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Category: books for the soul

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…

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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? 

a book for the heart…

cover of Blessings of MP

pssst. you get the first peek. of course….

my definition of heaven: a summer morning, the breeze blowing in through the screen just enough to tickle my bare toes. the chirp of papa cardinal syncopating the click-clack of my typing, as i pull up to the old maple table and weave a word here, a sentence there, taking threads and making whole.

making a book. weaving a book. yes, writing pages and pages, and snippets and bits. but even more — in the case of this sort of book — stuffing in a little treasure here, pausing for a bit of joyfulness there. it’s a crafting that feels something like making a collage, a heart’s collage. snipping bits of beautiful, and figuring out how they most stand a chance of leaping off the page into a blessed someone’s open heart…

my favorite sort of summer — all these years beyond the summers when i’d spend the weeks crafting intricate home-spun cardboard-box dollhouses with my best friend martha — is to spend the weeks plonked at my old maple table “making a book.”

and that is indeed how i’ve spent this summer (when i wasn’t rushing to take my one sweet boy off to law school, or holding my breath while the other one tried out for soccer).

my deadline is september 1. but i turned in my last stash of pages on monday. which means i beat my deadline, i’m breathing again (but only momentarily — i never really breathe till delivery), and since it’s already listed in my publisher’s spring 2018 catalog (which i discovered by accident the other day), i’m letting you in on the not-so secret. and, voila, that’s the cover up above.

the idea was that we’d make something of “a gift book” of motherprayer, pulling a few favorite bits, and adding a dash of this, a dollop of that. i wasn’t quite sure what exactly a gift book meant, so i nodded (if we’d not been on the phone, with several hundred miles between us, my lovely editor might have seen the quizzical tone to my shaking my head up and down slowly, very slowly…) and then i leapt in to try to find my way through to the other side of whatever that meant. along the way, i decided that i was going to pull bits, too, from slowing time, my first book. and i was going to tuck in other bits of words that just might tinkle someone’s heart chimes. and i suppose that’s how it all began to feel like i was making a soulful collage.

or, as i describe it in the opening pages, “this book might read a bit like you’re peeking into my occasional jottings, something of a journal of the heart.”

and i go on to say: “all in all, this is something of a patchwork. a patchwork of joy. of love. of wonderment. and it’s the closest i’ve yet come to field notes on the blessings of motherprayer, fueled and put to flight on the wings of sacred whisper.” (p.s. in the actual book, i do put on my grown-up-alphabet shoes, put away the all-small letters and reach for the “Caps Lock” key on the keyboard. just in case you were worried…)

and what it means is that this is a book especially for all who love in the way a mama loves — and remember, i EMPHATICALLY (see, i can find the caps keys!) believe that the verb, “to mother,” is not is not is not confined to those who’ve birthed a babe, or raised a babe from and by heart, or even spent more than a few consecutive hours chasing a little person round a swing set or plopped on the couch for a string of heart to hearts. the verb to mother is a verb that belongs to all, all who reach down deep, consider what it means to love as you would be loved, who are wise enough and willing enough to move mountains if need be to buffet someone’s oozing broken heart, to provide the words that amount to the roadmap through tight mountain pass, or simply to share soulfully in all the joy stuffed inside some sweet and hungry someone, be it a kid-sized someone or one who’s all grown up.

it’s a book that weaves twin threads — and more. it’s a book intended to kindle the soul, and to ponder the lessons learned along the winding steep-pitched trails of mothering. we need both, those of us who see the holy work in mothering. one is oxygen for the other. and along the way, i wound up deciding that — as with mothering, in which, for the life of you, you could not would not pick a favorite among your children — i’d fallen in love with this book, too.

right now it’s working its way through the book-making wizardry, where all sorts of geniuses grab their polishers and rub it to a glisten. i’m braced for the day when someone pings me to ask if i might take another stab at this or that, or “kill the darling,” a famous newsroom directive that means, “all right, you’ve had your fun typing this sentence that all but does a cartwheel, now kill it because it’s noisy and it’s getting in the way.”

but on this fine morning at the end of blessed august, i’m closing down the month by reporting in on how i’ve most blessedly savored every drop of this one glorious whirl through summertime….

and, too, here’s my latest roundup of books for the soul, in case you care to read about those, too. this month’s lineup includes a jesuit’s wise and courageous words of compassion, dharmas from thich nhat hanh, and prayers from julia cameron.

i’ll keep you posted, but till then have a most glorious last weekend of august.

xoxo, bam

what were the joyful noises you made this summer? what wonderments and serendipities did you stitch into the season not yet over…. 

postcards from summer: a poem, a “cake,” and three very fine books

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sometimes in summer you merely want to dip your toe into the puddles. or the very cold lake. a little of this, a little of that. summer, it seems, is by definition the season for idling. no deep exertion needed. nor called for.

and so this week, with our old house bustling, and me trying to squeeze in any minutes of writing time i can muster, we bring you a little of this, a little of that: a poem, the “world’s best” no-bake upside-down cloud of sweet summeriness, and a roundup of books for the summery soul.

first, the poem, a quiet one from mary oliver, who is something of a patron saint of this old table. one that will rustle something deep inside, perhaps, and make you think thoughts you might not have thought ever before…

Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith

Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can’t hear

anything, I can’t see anything —
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker —
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —
all of it
happening
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.

From West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, by Mary Oliver. Published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Copyright 1997 by Mary Oliver. 

oh, mary, mary…

“let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine….”

in fact, that might be all the morsel you need for this day. a morsel that’s as much a prayer as a poem, in my book. truth is, the poems i love best are the ones that work as a prayer: spiraling deep down under the hard shell of the everyday numbness, stirring, rustling, awaking the sleeping bits of the soul. the bits that long to be fed, plumped, removed from their starvation diet.

“let the immeasurable come…”

have you felt the immeasurable of late, did it touch the buckle of your spine?

and because i promised, here’s the summery treat we made at our house this week. especially since our house is filled this week from our beloved friend jani from munster, in germany. jani was here five years ago, when he was 12. and he and i sat side-by-side every morning, making our books. he will be 18 next week, and he is here, working downtown, taking the train every morning and night with dear blair. we are feting him with all things americana. he claimed this, “the best dessert in the world.”

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best no-bake upside-down dessert in the world* (*so says jani)

1 box belgian buttery waffle crisp cookies

2 – 3 cups whipped cream

vanilla extract, a dollop

1 pint fresh raspberries

1/2 pint fresh blackberries

3/4 cup white chocolate chips

you’ll need a loaf pan, lined in plastic wrap.

stir vanilla (or almond) extract into your bowl of whipped cream (psst: i used cool whip).

this is all about layering, so begin with a few plops of whipped cream at the bottom of your loaf pan.

IMG_9495next, lay down a row of belgian buttery crisps. press gently into the bed of whipped cream.

add a layer of whipped cream, dropping in dollops, and smoothing with a spatula.

add raspberries and white chocolate chips (or dark chocolate chips, or almond slices, if that more emphatically tickles your fancy).IMG_9496

begin again with your belgian cookie brigade, then whipped cream, then more berries and white chocolate chips. repeat one or two more times, till you’ve reached the tippy-top of your loaf pan. then begin your berry art. i made a flag, or an impressionist rendition thereof…..have at it.

cover with plastic wrap, and tuck in the fridge for eight to 12 hours. theoretically you flip the stacked loaf onto a serving plate (thus, the plastic wrap lining the loaf pan), but i didn’t think about that when i went with my flag, so we served flag side up, and jani didn’t seem to mind. there were two slices left for the very next day. and jani proclaimed it even better after its long night’s nap in the fridge.

***

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and finally, as promise, the latest roundup of books for the soul. my latest assignment from the chicago tribune. this time: Islamic Jesus, Jewish holidays, and exquisite poems infused with Chassidic sensibilities.

so there you go. do as summer insists: savor these lazy days. and if so inclined, tap out your thoughts to the question above, the one about the immeasurable. or share your favorite no-bake summery sweetness. or the books whose pages you’re turning these steamy days of july….

soulful reads for a week that’s leaking at the seams…

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old faithful: only slightly more emphatic than the geyser at our house this week

it’s been one of those weeks over here: a concussion on sunday (our not-so-big ultimate frisbee kid crashed face- and head-first so hard into other team’s Very Big Kid’s shoulder and biceps that the coach called that night to say he’d never heard such a loud bang between colliding bodies), leaky pipe-turned-geyser on monday, four hours of doctor on tuesday (preceded by an hour on monday). (oh, and did i mention eight hours of plumber squeezed between doctors?) and from there, the week dissolved.

or, more aptly, it flooded. any appliance in the house that could go kaput, did. (yesterday the ice maker seemed to be trying to set world record for cubes, a cascade of frozenness that would have made i-love-lucy escapades pale in contrast. yes, a first world problem, i totally get it!)

so, while i type away toward impending deadline, i’m thankful for a shelf of good reads. i wrote this batch back in february when i was down with strep, flu, bronchitis and eventually pneumonia, but it just appeared in print, in the chicago tribune, yesterday. each book is a gem, but the one i’ll hold onto forever is “dorothy day: the world will be saved by beauty,” the enchanting and bracingly honest biography, written by dorothy’s granddaughter, kate hennessy.

this line, in particular, is worthy of a week’s meditation — at least:

“Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.”

may your week be far less leaky than ours…..

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Appraisals of Dorothy Day, Rumi and St. Francis in this week’s spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Dorothy Day” by Kate Hennessy, Scribner, 384 pages, $27.99

It’s the tag line, six words wafting just above a watery image of a mother and child up to their ankles in ocean, that captures the magic: “An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.” And mind you, this is a biography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called “a saint for the Occupy Era,” and now being considered for canonization as one of the 20th century’s great American forces for good.

The brilliance of this devastatingly beautiful work — you can almost hear the grandmotherly whispers, and yet it’s deeply journalistic in its fine-grained and unflinching reporting — by Kate Hennessy, the youngest of Day’s nine grandchildren, is this: Hennessy does not give us hagiography; she explores the depths of Day’s humanity, in all its frailty and shortcomings, and points us toward an indelible truth.

She makes us see that there’s a fine balance, a constant tension, in all of us — even in Day — in which the sinful is at work with the saintly. Yet somehow, in the end, through force of will, or divine grace, the light outshines the darkness. Love reigns, but not without struggle. Maybe we too can find that tipping force.

Hennessy captures that essence in a passage about her own mother, Tamar, Day’s only child: “Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.” Dorothy Day answered to holiness.
Her granddaughter’s masterwork belongs as a permanent addition to any literary bookshelf of the best of spiritual biography.

“Rumi’s Secret” by Brad Gooch, Harper, 400 pages, $28.99

In the prologue of “Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love,” the author wanders the Grand Bazaar of Aleppo, Syria, that now bomb-ravaged city of infinite heartache, in search of any lasting trace of one of civilization’s most enduring spiritual guides. In these deeply divisive times, it matters more than ever to deepen our understanding of the roots of sacred Islam, and this deeply researched and highly literary biography of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, is at once prescriptive and enlivening.

Rumi’s poetry, it’s been said, is pure devotion to a “religion of love.” No wonder, eight centuries later, it ranks among the best-selling on the globe. Until now, though, only the barest outlines of Rumi’s life had emerged from behind his poetry.

Brad Gooch, whose earlier biographies of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara were widely praised, traces the life and teachings of the mystic often compared with Shakespeare, for the volumes of his creativity, and St. Francis of Assisi, for his spiritual wisdom.

In an attempt to illuminate Rumi, who preached an “emphasis on ecstasy and love over religions and creeds,” Gooch learned Persian to read the poet’s original works, and retraced 2,500 miles of Central Asia — from Iran to Turkey, Syria to Tajikistan and beyond — exploring the major centers of Muslim culture in Rumi’s journey.

Rumi’s greatest achievement, Gooch writes: “To articulate the sound of one soul speaking: Don’t speak so you can hear those voices/ Not yet turned into words or sound.”

It’s a call to sacred silence — a call this noisy planet needs.

“A Gathering of Larks” by Abigail Carroll, Eerdmans, 108 pages, $12.99

It’s fitting that a book of modern-day letters to St. Francis, the 12th-century friar who called himself “God’s Fool,” would be deeply playful. And so it is.

“A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim,” an epistolary gathering of poems-cum-love letters is indeed sparked with joy and stitched with whimsy. But, too, it’s richly textured — hardly a one-note wonder — and promises to catch the unsuspecting reader off-guard. In fact, that’s where — in lines that pulse with sorrow, in verse that spares no jagged-edged truth — much of its power lies.

For those among us who consider Francis a model of gentility and grace, it’s a wholly charming notion to reach out from our world of big-lot stores to the patron saint said to tame a wolf, preach to larks, and sing to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

The writer of these letters — Abigail Carroll, a Vermont-based author — is very much an inhabitant of the modern-day melee. Yet she reaches beyond — to another time, to another plane of mysticism — and in rubbing together the profane and profound, the secular and sacred, she positions the medieval saint squarely in our midst. And makes us understand why he remains a vital prophet, one imbued with much to teach us on the subjects of natural wonder versus materialism, on beauty, brokenness, simplicity and, above all, on faith of a radical kind.

what’s on your reading list at the moment? any leaks in your week? 

and happy blessed birthday to dear dear jan, beloved longtime friend of the chair. sure are a heap of may birthdays here at the table….

the light may save us (and a few books, too)

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i was minding my dr.-seuss-birthday business yesterday (march 2, the national feast of green eggs and ham, and 113th birthday of theodore geisel), when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. i mean really caught my attention. i mean made me put down my pen and turn my head sharply in the direction of the beckoning.

i stared, jaw-dropped. it was something not seen in months and months. it was pure and unblinking. it was whiter than white, a color so sharp, so intense, you could practically apply it with paintbrush.

it was the first light of spring, the vernal lifeline cast from the biggest star in the sky, the one that burns through the day, the one that signals “the seasons are turning.” you’re making it — just when you’re thinking you won’t — from winter, on into spring.

i sat and stared at the light. marveled at the way the season comes on unannounced. no clanging and banging, just the world underfoot quietly going about the business of awakening. all around i feel it, the drab of winter dying away to the newborn tenders of spring. from underneath a pile of spruce branches, i discovered snowdrops pushing their slender necks through the crust of winter’s garden. my front walk is flanked on both sides with a pool of lemon-y aconites, their bright shining faces aglow in the hours, especially, when morning sun soaks them in wattage.

all this unfolds as i too shake off the germs that took me hostage for the better part of two weeks. we’re still moving slow as sap here in the house where strep took hold. but there are signs that life insists on moving forward. spring will come. lungs will clear. the intensity of sunlight will creep from a tickle to a surge.

sometimes i remember: if we surrender to the rhythms of the earth, and the heavens above, we will be carried by the divine heart that animates each and every stirring. world without end. amen.

what signs of hope did you spot this week?

and, in case you’re looking for a few soulful books, here’s my latest roundup from the Chicago Tribune.

Religious humor in ‘Sin Bravely’ leads spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Sin Bravely” by Maggie Rowe, Soft Skull, 225 pages, $16.95

Admittedly, the “religious humor” section of the bookshelf is markedly sparse. Yet that’s where you’ll find “Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience” from comedy writer Maggie Rowe, a suburban Chicago native who’s written for stage and screen, including scripts for “Arrested Development” and Netflix’s “Flaked.” Since 2002, she’s been performing in and producing the Comedy Central stage show “sit ‘n spin,” Los Angeles’ longest-running spoken-word extravaganza, described as “part theatre, part 12-step meeting, part tent revival.”

Publishers Weekly called “Sin Bravely,” Rowe’s debut memoir, a “born-again version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'”

Don’t let the funnies fool you: It’s an unflinching examination of the dangers of literalism in the religion department. And while you might be distracted by the sound of your own laughter, it’s a dead-serious message that won’t soon be shaken off.

The plotline goes like this: As early as 6 years old, Rowe found herself obsessed with a fear of going to hell, one so extreme it drove her to become “an outrageously dedicated” born-again Christian. At 19, crippled by her fear, Rowe checked herself into an evangelical psychiatric facility, where pictures of Jesus hung on the walls and a kindly doctor — and a ragtag cast of lovably kooky characters — proved prescriptive.

It’s there that Rowe launches her anti-damnation campaign, finally subscribing to her version of Martin Luther’s admonition: “Sin bravely in order to know the forgiveness of God.” In a scene unlikely to be found anywhere else on the religion bookshelves, she tests her newfound theology in, of all places, a strip club’s amateur night. We’ll let Rowe take it from there, for hers is a storyteller’s inimitable gift.

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 184 pages, $16

From the photograph of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the cover, Tish Harrison Warren’s debut work, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” signals that it’s rooted in the quotidian, the humble humdrum of day-after-day existence. This is spiritual guidance for the bed-maker, the teeth-brusher, the traffic-snarled among us. This is one ordinary day turned inside out, its hallowed script revealed, liturgical underpinnings exposed.

Warren, an Anglican priest, campus minister, writer, wife and mother of two, unlocks “a practical theology of the everyday,” and she does so by seamlessly coupling ordinary moments — awaking, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, sitting in traffic, checking emails, sipping tea, sleeping — with the sacred.

She beautifully ties making the bed to the Creation story, to God’s making beauty from chaos. In a consideration of tooth brushing, she draws us into a meditation on Christianity as an embodied faith, one in which our senses — our physical pleasures — draw us closer, more emphatically to the divine. Even a fight with her husband becomes a platform for seeking shalom.

It’s in the nitty-gritty of daily work where Warren illuminates holiness. She writes of “tiny theophanies,” church-bell moments, that jolt her — and us, her readers — to sacred attention. The purity of her vision, the clarity of her writing, makes effortless work of the notion that the small acts of our everydays are what shape us into the sacred vessels we are meant to be.

As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And “Liturgy of the Ordinary” unveils the holy way through even the humblest, most fumbling of days.

“Hammer Is the Prayer” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26

It would be unwise — foolish, even — to think that cracking open a book of poetry might take you straightaway to the same high plane as prose that trains its lens on God. Or the Sacred. Or however you define divinity.

What happens in poetry is altogether chancier. You might, one moment, find yourself immersed in the earthly, devoid of anything remotely godly. And then, one poem later, find yourself catapulted to a place you’ve not before felt, so sudden and so certain is your awareness of, your proximity to, what’s holy.

So it is traveling through the pages of Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems,” a gathering of three decades of poetry from one of America’s foremost poets, one whose poems have been said to “reach out to both heaven and earth.” Wiman, for 10 years editor of Poetry magazine, now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. This is his eighth book.

Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, he’s said that his awareness of God went dormant once he hit college, but then, newly married and diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer in 2005, Wiman and his poetry began to grapple with faith and with God. It’s more of a wrestling, a visceral dance with doubt and belief. An urgency, too, entered his work, and it’s that sharp edge in his poetry that seizes your heart.

To trace the trajectory of God’s absence or presence in Wiman’s poetry is to enter into your own dance with those unrelenting questions.

Here’s one: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?”

Barbara Mahany’s next book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” is due out in April.

(and speaking of that book, the real live actual first copy landed on my stoop this week. and it’s lovelier than i ever imagined. thank you, abingdon press.)

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books for the soul: december edition

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because it’s Christmas and Hanukkah in the days just ahead, this morning is bringing you two posts, and first comes the latest roundup of books for the soul. from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and tucked here for anyone poking around in search of a something special to read… 

Ann Voskamp leads this week’s spiritual roundup 

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

‘The Broken Way’
By Ann Voskamp, Zondervan, 288 pages, $22.99

From the first sentence of “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp, a writer of exquisite capacity, does what she does best: She pierces into a vulnerability that’s rarely explored with such truth-telling and almost never mined for hope. Yet she makes us believe that our deepest blessing is born of our brokenness.

“We can be brokers of healing,” she writes, “exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”

Voskamp, a best-selling author with a devout following (her book “One Thousand Gifts” sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 20 languages), is at her breathtaking best in this exploration that hollows our souls and leaves our hearts in pieces.

“I just know that — old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” she writes in one of her opening, bracing paragraphs.

A wheat farmer’s wife and the mother of seven in Ontario, Canada, Voskamp has known grief ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. It’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and use them to pierce “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

And yet, out of that brokenness, Voskamp finds a way. She comes to understand that operating out of love — a wild, abundant love — wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. In one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, Voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. And that’s just the start of it.

“God is drawn to broken things,” she writes, “so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

‘Light When It Comes’
By Chris Anderson, Eerdmans, 181 pages, $16.99

The clue to reading “Light When It Comes” is nestled in its foreword, where we’re instructed to “pay fierce attention to the holy of everything.” The brilliant essayist Brian Doyle, who penned the foreword, goes on to write that in ancient Irish tradition that’s the task of the seanachies, or story-catchers. Theirs is an imperative calling, he insists, because “stories of grace and courage and humor and love and wild tenderness are compass points and lodestars, and if we don’t catch and share stories that matter, we will have nothing but lies and blood, and can’t we do better than that?”

Chris Anderson, professor of English at Oregon State University, poet and Catholic deacon, is one such story-catcher. And here he writes impressionistically, a pastiche of images, snippets of story, all connected through the singular thread of looking for and stumbling on joy. Stumbling, too, onto the indescribable holy, those moments where we understand at some deep level that we’ve encountered the sacred.

Drawing on the ancient Ignatian prayer tradition of the examen of conscience, a daily practice spurring us to take stock of the joys and sorrows of our every day, Anderson puts words to the practice in these pages that record the fleeting moments of joy.
However small, however ephemeral those moments, he writes, “this is where God is calling us.” It’s a connect-the-dots theology, but in the able hands of Anderson, an evocative writer, a fine-grained observer of light and shadow, the image we see in the end is one that insists God is all around. But we must pay fierce attention to notice.

‘The Paraclete Poetry Anthology’
Edited by Mark S. Burrows, Paraclete, 224 pages, $20

Consider this a short course for the soul. Or, perhaps, the syllabus to last a lifetime. Herein, Mark S. Burrows, a poet, translator and professor of historical theology and literature in Bochum, Germany, becomes one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who illuminates the way into the depths of a subject we’ve never before seen so clearly.
In his introduction, “‘A Sense of Presence’: Poetry and the Education of the Soul,” Burrows makes the case for why poetry is a sure road into the uncharted landscape of the divine.

It is through “the startlements of language” that a poem begins its work, in its capacity to awaken “the sense of wonder by which we discover again and again traces of the beauty that saturates our world,” Burrows writes, drawing fluently from a pantheon of poets. “In moments of surprise, we sense light breaking forth from the dark we carry within us,” the professor writes. Poems attune our minds “through the practice of attention.” And they invite us “to wander into truths often hiding in plain view.”

And then, as if we’ve been invited into a book-lined library, one curated across a lifetime, Burrows lines up a litany of poets and poems illustrating that very thesis.
Gathered here we find selected and new poems from a contemplative monk or three, an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, a protege of Thomas Merton, an Iranian-German poet, a theologian, a flock of English professors, and poets from Ireland, Poland, West Virginia and Tennessee. Tucked amid the poets’ roster, we find Rainer Maria Rilke, considered one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, in new and previous translations by Burrows.

You’ll wear out the pages and the binding before you’re ever ready to put down this book.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

maybe this will help…

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it’s not even six on the big-faced clock that hangs above the kitchen door, just beside the cookstove. it’s pitch black outside. i couldn’t sleep. again.

that’s how it’s been so many nights of late.

the truth is, i feel broken. deep down inside and all around. it’s the state of the world. the state of domestic affairs (and by that i do mean the nation). and a few other worries besides.

i try not to bring my bundle of knots here to the table. i’ve tried mightily not to be a cry baby. but the truth is, the past few weeks have steamrolled me. maybe you too? as much as i cringe at institutions and norms being turned on their heads, like so many chairs in a tavern strewn after a beer brawl, it’s the oozing of hate, of ugly words, and pent-up outbursts that’s making me quake deep inside. getting to be it’s hard to go a day without bumping into someone spewing some sort of ugly all over the place.

i’m not wired for that. i’m guessing neither are you. when God was making me, i must have been funneled through the light-weight department. i’m of delicate nerve, i suppose. which is why, too often, i shatter. (fear not, God was looking out for me, so i got a double dose of feist, which when in desperate straits i can muster. been known more than once to pull myself up my bootstraps. i’ve taken blows that could have toppled me for good. some day i’ll tell some of those tales. but for now suffice it to say i’m equal parts shatterable and watch-me-pick-up-the-pieces, leaning toward the latter.)

which is where this tried-and-tested old table of friends comes to the rescue. i stumbled into something so good the other day, i had to haul it over here. it’s a book i was reading for work (God bless a job that commands you to read and read deeply). and while i’m not keen on self-help tomes of any kind (truth is — and we’re truth-telling here this dark morning — books that promise salvation-by-baby-step, they make my skin crawl; i’m flat-out allergic), this particular book, which hadn’t set out to fix me or anyone else, more or less set in cement something i’ve always believed: you can find your way out of your brokenness by exercising rampant and wild love beyond measure.

or, as the brilliant ann voskamp writes in her breathtaking new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life:

“we can be the brokers of healing exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”  

or: “God is drawn to broken things — so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

and: “maybe the love gets in easier where the heart’s broke open?” a theory posited by voskamp’s young son.

a canadian wheat farmer’s wife and “the mama of a half dozen crazy exuberant kids,” as she often puts it, voskamp has known grief all her life. ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. it’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and pierce the sharp edge along “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

it’s a grief that led her into the deep well of darkness: “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?”

and yet, out of that brokenness, voskamp, who five years ago wrote the runaway bestseller, One Thousand Gifts, finds a way toward blessing. she comes to understand that operating out of love—a wild, abundant love—wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. in one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. and that’s just the start of it.

she leans into science to back up her scheme, the review of general psychology, in particular, and a study that showed that “those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t.” and here’s why, according to voskamp’s squad of research psychologists: “when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins. acts of kindness reduce anxiety, and strengthen the immune system. five random acts of kindness can increase happiness for up to three months later.”

in this particular instance i’m going with it, abandoning the newsroom adage of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” i’m flat-out buying the science, and the instruction, because frankly anyone got a brighter idea?

i might call it the fireworks rule. do something kind, do something crazily wild driven by love, and don’t tell a soul that you’ve done it, then wait for that tickle, that pop, that night sky of sparkle and light, rising up from deep down inside. it’s the lightning bolt of adrenaline, perhaps, oxytocin oozing all over. it’s God, maybe, tapping you there on the heart, whispering, “hey, sweetheart, high five. that’s what i’m talking about when i talk about love. love and love madly. love with abandon.”

voskamp circles back to her newfangled notion a few chapters later, when she asks: “why hadn’t somebody showed up a long time ago in a three-piece suit to tell me those small acts of intentional love actually trigger the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, the soothing hormone of maternal bonding? that little acts of love actually release dopamine, the hormone associated with positive emotions and a natural high? why hadn’t anyone told me: bend low in small acts of love, and you literally get ‘high’?”

chances are, we knew this already. or at least we had a mighty strong hunch. and chances are, too, we’ve lived it. given it the occasional workout.

but somehow, in this long stretch of feeling quite bulldozed and broken, voskamp’s words and her litany of random, wild abandon loving, it all went a long way toward helping me see the dim light of hope in the distance.

in case you’re inclined to play along, here’s more from the list of crazy wild loving that filled one voskamp day, a day that happened to be voskamp’s own birthday: she filled a mason jar with gladiolas from her garden, and drove them to an old man she knew in a nursing home. but she didn’t stop at just his room, she and her kids ran up and down the halls, leaving a trail of mason-jar glads, room after room. and on their way into town, they drove past a squad car and circled back to leave a box of cookies on the hood, hoping aloud that it wasn’t “mistaken for a bomb.” then, for the joy of it, the whole lot of them grabbed a pie at the market and dropped it off at the town doctor’s office, to “thank him for catching babies.” then, they stopped at a coffee shop, and sprang for the coffees of every single person in line. next up, a dozen donuts dropped off at the town hall. just because.

that’s not all. voskamp wondered aloud what would happen if you walked into a diner, and whispered to the waitress that you’re paying for the dinner of that family over in the corner, a family you’d never before seen, and likely wouldn’t see again. and all that was preamble to the litany i mentioned above: the bubblegum quarters, the windshield parking fees, the cart piled with groceries, paid for in full.

be audacious is the point. love audaciously, the insistence.

“don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake that moves another heart to give,” voskamp writes. “what if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?”

i’m willing to subscribe to the voskamp theory of tremors and earthquakes of kindness. i’m willing to sign my name to the roster of crazies.

it’s the closest i’ve come in the past few weeks to seeing my way toward the light. and i’m lurching toward that flickering flame.

before it goes out.

how bout you? since the whole point is not to divulge your own wild acts of kindness, how bout recounting the times you’ve been so blessed out of the blue? perhaps a litany of blessing, of random kindness exercised madly, is just what the doctor ordered to lift us out of our blues?

books for the soul: just in time

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i often turn to poets and prophets when my heart feels like it’s leaking sadness, and so this latest roundup of books for the soul is an apt offering this fine november morning. i don’t always remember to post these here, though they’re always to be found at the chicago tribune, now tucked inside the arts & entertainment section on thursdays (soulful roundups, the ones i write, appear every five to six weeks). if you’d prefer to find this online, here’s your link. otherwise, read on below. God bless mary oliver, w.s. merwin, and brian mclaren for abundant wisdoms and poetry.

Spiritual Books by Brian D. McLaren, Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“The Great Spiritual Migration” by Brian D. McLaren, Convergent, 288 pages, $21

That Brian McLaren’s roots in conservative Christianity once ran deep, makes his a powerful voice calling for a prompt and wholesale realignment. It’s a religion gone astray, he argues, and it needs a serious fix.

His ultimate challenge, astutely laid out in “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian,” is this: Might Christianity find a way to become more Christian? (Read: More all-inclusive, and, most of all, more loving?)

McLaren, a former pastor, progressive activist and highly respected Christian thinker, minces no words in claiming that Christians by the droves are “fleeing the brand, as the brand is so compromised as to be unrecognizable.” He writes as only an insider can — with rock-solid authority. His thesis: “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”

Whereas the founders of religions — and the denominations thereof — were defined by generosity, vision, creativity and boldness in action and thought, the religions that “ostensibly carry on their work,” McLaren writes, often become “constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms … their successors stand guard with clenched fists.”

McLaren’s argument demands attention; it comes in a time of religious tumult. American society, and the West in general, is rapidly becoming more secular, with the “nones” — the religiously nonaffiliated, including atheists and those who claim to be spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religion — accounting for almost 1 in 4 Americans today.

Pointedly, McLaren asks: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?”

“Upstream” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 192 pages, $26

When reading Mary Oliver in any form — poetry or prose — you oughtn’t be surprised when suddenly you find yourself at a full stop. When you come across a sentence so arresting in its beauty — its construction, its word choice, its truths — you can’t help but pause, hit “reread,” and await the transformative soaking-in, the awakening of mind and soul that’s sure to settle deeply.

So it is with “Upstream: Selected Essays,” Oliver’s latest collection of writings (19 in all, 16 from previous collections), here twinning the threads of the natural world and her lifelong literary companions. Long considered the high priestess of astonishment, she lays before the reader epistle after epistle from her Book of Nature and the meditations therein.

For Oliver, the natural world — be it a consideration of the snapping turtle or the red-tailed hawk, the cattails swishing at the pond’s edge or “the black-bellied pond” itself — is the channel into the sacred.

Hers is not an explicit religiosity, but rather it’s writing weighted with suggestion, with a gentle nod toward the divine, and every once in a while an explicit salutation. Addressing a gargantuan gassy-breathed snapping turtle, for instance, she asks: “Did He who made the lily make you too?”

She never fails to stir us from whatever is the natural speck before our gaze to the immeasurable heaven’s dome above and beyond.

And as with all the best of Oliver, and her company of contemplatives, her message, her religion, is one that rests on this command: Open your eyes. Pay attention.

“Garden Time” by W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon, 96 pages, $24

“Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar,” Mary Karr, the poet and memoirist, once wrote. And so, for those of us drawn to the liturgical practice of carving out quietude, and cracking open the pages of volumes of poetry, the latest collection from W.S. Merwin, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is prayer of a high order.

The son of a Presbyterian minister who started out writing hymns for his father, Merwin, now a practicing Zen Buddhist, takes on a study of time in this latest collection, “Garden Time,” 61 new poems written late in his life (he’s now in his ninth decade). Merwin’s verse pulses with a longing, a knowing that this moment is blessed — and is slipping away. There’s a reverence here that can only be called sacred, a divine infusion.

While he trains his eye on the natural world, it’s the infinite wisdom tucked within that world that Merwin is mining. His subjects of inquiry (to name but a few): sunset, shadow, silence, the sound of rain when it stops. Considered “an oracular poet” by some literary critics, these poems brim with unanswerable questions; Merwin’s examination of time and memory — looping, spiraling, slipping to and fro — can’t help but spur you to pause, to pay closer attention. To consider your own life’s measure of time, looping and slipping away.

Attention, Mary Oliver says, is the beginning of devotion. And devotion is the high art of the soul. That high art is rarely practiced more ethereally than through the words of William Stanley Merwin.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

while you’re busy reading this, i hope to be typing away on another post for this friday morning, one in which my holy balm was found pushing my wheelbarrow.