across the years, i’ve been swept into the river of an ancient time. i wear it, almost, like a prayer shawl. wrap myself in its silken threads. inhale the sweet spice rising up from earth’s release, as summer breathes its final breaths and autumn rushes in.
it’s in the morning air, the chill that makes me pull the covers tight round my shoulders; it’s in the thin bronze light that casts its amber shadow, long across the floorboards. it’s in the withering of the garden, the last green tomato clinging, holding on for just another ray of sunlight. will it turn before the freeze?
all around, you can feel the shuddering of season folding into season, of the turning of the prayer book page.
when the new moon, in its indigo darkness, rises tonight, a holy people — the blessed jews — all around the globe will spark the first flames of the new year’s light in the kindling of the rosh hashanah candles. i will strike the match at this old house. and only two of us will bless the light, the wine, the spiraled raisin-studded challah.
we need the new year prayers more than ever, this gasping year. the burned-out brokenness is everywhere, the globe (or vast acres of it anyway) is shrouded in ashes, a more fitting metaphor it’s hard to imagine.
hope though comes in prayer — and, spine-tingly, in the science that tells us there are forest pines whose seeds can only burst new life when exposed to flame. may our prayers be those forest seeds.
prayer, for me, has become something of a force field. we fire up our deep-down jet-pack of incantation; we might, some of us, fall to our knees (a posture sure to super-launch those prayers, to propel with oomph through all the turbulence along the way). we do our part, our lowly simple part. and we realize that the more of us who fire up our prayers, the more fiercely, more mightily we put forth our voices, we just might forge an opening in heaven’s door, and our petitions — our saying we are so so sorry for the state of things, our vow to spend our living, breathing hours in pursuit of all that’s good, that’s holy — might find the way to the heart of the God to whom we are praying. it’s a collective effort, really, an all-out, all-of-us campaign to light the light, to open up the spigot of holy goodness, to let it rain down on this parched and burned-out earth.
there’s an ancient teaching, taught by long-ago rabbis and mystics, that in the beginning the light God made was so blindingly bright, it burst out of its vessel, and the shards, the sparks, the bits of flame sifted down to all creation — not unlike the embers raining down in all the smoldering forests, maybe. and from that shattering of the vessel came the first and holiest instruction, the one to carry all of humankind from that day forward: seek the shards of light, look deep into the souls of each and every someone you meet, look into the morning’s dew and the constellations strewn across the heavens, look where you least expect to find the shard, and in those places where you can’t help but see it.
and when you find it, when you gather up the bits and shards, bring your light harvest to the table, where we will all lay down our gleanings, where we will stand back and marvel. in awe. in awe for what we’ve all done, all on our own and all together. in awe for all the light that’s here to be pulled from the shadows and the darkness. in awe of how luminous it might be.
awe is what these days are called — the holy days of awe — in the great and holy tradition that unfolds at the cusp of the jewish new year. from tonight’s setting of the sun and the rising of the new moon, clear through to ten days from now, on the day of atonement, we stand in awe. we marvel at the light, holy light, that’s mustered from all the cracks and broken places in this still-holy, ever-holy earth.
it’s how we heal the world, how we make it whole — tikkun olum — repair the broken shattered world. it’s God’s command. and we begin to sew it whole with our prayer, our harvest of the light, and our undying awe.
will you join the prayer collective, do your bit to scrounge up shards of light wherever you go today, and tomorrow, and every day after? will you bring your bits of light to the shared table, so we can all of us stitch together the whole cloth of incandescence this broken world so deeply desperately needs?
“over 2,000 years ago,” our rabbi began last night, “our people mourned the destruction of the temple.” the temple, of course, had been the place of worship, of prayer and sacrifice. it was the holy place of the jews. and in the year 70 of the common era, it was sacked by the romans. destroyed to dust and ashes.
but “our people” are resilient people. they are the people of the diaspora. they know what it is to wander, homeless, in the desert. to be strangers in a strange land. they know — deep in the marrow of their bones — the history of exile, the history of holocaust. of nations turning their backs on a holy people.
our rabbi went on: she taught that in the wake of mourning their holy temple’s loss, the rabbis of the time urged the people to build mikdash m’at — little sanctuaries — in their homes, to bring their prayers into where they lived and ate and drank and bathed and slept. and so, all these millennia later, when once again we have been banished — by an invisible virus — from our temples — and our churches, and our mosques, and all our holy shrines — my rabbi was urging us, on the cusp of the holy days of awe, to build mikdash m’at in our circa 2020 houses.
mikdash m’at From the Talmud, Megillah 29a: The verse states: “Yet I have been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they have come” (Ezekiel 11:16). Rabbi Yitzḥak said: This is referring to the synagogues and study halls in Babylonia. And Rabbi Elazar said: This is referring to the house of our master, i.e., Rav, in Babylonia, from which Torah issues forth to the entire world.
מְעַט (n-m) heb
littleness, few, a little, fewness
little, small, littleness, fewness, too little, yet a little
like a little, within a little, almost, just, hardly, shortly, little worth
i’d signed up for our synagogue’s workshop on creating a sanctuary in our homes for the high holidays because i am always up for carving out a sacred space. and i listened closely to the instruction: pick your prayer space, a place where you might feel elevated, outside the ordinary, at one with the sacred. a sanctuary, our rabbi explained, is a “space that’s holy or set apart.” she went on to define the ways we might fulfill God’s command, “make for me a sanctuary that I can dwell in.”
and so, once i’d sauntered back to the kitchen, as i was chopping eggplant and leaves of basil, dousing grilled peppers in balsamic glaze, i began to babble about this holy assignment. i recounted the instruction to the tall, bespectacled one with whom i share this creaky old house. i told him — in that way an eager student does — that we must pick a holy space. because, of course, the rabbi said so. and then i asked him where that might be. where would be our sanctuary for the holy days of awe? where might be the place where God — and we — could dwell?
and in that knowing way of his, in that quiet, certain, deeply-rooted-without-a-drop-of-drama-ever way of his, he lifted his finger toward the old maple kitchen table tucked in the corner, and he nodded. case closed.
there was no holier place in our house, of course, than the nearly century-old, hand-me-down maple table, the table etched with imprints of penmanship from ages-ago schoolwork, the table scrubbed bare in patches of whatever stain was long ago applied by some long-ago carpenter. the table where, since moving here almost 18 years ago, umpteen thousand prayers have been unspooled, night after night, morning after morning, midday after midday. countless stories — funny ones, hold-your-breath ones, rip-your-heart-out ones — have let rip here; tears, too. deliberations have been parsed here; life courses, corrected. midnight bowls of cereal have been gobbled down, and blazing birthday cakes presented on pedestals. books have been written here, and law school papers, too. we have mourned and rejoiced here. laughed and sometimes stormed away.
as poet laureate joy harjo so gloriously put it in her kitchen-table poem, “perhaps the world ends here,” “this table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.”
and it will be for us, in the unbroken days of awe ahead — the blessed new year, rosh hashanah, and the holiest of holy, the day of atonement, yom kippur — my bespectacled beloved and i will wrap ourselves in our prayer shawls and our prayers, we will lift ourselves out of the ordinary, and reach for the star-stitched heavens, we will hunker down at the years-worn, scruffed-up slab of old maple tree, and we will aim to dwell with the Almighty.
as it is commanded.
where would be your holy place, where would you build your little sanctuary, your mikdash m’at?
in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…
The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line.
The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year.
Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again?
The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly!
So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders?
I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves.
As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month.
The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.
Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection.
And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods.
The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed.
I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.
But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.
I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting.
Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….
so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…
and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…
*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:
December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.
December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?
December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.
*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):
The January Kitchen:
As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge.
Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon.
(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)
Elixir (Bread) Pudding
Cure-All Mac and Cheese
Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice
Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange
*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)
A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar
Fourteen Blessings for February
Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.
Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights.
Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.
Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.
hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.
questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?
and by bold i mean one something, anything, in the name of bending that stubborn arc of justice. by bold i mean do one certain something today — maybe even within the next hour — that you otherwise wouldn’t have mustered the will or energy or courage to do.
feeling the full weight of what we’re up against in this world that is not letting up in this long hot summer, so many mornings feeling knocked back, feeling impotent, frozen in the face of injustice, in the wake of sirens and spilling blood and streets chaotic, i turn — as i so often do — to the words of dorothy day, who in turn had leaned into the holy wisdom of therese of lisieux, the little saint who preached a spirituality of “the little way,” to mine her everlasting, every day truth:
From Therese, Dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured might ease the burden of others….We could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. It was all a matter of faith.
Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg
it’s a place, and a way to begin, for us little people, the ones of us who know full well the real battlefield that calls us every day is the one not too far from our front door, the quotidian one, the one whose players we might know well or not at all. the strangers within our reach. the ones who might be taken wholly by surprise by a sudden gust of kindness, out-of-nowhere kindness. the ones who might find courage a little bit contagious, who might pick up the pieces and pass it on.
once upon a time, stoked by pictures of starving children from biafra, fueled by the stories in time magazine i’d take to my room to read when no one was watching, i used to dream i’d cure world hunger. i imagined i could lope the globe, fill bellies, spoon unicef gruel into mouths open and hungry, like little birds.
it hurts plenty to shed those dreams, to watch them wither away, to realize you were pie in the almighty sky, and some crazy fool besides. what gets tough, gets real, is to station yourself squarely in the middle of your humdrum life, to look out across the landscape, and seek the moments where you might infuse your own cockeyed brand of dorothy day’s little kindness, little strength, little courage.
this bedraggled world needs every bold (but little) drop.
i plopped myself on the couch, there as the pink and the gold drained from the summer sky. as the burning bulbs of the night sky turned on, i stayed glued. i was drinking in a nectar i’d almost forgotten. almost gave up for lost.
i’m talking about hope, a balm and a necessary human ingredient, one missing in action these last many heartbreaking months.
hope, for me, came on strongest in moments from names we might never remember, but whose words, whose stutter, whose message, whose moment, we’ll never forget: a kid who stutters but went on anyway; a little girl whose mom was taken away, leaving behind two little girls and an ex-marine dad who feels deeply betrayed; a security guard whose everyday job is ushering important people, people who more likely than not leave her feeling like little more than a conduit, a necessary ellipses from point A to point B, mostly invisible. but not the man she was there to nominate for the american presidency. he’d made her — in the couple of minutes it takes to ride from a lobby to an executive suite — feel seen and feel heard. feel unforgotten, un-shoved aside.
it’s a very fine line, the line between hopeless and hope. sometimes we barely notice it draining away. get used to the feel of walking around with boot heel to belly. sometimes it’s only in its trickling in again that we realize how long and how deeply we’ve missed it.
i plopped myself on the couch not as a student of partisan politics but as a student of human decency. an ardent student. one who just might take it too seriously. it’s a lesson i remember my grandfather teaching me. at a gas station on a hot summer’s day in southern ohio. my grandfather, in one of his buicks, maybe the old riviera, with a stash of grandkids packed in the back, had just spent the day with all of us at an old-fashioned place called coney island, a paradise of roller coasters and sno-cones and hot dogs slathered in mustard. my grandpa needed gas for the old guzzler, and back in those days that meant someone was there to pump the tank for you. while the gas guzzled in, my grandpa got out of the car, carried on with the fellow pumping away as if he was a long-lost best friend and lifetime associate. the man pumping gas was black. my grandpa was white. it was southern ohio in the 1960s. we were old enough to know that not everyone would play out the scene as it played out before us. and then my grandpa slid back behind the wheel, turned his gaze just over his shoulder, peered unblinkingly at the whole flock of us, and in less than ten words preached his everyday gospel, the one he lived till the day he died. i can’t remember the exact words, but the point was the same one inscribed in every holy and sacred text that ever there was: be your brother’s keeper, love as you would be loved, live and breathe undying compassion. and the way my grandpa said it, he meant we’d better not ever forget it.
the big-eyed, pigtailed little girl wedged between brothers and cousins on a sticky summer’s day, i pinned the words to my soul, made of them my divining rod, every day forward.
which is part of the why my tank has felt emptier by the hour in the america of recent history. every single day yet another brillo pad to the soul, yet another mocking of someone. yet another ugly volley of words. i’ve been withering under the weight of it. and running out of oxygen. or so it started to feel.
and so, this week, i tuned in not knowing what or how it would all unfold. i feared it could sputter and fumble. i’d gotten used to the taste of dejection.
what happened was, moment by moment, as if someone had wedged a fulcrum under my heart and my soul, i felt myself rising, inch by measurable soul-filling inch. testimony of kindness after testimony of nearly invisible someone being seen, being plucked from the margins, being called in pure goodness by cell phone late in the night. it was a four-day crash course, a reverse course, in human kindness. in decency. in resilience. in reaching down deep and pulling out our very best selves.
frank bruni, a writer of bold and beautiful strokes, wrote this this morning:
Look at America right now. My God. We’re hurting like we seldom hurt. We’re quarreling like we seldom quarrel. We’re exceptional in our death count, in our divisions. It’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s hard to press forward.
the life of one of the men america is now considering for the highest office in the land, bruni went on to write, his “life is a parable of resilience.”
and goodness and kindness is the mortar tucked into the brick walls of that life. and goodness and kindness — in intimate moments and in sweeping policy revisions and advances — is the mortar this crumbling country needs. especially now. especially as the death toll has mounted unfathomably, “exceptionally.” especially as kids and teachers — from kindergarten to college — are scared to death to go back to their classrooms. especially as the virus of incivility — of outright murder born of blind hatred — has spread like a cancer that can’t be removed.
lessons in resilience we could use too. resilience is a commodity we can never have too much of. we’re a people who stumble, a people with knees that are more than scuffed up. we could use a good dose of remembering how good we can be at picking ourselves up from the dust. those banged-up knees? they straighten, stand back up again, almost as sure as they sometimes fold under us.
which brings us back to hope.
hope is the thing i’ve found wrung from the landscape of late. i almost forgot what it was to not get crushed by every day’s news. the human spirit devoid of even a whiff of hope is a sorry pile of ashes and soot. we don’t do well as a species when we can’t make out even a flicker of light making its way through the murk.
and it doesn’t take much — not more than the certain whisper, pressed against our ear or our heart — to perk us back up again. to put the wind at our back. the story of an unstoppable stutterer. the unstoppable bravery of an 11-year-old girl who told a whole nation — and the president who leads it — “you tore our world apart.” the unstoppable kindness of simply being seen and heard and recognized in the short whisk of an elevator ride.
we can be a people of hope again. we can be a nation that trades in kindness, stands up to bullies, reaches our arms in embrace. we can be our very best selves.
that’s what i remembered again. that’s what i learned this week.
a disclaimer: i promised a long time that i would keep this a space free of partisan politics. and so i didn’t tread lightly into today’s meander. i entered into this arena today as one where the message i was mining for was not one of political discourse, but rather an exercise in mutually agreeing that hope and goodness are necessary commodities in the national discourse, especially now as we are staring down the oncoming fall and the fears of a spike in coronavirus, in the face of so many uncertainties. hope is our divining rod. hope is the very thing we need to carry us into the light, just peeking over the dawn’s horizon…..
my voice is only one whisper. my fingers, just one at a time, tap along the rows of these keys without sound. but the lump in my throat is ready to burst. and my heart is too.
stop the ugliness, world. stop the hate. stop the made-up lies and the mudslinging. tear yourself away from the impulse to tromp on the neck of the one you perceive as your enemy.
doesn’t need to be this way. doesn’t need to be a national throw-em-to-the-lions.
the world doesn’t need to wake up every morning searching for the ugliest route to the trail head.
there are moments, plenty of ’em, when i picture myself marching to the steps of the u.s. capitol, unfurling a parchment, invoking a code of radical decency, insisting the ugliness cease and cease now. oh, what i’d give to back some of these fools into a corner, to poke em on the chest, look em in the eye, and ask if really, really, they want to expend their God-given breath on slicing and dicing each other to bits, trampling truth, teaching children the ways of the playground bully.
i got sick of bullies back in first grade. never outgrew my distaste.
all these months i’ve retreated deeper and deeper into a realm where the rules of the world are not the ones with discernible weight. i dwell much of the time in a monastery of my own making. it’s quieter there. and gentler. i take time for the monarch butterfly, leave out saucers of sugar water, scatter seeds for the milkweed that makes for a butterfly landing pad.
in the quietude i wrap all around me, the rules i live by are the ones of an otherworldly iconoclast. the code is the one inscribed by a God who asks only one thing: love without end. love as you would be loved, love every last inch and ounce of creation. behold the wonder. of each other. of the monarch. and the dawn. and every last shimmering light in the night sky.
and, sometimes, to love means to put breath to the words that are stuck in your throat. to march to the capitol steps, to reach for the microphone, to try with every ounce of your might to shake sense into the senseless. the ones dizzy with power, or the pursuit thereof. it’s a sickness and it needs to stop. it’s as contagious, it seems — and as deadly — as this invisible virus, the plague that’s upon us. maybe more so. maybe it’s worse.
because once upon a time i was a nurse, because i’ve stood at the side of a hospital bed in the hours just before a last breath was drawn, i know something of deathbed confessions. i know how, at last, the veils of the everyday are pulled away, and what’s left is the essence. holy essence. how the sins and the glories float to the surface. how one last sweep of the soul, of a lifetime, is what carries us off to whatever comes next.
our time here is fleeting. do the ones breathing fire and lies, do they really want to fritter away the hours allotted? is that churn in their belly the only way they know to crawl from their beds? is bitter the singular taste of the day?
the choice is quite simple: make of your life an instrument of peace, of goodness, of attainable holiness. or let it extinguish in smoke and in flames, in pride and deceit, in ugliness out-of-control.
we make our choice minute by minute, day after day.
what will you choose, world, what will you choose?
if you were writing a code of goodness, decency, and gentle kindness for the world, what would you inscribe? what would constitute breaking the law?
when you’ve been clanging on heaven’s door with the cacophonies i’ve kept up this summer, and suddenly you find yourself ankle-deep into august, when road trips have been clocked without incident (save for the chandelier shangri-la just outside the buffalo (NY) international airport, where a tolerance for prism-ed zirconium was a necessary toll of admission), when planes have taken off and landed without clouds of corona rising up from the itty-bitty pouches on the seatbacks, when bar exams have been re-routed online and virtual graduations did in fact include your own kid’s first and last and two middle names, when federal troops have been called back from the streets, and your tomatoes have grown succulent and drip down your chin…it is high time for a hallelujah of praise and glorious, glorious drop-to-your-knobby-old-knees thank you, Jesus!
and so, i begin…
i begin where i always do: up to my ears in amen, amen, and praise be the heavens that the boys i love are undented, undaunted, and safe in the world. of course, i’ve been chasing after all of ’em with this summer’s 70-percent-alcohol-content elixir of choice, purell by the boatload. i’ve been the purveyor of plastic shields for anyone taking to the clouds, and i’m the queen of counting to 20 (often rounding up to 25 or 30 for good measure) while anyone’s sudsing their hands. and, so far (knock on wood, marble, or cubic zirconium while we’re at it), not a single raised Fahrenheit of fever, thank you patron saint of mercury.
as i type, one of those boys is on the cusp of turning 19 — the miracle of his existence a miracle that will never lose its shine — and slinging away the summer hauling trash, whacking weeds, and otherwise delighting in the fuzzy outlines of his COVID bubble. (the rules they follow are vague, something along the lines of “if you’re outside you won’t get it, keep the windows of cars rolled down, and be sure to have your mask in your pocket if not stretched across your maw.”)
the bespectacled one, still the tallest of the bunch and my beloved for life, would have blown out his own birthday candles yesterday, but the line at portillo’s on a thursday night was 90 miles long, so there was no famed chocolate cake to be had (nor the italian beef that would have preceded it). (he made up for the confectionary dearth with raspberry talenti spooned straight out of the tub.)
oh, and the first one i birthed (the one under the jaunty cap up above), he’s joyfully — and relievedly — unpacking the boxes that finally, finally found him in his new portland apartment, after the moving van took a circuitous three-week pleasure cruise across the continental U.S.
so, bing, bing, bing, right off the bat, three giant-sized prayers rambunctiously answered.
hovering emphatically there at the top of the thank-you list would be a glory hallelujah for those rare amazing souls more than willing to hold the jittery hand of a mama with worries on the loose (that would be me, and the amazing ones are the ones who never shirk from the cockamamie worries i cook up, more than willing to coo by my side, and promise me all will be well. and if not, they’ll help me sop up the tears and gather the shattered bits). where, oh where, would we be if not for our bravest and kindest of comrades who stiffen our spine and coddle our hearts when the night feels so dark and so long?
moving from sublime to, well, fruitful…now that drowning-in-tomato season is upon us, and the branches are bending and bowing under the weight of their keep, it’s high time to genuflect at the edge of the so-called “farm,” in praise of the wonders of purple cherokees, san marzano plums, orange zinger cherry tomatoes, and that icon of heartland fertility, the ever-reddening batch of fat, squat big boys. just minutes ago, so it seems, i was the virgin farmer tucking her wee little sprouts into the loamy soils. all summer i’ve watched in wonderment as the earth (and my occasional scattering of tomato-mite root booster) did its thing, sky-rocketing stems and leaves and pert little blossoms and, finally, clumps and orbs that redden by the hour. and have me scrambling for things to do with tomatoes besides salting and peppering and downing like candy.
i take it not for granted any prayer that gets answered, nor the happy ending at the close of any heart-tugging yarn. and that is the point, or at least a crucial part of it anyway. i might be a one-woman smoke stack of worry, sending up fumes and plumes of the wildest imaginable what-ifs, but the flip side — the blessing side — of that tendency toward incessant disquietude is that, on an almost hourly basis, i am awash in the after-rush of relief (disaster once again averted), followed immediately and overwhelmingly by pure and unfiltered gratitude. thank you, thank you, thank you, holy God, the words that most often cross my worry-lined lips.
and so my necessary pause, the blessed interlude that stitches together the worry patches of my days, is the simplest — the most certain — prayer that ever was: thank you, oh thank you, for the grace of this sweet sanctity, for the safe-keeping you’ve brought and the sheer joy of knowing all is well (for now), all is under heaven’s unending gaze, and ever will be.
and that’s the only point that matters here today.
what’s on your list of thank-you prayers, here in the launch of summer’s last full month?
p.s. i just realized that the fourth corner above — yet another reason for thanks — is the front cover of my next little book, one coming into the world on october 6. it’s titled The Stillness of Winter, and my hope is that it will fill your wintry months with quietude and a sense of wonder as you contemplate the blessings of the curling-in months at the cusp of the old and new year….
i was going to cobble a litany of thanks for the glorious reads this summer has brought me, as i while away the days up in my tree-house nook of a windowseat, but the phone rang and someone came to the door, and the morning has unfurled, so the great reads of this 20-20 summer will have to wait till another day……
sometimes i think maybe i should be a brand ambassador for a certain kind of mother: the mother who worries too much. i put in a stellar showing this week as i proved once again there is nary a bump in the road that i can’t imagine, can’t magnify in the picture show that plays in my head, especially in the wee, wee hours.
why, i can picture invisible germs crawling up the underside of a plastic shield. i can picture suitcases left behind, and moving trucks headed the wrong direction (more on that later). i can even picture imaginary apartments, schemes i’ve heard of first-hand where a place is advertised, virtual tours provided, only to find out the whole thing was a hoax, a ruse to snare the gullible into a make-believe lease and a real-time transfer of significant cash.
as if the real world worries aren’t plenty enough, i can embellish a script like nobody’s business.
but mostly this week i was finding my unadorned, un-embellished motherly way once again, tiptoeing in the dark, banging my toes up against doorways and corners, double-timing the wheel on the old-mother-odometer, the one that ages us, wrinkles us, grays us right before our wondering eyes.
yes, i was a mother this week whiling away the hours while her firstborn criss-crossed the country amid a pandemic, en route to a city engulfed in tear gas and federal troops. i realized that, when it comes to that kid, the first one i popped from the womb — my trial run for a lifetime — his adventures will always be unscripted for me, and i will always be finding my way. i will always be reconfiguring the walls of my heart, seeing how far i can stretch, untangling unforeseen puzzles, recalibrating my geo-scope, learning new time zones and cities, and inhaling a world of new wonders as i hitch a virtual ride on his real-life once-upon-a-rower’s extra-strength shoulders.
some parts of the script come more naturally to me. some parts are ones where i bang up, skin, and scrape my old knees. i’ve never before been the mother of a 27-year-old trekking farther from home than he’s ever lived (1,751 miles, says the wee little map on my phone). never before extended my motherly range west of the rockies, west of mounts hood, st. helens and rainier, to be geologically precise.
i know soon enough this’ll all be old news. but, just as in those first days home from the delivery room, when i literally felt my brain rewiring — as if someone was in there with a screwdriver and wrench, hooking up wires and supercharging synapses that i’d never known — my brain is once again in the midst of remodification. once again, a cognitive construction zone.
good thing the old heart stretches on impact. follows by instinct wherever, whenever, however, it’s needed.
this week’s adventure in cross-continental travel proved almost as seamless as an adventuring lad and his overage mama might hope. except for one thing. or, rather, two full-sized moving containers of things. (aka: the kid’s every last worldly possession.)
seems the folks on the loading dock back in connecticut didn’t quite read the shipping labels. or maybe they mistook the OR in oregon as a choice they could make.
they chose wrong, would be the bottom line, and sent the load hither when it should have gone yon. and so, at the moment, the kid is camping out in a bare-naked apartment, starting work monday with the one pair of beloved midcentury khakis he packed in his suitcase, a pair that once belonged to his grandpa, a pair that’ll be plenty proud to enter the chambers of the ninth circuit federal judge considered “a gentleman of the law.”
while we await the return of the rambling load (crossing our fingers and all of our toes), this old mama will undoubtedly startle in the night, tiptoe down the stairs, scribble inventories of all the irreplaceable treasures she sure hopes will resurface.
and because we mamas are the original bounce-back kids, because resilience is our necessary middle name, and we mostly land squarely — if wobbly — on our two sturdy feet, she’ll soon know every last street in downtown portland. figure out the two-hour time lag. and wait for the pandemic to end so she can get out there and soak it all in for herself.
how do you tamp down the worries that keep you from sleep?
infinite thanks to the giant-hearted kindred souls who all but held my hand in the long hours of this week as i reached for the solid ground of a safe landing and adventure-less cross-country migration. you know who you are…
mothers reach for what they need. mothers reach for amulets and gear, paraphernalia and patron saints, to protect their children. it’s an impulse as ancient as time. and will go on till the end of time. of that i am certain.
a mother’s wiring drives me, has driven me now for the better part of 28 years, ever since the doctor told me, incontrovertibly, with the swishing heartsounds of the sonogram echoing wall-to-wall across the darkened tiny room — nine months after the heartache of losing our first — that a life stirred within.
ever since, my first and last impulse, above all, is to keep him safe. to shield life and limb, and cranium too, from incoming assault, be it playground invective, asphalt bike path, high-speed hardball, or any of the fully-pictured atrocities that have played — and replayed — in my too-colorful head.
it is dystopian, at least, that this summer i’ve found myself clicking “buy” on a two-pack of plastic shields, the better to keep the red-ringed virus at bay when a boy i love is flying hither and yon, criss-crossing america at altitudes of 35,000 feet. tuesday night, he dons it for the second time, as he flies from JFK to PDX, that’s new york to portland, oregon, about as long a flight as the american continent offers.
and PDX is where the impenetrable helmet comes in. ever since i started reading reports of unidentified federal forces cruising portland’s downtown streets, driving unmarked vehicles, plucking protestors from sidewalks, stuffing them in vans, without word of miranda rights or where or why on earth they were taking them (leaving some to fear to god they were literally being kidnapped by bands of who knows who), i started thinking about helmets. about what my firstborn might put on his not insignificant head to keep it from getting bashed with the wrong end of a police baton, or any other unidentified thrashing implement.
mind you, it’s not that i worry my firstborn will soon be leaping into the late-night protest. it’s that he’ll be walking to and fro to work. to and from a federal courthouse, as it so happens (though not the one at the epicenter of all the melee; his is the other federal courthouse, two blocks north and west). and in this american summer, in a city besieged by federal forces wielding tear gas canisters and “less-than-lethal” (thank god for modifiers here) weapons, a mother starts considering the selling points and perqs of various impenetrable protective head gear.
which is utterly dystopian, improbable in any other summer than the one that is the america of 2020, a year decidedly not clear-focused. and it makes me think of the litany of mothers who through time have had to send off sons and daughters, who’ve awaited letters, answered the ominous knock at the door, as my own grandmother did, when her son was killed in a midnight ambush on iwo jima. it makes me think of the south side chicago mothers who cannot count on the windows of their minivans to shield the incoming bullets, the ones killing toddlers — even babies; a five-month-old shot just last week in old town — strapped in car seats.
there are mothers weeping across america, across this globe, and the tears seem endless, are endless. will the weeping and the wailing ever, ever end? do we stand a chance to finally stanch the sorrow?
mothers shouldn’t have to plot the surest bullet-free path to school. nor which playlot might prove lethal. children shouldn’t have to spend their summers behind closed curtains, in the corner of a room farthest from the picture window, where crossfire could soar in. mothers shouldn’t have to lay awake nights imagining the phone call, calculating how long it would take to race to the ICU bedside. mothers shouldn’t have to hear the click of the coffin closing.
this is no easy summer in america.
short of searching the internet for plastic shields and bash-proof helmets, we’ve got work to do here in the land of the brave and the free.
america is crying. are we listening? are we doing what we must?
and those my friends are the questions, the imperative questions: are we listening? are we doing what we must?
i might have had you there at short, the adjective for brevity, synonym for “this’ll be quick; over in a jiffy.” perhaps you heard a sigh of exultation as your cognitive wheels sputtered and spilled out a soft hallelujah. not much to read today. oh, joy. (too lazy here even for exclamation marks, when a simple dot of ink — the period — will do.)
today, amid the incoming heat waft, the plumes of furnace-fueling Fahrenheits rolling in across the prairie, building steam as they leap the Big Muddy (the mighty mississippi, among the few rivers whose spelling wove its way into my girlhood jump-rope ditties), we turn our collective attentions to the myriad ways the month of hot july invokes slo-mo, stalls us to the lower-grade velocities: we amble to the garden, plonk our toes atop the wicker settee or into the water’s edge, seta spell in the summer porch, toss back fistfuls of inky-bursting berries, dawdle under the stars, lose track of day and time…(and make the most of ellipses while we’re at it, the original non-committal punctuation, the one that trails off into whisper, allowing any sentence to unspool at its own sweet idle…)
in celebration of indolence (lazy‘s grown-up fancy twin), a short list of praises:
sleeping till your eyelids — or the window shades — flutter open. determinedly silencing the bells, whistles, radar tones, and radio blares that dare to launch you into yet another full-on, get-it-done day.
making no plan for the weekend beyond the turning of pages.
cicada song, the rising reverberations of the hollow belly of the male bug the old latins called “the tree cricket,” from the superfamily Cicadoidea; perhaps a noxious noise to you, but to me it’s a lullaby i sink into every summer. a sound not unlike the endless sawing of blocks and blocks of wood, it’s a song that indeed puts me in a mind to saw my own endless strings of zzzzzzz’s.
sauntering the farmers’ market, guided only by whatever bounty stirs your fancy, leaving home any iteration of a grocery list (yet another domestic harness by which we are too often, too tightly bound).
pinching off fistfuls of pungent basil leaves, stuffing them into the maw of the countertop wiz-master, along with cloves of garlic, chunks of parmesan, and rivers of the fine green olive oil, and, presto, calling it a pesto (aka the unction of choice for any summer feast).
speaking of which, here’s a little video that inspired my presto pesto trials most of yesterday afternoon, interludes of herbaceous joy amid yet another afternoon sprawled in my window perch, up amid the serviceberry boughs where my turning of the pages is accompanied by duets of robins getting tipsy on the fattest, purplest berries just beyond the windowpanes.
and here, if you’re too lazy to click on any hyperlinks, the read-along version of summer’s long-awaited green and chunky goo, the one best slathered on anything that dares to cross your platter….
food52’s best basil pesto
Makes about 3/4 cup
Prep time: 5 min Cook time: 3 min
1/4 cup raw pine nuts
10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1/2 ounce)
1 garlic clove, grated
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
5 loosely packed cups basil leaves (from a 2-ounce bunch)
Set a small strainer over a small bowl. Combine the pine nuts and 4 tablespoons of oil in a small pan set over medium-low heat. Swirling occasionally, toast the pine nuts until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the pan’s contents into the strainer. Let nuts cool completely.
Once the nuts are cool, combine them and their oil, the cheese, garlic, salt, and remaining olive oil in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped, scraping down as needed. Add the basil leaves and pulse just until the pesto becomes smooth, again scraping down if needed. Use immediately, store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks (though, the sooner you use it, the better-tasting it will be), or the freezer for up to 3 months.
and, poof! there you have it. a short meander through the delights and surrenders of a day — or even a weekend — spent in unbridled serendipities. a necessary antidote to madness. most emphatically amid pandemic.
how do you define lazy?
p.s. all this laziness comes at the end of yet another wrenching and tumultuous week: putting boy 1 on airplane, bound for a big cross-country move and, alas, a bar exam that — unlike dozens of other states — illinois is insisting on holding in person come the start of september; and boy 2 found out that only freshmen and sophomores are now slotted to return to campus in the fall, a decision that means — among many other things — he has to give up the dorm room he considered one of the best in the leafy little town of gambier, ohio, a room in an old stone manse, a room complete with leaded glass bay windows, peering down a wooded hill, in the great company of his best coterie of college comrades. all in all, given the horrors that abound, these are not by any measure trials, but they wrench the heart nonetheless, and after months of this, our heart walls are somewhat thinned….