barely a flutter of wing and i imagine them barricaded and seed-less in the places they hide to keep out of the cold.

it’s a rare refueling respite. a time to curl away from all that pulls at us, all the other times of the year. it’s what makes these days holy to me. unfettered, unbroken. a time to breathe in the same air as the ones you so love. a time to lay a soft palm on the arm or the shoulder of the one who turns pages beside you. a time for whispers and glances, and  heart-melting meeting of eyes.

it’ll be over today, when the tv roars to a tiger-ish roar, and the football teams clang helmets, and the boys i love — along with a few of their friends — haul in spicy hot food and decibels to match.

perhaps i’ll begin to turn my thoughts toward the cusp of the new year coming, the one about to be birthed, the one i will once again fill with hope and dreams and prayer. i will pray for peace, and for gentle ways to rinse the land. i will remember those who’ve stitched this past year with kindness, defiant kindness, a kindness that refused to submit to the ways of the loudest and most churlish among us. i will count my blessings, one after another, one sweet soul after another. for it is in the sweet souls who surround me that i find those rare shimmering lights, the ones that keep me from slithering into the muck. i’ve needed those lights more than ever in this past soul-tattering year. needed reason to rise above the least common denominator, needed scant outlines of hope that the darkness would pass, the dawn might certainly come.

oh, coming year, come on us gently, come on us with occasional radiant light….

i pray you’ve found quiet or noise in the proportion that best suits you. and i pray for all of us that the year and the days ahead are gentle to the heart and the soul, and that one or two of our dreams come tumbling true. 

for what do you pray in the year just up around the bend?

all i wanted for Christmas

sugarplum visions

the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads….

and downstairs, in the inky edge of night, the mama, tapping away at her keyboard, heard a sigh go up from her heart: the one thing she wanted for Christmas, beds filled with sleeping lumps, and the souls who animate those lumps, they were all there.

indeed, the floors of those sleeping rooms, they are strewn with piles of things not normally there, and the fridge seems to have been attached to an invisible magnet, one that sucks out all the contents on a near hourly basis. juice that i swore was just there is now nowhere in sight, only a bottle drained of all but a sip (why does no one ever dare to take the very last sip?) perched on the shelf, lonely and wanting.

i can’t yet claim hours of conversation, for those unspool only in my imagination. the fact of the matter is that the so-called legal scholar (aka kid who just finished his first semester of law school and the mega exams entailed), he is sleeping as if there’s no tomorrow (and no daylight worth knowing). why, i think he’s been zapped with a wand that makes him allergic to daylight, curled up like a ball till the sun sets, then rising and hungry for breakfast. and then, without pause, lunch, followed by dinner….and into the night. (see paragraph above, the one referring to refrigerator magnet).

the little one (aka high schooler, who likely doesn’t take too kindly to being called “little” anymore, so let us anoint him “kid brother”), he is just wrapping up his last days of school for the calendar year, yet to partake of the hibernation behavior, though i fear it’s just around the bend.

thus, i might well need to own up to the reality here, and dash away all these visions of bonbons passed around the keeping room, while the logs crackle in the hearth, and i in my kerchief sate my hungers with hours and hours of huddled merriment.

so far, it’s been me alone in the kitchen, baking up a storm for a whole phalanx of teachers and friends up and down the block. oh, and there’s the last-minute clicking for Christmas, that early-21st-century ritual in which one scrolls the pages of amazon prime for just the right gift to arrive, yea, in the St. Nick of time (all because no one remembered to churn out their Christmasy wish list till you got on your knees and begged).

despite the aforementioned obstacles and roadblocks to poetic visions, still it seems that Christmas has seeped in through the cracks.

my heart is filled with the swirl of hopes and dreams and wishes that annually descend. i want so very little. just that rare touch of magic to remind me that we’ve something to do with the magic-making in our wee little lives. ours is the heart with the dial we can turn. we can go quiet, go deep. or we can be distracted, knocked off our course. we can get stuck in the ditch. throw up our hands in surrender. or we can quietly, decidedly, stitch our days with those rare few things that point us toward the heavenly pin lights, that open our ears to the morning song of the red bird, and the haunting cry of the owl in the night.

Christmas, indeed, comes most deeply in the cavernous vessel, the heart, where once we launched our long-ago wishes, and now we kindle wisps of dreams come tumbling true. it’s the room that is ours alone, the place where we stash our hopes and our prayers. it’s the quiet place, the place that sometimes can go still enough that we hear the sacred whisper. the one that births love. the one that puts breath to holy murmur.

Christmas, when we truly still and truly partake of the silence, it’s as close as i come to tiptoeing into the manger, huddling off to the side, beholding the newborn babe, the mother who cradles him, the carpenter and the shepherds who stand guard, and the heavenly light that illuminates all.

and that’s the magic i yearn for in the deepest heart of Christmas.

merry blessed Christmas. may your holy night be filled with deep still silence, deep enough to stir your prayers, and fill your soul with heavenly hope.

what’s on your wishlist this Christmas?

and, before i go, a few books for the soul, Yuletide or otherwise….(pasted below, in case you’re too tired to click on over….) 

books for the soul Yuletide 2017

New reads bearing Yuletide joy

By Barbara Mahany/Chicago Tribune

The assignment, “pluck books that stir the soul, and tell us how they do so,” is one that only gets richer, the bookshelves more crowded. And yet, the very definition of the soul — ineffable, always — is ever shifting. Certainly, it’s the catch-basin for all that’s sacred, a place of countless entry points. Vladimir Nabokov once instructed that “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there,” he wrote, “that occurs the telltale tingle.”

For Christmas, here’s a special installment of our regular roundup of spiritual books.

“Joy: 100 Poems,” edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University, 232 pages, $25

Amid the darkness of this season — nay, this moment in history — this book of poems is certainly prescriptive, the antidote to deepening psychic ails. As the soul, perhaps, is gasping for breath, along comes Christian Wiman to settle us down for a tutorial in joy.

Wiman, best known for meditations on mortality (“My Bright Abyss”), once editor of Poetry magazine, and now professor of the practice of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is not one to come lazily or loosely to so imperative a subject.

Wiman’s own history of mortal sufferings — diagnosed at 39 with a rare, painful and incurable cancer — makes him a sharp-eyed explorer, on vigilant watch for those shimmering shards of joy along the circuitous climb.
In this anthology of poetry and prose drawn from the 20th century until now, Wiman asks what joy is. Rather than laying down a solid definition, he provides proof of joy’s existence in poems that offer that jolt of knowing: Joy is here. And here. And here.

Often, joy limns the border of spiritual ecstasy, and so the poetry here weaves from secular to sacred. The ordinary — pond frogs in song at dusk, the peeling of a grapefruit, a beloved poised at the kitchen sink — erupts into the extraordinary.

In an introduction worthy of memorization, Wiman writes: “Joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone.”

“Christmas: A Biography” by Judith Flanders, Dunne, 256 pages, $24.99

Biographies of inanimate objects — or is a holiday animate, especially one so exploited by commercial pressures? — pique particular interest. And so, with the season in full overdrive, British journalist and social historian Judith Flanders has published “Christmas: A Biography,” an encyclopedic exploration that drills down on the Victorian period and mines the centuries to trace the roots of Yuletide tradition, tossing in ample dollops of esoterica along the way. (St. Francis of Assisi is credited with building the first Christmas stable, complete with manger, ox and ass, in 1223; the first decorated indoor tree appears in 1605 in Strasbourg, France.)

While born of Roman and pagan roots, it didn’t take long for Christmas to find firm anchor in religion. And though its secular underpinnings are indisputable, Flanders — and much of history — comes to this conclusion: “Whatever was happening in the world that was wrong … Christmas would bring it to a halt for a period of peace and companionship.”

Christmas, Flanders writes, offers a wonderful “illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past … while unconsciously omitting the less desirable parts of those times.”

Amid this many-chaptered history, deep in the consideration of Christmas, its historical and societal implications, there arises a sharp-edged silhouette of its quieter sacred pull. As so often happens when confronting truths, the chaff falls away, and we are left seeing more clearly what is worth holding onto.

“Here We Are” by Oliver Jeffers, Philomel, 48 pages, $19.99

Imagine the father of a newborn child, bent over his drawing table, putting words and color to the page, explaining to his infant son, through the medium he knows best, the ways of the globe on which the babe has just arrived. A manifesto, really, laying out the few fine things the father believes in: kindness, tolerance, care for the planet.

Now, imagine that father is a deeply beloved children’s book author and illustrator. “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” is in fact the latest treasure from Oliver Jeffers, the Belfast-bred creator of the best-seller “The Day the Crayons Quit.”

Something of a user’s guide to being alive and to life on Earth, Jeffers brilliantly uses pen and paintbrush to explore profound and puzzling questions, establishing straight off that the wisdom imparted here is wisdom for us all. You needn’t be a tot to profit from a gentle nudge like this one: “(U)se your time well. It will be gone before you know it.”

Or this, on a purple-soaked page depicting Earth amid the stars, a page that rightly situates our teeny dot against a vast universe: “It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us on here (7,327,450,667 and counting) so be kind. There is enough for everyone.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in April.