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Category: blessings

maybe we need to open the smoke hole

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there’s a siberian myth that when you close the smoke hole in a reindeer-hide tent — that orifice opening up to the sky — God can’t see in anymore. when you close the smoke hole, you break the connection to the divine — to the heavens and clouds and stars in the sky.*

when you close the smoke hole, you go mad in the whirl of unending toxic vapors.

maybe the world needs to go quiet to open the smoke hole.

have you heard that dolphins are once again romping in the waters off venice? (the oversized — dare we say obscene — cruise ships are gone.) blue skies and birdsong are back in parts of china that hadn’t seen them or heard them for years. (factories gone silent, cars parked at the curbs; pollution cut off at the knees.)

the earth, amid a pandemic, is healing. you might say it’s the soul that’s pushed its way to the fore.

have you noticed how your inbox is full of invitations from monks and museums and the metropolitan opera? a journal i love — emergence magazine — is, like so many rushing into the abyss, offering “free of charge, online sessions [that] will include: a book club that will meet online once a week, virtual fireside chats with Emergence contributors, a nature journaling course, and facilitated workshops and discussions.”

last night i joined in meditation with a monk and his singbowls at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore — along with two dozen soulful others whose faces appeared in squat boxes at the top of the screen, and who were strewn all across the continent. (singbowls originated in the himalayas more than 2,000 years ago, and the sound that rises from the mallet gliding the rim of a metallic bowl is scientifically documented to change our brain waves, and so is thought to be healing and soothing and all of those “ings” we need right now.)

the other morning i sat at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, while the priest at my church spoke of the samaritan woman during the sermon of sunday morning liturgy. last night, my priest popped in again, and mentioned that rather than singing the birthday song twice as she washes her hands, she likes to recite the jewish blessing for the washing of hands (it’s 10 seconds, so repeat twice): “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

there are many, many hours to fill in the space between stepping into my haz-mat attire and bravely boldly facing the grocery stores aisles where, more often than not, whole aisles are cleared, picked over as if a cotton field in the wake of the weevil. and so, being human, we itch to find ways to fill those hours.

i say, take this time and seize it: pick up a rake, if you have one idling in the garage or the shed. tenderly pull back the winter’s detritus, marvel at the tender green nubs insistently pushing through the crust of the earth. listen to the birdsong, now that the soundtrack of cars and most trucks (save for the poor amazon delivery squad), have gone silent.

one of my most beloved friends is teaching me, via links to websites and a vat of bubbling goo she’s promised to leave on my stoop, how to befriend that curious alchemical mix of flour and water and floating-by spores (how lovely to think of a wafting microbe as friend and not foe in these red-ringed times) called sourdough starter. there’s something eternally hopeful about the notion of make-your-own yeast, and bake-your-own breakfast.

last night, the college kid among us pulled out a board game, fired up his laptop to connect with his faraway brother, and together — through the wizardry of this wireless age — we all played round after round of word games. when’s the last time we all huddled at the kitchen table to put our collective heads together in game?

i’m making it my most important job to stitch the normal into these days, and to take it up a notch and embroider the moments with whatever delights and high-order embellishments i can muster: i’m tossing lavender packets into the dryer so clean sheets smell like provence herb gardens. i’m cracking open packets of biscuits, cranking the oven, filling the house with buttery inhalations. defrosting stews long tossed to the back of the freezer. the soul when its gasping for air is especially receptive to beauty.

and in between the attempts to make this time something of a break from the madness, i’m paying closest attention to the unbridled kindnesses, to the light that insists on seeping through the cracks.

maybe the smoke hole is opening.

maybe we’re finally noticing how hungry our souls have become. seek vigil not isolation, might be our watch phrase. don’t cut yourself off from the marvelous. from the undeniably beautiful. from the blessed.

open your eyes and your heart, the heavens are beckoning in ways never ever imagined. shabbat is upon us. uninterrupted.

enter in peace.

how are you keeping open the smoke hole?

from time to time across the week, i will bring delicious morsels here to the virtual kitchen table. you’re welcome to do the same….as we join hearts and forge on together. we will emerge and be stronger for seeing the world through new smoke-cleared eyes…..

*credit to martin shaw, mythologist and storyteller from devon, england, (extolled as “a thirteenth-century troubadour dropped into our midst”) for bringing the smoke-hole myth to my attention…..

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1905 Scientific American, documenting Siberian wilderness culture

we all leap…

cosmograph

wrestling time seems to have preoccupied the human species since the dawn of, well, time. time itself ceaselessly flows. the heavens, though, mark it with sun and moon, light and shadow. we, scribblers that we are, we draw lines on pages, make them into little boxes, count them one by one. it’s a russian doll of time boxed. we have boxes in all sizes: millennia, century, year, month, day, and of late (in the scope of human history, that is) we have day-minders that make itty-bitty boxes, one for each hour or quarter hour, depending on your busyness. one box slips inside another. we now know at-a-glance just how booked our tomorrows will be.

hipparchus.

hipparchus

all this time wrestling long ago left the mathematicians and sky gazers with a little bit of a problem. a leftover, in fact. or in second-grade subtraction lingo, a remainder. once wise folk like hipparchus, considered the greatest astronomer of antiquity, started squinting toward the sun, hauling out their rudimentary measuring sticks, they mapped some sense of the heavens. hipparchus, the fellow who gave us trigonometry (something you might or might not celebrate), is the one who first pinned time to the revolutions of the sun, to the dance of planet earth in tango with the biggest star. he’s the one who must have whooped, aha! when he calculated the time it takes for one spin around the sun. and here’s the rub: it takes 365 days and 6 hours to make the round-about. that pesky leftover is what brings us to tomorrow — february 29 (a date pulled from the special-reserve shelf).

if you’re going to put time in a box (or a whole calendar of boxes) what shall you do with that quarter of a day left behind? well, said the wise sky scribes of long ago, let us bundle those quarter days into a single package, one that rolls around every four years. (it gets even trickier for us, and for those ancient numbers dudes, once hipparchus pointed out the pesky little fact that their bundling left yet another remainder: every four years, there’s an extra 44 minutes, or three days every 400 years (as ever, it’s the leftovers that all but foil us). so, geniuses that they were, they once again did their math and this time reached for subtraction, deciding that those years divisible by 100 only get a leap day if they’re also divisible by 400. (meaning 1600, 2000, 2400 are leap years, but 1700, 1800, 1900 got gypped.) (and further proving that you can bend rules to do just about anything you so desire.)

so, basically, we should all bow down to long-ago hipparchus for this construct of the leap day. theoretically, it’s the mathematical solution to the boxing-up of time. but for us seekers of the deeper truths, it begs a russian doll of questions, all pivoting on one essential one: if you were handed a gift box of time, if hours were added to the measure of your life, how might you squeeze the holiest holiness from those ticking seconds, minutes, hours? how might you make it most count?

one of the mystical truths of time is that often we get our clearest vision of the gift when it’s taken away, or so threatened. have you ever held your breath waiting for results of a scan? have you paced the halls outside doors marked “surgery: do not enter,” waiting for word of what was found? have you watched the clock move glacially as you await the phone call that’s not coming? have you begged for one more yesterday, most emphatically with someone loved and lost?

what tumbles through our whole self is the begging sense that if only we could have one more day, a few more hours, we’d do this and this and this. say these words we’ve left unsaid. i heard joe biden, someone who knows volumes about loss, say not so long ago that the truth is that in the end cancer patients aren’t asking for years and years, their pleas boil down to “doc, can i make it till the baby comes?” “can i watch her walk down the aisle?” “maybe make it one more christmas?” it’s chiseled to the precipice of the humblest increments of time, of possibility counted out in minutes.

so what will we do with our so-called extra tomorrow? isn’t this our once-a-quatrain chance to practice sacramental time? to lift up each hour, to hold it to the holy light, infuse it with intentionality (that modern-day queazy term for “paying attention,” as ancient a sacred practice as ever there was).

imagine you are handed a basketful of time. as you unwrap each and every hour, each section of an hour, how will you choose to live it to its most abundant fullness?

that’s the question. contemplate your blessings…and, soon enough, it’ll be time to take the holy leap.

sun

the question above–how will you make the very most of the gift of tomorrow, or today, for that matter–is the question i leave here on this morning’s table….

mapping the sun hipparchus(p.s. the image at the tippy-top here is the cover of william cunningham’s 1559 Cosmographicall Glasse, a compendium of engravings of the known principles (at the time) of cosmography, geography, navigation….among the details is his engraving of hipparchus scoping the sun…)

 

counting: an exercise in loving

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my brother started it. my brother who wasn’t yet 20 the night we all got phone calls, urgent phone calls, to get to highland park hospital. it was dad, we were told in those long-ago calls. and it didn’t look good.

there was a blizzard that night, but we all drove through it–two from milwaukee, two from downtown chicago (one was already there, the youngest; he’d walked in the room steps ahead of my mom, and he saw the team bent over my father’s bed, as they tried to start his heart again). i remember holding my breath as snow flakes fell and blew. i remember thinking the edens expressway, the most direct route from my little apartment to the hospital where we waited, i remember thinking it would never end.

three of my four brothers, especially, were too too young for the news–one, the youngest, had only just turned 13, the other two were in or in and out of college, finding their way–too young for the news that would come when the doctor walked stiffly into the hall, gathered us, and we all leaned in as he looked down at the shiny tiled floor, and said only, “i’m sorry.”

that was not enough for me, the one who needs things spelled out, in more refined detail, so i spurted out, primally, “did he die?”

he did. and so five children and a widow walked back into the snow storm, with a plastic bag of his “effects,” a cold and clinical word for the relics of the one you loved.

all these years later, my brothers especially, try to resurrect the faint outlines of the one we loved and lost. my brother, now the father of a feisty second-grader, he especially reaches into the vapors for the father he never got enough of, none of us got enough of.

this week, on the eve of the 39th february 10 since that snowy awful night, my brother sat down and made a list. a beautiful list. one raw, and unfiltered. he wrote all the way to 39, one moment captured for each year since we’d lost the great gregarious eugene shannon, felled by a heart attack, a massive one, at 52.

my brother’s litany of moments was nothing like mine. so i sat down and wrote my own. and my other brother in arizona, he wrote one too. he wrote his on paper and when he lined up the pages to send us a picture, the pages stretched from one end of his living room clear out into the hall.

in all, we counted out a portrait of the man we loved.

the one, i wrote, who “unwrapped from squares of wax paper his chicken or tuna salad sandwich from the Wesley Pavilion Auxiliary Tea Shop at the side of my hospital bed, almost every day, the entire month or five weeks i was there.” i wrote how, that whole long month in june of 1975, he walked down michigan avenue, from his shimmering big-city ad agency, ducked into the hospital gift shop, bought his sandwich, chips and iced tea (tall with lemon), carried his white paper lunch bag up the elevator to the fourth floor, which everyone knew was the psych floor, and came to my room on the north side of the hall, where he pulled up a chair, and sat beside me. he sat beside me the whole while, as i tried to make my way through whatever was under the metal lid of my hospital tray. we ate side-by-side. i was anorexic, and in 1975, no one knew what to do with a girl who’d all but stopped eating, so they signed me in to a psych unit, and my dad came every day. it remains the tenderest definition of love i know.

i wrote, too, of my dad and his affinity for the backyard hammock strung between two oaks, and his red-plaid christmas pants, and his pride in a closet full of brooks brothers three-piece suits (for a kid who grew up in paris, kentucky, with a train engineer for a father, and a country schoolteacher mama, it had been a long and shining road to brooks brothers’ chalk-striped suits). i wrote of the scar that ran down his bald pate, left there by a german shepherd when my dad was six, and climbed a fence he shouldn’t have.

and i wrote about coming home from the hospital that snowy february night in 1981, “finding dad’s creamy cable-knit tennis sweater, the one with the v-neck rimmed in stripes of blue and red, draped over the kitchen chair (i’d always thought it must have been dropped there when he went off from tennis to the ER that saturday morning, and it still hung there tuesday night).” i wrote of “wrapping myself in the sweater, and literally not wanting to take a breath because I didn’t want to breathe in any air from a world not inhabited by dad.”

we wrote on and on, the three of us. and we all wept reading each others’ litanies. it was, in the week that pauses for love, quite an exercise in bringing back to life the ineffable, the ephemeral, the love that slipped away too soon.

we counted our way into the very depths of love. we brought threads of our father back to life just long enough to wrap ourselves in the thick of it, in the heart of him. love doesn’t die, we proved again, counting the whole way.

i know there is grief gathered round this table, and i wrote this in part because the list-making proved so resuscitating, at least for the short while we were hard at work remembering, conjuring, lifting moments out of the vaults of our heart. we typed through tears. we gathered words as traces of a time now slipped away. the time might be behind us, but the love is living, breathing, even now.

how would you begin to count, your exercise in loving?

and may the swirls of love — lost and present — rise up and swirl around you this day of hearts. 

wild things

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a mouse’s house? with front-porch perch…

it’s the permeability of winter, when the cell wall between the wild and the worldly is punctured, when the precious little things come out into the open, are pushed out into the open, all but tap at the window, beg for a taste of mercy, that’s holiness to me.

IMG_1231against the white tableau of snowy day after snowy day, winter makes evident the tracings of the wild things: a mouse hole here; chantilly-lace tracks of junco and cardinal and jay. even the abominable paw prints of a giant-sized coyote, straight from the woods, up my walk, paused there by the door (did he press his nose to the glass, take a peek under the cookie dome?).

each morning, no matter what the heavens are hurling my way, i don my make-believe farmer-girl boots, i scoop my battered old tin can, fill it with seed, and head out for what you might call matins, morning benediction. i bow to the heavens. scan the trees for any flash of scarlet, or blue-jay blue. i unfurl prayer upon prayer (the moon, if it’s shining, even a crescent or wedge, draws it deep out of me, never more so than in those inky minutes just before the dawn).

what i love about the wild, about this curious equation between us in our warm cozy kitchens and them seeking harbor in ways that mystify now and forever, is the fragile interplay in which we reach beyond what we know, extend an open palm of pure unbridled trust, an offering, no strings attached. it takes stripped-away ego to dare to tiptoe into the world of the wild. it takes a deep and undiluted knowledge of how small a dot we are against the vast canvas of the universe, all but insists we put aside our big ol’ bossy pants, our hurried agendas, our know-it-all nonsense.

it’s the very image of holy veneration: head bowed, palms extended. i come bearing sustenance, in the form of plain seed.

have you ever felt the backdraft of a feathered thing, as it’s flown inches away from your shoulder? have you felt the rush of the wing, heard the soft sound of feather and bone parting the wind?

and then there’s the shock of color, all day long, brush strokes of scarlet, of blue, of smoky charcoal. the boughs are alive, are animated. it’s not all black and white and static gray, not in my patch of the world anyway. all day long it’s a reminder, the wild is just beyond, the wild has wisdoms to teach. mercy is among the urgencies. mercy is what we need to remember; we are lacking in mercies these days.

who ever thought to bring so much wonder to winter? that’s the point at which my wondering leaps from earthly to divine. that’s where unshakeable faith begins to take hold. the wild begs questions that only the heavens can answer for me.

which brings me, round about and once again, to david whyte, whose poem the journey says everything i could ever hope to say with any string of words. have a listen:

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

from House of Belonging  and Essentials by David Whyte

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what wisdoms does the wild whisper to you?

and, while we’re here, the late january table brings a slew of birthdays: kerry down the lane today, beloved beloved pammy jo of the high desert, yesterday. british columbia mary and indiana BB on the 28th. happy blessed whirls around the sun, ladies. and thank you for your radiance….

prayer beads for a new year

sick dolly

tucked under the covers with a thermometer poking out of your spout is no way to start the new year, let alone the new decade. but so it is. and so i type from horizontal perspective. and so this new chunk of time — the dawn of the decade now upon us — has only one direction to go from here: up. 

as i lie and watch out the window, catching a flash of scarlet here, the squawk of blue jays there, i ponder one or two of those lists one we’re supposed to make this time of year. i can’t quite enumerate the things i hope and pray for. after all these years, i’ve boiled it all down to one more or less all-purpose petition: dear God, make me live and breathe your gentle radiant love. let me swallow the urge to be unkind. to rebuff the sharp elbow. to turn the other way when insult’s hurled my way. let me practice the zen of road kindness, refusing to blow the horn, to cut in front, not wait my turn. let me search for and offer the benefit of the doubt. let me try harder not to roll my eyes. (let us institute an apologia for hurling F bombs at the telly when idiots blather on, and on, and on….) let me stop the rumor here and now. not partake of gossip in any way, shape, or form (no matter how juicy). 

these are the sins of the everyday. the little molehills that make for mountains, for a continent-wide topography of pain, of bitterness, the sharp and invisible line dividing “us” from “them,” that makes enemies of those whose stories we never stop to listen to. 

let us traffic in tiny knots of kindness. exercise empathy. imagine how it feels to hurt so much, to be pushed aside, to be left alone on the side of the playground and never find a friend. imagine never letting go of that hurt.

imagine what would happen if one morning you woke up and found yourself inside a life where ego vanished. where someone noticed the glimmer in your eye had dimmed. imagine if someone quietly inquired: are you all right? did someone hurt you? imagine a world where we listened instead of trying to talk over each other. imagine if the ones who take up all the oxygen in the room realized there are others with thoughts to offer. imagine those rare few souls who live to scatter sunshine, who make us laugh till our bellies ache. imagine the miracle of the ones who always think two steps ahead, anticipate our hurt, offer tender loving comfort without folderol or trumpet. 

imagine the quietude of saints who walk among us. 

practice, practice, practice. 

forgive yourself on the days when your brokenness shows. forgive your stumbles. say “i’m sorry.” say it to yourself. 

and just as emphatically, consider a litany of be’s: be curious. be imaginative. be not afraid to dabble in whimsy. be willing to put yourself out there. be humble, so humble. carve out time each and every day to plug into the immense wonder of the heavens and the earth. traipse a meadow, a prairie, sandy dunes. follow a trail into the woods. count the stars. realize how small you are against the infinite canvas of the sky. seek wisdom not from picture shows or airwaves, but in the pages of texts — ancient and otherwise — pulled from bookshelves. deep-dive inside a poem. make a friend in an unlikely place. reach beyond your borders. 

make peace.

these are the prayer beads i carry into this new year; these are the petitions i press against my heart. 

this is how i walk into this new year. once i get up and out from under the blankets and the nyquil. 

what petitions might you bring to this new year? 

counterpain

i am praying extra extra hard for the world this morning. i fell asleep to news alerts, and wake up trembling at the shaky state of global affairs. when we pray for peace, we mean it with every cell of our being. oh, dear God, where is the peace we are meant to bring to this world? let it permeate from each of us. let us double-down our promise to live and breathe it….

something of a christmas-y diary (and a book for the soul)

church door

’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.

christmas early morn

christmas quiet

i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.

yorkshire puddin boys

yorkshire pudding elves

before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).

i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.

i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.

christmas chairthis must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.

i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.

christmas platesso for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).

i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.

here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.

Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith

pilgrimage cover

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |DEC 24, 2019 

In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)

It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.

Aha.

Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.

Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.

“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.

Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.

A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.

Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.

That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.

Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”

And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.

He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”

Egan aimed high, and he reached it.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’

By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28

what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?

making room for the hallowed

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i know, because the calendar says so, that christmas is coming, christmas is truly upon us. christmas in my heart of hearts is that one whispered pause when i feel the whole world — the stars in the heavens, the murmur from the woods, even the hustle in the marketplace — swell up with the pulse of new birth. i imagine the whole world on its knees, holding its breath, bowed down to welcome the babe birthed in a tangle of straw in the dinge of a barn where sheep and cows and a goat, maybe even a brood of clucking hens, keep up their animal chorus. that’s the christmas i reach for, the one i make room for. the one where the quiet is soaked through with holy, the one where one flickering wick shatters the darkness of night.

only, up till this minute it’s been anything but calm and bright around here.

one kid is home with the freshman-year “crud,” a concoction of germs that has him wheezing and coughing and looking up symptoms of mono on the internet. he’s been writing papers all week, so we’ve mostly been making like we’re one big study hall, with lights on till the wee, wee hours, and fridges raided at two or three in the morning. the other kid is barreling toward his last law school exam of the semester, but he took a detour in an emergency room, and scared the living daylights out of me. (he’s fine; i’m the one still shaking off the “rattles.”) and then, because why not, i decided to have a double-dose (that’s back-to-back, as in two wretched days in a row) doctorly peek at the insides (aka not one but two colonoscopies) last week, and after night no. 2, when they made me drink four liters of drain-o, i thought i might die on the cold bathroom floor. meanwhile the so-called man of the house is trying to save a great american newspaper.

all of which is to say: we need a little christmas. and hanukkah too.

so, today it begins, today i begin to make room for the hallowed to come. i’m off to the butcher in a wee little bit to rustle up my six pounds of hanukkah beast. i’ll crank the oven and fill this old house with the incense that cannot be beat: clove and bayleaf and peppercorn, a splash of red wine, a jar or three of chili sauce, then hours and hours in a 325 oven. next up (soon as the soon-to-be lawyer steps off the plane midday tomorrow), it’s off to the tree yard, where we’ll stroll and peruse and put our critical architectural eye to good use; chances are we’ll snag the same old fraser fir we always seem to snag (one too fat and too tall, and more or less to everyone’s liking).

and then, soon, will come one of the holiest moments of the whole long year: i will be alone in my kitchen on christmas morn, and except for the hiss of the simmering spices on the stove and the old schoolhouse clock incessantly counting the minutes and hours, it will be so quiet i’ll hear the rustle of wings and the squawk of the jay out the window. it’ll be inky dark outside, the first crack of light infusing the eastern sky. a star or three might still be twinkling. and here comes the best part: i’ll know that one flight up the stairs and around the bed, two beds will be filled with the boys who will forever be my heart’s reasons for being.

i’ll remember that it all boils down to the simplest of blessings: as we rub the sleep from our eyes, see first thing the bed-wrinkled faces of the ones we so love, as we block out the noise of the world, inhale the long years of loving that brought us to this holy moment, all else will melt away. we will be wrapped in the true miracle of christmas, the love that’s guided us all along the way. the love learned well by paying attention. the love that began, once upon the ages ago, when a wee blessed babe let out a cry for all the earth, and the whole world listened.

i’ll remember: for christmas to come, i need to make room. need to clear out the noise, wrap my sweet soul in those few fine things that are everything: a love that won’t die, a light that can’t be extinguished, and a belief in the undying hope that peace might be just around the next bend, somehow always in reach.

***

and here’s a christmas-y gift for all of you, a poem from mary karr’s descending theology, that draws me deeply into that holiest first night: 

Descending Theology: The Nativity
Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

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merry blessed Christmas, and happy hanukkah too. may your brisket be mouth-watering and your Christmas dawn be filled with overwhelming peace. xoxox

xiii. (lucky.)

PUAC 13

13. or, if you’re feeling latin, xiii.

according to one of my encyclopedias, “13 (thirteen) is the natural number following 12 and preceding 14.” well, then. it is also the sixth prime number, the smallest emirp (yes, that’s a word, a mathematical word, and it means a prime number that is a different prime number when its digits are reversed, 13/31), and it’s a pair of digits with a whole load of baggage, both good and not-so-good. you’ve heard all about the unlucky; in fact some of you might be holding your breath all day today, seeing as it’s none other than friday the 13th. freighted with fears of misfortune, the number 13 was not used in the indy 500 from 1915 to 2002. nor, to this day, is it ever used in a triathlon.

but we are neither the indy 500 nor a triathlon, and — ta da! — the ol’ chair is 13 today, which in jewish tradition would mean it’s arrived at the age of reason, and in italy — where 13 is abounding with luck, and where fare tredici (literally, “to do 13”) amounts to “hit the jackpot” — it’s reason for joy. i’m going with the jews and italians.

13 for our purposes means we’ve traced the years, the undulations of seasons and soul, round and round and round again, pulling up a chair every friday for all of those, and mondays through thursdays as well for the first year of what was then a daily gathering (this happens to be the 945th chair posting).

13 means that i leapt into this mysterious black hole when my little one was a kindergartener, and tomorrow that same kid is riding a greyhound bus home from his first semester of college, where he will spend the next week writing three final papers. and that means this carved-out sacred space has become the place where i’ve most heartfully recorded his growing up, and his big brother’s as well (though by virtue of the fact that that kid was, hmm, 13 when i started the chair, i kept my musings about him closer to the vest and not nearly as frequent, and, truth be told, i fall to my knees in endless thanks for that miracle of having recorded priceless words and moments of both their lives before they slipped away, forever forgotten).

when i first set out on this adventure i was utterly uncertain where i was going, but i was led by an unshakable sense that the stories that unfolded in the quotidian — in the rare sacred hush, or the cacophony of chaos — were stories worth plumbing. i sensed that eternal questions loomed here where most of us live our lives. i believed that the simple act of rising before the dawn, wrapping myself in the sanctity of a new day beginning, and mining the landscape for moments and questions that begged deeper attention just might reveal a thing or two. a thing or two worth holding up to the light, worth pressing hard against my heart, maybe even pointing a new way forward.

what’s happened is nothing short of holiness, indeed. the circle of faithful readers (aka “the chairs”) has ebbed and flowed and buoyed my heart in a thousand thousand ways. always, always we’ve stayed true to the shared code of kindness, of deep consideration, of illumination through story, wit, or wallops of wisdom. there’ve been plenty of days where i was certain i hadn’t a single illumination to add to the planet, and days when i might have been wiser to say nothing at all. but i kept at it, committed in some deep down place to write to the close of the chapter. and if that chapter was the growing up of my second-born miracle child (there isn’t a child on the planet who isn’t a miracle), well then perhaps that chapter is all but written.

and so it’s uncanny that yesterday — the actual anniversary of the chair, started once upon a time on december 12, 2006 — a most breathtaking serendipity happened. what happened is that my once little one, the kid now in college, he had his very first byline, an op-ed column in his college newspaper. 13 years ago, he was a pink-cheeked sound-asleep angel curled under mounds and mounds of covers the first morning i tiptoed down the stairs to begin telling whatever story most captured my imagination and heart. now, all these stories later, he has a byline and he’s beginning to tell his own.

i can’t imagine waking up on a friday and not sitting down to type. but maybe i’ll be more apt to share the words of wiser more poetic souls i bump into along the way. maybe since i spend so many hours of my life inside the pages of other writers’ books, i’ll use this space as something of a commonplace book, a compendium of wit, wisdom and poetry snipped and culled from wherever it’s found. sometimes the stories might be mine. but maybe, now in certain adolescence, i ought to lean more on the wiser ones who surround us. and maybe i’ll ask the kid with the brand-new byline to bring one of his musings here to the table where at least one of us fell in love with him over and over again every time we put his story to the page.

with my whole heart, thank you to you who never fail to follow along, and those of you who amble by only by chance and only every once in a blue moon. a writer needn’t be read to be a writer, but when it’s a two-way street it’s all the holier. you’ve made this one of the holiest places, a living-breathing prayer in my life.

thanks for sticking around for all these years, and all these soulful meanderings.

much love,

the chair lady

just for the pure joy of it, here’s a series that pretty much captures the little one at the start of the chair. in action with my beloved beloved brother, the magnificent “uncle michael”….

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.

gingerbabies

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.