pull up a chair

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

Category: winter

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?

when wonder comes for christmas

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

When at last the morning comes, I am not unlike the little child at Christmas. Having tossed and turned in anticipation, through all the darkest hours, at first light I throw back the blankets, slide into clogs, slither into a heavy sweater and tiptoe down the stairs.

For days, I’ve been stockpiling for my friends. I’ve corncakes stuffed with cranberries and pine cones wrapped in peanut butter. I’ve suet balls to dangle from the boughs, and little bags of birdseed, just small enough to stuff in all my pockets. I’ve a jug of fresh water for all to drink and splash before it turns to winter’s ice.

It’s time for a Christmas treasure all my own, one I unwrap every year.

My walk of wonder takes me no farther than the patch of earth I call my own, a rather unassuming tangle of hope and dreams and heartache (for what garden doesn’t crack a heart, at least once a season?), in my leafy little village.

I carve out this hour of Christmas morn, before the footsteps slap across the floorboards up the stairs, before I crank the stove, and kindle all the Christmas lights.

It’s my hour of solitude and near silence, as I tug open the back door and step into the black-blue darkness of the minutes just beyond the dawn.

It’s my chance to take in the winter gifts of my rambling, oft-rambunctious garden plots, and all who dwell among them — the birds, the squirrels and fat-cheeked chipmunks, the old mama possum, and, yes, the stinky skunk who sometimes ambles by and sends us dashing in all directions.

And, best of all, it’s my early Christmas moment to reciprocate the many gifts that all the seasons bring me.

I am nearly humming as I make my yuletide rounds: I fill the feeders, scatter seed and stuff an old stone trough with what I call the “critter Christmas cakes.”

At this scant hour, the black-velvet dome above is stitched still with silver threads of sparkling light. And limbs of trees, bare naked in December, don’t block my upward glance at all that heavens offer.

This is where my prayer begins, as I whisper thanks for all the chirps and song, for flapping wings and little paws that scamper — all of nature’s pulse beats that bring endless joy, and teach eternal lessons.

As light brightens in the southeast corner of the sky, the architecture of the wintry bower emerges. The black of branches — some gnarled, others not unlike the bristles of an upturned broom — etch sharp against the ever-bluer sky.

Exposed, the silhouette reveals the secrets of the trees — the oak, the maple and the honey locust that rustles up against my bedroom window.

As I come ’round a bend, gaze up and all around, I cannot miss the nests not seen till late in autumn, when the trees disrobed and shook off their blazing colors.

In murky morning light, the nests appear as inkblots of black among the lacy boughs. Only in winter do we realize how many dot the arbor. There is the contour of the squirrels’ shoddy leaf-upholstered hovel high up in the maple, and, down low in a serviceberry, the robins’ tuck-point masterpiece of twigs.

While in robust and leafy times, the trees did not let on, but in winter’s stripped-down state there’s no hiding the part they play in watching over the nursery, shielding barely feathered broods and not-yet-furry baby squirrels from wind and sleet and pounding rains. Or even too much sun.

This cold morning, all is still. Every nest is empty, every bird house hollow once again. Where the winter birds cower, where they huddle, close their eyes and doze, I cannot figure out. Somewhere, even at this illuminating hour, they’re tucked away in slumber.

It won’t be long till the stirrings come, but for now the only sound is the scritch-scratch of brambles and left-behind leaves as they brush against my legs. I make my way among them, along a bluestone path, past all the shriveled blooms of not-forgotten summer.

The moppy heads of hydrangea, now dried and crisped to brown, are bowed but not surrendered, still clinging, even in the cold. And all that’s left of all the roses are persimmon-colored full-to-bursting hips, a final exhortation, punctuation on the winter page.

By the time the Big Dipper fades from the morning sky, that early riser, papa cardinal, ignites the winterscape with his scarlet coat. Soon follows the red-bellied woodpecker, a nuthatch or two, and, not long after, the choristers of dun-robed sparrows, all a-chatter with Christmas morning news.

I take cover back behind a fir tree, where the crowd at the feeder pays no mind. And where in winter storms, I find the flocks, too, take shelter, the only branches left that promise shield and a place to hunker down. For anyone who wants to hide — too often it’s the hungry hawk — these piney limbs are plenty thick.

Then I get brazen, and toss a handful of peanuts to the bristle-tailed squirrels. These are mere hors d’oeuvres, of course, for that trough now spills with Dickensian plenty — among the larder, bumpy apples no one wanted, and pumpkins plucked from the after-Thanksgiving discount bin.

It is all my way of making real my unending gratitude, of bowing deep and soulfully to Blessed Mama Earth.

and so twas my christmas morning meander in the pages of the chicago tribune, where, yes, i must act all grown up and enter the word of capital letters.

chasing away the darkest night

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

Maybe, deep inside, it’s that we’re all still afraid of the dark. Or drawn to it.

Either way, as long as we’ve been two-legged, upright, and wise enough to wield a light-spitting wand (be it torch or battery-fueled flashlight), we’ve tiptoed toward the longest night, the winter solstice, with an odd mix of awe and wary eye over the shoulder.

Back in pagan Scandinavia, the Nordic merrymakers lit up Juul logs, slugged back mead, tended fires all night long, in hopes that their flaming fallen tree limbs would play backup to the barely working sun, or at least coax it through its feeble hours till solar reinforcements could get it up and blazing. Romans got downright riotous, decking halls with rosemary and laurel, burning lamps through the night, carrying on crazily, in hopes of warding off the spirits of darkness. And the Incas went so far as to try to tie the sun to a hitching post, a great stone column, to keep it from escaping altogether.

Fact is, from Amaterasu, in seventh-century Japan, to Ziemassvetk, in ancient Latvia, we’ve fine-tuned an alphabet of fetes to mark, to spook, to chase away the deepest darkness.

Poring through the December solstice litany, you find that, civilized or not, we humans have tried everything from feasting, gambling, pranks, gift-giving, nocturnal neighborly visits, drink, dress-up, more drink, fornication, dramaturgy, all-night vigil-keeping, and generally invoking every imaginable force of mortal pleasure to keep the Dark Side from vanquishing over everlasting Light.

It all boiled down to f-f-fear: Night would never end. Dawn would never come.

And when we succeeded, well, holy hallelujah, all sorts of whoopin’ and hollerin’ was in order.

The science behind this mid-winter darkness is simple, plain-angled geometry: The orb that is the globe doesn’t spin straight up and down, like some straight-back soldier, but rather Planet Earth is tipsy-topsy, and the winter solstice comes at the very moment the North Pole is tilted farthest from the bright star, sun. The shadow cast is never longer. Nor, the night.

Rather than trembling amid the darkness, we say, bring it on. Wrap yourself in the quietude it offers, counterpoint to December’s metastasizing madness.

For starters, it’s a fitting day to turn off not only the lights, but all things electric, writes Heather Fontenot, co-editor of Rhythm of the Home, an online magazine that honors seasonality and “slow family living.” Her winter solstice ritual is one of the loveliest we’ve encountered.

Quiet and dark are invited in, not shooshed away, come the day before the solstice . Candles are lit, a fire is kindled, winter lanterns line the walk.

It’s a day to coddle the winter critters, filling orange halves with peanut butter and birdseed, stuffing pine cones with the same. An afternoon’s walk is punctuated with a trail of birdseed sprinkled from winter-coat pockets. Supper by the fire is a simple soup and bread. Stories are read by firelight. Children are tucked in bed, while grown-ups keep vigil through the night.

Just before dawn, Fontenot wakes her children, who find sunshine bags beside their beds. The sacks, hand-sewn or not, are stuffed with oranges, nuts and golden-colored treasures. Everyone slips on a golden crown, and all tiptoe out into the dark for a predawn stroll, to watch the great orb rise once again.

Then it’s home for hot cocoa and steaming bowls of whatever warms a still-sleepy tummy.

With the sunshine safely back on course, it’s off to bed for a well-earned winter’s nap, albeit one in broad daylight.
Now that’s a solstice to light my way.

–as published in the chicago tribune, edited version here

2011’s longest night

This year, the actual astronomical moment of the winter solstice will occur at 12:30 a.m. EST Dec. 22/11:30 p.m. CST Dec. 21.

this is an essay i wrote for the winter pleasures sunday magazine of the tribune. i love the solstice ritual, and want to make it my own. the turning off of lights, kindling candles, waking children before dawn to take a solstice walk. to wake up to sunshine bags beside their bed. this piece belongs on the chair. and this is the version that was sent to all the tribune newspapers. but i wanted the chair to be a home for it too. maybe one of us will embrace the solstice in this simple illuminated way…..
merry solstice from our dark night to yours….

the picture up above is one i captured a few years ago on a snowy night when our backyard crabapple seemed nearly aflame in twinkling italian lights. my little one and i decided it was the perfect scene for this dark night…

mr. mousey’s snow picnic

of all the mounds and miles of snow, of all the ice rivers and hurling winds, of all the times i thought my front door might blow wide open, off the hinge and dangling in a tunnel of arctic gusts, of all the jaw-dropping majesty that whirled and swept and fell and blew, the moment that caught me most stilled this blizzard-piled week, most falling-to-my-knees, was when i discovered the fat gray lump in the snow mound just outside the kitchen door.

it was not at all what i’d expected when i first eyed it from across the room, what i’d thought i’d seen a hundred times before. no, it was not a junco, one of those gray-topped snow birds with the pure-white waistcoat, the darlings who romp in the snow as if dressed for a mid-winter ball.

no, what it was was something i’d never before been invited to watch from a front-row bleacher seat, to share a long winter’s afternoon, enchanted.

it was a fat little mouse, soon addressed by the surname mousey, as in mr. mousey, with the biggest roundest ears i ever knew a mouse could have, and the busiest itty-bitty teeth as he chewed and chewed through the cornmeal mush i’d tossed out for whomever was hungry after the storm. er, blizzard. make that, blizzard-of-the-decade.

for the better part of an afternoon, i watched the little fellow, watched him up close like he had walked into my unwitting science experiment: mouse tunnels 101.

why, that hungry boy, he’d dug gazillions of labyrinths in and through and under the snow. what i’d mistaken for a hole put there by a falling clump of ice, was in fact mr. mousey’s grandest opening, the launch to all his under-snow festivities.

he showed me how it worked: he’d nibble a while, and then when his belly was full, or perhaps digesting an especially granular cornmeal chunk, he’d take to the entertainment part of the show, and wiggle his little self up and down and sideways through all of his underground pathways, punctuating every passage with the POP! of his sweet little head (and ears) out through the peek hole. why, he showed me just how industrious he’d been since the snows started falling–or perhaps once they’d stopped.

there must be a good half dozen crisses and crosses in that undersnow highway of his. and every last one leads back to the prize: the wide swath of cornmeal i tossed to the winds.

and somehow, despite the fact that the backyard was aswirl with all of my flocks, despite the fact that i’d stood there among them one cold afternoon, shortly after pouring a bucket of seed, and felt the flap of their wings, so close to my head did they swoop and chatter and make like noisy carousers at a mid-winter’s feast, it was one wee mouse who most captured my heart.

i’ve not seen a mouse in such close action, not outside of a cage. oh, i’ve seen swishes of tails now and then, heard the scampering of little mouse feets, but a mouse out in daylight, a mouse undeterred by the gaze of a curly-haired person, a mouse willing to show off his tunnels, why that was a mouse who got me to thinking.

it was as if the blessed cloak of nature—sacred wrap that it is, stitched with spools of mystery and wonder–had been pulled back, amid the extremes of snow and cold, and allowed me a rare peek inside, into all the ways the little critters stay alive, fend for themselves, ingeniously employ the snow to their advantage. and rely, on occasion, on the whims of souls who consider it among their holiest duties to scatter seed and oats and grains, and plumped-up dried fruits when cupboards allow, to nudge them along through the cold hard winter.

it’s a holy equation indeed, a sublime one. for the cost of a few cups of seed, of cornmeal, of suet cut from the beast, we offer feed to the flocks, the winged ones, the long-tailed-big-eared, the soft and the fluffy. and they, in return, throw caution to the wind, they seek out sustenance even if it means baring their ways to the humans.

one wee mouse, now claimed by my little one as his very own mascot and pet (and thus the name), brought me to my knees yesterday, and i watch for him again this morning.

he reminds me, without words, how very much we are all a tethered web. and how we need each other, mouse or bird or human, to weather all the storms that blow and hurl through the thick of our lives.

what little miracles did you witness this week?
and, out into the vast whiteness, i send the deepest birthday wishes to my brother who will always be my little one, the one whose birth felt so much like a dream come true. a miracle every soul should get a chance to brush up against. and lucky me, i did……

survival seed

the warnings come with breathless urgency. we brace ourselves, tell bones and muscles to stay strong, bear the cold. then we zipper up and face it.

standing on the train platform, winds hurling past the naked patch of flesh that is our nose, our cheeks, our lips, our bare sliver of forehead, we think siberia’s got nothin’ on the north side of chicago, in the dark and bitter exodus from work to igloo.

and that’s before the real cold comes. we’re racing home to beat it. to hunker down, stuff rags where winds creep in, turn on faucets to the steady drip that tells us pipes aren’t frozen–yet.

the weatherman, making like he’s our wise and worried uncle, is talking upper-case-and-exclamation-mark negatives, double digits below zero.

take to the blankets, the call goes out. don’t leave home if you don’t need to.

the children pray for day off from school; they go to bed, hoping for the coldest cold.

grownups only hope they don’t awake to the sound of gushing water, from a pipe that’s gone kerpluey.

last night, doing as i was told by uncle weatherman, i wrapped myself like a taco in my fuzzy blanket, the one that comes out for emergencies. like when it’s 20-something below zero. and words like SIBERIAN get splattered on the weather map.

i was dozing deeply–and, oddly, dreaming of picante sauce–when the cat meowed, as he always does, at 3 a.m. (clearly, he’d dozed right through the weather alerts on the nightly news.)

dutifully, i flung back the blanket and followed the ol’ cat’s pit-a-pat, straight to the kitchen door, where he made his exit wish in no uncertain terms: i let him out, under the silver moon, for his prowl around the ‘hood. but knowing, as he did not, that his little paws might screech in pain, i waited at the door. and waited. while he took in the frozen tundra.

when at last he trotted back, a full 20 minutes later (darn cat!), we shuffled back to taco blankets, cold cat and i.

i couldn’t bear to stay in bed much longer, though. i knew the trees outside were filled with all my half-frozen friends, the hardy feathered ones who must wake up on days like this and wonder why their forebears were not the tropical variety, the ones who would have had them harbored in banana groves and rain forests, straight through the so-called winter.

alas, the poor things are northern birds, and with that comes a tender tie to those of us who make it our business to shuffle out the door with banged-up coffee cans and old ricotta cheese tubs, serving platters for the seed and suet clumps that we pour into the troughs.

even though the dawn was still—not a leaf fluttering, not a bluejay’s squawk or sparrow’s chirp–even though my fingers nearly stuck to the water jug as i poured it in the bowl where my birds bathe and drink, both at once, i crunched across the crusted snow, i dumped my vittles, and before i’d reached the door handle once again, there was a red-headed beauty pecking away at the seed.

survival seed, i call it.

it’s imbued with animation, the sparks of magic, surely. not a minute after it’s been dumped the yard’s aswirl with sound and stirrings.

on days like today, it’s the least we can do, to stoke the hearts and bellies of the birds who give flight to our days, who fill the boughs and branches with their scarlet feathers.

truth be told, i’d like to fling wide my doors, and invite the chilly flocks inside. come to my table, feathered friends, have a plate of seed. survival seed, indeed.

for each and every one of us.

oh lord, i must dash to RECESS duty, be still my frozen heart. tell your weather tales here. be back, once i thaw….

being still

curious thing this december, more than ever, it is the stillness that speaks to me. that i seek. that some days i grope toward as if a blind one making my way through the woods on nothing more than the steadiness of my footsteps and the fine-grained whorl of my fingertips rubbing up against the underbrush, telling me i’ve lost my way.

it is as if the deep dark stillness itself is divining me toward home.

which, of course, it is. it always is.

oh, there’s noise all right this december. clanging like a cymbal in my ear, the squawking from the news box, the screeching of the brakes, the sound of plain old money gurgling down the drain.

but i am–in my best moments–pushing it away.

oh, i take it in in stiff long drinks–the news, the noise, the grave distractions–but then i do odd things: i lift the blinds at night so i can watch the snowflakes tumbling. i wind the clock and listen to its mesmerizing tick and tock. i sit, nose pressed to frosty pane of glass, and watch the scarlet papa cardinal peck at berries on the bough.

i am practicing the art of being still.

stillness, when you look for it, is never far away, and not too hard to grasp.

i find, though, it takes a dose of concentration. and sometimes a stern reminder; i mumble to myself, be still now. but then i find my steps determined.

just the other night, my heart most surely trampled, i climbed the ladder to the attic, pulled down the box of christmas treasures, the ones that spark the eyes of my little one, my little one who could not care about bankruptcies and buyouts–though he is sadly quite abreast on both.

it is advent time for my little one, and so it is advent for me. it is the counting-down time, the something-coming time of darkest winter. and, in my good spells, i am deeply, urgently, savoring the getting there.

i am hauling out my usual armament of soothers and elixirs. i simmer spices on the stove. i scatter corn on drifts of snow. i kindle candle flame. crank soulful christmas tunes. tiptoe down the stairs in deep quietude of night, and stumble onto moonlight making magic out of blue-white undulations in the yard.

i am even dropping to my knees, or curling up in bed with incantations on my lips. they carry me to sleep some nights; what better lullabye?

i am ever thankful this december for the one bright side to all the downturn: there will be little shopping this year. no running here to there.

i will simply look the ones i love squarely in the eye. i will tell them how deeply and dearly i depend on their presence in my every blessed day.

and among the ones i love there will be the cheery fellow who drives the bus that hauls my little one to school, the pink-haired checker at the grocery store who always makes me laugh, the neighbors who every time i ask open their door and let my little one come in to play.

there are the voices faraway, the ones who call and calm, the steady ones, the ones who make me laugh. the one who calls merely to “sit with” me on a night when she guesses i just might need some sitting.

it is an advent this year of simple things: there is a ring of candles on the kitchen table, one new one lit each and every week, till at december’s peak there will be a rising cloud of incandescence as we join our hands and pray.

there is a string of red-plaid pockets, each one numbered, 1 to 24, strung from one window to another, and every single morning, my little one rushes down the stairs to find the sweet tucked there inside the number of the day.

it is, as it so often is, my littlest one who softens me, who stirs me back to stillness, who insists we not forget to give the twisty fir its drink. who takes me by the hand so i don’t crash and break. who asks his big wise brother if he too “checked advent,” (meaning did he yet dig out his daily dose of duly-numbered sweet).

it is, nearly as deeply, the thick meringue of snow bending all the branches. it is the flash of scarlet feather at the window. it is the sound of orange peel simmering. and the tinkling of the spoon scraping at the bottom of the cocoa-filled mug.

these are the things that make for stillness, or rather are the keys on the ring that might unlock it after all.

it is, in fact, the heart, the soul, that are the vessels of pure true stillness: those chambers deep inside us that allow for the holy to unfold. the birthing rooms, perhaps, of our most essential stirrings.

to be at one with all that matters. to begin the pulse-beat there where the quiet settles in and the knowing reigns.

it is, yes, in the stillness that the sacred comes.

and this december, more than ever, i am blessed to find it’s that, simply surely that, that is carrying me through this tangled woods.

i type this in the interlude between the madness of this week. and i wonder how you too seek stillness. do you hunger for it? do you find yourself distracted by the worldly buzz? do you get lost in the woods sometimes? or have you forged a steady path to that place that soothes you?
in two days, the chair turns two. i’ll be back to mark the day. as always, bless you for pulling up your chair…

storm’s comin’

i don’t even need to turn on the news to hear the squawkin’ ’bout the weather. don’t really need to turn to the back page of the newspaper, the one with all the arrows and the polka-dotted map and the adjectives to scare the dickens out of any sorry soul who’s lost her woolen mittens.

all’s i have to do is look to where the sky is turning marbled gray, the color of the pigeons who, right now, are gobbling up all the seed that they can wrestle in their beaks.

or, before the pigeons came, shooshed away the cardinals and the jays and all the sparrows, there was the buzz in the grocery line. you can tell a lot about the day looking at what is rolling down the check-out belt.

today there was not a lot of fuss over, say, artichokes or lamb chops. oh, no, this was a milk-by-the-gallon, and orange-juice-too sort of day.

this is a day to batten down the hatches, simmer soup, crank the oven, stock up on sidewalk salt. you can feel it in the cracklin’ that’s making hairs, and fur, and feathers, too, stand on end. you should see the squirrels vacuum-cleaning crumbs and crusty donut bits, as if there’s no tomorrow.

you see, here where arctic winds hurl their bowling balls of snow and ice down the alley called the great lake of michigan, here before the towers–hancock, sears and all the rest–do their muscled best to block the mighty gusts, we stand ready to shiver and shiver hard, as day turns to dusk turns to stormy whirling night.

worst drop in temps in a quarter century–fiercest, fastest downslide, they are saying–is due to hit any hour now, with winds whipping up to 50 miles an hour (“punishing winds,” my weather page tells me). it’s enough, they warn, to turn rush hour into a hefty bowl of blanc-en-blanc potage.

and i, a girl who loves some drama in my winter doldrums, say bring it on.

there’s nothin’ that gets me stirring quite like the hurl of howling winds. snow pelting on the window panes. the whiff of snow day in the air.

i woulda made one fine pioneer, i tell you. i hunker down, i brace for storm, like i am annie oakley’s long-lost sister.

i caught wind of what was brewing early on today. i made my way straight to the store. stocked up, i did, on milk and popcorn kernels, the two staples of extended hibernation.

before i unzipped my coat, flung my mittens to the pile, i was chopping, sauteing, starting me a toothsome corn-and chicken zoup.

i’ll not let my children starve, not let them shiver either. i’ve got blankets at the ready, and muffins in the oven. oh, lord, this day is a day for making like a mama bear bolting for the cave. we will bathe in what is warm and fortifying. we’ll not let the storm, well, take us by storm.

while stirring onions, beans and broth, i mused a bit about this winter blessing. the forecasting of winds and cold that gives us quite a warning.

what of life, though, i thought, that we don’t know, ever, when a storm is just around our bend.

in plain old life–not the life of weather maps and wind chills–we pick up the phone, and poof, there’s a winter storm on the line. we are driving here or there and, kebang, we just skidded off the road.

life gives no warning, unlike arctic rustlings.

and so, in life, we are left to be always stocked deep down inside with whatever it takes to weather whatever life throws our way. be it a broken neck on growing child. or an email baring threats. one day we think we’re basking in the balm of spring, and, kaboom, the next we are chilled and shaking in our wintry boots.

it is resilience, then, that we must line our inner shelves with. and unswerving faith, stored in gallon jugs, that we need on hand to make sure we can ride out any storm.

i’d say we do best with a host of friends, the ones who appear, as if by blessed magic, at our front door, the hospital bedside, or even as they rush our broken, bloodied child to the ambulance.

we need to live, this makes me think, stocked and ready, for what ever roiling winds come our way.

what a blessing, then, that when it’s merely ice and snow, we’ve got all the warning in the world.

oh, there’s the buzzer now. my muffins–chock full of apples and cranberry and a good dose of mother love–are golden brown, and ready to emerge, just before the winter storm starts swirling out the window.

do you like winter storms, or any brewing, bubbling weather as much as i do? and what would you say is essential to keep in the larder of your life, so you can weather winds that blow far harder, far more fiercely sometimes than any arctic puffer?