pull up a chair

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

Category: blessings

anointed places

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

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

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

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

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

thetis anointing achilles

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

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

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

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

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

what’s your anointed place?

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

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

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

it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for this i pray.

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

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

the stories we tell

in a hospice room 719 miles away, a cluster of people i love sit circled round a bedside: a son, a daughter, their mother. words are few now, hours vary by breaths per minute, by doses of morphine. i am there/not there by the miles on a map between us, but my every breath is with them. vigils are kept without proximities. vigils are kept by heart. and my heart is there…

this vigil, as with most any vigil, is one syncopated by its own time and twists, all of which are beyond — far beyond — our inclinations toward clock and calendar, those false measures by which we mark things. minutes turn to hours turn to days. in the timelessness of now, i’m reminded how we set our hearts sometimes by timekeeping tools of our own making. we allow for acceleration, we slow, we pace. but really all of it is no more than device within which we pour ourselves for the comfort of the walls around us. as a species we seem to prefer to plunk ourselves in vessels rather than fling ourselves unbounded onto undulating limitless seas.

i steady myself inside this landscape of not knowing by extracting and considering the stories that emerge, that tell us who we are, who we mourn and who we aim to emulate. as is always the way, the stories we extract from lives well lived are the very fibers that will weave us back together again, in the wake of our emptiness. they’re the totems and road signs that point the way for every day thereafter. the etchings of the heart that prove inextinguishable instruction, the wisdoms and glories that keep the radiance from dimming.

here’s one of the ones i will tell from the life of a woman who from the start was always in my corner. that alone is everything (especially in a mother-in-law), but more than anything i have loved her for her goodness. her endless, endless, bottomless goodness.

in a parade of tales to tell, this one i’m forever seizing: it’s the tale of a gas-station attendant and my mother-in-law, who just two months ago was as blonde, beautiful, and fully engaged as ever. the gas-station attendant, it turns out, is an immigrant woman from a sometimes-unwelcome country, who some years back with her now-late husband bought a CITGO station in new jersey, worked the register seven days a week, long hours every day, and came to know the blonde-haired lady with the old volvo as a friend, one who never failed to deliver kindness every time she filled her tank, and carefully-wrapped gifts at christmas and easter. when the gas-station lady hadn’t seen my mother-in-law and her spiffy new Honda Fit for weeks, she tracked down the home phone and left a message, saying she missed her, and hoped all was well. my husband—who has meticulously been attending to all matters of the heart, and much else besides during these long weeks—called her back, and the woman explained that my mother-in-law had always been so kind, and over the last few weeks she’d grown more and more worried by her absence. the gas-station woman said that when her own husband had died — leaving her to run not only the register but the whole gas station on her own — my mother-in-law was right there with sympathies and kindness, and had become something of a rare american friend here in this strange new land.

to befriend the folks who pump your gas, to befriend them to the extent they notice your absence, and track you down, leave word and hope you’re well, that’s a measure of goodness worth remembering.

here’s another story that’s emerged, that tells us who she is and was in the silence and the solitude when no one was looking: in poring through the piles of papers that shrouded the desk in his old boyhood bedroom, my mother-in-law’s first-born and only son found a yellow legal pad with pages and pages of carefully enumerated names and gifts. my mother-in-law, an inveterate bargain hunter and irrepressible gift giver, spelled out her christmas lists every january, once the post-holiday sales were cleared, and her bedrooms filled with carefully chosen dollar-sale finds. when the Gap marked down winter scarves from $20 to $1 apiece, my mother-in-law bought the whole lot, and squirreled away each one for her endless christmas list. (she also never missed a new baby gift, a wedding, a graduation, or a sympathy gift, but hands down, my jewish mother-in-law’s favorite holidays were those wholly christian christmas and easter. maybe it’s no wonder she never minded the idea of a catholic daughter-in-law.) christmas 2021 was months ago enumerated, executed, and laid out in shopping bags all across the bedroom floors. all that’s left was the wrapping, a months-long ritual she usually began each october. indeed, my mother-in-law had her giving down to something of a science. a science of goodness, of calibrated, counted-out (and bargain-hunted) perpetual goodness.

it’s a goodness without measure, and she lived and breathed it every blessed day.

what stories do you tell of the ones you’ve loved most dearly? or even ones you barely knew but whose stories became the measures of your own every day?

for all these 15 years here on the chair, my mother-in-law was among its most loyal dedicated readers. she was the first to call if she liked it, and if she didn’t….well, the silence….

i tell her tales here with love. with so much love….

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….

the pure power of kindness

i remember learning the lesson. i was squeezed in the back seat of a buick riviera, circa 1965, pulled to the pump at a gas station just outside cincinnati’s coney island, an amusement park to end all amusement parks, where i’d finally grown tall enough to be strapped in a bumper car all on my own. it was a hot cincinnati afternoon. and the six or so cousins squeezed in my grandpa’s regal coach might have had their eyes trained on my grandpa, or maybe they were poking each other in the sides and the shoulders and under the knees. i know i was watching my grandpa, and i watched him greet the man with his fist on the nozzle as if the man was his old lost best friend. it was, needless to say, an indelible moment, the way my grandpa’s eyes sparkled in conversation with this man he’d actually never met before. but they carried on anyway, a good while after the tank was filled. and then my grandpa slid back into the driver’s seat, turned his head to look us in the eye, and announced to whomever was listening (and, believe me, we all were): “always treat everyone with the same kindness you’d wish for yourself.”

if that was the only time i’d sat through that class — kindness 101 — i still think it’d have stuck, but i was taught it over and over and over again. by teachers all along the way — a best friend, an aunt, a gazillion glory-be-to-God they-belong-with-angels friends, strangers whose names i never learned — tender-hearted souls i count as if beads on a rosary. each one inching me closer and closer to that radiance that is momentary heaven here on earth. especially on the days when it feels a little bit like flame-licking hell.

so it comes as welcome blessing but little surprise that the awful hard road of the last couple weeks was paved with gold bricks of kindness that really, truly gave us the little bit of spark we needed to not slump to our knees, to not break down in tears and never stop crying. 

we teach kindness, those of us who still believe in the grace of getting along. we teach kindness sometimes because it’s the thing we think we’re supposed to preach. but sometimes i think we forget just how mighty a force the tiniest kindness can be. how one kindness can drain the sting from any day. how one kindness can be the burst of oxygen that keeps us from keeling to the ground. especially when we’re running on fumes, when we’re hollowed out with despair, when we can’t stand watching the tears run down the cheeks of someone we love. 

kindness literally moves mountains. the mountains deep down inside us that feel immovable. the mountains of worry. the mountains of sadness, of not knowing what’s just around the bend, and having little reason not to fear the worst. 

but then the doorbell rings. or the email pings. or you wake up to find a bushel of pansies waving in the morning’s breeze. or a box arrives, stuffed to the brim with all the things you count as simple treasures, and you scratch your head wondering how in God’s name you could be so blessed to know — to count as a most beloved friend — someone who pays such exquisite attention, who took the time and trouble to gather up a heart-melting litany, beans and bread and birdseed, even the hard-to-find monastery candle that kindles your most sacred hours, and it’s all flown halfway across the country. just in time to make a big ol’ pot of sustenance for the rainy days ahead.

and you remember all over again that you’re powered not simply by your own sweat and heartache and tears, but that the collective might of hearts — hearts that happen to be supercharged at the very moment yours is drained — gives you just enough oomph to take on another day. to shake yourself off, to grab the keys to the car, to drive where you’re needed, to do whatever needs doing: to clean out the wound, to scrub out the sink, to sling on a mask and march into the drug store, to look the doctor in the eye — or the tow yard boss, or the police officer, or the priest — and say what needs to be said. 

because you’re propelled not all on your own, but by the compound goodness and kindness of a thousand little kindnesses. even the slightest bit of kindness — the “how you doing?,” the “hey, i made extra,” the “i’m headed to the store, do you need anything?” — all of it is just enough to tip the scales, to keep you on your feet and in business for another day. amid the arid days of breathlessness and worry, there is no kindness too too small to put the necessary ping in the human heart that pumps on despite it all. 

as i sit and ponder kindness, i almost wish i was some sort of molecular scientist, someone who could pry open the envelope in which kindness arrives, and slide its essence under the microscope to discern just what it is — electrical valence? neurochemical charge? — that literally alters our physiologies, disrupts the sorrow-drenched, worry-stoked synapse, switches tracks from despair to hope. it’s not an illusory thing. it’s as real as real could be. the tiniest seemingly insignificant gesture — the saying without words, i am listening to your heartbeat and it sounds as if the rhythm’s off, a sorrowful syncopation has taken hold and i’m here to try to budge it back on beat — it matters. it’s a seed of life and love that’s planted deep and certainly, and it blooms just as it’s needed. 

and this world needs it in abundance, in bumper crops and without end. it’s not nothing, the barest brush with kindness. 

it’s everything. 

in other words, bless you and thank you each and every someone who offered up a prayer, a thought, a holy card, a kindness seen or unseen. 

love, the barbaras — the Wiser and her offshoot

xoxox

what are the moments of kindness you will never ever forget?

it’s get-on-your-knees season

from a distance, that is from this side of the windowpanes, where i tend to stand huddled in layers of wraps, it all looks like a matrix of unenlightened brown sticks. these are the weeks when winter has ground us down to particular dust. the pandemic, too. even with a shot in the arm we’re not exactly lying by the side of the pool, sipping our lemony-ades. the name for this stretch of the year might easily be mistaken for bleak.

but then, as i did this morning, you spy a runaway screen from an upstairs window, one that’s worked itself loose and taken a short hop skip and a jump off the roof and landed in the boughs of the trees. so, you, as i did this morning, you climb into your muck-about clogs, you haul out a ladder and you fetch the runaway part of your house. and while you’re out there, while you’re the wacky neighbor lady out climbing ladders at dawn, chasing after screens in the trees, you begin to notice things.

you notice that, once you’ve hauled out your magnifying lens, it’s not really all bleak. there is gazillions of action out there. why, there are sweet little clasps of leaves, gathered in prayer. and there are frilly umbrellas of green rising up from the detritus of winter.

and, like any self-respecting payee of attention, you start to put two and two together, and you start thinking maybe you could pick up a thing or two from this quiet explosion erupting from dear planet underground. maybe it’s not so bleak after all. maybe this is the season of quiet delight. maybe the starting all over again is kicking into high gear. maybe the same old same old is about to slow to a crawl, and one day soon this will all be but another badge on our we-survived-even-this sash. we’ll be sitting around in our rocking chairs, swapping tales of remember-the-year-we-were-afraid-to-touch-our-groceries? remember the year no one came home for christmas? remember the year we all sat down at our sewing machines and stitched together swatches of cotton or t-shirt, stuffed vacuum cleaner filters into the pockets?

the miracle is we’ve lived, the just-by-chance ones among us who weren’t done in by the terrible, horrible, awful red virus. i wasn’t there on the front lines, where friends of mine who are nurses and doctors faced it head on, walked into the dirge of it, day after day. i hope, for the life of me, we never forget what heroes they were, and how even the checkers at the grocery store had to dig down for a brand of courage they never thought would be part of the job of stacking cans on shelves, or ringing my celery over their scanner. and every time i read a story of someone felled by it, i look around and realize this world has lost one more incredible one-of-a-kind miracle. maybe reading all the obits is in the oddest of ways a reminder that lurking behind the facades of all the anonymous anyones we pass every day, there is inside a story of glorious wonder that might put us all in our places. maybe it’s why, once upon a time, i loved to be asked to write someone’s obit. because each and every someone has a story to tell. a story to make you sit up in your chair and take notice.

it’s not too unlike the scene out my window. from a distance it all looks bleak and windblown and soggy. but when you bend down to the ground, take a close look, you see something utterly beautiful. you see even the dew gathered in drops at the ends of each leaf. and you remember that life asks over and over again: open your eyes, open your heart, beauty abounds.

what’s some of the beauty you’ve noticed? on your knees or otherwise?

and while i’m here, a string of birthdays of aries who’ve twice had to blow out birthday candles during pandemic: happy birthday to two of my most beloveds, tomorrow and sunday, sweet P and auntie M, who i think were born back to back to emphatically wondrously remind me how glorious it is to be alive in the same span of time as the two of them. double blessing squared. and to dear amy’s papa who is turning 96 today. i don’t even know him, but i adore everything i know about him, and oh we are blessed to know of his sweet and everlasting presence here on this earth. xoxoxoxo and huge blessings to a sweet baby boy born in san francisco yesterday, and to his mama who is starting this glorious adventure she has sooooooooooooooo long awaited. blessings abound. xox

prayer list

i remember walking the halls of my high school, tucking a day’s worth of worries into my backpack. i might have bumped into tears in the girls’ bathroom (for that’s what it was called back then). i might have noticed someone slam a fist to a locker. or leaned in to listen while threading my way through the throngs in the halls. i’d sit in my bedroom at night, tucked between the two twin beds, sprawled on my old braided rug, and one by one, i’d scribble a note, cut out a heart from construction paper, try to put words to all of the heartache, and the next morning i’d make like the valentine fairy and deliver each one. it was my earliest rendition of keeping a prayer list.

gathering up the heavy hearts of the day is what it means to live and breathe on this planet. we hoist up each other’s loads, to try to shoulder the ache in the hearts of the people we love. in the aches we just happen to hear about. and we don’t put them down till the darkness has lifted, has shuttled off to the distance.

i’m thinking about prayer lists because once again i found someone’s very big worry this week. and my heart, like hers, is now hurting. i’ve no idea really if taking on worry is something like taking on water. if now two boats are low in the lake, and that’s the whole of it, or if my taking on a bucket or two of hers might actually buoy hers even an inch. i’ll go with the inch. i do know that in my own hours of barely being able to breathe it sure helped to have someone ping me, let me know they were squeezing my hand from afar, reminding me every once in a while to remember to take a deep breath.

in the world where i grew up, prayer lists were as common as the alphabet. you heard about a heartache, you scribbled it onto your list. recited it every night before dinner, and when you dropped to your knees at bedtime. when it was really bad, a gargantuan worry, you called up the rectory and asked the church secretary to please scribble “special intention” onto the list. sometimes it felt like your whole pocket was filled with a long string of beads, one for each worry.

or maybe i was just raised by world-class worriers, and i learned early on that there are certain things that wrinkle your brow, that make you stare into the faraway. and that prompt you to scribble a name on a list, and stick it onto the fridge under a magnet. in the world i grew up in, worries weren’t simply invisible. worries showed up in pencil on paper.

i can’t imagine not worrying. but maybe to worry is another name for “to care.” to bump up against the hard edge of our superpowers, and see there’s a cliff and we can’t go one step farther, not even an inch. which is where the prayers swoop in. which is where we throw up our arms, and look toward the clouds, because a hundred thousand years ago someone might have mentioned that that’s where the angels hang out. but, honestly, truly, those are just motions. the point is we knead into our hearts, into the very core of our breathing, the clear and certain intention of the someone we know, or the someone we love, who is bearing an impossible burden. and life sure would be easier if we were all out pushing each other’s wheelbarrows. if we all gathered round, 1-2-3 hoist!, and did what we could to carry their loads for even a minute.

so, for my faraway friend who i love very much, i turned to one of the saints i met in my life, a very, very tall and glorious soul who once folded himself into the brown-plaid front seat of my little brown toyota corolla. his name was john o’donohue, and at the time he was a priest, a priest with a brogue (the very best sort), and a poet with a soul so big you felt like you could climb right in it. he was in the business of putting words to the flickers and blips of the heart that escape most everyone else on the planet. but he had telepathies and poetries inside him, and he wrote like nobody else’s business.

this is the blessing — the beannacht — he wrote for his mother. it’s nearly famous now, but it’s so very beautiful, and it captures nearly every last drop of the wobbles and soft spots that come when life hits the skids.

this is for my friend who i love, from a poet i call a most blessed friend, an anam cara, or soul friend, a concept my poet friend made a little bit famous because he wrote a book all about it.

a beannacht from john o’donohue, God rest his soul; born on a new year’s day, he died in his sleep the night after january 3, in 2008, just barely 52.

john o’donohue, anam cara, friend of the soul

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

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

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

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

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


what are the lines you recite when you are carrying the worries of someone you love?

here’s my long-ago tribune story about the day i spent with the blessed poet, which just so happens to have run in the paper on st. paddy’s day, in 1999. so it’s fitting for this week, 22 years later. egad.

a new quiet. again.

i sometimes think it will always be stepping into the new again. it will always be let’s-see-how-this-goes. the undulations of life, a whirl of beginnings and endings and all those elevations between.

this week we packed up the joy blast who is our second miracle child, the one who’s been hovering around the dinner table for months now, patiently kindly engaging in hours-long conversation nearly every blessed night. the one who slept till nearly dusk plenty of days, and stayed up watching old films till the wee wee hours. his raccoon-like hours became a rhythm i knew. the house hummed accordingly. but he’s gone now, back at that little college on a hill in smack-dab-middle ohio, and the absence is raw still. still hurts around the edges.

and this time, there’s a new quiet at home. these will be the first new weeks without the rhythms of someone else’s work life. all these red-ringed months, the other writer in this old house got dressed for work even when work was what happened mostly up in his book-lined office across from the top of the stairs. there were deadlines and stories and headlines, too. there was chatter from the so-called newsroom, the one that had been scattered to bedrooms and nooks and crannies all across sweet chicago, wherever a scribe lived, hung his or her reporterly hat. all that has gone hushed now. not even the sound of a keyboard clackety-clacking. he had to turn in the laptop, and the long line at the apple store means you wait weeks and weeks for a board all your own.

we are a people of rhythms, me and the one who shares this old house. so i’m certain we’ll find one again.

i sometimes wonder how we got here, to this moment, so soon. sometimes look in the mirror to see if i can find the self i’ve known since she was so little, had a gap in the space between two front teeth, just enough of a space to wiggle the tip of my tongue through. the gap is long gone now, and so too plenty of other parts, lost along the way. the losses are wins some of the time. though sometimes a loss is a loss, no doubt about it. same thing with the gains. it’s subtraction and addition, all our life long.

so here we are bumbling around in an all-new quiet, a quiet like never before. as a creature of habit, of course, i’d come to count on the people we were in the everyday. and now readjusting is due. old titles are stripped, though the essence is not. it’s starting all over again and again.

good thing i’ve got typing to do, and plenty of it. i figure i’ll wriggle around inside my hours of typing while all the new rhythms appear. while i see how to fit in this new stretch of time. in the meantime, i thought i’d leave two poems here at the table, poems that put a magnifying lens to the blessings of time, of all the moments quotidian and otherwise. one is from raymond carver, you know who he is, the short story writer who happened to turn a mighty fine poem. the other is from a most blessed woman you might not have known. her name is robbie klein, and her birthday would have been yesterday, but she died a year and a half ago, “peacefully, powerfully,” as her obit in the san francisco chronicle quite emphatically put it. her poem took my breath away when she wrote it, and i asked her back then for permission to share it, to which of course she said yes.

consider how each of these beauties concentrates our focus on the blindingly brilliant blessing of the most ordinary moments of time, and how they freeze-frame the essence, so we can’t help but see its full glory.

 At Least
 by Raymond Carver
 I want to get up early one more morning,
 before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
 I want to throw cold water on my face
 and be at my work table
 when the sky lightens and smoke
 begins to rise from the chimneys
 of the other houses.
 I want to see the waves break
 on this rocky beach, not just hear them
 break as I did all night in my sleep.
 I want to see again the ships
 that pass through the Strait from every
 seafaring country in the world—
 old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
 and the swift new cargo vessels
 painted every color under the sun
 that cut the water as they pass.
 I want to keep an eye out for them.
 And for the little boat that plies
 the water between the ships
 and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
 I want to see them take a man off the ship
 and put another up on board.
 I want to spend the day watching this happen
 and reach my own conclusions.
 I hate to seem greedy—I have so much
 to be thankful for already.
 But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
 And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
 Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.
 
 Moments
 by Robbie Klein
 The space behind the waterfall
 The reverberation after a piano key is struck
 The second after hanging up with one you love
 The instant before the match catches fire
 The trace when a cloud covers the sun
 The sliver before sleep comes
 The first raindrop under a tree canopy
 The ebbing of the waves
 The lightening of dawn
 The space between notes
 The bottom of the exhale
 The final brushstroke
 The first drop on the tongue
 The grey before snow falls
 The moment before his fingers touch your face

what prompts you to relish each holy hour?

*photo above is college kid’s room in rare state of clean, only because his teary-eyed mother scrubbed and scrubbed till the sting went away…..

looking for the light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

turning the page…

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

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

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

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

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

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

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land…

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

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

so, in part, here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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