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Category: prayer

december’s whisper

red berry

the december i am drawn to, the one that most emphatically, insistently, invites me in, is the one that beckons in whisper.

the apex of my counterculturalism, perhaps, i take my month of longest night in slow sure sips. timpani belongs to someone else. my december—our december, perhaps, for there is evidence we’ve found each other, kindred spirits here—is one that calls for quiet.

long stretches of hours in which the simmering on the stove, the ticking of the clock, the occasional squawk of the jay at the feeder, those are the preludes, the quarter notes and half notes that i take in.

there will come, i’m certain—because year after year it comes—the one annual carol i play over and over, cranking the dial till the house shakes, and i worry the next-door neighbor might come running to see if all is well. (“mary, did you know?” a leading contender, third year running…)

gingerbabiesand so i’ve spent the week preparing, whisking away autumnal vestige, ushering in soon-to-come winter. i’ve stockpiled seed in 20-pound sacks (several, so far), and vats of ice-melting pellets for the dawn when the ice comes. i’ve piled pumpkins and gourds in the old trough my squirrels and possums (and occasional uninvited skunk) depend on, the autumn’s feast now theirs for winter keeping. i’ve snipped boxwood and spruce, tucked branches of both into window boxes just below the ledges, where jack frost will soon anoint the panes. i’ve strung italian star-lights around and through the posts of my picket fence. when the sun drops down, i won’t be alone in the dark. there is twinkling at the edge of the yard, front and back. and a candle flickers atop the kitchen table.

it is all a part of the coiling in. the nautilus of deepening prayer.

the prayer that fills me most is the prayer that slowly and silently seeps to the tucked-away places, the ones that await the season of stillness, the places unlocked by the smells and the bells of december: pungent clove, star anise, hissing wick, crackling log, twilight’s first star and the night’s last ember at dawn.

it won’t be long till somehow i crank the oven, haul out the canisters, bang my grandma’s old maple rolling pin against the cutting board’s edge. my coterie of cookie cutters each play a role in their own sugarplum suite.

zoupone day this week i hauled a turkey carcass from the fridge, and plunked it in my deepest pot, the vessel for soup-making for a dear dear friend whose newborn is just home from the ICU, and for whom i’ve cooked up all the sustenance i could imagine: brown rice, pulled-from-the-earth plump knotty carrots and fennel and garlic, savory stock, handful of parsley.

i’ll deliver my brew well before sundown, and in return i’ll drink in the newness, the perfection, of a babe just birthed, cradled more tightly and tenderly than ever imagined because ICUs do a mighty fine job of reminding how blessed it is to be finally sent home, untethered from the web of too many tubes and the fright that shakes a new mama and papa—and all those who love them—down to their rickety bones.

(there is, of course, no ailment the balm of day-long simmering kettle won’t cure; even a newborn mama’s terrible tremble is certain to be chased away at the very first shlurp of that omnipotent zoup.)

indeed, these are my december liturgies, day after day. intercessions of prayer, punctuated by plain old worldly deadlines. i attend to my errands and chores and assignments—laundry is folded and ferried, empty shelves of the fridge re-stocked, sentences are typed and essays submitted.

but the work that’s most heavenly, certainly, is the quiet work of the soul come december. the making way, making room at the inn, in the heart.

the grace of december, the gift of december, is in the quieting, the hush of the sacred whisper. the vespers that hallow—make holy—the heart. make room in the heart this quiet december.

i’ve been saving this poem, “winter grace,” for the whispered beginnings of the season of stillness….

Winter Grace
By Patricia Fargnoli

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.

“Winter Grace” by Patricia Fargnoli from Hallowed. © Tupelo Press, 2017.

how do you make room in your heart, in your unspooling of the day, for the whisper come december?

praise upon praise: the high art of thank-you

thanksgiving sky

albert einstein said, “there are two ways to live your life.  one is as though nothing is a miracle.  the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

i’m hitching my existence to the genius’ latter proposition: “as though everything is a miracle.” and so, in the short shadow of the national pause for thanks-giving, i am dipping into praise, a whole litany of pausing to notice, to pay attention, to whisper emphatic hallelujah for the humblest and the grandest of everyday wonders.

praise prayer is said to be the highest form of prayer; it asks for nothing. it is shouting-from-the-mountain-top prayer, or under-full-blast-of-shower prayer.

praise poem, my encyclopedia tells me, is an important part of political and literary tradition in africa; a laudatory poem, especially of the oratory tradition of africa, extolling virtues in a snowball of salutation.

i am etching my own bumpy trail up the mountainside here, and perhaps you’ll want to play along, etch your own tumbling forth of praise, a kaleidoscope of thank-you for the quotidian and the breath-taking. 

and so we begin…

***
praise for our own little ZIP code and this arthritic old house with its moans and its groans, all of which gave us a place to tuck ourselves for this annual pause for bowing heads and bulging bellies. and offered refuge from the throngs at the airport, and the thunderclouds high in the sky that surely would have diverted the flight — as has happened holidays past when suddenly you find yourself at the very wrong airport.

praise for Find My Friends, the app that shows me my boys’ dots on the map, somehow reassuring in a pictorial way. and on thanksgiving allowed me to follow my firstborn’s dot down the connecticut shoreline to new york city, so fine a tracing i could see that it stopped at 125th street in harlem, and slowly made its way to the grid at 94th and lexington, the closest i came to sharing the day with my boy.

praise for my sister-in-law who fed my firstborn, and ushered him into her holiday house. praise for the leftover bounty she packed into tupperware before she dispatched him into the deep dark of manhattan, retracing his way to the last train of the night, and back to the books that kept him so far from his place at our dining room table.

praise for the persnickety oven that did not decide to up and quit midway through the roasting of the eight-pound turkey breast.

praise for the farmer who grew my brussels sprouts, the earth that spawned my shitake mushrooms, and the orchard that erupted in the crop of sweet and juicy honeycrisp.

praise for my sweet husband who devoted his thanksgiving to writing an obituary —the newspaper’s salutary trumpet blast — for the mastermind who executed the construction of Millennium Park, and a whole string of city jewel boxes.

praise for the magnetism of familial ties, the ones that drew friends from all over the globe this weekend to our tiny dot on the map: london, miami, cambridge, LA, palo alto, and filled our days with serendipitous droppings-in.

praise for the story corps questions with which i peppered my mama, some of which unearthed stories i’d never heard before, all of which are now duly recorded in her 87-year-old voice on the rickety recorder. Version 2

praise for the waltz lesson between grandma and grandson, the one that whirled through my kitchen once the dishes were cleared. praise for the boy who lavishes love like nobody’s business.

praise for my down-the-alley neighbor whose heart is beyond measure, and who adorns our doorknob more mornings than we can count with her bountiful soups and stews and cakes and gooey bars. praise for sturdy doorknobs whose hardware does not bend.

praise for the neonatal intensive care unit that is keeping my beautiful friend’s newborn baby girl inching toward 100-percent wholeness and wellness, after her slightly bumpy start. praise for the new mama’s resilience, and the blanket of peace that holds her tight in her wobbliest hours.

praise for the unending goodness and kindness of all the ones who tip the balance of the world in the favor of radiance, eclipsing the darkness that some can’t keep from scuttling in.

praise for the cascade of angels who embroider my everyday with such gentle, tender devotions: be it the ping of a text out of the blue, or a floppy-bowed box that comes in the mail. praise for the beauties that will not cease.

praise for poets and authors whose sentences we inhale, who take our breath away, and teach us how it might be done.

praise for star anise, perhaps the finest spice on my shelf. certainly the prettiest, and the one — along with bay leaf, clove, cinnamon stick, and clementine peel — i can’t keep from simmering on the cookstove.

praise for star-stitched nights, and tourmaline at dawn’s first light. praise for wishes cast upon those stars, and prayers launched with each and every beginning of the day.

praise for the pile of shoes mounded by the door, when the basement filled with teens who cranked the bass, rearranged the bean bags, and settled in for a night of ping pong and unadorned cans of soda.

praise for the thespians of my backyard feeder: crimson-robed papa cardinal, squawky jay, and flock of drab-robed sparrow, hatch and chickadee-dee-dee.

praise for coffee beans and coffeemaker, now hissing its morning song, telling me it’s almost time for the first sacramental sip, the one that supercharges each and every deep dark edge of night before the dawn.

praise for pre-dawn, when all the world is still, and i can unfurl my morning prayer endlessly, scrounging through all the nooks and crannies of my soul, pulling up petitions grand and not so grand and eensy-weensy infinitesimal.

praise for every single occasion for laugh-out-loud guffaws, and those moments when we laugh so hard we can’t catch breath and tears roll down our cheeks: those are the moments that hoist the soul and keep us from the dregs of despair.

praise for this poem that came my way the other day, and inspired me to rattle off my own fat list of praise….

Praise What Comes

surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather.  Praise

talk with just about anyone.  And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep.  Praising these for practice, perhaps

you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended.  At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world?  Learn at least one
of the many names of God?  At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another

ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

~ Jeanne Lohmann ~
 
(The Light of Invisible Bodies)

of course the question is this: for what do you praise? please play along…

prayer for the road

law school route

i awoke in the night, weaving the threads of my prayer for the road. 

when the car is packed with the last few things — the ones you only think of as you ramble through the last few hours before buckling the seat belts, checking the rear view mirror, asking yourself if you really did remember to turn off the stove, and lock the front door — you might bow down your head. sometimes, you drop to your rickety knees (or i do, anyway, carefully placing a pillow under the one that especially creaks).

there’s never been a road trip from this old house, nor hardly a medium-long trip to anywhere, even a far-flung soccer field, in which we don’t launch into our prayer that always begins, “holy garden angels protect us.” it’s not that we endow the patron saints of delphinium and hydrangea with any particular highway powers, it’s that long long ago, when someone’s ears were just beginning to parse the garble of vowels and consonants that tumbled from our mouths, he was certain that’s precisely what we were saying. as happens, it stuck. 23 years later, it’s the garden angels who get our road-trip salutation.

that might be the prayer i pray aloud, the heartfelt benediction in lickety-split tempo, not unlike the sprinkling of holy water across a crowd, one last certainty between reverse and drive, but the one that i will murmur all day long, it’s coming from a deeper place, a place that’s been keeping watch, a place that measures growth in fractions of a decimal, when need be, and knows full well when thresholds are being high-hurdled.

it’s the soul of the child i love that i consider my most essential watch. soul, as i sometimes define it, is a weave of heart and hope, of dreams launched and shattered pieces glued back together, the repair becoming the strong point. the repair, the place where resonant lessons are certain to be found.

and so the boy i love — a man now, to be certain — he’s off to law school at the crack of dawn tomorrow. we’re driving him there, all of us. settling him into his grown-up apartment, poking around the landscape, learning about this place, this old new england town, that he’ll call home.

and i will blanket him in the whispered words of the prayer, the motherprayer, that i’ve been weaving all his life. i will pray for solid footing, for a feeling of belonging, being embraced for who he is, and what he brings to any conversation (for what mother doesn’t pray that her child feels whole amid the current, not shoved to margins, the periphery of ill-fit diminishment?).

i will pray for laughter to animate his hours, because deep in the core of study, there is always room for the spray of great good humor, for the gleam that flashes from his eyes, because hilarity is among his strongest suits. and laughter, i’ve long believed, is the bellow of the angels here among us.

i will pray for sacred moments to graze his consciousness, for him to feel a sense of having been touched by the hand of the Divine, to gather up those daily beads of deep-down knowing that he is not alone, he is held in heaven’s light. i will pray for gentle kindness, for those who cross his path to stitch his hours with that unifying softness, the one that reminds we’re all in this, this daily grind toward tiny triumphs, we’re in it together. compatriots on the dusty road of living.

i’ll pray that the pitch of the trails he climbs is within his stride, will stretch him, strengthen his resilience, build capacities. and that the vista from the summits will fill his lungs, charge his heart, give him just the blast he needs to set out again. to take the climb up another notch.

i’ll pray that every once in a while there’s a victory so sweet he can cup it in his hands, hold it, savor it.

i can hardly bear to pray that when the heartbreak comes — and it will come, in varied doses and degrees — he is held and wrapped in arms and heart and love that temper crushing blows, that extract the sting, that salve the wounds and set him on his way again.

i pray, i suppose, that all his life, and certainly on this adventure just ahead, he lives and breathes with the full armament of undying love that i’ve been breathing into him, believing into him, since long before the day he was born, and cradled in my arms.

go with God, sweet scholar. go always always with the God of Purest Love.

xoxox, mommo

that’s my prayer for firstborn, or at least it’s today’s rendition. i never seem to run out of prayers for him. i live and breathe them.

no need to answer, but i wonder what might be the prayer you pray as you set out on today’s adventures?

into the depths

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all week in this old house, we’ve been burrowing deep into ancient and timeless stories. the story of the exodus, pesach, the retelling of the jews’ escape from slavery in egypt, a retelling that elie wiesel, the late great nobel laureate and holocaust survivor, called “a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.” it is a retelling stitched with blessing, and question, and story.

its leitmotif, “you were strangers in a strange land,” God’s words to Abram, a call to radical empathy, a call to ever open our hearts to those who are strangers, marginalized, in our midst.

after three nights of seder, of coming to tables filled with people we love, after cups of wine, and reciting of plagues, after singing dayenu (the hebrew word for “enough,” as in God’s love would have been more than enough, in a rising series of praises — “if God had only created the world and not brought us out of egypt, it would have been enough”), we pivot to the holiest hours of holy week — or i do anyway.

i am deep now and deepening. i hear the cry of my soul, being pulled into timelessness, into sacred hours and space. i burrow into the stories of the last supper (the seder of Jesus and his twelve apostles), of gethsemane, of the betrayal by Judas, of the mocking and crowning with thorns, of the bone-crushing cross shouldered by Jesus as he stumbled along the trail to his crucifixion at golgotha, the hill just outside jerusalem, the hill where he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” and then, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” the whole arc of anguish and redemption in two short utterances.

it never fails to draw me deep into the nautilus of prayer.

and so, late yesterday, as the slant of light grew thin and thinner, i was pulled into a jewel box of a medieval stone chapel, its leaded windows a mosaic of cobalt and ruby and aquamarine. i was alone. i had only my prayer and my deepening.

today will be more of the same. the hours of silence, from noon till three, the hour, we’re told, when Jesus let out his final surrender, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” when he breathed his last, and the sun’s light was extinguished, i will do as generations before me have done: utter not a word, follow my prayer to the hushed place within. i will keep my holy vigil for the suffering that once was, and the suffering that goes on to this day, to this hour.

in both the story of exodus and the story of the crucifixion, we are called not only to honor them as ancient and long-ago narratives. we’re to infuse them with the now. to employ them as holy script, as instruction, imperative, to find in their depths the modern-day call to action: search for the stranger, embrace the stranger. set a place at your table, and make it the finest you have. love even your enemy. forgive your enemy.

turn yourself wholly and finally to God.

both stories, a call to radical empathy. both stories, imploring divine surrender.

both stories i’m burrowing into this week. this week of ancient and timeless holiness. this week with wisdom for now.

may your holy days — however they come — be deep and be blessed.

and happy blessed birthday to my beautiful little ella today turning eight, and to my beloved mother-in-law ginny (the chair’s most loyal reader perhaps) whose day is tomorrow. 

stitching in the quietude

light coming in at the edges

before this day ends, i will be tucked in a sleeping chamber in an old and timeless seminary. it will be an unadorned cell — a bed, a wood-slabbed floor, maybe a window.

i am driving to the woods — and the great stone seminary, nestled along a lake — to give my soul the air time it so deeply needs. it’s been too long. decades and decades since i slid into a many-chambered monastic place, and stayed the night. since i fell asleep under rough-hewn sheets, listened to the silence all around, heard the whispers of my deepest soul cry out.

i’m long overdue. of that, i’m certain. monasteries and abbeys have been calling out to me for years. please come, they beckon. please rest your weary soul. yet i’ve not obliged. not wholly, anyway.

oh, i’ve popped in from time to time, knelt down, kindled wicks in rows of vigil lights. but not surrendered into the seamless timelessness of true retreat, the respite from everyday cacophony.

when we lived for a year in cambridge, mass., there was a great grey stone monastery, tucked along a bend in the charles river, shadowed behind a stand of sycamores, and i wove it often into my daily meanderings. my hours there were holy. were hushed. the alchemy of candle smoke, infused with incense, infused with long-robed monks chanting morning prayer, it catapulted me toward that place where prayers stir deep and deeper.

and now it’s time for immersion into silence.

that this quiet interlude, one i invited in months ago, is coming now, amid a week of hallelujah mixed with jitters, it’s blessed timing. from sundown to sundown i’ll be washed in quiet. in listening to the prayerful wisdoms of the fine soul who’s convened the gathering, whose lifework is inviting in quietude. reminding us — all of us — that we need equal measures noise and silence. that our hectic lives beg for the punctuated pause. that we etch in time for absorbing, for soaking in the holiness that’s always all around.

it comes just before that swirl of passover and holy week, an intermingling in this house that has us marking ancient story and eternal truth. it comes amid a springtime that’s unfurling abundantly, with blessings all around.

it comes just hours from now.

and i am quieting already…

may you all find at least a spot of quietude this day, this close of another week. 

how do you respond when you’re called into the deep that comes with no noise?

and a magnificent thank you to every blessed chair sister and blessed friend who scaffolded my heart, kept my knees from buckling last night, at the “birthing” of Motherprayer. whether you were there, in the charmed and quirky bookstore, or sending whispers from afar, you somehow propelled me through. it all always begins here, where roots grow deeper by the day. xoxo

for the children: an inaugural prayer and a promise

teddy and mom, heart in hands

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?

the holy pause is upon us…

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i feel it, coming in like the draft through the cracks in my old wobbly windows. i feel it, as if a soft finger tapping me on the shoulder. i feel it beginning to swirl here in the kitchen, where cupboards are stacked with tins. i feel it when i plug in the lights on the tree. i feel it when i step out the back door, step under the great dome of dawn, shlep through the snow with my banged-up tin spilling with seed for my birds.

i feel it settling down in my heart and my soul. i feel the pure exchange of breath as i exhale the tired old air of these weeks of discombobulation and worry and fear, and breathe in the newborn air that will always be Christmas for me.

it is the holiest pause of the year for me, the birth of new light, just after the longest, darkest night. the quiet that comes, i imagine, just as it came in the manger, long long ago. i imagine the mother with child. i imagine her belly, hard, ready to birth. i imagine the cows lowing, and the sheep, the soft sounds of a barn, mixed with the muffled wail of pain from a mother in labor. then stillness. holy stillness. silent night. and then, at last, that cry from the deep, from the newborn lungs of the babe, the sound of God shattering the night. the first sound, a cry.

it’s a story that draws me deep into the folds of its threads. it’s a story that startles me, tenders me, year after year. it’s a story i need in double doses this year. and so i will tell myself the story over and over. i will stand at the edge of my creche and marvel at the newborn tenderness. i will marvel at the courage and strength of the mother who birthed her firstborn, her one and only, in the dim chill of a barn, surrounded by the murmurations of those beasts of burden. i will imagine the night sky, jet black, stitched with shimmering knots of pure light.

i will take hold of that tenderness, that courage and strength, and make it mine. or try, anyway. i will scoop up the seed that is Christmas, and tuck it deep in my heart. i will breathe into it, allow it to grow, to blossom, to spill beyond these few short days when the pause, holy pause, is upon us.

the holy pause is the most blessed gift of Christmas.

these are the days when the quiet comes, when we’ve ticked to the bottom of all the to-do lists, when we can shut the door on the cold winds outside. when we huddle with only the ones we love the most dearly. the ones our life depends upon.

at our house, the logs are piled high, ready to submit to the flame. thank you, old birch trees, old pine trees. the cupboards are full. the blankets are stacked in the old wicker basket. my firstborn, the one whose first cry long ago broke the silence, he’ll be home tonight. and the anticipation of his arrival is stoking the Christmas in my heart. it’s been a long autumn. and, in good measure, that’s what makes the Christmas miracle all the more blessed. especially this year.

and so, as is my way of keeping Christmas, i will bow my head at the dawn, and i will whisper my litany of prayerfulness. it’s the essence of Christmas to me: to weave the strands of petition into a whole and mighty salutation to the God who looks to us to uphold tenderness, mercy, and most of all justice. the God who begs us to keep peace here on this most blessed globe, the one of mountains and majesty, fragile bog and feathered flock. the God who gave us this gift with the undying hope that we’d hold it close to our hearts, and never let it shatter.

here is my prayer, or at least the first draft of it:

a christmas morning prayer…..

(the more insistent the prayer, the earlier i seem to rise. and so this morning, the heavens are star-stitched still, the edge of the dome is soaked still in inky black. the cardinals haven’t yet stirred from wherever it is they sleep.

and yet, my heart is bubbling. my prayers rise up from deep inside. they can’t wait to take flight, to be put to the airborne parabola, the one that puts wings to their breath.)

i pray for the mothers who have buried a child, the mothers for whom christmas will never be whole, will ever be hollow. i pray and pray for peace, just a thread of it, to come to them, to wrap for a moment around their aching heart. i pray for one moment’s relief from the stinging emptiness that will not be staunched.

i pray for the children who’ve lost their mother, two in particular i know and love, and countless others i’ve read about, countless others who cling to the margins of all the merriment, knowing it’s a country to which they no longer belong. for children without a mother on christmas, there is no peace, no everlasting peace.

i pray for Aleppo. i pray for the children hovering in the cold. i pray for the bodies of the babies unentombed from the rubble, the dust of hatred dropped from the skies. i pray for the mothers and fathers, i pray for the men and the women — cold, hopeless, hungry. i pray for the masses left to die, awaiting the words — any words — that tell them the world is listening, has heard their cries, awaiting the word that the world is coming, hope is coming to save them.

i pray for world leaders courageous enough to have opened their borders, to let in the rivers of refugees, disgorged from their homes, from their histories, from any shred of a sense that they’re safe.

i pray for the weary souls i see lying under puffy-layered sleeping bags, on cold hard sidewalks, under viaducts, against the grates at the base of shimmering downtown towers.

i pray for my children. i pray that in their hours of darkness, the light comes. that they see how brilliantly they shimmer in the landscape of my heart and my soul. i pray that someday they understand just how wholly they filled me, how they put purpose to my being alive. that each and every day we try and try again to teach each other: this is how you love. 

i pray for all of us who, more often than not of late, feel hollowed. feel jarred and broken by the hatred spewing all around. i pray for our tender hearts and fragile spirits. i pray that we don’t topple. and if we do, i pray for someone strong to come along, to reach out a hand, to whisper hope, and pull us to our feet.

i pray for those who haven’t a clue how deeply they teach me each and every day — be it a story on the news, or one passing by in the social media whirl. or someone i bump into at the grocery store, or riding on the el, or shivering in the cold as i shuffle down the sidewalk.

i pray for the ones i love who come to this table. who leave behind a trace, or not even a whisper. i pray for the ones i love who never come here, who share in the depths of my life but never stop by here, never hear the deepest voice i know, the one i found here, buoyed by courage and love.

i pray for the ones we’ve lost this year, the ones whose words rumble through my head, through my heart, each and every day. i pray especially for my friend who wrote these words: “wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it,” she promised.

i pray for the poets and wordsmiths and makers of art in every form — in clay, in thread, in wood, in every hue under the sun and the moon. i pray for those words that catch against my heart, and work their way into prayer. those words that leap from my soul into the heavens.

i pray for the God who catches them, who catches the words of the prayer, who catches us all.

more mightily than any prayer i pray of late, i beg Holy God to not abandon us now. to not leave us to our sins and our shattered promises. i promise to love a little bit harder, to live a little bit better, more true to the blessing i was made to be.

and this is the prayer i pray most mightily: i promise to love, God, and i beg You to show us — show me, show every single lost and hungry one of us — the way. the holy, certain way…

thank you.

amen.

may your pause for the blessings of Christmas — and Hanukkah, the great festival of light that begins tomorrow — be gentle, and tender, and stitched with wonder and breathtaking marvel.

for what do you pray in this pause filled with holiness?

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my littlest manger

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

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. 

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

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i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

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brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

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haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

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roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate