across the years, i’ve been swept into the river of an ancient time. i wear it, almost, like a prayer shawl. wrap myself in its silken threads. inhale the sweet spice rising up from earth’s release, as summer breathes its final breaths and autumn rushes in.
it’s in the morning air, the chill that makes me pull the covers tight round my shoulders; it’s in the thin bronze light that casts its amber shadow, long across the floorboards. it’s in the withering of the garden, the last green tomato clinging, holding on for just another ray of sunlight. will it turn before the freeze?
all around, you can feel the shuddering of season folding into season, of the turning of the prayer book page.
when the new moon, in its indigo darkness, rises tonight, a holy people — the blessed jews — all around the globe will spark the first flames of the new year’s light in the kindling of the rosh hashanah candles. i will strike the match at this old house. and only two of us will bless the light, the wine, the spiraled raisin-studded challah.
we need the new year prayers more than ever, this gasping year. the burned-out brokenness is everywhere, the globe (or vast acres of it anyway) is shrouded in ashes, a more fitting metaphor it’s hard to imagine.
hope though comes in prayer — and, spine-tingly, in the science that tells us there are forest pines whose seeds can only burst new life when exposed to flame. may our prayers be those forest seeds.
prayer, for me, has become something of a force field. we fire up our deep-down jet-pack of incantation; we might, some of us, fall to our knees (a posture sure to super-launch those prayers, to propel with oomph through all the turbulence along the way). we do our part, our lowly simple part. and we realize that the more of us who fire up our prayers, the more fiercely, more mightily we put forth our voices, we just might forge an opening in heaven’s door, and our petitions — our saying we are so so sorry for the state of things, our vow to spend our living, breathing hours in pursuit of all that’s good, that’s holy — might find the way to the heart of the God to whom we are praying. it’s a collective effort, really, an all-out, all-of-us campaign to light the light, to open up the spigot of holy goodness, to let it rain down on this parched and burned-out earth.
there’s an ancient teaching, taught by long-ago rabbis and mystics, that in the beginning the light God made was so blindingly bright, it burst out of its vessel, and the shards, the sparks, the bits of flame sifted down to all creation — not unlike the embers raining down in all the smoldering forests, maybe. and from that shattering of the vessel came the first and holiest instruction, the one to carry all of humankind from that day forward: seek the shards of light, look deep into the souls of each and every someone you meet, look into the morning’s dew and the constellations strewn across the heavens, look where you least expect to find the shard, and in those places where you can’t help but see it.
and when you find it, when you gather up the bits and shards, bring your light harvest to the table, where we will all lay down our gleanings, where we will stand back and marvel. in awe. in awe for what we’ve all done, all on our own and all together. in awe for all the light that’s here to be pulled from the shadows and the darkness. in awe of how luminous it might be.
awe is what these days are called — the holy days of awe — in the great and holy tradition that unfolds at the cusp of the jewish new year. from tonight’s setting of the sun and the rising of the new moon, clear through to ten days from now, on the day of atonement, we stand in awe. we marvel at the light, holy light, that’s mustered from all the cracks and broken places in this still-holy, ever-holy earth.
it’s how we heal the world, how we make it whole — tikkun olum — repair the broken shattered world. it’s God’s command. and we begin to sew it whole with our prayer, our harvest of the light, and our undying awe.
will you join the prayer collective, do your bit to scrounge up shards of light wherever you go today, and tomorrow, and every day after? will you bring your bits of light to the shared table, so we can all of us stitch together the whole cloth of incandescence this broken world so deeply desperately needs?
and by bold i mean one something, anything, in the name of bending that stubborn arc of justice. by bold i mean do one certain something today — maybe even within the next hour — that you otherwise wouldn’t have mustered the will or energy or courage to do.
feeling the full weight of what we’re up against in this world that is not letting up in this long hot summer, so many mornings feeling knocked back, feeling impotent, frozen in the face of injustice, in the wake of sirens and spilling blood and streets chaotic, i turn — as i so often do — to the words of dorothy day, who in turn had leaned into the holy wisdom of therese of lisieux, the little saint who preached a spirituality of “the little way,” to mine her everlasting, every day truth:
From Therese, Dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured might ease the burden of others….We could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. It was all a matter of faith.
Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg
it’s a place, and a way to begin, for us little people, the ones of us who know full well the real battlefield that calls us every day is the one not too far from our front door, the quotidian one, the one whose players we might know well or not at all. the strangers within our reach. the ones who might be taken wholly by surprise by a sudden gust of kindness, out-of-nowhere kindness. the ones who might find courage a little bit contagious, who might pick up the pieces and pass it on.
once upon a time, stoked by pictures of starving children from biafra, fueled by the stories in time magazine i’d take to my room to read when no one was watching, i used to dream i’d cure world hunger. i imagined i could lope the globe, fill bellies, spoon unicef gruel into mouths open and hungry, like little birds.
it hurts plenty to shed those dreams, to watch them wither away, to realize you were pie in the almighty sky, and some crazy fool besides. what gets tough, gets real, is to station yourself squarely in the middle of your humdrum life, to look out across the landscape, and seek the moments where you might infuse your own cockeyed brand of dorothy day’s little kindness, little strength, little courage.
this bedraggled world needs every bold (but little) drop.
i plopped myself on the couch, there as the pink and the gold drained from the summer sky. as the burning bulbs of the night sky turned on, i stayed glued. i was drinking in a nectar i’d almost forgotten. almost gave up for lost.
i’m talking about hope, a balm and a necessary human ingredient, one missing in action these last many heartbreaking months.
hope, for me, came on strongest in moments from names we might never remember, but whose words, whose stutter, whose message, whose moment, we’ll never forget: a kid who stutters but went on anyway; a little girl whose mom was taken away, leaving behind two little girls and an ex-marine dad who feels deeply betrayed; a security guard whose everyday job is ushering important people, people who more likely than not leave her feeling like little more than a conduit, a necessary ellipses from point A to point B, mostly invisible. but not the man she was there to nominate for the american presidency. he’d made her — in the couple of minutes it takes to ride from a lobby to an executive suite — feel seen and feel heard. feel unforgotten, un-shoved aside.
it’s a very fine line, the line between hopeless and hope. sometimes we barely notice it draining away. get used to the feel of walking around with boot heel to belly. sometimes it’s only in its trickling in again that we realize how long and how deeply we’ve missed it.
i plopped myself on the couch not as a student of partisan politics but as a student of human decency. an ardent student. one who just might take it too seriously. it’s a lesson i remember my grandfather teaching me. at a gas station on a hot summer’s day in southern ohio. my grandfather, in one of his buicks, maybe the old riviera, with a stash of grandkids packed in the back, had just spent the day with all of us at an old-fashioned place called coney island, a paradise of roller coasters and sno-cones and hot dogs slathered in mustard. my grandpa needed gas for the old guzzler, and back in those days that meant someone was there to pump the tank for you. while the gas guzzled in, my grandpa got out of the car, carried on with the fellow pumping away as if he was a long-lost best friend and lifetime associate. the man pumping gas was black. my grandpa was white. it was southern ohio in the 1960s. we were old enough to know that not everyone would play out the scene as it played out before us. and then my grandpa slid back behind the wheel, turned his gaze just over his shoulder, peered unblinkingly at the whole flock of us, and in less than ten words preached his everyday gospel, the one he lived till the day he died. i can’t remember the exact words, but the point was the same one inscribed in every holy and sacred text that ever there was: be your brother’s keeper, love as you would be loved, live and breathe undying compassion. and the way my grandpa said it, he meant we’d better not ever forget it.
the big-eyed, pigtailed little girl wedged between brothers and cousins on a sticky summer’s day, i pinned the words to my soul, made of them my divining rod, every day forward.
which is part of the why my tank has felt emptier by the hour in the america of recent history. every single day yet another brillo pad to the soul, yet another mocking of someone. yet another ugly volley of words. i’ve been withering under the weight of it. and running out of oxygen. or so it started to feel.
and so, this week, i tuned in not knowing what or how it would all unfold. i feared it could sputter and fumble. i’d gotten used to the taste of dejection.
what happened was, moment by moment, as if someone had wedged a fulcrum under my heart and my soul, i felt myself rising, inch by measurable soul-filling inch. testimony of kindness after testimony of nearly invisible someone being seen, being plucked from the margins, being called in pure goodness by cell phone late in the night. it was a four-day crash course, a reverse course, in human kindness. in decency. in resilience. in reaching down deep and pulling out our very best selves.
frank bruni, a writer of bold and beautiful strokes, wrote this this morning:
Look at America right now. My God. We’re hurting like we seldom hurt. We’re quarreling like we seldom quarrel. We’re exceptional in our death count, in our divisions. It’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s hard to press forward.
the life of one of the men america is now considering for the highest office in the land, bruni went on to write, his “life is a parable of resilience.”
and goodness and kindness is the mortar tucked into the brick walls of that life. and goodness and kindness — in intimate moments and in sweeping policy revisions and advances — is the mortar this crumbling country needs. especially now. especially as the death toll has mounted unfathomably, “exceptionally.” especially as kids and teachers — from kindergarten to college — are scared to death to go back to their classrooms. especially as the virus of incivility — of outright murder born of blind hatred — has spread like a cancer that can’t be removed.
lessons in resilience we could use too. resilience is a commodity we can never have too much of. we’re a people who stumble, a people with knees that are more than scuffed up. we could use a good dose of remembering how good we can be at picking ourselves up from the dust. those banged-up knees? they straighten, stand back up again, almost as sure as they sometimes fold under us.
which brings us back to hope.
hope is the thing i’ve found wrung from the landscape of late. i almost forgot what it was to not get crushed by every day’s news. the human spirit devoid of even a whiff of hope is a sorry pile of ashes and soot. we don’t do well as a species when we can’t make out even a flicker of light making its way through the murk.
and it doesn’t take much — not more than the certain whisper, pressed against our ear or our heart — to perk us back up again. to put the wind at our back. the story of an unstoppable stutterer. the unstoppable bravery of an 11-year-old girl who told a whole nation — and the president who leads it — “you tore our world apart.” the unstoppable kindness of simply being seen and heard and recognized in the short whisk of an elevator ride.
we can be a people of hope again. we can be a nation that trades in kindness, stands up to bullies, reaches our arms in embrace. we can be our very best selves.
that’s what i remembered again. that’s what i learned this week.
a disclaimer: i promised a long time that i would keep this a space free of partisan politics. and so i didn’t tread lightly into today’s meander. i entered into this arena today as one where the message i was mining for was not one of political discourse, but rather an exercise in mutually agreeing that hope and goodness are necessary commodities in the national discourse, especially now as we are staring down the oncoming fall and the fears of a spike in coronavirus, in the face of so many uncertainties. hope is our divining rod. hope is the very thing we need to carry us into the light, just peeking over the dawn’s horizon…..
my voice is only one whisper. my fingers, just one at a time, tap along the rows of these keys without sound. but the lump in my throat is ready to burst. and my heart is too.
stop the ugliness, world. stop the hate. stop the made-up lies and the mudslinging. tear yourself away from the impulse to tromp on the neck of the one you perceive as your enemy.
doesn’t need to be this way. doesn’t need to be a national throw-em-to-the-lions.
the world doesn’t need to wake up every morning searching for the ugliest route to the trail head.
there are moments, plenty of ’em, when i picture myself marching to the steps of the u.s. capitol, unfurling a parchment, invoking a code of radical decency, insisting the ugliness cease and cease now. oh, what i’d give to back some of these fools into a corner, to poke em on the chest, look em in the eye, and ask if really, really, they want to expend their God-given breath on slicing and dicing each other to bits, trampling truth, teaching children the ways of the playground bully.
i got sick of bullies back in first grade. never outgrew my distaste.
all these months i’ve retreated deeper and deeper into a realm where the rules of the world are not the ones with discernible weight. i dwell much of the time in a monastery of my own making. it’s quieter there. and gentler. i take time for the monarch butterfly, leave out saucers of sugar water, scatter seeds for the milkweed that makes for a butterfly landing pad.
in the quietude i wrap all around me, the rules i live by are the ones of an otherworldly iconoclast. the code is the one inscribed by a God who asks only one thing: love without end. love as you would be loved, love every last inch and ounce of creation. behold the wonder. of each other. of the monarch. and the dawn. and every last shimmering light in the night sky.
and, sometimes, to love means to put breath to the words that are stuck in your throat. to march to the capitol steps, to reach for the microphone, to try with every ounce of your might to shake sense into the senseless. the ones dizzy with power, or the pursuit thereof. it’s a sickness and it needs to stop. it’s as contagious, it seems — and as deadly — as this invisible virus, the plague that’s upon us. maybe more so. maybe it’s worse.
because once upon a time i was a nurse, because i’ve stood at the side of a hospital bed in the hours just before a last breath was drawn, i know something of deathbed confessions. i know how, at last, the veils of the everyday are pulled away, and what’s left is the essence. holy essence. how the sins and the glories float to the surface. how one last sweep of the soul, of a lifetime, is what carries us off to whatever comes next.
our time here is fleeting. do the ones breathing fire and lies, do they really want to fritter away the hours allotted? is that churn in their belly the only way they know to crawl from their beds? is bitter the singular taste of the day?
the choice is quite simple: make of your life an instrument of peace, of goodness, of attainable holiness. or let it extinguish in smoke and in flames, in pride and deceit, in ugliness out-of-control.
we make our choice minute by minute, day after day.
what will you choose, world, what will you choose?
if you were writing a code of goodness, decency, and gentle kindness for the world, what would you inscribe? what would constitute breaking the law?
mothers reach for what they need. mothers reach for amulets and gear, paraphernalia and patron saints, to protect their children. it’s an impulse as ancient as time. and will go on till the end of time. of that i am certain.
a mother’s wiring drives me, has driven me now for the better part of 28 years, ever since the doctor told me, incontrovertibly, with the swishing heartsounds of the sonogram echoing wall-to-wall across the darkened tiny room — nine months after the heartache of losing our first — that a life stirred within.
ever since, my first and last impulse, above all, is to keep him safe. to shield life and limb, and cranium too, from incoming assault, be it playground invective, asphalt bike path, high-speed hardball, or any of the fully-pictured atrocities that have played — and replayed — in my too-colorful head.
it is dystopian, at least, that this summer i’ve found myself clicking “buy” on a two-pack of plastic shields, the better to keep the red-ringed virus at bay when a boy i love is flying hither and yon, criss-crossing america at altitudes of 35,000 feet. tuesday night, he dons it for the second time, as he flies from JFK to PDX, that’s new york to portland, oregon, about as long a flight as the american continent offers.
and PDX is where the impenetrable helmet comes in. ever since i started reading reports of unidentified federal forces cruising portland’s downtown streets, driving unmarked vehicles, plucking protestors from sidewalks, stuffing them in vans, without word of miranda rights or where or why on earth they were taking them (leaving some to fear to god they were literally being kidnapped by bands of who knows who), i started thinking about helmets. about what my firstborn might put on his not insignificant head to keep it from getting bashed with the wrong end of a police baton, or any other unidentified thrashing implement.
mind you, it’s not that i worry my firstborn will soon be leaping into the late-night protest. it’s that he’ll be walking to and fro to work. to and from a federal courthouse, as it so happens (though not the one at the epicenter of all the melee; his is the other federal courthouse, two blocks north and west). and in this american summer, in a city besieged by federal forces wielding tear gas canisters and “less-than-lethal” (thank god for modifiers here) weapons, a mother starts considering the selling points and perqs of various impenetrable protective head gear.
which is utterly dystopian, improbable in any other summer than the one that is the america of 2020, a year decidedly not clear-focused. and it makes me think of the litany of mothers who through time have had to send off sons and daughters, who’ve awaited letters, answered the ominous knock at the door, as my own grandmother did, when her son was killed in a midnight ambush on iwo jima. it makes me think of the south side chicago mothers who cannot count on the windows of their minivans to shield the incoming bullets, the ones killing toddlers — even babies; a five-month-old shot just last week in old town — strapped in car seats.
there are mothers weeping across america, across this globe, and the tears seem endless, are endless. will the weeping and the wailing ever, ever end? do we stand a chance to finally stanch the sorrow?
mothers shouldn’t have to plot the surest bullet-free path to school. nor which playlot might prove lethal. children shouldn’t have to spend their summers behind closed curtains, in the corner of a room farthest from the picture window, where crossfire could soar in. mothers shouldn’t have to lay awake nights imagining the phone call, calculating how long it would take to race to the ICU bedside. mothers shouldn’t have to hear the click of the coffin closing.
this is no easy summer in america.
short of searching the internet for plastic shields and bash-proof helmets, we’ve got work to do here in the land of the brave and the free.
america is crying. are we listening? are we doing what we must?
and those my friends are the questions, the imperative questions: are we listening? are we doing what we must?
we are all — all of us, red states, blue states, striped states, star-dappled states — strapped into this unplotted, unprecedented, unpredictable pandemic roller-coaster ride (*aka “COVIDcoaster,” a term introduced to me by my brilliant friend amy). the season of COVID, long past its toleration date, is gearing up for a wallop. or so it seems as summer cranks up the heat, and what’s ahead grows hazier.
we seem to be lurching upward and off-the-charts at breakneck speed, as if some giant-sized foot is pressing the proverbial pedal to the floorboard.
at this old house, the summer feels a bit like a COVID chess game. us v. the invisible virus that takes our smell and taste away. i need to put on speed dial a beloved ER doc friend of mine, the one who answers every inane puzzle and quandary i conjure. (and, believe me, i conjure.)
just this week, boy No. 2 found out his best friend’s sister — and another dear friend’s cousin — had tested positive — fever + sore throat, the sweet girl’s symptoms. of course, boy 2 had been out hitting golf balls the two previous nights in a row with her brother. and, to double the trouble, one of those nights he’d taken a long sidewalk-straddling walk (without masks), with the COVID girl’s cousin, who’d just gotten back from a week of sharing a summer cottage — and a bedroom — with the newly diagnosed one.
from the minute boy 2 got the news — at the end of a hot sauna of a day mowing grass and chopping trees for the park district — he had his KN95 mask strapped on so tight it musta made it hard to breathe. he insisted on eating his dinner on the far side of the kitchen, a good 12 feet from the rest of us. and he holed up in his room as if protecting me from nuclear fallout. just now, as he loped out the door for another day of tree-chopping, he triumphantly announced his test (taken yesterday afternoon at one of those one-day testing sites) just came back negative, as did his best friend’s and the cousin’s. halle-holy-lujah! i’m thinking it was a close-enough call to maybe add an extra 20 seconds of hand washing to the regime from here on in, though the perceived invincibility of teens prompts me to hedge that bet.
then there’s boy 1: the one who is here, asleep under this very roof, spending his days studying for the bar exam and waiting to move to portland, oregon, where a federal clerkship awaits. you might think — with five scheduled cross-country flights and two separate moving crews, a new job, new apartment, and that bar exam — that we set out to plot the most complicated itinerary imaginable in the age of COVID (though we assure you we did not). as it stands now he is due to fly back to new haven on monday, where the first of the two moving crews will crate every last fork, spoon, and tome in his law school apartment, and ship it all oregon way. the plan had been to come back here for the duration, till it was time to meet the movers in portland, but with the COVID charts skyrocketing in the exact wrong direction, we ditched plan B. and have moved on to plan C in which the poor kid will wait it out for 10 days in a stark empty apartment (save for the old lumpy mattress he is not moving), fly new york to portland, meet the movers, and then — drum roll here for the most mind-bending part of the plot — fly four-and-a-half hours back to chicago to take the bar exam, which in itself is a legal petri dish of COVID waiting to engulf the entire law school class of 2020. the geniuses who plot bar exams are currently planning to stuff 2,000 illinois test takers into a ballroom for two long days at the start of september. some of those test takers, like our very own, will be fresh off airplanes, having flown into chicago for the exam. others, waiting to take the exam before they can start drawing a paycheck, might well be inclined to go ahead and take the test even if, say, they can’t smell a thing, feel a wee bit hotter than usual, and might have started sniffling or coughing. how this is allowed to happen is beyond me, but then it’s the COVIDcoaster, and we are all whipping around the course, bracing ourselves through all its undulations.
so i do what i do best: i worry the night away. i pony up for the higher-cost health insurance, haunted by visions of the kid sick as a dog and turned away from the best hospitals in town if he doesn’t flash the right insurance card. we canceled the plane ticket on the airline that no longer keeps the promise to not fill every seat on the plane, and grabbed a new one for an even-longer ride on a plane that promises a few inches more breathing room. and we are leaving the kid to sleep in an empty apartment for 10 days — all because we’re haunted by the very real fears that COVID is a fire-breathing, smell-stealing dragon that’ll come up and nab you from behind.
meanwhile, we watch germany and south korea mostly trot back to work, no longer so encumbered by this awful terrible invisible virus.
by the hour, awful terrible numbers are flashing before our eyes — cases climbing, death rates certain to follow.
and those of us who swear allegiance to masks and 75-percent isopropyl alcohol hand sanitizer, we begin to wonder when, oh when, will it end? and who of the ones we love will be caught in its vice — snuffed out, or left with lingering scarring for who knows how long?
it’s enough to wear you down, and wring you like a soggy rag. we’re weary of all the lysol-wiping of every last milk carton. and navigating the variations of rule-following among those we love is no summer picnic. (i’m among the self-avowed scaredy cats who takes tony fauci at his every last word; if he tells me to mask up and not share even a fruit bowl among friends, i’m wearing two masks and lysol bleaching like nobody’s business.)
it all makes for strange times. surreal times, really. but, thank God, we are — so far — living to tell about it.
and in the meantime, i’m baking.
here’s the latest summer joy from the cookie jar, and they couldn’t be easier. four ingredients, stir, scoop, press flat, await the slightest gilding of the coconut edges. then watch ’em fly.
almond joy cookies
these wicked little coconut cushions, studded with semi-sweet chocolate and bits of sliced almond, are what happens when your favorite grocery store peddles a similar confection at $5.99 for five of ’em. because those pricey little mounds are practically inhaled in this old house, i was determined to make ’em myself. a bit of prowling around the internet, my cookbook without end, led me to these, courtesy of some lovely someone named trish on momontimeout.com
she writes: “These easy Almond Joy Cookies take just four ingredients and don’t even require a mixer! No beating, no chilling, just mix ’em up and throw ’em in the oven EASY! You’re going to love these ooey gooey fabulous cookies!”
Prep Time: 5 mins
Cook Time: 12 mins
1 14-oz bag sweetened coconut flakes
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup chopped lightly salted almonds (trish used Blue Diamond Low Sodium Lightly Salted – light blue bag, but i couldn’t find, so i used sliced almonds and added 1 teaspoon salt)
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk regular or fat-free works
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a large bowl combine coconut, chocolate chips, almonds, and sweetened condensed milk.
Stir until combined.
Scoop out dough with a cookie scoop onto prepared baking sheet.
Moisten the tips of your fingers with water and shape into discs. Pat the tops flat.
Bake cookies for 12 to 14 minutes or until tips of coconut are just starting to turn golden brown.
Let cool on baking sheet.
Store cookies in an airtight container.
Parchment paper is critical for these cookies to turn out right. Silicone mats, waxed paper, etc. will yield a slightly different result.
chime in andspill your COVID-coaster stories. do tell. misery loves company. and by now we are all worn thin from the red-ringed worries.
(p.s. i am not making light of one drop of this, merely recounting with a journalist’s eye the absurdities of what the summer’s bringing….)
this moment in america is one that won’t be bracketed by a solitary summer. this is one of those moments when first the rumbling comes, the thrumming down below our soles. and then the shift begins to come, tectonic shift (or so you pray). wake up, america. it’s been too long now. all of a sudden the rush of history — long overdue, long overspent in costs of brokenness, of cruelty, of gravest injustice — it’s washing over us, washing something from our eyes.
maybe we will see now.
maybe, beneath the din, beneath the shouts and shattering of glass, we will at last hear the whispers and the cries. it’s been too long now. far, far too long.
this summer reminds me of the summer when i was 11. i remember riding in the front seat of our wood-sided station wagon, stopped at a red light, when the news came on. i heard the word assassinate once again. this time, bobby kennedy; last time, only months before, martin luther king, jr. assassinate is an ugly word. a word that scares a kid. a word that makes you freeze inside your bones, a word that makes you afraid to breathe, not sure where or why all these bullets seem to be soaring through the darkness, piercing people’s brains. it’s a word i’d heard too often in the first half of 1968.
in the summer of ’68, america took to the streets. in this, the summer of 20-20, we’re at it once again. we should be. what we’ve seen is wrong, and ugly, and violent. and shattering. imagine — just imagine — what we’ve not seen. that scares me. really scares me. leaves my heart — yours too, i’m guessing — in shards. leaves me — you, too? — gasping.
i’m not so much a take-to-the-streets kind of someone. i’m more turn-the-page and pound-on-heaven’s-door. i inhale words to rouse my soul the way others pound the pavement. i feel a deep-down curdling, a rage, when i read the words of poets who are witness to the unimaginable. i wipe away streams of tears. sit motionless, not breathing, when i get to the end of a line that’s just shot through me like a rock to the side of the head.
the transportive power of poetry — its capacity to draw us into the kitchen where the shouting comes, or the bedroom where the wailing rises up, or the street where blood is spilling — it’s what moves me. its ugly truths can mark me for a lifetime, scenes and moments seared indelibly, ones my eyes and ears have never witnessed but which, nevertheless, i’ll never shake.
maybe that’s why — when i got an email the other day from a most beloved poetry professor of mine, elisa new, creator of Poetry in America, now a public-television series, i read these words so closely, considered them instruction for this long, hot summer ahead. maybe, too, for you.
this is what lisa (who is also a professor of american literature at harvard, and something of a polyglot of poetry and poets) wrote:
Protest is the voice of the people, elevated and offered to society at large. The protests we are hearing fulfill art’s, and especially poetry’s, greatest function—which is to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain. The opposite of hearing the human voice is denying, muffling, strangling its cry: that is what we saw with deadly and literal explicitness in the murder of George Floyd, and in the appalling murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. Killings committed by deputed servants of the public good implicate the public, and they require us to reckon with the full gravity of what these acts represent. Their stain is on us all, and any institution, large or small, that endeavors to serve the public good must accept its own responsibility, and review its own past failings, in an effort to do better.
The voices we hear on the streets of our cities right now are doing as poets [since before the American founding] have done: decrying injustice, asking for redress, but also: telling the particular stories, naming the particular names, with every city and region and neighborhood now being brought to account by its own residents. On these streets, as on the page and in songs and performances, what we are now hearing is not abstract. It is the sound of people mustering language in its highest forms for the largest civilizational ends.
And so in the work of 20th century poets such as Claude McKay, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and June Jordan, and in the work of so many writing today—Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Evie Shockley, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May, Clint Smith, Joshua Bennett, Kendrick Lamar and so many others—Black American poets have continued to carry what Langston Hughes, seventy years ago, called “a heavy load”—of “dream[s] deferred” and plain truths denied.
“…to make human beings truly audible to one another, to let them hear one another’s humanity and take in one another’s pain.”
the power of poetry. of witness.
in the spirit of gathering up a cadre of page-turning protestors, of dialing up our capacities for empathies, i’ve begun to gather something of a 20-20 summer reading list. any of the poets named above would be a place to begin.
but i turn, always, always, to lucille clifton, a poet who doesn’t believe in upper case or think much of punctuation, but whose words might never ever leave you. here are but two that leave me breathless….
and, then, there is claudia rankine, whose words will push you to the edge of your chair. the place to begin would be her 2014 citizen: an american lyric, voted the book — not the poetry book, but the book — most likely to endure in the literary canon of a decade from now by the literati at literary hub, a virtual public square for bibliophiles and word junkies of every stripe. the good folk at LitHub wrote of citizen:
It is a special hybrid of a book, part poetry, part critical essay—the book won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and was a finalist for the same award in Criticism—making use of screenplay form, screengrabs, art, and iconic pop culture images. It is a complex assessment of racism in contemporary America, on both a micro and macro scale, addressing Rankine’s own experiences, as well as stories of Serena Williams, Zinedine Zidane, stop-and-frisk, President Obama, Hurricane Katrina, police violence—the whole heartbreaking, embarrassing litany of examples of American prejudice, or at least as close as we’ve gotten in recent memory. Rankine won a MacArthur in 2016, but most of us have been calling her a genius for years.
The book is also artful, beautiful, sometimes funny, subtle when subtlety is required, razor sharp when that better suits her needs. It investigates memory and identity and the nature of narrative and self-doubt and self-expression. I don’t know anyone who has read it who was not profoundly moved by it. As Dan Chiasson put it in The New Yorker, “The realization at the end of this book sits heavily upon the heart: ‘This is how you are a citizen,’ Rankine writes. ‘Come on. Let it go. Move on.’ As Rankine’s brilliant, disabusing work, always aware of its ironies, reminds us, ‘moving on’ is not synonymous with ‘leaving behind.’”
–Emily Temple, Senior Editor, LitHub
and i will leave you with langston hughes, and his 1927 masterwork.
song for a dark girl
Way Down South in Dixie (Break the heart of me) They hung my black young lover To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie (Bruised body high in air) I asked the white Lord Jesus What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie (Break the heart of me) Love is a naked shadow On a gnarled and naked tree.
break the heart of me, indeed.
how do you join in the protest, the urgent call of this american moment?
our friends at wordpress have birthed a new way to post, and i am just getting used to its kinks and trick-box. for the life of me, i can’t find where you add images. so i will poke around and see if i can figure this out. for now, these are my words….(figured it out!) and photo above by Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times…
early this morning, i opened a package i’d been waiting for all week. it was a great fat book titled, a great cloud of witnesses, and it’s a compendium of saints, so ordained and otherwise. i find myself most drawn to the “otherwise,” the ones whose lives of holiness — a definition worth a lifetime of delving into — the ones whose unheralded kindness, the ones whose courage in the face of attack (be it rubber bullet or tear gas, the lynching tree or one man’s knee), the ones whose words, whose acts of noble defiance, whose everyday living-breathing gospel hold a candle in the darkness.
i’m bringing five of them here to the table this morning, to let their voices be the ones you weave into your day, your soul, your imagination. they are the ones with something wise and beautiful and riveting to say, something worth listening deeply to.
my posture today is one bent low in the sacred prayer of listening.
the ones i’ve gathered here are imani perry, interdisciplinary scholar of race, law, literature, and african-american culture at princeton university; the late great poet and writer james baldwin; michael curry, presiding bishop of the episcopal church; otis moss III, senior pastor of the iconic trinity united church in chicago; and, not least, late-night comedian and cultural critic, trevor noah.
first up, imani perry, with these excerpts from her june 3 essay in the paris review, titled, “a little patch of something,” a meditation that begins with her growing a flat of microgreens on her bedside table, and takes us far far beyond the endosperm of germination. we pick up a couple paragraphs in….(to read the entire essay, click the hyperlink above.)
By any measure of politics and civil order, Black people in the antebellum and Jim Crow South existed in a cruel relationship to land and the agricultural economy. Exploitation happened from birth to death, from the fields all the way to the commissary where people overpaid landowners for minimal goods. Black people gave birth in the cane, died in the cotton, bled into the corn. But out of little patches of something, carefully tended to because beyond survival is love, came reward. The earth gave moments of pleasure: Latching onto a juicy peach—your teeth moving from yellow to red flesh. Digging up a yam, dusting off its dirt, roasting it so long the caramelized sweetness explodes under your tongue. Running your hands across the collard leaves coming up from the ground rippled flowerlike. That green is as pretty as pink.
…But during shelter in place it seems touching and tending to plants has become both more universal and more essential.
Soulful even. I watched my friends and family on screens as they delighted in collards, berries, tomatoes, and chives. Small joys as death rolled by. At first there was a rumor that Black people didn’t get COVID-19, as though by some miracle of our physical constitution. Then we were told it cast us all in the same boat, a virus couldn’t discriminate. Finally, we saw that though a virus doesn’t discriminate the persistent ways a society does had us falling fast. And it seemed we, Black people, all knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who died alone in a ward, or a home, or at home. Caresses of loved ones were verboten in the final moments. You had to stay safe from the virus.
This was the context in which the world shifted for the second time in the same season. Police officers killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more, and more. So many in fact that even if I gave you the whole list I know I would be missing some precious lives that also deserve to be remembered. Being killed by police officers is the same old same old for Black people. Same rage, same sorrow, same politicians’ calls for quiet protest but never remedy. The protests grew like wildfire. People emerged from their homes, hungry to stand with each other, to beat back loneliness and fear, angry, resistant and insistent. From every quarter and dozens of states and nations, people have stepped outside to say:
The plants are growing too. Their slowly spreading leaves are synchronous with the shattering glass, the rubber bullets, the gouged-out eyes, the tanks and bullhorns. That synchronicity is not new. When the Klan mobs charged into Black homes, ripping out someone who was loved, dragging them in the dirt, dismembering his body bit by bit before stringing him up, the turnips kept growing. When the bombs shook Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, and the hoses knocked over skinny brown children, the pecans fell from branches. Plums hung heavy, purple and sweet as hot rage bubbled from the gut through the vocal passages.
…I’m remembering all that, looking at my little tray of microgreens, sleepless with fear about the devastation just around the corner, yet hopeful too because the dam holding back rage has broken. I want to hold hands with my friends who have been tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, who I have seen stumbling yet still holding a banner aloft: BLACK LIVES MATTER. The grace of a shared meal seems so remote now. But those days will return sooner than we think. And if this moment of righteous rage turns into a movement that will be sustained, we will need to both fight and nourish each other. We will have to bolster and build more networks to share food and provide care and shelter, not as an alternative to protest but as an essential element of it. It is a lesson we learned over centuries. Freedom dreams are grown and nurtured out of the hardest, barely yielding soul. Our gardens must grow. That is a metaphor and a literal truth. When the bruised and battered seek refuge from the storm, may all of us who believe in freedom remain ready to feed and sustain them.
briefly, we turn to the words of poet-activist james baldwin, spoken back in 1970, when he and anthropologist margaret mead took to a new york city stage for seven and half hours of “brilliance and bravery,” as described by cultural critic maria popova. mead and baldwin’s entire conversation was later published as a book, a rap on race (1971), and is worth pulling from a bookshelf, your own or your library’s.
baldwin’s words, wise to press against our hearts, include this one searing truth: “we’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”
bishop michael curry, the first african-american presiding bishop of the episcopal church, took to the op-ed pages of the washington post last weekend (before the travesty of tear gas and rubber bullets that cleared the way for the president of the united states to walk through lafayette park to the steps of “the presidents’ church,” st. john’s episcopal church, to wield a bible as if a cudgel (by my eyes anyway). bishop curry wrote, in part:
Our nation’s heart breaks right now because we have strayed far from the path of love. Because love does not look like one man’s knee on another man’s neck, crushing the God-given life out of him. This is callous disregard for the life of another human being, shown in the willingness to snuff it out brutally as the unarmed victim pleads for mercy.
Love does not look like the harm being caused by some police or some protesters in our cities. Violence against any person is violence against a child of God, created in God’s image. And that ultimately is violence against God, which is blasphemy — the denial of the God whose love is the root of genuine justice and true human dignity and equality.
Love does not look like the silence and complicity of too many of us, who wish more for tranquility than justice.
next up is otis moss III, senior pastor of trinity united church of christ in chicago. moss is as brilliant a preacher as i’ve heard in a long long while, and i’m thinking some sunday morning i need to hop in the car and drive to 95th street on chicago’s south side. moss, an all-american track star at morehouse college who says he heard a call to the pulpit and switched his major to religious studies then went on to yale divinity school and the chicago theological union, has deep roots in the civil rights movement. his father, otis moss jr., was an affiliate of martin luther king, jr., working together in the southern christian leadership conference, and serving in 1971 as co-pastor with king’s father, martin luther king, sr., at atlanta’s historic ebenezer baptist church.
more than worth your time are either or both of these video sermons posted on the church’s youtube channel:
last weekend, as the nation erupted in a firestorm of protest (and, sadly, pockets of violence), moss preached When Is Someday? , a sermon on the murder of george floyd and its aftermath, framed as a prelude to moss’s unforgettable sermon of the week before, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, in which he addressed the horror of the murder of yet another unarmed black man, this time ahmaud arbery, killed for the crime of taking a jog on a warm spring day in georgia.
and finally, not to be missed is trevor noah‘s powerful 18-minute video posted to his youtube account a week ago friday, reflecting on george floyd and racism in america, in which noah says:
“i don’t know what made that video more painful for people to watch. the fact that that man was having his life taken in front of our eyes, the fact that we were watching someone being murdered by someone whose job is to protect and serve, or the fact that he seemed so calm doing it. there was a black man, on the ground, in handcuffs, and you could take his life, so you did. almost knowing that there would be no ramifications.”
may these voices stir you, revivify you, and bring a speck of light and hope to this dark moment in the american story.
your thoughts always welcome here….
and before i go, happy blessed birthday to two of the chair’s dearest, amy and nan, back-to-back blessings, both blowing out candles on what i hope are sumptuous birthday cakes all across the weekend. xoxoxox
annals of pandemic, part xi…in which surreal spring turns to summer and we set out to build a farm…
you might begin to wonder if the dictionary at my fingertips is one in which the definitions come fast and loose. if, say, there’s hyperbole stitched in on occasion. or, is it simply the byproduct of one storybook imagination?
where, for instance, i start waxing on about a farm–so you start imagining endless loam, far as the eye can see, and perhaps a barn and silo, certainly a mooing cow with muzzle pressed against the pasture gate–and then you realize that what i mean, what i’m setting out to carve into the earth, is nothing more expansive, nor more exotic, than a plain old raised bed. a 4×8 plot of decayed leaf and loam (and for good measure a pile of old manure). a mound on which to sprout a vegetable or two. perhaps an herb, for good measure.
in other words, in the world inside my head, the one where my very own picture shows play all day long, what i see might not be exactly what’s before my eyes. (effusive and sometimes far-fetched imagination is requisite number 1 for anyone who dreams of a life of pen to page, i’d argue.)
fact is, for all my daydreaming about white picket fences and tomatoes so fresh from the vine they’re still sunshine-warmed as i unscrew them from the stem, this so-called plot for which i lift my spade and hoe, might well become little more than an exercise in rolling out a romping ground, a banquet hall, for all the critters who nightly prowl along the hardly bucolic back alley.
which brings us to calumet farm.
as is sometimes the case in a writerly family–in other words, a motley crew of folk who relish words with the enthusiasms others reserve for, say, wine or dollar bills–the tangled knot of daylily, weeds, and the occasional errant acorn-on-the-rise has already been named, though i’ve not yet hauled a single shovel to the plot. (that’s this morning’s project, putting blade to earth.)
calumet farm, outside lexington, kentucky
calumet farm, you see, is a magnificent kentucky horse farm, one my uncle danny used to run before he was killed on iwo jima in a brutal midnight raid near the close of world war II. it’s a farm where two triple crown winners–whirlaway and, later, citation–and, in all, eight kentucky derby winners ran the fields. it’s a farm where my very own papa spent his every boyhood summer, curled up reading near the barns, so the story goes.
and my beloved bespectacled mate, the one i hoped would not mind my latest fixation, well, he latched right on–enthusiastically!–once we gave him naming rights. he’s downright tickled to have our very own calumet farm sprouting on the back acreage (even if he is insisting i hoe along the alley, where it won’t disturb his line of sight. p.s. what he’s otherwise looking at is beyond me, all i see is grass and birds nibbling at the feeder…but such are the compromises that make a lasting marriage).
i believe i’ve heard him say he’ll be posting the calumet colors–famously “devil’s red” tracing the sharp edges of the pure-white barns and stables. (calumet was founded by the baking-powder folks, and to this day, that can is trademarked devil’s red.) if naming rights and colors are all i had to trade to get me a summer’s worth of fresh-plucked herbs, and one or two tomatoes, and all these hours of imagining, well that’s a deal i’ll make.
because these distractions of mine can sometimes take up more room in my brain than necessary, because i barely know my way through the tool shed, my faraway brother david, a master gardener, master carpenter, and all-round mensch, took on the role of patron saint of my plot. he’s spelled out in precise detail just the bolts and boards i need. even weighed in late last night on the contents of the 18 bags of loam and compost i’ll be mounding for the farm. when my biggest worry was whacking down the weeds, he scratched that with a simple, “google sheet mulch.” turns out those old moving boxes flattened in the garage will now be resurrected as the “floor” beneath my mounds. all i need do is slice away as much of what’s growing there, yank out roots that might have landed there over the years, and lay down sheets of cardboard. voila. instant start of compost.
once construction is done, and ben-gay amply applied to all my achy parts, i’ll begin the daydreams of what to plant. of course i picture some quaint english herbarium, as well as a bursting-with-a-vengeance vegetable plot, to boot. but truth be told, just one fistful of fresh-born dill or mint or basil, abundant and green and smelling of the earth, that’ll be enough to do me mighty proud.
there is something edifying about going beyond the confines of what you imagine you can do. and building me a farm, even a simple one by arithmetic measure, and doing so when up against an invisible plague that’s turned us upside down, it brings a sustenance you cannot buy at any grocery store.
maybe, too, it’s the turning in, the reliance on little more than our own muscles and our know-how. it’s staking a claim in this old planet, saying i can make my way here. maybe it’s emboldening in the age of pandemic to write your own survival guide. and, once again, to lean on the blessing and benevolence of this holy earth to carry us to safe-keeping.
best of all, my humble plot will always be the farm my brother david believed i could build. and his insistence, his quiet whisper, his certainty, is the bounty upon which all this will grow.
and now i’m dashing to the lumber yard, where a kind and gentle man named mike has all my boards and bolts ready to stash into the old red wagon, the wagon i will now think of as my very own farm truck.
what plots have you devised–amid this pandemic, or otherwise–to reach beyond your comfort zone, to show yourself the self-reliance at the heart of who you are, to prove to yourself you’re more than you imagine?
except for the centenarians among us, this is our first go-around with pandemics. and so, uncharted as it all is, little should surprise us. i stand somewhat surprised, though, that somehow — in the depths and folds of these blurry hours, where day upon day feels indistinct, where were it not for the winding of clocks on wednesdays, the old-lady shop on thursdays, the watering of plants on saturdays, i might never know what day is unfolding around me — i seem to have tumbled into an ancient, ancient practice. one rooted in the quiet turning of pages of glorious books. one rooted in prayer, in the sanctification of time, the anointing of hours.
it must be the little old monk in me.
i am utterly transfixed by the notion of the liturgy of the hours, the divine office (opus dei — the work of God), lauds, vespers, compline. morning prayer now begins my every day. morning prayer with candle burning beside me, casting its flickering light on skin-thin pages that turn with a crinkle as i slide the ribbons from section to section: invitatory, psalm, antiphon, collect, confession, thanksgiving.
the lexicon is almost as old as time. the notion of fixed-hour prayer, paying keen attention to the seasons of the day — the shifting of light and shadow — is a practice shared by all the great religions: buddhism, hinduism, islam, judaism, christianity.
the early christians borrowed it, of course, from the jews, who were commanded to pray the holiest prayer, the sh’ma, upon rising and retiring, and who stitched 100 blessings into the arc of the day, lifting the most quotidian of acts — washing hands, hearing thunder, beholding the bloom of the almond tree — into the realm of the holy. the psalms, written by the most brilliant hebrew poets, were read by jews — including jesus and his earliest disciples –as “encounters with God, as stimulating and nourishing a spiritual mystery,” according to william storey, a liturgical historian.
by the fourth century, in the early roman empire, bishops instituted morning and evening prayer in the early cathedrals. in the sixth century, along came st. benedict who wrote down “the rule,” and with it the trellis of prayer that infused the monastery, calling the monks to arise in the darkness, to walk under the cloak of stars to the oratory where the night vigil was sung, and through the day, when the great bell was rung, to drop their work in mid-act — be it the stirring of soup, or the tending of bees — and encounter the angels in the sung prayer of the psalms. (i love that benedict refers to any chiming clock as a “portable monastery,” and instructs that “every chiming hour is a reminder we stand in God’s presence.” i will now consider myself to be “winding the monastery” every wednesday and sunday morning.)
all these centuries later, little old me picked up on the notion about six weeks ago. (no one ever pinned me precocious.)
what i know is this: tiptoeing down the stairs in the dark, hoisting my 2,974-page leather-bound tome, striking a match, kindling a wick, bowing my head, breathing in silence, it grounds me, and infuses my day. even my dreams, some nights.
reciting the words, inscribed millennia ago, whispered by generations before me, from all corners of this wobbling globe, beginning with a daily confession of sins, bends me into a posture of humility that seems so necessary — so countercultural — in this awful, awful age of much too much bombast. i’m enchanted. i’m sometimes disturbed (the god of biblical vengeance is not one i know). i’m always, always quieted. set straight for the day. beginning my day in the recitations launches me into the holy work st. paul instructed: pray ceaselessly. make the work of your day, the quiet of your day, make it all living breathing prayer.
i’m not alone in my preoccupation. rilke and ts eliot, hildegard of bingen and kathleen norris, certainly thomas merton, all were drawn to the undulations of stillness and prayer.
brother david steindl-rast, in his glorious little book, music of silence, writes that monastic prayer is a tradition “that regards each hour of the day and night as having its own distinct message for us.” he implores: “make everything we do prayer.” hour by hour, from night watch’s invitation to “trust in the darkness,” to laud’s morning question — “whom can i make a little happier” in this gift of a new-born day? — brother david draws us into the certain knowing that hour upon hour begs our attention, invites sharper focus on divine intention.
it’s all the sacred practice of paying attention. beholding the beauty, the blessing of each anointed minute and hour. in the same way i’m gobsmacked by the shifting of seasons across the year, i am rapt by the seasons of light and shadow in a day, the invitation to be immersed in each hour’s offering.
i turn to that brilliant radiant rabbi whom i revere, abraham joshua heschl, for one last illumination here, one to carry through this whole blessed day:
he who has realized that the sun and stars and soul do not ramble in a vacuum will keep his heart in readiness for the hour when the world is entranced.
for things are not mute:
the stillness is full of demands, awaiting a soul to breathe in the mystery that all things exhale in their craving for communion.
out of the world comes the behest to instill into the air a rapturous song for God…
a few of the books i’ve been burrowing into, include these:
a beautiful treasure of a book: Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day by Macrina Wiederkehr. (brilliantly recommended by jackie, a dear friend of the chair)
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours…..
David Steindl-Rast: Music of Silence
and, if you’d like to poke around online, and hear magnificent gregorian chant (a meditation for another day) try Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Angels of the Hour