pull up a chair

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

Category: paying attention

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

cherish: these are the days i’ll forever miss

TK _ WK hug

something like feathery-flaked fairy dust — just a pinch, mind you — has descended on these days. there’s a palpable sense that we are living in hallowed time, on the permeable cusp of still holding on, but soon letting go. of liminal space, of a threshold when all the now is magnified, each fine grain of holiness amplified by the undercurrent of knowing these hours are numbered, this proximity will slip away.

cherish is the word that rumbles round my head — and my heart. it’s the sacred instruction whose imperative i follow.

fourth quarter senior year of high school started just the other day. for the kid born when i was barreling toward 45. for the kid i never ever ever thought i’d get to cradle, to fold in my arms. for the dream i feared i’d lose when his delivery got bumpy and a phalanx of top-notch neonatologists slithered into the murky shadows of the delivery room.

you never get over a miracle. i know i won’t.

even on the days when we’re nearly late for school because he won’t budge from under his covers — and what a miracle that that’s about the worst i can come up with — i never really lose touch with the blessedness of his existence.

truth be told, i get the sense that he too has an inkling of what’s coming, and he too is holding on just a wee bit tighter. even though for months now he’s teased me mercilessly about the fact that his days here are counting down.

in the last couple weeks, word has descended from college admissions offices far and wide and even close to home. friend after friend has decided, declared, committed. the boy we call our own, he is still deciding. we’re making one last trek to a couple campuses this weekend. taking one close look, and hopefully driving home knowing (although rain and more rain is in the forecast, which makes for dreary looking). maybe seeing a bit more clearly the outlines of what lies ahead.

but even without his own certainty yet, it’s the certainty of kids all around him that’s seeping in the sharp edge of truth: high school, this era he thought would never end, it’s over, done, finished, just the other side of this quarter that started this week. it’s a two-digit countdown if counting by days; it’s now less than two months away.

all of which dials up the urge to pay close attention. to savor. to cherish.

which makes this all the more, the tender season. there’s always something about springtime that pulses with a certain poignance. i always feel the equal parts light and shadow in these weeks of quickening. there’s hallelujah, there’s heartbreak, there’s loss, there’s triumph. there’s death and resurrection. nubs of newborn green at the end of the branch. mama bird in her nest-building frenzy. baby bird fallen from the nest. tender shoots bent under the crush of late-season ice or snow. the bush that didn’t survive the winter. the bulb that rises anyway. the fragile frond unfurling. the song of the wren.

i’ve written (here, and in the pages of slowing time) of the enlightened wisdom of the japanese who teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom — sentinel of spring — is its evanescence. “the very fact that at any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they’re keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long.” nor forever.

nor these numbered days of childhood, the chapters that all unfold beneath one shared roof. the chapters where, night after night, you can perk your ears to the sounds of someone shuffling off to bed. those long-ago nights of bedtime stories and lying still beside him, in hopes that sleep would come to him before it came to whichever grownup had drawn the short straw that night, those nights are now but memory. the ritual these days is to listen for the click of the front door somewhere round the midnight hour. and not too long from now there will be no noise at midnight, nothing but the sound of a single sheet being pulled up round our noses. his room, the one at the bend in the stairs, it’ll lie untouched, un-messed-up for long weeks and months between college breaks. i’ll wander in, run my hand across the un-hollowed pillow. maybe sift through piles left behind. i’ll wonder how we got to such an empty room so fast…

i will hardly be surprised by the hollowness of those days to come. the ones where i work once again to re-wire who i am in the world. once again expand the imaginary boundaries of my mother-ness, expand to include however many miles stretch between me and my newly-faraway boy.

what’s surprising me is how tender these days are. how a softness has descended. an unspoken tenderness between us. how he calls out one last time “i love you,” before clicking shut his bedroom door, or as he climbs the stairs on his way toward homework. these are not the words he tosses willy-nilly. these are words that seem to be gurgling up from the undeniable truth that he and i have always, always sensed that we were living inside an answered prayer. and despite his disinclination to say so, he’s the bearer of one voluminous and deeply tender heart. and it’s feeling this tug in the surest quietest way imaginable.

i’ve been reading — in a glorious book titled, “the soul’s slow ripening,” by christine valters paintner, a poet, artist, and modern-day mystic now living in galway, on the western coast of ireland — that thresholds held particular attention for ancient irish monks.

“thresholds are the space between,” paintner writes, “when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in times when our old structures fall away and we begin to build anew. the celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”

(i love learning that the monks literally sought out “edge places,” in the desert, on the margins of civilization, in the wide-open windswept burren, “at the very fringes of the ancient world,” where they might most deeply embrace the perspective it allowed them.)

it makes me scan the terrain of this “edge time” i find myself — and my sweet boy — living in. it makes me wonder if the pinch of fairy dust, the extra-porous tenderness, the gentle grace that animates each day, as my senior in high school holds on tighter as he gets ready to let go, it makes me wonder if we’re wise to pay attention to the “thinning,” and recognize the holiness of heaven intermingling in the everyday earthliness of this very last high school chapter?

it makes me wonder. and it makes me hold tighter to each and every hour of this blessed thinning time and space…

what thresholds capture your attention? have you a sense of the thin place, where heaven and earth hover within reach? 

if you look closely enough……

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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

wonder year

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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….

twelve: a dozen years of chairs

PUAC 12 tree

can you imagine the early morning inferno if i’d decided to light those birthday candles tucked in the fir boughs?

twelve years ago, this old house awoke to the sound of someone clack-clack-clacking in the old one-car garage-turned-maid’s chamber-turned-writing room. i was clacking in the dark, while upstairs a kindergartener slept, and three steps below him, at the hard bend in the stairs, an eighth-grader dreamt. i tried not to make noise, didn’t really want anyone to know what i was up to, so uncertain was i of whatever this was, wherever i was typing toward in this uncharted landscape.

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“the little one” when he was five, and the chair was being born…

i birthed the chair that cold december morning of 2006. and now, as i type this, the eighth-grader is off in law school, almost halfway through i keep reminding him as he grinds toward the end of first-semester-second-year finals. and the kindergartener, he’s holding his breath, waiting to hear from colleges! any hour now.

where, oh where, did the years go?

they unfolded here, is where they went. i’ve sat down 892 times to try to snare some passing-by moment in my writer’s net. some of the moments caught are among the most precious of my life, of my boys’ lives. some got away.

over all these years and all these posts, we’ve — all of us — woven together sacred threads — thoughts and comments, stories, prayers, snippets of poetry, a recipe or three — into a cloth that wraps us, gives us pause and comfort from the melee and the cold just beyond.

it was december 12, 2006, a tuesday, when i sat down to begin. i began with these words, this promise, this vow i lived to keep:

…like all births, i have no idea what’s coming. no idea how all this might unfold. only, i have hope and an idea. i hope that this place becomes a touchstone for a whole circle of us, that we will drop in, pull up a chair, share some thinks, as my beloved friend and doula of this site, sandra sweetpea, so perfectly always puts it.

as every conversation worth diving into is one that wends and winds, turning this way and that, this too will be a stew. we might marvel at a new children’s book. we might have to swap recipes for that pumpkin bread on my table. i might share a prayer, or a snippet of poetry. i might tell you the very cool thing i just read about pouring a good stiff drink for your paperwhite bulbs so they won’t grow so floppy, and bang against the glass, up there on the sill. if i stumble into a magical shop where handmade or one-of-a-kind things will delight you, you can bet i’ll let you know where and how to get there.

the mighty mississippi of all these tributaries, the force flowing ever onward, will be 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….

and pull up a chair you did. and i did. and we became the collective we set out to be.

along the way, we’ve held up those monumental moments — birth and marriage, death and dying and brokenness of so many kinds — and we’ve marveled at the barely-noticed ones (monster fighters, the crooked way home, snow when it’s still white). we’ve considered hope and faith and crushing blows. we’ve felt the brushstrokes of God across our brow, and goose-bumping down the crook in our neck as well.

i’ve learned to live — as mary oliver, our patron saint, instructs — wide-eyed for astonishments, as she reminds us that “attentiveness is the beginning of devotion.” or, as the 15th-century philosopher and theologian nicolas malebranche put it: “attentiveness is the natural prayer of the Soul.”

keep watch, the saints and mystics insist. the holiest hour is the one upon you now. make it count, make it count. practice kindness. love as you would be loved, the essence of it all. be still, so still, to drink in all the wonders all around: the stars and moon above, the light and shadow splashed upon the earth, the stirrings of the blessed creatures and the tender growing things, and most of all the unspoken prayer and longing of the ones who populate your every day. those are the few small truths we’ve made into our creed, here at this old table.

more than anything in the warms-my-soul department is the fact that not once at this table — not once in 12 whole years — has a harsh word been laid down here. it’s an unbreakable rule here: we trade in gentle kindness. you can be kind and honest at once, if your heart’s in the right place. and hearts here have always, always been just right — wide-open and all-enveloping, pulsing in purest empathy.

twelve years ago i never imagined i’d still be typing here where we pull up chairs. never imagined three books would flow from this old table. nor that i’d make some of my dearest friends, deepened other older friendships. i’ve bared my heart here, and my soul. i’ve laid out plenty of my quirks (there are volumes to be written there). i’ve trusted all of you. trusted you with my truest truths, ones i’d not before put to breath and form.

while i’ve never missed a friday, and know there are plenty more fridays in me, i might tweak things ever so slightly and, if there’s nothing deeply stirring, i might simply offer silence, or a line of poetry that’s caught me in its hold across the week. i know i’ll write across the months till T — my once-upon-a-time “little one” — packs up and plants himself in some far-off college dorm. but chapters have come and closed. and i think it wise to not take up oxygen unless i truly have a thought or two worth carving into words.

it’s a wicked world out there some days. and this will always be a refuge, and a holy respite, too. that, i promise you. if you click “follow” down below, you’ll always know if there’s been a stirring over here. especially if you click the follow format that sends an email to your mailbox.

before i tie this in a bow, i must bend knee and bow down low in deepest gratitude. you’ve wrapped me in something sacred all these years. your kindness is unmatched. you’ve become the dearest of soulmates, even if we’ve not spoken a word. the mere fact that you visit here tells me you understand. we’re an odd lot those of us who huddle here — we won’t give up on those rare few radiant lights that illuminate the way.

with all my heart, for all these years, and all these rambling un-refined thoughts, thank you, thank you. may you be deeply richly blessed and wrapped in all that’s holiest.

love,

b., the chair lady

PUAC 12 cookie dome

where were you 12 years ago? and how’s your story deepened?

a special special thank you to those few who have been here, faithfully, from the very very beginning.

TK _ WK hug

the ones who infuse it all…

hearts opened wide…

cranberry pear

aunt brooke’s cranberry-pear relish in the making. because, why not?

it seems to come more flowingly with every passing year. that’s how it feels anyway.

this year it comes amid news that one friend i love, a friend who’s been the rock of life for countless legions for countless years, as she alone found ways to eke out hilarity despite the rules, (dressing up in yellow rubber boots and raincoats, stringing orange construction-paper duck bills across our mouths, marching clear across campus and into the college president’s office, straight past the military-grade secretary, to trick-or-treat and commandeer his afternoon, among the early antics i recall), she had a heart attack the other day. i sat here wiping away tears when i got the news. heart attacks have always held a certain fear for me, the daughter of a man felled by one at 52. my friend is 61; her heart, a prize that should not ever be attacked. (she’s home now, thank God, but feeling like she was “hit by a truck.”)

it comes as another friend sends breathtakingly beautiful spools of poetry from the brink of death — her own. which she is facing with more grace and majesty and transparency than i have ever witnessed.

it comes amid a world that convulses my heart and soul on what sometimes seems like a quarter-hourly basis. (my mother last night counseled that i should just turn off the damn TV and say a rosary with my spare time. i appreciate her instincts here, but i’m too far gone, i fear, to trade in MSNBC for a string of glory-be’s.)

when i feel the quivers coming on, when the longview across the landscape gets to be too much, i leap into something akin to being my own cinematographer, and i pull back the camera from wide lens to up close and stitch-by-stitch. it’s a lesson learned from the pantheon of saints who populate my brain cells — dorothy day, anne lamott, therese of lisieux. and a host of other holy folk who remind us that there is no more certain route to faith (just another name for knowing the Divine has brushed up beside you, swooped in and tapped you on the noggin, shown you in vivid detail that heaven’s just the other side of the filagree, in holy whisper, in flap of feathered wing, in the way the sunlight pools on crimson maple leaf).

that’s when my litany of gratitudes comes spilling out. when, in tiniest, most obscure details, i can fill up my heart with little joy upon little joy (another name for blessing).

for 12 years now, we’ve huddled here at the table, on the morning after the great day of giving thanks, and cobbled our own litanies of gratitude. we’ve counted to 100, the centenary of thanks. and dialed back to a modest couple dozen. the count, of course, is not the thing. it’s the exercise of scouring the landscape, and plucking the otherwise unnoticed, uncounted, and tallying, one by one, the plus signs that propel us through the day. there is no too-small a joy to lift us breath by breath.

it’s barely eight o’clock, and already i count these:

the twin bed and rumpled quilt mounded around the kid who yesterday morning announced, “mom, this is my last thanksgiving,” delighting in the wince that must wash across my face every time i’m caught in countdown. i am so grateful that come monday morning that bed will still be rumpled, and its primary inhabitant will be running late for the ride to school that i so willingly — if occasionally grumpily — provide, complete with hot breakfast on a plate.

the golden-filtered light streaming in the windows, washing across the treetops, because i got up an hour later than usual, and the color shifts by the minute at the dawn, luminescence seeping into daybreak’s early acts.

the fridge that’s filled so full we practically needed a bungie cord to keep the doors from bulging open. and nothing short of strategic puzzle-solving skills wedged each last leftover safely in its shelter.

the utter lack of shopping on my mind, as we buck the national over-consumptive rite of greedily gobbling up whatever is on the sales-rack shelves.

the friends i love who hold their breath for a child deep in pain. their over-capacity hearts are a marvel to behold. i watch them ride the turbulence, keep the faith, climb on airplanes and into cars, to cross the miles to be by their children’s sides, and i witness motherlove in its most defiant, magnificent, dare-to-stop-me forms. if God loves half as fiercely as these mothers love, we are all saved already. that, i promise you. if you some days despair that there’s a God who’s listening, just scan the crowd for a mother — or a father — keeping vigil in the ICU, at the rehab center, parked outside the county jail (i know all three, and the cumulative power of their love could not be measured on a richter scale); that’s what love beyond our wildest imaginations looks like. i’d posit that’s a fraction of how God loves. and how certainly God is scrunched elbow-to-elbow by our sides, even when we can’t see to the other side of the waiting room door and feel stranded all alone.

some mornings my blessing is no fancier than the feel of my old familiar coffee mug cradled in my palms. somehow the choosing of the morning’s mug has become a rite that sets the joy of the day. for at least that fleeting instant.

scanning back across the year, i think of all the what-ifs that swooped away: the mammogram that turned out clean; the kid i feared had driven in a ditch, gotten mugged, blown the deadline, missed the plane — all worries dissipated.

on and on the blessings come. if i slow down long enough, allow the quiet to seep in, and pay close attention to the fine grain of the holiest of hours: this one we’re living now.

you catch the drift, now add your own to our litany of blessings….

pear-double cranberry-apple lattice

pear-double cranberry-apple lattice pie: my first.

baselines of hope

baselines of hope

these times, they are shaky.

that’s one way to put it, waking up, catching the first snow fall on my nose as i lope outside with coffee can and birdseed in tow, on a mission to make my first act of the day one of tender caring, even if the caring comes in the form of feather balls who float on the wind, who fill the air with chirps and cheeps and fluttering wings. and then, while that peace-filled breath is sinking deep in my lungs, in my soul, i lope back inside, click this lit-up clamshell that brings me the news — oh, the news — of the world, and just now told me of atrocities in melbourne, australia. australia, a nook and cranny of the world we like to think of as too far from the madness, somehow immune, inoculated. if only there was a vaccine against having our hearts blown to shreds.

every day now, it seems to come. to find its way in. to shake us, rattle us, frazzle our hope and sometimes our faith, deep to our core. australia. thousand oaks. tree of life. kentucky kroger grocery store. pipe bombs across america. (and that’s just the shorthand of horrors for the last 30 days.)

but i stumbled into a lifeline this week. or a little something that might just help.

by the grace of God, i have this crazy wild job that puts me in the front line of books for the soul — i read them, lots of them, and pluck out the ones especially worth passing along — and every once in a while that means i get an early crack at a book that just might save us — or at least give us a place to eddy our hearts for awhile. that’s how it happened that anne lamott’s newest, “almost everything: notes on hope,” came to be following me everywhere i go.

because she’s the master of embedding rocket blasts of wisdom unsuspectingly into the middle or ends of a sentence (p. 45: “help is the sunny side of control”), distilling knock-your-socks truths into words or combinations of words you’d never before known could work in that way (p. 47: life is “like free theater in the park — glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us…”), lamott is someone to read with pen and post-its at the ready. you’ll want to scribble in the margins, and up and down the end papers, too. (best not to play this game with a library book, so i’d urge you to buy your own copy so you can play along without racking up ginormous library fines.)

one of the tripwire lines she’d buried deep in one of her sentences was one that — as plotted, i’m certain — stopped me in my tracks and got me to thinking. (the very best books for the soul can take a very long time to read start to finish because they are filled with cul-de-sacs and ridge trails that force you to plop down on the side of the mountain and look out over the valley, far and wide and clearer than you’ve ever before noticed.)

she was writing about how even when life seems to be humming along, “the cosmic banana peel awaits.” in other words, stuff happens. bad stuff. stuff that makes us feel like our heart’s been blown to bits. banana peel stuff. “without this reality,” lamott writes, “there would be no great art or comedy.” and then she goes on to remind us to “savor what works when things are sort of harmonious.” the million and one things that don’t steer us into the ditch, don’t trigger the air bags.

it’s these little-counted miracles — the toe that wasn’t stubbed when you nearly walked into the bathroom door in the night, the pink dot by your eye that didn’t turn into a sty, the vote tally that did fall in your favorite faraway candidate’s favor — these “fleeting, lovely satisfactions” that lamott writes give us “a baseline hope.”

baseline hope.

it was as if she’d twisted the kaleidoscope just enough for me to see from a whole new angle. it was white-on-black instead of the usual black-on-white. take one minute (or be radical and take maybe five, or 10), consider the census of everyday barely-noticed things that do go the way you’d want them to go if you were the one in charge of your plot line. the things you barely pause to realize have saved you from falling into the rat’s nest, the ant hill, the gutter.

the baselines of hope.

i’ll go first: there might be a recount in florida. the furnace is humming, not sputtering. my slippers are fuzzy and warm. my hopefully-college-bound kid got his essays written on time. the computer did not crash as he was submitting said essays to college. the kid i love who’s in law school, he put down the books long enough to go to the symphony last night (a sign he’s learning to live like a human, and not just a caffeine-fueled freak of high-stakes angst).

you catch the drift, i’m certain.

these days the world can and does bombard us. it’s incoming always. and it’s not often pretty. but underpinning our everyday, more often than not, the furnace is working, the gas tank is filled, someone we love remembers to call us.

baselines of hope.

what’s required is the root of all sacred practice: pay attention. pay close, close attention. harvest the joys and the wonders and the narrowly-missed calamities. those fine few things that keep the trap door from ripping right open, catching us, tumbling us down to the cobwebby cellar.

consider the miracle of most of the time….

what constitutes your baseline of hope?

improbably, the prayer shawl

will BK AZk bar mitzvah photo

a triptych of prayer shawls: three generations wrapped in sacred thread

it’s as if the voice calls to me from an ancient canyon, a hallowed space carved through time and history. the history of this perpetually-spinning planet and its holy peoples, and, now, the history that is mine, carved across the years.

i yearn to wrap myself in the folds of the prayer shawl. to cloak my shoulders, burrow my arms, to bend my knees and bow down in the way i have long watched my prayerful beloved. a part of me, yes, aches to be enfolded, to feel the soft threads against my bare skin, but more against my heart. to be swept into the incantations of long ago and forever. to confess and call out to the God who is Avinu Malkeinu, “loving parent, Sovereign of our souls,” in the translation of our synagogue’s new prayer book.

i immerse myself in this span of holy time — the days of awe, rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, through to yom kippur, the day of deepest atonement — as if a tide pool that washes over and through me. it’s at once a cleanse and elevation, a surrender to another key, a frequency and melody and language that carries me to another plane. an otherworldly plane.

and yet, it’s one that comes on and through the worldliest of channels: the trip to the butcher shop, the spice jars pulled from the shelves. the chopping and stirring at the kitchen counter. the strolling through the garden, cutting stems to tuck in wide-mouthed jars and pitchers strewn across the table. the gathering of pomegranates, apples, acorns — sweet fruits of the new year, blessed offerings of the season of sacred bounty.

i have always loved the whole-body immersion of judaism, the ancient call to prayerfulness, the stories set in desert and dry land, the image of the sacred quenching that comes through the oasis, the raining down of sustenance from heaven, the voice that calls out, unseen but deeply heard.

these days i seem to be wrapping myself in all sorts of unfamiliar sacred threads, in threads finer-grained in their unfamiliarity, because their language is new to me, the constructions of sentences, the word choice, the tales they choose to tell. i’ve been going all summer to a just-past-dawn service in an episcopal chapel, one presided over and preached by women. wise women. soulful women. women priests.

it is a soul-stirring thing in the landscape of religion to walk into an unfamiliar place, to listen to the unfolding of an unfamiliar script, to feel each word and gesture as if new (because to me it is new). and thus to feel it so deeply fully.

it’s the element of exposure. the eyes-open willingness to surrender. to submit to that which by definition is foreign, uncharted, able to come up and grasp you, unsuspecting. nothing’s dulled; it’s all bristling, and stands at full alert. you never know what might be around the next bend. and thus you enter wide-eyed, scanning. catching every shift and nuance, passing through the sieve of your soul as if the first rinse.

so it’s always been for me in the folds of judaism, the religion i’ve stepped into because my heart and soul pulled me toward this man who is my beloved, my much-tested companion on this long journey called our married life. i feel it wholly because it’s new to me in so many ways, and now, 30 years after i first stepped — quaking — into my then-beau’s synagogue, its refrains come washing over me with decades of resonance. i find my place, i pull familiar threads round my shoulders, taut against my heart. i am cloaked and covered, kept safe, and free to burrow deep inside, to pore over the holy text, to consider prayers and, most of all, the image of the God who puts pause to the mad dash of the everyday. who awaits our urge to surrender. to bow down and pay attention. to hold high the sanctified blessing of the gifts that abound at the cusp of this new and holy year.

in the cry of the shofar, the coiled ram’s horn that calls out the new year. in the minor chords that rise up from our soul’s deepest depths. in the warm notes of spices saved for now. and in the prayers unfurled in each day of the days to come…..

i find my shelter and my refuge, my call to courage, and the certain whisper of the Most Holy. here, in the soft folds and sacred threads, i pull the prayer shawl round my shoulders. improbably, i tumble toward my heart’s deepest resonance.

l’shanah tovah u’metukah — may it be a good and sweet new year…

have you ventured into a sacred landscape that at first was unfamiliar, and did it sharpen all your senses, and draw you deeper into some universal understanding, some fine-grained sense of holy truths? 

p.s. my friday mornings these days include a drive to the far side of this little town to drop my sweet boy off at the faraway high school campus where he is shepherding the new freshmen into their high school adventures. this puts a bit of a pause in my morning writing, and thus delays its arrival in your mailbox, if you’re one who receives this by e-post. apologies for the delay, but this is my last chance, my last year, of dropping my sweet boy at the schoolhouse door, and i am relishing every drop of it. (even the days when we are running late and i am not quite as “chill” as he wishes me to be….)

the ones who direct our attention

Beach Balance Stone Stacked Nature Meditation

sometimes i imagine myself perched in a watchtower amid the thick of the forest. a treehouse on steroids and stilts. i’ve always been keen on small spaces tucked away. secret rooms from which to watch the world. when i was little i had one such room — my little log cabin, tucked in the garden, down where our backyard dipped low. i was sequestered away, where the marsh lilies bloomed. and the queen anne’s lace bowed in the wind. the limbs of the trees brushed up against my walls and my roof. leaves rustled, sometimes poked in the windows.

i could sit there for hours — and in the summers i did. i’d cook — or so i called it — on the upturned coffee tin that served as my “stove.” i gathered berries from the boughs of the honeysuckle (though i promised never to eat them). i harbored books in the corners. i watched without being noticed — a posture, come to think of it, i still warm to.

all these years later, keeping watch is still my natural disposition. there’s a good measure of watching in being a news gatherer. there was a good deal of paying attention, listening closely, in being a nurse. there is immense keeping watch in being a mother.

i seem to be ever on the watch for prophets and wise folk. those supersized souls whose job, it seems, is to point us all in the clearest, surest direction. i understand that without them, without their extraordinary insights and clarion calls, i’d lose my way. fall by the wayside. tumble into the ditch of losing the point.

here’s a little something i’ve noticed: among the populations likeliest to hold prophets and seers, those who are living with dire prognoses — those who’ve sat in the crucible of cold, hard exam rooms, who’ve been strapped and slid into MRI chambers whispering every prayer in the book — they are often the ones whose vision holds the sharpest finest-grain focus, whose words come without filter. time is urgent, the message is crucial. is imperative. all the fluff is chiseled away. we’re down to the bone here.

because life is an ever-surging river of exit and entrance and all points between, i keep being pulled to its banks, to that liminal edge where voices are truest. where, from out of the din, you can’t help but hear the ones with the piercingest truths. the ones whose vision is sharpest, is surest, because they’ve no time to waste.

in the past few weeks one of those prophets, one whose voice is among the piercingest, the bravest, is an old friend, who 20 years ago battled cancer, and ever since has lived as if there were no tomorrow. a month or so ago, completely out of the blue, that cancer came back, came back with a vengeance. and my friend, whose name is robbie klein, and who said i could tell you, has taken to putting her most urgent truths into words. she’s written of the horrors of tumors that make her head feel as if it’s exploding. she’s written of all the evils that come with late-stage cancer. but mostly she’s reached for the high notes, reminded anyone who’s listening, that the miracle is in the now. that we’re all dropped into a stage set of life that’s upholstered with beauties and breathtaking blessing, and we’re wise to plunge in deep, to dance in the moment while the moment is ours.

yesterday, she penned a simple list. a prayer-poem it seemed to me. a litany of paying attentions, of moments that shimmer, that beckon — but might be overlooked, left unconsidered, or forgotten.

it so strikingly focused my eyes and my soul on those not uncommon moments when time itself is suspended, is paused, is nearly bursting with beauty and promise and possibility, i asked robbie if i could share it here. “of course,” she said.

she trains our eyes, our soul, our whole selves, on those ineffable moments of every blessed day. on those moments so rich they deserve, each one, to be held to the light, to be beheld. my friend robbie is intent on slowing down time, on making us notice. on making us see.

a person who sees: prophet. one who carries the wisdom, the urgency, from heaven to earth. one who speaks words that cannot, and must not, be disregarded.

Moments

by Robbie Klein

The space behind the waterfall

The reverberation after a piano key is struck

The second after hanging up with one you love

The instant before the match catches fire

The trace when a cloud covers the sun

The sliver before sleep comes

The first raindrop under a tree canopy

The ebbing of the waves

The lightening of dawn

The space between notes

The bottom of the exhale

The final brushstroke

The first drop on the tongue

The grey before snow falls

The moment before his fingers touch your face

thank you, beautiful blessed robbie…..

please whisper a prayer for robbie and all of the prophets among us. hold her in the light this fine day. send love to where she’s tucked away, on the northern california coast, by the side of her most beloved boy, the love of her life. 

and, please, add to the litany of moments that are distillations of all that is profound and powerful and possible in this blessed whirl called life. what moment might you pay attention to today? one you might otherwise have missed…

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.