pull up a chair

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

the measures of our years: 11

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we mark time, this species Homo sapiens, to measure. to take measure. and so, in the gauzy moonlight of this cold december morning, i think back to that first dark morning, 11 years ago. when i awoke determined. uncharted, to be sure. the night before, a boy i love, a boy to whom i owe volumes of accumulated wisdoms and the double-size of my heart, that boy had been dilly-dallying, putting off homework, as he was wont to do. rather than attending to some eighth-grade math, he decided he’d build me a “website,” whatever that was, on my brand-new hand-me-up laptop (his old one bequeathed to me). i was only toe-deep into this endeavor until he asked me what its name might be, and as with so many of the fine things in life, the words popped out before i’d really had a moment to measure: “pull up a chair.”

i loved the notion, right away, the idea of wise souls and kindred spirits pulling up mismatched wooden chairs to the old scarred maple slab that is my kitchen table, one that holds the hieroglyphics of childhoods (my own amid a flock of five, and, now, my boys’, a pair), i loved the notion of a steamy kitchen, where the kettle always whistled, and the oven always cranked, and where the door was never locked.  i loved the notion of putting out a few simple words each morning, words that served as telescopes and magnifying lenses, as we tried to see and sense and sift for depths and heights otherwise unnoticed in the passing day to day. i particularly loved the notion that this might be a collective, a gathering place for poetry and plainspeak, prayer and commonsense, for wisdom and for joy. a place where heartache always, always found shelter, where shoulders were offered, tears dried, and where we’d hold each other up through whatever darkness came.

i never knew that there might come a day, 11 years down the road, when we’d all sit back on the hind legs of our chairs, tip warmed mugs to our lips, and ponder all that had passed during our close watch. intermittent watch for some, those who’ve come and gone, sometimes come again. at least two — my mother and my mother-in-law — have been — and are — regular as clockwork, sure to stop by, but not too inclined to say a word. sadly, heartbreakingly, some who first gathered at the table are gone now, but their spirits animate each and every day, each and every sentence typed. and in my own small life, two boys have grown — one was five, the other 13, when this all began. so they’ve grown up across these posts. two grade-school graduations, one high school, one college, and if i keep it up for two more years, we’ll rack another high school and law school, too.

the twists and turns and snippets of their lives that i’ve caught here, they’re priceless to me. they’ve been, more often than not, the launch pad for my deepest thoughts, the ones that mattered most to me. they taught me how to love, those two boys did. all of you, the ones who pulled a rickety chair up to the table, who added your hearts, your stories, your poetries and prayers to the mix, you did too. you taught me love. you proved that quiet whispers belong in a world where the shouting never stops.

so here we are, 11 years from the start. a second decade is chugging along. what began as a writing promise — i would write every single weekday for a year, see what sifted by — soon turned into a sacred vessel, an anchor to my heart and soul, a place where i knew i’d find priceless precious company, those tender souls who live and breathe gentle loving care, who might be speechless, or might need to holler out the upstairs window, when the world gets too cockamamie upside-down and twisted. books have been born from this little cranny of my heart. three books, now. (the newest one coming in the spring, just in time for the bursting forth of mama earth after a long winter’s curling deep within.) precious priceless friends have been made here and sealed with love that does not die.

i was scared to trembling the first time i hit the “publish” button, but i did it anyway. life does that. it shakes you to your bones, and then it rises up to scaffold you, to carry you to heights and summits you would not have known, or imagined in quite the depth and texture you now know.

bless each and every one of you for reaching out your hand, your heart, your whole, and whispering in unison: there is a world of tender loving care, a world that looks for poetry and wisdom all along the way. a world that believes in taking time, and paying attention, close attention, exuberant attention. there is a world of everyday devotions. and we are all the richer for the sound of each other’s footsteps marching, together, to the mountaintop.

thank you.

love, bam

IMG_0230because i promised to circle back to the book i’m carrying through this advent, and maybe every advent to come, “All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings,” by Gayle Boss, illustrated by David G. Klein, i thought i’d share just one passage from one of this week’s readings (every day’s is a breathtakingly poetic and poignant parable of woodland creatures in winter, all metaphors for the practice of Advent, the mystery of life that springs forth from what looks like death). 

chickadee (day 4): “As they swirl and hop at my feeder, they seem a flock of St. Francises. Like the saint wed to Lady Poverty, every day the question of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason, like the saint, they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.” 

may your each and every day of deepening darkness be filled with flickerings of light. thank you for the gift of your presence here, week after week, year after year. 

where do you find light in the deepening of december?

december’s whisper

red berry

the december i am drawn to, the one that most emphatically, insistently, invites me in, is the one that beckons in whisper.

the apex of my counterculturalism, perhaps, i take my month of longest night in slow sure sips. timpani belongs to someone else. my december—our december, perhaps, for there is evidence we’ve found each other, kindred spirits here—is one that calls for quiet.

long stretches of hours in which the simmering on the stove, the ticking of the clock, the occasional squawk of the jay at the feeder, those are the preludes, the quarter notes and half notes that i take in.

there will come, i’m certain—because year after year it comes—the one annual carol i play over and over, cranking the dial till the house shakes, and i worry the next-door neighbor might come running to see if all is well. (“mary, did you know?” a leading contender, third year running…)

gingerbabiesand so i’ve spent the week preparing, whisking away autumnal vestige, ushering in soon-to-come winter. i’ve stockpiled seed in 20-pound sacks (several, so far), and vats of ice-melting pellets for the dawn when the ice comes. i’ve piled pumpkins and gourds in the old trough my squirrels and possums (and occasional uninvited skunk) depend on, the autumn’s feast now theirs for winter keeping. i’ve snipped boxwood and spruce, tucked branches of both into window boxes just below the ledges, where jack frost will soon anoint the panes. i’ve strung italian star-lights around and through the posts of my picket fence. when the sun drops down, i won’t be alone in the dark. there is twinkling at the edge of the yard, front and back. and a candle flickers atop the kitchen table.

it is all a part of the coiling in. the nautilus of deepening prayer.

the prayer that fills me most is the prayer that slowly and silently seeps to the tucked-away places, the ones that await the season of stillness, the places unlocked by the smells and the bells of december: pungent clove, star anise, hissing wick, crackling log, twilight’s first star and the night’s last ember at dawn.

it won’t be long till somehow i crank the oven, haul out the canisters, bang my grandma’s old maple rolling pin against the cutting board’s edge. my coterie of cookie cutters each play a role in their own sugarplum suite.

zoupone day this week i hauled a turkey carcass from the fridge, and plunked it in my deepest pot, the vessel for soup-making for a dear dear friend whose newborn is just home from the ICU, and for whom i’ve cooked up all the sustenance i could imagine: brown rice, pulled-from-the-earth plump knotty carrots and fennel and garlic, savory stock, handful of parsley.

i’ll deliver my brew well before sundown, and in return i’ll drink in the newness, the perfection, of a babe just birthed, cradled more tightly and tenderly than ever imagined because ICUs do a mighty fine job of reminding how blessed it is to be finally sent home, untethered from the web of too many tubes and the fright that shakes a new mama and papa—and all those who love them—down to their rickety bones.

(there is, of course, no ailment the balm of day-long simmering kettle won’t cure; even a newborn mama’s terrible tremble is certain to be chased away at the very first shlurp of that omnipotent zoup.)

indeed, these are my december liturgies, day after day. intercessions of prayer, punctuated by plain old worldly deadlines. i attend to my errands and chores and assignments—laundry is folded and ferried, empty shelves of the fridge re-stocked, sentences are typed and essays submitted.

but the work that’s most heavenly, certainly, is the quiet work of the soul come december. the making way, making room at the inn, in the heart.

the grace of december, the gift of december, is in the quieting, the hush of the sacred whisper. the vespers that hallow—make holy—the heart. make room in the heart this quiet december.

i’ve been saving this poem, “winter grace,” for the whispered beginnings of the season of stillness….

Winter Grace
By Patricia Fargnoli

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.

“Winter Grace” by Patricia Fargnoli from Hallowed. © Tupelo Press, 2017.

how do you make room in your heart, in your unspooling of the day, for the whisper come december?

praise upon praise: the high art of thank-you

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albert einstein said, “there are two ways to live your life.  one is as though nothing is a miracle.  the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

i’m hitching my existence to the genius’ latter proposition: “as though everything is a miracle.” and so, in the short shadow of the national pause for thanks-giving, i am dipping into praise, a whole litany of pausing to notice, to pay attention, to whisper emphatic hallelujah for the humblest and the grandest of everyday wonders.

praise prayer is said to be the highest form of prayer; it asks for nothing. it is shouting-from-the-mountain-top prayer, or under-full-blast-of-shower prayer.

praise poem, my encyclopedia tells me, is an important part of political and literary tradition in africa; a laudatory poem, especially of the oratory tradition of africa, extolling virtues in a snowball of salutation.

i am etching my own bumpy trail up the mountainside here, and perhaps you’ll want to play along, etch your own tumbling forth of praise, a kaleidoscope of thank-you for the quotidian and the breath-taking. 

and so we begin…

***
praise for our own little ZIP code and this arthritic old house with its moans and its groans, all of which gave us a place to tuck ourselves for this annual pause for bowing heads and bulging bellies. and offered refuge from the throngs at the airport, and the thunderclouds high in the sky that surely would have diverted the flight — as has happened holidays past when suddenly you find yourself at the very wrong airport.

praise for Find My Friends, the app that shows me my boys’ dots on the map, somehow reassuring in a pictorial way. and on thanksgiving allowed me to follow my firstborn’s dot down the connecticut shoreline to new york city, so fine a tracing i could see that it stopped at 125th street in harlem, and slowly made its way to the grid at 94th and lexington, the closest i came to sharing the day with my boy.

praise for my sister-in-law who fed my firstborn, and ushered him into her holiday house. praise for the leftover bounty she packed into tupperware before she dispatched him into the deep dark of manhattan, retracing his way to the last train of the night, and back to the books that kept him so far from his place at our dining room table.

praise for the persnickety oven that did not decide to up and quit midway through the roasting of the eight-pound turkey breast.

praise for the farmer who grew my brussels sprouts, the earth that spawned my shitake mushrooms, and the orchard that erupted in the crop of sweet and juicy honeycrisp.

praise for my sweet husband who devoted his thanksgiving to writing an obituary —the newspaper’s salutary trumpet blast — for the mastermind who executed the construction of Millennium Park, and a whole string of city jewel boxes.

praise for the magnetism of familial ties, the ones that drew friends from all over the globe this weekend to our tiny dot on the map: london, miami, cambridge, LA, palo alto, and filled our days with serendipitous droppings-in.

praise for the story corps questions with which i peppered my mama, some of which unearthed stories i’d never heard before, all of which are now duly recorded in her 87-year-old voice on the rickety recorder. Version 2

praise for the waltz lesson between grandma and grandson, the one that whirled through my kitchen once the dishes were cleared. praise for the boy who lavishes love like nobody’s business.

praise for my down-the-alley neighbor whose heart is beyond measure, and who adorns our doorknob more mornings than we can count with her bountiful soups and stews and cakes and gooey bars. praise for sturdy doorknobs whose hardware does not bend.

praise for the neonatal intensive care unit that is keeping my beautiful friend’s newborn baby girl inching toward 100-percent wholeness and wellness, after her slightly bumpy start. praise for the new mama’s resilience, and the blanket of peace that holds her tight in her wobbliest hours.

praise for the unending goodness and kindness of all the ones who tip the balance of the world in the favor of radiance, eclipsing the darkness that some can’t keep from scuttling in.

praise for the cascade of angels who embroider my everyday with such gentle, tender devotions: be it the ping of a text out of the blue, or a floppy-bowed box that comes in the mail. praise for the beauties that will not cease.

praise for poets and authors whose sentences we inhale, who take our breath away, and teach us how it might be done.

praise for star anise, perhaps the finest spice on my shelf. certainly the prettiest, and the one — along with bay leaf, clove, cinnamon stick, and clementine peel — i can’t keep from simmering on the cookstove.

praise for star-stitched nights, and tourmaline at dawn’s first light. praise for wishes cast upon those stars, and prayers launched with each and every beginning of the day.

praise for the pile of shoes mounded by the door, when the basement filled with teens who cranked the bass, rearranged the bean bags, and settled in for a night of ping pong and unadorned cans of soda.

praise for the thespians of my backyard feeder: crimson-robed papa cardinal, squawky jay, and flock of drab-robed sparrow, hatch and chickadee-dee-dee.

praise for coffee beans and coffeemaker, now hissing its morning song, telling me it’s almost time for the first sacramental sip, the one that supercharges each and every deep dark edge of night before the dawn.

praise for pre-dawn, when all the world is still, and i can unfurl my morning prayer endlessly, scrounging through all the nooks and crannies of my soul, pulling up petitions grand and not so grand and eensy-weensy infinitesimal.

praise for every single occasion for laugh-out-loud guffaws, and those moments when we laugh so hard we can’t catch breath and tears roll down our cheeks: those are the moments that hoist the soul and keep us from the dregs of despair.

praise for this poem that came my way the other day, and inspired me to rattle off my own fat list of praise….

Praise What Comes

surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather.  Praise

talk with just about anyone.  And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep.  Praising these for practice, perhaps

you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended.  At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world?  Learn at least one
of the many names of God?  At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another

ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

~ Jeanne Lohmann ~
 
(The Light of Invisible Bodies)

of course the question is this: for what do you praise? please play along…

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.

sc-books-spiritual-roundup-1004-20171003-001

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?