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Category: blessings

it’s the whispered moments that speak to me…

the shoes of the boys i love, the shoes i’ve always filled before dawn on the sixth of december, the feast of st. nick, those shoes are hundreds of miles away this dawn. likely lined up like straight-back soldiers in one’s law school apartment, and in a dorm room half as far away, i’m guessing they’re jumbled, strewn under a desk or a bed, or a sweatshirt and socks heaped on the floor.

to grow up in this old house was to wake up to foil-wrapped chocolates and oranges and surely a candy cane stuffed in the wide-open maw of your boot or your slipper or sneakers, a pair that grew by the year (all the more room for more chocolates), and always was left by the bedroom door on the night of the fifth.

i’ve always made as much of a folderol over this “little christmas” as i have over the one that’s gotten so noisy.

it’s the quiet moments of christmas, the unexpected kindnesses, the silence on a star-stitched night that stir the holy in me. i enter into the season in whispers. find myself pulled into tide pools of unspoken wonder. thrill like a kid with her nose pressed to the windowpane when i find myself face-to-face with the modern-day version of an elf. if you keep watch, and i’d advise that you do, there are elves all around.

this time of year i do make a list. a list of the out-of-the-blue elves and dollops of kindness that have plopped into my lap:

*the gas station owner who piled his tools into a cardboard box and drove me the three blocks to where my own car wouldn’t start, where he proceeded to ping and tap-tap-tap to try to get the key in the ignition to turn (it would not). he charged not a penny, and did the whole thing with a serious smile and multiple insistences that this was not at all out of his way. (on a sunday morning no less.)

IMG_0681*the college roommate from long, long ago who sent me a shoebox bursting with the itty-bittiest gingerbread babies, each one iced and strewn with cinnamon hearts, each one dangling from a skinny red thread she’d take the time to tie in a loop.

*my brother who’s driving almost two hours (each way) to the snow-covered storybook village where our freshman in college is just about to start his first round of finals. the plan (hatched in the spontaneous joy of the moment) is to fetch the kid after his last exam, bring him back to cleveland for a friday night’s feast and a snooze on an airbed, then tuck him onto a greyhound bus for the long ride home, where he’ll finish his papers in the cozy quiet of home.

*the extraordinarily kind fellow from the birdseed store who’s offered to swing by my house to reconfigure the bird feeders that have suddenly been taken hostage by one wily (and insatiable) squirrel.

my list isn’t done; it’s just getting started. but i know from years and years of paying attention that those catch-you-by-surprise, take-your-breath-away moments are the ones when the christmas seeps in.

it’s something like watching water whirl down a drain; it’s a force you can’t stop, it’s a force you can’t really see. but you feel it. you know it. the moment pulls you right in, a sinkhole of joy, of wonder, of can-you-believe-such-kindness-exists? and suddenly, deep down inside, you’re inside a snow globe of heaven on earth.

christmas comes in certain spoonfuls, best swallowed all along the way, through the quiet you carve out of the noise. by the time the day itself arrives, you’ll already have savored its coming.

merry christmas-is-coming, st. nick is here.

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who are the elves on your list? what dollops of kindness have crept up and tapped you gently, certainly, at the core of your heart?

more and more, the thanks multiply. and deepen.

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the somewhat happy ending to our thanksgiving tale of suspense

i was bent into something of a crouch, flexing all the muscle my not-so-muscular biceps could muster, dodging the oncoming hot winds of 325 degrees, attempting to haul the big bird from the oven, when the phone rang.

it was my firstborn, far far away in new york city. and he wasn’t calling to ask how the turkey was looking. he was trying to catch his breath. he was scared, on highest alert. something was awry with his heart, and he was crouching in the mudroom of the brownstone where he’d just partaken of feasting. usually there’s a doctor in the house at my sister-in-law’s thanksgiving table, but not this year. of course. so i played long-distance nurse. forgot all about turkey and ovens and the kitchen disasters that might have been triggered by the sudden ring of the phone. we counted the number of beats of his heart, minute by minute. the number was high. very high.

in the swirl of that moment, and the many long moments thereafter, all is suspended. nothing else matters. it all boils down to the only thing that ever matters: are the ones i love safe? is anyone i love about to be swallowed whole by forces i can’t keep at bay? when he was just two or three months old, i remember telling a man who came to fix a broken sink that i now knew what it was to love someone so much you’d leap in front of a car or a train or any large object barreling toward him. in an instant. without pausing to think. because that’s what love does. that’s what love means — or this kind of love, anyway. i still remember the way the fix-it man looked at me. i still remember how deeply i meant what i said, how each of those words had never before carried such truth.

twenty-six years later, i still mean it. only the labyrinth has gotten more intricate, and the forces are ones i can’t always stop.

my sweet boy this morning is fine. he’s riding the train back to law school. and will soon be back to his hours and hours of writing. but in the wake of a terrible fright, i’m reminded again how fragile this all is. how perishable. how necessary to cherish. to count our blessings, over and over and over again. to savor each and every moment, each someone we love. before it evaporates.

apt lesson in the wake of the annual pause for the deepest of thanks.

this whole week, with the college kid filling the house with his joys and his whimsy, with a phalanx of shoes piled by the door, and the basement filled till the wee wee hours with kids who’ve not seen each other since long-ago summer, my old heart has been humming its happy tune. this morning that tune is richer than ever, backed by the shimmering truth that all of this is underpinned by improbability, all of this is here for the ephemeral moment.

and we’re wise to press to our heart each of those blessings. while they’re here. while we can.

here’s a litany of gratitude i wrote a few years ago, one that ran on the op-ed page of the chicago tribune back on thanksgiving, 2014:

By Barbara Mahany

In this season when we gather roots from the earth, and fowl from the field, when the slant of the sun drops lower and the light turns molasses, here is the challenge: Be attentive to wonder and wisdom. Stitch the day with blessing. Bow head and whisper, “Thank you.”

In the liminal landscape between asleep and awake, thank you, holy one, for heart still beating, for breath, for first thought, the one that tickles us into consciousness.

Thank you for bed, and blanket. Thank you for the one I love who lies beside me, whose breathing I know by heart.

Thank you for the dawn itself, for the stillest hour when all that moves is the barest breeze that rustles leaves, and far off, the stirrings of the lake that never cease.

Thank you for this old house, with arthritic floorboards that creak at just the same juncture, with just the same footfall. Thank you for whiny old cat there at the door. Thank you for coffee beans and hissing pot, and the old chipped mug that fits snug in my palms.

Dear maker of all that’s blessed, thank you for the sound of those footsteps clomping onto the floorboards above, and the certitude that — so far this day — all is well.

Thank you for the porridge I stir at the cookstove, the alchemy of cooking for those we fuel for the day.

Thank you for clementines, and sugary cinnamon. Thank you for butter, slathered and melted. Thank you for school bus drivers who wait.

Thank you, blanketer of wonder, for the quiet stitched into the morning’s hours, the quiet so thick I can drink in the tick and the tock of a grandfather’s clock. And the squawk of the blue jay, and the chatter of sparrows.

Thank you for work to be done. Thank you for dishes piled in the sink, whose scrubbing and rinsing gives me a moment to think, to ponder the day.

Thank you for wisdom, the sort that comes in unexpected flashes, when only you know you’ve found it as you feel your heart go thumpety-thump, or feel the goose bumps sprout up and down unsuspecting flesh.

Thank you for all that’s poetry — wisdom-steeped or just plain beautiful, breathtaking. And thank you for gospel of any brand — be it birthed from holy child, everyday saint or even the so-called kook who stands on the street corner, proclaiming through a megaphone.

Thank you, yes, for telephones, for that rare sound of a voice that nestles against the tenderest heart. That, within the first breath of the very first syllable, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness.

I might be among the few who salute the cloudy skies of November on my long list of thanks. Ah, but those angora gray skies, they comfort me, harbor me. I’ll take the somnolence, the introspection of a gray day any day. So thank you for cloudy and gray.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how thankful I am for hearts that continue to tick, day in and day out, despite the trials we toss their way, as we worry and fret, then, without notice, shriek in deep joy and excitement. Poor ol’ heart, the one that landed in me anyway, it might not have realized it was signed on for a roller coaster ride of such seismic proportion.

Speaking of ticking, thank you for the schoolhouse clock that does just that, minute by minute, hour upon hour, heartbeat against the wall.

Thank you, too, for windows. And for the flutterings and flashes just beyond the glass, as clouds of gentle creatures take off and land, from sky to limb and back again — each time, lifting just a little bit of my soul.

Thank you for doors, the ones that let in unexpected someones, someones we love. And keep out the wind and the cold.

Thank you for fires that roar and logs that crackle. Thank you for the one that’s turning the so-called sleeping room, across from the kitchen, into a chamber of flickering gold. Thank you for the two lumps under blankets, snoozing by the fire.

Thank you for the dinner hour, and the blessing of slow-simmering stew. Thank you for the bounty of greens from your earth, and spices from pods and seeds and stamens.

Thank you for the trees and the gnarly limbs, and the hummingbird now buried deep in my garden.

Thank you for candlelight. And the lights of your making: moonlight and sunlight and dappled radiance scattered like seed across the landscape. Thank you for twinkling stars and streaking ones, too — chalk marks etched across the slate of the night sky.

Thank you for the blankets we tuck under the chin of our sleeping child.

Thank you for the child. For the breathtaking chance to infuse all that’s good in this world. Thank you for lessons taught while holding a hand, or wiping a tear. Thank you for bandages that quell the hurt, and words that do the same. Thank you for everyone who lifts up our child, the teachers who inspire, the coaches who are kind. And the lady down the block who never fails to plant a fat wet kiss on that child’s pink cheek.

Thank you for the year drawing to a close, and this pause to nod our heads and whisper gratitude. Thank you for crunching leaves, and tumbling snowflakes.

Thank you for love in all its iterations. For birth, and death, and all that animates the interstitial hours. Thank you for those who walk beside us, who put a hand to the small of our back, or reach out to carry us across the bottomless abyss.

Thank you for all of this. And more. So, so much more.

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if you happen by the chair today, or any day ever, feel free to add to the litany of thanks, and make this a communal — and rousing — chorus of gratitude.

and know that among the dearest treasures of my life are those of you who find your way to this old table and chairs. bless you. xoxo love, b.

a particular species of joy: the home-coming

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welcome-home brisket: in the works

if my heart were on x-ray this morning, or hooked up with dozens of wires, the evidence would be undeniable, spelled out in pictures and long strings of numbers: my heart, you would see, is in rarefied state. its walls must be bulging. it’s possibly glowing. and certainly gurgling along at double its usual rat-a-tat-tat.

sans x-rays and wires, you’ll have to take my word for it. my heart, at the moment, is in leap-out-of-its-chest mode. in a matter of hours, i will leap behind the steering wheel, point the nose of the old red wagon toward the world’s busiest airport, and wait for one tousled head to rise up above the crowd packed onto the escalator: my sweet college freshman is on his way home.

my nest will be empty no more. at least for the next stretch of days.

i’ve done my level best with this mostly unoccupied domicile — heck, i’ve gone out to dinner on school nights, whirled through the opera, taken in the occasional lecture (all those things i’m told grownups can and might do). i’ve gotten used to setting merely two forks, two plates, two napkins. and all but forgotten the art of staying awake till the midnight (or later) click at the door, the one that tells me the rascal is safely and soundly home for the night.

ah, but it’s clear — evidently, emphatically, without-a-doubtedly — my cruising speed comes naturally and in exclamation points when i’m surrounded by, clucking over, tending and loving and laughing out loud with the people i love. most especially the people i birthed.

it might be the subtle shifts in the days ahead that thrill me the most: the footsteps overhead, or the ones galloping down the stairs. that midnight click at the door. the shower that runs for what seems like an hour. the piles and piles of shoes coagulated in the front hall. the milk bottle that drains — seemingly all on its own, by magic, and in the blink of the night. or this: to walk past the room at the bend in the stairs, the one i’ve come to know as empty, untouched — as neat and tidy today as the day after he left — and, for the next string of days, to be able to pause there at the doorway and witness the blankets all lumpy and tousled because there’s someone in there!

oh, sure i love the big bangs: the welcome-home dinner, the catching up on every last story. watching him run to the curb when his grammy comes over. squeezing every last one of his home-coming friends. cooking for eight — or fifteen — one of these nights.

but i think the thing i’ll most savor is the hum and the hiccups that tell me, quite simply, he’s home and in reach. and i can bury my nose in his tousle of curls, even while he’s asleep. maybe especially. when he’s off in dreamland, but under my gaze, and i can drink in the joy and the blessing. i can savor these days and these nights when the sweet boy i love is tucked into this nest, and within close and unending undeniable reach.

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this is the kid coming home from college tonight, back in 2011 when he was the little brother welcoming home the one who’d just come back from college…

once upon a time — eight long years ago now — i wrote a homecoming tale when my firstborn was coming home for the very first time. it ran in the tribune, and i tucked it into the pages of Motherprayer, my no. 2 book. here it is

Welcome Home, College Freshman. XOXO

I’ve been imagining the sound for months: his footsteps.

The house has been hollow without them, the thud I came to know as his as he stumbled out of the bed and galloped down the stairs. I can almost feel the gust of the wind as the front door swings open and in pops that curly-haired mop I last buried my nose in on a hot August day when I left him on a leafy college quad a thousand miles away.

But any day now—I could tell you the hours and minutes—we are about to fall into the sweetest of homecomings, the freshman in college coming home for the very first time.

It’s a film loop I’ve played in my mind over and over. Since way back before he was gone. It was, in many ways, a salve to the wound that was growing, deepening as the day of his leaving finally arrived. Nearly swallowed me whole, that widening gash.

I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp, and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply.

This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn.

Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report in to the grown-ups back home.

It took me the better part of a month to get used to the missing sounds in our house. To not wince each night when I laid down three forks, not four. To not leave on the porch light as I climbed up to bed.

Over the months, I’ve learned to steer clear of particular shelves in the grocery store, because they hold his favorites—the turkey jerky, the sharp cheddar, stuff I used to grab without thinking, his stuff.

Curiously, I haven’t spent much time in his room. Except once, when I tackled the closet, folded every last T-shirt, rolled up loose socks, rubbing my hand over the cloth, absorbing the altered equation, that I was now the mother of a faraway child.

And so, I’m looking forward to when the place at the kitchen table will be ours again, the place where we talked until the wee hours, poring over the landscape of his life, refining the art of listening, asking just the right questions.

I leapt out of bed days ago, scribbled a list of all the foods I wanted to buy, to tuck on the pantry shelves, to pack in the fridge. I flipped open a cookbook to a much-spattered page, the recipe for one of his favorites. It’s as if the alchemy of the kitchen will fill places that words cannot.

I can barely contain the tingling that comes with knowing that, any day, he’ll be boarding a plane, crossing the sky, putting his hand on the knob on our door.

My beautiful boy, the boy I’ve missed more than I will ever let on, he’s coming home to the house that’s been aching to hear him again.

may all those you welcome in the days ahead fill your heart to spilling. and happy blessed day of thanksgiving…

oh, p.s., you can find the recipe for welcome-home brisket (pictured above) if you click here

eddies of joy

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for months and months, and especially as august drew near, and september tumbled upon us, as this old house turned quiet and oftentimes hollow, it was a question i fielded over and over and over again: what will you do now that you’re an empty nester? or, the variation: how will you handle this empty nest?  

one friend came to the door with a jumbo-sized carton of kleenex. it was an apt gesture.

the truth about our lives is that, more often than not, it’s a current that’s rushing and there’s little, quite frankly, we can do to alter its course, to slow it or stop it from running down rapids, to re-route the channel it’s gnawed through the earth.

but the thing about rivers is this, a thing that i learned long long ago in the woods where i played on the banks of a creek, tracing the course of the flow with a long pointed stick, or by tossing a log or a leaf or a twig and watching it go, making the invisible visible: sometimes rivers — or even a rain-swollen creek — run fast, and run wild; sometimes, the river runs lazy, its waters scuttled off to the side, caught in a pile of leaves, or tangle of sticks, idling or whirling in some extra-deep groove spooned from the oozy bottom.

in river talk, that’s an eddy.

ed·dy /ˈedē/ noun: a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool.

in life talk, it’s the wholly unexpected moment that seems to come out of the blue, the ones we hadn’t seen coming. in this particular case, at this turn in the bend of my particular river, it’s a dollop of joy. the sudden awareness that, without a whole heckuva lot of planning nor thinking too hard, you find yourself idling in a nook or a cranny you’d not wholly imagined, in a newfound pool of something that soothes you.

turns out that in these vast stretches of days where it’s mostly just dinner for two, where my most frequent companion for hours on end is unbroken silence, the dinner party is my newfound eddy of joy. aside from the fact that our overdue list is long enough to leave me penniless if life was charging fines, i’ve unwittingly found myself delighting in the joy of dinner table equations: mixing and matching various combinations of conversationalists — the deep and quiet listeners, the ones who say not a lot but whose words when they do choose to speak are the ones that rumble for days in your head, the laugh-out-loud storytellers, the ones who lean in and soak up each word, the ones who always know something you’ve never heard of.

i consider the ones to seat around the table, and then i consider just what to concoct for a multi-course feast intent on striking a particular note: autumnal warmth. winter cozy. and i never stop at the food. that’s just a part of the stage set. to me, all of it matters: the crackling logs in the fireplace, the fireworks-worthy explosion of blooms soon as you walk in the door. the candles flickering on the table, yes, but all along the window sills, too. what i’m after is a whole-body immersion, a wrap-it-around-your-shoulders sense that you’re in a house that wholly and emphatically welcomes you. we want you here. we want to hear what stirs you and strikes you. we want you lavished in welcome.

the dinner party — unlike my other most favorite gathering, just the two of us, leaning in over hot mugs of tea, pouring our hearts out — is all about the alchemy of a particular cast of characters. it’s less certain than the tete-a-tete. there’s a sense of adventure, of risk, of putting yourself more on the line (especially if you’re the one practicing prestidigitation at the stove).

and, as i am wiping dry the very last glass or the fork at the wee end of the night, when i awake the very next morning to the afterglow of a leftover-stocked fridge and the lingering echoes of laughter, i am reminded that sometimes the river of life — even when you’ve been nervously cowering on the side of the bank — will carry you into nooks and eddies you’ve been seeking forever and ever.

so here’s a recipe that practically made me jig with joy. a friend who’s a vegetarian was coming for dinner, and this one tickled my fancy. it’s a variation of nigella lawson’s roast stuffed pumpkin. whether you make it for one or two or eight, it’ll carry you to an eddy of joy. that’s a promise.

roasted stuffed pumpkin, ala nigella + me

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 6 1/2- to 7-pound sugar pumpkin, or other pumpkin suitable for eating
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 1 halved
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon 
  • 10 mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large handful spinach leaves
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Fill a kettle with water, and bring to a boil. About an inch below the top of the pumpkin’s ”shoulders,” about where it would be cut to carve a jack-o’-lantern, slice a lid from top of pumpkin, and set it aside. Remove seeds and fibrous flesh from inside.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, toast the walnuts for a minute or two, moving constantly. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  3. Using the same saucepan, heat the oil, and sauté the onion until it is softened. Add 2 minced garlic cloves, and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add mushrooms, and cook for one minute. Stir in the cranberries, and spices. Add the rice, and stir until it is glossy. Pour in stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce heat as low as possible. Cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile rub the inside of pumpkin with cut garlic clove, and rub with some salt to taste.
  4. When rice has cooked for 15 minutes, it will be damp and not very fluffy. Adjust seasoning to taste, and spoon into pumpkin cavity. Press lid firmly on top. It may sit above stuffing a bit like a jaunty cork. Wrap bottom two to three inches of pumpkin in a double layer of foil to protect it from contact with water during baking. Place in a roasting pan, and add about 1 inch of boiling water to pan.
  5. Bake the pumpkin until it is tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 1/2 hours. (If there is resistance when pumpkin is pierced, allow more baking time.) To serve, remove pumpkin from pan, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Discard foil, and place pumpkin on a serving platter. Slice into segments like a cake. Place a wedge of pumpkin on each serving plate, and mound with rice stuffing.

what are your eddies of joy? what are the ones you never saw coming?

 

my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Glad Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

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

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

i missed the moon

missed the moon, so gillson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gillson row of trees

autumn is the season that begs your attention

All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke ~

i’m deep breathing poetry and wisdom at the 2019 Catholic Imagination Conference in downtown chicago, a biannual sacred-infused assemblage this year drawing a roster of glorious writers including alice mcDermott, tobias wolff, patricia hempl, mary gordon, paul elie, and poets mary szybist, paul mariani, and dana gioia, and more and more to the shores of lake michigan. this year’s biennial is subtitled: “the future of catholic literary tradition,” a subject to which i am curiously drawn. while i’m off inhaling all that these wise ones offer, and as the seasons take their pivot, exuberant summer into majestic autumn, i am leaving here at the table the longer, unedited version of something i once wrote: a count-your-blessings calendar for autumn, the season of awe, the season that begs your deepest attentions. in all, there are four weeks in my blessed-be autumnal calendar, but i might leave two here now, and circle back with the next two later in the season. (on the other hand, i might leave the whole thing here now…)

slowing timean abridged version of this is found on pages 134 to 138 of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing, a book that still sells at a slow and humbling trickle. (though not as humbling as the next two…) delight in making this the backdrop to your hours of quietude in the shimmering weeks ahead. i find i can’t ever wrap myself enough in the velvety folds of this turn in the year…

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar: Blessed be Autumn, Season of Awe…*

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In the Christian calendar, Ordinary Time continues, punctuated with Feast Days, All Saints’ and All Souls’, chief among many. Advent comes as autumn turns toward winter. We kindle lights amid the blanketing darkness. We await the Holy. In the Hebrew calendar, harvest time brings the Days of Awe, the holiest of holy days, from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year to Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and on to Sukkot, Feast of Tabernacles, the harvest celebration where we wrap ourselves in the whole of Creation and God’s abundant glory. From the golden glowing autumn light to the morning’s brisk first breath, this is indeed the Season of Awe.

Week One:

Day 1: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn. Blessed be triumphant blast of light and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in. And bless those among us who are wide-eyed to the wonderment that is ours for belly-filling feasting.

Day 2: Now’s the interlude when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. Air turns wake-me-up chilly. Pumpkins weigh down the vine. The slant of sun drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it is all autumn’s call to attention.

Day 3: Season riddled with goodbyes: Winged flocks take flight on night winds. Hummingbirds hover but an instant. The hearts and souls we love shove off, back to school desks and leafy college quads. Bittersweet the partings, filled with prayer for safe return.

Day 4: There is faith galore in tucking in a bulb, concentrated life. In setting it just so, roots poking down and the shoot facing skyward, where the vernal sun will come, will tickle it awake, coax it from the frozen earth, break through unannounced, startle us with tender slips of green. Resurrection, sealed beneath the earth.

Day 5: Wrap yourself in the prayerful cry of the cello, the orchestra’s autumnal offering. No deeper plea for hope than Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, especially as unspooled by Yo-Yo Ma. Might it be the backdrop to your autumn prayer? 

Day 6: Behold the piercing, minor-key dissonance, raining from on high. It’s the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees. In this season of migration, as feathered flocks follow heaven’s call, let us bow our hearts when we hear the mournful siren’s song. 

Day 7: English poet and polemicist John Milton says of geese: They are “intelligent of seasons.” Contemplate that wisdom when next you absorb the snow goose’s unseen night cry. 

Week Two:

Day 1: Some call this “the wabi-sabi season,” so defined as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, and the breathtaking poetry of imperfection and impermanence. Embrace your own wabi-sabi self.

Day 2: Be on the lookout for the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. Wraps it in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it. When first frost comes — when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen — that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last. It’s all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

Day 3: Holy chores of autumn: Head outdoors to chatter with your birds and squirrel friends. Protect them from the coming cold. Toss corn. Pour water into shallow bowls. Smear peanut butter onto tree bark so they can peck it off, stave off the shivers and the rumbly tummies that we fear for them.

Day 4: Partake of autumn’s poetic fruits: honeycrisp apple, mission fig, pomegranate, persimmon, ruby-breasted pear, quince. 

Day 5: Bless the miracle of the monarch, the one of all the 24,000 species of butterflies who migrates the farthest. And whose story brings on goosebumps. For most of the year, the monarch, like every other butterfly, lives an ephemeral life. It’s born, and within weeks, it dies. Not so the monarchs of autumn, they are the Methuselah generation — named for the oldest old man of the Bible, who, according to Genesis 5:27, lived “nine hundred sixty and nine years.” Monarchs born at summer’s end, way up in Canada, live as long as eight months. They exist for one purpose: To fly south, and, come spring, beget the next generation. Who in heaven’s name dreamed up such almighty wonder?

Day 6: Crack open the autumnal recipe box. Bake a crisp or crumble that draws upon the orchard’s harvest. Offer up a prayer for heirloom apple tree, and the woodsman who tended it, and plucked its drooping boughs.

Day 7: Fill the table with invited friends, friends whose big ideas soar like kites against the wind, and whose laughter makes the walls shake. We are blessed with such companions, a word with Latin roots meaning, literally, “bread fellows.”  

Week Three:

Day 1: Bless the season of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings. Of painted-wing songbirds carrying off their full-throated melodies and charmed warblings, leaving us to absorb the new-found silence of the leafless trees.  

Day 2: It is in the few fat fruits — American cranberry, rosehips — left on the bough and thorny stem, and the up-reached arms of oak and serviceberry that we might find the combination lock to our imagination — and our most satisfying comfort.

Day 3: Treat yourself to a mid-night’s moon lace. Tear off the bedclothes, tiptoe to a window — or if you’re feeling brave, straight out to under heaven’s dome. On a night when the moon is full or nearly so, behold the full-strength moonbeams as they spill across the boughs, the grass. All the earth is dappled in inside-out shadow. Better than Chantilly, and sure to take your breath away. 

Day 4: Savor the gray days of late autumn. When all the world is stripped of excess, pared back to strictly elemental. When even a smidge of color — save, maybe, for the blood red of a clump of berries — is uncalled for, unnecessary.

Day 5: Regard the autumn frost, redux. Miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew. Or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day? Either way, let it take your breath away. First blessing of the day. 

Day 6: Unearth a long-buried tome from your bookshelf, and curl up for a long afternoon’s contemplation. What title tickles your autumnal fancy, and gets you in the mood for counting all your bounty?

Day 7: Dollop sweetness, the gifts of summer’s labor harvested in autumn. Might you choose amber-liquid honey, or bronze molasses? Or do you take your sugar squared, in lumps? Heaped blessing, indeed. 

Week Four:

Day 1: The world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time. There was darkness, there was light. Genesis says so. There are seasons, turning. Ask Ecclesiastes.

Day 2: Look out into tangled labyrinth of branch on branch — interrupted only by unkempt knot of leaves assembled by some squirrel intent on keeping warm — and understand what November reveals.

Day 3: As you begin kindling wicks, come nightfall, consider the honeybees’ hard labor to beget the beeswax. It’s estimated that, to gather the pollen to make the honey that’s consumed by bees to craft the honeycomb, the bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax. 

Day 4: Or, as Bavarian thinker named Karl von Leoprechting wrote, in 1855: “The bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.” Ponder that when next you strike a match to illuminate the darkness.

Day 5: These are the days when the stark poetry of gnarly branch and endless sky open up to us. When all around is naked, bared, stripped of its cloak, exposed. We might be spurred to pare away all but our very essence.

Day 6: It is jagged silhouette against the charcoal sky that haunts, rustles us, seeps slowly deeply in.

Day 7: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.” — German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328).

what would you add to your own count-your-blessings calendar for this season of deepest awe?

black-eyed susan* © 2006-2019 Barbara Mahany. All Rights Reserved.

summer’s saturation point

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there comes a moment, maybe it’s late afternoon when the whir of the cicada rises to jackhammer loud, maybe it’s standing by the bins of tomatoes at the farmer’s market cradling just the right red orb in your palm, maybe it’s sinking your toes in the sand as it cools by the minute at nightfall, but sure as can be, there comes a moment when you know — up, down, and sideways — that you’re in the thick of surround-sound super-saturated summer.

and this is the moment to make the most of it, seize it, lick the juice of it off your chin, bury your toes a little bit deeper, turn the page and keep right on reading: dinner can wait.

this is summer. summer is this.

especially the summer when every ounce of you is counting down. when you wake up knowing how many days there are. how many weeks till you pack up the wagon, and whisper the holy-garden-angel prayer*. (* the prayer that was born when little ears in the back seat behind you were certain the one to whom you were reciting allegiance, the one to whom you petitioned, was none other than “holy garden angel, protect us.”)

especially in august.

so here we are: time for your summer’s checklist.

have you sliced a perfectly ripe, perfectly juicy giant green-striped tomato? a caution-yellow one? one with a fanciful name (cherokee purple, green zebra, Mr. Stripey, montserrat?) and even more fanciful pings to your tastebuds?

have you unfurled a beach towel in your own backyard, flung yourself onto your back, and counted the stars?

have you plucked the sand from in between your toes?

have you lost an afternoon deep in the pages of a hot-burning summer’s read?

have you carried home so many bulging bags from the farmer’s market that the welts in your arm lasted till noon?

have you wished even once that this day — or this hour, or moment — would never ever come to an end?

have you fallen asleep to the nightsounds rushing in through the screens? along with the breeze that tickles your toes?

have you plunked yourself in your favorite perch — maybe a tree house, maybe a cushioned ledge by an upstairs window — and done nothing more arduous than watching the world go by?

have you grabbed a fistful of mint from the garden, rinsed it under the faucet and watched it float in a pitcher of ice, water, and sliced wheels of lemon?

have you stayed up late, and gotten up early, just because you can’t get enough of these summery hours?

have you whispered a prayer of undiluted glory-be for this moment, the blessing of being alive for one more summer?

maybe now is the time….

and here, just because, is the summeriest recipe i’ve stumbled upon in the last string of summery days….(p.s. it’s the dressing that launches this over the moon…..the summery moon, but of course…)

Arugula, Watermelon and Feta Salad 

Yield: 4 servings 

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice 

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/4 cup minced shallots (1 large)

1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

6 cups baby arugula, washed and spun dry
1/8th seedless watermelon, rind removed, and cut in 1-inch cubes
12 ounces good feta cheese, 1/2-inch diced
1 cup (4 ounces) whole fresh mint leaves, julienned 

Directions: 

1 Whisk together the orange juice, lemon juice, shallots, honey, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form an emulsion. If not using within an hour, store the vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator. 

2 Place the arugula, watermelon, feta, and mint in a large bowl. Drizzle with enough vinaigrette to coat the greens lightly and toss well. Taste for seasonings and serve immediately. 

what’s on your summer’s checklist?

prayer for comings and goings

gyroscope

gy·ro·scope  /’jira-skop/  n. a device used to provide stability or maintain a fixed direction, consisting of a wheel or disk spinning rapidly about an axis that is free to alter in direction. a device for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. it is a spinning wheel or disc in which the axis of rotation is free to assume any orientation by itself.

“device for maintaining orientation.”

sometimes i think my job is to be the human gyroscope. to keep it all straight. to keep all afloat. at speeds all their own. above all: to maintain orientation.

sometimes, even my own.

today is one of those days when the gyroscope in me is working overtime. before i was even awake i was tracing the map in my head of where people i love — children i love — are scattering today. one is climbing into a van with a van full of friends and a summer’s worth of clothes and rolling from new haven, to new york, to washington, to the rolling hills of virginia, then back to d.c. for a long, hard summer playing like a tv lawyer.

yet another of my kids (there are only two, lest i make it sound as if there are dozens and dozens) is marching into his last friday of high school. then he and the little flock i’ve come to love (as if my own), they are scattering like pool balls all across the country: wisconsin, new york, indiana, michigan, ohio, and, yes, illinois. (how apt that the heartland is draped in these particular boys, a heart-filled flock if ever there was.)

years back, when my firstborn headed off to massachusetts, and i stayed behind in sweet chicago, i got my first taste of this re-mapping that mamas do. i imprinted the hills of western massachusetts, pioneer valley, into my imagination. i knew the streets and inclines he loped day after day. and as i’d talk to him, the pictures in my head traveled along. on days when i wasn’t talking to him, i imagined where he trekked. you learn, when you’re someone who loves faraway, how to plunk yourself far far from where you dwell. the size of the space inside your head, it reaches as far as it needs to stretch. adds a live pulsing dot onto the map of the globe. you find yourself scanning the news for hot spots near any one of your very own dots. but mostly, you unreel a whole new reel of picture shows, one for each faraway someone you love.

i woke up this morning wanting more than anything to do like i’d always done when they were little, and we were about to go on a road trip. we’d pile into the wagon, check all the seatbelts, shuffle the water jug away from their feet, be sure the snack bag was reachable. then, before i shifted the car into reverse, we all paused, bowed our heads and muttered the mixed-up prayer that was our own: “holy garden angels protect us.” (one of us once dropped a syllable in guardian and it’s stuck ever since.)

this morning my prayer would be a bit more complex. it’s been nuanced over the years, textured with shadow, with depth and, yes, patches of darkness. the pleadings are at once as unfettered as ever — please let us land safe and whole wherever it is we’ve set out to go — and far more intricate, taking into account the particular inclines and tight mountain passages that come when the journeys are of the real-world, unchaperoned, higher-altitude ilk.

my instinct — no matter how far from home the journey begins — is always to reach toward the ones i so love, spread my arms and my safe-keeping prayers across and around them. i picture the prayer shawl, the one we draped over their shoulders the day they first chanted the Torah, the one we’ve pulled off the shelf for each of their blessings. all these years and journeys later, it’s the sacred cloth i yearn to lay on their shoulders, to wrap round their backs, as they bow their sweet heads, and my job — my holiest job — is to anoint them with my prayers. and my love.

dear holy God, God of adventure and challenge, God of steep inclines and precipitous drops, dear God, steady their footfall. soften the blows. dial up the everyday triumphs and occasional joys. most of all, bring them home, safe and sound and whole. and, yes, steady me, as i try my hardest to maintain orientation. no matter what comes.

amen. and with love.

what’s your prayer for comings and goings? 

waffling

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waffling, as in waffles (and bacon and hash browns and berries, etc., etc.) by the dozens and dozens…

i’m doing my arithmetic. multiplying quarter cups and teaspoons by multiples. i’m firing up the waffle iron. dumping hash browns in a vat. i’m making first-friday, end-of-high-school brunch for however many high school boys decide to swoop through the front door any hour now.

mostly, i’m squeezing every last drop of joy out of this bumper crop of boys i love. boys i’ve known, some of them, since they were wee tots. i’ve watched first days of kindergarten, first school-bus ride, first loose tooth, first sleepover, first at bat and strike out, too. i’ve watched this crop from almost the beginning, the whole lot of them. i’ve been nothing more than a bit player at the margins of their childhoods, but i’ve been keeping close watch, and i’ve been listening. i’ve known of dark shadows haunting some of them, and scary monsters that would not go away.

across the years, i’ve grown to love this brood. i’ve watched as they’ve reached out to weave a tapestry of love, a band of brothers, if ever there was. i’ve watched them surround the boy i love the night he got cut from soccer. i’ve watched them pile out of a van, bearing ice-cream cake and cookies, the night the kid i love got sidelined in the middle of tryouts, after getting kicked in the head in a scramble at the goal, and the trainer could not let a would-be concussion back onto the field. i’ve listened as i drove them mile after mile. remember back to second grade, when one tried to teach the others the intricacies of quadratic equations. heard them race to read 100 books one summer. watched them run around the neighborhood giggling, chasing make-believe superheroes on their phones. and, in the latest interlude, i’ve listened closely as each one reached for college dreams, listened closely as heartaches came and they leapt in to console each other, to bear the hurt together, share the load, shake it off, and laugh the night away after all. they are each other’s front-line rescue squad of heart and soul. theirs is a deep-grained bond, a glorious brand of friendship i wish could be bottled, sold on supermarket shelves. we’d all do well to learn a thing or two from their thick-or-thin inseparability, their faith in each other’s goodness, their forgiveness at ordinary bloopers.

it’s a blessed thing to love not just your own, but a whole flock of little rascals. to blink your eyes and see them not as little rascals shyly coming to the door, but grown men (with shoes twice the size of mine) now looking me in the eye, engaging in nuanced conversation about the politics or the heartache of the day.

i’m going to miss the lot of them — their cacophony rising from the basement where they gather with nothing more risqué than pretzel twists and gatorade, where they drape themselves amoeba-like on arms of chair, on beanbags, on the treadmill track (unplugged and motionless, at least most of the time). i’m going to miss the way they swarm the kitchen, locusts sucking up whatever crumb of carb or sugar they can find. i’m even going to miss the rides to school, where conversation keeps time with NPR, and we engage in everything from venezuela to william barr or the latest bit of drama from the high school halls (i only catch the latter if i’m listening really really closely).

they’re a bunch of boys so good, so unblemished, it gives me hope — a bumper crop of hope — for the world.

missing the whole lot of them might make it a bit more tolerable to imagine missing only one. the one and only who’s been haunting these halls all by his lonesome for the last eight years. ever since the steamy august day we dropped his big brother off at college, and motored down the highway, wiping away the tears that would not end.

we take our goodbyes in sips and bits. makes it far more bearable than one big final gulp. we animate those leave-takings with the wrappings of joy. with one more excuse to fire up the waffle iron, crank the oven, haul out the maple syrup by the gallon.

long ago, when i too was a high school senior and my mom and dad were out of town, i somehow invited every single girl in my class (that would be a few hundred) for may day breakfast before the school bell ring. i somehow thought of that the other day, and thus the invitation for the flock of high school senior boys. thank goodness it’s not the entire class. i’d be neck-deep in waffles, if it were.

i’m getting off easy here this morning. waffles for 20 oughta be a breeze.

what are the rites and rituals of goodbyes that have animated your years? and while we’re at it, anyone have a simple plot for keeping waffles, bacon, sausage and hash browns hot and to the table?