the shadows crossed the line this week. the equatorial line that cinches the earth’s belly at the waist. those of us on the upside of that line, we’re in shadow now. minute by minute, inch by inch, we’re tipping away from the sunlight, into the deepening, lengthening shadow.
it’s autumn, season of molasses light. season of hauling out the sweaters, putting seed back into the feeders, hauling out cook pots we’ve not seen maybe in months. it’s the season when deep-down parts of me come humming back to attention. everything about it — the scents, the slant of light, the goosebumps of early morning — seems to me a call to begin the in-burrowing.
i was home alone all week so autumn’s call had little distraction. i did as instructed: sifted through the bins of bulbs, cut back the ramshackle runaway garden, plucked the last of the bright orange tomatoes off the vine (it’s a game of where’s waldo, really, rummaging through the tangled vines in search of the ones so certainly orange, i know their time has come). inside, in the kitchen where i ply my alchemies and my otherworldly ministrations, i glugged olive oil, chopped fennel, carmelized onions. i invented things to do with figs.
today i amble to the airport, to fly back to the corner of the jersey shore, tucked between a pond and a river, where my husband is sifting through the decades of his family’s home, the 19th-century house where untold stories are being resurrected every day: a wedding album never seen (not by me or my husband, anyway), a dashiki worn on a south american concert tour, a baseball bat commemorating willie mays’ 600th home run. i am eager to be alone in the house of the woman i am very much missing, while my husband is out attending to the thousands of things on a list when you are closing a chapter of lives fully lived.
my job is to sift through her kitchen, to pull from the shelf the mug she always shared with her husband of sixty years, each one taking a sip of the morning’s coffee, passing the mug back and forth across the maple table, all to the quiet tune of news pages turning. the sort of sacramental moments that unfurl across the span of a lifetime, of a marriage of decades. i will sift, too, through her cookbooks, the ones i hardly think she ever cracked, for cooking to her — a woman who came of age as the feminism of the 1960s was tearing down the eastern seaboard — was pure distraction, and dinner was apt to be a thawed-out Tastee burger (bun and all tossed in the freezer after a run through the drive-in, especially if selling on discount, and i’m told the pickle never really warmed in the toaster oven that served as her main kitchen appliance). i hear there’s a Settlement Cook Book, circa midcentury, i’ll add to my jewish cookery shelf. i’ve reason to believe it will be in pristine condition, not a single splatter of schmaltz (unlike the one already on my shelf; one given to me when i married my jewish beau). there will be pangs that hurt, and moments that make us laugh till we cry. and moments, too, that do both.
all of it — the days home alone, really alone, and the somber-toned trip to new jersey, where a for-sale sign is now staked in the yard — has drawn me deep down more swiftly than in most autumns. i’m finding i need to work a little harder, tread more vigorously, to keep from going under, into the darker shades of the shadow. once again, there’s little to distract me. so i’m listening to the wisdom of the season. i’m surrendering to the call to burrow in, to put the garden to bed, to stock the cellar for winter. to batten the hatches, throw a thicker blanket onto the bed. to not get in the way of the work of the lengthening shadows.
the idea, the sacred idea, is to step out of and away from the worldly, the den of sin and brokenness, the everyday landscape where we knock around and are knocked around, where some days we haul ourselves to bed only after rinsing off the scrapes and skinned knees and slapping on a slew of bandaids.
the idea is that for one cycle of darkness to light to star-salted dusk, we burrow deeper and deeper into a journey of the soul. to scour every last particle of grit and grime that gets in the way of the blessedness we are, the blessedness we might have forgotten long, long ago. to emerge into a radiance that matches the heaven’s-on-fire setting of the sun.
one great rabbi taught that on yom kippur, the holiest of holy days in the jewish calendar, the day of deep atonement, we are to stand in front of the great mirror, to see ourselves as the divine sees us, stripped of our excuses and rationalizations, our denials and self-trickeries: to see our brokenness, our bumps and our bruises, the hurts we’ve held onto long after expiration date, and, too, to see fully and in fine grain all the tender places and the faintest stirrings of our hopes and dreams, the inkling that we do have the courage — and the grit (the good kind) — to put muscle to the blessedness we’re called to be.
we begin with confession. vidui, the hebrew word for confessing. we confess in short form (vidui zuta) and, because that would be short-shrifting our fumblings and failings and only half doing the job, we do it again in longform (vidui rabbah), poking around in all the places where we pretend we’ve hidden what hurts, scrubbing out each and every crevice, spilling all our secrets and the moments when we know we’ve stumbled and precisely how we’ve done so.
we live in an age without much confession. extreme defensiveness seems to be the preferred posture, the safer stance, necessary armor in the rough and tumble of this gory global moment. i’m sorry’s are mumbled or slurred. we sneak one in, if at all, and hope it doesn’t halt the proceedings, call too much attention to itself, to our admitting how far we sometimes fall.
but from the start, the jews — a people with whom i’ve been practicing now for more than three decades, along with my practices catholic and anglican, my practices in all paths toward a life that is holy (and by practice i mean not only the noun but also the verb, to try again and again) — they’ve set themselves apart. they see themselves as a people commanded to strive for holiness, not just individually but collectively. as a people. as a nation. a people with whom God has chiseled out a covenant; follow me and my ways, and I will harbor you and bring you abundant fruitfulness.
and with a nuanced grasp of the innermost self, fluent in the light and shadow of the soul, daring to stand naked, to wrestle and argue with God, jews erect a tabernacle of confession into the holiest of holy days. traditionally, it’s an acrostic, an accounting of sin in alphabetical inventory, spoken aloud and collectively, in the third person. ashmanu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi…kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu…we betray, we steal, we scorn, we act perversely…we have deceived, we have mocked, we have rebelled against God and his Torah, we have caused God to be angry with us.
in a commentary on the acrostic confessional, known as the ashmanu, one rabbi (Alan Cook) writes of how, over a lifetime, he’d squandered his once-innocent alphabet, the 26 letters he’d learned as a child, hardened it, allowed A to stand for apathy, B for brusqueness, C for coarseness, and he prays: “Help me, then, to return to that innocence. / Let the letters be letters once again, / And let them rise to the heavens / And form into the words / That You know I wish to say.”
the words that You know I wish to say…acknowledging how, even before God, it is so, so hard to admit our sins, to put breath to the naming of each and every one.
it’s that breathtaking truth-telling at the foot — or in the face — of the divine that arrests me. stops me in my pilgrim tracks. draws me deep into the embrace of this ancient people who so profoundly and poetically unspool the most intimate utterings of the soul. makes me certain we are meant to lean on and learn from each other’s most finely, surely trod paths to the mountaintop, the place where the Holiest of Holy dwells.
i might not make it through the whole alphabet, not in one sitting anyway, but it seems right to try to insert an act of contrition, confession, into the public square of the 21st century in the midst of pandemic, and flood and drought and fire, and never-ending vitriol.
this tiny pebble i will try to cast, may it ripple at least as far as across this old scarred table. and in the spirit of the ancient peoples who do not flinch, may it plumb true depths and stirrings.
i begin with these words from the prayer book of Yom Kippur: You know the secrets of the universe and the secrets of the human heart. You know and understand us, for You examine our inner lives. Nothing is concealed from You, nothing hidden from Your sight. Eternal One, our God and God of our ancestors, we pray that this be Your will: forgive all our wrongs, pardon us for every act of injustice, help us atone for all our moral failures.
for these sins, our God, we ask forgiveness:
for the times we avoid and evade, because we’re too afraid to put breath to truth. for being ashamed of who we are, or how we look or think or act, for allowing the self-criticism to serve as excuse for retreat.
for betraying the ones we love, and all who need an ally.
for calculating kindness, measuring it out for motive, rather than its own unfettered sake. for cold shoulders when we couldn’t — or wouldn’t —muster warmth.
for denying what we believe in, too spineless to stand with our convictions.
for eclipsing the words, or thoughts, or gestures of those who share our space, in those moments when we fail to simply listen, to turn the stage to those whose voices aren’t so loud, so certain.
for falling short a hundred times a day — or hour — because we sell our own selves short; the sin of false modesty, a sin of not stepping up to the plate for which we’re made.
for going with the crowd when we know we’re meant to go another way, a lesser trod way, simply because we shy away from stirring any sort of friction.
for hurling hateful, vengeful thoughts at those we deem “against us,” those who overpopulate the public square, who by their words and actions seem hellbent on inflicting pain. and so we justify our sin by deeming them deserving of every vile drop. because we pretend we’re holier.
for ignoring muffled cries from those who are hurting, are lonely, are cast aside, those who seek the simple solace of one warm soul to walk beside. and for inflexibilities, when we can’t bend to whatever life is asking of us, even if it’s the merest accommodation, one that might make another’s day just a little easier.
for jealousies in all their bitter poisons. for judging far too swiftly with far too little evidence or reason.
for kindness we were too lazy to extend.
for love we withhold, a self-righteous tax we convince ourselves is ours to dole out or deny as we so choose.
for mindgames we play, locking ourselves inside cages of our own making.
for not noticing the quiet hurt our words or inattentions inflict.
for obstinance, the rigid stance of non-surrender, when simple empathies would unblock a holy current.
for pretense and prejudice, thinking somehow we’re superior in any way, shape, or form.
for quietly shuffling away from rough spots where we might otherwise leave a mark of reconciliation or compassion, or simple healing.
for refusing to unclench our tightly-furled fist, for thinking that to let go is to tumble down a precipice rather than realizing that in releasing we just might catch an updraft.
for sleepwalking through too many days of our lives.
for time and again falling into the same traps, the ones that hold us back from those tiny fuels that might propel us.
for underestimating ourselves and those who surround us, for not giving the benefit of the doubt and banking on our better instincts.
for venomously casting stones on those who think or see the world in ways other than we do.
for wasting precious, precious time.
for xenophobia, of course, the scourge of casting “other” as “less than.” and turning our backs, closing our doors and our borders, to their agonies and sufferings.
for yoking ourselves to old rhythms that only serve to hold us back, for a stubborn resistance to letting go of anxieties and quirks that chain us to a hollow past.
for over-zealously chasing after whatever in our lives feels out of reach: be it love or attention, or the peaceful coexistence chiseled out of old animosities.
Avinu Malkeinu, almighty and merciful God, hear our voice, wield compassion, renew us for a year of goodness, let our hands overflow with Your blessings.
i have to wonder if the constraints of A,B,C, eclipsed a more nuanced confession, or if the alphabet nudged me toward nooks and crannies i might have overlooked. but more importantly:
what alphabet letter, what frailty or failing, might you step forward to confess, to form the words so hard to say?
it’s as if someone’s set a buzzer that must go off at asynchronous times–could be twilight, could be the middle of the afternoon, could be on the verge of thunderclap, or the first dappled stitches of starlight–and deep inside me there is some cord that must be yanked. suddenly, i am turning toward the east, propelled to the water’s edge by wagon, bike, or soles. it’s the vast, vast ever-shifting canvas, where lake and sky, earth and heaven, never cease their stagings.
in these weeks and months when what’s bottled up inside–the worldly angst, the brokenness in all its iterations–when all of that feels so compressed, so hungry for release, relief, it’s the expanse, the i-can’t-reach-the-end-of-it of heaven’s vault that offers ablution. that rinses out the muck. and fills me once again with hope, with depth, with the unshakable sense that i am held in the very palm of God. and all that worries me, weighs me down, is drained away.
there’s the play of color, a color wheel of endless turning, from indigo to amethyst, cerulean to aubergine, and at the dawn and dusk, who’s ever behind the curtain hauls out the rosy tray, where the sky ignites in shades of flame. there’s light and shadow, too. the sky roils in charcoaled turbulence, storm churning in the distance. the sun illuminates the lacy edges of a cloud. sun and clouds and sky in eternal choreography, not one scene ever plays on rerun.
it is, by definition, an anointed place, a most holy place. a place where the nearness of God, the encircling of that infinite tenderness, pours out from some unseen vessel. holy unction, indeed.
when i was all of eight, in Mrs. Bishop’s third-grade religion class, learning all the things that make a catholic catholic, i always tripped over the one of the seven sacraments they called extreme unction. it sounded downright scary. i knew that oil was involved. i couldn’t tell you if it was safflower or olive, but it was oil, and it was poured on you in the hour of your direst need. at the cusp of dying, among other times. getting blessed with water was an everyday matter (to this day i lurch toward any holy water basin, splash fitfully and let it rain sloppily down on me), but getting blessed with oil was like calling in the light brigade. it was reserved for Serious Stuff. in my third-grade vernacular that probably meant whatever was worse than falling off your bike, or getting pushed down on the playground, when Mrs. Dolder the school nurse, pulled out that stinging bottle of mercurochrome, its iron bitterness running down your leg.
turns out, oil’s claim to holiness is an ancient one. it’s there in the early pages of the bible, not long after genesis. thought to be the medium through which God’s blessings are conveyed. it’s what makes a king a king, apparently. (well, that and a crown.) jews and egyptians reached for olive oil (poured from a ram’s horn). butter is the anointment of choice in hindu blessings. a newly built house is smeared with it, so too are those thought to be possessed by demonic forces. indigenous australians believed that if they smeared themselves with the intestinal fat of a dead person they would absorb that person’s virtues. (i’ll pass, thank you.) arabs of east africa rubbed themselves with lion’s fat to muster courage. and in greek mythology, the sea nymph thetis anointed her mortal child achilles with ambrosia to make him immortal. (another telling of the myth has thetis dipping achilles in the waters of the river styx, but she failed to dip the heel by which she held him. and we all know what happened to achilles’ heel).
lest i get too far sidetracked by the oily substance of anointments, let us leap back to a consideration of a place that’s anointed, even if not a slick. a place the celts would call a thin place. where the opening to heaven is so thin as to be not there. in other words, it’s where you go when you need to fall into the arms of God, or whomever you think is out there trying to hold us together.
walking along the water’s edge, dodging the tickle of the still-warm undulations, dodging the squawky gulls, it’s all but impossible not to be swept into the game of it, the deep-down child’s joy of it. nearly every time, i hear the sound of someone out-loud laughing; i look around and figure out the sound is me, it’s coming from my bellows. be it a brisk constitutional or a lazy jaunt, those sands, those waves, that sky, soak up what ails me every time.
i’ve not always been a shore girl. more often i’ve found myself tucked inside grassy coves, leaning against the rough bark of oak or cottonwood, or plopped on a log deep in the woods. i’m one for making myself all but hidden, a tiny dot, in the all-engulfing canvas of the never-ending curve of globe. but there is a singular prescriptive that comes where water plays, and where the sky can’t keep from turning. it’s a wide-out-in-the-open sort of place.
it’s cast a holy spell on me. and i’ve no intention of rubbing it away.
what’s your anointed place?
and should the woods be on your anointed list, i share this meditative walk in the woods from my wonderful friends at orion magazine. (it’s a 20-minute enchantment, sung by the Crossing Choir of philadelphia, sure to lift you to some ethereal plane.) it’s described thusly:
IN THE DEPTHS of the pandemic, when choral groups could not safely gather to sing indoors, The Crossing Choir of Philadelphia took their singing outdoors, into parks and open-air venues. Last October, they premiered a work entitled “The Forest” in Bowman’s Hill, a stand of mature trees, many over 200 years old, in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy.
During the performance, the singers, unmasked, stood far apart among the trees, their voices amplified by specially-designed speakers, while audience members walked at safely-distanced intervals along a thousand-foot path through the forest.
in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….
well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.
so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).
one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled mybelief: essays on life and art.
hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…
Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.
I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!
These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!
Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art
he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:
The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?
It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:
Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.
yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.
the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.
and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.
i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.
i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.
for this i pray.
what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?
*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….