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

Month: March, 2017

the empty room: gulp.

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it didn’t take long to hit us. once the sun went down, and the stars turned on. once two, not three, places were set at the old kitchen table. once we climbed the stairs and rounded the corner, spied the empty room.

empty, as in the boy who sleeps there was gone for a few days. empty, as in he made the bed before he whirled off to the airport (a sure sign of something unusual astir).

i heard both of us groan, the deep-down guttural sound you make when something feels strange. as we stood side-by-side brushing our teeth, i saw the look on both of our faces in the bathroom mirror: haunted.

we were both glancing into the not-too-distant, just-around-the-bend, two years-and-four-months from now. when the kid, God willing, will be off in college. the sweet boy who every night bounds into our room, in the dark, no matter the hour, whenever he’s finally calling it quits before sleep, and, every blessed night, he plops a kiss on my head, throws his gangly arms around whatever part of my sheets and limbs he can find, there in the dark.

how in the world will we manage, without his sweet animations 24-7? what in the world do you do with a house that’s missing its most precious cargo?

we’ve been at this, the other grownup and i, at this experiment in parenting, for nearly 24 years. had one babe then another fully occupying every inch of this house and our hearts. and last night, for the very first time, we both felt the hollowness up around the bend.

i didn’t quite know when i married the man i love just how much this fathering would melt him, would deepen him, would make him take so seriously the care and instruction of fine men in the making. i should have known — the man i love had perhaps the dearest father known to humankind, a man whose attentions on his children were deep and pure and unfailing.

one of the first clues that the man i married might take on uncharted dimensions was the night, weeks shy of our first labor and delivery, when he rolled my direction and announced to anyone listening: you’re not going to recognize me; i’ll be turning to mush (or something very much along those lines. i was not taking notes in the dark).

and so it’s been. the man practically goes weak in the knees for his boys. and ever since the little one came along, eight years after the first, a good four years after we were told that no more babes would ever come tumbling from the heavens, well, he’s kept his eyes on that prize like nobody’s business.

sometimes, in the thick of growing kids, when every few minutes you’re running this way or that, worrying about fevers and flus, tryouts and tests, you almost forget that some day the chapter will close. those kids’ll up and move out. pack their bags, wave goodbye, and launch their own sweet lives.

it’s not that we’re clueless, and it’s not for lack of evidence — all around us, seeing as we’re on the, um, older end of the parenting scale, folks we know and love are singing the empty nest song. we’ve been told — by reliable sources — that these people we birthed will perhaps marry, have kids of their own, turn us into grandmama and grandpapa. and having sent one off to college, and soon off to law school, we’re somewhat versed in long-distance parenting.

it’s just that — oh, my — it hit us like 10 tons of bricks last night that we could soon be dwelling in a house that’s 10 sizes too big. a house that’ll feel like an old pair of jeans, slid down around our ankles, because they don’t fit anymore. we might need walkie-talkies to holler from one room to the next, since our intermediary messengers will no longer be here to relay the word (as in, “mom says there’s smoke coming out of the oven!”).

thank God we get these limited-edition previews, those signs from the heavens that life is about to change, and change rather dramatically. it sank in with a thud last night, and now that wisp of what’s-to-come might begin to lurch around deep down inside, where we do all our growing, our getting ready for the transformation that’s peeking over the horizon.

he’ll be home sunday night, that sweet kid now romping through cambridge, mass., 02138, his home away from home, the global village where he’s certain he left a chunk of his heart. by then, perhaps, i’ll gather a stash of brochures from the college just down the lane — the one that might break me in slowly to this notion of deep empty nesting.

in the story of your life how did you find a way to adjust to the day-to-day absence of someone you loved? or is it an ache that still hurts?

two housekeepings: i’d thought i might write a blessing today for that soon-to-be-birthed work of my heart, Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, but instead i was walloped by that empty bedroom above — and felt the need to try to capture the moment in words. i’ll likely send out a special blessing on tuesday, the official publication date of the book with the lovely nest on the cover. and an update on bravery: i found out this week that mustering courage, doing the thing that wobbles your knees, sometimes makes your wildest dream come true. details to come in the very near future.  

one brave thing

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i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

i especially hear those whispers when i’m standing at a precipice, about to take a flying leap off a ledge. a ledge like walking into a newsroom as a nurse + 1 year of grad school (as if that gave me any cred to run around the big bad city, with my reporter’s notebook flapping in the wind). a ledge like walking into labor and delivery, knowing the lump in my belly would soon be cradled in my arms and heart forever after. a ledge like writing a book from the deepest place in my heart and being afraid it will be panned.

i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

and here’s the beauty: once you’ve done the single deed, you’re done for the day. no more bravery required. or if you do decide to fling on your bravery cape, you do so with the triumphant knowledge that you’re now in extra-credit land. (i admit to being one of those little kids who always loved the buffer zone of extra credit; more or less the shortcut up the mountainside. or at least a remarkable insurance plan, there in case you need it.)

this one brave thing can work for anyone. no matter what the commodity you’re in search of. it’s just as easily the one-blank-thing plan. say kindness is what you quest; do one kind thing a day, and you’re on your way. maybe it’s patience. same plan. fill in the blank, and tackle it one sure feat at a time.

i used to think — and often still do, truth be told — that courage was black or white, an on or off switch. you have it or you don’t. and i was pretty sure i would never be called up to the courage major leagues. but what i’m working on — trying to teach my thick-headed little self — is that, like muscles, you can build it, drop by drop, layer by layer, bit by bit.

so i’m not looking to turn into the queen of confidence. i’m just trying to start and end the day with one new checkmark in the courage column. i’ve sent off notes — one by one — to  folks whose work i love. i still await reply. but honestly, the replies might not matter as much as figuring out that i can dig down deep and yank out my daily dose of being brave.

one of these days i just might glance in the foggy mirror and see a brave girl looking back at me.

till then, i’m working on it: one brave thing, my humble quota for the day.

we’re all works in progress and isn’t that the place from which our beauty comes? and speaking of courage, top of my mind this morning is a boy i love who is walking into a very big meeting but feeling VERY under the weather. he is being oh so brave. and i am offering up all my courage — and whatever else it takes — for him to glide through that meeting, unscathed. 

no need to answer down below (these are private matters of the heart and soul, after all), but what one thing might you submit to the one-a-day plan? what’s the commodity you long for, and might you find it slowly surely certainly?

a bit of housekeeping: i know some of you have loved “on the wings of the hummingbird,”the blog of my beautiful friend mary ellen sullivan, who died last year. for a few weeks, it’s seemed the hummingbird was lost, but the good news is that it’s forever in the cybersphere, thank you to the great good folk at wordpress.com. and you can find it here. (it’s just a slightly longer url, but it’s all there, beautiful as ever.)

remembering how good “better” feels

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that’s a revised headline up there. it’s shortened from what i was first going to type. what i really wanted to write was: “sometimes you have to feel awful to remember how good better feels.”

convoluted, yes. a bit dark, perhaps. and plenty long — for a headline, anyway. too long, truth be told. so i nipped off a few words, and gave you the gist.

in its own way, it’s a deeply irish way of putting it. and that’s one of the things i love about being irish. why say it straight on, why shove aside the complexities, when you can get there by way of the meandering footpath that wends across the moor? why go for undiluted sunshine when you can poke around the shadows and emerge from irish mist?

what other people find their way to blessing only by first mucking about in the slop?

and so i defend my curious perspective as one whose genes are firmly rooted in the peat of eire, my homeland of a little isle, plopped amid the crashing, crushing north atlantic. and it’s the thought that came to me after four weeks on the sick list. there were days — and days and days — when every breath hurt just a little bit. when i found myself considering not just my lungs, but all those little bronchioles and air sacs that make exchange of oxygen a certainty, a condition of staying alive. i’d not in a long time spent whole nights mapping my eustachian tube, that little tunnel of the inner ear that goes by unnoticed so many, many years of our lives. but once that little throughway gets flooded, filled with angry waters, hoh boy, you start giving it your attention — and then some.

i could go on — but i won’t — naming the body parts that in recent weeks have screamed for attention. reminded me of their existence. made me think quite a bit about how, most of the time, they just go about their business, paying no mind to anything but the job at hand, not yelping out for assist in any way.

and all of it finds me marveling at the pure and undiluted blessing of being alive. day after day being gifted with this flesh-upholstered machine that bends and stretches, reaches for the stars (or simply the soup can on the highest pantry shelf). while sinew and synapse do their daily chores, we get to exercise our soul. titillate our imaginations. strike our funny bones.

it’s the gift of being sick, of pausing to pay notice. of realizing there’s no guarantee on all these body parts. when we’re oblivious, they’re working well. when they go kaput, we halt to attention, we consider the zillions of taken-for-granteds that keep us going, hour after hour.

as sick as i am of feeling sick, i’m trying to make the most of this personal anatomical inventory. i am trying to hold up to the light all the parts thatpink sky work so hard — so without applause — to do their jobs. a knee that bends. airways that breathe in oxygen, blow out nasty CO2. eyes that make out the shifting shades of pink across a sunset sky. and catch the red bird darting by.

i’ve paused my whole life long to consider a litany of gifts. i’ve a dear dear friend whose daughter couldn’t hear for the first five years she was on this planet, and when my friend catalogued the sounds her daughter had missed, my heart wept. clock ticking. church bells. dawn awakening. the sound of her mother’s heart beating inside her chest. coffee percolating. crickets. raindrops. wind.

when i was in high school, a dear friend of mine was strapped into an electric wheel chair. i plopped beside him on the radiators just outside the cafeteria, and while he was so content to sit and watch the passersby, i remembered what a gift it was that when the lunch bell rang, i could leap off the hot seat and get to class without pushing buttons on my motorized chair.

even now, i have a dear friend whose ankle — and all the tendons and ligaments around it — shattered when she slipped on a river bank, to get a finer look at the moon. she’s been as patient as a saint for the last year and a half. and every time i talk to her, every time i think of how she can no longer traipse through woodlands, poke around for mushroom caps, i look down at my little sometimes-wobbly ankle, and whisper thank you.

i suppose you might say i come to blessings through the back door. or through the mist.

but whatever is my twisty path, i am so relieved i am no longer contemplating my alveoli (those wee little sacs that comprise the lungs). i am simply inhaling straight-up gratitude for the gift of hauling this creaky body through one more whirl around the day.

what would be the gifts on your thank-you list today? and what does it take for you to pause and pay attention to those quiet wonders that make us so alive? 

 

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

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“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those words, spoken above the din of a crowded downtown aerie, with the city lights twinkling outside, with the clatter of forks against plates, stopped me. startled me. gave me a deep gulp of hope, the deepest in a very long time.

the man who spoke those words knows a thing or two about hearts — not least because he’s an intensive care doctor. not least because he works in hospitals in aleppo, in bomb-rubbled syria. in aleppo where bombs rain down in triplicate, a tactic intended to kill the rescuers as certainly as those in the midst of being pulled from the ruin.

just minutes before, the man who spoke those words — a gentle man with deep brown eyes that bore deeply into me as we spoke, inches away from a table spilling with pigs-in-a-blanket and shrimp and asparagus in long green shafts — had been telling stories to the crowd about being in an underground hospital in aleppo last summer — before it was too dangerous, before death was too certain to stay. he’d been telling stories of a mother of four, who’d been hit by a barrel bomb (a makeshift bomb filled with shrapnel, and chlorine gas), a mother who’d lost her unborn child and two of the three (ages 9, 7 and 5) who’d been huddled beside her.

i listened, rapt, as he told the stories, as he pulled the memories in real-time from inside the vault of tragedies now locked in his mind.

i’d listened a few minutes earlier as another syrian, a therapist who’d come to this country eight years ago, talked about the first months when a family is here in america. how everything — from the alphabet, to bus tickets — is practically indecipherable. how each morning, you awake in something of a daze, in that instant before you remember you’re far far from home. lost in a foreign landscape.

and, here’s the part i remember most, she said that the smallest kindness, the invitation to dinner, the gentle word at the checkout counter, the guiding hand at the bus stop, is never to be forgotten. you will never forget the face of the someone who was kind to you — never, ever.

i wasn’t taking notes; i was listening, so i can’t remember exactly how many syrian families are now living in chicago, forced here by war and unthinkable horrors. i want to say it’s 140. i do know the number is slowing to a trickle, and soon stopping (because of the so-called muslim ban that effectively puts up the “not welcome here” sign). i do know that each of those families, some clustered on chicago’s north side, some in suburbs to the west, have lived through hell, and traveled through hell to get here.

the syrian families who’ve been here longer, since the 1960s and 1970s some of them, when an earlier wave of mostly doctors and engineers packed up their families and moved here, they’re leading the network, the syrian community network.

they’re asking for the simplest list of supplies: rice in 10-pound bags; chickpeas in 28-ounce cans; sugar in four-pound sacks; flour, five pounds; oil in 48-ounce bottles; tomato sauce in cans of 28 ounces; and tea bags, too (no size or amount specified). they’re asking that the foodstuffs be dropped at one of two pantries — saturday, tuesday, and thursday, in glendale heights; saturday, monday and wednesday, on devon avenue on chicago’s north side.**

and they made the nifty card up above, with a whole menu of ways to help: from donating a CTA bus pass, to hosting a dinner. there’s word that someone is organizing an effort — 100 dinners in 100 days — to emphatically urge hospitality, to gather good souls, strangers soon to be friends, at the dinner table. to spend the day cooking, and serving up platters of very fine food. food to fill the belly, but more so the heart.

i’m awaiting word on the dinners. i want my house filled with the sounds of conversation, starting out slow and in delicate tones, and then rising, rising across the arc of a night, into the combustive discourse of joy. of gentleness. of one hand reaching for a water pitcher, or a platter of coriander-spiced lentils, bumping into another. and in that instant of hand bumping up against hand, i want eyes to look up, to look shyly, and then melt in the confidence of newfound friendship.

those are the miracles that unfold at the platter-filled table. those are the joys of a jumble of chairs squeezed round the plank of a dining table. it’s the arc from uncertain handshake at the start of the night, to hug that won’t let go as the guests finally walk out under the starlit dome.

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those are the words the doctor spoke to me. those are the words of which he was certain. and his certainty reminded me what i’ve always believed: one little heart, one undeterred heart, it can be more than plenty to begin to change the course of history.

one dollop of love at a time. it’s the only place to begin.

how might you use your heart today to begin to change the world? 

sending much love to my friend A who organized the gathering of syrian friends at her sky-high abode, and who opened the door to infinite hospitality.

** if you’re interested in dropping off groceries at the food pantry, leave a comment below, and i can email you the precise address. 

and in case you’re inclined to help make a home for a syrian family, here’s the list of what’s needed. 

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the light may save us (and a few books, too)

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i was minding my dr.-seuss-birthday business yesterday (march 2, the national feast of green eggs and ham, and 113th birthday of theodore geisel), when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. i mean really caught my attention. i mean made me put down my pen and turn my head sharply in the direction of the beckoning.

i stared, jaw-dropped. it was something not seen in months and months. it was pure and unblinking. it was whiter than white, a color so sharp, so intense, you could practically apply it with paintbrush.

it was the first light of spring, the vernal lifeline cast from the biggest star in the sky, the one that burns through the day, the one that signals “the seasons are turning.” you’re making it — just when you’re thinking you won’t — from winter, on into spring.

i sat and stared at the light. marveled at the way the season comes on unannounced. no clanging and banging, just the world underfoot quietly going about the business of awakening. all around i feel it, the drab of winter dying away to the newborn tenders of spring. from underneath a pile of spruce branches, i discovered snowdrops pushing their slender necks through the crust of winter’s garden. my front walk is flanked on both sides with a pool of lemon-y aconites, their bright shining faces aglow in the hours, especially, when morning sun soaks them in wattage.

all this unfolds as i too shake off the germs that took me hostage for the better part of two weeks. we’re still moving slow as sap here in the house where strep took hold. but there are signs that life insists on moving forward. spring will come. lungs will clear. the intensity of sunlight will creep from a tickle to a surge.

sometimes i remember: if we surrender to the rhythms of the earth, and the heavens above, we will be carried by the divine heart that animates each and every stirring. world without end. amen.

what signs of hope did you spot this week?

and, in case you’re looking for a few soulful books, here’s my latest roundup from the Chicago Tribune.

Religious humor in ‘Sin Bravely’ leads spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Sin Bravely” by Maggie Rowe, Soft Skull, 225 pages, $16.95

Admittedly, the “religious humor” section of the bookshelf is markedly sparse. Yet that’s where you’ll find “Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience” from comedy writer Maggie Rowe, a suburban Chicago native who’s written for stage and screen, including scripts for “Arrested Development” and Netflix’s “Flaked.” Since 2002, she’s been performing in and producing the Comedy Central stage show “sit ‘n spin,” Los Angeles’ longest-running spoken-word extravaganza, described as “part theatre, part 12-step meeting, part tent revival.”

Publishers Weekly called “Sin Bravely,” Rowe’s debut memoir, a “born-again version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'”

Don’t let the funnies fool you: It’s an unflinching examination of the dangers of literalism in the religion department. And while you might be distracted by the sound of your own laughter, it’s a dead-serious message that won’t soon be shaken off.

The plotline goes like this: As early as 6 years old, Rowe found herself obsessed with a fear of going to hell, one so extreme it drove her to become “an outrageously dedicated” born-again Christian. At 19, crippled by her fear, Rowe checked herself into an evangelical psychiatric facility, where pictures of Jesus hung on the walls and a kindly doctor — and a ragtag cast of lovably kooky characters — proved prescriptive.

It’s there that Rowe launches her anti-damnation campaign, finally subscribing to her version of Martin Luther’s admonition: “Sin bravely in order to know the forgiveness of God.” In a scene unlikely to be found anywhere else on the religion bookshelves, she tests her newfound theology in, of all places, a strip club’s amateur night. We’ll let Rowe take it from there, for hers is a storyteller’s inimitable gift.

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 184 pages, $16

From the photograph of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the cover, Tish Harrison Warren’s debut work, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” signals that it’s rooted in the quotidian, the humble humdrum of day-after-day existence. This is spiritual guidance for the bed-maker, the teeth-brusher, the traffic-snarled among us. This is one ordinary day turned inside out, its hallowed script revealed, liturgical underpinnings exposed.

Warren, an Anglican priest, campus minister, writer, wife and mother of two, unlocks “a practical theology of the everyday,” and she does so by seamlessly coupling ordinary moments — awaking, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, sitting in traffic, checking emails, sipping tea, sleeping — with the sacred.

She beautifully ties making the bed to the Creation story, to God’s making beauty from chaos. In a consideration of tooth brushing, she draws us into a meditation on Christianity as an embodied faith, one in which our senses — our physical pleasures — draw us closer, more emphatically to the divine. Even a fight with her husband becomes a platform for seeking shalom.

It’s in the nitty-gritty of daily work where Warren illuminates holiness. She writes of “tiny theophanies,” church-bell moments, that jolt her — and us, her readers — to sacred attention. The purity of her vision, the clarity of her writing, makes effortless work of the notion that the small acts of our everydays are what shape us into the sacred vessels we are meant to be.

As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And “Liturgy of the Ordinary” unveils the holy way through even the humblest, most fumbling of days.

“Hammer Is the Prayer” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26

It would be unwise — foolish, even — to think that cracking open a book of poetry might take you straightaway to the same high plane as prose that trains its lens on God. Or the Sacred. Or however you define divinity.

What happens in poetry is altogether chancier. You might, one moment, find yourself immersed in the earthly, devoid of anything remotely godly. And then, one poem later, find yourself catapulted to a place you’ve not before felt, so sudden and so certain is your awareness of, your proximity to, what’s holy.

So it is traveling through the pages of Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems,” a gathering of three decades of poetry from one of America’s foremost poets, one whose poems have been said to “reach out to both heaven and earth.” Wiman, for 10 years editor of Poetry magazine, now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. This is his eighth book.

Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, he’s said that his awareness of God went dormant once he hit college, but then, newly married and diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer in 2005, Wiman and his poetry began to grapple with faith and with God. It’s more of a wrestling, a visceral dance with doubt and belief. An urgency, too, entered his work, and it’s that sharp edge in his poetry that seizes your heart.

To trace the trajectory of God’s absence or presence in Wiman’s poetry is to enter into your own dance with those unrelenting questions.

Here’s one: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?”

Barbara Mahany’s next book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” is due out in April.

(and speaking of that book, the real live actual first copy landed on my stoop this week. and it’s lovelier than i ever imagined. thank you, abingdon press.)

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