pull up a chair

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

Category: seeking tranquility

earlier and earlier

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crescent moon winking over the dawn. from my kitchen window.

i wake earlier and earlier, as if those fractions of hours just might wrap me more certainly in the velvet folds of the day. as if i’m grasping for a blanket someone’s pulling away.

i wake early for peacefulness, for quietude. i wake for the hum of the cricket, even before the trill of the dawn begins. just now a bird with quivering throat joined in. it’s off in the distance, faint. faint is the way i like my sounds in the morning. muffled. just beginning to fracture the silence.

i wake before a single floorboard creaks. i wake before anyone else turns a faucet. i wake to be alone with my thoughts and my prayers, and the gentle God who joins me.

this was a week for awaking earlier and earlier. it gets harder and harder to know what to do, to rise up against hate and horrors. i blanketed myself this week by typing away. i’m typing as fast as i can, bearing down on a deadline, typing gentle words, shimmering words, onto the page, in hopes that they’ll carve out rivulets of blessedness, course straight into hearts. whoever opens the pages, in months or years down the road, i pray they find something gentle, words that simply tap at the door, trickle in, make for peaceable eddies, right there in the well of someone’s heart.

the light now is beginning to soak into sky. i can make out the filigree of morning, the edge of the dill, the willow fronds barely rustling. the wind hasn’t yet stirred up its muscle. the morning is still.

the moon, winking, hasn’t yet faded–dawn’s cradle, off to the east, far beyond my kitchen window, it shines in sliver of crescent. where will you be when the moon blocks the sun, that once in a century heavenly upstage?

there wasn’t much to steady us in this past whirl of days, but there were glimmering moments, one or two, that broke through the melee, that caught our attention, took our breath away in the course of rending our hearts.

the mother of heather heyer, the woman crushed by a hellfire car in charlottesville, she was the voice of pure holiness this week. her lone voice rose up from the din. her words echo and echo in the chambers of my heart. hers is the poetry of the week, worth remembering.

here’s a bit of what she said, called out into the wilderness of a nation reeling, a nation whose moral compass is spinning dizzily, scrambling to find its true north.

sharon bro:

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”

“You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. What is there that I can do to make the world a better place? What injustice do I see—and want to turn away: ‘I don’t really want to get involved in that. I don’t want to speak up. They’ll be annoyed with me. My boss might think less of me.’ I don’t care. You poke that finger at yourself, like Heather would have done, and you make it happen. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world.”

she concluded with this:

“So, remember in your heart: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. And I want you to pay attention, find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way. You make it a point to look at it, and say to yourself, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ And that’s how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child, but, by golly, if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”

beautiful chairs, make it count.

where’s your true north, and how will you get there?

soulful reads for a week that’s leaking at the seams…

Portrait

old faithful: only slightly more emphatic than the geyser at our house this week

it’s been one of those weeks over here: a concussion on sunday (our not-so-big ultimate frisbee kid crashed face- and head-first so hard into other team’s Very Big Kid’s shoulder and biceps that the coach called that night to say he’d never heard such a loud bang between colliding bodies), leaky pipe-turned-geyser on monday, four hours of doctor on tuesday (preceded by an hour on monday). (oh, and did i mention eight hours of plumber squeezed between doctors?) and from there, the week dissolved.

or, more aptly, it flooded. any appliance in the house that could go kaput, did. (yesterday the ice maker seemed to be trying to set world record for cubes, a cascade of frozenness that would have made i-love-lucy escapades pale in contrast. yes, a first world problem, i totally get it!)

so, while i type away toward impending deadline, i’m thankful for a shelf of good reads. i wrote this batch back in february when i was down with strep, flu, bronchitis and eventually pneumonia, but it just appeared in print, in the chicago tribune, yesterday. each book is a gem, but the one i’ll hold onto forever is “dorothy day: the world will be saved by beauty,” the enchanting and bracingly honest biography, written by dorothy’s granddaughter, kate hennessy.

this line, in particular, is worthy of a week’s meditation — at least:

“Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.”

may your week be far less leaky than ours…..

spiritual-collage-20170522

Appraisals of Dorothy Day, Rumi and St. Francis in this week’s spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Dorothy Day” by Kate Hennessy, Scribner, 384 pages, $27.99

It’s the tag line, six words wafting just above a watery image of a mother and child up to their ankles in ocean, that captures the magic: “An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.” And mind you, this is a biography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called “a saint for the Occupy Era,” and now being considered for canonization as one of the 20th century’s great American forces for good.

The brilliance of this devastatingly beautiful work — you can almost hear the grandmotherly whispers, and yet it’s deeply journalistic in its fine-grained and unflinching reporting — by Kate Hennessy, the youngest of Day’s nine grandchildren, is this: Hennessy does not give us hagiography; she explores the depths of Day’s humanity, in all its frailty and shortcomings, and points us toward an indelible truth.

She makes us see that there’s a fine balance, a constant tension, in all of us — even in Day — in which the sinful is at work with the saintly. Yet somehow, in the end, through force of will, or divine grace, the light outshines the darkness. Love reigns, but not without struggle. Maybe we too can find that tipping force.

Hennessy captures that essence in a passage about her own mother, Tamar, Day’s only child: “Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.” Dorothy Day answered to holiness.
Her granddaughter’s masterwork belongs as a permanent addition to any literary bookshelf of the best of spiritual biography.

“Rumi’s Secret” by Brad Gooch, Harper, 400 pages, $28.99

In the prologue of “Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love,” the author wanders the Grand Bazaar of Aleppo, Syria, that now bomb-ravaged city of infinite heartache, in search of any lasting trace of one of civilization’s most enduring spiritual guides. In these deeply divisive times, it matters more than ever to deepen our understanding of the roots of sacred Islam, and this deeply researched and highly literary biography of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, is at once prescriptive and enlivening.

Rumi’s poetry, it’s been said, is pure devotion to a “religion of love.” No wonder, eight centuries later, it ranks among the best-selling on the globe. Until now, though, only the barest outlines of Rumi’s life had emerged from behind his poetry.

Brad Gooch, whose earlier biographies of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara were widely praised, traces the life and teachings of the mystic often compared with Shakespeare, for the volumes of his creativity, and St. Francis of Assisi, for his spiritual wisdom.

In an attempt to illuminate Rumi, who preached an “emphasis on ecstasy and love over religions and creeds,” Gooch learned Persian to read the poet’s original works, and retraced 2,500 miles of Central Asia — from Iran to Turkey, Syria to Tajikistan and beyond — exploring the major centers of Muslim culture in Rumi’s journey.

Rumi’s greatest achievement, Gooch writes: “To articulate the sound of one soul speaking: Don’t speak so you can hear those voices/ Not yet turned into words or sound.”

It’s a call to sacred silence — a call this noisy planet needs.

“A Gathering of Larks” by Abigail Carroll, Eerdmans, 108 pages, $12.99

It’s fitting that a book of modern-day letters to St. Francis, the 12th-century friar who called himself “God’s Fool,” would be deeply playful. And so it is.

“A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim,” an epistolary gathering of poems-cum-love letters is indeed sparked with joy and stitched with whimsy. But, too, it’s richly textured — hardly a one-note wonder — and promises to catch the unsuspecting reader off-guard. In fact, that’s where — in lines that pulse with sorrow, in verse that spares no jagged-edged truth — much of its power lies.

For those among us who consider Francis a model of gentility and grace, it’s a wholly charming notion to reach out from our world of big-lot stores to the patron saint said to tame a wolf, preach to larks, and sing to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

The writer of these letters — Abigail Carroll, a Vermont-based author — is very much an inhabitant of the modern-day melee. Yet she reaches beyond — to another time, to another plane of mysticism — and in rubbing together the profane and profound, the secular and sacred, she positions the medieval saint squarely in our midst. And makes us understand why he remains a vital prophet, one imbued with much to teach us on the subjects of natural wonder versus materialism, on beauty, brokenness, simplicity and, above all, on faith of a radical kind.

what’s on your reading list at the moment? any leaks in your week? 

and happy blessed birthday to dear dear jan, beloved longtime friend of the chair. sure are a heap of may birthdays here at the table….

dispatch from the land of dishevelment

willie books

one of us took a tumble the other night. all one of us was trying to do was go to bed. but around here, in these disheveled days, you take your life in your hands any time you try to get from point Q to point Z. the poor tumbled person, he found himself skittering upon a pond of discarded papers. and old bulletin boards. and chin-up bars whose use has expired. and a few old campaign stickers from congressional races that didn’t quite turn out the way some of us had hoped.

it made for a terrible noise. the noise awoke me. and our resident little fellow, just sinking into a short night of sleeps, he went leaping from his bed to see what was the matter, what was the source of the fortissimo clatter. there the source lay. all asprawl. undaunted, or so he insisted. just a scattering of papers and limbs, soon rustled back into order.

i tell this tale because it’s illustrative, you might say, of the tumbled-up order (well, really, dis-order) that is the current state of awry in this house.

you can practically hear the ol’ joint moaning. the floor boards are letting out protest. long-shuttered windows, refusing to budge. nearly every available corner, it seems, is lost, under siege, is crushed by the weight of teetering piles.

we have piles of books from every era of a young boy’s growing-up years. and whole parades of paraphernalia from particular passing obsessions: we begin with trains and move onto baseball, then comes the film-camera chapter, swiftly followed by double bass/sound-recording, onto politics and rowing, then deeper and deeper into political philosophers whose first few sentences i can barely muddle through. if you were inclined toward archeological digs, you could trace the timeline of our firstborn’s obsessions — now on stand-by for storage or discard — as if the strata in metamorphic rock.

all of this to say that it’s NUTS AROUND HERE! (excuse me, i needed to let out a motherly roar!)

i’ve come to realize in the last week plus two days and 20 hours that, for the last four years, we’d existed in an artificially placid world around here (even though i wasn’t enlightened enough to grasp the relative serenity).

back then, when i cleaned the sink before tumbling to bed, it was just as clean in the dawn as it had been at midnight. when i dumped a barrel of apples into the produce bin, i could count its dwindling one-by-one. breakfast hadn’t become a three-pan production. and, heck, when i walked in the door, and lined up three unassuming pairs of shoes, they stood where i’d told them to stay, and never threatened to kill me by wolf-whistling a back-door convention of every imaginable combination of foot wear, all size 13 (or, in the unforgettable words of a long-ago seller of shoes on state street that great street in downtown chicago, a peddler who put measuring tape to the feets of my mate, and yelped, “man, you is past-noon!”).

ah, but that was then. back in the age of kid-off-at-college.

said kid, as you know, is now home. and gone is the calm, the unruffled quietude, that so soothed me. so essentially soothed me.

yes, yes, i love every ounce of the discombobulation. but, oh, it’s discombobulated, right here in these parts. and i’m always a bit slow to get with the program, so i need to untangle the knots and knead out the kinks in my nerves. i need to live in a suspended state of dishevelment, not mind that the only way down the stairs is to thread your way, ever so gingerly, between the piles of books that each hog a step. i need to double my allergy meds, what with the dust storm that’s swirling through room upon room.

it’s what happens when the carpet-ripper-outer arrives. and the painter shows up to slap a new coat of templeton gray onto the mottled walls in the bath. and bookshelves are cleared, and drawers are dumped of their fifth-grade detritus.

what just a week ago was a boy’s room, one decked out with a baseball-bat lamp, and a plush navy carpet, and the overstuffed chair i’d once bought for purposes of nursing a newborn, is now a post-collegiate den. one with splattered-maple floor, college-crest armchair, re-curated bookshelves, and, en route, a 1920s floor lamp procured via etsy — soon to arrive at the downtown greyhound station, where shipping comes at half the cost of door-to-door delivery (making for yet another urban scavenging adventure, i’m certain).

mere moments ago i was interrupted here amid my typing for a conversation that’s emblematic of the way the days are unfolding: said man, the one who lives in what we now refer to as The Studio at 522 (giving the appropriate marketer’s capitalization to even the lowly article, The, making it all seem swanky and swell), he paused by my writing room to display the morning’s dilemma, and to partake of some motherly counsel.

seems his running shoe has half-shed its heel, so he reasoned that rather than leaping out for a jog and risking its loss altogether, he’d try a bit of home repair before hitting the elliptical down in the basement. he was considering super-glu as quik-solve to the runaway shoe part, but then he realized he might spend the rest of his day glued to the round-and-round part of the shape-up machine. which led him to wonder, aloud, if anyone had ever shown up at the ER door with fitness apparatus attached.

all you can do — and i do — is laugh out loud. deeply and often.

it might be a week or so — okay, maybe a month or so — till we wrestle these piles into place. the attic — now stuffed to the gills — dare not collapse. and, sooner or later i’ll figure a way to have groceries by train car delivered.

and somehow (perhaps if i pray to the patron saint of chaos becalmed, or beg for celestial xanax to rain from the clouds) i’ll settle into the hum that surely will come soon as i catch up to the prestissimo that is now the requisite pace in these parts. these most decidedly discombobulated, deeply joy-filled, post-college parts.

some of you — my mother, for certain — might have predicted it wouldn’t take too long till i exclaimed that it sure had gotten noisy and messy around here, now that we’ve expanded the homestead’s population by 25 percent. so i’ve once again been utterly predictable. all i know is that it helps to deep breathe, and maintain a DEEP sense of hilarity. tumbling out the door for garden breaks is also restorative. but best of all is climbing the stairs and knowing that just behind the closed door at the bend in the stairs there dwells the kid i’ve so longed to have home, for even the shortest of whiles. indeed, for as short or as long as this lasts, i really and truly am thrilled beyond thrilled to absorb the oncoming, everyday tumbles and blows here in the land of dishevelment.

what are your tried-and-true measures for weathering the population transitions in your life, when someone comes or someone goes, most especially someone you deeply dearly love who arrives or departs with truckloads and train cars of stuff?

cradled

sunflowers

cradled (v.) hold something gently and protectively.

that’s the dictionary doing what it does: defining.

and then we come to the part i always love best, the underpinning of every word, its linguistic DNA, its etymology, its roots reaching back in time, across oceans, deep into the vault of centuries past. and here we read this (from my friends at the online etymology dictionary):

cradle (n.) “baby’s bed,” c.1200, cradel, from Old English cradol “little bed, cot,” from Proto-Germanic *kradulas “basket” (cognates: Old High German kratto, krezzo “basket,” German Krätze “basket carried on the back”). From late 14c. as “device for holding or hoisting.”

in the sixteenth century, circa 1500, the etymologists tell us, the noun slipped into its form as a verb, and that’s how i like it best. to be cradled. to cradle.

i was humming around in my head, coursing the bumps and the vales of my brain, in search of a word that means “what’s keeping me from wafting away.”

“grounded” didn’t work because it sounded like i’d been sent to the doghouse. “tethered” came close, but only if you pictured a space walker tied to a lifeline, the sort that NASA so solidly builds, a lifeline that allows for floating, drinking in the sights of the heavens. literally. “tethered,” if you pictured a leash, did not work.

and then, in that way that sometimes makes you feel there’s an angel plopped on your shoulder, leaning in, whispering words in your ear, suddenly, out of the vapors, “cradled” appeared. and all at once, i felt my shoulders go soft, in that exhale of a way. when you whoosh out your worries and cares, and all’s right with the world, as robert browning once put it (“song from pippa passes”).

and so i am — we are all — being cradled. each and every day. breathing or not. we are cradled in great tender arms that hold us. i particularly love the notion from the german Krätze, “basket carried on the back.” breathe that one in for a moment.

right in here — the past luscious whirling days — i’ve been feeling a wee bit lightheaded, and my heart’s been pounding so hard i worry, as i so often do, that it just might give up the ghost. so, as if my life depended on it this morning, i pulled myself out from under the sheets. and i tiptoed out to the holy cathedral just outside the kitchen door, the one that vaults to the heavens, the one that this morning was lit by a crescent of moon. looked to me, more than anything, like one big eye winking at me. God’s eye?

and all around me, the dawn’s soft cool blanket fluttered, as if on a clothesline. the cardinals, cloaked in scarlet as always, were up and chirping away — it’s fairly hard to beat a cardinal out of bed. the dew glistened. my toes took a bath when i tiptoed across the yard to fill the feeder with seed.

i stood there breathing. feeling the arms wrap around me. winking back at the moon. then, i looked to my old shingled house, melted at the buttery light of the kitchen, glowing. sighed a deep sigh of thanks for the house that never fails to keep me safe.

i stood there for a short little bit, unfurled my morning vespers, felt the soles of my feet sinking soft into the earth that holds us, always holds us. and then i puttered back toward the kitchen, where a lunch box awaited, and upstairs, a growing boy slept.

as i poured my first mug of coffee, i stopped to drink in a clutch of sunflowers that peeked from the old chipped milk pitcher. i thought of the blessed beautiful friend who had scooped up those wide-faced wonders from the farmer’s market. and then i climbed the stairs to wake the sleeping boy.

i pressed my cheek against his, longer than i usually do. i drank him in, my sweet sleeping child. and, as i’d been doing all morning, i leaned; this time, on him. i leaned on all of these wonders — winking moon, chattering bird, morning’s dew pearled, old blessed friend, and miracle child — and fortified myself for the hours to come.

i was cradled.

the cradle is there, always there. if we’re willing to climb to the basket strapped to the back — the glorious, heavenly back — that carries us, even on days when we’re dizzy.

what cradles you? as in what are the wonders that hold you gently, protectively? 

an invitation

an invitation

the invitation is broader and deeper than simply offering you a date and a time and a place. yes, there is that (details below). but the invitation i’m gently laying here at the table, it’s a doorway, an entering in….

the invitation is to slow time, to savor, to pay attention, to carve out quietude in the rush and the whirl of your every day.

we’ve been circling around those notions for years now, here at the chair. and somehow, in a mystical, magical, marvelous way, those quiet ideas have tucked themselves into the pages of a book, a book that might plop onto my front stoop any hour now. while i’ve not yet lifted it out from a box, haven’t felt its weight hard against my palms nor flipped through its pages, haven’t marveled forward and back that words typed here in the murky first light of so many mornings have found their way off the screen and onto the page. spelled out in ink — a newsgirl’s primary intoxicant.

but i’ve seen proof that those pages are finally off the printing press. they’re bound, slipped between covers.

any hour now, i’ll christen those pages with my freshly spilled tears.

so it’s time for the invitation.

for starters, consider the book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 7, 2014), a portable iteration of this old chair. why, you can take it wherever you go. you can bring it to bed, tuck it under your pillow. you can spill it with crumbs (and not have to worry that your keyboard gets jammed with a bit of a cracker). you can climb into a tree, and turn its pages. you can even slink in the bathtub (and not have to worry about glug-glugging your screen under the bubbly suds). it’s the chair unleashed. the chair on the loose. we’ve snipped the cords and numbered the pages.

ah, but there’s something even more enticing than the fact that Slowing Time, the book, can follow you anywhere, can go where’er you go.

and that’s where the invitation begins: my prayer all along has been that what’s tucked in the pages of Slowing Time is simply a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours. my hope is that it might become your whispered companion. a place to begin to contemplate how your life might look and feel and radiate if we dial down the noise, hit pause, and sift through the mess for the shards of the Sacred.

it’s a sketch pad, really, in which the flickers of half-baked ideas clothe themselves in words. and those words become the stepping path into the woods, into the depths. or at least point you in intriguing direction.

professor elisa new, beloved poetry scholar at harvard, talks about how a poem is a “communal resource, a convening space — written in a language we all understand.” it’s a place, she says, “where one human being has tried to make meaning, using a tool — the language we all share — that belongs to all of us. and so, by entering into inquiry, discussion, and interpretation of that poem, we can fully engage in that activity so central to the humanities, that activity of human conversation about what it is really to be human.”

and so, too, with the words you find spilled on the pages of Slowing Time, it’s an invitation to “shared inquiry.” and its words are, at heart, prayer unfurled in plainspoken prose. one someone’s prayer searching, searching for companion — be that gentle journeyer God, or the soulmate you find along your stumbling way, or sitting just inches across from you.

after all, the geometry of the old maple table, and the chairs that are tucked up against it, is the circle. heart linked to heart, hands within squeezing range, eyes close enough together that we can catch the sparkle on a joy-filled day, or the empty hollows in the hours when sadness or grief has eclipsed the light.

it is in those circles of our life — the circles we create out of love, or even when carved by accident of geography — that we find communion. and our own plumbing of the depths becomes shared inquiry, scaffolded exploration. a safe zone, where even our rawest tender spots can be laid before us, with no fear of harm or scorn or raised eyebrow.

still, though, it is in solitude, and in the sanctuaries of time we’ve hollowed out of the day, that the deepest paying attention begins.

as with so many spirit-filled vespers, slowing time — here at the table over the years, most lately every friday morning — has become a practice. practice, as in trying over and over and over to hew closer to the anointed edge at our most blessed core. practice, as in a ritual that surrenders to a rhythm. and, as with all holy acts, the holiness is found burrowing into the nooks and the crannies of a place — an interior, our interior — at once familiar and still to be explored.

it is the nautilus of prayer.

and it is the invitation that pulses at the heart of Slowing Time: use these words, little more than one pilgrim’s prayer, to lead you deeper into your own heart’s vault. settle in. deep breathe. catch the light. embrace the shadow.

and, once you’ve breathed Holiness in and in and in again, lift your eyes, and discover the light of the circle around you, within you. there is Holiness abounding, and it’s ours, radiant with grace.

and here’s the date-time-and-place invitation:

Slowing Time begins here: Reading, Conversation and Book Signing 

Wednesday, September 17 (feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval mystic, composer, writer, visionary)

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Francis Xavier Warde School at Old St. Patrick’s Church

120 South DesPlaines Avenue, Chicago

(leave it to Old St. Pat’s to prompt the heavens to rain down books before the publication date…)

 

yet another reading, after the actual publication date of Oct. 7, is now inked onto the calendar of a marvelous magical bookshop in Evanston:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation

Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, a magical bookshop tucked in an alley that feels as if it’s popped off the pages of Harry Potter. Co-hosted by Evanston Public Library. To reserve a seat, please contact Bookends and Beginnings at 224-999-7722.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

and yet another marvel:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation and Autumnal Joys

Women & Children First, a Chicago literary landmark in magnificent Andersonville, is hosting a reading, conversation and celebration of autumn, Season of Awe.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

7:30 p.m.

North Clark Street, Chicago, IL

womenandchildrenfirst.com

more readings to come…..stay tuned.

and now a question: how do you slow time? (oh, and what will be your crumb of choice to spill onto the pages and clutter the book binding gulley?)

slowing time cover

susurrations: the blessed rinse of a summer morning’s rain

gift of morning rain

it came without throat clearing. no rumble off in the distance. no dark skies, foretelling. in fact, the golden orb of sun was rising through the branches of the pines.

but there it was, just beyond the screen, the back door opened to welcome in the summer morning’s offerings.

a drip. a drop. a plop. another plop, plop, plop.

the susurrations of a summer morning’s rains.

the ping that hit the skylight confirmed it: the heavens had sprung the softest, lulling-est leak.

and all at once, i felt my shoulders sigh. heard a gentle whoof of air bellow out my lips. it felt, once again, as if God almighty had reached long arms through the clouds, applied mighty finger tips to brow, and began to make the little circles on the plane above my eyes, the ones that always, always rinse away the worries.

thank you, i whispered, and whisper still, as the gentle benediction of the summer rain soothes on.

i’d been up early, as i’ve been of late; out from under the sheets once the 5 blinked onto the clock’s face beside my bed. i was fumbling for the coffee beans, had already opened the screen door to let in the morning air and the first dabs of light soaking into the inky dome of waning night.

and that’s when the first plop dropped. and i perked my ears. perked my soul, too. starting feeling not so all alone in the dim light of my kitchen ministrations. i walked to the door, inspected the brick walk, and sure enough, the water spots spread like chicken pox on a baby’s bum.

now, i’m 300-percent certain that my strung-out nerves did not figure into the morning’s celestial weather convocation. no one made a motion to be sure to crank the faucet just above my house, in hopes of dousing the wildfires that threatened to scorch my inner wiring. but there are moments when you discard all reason, and you roll with the whimsy that the rains were meant for you. that someone somehow knew just the meteorological prescription for your morning’s maladies.

so i dodged the raindrops, and wandered out to my summer porch, where the wicker chair offers the best perch for taking in the surround-sound of a morning’s wash. a gentle rumble or two finally did announce that this rain was real, and might linger for awhile.

and instead of worrying about the kid whose mama had called last night to tell me about the whopping case of head critters just discovered at her house and on her kid’s head (a head that had been in close proximity to my own kid’s, just the night before), and instead of worrying about the picture show that might or might not work at my little one’s dance party, and instead of worrying about whether my little guy might collapse into a dead faint as he gets up to chant the Torah (so very terrified is he of this call to the bimah, the Hebrew word for ‘altar’), i sat and soaked up the susurrations of the summer’s rain.

in between the plops, i heard a holy whisper: be not afraid. the heavens surround you, hold you, will not let you wobble.

and then, a final psssst, and this: might not be a bad idea to douse yourself in tea tree oil, the sure combatant for those creepy-crawly things that, at the mere mention of their existence, make your hairs stand on end. 

amen to summer rains, and end-of-august worries, as the school year races toward us, as the long-awaited bar mitzvah is upon us, and our old house fills with beloved people who love us enough to interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to strap on seat belts and fly our way. i figured today might be better than tomorrow, friday, for tap-tapping at the keyboard, and then the rain came and tickled my brain. i’ll be changing sheets, and choreographing airport runs tomorrow morning, and you needn’t listen in on all that noise. next time i type here, one boy will be back to college, and eighth grade will have begun for another. i’ll be home alone, and the to-do list won’t be quite so long. though, just the other side of this bar mitzvah, that blessed book, Slowing Time, promises to demand my attentions.

till then, the only prayer request that matters: dear God, please keep T’s knees from buckling, and may his chanting be heard all the way to new jersey, where his beloved grandpa, who cannot be among the flock who flies here, will be listening with all his blessed heart. 

the pure oxygen of prayer

pause hydrangea

shortly before i fluttered open my eyes this morning, i steered my rumbly-tummied self into the safest place i know: the arms of who i know to be God.

i’ve been doing it, i realized, all my life. in all the tight squeezes and lightless tunnels, in all the passages when to-do lists drive my day, and i demonstrate a masterful knack for conjuring worries of assorted size and shape and girth. now, for instance. with one week till my sweet boy’s bar mitzvah, and somewhere in the offing, the pages of my book being spilled with words i’ve typed from my heart for years and years, this patch in here has been an adrenaline-stoked doozie.

i awake each morning to a to-do list that slowly, surely, gets chiseled away. but i have to keep the lasso near at hand, for i’ve an inclination to tumble forward in time and go breathless. i picture myself catapulting forward with little oxygen on board. i’ve known myself long enough to know that i’m not so good at shaking the small stuff. i get consumed by the small stuff. don’t want to forget one water bottle by the side of either of the house guests who will be sleeping here for the weekend. don’t want to drone on too long when i stand before the room and ladle love in great dollops to each and every blessed soul who has shone a light on the boy we know as T.

never mind, too, that my sweet boy is as nervous as nervous can be. never mind that he takes soccer balls blasting at his face at 50 miles per hour, and thinks nothing of diving face-first into them to keep them from soaring into the goal. when i tried to suggest he dip into that same well of courage, he explained quite matter of factly that podiums in front of synagogues and goal posts on a soccer field are wholly different realms, and one brand of courage does not bleed into the other. point, taken.

i do what mamas do in such instances: i take on his wobbles, too. pile them mightily on my own over-packed jalopy, and putt-putt along the potholed lanes with his worries strapped on top of mine.

which makes me a bit haggard these days. and if you look closely, you might see my shoulders sagging. and my jeans a wee bit loose around the hips.

so here’s the secret, the cure-all potion for those moments when i am certain i’m perched at the precipice, about to fall headlong into the bottomless inky pit: i sink into a hole all right, but it’s one illuminated in holy light. it’s the arms i practically feel wrap around me. it’s the near-whisper in my ear.

it’s God. my old old friend God.

and God applies balm to my heart, and snips the jangled nerves. God, with that twinkle in God’s eye, reminds me that i am being silly. and letting the runaway worries run away. God gently taps me upside the noggin, and reminds me: I’ll be there. I am there. I’m here, right here. And I’m not leaving.

i know we all imagine God in our own extraordinary ways. those of us blessed to do such imagining. my knowing of God, i realized this morning as i felt myself sink into the feather down of God’s embrace, my capacity for catapulting myself into that safe place, that harbored place, has something to do with my capacity for time travel born of all the pages that i turned when i was just a little girl, and i plopped upon my quilt-square coverlet, and tiptoed along the rose-tangled lanes and secret gardens of England’s countryside, or into the big wisconsin woods where laura ingalls wilder lived with ma and pa and mary in their little cabin.

that was the genesis. the beginning of a power to believe. and so that capacity to make like a hovercraft and transport myself, my soul, into another sphere, another space, it’s been exercised all my days.

oh, sure, my sense of God has grown up alongside me. but at heart, it’s that tender transporting, that moving me from fear and wobble into safe and wrapped that is at the heart of why, worry after worry, year after year, i plunge for the hands, the arms, that hold me, whisper soothing holiness.

and, too, over the years, i’ve discovered the world is stitched with what amount to “on switches,” brushstrokes of beauty that unlock the channels, and draw me straight to the heart of the Divine. my rambling garden. the just blooming bottle-brushes of late-summer’s hydrangea. the pit-a-pat of rain. the sound of my firstborn’s footsteps from the bedroom just above, knowing he’s home, and i’m awash in deepest gratefulness. the morning song of mama wren. the chatter of the sparrows who’ve made their home just above the front door, in a little cove they’ve pecked away with their insistent sparrow beaks.

i’ve grown wise enough to know that i need to stay close to all these channel openers in my life. when i feel myself getting dizzy from worries, i tiptoe out the door, and plonk myself on the bluestone stoop. i sit and breathe. watch the sunlight dance upon hydrangea leaves. follow the flutter of the august butterfly. fill my lungs. feel the arms of God surround me.

drink in the holy whisper. remind myself i’m not alone. never alone.

and all i need do to feel the squeeze of God beside me is slow down, deep breathe, and fill my sorry lungs.

how’s that for an exercise in heart-baring? i’m not quite sure what prompted me to try to write about what it feels like to reach out to God, and feel wrapped in the holy blanket of God’s presence. but now i’ve gone and done it. because that’s what this is, a place where the first draft of the heart and soul is unfurled. it’s but a sketch pad, after all. one week’s attempt to try to wrap words around the ineffable. along the way, maybe i stumble on a moment of incandescence. maybe it’s all a blur. but it’s the trying that’s the point. 

how do you describe reaching out for Holiness when you’re wobbling and awash in worldly worry?

the truth behind one-handed gardening

one handed gardening

it so happens that at long last — and after hours of thinking perhaps the springtime would never come round again — we are at the dizzying height of the garden shaking off her winter slumbers and exploding every which way.

it also so happens that three weeks ago my exhausted stockinged feet — shuffling up to bed, late on a saturday night — smacked into a slick spot on the hardwood slabs of the family room floor, and, before i could muster the faintest of yelps, i went spiraling through mid-air and kerplunked wrist-first on the wide pine planks of the kitchen floor, several yards from the slick spot.

blurry-eyed, and in advance of assessing the twisted architecture of my inside-out-and-spiraled-around left arm-wrist-hand-thumb, i heard a noise i’ll not soon shake off: krrk, krrk, went the sound of my bones, snapping in twos.

springtime’s garden explosion + left arm strapped in a not-so-sexy black velcro-snug number = an exercise in one-armed gardening.

which has its merits. and not only because it gets you out of the hard work of whipping the beds into shape, reminding the dandelions they are not on your growing list, and generally over-taxing the wee little muscles that run up and down the length of your spine.

why, i thought, this here is a very fine thing. an unavoidable doctor’s order to slow down and, well, deep breathe the springtime’s intoxicants.

in my imagination, i’d penned a quiet pensive missive about how one-handed gardening was, hands down, a blessing. how it forced the slowed-down gardener to do a lot less mucking about in the dirt, and more or less straitjacketed her into the often elusive art of paying attention.

try squeezing the felco pruners with but one hand. try tying back the disobedient anything-but-climbing hydrangea.

try anything other than slowly meandering along the garden trail, observing the wee globes of dew as they dangle from furled fronds of fern. inhaling the knock-you-over perfumes of the lily-of-the-valley, bursting in white-bell clouds this week. savoring the soft morning’s warmth in the thick of the flowering crabapple’s vernal effusion.

in my imagination, i’d gathered up notes, and scribbled pithy wisdoms.

but then this week happened.

and because the chair is a place where we pull up honestly or not at all, i can’t quite quiet myself enough to pen that tranquil dispatch from the one-handed gardener.

truth is, this week is about as far from tranquil as a a week can be. i mention this not for sympathy, certainly, and not for worry, oh heavens no (i’m positively allergic to anyone worrying about me, although i manage to do it in spades all the time). but all in service of this being a sacred place where we can be whoever we are in the moment, no excuses necessary.

fact is, the arm that is now in four parts (two bones, now broken in two) has been throbbing. and one morning this week, i had a nice tete-a-tete with the anesthesiologists as they dozed me to sleep for a quick repair of a body part that had managed to spring a leak. add to the mix, the college kid home for a mad flurry of final-paper writing. and the regular line-up of seventh-grade worries and tummy aches and questions that demanded hard answers half an hour past bedtime.

so my thoughtful musings on one-handed gardening will have to wait for another year. or another thwop on the hard kitchen floor.

and instead of lulling you into tranquility, and slowing down long enough to notice the incremental beauties of the vernal thrust through the earth, i will offer this bit of recycled chair, an essay penned a while back, and one which just this week was published in the pages of the chicago tribune.

it was and is titled, “the sum of infinites,” and it goes something like this:

Mothering: The Sum of Infinites

By Barbara Mahany

The last time I’d seen him, when I tucked him into bed, blew a kiss and closed the door, he was fine. Just really tired, he said, worn out by soccer. And very, very hungry.

But next morning, as I walked out of the downtown parking garage, fumbled for the ringing rectangle in my backpack, tried to find a place to plop the coffee mug, so I could walk and talk and think out loud, I heard the words, “Mr. T is not feeling so good. He’s pretty hot, actually. And his throat, he says, is killing him.”

A series of rearrangements were duly rearranged, numbers dialed, summons plead, before I even spied my desk.

Given precise instruction, exact latitude and longitude of where he’d find the white-and-orange-and-azure box on the bathroom shelf, his papa dispensed the first round of fever-queller, tucked him back in bed, then kept finger in the dike till dear Grammy could ride to the rescue.

Miles away, I was but a distant player, so my part had me checking in every chance I got. Or so we’d scripted. Till I got the call mid-afternoon, and a squeaky little voice informed, “I’m dizzy.” Then asked, “When can Mama come home?”

NOW! was pretty much the word that popped into my head, so I cleared my desk and drove. And once through the blue front door, I dropped my keys and lunged and kissed him on the head.

Oh, the look in those empty eyes told me all I needed in the medical-data department. Those of us who’ve tread this ground, need no compass, no thermometer; we know by heart these dark and murky woods, know by gut just how deep we’re in, and how the road out will be a slow and bumpy one.

And thus began, again, the work of one mama tending to her achy, fevered little person.

By rapid – and rough – calculation, I’d guess this might have been the 90th such round, each one with its own odd particulars, since I’d first put on the mama robes, since Boy Number One was born, nearly 17 years before.

And as I spent the long night dispensing care in the ways my boys have grown to know, to count on, I began to contemplate how love, especially motherlove, is the sum of infinites.

Minute, and barely perceptible, although wholly definable and defining, they are the accumulated brushstrokes and palm presses and finger squeezes that imprint, somehow, on the souls of those whose care – whose fevered limbs, swollen glands, fractured bones, woopsy tummies – we cradle.

Until the fever lifts, the gland goes down, the tummy stops its gurgling, we dole out and dispense our ministrations without surrender to our own bodies’begging for unbroken sleep, or just a chair, or even a bowl of oatmeal that’s not gone cold.

It is the umpteen blankets and pillows you’ve piled on the floor, in that certain way you’ve come to call “The Nest.”

It is the 181 washcloths hauled off the shelf, doused under cool water, wrung out, folded and laid on fevered brow.

It is the 99 rubberbands stretched round just as many glasses, each one so marking it, a badge of courage for the sick one, and off-limits besides – lest you hastily find yourself tending a whole flock of fevered lambs.

It’s the way, without a moment’s pause, and no thought given to germs or contagion, you’ve climbed 3,000 times right into bed beside the hot one, so you are there, should there be a whimper in the night, should you need to climb the stairs one time, or ten, to fill a glass with ice, with honey, with 7-up, with gooey purple fever-buster. Or just because the ailing one left a certain pillow on the couch – and cannot sleep without it.

It is the who-knows-how-many baths you’ve drawn at three in the morning, because the fever won’t go down, and the little arms and legs you once marveled at, now barely ever eyeball beneath the sweatshirts and the soccer shinguards, are shaking like a leaf that barely clings to the branch amid October’s bluster.

Next morn, as you hear the doctor speak the words, “Go straight to the ER,”– thank God, you can count (three) the times you’ve heard that command – you realize that your well will never run dry, that you will pierce the microbes with sharp spear, given half a chance. That you will climb on the gurney, slide your own wobbly self through that CT scan, stick out your own arm to take the IV needles, you will wrestle to the mud whatever pokes and prods come your little one’s way, as you wipe away the alligator tears, and kiss the red-hot cheeks, and hold your breath and wait for all-clear whistles from the ER nurse, the one you now worship because she was so tender in her poking of your little soldier’s brave, brave arm.

And you realize, as you count up the hours of the week, and lose count of ice cubes and teaspoons of germ-killer, that the highway to heroics is paved, pretty much, of the same stuff as the potholed backroad.

That in the end, when all these flus and streps and bacterial pneumonias are past, we will have loved our way to triumph, in a race without a ribbon, a contest with no starting gun, an Olympiad we enter with our heart.

It is through the sum of infinitely loving, and infinite signature touches, that the little ones whose flesh and blood and coos and cries we were handed not so long ago, will grow up wholly defining how it is to be ministered to, to be loved, to be – yes – mothered, no matter who the motherer.

And –as you’ve maybe glimpsed once or twice already, when you’re the one who’s down and your little ones begin to mimic all your ways – they in turn will love as you have loved, will fold the same cool cloths, draw the baths, pour the gingerale, stir the chicken-noodle soup.

And thus our unmeasurable infinite acts will go forth into infinity.

A mighty sum – born, simply, out of love.

so that’s the news from my not-so-tranquil garden trail. tell me what unexpected blessings you stumbled on this week. or spill, once again, the infinite sums your mama once plied on you, or that you’ve doled out to your little ones when they were under the weather…

the necessary pause

the necessary pause

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

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

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

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

necessary pause beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

necessary pause st nick bfst

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

quiet time

quiet time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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