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Month: October, 2019

stockpiling

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it felt almost like instinct. as the weeks narrowed to days narrowed to hours, i couldn’t keep from stockpiling. soon as the boy — now sleeping just overhead, in the bed by the bend in the stairs — soon as the boy told me he’d found a ride after all, was coming home for a three-day break — fall break, officially — my fill-the-larder instincts kicked in.

lavish him in all the tastes and smells and textures and offerings he could possibly wish for. that seemed to be the propelling mission.

so i stockpiled. stockpiled pumpkin pie from the farmer’s market, grabbed a loaf of banana bread while i was at it. stockpiled cider and raspberry rugelah. ordered up a chicken pot pie from a mama who makes it delicious.

the sheets on his bed hadn’t been touched since the day after he left the room empty as empty could be, the day i scrubbed every last inch of that room, as if preserving something ineffable. the room, more relic than place to hang out these days, barely needed a flick of my wrist. but i vacuumed anyway.

the prodigal papa back in the bible, he wasn’t the only one who knows of the fatted calf. i too might have tossed a beast onto a pyre if chicken pot pie hadn’t been to his liking, the kid who rode six swift hours in the back of a minivan, the kid who all but tumbled onto the street once the four wheels pulled to a stop there at the curb.

we squeezed so tight it’s a miracle all my ribs are still in one piece. i wiped away tears (of course) and then we loped in the house, past the welcome home sign that only made him laugh, because it’s a truth in this house that you can hardly take a trip to the grocery store without finding a welcome home sign upon your return.

inside, once he kicked off his shoes, he too seemed to kick into some instinctual and ancient reflex: he walked room to room to room to see if anything had changed, to make sure all was as he’d left it. then, and only then, did he settle into his most native rite of settling in (be he gone for merely an hour or long weeks on end) as he began to circle the kitchen island in the way he (and his brother; it must be genetic) forever have done, ambulation propelling cognition it seems. story spilling upon story, each one told to the beat of his footfall.

he punctuated his stories with poking around the pantry, inspecting the fridge, and, after all the wind-up, picking a plain old box of make-your-own mac-n-cheese, the kind he’s loved since he was three. and so his first feast at home after seven and a half weeks wasn’t the hoosier mama chicken pot pie, wasn’t the homemade cranberry-studded applesauce, wasn’t the farmer-baked banana bread or the kosher-deli raspberry rugelah. it was the starchy pile of pasta shells swirled with powdery cheese turned into goop. he nearly licked the pot, my boy who’s grown three-quarters of an inch since last he was home (we pulled out the tape measure and measured).

all that spooning into his mouth must have left him exhausted, for the next stop on the homecoming tour was a flop backward onto his bed, and a sigh of pure joy like nothing i’ve heard in a very long while. he mumbled something about how glorious it was to sleep on a mattress that cared for a spine and all its spiky little vertebrae. but then he was off in dreamland, not to be heard from for hours and hours.

it didn’t take me long to realize there’s something (very much something) of the human heart involved in all the stockpiling. it’s almost as if in shopping and shlepping and stocking the shelves (and the fridge and the countertop and the blue willow plate under the cookie dome) we’re giving the blood-pumping muscle a boost. almost as if all the comestibles are edible poetry, are the extensions of our vocabulary. as if they pick up where words cannot go. as if they’ll reach deep into nooks and crannies, as if they’ll saturate every last cell that just might need to be bathed in the notion that someone loves you through and through and through. as if we can’t go the distance all on our own.

it’s almost as if the stockpiling is squeezing every last drop of that thing we call love out of the tired old muscle — the magnificent vessel — that is the human heart. that storehouse deep inside our ribs where all the love is churned, is harbored, is pumped into the ether. almost like it’s a little bitty factory, a production line of loving, that never ever dies. not even when we do, i’m utterly certain.

it all made me wonder if this might be the rhythm from here on in, in these days when the boys i love most dearly are far far from home, and their visits grow less and less frequent: will i learn to stockpile, to fill the larder with all the love i used to lavish day upon day, hour after hour, the barely-noticeable ministrations of the heart — the kiss on the forehead while they’re sleeping, the whiff of their hair while setting a plate at their place at the old maple table, even the occasional deep inhale and sigh when tossing piles of muddy sweaty clothes into the wash? will i store it all up, every last drop of it, and save it for when they come home, when it will all but ooze out of me, when i all but plant myself at the door of his sleeping room, just to watch the rise and fall of his breathing? will i ever not miss the days when i used to wear them, literally strapped into bundles across my chest? the days when their itty-bitty plump-dimpled hands were always reaching up for a lift or a hug or a squeeze round the neck? all our life long, the gestures of love shift and evolve. and while the deep caverns of the mind grow more and more nuanced and brilliant, sometimes it’s the old ways, the skin-to-skin entanglements of mother and child that i miss, that can’t be replaced, can’t be once again, all over again. IMG_0365

so we stockpile. we store it all up, and we ooze it all out for those short few hours and days when they’re close enough that we can hear their breathing, bury our nose in their necks. one deep inhale, one that’s going to need to last for weeks or months on end.

***

it’s been a busy week around here: my first book review for Orion Magazine is online. twas of a beautiful, beautiful memoir, The Salt Path, about an epic journey propelled by unlikely homelessness and a dire diagnosis, one that leads to epiphany, and you can find the review here.

but the bigger news of the week is that the book i’ve been working on for months (years, actually) is officially published and stocked on the amazon bookshelves. it’s my friend mary ellen’s book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude,” a collection of her beautiful breathtaking essays. here’s what i wrote when i posted something of a birthing announcement on facebook yesterday:

When Mary Ellen started her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” on March 2, 2012, she harbored a flickering hope that someday it might lead to a book. She never dreamed she would die just four years and 11 days after “Hummingbird” first took flight. Yet her dream of a book never died. And so, after a few years of culling and sorting and weaving her essays into a whole (a labor of love that became mine when I found out a month after her death that in her will she’d appointed me “custodian of her creative work”), it is with pure joy that Mary Ellen’s family and I announce the birth of her book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude.” It’s a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone. Her words, her urgent pleadings, are sure to etch deeply into your heart. It’s available in paperback and e-book, and you’ll find it on Amazon.

two versions of covers, one for the e-book, left, and one for the paperback, right. i was constrained by the strictures of the platform, but tried to make the whole of the book as beautiful as mary ellen’s indelible words…..

how do you stockpile — and lavish — the love in your life?

book for the soul: sister helen prejean’s “river of fire”

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i’ve been waiting to tell you about this one, one that pulled me in from the very first pages.

here’s how it begins:

“They killed a man with fire one night. 

Strapped him in an oaken chair and pumped electricity into his body until he was dead.

His killing was a legal act.

No religious leaders protested his killing that night. 

But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. 

And what I saw set my soul on fire–

a fire that burns in me still.”

that’s the very beginning of Sister Helen Prejean’s fiery baptism into her role as the Dead Man Walking nun who, ever since that night in the killing chamber, has devoted her days to fighting mightily and gutsily against the death penalty. and as she writes a few paragraphs later in the preface to her latest book, River of Fire, a memoir at once hilarious, soulful, and intimately detailed, recounting the spiritual journey that drew her to the executioner’s cell that night: “Once when I was inside the Louisiana death house awaiting an execution, Captain John Rabelais, a guard, asked, ‘What’s a nun doing in a place like this?'”

River of Fire is her answer to that question. and it’s as soulful a book as i’ve read in a rather long while, and a glorious read to boot! as i didn’t write in my review for the Chicago Tribune, i wound up hauling that book wherever i went for a few days, carving out hours and space in which to sidle up beside Sister Helen, who came to feel like the nun i didn’t have in fourth grade. oh, i loved sister leonora mary, but she wielded a sharp-tipped pointer, kept every hair on her head in hiding, and sure never told me the tales of the loves in her life, nor referred to herself as “a sort of free-range chicken version of a nun.”

sister helen is, by her own admission, highly free-range. and that’s how i best like my chicken — and, apparently, my nuns.

oh, lordy, to sit down beside her in real time…who knows the tales that she’d tell in the confessional of kitchen-table tête-à-tête?!

turns out, two fine friends here at this very table know her well (one is and one was a sister of the congregation of st. joseph, the very order of nuns to which Sister Helen belongs, and one is spelled out in the shortlist of acknowledgements at the end of River of Fire). both can — and animatedly do — unspool a skein of Sister Helen stories: how she shows up at sundown on the front stoop fully equipped and raring to go for a long night of story-swapping; how she holds any audience anywhere utterly spell-bound and never brings so much as a note to the podium; how in real life she’s the real deal — every bit the iconoclast and rabble-rouser she seems on the pages of her books.

before i plop down my tribune review, i’ll add this one community service announcement: sister helen will be at The Well Spirituality Center in lagrange on wednesday, october 30 at 7 p.m. (click the link above, and secure your $25 seat in the room). without notes, of course, she’ll be telling tales from the pages of her life and her books. and, as she does in her book, she’ll leave you laughing one instant, and covered in goosebumps the next, so utterly stirring is her brand of free-range wisdom and soulful epiphany.

here’s the review, as it ran in the tribune:

‘River of Fire,’ Sister Helen Prejean’s new memoir, is as irreverent as it is wise

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE | OCT 02, 2019

‘River of Fire’

By Helen Prejean, Random House, 289 pages, $27

Sister Helen Prejean is known as the nun from New Orleans who wrote prayerfully and piercingly about witnessing death-row electrocutions in a Louisiana prison. That her book about her experience, “Dead Man Walking,” rocket-blasted to best-seller status, spawned a movie, an Academy Award-winning performance, a play, and an opera that’s been produced on five continents, says something undeniable about her storytelling powers.

Prejean has done it again in her new memoir, “River of Fire.” While the subject here — her own spiritual evolution — might not be as harrowing as what she terms “government killings,” Prejean’s capacity for truth-telling, for holding little back, makes for can’t-put-it-down page-turning.

A truer title might have been “Inside the Nunnery: 1,001 Things You Were Afraid To Ask.” And Prejean tells plenty. We start innocently enough, reading about life beneath a nun’s habit of so much black serge she felt “mummy-wrapped.” She recounts the story of a nun friend once mistaken in a fabric store for a “bolt of black material,” so voluminous was the to-the-floor flesh-masking swirl of standard-issue black wool. Prejean holds back little in detailing a seven-year relationship with a hard-drinking priest, a celibate bond, to be sure, but one charged with more than some of us might ever have imagined vis-a-vis our fourth-grade nuns.

But Prejean isn’t practically a household name in social justice circles and beyond because of her knack for titillation. She oozes hard-won wisdom, soulful epiphanies, and wraps it all in breathtaking humility that shrinks any distance between author and reader. The whole way through, “River of Fire” reads as if a tête-à-tête on the schoolhouse steps, where one sits beside a beloved, much-wiser soulmate and sops up a lifetime’s worth of lessons learned, often the hard and roundabout way.

Most of all, Prejean cuts through church-preach. Time and again, she zeroes in unswervingly on the essence of radical non-conformist Jesus, the one who preached love, the one who reached out to those on the ragged margins of society.

And she’s laugh-out-loud funny. And irreverent. Sometimes, both at once. Writing about the saints — Joan of Arc in particular, the saint who was “burned at the stake on charges of heresy and the unpardonable sin of cross-dressing” — Prejean writes matter-of-factly: “I just know I’d never be a good martyr. I burned my hand once making brownies and I nursed my wound and talked about my wound and held up my poor burned hand for all to see and sympathize with. Burn at the stake? For something as trivial as holding beliefs considered to be a little unorthodox? Be burned alive for that?”

Don’t mistake her narrative hijinks or her yarn-spinning capacities as sideshows to dilute an otherwise indelible confessional and testament to the power of a life devoted to God and godliness. Rather, it’s the pure joy of reading Prejean — her gift for knocking herself off any saintly pedestal, making the reader believe that we might all leap into her river of holy fire — that makes this a spiritual work of high and radiant order.

“I have a hunch I’m going to be waking up till the moment I die,” she writes. And in so writing, the good sister opens up for all of us the doorway into our own humble stumblings toward what can only be termed the lifelong walk toward holiness.

Her parting words, almost as if she’s leaning in, there on the schoolhouse step, where you’ve now been sitting side-by-side for 286 pages, as if imploring one last life-or-death time: “I urge you to get in the conversation on human rights and stay in it. It’s the only way the arc of the universe bends toward justice.”

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

and what fine reads have you read of late?