sixteen years old. old enough to drive a car, the chair now is. not quite old enough to vote, but we’ve stayed away from politics all these years; allowing only goodness, grace, to be our guide––even in those rare few times we’ve wandered in the public square, celebrated the election of a president, felt crushed by the words and ways of another.
we’ve stood watch here as the world crushed us (i can still see the image of that precious little two-year-old, the syrian toddler––alan kurdi was his name, the little boy in the bright-red T shirt, the little black sneakers, and scrunched-up navy pants––washed up on the sands of the aegean sea, trying to escape a war’s unimaginable horrors and terrors). we’ve felt the crushings, too, of close-to-home heartaches, the ones not felt much beyond our own intimate borders, but more piercing than all the rest sometimes.
why do we invite in crushings here? because it’s how i’m wired, i suppose. i’ve always felt hurts so, so deeply (some say too deeply; to them i say not sorry). and i have always wished for a place where tender comforts, heart healings, might occur. where the one who’s hurt could find a featherdown place to curl into. to be tucked under fuzzy afghans. handed warm mugs of tea. and a bowl of clementines, for when the tears paused long enough to give way to nibbling. maybe it’s the nurse in me, the heart of me. i can’t bear to see, to hear, to feel, to imagine hurting. but i will witness every time. for every hurt needs witness. needs bearing. needs extra body parts––shoulders to lean on, hands to squeeze, eyes to gently smile––to bear and share the load.
sometimes, i’ve brought silly here. not because i’ve any proclivity for clowns or clownishness. but because life not seen through comic lens is sometimes too unbearable. to laugh is to lighten the load. to be lifted by the effervescence of a good giggle. or even a guffaw. there’s alchemy and medicine in the sound of joy rising from the lungs.
in sixteen years, we’ve held up to the candlelight life’s beginnings and endings and all in-betweens: goodbyes and homecomings, births and death, and the littlest flickerings of the everyday.
i’ve uncorked a bit of my soul here, let you see my heart’s wanderings as i moved deeper and deeper, bolder and bolder into saying aloud what i was sometimes plenty timid to whisper. somehow, over the years, the sacred i call God––God, a name that resonates a tenderness to me, a name whose very uttering fills me with a knowing, a hope––has pulsed so palpably through my every day, i now put breath to it without too much trembling. and in words––i hope––that do not close doors. i’m more intent than ever to draw forth the wisdom, the wonder, the light from any path that winds toward God, Allah, Adonai, Divine and Holy Wisdom. i reach for the doorways, have no use for locks on doors.
i’ve brought tinkerings at the cookstove here, too. in part because i will always be trying to find my way back from a dark, dark place when i was just 18, and, for reasons that escaped me at the time, i’d somehow decided i’d see how little food i could swallow in a day. it’s a place that filled me with cringing shames for years, and years. and tangled me in terrible knots. not knowing how to eat, being daunted by and quaking in the face of simple food, is a scourge i’d wish on no one. the question i’d long asked, and which was long asked of me: how does the homecoming queen find herself riding an elevator to a full-blown psych ward? (1975 was back in the day before anyone really knew what anorexia was; and there were no such eating disorder programs as there are today. and the movie “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” had just come out on the very big screen, so it set the stage for a most awful fright.) i can type those sentences now because the years have gentled my shame, and slowly, faithfully, i’ve found my way to a shore of my own. a shore where olive oil doesn’t scare me anymore. and where just last week i drizzled honey (on dorie greenspan’s sweet & smoky roasted carrots*). and it seems that when you’ve struggled so to feed yourself, you find a quiet certain joy in feeding those you love. (and maybe by osmosis you’re hoping to absorb some ease…)
i didn’t intend for this birthday note to grow so confessional. but over all these years, you’re the ones who’ve made this place into the sacred, gentle, quiet space i once dreamed of. and always believed in. you’ve shown me, though your unending kindness, that what i write here is safe here––and i will protect to the end your safety to say here what you will. and, hard as it might be to imagine (given the crude world in which we live), never once in all these years have i found a harsh or mean-spirited comment left here at the so-called “old maple table.” (it would crush me if i found one.) your gentle graces, your heartfelt, heartfelt notes and comments, as well as your incredibly heavenly occasional snail mails, have emboldened me to tell only truth here. life is short, too short, we know. and why waste a day fudging around the edges when what draws us whole––and into each other’s embrace––is saying who we are, and what hurts us, and what makes us giggle? and aren’t we all, in truth, wobbly creatures at the core, only slowly ascending from all the snags and quirks that make us so delightfully who we are?
so here’s to truth. and sixteen, a number imbued with introspection, and spiritual purity, and a sign of good things to come, according to those who study numbers, find meaning therein.
may this next whirl around the sun bring blessings to us each and all…
i have an especially lovely birthday present for all of you, one i will leave here on the table (down below). my friends at the SALT project dug it up from wendell berry’s bookshelf, and it’s a beauty like no other. it’s called “the birth (near port william)” and as you’ll see, it’s a nativity poem for all. happy blessed birthing day, for whatever it is you’ll birth today….(the poem is long, so i will leave it at the very bottom here….) (p.s. because the formatting itself is lovely and i can’t get it replicated here, and because you might love the SALT project, i’m leaving the link to their page here.)
one other gift, before i leave you the poem. little alan kurdi’s father, the only one of the family of four who survived the escape in a rubber boat back in the early autumn of 2015, a few years later started a foundation to help children whose lives have been torn apart by war. it’s yet another miracle of the human spirit’s capacity to rise from the deepest, darkest ashes. you can find out more about the kurdi foundation here.
and another treat: the other evening i time-traveled to amherst, mass., for a birthday celebration in the glorious home of emily dickinson, the great butter-yellow house on the hill, known as the homestead, and during that hour and a half of marvelousness, one of curators mentioned that emily’s beloved sister-in-law susan had written emily’s obituary, which was published in the springfield republican on may 18, 1886. immediately curious, i asked for the link, and here tis, with some of the most lovely writing, and most charmed intimacies of emily’s life, written in the immediate wake of emily’s death by the one who perhaps knew her most dearly…. https://www.emilydickinson.it/edobituary.html
here is but one passage i found delectable…
As she passed on in
life, her sensitive nature shrank from
much personal contact with the world,
and more and more turned to her
own large wealth of individual resources
for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as
some one said of her, “In the light of
‘her own fire.” Not disappointed with the
world, not an invalid until within the past two
years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be-
cause she was insufficient of any mental work
or social career – her endowments being so ex-
ceptional – but the “mesh of her soul,” as
Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the
sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit
atmosphere for her worth and work.
and the obit ends thusly:
her life was rich, and all aglow with God and
immortality. With no creed, no formulated
faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas,
she walked this life with the gentleness and
reverence of old saints, with the firm step of
martyrs who sing while they suffer. How
better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a
shell of pearl” than by her own words? –
Morns like these, we parted;
Noons like these, she rose;
Fluttering first, then firmer,
To her fair repose.
*oh, and those carrots drizzled with honey? dorie greenspan’s sweet + smoky roasted carrots you’ll thank my sister-in-law, brooke, who sent them my way…
and that, dear friends, is the stack of gifts i have for you this blessed early morn…..(one question, and then wendell berry’s poem…)
so here’s the question: how did you find the chair?
“THE BIRTH (NEAR PORT WILLIAM),” BY WENDELL BERRY
They were into the lambing, up late.
Talking and smoking around their lantern,
they squatted in the barn door, left open
so the quiet of the winter night
diminished what they said. The chill
had begun to sink into their clothes.
Now and then they raised their hands
to breathe on them. The youngest one
yawned and shivered.
“Damn,” he said,
“I’d like to be asleep. I’d like to be
curled up in a warm nest like an old
groundhog, and sleep till spring.”
“When I was your age, Billy, it wasn’t
sleep I thought about,” Uncle Stanley said.
“Last few years here I’ve took to sleeping.”
And Raymond said: “To sleep till spring
you’d have to have a trust in things
the way animals do. Been a long time,
I reckon, since people felt safe enough
to sleep more than a night. You might
wake up someplace you didn’t go to sleep at.”
They hushed awhile, as if to let the dark
brood on what they had said. Behind them
a sheep stirred in the bedding and coughed.
It was getting close to midnight.
Later they would move back along the row
of penned ewes, making sure the newborn
lambs were well dried, and had sucked,
and then they would go home cold to bed.
The barn stood between the ridgetop
and the woods along the bluff. Below
was the valley floor and the river
they could not see. They could hear
the wind dragging its underside
through the bare branches of the woods.
And suddenly the wind began to carry
a low singing. They looked across
the lantern at each other’s eyes
and saw they all had heard. They stood,
their huge shadows rising up around them.
The night had changed. They were already
on their way — dry leaves underfoot
and mud under the leaves — to another barn
on down along the woods’ edge,
an old stripping room, where by the light
of the open stove door they saw the man,
and then the woman and the child
lying on a bed of straw on the dirt floor.
“Well, look a there,” the old man said.
“First time this ever happened here.”
And Billy, looking, and looking away,
said: “Howdy. Howdy. Bad night.”
And Raymond said: “There’s a first
time, they say, for everything.”
he thought, was as reassuring as anything
was likely to be, and as he needed it to be.
They did what they could. Not much.
They brought a piece of rug and some sacks
to ease the hard bed a little, and one
wedged three dollar bills into a crack
in the wall in a noticeable place.
And they stayed on, looking, looking away,
until finally the man said they were well
enough off, and should be left alone.
They went back to their sheep. For a while
longer they squatted by their lantern
and talked, tired, wanting sleep, yet stirred
by wonder — old Stanley too, though he would not
“Don’t make no difference,” he said
“They’ll have ’em anywhere. Looks like a man
would have a right to be born in bed, if not
die there, but he don’t.”
“But you heard
that singing in the wind,” Billy said.
“What about that?”
“Ghosts. They do that way.”
“Not that way.”
“Scared him, it did.”
The old man laughed. “We’ll have to hold
his damn hand for him, and lead him home.”
“It don’t even bother you,” Billy said.
“You go right on just the same. But you heard.”
“Now that I’m old I sleep in the dark.
That ain’t what I used to do in it. I heard
“You heard a good deal more
than you’ll understand,” Raymond said,
“or him or me either.”
They looked at him.
He had, they knew, a talent for unreasonable
belief. He could believe in tomorrow
before it became today — a human enough
failing, and they were tolerant.
“It’s the old ground trying it again.
Solstice, seeding and birth — it never
gets enough. It wants the birth of a man
to bring together sky and earth, like a stalk
of corn. It’s not death that makes the dead
rise out of the ground, but something alive
straining up, rooted in darkness, like a vine.
That’s what you heard. If you’re in the right mind
when it happens, it can come on you strong;
you might hear music passing on the wind,
or see a light where there wasn’t one before.”
“Well, how do you know if it amounts to anything?”
“You don’t. It usually don’t. It would take
a long long time to ever know.”
But that nightWendell Berry
and other nights afterwards, up late,
there was a feeling in them — familiar
to them, but always startling in its strength —
like the thought, on a winter night,
of the lambing ewes dry-bedded and fed,
and the thought of the wild creatures warm
asleep in their nests, deep underground.
**sixteen, in case you wondered, is how many years the chair has been this quiet little place where these days we gather every friday morn. or at least that’s when i pull up a chair. you’re welcome to stop by any time, stay as long as you’d like. or, for years and years….’twas launched, the chair was, on 12.12.06, with this little post…