pull up a chair

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

Category: Uncategorized

in the darkness, it’s the familiar rhythms of the heart that soothe…

As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.

When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.

My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.

He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.

We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.

Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.

In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.

For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.

And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.

While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.

I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.

As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.

So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.

Xox


In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….

Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.

Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?

a hundred from-the-heart thank yous…

all week i’ve been counting, gathering my gratitudes by the dozens. by the hundreds, in fact. maybe you’ve played along. done your own counting up to one hundred. it’s an exercise in excavation of the heart, digging up the way-down blessings, the ones we call to mind each and every hour of each and every day, and the ones we stumble upon in some ephemeral flicker of momentary praise-be to wonder. turns out, it’s something of a diary of the year, this whole long COVID-pocked, election-torn year. it’s been a doozy. and, believe it or not, it’s left me filled with gratitudes. a hundred of ’em. here goes…

dear holy God, and giver of all good and glorious things, consoler in hours of deepest sorrow, the one whose hand i reach toward whenever i’m trembling, whose arms i fall into when the long race is finally ended, dear God, find yourself a cozy chair to sink into, cuz i’ve got a list for you. for all this, i say bless you and thank you. oh, thank you…

for Melissa, Queen of the Sick Call Grocery Delivery, the guardian angel of my college kid’s dining hall who went way beyond the call of duty when she whirled off to a miles-away grocery store, shopped like a mama would shop for her own, and showed up at my fevered child’s sickroom door with six bags of infirmary essentials: crackers and soup, 7Up and microwaveable rice, ginger ale and chamomile tea, packets of oatmeal, and on and on and on, when he was sequestered in quarantine with a whopping case of mono. (funny, how the first one to leap to mind this year is a woman i know only through her undeniable goodness, and her going the most extra mile. if love heals, she gets first round of credit for the mostly recuperated kid who sat at my thanksgiving table last night.) 

for election judges, and every single American who stood in hours-long lines, in rain, in sleet, in cold, in undiluted noontime inferno, to put muscle to the great American contract: to slip a single sheaf of X-marked paper into the slit of the ballot box. to make each vote count.

for the two little girls across the way, who have endlessly charmed since the day they moved in, and especially since COVID, as their front yard and driveway have become their play yard and imagination station. sweet little angels (3 and now 5) who dream up goodbye parties for a maple tree that had to be felled, and prance about in their plastic shields as if princesses and warriors from another planet. and for their mama and papa who tag-team their workday to endlessly fill their girls’ COVID-bound days with the old-fashioned sorts of adventures i’d long feared had been lost to obsolescence.

for the big heart of my down-the-block friend who every night goes out into the dark and the cold to feed a duet of stray cats with nowhere else to go.

for the woods where i amble everyday. and the golfballs that — so far — steer clear of my head.

for the moving crew who, despite a few wrong turns, finally found my firstborn’s apartment.

for the law school diploma that now sits on a bookshelf, proving the kid reached the summit of a very steep climb.

for the checkers at my Jewel, the truck drivers, and shelf-stocking crew, the baggers, the cart sanitizers, those blessed frontline workers who never imagined that ringing up groceries would become an act of faith and a stronghold against starvation. as well as the one permissible place to gab beyond the bubble, almost like old times.

for my mailman who never failed. 

for my UPS driver, who this year has more than let my fingers do the walking from the safety of my keyboard, and delivered the most curious assortment of necessities i managed to find online.

certainly, for my younger one’s freshman roommate from China who supplied us with a box of N95s before anyone here in America knew much about the masked wonders.

for the ambulance drivers, and the ER crew in the Buckeye State’s far-from-home hospital, who delivered my second-born child safely and soundly, and quickly discovered his sky-high fever was fueled not by COVID but rather by mono, and a whopping dose of it. 

for the ER crew here at home, who — in Round Two of this unfortunate adventure — were put to the test to quell the fever that would not go down.

for my long-ago college roommate who turned to page 206 in my new little book, and baked, wrapped, and mailed a box of my grandma Lucille’s turkey cookies. complete with raisins for eyes.

for the editor who kept pace with my decidedly accelerated writing speed, the brilliant designer who rounded up a woodland flock of critters to grace most every page, and for whoever decided to go with the place-holding ribbon, a rarity in book publishing these days. and in the end, brought us The Stillness of Winter.

for all the great thinkers and poets and mystics who’ve filled my bookshelves and my imagination this year, especially Henry Beston, Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, Annie Dillard, Joy Harjo, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert MacFarlane, John Phillip Newell, anonymous who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, David George Haskell, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson — all of whom make me reach higher and deeper in quest of words that illumine and thoughts that arouse. 

for Emergence magazine, and Image journal, and Orion, and the EcoTheo Review, whose boundless intellect and inspirations, breathtaking writing and generous spirit ground me to this holy earth, and launch my highest hopes for healing to come to this wounded planet.

for the wise priest, the monk, and the rabbi to whom i bring my insatiable hungers, my curiosities and questions, and the depths of my soul. for evocative prayers and eloquent sermons, especially the ones threaded through with the cloud of witnesses — the writers and thinkers, poets and everyday saints — who propel me to pull books from the shelves, to search for their stories and truths. for the epiphanies that so often come. and the dots so divinely connected.

for those marketing and p.r. mavens who do the parts of book peddling that make me break out in hives.

for the tangle of bittersweet i found in the woods. and the rusty but trusty clippers that brought a few branches home. 

for the occasional news story that infused me with hope again. and the election that tried to.

for the dawn, that light-infused vessel of prayer i step into each morning.

for the ages-old Book of Common Prayer and the crinkling of its tissue-thin pages as i turn them, morning after morning, beginning my day cloaked in holy quietude, in confession of sin, and blessed thanksgiving at the close of each dawn’s intercessions.

for the Cloister Walk candles from St. John’s Abbey, an apothecarial blend of geranium and lily of the valley, sandalwood, patchouli, and cedar that sends me and my prayers wafting toward the heavens.

for cricket song, that hypnotic hum of the ridged-wing critters that seems to rise out of the earth as the late-summer sun begins its daily descent, and the never-seen choristers quite frankly go gangbusters with their nightly rendition of clanging and banging. 

for the way the sunlight streamed in and ignited my summer porch as each day drew to a close. 

for the zillion ZOOM courses, and poetry readings, and retreats, and workshops with writers that drew me into living rooms and studios and aeries all around the globe….

for the college professors who so compassionately gave my sweet boy flexibility on deadlines for papers and projects. dispensations that might come to haunt us, when he’s typing away on the eve of this Christmas.

for the park district work crew who, last summer, taught my second-born seasonal landscaper the wonders of the midday siesta and flautas made on a portable grill.

for the science writers who so clearly explained COVID, and gave us explicit instructions for how to steer clear of the sometimes deadly, always mysterious, and frankly frightening red-ringed mutating virus.

for the bookshop owner who virtually hosted a throng of beloved bibliophiles the night my little book was launched from the cozy confines of my kitchen — and no one knew i was wearing flip flops and yoga pants under my fine woolen shawl.

for the red birds who bring me such joy, and the blue jays who squawk, and the chickadees and nuthatches and even the flock of humdrum sparrows who delight me hour by hour.

for my prayer bench that so generously offers me a place to sit, tucked under the leafy arbor of my so-called secret kitchen garden.

for my brothers (four) and their wives and fiancé for being my front line of defense when life tests from all sides.

for my next door neighbors who have not yet erected the 6-foot-high fence that will forever cut off that holy slant of late afternoon light. 

for my “tird” cousin, Paddy, whose DNA mingles with mine, from back South Kilmo way, at the house by the bridge in County Clare, and who over the year has showered me with everything from the Celtic tunes i play by the hour, to the 20 pounds of basmati rice, and the 18 rolls of toilet paper he had shipped from China, just to be sure i was never without.

for the glorious women in my tribe: my mother, my mother-in-law, my adorable and endlessly effervescent aunt, and all of my sisters by marriage or heart. 

absolutely and without hesitation, for those blessed souls, spoken and unspoken, who gather here at the chair. 

for those friends who, like me, respect the heck out of the red-ringed virus and don the mask, keep the social distance, scrub hands for at least two rounds of happy birthday, and never ever roll their eyes at my nurse-level cautiousness.

for old friends who always, always understand (no matter the matter at hand). and even if they don’t, go on loving anyway. 

for the herbs in my garden (the ones i pluck to this day, adorning my turkey bird just last night with fresh-from-the-farm parsleys and rosemary). and, root of it all, for the brother who insisted i farm, who even tracked down the lumberyard where i could get my 12x2s, and my 24 bags of compost and potting soil.

for the sunrise that never forgot. the stars that always shone. the moon that, month after month, teaches the basics of math: addition, subtraction and the fine art of fractions.

for my window seat, and the hours spent there, curled into the corner where wall meets window.

for bookshelves that bend but do not break.

for that rare string of summer days when each night for two whole weeks, the four of us — a complete set in this house — fell asleep under the same single roof, awoke to the same morning stirrings, and reminded me why this little family i love is the most precious treasure in my whole entire life.

for planes that stayed in the sky, until time to land, for plastic shields and sanitizing gel that did their part to keep my continent-crossing people aloft and free of the virus. 

for the long-distance phone lines that kept us connected through the long and lonely — sometimes scary — hours of sheltering in place.

for the deadlines and bylines that put purpose to my writing life.

for lightbulbs that shine so i can read the page.

for all the orchards near and far that turn blossoms to fruit, so harvests might be picked and i might bite into my daily dose of Jazz, or Envy, or Honeycrisp.

for the pie people — and especially Richard, my pierced-ear pie peddler at the farmer’s market — who keep us stocked in a summer’s worth of pie, and who have stocked my freezer full of six — count ‘em — six Thanksgiving-to-Christmas pumpkin pies….

for the fever that finally went down.

for the prayers that hold me in the great abyss of the night. and propel me out of bed each and every morning. 

for those rare magnanimous souls who forever keep us laughing, cranking joy out of the cracks and crevices of our lives.

for vote tallies that tilted toward justice and truth.

yes, for the uncluttered calendar of this COVID-strange year, for the Saturday nights when we don’t even need to put on our shoes, and no one needs worry about getting lost on a long drive home. 

for the gaggle of boys who’ve grown up at my kitchen table, in carpools, on the soccer fields i watched from the sidelines, the boys who now text me from college, who promise me they’re now immune to COVID and it’s safe for my non-immune boy to join them round backyard campfires, over these long winter months to come…

for the genius microbiologists inventing their way to life-saving, soul-saving vaccines.

for every voice broadcasting the message that masks and social distance are imperative, even when those voices are met with eye-rolls. or worse. 

oh, yes, for the sound of footsteps and creaking floorboards in the room up above, telling me someone is home, safe under his covers…

for not waking up on thanksgiving to a mind racing with mile-long to-do lists, and tables to set and refrigerator 3-D geometries to unpuzzle, for awaking on the national day of over-indulging not worried about cooking for a mere three. to this surreal year, with a light at the end of the long long tunnel…

for the sheer stresslessness of cooking for three, in a house with a roaring fire, the referee whistles of football, and the breast of turkeybird who — after nearly twice the projected cooking time — finally succumbed to golden perfection. and for the prosecco by the glassful that washed it all down.

for Eugene Beals, the sheer genius of the five-member California Turkey Producers Advisory Board, who, back in the early 1970s, invented the little red pop-up turkey thermometer, in hopes of rescuing a hungry nation from the dried-out birds being pulled from ovens from sea to shining sea. 

for the pine trees and maples who laid down their lives to go up in flames in our soot-stained hearth. 

for the God who gives me this breath. and the next — or so i pray. 

for the God who doesn’t so much command my attention but rather taps me gently just behind the ribs, on the wall of that vessel that holds so much, sometimes taking my breath away at the sight of a star-stitched sky, or a mama robin beak-feeding squiggly worms to her babies, or the dawn breaking open the indigo night.

for my holy trinity; my three musketeers; my heart, my soul, my everything: my blair, my will, my teddy…..

for all this, dear holy Maker and Infuser of Breath and Beauty, i drop to my knees, open my heart and whisper a most emphatic blessed be thank you……

(sadly, only two of these three were taken this week; the one on the far right is from way back last Christmas….)

and what might be a few of the things for which you are so deeply grateful?

(depending how i count, i seem to be teetering at about the 118 mark in the litany above. oh well. i am certain i will fling off my sheets in the middle of the night suddenly realizing i’ve forgotten the most important 119, 120, 121…indeed the trials of counting your blessings: you cannot stop once you’ve begun…)

those immutable ballasts

super worm mooon

super worm moon 2020, just when we needed a night light

the other night, back in the days when i was still driving to the train most evenings to ferry home the fellow working downtown, back before the red-ringed virus found its way into the glassy tower where he works, back before they–and the rest of the world–sent everyone home, the moon hovered just over the fence line. the moon—big and whole and bright in a way a screen never will be–it stopped me in my tracks.

the moon made me weep the other night.

the moon wasn’t budging. not a kerfuffle in the world could get in the way of the moon doing what it’s done since the beginning of time. and, somehow, that certainty saved me. gave me just enough breath to fill up my soul and my air sacs.

felt like it all but reached out to tap me on the shoulder (or maybe the heart), to save me, to steady me, to give me the something to lean on i needed.

there it was, at the end of a long blurry day, when schools were closing, and produce aisles were beginning to sound a wee bit risky, there it was, taking up more of the sky than i could remember. it was, to my little mind, as if God–or whatever you call the abiding holiness–had pinned it there. just for all of us to see: it wasn’t going anywhere. it had shined before over terrible times. over atomic bombs, and world wars and crusades. it had shined over riots and the night the cities burned down. the moon, and those forces that hold it in place, they weren’t going anywhere. we could count on that one thing.

next morning, just as the sun was peeking over the same horizon–endless cycle, one rising after another–the woodpecker flew to my feeder. as did the cardinals. and the blue jay. their flutterings were not interrupted; they carried on. and so should i, so should we. all of us. maybe more together than we’ve been in a very long time.

maybe, at long last, the glues that bind will come out of hiding. maybe we’ll realize the one true thing is that nucleus of goodness that lives in our hearts. maybe reaching out (elbow-bump style) will be the thing that not only saves us, but carries us onward and upward.

maybe when we’re a little bit rattled, maybe when we’re scared, we can stop all the posturing and pretending we’re not in it together. maybe it’s taking a germ to shake us free from the ugliness, from the us-versus-them, that’s been choking us. truly been making it harder and harder to breathe. maybe this is the germ to wipe out the toxins. or some of them anyway.

in the last few hours, my virtual mailbox, the one i can open without shuffling down the sidewalk, it’s been filling with words from around the world really, words that just might serve to save us, to remind us how much of a difference a kindness will make.

this from a rabbi: rabbi wisdom

this from my priest:

In this time of pandemic, I am reminded of the parts of our scriptures that speak to people who were facing the most frightening thing imaginable in their time–the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple–apocalyptic scriptures that seem hyperbolic until we too are in a frightening situation and those words of God’s providence and presence amidst crisis are somehow just the thing I was thirsty for but didn’t know it. We couldn’t have predicted that Lent would be a period of unknowing and wilderness in quite this way, but here we are; so we enter in.

right now, when we’re holed inside our houses (or at least that’s where the public health experts hope and pray that we are), when we can’t literally squeeze each other’s hands, words might save us. words are breath put to sinewy cords, words are breath that rises from lungs, from the pit of the soul, really.

words, sometimes, are those intangible tangible ballasts and vessels that break through the barrier, shatter the walls we erect. words put breath to kindness, to empathy, to saying aloud, “i’m just a little bit scared. tell me we’ll all be all right.” words carry joy, carry laughter. words make us laugh out loud–and we can use a good dose of that now. words sometimes make us weep; sometimes in the very best way because they put syllables to the truth of who we are: we’re all alone except for each other, and the one immutable force, the one unconquerable truth is that love wins, love heals, love washes away whatever needs rinsing. love binds. love travels far and wide and without the laws of physics. love is the mightiest breath that ever there was (ask anyone who’s grieving; they’ll tell you the depths of the ache and the anguish, they’ll tell you how sometimes–out of the blue–it’s an updraft that fills them and lifts them again, as if the someone they loved just swept them up by the heart).

so, for the duration of this red-ringed hiatus, let’s put those words to the business of loving. of reaching out. of checking in. of whispering soothing certainties. of making each other laugh out loud. of reminding: the force of our love, collectively, is an immutable, indomitable thing. we might be felled by a fever, but no one, no one can suck the love from our hearts or our souls. together, we rise.

just as the moon and the sun. again and again and again. amen.

if the spirit moves me in these long days ahead, i might post a few extra words here at the chair. maybe down in the comments, maybe in posts that don’t come only on fridays. these are uncharted times, begging uncharted adventures. 

how are you faring, and what are some of the words in days past that have given you hope or joy or a sure sense of belonging to the great and glorious ring of indomitable human family?

public health announcement: the surest equation to “flatten the curve” (that is slow the incline of coronavirus cases) is to minimize contact with those beyond the house where you dwell. this might last for a month; no one can tell us for certain. no need to wipe the grocery shelves clean; no need to hoard (my brother stood in a grocery line behind a woman with a cart filled with new york strip steaks–go figure!). get good sleep. wash your hands. sit in the sun (vitamin D is an immune booster). flush yourself with plain old water; try to keep your mouth from getting dry. the more religiously we can stick to the stay-out-of-crowds plan, the sooner we make it to the days of life after corona….

blessings to my beloved maureen, who sent along the words from the rabbi; to my priest, kat, who is ever wise. blessings to one of our wonderful chair sisters who–egad!–was bitten by a rattlesnake the other day, and is suffering terrible pains (and might be out of the ICU by now). may everyone who wanders by this ol’ table and chairs be safe and well, and surrounded by love. xoxo

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

ice-raid-kids-01-wjtv-jc-190808_hpMain_4x3_992

magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

IMG_0092

this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

special edition: book for the soul

IMG_2140

how unlike me to post on a thursday, but i’d already had thoughts about tomorrow, and didn’t want this latest book for the soul to get lost. i’ve been waiting weeks and weeks for this to run in the chicago tribune, because i can’t post here till my book for the soul reviews run there. at long last! i’ve been dying to tell you more about this most amazing soulful “urban monk,” christine valters paintner, who is among the most soulful souls i’ve run across in my kitchen table literary travels, where i follow tributaries and estuaries, one after another, never knowing where one will lead, never knowing what amazement i will bump into. i’d been reading another one of her books, “the soul’s slow ripening: 12 celtic practices for seeking the sacred” — mentioned here — when suddenly from the daily mail there tumbled this newest collection of her poems. call it serendipity, or call it “the gods smiled.” (i’ll take the smile…) i promise if you click over to abbey of the arts, and poke around for a while, you will be restored, refreshed, refueled, and ready to tie on your hiking shoes and head for the celtic ruins of wherever christine leads you. my dream, as of a few months ago, is to one day trek the wild ancient places of western ireland with christine. i feel drawn to her sacred discipline, to her profound and soulful poetry and wisdoms. i hope you do too.

‘Dreaming of Stones’: Poetry collection offers spiritual solace

W4WDZ2OUV5B7XAPXCZWLXRYA2A

By BARBARA MAHANY | CHICAGO TRIBUNE |

Dreaming of Stones: By Christine Valters Paintner, Paraclete, 96 pages, $18

To enter the pages of Christine Valters Paintner’s “Dreaming of Stones” feels akin to wandering the undulations of Celtic wilds, the barren landscape that cloisters timeless secrets and truths. It’s not hard to imagine ancient ruins off in the mist-drenched distance. Nor to hear the cry of North Atlantic winds, sweeping across moor and mountain. It’s haunting and it’s beautiful.

Most of all, it’s to find yourself at home in a place you’ve never been — the very definition of soulful retreat.

And so it is in this first full poetry collection by Paintner, a writer, painter and Benedictine oblate who moved to the west coast of Ireland in 2012. She now calls herself the abbess — or “urban monk and part-time hermit” — of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and global ecumenical community that combines contemplative practice and the arts.

No less than Richard Rohr, the best-selling spiritualist and Franciscan friar, writes that Paintner’s poems “have both a mystical and earthly sensibility, drawing us to the transcendent as well as the immanent presence of the divine.” Paintner herself writes that “poetry is language carved down to its essence,” and she calls these 80 poems “little love notes to the world.” Love notes of the soul, perhaps.

Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.

The poems here are distillations of the most enduring wisdoms — love, hope, heartache, the unfolding of time — penned with a painstaking eye on the earthly. Carved out of the raw stuff of existence, especially in these troubled times, these dispatches offer safe harbor for taking stock, seeing the sacred, absorbing the solace.

And as with all the finest poetry, it’s the unwritten volumes beyond the words that hold our lingering attention. To enter these poems is to slow time, to pause long enough to grasp what might otherwise have escaped us.

The poems here might as well be prayers — many of them anyway. Others put words to lasting truths.

In one of the collection’s six sections, in a poem titled “St. Gobnait and the Place of Her Resurrection,” Paintner writes: “Is there a place for each of us, / where we no longer yearn to be elsewhere? / Where our work is to simply soften, / wait, and pay close attention?”

Or, pages later, in “St. Brigid and the Fruit Tree,” this: “Your tears splashed onto / cold stony earth, ringing out / like bells calling monks to prayer, / like the river breaking open to / the wide expanse of sea. … There will always be more grief / than we can bear … Life is tidal, rising and receding, / its long loneliness, its lush loveliness, / no need to wish for low tide when / the banks are breaking.”

In her afterword, Paintner writes of her devotion to the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke and “the way he wrote about the God of darkness and mystery, the God who loves the questions rather than the answers.” She shares that inquiry. And it’s her hope, she writes, that those who find their way through “Dreaming of Stones” find “a moment of sanctuary” in its pages.

The poet’s prayers, then, are answered. This collection — probing the mystery and the darkness, embracing the god of question not answer — indeed carves out sanctuary in a most turbulent landscape, amid these wild, wild times.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

 

once upon a poetry school…

dispatch from 06510, aka PoetryLand

I could barely sleep the night before it all began — though truth is, it’s because my firstborn was flying across the continent, rising out of a blood-red cell on the weather radar map (“insane,” he declared the weather, as the hour grew later and later, long past the scheduled time for takeoff) and it made no matter that I was 1,800 miles from the epicenter of his Texas-sized storm, mothers don’t leave their firstborns to fly unwatched. I prayed that plane to safe landing, round 4 in the morning, and then I tossed and turned, awaiting Poetry School.

I’d flown some 750 miles all my own to get here, where, for one short week, I’m deep in make-believe. Making believe that I am back in college — make that cobblestone, storybook college. Lugging past Gothic towers and campaniles with my book bag, my syllabus, my three-ring binder, and reams and reams of poems in my tousled-pewter noggin.

Because I’ve homework due at the clang of the school bell today (and because I’m typing on my itty-bitty screen), I might need to practice the art of brevity (though I could go on and on). For the first time since perhaps eighth grade, my homework is to memorize — and recite — a poem, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I’ve lines to go before I shlep up the very steep hill to P School.

I will tell you this, though: In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have dreamed up a more bespoke week for my little monastic self. I’m holed up in the apartment of the boy I love, the one who’s deep in study of the law. (The gnawingly haunting thing is that he’s not here, and while I love being wrapped in this charmed aerie overlooking the steeples and bell towers of New Haven, I feel the ghost of him everywhere, hear echoes of his life here, but it’s all just beyond my fingertips, and the proximity without the presence makes my whole self ache in that way that absence does.)

I’ve carved a path to all the quirky eateries, where alongside folks with purple hair and piercings by the dozens I gorge on voluminous veggie salads, and don’t worry that anyone’s cocking a quizzical eyebrow.

But best of all, it’s the red-brick Jeffersonian quadrangle at the top of Prospect Hill. Inside the labyrinth of corridors and classrooms, I’ve found a place that hits you between the eyeballs with capital-K Kindness, the rarest of commodities in the world these days. The etched-in-brick gestalt, clearly, is “do no harm.” Not to the spirit of those around you, not to the power grid, the water table, and certainly not to Mother Earth. Heck, all the plates and cups and forks and knives in the Old Refectory are compostable. Meat is decidedly absent at nearly every communal grazing; God save the cows, apparently. Everybody smiles. Oh, and prayers come in every religion under the sun.

(I suppose I should mention this is Divinity School, after all, one founded by those sturdy-spined Congregationalists back in 1822, and in the two centuries since, a whole parade of notable senators, preachers, and statesfolk have prayed their way through these hallowed halls.)

In a looming seminar room at the top of a stairs, where sky-high windows let in sun or shadow, howl of wind or rain thrashing against the panes, a rare professor — rare in that he, too, is kind above all, and brilliant — teaches us to pull back every thread of every poem, to pay attention to the white space, the word choice, the lack of comma or capital, and most of all to ask what question the poem is begging of us?

I’d be lying if I didn’t let on that on Day One, I fell in love with my compatriots in the class (officially titled, “Reading Poetry Theologically”), and I’ve only fallen deeper and deeper as the days, and tender revelations, have unfurled.

There’s the 17-year-old from the Upper East Side who every day rides 2.5 hours each way on the train from Grand Central Station, and makes it home each night because, she told us, her mother “believes in family dinner.” She could double for an angel that girl, with her alabaster skin and tumbling blond curls, and when she told us how her father died when she was only six, and how for years, she hated any God who could let that happen, I was not the only one wiping away a tear.

Before we get to the oldest in the class — she’s “past 80” is all she’ll let on, but we know she’s older than the Episcopal priest who confesses to being 82 — here’s the rest of the class list: the poet, the journalism professor, three priests in total, one priest’s wife, and a chaplain from Hong Kong. (Oh, and me, too.)

Elaine, aka Past 80, is a story all her own (and I am over-the-moon for her, and pray we’ll become penpals). Suffice it to say, you might mistake her for, well, Geraldine Page in her role as Truman Capote’s doddering discombobulated decades-older cousin in “A Christmas Memory,” in the way she comes to class with cardigan buttoned askew, short gray bob flying every which way (as does mine, by the way), and shiny beads in ropes and ropes and more ropes. After telling you she was forever too qualified to get the teaching job she’d longed for, she recites her litany of degrees, sounding not unlike the Twelve Days of Christmas: one PhD, three masters, and two bachelor’s degrees. (She will also tell you her first husband left her — and their three young children — for his secretary, and then she’ll whisper an epithet.) While compiling her alphabet of degrees, she spent a few years in Alabama where she criss-crossed the back roads with her pen and notebooks, gathering oral histories for her dissertation on Southern white pastors and the Civil Rights Movement, and yesterday at (meatless) lunch, she had me and a table full of bent-close listeners riveted by her tales. And then she pulled from her satchel, a copy of that very book, published just last year; “only took 26 years to get it published,” she quipped, giggling. For so demure a gentle soul (and one who’s emphatically hard of hearing, besides), she can spin one mean yarn.

Oh, there’s so much more. But I can hear the lines of Manifesto whispering to me now….

…Go with your love to the fields. Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head / in her lap. Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts. / As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.

And I’ve syllables and pauses to learn by heart. So I can rise at Poetry School, and not be mortified.

Brilliant, and kind, professor, pointing to poet gallery at Poetry School, aka “Reading Poetry Theologically” at Yale Divinity School

Pray tell, what one poem might you choose to memorize? And if poetry’s not your thing, how have you tiptoed out on a limb most recently?

extra special edition: glorious books for the soul

IMG_1042

this is the second of two posts today because, silly me, when i posted season of stillness earlier this morning i didn’t realize the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul — really fine books for the soul — was already posted online. egad. 

so here tis, a double dose for this friday snuggled in the depths of hanukkah and advent and  however you mark the deepening of winter to come….

if you put just one book on your wish list, or your giving list, i’m thinking i’d pick one of these. see if you can guess which would be my number one? 

Christian Wiman’s memoir reflects on years as editor of Chicago-based Poetry magazine, plus Anne Lamott, Elaine Pagels

Barbara Mahany

“He Held Radical Light” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $23

The epigraph, perhaps, whispers the secret of what’s to come in the pages of poet Christian Wiman’s latest soul-searing memoir, “He Held Radical Light.” The epigraph, from Juan Ramon Jimenez, reads: “The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists.”

So begins Wiman’s wrestling with art and faith, faith and art, driven by the question, “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?”

The book follows Wiman’s earlier, brilliant memoir, “My Bright Abyss,” composed in the wake of his 2011 bone marrow transplant. In this latest work, Wiman — who teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School — offers a volume that is part memoir (his years as the Chicago-based editor of Poetry magazine), part anthology (a compendium of poems lucidly critiqued), and, delightfully, a recounting of close encounters of the most curious kind with a Who’s Who of Poetry. He recalls Mary Oliver stuffing half a dead pigeon in her pocket, Seamus Heaney leaning in at a crowded dinner table and beginning an intimate conversation about faith, and A.R. Ammons refusing to read in front of an audience.

Early on in this book that reads like an unfiltered tete-a-tete, Wiman writes that when he left college, he set out to be a poet who would write “a poem that would live forever.” He has done that with this magnificent, radiant memoir.

“Almost Everything” by Anne Lamott, Riverhead, 208 pages, $20

Before you’ve turned even two pages in Anne Lamott’s newest, “Almost Everything,” you might hear yourself thinking aloud that, surely, she’s been peeking in through our windows, diagnosing the terrible straits of our souls. And, thus, she’s dive-bombed this balm straight down the chimney, just in the nick of sweet time. How’d she know how hopeless it’s felt? How bottomless? How’d she know these were the words we so needed?

Over the decades, through her 10 earlier nonfiction books, plenty of us have grown to trust Lamott’s spiritual compass. We settle in quickly here, knowing just around the next sentence she might pry open our heart, and pack in truths we will mull long after we’ve put down her pages.

“It is hard here,” she writes, with bracing honesty, and by “here,” she means this moment on planet Earth. Her subject is hope; she offers it in lines like this: “our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day.” Again and again, Lamott steers us in and out of the canyons and potholes of despair.

“We have all we need to come through,” she assures. “Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter how many messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.”

“Why Religion?” by Elaine Pagels, Ecco, 256 pages, $27.99

Elaine Pagels, one of the great voices in American theology, plunges her reader into an abyss of grief before even the midpoint of her latest work, “Why Religion? A Personal Story.” But fear not.

As Pagels masterfully interweaves her personal story with her profound insight honed through by a career in academia, she offers her reader a lifeline toward hope, toward light after darkness. Along the way, she answers her titular question — Why religion? — by illuminating an ancient truth of human experience: religion, a construct of cultural beliefs and traditions, holds at its core the power to “heal the heart.”

In “Why Religion,” Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, departs from the scholarly writing that propelled her earlier works, “The Gnostic Gospels” and “Beyond Belief,” to critical and popular acclaim. Here, in a memoir that wrenchingly recounts the slow death of her 6-year-old son, Mark, and a year later the mountain-hiking accident that killed her physicist husband, Heinz, she bares her incomprehensible, nearly unbearable grief.

Pagels’ fluency and nimble excavation of the wisdom found in the Gnostic Christian texts is what gives her — and her readers — a certain glimpse of a redemptive truth, and an exit route from the griefs that are sure to come to us all.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

a compendium of what we ache for…

Video-Justin-Finding-Out-Great-News

some weeks feel like someone’s pulled the plug at the bottom of the bathtub and all the suds — and the baby, too — are shlurping down the drain. this was one of those weeks, when day after day some stumbling block or very steep incline got tossed on my trail through the woods.

i was just about giving up hope. and i realized i wasn’t alone. there was my friend whose kid is in rehab, and she got a middle-of-the-night call that he wanted to quit, was deadset on coming home. even if he had to hitchhike — and bottom out — to get there. from the far left coast. there was another friend whose kid was rushed to surgery with a failing kidney. there was, as always, the national news, which more days than not feels as if someone’s cranked the spigot to full toxic poison and left it to drip, drip, drip.

and there was my own personal trove of worry. packed in that box there’s one prayer in particular that i nearly gave up on. made me start to wonder if anyone was listening. do you ever wonder the same? start to think that maybe your line’s been cut, and the wires to heaven you’ve long depended on, they’ve been snipped and they’re dangling? all you hear is the buzz of a line gone dead?

some weeks i feel i’ve little to say here. think i’ve no right to take up your time or the oxygen in the room. that’s not uncommon among women who grew up like me, taught to be nice or be quiet. i plod on anyway, because i made a promise — to me and to you — that i’d be here on fridays, find something to say. maybe even one glimmering shard of hope to break through the murk.

it’s not often i turn to the world outside to find us all a bit of solace, of something like faith. or even of joy. but in the last 24 hours, the universe seems to be racing to our rescue. shimmering shards are suddenly falling, one after another, onto my path, our path.

turns out, it’s become something of a compendium of what i’ve been aching for: tales of resilience. words of breathtaking wonder.

some weeks, we need to lean on the ones all around us. this is one of those weeks.

here’s this, from the glorious folks at nike. once upon a time i thought nike built shoes. but now i know better. i know they build from the best of the human character. they remind us who we can be. they carry us across finish lines — the ones in our hearts, and the ones in the woods.

take a look. and a listen: witness the moment justin finds out he’s the first signed pro athlete with cerebral palsy.

and now, while you perhaps dry your tears (pass me the carton of kleenex), here’s a poem from one of the patron saints of the chair, our beloved blessed mary oliver:

In the Storm
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,
and settled
in a row
behind the ducks —
whose backs were also
covered with snow —
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the duck’s tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
crouch there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
~ Mary Oliver ~
(Thirst)
listen hard to those last few stanzas:
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
everyone wants a miracle. kindness is a miracle. go make a miracle. it’s the surest lifeline i know.
as if all that doesn’t have you buckling in, buckling down, revving your engines of hope, seeing straighter than you’ve seen in a while, how bout this from a blessing among us, a friend with stage 4 breast cancer, now metastasized to all the wrong places. she’s stopped treatment, she is living with her heart and her arms and her soul wide open. here’s a line from a poem she wrote, her litany of happinesses. she has one beautiful son. she moved to california while he studied at stanford. he is her everything, and she is his. she wrote this:

My dearest, most tender
boy. To describe him … is to
try to name those unnameable colors
and why bother. It’s all love.

Nothing matters here but life.
Nothing is in my thoughts but life.
I sit feet from the ocean and am bathed in this lucky life.*

go out and gather your shimmering shards, your miracles, and joys. and please report back….
what miracles fell on your path this week?
*poem and love from the incomparable robbie k….

nowhere i’d rather be

dispatch from 06510…

need i say a word? i’m pretty much at the crosshairs of latitude and longitude that most makes my heart zing — the seventh-floor aerie of the law student i love. made myself a promise that grew into a dream i’d not let go of, that pushed me to click the button that bought the ticket for the plane and the little green van that got me to here, 765 miles from the dot on the map that most often is mine.

“can we have a day?,” he’d long ago asked me, a question that became a code to live by. “can we have a day?” to love and to savor? to dilly and dally and do as we please, no rules, no time clocks, no prescribed agendas?

unless the agenda, of course, is the joy of being side-by-side. unscripted. bound only by unbridled, unscripted love and delight. delight in calling across a room — because you’ve just had a thought. or whispering as you walk down the sidewalk. seeing the same sight at the same time and reveling in that one simple joy — because it’s so very rare, the gift of your footsteps in echo.

so why oh why have i awoken with quite a few spots, not of the bug-bite variety? oh, lordy. can i not take an adventure without heaping on a twist and a turn? can a grownup get measles or pox? might i be allergic to new haven air? my plan is as old as the movies: take two aspirin, and dial the doc. whatever this is, i cannot leave it behind. no remnants allowed in the virus department. maybe it’s nothing other than an invisible mosquito, or a rash that can’t connect its own dots.

for now, while those little white aspirin get to work, i intend to live every ounce of our promise: to live this day and the next and the next and the next as if there’s no holier hour than this one that is fully and finally upon us.

if you could just have a day with whom would it be, and how would you spend it?

i’m-not-sure-who-it’s-comforting-more food

peach-blueberry bread pudding.3

in which we momentarily retreat to the comfort kitchen as the world wears us ragged, and sometimes our sphere of true influence has shrunken to a concentrated radius of one (maybe two on a good day…)…

the leftover challah called to me, as it so often does. every friday the braided loaf of eggy dough finds its way to our shabbat table, and every morning thereafter the mostly untouched loaf (for we tear off only a few shabbat chunks on most friday nights) whispers louder and louder from the basket where it idles in quasi-retirement.

it begs to be rescued from its shoved-aside status, to be transformed in miraculous ways. bread pudding, most often, is the solution.

this week, once i plunked the getting-staler challah onto the cutting board (my tangible reminder to do something with it) my getting-taller-by-the-hour almost-senior in high school chimed in. “oh, mom, could you make it with peaches and blueberries this time? remember you said you would?”

this was not such a radical advance, this seasonal iteration of the bread-egg-and-milk puddingy pablum. but it was a certain departure from the same-old, same-old in which i chop up apples, throw in handfuls of shriveled-up raisins or cranberries, await cloud-like perfection. this called for summery attention to be paid, called for a trip to the produce bin where i found white-fleshed peaches in all their colorless glory, and blueberries by the bushel-load.

wasn’t long till i was sinking into the familiar rhythm of this recipe i know by heart (though for good measure i nearly always pull mark bittman off the shelf — or, specifically, his “how to cook anything” bright-yellow-covered cookery volume).

once i sliced into the peaches, though, my grandma entered the room. there she was, in pure imagined vapors, standing just behind my shoulder, urging me to reach for the brown-sugar canister, where i would partake of one of my grandma’s signature summery moves: douse the sliced, moist peaches in spoonfuls of deep-brown granular sweetness, allow the peachy juices to swirl with the sugar; tuck aside while golden-hued syrup emerges, the taste of summer defined.

and that was precisely the moment i realized that this comfort food for my sweet boy was just as much comfort for me in the making. there i was alone in my kitchen — me and my bread and my cream and my summery peaches — when all of a sudden i was visited by my long-gone grandma, i was swooped back in time and in space to her cincinnati kitchen in the ivy-covered brick house as sturdy and ample as was my grandma.

i was, for one sweet interval, far far from the news of the day, far from the grown-up worries that some days so weigh me down. it was just me and days-old bread, and the alchemy of sugar and peach. who knew such potency lay just beneath the fuzzy-fleshed skin of the fruit?

it’s the one room where this summer i’ve found a joy that might make me hum. that and the porch where i read.

should you want to play along, here’s my roadmap to summery joy — the blueberry-peach bread-pudding rendition thereof….

teddy’s bread pudding, the peachy summer edition*

  • 3 cups milk (or cream)
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, more for greasing pan
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ loaf sweet egg bread like challah or brioche, torn into 2-inch cubes (about 5 to 6 cups)
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 3 peaches, sliced
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup blueberries
  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Over low heat in a small saucepan, warm milk, butter, 1/2-cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and salt. Continue cooking just until butter melts. Meanwhile, butter a 4-to-6-cup baking dish and tear the bread into bite-sized bits. Place the bread in baking dish.
  2. Slice peaches into separate medium-sized mixing bowl; stir in brown sugar. Set aside (wherein magic ensues, and syrup emerges). Rinse blueberries, and allow to drain.
  3. Once peaches are bathing in their brown-sugary juices (anywhere from five to 10 to even 15 minutes should do it), dump fruits atop bread chunks. Stir gently.
  4. Pour hot milk over bread, peaches, and blueberries. Let it sit for a few minutes, poking down the occasional chunk of bread that rises to the top. Beat the eggs briefly, and stir them into bread and fruit mixture. Mix together remaining cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle over the top. Set the baking dish in a larger baking pan, and pour hot water into the pan, to within about an inch of the top of the baking dish, effectively making a bath for your bake.
  5. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until custard is set but still a little wobbly and edges of bread have browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

inhale the endless comfort vapors….

*thank you, mark bittman, for your endless guidance and your recipe on much-splattered page 662.

what foods bring you as much comfort in the making as in the consuming?

IMG_0451