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Category: antidotes to madness

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

in which we all begin to live like monks

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because i don’t mess around with red-ringed buggers, i perked my ears at the first mention of this spiky-edged invader. i all but pulled up the draw bridges. all but clambered under the bed covers.

but then i decided that rather than quaking under said covers i might be wise to consider this my short-term spell in monastic living. call me brother babs.

i rise before the sun, step outside as first light seeps across the inky edge of night. drink in the gallons and gallons of birdsong. it’s ambrosial out there (a word i picked up in all my monastic reading this week, a word that aptly describes the velvety notes of interlaced and twining love songs from the trees). i don’t hear a single human-made sound, except for the far-off whoosh of a morning train, and even that is drowned against the clamor rising from the itty-bitty lungs of all the flocks declaring start of reproduction season.

i could stay out there all day, the one sure place where i can breathe. where i don’t imagine the virus chasing after me. (the grocery store i find an exercise in weave and dodge, surrounded by masses wearing masks, imagining with my x-ray vision whole crops of red-ringed dots splattered all across whatever i’m about to pluck from bins or shelves. you now witness how my days in microbiology labs come back to haunt me, how they exercise my far-too-active imagination. how my special powers allow me to see otherwise invisible objects.)

i’ve been down on my knees for good spells this week, but not so much in prayer as in scouring-the-earth mode. i’ve heard reports from parts south that spring is actually rising, breaking forth from slumber. here in the heartland, here not far from the great lake michigan (which i can hear quite clearly these days from my so-called hermitage), there’s barely a hint, though i’ve been raking back the leaves, all but coaxing vernal stirrings. unwilling to dawdle while spring takes its time, i’ve pulled out the clippers. hauled in what looks like armload of spiky sticks. but in fact it’s my annual exercise in forcing, forcing spring, all the more essential this time round, in this the corona siege. (see above.)

i have been known to leave the premises. to take a morning constitutional, to ply the sidewalks. that’s where i ran across this: IMG_1391

praise be the children and their chalk. praise be the ones who spread the gospel of faith and hope and calm.

because i believe in stockpiling but not the toilet-paper kind, i’ve been busy all week tucking away bits and morsels for your consumption here at the virtual kitchen table. i’ve clipped smart paragraphs and poems that packed a punch. here’s some of what i’ve hoarded just for you:

margaret renkl is a writer from outside nashville, now a once-a-week columnist in the new york times. this week she wrote about the balm for jangled nerves, the balm that oozes from the earth:

The natural world’s perfect indifference has always been the best cure for my own anxieties. Every living thing — every bird and mammal and reptile and amphibian, every tree and shrub and flower and moss — is pursuing its own urgent purpose, a purpose that sets my own worries in a larger context.

a few paragraphs later she wrote this: …reminds me of Alice Walker’s words: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

and then there was this: The scent of freshly turned soil works on the human brain the same way antidepressants do.**

that last bit from margaret set me off on a bit of a goose chase to dig into this scientific finding that turning over trowel really does do wonders for the soul. sure enough, i found:

Researchers from Bristol University and University College London discovered using laboratory mice, that a “friendly” bacteria commonly found in soil activated brain cells to produce the brain chemical serotonin and altered the mice’s behaviour in a similar way to antidepressants.

When they treated mice with Mycobacterium vaccae they found that it did indeed activate a particular group of brain neurons that produce serotonin – in the interfascicular part of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRI) of the mice, to be precise. They established this by measuring the amount of c-Fos in the area, a biochemical marker whose presence indicates that serotonin releasing neurons have fired.

Serotonin, also known as 5-HT (short for 5-hydroxytryptamine), is found in the gut, brain, nerves and blood of humans and other animals. There are 14 different receptors that bind to serotonin each working a different property of this highly multi-functional chemical messenger.

The friendly bacteria in this study appear to be having an antidepressant effect in a third way, by increasing the release of serotonin.

and because poetry will always be sacred text to me, because poetry has a knack for seeping into those unspoken nooks and crannies that make us who we are, i found this from one of my favorites, dorianne laux, who calls herself something of an unschooled poet, a poetess who worked as a sanitarium cook, a gas station manager and a maid before earning a B.A. at 36, and whose poetry is said to be “compassionate witness to the everyday.”

because in some ways we are all carrying the load of grief, because we all teeter on the edge of holding it together or otherwise, this poetic bit of wisdom and truth struck me hard this week. we are all in this together. the kindness of strangers just might be our saving grace. as we move through our so-called monastic days and nights….

For the Sake of Strangers

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly.  A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another–a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even

to be waiting, determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them–

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

–Dorianne Laux

because i imagine we’re a table of survivors and stockpilers of another sort, what saving graces have you stocked up on this week?

and before i go, i am stockpiling all the birthday love in the world for two of my favorite people in the whole wide world who happen to have back-to-back birthdays today and tomorrow. they are both best friends forever, and they both live and breathe the purest most radiant love that ever there was. happy birthday sweet P, and happy almost birthday auntie M. xoxoxoxoxo

may you be safe and strong in this week ahead. look back here for any particularly urgent (and delicious) morsels i find in the days ahead. i tuck them down below in the comments. we are all in this together, each and every gentle kindness our path toward the light on the other side…..

maybe we need to open the smoke hole

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there’s a siberian myth that when you close the smoke hole in a reindeer-hide tent — that orifice opening up to the sky — God can’t see in anymore. when you close the smoke hole, you break the connection to the divine — to the heavens and clouds and stars in the sky.*

when you close the smoke hole, you go mad in the whirl of unending toxic vapors.

maybe the world needs to go quiet to open the smoke hole.

have you heard that dolphins are once again romping in the waters off venice? (the oversized — dare we say obscene — cruise ships are gone.) blue skies and birdsong are back in parts of china that hadn’t seen them or heard them for years. (factories gone silent, cars parked at the curbs; pollution cut off at the knees.)

the earth, amid a pandemic, is healing. you might say it’s the soul that’s pushed its way to the fore.

have you noticed how your inbox is full of invitations from monks and museums and the metropolitan opera? a journal i love — emergence magazine — is, like so many rushing into the abyss, offering “free of charge, online sessions [that] will include: a book club that will meet online once a week, virtual fireside chats with Emergence contributors, a nature journaling course, and facilitated workshops and discussions.”

last night i joined in meditation with a monk and his singbowls at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore — along with two dozen soulful others whose faces appeared in squat boxes at the top of the screen, and who were strewn all across the continent. (singbowls originated in the himalayas more than 2,000 years ago, and the sound that rises from the mallet gliding the rim of a metallic bowl is scientifically documented to change our brain waves, and so is thought to be healing and soothing and all of those “ings” we need right now.)

the other morning i sat at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, while the priest at my church spoke of the samaritan woman during the sermon of sunday morning liturgy. last night, my priest popped in again, and mentioned that rather than singing the birthday song twice as she washes her hands, she likes to recite the jewish blessing for the washing of hands (it’s 10 seconds, so repeat twice): “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

there are many, many hours to fill in the space between stepping into my haz-mat attire and bravely boldly facing the grocery stores aisles where, more often than not, whole aisles are cleared, picked over as if a cotton field in the wake of the weevil. and so, being human, we itch to find ways to fill those hours.

i say, take this time and seize it: pick up a rake, if you have one idling in the garage or the shed. tenderly pull back the winter’s detritus, marvel at the tender green nubs insistently pushing through the crust of the earth. listen to the birdsong, now that the soundtrack of cars and most trucks (save for the poor amazon delivery squad), have gone silent.

one of my most beloved friends is teaching me, via links to websites and a vat of bubbling goo she’s promised to leave on my stoop, how to befriend that curious alchemical mix of flour and water and floating-by spores (how lovely to think of a wafting microbe as friend and not foe in these red-ringed times) called sourdough starter. there’s something eternally hopeful about the notion of make-your-own yeast, and bake-your-own breakfast.

last night, the college kid among us pulled out a board game, fired up his laptop to connect with his faraway brother, and together — through the wizardry of this wireless age — we all played round after round of word games. when’s the last time we all huddled at the kitchen table to put our collective heads together in game?

i’m making it my most important job to stitch the normal into these days, and to take it up a notch and embroider the moments with whatever delights and high-order embellishments i can muster: i’m tossing lavender packets into the dryer so clean sheets smell like provence herb gardens. i’m cracking open packets of biscuits, cranking the oven, filling the house with buttery inhalations. defrosting stews long tossed to the back of the freezer. the soul when its gasping for air is especially receptive to beauty.

and in between the attempts to make this time something of a break from the madness, i’m paying closest attention to the unbridled kindnesses, to the light that insists on seeping through the cracks.

maybe the smoke hole is opening.

maybe we’re finally noticing how hungry our souls have become. seek vigil not isolation, might be our watch phrase. don’t cut yourself off from the marvelous. from the undeniably beautiful. from the blessed.

open your eyes and your heart, the heavens are beckoning in ways never ever imagined. shabbat is upon us. uninterrupted.

enter in peace.

how are you keeping open the smoke hole?

from time to time across the week, i will bring delicious morsels here to the virtual kitchen table. you’re welcome to do the same….as we join hearts and forge on together. we will emerge and be stronger for seeing the world through new smoke-cleared eyes…..

*credit to martin shaw, mythologist and storyteller from devon, england, (extolled as “a thirteenth-century troubadour dropped into our midst”) for bringing the smoke-hole myth to my attention…..

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1905 Scientific American, documenting Siberian wilderness culture

those immutable ballasts

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super worm moon 2020, just when we needed a night light

the other night, back in the days when i was still driving to the train most evenings to ferry home the fellow working downtown, back before the red-ringed virus found its way into the glassy tower where he works, back before they–and the rest of the world–sent everyone home, the moon hovered just over the fence line. the moon—big and whole and bright in a way a screen never will be–it stopped me in my tracks.

the moon made me weep the other night.

the moon wasn’t budging. not a kerfuffle in the world could get in the way of the moon doing what it’s done since the beginning of time. and, somehow, that certainty saved me. gave me just enough breath to fill up my soul and my air sacs.

felt like it all but reached out to tap me on the shoulder (or maybe the heart), to save me, to steady me, to give me the something to lean on i needed.

there it was, at the end of a long blurry day, when schools were closing, and produce aisles were beginning to sound a wee bit risky, there it was, taking up more of the sky than i could remember. it was, to my little mind, as if God–or whatever you call the abiding holiness–had pinned it there. just for all of us to see: it wasn’t going anywhere. it had shined before over terrible times. over atomic bombs, and world wars and crusades. it had shined over riots and the night the cities burned down. the moon, and those forces that hold it in place, they weren’t going anywhere. we could count on that one thing.

next morning, just as the sun was peeking over the same horizon–endless cycle, one rising after another–the woodpecker flew to my feeder. as did the cardinals. and the blue jay. their flutterings were not interrupted; they carried on. and so should i, so should we. all of us. maybe more together than we’ve been in a very long time.

maybe, at long last, the glues that bind will come out of hiding. maybe we’ll realize the one true thing is that nucleus of goodness that lives in our hearts. maybe reaching out (elbow-bump style) will be the thing that not only saves us, but carries us onward and upward.

maybe when we’re a little bit rattled, maybe when we’re scared, we can stop all the posturing and pretending we’re not in it together. maybe it’s taking a germ to shake us free from the ugliness, from the us-versus-them, that’s been choking us. truly been making it harder and harder to breathe. maybe this is the germ to wipe out the toxins. or some of them anyway.

in the last few hours, my virtual mailbox, the one i can open without shuffling down the sidewalk, it’s been filling with words from around the world really, words that just might serve to save us, to remind us how much of a difference a kindness will make.

this from a rabbi: rabbi wisdom

this from my priest:

In this time of pandemic, I am reminded of the parts of our scriptures that speak to people who were facing the most frightening thing imaginable in their time–the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple–apocalyptic scriptures that seem hyperbolic until we too are in a frightening situation and those words of God’s providence and presence amidst crisis are somehow just the thing I was thirsty for but didn’t know it. We couldn’t have predicted that Lent would be a period of unknowing and wilderness in quite this way, but here we are; so we enter in.

right now, when we’re holed inside our houses (or at least that’s where the public health experts hope and pray that we are), when we can’t literally squeeze each other’s hands, words might save us. words are breath put to sinewy cords, words are breath that rises from lungs, from the pit of the soul, really.

words, sometimes, are those intangible tangible ballasts and vessels that break through the barrier, shatter the walls we erect. words put breath to kindness, to empathy, to saying aloud, “i’m just a little bit scared. tell me we’ll all be all right.” words carry joy, carry laughter. words make us laugh out loud–and we can use a good dose of that now. words sometimes make us weep; sometimes in the very best way because they put syllables to the truth of who we are: we’re all alone except for each other, and the one immutable force, the one unconquerable truth is that love wins, love heals, love washes away whatever needs rinsing. love binds. love travels far and wide and without the laws of physics. love is the mightiest breath that ever there was (ask anyone who’s grieving; they’ll tell you the depths of the ache and the anguish, they’ll tell you how sometimes–out of the blue–it’s an updraft that fills them and lifts them again, as if the someone they loved just swept them up by the heart).

so, for the duration of this red-ringed hiatus, let’s put those words to the business of loving. of reaching out. of checking in. of whispering soothing certainties. of making each other laugh out loud. of reminding: the force of our love, collectively, is an immutable, indomitable thing. we might be felled by a fever, but no one, no one can suck the love from our hearts or our souls. together, we rise.

just as the moon and the sun. again and again and again. amen.

if the spirit moves me in these long days ahead, i might post a few extra words here at the chair. maybe down in the comments, maybe in posts that don’t come only on fridays. these are uncharted times, begging uncharted adventures. 

how are you faring, and what are some of the words in days past that have given you hope or joy or a sure sense of belonging to the great and glorious ring of indomitable human family?

public health announcement: the surest equation to “flatten the curve” (that is slow the incline of coronavirus cases) is to minimize contact with those beyond the house where you dwell. this might last for a month; no one can tell us for certain. no need to wipe the grocery shelves clean; no need to hoard (my brother stood in a grocery line behind a woman with a cart filled with new york strip steaks–go figure!). get good sleep. wash your hands. sit in the sun (vitamin D is an immune booster). flush yourself with plain old water; try to keep your mouth from getting dry. the more religiously we can stick to the stay-out-of-crowds plan, the sooner we make it to the days of life after corona….

blessings to my beloved maureen, who sent along the words from the rabbi; to my priest, kat, who is ever wise. blessings to one of our wonderful chair sisters who–egad!–was bitten by a rattlesnake the other day, and is suffering terrible pains (and might be out of the ICU by now). may everyone who wanders by this ol’ table and chairs be safe and well, and surrounded by love. xoxo

insert (relief) here

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amid a long stretch of blur, amid headlines of “bloodbaths” at the newspaper that basically birthed the whole of this family, amid a washington moment that left me wanting for a lysol bath (in the infamous line my mother once uttered upon a trip home from a las vegas convention, the woes of the ad exec’s dutiful wife), amid deadlines that have me typing from darkness to darkness, the tall bespectacled fellow with whom i reside (aka my lawful wedded husband) casually glanced out at the snows as i motored him off to yesterday’s train. “it’s my half-birthday today,” he informed, as if that alone might be enough to save the day.

and it was, and it did, in its infinitesimal way.

the moment, which i latched onto, which i considered as i went about the eventual business of melting ice cream, hauling out a heart-shaped cookie cutter, as i sprinkled ghirardelli chocolatey chips–plonk, plonk, plonk on the plate–sliced strawberries in quarters and halves, was not unlike a wisp of a comma in a long, long paragraph of words: easily missed, but emphatically necessary (ask any third-grade teacher of grammar).

the sense indecipherable without it.

necessary, because in the seasons of life, some feel impossibly uphill; others, more feet-off-the-pedals-whiz-down-the-lane hardly an effort at all. necessary, because the human species is hard-wired for a break in the weather, a break in the onslaught. (i often wonder if that’s why God invented seasons, and the turnings therein.) and sometimes we have to decidedly, determinedly, do that–engineer the breaks–all by ourselves. it’s our job. we have to insert (joy) here. insert (relief) there. insert (closest thing to whimsy) precisely here.

my first wave of response, loosely holding the wheel, craning my neck to get a look at the half-birthday boy’s face, was to utterly melt. to be charmed that the long-standing practice in this old house of making a fuss over fractional birthdays (as recently as noting someone’s 26-1/2) had rubbed off on the tall one. he’d never before in all these years mentioned his half birthday, though it comes a mere two days before the one we’ve been noting for the last 18 years. (don’t think i didn’t try to mail half a birthday cake to faraway college…)

my second wave of response, the one that’s stuck with me all day and over the night, is the not-so-big thought that sometimes it’s up to us to take the reins of our joys, and our whimsies, and push away the worries, the angst, the unrelenting questions, for enough of a pause to let in a dribble of light.

otherwise, we go dark. endlessly dark.

IMG_1275and there’s something particularly joyful about making your joys all by yourself. home-spun joy. joy barely noticed. joy that comes from scrounging the pantry (too many deadlines to rush to the grocery). from reaching into the freezer and thinking ahead to melt the tahitian-vanilla-bean ice cream (okay, so i had to take two passes at that part when i forgot i was in the middle of melting and found myself with a pint of oozy liquid vanilla). from reaching into the basket of heart-shaped cookie cutters, pulling out just the right one. from turning the lights out, striking a match, ferrying a heart + berries + chocolatey chips and flickering candle over to the half-birthday boy.

it was the tiniest wisp of a moment–surely a comma in a long string of words (try reading without that ink swirl on the page we know as the comma). but it ushered in an exclamation mark of momentary joy. and that, at the midpoint of a year in the life of someone you love, is perfectly, positively necessary. and good.

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how might you insert (joy/relief/wonder) here, today or any tomorrow?

redoubling

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sign in a shop window on a busy street nearby

redouble re·​dou·​ble | \ rē-ˈdə-bəl \ v. 1. make or become greater greater, more intense, or more numerous; make twice as great in size or amount. we will redouble our efforts. 2. a. (obsolete) to echo back. b. (archaic) repeat.

 

dear people, these are our marching orders. and we do need redouble today. redouble. quadridouble. centidouble. be fruitful and fruitful and multiply.

be kind and kinder. be fierce in your kindness. unclench your fists, resist the urge to punch at the walls. rise above the lowest common denominator. set a new holier bar.

as i dipped into silence this morning, stared out the window at the blessed quiet of this snowfallen morning, where only the cardinal and a few of his acolyte sparrows are animating the tableau, i thought of what this day will bring, what this weekend might be steeped in. i remembered that we are a nation of vitriol at this too-long moment in time. i remembered how crushed we might feel, and how in times of feeling the hard boot heel of history pressing against the breakable bones of our ribcage, the prewired instinct might be to fight back. to wield weapons in kind.

so this is an appeal to resist and redouble. to not knock down vitriol with more vitriol. to put our faith in the longer game. to rustle up every voter you know. to drive them to the polls. bring a bundt cake for good measure. try to believe that goodness might once reign again. that we can be rinsed of this age of disregard, of indecency, of school-lot bullying. in the meantime, write a thank you note. call up the white-domed Capitol, and ask for whoever it is you want to pat on the back. tell them in no uncertain terms what a hero they are. and how you are so eternally grateful. how you hope your kids grow up to be half the hero they are. how they filled you with hope, watching, listening. how contagious their courage was and will be. how you promise you’ll pay it forward, the courage you saw in the face of unthinkable pressure.

there’s an expression–kill ’em  with kindness; i say melt ’em. melt ’em with kindness in the hours ahead. try to make sense, and let your simple acts of kindness be your foot in the door. even with tears in your eyes.

there are corners of the world, not far from our very front doors, where mercy is needed. be merciful. seek out the ones who have no one to turn to. be the face of kindness, be kindness in the flesh. listen to those who are talking into the wind. be the short burst, the certain burst, of goodness dropped from the heavens. we’re all born fully equipped. God gave us two arms so one could reach out while the other held tight. redouble your kindness. redouble your hope.

be the instrument of peace. clear a path in your world and pave it with act upon act of tenderest mercy.

some days, some moments in time, it’s our only hope.

how will you redouble your kindness today?

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prayer beads for a new year

sick dolly

tucked under the covers with a thermometer poking out of your spout is no way to start the new year, let alone the new decade. but so it is. and so i type from horizontal perspective. and so this new chunk of time — the dawn of the decade now upon us — has only one direction to go from here: up. 

as i lie and watch out the window, catching a flash of scarlet here, the squawk of blue jays there, i ponder one or two of those lists one we’re supposed to make this time of year. i can’t quite enumerate the things i hope and pray for. after all these years, i’ve boiled it all down to one more or less all-purpose petition: dear God, make me live and breathe your gentle radiant love. let me swallow the urge to be unkind. to rebuff the sharp elbow. to turn the other way when insult’s hurled my way. let me practice the zen of road kindness, refusing to blow the horn, to cut in front, not wait my turn. let me search for and offer the benefit of the doubt. let me try harder not to roll my eyes. (let us institute an apologia for hurling F bombs at the telly when idiots blather on, and on, and on….) let me stop the rumor here and now. not partake of gossip in any way, shape, or form (no matter how juicy). 

these are the sins of the everyday. the little molehills that make for mountains, for a continent-wide topography of pain, of bitterness, the sharp and invisible line dividing “us” from “them,” that makes enemies of those whose stories we never stop to listen to. 

let us traffic in tiny knots of kindness. exercise empathy. imagine how it feels to hurt so much, to be pushed aside, to be left alone on the side of the playground and never find a friend. imagine never letting go of that hurt.

imagine what would happen if one morning you woke up and found yourself inside a life where ego vanished. where someone noticed the glimmer in your eye had dimmed. imagine if someone quietly inquired: are you all right? did someone hurt you? imagine a world where we listened instead of trying to talk over each other. imagine if the ones who take up all the oxygen in the room realized there are others with thoughts to offer. imagine those rare few souls who live to scatter sunshine, who make us laugh till our bellies ache. imagine the miracle of the ones who always think two steps ahead, anticipate our hurt, offer tender loving comfort without folderol or trumpet. 

imagine the quietude of saints who walk among us. 

practice, practice, practice. 

forgive yourself on the days when your brokenness shows. forgive your stumbles. say “i’m sorry.” say it to yourself. 

and just as emphatically, consider a litany of be’s: be curious. be imaginative. be not afraid to dabble in whimsy. be willing to put yourself out there. be humble, so humble. carve out time each and every day to plug into the immense wonder of the heavens and the earth. traipse a meadow, a prairie, sandy dunes. follow a trail into the woods. count the stars. realize how small you are against the infinite canvas of the sky. seek wisdom not from picture shows or airwaves, but in the pages of texts — ancient and otherwise — pulled from bookshelves. deep-dive inside a poem. make a friend in an unlikely place. reach beyond your borders. 

make peace.

these are the prayer beads i carry into this new year; these are the petitions i press against my heart. 

this is how i walk into this new year. once i get up and out from under the blankets and the nyquil. 

what petitions might you bring to this new year? 

counterpain

i am praying extra extra hard for the world this morning. i fell asleep to news alerts, and wake up trembling at the shaky state of global affairs. when we pray for peace, we mean it with every cell of our being. oh, dear God, where is the peace we are meant to bring to this world? let it permeate from each of us. let us double-down our promise to live and breathe it….

something of a christmas-y diary (and a book for the soul)

church door

’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.

christmas early morn

christmas quiet

i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.

yorkshire puddin boys

yorkshire pudding elves

before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).

i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.

i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.

christmas chairthis must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.

i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.

christmas platesso for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).

i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.

here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.

Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith

pilgrimage cover

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |DEC 24, 2019 

In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)

It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.

Aha.

Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.

Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.

“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.

Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.

A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.

Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.

That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.

Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”

And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.

He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”

Egan aimed high, and he reached it.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’

By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28

what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?

my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism

IMG_0615

you might have noticed. it’s hard to miss. over the airwaves, on the streets, even at your neighborhood checkout aisle: pugilism is rising to intolerable levels. i blame the bully in chief. have spent months now in my head composing the letter i would like to carry to washington, read on the capitol steps. just little old pewter-haired me, politely hollering at the top of my lungs: stop all the insidious idiocy. stop all the name-calling, the bullying, the devilish tricks. cease with the stomping down hallways and stairs, slinging god-awful descriptors on decent and honorable human beings. stop pummeling this one blessed earth. leave all the children alone, nestled by the sides of their mothers and fathers, where they belong. practice decency. exude kindness. invoke gentle tenderness. start behaving like there might be a tomorrow. imagine your deathbed: these are the moments  you’ll at last call to mind. are you wincing? are these the ways you want to be remembered? a toxic trail in your wake?

it’s toxic, all right. a drip, drip, drip of toxicity. some days, more of a deluge.

my ever practical, commonsensical mother has five words of advice: turn off the damn tv!

i do, more than i used to. first few years of this siege, i admit i was glued to the loud little box. couldn’t take my eyes or my ears off the madness, praying it would end. just kept hoping against hope we could all go back to our quiet neighborly ways. might welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. maybe even pick up the trash that litters the woods and the waterways.

nowadays, worn down to the marrow, i find myself building what amounts to a fort, a tall wall of defense. literally. my house is piled with books. they rise up in teetering towers all over the place: kitchen counter, window seat that looks out on the trees, floor and chair and desk in the itty-bitty room where i write.

i read to escape. but not in the way of bodice-ripped beach reads. i read to remind myself that the way of this world, of this moment, is not the only option. i read the masters: thoreau and merton and hildegard of bingen. rilke and c.s. lewis. i read newfound saints and poetesses: jane hirshfield, margaret renkl, timothy egan. i carry them wherever i go. they are my talismans, my shields against attacks of the soul.

i read lines like these, from anita barrows’ preface to rilke’s book of hours: love poems to God:

…suddenly it occurred to me that God created the world because he was lonely. He needed it — needed the ripeness of autumn, the bright air, the sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk through linden leaves that were yet unfallen. God had created all this, and us as well, to keep him company.

or this, from minnesota’s poet laureate, joyce sutphen, from her brilliant collection carrying water to the field: new and selected poems:

Some Glad Morning

One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
dark as coffee beans.

The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.

It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.

or this, the very first sentences from c.s. lewis’ a grief observed:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

or, finally, this from my brilliant friend mark burrows’ (and jon sweeney’s) meister eckhart’s book of secrets: meditations on letting go and finding freedom:

What do you think?

That God has abandoned you,
especially now?
What person sees a friend
in sorrow, pain, or loneliness
without encouraging,
without being near, present?
Don’t be foolish, my friend,
God is here.

how do you build your wall of defense? what are the bricks in your wall?

(p.s. in part, i included the bit on grief because friends here at this very table are suffering terrible griefs, loves lost and achingly so. please, remember them in your incantations. the whole of c.s. lewis’ classic, grief observed, by the way, is one that goes a very long way toward healing a brokenness, or as lewis’ stepson writes in the introduction, “it will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.'”)

i missed the moon

missed the moon, so gillson

…not just any moon, the great warrior orb of autumn, the hunter moon. round and orange and overwhelming, like a dreamsicle melting from the night sky. and i missed it.

well, at least i caught a peek, the skinniest sliver of a peek, as i was darting here or there or nowhere.

but it takes some work to miss the moon that bathes the world below in luminescence. i must have been holed up inside a world of worries, of syria and betrayals and beheadings. i must have been nursing the tender spots of a mama who’d just packed up her youngest and dropped him at the jetway that would carry him 300 miles from where i’ve doted over him all these years.

in the house where i grew up to miss a moon — or a cardinal, or a loon, or the frog’s croak rising from the pond across the way — to miss any of the sighs and moans and spectacles of god’s creation was what amounted to a sin. in my mama’s book of rules, anyway.

you daren’t let on that you were too busy with your nose in the news. or worrying about the dustballs under your bed. too distracted to notice was not allowed. or so’s the truth as i absorbed it.

chased in part by guilt (a guilt that unlike the moon never ebbs), but even more so by an unquenchable thirst, a sense that i’d strayed too far from the thin-spun silken thread that ties heaven to earth to what passes for my soul. if i missed the moon, the great wide-cheeked nightbeam of october, i wonder what else i’d missed, what stirrings of the earth that were sure to launch my own deep-down stirrings, remind me of my own still small place beneath the immensities of the one who’d carved us — and all creation — from the depths and heights of divine imagination?

so i strapped on my sturdy walking shoes, and found myself crouched down low amid the grasses that swish and sway against the sand mounds, the ones that catch the wind off the lake, and rustle as do the faithful in the pews when sabbath comes.

i sank low and lower, not to hide so much as to immerse myself in lowliness. to drench myself in the posture of humility, of raw-edged vulnerability so necessary for reverence.

to behold the miracle of heaven above and all around, i find i need to grow small and smaller. ours is a world of oversized ego, oversized hubris, oversized oversize. the bigger the better. except, quite frankly, in matters of the blessed. to be willing to hear the holy whisper. to find satisfaction in steady footfall, one after another. to partake of the arithmetic of saints, by little and by little, by little acts of kindness, of courage, of hope. to relish the infinitesimal, the dew drop of the dawn, the twilight song of the red-bird preacher on highest bough, the flutter of the heartbeat when love swoops down, wipes away the loneliness, the ache of the empty vessel.

i stayed long enough to walk the beach, playing catch-me-if-you-can with rippling waves. i walked and watched the roiling sky. charcoal gray, i find, is supremely lovely up above. it portends drama just ahead. and, indeed, when raindrops came in dime-sized plops, i picked up my pace. ducked beneath a maple tree whose boughs had just been daubed by autumn’s crimson paintbrush.

i inhaled a quart or so of morning vapors. filled my lungs, my heart, my soul with God’s most necessary ingredient: quiescence, the underlay of all the richest risings, the prayers that wend their way past worldly noise, the ones that from the deepest stillest dancepoint of our earthly selves ascend. to there, where prayers are heard, even in their wordlessness. and the One Who Hears echoes in kind the blessing, sating us in ways no other ever will.

how do you drink up all the holiness you crave? where’s your deep down quiet place?

gillson row of trees