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Category: angels among us

anointing the hours

except for the centenarians among us, this is our first go-around with pandemics. and so, uncharted as it all is, little should surprise us. i stand somewhat surprised, though, that somehow — in the depths and folds of these blurry hours, where day upon day feels indistinct, where were it not for the winding of clocks on wednesdays, the old-lady shop on thursdays, the watering of plants on saturdays, i might never know what day is unfolding around me  — i seem to have tumbled into an ancient, ancient practice. one rooted in the quiet turning of pages of glorious books. one rooted in prayer, in the sanctification of time, the anointing of hours.

it must be the little old monk in me.

i am utterly transfixed by the notion of the liturgy of the hours, the divine office (opus dei — the work of God), lauds, vespers, compline. morning prayer now begins my every day. morning prayer with candle burning beside me, casting its flickering light on skin-thin pages that turn with a crinkle as i slide the ribbons from section to section: invitatory, psalm, antiphon, collect, confession, thanksgiving.

the lexicon is almost as old as time. the notion of fixed-hour prayer, paying keen attention to the seasons of the day — the shifting of light and shadow — is a practice shared by all the great religions: buddhism, hinduism, islam, judaism, christianity.

the early christians borrowed it, of course, from the jews, who were commanded to pray the holiest prayer, the sh’ma, upon rising and retiring, and who stitched 100 blessings into the arc of the day, lifting the most quotidian of acts — washing hands, hearing thunder, beholding the bloom of the almond tree — into the realm of the holy. the psalms, written by the most brilliant hebrew poets, were read by jews — including jesus and his earliest disciples –as “encounters with God, as stimulating and nourishing a spiritual mystery,” according to william storey, a liturgical historian.

by the fourth century, in the early roman empire, bishops instituted morning and evening prayer in the early cathedrals. in the sixth century, along came st. benedict who wrote down “the rule,” and with it the trellis of prayer that infused the monastery, calling the monks to arise in the darkness, to walk under the cloak of stars to the oratory where the night vigil was sung, and through the day, when the great bell was rung, to drop their work in mid-act — be it the stirring of soup, or the tending of bees — and encounter the angels in the sung prayer of the psalms. (i love that benedict refers to any chiming clock as a “portable monastery,” and instructs that “every chiming hour is a reminder we stand in God’s presence.” i will now consider myself to be “winding the monastery” every wednesday and sunday morning.)

all these centuries later, little old me picked up on the notion about six weeks ago. (no one ever pinned me precocious.)

what i know is this: tiptoeing down the stairs in the dark, hoisting my 2,974-page leather-bound tome, striking a match, kindling a wick, bowing my head, breathing in silence, it grounds me, and infuses my day. even my dreams, some nights.

reciting the words, inscribed millennia ago, whispered by generations before me, from all corners of this wobbling globe, beginning with a daily confession of sins, bends me into a posture of humility that seems so necessary — so countercultural — in this awful, awful age of much too much bombast. i’m enchanted. i’m sometimes disturbed (the god of biblical vengeance is not one i know). i’m always, always quieted. set straight for the day. beginning my day in the recitations launches me into the holy work st. paul instructed: pray ceaselessly. make the work of your day, the quiet of your day, make it all living breathing prayer.

i’m not alone in my preoccupation. rilke and ts eliot, hildegard of bingen and kathleen norris, certainly thomas merton, all were drawn to the undulations of stillness and prayer.

brother david steindl-rast, in his glorious little book, music of silence, writes that monastic prayer is a tradition “that regards each hour of the day and night as having its own distinct message for us.” he implores: “make everything we do prayer.” hour by hour, from night watch’s invitation to “trust in the darkness,” to laud’s morning question — “whom can i make a little happier” in this gift of a new-born day? — brother david draws us into the certain knowing that hour upon hour begs our attention, invites sharper focus on divine intention.

it’s all the sacred practice of paying attention. beholding the beauty, the blessing of each anointed minute and hour. in the same way i’m gobsmacked by the shifting of seasons across the year, i am rapt by the seasons of light and shadow in a day, the invitation to be immersed in each hour’s offering.

i turn to that brilliant radiant rabbi whom i revere, abraham joshua heschl, for one last illumination here, one to carry through this whole blessed day:

he who has realized that the sun and stars and soul do not ramble in a vacuum will keep his heart in readiness for the hour when the world is entranced. 

for things are not mute:

the stillness is full of demands, awaiting a soul to breathe in the mystery that all things exhale in their craving for communion.

out of the world comes the behest to instill into the air a rapturous song for God…

a few of the books i’ve been burrowing into, include these: 

  • a beautiful treasure of a book: Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day by Macrina Wiederkehr. (brilliantly recommended by jackie, a dear friend of the chair)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
  • Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours…..
  • David Steindl-Rast: Music of Silence

and, if you’d like to poke around online, and hear magnificent gregorian chant (a meditation for another day) try Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Angels of the Hour 

how do you anoint the hours of your day?

in which we all begin to live like monks

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because i don’t mess around with red-ringed buggers, i perked my ears at the first mention of this spiky-edged invader. i all but pulled up the draw bridges. all but clambered under the bed covers.

but then i decided that rather than quaking under said covers i might be wise to consider this my short-term spell in monastic living. call me brother babs.

i rise before the sun, step outside as first light seeps across the inky edge of night. drink in the gallons and gallons of birdsong. it’s ambrosial out there (a word i picked up in all my monastic reading this week, a word that aptly describes the velvety notes of interlaced and twining love songs from the trees). i don’t hear a single human-made sound, except for the far-off whoosh of a morning train, and even that is drowned against the clamor rising from the itty-bitty lungs of all the flocks declaring start of reproduction season.

i could stay out there all day, the one sure place where i can breathe. where i don’t imagine the virus chasing after me. (the grocery store i find an exercise in weave and dodge, surrounded by masses wearing masks, imagining with my x-ray vision whole crops of red-ringed dots splattered all across whatever i’m about to pluck from bins or shelves. you now witness how my days in microbiology labs come back to haunt me, how they exercise my far-too-active imagination. how my special powers allow me to see otherwise invisible objects.)

i’ve been down on my knees for good spells this week, but not so much in prayer as in scouring-the-earth mode. i’ve heard reports from parts south that spring is actually rising, breaking forth from slumber. here in the heartland, here not far from the great lake michigan (which i can hear quite clearly these days from my so-called hermitage), there’s barely a hint, though i’ve been raking back the leaves, all but coaxing vernal stirrings. unwilling to dawdle while spring takes its time, i’ve pulled out the clippers. hauled in what looks like armload of spiky sticks. but in fact it’s my annual exercise in forcing, forcing spring, all the more essential this time round, in this the corona siege. (see above.)

i have been known to leave the premises. to take a morning constitutional, to ply the sidewalks. that’s where i ran across this: IMG_1391

praise be the children and their chalk. praise be the ones who spread the gospel of faith and hope and calm.

because i believe in stockpiling but not the toilet-paper kind, i’ve been busy all week tucking away bits and morsels for your consumption here at the virtual kitchen table. i’ve clipped smart paragraphs and poems that packed a punch. here’s some of what i’ve hoarded just for you:

margaret renkl is a writer from outside nashville, now a once-a-week columnist in the new york times. this week she wrote about the balm for jangled nerves, the balm that oozes from the earth:

The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context.

a few paragraphs later she wrote this: …reminds me of Alice Walker’s words: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

and then there was this: The scent of freshly turned soil works on the human brain the same way antidepressants do.**

that last bit from margaret set me off on a bit of a goose chase to dig into this scientific finding that turning over trowel really does do wonders for the soul. sure enough, i found:

Researchers from Bristol University and University College London discovered using laboratory mice, that a “friendly” bacteria commonly found in soil activated brain cells to produce the brain chemical serotonin and altered the mice’s behaviour in a similar way to antidepressants.

When they treated mice with Mycobacterium vaccae they found that it did indeed activate a particular group of brain neurons that produce serotonin – in the interfascicular part of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRI) of the mice, to be precise. They established this by measuring the amount of c-Fos in the area, a biochemical marker whose presence indicates that serotonin releasing neurons have fired.

Serotonin, also known as 5-HT (short for 5-hydroxytryptamine), is found in the gut, brain, nerves and blood of humans and other animals. There are 14 different receptors that bind to serotonin each working a different property of this highly multi-functional chemical messenger.

The friendly bacteria in this study appear to be having an antidepressant effect in a third way, by increasing the release of serotonin.

and because poetry will always be sacred text to me, because poetry has a knack for seeping into those unspoken nooks and crannies that make us who we are, i found this from one of my favorites, dorianne laux, who calls herself something of an unschooled poet, a poetess who worked as a sanitarium cook, a gas station manager and a maid before earning a B.A. at 36, and whose poetry is said to be “compassionate witness to the everyday.”

because in some ways we are all carrying the load of grief, because we all teeter on the edge of holding it together or otherwise, this poetic bit of wisdom and truth struck me hard this week. we are all in this together. the kindness of strangers just might be our saving grace. as we move through our so-called monastic days and nights….

For the Sake of Strangers

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly.  A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another–a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even

to be waiting, determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them–

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

–Dorianne Laux

because i imagine we’re a table of survivors and stockpilers of another sort, what saving graces have you stocked up on this week?

and before i go, i am stockpiling all the birthday love in the world for two of my favorite people in the whole wide world who happen to have back-to-back birthdays today and tomorrow. they are both best friends forever, and they both live and breathe the purest most radiant love that ever there was. happy birthday sweet P, and happy almost birthday auntie M. xoxoxoxoxo

may you be safe and strong in this week ahead. look back here for any particularly urgent (and delicious) morsels i find in the days ahead. i tuck them down below in the comments. we are all in this together, each and every gentle kindness our path toward the light on the other side…..

maybe we need to open the smoke hole

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there’s a siberian myth that when you close the smoke hole in a reindeer-hide tent — that orifice opening up to the sky — God can’t see in anymore. when you close the smoke hole, you break the connection to the divine — to the heavens and clouds and stars in the sky.*

when you close the smoke hole, you go mad in the whirl of unending toxic vapors.

maybe the world needs to go quiet to open the smoke hole.

have you heard that dolphins are once again romping in the waters off venice? (the oversized — dare we say obscene — cruise ships are gone.) blue skies and birdsong are back in parts of china that hadn’t seen them or heard them for years. (factories gone silent, cars parked at the curbs; pollution cut off at the knees.)

the earth, amid a pandemic, is healing. you might say it’s the soul that’s pushed its way to the fore.

have you noticed how your inbox is full of invitations from monks and museums and the metropolitan opera? a journal i love — emergence magazine — is, like so many rushing into the abyss, offering “free of charge, online sessions [that] will include: a book club that will meet online once a week, virtual fireside chats with Emergence contributors, a nature journaling course, and facilitated workshops and discussions.”

last night i joined in meditation with a monk and his singbowls at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore — along with two dozen soulful others whose faces appeared in squat boxes at the top of the screen, and who were strewn all across the continent. (singbowls originated in the himalayas more than 2,000 years ago, and the sound that rises from the mallet gliding the rim of a metallic bowl is scientifically documented to change our brain waves, and so is thought to be healing and soothing and all of those “ings” we need right now.)

the other morning i sat at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, while the priest at my church spoke of the samaritan woman during the sermon of sunday morning liturgy. last night, my priest popped in again, and mentioned that rather than singing the birthday song twice as she washes her hands, she likes to recite the jewish blessing for the washing of hands (it’s 10 seconds, so repeat twice): “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

there are many, many hours to fill in the space between stepping into my haz-mat attire and bravely boldly facing the grocery stores aisles where, more often than not, whole aisles are cleared, picked over as if a cotton field in the wake of the weevil. and so, being human, we itch to find ways to fill those hours.

i say, take this time and seize it: pick up a rake, if you have one idling in the garage or the shed. tenderly pull back the winter’s detritus, marvel at the tender green nubs insistently pushing through the crust of the earth. listen to the birdsong, now that the soundtrack of cars and most trucks (save for the poor amazon delivery squad), have gone silent.

one of my most beloved friends is teaching me, via links to websites and a vat of bubbling goo she’s promised to leave on my stoop, how to befriend that curious alchemical mix of flour and water and floating-by spores (how lovely to think of a wafting microbe as friend and not foe in these red-ringed times) called sourdough starter. there’s something eternally hopeful about the notion of make-your-own yeast, and bake-your-own breakfast.

last night, the college kid among us pulled out a board game, fired up his laptop to connect with his faraway brother, and together — through the wizardry of this wireless age — we all played round after round of word games. when’s the last time we all huddled at the kitchen table to put our collective heads together in game?

i’m making it my most important job to stitch the normal into these days, and to take it up a notch and embroider the moments with whatever delights and high-order embellishments i can muster: i’m tossing lavender packets into the dryer so clean sheets smell like provence herb gardens. i’m cracking open packets of biscuits, cranking the oven, filling the house with buttery inhalations. defrosting stews long tossed to the back of the freezer. the soul when its gasping for air is especially receptive to beauty.

and in between the attempts to make this time something of a break from the madness, i’m paying closest attention to the unbridled kindnesses, to the light that insists on seeping through the cracks.

maybe the smoke hole is opening.

maybe we’re finally noticing how hungry our souls have become. seek vigil not isolation, might be our watch phrase. don’t cut yourself off from the marvelous. from the undeniably beautiful. from the blessed.

open your eyes and your heart, the heavens are beckoning in ways never ever imagined. shabbat is upon us. uninterrupted.

enter in peace.

how are you keeping open the smoke hole?

from time to time across the week, i will bring delicious morsels here to the virtual kitchen table. you’re welcome to do the same….as we join hearts and forge on together. we will emerge and be stronger for seeing the world through new smoke-cleared eyes…..

*credit to martin shaw, mythologist and storyteller from devon, england, (extolled as “a thirteenth-century troubadour dropped into our midst”) for bringing the smoke-hole myth to my attention…..

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1905 Scientific American, documenting Siberian wilderness culture

it’s the whispered moments that speak to me…

the shoes of the boys i love, the shoes i’ve always filled before dawn on the sixth of december, the feast of st. nick, those shoes are hundreds of miles away this dawn. likely lined up like straight-back soldiers in one’s law school apartment, and in a dorm room half as far away, i’m guessing they’re jumbled, strewn under a desk or a bed, or a sweatshirt and socks heaped on the floor.

to grow up in this old house was to wake up to foil-wrapped chocolates and oranges and surely a candy cane stuffed in the wide-open maw of your boot or your slipper or sneakers, a pair that grew by the year (all the more room for more chocolates), and always was left by the bedroom door on the night of the fifth.

i’ve always made as much of a folderol over this “little christmas” as i have over the one that’s gotten so noisy.

it’s the quiet moments of christmas, the unexpected kindnesses, the silence on a star-stitched night that stir the holy in me. i enter into the season in whispers. find myself pulled into tide pools of unspoken wonder. thrill like a kid with her nose pressed to the windowpane when i find myself face-to-face with the modern-day version of an elf. if you keep watch, and i’d advise that you do, there are elves all around.

this time of year i do make a list. a list of the out-of-the-blue elves and dollops of kindness that have plopped into my lap:

*the gas station owner who piled his tools into a cardboard box and drove me the three blocks to where my own car wouldn’t start, where he proceeded to ping and tap-tap-tap to try to get the key in the ignition to turn (it would not). he charged not a penny, and did the whole thing with a serious smile and multiple insistences that this was not at all out of his way. (on a sunday morning no less.)

IMG_0681*the college roommate from long, long ago who sent me a shoebox bursting with the itty-bittiest gingerbread babies, each one iced and strewn with cinnamon hearts, each one dangling from a skinny red thread she’d take the time to tie in a loop.

*my brother who’s driving almost two hours (each way) to the snow-covered storybook village where our freshman in college is just about to start his first round of finals. the plan (hatched in the spontaneous joy of the moment) is to fetch the kid after his last exam, bring him back to cleveland for a friday night’s feast and a snooze on an airbed, then tuck him onto a greyhound bus for the long ride home, where he’ll finish his papers in the cozy quiet of home.

*the extraordinarily kind fellow from the birdseed store who’s offered to swing by my house to reconfigure the bird feeders that have suddenly been taken hostage by one wily (and insatiable) squirrel.

my list isn’t done; it’s just getting started. but i know from years and years of paying attention that those catch-you-by-surprise, take-your-breath-away moments are the ones when the christmas seeps in.

it’s something like watching water whirl down a drain; it’s a force you can’t stop, it’s a force you can’t really see. but you feel it. you know it. the moment pulls you right in, a sinkhole of joy, of wonder, of can-you-believe-such-kindness-exists? and suddenly, deep down inside, you’re inside a snow globe of heaven on earth.

christmas comes in certain spoonfuls, best swallowed all along the way, through the quiet you carve out of the noise. by the time the day itself arrives, you’ll already have savored its coming.

merry christmas-is-coming, st. nick is here.

gingerbabies

who are the elves on your list? what dollops of kindness have crept up and tapped you gently, certainly, at the core of your heart?

a consideration of saints

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long long ago, when i was a wee little thing falling asleep in my tight twin bed, the hand-sewn squares of quilt pulled up to my nose, i, like many a girl who donned scratchy plaid uniform skirt and buttoned all the way up (no matter how hot or humid outside) my navy blue uniform cardigan each day for holy cross school, i drifted off to dreamland wondering what it would take to become a saint, a little flower of jesus, perhaps, or the patron saint of fallen feathered things. i wouldn’t have minded aspiring to patron saint of bicycle pedals, or patron saint of clearing the table, two fundamentals of life i knew well, fundamentals i could work at — perfect even — if given the hope of a life under halo.

it’s not a bad thing to each and every night pluck from among a roster of heroes, sainted not for their football-field prowess, nor the velocity with which they swung a bat at a ball, but for those more ephemeral, ineffable things: gentle kindness, a selflessness that verged on self-erasure. it’s a good thing i hadn’t yet read too deeply of the tortures some of the saints endured. i might have swerved left from a life of good grace. i’ve utterly no interest in strapping myself to a windmill, going round and round in eternal upchucking dizziness. nor any one of the other tricks from the saintly bag of horrors (too gruesome to type at this early hour).

but — tortures aside — the morning after all-hallowed sugar-high (aka trick-or-treating) dawned onto what might have been the super bowl for saint seekers: november 1 in the catholic vernacular is the day of all saints, a feast day of joyous proportion. and that brings us to today, when with a few decades under my belt, i still awake with a particular zing.

only now, my consideration of saints has been jangled a bit. and moved far beyond ecclesiastical strictures. i’m more inclined to look to the everyday for my roster of saints. i see saints every day. have spent a good chunk of my life keeping watch. worry that we live in an age antithetical to saintliness. no saint seeker ever imagined an instagram reel of a life where every good deed was captured, captioned, and cast to the cybersphere. utter humility, a sense of one’s smallness against the vast majesty and unimaginable genius of the one we call God or Abba or Adonai, that’s non-negotiable, an essential place to begin.

the world we live in — at least the public world — seems to have turned it all on its head. it’s all bombast and braggadocio. when, to my mind, the deepest ripples are those that move through the world with barely a whisper. the gentle soul who considered it his life’s holiest work to show kindness to pigeons, to call them by name, to notice when one of his flock was wounded or lame. the one who knew 100,000 cars each and every day passed by him and the fire hydrant upon which he sat, the one who quietly told me “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude.”

the woman who lives down my alley, who cooks by the gallon and, like a sprite in the night, sprints from house to house, doorknob to doorknob, leaving her wares in large plastic bags dangling from handles and knobs. because to her, to feed is to love, and her heart knows no bounds.

i know saints gather at this very table. saints who seed love, day after day in a thousand unscripted ways: the one who feeds a banquet of fine organic greens to her bevy of hard-shelled centenarians; the one who whispers a prayer into every stitch and tug and pull of her needle and thread; the one who every other weekend flies halfway across the country to sit beside her faraway, struggling son; the ones who day after day visit old friends who no longer remember, who feed them spoonful by spoonful, who read them love letters from long ago in hopes that it just might spark a burst of remembering, of story, of unfettered joy.

on this day for considering saints, and counting the saints among us, i turn to a glorious book i reviewed a few years ago, a book of poetry by susan l. miller titled, communion of saints. it opens with this glorious beauty, “manual for the would-be saint,” and it begins like this:

Manual for the Would-Be Saint

by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.

The second: The air calls us home.

Third, we must fill the bowls of others

before we drain our own wells dry.

The fourth is the dark night; the fifth

a subtle scent of smoke and pine.

The sixth is awareness of our duties,

the burnt offering of our own pride.

Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.

The ninth takes time: it is to discover

what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

…(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…)

please, do yourself an all saint’s day favor, and find it and read to the end. and now, quietly, without even a ripple, i will leave you to your own consideration of saints…

what might be the opening lines of your manual for the would-be saint?

p.s. do you know the saint pictured above? here’s a hint: she was kicked out of the calendar of saints for reasons i will never know, yet she remains in some books as the patron saint of architects. it’s saint babs, aka barbara, as a matter of fact, and isn’t it uncanny that de-sainted though she is, her affinity for architecture is akin to the one to which i’ve wed my life…(a saintly patronage that must have brought my jewish husband so much relief upon discovery!) (st. babs is linked to architecture because her father is said to have locked her in a tower after she rejected an offer of marriage he’d relayed to her. egad. i’m telling you, some of these saintly tales belong in the annals of the absurd. forgive me….) 

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?

 

the ones who direct our attention

Beach Balance Stone Stacked Nature Meditation

sometimes i imagine myself perched in a watchtower amid the thick of the forest. a treehouse on steroids and stilts. i’ve always been keen on small spaces tucked away. secret rooms from which to watch the world. when i was little i had one such room — my little log cabin, tucked in the garden, down where our backyard dipped low. i was sequestered away, where the marsh lilies bloomed. and the queen anne’s lace bowed in the wind. the limbs of the trees brushed up against my walls and my roof. leaves rustled, sometimes poked in the windows.

i could sit there for hours — and in the summers i did. i’d cook — or so i called it — on the upturned coffee tin that served as my “stove.” i gathered berries from the boughs of the honeysuckle (though i promised never to eat them). i harbored books in the corners. i watched without being noticed — a posture, come to think of it, i still warm to.

all these years later, keeping watch is still my natural disposition. there’s a good measure of watching in being a news gatherer. there was a good deal of paying attention, listening closely, in being a nurse. there is immense keeping watch in being a mother.

i seem to be ever on the watch for prophets and wise folk. those supersized souls whose job, it seems, is to point us all in the clearest, surest direction. i understand that without them, without their extraordinary insights and clarion calls, i’d lose my way. fall by the wayside. tumble into the ditch of losing the point.

here’s a little something i’ve noticed: among the populations likeliest to hold prophets and seers, those who are living with dire prognoses — those who’ve sat in the crucible of cold, hard exam rooms, who’ve been strapped and slid into MRI chambers whispering every prayer in the book — they are often the ones whose vision holds the sharpest finest-grain focus, whose words come without filter. time is urgent, the message is crucial. is imperative. all the fluff is chiseled away. we’re down to the bone here.

because life is an ever-surging river of exit and entrance and all points between, i keep being pulled to its banks, to that liminal edge where voices are truest. where, from out of the din, you can’t help but hear the ones with the piercingest truths. the ones whose vision is sharpest, is surest, because they’ve no time to waste.

in the past few weeks one of those prophets, one whose voice is among the piercingest, the bravest, is an old friend, who 20 years ago battled cancer, and ever since has lived as if there were no tomorrow. a month or so ago, completely out of the blue, that cancer came back, came back with a vengeance. and my friend, whose name is robbie klein, and who said i could tell you, has taken to putting her most urgent truths into words. she’s written of the horrors of tumors that make her head feel as if it’s exploding. she’s written of all the evils that come with late-stage cancer. but mostly she’s reached for the high notes, reminded anyone who’s listening, that the miracle is in the now. that we’re all dropped into a stage set of life that’s upholstered with beauties and breathtaking blessing, and we’re wise to plunge in deep, to dance in the moment while the moment is ours.

yesterday, she penned a simple list. a prayer-poem it seemed to me. a litany of paying attentions, of moments that shimmer, that beckon — but might be overlooked, left unconsidered, or forgotten.

it so strikingly focused my eyes and my soul on those not uncommon moments when time itself is suspended, is paused, is nearly bursting with beauty and promise and possibility, i asked robbie if i could share it here. “of course,” she said.

she trains our eyes, our soul, our whole selves, on those ineffable moments of every blessed day. on those moments so rich they deserve, each one, to be held to the light, to be beheld. my friend robbie is intent on slowing down time, on making us notice. on making us see.

a person who sees: prophet. one who carries the wisdom, the urgency, from heaven to earth. one who speaks words that cannot, and must not, be disregarded.

Moments

by Robbie Klein

The space behind the waterfall

The reverberation after a piano key is struck

The second after hanging up with one you love

The instant before the match catches fire

The trace when a cloud covers the sun

The sliver before sleep comes

The first raindrop under a tree canopy

The ebbing of the waves

The lightening of dawn

The space between notes

The bottom of the exhale

The final brushstroke

The first drop on the tongue

The grey before snow falls

The moment before his fingers touch your face

thank you, beautiful blessed robbie…..

please whisper a prayer for robbie and all of the prophets among us. hold her in the light this fine day. send love to where she’s tucked away, on the northern california coast, by the side of her most beloved boy, the love of her life. 

and, please, add to the litany of moments that are distillations of all that is profound and powerful and possible in this blessed whirl called life. what moment might you pay attention to today? one you might otherwise have missed…

the marvel of the capacious soul

i’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re down here on this messy planet, this planet that sometimes feels overpopulated with goons and wise guys, is that on occasion, as we mill about among the masses and misfits, we run into the occasional breathtaking specimen from whom we will undoubtedly learn a thing or three.

i bumped into one this week, and once again i scribbled notes into my chunky fat notebook, the one titled, “how to be a better human. volume 61.”

the most accurate way to phrase it, quite honestly, would be to say that i didn’t so much as bump into him — he’s a time zone away, after all — but rather that this gorgeous soul pretty much flung himself onto the skinny little trail i was traipsing through the day. and it took all of a fraction of a second for me to read his words, feel the breath sucked straight out of my lungs (in that marveling sort of a way), and remember why oh why i’ve always adored him, and would like to be like him when i grow up.

he arrived, my old friend did, in an out-of-the-blue email, one announcing that he — whose wife had died just 10 days before, and whom we’d not seen in years and years — was jumping on a plane to chicago, where he and his wife had lived a couple decades ago, back when both of us were starting out in this experiment called “how to birth and raise a child.” we had all succumbed, his wife and i and our respective mates, at just about the same moment in history. they sped off to the birthing room first, and we followed fairly close behind. then, they sped again shortly after us, so we all spent a few years there cradling newborns, trading tales and names of pediatricians. in fact, the day the chicago tribune decided to unveil a room (more like a rehabbed closet) for “lactating reporters,” my friend’s wife and i showed up to pose for pictures with our little guzzlers well attached (clinging to our shoulders, people; all of us fully clothed and covered, merely suggesting that we young mothers might at some point put down notepads and plug into breast pump (i forsook the whole endeavor and worked from home, with nary a pump in sight)).

i digress.

back to this blessed friend who dropped in this week. he wrote this:

Hi guys,

Corey and I have sort of tumbled into a Chicago comfort trip. He’s there already, and I am flying out in a few hours.

It’s exceedingly last minute, but he and I would love to see as many of you as we can in a gathering of some design. I’ve been thinking brunch Saturday or Sunday, at a restaurant or (if one of you has the stomach for it) a home (I’d ecstatically cover the catering).

Let me float the idea of 10 am Saturday or Sunday. Other times will in truth be tougher (I’ll be doing things with/at the theater, etc.).

Maybe we can reply-all in order to see whether this might work?

I adore you all, and thank you for words and sustenance over months, weeks, and years.

Love,

(old friend)

i should mention that this old friend is a professor of shakespeare in new york city, and from the first day i met him he has used the english language in measures that far exceed just about anyone else i’ve ever known. he matches his eloquence with an effusion of the human spirit that is, frankly, a force of nature. something akin to sharing a room with a hurricane of most glorious refinement.

amid a world of ways of mourning, i was bowled over by this friend’s instinct to surround himself — immerse himself, really — with stories, tears, and laughter. to reach out for old, old friends. to throw himself onto a plane to shrink the distance, to not wait to lather himself in the healing balm, to quite emphatically wrap himself in the company of those who’d lived and breathed the chapters before cancer trod his heart, and stole his lifelong love.

it’s why capacious is the word that best fits his soul, his spirit, the magnitude of how he exercises love and life and full-throttle humanity. “having a lot of space inside; roomy,” the pocket OAD tells us. my friend is roomy, all right, and he makes room for the whole whirling wild climate zone of grief and grieving.

i imagine that tomorrow morning, when my kitchen is filled with lox and bagels and stories tumbling atop stories, when the coffee flows endlessly and big bowls spill with the fattest sweetest berries i can find today, it will get messy. there will be rivers of tears. and once or twice someone might laugh so hard they’ll spit strawberry across the table. i’ve been around enough grief to know it’s uncharted.

what i’ve not often seen, and what i love and what finds me marveling, is this old friend’s willingness to plunge right in, to immerse himself in the anguish and the joys that old friends know by heart. almost none of us witnessed up close the past few years of surgery and chemo and the inevitable dying, but we were all there for the thick of what came before — the births, the strollers, the raucous Shabbat dinners, the summer sunsets from their rooftop terrace.

and we have stories in which to wrap him, and tears to bathe his broken heart, and great good laughter on which to lift and carry him.

from deep inside his fog of pain and loss and rudderlessness, he thrust out a hand, and called on an old unbroken circle of the heart. we will hold a shiva here tomorrow. and there will be prayer in the form of story. and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be shared in the company of those who remember well the days long before the whiff of cancer slid into the room, and took away our old friend’s truest deepest love.

may his capacious ways remind me to never shrink from the confines of the soul so blessedly breathed into each of us at the moment we were first imagined, and sent forth to fill this planet…..

who are some of the ones in your life who teach you how to be? and in what form have some of those lasting lessons come? 

this one’s for…

boy with my heart

you. and you. and you.

my world these days is inhabited, certainly, with hearts that are heavy, hearts that are hurting. one is mourning the loss of her mother, her brilliant and vibrant and unforgettable mother. another will never stop mourning the loss of her daughter. one struggles with a diagnosis that week by week makes it harder to hold a pencil, pour juice in a glass, pray on her knees. another is slowly losing her powers to see.

and then there are all the others, who harbor hurts and shoulder unbearable weights.

i walk through the labyrinth, alongside their lives, seeing their pain, imagining the crushing weight of the worry, wishing more than anything that words — the surest thing i know, short of lifting out my heart and wrapping it round them — could do the work of saying, “i remember. i’m watching. i’m here to listen. you’re not all alone.”

in a world where we all whirl, from birth till the end, in our own little amoebas of space and sentience, where the oceans of life bang up against our shores, where we stand and brace ourselves for whatever comes, never knowing what will wash up next, the one holy grace — short of the cord that ties us to heaven — is the grace of soulmates who listen, who put forth their own shoulders to bear a chunk of the load, who dare to sit side-by-side in the dark, to not say a word when silence is best, and who sometimes, rare sometimes, know just the right words. or they try anyway.

if only we all slowed down long enough. if only we all let down our own layers of armor, those impenetrable sheaths we carry into the day to keep ourselves safe from rocks and arrows, not realizing that our efforts to gird against our own hurts make it all the harder to recognize others’.

if only our words could do the work we wish for. if only we could slither inside someone else’s pain, sidle up close by her side, and whisper just the right curative potion.

if only words could work in the way that we hope and we pray: if words had the power to heal. to lift burden. salve the wounds. rinse away the sting.

maybe, sometimes, they do.

which is why i remember a few short phrases spoken to me in hours of dread. or despair. or unbearable grief. i remember a friend insisting, “you got this,” when she and she alone held that certainty. i remember, in the crowded kitchen of the house where i grew up, not even an hour after we’d buried my father, my uncle leaned into me, rested his hands on my shoulders, looked me deep in the eyes, and said: “the depth of the pain is equal to the depth of the love,” and suddenly my immense and immeasurable grief became bearable. because somehow i now had a framework, a balance of scale, to understand the pain as a pure reflection of love, and in that equation i found the muscle to bear what would be months and months and months of heart-crushing pain.

there’s not a morning that i don’t wake up and tick through an inventory of heartaches and griefs all around. i recite the names of people i love, a litany propelled by pure empathy. i pause on each name and each story, sometimes for longer than others. i imagine how hollow or heavy it feels. and i send up a prayer. and then another and, often, another.

the beauty of prayer is that words — those sometimes stumbling, fumbling, ill-fitting sounds that come from our throats — words when spoken in prayer take on powers that come from far beyond our own soul. words spoken in prayer do immeasurable work. they seep in through the cracks, or so i believe. they settle in deep, and maybe just maybe they send up tender resilient shoots, and one day they’ll bloom. into love. into peace. into the breathtaking power to bear whatever it is we know we cannot bear alone.

and so this fine morning, i offer up words for the ones who i love who are hurting. and hollowed. and certain that no one could ever imagine how lonely it is. or how dark.

this one’s for you.

love, b.

what are words whispered to you over the course of your life that made you know you could carry the load, you could go forth, one tender step at a time? 

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

any hour now, the house next door, a house where an old man of 92 has lived alone for a few years, a house the old man has been trying to sell for months and months (with not a single offer), a house where just a few weeks ago the old man told me he feels as if he’s gone before a judge and been sentenced to life in jail only the jail is his home, that house will have some bustle today.

two women will be pulling cans and boxes and thingamajigs from shelves in the cupboards. not because the old man is moving out finally. but because an old friend is moving in. an old friend of mine. a friend i knew to be needing a place to live. a rich and wonderful friend who for a host of reasons is in between houses. and desperately needing a place to call home, a place where she can breathe, and look out the windows at sunlight. or snowflakes. or dawn.

after a week or two of nearly comical round-about “talks,” the two of them have reached a deal that already hints of heart more than wallet. she will be renting what amounts to an upstairs suite, two roomy bedrooms, a bathroom, and closets. he will be gaining the comfort of footsteps up above, the rustling in the kitchen as she whips up one of her amazing effortless feasts.

and that’s not all: my friend drives a car, and the old man next door — his name is george, and i don’t think he’d mind my using it — he lost his old white oldsmobile last summer when it got crunched by another car. george escaped with bumps and bruises, but the lasting blow was the car got towed away, and taken away — for good. as part of “the deal,” my dear friend will be, among many things, george’s newfound wheels. she will drive to the market when he cobbles a list (long a fellow who marketed for himself on the fly, an ad-libber of marketing, he claims to be not so good at list-making and, at 92, is intent on teaching himself this new skill). she will drive him to the doctor. and, as seems to happen every once in a while, she’ll give him a lift to the emergency room.

but here’s the thing about that last point in particular: just a week or two ago, i was sitting with george on a day he’d woken up dizzy. i’d run over after he called, a scene that unfolds not infrequently, and was perched beside him in a hard metal folding chair (he’s cleared the house of nearly every piece of furniture, the saga of trying for months to sell a house that won’t budge), when he told me in something of a whisper that, really, he thought the chest pains and shortness of breath might just be from the stress of living alone, of not being able to sell this house that he loved, a house he built for his beloved late wife who for years and years struggled to breathe, a house he’d filled with countless “upgrades” to make her breathing easier, to make it easier for nurses to come and to go. a house he didn’t want to sell at a bargain-basement price. to george, that feels like an insult. an insult to himself, yes, but more so a slap at the memory of his most beloved wife (in the great room of his house, the only room still with furniture, there are exactly four items: a recliner chair, a metal tv tray table, a big screen tv, and a faded picture of his late wife hanging from the wall). it’s his unwillingness to settle for what he considers an unconscionable price that has shoved him into this jail-cell of a situation, and how he’s come to spend months and months alone in that house, and now months and months without a car, or a way to get around. and all the while the pains in his chest have gotten worse and worse. and the dizziness comes and goes.

and as i sat there listening, wishing like anything i could figure out how to lift his burden, it dawned on me that maybe there was an outside chance of a way.

my old friend had just moved out of her own longtime house into a rented room, a tight-squeezed room in a townhouse where a little dog (not hers) had free rein and hospital pads were scattered about the floors in case the wee dog hadn’t time to do his business outside. even though i knew she’d just unpacked boxes and boxes, even though i knew she’d just signed off on the first month’s rent, i could see the light in her eyes was dimming. i was haunted long after i drove away and left her to squeeze a few files onto her makeshift desk.

it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, my two old friends — one a friend by accident of geography, the other a friend who’s been something of an auntie to my boys, and a lifesaver to me — could make a quirky equation, could be each other’s short-term solution. so i spoke up. i mentioned first to my friend my quirky idea. she paused and considered. then i brought it up to george’s daughter, the one who’s been slumped under the weight of her papa’s affairs, and driving countless miles from her house to his many times a week, and often at the drop of a dime. she too saw the possibility. so i wandered over and asked george myself.

and by the middle of next week the upstairs room with the light that has barely shone in all these years, it will be glowing above the garage. it will be glowing down onto the picket fence that runs between my house and george’s — and, for now, hers, too. my old friend will have a whole upstairs all to herself. she’ll have shelves and shelves for her books. and sunlight or moonlight pouring through the tall, tall windows.

george will have the comfort and joy of being not alone. already, i’ve been told, he pokes his head round the corner when my friend is there (figuring out what will go where), asks if she’d like him to make her a cocoa. (see what i mean about this being more heart than wallet?)

it’s a happy ending in the making, i’m certain. i feel it in my bones. and not because i will now have a dear friend next door, one with whom i can share old new yorkers, and whatever i’ve whipped up for dinner. but because in this old cold world there still exists the possibility of kooky solutions, and hearts can be pulled together tighter than any wallet or real-estate guide might suggest. fact is, the two of ’em — george and my friend — both happen to be among the dearest souls on the planet, and right now both are in tight pinches that neither one deserves.

it all reminds me that we live, all of us do, on the thin membrane of possibility day after day after day. our charge, if we take it, is to live and breathe the belief that 1 + 1 just might = 3, to know that love and light is just beneath the surface, aching for a soft spot, a place to break through.

despite what the naysayers insist, we do not dwell in a zero-sum world. my gain is not your loss, nor vice versa. if we decide to live a life of looking for doors that might be opened, dots connected, threads interwoven, if we believe in looking up and looking out for the other guy’s sweet victory and triumph, well, then isn’t the world one stitched by generosity and not stinginess? isn’t that the way we all win? and doesn’t that tip the globe in the direction of light not shadow?

it’s always boggled me, and heavied my heart, to know that this is not the way of the world. but we can make it be. we can spend our days on the lookout. on the lookout for love, for light. for the arithmetic of unlikely sums.

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

do you have a tale of doors being opened, and love rushing through?