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Category: restorative powers

holy comforter

maybe you haul your wounded self to the water’s edge, to where rocks punctuate the water’s otherwise-unstartled flow, and set things percolating, gurgling. perhaps it’s the roar of the water falling, tumbling down ledges. or the susurrations of a creek rushing through grasses. 

maybe you park your bum in the golden glowing woods, squat on a fallen trunk of maple or oak, a log now home to mosses and mushrooms. or you press your soles to the slope of a mountain, hard against granite or igneous rock, where, as the woodsman John Muir (who advised climbing barefoot) once noted, we’re wise to absorb the sacred essence “with our heels as well as our heads.” 

the other morning, knocked about by a phone call i’d been both chasing and dreading, i sought triage and solace out where the autumn light slanted in on my garden’s last gasps. holy comfort i found there with my clippers in hand, untangling my thoughts along with the last of the tomato’s serpentine withering vines, soaking in the morning’s few waning sunbeams. 

i all but wrapped myself in the strands of this earth’s balms. holy comforter, indeed. the warmth of the harvest sun. the unparalleled green. each late-season leaf expiring its last bits of life-giving balm, or what the twelfth-century mystic and herbalist hildegard of bingen termed viriditas, the divine healing power of green. she once wrote, “there is a power that has been since all eternity, and that force and potentiality is green!” in other words, the surging “thereness” of God, life source of all. and, oh, i basked in it the other morning. 

there is something particularly soothing — nay, healing — about the comforts of the late-season garden, about the comforts of each and every season, really. 

it’s as if the earth presses itself hard against my hollowed chest, against the faint beating of my worn-thin heart. it soothes without words, the whole of the creation does. doesn’t try to fill in the silence, offer quick fix. the earth, holy comforter, simply is present. stands in certain unwobbling encounter. makes real the declaration: “i am here.”

benevolent, earth offers healing by multiple choice: should you not feel the radiant heat on the bare skin of your arms, inhale the pungent spice-notes of marigold or spearmint as you break off a stem. or catch the fluttering shadow of october’s south-bound monarch playing with the breeze. or the chatter of sparrows, incessantly sparring. 

each and every sensory channel stands at the ready, inviting the way in. 

there’s a presence, grander, more tender, than i’ve otherwise known. it’s the enveloping bosom of this holy healing earth. or the soft shoulder against which i lay my weary head. 

it’s where i turn when the hurt is too big, or not yet sorted out, not pegged into words. and i’m as certain as anything that it’s the one i call God who enwraps me when i step into the wilds, when i carry my banged-up sorry old self into the balm that is this holy comforter earth. 

***

Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. / Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. / Now, think. / What delight God gives to humankind / with all these things….

—Hildegard of Bingen

how has any aspect of the whole of creation comforted you of late, or in particular?

sweet, sweet earth

it was gasping for air, really.

i’d loped to the garage, grabbed the crusty old trowel, grabbed my prophylactic spritz bottle of stay-away-squirrels spray, and headed out to the secret sinuous side garden where i looked for a desperate patch crying for hope. crying for something to rise up in the spring, on the far side of the harsh and impending winter.

i was armed with a battery of bulbs, bulbs in various girths, fat ones that promised me daffodil, itty-bitty wisps of bulbs who promised me the tenderlings, snowdrops and siberian squill, and those space-age globes of allium, in this case promising a puff ball of blue. as pretty a thing to bury my nose in as i could imagine.

i’d somehow gotten the itch to give back, to give back to dear mama earth what she so unfailingly offers me: tender and certain shelter, jolt of resilience, undying promise that even if daunted she’s not going away. not yet anyway. not if we can muscle the forces to cease and desist with the trashing of the one glorious blue marble long, long ago entrusted to us.

a few mornings before, amid the cleaning and clearing and worrying, i’d leapt into the old red wagon, the car that takes me wherever i aim it, and i’d motored over to the store with the rows and bins of springtime bulbs, an adventure that’s something like a trip to the candy counter, only without the threat of cavities. i’d filled my arms, judiciously putting aside the bulbs that would have cost as much as a pound of burgers. and then, when the urge struck, i’d be stocked and ready to dig, bury, and someday behold.

i’ve always found it sacramental, the dropping to my knees, gashing into the surrendering soil, shaking a powder of bulb-boosting fortifier, and then carefully lifting just the right bulb for the purpose: to tuck in for the winter the concentrated pouch of promise. the thing that looks like a dried-up onion, laying it to rest in the shadow of autumn, nestling it soft against the earth’s curve, the earth’s cupped hands, the earth’s promise: i’ll take it from here.

and all winter long, through the ice and the wind that will pound at my windowpanes, my bevy of bulbs will be silently doing their thing, shooting down roots, stirring within.

the tasks of autumn are the stockpiling tasks, the turning-in ones. slip on an extra layer of sweater, slow roast the last of the tomatoes, make them last through the long months ahead. upholster the garden with unseen but certain patches of promise.

when your heart hurts or is heavy, i’ve found, it helps to ply tender ministrations to whomever or whatever falls in my path. this week it was my paltry patch of earth. there’ve been times when it was one of my boys, one whose knee or whose heart had been banged up and bloodied. or a friend who needed little more than a hot mug of tea and an hour of listening.

but the taking care of this holy earth is bigger even than that. it’s understanding how sacred it is at its core, and in its every blessed breath. go silent for a minute or two (or three or four) and simply keep watch: listen for the mournful cry of the geese veeing the sky. watch the leaves go gold. plop yourself at the water’s edge and marvel at its infinite rhythm.

i’ve just started reading a marvelous book by john philip newell, one titled, sacred earth, sacred soul, and like newell’s earlier books, it’s an exploration of celtic wisdoms, a reawakening of the ancient and eternal truths long ago snuffed nearly into extinction. it’s a book i’ve already managed to slather with my inky underlinings, page after page.

newell, once the warden of iona abbey, a sixth-century monastery rising up from a wee island off scotland in the roar of the north atlantic, beckons us to listen for the beat of the sacred deep within ourselves and one another, and deep within the body of the earth. sacred, he writes, “is not bound by religion.” sacred is the soulful knowing, the keen awareness, that deep down in all things — in the earth, and in everything that has been born — there pulses an inextinguishable holiness. it’s our task, our holy task, to sense it, to seize it: to see it, to feel it, to honor it. to make way for it, make an altar for it, hold it up high.

my bulb-burying the other morning might have been seen as just another autumnal chore. or, through the celtic lens, the lens of an ancient wisdom shared by all the world’s great religions, it’s that i was quietly tucking in visible manifestations, reminders come spring, that what pulses deep within the earth, deep within each of our souls and our selves, is something unflaggingly beautiful. and holy. at once tender and resilient.

digging those bulbs, turning newell’s pages, brought me back to a peaceful holy calm. and i filled my lungs with pure blessed air.

what brings you breath? what’s your understanding of sacred? and how do you sense the sacred within?

it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…

in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….

well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.

so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).

one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled my belief: essays on life and art.

hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:

Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…

Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.

I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!

These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art

he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.

the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.

and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.

i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.

i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.

for this i pray.

what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?

*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….

resurrection gardening

resurrection gardening

i am practicing resurrection. with a trowel and a bag of supercharger root booster. i am digging holes. big holes. unearthing what to you might look like dried brown sticks. but if you look close, really really close, there are bits and shoots — and occasionally tendrils — of green.

i call it resurrection gardening.

i’m hellbent, it seems, on bringing things back to life.

it’s a fine pursuit on a hot summer’s day when the world all around is going to hell in a hand basket. or so it sounds — especially if you listen to the chatter and the vitriol that percolates on air waves all day long, all summer long, all these-last-three-years-long.

as is so often the case in the realm of the garden, it’s become something of an obsession. i dream of half-dead (okay, five-sixths dead) vines i won’t give up on. i dream of digging them out of their sun-forsaken plots and moving them, with surgical-nurse precision and intensive-care-nursery tenderness, around a corner and down the fence line to where their ganglionic roots might take a liking to the new surroundings and do the little wiggle dance that is a root tunneling through earth, sucking up sustenance, rewarding the resurrection gardener with a little whoop-de-doop! (the triumphant yelp that comes, even in a whisper, when knot of green appears where before there was only stick. and dead-looking stick at that.)

i like to think of my little bumper crop of almost-dead things as my lazarus contingent. this week alone, i’ve counted two trees, a bush, and two vines among the not-yet-fallen. after the long hard winter, my garden had taken on a hardstruck look. bushes that once had burst with leaves were now not much besides a collection of barren stick or branch, all jutting this way and that as if to shout, “we’re dying here, and we’d like an assist before we take our last and final exhale.”

i’d ignored their cries long enough. i’d let the summer wind into july before i mustered the chutzpah, the courage, the lopper-power it takes to ply a miracle or two. or to try anyway.

this week, something hit me. overcame me, really. if you tried to find me for long hours on end, you wouldn’t have had much luck. unless you poked around the corners of my semi-acre. then you might have spied a mud-streaked, pewter-haired, shovel-wielding missus, wrenching this muscle or that, grunting on occasion, eventually trotting triumphantly, holding a vine or bush by the hairs (as if a pussycat plucked from too deep a mud puddle). i’d survey the so-called acreage, find a spot of promise, and begin again to dig. i’d sprinkle prestidigitation powders, do a little voodoo dance, and plop that salvaged  vine/bush/quasi-tree into its new digs.

by nightfall, i ached all over. and needed nothing short of a scrub bush to un-cake the muck from in between my toes, up my shins, and the same on the upper limbs, the ones that had me muddy clear past my elbows.

but deep down inside i was humming. humming a happy, i-saved-something-today tune. it’s not a song i get to sing very often. almost never. which might have been what made it so so sweet. and such an unstoppable obsession. in a world of things i cannot fix, presidents i can’t make go away, attorneys general who make me want to scream, kids i love hauling off to college sooner than i’d like to think, i am quite tickled by the notion that a sharp-edged shovel, a bag of super-booster, and a little bit of i’ll-show-you is enough to shift the narrative, to re-write the death knell of the climbing hydrangea, the summer snowflake viburnum, and the plain old humdrum hydrangea.

i’ll be keeping watch through the days and weeks (and occasional nights) ahead. i’ll be on the lookout for even the itty-bittiest proof that all is not lost, and one lowly little specimen is on the rise, not the death watch.

if i can leave this planet even one iota greener, lusher, more apt to spread its roots and rise, well then my days caked in mud, my nights caked in ben-gay, will not have been in vain.

what did you resurrect this week? 

IMG_2187

my most promising — and challenging — resurrectee…

a few weeks back, when i was off at poetry school, the poem i memorized, wendell berry’s “manifesto: the mad farmer liberation front,” ends with the magnificent instruction, “practice resurrection.” which is precisely what i’ve been doing all week. i like to think farmer berry would wink in approval at the notion that i’ve taken up the practice, with shovel. 

here, once again, are the lines i memorized, from “manifesto”…(on second thought, i’m letting the whole thing rip here. it’s too glorious to only quote a stanza or two.) celebrate mr. berry’s instruction: get out there and practice resurrection this week. xoxoxox

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

 

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

necessary harbingers

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it hits me mid-morning, when i notice the light streaming in the grimy windowpanes, the panes streaked from winter wear and tear, when i notice the light has shifted toward its vernal blue. there is an undertone in spring, the light all but reaches out and wraps my shivering shoulders, the light promises: “you will breathe again. you will bask one day soon.”

so too the crust of earth. it breaks open in the early morning hours, once the thaw gives way, and only in certain patches, the ones where sunlight falls undiluted. that’s where soil softens, and insistent bulge of stem nudges through. not unlike that baby’s head crowning through the birth canal, that nub of newborn green exerts invisible, unrelenting force. it wants to breathe. it strains to make it to the light.

we strain too. we strain this time of year.

and so the earth and sky join forces, the earth and sky and their inhabitants, they give all they’ve got — full moon, sunrise streaks of tourmaline and tangerine, morning song arising from the robin’s throat — they dial it up a notch, a holy notch. they must sense that we’re inching toward end-of-winter full surrender. and if not for their employ, if not for their emphatic labors we might, well, shrivel into tight-wad commas, curl up and call time out.

to catch the earth in the act, in eternal sacred act, you need to pay close attention. need to all but rub your nose along the thawing garden fringe. but when you do, when you inspect the earth’s perimeter, the rim where underworld meets all the rest, you feel your heart go pit-a-pat at every rising quarter inch. in one wee patch along my bluestone walk, a patch where sunshine lands from 10 bells till sometime after two, the little nubs have sprouted frilly collars, have unfurled lemon-yellow petals, and emerged into a borderless swath of hope. they are the necessary harbingers, the first-line rescue squad. the ones the earth sends out to meet the winter’s end, and beckon coming spring. there they lie, morning, noon and even into night: my cheery patch of promise. as if the earth is sending up a lifeline, begging us to not surrender, not throw in the trowel, hold onto hope for just a minute longer.

at about this moment in history, this sorry moment at the end of winter’s hibernation and the daily dirge of downbeat news, when all the earth seems awash in gray and drab, we human species, we need a jolt. we crave a heavenly injection, a many-colored cloak to shake us from our doldrum. and, after these millennia of shared inhabitation, the earth — in all her glory — she gives and gives what we so deeply need.

earth, so often dispatched to be the messenger from heaven. earth, without a single word, pulses with life-saving, soul-searing homily and, in time, the hallelujah.

all earth asks is that we listen, is that we open wide the pores. earth and heaven will indulge us. will bathe us in a holy light, in skies awash in pink, in flutterings of wing, and stem and bloom that will not, will not, shrink from vernal task: to whisper the coming once again of hope.

holy hallelujah.

daffydills

what signs of hope have tickled your consciousness this week?

bee balm

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maybe, in a week like this one, being mesmerized by a bumblebee is not so much distraction as act of mercy. for the broken heart. for the heart that cannot quite absorb the rat-a-tat of horrors. for the narratives that began to emerge from the bathroom stalls of a nightclub in orlando, where the scenes painted in the tellings were nearly impossible to fathom. bodies piled atop bodies. playing dead. being dead. not knowing if the body atop you was a dead one. finding out later, it was.

you can see why bumblebees and old roses and the draw of the garden — nodding heads that begged for air, for sunlight, amid a stranglehold of weeds — you can see, perhaps, why, amid this particular week, the hours and the sunlight and the shadow, all lured me in. i couldn’t seem to keep away. i’d plant myself in front of screens: i’d watch, i’d click, i’d read. i’d gasp and gasp again. and then, while i had no intention of doing so, i’d find my toes sliding into muddy garden clogs, i’d find my fingers curled around the necks of clippers, and next thing i knew i was waist-high amid the weeds, snipping my way to clearer, purer oxygen.

it’s the power of the garden in a week like this one. when the balm of sun and breeze might root out the nettles that settle in our soul. when i begin to imagine sighs of relief rising up from flocks of old baptisia (otherwise known as “wild indigo”), because i’ve finally paid attention to the fact that they were suffocating under boughs of runaway lilac. when i might have heard a soft round of applause from the out-of-control clematis that begged for fortitude in the form of twine on which to climb, to reach for the clouds. i have a habit (you’ve just witnessed) of assigning voice and charm and personality to the growing things in my garden, at least i do when i begin to notice they’re out there, straining against the forces — the inattentions — that threaten to do them in. i suppose, truth be told, i tend to garden in two speeds: que sera, sera (whatever will be, will be); and ferociously. this week, ferocious was the speed.

whole spells of time — a morning here, an afternoon there — seemed to be swallowed up in the odd postures and contortions of gardening (no wonder stinky potions rubbed into achy joints are a gardener’s best ally). i seemed to lose whole portions of the day, and finally, the week, wrestling, lassoing, chasing after trespassers, calling beds to order.IMG_7742

and then, the occasional mama wren darted by. or the cardinals commenced a game of catch-me-if-you-can. and then the bumblebee. the zaftig bee in coat of velvet stripe. the bee that practically flies in freeze-frame slo-mo, hovering mid-breeze, playing eenie-meenie-minie-mo perhaps, deciding which tuffet of rose she’ll nuzzle into next. that old bee feasted on the rambling rose for a quarter of an hour (or that’s as long as i managed to keep watch, anyway).

i couldn’t shake the sense, somehow, that i was out there playing hooky, delicious hooky. why, i had books to read. sentences to type. piles of paper on my desk called to me.

but i couldn’t break the spell. the spell of taking time to sink my toes into the deliciousness of a summer’s day. a hot and sweaty day. or a cool and cloudy day. didn’t matter. it was only in the act of whole-body immersion, of flinging my old self into the elements — thorns that scratch, dirt that worms its way under fingernails and toenails, sun that beckons freckles to come out of hiding — that i was able to find a way to untangle the brokenness of my heart, to put a breath of pure soft air back into my lungs.

of course i know — full well — that it’s all just distraction. but somehow, deep in the ministrations of gardener to garden, of human hands to tender growing things, i found a way to exercise an urge to heal, to fix, to chase away the hurt, the ugliness, that had descended on the planet. day after day, hour upon hour, there comes darkness in forms we can’t imagine. and so we’re left with the scant few things we know, to bring back light. to sow seeds of tenderness and love. of holiness, perhaps.

to lose a day, or a week, upside down or sideways in the garden, is to find a thread that just might stitch us close to whole again. or at least steady us enough to tumble forward. till the next bee buzzes along. and once again we’re swept away by wonder, antidote to that which leaves us broken.

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mrs. bee has at the old and succulent rose.

what’s your healing thread, when you find yourself in tatters? 

holy ground

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from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

the magic of the tilo tree: the tree that soaks up sunshine and lives and breathes to soothe

tilo tree

for weeks now, through much of spring and into these early days of summer, i’ve been on high alert, awaiting the precise moment when a certain linden tree growing in a convent garden would at last decide it’s time. time to unfurl its yearly offering and erupt in honey-scented blossom.

i’d never been so blessed before, so blessed to be on linden-flower standby, so blessed to have a dear nun dialing my telephone, leaving dispatches from the nunnery, a trail of progress reports from the distal end of one tree’s branches. my tree-spotting sister friend would call every couple weeks, leave messages like this one: “it’s sister rita, calling about the linden tree. as soon as our tree wants to give us its delightful blossoms, i’ll call you.”

and then, a week or so later: “i just want you to know the little buds are finally on the tree. i’ll let you know when they open.”

it is a most delightful interlude, i tell you, to find yourself awash in messages about the blooming of a tree, a tree a friend of yours is counting on to heal her hurting ways, a tree that through the ages has long been believed to store the warming rays of sunshine in its star-burst blossoms. a tree that lives and breathes, quite purely, to soothe us through and through.

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the linden tree’s honey-scented starbursts

as promised, sister rita wasted not a minute in the spreading of the long-awaited news. she called first thing the other morning. before the clock struck eight. she was on the line bright and early telling me the time had come. the linden tree was at last in bloom, and i needed to come soon, before the sacred blossoms tumbled to the ground, and we’d have to wait another year. the linden tree this year was late, deep into june, nearly july, before it became a froth of honey-dappled sweetness.

i’d be there by two o’clock, i promised. i’d rearrange the day. i’d not let the afternoon’s shadow stretch long across the garden.

the story of the linden tree, and its blessed blossom, traces back to the not-so-long-ago day in april when a dear friend and i ambled through a magic hedge. my friend has cancer, nasty cancer, and we were soaking up the day in the deepest prayerful way. as we ambled through the hedge on that april afternoon and came around a bend, we stumbled into yet another old friend of mine, one who knows his trees. my one friend’s eyes widened as she spied a broad-limbed specimen of tree, one whose branches stretched heavenward and cradled a warbling little bird besides.

upon introduction, both friends began to speak in spanish, words tumbling more and more feverishly. all i could make out was something about a mama, and something called “tilo.” turned out my friend saw the tree and suddenly remembered the one in her backyard when she was a little girl. it was a linden tree, and when she was afraid, or needed calming, her mama gathered up its blossoms and made her little girl a tea. the tea she called “tilo,” linden flower tea, an ancient balm for soothing nerves, and sweating out a fever. my friend these days is sometimes in need of soothing, deep-down soothing, and though her mama’s gone, the branches of the linden tree held out the hope of something she had thought she’d lost.

i’ll not forget her face and how it softened, nearly glowed, as she looked up at that tree, as i saw the pages of her life’s picturebook turn back in time, remembering her mama and the tea that soothed whatever ailed her.

turned out the very next morning — at the very hour my friend was once again submitting to a scan that would peer inside and chart the path of her stubborn cancer — i was visiting an old friend, an icon-painter friend, who flung open the door of her pantry, and asked if i’d like a cup of linden flower tea. now, i tell you, i’d not heard of linden flower tea till just the day before, and suddenly, within the circle of a single day, i’d bumped into it for the second time. i stood there slack-jawed, and stuttered through the story of how my ailing friend had longed for linden flower tea, but had no clue where she might find it, without her mama here to gather up its blooms, and steep the brew just the way she’d always brewed it.

because my icon-painter friend is the sort who knows no end to generosity, the box of linden flower tea was off the shelf and in my hands before i stumbled to the story’s end. i broke out in goosebumps as i glanced at the clock, and realized all this was happening precisely at the moment that the body scan began. i tapped out a message to my friend to say, guess what, i found linden flower tea, and i’m bringing it your way. and then my icon-painter friend told me that, even better than the box of pre-packaged tea, imported from turkey, she knew a convent not too far away where a linden tree spread its branches, and where she knew the nun who each year gathered up its blooms. my icon-painter friend promised me she’d put me and the nun in touch. and so she did (although she placed the call from a 400-year-old silo on a hillside in italy, where she’s gone to spend the summer painting) and that’s how sister rita and i joined in linden-flower watch, keeping vigil on bud to bloom to starburst.

in yet another wrinkle to the story, my friend with cancer hadn’t looked at her phone once she finished the scan that day, the last of april. instead she stopped by the office of a friend, and feeling achy in the belly, told the friend she had to leave to somehow, somewhere in this city, find herself a cup of tilo, the linden-flower tea for which she so suddenly deeply thirsted. it wasn’t too many minutes after that that she finally glanced at her phone and saw the message saying i had a miraculously stumbled upon a box of that very tilo and was driving it to her house.

within the hour, as we stumbled into each other’s arms on the sidewalk in front of her house, i told my friend about sister rita and the linden tree. enchanted, my friend and i have spent the last many weeks awaiting the tilo bloom. we’d planned to amble there together to gather up the blossoms, but the day sister rita called was not such a good day for my friend, so i scurried along alone. and there i met the radiant sister rita, who swiftly grabbed a crook-necked cane and thrust it into the branches thick with bloom. coaxed by sister rita’s gentle tug, the starbursts yielded to our reach. she handed me a scissor, and for the better part of half an hour, we snipped and gathered, and filled a grocery bag.

sister rita "canes" the linden tree

sister rita “canes” the linden tree

sister rita

sister rita

i ferried home our cache, and snipped for hours more. my mama joined in the snipping, as we gathered up the blossoms and left behind the branch and leaves. for days now, the linden bursts have been drying in a flat-bottomed basket, drying into tea. it won’t be long till we put the kettle on, boil up a cup or two of water, toss in a teaspoon of the linden flower offerings, and brew my friend the soothing tea that she’s so deeply longed for.

one last thing: when i sent my dear friend a note, with pictures of the harvest day with sister rita, my friend sent back a little note of her own, with just one question: “isn’t saint rita patron of impossible causes?”

she remembered that her mama always prayed to saint rita, always prayed to her when faced with the impossible. i swallowed back a tear or two, and offered up my own petition to saint rita. may impossibility be shattered, and the possible come shining through.

i cannot wait to inhale the vapors of that holy cup of tilo, and to lift it to heavens.

tilo drying

if you’ve a linden tree out your window, here’s how to make your tilo, once you gather up and dry your linden-flower blossoms: simply steep one teaspoon of the dried flowers in boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. drink up to three times a day. you’ll be soothed. while it’s been known for centuries to be a calming potion, please be cautious if you’ve a weakened heart. if in doubt, check with someone wise to the herbal apothecary.

if you’re not inclined to sip your soothing brew, you can bathe in it. here’s a recipe for a “relaxing evening linden-flower bath” (the name alone sets me to soothing): simply boil two to three handfuls of dried linden flower blossoms in a quart of water. strain your brew, pour it in the tub, and sink yourself in. 

might you have a magic tale to tell? one with holy vapors? one that stars a tree? do tell….