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Category: caretaking the world

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

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magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

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this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

resurrection gardening

resurrection gardening

i am practicing resurrection. with a trowel and a bag of supercharger root booster. i am digging holes. big holes. unearthing what to you might look like dried brown sticks. but if you look close, really really close, there are bits and shoots — and occasionally tendrils — of green.

i call it resurrection gardening.

i’m hellbent, it seems, on bringing things back to life.

it’s a fine pursuit on a hot summer’s day when the world all around is going to hell in a hand basket. or so it sounds — especially if you listen to the chatter and the vitriol that percolates on air waves all day long, all summer long, all these-last-three-years-long.

as is so often the case in the realm of the garden, it’s become something of an obsession. i dream of half-dead (okay, five-sixths dead) vines i won’t give up on. i dream of digging them out of their sun-forsaken plots and moving them, with surgical-nurse precision and intensive-care-nursery tenderness, around a corner and down the fence line to where their ganglionic roots might take a liking to the new surroundings and do the little wiggle dance that is a root tunneling through earth, sucking up sustenance, rewarding the resurrection gardener with a little whoop-de-doop! (the triumphant yelp that comes, even in a whisper, when knot of green appears where before there was only stick. and dead-looking stick at that.)

i like to think of my little bumper crop of almost-dead things as my lazarus contingent. this week alone, i’ve counted two trees, a bush, and two vines among the not-yet-fallen. after the long hard winter, my garden had taken on a hardstruck look. bushes that once had burst with leaves were now not much besides a collection of barren stick or branch, all jutting this way and that as if to shout, “we’re dying here, and we’d like an assist before we take our last and final exhale.”

i’d ignored their cries long enough. i’d let the summer wind into july before i mustered the chutzpah, the courage, the lopper-power it takes to ply a miracle or two. or to try anyway.

this week, something hit me. overcame me, really. if you tried to find me for long hours on end, you wouldn’t have had much luck. unless you poked around the corners of my semi-acre. then you might have spied a mud-streaked, pewter-haired, shovel-wielding missus, wrenching this muscle or that, grunting on occasion, eventually trotting triumphantly, holding a vine or bush by the hairs (as if a pussycat plucked from too deep a mud puddle). i’d survey the so-called acreage, find a spot of promise, and begin again to dig. i’d sprinkle prestidigitation powders, do a little voodoo dance, and plop that salvaged  vine/bush/quasi-tree into its new digs.

by nightfall, i ached all over. and needed nothing short of a scrub bush to un-cake the muck from in between my toes, up my shins, and the same on the upper limbs, the ones that had me muddy clear past my elbows.

but deep down inside i was humming. humming a happy, i-saved-something-today tune. it’s not a song i get to sing very often. almost never. which might have been what made it so so sweet. and such an unstoppable obsession. in a world of things i cannot fix, presidents i can’t make go away, attorneys general who make me want to scream, kids i love hauling off to college sooner than i’d like to think, i am quite tickled by the notion that a sharp-edged shovel, a bag of super-booster, and a little bit of i’ll-show-you is enough to shift the narrative, to re-write the death knell of the climbing hydrangea, the summer snowflake viburnum, and the plain old humdrum hydrangea.

i’ll be keeping watch through the days and weeks (and occasional nights) ahead. i’ll be on the lookout for even the itty-bittiest proof that all is not lost, and one lowly little specimen is on the rise, not the death watch.

if i can leave this planet even one iota greener, lusher, more apt to spread its roots and rise, well then my days caked in mud, my nights caked in ben-gay, will not have been in vain.

what did you resurrect this week? 

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my most promising — and challenging — resurrectee…

a few weeks back, when i was off at poetry school, the poem i memorized, wendell berry’s “manifesto: the mad farmer liberation front,” ends with the magnificent instruction, “practice resurrection.” which is precisely what i’ve been doing all week. i like to think farmer berry would wink in approval at the notion that i’ve taken up the practice, with shovel. 

here, once again, are the lines i memorized, from “manifesto”…(on second thought, i’m letting the whole thing rip here. it’s too glorious to only quote a stanza or two.) celebrate mr. berry’s instruction: get out there and practice resurrection this week. xoxoxox

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

 

survival, astonishingly

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the artistry of dawn, frozen against the windowpane

the weather people soothe us now with reports that it’s all of 9-without-a-minus-sign degrees. but the thermometer outside my kitchen window insists otherwise. it says 5, and not a micrometer higher. either way, that’s eons better than the -22, or 45 below with wind chill. and here along the windy shore of lake michigan, wind counts mightily. it always counts.

our house the other night was burping. or so it sounded. every once in a while through the night a thud arose from who knows where. sounded to me like things were crashing to the roof. i got up to check out the window, to see if i could see a falling something, to see if ice chunks were hurling toward the house. the next day’s news brought word that these ominous noises — these noises that had people rushing to their windows, to see if glass had shattered, limbs had fallen, or maybe stars had tumbled from the heavens — these noises were a phenomenon known as “frost quakes.” so defined as: “a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice.” egad. yet another quirk to be added to the weather woes. count me among the ones who do not like “seismic events” in and under and all around my house.

at our seismically-burping house, as we whirled into the abyss of the polar vortex, we settled our worries on anyone or anything who might, for some godforsaken reason, be stuck outside. we worried mightily about the folks who sleep in tents under viaducts and along the banks of the chicago river, and in flimsy encampments near the railroad yards, in hollows of the city where the forgotten stake their claim in pockets of oblivion. we prayed that somehow someone might convince those folks to leave behind their propane tanks and blankets and the cardboard boxes they call home. and just for one night — or until the vortex whirled away — deign to climb aboard a warming bus, or a cot inside a shelter. dear God, please do not let there be a child out there, i whispered over and over.

closer to home — right outside our kitchen door, in fact — our heap of fears focused on the tiny feathered flocks who dart and flit all day, every day. we knew that we had blankets, and a fridge filled with clementines. and a tea kettle that could whistle on command. but what about the red birds? what about the little juncoes, those snow monks of the winter? and what about the sparrows, the unassuming brown birds whose chatter never stops.

if i could have, i would have opened wide the kitchen door, invited them all in. but i knew that was whimsy. pure wishful whimsy. as if a flock of cardinals would roost above our dinner plates, or huddle high up in the pantry. i was not alone in my worrying. the tall bespectacled fellow who shares this house, he’s the one who first named the little birds when we bowed our heads to pray before tuesday night’s dinner. he did the same on wednesday and thursday.

we could not for the life of us figure out how those tiny-footed creatures — the ones who weigh all of five aspirins or one and a half slices of bread (that’s 1.5 ounces or the same as a papa cardinal) — how in the world would those tiny wisps of heartbeat survive through the long dark arctic night?

it was an equation of survival stripped to its essence. it’s not every night we boil it down to life or death, just beyond our kitchen window. and hope against hope for life to be the victor.

i couldn’t bear to imagine the little things hovering, tucked away in some bough of some fir tree that hardly blocked the wind. i pictured tiny frozen red birds fallen to the snowdrifts by morning. i couldn’t sleep.

once the daylight came, once the sun against the snow made it hurt to stare into the glare, we kept watch anyway. nothing moved out there, save a snow-capped branch blowing in the wind. i’d trudged out early, dumped a can of seed — just in case. but nothing and no one budged. all day on the coldest day, the yard was still.

at last one chickadee appeared. darted toward the seed, nibbled, flitted off. but no one else. then nightfall came again. and dawn. and nothing. not a single bird.

and then, as i kept watch through the morning, as the bespectacled one peered from his upstairs window, at 10:57 yesterday morning, there it came: the flash of muted red that is mama cardinal. she clung to a branch not far from the feeder. and then, at last, she swooped in. as she pecked away at the sunflower seeds, along came her backup squad: one red bird, aka papa, and two more mamas. survival

there was jubilance in our kitchen. the mere shock of red against the white-on-grey tableau, it was victorious. nothing short of a death-defying feat. it was still, at that mid-day hour, -12 degrees. and yet, somehow, the little birds survived. had made it through the wind-whipping night, had endured a cold they’d never ever known, and tucked away in some unknown-to-us cove, employing unimaginable survival skills. we should show such grit. we too should defy the insurmountable when it’s heaped against us.

i stood in awe. the mysteries of the woodland escape and astonish me. the masterwork of creation is what floors me, over and over and over.

we’ve pummeled this holy earth, with our chimneys spewing smoke, and the poisons we’ve poured into the waters, and yet, on a polar vortex night, the papa cardinal clung on, he didn’t freeze to death. he doubled the air mass in between his feathers. he slowed his breath. and before the mercury climbed to zero, he flashed across the yard. the red flash, triumphant.

thank you, Great Protector. and hallelujah cardinals. and all who have survived.

what’s your survival story from this long and bitter week?

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the heavens weep…(summer 2018 edition)

Yanela, little border girl

a little honduran girl whose name, we think, is Yanela, photo by John Moore/Getty Images

i woke to the sound of heavens weeping. the percussive ping of rain against the windowpanes. rain that will not stop. tears that won’t be quelled. the skies have wept, it seems, all week. fitting soundtrack to this stretch of time, this dark moment in our history, when all our hearts are cried out, our spirits flagged, the air all but sucked from our lungs.

how did we get here? how did we become a nation where children — children and toddlers and babies, suckling babies — are ripped from a mother’s breast, are scooped up and off of dusty paths. a nation where this image of a little girl, whose name we’ve learned in yanela, stood and watched in fear and horror as her mother was frisked — then taken away — by a stranger. the terror on her face is what haunts me. haunts me in the darkness as i sink into sleep. haunts me as i wake, imagining her alone, wondering where in the world her mama went. why she is waking up, perhaps, under a shiny mylar blanket, in a room where the lights never go out. where it’s refrigerator cold on purpose. on purpose.

all week i’ve wanted nothing more than to leap on a plane, get to the border, and cradle babies, toddlers, children, teens. i wanted my nursing license to not be long expired. i wanted to exercise that whole soul of me that cannot bear to sit and watch one more minute. i clicked on donations, at a legal defense fund in south texas, intent on helping parents find their children.

none of it, none of it, feels like i am doing one iota to make the hate, the evil, go away. i pray for this chapter in history to end. i pray that we might elect someone whose soul is guided by those fine few things we believe in, certainly all those who gather at this table: decency, gentility, kindness, compassion, love. love as spelled out in the bible, the qur’an, the torah: love as you would be loved.

love as if you could try to imagine the hell of living in a country run by assault-rifle-toting gangs. love as if you knew what it was to have the threat of rape and kidnapping ever trailing you. as if you’d heard screams of terror in the night. as if you’d witnessed the vestiges of awful deaths played out on the sidewalks and the village square, right before your eyes. love as if you knew what it was to perch your toddler on your hip and set out across a desert, unrelenting sun beating down on you, dehydrating every cell of you and the little ones you love.

the little girl in the soul-searing image above, the little girl named yanela, she and her mama crossed the rio grande on a raft. a raft made of what i don’t know. was it chunks of wood strapped together? was it inflatable till it hit the sharp edge of a river rock? does it matter?

call me a cockeyed bleeding-heart kook. i’m no policy wonk, and i’ve no idea how to fix the immigration question. but i do know this: there is nowhere in any bible, any holy text, that says turn away the stranger at the border. rip the child from the mother’s breast — and then handcuff the mother for resisting the taking of her child.

i try mightily to imagine myself when either one of my boys was one or two or three or 12 — or now. if, for one minute, someone reached for them, in a posture of pulling them or me away, i’d kick and scream bloody hell. i’d try to muster superpowers, powers i know full well i do not have. and then, in defeat, i’d collapse. i’d rather never breathe again than be torn from my children.

i am responding as nearly any mother would, because every pore in my body knows what it is to be slipped into that sacred space of living and breathing, being consumed in every waking and slumbering moment by the whole protection and shielding of my child from whatever threat dares to come his way.

we all suffer when one among us suffers the unimaginable. and day after day we are witnessing the unimaginable.

dear holy God, God of mercy, deliver them, deliver us, all of us. deliver us from this evil. amen.

here’s wendell berry’s response to hell on earth. to his grandchildren who walked the holocaust museum on the day yitzhak rabin, who had been assassinated, was buried…

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust
Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light.  It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace.  It will be
your light.
~ Wendell Berry ~
(A Timbered Choir)
how do you find a way forward? 
i’d be remiss if i didn’t whisper happy blessed birthday to my firstborn, who marks his first quarter century today. it is the enormity of my love for him that makes it so crushing to even imagine someone trying to take him away from me, at any moment in his existence. he is my most profound blessing, and my joy without end…..

healing instinct

healing instinct

the steam tent: steaming hot water + peppermint essential oil + not-so-raggedy towel = deep breathe

if you listen to the news, and i do, if you read the news, and i do, it is hard not feel this old globe is a raw wound right now, gashed with despair, pocked with pure evil.

i am haunted, especially, by a story i read of the atrocities that rained down on rohingya women and mothers and children. babies ripped from their mothers’ arms. babies tossed into infernos. worse and worse and worse. i can barely stand to spread the poison. (it’s here, from yesterday’s new york times, written by jeffrey gettleman, a kid from the town next door, who grew up to win the pulitzer prize for international reporting.)

i am haunted too by the ghostly images coming from northern california. charred silhouettes. hillsides exposed, stubbled with blackened bits of tree trunk and fence post, as if the unshaven cheek of a long-ago miner. sunsets occluded by smoky skies, skies dirty with soot — sometimes even a hundred miles away from unstoppable fires.

and all of this on top of las vegas’ carnage, and puerto rico and houston and the virgin islands and harvey and irma and jose and maria. no wonder we weep and our knees buckle under.

no wonder this week when my sweet boy awoke in the night burning with fever, my healing instincts, which must have been idling just off in the wings — coiled and ready to pounce — surged into action. pressing cool wet washcloths to his forehead, stirring oatmeal, pouring ginger ale over cracked ice, those were the balms i reached for. to heal him, to heal me, to try — somehow, by some far-flung mystical property — to infuse a drop of healing into this sorry sad world.

it’s what we do, it’s all we can do, when we’re feeling the gaping gasp of despair. when the troubles all around pile so high we can barely turn toward the light. some days, we’re certain the lights have been snuffed. flat-out extinguished.

maybe that’s why some of us are drawn into lives as healers, as nurses and doctors and teachers and mothers (to name but a few). maybe we’re all part of some infinite river of hope, the last wall of defense against a world that might otherwise crumble. a world that could go mad, break out in epidemics of hate.

i’m beginning to think i am typing some dystopian trope here. but you know i won’t leave you in the valley of darkness. what i’m looking for is the answer to what can we do? here, under this one dot of roof, surrounded by leafy environs, how in the world can measly old me make a difference? how hard can i pray? how kind must i be? what in the world might i do to begin to teeter the balance back toward the good?

they’re questions, sadly, for which i don’t have an answer. all i have is the deep down sense that the worse it gets, the harder i need to apply the forces of good, of light, of pure unfiltered blessing.

it’s what propelled me to consider the instinct that drove me to crank the flame under the tea kettle, to listen for the whistle, and gather up the mixing bowl, the utility towel, and the essential peppermint oil.

it was the healing-est move of the week: to concoct a steam tent, and fill it — literally — with healing vapors. to instruct my boy to breathe deep and then deeper. to purify, cleanse, and clear out the gunk.

over the course of the last few days, he’s taken a liking to this peppermint whirl, the one that gets him breathing again.

maybe we all need a steam tent. maybe we need to breathe deep. to inhale. to fill our lungs and our souls with tincture of hope. of healing.

i’m cranking the flame under the kettle.

how are you plying your healing? what are you doing to teeter the balance toward goodness, toward wholeness, toward hope?

and here’s our steam tent recipe, taught by our beloved german exchange student, who had a bad cold this summer: get a big mixing bowl. boil water. pour into bowl. add a few drops of peppermint essential oil (as many as you can tolerate, anywhere from two to three to seven or more). drape a big towel over your head. breathe deep. have box of tissue at the ready. feel better. so much better. xoxo

“hope is the last thing to die…”

earthquake

some mornings, the news will pummel you. the convulsing state of the world — earthquake, hurricane upon hurricane, hydrogen bomb — it will pummel you.

but then, a voice squawks through the little box tucked hard by the knives on the kitchen counter. it’s a voice coming from thousands of miles away. and, suddenly, it’s as if someone’s tucked a plastic cannula of oxygen straight up your nose. you breathe again. because you just heard the words:

“hope is the last thing to die….”

the words come amid a story seething with hope. a story from the epicenter of mexico city’s rubble, a story that reminds you — emphatically reminds you — that absent all the bureaucracies and hypocrisies and deceptions of politics and government, the human spirit writhes toward goodness. toward reaching out. stranger to stranger; it doesn’t matter. listen to the cries of a child oozing out from under the rubble, and human chains of hope link arms and start digging. hundred pound blocks of concrete, rodded with rebar — watch the woman with matchstick arms hoist it.

with more than 35 buildings pancaked into piles of death and destruction in the mexican capital alone, armies of volunteers arrived. computer analysts, lawyers, an otherwise motley crew of men who grew up playing sandlot football, american football, and put out the call across now-scattered lives to come running — all untrained in the arts and science of hoisting thousands-pound rubble, crawling through slivers of air space, reaching for limbs or the fading breaths of a voice.

“no one is 100-percent prepared for a situation like this,” a lawyer tells the story’s reporter, “but what’s important is that people have come together and haven’t left those who are suffering alone.”

a four-foot-eight woman, known as a “mole,” because she’s been trained to crawl into rubble, searching for bodies, living or dead, adds this: “we mexicans are known for our big hearts, our hard work, and most of all our solidarity.”

those are the words that made me start breathing again. those are the words that reminded me…

human beings are hardwired to rise up against suffering — in the aggregate, yes, but more dramatically, emphatically, in the immediate. in the visceral. in the i’m-looking-into-your-eyes-and-i-see-the-suffering, the anguish.

and that’s the scene unfolding in mexico city right now, where armies of untrained diggers — and water bearers and bandage wrappers and megaphone holders and rubble removers — are showing up and holding the line — holding the line against despair. refusing to leave till the last ember of hope fades into darkness.

and that’s the scene in dominica, one of the pummeled and flooded and left-without-an-electrical-grid caribbean islands. and that’s been the scene this summer in houston and the florida keys and jacksonville and puerto rico and on and on and on where good folk — plain folk, probably even a few ornery folk who haven’t had the chance to shine in a very long time — they all showed up, rolled up their sleeves, slid into thigh-high rubber boots, and showed what the human heart is capable of.

i’ve read story after story of folks who might otherwise barely have grunted as they passed each other on a sidewalk, or raced from driveways into glitzy houses, suddenly trying on superhero capes — barbecuing for a whole neighborhood, turning a washing machine into the community laundry, forming a human chain so a woman in labor could make it through waist-high water from curb to dump truck to get to the hospital to deliver her baby.

the big picture — the rampant bad news — could flatten any one of us, squeeze the last gasp of air out of our lungs. but it’s the tiny droplets, the pixels of deep and undying humanity, that just might put hope to our wings.

in my book, that’s where God moves. in the flesh-to-flesh, hand-to-hand, breath-to-breath bridge of we won’t let you suffer alone. and we’ll hold on — we’ll hold onto hope — for as long as it takes, no matter the impossible odds.

i’m asking today for a litany of whatever fine tales you’ve collected, heard or seen with your very own eyes and ears — stories of blessed beautiful humanity rising up above flood water, hurricane wind, or earth tremoring under our feet. because to know those stories is to believe, is to dig deep into our sorry shaken selves and try to muster the same indomitable life-saving spirit. 

and a blessed new year to all as we wrap ourselves in these holy radiant days of deep awe….

chill wind…

first day plate

like that, the rhythm changed in this old house. turn around, they call it in the land of jazz. disambiguation, yet another fancy word for when the two-beat turns to more. or less.

porridge poti call it “the day the little blue pot comes out of hiding,” the porridge pot, the one that starts the day with swirls of spoon and percolating simmer. it so happened that the chill winds blew in just as the school bell rang around here for the first time of the year.

and, like that, with arms now slid into woolen sleeves, but bare toes refusing to submit to leather confines, one season has shuffled off, cowering in the wings; another now pirouettes under klieg lights at center stage. ah, but autumn isn’t like that. autumn — the autumn i love anyway — is quietly robust. doesn’t make much noise. no clanging, rattling. just an elegant sashay into our midst. enveloping in amber light and jewel-toned hues: garnet, copper, gold.

autumn at once speeds up the daily whirl, and weaves in quietude. the morning rush — with school bus not dawdling at the curb, and school books and shoes forever escaping in the night, nowhere to be found by dawn — is not insignificant, enough to make your hairs turn pewter, but that’s followed by the between-the-brackets hush. suddenly, the middle of the day is on its tippy toes, daring not disturb. and those are the thinking hours, the deepening hours, when time invites me into its depths and nestled burrows. when i can type whole sentences, turn pages, wipe a bathroom sink and wander back hours later to find it still glistening. no wonder i love the rhythm of the autumn. it draws me in.

the change of light and tempo is just enough to make us all stand up and pay attention. and that, i think, is the big idea behind the twirl of earth against the sun. as we move from full-on-light to dappled shadow, the world around us — the garden, the woods, the starry night — shifts too. gone is the bold, stand-up-straight of summer. the basil withers on its stem, the dill is nearly toppled. but i, for one, feel little pang for the season fading in the rear-view mirror. not if truth be told. sure, i’ll miss those fat tomatoes — sliced and salted simply — but imagine the zaftig squash roasting in the oven, and the treasure chest of spices — cardamom, cumin, nutmeg — soon to offer up their fine and pungent notes.

give me a long day of concentrated work. give me a chill morning to nip my toes, and a sweater in which to wrap my goose-bumped arms. give me autumn’s golden light. and a sky of roiling off-in-the-distance clouds. i’ll make holy work of it. i promise.

i found it hard to write this morning, what with all the news squawking from the little white box tucked in my kitchen cove. once i clicked on the news, which is often my first move, even before the coffee’s on its way, i stood there frozen, wondering if i’d clicked on some sci-fi station, what with reports of massive earthquake (worst in a century), and yet another killer hurricane barreling through island after island, charging toward the mainland. i get scared, truth be told, worried that the whole universe is convulsing, rising up and telling us to mend our ways, pay attention to our brokenness. be gentle, for God’s sake, i hear the heavens telling us, in no uncertain words. be gentle with this blessed orb of Earth. be gentle with each other. be gentle, i suppose, even with our blessed selves. 

because i care deeply about leaving you with words that just might add a bit of oomph to your friday morning, i’m adding here the rough draft of words i wrote this week when asked to write the intro to a book of women’s stories, women’s stories of reaching across racial, cultural and religious lines to forge deeper understandings out of plain pure friendship. it was an honor to be asked. here’s what i wrote (i’ll wait to tell a bit more about the book till it’s published). may this bring a little something to the whirl of sci-fi all around us…..

much love, and thanks for reading along…..xoxo bam

Day after day I wake up with my chest feeling hollowed. The space in my heart hurts so much, so immeasurably, I can’t fathom how to contain it. I shuffle down the stairs of my old shingled house, look out the windows into the quiet of dawn, into the leafy arbors, and wonder how in the world can I stitch a single thread into the tatters of this world, this oozing brokenness all around?

I walk in a state of grief unlike any I’ve ever known — and I’ve known quite a few. My grief is for the state of this nation, for the body politic, for the sheer goodness and kindness that I see being battered day after day. I shrink from the modern-day public square — social media in all its iterations — because the vitriol is too much, because the divisiveness tears me apart. I don’t believe in a world of us versus them, and yet, every day those lines are drawn more starkly. I cling to the words of wise souls like Father Jim Martin, the Jesuit thinker and author, who writes in his latest book, “For with Jesus, there is no us and them. There is only us.”

But how, I keep wondering, can my one all-alone voice make a dent in the cacophony? How can a whisper be heard? How can I amplify my deep faith in bridging not burning? Where oh where is there a place for a soul who believes so deeply, yet finds herself flailing with so little a footprint?

And then, the stories of this book landed on my desk. This, I knew right away, was where the answer lies: In ordinary extraordinary stories of women who reach across doorways, and hallways, and kitchen counters, who see beyond burkas and veils and prayer beads and venerations. I see and I read and I wrap myself in the stories of human hearts reaching beyond their own private shelters — walls that, always, can go one of two ways: to open into doorways, or seal themselves off, barricades of hard stubborn coldness, otherness, unwilling-to-bend-ness.

Here, in the pages of this book, is the first best draft of humanity moving forward. Here are the blueprints for the great and eternal commandment: Love as you would be loved.

Here is Ayesha, alone and with newborn babe, falling into the bottomless shadow of post-partum depression, who dared to knock on the door across the hall, and found a friend — and earthly salvation — in the form of an elderly widow named Libby. The Indian Muslim new mother befriending the white Christian widow; both finding the solace they sought — in each other. In the simple act of raising a fist to a flat-planed door, and knocking. Knees knocking all the while. The toeholds of courage start small.

Here is Parwin, who recounts the hair-raising story of her escape, at six months pregnant, from war-ravaged Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. With two young children in tow, and determined to keep their escape unnoticed, she and her troupe traveled by truck and by horse and by foot — 150 miles of fear beyond fear. And in the end, when she delivered that baby just across the Pakistan border, when she found her way to America, she devoted her life to justice, compassion, for living the words of the blessed Koran:

…that you may know each other — and not despise each other.

Here is Dolores, who says she was “marinated, battered and deep-fried in religion,” specifically the black Baptist religion of her youth, and who found herself drawn into a host of houses of worship — mosques, synagogues, churches large and loud or not-so-large and not-so-loud. She was drawn, in particular, to the Buddhist practice of silence — a far cry from the joyful noise of her youth. One night, after a long dry spell in the faith department, she dreamed that Jesus introduced her to his best friend Buddha. Ever since, she’s been a practicing Buddhist. And even more so, a living, breathing bridge between two of the world’s great religions.

Story after story, woman after woman, the leitmotif is always: reach beyond what you know. Reach into the unknown, the foreign, the mysterious. Make it yours through words, and gesture, and deep human touch. Defy the divisiveness. Believe in the power of your own still small voice.

I turn to the holy wisdom of Dorothy Day, who learned from Therese of Lisieux: “By little and by little” — by little acts of kindness, by little acts of courage, we can thread the needle that will stitch the tatters back into whole.

We cannot afford to shrink from the task. We cannot afford to think we don’t matter, that we can’t make a difference. Read these stories of oversize courage and unbounded goodness. Read these stories of faith and justice, doled out in everyday measure.

Be the change you believe in. Be the kindness. Be the radiant light.

Go now, and carve out heaven on earth.

dear chair friends who’ve read this far, how will you carve out a little heaven on earth? 

 

if all the world had a sarah…

sarah bd card

the doorknob, most often, is where i find her. or, rather, the bulging evidence of her having sashayed through the night, traipsing along the alley, lit by the moon and the beam of her iPhone, ferrying bags weighed down with her wares.

on any given midnight run, the wares might be tomatoes, enough to fill a stockpot and feed a small army; soups, bulging from zip-lock sacks; cakes, by whole or by half; marinara sauce, with meat or without; cucumbers in sizes and shapes and colors i never knew they’d invented.

some mornings, i swear the doorknob’s going to crack off its stem. some mornings, a vase of perky zinnias, or a rose clipped from her mama’s bush, or basil by the sinkful stands guard beneath the dangling bags.

used to be my fat cat would be waiting there too. he, too, waited for sarah. she’s the saint of the alley. she feeds a whole flock of us, night after night. the cats, she feeds always. and any stray critter who’s lame, or been bonked by the wilds. us humans she feeds whenever she finds a few extra hours in her kitchen. or when she finds time to get to her wild jungle of a tomato bed, where those red orbs of summer are all but bursting right now.

sarah comes, like santa or tooth fairies, without being seen. she comes in the night, and though i’ve only once or twice caught sight of her flashlight beaming ahead through the bushes, i imagine the gleam in her eye, as she sets out from her house with her arms full of deliciousness.

sarah lives to take care of folk. she moved home a few years ago to be by the side of her mama and papa, as they got old and older. as the steps in their fine old house got steeper and steeper, and the distance from the front door to the sidewalk, where the newspapers were plopped, it got farther and farther.

sarah moved home and in no time, their basement freezer was filled with her wares. (wasn’t long till ours was too.) sarah could open a restaurant. or a bakery. but instead she cooks and she bakes for love and love only.

long ago, she decided my little guy was a guy she could cook for. she knows all his favorite cookies and cakes. now, his friends do too. they come over to see what sarah’s got tucked under the glass cookie dome.

sarah’s birthday was yesterday, and, well, there was no way we could make enough of a fuss to capture the whole of the love in our hearts. but we tried. and the card up above is the one my not-so-little guy stayed up late in the night to draw and to pen with his poetry (that outline of an angel, and the words, “st. sarah”!!!). he left it on the kitchen table, so when i awoke on sarah’s birthday, there was — as there so often is — something that melted my heart. only this time it was for sarah, instead of from sarah. i tucked it into the little bundle of somethings we’d gathered. and i shuffled it down the alley, just like sarah does. i hung my sack on her doorknob, the hardware of the heart in this particular equation.

if all the world had a sarah….

if all the world knew what it was to awake to a fat bulging sack of pure goodness. if all the world was populated with neighbors who put in particular tomatoes, and certain kinds of herbs, just because they know someone nearby likes those particular certain somethings. if all the world had folk shuffling through the night, delivering kindness. dangling it from doorknobs.

i think of houston and the pictures i’ve been watching all week. the pictures of strangers hoisting old men and old ladies, tiny bundles of baby cradled in mamas’ arms. i think maybe there are quite a few sarahs. and maybe when the waters recede, the kindness will keep on rising. maybe…

i started this thinking wouldn’t it be grand if all the world had a sarah, and i’m wrapping it up thinking emphatically this: wouldn’t it be even more grand if we could all try just a little bit harder to be a sarah? to come under cloak of darkness, delivering goodness and kindness, leaving satchels of joy in our wake?

thank you, dear blessed sarah, patron saint of unheralded kindness and great bulging hearts. thank you for teaching my boys the wonder of kindness delivered by doorknob, night after night, with no desire for folderol or hoopla. and thank you too for the world’s best salt-sprinkled sliced tomato on rye.

love, me and t. and all of us who’ve been indulged by your infinite goodness

do you have a sarah in your life, and how has your sarah opened your heart and filled it with unheralded goodness?

a cry for holy Earth…

earth from moon, apollo 8 mission. 12.24.68

A historic extraterrestrial sky—the Earth viewed from the Moon, Apollo 8 mission, Lunar orbit, December 24, 1968

a cry for holy Earth…

or might it be a cry from holy Earth?

i’ve been up since the chorus of dawn awoke me. the night, as it faded, grew thick and thicker in cacophony of high notes, the ones that warble from the breath of birds. IMG_9333

i tiptoed down the stairs, and planted myself in the awakening of the day. i watched the sun rays, inch by inch, rise above the fence on the eastern edge of my garden. watched the sunlight wash the stems and leaves in slant of incandescence. watched the shadows come. and the patchwork play: dappled morning proof.

the day’s upon us. and the earth must want to crumple under heaves of tears. the heavens, certainly, are crying.

that blue marbled orb above, the one afloat in sea of darkness, it’s holy Earth, the one small orb upon which souls live and breathe. souls delight. souls mourn. souls hold hands and dance. they collapse in sorrow, too.

that one marble in the universe, it’s ours to keep. it’s where the theatre of life plays on and on. from socrates to shakespeare and beyond. it’s held horrors — horrors beyond divine imagination: the holocaust. the civil war. vietnam. the awful wars — wars I and II.

but, too, and mostly, it’s been the stage for risings up of the human spirit. it’s where Gandhi walked. and the land where Jesus drew lines in sand. it’s where the brave souls of Selma gathered to march across the bridge. it’s where each and every day unnoticed acts of heart play out — the special needs kid charging down the soccer field with the ball, who then notices his little friend off on the sideline, crying for the ball, so he takes a U-turn, runs the ball to his friend and lays it at her feet, so she can score the goal.

every once in a while, the act of goodness is so spectacular, the whole world takes notice. (consider here the three who, on a portland train last week, rose up against anti-muslim racism, laid down their lives in the face of evil, and then the grieving mother of one wrote a letter to the President, writing of her son, “in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.”)

it’s the planet we call home. it’s where our everyday acts of heroism and atrocity play out. it’s ours to keep. to tend. to till. to caretake as it takes care of us. we are its harbor masters and its holy guardians.

for me, it’s not only where i plant my feet, it’s where my soul finds breath, takes flight. it’s my cathedral, the sanctuary that taps me on the heart and whispers, God is here. did you catch the moonlight through the leaves? did you see the mama bird pluck the worm and fly it home to where her babies chirp? and what of the butterfly, the one that alights on the meadow rue? or the monarchs who every spring and autumn, criss-cross half the planet, returning to the very same tree, generation after generation?

those are the everyday wonders, the ones that unfold just beyond my kitchen door. i’m not even talking majesties, the likes of yosemite and china’s nine “most-sacred mountains.” the ones that just might melt me at the knees, leave me gasping to fill my lungs with breath.

there is so much magnificence i’ve not seen, so much i can barely begin to imagine.

but it’s been entrusted to us. all of it.

as i lay under my sheets, listening to early morning’s song, i began to cobble a wonderlist, those sacred blessings of holy earth, the countless wonders that set my soul aloft. for me, they’re all keys unlocking the doorways deep within, inviting in the swirl of heaven here on earth. they’re where God comes in, takes me by the hand, takes me soaring. where prayer and breath are one…

  • the pit-a-pat of rain, against the leaves, the roof, or window panes. no matter. it’s simply the susurrations of element to earth that lull me every time.
  • the roar of wind, or even the gentle tickle, the interplay of air and leaf. i’ve been known to stand stone-still, ears perked, hair awhirl, absorbing every decibel.
  • any day now, firefly flicker, original flash of wonder.
  • the “audible stillness” of the night, as nathaniel hawthorne so finely, so poetically, put it. that prelude to darkness just before the crickets pack away their chirp, or the cardinals offer up their closing notes…
  • butterfly couplets shimmering across a lazy afternoon.
  • moonlight casting midnight’s lace upon the lawn.
  • inflamed twilight sky, rosy-streaked, purple-bruised, ablaze with setting sun.
  • the lonely haunting cry of the unseen geese’s night-crossing.
  • resilient mama bird instructing flight, over and over and over.
  • those mysteries we learn from books: how baby birds memorize the night sky, fix their inner compass to the lone star that never shifts; the barely-conceivable workings of the monarchs’ thousand-mile migration, on wings that weigh less than half a grain of aspirin.

the list goes on and on and on…..i could — and should — keep a life list. in fact, maybe i just will. and in the meantime, i and all of us who know this earthly orb as a one-time gift from the heavens, we will rise up against the counter-tides. we’ll not let the sacred be wiped out by obstinance and ignorance. we’ll stanch the cries of holy blessed earth, apply the few wise balms we know….

please, please, add to the list of wonders brought to us by heaven and earth in their ineffable gloriousness….

and may your first weekend in june be blessed…..

earth from the moon

hang on, holy Earth. we’ll not abandon you….