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

Category: joy of writing

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? 

 

pilgrimage to the land of poets – and spring peepers, while we’re at it

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a short interlude of my poetry bookshelf (alphabetical by poet, of course)

i’m told tales of folks who slip their finery off their boudoir shelves, who tuck silks and satins into trunks and valises. i’m told they jet off to faraway places, wiggle their toes in pure white sands. sip intoxicants adorned with wee paper parasols and wedges of papaya. then, i’m told, they manage to find their way home, whole again.

i’d not know from such exotica. and i doubt it’d do much besides break me out in patchy hives.

i, in sharp contrast, am yanking out a sweater or three, tucking them alongside my toothbrush. i’ll pack a stash of honeycrisp apples (an upgrade for the occasion) and piles of reporter’s notebooks, then slide behind the wheel of my old red wagon, and motor my way to grand rapids, smack dab in the palm of the mitten state just to the north and the east of my land of lincoln. i’ll hole up for three days of prayerful prose and poetry, and thinking way beyond the quotidian box.

it’s called the festival of faith and writing, and it’s a poet’s idea of heaven on earth. especially if you take your poetry infused with a dollop of holy. it’s an every-other-year consortium where the mystical meets iambic pentameter, or more likely the freest of free verse. it’s a forget-about-lunch, who-needs-sleep, dawn-till-midnight fill-your-lungs-with-real-life-bylines-who-make-you-swoon jamboree.

this year it’s where tobias wolff and george saunders (professor and protege, respectively, long ago at syracuse university) will put heads together for a public tete-a-tete. where dani shapiro, memoirist and essayist, will “insist that sorrow not be meaningless.” and where poet scott cairns will mine eastern orthodox liturgy to “clear a pathway through the slings and arrows of modern life.” ashley bryan, the 92-year-old children’s book author and illustrator, will illuminate the art-making behind his collections of black american spirituals for children. and, before the first day’s dinner hour, i’ll sit down in a small room to listen to christian wiman, guggenheim fellow, former editor of poetry magazine, now senior lecturer in divinity and literature at yale’s divinity school, read poems from every riven thing, or passages from my bright abyss: meditation of a modern believer, which the new republic called “an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.” before i nod off, i’ll whirl in the incantatory vapors of zadie smith who will ponder the question, “why write?”

yes, by day, i’ll binge on words and thoughts that stir the soul, and, often, put goosebumps to the flesh (the surest sign i know that God’s in the neighborhood). and then at night, i’ll make my escape to a historic inn, where a room under the eaves will be my hideaway. and where i’ll forego dreams for the sheer joy of turning pages upon pages, all while plopped atop my featherbed. or perhaps i’ll shrivel like a prune in the depths of my victorian claw-footed tub.

and it just might be the surest cure for my tattered soul.

as i did two years ago, i’ll be taking copious notes, and promise to report back next week, with all the snippets and moments that make me woozy.

but, of all the poetry the days will bring, the one i’m most awaiting is wholly otherworldly, and not propelled to sound waves by human breath. it’s amphibian, as a matter of fact: the wee spring peepers, whose dissonant and deafening nightsong, rising from a blur of woods, stopped me more than anything i’d heard two years ago april.

back then, i described the soul-perking moment thusly:

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

listen in to the peepers for now, and i’ll be back next week, to pour forth the very best i tuck into my writerly notebooks.

and a bit of poetic amuse-bouche till then:

A Word
BY SCOTT CAIRNS

For A.B.

She said God. He seems to be there
when I call on Him but calling
has been difficult too. Painful.

And as she quieted to find
another word, I was delivered
once more to my own long grappling

with that very angel here — still
here — at the base of the ancient
ladder of ascent, in foul dust

languishing yet at the very
bottom rung, letting go my grip
long before the blessing.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2013).

if you imagined a getaway for the soul, a stretch of days to soothe and restore, where would you go? what would you ink into your itinerary? 

and, p.s., happy blessed birthday to my mother-of-heart, ginny, the most loyal reader of the chair that ever there was. and happy one day late to my little ellabellabeautiful! 

quiet season

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it’s quiet season in my house. in my soul, actually.

it’s odd then, when i tiptoe outside in the dawn and hear the world achatter. the winged choristers — robin and sparrow and cardinal — are having at it, calling out from limb to bough to bush. staking turf. declaring the early hours of starting all over again, survival of the species, the No. 1 task on the vernal to-do list. it’s what happens when the globe tips toward the sun, the angle draws nearer, draws shorter; the light longer, not so thin anymore.

it happens to all of us, one season or another. we’re out of sync with the world beyond our window sill. i’m still deep in the burrows of winter. but the world wants to shake off its slumber, awaken.

i’m not ready yet.

i will be. i have no doubt.

but not yet.

now, i am curled under blankets, turning pages, soaking up the words of other quiet souls. and so, when i cracked open a book of poems the other day, i nearly dissolved into tears, into the mystery of grace, of feeling tapped on the wall of my heart, with sacred whisper.

i was turning slowly through the pages of mary oliver, my patron saint of poetry. i was inhaling her latest infusion of wisdom distilled, of heaven on earth, of sacred scripture rising up from out of the dawn, out of the trail through the woods where the poet keeps pace.

i read, among other words, these:

there are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.

like, telling someone you love them.

or giving your money away, all of it.

 

your heart is beating, isn’t it?

you’re not in chains, are you?

 

there is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own. 

 

then i turned a few pages, and stumbled on this:

 

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understandable. But holiness is visible,

entirely.

i pulled out my pen. the sound of ink scratching along sheaf of paper, the only perceptible noise interrupting the season of silence.

and now i’ve shared my silence with you.

may your week be blessed. silent or not.

mary oliver’s latest slim volume of prayer poem is titled, felicity (penguin press, 2015). the words above, first, from the poem, “moments,” and finally, a few lines from “leaves and blossoms along the way.” 

she asked for a poem

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she asked for a poem, my beautiful friend did. she asked for words. she asked for my voice.

she asked so that “at certain times,” in the dark dark hours that come when you are lying in your bed, or curled on your couch, when the knife-to-the-gut of cancer won’t stop, when you tremble deep down inside, when all you want is to wail but you can’t, she asked “to be soothed” by the sound of the human voice rising and falling and wrapping around letters and lines and syllables and silence and words, each word a vessel of hope, a finger to grasp, the next best thing to morphine. or, maybe, better.

she asked me to pick out a poem, to read it, to record the sound of my voice. “not STAGE PERFORMANCE,” she wrote, just “ntural,”she typed, her fingers fumbling for keys, “poems red by my friends.”

it was a blanket of sound she was stitching together, my friend whose world has always been about sound. she’s gathered sound all around the globe, on nearly every continent. she’s woven sound into story, story that shattered hearts, peeled back truths, shone beacons of light. sound that reached out through the squat little box that sits on the kitchen counter, or the flat rectangular one that blinks red numbers just beside my bed. sound that could draw me to the ends of the earth, or into the depth of someone’s long lonely walk through a mountain pass, or down a dusty country road. it might be the sound of a katydid. or a jackhammer. or maybe the cry of a mother who’s just buried her child. it might be the whistle of wind she records. or the story in spanish of someone who’s been lost for too long.

her life has been a tapestry of sound, one that my friend has pieced together with fierce intelligence, unparalleled heart, and a light in her eyes that will never go out.

so, in her darkest hours, in the hours when the walls seem to be squeezing in from all sides, she asked for more sound. for the sound of the human voice, doing what it most sacredly does: putting breath to the balm that is love, that is tender and dripping with mercy, that heals, always heals, and that just might be the last earthly tie, one heart to another.

it’s no mystery why mamas sing lullabies to their babies. why mamas turn pages of storybooks. why mamas make “mmm” sounds and sigh to their wee little newborns. the human voice is breath + vibration + heart, is sound put to flight. the instrument of that flight might be a screech, or a whisper. it might be vicious and crack in half the heart of the one who hears it. or, in the case of my friend, it might be the best shot for soothing, for wrapping a blanket, a compress, of undying love.

and, yes, it might be a poem. the healing power of the hard-chosen word, words plucked from the star-stitched heavens, beauty and heartbreak distilled. that’s poetry. and, no, it won’t cure cancer, certainly not. but there are ails along the way that poetry — a poem read aloud by someone you love — will always be able to heal.

it will break through the canyon of fear and of emptiness. it will cradle the tired. and, as best as is possible, it just might dull the ragged edge of the pain, and, maybe just maybe, soften the suffering for as long as it takes for the poem to be read and maybe to linger.

i knew right away the poem and the poet to which i would put my breath and my heart: mary oliver. “praying.” it’s the poem i tucked on the very front page of my very first book. it’s a poem about paying attention, about patching together a few simple words, nothing elaborate. it’s about prayer not being a contest, but a doorway into thanks, and “a silence in which another voice may speak.” it’s about stitching together prayer, and it’s something my friend and i have talked about — many times, once while wandering about a wooded magic hedge.

i knew, too, right away, just where i wanted to read it, the poem about prayer — amid my late-summer garden, so the words of mary oliver would be enfolded, would be punctuated, with the sounds of this summer drawing to a close: the few cicada still buzz-sawing, the blue jay who squawks, even the wind rustling through the boughs of the willow.

i whispered a prayer, took a breath, and pushed the little red “record” button.

my friend asked for a poem. i sent her the pulse of my heart, and a sound-swatch of the late summer garden.

here’s how it sounded:

i wanted to quietly lay this on the table because i know that among the chairs circled here, there are hearts intent on finding ways to bring healing to the world, and i thought it the most beautiful quiet creation, the notion of my friend to weave together a patchwork of poems, all in the voices of friends, all for the purpose of soothing. it’s a simple gift, a pattern we can all trace and retrace, should the need arise. it might even be a baby gift, a gift at the launch of life, when you wrap not just a favorite picture book, but the sound of your very own voice reading it, turning the pages. the gift of your voice is one no one else could ever give. and it comes from the depth of your heart. priceless.

because i happen to know that mary oliver doesn’t want anyone printing her poems anywhere without permission (i asked for and received full permission for the epigraph of slowing time), i am honoring mary’s heart and will not print it here, although it is in the photo above. and you can read it yourself if you open the book to just past the dedication page. and, miracle of miracles, i figured out how to drop a line of poetry reading onto this latest meander. wonders never cease. 

so here’s the question: if someone you love asked you to read a passage or a poem, what one would you choose?

from the middle ages to me: my voracious appetite for the not-so-edible “salad of many herbs”

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florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” they’re called. or were called in medieval times.

quaint.

one wealthy 15th-century italian wool merchant declared his zibaldone, or book of hodgepodgery, “the salad of many herbs.” a snip here, a pungent bit there.

it was his self-inscribed anthology of esoterica and knowledge, the pages into which he stuffed everything from recipes to tables of weights and measures to the latest smart something he’d heard rumbling on the florentine sidewalks. decidedly, it was not a journal, no catch-all for memoir, nothing like a diary. nary a rambling of the soul found here, this was strictly the province of accumulated knowledge — and things not to forget.

more commonly known as commonplace books, i’ve just discovered i’ve been keeping one — or four or five, more like it — for years and years. (“commonplace,” you should know, is a translation of the latin term locus communis (from greek tópos koinós), or “common place,” and, according to our friends at harvard university’s library, suggests a storehouse, or clearinghouse — in ink, on paper — of ideas and arguments, easily located for ready application. say, when engaged in verbal jousting at the medieval village pub.)

and i just thought i was a hoarder of the literary kind, demonstrating my rodent-like tendencies for squirreling away little bits and snips of enchantment. of the poetic species.

they live in assuming places, my commonplace books, my cache for what tickles my imagination, delights my word-ly fancy, catches my breath. for years, one lived on my laptop’s desktop, but it grew to be so long, so unwieldy, so likely to bring down my hard drive, i only recently birthed its second generation, both titled, “words and lines worth saving,” iterations I and II.

two more, the kind made of cardboard and paper pressed between covers, they live atop my desk, my actual old pine desk, one to my right and one to my left. as i flip through them now, i see i’ve stuffed inside a post-it note with a german address (in case i visit, i suppose), an advent calendar from 2012, a rosary (still in plastic) from the basilica of holy hill. and as i flip through the left-hand book, one i’ve titled, “notes of wonder,” i see that it’s bulging with snipped-out pages from the new york times book review, notes i scribbled on the back of someone’s eighth-grade essay, and assorted ponderings, including this: “God’s first language, which is silence.”

the one i count among my life’s truest treasures, though, is the unwieldy one on my desktop. there, if you scroll along, you’ll find among its 9,938 words unfurled across 35 pages, the turkish word for “moonlight on water” (gumusservi), the definition of epistemology (after stumbling across the line, “the epistemology of loss,” in a john berryman poem), or this from galway kinnell: “to me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

it’s my digital memory box, the place where i commit the things that take my breath away, stir my soul, make my heart beat double-time. it’s my independent study in the literary arts, and poetry in particular.

little did i know that no less than jonathan swift prescribes one thusly:

“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”
—from “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”

apparently, the practice, with its roots in antiquity, has been unbroken since the middle ages, with a particular up-bump in renaissance times. the idea — brought on with a bang not long after the invention of the gothenburg press, “largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information the printing press had unleashed upon them,” according to alan jacobs, writing in the atlantic — was that particularly pithy or otherwise catchy little thoughts were to be hand-copied and tucked into one’s commonplace book. in arranging topically, it was thought, the literate raconteur would have, at fingertips’ reach, a ready arsenal of neatly tucked-away poetry and argument. need a zippy rejoinder? oh, just wait, it’s right here, on page 23 of my florilegium (the latin name pinned onto the practice by the medievals, who found them particularly handy for stockpiling thought of theological and religious theme. for what little it’s worth, i much prefer to think of mine as that “salad of many herbs”).

why, thomas jefferson was a prodigious keeper of the commonplace (writing in english, latin and greek, of course). as were henry david thoreau and ralph waldo emerson. the british library’s renaissance project boasts a collection of some 50, many penned inside the iron bars of prison cells and locked towers (sir walter raleigh, so imprisoned from 1606 to 1608, filled his penitent hours with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the middle east). in fact, clear through the early 20th century, students and scholars were long required to keep them. and so, if you tiptoe into the bowels of any of the western world’s great libraries, just ask to see the commonplace collections, and you’ll soon stumble on the jottings of john milton, victor hugo, sarah orne jewett, samuel clemens, and john quincy adams, to name but a smattering.

i found out i was such a keeper of the commonplace only by accident. because i happened to ask a dear friend of mine, one who unfurls great lines of poetry at the drop of a hat, how it was that she had such a stockpile at the ready. here’s how my poetic friend, dear amy, replied:

“Yes, I have books and journals filled with favorite quotes, as well a hefty computer file with snippets of words I want to remember. I’ve been a nut about quotes and have collected them all my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the squirreling away of meaningful quotes is called keeping a commonplace book, a practice that hearkens back to the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson. I just LOVE words of beauty and wisdom, and like a magpie, I love to feather my nest with them, as it were!”

it is the dearest thing to encounter a fellow magpie, both of us flitting through the air with words dangling from our beaks. i’ve long said that if my house began to burn, one of the few things i’d tuck to my bosom would be my long-kept compendium of beauty and breath-taking.

for that, in the end, is what animates so much of my imagination. and puts flight to the task of typing so many hours of my lifetime. there is something deeply holy about tripping upon depths of meaning in thoughts thought before you, in words committed to paper long ago, or just the other afternoon.

i can’t imagine my world without knowing that, at the click of a computer key, i could unlock these lines, copied and pasted long ago, breath-catching beauties from dear virginia woolf:

from “Mrs. Dalloway”: “…she was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig.”

on sewing: “…her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”

describing grand houses of London: “….halls laid in black and white lozenges…”

“turning one’s nerves to fiddle strings….”

“long streamers of sunlight…”

on “the compensation of growing old”: “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

“thunderclaps of fear”

i copy to remember. i paste to never forget. as mr. swift so finely put it: it’s my “supplemental memory,” my “record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.”

excuse me while i amble off to imbibe on my salad of many, many herbs.

do you keep a salad of many herbs, a gathering of flowers, a book of hodgepodgery, otherwise known simply as a commonplace book? and do you not think the practice a wholly invigorating one? a holy one, too?

and, most deliciously, what would be among the herbs you’ve snipped from your literary garden?

finally, happy blessed launch of spring on this day of equal light and darkness, the vernal equinox, when, as my beautiful brother david says, “you can hear the earth breathing.” but only if you listen, of course…..

the lesson of eight: follow the whisper

eight. plate

i remember the morning. i remember the dark. i remember the quiver, there in my fingers. i remember the pounding in my heart.

i’d tiptoed out of bed, taken a deep-down breath. and then i started typing, started believing.

i’d pulled up a chair for the very first time. and i’d no clue where that typing would lead. heck, i wasn’t even sure i’d find the end of the very first sentence. but i did. sentence after sentence. so many sentences now — eight years of sentence. of fragment. of shards of my heart.

the words that are tucked away here, in this place that — for me — amounts to a treasure box, an unlocked treasure box, one that holds virtual sheafs of paper, and snapshots i lift from the stack, study as if dust motes floating across a shaft of light, the words here have been my butterfly nets, as i lope and stumble and try — oh, i try — to capture the moments of life passing by.

it’s the closest thing i know to lifting up these holy hours, to etching the words of my boys, of passing strangers, of friends, onto this screen that i pretend is parchment. that i write as a relic of life loved well. life loved deeply.

to write in the dark of the just-dawning day, to write when the sky out the window is first soaking up light, starting out black, turning to blue-tinged haze or cottony gray, depending on clouds, to write when the shadows and shapes of the trees fill in, the birds first rustle the branches, is to write at the cusp of consciousness.

this is the hour when the heart and soul, perhaps, are most porous, so what oozes through is closer to truth than anything else we might know all day.

this is the sacred hour, the hour of stillness.

and so, this hour is the one when i’ve learned to slide into my explorer’s boots, when i’ve hauled my butterfly net from the jam-packed closet, and loped around the premises to see what i catch, what i find.

and then, like a child whose attention is held, is rapt, by a ladybug landed on a leaf, or a fuzzy caterpillar inching along, i crouch down low. i pull out my looking lens, and i examine. i marvel. i wonder.

eight years. eight years today. 12.12, the chair’s birthday.

when this old chair first scratched across the kitchen floor, my little one had just turned five, my older one was nearly 13.5. i only wish i’d started before both boys were born, because then i’d have the whole cloth, and now i’ve got only a portion. priceless portion.

because more than anything this is a stack of love letters to my boys. this is a record of who their mama was, and how she loved them. it’s the surest way i know to give them the gift of my heart. because in my book, words equal heart equal love — exquisite, breathtaking, stumbling and fumbling. love that tries so hard, and yet still blows it. love that aims and misses. love that dusts off her knees and tries it again. love = a work in perpetual progress.

but beyond this place as a keeper of heart, it’s taught me one other thing, if not 100 other things, or 1,000.

it’s taught me to follow the whisper.

back when i first sat down to type, that trembly shadowed morning, i had no idea where i was going. i was typing into the dark. but i believed in the light.

i wasn’t sure where or how i’d find it. but the one thing i knew was that the surest way through the dark was one word at a time. one word quietly, boldly, sometimes trepidatiously following another.

word after word equals sentence. sentence after sentence equals moving toward truth. and in time, whole cloth is unfurled.

this is who i am, the words start to say. this is what i believe.

it’s called finding a voice. but it’s also divining for heart. if you quiet the noise, the distraction. if you muffle the ever-chattering doubt, you just might stumble upon the poetry that breathes at the pulse point of all of us.

we are infused with whisper. that’s where our dreams begin. and when — despite all the back talking we can do to ourselves, all the convincing ourselves we might as well throw in the towel, call it a day, pack up our toys and shuffle off home — when we keep our ear to the whisper, when we go with the heart that’s pushing us forward, the heart that says, over and over, “don’t mind the darkness, just live toward the light,” we’re tracing the course to the deepest-down truth. we’re becoming the blessing we are most meant to be.

maybe your whisper is dance. maybe your whisper is healing the sick. maybe your whisper is pleading: “please lift a paintbrush, tickle it into the azure, the cobalt, the tourmaline, and, please, paint a sunrise or sunset.”

my whisper told me to write. write for the depths and the shadows. examine the light. see the poetry. wrap your words around the breathtaking essence of each and every day.

my whisper said, “just keep writing.”

so i did. and along the way, oh, the beauties i’ve gathered. the beloved friends whose whispers heard mine. the ones who whisper back.

eight years later, and there’s a book in the world, the one being “mullipuffed,” even now as i type. God bless mullipuffs.

i’d long dreamed of armchairs pulled round the hearth. and kitchen tables splattered with crystals of sugar, and cream-stirred rings spilled from mugs of hot coffee. i imagined a world where kindred spirits pulled chairs to a circle, and talked about the holiness that animates their every blessed hour.

i have no clue, not an inkling, how many such tables and chairs are out there right now. but i have a picture i keep in my head, in my heart: i close my eyes and out of the darkness, out of the black velvet cloth that wraps the globe, night after night, dawn after dawn, i see golden lights glowing. dabs of candlelight here and there, all haloed together. a shimmering, glimmering necklace of light. lanterns of flame. old kitchen fixtures. maybe simply the roar of the fire, the logs of the forest offering up their incandescence — blessed sacrifice, indeed.

i typed in the dark, dawn after dawn, for eight blessed years. an octave of typing. i followed the whisper to wherever it led. it led me to here, the place where my heart nestles so soundly.

and, here in the dark, in the shadow of dawn, i’ll keep fumbling for keys and the truth. i’ll keep typing, i promise.

bless you each and every one of you who has ever pulled up a chair. bless you for listening. and following along in the dark.

what is your whisper telling you? 

eight

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

an invitation

an invitation

the invitation is broader and deeper than simply offering you a date and a time and a place. yes, there is that (details below). but the invitation i’m gently laying here at the table, it’s a doorway, an entering in….

the invitation is to slow time, to savor, to pay attention, to carve out quietude in the rush and the whirl of your every day.

we’ve been circling around those notions for years now, here at the chair. and somehow, in a mystical, magical, marvelous way, those quiet ideas have tucked themselves into the pages of a book, a book that might plop onto my front stoop any hour now. while i’ve not yet lifted it out from a box, haven’t felt its weight hard against my palms nor flipped through its pages, haven’t marveled forward and back that words typed here in the murky first light of so many mornings have found their way off the screen and onto the page. spelled out in ink — a newsgirl’s primary intoxicant.

but i’ve seen proof that those pages are finally off the printing press. they’re bound, slipped between covers.

any hour now, i’ll christen those pages with my freshly spilled tears.

so it’s time for the invitation.

for starters, consider the book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 7, 2014), a portable iteration of this old chair. why, you can take it wherever you go. you can bring it to bed, tuck it under your pillow. you can spill it with crumbs (and not have to worry that your keyboard gets jammed with a bit of a cracker). you can climb into a tree, and turn its pages. you can even slink in the bathtub (and not have to worry about glug-glugging your screen under the bubbly suds). it’s the chair unleashed. the chair on the loose. we’ve snipped the cords and numbered the pages.

ah, but there’s something even more enticing than the fact that Slowing Time, the book, can follow you anywhere, can go where’er you go.

and that’s where the invitation begins: my prayer all along has been that what’s tucked in the pages of Slowing Time is simply a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours. my hope is that it might become your whispered companion. a place to begin to contemplate how your life might look and feel and radiate if we dial down the noise, hit pause, and sift through the mess for the shards of the Sacred.

it’s a sketch pad, really, in which the flickers of half-baked ideas clothe themselves in words. and those words become the stepping path into the woods, into the depths. or at least point you in intriguing direction.

professor elisa new, beloved poetry scholar at harvard, talks about how a poem is a “communal resource, a convening space — written in a language we all understand.” it’s a place, she says, “where one human being has tried to make meaning, using a tool — the language we all share — that belongs to all of us. and so, by entering into inquiry, discussion, and interpretation of that poem, we can fully engage in that activity so central to the humanities, that activity of human conversation about what it is really to be human.”

and so, too, with the words you find spilled on the pages of Slowing Time, it’s an invitation to “shared inquiry.” and its words are, at heart, prayer unfurled in plainspoken prose. one someone’s prayer searching, searching for companion — be that gentle journeyer God, or the soulmate you find along your stumbling way, or sitting just inches across from you.

after all, the geometry of the old maple table, and the chairs that are tucked up against it, is the circle. heart linked to heart, hands within squeezing range, eyes close enough together that we can catch the sparkle on a joy-filled day, or the empty hollows in the hours when sadness or grief has eclipsed the light.

it is in those circles of our life — the circles we create out of love, or even when carved by accident of geography — that we find communion. and our own plumbing of the depths becomes shared inquiry, scaffolded exploration. a safe zone, where even our rawest tender spots can be laid before us, with no fear of harm or scorn or raised eyebrow.

still, though, it is in solitude, and in the sanctuaries of time we’ve hollowed out of the day, that the deepest paying attention begins.

as with so many spirit-filled vespers, slowing time — here at the table over the years, most lately every friday morning — has become a practice. practice, as in trying over and over and over to hew closer to the anointed edge at our most blessed core. practice, as in a ritual that surrenders to a rhythm. and, as with all holy acts, the holiness is found burrowing into the nooks and the crannies of a place — an interior, our interior — at once familiar and still to be explored.

it is the nautilus of prayer.

and it is the invitation that pulses at the heart of Slowing Time: use these words, little more than one pilgrim’s prayer, to lead you deeper into your own heart’s vault. settle in. deep breathe. catch the light. embrace the shadow.

and, once you’ve breathed Holiness in and in and in again, lift your eyes, and discover the light of the circle around you, within you. there is Holiness abounding, and it’s ours, radiant with grace.

and here’s the date-time-and-place invitation:

Slowing Time begins here: Reading, Conversation and Book Signing 

Wednesday, September 17 (feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval mystic, composer, writer, visionary)

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Francis Xavier Warde School at Old St. Patrick’s Church

120 South DesPlaines Avenue, Chicago

(leave it to Old St. Pat’s to prompt the heavens to rain down books before the publication date…)

 

yet another reading, after the actual publication date of Oct. 7, is now inked onto the calendar of a marvelous magical bookshop in Evanston:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation

Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, a magical bookshop tucked in an alley that feels as if it’s popped off the pages of Harry Potter. Co-hosted by Evanston Public Library. To reserve a seat, please contact Bookends and Beginnings at 224-999-7722.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

and yet another marvel:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation and Autumnal Joys

Women & Children First, a Chicago literary landmark in magnificent Andersonville, is hosting a reading, conversation and celebration of autumn, Season of Awe.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

7:30 p.m.

North Clark Street, Chicago, IL

womenandchildrenfirst.com

more readings to come…..stay tuned.

and now a question: how do you slow time? (oh, and what will be your crumb of choice to spill onto the pages and clutter the book binding gulley?)

slowing time cover