the thought struck me, as thoughts often do, as i got to the last line of a poem that read (to me anyway) as a prayer.
the last lines were these:
I take refuge in You from the inextricable mischief of every thing You made, eggs, milk, cinnamon, kisses, sleep.
it was in the quiet of the quotidian, the kisses tucked in between the cinnamon and sleep. the noticing the eggs and milk. that’s what took my breath away. nine hundred times out of 10, eggs and milk might be mere scribbles on a grocery list, but really, when you pause long enough, when you think about it, when you find them there on the shelf of the icebox, and don’t find yourself dashing to the store to grab the eggs to make the french toast your kid home from college is hungry for, their being there at all is a blessing, a grace, a reason to whisper hallelujah, which is just a jubilant form of thank you.
it’s in the fine grain, again and again, that some of the most sumptuous gratitudes—graces—are found. the hundred and one barely perceptible goodnesses that cross our paths each day. but if we don’t name them, do we notice them?
to name them is a prayer.
more often, too often, when we sit down to count our blessings, we sweep across the broad terrain of our lives, grab the big stuff, swoop right over the infinitesimal, and, well, we lose ’em, lose their power to inject a jolt of realizing just how darn blessed we really truly are.
talk to someone who’s never heard a cardinal sing the world to sleep. or the pit-a-pat of rain on the roof. talk to someone who can’t push up from a chair. or saunter down to the mailbox. or taste the tart-sweet pop of a pomegranate seed. ask them how hard they might have prayed for that sound, that step, that sweetness.
what we don’t notice, all the things that we forget to count, just might be the out-of-reach to someone else. just might be the thing for which they pray so mightily. day after holy, holy day…
seems right to up our game, our paying-attention game. it’s a praying pose, after all.
and so, in this season of counting up and gathering a motherlode of blessings, i decided to give it a whirl, to put my eye to the fine-grain ones, the ones that come without bullhorn or billboard, the ones that simply quietly punctuate the day. i kept watch across the week. and knowing that to name them is a prayer, i named them, each and every one. here’s an abbreviated census:
my answer man of a brother, the one i know i can call midway through turkey prep to get an educated opinion on whether to leave the naked bird to air dry in fridge, or leave him (the bird, not the brother) shrink-wrapped for another cold dark night.
the husband who sees the joy in a vintage turntable on which to play rescued vinyl from his youth, and thinks nothing of driving 38 miles on thanksgiving eve to fetch it from the one store that happens to have a single one in stock.
the rare, rare gift of standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the cookstove with my firstborn, (well, really, my shoulder hits him at about mid-rib) instead of being connected by the long, long-distance phone line.
knowing two boys are in beds up above my head as i sit here tap-tapping on the keys, and the sheer joy of knowing they’re stirring when i hear the floorboards creak.
the heating and cooling guy who two years ago promised he’d get us a new vent for over the stove, and at 4 o’clock on the eve of thanksgiving called to say he was on his way over. and then promised no schmutz would flutter down into the pots already simmering away on the stove….
the lull on thanksgiving eve, when the potatoes have been mashed, the naked bird is air-drying, and the choreographed list awaits the dawn….
and on the day of feasting itself, nothing beats the sheer hallelujah of finally, finally having every last morsel out of the oven, off the stove, and on the table. and as you plop your bum in the chair, pour your knob of prosecco, you look across the maple planks, set with hand-me-down plates and rescued candlesticks, and drink in the faces of those you so deeply, dearly love.
the pink wash of dawn that veiled the garden this morning as i hauled out the bulging bags of recyclables from a long day’s imbibing and inhaling…
and one last one, just found tucked in the mailbox, from the darling darling little angels who live across the street, and who make my heart do cartwheels every time our days entwine:
and no proper list would end without this: the incredible warmth and the wisdom that never ever fails to burst through the glass screen of any laptop or phone, from all the wonderful “chairs” who ring this globe. you–yes, YOU!–are among the dearest in my life, and you never ever cease to melt my heart. thank you for always being kind, always bringing wisdom, and making this the sacred place we all believe in….
ever since the jersey sojourner landed safely back home here along the shores of our great lake, this old house has been awash in crumpled-up wads of packing paper, and boxes, and bubblewrap. i’ve been up to my hipbones wading through it all, trying to find tucked-away places for treasures now in our keep, relics salvaged from a faraway house now awaiting its death blows.
and that’s when, while sipping a time-out tea, i scrolled through the mail and stumbled upon a praise poem, a praise poem so lovely it made time expand, a few short minutes turned into what felt like a goodly chunk of time, and i carried the praise poem with me while i worked.
here’s the poem worthy of praising:
Praise the light of late November, the thin sunlight that goes deep in the bones. Praise the crows chattering in the oak trees; though they are clothed in night, they do not despair. Praise what little there’s left: the small boats of milkweed pods, husks, hulls, shells, the architecture of trees. Praise the meadow of dried weeds: yarrow, goldenrod, chicory, the remains of summer. Praise the blue sky that hasn’t cracked yet. Praise the sun slipping down behind the beechnuts, praise the quilt of leaves that covers the grass: Scarlet Oak, Sweet Gum, Sugar Maple. Though darkness gathers, praise our crazy fallen world; it’s all we have, and it’s never enough.
~ Barbara Crooker ~ (Abalone Moon, Summer 2004)
next time i took a break from all the stripping away of papers and the swiping away of cobwebs in the places i’d found for storing, i decided to dig into a bit of knowledge about this literary genre that pulses with pure and unfiltered heart, one praise practically tripping over another.
here are but a few bare bones, mostly dug up from my friends at britannica (the encyclopedia, that is): praise poetry first stirred in medieval literature, especially during the renaissance, when it poured forth worship of or admiration for heroes, kings, or deities.
it seems the praise poem––also called mlenmlen, oriki, or praise name––is one of the most widely used poetic forms in africa, a series of laudatory epithets––descriptive word-pictures or word-paintings––applied to gods, men, animals, plants, towns, you name it. the point is to capture the essence of whoever or whatever is being praised, and to lavish praise.
think not that just anyone is inclined to get up and start praising, at least not in the african homeland. professional bards––akin to a court poet––are the ones ordained to chant praise songs, with the reciter taking position in an open space, visible to all assembled. the reciting begins in high voice, rhythmic backbeat sometimes provided by spear stomped against ground, a punctuational note that would get my attention. metaphor is a key device, so too poetic license for coining new words. (i’m in with anyone who’s making up words.)
it’s an oral form that, not surprisingly, found its way to worship in the american black tradition, and, now rooted there, fills the sanctuary of many a black church. you might remember elizabeth alexander’s glorious “praise song for the day” written for and recited at president obama’s first inauguration, on that cold yet hopeful january day in 2009. (so far in the distance now, it almost seems like another america.)
inspired by this notion of rolling praise, especially in this season of gathering gratitudes, i decided to try my own, mindful that praise is another name for anointing through blessing. the beannacht is the celtic version thereof, the bracha is how jews unfurl their blessings. all the earth and its inhabitants, certainly the ones humble enough to know we’re not here of our own making, seem hardwired to nod, bend knee, and bow. i beg permission to attempt the tradition, and hereby begin:
Praise the homecomings of late November, the footsteps you know by heart, the ones that tell you someone you love is just one floor above, and any minute now his bear-like hungers will awake, will startle, and he’ll come foraging into the woods of your well-fruited refrigerator.
Praise the mottled gray November skies, the herringbone of heaven and cloud, infinite afghan we draw round our shoulders, as November signals its call to begin the turning in, the deepening quiet of winter coming.
Praise the molasses light of waning November, pooling across floorboards, magnifying the smudge and the splatters of each and every unwashed windowpane.
Praise the gathering table you’ll set for the first time in a too-long time. Praise the remembering that comes as you haul out the once-a-year dishes, as your riffle through the recipe tin, bring to the feast heirlooms––and long-gone stirrers of pots––of kitchens past.
Praise the voices soon to rise from the room where the forks and the knives will scrape against plates, where stories will unspool, and laughter—praise be—will punctuate the convening, weave the disparate souls of the room into one.
Praise the stripped-bare essence of autumn’s end, the disrobing almost over now. Limb and bough and trunk, exposed against the palette of sky. Praise the way we see more now, as less is there to get in the way. Let that be our guiding vision.
Praise the wisdom that comes with November’s close, these days ripe for inner harvest. When the orchard’s gone sleeping, the fields have gone fallow, sift through the loam that’s rich in your soul. Root around, take in wisdom, turn the page, listen to the forest, or the grasses that rustle to the song of winter’s-coming. Let it sink in, sink deep, all through the slumbering months.
here’s a variation on praise, a heavenly one, albeit written in deepening shades of darkness, from one of my very favorite poets, w.s. merwin. it’s titled simply, “thanks.”
Listen with the night falling we are saying thank you we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings we are running out of the glass rooms with our mouths full of food to look at the sky and say thank you we are standing by the water thanking it standing by the windows looking out in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging after funerals we are saying thank you after the news of the dead whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators remembering wars and the police at the door and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you in the banks we are saying thank you in the faces of the officials and the rich and of all who will never change we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us our lost feelings we are saying thank you with the forests falling faster than the minutes of our lives we are saying thank you with the words going out like cells of a brain with the cities growing over us we are saying thank you faster and faster with nobody listening we are saying thank you we are saying thank you and waving dark though it is
both the crooker praise poem and possibly the merwin (should you care tomake a point, to stir a somber note into your table’s conversation)might be welcome at your gratitude table. or you might be inclined to pen your own. either way, from my old maple table to your table in whatever its form, blessings, blessings, and praise be to the chairs.
do you have a praise poem you love? what praise would you pen should you be so inspired?
My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.
On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International.
He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.
And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond.
It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height).
My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.
I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again.
And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading.
Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.
funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shufflingaround in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…
photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.
how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow.how do you find a stillpoint?
long, long ago, the one certain place where i escaped in the house where i grew up, where i all but opened the window and soared out through the oaks, was beneath the covers of a patchwork quilt in my upstairs room where i’d hide for hours on end in the pages of an opened book.
the very architecture of a book is built for drawing you in: there’re the pages opening like spread-wide angels’ wings, there’s the tucked-in gulley where those pages are hinged to the spine, the gulley that demands ocular acrobatics, as your eyeballs make the leap from one page’s bottom to another one’s top. it’s an enclosing space, the sprawl of a book, a paper-and-glue construction akin to being wrapped in the long arms of a hug.
back in the days when the books i read were washed in watercolor from the brushes of tasha tudor, or in the black ink of garth williams, i could get lost in a book from sun-up till starlight.
i’d wager a bet that those were the pages that imprinted on me the storybook poetries that have shaped every room of my grown-up house — the ticking and chiming of old schoolhouse clocks, windowpanes that peer into trees, birdhouses on poles, amply padded armchairs upholstered in checks, teapots that whistle, and logs that crackle in hearths.
that itch to escape — really, more of a pang or an unstoppable pull — still lures me, especially as the affairs of the world seem to crumble, as the ends of my nerves feel rubbed raw with brillo and steel wool. it might be why the walls of this old house are stacked, floor to ceiling in plenty of rooms, in tight-soldier rows of spine after spine. books are the balm, the antidote to so much of the madness beyond our front doors.
especially so is a book i tumbled into only this week. it’s a book for the soul, if ever there was. it’s a book for the tenderhearted, to which i most assuredly and emphatically admit. it’s diary of a young naturalist, by dara McAnulty, who not only is a teenager (a northern irish one) but one with extraordinary voice and vision. he’s autistic, he lets you know before you’ve come to the end of the prologue. but before he tells you that, he describes himself thusly: “i have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.”
count me as a kindred spirit.
even more so, he lets on again and again how trampled his heart often feels, how porous it is, and how solace for him comes in the tendernesses of the unfiltered natural world.
the book has bedazzled the literary world. young dara, all of fourteen when he penned these glorious pages, won the wainwright prize, britain’s blue ribbon for nature writing, for this, his debut work. that his words found their way into a book, let alone a prize-winning book, is a feat in and of itself; “quite amazing,” he writes, “as a teacher once told my parents ‘your son will never be able to complete a comprehension (a mandatory exam in the british educational system), never mind string a paragraph together.'”
well, string paragraphs he has done. has done, indeed. has done to the tune of 222 pages.
he’s been compared to the incomparable greta thunberg, perhaps the planet’s fiercest defender and an unfiltered critic of our devastations thereof. the guardian of london sang the diary’s praises, calling it “miraculous,” writing that it’s “a combination of nature book and memoir, a warm portrait of a close-knit family and a coming-of-age story,” in which McAnulty’s “simple, gorgeous sentences unfurl, one after another.” the poet aimee nezhukumatathil called it “at once a lush and moving meditation and electric clarion call to action.” reviewers, in the UK and here in the states, have heaped it with praise. “it really is a strange and magical experience,” wrote a reviewer in the daily mail, before comparing McAnulty’s writing to that of the poet ted hughes. another reviewer, one in the guardian, said McAnulty’s writing reminded him again and again of the great WH Hudson, a brilliant and eccentric nature writer “who lived with the same deep and authentic sense of emotional engagement with nature as McAnulty.”
weaving across the arc of a year, paying exquisite attention to season upon season, McAnulty drops us all to our knees, as we behold, along with him, the wonders of barn owls, cowslips, corncakes, and the summer’s first blackberries.
of the poetry of a blackbird’s morning sonata: “When the blackbird came, I could breathe a sigh of relief. It meant the day had started like every other. There was a symmetry. Clockwork.”
of dandelions: “Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from so much of the world,” he writes, “either because it’s too painful to see or feel, or because when I am open to people, the ridicule comes.”
a hidden pond: “…reflecting the sky and squiggling with shadows galore, darting in and out of the light. A convulsing mass of tadpoles, and with them the epic cycle of life, anticipation and fascination.”
springtime: “The ebb and flow of time punctuated by the familiar brings a cycle of wonder and discovery every year, just as if it’s the first time. That rippling excitement never fades. The newness is always tender.”
for a girl whose jangled nerves and galloping heart are soothed and slowed by the poetries of startling never-before-so-captured language, McAnulty is bliss by the spoonful. he describes his family as “close as otters,” and in describing a soaring white seabird he writes of “the art deco lines” of the gannet. caterpillars move “like slow-motion accordions,” and a goshawk chick looks “like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter.”
as if that’s not more than more than plenty, here are but two excerpts:
Prologue This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change in county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was a baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family……
I started to write in a very plain bungalow surrounded by families who kept their children behind closed doors, and empty-nesters who manicured their gardens and lawns with scissors – yes, I actually witnessed this. This is where sentences first began to form, where wonder grappled with frustration on the page, and where our garden (unlike any other in the cul-de-sac) became a meadow during the spring and summer months, with wildflowers and insects and a sign that read ‘Bee and Bee’ staked in the long grasses, and where our family spent hours and hours observing the abundance that other gardens lacked, all of us gloriously indifferent to the raised eyebrows of neighbours that appeared from behind curtains from time to time.
Wednesday, August 1 We watch in wonder as countless silver Y moths feast on the purple blooms. Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion. The feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver, are shimmering with starry dust, protecting them from being eaten by our other nocturnal neighbours. I find it fascinating that silver Y fur can confuse the sonar readings of bats, and even when they are predated they can escape, leaving the bat with a mouthful of scales. And here we all are, the McAnultys congregated in worship of these tiny migrants. Soon they will make the journey to their birthplace, silver stars crossing land and sea to North Africa.
The night crackles as the storm of flitting moves off. We jump up and down and hug each other, tension leaking out. We chat and look at the sky, sparkling with Orion, Seven Sisters and the Plough. This is us, standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and relived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering stars calmed a storm in all of us.
Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist
part of the miracle of McAnulty’s writing is that he writes as evocatively about his neurocognitive otherness as he does about the dandelions, the otters, and the caterpillars. he is something of a spelunker into the unexplored wilds of the world seen through an asperger’s lens.
again, from the prologue, where he writes matter-of-factly:
“Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, all except Dad [a conservationist] — he’s the odd one out, and he’s also the one we rely on to deconstruct the mysteries of not just the natural world but the human one too. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, really. We’re as close as otters, and huddled together, we make our way out in the world.”
he writes, bracingly, about being bullied. about how, under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he feels “boxed in, a wild thing caged.” he writes of the foul-mouthed insults hurled his way. simply because he’s not like the others.
i’d say he’s beyond them.
reading his stripped-bare sentences, my eyes stung with tears. and in his aloneness, i felt the walls of my own heart reaching toward his. i found not merely comfort, but the rarest of company.
how blessed is the world that from his distant landscape of otherness, he makes art from life’s murkiest shadows to its patches of purest white light.
McAnulty’s latest book, wild child: a journey through nature, a multi-sensory jaunt through the wilds especially for children, was published last summer, and described as a “dreamy dive” into the natural world. he’s planning another book about his wanderings around ireland, connecting nature with myth. i’ve taken a number and am already standing in line for that one.
for i’ve found, in the pages gloriously inscribed by a boy who writes in tender tones, who sees the world in ways that make me truly see, a kindred spirit, a diarist who makes me feel safe and warmed in the clutches of this holy, holy earth.
what are the titles that bring you comfort in these trying times? and how precisely do they do so?