pull up a chair

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

Category: joy of writing

smoky mountain runaway…

smoky mountain stroll

long ago, and far away. strolling in the smoky mountains. my big brother and me, when i was three and he was four, and we called knoxville home….

dispatch from 37383, specifically a roomy porch in the nooks of the smoky mountains, looking out over the undulations of sewanee, tennessee…. 

i’ve run away to the smoky mountains. for a few days. to absorb the rhythms of poetry and southern-steeped prose at the sewanee writers’ conference, where the likes of alice mcDermott, marilyn nelson, and bobbie ann mason bring their writing wares. and where plain folk like me wave our paper fans to stave off the summer’s steamy heat, and drink in undiluted verse.

my dear friend katie (thelma to my louise) picked me up while the stars and moon still blinked, at four bells the other morning, peeling through the city, and down the interstate before too many truckers even roused from their big-rig bunks.

i climbed aboard with visions of a wide front porch, and mountain sounds lulling the night away. i climbed aboard because when nestled alongside an old dear friend, endless conversation melts away the miles. before we’d ticked even halfway through the list of things that must be explored, dissected, analyzed, and plain old pondered, we’d hit the nashville city limits, and not long after, the sign for sewanee, 93 miles, and up, up, up, along the winding mountain road….

the first sound i uttered — upon racing to the promised porch and drinking in the strata-upon-strata of leafy-knotted mountainsides and tops fading in the far-off faraway — was wordless: nothing but the sound of breath rushing in, the sound of drinking what you’ve thirsted for — for so so long you can barely remember a time when you weren’t so parched.

since then, it’s all been as gentle an unspooling as any day — or string of days — can offer.

that porch, equipped with wicker rocking chairs and ceiling fans whose paddles stir air as thick as meringue in the making (at midday, anyway), is Runaway Headquarters, the post from which all stirrings stir.

long stanzas of pure silence — save for birdsong in the morning, and crickets in the thick of night — punctuate the hours. the orb of moon over the mountains, the only speck of light for miles and miles and miles, grows fuller by the night.

dawn begins with softening of inky night. haze settles in the cleaves of mountainside. it’s all soft, slow, seamless, from start to finish, from first fluttering of eyelid to that uncharted moment when at last the sleep surrounds. and there’s no finer first breakfast course than just-brewed coffee and a prayer cast wide across the precipice.

mid-morning, we motor down the winding half-mile gravel drive to the many winding miles of road that deliver us to “the domain,” 13,000 acres of leafy campus, the pride of Sewanee, The University of the South, a literary mountaintop mecca. one that just happens to be the sole beneficiary of Tennessee Williams’ literary estate, and, since his only sister’s death in 1996 (long institutionalized, she was the one on whom williams modeled his character laura in “the glass menagerie”), Sewanee is the holder of the copyright to every play, screenplay, poem, letter, and story the twice-Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ever penned. curiously, his papers went to harvard and columbia universities, but Sewanee got all the dough and this: his patio furniture, his breakfast plates, a working toaster, and a small bronze nude, tucked away in the archives.

it’s a place dotted with an architecture my favorite critic dubbed “Appalachia Ox-bridge,” modeled after the oh-so-erudite Oxford University (as in the one in England), only here it’s Tennessee limestone in shades of khaki and caramel. oxonian bell towers, complete with parapets, ring out on the quarter hour. rose windows shimmer in the late afternoon light. and nearly every walk leads through or to some medieval surprise — a cloister, a fountained courtyard, a spiral stair to who knows where.

four times a day, all the good folk of the writerly conference plus townies like us gather in a quaint old hall, where oddly dying hydrangea bushes (whole bushes, potted, not stems blithely plunked in a vase) flank the podium. writers, poets, teachers rise and read, recite, preach the holy word of literary craft. i’m not alone in madly scribbling notes, and looking starry-eyed toward the rafters. trying my darnedest to seize a certain turn of phrase, or some truth just lobbed our way, one that begs for at least a moment’s pause.

our collective breath was taken away just yesterday when a southern gentleman in straw hat, seersucker jacket, and French sailor’s striped T, a fellow by the name of allan gurganus (author of “oldest living confederate widow tells all”), rose to read his latest genius in the making, a chapter from a novel he says is titled, “the erotic history of a country baptist church.” while we all rose to a rare (i’m told) standing ovation, i leaned in and whispered to katie, “that alone was worth the 800-mile drive.”

canned-ham camper cafe

you needn’t much else amid such sustenance, but we couldn’t resist the roadside stand, and lunched on perhaps the finest sandwich summer offers: sliced heirloom tomato, piled thick atop oatmeal bread, bare except for shake of salt and a grind or three of pepper. and last night’s porch supper was perhaps the finest tennessee gazpacho ever poured from a roadside canned-ham-camper-turned-cafe.

i’ve never been a natural wanderer; my nesting inclinations, hard to bend. i left a boy back home who filled me up with far more hugs than usual the day before i left; he told me plenty times that day that he’d miss me — words not often spoken by a kid a year away from packing up for college.

but sometimes a mama needs sustenance, needs silence, and poetry and birdsong to fill in all the cracks. i found it here in the mountains, here on the broad front porch from which i count the shining stitches in the night sky.

it’s been a long long time since i was home in the smokies. but, oh, sweet reunion it surely is.

thank you, beloved katie, for plucking me from the summer’s long dry stretch, and quenching me with mountain air and sewanee magic. and for this rare and wondrous chance to pull up a wicker rocking chair this week…xox and, emphatically, to katie’s sister beth, who so generously shares her slice of smoky mountain heaven….

where’s your summer runaway or retreat? and what unfolds once you’re there?

a gift from the mountains….(from maurice manning, Pulitzer-finalist poet, born and bred in Kentucky, and who had me on the edge of my seat at Thursday night’s reading.)

An Orchard at the Bottom of a Hill

by Maurice Manning

Why don’t you try just being quiet?

If you can find some silence, maybe

you can listen to it. How it works

is interesting. I really can’t

explain it, but you know it when

it’s happening. You realize

you’re marveling at apple blossoms

and how they’re clustered on the tree

and you see the bees meticulously

attending every blossom there,

and you think the tree is kind of sighing.

Such careful beauty in the making.

And then you think, it’s really quiet,

but I am not alone in this world.

That’s how you know it’s happening,

there’s something solemn and wonderful

in the quiet, a slow and steady ease.

Whether the tree is actually sighing

is beside the point. It’s better to wonder,

you needn’t be precise with quiet,

it just becomes another thing.

It isn’t a science, it’s an art,

like love, or a dog who’s pretty good,

asleep in the grass beneath the tree.

xox

p.s. i’ll add postcard-worthy pics to this post once home. for the life of me, i can’t add from afar….

sewanee kindness

once again, of poetry and peepers

packed to the gills

dispatch from 49546…

well, i didn’t strap quite that much onto the old red wagon that carried me across three states to land here, at my biennial infusion of poetry, incandescence, and spring peepers (that frog song that rises up from a pond deep in the woods at the end of an endless parking lot), otherwise known as the festival of faith & writing. where i gorge on writers and poets and wander the hills of michigan in a state of bliss that likely has twinkly little stars whirling from my eyes.

over the course of 48 hours, i’ll inhale the likes of poets marie howe, pádraig Ó tuama, and scott cairns, the writers joy williams, edwidge danticat, kwame alexander, and bill mcKibben, big thinker parker palmer, journalist barbara bradley haggerty, and essayist dinty w. moore, among the many. i’ll feast on flannery o’conner’s prayer journal, and thomas merton’s record collection.

and in between it all, there will be those frogs belting out their vernal love tunes from the murky pond i’ve not yet found.

at night, once heaven’s dome is star-stitched with twice the skylights seen back in sweet chicago, i hole up inside an old, old house, where the floors creak, and the blankets smell of lavender. the folks who run the bed & breakfast, they make you feel right at home, invite you clear into the kitchen while they stir the eggs, or scoop the melon into high-stemmed bowls.

it’s the closest i come to a spell at any spa. in my book, i’ll take poets over thermal mud baths any day.

i’ll try to circle back to this old table and weave in a few of the lines i’ll be scribbling in the margins of my big, fat program guide. i know, sure as i know how to spell grand rapids, that there will be lines and exchanges and snippets of magnificence that take my breath away, set me soaring on the vernal updraft of incandescent poetry.

in the meantime, i’ve been delighting in the joys of making what’s known in the world of literary marketing as “shareables,” lines lifted from the pages of my little bitty book, the blessings of motherprayer, pasted atop all sorts of lovely pictures. they’re meant to share. so feel free to click and drag onto your desktop, and print them out. you could stick them to your fridge, or scribble your grocery list on the back. use as a bookmark, or line your drawers with a whole swatch of them.

i’ll pick just a handful for now, but i’ll keep adding, so please come back to watch them multiply…..

hours that mattermothering verbbirthing roomsloop of prayerby little

what’s your idea of a spa for the soul? 

(p.s. feel free to tell me which one of the shareables you might like best. i need you all to be my in-house market research committee….) xoxox

the little book wings its way home…

Blessings of Motherprayer

i admit to a particular fondness. soon as i held the sweet little thing in the palms of my hands, i felt a tug at my heart. i should have known it was coming, for i’d felt a rising affection, a weaving into the nooks and crannies of my heart, over the long slow summer.

soon as i spied the fat manila envelope on the front step the other evening, soon as i’d snipped the blades of the scissor through the envelope’s corner, and pulled back the padding, soon as i dumped it onto the counter, and lifted it ever so gently, i felt that rush of newborn awe that oddly might be something akin to the way willy wonka must have felt when the first everlasting gobstopper came spitting out of the chutes and the tubes and the silvery pipes of wonka’s crazy-candy-concocting machine. only i’d spooned in words, lots and lots of words, 219 pages of words, and with little more than 10 months wait, and a bit of hocus pocus, out came a little book. a little book with yet another nest and a robin’s blue egg.

it’s called the blessings of motherprayer: sacred whispers of mothering, and in the vernacular of the publishing world, it’s called “a gift book,” a word whose meaning i had little understanding of back in may when i first got the call from my editor, not long after the birthing of motherprayer: lessons in loving, that collection of motherly essays plucked from the front lines here on the homefront.

not knowing quite what a gift book might be — is it a book with a ribbon tied in a bow? — i did what any scrambling writer might do: i made it up as i noodled along.

what i knew mostly boiled down to this: it would be part-motherprayer, part-brand-new, and it would be pretty.

i gathered that the gist of this idea is to pull out a few glimmering threads, the parts that might jingle around in your brain or your heart for more than a few minutes or three after you turn to a page. i also gathered — because i’d heard so from plenty of most blessed readers — that a snippet here, a snippet there, is a marvelous way to read a particular sort of book (the sort that, so far, my books tend to be).

so i set out to make a patchwork of bits that i loved, bits that might nestle into those places of the heart that come alive with just the right care and attention. and because i realized there’d never been “a gift book” for slowing time, my first collection of see-the-sacred essays, i decided to do a good bit of plucking from its pages, too. and then, for good measure, i combed through a year or two of writing that hadn’t yet been pressed into anyone’s pages. essays and thoughts scribbled during the long aching months when two beloved friends were dying, when the words they spoke shook me through and through, and in which i was blessed to carry their words from their lips, or their texts and their emails, to the page, where now they will live on forever.

i’ve never been a quilt maker, though my great grandmama was a fine one, not so much for the art as for the pragmatics of keeping folks warm, and doing so with bits and scraps of old pretty-patterned cloth. i grew up with those patchwork triangles and squares pulled up to my nose every night as i dreamed. so maybe that’s why i find such joy — three generations later — making patchworks of words, sewing blocks of type into pages of books.

this was my third summer doing so, and with the screen door inviting in the breeze and the birdsong, i sat for hours and hours at the old kitchen table, thinking and snipping and stitching.

big litte booksand somehow along the way, this little book — for it is a little thing, just big enough to tuck in your purse or your backpack, or perhaps the pocket of your snuggliest coat — wormed its way into my heart. i pulled out parts and pages and paragraphs i’d loved the first time around. i stuffed in ones that never fail to put a lump in my throat, or even to brush away a tear.

it’s tender and quiet and full of my heart.

and, by jove, it’s pretty (all thanks to the wizardry of the book-making wizards at abingdon press).

here’s a recipe page: springtime kitchen

and here is a page with a wonderlist (left) and count-your-blessings calendar (right):

wonderlist count-your-blessings

i’m rather too shy for the part of the publishing equation that’s next on the docket: the peddling part, where i need to ferry this little book into the world, and ask if you’d like to add it to your bookshelf (or bedside table). so for now, i’ll simply say you should be able to find it — or request it — at your favorite bookseller’s shop. or, on that behemoth of book peddling, amazon, where you can let your fingers do the clicking. (egad! i just clicked over there and saw that already, somehow, since it’s not out yet, it’s gotten two reviews, one good, one not-so-good, and the not-so-good seems to dislike my version of prayer, which is more conversational, less liturgical than some desire, and my wonderment with the stirrings of earth and sky seems to rub the reader* the very wrong way (too flowery, though i’ll admit the sentence cited in the review is a bit over-the-top, and one i wished i’d nipped and tucked). a few years ago, in a slowing time review, one amazon reviewer labeled me “pagan,” for my reverence for sun, moon, and stars, which i see purely as the artistry of the sure hand of God.) (and now you see, perhaps, why this book-writing business is a tough one for the tender of heart.)

while my typing fingers are now trembling, i’d best sign off from this adventure in friday-morning writing. i’ll go gulp a stiff mouthful of coffee and meander through my now-thawing garden.

the little book will be officially birthed on april 3. i might go hide under my patchwork covers till then……(as you have now witnessed the real-time humiliations and humblings that come with baring your heart and your soul….)

p.s. *amazon has this program called “amazon vine customer reviews” in which they send out, for free, samples of products — books, diapers, headphones, you name it — to a phalanx of volunteer reviewers, who in exchange for the product write a customer review, posted right there on the amazon website. from what i understand there’s little pre-screening about who gets what product (which is how a fellow who gave five stars to a book titled “angry white men” saw fit to give only two stars to “slowing time.” the results, as you might gather, can be brutal). 

what’s your latest work of the heart? and what gives you the gumption to keep going, even when it hurts?

the measures of our years: 11

IMG_0224

we mark time, this species Homo sapiens, to measure. to take measure. and so, in the gauzy moonlight of this cold december morning, i think back to that first dark morning, 11 years ago. when i awoke determined. uncharted, to be sure. the night before, a boy i love, a boy to whom i owe volumes of accumulated wisdoms and the double-size of my heart, that boy had been dilly-dallying, putting off homework, as he was wont to do. rather than attending to some eighth-grade math, he decided he’d build me a “website,” whatever that was, on my brand-new hand-me-up laptop (his old one bequeathed to me). i was only toe-deep into this endeavor until he asked me what its name might be, and as with so many of the fine things in life, the words popped out before i’d really had a moment to measure: “pull up a chair.”

i loved the notion, right away, the idea of wise souls and kindred spirits pulling up mismatched wooden chairs to the old scarred maple slab that is my kitchen table, one that holds the hieroglyphics of childhoods (my own amid a flock of five, and, now, my boys’, a pair), i loved the notion of a steamy kitchen, where the kettle always whistled, and the oven always cranked, and where the door was never locked.  i loved the notion of putting out a few simple words each morning, words that served as telescopes and magnifying lenses, as we tried to see and sense and sift for depths and heights otherwise unnoticed in the passing day to day. i particularly loved the notion that this might be a collective, a gathering place for poetry and plainspeak, prayer and commonsense, for wisdom and for joy. a place where heartache always, always found shelter, where shoulders were offered, tears dried, and where we’d hold each other up through whatever darkness came.

i never knew that there might come a day, 11 years down the road, when we’d all sit back on the hind legs of our chairs, tip warmed mugs to our lips, and ponder all that had passed during our close watch. intermittent watch for some, those who’ve come and gone, sometimes come again. at least two — my mother and my mother-in-law — have been — and are — regular as clockwork, sure to stop by, but not too inclined to say a word. sadly, heartbreakingly, some who first gathered at the table are gone now, but their spirits animate each and every day, each and every sentence typed. and in my own small life, two boys have grown — one was five, the other 13, when this all began. so they’ve grown up across these posts. two grade-school graduations, one high school, one college, and if i keep it up for two more years, we’ll rack another high school and law school, too.

the twists and turns and snippets of their lives that i’ve caught here, they’re priceless to me. they’ve been, more often than not, the launch pad for my deepest thoughts, the ones that mattered most to me. they taught me how to love, those two boys did. all of you, the ones who pulled a rickety chair up to the table, who added your hearts, your stories, your poetries and prayers to the mix, you did too. you taught me love. you proved that quiet whispers belong in a world where the shouting never stops.

so here we are, 11 years from the start. a second decade is chugging along. what began as a writing promise — i would write every single weekday for a year, see what sifted by — soon turned into a sacred vessel, an anchor to my heart and soul, a place where i knew i’d find priceless precious company, those tender souls who live and breathe gentle loving care, who might be speechless, or might need to holler out the upstairs window, when the world gets too cockamamie upside-down and twisted. books have been born from this little cranny of my heart. three books, now. (the newest one coming in the spring, just in time for the bursting forth of mama earth after a long winter’s curling deep within.) precious priceless friends have been made here and sealed with love that does not die.

i was scared to trembling the first time i hit the “publish” button, but i did it anyway. life does that. it shakes you to your bones, and then it rises up to scaffold you, to carry you to heights and summits you would not have known, or imagined in quite the depth and texture you now know.

bless each and every one of you for reaching out your hand, your heart, your whole, and whispering in unison: there is a world of tender loving care, a world that looks for poetry and wisdom all along the way. a world that believes in taking time, and paying attention, close attention, exuberant attention. there is a world of everyday devotions. and we are all the richer for the sound of each other’s footsteps marching, together, to the mountaintop.

thank you.

love, bam

IMG_0230because i promised to circle back to the book i’m carrying through this advent, and maybe every advent to come, “All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings,” by Gayle Boss, illustrated by David G. Klein, i thought i’d share just one passage from one of this week’s readings (every day’s is a breathtakingly poetic and poignant parable of woodland creatures in winter, all metaphors for the practice of Advent, the mystery of life that springs forth from what looks like death). 

chickadee (day 4): “As they swirl and hop at my feeder, they seem a flock of St. Francises. Like the saint wed to Lady Poverty, every day the question of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason, like the saint, they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.” 

may your each and every day of deepening darkness be filled with flickerings of light. thank you for the gift of your presence here, week after week, year after year. 

where do you find light in the deepening of december?

a book for the heart…

cover of Blessings of MP

pssst. you get the first peek. of course….

my definition of heaven: a summer morning, the breeze blowing in through the screen just enough to tickle my bare toes. the chirp of papa cardinal syncopating the click-clack of my typing, as i pull up to the old maple table and weave a word here, a sentence there, taking threads and making whole.

making a book. weaving a book. yes, writing pages and pages, and snippets and bits. but even more — in the case of this sort of book — stuffing in a little treasure here, pausing for a bit of joyfulness there. it’s a crafting that feels something like making a collage, a heart’s collage. snipping bits of beautiful, and figuring out how they most stand a chance of leaping off the page into a blessed someone’s open heart…

my favorite sort of summer — all these years beyond the summers when i’d spend the weeks crafting intricate home-spun cardboard-box dollhouses with my best friend martha — is to spend the weeks plonked at my old maple table “making a book.”

and that is indeed how i’ve spent this summer (when i wasn’t rushing to take my one sweet boy off to law school, or holding my breath while the other one tried out for soccer).

my deadline is september 1. but i turned in my last stash of pages on monday. which means i beat my deadline, i’m breathing again (but only momentarily — i never really breathe till delivery), and since it’s already listed in my publisher’s spring 2018 catalog (which i discovered by accident the other day), i’m letting you in on the not-so secret. and, voila, that’s the cover up above.

the idea was that we’d make something of “a gift book” of motherprayer, pulling a few favorite bits, and adding a dash of this, a dollop of that. i wasn’t quite sure what exactly a gift book meant, so i nodded (if we’d not been on the phone, with several hundred miles between us, my lovely editor might have seen the quizzical tone to my shaking my head up and down slowly, very slowly…) and then i leapt in to try to find my way through to the other side of whatever that meant. along the way, i decided that i was going to pull bits, too, from slowing time, my first book. and i was going to tuck in other bits of words that just might tinkle someone’s heart chimes. and i suppose that’s how it all began to feel like i was making a soulful collage.

or, as i describe it in the opening pages, “this book might read a bit like you’re peeking into my occasional jottings, something of a journal of the heart.”

and i go on to say: “all in all, this is something of a patchwork. a patchwork of joy. of love. of wonderment. and it’s the closest i’ve yet come to field notes on the blessings of motherprayer, fueled and put to flight on the wings of sacred whisper.” (p.s. in the actual book, i do put on my grown-up-alphabet shoes, put away the all-small letters and reach for the “Caps Lock” key on the keyboard. just in case you were worried…)

and what it means is that this is a book especially for all who love in the way a mama loves — and remember, i EMPHATICALLY (see, i can find the caps keys!) believe that the verb, “to mother,” is not is not is not confined to those who’ve birthed a babe, or raised a babe from and by heart, or even spent more than a few consecutive hours chasing a little person round a swing set or plopped on the couch for a string of heart to hearts. the verb to mother is a verb that belongs to all, all who reach down deep, consider what it means to love as you would be loved, who are wise enough and willing enough to move mountains if need be to buffet someone’s oozing broken heart, to provide the words that amount to the roadmap through tight mountain pass, or simply to share soulfully in all the joy stuffed inside some sweet and hungry someone, be it a kid-sized someone or one who’s all grown up.

it’s a book that weaves twin threads — and more. it’s a book intended to kindle the soul, and to ponder the lessons learned along the winding steep-pitched trails of mothering. we need both, those of us who see the holy work in mothering. one is oxygen for the other. and along the way, i wound up deciding that — as with mothering, in which, for the life of you, you could not would not pick a favorite among your children — i’d fallen in love with this book, too.

right now it’s working its way through the book-making wizardry, where all sorts of geniuses grab their polishers and rub it to a glisten. i’m braced for the day when someone pings me to ask if i might take another stab at this or that, or “kill the darling,” a famous newsroom directive that means, “all right, you’ve had your fun typing this sentence that all but does a cartwheel, now kill it because it’s noisy and it’s getting in the way.”

but on this fine morning at the end of blessed august, i’m closing down the month by reporting in on how i’ve most blessedly savored every drop of this one glorious whirl through summertime….

and, too, here’s my latest roundup of books for the soul, in case you care to read about those, too. this month’s lineup includes a jesuit’s wise and courageous words of compassion, dharmas from thich nhat hanh, and prayers from julia cameron.

i’ll keep you posted, but till then have a most glorious last weekend of august.

xoxo, bam

what were the joyful noises you made this summer? what wonderments and serendipities did you stitch into the season not yet over…. 

the sound that soothes

typewriter image

take a listen: typewriter keyboard. tap-tap-tap-ring!

it’s the closest i know to a lullaby. the tap-tap-tap of the typewriter keys, ending every time in a churn and a chime. it’s how i went to sleep nearly every night of my growing-up years. my papa, perched at the kitchen table, his index fingers flying across the keys, a flick of the return arm, the telltale ping, and he was off again, bolting across the very next line.

he wrote, late into the night. i barely ever heard him come up the stairs. my bedtime was infused with words being formed, one sentence strung upon another. whole constructions of idea, unfurled across the page. i heard the whole thing.

my bedroom, just above and tucked at the back of the house, absorbed it all. especially in summer, when the screen door was open, and my window, just above and a smidge to the north, made for acoustic shortcut. every last A-S-D-F-G-H, a melody in pre-tempered steel.

no wonder typewriters soothe me. no wonder the tappity-tap-tap is more than music to my ears; it’s balm to nooks and crannies deep inside.

my papa’s been gone now, 36 years, four months, and 20 days, but i can bring him back, at least in sound, by pounding across a keyboard. oh, to have an old underwood with churn and chime. i make do, i suppose, with apple’s iteration of that soothing sound, the tappity-tap as if in padded slippers, not nearly the decibel of yore, certainly not the grind of how my papa typed. my papa typed in high-grade staccato, in rat-a-tat-tat, with cymbal crash. the whole house shook, i think.

and so this week for me was pure soothe. i too was perched at my old pine table. the one where i too try to build my house of words. where i, like my papa, string letters into words, words into sentence, paragraph into prose, one key at a time.

i was bathed in the lullaby of the alphabet keys. nearest thing, perhaps, to amniotic heart song.

it’s been awhile since a week beckoned with a single assignment: write, and write some more.

i did as instructed. and right away i knew i’d slipped into my old familiar writing groove, the one that comforts me as an old sweater soothes the arms that know it best. the posture that seems to fit me most emphatically is the one when i’m coiled into the keyboard, playing across the keys as if a child’s playground, and i am putting bum to every slide and swing. feeling breeze blow soft against my face. delighting in the pure joy of making words spring to life. prying back the hatch on my heart, and letting all that’s there leap out, and romp.

after days and weeks and months of that other side of writing, the one that pulls you to podiums, or hauls you out in front of crowds, and begs you to put breath to words, to tell the stories behind the pages of a book, i came home this week to the old hard chair that holds me up every time i sit down to write. i came home to days filled with little but the sound of thinking and the tappity-tap of my fingers skipping across the keys.

and that’s when i heard the hum that rises up from deep inside my heart. i am, it seems, most content when wrapped in quiet, when deep in thought, when lollygagging across my laptop swingset.

a writer (or at least this one) is by nature — and job description — one who takes in the world in full alert, and preferably from a lookout station planted firmly at the sidelines, not at center stage. it’s from the margins, the quiet margins, where the art of exploration, of thinking deeply, of taking in the roar and the whisper of the crowd, might best be exercised.

and so i’m home again, here at the quiet keyboard, alone with whatever rises up and spills from that sacred nautilus deep inside.

and to that i whisper a hushed and certain, amen. and thank you.

what sounds soothe you? and where is your most sacred landscape, the one that puts the hum in your heart??

p.s. i got a tad distracted this morning when i tuned into mika and joe, to catch the morning update. i seem to have lost my rhythm, the one that hummed when i awoke. twas a tough choice: take in the news, or type the morning away. i thought i could straddle both. but the revelations from the squawking box, they shook me up a bit (the national enquirer allegedly harassing mika’s teenage daughters, the word that m&j were told by the white house that the impending enquirer story could be spiked if only joe would pick up the phone and apologize to the president).

the compound interest of love

 

the arithmetic of love cannot be plotted, nor graphed. nor queued in a line. it explodes, scattershot. sometimes it leaks — drip, drip, drip. sometimes, like a mountain rivulet running hard against rock, it carves its own escape route.

at its most glorious, love multiplies with compound interest.

the email began: “Praying it forward haha.” it went on to explain:

Praying it forward haha – I gave a copy of the book to Lisa because I admire her so much as a Mother, friend, caregiver, person.  After meeting her for lunch and giving her the book she shared that she was looking for work she could do at home – we were looking for someone to do our social media and not so surprisingly she had recently received a degree in that!  Of course we hired her.  She prayed it forward by giving 10 of her friends the book and now here you are – Found!  Lets keep the movement.

the email was from my friend susie, who happens to be a saint. she’s opened two cafes for at-risk teens, one mostly for young men who’ve gotten in trouble and are trying now to stay out. the other for young women; teens who are pregnant, or already mothers. susie gave my book to lisa, who also happens to be a saint. lisa was a social worker who became a chicago cop who was so heartbroken by the homelessness she saw in uptown, a tough chicago neighborhood, she started pulling a sandwich-and-coffee-filled red wagon along the sidewalks to feed whomever she bumped into who might be hungry. then, she opened a cafe, inspiration cafe, to feed their spirits as well as their bellies. but then, two years ago, her then-23-year-old son suffered a still-unexplained anoxic brain injury, which means that a kid with a slight fever somehow collapsed, which stopped his heart long enough to cut off the oxygen to his brain. ever since, lisa has been his full-time, round-the-clock caregiver.

and yet, lisa, when given a single copy of motherprayer, and a work-from-home job for my friend susie, “prayed it forward” by buying and sending copies of motherprayer to 10 friends. one of those friends, a fairy-like sweetheart named wini, wrote to me a few weeks ago. in a breathtaking note, she explained that for some reason she’d not tucked motherprayer into her permanent stack of (mostly untouched) bedside books, but rather she’d picked it up and started to read. she said her friend lisa had sent it, and she figured if it came from lisa, there must be a reason to read it. she wondered a.) how i knew lisa (i didn’t, though i’d known of her cafe and her saintly status in this city of big shoulders),  b.) if maybe we could meet, and c.) maybe would i consider coming to a spectacular space (opened by her friend amy, a famed chicago restaurateur) to talk to a circle of spectacular women. she was thinking, she said, of restarting a soulful speaker series she once ran for eight years. she was thinking she’d call this new series, “finding your heart at Found,” (Found is the name of the spectacular eatery, a place that feels like your favorite eccentric aunt’s quirkily appointed parlor). and then she wondered if maybe i’d consider following up that lunchtime talk with a soulful writing workshop at a heavenly place called tumbledown farm, owned by another one of her heavenly friends, yet another lisa.

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a scene from tumbledown farm. (photo by Lisa Moser)

 

if you’ve clicked on all of those links i’ve tucked up above, you can see quite clearly why i was and am pinching myself. kindness led to kindness led to miracle led to long-held-dream-finally-come-true.

i will soon be sitting in a farm kitchen, with the sounds of summer and barnyard blowing in through the windows, and i’ll be encircled by blessed women writing into their depths. we’ll punctuate the morning with walks through meadows, plop down against the trunks of trees, chase after chickens. partake of farm-fresh feasting.

sounds magical to me.

and until the email from susie arrived yesterday, the whole tumble of wonders was shrouded in mystery. how did saintly lisa know of motherprayer? how was it that she sent a copy to wini, a woman schooled in healing arts, a woman with the get-up-and-go to have shepherded eight years of soulful speakers (and we’re talking richard rohr here)? and how was it that after years and years of dreaming of somehow finding my way to the blessing of writing circles, and writing into the depths of the human heart, one door had opened into another, and a farm of my dreams — one with roosters and beehives and a cavernous milking barn — had fallen onto my path?

i looked back at the email from susie, i read and re-read that first line: “Praying it forward haha…”

i knew exactly how i wanted to do that, to pray it forward: i’m starting a writing circle for the teen mamas at susie’s cafe (the pictures above were taken there last night at their monthly community dinner, where susie treats everyone like a queen or a king), and i’m imagining a writing circle-slash-monthly-retreat for mothers who are full-time, round-the-clock caregivers for children with profound challenges. (susie, too, has a sister patty, who i love, and who loves writing, and who is the full-time, round-the-clock caregiver for her daughter who has cerebral palsy.) i am, in my imagination, upholstering the writing retreat with every imaginable pampering: fat bouquets of fresh-from-the-garden bunches of flowers, pitchers of waters swimming with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh mint, sumptuous lunch. crisp, paper-wrapped journals and pens for writing from the heart. a few deep questions, questions meant to uncork all that’s waiting to pour. and more than anything, the holy communion of other mothers who shoulder the same unceasing load of worry and ache and innovation and unstoppable faith. and exhaustion. and a loneliness that’s unfathomable to anyone not bearing the load.

the wheels have already turned, plans are already in the works. because at the heart of this plot are women who heard the holy whisper and made the miracle happen, women who would not and will not be stopped. so neither will i.

it’s the compound interest of love.

“Praying it forward haha..”

there’s your challenge. no need to answer aloud, but maybe, just maybe, let that sweet question settle deep in your heart: how might you pray it forward?

because i know the chairs are soulful folk, i’m thinking that when the time comes i might put out a call for help. perhaps you’ve a few stems from your garden you’d like to share for a fat bouquet. perhaps you make a mean scone. or might dream up some other wonderful way to pamper the mamas for whom a break never comes. (we could make goodie bags, stuffed with pamper-y treats.) i’m thinking i’ll hold the first writing circle for caretaking mamas at my house, in my screened porch this summer. getting away is not easy for these mamas, and going too far is impossible. so we’ll make it short and sweet and close to home. if we wend our way into an irrestistable  bond, maybe we’ll take our circle on the road, and tumble down to tumbledown farm, which is but 45 minutes away. 

p.s. for the fun of it, and to make it easier to follow the trail of good hearts, i bolded the names of each someone who led to another someone in the equation of unbridled love up above. and be sure, while you’re at it, to click on the links (any words underlined and the color of cafe-au-lait) to read layers and layers of goodness from the very good souls up above.

p.s.s. happy blessed birthday tomorrow to slj, an old dear friend of the chair. may your day and your year be filled with compound love.

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a nest on tumbledown farm. reminds me of the cover of a book i know fairly well. be still my heart, most blessed heart…(Photo by Lisa Moser)

ten: a decade of keeping close watch

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a decade is long. a decade is 10, of course. but in this particular case, a decade is the distance between a little boy who was five, and finding his way through kindergarten, and now, a sophomore in high school, a sophomore wishing he was in a faraway high school. a decade is the distance, too, between a boy of 13, an eighth grader who dared his mama to type her way into the dawn (otherwise known by the hardly poetic verb blogging), and the man he is today, 23, and heading to law school.

a decade, too, is the distance i’ve grown since the dawn of december 12, 2006, when i tiptoed into the dim light of my writing room, once the garage of this old house, and sat down to type.

what i wrote that long-ago morning was this:

we are looking for everyday grace. i believe that in quietly choosing a way of being, a way of consciously stitching grace and Beauty into the whole cloth of our days, we can sew love where before there was only one moment passing into another. making the moment count, that’s what it’s about here. inhaling, and filling your lungs and your soul with possibility. learning to breathe again. learning to listen to the quiet, blessed tick and the tock of your heart. filling your soul with great light so that, together, we can shoosh away the darkness that tries always to seep in through the cracks, wherever they might be. please, pull up a chair….

everyday grace, surely, is the shimmering something we’ve found, the holiest thing. it’s there when you look, when you pay close attention. but it’s so easily missed. you need to attend to your post in the watchtower of life. need to be on the lookout, ever on the lookout. you’ve no idea where or when it will come, the everyday grace. it doesn’t arrive with trumpet blast, nor even a rat-a-tat drumroll. true grace is not seeking applause. simply the certain knowledge that it’s just brushed by, grazed against the contours of your heart and your soul. and it leaves you, every time, just a little bit wiser, a little more certain that Holy is all around.

and the quiet we set out to find, it’s infused every square inch of this space. in a world torn at the seams by incivility, in a world where, day after day, tenderness is trampled under the hard boot heels of hate and bullying and a toughen-up attitude, we’ve stayed gentle. we’ve traded in tenderness. we’ve held up a radiant grace, a blessedness that stitches hearts into a whole. and we’ve done it right here on the internet, the mad-dash highway that seems to traffic in all the things that this table is not.

when i think across the arc of years since i first faced the blank black screen (for back in the day, the words here were white against a canvas of black, an inside-out contrast that drove at least one dear friend cockeyed and made her dizzy besides), i tick through this litany: two grade-school graduations, one each from high school and college; a move halfway across the country, and a move back home; a whole presidency, and too many tragedies to begin to count. over the decade, i left my newspaper job, wrote two books, grew a garden, simmered a few stews, stirred countless bowls of porridge, dried even more tears. i’ve kissed goodbye two beloved friends, and a father-in-law like no other. we’ve watched a kid learn to read, another learn to row, nursed and buried a very old cat, counted stars, chased after the moon, sent my mama off to surgery twice, but mostly marveled at her devotion for tuesday night dinners, plied week after week for nearly two dozen years.

in all this sacred time here at the table, i’ve made and deepened friendships. i’ve stood back and watched strangers reach out across the way, find shared communion, grow close in friendships all their own. i’ve listened closely, taken notes, as the two boys i love have wound their way through the landscape of their lives. i’ve loved them in double time as i put their words, their stories, to ink. i’ve netted a moment or two worth savoring, worth holding to the light, worth keeping as long as i’m alive — and then some.

i hadn’t much clue where this typing would go, back on the first day i started. i certainly never dreamed that 10 years later, i’d still be typing, finding my way. i hadn’t a clue that here, in the sacred space of our shared creation, i’d find the holy bliss i’d always been after. i suppose i’ve always been a make-believe girl, and here, at the table, i used the one sure thing i know — words typed into inklings, carved into thoughts, emerged as insights — to claim a space i knew was possible: a place where radiance lights the way, and gentle truth is our guidepost.

on the dawn that marked the first full whirl around the sun (a year that had me writing five days a week, every single weekday), i wrote:

we set out — me and my soul and my fingers — to see where we’d get if we were dropped, one distant december, in the snowiest woods. if we stayed there for a year, groped around, poked under leaves, sat by a babbling brook. looked skyward. counted moonbeams and twinkling stars.

some days, i swear, my ol’ boots, the ones i wear when i’m hiking, meandering about in the woods, they felt like 100-pound weights on each foots.

more often, though, i was barefoot and running through meadows. i was catching a glimpse of the butterfly wing. feeling the gentle fingers of God on my shoulder. hearing the sound of my heart thumping, and thumping some more.

i only kept doing the smartest thing i know if what you want is to get from place A to place Somewhere: i put one foot in front of the other. kept my eyes mighty peeled. my heart too.

and look, here, where we are.

we made it through the woods, all right. but the thing is, along the way, i found a something in the woods that fills my lungs, that makes my blood run quick. that gives me something to think mighty hard about.

i’m thinkin’ maybe the woods is a beautiful place, a place that offers me and my soul just what we need.

with all my heart, thank you and bless you for making this a most beautiful space in the holiest decade of my one sweet life. more to come….

amen.

love, bam xoxox

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what lit your way through the last holy decade? 

redlining: when words queue up in the wings

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a peek at the cover…

it’s those two little eggs. they’re what bring me to tears. well, that and the fact that i’ve not slept too much this whole last week. it’s what happens when you’re redlining. which, in the world of books with your name on the cover, means you are weighing every last alphabet letter, typing, trying words on for size. hitting delete (a lot of hitting delete), then typing some more. you’re nearing the end.

i’d been waiting and waiting. for months. and then, with not even a whisper, not even a ping (i was at a funeral, and my phone was turned off), the whole 240-some pages slid in under the so-called transom (as if a laptop came with an office door, an opaque glass door, with your name etched on the face, and a doorknob that creaked when you turned it, as back in the movies and sitcoms of a whole other era).

at first, i was trembling too much to peek. i knew that this round — the one after your words have been wrung through the copy-edit machine, after the production editor puts her very fine eye to every last comma and dash, and all the words in between — this round weighed more than the others in the editing room. the closer you get to the end, the closer you get to the day the big box arrives, when you pull back the tape, and stare at the stacks, the ones with your words, covered and bound, the more it all weighs.

i quelled my butterflies. all but stuffed them back in the jar where they belong, the one with the air holes punched in the lid. and then i dove in.

fullsizerender-2i’m done with round one, the round where you read on the screen. now i move onto round two, the one where you read from pages and pages, actual paper. actual trees, felled for the service of smoothing, and fixing, and hoisting up line after line, as many notches as my brain and my heart and imagination can muster.fullsizerender

which means my brain cells are thirsty for coffee. and my muscles and bones are aching for sleep. and while i practice my finger-stretching exercises, the warmups for another day with the red pen and keyboard, i figured i’d give you a peek at the cover. i’d had no idea it had slid off the art director’s drafting table. certainly no idea it was over on amazon, where, with the click of a button, you too can take a close look.

you can even read how they describe it, those folks who do the describing:

Barbara Mahany writes, “Mothering was my crash course in love. Love of the sort I call Divine. Love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. Love with eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”

In Motherprayer, Mahany generously shares personal love letters on the mysteries and gifts of mothering, interspersed with family recipes and gentle essays, all offering beautiful lessons in how to love, and how to love breathtakingly. In her bracingly honest style, Mahany lifts up the everyday—the hard, the glorious, the laughter, and the tears—and invites readers to pay attention, cradle our loved ones in prayer, and see the sacred lessons in loving.

which is why i’d better get back to the redline. which is why i nearly toppled off my chair the day i stumbled onto those words. i was minding my business, one fine afternoon, just clicking around on the keyboard, in that way that we do now, when suddenly one click led to another, and there it was: my next little book, idling on amazon. awaiting its turn in the racks. the book-peddling racks.

so while i head off to try out some verbs, try to find ones with sinew and heft, i’ll leave you here with a promise: i’ll tuck my whole heart, and all of my soul, into the redlining to come. and the book that comes very soon after. the book that will land just in time for mothering day. the book you’ll find at the bookstore next april.

i’m writing a book for the very best reason: for both of my boys (those two little eggs in the palest of blues up above), so they’ll know, so they can hold in their hands, someday maybe even read, the record of just how deeply they were loved. and the few things i learned along the way.

redlined, of course.

if you wrote a book, what would you put on the cover?

and as long as we’re in the book bin today, why not mention that my first book, Slowing Time, was read aloud back in the spring by a lovely woman in Nashville, and recorded, made into an audible book. i have five copies that i’m happy to give away. if you’d like a book-on-tape, if you’d like Slowing Time, with a wee bit of buttery twang, just plop a comment down below, and the first five someones who raise their sweet hand, will get an audible copy. how’s that for a friday morning adventure in listening? (my dear publisher has wanted me to do this for months, but i’ve, um, been a bit shy.)

because i love to give glories where glories are due, i am leaping off my chair to holler my lungs out in thanks to nancy watkins, the brilliant longtime chicago tribune editor, who was employed to copy edit Motherprayer (and thus made my wildest dreams come true), and the astoundingly fastidious and kind and word-perfect susan cornell, the production editor at Abingdon Press, who is shepherding each and every page to the printing press. there’s a dream team on this book, and page after page, i find myself sighing at their utter perfection. consider me enchanted. blessings to both of you. xoxox

revisions

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the sentences don’t go to sleep when i do. they follow me to bed. romp while i flutter closed my eyes. pay no attention as i turn down the dial, try to quell their insistent chatter. they carry on merrily, words slithering here and there. one taking a bow, an exit bow, another squeezing in its place on the stage. whole sinewy chains of words, traveling en masse — some sort of compound-complex-intricate dangler, something i’m sure my third-grade teacher warned me never to try without trapeze — they migrate across the page. appear out of nowhere. demand a splot of real estate somewhere on the vast black-and-white tableau.

that’s how it is when you’re up to your neck in what are called revisions, an episodic literary state of being, from which there’s no escape.

you all but nibble tables-of-contents for breakfast. you inhale paragraphs, exhale footnotes. you slow the pumping of your heart to near stand-still (a dangerous state of affairs, to be sure) as you ponder permissions, and zap off begging sorts of notes to those whose words you’re so hoping you can borrow, set off with frilly quote marks that trumpet, “these lovely words came from minds far richer than mine.”

your days and nights are a melee of “delete,” followed frantically by “command-z,” every writer’s salvation keys, the ones that undo whatever ding-dong doozie you’ve just done. i’ve been known to “command-z” for unsightly spells, whole minutes it might seem, so grateful all the while to that unknown programmer who long ago thought to provide mere typers with escape hatch. if only sin and cruelty could so swiftly be erased, undone, made to disappear. but isn’t that why catholics have confession booths?

what i’m revising — day in and day out, and late into the nights — is my next go at this semi-livelihood i’ve taken up, the one in which you find your name spelled out in pretty letters across the front cover of a stash of pages, pages that slide in and out of bookshelves. more simply put, a book is what i’m up to. and what i’m writing — er, revising — is a book i might not have mentioned here, not by name i’m fairly certain.

it’s called motherprayer: lessons in loving, and my friends at abingdon press are once again behind it. if all goes according to plan, and believe you me, i’ll do my part, it’ll land in a big squat box on my doorstep in a mere 10 months, next march to be precise.

it’s a book i’ve been writing for years and years. it’s a book, the one book, i’ve long felt most pulled to publish. it’s the one stash of writing i want to leave behind. and by leave behind, i don’t mean dropped off at the side of a curb, or abandoned, only to crumple into so much flaky yellowed dust. i mean these are words i hope and pray might be left in the hands — or on the bookshelves — of my boys. it’s a stack of love letters, really. ones that began even before here, before the chair was the place where i turned with my truest, tenderest, unpracticed whisperings.

all my life the one thing i’ve always done is write love letters. it’s the medium i know best. it’s what turned my life from nursing to newspapering, really. it was a love letter to my papa that started it. the one they read at his funeral, the one that made the ad man say, “kid, you can write.” what he meant was: “kid, you can write a love letter. you can uncork a heart, and put words to what’s spurting out, spewing merrily and frothily.”

if i pause to think about it, and suddenly i am, it’s how i found my way to that long, lean bespectacled architecture critic with whom i spend my life. and it’s how i made so many friends in high school — my nightly mission, one that shoved aside all homework, was to sit and pen notes to friends who were aching, lost, or lonely; and sometimes simply happy.  i’m pretty sure my love letters are what made me my high school’s unlikely homecoming queen.

but there has never been a love letter that mattered so much as the ones i’ve penned for my boys. the ones i’ve penned here, too, when i hold up to the light some moment, some fraction of time, some quandary or conundrum, some twist or turn in the plot that leaves me breathless, or in tears. and, so often, throwing up my arms to the heavens, turning pleas to prayers, “dear God, show me the way….” “dear God, stitch this shattered heart….” “dear Holy God, thank you…”

it’s motherprayer.

and for the life of me, i can’t seem to shake my sense that it’s here, in these front lines of the mother-child tangle, that so much blessed wisdom pulses. and so i keep close watch, i plumb the depths, i poke around — year after year, chapter upon chapter.

which is how i came to gather up a stash — each in the form of an essay, a chance to catch the fleeting moment, some crucible of childhood and motherhood — and why i’ve culled and tossed, boiled down the lot to the ones that just might hold a glimmer of the elusive truths we’re after.

it’s motherprayer, a love story. one i’ve been deeply writing for the last quarter century.

what’s your best medium, the one in which your heart and soul most deeply feel the muse?