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

Month: August, 2019

heart to heart, all over again

teddy and mom, heart in hands

teddy and me, heart in hands, 2007

on the eve of the very first day of first grade, twelve long years ago–august 28, 2007–a boy i love had a bumper crop of butterflies flopping about his belly. so did his mama, truth be told. all these years later, as the old red wagon pulls out of the garage (any minute now), loaded down with college essentials, those butterflies are once again on the loose. a little red heart won’t be the solution this time. but, as we drive off into the distance, it seemed more than apt to let this one unspool once again. from the way-back files of the chair, a forever one titled “heart to heart”:

The little red heart is the size of a button. So is its twin, the other half of its whole. 

When the sun peeks in my little one’s room, when he bounds out of bed and into his school clothes, he’ll slip his into his pocket. As his mama will too, with the one of her own. I promised I would. 

A heart in your pocket is a very good thing. Especially on the very first day, the very first long day of the very first grade, when the time between the morning’s good-bye at the schoolhouse door and the zigzag home from the bus stop is wholly untrodden and feels like forever, way past lunch in a lunchroom, and scrambling all over at recess, way past standing in lines and marching through halls, past sitting in chairs and reaching in desks. Way past finding your name on all sorts of supplies, and even a locker you barely know how to begin to use. Way, way past anything you’ve ever imagined. 

A heart in your pocket is a very good thing. 

You give it a squeeze when you need to. You give it a squeeze when you’re sad. Or wobbly. Or lonesome. You give it a squeeze when you’re certain its powers will work like a cell phone, connect you in magical ways, without even dialing. And the heart on the other end of the line will be there, will know that you’re calling, really she will. 

Because hearts in the pocket are like that.

They connect you.

When you are six and going off in the world, for the very first time really. For the very first time when the lumps in your tummy and the ones in your throat are so very big you think they might choke you. Or send you flying to the faraway boys’ room, way, way, way down the hall, before it’s too late. 

The need for a heart, the need for a something, became wholly apparent last night in the dark. 

That’s when hearts are bared. That’s when all that is hiding comes out of the shadows. That’s when your room and your bed get overly crowded. That’s when the things that behave all through the day come haunting. They decide in the night that they want some airtime. They want to romp in your head, stir up a rumpus. 

And that’s when the feet came. Tiptoeing down the stairs, around the corner, right to my side, that’s when the words came too: “Mama, I need to talk to you about something really serious about school.” 

So, of course, I stopped what I’d thought was important, scooped him onto my lap, and listened. 

“I think I’ll be homesick.” 

That was round 1. Before it was ended, we’d talked, reclimbed the stairs, retucked boy into bed, rekissed that curly-haired head. 

Then came round 2.

Again, feet shuffling.

This time I was not far from his room. This time the words came in whispers, barely audible whispers there at the top of the stairs, where I promptly sat down. 

“I’m nervous about tomorrow. I’m afraid I might vomit.”

The child goes straight for the heart. Cuts no corners. Softens no blows. In a word, he took me right back. Took me back to the weeks, there were two of them, one in kindergarten, one in first grade, when I, too, got so sick, so dehydrated, they twice tossed me in the hospital. I remember it vividly. Remember the little pink puppet they sent me home with. But I remember other things, too, that weren’t quite so nice. Things that still give me shudders. 

I know what it is to be so afraid, so rumbly inside that you can’t hear a word, and the room feels as though it’s swirling. 

I took my boy by the hand. We had some digging to do. 

“We need a heart,” I informed him as I led him. As if I knew just how to fix this. As if I were a sorcerer and I held the potion that would cure whatever ailed him. Sometimes even parents play pretend. Because they have to. Because sitting there falling apart would not help. Would not do a thing. 

So we pretend that we’ve all sorts of lotions and potions and balms. We dab cream on a cut, make it feel better. Whip up concoctions to take out the sting. We do voodoo and rain dances, for crying out loud. Whatever it takes to get over the bumps. 

The bump last night called for a little red heart. Or a little wee something. Something he could slip in his pocket and know I was there. Right there. Not down the street, around the corner, and four blocks south. 

So we dug through my top drawer, the one where I stash all my treasures. There was a rock shaped like a heart, a tarnished old ring, a bunny the size of a quarter. And the two red see-through hearts. 

We sifted and sorted. I let him decide. I told him how his big brother, too, used to go off in the world “with me in his pocket.” Explained how it worked. How you give it a squeeze and you know that I’m there. That I’m thinking. And loving. And waiting. For the end of the day when he’ll be home again. 

I told him I, too, would have him in my pocket. I, too, would carry a heart. Give it a squeeze. Send a signal. All day, back and forth, little hearts would be flying. Would be defying all logic and sense, and even some science. 

But they’d not ever quit. Would not break. Nor run out of batteries. They are forever. 

Good thing when you’re six, you know things by heart. And you believe, most of all, the things your mama tells you. 

Especially at night, especially past bedtime, when all of your insides come burbling right out. When the house has no noise and the moon guides your way down the stairs. 

That is the hour that’s blessed. That is the hour that mamas and papas and all the people who love you pull out their needles and thread, and even their little red buttons, whatever it takes to stitch you and your heart back together again. 

Now go to sleep, sweetheart, and when the day comes, just give me a squeeze. and I’ll do the same. We’re as close as two hearts in a pocket.

That’s a promise I’ll keep. I promise.

***

and button or not, all these years later, it’s a promise i’ll keep. all these years later, my sweet grown-up sweetheart, we’re as close as two hearts in a pocket….

how do you get through the bumps and the butterflies that get in the way of your days? and blessings to all who are scattering every which way in these days of off-to-college, back-to-school, and whatever disperses your flocks….

returning the favor

eight years ago, four of us — a soon-to-be fifth grader, a soon-to-be freshman in college, and the two grownups who live in this old house — boarded a plane, then rented a car, taking considerable note of a string of improbable hurricane alerts as we skirted the edge of the berkshires and drove straight to the heart of emily dickinson’s poetic home village.

on the other side of a night when i could not stop the tears, could barely muffle the occasional sob, on the other side of squeezing extra-long-twin sheets round a bumpy old mattress, dodging that rarest of western massachusetts hurricanes, and wandering the greensward that would soon be my firstborn’s faraway home, three of us lined up on the green, tears clouding our eyes, and we hugged the tall one goodbye. whispered last lines of love notes in his ear, blessed him with unspoken incantations, and the little one (for that’s who he was at the time) hugged and hugged and wouldn’t let go.

the kid we left on the college quad, he’s returning the favor. flying home even as i sit here in the lightening dawn. putting aside law books all his own, because eight years later, the one who wouldn’t let go, is going off for his own adventure in college.

in this old house, eight years is our defining narrative. the eight-year-span, our indelible equation. it’s the arc of time between brothers, it’s the second chance i’ve had from the start, to see if — second time around — i just might get it right (or at least a little bit righter).

when you grow up eight years older or younger than the one you declare as your hero, you’re somehow magically stripped of the competitions and jealousies that, ever since cain and abel, seem to get in the way of so many siblings. eight years pretty much erases the dark spots. eight years amplifies and magnifies the essential heart of the matter.

and so, those eight years are drawing him home, the one who this time around will be on the giving end of the goodbye. the one who, on the eve of the start of his own third year of law school (he’ll fly back to new haven just in time to slide into his seat in one of those seminar rooms), he’s coming home to be here for the bumpy days of goodbye.

he’ll be here to tell the soon-to-be college kid what to pack, and what to forget. he’ll be here for those long-and-winding conversations that stretch deep into the folds of the night. heck, i’ve already deputized him, put him in charge of imparting a few things-you-must-know last-minute instructions (given that three times in the last week, i’ve been mistaken for the college kid’s grandma — thank you very much, hairs stripped of original hue, hairs now a shimmering shade of, um, gunmetal grey, or as we like to put it, “pewter” — i figure the 26-year-old stands a far better chance of targeting particular cautions, and speaking the language of post-millennial college).

and then, a week from today, all four of us will clamber into the old red wagon (the one i’ve already packed, swear to god, when my dry run to see if it all fit turned into the what-the-heck, why not leave these sheets and towels and plastic milk crates right where they are, wedged inch-for-inch into the factory-allotted maw at the back of the car). and, this time, barring no middle-of-ohio hurricane warnings, we will point the car in the direction of yet another greensward, this one with a middle path as pretty as any in new england, and we will do what one does when moving a kid into a dorm, and then, at the appointed hour (it’s inscribed in the orientation handout: “1:15 p.m. sunday, family farewell. families leave campus.” p.s. late-breaking update: looks like they’ve gentled the instruction with a simple declarative, “Families, we look forward to seeing you in October for Family Weekend!” in other words, scram!) we will do as we’ve done before, though never in this particular order.

some of us might try to hold back tears (don’t count on me in that bunch), and as promised in the unwritten family code, the biggest brother in the bunch will bestow the final benediction: he’ll reach out his brotherly hand, pull the kid in close, wrap him in one of their signature all-enveloping hugs, whisper words i won’t hear, and then we will inch ourselves away, back to the old red wagon that will be heading home hollowed, and slowly filling with tears….

that’s what we’re doing this week….

do you remember your own college drop off? do you remember the last words imparted before the ones who left you drove off into the distance?

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p.s. photo way above on the right is a placeholder from graduation, when once again the big brother dashed home for a short sweet action-packed weekend. once i click the trophy shot, i’ll swap it out for safe-keeping here. but for now, it’s just perfect. 

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

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magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

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this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

summer’s saturation point

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there comes a moment, maybe it’s late afternoon when the whir of the cicada rises to jackhammer loud, maybe it’s standing by the bins of tomatoes at the farmer’s market cradling just the right red orb in your palm, maybe it’s sinking your toes in the sand as it cools by the minute at nightfall, but sure as can be, there comes a moment when you know — up, down, and sideways — that you’re in the thick of surround-sound super-saturated summer.

and this is the moment to make the most of it, seize it, lick the juice of it off your chin, bury your toes a little bit deeper, turn the page and keep right on reading: dinner can wait.

this is summer. summer is this.

especially the summer when every ounce of you is counting down. when you wake up knowing how many days there are. how many weeks till you pack up the wagon, and whisper the holy-garden-angel prayer*. (* the prayer that was born when little ears in the back seat behind you were certain the one to whom you were reciting allegiance, the one to whom you petitioned, was none other than “holy garden angel, protect us.”)

especially in august.

so here we are: time for your summer’s checklist.

have you sliced a perfectly ripe, perfectly juicy giant green-striped tomato? a caution-yellow one? one with a fanciful name (cherokee purple, green zebra, Mr. Stripey, montserrat?) and even more fanciful pings to your tastebuds?

have you unfurled a beach towel in your own backyard, flung yourself onto your back, and counted the stars?

have you plucked the sand from in between your toes?

have you lost an afternoon deep in the pages of a hot-burning summer’s read?

have you carried home so many bulging bags from the farmer’s market that the welts in your arm lasted till noon?

have you wished even once that this day — or this hour, or moment — would never ever come to an end?

have you fallen asleep to the nightsounds rushing in through the screens? along with the breeze that tickles your toes?

have you plunked yourself in your favorite perch — maybe a tree house, maybe a cushioned ledge by an upstairs window — and done nothing more arduous than watching the world go by?

have you grabbed a fistful of mint from the garden, rinsed it under the faucet and watched it float in a pitcher of ice, water, and sliced wheels of lemon?

have you stayed up late, and gotten up early, just because you can’t get enough of these summery hours?

have you whispered a prayer of undiluted glory-be for this moment, the blessing of being alive for one more summer?

maybe now is the time….

and here, just because, is the summeriest recipe i’ve stumbled upon in the last string of summery days….(p.s. it’s the dressing that launches this over the moon…..the summery moon, but of course…)

Arugula, Watermelon and Feta Salad 

Yield: 4 servings 

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/4 cup minced shallots (1 large)

1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

6 cups baby arugula, washed and spun dry
1/8th seedless watermelon, rind removed, and cut in 1-inch cubes
12 ounces good feta cheese, 1/2-inch diced
1 cup (4 ounces) whole fresh mint leaves, julienned 

Directions: 

1 Whisk together the orange juice, lemon juice, shallots, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. If not using within an hour, store the vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator. 

2 Place the arugula, watermelon, feta, and mint in a large bowl. Drizzle with enough vinaigrette to coat the greens lightly and toss well. Taste for seasonings and serve immediately. 

what’s on your summer’s checklist?