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Category: winter

abominable winter

excuse me if i sound grumpy today, though i do think it’s fine to know that moods come in all sorts of colors. and my color today is grumpy gray. i might be suffering a slight case of the housebounds, in which we’re more or less stuck in the house thanks to the veritable stalactites of ice that have formed just above our front door.

to enter or exit by way of the ice cave is an obstacle of death-defying proportion. there’s the dripping from way up above, and the stoop where you’d step is a sleek sheet of bone-breaking ice; the buckets we’ve plonked there under the drips seem to fill by the hour. i fear the leaking to come once the layers of snow begin their unrestrained melt—but that’s getting ahead of the worries (a particular knack i’m not proud of).

we’d be utterly stuck in the house if not for the snowman i married, who courageously set out across the tundra to get to the store in his snow boots, trekking down the middle of streets, the only path cleared by the snow plows. he saved the day, yes he did, when he ferried home 10 pounds of ice-melting salt.

after a day of gently and safely making some headway, i decided not to leave well enough alone. i decided to get in on the act, ignoring the fact that my bones are quite thin and quite brittle. and for reasons that now escape me, i decided to bang on the bucket of ice with my fist. one swift thwack and i realized quite clearly my ignorance. 

as i sit here typing with ice pack wrapped round my wrist, and a makeshift splint holding it tight, i’m scanning the forecasts for any degrees higher than freezing. since typing makes me wince, and i’d best store up for the pages i’ve yet to type for that book in the works, i shall once again make short of it here, and leave you with a sure cure for the housebound blues (or the grumpy grays, should that be your color of choice).

once upon a healing soak, a do-it-yourself hot-water escape…

try this: fill your tub with the hottest water your naked limbs can take, plop in a few shakes of DIY bath salts, instructions courtesy of an old homesteader below. dawdle there till your skin wrinkles like raisins, or you feel your mood starting to lighten (whichever comes first). if this doesn’t work, play polynesian tunes, and sway in your towel, as if on the beach on a faraway island.

you’ll need: 

  • ½ cup epsom salts
  • ½ cup sea salt
  • ½ cup baking soda
  • 10-15 drops of essential oils (find variations and formulations below)

mix the epsom salts, sea salt and baking soda together in a bowl. add your essential oils. rule of thumb here is 10 drops per cup of the salt mixture, so in this case you’ll need15 drops of whatever your essential oil. use less if you like things on the milder side.

scoop it into a jar with a lid; any washed-out vessel will do. save the extra for your next gray or blue day.

now, a few essential oil concoctions for your DIY bath salts; take your pick, depending on whatever it is you’re after, a little tranquility, petal-soft skin, or the chance to take a deep cleansing breath:

tranquility blend:

10 drops lavender oil

5 drops vetiver (the oil of tranquility, apparently)

a blend for petal-soft skin:

5 drops lavender oil

5 drops frankincense

5 drops palmarosa

  • you could use 10 drops lavender + 5 drops frankincense if you don’t have palmarosa on hand.

deep-breathing blend:

10 drops eucalyptus

5 drops tea tree

i could be coming to you next week from an ark, should these bergs start to melt with alacrity. in the meantime, do tell of your cures for the deep-winter blues.

brace yourself, baby…

waking up to a wind chill of -6, gliding into my fleece-lined yoga pants (yes, they make them!), my chilly thoughts turn to someone i’ve come to love dearly who is, for the first time in her california-girl life, waking up to this subzero shock to the ol’ ticker. she moved to these parts just as the october winds were picking up, and she thought that was cold! best i can think is: at least it’s not an earthquake. but i figured i owe her a welcome-to-deep-freeze, the chicago version of winter.

dear california girl,

um, welcome to february. bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a polar vortex. well, glide open your sliding porch door (if you can dislodge the ice and the snow jamming its tracks), stick out any limb you’re willing to sacrifice, and voila, that’s what the vortex feels like, that’s how cold it can make your blood run.

so, given that this is your first round of the deep freeze we call chicago, the goosebump capital of the midwest, i figured i might pass along the few things that i’ve learned over the years here on the tundra.

first, forget sleek silhouettes. we’re going for bulk here. we like to dress like we’re walking, talking bed pillows. the more layers and fluff we can stuff round our parts, the happier we hum (see “dress union suit” above). extra credit if you can see someone’s eyes. we are big believers in total occlusion of all open face parts. just cover ’em up with whatever might stretch over your head. big socks work in a pinch. but around here, we stock up on headgear with nothing but peep holes. think golf club covers, maybe minus the super-size tassel. COVID masks have nothing on us. we’ve been in the face-blocking business since, well, far back as i can remember. (note: that reminds me, sometimes the cold numbs your brain. just go with it. your gears will warm up again come the fourth of july.)

on the subject of sleeping, we look to the bears and their habits of hibernations. we find it’s important to stock up on lots and lots of berries before gliding into the caves. but instead of berries, plucked off the tangles of bushes, we cruise the grocery-store aisles, foraging wildly for sugars in their un-natural forms. cookies, crackers, whole tubs of häagen-dazs; these all do the trick. we recommend hauling a cardboard box to your bedside; fill to the brim. this way, once you slide under the layers (more on that in a minute) you’ll not have much of a reach should your very cold tummy start to growl like a grizzly.

now, about the bedclothes (see note no. 1: “we’re going for bulk here”). we find it helpful to mound the blankets as if it’s a snow fort, only it’s mohair or wool or your old girl scout sleeping bag. we recommend staying under the covers as long as you can. there’s really no need to expose yourself to the harsh assaults of a cold trip to the bathroom when winds are howling like sirens just out the windows that shake. (note we did not use the Q word — “quake” — because that is a word that belongs to shakier parts of the continent, specifically the state that was yours. again, we pride ourselves on our relative stability here in the land of no nonsense.)

things to do in the arctic: here, we narrow the lens. fact is, there’s a lot you won’t want to do. you will not want to step out the door. so that lobs off a long chunk of the list. you might try turning pages, as long as you’re wearing mittens with lids, a novel invention that allows you to flip back the mitten tops and wiggle your pinkies whenever you must. i’ve heard tell that jigsaw puzzles are fine for a long winter’s nap, but it’s noticeably nettlesome to doze when a runaway piece is lodged under your bum, or stuck down by your toes under the bedsheets. perhaps that’s why some choose to set up their puzzles on a card table shoved next to the bed. daydreaming, i find, tends not to tax. all it involves is pointing your eyes on some wayward spot on the wall, out the window, or up on the ceiling, and then engage in a thought and see where it travels.

should all this well-padded exertion begin to make you hungry for things not stashed in your cave, you might try the polar vortex diet. this involves high-carb fare, mostly smothered in cheese. why do you think the swiss of the alps invented fondue? and look north to wisconsin, where it’s taken as fact that you make it through winter with barrels of cheddar. if you glance over toward iowa (that’s the square of a state just to the west) you’ll discover that they deep-fry whole sticks of butter. again, this makes chicago’s deep-dish pizza (protests late night’s jon stewart, “it’s not pizza, it’s a casserole!”) look svelte and quite chic.

my short list is drawing to a close. fact is, the vortex won’t last forever. and i’ve shared all the basics: wardrobe, fuel, and diversion. mostly, just tough it out. it’s where we here in the middle lands get all our muscle. we’re a somewhat lesser species than those of the arctic circle, and we’d collapse in the tremor of earthquake, but when it comes to facing into the wind howling off the great vast lake, we’re sturdy as they come.

and no richter scale needed.

love, the bundled one

let me know what i’ve missed of the must-know and must-haves in the vortex survival guide. your input, always essential.

just decided to drop a little mac-and-cheese recipe, though the trouble to make it might make you wanna wait till the vortex is lifted. this, from the pages of Stillness of Winter, the beribboned little book i birthed this fall…

Cure-All Mac and Cheese (aka Vortex Survival Fare)

When the bee stings, or the homesick blues need quelling, this oozy spoonful of deliciousness belongs in a mama’s tin of kitchen cure-alls. It’s the ubiquitous remedy at our house for any ailment in the book. (And one or two make-believe ones, besides.) And it’s just what the doctor orders for frosty-cheeked rascals fresh in from the cold.

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995 

Yield: Serves 8 children

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1⁄2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound pasta, tubes or wagon wheels or whatever shape suits your fancy (a tube—penne or rigatoni, among the many—fills with the cheesy sauce and makes a fine, pillowy bite)
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 3/4 cups)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, coarse
1⁄4 cup (or more) Parmesan shavings 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better). 

In a 6-quart pot, bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta. 

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over moderately low heat, and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes; then whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat. 

Stir pasta into pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce, and 2 cups cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of, say, birthday or holiday jollity). 

In a small bowl, toss remaining 3⁄4 cup cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture, topping it all with a downpour of Parmesan shavings (a heavy hand with the cheese is never a bad thing, certainly not at my house where my boys insist I do so, preferring their cheese to supersede bread crumbs). 

Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: dig in.


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

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

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

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

By BARBARA MAHANY

December’s darkness is coming like never before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever astonished.

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

So do I. Maybe, so do you.

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

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

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

in the dregs of winter, follow along…

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it was, to put it somewhat crudely, the armpit of the week, in the armpit of the winter. it was a wednesday night and one of us had broken out in spots. it was february and the snow could not decide to come or go. and the hoary shade of gray out the window was unrelenting.

so i turned to that source of so much solace (and heartache) over the years: the pages of the news. specifically, to the squat square pages the new york times had generously tucked into sunday’s paper. ONE pot|pan|skillet: 24 brilliant recipes for everyone who hates doing the dishes. while i am not among the doing-dishes haters, i am hot on the trail of hauling only one vessel from the depths of where i stash those things. i flipped pages till i came to this: IMG_1327

perhaps it was the orange and red mosaic that reached out and grabbed me. perhaps it was the whisper of my lovely doctor, nudging me to eat more fish, to interrupt the endless nights of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. perhaps it was that nip of spatula en route to plopping a mound of mouth-watering hake onto my dinner plate.

mostly, i think it was the february doldrums, the pitiful sight of the man i love covered in spots we thought were shingles (turns out, they were not), and the simple hope that i could cook myself out of the late-winter rut.

i set out with shopping list, promptly scooped up peppers red and orange and yellow. zipped past the vinegar shelf and got myself a jug of sherry-tinged such stuff. stopped by the olive bar and scooped up a quarter pound from the briny vat in which they swam. oh, and i waited in line for the fishmonger to pluck from his case a hefty chunk of midwest hake (aka plain old cod).

i’m not usually a follower of recipes, but this day — in need of being pulled deep into something other than the news squawking from the box, and the spots at home — i sunk right in. i played along. step 1 to 2, all the way to 5.

IMG_1319i chopped myself my own peppery mosaic, in shades matisse or van gogh would have applauded. i skimmed the itty-bitty leaves of thyme right off their stems. and then i chopped (chopping in the end of winter is highly therapeutic; i recommend).

at last, as the chilly afternoon turned to chilly twilight, i cranked the oven. there began the shifts of submission, as heat turned peppers into succulence, and then raw fish — and olives and olive oil and scattered bits of thyme — became magnificence, as if lifted from aegean seas, and the kouzina of someone’s expert greek grandma.

what wound up on dinner plates was nothing short of wait-who-made-this?! had he not been busy scooping up every last bit with knife and fork, the gent across the table might well have lurched to his feet, and pressed palms in rapid-fire rat-a-tat (aka applause). instead, we both took certain note of what a difference a bit of concentration in the kitchen, the mere act of following instruction, submitting to excursion in the land beyond routine, could do to an otherwise humdrum wednesday.

it’s those nearly invisible moments, the ones we lift out of the ordinary, make sacramental through the sheer gift of our attention and our intent to lift them up, to hoist them from the ho-hum, that in the end makes each day count. and turns out swell eats, besides.

should you care to play along, here’s a very fine place to begin:

Sheet-Pan Roasted Fish With Sweet Peppers By Melissa Clark

YIELD 3 to 4 servings (i made for two, cutting quantity of fish in half, but keeping all the peppers)

TIME 40 minutes

Quick to make and very pretty to behold, this easy weeknight dish has more verve than most. The roasted bell peppers turn sweet and golden, while olives add a salty note that goes nicely with the mild, flaky fish and a garlicky parsley dressing. If you can’t find hake, cod or flounder make fine substitutes, though you may have to adjust the roasting time. The thicker the fillets, the longer they will take to cook. (i cooked cod at 475-degrees for 8 minutes.)

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INGREDIENTS

1 small bunch lemon thyme or regular thyme

1 1⁄2 pounds hake fillets (for two, i used 3/4 pounds cod)

Fine sea salt and black pepper

3 large bell peppers, preferably 1 red, 1 orange and 1 yellow, thinly sliced

4 1⁄2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1⁄4 cup pitted, sliced black or green olives, or a combination

1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, plus more to taste

1 garlic clove, grated

1 cup loosely packed Italian parsley leaves, chopped

 

PREPARATION

Step 1 Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pull 1 tablespoon thyme leaves off the bunch and finely chop.

Step 2 Season fish all over with a large pinch or two of salt and pepper and rub with chopped thyme leaves. Let rest at room temperature while you prepare peppers.

Step 3 Spread peppers on a rimmed sheet pan, and toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the black pepper to taste. Top peppers with the remaining thyme sprigs. Roast, tossing occasionally, until peppers are softened and golden at the edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 4 Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Push peppers to the edges of the pan, clearing a space in the center. Lay fish out on that empty space and drizzle with oil. Scatter olives over the top of fish and peppers. Roast until fish turns opaque and is just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes.

Step 5 Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette by combining vinegar, garlic and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, then whisk in parsley. Taste and add more salt or vinegar, or both, if needed. Serve fish and peppers drizzled with vinaigrette.

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i intend to cook my way through at least a dozen of the double dozen choices the times has laid down before me. we’ll be almost at the cusp of the vernal equinox by the time i’m there, and that, i’m certain, will all but save me.

what’s your sure cure for late-winter doldrums? have you heard the shift (and acceleration) in birdsong? that’s hope on a limb, if you ask me…..startles me with joy each and every morning…..

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wild things

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a mouse’s house? with front-porch perch…

it’s the permeability of winter, when the cell wall between the wild and the worldly is punctured, when the precious little things come out into the open, are pushed out into the open, all but tap at the window, beg for a taste of mercy, that’s holiness to me.

IMG_1231against the white tableau of snowy day after snowy day, winter makes evident the tracings of the wild things: a mouse hole here; chantilly-lace tracks of junco and cardinal and jay. even the abominable paw prints of a giant-sized coyote, straight from the woods, up my walk, paused there by the door (did he press his nose to the glass, take a peek under the cookie dome?).

each morning, no matter what the heavens are hurling my way, i don my make-believe farmer-girl boots, i scoop my battered old tin can, fill it with seed, and head out for what you might call matins, morning benediction. i bow to the heavens. scan the trees for any flash of scarlet, or blue-jay blue. i unfurl prayer upon prayer (the moon, if it’s shining, even a crescent or wedge, draws it deep out of me, never more so than in those inky minutes just before the dawn).

what i love about the wild, about this curious equation between us in our warm cozy kitchens and them seeking harbor in ways that mystify now and forever, is the fragile interplay in which we reach beyond what we know, extend an open palm of pure unbridled trust, an offering, no strings attached. it takes stripped-away ego to dare to tiptoe into the world of the wild. it takes a deep and undiluted knowledge of how small a dot we are against the vast canvas of the universe, all but insists we put aside our big ol’ bossy pants, our hurried agendas, our know-it-all nonsense.

it’s the very image of holy veneration: head bowed, palms extended. i come bearing sustenance, in the form of plain seed.

have you ever felt the backdraft of a feathered thing, as it’s flown inches away from your shoulder? have you felt the rush of the wing, heard the soft sound of feather and bone parting the wind?

and then there’s the shock of color, all day long, brush strokes of scarlet, of blue, of smoky charcoal. the boughs are alive, are animated. it’s not all black and white and static gray, not in my patch of the world anyway. all day long it’s a reminder, the wild is just beyond, the wild has wisdoms to teach. mercy is among the urgencies. mercy is what we need to remember; we are lacking in mercies these days.

who ever thought to bring so much wonder to winter? that’s the point at which my wondering leaps from earthly to divine. that’s where unshakeable faith begins to take hold. the wild begs questions that only the heavens can answer for me.

which brings me, round about and once again, to david whyte, whose poem the journey says everything i could ever hope to say with any string of words. have a listen:

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

from House of Belonging  and Essentials by David Whyte

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what wisdoms does the wild whisper to you?

and, while we’re here, the late january table brings a slew of birthdays: kerry down the lane today, beloved beloved pammy jo of the high desert, yesterday. british columbia mary and indiana BB on the 28th. happy blessed whirls around the sun, ladies. and thank you for your radiance….

the holy cloak of stillness

snow morning

view out my window at daybreak

the day was abuzz with the news: it was coming, beware! by twilight, the first shreds of evidence appeared — couldn’t have been more gentle, scant flakes tumbling, every once in a while caught in the porch light. and the broadcasts blared on: this winter’s big snow, enough snow to cancel the school bells, enough snow to bring on battalions of plows, it was coming. children — especially a high schooler i know with a giant biology test due for today — let out a whoop and slammed closed the text books. meiosis and mitosis would have to wait.

i went to bed. with the blinds up because there is nothing i love so much as awaking to snow fall. no matter the hour. the earlier the better.

and so i awoke to the holiest sound i know: still silence. not a peep or a plow. the barest whoosh of air swirling through snow-covered limbs. i stood there and drank it all in. only now, an hour or so after the light seeped in, only now is the faint chorus of chirps beginning to stir. not a plow. not a shovel. not a footfall.

a morning like this, i often think, is the closest God comes to putting a finger to lips, whispering, shhhhhhhhh. 

be still. 

open your ears, open your soul. drink. drink in the stillness, the quiet, the pause. settle your soul. put aside the rumblings that rumble. this dawn, this start to the day, is reminder: the holiest sound in the whole wide world is the sound of just listening. remember to listen.

what do you hear?  

it’s prescriptive, a snowfall like this. of all the choices in the meteorological tool kit, no other one comes with the soundtrack of silence. except, i suppose, pure sunshine. but then, for me anyway, that comes with an undercoat of moaning. too much sun and i start to wilt. i’ll take a brisk pure snow any day.

i intend to listen all day. i intend to pull out the blankets and mugs. i intend to settle onto the couch with my sweet boy who runs this way and that. he’s caught in the snow trap today. everything is cancelled. hallelujah!

just now, a bolt of scarlet feather flashed by the window and settled down on the snow-mounded feeder. i took it as a call for breakfast — a bird call, that is — so i shoved my toes into boots, and scooped up a can of sunflower seeds. it goes against my grain to unsettle snow, but i grabbed the shovel anyway — the cardinal was hungry, you see. and i shoveled myself a path. there’s at least a foot of snow out there. and with more abandon than usual, i dumped. there is now black seed speckling my snow because i decided to share with the squirrels, and the big red fox should he decide to show up today. (he’s been ambling by more and more often; the other morning, in fact, he curled up for a long winter’s nap — a good three-quarters-of-an-hour nap — smack in the middle of the yard, circling this way and that till he found just the right lump for a pillow.)

and now, as the snow drips from my hair, the flakes out the window have plumped to double or triple their original size. no wonder when we were little we liked the idea that the angels were having a pillow fight. and the heavenly feathers were spilling all over. i could sit here all day, announcing the shift in the flakes and the fall.

and maybe, just maybe, i will….

a day of pure stillness is ours. and i intend to savor it all. and quiet my soul while i’m at it…

what will you do with your day? snow day, or rain day, or day of pure sunshine, depending upon your spot on the weather map?

wintery blessings

cookie baking wintery blessings

it’s in the air, i know it. it seeps in through those unsuspecting places, the nooks and crannies of the heart that must be so hungry.

hungry for quiet, for the magic of christmas — the original hushed and hidden-away story, one that brings me to tenderest tears every time. every time i really truly stop to think the whole thing through, to absorb every blessed drop of a story that begins in deepest humility: travelers, bone-weary travelers trekking by donkey, who can’t find a room, who settle in the hollow of night in a shadow-laced barn, where a baby is birthed, wonder child, and laid in the feed trough, where the lowing of cows and the bleating of sheep fill in for the heavenly chorus.

it’s a story that begs silence, the in-rush of awe. it’s a story that begs us to listen. to stanch all the noise and perk up our ears. and our hearts.

i found myself nearly glistening yesterday, wrapped in the gray of the afghan day out my window. christmas-y tunes cranking loud and emphatically. dumping flour by the cupful into a bowl where eggs had been cracked, vanilla dolloped, and my grandma’s cookies once again were soon to be pulled from the oven. kitchens, of course, are magical places.

and this is the season for magic. this is the season that sparks the little child inside us all. maybe that’s why we wrap it in tissue-y papers, and tie it with candy-cane string. maybe that’s why we loop glistening lights onto already beautiful boughs from the forest. and dig deep in the recipe tin. to unearth a little bit of the child we were and always will be.

yesterday, i marveled at the circles of life: marveled that my grandma’s century-old recipe was printed onto a recipe card that came with a book that i wrote, and i was once again rolling out that buttery dough for those cookies, this year to be ferried to the school, the inner-city break-your-heart school, where my firstborn is now a teacher, teaching children from kindergarten to eighth grade how to read. i don’t think the layers of christmas get much more christmas-y, much more blessed, than that.

this year, especially, i’ve noticed that christmas — and with it a host of wintery blessings — comes whirling through the air, whether you’ve decked the house, or tucked away boxes. or not. this year at our house, not many boxes are tucked away. we’ve somehow slipped into a fairly box-less christmas. we’ve certainly dialed down the mad-dashing. i suppose i’ve spent too many christmases plum tuckered out by the time i panted across what felt like a finish line.

and the beauty of that — i seem to have discovered — is that i feel just as filled with christmas, with the essence of christmas, without all the noise. maybe because there’s so little noise.

there is simply a blanket of sumptuous calm — a gift in december, indeed. it’s rare, and it’s blessed. and it calls us by name, and by whisper. come, savor this hour; this hour is holy, this hour is yours.

in the spirit of quietly sharing this unfettered gift — the abundance of heart that tumbles down from the heavens (not unlike the few flakes that, on cue, just started to fall out my window) — i thought i’d bring to the table this morning a string of the wintery blessings my beautiful friends at abingdon press (the fine folks who published slowing time) made for me to sprinkle across the december landscape.

they must have workshops of elves who whip up these sweet little morsels. they’ve taken lines from the pages of slowing time, and made them into delectable little picture postcards (that’s how i like to think of them, anyway; in current vernacular they’re called “memes,” a word whose origins escape me completely). (p.s. of course i had to look it up, and my online dictionary tells me it’s a term coined by controversial evolutionary biologist richard dawkins in 1976 to convey the way cultural information is transmitted. aren’t you glad you now know?)

anyway, i thought i’d sprinkle a few across the table this morning. and they’re yours to keep, to do as you wish. you could print them out to make a holiday card. or tuck them into the pages of your favorite book. you could pin them on a cork board, of the actual or virtual variety. or you could simply scroll by, and think, oh, how nice.

here’s one… Meme-SavorWintersDream

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, oh look, here’s another…

Meme-ComeAlive-2

and then there’s this sweet one….

Meme-RedBird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and, at last, there’s this little bit of story time. so grab your mug, curl your toes under your bum, wrap in a blanket, and here’s little old me reading a wintery story……

those sweet elves made even more — a recipe card, among the stash — but that’s enough for this morning. if you care to see more, and happen to be on facebook, they’re being posted, blessing by blessing, on the Slowing Time page. or search for #WinteryBlessings.

for now, though, i’m slipping off to chase a few sugary sprinkles out of their hiding places. in the deep dark of last night, we had no real idea where the sprinkles were landing….

but first, deep-down wishes for the quietest, most blessed moments this season of stillness has to offer. may you find joy rushing into your heart, and awe filling your soul.

love, quietly,

bam

what do you count among your wintery blessings?

how do the heavens know?

IMG_6263

i can’t begin to count the number of days it happens.

as the night lifts, as the dawn spreads across the landscape, as i begin to make out the shifting silhouettes of the grasses, of boughs, as a sparrow here, a cardinal there, begin to animate the tableau, i sense the day beginning to blanket me, soothe me, wrap my cold shoulders in what amounts to a shawl. a prayer shawl, more often that not.

so it was, when i awoke this week to a dawn draped in white. snow on the bricks and the sharp blades of grass, just starting to stick. snow on the bough beginning to clump. the world just beyond my window pane, a filigree of shadow and palest of light.

how did the heavens know? how did the Great Beyond know that i needed a morning’s blanket?

i needed stillness to step into.

the night had been long, had been tumbled. it was one of those nights when worry stitches each one of your dreams. you awake, yes, but you wonder if you’ve slept even a wink.

all you need on a morning like that is softness. is quiet. you need a world on its tiptoes, padded tiptoes. you need a morning that, like an old friend, understands without words. sidles up beside you, lays its head on your shoulder. breathes.

the morning needn’t rattle you. needn’t startle.

the morning comes softly. snow tumbles down. in flakes that shift from fat to fatter. you breathe. you inhale blessing, breath after breath, and then you let loose, your morning’s litany, petition tumbling on top of petition.

dear God, watch over him. dear God, protect her. dear God, forgive us; forgive us our endless temptations, our trespasses, too. dear God, forgive this globe that seems to be spinning too close to the edge of madness.

dear God, fill us with grace. give us strength. give us wisdom. and, please, for once, let words fall from our lips with half the sense we’d hoped they would hold.

dear God, blanket us. open our eyes, and our hearts. show us the way. let us startle someone in these hours ahead, with some blast of unheralded goodness. let us be the instrument of your peace. let us pass over temptation, not be the one to whisper the word that would cut to the quick. not turn the cold shoulder.

dear God, steady us. deepen us. let me be the vessel this day that carries you into the midst of the chaos. let me sow love. let me bring pardon. let me, in these hours ahead, scatter faith wherever there’s doubt; hope, in place of despair.

you’ve answered my prayer before i’ve opened my eyes for the day. you’ve laced the dawn in white upon white, you’ve hushed the world out my window. you’ve opened my door into prayer — still heart, deep vow, bold promise.

dear God, i thank you. now let us tiptoe softly into this day…

what prayer did you pray on the quietest morning this week?

nose pressed to the window pane

nose pressed to the window

dispatch from 02139 (in which “epic” — yes, epic, say the headline writers — hurri-blizzard blows in off the atlantic, and the winds begin to whistle their warning cry…)

it is a posture that pulls us back to long-ago days, days when you woke up to the cackle of a radio telling you school was closed, when you heard your mama down in the kitchen, not rustling the brown bags of school lunches in the making but rather cranking up the griddle for stay-home vittles.

it’s the posture of nose pressed to the window pane. it’s the posture of waiting. heart pumping. peering into the far-away-but-coming-closer.

it’s the posture of knowing adventure’s tucked behind the not-so-distant cloud. it’s awaiting mama nature. mama nature who, in the end and after all, rules over all her globe and sky, and every once in a while, reminds us of our humble place on earth.

so it is that i sit here, with windows east and south, keeping watch. the sky’s gone sooty gray. all shadow’s slipped away. the bird-seed tube that dangles just beyond the sill is rocking back and forth, making me a wee bit seasick if i stare too long.

this is the perfect perch for storm patrol, peering out beyond the rooftops, through the limbs of trees. i see smoke tendrils twirling up from chimney pots. i’ll soon gasp as tree trunks practice yoga bends.

winds at 85 miles per hour, the weatherman predicts. snows falling at the rate of four inches per hour. tumbling till they pile to three-feet-and-counting.

but, deary me, whooshing air at 85 m.p.h. up against flakes that weigh in at nothingness, it’s the equation for drifts the likes of which i’ve never seen. sounds like being a speck of milk inside a whirring blender. when someone clicks “puree.”

no wonder the sky-readers turned to their thesaurus to pull out a label for this blizzard. at last — after much office to and fro, i imagine — they decided to dub it “epic,” so epic it is, and epic we shall see.

it seems fitting, so fitting, that in this year of living sumptuously we — our little triangle of cambridge explorers — should endure spells of sumptuous weather. why, in just six months, there’s been one hurricane, one earthquake, and now this epic blizzard. good thing i packed my yellow rubber knee-high galoshes. i’ll be out trekking before this day is done.

for it’s one thing to inhale a storm from behind the glass, and wholly another what-the-heck to plant yourself amid the whirls and whoops.

why, you didn’t think life at veritas university would slow for any old avalanche of snow, did you? mais non! classes are marching on, clear through the morning. and at high noon, we’re being called to what promises to be a spine-tingling talk with a mexican journalist who risks her life — and aims to protect her compatriot periodistas — telling the truth about the drug wars that have torn apart her homeland.

for marcela turati, who dodges death threats and machine gun bullets on a daily basis, i can dodge a few flying snowflakes. even if they whirl at never-before-observed velocities.

other than that one arctic exposition, we’re hunkered down for the duration. we’ve all the essentials: popcorn, apples, soup. extra blankets, just in case. a fat cat who loves to curl beside our undulations. we’ve neighbors down below and just across the way, should we need to draw in the wagons — or trade one last drop of milk for one slab of vienna pastry (the doctor down below happens to be a fiendish baker, and the buttery vapors that slink up through the floorboards are enough to have me drooling at his door).

fact is, if you’re going to call yourself a bostonian for the year, you’d better weather a tried-and-true nor’easter’. i’d hate to amble home a pretender, head bowed in shame for having shirked a little tussle with the snow clouds that whirl in off the atlantic.

so far, with 14 minutes till the bewitching hour, there’s not a flake in sight. i’ll sit here for a few more hours, tomes piled to my left, eyes trained on the graying skies, waiting, waiting.

alert to what the heavens offer up today. and tuned in to how the human spirit pitches and dives along with all the whirling, swirling, dumping.

it’s front row to one celestial theatre. and right now, the players must be in the wings, clearing throats, slipping on their costumes. any moment, the curtain’s due to rise…

do you love snow days? odd weather days? what is it about the chance to draw in, simmer kettles of soup, slither into our snuggliest sweaters? three stories off the ground, i feel as if i’m in a tree fort, with the best seat in the house. if it gets outlandishly exciting here, i’ll be back to record the weather dramas. for now, be safe, be warm, and thanks for pulling up a chair.

in the spirit of my beloved helen vendler poetry class, perhaps i ought to dig for a poem to mark this snowy occasion……any submissions out there?

yellow snowy nightduring the night, under the street lamp out my office window….that little bump down there, that’s a car on its way to being buried…

snowy deckand come morning, here’s what befell the back deck. those chairs are hard-edged, with sharp corners. until the snow, they had no undulations. now they do….

red on white

i couldn’t wait.

so, despite my achy tired bones, i was up before the sun, nose pressed against the glass, keeping watch.

we were graced last night. blanketed in the holy lull that is the first snowfall. before the neighbors cranked the snow machines. before the whir that shattered all the silence, the cloak of somnolent seasonal reprieve.

there was not a bird in sight. not the flutter of a wing. not a branch shaking from the wisp of weight that is a bird landing, taking shelter under piney bough.

if i wanted action at the feeders, and i dearly deeply did, there was work to be done. so off slipped the slippers, on went the boots. up zipped the puffy snowcoat. on slid the thick-wooled mittens.

i shoveled my sorry path, apologizing to the snow all along the way, hating to disrupt the plane of white.

but if a girl is going to make it to the feeder with her coffee can of seed, a girl needs a place to clomp her boots. and after many years of analyzing such maneuvers i’ve decided i prefer the neat line of a shoveled path (not really) to the scattershot and hyphenated punctuation of snowboot holes all along the way.

i’ve learned that i’m the only fool in my house who likes unmarred snow, and sooner or later the rest of the house will awake, will need to get to school, to work, and if the line of shoveled path isn’t there, they’ll just go and make a whirly mess of it. so i might as well cut my losses and cut the path.

i can always pretend it’s an alpine trail.

when at last i got out to where the feeders dangle, i chuckled in the early morning light. for the feeder nearly groaned under the weight of a good eight inches of crusted-over snow. there was barely a quarter-inch left for seed, so i dumped it right atop the snow mound, and figured this morning the birds would get some ice chunks with their sunflower.

and sure enough, by the time i’d turned and tromped back to the door, there was fluttering. there was sparrow, followed by nuthatch, followed by the whole crowd of cardinals.

once again, my world was white shot through with trumpet blasts of red.

there is, perhaps, no finer color contrast on the planet. or if there is, i’ve not yet felt it surge my heart in the way that scarlet-coated cardinal does on the first snow of the winter.

i wait all year for this, the hush of snowfall. the flakes free-falling past the porch light, their hard-angled intricacies and puffy contours tumbling, tumbling, lulling all the world and all its weary citizens into that fugue state that comes with heavy snow, first snow. when at last the whole wide winter world takes in a breath, and holds it. fills its empty lungs. takes in the special brand of oxygen that comes inside fat flakes.

and then we wait for the animation to follow. the birds, first. much later, the squirrels. and long after that, the cat who gets brave enough at last to put paws to white stuff. to hop and dart and make like a real-live scaredy cat, so confused, bewildered, by the snow.

it’s the sort of rare and blessed day that makes me wrap up inside a blanket. makes me crank the stove and simmer something aromatic all day long (cinnamon and clove this morning, leek and garlic later in the day). makes me want to venture no farther than where my rubber boots can take me. makes me contemplate the canister of flour and the cubes of yeast. deep in the recesses of my brain, snow days and bread baking are synonymous.
i could use a snow day after this long week (with or without the bread).

how perfect that the skies conspired to bring me the very answer to my prayers.

red on white. and white as far as i can see.

it’s just the thing to set things right.

i should have let the picture do all the talking today. wouldn’t that be rash? wouldn’t it be wise…..
are you celebrating all the snow? what do snow days trigger inside of you?