pull up a chair

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

Category: religion

sometimes when you fly, you land in heavenly places

IMG_7150

sources tell me it’s no secret that i’m a homebody. one of the original give-me-my-old-lumpy-mattress homegirls. so it was with no smidge of trepidation and wishing-it-was-over that i sped off to the airport the other morning, encountered a TSA line sure to make me miss my plane, and nixing all hopes of a hot paper vat of airport coffee.

i flew to music city (aka nashville) where i sang not a note, but i did meet some very very very fine folk. i was there to make a video — five brilliant women + me. i was there in the role of (take your pick) oprah or, my preference, krista tippett. all i had to do was ask questions. the brilliant ones did the stuff that mesmerized me. two of the women are professors, biblical scholars of the old and the new testament, four are preachers. one (the professor/preacher from princeton and yale divinity school) preaches at the oldest black baptist church north of richmond, virginia, a church in alexandria founded in 1806 by the black baptist society whose number swelled when slaves from mount vernon plantation joined in 1815.

that professor-preacher, rev. dr. judy fentress-williams, mentioned to me that she served as senior assistant pastor to rev. dr. howard-john wesley, considered “one of the great orators of this generation” (so claimed by the NAACP, in awarding him one of their most prestigious honors earlier this month). wesley’s sermon, “when the verdict hurts,” preached just 12 hours after the 2013 verdict in the trayvon martin murder trial, was pegged by no less than time magazine as “the best” on the subject of george zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, in their cover story, “after trayvon,” with the prompt, “if you hear one sermon about america’s trayvon martin moment, let it be this one.”

judy, beyond brilliant in her own right, mentioned to me that i really ought to take a listen. so, of course, i did.

it might have been the holiest thing i heard this week, so rather than prattle on about trivialities, let me turn this week’s table over to the man who left med school to become a preacher, was named a martin luther king, jr., scholar at MLK’s alma mater, boston university, and in whose pews i pray i some day find myself.

pull up a chair, and take a listen: “when the verdict hurts,” july 14, 2013. rev. dr. howard-john wesley, pastor, alfred street baptist church.

what i’d give to be able to go someplace once a week where i was stirred to goosebumps, stirred to action.

made me remember, once again, that when i pull myself away from where i’m most at home, i never fail to be amazed by the wonders always just beyond my doorstep.

who stirs you to goosebumps?

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?

hours of sorrows

silence on day that darkens

amid this breathless week of passover seders and holiest hours, amid trying to pack lunches kosher for passover, and waking up early to stir and bake passover coffee cakes (in which it’s the egg white that’s relied upon for alchemy, to lift the leaden matzoh into something that falls on the tongue with delicate bite), amid wondering what to serve our muslim houseguest when she’s here for easter brunch while we’re keeping kosher for passover, today is the day i deep breathe.

today, good friday, holy friday, friday of sorrows at the nadir of the week, this is the day when the noon hour comes, and the sky darkens (at least in my searching imagination it does), and i retreat to my quietude. and my sorrows.

sorrows not my own, but sorrows for the world. sorrows of which there are too, too many. the more you read the newspapers, the more you turn the pages of memoir, the more and more you realize the world is shrouded in darkness. darkness that demands whatever energies we have to battle it back. to insist we’re not letting it win. we’re not standing by in abeyance. we’re not washing our hands, turning and dropping the ball, leaving the dirty work to anyone else.

on this day, in these hours of sorrows, i turn to that ancient and ever-birthing instrument of petition and promise: i pray. i pray on my knees (till my old bones tell me to stop, anyway). i pray curled by my window, my eyes deep in the words on the page. i pray all alone, just me and the God who is listening. listening, i’m certain.

this year, i’m bringing along a wisp of a book, a book originally published in 1955, before i was born, a book i searched for and found this year because its words had so stirred me, sitting in the pews at a church not far away in miles, but legions away in raw earthy truths. it’s a church filled with a few dozen languages and skin from pitch-black to blotchy from tears. it’s a church where i go to feel naked, to feel in communion with the messy stuff of humanity. i’ve seen old women, bent and bowed, rocking with tears, and mumbling half out loud. i’ve seen fat brown-skinned babies dunked in the holy waters. i’ve seen walkers and wheelchairs and crutches and canes. the whole lot of God’s sorrows streaming up to communion.

the book, this book that speaks to me, speaks to all who gather at st. nick’s and beyond, it’s “the way of the cross,” written and illustrated back in 1955 by caryll houselander, and you can find it from liguori publications, down missouri way.

way of the cross

now this caryll houselander, she was a bit of a rabble-rouser (a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing 20th-century british catholic mystic, artist, woodcarver, prolific author, teacher of disturbed children, counselor of the war-traumatized, widely known as “the divine eccentric”).

she liked her religion messy, she liked it to speak from the hollows of the human heart. and she lifted it out of long-ago millennia and into the moment, for me anyway. she puts me there in the dust at the side of the via dolorosa, the quarter-mile road in old jerusalem where jesus carried the cross, falling not once or twice but three times under the weight of those shoulder-crushing timbers. up the hill to calvary, where, upon that cross, he cried out, “father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, with his mother weeping at the foot of the cross, he let out the gurgly rattle of death, and he died.

we all have words in our lives with magical mystical powers, words that unlock some soulful place in us. caryll houselander’s “way of the cross” does it for me.

here she is on veronica, the compassionate woman who burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus. here she is, caryll houselander, with the pleading to God inspired by veronica wiping the face of jesus, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

 

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

quietly, i leave you to enter your own pleadings and sorrows.

may this be a day steeped in the Holy. may your hours of sorrows draw you into a depth of compassion that lifts you beyond your own full deck of worries.

another road into compassion:  a few months back, i mentioned here that i was working on a story about a 20-year-old former star swimmer and water polo player who suffered a brain aneurysm in the fall of his senior year of high school and now lives in the hell called “locked-in syndrome.” the story just came out in marquette magazine, and web wizards masterfully interlaced film clips throughout the words of the story. if you are hungry for a bit of humbling today, you might want to click on patrick stein’s story here, as published in the magazine. 

how will you spend the hours of sorrows? 

“by little and by little”: dorothy day, a guide to loving

dispatch from 02139 (in which, at long last, there is time in the day, here on the banks of the river charles, to take a few lessons from one of the 20th century’s modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, dorothy day…)

if sabbatical has its roots in sabbath, to rest, to restore, then that is what pulled me, three months ago, to sign up for religion 1004, “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries.”

i scanned across the list of saints whose lives we’d be studying — gandhi, martin luther king, thich nhat hahn, abraham joshua heschel — and i was hooked. i saw one more — dorothy day — and i was writing the professor begging to be allowed at the seminar table.

dorothy — for i don’t think she’d want me to call her ms. day; she’s not like that — has been my deep catholic hero for a long, long time. her brand of catholicism, the catholic worker movement founded, in part, on hospitality houses for the poor, the lost, the wholly left-to-the-margins, is the brand i still believe in.

i grew up, spent my holy years, in the 1960s.

stepped into my first dark confession box back in those turbulent days — just post vatican II, when the church was turned on its head, a year after JFK was assassinated, at the height of the escalation of the vietnam war — heard the opaque window slide open, heard the priest’s breathing, heard my own heart pounding as i scoured my soul, got ready to spill all my sins there on the ledge. tasted my first dry, wheat-y communion wafer. wondered what to do when it got stuck on the roof of my mouth.

and then, in seventh grade, it got really deep: we had a nun who’d stripped off her habit, who stood there in sweaters and skirts, strummed a guitar, and turned off the lights so we could watch — over and over — “the red balloon,” sing kumbaya. radical jesus — with his long curly hair and sandals, friend to the thieves and the whores — was a god made for the decade of protest, anti-establishment.

all along, i’d spent hours at bedtime, praying that i could be better come daybreak. be more of a saint. try harder. one lent, when i was in third grade, i think, i got up early, rode my bike to 7 o’clock mass every morning. because i thought it would make my soul shine brighter.

i never stopped trying.

and then, along came the likes of mother theresa and gandhi, and later, dorothy day.

they were my brand of catholic. they scooped souls out of gutters, touched the untouchables, turned away from the gilded altar cloths and the chalices locked away in a safe in the dark of the church.

they were what drew me to appalachia in college, what pulled me into a soup kitchen on the west side of chicago. they and my mother, truth be told.

but my mother has never written out her theology, just told me once, in a few short words (all i needed to hear really) that, after my father died, she figured she’d devote all the days of her life to God, and live a gospel of love. so she does, and i watch.

over the years, i’ve read snippets of the life of dorothy day. knew enough to call her my hero, claim her as my personal saint.

but i hadn’t taken the time to pore over her writings, to absorb the whole of her story — in her words.

and right now, because we’re at that part of the reading list, because for the next two weeks, on mondays at 4, i’ll be sitting at the seminar table in the great gray stone tower that is harvard divinity school, i am reading dorothy. curled up on the couch with her all yesterday afternoon, an afghan under my bare toes, a fat mug of tea and an orange fueling me along the way.

i read paragraphs that could change me forever. so, of course, i’m sharing them here. see if you, too, discover a trail to carry you through the rest of your days, even the days when we’re lost in the deep dark woods. (the italics, for emphasis below, are mine.)

“…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily. it is interesting to note that her favorite saint was no great martyr or charismatic reformer, but therese of lisieux, a simple carmelite nun who died within the walls of an obscure cloister in normandy at the age of twenty-four. dorothy devoted an entire book to therese and her spirituality of “the little way.” st. therese indicated the path to holiness that lay within all our daily occupations. simply, it consisted of performing, in the presence and love of God, all the little things that make up our everyday life and contact with others. from therese, dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ. we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. these were the loaves and fishes. we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. it was all a matter of faith.”

— from “Dorothy Day: Selected Writings,” edited and with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg.

by little and by little.

now there’s a theology i can grasp, clench in my hot little fist.

we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage.

these were the loaves and fishes.

we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase.

most days i don’t have much. but by little and by little, i can steady my wobbles, and put one foot forward.

i can try, with all my might, to live a life of love, by little and by little.

there is much this week to pray for, in the heartbreaking wake of hurricane sandy, who has left my beloved in-laws without heat or light or power on the jersey shore, who has turned my sister-in-law’s new york brownstone into a hospitality house for all those with nowhere to go. who spared us, and our sweethearts in maine. for all the heartbreak, up and down the eastern seaboard, i pray for repair and for strength, by little and by little. 

your thoughts on the wisdom of dorothy day? and if she’s not the one who guides your days, who is?

seeds cast to the winds…

our house this week has been aswirl with all that comes in that holiest of weeks, the week at our house when, so often, passover and easter glide in and intermingle.

i’ve been in the kitchen, digging out the pint-sized processor my beloved jewish grandma (the one i’d felt was mine, from heart, if not from birth) shipped to us back when our firstborn was just born, and she decided, upon his birth, that it was the one thing i needed, so she boxed it up in florida to send our way, lest i choose to someday whir the baby’s veggies to a pea-green paste.

i made charoset for the first time in years, the apple-wine-and-walnut mortar, the one set upon the seder table, a table we’ve not set here in years and years, but did this year because the rabbi who usually leads us all in chants and jewish mysticism, he’s had a bumpy year and couldn’t manage yet another room of crowded tables.

i pulled the “silver palate” cookbook off the shelf, decided after much debating with myself, that the only feast that symbolizes passover for me is the chicken marbella, page 86, the one we’ve feasted on for 20-some years at a dear friend’s second-night seder. and so it is; it’s now our first-night feast, now that i too know how to grind the head of garlic, stir with spanish olives, prunes and capers, an aromatic cloud that filled the fridge for one whole night and next day long.

i roasted egg and shank bone. i boiled up matzah ball soup. ordered gefilte fish from the fishman. watched my boys sink in their forks, and smile from deep-down places.

and now, with the pantry stocked and freezer too, with foods that have no leavened grain, no grain at all, save for ground-up matzah, we carry on the catholic end of the week, the holy week, the days of awe for me.

and while i sometimes find myself in lonely place, alone at church on palm sunday, for instance, i have found in this end of the week, quiet joy, unexpected joy.

last night my little one sat beside me at holy thursday mass, the mass that remembers the last supper–a seder, after all. he curled into my side, entwined his slender getting-longer fingers in mine. he asked me questions throughout, and i whispered answers, so quietly moved that for once i was not alone at church.

and today, good friday, a day i’ve long marked in silence from noon to 3, in remembrance of jesus on the cross, jesus suffering, my 6-foot-3 rower told me he was skipping practice. why, i asked? because it’s slotted for noon to 2, he said, matter-of-factly, and it’s good friday.

i quietly felt a glow.

i have not been one to try to wedge my boys into the practice of my religion. i’ve not tried to wedge anything at all. i have offered up all i have. i have made the seders, left out holy books, asked plenty of questions, tried to answer questions without easy answers.

we have, every night since each boy was born, whispered a litany of prayers, a head-to-toe veneration and then some, before sweet child slipped into slumber.

i have put out shabbat candles every friday. made fish for most shabbats, a subtle catholic-jewish intertwining.

i have walked to the lakefront with my boys, tossed bread upon the waves, cast sins at the jewish new year. savored the ritual, felt deep-down blessing at the many roads to the holiest of holies.

i have honored the sacred in all its forms. but i have not demanded, not sulked. oh, i’ve shed tears, though, but not when anyone was watching. i’ve felt the price of living in a home where two religions were offered. i’ve felt the sting of their pointed questions, of not knowing if they believed at all.

it’s a far lonelier road than most anyone will tell. i have tried hard to make peace with carrying on my quiet flame, believing all alone, of being without my boys on holy thursday night when the time came to take off my shoes and have my naked feet washed by strangers, and to return the blessing all alone.

and this year, i am quietly and deeply moved that i was not alone last night, and will not be alone this afternoon in my silent vigil.

it is dicey business, this growing up with deep cords of faith, in a world where the secular is drowning out the sacred. it is double hard to try to teach two religions, when there seems barely room for one.

it is not wise, i figured out, to demand belief. there is no such demanding.

in the end, we can only light the candles, set the seder table, cook fish for each shabbat, revel in the glories of the good times, and pray to God that in the darkest hours, our children will find the seeds that we once planted. and those seeds somehow will swell and burst with the tender beginnings of a vine that someday will carry them to the heaven that surrounds us.

that’s my prayer this holiest of fridays.

and how do you pass the seeds of faith to your children, or to the ones you so love?

no darker day

all night i tossed and turned, wondered if i would write how lonely it is. how achingly hard. to be the sole believer in a house i call home.

oh, there are others who believe other things. just no one else who believes what i do.

no one else who spills tears at the thought of the story, deep thought. deeper story, the one of today, the one of good friday, no darker a day.

no one else who came with me to church last night, who stripped off their shoes, stood in line, knelt down to wash the feet of another. no one else who knows what it felt like, how it wrung me right out, the man i don’t know, his deeply brown hands, tenderly, thoroughly, washing my feet.

it is, was, a wholly powerful moment. metaphor, yes. but literal, too. sensual, really. warm water was poured, my bare bumpy feet there in a bowl, a white porcelain bowl. no ceremonial sprinkle and wipe. not this. no.

i could barely look up. couldn’t breathe. all around me, humility loomed. filled the church, right up to the rafters. this church where i went–unlike the one of palm sunday–is a church that i love. it is filled with people of colors, filled with bodies so broken, but spirits that look to be whole.

beaming and grinning and shaking a shaker, the young handsome man strapped to a wheelchair. the boy with the face that is pretty much mangled. the one who was blind. the old lady who only could shuffle, and barely at that. all of them, there. so very there.

for three hours, i think, i was bathed in all of the ritual. the latin, the spanish. the incense, the candles. the bread and the wine. oh, and the song. cello and tambourine. children with bells. and the pouring of water on bare naked skin.

even i, a soul who’s felt not very holy of late, i was pulled right back to the flame deep inside. long long ago, a story was put there. a story i simply believed. over the years, it got jostled around. couldn’t be. yes it could. hmm, i wonder. oh, geez, i don’t know. i don’t even know anymore.

it’s the sad sorry fallout from hours and hours of listening, and hearing the people you love, people whose thinking you trust on all sorts of matters, come down, on this one, on the far side of the fence.

it’s the part of the jewish-catholic equation that isn’t much aired. and sometimes i think that it should be. it might untangle a knot.

there’s the words of the rabbi: you can’t believe it both ways. and the words of the priest: you love the same God. and then there’s me, sometimes lost in the middle.

it’s not likely to happen, perhaps, if you didn’t start out deeply believing. or caring too much. but on both of those scores, i raised my hand.

and that’s where the rub comes: after 20 long years, two-fifths of my life, of listening to scholars who find it all rather unlikely, but even moreso, watching the pain on the face of the man who i love on that long ago sunday of palms, or hearing the words of my firstborn when he says he finds it mostly improbable, my whole core has been shaken and rattled and, sometimes i fear, broken to bits.

i hold onto shards. pray for the blue glowing flame not to go out.

but then, on a night like last night, i go in a church, i take off my shoes and it all floods right back. the whole power and glory of a church that holds up this day, and the ones just before and right after. says, look at this. look how human and horrid and broken we all can be. look how this one single soul was betrayed, was mocked, was beaten, was made to carry a cross. and he died without raising his voice. except to cry out: “Father forgive them. they know not what they do.”

it’s a moment, i swear, to carry me far. it’s a moment i thank holy God for. each year, i come back. and many hours between.

but the hollow deep hole in my chest, when i feel all alone, and not very certain, it makes for some hours of unbearable darkness.

and how uncanny it is that this day, no darker a day on the calendar, somehow is lit from behind. like that sun through the clouds. or a star breaking through in the murk of the night.

it might be, just might be, a soul, after all, that refuses to succumb to the doubt.

perhaps, in the end, that’s what my easter miracle is. the maybe that turns to a yes. the yes that won’t fall to eclipse. do you struggle, when it comes to believing? what brings you home, time and again? is it the power of story, or the break in the clouds? i send you blessings, as we all wait out the darkness, counting on light to come in the dawn.

transforming time

this week is holy, my calendar tells me, my church tells me. some wee small voice deep inside me tells me too. i don’t feel so holy of late, though. feel ragged and worn. tangled, too. like the branches that jut from my pine, the one whose trunk i stared up and into, trying to find, maybe, some sign of nesting begun.

the challenge this week, then, is to take time that feels ragged, feels spent, and see if maybe, just maybe, i can start to build holy.

perhaps, like mama bird, out collecting old string, and tatters of cloth, i can take little bits of each day. maybe even each hour, and start to weave something that feels like a soft place for my soul. my soul needs a nest, needs a roosting place. my soul needs somewhere to perch. somewhere to swell, feel full.

i walked myself into church yesterday. felt wholly alone. it wasn’t a church that whispers my name. it’s stone, piled on stone. but it’s not far from home. and it is holy week, so i thought i should be there.

i remembered the words of my mother, perhaps the lastingest words she’s ever uttered: don’t let the church get in the way of God. i gave that a try. i tried, really i did, to pay no attention to the girl next to me, a teen with tight pants and big furry boots, who kept checking her iphone for something. the time maybe. a text from a friend. i didn’t notice till later how her brother must have spent his palm sunday, shredding the palm into bits. leaving it there, in a heap on the floor, where someone not looking might step, might crush it into the slate.

instead, i listened to the story. i wept right along. i thought a lot about suffering. how the dominant metaphor here in my church is a God who suffered in ways no human should know. but i suppose there has always been solace that at least, no thanks to the dark inhuman hours of the passion of Jesus, we are not alone.

still, every year, when i listen, when i hear about thrashing and stripping and mocking, i wince, then i swallow back tears. more often than not, the tears spill anyway. i can’t hold them back. don’t want to. they sting. and shake me down deep.

i think, as i swipe at my wet messy cheeks, about unbearable sins, ones then, and ones now. i cannot stand, either, all the stories i read in the papers, the ones about women and children and men, all put to insufferable deaths, or just barely escaping. and living instead with the frames, endlessly looping, of the horrors that always can come.

it is a sobering start to a week in which we live it again, the betrayal, the trial, the slow march to death on a cross among sinners.

achingly, slowly, we live it again. in vigils that last for hours and hours, late nights in a church where the pews get harder and the air, always, gets thinner and staler, tougher to breathe, till you think you might wobble right down, or give up the ghost.

since i, like emily dickinson, of late, find my church more in the woods than the pews, i will do an odd dance this most holy week. i will step into the place of the candles and incense. i will hear all the stories again. i will kneel and wash the soles and the toes and the calluses, even, of a stranger. i will genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.

but i will try to make holy the hours that shroud all the church time. i will, for this one week especially, try to push back the things of the world that distract me, that pull me away from the point. and the whole heart of the matter.

i will, if i can, stop the worry about runs on the bank, and layoffs at work. i will try to forgive all the slights and cold shoulders. will, if i can, excuse the snapping of tongues, and the mists of unholiness that seep through the cracks in the door and the windows i’ve opened for air.

i will try, for starters this week, to listen for whispers of God all around me. i will look for the pure shafts of light, the ones breaking through branches.

i will collect, as much as i can, the ribbons of cloth and bits of stuffing from pillows. i will build, if i can, a fine nest. a place where my soul, once again, can roost, can give birth once again and again, to the thin-shelled belief that this time all around us–these hours, these minutes, these breaths–all are anointed, are holy.

are ours to inhale, if we just settle down and start breathing. again.

how and where does this holy week find you? i find solace in the partitioning of time, in the marking of days and weeks and seasons as holier, perhaps, than others. the challenge is to find holiness in the everyday. it is always the challenge. particularly, i find it now. how and where do you go to find a breath, a heartbeat, that you know is one that is sacred?

seed scatterer

somehow, the other night, i swallowed wholly one of the truest truths of growing a thinking child from scratch.

mighta been one of the hardest ones to swallow, too.

but in the end, i am convinced, i’m one inch closer to a place that’s wiser. even if the getting there was bumpy going down.

you see, somewhere deep inside my head i think i thought that passing on the flames you hold most deeply, dearly, was a matter simply of holding up the wick, turning to the ones we nurse, we diaper change, we spoon feed, we wipe off, bandage, and shuffle on their way. the ones whose ears we whisper into, the ones whose shoes we tie, the ones whose pencil grip we help to rearrange. the ones whose papers we are no longer asked to read, for they are thinking now wholly on their own.

to pass the flame, i thought, was merely this: we turn and touch our kindled wick to theirs. and, poof, the burning light continues.

only, the other night, deep in thought and conversation at the kitchen table, deep in one of those tete-a-tetes that starts out slow, builds, spirals and suddenly is way up high on some perch where air is thin, and grip is slipping, i realized that not all flames are so easily lit from soul to soul.

not when you have, all your life, raised your child to think, to ask, to sift through what he’s told, to make his own only what sinks deep down to a place where what fits is weighed, is looked at from all sides, is held up to the shadow-casting light.

the subject, more or less, was religion. and in this house that’s a subject that comes with many threads. we weave here. we are braiders. we sift for golden strands, we entwine. we understand that some are shared, and some are wholly different, depending on whose birth threads we are holding.

more than religious, though, i am of the spirit. i find God in the scarlet flash of papa cardinal in the snowy boughs. i feel the shiver of the holy spirit when i watch the moon shadow play upon the window panes, and spill onto the bedclothes that bundle up and over my baby boy.

i whisper the hail mary, but i brush away a tear when lost in prayer on yom kippur. i feel the breath divine in hebrew, latin, or plain-old sidewalk talk. i needn’t be in church to know that holiness is near.

and so, it was the burning flame of spirit that i assumed–no, i counted on–i’d pass to my firstborn.

as clearly as he got my curly hair, the dimple of his father’s cheek, i thought the one most precious breath i have, i’d turn and breathe easily, wholly, into my soulful child.

oh, he had it when he was little. looked up at me one night, when he was all of two, and asked, “who puts God to bed at night?”

he had it, just a year ago, when he stood on the bimah, proclaiming the words of the Torah at his bar mitzvah, brought down the house, i tell you, with his grown-up understanding that nearly made the rabbi’s pale.

but now, now he’s taken history for thinking children, he’s heard word of wars fought in the name of God. and philosophies that stretch his mind into interesting new shapes. he is, right now, in this interlude, not so certain anymore.

and as we talked, i ached as the words he spoke fell upon my ears, sifted down to where my soul does all its breathing.

i tell you, it hurt to swallow, and, yes, to breathe.

but he is mine, and that’s unshakable, and, besides, i believe i’ve glimpsed the outlines of that soul. even if, right now, he calls it something else.

late that night, tossing, turning, in the way a mother sometimes does, it came to me, the image of the seeds.

i realized that what we do, in the long, long years of planting, is we are merely sowers of the seed. we scatter all life long, the bits of truth, of hope, the few scant things we know.

we scatter as we turn the words, in conversation after conversation. we poke a fertile nugget deep into the soil as we take our children by the hand, show them places and faces unlike the ones they would otherwise know.

we sprinkle seed through the books we read them when we pull them on our lap, turn pages. and then, years later, leave tucked beneath their pillow, just in case they find a minute for inhaling thought before they fall to sleep.

and after all the sowing, i realized, we can only stand back. pray for rain and sunlight. keep watch on what’s out where we have laid our lifetime’s crops.

hmm, is that a little bit of green, poking through the loamy soil? is that a tendril, reaching for the sky?

we’ll not know the harvest for some time. but we will trust that all the planting, tending, praying, was not in vain.

some seasons, what comes up is rich, is plenty, fills the bins. some seasons, what you put into the ground, isn’t what comes up at all.

but there will be a reaping. and, God willing, it will be more than you had ever counted on.

that’s the way it is when it comes to growing a thinking child. we’ve no flame to simply light their way, only seeds to scatter on their path, and wait–and hope–for blossoming to come.

what hard lessons has parenting brought your way? what, in life, did you set out thinking would be a cinch, only to find it was not the way you’d naively imagined? how have you made peace when the lessons you hoped to teach didn’t sprout in quite the way you’d planted? for those of you who’ve forged this trail already what were moments when you knew, oh you knew, that raising a thinking child held glories all its own. even when their wisdom caught you by surprise?

and by the by, today’s the blessed day of our resident mountain bird, the one who sings as if a warble-throated mama bird. here’s to sweetness, pure light and heart-melting goodness. in song, in deed. happy blessed day, pjv-az.

i have a dream, too

a year ago, i couldn’t imagine being so bold as to put any words here other than the words of the man to whom this day belongs, martin luther king jr. and so, i excerpted from the speech that moves me to shivers down the spine, and tears down my cheeks. i put a spool of words from the “i have a dream speech” right out on the table, and i let that speak for the day.

well, this year, thinking about this day, i am thinking that we must all be bold–especially when it comes to dreams.
if we don’t reach deep down inside, scout around for that same bold seed, put voice to it, get up and say it out loud, put breath to it, after all, well then, what’s the point in only listening to someone else’s dream.

that dream will not just leap up off the couch, start dancing, doing its thing without some muscle, without us adding to the voices rising, up over the mountaintop, down into the valley on the other side, down to where the shadows fall today. and tomorrow and the morrow after that. if we don’t too dare to be so bold as to raise our hand, say, hmm, i too am dreaming.

a long long time ago now i had a real live, wide-awake dream. a dream i’ve mentioned here, maybe once. but maybe it got lost along the way. today seems a fine day for shaking off the cobwebs of the story of that dream, re-telling it, in case maybe you or you have had a dream, all your own as well.

my dream was in the upstairs chapel of a nunnery, far far away. out where hills rolled and corn reached toward the sky. i was only there for the weekend, for what’s called a silent retreat. which means i ate, i drank, i walked, i prayed in utter, total wordlessness. at least no words that you could hear. there were plenty inside, believe me.

it was a friday night, and i had eaten in silence, tucked my things beneath the hard slab that was serving as my bed. i tiptoed up to the chapel and there i knelt. maybe it was all the silence, or maybe it was something else. but as i knelt and prayed, staring at the crucifix, staring at the long muscled legs of jesus on the cross, fixing on the nail holes in his palms, taking in the beautiful sorrow, and the peacefulness on his handsome jewish face, i saw the start of what turned out to be an endless kodak slide show of faces changing. i saw old faces, white faces, black faces, brown faces, sallow faces, children. i saw a native american, i saw an asian man, an old one. i saw wrinkles, i saw softness. i saw eyes and eyes and eyes. i was, of course, wiping tears from my own eyes, and cheeks, and chin. i can’t imagine seeing such a sight and not being wholly deeply moved. the tears, the transcendence deep inside, is all what comes when you feel, sometimes, as if a hand from heaven has just reached down and tapped you, unwieldingly, on the heart.

i knelt. i squeezed my eyes, then slowly peeked them open, to see if maybe this was all a trick that would just pouf away as fast as it had come. i turned, looked back, and still the faces changed.

i got the message pure and wholly: look for, find, the face of God in every one you meet.

the clincher to this dreamy story is the next afternoon, when i returned, took a seat–near the back, i tell you–in the bigger downstairs chapel. i bravely–through spread fingers–shyly–just a little bit afraid, i tell you–raised my eyes again to the face of jesus on the cross. at first, nothing. phew. safe. that was rather much to ride again. but then, as i softly sank into prayer, i swear to God i saw a smile wash across the face of that there jesus.

now you can hang me up now, press the button and click away. or you can read along, think, like i do, hmm, heaven even comes to ordinary folk. i’m no saint (ask my mother), but i am now among the ones who’ve had a dream. who carry it with us wherever we go from that day forth.

i carried it with me when i criss-crossed this country, once, looking for the faces of those who were poor, were hungry. i carried it, day in and day out, as i poked around the big city where i live and work, where i collected stories of the neediest of needy folk. walked into apartments way up high in dingy highrises and barely made it out alive of one not-so-friendly two-flat where there hadn’t been a speck of heat in weeks, and where someone who huddled there made it abruptly very clear that i was not welcome there.

i carry it, oh boy do i, now, where i live in a place where ironically it’s harder because no one on the surface looks so needy. everyone is cleaned, is polished. children carry ipods. play games on cell phones while they wait for lessons that cost, for half an hour, what some families pay all week for groceries.

the only thing to do if we’ve lived a dream is to wake up every morning and tuck it in our pocket, take it where we go. try every day, to not give up. to not let the phone call go unmade, or the unkind word go uncorrected.

it is the pulse beat really of our every day. it is the undying belief that it is here, at our kitchen tables, that the dream puts on its clothes. leaves behind the wisps of mental images, takes on matter in our every blessed hour.

it is in where we choose to send our children out to play. it is what we cook, and who we choose to feed. it is in the people we invite into our homes, the stories we ask them to tell, so our children can listen, can soak up sparks of wisdom that come from far beyond the walls of our small houses. it is how we look into the eye of the guy behind the gas pump. and where we get our hands dirty. it is in the getting up on sunday morning, and going out to someplace where the lessons come from wiser teachers, instead of staying huddled ‘round the table, sipping cocoa, keeping watch of birds.

it is, day in and day out, saying to yourself: i have a dream. i see a world other than the one before me. i believe it can be changed. it starts, right now, with my next whole breath.

someone else once had a dream. his name was martin. and there is work, still, to be done. he’s no longer here. he needs us to boldly dream in the places where he dreamed.

do you have a dream? how do you make it come to life? some of you, i know, are the very ones who inspire the dreams i set before my children. please, share the outlines of your visions. and bless you all for being filled with dream.

lysol’s got nothin’ on st. babs in a can

i know, i know, now you think i’ve been holding out on you, keeping all my secrets shrouded in the back hall closet. back behind the moldy tennis rackets, and the shoes that lost their strings.

you’ve been wondering–for months and months, i’ll bet–why everything–oh, excuse me, i seem to be coughing–runs so smoothly–no, i’m surely choking–here in the world i call my house. how come the broccoli never burns. and the children never pout.

well, i figured today’s as good as any to pull out all the stops. and while i’m at it, i might as well let you in on my supernatural* domestic secret.

you see, upstairs right now, there is a 6-foot-something creature who is trying hard to sleep. but he’s got finals any hour now, and he is moaning in his dreams. i am not thinking these would be the moans of growing child rolling in whipped cream. these seem to be the utterances of a pupil in distress.

then, over in the next room, the only one with heat, the one that feels a bit like sleeping in an anteroom of hades, is a little one who went to bed last night in tears. he nearly water-logged his pillow telling me that of all the children in his class, he’s the “unsmartest one.” in every single thing.

oh, lord, God almighty. where did i tuck the all-purpose house-protecting spray? it seems i’ve not been keeping up with all the troubles seeping in the cracks.

and, no, people, the spritz for which i grope is not some hyperallergenic thing that will keep away the microbes. phht, on little germs. i’ve no cares for them.

it’s the woopsy-daisy vibes that i intend to spray away.

you thought, perhaps, that all it took was hours on your knees. and perhaps a hundred dollars to the nearest voodoo doc. mais, non, i have an angel friend who came riding to my rescue.

who knew that you could buy a saint and tuck her in a can? complete with aerosol spitzer, no less.

this one, the one in pink who’s pirouetting up above, well, she came to me, as if in a fevered dream. she came to me just as i was blowing out the candles on my latest birthday cake. (51 candles, thank you, is as close to fevered dream as i’m inclined to get.)

so really i’ve not been holding out on you for all that long at all. in fact, i’ve only really just begun to understand her powers*.

what, you ask, is with all the little asterisks, the floating stars every time i mention all her super*celestial magic tricks?

well, i am only being fair, only being forthcoming, for the little tiny print running up the seam of that pink paper label spells out, in no uncertain terms, the limits of her contents: “does not have supernatural powers,” it says, in teensy-weensy caution. just in case you thought maybe you could turn the family frog into something altogether else.

oh, darn. it’s right there, in black-on-pink. my jewish husband saw it, the disclaiming, right away. (hmm, do we think it odd that the back-pedaling had escaped me, little catholic me, completely?)

ah well, the label then informs me–and i, in turn, am informing you, lest we get some lawsuit; what, the saints on high will come down and haul me off to court?–that there is nothing truly sacred about the piney mist that comes splurting from the nozzle.

ha. that’s what they think. unbeknownst to fellow inhabitants of this house (they just thought the christmas tree had gotten old and redolent), i have been unleashing little clouds of holy mist for the past few days, in hopes of keeping bad, bad karma out of doors where it belongs, where it stands a chance of going up in most unholy smoke.

but, given the elevated state of dread around here this morning, i intend to up the ante of my holy showers.

heck, i will spray until we’re in a rainy forest here, if that’s what it takes to rid these walls of all the angst of children up against the rigors of the blackboard.

i have no idea why such a godsend is so hard to find. i’ve no clue why it’s not there on the highest shelf of every single grocery. you would think the world would clamor for sanctified and pressurized protection.

praise God, then, that i’ve got allies with divine connections.

my blessed angel friend, the one whose wings, i swear, are tucked beneath her sweater, she rode miles and miles to drum up my new-year supply of saint babs’ artillery. the spray promises “peace in the home,” the candle is all-purpose, and the parfum i’m guessing is for the girl on the go, just a dab behind the ears and you are covered till you take a shower.

i’m told it all comes in a few saintly flavors: besides ol’ babs (who, by the way, was debunked of her saintliness nearly 40 years ago, but don’t tell the fine souls who make these aromatic vapors), there’s chris (yet another debunked saint–hmm, maybe after all this is the dumping ground for saints no longer). and i’m pretty sure there’s dearest saint theresa, who is forever the little flower.

so, dang, if you don’t find your holy patron among those three, just ask, and i will let you borrow mine.

but first i need to go see if i can shush the nasty smells coming from the boot tray.

bet you didn’t realize you could find such housekeeping secrets here. come back again, and i’ll let you in on how i keep my oven bright and shining. anyone else have a trick divine up their blessed sleeve?