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

when muttering under your breath isn’t enough…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so help me God.

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

dreams cannot be left to die…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Luther King is dead now—but he lives.

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

yet again, i turn to the ellipses…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hibernation station

book corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all i wanted for Christmas

sugarplum visions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what’s on your wishlist this Christmas?

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

books for the soul Yuletide 2017

New reads bearing Yuletide joy

By Barbara Mahany/Chicago Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

burrowing into december, month of miracles and searching

breakfast in bed

this is the month, they tell us, of miracles. “a miracle happened here.” so say the hanukkah refrains. it’s the month, too, of searching for a room, searching for room in your heart. so say the stories of christmas.

amid the month of darkness, miracles await in the nooks and the crannies. amid the month of december, there’s searching to do. deep-down searching.

here’s a secret: sometimes, you’re wise to approach the days with a deep-down quiet. that’s how you come to hear the whispers, and the cries that haven’t the oomph to rise to deafening decibels. that’s how you just might stumble into a miracle, sometimes find room in the cave of your heart.

the three, it seems, belong together: the quiet, the miracle, the room.

december for plenty of folks is a month of tight passages, and tangled adventures in forward motion. december is a month that grabs some by the ankles, tugs at them, tries to topple them, steepens the climb.

december, when you turn down the noise, unspool the days in whispers, tiptoe rather than race, is when you just might hear the scratch at the door of your heart. you are awake to the muffled cries that come in from the cold. and, often, that’s how you find yourself in the company of miracles, and discover a few extra inches in the capacity of your heart.

in recent days, i’ve tumbled into one or two souls in shadow. souls who couldn’t for the life of them see the light. certainly not their own. i wonder if i’d been racing through the days, a list of to-do’s blaring in my ears, if i would have heard quite how deeply they were hurting.

thank God, i heard.

i paused. i took a breath. shoved aside what the day had intended for me to do. instead, i climbed into the trench where each one found him or herself. i sidled up beside the soul in shadow; i said little. i spoke in actions. because sometimes only in doing can we really truly speak. i made breakfast, plopped it on a tray, ferried it to the someone whose soul was hurting. i unfurled blankets, and we sat side-by-side. i listened, all day.

the magic of loving is this: it works both ways at once. have you ever noticed that in your moments of deeply loving, as you lavish kindness and gentleness, as you exercise dashes of creativity to give your love some oomph, your own heart is growing right alongside the one you’re working so hard to love?

tonight a friend i love is coming for dinner. she’s a friend whose world has shrunk quite dramatically of late. the moment i imagined inviting her for dinner, imagined the candles i’d light, the napkins i’d lay out, imagined the plates piled with deliciousness, imagined the hours of uninterrupted conversation, i felt my own heart grow.

it is in giving love that we find it. that’s neither radical or new. it’s an old recycled truth. but when we live it, especially in the month of december, month of darkness and miracle and making room inside our hearts, it takes on a radiance all its own.

i’ll kindle lights tonight. i’ll aim to kindle light each and every day. i’ll keep my ears tuned for whispers and for cries. i’m making room. i’m tumbling into miracles.

those are the stories, the truths, of december, blessed holy month.

first night candles

how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?

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

thanksgiving sky

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?