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Category: savoring moments

slow birding

A force in us drives us to the untamed. We dream of the wild, not the domestic, for it is wildness that is unknown….It can be a daily need, a desire to connect with the wind, to live facing the unexpected.

What will bring us wildness in the places we live, domesticated with warmth and culture? For some, icy branches scratching together will suffice. A glimpse of a gibbous moon or a pomegranate-stained evening sky might help. But more than these, more than perhaps anything else, are the birds. These winged dinosaurs that have given up stored fat, hollowed their bones, and made many other compromises for flight––these organisms connect us with here and there, with then and now, as they chatter outside our windows or soar past our lives. 

Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard by Joan E. Strassmann

i surrender my soul to anyone who looks out the window and sees so vastly, so deeply. someone who understands that the pulsebeat of all creation––timeless creation––is as near as the fluttering in the branch that scrapes against the panes of our window. 

joan strassmann, an animal behaviorist and beloved professor, is the someone who penned those words. she penned them in her new book, Slow Birding, a title that immediately caught my eye (and when i mentioned it to my birdwatching mother, she swiftly informed me she’s been slow birding forever; so much for novel ideas). strassmann writes that she, like my mother, has been a slow birder all her life, not one of those birders frantically motoring hither and yon for a quick glimpse through the binocular lens, a scribbled addition to the “lifelist,” and then onto the next spotting. strassmann is not about “spotting.” she’s about slow-paced study. about taking the time to delight in the humors, startle at the spats (as even regal papa cardinal squawks away the lowly sparrowly choristers), marvel at the parabolas of flight, as feather takes on the wind. she’s all about absorbing the wonder. 

here at my cloister-in-the-making, where the walled garden soon will be serpentined with climbing hydrangea, where an elegant and capacious shingle-roofed bird B+B has been ceremoniously mounted on an elegant hand-carved post (the resident architecture critic thought it would be nifty if the scrolled brackets of the house were matched by post brackets that echoed the scrolling; and our beloved jim the builder obliged), it’s the feathered flocks that spring the whole place to life, to effervescent animation: the crimson troupe of cardinals, the squawking trio of jays, the countless sparrows, the occasional and pesky grackles, the ominous hawk.

with a mind toward soothing and stoking the soul, we’ve pared our dwelling here in this old house to an unfettered few balms: armchairs are ample and poised for conversation, a fireplace crackles with logs from the forest, books line the walls, hours are filled with the quiet of pages turning and spices simmering on the near-ancient cookstove. 

it’s the birds who bring the wild to our windowsills and put flight to our wondering. my housemate here, the aforementioned architecture critic, a man who makes an art of the rhythm of routine, has made it his solemn and devoted morning chore to scoop up a tin of seed and ferry it out to the flocks. whenever i can manage to beat him to the punch, i punctuate my seed dumping with a cheery call to the flocks, to let them know that breakfast is served. i refer to my birds in the diminutive. “here, sweeties,” i call, much to the dismay, i fear, of the neighbors. (but, oh well, they put up the fence so i can do as i wacky-well please in my now-secret walled garden.)

and even though our birding has always been slow, i find strassmann’s intentionality, her keen and fine-grained observations of the ways of each and every genre of bird, has me upping my game. putting down distraction, training my eye out the window for longer and longer spells of the day. taking note of peculiar particulars i might otherwise miss. (it’s excellent training for the whole of one’s closely examined and attentively-lived sole chance at life.)

strassmann passes along the wisdom of famed ornithologist margaret morse nice whose instruction is at once spare yet richly complex: sit still and watch. draw what you see, perhaps, the singular birds who flutter and flit. befriend them. scribble notes in a journal you keep by the window. 

but why a whole book, a 334-page book, if the instruction itself is so brief? well, strassmann explains that she delves into the intricacies of sixteen birds––and five bird-watching places––because to know the ways of the birds, to know each particular one’s biological story, is to illuminate all the more what we might otherwise be utterly missing out yonder. and thus we might look and look more closely.

the stories, obtained over the lifetimes of various ornithologists who trained their lenses on a single question or puzzle or species, might leave you oohhing and ahhing and racing to windows.

for instance: blue jays––noisy, bossy––are “the most american of birds, occurring in every state” (though not a single state claims the jay as its state bird); the american robin is the “earthworm whisperer,” and when a robin cocks its head toward the earth, it’s listening for the rustle of the underground worm; the ubiquitous sparrow is a bird with roots in bethlehem (yes, that bethlehem), and once was considered a pot-pie delicacy (thankfully those days are behind us––and the sparrow); and finally, the cardinal has reason for chasing after the reddest of berries: the carotenoids in the fruits make for a deeper red of its feathers (and not only that, but the redder the cardinal, the more desirable it’s regarded in the feathered fiefdom of red-bird mating).

it’s all endlessly wondrous to me, the alchemy of poetry and science and feather on air, the proximity of the wild, the animations of beings both social and singular. 

there is something about the delicate ways of the avian world, something about the simple existence of seed and nest, flight and song, that stirs in me an exercise of the prayerful. it’s as close as i come to the wild day in and day out, and it draws me every time into a marveling that makes me sense i’ve been brushed by the holy divine. 

what will you do slowly today?

the other night i was blessed to sit and listen in proximity to pádraig ó tuama, who among many wonders spoke about how he loves birds and irish names for birds, and i was enchanted. because he’s as kind and generous as he is brilliant, yesterday afternoon he sent me the poem he’d read—“now i watch through an open door”––with the irish names for various birds woven into the poetry, and so i am including here the last stanza, with the names highlighted and i’m adding a little glossary below, so you too might be enchanted by the names the irish put to their birds…..

Oh forest flame, oh young light on the old oak,
oh small brown druid I hear
but never see. Oh red king of the morning, oh dainty feet
among the dungheaps, and fierce goose
with fierce goslings, oh muscled hare, russeted
by the long evening. Oh my
low deer, powerful and insignificant,
oh glen, oh magnificent.

irish names for birds:

*goldfinch: “bright flame of the forest” 

*wren: “brown druid”

*chaffinch: “red king”

barn owl: “graveyard screecher”

red wing: “little red one of the snow”

meadow pipit: “little streaked one of the bog/moor”

kestrel: “wind frolicker”

bullfinch: “little scarlet one of the woods”

greenfinch: “little green one of the oak tree”

oh, sigh, oh magnificent irish….

one last thing: i’ve been invited by a dear friend, the poet mark burrows, to partake of a celebration of the great austrian-bohemian poet rainer maria rilke, on dec. 4, rilke’s birthday. i quake to tell you that we’ll be in conversation with none other than pádraig ó tuama, and the details are spelled out in the flyer below. and you can find out more and register for the free zoom program here. (you’ll need to scroll down a wee bit; it’s the third in the roster of events…) (my favorite part of the flyer is where it notes the time of the event in ireland! be still my ol’ irish heart….)

and that, dear friends, is it for the week. be well, and be slow….

the sodden state of summer’s back-to-school days . . .

it’s been getting heavier and heavier all week. my heart, that is. the boy i love—or one of ‘em anyway—is heading off again. one last time. to school, that is. we’ll be playing follow-the-leader, interstate-style, this weekend, when he pushes off with a trunk filled to the gills, and i follow not far behind with a wagon equally jammed. i’m enlisted only for my skill at hospital corners (a nurse’s way of tucking in bedsheets), and my knack for stuffing things in the teeny spaces that qualify as dorm-room closets. 

all week, amid a blur of other complications, i’ve felt my heart grow heavy with tears not yet spilled. the country roads the whole way home––just me and some fine book on tape––will make for a bucolic sponge for salt-water spillage. 

that boy is the best of company, that boy of the very big heart and the disposition best described as super chill, and ever animated. the boy fills this old house, and every heart in it.

so, once he’s left behind, back here at the homestead it’ll feel hollow once again till we get used to the long pauses of silence, till we get used to a room where the door isn’t sealed shut to hide the disarray inside. 

a wise someone once told me that if i thought high school blurred by in a blink, i’d find college blurred in half a blink. and so it is. eight years after dropping off his big brother one last time, it’s time for the caboose to part as well. this is it: the end of tuition checks and dorm vernacular, the end of considering time in back-to-school and semester allotments.

there’s perhaps a better chance that this one will find his way back home, to call sweet chicago the place where he belongs. but till then, nine months will trickle by. 

it’s the leave-taking that always bumps me up. the saying goodbye is not my strong suit. my trouble in that department dates back to when i was five and my papa got a big new job in a city far away, and every sunday night for the rest of a school year, he slid behind the wheel of his turquoise ford falcon and headed down the drive while i sat slumped on the concrete stoop there in the garage. i remember crying till my cheeks hurt. and going to bed with tummy aches. till he came home on friday nights.

nowadays i cry while spritzing the bathroom mirror, and when luring dust bunnies out from under the college kid’s bed, once he’s emptied it, once he’s faded into the faraway. then i try to find my way again, to find the joy in silence, in the slower pace with which the fridge and pantry empty, in the fewer loads of laundry. in that bathroom mirror that never splatters.

it’s come and go, all life long. and we’re wise to make the most of those blessed hyphens in between.

in the weeks ahead, i’ll be busy plotting my new cloister garden as a six-foot wall is being erected (straight through a chunk of what had been my garden, and hard up against our once-breezy screened-in summer porch) even as i type. i’m thinking of it as my monastery wall––the cedar barricade shutting out all the troubles of the world. but the thing i’ll miss most is the slant of sunlight at the twilight hour, as the great orb sinks low and the shafts of light get long and longer. it’s a golden glow that makes my summer porch seem gilded with celestial stardust. 

and because the last round of page proofs got delayed till next week, i’ll fill my quiet hours with the intense concentration those pages demand. and then it’s off to the printer as i await the day the box of books lands plop on my doorstoop. 


cook’s corner: here’s a truly nifty thing i bumped into this week (if meat lovers thrill to find a way to use every bit of the beast, from tongue to tail, then we who love the produce patch thrill just as mightily to find there’s more to the vine than just the fruits!). as one with a plethora of tangled vines, and one who sniffs deeply of my finger tips after plucking my daily tomato harvest, this enlightenment brings double the delight from those vines. and it’s all about the leaves…

How to Cook with Tomato Leaves

Tomato leaves contain 2-isobutlythiazole, a compound responsible for the plant’s distinctive aroma. Commercial tomato products, like ketchup, often include an isolated form of that compound to boost fresh tomato flavor.

If you have a garden full of tomatoes, though, you’ve got a great source of 2-isobutlythiazole right in your backyard. Here’s how to use tomato leaves to boost your sauce’s flavor.

1. When you harvest your tomatoes, pluck a handful of leaves from the plant.

2. Toss the leaves into the sauce and steep them for 10 minutes.

3. Remove and discard the leaves. 

Taste your sauce, and you’ll find that the tomato flavor has been both heightened and made more complex and earthy.


commonplacing:

from poet and pacifist William Stafford, found in his son Kim Stafford’s intimate portrait, Early Morning: Remembering My Father:
every day Stafford would write a page in his journal, his response to what he called “the emergency of being alive.” 

we are all of us deep in the emergency of our being alive…


a little bit of Buechner, in memory of the blessed man who died at 96 on monday. 

Frederick Buechner

a few years back, in 2016 to be precise, i counted a new collection of writings from theologian frederick buechner, with introduction by anne lamott, as one of the best books for the soul that year. his death this week made me pull that review from the shelf, and perhaps it’ll prompt you to pull a bit of buechner from your own bookshelf or that of your nearest library. 

Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner

By Carl Frederick Buechner, Introduction by Anne Lamott, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred, in equal brilliant measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights, by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner — a table of contents that includes excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, The Alphabet of Grace; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are introduced to, or immersed in, the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s literary and soulful gifts. 

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.”

That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages. What I know is that this world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that work as poetry, shimmying through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101


poet’s corner:

two poems worth pressing against your heart…

Field Guide

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

––Tony Hoagland

Moon

The moon is full tonight
an illustration for sheet music,
an image in Matthew Arnold
glimmering on the English Channel,
or a ghost over a smoldering battlefield
in one of the history plays.

 It’s as full as it was
in that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby’s face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth’s bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

 And if you wanted to follow this example,
tonight would be the night
to carry some tiny creature outside
and introduce him to the moon.

And if your house has no child,
you can always gather into your arms
the sleeping infant of yourself,
as I have done tonight,
and carry him outdoors,
all limp in his tattered blanket,
making sure to steady his lolling head
with the palm of your hand.

And while the wind ruffles the pear trees
in the corner of the orchard
and dark roses wave against a stone wall,
you can turn him on your shoulder
and walk in circles on the lawn
drunk with the light.
You can lift him up into the sky,
your eyes nearly as wide as his,
as the moon climbs high into the night.

––Billy Collins


listening nook: because i’ll be coursing through the countryside in my red wagon this weekend, i’m bringing my reading nook on little discs. here’s the stack assembled from the library shelves:

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean: i once was graced to work alongside Norman’s son John, a fine fine bespectacled gent with a much quieter, more studious demeanor than many of the newsroom characters. his father’s masterwork  stands as one of the great “evocations of nature’s miracles…and a probing of human mysteries.”

The Abundance, Annie Dillard: a landmark collection from the writer i consider my north star.

Five by Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald: i’m ever trying to expand and deepen my knowledge of the American canon and F. Scott deserves more of my attention. 

Dear Ann, Bobbie Ann Mason: mason, like me, is a kentucky native, so i feel it my native obligation to inhale her prose and her poetic ways of unspooling a story. i read my first bobbie ann mason so long ago, and it’s been ages since, so where better to reacquaint ourselves than the rolling countryside of the heartland we both call home?

Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora Ephron: ephron makes me laugh so hard i’d best keep an eye out for rest stops along the way. en route to one parents’ weekend, we listened to Heart Burn, her tale of woe from her years married to and divorcing from none other than journalistic legend Carl Bernstein. we loved listening so much we were sort of bummed we had to stop the car in ohio, where our kid was a freshman in college, and couldn’t roll along till, say, the atlantic seaboard, where we could have gotten a few more hours of ephron under our belts….


a bit more buechner, because there’s never enough:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else 
is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that 
is often just what we also fear more than anything else. 
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier . . . for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own . ”

Frederick Buechner

and with that, this week’s edition of the chair gazette is a wrap. question of the week: how will suck the succulence out of summer’s august sweetness?

college kid this week, on the brink of one last back-to-school.

summer’s dalliances and a hodgepodge of other curiosities

some thoughts on summer attention: 

carrying a tray of napkins, forks, and knives out to the summer porch the other night, i noticed a silence. a new silence. the cicada, my favorite understory of sound signaling summer starting to close, had gone quiet. instead there were crickets, only crickets, relatively placid compared to the frenetic energies of the cicada, who are mortally pressed for time with only 24 hours to wake, procreate, and succumb. 

summer’s waning, i thought. and, darn, i missed the last chirr. 

(turns out the day it was quiet was a day less than 80 degrees, and the next day when it warmed up, they were back again. makes the pair of amateur entomologists who dwell in this old house think that maybe the ‘cadas had snuggled under their blankets, put their fiddles and strings in a case, awaiting a day with a little more burn in the air.)

straight off, it made me think of a glorious essay i’d read some months ago about paying exquisite attention, paying such exquisite and fine-grained attention that one is attuned to even the moment the cicadas cease their clattering, silence their love song. i’ve searched and searched all week for that misplaced essay, and can’t find it anywhere (maybe i too should call in the FBI for a search of my basement storage room). 

but even without the essay in hand, it still made me pause to think hard about those barely perceptible miracles that constitute the whole of each day. and made me construct my own litany of things worthy of my attentions: 

the moment in spring when the grass sheds its winter brown and slips on its verdant green.

the moment the nestling takes flight.

the moment the monarch emerges from his cocoon.

the moment the wedge of moon fades away in the dawn.

what if we were to notice? what if instead of numbly whirring through time we slowed to adagio and drank in even a half (or a teaspoon) of the everyday dose of miracles and wonders? what if even once a day we counted one thing we’d otherwise not see, not hear, not sense? what if we awoke to the mystery that’s animating every minute of every hour, day after day, year upon year? 

isn’t to see, isn’t attention, the first step to devotion? wouldn’t our life be infinite unfurling prayer if, as often as we breathe, we were awake to blessing?

have you noticed the day when the tomato turns just the right red for plucking?

have you heard the first or last note of the cardinal at the dawn or at nightfall? the moment when silence gives way to sound, or sound to silence?

have you noticed the firefly turn off its blink for the night? 

have you noticed the someone who’s hoping you’ll sit down and listen to one of his or her stories? 

the summer is fleeting, it’s begging we notice….


wee bouquet

summer dalliance: i’ve a thing for little bouquets; always have (ever since my mama taught me to pick lily of the valley or daffodils for the teacher, wrap them in wet paper towel and then a sheaf of aluminum foil wrapped tight into a baton). i love to pluck blooms from wherever i traipse in the garden or alley, and tuck them loosely into jars or pitchers or wee tiny vases. i find the gatherings of color and form, petal and leaf, tickle my fancy. so i pluck and i tuck with abandon. and then i scatter my abandonments all over the house. 


book news: hardest task of the summer for me, far harder than scanning pages for blips and bloops, was sending off queries to authors whose work makes me tremble it’s so dang good. i was instructed to ask these legends to read my book, and send back a few words of kindness, a thing in the book world called “blurbs.” it was an instruction that trembled me. but the task, now completed and turned in to my editor, might have taught me a thing or two about being brave. and the kindness of pure strangers. i can’t pull back the covers on what they wrote (not yet anyway), but i can tell you to whom i will forever be grateful; most especially to: Pádraig Ó Tuama (the poet, peacemaker, and host of Poetry Unbound from OnBeing Studios), Scott Weidensaul (ornithologist and best-selling author of Living on the Wind and, more recently, A World on the Wing), Bill McKibben (environmental activist and legendary author), Rabbi Rami Shapiro (poet and podcast host who wrote skeins of prayer in our synagogue’s prayer book), and Mallory McDuff (another environmental activist and author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice). equally kind, though they wrote back to say their plates were too jammed, include terry tempest williams (brilliant essayist and conservationist), susannah heschel (scholar and daughter of the late great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) and margaret renkl (a New York Times columnist who often writes about things i’ve been thinking), belden lane (theology professor emeritus and esteemed author), and fred bahnson (brilliant essayist). a few, who shall remain unnamed, never wrote back. oh well. the kindness of those who did is what will glow into the evermore…..


reading nook:

technically, i’m between rounds of page proofs which gives me time to indulge in my rabbit-hole school of reading, which this week has lured me into the writings and poetries of molly mcCully brown, a brilliant essayist and poet born with cerebral palsy who writes unforgettably about her intractable and ever-changing body, and who makes us think hard of the miracle of mobility, something we might take for granted unless we too were faced with a flight of stairs or an ancient cobblestone lane that kept us from the places we so longed to enter. somehow i’d never before known of sigurd olson, called “one of the great environmentalists of the twentieth century,” who wrote of the boundary waters, the northwoods, and the surrounds of lake superior. he won the john burroughs medal (the most esteemed prize in the world of nature writing) and made me think i just need to read my way through the lifetime list of winners. i’m beginning with The Singing Wilderness, described as the most poetic of his nine published books. on its back cover, it’s described as “an essential antidote to the trials of modern life.”


what’s cooking:

i find myself dizzy with summery sides from the vegetable patch this summer: corn, tomatoes, cukes, purple onions, frondy fennel (the crunch with a tassle), basil, basil, more basil. doused with vinegars, olivey oil, lemons, limes, oranges, and now a curious new douser: chili crisp, a sauce that’s sweeping the country, straight from the kitchen of Tao Hubi, owner of a popular Guizhou province noodle shop in China, who began selling her famed homemade chili sauce under the name Lao Gan Ma (found at whole foods, and, yes, on amazon). apparently the summer’s salady hit is nothing more complicated than tomatoes tossed with a splash of rice vinegar, a glug of olive oil, a pinch of flaky salt, and a generous spoonful of the magic sauce. it’s the gist of height-of-august deliciousness. and it’s called chili crisp tomato salad.

here’s an amazing twist on plain old green beans…

Side of Beans (Green):

from The Cordony Kitchen (Amanda Cordony is an Australian food stylist and recipe inventor, and she’s amazing!)Cook time: 4 mins | Prep time: 5 mins | Serves: 3 (as a side)

Ingredients
2/3 cup green beans – top and tailed
3 Tbsp + 1 tsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves – minced
1 orange – zest and juice
1/4 cup of raw almonds – roughly chopped
 pinch of chili flakes

Garnish:
Mint leaves, olive oil

Method.
1.
Get a frying pan on medium to high heat with olive oil. Place your beans, garlic, orange zest, orange juice and sea salt. Stir for 2 minutes.
2. Take off the heat and sprinkle in the almonds and chili flakes.
3. Serve and add mint leaves, olive oil, salt, and pepper.


so those are the curiosities of the week, as i get back to proofing later this morning. thanks for indulging my gazetteian tendencies these past few friday mornings. i believe only one more week and then i send off the proofs to the printing presses, where they will whir off the presses and onto real pages….

what are the curiosities and wonders that strike you at august’s peak? and what will you notice that you’d otherwise miss?

p.s. happy height-of-august birthday to our very own hardshell aficionado and keeper of wisdoms, karen the wonder woman, whose birthday is any day now, though i don’t know which….

catching up…

it’s been 792 days since that red-ringed virus shut down the world as we know it. all sorts of events got pushed off to the side, and plenty others — too many others — happened anyway, though no one was allowed to gather, to convene to absorb each other’s pain or amplify the joy of sweet triumphs large or small or somewhere cozily in the middle.

a kid i love made it across one of the toughest finish lines of his life back in may of 2020. turned in a book-length dissertation, crossed off the last of the law school to-do’s, and promptly slept in the morning his law school zoomed some semblance of quasi graduation.

they promised they’d make it up down the road, whenever ol’ covid relinquished its grip, let humans be human again. that moment, allegedly, is now. (though a good part of me is not so sure the grip is much relinquished as we were dashing to the pharmacy the other night for a friend who fell ill with covid for the third time since this all started and needed us to grab a prescription of paxlovid, the anti-viral wonder drug, and on our one little block, house after house is sealed shut for the cases of covid brewing inside.)

so we’re leaping into the unknown, taking our chances, flapping our wings new york way, and motoring up interstate 95, along the connecticut coast, where, come saturday morning, all four of our little family will convene with all the gusto we can muster there on an old campus where the classes of 2020 and 2021 get to make it official.

after all that separation, the simple magnificence of being together, being able to see the gleam in the eyes of the ones we love most, being able to wipe away a tear in real time, squeeze hands while walking through nothing so fancy as a parking garage: that is the definition of blessing.

despite its many deprivations, one good thing about these pandemic years is that it’s made the simple miracle of being together all the sweeter, more succulent.

there is catching up to be done, in the wake of red-ringed abductor of so many lives and so very much living.

so, two years after the fact, we are ditching long distance, saying no thank you to zoom. doesn’t matter to me if it’s two years too late. we’re going to be there. we’re going to hear that kid’s name when it’s called, and we’re going to watch that lope i know so well as he makes his way across the stage. i imagine i’ll be rifling through a cerebral cortex of memories, the late nights we stayed on the phone, the trips to the emergency room, the hours and hours i worried about how many days he’d gone without sleep, fueled on coffee and fumes. and i know i’ll be thinking all the way back to the start of it all, back to the very last thing he said to us, there on the sidewalk the morning we left him at law school, after we’d moved him in, made the requisite rounds of trips to IKEA for bookshelves that would not withstand the weight of all his books. he gave his papa a sturdy handshake, looked him in the eye, and said with all the certainty we had worked for and prayed for all those years: “thank you for everything; i’ll take it from here.”

and he did. and he does…

and that is the joy and the love beyond words that will be pulsing so loudly as i sit on the edge of my chair gulping back tears and holy hallelujahs.

God bless you, always, sweet Will. and thank you. love, always, your very own mama.

cap, gown, and hood in 2020 — but no ceremony. will add the real deal once it happens…

what catching up are you doing these days?

it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…

in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….

well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.

so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).

one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled my belief: essays on life and art.

hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:

Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…

Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.

I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!

These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art

he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.

the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.

and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.

i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.

i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.

for this i pray.

what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?

*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….

of prophets and poets, and the sacred instruction: let the light be from within

maybe you read the newspaper every morning. maybe you even read the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that birthed most of the most precious threads in my life. but chances are — reading the studies that come, one after a sad other, from the journalism think tanks — you don’t. the sound of the rolled-up sausage of a newspaper landing with a thwop on the front stoop is nearly obsolete. but this week, my old newspaper made room for a little essay i wrote, one birthed in the pages of Stillness, that beribboned little book that seems to be winging its way to armchairs and reading nooks in various vicinities around the countryside this december.

given the unlikelihood that you would have stumbled across this little essay — a variation on the opening essay, “December: Sacred Invitation,” in Stillness — and given that my little laptop has a crack-of-dawn doctor’s appointment at the genius bar, i figured i’d give the essay a whirl here. it comes with the hope that you find all sorts of ways to fill the december darkness with flickering flames, and tongues of fire that leap from the hearth. the ones in your home, or the ones in your heart.

Commentary: In December’s darkness, the prophets and poets guide us toward the light

By BARBARA MAHANY

December’s darkness is coming like never before.

Oh, sure, as the sun arcs into its wintry descent, as the night grows to its longest, and day after day a minute is shaved at the dawn and at dusk, the sunlight ebbs and the shadow grows. There’s that darkness.

But cloaking all of it this year is the darkness of knowing we can’t kindle the light in gathering kinship.

We will be more alone this winter, perhaps, than ever before.

But there is a bright side, or at least a blessed side.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, intellect and imagination.

Celebrate the quietude. The stillness that comes in the hours of solitude, that state of grace sought by the ancient mystics and saints, by Zen priests and the Desert Elders of Egypt, by Hildegard of Bingen and Henry David Thoreau, deep in the woods of Walden Pond, the ones who dialed down the noise and distraction, pressing their ears into the silence, awaiting the murmurings of the still small voice. As Meister Eckhart put it: “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”

The truth is: Stillness and darkness draw out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

Stillness, as all the enlightened have known, in the paradox that might be a Buddhist koan, is the fullness that comes only through emptiness.

This December, both will abound. We’d be wise to welcome them.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we, too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counterculturalism, and do not succumb.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half-hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. Most especially this December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well, bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the great horned owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And she reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I. Maybe, so do you.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who breathed the first breath.

Barbara Mahany, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, is the author of four books; her latest is “The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season.”

so there’s the essay. and here is the question: how might you live sacramentally? how do you lift the ordinary into the sacred; those humdrum quotidian tasks of the everyday, how do you imbue them with intention and attention, raise them into the realm of the holy so that this one pass at december is lived in ways that awake us as never before?

a patchwork of thanks amid a long and winding (and sometimes bumpy) summer…

when you’ve been clanging on heaven’s door with the cacophonies i’ve kept up this summer, and suddenly you find yourself ankle-deep into august, when road trips have been clocked without incident (save for the chandelier shangri-la just outside the buffalo (NY) international airport, where a tolerance for prism-ed zirconium was a necessary toll of admission), when planes have taken off and landed without clouds of corona rising up from the itty-bitty pouches on the seatbacks, when bar exams have been re-routed online and virtual graduations did in fact include your own kid’s first and last and two middle names, when federal troops have been called back from the streets, and your tomatoes have grown succulent and drip down your chin…it is high time for a hallelujah of praise and glorious, glorious drop-to-your-knobby-old-knees thank you, Jesus!

and so, i begin…

i begin where i always do: up to my ears in amen, amen, and praise be the heavens that the boys i love are undented, undaunted, and safe in the world. of course, i’ve been chasing after all of ’em with this summer’s 70-percent-alcohol-content elixir of choice, purell by the boatload. i’ve been the purveyor of plastic shields for anyone taking to the clouds, and i’m the queen of counting to 20 (often rounding up to 25 or 30 for good measure) while anyone’s sudsing their hands. and, so far (knock on wood, marble, or cubic zirconium while we’re at it), not a single raised Fahrenheit of fever, thank you patron saint of mercury.

as i type, one of those boys is on the cusp of turning 19 — the miracle of his existence a miracle that will never lose its shine — and slinging away the summer hauling trash, whacking weeds, and otherwise delighting in the fuzzy outlines of his COVID bubble. (the rules they follow are vague, something along the lines of “if you’re outside you won’t get it, keep the windows of cars rolled down, and be sure to have your mask in your pocket if not stretched across your maw.”)

the bespectacled one, still the tallest of the bunch and my beloved for life, would have blown out his own birthday candles yesterday, but the line at portillo’s on a thursday night was 90 miles long, so there was no famed chocolate cake to be had (nor the italian beef that would have preceded it). (he made up for the confectionary dearth with raspberry talenti spooned straight out of the tub.)

oh, and the first one i birthed (the one under the jaunty cap up above), he’s joyfully — and relievedly — unpacking the boxes that finally, finally found him in his new portland apartment, after the moving van took a circuitous three-week pleasure cruise across the continental U.S.

so, bing, bing, bing, right off the bat, three giant-sized prayers rambunctiously answered.

hovering emphatically there at the top of the thank-you list would be a glory hallelujah for those rare amazing souls more than willing to hold the jittery hand of a mama with worries on the loose (that would be me, and the amazing ones are the ones who never shirk from the cockamamie worries i cook up, more than willing to coo by my side, and promise me all will be well. and if not, they’ll help me sop up the tears and gather the shattered bits). where, oh where, would we be if not for our bravest and kindest of comrades who stiffen our spine and coddle our hearts when the night feels so dark and so long?

moving from sublime to, well, fruitful…now that drowning-in-tomato season is upon us, and the branches are bending and bowing under the weight of their keep, it’s high time to genuflect at the edge of the so-called “farm,” in praise of the wonders of purple cherokees, san marzano plums, orange zinger cherry tomatoes, and that icon of heartland fertility, the ever-reddening batch of fat, squat big boys. just minutes ago, so it seems, i was the virgin farmer tucking her wee little sprouts into the loamy soils. all summer i’ve watched in wonderment as the earth (and my occasional scattering of tomato-mite root booster) did its thing, sky-rocketing stems and leaves and pert little blossoms and, finally, clumps and orbs that redden by the hour. and have me scrambling for things to do with tomatoes besides salting and peppering and downing like candy.

i take it not for granted any prayer that gets answered, nor the happy ending at the close of any heart-tugging yarn. and that is the point, or at least a crucial part of it anyway. i might be a one-woman smoke stack of worry, sending up fumes and plumes of the wildest imaginable what-ifs, but the flip side — the blessing side — of that tendency toward incessant disquietude is that, on an almost hourly basis, i am awash in the after-rush of relief (disaster once again averted), followed immediately and overwhelmingly by pure and unfiltered gratitude. thank you, thank you, thank you, holy God, the words that most often cross my worry-lined lips.

and so my necessary pause, the blessed interlude that stitches together the worry patches of my days, is the simplest — the most certain — prayer that ever was: thank you, oh thank you, for the grace of this sweet sanctity, for the safe-keeping you’ve brought and the sheer joy of knowing all is well (for now), all is under heaven’s unending gaze, and ever will be.

and that’s the only point that matters here today.

what’s on your list of thank-you prayers, here in the launch of summer’s last full month?

p.s. i just realized that the fourth corner above — yet another reason for thanks — is the front cover of my next little book, one coming into the world on october 6. it’s titled The Stillness of Winter, and my hope is that it will fill your wintry months with quietude and a sense of wonder as you contemplate the blessings of the curling-in months at the cusp of the old and new year….

i was going to cobble a litany of thanks for the glorious reads this summer has brought me, as i while away the days up in my tree-house nook of a windowseat, but the phone rang and someone came to the door, and the morning has unfurled, so the great reads of this 20-20 summer will have to wait till another day……

summer vacation

even the sound of it, those two easy-does-it words hammocked together: summer + vacation = kick back, fling your shoes across the yard, sink your toes in the sand (or the dew-dazzled grass), take your to-do list and tear it into confetti.

it’s the necessary pause. the shot of pure oxygen to the suffocating soul. the certain truth that, even for a day, we can–and must–call time out. all but scribble the long-forgotten permission slip, giving our weary little selves a break from the unrelenting everyday.

never more than now.

this year, maybe for a day we can shelve the motherlode of worries, revel in the tiniest of wonders: the firefly, the cucumber vine’s improbable curlicue, the invention of the blueberry.

maybe for a day, or a whole string of days, we can make-believe we’ve piled in the station wagon, rolled along the back roads, taken a turn at the windmill or the “raccoon crossing” road sign, listened for the gravel spitting up from our wheels, unpacked at the ramshackle cottage deep in the woods (minus mosquitoes), packed the fridge from the nearest farmer’s market, and unfurled the beach towel or aforementioned hammock (see first sentence above), settling in to the preferred posture of the day.

can you hear your old bones sighing? or whistling along to their happy tune?

sometimes all it takes is the mere whiff of vacation ahead to slow the heart’s staccato, ramp up the oxygen content of the lungs. sometimes the magic is in the imagining. maybe that’s why God gave us doodle pads for brains.

there are a million and one ways to dawdle through a day. to seize emphatically the indolent season. to master the art of doing next to nothing (it’s harder than you’d think). to make the turning of the page, the slicing of the tomato, counting firefly flickers be the most arduous task of your day.

irony of ironies, you might scribble just such a litany onto your to-do list of the day: 1.) plop your bum on the nearest ledge under the sun. 2.) stay put for a good half hour. 3.) tick off three whimsies in which you rarely indulge. 4.) do them. 5.) call it a day.

it is always a fine thing to upholster your indolent day with proper feasting. i find the blueberry–that swollen burst of summer–to be synonymous with a july-fourth fete. think backdrop to stars on betsy ross’s american flag. i’ve used them as inkblots in pancakes, embroidered the top of a summery flag cake, plopped them by handfuls straight into my mouth. but the way i find them most apt for the moment is that wonder of indolence i call blueberry slump*.

and wonder of wonders, here–from the pages of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing–is your very own road map to blueberry confection.

From the Summertime Recipe Box…

No-cook summer, the aim. Pluck tomato from the vine. Shake with salt. Consume. Repeat with the sweet pea, the runner bean, the cuke. And who ever met a berry that demanded more than a rinse — if that? Thus, the blueberry slump. A no-frills invention, concocted — lazily, one summer’s afternoon — in the produce aisle. Even its verbs invoke indolence: dump, splash, dash…spoon and lick. With lick, though, comes a sudden surge of gusto.

Blueberry Slump

(As instructed by a friend bumped into by the berry bins; though long forgotten just whom that was, the recipe charms on, vivid as ever…)

Yield: 1 slump

2 pints blueberries dumped in a soufflé dish (fear not, that’s as close as we come to any sort of highfalutin’ cuisine Française around here….)

Splash with 2 to 3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

Cinnamon, a dash

In another bowl, mix:

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter, cut into pea-sized bits

{Baker’s Note: Add a shake of cinnamon, and make it vanilla sugar, if you’re so inspired…(I usually am. All you need do to make your sugar redolent of vanilla bean is to tuck one bean into your sugar canister and forget about it. Whenever you scoop, you’ll be dizzied by high-grade vanilla notes.)}

* Spoon, dump, pour flour-sugar-butter mix atop the berries.

* Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, half an hour.

(Oh, goodness, it bubbles up, the deepest berry midnight blue. Looks like you took a week to think it through and execute. Ha! Summer in a soufflé dish. Sans soufflé….)

* Serve with vanilla ice cream. But of course….

Tiptoe out to where you can watch the stars, I was tempted to add. But then I quickly realized you might choose to gobble this up for breakfast, lunch or a late summer afternoon’s delight. In which case a dappled patch of shade will do….

fat and sassy blueberries

*my beloved friend paula, who is in fact idling by a lake house this weekend, asked me for this recipe yesterday, so she could carry it along in her beach bag. it reminded me, and both of my boys, that we could not make it through the weekend without a few scoops. so thank you to paula for the tap on the recipe tin.

how will you idle away your indolence?

maybe we need to open the smoke hole

4-chum-dis

there’s a siberian myth that when you close the smoke hole in a reindeer-hide tent — that orifice opening up to the sky — God can’t see in anymore. when you close the smoke hole, you break the connection to the divine — to the heavens and clouds and stars in the sky.*

when you close the smoke hole, you go mad in the whirl of unending toxic vapors.

maybe the world needs to go quiet to open the smoke hole.

have you heard that dolphins are once again romping in the waters off venice? (the oversized — dare we say obscene — cruise ships are gone.) blue skies and birdsong are back in parts of china that hadn’t seen them or heard them for years. (factories gone silent, cars parked at the curbs; pollution cut off at the knees.)

the earth, amid a pandemic, is healing. you might say it’s the soul that’s pushed its way to the fore.

have you noticed how your inbox is full of invitations from monks and museums and the metropolitan opera? a journal i love — emergence magazine — is, like so many rushing into the abyss, offering “free of charge, online sessions [that] will include: a book club that will meet online once a week, virtual fireside chats with Emergence contributors, a nature journaling course, and facilitated workshops and discussions.”

last night i joined in meditation with a monk and his singbowls at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore — along with two dozen soulful others whose faces appeared in squat boxes at the top of the screen, and who were strewn all across the continent. (singbowls originated in the himalayas more than 2,000 years ago, and the sound that rises from the mallet gliding the rim of a metallic bowl is scientifically documented to change our brain waves, and so is thought to be healing and soothing and all of those “ings” we need right now.)

the other morning i sat at my kitchen table, sipping my coffee, watching the birds at the feeder, while the priest at my church spoke of the samaritan woman during the sermon of sunday morning liturgy. last night, my priest popped in again, and mentioned that rather than singing the birthday song twice as she washes her hands, she likes to recite the jewish blessing for the washing of hands (it’s 10 seconds, so repeat twice): “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

there are many, many hours to fill in the space between stepping into my haz-mat attire and bravely boldly facing the grocery stores aisles where, more often than not, whole aisles are cleared, picked over as if a cotton field in the wake of the weevil. and so, being human, we itch to find ways to fill those hours.

i say, take this time and seize it: pick up a rake, if you have one idling in the garage or the shed. tenderly pull back the winter’s detritus, marvel at the tender green nubs insistently pushing through the crust of the earth. listen to the birdsong, now that the soundtrack of cars and most trucks (save for the poor amazon delivery squad), have gone silent.

one of my most beloved friends is teaching me, via links to websites and a vat of bubbling goo she’s promised to leave on my stoop, how to befriend that curious alchemical mix of flour and water and floating-by spores (how lovely to think of a wafting microbe as friend and not foe in these red-ringed times) called sourdough starter. there’s something eternally hopeful about the notion of make-your-own yeast, and bake-your-own breakfast.

last night, the college kid among us pulled out a board game, fired up his laptop to connect with his faraway brother, and together — through the wizardry of this wireless age — we all played round after round of word games. when’s the last time we all huddled at the kitchen table to put our collective heads together in game?

i’m making it my most important job to stitch the normal into these days, and to take it up a notch and embroider the moments with whatever delights and high-order embellishments i can muster: i’m tossing lavender packets into the dryer so clean sheets smell like provence herb gardens. i’m cracking open packets of biscuits, cranking the oven, filling the house with buttery inhalations. defrosting stews long tossed to the back of the freezer. the soul when its gasping for air is especially receptive to beauty.

and in between the attempts to make this time something of a break from the madness, i’m paying closest attention to the unbridled kindnesses, to the light that insists on seeping through the cracks.

maybe the smoke hole is opening.

maybe we’re finally noticing how hungry our souls have become. seek vigil not isolation, might be our watch phrase. don’t cut yourself off from the marvelous. from the undeniably beautiful. from the blessed.

open your eyes and your heart, the heavens are beckoning in ways never ever imagined. shabbat is upon us. uninterrupted.

enter in peace.

how are you keeping open the smoke hole?

from time to time across the week, i will bring delicious morsels here to the virtual kitchen table. you’re welcome to do the same….as we join hearts and forge on together. we will emerge and be stronger for seeing the world through new smoke-cleared eyes…..

*credit to martin shaw, mythologist and storyteller from devon, england, (extolled as “a thirteenth-century troubadour dropped into our midst”) for bringing the smoke-hole myth to my attention…..

Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 8.10.19 AM

1905 Scientific American, documenting Siberian wilderness culture

we all leap…

cosmograph

wrestling time seems to have preoccupied the human species since the dawn of, well, time. time itself ceaselessly flows. the heavens, though, mark it with sun and moon, light and shadow. we, scribblers that we are, we draw lines on pages, make them into little boxes, count them one by one. it’s a russian doll of time boxed. we have boxes in all sizes: millennia, century, year, month, day, and of late (in the scope of human history, that is) we have day-minders that make itty-bitty boxes, one for each hour or quarter hour, depending on your busyness. one box slips inside another. we now know at-a-glance just how booked our tomorrows will be.

hipparchus.

hipparchus

all this time wrestling long ago left the mathematicians and sky gazers with a little bit of a problem. a leftover, in fact. or in second-grade subtraction lingo, a remainder. once wise folk like hipparchus, considered the greatest astronomer of antiquity, started squinting toward the sun, hauling out their rudimentary measuring sticks, they mapped some sense of the heavens. hipparchus, the fellow who gave us trigonometry (something you might or might not celebrate), is the one who first pinned time to the revolutions of the sun, to the dance of planet earth in tango with the biggest star. he’s the one who must have whooped, aha! when he calculated the time it takes for one spin around the sun. and here’s the rub: it takes 365 days and 6 hours to make the round-about. that pesky leftover is what brings us to tomorrow — february 29 (a date pulled from the special-reserve shelf).

if you’re going to put time in a box (or a whole calendar of boxes) what shall you do with that quarter of a day left behind? well, said the wise sky scribes of long ago, let us bundle those quarter days into a single package, one that rolls around every four years. (it gets even trickier for us, and for those ancient numbers dudes, once hipparchus pointed out the pesky little fact that their bundling left yet another remainder: every four years, there’s an extra 44 minutes, or three days every 400 years (as ever, it’s the leftovers that all but foil us). so, geniuses that they were, they once again did their math and this time reached for subtraction, deciding that those years divisible by 100 only get a leap day if they’re also divisible by 400. (meaning 1600, 2000, 2400 are leap years, but 1700, 1800, 1900 got gypped.) (and further proving that you can bend rules to do just about anything you so desire.)

so, basically, we should all bow down to long-ago hipparchus for this construct of the leap day. theoretically, it’s the mathematical solution to the boxing-up of time. but for us seekers of the deeper truths, it begs a russian doll of questions, all pivoting on one essential one: if you were handed a gift box of time, if hours were added to the measure of your life, how might you squeeze the holiest holiness from those ticking seconds, minutes, hours? how might you make it most count?

one of the mystical truths of time is that often we get our clearest vision of the gift when it’s taken away, or so threatened. have you ever held your breath waiting for results of a scan? have you paced the halls outside doors marked “surgery: do not enter,” waiting for word of what was found? have you watched the clock move glacially as you await the phone call that’s not coming? have you begged for one more yesterday, most emphatically with someone loved and lost?

what tumbles through our whole self is the begging sense that if only we could have one more day, a few more hours, we’d do this and this and this. say these words we’ve left unsaid. i heard joe biden, someone who knows volumes about loss, say not so long ago that the truth is that in the end cancer patients aren’t asking for years and years, their pleas boil down to “doc, can i make it till the baby comes?” “can i watch her walk down the aisle?” “maybe make it one more christmas?” it’s chiseled to the precipice of the humblest increments of time, of possibility counted out in minutes.

so what will we do with our so-called extra tomorrow? isn’t this our once-a-quatrain chance to practice sacramental time? to lift up each hour, to hold it to the holy light, infuse it with intentionality (that modern-day queazy term for “paying attention,” as ancient a sacred practice as ever there was).

imagine you are handed a basketful of time. as you unwrap each and every hour, each section of an hour, how will you choose to live it to its most abundant fullness?

that’s the question. contemplate your blessings…and, soon enough, it’ll be time to take the holy leap.

sun

the question above–how will you make the very most of the gift of tomorrow, or today, for that matter–is the question i leave here on this morning’s table….

mapping the sun hipparchus(p.s. the image at the tippy-top here is the cover of william cunningham’s 1559 Cosmographicall Glasse, a compendium of engravings of the known principles (at the time) of cosmography, geography, navigation….among the details is his engraving of hipparchus scoping the sun…)