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Category: antidotes to madness

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?

aubade: love song to dawn. or, perhaps, salvation.

dawns first light

aubade (o-bad), n. [Fr., from aube, dawn.] love song or poem to dawn, or about lovers separating at dawn; distinguished from serenade, or nocturne, love song to, at, or pertaining to night.

so says the dictionary, that plainspoken repository of meaning and use. but turn to a literary teller of meaning, and you’ll find definition with deeper-grained truths: “welcoming or lamenting the arrival of dawn.” a word given to us by the medieval french (who else would assign a whole category of poetic lament for lovers not wanting to part?), a word adapted from the spanish, alba, for “sunrise,” which borrowed from the latin, alba, the feminine form of albus, meaning “white.” aubade is a word first used in 1678, a word pinned on these particular proliferous poems, of which you will find 44,478 aubades tucked in the files of the poetry foundation. which, of course, is a lot of folks paying attention to the dark edge of daybreak.

i’ve long been drawn to this hour — that interlude when one minute it’s inky and silent, not even a ripple of breeze, as if the world hasn’t yet roused from its sleep, and the very next instant the stars have faded, the light’s seeped in, and the first warbles of bird can be heard.

this week, for reasons having to do with an imagination that would not stop imagining the scene in a synagogue just as the bullets rang out, the heads bowed in prayer in the sacred suspension of time that is shabbat, and for reasons having to do with worries about children applying to college, i woke each morning at 4. and i could not find sleep again.

so i rose. one morning i reached out my arm and instinctively clicked on the radio. right away, before my eyelids had clicked fully to “open,” i heard the radio squawking about opioid addictions and police activity at that ungodly hour. i clicked off the radio; the assault was too early, and i was too raw. the first sounds seeping in needn’t be awful.

so i tiptoed downstairs in the dark. i didn’t flick a single light switch along the way. i headed straight for the back kitchen door. stepped into the chill of that soundless hour, and i looked up and into the heavens. i stood there, soaking in the night’s last offering: the star-stitched canvas above. the moon, all crescent and brilliantly white. i basked in the stillness. the sense that i alone was awake and paying attention. the sense that this time belonged only to me and my soul, and the great breath of God flowing into and out of my whole.

then i partook of my sacrament with seeds: i turned back to the house, reached into my birdseed bin, filled the banged-up coffee can with sunflower seed, and returned to my stash of feeders. there is something holy about making the first act of the day one of tending to others, especially when the others are weightless and feathered and seem to exist only to fill you with song. and the delights of their darting hither and yon.

by then, the goosebumps were cropping up. and my bare feet (for i’ve not yet decided it’s the season for shoes) protested. so into the house i hurried, into the early-morning percolations of a house beginning to wake: furnace starting to hiss, coffee pot gurgling its soon-to-come promise.

in times like these we all need tucked-away coves that shield us and shroud us and keep away the goblins. in times like these — and for centuries it seems, all the way back to the middle ages when the first aubades were inscribed — we humans seem drawn especially to the hours when “the curtain-edges will grow light,” as the poet philip larkin famously wrote, or “the encroaching skyline pecked so clean by raptor night,” as christian wiman even more brilliantly put it.

it’s the margin, the demarcation, the abyss followed by the eternal promise, the rising of the sun. it’s our emptiness quietly, certainly, being filled up again. it’s the hour when we’re quiet enough to hear ourselves breathe, and perhaps, if we’re blessed, to catch one or two whispers from the still small voice that never, ever is quelled.

what’s your sacred hour? and how do you carve out the stillness so necessary for what amounts to salvation?

a compendium of what we ache for…

Video-Justin-Finding-Out-Great-News

some weeks feel like someone’s pulled the plug at the bottom of the bathtub and all the suds — and the baby, too — are shlurping down the drain. this was one of those weeks, when day after day some stumbling block or very steep incline got tossed on my trail through the woods.

i was just about giving up hope. and i realized i wasn’t alone. there was my friend whose kid is in rehab, and she got a middle-of-the-night call that he wanted to quit, was deadset on coming home. even if he had to hitchhike — and bottom out — to get there. from the far left coast. there was another friend whose kid was rushed to surgery with a failing kidney. there was, as always, the national news, which more days than not feels as if someone’s cranked the spigot to full toxic poison and left it to drip, drip, drip.

and there was my own personal trove of worry. packed in that box there’s one prayer in particular that i nearly gave up on. made me start to wonder if anyone was listening. do you ever wonder the same? start to think that maybe your line’s been cut, and the wires to heaven you’ve long depended on, they’ve been snipped and they’re dangling? all you hear is the buzz of a line gone dead?

some weeks i feel i’ve little to say here. think i’ve no right to take up your time or the oxygen in the room. that’s not uncommon among women who grew up like me, taught to be nice or be quiet. i plod on anyway, because i made a promise — to me and to you — that i’d be here on fridays, find something to say. maybe even one glimmering shard of hope to break through the murk.

it’s not often i turn to the world outside to find us all a bit of solace, of something like faith. or even of joy. but in the last 24 hours, the universe seems to be racing to our rescue. shimmering shards are suddenly falling, one after another, onto my path, our path.

turns out, it’s become something of a compendium of what i’ve been aching for: tales of resilience. words of breathtaking wonder.

some weeks, we need to lean on the ones all around us. this is one of those weeks.

here’s this, from the glorious folks at nike. once upon a time i thought nike built shoes. but now i know better. i know they build from the best of the human character. they remind us who we can be. they carry us across finish lines — the ones in our hearts, and the ones in the woods.

take a look. and a listen: witness the moment justin finds out he’s the first signed pro athlete with cerebral palsy.

and now, while you perhaps dry your tears (pass me the carton of kleenex), here’s a poem from one of the patron saints of the chair, our beloved blessed mary oliver:

In the Storm
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,
and settled
in a row
behind the ducks —
whose backs were also
covered with snow —
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the duck’s tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
crouch there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
~ Mary Oliver ~
(Thirst)
listen hard to those last few stanzas:
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
everyone wants a miracle. kindness is a miracle. go make a miracle. it’s the surest lifeline i know.
as if all that doesn’t have you buckling in, buckling down, revving your engines of hope, seeing straighter than you’ve seen in a while, how bout this from a blessing among us, a friend with stage 4 breast cancer, now metastasized to all the wrong places. she’s stopped treatment, she is living with her heart and her arms and her soul wide open. here’s a line from a poem she wrote, her litany of happinesses. she has one beautiful son. she moved to california while he studied at stanford. he is her everything, and she is his. she wrote this:

My dearest, most tender
boy. To describe him … is to
try to name those unnameable colors
and why bother. It’s all love.

Nothing matters here but life.
Nothing is in my thoughts but life.
I sit feet from the ocean and am bathed in this lucky life.*

go out and gather your shimmering shards, your miracles, and joys. and please report back….
what miracles fell on your path this week?
*poem and love from the incomparable robbie k….

home alone — and hearing a cry

it’s just me and the basement crickets here. (i ought to name the whole herd of them since they so noisily, chirpily, send me love songs through the dawn — and the midday — and the late afternoon — and the twilight. deep into the darkness they keep up their chatter.)

the boys i love are faraway. i stayed home because i have a job at the high school, hosting 414 debaters from around the country. feeding each one, breakfast and lunch for the next two days (today we load in provisions). i’d thought i’d write a meditation on being alone. on the luxury of it when you don’t often have it. i know for some it’s a curse; alone bleeds often, bleeds quickly into loneliness. the first syllable — the  a of alone — breaks off, and two new ones cling to the end — loneliness — and suddenly the gift of doing as you please, sleeping with windows open and shades up — because you love the light of night, love even more the dawn’s beginning — all those singular quirks, they can become the humdrum hollowed refrain of a life lived alone not wholly by choice. by grief. by happenstance. by necessity.

but i woke up this morning, and the cavernous cry of this nation — of the countless volumes of women putting breath to the screams they once muffled — it’s echoing inside, rising louder and louder. and i know there’s a vote just hours away. and i know that sitting here listening to the roll, hearing the single syllable rise up, yea or nay, one after another, it’s going to feel something like a gut punch. did you hear her? i will ask, over and over and over.

there will come — for some of us anyway — an unshakeable sense of being kicked aside. of   “ramming this through,” as the senate majority leader himself so unpoetically put it.

there is, though, a gentle breeze of hope this morning. it comes from sweden, from the nobel committee which during our night (their midday) awarded the peace prize to two who’ve dedicated their lives to a fight against sexual violence. one, nadia murad, is a 25-year-old woman, captured, repeatedly raped and tortured by ISIS; she escaped and, ever since, travels the globe speaking out against the atrocities. her inexhaustible journey has left her exhausted, but she refuses to pause, insisting: “i will go back to my life when women in captivity go back to their lives, when my community has a place, when i see people accountable for their crimes.”

time magazine, in their annual centenary of “most influential people,” included nadia in 2016. eve ensler, the playwright and founder of V-Day, a movement to end violence against women, wrote this for the magazine’s roster:

A witness for war’s victims

Nadia Murad stands in a long, invisible history of fierce, indomitable women who rise from the scorched earth of rape during war to break the odious silence and demand justice and freedom for their sisters. At 19 she lost her home, her country, her culture, her mother to murder; witnessed male members of her family murdered in mass killings; and was kidnapped, sold and endlessly raped by members of ISIS. She now travels the world speaking out on the genocide being inflicted on her Yezidi people and demanding release for the more than 3,000 women still held in bondage.

As Europe closes its borders to terrorized refugees in Greece and the U.S. turns its back on the suffering, Nadia is a beacon of light and truth—a reminder that it was the American-led war in Iraq that laid the path for ISIS, that U.S. arms left behind on the battlefield fell into the hands of ISIS and that the U.S. waited too long to intervene in the mass killing and enslavement of the Yezidi people. At 23, Nadia Murad is risking everything to awaken us. I hope we are listening, because we too are responsible.

time-100-2016-nadia-murad

i leave you with nadia, with the faint waft of hope. i know, come time for the vote, we will all be standing shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart, promising we will do better for our daughters, our sisters, our sons, and our brothers.

(i do not for a minute want to overlook the second nobel peace prize winner,  dr. denis mukwege, 63, a congolese gynecological surgeon, who campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of congolese women, even after nearly being assassinated a few years ago. working from a bare hospital (often without electricity or enough anesthesia) in the hills of the eastern democratic republic of congo, he has emerged as a champion of the congolese people and a global advocate for gender equality and the elimination of rape in war, traveling to other war-ravaged parts of the world to help create programs for survivors.

“it’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” dr. mukwege once said in an interview. “It’s not an africa problem. in bosnia, syria, liberia, colombia, you have the same thing.”)

may the persistence of justice rise up in all of us today. and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows thereafter. may the fiery determination of nadia and the unrelenting faith of dr. mukwege drive all of us through the fog of despair.

where might you try to carve out space for justice? where might you bring comfort today?

p.s. i’m leaving off a picture up top today, because silence and the sound of a cry are best left unseen….

the call to come together

the invitation was simple: come for coffee. the invite list was the neighbors who surround me, a few of whom have moved in within the year or last couple years, and who i barely or didn’t even know.

all i did was brew a vat or two of coffee. pull out favorite plates. tuck flowers in vases. vacuum cobwebs out of corners. dump clementines and figs into bowls — bowls given to me over the years by some of those very same neighbors. the things we stack in cupboards — many of them, anyway — tell stories all their own. nearly every single thing in my house tells a story. i collect stories, not things.

it all started because the air turned crisp, and light turned amber — or at least that’s the way it always looks to me. there is a light in september that sometimes feels to me as if the heavens open just a crack, and someone tosses down a holy shaft. a shaft that’s almost a stairway back to whence it came.

the date i picked on the calendar was the date that holds a quiet sort of holiness for me: it’s the day my friend ceci died, three years ago, and the birthdate of my friend mary ellen, who died not long after….

it turned out to be the date dr. christine blasey ford took her terrors and her fears and stepped before the senate judiciary committee to tell her awful story, to peel back the layers of the wound she’d tried so very hard to escape.

for a while there, i thought my timing couldn’t have been worse. i’ve long been something of a news junkie and i didn’t want to miss hearing her words, the tremor in her voice, in real time. it felt like we all, as a nation, needed to encircle her, stand behind her, to say emphatically, “we hear you, and we believe you.” and we are here, as literally as possible, reaching through the screen, with our palms pressed against your back, squeezing your hand, touching you softly on the arm, one last time before you take a breath and begin.

i’d decided that i’d leave the tv on — softly — over in the corner, where it’s tucked inside an old armoire. as it happened, one by one, a few of us circled close to listen. we ebbed and flowed from coffee to nibbles to capitol hill testimony. and then, christine blasey ford cleared her throat, pushed back that swatch of hair that insisted on covering her left eye, and a circle of us moved close. as if by instinct. we leaned in. we held our breath. i noticed that we all had wrapped our arms across our own chests, held ourselves tight. anchored ourselves. the looks on our collective faces was a portrait in pain and empathy i’ll not forget. i don’t know, because we didn’t talk about it, how many of us in that circle had our own version of a christine blasey ford story to tell. and that didn’t matter, because we were there — leaning in, listening — for her. to put the power of our hearts, our intellects, our faith, behind the courage it took for her to stand up to power and softly tell her truth.

if i’d been home alone, i would have been glued in front of that screen all day, all by myself. instead i found myself in the company of women, lovely women, women who’d shown up with scones they baked, and pumpkin dip they’d stirred and poured in antique bowls. we told our own stories — how we got here, who we were, what made our children stir. i watched as clusters leaned in and women whispered. or laughed aloud. i watched the company of women weave together those disparate threads that make a whole cloth out of mismatched parts.

instead of going through the day alone, instead of absorbing the nation’s pain all by ourselves, we gathered in a circle, stood — literally — shoulder to shoulder. as i studied the pain-wrought faces of the women watching, absorbing every word of someone else’s nightmare, another woman’s indelible pain and trauma, i saw — without words — how deeply tied we humans are. how much we suffer in the face of suffering.

in the company of strangers, we can find our deeper truer selves.

it made me wonder if we need to climb more often beyond the walls we build around ourselves and our stories. all it takes, sometimes, is vats of coffee. and the invitation: please come….i’ll not spend this day holed up inside my private woes and worries….

what parts of september 27, 2018, will you not forget? which words or images are etched now across your heart? do you find comfort in company? do you need to give yourself a little nudge to get out from behind the comforts of your solitude?

makes me think we might need the occasional occasion of pulling up chairs in real time, say at my house for those who live within chair-pulling distance?

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

and the heavens weep…(summer 2018 edition)

Yanela, little border girl

a little honduran girl whose name, we think, is Yanela, photo by John Moore/Getty Images

i woke to the sound of heavens weeping. the percussive ping of rain against the windowpanes. rain that will not stop. tears that won’t be quelled. the skies have wept, it seems, all week. fitting soundtrack to this stretch of time, this dark moment in our history, when all our hearts are cried out, our spirits flagged, the air all but sucked from our lungs.

how did we get here? how did we become a nation where children — children and toddlers and babies, suckling babies — are ripped from a mother’s breast, are scooped up and off of dusty paths. a nation where this image of a little girl, whose name we’ve learned in yanela, stood and watched in fear and horror as her mother was frisked — then taken away — by a stranger. the terror on her face is what haunts me. haunts me in the darkness as i sink into sleep. haunts me as i wake, imagining her alone, wondering where in the world her mama went. why she is waking up, perhaps, under a shiny mylar blanket, in a room where the lights never go out. where it’s refrigerator cold on purpose. on purpose.

all week i’ve wanted nothing more than to leap on a plane, get to the border, and cradle babies, toddlers, children, teens. i wanted my nursing license to not be long expired. i wanted to exercise that whole soul of me that cannot bear to sit and watch one more minute. i clicked on donations, at a legal defense fund in south texas, intent on helping parents find their children.

none of it, none of it, feels like i am doing one iota to make the hate, the evil, go away. i pray for this chapter in history to end. i pray that we might elect someone whose soul is guided by those fine few things we believe in, certainly all those who gather at this table: decency, gentility, kindness, compassion, love. love as spelled out in the bible, the qur’an, the torah: love as you would be loved.

love as if you could try to imagine the hell of living in a country run by assault-rifle-toting gangs. love as if you knew what it was to have the threat of rape and kidnapping ever trailing you. as if you’d heard screams of terror in the night. as if you’d witnessed the vestiges of awful deaths played out on the sidewalks and the village square, right before your eyes. love as if you knew what it was to perch your toddler on your hip and set out across a desert, unrelenting sun beating down on you, dehydrating every cell of you and the little ones you love.

the little girl in the soul-searing image above, the little girl named yanela, she and her mama crossed the rio grande on a raft. a raft made of what i don’t know. was it chunks of wood strapped together? was it inflatable till it hit the sharp edge of a river rock? does it matter?

call me a cockeyed bleeding-heart kook. i’m no policy wonk, and i’ve no idea how to fix the immigration question. but i do know this: there is nowhere in any bible, any holy text, that says turn away the stranger at the border. rip the child from the mother’s breast — and then handcuff the mother for resisting the taking of her child.

i try mightily to imagine myself when either one of my boys was one or two or three or 12 — or now. if, for one minute, someone reached for them, in a posture of pulling them or me away, i’d kick and scream bloody hell. i’d try to muster superpowers, powers i know full well i do not have. and then, in defeat, i’d collapse. i’d rather never breathe again than be torn from my children.

i am responding as nearly any mother would, because every pore in my body knows what it is to be slipped into that sacred space of living and breathing, being consumed in every waking and slumbering moment by the whole protection and shielding of my child from whatever threat dares to come his way.

we all suffer when one among us suffers the unimaginable. and day after day we are witnessing the unimaginable.

dear holy God, God of mercy, deliver them, deliver us, all of us. deliver us from this evil. amen.

here’s wendell berry’s response to hell on earth. to his grandchildren who walked the holocaust museum on the day yitzhak rabin, who had been assassinated, was buried…

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust
Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light.  It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace.  It will be
your light.
~ Wendell Berry ~
(A Timbered Choir)
how do you find a way forward? 
i’d be remiss if i didn’t whisper happy blessed birthday to my firstborn, who marks his first quarter century today. it is the enormity of my love for him that makes it so crushing to even imagine someone trying to take him away from me, at any moment in his existence. he is my most profound blessing, and my joy without end…..

soulful pages to be turned

books feb 18

in weeks like this, when what’s churned up on the national stage leaves you raw or hollowed or simply enraged, it’s not so easy to find solace. the balms for the soul are running thin. in weeks like this, i’m grateful for small measures of kindness. each and every one is magnified in the halo of now. last night i watched my sweet boy stir brownies for a friend with a broken heart. the night before, my dear friend from down the alley came by, offering the makings of dinner, clear down to dinner rolls. we will forge on, all of us who live and breathe on the lookout for mercy, all of us who shrivel at the shrill cry of evil and hate, we will forge on, fueled by the indefatigable goodness of those hearts and souls that surround us, the ones that won’t surrender. the ones that insist there is tender to be found, and gentle is the implement of choice, the one that unfurls the petals of the heart, and breaks open the world into some kind of beautiful.

and in the meantime, i’m grateful for pages to turn, and blessed thoughts and ideas and snippets of poetry to bury my nose in….

here, then, is the latest batch of books for the soul, brought to you courtesy of the chicago tribune. perhaps you’ll find balm in the pages…

To Hear the Forest Sing: Some Musings on the Divine
By Margaret Dulaney, Listen Well, 252 pages, $15

A fine way to encounter the musings in this first collection from Margaret Dulaney, a playwright who started the spiritual spoken-word website, Listen Well, back in 2010, would be to read them aloud. They are words meant to be heard, yes, but they’re words that work their magic whether absorbed by listening, or in the silence of reading.

“To Hear the Forest Sing,” is a gathering of essays from 25 years of Dulaney’s morning walks in the woods of Bucks County, Pa., with her frolicsome dogs. She trains her thoughts, her fine-grained poetic thoughts, on an “open faith,” a faith she alternately describes as “Christian-Buddhist-transcendentalist,” and “Everythingist”—“that is, one who is in love with all of the great faiths.”

A storyteller at heart, Dulaney writes with grace, and it doesn’t take many page-turnings to feel you’re in conversation with a true and honest friend, one who tells you she was long ago labeled “learning disabled,” and unflinchingly bares her stumbles. Nor does it take too many pages to discover you’re in the presence of a lively mind, one filled with the epiphanies of an awakening soul. She writes: “I have given up looking for the thunderous, and look only for those quiet, tiptoeing revelations that I have learned to recognize.”

Many essays later, she writes this about faith and doubt, and following some holy code: “We are dragging ourselves out of our sleep-drenched beds every morning in order to learn a little bit more about God. The fog will clear someday, the weather brighten. Trust this, and keep on showing up.”

My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown
By Meera Lee Patel, Tarcher Perigee, 176 pages, $18

If your idea of church is plonking down in front of the big screen and tuning into SuperSoul Sunday, “My Friend Fear” might be your prayer card. A luminous, watercolor-splashed prayer card, it’s a meditation on fear, and a short-course tutorial on working your way to the other side. It’s the latest from Meera Lee Patel, a self-taught artist and author, whose bestselling “Start Where You Are,” an interactive journal of creativity, mindfulness, and self-motivation, earned an emphatic “must-read” from Oprah.com.

It begins with a deeply confessional exploration of fear, one Patel enters into by exposing the “irrational beasts” of her youth, her fear of being seen as odd because her immigrant parents kept to their old-country ways, the bodily shame she felt because of a 17-inch scar that runs up the back of her leg, one she says looks like a “poorly placed zipper.”

Because she dares to take head-on this subject that many dodge, and because she writes with a child-like open-heartedness, a porousness that unwittingly draws in the reader, she serves her subject well. If you’re willing to put down your own defenses, “My Friend Fear” has the power to move you.

Besides her insistence that your fears might illuminate your deepest vulnerabilities, make plain those things you so emphatically wish for, Patel offers this bold plea: Find the things that scare you, and do them anyway. Tackle your fears, one after one. Find yourself more alive than you’d ever imagined, penned inside the fear-filled cage.

“Like a constellation lit brightly beneath a foggy night sky, it didn’t stop shining just because you couldn’t see it,” she writes. “Acceptance is inside you. It’s been waiting for you to find it.”

Almost Entirely: Poems
By Jennifer Wallace, Paraclete, 128 pages, $18

When the names Scott Cairns, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman — great and soulful poets all — are drawn for point of comparison, are flags marking the perimeter of another poet’s domain, that is a poet whose work demands attention.

Jennifer Wallace’s poems, gathered here in “Almost Entirely” — a collection that toggles between the sacred and profane, faith and doubt, love and unrequited love — clearly earns the comparisons, and the claim to her own poetic country.

A poet, photographer, and teacher living in Baltimore and rural western Massachusetts, Wallace edits poetry for The Cortland Review, and her religious orientation is described thusly: “after decades of avoidance and experimentation, she decided in her 50’s to get serious about her spiritual practice and is now, mostly, happily settled within her Christian roots.”

What pulses through these prayer poems, besides an abiding knowledge of grief coupled with a palpable faith in the afterlife, is the residue of Catholic imagery, a childhood of nuns and priests and Latin prayer.

Any one of Wallace’s poems might be a morning’s meditation, or analeptic on a sleepless night.

Unlike most religious or spiritual writing that “tends to fall into the trap of being either willfully obscure, or too quickly cutting to ‘God’ as the general answer to all particular vexations,” observes Brother Joe Hoover, poetry editor of America Magazine, “Wallace strikes a lovely balance.”

Yet another critic, the poet David Rigsbee, lauds Wallace’s poems for “reclaiming the sacred in the steady rumor of its eclipse.”

As in this haunting stanza, from “Requiem,” her seven-part poem: “Perhaps we are here to make of earth a minor heaven / where birds will glider higher / in an air made more full / by the dead’s barely audible sigh.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in 2017. Her new book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” will be published in April. Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and since this is a morning of simple offerings, here’s one more lovely little something sent by a friend: words that seared me in a spine-tingling way.

fireproof

may you find solace in books and words and random acts of the beautiful….

what are the balms for the soul you bumped into this week?

we will not be numb…

i can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up the morning after. and the morning after that. and every morning thereafter.

but i know that i woke up — 1,300 miles away from the nightmare — on the morning after, and the one after that, and couldn’t help but try to slip into the faintest, chillingest of outlines: imagined that in that first blur of an instant, when you haven’t yet pulled yourself out from the depths of nighttime’s disorientation, you might have the barest instance of not yet being shrouded, and then, before even a blink, you would be sucked down into it, into that raw remembering: oh my god, it happened. she’s gone. he’s gone. and you would realize that the nightmare you couldn’t imagine was the one that was yours now. and you couldn’t go back. you could not, for the life of you, not ever again, go back to the moment in time where you weren’t racked, gutted beyond imagination, gasping for air.

or maybe you don’t even sleep. maybe, not even for an instant, do you slip out of consciousness into the anchor of sleep, of distance, that shore you can never again reach, the one where you aren’t skinned alive, the one where you breathe in and out without your chest hurting, the breathing’s so hard.

maybe you pray harder than you’ve ever prayed — to trade places, so you’d be the one who’s dead, and the someone you love is the one who goes on.

maybe you can never ever pray another prayer. maybe the line goes dead. and you spend the rest of your life a hollow shell.

or maybe resurrection comes in remembering. remembering the beauties, the animating stories that rise out of the ashes. maybe resurrection comes in wrapping yourself in the cloak of making a difference. making the death not be the end, but the spark of a blaze that will not be doused.

it’s all mostly impossible to imagine beyond the faintest of outlines. empathy can only carry us so far.

but i’ve found the most bizarre glimmer of hope here. it rises up out of the horrors of scenes caught on kids’ phones. i’ve watched video clips in the last day that i will never ever forget. if you’re brave, if you’re willing, here’s one, a montage from the new york times. it’s not the rawest one i’ve seen, but it’s awful beyond words.

so where’s the glimmer? the glimmer is in the documentation, it’s in this nightmare playing out in real time in front of kids who are digital natives, who instinctively pick up their phones and record, so for the first time, maybe, for a very long stretch of minutes, we — the faraway witnesses — we are drawn into the classrooms, we are watching the hands that are quaking in fear, we are hearing the whimpers, the wails. the children are witness, and thus so are we.

it’s a wholly different thing to be immersed in the minutes of blood bath in a high school classroom, to see the ragdoll-limp legs of a teen, and to see the red ring around her spread bigger and bigger. it’s impossible watching practically. it’s wholly different than watching the noiseless scenes from a helicopter looking down from above; even the frames of kids marching out of the school, hands up, stumbling in fear, those are sanitized, stripped of layers of horror, compared to the scenes that played out in real time inside the classrooms, the closets, the hallways.

and here’s the glimmer: maybe this time we won’t forget. maybe we won’t go numb. maybe this time the footage, caught on hundreds of cell phones, plus the voices of kids who are screaming that they were the ones huddled in closets, hearing the echo of assault-rifle carnage just beyond the classroom door, they were the ones sending texts home, “if i don’t make it….”

they are the ones who insist that we listen.

parkland textand those kids are screaming that this is all about guns. those kids are screaming that unless you were cowering in the coat closet, praying for your life, you have no right to tell anyone it’s not about guns. it’s all about guns, they are saying. and their videos are making that utterly, wrenchingly impossible to deny — or to ever forget.

maybe this will be the time that breaks the cycle of national amnesia. maybe this time we can all make a promise: we will not be numb. we will not forget the hell to which too many have entered.

maybe the voices of kids who prayed for their lives, maybe they won’t be quelled. maybe we’ll listen. and, lest we start to go numb, we can play back the scenes they caught on their phones, and not let those deaths be in vain.

may the memory of those 17 souls ever be a blessing. and the 26 in sandy hook. and the 49 at the pulse night club. and the 26 in the church in sutherland springs…..