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Category: antidotes to madness

my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism

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you might have noticed. it’s hard to miss. over the airwaves, on the streets, even at your neighborhood checkout aisle: pugilism is rising to intolerable levels. i blame the bully in chief. have spent months now in my head composing the letter i would like to carry to washington, read on the capitol steps. just little old pewter-haired me, politely hollering at the top of my lungs: stop all the insidious idiocy. stop all the name-calling, the bullying, the devilish tricks. cease with the stomping down hallways and stairs, slinging god-awful descriptors on decent and honorable human beings. stop pummeling this one blessed earth. leave all the children alone, nestled by the sides of their mothers and fathers, where they belong. practice decency. exude kindness. invoke gentle tenderness. start behaving like there might be a tomorrow. imagine your deathbed: these are the moments  you’ll at last call to mind. are you wincing? are these the ways you want to be remembered? a toxic trail in your wake?

it’s toxic, all right. a drip, drip, drip of toxicity. some days, more of a deluge.

my ever practical, commonsensical mother has five words of advice: turn off the damn tv!

i do, more than i used to. first few years of this siege, i admit i was glued to the loud little box. couldn’t take my eyes or my ears off the madness, praying it would end. just kept hoping against hope we could all go back to our quiet neighborly ways. might welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. maybe even pick up the trash that litters the woods and the waterways.

nowadays, worn down to the marrow, i find myself building what amounts to a fort, a tall wall of defense. literally. my house is piled with books. they rise up in teetering towers all over the place: kitchen counter, window seat that looks out on the trees, floor and chair and desk in the itty-bitty room where i write.

i read to escape. but not in the way of bodice-ripped beach reads. i read to remind myself that the way of this world, of this moment, is not the only option. i read the masters: thoreau and merton and hildegard of bingen. rilke and c.s. lewis. i read newfound saints and poetesses: jane hirshfield, margaret renkl, timothy egan. i carry them wherever i go. they are my talismans, my shields against attacks of the soul.

i read lines like these, from anita barrows’ preface to rilke’s book of hours: love poems to God:

…suddenly it occurred to me that God created the world because he was lonely. He needed it — needed the ripeness of autumn, the bright air, the sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk through linden leaves that were yet unfallen. God had created all this, and us as well, to keep him company.

or this, from minnesota’s poet laureate, joyce sutphen, from her brilliant collection carrying water to the field: new and selected poems:

Some Glad Morning

One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
dark as coffee beans.

The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.

It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.

or this, the very first sentences from c.s. lewis’ a grief observed:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

or, finally, this from my brilliant friend mark burrows’ (and jon sweeney’s) meister eckhart’s book of secrets: meditations on letting go and finding freedom:

What do you think?

That God has abandoned you,
especially now?
What person sees a friend
in sorrow, pain, or loneliness
without encouraging,
without being near, present?
Don’t be foolish, my friend,
God is here.

how do you build your wall of defense? what are the bricks in your wall?

(p.s. in part, i included the bit on grief because friends here at this very table are suffering terrible griefs, loves lost and achingly so. please, remember them in your incantations. the whole of c.s. lewis’ classic, grief observed, by the way, is one that goes a very long way toward healing a brokenness, or as lewis’ stepson writes in the introduction, “it will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.'”)

i missed the moon

missed the moon, so gillson

…not just any moon, the great warrior orb of autumn, the hunter moon. round and orange and overwhelming, like a dreamsicle melting from the night sky. and i missed it.

well, at least i caught a peek, the skinniest sliver of a peek, as i was darting here or there or nowhere.

but it takes some work to miss the moon that bathes the world below in luminescence. i must have been holed up inside a world of worries, of syria and betrayals and beheadings. i must have been nursing the tender spots of a mama who’d just packed up her youngest and dropped him at the jetway that would carry him 300 miles from where i’ve doted over him all these years.

in the house where i grew up to miss a moon — or a cardinal, or a loon, or the frog’s croak rising from the pond across the way — to miss any of the sighs and moans and spectacles of god’s creation was what amounted to a sin. in my mama’s book of rules, anyway.

you daren’t let on that you were too busy with your nose in the news. or worrying about the dustballs under your bed. too distracted to notice was not allowed. or so’s the truth as i absorbed it.

chased in part by guilt (a guilt that unlike the moon never ebbs), but even more so by an unquenchable thirst, a sense that i’d strayed too far from the thin-spun silken thread that ties heaven to earth to what passes for my soul. if i missed the moon, the great wide-cheeked nightbeam of october, i wonder what else i’d missed, what stirrings of the earth that were sure to launch my own deep-down stirrings, remind me of my own still small place beneath the immensities of the one who’d carved us — and all creation — from the depths and heights of divine imagination?

so i strapped on my sturdy walking shoes, and found myself crouched down low amid the grasses that swish and sway against the sand mounds, the ones that catch the wind off the lake, and rustle as do the faithful in the pews when sabbath comes.

i sank low and lower, not to hide so much as to immerse myself in lowliness. to drench myself in the posture of humility, of raw-edged vulnerability so necessary for reverence.

to behold the miracle of heaven above and all around, i find i need to grow small and smaller. ours is a world of oversized ego, oversized hubris, oversized oversize. the bigger the better. except, quite frankly, in matters of the blessed. to be willing to hear the holy whisper. to find satisfaction in steady footfall, one after another. to partake of the arithmetic of saints, by little and by little, by little acts of kindness, of courage, of hope. to relish the infinitesimal, the dew drop of the dawn, the twilight song of the red-bird preacher on highest bough, the flutter of the heartbeat when love swoops down, wipes away the loneliness, the ache of the empty vessel.

i stayed long enough to walk the beach, playing catch-me-if-you-can with rippling waves. i walked and watched the roiling sky. charcoal gray, i find, is supremely lovely up above. it portends drama just ahead. and, indeed, when raindrops came in dime-sized plops, i picked up my pace. ducked beneath a maple tree whose boughs had just been daubed by autumn’s crimson paintbrush.

i inhaled a quart or so of morning vapors. filled my lungs, my heart, my soul with God’s most necessary ingredient: quiescence, the underlay of all the richest risings, the prayers that wend their way past worldly noise, the ones that from the deepest stillest dancepoint of our earthly selves ascend. to there, where prayers are heard, even in their wordlessness. and the One Who Hears echoes in kind the blessing, sating us in ways no other ever will.

how do you drink up all the holiness you crave? where’s your deep down quiet place?

gillson row of trees

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

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

here’s how it begins:

“They killed a man with fire one night. 

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

His killing was a legal act.

No religious leaders protested his killing that night. 

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

And what I saw set my soul on fire–

a fire that burns in me still.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE | OCT 02, 2019

‘River of Fire’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

and what fine reads have you read of late?

the cartography of discovery, one page at a time

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i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.

the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.

certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.

IMG_0265my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.

i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.

and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.

this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.

but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)

so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?IMG_0262

Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.

“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.

simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé? 

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

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magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

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this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

off to the woods

st. mary lake

i’m off to the woods, soon as i pack the wagon, stash the little library next to the umbrella, make sure i don’t leave behind the binder with the pages and pages of notes and thoughts and scribbles.

i’m doing something i’ve not done before, not for this many days and nights anyway. and i’m doing it in a sacred splotch of woods, a place so quiet you can hear the cardinal talking to the blue jay, and you can hear the bullfrog leaping off a log so wrapped in odd-planed fungi it looks extraterrestrial. i’ve walked these woods before, and the miles and miles of trails that snake around the lake, st. mary lake. it’s all on the grounds of an old seminary, and if you listen closely you can hear the murmurs of years and years — whole decades, a century and three quarters, actually — of prayers unreeled in all these woods.

last time i was there, i was one of the ones who’d gone to be quiet. it was a two-day mostly silent retreat. this time, i’m the one who needs to talk. who needs to weave and wend the soulful into morning, noon, and night. or try, anyway.

i don’t know anyone who will be there. not yet anyway. i’m told 16 soulful women have signed up, packed their bags, and will be looking to me for sustenance of the spiritual kind. oh, lordy. help me. (it’s why i’ve spent weeks reading, thinking, writing, scribbling all those notes.)

i keep wishing it was a chair sisters’ retreat. that all of us were finding our way to the woods, gathering in the kitchen to cook ourselves a feast, kindling logs in the fireplace, taking moon walks under heaven’s star-stitched dome. i wish we were all bringing pages we found soulful. or worthy of deeper study, thoughtful consideration.

maybe this is just the first step. a trial run. to see how i fare across three days, two nights.

i imagine there will be moments of blessing. once i chase away the butterflies. i worry i won’t be “churchy” enough. hope my turning to mary oliver, and celtic poets, to ralph waldo emerson and good ol’ thoreau — my pantheon of poets and shimmering souls — is enough to sate the thirsty.

the idea here — or at least the thread that weaves this all together — is rooted in that old Book of Nature i’m so intent on reading closely. the eruptions and raptures of springtime, this season that explodes right before our eyes (while typing here i spied my first goldfinch of the season, and this morning the redbud that reaches across my backyard is twice as swollen and pink as when the sun set last night) it’s a season rife with lessons and wisdoms and wonder, and we’ll be walking the woods in search of all of it. (snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but i’m going to pretend i didn’t see that.)

we’ll weave in thoughts about the spiritual practice of paying attention, and carving out hours of stillness. and really, truth be told, these are all ideas i could spend a lifetime considering. my deepest attentions are drawn toward the liminal, the thin places and craggy edges where secular and sacred intersect. shimmer radiantly. come unexpected. i like it slant, as dear emily (dickinson) might prescribe.

so i bring my slanted theology to the woods today. and i pray my heart meets each and every one who finds me there. in between the five titled talks, simple shared conversation — over meals, during walks, curled in armchairs in the library — will be where souls are sparked.

and as always, the bookshelf offers hope. here, in the spirit of soulful edification, is the litany of books i’ve gathered and packed and will soon be tossing in the old red wagon.

BOOKS:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher:
Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
The Cloud of Unknowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library); edited by Brooks Atkinson

James Finley:
The Contemplative Heart

Richard Higgins:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees

Pico Iyer:
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Gina Marie Mammano:
Camino Divina: Walking the Divine Way

Thomas Merton:
Literary Essays of Thomas Merton

Mary Oliver:
Devotions
Upstream
Long Life

Christine Valters Paintner:
The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred
Dreaming of Stones: Poems

Jan Richardson:
Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

Joan Sauro, CSJ:
Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, introduction by Kathleen Norris:
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day
gratefulness.org

Simone Weil:
Waiting for God (essays: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with View to the Love of God;” “The Love of God and Affliction”)

may your weekend, wherever it is, and however you spend it, be something of a soulful retreat.

what books might you pack for a string of days and nights of soul stirring?

off to the woods

balm for the late-winter blues

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maybe you, too, feel pummeled. pummeled by the news. pummeled by the daily screech of nasty. the abundance of bully. maybe the unrelenting ice (and the cracks and the creaks in the bones that go with it) has left you gasping.

at our house, there’s a nasty case of shingles, and i’m walking around in a hard plastic splint, thanks to aforementioned ice. i don’t mean to be the human embodiment of eeyore, my favorite misanthropic donkey.

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

but, yeesh, february took a very long time to come to its last gasping breath.

i was gasping, all right.

and of course three-quarters of the pain is self-inflicted, since i’m the one who tuned in early, and never did leave, the shenanigans on capitol hill. the ones where over and over all day wednesday we witnessed displays of ugliness and partisan baloney the likes of which had me muting half the day, and wiping away tears at the end. sometimes the news of the day makes me think we’re back in ancient rome, crammed in the coliseum, watching gladiators tear each other to shreds. tearing us — and the moral fabric of this national experiment in hope and humanity — into tatters as well.

good thing an old, old friend, a friend who is the antithesis of all that is ugly in the world, good thing he was pencilled in for a long, slow overnight visit. the sort of once-in-a-rare-while visit that requires — no, invites — a whole day’s attention to all the arts of the hospitable heart. there were fresh sheets to tuck onto the bed, and sinks to be polished, besides. there was lavender water to spritz onto pillows. and a table to set with old fine blue-willow china. just-opening daffodils were slipped in a vase on the sill of the window in the room where our dear friend will dream. the dinner, slow cooked, will serve as invitation to a long night’s nautilus of deep conversation.

an overnight guest is the chance to step outside our everyday rhythms, while at the same time drawing another into the intimacy of those very quotidian rhythms: kicking off shoes after work, rinsing dishes after dinner, turning out lights for the night. falling asleep, each in our rooms, to the shared lullaby of an old house’s hisses and snorts.

or maybe it’s simply that to open our home — truly open it — is to open our heart. a muscle that demands regular exercise ( and not only of the cardiovascular kind). a vessel that begs to be filled with a good surge of love. the center-point of our soulfulness that, once in a while, does well to be reminded of its capacities.

all i know, at the start of this newly born month, at the end of the longest shortest one, is that it’s balm to my late-winter blues to crank up the flame on the stove, smooth the sheets on the bed, and await the face at the door of the old friend who, time and again, has shown us the best of human connection.

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

and what are the balms you reach for in your soulful apothecary?

wonder year

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sometimes we walk in circles before we find our way. or at least i do. maybe the last few months have been circle-walking. maybe the way forward is threaded by wonder. maybe what i’ve been looking for, a way into that deep-down still place inside, the place that’s a wellspring of the divine, maybe we get there by opening our eyes, putting our pulse up against the heartbeat of creation. maybe the quieter we go, the stiller we become, the more certain the sacred pulses inside and through and around and beyond.

maybe the place to begin — and this is the season for new beginnings — is right here where we are. maybe the way to begin is to be as still as we can possibly be, and plunge ourselves into those places where wonder can’t help but rub up against us.

this is hardly new revelation. i’ve been deep in the writings of thoreau these past couple weeks, poring over, underlining, making stars in the margins of a collection of passages and essays keenly observing the trees in and around walden pond and the woods of concord, mass. it’s a glorious collection of words and black-and-white photographs, gathered by the photographer and writer richard higgins from the two-million-word journal of the great transcendentalist and poet laureate of nature, henry david thoreau (1817-1862). it’s titled “thoreau and the language of trees,” and in it the instruction begins (for this is as much a guide to living as it is a historical recounting) with these guidepost paragraphs:thoreauandthelangaugeoftrees

“old trees connected thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility….

“and they were his teachers. although he called the shedding of leaves each fall a tragedy, he knew that the leaves that fell to the ground would enrich the soil and, in time, ‘stoop to rise’ in new trees. by falling so airily, so contentedly, he said, they teach us how to die.

“thoreau wrote prolifically about trees for a quarter century, from 1836 to 1861. he observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. he respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. for thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy and emerged in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.”

more and more of late, i am being drawn to a deeper understanding of the Book of Nature, a belief both catholic and jewish, a belief of many many faiths, that God first wrote the Book of Nature in creation, and then, in words, gave us the Torah, the Bible.

the pages of the Book of Nature are before us always — if we open the valves, the channels — the eyes, the ears, the soul — that detect and absorb the holy all around. the wisdom, the lessons, it’s all there to be extracted. it’s the wonder that catches our attention, that draws us in, holds us in its grasp. and then comes the pondering, the meditation, the sifting and filtering, the sieving and panning for glimmering gold.

but to notice, to pay attention, we need to go quiet. to still the noise. quell the cacophony. go to the woods or the edge of the shore. go to where the waters rush or trickle or flow in and flow out. stand under the stars of a cold winter’s night. we’re wrapped in the holiest text, the calligraphy of the great Book of Nature. God’s book. the book that beckons. the ancient and timeless antidote to the madness of civilization.

“the winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to thoreau, a place for contemplation. he walked in them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….

“thoreau also detected the divine in the woods. ‘nature is full of genius, full of divinity.’ all its motions — ‘the flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind’ — must be the ‘circulations of God.’ ‘if by watching all day and all night i detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch,’ he asked, alluding to the recurring motif in the psalms of the watchman who calls out in the morning. ‘to watch for, describe, all the divine features which i detect in Nature. my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”‘

and so, at the cusp of this blessed new year, this moment when beyond the woods the cacophony rises, i am following the trail in and through, in search of the wonder that makes clear what might otherwise escape me.

where do you find wonder? 

happy blessed newborn year to each and every one, as we all pack away the holidays, the glitter and shiny paper, and shuffle back to the extraordinary quotidian….i’m finding myself a wee bit heavy-hearted this morning as my firstborn, home for the first time in a year these past two weeks, flies off tomorrow, into what promises to be another steep climb up the next mountainside….thank goodness the so-called little one will stick around till he too shoves off when college calls early next autumn…..

p.s. ice crystals above, clinging to the roots of a fallen tree, discovered yesterday along lake michigan’s shore when my beloved and i went out for a late afternoon’s winter walk, but one of the wonders marking my annual return to the day i was birthed….

season of stillness

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not so many years ago, my writing room at this time of year took on north-pole proportions: spools of ribbon, bags of this and that to slip inside other bags or boxes, layers and layers of tissue papers, itty-bitty cards. lists abounded. i was a walking-talking maker and checker of lists.

not so much these days. and not because i’m scrooge.

simply because the sanctity of stillness is what i’m after in this season of deepening darkness. i punctate the night — the shroud of black that grows with every passing whirl around the sun — with my litany of sacramental simplicities.

the dawn is longer, blessedly, giving me more time to stitch those hours with the fine few invitations to bring in what’s hushed, what’s holy. i scoop my old tin coffee can with fat black seed, slide my toes into clunky boots, my arms in puffy sleeves. as the shock of morning cold splashes up against me, i fill my lungs with one quick gulp. then i march across the frozen stiff blades of grass, the mud that’s now succumbed into icy form, and perk my ears to hear the flutter of a wing, the rustling of a bough. i pause to scan the heavens, count the stars, spy the fraction of the moon. i’ve written a thousand times of how i make like i’m a farmer filling my trough, as i pour the seed in the feeder high above my head, stretching my arm far as it will stretch, raising up on tippy-toes, too. i’ve come to realize that the rush of pouring seed must be a call to all the birds, akin to “coffee’s on, come and get it!”

on the stillest mornings, the holiest ones, a cardinal or a junco might flutter in before i’ve stepped away. as if the gentle creature knows we’re in communion here.

perhaps i’ve learned, in my years — now three decades — of braiding jewish threads with catholic ones, to sanctify time, even more than place. abraham joshua heschel, whom i count among my constellation of north stars, writes: “judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” he goes on to draw out that point: “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the romans nor the germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate…”

point, well taken. point, deeply taken.

i consecrate the holy hours — the ones of dawn and dusk and deepest night.

and so, this season is no longer a mad dash, but a countercultural adventure in stitching in stillness. in simply kindling light, one by one, an arithmetic of brightening, night after night, as both menorah and advent wreath burn against the darkness. our house is not filled with shiny boxes. santa’s list is not an annual exercise in accumulation. hanukkah at our house is brisket + latkes + jelly-filled donuts on the first night, candles and dreidels each night after that.

year by year, i dial down the noise, and amplify the hush that ushers in the stillness.

how do you consecrate your holy hours?

baselines of hope

baselines of hope

these times, they are shaky.

that’s one way to put it, waking up, catching the first snow fall on my nose as i lope outside with coffee can and birdseed in tow, on a mission to make my first act of the day one of tender caring, even if the caring comes in the form of feather balls who float on the wind, who fill the air with chirps and cheeps and fluttering wings. and then, while that peace-filled breath is sinking deep in my lungs, in my soul, i lope back inside, click this lit-up clamshell that brings me the news — oh, the news — of the world, and just now told me of atrocities in melbourne, australia. australia, a nook and cranny of the world we like to think of as too far from the madness, somehow immune, inoculated. if only there was a vaccine against having our hearts blown to shreds.

every day now, it seems to come. to find its way in. to shake us, rattle us, frazzle our hope and sometimes our faith, deep to our core. australia. thousand oaks. tree of life. kentucky kroger grocery store. pipe bombs across america. (and that’s just the shorthand of horrors for the last 30 days.)

but i stumbled into a lifeline this week. or a little something that might just help.

by the grace of God, i have this crazy wild job that puts me in the front line of books for the soul — i read them, lots of them, and pluck out the ones especially worth passing along — and every once in a while that means i get an early crack at a book that just might save us — or at least give us a place to eddy our hearts for awhile. that’s how it happened that anne lamott’s newest, “almost everything: notes on hope,” came to be following me everywhere i go.

because she’s the master of embedding rocket blasts of wisdom unsuspectingly into the middle or ends of a sentence (p. 45: “help is the sunny side of control”), distilling knock-your-socks truths into words or combinations of words you’d never before known could work in that way (p. 47: life is “like free theater in the park — glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us…”), lamott is someone to read with pen and post-its at the ready. you’ll want to scribble in the margins, and up and down the end papers, too. (best not to play this game with a library book, so i’d urge you to buy your own copy so you can play along without racking up ginormous library fines.)

one of the tripwire lines she’d buried deep in one of her sentences was one that — as plotted, i’m certain — stopped me in my tracks and got me to thinking. (the very best books for the soul can take a very long time to read start to finish because they are filled with cul-de-sacs and ridge trails that force you to plop down on the side of the mountain and look out over the valley, far and wide and clearer than you’ve ever before noticed.)

she was writing about how even when life seems to be humming along, “the cosmic banana peel awaits.” in other words, stuff happens. bad stuff. stuff that makes us feel like our heart’s been blown to bits. banana peel stuff. “without this reality,” lamott writes, “there would be no great art or comedy.” and then she goes on to remind us to “savor what works when things are sort of harmonious.” the million and one things that don’t steer us into the ditch, don’t trigger the air bags.

it’s these little-counted miracles — the toe that wasn’t stubbed when you nearly walked into the bathroom door in the night, the pink dot by your eye that didn’t turn into a sty, the vote tally that did fall in your favorite faraway candidate’s favor — these “fleeting, lovely satisfactions” that lamott writes give us “a baseline hope.”

baseline hope.

it was as if she’d twisted the kaleidoscope just enough for me to see from a whole new angle. it was white-on-black instead of the usual black-on-white. take one minute (or be radical and take maybe five, or 10), consider the census of everyday barely-noticed things that do go the way you’d want them to go if you were the one in charge of your plot line. the things you barely pause to realize have saved you from falling into the rat’s nest, the ant hill, the gutter.

the baselines of hope.

i’ll go first: there might be a recount in florida. the furnace is humming, not sputtering. my slippers are fuzzy and warm. my hopefully-college-bound kid got his essays written on time. the computer did not crash as he was submitting said essays to college. the kid i love who’s in law school, he put down the books long enough to go to the symphony last night (a sign he’s learning to live like a human, and not just a caffeine-fueled freak of high-stakes angst).

you catch the drift, i’m certain.

these days the world can and does bombard us. it’s incoming always. and it’s not often pretty. but underpinning our everyday, more often than not, the furnace is working, the gas tank is filled, someone we love remembers to call us.

baselines of hope.

what’s required is the root of all sacred practice: pay attention. pay close, close attention. harvest the joys and the wonders and the narrowly-missed calamities. those fine few things that keep the trap door from ripping right open, catching us, tumbling us down to the cobwebby cellar.

consider the miracle of most of the time….

what constitutes your baseline of hope?