pull up a chair

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

Category: season change

the light may save us (and a few books, too)

cobalt-spring

i was minding my dr.-seuss-birthday business yesterday (march 2, the national feast of green eggs and ham, and 113th birthday of theodore geisel), when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. i mean really caught my attention. i mean made me put down my pen and turn my head sharply in the direction of the beckoning.

i stared, jaw-dropped. it was something not seen in months and months. it was pure and unblinking. it was whiter than white, a color so sharp, so intense, you could practically apply it with paintbrush.

it was the first light of spring, the vernal lifeline cast from the biggest star in the sky, the one that burns through the day, the one that signals “the seasons are turning.” you’re making it — just when you’re thinking you won’t — from winter, on into spring.

i sat and stared at the light. marveled at the way the season comes on unannounced. no clanging and banging, just the world underfoot quietly going about the business of awakening. all around i feel it, the drab of winter dying away to the newborn tenders of spring. from underneath a pile of spruce branches, i discovered snowdrops pushing their slender necks through the crust of winter’s garden. my front walk is flanked on both sides with a pool of lemon-y aconites, their bright shining faces aglow in the hours, especially, when morning sun soaks them in wattage.

all this unfolds as i too shake off the germs that took me hostage for the better part of two weeks. we’re still moving slow as sap here in the house where strep took hold. but there are signs that life insists on moving forward. spring will come. lungs will clear. the intensity of sunlight will creep from a tickle to a surge.

sometimes i remember: if we surrender to the rhythms of the earth, and the heavens above, we will be carried by the divine heart that animates each and every stirring. world without end. amen.

what signs of hope did you spot this week?

and, in case you’re looking for a few soulful books, here’s my latest roundup from the Chicago Tribune.

Religious humor in ‘Sin Bravely’ leads spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Sin Bravely” by Maggie Rowe, Soft Skull, 225 pages, $16.95

Admittedly, the “religious humor” section of the bookshelf is markedly sparse. Yet that’s where you’ll find “Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience” from comedy writer Maggie Rowe, a suburban Chicago native who’s written for stage and screen, including scripts for “Arrested Development” and Netflix’s “Flaked.” Since 2002, she’s been performing in and producing the Comedy Central stage show “sit ‘n spin,” Los Angeles’ longest-running spoken-word extravaganza, described as “part theatre, part 12-step meeting, part tent revival.”

Publishers Weekly called “Sin Bravely,” Rowe’s debut memoir, a “born-again version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'”

Don’t let the funnies fool you: It’s an unflinching examination of the dangers of literalism in the religion department. And while you might be distracted by the sound of your own laughter, it’s a dead-serious message that won’t soon be shaken off.

The plotline goes like this: As early as 6 years old, Rowe found herself obsessed with a fear of going to hell, one so extreme it drove her to become “an outrageously dedicated” born-again Christian. At 19, crippled by her fear, Rowe checked herself into an evangelical psychiatric facility, where pictures of Jesus hung on the walls and a kindly doctor — and a ragtag cast of lovably kooky characters — proved prescriptive.

It’s there that Rowe launches her anti-damnation campaign, finally subscribing to her version of Martin Luther’s admonition: “Sin bravely in order to know the forgiveness of God.” In a scene unlikely to be found anywhere else on the religion bookshelves, she tests her newfound theology in, of all places, a strip club’s amateur night. We’ll let Rowe take it from there, for hers is a storyteller’s inimitable gift.

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 184 pages, $16

From the photograph of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the cover, Tish Harrison Warren’s debut work, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” signals that it’s rooted in the quotidian, the humble humdrum of day-after-day existence. This is spiritual guidance for the bed-maker, the teeth-brusher, the traffic-snarled among us. This is one ordinary day turned inside out, its hallowed script revealed, liturgical underpinnings exposed.

Warren, an Anglican priest, campus minister, writer, wife and mother of two, unlocks “a practical theology of the everyday,” and she does so by seamlessly coupling ordinary moments — awaking, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, sitting in traffic, checking emails, sipping tea, sleeping — with the sacred.

She beautifully ties making the bed to the Creation story, to God’s making beauty from chaos. In a consideration of tooth brushing, she draws us into a meditation on Christianity as an embodied faith, one in which our senses — our physical pleasures — draw us closer, more emphatically to the divine. Even a fight with her husband becomes a platform for seeking shalom.

It’s in the nitty-gritty of daily work where Warren illuminates holiness. She writes of “tiny theophanies,” church-bell moments, that jolt her — and us, her readers — to sacred attention. The purity of her vision, the clarity of her writing, makes effortless work of the notion that the small acts of our everydays are what shape us into the sacred vessels we are meant to be.

As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And “Liturgy of the Ordinary” unveils the holy way through even the humblest, most fumbling of days.

“Hammer Is the Prayer” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26

It would be unwise — foolish, even — to think that cracking open a book of poetry might take you straightaway to the same high plane as prose that trains its lens on God. Or the Sacred. Or however you define divinity.

What happens in poetry is altogether chancier. You might, one moment, find yourself immersed in the earthly, devoid of anything remotely godly. And then, one poem later, find yourself catapulted to a place you’ve not before felt, so sudden and so certain is your awareness of, your proximity to, what’s holy.

So it is traveling through the pages of Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems,” a gathering of three decades of poetry from one of America’s foremost poets, one whose poems have been said to “reach out to both heaven and earth.” Wiman, for 10 years editor of Poetry magazine, now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. This is his eighth book.

Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, he’s said that his awareness of God went dormant once he hit college, but then, newly married and diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer in 2005, Wiman and his poetry began to grapple with faith and with God. It’s more of a wrestling, a visceral dance with doubt and belief. An urgency, too, entered his work, and it’s that sharp edge in his poetry that seizes your heart.

To trace the trajectory of God’s absence or presence in Wiman’s poetry is to enter into your own dance with those unrelenting questions.

Here’s one: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?”

Barbara Mahany’s next book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” is due out in April.

(and speaking of that book, the real live actual first copy landed on my stoop this week. and it’s lovelier than i ever imagined. thank you, abingdon press.)

motherprayer-arrived

tender is the earth

IMG_7423

i am submitting to the tilting of the earth. as the oozy patch of mud that is my very own fraction of acreage leans into the less-diluted rays of the great burning star that is the sun, pivot point of the universe, as adagio quickens, and feathered choristers raise their warbles by decibels upon decibels, i allow myself to be wrapped in the soft skeins of earth unfurling, earth letting loose its tight and clenched long-winter’s grip.

i am brushing up against its tendrils, its newborn threads, as i tiptoe down my bluestone walk. as i plop my bum on bluestone stoop, the one that hasn’t yet released its wintry chill. i crouch down low, and run my fingertips across the frilly tops of fronds, just beginning to poke beyond the crust of earth, just beginning to contemplate the art of opening, sun salutation of the new spring garden.

i can’t get close enough — save for rolling in the dewy grass, smearing fists of mud across my knees and elbows. or climbing up a tree, to discover how it feels to be a bird, warbling across the heavens, toes clinging to the bough.

all in all, my daily pull is to the pulse point where earth and sky entwine, where winter’s hibernation gives way to springtime’s insistent release. i drink in the lessons, the unspoken parable: it’s letting-go time, it’s time to uncoil, time to put aside the winter pose — one born of sorrow, yes, and a hollowed-out sense of quietude — time to practice the gentle nudge, bow down low to the invitation, the one that whispers, “i offer healing, if you lean in close, breathe deep the wholeness, the promise, of the season.”

i allow myself, day upon day, hour after hour, to be soothed by the blessed balm of earth at its tenderest. of earth when heaven first begins to draw forth what’s been tucked inside for all the weeks and months of darkness.

it’s dawned on me, as i make my daily rounds of close inspection, that the truth of springtime is that of revelation, long-held secrets breaking through the cloak that kept them shrouded, not seen, forgotten.

the beautiful, come springtime, is no longer under wraps. those yellow petals clinging to the branch? the tight buds of hyacinth just periscoping through the earth? it’s all creation trumpeting its truths. it’s all been there all along, sacred DNA tightly wadded, awaiting heaven’s cue.

and now it’s come, the call to rise and shine and strut the fresh-born splendor; must have tiptoed in while we were napping. so now, perhaps, it’s time for us to ponder too what’s been hiding deep inside of all of us, while we waited out the winter.

and while i wonder what the days and weeks ahead might bring, what beauties might be on the cusp, i’m savoring this tender interlude, these holy blessed hours when all the earth is gentle invitation, and balm for where the winter wore me raw.

i seem to be transfixed — you might call it “stuck” — by the slow unfolding out my door and windows. day by day, week by week, i’m keeping watch. mesmerized would be the word. drinking deep the healing offered by this holy blessed earth, the one so alive in spring. 

since my offering feels thin today, i’ll add to it with two addenda. the first is a celebration of a blessed angel among us, the cook in the night kitchen of what was once called children’s memorial hospital (and now has someone’s too-long name attached). just last night she wrapped up 50 years on the job. a half century of serving up love and prayer, with a side of oozy grilled cheese. one of my beloved nurse friends let me in on the chapter’s ending, so i dug into my archives and found this story i wrote for the chicago tribune in 2009, when she’d been on the job for a mere 43 years. 

to whet your appetite, perhaps, here are the first few paragraphs of miss bettye tucker’s story: 

One by one, night light by night light, the rooms go dim in the not-so-hushed place where sick children, broken children, dying children, finally fall into sleep.

One by one, room by room, the big people who’ve held little hands, dried tears and rocked fevered babies all day long at Children’s Memorial Hospital surrender for a moment their long night’s watch.

It is time for all the keepers of the children–the parents, the nurses, the doctors, the ones who mop the floors, the ones who keep the respirators breathing in and out–to be fed by the comfort-slinging cook in the night kitchen.

This much-loved healer with a soup pot and a prayer is known to all as, simply, Miss Bettye.

bettye tucker

miss bettye tucker

the other offering is the latest of my roundups of books for the soul, with works that blew my mind from rabbi jonathan sacks, and a patron poet-saint of the chair, dear mary oliver.

what lessons do you learn from keeping watch on early spring?

grape hyacinth

i heard the wind howl

blustery day pooh

i heard the wind howl, that shiver-your-spine whistle of late november, the one that tells you the world is being stirred. the one that always reminds me, always stops me in my tracks, whispers: there’s a force infinitely bigger than you, there’s a force to lean into.

it’s the sound of something’s coming. it’s the sound of batten the hatches. and yesterday afternoon it wasn’t much longer till i heard the words, “snow advisory.” followed by “three to six inches.”

once again, i find my soul pulled by the world around me. i’m just a puppet on a string, i sometimes think, and i let my prayerfulness be defined by slip-sliding myself into the Big Book of Nature, the one all around, the one that whirls and whistles and blossoms and withers, the one that drenches and parches, sometimes stirs not a leaf, and some days makes like we’ve stepped inside the waring blender.

when the whistle begins to blow, when autumn’s shrill cry rattles the window panes, seeps in through the eighth of an inch under the door (old houses don’t know from taut construction), i commence the pulling-in posture. i might take to the couch, i might take to the underside of the afghan. or, just as likely, i might press my nose to the glass. wait. watch. scan the heavens for sign of storm coming.

i suppose it’s a sign of my spiritual weakness, my saintly shortcoming, that i’ll take a dose of drama any old day. gets the juices rolling, i find. shakes me into my senses. heightens my paying-attention antenna. i pretty much dare you to see tree trunks bending in half, posing in downward dog of the woods, and not snap to salute.

but then, once i’m wide-eyed, i begin to go deep and deeper inside. prayers take off. i am grateful for walls, yes, and roof overhead. grateful, so grateful, for that box in the basement that cranks all the heat. i’m grateful for days that don’t demand i leave the house. grateful for 10-quart kettles that simmer with bones and broth and whatever the produce bin has offered up for the cause (the cause, of course, being kitchen-sink soup, a name that i now realize needs some revision).

once those elemental gratefuls are out of the way, i sink deeper still. as i scan the sky for sooty snow clouds, survey the heavens, i begin to survey my own deep-down depths. there is much down there deserving of contemplation, there is much coursing, much that begs to be unearthed, lifted, turned over to the one who stirs the wind.

year after year, it’s the first winter storm that packs the mightiest wallop, the one that throttles us back to our proper perspective: we are defenseless if left to our own devices. we’d be battered without whatever, whomever, blankets us, keeps us safe from the elements.

my second instinct on days when the weather report is written in caps, with long strings of exclamation marks, and maybe even an asterisk or three, is to make like auntie em in the wizard of oz, to head out the door to batten those hatches: anchor the bird houses, strip the landscape of soon-to-be-flying projectiles, slip the old glass bottles off the ledge in the summer porch. and, of course, dump seed for the birds, make sure the water basin is filled, should any one of the soon-to-be-scattered flocks decide a pre-emptive guzzle is in order.

it seems especially apt this year, as the landscape of the world at large and the more private one i know best are both so cloaked in sadness, it’s apt that the wind is calling us out of ourselves, pressing our nose to the glass, stirring the breeze deep inside, rustling up prayer. we’re about to be shaken into our places again.

november’s wind is the call to attention. we’d do best to listen.

and pray.

in searching for an image of winnie-the-pooh and the blustery day, i realized our well-worn copy of a.a. milne’s masterpiece, illustrated by the ever-charming e.h. shepard, has gone missing, which is a terrible thing to discover. so i made do with a frame from the original disney version. and i am so sad for the page that’s missing in action.

what calls you to attention in these blustery days of november?

“don’t be afraid of the dark”

octobermoonatdawn

i heard the words, suddenly, as if instruction. it might have been late afternoon, a day or two ago. the details are murky now. i know i was in the kitchen, not far from the window, and i know the dark hadn’t yet rolled in when i heard the words, as if a celestial whisper.

“don’t be afraid of the dark.”

i never am. afraid of the dark, that is. my celtic soul is one of the ones that, most of the time, shimmies into the darkness, as shoulders into a soft-knit sleeve. dark invites mystery. invites deepening. dark is where shadows dance. dark is where faint outlines appear, the chiaroscuro of night.

but somehow, deep down in my soul, maybe i knew this might be different. maybe i knew this year’s season of darkness, as globe turns away from the sun, as our point on the planet lies mostly in shadow, the faint slant of light more diluted than summer’s blaze, maybe i sensed that this year it might be tougher to shoulder.

so the instruction crept in, out of nowhere. the sort of whispered coaxing that might make you look up to the ceiling, to see if it came from above. or, maybe, truly, it might make you pause, put ear to your heart, and know it came from within. the still small voice that whispers. and every once in a while shakes us by the shoulders, says (more or less), “listen here, i’m talking to you, and i don’t want you not paying attention.”

so there you are, about to swing open the door of the fridge, reach for a tub of cottage cheese or some other plebeian foodstuff, when all of the sudden you’re shaking your head, trying to knock off the cobwebs that must be messing with your ear drums, and next thing you know you’re thinking hard about darkness, and how it’s coming, and how you’ve just been instructed not to be afraid.

all right, then. so i won’t be. i’ll try, hard as i can, to peek out the window at four in the afternoon, and look for the beauty in the purpling hour, when the world outside goes violet, awash in sinking sunlight. maybe i’ll crank the stove a bit earlier, a bit more heartily. maybe i’ll stack candles along the window sill, the armament of light from within.

maybe i’ll keep the afghans close at hand. maybe i’ll pencil in night walks. maybe i’ll memorize planets and stars.

there’s an enchanted picture book, a book for children who might be eight or 85, and it’s one i keep close by, on the bookshelf here in the room where i type. it’s titled, “caretakers of wonder,” by cooper edens, the glorious illustrator whose work with the magical publishing house, “green tiger press,” served as my muse through the 1980s, back in a decade when life was walloping me this way and that. back when mr. edens (let us be wholly respectful of this master of brush and charcoal pencil) was a child, his principal sent him home from school (for the year, not the day!), telling his mother he was “too creative.” his mother, wise woman, sat him down for the duration with a set of crayons and stacks and stacks of coloring books. it wasn’t long till he began channeling van gogh and monet, and his works have always swept me away.

IMG_6148he might best be known for the bedtime book, “if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow,” but the one i love best is “caretakers of wonder.”

it begins with these words: “this very night, while you lie quietly in your bed, open your eyes. now, look out the window! for even at this yawning hour, so many of your friends are working to keep the world magical.” (now, turn the page…)

“yes, they are the ones who make new stars and put them up” (illustration of two fine caretakers climbing into the wicker basket of a hot-air balloon — how else to float to the stars?) (turn page again…)

“the ones who light and keep the stars burning.” (and here we see the heart-air balloon, and the extra-long wick that kindles the night stars…)IMG_6149

sometimes all it takes is one reading, one brush of words up against the soul, for whole new paradigms to be born, whole new ways of seeing, of glistening. and so, perhaps, ever since i first brushed up against cooper edens’ whimsy and wonder, i’ve found the night all the more enchanting. to think there are caretakers flitting about with their miles-long wicks, and their night work of wonder….

it must be the make-believe part of me that’s never faded away, the ember that would not extinguish.

and so, this very morning, beginning to reacquaint myself with the wonder of darkness, the darkness that’s coming this very weekend when we turn back the clocks, i tiptoed outside with my dawn-viewing equipment: my slide-in shoes, my fat mug of very hot coffee, my old tin can of birdseed filled to the brim for the birds who were still off nodding at that early hour.

i looked up. that’s all it takes, a simple crank of the neck, chin pointed skyward. and there it was, dawn awaiting. gibbous moon, ringed in a halo of violet and rose and peek-a-boo cloud (one of those early morning mysteries whose science i do not understand, nor do i need to). planets emphatically spotlit (venus, mars, and jupiter pinned to the southeastern sky). stars on the brink of fading away.

it was breathtakingly beautiful, all of it.

and i’m fairly convinced the beauty is ours for the taking, yes, deep in the darkness. if we take in a chest-filling breath, and wrap ourselves in the whole of the long night’s offering, the invitation to burrow deep inside our souls. and bring on the night candles, the flame, and the blankets.

what particular beauties do you find in the darkness? will you steel yourself against its early coming, or welcome it with rapt attention?

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

even if you don’t yank your sit-upon from the shelf and plop yourself amid the morning’s deeply sodden garden, you can’t help but notice: the air is soft, is velvet-rippled, faint breath against the skin you’ve dared to bare (we’re talking ankles, maybe toes, nothing racier here, folks).

the boughs froth in springtime meringue, the crabapple’s creamy blossom, the redbud’s tight-stitched knots of tonsillar pink. the lilac waiting in the wings. any branch that’s not in bloom is one that’s a filigree of lace-cut leaf, from afar a mist of just-born green.

and birdsong comes in deep striations, the piercing notes atop a bank of blurred and whirling insistence. they seem to never pause to catch their breath, those choristers of each and every dawn.

but the main attraction of the spring, the one that begs the quietest attention, is what unfurls down low, just inches from the warming earth, where loamy mounds (and giddy earthworms) soak up the benevolence of sunbeams, now lavishing the northern hemisphere with increments of extra minutes, day by passing day.

that’s where the bleeding heart (above) dangles from the stem, so many pantaloons pinned to the clothesline. that’s where the lily-of-the-valley unknots its lilliputian bells. and where cerulean clouds of forget-me-not waft above their heart-scissored leaves.

and after a long night’s rinse, whole brigades of water droplets hold their pose, crystal balls suspended, shot through with morning rainbows in miniature. not far away, more animated drops offer pitter-patter, a metronome of plops. the hollow of a hosta’s broad-leaf tongue makes for a shallow drinking pond for ladybug or spider, or my cat who’s never quenched.

and if you keep closest watch on the whole tableau, if you tune into any sign of fluttering — a branch that leaps, a blossom that seems to shiver — chances are, you’ll catch a feathered glimpse of migration’s many gifts. just this morning what i might have mistaken for a hovering cicada turned out to be a hummingbird, one partaking of viburnum’s spicy cocktail.

tender are the hours of the spring.

and tender is the invitation: bring on your thin-skinned self, your delicate spirit. bathe your soft spots, your raw edges, in this pool of life releasing. not long ago, all was clasped in hard-shell incubation, the protective armament of the season of harsh winds and late freezes. but now’s the hour when the letting down begins. when our fragile selves needn’t shudder.

it’s as if all the world, all that blurs the soft edge between heaven and earth, it’s as if all of it is drawing us tenderly out of ourselves, signaling that it’s safe, offering even our unfurling selves a margin of deep-breathing room.

because i’ll always be a believer that the book of nature was one inscribed with lessons to be learned, with wisdom in which to be steeped, i can’t help but notice how this is the season that begs us to come as we are.

to not worry if we’re feeling a bit exposed, because everything about the spring is tender, too. and while we’re finding our way from winter’s harshest hours, and while we’re not yet inclined toward summer’s bold declarations, this in-between time it’s when we too can find safe harbor in the frilly arbors of the begin-again interlude.

and, right in here, i’m feeling on the verge (a word, i find, with roots in the latin virga, which, curiously, and serendipitously, refers to “a slender green branch,” aka the new growth of spring). in just one week, a boy i love will leave behind his college on the hill, and begin whatever’s next. and any hour now, he’ll be climbing into a back seat and driving hours and hours on the highway, because that’s how college kids these days mark passages, they mark them on sandy beaches far from civilization. and their parents — yes, miles and miles away, but never far in heart and soul — they hold their breath all the while. and other friends i dearly love, they are weathering all sorts of crossroads. and, in sum, i am feeling the fragility of all of life. and the world around me only serves to amplify — and yet, blessedly, benevolently, to cushion — that reality.

from the mewling of the baby birds who’ve made their nest above my doorway, to the tissue-paper petals scattered across my stepping-stone path, i am walking through the living-breathing fragility of newborn spring. the in-between season that understands the truth that sometimes we need soft hours, tender hours, to uncoil from what’s been harsh before we spread our wings, our arms, our souls, and bask in all-enveloping radiant golden light.

do you find springtime a tender time? is this a season for you that begs the soft embrace of all that surrounds us?

i spy: hope

snowdrops

sometimes i wonder how the world knows. how it knows that we’re worn-down ragged, out of breath, slogging.

sometimes i wonder how, just at the very minute and second we need the globe to turn just enough for light to fall at just the right angle, for warmth to rise, thermal watt building on thermal watt, sometimes i wonder how deep in the earth the stirring begins, and as the baby’s head crowning at birth, the tender resilient slips of green, of spring, come nudging their way through sodden leaf and over-stayed winter?

how is this turning earth, this warming, awakening, how is it quite so intricately wired to the stirrings deep down in my heart? how, so often, does it answer the call before breath is put to the words?

winter aconiteah, but here’s the rub: it comes with no more sound, no more folderol, than it takes for a leaf to ease out of the way, for the rubbing-up of shoot against snow crust, against compost in the making. the coming of spring, the turning of season, comes in barely perceptible measure.

you need to crouch down low. you need to step outside with intention, with searching. you need to scan the landscape, not from a distance, but close as your knees will bend.

sometimes, you need to pull your hand from your pocket. you need to brush away the sodden. you need to play peek-a-boo with what’s birthed. winter aconite, the nodding head of yellow, the one just above, it’s coaxed from its slumber by radiant light. light that barely perceptibly turns up the heat. shakes off winter.

grape hyacinthand indoors, too, you begin to get restless. you scamper around tossing out dried snips of winter. you trade up for pots stuffed with bulbs, bulbs with the girth of a garlic clove, bulbs that exist for one purpose: to shoot for the sky, unfurl, offer up color and configuration that befuddles the imagination.

who thinks of these things, you wonder? who stacks bud upon bud, a pinecone-like stacking of color and softest perfume, the one that beckons the bees, brings on procreation of the pollinated kind.

and so it begins again, the circle of life. of bursting forth after months of quiet, of stillness, out in the garden. after snow tumbling upon snow. and cold so cold a two-legged someone could barely survive.

but the growing things grow. the winter does not strike them down, not most of them anyway.

the birds come back on a river of wind. warm wind.

the buds return to the branch.

our hearts give a startle. pump with a two-step again.

just when we think we’re on our last wavering gasp. spring comes. promise again.

hope for another round.

and so is written the script, the one that some of us need year after year, never quite learning its lessons fully enough, lastingly enough. we need to be knocked upside the head — knocked by the crocus and snowdrop and the quiet little aconite. professors masquerading as delicate petals.

“hold on,” they whisper, “just a few breaths longer, just a few breaths past when you think you can’t go on. the awakening will come. the birth breaking out of the bleak.”

even the sticks plonked in the vase of warm water: they’ve wriggled with life, with color, with what seemed impossible. and now blooms:

forsythia open

so the lesson is this: the season that comes after the long hard winter, the season that comes with the light and the slow-rising warmth, it is the moment when impossible surrenders. when we breathe in hope. fill our lungs with believing again. when all around we are stirred to remembering, rebirth will come. in one way or another, in ways expected or not. it’s our job to crouch down low. to inspect with intention. to note the stirrings, and breathe in the possible.

the promise of spring comes on quiet, rustles just barely. it demands our attention, those of us who are taught by the turning of season. soon enough it will rise to crescendo. but now, for those who listen to its opening measure, the spring is whispering the promise of delicate but most certain hope.

some fridays i can barely muster a whisper. this is one of those fridays. i’m leaning on pictures more than words to whisper the miracles unfolding all around. i need to bundle up and inhale me some springtime. we’re just on the verge, but the verge it is here. and it beckons…

have you been out inspecting for springtime’s awakening? and if so, what’s tickled your fancy?

bulbs through earth

 

forced

forsythia snow

it’s come to this:

starved, hungry, every pore of our souls aching for release from the waning soot-sodden days of winter, i slide into sloppy old boots. clippers in hand, clippers that haven’t been shaken from their deep winter slumber in too long a while, i trudge across the ice-crusted snows. crunch-crunch goes the sound of my footfall. i pass bumper crops of pellets, rabbit pellets, i presume, and splashes of blood-orange whose origins i can’t bear to ponder. they’re the scant signs of life here in the tundra that is my back garden.

i’m on a mission. a mission to bring on an awakening, a seasonal awakening. and if i need to indulge in trickery, in prestidigitation with clippers, well then, that’s what i’m signed on to do.

it’s simple enough, this magic trick: trudge to your nearest forsythia bush, snip at the neck, all those long-limbed branches that, at this point in the year, look like little more than so many tangled sticks.

ah, but look and look closely: see the nubs tucked close to the stick, the tiniest hands clasped in prayer? those are the wee little blooms in the making, the sepal and stamen all huddled together, awaiting their cue. their cue of course comes from the sun, its angle and surge. any day now, the globe will have spun far enough, aligned us with just where we need to be for the vernal awakening.

but sometimes you just can’t wait. you need to get out there with clippers and boots and hurry it up, put gas to the seasonal pedal. (even when you preach the gospel of savoring the slow march of time.)

oh, there are signs that springtime is coming. they’re trickling in, a bit more by the day. i’ve heard it in birdsong. the birds aren’t checking their date books, aren’t awaiting the thaw. they’re warbling their vernal love-making hearts out, because that’s what you do when your DNA insists you perpetuate the species. you make it your job to whistle up an egg-laying mate. or at least someone with whom you can coo in the cold. and the light? the light is purer, less blue, more white. it’s straining to gather full steam — or something more zaftig than the pale arctic puff that’s kept us shivering in our cotton-lined boots.

my mama, of course, taught me this trick, and her mother before her, most likely. i might come from a long line of seasonal tricksters, miscreants of natural ilk.

it’s called forcing, and it’s plain old alchemy of life: warmth + water = blossoming. and it goes something like this: trudge. snip. fetch. plunk in water, warm water. wait. bloom. voila, you have forced.

i looked up the word force. it’s not pretty. it cropped up in the 14th century, with roots in old french. forcer, “conquer by violence.” egad. guilty as charged, me and my sharp-toothed clippers. too hungry to wait for the seasonal rotisserie to turn up its offerings in natural rhythm.

no, i had to conquer by violence, if snipping a branch at the neck is deemed a violent act (and if you were a bush you’d certainly say so).

and if dragged into the court of seasonal acceleration, i’d plea for a wee bit of compassion. i’d try to explain that here in the wee days of march, here when we’ve indulged in the season of winter with its depths and certain deprivations, we can’t help but respond to the seasonal tug, the one that pulls us, yanks us, into the next chapter. it’s akin to the itch that sometimes finds us leaping ahead in the steamiest novel, to peek at how the story unfolds, who marries whom in the end, and whose days are numbered.

my winter, you see, has taken a serious turn for the dregs in the last couple weeks. people i love are suffering, are scared, are facing the darkest of days.

i’m so itchy for light i won’t be surprised if i strip down to my bare naked legs and pull out a chair to soak up the lamest, the flimsiest of rays. in my snow-laden yard that would be.

but the light that i seek, truth be told, is the light that shines in the soul. illumination of the deepest kind. i pretty much stumble through days  — from hour to hour — with the words of my pleas and incantations rising up from my lips. there is so much to be prayed for. there’s so much at stake.

and that, in part, is what drew me to clomp through the snows, to clip what the old bush had offered. “here’s your rare chance at the promise of spring,” it whispered. and i answered. with clippers.

forsythia table

dear chairs, are you too going a bit batty by now? are you aching for the stirrings of spring? oh, for the day when the wee slips of green poke their hard heads through the soft crust of earth.

so what might be the seasonal rites and holy vespers you indulge in to beckon the resurgence of soul?

 

burrowing begins…

burrowing begins fruit

winds are howling. the chimney is hiccuping (rather rudely), with every passing blast of gale-force updraft. cigar pods from boughs on high are poinking needle-like into the heads of anyone fool enough to tiptoe outside. the last few berries from the american cranberry, the scant few that haven’t been gobbled by blue jays and high-wire squirrels, they’ve been slammed to the ground in a bloody blob this morning.

a few minutes ago, i glanced out the window and thought it was raining itty-bitty locust leaves. then i rubbed my eyes and realized it was a hallowed eve’s snowfall. snow blustering, maybe.

the sky is pewter. the air so cold even the cat is howling in protest.

all in all, it seems surround-sound signal from the seasonal trumpeter: time for burrowing to begin.

autumn as october teeters towards its close, as november waits in the wings, when golden glow gives way to stovepipe gray, when stripped-bare branches scratch at endless sky, autumn is the season to hunker down, to draw in, to turn our attentions toward the essence deep within.

all this dialing down, buttoning up our nubbiest sweaters, slithering on socks for the first time in months, it’s all a call to haul out the soup pots from the back of the cupboard, to reach in the fruit bin for the season’s offerings — the ones that, in keeping with autumn’s ethos, reveal their succulence only after peeling away, digging in, extracting.

if it’s true — as a wise man taught me last week — that God wrote two books, one of which is the Book of Nature, then we’d be fools not to read along, not to inhale the verse of the shifting light, the shadowing that autumn’s depth brings.

if it’s true — and why wouldn’t it be? — that God in God’s Infinite Genius imbued every corpuscle of creation with a map pointing to the interiority of the ones charged with making sense of all this, the ones for whom understanding leads to illumination, which leads to enlightenment, then wouldn’t it follow that one of our holy callings is to heed the wisdom of the bough and the sky and the crunch underfoot?

and so, to steep myself in autumn’s teaching, i step outside into the whirl of this hallowed day’s preamble to winter: i feel the bumper crop of goosebumps on shoulder and thigh and nook of my neck; i inhale the faint whiff of logs burning from somewhere not far away; and, without much dawdling, i scurry back inside and do as instructed.

i pull on another sweater, i plonk on the couch, and survey the stack of pages waiting nearby. i begin to consider pumpkin — and not for carving, for roasting. i press my nose to the glass, set my gaze skyward, watch gray clouds scuttle by.

contemplate the coming depths.

i might be calling it quits on puttering about the garden. might tuck away the hose, the trowel, the watering can. might gather up the bird houses, replenish the bird-seed bins. the deepening is upon us. time to consider those who depend on us to make it through bitter days ahead.

the wisest thing to do, i reckon, is begin the prayerful coiling, the tending to what’s inside and too long left cobwebbed. it’s the season of introspection, and i’m settling in to do as so divinely ordered.

because tomorrow is all saints day, a feast day best honored by honoring the saints who populate our living breathing days, i’m beginning the nominations here with a beloved neighbor named sarah, who moved home a few years ago to care for and feed sumptuous nightly feasts to her aging mama and papa. just yesterday, sarah’s mama could not be awakened. she was breathing, but un-rousable, so an ambulance came and carried her away. she’s now deeply sedated in the ICU, where sarah and her papa kept vigil all day. late last night, sarah finally ferried her papa home, sat him down to feed him, then, in an act of compassion that purely took my breath away, she “rigged up his bed with pillows, so he can feel like he’s bumping into her” all through the night. sarah is saint number one in my book this year. please whisper a prayer for sarah’s mama and papa, and, deeply, for sarah.

who’s on your list of everyday saints? no need to name names. just a story will do…..and question number two: how do you begin your burrowing? what’s on your winter’s reading list? 

crouching-down season

crouching down season

for weeks now, i’ve been pausing at my kitchen window, gnawing my lip in gravest consternation, increasingly convinced that all that remained from the long hard winter was a bramble of hollow sticks and empty vines, all dead on arrival at springtime’s doorstep. it seemed their only occupation going forward, this drab tangle in shades of brown, without a hint of pulse, was to poke me in the eye, as i rambled by on my daily constitutional of hope and prayer.

i’d been examining. up close. all but fondling all the nubs and tips, an alchemist and dreamer’s feeble-hearted formula of massage + vesper = resurrection.

alas, morning after morning: blhhhk. nada. nothing. as if the once green-leafed darlings had packed their inner vigors and ditched the premises. (and who could blame them, really? why stick to land of ice and snow, when just a few time zones south, they might employ the verbs of growth: engorge. swell. unfurl. stretch out. pullulate. fructify. climb toward the sun.)

deep inside my heart, i waffled. part of me would not give up. part of me was certain that the weary sticks and naked vines had merely overslept the vernal alarm clock. snoozed straight through weeks one through three of april. but part of me worried: this might have been the winter that did them in, poor over-taxed citizens of middle-american landscape.

i’d begun to plan a mass funeral — shovel and compost bin, key attendants.

ah, but overnight, dear Lord in heaven, they’ve stirred. they’ve greened. they’ve surged beyond the confines of their sticky-ness and taken on the curves and frills of a season that begs you bend your knees, drop your bum, and crouch to down where the dew-drenched blades of grass tickle your behind, and leave you spotted when you rise, go about your ways, not minding what the neighbors think of your moistly speckled derriere.

and so, mad woman that i am when at last the pullulation comes, i can barely contain myself in the early morning’s light. i’m tumbling out the door before the coffee’s gurgled even once. i am drinking in the dawn’s overnight attractions. and in the cloak of morning silence you can all but hear the supple-throated sweethearts — the knobs of peony thrusting from the earth, the butterballs of daffodil shoving off the dirt, the tenderest furls of fern and forget-me-not lining up on stage — you can all but hear them warbling, “look at me, look at me. see how much i’ve grown!”

such show-offs, there in the loamy beds. but wouldn’t you? if you’d survived winds that howled like packs of wolves, and temperatures that flash-froze you into icy blocks of bulb?

and isn’t this, the turning of the season’s page, once again where we’re all but grabbed by the shoulders, and commanded to stand still, to look around, to absorb the lessons of the earth, the sky, and all that flutters in between? isn’t this when metaphor awaits, at the tip of every branch? when mama bird re-teaches patience, and diligence, just in case we’ve lost our place and need remedial tutoring in the truths of seasonal rebirthing?

it’s as if the Grand Designer of the spinning globe, the One who turns us on our axis, knows all too well our abbreviated attention spans, and how, every few months, the lesson plans must be pulled from the pile so we can stumble once again over Seasonal Wisdoms 101.

this year, with winter in third or fourth overtime, and spring in game delay, it seemed the lesson on the chalkboard, the one we were inking over and over in our college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks, was the one that tested faith, the one that made us think long and hard about the fallow spells in our lives when we’ve lost all hope of growth or resurrection. when we’re down to our last fumes, and can’t for the life of us figure a way forward, toward the light behind the clouds.

so here’s the pop quiz: when, week after week, there is no sign of change, not a bare iota’s indication that something deep is stirring — in the earth or in our soul — shall we a.) give up all hope, pack our bags and wave the “i-surrender flag,” or b.) mumble words of flickering devotion, strap on our mukluks, and plop ourselves beneath the climbing hydrangea, certain of its — and our — eventual return to glory?

here’s a peek at the answer sheet:

crouching down climbing vine

and, just in case you need your seasonal wisdoms in living color, here’s what the heirloom hyacinth had to say about hope in the early hours of this morning:

crouching down hyacinths

spelled out in depths of delft blue, and perky furls of newborn green, the truth of course is this: rebirth will surely come, once the long hard work of winter’s deep-down concentration, and intricate re-distillation, is finally, finally utterly and messily complete.

and then the soul-filled springtime comes in gallops. you might get dizzy trying to drink it in.

what, pray tell, is unfolding in your vernal syllabus? or simply in your corner of the globe, where you crouch down to study springtime’s oft-repeated wisdoms?

because yesterday was “poem in your pocket” day, and because a friend i love sent me a poem of wisdom from meister eckhart, i happened to scroll to the bottom of the page, where i found this little morsel, apt for this meander about the slow-unfurling of the springtime….(and of course, eckhart is far more profound in 23 words than i could ever hope to be in nearly 900…)

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
— Anais Nin

it’s the light

it's the light pillow

like the birds in the bushes who’ve flicked on their vernal soundtrack, and the flower heads who nod toward the arcing solar orb, i too follow the light.

and this week, as i dragged through the dregs of my soul, fearing i might never emerge from my doldrums, i finally, miraculously, felt an uplift inside. as if a spark plug was at last being triggered. as if, just before the final sputtering out of what was left of my oomph, something deep down went kerplunk, a sort of holy rejuvenation. i took it to be a hand extended from on high. i all but felt the Divine yank me out of the murk and into a passing-by sunbeam.

it’s all the wonder of a globe that spins on an axis, a globe that moves us into and out of shadow. and our time out of shadow is coming, is inching our way. minute by minute, hour by hour, we are leaning into the light.

and while i love winter as much as anyone — save for the moose or the elk who stay out all night and romp to their hooves’ content — and while, even amid the mountains of charcoal-gray piled-high snow cliffs, i am still able to marvel at the ice-crystal diamonds scattered across the morning’s white-scape, i admit that all these long months with not enough sunbeams had taken its toll on my spirit.

i was lagging. was heavy with worry and doubt and confusion.

and then the flutter came. the flutter of lightness, deep down just under my heart. suddenly, my feet weren’t so heavy. nor my shoulders so flinched.

hope was the thing that stirred. hope that the lightness was coming. that, soon, the bare naked branches would slip on their vernal green gloves. the nubs of resistance would push through the hard frozen crust of the garden.

spring would arrive, would demonstrate the power of birth after death, after long winter’s doubt.

it’s as if the message is distilled into each of the light beams, the ones that now spill through the smudged panes of glass. the ones that pour across floorboards, daring us to look down and notice. to pay attention. to remember: light follows shadow. even deep down in our souls.

especially deep down in our souls.

because, year after year, spring after winter, the truth comes again and again: there is light. and there’s life all over again. all tender and fledgling and new.

and if you keep your eyes and your heart attuned to the heavens, and what spills from above, you — like the sprouts reaching up from under the snow — will come to know, once again, the holy exhalation of being deeply alive.

its the light daffodiland so we turn a page, and turn forward our clocks. it’s time for more sunlight to seep in to the cracks and the crannies so starved in so many ways. any hour now, my house is filling with faraway and deeply-loved family, so i’m bustling along. scooping up light beams wherever i go. 

blessings to you this light-filled week. anyone else at the end of their dim-lit ropes before this week’s saving grace reached in and rescued?