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Category: paying attention

“wake up!” shouts the world to its sleepy citizens

perhaps, over the long winter’s months, you dozed into somnolence. sleepy-eyed, you shuffled, as if in your scraggliest house slippers, through the days and the hours. why bow down to sniff the gnarly branches when nothing but snow — and icy cold — bumped into your nose?

ah, but then, as it’s been doing forever and ever — since the dawn of creation, as a matter of fact — the old globe turned on its axis. inch by inch. or galloping yard by galloping yard. whether we notice or not, it keeps on with its celestial work. it’s the job of the earth, for heaven’s sake, to not slow to a crawl, to not stop in its tracks. it’s the job of the earth to carry us all on its curious merry-go-round, a ride for which we don’t need a ticket, needn’t stand in a queue, waiting our turn. we’re on — strapped in or not — for the whole of the whirl.

and so, here we are, back in the part where, if we’re paying attention, we find ourselves in the minute-by-minute explosion of all that’s been quietly waiting out the winter. it’s slow seduction, this day by day, hour by hour, unfurling of all that’s within. mama earth doesn’t give away all her hallelujahs at once. she wants you back, she wants you keeping close watch on her show, so she lures you in, a slo-mo unveiling of all of her secrets.

one day you might notice a nub where the day before there was nothing but stick. and then, should you sashay back to the scene, say by mid-afternoon, you’ll see a bit more of the skin, of the bulging protrusion that is the bloom in the making.

it’s all newborn right now. the leaves, just beginning their term, as if cut from a fat bolt of velvet, pinned onto branches, by the night seamstress, the sorceress of spring, who wisps through the dark delighting our senses, making way for the morning show, when the curtain of dawn rises.

everywhere, the earth is shouting: wake up, you sleepy heads. wipe the goop from your eyes, slip on your galoshes, and come give it a gander.

and lest that all be too subtle for you, lest you miss the whisper of the garden, well, old mr. robin has a wake-up for you. and he starts his warble in the wee, wee hours. not long after three, perhaps. certainly by four. in the morning, i mean. the american robin is no dawdler, sleeping in, taking his sweet holy time. nope, he’s up well before the crack of dawn, and he’s in full throat these past coupla weeks. has he not awakened you?

here, have a listen: mr. robin singing his song.

he’s out there in the dark, poor warbler of night. good thing he’s got a fairly fine song. a clarion call of 10 consecutive notes, the ornithologists tell us. clear whistles. some folk, the ones who try to put words to the script of the birds, they say he’s calling out “cheer up, cheer up.” or “cheerily, cheerily.” i for one can’t quite make out the words, but i do hear the song, i hear it for most of the night, these past few insomniac nights.

my friend tim the birdman tells me it’s all about hormonal overdrive, of course. and the poor robin just can’t sleep when he’s got one and only one thing on his mind: he needs to procreate, plain and simple. so he’s awake at the first lumen of light. and that’s where the problem comes in, says ornithological tim. those peachy-breasted birds are suffering a modern-day plight: the extreme wattage of the world, the herds of high-intensity light poles lining our highways, the bizarre habit of planting floodlights in branches of trees, they’re all doing a number on the chorister of dawn — they’re pushing his start time closer and closer to midnight. some robins, says tim, are singing their lungs out “almost all night long.”

egad.

the over-illumination of our planet — the daylight that stretches from dawn to dawn — it’s mucking up the works in a serious way.

but, back to the lone robin who sings out my window — and likely yours too.

seems to me, he’s all part of the magnificent plot to shake us all out of our stupor, our natural-born inclination to doze at the wheel of this thing called “a life.”

there’s divine wisdom, indeed, in this once-a-year whirl through the explosion of spring. the earth is literally bursting with the beautiful. it’s beckoning, begging: crouch down, pay attention. give a sniff. plop your bum. inhale. watch me unfurl. i’ll give you a wallop, minute by minute. 

in a thousand million mind-spinning ways the whole of creation is clued in to the infinite wisdom: this is your gift, it’s yours for the taking. all you need do is open your eyes, open your ears and your nose, pry open your heart — and your soul while you’re at it — and let in the holiest whisper.

it’s the wake-up call of heaven and earth.

the springs of our lifetime are numbered, they won’t last forever and ever. the beauty is now, go bury your nose in the whole of it.

and whisper a fine hallelujah.

(mr. robin might be pleased to know that you’re adding your notes to his noisy spring chorus.)

if only someone had invented a scratch-n-sniff for the whole of the springtime….

what are the ways the explosion of spring slows you to deepest attention? 

remembering how good “better” feels

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that’s a revised headline up there. it’s shortened from what i was first going to type. what i really wanted to write was: “sometimes you have to feel awful to remember how good better feels.”

convoluted, yes. a bit dark, perhaps. and plenty long — for a headline, anyway. too long, truth be told. so i nipped off a few words, and gave you the gist.

in its own way, it’s a deeply irish way of putting it. and that’s one of the things i love about being irish. why say it straight on, why shove aside the complexities, when you can get there by way of the meandering footpath that wends across the moor? why go for undiluted sunshine when you can poke around the shadows and emerge from irish mist?

what other people find their way to blessing only by first mucking about in the slop?

and so i defend my curious perspective as one whose genes are firmly rooted in the peat of eire, my homeland of a little isle, plopped amid the crashing, crushing north atlantic. and it’s the thought that came to me after four weeks on the sick list. there were days — and days and days — when every breath hurt just a little bit. when i found myself considering not just my lungs, but all those little bronchioles and air sacs that make exchange of oxygen a certainty, a condition of staying alive. i’d not in a long time spent whole nights mapping my eustachian tube, that little tunnel of the inner ear that goes by unnoticed so many, many years of our lives. but once that little throughway gets flooded, filled with angry waters, hoh boy, you start giving it your attention — and then some.

i could go on — but i won’t — naming the body parts that in recent weeks have screamed for attention. reminded me of their existence. made me think quite a bit about how, most of the time, they just go about their business, paying no mind to anything but the job at hand, not yelping out for assist in any way.

and all of it finds me marveling at the pure and undiluted blessing of being alive. day after day being gifted with this flesh-upholstered machine that bends and stretches, reaches for the stars (or simply the soup can on the highest pantry shelf). while sinew and synapse do their daily chores, we get to exercise our soul. titillate our imaginations. strike our funny bones.

it’s the gift of being sick, of pausing to pay notice. of realizing there’s no guarantee on all these body parts. when we’re oblivious, they’re working well. when they go kaput, we halt to attention, we consider the zillions of taken-for-granteds that keep us going, hour after hour.

as sick as i am of feeling sick, i’m trying to make the most of this personal anatomical inventory. i am trying to hold up to the light all the parts thatpink sky work so hard — so without applause — to do their jobs. a knee that bends. airways that breathe in oxygen, blow out nasty CO2. eyes that make out the shifting shades of pink across a sunset sky. and catch the red bird darting by.

i’ve paused my whole life long to consider a litany of gifts. i’ve a dear dear friend whose daughter couldn’t hear for the first five years she was on this planet, and when my friend catalogued the sounds her daughter had missed, my heart wept. clock ticking. church bells. dawn awakening. the sound of her mother’s heart beating inside her chest. coffee percolating. crickets. raindrops. wind.

when i was in high school, a dear friend of mine was strapped into an electric wheel chair. i plopped beside him on the radiators just outside the cafeteria, and while he was so content to sit and watch the passersby, i remembered what a gift it was that when the lunch bell rang, i could leap off the hot seat and get to class without pushing buttons on my motorized chair.

even now, i have a dear friend whose ankle — and all the tendons and ligaments around it — shattered when she slipped on a river bank, to get a finer look at the moon. she’s been as patient as a saint for the last year and a half. and every time i talk to her, every time i think of how she can no longer traipse through woodlands, poke around for mushroom caps, i look down at my little sometimes-wobbly ankle, and whisper thank you.

i suppose you might say i come to blessings through the back door. or through the mist.

but whatever is my twisty path, i am so relieved i am no longer contemplating my alveoli (those wee little sacs that comprise the lungs). i am simply inhaling straight-up gratitude for the gift of hauling this creaky body through one more whirl around the day.

what would be the gifts on your thank-you list today? and what does it take for you to pause and pay attention to those quiet wonders that make us so alive? 

 

for the children: an inaugural prayer and a promise

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my heart is heavy today, and when it’s at its most leaden i try mightily to lift it through prayer.

my prayer at the dawn of this day is for the children.

i think in particular of a deep-eyed girl of seven who lives in faraway maine, a little girl who holed herself in her chandelier-lit bedroom on monday, listening all day to the speeches of martin luther king, jr., a little girl who asks questions about how to use her voice — to speak out when she hears a girl teasing her friend on the playground, to speak up for what she believes, without fear that she’ll wind up unloved and pushed aside in the process.

she’s a little girl who is finding her way through the tangled landscape of fairness and justice, who is looking to the grownups around her to find the tools she’ll make her own, the tools that just might allow her to leave this world a little bit more whole — and more healed — than when she arrived.

“she’s struggling with this fear of not being loved if we use our voice and it’s not the same as everyone else’s, if all the voices don’t ring the same,” says her mama, a very wise soul with a very wise voice. “she understands that we can’t give someone else our voice, and we can’t borrow the voice of someone else. so, for her, martin luther king day was all about the power of using our voice for what we believe in, about the conflict of speaking up or keeping quiet even when you know something is wrong.”

my prayer is for that little girl. my prayer is for all the children, the ones waking up, perhaps, on a wobbly cot, under a thin blanket, squeezed tight against the mama who protects them from unthinkable things in the night. i am thinking, too, of the children who wake up not far from me, in bedrooms where walls are covered in papers and paints that cost more per square foot or per gallon than some of us could ever fathom.

i pray for them all.

because children don’t get a say in where they are born, and in whose arms they find themselves cradled. they don’t choose who soothes them; they ask only to be soothed, and fed, and kept warm and kept dry. they beg to be loved.

if they’re blessed, they’re anointed with all of those things. if there are eyes to gaze back at them, a voice to whisper — or sing — to them, if there are arms to scoop them up when they cry, well, then they’ve already won the baby lottery.

children are pure at birth, and not yet thick-skinned. they’re nearly translucent, in matters of heart and soul anyway. their job early on is to pay close attention, the attention of saints and prophets. they’re keeping watch in hopes of figuring out just who it is they want to be, and how they might best find their own circuitous way through the wilds.

i pray for them this newborn morning because i want theirs to be a world where goodness and kindness and gentleness seep in, seep to their core, bathe them through and through in truth and justice and love in purest tincture.

i want the grownups around them, and even the ones far away, to commit, day after day, to trying to show them these few fine things: tenderness, honesty, strength of courage, and moral resolve. i want them enveloped in the very strands at the core of every sacred text ever inscribed.

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Aylan Kurdi, 3, a Syrian refugee who drowned fleeing his war-torn homeland, and washed ashore in Turkey. Photo by Nilufer Demir

i want children to be able to tune into the world beyond their front door and not hear vitriol, not see ugliness. i want them to listen to sharp and curious minds engaged in debate and dialogue, free from jagged edge, free from acid-tinged tone. i pray to God they don’t some day aimlessly change the channel and stumble on images of war-pummeled children, images of children covered in dust and rubble and blood from their wounds; children dumped — or washed ashore — lifeless.

i want them to hear the booming voice of hope, of words that lift the human spirit and set it soaring. i want them to feel wrapped in a message that tingles their spine, because even a child — especially a child — knows beautiful when she or he hears it.

i want each child to know full well that he or she can dream wildly, can be the very someone they choose and work to be. i don’t want them to know the sound of a door slamming in their face, or the screech of a siren carrying them — or someone they dearly love — far, far away. i don’t want a single child to be scared to death, to be breathless with fear. i don’t want hands and arms ripped away from them. i don’t want a child left alone in a classroom or closet or train car, left cowering in a corner.

i want for these children the america that i believe in — one that looks much like the world as God first imagined it: skin in a thousand shades of brown and black and cream. i want a melting pot where everyone gets a fair and solid chance. i want books — gloriously written tomes — to be as close as the nearest library. i want teachers to fill classrooms where learning is rich and intellects are lit on fire. i want leaders with backbone, with the courage to stand up and say, “that’s not right, that’s a lie, that’s unfair, or unjust, or just plain hateful.”

i want a sky that’s uncluttered with smog and poisonous fumes. i want a child to be able to poke his or her head out the window at night and count the stars, connect the dots of heaven’s light, name the constellations. i want the rivers and streams to gurgle and babble and rush and roar. i want children to know the sound of a leaf crunching underfoot, or even a wee little creature scampering by — close enough, perhaps, to muster a fright, an innocent fright, the fright of the woods.

i want children to sit down to a table where there’s food from the earth, wholesome food, unsullied food. food to make the child whole, and strong, and able.

i want children to be strong of body and sinew and bone, yet i know that can’t always be. and for those who are not — not strong, and not able, for children who are sick, or born with terrible burdens, i want them to be able to find a doctor or nurse or healthcare worker who can get to the bottom of the mystery, the quandary, the illness, and work toward a cure. or at least erase the suffering, as much as is humanly possible. i’ll beg God to step in to take care of all the rest, and to ease the worries too — of mama and papa and child, and anyone else who lies awake fretting every dreaded what-if.

i want for all the world’s children all the very same things i want for my own: i want them to know deeply that they are loved. i want them to know there is a heart always willing to listen, to hear every last utterance of their worries or fears or confusions. i want them to know that all around there are great good souls who are gentle and kind and unceasingly fair, souls who do not reach for words as weapons of hurt, or of hate.

i want them to know: when i’ve run out of answers, when i cannot quell the trembles, or chase away the darkness, there is a God who’s always in reach.

i want their prayers to be answered, and mine to be heard.

and i promise, with all my heart on this day, to do all i can to make certain the world i imagine, the world that i want, is the one i work hard to come true. i’ll do my part. starting right now. as the sun rises, again.

what do you pray for the children? what do you pray on this day at the start of a chapter?

letter to the new year

mama love....

dear year soon to crown,

as i’ve done before in birthing rooms i will reach out to cradle you, take you in my hands, pull you close against my chest. you’ll hear my heart beating, quietly.

i will study you, be in awe of your sudden appearance, your entrance, your being here. there was no guarantee you and i would meet, and therein is the miracle, the often taken-for-granted miracle. yet, unmistakably a miracle. in every way.

both miracle and blessing, each new year demands my full and unwavering attention. demands the full attention of all of us standing here on the cusp, filling our hearts and our imaginations with promises, vows, hopes, resolutions of the deepest kind.

i count on both hands and beyond the people i’ve loved — loved dearly — who didn’t get to know you. the ones, especially, who missed you by a year, or two — the loss still raw, ever a mystery, one i’ll never solve. they’re the everyday reminder to me that 2017 didn’t have to be in my cards. could have been eclipsed. gone before i got here.

i can’t shake the frame locked in my imagination, the one of my dear friend last march, lying gaunt in her hospital bed, all the tubes finally taken away. there was no need for tubes anymore; they’d been revealed to be false hope, distraction from the inevitable. she looked up at me, asked, thinly, “can you believe this?” her words as much declaration as question. i think of her on the doorstep of death, breaths away from slipping to the other side. i hold that moment. study it. i breathe in her courage, i pray it infuses every last nook and cranny inside me. i pray i live her dying instruction: “practice gratitude.”

i beg you, new-coming year, to be gentle. i’ve a hunch you won’t be. i realize the gentle needs to come from deep inside me. i need to find the holy balm to steady me through the rough waters to come. i’m bracing myself wth double doses of those few things that have proven to be my salvation: prayer; silence; rampant and unheralded kindness; the rapt company of a rare few companions, deep in the act of holding up each other’s hearts.

i will usher you in with all the majesty a new year deserves: i’m quieting already. i’m taking walks in the woods, standing in awe of the crimson flash of the flicker darting from oak to oak. i’m assuming a prayerful pose under the star-stitched dome of the heavens. i awake with the dawn, press my nose to the window, often step outside, watch the tourmaline streaks stain the eastern edge of night, rise up, rinse the morning sky in diffuse and certain light.

i will curl in my armchair and scribble my own list of promises. the ways i hope to be kind. to be gentle. to forgive. to try and try again.

the dawn of each year draws me into my natural monastic state. i would have been such a cheerful monk, walking the moonlit halls, bare feet slapping the great stone slabs, guided by flickering candle’s flame. i would have relished a bowl of bean soup simmered all new year’s eve day. would have sliced a thick wheatberry baton of bread. alas, i’m without monastery walls at this moment in my life, and thus must do without the stone-slabbed corridors. but i’ve beans and bread and bees’ wax. i’ve a heart awaiting the new year, and all the prayers it will stir.

be gentle, new year. be kind. and most of all, be blessed.

what do you pray for in this coming year?

my list of prayers this early morn is topped with ones for my sweet little nephew milo, who broke his wrist quite badly, and who is in surgery as i type. he’s in portland, maine, a time zone away, and i got up early to keep vigil from afar, to keep watch over our little guy, and his mama and papa who are huddled, worried, as they wait outside the OR door. 

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mr. milo & me, almost four years ago

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? 

reading for work

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some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)

i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.

my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.

and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.

in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.

as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” —  or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” —  or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.

i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.

and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.

nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”

and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine? 

once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.

and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.

rapt

rapt

you could bury your nose in it. the honeybees do.

rapt-beewe’re easing into the deep of it. or perhaps it’s that the deep is deepening and we’re being immersed. being wrapped in it. rapt.

rapt would be my posture of late.

rapt /rapt/ adj. 1. completely fascinated and absorbed. 2. literary filled with intense and pleasant emotion.

oh, i am rapt.

i seem to glisten through the days. and the nights. oh, the nights. it’s alive and it’s soft all over. it’s september, once summer surrenders. once the hot air balloon, and the sauna, finally exhale. and the next inhale is crisp, is cooler, and the light now has shifted. the edges, to my eyes anyway, are sharp, exquisitely so. the colors are deeper, more amber, molasses. the bright white of summer has faded. i can make out the fine grain again.

by night, the windows are open, and the hum doesn’t come from air conditioners down the block anymore. they’ve gone quiet — at last. now, the night belongs to the low-simmering song of the cricket, and the rising chorus of dawn. and the breeze. curtains quiver. bedsheets do too. rather than flinging them off, i’m just as apt to pull them taut around my shoulders, up to my chin. and the moon. did you happen to drink that one in? the harvest moon on the rise last night, the one that ignited the blue-black, silver-stitched dome, the one that cast moon shadow every which way. the one that promises even more when it rises tonight, in its fullest wholeness.

and by day, by day i’ve had hummingbirds dancing all week. a trinity of humming hummers, of hovering wings, darting and dodging, and dashing in for a drink, a deep-throated drink. whole chunks of minutes have passed, as i stop and i stare. enraptured. they seem not to mind when i tiptoe quite close. when i stand just under the branch or the wire where they’ve plunked their wee bums, and take my turn at drinking them in.

out my kitchen window, the hydrangea blooms droop. not that they’re withering, or giving up for the season. they’re simply so zaftig they can’t seem to bear their own weight, their heft, their marvelousness. so they sag, this way and that. and all i can see through the panes of the window are the voluptuous blooms that invite in the honeybees and the rare fluttering monarch.

these are the days when to be alive is to be rapt in prayer. i know i am. all day, hour upon hour, i feel the brushstroke of the Divine gentle against the nape of my neck, the small of my back, the bare flesh of my arms. and, surely, it’s prayer that keeps my heart pulsing.

every blessed act of each day — whole strings of the tiniest, mostly unnoticed (tucking a fresh vase of blooms by the side of my little one’s bed, sliding an after-school snack onto the counter, knowing he’ll see it, hoping he’ll know it’s a whispered “i love you” set out in apples and crackers and cheese) — each one is a prayer without words. each one is my heart and my soul offering up the closest i know how to come to turning my hours over to God. to saying thank you for the breath and the heartbeat. thank you for the chance to brush up against the holiness that is this amber-drenched september day, this one latest chance to absorb, yes, to inhale, yes. but even more to put my enrapture to work, to say thank you in my own small acts of paying attention, in my own small acts of love and tender kindness.

because all around me is God’s immeasurable magnificence, a tapestry of jeweled stitches in which i am rapt. so deeply vigorously rapt.

rapt-endnote

 are you rapt? and what is stirring your holy rapture? 

p.s. and in case you wondered about those pins and needles of last week: no word yet. 

hummingbird wisdom, continued

h-bird-6

six months ago, my dear and longtime friend mary ellen sullivan died. she was a writer, a chronicler of joy, i called her when i sat down to write her obituary, trying to distill her essence into a few short sentences and paragraphs that swept across the arc of a life too short. a month or so after she died, i found out she’d written me into her will, appointed me the keeper of her “creative work.” it’s a mantle i accept with heavy heart. a week ago, on a hot august afternoon, i met her brother in her emptied-out apartment, and he handed me boxes and boxes and boxes, her creative work, in all its iterations. it was perhaps the heaviest load of papers i’ve ever tried to lift. i didn’t wait long to open the lid of one of the boxes, to lift pages, to begin to read, to inhale the story of a life i knew well, a story told this time in mary ellen’s own words. i all but felt her beside me, or sitting across the table. i knew the intonations, the emphases of every single sentence. i knew she’d tiptoe into my dreams. i knew she’d left wisdom that i was to unearth, to not let die along with her.

night after night, i pulled up to the kitchen table, not far from the screen door, where the breeze blew in, not far from the night sounds, the buzzsaw of cicada, the chirp of the crickets. i’d pile a stack of journals and notebooks and paper-clipped papers to my left, papers lifted from the boxes that waited in the dark of another room, the load of mary ellen’s boxes.

it was, i tell you, like sitting down with a dear friend, pulling in close enough to brush knees against knees. it was as if i’d said, “so tell me your story,” and thus she began, in whispers. i’d known these chapters in real time, and here i was, reading, hearing the whole of it in details sometimes so intimate i closed the book and tucked it aside. i promise you my tender heart is guiding me through what’s mine to shepherd to light, and what’s best tucked away.

i read page after page from the writing classes she’d take, from the book about africa she’d long hoped to write, to publish.

and then i picked up this: two stapled pages, curled and yellowed at the edges, typed in a font from computers of long ago, early HP perhaps. i read the first sentence, and started to tremble. i had a hard time reading through tears, but this is what i began to read…

“If I were to die in five minutes, I would miss sleeping, and the warm wood of my apartment floor. I would miss talking to Barbie on the phone on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee in my hands. I would miss running errands in the neighborhood and going for long hard runs after work when the air is clean and cool and gives you the shivers when your sweat starts to dry. I would miss the ocean most of all. Any ocean, any beach. The feel of wet sand between my toes and the waves breaking over my body and the sand going from warm to cool in the early evening when the sun starts to set and everyone but me and my family leave the beach and we just sit there and talk and read and watch the sand turn purple and the water a deep blue and the sky orange and very beautiful. I will miss running in the water and splashing so much that you might as well go swimming so you do.

“I’ll miss kissing a man for the first time…..”

and then, i tell you, i could barely read, the tears were falling so hard, so fast. (they are now, truth be told….) so i waited, and breathed, and wiped away the tears, and i looked back at the page, the page trembling in my hands by then, and i read the litany of things my friend would miss, if she were to die in five minutes, five minutes from the moment she wrote all those words. in fact, she died on march 13, 2016, far sooner than she’d ever imagined. she never thought the ovarian cancer would kill her. she fully intended to vanquish the cancer. to become someone who had had cancer.

but my friend who died, who wrote this litany in a writing class, an exercise titled, “death is the name,” who wrote this thinking death was the last thing that would ever happen to her (yes, i see the unintended word play, and i’m ignoring it), whose words i now inhaled half a year after she had died, she wrote that she’d miss her down comforter, and staying up late by herself and “the freedom the night gives.” she wrote that she’d miss the first taste of an expensive dinner, and the last gritty drop of a bottle of red wine. she wrote that she’d miss hot baths and getting lost in paperbacks.

her sentences grew more and more beautiful, the deeper she sank into the exercise, wrapping herself in the velvet cloak of worldly magnificence.

i was struck, hard and deep, by the simplicity of the litany. the depth and dimension of each pulsing joy, now taken away.

she made me think hard about how our lives are stitched of thin but mighty threads, glimmering delicate threads, threads we’d be wise to notice, to run our fingers across, again and again, for they’re what’s woven into the beautiful whole.

our lives, she made me realize once again, are a textured tapestry of heartache and joy, of blessing and softness and shadow and light, of everyday wonders that awake us to the moment, so the moments slow to a pause, so we behold each blessed minute of our awareness, our awakeness, so each hour is relished for the gift that it is. so not an hour goes by unnoticed.

“if i were to die in five minutes,” she wrote. and i read those words six months after she did. and thus, each word came to me as if shouted through a megaphone: be awake. pay attention. savor the blessed, the beautiful.

the warmth of the mug you hold in your palms? notice it. bless it. you’ll so miss it when it’s gone, when you’re gone.

a question and a challenge: what would you miss, what blessing upon blessing across the quotidian arc of your day? make a list, compile your litany. and then, pay closest attention today. and tomorrow. and the day after. my friend mary ellen would love you for that.

i titled this “hummingbird wisdom, continued,” because my friend mary ellen was all about the hummingbird. she wrote a blog called, on the wings of the hummingbird. and she once wrote these words explaining her captivation with the hover-winged bird:

“My favorite description of the hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’

“Guilty as charged.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

comings and goings

dining room window

any minute now, the big rumbling moving van will lurch to the curb out front. a flock of muscled men will emerge, the ramp will be erected at a certain angle, and all day long a flurry of boxes and arms and legs and the contents of a life long lived will parade from house to deep dark truck interior, and back again for more.

by day’s end the house will be boxed into cardboard containers, slapped with tape, labeled. it will be hollowed of all but the fading echo of years spent raising boys, three boys, each now a father living far away, soccer cleats and bicycles long emptied from the garage. the tinkling of forks and knives, from all those family dinners, all those dinner parties, silenced. the flickering of candles i watched as recently as last night, snuffed out.

the next door neighbors, after forty-some years, are moving. and in the flow of life, the rhythm of comings and goings, each exit leaves a dent. a carved-out hole. a dimming and a darkness.

while, for the past 14 years, we’ve mostly flowed side-by-side, not been the sort of neighbors where we dash and ring the bell, borrow a cup of sugar here, a splash of merlot there, love grows anyway. the sight of him, bent and shuffling slowly in the yard, puttering with his tomato plants, stooping down to haul away a branch after storms have tossed the trees. the sound of her, warbling in the early morning, when the screens were in the windows, and the windows open, as she warmed her cords, her lungs, her voice, for the church choir, or the swing concert, or just the show tune of the hour. it will all be gone now. moved three miles north, out of sight and out of ear shot. hardly out of heart.

their presence, one i always likened to knowing someone sturdy was pressed against my shoulder, was most days felt when darkness came, and the lights in their kitchen, or the glassed-in study just beyond the picket fence, or those flickering candles at the dining room table, glowed golden against the twilight, against the cloak of night.

there’s a broad-winged window in our dining room, one i see out of the corner of my eye when i’m at the cookstove. i am often at the cookstove toward the end of day, at dinner time, at put-away-the-day time. and that soft burning light through the window panes, through the bramble of bushes, it whispered from next door: we’re home. life is flowing inside our house, too.

i admit to a lifelong imagination animated by the doings inside houses all along the lane, any lane anywhere. i spend time considering the animation of each and every house, of the hours and the duties that bind us, make us more in common than apart. even looking down from clouds, when i fly from here to there, i spy the little towns, especially, and see the lights inside the itty-bitty boxes of the houses, and i wonder who’s inside, who’s stirring sauce at the stove, who’s just getting a phone call that will change everything, who’s all alone.

with the house next door, i didn’t have to imagine too, too much. i knew the players. had come to love the players. over time, you learn things, peel back the stories, allow the bond to build — the new year’s ladies lunch she always hosted; the time we went together to the tracks, put down dollar bills on the horse he assured would win; the day we moved here nearly 14 years ago when she came to the door with a tinfoil-domed platter of the best chocolate chip cookies anyone ate that day, and she looked me in the eye, said, “i think we’ve a lot in common,” and it would be awhile till i realized what she meant was that she, too, was irish catholic, married long ago to a brilliant jewish fellow; they’d trod this interfaith path long before i’d even met the man i would love and marry.

she told me, after years of back and forth at the invisible line that divides our yards out back, about the time her little brother ran in front of the car, and died. right before her eyes. she told me how she up and packed three boys, left behind the house she loved, and moved to england for a time, when her husband was a rising executive and the boss said, “move!”

over time, you learn the heart aches, divine the heroism, the everyday grit that muscles some of us forward, that some days topples others of us. over time, you come to count on the quiet rhythms from the house next door. you learn their ways. how, as soon as the air outside warms to, oh, 78, the air conditioners will begin to hum. and how, come sunday morning, the singer’s warmups will punctuate the chatter of the birds.

over time, their story seeps into yours. you’ve watched her boys come home on weekends to mow the lawn, you’ve watched them marry, and just last night you watched her youngest rock his newborn baby girl to sleep.

life passes while we’re watching. which is why it matters so very much to keep close watch. which is why the practice of paying attention brings riches — and countless wisdoms — to our soul. which is how and why we fall in love, day after day, with those who fill our hours with the hum of their every day.

when we’re watching closely, we get peeks at the human spirit exposed. even when it’s by simple accident of geography that we’re entwined through the light and shadow cast on all the passing hours. when what’s drawn us into each other’s close orbit is the single-digit difference in the address that we call home.

until the big van comes, and we’re left looking into darkness next door.

what are the quiet rhythms of your everyday that you’ve come to count on? who are the ones whose lives have slowly softly seeped into yours, by virtue of geography or habit, the ones whose lives you know through occasional encounters rather than uninterrupted unspoolings, whose presence over time adds up to someone you count on in your own quiet way? what peeks at heroism have you gleaned from those who pass you by on a regular basis? 

and mickey and alicia, we send you off with love. much love….

 

nine.

nine

we mark time to measure something far deeper than the number of days. we mark time to take stock of our soul. to plumb its depths. to trace across its undulations. to peek into the shadowy places, and bask in the patches of pure illumination.

tomorrow, the twelfth day of the twelfth month, this old chair will once again glide across the stretch of shadow and light on which it began. its ninth circle round the sun. nine years of keeping watch, of perking my ears to the faintest of whispers. the whispers of the heart, yes. but just as certainly the wind rustling the leaves. the blue jay’s squawking. the world holding its breath. the pounding of bare soles against hardwood planks, rushing to the door to welcome love home.

at the break of dawn on december 12, 2006, i tiptoed down the stairs to a little nook of a room where a screen glowed, a screen waiting to be filled with words, with pictures, with postcards from the front — the homefront, in this case. the heart and soul of the homefront.

i had no real idea how all of this would unspool. but i knew that i wanted to carve out a hollow of quiet, a tide pool along the rushing river of life, where you and i might plop our bottoms onto a rock, might dip our finger into the current, might watch the light shifting, listen for the crunch of the forest under the wee padded feet of the creatures who call the woods home.

i knew i wanted a sacred someplace. a place where kindness prevailed. a gentle place, a home for tenderness and telling the truth. a place where we could bring our brokenness, or, just as emphatically, our bold claims of hope.

it would be an enchanted someplace. or at least that’s what i prayed.

i’ve long believed in enchantment. long believed in the possible. and the power of divine imagination. you can, sometimes, if you’re spectacularly lucky and a whole lot blessed, will your way to the landscape of which you dream.

when i was little i spent long hours in the woods across the way from the house where i grew up with a motley crew of four brothers. i plunked sticks into the pond where the ancient turtle basked on a log. i splashed across the rocks in the stream where crawfish bobbed from deep down in the dark.

that’s where i learned to believe in so very much of what still matters — the sanctity of silence, the incandescence of heavenly light, the blessing of being alone, the joy of muddy boots.

and maybe, too, that’s where i learned to believe that, fueled by imagination and spiced with a good dash of faith, i just might carve out a holy place.

and if there’s come to be anything holy about this make-believe table, circled with so many old chairs, it’s thanks to the good grace of your company — your day-after-day, week-after-week, year-upon-year coming by to share a few words, or a story, or kindness or wisdom. and ladles of love.

looking back over the nine blessed years — and thanks to the wizards at wordpress who keep track of these things — i can see at a glance just where these 729 posts have taken us, a bit of a roadmap in reverse, a by-the-numbers snapshot of what’s captured our imagination: 39 posts have considered the angels among us, 16 times i’ve laughed at myself (clearly, no one was counting), stillness has been a subject 22 times, motherhood 101, motherlove 44, mother prayer 17. we turned to cooking — for comfort, for joy — 42 times. blessings have been the subject du jour 64 times, paying attention 51 times, worry 11 (yet another serious under-estimate), wisdom only once (egad!). savoring moments, at 89 posts, is solidly a leitmotif.

and in just the last year here at the chair, we’ve traversed death and grief, awe and hope and hearts that are shattered by the most intimate of devastations or those played out on the world stage. we’ve considered quiet and the eloquence of silence. and this year, blessedly, the trumpets blared at the prodigal homecoming of my firstborn. i’ve written of words and books and harper lee. but if i had to pick three posts that will stick with me forever, it would be the prayer of remembering, the day my little one tried his hand at healing the sick, and, more than any other this year, the magic day at the magic hedge, where my most beloved friend and i pressed each sacred hour against our hearts, knowing, too well, the hours — and she — would soon slip away, a hole in my heart will ache till the end of time.

bless you. and thank you. for every kindness. for every dollop of wisdom. for your patience, your faith, and your blessedness. for the times you make me laugh out loud. and for every time you’ve made me wipe away a tear. from my heart to yours, a never-ending embrace.

may we never give up on the promise to infuse this weary old world with all the love and goodness we can possibly muster.

much love, b.  images