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

Month: March, 2019

and so we wait…

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down where the earthworms stir, there must be stirring. all the science books say so. but from here, at my kitchen window, it takes some convincing to buy into the notion that this here is springtime.

i know the calendar says so. i know sun and planet earth did their vernal doh-si-doh, as big ol’ sun inched its way north across the equator at 4:58 p.m. (chicago time) day before last, and suddenly spring had sprung. but round here, there’s not much springing to be spied. we’re in the crouch-down-low days of earliest spring, when your knees have to get in on the act if you really want to catch mama earth in her opening numbers.

the surest sign that earth is a rumbling is what’s happening up in the trees. and i don’t mean the leaves. i mean the cardinals, flitting and chasing and carrying on like red-feathered banshees. males chasing males. aerial cartwheels. rabid games of catch-me-if-you-can. male and female flirting like nobody’s business. pheromones must be filling the air. the occasional female butting in on somebody else’s romance. (oh, the vociferous protest!) it would be safe to assume baby cardinals — flocks and flocks of them — will soon offer proof of unseen ornithological joinery.

me, i’m just stationed here at my old maple table, filling my hours with words — birdsong as backdrop. my lifework seems to have settled into the sedentary task of reading and writing. my eyes and six of my fingers seem to be the only moving parts of me many a day. my brain, though, and my soul and my heart, they’re all deeply engaged. it’s just that, from the outside, you can’t see them expanding. sort of like the hard work of mama earth in springtime. sort of like what’s happening down where the earthworms wriggle. (or start to think about wriggling, anyway.)

the stacks by my side seem to grow taller and taller. occasionally teeter. if i’m not careful i’m going to turn into a hoarder. a hoarder of big ideas and snippets of poetry. not a bad affliction. this week alone i welcomed these fine friends to my flock: the late essayist and editor brian doyle (a book of uncommon prayer: 100 celebrations of the miracle & muddle of the ordinary and god is love: essays from portland magazine); historian and storyteller extraordinaire jill lepore (these truths: a history of the united states; brilliant!); diarist etty hillesum (considered the adult counterpart to anne frank, her diary and letters, written during the darkest years of nazi occupation, testify to the possibility of compassion in the face of devastation, and the combined work —  diary and letters bound in a single volume — is titled an interrupted life: the diaries, 1941-1943 and letters from westerbork); two jewish books of blessings called “benchers,” prayers and songs in hebrew and english (for a class i’m teaching). and finally, and emphatically, mary oliver’s long life: essays and other writings. in the wake of her death, i have found myself reaching back into her bookshelf, finding titles i’d not known before. long life is a beauty, one from which i scribble and scribble, taking notes like a chimney — a poetry chimney — puffing up bellows of something like holy incense.

here are just a few bits i couldn’t help but add to my Mary O. litany:

30. “What can we do about God, who makes then breaks every god-forsaken, beautiful day?” — Long Life, p. 17 

31. “I walk in the world to love it.” — Long Life, p. 40

32. “All the eighth notes Mozart didn’t have time to use before he entered the cloudburst, he gave to the wren.” — Long Life, p. 88 

and then there are these two longer passages, which i tucked into my ever-growing file, titled “book of nature notes”:

“This I knew, as I grew from simple delight toward thought and into conviction: such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning. So I began to consider the world as emblematic as well as real, and saw that it was—that shining word—virtuous. That it offers us, as surely as the wheat and the lilies grow, the dream of virtue.

“I think of this every day. I think of it when I meet the turtle with his patient green face, or hear the hawk’s tin-tongued skittering cry, or watch the otters at play in the pond….” (Long Life, p. 87) 

“A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It is the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world — especially to that part of it with which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate….  

“Opulent and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis, and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly. … And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is the multiform utterly obedient to a mystery.

“And here I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a  field to rise from. To deepen, I must have a bedrock from which to descend.…  

“It is the intimate, never the general, that is teacherly. The idea of love is not love. The idea of ocean is neither salt nor sand; the face of the seal cannot rise from the idea to stare at you, to astound your heart. Time must grow thick and merry with incident, before thought can begin.

“It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape — between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety. We need the field from which the lark rises — bird that is more than itself, that is the voice of the universe: vigorous, godly joy.”  (Long Life, pp. 89-91)

and thus, my dispatch from the muck days of spring….

what’s expanding your soul this week?

my ancestral irish blessing, slathered with butter.

shannon soda bread

he came to me, as all sprites always do, when i wasn’t looking. just popped up one day inside the gremlin-filled flat-box that is my 21st-century laptop. it’s as good a place to find an enchanted character as ever there was.

he’s my sprite of an irish cousin — third cousin, in fact (i let him do the math) — and he came to me out of the ether, and filled me ever since with doggerels and ballads and pictures and stories, all thick with a brogue. he’s filled in — as much as he possibly can — the wide and deep vacuum of history on my papa’s side of the family. the straight-from-ireland side. the side i knew least about, but wondered most about, because it’s the side i see when i peek in the mirror, and it’s the side that belonged to my pa. and, well, it’s mythic to me.

it’s a tale filled with ocean crossings, and childbirth deaths, and heartbreak hard upon heartbreak. one uncle was struck by lightning, when he ran to hide in his kentucky tobacco barn from a midsummer storm of biblical proportion. (the uncle who found him — his kid brother — might have drowned his sorrows, dying of liver disease years later.) another was slashed in his tent in a midnight attack on the japanese island of iwo jima. before he shipped off to war, that uncle — danny was his name, my dad’s oldest half-brother — ran the legendary calumet (horse) farm, just outside lexington, kentucky. and the triple-crown champion, whirlaway, was one of his stable.

in my cousin paddy’s telling, there is plenty, too, to make your chest swell. and your eyes grow misty. and some that just plain raises your eyebrows. among the latter: there’s the uncle who served as a jailer in a wee kentucky town, and while trying to lock up one of the infamous hatfields or mcCoys found himself bit in the head by the rascal. (no fool, that uncle up and hightailed it to the california coast, far as he could get from hillbilly feuds).

a few months back, dear paddy sent along a treasure in the form of a slip from the ancestral recipe tin: the very irish soda bread served at the family homestead hard by the bridge in kildimo south, in the county of clare, in the west of the great verdant isle.

if you’ve poked around here for more than a minute or two, you know that i consider the kitchen a mystical magical place, a room where you can bring old souls into your midst through the simple stirring or sifting of flour and soda and sugar.

so it was that i found myself the other afternoon with fists deep in the pillowy mound of flour, soda, salt, and buttermilk that is the beginning and end of the true irish soda bread. no sugar! no raisins! paddy exclaimed, shaking his fist at the kitchen profanity.

as i brushed the mound with the last dabs of buttermilk, and, not an hour later, pulled the golden loaf from my sputtering oven, i good as felt my grandma mae peeking over my shoulder, her breath on the back of my neck. close as i’ve ever felt to the one whose genes are mine (in a rare moment of heart-baring, my pa once told me how much of her he saw in me — she’d died years before i was born; and i sensed over all the years that he said very, very little because it hurt too, too much).

because paddy himself is inimitable — and purely lovable in his unfiltered tongue — i’m unfurling the recipe just as he wrote it, swear words and all. his vernacular spice takes it up more than a notch in my book; a soda bread with swears is the way it should — and ever will — be.

be sure to slather with good irish butter.

Paddy’s Irish Soda Bread

(West Clare Recipe)

There are only (4) four ingredients in Traditional Irish Soda Bread, Flour, Baking Soda, Salt, and Buttermilk. No More No less. I don’t give a tinkers hoot in hell what you’ve read, eaten, or heard! You put anything else in it you are not making Irish Soda Bread. I first had this bread served by Great Aunt Katherine Ni Shannon Marrinan at the Anna Bridge House in Kildimo South, Clare in 1970. She baked it over the turf fire. Yep had the Irish Butter and the Orange Marmalade for the first time as well with strong cups of Irish Tae. Kitty Ni Shannon Downes also made it for me at the Half Door in Miltown Malbay and it was just as grand. It’s especially good after a night of drinkin’ the porter…….settles the stomach before ya go to bed.

Ingredients

(Use a Dry Cup Measure for the flour – Not a Liquid Measure)

4 cups(16oz) of Gold Medal Bread flour

1 Tablespoon Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Salt
14 Oz of Buttermilk

  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt and baking soda. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk. Using a spatula or your hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be soft but not wet and sticky.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash and dry your hands. Knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, then pat the dough into a round, about 1 1⁄2 inches thick. Place it on a baking sheet and using a sharp knife, cut a deep cross in the center of the dough reaching out all the way to the sides. Then brush over the loaf with a bit more of the buttermilk.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and continue to bake until the top is golden brown and the bottom of the bread sounds hollow when tapped, about 30 minutes longer. Serve warm. Cut in semi-thick wedges.

4. Now then get yourself a couple slabs of Kerry Gold Irish Butter. Yes it really does make the difference when eatin’ Irish Soda Bread. And I don’t want to hear from any Mick blatherskite goin’ on about it being too “Dear”. Shut the hell up Paddy and cough up the shillings.

5. Orange Marmalade. King Kelly was the best. Came out of California. I used it for over 30 years. However, Smuckers bought them out then discontinued the King Kelly Brand and Recipe. My friend from the County Mayo likes the “Dundee” brand but what the hell does a bitter ole Mayo Man know about anyting? If ya like the bitter side of tings then get it. I suppose I’m stuck with Smuckers until I can find something even vaguely close to King Kelly….Jayzus…..Dundee Indeed…..

6. Now go buy some Irish Tae. Barry’s Irish Breakfast Tea or Plain Barry’s Irish Tea. I like Barry’s Irish Breakfast but sometimes it’s just not available. I’ve been known to drink Tetley’s Englash Breakfast Tea but keep your gob shut about it. I may be a Traitorous gobshite but you’d be an Informer!

Bonny Petute Paddy Shannon

may your days be filled with the swirls of long-ago tales, and homespun heroes. and this:

May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

what’s your family heirloom, of the kitchen variety? 

this one’s for paddy, who has unfurled his heart and filled mine. much love from your ol’ cousin babs…

if you look closely enough……

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you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

balm for the late-winter blues

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maybe you, too, feel pummeled. pummeled by the news. pummeled by the daily screech of nasty. the abundance of bully. maybe the unrelenting ice (and the cracks and the creaks in the bones that go with it) has left you gasping.

at our house, there’s a nasty case of shingles, and i’m walking around in a hard plastic splint, thanks to aforementioned ice. i don’t mean to be the human embodiment of eeyore, my favorite misanthropic donkey.

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

but, yeesh, february took a very long time to come to its last gasping breath.

i was gasping, all right.

and of course three-quarters of the pain is self-inflicted, since i’m the one who tuned in early, and never did leave, the shenanigans on capitol hill. the ones where over and over all day wednesday we witnessed displays of ugliness and partisan baloney the likes of which had me muting half the day, and wiping away tears at the end. sometimes the news of the day makes me think we’re back in ancient rome, crammed in the coliseum, watching gladiators tear each other to shreds. tearing us — and the moral fabric of this national experiment in hope and humanity — into tatters as well.

good thing an old, old friend, a friend who is the antithesis of all that is ugly in the world, good thing he was pencilled in for a long, slow overnight visit. the sort of once-in-a-rare-while visit that requires — no, invites — a whole day’s attention to all the arts of the hospitable heart. there were fresh sheets to tuck onto the bed, and sinks to be polished, besides. there was lavender water to spritz onto pillows. and a table to set with old fine blue-willow china. just-opening daffodils were slipped in a vase on the sill of the window in the room where our dear friend will dream. the dinner, slow cooked, will serve as invitation to a long night’s nautilus of deep conversation.

an overnight guest is the chance to step outside our everyday rhythms, while at the same time drawing another into the intimacy of those very quotidian rhythms: kicking off shoes after work, rinsing dishes after dinner, turning out lights for the night. falling asleep, each in our rooms, to the shared lullaby of an old house’s hisses and snorts.

or maybe it’s simply that to open our home — truly open it — is to open our heart. a muscle that demands regular exercise ( and not only of the cardiovascular kind). a vessel that begs to be filled with a good surge of love. the center-point of our soulfulness that, once in a while, does well to be reminded of its capacities.

all i know, at the start of this newly born month, at the end of the longest shortest one, is that it’s balm to my late-winter blues to crank up the flame on the stove, smooth the sheets on the bed, and await the face at the door of the old friend who, time and again, has shown us the best of human connection.

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

and what are the balms you reach for in your soulful apothecary?