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

Month: September, 2019

autumn is the season that begs your attention

All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke ~

i’m deep breathing poetry and wisdom at the 2019 Catholic Imagination Conference in downtown chicago, a biannual sacred-infused assemblage this year drawing a roster of glorious writers including alice mcDermott, tobias wolff, patricia hempl, mary gordon, paul elie, and poets mary szybist, paul mariani, and dana gioia, and more and more to the shores of lake michigan. this year’s biennial is subtitled: “the future of catholic literary tradition,” a subject to which i am curiously drawn. while i’m off inhaling all that these wise ones offer, and as the seasons take their pivot, exuberant summer into majestic autumn, i am leaving here at the table the longer, unedited version of something i once wrote: a count-your-blessings calendar for autumn, the season of awe, the season that begs your deepest attentions. in all, there are four weeks in my blessed-be autumnal calendar, but i might leave two here now, and circle back with the next two later in the season. (on the other hand, i might leave the whole thing here now…)

slowing timean abridged version of this is found on pages 134 to 138 of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing, a book that still sells at a slow and humbling trickle. (though not as humbling as the next two…) delight in making this the backdrop to your hours of quietude in the shimmering weeks ahead. i find i can’t ever wrap myself enough in the velvety folds of this turn in the year…

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar: Blessed be Autumn, Season of Awe…*

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In the Christian calendar, Ordinary Time continues, punctuated with Feast Days, All Saints’ and All Souls’, chief among many. Advent comes as autumn turns toward winter. We kindle lights amid the blanketing darkness. We await the Holy. In the Hebrew calendar, harvest time brings the Days of Awe, the holiest of holy days, from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year to Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and on to Sukkot, Feast of Tabernacles, the harvest celebration where we wrap ourselves in the whole of Creation and God’s abundant glory. From the golden glowing autumn light to the morning’s brisk first breath, this is indeed the Season of Awe.

Week One:

Day 1: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn. Blessed be triumphant blast of light and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in. And bless those among us who are wide-eyed to the wonderment that is ours for belly-filling feasting.

Day 2: Now’s the interlude when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. Air turns wake-me-up chilly. Pumpkins weigh down the vine. The slant of sun drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it is all autumn’s call to attention.

Day 3: Season riddled with goodbyes: Winged flocks take flight on night winds. Hummingbirds hover but an instant. The hearts and souls we love shove off, back to school desks and leafy college quads. Bittersweet the partings, filled with prayer for safe return.

Day 4: There is faith galore in tucking in a bulb, concentrated life. In setting it just so, roots poking down and the shoot facing skyward, where the vernal sun will come, will tickle it awake, coax it from the frozen earth, break through unannounced, startle us with tender slips of green. Resurrection, sealed beneath the earth.

Day 5: Wrap yourself in the prayerful cry of the cello, the orchestra’s autumnal offering. No deeper plea for hope than Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, especially as unspooled by Yo-Yo Ma. Might it be the backdrop to your autumn prayer? 

Day 6: Behold the piercing, minor-key dissonance, raining from on high. It’s the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees. In this season of migration, as feathered flocks follow heaven’s call, let us bow our hearts when we hear the mournful siren’s song. 

Day 7: English poet and polemicist John Milton says of geese: They are “intelligent of seasons.” Contemplate that wisdom when next you absorb the snow goose’s unseen night cry. 

Week Two:

Day 1: Some call this “the wabi-sabi season,” so defined as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, and the breathtaking poetry of imperfection and impermanence. Embrace your own wabi-sabi self.

Day 2: Be on the lookout for the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. Wraps it in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it. When first frost comes — when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen — that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last. It’s all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

Day 3: Holy chores of autumn: Head outdoors to chatter with your birds and squirrel friends. Protect them from the coming cold. Toss corn. Pour water into shallow bowls. Smear peanut butter onto tree bark so they can peck it off, stave off the shivers and the rumbly tummies that we fear for them.

Day 4: Partake of autumn’s poetic fruits: honeycrisp apple, mission fig, pomegranate, persimmon, ruby-breasted pear, quince. 

Day 5: Bless the miracle of the monarch, the one of all the 24,000 species of butterflies who migrates the farthest. And whose story brings on goosebumps. For most of the year, the monarch, like every other butterfly, lives an ephemeral life. It’s born, and within weeks, it dies. Not so the monarchs of autumn, they are the Methuselah generation — named for the oldest old man of the Bible, who, according to Genesis 5:27, lived “nine hundred sixty and nine years.” Monarchs born at summer’s end, way up in Canada, live as long as eight months. They exist for one purpose: To fly south, and, come spring, beget the next generation. Who in heaven’s name dreamed up such almighty wonder?

Day 6: Crack open the autumnal recipe box. Bake a crisp or crumble that draws upon the orchard’s harvest. Offer up a prayer for heirloom apple tree, and the woodsman who tended it, and plucked its drooping boughs.

Day 7: Fill the table with invited friends, friends whose big ideas soar like kites against the wind, and whose laughter makes the walls shake. We are blessed with such companions, a word with Latin roots meaning, literally, “bread fellows.”  

Week Three:

Day 1: Bless the season of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings. Of painted-wing songbirds carrying off their full-throated melodies and charmed warblings, leaving us to absorb the new-found silence of the leafless trees.  

Day 2: It is in the few fat fruits — American cranberry, rosehips — left on the bough and thorny stem, and the up-reached arms of oak and serviceberry that we might find the combination lock to our imagination — and our most satisfying comfort.

Day 3: Treat yourself to a mid-night’s moon lace. Tear off the bedclothes, tiptoe to a window — or if you’re feeling brave, straight out to under heaven’s dome. On a night when the moon is full or nearly so, behold the full-strength moonbeams as they spill across the boughs, the grass. All the earth is dappled in inside-out shadow. Better than Chantilly, and sure to take your breath away. 

Day 4: Savor the gray days of late autumn. When all the world is stripped of excess, pared back to strictly elemental. When even a smidge of color — save, maybe, for the blood red of a clump of berries — is uncalled for, unnecessary.

Day 5: Regard the autumn frost, redux. Miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew. Or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day? Either way, let it take your breath away. First blessing of the day. 

Day 6: Unearth a long-buried tome from your bookshelf, and curl up for a long afternoon’s contemplation. What title tickles your autumnal fancy, and gets you in the mood for counting all your bounty?

Day 7: Dollop sweetness, the gifts of summer’s labor harvested in autumn. Might you choose amber-liquid honey, or bronze molasses? Or do you take your sugar squared, in lumps? Heaped blessing, indeed. 

Week Four:

Day 1: The world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time. There was darkness, there was light. Genesis says so. There are seasons, turning. Ask Ecclesiastes.

Day 2: Look out into tangled labyrinth of branch on branch — interrupted only by unkempt knot of leaves assembled by some squirrel intent on keeping warm — and understand what November reveals.

Day 3: As you begin kindling wicks, come nightfall, consider the honeybees’ hard labor to beget the beeswax. It’s estimated that, to gather the pollen to make the honey that’s consumed by bees to craft the honeycomb, the bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax. 

Day 4: Or, as Bavarian thinker named Karl von Leoprechting wrote, in 1855: “The bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.” Ponder that when next you strike a match to illuminate the darkness.

Day 5: These are the days when the stark poetry of gnarly branch and endless sky open up to us. When all around is naked, bared, stripped of its cloak, exposed. We might be spurred to pare away all but our very essence.

Day 6: It is jagged silhouette against the charcoal sky that haunts, rustles us, seeps slowly deeply in.

Day 7: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.” — German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328).

what would you add to your own count-your-blessings calendar for this season of deepest awe?

black-eyed susan* © 2006-2019 Barbara Mahany. All Rights Reserved.

the cartography of discovery, one page at a time

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i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.

the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.

certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.

IMG_0265my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.

i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.

and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.

this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.

but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)

so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?IMG_0262

Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.

“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.

simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé? 

playing house

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as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.

decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.

then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.

and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.

keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.

i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.

this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.

i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.

there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.

with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?

i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.

and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).

the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.

only it’s not make-believe.

and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

it’s the question that stirs me night and day….

what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)