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Month: November, 2017

while we’re away: soulful reading

soulful reads 11.17

oh, it’s been a week, all right. zipped home from inaugural law school visit last weekend, dove into proofing of almost-final-round of book manuscript, stayed awake a night or two, lost a round of editing when computer got mightily hungry and ate a day’s worth of labor, and now off to — gulp! — take a peek at a few colleges with the sweet boy i swear was born just a few minutes ago. while we’re buzzing about the dairy state (soon to be named something far less bovine, i’m told), i thought i’d leave you with a little soulful reading.

here’s the latest roundup of spiritual books from the pages of the chicago tribune.

Mary Oliver’s ‘Devotions’ offers snapshot of a half-century of work

By Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

“Devotions” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 480 pages, $30

For more than half a century, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has been training her eye on the mysterious and mystical thrumming of the divine. She sets out on a hike through the woods and suddenly she is asking questions, posing possibilities that hover at the liminal edge of the sacred.

“Why do people keep asking to see / God’s identity papers / when the darkness opening into morning / is more than enough?” she asks in the first poem found in her new book, “Devotions,” which draws from 26 collections published during the past half-century. It’s as if the poet herself has sidled beside the reader and pointed us to the poems she considers most worthy of deep consideration.

It’s Oliver’s most profound gift, perhaps, that she — like so many of the most soul-rippling poets — comes at her subjects from oblique angles. Her work catches us unsuspecting. For instance: “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that. And anyway / what’s wrong with Maybe?”

“Holy Rover” by Lori Erickson, Fortress, 256 pages, $24.99

It’s not every day that a travelogue comes rolling along on the spiritual book cart, and this one in every way is worth a literary expedition. For starters, the author of “Holy Rover” is a first-rate storyteller and a longtime travel writer. After decades writing for mainstream slicks — National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful — Erickson here turns her sights on spiritual pilgrimages and holy meccas around the world. She is at turns irreverent and devout. She spins a fine yarn and weaves in a mighty dose of insight along the way.

In a world tour of religions that carries the reader from the trail of elves in Iceland to Hildegard of Bingen’s abbey along the Rhine in Germany — with stops in Thomas Merton’s Kentucky and at Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond — Erickson both explains and enlightens. And her explication — never settling for an off-the-shelf recounting or humdrum heard-it-all-before — digs deep, shining light on little-known nooks and crannies of the religion world’s most uncanny characters and sacred landscapes.

With every stop on the “Holy Rover” tour, the armchair spiritualist stumbles into something new to learn.

“Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart” by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, Hampton Roads, 240 pages, $16.95

In history’s short list of spiritual supernovas, Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic and theologian, surely must be counted. He was a genius, a prophet far ahead of his time. Yet, in no small measure because of the complexity of his thinking and the tradition of theological discourse to which he belonged, his work is not an easy read. His sublime vision of the divine dwelling within each of us has escaped all but the most ardent of students.

But just as soul-sweeping as ecstatic Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, Eckhart, with “his way of piercing straight to the heart of the inner life, the awakened spark,” as Thomas Merton once put it, belongs in certain reach.

And so, “Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul,” a collection of poems drawn directly from or inspired by Eckhart’s prose, is a welcome addition to the spiritual library, as it offers a deeply textured invitation into the mystic’s heart. It is the culmination of decadeslong study of Eckhart by the two authors, Jon Sweeney, a scholar, editor and critic, and Mark Burrows, a poet and professor of medieval theology in Germany.

Each poem is short, spare, distilled. And each one is footnoted, so the reader might begin in enchantment, then trace the poetry to its source. A sure-footed path toward mastering one of the great masters of the last millennia.

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

i’ll be back next week, with a post-thanksgiving litany of gratitudes. for now, may your day of feasting, and all the kitchen magic that precedes it, be filled with grace and deliciousness. 

and happy blessed birthday to my sweet, sweet mama! much love, always…xoxox

and one deeply sad and poignant note. a few weeks ago, in one of the most blessed moments of the book escapades of Motherprayer, i tumbled into the story of a glorious mama who, amid a hushed crowd in a sacred space, told her roots-and-wing story, how roots came so easily to her, the mother of one, but wings, she discovered, she was “not so good at.” giving wings to her girl, her beautiful magnificent brave girl, that wasn’t so easy. letting go, it seemed, went deeply against her grain. so the mama, intent on finding a way to do that very hard wing-giving thing, sat down in the dark one night — under the lights of a football stadium, no less — and needlepointed a pair of wings for her daughter, for when she’d some day need them. the mama’s name, though i didn’t write it when i wrote the post, love letter at the end of a chapter, was bonnie. bonnie died on november 3, less than a month after the night she tumbled forever into my heart, her story — and the triumphant way she told it, a booming voice bellowing forth from the most delicate soul i’d seen in a very long time — forever etched in my heart. bonnie’s beautiful magnificent daughter now finds that she’s the one holding the wings, and indeed, as she knew it would be, it’s harder than hard — it’s unbearable almost — to be without her mama. this weekend those who loved bonnie are gathering in a glittering downtown high-rise to tell love stories, to put wings to the spirit of bonnie. if you’ve a blessing to spare, please send one up for bonnie, a beautiful well-winged friend. and one for her very brave daughter. thank you. xoxox 

and one more thing about bonnie, who loved being a mother, maybe more than anything she had ever done. the day before she died, she said this: “what is important is to love.” and then she added: “you can only do it one person at a time.” 

i only met her once, but the force of her love was among the mightiest i’ve ever encountered. thank you and bless you, dear bonnie.

what might be your most lasting instruction?

putting a season to bed…

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for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

the sharp edge of vulnerability: a hard look at love

OR waiting room

once those double doors swing open, and the last thing you see is the back of the head of the someone you love, flat on a surgical cart, a bag of clear fluids flowing into a tube into a vein in the arm you’ve held a thousand thousand times, it’s impossible not to feel your knees go a little bit weak. as if the wind has just been whooshed out of them.

so it happened this week. when someone i love, someone i will always love and have loved for more than half of my life, was wheeled off to a surgery that would take less than an hour — though time barely enters the equation when love and goodbye and surgical blades are stirred in the mix.

you surrender. submit to the forces of medicine. pray the surgeon had a good night’s sleep, and a sturdy bowl of oatmeal besides. but mostly, i was washed over in a sense of how precious is every last filament and fiber that is the substance of that someone whose voice, whose story, whose dreams and heartaches i know by heart. i was washed over in knowing i would stand in the way of anything — any thing — that stood to hurt that sweet blessed soul. i found myself picturing him as a young child, how tenderly i would have cared for him, long before knowing he’d become the man to whom i’d wed my life. i leapt forward through time, pictured the thousand frames of moments as he and i have carved this long path that is ours now. pictured the hard choices we’ve made. the moments we’ve wept in pure joy. the hours when silence marked the hard negotiation of the heart and the soul, when humility and a willingness to soften might have been the only thing that saved us, allowed us to move forward again, the pas de deux of a promise made, and promise kept, over and over.

surgery does that. the sharp edge of the scalpel soon to be put to this person you love. waiting rooms too. you sit, fueled on old coffee and cable TV, absorbing snippets of anguish and blessed relief all around you. “fatty growth, totally benign,” you hear from two seats away. the surgeon pulling off his blue paper surgical cap, the son — or the husband, or merely a very close friend; biographies are absent here and don’t much matter, not really — collapsing into the not-so-plush back of his chair. “we’re worried,” someone else whispers, loudly enough that you all but nod in unison, a whole chorus of we’re-worried communion. and when at last you get your own good news, the news that it’s over and all is well, a woman with a wrinkled face and tight-curled hair, hollers across the room, “hallelujah!” she beams, rejoicing right with you. then, as you stand up to unlock your knees, grab your coat and your cold coffee, she closes the moment with this benediction, “have a blessed rest of your day.” and so you stop to kneel down beside her. to echo her prayer in your very own whisper.

love is the thing that saturates every cell of who you are, especially when long cold corridors and locked double doors stand between you and the someone you love. you think hard about the fragile hold you have on this thing called your life. you begin to scan the hours, consider how deeply you take it for granted that morning will come, sheets will be thrown back and the rhythms of day after day will begin all over again.

the sharp edge of love is worth pausing to consider. just yesterday, as i was turning pages in a book, i came across this one declarative sentence: “what she did best was love people.” it prompted me to ask, without pause, in our one simple life is it enough to love and love well?

candlelight dinneri thought of that question the whole rest of the day — as i put drops in the eye of the someone i love. as we turned out the lights, and kindled the wicks when dinnertime came, because lights were too bright, lights made it hurt. i thought of that question as i tucked him under the covers, slow-cooked a fine dinner, and snipped and gathered red-berried stems into the old cracked pitcher on the kitchen table. because yesterday i was reminded sharply and in no uncertain terms what a treasure it is to love someone your whole life long, and to love that someone as well as you possibly can.

what does it mean to you to love well? and how did you learn?