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Category: blessings

remembering how good “better” feels

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that’s a revised headline up there. it’s shortened from what i was first going to type. what i really wanted to write was: “sometimes you have to feel awful to remember how good better feels.”

convoluted, yes. a bit dark, perhaps. and plenty long — for a headline, anyway. too long, truth be told. so i nipped off a few words, and gave you the gist.

in its own way, it’s a deeply irish way of putting it. and that’s one of the things i love about being irish. why say it straight on, why shove aside the complexities, when you can get there by way of the meandering footpath that wends across the moor? why go for undiluted sunshine when you can poke around the shadows and emerge from irish mist?

what other people find their way to blessing only by first mucking about in the slop?

and so i defend my curious perspective as one whose genes are firmly rooted in the peat of eire, my homeland of a little isle, plopped amid the crashing, crushing north atlantic. and it’s the thought that came to me after four weeks on the sick list. there were days — and days and days — when every breath hurt just a little bit. when i found myself considering not just my lungs, but all those little bronchioles and air sacs that make exchange of oxygen a certainty, a condition of staying alive. i’d not in a long time spent whole nights mapping my eustachian tube, that little tunnel of the inner ear that goes by unnoticed so many, many years of our lives. but once that little throughway gets flooded, filled with angry waters, hoh boy, you start giving it your attention — and then some.

i could go on — but i won’t — naming the body parts that in recent weeks have screamed for attention. reminded me of their existence. made me think quite a bit about how, most of the time, they just go about their business, paying no mind to anything but the job at hand, not yelping out for assist in any way.

and all of it finds me marveling at the pure and undiluted blessing of being alive. day after day being gifted with this flesh-upholstered machine that bends and stretches, reaches for the stars (or simply the soup can on the highest pantry shelf). while sinew and synapse do their daily chores, we get to exercise our soul. titillate our imaginations. strike our funny bones.

it’s the gift of being sick, of pausing to pay notice. of realizing there’s no guarantee on all these body parts. when we’re oblivious, they’re working well. when they go kaput, we halt to attention, we consider the zillions of taken-for-granteds that keep us going, hour after hour.

as sick as i am of feeling sick, i’m trying to make the most of this personal anatomical inventory. i am trying to hold up to the light all the parts thatpink sky work so hard — so without applause — to do their jobs. a knee that bends. airways that breathe in oxygen, blow out nasty CO2. eyes that make out the shifting shades of pink across a sunset sky. and catch the red bird darting by.

i’ve paused my whole life long to consider a litany of gifts. i’ve a dear dear friend whose daughter couldn’t hear for the first five years she was on this planet, and when my friend catalogued the sounds her daughter had missed, my heart wept. clock ticking. church bells. dawn awakening. the sound of her mother’s heart beating inside her chest. coffee percolating. crickets. raindrops. wind.

when i was in high school, a dear friend of mine was strapped into an electric wheel chair. i plopped beside him on the radiators just outside the cafeteria, and while he was so content to sit and watch the passersby, i remembered what a gift it was that when the lunch bell rang, i could leap off the hot seat and get to class without pushing buttons on my motorized chair.

even now, i have a dear friend whose ankle — and all the tendons and ligaments around it — shattered when she slipped on a river bank, to get a finer look at the moon. she’s been as patient as a saint for the last year and a half. and every time i talk to her, every time i think of how she can no longer traipse through woodlands, poke around for mushroom caps, i look down at my little sometimes-wobbly ankle, and whisper thank you.

i suppose you might say i come to blessings through the back door. or through the mist.

but whatever is my twisty path, i am so relieved i am no longer contemplating my alveoli (those wee little sacs that comprise the lungs). i am simply inhaling straight-up gratitude for the gift of hauling this creaky body through one more whirl around the day.

what would be the gifts on your thank-you list today? and what does it take for you to pause and pay attention to those quiet wonders that make us so alive? 

 

hope patrol

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i’m just in from searching for hope. my boots are a bit muddy. my fingers are cold. and i’m not surprised to report there were no sightings of winter loosening its miserly grip.

sadly, in my corner of the world there is no snow. no drifts of white. no boughs laden with icy meringue. no fat flakes tumbling, tumbling from heaven to earth.

there is, more than anything, drab brown. not even rich brown. drab. drained-of-zing brown. which, perhaps, is apt description for my soul of late. which is why i was out searching.

thank heaven, the heavens responded last night: posted a nearly full moon, a fat moon, a bright moon, a moon that tonight will glow in all its glory. full snow moon. the moon that marks the arrival at sundown of a jewish holiday i’ve come to love. tu b’shevat it’s called, and it marks “the new year of the trees.” in israel, the holy land where all of these blessings begin, it’s the date on the calendar when vernal whisperings begin. when, if you pulled out your magnifying lens, and tiptoed close to the tips of the almond tree’s branches, you’d easily see the evidence: fat buds, fatter by the hour.

the trees are shaking off their slumber. the trees are stirring toward blossom, toward heavenly perfume, toward fruit. (the prescriptions for tu b’shevat i find wholly enchanting, a four-course feast of fruits and wine, so explained by the kabbalists, those deeply spiritual thinkers who believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life. oh my.)

it’s the eternal rhythm of earth and heavens. the inalterable equation of light from above, and richness from deep down inside the earth. it’s carried us forth, a pulsing pull, from the beginning of time. till now. and some winters — some winters inside our soul — we need surrender to the holy earth, to the rhythms that sustain us, move us forward even when we don’t believe we’ve the energy to lift a weary foot.

this winter would be one of those winters. all around the news is drab to worse. we’ve all been holed inside. and around here not even buffeted by snows, by the glory of an icy-painted window pane. we’re worn thin.

so mother earth comes to comfort us. she offers hope. even when we cannot see it.

back before the winter came, my last act of hope came the day i dropped to bent knee, thrust my shovel in the ground, and tucked in dozens and dozens of bulbs. i’d scanned the nursery shelves for blues and whites, the colors of delft, of old willow plates, the colors of sky and cloud. it’s a form of prayer, i’d insist, to tuck hope beneath the earth, to step away, and await the moment when the surge comes, when the tender determined shoot of newborn green comes poking through the earth. declares triumph. offers proof that hope pays off.

it’s too soon for that moment, as my morning’s patrol has made perfectly clear. but i find hope in other ways. i find hope seeping in through the cracks. do you?

i felt hope last night sitting in a circle of prayerful souls. i feel hope as i watch folks far braver and bolder than me pick up the reins and write the truth. i feel hope as all around i see the humblest among us stirred to action. i feel an awakening, even though it’s not yet the one from down beneath the crust of earth, where all the roots are emboldening, the roots we cannot see.

maybe it’s a blessing that we’re all paying attention, maybe it’s a very good thing that we’re being reminded that a democracy is a fragile thing, a living breathing entity that, like the rhythms of the earth and sky, must be carefully attended to. and we must all hold up our corner of its banner. we must all — by little and by little — find our courage, find our voice, think hard, think critically, employ deepest civility, listen with a gentle heart, and wield the purest acts of justice. and not let go — ever — of plain old kindness. the sort that seems to be rising up in some of the loveliest defiance i’ve ever seen.

come to think of it, that all sounds like hope to me. maybe, after all, it’s out there where the winds blow cold, blow certain. maybe my muddy boots led me to the very thing i’m hoping for.

are you sensing any signs of hope? any stories of pure kindness you’d care to share? the more we hear, the more emboldened we become, i do believe….

couple special intentions on this second friday in february. two dear friends of the chair suffered heart-shatterings this week: deepest prayers to pjt, who lost her dearest best friend far far too soon, and pjv, whose sister — last i heard — is on a ventilator and whose hold is fragile at this point. at my house, we are remembering my papa who died this day 36 years ago. i’ve heard from a few of my brothers this morning, who are all mourning his long absence from our every day. 

if you’re curious about tu b’shevat, i wrote about it here a few years back….

telling time

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listen in: tick tock chime 

in this old house, bed linens are worn thin. old quilts bare their threads. spoons stir porridge for decades. chairs are passed from generation to generation. in the right slant of light, you can make out particular dents in the old kitchen table, where long ago, my third-grade self, or one of my brothers, pressed pencil to homework to maple slab, and the addition in columns, the ill-formed alphabet letters of some week’s spelling words, still stand. even the potato masher in this old house bears the weight of half a century — at least.

new things aren’t often acquired here. but we made room last week for an old, old clock. a new-to-us old clock. a beehive clock, it’s called. with westminster chimes. and from the very first gong, it’s felt as if it’s ever been here. right away, it lulled me. made me feel even more at home.

it chimes every quarter hour, the progression of chimes compounding with every passing slice of the hour, for a total of 96 chimes in a day. and when the minute hand points heavenward, points due north, it gongs the big ben gong, one for each accumulated hour, of course.

it sounds to me like honey dripping across a slice of poundcake. or molasses poured onto flapjacks, if sound came with pictures. velvety, smooth, utterly unruffled and unruffling. it’s the very definition of soothing. it might sound, in its quieter intervals, the ones where it’s merely ticking and tocking, like water dripping. because i’ve been reading all about clocks, i understand why i hear the water-drop sounds. in ancient times, back near the beginning of measured time, the greeks devised a water clock, realizing that the drips fell at a particular rate per hour, and thus could be harnessed for time-telling purposes.

i tried to find out if there was some physiologic connection between the sound of time ticking and the workings of the human body, the heart perhaps. i’ve not yet found my answer, but i have a hunch: the sound of a ticking clock is the closest we’ll come to the in utero sounds, when our newly-formed ear was pressed against the wall of our mama’s womb, and the whooshing and swooshing of her heart was the first thing we heard, was the round-the-clock soundtrack of our very beginning.

i know that in nature there’s a particular universal set of shapes and designs and symmetries and proportions (consider the snowflake or the rose petal, the starfish or even the tiger’s striped face), and that the patterns repeat and repeat throughout creation. mathematicians and artists alike have spent their lives obsessed with these ineffable truths. they’ve put names to them, names like divine proportion or the miraculous spiral.

i like to imagine God dipping into God’s paint kit to pull from that oft-used palette, applying God’s favorites here, there, and everywhere. do you think it’s true too of the patterns of sound? clock ticking = water dripping = human heart, no matter how you rearrange it. do you think God had a shortlist of sounds, of ones reserved for the soothingest jobs?

affection for clocks is not new in this old house. in one of those curious entwinings of the histories we’ve woven together in this adventure called “our married life,” the tall bespectacled fellow and i both grew up with grandparents whose walls were covered in clocks, and whose hours erupted in cacophonous gongs and chimes and whistles and tweets (in the cases, of course, of the cuckoo clocks). sleeping at grandma’s, for both of us, meant falling asleep and awaking to clang upon clang upon cuckoo.

long ago, in our very first house, we hung on our wall a simple kitchen clock, one with gingerbread carvings and etchings in paint the color of gold. it had belonged to the tall one’s grandfather, and i’ve long considered it the heart sound of this old house. i didn’t need another one.

but the man i married started thinking about clocks a few years ago, when i was writing a book called “slowing time,” and he thought a clock was the perfect way to mark the birth of that dream. we’d considered a true grandfather clock, one that stood against the wall like a wood-limbed soldier. every once in a while we’d amble through a clock shop, one where the clocks came with history, and sometimes with pedigree.

then we traveled to london, and beelined our way to big ben, the best clock that ever there was, you might argue (and i might). we stood beneath that tower of chiming and gonging, feeling the sidewalk beneath us quiver with the vibration of the bells. we listened and listened, made sure we were there for high noon and midnight, to get the full bravura.

a year passed, and for me, another decade ended, a new one began. we went back to the clock shop, and this time, we both stopped in front of the clock that sounded just like big ben.

my beloved blair bought it, the clock man gave it a cleaning, and a few days later i drove back to carefully carefully carry it home.

it’s home now. it chimes now. we call it little ben. every time i hear its chimes, i melt all over again. i can’t seem to help it.

my sweet blair, a very wise soul in the deepest and surest of ways, he stood back the other evening, the glow of the lamps falling across his face, and whispered quietly, “it’s a celebration of time.”

and it is. every minute noted, every quarter hour chimed. every hour a loud and resonant reminder: the time is now, savor it.

bless you, and thank you, sweet blair. and little ben, too.

if you click the link just below the clock (way above), you can hear a bit of the ticking and half-hour chiming (i hope!). and be sure to note that i’ve linked to big ben announcing high noon in the paragraph near the bottom, the one about traveling to london. both are your clock songs for the day. 

a few things i learned about westminster chimes: they first rang out from the church of st. mary the great, in cambridge, england. the year was 1793. the chimes are comprised of four permutations of four pitches, all in the key of E major. three crotchets (or quarter notes) are followed by a minim (half note). and they’re believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from handel’s messiah. they were first heard in america in 1875, ringing out from the steeple of trinity episcopal church in williamsport, pennsylvania. and, the first two notes are the very ones heard to this day on every NYC subway train, warning that doors are about to close. the whole shebang is played at yankee stadium whenever the home team scores. and if there’s a 3-point shot that glides through the basket on the LA laker’s home court, you’ll hear it there too. 

do you, too, love the tick and the tock of a clock? do you have a clock story to tell? what are the sounds that most soothe you, or make you feel as if God is whispering in your ear?

ten: a decade of keeping close watch

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a decade is long. a decade is 10, of course. but in this particular case, a decade is the distance between a little boy who was five, and finding his way through kindergarten, and now, a sophomore in high school, a sophomore wishing he was in a faraway high school. a decade is the distance, too, between a boy of 13, an eighth grader who dared his mama to type her way into the dawn (otherwise known by the hardly poetic verb blogging), and the man he is today, 23, and heading to law school.

a decade, too, is the distance i’ve grown since the dawn of december 12, 2006, when i tiptoed into the dim light of my writing room, once the garage of this old house, and sat down to type.

what i wrote that long-ago morning was this:

we are looking for everyday grace. i believe that in quietly choosing a way of being, a way of consciously stitching grace and Beauty into the whole cloth of our days, we can sew love where before there was only one moment passing into another. making the moment count, that’s what it’s about here. inhaling, and filling your lungs and your soul with possibility. learning to breathe again. learning to listen to the quiet, blessed tick and the tock of your heart. filling your soul with great light so that, together, we can shoosh away the darkness that tries always to seep in through the cracks, wherever they might be. please, pull up a chair….

everyday grace, surely, is the shimmering something we’ve found, the holiest thing. it’s there when you look, when you pay close attention. but it’s so easily missed. you need to attend to your post in the watchtower of life. need to be on the lookout, ever on the lookout. you’ve no idea where or when it will come, the everyday grace. it doesn’t arrive with trumpet blast, nor even a rat-a-tat drumroll. true grace is not seeking applause. simply the certain knowledge that it’s just brushed by, grazed against the contours of your heart and your soul. and it leaves you, every time, just a little bit wiser, a little more certain that Holy is all around.

and the quiet we set out to find, it’s infused every square inch of this space. in a world torn at the seams by incivility, in a world where, day after day, tenderness is trampled under the hard boot heels of hate and bullying and a toughen-up attitude, we’ve stayed gentle. we’ve traded in tenderness. we’ve held up a radiant grace, a blessedness that stitches hearts into a whole. and we’ve done it right here on the internet, the mad-dash highway that seems to traffic in all the things that this table is not.

when i think across the arc of years since i first faced the blank black screen (for back in the day, the words here were white against a canvas of black, an inside-out contrast that drove at least one dear friend cockeyed and made her dizzy besides), i tick through this litany: two grade-school graduations, one each from high school and college; a move halfway across the country, and a move back home; a whole presidency, and too many tragedies to begin to count. over the decade, i left my newspaper job, wrote two books, grew a garden, simmered a few stews, stirred countless bowls of porridge, dried even more tears. i’ve kissed goodbye two beloved friends, and a father-in-law like no other. we’ve watched a kid learn to read, another learn to row, nursed and buried a very old cat, counted stars, chased after the moon, sent my mama off to surgery twice, but mostly marveled at her devotion for tuesday night dinners, plied week after week for nearly two dozen years.

in all this sacred time here at the table, i’ve made and deepened friendships. i’ve stood back and watched strangers reach out across the way, find shared communion, grow close in friendships all their own. i’ve listened closely, taken notes, as the two boys i love have wound their way through the landscape of their lives. i’ve loved them in double time as i put their words, their stories, to ink. i’ve netted a moment or two worth savoring, worth holding to the light, worth keeping as long as i’m alive — and then some.

i hadn’t much clue where this typing would go, back on the first day i started. i certainly never dreamed that 10 years later, i’d still be typing, finding my way. i hadn’t a clue that here, in the sacred space of our shared creation, i’d find the holy bliss i’d always been after. i suppose i’ve always been a make-believe girl, and here, at the table, i used the one sure thing i know — words typed into inklings, carved into thoughts, emerged as insights — to claim a space i knew was possible: a place where radiance lights the way, and gentle truth is our guidepost.

on the dawn that marked the first full whirl around the sun (a year that had me writing five days a week, every single weekday), i wrote:

we set out — me and my soul and my fingers — to see where we’d get if we were dropped, one distant december, in the snowiest woods. if we stayed there for a year, groped around, poked under leaves, sat by a babbling brook. looked skyward. counted moonbeams and twinkling stars.

some days, i swear, my ol’ boots, the ones i wear when i’m hiking, meandering about in the woods, they felt like 100-pound weights on each foots.

more often, though, i was barefoot and running through meadows. i was catching a glimpse of the butterfly wing. feeling the gentle fingers of God on my shoulder. hearing the sound of my heart thumping, and thumping some more.

i only kept doing the smartest thing i know if what you want is to get from place A to place Somewhere: i put one foot in front of the other. kept my eyes mighty peeled. my heart too.

and look, here, where we are.

we made it through the woods, all right. but the thing is, along the way, i found a something in the woods that fills my lungs, that makes my blood run quick. that gives me something to think mighty hard about.

i’m thinkin’ maybe the woods is a beautiful place, a place that offers me and my soul just what we need.

with all my heart, thank you and bless you for making this a most beautiful space in the holiest decade of my one sweet life. more to come….

amen.

love, bam xoxox

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what lit your way through the last holy decade? 

maybe this will help…

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it’s not even six on the big-faced clock that hangs above the kitchen door, just beside the cookstove. it’s pitch black outside. i couldn’t sleep. again.

that’s how it’s been so many nights of late.

the truth is, i feel broken. deep down inside and all around. it’s the state of the world. the state of domestic affairs (and by that i do mean the nation). and a few other worries besides.

i try not to bring my bundle of knots here to the table. i’ve tried mightily not to be a cry baby. but the truth is, the past few weeks have steamrolled me. maybe you too? as much as i cringe at institutions and norms being turned on their heads, like so many chairs in a tavern strewn after a beer brawl, it’s the oozing of hate, of ugly words, and pent-up outbursts that’s making me quake deep inside. getting to be it’s hard to go a day without bumping into someone spewing some sort of ugly all over the place.

i’m not wired for that. i’m guessing neither are you. when God was making me, i must have been funneled through the light-weight department. i’m of delicate nerve, i suppose. which is why, too often, i shatter. (fear not, God was looking out for me, so i got a double dose of feist, which when in desperate straits i can muster. been known more than once to pull myself up my bootstraps. i’ve taken blows that could have toppled me for good. some day i’ll tell some of those tales. but for now suffice it to say i’m equal parts shatterable and watch-me-pick-up-the-pieces, leaning toward the latter.)

which is where this tried-and-tested old table of friends comes to the rescue. i stumbled into something so good the other day, i had to haul it over here. it’s a book i was reading for work (God bless a job that commands you to read and read deeply). and while i’m not keen on self-help tomes of any kind (truth is — and we’re truth-telling here this dark morning — books that promise salvation-by-baby-step, they make my skin crawl; i’m flat-out allergic), this particular book, which hadn’t set out to fix me or anyone else, more or less set in cement something i’ve always believed: you can find your way out of your brokenness by exercising rampant and wild love beyond measure.

or, as the brilliant ann voskamp writes in her breathtaking new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life:

“we can be the brokers of healing exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”  

or: “God is drawn to broken things — so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

and: “maybe the love gets in easier where the heart’s broke open?” a theory posited by voskamp’s young son.

a canadian wheat farmer’s wife and “the mama of a half dozen crazy exuberant kids,” as she often puts it, voskamp has known grief all her life. ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. it’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and pierce the sharp edge along “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

it’s a grief that led her into the deep well of darkness: “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?”

and yet, out of that brokenness, voskamp, who five years ago wrote the runaway bestseller, One Thousand Gifts, finds a way toward blessing. she comes to understand that operating out of love—a wild, abundant love—wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. in one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. and that’s just the start of it.

she leans into science to back up her scheme, the review of general psychology, in particular, and a study that showed that “those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t.” and here’s why, according to voskamp’s squad of research psychologists: “when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins. acts of kindness reduce anxiety, and strengthen the immune system. five random acts of kindness can increase happiness for up to three months later.”

in this particular instance i’m going with it, abandoning the newsroom adage of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” i’m flat-out buying the science, and the instruction, because frankly anyone got a brighter idea?

i might call it the fireworks rule. do something kind, do something crazily wild driven by love, and don’t tell a soul that you’ve done it, then wait for that tickle, that pop, that night sky of sparkle and light, rising up from deep down inside. it’s the lightning bolt of adrenaline, perhaps, oxytocin oozing all over. it’s God, maybe, tapping you there on the heart, whispering, “hey, sweetheart, high five. that’s what i’m talking about when i talk about love. love and love madly. love with abandon.”

voskamp circles back to her newfangled notion a few chapters later, when she asks: “why hadn’t somebody showed up a long time ago in a three-piece suit to tell me those small acts of intentional love actually trigger the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, the soothing hormone of maternal bonding? that little acts of love actually release dopamine, the hormone associated with positive emotions and a natural high? why hadn’t anyone told me: bend low in small acts of love, and you literally get ‘high’?”

chances are, we knew this already. or at least we had a mighty strong hunch. and chances are, too, we’ve lived it. given it the occasional workout.

but somehow, in this long stretch of feeling quite bulldozed and broken, voskamp’s words and her litany of random, wild abandon loving, it all went a long way toward helping me see the dim light of hope in the distance.

in case you’re inclined to play along, here’s more from the list of crazy wild loving that filled one voskamp day, a day that happened to be voskamp’s own birthday: she filled a mason jar with gladiolas from her garden, and drove them to an old man she knew in a nursing home. but she didn’t stop at just his room, she and her kids ran up and down the halls, leaving a trail of mason-jar glads, room after room. and on their way into town, they drove past a squad car and circled back to leave a box of cookies on the hood, hoping aloud that it wasn’t “mistaken for a bomb.” then, for the joy of it, the whole lot of them grabbed a pie at the market and dropped it off at the town doctor’s office, to “thank him for catching babies.” then, they stopped at a coffee shop, and sprang for the coffees of every single person in line. next up, a dozen donuts dropped off at the town hall. just because.

that’s not all. voskamp wondered aloud what would happen if you walked into a diner, and whispered to the waitress that you’re paying for the dinner of that family over in the corner, a family you’d never before seen, and likely wouldn’t see again. and all that was preamble to the litany i mentioned above: the bubblegum quarters, the windshield parking fees, the cart piled with groceries, paid for in full.

be audacious is the point. love audaciously, the insistence.

“don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake that moves another heart to give,” voskamp writes. “what if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?”

i’m willing to subscribe to the voskamp theory of tremors and earthquakes of kindness. i’m willing to sign my name to the roster of crazies.

it’s the closest i’ve come in the past few weeks to seeing my way toward the light. and i’m lurching toward that flickering flame.

before it goes out.

how bout you? since the whole point is not to divulge your own wild acts of kindness, how bout recounting the times you’ve been so blessed out of the blue? perhaps a litany of blessing, of random kindness exercised madly, is just what the doctor ordered to lift us out of our blues?

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

rapt

rapt

you could bury your nose in it. the honeybees do.

rapt-beewe’re easing into the deep of it. or perhaps it’s that the deep is deepening and we’re being immersed. being wrapped in it. rapt.

rapt would be my posture of late.

rapt /rapt/ adj. 1. completely fascinated and absorbed. 2. literary filled with intense and pleasant emotion.

oh, i am rapt.

i seem to glisten through the days. and the nights. oh, the nights. it’s alive and it’s soft all over. it’s september, once summer surrenders. once the hot air balloon, and the sauna, finally exhale. and the next inhale is crisp, is cooler, and the light now has shifted. the edges, to my eyes anyway, are sharp, exquisitely so. the colors are deeper, more amber, molasses. the bright white of summer has faded. i can make out the fine grain again.

by night, the windows are open, and the hum doesn’t come from air conditioners down the block anymore. they’ve gone quiet — at last. now, the night belongs to the low-simmering song of the cricket, and the rising chorus of dawn. and the breeze. curtains quiver. bedsheets do too. rather than flinging them off, i’m just as apt to pull them taut around my shoulders, up to my chin. and the moon. did you happen to drink that one in? the harvest moon on the rise last night, the one that ignited the blue-black, silver-stitched dome, the one that cast moon shadow every which way. the one that promises even more when it rises tonight, in its fullest wholeness.

and by day, by day i’ve had hummingbirds dancing all week. a trinity of humming hummers, of hovering wings, darting and dodging, and dashing in for a drink, a deep-throated drink. whole chunks of minutes have passed, as i stop and i stare. enraptured. they seem not to mind when i tiptoe quite close. when i stand just under the branch or the wire where they’ve plunked their wee bums, and take my turn at drinking them in.

out my kitchen window, the hydrangea blooms droop. not that they’re withering, or giving up for the season. they’re simply so zaftig they can’t seem to bear their own weight, their heft, their marvelousness. so they sag, this way and that. and all i can see through the panes of the window are the voluptuous blooms that invite in the honeybees and the rare fluttering monarch.

these are the days when to be alive is to be rapt in prayer. i know i am. all day, hour upon hour, i feel the brushstroke of the Divine gentle against the nape of my neck, the small of my back, the bare flesh of my arms. and, surely, it’s prayer that keeps my heart pulsing.

every blessed act of each day — whole strings of the tiniest, mostly unnoticed (tucking a fresh vase of blooms by the side of my little one’s bed, sliding an after-school snack onto the counter, knowing he’ll see it, hoping he’ll know it’s a whispered “i love you” set out in apples and crackers and cheese) — each one is a prayer without words. each one is my heart and my soul offering up the closest i know how to come to turning my hours over to God. to saying thank you for the breath and the heartbeat. thank you for the chance to brush up against the holiness that is this amber-drenched september day, this one latest chance to absorb, yes, to inhale, yes. but even more to put my enrapture to work, to say thank you in my own small acts of paying attention, in my own small acts of love and tender kindness.

because all around me is God’s immeasurable magnificence, a tapestry of jeweled stitches in which i am rapt. so deeply vigorously rapt.

rapt-endnote

 are you rapt? and what is stirring your holy rapture? 

p.s. and in case you wondered about those pins and needles of last week: no word yet. 

hummingbird wisdom, continued

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six months ago, my dear and longtime friend mary ellen sullivan died. she was a writer, a chronicler of joy, i called her when i sat down to write her obituary, trying to distill her essence into a few short sentences and paragraphs that swept across the arc of a life too short. a month or so after she died, i found out she’d written me into her will, appointed me the keeper of her “creative work.” it’s a mantle i accept with heavy heart. a week ago, on a hot august afternoon, i met her brother in her emptied-out apartment, and he handed me boxes and boxes and boxes, her creative work, in all its iterations. it was perhaps the heaviest load of papers i’ve ever tried to lift. i didn’t wait long to open the lid of one of the boxes, to lift pages, to begin to read, to inhale the story of a life i knew well, a story told this time in mary ellen’s own words. i all but felt her beside me, or sitting across the table. i knew the intonations, the emphases of every single sentence. i knew she’d tiptoe into my dreams. i knew she’d left wisdom that i was to unearth, to not let die along with her.

night after night, i pulled up to the kitchen table, not far from the screen door, where the breeze blew in, not far from the night sounds, the buzzsaw of cicada, the chirp of the crickets. i’d pile a stack of journals and notebooks and paper-clipped papers to my left, papers lifted from the boxes that waited in the dark of another room, the load of mary ellen’s boxes.

it was, i tell you, like sitting down with a dear friend, pulling in close enough to brush knees against knees. it was as if i’d said, “so tell me your story,” and thus she began, in whispers. i’d known these chapters in real time, and here i was, reading, hearing the whole of it in details sometimes so intimate i closed the book and tucked it aside. i promise you my tender heart is guiding me through what’s mine to shepherd to light, and what’s best tucked away.

i read page after page from the writing classes she’d take, from the book about africa she’d long hoped to write, to publish.

and then i picked up this: two stapled pages, curled and yellowed at the edges, typed in a font from computers of long ago, early HP perhaps. i read the first sentence, and started to tremble. i had a hard time reading through tears, but this is what i began to read…

“If I were to die in five minutes, I would miss sleeping, and the warm wood of my apartment floor. I would miss talking to Barbie on the phone on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee in my hands. I would miss running errands in the neighborhood and going for long hard runs after work when the air is clean and cool and gives you the shivers when your sweat starts to dry. I would miss the ocean most of all. Any ocean, any beach. The feel of wet sand between my toes and the waves breaking over my body and the sand going from warm to cool in the early evening when the sun starts to set and everyone but me and my family leave the beach and we just sit there and talk and read and watch the sand turn purple and the water a deep blue and the sky orange and very beautiful. I will miss running in the water and splashing so much that you might as well go swimming so you do.

“I’ll miss kissing a man for the first time…..”

and then, i tell you, i could barely read, the tears were falling so hard, so fast. (they are now, truth be told….) so i waited, and breathed, and wiped away the tears, and i looked back at the page, the page trembling in my hands by then, and i read the litany of things my friend would miss, if she were to die in five minutes, five minutes from the moment she wrote all those words. in fact, she died on march 13, 2016, far sooner than she’d ever imagined. she never thought the ovarian cancer would kill her. she fully intended to vanquish the cancer. to become someone who had had cancer.

but my friend who died, who wrote this litany in a writing class, an exercise titled, “death is the name,” who wrote this thinking death was the last thing that would ever happen to her (yes, i see the unintended word play, and i’m ignoring it), whose words i now inhaled half a year after she had died, she wrote that she’d miss her down comforter, and staying up late by herself and “the freedom the night gives.” she wrote that she’d miss the first taste of an expensive dinner, and the last gritty drop of a bottle of red wine. she wrote that she’d miss hot baths and getting lost in paperbacks.

her sentences grew more and more beautiful, the deeper she sank into the exercise, wrapping herself in the velvet cloak of worldly magnificence.

i was struck, hard and deep, by the simplicity of the litany. the depth and dimension of each pulsing joy, now taken away.

she made me think hard about how our lives are stitched of thin but mighty threads, glimmering delicate threads, threads we’d be wise to notice, to run our fingers across, again and again, for they’re what’s woven into the beautiful whole.

our lives, she made me realize once again, are a textured tapestry of heartache and joy, of blessing and softness and shadow and light, of everyday wonders that awake us to the moment, so the moments slow to a pause, so we behold each blessed minute of our awareness, our awakeness, so each hour is relished for the gift that it is. so not an hour goes by unnoticed.

“if i were to die in five minutes,” she wrote. and i read those words six months after she did. and thus, each word came to me as if shouted through a megaphone: be awake. pay attention. savor the blessed, the beautiful.

the warmth of the mug you hold in your palms? notice it. bless it. you’ll so miss it when it’s gone, when you’re gone.

a question and a challenge: what would you miss, what blessing upon blessing across the quotidian arc of your day? make a list, compile your litany. and then, pay closest attention today. and tomorrow. and the day after. my friend mary ellen would love you for that.

i titled this “hummingbird wisdom, continued,” because my friend mary ellen was all about the hummingbird. she wrote a blog called, on the wings of the hummingbird. and she once wrote these words explaining her captivation with the hover-winged bird:

“My favorite description of the hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’

“Guilty as charged.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

if i’d known…

bambkchuppah

a quarter century ago, on a steamy august sunday afternoon, i remember peeking out my bedroom window into the backyard of the house where i grew up. i remember the swiss lace curtains rippling in the breeze, catching in my veil. down below, beneath a canopy of old oaks, oaks whose boughs arced across the yard, a dappled dome of leaves reaching out to oak leaves, tidy rows of white wooden chairs stood sentry. a brass quintet began to play. the chairs filled in.

boysand me weddingmy father wasn’t there, had been gone 10 long years by then, so my brothers, all four of them, took me by the arms. i’d walked down the stairs i’d once tumbled down as a clumsy little girl, the ones where i sat after bee stings, on afternoons when my mama dried my tears. we’d walked out the front door, my brothers and i, arm in arm in arm, the five of us, and threaded through the garden gate. the late august garden was in bloom; my mother had made sure of that. and there, at the dip at the bottom of a sloping lawn, where the chairs gave way to chuppah, was the tall, dark, quite handsome fellow to whom i would wed my life.

BKsyl

we wed — in catholic and jewish, with priest and rabbi, and chuppah and seven blessings and smashing of the glass. we wed under the cathedral of trees, and all the while i worried that my beloved’s 80-something-year-old grandma might cave in from heat and sauna-like steaminess. (i’d prayed for no rain, and my prayers were answered; i forgot to pray for no sauna.) i remember much of that day, frame after frame still tumbles clearly through my memory, because a wise soul had instructed me: freeze-frame the moments, one after another, seal it to your soul.

but now, 25 years after that picture perfect day, i’m afforded a perspective, a longview, that shifts and changes everything. the whole of it is deepened, the colors richer, the lines sharper-edged, even as the pictures in the album begin to fade. it is a portrait of life and love in all its messy, wrenching iterations, and, yes, in all its magnificence. it’s a portrait i take in with breath-catching awe. love does not come easy, but love when it lasts, when it sinks deep down into your marrow, it carries you to places you’d not imagined, places you never thought you’d know. it carries you across unbearable stretches, and delivers you to moments you’ll never forget.

from where i stand now, i can see all that’s unfurled since that august sunday. i can see the light and shadow. i recall the hours when my heart pounded so hard i could hear it thumping sharp against my hollow chest wall. i riffle through the frames, the glories and the tight spots. i can see the night when i nearly howled in sorrow, when my baby girl’s string-bean of a tiny self slipped into my hands, miscarried in the deep of darkness. just beyond the bathroom door was the man i’d wed.

the man i wed is in every single frame of every single story that matters.

when i tick through the litany — the life and death, the anguish, the exhaustion — that we’ve navigated, side-by-side, heart-to-heart, i begin to catch a glimpse of the rootedness of what it means to whisper vows, to seal promise after promise, before a crowd of those you love, of those who’ve known you longest, or best, or most deeply.

we made a promise to be the hand at the small of each other’s back. we made a promise to search always for joy, for hope, and to find and collect sparks of God all along the way.

we could not have known that there would come a day when that meant one of us was staring at her watch in a surgical waiting room outside the chamber where the doctors threaded a wire into the heart of the other one of us, and we both prayed mightily that they’d zap just the right spot, and the awfulness would end.

we could not have known that there would be a day when emergency room doctors would look us in the eye and talk of airlifts and our firstborn’s spinal cord. and, during that longest hour of our lives, we would both pray the very same prayer. and we would both end with signs of the cross (his made backwards, because he’d never before made one, but this moment seemed to beg the unimaginable).

we could not have known of the late-night phone calls, the sleepless nights, the groggy mornings when the bad news wouldn’t lift, and we felt sunk before we even slid from under the covers.

but we do know now. and we know that somehow — together, as much as deep inside the solitude of our own many-chambered souls — we found our way to the clearing, to the place where shafts of light once again dapple the landscape.

we’ve tread together the topography of deeply-held promises. we know the canyons of despair. and we’ve glimpsed our share of beauties from the rises along the trail.

there are particular lessons to be learned in long years entwined. when the one soul you count on — even when you’re without a clue of just how you’ll navigate the latest labyrinth  — is the one who’s watched your hair streak through with silver, and your face grow etched with lines.

we’ve inscribed the pages of our book, the chapters of our life well and deeply loved. we’ve birthed two souls, breathed all we could into their every day and struggle. we’ve made a home, a sacred refuge where the door is always open, an extra place always set. we’ve kept our promises.

if i’d only known. i would walk down that aisle once again. i’d take your hand — and your heart. and i’d whisper all those promises. from this day on, for life.

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what a quarter century has brought me: this huddle of the deepest love

amen.

i know that life journeys come in countless iterations — alone, entwined, shattered by loss. and while i don’t often write of the one to whom i’m married, i couldn’t help being struck by the power of love long-held. love sealed august 25, 1991.

what’s the love that sustains you? or what lessons have you learned across the long haul? 

p.s. prayers for someone i love having hip surgery monday. prayers for everyone at the table — especially one particular mama — weathering heartache. 

finding miss rumphius

miss rumphius

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?

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