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Category: antidotes to madness

when grace comes tapping at the windowpane…

amid a season of war and worry, on the very day when steam was all but rising from this keyboard––a deadline looming, conveyor belts of verbs and nouns at high production––there came a rustling in the bushes just beyond the panes of glass that stretch between my bookshelves.

the morning was punctuated with the sounds of preoccupation, the faintest plink barely tapping at the glass, more than the usual chatter between birds. over and over, takeoffs and landings from bush to branch to nearby picket fence. the occasional outburst of trills and warbles.

it was the quiet of the sound that most intrigued me, the sound of trying to be unnoticed, hard at work in the art of concealment, a most necessary survival skill when up against the odds of danger, in a world where prowling cats and coons, thunderstorms and untimely freezes are another name for doom.

because i knew my role in this rare showing was to be as discrete and invisible as possible, i barely shifted my eyes, dared not tiptoe near the glass, for fear of spooking, for fear of shutting down production.

turned out, the faintest murmurings were these: the sound of wing brushing up against the glass, the sound of branches being jostled to make way for the laying down of bits of grasses, dried and brown and wholly unremarkable.

but what was done, over the course of a single day, was not only wholly remarkable and breathtaking. it was only the beginning.

mama and papa–a pair of cardinals i know by name–had for the first time in all my decades decided to grace me with a front row seat on their reproductive spring: they’d chosen my very ordinary, very ungroomed evergreens, as the very spot to build their nest. it just so happens to be up against the glass, as if the window to the nursery in the maternity ward, the ones where long ago fathers pressed their nose against the glass to get a first peek at the progeny newly birthed and swaddled, the hard labor shielded from the men not allowed near delivery, too faint for such primal birthings.

over all my years, i’ve spied robins all but nesting in the public square. i’ve seen sparrows busily and noisily stuffing gutters and cracks in this old house with the makings of a nest. but never ever had i figured out just where it is the cardinals go to replenish the species.

i now know why. my guess is they’re the high scorers in the game of hide-and-seek. their nest, literally up against the glass, is all but impossible to see from the other side of the bushes, and wedged in in such a way that i cannot for the life of me peek into the bowl of the nest (believe me, when mama flits off to grab a seed, to relieve her feathered bum from all its incubating, i’ve climbed atop my window seat to try to fetch a look).

we’ve come to work in synchrony, mama cardinal and moi. i tap quietly at my keys all day long while she goes about her warming of those eggs all day long. once the sun goes down, i leave the premises, turn off the lights, shuffle off to the old maple table in the kitchen–not wanting a brood of mixed-up baby birds to mistake my desk lamp for a never-setting sun.

far as i can tell, and i tell you my guess here is based on scantest evidence, there’s not yet a clutch of little beaks to fill with bits of worms. each day, though, the drumbeat picks up pace. it’s been two whole weeks, and surely we must be getting close.

it’s a blessed thing, a most blessed thing, a thing that fills my soul, to be witness to the against-all-odds timeless knowings of the feathered flocks. those little birds know nothing of the ravages that tear apart the human flock. theirs is a universe––far as we know, and maybe i’m just wishful thinking––without the sorts of strife, without the demonic ingenuities to dream and build and drop a bomb. do birds know worry? does mama bird go about her business without the slightest hint of begrudgement? is she already plotting her grocery list? does she count her clutch, scan for misshapen egg, dread the day those baby birds take flight and leave the nest?

such are the questions that reel through my mind, as mama bird and i go about our tasks this one most blessed spring. it’s a wonder when grace comes tapping at the window pane. as if the heavens know just who and when needs holy balm far far from the madding crowd.

what grace has brushed you by this spring? what’s caught you unawares? what quiet has so startled you, and awakened you from your worldly slumbers?

in need of beannacht, i found my way back to an old friend, the irish poet of infinite blessing…

the author photo of John O’Donohue, now fading, but still my bookmark

in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.

john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.

i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.

i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.

THE GOOD GREEN POET

By Barbara Mahany

Chicago Tribune

Mar 17, 1999

The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.

The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.

But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.

John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.

Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”

Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”

For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”

He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.

And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.

In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”

And some conversations they are.

“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.

“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”

It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.

No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”

Yow.

And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?

“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”

You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?

“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.

“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”

His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”

And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”

It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.

He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”

And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.

“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.

“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “

It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”

“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.

“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”

O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “

He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.

“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.

He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.

But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.

It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.

Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.

“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”

But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “


and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….

written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O’Donohue ~

(Echoes of Memory)

if you’d like surround-sound comfort, you can listen to him — and hear that beautiful lilt — here, talking with krista tippett about beauty….

and here is the wonderful wisdom from howard zinn that had me looking for hope….(with huge thanks to PJT, my holy light in D.C.)

where did you find comfort — and hope — this week?

beyond words…

we are waking up to a terrifying morning, reports of ukraine’s nuclear plant seized by the russians, after they spent the night shelling it, setting parts of it on fire, while every nuclear emergency team in the world huddled, prayed, awaited reports of radioactivity. word comes that the diabolical plot is not merely to cut the power grid to turn out the lights, but to freeze out the people.

our lungs are left breathless, our limbs are trembling. what hell has been wrought?

while the morning leaves room only for prayer, for collective mind-meld to beg to stop putin and his evil conspirators, my work of the week––keeping count, compiling a list of break-through moments of radiant light amid the gathering darkness––feels lame. but, because gathering each and any spark of hope and indefatigable humanity just might keep us from teetering, i will leave it here anyway.

i began the week drawn to pray in one of chicago’s breathtakingly ornate ukrainian churches. not a word was in english (though i did recognize “alleluia,” and “kyiv,” and “kharkhiv,” among the many slavic syllables). but no words were needed to read the faces of the deeply devout, hands clasped, making the byzantine sign of the cross over and over and over (tracing the shape of a cross in the air, but touching the right shoulder first before the left; thumb, index, and middle fingers pressed together, an invocation of the holy trinity).

the faithful came in traditional garb, vyshyvanka, the glorious embroidered shirts worn by men and women alike. and they came americanized, in black leather pants and skiwear. fur, in pelts or jackets, was abundant. but it was the faces i’ll never forget: etched in despair, fervent in prayer. the queue to light candles on the side of the altar never let up, each petitioner clutching crumpled dollar bills in his or her fist, clear through the hour-long mass, a choreography of mystery and reverence, faith and fortitude, i’ll not soon forget.

the lighting of candles never let up

as the week wore on, the reports more and more dire, i began making a list, because otherwise we might be engulfed by sorrows. these are the moments i am holding onto with all my heart, when the resilience of human kindness and hope refuses to die:

did you see the ukrainian grandma who walked up to an armed russian soldier, asked him what the (heck) he was doing there, told him he was an invader, an occupier, a fascist, and then handed him a fistful of sunflower seeds, and told him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies sunflowers (the ukrainian national flower) will grow from his corpse? and before she turned away, she let him know that from that moment on, he was cursed?

ukrainian “sunflower” grandma confronting russian soldier

did you see the ukrainian woman with the purple streaks in her hair who gave tea and cakes to a captured russian soldier, a young man with nothing but peach fuzz on his reddened cheeks, and when the purple-haired woman used her phone to call the soldier’s mother, natasha, the soldier broke into tears and blew a kiss to the phone?

did you see the little 8-year-old girl who spent her days in the underground subway station crocheting a tiny pink heart, and then she tapped a stranger on the shoulder, and gave it to him?

did you hear the UN translator’s voice crack as he echoed in english the words of ukraine’s president volodymyr zelenskyy, who called out to the world: “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians. We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”

did you see the ukrainian grandma cradling a cat, giving a very emphatic middle finger to the passing-by russian brigade?

did you see the thousands of romanians, lined up in their cars, waiting at the ukrainian border to welcome the tired, the hungry, the cold, the women and children and babies fleeing for their lives? 

baby born in kyiv subway shelter

did you see the baby born in the subway shelter in kyiv?

or the ukrainian woman who crossed the border into hungary with the phone number of a woman she’d never met and two children who’d been entrusted to her––along with their passports––by a man not allowed to leave, who thrust his children into her arms, and instructed her to call the number once they crossed into safety. and not long after she placed the call, the mother of the two children approached; mission accomplished. mother and children, reunited. (the children’s mother had left ukraine earlier, with two younger children, but once it was clear the older children needed to leave, and the father was not allowed to cross the border, he turned to a stranger, and begged, please get my children to safety; if you call this number you will find their mother. and she did.)

or the holocaust survivors huddled in a bomb shelter in ukraine, with the flags of israel and ukraine limp behind them, voices cracking as they cursed putin and asked for peace?

have you seen the thousands of germans who crowded into the central train station in berlin to offer fleeing ukrainians a place to stay? and they came with hand-penned placards in german, english, and ukrainian, offering welcome. “i was very scared, i had to get out from this hell,” said one ukrainian woman as she stepped off the evacuation train, and fell into the arms of a berliner she had never before seen or known.

the images keep coming, moving us to tears upon tears, bringing flickers of something that every once in a rare while feels like the faintest outline of hope. but they fade away, and we are haunted once again by this horror we cannot stop. 

Lord, have mercy.

what images from ukraine are etched in your heart this terrible morning?

exercise in empathy, another name for prayer

A screenshot of a video released by the Ukrainian Police Department Press Service of military helicopters, apparently Russian, flying over the outskirts of Kyiv, February 24, 2022 

can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams? 

can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?

can you imagine? 

can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off? 

can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border? 

can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?

can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?

imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell. 

imagining is the birthing ground of empathy. 

and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer. 

empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.

empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.

truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.

but it’s the place to begin.

and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh? 

don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders? 

isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.

imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.

we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?

it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.

it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.

i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.

***

i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

–Ellen Bass

how did you learn to pray?

a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.

p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….

winter worn-thin

the icicles must be considering a strike: one day they’re dripping away, growing into winter’s stalactites, next day they’re on their way to oblivion, drop by splashy drop–an existence tied to the rise and the fall of the mercury. same with the slush. hasn’t a clue what form it should take, though frozen or slop, it’s all shades of gray. gray and grayer.

it’s a postcard of winter worn-thin, only we’re the ones worn to the bone, gasping for hope, muttering foul grunts as we jam our toes into our boots (our boots taking on that february aroma, the one that begs to be cloaked, doused, or disguised under a thin veil of anything gentler on the nose).

i’ve long been convinced that february is the shortest month–interrupted by the national explosion of valentine hearts, and chocolate-doused brownies–for a reason. and the reason is plain old survival. we might throw in the towel if we had to stick with it any longer than 28 days (some wisecracker somehow decided long, long ago to sneak in that make-up 29th, but only every four years, the next being two years from now).

all of that is to say, i sense we might be in need of something akin to spiritual transfusion, a hearty reminder of why it is some of us preach winter as the soulful season. (um, that would be me, i confess.) so as i sit here contemplating ways to make it through to the ides of march, and the onslaught of april, i thought i’d bring in the masters for a little shot of espresso-strength reminder: this is good for the soul, all this dreariness out the window. (and those of you reading under the swaying of palm trees, exercise compassion–in the form of imagining a landscape where trees look like so many uninspired sticks, the earth is covered in gray, and the wrong step on the sidewalk can send you flailing and broken, splat on the ground.)

let us begin with rilke, who insisted this is the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul. or albert camus, who wrote, “in the depths of winter, i finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” (sunscreen and popsicles must be hiding somewhere down in the toes of my snow boots.)

henry david thoreau

but for a wintry vitamin in the form of wisdom, i’m walking into the woods with h.d. thoreau, who left this reminder:

There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.

This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.

–Henry David Thoreau, “A Walk in Winter”

and so, he reminds, here in the deep of winter, summer stirs in the heart. he goes on to declare that “in winter we lead a more inward life. our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.”

i’m taking that as a challenge, this notion that my heart is puffing up cheery whirls of smoke from its cheery little cottage. in fact, i am marching straight to the stack of blankets there on my couch, surrendering to the notion that a long day’s reading is just what the transcendentalist ordered.

he leaves us with prescription:

We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come [outdoors].

–Thoreau

guess it’s time to slip on my stinky boots and embark into this slushy february day.

how do you re-stoke your wintry hearth come the depth of this shortest month?

**image above is from a page of a children’s book i pulled from our shelves (i will not give up those shelves of books i know by heart, forward and backward), one titled, A Winter Place, by Ruth Yaffe Radin, with illustrations by Mattie Lou O’Kelley.

the simple blessing of a snowy morning

it is as close as i’ve ever come to waking up inside the pages of a picture book, or an enchanted forest, the waking up to fat flakes falling, to heaps and meringues of snow on every flat plane, every bough and twig; even the lumps in the walk get a dollop of beautiful. everything sometimes deserves to be adorned. everything sometimes yearns to be simply lovely.

the days of waking to grace feel numbered of late. more often i awake with a lump in my belly, a worry grown big and bigger in the dark and the tangle of sheets. almost like a sourdough rising, the way the night worries grow. but today is not one of those days. today it begins with nose pressed to the pane. i long to step outside in the thick blue light of it, the silence of it. but i’ve a silly thing about not wanting to mar the tableau, not wanting to plunk my boots in the seamlessness of it all. so i keep to my side of the glass. and i let the snow and the quiet fall unbroken.

i marvel always at the ways the world––grace, God, unseen sacred stirring––steps in just as i need it. the way the prescriptive fills every hunger and hurt. it’s as if all creation is apothecary for the soul. and when we quiet ourselves, and allow its medicinal balms to seep into the cuts and the lumps and aches, the healing comes. the respite of catching our breath, making sense of the madness.

just this morning i awoke with the knowing that a longtime beloved friend had awakened yesterday to find her husband still in his chair from the night before. he’d died, alone. he was 67. no one saw it coming. the night before, wednesday, had been any old wednesday; my friend had made meatloaf for dinner, hadn’t a clue that one single thing was not as it should be. life shatters without making a sound.

my faraway best, best friend is going to surgery next week, her second time in ten years with a surgeon and an oncologist she calls her own. a third friend, one of my bridesmaids, is sitting by her sister’s bedside in dallas, where the cancer has crept into her brain, and where upon finishing a CT scan last week, her sister (four years younger than me) had suffered a stroke. right there on the gurney. right there in the middle of an already terrible cancer.

i ache for every one of them, ache in ways that push against the walls of my heart. ache in ways that crowd every other thought out of my head. ache in ways that make me pay more attention than ever to the most ordinary of miracles.

and this morning i sit here absorbed in the lull that follows an overnight snow. it’s as if all creation understands we need silence between all the noise. we need the holy pause that allows us to catch our broken breath, to be still as we gather up the shards, put the pieces back together again.

the world aims to comfort us; it’s one of its marvels. it aims to shake us to our core, too. another one of its marvels.

how blessed are we that we live in a world of creation, sacred creation, a world where the woods are a balm. where the red bird alights. where snow falls without sound. where, dawn after dawn, the sun rises. and stars stitch the night sky.

the blessings abound. all we are asked is to notice.

dear God, thank you for the balm of this holy morning. may grace fall in thick meringues on the ones i love who are so deeply hurting. and afraid. and alone.

and just like that i looked up, and the red bird came. just beyond my window in a nestle of branches puffy with snow.

God answered. and the red bird flew.

where did you find grace this morning?

in case you need a quiet walk in the wintry woods here’s a little miracle sent my way; last night i gave a talk on the stillness of winter, and opened the evening with this moment of beauty. not all of you live in snowy climes, so here’s your taste of it, too. may it bring you peace, this walk in the snow-laden woods

the kindness project

tagging the word “project” onto just about anything takes it up a notch. makes it sound more determined. not some sloppy mess off in the corner. and so it is that my firstborn and i seem to have stumbled onto a “project,” though he’s the chief engineer and i am merely its occasional scribe.

it was birthed–for me, anyway–in the bowels of manhattan, underground, in the glare of fluorescence that lights up the 23rd street subway station. we were dashing from the bone-trembling cold of madison square park where we’d just been soaking in the opening of hugh hayden’s “brier patch,” a sculptural installation of 100 school desks and tangled tree limbs that speaks, among many things, to educational disparities and injustices (and is just plain beautiful), and that was curated by the glorious woman my husband calls his one and only sister. despite the fact that each of my limbs could not stop shaking from the cold, i will never forget watching her–against the golden halo of the lamp light–as i thought of the mother, the father, and the grandmother who had so profoundly shaped her. tears were falling as i imagined them watching her there in the cold january night, a crowd assembled to listen to her every astute word, to witness her latest public art offering to the metropolis that is manhattan.

hugh hayden’s “brier patch” madison square park conservancy

but back to the kindness project. having scrambled to the bottom of the long flight of subway station stairs, i paused and took in the whole of the whirl of the thousands of lives momentarily all in the very same place at the very same time. i couldn’t help imagining the stories, the struggles, the sufferings, etched into the faces that ran past me, that leapt into train cars that whisked down the tunnels, disappearing into the darkness.

i felt the thrum of humanity at its most percussive pulse point. we were all in this together–whatever “this” is, whatever “this” brings us. and, at the moment, the world is a tough place to inhabit. reports come in from all corners: of wars on the brink, of political revenge, of ugly words rising in senate chambers (and uglier ones spilled in cloakrooms and hallways).

if kindness is antidote to madness, if there lies a paradigm beyond the worldly one of spite and retributions, one where the gospel of empathy reigns, where we’re guided by a command to love as we would be loved, maybe that’s where the healing begins. maybe that’s where we find our salvation. maybe it cloaks us against the cold, maybe it’s how we the people stand one slim chance of turning our backs on all that we find so wretched, so deeply unjust, so just plain vulgar.

maybe we get about the business of seeking living breathing moments of goodness. of nothing less than simple decency, looking out for the stranger, offering hope to the hopeless. maybe, if we pay enough attention, if we gather those moments of kindness like beads on a prayer string, we might begin to gather momentum, to put forth and build a force that just might put a dent in what some days feels like a tidal wave of the ugly.

more and more over the last stretch of years, i’ve found myself pulled deeper and deeper into the realm of the sacred Divine as the world around has gotten more and more vile. to hear the call of a voice eternal and True is to begin to drown out the shouts from the ugliest corners. it’s where and how i find my peace.

and it’s a project worth tallying. a count worth keeping.

and so, on that cold january night, there on the 4 train as it threaded through tunnels, the kindness project catalogued its first unmistakable display: a fellow hunched like a comma on his hard plastic train seat was muttering to himself, when he happened to glance up and i–hanging onto a subway car pole–happened to glance down. this, apparently, was enough to offend, so he let me have it, with a spew of expletives that grew increasingly incensed. at that very moment a woman whose accent gave away her caribbean roots, pointedly tapped hard against the metal subway-car door against which she leaned, and inched herself just enough to make safe harbor for me. with little more than the tap of her finger, and the insistence in her eyes, she’d signaled loud and clear that she was having nothing of the old man’s vitriol and she was keeping me from any harm. the moment passed, the animosity diffused, and i was washed over in the blessing of stranger caring for stranger. i nearly reached out to squeeze her by the arm, a wordless expression of infinite gratitude, but i refrained, not wanting my gesture to be mistaken for any form of crossing the line.

and for the next string of days, as my firstborn and i made our way through the winding lanes of lower lower manhattan, as we fell into joyful conversation with the checker at the grocery, or the lady behind the counter at the lamp repair shop, there grew the sense that we were onto something. new york, new york, is not known widely as the capital of nice, and yet it seems to brim with hardscrabble kindness. and it’s nothing short of miraculous, to find those glimmering shards of straight-up goodness––humanity at its best––among the art-deco towers and the deeply-shadowed corridors of capitalistic commerce.

my firstborn, blessed soul that he is, is all in on the project. called me last night to report his latest finds; in an uzbek barber, and an orthodox watch repairman, in the old wrinkled man behind the counter of a chinese general store, where he found himself invited for new year’s.

the plan is to keep watch, and keep note (tapped out on his phone, or inked into one of his many moleskin notebooks). in a city that never sleeps, in a city not known for tender loving plenitude, take census of kindness and allow its superpowers to alter the landscape.

it’s a mission i’m taking up here, in the heart of the heartland.

one by one, little by little, one act of golden good kindness at a time, we are building a fortress to keep out the ugly, the vile, the deeply unkind.

and, besides, it makes for a million fine yarns.

as i wrote in a note to my firstborn just this morning: “it seems one of our holy tasks is to see the sacred sparks all around, in the souls of kindness you are finding in watch repair shops and chinese general stores. keep at it. the work is never done.” 

would you care to join us? record your findings here.

the tall skinny tower with the beacon on top is home to the sweet boy i so dearly love…

i’m home from my blessed string of six days in new york, unpacking 89 boxes and making a nest for someone i dearly dearly love (my firstborn) on the 34th floor of a grand old art-deco tower at the bottom tip of manhattan. i miss both my boys madly (the other one is back at college), as i’m now home in the quietest of old houses, but i revel in knowing our home-grown law clerk has fallen instantly in love with the place he’s now calling home. while away, i got double whammies of awful bad news from two of my oldest dearest friends in the whole wide world, and i’d so welcome a prayer or two if you’ve a spare: one beloved friend found out she’s up against breast cancer (a second time), and another called to tell me her little sister’s cancer has crept to her brain. life sure is cruel. but as my friend with the very sick sister put it so starkly eloquently, “this is life, it’s full of suffering and ours to endure. our job is to do it with grace.”

the rare company of an especially fine book

long, long ago, the one certain place where i escaped in the house where i grew up, where i all but opened the window and soared out through the oaks, was beneath the covers of a patchwork quilt in my upstairs room where i’d hide for hours on end in the pages of an opened book.

the very architecture of a book is built for drawing you in: there’re the pages opening like spread-wide angels’ wings, there’s the tucked-in gulley where those pages are hinged to the spine, the gulley that demands ocular acrobatics, as your eyeballs make the leap from one page’s bottom to another one’s top. it’s an enclosing space, the sprawl of a book, a paper-and-glue construction akin to being wrapped in the long arms of a hug.

garth williams’ pig barn and charlotte’s web

back in the days when the books i read were washed in watercolor from the brushes of tasha tudor, or in the black ink of garth williams, i could get lost in a book from sun-up till starlight.

tasha tudor’s thumbelina

i’d wager a bet that those were the pages that imprinted on me the storybook poetries that have shaped every room of my grown-up house — the ticking and chiming of old schoolhouse clocks, windowpanes that peer into trees, birdhouses on poles, amply padded armchairs upholstered in checks, teapots that whistle, and logs that crackle in hearths.

that itch to escape — really, more of a pang or an unstoppable pull — still lures me, especially as the affairs of the world seem to crumble, as the ends of my nerves feel rubbed raw with brillo and steel wool. it might be why the walls of this old house are stacked, floor to ceiling in plenty of rooms, in tight-soldier rows of spine after spine. books are the balm, the antidote to so much of the madness beyond our front doors.

especially so is a book i tumbled into only this week. it’s a book for the soul, if ever there was. it’s a book for the tenderhearted, to which i most assuredly and emphatically admit. it’s diary of a young naturalist, by dara McAnulty, who not only is a teenager (a northern irish one) but one with extraordinary voice and vision. he’s autistic, he lets you know before you’ve come to the end of the prologue. but before he tells you that, he describes himself thusly: “i have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.”

count me as a kindred spirit.

even more so, he lets on again and again how trampled his heart often feels, how porous it is, and how solace for him comes in the tendernesses of the unfiltered natural world.

the book has bedazzled the literary world. young dara, all of fourteen when he penned these glorious pages, won the wainwright prize, britain’s blue ribbon for nature writing, for this, his debut work. that his words found their way into a book, let alone a prize-winning book, is a feat in and of itself; “quite amazing,” he writes, “as a teacher once told my parents ‘your son will never be able to complete a comprehension (a mandatory exam in the british educational system), never mind string a paragraph together.'”

well, string paragraphs he has done. has done, indeed. has done to the tune of 222 pages.

he’s been compared to the incomparable greta thunberg, perhaps the planet’s fiercest defender and an unfiltered critic of our devastations thereof. the guardian of london sang the diary’s praises, calling it “miraculous,” writing that it’s “a combination of nature book and memoir, a warm portrait of a close-knit family and a coming-of-age story,” in which McAnulty’s “simple, gorgeous sentences unfurl, one after another.” the poet aimee nezhukumatathil called it “at once a lush and moving meditation and electric clarion call to action.” reviewers, in the UK and here in the states, have heaped it with praise. “it really is a strange and magical experience,” wrote a reviewer in the daily mail, before comparing McAnulty’s writing to that of the poet ted hughes. another reviewer, one in the guardian, said McAnulty’s writing reminded him again and again of the great WH Hudson, a brilliant and eccentric nature writer “who lived with the same deep and authentic sense of emotional engagement with nature as McAnulty.”

weaving across the arc of a year, paying exquisite attention to season upon season, McAnulty drops us all to our knees, as we behold, along with him, the wonders of barn owls, cowslips, corncakes, and the summer’s first blackberries.

of the poetry of a blackbird’s morning sonata: “When the blackbird came, I could breathe a sigh of relief. It meant the day had started like every other. There was a symmetry. Clockwork.”

of dandelions: “Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from so much of the world,” he writes, “either because it’s too painful to see or feel, or because when I am open to people, the ridicule comes.”

a hidden pond: “…reflecting the sky and squiggling with shadows galore, darting in and out of the light. A convulsing mass of tadpoles, and with them the epic cycle of life, anticipation and fascination.”

springtime: “The ebb and flow of time punctuated by the familiar brings a cycle of wonder and discovery every year, just as if it’s the first time. That rippling excitement never fades. The newness is always tender.”

for a girl whose jangled nerves and galloping heart are soothed and slowed by the poetries of startling never-before-so-captured language, McAnulty is bliss by the spoonful. he describes his family as “close as otters,” and in describing a soaring white seabird he writes of “the art deco lines” of the gannet. caterpillars move “like slow-motion accordions,” and a goshawk chick looks “like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter.”

as if that’s not more than more than plenty, here are but two excerpts:

Prologue
This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change in county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was a baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family……

I started to write in a very plain bungalow surrounded by families who kept their children behind closed doors, and empty-nesters who manicured their gardens and lawns with scissors – yes, I actually witnessed this. This is where sentences first began to form, where wonder grappled with frustration on the page, and where our garden (unlike any other in the cul-de-sac) became a meadow during the spring and summer months, with wildflowers and insects and a sign that read ‘Bee and Bee’ staked in the long grasses, and where our family spent hours and hours observing the abundance that other gardens lacked, all of us gloriously indifferent to the raised eyebrows of neighbours that appeared from behind curtains from time to time.

Wednesday, August 1
We watch in wonder as countless silver Y moths feast on the purple blooms. Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion. The feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver, are shimmering with starry dust, protecting them from being eaten by our other nocturnal neighbours. I find it fascinating that silver Y fur can confuse the sonar readings of bats, and even when they are predated they can escape, leaving the bat with a mouthful of scales. And here we all are, the McAnultys congregated in worship of these tiny migrants. Soon they will make the journey to their birthplace, silver stars crossing land and sea to North Africa.

The night crackles as the storm of flitting moves off. We jump up and down and hug each other, tension leaking out. We chat and look at the sky, sparkling with Orion, Seven Sisters and the Plough. This is us, standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and relived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering stars calmed a storm in all of us.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist

part of the miracle of McAnulty’s writing is that he writes as evocatively about his neurocognitive otherness as he does about the dandelions, the otters, and the caterpillars. he is something of a spelunker into the unexplored wilds of the world seen through an asperger’s lens.

again, from the prologue, where he writes matter-of-factly:

“Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, all except Dad [a conservationist] — he’s the odd one out, and he’s also the one we rely on to deconstruct the mysteries of not just the natural world but the human one too. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, really. We’re as close as otters, and huddled together, we make our way out in the world.”

he writes, bracingly, about being bullied. about how, under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he feels “boxed in, a wild thing caged.” he writes of the foul-mouthed insults hurled his way. simply because he’s not like the others.

i’d say he’s beyond them.

reading his stripped-bare sentences, my eyes stung with tears. and in his aloneness, i felt the walls of my own heart reaching toward his. i found not merely comfort, but the rarest of company.

how blessed is the world that from his distant landscape of otherness, he makes art from life’s murkiest shadows to its patches of purest white light.

McAnulty’s latest book, wild child: a journey through nature, a multi-sensory jaunt through the wilds especially for children, was published last summer, and described as a “dreamy dive” into the natural world. he’s planning another book about his wanderings around ireland, connecting nature with myth. i’ve taken a number and am already standing in line for that one.

for i’ve found, in the pages gloriously inscribed by a boy who writes in tender tones, who sees the world in ways that make me truly see, a kindred spirit, a diarist who makes me feel safe and warmed in the clutches of this holy, holy earth.

what are the titles that bring you comfort in these trying times? and how precisely do they do so?

wilbur the terrific

sweet, sweet earth

it was gasping for air, really.

i’d loped to the garage, grabbed the crusty old trowel, grabbed my prophylactic spritz bottle of stay-away-squirrels spray, and headed out to the secret sinuous side garden where i looked for a desperate patch crying for hope. crying for something to rise up in the spring, on the far side of the harsh and impending winter.

i was armed with a battery of bulbs, bulbs in various girths, fat ones that promised me daffodil, itty-bitty wisps of bulbs who promised me the tenderlings, snowdrops and siberian squill, and those space-age globes of allium, in this case promising a puff ball of blue. as pretty a thing to bury my nose in as i could imagine.

i’d somehow gotten the itch to give back, to give back to dear mama earth what she so unfailingly offers me: tender and certain shelter, jolt of resilience, undying promise that even if daunted she’s not going away. not yet anyway. not if we can muscle the forces to cease and desist with the trashing of the one glorious blue marble long, long ago entrusted to us.

a few mornings before, amid the cleaning and clearing and worrying, i’d leapt into the old red wagon, the car that takes me wherever i aim it, and i’d motored over to the store with the rows and bins of springtime bulbs, an adventure that’s something like a trip to the candy counter, only without the threat of cavities. i’d filled my arms, judiciously putting aside the bulbs that would have cost as much as a pound of burgers. and then, when the urge struck, i’d be stocked and ready to dig, bury, and someday behold.

i’ve always found it sacramental, the dropping to my knees, gashing into the surrendering soil, shaking a powder of bulb-boosting fortifier, and then carefully lifting just the right bulb for the purpose: to tuck in for the winter the concentrated pouch of promise. the thing that looks like a dried-up onion, laying it to rest in the shadow of autumn, nestling it soft against the earth’s curve, the earth’s cupped hands, the earth’s promise: i’ll take it from here.

and all winter long, through the ice and the wind that will pound at my windowpanes, my bevy of bulbs will be silently doing their thing, shooting down roots, stirring within.

the tasks of autumn are the stockpiling tasks, the turning-in ones. slip on an extra layer of sweater, slow roast the last of the tomatoes, make them last through the long months ahead. upholster the garden with unseen but certain patches of promise.

when your heart hurts or is heavy, i’ve found, it helps to ply tender ministrations to whomever or whatever falls in my path. this week it was my paltry patch of earth. there’ve been times when it was one of my boys, one whose knee or whose heart had been banged up and bloodied. or a friend who needed little more than a hot mug of tea and an hour of listening.

but the taking care of this holy earth is bigger even than that. it’s understanding how sacred it is at its core, and in its every blessed breath. go silent for a minute or two (or three or four) and simply keep watch: listen for the mournful cry of the geese veeing the sky. watch the leaves go gold. plop yourself at the water’s edge and marvel at its infinite rhythm.

i’ve just started reading a marvelous book by john philip newell, one titled, sacred earth, sacred soul, and like newell’s earlier books, it’s an exploration of celtic wisdoms, a reawakening of the ancient and eternal truths long ago snuffed nearly into extinction. it’s a book i’ve already managed to slather with my inky underlinings, page after page.

newell, once the warden of iona abbey, a sixth-century monastery rising up from a wee island off scotland in the roar of the north atlantic, beckons us to listen for the beat of the sacred deep within ourselves and one another, and deep within the body of the earth. sacred, he writes, “is not bound by religion.” sacred is the soulful knowing, the keen awareness, that deep down in all things — in the earth, and in everything that has been born — there pulses an inextinguishable holiness. it’s our task, our holy task, to sense it, to seize it: to see it, to feel it, to honor it. to make way for it, make an altar for it, hold it up high.

my bulb-burying the other morning might have been seen as just another autumnal chore. or, through the celtic lens, the lens of an ancient wisdom shared by all the world’s great religions, it’s that i was quietly tucking in visible manifestations, reminders come spring, that what pulses deep within the earth, deep within each of our souls and our selves, is something unflaggingly beautiful. and holy. at once tender and resilient.

digging those bulbs, turning newell’s pages, brought me back to a peaceful holy calm. and i filled my lungs with pure blessed air.

what brings you breath? what’s your understanding of sacred? and how do you sense the sacred within?

anointed places

it’s as if someone’s set a buzzer that must go off at asynchronous times–could be twilight, could be the middle of the afternoon, could be on the verge of thunderclap, or the first dappled stitches of starlight–and deep inside me there is some cord that must be yanked. suddenly, i am turning toward the east, propelled to the water’s edge by wagon, bike, or soles. it’s the vast, vast ever-shifting canvas, where lake and sky, earth and heaven, never cease their stagings.

in these weeks and months when what’s bottled up inside–the worldly angst, the brokenness in all its iterations–when all of that feels so compressed, so hungry for release, relief, it’s the expanse, the i-can’t-reach-the-end-of-it of heaven’s vault that offers ablution. that rinses out the muck. and fills me once again with hope, with depth, with the unshakable sense that i am held in the very palm of God. and all that worries me, weighs me down, is drained away.

there’s the play of color, a color wheel of endless turning, from indigo to amethyst, cerulean to aubergine, and at the dawn and dusk, who’s ever behind the curtain hauls out the rosy tray, where the sky ignites in shades of flame. there’s light and shadow, too. the sky roils in charcoaled turbulence, storm churning in the distance. the sun illuminates the lacy edges of a cloud. sun and clouds and sky in eternal choreography, not one scene ever plays on rerun.

it is, by definition, an anointed place, a most holy place. a place where the nearness of God, the encircling of that infinite tenderness, pours out from some unseen vessel. holy unction, indeed.

when i was all of eight, in Mrs. Bishop’s third-grade religion class, learning all the things that make a catholic catholic, i always tripped over the one of the seven sacraments they called extreme unction. it sounded downright scary. i knew that oil was involved. i couldn’t tell you if it was safflower or olive, but it was oil, and it was poured on you in the hour of your direst need. at the cusp of dying, among other times. getting blessed with water was an everyday matter (to this day i lurch toward any holy water basin, splash fitfully and let it rain sloppily down on me), but getting blessed with oil was like calling in the light brigade. it was reserved for Serious Stuff. in my third-grade vernacular that probably meant whatever was worse than falling off your bike, or getting pushed down on the playground, when Mrs. Dolder the school nurse, pulled out that stinging bottle of mercurochrome, its iron bitterness running down your leg.

thetis anointing achilles

turns out, oil’s claim to holiness is an ancient one. it’s there in the early pages of the bible, not long after genesis. thought to be the medium through which God’s blessings are conveyed. it’s what makes a king a king, apparently. (well, that and a crown.) jews and egyptians reached for olive oil (poured from a ram’s horn). butter is the anointment of choice in hindu blessings. a newly built house is smeared with it, so too are those thought to be possessed by demonic forces. indigenous australians believed that if they smeared themselves with the intestinal fat of a dead person they would absorb that person’s virtues. (i’ll pass, thank you.) arabs of east africa rubbed themselves with lion’s fat to muster courage. and in greek mythology, the sea nymph thetis anointed her mortal child achilles with ambrosia to make him immortal. (another telling of the myth has thetis dipping achilles in the waters of the river styx, but she failed to dip the heel by which she held him. and we all know what happened to achilles’ heel).

lest i get too far sidetracked by the oily substance of anointments, let us leap back to a consideration of a place that’s anointed, even if not a slick. a place the celts would call a thin place. where the opening to heaven is so thin as to be not there. in other words, it’s where you go when you need to fall into the arms of God, or whomever you think is out there trying to hold us together.

walking along the water’s edge, dodging the tickle of the still-warm undulations, dodging the squawky gulls, it’s all but impossible not to be swept into the game of it, the deep-down child’s joy of it. nearly every time, i hear the sound of someone out-loud laughing; i look around and figure out the sound is me, it’s coming from my bellows. be it a brisk constitutional or a lazy jaunt, those sands, those waves, that sky, soak up what ails me every time.

i’ve not always been a shore girl. more often i’ve found myself tucked inside grassy coves, leaning against the rough bark of oak or cottonwood, or plopped on a log deep in the woods. i’m one for making myself all but hidden, a tiny dot, in the all-engulfing canvas of the never-ending curve of globe. but there is a singular prescriptive that comes where water plays, and where the sky can’t keep from turning. it’s a wide-out-in-the-open sort of place.

it’s cast a holy spell on me. and i’ve no intention of rubbing it away.

what’s your anointed place?

and should the woods be on your anointed list, i share this meditative walk in the woods from my wonderful friends at orion magazine. (it’s a 20-minute enchantment, sung by the Crossing Choir of philadelphia, sure to lift you to some ethereal plane.) it’s described thusly:

IN THE DEPTHS of the pandemic, when choral groups could not safely gather to sing indoors, The Crossing Choir of Philadelphia took their singing outdoors, into parks and open-air venues. Last October, they premiered a work entitled “The Forest” in Bowman’s Hill, a stand of mature trees, many over 200 years old, in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy.

During the performance, the singers, unmasked, stood far apart among the trees, their voices amplified by specially-designed speakers, while audience members walked at safely-distanced intervals along a thousand-foot path through the forest.