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

Category: blessings

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.

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.'”)