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Category: quiet

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

the liturgy of dawn

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for years now, that banged-up tin has been ferrying my loads of seed from house to trough for feathered friends…

it begins, of course, in the dark. it begins when i release the loose cocoon, the flannel cocoon, that’s enwrapped my wisps of dream. i flip back the sheets and plant my soles wobbly on the ground. the vestments these days are nearly always variation on the same: stretchy yoga pants, long-sleeve T, bare feet, and the snuggliest sweater i can find.

there’s the splashing and dabbing in the room where water flows. then it’s down the stairs, around the bend, and into the kitchen where the ministration of the coffee begins. beans + water = the next-best reason i get out of bed, the first hot chalice of coffee, the one around which i wrap my palms, deep breathe and drink.

sometimes i play a game. tell myself the coffee has to wait. i can’t partake till i’ve gone outside, till i go deep into the liturgical practice of dawn. but some days i’m more gentle with myself: i pour the steamy black brew and tiptoe toward the door.

before i turn the knob, i pause to lift the lid on the old white tin, the one quite near the door, the one that holds the excuse for going outdoors. a banged-up coffee can, just big enough to hold a dose of seed for all my birds, awaits. i scoop and fill, now fully armed for my morning’s task.

i step beyond the kitchen. i step into the dawn.

that’s where i find the holiness every time. i stand beneath the dome, some mornings star-stitched, but this morning a vast gray puff of cloud. the morning song was no quieter for the lack of starlight. the morning song, already, was at full salute. a trill from the thicket to my left, a piercing cry from way on high and somewhere to my right.

not far off, i hear the morning train, paused at the station. it’s the only hint that other humans inhabit my morning hour. and because this is the april that yearns to be winter, my bare feet felt every ounce of cold. i dashed back in for boots before trudging across the ooze to dump my mix of seeds and nuts and plump dried fruit in the trough for birds.

and not a minute after dumping, the first of two papa cardinals came flitting in. chirped a certain note of gratitude, then filled his beak, and then his belly.

it’s the liturgy of the dawn. the carved-out fraction of an hour that settles deep into my soul. that makes one day richer than another. it’s where my prayer takes root. oh, there might be a whisper here or there, as i shake off sheets and tumble toward the pile of clothes. but it’s not till i’m alone, under the dome of dawn, that the deep-down prayer, and the deep-down quiet settle in.

just yesterday, someone asked me how i find the way to slow time, how i set my own internal clock to a rhythm that allows the sacred to seep in.

“well, it begins with the dawn,” i said. it begins when i’m all alone, just me and God and the birth of another blessed day. (truth be told, i still miss my old fat cat, the furry acolyte who met me at the door, who rubbed his ears against my ankles, followed me to the prayer bench where i often plop on days that don’t insist on abbreviated vespers.)

once i’ve inhaled deeply of the dawn, once i’ve filled my ears with the song of the feathered choristers, watched the flocks swoop in for their fill of what i’ve dumped from my old banged-up coffee can, once i’ve watched the curled-up buds on all the boughs, taken measure of their proximity to blossoming, i lay down an undercoat of prayer. i name the ones for whom the blessings are most urgent. i name the ones i love, one by one, as if the mere pronunciation of their name is an anointing. and then i press those prayers into place through the simple act of breathing. isn’t prayer sometimes simply intermingling earthly breath with the breath of the Divine, heaven’s reach swirling down to lift us from our leaden station? isn’t prayer the posture that takes away what weighs us down, that shares the yoke? that wraps us in the hold that whispers, “you’re not alone. this isn’t yours to carry all by your weary worn-out self…”

it’s the holy hour that pulls me from my bed. the one certain anchor to begin another day. the grace of dawn is my beginning. as if a golden-threaded vestment into which i slip my arms, it’s the only wrap i know that holds the hope of peace throughout the hours still to come.

how do you squeeze in the grace that fills the hours of your day? 

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all’s quiet…sigh.

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the last footsteps have trailed out the door, down the walk, and into the alley. it’s barely half past eight. and i am blanketed, as i’ve been the last two days, in a sumptuous, seep-deep-into-my-pores afghan of quiet. it’s not silence, for there’s a clock ticking just inches away, and there’s a pesky mower off in the distance. but not even the wind is whirring. and the hum of the fridge fades into not much notice.

quiet to me is essential, is holy. is where the whispers and dreams slip in, unannounced. where they sift and drift and catch in the eddies of my soul. where they chase away the emptiness that comes from too much too much. quiet is the elemental contemplative bedrock from which my chalice is filled.

and i’ve been waiting for this, waiting for the curative tincture of being home alone, with hours unclaimed, hours unfurled in the timelessness of morning, followed by afternoon — quiet tumbled softly on quiet.

it’s the glorious gift of back-to-school, that cold shock at the end of summer when alarm clocks start clanging before 6 a.m. and the kitchen counter becomes a short-order diner, with PB&J slapped up on one end, and waffles and berries dumped on the other. more often than not, there are exhortations to hurry, and the minute-by-minute bellowing as one of us — that would be me, but of course — broadcasts the unflagging advance of the minute hand, slowing for no one.

i sometimes forget, in that deep down sort of way, how very much i need quiet. depend on it. how it’s neck and neck with oxygen in the shortlist of things that keep me alive.

yet, all of a sudden the other morning, not long after the last shoe walked out the door at 24 minutes past seven, i felt as if i’d just been submerged in a velvety bath, maybe even one spilling with lavender-scented bubbles, and for the first time in months, i felt my deep-down hollows filling in, filling up. you know the hollows, the ones etched and stretched over time, the ones that come without notice, worn down by weeks of helter-skelter not knowing what in the world to expect of a day — who would wake up at noon, who would want breakfast at 2 in the afternoon, and who suddenly needed a ride to the far end of kingdom come. those sorts of upside-down days are the bread-and-butter of mama-hood. it’s all topsy-turvy, all the time. you hang on by a cord, a frayed cord, a cord that just might snap without notice.

you weather the whirl. you look down and see that one foot is galloping (barely) behind the other, trying hard to keep up. you fall in bed at night and wonder why your bones let out a sigh. but since it’s all punctuated with those drippy peaches, and the sand between your toes, and black-eyed susans ad infinitum — the sweet parts of summer — you pay little mind.

and then the quiet comes. it slithers in through the screens still in the windows, it taps you on the shoulder, or more aptly, the heart. and suddenly, for the first time in weeks, you perk up your ears and you hear only the sounds of an old house breathing.

maybe it’s something to do with the light, the molasses-tinged light that drips across the kitchen table this time of year. this holy blessed born-again time of year.

i am, this hushed late-august morning, breathing again. breathing deep. i am savoring, relishing, the rare and blessed gift of soft, slow, deeply quiet time.

and i am whispering — quietly, quietly whispering — my most certain and soulful thanks to the heavens from which all this comes.

i’d thought i might write light of heart this morning; i’d felt that way the past couple days. but then last night something bumpy happened, and my heart doesn’t feel quite so light anymore. time — and quiet — will heal, no worries.

my sweet boy, the one now teaching in a classroom on the fourth floor of an old brick school on the west side of chicago, talks about “catching the slipstream.” it’s a wonderful phrase, a phrase that captures the magic of brainwaves and timing and that ephemeral pulse beat that syncopates writing. i feel like the slipstream slipped past me this morning, which always saddens me, leadens my heart. but there’s a beautiful late-summer morning, just outside my kitchen door. and there’s a garden where bumblebees buzz, and berries ripen on the vines. the pit-pat of my bare toes on the wide planks of this old kitchen floor, as i putter and put things in order, it is all part of the alchemy of healing that i always find here amid the blessing of quiet. may your day, too, restore you, and quench the thirst of your parched parts.

do you, too, need daily doses of quietude?

p.s. as i typed that very last sentence, i heard the cry of the canadian geese, so i walked to the door, and looked to the heavens. sure enough, the chevron of southbound geese, winging their way to where they belong for the winter…

the eloquence of silence

silence on day that darkens

the sky is gray. as it should be. as my mama long ago told me it would be. had to be. this was the day that jesus hung on the cross. this was the day they call good friday, though i never have, never will, understand that. it’s a friday i nestle into, to be sure. it’s a friday when i will carve out a hollow of silence. i will wrap myself in silence and gray, gray sky.

it’s my practice, because we don’t usually shake off the ways of our earliest days, to contemplate deep and hard these hours when the one who healed the sick, threw out the tax collectors, the one who preached “love your neighbor as yourself,” the one who wept in the garden of gethsemane, he was stripped, and crowned with thorns. he carried the cross of his own dying along the dusty road to golgotha. he fell down. three times. and then, when he came to the place where he was to die, his arms and legs were nailed to limbs of tree, to wooden timbers, and he slowly breathed his last. and before he dropped his head, he called out: “father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.”

and if no other story of the christian narrative compels you, this might be one to contemplate deep and hard all life long.

i never get to the bottom of it. but every year, come this gray, gray friday, i try. i sink deep into what might have been coursing through a holy man on his way to die. i contemplate how it might be to live a life of trying to right the ways of a world that’s side-stepped what matters, that’s lost sight of how to love, of what it means to make peace with enemies, to embrace the cast-aside, the forgotten, the scorned. and then, at the end of that short life, to be condemned to die. to carry the weight of that cross knowing it’s the instrument of your own death.

and all of that i contemplate in silence. it’s one rule from long ago that i try mightily to abide by. my mama made us all be silent. not a word from noon to three, the hours when jesus hung on that cross, the hour when he died. long ago, for all those gray gray fridays, i tiptoed to my bedroom, my one sanctuary in a house of brothers. i sat on my bed, stared out the window at the sky. turned the pages of some evocative telling of those final hours. and waited for the sky to darken, maybe rumble, maybe cleave, at the stroke of three, the hour when jesus died.

and so it is here and now, the silence that will infuse the afternoon, when i will retreat to my room, stare out the window, turn the page of some evocative retelling of this gray gray friday. though i don’t, and haven’t, set that rule in my house, have not made my boys abide (though i do offer it as suggestion, nearly every year). i follow all alone the rule of silence.

there is such eloquence in silence, particularly amid this noisy, cacophonous world. there is wisdom in allowing thoughts to flow, to follow their course deep down to where the inklings come. or the knowing. it’s as if the rivulets of thawing spring find their way to rushing creek, where the bubbling up begins.

it’s rare and it’s a gift, this setting aside an afternoon for silence. for holy thought. for deepening.

and this gray gray friday, there is much to contemplate. to breathe deep and fill my soul.

the wonder of this particular good friday is that as i pull away from the afternoon’s silence, i will turn to passover’s story of exodus. and there i will be gathered at a table and that story will be told and retold. two compelling narratives in one day at our house. so it is, the blessing of being both. last night, at the mass of the last supper, i listened as one reading told the escape-from-egypt story, and the next told how jesus sat down to the seder, the passover feast, the one that we’ll sit down to tonight and tomorrow night. the intermingling of narratives, the points of intersection, they’re not missed by me. and it’s all part, i think, of what makes the good friday story even more compelling. the contemplation of the depths from which it flowed.  

this morning i thought i was going to burrow deep on the subject of silence, but, as so often happens, the sentences took me elsewhere. took me this time into jesus and the hours of this deepening afternoon. i don’t often write overtly about the tenets of my religion, or tell its stories here, but indeed they resonate and deeply draw my attention.

minutes after writing the words above, i sat down with my most beloved haggadah (the book that holds the story of the exodus, and outlines the prescriptions for the seder, the passover retelling and feasting); it’s the new american haggadah, edited by jonathan safran foer, published in 2012, and it’s brilliant. i read these words:

“we are not merely telling a story here. we are being called to a radical act of empathy.

oh, i wish i’d read those words before i started writing this morning. they grabbed me by the throat, and hold me in their grasp. we are being called to a radical act of empathy. jewish or christian, the stories of this holy blessed weekend are calling us to radical acts of empathy. and therein lies the miracle. that we have the capacity to enter.

contemplate the radical act of empathy in how, in our lives, we are called to feel from inside those beyond ourselves.

and my original first question of the morning:

do you, amid your busy days, ever declare interludes of silence, to follow the rivulets of thawing spring to the rushing creek where bubbling comes?

the necessary pause

the necessary pause

this sacred morning is anointed by quiet. it’s the sound of my soul breathing. which it certainly needs to be doing.

yesterday morning the cacophony came from the squawking of intercoms, and waiting room televisions cranked up to blaring, dialed to odd channels that give you a clue how the rest of the world stays tuned. on top of it all, the hollow sound of footsteps hard against hospital corridor. and the tingling sound of holding your breath.

this morning, the morning of saint nicholas at our house, a wintry sort of morning with half-lit sky and crimson berries still left on the bough (by nightfall my hungry birds might have plucked those branches dry), i am home alone and savoring the holy pause.

right in here, the pause is essential. is necessary. is filling up what’s been draining away.

necessary pause beach

i’ve said it so often i sound like a broken record, a record stuck on pause, on silent. but silence and lull are holy balm to me, are necessary to the going forward of the every day. i am soothed by downy-feathered sounds: the simmering of orange peel and clove, the ticking of my husband’s grandfather’s old dutch clock, the rushing exhale of the furnace that keeps me warm.

oh, i wouldn’t mind the crackle of pine cones on the hearth. or the tinkling of a teaspoon against the porcelain of the hand-me-down blue-willow tea cup.

i wouldn’t mind the poof of air when i punched down the cloud of risen dough in the old bread bowl.

but this morning i am far too lazy for ferrying in the logs, for dumping flour and yeast and melted butter in the bowl.

i am indulging in the lull of nothing more than the tap-tap-tap of keys. and writing, more than anything, is the potion i pull down from my heart’s apothecary.

i’ve been holding my breath for far too many reasons, for far too many days: a kid tromping around vienna (with three papers due by particular midnights; all turned in, all glorious. i should begin to learn to trust the procrastinating child); a mama who next wednesday will face the surgeon’s tool kit; a husband halfway across the globe, so far away, his day is my night, my day, his night.

so this rare morning of words and breath is just what i would wish for my best friend, if my best friend asked what might deeply cure the aching, the worry, the vivid dreams that unspool even when she wakes.

i do feel gathered here, knowing that in due time, and one by one, the chairs will be filled, and the great good souls who’ve woven hearts here, all will settle in, and offer words of tender wisdom, or simply the unspoken squeeze of hand to hand.

we are blessed, those who come here, those who understand the necessary pause. and how essential it becomes to fill our oozing aching heart with whatever balms patch us back together. whatever fortifies and sends us on our way, whole again, and emboldened to begin to ply the ministrations that heal the ones we love and hold together the scattered threads that begin and end at the very depths of our heart.

necessary pause st nick bfst

what are the sacred balms and potions in your heart’s apothecary?

quiet time

quiet time

on friday mornings, i click off the radio. it’s quiet time. time for the soul to do it’s percolating. see what bubbles up.

this particular friday — home alone except for the few straggling matchstick-legged friends who seem not to be able to kick the soap-nibbling habit in my upstairs hall drawers — it’s just me and the tick-tock of the clock, the chittering of sparrows out the back door, and a train chugging in the distance.

it’s been quiet here all week. as i’ve succumbed to the rhythms, once again, of this old house. as i’ve felt the deep sigh of once again being home.

it’s almost as if it was a dream, the ambles through cambridge, the unrelenting calendar that day after day demanded full-on attention, that kicked brain cells into high and higher gear. i get missives from my now faraway friends, friends now scattered all across the globe — from turkey’s tear-gas zones, from south africa where a people weeps for their dying national treasure — and i feel something like a piercing in my heart. i love those friends, and miss them all the more for not being in their every day.

rumor has it that The Professor is, at last, pulling up his cambridge stakes tomorrow, filling the trunk, the back seat and the front passenger seat (the one that would have been me, had i not been unable to untether myself from this quiet bliss) and motoring into the sunset. poor sweet soul, he doesn’t really want to leave. he’s re-discovered his love for colonial new england, for the proximities it affords, for the nooks and crannies in its landscapes and its coastline.

so, in my solitude — the longest stretch of alone time i’ve had in 20 years, since my firstborn was plopped into my arms in june of 1993 — i’ve bathed in the whole soul healing waters of allowing thoughts to unspool in their own slow measure. i’ve scribbled to-do lists and actually worked my way toward the bottom of each and every one. satisfaction, defined.

i’ve scrubbed, and dusted away cobwebs. i washed dingy pillows, and hung them out to dry. i’ve clipped and clipped from my old roses, my exuberant welcome-home roses, all of which seem to be thriving without my ministrations, without what must amount to interference from the bumbling gardener.

i’ve settled in, at my old writing table, and picked up where i left off before i packed the boxes back in cambridge. i’ve a project, a book project and a deadline of september 1, so my summer load is piled high. when i was off in cambridge, i followed a serendipitous and holy trail to a luscious and brilliant editor. her name is lil. i first met her at an umbrella table in the shadow of the bell tower of st. paul’s church off harvard square. we sipped gazpacho and whispered about the spirit, the human spirit.

it was the first time in my life an editor breathed holiness, breathed benediction onto the lens through which i see much of the world, the sacred lens. she asked me to write a proposal, a book proposal. gave me till january to get it done. then, a whole committee pored over that literary blueprint, and deemed it a deal. a contract was signed, sealed and delivered.

the working title is Holy Hours, the subtitle is a work in progress. it’s why i’m home alone. to launch back in, to sink deeper into the weaving of threads into whole cloth.

it is such a blessing to be able to reach for the books on the bookshelves i know by heart. to have my whole library and wellspring all around me. to sit at the table where the dappled light filters in through the overgrown ivy. to get up from writing and pedal my old blue bike up and down the lanes. to plunk on the beach, beneath the cottonwoods, amid the dune grasses. to dash across the street to my beloved and wise friend, and fill my belly on her welcome-home feast. to take walks past familiar gardens and front porches. to have old friends ring the bell. to feel their hearts pump against mine in pressing hugs so deeply overdue.

this is what quiet time brings the soul. it feeds hungers, quenches thirst. we are, all of us, so much more than meets the eye. we have soft places deep inside that need sustenance, that are fueled on wisps and prayer and uncharted encounters. that depend on brushstrokes from On High, or wherever you believe Holiness abides.

as i typed that very sentence, i looked up at a frantic chattering out the window. there’s a fledgling wee cardinal in hot pursuit of his papa, the two of them squawking up a storm from two branches, one just above the other. must be an early flight. i missed the nursery hours here. and now, the papa’s flown away, and the little fellow is alone there, wings trembling, barely cheeping. perhaps stuck in mid-flight. left to his own devices. not certain what to do. how to get from point B, back home to where the nest is.

such are the blessings i am home to witness, as i breathe deep the quietude, the abundance that surrounds me, home alone.

i’m inclined to go quiet for awhile, my beloved chair people. to pull up a chair only when it seems there’s something truly to say. i think often of the crusty newspaper editor i bumped into in the produce aisle a few years back. as we picked over the bananas, he groused that “too many people are talking these days; no one’s listening anymore. everyone thinks they’re a columnist.” i feel like i’ve talked too much here this past year as i strained to record the bumps and dips of one sumptuous year, and you’ve all been blessed listeners. since i’m a creature of habit it might be hard to shake my friday morning routine, but i worry that i’ve rambled on too long. 

before i duck back into my quiet zone, tell me: how do you carve out hours — or scant minutes — for your soul? and what feeds you most deeply?