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Category: spirituality

a world cloaked in the beautiful

i was dashing–the verb that most often fits me. the air was the sort that sweeps up behind, roars up your neck, wakes you up with a tingle.

it was morning, not long after dawn.

i’d not quite rolled from the bed. as so often happens, a wisp of the last worry of the night before was there before i was, wriggled into my waking-up-ness, before i was even awake. that sort of pit that weighs you down while your legs, leaden, try to shake off the sheets and the blanket. where one night’s fret melts into one morning’s dread.

i hadn’t had time to shake it off, think much about it. it was simply there, a part of the weight of the still-groggy dawn.

but then, not long after, not too long anyway, i loped out the door, and i saw–beheld, really, stopped and beheld. the tangle of grasses and weeds, transformed into the beautiful. nearly blinding.

the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. wraps it up in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it.

practically shouts: look here, absorb the poetry, the power, that comes without words.

the world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time.

there was darkness, there was light. genesis says so.

and so began the miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew.

or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day?

when first frost comes–when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen–that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last.

all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. air turns wake-me-up chilly. pumpkins weigh down the vine.

the slant of the sun as it drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it all is a call to attention.

don’t pass me by, whisper the blades of the grasses. do not disregard the morning light captured, contained for a fraction of time, the white glow of october’s first breaths.

holiness unfurled like a sparkling carpet. gospel spread forth on the tongue of a bent strand of grass.

without clanging or cymbal, i stumble time and again on the truth that, for me, the natural world is some sort of a 24-7 wi-fi connection to the almighty Divine.

just when you think the only thing that matters is starting the car, getting to school before the big hand sweeps to the 5, getting the boy in the seat there beside you into the door before the scritch of the teacher’s pencil marking him late. just when you dare let that trivial thought distract you, get in the way, the white light of dew frozen stops you.

forget not that this is a web of water and light, air and creation. we are but players. and the dramas and plots we hold in our hearts, they pale put up against the jaw-dropping, breath-taking magnificence that is the first light of the first frost of the autumn.

the Divine is among us, always among us. if only we open our eyes, and drink in the wordless call to attention that dares to stop cold our mad-dashing, our mad-sad-dashing farther and farther away from what truly matters.

big weekend: jack’s baby boy gets married. the man i married marks the official pub date of his latest adventure in book-writing, “terror and wonder: architecture in a tumultuous age.” the firstborn i birthed decides which college. my faraway brother from up in the mountains comes home for a whirl. dear friend’s baby girl is bat mitzvah. so many glories….

what stopped you in your tracks lately?

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.

inviting in the sacred

someone asked me not so long ago why i search so often for the sacred in my every day.

it’s not so much the searching, really, it’s that i often seem to stumble on it.

it’s just there. kaboom.

i find it, often, tucking little ones to bed. or sitting side-by-side, on stools carved by my brother, in that after-school ebb and flow, when the third-grade day comes rushing out in breathless narrative, and, every paragraph or so, in goes bite of apple, or cookie, or glug of chocolate milk.

i do, yes, find the sacred nearly every time i tiptoe out the door. not the times when i’m near a gallop, racing to the station wagon, keys clunking from my fist, nearly always late for where i was supposed to be, a good 10 minutes ago.

but in the tiptoe times, when every pore of me is wide awake and at attention, when i’m in slow gear, trying not to barrel through, disturb the peace, then it’s almost certain that the sacred will alight on me, as a monarch to a black-eyed susan.

i find the holy breath in birdsong, absolutely. and in the streams of light pouring through the pines, or the crack in the fence that runs along my cottage garden.

i find knee-dropping humility when i spy the moon. or when, weeks behind schedule, a vine i thought had died breaks out in bloom, a resurrection lesson every time.

i find God whenever i’m alone. or maybe that’s the time when at last, i feel the rustling by my side, at my elbow, where my heart goes thump. maybe that’s when at last it’s quiet enough, still enough, for me to hear the holy whispers in my ear.

i do know that God spends time aplenty in my kitchen, at my dinner table. i sink my fists into the egg-rich dough of the challah in the making, and i hear the prayers take off. i dump cinnamon and raisins in a pot of bubbling porridge, and well, i am at one with the heartbeat of all the saints and angels who’ve passed this way, who’ve known what it is to be called to care for others as if you were their mother.

at every meal when we join hands, a circle of palms touching palms, fingers wrapped around fingers, i feel a veil of holiness drop down upon us. especially so when we’ve invited in a friend or stranger we’d not known so well before.
oh, Lord, i even find the sacred scrubbing out the tub. not always. but sometimes. folding clothes. turning on the iron, smoothing out the wrinkles.

isn’t that, at the heart of it, what the sacred brings?

an otherworldly way of living on a higher plane?

isn’t this all just molecules and space between if there’s no purpose to the plan? aren’t we merely moving markers round the gameboard, passing through the stations, checking off the list, if there’s no Teacher, no Comforter, no Great Illuminator?

oh, you needn’t call it by a single name. nor pray a certain prayer.

all i’m thinking here is that to tap into the sacred, to invite it in your home, your heart, your rushing to the train, your talking to the grocery checker, is to take it up a notch. to infuse the beautiful and the breathtaking into the simple act of breaking bread and sipping wine. or stirring soup. or whispering in a child’s ear, “don’t be afraid. i’m here.”

isn’t all of life just a long equation of simple addition and subtraction? don’t we make it into poetry, geometry, by seeing it through a lens that understands, at the heart of every breath, every word, every triumphant act of courage, every heart-crushing blow, that we are not here merely by the power of our own two legs.

but that there are wings all around, holding us afloat, wrapping us, taking us on a sacred flight to everlasting truth and holy wisdom.

that’s why i seem to stumble on the sacred.

i don’t think i’d stay upright otherwise.

do you invite in the sacred? how so? why, for goodness sake?

no darker day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

transforming time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

seed scatterer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i have a dream, too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the pigeon man of lincoln square

the police called me last night. a few times.

they were calling because an old man, an old bent-over man, one with a black canvas satchel slung over his shoulders, too-big janitor’s pants held up by suspenders, was shuffling along on a sidewalk, beside a busy city street, on a cold december tuesday, yesterday, at 2:15 in the afternoon.

probably, he was headed off to the fire hydrant, the red one, just by the bank at lawrence and western, where the pigeons, for years now, have counted him one of their flock.

the old man was walking, past a bank parking lot, when another old man, one driving a chevy van, pulled out of the lot. must not have seen him. the man in the van hit the one with the satchel.

the old man died.

the old man was joe zeman. but most everyone called him the pigeon man of lincoln square. cops couldn’t tell who it was. except for a newspaper story, one laminated, tucked in the satchel, one with a little rectangular label up in the corner, scribbled with the words, “for who ever.”

except for that story, one that showed him, in color, feathered with pigeons, one that told his story, the cops and the doctors who pronounced him dead at the hospital had no clue who he was.

the pigeon man’s life was like that. barely a soul had a clue who he was. mostly, only the pigeons.

that’s why the cops called me. they knew i knew a bit of his story. i wrote the one they found in his satchel. two years and three months later, almost to the day, and he still carried it–maybe half a dozen laminated copies of it–wherever he went.

the cops needed someone to call. needed to know if there was a soul in the world who might care to know what happened to joe.

there was no one, save for the pigeons. and me.

here’s just a bit of the pigeon man’s story, the one he carried till he fell down and died:

“except for the lips, you would think he was made out of stone, the man who sits, hours on end, on the red fire hydrant on western avenue, just north of lawrence, pigeons by the dozens perched on him.

“pigeons on his head. pigeons on his shoulders and right down his arms. pigeons poised on each palm. pigeons clinging to his chest. pigeons on his lap. pigeons on his thighs. pigeons, of course, perched on each foot.

“the pigeons peck and coo, occasionally flutter their wings. sometimes even scatter. but not the man, the man is motionless. you might mistake him for a statue.

“joseph zeman,” 77 when he died, “can sit for hours, barely flinching a muscle,” i wrote. “except for those lips.”

i wrote how he cooed right back to the birds. how he kissed them, right on their iridescent necks, flat on the point of their sharp little beaks. how he nuzzled them, rubbed his nose in their wings, the herringbone of feathers all black and charcoal and pewter and white. how he called them by name, his favorites. how he worried when one was missing in action.

i wrote how up in the attic where he lived a few blocks from the hydrant he kept track, in a neat little ledger, of whatever dollar bills might have been slipped in his hand, dropped by the side of his hydrant.

how he used the money for his pigeon supplies, the unpopped popcorn kernels, the bags of white rice, the loaves of deerfield farms enriched white bread, the maurice lenell oatmeal cookies, the plain old birdseed that comes in 50-pound sacks, which he broke down, each night, into zip-top plastic bags.

i wrote too, because he took me up to his attic, because he was proud to show off his deeply-thought method, of the old baby food jars he filled, each morning and night, with rice or popcorn, seven jars in all, and tucked in his satchel, each time he shuffled off to the hydrant.

twice a day, at least, once in the morning, once in the late afternoon, the pigeon man returned to his roost.

but the part of the story that’s stayed with me all these years was the part where he explained why he was drawn to the pigeons.

“all my life i had so much backstabbing at home, real problems there. i got to love the animals more, so trustworthy. fifty years, all i heard was ‘shut up, shut up.’ i needed help at home ‘cause i was handicapped. they took advantage of me. epileptic fits since the day i was born.

“because i had so much trouble at home, i learned not to say nothing, keep to myself. so they came up to me [the pigeons]; i appreciated the friendship out of a bird more than a person. they’re wordless. they come up with pure appreciation.”

zeman, who for 47 years ran a newsstand downtown, said that he considered sitting on the hydrant the most important work he had ever done.

“i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude; it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today.”

zeman, a man without much schooling, understood how when he took to the hydrant, raised both his arms, palms upward–the veneration pose, really–as thousands of cars and trucks and smoke-spewing city buses rumbled by, drivers craning their necks to take in the sight of the stooped little man covered in pigeons, he really did resemble a modern-day st. francis of a city.

matter of fact, up in his little attic, he had boxes and boxes of st. francis postcards, each one printed with the peacemaker’s prayer: “lord, make me an instrument of your peace. where there is hatred, let me sow love…”

matter of fact, zeman once grabbed a stack of the postcards, maybe a hundred or so, and gave them to me. i tucked them all in the drawer of my desk, here where i do all my typing. i keep them, right there, to remind me of the wisdom of the lost soul who found his peace with the pigeons.

just yesterday afternoon, before the phone rang, before any cops called to ask what i knew, i had reached in my drawer for a calculator, and my hand ran into the stack, spilled and scattered, making a mess in the old pine rectangular drawer.

i started to shove the cards back into a stack, but then, for some reason, i picked up the top one, and i read it through to the very last line, which just happens to be, “and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

thinking back on the day, i know that the clock ticking beside me had to have been just after two in the afternoon.

that was the hour when the pigeon man of lincoln square breathed his last breath.

that was the hour the great gray raincloud of pigeons, the ones who for nearly 10 years had kept watch on the hydrant, had fluttered down as soon as a little stooped man slid off his satchel, settled onto his cold metal roost, raised both his arms, palms upward–the pose of st. francis–that was the hour the birds must have let out a most mournful coo.

this morning, for almost the first time in a decade, the hydrant is empty. the pigeons are perched. but the little man with the gentlest heart is not coming.

not ever again, amen.

oh, goodness. i’m back from my respite. and thank heaven there’s a place where i could tell joe zeman’s story. carry it close to your heart, maybe. scatter some seed for the birds today. think of the man who found solace only in the birds of the city, birds often shooed and thought to be pests. the picture above is my desk drawer. i too had a laminated copy of the newspaper story, one the pigeon man gave me. i keep it off in another drawer. but last night, i nestled it next to the prayers of st. francis. seemed the right thing to do, as i remembered the man who taught me so much.

i’m thinking i’ll pull up a chair, meander, at least every wednesday, smack dab in the thick of the workweek. but as happened today, what i thought i would write got nudged to the side so i could tell the pigeon man’s story. that means i’ll be back friday to tell the one i intended to tell today. we’ll find a flow here, as we settle into a rhythm that’s new. till then, just wander back when you can, you might find something waiting.

oh, and one other thing, thank you so much for the beautiful thoughts you spilled as the chair wrapped up its whole long first year. i am touched. deeply.

holy, holy week

in our house, it is the gospel according to matthew, and the seder infused by elie. and this, by the blessing of the calendar, is one of those wham-bam weeks.

we’ve got it all, and weave and flow from exodus to last supper, from parting of red sea to rending of blackened sunless sky. we dash the house of bread, but then bring on the easter baskets.

long long ago, we set our own pesach dispensation for easter sunday. even when it’s in the midst of the eight days of no leavened grains, we part the matzo for a sprinkling of chocolate, for jelly beans, in the easter basket.

i was musing that wednesday is the only day of this whole week not rich in something jewish or catholic, and thus i would need to consult the koran to divine my depth for the day.

it is, very much, a fact that the interlacing of the passion of jesus, a passion set in history at the cusp of passover, and the jewish remembrance of the exile from egypt, is, for me, a rich one.

after 25 years of living them on top of and through each other, i have come to see shadows, understand subtleties that would have escaped me were it not for my being drawn, in love and faith, to a man who is, himself, a son of the tribe of israel.

and so it was that we all, the four of us, two jews, one catholic and one just learning both, walked into a church courtyard yesterday where palms were swaying in the air, the priest’s red robe was billowing–nay, blowing–up and nearly over his head from behind, the winds were whipping so unrelentingly, a red bird’s plumage in flight. the red cloth punctuating the otherwise gray day.

the priest, one i’d known long ago, one who’d grown older and even wiser, and though he’d grown bent, never bent from his focus on that core of what i call dorothy day catholicism that sees peace and justice as the central burning flame of a religion he won’t let go down in flames.

he was in the midst of reading the passion of jesus when he looked up, looked out at the sea of waving palms, and implored the multi-colored crowd: “consider and tend the wounds of the world as if they were your own—-for they are.”

that then, i gulped, is the mission of this week.

i came home, sat down to consider elie wiesel, the nobel-prize winning poet and seer who survived the holocaust and will not, bless him, let us forget.

“i love passover,” he wrote, “because for me it is a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.”

wiesel wrote those words in perhaps the only autographed book (certainly the only autograph that fills me with awe) on my shelves, “a passover haggadah,” (simon & schuster) his 1993 commentary and guide through the seder, or meal of remembrance, the retelling of the exodus story, that is the centerpiece of passover.

“sometimes the sheer speed of events makes us reel,” wiesel also wrote in the haggadah. “history advances at a dizzying pace. man has conquered space, but not his own heart. have we learned nothing? it seems so. witness the wars that rage all over the globe, the acts of terror that strike down the innocent, the children who are dying of hunger and disease in africa and asia every day. why is there so much hatred in the world? why is there so much indifference to hatred, to suffering, to the anguish of others?”

wiesel asks. the old priest implores.

because i am catholic, because i spent many years on my knees studying the 10-foot-high crucifix that hung before me in the church where i grew up, i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the wounds that i’ve been asked to dab with cool and healing waters.

and so i walk, i stumble, through this most holy week.

what questions do you carry into this blessed string of holy days? what thoughts do you put to those questions? those callings?


p.s. some really fine thoughts–really fine–have been tacked onto meanders in recent days, thanks to the brilliant souls who keep pulling up chairs. bless them! don’t forget to take a look back and keep the conversation flowing. just because we move on to a new meander does not ever mean the case is closed on a meander past. in fact, we might have drummed up a real-live beekeeper to tell us a thing or three about the
heartbreak in the hives….
p.s.s. welcome back from break, all of you who flew away…we held down the fort just fine….

baking for God

if you wandered by my house, you would never stop to think, hmm, something unusual happens inside that house. not any more than you would think that at anyone else’s house.

but inside my house, once a month or so now that my kitchen is back in business, i bake for God. yes, yes.

not in the way dear benny, grandson of a bagel baker in the charming, makes-you-brush-away-a-tear, children’s book “bagels from benny,” ferries the hot bag of bagels into the synagogue every friday morning, tucks them into the holy ark, the blessed cabinet where the torah scroll is kept. only to find, come every saturday morning, that the bagels are gone. and he is convinced he is feeding bagels to God.

no, i don’t bake for God that way. though i cherish the story, cherish the thought.

in the uncanniest twist for a girl who grew up knowing that only cloistered nuns in faraway places were holy enough to mix the wheat with the water that would be cut into wafers that would rest on our tongues and get stuck to the roofs of our mouths, all in the name of jesus, well, i bake communion.

yes, yes.

the same ovens that once a week transform twisty dough into risen sweet challah, once a month turn hot water (4 cups), white flour (2 1/2 cups), wheat flour (4 hard-to-add cups) into squat, flat unleaven loaves.

there is a recipe i follow, and i follow it religiously. turns out i was not doing it according to rules for my first few at-bats, and in a flash that took me back to sister leonardo mary rapping me for my mispronunciation of the word “women” (i couldn’t get that the pronunciation change was on the first syllable instead of the second), i was rapped in an email for my failure to cut the unleaven bread into little brown bits.

i was told they were tossing my loaves. (never mind that that step had been left off the photocopy they’d given to me.)

and i was informed, later on at a workshop (a remedial baking class, disguised as one-day retreat, perhaps?) that the recipe i now follow, one titled “boulder bread recipe” (you only need drop a loaf on your foot to understand the derivation thereof), was the product of many many hours of ecclesiastical to and fro. i was informed that to diverge from the steps was a sure path to, well…at the least your loaves would be, shame of shames, tossed. they would become so much squirrel food.

all kidding aside, there is something so sacred about turning two essentials of life–water and wheat–into loaves whose cut-apart squares will be blessed, will be made into communion.

communion, whatever you believe about it, is the sacrament of taking in life in the form of bread so that in your belly, your soul, you might live life more fully.

i have always found it to be far more than a metaphysical vitamin. i have the sense when i swallow a host that God, more than ever, dwells deep inside me.

so to stand in my kitchen, alone in the silence, to stir the ever-thickening dough, is indeed to be in communion with something far greater than little old me. i think as i stir of all those who will partake. i haven’t a clue who they are, or how this might change them. even if only so far as the trip back to their pew.

but perhaps, just perhaps, the person who swallows the bread that i bake needs sustenance of a form that only can come if you believe that far more than water and wheat is mixed in that bread.

believe me, i pray as i knead. i push hard into that smoothing-out mound. God only knows what else is working its way into the soon-to-rise dough.

for a short spell, then, my kitchen is holy. and the oven at 375 is filling the room, filling my soul, with a heat and a light that lasts long after the loaves they are packed, sealed and delivered.

you wouldn’t know that if you paused by my house. but you do now.

baking for God is a prayer that i pray with my hands and my raggedy red oven mitt. baking for God is my unspoken blessing. baking for God is, well, really quite heavenly.