pull up a chair

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

Category: mustering strength

among the inanities of life, a knock at the door will anchor you firmly

tasha favorite page.jpg

sometimes it sneaks up behind you. sometimes you find yourself pulling into a narrow driveway, squeezing between tall brick pillars, praying the next sound you hear won’t be the sides of your wagon scraping harsh against brick.

sometimes you are quietly tiptoeing about someone’s front porch, tucking a fat bunch of tulips into a watering can by the door. and as you are bent, your spine a curve of surrender, the door clicks. you look up, and there is your friend, a not-so-old friend, but a friend who these days is navigating through some of the narrowest straits known to humankind. he found out just three months ago that his lungs harbor a “niche” cancer (that’s what he called it, meaning a rare and intricate one, one at the distant edges of medical mapping).

he invites you in. and only because you’re worried about the draft blowing in, the draft of this chilly may afternoon, you do as you’re told.

when standing face-to-face with someone new to the trials of cancer, all else falls away. the words that are spoken carry a weight and a glistening that propels them clear past the usual folderol and fluff of everyday talk. the words come and go from a nuclear core at the heart of human existence.

my friend wasted no time, when i asked, in telling me that the day before, a day of multiple scans and long hours of cell-slaying drugs, he’d walked into the medical center wrought with despair. he’d been imagining the words, “i’m sorry, best to just go home,” over and over again in his head, certain he’d be told that progress was naught, and hope had run out. i felt the weight of his words, of his truth. i felt the trembling; we shared it in that instant, in that way that words, that story, can draw us into the same shared cell.

but then, he said, his face breaking into pure joy, he heard words he’d never imagined: “they were elated,” he told me. “elated,” he said once again, as if to grind in that truth, the one he’d never expected. the cell slayers were doing their job. hope had rushed into the hollows.

he stood there, a man with not a hair, nor an eyelash or brow, beaming a radiant glow. the front hall, not a minute before filled with a draft and a chill, was suddenly swirling with warmth.

i stayed but a few minutes longer. long enough for a hug and a nod to the little kindnesses that carry all of us through the unmoored passages of our lives, the ones when the walls close in, and the darkness comes, and each and every breath is defiance, is courage with air.

all in all it was but a 10-minute pause in my day. but it jostled the whole of it — and the days before and likely many days after — into fine-grained focus.

suddenly, all the tangles and hassles, the computer on the fritz, the rushing and dashing, the too many things to squeeze in a day, they all fell away. shrank back to size.

none of them matter. not really.

and even though we know those things, know them with every bone in our wobbly old bodies, we forget. too too often.

sometimes, we need to stand in a hallway, face to face with a man who quite frankly tells us he feared for the worst, stared despair in the face, and heard the words he’d least expected to hear: here’s hope. it’s yours to keep. now, go forth. and spread the gospel.

you never know who might show up on your stoop. in deep need of the lesson you’re living today.

and that’s my humble tale of the week. what life lessons did you encounter this week, the ones that plant you solidly in your boots? 

the picture above is in honor of this being children’s book week, and this is the page, drawn and water-colored by tasha tudor, that informed the whole of my childhood, that drew me in and never let me go, the doorway to a land of enchantment that was my home of all homes. and since i didn’t take a picture while tucking tulips into a watering can on the front stoop of my friend, i decided to share the enchantment. i once wrote a little bit about this page, in an ode to dear tasha, the morning after i found out that she’d died. i remembered this was children’s book week because my dear friend amy told me. and she wrote a beautiful ode to her favorite childhood book, which you can find here on her breathtaking blog.

may yours be a lovely blessed week. xoxox

and God weeps…

garden weeps

we weep, too.

even the garden this morning is wet with tears.

but the dawn came. and the wren still sings.

and, soon, once i brace myself, i will begin again to watch the news. all night, i worried. you can forget, in the crevices of night, how dark it is. but then, when dawn’s light begins to trickle in, when you begin to stir, and thoughts pick up at the end of the ellipses where you left them, you begin to shudder once again. you can’t quite catch your breath.

the world, you fear, is a whirling cauldron of hatred. you wanted to believe this globe has seen the worst. but you are wise enough to know that you’re a fool to hold such cockamamie notions.

we have jobs to do, each one of us. each one who holds a candle, holds a flame, we cannot let the light go out. can’t let love — and hope — and all those things we pray for, we cannot let them extinguish. we cannot be witness to the last burning ember.

late last night, just before we toddled off to sleep, we heard the latest horrors. snipers in dallas. policemen dead. a peaceful protest shattered. dealey plaza. parkland memorial hospital. the echoes of history swept across the screen. i remember being little, very little, watching scenes from dallas play across another screen. it scared me then. it scares me now. then, i had a papa whose big broad chest harbored me. back then, someone tucked me into bed. told me to say my prayers.

last night, after hours staring at the screen, when at last i drifted off to sleep, the man i love held my hand. the last words i heard before the silence drew me under were the ones he whispered in his prayer: “this world needs your light.”

i’d been soaked in sadness all day long, long before the horror from dallas poured across my screen. the news these days is non-stop reel of horrors. we are privy now to a broad swath of unspeakable sorrows. in one single frame of daylight, we watched men die — bleed to death and moan right before our eyes. and before that i’d been reading of rallies where hateful words are spewed. “hang the bitch.” “kill the bitch.” words so vile i can’t even bring myself to type them. such is the language that flows inside what’s framed as political rally. sounds like halls of hate to me. sounds like someone’s tapped into something redolent of sin, the last thread of civility has been snapped. and all hell is breaking loose. is oozing out, the great metastasis of evil.

and then, news of rooftop snipers. officers down. sirens wail. over and over, we hear the cacophony of rapid-fire weaponry. “something of a national emergency,” the tv anchor told us as the clock struck midnight. “civil war,” the headlines shout this morning (i just peeked).

so, we can follow our first instinct: run and hide, cower in the corner.

but then we might consider a second impulse: get up, and brace ourselves. imagine we’re the front line in a pacifist campaign to not let the evil win. because the truth is, we are the front line. each and every one of us. we’re the ones who hold the flame, who keep it burning. who decide in each and every interaction that we’re not giving in. we’re not spewing one syllable of hate. and — here’s a hard one — we’re not backing away when we’re witness to what’s ugly.

we arm ourselves with the same old equation of love that’s ever been. the one espoused by every holy pilgrim everywhere. flame by flame, we gather light. we counter the narrative of hate by stockpiling ones of love, of courage in the face of assault. we enlist a company of  kindred spirits. we embolden each other to not give up. do not surrender.

just this morning, i’m meeting a friend whose lifework is literally curing cancer. she spends her days bent over a laboratory station, keeping watch on chemical equations that fuel pharmaceutical weaponry that just might belittle cancer. there is reason for hope from her lab, she tells me, though it’s not yet clear whether it’s breast or ovarian cancer that will most certainly run into the wall they’re erecting. either one is fine by me.

that’s how i begin my emboldening, that’s how i don’t give up. i gather saints, one by one. i gather stories, deep breathe their notes of courage. i witness tenderness. i try mightily to embody any wisp of it. i pray. i watch. i weep. i dry my tears, dry the tears of those i love. and then i get to work.

the God i love is weeping. i woke up to a world drenched in all God’s tears.

how will you keep the flame burning, even in the darkness?

old sweater: ode to wrap-around-you love

old sweater vertical

some mornings, in the swift fractions between bare foot to floorboard, shuffle across the bedroom rug, and tumble into closet, i just know: it’s an old sweater sort of day.

a day when i need to feel my arms slide through the nubby sleeves, feel the wool scratch against me, pull the torso tight around my chest. i need to feel the wrap-around-you love that comes from pulling on an old, old sweater. a sweater that once belonged, and still — if you breathe deep and with all your heart — holds the sweet scent of the someone long ago who wore it. whose chest filled out its threads. whose warmth inhabited. whose whole self animated, in a way that — standing alone in the dark, cold closet — you still can see, as if a picture show before your eyes.

it’s been one of those weeks around here.

every day, an old sweater. truth be told, every day the same old sweater (fashion-forward is not a name you’d put to me, queen of holey jeans and banged-up clogs, and T shirts worn till rags). it’s a navy one, with suede patches on the sleeve. one the maker calls its “shaggy dog.” other than calling it a teddy-bear crew neck (one minus knitted-in images of bears, thank you), i can’t think of a better name for a sweater that fills its particular prescription: dust off the lonely flakes, embolden for the day ahead, stick close and keep the cold at bay. and not necessarily the temperature. more like the draft that comes when you feel all alone, a bit lonely, searching for that particular someone who steadies you, brings ballast to your wobbling hours.

it’s winter here. deep winter. a season i love. but the fellow who inhabits this house with me, the one i married nearly a quarter century ago, he’s been away. so it’s just me and the little one, faring for ourselves. and while i love the quiet hours stitched into each day, i find myself a wee bit lost. i find myself braving winds and cold. i’m without the markers at the start and end of each long day, when usually the door clicks open and in walks the lanky fellow, his glasses frosted up from cold. his cheeks pink from wind. his stories fresh, and filling up the room.

i’ve thought a lot this week about those i love who are missing someone. everyone misses someone sometime. sometimes for the rest of your living breathing days. you can’t go too long in this life before death comes, or leave-taking of some other kind steals the one you love. there are a million algorithms that all wind up with a big fat hollow at the end. there’s a kid i love who’s gone away, simply because he grew up and found a leafy college, far far from here. there’s a dad i loved, with all my heart; he up and died. no goodbye. just a blizzard and a phone call and a doctor standing in the blazing white corridor, saying, oddly, “i’m so sorry.” there’s a grandma, who wasn’t even mine by birth, just by heart. and every time i tumble in my closet, i see her cherry red, gold-buttoned cardigan. i don’t often put it on. but i love knowing that it’s there, in the stack of old sweaters just waiting to do their job: wrap my arms and chest, make like soft-looped armament, a shield that holds me tight, that makes me remember a certain hug, a certain chest against which i leaned and pressed my ear, drinking in a steady heartbeat. a heartbeat that steadied me, that launched me, that served as grounding rod and metronome for the songs i’d yet to let loose from the canyon of my hopes and dreams and wobbles.

sometimes in life we need to grope for tangible knowing that we’re not alone. not deep down, anyway. there are someones from the past, who swirl around us still. who pulse through us. and sometimes simply shoving a fist, an arm, down a narrow sleeve, it’s all the rubbing-up-against-us we need to convince ourselves that, once again, we can face the day. we can march out of the bedroom closet, armed for what the day will bring.

no one can see the someone we’ve tucked into for the day. but we know. we know we’re not alone. and the stack of old, moth-worn, years-stretched sweaters, they’re there to guide us on our ways. to enfold us. to brace us from the chill that’s sure to blow through all the cracks.

what armaments do you reach for when your day begs for emboldening? or your heart just needs an extra layer of fortitude, of resilience, of remembering how deeply it is loved?

led by a deep, still voice

 

enter to grow wisdom

here is an essay i wrote this week for the nieman storyboard, a writerly nook of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard that explores the craft of longform narrative and storytelling in all its guises. this was an essay that took particular courage. you’ll read why. you can read it below, or see it here on the storyboard, where you might decide to poke around and find a host of marvels and morsels….

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention.

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Don’t flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

It all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

veritas

cradled

sunflowers

cradled (v.) hold something gently and protectively.

that’s the dictionary doing what it does: defining.

and then we come to the part i always love best, the underpinning of every word, its linguistic DNA, its etymology, its roots reaching back in time, across oceans, deep into the vault of centuries past. and here we read this (from my friends at the online etymology dictionary):

cradle (n.) “baby’s bed,” c.1200, cradel, from Old English cradol “little bed, cot,” from Proto-Germanic *kradulas “basket” (cognates: Old High German kratto, krezzo “basket,” German Krätze “basket carried on the back”). From late 14c. as “device for holding or hoisting.”

in the sixteenth century, circa 1500, the etymologists tell us, the noun slipped into its form as a verb, and that’s how i like it best. to be cradled. to cradle.

i was humming around in my head, coursing the bumps and the vales of my brain, in search of a word that means “what’s keeping me from wafting away.”

“grounded” didn’t work because it sounded like i’d been sent to the doghouse. “tethered” came close, but only if you pictured a space walker tied to a lifeline, the sort that NASA so solidly builds, a lifeline that allows for floating, drinking in the sights of the heavens. literally. “tethered,” if you pictured a leash, did not work.

and then, in that way that sometimes makes you feel there’s an angel plopped on your shoulder, leaning in, whispering words in your ear, suddenly, out of the vapors, “cradled” appeared. and all at once, i felt my shoulders go soft, in that exhale of a way. when you whoosh out your worries and cares, and all’s right with the world, as robert browning once put it (“song from pippa passes”).

and so i am — we are all — being cradled. each and every day. breathing or not. we are cradled in great tender arms that hold us. i particularly love the notion from the german Krätze, “basket carried on the back.” breathe that one in for a moment.

right in here — the past luscious whirling days — i’ve been feeling a wee bit lightheaded, and my heart’s been pounding so hard i worry, as i so often do, that it just might give up the ghost. so, as if my life depended on it this morning, i pulled myself out from under the sheets. and i tiptoed out to the holy cathedral just outside the kitchen door, the one that vaults to the heavens, the one that this morning was lit by a crescent of moon. looked to me, more than anything, like one big eye winking at me. God’s eye?

and all around me, the dawn’s soft cool blanket fluttered, as if on a clothesline. the cardinals, cloaked in scarlet as always, were up and chirping away — it’s fairly hard to beat a cardinal out of bed. the dew glistened. my toes took a bath when i tiptoed across the yard to fill the feeder with seed.

i stood there breathing. feeling the arms wrap around me. winking back at the moon. then, i looked to my old shingled house, melted at the buttery light of the kitchen, glowing. sighed a deep sigh of thanks for the house that never fails to keep me safe.

i stood there for a short little bit, unfurled my morning vespers, felt the soles of my feet sinking soft into the earth that holds us, always holds us. and then i puttered back toward the kitchen, where a lunch box awaited, and upstairs, a growing boy slept.

as i poured my first mug of coffee, i stopped to drink in a clutch of sunflowers that peeked from the old chipped milk pitcher. i thought of the blessed beautiful friend who had scooped up those wide-faced wonders from the farmer’s market. and then i climbed the stairs to wake the sleeping boy.

i pressed my cheek against his, longer than i usually do. i drank him in, my sweet sleeping child. and, as i’d been doing all morning, i leaned; this time, on him. i leaned on all of these wonders — winking moon, chattering bird, morning’s dew pearled, old blessed friend, and miracle child — and fortified myself for the hours to come.

i was cradled.

the cradle is there, always there. if we’re willing to climb to the basket strapped to the back — the glorious, heavenly back — that carries us, even on days when we’re dizzy.

what cradles you? as in what are the wonders that hold you gently, protectively?