I wasn’t long off the plane, the suitcase barely unpacked, the clothes not halfway down the chute, and I was leaping into my oldest, most tattered, hand-me-down shorts (I seem to have a whole wardrobe of tattered ill-fitting hand-me-down shorts, these are the ones with the hem that dangles in front and disappears somewhere behind) and the t-shirt so ancient it’s bearing the name of a slick Andy Warhol launched in the very late ’60s. I call these my gardening clothes. The muddier they get, the more merrily I and they hum.
I had grounding to do. Grounding for me is quite literal. It’s a psychological balm and it comes with a trowel. I literally slice into the earth to draw out what amounts to a steadying potion, the closest I know to nerve-soothing elixir.
September had gotten away from me. I’d intended a few weeks of quiet. So go such intentions. The holy communion of saints must be guffawing up in the clouds.
So out I trotted into my back twenty; what once seemed endless expanse is now (thanks to the neighbors’ newly-erected 6.5-foot solid-cedar wall) most generously described as a wee jewel box of growing potential. My plot has shrunk, so it seems, but the newly defined outlines merely raise the ante. It’s a petit point of a garden I’m after. A tapestry of tiniest botanical stitches.
I was soon on my knees. Fitting in ferns with their feathery fronds. Tucking in anemones with upstanding names, names that made them feel like royalty (Honorine Jobert — I imagine an empress) and names that sound like poetry in motion (Whirlwind — imagine them asway in September’s gentle breezes).
Balms come in a thousand disguises. There are balms to swallow, and balms to chew. Balms that cover you in sweat, and balms that make you smell of chlorine. Took me a long, long time to find a balm that didn’t hurt me (plain old eating vexed me for decades). At last, though, I found healing balm in the sacred ground that surrounds this old shingled house. I found it watching the shadows play catch-me-if-you-can. And I found it watching the red bird alight on my window sill. I found it pretending I live in a cloister, and this is my garth. My prayer bench draped in clouds; my kneeler in clumps of compost.
Maybe it was the long time coming that makes it more sacred. Maybe it’s remembering how emptiness once felt. And how distant that hollow is now. Maybe it’s facing the truth that there will still be days when the emptiness rises, when I feel my nerves starting to jangle, and tears are on the verge. Those are the days when I need to remember that something akin to a heavenly flow is just beyond the kitchen door. And I can tap into it with merely a trowel.
It’s quietly waiting there in the garden, my potpourri of barely detectable perfumes (lavender and heirloom hyacinth) and ones that knock your socks off (Korean spice viburnum); and leaves in shapes that might have been scissored in some far-off French lace factory. And then there are all the wild things who know they need no invitation. They’re the animators, the ones that chirp and chatter and squawk and belt out their twilight arias. Wide-bellied bees gather gold dust right before my eyes; butterflies flit and flutter and all but land on my shoulder. Even hummingbirds roll through town, on their way to tropical jungles where they’ll blend in with all the other primal screams of ruby and gold and shimmering emerald. It’s a menagerie out there, and I play the role of devoted observer, the one who quietly putters, poking plants here, there, and anywhere I can squeeze one more in.
It’s all merely excuse for getting as close to the thrum of the earth as I can. It’s there where the worms wriggle, and the trees find their succulence, where the anemone roots and the chipmunks play chase, that I hear the undeniable, deeply permeable notes of heaven’s indelible undying song.
I am grounding myself for the winter ahead. Grounding myself from the September and the summer behind….
welcome to autumn, the season of turning within….
for reasons that escape me, i seem to have decided that i will employ the shift key on my keyboard from time to time, and occasionally tap out a sentence complete with capital letters. sometimes makes for easier reading, i’d imagine. so i am — on occasion — giving it a Whirl.
where or how do you find grounding? was it hard for you to find?
from what i know, from what i hear, and from what i gather, there’s a miasma of gloom hovering over the landscape, not unlike an early morning fog that forgets to scuttle away once the sun burns down.
it’s a despair in general and in particular. it’s a despair that has long been casting its shadow, as we seem to be dwelling in an epoch of upheavals. from a rage that’s spilled even into the lanes of the little village where i live (did i really deserve a middle finger for driving exactly the speed limit on a curvy hill?) to venom poured onto airwaves and social media feeds (excuse me for backing away from all but a quick scroll for news), it’s gotten harsh out there. and institutions we counted on seem to be pulling out the rug.
but i read something this week that reinforced what’s become my saving grace, though reading it helped me to see more clearly that i needn’t feel guilty for reaching toward my apothecarial shelf of simplest balms. i’ve been making a practice of stitching the tiniest joys into my day, and pausing long enough and deeply enough to let them sink deep down into the crevices, the nooks and crannies and channels of the soul where the life spark burns.
i might pause in my dashing down the walk to listen to the gurgle of my bubbling fountain. i might plop in a wicker chair to watch the slanting sunlight turn golden a flapping hydrangea leaf. i might catch mama wren ferrying a worm to her chirpy little ones. they’re the littlest wisps of joy, the things that percolate my heart and soul and each and every summer’s day.
what i read this week were wisdoms from mary pipher, an american clinical psychologist, long rooted in lincoln, nebraska (which in my book certifies her down-to-earth wisdoms as deep as the roots of the prairie dropseed that rolls across the miles). pipher, whose wisdoms are too boundless to be bottled, is best known for reviving ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls, her 1994 rescue guide for an america she calls a “girl-destroying place,” and more recently she’s written women rowing north, a book on aging gracefully. (note to self: please read.)
this week, though, she wrote an op-ed for the new york times, in which, after outlining the simple joys with which she unfurls her day––a morning cup of coffee, watching the sun rise over a lake, listening to the sounds of sparrows, the commonest of common birds––she writes that she is “leading a double life.”
Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So, we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless.
Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson.
As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.
she goes on to write that in an age where ukraine and afghanistan and yemen are everyday news, and the horrors therein threaten to numb us, where the american political landscape some days resembles an extreme-wrestling match, nothing short of world-class coping skills are called for. and thus she lists three of her wellsprings: her grandmother who raised five children on a ranch during the dust bowl and the great depression; thich nhat hahn, the buddhist monk and zen master; and her years-long study of psychology.
her wisdoms are these: her grandmother urged her to “be the person you want to live with every day of your life,” and on the last day of her life she told mary that her life goal had been “to leave the world a better place;” from thich nhat hahn, who’d witnessed great suffering in vietnam, she not only absorbed his practices of mindfulness, anchoring herself in the present moment, but also his deepest teaching about our interconnectedness with all of life, a worldview that finds healing through reaching out to the frightened, the hungry, the ravaged in all its forms; and, from psychology, pipher learned that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it, feel it in our bones, explore it, extract its meaning, and then muster the resources to move forward. here she prescribes: “find ways to balance our despair with joy.”
maybe take a minute to let each one of those soak in. . .
“be the person you want to live with. . .”
“present moment. beautiful moment. . .”
“action is an antidote to despair. . .”
Most of us cannot be great heroes. However, we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes.
to be an ordinary hero is to find someone close to home who’s hurting, and be the healing balm. resist the urge to flip back someone else’s insolence. even on a day when you might prefer pure silence, invite in someone whose days are defined by loneliness. make your front stoop or your back porch a place where the welcome sign is often posted.
go about the business of gathering up simple joys; know that they’re the fuel to carry you across the long and lonely miles. revel in the red bird who alights just beyond your window sill, and serenades the coming darkness. follow a butterfly across your garden. watch the night stars turn on. keep an eye out for the fireflies’ first flickering.
make room for joy. joy is a necessary oxygen for both soul and psyche. without it, we shrivel, furl inward, gasp for breath amid the not-unlimited allotment of days we have here.
those joys needn’t be grand, needn’t strike up any band. we’re on the hunt here for simple joys, barely detectable threads of joy; weave them through your day.
they just might embolden you for the long haul, the long and seemingly unbearable haul.
where will you find joy today? how will you make room?
i just yesterday got page proofs for my next book, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (pub date: march 21, 2023), and that means i will be underwater for the next two weeks making sure there are no runaway commas, or words wrongly landed amid a sentence. it’s nerve-wracking and eye-straining, but it moves me closer to the finish line. i might not get a chance to circle back to reply to comments for awhile, but sooner or later, i promise i will. and soon as i can i’ll show you how pretty someone made the pages of my little book.till then, take care, and take joy, as tasha tudor always insisted…
photo above by will kamin.
p.s. here’s a little joy that slipped under the transom yesterday, when my beloved brother brian found my little book available for pre-order in — get this!!! — park slope and switzerland. excuse me while i gulp. (the actual cover, which i’ve not yet been told i can share, is peeking out from under the pre-order banner on the community bookstore, now a shop added to my must-visit list. xoxoxo thank you little bookstores, online and real-world.)
mothering, a verb that has always spoken to me for its broad application, its attachment to acts and not to a particular gender, doubles its duty as a descriptive of those acts as life-giving, as loving. now attach it to earth, allow it to describe the essence of so much of creation––and our place in it––and the whole shebang snaps into sharp focus: mothering earth embraces us, wraps us in her proverbial arms, allows us to rest our weary head against her bosom, her heartbeat. she holds us till the shaking ceases. she brushes the nettles from our hair, sets us back on our steadying way.
it’s a notion i found in pablo neruda’s “i ask for silence,” a poem that speaks to the stillness––the oasis from sound, from stirring––my soul is seeking.
. . . But because I ask for silence, don’t think I’m going to die. The opposite is true; it happens I am going to live.
To be, and to go on being.
I will not be, however, if inside me, the crop does not keep sprouting, the shoots first, breaking through the earth to reach the light; but the mothering earth is dark, and, deep inside me, I am dark. I am a well in the water of which the night leaves behind stars and goes on alone across fields.
It’s a question of having lived so much that I want to live a bit more.
Pablo Neruda, an excerpt of “I Ask for Silence” from I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems
and, as neruda knows, so my unspokenness knows.
i find myself pulled into the garden, and soon down to my knees. muddy knees, grass-stained knees, be damned. i go down to the lilliputian place. where a dragonfly the color of limes is hovering; his shadow eclipsing the fat bud of a peony who might think the hoverer an alien from outer cosmos. where worms wriggle, endlessly defying geometries; i sense their delights, the deliciousness they find in the loam i’ve kneaded and kneaded over the years.
it is the apothecary without pills, mothering earth and her patches of garden. its potions are in the perfumes of the peony, the fading scent of the lilac now past bloom, past seduction. mothering earth’s elixirs are the stillness so still you can tell when the breeze barely moves. it’s the air, unfiltered. chilled or warmed by rivers of winds surging around the marble that’s ours, the blue marble. its dramas––ones that delight, ones that stir sorrow––are the openings and closings, the risings and fallings, of all that makes its home there, a cast not limited to botanicals. a cast of birds and butterflies, those wiggly worms and the many-appendaged crawlers (some call them creepy, i do not).
i retreat to mothering earth when the world all around and within gets too vicious, too ragged, too worn. my preferred posture is bent, and down low. i want to put my ear to the thrum of the grass growing and the roots deepening. i want to catch the morning light as it first drapes across the fronds of my ferns now at full mast.
i’ve been wobbling for weeks now with a dizzying, one that comes with heart pounding and queasiness in waves that feel pacific-sized. i’m convinced it’s the aftermath of christmastime’s covid, the red-ringed virus that finally caught up with me, never-minding my double masks and double boosters. it’s slowing me down, some days more than others. and being out where the breeze blows, and the sun shines in unbroken beams, it steadies me. long as i don’t do backbends or bows from the waist.
once a child of make-believe times and places, i retreat to that familiar fiefdom even now. even now with my own children long past making believe, long past six-feet, if anyone’s measuring. all week i’ve been building a gurgling fountain, a simple one, made from a moss-covered planter, filled with river rocks i’ve gathered from magical places over the years. in my imagination i’m building not simply a gurgler but a cavalcade of sound that will soothe me, cast its magical spell upon all who catch the music of water plashing on rocks. i am building a way station for birds and chipmunks, a place for even the hosta to dip her thirsty leaves. and i can get determined, refuse to give up, refuse to order a ready-made one from a catalog. determined is sometimes a polite way, a watered-down way, of saying i’m a wee bit obsessed. i can hear the gurgle in my mind’s ear, and despite a shorted-out extension cord, and a pump that gave up the ghost, i’ve not yet abandoned my plot. i’ll get to gurgling before the sun sets to signal shabbat this evening.
it’s all the perfect balm after weeks of editing, weeks of being torn by the news. i pay no attention to news when i’m flesh to flesh with mothering earth. my news of the day is which bloom is on the brink, and which is waning. the choreography of this mothering plot, it’s ceaseless.
sometimes we all need to be mothered. mothering earth mothers me.
and i bask in her stillness.
where have you found your stillness, your healing balms, of late?
well, here’s a first for the ol’ chair: a talkie, in the old vernacular. in other words, not just a picture but a gurgling picture……
you might want to look away. but the horrors of the last two weeks demand we do more than pause and pick right up again. this week, the place was a school in a small town in texas, a fourth-grade classroom the site of the worst of it. ten days before, it was a supermarket in buffalo, new york.
ever since my second or third day on the job at the chicago tribune, i’ve been writing obits, those few short sentences or maybe a handful of paragraphs in which we try to capture the essence of who someone was. it’s a record for the ages, ones that used to be pasted into the pages of a family album, or carefully scissored out of the paper and tucked in the page of a bedside book or a bible. or a wallet. the ones in wallets always choked me up the most, when years later someone would pull out from their purse or their back pocket a worn leather billfold, and know right where to reach for the newspaper clipping of someone they’d loved. sometimes you found out the words you wrote in a newspaper stuck around for a very long while.
i’m afraid the someones who can change things are looking the other way, too many of them. and i won’t make even a ripple sitting here tapping out postage-stamp-sized obits for each of the 32 souls now departed, now torn from the ones they so dearly loved, the ones they would have clung to, if given half a chance. but to read of the simple quotidian joys, to assemble the notes of how and for what they were remembered, was and is a devotional gesture. it’s a genuflection in short sentences, a way to begin to absorb the hell we have wrought here.
no one should have to worry that running into the store for strawberries for shortcake might be our very last act. or that hiding in the closet of your fourth-grade classroom will be the place where you take your very last breath. something is wrong here. very very very very wrong. something is twisted and cruel and the drip-drip-drip of it all is anesthetizing, a toxic numbing takes hold. you can start to not notice.
the postage-size stories that follow are what i could find on each of the 32 victims, those from uvalde and those from the massacre in buffalo. it’s a long list, and you might not make it to the end. i’m writing it anyway. because to tell even a wisp of their stories is to begin to make real the horror of all that’s lost. their stories are utterly ordinary, a fourth-grader who swooned for a second baseman, a grandpa who ran in a store for a birthday cake.
yesterday’s news snapped into the sharpest focus the dimensions of grief we can’t grasp: the husband of one of the two uvalde teachers died of a massive heart attack in the wake of his wife’s murder. they’d been together for 24 years; high school sweethearts who married, and had four children. that’s what grief can do.
here are their stories, first the children and teachers of texas, and on to buffalo and the ten who died there…
In which, in a posture of reverence, we pause in silence to first hold up each of the 22 blessed ones who died in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas….
Here’s the little we know:
Irma Garcia, 48, a fourth-grade teacher at Robb Elementary, a mother of four, had been married to her high school sweetheart, Joe, for 24 years. Irma died in the slaughter inside the school. Joe died of a fatal heart attack on Thursday. Their four children, two sons and two daughters, range in age from 12 to 23.
Eva Mireles, 44, a fourth-grade teacher who co-taught with Irma Garcia. Her daughter Adalynn posted this on Twitter on Wednesday: “Mom, you are a hero. I keep telling myself that this isn’t real. I just want to hear your voice,” the tribute read. “I want to thank you mom, for being such an inspiration to me. I will forever be so proud to be your daughter. My sweet mommy, I will see you again.”
Amerie Jo Garza had just turned 10. She tried to use her cell phone to call police during the shooting. Her father, Angel Garza, is a medical aide who rushed to the school, and he told this story to CNN:
After arriving at the scene, he saw a girl covered in blood who told him that someone had shot her best friend. When Garza asked who her best friend was, the girl replied, “Amerie.” His daughter.
“I just want people to know she died trying to save her classmates,” said Amerie’s father. “She just wanted to save everyone.”
Xavier Lopez, who was 10, had just been lauded at the school’s honor roll ceremony. He was funny, never serious, and he had a smile….a smile, his mother said, she would “never forget.”
Uziah Garcia, also 10, and “full of life.” He loved anything with wheels. “The sweetest boy that I’ve ever known,” said Uziah’s grandfather.
Jose Flores Jr., 10, loved baseball, video games, and was “an amazing big brother,” especially to his baby brother. “He would just be like my little shadow,” Jose’s mother, Cynthia, said. “He would just be helping me with the baby. He had a thing with babies, like my friends’ babies. He just had a thing with babies. He was always nice.” His sister, Endrea, was in another fourth-grade classroom. She survived.
Lexi Rubio, 10, made the All-A honor roll. She loved baseball and basketball and wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. “Please let the world know we miss our baby,” said her father through tears. “All I can hope is that she’s just not a number. This is enough. No one else needs to go through this.”
Tess Marie Mata, 10, had been saving her money to go to Disney World, according to her sister, Faith. She loved Ariana Grande, TikTok dances, and the Houston Astros, especially second baseman José Altuve.
Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo was 10. She put a smile on everyone’s face. Navaeh is heaven backwards.
Eliana ‘Ellie’ Garcia was 9, just about to turn 10. She dreamed of becoming a teacher, but in fourth grade she loved the movie “Encanto,” cheerleading, and basketball. She was the second oldest of five girls in her family.
Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez was 10. She died in the same classroom as her cousin, Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares.
Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares, “a little firecracker,” according to her father Jacinto, was “full of love and full of life. She would do anything for anybody.” She was 9, and died in the hospital almost three hours after the shooting.
Eliahana ‘Elijah’ Cruz Torres was 10. “Our baby gained her wings,” said her aunt Leandra Vera.
Jailah Nicole Silguero was remembered as “a bespectacled 10-year-old,” whose mother Veronica Luevanos posted updates to Facebook all through Tuesday night into the wee hours of Wednesday. She’d started posting in the hours when she didn’t know what had happened to her daughter, and she was begging for answers. When Jailah’s mother finally found out, she wrote: “I’m not ready for this,” with an image of a broken heart, and a link to Jailah’s obituary. Just before 3 a.m., Veronica wrote: “I’m so heart broken.” Later she added: “My baby you didn’t deserve this neither did your classmates. R.I.P my beautiful angel.”
Jayce Luevanos, 10, whose cousin Jailah (above) was also killed, lived with his grandfather, and every morning Jayce made his grandpa a pot of coffee.
Miranda Mathis was 11, and very smart. Her best friend was her brother, who was in another classroom when the gunfire broke out in Miranda’s classroom.
Makenna Lee Elrod was 10. She loved to dance and sing and she “made friends everywhere she went.” She was beautiful, smart, and funny, and her smile “would light up a room.”
Layla Salazar, 10, won six blue ribbons at her school’s field day. Her father, Vincent Salazar, shared a video of his daughter on Facebook; he captioned the video: “Run with the angels baby!”
Alithia Ramirez had just turned 10. When her parents welcomed Beto O’Rourke into their home in the hours after the shooting, birthday balloons and her artwork were still taped to the walls. “They want the world to know what a beautiful, talented, happy girl she was,” O’Rourke wrote.
Maite Rodriguez’s age is unknown at this time, though there is a photo of her proudly holding her honor roll certificate in front of the school banner. Her mom’s cousin, Raquel Silva, wrote on Facebook, on behalf of Maite’s mother, Ana: “It is with a heavy heart I come on here on behalf of my cousin Ana who lost her sweet baby girl in yesterday’s senseless shooting. Our hearts are shattered.”
Rojelio Torres, who was 10, was not identified nor his family notified till almost 12 hours after the shooting. His aunt Precious Perez told a local TV station: “We are devastated and heartbroken. Rojer was a very intelligent, hard-working and helpful person. He will be missed and never forgotten.”
and, just 10 days before, 10 more lives gunned down in the aisles of a grocery store.
Pearl Young, 77, a grandmother to eight, spent every Saturday morning volunteering at a food pantry run by her church. A “strict but loving” mother, she still worked as a high school substitute teacher. She was, her son Damon Young said, “full of joy. She just loved life, and she loved the church.” She’d stopped at the Tops Friendly Markets after going out to breakfast. Her son was going to pick her up, but suddenly her text messages stopped, and Damon’s phone filled instead with news alerts about the hell unfolding inside the store.
Ruth Whitfield, 86, was “a blessing for all those who knew her,” said her son, the retired Buffalo fire commissioner, Garnell Whitfield. Ruth had stopped at the Tops after caring all day for her husband of 68 years in the nursing home where he now resides. She was the mother of four, and doted on her family––especially her husband, constantly cutting his hair, ironing his clothes, dressing him and shaving him. “There’s very few days that she did not spend time with him attending to him,” her son said. “She was his angel.”
Andre Mackniel, 53, went to the Tops to get a birthday cake for his son. He was “selfless and generous,” a loving father and grandfather who used “to check in on everyone.” On Facebook, Mackneil’s fiancee wrote this: “Today my baby was born but today my soul mate was taken. How do I tell my son his daddy’s not coming home? How do I as a mother make it ok? Someone please tell me because I really don’t know,” she wrote.
Katherine ‘Kat’ Massey, 72, “the glue” of her very close family, had stopped at the Tops and asked to be picked up in 45 minutes. When her brother came by to get her, he saw police putting up crime tape. She sometimes wrote for the local newspaper, and one of the topics she was most concerned about: guns.
Celestine Chaney, 65, was described by her son as a “survivor,” who twice had survived brain aneurysms. Her son, Wayne Jones, said that when he was 12, he was twice called out of school to rush to the hospital, where he was told his mother wouldn’t make it through the day. His grandmother, he says, made him “go to the foot of the bed and pray.” She later survived breast cancer, but she didn’t make it out of the grocery store. “She was a beautiful person, a spunky, independent woman,” Jones said of his mom. “The life of the party, just a joy to be around.”
Margus D. Morrison, 52, was a school bus aide, a lovable guy who liked to joke. His younger brother Frederick, who said the two were “tight like best friends,” couldn’t find many words in the wake of the killing. But he did say this: “It hurts me so much right now because I wasn’t expecting to lose him.”
Heyward Patterson, 67, was at the Tops because he often drove members of his church to the store, helping them load their groceries, and then taking them home. “That’s what he did all the time,” his cousin Deborah Patterson said. “That’s what he loved to do.” He was gentlemanly, and sprightly, a “real-life, down-to-earth man.” He was a deacon in his church, and loved to sing. One relative compared him to Smokey Robinson ––“only better.”
Aaron Salter Jr., 55, a retired Buffalo police officer, was described by the Buffalo Police Commissioner as “a hero in our eyes.” He was the security guard on duty at the Tops, and he tried to take down the gunman, to spare any lives. “I’m pretty sure he saved some lives,” the commissioner said.
Roberta Drury, 32, the youngest of four siblings, had moved from Syracuse to Buffalo to help her older brother who was undergoing treatment for leukemia, and to help care for his children. Once her brother had gotten through the treatment, she’d decided to stay on and help him rehab an old bar he had bought. The Washington Post reported that as an African American child adopted at 18 months into a White family, Roberta (known as Robbie) was “no stranger to racism.” In her family, “race never mattered,” said her sister, Amanda. “So this is just ugly on a level that as a family we can barely wrap our heads around.”
Geraldine Talley, 62, was described as “the sweetest.” An avid baker, her Facebook page was filled with desserts she made for the people she loved: cream cheese apple cinnamon bread pudding, peanut butter pie, strawberry filled cupcakes. She had gone to the Tops with her fiance to get sandwich meat for a picnic down by the waterfront, and she sent him to grab a certain tea. That’s when the shooting started. According to family members, her fiance started calling her name, but didn’t see her, and then hid inside a freezer. The gunman shot the door off the freezer, but the fiance survived, and Geraldine died in the store.
may their memories be a blessing, and may their names and their stories not soon fade into the cavernous silence….
amid a season of war and worry, on the very day when steam was all but rising from this keyboard––a deadline looming, conveyor belts of verbs and nouns at high production––there came a rustling in the bushes just beyond the panes of glass that stretch between my bookshelves.
the morning was punctuated with the sounds of preoccupation, the faintest plink barely tapping at the glass, more than the usual chatter between birds. over and over, takeoffs and landings from bush to branch to nearby picket fence. the occasional outburst of trills and warbles.
it was the quiet of the sound that most intrigued me, the sound of trying to be unnoticed, hard at work in the art of concealment, a most necessary survival skill when up against the odds of danger, in a world where prowling cats and coons, thunderstorms and untimely freezes are another name for doom.
because i knew my role in this rare showing was to be as discrete and invisible as possible, i barely shifted my eyes, dared not tiptoe near the glass, for fear of spooking, for fear of shutting down production.
turned out, the faintest murmurings were these: the sound of wing brushing up against the glass, the sound of branches being jostled to make way for the laying down of bits of grasses, dried and brown and wholly unremarkable.
but what was done, over the course of a single day, was not only wholly remarkable and breathtaking. it was only the beginning.
mama and papa–a pair of cardinals i know by name–had for the first time in all my decades decided to grace me with a front row seat on their reproductive spring: they’d chosen my very ordinary, very ungroomed evergreens, as the very spot to build their nest. it just so happens to be up against the glass, as if the window to the nursery in the maternity ward, the ones where long ago fathers pressed their nose against the glass to get a first peek at the progeny newly birthed and swaddled, the hard labor shielded from the men not allowed near delivery, too faint for such primal birthings.
over all my years, i’ve spied robins all but nesting in the public square. i’ve seen sparrows busily and noisily stuffing gutters and cracks in this old house with the makings of a nest. but never ever had i figured out just where it is the cardinals go to replenish the species.
i now know why. my guess is they’re the high scorers in the game of hide-and-seek. their nest, literally up against the glass, is all but impossible to see from the other side of the bushes, and wedged in in such a way that i cannot for the life of me peek into the bowl of the nest (believe me, when mama flits off to grab a seed, to relieve her feathered bum from all its incubating, i’ve climbed atop my window seat to try to fetch a look).
we’ve come to work in synchrony, mama cardinal and moi. i tap quietly at my keys all day long while she goes about her warming of those eggs all day long. once the sun goes down, i leave the premises, turn off the lights, shuffle off to the old maple table in the kitchen–not wanting a brood of mixed-up baby birds to mistake my desk lamp for a never-setting sun.
far as i can tell, and i tell you my guess here is based on scantest evidence, there’s not yet a clutch of little beaks to fill with bits of worms. each day, though, the drumbeat picks up pace. it’s been two whole weeks, and surely we must be getting close.
it’s a blessed thing, a most blessed thing, a thing that fills my soul, to be witness to the against-all-odds timeless knowings of the feathered flocks. those little birds know nothing of the ravages that tear apart the human flock. theirs is a universe––far as we know, and maybe i’m just wishful thinking––without the sorts of strife, without the demonic ingenuities to dream and build and drop a bomb. do birds know worry? does mama bird go about her business without the slightest hint of begrudgement? is she already plotting her grocery list? does she count her clutch, scan for misshapen egg, dread the day those baby birds take flight and leave the nest?
such are the questions that reel through my mind, as mama bird and i go about our tasks this one most blessed spring. it’s a wonder when grace comes tapping at the window pane. as if the heavens know just who and when needs holy balm far far from the madding crowd.
what grace has brushed you by this spring? what’s caught you unawares? what quiet has so startled you, and awakened you from your worldly slumbers?
in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.
john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.
i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.
i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.
THE GOOD GREEN POET
By Barbara Mahany
Mar 17, 1999
The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.
The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.
But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.
John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.
Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”
Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”
For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”
He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.
And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.
In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”
And some conversations they are.
“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.
“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”
It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.
No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”
And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?
“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”
You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?
“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.
“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”
His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”
And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”
It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.
He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”
And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.
“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.
“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “
It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”
“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.
“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”
O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “
He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.
“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.
He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.
But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.
It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.
Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.
“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”
But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “
and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….
written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…
On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you.
And when your eyes freeze behind the grey window and the ghost of loss gets into you, may a flock of colours, indigo, red, green and azure blue, come to awaken in you a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays in the currach of thought and a stain of ocean blackens beneath you, may there come across the waters a path of yellow moonlight to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours, may the clarity of light be yours, may the fluency of the ocean be yours, may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life.
we are waking up to a terrifying morning, reports of ukraine’s nuclear plant seized by the russians, after they spent the night shelling it, setting parts of it on fire, while every nuclear emergency team in the world huddled, prayed, awaited reports of radioactivity. word comes that the diabolical plot is not merely to cut the power grid to turn out the lights, but to freeze out the people.
our lungs are left breathless, our limbs are trembling. what hell has been wrought?
while the morning leaves room only for prayer, for collective mind-meld to beg to stop putin and his evil conspirators, my work of the week––keeping count, compiling a list of break-through moments of radiant light amid the gathering darkness––feels lame. but, because gathering each and any spark of hope and indefatigable humanity just might keep us from teetering, i will leave it here anyway.
i began the week drawn to pray in one of chicago’s breathtakingly ornate ukrainian churches. not a word was in english (though i did recognize “alleluia,” and “kyiv,” and “kharkhiv,” among the many slavic syllables). but no words were needed to read the faces of the deeply devout, hands clasped, making the byzantine sign of the cross over and over and over (tracing the shape of a cross in the air, but touching the right shoulder first before the left; thumb, index, and middle fingers pressed together, an invocation of the holy trinity).
the faithful came in traditional garb, vyshyvanka, the glorious embroidered shirts worn by men and women alike. and they came americanized, in black leather pants and skiwear. fur, in pelts or jackets, was abundant. but it was the faces i’ll never forget: etched in despair, fervent in prayer. the queue to light candles on the side of the altar never let up, each petitioner clutching crumpled dollar bills in his or her fist, clear through the hour-long mass, a choreography of mystery and reverence, faith and fortitude, i’ll not soon forget.
as the week wore on, the reports more and more dire, i began making a list, because otherwise we might be engulfed by sorrows. these are the moments i am holding onto with all my heart, when the resilience of human kindness and hope refuses to die:
did you see the ukrainian grandma who walked up to an armed russian soldier, asked him what the (heck) he was doing there, told him he was an invader, an occupier, a fascist, and then handed him a fistful of sunflower seeds, and told him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies sunflowers (the ukrainian national flower) will grow from his corpse? and before she turned away, she let him know that from that moment on, he was cursed?
did you see the ukrainian woman with the purple streaks in her hair who gave tea and cakes to a captured russian soldier, a young man with nothing but peach fuzz on his reddened cheeks, and when the purple-haired woman used her phone to call the soldier’s mother, natasha, the soldier broke into tears and blew a kiss to the phone?
did you see the little 8-year-old girl who spent her days in the underground subway station crocheting a tiny pink heart, and then she tapped a stranger on the shoulder, and gave it to him?
did you hear the UN translator’s voice crack as he echoed in english the words of ukraine’s president volodymyr zelenskyy, who called out to the world: “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians. We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”
did you see the ukrainian grandma cradling a cat, giving a very emphatic middle finger to the passing-by russian brigade?
did you see the thousands of romanians, lined up in their cars, waiting at the ukrainian border to welcome the tired, the hungry, the cold, the women and children and babies fleeing for their lives?
did you see the baby born in the subway shelter in kyiv?
or the ukrainian woman who crossed the border into hungary with the phone number of a woman she’d never met and two children who’d been entrusted to her––along with their passports––by a man not allowed to leave, who thrust his children into her arms, and instructed her to call the number once they crossed into safety. and not long after she placed the call, the mother of the two children approached; mission accomplished. mother and children, reunited. (the children’s mother had left ukraine earlier, with two younger children, but once it was clear the older children needed to leave, and the father was not allowed to cross the border, he turned to a stranger, and begged, please get my children to safety; if you call this number you will find their mother. and she did.)
or the holocaust survivors huddled in a bomb shelter in ukraine, with the flags of israel and ukraine limp behind them, voices cracking as they cursed putin and asked for peace?
have you seen the thousands of germans who crowded into the central train station in berlin to offer fleeing ukrainians a place to stay? and they came with hand-penned placards in german, english, and ukrainian, offering welcome. “i was very scared, i had to get out from this hell,” said one ukrainian woman as she stepped off the evacuation train, and fell into the arms of a berliner she had never before seen or known.
the images keep coming, moving us to tears upon tears, bringing flickers of something that every once in a rare while feels like the faintest outline of hope. but they fade away, and we are haunted once again by this horror we cannot stop.
Lord, have mercy.
what images from ukraine are etched in your heart this terrible morning?
can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams?
can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?
can you imagine?
can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off?
can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border?
can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?
can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?
imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell.
imagining is the birthing ground of empathy.
and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer.
empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.
empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.
truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.
but it’s the place to begin.
and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh?
don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders?
isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.
imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.
we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?
it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.
it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.
i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.
i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:
Pray for Peace
Pray to whomever you kneel down to: Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross, his suffering face bent to kiss you, Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat, Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary that she may lay her palm on our brows, to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth, to Inanna in her stripped descent.
Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work. On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus, for everyone riding buses all over the world. Drop some silver and pray.
Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM, for your latte and croissant, offer your plea. Make your eating and drinking a supplication. Make your slicing of carrots a holy act, each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.
To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray. Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats. Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.
Make the brushing of your hair a prayer, every strand its own voice, singing in the choir on your head. As you wash your face, the water slipping through your fingers, a prayer: Water, softest thing on earth, gentleness that wears away rock.
Making love, of course, is already prayer. Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin, the fragile cases we are poured into.
If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired. Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day. Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.
When you walk to your car, to the mailbox, to the video store, let each step be a prayer that we all keep our legs, that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs. Or crush their skulls. And if you are riding on a bicycle or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves: less harm, less harm, less harm.
And as you work, typing with a new manicure, a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail, or delivering soda or drawing good blood into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–
With each breath in, take in the faith of those who have believed when belief seemed foolish, who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace, feed the birds, each shiny seed that spills onto the earth, another second of peace. Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk. Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water from the gutter. Gnaw your crust. Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling your prayer through the streets.
how did you learn to pray?
a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.
p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….
the icicles must be considering a strike: one day they’re dripping away, growing into winter’s stalactites, next day they’re on their way to oblivion, drop by splashy drop–an existence tied to the rise and the fall of the mercury. same with the slush. hasn’t a clue what form it should take, though frozen or slop, it’s all shades of gray. gray and grayer.
it’s a postcard of winter worn-thin, only we’re the ones worn to the bone, gasping for hope, muttering foul grunts as we jam our toes into our boots (our boots taking on that february aroma, the one that begs to be cloaked, doused, or disguised under a thin veil of anything gentler on the nose).
i’ve long been convinced that february is the shortest month–interrupted by the national explosion of valentine hearts, and chocolate-doused brownies–for a reason. and the reason is plain old survival. we might throw in the towel if we had to stick with it any longer than 28 days (some wisecracker somehow decided long, long ago to sneak in that make-up 29th, but only every four years, the next being two years from now).
all of that is to say, i sense we might be in need of something akin to spiritual transfusion, a hearty reminder of why it is some of us preach winter as the soulful season. (um, that would be me, i confess.) so as i sit here contemplating ways to make it through to the ides of march, and the onslaught of april, i thought i’d bring in the masters for a little shot of espresso-strength reminder: this is good for the soul, all this dreariness out the window. (and those of you reading under the swaying of palm trees, exercise compassion–in the form of imagining a landscape where trees look like so many uninspired sticks, the earth is covered in gray, and the wrong step on the sidewalk can send you flailing and broken, splat on the ground.)
let us begin with rilke, who insisted this is the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul. or albert camus, who wrote, “in the depths of winter, i finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” (sunscreen and popsicles must be hiding somewhere down in the toes of my snow boots.)
but for a wintry vitamin in the form of wisdom, i’m walking into the woods with h.d. thoreau, who left this reminder:
There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.
This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.
–Henry David Thoreau, “A Walk in Winter”
and so, he reminds, here in the deep of winter, summer stirs in the heart. he goes on to declare that “in winter we lead a more inward life. our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.”
i’m taking that as a challenge, this notion that my heart is puffing up cheery whirls of smoke from its cheery little cottage. in fact, i am marching straight to the stack of blankets there on my couch, surrendering to the notion that a long day’s reading is just what the transcendentalist ordered.
he leaves us with prescription:
We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come [outdoors].
guess it’s time to slip on my stinky boots and embark into this slushy february day.
how do you re-stoke your wintry hearth come the depth of this shortest month?
**image above is from a page of a children’s book i pulled from our shelves (i will not give up those shelves of books i know by heart, forward and backward), one titled, A Winter Place, by Ruth Yaffe Radin, with illustrations by Mattie Lou O’Kelley.
it is as close as i’ve ever come to waking up inside the pages of a picture book, or an enchanted forest, the waking up to fat flakes falling, to heaps and meringues of snow on every flat plane, every bough and twig; even the lumps in the walk get a dollop of beautiful. everything sometimes deserves to be adorned. everything sometimes yearns to be simply lovely.
the days of waking to grace feel numbered of late. more often i awake with a lump in my belly, a worry grown big and bigger in the dark and the tangle of sheets. almost like a sourdough rising, the way the night worries grow. but today is not one of those days. today it begins with nose pressed to the pane. i long to step outside in the thick blue light of it, the silence of it. but i’ve a silly thing about not wanting to mar the tableau, not wanting to plunk my boots in the seamlessness of it all. so i keep to my side of the glass. and i let the snow and the quiet fall unbroken.
i marvel always at the ways the world––grace, God, unseen sacred stirring––steps in just as i need it. the way the prescriptive fills every hunger and hurt. it’s as if all creation is apothecary for the soul. and when we quiet ourselves, and allow its medicinal balms to seep into the cuts and the lumps and aches, the healing comes. the respite of catching our breath, making sense of the madness.
just this morning i awoke with the knowing that a longtime beloved friend had awakened yesterday to find her husband still in his chair from the night before. he’d died, alone. he was 67. no one saw it coming. the night before, wednesday, had been any old wednesday; my friend had made meatloaf for dinner, hadn’t a clue that one single thing was not as it should be. life shatters without making a sound.
my faraway best, best friend is going to surgery next week, her second time in ten years with a surgeon and an oncologist she calls her own. a third friend, one of my bridesmaids, is sitting by her sister’s bedside in dallas, where the cancer has crept into her brain, and where upon finishing a CT scan last week, her sister (four years younger than me) had suffered a stroke. right there on the gurney. right there in the middle of an already terrible cancer.
i ache for every one of them, ache in ways that push against the walls of my heart. ache in ways that crowd every other thought out of my head. ache in ways that make me pay more attention than ever to the most ordinary of miracles.
and this morning i sit here absorbed in the lull that follows an overnight snow. it’s as if all creation understands we need silence between all the noise. we need the holy pause that allows us to catch our broken breath, to be still as we gather up the shards, put the pieces back together again.
the world aims to comfort us; it’s one of its marvels. it aims to shake us to our core, too. another one of its marvels.
how blessed are we that we live in a world of creation, sacred creation, a world where the woods are a balm. where the red bird alights. where snow falls without sound. where, dawn after dawn, the sun rises. and stars stitch the night sky.
the blessings abound. all we are asked is to notice.
dear God, thank you for the balm of this holy morning. may grace fall in thick meringues on the ones i love who are so deeply hurting. and afraid. and alone.
and just like that i looked up, and the red bird came. just beyond my window in a nestle of branches puffy with snow.
God answered. and the red bird flew.
where did you find grace this morning?
in case you need a quiet walk in the wintry woods here’s a little miracle sent my way; last night i gave a talk on the stillness of winter, and opened the evening with this moment of beauty. not all of you live in snowy climes, so here’s your taste of it, too. may it bring you peace, this walk in the snow-laden woods…