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Category: antidotes to madness

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…..

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

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

when muttering under your breath isn’t enough…

2croppedMaggieKuhn_1953

“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” —Maggie Kuhn, social justice activist, founder of the Gray Panthers

despite the fact that i came of age in the 1960s, can remember chillingly the assassinations of JFK, and bobby kennedy, and martin luther king jr., can remember being afraid when draft numbers were called and boys i knew were whispered to be leaving for canada. despite the fact that mahatma gandhi and mother theresa were the faces i cut from the pages of magazines and taped to the inside of my spiral notebooks, i’ve not spent much time with soles to pavement, marching with a picket sign.

so i turn to maggie kuhn, the gray-haired activist and founder of the gray panthers, whom the new york times once described as “a tiny woman who wore her hair in a prim bun that gave her the look of an ideal candidate to be helped across the street by a Boy Scout.” maggie fought it all, every discrimination, oppression, and injustice she ran into. and in her 89 years, dying in april 1995, a mere two weeks after joining a picket line for striking transit workers, she ran into plenty.

it’s been a year now, since the chill january morning when i awoke in prayer, and soon found myself writhing on the couch, listening to an inaugural address that steam-engined through “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and “students deprived of knowledge,” and “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives,” all rising toward the crescendo that “this american carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

i was aghast that morning. and at least a hundred other mornings since. i’ve felt hollowed and gutted and stripped of hope. i’ve cringed. and heard the thump of my heart pounding in my ears, as blood pressure rose and i watched in disbelief. how, i’ve wondered time and again, have we gotten to this low?

it’s all of it: the language, the lies, the schoolyard taunts. the bullying. the lack of backbone all around. the refusal of sycophants and hangers-on to call a spade an ugly spade. it’s so much more than politics that makes me boil, it’s the degradation, the shredding of decency, the depravity. it’s needing to turn off the tv if kids are in the room, because i don’t want them hearing the words spoken by the fellow in the oval office. i don’t want them reading of porn star affairs, while a wife is home cradling her newborn son. i don’t want pussy talk. the moral compass is seizing, is spinning without north star.

all year, i’ve muttered and mumbled, and all but thrown shoes at the tv screen. i’ve composed letters to the president in my head. i’ve imagined myself plonked on the steps outside the west wing, just beneath that portico where all the hotshots come and go. i’ve wondered if i implored loud enough, would he listen? could i tell him quite exquisitely enough just how vile i’ve found this year-long unraveling of those rare few things i believe to be essential?

in my day to day, i’ve employed those tools i’ve always counted on: i’ve typed, tried to gently whisper truth. i’ve upped the everyday acts of kindness. i’ve tried to be a heart-seeking missile of empathy, looked more folks in the eye, listened more intently to their stories. prayed and prayed some more. tried to untangle discord. turned the other cheek.

i’ve no idea if the scales of justice have moved one iota, if one voice, one pair of lungs, one heart, one imagination can make a dent in the ocean churning with each toxin.

so i’m tossing my lot toward compound interest, the magnifying power of multiples: toward clogged streets of voices, toward the impact of the aerial photo, and the fine-grain, on-the-ground collective of stories heard, faces watched closely.

i’m donning my triple layer long johns, shimmying on my walking shoes, spinning the turnstile and hopping on the “el,” chicago’s answer to a polyglot on rails. i’m headed downtown tomorrow to the hordes who will be taking to the streets for a hundred thousand reasons, all falling under the rubric, “enough is enough.” it’s time to put breath to our hopes and prayers and protests. it’s time to reclaim civility and justice. time to leave behind our couches and our clickers and bring our voices to the public square. it’s time to tell our children we did not sit silently while the national conversation crumbled, and what passed for fairness, for decency, for equal rights for all, was in shambles.

i am one voice, and mine might be shaking. but one plus one plus one just might bend the arc toward that justice, that fairness, the radiant light of pure and gentle love that i will not ever stop believing in. nor working toward.

so help me God.

who taught you to use your voice, and how will you use it?

dreams cannot be left to die…

UBH-MLK-Final-Portrait-master495-v3

a formal portrait of MLK, Jr., appeared many times in the new york times. it was shot during the summer of 1963, on the very day when protestors hurled eggs at dr. king as he arrived at a church in harlem. earlier that day, he had criticized black nationalists, arguing that their call for a separate black state was “wrong.” some believed those comments spurred the attack that night. allyn baum/the new york times

i was thinking of writing a little meditation on the return to rhythms, the ebb and flow of everyday routine (er, ritual) that holds some of us snugly in the confines of our lives. how the deepening grooves of particular habits and ways bring comfort in familiarity. i was going to write how we are creatures, some of us, of what’s known, practiced. i was thinking about how slip-sliding into deep cleaning, sorting files, tossing trash, reorients us at the head of the trail through the newborn year. 

but then i stumbled onto this little known speech given by david dinkins, a friend of martin luther king, jr., in the days just after king’s assassination. dinkins, you might recall, went on to become mayor of new york city, the first–and, so far, only–black mayor. but before that, long before that, he walked stride-for-stride alongside MLK Jr., a man who lived and died for a dream. i decided that, on the eve of the national holiday that now begs us to pause and consider the power of nonviolence, the power of putting breath and muscle to a dream rooted in love, these few words held far more than mine could ever hold. in the wake of the travesty of a president referring to african countries and haiti as “sh**holes,” king’s dream and the dreams of those who follow him need–beg–oxygen and airtime. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a speech by David Dinkins (from April 1968)

Martin Luther King is dead now, and we, the mourners and losers, are left with his dreams—with decisions to make. He is dead now, and there are no words we can say for him, for he said his own. He is dead now, and any eulogy must be for us, the living.

Martin Luther King is dead now, so for him there is no tomorrow on this earth. But for us there are tomorrows and tomorrows. He painted a picture of what our tomorrows could be in his dream of America. This past weekend painted a picture of how that dream could become a nightmare should we lose sight of his principles.

Martin Luther King is dead now, but he left a legacy. He planted in all of us, black and white, the seeds of love of justice, of decency, of honor, and we must not fail to have these seeds bear fruit.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and there is only time for action. The time for debate, the time for blame, the time for accusation is over. Ours is a clear call to action. We must not only dedicate ourselves to great principles, but we must apply those principles to our lives.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and he is because he dared believe in nonviolence in a world of violence. Because he dared believe in peace in a world of conflict. He is dead now because he challenged all of us to believe in his dream.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and we cannot allow the substance of his dream to turn into the ashes of defeat. If we are to build a tribute to what he stood for, we must, each of us, stand for the same things.

Martin Luther King is dead now, and I ask each of you, the living, to join him and me, to go from this room and keep the dream alive. We must now commit ourselves, we must now work, we must now define what kind of America we are going to have—for unless we make his dream a reality we will not have an America about which to decide.

Martin Luther King is dead now—but he lives.

how are you keeping the dream of justice and love alive? tomorrow and tomorrow?

december’s whisper

red berry

the december i am drawn to, the one that most emphatically, insistently, invites me in, is the one that beckons in whisper.

the apex of my counterculturalism, perhaps, i take my month of longest night in slow sure sips. timpani belongs to someone else. my december—our december, perhaps, for there is evidence we’ve found each other, kindred spirits here—is one that calls for quiet.

long stretches of hours in which the simmering on the stove, the ticking of the clock, the occasional squawk of the jay at the feeder, those are the preludes, the quarter notes and half notes that i take in.

there will come, i’m certain—because year after year it comes—the one annual carol i play over and over, cranking the dial till the house shakes, and i worry the next-door neighbor might come running to see if all is well. (“mary, did you know?” a leading contender, third year running…)

gingerbabiesand so i’ve spent the week preparing, whisking away autumnal vestige, ushering in soon-to-come winter. i’ve stockpiled seed in 20-pound sacks (several, so far), and vats of ice-melting pellets for the dawn when the ice comes. i’ve piled pumpkins and gourds in the old trough my squirrels and possums (and occasional uninvited skunk) depend on, the autumn’s feast now theirs for winter keeping. i’ve snipped boxwood and spruce, tucked branches of both into window boxes just below the ledges, where jack frost will soon anoint the panes. i’ve strung italian star-lights around and through the posts of my picket fence. when the sun drops down, i won’t be alone in the dark. there is twinkling at the edge of the yard, front and back. and a candle flickers atop the kitchen table.

it is all a part of the coiling in. the nautilus of deepening prayer.

the prayer that fills me most is the prayer that slowly and silently seeps to the tucked-away places, the ones that await the season of stillness, the places unlocked by the smells and the bells of december: pungent clove, star anise, hissing wick, crackling log, twilight’s first star and the night’s last ember at dawn.

it won’t be long till somehow i crank the oven, haul out the canisters, bang my grandma’s old maple rolling pin against the cutting board’s edge. my coterie of cookie cutters each play a role in their own sugarplum suite.

zoupone day this week i hauled a turkey carcass from the fridge, and plunked it in my deepest pot, the vessel for soup-making for a dear dear friend whose newborn is just home from the ICU, and for whom i’ve cooked up all the sustenance i could imagine: brown rice, pulled-from-the-earth plump knotty carrots and fennel and garlic, savory stock, handful of parsley.

i’ll deliver my brew well before sundown, and in return i’ll drink in the newness, the perfection, of a babe just birthed, cradled more tightly and tenderly than ever imagined because ICUs do a mighty fine job of reminding how blessed it is to be finally sent home, untethered from the web of too many tubes and the fright that shakes a new mama and papa—and all those who love them—down to their rickety bones.

(there is, of course, no ailment the balm of day-long simmering kettle won’t cure; even a newborn mama’s terrible tremble is certain to be chased away at the very first shlurp of that omnipotent zoup.)

indeed, these are my december liturgies, day after day. intercessions of prayer, punctuated by plain old worldly deadlines. i attend to my errands and chores and assignments—laundry is folded and ferried, empty shelves of the fridge re-stocked, sentences are typed and essays submitted.

but the work that’s most heavenly, certainly, is the quiet work of the soul come december. the making way, making room at the inn, in the heart.

the grace of december, the gift of december, is in the quieting, the hush of the sacred whisper. the vespers that hallow—make holy—the heart. make room in the heart this quiet december.

i’ve been saving this poem, “winter grace,” for the whispered beginnings of the season of stillness….

Winter Grace
By Patricia Fargnoli

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.

“Winter Grace” by Patricia Fargnoli from Hallowed. © Tupelo Press, 2017.

how do you make room in your heart, in your unspooling of the day, for the whisper come december?

putting a season to bed…

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for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

take to the woods

take to the woods

i’m starting to think that maybe the woods are where i belong. maybe all this noise is begging retreat. maybe it’s time to craft my storybook hut in the woods, the one i’d always dreamed of, night after night, when i was a girl with the patchwork quilt pulled up to my nose, when i stared beyond my swiss lace curtains into the limbs that all but scratched at my windows.

maybe it’s time to turn off the news, the constant drip of a poison that’s starting — no, that’s taken it’s toll. it gets harder by the day to shirk off the ugly talk, to shove away the stories of fights erupting from school hallways to the chambers of congress.

maybe this is why God invented quiet places, places where we could slip away, ponder the beautiful. pay more attention to a leaf curled and fallen. sit and stare at a patch of golden light, dappled and quivering across a mossy log.

or maybe we just have to stay right where we are. love harder. exercise radical kindness. be as gentle as we can possibly be.

i’m running out of ideas — and maybe some measure of hope — and the sphere of my loving seems to be turning closer and closer to home. if i can love one someone up the steep incline. if i can soften one morning, let alone a whole day. if i can just keep stitching hour after hour with words and with something that’s pure, something that begs and receives my whole heart…

will that carry me — carry us — across the desolate landscape?

blessedly, my work doesn’t wait for the world to right itself. my work stares at me, day after day, from the blank screen awaiting digital scratch marks. i’m wrapping myself in a litany of stories, reading my way into knowledge. i’m drawn for reasons beyond me into the world of blessing — celtic blessing, jewish blessing, the blessing of a thousand traditions. i’m not sure why (though i surely could hazard a guess). the deeper i read, the more wholly i contemplate those things that bring balm to the soul.

here’s a line worth considering, from rachel naomi remen’s “my grandfather’s blessings: stories of strength, refuge, and belonging”:

“…a prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another. God may not need our attention as badly as the person next to us on the bus or behind us on line in the supermarket. everyone in the world matters, and so do their blessings. when we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.” 

i am wrapping myself in stories and thoughts and words of pure blessing. it’s the safest, softest place i know.

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and before i go, a roundup of books for the soul — from Oct. 2 — that i’ve not yet remembered to plonk here at the table (this, i believe is the unedited version). each one is a feast. and may you be blessed. 

‘The Happiness Prayer’ by Evan Moffic reviewed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany, for the Chicago Tribune

The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today
By Evan Moffic, Center Street, 208 pages, $25

The title of Evan Moffic’s newest and richest book (this is his fifth) might have you thinking this is some short-course to that elusive human condition, happiness. You might mistake it for an E-Z three-step program. Follow the prescription and simple joys will envelop you.

No such thing.

Truth is, the wisdom packed into “The Happiness Prayer” could last you a lifetime. Certainly another few millennia.

Moffic begins with an ancient prayer, the Eilu Devarim, literally “these are the words…,” an enumeration of 10 commands meant to be recited every morning as the foundations of sacred living (honor those who gave you life; be kind; keep learning; invite others into your life; be there when others need you; celebrate good times; support yourself and others during times of loss; pray with intention; forgive; look inside and commit).

In the richest rabbinic tradition, Moffic — who went to Stanford University to study history on his way to law school, but wound up in rabbinic school and has since been called one of the great minds of an up-and-coming generation of American Jewish thinkers — enfolds each wisdom with story upon story, drawing from Hebrew text and Torah, from centuries-old parables and modern-day research.

His elucidation is profound, and his stories, beyond charming. But what makes this a priceless work is that Moffic, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, draws deeply from his pastoral role in the trenches of life at its most vulnerable — it’s messy, it’s wrenching, and sometimes it’s simply beautiful. His words — after eight years as Solel’s senior rabbi, and another three at a downtown congregation — ring with authenticity. This is not pie-in-the-sky prescriptive. Page after page, Moffic is the rabbi we’d love to call our own — wise and kind, humble and good beyond words.

He makes us ache to reach for a sacred happiness that comes from living true and well, and making room in our everyday for “the fingerprints of God.”

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems 
Edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, Grayson Books, 248 pages, $21.99

The power of poetry, often, is its capacity to sneak up from behind and pry open the heart. Or the soul. It’s in that unanticipated moment when the truth of the poem rushes in, and packs its indelible wallop. That’s when a poem, for some of us, becomes a prayer.

“Poetry of Presence,” an anthology that serves as a gathering space for many of the most soulful poets of now and long ago, is a collection of mindfulness best taken one page at a time. Each poem holds enough wisdom, enlightenment, concentrated attention to linger for days. As with the richest anthologies, the editors here (Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson) have done the hard work of gathering the poets and poems that deserve to be read and read often.

From Margaret Atwood to Billy Collins, Kathleen Norris to Alice Walker, the poets found here belong in permanent collections of any bookshelf that leans into soul-tingling awareness. These are poems to stir the soul of those not inclined toward straight-on religion, who prefer to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson might put it.

“These poems remind us to live ‘undefended,’” writes Father Richard Rohr, the great modern-day spiritualist, author, and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. “To stand deliberately and consciously as witnesses of the present moment. To gaze upon existence from the place of Divine Intimacy. To reach out from that place to those who suffer. Living this way takes lots of practice.” And this anthology, Rohr counsels, would be a wise companion.

The Blue Songbird
By Vern Kousky, Running Press, 40 pages, $16.99

The soul of the child is so porous, so unfettered with a lifetime’s layers of scarring, the way in is often so spare — clean lines of a drawing, a few words scattered across the page. So it is with “The Blue Songbird,” a children’s picture book whose message is blessed for young or old: finding your voice, your own sweet song in a world of noise, sometimes demands coming home to yourself.

It’s a parable, unfurled with a Japanese sense of aesthetic, in washed-out watercolors and swooping lines and tall stacks of type, one that tells the tale of a little songbird who awakes to the songs of her siblings but “could never sing like they could sing.” When the little bird cries to her mama, the wise mama bird instructs her — in the ways of all prophets — “You must go and find a special song that only you can sing.”

Of course, this is the set up for a totemic tour in search of Truth, all in the guise of bird-to-bird exchanges. Crane and owl, penguin and crow, point little bird closer and closer to what she’s searching to find. When she finds she’s merely circled the globe, and come home to her nest, she’s crestfallen. But when she opens her mouth? Song pours forth.

Parables are at the heart of ancient spiritual text, the story form from which divine instruction is drawn. Vern Kousky, the author of this sweet tale, makes his message quite clear: Search far and wide, but don’t be surprised when you find your own song deep within. The distance to self-discovery is one not measured in miles, but rather in depths. And once divined, the question, as poet Mary Oliver once asked, is this: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And with the song that is yours alone?

chair question, for anyone who’s scrolled down to here: what, oh what, is balm for your soul? 

when roots are called for, the big red pot comes through

big red pot

i’m in-between and somewhat out-of-sorts. i’m not certain we could riffle through a diagnostic manual and find it written just that way, the malady. and maybe it’s not a malady, just simply stating fact. maybe it’s merely the lull in human undulation, the dip between the rises.

and, truth is, it’s not so bad — the in-between part, anyway. the in-between part is liberation, defined. a long line of assignments is behind me, and i’m in the fertile ground where new ideas begin to rumble in the distance. for months now, i’ve been applying fingers to keyboard day after day after day. so this week, without so much as a whistle being blown, i seem to have declared it deep-breathing time. i found myself roaming anywhere except the keyboard. i found myself clipping shriveled vines in the garden, plucking last-gasp bouquets and tucking them — one last time — in the old milk pitchers that duly serve to hold their pirouettes. i found myself reaching for the big red pot. and all the roots — the parsnip, carrot, turnip — that are ours with one swift tug on their leafy tops.

i seemed to be swirling in whole body immersions. in tactile acts that drew me close to earth, and thus infused with heaven’s fumes.

i needed rootedness this week. and my big red pot came through. it’s there, thick-walled and heavy enough to shatter toes. to yank it from the cupboard is no small feat, one that usually calls for rearrangement of the entire teetering tower of lids and bottoms. but once planted atop my old crotchety cookstove — the one whose burners must take turns deciding who will burn today, and who will sit it out — the rearrangement is all worth it. that pot all but begs to put me back together. it sits wide-mouthed and waiting. all it asks is that i get to work: peel away the earth-stained skins of all those roots, chop them into chunks, toss with abandon. all whirled in olive-oil glisten. all softened, surrendered, through minutes on the flame.

i made a root stew this week because i needed roots. i simmered it all day, with a pinch of this, a cup of that. it was alchemy, all right. the sort that heals me every time. i set out to root the ones i love, the ones whose week wearies them. but all day long it was me who inhaled the essence of autumn, of doors closed, and furnace rumbling once again. chamomile

as long as i was ambling down the road to roots, i clipped a fat fistful of chamomile, the very essence of becalmed. i set the table, put out fork and knife and napkin. i awaited the return of those i love, the ones who’d shuffle down the walk long after dusk, and into night. there is something sacred about keeping watch for comings home.

there is something sacred about immersing yourself in the offerings of earth: in roots and fat fistfuls of bloom.

sometimes the shortest route to blessing is setting out to bless the ones we love. along the way, we find the sacred tapping us in our translucent parts, the ones where our heartbeat all but shows.

the susurrations of the sacred catch me every time.

and may they catch you, too. how do you carve your path to groundedness, what’s your certain route to simple daily blessing?

p.s. my out-of-sorts-ness is simply being ground down day after day by the national vitriol. it’s a toxic drip, and it’s rubbed me raw. it reminds me of being a kid keeping watch on the schoolyard bully, tempted to plant my hands firmly on my hipbones and let rip a mighty spew! (stay tuned….)

healing instinct

healing instinct

the steam tent: steaming hot water + peppermint essential oil + not-so-raggedy towel = deep breathe

if you listen to the news, and i do, if you read the news, and i do, it is hard not feel this old globe is a raw wound right now, gashed with despair, pocked with pure evil.

i am haunted, especially, by a story i read of the atrocities that rained down on rohingya women and mothers and children. babies ripped from their mothers’ arms. babies tossed into infernos. worse and worse and worse. i can barely stand to spread the poison. (it’s here, from yesterday’s new york times, written by jeffrey gettleman, a kid from the town next door, who grew up to win the pulitzer prize for international reporting.)

i am haunted too by the ghostly images coming from northern california. charred silhouettes. hillsides exposed, stubbled with blackened bits of tree trunk and fence post, as if the unshaven cheek of a long-ago miner. sunsets occluded by smoky skies, skies dirty with soot — sometimes even a hundred miles away from unstoppable fires.

and all of this on top of las vegas’ carnage, and puerto rico and houston and the virgin islands and harvey and irma and jose and maria. no wonder we weep and our knees buckle under.

no wonder this week when my sweet boy awoke in the night burning with fever, my healing instincts, which must have been idling just off in the wings — coiled and ready to pounce — surged into action. pressing cool wet washcloths to his forehead, stirring oatmeal, pouring ginger ale over cracked ice, those were the balms i reached for. to heal him, to heal me, to try — somehow, by some far-flung mystical property — to infuse a drop of healing into this sorry sad world.

it’s what we do, it’s all we can do, when we’re feeling the gaping gasp of despair. when the troubles all around pile so high we can barely turn toward the light. some days, we’re certain the lights have been snuffed. flat-out extinguished.

maybe that’s why some of us are drawn into lives as healers, as nurses and doctors and teachers and mothers (to name but a few). maybe we’re all part of some infinite river of hope, the last wall of defense against a world that might otherwise crumble. a world that could go mad, break out in epidemics of hate.

i’m beginning to think i am typing some dystopian trope here. but you know i won’t leave you in the valley of darkness. what i’m looking for is the answer to what can we do? here, under this one dot of roof, surrounded by leafy environs, how in the world can measly old me make a difference? how hard can i pray? how kind must i be? what in the world might i do to begin to teeter the balance back toward the good?

they’re questions, sadly, for which i don’t have an answer. all i have is the deep down sense that the worse it gets, the harder i need to apply the forces of good, of light, of pure unfiltered blessing.

it’s what propelled me to consider the instinct that drove me to crank the flame under the tea kettle, to listen for the whistle, and gather up the mixing bowl, the utility towel, and the essential peppermint oil.

it was the healing-est move of the week: to concoct a steam tent, and fill it — literally — with healing vapors. to instruct my boy to breathe deep and then deeper. to purify, cleanse, and clear out the gunk.

over the course of the last few days, he’s taken a liking to this peppermint whirl, the one that gets him breathing again.

maybe we all need a steam tent. maybe we need to breathe deep. to inhale. to fill our lungs and our souls with tincture of hope. of healing.

i’m cranking the flame under the kettle.

how are you plying your healing? what are you doing to teeter the balance toward goodness, toward wholeness, toward hope?

and here’s our steam tent recipe, taught by our beloved german exchange student, who had a bad cold this summer: get a big mixing bowl. boil water. pour into bowl. add a few drops of peppermint essential oil (as many as you can tolerate, anywhere from two to three to seven or more). drape a big towel over your head. breathe deep. have box of tissue at the ready. feel better. so much better. xoxo