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Category: caretaking the world

the rare company of an especially fine book

long, long ago, the one certain place where i escaped in the house where i grew up, where i all but opened the window and soared out through the oaks, was beneath the covers of a patchwork quilt in my upstairs room where i’d hide for hours on end in the pages of an opened book.

the very architecture of a book is built for drawing you in: there’re the pages opening like spread-wide angels’ wings, there’s the tucked-in gulley where those pages are hinged to the spine, the gulley that demands ocular acrobatics, as your eyeballs make the leap from one page’s bottom to another one’s top. it’s an enclosing space, the sprawl of a book, a paper-and-glue construction akin to being wrapped in the long arms of a hug.

garth williams’ pig barn and charlotte’s web

back in the days when the books i read were washed in watercolor from the brushes of tasha tudor, or in the black ink of garth williams, i could get lost in a book from sun-up till starlight.

tasha tudor’s thumbelina

i’d wager a bet that those were the pages that imprinted on me the storybook poetries that have shaped every room of my grown-up house — the ticking and chiming of old schoolhouse clocks, windowpanes that peer into trees, birdhouses on poles, amply padded armchairs upholstered in checks, teapots that whistle, and logs that crackle in hearths.

that itch to escape — really, more of a pang or an unstoppable pull — still lures me, especially as the affairs of the world seem to crumble, as the ends of my nerves feel rubbed raw with brillo and steel wool. it might be why the walls of this old house are stacked, floor to ceiling in plenty of rooms, in tight-soldier rows of spine after spine. books are the balm, the antidote to so much of the madness beyond our front doors.

especially so is a book i tumbled into only this week. it’s a book for the soul, if ever there was. it’s a book for the tenderhearted, to which i most assuredly and emphatically admit. it’s diary of a young naturalist, by dara McAnulty, who not only is a teenager (a northern irish one) but one with extraordinary voice and vision. he’s autistic, he lets you know before you’ve come to the end of the prologue. but before he tells you that, he describes himself thusly: “i have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world.”

count me as a kindred spirit.

even more so, he lets on again and again how trampled his heart often feels, how porous it is, and how solace for him comes in the tendernesses of the unfiltered natural world.

the book has bedazzled the literary world. young dara, all of fourteen when he penned these glorious pages, won the wainwright prize, britain’s blue ribbon for nature writing, for this, his debut work. that his words found their way into a book, let alone a prize-winning book, is a feat in and of itself; “quite amazing,” he writes, “as a teacher once told my parents ‘your son will never be able to complete a comprehension (a mandatory exam in the british educational system), never mind string a paragraph together.'”

well, string paragraphs he has done. has done, indeed. has done to the tune of 222 pages.

he’s been compared to the incomparable greta thunberg, perhaps the planet’s fiercest defender and an unfiltered critic of our devastations thereof. the guardian of london sang the diary’s praises, calling it “miraculous,” writing that it’s “a combination of nature book and memoir, a warm portrait of a close-knit family and a coming-of-age story,” in which McAnulty’s “simple, gorgeous sentences unfurl, one after another.” the poet aimee nezhukumatathil called it “at once a lush and moving meditation and electric clarion call to action.” reviewers, in the UK and here in the states, have heaped it with praise. “it really is a strange and magical experience,” wrote a reviewer in the daily mail, before comparing McAnulty’s writing to that of the poet ted hughes. another reviewer, one in the guardian, said McAnulty’s writing reminded him again and again of the great WH Hudson, a brilliant and eccentric nature writer “who lived with the same deep and authentic sense of emotional engagement with nature as McAnulty.”

weaving across the arc of a year, paying exquisite attention to season upon season, McAnulty drops us all to our knees, as we behold, along with him, the wonders of barn owls, cowslips, corncakes, and the summer’s first blackberries.

of the poetry of a blackbird’s morning sonata: “When the blackbird came, I could breathe a sigh of relief. It meant the day had started like every other. There was a symmetry. Clockwork.”

of dandelions: “Dandelions remind me of the way I close myself off from so much of the world,” he writes, “either because it’s too painful to see or feel, or because when I am open to people, the ridicule comes.”

a hidden pond: “…reflecting the sky and squiggling with shadows galore, darting in and out of the light. A convulsing mass of tadpoles, and with them the epic cycle of life, anticipation and fascination.”

springtime: “The ebb and flow of time punctuated by the familiar brings a cycle of wonder and discovery every year, just as if it’s the first time. That rippling excitement never fades. The newness is always tender.”

for a girl whose jangled nerves and galloping heart are soothed and slowed by the poetries of startling never-before-so-captured language, McAnulty is bliss by the spoonful. he describes his family as “close as otters,” and in describing a soaring white seabird he writes of “the art deco lines” of the gannet. caterpillars move “like slow-motion accordions,” and a goshawk chick looks “like an autumn forest rolled in the first snows of winter.”

as if that’s not more than more than plenty, here are but two excerpts:

Prologue
This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change in county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was a baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and the bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family……

I started to write in a very plain bungalow surrounded by families who kept their children behind closed doors, and empty-nesters who manicured their gardens and lawns with scissors – yes, I actually witnessed this. This is where sentences first began to form, where wonder grappled with frustration on the page, and where our garden (unlike any other in the cul-de-sac) became a meadow during the spring and summer months, with wildflowers and insects and a sign that read ‘Bee and Bee’ staked in the long grasses, and where our family spent hours and hours observing the abundance that other gardens lacked, all of us gloriously indifferent to the raised eyebrows of neighbours that appeared from behind curtains from time to time.

Wednesday, August 1
We watch in wonder as countless silver Y moths feast on the purple blooms. Some rest, drunk with nectar, before refilling, whirling and dancing in constant motion. The feather-like scales, brown flecked with silver, are shimmering with starry dust, protecting them from being eaten by our other nocturnal neighbours. I find it fascinating that silver Y fur can confuse the sonar readings of bats, and even when they are predated they can escape, leaving the bat with a mouthful of scales. And here we all are, the McAnultys congregated in worship of these tiny migrants. Soon they will make the journey to their birthplace, silver stars crossing land and sea to North Africa.

The night crackles as the storm of flitting moves off. We jump up and down and hug each other, tension leaking out. We chat and look at the sky, sparkling with Orion, Seven Sisters and the Plough. This is us, standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and relived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering stars calmed a storm in all of us.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist

part of the miracle of McAnulty’s writing is that he writes as evocatively about his neurocognitive otherness as he does about the dandelions, the otters, and the caterpillars. he is something of a spelunker into the unexplored wilds of the world seen through an asperger’s lens.

again, from the prologue, where he writes matter-of-factly:

“Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, all except Dad [a conservationist] — he’s the odd one out, and he’s also the one we rely on to deconstruct the mysteries of not just the natural world but the human one too. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, really. We’re as close as otters, and huddled together, we make our way out in the world.”

he writes, bracingly, about being bullied. about how, under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he feels “boxed in, a wild thing caged.” he writes of the foul-mouthed insults hurled his way. simply because he’s not like the others.

i’d say he’s beyond them.

reading his stripped-bare sentences, my eyes stung with tears. and in his aloneness, i felt the walls of my own heart reaching toward his. i found not merely comfort, but the rarest of company.

how blessed is the world that from his distant landscape of otherness, he makes art from life’s murkiest shadows to its patches of purest white light.

McAnulty’s latest book, wild child: a journey through nature, a multi-sensory jaunt through the wilds especially for children, was published last summer, and described as a “dreamy dive” into the natural world. he’s planning another book about his wanderings around ireland, connecting nature with myth. i’ve taken a number and am already standing in line for that one.

for i’ve found, in the pages gloriously inscribed by a boy who writes in tender tones, who sees the world in ways that make me truly see, a kindred spirit, a diarist who makes me feel safe and warmed in the clutches of this holy, holy earth.

what are the titles that bring you comfort in these trying times? and how precisely do they do so?

wilbur the terrific

the pure power of kindness

i remember learning the lesson. i was squeezed in the back seat of a buick riviera, circa 1965, pulled to the pump at a gas station just outside cincinnati’s coney island, an amusement park to end all amusement parks, where i’d finally grown tall enough to be strapped in a bumper car all on my own. it was a hot cincinnati afternoon. and the six or so cousins squeezed in my grandpa’s regal coach might have had their eyes trained on my grandpa, or maybe they were poking each other in the sides and the shoulders and under the knees. i know i was watching my grandpa, and i watched him greet the man with his fist on the nozzle as if the man was his old lost best friend. it was, needless to say, an indelible moment, the way my grandpa’s eyes sparkled in conversation with this man he’d actually never met before. but they carried on anyway, a good while after the tank was filled. and then my grandpa slid back into the driver’s seat, turned his head to look us in the eye, and announced to whomever was listening (and, believe me, we all were): “always treat everyone with the same kindness you’d wish for yourself.”

if that was the only time i’d sat through that class — kindness 101 — i still think it’d have stuck, but i was taught it over and over and over again. by teachers all along the way — a best friend, an aunt, a gazillion glory-be-to-God they-belong-with-angels friends, strangers whose names i never learned — tender-hearted souls i count as if beads on a rosary. each one inching me closer and closer to that radiance that is momentary heaven here on earth. especially on the days when it feels a little bit like flame-licking hell.

so it comes as welcome blessing but little surprise that the awful hard road of the last couple weeks was paved with gold bricks of kindness that really, truly gave us the little bit of spark we needed to not slump to our knees, to not break down in tears and never stop crying. 

we teach kindness, those of us who still believe in the grace of getting along. we teach kindness sometimes because it’s the thing we think we’re supposed to preach. but sometimes i think we forget just how mighty a force the tiniest kindness can be. how one kindness can drain the sting from any day. how one kindness can be the burst of oxygen that keeps us from keeling to the ground. especially when we’re running on fumes, when we’re hollowed out with despair, when we can’t stand watching the tears run down the cheeks of someone we love. 

kindness literally moves mountains. the mountains deep down inside us that feel immovable. the mountains of worry. the mountains of sadness, of not knowing what’s just around the bend, and having little reason not to fear the worst. 

but then the doorbell rings. or the email pings. or you wake up to find a bushel of pansies waving in the morning’s breeze. or a box arrives, stuffed to the brim with all the things you count as simple treasures, and you scratch your head wondering how in God’s name you could be so blessed to know — to count as a most beloved friend — someone who pays such exquisite attention, who took the time and trouble to gather up a heart-melting litany, beans and bread and birdseed, even the hard-to-find monastery candle that kindles your most sacred hours, and it’s all flown halfway across the country. just in time to make a big ol’ pot of sustenance for the rainy days ahead.

and you remember all over again that you’re powered not simply by your own sweat and heartache and tears, but that the collective might of hearts — hearts that happen to be supercharged at the very moment yours is drained — gives you just enough oomph to take on another day. to shake yourself off, to grab the keys to the car, to drive where you’re needed, to do whatever needs doing: to clean out the wound, to scrub out the sink, to sling on a mask and march into the drug store, to look the doctor in the eye — or the tow yard boss, or the police officer, or the priest — and say what needs to be said. 

because you’re propelled not all on your own, but by the compound goodness and kindness of a thousand little kindnesses. even the slightest bit of kindness — the “how you doing?,” the “hey, i made extra,” the “i’m headed to the store, do you need anything?” — all of it is just enough to tip the scales, to keep you on your feet and in business for another day. amid the arid days of breathlessness and worry, there is no kindness too too small to put the necessary ping in the human heart that pumps on despite it all. 

as i sit and ponder kindness, i almost wish i was some sort of molecular scientist, someone who could pry open the envelope in which kindness arrives, and slide its essence under the microscope to discern just what it is — electrical valence? neurochemical charge? — that literally alters our physiologies, disrupts the sorrow-drenched, worry-stoked synapse, switches tracks from despair to hope. it’s not an illusory thing. it’s as real as real could be. the tiniest seemingly insignificant gesture — the saying without words, i am listening to your heartbeat and it sounds as if the rhythm’s off, a sorrowful syncopation has taken hold and i’m here to try to budge it back on beat — it matters. it’s a seed of life and love that’s planted deep and certainly, and it blooms just as it’s needed. 

and this world needs it in abundance, in bumper crops and without end. it’s not nothing, the barest brush with kindness. 

it’s everything. 

in other words, bless you and thank you each and every someone who offered up a prayer, a thought, a holy card, a kindness seen or unseen. 

love, the barbaras — the Wiser and her offshoot

xoxox

what are the moments of kindness you will never ever forget?

prayer list

i remember walking the halls of my high school, tucking a day’s worth of worries into my backpack. i might have bumped into tears in the girls’ bathroom (for that’s what it was called back then). i might have noticed someone slam a fist to a locker. or leaned in to listen while threading my way through the throngs in the halls. i’d sit in my bedroom at night, tucked between the two twin beds, sprawled on my old braided rug, and one by one, i’d scribble a note, cut out a heart from construction paper, try to put words to all of the heartache, and the next morning i’d make like the valentine fairy and deliver each one. it was my earliest rendition of keeping a prayer list.

gathering up the heavy hearts of the day is what it means to live and breathe on this planet. we hoist up each other’s loads, to try to shoulder the ache in the hearts of the people we love. in the aches we just happen to hear about. and we don’t put them down till the darkness has lifted, has shuttled off to the distance.

i’m thinking about prayer lists because once again i found someone’s very big worry this week. and my heart, like hers, is now hurting. i’ve no idea really if taking on worry is something like taking on water. if now two boats are low in the lake, and that’s the whole of it, or if my taking on a bucket or two of hers might actually buoy hers even an inch. i’ll go with the inch. i do know that in my own hours of barely being able to breathe it sure helped to have someone ping me, let me know they were squeezing my hand from afar, reminding me every once in a while to remember to take a deep breath.

in the world where i grew up, prayer lists were as common as the alphabet. you heard about a heartache, you scribbled it onto your list. recited it every night before dinner, and when you dropped to your knees at bedtime. when it was really bad, a gargantuan worry, you called up the rectory and asked the church secretary to please scribble “special intention” onto the list. sometimes it felt like your whole pocket was filled with a long string of beads, one for each worry.

or maybe i was just raised by world-class worriers, and i learned early on that there are certain things that wrinkle your brow, that make you stare into the faraway. and that prompt you to scribble a name on a list, and stick it onto the fridge under a magnet. in the world i grew up in, worries weren’t simply invisible. worries showed up in pencil on paper.

i can’t imagine not worrying. but maybe to worry is another name for “to care.” to bump up against the hard edge of our superpowers, and see there’s a cliff and we can’t go one step farther, not even an inch. which is where the prayers swoop in. which is where we throw up our arms, and look toward the clouds, because a hundred thousand years ago someone might have mentioned that that’s where the angels hang out. but, honestly, truly, those are just motions. the point is we knead into our hearts, into the very core of our breathing, the clear and certain intention of the someone we know, or the someone we love, who is bearing an impossible burden. and life sure would be easier if we were all out pushing each other’s wheelbarrows. if we all gathered round, 1-2-3 hoist!, and did what we could to carry their loads for even a minute.

so, for my faraway friend who i love very much, i turned to one of the saints i met in my life, a very, very tall and glorious soul who once folded himself into the brown-plaid front seat of my little brown toyota corolla. his name was john o’donohue, and at the time he was a priest, a priest with a brogue (the very best sort), and a poet with a soul so big you felt like you could climb right in it. he was in the business of putting words to the flickers and blips of the heart that escape most everyone else on the planet. but he had telepathies and poetries inside him, and he wrote like nobody else’s business.

this is the blessing — the beannacht — he wrote for his mother. it’s nearly famous now, but it’s so very beautiful, and it captures nearly every last drop of the wobbles and soft spots that come when life hits the skids.

this is for my friend who i love, from a poet i call a most blessed friend, an anam cara, or soul friend, a concept my poet friend made a little bit famous because he wrote a book all about it.

a beannacht from john o’donohue, God rest his soul; born on a new year’s day, he died in his sleep the night after january 3, in 2008, just barely 52.

john o’donohue, anam cara, friend of the soul

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.


what are the lines you recite when you are carrying the worries of someone you love?

here’s my long-ago tribune story about the day i spent with the blessed poet, which just so happens to have run in the paper on st. paddy’s day, in 1999. so it’s fitting for this week, 22 years later. egad.

turning the page…

before the light on this new year falls, i am bent at the old maple table, prayer unfurling. the incense simmers on the stove, an extra fat star anise tossed amid the tumble in my spice-stocked pot. i am straining to fill the air with those few pure things, those hopes, those determinations that this year — this nother round of possibility — might bring, other than the cinders we’re shooshing out the door.

i’m no fool, been knocked around enough to know that there’s no prestidigitation in all the world that will suddenly wipe clean the slate, cast all sin, open wide the barn doors for all those gentle kind and tender things we espouse.

but i’ve not lost hope, not every shred. and in finding the words of dear alfred lord tennyson on my doorstep here this morning, i am reminded that in the archeologies of time, strife is the stuff of human existence. it’s always been a battle of forces — of evil versus noble, of stingy versus bountiful, of cruel versus the world those gathered here do believe in.

tennyson, deep in grief at the ringing in of the new year after the death of his dearest friend in 1833, wrote these words in his great elegy, In Memoriam (in sum, tennyson’s masterwork is 133 poems — or cantos — in one), beginning canto CVI, or 106, “ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky…” and he went on to implore a rinsing, an ablution that rings eerily in echo of the now:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

and in the last lines of this canto, tennyson implores:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land…

i sign on with tennyson. and believing in simple math — that the smallest increment adds to the aureole of goodness spilling across the undulations of our lives — i commit to baby steps.

sometimes, that’s the hardest truest place to begin. it gets us in the craw of who we are, and muscles up against who it is we aim to be.

so, in part, here goes:

i commit to shrugging off the unkind tone, the odd stumble in a conversation, not garnishing it as ammunition for a cockamamie theory that that someone never liked me in the first place, and thus it’s fair for me to assume defensive posture next time round. i commit to taking a deep-down cleansing breath and resolutely ringing the doorbell of the neighbor who seems to flinch from human contact, delivering without need for words a tin-wrapped loaf of kindness, or whatever seems the wisest gentlest peace-bridging offering. i commit to looking the lost, the hurt, the invisible, in the eye. i commit to picking up the phone, even when i’m dishrag tired. i commit to listening. and i commit to going first when i’m sorry are the words so needed.

if we want a world unlike the one hellbent on taking over, we need be the ones in the trenches. the ones who won’t retreat, relent, surrender.

i’m not talking sweeping social change, or abrupt reverse of course in the global policy department. i’m not so equipped. not steeped in all the necessary tomes for such bold move. i have figured out my place in the chessboard of this life, and i am all the more determined that it’s the fractional advance, the barely perceptible softening of the heart, the extension of the hand, the saying, i see you, i see your pain and i am here for you to lean on, i am here to embolden you, to put courage to your conviction. i am here to sit beside you, for however long it takes.

the daylight is up now, casting faintest shadow on the snow. it’s taken me that long to scroll the annals of my heart, to fix my spot on the map of the new year now upon us. more than anything, as the news pings roll in, as i hold my breath for the days ahead, as i pray the world begins to tilt in the favor of goodness, truth, and, yes, the deepest mercy, i turn to the heavens, i fall to my knees and i echo the good lord tennyson, ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand, dear holy blessed Adonai, ring out the darkness of the land.

light is what we beg for. light is what we need.

let us be the wicks you spark this day. and the next and the next….

what might be the baby steps to which you commit? no need to write them here, but in your hearts, perhaps?

pins and needles and why it matters…

dear america,

land of the free and the brave. land i want to be home to the kind and the gentle. and the fair and the just. land where truth is the national language, the one we expect to hear and to speak, the one that rings from sea to shining sea. land where we’re blind to the melanin that colors our skin, but not blind to the sins we’ve borne until now. still bear. land where bullies get sent to the principal’s office. and aren’t allowed on the playground, not till they right their ways. land where some big-hearted, big-eared soul sits down to listen, to find out why the bully’s so mean. land of confession. land where we fall to our knees, open our heart, and spill out our sins. where we say we’re sorry, so sorry, and we mean it. where we do right, right our wrongs. make up for the shatters and hurt we’ve left in our wake.

that’s the nation i want to belong to. that’s the world i want to populate, for the short time i get to be here.

it’s all evanescent. we’re not here for long. we’ve one short shot at weaving our one single thread into the tapestry. i aim for my thread to be radiant. too often it’s frayed. falls short. but the thing is, day after day, i clamber out of bed and i set my mind to living the promise: love as you would be loved. reach beyond your own borders. imagine how it feels to live in the other guy’s shoes. to be strapped with the load that he or she was born into, picked up along the way. the stuff that broke and scarred and left scabs that never quite healed.

i reach for the stars, for the heavens. my own personal plot, the one by which i measure my life, is to open the doorway to heaven here on earth. to make it all a little bit kinder, gentler, to love as i would be loved.

the thing is when you grow up knowing hurt, you sometimes decide to dedicate your every blessed hour to doing all you can to not let it happen to anyone else. to be, as blessed st. francis put it, the instrument of peace. to be the consoler. the sower of love. it’s a prayer i pray every day of my life.

i pray for that hope to spread like a rash. once upon a time i believed we could cure the world of the scourge of hunger, fill every last belly. now i’m sinking my hopes into the radical notion that we could all — just for one day, maybe even for longer — stop with the ugliness, put down the guns, dial down the incessant noise. stop seeing the world in us versus them.

for God’s sake: be still. breathe in the deep and calming oxygen of pure unfiltered kindness. imagine forgiveness.

i believe in capital D Decency. i believe in resurrection and redemption. i believe in the hard-rock capital of empathy. i’m willing to hope we can find it again. i’m not certain. but i cast my vote for all the holiness i believe in, the holiness that is the architecture, the underpinning, the spine and the sinew of my every blessed day.

and that’s why i wait, holding my breath, awaking in the night to peek at the numbers, to see if there’s half a chance we might become a more perfect union. one where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is spelled out in three hundred million-plus variations on the theme. but one where justice, and fairness, and truth is the least common denominator. the one we strap on each and every morning, and take it from there. there is so much work to be done….

let us begin.

what are the threads of the world you believe in? the one that deep in your heart waits to be born?

it’s a scary thing to put yourself out there, to lay it all on the line. but this moment demands unfiltered courage in all its iterations. mine lies in saying it aloud, in whispering my heart’s deepest prayers. maybe i’m not alone…

the darkness is coming…don’t be afraid.

it’s dark now, the cloak of night not yet lifted on the world out my windows. each pane of glass, at this early dark hour, is a mirror. as i shuffle about the kitchen, cranking up heat, scooping out coffee beans, the night sky grows faintly milkier. the ink of the sky drains away, tucked in the bottle till it’s needed again.

this weekend, the night comes sooner. the darkness tiptoes in. the lights will burn sooner. i say, be not afraid.

the darkness for me — and maybe for you — is wonder. is blessed. is there where the burrowing, and the deepening begin. i’m not afraid of the dark. i strike a match, haul out the candles, maybe even the logs for the fire. i say, bring it on. bring me the folds of introspective depth to sink into. give me unbroken prairies of quietude. let me finish a thought, and follow that one with another, a game of thoughtful pied piper, wending and winding through the tall grass of soulful contemplation.

because i used to haunt the sorts of bookstores that ought to post “no trespassing” signs for those who sneeze at the first whiff of dust, i have tucked in my bookshelves all sorts of tomes — some skinny, some fat — with provenance unknown. one of those, perhaps the skinniest i own, is cooper edens’ if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow. cooper edens, i picture with daisies strewn in his hair, a true berkeley hippie of the hallucination age. among the gentlest spirits that ever there was.

i’ve read that his parents, bless them, encouraged day dreaming. imagine that. when he was in first grade, the teacher told cooper’s parents that cooper shouldn’t come back to class because he was “too creative.” cooper’s mother, someone who should be pinned with a very gold star, replied, curtly: “good!” and kept her daydreamer home. she fueled him with crayons and cardboard, and perhaps the sorts of iconoclastic coloring books where you’re told to draw outside the lines. soon, dear cooper, was channeling monet and van gogh.

but now i’ve daydreamed my way into the cooper edens story, and i meant to be thinking about darkness.

befriend the darkness is the point where i’m headed. when the clocks take their back-leap deep in the night on sunday, when three becomes two, and the clocks demand the arduous catching up of the hands big and little, consider the ways you might savor the dark side of the year.

learn a thing or two about stars; pick one by name and discover its story. trace it along the night sky.

lug a pile of logs into your house. tuck them in the hollow that’s made just for them. alternately, gather the wax of the honeybees, the wax rolled into columns called candles. strike a match, watch the flame play flame games against the darkness. turn off all lightbulbs. sit for an hour in candlelight. pay attention to the sacramental effect, how the simple shadow cast by the flickering flame makes you see what you’d otherwise miss, makes you relish the beauty of time and space, allows you to wrap yourself in the blessing of being alive.

bundle up and step outside for a moon walk, as i’ve written before, it’s the ancient and elemental lesson in addition and subtraction, the waxing and waning of the runner-up night light. catch the night shadows as they play upon the lawn, the inside-out of the shadows of daylight.

once you step back inside and shake off the chill of the night, burrow into a nook or a fat stuffed armchair, a place where you like to read and think and look out a window. maybe it’s right by that fire, still crackling, still ablaze in the dance of the flame.

consider this passage from one of the books i’ve been reading this week, a book by the great henry beston, one of the finest poets and chroniclers of nature that ever there was. he wrote from the woods of maine, at the turn of the last century, as the 1800s rolled into the twentieth century, back when candles and logs and one-room schoolhouses were ordinary everyday notions.

wrote henry, henry who has consoled me like a deep and wise and most trusted friend this week at the cusp of the darkness:

“As I watch the fire burning in the great fireplace on a first chilly night, I do not wonder that fire and the mystery of fire have played so important a part in the great religions of [hu]mankind. The power to kindle that ever-hungry flame must have been the first great achievement of man on his way to fuller being; with fire he both metaphorically and in all reality could see ahead in the dark….To me, [fire] is the element which is always a part of the mystery and beauty of the world. The earth may be shabbily and wickedly broken, the river and the air befouled, but the living flame, rising from whatever source, is beauty from its first appearance and as beauty lives. There is no compromise with flame, and not without reason has it served us as a symbol of that unknown to whose ultimate mystery we can but lift our uncertain hands.”

Henry Beston, Northern Farm

the darkness is coming. don’t be afraid.

how will you embrace the dark hours?

and, happy blessed all saints day and all souls, and that hallowed eve of jack-o-lanterns and candy scavengers who won’t be scavenging so much this year…..xoxo

since the beginning, awe

across the years, i’ve been swept into the river of an ancient time. i wear it, almost, like a prayer shawl. wrap myself in its silken threads. inhale the sweet spice rising up from earth’s release, as summer breathes its final breaths and autumn rushes in.

it’s in the morning air, the chill that makes me pull the covers tight round my shoulders; it’s in the thin bronze light that casts its amber shadow, long across the floorboards. it’s in the withering of the garden, the last green tomato clinging, holding on for just another ray of sunlight. will it turn before the freeze?

all around, you can feel the shuddering of season folding into season, of the turning of the prayer book page.

when the new moon, in its indigo darkness, rises tonight, a holy people — the blessed jews — all around the globe will spark the first flames of the new year’s light in the kindling of the rosh hashanah candles. i will strike the match at this old house. and only two of us will bless the light, the wine, the spiraled raisin-studded challah.

we need the new year prayers more than ever, this gasping year. the burned-out brokenness is everywhere, the globe (or vast acres of it anyway) is shrouded in ashes, a more fitting metaphor it’s hard to imagine.

hope though comes in prayer — and, spine-tingly, in the science that tells us there are forest pines whose seeds can only burst new life when exposed to flame. may our prayers be those forest seeds.

prayer, for me, has become something of a force field. we fire up our deep-down jet-pack of incantation; we might, some of us, fall to our knees (a posture sure to super-launch those prayers, to propel with oomph through all the turbulence along the way). we do our part, our lowly simple part. and we realize that the more of us who fire up our prayers, the more fiercely, more mightily we put forth our voices, we just might forge an opening in heaven’s door, and our petitions — our saying we are so so sorry for the state of things, our vow to spend our living, breathing hours in pursuit of all that’s good, that’s holy — might find the way to the heart of the God to whom we are praying. it’s a collective effort, really, an all-out, all-of-us campaign to light the light, to open up the spigot of holy goodness, to let it rain down on this parched and burned-out earth.

there’s an ancient teaching, taught by long-ago rabbis and mystics, that in the beginning the light God made was so blindingly bright, it burst out of its vessel, and the shards, the sparks, the bits of flame sifted down to all creation — not unlike the embers raining down in all the smoldering forests, maybe. and from that shattering of the vessel came the first and holiest instruction, the one to carry all of humankind from that day forward: seek the shards of light, look deep into the souls of each and every someone you meet, look into the morning’s dew and the constellations strewn across the heavens, look where you least expect to find the shard, and in those places where you can’t help but see it.

and when you find it, when you gather up the bits and shards, bring your light harvest to the table, where we will all lay down our gleanings, where we will stand back and marvel. in awe. in awe for what we’ve all done, all on our own and all together. in awe for all the light that’s here to be pulled from the shadows and the darkness. in awe of how luminous it might be.

awe is what these days are called — the holy days of awe — in the great and holy tradition that unfolds at the cusp of the jewish new year. from tonight’s setting of the sun and the rising of the new moon, clear through to ten days from now, on the day of atonement, we stand in awe. we marvel at the light, holy light, that’s mustered from all the cracks and broken places in this still-holy, ever-holy earth.

it’s how we heal the world, how we make it whole — tikkun olum — repair the broken shattered world. it’s God’s command. and we begin to sew it whole with our prayer, our harvest of the light, and our undying awe.

will you join the prayer collective, do your bit to scrounge up shards of light wherever you go today, and tomorrow, and every day after? will you bring your bits of light to the shared table, so we can all of us stitch together the whole cloth of incandescence this broken world so deeply desperately needs?

maybe we do one, just one, bold (but little) thing…

and by bold i mean one something, anything, in the name of bending that stubborn arc of justice. by bold i mean do one certain something today — maybe even within the next hour — that you otherwise wouldn’t have mustered the will or energy or courage to do.

feeling the full weight of what we’re up against in this world that is not letting up in this long hot summer, so many mornings feeling knocked back, feeling impotent, frozen in the face of injustice, in the wake of sirens and spilling blood and streets chaotic, i turn — as i so often do — to the words of dorothy day, who in turn had leaned into the holy wisdom of therese of lisieux, the little saint who preached a spirituality of “the little way,” to mine her everlasting, every day truth:

From Therese, Dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured might ease the burden of others….We could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. It was all a matter of faith.

Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg

it’s a place, and a way to begin, for us little people, the ones of us who know full well the real battlefield that calls us every day is the one not too far from our front door, the quotidian one, the one whose players we might know well or not at all. the strangers within our reach. the ones who might be taken wholly by surprise by a sudden gust of kindness, out-of-nowhere kindness. the ones who might find courage a little bit contagious, who might pick up the pieces and pass it on.

once upon a time, stoked by pictures of starving children from biafra, fueled by the stories in time magazine i’d take to my room to read when no one was watching, i used to dream i’d cure world hunger. i imagined i could lope the globe, fill bellies, spoon unicef gruel into mouths open and hungry, like little birds.

it hurts plenty to shed those dreams, to watch them wither away, to realize you were pie in the almighty sky, and some crazy fool besides. what gets tough, gets real, is to station yourself squarely in the middle of your humdrum life, to look out across the landscape, and seek the moments where you might infuse your own cockeyed brand of dorothy day’s little kindness, little strength, little courage.

this bedraggled world needs every bold (but little) drop.

where will you begin?

make it stop. please, make it stop.

my voice is only one whisper. my fingers, just one at a time, tap along the rows of these keys without sound. but the lump in my throat is ready to burst. and my heart is too.

stop the ugliness, world. stop the hate. stop the made-up lies and the mudslinging. tear yourself away from the impulse to tromp on the neck of the one you perceive as your enemy.

doesn’t need to be this way. doesn’t need to be a national throw-em-to-the-lions.

the world doesn’t need to wake up every morning searching for the ugliest route to the trail head.

there are moments, plenty of ’em, when i picture myself marching to the steps of the u.s. capitol, unfurling a parchment, invoking a code of radical decency, insisting the ugliness cease and cease now. oh, what i’d give to back some of these fools into a corner, to poke em on the chest, look em in the eye, and ask if really, really, they want to expend their God-given breath on slicing and dicing each other to bits, trampling truth, teaching children the ways of the playground bully.

i got sick of bullies back in first grade. never outgrew my distaste.

all these months i’ve retreated deeper and deeper into a realm where the rules of the world are not the ones with discernible weight. i dwell much of the time in a monastery of my own making. it’s quieter there. and gentler. i take time for the monarch butterfly, leave out saucers of sugar water, scatter seeds for the milkweed that makes for a butterfly landing pad.

in the quietude i wrap all around me, the rules i live by are the ones of an otherworldly iconoclast. the code is the one inscribed by a God who asks only one thing: love without end. love as you would be loved, love every last inch and ounce of creation. behold the wonder. of each other. of the monarch. and the dawn. and every last shimmering light in the night sky.

and, sometimes, to love means to put breath to the words that are stuck in your throat. to march to the capitol steps, to reach for the microphone, to try with every ounce of your might to shake sense into the senseless. the ones dizzy with power, or the pursuit thereof. it’s a sickness and it needs to stop. it’s as contagious, it seems — and as deadly — as this invisible virus, the plague that’s upon us. maybe more so. maybe it’s worse.

because once upon a time i was a nurse, because i’ve stood at the side of a hospital bed in the hours just before a last breath was drawn, i know something of deathbed confessions. i know how, at last, the veils of the everyday are pulled away, and what’s left is the essence. holy essence. how the sins and the glories float to the surface. how one last sweep of the soul, of a lifetime, is what carries us off to whatever comes next.

our time here is fleeting. do the ones breathing fire and lies, do they really want to fritter away the hours allotted? is that churn in their belly the only way they know to crawl from their beds? is bitter the singular taste of the day?

the choice is quite simple: make of your life an instrument of peace, of goodness, of attainable holiness. or let it extinguish in smoke and in flames, in pride and deceit, in ugliness out-of-control.

we make our choice minute by minute, day after day.

what will you choose, world, what will you choose?

if you were writing a code of goodness, decency, and gentle kindness for the world, what would you inscribe? what would constitute breaking the law?

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