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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: antidotes to madness

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.

it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…

in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….

well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.

so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).

one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled my belief: essays on life and art.

hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:

Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…

Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.

I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!

These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art

he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.

the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.

and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.

i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.

i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.

for this i pray.

what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?

*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….

days of deepening…(awaiting that which is decidedly fertile)

this fine dragonfly landed — and stayed — just outside our front door this week. the dragonfly*: “symbol of change, transformation, self-realization; it teaches us to love life.”

sabbatical (adj.)

1640s, “of or suitable for the Sabbath,” from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos “of the Sabbath” (see Sabbath). Noun meaning “a year’s absence granted to researchers” (originally one year in seven, to university professors) is from 1934, short for sabbatical year, etc., first recorded 1886 (the thing itself is attested from 1880, at Harvard), related to sabbatical year (1590s) in Mosaic law, the seventh year, in which land was to remain untilled and debtors and slaves released.

Sabbath (n.)

Old English sabat “Saturday as a day of rest,” as observed by the Jews, from Latin sabbatum, from Greek sabbaton, from Hebrew shabbath, properly “day of rest,” from shabath “he rested.” Spelling with -th attested from late 14c., not widespread until 16c.

The Babylonians regarded seventh days as unlucky, and avoided certain activities then; the Jewish observance might have begun as a similar custom. Among European Christians, from the seventh day of the week it began to be applied early 15c. to the first day (Sunday), “though no definite law, either divine or ecclesiastical, directed the change,” but elaborate justifications have been made. The change was driven by Christians’ celebration of the Lord’s resurrection on the first day of the week, a change completed during the Reformation.

The original meaning is preserved in Spanish Sabado, Italian Sabato, and other languages’ names for “Saturday.” Hungarian szombat, Rumanian simbata, French samedi, German Samstag “Saturday” are from Vulgar Latin *sambatum, from Greek *sambaton, a vulgar nasalized variant of sabbaton. Sabbath-breaking attested from 1650s.


sabbatical. the word bathed over me like cool water to a banged-up knee, aloe to a sunburn, a waft of lavender to the nose. my eyes swept across its four short syllables; they draped me like a balm.

sabbatical, the word itself soothes. each sound jumble tumbling softly into the next, a somersault of sound rolling off the tongue. it’s a word that seized me, and instantly made perfect sense. as if it had been calling out, awaiting my attention.

i believe in sabbath, by my definition “anointed time,” time to dwell in the sacred, to burrow into the nautilus of our deepest stirrings. 

time to be quiet. time to ponder. time to be alone with one’s thoughts, to see where they course, to discover the rivulets and the river stones under which they seek shadow.

for too long now i’ve felt i was uttering sound when silence might have been the wiser course. we are a noisy nation. too noisy. the sound of silence might be the wisest one for recalibrating so much of what’s amiss on this cacophonous planet.

especially now, after a homegrown tornado of a year here in this old house — of illness, death, distress, and mountainloads of worries — i hear a deep-down shushing, the call to be quiet. say little more. offer silence, the most generous of invitations in which each one of us is untethered, unconstrained, our thoughts our own to trace as far or near as we so choose. 

so many friday mornings i’ve sat down to write with a dyspeptic sense that i might be barging in, the noisy guest who doesn’t know her exit was welcomed hours ago. sometimes, though, i sat down unsure of where i’d go, and suddenly i’d find myself plumbing some eddy i’d not realized was still water awaiting stirring. 

and now, after so many hollowings (the cavernousness that comes in the wake of heartache), and with a thick batch of editing about to drop onto my laptop lap, it seems a fine time to tiptoe quietly off to the riverbank, where i’ll keep close watch but watch in silence.

i’ve been at it, straight, for 1,027 posts, and i would have paused at 1,025 but then dear ginny neared her end, and i was drawn to leave her mark here, at the table where she so dutifully pulled up a chair week after week after week for all these almost 15 years, always hoping for a few threads that might have unspooled with the doings of her grandsons or her son. (not long before she died she asked me to print out any of the chairs she might have missed, but she only wanted ones about the family, she specified, “none of that religion or nature.”)

to be on sabbatical is not to curl up in a ball and doze for a van winkle-style snooze. it is to read, to learn, to exercise curiosities and follow trickles to their source. sabbatical, in agricultural terms, is to leave a field unsown, to give it air and time to grow fertile again. consider me in fallows. seeking the fertile will be my task. 

i’ll be back once i feel a stirring again, once i think there might be a thought, an observation, a story worth leaving here at the table that’s become so sacred over time, sanctified by our gentle kindnesses, our willingness to listen, our back-bent humilities. 

in the meantime, there’s a trove here to peek around. but mostly, there is life to be lived at full attention, and from the bottom of my heart, bless you, and thank you, for stopping by whenever you feel so stirred. 

xoxox

bam

one last summery salad to send you on your plein air picnics….

homegrown cucumber, fennel, corn, red pepper, and basil leaf salad

serves 1 to 4, depending how hungry you find yourself

salad:

chop to your heart’s content: 

1 or 2 cucumbers (preferably, plucked from the vine)

1 fennel bulb (plus a few fronds)

1 ear fresh corn

1 red pepper

fennel fronds, to taste

basil leaves, a good handful

can be chopped, covered tightly, and chilled ahead. 

dressing*:

1 Tbsp. dijon mustard

1 fat garlic clove

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)

3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

4 to 6 Tbsp. olive oil

basil leaves chopped

fresh ground pepper

*really, i wing it with measurements here, but i am adding rough approximates for those who like a little precision at their chopping block….

mix dressing ahead of time, let steep all day. 

shortly before serving, add dressing to chopped salad, mix with freshly chopped basil leaves and fennel fronds; toss.

savor summer on a fork.

***

*the dragonfly, according to hindu teaching, is a “symbol of change, transformation and self-realization. it teaches us to love life, to rejoice and have faith even amidst difficulties.” be on the lookout for your dragonflies…..

a question to ponder: how will you rejuvenate your soul in these deepening days of summer?

p.s.s. don’t be surprised and please don’t roll your eyes if i come back sooner rather than later. soon as i think i’ve nothing to say, i might think of something to scribble before it escapes me….

another friend who landed here last friday morning and hovered through the weekend…

the algorithms of life in all its speeds…

some weeks, it feels like the crank on the faucet is wide open and what comes surging forth is akin to fire hydrant velocity. it just keeps coming, the news, bad and good and all in between. this was one of those weeks where i could barely steady myself between one and another. it started with a phone call, early monday morning, from an emergency room. someone i love was calling, crying, needed me and needed me fast. that’s pretty much all that mattered this week. but of course it was only the beginning of the cascade of 1,001 other thoughts, decisions, realities.

somewhere in there good news came too. and somewhere in there i got my second Moderna COVID vaccine.

seems these long months of COVID, of unnatural tethering to dorm rooms and home turf, of worries that you’ve been exposed, of navigating degrees of caution and leniency, it’s worn most of us ragged. i worry most about kids whose lives are disproportionally filled with histories of dark american chapters: kids born in the shadow of 9/11; kids who might never live a valentine’s day without remembering parkland and the unending video of high schoolers with hands over their head filing out from the building once the coast was clear, helicopters ominously hovering just over the school rooftop; kids who’ve now spent two years of college looking over their shoulder, submitting to swabs up their nose every few weeks, kids with no clue of an all-campus party.

sometimes i wish the world would break forth in birdsong, in pastel petal, in tenderly unfurling leaves. sometimes i wish we could breathe all that in, feel steadied, feel braced, feel fresh air in our lungs. isn’t it genius, then, that should we bother to look out the window, should we bother to lace on our shoes, it’s all right there, ready to take our worn-ragged selves and fill us with those quiet healing balms that stitch us together again?

we need this springtime, and the summer that follows, the slow, steady summer, the season of indolence. we all need a break from the rush and the roar of the news and the heartbreak.

we need to all catch our breath. and stockpile joys for a minute or two.

because this poem always rights me, i offer naomi shihab nye’s “kindness”….

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

how do you steady yourself in the weeks when the hydrant is gushing?

abominable winter

excuse me if i sound grumpy today, though i do think it’s fine to know that moods come in all sorts of colors. and my color today is grumpy gray. i might be suffering a slight case of the housebounds, in which we’re more or less stuck in the house thanks to the veritable stalactites of ice that have formed just above our front door.

to enter or exit by way of the ice cave is an obstacle of death-defying proportion. there’s the dripping from way up above, and the stoop where you’d step is a sleek sheet of bone-breaking ice; the buckets we’ve plonked there under the drips seem to fill by the hour. i fear the leaking to come once the layers of snow begin their unrestrained melt—but that’s getting ahead of the worries (a particular knack i’m not proud of).

we’d be utterly stuck in the house if not for the snowman i married, who courageously set out across the tundra to get to the store in his snow boots, trekking down the middle of streets, the only path cleared by the snow plows. he saved the day, yes he did, when he ferried home 10 pounds of ice-melting salt.

after a day of gently and safely making some headway, i decided not to leave well enough alone. i decided to get in on the act, ignoring the fact that my bones are quite thin and quite brittle. and for reasons that now escape me, i decided to bang on the bucket of ice with my fist. one swift thwack and i realized quite clearly my ignorance. 

as i sit here typing with ice pack wrapped round my wrist, and a makeshift splint holding it tight, i’m scanning the forecasts for any degrees higher than freezing. since typing makes me wince, and i’d best store up for the pages i’ve yet to type for that book in the works, i shall once again make short of it here, and leave you with a sure cure for the housebound blues (or the grumpy grays, should that be your color of choice).

once upon a healing soak, a do-it-yourself hot-water escape…

try this: fill your tub with the hottest water your naked limbs can take, plop in a few shakes of DIY bath salts, instructions courtesy of an old homesteader below. dawdle there till your skin wrinkles like raisins, or you feel your mood starting to lighten (whichever comes first). if this doesn’t work, play polynesian tunes, and sway in your towel, as if on the beach on a faraway island.

you’ll need: 

  • ½ cup epsom salts
  • ½ cup sea salt
  • ½ cup baking soda
  • 10-15 drops of essential oils (find variations and formulations below)

mix the epsom salts, sea salt and baking soda together in a bowl. add your essential oils. rule of thumb here is 10 drops per cup of the salt mixture, so in this case you’ll need15 drops of whatever your essential oil. use less if you like things on the milder side.

scoop it into a jar with a lid; any washed-out vessel will do. save the extra for your next gray or blue day.

now, a few essential oil concoctions for your DIY bath salts; take your pick, depending on whatever it is you’re after, a little tranquility, petal-soft skin, or the chance to take a deep cleansing breath:

tranquility blend:

10 drops lavender oil

5 drops vetiver (the oil of tranquility, apparently)

a blend for petal-soft skin:

5 drops lavender oil

5 drops frankincense

5 drops palmarosa

  • you could use 10 drops lavender + 5 drops frankincense if you don’t have palmarosa on hand.

deep-breathing blend:

10 drops eucalyptus

5 drops tea tree

i could be coming to you next week from an ark, should these bergs start to melt with alacrity. in the meantime, do tell of your cures for the deep-winter blues.

inaugural promise

photo by Jason Andrew/NYT

“we must end this uncivil war…”

as soon as his breath propelled those words across his lips and out into the snow-flecked january cold, i inscribed them on my heart. i hadn’t quite framed it that way, in those four words, so profoundly, so poetically, so imploringly. 

and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the wise old soul whose very fiber has been forged in the white-hot furnace of grief compounded by grief, he all but unbuttoned his coat, pulled back his ribs and showed us what burns in that cavity: “my whole soul is in it,” he said, as if speaking to each and every one of us, as if elbows were plopped on our very kitchen tables, eyeballs gazing at eyeballs, mugs of coffee just off to the side, instead of there in the sunlight and shadow of the nation’s capital. then he all but whispered it again: “my whole soul is in it.” and that’s when i whispered, “mine too.” 

having just witnessed — from the edges of our seats — how close this fragile experiment in democracy came to crashing into splintered bits, having lived under a poisonous cloud of daily assaults on decency, straining to stay steady, to keep from being sucked under in the shifting quicksands of moral decay, of a nation under the false premise that license had been given to spew venom from the checkout line to the capitol steps, i am more certain than ever that this is not a one-person parade. if we stand a chance of shoving this moment in time toward the light we claim, toward the peaceable kingdom we believe is possible, well then every last one of us needs to get to work, to chip in, to put one foot before the other in a slow walk toward mercy and justice for all.

my inaugural promise is this:

i will cloak myself each and every day in humility and gentle spirit, the surest vestment for the hard and holy work ahead. for months now i’ve tiptoed in the darkness to my kitchen table where i’ve lit a candle and whispered the words of confession. “most merciful God…” i begin. “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

i will not reflexively shut my ears, close my heart, turn my cheek the wrong way. i will hear them out, whoever it is. i will try, oh i will try, not to leap in with my insistent retort. not to interrupt. not to wield the sharp sword of assumed superiority, not think that my way is the right way, and all else is wrong. i will try, i will try, to step into the other guy’s shoes. to imagine the hurt, or the fear. to look for a gentle way in, to open just a little bit wider the doorway to some common ground. even if only fraction by fraction.

i will actively step into kindness. into imagining the unexpected waft of goodness that might just turn the tide of someone else’s dark day. i will model the thousands of kindnesses that have come my way — the sacks of apples left on my stoop, the tray brought to my hospital bedside, the steaming hot chicken pot pie once delivered on an arctic cold night, to name just a few. 

i will carve out time even amid the whirlingest of days for whoever taps me on the shoulder, looks me in the eye, and whispers, do you have a minute? 

i will — in some way, shape, or form — seek out foreign terrain, the realm of those who might be quick to dismiss me: too white, too old, too left-leaning. and begin with the light-seeking questions: what keeps you awake at night? what do you dream? what brings you joy? what makes you cry? where does it hurt? who do you consider to be the most heroic human you’ve ever known? and how so? what’s one act of kindness you’ve never forgotten? 

because i realize my impotence for change-making at the structural level, i will pinpoint one not-for-profit effectively working toward solution — be it reuniting children separated from parents at the border, or ferreting out all vestiges of racism and bigotry from the nooks and crannies of america, or protecting wetlands from the ravages of greedy exploitation — and i will commit to shaving off a dollar here, a dollar there from my weekly spending and send off occasional bundles from my consciously set-aside sum.

photo of Amanda Gorman by Patrick Semansky

but even more than dollar bills, the currency i commit to this campaign is the craft i ply each and every day: mine is a calling to words, words as instruments of peace, words as the silken thread that weaves together uncommon hearts, words that open doorways into long-locked corridors. as the beautiful and blessed national youth poet laureate amanda gorman so perfectly put it in the wake of her inaugural poem: “words matter. we’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated.” she sought, and i seek with her, to “reclaim poetry as that site in which we can repurify, resanctify the power of words. and to invest that in the highest office of the land.” to invest that in every office of the land, elected and otherwise. from the humblest foot soldier to the commander in chief. and to that, i say amen, amen. 

we must end this uncivil war. and my whole soul is in it. 

what’s your inaugural promise?

looking for the light

maybe the reason i lurch myself out from under the layers of flannel and cotton, and sometimes wool, in the inky hour before the light comes suffusing through the trees off to the east, is so i can tiptoe out under heaven’s dome in the dark, so i can train my eye on the spot where the sky first hints at what’s coming. the spot where we get to the part of the story where it all begins again, where the sun rises and the light creeps up and through the sky, like a wine spill to a white linen napkin.

it’s that first crack of light that always thrills me; the moment right before, when you wonder if really it will come again. and then–so far, anyway–it does. and you can check that worry off the list for the day.

maybe that’s why papa cardinal is always out there too. maybe papa is keeping watch on the sun, making sure it does its job, does what’s expected. maybe papa’s the sentinel of dawn, the one charged with letting us know if there’s ever a day when the sun sleeps in. so far, hasn’t happened. but always good to have someone in the lifeguard chair.

so this business of keeping watch for the light to creep in, it’s a skill that comes in mighty handy. i’d call it essential for the human spirit in dark epochs. which this sure seems to be. if you keep watch on the headlines, anyway. if all you count is the sweeping arc of the narrative, the parts where the death toll mounts day after day, where the holy relics of the “citadel of liberty” were shattered and smashed and carried straight out the door and down the capitol steps, steps that have given me goosebumps every time i’ve so much as pressed the sole of my shoe to their age-worn edges. the part where the soundtrack is so hateful you wonder if you’ve woken up in rome just before the collapse, or vietnam in the middle of an ugly war. or germany. or the boston harbor before the tea went in the drink.

so pretty much the only thing worth doing right now is looking–hard as you can–for the teeniest sliver of light coming in through the cracks in the door.

because i happen to keep close watch on the doings of our nation’s capital, because i sometimes see it as a laboratory of human character–who’s got a spine, who’s got a heart–it tends to be one of the places where i gather my evidence for how much hope might be worth counting on. i promise you i look broadly, across party lines. if i spy decency in human form, if i hear a tale of heroic-level goodness, if i see someone rise amid a sea of protest to say, “i’ve scoured my conscience, and here is the truth, guided by timeless moral code,” i listen up. pay close attention. get ready to take a deep breath and start all over again. rather than collapsing in a moment of utter moral depravity and defeat.

so happens, it was there just yesterday that a little bit of hope came trickling in. well, more than a little. and it wasn’t actually in washington where i spied it. it was off in what’s now become the staging area of a presidency to come. over in delaware, where, on a stage all bedecked in blue, i saw a man who shook himself from his grieving a couple years back because he felt a call to restore the soul of america. and i saw him explaining to a nation (quietly, in not-fancy words) why justice for all matters so much, so deeply fine-grainly much. and then i heard him say who he trusted more than anyone to press his shoulder against the long arc of justice to try to muscle it toward where martin luther king jr. and saint john lewis and barack obama promised us it would bend. and i watched merrick garland, a man who might have spent the last five years with a really bitter taste in his mouth, i watched him quietly, humbly, step to the podium and consent to the task. i watched him agree to step into the arena where the blood stains of injustice are soaked deep into the floorboards, where the pile-up of truths need hours and hours of sorting through, and i saw something like light out of the far corner of my eye.

and that’s not the only place where i look.

i look right here in the nooks and crannies of my little life and i find slivers of light coming in from the oddest angles. i find light where i hear the things my college kid remembers to add to his litany of prayers right before dinner. i find light when a brother i love leaps out of his own sack of worries to bedeck my birthday with nothing short of an explosion of joy. i find light in the pages of old, old books on my shelves. and, sometimes, not so old ones.

these are the lines i’ve recently tucked in my “words and lines worth keeping” file (it’s the third of three such files, because i tend to find many many words worth keeping):

“God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” Martin Buber

“‘When the evening of this life comes,’ says St John of the Cross, ‘you will be judged on love.’ The only question asked about the soul….‘Have you loved well?’”

“Each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.” St. John of the Cross from Daniel Ladinsky. Love Poems from God.

‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

and, because i am feeling a wee bit queazy here this morning, i’d best sign off, and ask where do you find the light creeping in?

turning the page…

before the light on this new year falls, i am bent at the old maple table, prayer unfurling. the incense simmers on the stove, an extra fat star anise tossed amid the tumble in my spice-stocked pot. i am straining to fill the air with those few pure things, those hopes, those determinations that this year — this nother round of possibility — might bring, other than the cinders we’re shooshing out the door.

i’m no fool, been knocked around enough to know that there’s no prestidigitation in all the world that will suddenly wipe clean the slate, cast all sin, open wide the barn doors for all those gentle kind and tender things we espouse.

but i’ve not lost hope, not every shred. and in finding the words of dear alfred lord tennyson on my doorstep here this morning, i am reminded that in the archeologies of time, strife is the stuff of human existence. it’s always been a battle of forces — of evil versus noble, of stingy versus bountiful, of cruel versus the world those gathered here do believe in.

tennyson, deep in grief at the ringing in of the new year after the death of his dearest friend in 1833, wrote these words in his great elegy, In Memoriam (in sum, tennyson’s masterwork is 133 poems — or cantos — in one), beginning canto CVI, or 106, “ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky…” and he went on to implore a rinsing, an ablution that rings eerily in echo of the now:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

and in the last lines of this canto, tennyson implores:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land…

i sign on with tennyson. and believing in simple math — that the smallest increment adds to the aureole of goodness spilling across the undulations of our lives — i commit to baby steps.

sometimes, that’s the hardest truest place to begin. it gets us in the craw of who we are, and muscles up against who it is we aim to be.

so, in part, here goes:

i commit to shrugging off the unkind tone, the odd stumble in a conversation, not garnishing it as ammunition for a cockamamie theory that that someone never liked me in the first place, and thus it’s fair for me to assume defensive posture next time round. i commit to taking a deep-down cleansing breath and resolutely ringing the doorbell of the neighbor who seems to flinch from human contact, delivering without need for words a tin-wrapped loaf of kindness, or whatever seems the wisest gentlest peace-bridging offering. i commit to looking the lost, the hurt, the invisible, in the eye. i commit to picking up the phone, even when i’m dishrag tired. i commit to listening. and i commit to going first when i’m sorry are the words so needed.

if we want a world unlike the one hellbent on taking over, we need be the ones in the trenches. the ones who won’t retreat, relent, surrender.

i’m not talking sweeping social change, or abrupt reverse of course in the global policy department. i’m not so equipped. not steeped in all the necessary tomes for such bold move. i have figured out my place in the chessboard of this life, and i am all the more determined that it’s the fractional advance, the barely perceptible softening of the heart, the extension of the hand, the saying, i see you, i see your pain and i am here for you to lean on, i am here to embolden you, to put courage to your conviction. i am here to sit beside you, for however long it takes.

the daylight is up now, casting faintest shadow on the snow. it’s taken me that long to scroll the annals of my heart, to fix my spot on the map of the new year now upon us. more than anything, as the news pings roll in, as i hold my breath for the days ahead, as i pray the world begins to tilt in the favor of goodness, truth, and, yes, the deepest mercy, i turn to the heavens, i fall to my knees and i echo the good lord tennyson, ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand, dear holy blessed Adonai, ring out the darkness of the land.

light is what we beg for. light is what we need.

let us be the wicks you spark this day. and the next and the next….

what might be the baby steps to which you commit? no need to write them here, but in your hearts, perhaps?

archipelagos of calm amid a roiling sea

ar·chi·pel·a·go /ˌärkəˈpeləˌɡō/ noun

noun: archipelago; plural noun: archipelagoes; plural noun: archipelagos

  1. a group of islands. “the Indonesian archipelago”
  2. a sea or stretch of water containing many islands.

early 16th century: from Italian arcipelago, from Greek arkhi- ‘chief’ + pelagos ‘sea’. The word was originally used as a proper name ( the Archipelago ‘the Aegean Sea’): the general sense arose because the Aegean Sea is notable for its large numbers of islands.

alternative definition: calmus interruptus, in which rocky protruberances, barely discernible in dimension, arise from roiling fluid surface, providing flash of terra firma before which desperate swimmer loses grip, plunges once again into tempestuous sea — alone, afraid, intent on staying afloat. sanctity provided, ephemeral at best.


we turn to the mapmaker’s lexicon — complete with dictionary definition and etymology — because it was the faint and far-between dotted line of rock piles (aka the archipelago) that leapt to mind as the fittingest metaphor for an otherwise nearly indescribable heap of twists and turns, as i tried in vain to keep from keeling over amid this week’s drama of near historic family proportion.  

it went something like this:

round about the middle of tuesday, the geography of my interior life morphed suddenly and without warning from restless squatting on the shores of big-enough occasional islands of calm (the sort where you might slow your breathing for as long as five-minute stretches, and in which you might temporarily put at least a shred of worries to the side) to swimming breathlessly through an archipelago of tiny anxious island dots, each one offering maybe a moment’s lull before the waves kicked up again. before i found myself paddling madly to not go glub-glub-glub.

while awaiting the biopsy results of brother No. 2 (see last week’s news), beloved brother No. 3 up and had a heart attack. a real one, a not-so-small one. oh, lordy. (i only have four brothers, so these odds are getting stiff.)                                                

brother 3 — four years younger than me, the father of two young and glorious children — had called mid-afternoon that day (as ordinary as a tuesday might be when awaiting a second biopsy of someone you dearly love), wondering what to do about a terrible case of heartburn, a dyspepsia he was blaming on the banana pepper and hot sauce he had tucked into his lunch and the preamble pot of coffee that had started his until-then ordinary weekday. next thing we knew — and i mean within minutes — there was an ambulance and ER, swiftly followed by OR and days in ICU, all deeply laced with prayer upon prayer. 

and i mean hard-knees-against-the-floorboards prayer. the highest octane of beseeching known to this prayerful sister. 

as of this writing, brothers 1 and 4 are idly sitting in their homes, where they’ve been instructed to not move, not lift so much as a pair of scissors for fear of fate tap-tapping at their wintry windowpanes. 

quite frankly, i’ve found it hard to breathe at various twists and turns in this wildly unspooling narrative. i was reportedly circling room-to-room-to-room the other afternoon, muttering, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” in more exclamatory than prayerful tones. (and i was not previewing the Christmas story.)

a mere week ago, i was finding episodic solace in simple kitchen tasks — slicing onions, plucking cloves. this week, that all went whirling out the window, and i could not have cared less if we swallowed air for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

there is only so much adrenaline one’s itty-bitty fight-or-flight pump can spurt and swoosh through veins. and i’m about to call a truce, to leave my shaky nerves stranded on some unassuming island. which is where the archipelago — or interrupted line of splintered refuge — comes in. 

cling is the more appropriate verb in describing my posture when, amid hyperventilation or dizzying projections down the pot-holed road ahead, i catch my breath via one of my ever-shrinking litany of soothing balms. (hot bath; hot bath; hot bath.)

we humans do seem to have a godly bottomline default, a trapeze net for those stretches of our lives when all hell seems to be breaking from the quiet room where we try to keep it handcuffed to the chairs. in those rare quiet spells, when i might be sitting in the dark watching the dance of the candle flame, or folding one lone shirt from the dryer, or glancing toward the moon while taking out the trash, i find my inner gyroscope settling still. i manage an in and out breath. i might even think of something that makes me laugh. (gallows humor is a saving grace; brother 3 mentioned in a text from the ICU that, after a weekend conversation about Faulkner, he’d requested “As I Lay Dying,” from his local library. and then he drolly mentioned “it awaits me now,” fully acknowledging said gallows. God bless his never-ceasing wit.)

the reprieves were short, so short, the fractions of a minute when breath was caught, when fog of fear fugaciously lifted. the rocky seas between made it seem i might not ever get there. might be swallowed whole by swirling waters, pulled down by stubborn riptides.

i’ll get through this tight passage, as we always have before. but, oh my, this december at the start of the twenty-first century’s third decade…it’s a doozy. 

here’s hoping we return soon to more quotidian rumblings round the chair. 

i mean not a word of this lightly, and fact is, the palpitations just beneath my ribs have not yet quelled. i seem to have twisted myself into a knot of nerves that, as the author of a tome on stillness, is making me feel a wee bit silly. i am employing all my stillnesses, and for the momentary peace they bring, i am deeply deeply grateful. my brothers and i are deeply blessed to be so close, to march through life (especially of late) arms locked and bent into whatever winds we face.

all i need now is for child No. 2 to turn in the last of his string of finals, to prowl the Christmas tree yard for the humblest branches on the lot, and to await the word that things are taking turns for all that’s good and blessed and ripe with hope.

i wish the same for you.

when you’re at wits end, what wraps you in a cloak of calm?

counting my way: a centenary of thanks in the making, prayer shawl for hard times

a few years ago — i thought it was three, but in fact it was six — i stumbled into the making of a gratitude list and found myself counting to 100, which made it a centenary of thanks. i fell in love with the word, of course, and the notion of reaching toward a number so high it took concentrated attention. simone weil, of course, tells us that attention is the launch pad of prayer. only she says it more poetically. she says this: “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

pádraig Ó tuama, the brilliant north ireland peacemaker and poet, says this about prayer: “i do love praying. like prier from french, ‘to ask.’ and what i love about that word is it doesn’t require belief. it just requires a recognition of need. and i think the recognition of need is something that brings us to a deep, common language about what it means to be human…”

and so, this year especially, when the wounds are deep, and the fears shimmer just below the surface, the sacred act of weaving ourselves and wrapping ourselves in the shawl of a gratitude litany — prayer purled — seems not only wise but necessary. surely an armament against the cold winds that will not abate.

i begin with the woods. i’m drawn there first for its tabernacle of sheltered silence, for the stirrings so faint you can hear tree trunks creaking, as if old bentwood rocking chairs, who let out a bit of a pinched and arthritic cry as they bend in the wind, rub hard against their fallen brethren.

i begin with the light there, the way the shadows play. one day dappling the leafy floor into odd-shaped checkerboard geometries, the next day diffusing the whole — the undulations of rises and hollows, the tangle of vines still holding tight to their berries — in a radiance that might be a kind of mystical halo.

the woods, a grove of old-growth oaks and a tumble of decades-old anonymous stumps, runs along a canal just a short ways from my house. i’ve taken to wandering there, squatting myself on the logs and the stumps that seem like children’s play blocks strewn from a leviathan’s toy chest. i listen and watch. a prayerful pose, if ever there was.

the litany of gratitudes tumble into my notebook, for i always carry a notepad and pen. these days, the woods are just about the holiest place i know. a tabernacle tucked under the trees.

the woods, it seems, are a fine place to sit in a time of pandemic. you might traipse through a meadow. or plunk in the sand and the sharp-bladed grasses along the lakeshore. or perhaps you’ve a river that bends, that offers up its whispering current, that serves as your launch pad for prayer.

these are the places that pay no mind to the cacophonies of the world, to the political banshee cries, to the ungodly images from inside the ICUs where breath itself verges on the impossible.

i turn, in times like these, to those carved-out holy places of God’s making. the opening in the woods, the prayer pew along the river bank or the lake’s soft edge. under the great star-salted dome of the night sky, just beyond my kitchen door.

but i might find holy altars even on the inside of my old house. at the cookstove, most certainly. that place where i stand, stirring, intermingling my incantations with the steam rising from whatever’s bubbling. call me crazy, but for me cooking, cooking for the ones i love, is nothing short of a prayer. sometimes i get lost in the launching of my litanies, and i wind up more or less burning my prayers. i’m rather infamous around here for my long record of burning the broccoli.

all this seems to be a circling around of the centenary itself. i’ve yet to get to the counting here. so perhaps the wisest thing to do is to slow count this year, to make it a week-long practice of paying simone-weil-level attention.

i’ll have an abundance of grist here: a boy i love is coming home from college, clear till the first of february. he and his papa will be motoring across the farmland of the great buckeye state, soon as we get the green light, soon as the precautionary COVID test comes back from the lab, with nary a worry.

the table this year will be sparse. only three of us. with our most essential fourth far beyond the reach of my hand, too far. but blessedly he won’t be alone.

we’ll partake of the traditional thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, only we’ll be stationed outside. on her sidewalk, perhaps. or in the circular drive. and there won’t be any picking away at the turkey platter at her house. nor even the swapping of slices of pie.

but i promise i will make it to 100, cross that prayerful line of demarcation (i wouldn’t want to call it a finish line, as that might imply a stopping, and i’ve no intention of doing so). perhaps you might choose to play along. perhaps you’ll count to 100, too. weave your own centenary. if there are turkey trots galore this time of year, those early-morning chases down pathways and lanes, a preamble calorie burn to make room for more stuffing, there might just as well be a numerical exercise in the petitions department.

i will leave you with the breathtakingness of our friend pádraig Ó tuama who wrote this about prayer, in an essay entitled, “Oremus,” which means, in latin, “let us pray.”

“…let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. let’s lick the earth from our fingers. let us look up and out and around. the world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. let us pray.”

i invite you to pray to one hundred….

blessings and blessings upon us, in these hours of blessing to come….

even if you don’t count to 100, perhaps you’ll pay closer attention to the petitions you hold in your heart in this blessed season of gratitude. but i will see you here next week, with my centenary in hand, or rather at heart…where, and with what, will you begin?

p.s. that tepee above is a little miracle i stumbled upon in the woods yesterday. an architecture of sticks, gathered from the heap pile of fallen limbs. it hadn’t been there before and so it stirred a thousand questions: was it something for a boy scout badge? are there still children who play in the woods? was it some ancestral lodge in the making, a place from which smoky petitions might rise?

oops! i forgot that i was thinking of leaving a little something here. the other night there was a “book launch” for Stillness, and given these pandemic times, that meant a virtual gathering. so, from the cozy confines of my kitchen, we all gathered robustly. AND the wonders of technology made an instant recording, which you can click any time to play along. here’s the key to get in! (just click the word “key” and it’ll magically open the door)