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Category: caretaking the world

prayer for our little blue marble

blue marble

while inside the walls of this monastery-in-the-making—my humble plot where votives flicker, bells chime on the hour, and a luscious bed of herbs is reaching out its roots—i’ve quieted like never before, quieted in all the nooks and crannies of my soul. my calendar is mostly clear, no longer distracting. i mark time by the shift in light and shadow, burrow into each and every hour for the sacred gift it holds.

and all the while, and especially of late, the cries of the world rage louder and louder. the world it seems is screaming, pleading, breaking down the walls for justice.

there are noises i block out, the noise of protest over masks, the daily idiocy tapped out on twitter or spouted on the west lawn of the people’s house. and there are noises that come raging in, the wail of grief, the undying echo of one man’s last three words, “i can’t breathe.”

i find myself bent low in a necessary posture, the posture of which etty hillesum (the dutch author of confessional letters and diaries of her spiritual awakening who died at auschwitz) once wrote: “a desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling. sometimes in moments of deep gratitude, [sometimes in hours of unceasing grief and supplication,] head deeply bowed, hand before my face.” (words inserted from the original).

the desire to kneel—despite protests from my knees, from all the bendable parts of me it seems—is one that’s struck me more and more achingly these recent days.

this old planet—home to majesties and subtleties, home to fjords and old-growth forests, home to dripping caves and flower-stitched meadows, birthplace to billions and billions, graveyard to them all—it’s aching and convulsing. it’s at once stiller than it’s been in years and seething beyond words.

i wake in the deep of night, and in echo of the ancient monastic practice of keeping prayerful watch through the hours when the world’s asleep, i add my whisper to the angels’ chorus.

dear holy God, save us. dear holy God, make us instruments of your peace. dear holy God, where there is injustice, let us sow the seeds of what will grow toward certain, lasting justice. dear holy God, let us be the makers of your peace. and shake this broken world of each and every speck of vile hate and horror. 

my words feel futile soon as the whisper spills across my lips. but when they rise up from the pit of my heart and soul, especially in the deep dark of night, they’re the surest thing i know. they’re all i’ve got. and so i give them….

what prayer do you pray for this aching planet? 

blue marble from moonscape

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

maybe we need to open the smoke hole

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there’s a siberian myth that when you close the smoke hole in a reindeer-hide tent — that orifice opening up to the sky — God can’t see in anymore. when you close the smoke hole, you break the connection to the divine — to the heavens and clouds and stars in the sky.*

when you close the smoke hole, you go mad in the whirl of unending toxic vapors.

maybe the world needs to go quiet to open the smoke hole.

have you heard that dolphins are once again romping in the waters off venice? (the oversized — dare we say obscene — cruise ships are gone.) blue skies and birdsong are back in parts of china that hadn’t seen them or heard them for years. (factories gone silent, cars parked at the curbs; pollution cut off at the knees.)

the earth, amid a pandemic, is healing. you might say it’s the soul that’s pushed its way to the fore.

have you noticed how your inbox is full of invitations from monks and museums and the metropolitan opera? a journal i love — emergence magazine — is, like so many rushing into the abyss, offering “free of charge, online sessions [that] will include: a book club that will meet online once a week, virtual fireside chats with Emergence contributors, a nature journaling course, and facilitated workshops and discussions.”

last night i joined in meditation with a monk and his singbowls at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore — along with two dozen soulful others whose faces appeared in squat boxes at the top of the screen, and who were strewn all across the continent. (singbowls originated in the himalayas more than 2,000 years ago, and the sound that rises from the mallet gliding the rim of a metallic bowl is scientifically documented to change our brain waves, and so is thought to be healing and soothing and all of those “ings” we need right now.)

the other morning i sat at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, while the priest at my church spoke of the samaritan woman during the sermon of sunday morning liturgy. last night, my priest popped in again, and mentioned that rather than singing the birthday song twice as she washes her hands, she likes to recite the jewish blessing for the washing of hands (it’s 10 seconds, so repeat twice): “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

there are many, many hours to fill in the space between stepping into my haz-mat attire and bravely boldly facing the grocery stores aisles where, more often than not, whole aisles are cleared, picked over as if a cotton field in the wake of the weevil. and so, being human, we itch to find ways to fill those hours.

i say, take this time and seize it: pick up a rake, if you have one idling in the garage or the shed. tenderly pull back the winter’s detritus, marvel at the tender green nubs insistently pushing through the crust of the earth. listen to the birdsong, now that the soundtrack of cars and most trucks (save for the poor amazon delivery squad), have gone silent.

one of my most beloved friends is teaching me, via links to websites and a vat of bubbling goo she’s promised to leave on my stoop, how to befriend that curious alchemical mix of flour and water and floating-by spores (how lovely to think of a wafting microbe as friend and not foe in these red-ringed times) called sourdough starter. there’s something eternally hopeful about the notion of make-your-own yeast, and bake-your-own breakfast.

last night, the college kid among us pulled out a board game, fired up his laptop to connect with his faraway brother, and together — through the wizardry of this wireless age — we all played round after round of word games. when’s the last time we all huddled at the kitchen table to put our collective heads together in game?

i’m making it my most important job to stitch the normal into these days, and to take it up a notch and embroider the moments with whatever delights and high-order embellishments i can muster: i’m tossing lavender packets into the dryer so clean sheets smell like provence herb gardens. i’m cracking open packets of biscuits, cranking the oven, filling the house with buttery inhalations. defrosting stews long tossed to the back of the freezer. the soul when its gasping for air is especially receptive to beauty.

and in between the attempts to make this time something of a break from the madness, i’m paying closest attention to the unbridled kindnesses, to the light that insists on seeping through the cracks.

maybe the smoke hole is opening.

maybe we’re finally noticing how hungry our souls have become. seek vigil not isolation, might be our watch phrase. don’t cut yourself off from the marvelous. from the undeniably beautiful. from the blessed.

open your eyes and your heart, the heavens are beckoning in ways never ever imagined. shabbat is upon us. uninterrupted.

enter in peace.

how are you keeping open the smoke hole?

from time to time across the week, i will bring delicious morsels here to the virtual kitchen table. you’re welcome to do the same….as we join hearts and forge on together. we will emerge and be stronger for seeing the world through new smoke-cleared eyes…..

*credit to martin shaw, mythologist and storyteller from devon, england, (extolled as “a thirteenth-century troubadour dropped into our midst”) for bringing the smoke-hole myth to my attention…..

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1905 Scientific American, documenting Siberian wilderness culture

insert (relief) here

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amid a long stretch of blur, amid headlines of “bloodbaths” at the newspaper that basically birthed the whole of this family, amid a washington moment that left me wanting for a lysol bath (in the infamous line my mother once uttered upon a trip home from a las vegas convention, the woes of the ad exec’s dutiful wife), amid deadlines that have me typing from darkness to darkness, the tall bespectacled fellow with whom i reside (aka my lawful wedded husband) casually glanced out at the snows as i motored him off to yesterday’s train. “it’s my half-birthday today,” he informed, as if that alone might be enough to save the day.

and it was, and it did, in its infinitesimal way.

the moment, which i latched onto, which i considered as i went about the eventual business of melting ice cream, hauling out a heart-shaped cookie cutter, as i sprinkled ghirardelli chocolatey chips–plonk, plonk, plonk on the plate–sliced strawberries in quarters and halves, was not unlike a wisp of a comma in a long, long paragraph of words: easily missed, but emphatically necessary (ask any third-grade teacher of grammar).

the sense indecipherable without it.

necessary, because in the seasons of life, some feel impossibly uphill; others, more feet-off-the-pedals-whiz-down-the-lane hardly an effort at all. necessary, because the human species is hard-wired for a break in the weather, a break in the onslaught. (i often wonder if that’s why God invented seasons, and the turnings therein.) and sometimes we have to decidedly, determinedly, do that–engineer the breaks–all by ourselves. it’s our job. we have to insert (joy) here. insert (relief) there. insert (closest thing to whimsy) precisely here.

my first wave of response, loosely holding the wheel, craning my neck to get a look at the half-birthday boy’s face, was to utterly melt. to be charmed that the long-standing practice in this old house of making a fuss over fractional birthdays (as recently as noting someone’s 26-1/2) had rubbed off on the tall one. he’d never before in all these years mentioned his half birthday, though it comes a mere two days before the one we’ve been noting for the last 18 years. (don’t think i didn’t try to mail half a birthday cake to faraway college…)

my second wave of response, the one that’s stuck with me all day and over the night, is the not-so-big thought that sometimes it’s up to us to take the reins of our joys, and our whimsies, and push away the worries, the angst, the unrelenting questions, for enough of a pause to let in a dribble of light.

otherwise, we go dark. endlessly dark.

IMG_1275and there’s something particularly joyful about making your joys all by yourself. home-spun joy. joy barely noticed. joy that comes from scrounging the pantry (too many deadlines to rush to the grocery). from reaching into the freezer and thinking ahead to melt the tahitian-vanilla-bean ice cream (okay, so i had to take two passes at that part when i forgot i was in the middle of melting and found myself with a pint of oozy liquid vanilla). from reaching into the basket of heart-shaped cookie cutters, pulling out just the right one. from turning the lights out, striking a match, ferrying a heart + berries + chocolatey chips and flickering candle over to the half-birthday boy.

it was the tiniest wisp of a moment–surely a comma in a long string of words (try reading without that ink swirl on the page we know as the comma). but it ushered in an exclamation mark of momentary joy. and that, at the midpoint of a year in the life of someone you love, is perfectly, positively necessary. and good.

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how might you insert (joy/relief/wonder) here, today or any tomorrow?

redoubling

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sign in a shop window on a busy street nearby

redouble re·​dou·​ble | \ rē-ˈdə-bəl \ v. 1. make or become greater greater, more intense, or more numerous; make twice as great in size or amount. we will redouble our efforts. 2. a. (obsolete) to echo back. b. (archaic) repeat.

 

dear people, these are our marching orders. and we do need redouble today. redouble. quadridouble. centidouble. be fruitful and fruitful and multiply.

be kind and kinder. be fierce in your kindness. unclench your fists, resist the urge to punch at the walls. rise above the lowest common denominator. set a new holier bar.

as i dipped into silence this morning, stared out the window at the blessed quiet of this snowfallen morning, where only the cardinal and a few of his acolyte sparrows are animating the tableau, i thought of what this day will bring, what this weekend might be steeped in. i remembered that we are a nation of vitriol at this too-long moment in time. i remembered how crushed we might feel, and how in times of feeling the hard boot heel of history pressing against the breakable bones of our ribcage, the prewired instinct might be to fight back. to wield weapons in kind.

so this is an appeal to resist and redouble. to not knock down vitriol with more vitriol. to put our faith in the longer game. to rustle up every voter you know. to drive them to the polls. bring a bundt cake for good measure. try to believe that goodness might once reign again. that we can be rinsed of this age of disregard, of indecency, of school-lot bullying. in the meantime, write a thank you note. call up the white-domed Capitol, and ask for whoever it is you want to pat on the back. tell them in no uncertain terms what a hero they are. and how you are so eternally grateful. how you hope your kids grow up to be half the hero they are. how they filled you with hope, watching, listening. how contagious their courage was and will be. how you promise you’ll pay it forward, the courage you saw in the face of unthinkable pressure.

there’s an expression–kill ’em  with kindness; i say melt ’em. melt ’em with kindness in the hours ahead. try to make sense, and let your simple acts of kindness be your foot in the door. even with tears in your eyes.

there are corners of the world, not far from our very front doors, where mercy is needed. be merciful. seek out the ones who have no one to turn to. be the face of kindness, be kindness in the flesh. listen to those who are talking into the wind. be the short burst, the certain burst, of goodness dropped from the heavens. we’re all born fully equipped. God gave us two arms so one could reach out while the other held tight. redouble your kindness. redouble your hope.

be the instrument of peace. clear a path in your world and pave it with act upon act of tenderest mercy.

some days, some moments in time, it’s our only hope.

how will you redouble your kindness today?

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wild things

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a mouse’s house? with front-porch perch…

it’s the permeability of winter, when the cell wall between the wild and the worldly is punctured, when the precious little things come out into the open, are pushed out into the open, all but tap at the window, beg for a taste of mercy, that’s holiness to me.

IMG_1231against the white tableau of snowy day after snowy day, winter makes evident the tracings of the wild things: a mouse hole here; chantilly-lace tracks of junco and cardinal and jay. even the abominable paw prints of a giant-sized coyote, straight from the woods, up my walk, paused there by the door (did he press his nose to the glass, take a peek under the cookie dome?).

each morning, no matter what the heavens are hurling my way, i don my make-believe farmer-girl boots, i scoop my battered old tin can, fill it with seed, and head out for what you might call matins, morning benediction. i bow to the heavens. scan the trees for any flash of scarlet, or blue-jay blue. i unfurl prayer upon prayer (the moon, if it’s shining, even a crescent or wedge, draws it deep out of me, never more so than in those inky minutes just before the dawn).

what i love about the wild, about this curious equation between us in our warm cozy kitchens and them seeking harbor in ways that mystify now and forever, is the fragile interplay in which we reach beyond what we know, extend an open palm of pure unbridled trust, an offering, no strings attached. it takes stripped-away ego to dare to tiptoe into the world of the wild. it takes a deep and undiluted knowledge of how small a dot we are against the vast canvas of the universe, all but insists we put aside our big ol’ bossy pants, our hurried agendas, our know-it-all nonsense.

it’s the very image of holy veneration: head bowed, palms extended. i come bearing sustenance, in the form of plain seed.

have you ever felt the backdraft of a feathered thing, as it’s flown inches away from your shoulder? have you felt the rush of the wing, heard the soft sound of feather and bone parting the wind?

and then there’s the shock of color, all day long, brush strokes of scarlet, of blue, of smoky charcoal. the boughs are alive, are animated. it’s not all black and white and static gray, not in my patch of the world anyway. all day long it’s a reminder, the wild is just beyond, the wild has wisdoms to teach. mercy is among the urgencies. mercy is what we need to remember; we are lacking in mercies these days.

who ever thought to bring so much wonder to winter? that’s the point at which my wondering leaps from earthly to divine. that’s where unshakeable faith begins to take hold. the wild begs questions that only the heavens can answer for me.

which brings me, round about and once again, to david whyte, whose poem the journey says everything i could ever hope to say with any string of words. have a listen:

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

from House of Belonging  and Essentials by David Whyte

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what wisdoms does the wild whisper to you?

and, while we’re here, the late january table brings a slew of birthdays: kerry down the lane today, beloved beloved pammy jo of the high desert, yesterday. british columbia mary and indiana BB on the 28th. happy blessed whirls around the sun, ladies. and thank you for your radiance….

the book for the soul that almost got left behind….

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months ago now, i first cracked open the pages of a quiet little slip of a book. i’d fallen in love at the cover, and even more so once i slipped inside. i was charmed, and taken back to when i’d first turned the pages of the little prince, or crept into the hundred-acre wood of winnie the pooh & co. i dutifully wrote and turned in my 650-word review but all these months later, it’s still not run in the pages of the newspaper i wrote it for, and i don’t think it’s ever going to, but i can’t let it slip away. so, since i’m under the covers once again with a fever and achy aches, here’s a book you might want to know about. you too might melt into its pages….

the boy, the mole cover

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse

Written and illustrated by Charlie Mackesy, HarperOne, 128 pages, $22.99

You might want to scoop up two copies of “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse.” One, so you can curl up in a favorite spot, and slowly, slowly turn the pages over and over again — a soul-rippling book to be absorbed as much as one to be read. And that second copy, perhaps, so you can frame the pages that most make your heart sigh. You’d not be foolish to want to rouse every morning and rest your eyes on the heart-piercing wisdoms of this improbable quartet journeying across the pages. 

That’s how beautiful is this tender fable, a story for all ages, a story of unlikely friendship, infinite kindness, and the poignant lessons of love, so apt for these tumultuous times. 

It’s a stirringly-drawn, achingly-unspooled tale that belongs on the treasured shelf of storybook classics that are never outgrown, alongside the likes of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “The Little Prince,” and any one of the originals from A. A. Milne, he who gave us Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Don’t think that the mention of titles from long-ago childhood in any way diminishes the potency of British illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s genius. Mackesy, long a cartoonist for The Spectator, a British politics-and-culture weekly, and a book illustrator for Oxford University Press, has over the years collaborated with Richard Curtis for Comic Relief and with Nelson Mandela on a lithograph project, “The Unity Series.” In other words, he’s been incubating his extra-large heart for a rather long while. 

And here he bulls-eyes his target. 

In these pages, with words penned in brush and ink, and fresh-off-the-drafting-pad ink drawings, often washed over in watercolor, we meet, one by one, the charming quartet, an assemblage of misfit archetypes encompassing a tender arc of all creatures great and small. 

The boy is lonely we find out right away. Mole, though, befriends him without hesitation. Mole, of course, can’t see very well as moles are not known for their visual acuity. But as is often the case in fable or parable, tracing all the way back to Sophocles in ancient Greece, the great seers are often the ones who are blind. And so it seems here, where Mole is the voice of infinite wisdom (and insatiable appetite for sugary cake). 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” asks Mole. 

“Kind,” said the boy. 

“What do you think success is?” asked the boy.IMG_1110

“To love,” said the mole. 

Not long after, we bump into Fox, yet another universal character, and Mackesy tells us in his prologue that “fox is mainly silent and wary because he’s been hurt by life.” Isn’t that a not-unfamiliar affliction? Horse, Mackesy tells us, might be the biggest thing the other three have ever encountered, but he is “also the gentlest.” Again, don’t we all know — and love — someone like Horse?

When crossing a river on horseback, the boy slips and falls. But Horse catches him, and says, wisely, “Everyone is a bit scared. But we are less scared together.” And then, nuzzling against the bowed head of the boy, Horse adds: “Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness.” Remounting Horse, and riding deeper into the story, Boy asks: “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?”

“Help,” said the horse.

Traveling on through snow and storm, huddling gently together in the inky-dark of the night, the quartet offer up wisdom upon wisdom, settling deeper and deeper into a contemplative landscape in which love and loyalty quietly win the day. It’s the simplicity of the question and answer, the unfettered truth, that serves as arrowhead to Mackesy’s heart-seeking quiver. 

In the end, any of us might long for permanent residency in this unlikely landscape where when asked, “What do we do when our hearts hurt?” as the boy asked his friends, the answer is this: “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

feel free to fall in love with any of the pages i’ve brought here to the table. here’s one more to make you chuckle…..

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i’d give the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse to anyone i loved — anyone little or not so little. do you have a picture book you fell in love with long long ago, and every time you crack it open you fall in love all over again? what is it?

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?