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

Category: conversation

telling time

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listen in: tick tock chime 

in this old house, bed linens are worn thin. old quilts bare their threads. spoons stir porridge for decades. chairs are passed from generation to generation. in the right slant of light, you can make out particular dents in the old kitchen table, where long ago, my third-grade self, or one of my brothers, pressed pencil to homework to maple slab, and the addition in columns, the ill-formed alphabet letters of some week’s spelling words, still stand. even the potato masher in this old house bears the weight of half a century — at least.

new things aren’t often acquired here. but we made room last week for an old, old clock. a new-to-us old clock. a beehive clock, it’s called. with westminster chimes. and from the very first gong, it’s felt as if it’s ever been here. right away, it lulled me. made me feel even more at home.

it chimes every quarter hour, the progression of chimes compounding with every passing slice of the hour, for a total of 96 chimes in a day. and when the minute hand points heavenward, points due north, it gongs the big ben gong, one for each accumulated hour, of course.

it sounds to me like honey dripping across a slice of poundcake. or molasses poured onto flapjacks, if sound came with pictures. velvety, smooth, utterly unruffled and unruffling. it’s the very definition of soothing. it might sound, in its quieter intervals, the ones where it’s merely ticking and tocking, like water dripping. because i’ve been reading all about clocks, i understand why i hear the water-drop sounds. in ancient times, back near the beginning of measured time, the greeks devised a water clock, realizing that the drips fell at a particular rate per hour, and thus could be harnessed for time-telling purposes.

i tried to find out if there was some physiologic connection between the sound of time ticking and the workings of the human body, the heart perhaps. i’ve not yet found my answer, but i have a hunch: the sound of a ticking clock is the closest we’ll come to the in utero sounds, when our newly-formed ear was pressed against the wall of our mama’s womb, and the whooshing and swooshing of her heart was the first thing we heard, was the round-the-clock soundtrack of our very beginning.

i know that in nature there’s a particular universal set of shapes and designs and symmetries and proportions (consider the snowflake or the rose petal, the starfish or even the tiger’s striped face), and that the patterns repeat and repeat throughout creation. mathematicians and artists alike have spent their lives obsessed with these ineffable truths. they’ve put names to them, names like divine proportion or the miraculous spiral.

i like to imagine God dipping into God’s paint kit to pull from that oft-used palette, applying God’s favorites here, there, and everywhere. do you think it’s true too of the patterns of sound? clock ticking = water dripping = human heart, no matter how you rearrange it. do you think God had a shortlist of sounds, of ones reserved for the soothingest jobs?

affection for clocks is not new in this old house. in one of those curious entwinings of the histories we’ve woven together in this adventure called “our married life,” the tall bespectacled fellow and i both grew up with grandparents whose walls were covered in clocks, and whose hours erupted in cacophonous gongs and chimes and whistles and tweets (in the cases, of course, of the cuckoo clocks). sleeping at grandma’s, for both of us, meant falling asleep and awaking to clang upon clang upon cuckoo.

long ago, in our very first house, we hung on our wall a simple kitchen clock, one with gingerbread carvings and etchings in paint the color of gold. it had belonged to the tall one’s grandfather, and i’ve long considered it the heart sound of this old house. i didn’t need another one.

but the man i married started thinking about clocks a few years ago, when i was writing a book called “slowing time,” and he thought a clock was the perfect way to mark the birth of that dream. we’d considered a true grandfather clock, one that stood against the wall like a wood-limbed soldier. every once in a while we’d amble through a clock shop, one where the clocks came with history, and sometimes with pedigree.

then we traveled to london, and beelined our way to big ben, the best clock that ever there was, you might argue (and i might). we stood beneath that tower of chiming and gonging, feeling the sidewalk beneath us quiver with the vibration of the bells. we listened and listened, made sure we were there for high noon and midnight, to get the full bravura.

a year passed, and for me, another decade ended, a new one began. we went back to the clock shop, and this time, we both stopped in front of the clock that sounded just like big ben.

my beloved blair bought it, the clock man gave it a cleaning, and a few days later i drove back to carefully carefully carry it home.

it’s home now. it chimes now. we call it little ben. every time i hear its chimes, i melt all over again. i can’t seem to help it.

my sweet blair, a very wise soul in the deepest and surest of ways, he stood back the other evening, the glow of the lamps falling across his face, and whispered quietly, “it’s a celebration of time.”

and it is. every minute noted, every quarter hour chimed. every hour a loud and resonant reminder: the time is now, savor it.

bless you, and thank you, sweet blair. and little ben, too.

if you click the link just below the clock (way above), you can hear a bit of the ticking and half-hour chiming (i hope!). and be sure to note that i’ve linked to big ben announcing high noon in the paragraph near the bottom, the one about traveling to london. both are your clock songs for the day. 

a few things i learned about westminster chimes: they first rang out from the church of st. mary the great, in cambridge, england. the year was 1793. the chimes are comprised of four permutations of four pitches, all in the key of E major. three crotchets (or quarter notes) are followed by a minim (half note). and they’re believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from handel’s messiah. they were first heard in america in 1875, ringing out from the steeple of trinity episcopal church in williamsport, pennsylvania. and, the first two notes are the very ones heard to this day on every NYC subway train, warning that doors are about to close. the whole shebang is played at yankee stadium whenever the home team scores. and if there’s a 3-point shot that glides through the basket on the LA laker’s home court, you’ll hear it there too. 

do you, too, love the tick and the tock of a clock? do you have a clock story to tell? what are the sounds that most soothe you, or make you feel as if God is whispering in your ear?

“be our best selves,” and other wisdoms gleaned

candle

in which we turn to the wisdom of others to find instruction for the way toward grace…

a precede before we begin: i was trained as a journalist to leave my politics off the table, to keep it out of my writing, and because i’ve worked for almost 10 years to make this a sacred place outside the cacophony of the cruel world that tries to knock us down, i want to put the politics aside here, and frame this as a conversation of all the things we believe in here at the table: looking across the abyss to find the glimmering shards of the divine, renouncing hate and hateful speech. finding courage even when we’re mired in doubt. 

***

when we sat down to dinner the other night, the night after we’d stayed up till the wee hours watching votes roll in, we clasped hands as we always do, maybe a little tighter that night than we sometimes do, and we nodded toward the gentle man at the far end of the table, the man whose moral ballast, whose capacities to anchor my fevered flights, weighed deeply into why i married him. it was his turn to say the prayer. he spoke simply, two sentences perhaps. and the one that’s stuck with me all week, the one i’ve all but sewn to my backbone, to put muscle to my wobbly self, is this: “dear God, let us be our best selves.”

it’s as wise an instruction as any i’ve stumbled upon this week.

what it means, i think, is to double-down on our inclinations to be living-breathing beacons of all that’s good. and by “good” we mean those actions inscribed in every ancient and timeless holy text: love as you would be loved. turn the other cheek. be your brother’s or your sister’s keeper. to name a few (please, name a few that guide you).

when the world around you feels as if the ground’s been shaken, when you’re scared by all the words (and acts) of hate that swirl around, is there any hope in muscling on more deeply attuned to your own code of gentle kindness, in reaching across the darkness in search of the glimmering shard of holiness we’re sure is somewhere out there?

is there any other choice?

we can’t submit to the lowest, harshest impulses wired into the whole of we are.

is it enough to conduct our daily lives in a cone of grace, a willingness to listen, to speak in soft and measured tones, to sometimes muster all the courage in the world to step in and say, i’m sorry, that’s wrong and i will not stand silent?

or might we need, more emphatically than ever, to step beyond our well-worn zones of comfort, carry our best selves into the more public sphere?

i’m rich in questions this morning, short on answers. i’m guided, as always, by my simple code: make each encounter peace-filled, at a minimum. take it up a notch and sow an extra dash of goodness, of compassion. look the stranger in the eye, allow your eyes to sparkle. speak a word of shared communion. make someone laugh. wreak random acts of plain old kindness. shake someone out of complacency by your radical gesture of human decency. put breath to the voice of truth, of healing, of all the wisdom you can muster. don’t be afraid.

i’ve been turning all week for instruction from the wise souls who surround me. my dear friend katelynn carver is a friend i made in a virginia woolf class at harvard divinity school. she’s in scotland now, at st. andrews, writing herself toward a phD in wisdom. she wrote this brilliant essay this week, titled “the opposite of indifference.”

in part, she wrote:

We’re forgetting the most important thing. Because we think we’ve lost love to hate, today. We think we’ve lost kindness to wrath, today. We think we’ve lost the good in what we stand for as a country to violence and hate-mongering and xenophobia and all of the horrible -isms that plague our society and divide us ever further where we need to unite. And I won’t kid you: all those things have been dealt a mighty blow—mightier than many of us have ever seen.

But we’re wrong that we, as a country, lost to hate, today.

she went on to write:

We need to look beyond the superficial, and take nothing for granted, and create dialogue where we’ve long found it easier to turn a deaf-ear. We need to dig in with both hands and do the hard work.

We need to protect each other. We need to recognize what this division has done to our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. We need to reach out and assist immediately with those who are grieving this morning, who are fearful, who are suffering or devoid of all hope, and remind them that they matter, and that there’s light left, and that we’re still here. We need to see the hate and the rage and the vitriol and sit with it a while, so that we can understand where it comes from, so as better to help heal where it stems from. We need to remember that at the end of the day we are all human—and if remembering that is a trial, or a seeming impossibility, we need to work harder. We need to work to figure out how to stop being being so scared that we’re defensive, that we’re ignorant, that we make enemies amongst ourselves and cut rifts that shake our cores. We need to figure out what went wrong that parts of our nation have ever felt that they need walls, physical and metaphorical.

But what we need most, is to remember. We are a nation of many nations. We are a people of many peoples. We are a generation being faced with a challenge, as every generation is, and we are being called to rise to it and shore this nation up at its fractures to be stronger, to be better. We are an experiment, and sometimes experiments don’t go the way we expect, but that’s what makes them groundbreaking—for better or worse.

Where this experiment leads is going to be in our hands, now. And if we remember only one thing as the first step, as the driving force, and the first niggling thought before we remember everything else ahead of us, expected of us, needed from us—we must remember this:

We are not indifferent.

And as long as that remains true, we have a path to forge onward.

no wonder i love katelynn. (please read her whole essay).

and on katelynn’s wisdom, i’ll sign off — with love, and faith that, together, we’ll find our way toward the shining light that cannot be extinguished.

david remnick, a voice i turn to in times of light or dark, wrote in the darkest hours of tuesday night, wednesday morning. he chose these words to end his essay: “…despair is no answer. to combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. that is all there is to do.”

and my burning question: what instruction guides you? where are you finding hope? how do you define, “be our best selves”?

riveted

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night after night, we took our places, however many of us happened to be home. we all had our props, tea mugs or ice cream alongside iterations of screens, small, smaller and smallest. as the night blackened outside the windows, one shared rectangle glowed: for the last two weeks, our portrait of the american family has been the four of us huddled around the modern-day campfire that is the tv blaring the national conventions, both of them. we take religion and politics in two flavors in this house, so we are by definition bi-partisan. because we watch knowing there is more than one brand of lens in this house (it’s the college kid who went off to school emphatically one way, came home another), we train our ears and our minds and our hearts on common ground.

it makes for truly compelling watching. no knee-jerk reactions allowed. and civility, doled out in carefully thought words, honestly asked questions, is the one abiding premise. fact-checking has become a family sport.

what compelled me the most, what i can’t get enough of, can’t stop thinking about was the oration. the power to put breath to words and bellow them across the seas of cheering (or jeering) souls in the seats of the arenas, both the Q in cleveland and the wells fargo center in philly. i found myself as rapt by the voices clearly not used to the national stage as i was by some of the ones whose road to glory and office was paved by the power to put heart and soul into political story.

IMG_7933i admit to tears — tears when the muslim immigrant father pulled his shiny copy of the Constitution from the pocket beneath his impeccably-pressed suit jacket. tears when his hajib-shrouded wife, the gold star mother of their fallen soldier son, stood by his side, without saying a word, looking as if this stage might be the last place in the world she wanted to be, except that deep in her heart she had a son whose story she would not let be silenced. the goosebumps began when the father, in his halting english, tinged with middle-east lilt, recounted how immediately after migrating to the u.s. from the united arab emirates he’d taken his three sons to visit the jefferson memorial. the father recited the words, the ones etched in white Georgia marble, jefferson’s words swearing “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” that so spoke to his son, whose name was Humayun, the son who had grown up to be a soldier and who died in iraq, an army captain who charged into death to save his soldiers. on june 8, 2004, when an explosives-laced taxi barreled through the gate of the army base he was there to protect, Capt. Humayun Khan told his soldiers to hit the dirt while he ran 10 steps toward the taxi, 10 steps before the car bomb exploded. the son, who had dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, is now buried, with bronze star and purple heart, in arlington national cemetery.

in case you missed the father’s words, and the moment he pulled out his pocket-edition of the Constitution, i’ve saved it for you here.

i was covered in a whole other kind of goosebumps when michelle obama took the high road, when she spoke through the lens of a mother, a mother teaching her daughters grace and grit in equal measure, it seems. and joe biden. oh, joe! and the president, as he so often has, had me in tears, streaming-down tears.

night after night, i felt my soul rise, and my heart pick up its pace. the voices and stories, the hands trembling, even the clearing of one history-making throat, all of it drew me in, gave me reason to hope. made me think — in the recounting of deeply intimate stories from mothers of slain sons and daughters, in the rising crescendo of preachers soaked in their own perspiration — that deep in the heart of all of this is a religion not bound by party or nation. it’s the majestic, indomitable, sometimes suffering human spirit, the one that given half a chance will reach for the light, will shimmy toward the crack where the air comes in.

it’s the stories of forgiveness, it’s the stories of wives and children kissing their daddy goodbye one last time, not knowing it was the last, not till later when some terrible knock came to the door, it’s the words pinned to those unforgettable moments, those moments when the human spirit stands to be crushed, but somehow, some way, it’s not. it catches some updraft, finds courage and voice, and rises again. rises to heights it hadn’t imagined.

for the last two weeks, we’ve heard story tumbled atop story. we’ve seen glimpses of the human spirit at its most soaring, and we’ve heard visions that make us tremble in fear. it’s the quadrennial amalgam of hope and awakening. now what we need is plenty of prayer.

which voices, which stories, which moments, are the ones that linger for you? 

(and a point of clarification: the kid who went off to college as president of the new trier young democrats and came home otherwise is not, repeat not, a backer of the republican presidential nominee. the kid is all about reasoned discourse, and deeply held founding principles. his respect is reserved — on both side of the aisle — for those rare few who abide by those immutable pillars of democracy.) 

and, finally, yes i note the irony in just last week saying i don’t write about politics here; i’m trying to thread a very fine needle here, and divine the sacred thread of human triumph and suffering and courage and grace when it’s thrust on a national stage — yes, the national political stage. it’s a belief that beneath the bluster there is something deeply, powerfully human that must be paid serious attention. and i abstain from divisiveness.

photo credits: (top) Josh Haner for the New York Times; (parents of Capt. Humayun Khan) Damon Winter for the New York Times

the wisdom of “it needn’t be correct”

interludes mindful

when you wander through life utterly certain that there are volumes you’ve yet to learn, a certain thing happens. a wonderful thing. you wake up every morning with your eyes, and your ears, and your heart at full alert. you are the ever-scanner, knowing that at any minute, from any crevice, the light might seep in. might flash in. the wisdom, gosh darn it, will come.

by day’s end, by the time you plop that cheek back onto the pillow, by the time you snuggle the sheets up by your chin, tucked back in for one more round of dreams, you’ll have — perhaps — learned a thing or two. gotten just a wee bit wiser. all because the teacher appeared, and you, the eternal student, were ready.

so it was the other afternoon as i was listening along in poetry class, when all of a sudden a fellow, a dancer with the new york city ballet, said something that shocked right through me, that slipped in through the crack, just off to the edge of the frame.

the subject, allegedly, was poetry. emily dickinson’s poetry, specifically. but in this wonderful class that i can’t stop inhaling, all sorts of wise souls wander onto the scene and peel back the layers of emily, of poetry, in ways i’ve not before known.

the discussion at hand was emily’s poem, “i cannot dance opon my toes,” the last poem of the four-week class taught by my beloved professor elisa new. she’d invited damian woetzel, a retired principal dancer with the new york city ballet, and now director of the aspen institute arts programs, to parse emily’s poem. as is professor new’s knack for unlikely pairings in the parsing of poetry, woetzel, a classically-trained ballet dancer, was joined in conversation by charles “l’il buck” riley, a practitioner of a street-dance form known as memphis jookin’ (think breakdance; it’s otherwise known as “gangsta walking”).

as street dance and ballet twirled in conversational tango, woetzel suddenly said this: “when i go to see people dance, it’s not to see them do it correctly. i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want — (his voice faded away). i want to find voice, essentially.”

now, this was nothing short of revolutionary to my little mind. i felt the shock of a chill run through me. (my brilliant friend amy, by the way, just yesterday afternoon defined “chill” to me in this way: “a chill is a current of truth that runs through your body,” when you see beauty, she said, or when you hear flat-out wisdom in a way you’ve never thought it before, i’d add.)

“i’m not that interested in correct.”

i felt the ties that bind snap loose. i felt myself freed from the tethers that, long as i can remember, have bound me. do it right, do it correctly, or don’t even try. that was pretty much the lesson i grew up believing. and while it didn’t stop me from trying, it set a nearly impossible bar. “get it right.” or else.

but here was a brilliant dancer, here was the director of aspen institute arts, for crying out loud, telling me it needn’t be correct. needn’t be perfect. stumbles are okay. bumps and bruises are beautiful.

your whole imperfect self is the most ravishingly beautiful self imaginable.

because it’s about something much deeper. it’s about opening up and saying, “this wobbly old soul, this soul that tries and tries, and sometimes makes it and more often stumbles, this is me.

“and you’re here for the likely chance that our two stumbling fumbling selves will find communion — not in our perfect pirouettes, but in the moments when i trip and you catch me. you brush me off and set me back upon the path, and you point the way forward. or better yet, you take me by the hand. you walk together with me. and you laugh, besides, at the way the two of us, we so often nearly fall off the stage.”

it’s a whole new paradigm: the paradigm of imperfection as aim. because what matters lies deep therein.

“i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want to find voice, essentially.”

and voice we all have. and, yes, sometimes it warbles. and sometimes it cracks. but it’s a voice and it’s ours. and it’s how we put words to what rustles around deep inside. it’s where our breath resides. it’s the topography that puts height and depth and nooks and crannies — glorious texture — to all that air flowing in and out of our lungs, air keeping us alive.

all of this is all the more immediately essential because this sunday i am doing something i’ve never done before. something that might have scared me out of my behoozies. i am walking onto a stage, and i am sitting down beside a cellist and a pianist. it’s a spoken word concert, inspired by one that a beloved friend and editor of mine once saw in japan.

i am, for the first time ever, invited into conversations about lighting and stage set, and in the faintest of ways, costume. i’m immersed in the full dimensionality of theatre. and i am discovering what happens when words are lifted from the page. when words are set soaring by the power of cello strings and piano keys, and the alchemies of audible, ephemeral creation.

and, as is my natural inclination, i was scared silly. until two things happened: until damian woetzel taught me that it’s not about correct; correct holds little interest, little tension, scant transparency.

and the other thing that happened is i stepped into the music during rehearsals, and i felt the most astounding flight: cello and piano, cellist and pianist, dove into conversation with the words i was unfurling. and then this, which i’ll preface by saying that many a writer’s whispered prayer is that, in between and through the words, music might come for those reading or listening. and, suddenly, there in the light-filled rehearsal room, i heard it, i felt it. the music did come, did lift and vault and carry the words to places and heights they’d not otherwise have ascended. it comes, the music does, i discovered, when you step onto a stage, and sit down beside a cellist and a pianist who’ve spent their lives deepening their knowledge of the landscape that’s theirs. the power of music, i’ve realized, is the safety net to my trapeze. is what holds me aloft, shooshes away my perpetual fears, is a medium that suddenly felt like coming home, a place where i, at long last, belong. how utterly unlikely.

so sunday afternoon at 1, at the midwest buddhist temple in chicago’s old town, i will be walking out from behind a curtain, all in black with a wrap of fuchsia. i’ll be sitting down in a japanese armchair, a bowl of oranges beside me, a vase spilling with springtime white. the cellist will pick up her bow. the pianist will strike a key. and i will put breath, put voice, to my words.

and i will remember that the wise ones in the room aren’t there to hear “correct,” they’re there to be moved, to cry, to find a voice, essentially.

and that is a truth that sets me soaring.

do you, like me, spend far too many hours of life being worried you won’t get it right? and thus binding yourself in ways that demand houdini-like tricks to set you free? 

that said, here’s an invitation: if you’re near chicago sunday afternoon, find your way to the temple, and plop yourself in a chair. cellist sophie webber and pianist soo young lee, both of fused muse ensemble, will take you places that might take your breath away…..

a few things:

1.) emily’s poem

I cannot dance opon my Toes –
No Man instructed me –
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet Knowledge –
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe –
Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze –
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped for Audiences – like Birds –
One Claw opon the air –

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so –

Nor any know I know the Art
I mention – easy – Here –
Nor any Placard boast me –
It’s full as Opera –

2.) the program for sunday’s “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time”

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and a post-script:

it’s sunday night, the interludes have ended. it’s quiet now and i’m breathing again. a dear friend snapped this moment of the concert. and i’m enchanted by what appear to be fairy lights wafting across the stage. the cellist is sophie webber, the pianist is soo young lee, both have PhDs in music. both are beautiful. sophie founded fuse muse ensemble, a collective of musicians who dedicate themselves to social causes as well as beautiful music in all forms. i hope this is only a beginning for us….here’s a peek at the magic of “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time.” thank you, from the bottom of my heart….

SlowingTimeMusic

official enough: Slowing Time

slowing time

the manuscript is off in copy editing. and just this week, i discovered a name that i’ve long known, long answered to, has been added to the “authors” roster.

so that must make it official enough.

and there it is, almost like getting a peek at the amniotic-slicked crown of a baby’s head as it wedges through the birth canal.

almost.

it’s slowing time, a book with my name on the cover. and pages and pages of my heart inside.

and it will be in bookstores come october. or maybe even september.

and for a girl who long ago sat tucked between her twin beds, splayed upon the braided oval rug, folding blank pages in halves and quarters, drawing pictures, pressing pencil to page to add sentences and paragraphs, it rather makes my heart thump to see that this time someone other than me is doing the work of rolling those pages off the presses, stamping that copyright on the page with the bit about the library of congress.

it’s a book that was born here, at the old banged-up maple table, where for so many mornings now we’ve pooled our wisdoms and our paying attentions. i think the page that made my heart thump the loudest as i was writing it, was perhaps the dedication page. that’s where you dig down deep and pull out the plumpest roots, the ones without which your heart might wither and die. you’ll find the chair sisters nestled there, in that abbreviated roster of literary midwives, the ones who propped me up on days when i might otherwise have wilted. or crumbled. or run away to hide.

what that means is that you and you and you are among the winds that blew me forward, that would not let me fade away and give up hope.

it’s not so easy putting words to the whispers of a heart. but what i found is that the more i typed, the more i believed.

what i love best about slowing time is that it’s a compilation of the quiet art of paying attention. and paying attention, i’ve found, is a silent — yet deeply animated — form of prayer. it’s tiptoeing through the holy hours of the day, of the seasons, and opening your heart wide enough to feel — and shlurp up — the brushstrokes of the Divine.

sometimes that comes in the words of a five-year-old boy who asks, “mama, what will happen when i die?” and follows rat-a-tat with: “will you die? will daddy die?”

sometimes it comes in keeping watch as mama bird builds her nest, as she scans the clumps of rustling grasses, plucks the fattest one and flies it back to the hatching branch. and, all the while, she’s teaching you a thing or two about resilience. and inexhaustibility. and faith, no matter the pounding of the springtime’s downpour.

often, for me, a lifelong churchgoer — one who pedaled her bike six weeks straight to early-morning mass the lent that i was eight and working hard to put shine to my halo — the Divine has skipped across my heart as i tiptoed into synagogue and wrapped myself in prayer at once ancient and timeless.

the undiluted premise of slowing time and the heart behind it is that the Divine is all around, if we slow down and pay close enough attention. it is a life of prayer lived in the thick and the messiness of the everyday.

it’s pure wonder that mary oliver, my poet priestess, graces the book’s first page, and it’s no accident that emily dickinson — “some keep the Sabbath going to church/ i keep it, staying at home” — is my patron saint.

my prayer is not bound by religion, but thrust heavenward by heart and because i’ve learned — stumbling all along the way — that most essential element of every prayer: the unspoken line where we are deeply listening.

here’s a peek at the publisher’s catalog for slowing time.

and bless you every one who pulled up a chair, and shared a wisdom — silent or otherwise — here where we call it holy communion. with a splash of cream.

how do you practice the art of slowing time? 

tea therapy

tea therapy

against the arctic whistle on the far side of the glass, the shrill siren of the tea kettle is all but marking shift change, with its regular rhythmic blasts. here at the old maple table all week, it signals: “in session.”

it’s the steam-driven bellows of the mugs of teas that punctuate a holy ritual taking place here. almost as if a shingle had been hung, with red neon arrows blinking, pointing up the bluestone walk, past the paned front door in shade of oceanic blue, lighting the way past snow drifts to the tucked-in table where the talk unfolds.

it’s been a blessing of this month of college interlude. my own sweet boy is long gone, now back in classes, but a host of other college kids, kids with heavy hearts and twisted potholed paths, kids who’ve lost their way, they are finding their way here, to this table, to this ample-bellied teapot where the water never empties and the teas are always spiced. my bowl of clementines is at the ready, so too the cookies under glass, where a swift lift of the domed lid offers sweet accompaniment for salty tears.

i find it a whisper of a miracle that kids have figured out they are always welcome here, and that there’s a heart who will listen without judgement, who makes a place for them to dump their worries and their fears. and who lives and breathes the promise that these dark days will end; there’s a grownup — right here in the flesh — who’s known the shadow and the great abyss, and who — with skinned knees all her own — found her way up the side of the steepest trail.

“it’s the 10-minute rule,” one wise tea-sipper intoned. she meant that she’d been taught to take on her overwhelming dread or angst or out-of-this-world anxiety in 10 minute chunks. endure it. know it has an end, and will not swallow you whole. and in a good 10 minutes, something deep inside will shift. or not. and you’ll enter into yet another 10-minute exercise in sheer survival. and soon enough, sure as sure can be, it will pass. the vista will change. and those baby steps — those 10-minute triumphs of straight-up enduring — they will, through simple additive powers, combine into hour- and then hours-long stretches of breathing. curled in a ball, perhaps. or with the self-propelled motivation to pick up a book, climb on a treadmill, call a friend, tiptoe to the kitchen to see if warm company might be found.

i’ve seen the gamut here this week, had kids whisper words, and follow swiftly with, “i hope that doesn’t shock you.” no, it doesn’t shock. no, no. never. it only breaks my heart that smart kids, gorgeous kids, kids with hopes and dreams  are nearly train-wrecked by the vicissitudes of hurdles set too high, of broken promises and betrayals, of a world in which no sin goes un-broadcast and there’s too little wiggle room for the fine art of making honest mistakes.

so while i steep in my own brand of guilt for not raking in freelance assignments, and while my bank account is on the decline and not the rise, i find more than a dose of solace that the pages of my life flipped forward to the chapter i long ago dreamed of: where i’m the old lady at the maple table, the old lady (not yet hunched-over, thanks be to the pharmaceutical gods who give us bone-boosting weekly white horse pills) whose shoulders are wrapped in the woven folds of woolen shawl, and who with lumps of sugar and dollops of milky cream doles out vast acreages of her heart and what scraps of wisdom she’s tucked into her apron pocket all along the way.

at long week’s end, i find myself bowed in prayer for these children, these wide-eyed pilgrims trying so hard to find their way, to find the shafts of light breaking through the tight space between the rocks. and i find myself so deeply grateful that my years of being lost now pay me back in solid company where it matters most: here at the old maple table, where hope is served around the clock.

no need to knock: i promise you, the door is always open. and so’s the heart.

word of the week: i believe i’ve let languish a promise made back in 02139 to bring you a delectable word of the week. well, here’s one for this week — salmagundi (provenance: nigel slater’s “notes from the larder”)  a hodgepodge is what it means, and it comes from a literal mix of chopped meat, eggs, flavored with oil, vinegar, anchovies, and onions. but used freely far beyond the bounds of the kitchen, as in “they were a salmagundi of old and young, wise and fool.”

and before arriving at the query of the week, another bit of poetic thought picked up last week in my online “poetry in america: walt whitman,” class, taught by professor elisa new of harvard college. in her introduction to poetry lecture, she riffed on poetic language, and its powers. i thought you might find it worth pondering, and so i snipped it to bring to the table, though i forgot to leave it here, as last week’s recipe took up so very many lines….here tis, from elisa new, harvard’s powell m. cabot professor of american literature (and wife of former treasury secretary and former harvard university president larry summers):

Poetic language is language worth pausing over. It’s language that slows down time. It’s language that takes us into corners of our experience we might have overlooked. It’s language that is conscious of itself as language. It’s language trying out and expanding and pressing at the borders of what language can do, just as in other media, in painting, painters think about how to use paint in new ways. In the world of music, musicians think about how to use tone and sound in new ways.

Poetry is language curious about language itself. To say that is, in a way, to put poetry at the very center of the humanistic enterprise, since human beings are the creatures who use language. When we study poetry, we think about what it is to be human, the ways in which our existence is mediated and created and advanced and expanded by language.

oh, to be so supremely conscious of the words we choose, and how we push the boundaries of human connectedness….

where do you dish out your best counsel? the kitchen table, the cutting board, the cookstove, the couch, the driver’s seat of your mobile, the bedroom, the work bench, the miles and miles upon which you walk? 

gobsmacked by everyday prophets

Dew Drops

proph-et (n.) 1. (in some religions) a person believed to have been sent by God to teach people about his intentions. 2. a person who predicts the future. 3. a person who promotes or supports a new belief or theory.

and so it is that as we motor along the patched asphalt roads of our everyday, suddenly we screech to a stop when we realize, right before our eyes, a wise soul, a prophet, a shaker-upper has flung his or her wisdom splat in the middle of the lane. stuck there, not able to never mind, not able to turn the wheel and steer around it, we succumb to the roadblock. loosen our grip on the wheel, stare wide-eyed through the windshield, soak up every last tidbit of what’s there in a pile clogging the throughway.

sometimes that’s what it takes to get us to pause, to pay attention.

and so it was, not so many days ago, when sitting in the dim-lit auditorium where our synagogue holds the talk part of sunday school. the rabbi was up at the front, at the mike, sipping his starbucks grande whatever. and, once again, the conversation seemed to be steering into one of those ones i’ve heard far too often. the topic, more or less: how in the world do you talk to your kids about God, when you’ve no clue who or what that might be?

i’ve learned to sit on my hands. to mostly not raise one or the other. over the years, i’ve made it clear on several occasions that i DO have a clue who that is. that i find the Holiness all around and within. that it’s there at the dawn when i tiptoe outside and find the heavens alight with pinpoints of stars. that it’s there when the voice on the other end of the line breathes hope into my emptiness. that it’s there when the words that spill from the mouth of the child i’m tucking in bed hit me with a compassion i’d not expect from a grownup, let alone a 12-year-old who can’t for the life of him untangle the distributive property upon which his pre-algebra homework is hinged.

i’d more or less surrendered to the conversation, felt myself sinking lower and lower — in spirit and chair. but then, the long lanky fellow a few seats to the east in my row, he raised his hand. now, i know this fellow to be wise, and i know he’s lived through some tragedy. his wife died when his children were little, one still in diapers, one just past toddling. he speaks with a gravely voice, the result of a cancer.

here’s what he said: “when my son asked why people die, i said: because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters… 

i sat there, low in my spring-loaded chair, and suddenly bolted upright. humbled. stunned. turning the words over and over in my head, as if marbles i held to the light. examining, absorbing.

how we live matters….

these words from a father to son, a son who’d just lost his mother.

i did what i do when i know i’ve heard wisdom: i reached for my backpack, i pulled out a pen and my red little moleskin. i loosened the elastic snap that holds open the next empty page. i scribbled. i suddenly was wide awake and taking in every word of this conversation, no longer the same old, same old.

all week i’ve drifted back to that moment. when suddenly, out of the almost dark, a gravely voice spoke words that stirred me, top to bottom, inside to out.

i was knocked over by what he said — especially since i’ve too heavy a dose of black irish soul, the sort that too often fears the end is just around the next bend, and this notion of using that as a wedge to take it up a notch, to live each blessed day as if it could be the last or the second to last, is rather a zap to the noggin, to the soul.

but even more i was knocked over by the blessed truth that we never know where the wisdom will come, we never guess the prophets around us. and that’s why it matters that we stand at attention. that we live on the lookout — for wisdom, for truth, for gentlest kindness and full-bodied compassion.

if instead of sinking low in our chairs, if instead of surrendering to the ho-hum humdrum we think is unfurling, we stay awake to the possibility that someone far wiser than we’ll ever be is about to brush up against us, pass along a kernel of all that’s holy and wise and forever.

and that’s why this mystery called life is so utterly and wholly capable of taking our breath away — without drumroll or siren — and filling it in with high-octane Holy.

so, who’s your prophet of late? and what wisdom was plopped in your lap?

photo credit above: my sweet will kamin. a morning’s dew captured in magnificent light. not unlike the gift of the prophet….

loopy days

loopy days bedsheet

for three short weeks — one down, only two to go — there’s a new rhythm in this old house. it goes like this: ’round late morning, i hear a swoosh from up above the kitchen ceiling (that’s the bedsheets being whipped aside); then i hear a thud, followed by a parade of thuds, thud-thud-thud down the stairs. as the thuds round the bend, lope into the kitchen, i look up and see a bed-head. my beloved boy.

he begins his morning forage through the fridge. as he piles tubs and cartons on the countertop, he lets out with a “whadda we got for breakfast, mommo?”

that’s my cue to begin the litany, all within the confines of high-protein, low carbs, healthy, delicious, and filling.

hmm. let me know if you’ve got ideas.

it’s at about this point that the eggs are being cracked, he’s begging for mushrooms, and wants to know if i remembered to get the mozzarella at the market. as i watch egg whites whirl toward the kitchen walls, i leap up from my typing to play at being his sous-chef (though really all i am is the wiper-upper of kitchen splats).

he whips up something grand, something delicious, and always spilling over the sides of his plate.

we mosey back to the table. or, well, he moseys, and i finish up the de-splatting. then we sit, and the loopy days begin. we dive deep. quickly.

waste little time on folderol and fluff. we’ve got a year’s worth of college life to pour over (we’ve been known to take in two years at a gulp, retreading over year before last, if pertinent) , and there’s the year ahead to consider, too.

we loop round and round, drop threads, follow new ones, circle back — hours later — to the thread we’d left behind. it goes like this for half the day.

now, not all college kids go off the way mine has. i’ve heard tales of kids who text many times  a day. i’ve even heard stories about college kids who dial phones. call home. to be fair, that happens here too, but not so very often. and, when it happens, it is sometimes very very late at night.

we seem to have birthed a college kid who takes his college full-throttle. unless it’s dire — and on occasion, it’s been vaguely that — we’re pretty much the side show. oh, there are insistent “love you, mommo”s. and there are (astonishingly), “do you remember where you put my sewing kit?”

mostly, i, um, never ever doubt, not for any longer than five or 10 minutes, that he appreciates my unbroken love and care.

but, really, it’s these sacred hours when he’s home, when the two of us are circling in and out of each other’s footspace and quarter-hour time slots, that we make up for lost time, and seal the deal for the long whitespace ahead.

these hours, the ones where he might sink down low inside a bean bag, while i trod for miles on the treadmill, the ones where i sous to his chef, these are the ones that knit us deep and thick and forever at the heart.

love in every house spills out in idiosyncratic ways. and it changes over time.

at my house now, i am licking up these hours of deep and winding conversation as if the ice cream melted on my cake plate.

i am whispering thanks to the heavens above that, right now, for this short interlude, i can do my typing here, not far from where the thuds patter down the stairs. so that i can weave my sentences in between his stories. so i can be here to catch the loop-de-loops of conversation as they unfurl. in slow time. unhurried time. whip-up-omelettes-while-you’re-talking time.

because i’m long practiced in the art of asking questions, allowing long spells for replies, i find this a part of motherhood to which i take a particular shine. play time on the floor, i flunked. so, too, chutes and ladders and monopoly. i wasn’t bad at crayons and paper. but really.

the deepest glue i know is the one that comes from unfurling the whole of the human heart. the nooks and crannies. crests and high plains.

so it’s what we do here. for three short weeks. in the mid-day hours when no one else is home. and my brain’s at full attention. and my work can wait till dark. for these hours are slipping through my fingers. and i am plumbing the depths of each and every one.

loopy days, i find, are the summer’s sweetest offering.

do you practice the art of the slow-unwinding conversation? the one with someone you love that stops and starts and plumbs the depths for days and days on end? and carries you across long dry deserts of barely enough time to really, really talk?

and because i promised a bit of cerebral uplift, i’ll begin what i’m calling the marginalia department, where i scribble in the margins of whatever page i’m turning, where i recount for you the lines i’ve scored and underscored. 

this week from rebecca solnit’s “the faraway nearby,” a line to chew on for a time:

“Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”

or this….

“Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.”

i am especially keen on the first, about difficulty school, and the option of learning from it. it’s a thought that carried me to sleep last night…..and it’s a book that came highly recommended by one of my very favorite reader friends…..

the things that moms just know….

the boy with his spoon in the loops mumbled something this morning that sounded like a family of mmm’s had gone out to the carnival, climbed onto the bumper car ride, and rumbled their way through the course.

mmm, mm m mm mmm mmm mm?

“oh,” said i, “you want some orange juice?”

he nodded, then swallowed.

not thinking another thing of it, i opened the fridge, reached for the carton and poured.

he, though, looked up from the page where the sports scores are duly recorded. he had that curious look in his eyes.

and that’s when he did what he so often does; he broke open the ordinary, caused me to stop in my tracks, to pause, to ponder, to pay closer attention.

he said, simply and not simply at all: “i have a question. what are some of the most interesting things that moms just know?”

he fielded the question as if moms were a species unto their own. as if he were there at the zoo, peering in from the far side of the bars, and i was one of the slow meandering mammals, one of those big furry cats, perhaps, pacing purposefully back and forth in my concrete-floor rectangle, looking out at the crowd, plotting somehow, as i always imagine they do, those poor cats, how to break out of that measly four-walled existence.

my little one, the one with the loops back in his spoon, continued on with his morning query: “i mumbled,” he said, “but you knew exactly what i meant,” he explained of the motherly feat that had captured his attention.

“what are some of the really abstract things that you know? the really abstract things that you know about me?”

ah, yes, the mother, Mater omnes sciens, mother all knowing, as the latin scholar would say.

apparently, to the sweet child, it appears that without trying, without elaborate control board and dozens of criss-crossed wires, i mysteriously, and on occasion, pull out my invisible magnifying tool, peer deep into his cerebrum, and divine all sorts of nifty things. say, that it’s breakfast time, he’s been snoring all night in a stuffy little chamber of a room, and he’s developed a thirst for the drink he downs each and every morning, give or take the ones when something more tempting — say, pineapple juice — is there in the fridge. he wants me to pour, voila, a shallow glass of OJ.

to the child, apparently, this appears a motherly trick of pure prestidigitation.

the child, apparently, has no clue that we live and breathe, some of us, to map out the swath of their landscape. they have no clue that as they shovel pasta tubes into their mouth, we are studying their sweet little face, reading between lines, on patrol at all times for sparks that might be smoldering there in the forest. or that we are searching, as they roll through the door after a long day of school, for the slightest telltale flinch, the mere suggestion of a clue that this was a bad day, and we are here, all but tied up in apron strings, the living-breathing emotional-rescue machine.

the child, apparently, has no clue that his entire life long we have been listening, listening intently. we have felt the piercing upon impact of certain words as they simultaneously hit our eardrums, and zing straight to our hearts. they have no clue that we have powers of instant memorization, that we tumble some lines, the occasional shard of a word or words, over and over and over in our minds that don’t cease, don’t know from the pause button.

and thus, whereas we think nothing of reaching for the drink that they drink breakfast after breakfast, or smearing the same old peanut butter onto the bread that he happens to love more than any, there stands a chance, a slim chance, that the child on rare occasion looks up from his daily existence and catches a glimmer of the miracle that is having someone who loves you, someone who knows you so intently, so deeply, that she is able without vowels interrupting the string of consonant sounds, to decipher just what it is you desire.

and, without you even saying a word sometimes, she is able to tiptoe into your bedroom at night, on just the right night, and she knows to slip under the sheets, right beside you, and start making those circles on your forehead, the ones that you love, the ones that make you let down your shoulders, your worries, after a long hard day. and she knows, without you saying a word, just when you need her to ask, “so how was your day, sweetie?” because she might have asked that question a dozen times already, but it’s at bedtime, it’s there in the dark, when the words serve to uncork the deep heart of the matter.

mamas know those things.

they do if they are listening, if they are paying attention. if their own hearts are still enough, if they’ve spent years deep at work practicing the art of those things that mamas do and know and say and understand and feel through and through.

that’s how mamas acquire what to a little boy spooning loops might seem like a list of abstractions. like how a mama knows by the way a boy bites at his lip that he’s just a little bit nervous, or that when he hops a certain way on the ball field it means he is quietly proud of that ball he just caught tight in his mitt, or how she knows — not because it’s abstract so much as highly particular — that he likes his cinnamon sugar sprinkled right up to the edge of the buttered toast, and he doesn’t like the butter in unmelted lumps, thank you.

because, in the end, mothering is all about the particulars.

mothering, at its best, is the art of paying pure attention.

of knowing, for a good long spell of years anyway, the unspoken landscape of the unfolding child. because, after all, we start out this adventure from the very beginning, from before when the words come. so we’ve had years and years of filling in blanks, from reading the particular shrill of a cry, from feeling how the little one kicks his legs against the wall of our womb, and later on watching how he does the same there on the stretched-out blanket.

i like to think it’s my job to be a high-sensory detector. to discern the interior dialogue, the one of his heart, before he’s learned the words to put to that script. if i know to ask the right question, if i can lay out the word choice, the possible phrase, then he can begin to pluck from the choices. he can begin to gain fluency in honoring all the feelings that bottle up inside. i can be his guide in the language of self-expression.

and i can be the one who knows that first thing in the morning, when he needs to race to the bus, a mouthful of OJ is just the drink to sweeten, to douse, his dry little throat.

no miracle there from my perspective. but the miracle is, from his, there is.

and those are just some of the things that mamas just know…..

what are some of the abstract things that you just know about the people you love? and how did you learn them?

the hours that matter the most

as i sift through the grains of my week, of my year, of my long stretch of motherhood, i’ve come to know that the grains i hold a bit longer, the grains i hold up to the light, are the fine simple hours that come, often, right after school.

when the boys who i love are bothered, are troubled, are weighed down with the grit of the day.

when suddenly the chairs at the table are pulled. bottoms splot onto cane-woven seats. when tea cups are cradled in palms. when oranges are peeled, piled in sections.

when the talking begins.

of all the scores of things i might do in the course of a week, of a lifetime, nothing perhaps matches the wholeness of those holy hours.

the boys who i love are sifting through their own hearts, laying their troubles there at my chest, at my heart. they are trusting not my mouth but my ears.

just listen, you can hear them hoping.

just hear all my words, spoken and not.

just listening alone will heal, will soothe, go a long way toward fixing.

when days are bad, when hours are bumpy, most of the time we aren’t looking for quick-cures or band-aids. all we want, really, is someone to sop up the hurt. to listen to worries.

all we want, often, are eyes that look deep, look gently. eyes that listen. not words that cut off. not words that dismiss.

just hear me, you can hear the hearts saying. if you listen. just listen.

and so, unscripted, unplanned, the scene plays over and over. one minute we’re there at the sink, i might be chopping or rinsing, a child is circling the kitchen. the talking begins.

the kettle is cranked. the tea bags and cups, pulled from the cupboards. tea kettle whistles. stories are spilling.

i walk to the table, two teacups in hand. chairs are pulled out. each of us sits. i lean in, my chest pressed against the edge of the table, tilting toward the one who is talking.

the quieter i sit, the more wholly i take in the words, the deeper the place from which the words come.

it’s a curious algebra, the one of the heart.

on the surface, perhaps, it appears to be one-way. but in fact, the art of listening is a most active one. you take in, you sift, you turn each morsel of thought, you examine, allow the questions to rise. but you wait. you hold your questions off to the side, in a queue, on hold. patiently waiting their turn.

when it’s time, when the pause comes, you reel out the questions, one, or maybe a string. you sit and you wait.

a question, constructed with care, unspooled on the river of talk, is one that sinks deep, one that says, “i am with you in thought. we are in this together. our heads and our hearts entwined, teamed up. you’re not alone. i wonder, too.”

no solution need come. no answers, plucked from the current.

a deep conversation is not one in which the success of the time in the water is measured by number of fish in your bucket. there’s no scale at the end. no photo of you with your whopper-sized trout.

in fact, it might not be till later that night, or a week or a year down the road, when the one who you talked to realizes that all those hours, strung on a line that never breaks, have woven themselves into a cord that connects. a life-string that keeps you from drowning, from sloshing alone in the deep.

it’s what you hold onto, there with your ears and your heart wide open, and your mouth rather hushed.

you remember how deeply you prayed that someone would listen.

you cradle that cup till the sides grow cold, till the sun sets, and the clock inches along.

you know when it’s time for homework to start, for dinner to simmer along in the pots.

but in that holy interlude where one heart’s ache is offered up, received by another, the weight shared, burden lifted, those are the hours that matter the most.

those are the hours that answer our prayers.

the ones we’ve prayed all our lives.

the image up above, a boy and his cat, on a cold snowy day is one that i cherish. i love how the two of them lean in toward each other, touch forehead to forehead. a good afterschool talk is like that. and yes, one of us purrs.
what holy interludes of listening have you had this week? who taught you how to listen?