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while we’re away: soulful reading

soulful reads 11.17

oh, it’s been a week, all right. zipped home from inaugural law school visit last weekend, dove into proofing of almost-final-round of book manuscript, stayed awake a night or two, lost a round of editing when computer got mightily hungry and ate a day’s worth of labor, and now off to — gulp! — take a peek at a few colleges with the sweet boy i swear was born just a few minutes ago. while we’re buzzing about the dairy state (soon to be named something far less bovine, i’m told), i thought i’d leave you with a little soulful reading.

here’s the latest roundup of spiritual books from the pages of the chicago tribune.

Mary Oliver’s ‘Devotions’ offers snapshot of a half-century of work

By Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

“Devotions” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 480 pages, $30

For more than half a century, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has been training her eye on the mysterious and mystical thrumming of the divine. She sets out on a hike through the woods and suddenly she is asking questions, posing possibilities that hover at the liminal edge of the sacred.

“Why do people keep asking to see / God’s identity papers / when the darkness opening into morning / is more than enough?” she asks in the first poem found in her new book, “Devotions,” which draws from 26 collections published during the past half-century. It’s as if the poet herself has sidled beside the reader and pointed us to the poems she considers most worthy of deep consideration.

It’s Oliver’s most profound gift, perhaps, that she — like so many of the most soul-rippling poets — comes at her subjects from oblique angles. Her work catches us unsuspecting. For instance: “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that. And anyway / what’s wrong with Maybe?”

“Holy Rover” by Lori Erickson, Fortress, 256 pages, $24.99

It’s not every day that a travelogue comes rolling along on the spiritual book cart, and this one in every way is worth a literary expedition. For starters, the author of “Holy Rover” is a first-rate storyteller and a longtime travel writer. After decades writing for mainstream slicks — National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful — Erickson here turns her sights on spiritual pilgrimages and holy meccas around the world. She is at turns irreverent and devout. She spins a fine yarn and weaves in a mighty dose of insight along the way.

In a world tour of religions that carries the reader from the trail of elves in Iceland to Hildegard of Bingen’s abbey along the Rhine in Germany — with stops in Thomas Merton’s Kentucky and at Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond — Erickson both explains and enlightens. And her explication — never settling for an off-the-shelf recounting or humdrum heard-it-all-before — digs deep, shining light on little-known nooks and crannies of the religion world’s most uncanny characters and sacred landscapes.

With every stop on the “Holy Rover” tour, the armchair spiritualist stumbles into something new to learn.

“Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart” by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, Hampton Roads, 240 pages, $16.95

In history’s short list of spiritual supernovas, Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic and theologian, surely must be counted. He was a genius, a prophet far ahead of his time. Yet, in no small measure because of the complexity of his thinking and the tradition of theological discourse to which he belonged, his work is not an easy read. His sublime vision of the divine dwelling within each of us has escaped all but the most ardent of students.

But just as soul-sweeping as ecstatic Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, Eckhart, with “his way of piercing straight to the heart of the inner life, the awakened spark,” as Thomas Merton once put it, belongs in certain reach.

And so, “Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul,” a collection of poems drawn directly from or inspired by Eckhart’s prose, is a welcome addition to the spiritual library, as it offers a deeply textured invitation into the mystic’s heart. It is the culmination of decadeslong study of Eckhart by the two authors, Jon Sweeney, a scholar, editor and critic, and Mark Burrows, a poet and professor of medieval theology in Germany.

Each poem is short, spare, distilled. And each one is footnoted, so the reader might begin in enchantment, then trace the poetry to its source. A sure-footed path toward mastering one of the great masters of the last millennia.

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

i’ll be back next week, with a post-thanksgiving litany of gratitudes. for now, may your day of feasting, and all the kitchen magic that precedes it, be filled with grace and deliciousness. 

and happy blessed birthday to my sweet, sweet mama! much love, always…xoxox

and one deeply sad and poignant note. a few weeks ago, in one of the most blessed moments of the book escapades of Motherprayer, i tumbled into the story of a glorious mama who, amid a hushed crowd in a sacred space, told her roots-and-wing story, how roots came so easily to her, the mother of one, but wings, she discovered, she was “not so good at.” giving wings to her girl, her beautiful magnificent brave girl, that wasn’t so easy. letting go, it seemed, went deeply against her grain. so the mama, intent on finding a way to do that very hard wing-giving thing, sat down in the dark one night — under the lights of a football stadium, no less — and needlepointed a pair of wings for her daughter, for when she’d some day need them. the mama’s name, though i didn’t write it when i wrote the post, love letter at the end of a chapter, was bonnie. bonnie died on november 3, less than a month after the night she tumbled forever into my heart, her story — and the triumphant way she told it, a booming voice bellowing forth from the most delicate soul i’d seen in a very long time — forever etched in my heart. bonnie’s beautiful magnificent daughter now finds that she’s the one holding the wings, and indeed, as she knew it would be, it’s harder than hard — it’s unbearable almost — to be without her mama. this weekend those who loved bonnie are gathering in a glittering downtown high-rise to tell love stories, to put wings to the spirit of bonnie. if you’ve a blessing to spare, please send one up for bonnie, a beautiful well-winged friend. and one for her very brave daughter. thank you. xoxox 

and one more thing about bonnie, who loved being a mother, maybe more than anything she had ever done. the day before she died, she said this: “what is important is to love.” and then she added: “you can only do it one person at a time.” 

i only met her once, but the force of her love was among the mightiest i’ve ever encountered. thank you and bless you, dear bonnie.

what might be your most lasting instruction?

putting a season to bed…

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for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

the sharp edge of vulnerability: a hard look at love

OR waiting room

once those double doors swing open, and the last thing you see is the back of the head of the someone you love, flat on a surgical cart, a bag of clear fluids flowing into a tube into a vein in the arm you’ve held a thousand thousand times, it’s impossible not to feel your knees go a little bit weak. as if the wind has just been whooshed out of them.

so it happened this week. when someone i love, someone i will always love and have loved for more than half of my life, was wheeled off to a surgery that would take less than an hour — though time barely enters the equation when love and goodbye and surgical blades are stirred in the mix.

you surrender. submit to the forces of medicine. pray the surgeon had a good night’s sleep, and a sturdy bowl of oatmeal besides. but mostly, i was washed over in a sense of how precious is every last filament and fiber that is the substance of that someone whose voice, whose story, whose dreams and heartaches i know by heart. i was washed over in knowing i would stand in the way of anything — any thing — that stood to hurt that sweet blessed soul. i found myself picturing him as a young child, how tenderly i would have cared for him, long before knowing he’d become the man to whom i’d wed my life. i leapt forward through time, pictured the thousand frames of moments as he and i have carved this long path that is ours now. pictured the hard choices we’ve made. the moments we’ve wept in pure joy. the hours when silence marked the hard negotiation of the heart and the soul, when humility and a willingness to soften might have been the only thing that saved us, allowed us to move forward again, the pas de deux of a promise made, and promise kept, over and over.

surgery does that. the sharp edge of the scalpel soon to be put to this person you love. waiting rooms too. you sit, fueled on old coffee and cable TV, absorbing snippets of anguish and blessed relief all around you. “fatty growth, totally benign,” you hear from two seats away. the surgeon pulling off his blue paper surgical cap, the son — or the husband, or merely a very close friend; biographies are absent here and don’t much matter, not really — collapsing into the not-so-plush back of his chair. “we’re worried,” someone else whispers, loudly enough that you all but nod in unison, a whole chorus of we’re-worried communion. and when at last you get your own good news, the news that it’s over and all is well, a woman with a wrinkled face and tight-curled hair, hollers across the room, “hallelujah!” she beams, rejoicing right with you. then, as you stand up to unlock your knees, grab your coat and your cold coffee, she closes the moment with this benediction, “have a blessed rest of your day.” and so you stop to kneel down beside her. to echo her prayer in your very own whisper.

love is the thing that saturates every cell of who you are, especially when long cold corridors and locked double doors stand between you and the someone you love. you think hard about the fragile hold you have on this thing called your life. you begin to scan the hours, consider how deeply you take it for granted that morning will come, sheets will be thrown back and the rhythms of day after day will begin all over again.

the sharp edge of love is worth pausing to consider. just yesterday, as i was turning pages in a book, i came across this one declarative sentence: “what she did best was love people.” it prompted me to ask, without pause, in our one simple life is it enough to love and love well?

candlelight dinneri thought of that question the whole rest of the day — as i put drops in the eye of the someone i love. as we turned out the lights, and kindled the wicks when dinnertime came, because lights were too bright, lights made it hurt. i thought of that question as i tucked him under the covers, slow-cooked a fine dinner, and snipped and gathered red-berried stems into the old cracked pitcher on the kitchen table. because yesterday i was reminded sharply and in no uncertain terms what a treasure it is to love someone your whole life long, and to love that someone as well as you possibly can.

what does it mean to you to love well? and how did you learn?

take to the woods

take to the woods

i’m starting to think that maybe the woods are where i belong. maybe all this noise is begging retreat. maybe it’s time to craft my storybook hut in the woods, the one i’d always dreamed of, night after night, when i was a girl with the patchwork quilt pulled up to my nose, when i stared beyond my swiss lace curtains into the limbs that all but scratched at my windows.

maybe it’s time to turn off the news, the constant drip of a poison that’s starting — no, that’s taken it’s toll. it gets harder by the day to shirk off the ugly talk, to shove away the stories of fights erupting from school hallways to the chambers of congress.

maybe this is why God invented quiet places, places where we could slip away, ponder the beautiful. pay more attention to a leaf curled and fallen. sit and stare at a patch of golden light, dappled and quivering across a mossy log.

or maybe we just have to stay right where we are. love harder. exercise radical kindness. be as gentle as we can possibly be.

i’m running out of ideas — and maybe some measure of hope — and the sphere of my loving seems to be turning closer and closer to home. if i can love one someone up the steep incline. if i can soften one morning, let alone a whole day. if i can just keep stitching hour after hour with words and with something that’s pure, something that begs and receives my whole heart…

will that carry me — carry us — across the desolate landscape?

blessedly, my work doesn’t wait for the world to right itself. my work stares at me, day after day, from the blank screen awaiting digital scratch marks. i’m wrapping myself in a litany of stories, reading my way into knowledge. i’m drawn for reasons beyond me into the world of blessing — celtic blessing, jewish blessing, the blessing of a thousand traditions. i’m not sure why (though i surely could hazard a guess). the deeper i read, the more wholly i contemplate those things that bring balm to the soul.

here’s a line worth considering, from rachel naomi remen’s “my grandfather’s blessings: stories of strength, refuge, and belonging”:

“…a prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another. God may not need our attention as badly as the person next to us on the bus or behind us on line in the supermarket. everyone in the world matters, and so do their blessings. when we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.” 

i am wrapping myself in stories and thoughts and words of pure blessing. it’s the safest, softest place i know.

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and before i go, a roundup of books for the soul — from Oct. 2 — that i’ve not yet remembered to plonk here at the table (this, i believe is the unedited version). each one is a feast. and may you be blessed. 

‘The Happiness Prayer’ by Evan Moffic reviewed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany, for the Chicago Tribune

The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today
By Evan Moffic, Center Street, 208 pages, $25

The title of Evan Moffic’s newest and richest book (this is his fifth) might have you thinking this is some short-course to that elusive human condition, happiness. You might mistake it for an E-Z three-step program. Follow the prescription and simple joys will envelop you.

No such thing.

Truth is, the wisdom packed into “The Happiness Prayer” could last you a lifetime. Certainly another few millennia.

Moffic begins with an ancient prayer, the Eilu Devarim, literally “these are the words…,” an enumeration of 10 commands meant to be recited every morning as the foundations of sacred living (honor those who gave you life; be kind; keep learning; invite others into your life; be there when others need you; celebrate good times; support yourself and others during times of loss; pray with intention; forgive; look inside and commit).

In the richest rabbinic tradition, Moffic — who went to Stanford University to study history on his way to law school, but wound up in rabbinic school and has since been called one of the great minds of an up-and-coming generation of American Jewish thinkers — enfolds each wisdom with story upon story, drawing from Hebrew text and Torah, from centuries-old parables and modern-day research.

His elucidation is profound, and his stories, beyond charming. But what makes this a priceless work is that Moffic, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, draws deeply from his pastoral role in the trenches of life at its most vulnerable — it’s messy, it’s wrenching, and sometimes it’s simply beautiful. His words — after eight years as Solel’s senior rabbi, and another three at a downtown congregation — ring with authenticity. This is not pie-in-the-sky prescriptive. Page after page, Moffic is the rabbi we’d love to call our own — wise and kind, humble and good beyond words.

He makes us ache to reach for a sacred happiness that comes from living true and well, and making room in our everyday for “the fingerprints of God.”

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems 
Edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, Grayson Books, 248 pages, $21.99

The power of poetry, often, is its capacity to sneak up from behind and pry open the heart. Or the soul. It’s in that unanticipated moment when the truth of the poem rushes in, and packs its indelible wallop. That’s when a poem, for some of us, becomes a prayer.

“Poetry of Presence,” an anthology that serves as a gathering space for many of the most soulful poets of now and long ago, is a collection of mindfulness best taken one page at a time. Each poem holds enough wisdom, enlightenment, concentrated attention to linger for days. As with the richest anthologies, the editors here (Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson) have done the hard work of gathering the poets and poems that deserve to be read and read often.

From Margaret Atwood to Billy Collins, Kathleen Norris to Alice Walker, the poets found here belong in permanent collections of any bookshelf that leans into soul-tingling awareness. These are poems to stir the soul of those not inclined toward straight-on religion, who prefer to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson might put it.

“These poems remind us to live ‘undefended,’” writes Father Richard Rohr, the great modern-day spiritualist, author, and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. “To stand deliberately and consciously as witnesses of the present moment. To gaze upon existence from the place of Divine Intimacy. To reach out from that place to those who suffer. Living this way takes lots of practice.” And this anthology, Rohr counsels, would be a wise companion.

The Blue Songbird
By Vern Kousky, Running Press, 40 pages, $16.99

The soul of the child is so porous, so unfettered with a lifetime’s layers of scarring, the way in is often so spare — clean lines of a drawing, a few words scattered across the page. So it is with “The Blue Songbird,” a children’s picture book whose message is blessed for young or old: finding your voice, your own sweet song in a world of noise, sometimes demands coming home to yourself.

It’s a parable, unfurled with a Japanese sense of aesthetic, in washed-out watercolors and swooping lines and tall stacks of type, one that tells the tale of a little songbird who awakes to the songs of her siblings but “could never sing like they could sing.” When the little bird cries to her mama, the wise mama bird instructs her — in the ways of all prophets — “You must go and find a special song that only you can sing.”

Of course, this is the set up for a totemic tour in search of Truth, all in the guise of bird-to-bird exchanges. Crane and owl, penguin and crow, point little bird closer and closer to what she’s searching to find. When she finds she’s merely circled the globe, and come home to her nest, she’s crestfallen. But when she opens her mouth? Song pours forth.

Parables are at the heart of ancient spiritual text, the story form from which divine instruction is drawn. Vern Kousky, the author of this sweet tale, makes his message quite clear: Search far and wide, but don’t be surprised when you find your own song deep within. The distance to self-discovery is one not measured in miles, but rather in depths. And once divined, the question, as poet Mary Oliver once asked, is this: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And with the song that is yours alone?

chair question, for anyone who’s scrolled down to here: what, oh what, is balm for your soul? 

when roots are called for, the big red pot comes through

big red pot

i’m in-between and somewhat out-of-sorts. i’m not certain we could riffle through a diagnostic manual and find it written just that way, the malady. and maybe it’s not a malady, just simply stating fact. maybe it’s merely the lull in human undulation, the dip between the rises.

and, truth is, it’s not so bad — the in-between part, anyway. the in-between part is liberation, defined. a long line of assignments is behind me, and i’m in the fertile ground where new ideas begin to rumble in the distance. for months now, i’ve been applying fingers to keyboard day after day after day. so this week, without so much as a whistle being blown, i seem to have declared it deep-breathing time. i found myself roaming anywhere except the keyboard. i found myself clipping shriveled vines in the garden, plucking last-gasp bouquets and tucking them — one last time — in the old milk pitchers that duly serve to hold their pirouettes. i found myself reaching for the big red pot. and all the roots — the parsnip, carrot, turnip — that are ours with one swift tug on their leafy tops.

i seemed to be swirling in whole body immersions. in tactile acts that drew me close to earth, and thus infused with heaven’s fumes.

i needed rootedness this week. and my big red pot came through. it’s there, thick-walled and heavy enough to shatter toes. to yank it from the cupboard is no small feat, one that usually calls for rearrangement of the entire teetering tower of lids and bottoms. but once planted atop my old crotchety cookstove — the one whose burners must take turns deciding who will burn today, and who will sit it out — the rearrangement is all worth it. that pot all but begs to put me back together. it sits wide-mouthed and waiting. all it asks is that i get to work: peel away the earth-stained skins of all those roots, chop them into chunks, toss with abandon. all whirled in olive-oil glisten. all softened, surrendered, through minutes on the flame.

i made a root stew this week because i needed roots. i simmered it all day, with a pinch of this, a cup of that. it was alchemy, all right. the sort that heals me every time. i set out to root the ones i love, the ones whose week wearies them. but all day long it was me who inhaled the essence of autumn, of doors closed, and furnace rumbling once again. chamomile

as long as i was ambling down the road to roots, i clipped a fat fistful of chamomile, the very essence of becalmed. i set the table, put out fork and knife and napkin. i awaited the return of those i love, the ones who’d shuffle down the walk long after dusk, and into night. there is something sacred about keeping watch for comings home.

there is something sacred about immersing yourself in the offerings of earth: in roots and fat fistfuls of bloom.

sometimes the shortest route to blessing is setting out to bless the ones we love. along the way, we find the sacred tapping us in our translucent parts, the ones where our heartbeat all but shows.

the susurrations of the sacred catch me every time.

and may they catch you, too. how do you carve your path to groundedness, what’s your certain route to simple daily blessing?

p.s. my out-of-sorts-ness is simply being ground down day after day by the national vitriol. it’s a toxic drip, and it’s rubbed me raw. it reminds me of being a kid keeping watch on the schoolyard bully, tempted to plant my hands firmly on my hipbones and let rip a mighty spew! (stay tuned….)

healing instinct

healing instinct

the steam tent: steaming hot water + peppermint essential oil + not-so-raggedy towel = deep breathe

if you listen to the news, and i do, if you read the news, and i do, it is hard not feel this old globe is a raw wound right now, gashed with despair, pocked with pure evil.

i am haunted, especially, by a story i read of the atrocities that rained down on rohingya women and mothers and children. babies ripped from their mothers’ arms. babies tossed into infernos. worse and worse and worse. i can barely stand to spread the poison. (it’s here, from yesterday’s new york times, written by jeffrey gettleman, a kid from the town next door, who grew up to win the pulitzer prize for international reporting.)

i am haunted too by the ghostly images coming from northern california. charred silhouettes. hillsides exposed, stubbled with blackened bits of tree trunk and fence post, as if the unshaven cheek of a long-ago miner. sunsets occluded by smoky skies, skies dirty with soot — sometimes even a hundred miles away from unstoppable fires.

and all of this on top of las vegas’ carnage, and puerto rico and houston and the virgin islands and harvey and irma and jose and maria. no wonder we weep and our knees buckle under.

no wonder this week when my sweet boy awoke in the night burning with fever, my healing instincts, which must have been idling just off in the wings — coiled and ready to pounce — surged into action. pressing cool wet washcloths to his forehead, stirring oatmeal, pouring ginger ale over cracked ice, those were the balms i reached for. to heal him, to heal me, to try — somehow, by some far-flung mystical property — to infuse a drop of healing into this sorry sad world.

it’s what we do, it’s all we can do, when we’re feeling the gaping gasp of despair. when the troubles all around pile so high we can barely turn toward the light. some days, we’re certain the lights have been snuffed. flat-out extinguished.

maybe that’s why some of us are drawn into lives as healers, as nurses and doctors and teachers and mothers (to name but a few). maybe we’re all part of some infinite river of hope, the last wall of defense against a world that might otherwise crumble. a world that could go mad, break out in epidemics of hate.

i’m beginning to think i am typing some dystopian trope here. but you know i won’t leave you in the valley of darkness. what i’m looking for is the answer to what can we do? here, under this one dot of roof, surrounded by leafy environs, how in the world can measly old me make a difference? how hard can i pray? how kind must i be? what in the world might i do to begin to teeter the balance back toward the good?

they’re questions, sadly, for which i don’t have an answer. all i have is the deep down sense that the worse it gets, the harder i need to apply the forces of good, of light, of pure unfiltered blessing.

it’s what propelled me to consider the instinct that drove me to crank the flame under the tea kettle, to listen for the whistle, and gather up the mixing bowl, the utility towel, and the essential peppermint oil.

it was the healing-est move of the week: to concoct a steam tent, and fill it — literally — with healing vapors. to instruct my boy to breathe deep and then deeper. to purify, cleanse, and clear out the gunk.

over the course of the last few days, he’s taken a liking to this peppermint whirl, the one that gets him breathing again.

maybe we all need a steam tent. maybe we need to breathe deep. to inhale. to fill our lungs and our souls with tincture of hope. of healing.

i’m cranking the flame under the kettle.

how are you plying your healing? what are you doing to teeter the balance toward goodness, toward wholeness, toward hope?

and here’s our steam tent recipe, taught by our beloved german exchange student, who had a bad cold this summer: get a big mixing bowl. boil water. pour into bowl. add a few drops of peppermint essential oil (as many as you can tolerate, anywhere from two to three to seven or more). drape a big towel over your head. breathe deep. have box of tissue at the ready. feel better. so much better. xoxo

love letter at the end of a chapter

little angel wings

it’s pitch black as i sit here at the old maple table. the softest ping-ping-ping syncopates the ticking toward dawn. it’s the sound of rain dripping from the downspout, a sound we’d nearly forgotten, the long parched days washing out the memory, the garden all but shriveled, each leaf clasped, as if in prayer, awaiting benediction from the heavens in the form of holy blessed rain. it’s the ablution this old world needs, the rinsing away, we can only hope, of all our brokenness and sin. the sin of evil, a dust that’s blown in, caked every surface in fine-grained sediment. we might need a long day’s rain, to rinse us, cleanse us, clear away that which dirties this old and broken world.

but this morning brings with it a swelling-up of love, of gratitude. and that, for me, is the lasting ablution, time after time. i woke up early because last night i came to the close of a months-long chapter, a chapter of being out and about with my little book, motherprayer, the one that gathers up quiet little moments from the landscape of mothering, the one that whispers in no uncertain terms: this is holy work, this mothering. this just might be my life’s deepest calling, this curriculum in loving, sacred instruction like no other i have ever lived and breathed or known.

for months now, i’ve done what writers do when they birth a book to the world. they carry it forth, literally. they amble hither and yon, and say a few things about why in the world they sat down to write those words. it scares me every time. scares me something fierce. but then a holy thing begins to happen: people raise their hands, tell their stories. or come up to me, clasp my arm, my hand, and whisper stories, their stories. or send me notes, ones that break me out in goosebumps or find me wiping away yet another tear. 

last night i came to the end of the last such outing on my calendar, the last one for awhile anyway. and like every other outing that preceded it, it was stitched with moments and stories i’ll not forget. this love letter — a thank you, really — is for each and every someone who’s raised her hand, whispered her story, who’s added verse and stanza to the motherpoem that will not end….

dear you who raised your hand, you who told your story, you who never said a word but brushed away tear after tear,

thank you. i’ll never forget you. i’ll never forget your story.

the one about how you were one of nine, and you’d all but gotten lost in the noise of your old house, so you wandered down the lane, found motherlove in the old lady who lived alone, but who always made time for you. the one (your “other mother,” you called her) who asked what you wanted for dinner, a question you’d never realized existed, a question you’d never before been asked in the house where you were growing up. the one, the other mother, who taught you love in the way she sat across from you, looked you in the eyes, listened to your words. the one whose house you would have stayed at night and day, and sometimes did, because sometimes no one noticed you were missing from your own.

or, just last night, you with your blessed story about how you had only one child, and you were older when she was born, so surprised, really, to find yourself a mother so late in the game. you knew, you said, that roots and wings were what was asked of you. your job, a mother’s job, you said, was roots and wings. and then you said, so unforgettably, how you were really good at roots, really good. but wings, not so much. you struggled with the wings, you said. you struggled so with letting go. you struggled the whole first year she was away at college. and then, her sophomore year, when she regaled you with college stories, you realized, “she’s never coming home.” and so, you said, under cloak of nightfall, sitting in a football stadium, you needlepointed a pair of wings. you sent them off to her, your beautiful daughter (the one who sat beside you, held your arm as you spoke last night, just home from the cancer doctor). you said she called you “in hysterics.” (we think you meant that she was laughing.) what in the world was with the wings, your daughter asked. you said she wondered if maybe you were telling her it was time for her to fly away. you told her, though, that they were wings for you, the mother who was having a hard time coming up with the requisite pair. and she, your daughter, was to hold onto them so that when she flew (not if), she could give them to you, because you were having a really hard time with the wings part of the mama equation, you were the one who’d need help with all this letting go. and your daughter, who is breathtakingly alive and beautiful, she piped in to tell all of us crowded in the room that all these years later, 38 years later, she had those needlepointed wings hanging in her closet, so each morning when she got dressed, she’d remember that her mama gave her wings.

or the stories you’ve whispered to me about grandbabies who nearly died, who at the brink of death got a liver transplant from a baby two beds away in the pediatric ICU, and how you’ve watched your daughter’s motherlove as she stood guard, stood watch, loved beyond measure. or the stories about kids at college who got so sick, so scared, so you name it, you leapt on planes and stayed for days or weeks or months, depending on the reason you leapt in the first place.

or you, the woman who months ago raised your hand to tell me that just that afternoon you’d lamented to your grown and beautiful daughter that you regretted that you’d “never done anything important with [your] life.” and that after listening to all of us talking about motherlove and motherprayer, you’d started to think that maybe, just maybe, you had done something important with your life, mothering those two lovely daughters who were now, in kind, mothering good and gentle children of their own.

bless you.

and i’ll never forget the very first mama who reported back that she was reading motherprayer and — an answer to my prayer — she’d filled the end pages with scribbles all her own, as story after story uncorked for her some tale from her own raising of three boys, stories she’d all but forgotten, but now recalled and recorded vividly.

i know i don’t know all your stories, but i do know you have them, tucked away in your heart. i know that every room i’ve been in these last many months has been brimming with stories, told and untold. there is not a motherer among us who is not a profile in courage, who is not an encyclopedia of loving. it all comes with the job. the holiest job that’s ever landed in my lap, my arms, my heart, my whole.

may motherGod anoint you, bless you, and whisper holy words into your heart: you are living breathing blessing, you motherers of the world. however and wherever and to whomever you ply your love, you are putting flesh and sinew to the gospel. love as you would be loved.

and thank you.

love, bam

i mean it, of course. as trembling as i get before i clutch a podium — as if holding on for dear life — it always erupts in blessing. i open my heart each time i write, and thus i’m endlessly showered in the reciprocal opening of others’ hearts. and i am blessed beyond words. if you’ve not had a chance to raise your hand and tell your own story of motherlove, from any angle, feel free to tell it here. it’s why this old table has so many chairs. we always find room for one more story. who taught you motherlove? what are some of the most powerful lessons you learned, and how? what are the moments when you’ve found it easiest to love beyond the point of exhaustion? and the most challenging? who inspires you? how do you refuel? have you ever considered the motherly capacities of the Divine?

inscribe this on your heart…

go_general-800x430

“I‘ve said it before: the area of dignity and respect is my red line. Let me be clear, it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions.” Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, superintendent US Air Force Academy

it’s not too often these days that we hear, loud and clear, the voice of moral conviction. there is so much noise and distraction, a soul like me might get drawn into the deep and unending quiet of the golden-dappled woods. or behind the thick-stone walls of the monastery, where the drone of the outside world can’t drown out the whisper of the One who pries open the doors of our heart.

we need to hear what it sounds like when one sharply-chiseled soul digs down deep and puts a megaphone to moral courage, to standing up and elucidating in no uncertain words what it means to walk the narrow path of decency. no wobbles allowed. no excuses, period.

there is so much garbage spewed these days — so much back and forth and swirling vitriol — it makes me want to give up some days. to crawl into my hole and stay there.

but then, along marches a rare one, and the words i hear are so clear and so fine-hewn in stone, i sit up and notice. i feel the goosebumps rise up. i feel a wafting cloud of relief rise up from my long-slumped shoulders.

oh, yes, this is what moral courage sounds like. this is conviction spewed forth on human breath, i hear myself thinking, the thoughts practically rising to murmurs as i can barely contain the words.

we are long overdue — amid a moral drought, you might say — nearly forgotten, the sound of true and unmuddled moral conviction.

here’s what happened: five cadets at the US Air Force Academy in colorado springs woke up to the words “go home, [racial epithet],” scrawled on the message boards outside their rooms. the superintendent of the academy, a lieutenant general named silveria, wasted no time, drew a sharp red line in the landscape of human decency. he convened an all-campus assembly, 4,000 students, the entire faculty and staff. he stepped to the podium and launched straight in.

have a listen: lt. gen. jay silveria’s unforgettable five-minute red-line moral-clarity speech. 

and here’s some of what he said:

“So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,” Silveria repeated.

and then the lieutenant general turned on his heels, and left everyone in the cavernous hall — and the country beyond — to stop and think and let that truth sink in. and to remember what it sounds like when a leader is chiseled from the raw stuff of courage and conviction and moral clarity.

i for one am deeply grateful. i for one am so relieved to finally hear someone with the guts to get up and tell it bold and straight and clear, according to the ancient code of decency, the one we should all know and live by heart. every last one of us.

who has been the voice of moral courage in your world this week?

by the time i post this, you might have seen this all over the modern-day public square that is social media, but i am less and less often in that melee these days, having crept toward the quiet of the dappled woods. apologies if this is a repeat for anyone. it’s truly worth a deep sinking in. may your week — and your atoning tonight and tomorrow — be blessed.

“hope is the last thing to die…”

earthquake

some mornings, the news will pummel you. the convulsing state of the world — earthquake, hurricane upon hurricane, hydrogen bomb — it will pummel you.

but then, a voice squawks through the little box tucked hard by the knives on the kitchen counter. it’s a voice coming from thousands of miles away. and, suddenly, it’s as if someone’s tucked a plastic cannula of oxygen straight up your nose. you breathe again. because you just heard the words:

“hope is the last thing to die….”

the words come amid a story seething with hope. a story from the epicenter of mexico city’s rubble, a story that reminds you — emphatically reminds you — that absent all the bureaucracies and hypocrisies and deceptions of politics and government, the human spirit writhes toward goodness. toward reaching out. stranger to stranger; it doesn’t matter. listen to the cries of a child oozing out from under the rubble, and human chains of hope link arms and start digging. hundred pound blocks of concrete, rodded with rebar — watch the woman with matchstick arms hoist it.

with more than 35 buildings pancaked into piles of death and destruction in the mexican capital alone, armies of volunteers arrived. computer analysts, lawyers, an otherwise motley crew of men who grew up playing sandlot football, american football, and put out the call across now-scattered lives to come running — all untrained in the arts and science of hoisting thousands-pound rubble, crawling through slivers of air space, reaching for limbs or the fading breaths of a voice.

“no one is 100-percent prepared for a situation like this,” a lawyer tells the story’s reporter, “but what’s important is that people have come together and haven’t left those who are suffering alone.”

a four-foot-eight woman, known as a “mole,” because she’s been trained to crawl into rubble, searching for bodies, living or dead, adds this: “we mexicans are known for our big hearts, our hard work, and most of all our solidarity.”

those are the words that made me start breathing again. those are the words that reminded me…

human beings are hardwired to rise up against suffering — in the aggregate, yes, but more dramatically, emphatically, in the immediate. in the visceral. in the i’m-looking-into-your-eyes-and-i-see-the-suffering, the anguish.

and that’s the scene unfolding in mexico city right now, where armies of untrained diggers — and water bearers and bandage wrappers and megaphone holders and rubble removers — are showing up and holding the line — holding the line against despair. refusing to leave till the last ember of hope fades into darkness.

and that’s the scene in dominica, one of the pummeled and flooded and left-without-an-electrical-grid caribbean islands. and that’s been the scene this summer in houston and the florida keys and jacksonville and puerto rico and on and on and on where good folk — plain folk, probably even a few ornery folk who haven’t had the chance to shine in a very long time — they all showed up, rolled up their sleeves, slid into thigh-high rubber boots, and showed what the human heart is capable of.

i’ve read story after story of folks who might otherwise barely have grunted as they passed each other on a sidewalk, or raced from driveways into glitzy houses, suddenly trying on superhero capes — barbecuing for a whole neighborhood, turning a washing machine into the community laundry, forming a human chain so a woman in labor could make it through waist-high water from curb to dump truck to get to the hospital to deliver her baby.

the big picture — the rampant bad news — could flatten any one of us, squeeze the last gasp of air out of our lungs. but it’s the tiny droplets, the pixels of deep and undying humanity, that just might put hope to our wings.

in my book, that’s where God moves. in the flesh-to-flesh, hand-to-hand, breath-to-breath bridge of we won’t let you suffer alone. and we’ll hold on — we’ll hold onto hope — for as long as it takes, no matter the impossible odds.

i’m asking today for a litany of whatever fine tales you’ve collected, heard or seen with your very own eyes and ears — stories of blessed beautiful humanity rising up above flood water, hurricane wind, or earth tremoring under our feet. because to know those stories is to believe, is to dig deep into our sorry shaken selves and try to muster the same indomitable life-saving spirit. 

and a blessed new year to all as we wrap ourselves in these holy radiant days of deep awe….

those few radiant threads…

it was a whirling dervish of a week. a week that pulled me this way and that. that drew me far from home, for long stretches at a time. and when the ground beneath me slip-slides, when the air around me begins to thin, and i find myself dizzy from the pace, the worry, i find myself reaching for holy mooring.

holy mooring to me looks like this:autumnclematis

or this: hydrangeayellowandwhite

i reach out and cup my palms around the beauty and the blessing, try to hold it there for just a moment. drink it in. let it sink into my pores. behold would be the verb.

more often than not this week, i found my mooring not in grand sweeps of majesties but in the tiniest radiant stitches, in unnoticed, barely whispered acts of loving. when my heart’s aquiver, i find it musters muscle when it’s called beyond its own walls. when it reaches out to shove away the jostle that stumbles the ones i love. especially the one i will secretly, always, call “my little one.”

his week this week made his shoulders slump — under the weight of a backpack that must weigh 50 pounds, and another one filled with soccer cleats and stinky goalie gloves, the one he left at home by accident, necessitating an indy-500 dash from the school door back to the roost, lest soccer coaches scowl.

i found myself soothed — oddly — in the moments when i was buckling my seat belt, jangling the keys into the ignition slot. when i was waiting for him to lope out the door and down the brick walk, juggling backpacks and the red plate that held his breakfast. i found myself soothed knowing that for the next maybe seven minutes he and i would be ensconced in the metal cocoon we call our old red wagon. the easy flow of words, of question and comment, might be our longest, deepest anchor in a day of rushing. i found myself soothed rinsing clumps of grapes, slicing chunks of cheese, laying out an afternoon’s snack on the rare day he had no soccer practice, but was due back at school for an evening assignment, one that once again would shove dinnertime nearly out the door.

maybe it’s transference — in missing his faraway brother, in knowing i’m no longer an actor in his brother’s everyday, i’m inserting myself in the only one whose day i can tangibly effect. maybe it’s anticipatory grief — a visceral knowing that his years at home are drawing toward a close (this week the high school convened a parents’ meeting to begin the college conversation for the flock of brand-new juniors), and with it this stint of mothering that has been my holy salvation, and i can’t bear for it to end. and so i indulge and relish every drop — folding the sweatshirts i find clumped on the closet floor, plucking favorite things off grocery store shelves, tucking love notes under pillows.

amid the whirl and pull of another overloaded week, holiness seeped in. oozed in through the cracks and crevices of the hours — in basking in the diluting rays of autumn sun. in wandering a meadow, beholding dappled golden light in woods just beginning to ignite into autumn’s fiery colors. in loving, always loving, the one sure mooring that will not, cannot, be submerged.

it is, as it always is, the tiniest radiant stitches that keep me whole, that keep me from fraying into tatters.

what keeps you whole? what were the radiant stitches of your week?

all the loveliness above (the pictures, i mean) comes from tumbledown farm, a magical landscape of barn and silo, chicken coop and pasture, where i got to amble this week, teaching an all-day writing and slowing time workshop. i’m still too shy to ever broadcast these adventures ahead of time, but i’m working on it. and one of these days i might boldly put out the word in time for anyone who’s interested to sign up. and yesterday — all day and into the night — i was leading a “spiritual spa day” for a host of magnificent women at an old and beautiful convent in chicago. september seems to have come on with a cymbal clang.