pull up a chair

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

Category: nature

the last cricket and all those other blessed moments we miss…

we’re ankle-deep in october already, and the woods and the skies and the last vestige of garden are enmeshed in the verbs of autumn: gilding, disrobing, graying, withering.

while the world all around is exulting in the yin and yang of the seasonal shift, lurching from summer to winter, hewing the razor’s edge of autumnal juxtaposition — the last vestige of bone-baking warmth to the goosebumps of dawn’s early chill — while the chipmunks are making like there’s an acorn-stuffing contest, and he with the bulgingest cheeks wins, and the chatter of sparrows rises some days to a deafening chorus, the last of the summer’s songs have vanished.

and i didn’t notice till now.

the blanket of cricket song, a rising crescendo that all but tucked me into bed each summer’s night, it’s stilled. silenced. taken away, tucked on a shelf somewhere, awaiting the heat of next august.

the last of the cicadas’ 24-hour love song for survival. it’s gone too. snuffed out. it too rose to a deafening roar, and then with the flick of a switch that i didn’t bother to witness, it melted away.

now, when you open your windows at night, there’s little to hear save for the possums knocking over the watering can. or the night winds rustling the leaves before they loose from the limbs.

what with all the commotion — of the world, of the news, of the worry — i didn’t notice the absence till i stumbled into the thoughts of someone who’s paying closer attention.

sacred attention, i’d call it, a religion i aim to practice.

i read these words, and felt the ache in my chest:

My intention every year is to listen for the last cricket, the explosion of silence after its ridged wings have struck their final chirp. I imagine it as somehow akin to Bashō’s temple bell whose sound, after the bell has stopped ringing, comes pouring out of the flowers. I have no reason for wanting to mark the occasion other than a poetic temperament and a feeling that the mindfulness required of such a task is its own reward.

The idea usually arrives in September when the crickets are at their most frantic. I toy with the thought of camping out the night it seems likely they’ll stop. I imagine myself keenly attuned to the hypnotic lull, aware that if I fall asleep, even for a moment, I could miss it. The novelty appeals to me. The invention of such an inconsequential drama. It would make no difference to anyone whether I succeeded, or if it took me years to accomplish. The achievement would be mine alone. Sometimes to up the ante, I imagine decades of failed attempts until maybe one night—when I’m an old man, stumbling, bearded, blind, bereft of all hope—a Zen-like oneness with the woods sets in and from nearby, under the bark of a rotten log, I hear the teeth of a cricket wing crackling the air, and listen, knowingly, as the world resolves itself in silence.

Steve Edwards, “The Last Cricket,” Orion Magazine, Autumn 2020

mr. edwards’ elegy to the cricket song made me think of all else that i’d missed. it seemed an exercise that drew me — and maybe you — into a necessary meditation. an exercise in paying attention, for this is our one sweet moment to clasp our gaze, and our listening, on the beauties offered up in this one ephemeral whirl around the blazing star.

it’s a canticle worth our attention.

have you noticed…

*the moon gliding across the sky, still clinging to its post as the sun comes along, both sky lights sharing heaven’s dome?

*the stars turning on, any one particular night?

*the moment when God hauled out his paint set and brushes, and the first leaf turned amber or garnet or the color of pumpkins?

*did you happen to catch the river of monarchs riding the winds, flapping their stained-glass wings as if their life depended on it — because it did?

*did you stare into the indigo darkness, into the etched silhouette of what looked like endless punctuation marks crossing the moon, the night the tens of millions of birdsongs flew overhead, miles and miles into their autumnal sweep southward?

*have you paused in genuflection when the chevron of geese called out from the heavens with their spine-tingling minor-key cries?

*have you watched the sparrows upholstering their wintry homes with blades of dried grasses and tufts of runaway cotton?

*have you found where the cardinal sleeps in winter?

it’s all the wonderment out our window, in the woods, in the world where we’re not looking. and all it asks is that we notice. that we pay quiet and unbroken attention.

it’s all we need some mornings to remind us the world is still intact. to remind us we’re safe in the bosom of this holy and most sacred earth. our ears pressed against its soft chest and the heartbeat of the One who keeps it working.

what wonderments have you noticed, from the autumnal litany above, or from the zillions of moments i’ve not even mentioned?

p.s. my sweet boy is still on the mend. slowly, slowly. tray by tray of home-cooked mac-n-cheese, bread pudding, applesauce and water bottles by the case. slow walks around the block. long interludes of napping in the quiet of leafy suburbia. it’s all aiming to get him back to college before the already abbreviated semester lurches to an end. thank you, so much, for your love and your care, and your prayers. xoxox (p.s.s. i was a wee bit late here this morning, because my friend, the patient, beckoned, and the computer was playing all sorts of tricks….)

wild things

IMG_1229

a mouse’s house? with front-porch perch…

it’s the permeability of winter, when the cell wall between the wild and the worldly is punctured, when the precious little things come out into the open, are pushed out into the open, all but tap at the window, beg for a taste of mercy, that’s holiness to me.

IMG_1231against the white tableau of snowy day after snowy day, winter makes evident the tracings of the wild things: a mouse hole here; chantilly-lace tracks of junco and cardinal and jay. even the abominable paw prints of a giant-sized coyote, straight from the woods, up my walk, paused there by the door (did he press his nose to the glass, take a peek under the cookie dome?).

each morning, no matter what the heavens are hurling my way, i don my make-believe farmer-girl boots, i scoop my battered old tin can, fill it with seed, and head out for what you might call matins, morning benediction. i bow to the heavens. scan the trees for any flash of scarlet, or blue-jay blue. i unfurl prayer upon prayer (the moon, if it’s shining, even a crescent or wedge, draws it deep out of me, never more so than in those inky minutes just before the dawn).

what i love about the wild, about this curious equation between us in our warm cozy kitchens and them seeking harbor in ways that mystify now and forever, is the fragile interplay in which we reach beyond what we know, extend an open palm of pure unbridled trust, an offering, no strings attached. it takes stripped-away ego to dare to tiptoe into the world of the wild. it takes a deep and undiluted knowledge of how small a dot we are against the vast canvas of the universe, all but insists we put aside our big ol’ bossy pants, our hurried agendas, our know-it-all nonsense.

it’s the very image of holy veneration: head bowed, palms extended. i come bearing sustenance, in the form of plain seed.

have you ever felt the backdraft of a feathered thing, as it’s flown inches away from your shoulder? have you felt the rush of the wing, heard the soft sound of feather and bone parting the wind?

and then there’s the shock of color, all day long, brush strokes of scarlet, of blue, of smoky charcoal. the boughs are alive, are animated. it’s not all black and white and static gray, not in my patch of the world anyway. all day long it’s a reminder, the wild is just beyond, the wild has wisdoms to teach. mercy is among the urgencies. mercy is what we need to remember; we are lacking in mercies these days.

who ever thought to bring so much wonder to winter? that’s the point at which my wondering leaps from earthly to divine. that’s where unshakeable faith begins to take hold. the wild begs questions that only the heavens can answer for me.

which brings me, round about and once again, to david whyte, whose poem the journey says everything i could ever hope to say with any string of words. have a listen:

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

from House of Belonging  and Essentials by David Whyte

IMG_1240

what wisdoms does the wild whisper to you?

and, while we’re here, the late january table brings a slew of birthdays: kerry down the lane today, beloved beloved pammy jo of the high desert, yesterday. british columbia mary and indiana BB on the 28th. happy blessed whirls around the sun, ladies. and thank you for your radiance….

i missed the moon

missed the moon, so gillson

…not just any moon, the great warrior orb of autumn, the hunter moon. round and orange and overwhelming, like a dreamsicle melting from the night sky. and i missed it.

well, at least i caught a peek, the skinniest sliver of a peek, as i was darting here or there or nowhere.

but it takes some work to miss the moon that bathes the world below in luminescence. i must have been holed up inside a world of worries, of syria and betrayals and beheadings. i must have been nursing the tender spots of a mama who’d just packed up her youngest and dropped him at the jetway that would carry him 300 miles from where i’ve doted over him all these years.

in the house where i grew up to miss a moon — or a cardinal, or a loon, or the frog’s croak rising from the pond across the way — to miss any of the sighs and moans and spectacles of god’s creation was what amounted to a sin. in my mama’s book of rules, anyway.

you daren’t let on that you were too busy with your nose in the news. or worrying about the dustballs under your bed. too distracted to notice was not allowed. or so’s the truth as i absorbed it.

chased in part by guilt (a guilt that unlike the moon never ebbs), but even more so by an unquenchable thirst, a sense that i’d strayed too far from the thin-spun silken thread that ties heaven to earth to what passes for my soul. if i missed the moon, the great wide-cheeked nightbeam of october, i wonder what else i’d missed, what stirrings of the earth that were sure to launch my own deep-down stirrings, remind me of my own still small place beneath the immensities of the one who’d carved us — and all creation — from the depths and heights of divine imagination?

so i strapped on my sturdy walking shoes, and found myself crouched down low amid the grasses that swish and sway against the sand mounds, the ones that catch the wind off the lake, and rustle as do the faithful in the pews when sabbath comes.

i sank low and lower, not to hide so much as to immerse myself in lowliness. to drench myself in the posture of humility, of raw-edged vulnerability so necessary for reverence.

to behold the miracle of heaven above and all around, i find i need to grow small and smaller. ours is a world of oversized ego, oversized hubris, oversized oversize. the bigger the better. except, quite frankly, in matters of the blessed. to be willing to hear the holy whisper. to find satisfaction in steady footfall, one after another. to partake of the arithmetic of saints, by little and by little, by little acts of kindness, of courage, of hope. to relish the infinitesimal, the dew drop of the dawn, the twilight song of the red-bird preacher on highest bough, the flutter of the heartbeat when love swoops down, wipes away the loneliness, the ache of the empty vessel.

i stayed long enough to walk the beach, playing catch-me-if-you-can with rippling waves. i walked and watched the roiling sky. charcoal gray, i find, is supremely lovely up above. it portends drama just ahead. and, indeed, when raindrops came in dime-sized plops, i picked up my pace. ducked beneath a maple tree whose boughs had just been daubed by autumn’s crimson paintbrush.

i inhaled a quart or so of morning vapors. filled my lungs, my heart, my soul with God’s most necessary ingredient: quiescence, the underlay of all the richest risings, the prayers that wend their way past worldly noise, the ones that from the deepest stillest dancepoint of our earthly selves ascend. to there, where prayers are heard, even in their wordlessness. and the One Who Hears echoes in kind the blessing, sating us in ways no other ever will.

how do you drink up all the holiness you crave? where’s your deep down quiet place?

gillson row of trees

off to the woods

st. mary lake

i’m off to the woods, soon as i pack the wagon, stash the little library next to the umbrella, make sure i don’t leave behind the binder with the pages and pages of notes and thoughts and scribbles.

i’m doing something i’ve not done before, not for this many days and nights anyway. and i’m doing it in a sacred splotch of woods, a place so quiet you can hear the cardinal talking to the blue jay, and you can hear the bullfrog leaping off a log so wrapped in odd-planed fungi it looks extraterrestrial. i’ve walked these woods before, and the miles and miles of trails that snake around the lake, st. mary lake. it’s all on the grounds of an old seminary, and if you listen closely you can hear the murmurs of years and years — whole decades, a century and three quarters, actually — of prayers unreeled in all these woods.

last time i was there, i was one of the ones who’d gone to be quiet. it was a two-day mostly silent retreat. this time, i’m the one who needs to talk. who needs to weave and wend the soulful into morning, noon, and night. or try, anyway.

i don’t know anyone who will be there. not yet anyway. i’m told 16 soulful women have signed up, packed their bags, and will be looking to me for sustenance of the spiritual kind. oh, lordy. help me. (it’s why i’ve spent weeks reading, thinking, writing, scribbling all those notes.)

i keep wishing it was a chair sisters’ retreat. that all of us were finding our way to the woods, gathering in the kitchen to cook ourselves a feast, kindling logs in the fireplace, taking moon walks under heaven’s star-stitched dome. i wish we were all bringing pages we found soulful. or worthy of deeper study, thoughtful consideration.

maybe this is just the first step. a trial run. to see how i fare across three days, two nights.

i imagine there will be moments of blessing. once i chase away the butterflies. i worry i won’t be “churchy” enough. hope my turning to mary oliver, and celtic poets, to ralph waldo emerson and good ol’ thoreau — my pantheon of poets and shimmering souls — is enough to sate the thirsty.

the idea here — or at least the thread that weaves this all together — is rooted in that old Book of Nature i’m so intent on reading closely. the eruptions and raptures of springtime, this season that explodes right before our eyes (while typing here i spied my first goldfinch of the season, and this morning the redbud that reaches across my backyard is twice as swollen and pink as when the sun set last night) it’s a season rife with lessons and wisdoms and wonder, and we’ll be walking the woods in search of all of it. (snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but i’m going to pretend i didn’t see that.)

we’ll weave in thoughts about the spiritual practice of paying attention, and carving out hours of stillness. and really, truth be told, these are all ideas i could spend a lifetime considering. my deepest attentions are drawn toward the liminal, the thin places and craggy edges where secular and sacred intersect. shimmer radiantly. come unexpected. i like it slant, as dear emily (dickinson) might prescribe.

so i bring my slanted theology to the woods today. and i pray my heart meets each and every one who finds me there. in between the five titled talks, simple shared conversation — over meals, during walks, curled in armchairs in the library — will be where souls are sparked.

and as always, the bookshelf offers hope. here, in the spirit of soulful edification, is the litany of books i’ve gathered and packed and will soon be tossing in the old red wagon.

BOOKS:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher:
Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
The Cloud of Unknowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library); edited by Brooks Atkinson

James Finley:
The Contemplative Heart

Richard Higgins:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees

Pico Iyer:
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Gina Marie Mammano:
Camino Divina: Walking the Divine Way

Thomas Merton:
Literary Essays of Thomas Merton

Mary Oliver:
Devotions
Upstream
Long Life

Christine Valters Paintner:
The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred
Dreaming of Stones: Poems

Jan Richardson:
Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

Joan Sauro, CSJ:
Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, introduction by Kathleen Norris:
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day
gratefulness.org

Simone Weil:
Waiting for God (essays: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with View to the Love of God;” “The Love of God and Affliction”)

may your weekend, wherever it is, and however you spend it, be something of a soulful retreat.

what books might you pack for a string of days and nights of soul stirring?

off to the woods

if you look closely enough……

IMG_1347

you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

keeping company with waldo & friends

by the hour, i sit behind my wall of books, reaching from merton to thoreau to emerson, deeper and deeper into the folds of wisdom. it all started because of merton, aka brother louis. or maybe it all started because of mary O. or maybe it all started because of my mother.

my mama, who goes to mass every day of her life (a week ago, during the depth of the polar vortex, i called, and she was in her armchair at 8 o’clock sharp, watching mass on the telly. i shouldn’t have been surprised, and i wasn’t; but i melted a bit at her devotion), she must have been my first rabbi (rabbi in hebrew translates to “master,” or “teacher”).

she’s the one who woke me each morning, flinging the blinds, warbling lines from browning or dickinson — “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” (browning, song from “pippa passes”); “some keep the sabbath going to church — / i keep it, staying at home — / with a bobolink for a chorister — ” (dickinson, 236).

she’s the one whose home movies always drifted away from the faces of her five cherubic children to the iridescent-blue indigo bunting, or the neon-red scarlet tanager darting in the boughs over our heads. some 60 years ago, when in a single day a realtor toured her through half a dozen lovely houses along chicago’s north shore, she bought the one with the most trees. and the creek gurgling in the woods across the street, and the green pond where the frogs croaked and the turtles sunbathed on logs, and the country club directly across the way, with its wide-open vista, promising her a lifetime of sunsets.

she must have been the one who first planted the seed. the seed that has grown and grown. the seed that now is a towering, undeniable, inescapable force, the one that draws me into the woods, under the star-stitched dome of midnight or dawn, the seed that draws me to windows where i can keep watch — on the birds, on the wind, on whatever is falling from heaven.

turns out i am hardly alone in this congregation of woods-goers. i’ve been hot on the trail of something called the Book of Nature, a text i’d never known by name, though i’ve been reading it since before i learned to assemble alphabet letters into words that came with particular sounds and meanings. i’d first learned of it — by name — when a rabbi i was talking to on the radio a few years back said of my first book, slowing time, “it’s midrash to the Book of Nature.” (midrash is defined as ancient commentary, often rabbinic, on Hebrew Scripture; it makes connection between text and lived reality, so says my all-things-jewish dictionary.)

hmm. i’d never known that a girl with a confirmation name, and a patron saint besides, could put a pen to midrash. but my main intrigue centered on this Book of Nature, a title i certainly wanted to get my hot little hands on.

over time, and through the years since, i’ve burrowed deeper and deeper into this ancient wisdom. there’s a whole theology that centers on the notion that the Book of Nature, unfurled at Creation, is God’s first holy text. (called the Two Book Theology, it’s the belief that God is revealed through a pair of complementary sources: the Books of Scripture and Nature; Genesis followed by Word.) this first text even has a latin name, librum naturae, and it traces through the millennia, an idea explored by the ancient “church fathers,” among them augustine of hippo, origen of alexandria, galileo, on through martin luther, emily dickinson, clear to merton’s gethsemani doorstep and mary oliver’s walks through the cape cod woods.

a fellow by the name of sir thomas browne, clear back in the 17th-century, aptly wrote: “there are two books from whence i collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant, Nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all.”

just a few years ago, pope francis wrote: “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe.'” and before him, pope john paul declared: “the visible world is like a map pointing to heaven… we learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures.

all i knew was that i love nothing more than to stand, stone still, under the night sky, drinking in the moon and the glowing orbs of heaven. or to sit burrowed in sand and stiletto-sharp dune grasses along the shore, counting out the undulations of the lake’s watery pulses. or to marvel at the mama bird dutifully and vigilantly building her nest, one shriveled stick or grass or ribbon at a time.

i knew and know that i feel the hand of God there. feel the telltale tingle up my spine. i know God’s nearby when i catch the goosebumps breaking out along my arms and my thighs.

so, acolyte to Wisdom, i follow the trail deep into the pages where wisdom is recorded, where it’s spelled out in words that hold me like a vice, or would it be as a spelunker? this week found me in the Transcendentalists: first thoreau, then the master, r.w. emerson, who i learned preferred to go by his middle name, waldo. (henceforth, waldo it is.)

i’ll begin though with a few notes drawn from thoreau, first from richard higgins’ thoreau and the language of trees:

…The winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to Thoreau, a place for contemplation. He walked them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….All its motions… must be “circulations of God.”

and from thoreau himself: “if by watching all day and all night i may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch?”

or: “my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

maple trees, thoreau called “cheap preachers,” whose “century-and-a-half sermons” minister to generations. 

at his funeral, thoreau’s friend and teacher emerson said that despite thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender, and absolute religion.” 

which drew me straight to emerson, absorbed for days in his signature essay, Nature. and these are but some of the notes i scribbled into my notebook:

Chapter IV Language:

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.

A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.

Chapter VII Spirit: 

[Nature] always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us. The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship. 

…the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it.

…Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?

Chapter VIII: Prospects

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.

no wonder mary oliver called herself a student, first and most, of emerson, who taught her — and us — that “the heart’s spiritual awakening” is “the true work of our lives.”

and with that i leave you to your own musings on the true work of our lives, the Book of Nature, and its most brilliant disciples and diviners….

who are your wisdom teachers, from the pages of the Book of Nature, or otherwise?

IMG_1276

one stack among many

enwrapped, still, with mary O

winter-woods-1418741454w4l

it’s a tundra out there. i’ve just crunched across the hard crust of snow, coffee can of fat black seed in tow. if ever the birds depend on me, the pewter-haired one who clangs around as if the keeper of the flocks, it’s on a dawn like this. even the wind is shivering.

inside this toasty-warm old house, we’re dwelling in the rarest of quiet pauses. the soon-to-be college kid has turned in his last exam, and might sleep till dusk. it’s the first day in eons that there’s not a single essay or snatch of homework for me to pester him about. he has literally zippo, zilch in the to-do pile, which means i, too, am off whatever hook we mothers impale ourselves.

i’m going nowhere on a day as cold as this. and, till nightfall, have every intention of plunking myself right here, at the old maple table, where i keep watch on flash of scarlet at the feeder, in the boughs. i’ve got all i need within reach: a mug that’s warm and filled with morning brew, a stack of books so tall it sometimes teeters.

img_1249all week, i’ve been deep in the pages of mary oliver. one by one, i’ve pulled her books off my shelves, and pored over line after line. i’ve been drawn especially to her prose, the long sentences as stitched with poetry as any of her verse. i inhaled upstream: selected essays, and a poetry handbook, her 1994 master class in the making of a poem.

reminded me — as i scribbled notes on sound (did you know our alphabet is divided into families of sound? and that besides good old vowels and consonants, there are semivowels and mutes? a mute, it seems is most important in the realm of poetry; a mute, mary tells us, “is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and” — here’s the interesting part, where the little bitty alphabet letter seems to take on menacing character — “suddenly stops the breath.” the mutes are k, p, t, as in ak, ap, at.) — and as i was saying before i interrupted myself, being inside the pages of mary oliver’s masterclass reminded me of the glorious semester i spent studying poetry with helen vendler, the great literary critic and mastermind of poetry, who every monday and wednesday at 1 o’clock on the dot, marched into harvard’s emerson hall, plonked her satchel on the desk and dove in. with nary a hello. we had 60 minutes to squeeze in all there was to know about lyric poetry — from ancient to modern — and she would shave off not a second for distractions such as long-winded greetings. helen vendler was one of those treasures, a lioness of american poetry, whose every poetic utterance you knew was met with full-stop attention far beyond the cambridge city limits, and had she not been such a gentle-souled professor in her sensible shoes, dabbing tissues at her nose in between recitations of pound and eliot and coleridge, you might have shuddered in her presence. but in fact we all sat hushed, even the snotty little harvard first years who hush for almost no one. (i was already pewter-haired, as this was amid our nieman year, our year of living sumptuously, when we all went off to college at the ripe old age of 55.)

and, yes, it’s something of a magic trick, a measure of her writerly powers, that mary oliver could make the pages of a book feel as alive as a living, breathing, whole-semester class.

it was in the fresh wake of her death — just a week ago — that this reading felt almost sacramental. it was a reverential rite, absorbing her wisdoms with a measure of urgency, a sense of hurry-before-she-slips-too-far-away. read against the sharp edge of the final bracket of her life, her words and wisdom felt infused with the prophet’s cry. and, certainly, in her returning over and over to themes of the eternal cycle, life to death to life in newly configured form, there was a peace that rose from the pages, from the knowing. if anyone who’d walked among us was welcoming that last great surrender, it was mary O who all along had seen the glistening beauties in the mystery of death, who lived and breathed the truth of life’s brevity, who asked again and again, how will you live this one wild and precious life?

because i’m reading mary O with an eye toward a talk on thomas merton and the Book of Nature, i took notes, lots and lots of notes.

here are just a few that insisted they make their way into my notebooks — and now, perhaps, yours too:

“Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.” So writes Mary O in Upstream, and then she goes on to witness the dawn of day across a 20-acre field in winter: “The sun has not yet risen but is sending its first showers over the mountains, a kind of rehearsal, a slant light with even a golden cast. I do not exaggerate. The light touches every blade of frozen grass….The still-upright weeds have become wands, encased in a temporary shirt of ice and light….It is the performance of this hour only, the dawning of the day, fresh and ever new. This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular.” (“Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world….I will hear some sound of the morning as it settles upward.”)

Later, she writes: “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water….To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created. Then the occlusions begin.”

A bird, she writes, “was, of course, a piece of the sky.” “…This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.”

Of a great-horned owl, swooping through the forest, she writes: “When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of mystery….”

Knowledge, she writes, entertained her, shaped her, and ultimately failed her. “Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worthy of my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my spiritual state.”

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family….we are at risk together. We are each other’s destiny.

“For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

and this, the closing lines of poetry handbook, is the one i’ll leave with you to ponder for the day:

 “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” 

—Mary Oliver, “A Poetry Handbook” 

may our own occlusions be swept away by wonder and the telltale tingle of the spine that reminds us we’re in the presence of the holy, the infinite, the ever….

which line above from mary O most stirs you? or which did you unearth this week?

wonder year

img_1182

sometimes we walk in circles before we find our way. or at least i do. maybe the last few months have been circle-walking. maybe the way forward is threaded by wonder. maybe what i’ve been looking for, a way into that deep-down still place inside, the place that’s a wellspring of the divine, maybe we get there by opening our eyes, putting our pulse up against the heartbeat of creation. maybe the quieter we go, the stiller we become, the more certain the sacred pulses inside and through and around and beyond.

maybe the place to begin — and this is the season for new beginnings — is right here where we are. maybe the way to begin is to be as still as we can possibly be, and plunge ourselves into those places where wonder can’t help but rub up against us.

this is hardly new revelation. i’ve been deep in the writings of thoreau these past couple weeks, poring over, underlining, making stars in the margins of a collection of passages and essays keenly observing the trees in and around walden pond and the woods of concord, mass. it’s a glorious collection of words and black-and-white photographs, gathered by the photographer and writer richard higgins from the two-million-word journal of the great transcendentalist and poet laureate of nature, henry david thoreau (1817-1862). it’s titled “thoreau and the language of trees,” and in it the instruction begins (for this is as much a guide to living as it is a historical recounting) with these guidepost paragraphs:thoreauandthelangaugeoftrees

“old trees connected thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility….

“and they were his teachers. although he called the shedding of leaves each fall a tragedy, he knew that the leaves that fell to the ground would enrich the soil and, in time, ‘stoop to rise’ in new trees. by falling so airily, so contentedly, he said, they teach us how to die.

“thoreau wrote prolifically about trees for a quarter century, from 1836 to 1861. he observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. he respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. for thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy and emerged in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.”

more and more of late, i am being drawn to a deeper understanding of the Book of Nature, a belief both catholic and jewish, a belief of many many faiths, that God first wrote the Book of Nature in creation, and then, in words, gave us the Torah, the Bible.

the pages of the Book of Nature are before us always — if we open the valves, the channels — the eyes, the ears, the soul — that detect and absorb the holy all around. the wisdom, the lessons, it’s all there to be extracted. it’s the wonder that catches our attention, that draws us in, holds us in its grasp. and then comes the pondering, the meditation, the sifting and filtering, the sieving and panning for glimmering gold.

but to notice, to pay attention, we need to go quiet. to still the noise. quell the cacophony. go to the woods or the edge of the shore. go to where the waters rush or trickle or flow in and flow out. stand under the stars of a cold winter’s night. we’re wrapped in the holiest text, the calligraphy of the great Book of Nature. God’s book. the book that beckons. the ancient and timeless antidote to the madness of civilization.

“the winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to thoreau, a place for contemplation. he walked in them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….

“thoreau also detected the divine in the woods. ‘nature is full of genius, full of divinity.’ all its motions — ‘the flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind’ — must be the ‘circulations of God.’ ‘if by watching all day and all night i detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch,’ he asked, alluding to the recurring motif in the psalms of the watchman who calls out in the morning. ‘to watch for, describe, all the divine features which i detect in Nature. my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”‘

and so, at the cusp of this blessed new year, this moment when beyond the woods the cacophony rises, i am following the trail in and through, in search of the wonder that makes clear what might otherwise escape me.

where do you find wonder? 

happy blessed newborn year to each and every one, as we all pack away the holidays, the glitter and shiny paper, and shuffle back to the extraordinary quotidian….i’m finding myself a wee bit heavy-hearted this morning as my firstborn, home for the first time in a year these past two weeks, flies off tomorrow, into what promises to be another steep climb up the next mountainside….thank goodness the so-called little one will stick around till he too shoves off when college calls early next autumn…..

p.s. ice crystals above, clinging to the roots of a fallen tree, discovered yesterday along lake michigan’s shore when my beloved and i went out for a late afternoon’s winter walk, but one of the wonders marking my annual return to the day i was birthed….

awake to awe

awake to awe

two holy things happened in synagogue this week, on the night and the long day of prayer that marked the new year: one, the boy who now towers over me, he grabbed my thumb with his, and inch by inch enfolded his fingers over mine. he wouldn’t let go. he leaned in, so much so that i yielded my head to his shoulder. felt the rise and fall of his breathing against the tide of my own. we sat like that, entwined, silent, for long stretches of prayer. it was the holiest prayer i’ve prayed in a very long time. over and over — it never gets old — i remember how unlikely it was, how impossible it was, that he came to me, to us. that in the midst of our believing it would never be, the unbelievable happened: he happened.

a mother’s deepest prayers, sometimes, are the ones she whispers only to herself. those were the prayers i prayed on the new year. each breath was emboldened with the knowing that a year from now he will not be by my side. i will not feel him pressing against my shoulders. there will be miles and miles between us. and it will ache. i will ache.

the other holy thing, the thing that’s washed over me all week, and will wash and wash for days still, is the notion that we carve these 10 days of awe out of the whole cloth of the year, and do as commanded. we are commanded to be awake to awe, to make each passing moment be a prayer, the prayer of paying attention, the prayer of drinking in all that surrounds us, that buoys us, that lifts us and carries us on a current unattached to the dreck of the everyday.

the prayer in my prayer book is this, and the title of the prayer (composed for the High Holy Days in the early centuries of the Common Era, according to the footnote) happens to be How Do We Sense God’s Holiness? Through Awe. here are the first lines…

And so, in Your holiness,

give all creation the gift of awe.

Turn our fear to reverence;

let us be witnesses of wonder —

perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive….

the prayer goes on, and the leitmotif of paying attention arises again and again through the hours of prayer that are rosh hashanah. it’s as if the prayer found my soul, found the soul that had been waiting for just those words, just that command: “let us be witnesses of wonder — perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive.”

and so i’ve done as commanded ever since i walked out of that sacred space where the prayers and the limbs of the boy wound around me. i’ve opened my eyes and my ears and my soul to the majesty — the breathtaking, trumpet-blasting, cymbal-crashing beauty — that is this stretch of time and season-turning, the enflaming of the planet as the last-blast palette engulfs the trees and the nodding heads atop the stems that bend in autumn breeze.

it’s not just a ho-hum isn’t-this-lovely that punctuates my days, it’s a notch beyond. it’s a command from God. “perceive all nature as a prayer come alive….”

there is a certain holiness imbued. there is a sure clear knowing that the hand that created all of this, all of this fathomless wonder, is the hand of the Creator, the one who breathed first breath into each of us. the one who has tumbled the unbelievable into my life — more than once.

my watch-keeping this week feels anointed. as if God is right there over my shoulder, delighting each time i spy one of the wonders. delighting when i pause to drink it in — slow the car, plop down on a stone, tiptoe out the door to count the stars.

i felt God the morning i drove along a field shimmering in golden rod, and the glowing slant of sun streaked radiance like lightning bolts, set the dew drops shimmering — jewels of the dawn.

i felt God when i glanced toward the night sky through the heavy boughs of trees last night and caught the crescent moon winking at me. bright. certain. daring me to slow my dash and pay attention. stop and marvel, i almost heard it whisper.

i will feel the certain hand of God when i first hear the faraway cry of the geese, crossing sky, crossing miles, crossing half the globe in search of thermal sanctuary. leaving us behind to shiver in the winter’s cold.

i am living in a census of wonder. i am living awake to awe. i am knowing that all of God’s creation is prayer come alive. and i am praying right along.

what moments of wonder have you counted this week? begin the litany here….

(i am dashing to drive my sweet boy to school, and clicking the publish button before my litany is done. but so be it. we weave the rest together…..)

awe bee nuzzling

 

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
IMG_0173

of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.