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Category: books for the soul

telling our truest true stories

writing school

for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.

it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)

i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.

or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.

what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”

put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”

i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”

or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”

and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.

if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.

what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?

thurman books

** and while we’re at it, here’s the latest chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul, published nov. 1:

Powerful collection from MLK’s pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books

“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25

Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.

It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”

The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of phi­losophy at Morehouse College.

Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.

“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16

How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.

He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.

In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95

For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.

What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.

It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

baselines of hope

baselines of hope

these times, they are shaky.

that’s one way to put it, waking up, catching the first snow fall on my nose as i lope outside with coffee can and birdseed in tow, on a mission to make my first act of the day one of tender caring, even if the caring comes in the form of feather balls who float on the wind, who fill the air with chirps and cheeps and fluttering wings. and then, while that peace-filled breath is sinking deep in my lungs, in my soul, i lope back inside, click this lit-up clamshell that brings me the news — oh, the news — of the world, and just now told me of atrocities in melbourne, australia. australia, a nook and cranny of the world we like to think of as too far from the madness, somehow immune, inoculated. if only there was a vaccine against having our hearts blown to shreds.

every day now, it seems to come. to find its way in. to shake us, rattle us, frazzle our hope and sometimes our faith, deep to our core. australia. thousand oaks. tree of life. kentucky kroger grocery store. pipe bombs across america. (and that’s just the shorthand of horrors for the last 30 days.)

but i stumbled into a lifeline this week. or a little something that might just help.

by the grace of God, i have this crazy wild job that puts me in the front line of books for the soul — i read them, lots of them, and pluck out the ones especially worth passing along — and every once in a while that means i get an early crack at a book that just might save us — or at least give us a place to eddy our hearts for awhile. that’s how it happened that anne lamott’s newest, “almost everything: notes on hope,” came to be following me everywhere i go.

because she’s the master of embedding rocket blasts of wisdom unsuspectingly into the middle or ends of a sentence (p. 45: “help is the sunny side of control”), distilling knock-your-socks truths into words or combinations of words you’d never before known could work in that way (p. 47: life is “like free theater in the park — glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us…”), lamott is someone to read with pen and post-its at the ready. you’ll want to scribble in the margins, and up and down the end papers, too. (best not to play this game with a library book, so i’d urge you to buy your own copy so you can play along without racking up ginormous library fines.)

one of the tripwire lines she’d buried deep in one of her sentences was one that — as plotted, i’m certain — stopped me in my tracks and got me to thinking. (the very best books for the soul can take a very long time to read start to finish because they are filled with cul-de-sacs and ridge trails that force you to plop down on the side of the mountain and look out over the valley, far and wide and clearer than you’ve ever before noticed.)

she was writing about how even when life seems to be humming along, “the cosmic banana peel awaits.” in other words, stuff happens. bad stuff. stuff that makes us feel like our heart’s been blown to bits. banana peel stuff. “without this reality,” lamott writes, “there would be no great art or comedy.” and then she goes on to remind us to “savor what works when things are sort of harmonious.” the million and one things that don’t steer us into the ditch, don’t trigger the air bags.

it’s these little-counted miracles — the toe that wasn’t stubbed when you nearly walked into the bathroom door in the night, the pink dot by your eye that didn’t turn into a sty, the vote tally that did fall in your favorite faraway candidate’s favor — these “fleeting, lovely satisfactions” that lamott writes give us “a baseline hope.”

baseline hope.

it was as if she’d twisted the kaleidoscope just enough for me to see from a whole new angle. it was white-on-black instead of the usual black-on-white. take one minute (or be radical and take maybe five, or 10), consider the census of everyday barely-noticed things that do go the way you’d want them to go if you were the one in charge of your plot line. the things you barely pause to realize have saved you from falling into the rat’s nest, the ant hill, the gutter.

the baselines of hope.

i’ll go first: there might be a recount in florida. the furnace is humming, not sputtering. my slippers are fuzzy and warm. my hopefully-college-bound kid got his essays written on time. the computer did not crash as he was submitting said essays to college. the kid i love who’s in law school, he put down the books long enough to go to the symphony last night (a sign he’s learning to live like a human, and not just a caffeine-fueled freak of high-stakes angst).

you catch the drift, i’m certain.

these days the world can and does bombard us. it’s incoming always. and it’s not often pretty. but underpinning our everyday, more often than not, the furnace is working, the gas tank is filled, someone we love remembers to call us.

baselines of hope.

what’s required is the root of all sacred practice: pay attention. pay close, close attention. harvest the joys and the wonders and the narrowly-missed calamities. those fine few things that keep the trap door from ripping right open, catching us, tumbling us down to the cobwebby cellar.

consider the miracle of most of the time….

what constitutes your baseline of hope?

mark this day…

IMG_0545

there is something about the crisp edge of things — of a hem, of a book, of a season — that settles the soul of a sometimes frazzled someone. someone like me. it fills me with a sense of something noble — a job well done, completion. prompts me to bend my knee and bow. it’s gratitude and it’s awe.

take summer, for instance. it ends tomorrow, making today the last full dose of it. and before i chase it out the door, before i usher in the amber hours of the season i love best, before i haul in the wheelbarrows of pumpkins, the tins of cinnamon and clove, before i fling myself upon the forest floor, playing peek-a-boo through golden, crimson, and persimmon-shaded boughs, it’s summer’s due to say goodbye to sand and sun unfiltered. to bees that buzzed and blooms that cheered me with their moppy heads, their delicate tendrils, their sweet perfumes that made me sniff around the garden (a pretty picture — me with nose in air, and mud-stained knees — surely not).

the season of about-to-burst tomatoes, and cicada song at night, the months of curtains flapping in the window’s invisible current, the sweater-less months, they draw to a close tomorrow eve at 8:54 p.m. (central time). that’s the equinox hour, when the sun slides into absolute right angle to blessed planet earth, when its beams fall straight onto the equator, that cinch-waist strap around the middle.

and so this last full blast before the season ends, it begs occasion. begs a moment’s pause. a plea to savor just a swatch of time — time filled with the summeriest wonders you can imagine.

my summery moment might be this: a fat tomato (the last one in my wooden bowl) sliced and salted, laid reverentially on whole-grain bread, and ferried to my summer porch, along with a fat book that begs to be begun. bare toes wriggling in the fading shaft of mid-afternoon sun. a moment’s pause to contemplate the butterfly wafting by. a whispered prayer of thanks — for the somnolence of summer. for the deep warmth and gentle breeze. for all that ripened and spilled with juice. for days that slowed, and hours that nearly burst with sumptuous sweet.

thank you, summer, once again…

***

because i’ve once again stumbled in my duties to bring my soulful literary roundups to this page, here’s the “books for the soul” that ran a month ago. oops. three fine picks. i especially loved the first, “learning to speak God from scratch ,” a linguistic exploration, richly written, and sure to make you think….

may your autumn days be filled with good reads…

How to talk about God, and more, addressed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany

“Learning to Speak God from Scratch” by Jonathan Merritt, Convergent, 256 pages, $15.99

Here’s a subject not often found on the religion bookshelf: linguistics. As in “sacred language” or “Godspeak,” the ways we put words to what’s holy and so often ineffable. It’s a language that’s frankly been hijacked by politicians, blasphemed by holier-than-thou hypocritical preachers, and muted by the masses who dare not utter a word construed to be “church-y.”

And it’s into this battle-scarred landscape that “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” bravely proceeds. A few years back, Jonathan Merritt, a religion and culture contributor to The Atlantic, left behind the Bible Belt for New York City and found himself thunderstruck by the stark disconnect (and discomfort) in God talk there in Gotham.

Something of a spelunker in the realm of sacred linguistics, he robustly constructs his argument — one rife with hard data from the sociocultural realm and rich in personal narrative. It’s one that solidly convinces that sacred words are in crisis, and that any lost language leaves a gaping hole in human understanding. He makes the point that when the language at stake is the one that ties us to all that’s divine, it’s our souls that stand to wither.

He opens his case with this assessment: “The way certain groups of people use sacred words gives the rest of us the holy heebie-jeebies.” From there, Merritt takes off, swashbuckling his way through ironclad analysis, poking into curious linguistic and Biblical corners, making us see in a whole new light why it matters to reimagine and reclaim sacred language.

In the book’s second half, Merritt takes on, one by one, a lexicon of 19 words worth learning all over again, from confession to sin to grace. Because Merritt is an elegant and deeply literate writer, he makes his subject one of which we can’t get enough.

“The Way of Kindness,” edited by Michael Leach, James T. Keane, Doris Goodnough, Orbis, 224 pages, $18

It’s the end of summer, and the reading is supposed to be easy. Never hurts when it’s rich too. “The Way of Kindness” is everything you might want when you stretch out in your recliner, long tall refreshment within quick reach. It’s as if your favorite librarian is sitting beside you, whispering, “Read this. And this. And this, too, while you’re at it.”

The roster here is a greatest hits of American writers, not all of whom are regular travelers in the religious or spiritual domain. And that, perhaps, is what makes this a notch above the usual such gathering. To read Jack Kerouac: “Practice kindness all day to everybody/ and you will realize you’re already/ in heaven now.” Or George Saunders implore, “err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

Dorothy Day quotes the Carmelite nun who told her, “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.” Even Aldous Huxley chimes in, telling us, “(I)t’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with human problems all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’ ”

While this is a book for quick dips or longer dallies, the curators of this collection — three fine souls in the world of spiritual publishing — have put their collective heft into what unfolds here. Your summer’s day will be all the gentler for having spent time among these literary and spiritual masters.

“Love Without Limits” by Jacqueline A. Bussie, Fortress, 195 pages, $24.99

File this one under “Standing By Your Story.”

Jacqueline A. Bussie, theologian, beloved professor of religion at Minnesota’s Concordia College and award-winning author of “Outlaw Christian,” her 2016 exhortation to find authentic faith by breaking a roster of too-rigid rules, sat down to pen “Love Without Limits,” a deeply personal how-to-guide for no-holds-barred loving. Because her stories arose from the depths of her heart, and the truth of how she lives her life — she calls this latest book “my life’s love letter” — she included chapters on both her Muslim and her LGBT friendships. Then, she turned in her manuscript to the Christian publishing house with whom she’d signed a contract, a book whose subject all along had been exploring God’s radical love.

The publishing house balked, deemed the two chapters “offensive” and “theologically out of bounds,” and ordered Bussie to cut them or they’d cancel her contract (and make her pay back every penny of her advance). Bussie refused, dead-set against being censored. Certainly not in a book about how people of faith — all faiths — “are called to love with no exceptions, asterisks, or limits.”

Mighty fine thing that Fortress Press, a Minneapolis-based Christian publisher with a more progressive bent, saw fit to snatch up Bussie’s much-needed message. In a world as balkanized as the one in which we find ourselves, Bussie’s words light the way toward practicing “a love so deep it subverts the social order, so radical it scandalizes the powerful, so vast that it excludes no one.” A love, it turns out, that couldn’t be censored.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

how will you mark the last full blast of summer? 

piles and piles of books…

soulbooksstack

books around here are slip-sliding into puddles. books are piled on bedside tables, and teetering at the edge of my old pine writing desk. books shove me out of chairs. and books sometimes line the stairs. books come into this old house all on their own. and sometimes, because i shlep them. my little book-lined writing room is becoming my book-stacked obstacle course. can you hop the pile? can you slither through the gulch, the one between two (or three or four) gravity-defying stacks?

i came home from the smoky mountains with but one genre of souvenir: books, and more books. books that all week have called me to the wicker chairs out back. books whose stories hold me from one reading interlude to the next. and then, of course, there are the books for work. lots and lots of books for work. some, i discard right away (voodoo dolls and crystal balls on covers). some i wade a few chapters in before gently laying aside. but every month, on assignment, i find three who shimmy to the top. they’re the ones i round up and claim satisfying soulful reads.

before we get to the latest round of tribune-anointed books, here are a few that might be among the best i’ve read in years:

donald hall’s a carnival of losses: notes nearing ninety.

hall, once the poet laureate of this fine nation, died a few weeks back, but not before his last — perhaps best — collection of essays was published. every single one of these is a gem, a specimen worth study. as the impeccable ann patchett puts it: “donald hall writes about love and loss and art and home in a manner so essential and direct it’s as if he’s put the full force of his life on the page. there are very few perfect books, and a carnival of losses is one of them.”

once upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the distance.

eveningland: stories, by michael knight.

michael knight, a southern writer whose native and literary landscape is mobile, alabama, and who has been likened to o. henry and called “the anton chekhov of mobile bay,” is a writer i’d not known before i took a seat in the old hall at sewanee. from the first sentence, i was glued. reading an untitled story about a father and his son (one i had reason to think might be autobiographical) he couldn’t make it through without pausing to brush away and apologize for tears. that’s enough to make me love a writer. and when we bumped into him the next afternoon (along a leafy shaded path en route to the bookstore), he apologized again, though we insisted it made his reading all the more beautiful. his eveningland traces a few characters who weave in and out of stories, across the arc of life. each one is achingly wrought. and unforgettable.

and, here, because i forgot to post it a few weeks ago when it ran, is the latest roundup of books for the soul, as published in the chicago tribune.

“Faith” by Jimmy Carter, Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25.99

As the early pages of Jimmy Carter’s “Faith: A Journey for All” unspool, it doesn’t take long to get lulled into the front-porch-rocking-chair rhythms and cadences of small-town Southern gentility that is Plains, Ga., circa 1930. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just reading the reflections of a gentleman farmer with his mules and peanut crops, but in fact the remembrances of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States.

Carter begins this bedrock retracing of a life of faith by recounting, in down-to-earth vernacular, a boyhood steeped in Sunday school and church suppers, in farm work and field play with the African-American farm kids next door. Yet in the next sentence, the 39th American president is reaching for his mainstay philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, then quoting activist, preacher and friend William Sloane Coffin, just as seamlessly as he draws from the writings of theologian and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But it’s in quoting Carter’s own works — a 1978 speech to his fellow Southern Baptists, for instance — that the former president inspires most unforgettably (and his words, against the backdrop of the summer of 2018, rise up piercingly):

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

Carter’s book is necessary tonic — and prescriptive — for these fraught times.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi, Harper, 224 pages, $24.99

The inside flap of the book jacket states that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is “lyrical and evocative,” claiming it’s “one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” It is that, all that; and for that, there is little argument.

The argument of critics, though, is that the series of 10 letters addressed to an imagined Palestinian, all written by Yossi Klein Halevi — a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative — boils down to a one-sided correspondence.

That’s the pushback from left-leaning rabbis and thinkers who argue that writing to an unknown, unnamed neighbor, with no give and take, no wrestling of ideas and perspectives, is to leave out the essential other voice in a much-needed debate. (Halevi offers the book in Arabic translation for free download and openly invites Palestinian response; he calls this book the sequel to his earlier “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a search for holiness — and understanding — among Palestinian Muslims and Christians.)

Halevi, an American-born emigre to Israel, writes with a profound and palpable empathy. “We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he laments. His keen observations — deeply human in scale — ache with a longing to reach across “the wall between us,” to make peace, to find a two-state solution.

This epistolary approach evokes a measure of intimacy and illuminates the undeniable complexities of the Israeli history, across the millennia. With one half of the conversation laid out for all to read, the lingering hope is that there comes from Palestine the voice not heard in these pages.

“On the Brink of Everything” by Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler, 240 pages, $19.95

Parker J. Palmer — writer, speaker, activist, community organizer, and one who claims “Quakerish tendencies” — has long earned the title of trusted spiritual guide. Now 79, he takes on the mantle of cherished elder.

His newest book, “On the Brink of Everything,” might be called a meditation on aging, but it’s more than that. In his first sentence, Palmer writes, “We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived.” This is in fact a meditation on living, as we move toward “the brink of everything,” the precipice at the far end of our lives, “a window into heaven,” as he puts it.

Through two dozen essays, a dozen poems and three songs (sung by Parker’s great friend, the soulful folk singer Carrie Newcomer and available for free download at NewcomerPalmer.com), Palmer reminds us not only that aging shouldn’t be feared, but rather that it stands to clarify our vision and deepens our capacity for knowing. Quoting one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano,” he reminds, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

Palmer, then, places us squarely on that edge and points us toward all those truths we’d be wise to see — and to make our own.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

armchairbooks

what are you reading this summer?

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

soulful pages to be turned

books feb 18

in weeks like this, when what’s churned up on the national stage leaves you raw or hollowed or simply enraged, it’s not so easy to find solace. the balms for the soul are running thin. in weeks like this, i’m grateful for small measures of kindness. each and every one is magnified in the halo of now. last night i watched my sweet boy stir brownies for a friend with a broken heart. the night before, my dear friend from down the alley came by, offering the makings of dinner, clear down to dinner rolls. we will forge on, all of us who live and breathe on the lookout for mercy, all of us who shrivel at the shrill cry of evil and hate, we will forge on, fueled by the indefatigable goodness of those hearts and souls that surround us, the ones that won’t surrender. the ones that insist there is tender to be found, and gentle is the implement of choice, the one that unfurls the petals of the heart, and breaks open the world into some kind of beautiful.

and in the meantime, i’m grateful for pages to turn, and blessed thoughts and ideas and snippets of poetry to bury my nose in….

here, then, is the latest batch of books for the soul, brought to you courtesy of the chicago tribune. perhaps you’ll find balm in the pages…

To Hear the Forest Sing: Some Musings on the Divine
By Margaret Dulaney, Listen Well, 252 pages, $15

A fine way to encounter the musings in this first collection from Margaret Dulaney, a playwright who started the spiritual spoken-word website, Listen Well, back in 2010, would be to read them aloud. They are words meant to be heard, yes, but they’re words that work their magic whether absorbed by listening, or in the silence of reading.

“To Hear the Forest Sing,” is a gathering of essays from 25 years of Dulaney’s morning walks in the woods of Bucks County, Pa., with her frolicsome dogs. She trains her thoughts, her fine-grained poetic thoughts, on an “open faith,” a faith she alternately describes as “Christian-Buddhist-transcendentalist,” and “Everythingist”—“that is, one who is in love with all of the great faiths.”

A storyteller at heart, Dulaney writes with grace, and it doesn’t take many page-turnings to feel you’re in conversation with a true and honest friend, one who tells you she was long ago labeled “learning disabled,” and unflinchingly bares her stumbles. Nor does it take too many pages to discover you’re in the presence of a lively mind, one filled with the epiphanies of an awakening soul. She writes: “I have given up looking for the thunderous, and look only for those quiet, tiptoeing revelations that I have learned to recognize.”

Many essays later, she writes this about faith and doubt, and following some holy code: “We are dragging ourselves out of our sleep-drenched beds every morning in order to learn a little bit more about God. The fog will clear someday, the weather brighten. Trust this, and keep on showing up.”

My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown
By Meera Lee Patel, Tarcher Perigee, 176 pages, $18

If your idea of church is plonking down in front of the big screen and tuning into SuperSoul Sunday, “My Friend Fear” might be your prayer card. A luminous, watercolor-splashed prayer card, it’s a meditation on fear, and a short-course tutorial on working your way to the other side. It’s the latest from Meera Lee Patel, a self-taught artist and author, whose bestselling “Start Where You Are,” an interactive journal of creativity, mindfulness, and self-motivation, earned an emphatic “must-read” from Oprah.com.

It begins with a deeply confessional exploration of fear, one Patel enters into by exposing the “irrational beasts” of her youth, her fear of being seen as odd because her immigrant parents kept to their old-country ways, the bodily shame she felt because of a 17-inch scar that runs up the back of her leg, one she says looks like a “poorly placed zipper.”

Because she dares to take head-on this subject that many dodge, and because she writes with a child-like open-heartedness, a porousness that unwittingly draws in the reader, she serves her subject well. If you’re willing to put down your own defenses, “My Friend Fear” has the power to move you.

Besides her insistence that your fears might illuminate your deepest vulnerabilities, make plain those things you so emphatically wish for, Patel offers this bold plea: Find the things that scare you, and do them anyway. Tackle your fears, one after one. Find yourself more alive than you’d ever imagined, penned inside the fear-filled cage.

“Like a constellation lit brightly beneath a foggy night sky, it didn’t stop shining just because you couldn’t see it,” she writes. “Acceptance is inside you. It’s been waiting for you to find it.”

Almost Entirely: Poems
By Jennifer Wallace, Paraclete, 128 pages, $18

When the names Scott Cairns, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman — great and soulful poets all — are drawn for point of comparison, are flags marking the perimeter of another poet’s domain, that is a poet whose work demands attention.

Jennifer Wallace’s poems, gathered here in “Almost Entirely” — a collection that toggles between the sacred and profane, faith and doubt, love and unrequited love — clearly earns the comparisons, and the claim to her own poetic country.

A poet, photographer, and teacher living in Baltimore and rural western Massachusetts, Wallace edits poetry for The Cortland Review, and her religious orientation is described thusly: “after decades of avoidance and experimentation, she decided in her 50’s to get serious about her spiritual practice and is now, mostly, happily settled within her Christian roots.”

What pulses through these prayer poems, besides an abiding knowledge of grief coupled with a palpable faith in the afterlife, is the residue of Catholic imagery, a childhood of nuns and priests and Latin prayer.

Any one of Wallace’s poems might be a morning’s meditation, or analeptic on a sleepless night.

Unlike most religious or spiritual writing that “tends to fall into the trap of being either willfully obscure, or too quickly cutting to ‘God’ as the general answer to all particular vexations,” observes Brother Joe Hoover, poetry editor of America Magazine, “Wallace strikes a lovely balance.”

Yet another critic, the poet David Rigsbee, lauds Wallace’s poems for “reclaiming the sacred in the steady rumor of its eclipse.”

As in this haunting stanza, from “Requiem,” her seven-part poem: “Perhaps we are here to make of earth a minor heaven / where birds will glider higher / in an air made more full / by the dead’s barely audible sigh.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in 2017. Her new book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” will be published in April. Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and since this is a morning of simple offerings, here’s one more lovely little something sent by a friend: words that seared me in a spine-tingling way.

fireproof

may you find solace in books and words and random acts of the beautiful….

what are the balms for the soul you bumped into this week?

all i wanted for Christmas

sugarplum visions

the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads….

and downstairs, in the inky edge of night, the mama, tapping away at her keyboard, heard a sigh go up from her heart: the one thing she wanted for Christmas, beds filled with sleeping lumps, and the souls who animate those lumps, they were all there.

indeed, the floors of those sleeping rooms, they are strewn with piles of things not normally there, and the fridge seems to have been attached to an invisible magnet, one that sucks out all the contents on a near hourly basis. juice that i swore was just there is now nowhere in sight, only a bottle drained of all but a sip (why does no one ever dare to take the very last sip?) perched on the shelf, lonely and wanting.

i can’t yet claim hours of conversation, for those unspool only in my imagination. the fact of the matter is that the so-called legal scholar (aka kid who just finished his first semester of law school and the mega exams entailed), he is sleeping as if there’s no tomorrow (and no daylight worth knowing). why, i think he’s been zapped with a wand that makes him allergic to daylight, curled up like a ball till the sun sets, then rising and hungry for breakfast. and then, without pause, lunch, followed by dinner….and into the night. (see paragraph above, the one referring to refrigerator magnet).

the little one (aka high schooler, who likely doesn’t take too kindly to being called “little” anymore, so let us anoint him “kid brother”), he is just wrapping up his last days of school for the calendar year, yet to partake of the hibernation behavior, though i fear it’s just around the bend.

thus, i might well need to own up to the reality here, and dash away all these visions of bonbons passed around the keeping room, while the logs crackle in the hearth, and i in my kerchief sate my hungers with hours and hours of huddled merriment.

so far, it’s been me alone in the kitchen, baking up a storm for a whole phalanx of teachers and friends up and down the block. oh, and there’s the last-minute clicking for Christmas, that early-21st-century ritual in which one scrolls the pages of amazon prime for just the right gift to arrive, yea, in the St. Nick of time (all because no one remembered to churn out their Christmasy wish list till you got on your knees and begged).

despite the aforementioned obstacles and roadblocks to poetic visions, still it seems that Christmas has seeped in through the cracks.

my heart is filled with the swirl of hopes and dreams and wishes that annually descend. i want so very little. just that rare touch of magic to remind me that we’ve something to do with the magic-making in our wee little lives. ours is the heart with the dial we can turn. we can go quiet, go deep. or we can be distracted, knocked off our course. we can get stuck in the ditch. throw up our hands in surrender. or we can quietly, decidedly, stitch our days with those rare few things that point us toward the heavenly pin lights, that open our ears to the morning song of the red bird, and the haunting cry of the owl in the night.

Christmas, indeed, comes most deeply in the cavernous vessel, the heart, where once we launched our long-ago wishes, and now we kindle wisps of dreams come tumbling true. it’s the room that is ours alone, the place where we stash our hopes and our prayers. it’s the quiet place, the place that sometimes can go still enough that we hear the sacred whisper. the one that births love. the one that puts breath to holy murmur.

Christmas, when we truly still and truly partake of the silence, it’s as close as i come to tiptoeing into the manger, huddling off to the side, beholding the newborn babe, the mother who cradles him, the carpenter and the shepherds who stand guard, and the heavenly light that illuminates all.

and that’s the magic i yearn for in the deepest heart of Christmas.

merry blessed Christmas. may your holy night be filled with deep still silence, deep enough to stir your prayers, and fill your soul with heavenly hope.

what’s on your wishlist this Christmas?

and, before i go, a few books for the soul, Yuletide or otherwise….(pasted below, in case you’re too tired to click on over….) 

books for the soul Yuletide 2017

New reads bearing Yuletide joy

By Barbara Mahany/Chicago Tribune

The assignment, “pluck books that stir the soul, and tell us how they do so,” is one that only gets richer, the bookshelves more crowded. And yet, the very definition of the soul — ineffable, always — is ever shifting. Certainly, it’s the catch-basin for all that’s sacred, a place of countless entry points. Vladimir Nabokov once instructed that “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there,” he wrote, “that occurs the telltale tingle.”

For Christmas, here’s a special installment of our regular roundup of spiritual books.

“Joy: 100 Poems,” edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University, 232 pages, $25

Amid the darkness of this season — nay, this moment in history — this book of poems is certainly prescriptive, the antidote to deepening psychic ails. As the soul, perhaps, is gasping for breath, along comes Christian Wiman to settle us down for a tutorial in joy.

Wiman, best known for meditations on mortality (“My Bright Abyss”), once editor of Poetry magazine, and now professor of the practice of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is not one to come lazily or loosely to so imperative a subject.

Wiman’s own history of mortal sufferings — diagnosed at 39 with a rare, painful and incurable cancer — makes him a sharp-eyed explorer, on vigilant watch for those shimmering shards of joy along the circuitous climb.
In this anthology of poetry and prose drawn from the 20th century until now, Wiman asks what joy is. Rather than laying down a solid definition, he provides proof of joy’s existence in poems that offer that jolt of knowing: Joy is here. And here. And here.

Often, joy limns the border of spiritual ecstasy, and so the poetry here weaves from secular to sacred. The ordinary — pond frogs in song at dusk, the peeling of a grapefruit, a beloved poised at the kitchen sink — erupts into the extraordinary.

In an introduction worthy of memorization, Wiman writes: “Joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone.”

“Christmas: A Biography” by Judith Flanders, Dunne, 256 pages, $24.99

Biographies of inanimate objects — or is a holiday animate, especially one so exploited by commercial pressures? — pique particular interest. And so, with the season in full overdrive, British journalist and social historian Judith Flanders has published “Christmas: A Biography,” an encyclopedic exploration that drills down on the Victorian period and mines the centuries to trace the roots of Yuletide tradition, tossing in ample dollops of esoterica along the way. (St. Francis of Assisi is credited with building the first Christmas stable, complete with manger, ox and ass, in 1223; the first decorated indoor tree appears in 1605 in Strasbourg, France.)

While born of Roman and pagan roots, it didn’t take long for Christmas to find firm anchor in religion. And though its secular underpinnings are indisputable, Flanders — and much of history — comes to this conclusion: “Whatever was happening in the world that was wrong … Christmas would bring it to a halt for a period of peace and companionship.”

Christmas, Flanders writes, offers a wonderful “illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past … while unconsciously omitting the less desirable parts of those times.”

Amid this many-chaptered history, deep in the consideration of Christmas, its historical and societal implications, there arises a sharp-edged silhouette of its quieter sacred pull. As so often happens when confronting truths, the chaff falls away, and we are left seeing more clearly what is worth holding onto.

“Here We Are” by Oliver Jeffers, Philomel, 48 pages, $19.99

Imagine the father of a newborn child, bent over his drawing table, putting words and color to the page, explaining to his infant son, through the medium he knows best, the ways of the globe on which the babe has just arrived. A manifesto, really, laying out the few fine things the father believes in: kindness, tolerance, care for the planet.

Now, imagine that father is a deeply beloved children’s book author and illustrator. “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” is in fact the latest treasure from Oliver Jeffers, the Belfast-bred creator of the best-seller “The Day the Crayons Quit.”

Something of a user’s guide to being alive and to life on Earth, Jeffers brilliantly uses pen and paintbrush to explore profound and puzzling questions, establishing straight off that the wisdom imparted here is wisdom for us all. You needn’t be a tot to profit from a gentle nudge like this one: “(U)se your time well. It will be gone before you know it.”

Or this, on a purple-soaked page depicting Earth amid the stars, a page that rightly situates our teeny dot against a vast universe: “It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us on here (7,327,450,667 and counting) so be kind. There is enough for everyone.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in April.

while we’re away: soulful reading

soulful reads 11.17

oh, it’s been a week, all right. zipped home from inaugural law school visit last weekend, dove into proofing of almost-final-round of book manuscript, stayed awake a night or two, lost a round of editing when computer got mightily hungry and ate a day’s worth of labor, and now off to — gulp! — take a peek at a few colleges with the sweet boy i swear was born just a few minutes ago. while we’re buzzing about the dairy state (soon to be named something far less bovine, i’m told), i thought i’d leave you with a little soulful reading.

here’s the latest roundup of spiritual books from the pages of the chicago tribune.

Mary Oliver’s ‘Devotions’ offers snapshot of a half-century of work

By Barbara Mahany Chicago Tribune

“Devotions” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 480 pages, $30

For more than half a century, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has been training her eye on the mysterious and mystical thrumming of the divine. She sets out on a hike through the woods and suddenly she is asking questions, posing possibilities that hover at the liminal edge of the sacred.

“Why do people keep asking to see / God’s identity papers / when the darkness opening into morning / is more than enough?” she asks in the first poem found in her new book, “Devotions,” which draws from 26 collections published during the past half-century. It’s as if the poet herself has sidled beside the reader and pointed us to the poems she considers most worthy of deep consideration.

It’s Oliver’s most profound gift, perhaps, that she — like so many of the most soul-rippling poets — comes at her subjects from oblique angles. Her work catches us unsuspecting. For instance: “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that. And anyway / what’s wrong with Maybe?”

“Holy Rover” by Lori Erickson, Fortress, 256 pages, $24.99

It’s not every day that a travelogue comes rolling along on the spiritual book cart, and this one in every way is worth a literary expedition. For starters, the author of “Holy Rover” is a first-rate storyteller and a longtime travel writer. After decades writing for mainstream slicks — National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful — Erickson here turns her sights on spiritual pilgrimages and holy meccas around the world. She is at turns irreverent and devout. She spins a fine yarn and weaves in a mighty dose of insight along the way.

In a world tour of religions that carries the reader from the trail of elves in Iceland to Hildegard of Bingen’s abbey along the Rhine in Germany — with stops in Thomas Merton’s Kentucky and at Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond — Erickson both explains and enlightens. And her explication — never settling for an off-the-shelf recounting or humdrum heard-it-all-before — digs deep, shining light on little-known nooks and crannies of the religion world’s most uncanny characters and sacred landscapes.

With every stop on the “Holy Rover” tour, the armchair spiritualist stumbles into something new to learn.

“Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart” by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, Hampton Roads, 240 pages, $16.95

In history’s short list of spiritual supernovas, Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century German mystic and theologian, surely must be counted. He was a genius, a prophet far ahead of his time. Yet, in no small measure because of the complexity of his thinking and the tradition of theological discourse to which he belonged, his work is not an easy read. His sublime vision of the divine dwelling within each of us has escaped all but the most ardent of students.

But just as soul-sweeping as ecstatic Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, Eckhart, with “his way of piercing straight to the heart of the inner life, the awakened spark,” as Thomas Merton once put it, belongs in certain reach.

And so, “Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul,” a collection of poems drawn directly from or inspired by Eckhart’s prose, is a welcome addition to the spiritual library, as it offers a deeply textured invitation into the mystic’s heart. It is the culmination of decadeslong study of Eckhart by the two authors, Jon Sweeney, a scholar, editor and critic, and Mark Burrows, a poet and professor of medieval theology in Germany.

Each poem is short, spare, distilled. And each one is footnoted, so the reader might begin in enchantment, then trace the poetry to its source. A sure-footed path toward mastering one of the great masters of the last millennia.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in April.

i’ll be back next week, with a post-thanksgiving litany of gratitudes. for now, may your day of feasting, and all the kitchen magic that precedes it, be filled with grace and deliciousness. 

and happy blessed birthday to my sweet, sweet mama! much love, always…xoxox

and one deeply sad and poignant note. a few weeks ago, in one of the most blessed moments of the book escapades of Motherprayer, i tumbled into the story of a glorious mama who, amid a hushed crowd in a sacred space, told her roots-and-wing story, how roots came so easily to her, the mother of one, but wings, she discovered, she was “not so good at.” giving wings to her girl, her beautiful magnificent brave girl, that wasn’t so easy. letting go, it seemed, went deeply against her grain. so the mama, intent on finding a way to do that very hard wing-giving thing, sat down in the dark one night — under the lights of a football stadium, no less — and needlepointed a pair of wings for her daughter, for when she’d some day need them. the mama’s name, though i didn’t write it when i wrote the post, love letter at the end of a chapter, was bonnie. bonnie died on november 3, less than a month after the night she tumbled forever into my heart, her story — and the triumphant way she told it, a booming voice bellowing forth from the most delicate soul i’d seen in a very long time — forever etched in my heart. bonnie’s beautiful magnificent daughter now finds that she’s the one holding the wings, and indeed, as she knew it would be, it’s harder than hard — it’s unbearable almost — to be without her mama. this weekend those who loved bonnie are gathering in a glittering downtown high-rise to tell love stories, to put wings to the spirit of bonnie. if you’ve a blessing to spare, please send one up for bonnie, a beautiful well-winged friend. and one for her very brave daughter. thank you. xoxox 

and one more thing about bonnie, who loved being a mother, maybe more than anything she had ever done. the day before she died, she said this: “what is important is to love.” and then she added: “you can only do it one person at a time.” 

i only met her once, but the force of her love was among the mightiest i’ve ever encountered. thank you and bless you, dear bonnie.

what might be your most lasting instruction?

putting a season to bed…

IMG_0068

for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

take to the woods

take to the woods

i’m starting to think that maybe the woods are where i belong. maybe all this noise is begging retreat. maybe it’s time to craft my storybook hut in the woods, the one i’d always dreamed of, night after night, when i was a girl with the patchwork quilt pulled up to my nose, when i stared beyond my swiss lace curtains into the limbs that all but scratched at my windows.

maybe it’s time to turn off the news, the constant drip of a poison that’s starting — no, that’s taken it’s toll. it gets harder by the day to shirk off the ugly talk, to shove away the stories of fights erupting from school hallways to the chambers of congress.

maybe this is why God invented quiet places, places where we could slip away, ponder the beautiful. pay more attention to a leaf curled and fallen. sit and stare at a patch of golden light, dappled and quivering across a mossy log.

or maybe we just have to stay right where we are. love harder. exercise radical kindness. be as gentle as we can possibly be.

i’m running out of ideas — and maybe some measure of hope — and the sphere of my loving seems to be turning closer and closer to home. if i can love one someone up the steep incline. if i can soften one morning, let alone a whole day. if i can just keep stitching hour after hour with words and with something that’s pure, something that begs and receives my whole heart…

will that carry me — carry us — across the desolate landscape?

blessedly, my work doesn’t wait for the world to right itself. my work stares at me, day after day, from the blank screen awaiting digital scratch marks. i’m wrapping myself in a litany of stories, reading my way into knowledge. i’m drawn for reasons beyond me into the world of blessing — celtic blessing, jewish blessing, the blessing of a thousand traditions. i’m not sure why (though i surely could hazard a guess). the deeper i read, the more wholly i contemplate those things that bring balm to the soul.

here’s a line worth considering, from rachel naomi remen’s “my grandfather’s blessings: stories of strength, refuge, and belonging”:

“…a prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another. God may not need our attention as badly as the person next to us on the bus or behind us on line in the supermarket. everyone in the world matters, and so do their blessings. when we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.” 

i am wrapping myself in stories and thoughts and words of pure blessing. it’s the safest, softest place i know.

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and before i go, a roundup of books for the soul — from Oct. 2 — that i’ve not yet remembered to plonk here at the table (this, i believe is the unedited version). each one is a feast. and may you be blessed. 

‘The Happiness Prayer’ by Evan Moffic reviewed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany, for the Chicago Tribune

The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today
By Evan Moffic, Center Street, 208 pages, $25

The title of Evan Moffic’s newest and richest book (this is his fifth) might have you thinking this is some short-course to that elusive human condition, happiness. You might mistake it for an E-Z three-step program. Follow the prescription and simple joys will envelop you.

No such thing.

Truth is, the wisdom packed into “The Happiness Prayer” could last you a lifetime. Certainly another few millennia.

Moffic begins with an ancient prayer, the Eilu Devarim, literally “these are the words…,” an enumeration of 10 commands meant to be recited every morning as the foundations of sacred living (honor those who gave you life; be kind; keep learning; invite others into your life; be there when others need you; celebrate good times; support yourself and others during times of loss; pray with intention; forgive; look inside and commit).

In the richest rabbinic tradition, Moffic — who went to Stanford University to study history on his way to law school, but wound up in rabbinic school and has since been called one of the great minds of an up-and-coming generation of American Jewish thinkers — enfolds each wisdom with story upon story, drawing from Hebrew text and Torah, from centuries-old parables and modern-day research.

His elucidation is profound, and his stories, beyond charming. But what makes this a priceless work is that Moffic, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, draws deeply from his pastoral role in the trenches of life at its most vulnerable — it’s messy, it’s wrenching, and sometimes it’s simply beautiful. His words — after eight years as Solel’s senior rabbi, and another three at a downtown congregation — ring with authenticity. This is not pie-in-the-sky prescriptive. Page after page, Moffic is the rabbi we’d love to call our own — wise and kind, humble and good beyond words.

He makes us ache to reach for a sacred happiness that comes from living true and well, and making room in our everyday for “the fingerprints of God.”

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems 
Edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, Grayson Books, 248 pages, $21.99

The power of poetry, often, is its capacity to sneak up from behind and pry open the heart. Or the soul. It’s in that unanticipated moment when the truth of the poem rushes in, and packs its indelible wallop. That’s when a poem, for some of us, becomes a prayer.

“Poetry of Presence,” an anthology that serves as a gathering space for many of the most soulful poets of now and long ago, is a collection of mindfulness best taken one page at a time. Each poem holds enough wisdom, enlightenment, concentrated attention to linger for days. As with the richest anthologies, the editors here (Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson) have done the hard work of gathering the poets and poems that deserve to be read and read often.

From Margaret Atwood to Billy Collins, Kathleen Norris to Alice Walker, the poets found here belong in permanent collections of any bookshelf that leans into soul-tingling awareness. These are poems to stir the soul of those not inclined toward straight-on religion, who prefer to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson might put it.

“These poems remind us to live ‘undefended,’” writes Father Richard Rohr, the great modern-day spiritualist, author, and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. “To stand deliberately and consciously as witnesses of the present moment. To gaze upon existence from the place of Divine Intimacy. To reach out from that place to those who suffer. Living this way takes lots of practice.” And this anthology, Rohr counsels, would be a wise companion.

The Blue Songbird
By Vern Kousky, Running Press, 40 pages, $16.99

The soul of the child is so porous, so unfettered with a lifetime’s layers of scarring, the way in is often so spare — clean lines of a drawing, a few words scattered across the page. So it is with “The Blue Songbird,” a children’s picture book whose message is blessed for young or old: finding your voice, your own sweet song in a world of noise, sometimes demands coming home to yourself.

It’s a parable, unfurled with a Japanese sense of aesthetic, in washed-out watercolors and swooping lines and tall stacks of type, one that tells the tale of a little songbird who awakes to the songs of her siblings but “could never sing like they could sing.” When the little bird cries to her mama, the wise mama bird instructs her — in the ways of all prophets — “You must go and find a special song that only you can sing.”

Of course, this is the set up for a totemic tour in search of Truth, all in the guise of bird-to-bird exchanges. Crane and owl, penguin and crow, point little bird closer and closer to what she’s searching to find. When she finds she’s merely circled the globe, and come home to her nest, she’s crestfallen. But when she opens her mouth? Song pours forth.

Parables are at the heart of ancient spiritual text, the story form from which divine instruction is drawn. Vern Kousky, the author of this sweet tale, makes his message quite clear: Search far and wide, but don’t be surprised when you find your own song deep within. The distance to self-discovery is one not measured in miles, but rather in depths. And once divined, the question, as poet Mary Oliver once asked, is this: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And with the song that is yours alone?

chair question, for anyone who’s scrolled down to here: what, oh what, is balm for your soul?