light coming in at the edges

by bam

dispatch from 02139…

it struck me, in the middle of a long-strided lope this week, as i race-walked from point A (andover library) to point B (memorial hall), my shoulders weighted down with satchels of notebooks and pens and binders, my breath coming in rapid spurts as i righted my wrong direction and sought internal gyroscope, that i was quickly becoming one of the lemmings.

schedule in hand, spreadsheet at the ready, i’d chalked up six whole classes plus wednesday night seminar plus friday master class plus etched-in-stone 75-year-old nieman tradition, the tuesday night “sounding,” in which each worldly fellow gathers us all at the conference table and pours out the why of his or her journalistic lifework.


the fact of the matter was i was darting past grolier poetry book shop, inc. (est. 1927). i’d not yet ventured behind the great stone walls of the monastery nestled along the bend in the charles river. i’d barely spent a morning here in the third-floor aerie where the sunlight streams in through lace curtains, where we’ve a whole library of sacred music, dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries, where bookshelves overpopulated with the likes of thomas merton, t.s. eliot, rainier maria rilke, mary oliver and wendell berry call out to me so insistently and incessantly that surely their throats by now are rubbed raw and hoarse as chafing sandpaper.

“but here you are at harvard, fool!” i heard myself chastising myself. “clock’s ticking and you turn back into a pumpkin soon enough. glass slippers will shatter; you’ll be back to your pink rubber crocs quicker than you can say ‘manolo blahnik.’ don’t tarry. don’t stop for breath. inhale. swallow, swallow.”

and then i heard myself choking, sputtering like the tail pipe of some chitty-chitty-bang-bang (a cultural reference that solidly plants me a school-age child of the late 1960s, in which the whole family trooped to a crimson-upholstered downtown movie house to take in the big-screen rendition of roald dahl’s film delight, the one that starred dick van dyke in the role of hapless inventor of flying car).

and that’s when the editing began, the self-editing, the making sense of the morass of these past few days and weeks, in which dizzy heads prevailed, and the intellectual binge began.

no wonder we all looked dazed. it’s what happens when you unloose a troop of would-be thinkers on an ivy-walled institution catapulted off the drawing board back in pilgrim days, a mere hop, skip and a jump from plymouth rock, for cryin’ out loud. with the bona fides to prove it (just stop and read the olde english prose pounded into the limestone slab at johnston gate, at the maw of harvard yard, should you require chiseled veritas).

it wasn’t hard, really, to check my pulse and proclaim it overstrung on overdrive. i could hear it pounding in my head. i could see it in the rosy streaks that had stained my irish cheeks.

the choice, truly, wasn’t complicated: i could a.) keep up the mad-dash, and hyperventilate my way toward christmas. or, b.), grab the pruners, play curator of my own calendar, and try my hand at nips and tucks.

i heard the gong go off — bing! bing! bing! — when numero due, little letter “b” rolled through my brain cells, washed over the gray matter, kicked off its placid powers, settled me into a state of soothe i’d not sensed in, well, months and months, quite frankly.

the whole point of sabbatical, the essence of that latin root, sabbaticus, is, indisputably, “a ceasing.”

in other words, it’s a holy plea to hit the brakes on all the tumult.

“shhhhhhh,” you can hear the big lips in the sky whispering, imploring. dial it down. chill, baby, chill. it’s time to rest now. go to your cubby, and grab your sit-upon, that padded cushion upon which to doze while the teacher turns the pages of the picture book, and you nibble on your grahams and slurp your milk.

see, just the notion of that long-ago rug time, back in the children’s garden when you were five, it makes you all heavy-lidded, doesn’t it? slows your ticker to a sweet adagio.

and so it was when i realized i could ditch a class or two. didn’t need to take in the spectacle of rock-star ethical reasoner michael sandel (heck, i’d been a student of the jesuits, and i’ve yet to stumble upon a living-breathing soul who teaches ethics more solidly than a three-star jebbie). on a gosh-darn roll, i realized, too, i didn’t need to whittle away my thursday afternoons tangled in the algorithms of “science and cooking.”

suddenly, as if cumulus clouds had parted, i saw clear blue stretches in my week, whole blocks of hours unclaimed.

why, i could amble down the cobbled lane, climb the steps to that famed poetry corner, slide a slender volume off the shelf, curl up in a cozy nook, and discover bliss in stanzas.

rather than exist beneath an opaque wall of back-to-back commitments, i could step off to the side of the lemming’s march, pay attention to where the light seeps in around the edges.

isn’t that where holiness presides?

isn’t that the glory that makes this whole endeavor matter?

isn’t that why God invented sabbath, and on the seventh day she wholly rested? plunked her achy tootsy-toes upon the footstool, sat back and sighed?

i am always late to understanding, and i nearly always manage to stumble, bloody-up my knees before i figure out the obvious, but might we come to hear our deepest whispers, quench our deepest thirst, when we stop the noise, quell the fury, and get about the work of purely being alive?

and so it’s been in recent days.

can’t claim i didn’t feel a twinge, a seismic pang of guilt, when i skipped my first “justice” rock-‘n’-roll show. can’t pretend i didn’t wince when, yesterday at 2, i knew full well i was missing out on the physics of sous vide, that chic undercooking mode made famous by the spanish roca brothers (whose lecture i did take in on tuesday afternoon, though i was left barely grasping how you cook filet of sole in a vacuum-sealed pouch on very few degrees for 36 hours, and live to tell about it).

i mustered up all my heaven-sent determination, and — egad, what pray tell is this? — found myself sinking down into a featherbed of slow time, pay-attention time, do-what-matters-to-your-heart time.

i tiptoed out of bed at dawn, and marched down the cobblestones toward the great stone monastery, saint john the evangelist, at the river’s bend. i pushed open the great oak door, and stepped into the candle-lit stone-cave quietude where the monks were deep in morning prayer.

i’d missed the bells, it turned out, because i read the schedule wrong. but, still, i was there for the gospel and the chanting. and i was soon alone, my knees resting on the cobalt-blue velvet cushion, my head bowed before the rows and rows of votive candles, one of which i’d lit, one of which flickered its holy vesper up to where the prayers waft.

and here, on a friday morning where the breeze flutters the lace that drapes the window, i am alone with the tap-tap-tap of the alphabet keys, a somnolent but soulful rhythm if ever there was one.

and i made time this week not for a night class, but rather to visit the book store where a fellow who’s written julia child’s biography, stood and told us tales from the cookstove. recounted how julia’s hors d’oeuvres of choice was nothing so fancy as pepperidge farm goldfish. “by the bowls full,” the scribe informed. “whole mountains of them,” he emphasized, as if letting us in on her long-held kitchen secret.

it just might be that serendipity is the savior of this year. that floating without rudder, dancing unchoreographed, just might be the magic trick.

to live, to breathe, with all your might, just might be to let the hours unspool all on their own, to grasp the sacred when and where you find it.

most especially when you slow down, grow quiet, so much so that you can’t help but pay attention to the sunbeams peeking in from between the shadows.

that’s the harvard book store, up above, where bob spitz, author of “dearie: the remarkable life of julia child,” and the white-shocked pin dot, just to the right of the tv square, was spilling kitchen secrets the other eve. and just below, the candles that burn at saint john the evangelist, a holy place i fully intend to make my home away from home……

oy. and before i lose this entire page, thoroughly upending my new-found calm, i’d ask simply, have you discovered a need to edit the demands of your life, to curate the gallery of what matters most deeply, and what’s dismissible? and what unfolds when you slow to a pensive quiet?