pull up a chair

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Category: advent

season of stillness

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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.

how do you consecrate your holy hours?

burrowing into december, month of miracles and searching

breakfast in bed

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.

first night candles

how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?

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 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?

counting the days

counting the days

already, the little one knows the routine. he wakes up early, just to run to the room where the numbers now hang. where the numbers, each one a pocket, come tucked with a wee chocolate bear, or a nibble of peppermint bark.

not finished, he runs, yet, one more place. to the corner where the old german calendar waits by the cookie jar. there, he scans the numbers, counts one more than yesterday, folds back a door. and, lo and behold, more chocolate.

for him, then, these are the days of the wake-me-up chocolates. two a day, every day, for 24 days.

december, he says, licking the little brown dab off his lips, is a month that’s mostly delicious.

for me, the mama who birthed him, these days are the birthing of something wholly as melt-in-your-mouth.

these are the days when, for the very first time in a very long time, maybe ever, i am practicing advent. really practicing. paying attention. giving in to the season in ways that wash over me, seep into me, bring me back home to a place i may never have been.

like a child this year, i have a just-opened sense of these days.

i am, for the very first time, not counting down. not ticking off days, and errands to run, like a clock wound, really, too tightly.

instead, i am counting in a whole other way. i am counting, yes, but the thing that i’m doing is making count each one of the days.

i am counting the days in a way that takes time. that takes it and holds it. savors it. sucks out the marrow of each blessed hour.

i am, because i’m on my way home here. i’ve not ever before seen december in quite this way. not known, quite this way, that it holds a deep and winding road into my soul.

i am this year embracing the darkness. i am kindling lights. i am practicing quiet. i am shutting out noise, and filling my house with the sounds of the season that call me.

i am practicing no. no is the word that i’m saying to much of the madness. no, i cannot go there. no, i cannot race from one end of town to the other. no, i will not.

i am practicing yes.

yes, i will wake up early. will tiptoe alone, and in quiet, to down in the kitchen, and on out to the place where the moon shines. where the early bird isn’t yet risen. but i am. i am alone with the dark and the calm, and i am standing there watching the shadows, the lace of the moon. i am listening for words that fill up my heart. it’s a prayer and it comes to me, fills my lungs, as i breathe in cold air, the air of december, december’s most blessed breath.

yes, i am re-dressing my house. i am tucking pine cones and berries of red, in places that not long ago were spilling with pumpkins, and walnuts, and acorns.

i am waking up to the notion that to usher the season into my house is to awaken the sacred. it is to shake off the dust of the days just before. to grope for the glimmer amid all the darkness.

december, more than most any month, can go one of two ways at the fork in the woods.

one trail is all tangled, all covered with bramble. you can get lost, what with all of the noise and all of the bright colored lights.

or maybe not. or maybe that’s not how you’ll go.

december, if you choose, if you allow it, can be the trail through the woods that leads to the light, far off in the distance.

the darkness itself offers the gift. each day, the darkness comes sooner, comes deeper, comes blacker than ink. it draws us in, into our homes, yes, but more so, into our souls.

it invites us: light a light. wrap a blanket. sit by the fire. stare into the flames, and onto the last dying embers.

consider the coming of Christmas.

i am, in this month of preparing, in this month of a story told time and again, listening anew to the words. i am considering the story of the travelers, the virgin with child, the donkey, the man with the tools, the unlikely trio, knocking and knocking at door after door.

i am remembering how, long long ago, i winced when i heard how no one had room. open the door, i would shout deep inside. make room. make a room.

i didn’t know then, that i could change it. i could take hold of the story, make it be just as it should be.

but i do now. i know now.

i am taking hold of that story, the way that it’s told this december. i am, in the dark and the quiet, making the room that i longed for. for the three in the story, yes, but even for me.

i am preparing a room at the inn. the inn, of course, is my heart.

i am for the first time in a very long time, paying attention. paying attention to the coming of Christmas. i am seeing the beauty of advent. the season of lighting a candle in the thick of the darkness.

i am noticing the whole of the woods. keeping my eye on the light in the window. but taking my time. filling my lungs with the sweet scent of the pine. hearing the crunch of the woods under my feet. wholly breathing an air that’s divine.

the walk to the light in the window is, for the very first time in a very long time, one that is sacred and hushed. i see the light, see it grow closer and closer.

it’s a glow that really is something, really is radiant. framed, as it is, in the dark of december.

oh my goodness, the forces today conspired against me. alarms didn’t ring. children missed buses. i had places to be, and the meander wasn’t yet wholly meandered. oh well. here it is, then, at the end of the morning. have you stopped to consider the power of a month that invites us to choose a path through the woods that’s not quite so trampled? how do you practice the coming of Christmas? or simply pulling in to the quiet that comes as the darkness grows longer and deeper?
my whole advent journey was sparked because i was asked by a church that i love to please pencil some thoughts on the subject. it was recorded and made into a CD. soon as i can i will share it with you on the lazy susan. keep watch and i’ll tell you as soon as i have maybe a minute to do some decembering over there on the page that i love, but can’t get to hardly often enough.