pull up a chair

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

Category: writing a book

the sound that soothes

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take a listen: typewriter keyboard. tap-tap-tap-ring!

it’s the closest i know to a lullaby. the tap-tap-tap of the typewriter keys, ending every time in a churn and a chime. it’s how i went to sleep nearly every night of my growing-up years. my papa, perched at the kitchen table, his index fingers flying across the keys, a flick of the return arm, the telltale ping, and he was off again, bolting across the very next line.

he wrote, late into the night. i barely ever heard him come up the stairs. my bedtime was infused with words being formed, one sentence strung upon another. whole constructions of idea, unfurled across the page. i heard the whole thing.

my bedroom, just above and tucked at the back of the house, absorbed it all. especially in summer, when the screen door was open, and my window, just above and a smidge to the north, made for acoustic shortcut. every last A-S-D-F-G-H, a melody in pre-tempered steel.

no wonder typewriters soothe me. no wonder the tappity-tap-tap is more than music to my ears; it’s balm to nooks and crannies deep inside.

my papa’s been gone now, 36 years, four months, and 20 days, but i can bring him back, at least in sound, by pounding across a keyboard. oh, to have an old underwood with churn and chime. i make do, i suppose, with apple’s iteration of that soothing sound, the tappity-tap as if in padded slippers, not nearly the decibel of yore, certainly not the grind of how my papa typed. my papa typed in high-grade staccato, in rat-a-tat-tat, with cymbal crash. the whole house shook, i think.

and so this week for me was pure soothe. i too was perched at my old pine table. the one where i too try to build my house of words. where i, like my papa, string letters into words, words into sentence, paragraph into prose, one key at a time.

i was bathed in the lullaby of the alphabet keys. nearest thing, perhaps, to amniotic heart song.

it’s been awhile since a week beckoned with a single assignment: write, and write some more.

i did as instructed. and right away i knew i’d slipped into my old familiar writing groove, the one that comforts me as an old sweater soothes the arms that know it best. the posture that seems to fit me most emphatically is the one when i’m coiled into the keyboard, playing across the keys as if a child’s playground, and i am putting bum to every slide and swing. feeling breeze blow soft against my face. delighting in the pure joy of making words spring to life. prying back the hatch on my heart, and letting all that’s there leap out, and romp.

after days and weeks and months of that other side of writing, the one that pulls you to podiums, or hauls you out in front of crowds, and begs you to put breath to words, to tell the stories behind the pages of a book, i came home this week to the old hard chair that holds me up every time i sit down to write. i came home to days filled with little but the sound of thinking and the tappity-tap of my fingers skipping across the keys.

and that’s when i heard the hum that rises up from deep inside my heart. i am, it seems, most content when wrapped in quiet, when deep in thought, when lollygagging across my laptop swingset.

a writer (or at least this one) is by nature — and job description — one who takes in the world in full alert, and preferably from a lookout station planted firmly at the sidelines, not at center stage. it’s from the margins, the quiet margins, where the art of exploration, of thinking deeply, of taking in the roar and the whisper of the crowd, might best be exercised.

and so i’m home again, here at the quiet keyboard, alone with whatever rises up and spills from that sacred nautilus deep inside.

and to that i whisper a hushed and certain, amen. and thank you.

what sounds soothe you? and where is your most sacred landscape, the one that puts the hum in your heart??

p.s. i got a tad distracted this morning when i tuned into mika and joe, to catch the morning update. i seem to have lost my rhythm, the one that hummed when i awoke. twas a tough choice: take in the news, or type the morning away. i thought i could straddle both. but the revelations from the squawking box, they shook me up a bit (the national enquirer allegedly harassing mika’s teenage daughters, the word that m&j were told by the white house that the impending enquirer story could be spiked if only joe would pick up the phone and apologize to the president).

Motherprayer: birthed

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a book is born…

it’s just after dawn on a gauzy gray morning. the nubs of springtime are fattening on the branches. a splash of wake-up yellow here, cobalt blue there, as if someone’s dipped into the pots of children’s paints, begun to add zing to the gray and the grayer.

it’s soft outside, the day unfolds gently, as i step beneath the dome of fading stars. i stand still as still can be. i open my heart, unfurl a prayer without end. i’m casting to the breeze, to the morning’s airborne whirl, the whole of my little book. the book my heart insisted i birth.

it’s the deepest work of my mama heart, the one stack of love letters i wanted to leave behind, whenever behind comes along.

it’s a whisper to every motherer everywhere: you do magnificent work, holy work. what you do, day after day after day, long night after long night, year after year, it matters. deeply. you do the work that stands the best hope of healing the wounds and the tatters of this tired old world. the balm — the attention, the love without end — it pours from your heart, if you let it, if you will it. and the world so desperately needs it.

my deepest prayer on my little book’s birthing day is that as its pages are turned, tiny embers of light begin to be sparked, to flicker, to glow, as each and every someone who reads its words begins to unlock a litany of memories, of stories, of beauties, all her or his own.

and may those sparks kindle into flame that lights the way, that reminds you how blessed you are. as frame after frame in your story — your sweet story, your heart-wrenching story — is unspooled, is held up to the incandescence, may you find your heart stirring, remembering, re-living some holy hour. you might be the mother, you might be the one who was mothered. all that matters is that in pausing to pay deepest attention to the heart-work of mothering, you catch a glimpse of how sacred, how vital it is.

that’s my whispered prayer.

may it be so….

here’s an excerpt from Motherprayer, one of its essays, which ran in the Chicago Tribune two Sundays ago. It’s titled “Why We Do It,” something of an anthem to mothering and those who ply its healing, loving arts…

moving toward labor & delivery: the birth of a book

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this is the part of book birthing where, on one hand, you’re finally breathing, but on the other hand, your breath is beginning to quicken, and you remember you’ll soon be in the part where you feel dizzy nearly all the time.

what that means is that “the book” is off at the printers. the jacket cover too. there’s not a single mark on any page left for me to make, to fix, to erase. it’s rolling off the presses as i type. and, any week now, a big cardboard box will kerplop on my front stoop. when i lug it in the house, haul out the scissors, cut the tape and peek inside, i’ll see the one book i wanted to leave behind on this holy earth.

it’s called motherprayer: lessons in loving, and it’s the deepest work — to date — of my living, breathing motherheart.

all along — ever since the moment (a quarter century ago) when i found out a tiny heart beat inside of me — i’ve been taking notes, scribbling down the lessons learned, recounting the hours when i’d run out of answers, couldn’t quite find my way. my teachers, time after blessed time, have been those two sweet boys whose lives unfurl right before my eyes. and, nearly as certainly, the flanks of wise-souled motherers all around me.

more often than not, in hours glorious or sorrowful, when i shook with loneliness or wrapped myself in joy, i turned to the one sure thing i knew might steady me, or at least get me through till daybreak: motherprayer. those murmurations of the heart and soul that sometimes find no words. sometimes spill in time with tears. or even rise in holy hallelujah (so sweet and rare those moments are).

because part of the birthing of a book means you must practice being brave, stepping out into winds that might blow cold, blow harsh, i’m going to take a baby step here, and share with you the press release written by my beloved comrade kelly hughes, the publicist for slowing time, and now for motherprayer.

her words made me cry (i wasn’t the only one, i’m told). which is a holy anointing, indeed. here, for your eyes, before anyone beyond the publisher gets a peek, the official press release for the one book i most deeply wanted to birth.

(you can tell i didn’t write it, because kelly types with caps, something i seem so disinclined to do….)

***

Journalist recounts her “crash course in loving” in new book Motherprayer

Writer Barbara Mahany’s ability to capture the beauty of small moments, honed as a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, captivated readers of her first book, Slowing Time. Now, she turns her attention to the sacred mysteries of mothering in Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving (Abingdon Press, $18.99 hardcover, April 4, 2017), with a hope to apply these lessons to the world beyond our own familial bubbles.

For Mahany, who has two sons, “motherprayer” captures the essence of what mothers do: a way of loving that becomes prayer beyond words. “Mothering was my crash course in love,” she says, teaching her how to “love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. With eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”

“No other instruction has so captivated or ignited me,” she writes. “Nor so blessed me.”

Before becoming a journalist, Mahany was a pediatric oncology nurse. “Which means I’d spent a good many years entwined with life and death. Paying attention, asking and pondering sometimes impossible questions. And being left, too often, without the faintest answer.”

“Three threads of me—mother, journalist, once and always a nurse—combined in ways I’d not anticipated,” Mahany says. As she kept watch “on the species I birthed,” she kept field notes, gathered here in the book. The arc begins with her first pregnancy and continues on to the present day, written in real time: on the eve of first grade; the first night her firstborn drove off alone in the family car; while grieving a daughter lost to miscarriage; after a crushing baseball loss that broke a second-grader’s heart. These and other moments are extracted from motherhood “to ask the toughest questions, lay bare essential truths, and seize whatever shards of illumination I might have stumbled upon,” such as:

• “The Most Interesting Things Moms Just Know”: a reflection on mothering as “paying pure attention,” spurred by a question from her youngest son. Kids apparently have no clue that moms “live and breathe to map out his landscape; that as he shovels pasta tubes into his mouth, we are studying his sweet face; no clue that we’re listening intently.”

• Mothering Day: Mahany suggests this as a replacement for Mother’s Day, to honor all who practice mothering: “tender caring, coaxing life, leaving mercy in your wake, the art that knows no gender bounds, that the world needs in mighty thronging masses.”

• Teaching Tenderness: on taking her son out on a worm rescue mission, moving those stranded on the sidewalk after a rain. She instructs her sons in “a curriculum of tenderness toward all things living and even those that aren’t.” Mahany’s boys know their mom to be “on a mission from God, perhaps, to let no winged or multi-limbed thing suffer crushing fate or die in a wad of toilet paper.”

• “The Egg that Wouldn’t Take No for an Answer”: Reflections on a most welcome last-chance baby, “eight pure pounds of Dream Come True, Prayer Answered, birthed against all odds, as I barreled toward 45.”

• Food offerings for heart and soul: “Serving up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and Irish butter: I love you dearly, and I’m so sorry I’ve been distracted. The hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through, not whipping it off in the last ten minutes before the hunger sirens screech, doesn’t it all find its way deep down in the deliciousness?”

Mahany is Christian and her husband is Jewish, so her family encounters God in the rituals and idioms of two faith traditions. She writes about this weaving together of traditions in the faith life of her family. Since motherprayer can at times be expressed through food, readers will find recipes “From the Cookery Files” throughout the book, such as “Birthday Mac and Cheese (Or for Any Day When Comfort Is All You Need),” “Height-of-Summer Peach Shortcake,” and “Welcome-Home Brisket.”

“Mothering a child is the most sacred calling of my life,” Mahany writes. “It begs all I am and all I’ve got, and then some. Without prayer—the inside line to angels, saints, and Holy God—I’d not have made it, not even close, to labor and delivery. Nor a single day thereafter.”

let me know what you think. 

love, b.

p.s. you have no idea how much courage it takes to hit the publish button here this morning….

 

led by a deep, still voice

 

enter to grow wisdom

here is an essay i wrote this week for the nieman storyboard, a writerly nook of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard that explores the craft of longform narrative and storytelling in all its guises. this was an essay that took particular courage. you’ll read why. you can read it below, or see it here on the storyboard, where you might decide to poke around and find a host of marvels and morsels….

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention.

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Don’t flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

It all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

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