pull up a chair

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

Category: blessings

when wonder comes wrapped in exclamation!

nose pressed to the windowpane, watching the whirl blow in, i’m inclined to think i’m not alone in counting this mandatory pause among the gifts of the season. the world stilled amid the madness that preambles christmas. i proclaim it perfect

it ushers in a particular, succulent quiet. reminds us how little we are. how frail against the forces that blow, that stir, that upturn the outside, right down to the toppling pinecones.

oh, sure, it’s thrown a few maybes into the yuletide equation: maybe the flight will be canceled; maybe the package won’t plop; maybe the lights will go out (and so too the fridge, which would be a considerable bummer since a beast of considerable proportion is currently napping inside, and unlikely to wait out a warming).

but then again, it’s a grand excuse for extra-thick blankets and long afternoons turning page upon page. it stirs me to kindle candlewicks. simmer cinnamon sticks and starry anise, fistfuls of cranberry and wedges of orange.

and, oh, the sound of wind whistling…

in keeping with the quiet, i’m simply leaving here a few little trinkets in hopes that one, two, or all will add a bit of glimmer to your blizzardy almost-christmas day: my favorite christmas poem; a twelfth-century recipe from hildegrad of bingen; two passages from those who’ve considered the longest night, one from a children’s picture book and the other from the great naturalist henry beston, whose writings i cannot get enough of. and, never too late, a wonder of hand-painted blessing: an inspiration candle made by one of my favorite souls on the planet, the glorious elizabeth marie, who dreamed up these beacons of light with which to kindle your prayers, hopes, and wishes…

merry blessed christmas. merry quiet christmas. merry wonder out the window.


we begin with a poem i count among my very favorites….

The Work of Christmas
by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.


and, should you be inclined to bake one last batch of deliciousness, here’s a recipe from the twelfth century’s hildegard of bingen, a recipe sent my way by a dear friend of the chair, a modern-day saint by the name of kerry.

HILDEGARD JOY COOKIES

For St. Hildegard – a beloved mystic, prolific writer, medicine woman, Benedictine nun, herbalist, musician and one of only four female Doctors of the Church – Joy cookies are to be eaten often! Literally, she said three or four a day! The recipe is found in her book “Subtleties of the Diverse Qualities of Created Things” and comes under the heading for nutmeg.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg (nux muscata) has great heat and good moderation in its powers. If a person eats nutmeg, it will open up his heart, make his judgement free from obstruction and give him a good disposition. Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine whole spelt flour and water.

In her own words she wrote, “nutmeg … will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open the heart and impaired senses, and make the mind cheerful. It purifies your senses and diminishes all harmful humors. It gives good liquid to your blood and makes you strong.”

Hildegard also loved spelt flour, which she believed soothed the mind, so together these two ingredients account for a large part of the positive effects of Hildegard cookies.

Joy Cookies Ingredients:

3⁄4 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
1⁄4 tsp salt
1 1⁄2 cup spelt flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves

Directions:
Let butter soften and then cream it with the brown sugar. Beat in the egg. Sift the dry ingredients. Add half the dry ingredients and mix. Add the other half and mix thoroughly. Dough may be chilled to make it workable. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Form walnut- sized balls of dough, place on greased and floured cookie sheet and press flat. Bake 10-12 minutes (till edges are golden brown) Cool for 5 minutes, remove from cookie sheet and finish cooling on racks.


and with a nod toward the longest night, the winter solstice, of this past week, i share two considerations. the first from a children’s book, and the second from one of the last century’s finest naturalists, the great henry beston.

an excerpt from susan cooper’s The Shortest Day, illustrations by carson ellis:

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.

and may your year, too, be kept very much alive….

***

and from henry beston:

In the old Europe which inherited from the Bronze Age, this great feast of the Solstice was celebrated with multitudinous small fires lit throughout the countryside. Fire and the great living sun — perhaps it would be well to honor again these two great aspects of the flame. It might help us to remember the meaning of fire before the hands and fire as a symbol. As never before, our world needs warmth in its cold, metallic heart, warmth to go on and face what has been made of human life, warmth to remain humane and kind.

Henry Beston, Northern Farm

and finally, and with regret for not having shared this sooner, my brilliant friend elizabeth marie (one of the most artful souls i know) was inspired one good friday to paint the blessed virgin mary on a tall votive flask, into which she tucked a pillar candle, and named it the intention candle, the idea being that we might kindle our prayer, and set forth our intentions, all while a flame flickers. each one of elizabeth marie & co.’s intention candles (there are now three designs: lily madonna, golden madonna, our lady of hope) is hand-crafted, and wrapped with equal attention to detail and beauty. i think they’re breathtakingly lovely, and imagine friends here at the virtual table might think so too. take a peek here. and maybe send to someone you love, including your very own self!

image atop this post is from tasha tudor’s heavenly Take Joy! a compendium of christmas-y merriments, published in 1966

and how do you take your wonder come the season of glistening light in the night…..

and may yours be the merriest of christmases, be it quiet or raucous, in whispers or shouts, and may you be surrounded by those you most dearly love, whether in flesh or by heart…bless you this christmas most deeply….

the littlest tree and the beating heart of Christmas . . .

shuffling in from the tree lot––the Christmas tree lot––with the littlest tree that nearly ever there grew, and once i’d kerplunked the pitiful seedling in its far-too-big tree stand (the yuletide equivalent of a saggy pair of dungarees slipping down to the knees of an undersized tot), i sat right down to pen my apologia to my faraway boys.

my mea culpa unfolded thusly: 

sweet boys, we have adopted this year, from the neediest Christmas tree farm, the wee littlest tree you ever did see. he very much wanted a home, and we shall be taking name nominations starting now. he’s an inflationary victim, the poor little sprout (there’s a name, Sprout!), as trees are in short short supply (and they’re short!). we’ve gussied him up with a santa cap, cranberry ropes (don’t tell him they’re wooden), and the lovely quilted skirt that will soon be an heirloom. a standard-sized tree topped 200 bucks this year, and for two weeks of Christmas that is not allowed. (just think, your tree funds will be shifted to the beef tenderloin fund, which is much more delicious anyway.) the little fellow smells just like the woods, and i am certain a bird might land in him soon. i beg your mercies in embracing this little guy. he tried with ALLLLL his might to grow like the big guys, but he just didn’t have it in him, and here in this house we love the ones on the margins, even the trees. xoxoxox deepest apologies if you are duly disappointed…

xox 

didn’t take but a minute for the one i might forever call our “little one” to ping right back: 

I like underdogs

and then:

This tree seems like a underdog

and so my upside-down day was snapped into crystal-clear focus: the message of Christmas delivered, and echoed. 

it’s all about heart, and dimensions don’t matter. nor superlatives. nor getting it right. nor any of the vexations that sometimes tangle me in my own unlit strands.

never mind the panting toward some imaginary finish line, as once again our festival of lights and our feast of nativity wedge their way into the same single overbooked week. never mind the slab of brisket i need to fetch from the butcher, or the welcome-home mac-n-cheese i need to slide in the oven, while dashing to an incoming plane at an airport many miles south (after picking up grammy plenty miles north, making for a 78-mile loop on a holiday weekend afternoon). and never mind the onerous chore that just yesterday had us signing last wills and testaments, which i can assure puts something of a damper on the jolly spirit of christmas. (one of those “responsible-grownup” tasks right up there with root canals!)

all of it vanished, the panting, the worries, the how-will-get-it-all-dones, in the flick of a text (the modernday spin on a wink of the eye, and a twist of the head, as clement c. moore immortally put it). 

the kid needed no convincing. no need to shovel lament. he was ready to love the littlest tree.

in years past i’d taken some ribbing––and serious protest––for my proclivities toward picking the spindliest trees. so i figured a misshapen midget of a fraser fir might have me taking my Christmas out in the doghouse (and since we’ve no dog, the fair equivalent might have been sheltering under the seed trough). 

thus, i’d decided to nip protests in the bud, devised my long-winded defense. 

and the lightning-quick reply––I like underdogs––made me see what should have been clear all along: the kid with the very big heart needs no convincing, no urging to consider the plight of the nearly forgotten. 

This tree seems like a underdog

he’s the kid who long, long ago taught me to watch out for worms, who led me on moon walks, and insisted he stand on the very same spot where abraham lincoln once stood so he could recite the line from the gettysburg address that made him break into tears every time: “we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” and, on that gray pennsylvania day in 2009, when we asked why the tears, he choked out what to him seemed blatantly obvious, “it’s the soldiers.” a sadness too big for his second-grade heart.

he’s 21 now. old enough to drink, drive, and drop a vote in the ballot box. and that heart, it only grows bigger. 

hearts have a way of finding each other, the truest hearts anyway.

so, once again, he’s pointed the way to the bright heart of the season. and the littlest tree, the tree with no name yet, will stand tall and stand proud on its upturned crate. because in this old house, underdogs are always, always the heroes. 

and ours is now dressed in mighty regalia: santa cap, blinking lights (they’ll be switched out, soon as i get to the Christmas light store), and string upon string of bright wooden berries. and up on the milk crate, he’s gotten some inches. our sorry old tree isn’t so sorry, hauled in from the cold, given due glory.


here’s a beauty of a poem, just because it stirred me. . . a poem about rising up, about beauty from ashes. . .

such beauty from ashes
by carolyn marie rodgers**

and we are singing our hearts out, and
our souls are in our eyes,
and they are beautiful souls.
they are souls of truth.
they are souls of love.
they are souls of faith.
they are souls of hope.
and we have conquered a little corner in the
world of fear.

and we have stepped up and forward,
    and we have torn down walls.
we have smashed sound barriers between us.
we have dared again and again and yet again to dream,
and our dreams have finally taken material form.
we have changed our hearts.
we have altered and changed our minds,
and because of this, we now have some
    valor and strength,
and we are threatening to change the world.
that it     might be a better place.
For us and for all god’s children.
for all that we are.
for all that we might be
we have done it.
And we rise now as one voice, with many harmonies,
Through the mystery and beauty of harmony.
One voice

    Though many, for one, for all.
For all the earth to grow and know,
From the mounds of ashes of our dead, our martyred,
Our lambs, our sacrificed, those who died and have been dead
So long, so long they are no more than, nor any less than,
Sacred memories. Mountains of ashes, of our sweet, beloved,
Beautiful dead.
Today, what beauty we now have, to gain strength from to continue on,
Beauty,
From ashes.

***

**Born in Chicago on December 14, 1940, Carolyn Marie Rodgers was born to Clarence Rodgers, a welder, and his wife, Bazella. The last born of four children, her family had moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Chicago’s South Side, where Rodgers grew up. Early in her career, Rodgers was associated with the Black Arts Movement, attending writing workshops led by Gwendolyn Brooks and through the Organization of Black American Culture. Rodgers’s poetry collections include Paper Soul (1968); Songs of a Black Bird (1969), which won the Poet Laureate Award of the Society of Midland Authors; her best-known book, how i got ovah: New and Selected Poems (1975), a finalist for the National Book Award in 1976; The Heart as Ever Green: Poems (1978); and Morning Glory: Poems (1989).

Rodgers’s poetry addresses feminist issues, including the role of Black women in society, though her work evolved over time from a militant stance to one more focused on the individual and Christianity. Other themes she explored in her poetry include mother-daughter relationships, relationships between Black men and Black women, street life, and love. In addition to poetry, Rodgers wrote plays, short stories, and essays. She worked as a book critic for the Chicago Daily News and as a columnist for the Milwaukee Courier.

Rodgers founded Third World Press in 1967 with Haki Madhubuti, Johari Amini, and Roschell Rich and began Eden Press with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. She was as a social worker through the YMCA and taught at various colleges. She was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent in 2009 on the campus of Chicago State University. She died in 2010 in Chicago, at the age of 69.

—abridged bio taken from the Poetry Foundation


and here is the heavenly late cartoonist George Booth’s last New Yorker Christmas cover. . .  

i seem to be reverting to smorgasbord here at the chair, leaving more than one thing, as i meander through the week collecting my morsels. likely comes from thinking a little isn’t enough. making sure there’s at least enough. today, a tale, a poem, and a drawing. oh, and a question, always a question:

has a little bit of Christmas leapt out from the cracks or the corners of your life, surprised you, taken your breath away just a bit because suddenly, amid the blur, you saw crystal clear the beating heart of the season?

merry almost everything. . .

sixteen.

sixteen years old. old enough to drive a car, the chair now is. not quite old enough to vote, but we’ve stayed away from politics all these years; allowing only goodness, grace, to be our guide––even in those rare few times we’ve wandered in the public square, celebrated the election of a president, felt crushed by the words and ways of another.

we’ve stood watch here as the world crushed us (i can still see the image of that precious little two-year-old, the syrian toddler––alan kurdi was his name, the little boy in the bright-red T shirt, the little black sneakers, and scrunched-up navy pants––washed up on the sands of the aegean sea, trying to escape a war’s unimaginable horrors and terrors). we’ve felt the crushings, too, of close-to-home heartaches, the ones not felt much beyond our own intimate borders, but more piercing than all the rest sometimes. 

why do we invite in crushings here? because it’s how i’m wired, i suppose. i’ve always felt hurts so, so deeply (some say too deeply; to them i say not sorry). and i have always wished for a place where tender comforts, heart healings, might occur. where the one who’s hurt could find a featherdown place to curl into. to be tucked under fuzzy afghans. handed warm mugs of tea. and a bowl of clementines, for when the tears paused long enough to give way to nibbling. maybe it’s the nurse in me, the heart of me. i can’t bear to see, to hear, to feel, to imagine hurting. but i will witness every time. for every hurt needs witness. needs bearing. needs extra body parts––shoulders to lean on, hands to squeeze, eyes to gently smile––to bear and share the load.

sometimes, i’ve brought silly here. not because i’ve any proclivity for clowns or clownishness. but because life not seen through comic lens is sometimes too unbearable. to laugh is to lighten the load. to be lifted by the effervescence of a good giggle. or even a guffaw. there’s alchemy and medicine in the sound of joy rising from the lungs.

in sixteen years, we’ve held up to the candlelight life’s beginnings and endings and all in-betweens: goodbyes and homecomings, births and death, and the littlest flickerings of the everyday. 

i’ve uncorked a bit of my soul here, let you see my heart’s wanderings as i moved deeper and deeper, bolder and bolder into saying aloud what i was sometimes plenty timid to whisper. somehow, over the years, the sacred i call God––God, a name that resonates a tenderness to me, a name whose very uttering fills me with a knowing, a hope––has pulsed so palpably through my every day, i now put breath to it without too much trembling. and in words––i hope––that do not close doors. i’m more intent than ever to draw forth the wisdom, the wonder, the light from any path that winds toward God, Allah, Adonai, Divine and Holy Wisdom. i reach for the doorways, have no use for locks on doors.

i’ve brought tinkerings at the cookstove here, too. in part because i will always be trying to find my way back from a dark, dark place when i was just 18, and, for reasons that escaped me at the time, i’d somehow decided i’d see how little food i could swallow in a day. it’s a place that filled me with cringing shames for years, and years. and tangled me in terrible knots. not knowing how to eat, being daunted by and quaking in the face of simple food, is a scourge i’d wish on no one. the question i’d long asked, and which was long asked of me: how does the homecoming queen find herself riding an elevator to a full-blown psych ward? (1975 was back in the day before anyone really knew what anorexia was; and there were no such eating disorder programs as there are today. and the movie “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” had just come out on the very big screen, so it set the stage for a most awful fright.) i can type those sentences now because the years have gentled my shame, and slowly, faithfully, i’ve found my way to a shore of my own. a shore where olive oil doesn’t scare me anymore. and where just last week i drizzled honey (on dorie greenspan’s sweet & smoky roasted carrots*). and it seems that when you’ve struggled so to feed yourself, you find a quiet certain joy in feeding those you love. (and maybe by osmosis you’re hoping to absorb some ease…)

i didn’t intend for this birthday note to grow so confessional. but over all these years, you’re the ones who’ve made this place into the sacred, gentle, quiet space i once dreamed of. and always believed in. you’ve shown me, though your unending kindness, that what i write here is safe here––and i will protect to the end your safety to say here what you will. and, hard as it might be to imagine (given the crude world in which we live), never once in all these years have i found a harsh or mean-spirited comment left here at the so-called “old maple table.” (it would crush me if i found one.) your gentle graces, your heartfelt, heartfelt notes and comments, as well as your incredibly heavenly occasional snail mails, have emboldened me to tell only truth here. life is short, too short, we know. and why waste a day fudging around the edges when what draws us whole––and into each other’s embrace––is saying who we are, and what hurts us, and what makes us giggle? and aren’t we all, in truth, wobbly creatures at the core, only slowly ascending from all the snags and quirks that make us so delightfully who we are? 

so here’s to truth. and sixteen, a number imbued with introspection, and spiritual purity, and a sign of good things to come, according to those who study numbers, find meaning therein. 

may this next whirl around the sun bring blessings to us each and all…

i have an especially lovely birthday present for all of you, one i will leave here on the table (down below). my friends at the SALT project dug it up from wendell berry’s bookshelf, and it’s a beauty like no other. it’s called “the birth (near port william)” and as you’ll see, it’s a nativity poem for all. happy blessed birthing day, for whatever it is you’ll birth today….(the poem is long, so i will leave it at the very bottom here….) (p.s. because the formatting itself is lovely and i can’t get it replicated here, and because you might love the SALT project, i’m leaving the link to their page here.)

one other gift, before i leave you the poem. little alan kurdi’s father, the only one of the family of four who survived the escape in a rubber boat back in the early autumn of 2015, a few years later started a foundation to help children whose lives have been torn apart by war. it’s yet another miracle of the human spirit’s capacity to rise from the deepest, darkest ashes. you can find out more about the kurdi foundation here.

and another treat: the other evening i time-traveled to amherst, mass., for a birthday celebration in the glorious home of emily dickinson, the great butter-yellow house on the hill, known as the homestead, and during that hour and a half of marvelousness, one of curators mentioned that emily’s beloved sister-in-law susan had written emily’s obituary, which was published in the springfield republican on may 18, 1886. immediately curious, i asked for the link, and here tis, with some of the most lovely writing, and most charmed intimacies of emily’s life, written in the immediate wake of emily’s death by the one who perhaps knew her most dearly…. https://www.emilydickinson.it/edobituary.html

here is but one passage i found delectable…

As she passed on in
life, her sensitive nature shrank from
much personal contact with the world,
and more and more turned to her
own large wealth of individual resources
for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as
some one said of her, “In the light of
‘her own fire.” Not disappointed with the
world, not an invalid until within the past two
years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be-
cause she was insufficient of any mental work
or social career – her endowments being so ex-
ceptional – but the “mesh of her soul,” as
Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the
sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit
atmosphere for her worth and work.

and the obit ends thusly:

To
her life was rich, and all aglow with God and
immortality. With no creed, no formulated
faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas,
she walked this life with the gentleness and
reverence of old saints, with the firm step of
martyrs who sing while they suffer. How
better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a
shell of pearl” than by her own words? –

Morns like these, we parted;

Noons like these, she rose;

Fluttering first, then firmer,

To her fair repose.

*oh, and those carrots drizzled with honey? dorie greenspan’s sweet + smoky roasted carrots you’ll thank my sister-in-law, brooke, who sent them my way…

and that, dear friends, is the stack of gifts i have for you this blessed early morn…..(one question, and then wendell berry’s poem…)

so here’s the question: how did you find the chair?

“THE BIRTH (NEAR PORT WILLIAM),” BY WENDELL BERRY

They were into the lambing, up late.
Talking and smoking around their lantern,
they squatted in the barn door, left open
so the quiet of the winter night
diminished what they said. The chill
had begun to sink into their clothes.
Now and then they raised their hands
to breathe on them. The youngest one
yawned and shivered.

                         “Damn,” he said,
“I’d like to be asleep. I’d like to be
curled up in a warm nest like an old
groundhog, and sleep till spring.”

“When I was your age, Billy, it wasn’t
sleep I thought about,” Uncle Stanley said.
“Last few years here I’ve took to sleeping.”

And Raymond said: “To sleep till spring
you’d have to have a trust in things
the way animals do. Been a long time,
I reckon, since people felt safe enough
to sleep more than a night. You might
wake up someplace you didn’t go to sleep at.”

They hushed awhile, as if to let the dark
brood on what they had said. Behind them
a sheep stirred in the bedding and coughed.
It was getting close to midnight.
Later they would move back along the row
of penned ewes, making sure the newborn
lambs were well dried, and had sucked,
and then they would go home cold to bed.
The barn stood between the ridgetop
and the woods along the bluff. Below
was the valley floor and the river
they could not see. They could hear
the wind dragging its underside
through the bare branches of the woods.
And suddenly the wind began to carry
a low singing. They looked across
the lantern at each other’s eyes
and saw they all had heard. They stood,
their huge shadows rising up around them.
The night had changed. They were already
on their way — dry leaves underfoot
and mud under the leaves — to another barn
on down along the woods’ edge,
an old stripping room, where by the light
of the open stove door they saw the man,
and then the woman and the child
lying on a bed of straw on the dirt floor.

“Well, look a there,” the old man said.
“First time this ever happened here.”

And Billy, looking, and looking away,
said: “Howdy. Howdy. Bad night.”

And Raymond said: “There’s a first
time, they say, for everything.”

                                   And that,
he thought, was as reassuring as anything
was likely to be, and as he needed it to be.
They did what they could. Not much.
They brought a piece of rug and some sacks
to ease the hard bed a little, and one
wedged three dollar bills into a crack
in the wall in a noticeable place.
And they stayed on, looking, looking away,
until finally the man said they were well
enough off, and should be left alone.
They went back to their sheep. For a while
longer they squatted by their lantern
and talked, tired, wanting sleep, yet stirred
by wonder — old Stanley too, though he would not
say so.

          “Don’t make no difference,” he said
“They’ll have ’em anywhere. Looks like a man
would have a right to be born in bed, if not
die there, but he don’t.”

                         “But you heard
that singing in the wind,” Billy said.
“What about that?”

                         “Ghosts. They do that way.”

“Not that way.”

                         “Scared him, it did.”
The old man laughed. “We’ll have to hold
his damn hand for him, and lead him home.”

“It don’t even bother you,” Billy said.
“You go right on just the same. But you heard.”

“Now that I’m old I sleep in the dark.
That ain’t what I used to do in it. I heard
something.”

               “You heard a good deal more
than you’ll understand,” Raymond said,
“or him or me either.”

                        They looked at him.
He had, they knew, a talent for unreasonable
belief. He could believe in tomorrow
before it became today — a human enough
failing, and they were tolerant.

                                 He said:
“It’s the old ground trying it again.
Solstice, seeding and birth — it never
gets enough. It wants the birth of a man
to bring together sky and earth, like a stalk
of corn. It’s not death that makes the dead
rise out of the ground, but something alive
straining up, rooted in darkness, like a vine.
That’s what you heard. If you’re in the right mind
when it happens, it can come on you strong;
you might hear music passing on the wind,
or see a light where there wasn’t one before.”

“Well, how do you know if it amounts to anything?”

“You don’t. It usually don’t. It would take
a long long time to ever know.”

                                 But that night
and other nights afterwards, up late,
there was a feeling in them — familiar
to them, but always startling in its strength —
like the thought, on a winter night,
of the lambing ewes dry-bedded and fed,
and the thought of the wild creatures warm
asleep in their nests, deep underground.

Wendell Berry

**sixteen, in case you wondered, is how many years the chair has been this quiet little place where these days we gather every friday morn. or at least that’s when i pull up a chair. you’re welcome to stop by any time, stay as long as you’d like. or, for years and years….’twas launched, the chair was, on 12.12.06, with this little post…

leftovers . . . (and a few other morsels besides)

the dishes are mostly done––except for a few errant goblets. the cutting board is oiled and tucked away for a well-deserved slumber. the beds at the top of the stairs are finally all full, and certainly rumpled. (a triple delay between newark and o’hare made me wonder if boy No. 1 would ever get home.) along the day, no one got cut, or burned, or splashed with red wine, and other than bellies too full, we escaped without harms.

it was in fact as hilarious and raucous and savorable a day as ever could be––testament to julian of norwich’s promise that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (i need to inscribe that on my kitchen wall, as i fret and perseverate and plot and re-plot my time charts and checklists, clocked to the quarter hour.)

my prayer is that your day, too, rolled out without a hitch. or at least no unfixable hitches. i know there were empty chairs, and hollowed hearts to go with them. i know some forsook big birds, and all the fussing. but deep down i hope a trickle of grace and gratitude slipped in through one of the cracks.

while the rest of the world races to the mall, or speed dials black-friday shopping deals on their keypads and phones, i’m taking to the woods, or the simple turning of pages. and i’m leaving just a few morsels here.


poets corner: first up, from ross gay, the bloomington, indiana-based poet whose “catalog of unabashed gratitude” is a fine place to begin:

“And thank you, too. And thanks
for the corduroy couch I have put you on.
Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,
a pillow, dear one,
for I can feel this is going to be long.
I can’t stop
my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,
you, for staying here with me,
for moving your lips just so as I speak.
Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.”


nature beat: once upon a time in november of 1947, a poet by the name of jack kerouac sat at his mother’s kitchen table in the working-class ‘hood of ozone park in new york city. he’d just coined the term “beat,” (a word in which he saw double meaning, derived from both “beaten-down” but also “beatitude”), and while waiting to see if he might ever get anything published, he unleashed these lines on november’s harsh winds and inked them into his journal (posthumously published as Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947–1954):

Powerful winds that crack the boughs of November! — and the bright calm sun, untouched by the furies of the earth, abandoning the earth to darkness, and wild forlornness, and night, as men shiver in their coats and hurry home. And then the lights of home glowing in those desolate deeps. There are the stars, though! high and sparkling in a spiritual firmament. We will walk in the windsweeps, gloating in the envelopment of ourselves, seeking the sudden grinning intelligence of humanity below these abysmal beauties. Now the roaring midnight fury and the creaking of our hinges and windows, now the winter, now the understanding of the earth and our being on it: this drama of enigmas and double-depths and sorrows and grave joys, these human things in the elemental vastness of the windblown world.

Jack Kerouac, 1947

storybook corner: i stumbled onto a wonder from nobel-prize winning polish novelist olga tokarczuk the other day, a mostly-picture book titled the lost soul. it’s the tenderest story of a man who’s lost his soul, and in the whole book there are only four pages of text (and three of those are barely a few lines long). the story picks up here:

“once upon a time there was a man who worked very hard and very quickly, and who had left his soul behind him long ago.” a paragraph later we find that “during one of his many journeys, the man awoke in the middle of the night in his hotel room and he couldn’t breathe. . .”

he visits a wise, old doctor who tells him: “if someone looked down on us from above, they’d see that the world is full of people running about in a hurry, sweating and very tired, and their lost souls, always left behind, unable to keep up with their owners. the result is great confusion as the souls lose their heads and the people cease to have hearts. the souls know they’ve lost their owners, but most of the people don’t realize that they’ve lost their own souls.”

the wise old doctor’s prescription: “you must find a place of your own, sit there quietly, and wait for your soul.”

and so the man waits. and waits. and waits some more. and with nary another word, we finally see his soul come knocking at the door of a little cottage on the edge of the city, where the man had gone to sit in pure quiet.

and here’s the happy ending: “from then on they lived happily ever after, and john (the man) was very careful not to do anything too fast, so that his soul could always keep up with him. he did another thing too––he buried all his watches and suitcases in the garden. the watches grew into beautiful flowers that looked like bells, in various colors, while the suitcases sprouted into great big pumpkins, which provided john with food through all the peaceful winters that followed.

and may this day in the wake of so much blessing be filled to the brim with the pure joy of savoring –– all without timetables, and stopwatches, and sinks to be scoured.

which will be the first leftover you sink your fork into???

a jump on counting my blessings . . .

photo by will kamin*

the days of late have been plenty gray, sodden gray, gray the color of chimney ash. 

the gray started seeping into me especially this week when someone i love lost her father who might have qualified as one of the dearest men on earth. he was 97 and as alive and filled with curiosity and charm as anyone whose tales i’ve ever known through the close transitive property of one shared soul. i’d never met him, though i longed to, but he came alive to me because his daughter, our very own amy of the chair, told the most animated love-drenched stories of him. his last name was neighbour, and i am pretty sure his amy must have grown up thinking the whole world was singing along with mister rogers when the sweatered one belted, “won’t you be my neighbour?” because who wouldn’t want to be hub neighbour’s neighbor??

the grayness, though, started to shatter when i looked up late yesterday afternoon and saw not one, not three, but six scarlet cardinals circling round my feeder, taking turns at the 0s where the seed dribbles down for the plucking. 

that’s all it took to remind me to count my blessings. 

so i begin with six: cardinals, all in a ring, chasing away the murky gloom of twilight, chasing away the murky shadow that’s been eclipsing a chunk of my soul. . .

more blessings: 

the boy driving home from college on sunday. the dinner i’ll serve, a birthday feast for my very own mama who turned 92 this week, and who longs for birthdays to end, so she can “go home,” to the heaven she pines for. . .

the boy flying home on thanksgiving morn, when his hours among us are brief, too brief, but at least he’ll be here long enough for me to reach under the table and give his fingers a squeeze. and that hallowed night i’ll fall asleep to the sounds of two boys in two ‘cross-the-hall rooms rustling the sheets of their boyhoods, snug in their long-ago beds. . .

the faraway cousin who bathes me in books, this week’s batch a quartet on the birds and wild herbs and trees and critters of ireland, complete with marvelous lore and legend. (according to one celtic telling, the robin is the bird thought to bring comfort to the wounded and suffering. and here’s my favorite part: the plump little bird came to boast its red breast, according to the heavenly irish, when it pulled either a thorn from Jesus’s crown while he hung on the cross, or a nail from his hands or his feet, so Jesus’s blood spattered on the robin and thus it became red-breasted.) . . .

the husband who sits across from me at dinner each night, fielding my curiosities and never ever failing to say thank you for a dinner he always claims “delicious,” (even, i swear, when it’s not). and who, even after all these years, can set my heart soaring because of the way he captures a thought or a phrase, and whose unheralded kindnesses often only i witness. . .

these lines i read from rabbi jonathan sacks’ posthumously published, studies in spirituality: a weekly reading of the jewish bible (more on this some other friday), in a chapter on judaism as a religion of listening . . .

“If I were asked how to find God, I would say: Learn to listen. Listen to the song of the universe in the call of the birds, the rustle of trees, the crash and heave of the waves. Listen to the poetry of prayer, the music of the Psalms. Listen deeply to those you love and who love you. Listen to the words of God in the Torah and hear them speak to you. Listen to the debates of the sages through the centuries as they tried to hear the texts’ intimations and inflections. 

“Don’t worry about how you or others look. The world of appearances is a false world of masks, disguises, and concealments. Listening is not easy. I confess I find it formidably hard. But listening alone bridges the abyss between soul and soul, self and other, I and the Divine.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

the poet friend who’s found the courage to once again plunk herself at my so-called kitchen table writing school (virtually, this go-around), so we can try to chase away whatever demons spook her into thinking she can’t write when in fact she writes in a way that takes my breath away. . .

the friend who never fails to ping me when there’s a glorious moon rising or looming out my late-night window. . .

every single one of you who pulls up a chair. for all these years, known or unknown, you have graced me and blessed me. . .

that’s more blessings than i can count, and i am only just beginning. 

what lines are you adding to your litany of gratitudes this year?

*photo by will kamin, from his AP art photo portfolio from his senior year of high school. now professor kamin, our very own assistant professor of law….

please keep our amy in your prayers. and the soul of her papa.

george booth has died and other news of the week…

George Booth, the New Yorker cartoonist who created a world of oddballs sharing life’s chaos with a pointy-eared bull terrier that once barked a flower to death, and sometimes with a herd of cats that shredded couches and window shades between sweet naps, died on Tuesday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 96.

so begins the new york times obituary of a man who infused my childhood. no, he didn’t frequent the five-and-dime in our leafy little town. he didn’t populate the pews of our native church. he came in the mail. every week. and in the weeks when he graced the cover, or was tucked inside the confines of william shawn’s new yorker (known as “the holy grail for cartoonists”), you could count on tracking down my mother if you traced the vapors of her out-loud laughing to where you’d find her giddily all but hiding behind the glossy pages of the slick. she would laugh, back then and even now, in a way that made you think there was something almost-naughty about those pages, which of course made us, her troupe of five, scamper to its pages soon as she abandoned it on the stack of mail, where hours later our ad man of a dad (who never met a joke or pun he didn’t relish) would saunter on the scene and chuckle at whatever was the funny. 

george booth proved to us that our mother — the very one who trained us to eat our peas and lima beans without complaint, and never tell a lie, to ne’er ignore the dinner bell, and always look both ways –– had a secret compartment full of almost-naughty humor. and if we kept close watch, we too might figure out the shortcut to some eternally redemptive funny bone. 

thus, coming upon the news that mr. booth has died this week, and that his wife of 64 years had died a mere six days earlier (such tales of love and lives that end in stunning unison nearly always make me weak at the knees), i felt a thud to the heart that only certain deaths elicit. 

there is a minor cast of characters in every childhood — the names that brought applause, the ones whose books most frequently recurred, the ones whose movies brought us the rare chance to blow a bedtime  –– who indelibly marked our evolution, and maybe formed the foggy outlines of who we aimed to be when we grew up. or at least what attributes we might try on for size. 

if i close my eyes and tick through the litany of those my mother ushered in, the ones held up in near heroic halo, it’s george booth & co., the new yorker cartoony cast; peg bracken, she of the i hate to cook cookbook; it’s doris day and julia child, all of whom made my mother giggle. it must have been the giggle that so allured. it was a merriment i must have longed for, and long for still. laughter belongs to a human register all its own, audible proof of joyful stirring deep inside. w. h. auden once observed: “among those whom i like or admire, i can find no common denominator, but among those whom i love, i can: all of them make me laugh.”

thank you, mr. booth, for bringing laughter, so much muffled laughter, to the house where i grew up.

in other news, i find myself absorbing the miracle of 70-degree november days. took me a long time — too long — to learn to freeze-frame pure joy and deep-down contentment. but now the hours of my days are as if beads threaded on a string, not unlike the rosaries i long ago learned to pray: mysteries joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous. not a bad paradigm for living. learn to live bead by bead, moment to holy saturated moment. allow each orb to shine in all its constitution, be it radiant or shadowed or somewhere in between. and the beauty of these days, when the leaves are blazing paint-pot hues –– aubergine and persimmon, pure gold and harvard crimson –– they tap me on the soft shell of my soul, and whisper: this is holy time. behold it well. 

george booth would make me laugh at that. but he’s no longer here. so it’s on us to find the humor hidden in the chaos of the every day. 

who comprised the minor cast of characters in your growing up years? who made your mama laugh or cry, who or what did you aspire to be when you grew up and moved away from home?

this is booth’s cartoon in the immediate wake of 9/11, when the new yorker had decided no cartoons for that issue, but george submitted this anyway; the cat covering its face with its paws, the usually animated fiddle-playing miss rittenhouse (a recurring character modeled after booth’s mother), head down, hands clasped in prayer, sadly silenced by it all.

make room for joy. always make room.

from what i know, from what i hear, and from what i gather, there’s a miasma of gloom hovering over the landscape, not unlike an early morning fog that forgets to scuttle away once the sun burns down. 

it’s a despair in general and in particular. it’s a despair that has long been casting its shadow, as we seem to be dwelling in an epoch of upheavals. from a rage that’s spilled even into the lanes of the little village where i live (did i really deserve a middle finger for driving exactly the speed limit on a curvy hill?) to venom poured onto airwaves and social media feeds (excuse me for backing away from all but a quick scroll for news), it’s gotten harsh out there. and institutions we counted on seem to be pulling out the rug.  

but i read something this week that reinforced what’s become my saving grace, though reading it helped me to see more clearly that i needn’t feel guilty for reaching toward my apothecarial shelf of simplest balms. i’ve been making a practice of stitching the tiniest joys into my day, and pausing long enough and deeply enough to let them sink deep down into the crevices, the nooks and crannies and channels of the soul where the life spark burns. 

i might pause in my dashing down the walk to listen to the gurgle of my bubbling fountain. i might plop in a wicker chair to watch the slanting sunlight turn golden a flapping hydrangea leaf. i might catch mama wren ferrying a worm to her chirpy little ones. they’re the littlest wisps of joy, the things that percolate my heart and soul and each and every summer’s day.

what i read this week were wisdoms from mary pipher, an american clinical psychologist, long rooted in lincoln, nebraska (which in my book certifies her down-to-earth wisdoms as deep as the roots of the prairie dropseed that rolls across the miles). pipher, whose wisdoms are too boundless to be bottled, is best known for reviving ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls, her 1994 rescue guide for an america she calls a “girl-destroying place,” and more recently she’s written women rowing north, a book on aging gracefully. (note to self: please read.)

this week, though, she wrote an op-ed for the new york times, in which, after outlining the simple joys with which she unfurls her day––a morning cup of coffee, watching the sun rise over a lake, listening to the sounds of sparrows, the commonest of common birds––she writes that she is “leading a double life.”

Underneath my ordinary good life, I am in despair for the world. Some days, the news is such that I need all my inner strength to avoid exhaustion, anxiety and depression. I rarely discuss this despair. My friends don’t either. We all feel the same. We don’t know what to say that is positive. So, we keep our conversations to our gardens, our families, books and movies and our work on local projects. We don’t want to make one another feel hopeless and helpless.

Many of us feel we are walking through sludge. This strange inertia comes from the continuing pandemic, a world at war and the mass shootings of shoppers, worshipers and schoolchildren. In addition, our country and our planet are rapidly changing in ways that are profoundly disturbing. We live in a time of groundlessness when we can reasonably predict no further than dinnertime. The pandemic was a crash course in that lesson.

As we are pummeled with daily traumatic information, more and more of us shut down emotionally. I can hear the flatness in the newscasters’ voices, see the stress in my friends’ faces and sense it in the tension of the workers at my sister’s nursing home. We are not apathetic; we are overwhelmed. Our symptoms resemble those of combat fatigue.

Mary Pipher

she goes on to write that in an age where ukraine and afghanistan and yemen are everyday news, and the horrors therein threaten to numb us, where the american political landscape some days resembles an extreme-wrestling match, nothing short of world-class coping skills are called for. and thus she lists three of her wellsprings: her grandmother who raised five children on a ranch during the dust bowl and the great depression; thich nhat hahn, the buddhist monk and zen master; and her years-long study of psychology. 

her wisdoms are these: her grandmother urged her to “be the person you want to live with every day of your life,” and on the last day of her life she told mary that her life goal had been “to leave the world a better place;” from thich nhat hahn, who’d witnessed great suffering in vietnam, she not only absorbed his practices of mindfulness, anchoring herself in the present moment, but also his deepest teaching about our interconnectedness with all of life, a worldview that finds healing through reaching out to the frightened, the hungry, the ravaged in all its forms; and, from psychology, pipher learned that the best way to cope with suffering is to face it, feel it in our bones, explore it, extract its meaning, and then muster the resources to move forward. here she prescribes: “find ways to balance our despair with joy.”

maybe take a minute to let each one of those soak in. . . 

“be the person you want to live with. . .”

“present moment. beautiful moment. . .”

“action is an antidote to despair. . .”

Most of us cannot be great heroes. However, we all have the capacity to be ordinary heroes.

to be an ordinary hero is to find someone close to home who’s hurting, and be the healing balm. resist the urge to flip back someone else’s insolence. even on a day when you might prefer pure silence, invite in someone whose days are defined by loneliness. make your front stoop or your back porch a place where the welcome sign is often posted. 

go about the business of gathering up simple joys; know that they’re the fuel to carry you across the long and lonely miles. revel in the red bird who alights just beyond your window sill, and serenades the coming darkness. follow a butterfly across your garden. watch the night stars turn on. keep an eye out for the fireflies’ first flickering. 

make room for joy. joy is a necessary oxygen for both soul and psyche. without it, we shrivel, furl inward, gasp for breath amid the not-unlimited allotment of days we have here. 

those joys needn’t be grand, needn’t strike up any band. we’re on the hunt here for simple joys, barely detectable threads of joy; weave them through your day.

they just might embolden you for the long haul, the long and seemingly unbearable haul. 

where will you find joy today? how will you make room?

i just yesterday got page proofs for my next book, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (pub date: march 21, 2023), and that means i will be underwater for the next two weeks making sure there are no runaway commas, or words wrongly landed amid a sentence. it’s nerve-wracking and eye-straining, but it moves me closer to the finish line. i might not get a chance to circle back to reply to comments for awhile, but sooner or later, i promise i will. and soon as i can i’ll show you how pretty someone made the pages of my little book. till then, take care, and take joy, as tasha tudor always insisted…

photo above by will kamin.

p.s. here’s a little joy that slipped under the transom yesterday, when my beloved brother brian found my little book available for pre-order in — get this!!! — park slope and switzerland. excuse me while i gulp. (the actual cover, which i’ve not yet been told i can share, is peeking out from under the pre-order banner on the community bookstore, now a shop added to my must-visit list. xoxoxo thank you little bookstores, online and real-world.)

catching up…

it’s been 792 days since that red-ringed virus shut down the world as we know it. all sorts of events got pushed off to the side, and plenty others — too many others — happened anyway, though no one was allowed to gather, to convene to absorb each other’s pain or amplify the joy of sweet triumphs large or small or somewhere cozily in the middle.

a kid i love made it across one of the toughest finish lines of his life back in may of 2020. turned in a book-length dissertation, crossed off the last of the law school to-do’s, and promptly slept in the morning his law school zoomed some semblance of quasi graduation.

they promised they’d make it up down the road, whenever ol’ covid relinquished its grip, let humans be human again. that moment, allegedly, is now. (though a good part of me is not so sure the grip is much relinquished as we were dashing to the pharmacy the other night for a friend who fell ill with covid for the third time since this all started and needed us to grab a prescription of paxlovid, the anti-viral wonder drug, and on our one little block, house after house is sealed shut for the cases of covid brewing inside.)

so we’re leaping into the unknown, taking our chances, flapping our wings new york way, and motoring up interstate 95, along the connecticut coast, where, come saturday morning, all four of our little family will convene with all the gusto we can muster there on an old campus where the classes of 2020 and 2021 get to make it official.

after all that separation, the simple magnificence of being together, being able to see the gleam in the eyes of the ones we love most, being able to wipe away a tear in real time, squeeze hands while walking through nothing so fancy as a parking garage: that is the definition of blessing.

despite its many deprivations, one good thing about these pandemic years is that it’s made the simple miracle of being together all the sweeter, more succulent.

there is catching up to be done, in the wake of red-ringed abductor of so many lives and so very much living.

so, two years after the fact, we are ditching long distance, saying no thank you to zoom. doesn’t matter to me if it’s two years too late. we’re going to be there. we’re going to hear that kid’s name when it’s called, and we’re going to watch that lope i know so well as he makes his way across the stage. i imagine i’ll be rifling through a cerebral cortex of memories, the late nights we stayed on the phone, the trips to the emergency room, the hours and hours i worried about how many days he’d gone without sleep, fueled on coffee and fumes. and i know i’ll be thinking all the way back to the start of it all, back to the very last thing he said to us, there on the sidewalk the morning we left him at law school, after we’d moved him in, made the requisite rounds of trips to IKEA for bookshelves that would not withstand the weight of all his books. he gave his papa a sturdy handshake, looked him in the eye, and said with all the certainty we had worked for and prayed for all those years: “thank you for everything; i’ll take it from here.”

and he did. and he does…

and that is the joy and the love beyond words that will be pulsing so loudly as i sit on the edge of my chair gulping back tears and holy hallelujahs.

God bless you, always, sweet Will. and thank you. love, always, your very own mama.

cap, gown, and hood in 2020 — but no ceremony. will add the real deal once it happens…

what catching up are you doing these days?

when grace comes tapping at the windowpane…

amid a season of war and worry, on the very day when steam was all but rising from this keyboard––a deadline looming, conveyor belts of verbs and nouns at high production––there came a rustling in the bushes just beyond the panes of glass that stretch between my bookshelves.

the morning was punctuated with the sounds of preoccupation, the faintest plink barely tapping at the glass, more than the usual chatter between birds. over and over, takeoffs and landings from bush to branch to nearby picket fence. the occasional outburst of trills and warbles.

it was the quiet of the sound that most intrigued me, the sound of trying to be unnoticed, hard at work in the art of concealment, a most necessary survival skill when up against the odds of danger, in a world where prowling cats and coons, thunderstorms and untimely freezes are another name for doom.

because i knew my role in this rare showing was to be as discrete and invisible as possible, i barely shifted my eyes, dared not tiptoe near the glass, for fear of spooking, for fear of shutting down production.

turned out, the faintest murmurings were these: the sound of wing brushing up against the glass, the sound of branches being jostled to make way for the laying down of bits of grasses, dried and brown and wholly unremarkable.

but what was done, over the course of a single day, was not only wholly remarkable and breathtaking. it was only the beginning.

mama and papa–a pair of cardinals i know by name–had for the first time in all my decades decided to grace me with a front row seat on their reproductive spring: they’d chosen my very ordinary, very ungroomed evergreens, as the very spot to build their nest. it just so happens to be up against the glass, as if the window to the nursery in the maternity ward, the ones where long ago fathers pressed their nose against the glass to get a first peek at the progeny newly birthed and swaddled, the hard labor shielded from the men not allowed near delivery, too faint for such primal birthings.

over all my years, i’ve spied robins all but nesting in the public square. i’ve seen sparrows busily and noisily stuffing gutters and cracks in this old house with the makings of a nest. but never ever had i figured out just where it is the cardinals go to replenish the species.

i now know why. my guess is they’re the high scorers in the game of hide-and-seek. their nest, literally up against the glass, is all but impossible to see from the other side of the bushes, and wedged in in such a way that i cannot for the life of me peek into the bowl of the nest (believe me, when mama flits off to grab a seed, to relieve her feathered bum from all its incubating, i’ve climbed atop my window seat to try to fetch a look).

we’ve come to work in synchrony, mama cardinal and moi. i tap quietly at my keys all day long while she goes about her warming of those eggs all day long. once the sun goes down, i leave the premises, turn off the lights, shuffle off to the old maple table in the kitchen–not wanting a brood of mixed-up baby birds to mistake my desk lamp for a never-setting sun.

far as i can tell, and i tell you my guess here is based on scantest evidence, there’s not yet a clutch of little beaks to fill with bits of worms. each day, though, the drumbeat picks up pace. it’s been two whole weeks, and surely we must be getting close.

it’s a blessed thing, a most blessed thing, a thing that fills my soul, to be witness to the against-all-odds timeless knowings of the feathered flocks. those little birds know nothing of the ravages that tear apart the human flock. theirs is a universe––far as we know, and maybe i’m just wishful thinking––without the sorts of strife, without the demonic ingenuities to dream and build and drop a bomb. do birds know worry? does mama bird go about her business without the slightest hint of begrudgement? is she already plotting her grocery list? does she count her clutch, scan for misshapen egg, dread the day those baby birds take flight and leave the nest?

such are the questions that reel through my mind, as mama bird and i go about our tasks this one most blessed spring. it’s a wonder when grace comes tapping at the window pane. as if the heavens know just who and when needs holy balm far far from the madding crowd.

what grace has brushed you by this spring? what’s caught you unawares? what quiet has so startled you, and awakened you from your worldly slumbers?

in need of beannacht, i found my way back to an old friend, the irish poet of infinite blessing…

the author photo of John O’Donohue, now fading, but still my bookmark

in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.

john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.

i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.

i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.

THE GOOD GREEN POET

By Barbara Mahany

Chicago Tribune

Mar 17, 1999

The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.

The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.

But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.

John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.

Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”

Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”

For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”

He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.

And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.

In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”

And some conversations they are.

“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.

“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”

It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.

No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”

Yow.

And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?

“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”

You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?

“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.

“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”

His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”

And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”

It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.

He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”

And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.

“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.

“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “

It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”

“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.

“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”

O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “

He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.

“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.

He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.

But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.

It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.

Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.

“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”

But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “


and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….

written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…

Beannacht

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.

~ John O’Donohue ~

(Echoes of Memory)

if you’d like surround-sound comfort, you can listen to him — and hear that beautiful lilt — here, talking with krista tippett about beauty….

and here is the wonderful wisdom from howard zinn that had me looking for hope….(with huge thanks to PJT, my holy light in D.C.)

where did you find comfort — and hope — this week?