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Category: caretaking the world

bittersweet

bittersweet: the autumnal flame in the woods

in which we commence a summer’s reading…(there’s a stack of books on my desk, with titles from a british children’s classic, the little grey men, by someone named “b.b”., to the poems of jane kenyon, to a pair of books that mine the intersection of psyche and soul. i begin, curiously, there…)

what caught my eye was this:

bittersweet”: a tendency to states of longing, poignancy and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. the bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death––bitter and sweet––are forever paired. “days of honey, days of onion,” as an arabic proverb puts it. . . .to fully inhabit these dualities––the dark as well as the light––is, paradoxically, the only way to transcend them. and transcending them is the ultimate point. the bittersweet is about the desire for communion, the wish to go home.

it’s a passage from a book titled, bittersweet: how sorrow and longing make us whole, and it’s by a writer i’ve never before read. her name is susan cain, a lawyer-turned-author, who, in 2012, wrote a best-seller titled quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. susan cain seems to be sliding my deepest truest traits under her magnifying lens. i likely never would have bumped into her, except that her work caught the eye of maria popova, the cultural critic and genius behind the marginalian, a weekly e-compendium of esoterica and wonder, whose work always catches my eye. 

bittersweet.

i’ve never put that name to how i am in the world. bittersweet: it’s a beautiful name, the name of an autumnal berry, persimmon in color, that has appeared to me on a trail up ahead as if the woods were aflame. but i’ve not pinned it to a way of being, of seeing, of sensing. and yet it fits as if it’s the long-missing piece to the jigsaw that is me. 

i might define or describe it as living with a profound antenna to the pains––and the beauties––in the world, and longing to heal or to salve or to simply be present. fully present. because you realize the beautiful is out there, is possible, and you think that if you reach far enough, work hard enough, imagine the whole of it, you just might bring it to life, the beautiful you believe in. 

and when, for one reason or another, you can’t, it can be crushing. 

the first time i got a sense that i might be wired in what i might now recognize as a bittersweet way was all the way back in first grade when mrs. leslie, my unforgettable teacher with the “eyes in the back of her head” (so she told us), called me to her desk just before lunchtime one day, and asked me to stay in from recess, along with david pugliese, a classmate who, it turned out, had a brain tumor, back when brain tumors in children had no possible cure. so david and i stayed in the classroom while everyone else ran out to play. for 59 years now, i’ve thought of david pugliese and how very unfair it was that he had to have a tumor in his beautiful, soft-spoken brain. i remember quietly playing games in that quiet classroom while the shrieks and the shouts from the playground seeped in from the underside of the door, day after day for as long as david was there. every time i think of david, my heart hurts. all these decades later.

bittersweet: perceiving pains and longing to fix them. because you believe in the beautiful, the sacred, the whole. 

it’s not the same as being shadow-souled, which is another name for depressed. though the bittersweet among us can feel the weight of too many worries. and we can be accused of being depressed. our hours of silence might easily be mistaken for something other than turning deep into our worries about the world, or someones we love, or someones we just barely know. sometimes we slip so deeply into the heartache of someone else’s agonies we can’t escape the weight of it. 

i’ve long known that deep sorrows pulse through me. a short list of bittersweet clues might be these (cain’s book has a checklist for gauging your level of bittersweetness): i know i love a foggy day, and the mournful cry of the geese veeing across the sky. i know the interplay of shadow against sunlight is where my eye always falls; it’s textural, it’s nuanced, it draws my deepest attention.

maybe yours too.

(cain diagnosed me [and you, if you sense a shared sensibility here]: “a true connoisseur of the places where light and dark meet.”)

i am equally awake to what’s beautiful, what’s tender, sometimes piercingly so. it’s a perpetual tug down there in my heart and my soul, where sometimes the rope starts to fray.

i’ve been told since i was little that i should remember to see the glass as half-full, celebrate sunshine, sing to the rain clouds to make them go away. i remember the quiz i once found in the pages of a newspaper, and how i filled in the answers and found out, according to the quizlet, i ranked among those with “low-grade depression.” i remember once writing (here on the chair) about how, in the discordant minor-key wail of a lone goose’s night cry, i heard the echo of my own unbound sorrow in the days and weeks after my firstborn went off to college, and i remember how someone i loved called to scold me after reading my words, to tell me that i should feel blessed, not on the precipice of perpetual tears. and, by the way, he added, i might want to check in with a therapist. 

and, yes, keeping close watch on the news of the world, and where the world shatters, i feel my heart shattering too. i’ve long known that empathy is a double-edged gift, and one that i’d never surrender. i know that it hurts––sometimes unbearably so––to slip into the shoes or the soul of someone who’s aching, who’s broken, or limping, or shattered. i know i sometimes wear it too heavily, and that it pushes me into long hours of quiet.

but i’ve never fully considered how that pierced sense of the heart might also be the very pulse beat that propels the push toward the good, toward that which heals, toward that which reaches for communion of the empathetic kind. i’ve never before seen it against a truth found in this line from middlemarch, george eliot’s epic 19th-century novel:

“…by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”

“widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” now there’s an assignment.

nor have i ever framed it in the way of Gregory the Great, the bishop of rome in the late-sixth and early-seventh century, who spoke about “compunctio, the holy pain, the grief somebody feels when faced with that which is most beautiful,” as described by Owe Wikström, a swedish professor of the psychology of religion. “the bittersweet experience stems from human homelessness in an imperfect world, human consciousness of, and at the same time, a desire for, perfection. this inner spiritual void becomes painfully real when faced with beauty. there, between the lost and the desired, the holy tears are formed.”

“between the lost and the desired, the holy tears are formed…”

this world we’re yearning for, cain writes, is present in all world religions: in the judeo-christian realm, it’s the Garden of Eden or the Kingdom of Heaven; sufis call it the Beloved of the Soul. c. s. lewis called it “the place where all the beauty came from.”

buddhists teach that we might aim “to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” 

just the other day, at a celebration of 20 years of OnBeing, krista tippett closed the proceedings with a call for joy-seeking even in this broken world. imperative joy, i immediately coined it. not mamby-pamby cheery whistling-in-the-dark, but honestly, authentically (to borrow the word from contemporary psychobabble), set out to plot a map of barely noticeable, utterly quixotic joys each and every day. (that’s a thought hole to burrow in some other day, though it wouldn’t hurt––especially now––to begin to seek joy in this epoch of considerable shadow.)

an old hasidic tale, one cain tells in her book, has it that a rabbi noticed an old man in his congregation seemed indifferent to any talk of the divine. so the rabbi hummed a poignant melody, a song of yearning. “now i understand what you wish to teach,” said the old man. “i feel an intense longing to be united with the Lord.” it’s in the minor-key chords, the song of the heart crying, that some of us hear most perceptibly.

naomi shihab nye once wrote: “before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” 

maybe that’s the beautiful secret of the bittersweet, a condition, a way of being i am only just beginning to deeply consider, after a lifetime of intensely feeling the sorrows that swirl ever and always. and just as intensely believing the beautiful is shimmering somewhere within our holiest reach.

it’s the start of my summer’s reading, and it seems a choice place to begin….

what’s on your summer reading list? or your bittersweet thoughts?

victorian engraving of bittersweet and wild chicory

empty nest

once the adrenaline died down, more fire-hydrant surge than all-out combat, once i paused my pounding on the window, realized how close i’d come to thrusting my fist right through the glass, shattering and bleeding sure to pre-empt the rescue i’d attempted, once i took a breath, my first impulse was to think maybe i’d jinxed it.

it must be my fault for letting out their secret. maybe i shouldn’t have extolled the wonders of the nest right before my eyes.

here’s what happened: mama and i were, as we’d been for weeks, co-existing peacefully, she on her side of the glass, blanketing her babies in her downy feathers, me tap-tapping away here on the word-churn machine. it was late saturday afternoon, just one short day and a half after i’d spun the tale of how mama cardinal and i were expectantly working toward our deadlines: mine, a book in the making; hers, a clutch of eggs.

she’d been on the nest 15 days and counting. i delighted at the way she punctuated our shared workspace –– seemingly out of the blue –– by belting out an abbreviated string of song, as if she’d suddenly been overcome by the jubilance of nesting. any day now, i would have heard the wee peep-peep-peeps of nestlings, seen the blur of pointy beaks thrusting skyward for an airdrop of worm.

but then, at nearly six o’clock that fateful evening, without so much as a peep of warning, in those final hours of what eliot so rightly termed “the cruellest month,” there suddenly arose from the bushes such squawking as i’ve never heard. i turned and saw furiously flapping wings — mama and papa both, each on separate branches of the ordinary evergreen that for two weeks now had been the nursery for their nest, the closest i had ever come to northern cardinal observation deck, a broodling in the works. while the two of them squawked and flapped, i noticed the third player in this late-breaking drama. it was furry, brown, and little. its stripe down the back gave it away: a chipmunk. a very hungry and extremely nasty chipmunk, if you don’t mind my editorializing. i leapt into life-guard mode, pounded hard as i could pound from my side of the glass. gave a holler to my own mother, ensconced in her armchair in the other room. as if she could help me here in dire land. at first my pounding seemed to confound the furry one, he turned down the branch, as if in exit. but then, he must have had a second thought, for up he turned, and scampered head-first into the nest. oh, dear god, such horror i’ve not witnessed. this was full-tilt assault. this was nature at its cruelest. and i stood witness. after plumbing the hollow of the nest, the hungry varmint turned and ran. i couldn’t swear to what i saw, but it would not be wrong to think i saw him clutching something in his mouth.

poor mama sat there flapping. her squawks slowing but not quieting. she circled the branch a few lonely times and then resumed her post. we both tried to catch our breath. i tried to convince myself that all was not lost, perhaps the casualty count was one and only one. and, besides, mama stood her post straight through to nightfall, never once lifting her belly from what she surely must be guarding with her life. only then, when darkness eclipsed my keeping watch, did i surrender too; turned off my desk lamp, whispered benediction, and tiptoed off, unsure of what the dark would bring.

alas, when dawn came, i threw off my blankets and hurried down the stairs. no mama. i’d thought i heard a muffled squawk not too too long after dark. i now presume the furry thing returned, finished the deed. the dastardly, dastardly deed.

and so, the nest is empty. quite literally as i have just now hauled a step ladder out the door and, clinging for dear life, i climbed and pulled back branches, and indeed there is not a sign of life. just the artistry of their construction, right down to the shiny cellophane they might have thought to employ as something of a rain guard, what with all the rainy weeks of april.

turns out, the cardinals never had more than a one in three chance at making it out of the nest. despite their predilection for deeply tucking away their vernal constructions — remnants of a summer past, a bricolage of bits, dried grasses, thread-thin sticks, that cellophane wrapper perhaps from someone’s pack of cigarettes — the northern cardinal ranks near the sorry cellar of the nesting-survival charts, a long tumble down from the ash-throated flycatcher who scores the highest chance of flying from the nest, with seven of ten baby flycatchers flying. only the lowly house sparrow (11 percent chance) and the european starling (16 percent) fare worse than the red birds, and both sparrow and starling are invaders, anyway, non-native species snuck in as unintended cargo on some north america-bound vessel.

it hurt to sit here the first few days, the silence pounding in my ear. the absence of mama’s brown and red tail feathers protruding from the tuft of evergreen in which she so adeptly hid her nest.

and then i started to consider my own empty nest, a consideration that comes, of course, as mothering day approaches. i think as much now about mothering as i ever have. though it consumes fewer hours of my focus, and fewer drives hither and yon, my fascination only deepens. i think often of how rare — how blessed — it is to know so fluently the whole makings of any life, let alone these two i love so dearly. day by day, it seems, the adventures pick up pace. the twists and turns in their narratives expand my own sense of being alive, being witness to lives unfurling each according to his own storyline. from my perch here at the old homestead, where i am reliably on watch and ever present, i follow two young men carving out paths that couldn’t be more different and yet entwine in ways that make me see the shared origins loud and clear and undeniably. the little boy who once could stare at a tv screen for interminably long times, he is carving out a path to be the very voices, the very storytellers, he once listened to. and the one who once set up an easel in the living room, encircled the room with every stuffed critter from his toy box, donned suspenders and necktie, scooped up a clutch of alphabet letters, and commenced a lecture on the fine points of S-U-M and Q, he looks toward a life in lecture halls filled with legal scholars in the making. let the record show it was snoopy who got first crack at his fledgling professorial skills.

my job here — simply loving through and through — will never ever be done. they might not need me (not so often anyway) to rouse them from their slumbers, to ferry them to the school house door, to shiver on their sidelines, but i’ve come to understand that my unique brand of loving means i’ll never find a way to lay aside aside my worries and my sometimes overly rambunctious fears. the phone calls these days are farther in between, the texts often unanswered, but my contemplations and my prayers deepen by the month. i’ve started worrying in a whole new way about this world we’re leaving to their keeping. i once held out hope that they could right our many, many wrongs. but now i wonder if we’re too far gone, this world so broken in so many places.

i look to mama bird, and her now hollowed nest. there is stunned silence out my window. no flicker of a sighting of mama now at it once again. she makes me think hard about the seasons of mothering, how some are full to bursting, and others pulse with a kind of aching, a sorrow for the hours out of reach, a longing for the more tactile days when every flinch and whimper was within our watch. her empty nest makes me think hard about the one i call my own, at once emptier and fuller than i can sometimes truly comprehend.

no wonder mothering never ever loosens its holy grip on me.

may your motherings be ever blessed, in whatever ways you love and hold those you count as your dearest rarest treasures.

now empty…

exercise in empathy, another name for prayer

A screenshot of a video released by the Ukrainian Police Department Press Service of military helicopters, apparently Russian, flying over the outskirts of Kyiv, February 24, 2022 

can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams? 

can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?

can you imagine? 

can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off? 

can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border? 

can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?

can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?

imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell. 

imagining is the birthing ground of empathy. 

and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer. 

empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.

empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.

truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.

but it’s the place to begin.

and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh? 

don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders? 

isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.

imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.

we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?

it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.

it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.

i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.

***

i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

–Ellen Bass

how did you learn to pray?

a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.

p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….

the kindness project

tagging the word “project” onto just about anything takes it up a notch. makes it sound more determined. not some sloppy mess off in the corner. and so it is that my firstborn and i seem to have stumbled onto a “project,” though he’s the chief engineer and i am merely its occasional scribe.

it was birthed–for me, anyway–in the bowels of manhattan, underground, in the glare of fluorescence that lights up the 23rd street subway station. we were dashing from the bone-trembling cold of madison square park where we’d just been soaking in the opening of hugh hayden’s “brier patch,” a sculptural installation of 100 school desks and tangled tree limbs that speaks, among many things, to educational disparities and injustices (and is just plain beautiful), and that was curated by the glorious woman my husband calls his one and only sister. despite the fact that each of my limbs could not stop shaking from the cold, i will never forget watching her–against the golden halo of the lamp light–as i thought of the mother, the father, and the grandmother who had so profoundly shaped her. tears were falling as i imagined them watching her there in the cold january night, a crowd assembled to listen to her every astute word, to witness her latest public art offering to the metropolis that is manhattan.

hugh hayden’s “brier patch” madison square park conservancy

but back to the kindness project. having scrambled to the bottom of the long flight of subway station stairs, i paused and took in the whole of the whirl of the thousands of lives momentarily all in the very same place at the very same time. i couldn’t help imagining the stories, the struggles, the sufferings, etched into the faces that ran past me, that leapt into train cars that whisked down the tunnels, disappearing into the darkness.

i felt the thrum of humanity at its most percussive pulse point. we were all in this together–whatever “this” is, whatever “this” brings us. and, at the moment, the world is a tough place to inhabit. reports come in from all corners: of wars on the brink, of political revenge, of ugly words rising in senate chambers (and uglier ones spilled in cloakrooms and hallways).

if kindness is antidote to madness, if there lies a paradigm beyond the worldly one of spite and retributions, one where the gospel of empathy reigns, where we’re guided by a command to love as we would be loved, maybe that’s where the healing begins. maybe that’s where we find our salvation. maybe it cloaks us against the cold, maybe it’s how we the people stand one slim chance of turning our backs on all that we find so wretched, so deeply unjust, so just plain vulgar.

maybe we get about the business of seeking living breathing moments of goodness. of nothing less than simple decency, looking out for the stranger, offering hope to the hopeless. maybe, if we pay enough attention, if we gather those moments of kindness like beads on a prayer string, we might begin to gather momentum, to put forth and build a force that just might put a dent in what some days feels like a tidal wave of the ugly.

more and more over the last stretch of years, i’ve found myself pulled deeper and deeper into the realm of the sacred Divine as the world around has gotten more and more vile. to hear the call of a voice eternal and True is to begin to drown out the shouts from the ugliest corners. it’s where and how i find my peace.

and it’s a project worth tallying. a count worth keeping.

and so, on that cold january night, there on the 4 train as it threaded through tunnels, the kindness project catalogued its first unmistakable display: a fellow hunched like a comma on his hard plastic train seat was muttering to himself, when he happened to glance up and i–hanging onto a subway car pole–happened to glance down. this, apparently, was enough to offend, so he let me have it, with a spew of expletives that grew increasingly incensed. at that very moment a woman whose accent gave away her caribbean roots, pointedly tapped hard against the metal subway-car door against which she leaned, and inched herself just enough to make safe harbor for me. with little more than the tap of her finger, and the insistence in her eyes, she’d signaled loud and clear that she was having nothing of the old man’s vitriol and she was keeping me from any harm. the moment passed, the animosity diffused, and i was washed over in the blessing of stranger caring for stranger. i nearly reached out to squeeze her by the arm, a wordless expression of infinite gratitude, but i refrained, not wanting my gesture to be mistaken for any form of crossing the line.

and for the next string of days, as my firstborn and i made our way through the winding lanes of lower lower manhattan, as we fell into joyful conversation with the checker at the grocery, or the lady behind the counter at the lamp repair shop, there grew the sense that we were onto something. new york, new york, is not known widely as the capital of nice, and yet it seems to brim with hardscrabble kindness. and it’s nothing short of miraculous, to find those glimmering shards of straight-up goodness––humanity at its best––among the art-deco towers and the deeply-shadowed corridors of capitalistic commerce.

my firstborn, blessed soul that he is, is all in on the project. called me last night to report his latest finds; in an uzbek barber, and an orthodox watch repairman, in the old wrinkled man behind the counter of a chinese general store, where he found himself invited for new year’s.

the plan is to keep watch, and keep note (tapped out on his phone, or inked into one of his many moleskin notebooks). in a city that never sleeps, in a city not known for tender loving plenitude, take census of kindness and allow its superpowers to alter the landscape.

it’s a mission i’m taking up here, in the heart of the heartland.

one by one, little by little, one act of golden good kindness at a time, we are building a fortress to keep out the ugly, the vile, the deeply unkind.

and, besides, it makes for a million fine yarns.

as i wrote in a note to my firstborn just this morning: “it seems one of our holy tasks is to see the sacred sparks all around, in the souls of kindness you are finding in watch repair shops and chinese general stores. keep at it. the work is never done.” 

would you care to join us? record your findings here.

the tall skinny tower with the beacon on top is home to the sweet boy i so dearly love…

i’m home from my blessed string of six days in new york, unpacking 89 boxes and making a nest for someone i dearly dearly love (my firstborn) on the 34th floor of a grand old art-deco tower at the bottom tip of manhattan. i miss both my boys madly (the other one is back at college), as i’m now home in the quietest of old houses, but i revel in knowing our home-grown law clerk has fallen instantly in love with the place he’s now calling home. while away, i got double whammies of awful bad news from two of my oldest dearest friends in the whole wide world, and i’d so welcome a prayer or two if you’ve a spare: one beloved friend found out she’s up against breast cancer (a second time), and another called to tell me her little sister’s cancer has crept to her brain. life sure is cruel. but as my friend with the very sick sister put it so starkly eloquently, “this is life, it’s full of suffering and ours to endure. our job is to do it with grace.”

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