pull up a chair

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

Month: February, 2019

book of delights, indeed

IMG_1331

there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.

IMG_1332professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.

the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.

before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.

in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)

but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.

listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):

I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what’s too high or what’s been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck – at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise – always.

“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”

“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”

that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.

caretaking:

–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.

–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of  “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.

–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.

–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.

what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.

and they matter. more than we often realize.

because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.

what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?

love story of unlikely plot line

IMG_1321

it all started when the dishwasher broke. well, not the whole story. but this latest installment in the look-back machine.

the little green light on the old reliable dishwasher, the one that’s scrubbed up after graduations (grade school, high school, college) and christmas and bar mitzvahs (twice), the one that’s worked monday through sunday for a good 13 years, it started to blink incessantly. i tried every trick in the book but could not get the blinking to cease. so i looked it up in that all-purpose answer box, the internet, and discovered the blink that won’t stop is short for “call the repairman.” so i did.

when he arrived in the depth of the latest cold snap, the kind man with the toolbox asked for the instruction manual (not so sure it’s a very good sign when the repairman wants to check the manual). that’s what led me to the cobwebby corner of the basement, where one creaky file drawer led to another and suddenly i was staring at a row of neatly filed manila envelopes, each one bearing my scribble. each one with a label of sorts: “bk beginning,” “+BDK msgs,” “memories — BAM/BK.”

this certainly wasn’t the clue to how to work the dishwasher, but i was decidedly sidetracked there in the dark in the basement. i reached for the stash titled “memories,” and out slid a slice of my long-ago past.

the very first thing i found, in a crisply typed envelope addressed to me at the chicago tribune, was a letter from one of the loveliest priests that ever there was. a long lean gray-bearded runner with the gentlest dark-blue eyes, an irishman who walked about the neighborhood in his irish cable-knit sweater, doffing his irish-wool cap and pausing to  listen to all sorts of sidewalk confessions. father fahey was his name, father john fahey, and the letter i held in my hands, the letter he’d typed in april of 1989, it literally, was a letter that would change my life.

not too many weeks before he’d written the letter, that gentle-souled priest had answered the door of the rectory, and ushered in me and the tall bespectacled fellow i’d fallen in love with. the one who was decidedly jewish, and not at all sure what to do with an irish catholic — this one, in particular. we’d knocked on the rectory door because we were looking for answers, looking for a way for a jew and a catholic to begin a journey we never wanted to end. we had an inkling that we’d found in each other something we might have always been looking for. except for the part where i was catholic and he was jewish. that twist in the narrative plot was making it tangled.

we knew father john to be wise, the sort of soft-spoken fellow to whom you could bring your worries and woes. so we climbed the grand winding staircase behind him, and sat ourselves down across from his armchair, up in his study at the top of the stairs. father john listened. and spoke only three words: “follow your bliss,” he told us, as if a buddhist koan we were to decipher. we’d climbed to the top of the priestly stairs to be handed a three-word instruction.

well, then.

we tucked those words snugly into our pockets and chit-chatted just a little bit longer. then we left and, some weeks later, the letter arrived. paper-clipped to the letter was the “business card” of another priest (do priests have business cards? well, in this case, in the case of a priest who always claims “i’m in the god business,” a business card it was).

gentle john the priest wrote that i should “take [my] love for Blair, and [my] search for God into [my] heart, and patiently, prayerfully wait for the answer to come.”

and then, in the very next paragraph, he typed: “God may be responding immediately.”

holy cow! that is some service!

father john then proceeded to tell me that he’d just bumped into a priest who happened to mention that he’d pulled together a group, “jews and catholics, who are living through the religious test which their love presents.”

“i think that some are married,” father john wrote, “some are thinking of marriage. i immediately thought of you, and so i asked for the priest’s card.” call him, he tells me.

and so i do, i do call the priest with the business card, and the tall bespectacled one and i knock on his rectory door. and he, too, ushers us in, and sits us down in chairs, and tells us words we’ll never forget: “i’m in the god business. god is love. you’re in love, so how can i help you?”

we explain; he responds: “there’s one God. you both pray to the same God, but you pray in two different languages.” he paused long enough to shoot us a look that meant he meant business. in short order, he shooshed out the door: “go with God and go in love.”

so we did. the priest with the business card has been there all along the way. and so was a rabbi, the one who two years later would marry us (along with another priest, an old friend of the family). they were both there in our tiny back garden, in the days just after 9-11 when the whole world shuddered, but we cradled a newborn baby, and it was the day for the baby’s blessing, which is like a baptism, but it comes in two religions. they were there at two first communions, and two bar mitzvahs. they’ve been there again and again.

and that was 30 years ago. and 31 years ago tonight, the tall bespectacled one walked into my apartment for the very first time. i can still see him rolling up the sleeves of his white brooks brothers button-down. can still see him taking a seat at my tiny circle of a kitchen table, can remember how while i pulled foil-wrapped salmon packets from out of the oven, he told me of a thai soup he’d eaten the night before and how it “was a symphony of flavors.” i remember my ears perked at the description. i remember how something else perked at the rolling up of the sleeves.

i can’t say i’d spent much time before then considering the notion of love at first sight, but i know i felt a thump in my chest that night, almost the minute he walked in the door. and sitting here now at this old, scratched maple table, listening to him pull the carton of milk from the fridge and the special K from the pantry, i can conjure that thump in a heartbeat.

and i gaze over at that letter, the one father john typed, sealed, and slipped into the mail chute all those years ago. and father john is gone now. (by the way, he too followed his bliss, left the priesthood, married a widow (his best friend’s widow), moved to northern california, and died a few years ago…) but his letter, unearthed just this week from the dark of a drawer in the basement, it’s a treasure.

no wonder i saved it.

it saved me.  and us.

happy 31 years to the bespectacled one, though this day does not mark the day that you fell for me. that would come later, months later. i’m the one who counts this day as the very beginning. i knew what i knew when i knew it. in time, you knew it too. 

IMG_1319

the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts

will you tell a love story? 

keeping company with waldo & friends

by the hour, i sit behind my wall of books, reaching from merton to thoreau to emerson, deeper and deeper into the folds of wisdom. it all started because of merton, aka brother louis. or maybe it all started because of mary O. or maybe it all started because of my mother.

my mama, who goes to mass every day of her life (a week ago, during the depth of the polar vortex, i called, and she was in her armchair at 8 o’clock sharp, watching mass on the telly. i shouldn’t have been surprised, and i wasn’t; but i melted a bit at her devotion), she must have been my first rabbi (rabbi in hebrew translates to “master,” or “teacher”).

she’s the one who woke me each morning, flinging the blinds, warbling lines from browning or dickinson — “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” (browning, song from “pippa passes”); “some keep the sabbath going to church — / i keep it, staying at home — / with a bobolink for a chorister — ” (dickinson, 236).

she’s the one whose home movies always drifted away from the faces of her five cherubic children to the iridescent-blue indigo bunting, or the neon-red scarlet tanager darting in the boughs over our heads. some 60 years ago, when in a single day a realtor toured her through half a dozen lovely houses along chicago’s north shore, she bought the one with the most trees. and the creek gurgling in the woods across the street, and the green pond where the frogs croaked and the turtles sunbathed on logs, and the country club directly across the way, with its wide-open vista, promising her a lifetime of sunsets.

she must have been the one who first planted the seed. the seed that has grown and grown. the seed that now is a towering, undeniable, inescapable force, the one that draws me into the woods, under the star-stitched dome of midnight or dawn, the seed that draws me to windows where i can keep watch — on the birds, on the wind, on whatever is falling from heaven.

turns out i am hardly alone in this congregation of woods-goers. i’ve been hot on the trail of something called the Book of Nature, a text i’d never known by name, though i’ve been reading it since before i learned to assemble alphabet letters into words that came with particular sounds and meanings. i’d first learned of it — by name — when a rabbi i was talking to on the radio a few years back said of my first book, slowing time, “it’s midrash to the Book of Nature.” (midrash is defined as ancient commentary, often rabbinic, on Hebrew Scripture; it makes connection between text and lived reality, so says my all-things-jewish dictionary.)

hmm. i’d never known that a girl with a confirmation name, and a patron saint besides, could put a pen to midrash. but my main intrigue centered on this Book of Nature, a title i certainly wanted to get my hot little hands on.

over time, and through the years since, i’ve burrowed deeper and deeper into this ancient wisdom. there’s a whole theology that centers on the notion that the Book of Nature, unfurled at Creation, is God’s first holy text. (called the Two Book Theology, it’s the belief that God is revealed through a pair of complementary sources: the Books of Scripture and Nature; Genesis followed by Word.) this first text even has a latin name, librum naturae, and it traces through the millennia, an idea explored by the ancient “church fathers,” among them augustine of hippo, origen of alexandria, galileo, on through martin luther, emily dickinson, clear to merton’s gethsemani doorstep and mary oliver’s walks through the cape cod woods.

a fellow by the name of sir thomas browne, clear back in the 17th-century, aptly wrote: “there are two books from whence i collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant, Nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all.”

just a few years ago, pope francis wrote: “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.'” and before him, pope john paul declared: “the visible world is like a map pointing to heaven… we learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures.

all i knew was that i love nothing more than to stand, stone still, under the night sky, drinking in the moon and the glowing orbs of heaven. or to sit burrowed in sand and stiletto-sharp dune grasses along the shore, counting out the undulations of the lake’s watery pulses. or to marvel at the mama bird dutifully and vigilantly building her nest, one shriveled stick or grass or ribbon at a time.

i knew and know that i feel the hand of God there. feel the telltale tingle up my spine. i know God’s nearby when i catch the goosebumps breaking out along my arms and my thighs.

so, acolyte to Wisdom, i follow the trail deep into the pages where wisdom is recorded, where it’s spelled out in words that hold me like a vice, or would it be as a spelunker? this week found me in the Transcendentalists: first thoreau, then the master, r.w. emerson, who i learned preferred to go by his middle name, waldo. (henceforth, waldo it is.)

i’ll begin though with a few notes drawn from thoreau, first from richard higgins’ thoreau and the language of trees:

…The winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to Thoreau, a place for contemplation. He walked them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….All its motions… must be “circulations of God.”

and from thoreau himself: “if by watching all day and all night i may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?”

or: “my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

maple trees, thoreau called “cheap preachers,” whose “century-and-a-half sermons” minister to generations. 

at his funeral, thoreau’s friend and teacher emerson said that despite thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion.” 

which drew me straight to emerson, absorbed for days in his signature essay, Nature. and these are but some of the notes i scribbled into my notebook:

Chapter IV Language:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.

A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

Chapter VII Spirit: 

[Nature] always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us. The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship. 

…the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.

…Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?

Chapter VIII: Prospects

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.

no wonder mary oliver called herself a student, first and most, of emerson, who taught her — and us — that “the heart’s spiritual awakening” is “the true work of our lives.”

and with that i leave you to your own musings on the true work of our lives, the Book of Nature, and its most brilliant disciples and diviners….

who are your wisdom teachers, from the pages of the Book of Nature, or otherwise?

IMG_1276

one stack among many

survival, astonishingly

frost-crystals-on-glass-texture

the artistry of dawn, frozen against the windowpane

the weather people soothe us now with reports that it’s all of 9-without-a-minus-sign degrees. but the thermometer outside my kitchen window insists otherwise. it says 5, and not a micrometer higher. either way, that’s eons better than the -22, or 45 below with wind chill. and here along the windy shore of lake michigan, wind counts mightily. it always counts.

our house the other night was burping. or so it sounded. every once in a while through the night a thud arose from who knows where. sounded to me like things were crashing to the roof. i got up to check out the window, to see if i could see a falling something, to see if ice chunks were hurling toward the house. the next day’s news brought word that these ominous noises — these noises that had people rushing to their windows, to see if glass had shattered, limbs had fallen, or maybe stars had tumbled from the heavens — these noises were a phenomenon known as “frost quakes.” so defined as: “a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice.” egad. yet another quirk to be added to the weather woes. count me among the ones who do not like “seismic events” in and under and all around my house.

at our seismically-burping house, as we whirled into the abyss of the polar vortex, we settled our worries on anyone or anything who might, for some godforsaken reason, be stuck outside. we worried mightily about the folks who sleep in tents under viaducts and along the banks of the chicago river, and in flimsy encampments near the railroad yards, in hollows of the city where the forgotten stake their claim in pockets of oblivion. we prayed that somehow someone might convince those folks to leave behind their propane tanks and blankets and the cardboard boxes they call home. and just for one night — or until the vortex whirled away — deign to climb aboard a warming bus, or a cot inside a shelter. dear God, please do not let there be a child out there, i whispered over and over.

closer to home — right outside our kitchen door, in fact — our heap of fears focused on the tiny feathered flocks who dart and flit all day, every day. we knew that we had blankets, and a fridge filled with clementines. and a tea kettle that could whistle on command. but what about the red birds? what about the little juncoes, those snow monks of the winter? and what about the sparrows, the unassuming brown birds whose chatter never stops.

if i could have, i would have opened wide the kitchen door, invited them all in. but i knew that was whimsy. pure wishful whimsy. as if a flock of cardinals would roost above our dinner plates, or huddle high up in the pantry. i was not alone in my worrying. the tall bespectacled fellow who shares this house, he’s the one who first named the little birds when we bowed our heads to pray before tuesday night’s dinner. he did the same on wednesday and thursday.

we could not for the life of us figure out how those tiny-footed creatures — the ones who weigh all of five aspirins or one and a half slices of bread (that’s 1.5 ounces or the same as a papa cardinal) — how in the world would those tiny wisps of heartbeat survive through the long dark arctic night?

it was an equation of survival stripped to its essence. it’s not every night we boil it down to life or death, just beyond our kitchen window. and hope against hope for life to be the victor.

i couldn’t bear to imagine the little things hovering, tucked away in some bough of some fir tree that hardly blocked the wind. i pictured tiny frozen red birds fallen to the snowdrifts by morning. i couldn’t sleep.

once the daylight came, once the sun against the snow made it hurt to stare into the glare, we kept watch anyway. nothing moved out there, save a snow-capped branch blowing in the wind. i’d trudged out early, dumped a can of seed — just in case. but nothing and no one budged. all day on the coldest day, the yard was still.

at last one chickadee appeared. darted toward the seed, nibbled, flitted off. but no one else. then nightfall came again. and dawn. and nothing. not a single bird.

and then, as i kept watch through the morning, as the bespectacled one peered from his upstairs window, at 10:57 yesterday morning, there it came: the flash of muted red that is mama cardinal. she clung to a branch not far from the feeder. and then, at last, she swooped in. as she pecked away at the sunflower seeds, along came her backup squad: one red bird, aka papa, and two more mamas. survival

there was jubilance in our kitchen. the mere shock of red against the white-on-grey tableau, it was victorious. nothing short of a death-defying feat. it was still, at that mid-day hour, -12 degrees. and yet, somehow, the little birds survived. had made it through the wind-whipping night, had endured a cold they’d never ever known, and tucked away in some unknown-to-us cove, employing unimaginable survival skills. we should show such grit. we too should defy the insurmountable when it’s heaped against us.

i stood in awe. the mysteries of the woodland escape and astonish me. the masterwork of creation is what floors me, over and over and over.

we’ve pummeled this holy earth, with our chimneys spewing smoke, and the poisons we’ve poured into the waters, and yet, on a polar vortex night, the papa cardinal clung on, he didn’t freeze to death. he doubled the air mass in between his feathers. he slowed his breath. and before the mercury climbed to zero, he flashed across the yard. the red flash, triumphant.

thank you, Great Protector. and hallelujah cardinals. and all who have survived.

what’s your survival story from this long and bitter week?