pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: christmas

the measures of our years: 11

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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.

thank you.

love, bam

IMG_0230because 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?

the holy pause is upon us…

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i feel it, coming in like the draft through the cracks in my old wobbly windows. i feel it, as if a soft finger tapping me on the shoulder. i feel it beginning to swirl here in the kitchen, where cupboards are stacked with tins. i feel it when i plug in the lights on the tree. i feel it when i step out the back door, step under the great dome of dawn, shlep through the snow with my banged-up tin spilling with seed for my birds.

i feel it settling down in my heart and my soul. i feel the pure exchange of breath as i exhale the tired old air of these weeks of discombobulation and worry and fear, and breathe in the newborn air that will always be Christmas for me.

it is the holiest pause of the year for me, the birth of new light, just after the longest, darkest night. the quiet that comes, i imagine, just as it came in the manger, long long ago. i imagine the mother with child. i imagine her belly, hard, ready to birth. i imagine the cows lowing, and the sheep, the soft sounds of a barn, mixed with the muffled wail of pain from a mother in labor. then stillness. holy stillness. silent night. and then, at last, that cry from the deep, from the newborn lungs of the babe, the sound of God shattering the night. the first sound, a cry.

it’s a story that draws me deep into the folds of its threads. it’s a story that startles me, tenders me, year after year. it’s a story i need in double doses this year. and so i will tell myself the story over and over. i will stand at the edge of my creche and marvel at the newborn tenderness. i will marvel at the courage and strength of the mother who birthed her firstborn, her one and only, in the dim chill of a barn, surrounded by the murmurations of those beasts of burden. i will imagine the night sky, jet black, stitched with shimmering knots of pure light.

i will take hold of that tenderness, that courage and strength, and make it mine. or try, anyway. i will scoop up the seed that is Christmas, and tuck it deep in my heart. i will breathe into it, allow it to grow, to blossom, to spill beyond these few short days when the pause, holy pause, is upon us.

the holy pause is the most blessed gift of Christmas.

these are the days when the quiet comes, when we’ve ticked to the bottom of all the to-do lists, when we can shut the door on the cold winds outside. when we huddle with only the ones we love the most dearly. the ones our life depends upon.

at our house, the logs are piled high, ready to submit to the flame. thank you, old birch trees, old pine trees. the cupboards are full. the blankets are stacked in the old wicker basket. my firstborn, the one whose first cry long ago broke the silence, he’ll be home tonight. and the anticipation of his arrival is stoking the Christmas in my heart. it’s been a long autumn. and, in good measure, that’s what makes the Christmas miracle all the more blessed. especially this year.

and so, as is my way of keeping Christmas, i will bow my head at the dawn, and i will whisper my litany of prayerfulness. it’s the essence of Christmas to me: to weave the strands of petition into a whole and mighty salutation to the God who looks to us to uphold tenderness, mercy, and most of all justice. the God who begs us to keep peace here on this most blessed globe, the one of mountains and majesty, fragile bog and feathered flock. the God who gave us this gift with the undying hope that we’d hold it close to our hearts, and never let it shatter.

here is my prayer, or at least the first draft of it:

a christmas morning prayer…..

(the more insistent the prayer, the earlier i seem to rise. and so this morning, the heavens are star-stitched still, the edge of the dome is soaked still in inky black. the cardinals haven’t yet stirred from wherever it is they sleep.

and yet, my heart is bubbling. my prayers rise up from deep inside. they can’t wait to take flight, to be put to the airborne parabola, the one that puts wings to their breath.)

i pray for the mothers who have buried a child, the mothers for whom christmas will never be whole, will ever be hollow. i pray and pray for peace, just a thread of it, to come to them, to wrap for a moment around their aching heart. i pray for one moment’s relief from the stinging emptiness that will not be staunched.

i pray for the children who’ve lost their mother, two in particular i know and love, and countless others i’ve read about, countless others who cling to the margins of all the merriment, knowing it’s a country to which they no longer belong. for children without a mother on christmas, there is no peace, no everlasting peace.

i pray for Aleppo. i pray for the children hovering in the cold. i pray for the bodies of the babies unentombed from the rubble, the dust of hatred dropped from the skies. i pray for the mothers and fathers, i pray for the men and the women — cold, hopeless, hungry. i pray for the masses left to die, awaiting the words — any words — that tell them the world is listening, has heard their cries, awaiting the word that the world is coming, hope is coming to save them.

i pray for world leaders courageous enough to have opened their borders, to let in the rivers of refugees, disgorged from their homes, from their histories, from any shred of a sense that they’re safe.

i pray for the weary souls i see lying under puffy-layered sleeping bags, on cold hard sidewalks, under viaducts, against the grates at the base of shimmering downtown towers.

i pray for my children. i pray that in their hours of darkness, the light comes. that they see how brilliantly they shimmer in the landscape of my heart and my soul. i pray that someday they understand just how wholly they filled me, how they put purpose to my being alive. that each and every day we try and try again to teach each other: this is how you love. 

i pray for all of us who, more often than not of late, feel hollowed. feel jarred and broken by the hatred spewing all around. i pray for our tender hearts and fragile spirits. i pray that we don’t topple. and if we do, i pray for someone strong to come along, to reach out a hand, to whisper hope, and pull us to our feet.

i pray for those who haven’t a clue how deeply they teach me each and every day — be it a story on the news, or one passing by in the social media whirl. or someone i bump into at the grocery store, or riding on the el, or shivering in the cold as i shuffle down the sidewalk.

i pray for the ones i love who come to this table. who leave behind a trace, or not even a whisper. i pray for the ones i love who never come here, who share in the depths of my life but never stop by here, never hear the deepest voice i know, the one i found here, buoyed by courage and love.

i pray for the ones we’ve lost this year, the ones whose words rumble through my head, through my heart, each and every day. i pray especially for my friend who wrote these words: “wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it,” she promised.

i pray for the poets and wordsmiths and makers of art in every form — in clay, in thread, in wood, in every hue under the sun and the moon. i pray for those words that catch against my heart, and work their way into prayer. those words that leap from my soul into the heavens.

i pray for the God who catches them, who catches the words of the prayer, who catches us all.

more mightily than any prayer i pray of late, i beg Holy God to not abandon us now. to not leave us to our sins and our shattered promises. i promise to love a little bit harder, to live a little bit better, more true to the blessing i was made to be.

and this is the prayer i pray most mightily: i promise to love, God, and i beg You to show us — show me, show every single lost and hungry one of us — the way. the holy, certain way…

thank you.

amen.

may your pause for the blessings of Christmas — and Hanukkah, the great festival of light that begins tomorrow — be gentle, and tender, and stitched with wonder and breathtaking marvel.

for what do you pray in this pause filled with holiness?

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my littlest manger

hark!

hark

arms wide-open, it’s the dawn that follows the silent night. night of awe. dawn of darkness lifting. the dawn, i pray for you, when the outlines of all your blessings come sharply, crisply, indelibly into focus.

when, perhaps, you find yourself all alone, nestled inside the flutterings of your heart and your soul, and all the Christmases of all the years before come tumbling softly, and this particular one, perhaps, leaps out from the pile because this is the Christmas when you’ve unwrapped a particular glimmering knowing from under your tree.

maybe it’s the simmering of newfound love. maybe it’s the weight finally shrugged off your shoulders. maybe, after all the hours of darkness, you’ve found your way to the flickering light off in the distance, and you’re home now, finally home.

maybe it’s that the story of Christmas — the blessed virgin mother and holy child, the newborn babe laid in the straw, the star of wonder lighting the heavens, the beasts of the pasture poking their noses into the barn, drawn by all of the stirrings — maybe the story of Christmas this year awakens a place deep inside you that’s too long been numb to the hope, and the light, that nativity brings. that nativity lays quietly at the cusp of your heart.

come, open the gift. open the possibility of wonder. of glistening light. wrap yourself, for even just this one sacred hour, in the hush and the whisper of peace. peace on earth, please. but peace in your very own kingdom — you can make that happen if you take hold of wonder, if you chase out the noise, if you close your eyes (or open them wider than ever), and open your heart. breathe deep. inhale the Divine, animator of all that’s wonder-filled, that’s breathtaking.

that’s what i pray you find this blessed morning, under your tree, tucked in your heart. may this dawn of quiet at last, this day-breaking hour of stillness, seep deep into your every channel of wonder, into the depth and breadth and whole of your soul, and fill you with Christmas at its holiest.

amen. and merry blessed Christmas.

here’s one last little wintery blessing, from the pages of slowing time….

Meme-CountYourBlessings

may yours be a sumptuous, most heavenly day…..

wintery blessings

cookie baking wintery blessings

it’s in the air, i know it. it seeps in through those unsuspecting places, the nooks and crannies of the heart that must be so hungry.

hungry for quiet, for the magic of christmas — the original hushed and hidden-away story, one that brings me to tenderest tears every time. every time i really truly stop to think the whole thing through, to absorb every blessed drop of a story that begins in deepest humility: travelers, bone-weary travelers trekking by donkey, who can’t find a room, who settle in the hollow of night in a shadow-laced barn, where a baby is birthed, wonder child, and laid in the feed trough, where the lowing of cows and the bleating of sheep fill in for the heavenly chorus.

it’s a story that begs silence, the in-rush of awe. it’s a story that begs us to listen. to stanch all the noise and perk up our ears. and our hearts.

i found myself nearly glistening yesterday, wrapped in the gray of the afghan day out my window. christmas-y tunes cranking loud and emphatically. dumping flour by the cupful into a bowl where eggs had been cracked, vanilla dolloped, and my grandma’s cookies once again were soon to be pulled from the oven. kitchens, of course, are magical places.

and this is the season for magic. this is the season that sparks the little child inside us all. maybe that’s why we wrap it in tissue-y papers, and tie it with candy-cane string. maybe that’s why we loop glistening lights onto already beautiful boughs from the forest. and dig deep in the recipe tin. to unearth a little bit of the child we were and always will be.

yesterday, i marveled at the circles of life: marveled that my grandma’s century-old recipe was printed onto a recipe card that came with a book that i wrote, and i was once again rolling out that buttery dough for those cookies, this year to be ferried to the school, the inner-city break-your-heart school, where my firstborn is now a teacher, teaching children from kindergarten to eighth grade how to read. i don’t think the layers of christmas get much more christmas-y, much more blessed, than that.

this year, especially, i’ve noticed that christmas — and with it a host of wintery blessings — comes whirling through the air, whether you’ve decked the house, or tucked away boxes. or not. this year at our house, not many boxes are tucked away. we’ve somehow slipped into a fairly box-less christmas. we’ve certainly dialed down the mad-dashing. i suppose i’ve spent too many christmases plum tuckered out by the time i panted across what felt like a finish line.

and the beauty of that — i seem to have discovered — is that i feel just as filled with christmas, with the essence of christmas, without all the noise. maybe because there’s so little noise.

there is simply a blanket of sumptuous calm — a gift in december, indeed. it’s rare, and it’s blessed. and it calls us by name, and by whisper. come, savor this hour; this hour is holy, this hour is yours.

in the spirit of quietly sharing this unfettered gift — the abundance of heart that tumbles down from the heavens (not unlike the few flakes that, on cue, just started to fall out my window) — i thought i’d bring to the table this morning a string of the wintery blessings my beautiful friends at abingdon press (the fine folks who published slowing time) made for me to sprinkle across the december landscape.

they must have workshops of elves who whip up these sweet little morsels. they’ve taken lines from the pages of slowing time, and made them into delectable little picture postcards (that’s how i like to think of them, anyway; in current vernacular they’re called “memes,” a word whose origins escape me completely). (p.s. of course i had to look it up, and my online dictionary tells me it’s a term coined by controversial evolutionary biologist richard dawkins in 1976 to convey the way cultural information is transmitted. aren’t you glad you now know?)

anyway, i thought i’d sprinkle a few across the table this morning. and they’re yours to keep, to do as you wish. you could print them out to make a holiday card. or tuck them into the pages of your favorite book. you could pin them on a cork board, of the actual or virtual variety. or you could simply scroll by, and think, oh, how nice.

here’s one… Meme-SavorWintersDream

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, oh look, here’s another…

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and then there’s this sweet one….

Meme-RedBird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, at last, there’s this little bit of story time. so grab your mug, curl your toes under your bum, wrap in a blanket, and here’s little old me reading a wintery story……

those sweet elves made even more — a recipe card, among the stash — but that’s enough for this morning. if you care to see more, and happen to be on facebook, they’re being posted, blessing by blessing, on the Slowing Time page. or search for #WinteryBlessings.

for now, though, i’m slipping off to chase a few sugary sprinkles out of their hiding places. in the deep dark of last night, we had no real idea where the sprinkles were landing….

but first, deep-down wishes for the quietest, most blessed moments this season of stillness has to offer. may you find joy rushing into your heart, and awe filling your soul.

love, quietly,

bam

what do you count among your wintery blessings?

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

wishes for christmas

wishes for christmas

ever since i was little, ever since i’d scurry to bed and begin my nightly imagining, ever since i pretended i lived in my little old log house, the one tucked in the trees i pretended were woods, ever since i pretended i was a little girl growing up on a prairie, and my upturned coffee can was a cookstove, and weeds from the ditch were hay for my cow — my make-believe cow, of course — i’ve been rather accomplished in the department of make-believe.

and so, this particular interlude of days, the ones tucked right before christmas, they’re particularly fine for a girl of make-believe inclinations.

these are the days when you curl in an armchair, when you burrow under the thickest of blankets, when you drink in the crackle and pop of the logs on the hearth (“hearth” is a word a make-believe girl believes in, rather than the more pedestrian “fireplace,” which doesn’t hold nearly as much storybook punch, nor poetry).

once the snowflakes tumble, and the steam rises from the mug of hot coffee, well, you are in heaven on earth if you’re a make-believe girl. the magic swirls all around you.

so what you do is you grab your nearest writing device — the seasonally- charged red pen will do. and you start to unfurl your wonder list, your list of wishes for christmas.

if you’re me, and your heart holds more weight than your piggy bank ever will hold, you scribble yourself into a trance, making believe you could make wishes come true, and counting as high as you possibly can, listing the wishes you wish for.

1. i wish i had a star anise tree outside my kitchen window. i’d have harvested a bumper crop of the nose-tingling intoxicant i’ve been sizzling away in the banged-up pot on the stove. it’s my december’s indulgence.

2. i wish i’d thought to save cute little jars all year long so that now, when i’m wishing i could deliver wagon loads of christmas-y cheer to each and every glowing house near and far, i’d have just the right vessel to fill with star anise (see no. 1), and cinnamon sticks, and orange peel and cloves. i’m pretty much a failure in the martha-stewart department, so i make up for it by pretending i could do these cute little things.

3. i wish i could give my lumbering mailman, the poor fellow who slogs through whatever the weather gods rain down on him — sweltering heat, piles of snow, cats-and-dogs precipitation — i wish i could hand him a desk job. for at least a few days. or a shiny gold coin, because those stories in the news pages always make me all misty-eyed, when the unsuspecting soul reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wee disc of gold bullion.

4. i wish sometimes that my words had magical powers, and that whenever we spoke, our words were heard in the very way we intended. there’s no more heart-shattering moment than realizing what you thought you said, what you meant, was not heard that way at all.

5. i wish people who say mean things would stop for a minute and imagine how those words are going to feel when they pierce someone’s heart like a poisonous arrow.

6. i wish i could bundle up all the weight bearing down on my firstborn’s shoulders, and deliver him soundly and safely to the 13th of january — the day after his senior thesis is due, all 80 pages.

7. i wish i could make the tumors in my dear friend’s lungs please, please, go away.

8. i wish i could tiptoe just outside the kitchen door of all the wonder-souls who’ve been so deeply kind to me these past few weeks, as i wobbled and tried to be brave, as my wee little book took to the world. i wish i could string a hundred thousand lights in each someone’s back yard, in the shape of a giant blinking red heart, and, writing in long strands of itty-bitty bulbs, spell out how much their kindness, their faith, their “you got this!” has meant to my chest-bursting heart.

9. i wish i could wipe away the heartache in everyone i love, especially the very dear friend who’s facing this very first christmas without her beloved.

10. i wish my sister-in-law, the one in far-off maine, lived down the lane. i wish my family room floor was the place where her two little munchkins unwrapped their christmas-y mischief. and that the mug she liked best was ever perched just by the teas, so whenever she flung open the door, she knew i had time to pull up a chair, to discover the joys and the occasional troubles that pound in her heart.

11. i wish i could wish all day. i wish i could make these wishes come true.

12. i wish most of all that every dear and tender heart who stops here, who takes the time to pull up a chair, and drink in a few lines, i wish each and every one of you the great gift of imagining a more blessed way to live and breathe.

maybe, just maybe, if we all make a wish, if we all make a promise to pick just one random act of whimsy or kindness, if we pray hard for the impossible to melt into possible, we’ll all find an extra dollop of magic as we tiptoe ever so quietly toward christmas.

and, by the way, merry merry. may your days be dusted with heart-hoisting joys, and may the quiet of christmas settle in deep in the nooks and the crannies where the blessed is born.

what do you wish for this christmas?

all i want for christmas…

all i want for christmas 09all i want for christmas 11

every year on christmas morn, shortly after the rustle under the tree, not long after the little one is certain he’s heard the clomp of reindeer hooves on the roof, there is a thud just over the cookstove, from the bedroom above. it’s followed by the pit-a-pat of little feets rushing to shake the man-child from slumber.

that’s the moment i enter the equation. wait, wait, wait, i holler. let me get a picture.

and so, the annual up-the-gullet-of-the-staircase, bleary-eyed christmas morning pose. boys in sleeping garb, gaining inches by the year.

and this christmas, more than in a very very long time, it’s the moment i am waiting to frame.

it’s all i want for christmas: two boys + one papa + one old house, steamed up from a christmas dawn’s cookery = contentment of the purring kind.

it’s simple, but not, all at once.

we’ve not all been together for christmas for two long years. we’ve not all been together — not in any which way, not the four of us — since way back in august. and much has unfolded, and much has settled deep into my soul. so much so that i’ve emerged with one humble christmas-y wish: dear God, let us all be gathered in one cozy room. that’s all, God.

remember — oh, do i —  how infuriating it used to be, when you’d ask your mama what she wanted for christmas (and you hoped for once she’d drop a fat hint, so you could scurry the department store aisles, beelining for some well-scripted bauble) but all she’d reply was what at the time sounded lamer than lame: oh, honey, all i want is health and well-being for all of us. and you stood there saggy-faced, as visions of sugarplums whirled down your drain?

well, it appears i’ve turned into a variant of that very mama: all i want — beginning to end — is the sound of three voices i love bubbling up and around the red cozy room where logs will sizzle and windows will steam. where i’ll huddle under my buffalo-check blanket, breathe deep, and sink into the holy whirl of immersion. of being no farther from my faraway boy than a hand reached ‘cross the couch. where no crackling phone line will blur the vowels and the consonants, static-charged syllables from half across the globe. where one more year’s memories will be laid deep down in the crevices of my heart, that vessel that allows for easy access come the cold february dawn when the ones i love won’t be within reach, when their hilarity won’t be animating my stirring of oatmeal, when i’d otherwise feel hollow through and through.

it’s a simple prayer, an unadorned wish. it’s love whittled down to its essence: just let us share the gift of an hour, a morning, an unbroken day. let us breathe the same oxygen, let us catch the twinkle in each other’s eye. and not give a damn if any one of the bunch catches their ol’ mama swiping away at a tear, a tear of Godly perfection.

were we not born to work toward, to revel in just that very fine brand of love, one cultivated through long hours of heartache and worry and triumph and faith? one that only gets stronger and harder to shatter, no matter the hurdles, the obstacles, the twists and the turns. one that sustains us till ever and ever. one that’s our life’s holiest treasure.

it’s the spark of Divine, fanned into infinite flame. it’s year after year. it’s mother and child, and holy reunion.

and it’s all i want this most blessed christmas.

may each and every one of your christmas wishes come true. my wish for you is that your quietest unspoken wish is the one you hold in the palm of your hand, and nestle to the core of your heart. how will you spend this most blessed day?

about the frames on high: the one on the left is 2009, when one sweet boy was eight and the other 16. on the right it’s 2011, the first christmas home from college for the taller of the two, and the little one thrilled beyond thrilled to have his best brother — his only brother — right back where he belonged, at the room in the bend in the stairs….

when wonder comes for christmas

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

When at last the morning comes, I am not unlike the little child at Christmas. Having tossed and turned in anticipation, through all the darkest hours, at first light I throw back the blankets, slide into clogs, slither into a heavy sweater and tiptoe down the stairs.

For days, I’ve been stockpiling for my friends. I’ve corncakes stuffed with cranberries and pine cones wrapped in peanut butter. I’ve suet balls to dangle from the boughs, and little bags of birdseed, just small enough to stuff in all my pockets. I’ve a jug of fresh water for all to drink and splash before it turns to winter’s ice.

It’s time for a Christmas treasure all my own, one I unwrap every year.

My walk of wonder takes me no farther than the patch of earth I call my own, a rather unassuming tangle of hope and dreams and heartache (for what garden doesn’t crack a heart, at least once a season?), in my leafy little village.

I carve out this hour of Christmas morn, before the footsteps slap across the floorboards up the stairs, before I crank the stove, and kindle all the Christmas lights.

It’s my hour of solitude and near silence, as I tug open the back door and step into the black-blue darkness of the minutes just beyond the dawn.

It’s my chance to take in the winter gifts of my rambling, oft-rambunctious garden plots, and all who dwell among them — the birds, the squirrels and fat-cheeked chipmunks, the old mama possum, and, yes, the stinky skunk who sometimes ambles by and sends us dashing in all directions.

And, best of all, it’s my early Christmas moment to reciprocate the many gifts that all the seasons bring me.

I am nearly humming as I make my yuletide rounds: I fill the feeders, scatter seed and stuff an old stone trough with what I call the “critter Christmas cakes.”

At this scant hour, the black-velvet dome above is stitched still with silver threads of sparkling light. And limbs of trees, bare naked in December, don’t block my upward glance at all that heavens offer.

This is where my prayer begins, as I whisper thanks for all the chirps and song, for flapping wings and little paws that scamper — all of nature’s pulse beats that bring endless joy, and teach eternal lessons.

As light brightens in the southeast corner of the sky, the architecture of the wintry bower emerges. The black of branches — some gnarled, others not unlike the bristles of an upturned broom — etch sharp against the ever-bluer sky.

Exposed, the silhouette reveals the secrets of the trees — the oak, the maple and the honey locust that rustles up against my bedroom window.

As I come ’round a bend, gaze up and all around, I cannot miss the nests not seen till late in autumn, when the trees disrobed and shook off their blazing colors.

In murky morning light, the nests appear as inkblots of black among the lacy boughs. Only in winter do we realize how many dot the arbor. There is the contour of the squirrels’ shoddy leaf-upholstered hovel high up in the maple, and, down low in a serviceberry, the robins’ tuck-point masterpiece of twigs.

While in robust and leafy times, the trees did not let on, but in winter’s stripped-down state there’s no hiding the part they play in watching over the nursery, shielding barely feathered broods and not-yet-furry baby squirrels from wind and sleet and pounding rains. Or even too much sun.

This cold morning, all is still. Every nest is empty, every bird house hollow once again. Where the winter birds cower, where they huddle, close their eyes and doze, I cannot figure out. Somewhere, even at this illuminating hour, they’re tucked away in slumber.

It won’t be long till the stirrings come, but for now the only sound is the scritch-scratch of brambles and left-behind leaves as they brush against my legs. I make my way among them, along a bluestone path, past all the shriveled blooms of not-forgotten summer.

The moppy heads of hydrangea, now dried and crisped to brown, are bowed but not surrendered, still clinging, even in the cold. And all that’s left of all the roses are persimmon-colored full-to-bursting hips, a final exhortation, punctuation on the winter page.

By the time the Big Dipper fades from the morning sky, that early riser, papa cardinal, ignites the winterscape with his scarlet coat. Soon follows the red-bellied woodpecker, a nuthatch or two, and, not long after, the choristers of dun-robed sparrows, all a-chatter with Christmas morning news.

I take cover back behind a fir tree, where the crowd at the feeder pays no mind. And where in winter storms, I find the flocks, too, take shelter, the only branches left that promise shield and a place to hunker down. For anyone who wants to hide — too often it’s the hungry hawk — these piney limbs are plenty thick.

Then I get brazen, and toss a handful of peanuts to the bristle-tailed squirrels. These are mere hors d’oeuvres, of course, for that trough now spills with Dickensian plenty — among the larder, bumpy apples no one wanted, and pumpkins plucked from the after-Thanksgiving discount bin.

It is all my way of making real my unending gratitude, of bowing deep and soulfully to Blessed Mama Earth.

and so twas my christmas morning meander in the pages of the chicago tribune, where, yes, i must act all grown up and enter the word of capital letters.

pointillist of joy

poin’til-lism (pwan’), n. [Fr. pointillisme, from pointiller, to mark with dots.] the method of painting of certain French impressionists, in which a white ground is systematically covered with tiny points of pure color that blend together when seen from a distance, producing a luminous effect.

***
and so, i realized, this season, for me, is a pointillist of joy.

i no longer search for the cymbal crash, the percussive cacophony of big bangs. i have an ear out for the tinkling of glass chimes, blowing in the winter breeze. i listen for the bells, far off, gently. i sigh at the sound of simmering on the stove.

i find the beauty, the luminous beauty, in the accumulation of teeny-tiny sparks of joy. and so, the painter of my own tableau, i have my brush always at the ready, tucked within my pocket. i am searching, dabbing, dropping pure color onto the canvas of my life.

i find pure contentment, bliss, in tiny packages, the moments of my life, wrapped up as with a floppy scarlet satin bow.

i find it all around.

and that, for me, is the abundant gift of this season. if you don’t come rushing at it, if you allow it to open itself up, to reveal the deep stirrings, to pierce the dark with incandescent light.

i find it on the kitchen table, crowded now with candles. the menorah, each night adds another glow. the advent wreath, now fully lit. the everyday tapers, standing sentry, now burn too. one dinner might be powered by the light of 10 candles, and we are barely half way into hanukkah. by the end we’ll be holy ablaze (and have the extinguisher at the ready).

i find my points of joy in the sweet perfume of bay leaf and clove that rose, in impermeable clouds, i tell you, from the oven all last eve, as the six pounds of brisket cooked down into the hanukkah elixir.

i find joy in waking early, in plugging in the christmas lights. in the silence of the early morn, when i’m alone. when carols hum from the radio, a seasonal shift from the abysmal morning’s news.

i find joy in toting my coffee can of seed out to the feeders, where cardinals flit, ignite the morning landscape. just this morning i discovered what looked like a white-headed cardinal. there’s no such thing, i know. i won’t find it in any field guide, so do i have some aberration or did someone’s pet parakeet (an odd breed of one at that) fly the coop, and move into my backyard? it is a joy that will delight me all day long, as i try to unravel the mystery of the albino-headed bird.

i find joy this joyful season in wrapping up berry-studded loaves of holiday bread in white baker’s paper, in hearing the rustle of the sturdy wrap as i bend it round the loaf, as i tie it up in string, red string, as i tiptoe in the dark to all my neighbors’ doors, ring the bell and wish a merry christmas.

i find joy in stashing my bedroom closet with odd-shaped boxes and a few bags, santa’s wardrobe, indeed. as my little one will not let on that he knows who santa is, and so i hide the few fine things that santa’s checked off the list, procured for my sweet believer.

i find joy in red berries tucked around the house. a big fat splurge, at 15 bucks for one fistful of christmas berries. but as someone at the market said, “if you can’t splurge at christmas, then when ever would you splurge?”
splurge on, oh joyful wonders.

i find joy by the sleighful in my still-limping cat, my cat who laps up cream as we tend to him, pamper him, await the full return of his vim and vigor.

i find joy in that little boy of ours, the one not too big to snuggle in our beds, the one who whispered a prayer the other night that his big brother would get home safe, “in two pieces,” he requested. two pieces? i shot back, disturbed by the mental picture of his brother snapped in halves. “yeah,” said the little one, “one piece for him, one piece for his luggage.”

indeed, two pieces.

i found everlasting joy this very morning when at last the phone rang. and it was that very brother, a croaky-voiced version all the same. for the better part of half an hour, which felt like all day, no one could find him. the van that had pulled up to the dorm to take him to the airport, they reported that they “couldn’t find him.” the phone rang and rang and no one answered. you needn’t know me long to know what i can imagine in the flash of an instant, and i imagined all right. was without breath or color in my face for the better part of that half hour. till the campus police knocked on his dorm-room door, and found him, sound asleep with runny nose and barely any sound coming from his swollen, croaky throat.

so when the phone rang, when he was alive and not slumped under some tree (or worse), my heart rang out in everlasting joy. joy that will carry me through christmas, indeed.

yes, oh yes, i’ve realized over recent years, and emphatically in recent weeks and days, that i’ve become a gatherer of tiny points of joy.

i embroider my life with sweet somethings, little somethings. the pure satisfaction of a single moment in time when i am immersed, awash, in somethings beautiful.

when i feel the flutter of a wing, not far above my head in the serviceberry branches.

when i inhale the spicy notes of pine or clove or cinnamon and orange peel.

when i wrap my fingers in the chubby little ones of my sweet little boy, as he lays beside me in his flannel pj’s, as he warms the sheets, as he whispers words of love-drenched hope and prayer.

the equation of my life, of my joy, i’ve come to know is a long string of one plus one plus one.

and it all adds up, quite exuberantly, quite deliciously, and intoxicatingly so, to a canvas that takes my breath away.

so luminescent is the depth of holy sacred joy.

merry everything as we tiptoe into the christmas weekend, as we march along through the eight days of hanukkah, as we await the travelers in our lives. as we gather round the hearts and souls we love, and the ones we miss but feel anyway in that mystical way in which our dearest deepest loves never really leave us, can be felt full force through the powers of the heart.
come back for christmas, if you find the time, for i’ve an essay that i’ll post here, once the tribune posts it first.
sending love. and joy.

the gift that is my counting-down boy

“it’s advent,” he said with a twinkle.

“24 days,” he said two seconds later, not sure that i’d netted his drift.

finally, i found my way along his breadcrumb trail of hints.

“it’ll be up when you get home,” i shot right back, suddenly relieved that we’d awakened to a chandelier dangling by a mere two wires, a heavy chandelier, mind you. an antique of brass and blue-and-white porcelain, one you wouldn’t want crashing to the floor. but because the darn thing was dangling in such a dangerous way, and because there was no contraption we could contrapt to girdle it in place while we waited for the handy shock-and-wires man, i had to stay home all day, typing from my writing room.

which is a long and winding way to say: while he was off at school, and i was home cobbling stories amid chandelier-crash patrol, i tiptoed to the basement, to the box marked “early christmas,” and grabbed the string of red-plaid pockets, the one that every year since he remembers i’ve filled with little chocolates, peppermints and hints of the christmastide to come.

it’s the counting-down string, and he is not too old to count the days to christmas. nor to not want the house the way it’s always been.

and as i tiptoed up the stairs, i filled my heart and lungs with the deepest, purest knowing of just how much i’m blessed, soaked through and through, with the gift of a child who is still little boy enough to want to have that bit of magic dangling at the window. who wants to reach his little hand in there and pull out a surprise.

in these days and months since he’s been home alone, the one little someone among the trees of taller people, he has reminded me again and again just how deep a miracle he is.

oh, not simply that he’s here among us, long after the doctors told me “never.” not that i am nearly 55, and he is merely 10.

no, the real gift of my little bundle of purely answered prayer is that he is rare in the most delicious way.
“pure butter,” i just wrote of him to my beloved portland sister.

he’s a kid who halfway through dinner hops up from his chair and shimmies on the bench beside me. and when i ask (as mamas are wont to do), “why’d you just get up,” he melts me with his answer: “i wanted to sit next to you.”

now don’t think that he’s some mama’s boy. because he’s not. he’s this way with his papa, his grandma, and his big faraway brother.

more than once last week i found him sprawled across his brother’s lap, taking in a rough-and-tumble football game.

doesn’t matter that he’s fierce on a soccer field, or dribbling down a court. his essence, the one i’ve watched since he was born in a shaft of midnight light, is pure molasses gold.

he was the baby who wanted to be nestled, always, right against my chest, to absorb the lullaby of my quickly-ticking heart.

and somehow, some amazing somehow, he’s never lost that deep magnetic pull.

any minute now, i’ll be tossing on my coat and hopping on the train because, at 10 years old, he still wants me on his field trip. could not wait to tell me he saw my name on the chaperone list. could not wait to tell me i got to spend a whole cold and chilly day walking through the outdoor german market.

it is these sparks of innocence, his unfiltered exuberance, his lack of hurry in the growing-up department, that is the gift i hold in my palms as if a fragile robin’s egg.

as a mama, i straddle quite a canyon, the one that finds me taking in the college tales, and the worries that come with it, while with the other foot i am firmly planted in the giggles and the charms of fifth grade.

one night i might watch the little one smear on a slick of underarm deodorant before he tumbles into bed (“i like to smell something good when i first wake up,” he explains, as if anyone should know that), but next morning he’ll ask if i can help him cut his waffles.

it is this blessed holy middle place–not yet big and tough and smelling like a goat, still blithe enough to not mind holding tight my hand as we tiptoe through the night–that makes me whisper my unending thanks.

i am holding each and every frame, savoring the pure undiluted joy of this second round of life that came tumbling from the heavens.

bless you, my counting-down boy.

we all have gifts aplenty. as we count the days toward the longest night, and towards the holy christmas story, what might we find in your red-plaid pocket if you were to pull out but one magic parcel this fine december day?