that first Christmas, the one that for millennia we have gazed upon, meditated over, infused into our sugar-spun dreams, was as stripped-down as the ones perhaps unfurling under our own roofs this year.
there was no garland, only straw. no sparkly tree, only the boughs of whatever bush nestled against the flimsy walls of the barn. there were no carolers, only the lowing of the cow, and the clucking of the miserly hen who laid but one egg each dawn.
what was was a mother in labor, her anguished cries of birth echoed decades later in the anguish of beholding a necessary crucifixion, one ordained by the heavens. one that might have filled an earthly mother with undying rage. certainly the mother who types these words. but in the barn that inky night there was no rage, only cries that shattered pitch-black darkness, only cries of mother and, in time, the child.
what was was the bloody birth, the newborn soaked in waters of the womb.
what was was the gaze, eternal gaze, between mother and child, mother and the face of God. does not every mother see the face of God in the one pushed from her womb? in the one she calls her own, no matter how the child comes?
and so this Christmas, when all else is stripped away, when there are empty chairs at the table, when the oven holds less than half its usual Yuletide feast, when our arms cannot reach round the shoulders of those we love, when we cannot feel another’s heartbeat pressed against our own, we are flung into the whirl–the holy whirl–of empathies.
this is how Christmas feels to many. this is morning after morning when you awake to wanting.
and so my prayer this quiet Christmas is first and most for all those whose hearts ache, those who forage in the back alleys of this uncaring world, who go to sleep longing for a hand to hold in the hollow of the night, those who cry for justice from behind bars not of their own making.
my prayer is for those whose Christmas lullaby is the beep-beep-blip of some machine that keeps them alive.
my prayer is for the cold, cold of flesh and bone, and cold—so cold—of heart.
my prayer is for those whose gaze is washed with tears, stinging tears, all-alone tears, tears of please deliver me.
my prayer for each and all is that the blessedness of Christmas—the truth of newborn hope birthed after long hard labor, cradled heart against heart, entwined in love beyond measure from before first breath—my prayer is that the blessedness of Christmas settles deep inside the chambers of your soul, and that you look out upon a day, a world, in which radiance erupts through darkness, dawn after dawn. and all is holy, and holy is all.
merry blessed wonder of true Christmas.
a hundred blessings from here at the old maple table. sleep this year is in short supply, as we are spanning time zones from middle america to pacific northwest, filling the hours with as much Christmas as you can pack in itty-bitty phone lines. i wished for phones with smell last night, so my own firstborn–my heart’s pure joy–could inhale whatever was wafting from the oven. he said last night that he couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas without the scents of bread pudding–the cinnamon, the egg + milk, the chunks of orchard apple. nor could i. but here it is. and next Christmas, God willing, it will be all the sweeter for its absence here this morning.
may your day be blessed. how will you make Christmas, true Christmas, come true this year?
image above, way above, is Albrecht Dürer’s The Nativity, 1511; image below is our little Christmas tree: what happens when you’re the last one to the tree lot (cuz you couldn’t bear to buy a tree till all your loves were home, and you finally realized that wasn’t going to happen this year….)
in which i tell you a bit of the backstory of my next book, book No. 4, The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season, coming soon to a bookstore near you…
The call came just about a year ago. An editor I adored had dialed me up seemingly out of the blue. She had an idea: Our good friends at Abingdon Press had an itch to launch a small line of really beautiful gift books, the sorts of books you might tuck into the drawer of your bedside table, the sort you might leave in a nook where you often curl up for a long minute’s ponder. The sort of book you might stash in your glove compartment, or the cupholder next to your steering wheel, to steal a few minutes’ solace while idling in the after-school car line.
The wise and wonderful editor thought that maybe Slowing Time was the book with which to begin. Specifically, she wanted to draw from the winter sections of that long-ago very first book with my name on the cover — from Winter, Season of Deepening (basically Advent, the counting-toward-Christmas month of December), and Winter, Season of Stillness (the dawn of the newborn year, the quiet and cold months of January and February) —the sections that began and ended Slowing Time’s spiral through the wonder and astonishments of the year.
Would I be keen to nip and tuck, to add and subtract, to make something wholly new out of something already well-worn, its pages rubbed soft at the edges, its corners turned in, in that way that we mark a place to return to? Would I be willing to dive into winter all over again?
The answer was an unqualified and emphatic, Why, certainly!
So, as the nights grew longer last December and started to brighten minute by minute through January and February, long before anyone ever imagined the pandemic about to strike, about to change just about everything, I daydreamed and plotted all over again. Just what would I tuck into a field guide to winter’s often unwhispered wonders?
I settled on Stillness. I charted my way through the months by the sun and the moon and the stars in the heavens — by the solstice on the longest darkest night, and by Epiphany when the star shines brightly. I traced the stirrings in meadow and forest, and paid heed to the invisible but certain stirrings underground, deep within earth and within our very own quieting selves.
As is my capricious way, I jampacked wonderments of sacred contemplation and delighted in the kitchens of December, January and February. I paused to inhale snippets of poetry. And I counted out blessings for week after week, a calendar of meditative post-its, for each winter’s month.
The point is perhaps countercultural. It is, in my book, imperative: Dare to be still, dare so even in, especially in, December, when the world typically kicks into overdrive. And keep at it clear through to the first rumblings of vernal awakening. Relish January’s blessing of starting all over again, wiping clean our soulful slate, resetting our sights on the determined ascent. Consider the ways February calls us to reach beyond our solitude, beyond the walls of our very own hearts, to attend to the urgencies of those we love, and those we don’t even know — yet.
Last winter, deep in the making of Stillness, I didn’t know, in those long and glorious weeks of tapping away on my keyboard, that its October birthing — and this coming winter — would come on the heels of months of locked-down fear and worry and heartbreak. I didn’t know that we — the people of this holy Earth — would have been sequestered into a stillness that was not to our liking, one dictated by an invisible virus, one that’s barely understood even all these months later. I didn’t know how hungry we’d be for face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart connection.
And so the invitation now is more urgent than ever: Seek a stillness that draws you quietly, gently into your deepest self. Look more than ever for the small wonders that punctuate your every day. Make your own joy. Savor an Advent — or a Festival of Lights — that’s stripped of the crazy-making cacophonies. Kindle a flame, night after night. Awake in the first light of dawn. Cloak yourself in layers and layers of illumination, ones you stir on the stove, ones you pull from the bookshelves, ones you gather on a snow-laden walk through the woods.
The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season will tiptoe into the world in just a month, on Tuesday, October 6, to be precise. But I’m telling you first, because everything I write begins here, where some of the holiest stirrings of my life have been birthed.
I’m going to leave you a few little excerpts, and the peeks at the pages and cover above.
But first, one penultimate thing: my editor promised Stillness would be beautiful, and I am humbled to say that I do think it is. I was delighted to discover that Abingdon hired a brilliant book designer — Jeff Jansen is his name and, among other brilliant strokes, he’s the genius who designed a few wonders for best-selling author Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts.
I gasped the first time I saw the red bird perched on the red-berried bough on the all-white cover Jeff designed for Stillness, and once I turned the pages, spotted the hand-drawings of the fat-cheeked raccoon, the wily squirrels, the pine cones, the gingerbread babies and the bright shiny kettle, I swooned again and again. When the first finished copy landed with a plop on my doorstep a few weeks ago, my knees nearly buckled when I discovered they’d graced Stillness with that rarest of book-publishing graces: the sewn-in satin ribbon that might mark your travels through the season soon upon us, the season of stillness, and so many wonders awaiting.
Though the peddling part of book publishing is the part that breaks me out in hives, my publisher would be not too pleased if I failed to mention that you can pre-order Stillness now from your favorite indie bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Cokesbury, the sales arm of Abingdon. The marketing team already sent me custom-made bookplates, so in this age of virtual book signing and book tours, I can — and happily will — scribble a love note, sign it, date it, and send it off for you to affix to the title page, whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone you love. Just leave me a note, with instruction, and via email I can get your mailing address, and ship off your bookplate soon as your books arrive….
so now you know the story behind the pages of Stillness…
and now, a few little excerpts, one from each month…
*excerpt from “December: Sacred Invitation”:
December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world—or at least the northern half of the globe—in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral—paradoxical spiral—we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on—all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks—we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally—yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.
December is invitation. December is God whispering, Please. Come. Closer. Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg—finally—to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?
December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath: Make room in your heart this blessed December, make room where the birthing begins.
*excerpt from The January Kitchen (the section headnote plus the table of contents, which includes essays + recipes):
The January Kitchen:
As the curtain rises on the newborn year, we find ourselves tucking away tins, now emptied of all but the last sweet crumbs, vestige of merriment, of splurge upon splurge.
Hibernation—an old-fashioned word for hygge (that au courant Danish term for “cozy comforts”)—beckons. Which might be why depth of winter is the season that draws me closest to the cookstove. I practically purr puttering around the kitchen. All-day pots bubble away, lulling me into dreamy meditative fugues. Slow cooking, I’d wager, was made for snowy days, stay-inside days. Doughs rise. Wine-steeped stews simmer. Chowders thicken. Fruity compotes collapse into jewel-toned ooze. It’s all a plethora of stove- top seduction, as what you pitch into the pot gives way, a few hours in, to heat and spice and saintly patience. It’s kitchen adagio, the slow dance of surrender. And at the cookstove, trophies come dolloped on fork or soupspoon. Either way, you won’t want to dash too soon.
(The January Kitchen table of contents…only recipes listed here)
Elixir (Bread) Pudding
Cure-All Mac and Cheese
Beef Stew with Pomegranate Seeds, Nestled Beside Aromatic Rice
Winter Salad: Roasted Fennel, Red Onion, and Orange
*and, finally, a wee little bit from the Count-Your-Blessings Calendar for February…(just three of the fourteen included here…)
A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar
Fourteen Blessings for February
Here, fourteen blessings to wrap yourself in the end-of-winter’s hardest won gifts—peace, quiet, and the contentment that feels most like purring. Especially when you’re bursting to break out of February’s days upon days of dreary.
Blessing 1: The earth’s turning dollops one more minute of sunlight onto each February day. Ancient Celtic spirituality considered dawn and dusk especially permeable thresholds, “a time that is not a time,” when the sacred is more apt to seep through. Consecrate the sacred hour. Tiptoe outdoors once twilight deepens into darkness. Read the night sky. When you spy a twinkling star, whisper a prayer of infinite thanks for heaven’s lamplights.
Candlemas (Feb. 2): Amid the winter’s darkness, pause to consider the blessing of the candles, ordained to illuminate the hours. Fill your kitchen table, gathering a flock of orphan candlesticks. Adorn with winter branches and berries clinging to the bough.
Blessing 3: Behold the hush of snowfall. The flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow—when at last we take in breath, and hold it. Fill our empty lungs.
hmm, not sure what stirred me to write this whole meander with grown-up capital letters; perhaps the whisper to act like a real-live someone with her name on the cover of a book. anyway, i’m sure this is more than you ever wanted to know. but my dear mother has been asking for weeks and i’ve been sketchy with details, so this is — mostly — for her.
questions, comments, big giant thoughts? more aptly, do you shudder at the notion of winter, or do you — like me — relish the hygge months?
’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.
i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.
yorkshire pudding elves
before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).
i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.
i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.
this must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.
i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.
so for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).
i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.
here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.
Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith
By BARBARA MAHANY
CHICAGO TRIBUNE|DEC 24, 2019
In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)
It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.
Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.
Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.
“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.
Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.
A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.
Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.
That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.
Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”
And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.
He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”
Egan aimed high, and he reached it.
Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”
‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’
By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28
what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?
i know, because the calendar says so, that christmas is coming, christmas is truly upon us. christmas in my heart of hearts is that one whispered pause when i feel the whole world — the stars in the heavens, the murmur from the woods, even the hustle in the marketplace — swell up with the pulse of new birth. i imagine the whole world on its knees, holding its breath, bowed down to welcome the babe birthed in a tangle of straw in the dinge of a barn where sheep and cows and a goat, maybe even a brood of clucking hens, keep up their animal chorus. that’s the christmas i reach for, the one i make room for. the one where the quiet is soaked through with holy, the one where one flickering wick shatters the darkness of night.
only, up till this minute it’s been anything but calm and bright around here.
one kid is home with the freshman-year “crud,” a concoction of germs that has him wheezing and coughing and looking up symptoms of mono on the internet. he’s been writing papers all week, so we’ve mostly been making like we’re one big study hall, with lights on till the wee, wee hours, and fridges raided at two or three in the morning. the other kid is barreling toward his last law school exam of the semester, but he took a detour in an emergency room, and scared the living daylights out of me. (he’s fine; i’m the one still shaking off the “rattles.”) and then, because why not, i decided to have a double-dose (that’s back-to-back, as in two wretched days in a row) doctorly peek at the insides (aka not one but two colonoscopies) last week, and after night no. 2, when they made me drink four liters of drain-o, i thought i might die on the cold bathroom floor. meanwhile the so-called man of the house is trying to save a great american newspaper.
all of which is to say: we need a little christmas. and hanukkah too.
so, today it begins, today i begin to make room for the hallowed to come. i’m off to the butcher in a wee little bit to rustle up my six pounds of hanukkah beast. i’ll crank the oven and fill this old house with the incense that cannot be beat: clove and bayleaf and peppercorn, a splash of red wine, a jar or three of chili sauce, then hours and hours in a 325 oven. next up (soon as the soon-to-be lawyer steps off the plane midday tomorrow), it’s off to the tree yard, where we’ll stroll and peruse and put our critical architectural eye to good use; chances are we’ll snag the same old fraser fir we always seem to snag (one too fat and too tall, and more or less to everyone’s liking).
and then, soon, will come one of the holiest moments of the whole long year: i will be alone in my kitchen on christmas morn, and except for the hiss of the simmering spices on the stove and the old schoolhouse clock incessantly counting the minutes and hours, it will be so quiet i’ll hear the rustle of wings and the squawk of the jay out the window. it’ll be inky dark outside, the first crack of light infusing the eastern sky. a star or three might still be twinkling. and here comes the best part: i’ll know that one flight up the stairs and around the bed, two beds will be filled with the boys who will forever be my heart’s reasons for being.
i’ll remember that it all boils down to the simplest of blessings: as we rub the sleep from our eyes, see first thing the bed-wrinkled faces of the ones we so love, as we block out the noise of the world, inhale the long years of loving that brought us to this holy moment, all else will melt away. we will be wrapped in the true miracle of christmas, the love that’s guided us all along the way. the love learned well by paying attention. the love that began, once upon the ages ago, when a wee blessed babe let out a cry for all the earth, and the whole world listened.
i’ll remember: for christmas to come, i need to make room. need to clear out the noise, wrap my sweet soul in those few fine things that are everything: a love that won’t die, a light that can’t be extinguished, and a belief in the undying hope that peace might be just around the next bend, somehow always in reach.
and here’s a christmas-y gift for all of you, a poem from mary karr’s descending theology, that draws me deeply into that holiest first night:
Descending Theology: The Nativity Mary Karr
She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine
as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.
But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs
and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each
feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.
merry blessed Christmas, and happy hanukkah too. may your brisket be mouth-watering and your Christmas dawn be filled with overwhelming peace. xoxox
the shoes of the boys i love, the shoes i’ve always filled before dawn on the sixth of december, the feast of st. nick, those shoes are hundreds of miles away this dawn. likely lined up like straight-back soldiers in one’s law school apartment, and in a dorm room half as far away, i’m guessing they’re jumbled, strewn under a desk or a bed, or a sweatshirt and socks heaped on the floor.
to grow up in this old house was to wake up to foil-wrapped chocolates and oranges and surely a candy cane stuffed in the wide-open maw of your boot or your slipper or sneakers, a pair that grew by the year (all the more room for more chocolates), and always was left by the bedroom door on the night of the fifth.
i’ve always made as much of a folderol over this “little christmas” as i have over the one that’s gotten so noisy.
it’s the quiet moments of christmas, the unexpected kindnesses, the silence on a star-stitched night that stir the holy in me. i enter into the season in whispers. find myself pulled into tide pools of unspoken wonder. thrill like a kid with her nose pressed to the windowpane when i find myself face-to-face with the modern-day version of an elf. if you keep watch, and i’d advise that you do, there are elves all around.
this time of year i do make a list. a list of the out-of-the-blue elves and dollops of kindness that have plopped into my lap:
*the gas station owner who piled his tools into a cardboard box and drove me the three blocks to where my own car wouldn’t start, where he proceeded to ping and tap-tap-tap to try to get the key in the ignition to turn (it would not). he charged not a penny, and did the whole thing with a serious smile and multiple insistences that this was not at all out of his way. (on a sunday morning no less.)
*the college roommate from long, long ago who sent me a shoebox bursting with the itty-bittiest gingerbread babies, each one iced and strewn with cinnamon hearts, each one dangling from a skinny red thread she’d take the time to tie in a loop.
*my brother who’s driving almost two hours (each way) to the snow-covered storybook village where our freshman in college is just about to start his first round of finals. the plan (hatched in the spontaneous joy of the moment) is to fetch the kid after his last exam, bring him back to cleveland for a friday night’s feast and a snooze on an airbed, then tuck him onto a greyhound bus for the long ride home, where he’ll finish his papers in the cozy quiet of home.
*the extraordinarily kind fellow from the birdseed store who’s offered to swing by my house to reconfigure the bird feeders that have suddenly been taken hostage by one wily (and insatiable) squirrel.
my list isn’t done; it’s just getting started. but i know from years and years of paying attention that those catch-you-by-surprise, take-your-breath-away moments are the ones when the christmas seeps in.
it’s something like watching water whirl down a drain; it’s a force you can’t stop, it’s a force you can’t really see. but you feel it. you know it. the moment pulls you right in, a sinkhole of joy, of wonder, of can-you-believe-such-kindness-exists? and suddenly, deep down inside, you’re inside a snow globe of heaven on earth.
christmas comes in certain spoonfuls, best swallowed all along the way, through the quiet you carve out of the noise. by the time the day itself arrives, you’ll already have savored its coming.
merry christmas-is-coming, st. nick is here.
who are the elves on your list? what dollops of kindness have crept up and tapped you gently, certainly, at the core of your heart?
imagine, long before telescopes and science tomes, what must have rumbled through the minds of those keeping watch on the heavens. how a time came when each day was darker and darker. when the hours of midnight-blue-toward-black blanketed farther and wider across the landscape. imagine the terror it might have stirred. are we edging toward endless seamless darkness?
and then, one day, at the darkest hour, a stirring happened, a stillness barely noticed. the waxing darkness ceased, the light broke through, and day by day, minute by minute, there was more of it. ebb and flow. wax and wane. addition and subtraction. the arithmetic of heaven, earth, and all creation.
and into that cosmos of push and pull, the ones who felt the spirit, the ones who believed the heavens were stirred by the hand of the Creator, they infused the darkness with the Christmas story. they made this the time of year when the Great Scripture opened in Nativity. a babe was born. in quietest, cast-aside manger. it’s a narrative whose shining light begins on the margins, celebrates the marginal. it is in every way the antithesis of splendor. it’s a straw bed where the moans and cries of labor are punctuated with the mews and bellows of the barnyard flock. where sheep and ox kept time.
it is a story that turns everything — darkness, splendor — on its head. the holiest one is born in a barn. there’s no room at the inn, not even for the one who brings the light. it’s a tale whose tropes never ever fade. year after year, they permeate hope. year after year, the dark hours before the solstice serve to quiet us. draw us in. invite us to explore the unlocked chambers of our hearts, the ones we sometimes never notice.
i’ve come to wrap myself in the little-noticed threads of Christmas, the quiet threads. the ones lost in the folderol and rump-a-pum-pum. the Christmas i love is all but invisible. you can’t unwrap it. it unfolds all on its own, deep in the stillest places in my heart. i do everything i can to amplify the quiet. i tiptoe down the stairs earlier and earlier. i make a point of opening the back door and stepping into the dawn. i shlep my tin can of birdseed across the frozen grass, under star-stitched dome, and thrill to the spilling song of all that sunflower and safflower funneling into the feeder. i simmer orange peel and cinnamon stick, clove and bay leaf, star anise too; my kitchen’s incense, calling me to quiet prayer.
on mornings like this one, i listen for the muffled thud of three distinct footfalls. it’s a sound that now comes but once a year. it’s a sound that means three beds — not two — are filled in this old house. i want nothing more than the sound of those footsteps, and the long day’s cacophony that follows. i want the whispered conversations at the kitchen table. and the hilarious ones that might punctuate hours round the Christmas tree. i want the sleepy-eyed listening in on the words weaving back and forth between two boys who call themselves brothers, and live and breathe that alliance as if it’s forged in titanium. i want to feed them, and make them laugh. i want to reach across wherever it is we are sitting and squeeze the flesh of their now-grown hands. i want to catch the glimmer in their eye when we pull to a stoplight in the night, and the street lamps catch the animation i can’t see across the long-distance-telephone miles.
if Christmas is the time when radiant light breaks through winter’s darkest night, i want to wrap myself in all its threads. if Christmas is love born anew, if it’s quiet — as quiet as the first one truly was — then all i want for Christmas is what burns bright and still inside me. and my prayer then would be to hold that light, to carry it long beyond the Christmastide. to animate my every day, to hold the stillness, the quiet, the kindled inextinguishable flame, and let its lumens fall across my winding path, illuminating my every hour.
for that, i beg the heavens. amen.
may your Christmas be blessed, and as quiet or as rambunctious as you wish. may your solstice hour carry you across the threshold from dark to first inkling of light.
how do you make Christmas in the quiet of your blessed heart?
my christmas captured: two mugs, not one, awaiting morning’s coffee. my sweet boy’s home…and these mugs are invitation to a long morning’s reverie….
not so many years ago, my writing room at this time of year took on north-pole proportions: spools of ribbon, bags of this and that to slip inside other bags or boxes, layers and layers of tissue papers, itty-bitty cards. lists abounded. i was a walking-talking maker and checker of lists.
not so much these days. and not because i’m scrooge.
simply because the sanctity of stillness is what i’m after in this season of deepening darkness. i punctate the night — the shroud of black that grows with every passing whirl around the sun — with my litany of sacramental simplicities.
the dawn is longer, blessedly, giving me more time to stitch those hours with the fine few invitations to bring in what’s hushed, what’s holy. i scoop my old tin coffee can with fat black seed, slide my toes into clunky boots, my arms in puffy sleeves. as the shock of morning cold splashes up against me, i fill my lungs with one quick gulp. then i march across the frozen stiff blades of grass, the mud that’s now succumbed into icy form, and perk my ears to hear the flutter of a wing, the rustling of a bough. i pause to scan the heavens, count the stars, spy the fraction of the moon. i’ve written a thousand times of how i make like i’m a farmer filling my trough, as i pour the seed in the feeder high above my head, stretching my arm far as it will stretch, raising up on tippy-toes, too. i’ve come to realize that the rush of pouring seed must be a call to all the birds, akin to “coffee’s on, come and get it!”
on the stillest mornings, the holiest ones, a cardinal or a junco might flutter in before i’ve stepped away. as if the gentle creature knows we’re in communion here.
perhaps i’ve learned, in my years — now three decades — of braiding jewish threads with catholic ones, to sanctify time, even more than place. abraham joshua heschel, whom i count among my constellation of north stars, writes: “judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” he goes on to draw out that point: “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the romans nor the germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate…”
point, well taken. point, deeply taken.
i consecrate the holy hours — the ones of dawn and dusk and deepest night.
and so, this season is no longer a mad dash, but a countercultural adventure in stitching in stillness. in simply kindling light, one by one, an arithmetic of brightening, night after night, as both menorah and advent wreath burn against the darkness. our house is not filled with shiny boxes. santa’s list is not an annual exercise in accumulation. hanukkah at our house is brisket + latkes + jelly-filled donuts on the first night, candles and dreidels each night after that.
year by year, i dial down the noise, and amplify the hush that ushers in the stillness.
the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads….
and downstairs, in the inky edge of night, the mama, tapping away at her keyboard, heard a sigh go up from her heart: the one thing she wanted for Christmas, beds filled with sleeping lumps, and the souls who animate those lumps, they were all there.
indeed, the floors of those sleeping rooms, they are strewn with piles of things not normally there, and the fridge seems to have been attached to an invisible magnet, one that sucks out all the contents on a near hourly basis. juice that i swore was just there is now nowhere in sight, only a bottle drained of all but a sip (why does no one ever dare to take the very last sip?) perched on the shelf, lonely and wanting.
i can’t yet claim hours of conversation, for those unspool only in my imagination. the fact of the matter is that the so-called legal scholar (aka kid who just finished his first semester of law school and the mega exams entailed), he is sleeping as if there’s no tomorrow (and no daylight worth knowing). why, i think he’s been zapped with a wand that makes him allergic to daylight, curled up like a ball till the sun sets, then rising and hungry for breakfast. and then, without pause, lunch, followed by dinner….and into the night. (see paragraph above, the one referring to refrigerator magnet).
the little one (aka high schooler, who likely doesn’t take too kindly to being called “little” anymore, so let us anoint him “kid brother”), he is just wrapping up his last days of school for the calendar year, yet to partake of the hibernation behavior, though i fear it’s just around the bend.
thus, i might well need to own up to the reality here, and dash away all these visions of bonbons passed around the keeping room, while the logs crackle in the hearth, and i in my kerchief sate my hungers with hours and hours of huddled merriment.
so far, it’s been me alone in the kitchen, baking up a storm for a whole phalanx of teachers and friends up and down the block. oh, and there’s the last-minute clicking for Christmas, that early-21st-century ritual in which one scrolls the pages of amazon prime for just the right gift to arrive, yea, in the St. Nick of time (all because no one remembered to churn out their Christmasy wish list till you got on your knees and begged).
despite the aforementioned obstacles and roadblocks to poetic visions, still it seems that Christmas has seeped in through the cracks.
my heart is filled with the swirl of hopes and dreams and wishes that annually descend. i want so very little. just that rare touch of magic to remind me that we’ve something to do with the magic-making in our wee little lives. ours is the heart with the dial we can turn. we can go quiet, go deep. or we can be distracted, knocked off our course. we can get stuck in the ditch. throw up our hands in surrender. or we can quietly, decidedly, stitch our days with those rare few things that point us toward the heavenly pin lights, that open our ears to the morning song of the red bird, and the haunting cry of the owl in the night.
Christmas, indeed, comes most deeply in the cavernous vessel, the heart, where once we launched our long-ago wishes, and now we kindle wisps of dreams come tumbling true. it’s the room that is ours alone, the place where we stash our hopes and our prayers. it’s the quiet place, the place that sometimes can go still enough that we hear the sacred whisper. the one that births love. the one that puts breath to holy murmur.
Christmas, when we truly still and truly partake of the silence, it’s as close as i come to tiptoeing into the manger, huddling off to the side, beholding the newborn babe, the mother who cradles him, the carpenter and the shepherds who stand guard, and the heavenly light that illuminates all.
and that’s the magic i yearn for in the deepest heart of Christmas.
merry blessed Christmas. may your holy night be filled with deep still silence, deep enough to stir your prayers, and fill your soul with heavenly hope.
what’s on your wishlist this Christmas?
and, before i go, a few books for the soul, Yuletide or otherwise….(pasted below, in case you’re too tired to click on over….)
New reads bearing Yuletide joy
By Barbara Mahany/Chicago Tribune
The assignment, “pluck books that stir the soul, and tell us how they do so,” is one that only gets richer, the bookshelves more crowded. And yet, the very definition of the soul — ineffable, always — is ever shifting. Certainly, it’s the catch-basin for all that’s sacred, a place of countless entry points. Vladimir Nabokov once instructed that “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there,” he wrote, “that occurs the telltale tingle.”
For Christmas, here’s a special installment of our regular roundup of spiritual books.
“Joy: 100 Poems,” edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University, 232 pages, $25
Amid the darkness of this season — nay, this moment in history — this book of poems is certainly prescriptive, the antidote to deepening psychic ails. As the soul, perhaps, is gasping for breath, along comes Christian Wiman to settle us down for a tutorial in joy.
Wiman, best known for meditations on mortality (“My Bright Abyss”), once editor of Poetry magazine, and now professor of the practice of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is not one to come lazily or loosely to so imperative a subject.
Wiman’s own history of mortal sufferings — diagnosed at 39 with a rare, painful and incurable cancer — makes him a sharp-eyed explorer, on vigilant watch for those shimmering shards of joy along the circuitous climb.
In this anthology of poetry and prose drawn from the 20th century until now, Wiman asks what joy is. Rather than laying down a solid definition, he provides proof of joy’s existence in poems that offer that jolt of knowing: Joy is here. And here. And here.
Often, joy limns the border of spiritual ecstasy, and so the poetry here weaves from secular to sacred. The ordinary — pond frogs in song at dusk, the peeling of a grapefruit, a beloved poised at the kitchen sink — erupts into the extraordinary.
In an introduction worthy of memorization, Wiman writes: “Joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone.”
“Christmas: A Biography” by Judith Flanders, Dunne, 256 pages, $24.99
Biographies of inanimate objects — or is a holiday animate, especially one so exploited by commercial pressures? — pique particular interest. And so, with the season in full overdrive, British journalist and social historian Judith Flanders has published “Christmas: A Biography,” an encyclopedic exploration that drills down on the Victorian period and mines the centuries to trace the roots of Yuletide tradition, tossing in ample dollops of esoterica along the way. (St. Francis of Assisi is credited with building the first Christmas stable, complete with manger, ox and ass, in 1223; the first decorated indoor tree appears in 1605 in Strasbourg, France.)
While born of Roman and pagan roots, it didn’t take long for Christmas to find firm anchor in religion. And though its secular underpinnings are indisputable, Flanders — and much of history — comes to this conclusion: “Whatever was happening in the world that was wrong … Christmas would bring it to a halt for a period of peace and companionship.”
Christmas, Flanders writes, offers a wonderful “illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past … while unconsciously omitting the less desirable parts of those times.”
Amid this many-chaptered history, deep in the consideration of Christmas, its historical and societal implications, there arises a sharp-edged silhouette of its quieter sacred pull. As so often happens when confronting truths, the chaff falls away, and we are left seeing more clearly what is worth holding onto.
“Here We Are” by Oliver Jeffers, Philomel, 48 pages, $19.99
Imagine the father of a newborn child, bent over his drawing table, putting words and color to the page, explaining to his infant son, through the medium he knows best, the ways of the globe on which the babe has just arrived. A manifesto, really, laying out the few fine things the father believes in: kindness, tolerance, care for the planet.
Now, imagine that father is a deeply beloved children’s book author and illustrator. “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” is in fact the latest treasure from Oliver Jeffers, the Belfast-bred creator of the best-seller “The Day the Crayons Quit.”
Something of a user’s guide to being alive and to life on Earth, Jeffers brilliantly uses pen and paintbrush to explore profound and puzzling questions, establishing straight off that the wisdom imparted here is wisdom for us all. You needn’t be a tot to profit from a gentle nudge like this one: “(U)se your time well. It will be gone before you know it.”
Or this, on a purple-soaked page depicting Earth amid the stars, a page that rightly situates our teeny dot against a vast universe: “It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us on here (7,327,450,667 and counting) so be kind. There is enough for everyone.”
Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in April.
this is the month, they tell us, of miracles. “a miracle happened here.” so say the hanukkah refrains. it’s the month, too, of searching for a room, searching for room in your heart. so say the stories of christmas.
amid the month of darkness, miracles await in the nooks and the crannies. amid the month of december, there’s searching to do. deep-down searching.
here’s a secret: sometimes, you’re wise to approach the days with a deep-down quiet. that’s how you come to hear the whispers, and the cries that haven’t the oomph to rise to deafening decibels. that’s how you just might stumble into a miracle, sometimes find room in the cave of your heart.
the three, it seems, belong together: the quiet, the miracle, the room.
december for plenty of folks is a month of tight passages, and tangled adventures in forward motion. december is a month that grabs some by the ankles, tugs at them, tries to topple them, steepens the climb.
december, when you turn down the noise, unspool the days in whispers, tiptoe rather than race, is when you just might hear the scratch at the door of your heart. you are awake to the muffled cries that come in from the cold. and, often, that’s how you find yourself in the company of miracles, and discover a few extra inches in the capacity of your heart.
in recent days, i’ve tumbled into one or two souls in shadow. souls who couldn’t for the life of them see the light. certainly not their own. i wonder if i’d been racing through the days, a list of to-do’s blaring in my ears, if i would have heard quite how deeply they were hurting.
thank God, i heard.
i paused. i took a breath. shoved aside what the day had intended for me to do. instead, i climbed into the trench where each one found him or herself. i sidled up beside the soul in shadow; i said little. i spoke in actions. because sometimes only in doing can we really truly speak. i made breakfast, plopped it on a tray, ferried it to the someone whose soul was hurting. i unfurled blankets, and we sat side-by-side. i listened, all day.
the magic of loving is this: it works both ways at once. have you ever noticed that in your moments of deeply loving, as you lavish kindness and gentleness, as you exercise dashes of creativity to give your love some oomph, your own heart is growing right alongside the one you’re working so hard to love?
tonight a friend i love is coming for dinner. she’s a friend whose world has shrunk quite dramatically of late. the moment i imagined inviting her for dinner, imagined the candles i’d light, the napkins i’d lay out, imagined the plates piled with deliciousness, imagined the hours of uninterrupted conversation, i felt my own heart grow.
it is in giving love that we find it. that’s neither radical or new. it’s an old recycled truth. but when we live it, especially in the month of december, month of darkness and miracle and making room inside our hearts, it takes on a radiance all its own.
i’ll kindle lights tonight. i’ll aim to kindle light each and every day. i’ll keep my ears tuned for whispers and for cries. i’m making room. i’m tumbling into miracles.
those are the stories, the truths, of december, blessed holy month.
how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?
we mark time, this species Homo sapiens, to measure. to take measure. and so, in the gauzy moonlight of this cold december morning, i think back to that first dark morning, 11 years ago. when i awoke determined. uncharted, to be sure. the night before, a boy i love, a boy to whom i owe volumes of accumulated wisdoms and the double-size of my heart, that boy had been dilly-dallying, putting off homework, as he was wont to do. rather than attending to some eighth-grade math, he decided he’d build me a “website,” whatever that was, on my brand-new hand-me-up laptop (his old one bequeathed to me). i was only toe-deep into this endeavor until he asked me what its name might be, and as with so many of the fine things in life, the words popped out before i’d really had a moment to measure: “pull up a chair.”
i loved the notion, right away, the idea of wise souls and kindred spirits pulling up mismatched wooden chairs to the old scarred maple slab that is my kitchen table, one that holds the hieroglyphics of childhoods (my own amid a flock of five, and, now, my boys’, a pair), i loved the notion of a steamy kitchen, where the kettle always whistled, and the oven always cranked, and where the door was never locked. i loved the notion of putting out a few simple words each morning, words that served as telescopes and magnifying lenses, as we tried to see and sense and sift for depths and heights otherwise unnoticed in the passing day to day. i particularly loved the notion that this might be a collective, a gathering place for poetry and plainspeak, prayer and commonsense, for wisdom and for joy. a place where heartache always, always found shelter, where shoulders were offered, tears dried, and where we’d hold each other up through whatever darkness came.
i never knew that there might come a day, 11 years down the road, when we’d all sit back on the hind legs of our chairs, tip warmed mugs to our lips, and ponder all that had passed during our close watch. intermittent watch for some, those who’ve come and gone, sometimes come again. at least two — my mother and my mother-in-law — have been — and are — regular as clockwork, sure to stop by, but not too inclined to say a word. sadly, heartbreakingly, some who first gathered at the table are gone now, but their spirits animate each and every day, each and every sentence typed. and in my own small life, two boys have grown — one was five, the other 13, when this all began. so they’ve grown up across these posts. two grade-school graduations, one high school, one college, and if i keep it up for two more years, we’ll rack another high school and law school, too.
the twists and turns and snippets of their lives that i’ve caught here, they’re priceless to me. they’ve been, more often than not, the launch pad for my deepest thoughts, the ones that mattered most to me. they taught me how to love, those two boys did. all of you, the ones who pulled a rickety chair up to the table, who added your hearts, your stories, your poetries and prayers to the mix, you did too. you taught me love. you proved that quiet whispers belong in a world where the shouting never stops.
so here we are, 11 years from the start. a second decade is chugging along. what began as a writing promise — i would write every single weekday for a year, see what sifted by — soon turned into a sacred vessel, an anchor to my heart and soul, a place where i knew i’d find priceless precious company, those tender souls who live and breathe gentle loving care, who might be speechless, or might need to holler out the upstairs window, when the world gets too cockamamie upside-down and twisted. books have been born from this little cranny of my heart. three books, now. (the newest one coming in the spring, just in time for the bursting forth of mama earth after a long winter’s curling deep within.) precious priceless friends have been made here and sealed with love that does not die.
i was scared to trembling the first time i hit the “publish” button, but i did it anyway. life does that. it shakes you to your bones, and then it rises up to scaffold you, to carry you to heights and summits you would not have known, or imagined in quite the depth and texture you now know.
bless each and every one of you for reaching out your hand, your heart, your whole, and whispering in unison: there is a world of tender loving care, a world that looks for poetry and wisdom all along the way. a world that believes in taking time, and paying attention, close attention, exuberant attention. there is a world of everyday devotions. and we are all the richer for the sound of each other’s footsteps marching, together, to the mountaintop.
because i promised to circle back to the book i’m carrying through this advent, and maybe every advent to come, “All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings,” by Gayle Boss, illustrated by David G. Klein, i thought i’d share just one passage from one of this week’s readings (every day’s is a breathtakingly poetic and poignant parable of woodland creatures in winter, all metaphors for the practice of Advent, the mystery of life that springs forth from what looks like death).
chickadee(day 4):“As they swirl and hop at my feeder, they seem a flock of St. Francises. Like the saint wed to Lady Poverty, every day the question of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason, like the saint, they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.”
may your each and every day of deepening darkness be filled with flickerings of light. thank you for the gift of your presence here, week after week, year after year.
where do you find light in the deepening of december?