pull up a chair

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

year upon year, truth upon truth…

14th-century rendering of the plagues of egypt

we are tellers and re-tellers of story, a people long bound by the unspooling of truths told in text or in verse, around table or hearth, under moon and star or plaster and beam.

in the geometry of time, there lies both wisdom and instruction in the unfurling of the year, an unfurling that might feel like a circle but that i see as a spiral. year after year, we return to texts––familiar texts––that draw us in more and more deeply, the more closely we pay attention. 

so it is––as i fill my house with matzo and shred it of breadcrumbs, as i shop for both lamb and shank bone, as i steam mounds and mounds of asparagus––that once again we come to this holy stretch of time endowed with foundational story, ancient stories both christian and jewish. the story of a savior who wept in a garden, and soon was betrayed, then flogged and stripped and pierced with a crown of thorns. a humiliation as severe as any i’ve ever read. certainly more than any i’ve ever known. and at the same time in this house, we read and retell the story of the enslaved jews finding their way out of bondage, crossing an isthmus, a sand bar in a sea of reeds, but not before witnessing the scourge of ten plagues. 

the beauty of these texts, and any text meant for endless curiosity––these texts, as if prisms we hold to the light, turning and turning for the making of new rainbows––is that each year some new fragment may catch our attention. new rainbows might scatter against the walls of our soul. 

so it is that this year i am thinking anew of the plagues: water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children.

i remember how at the long seder table where my boys grew up, the table would be scattered with wee plastic frogs and broad-winged bugs; ping pong balls would serve as hail. and red food dye would be splattered on plates. the detail was never lost. 

and only this year––a year when both those boys who once squirmed at the bugs and squealed at the blood will be hundred of miles away––only this year have i come to pay closer attention to what the plagues might have meant to the story we’re commanded to tell. 

according to a wise, wise rabbi whose wisdom i found myself reading the other day, the plagues are “commonly read as punishments levied against the egyptian people for the terrible suffering they forced upon the israelites,” writes sharon brous, the senior rabbi and founder of IKAR, a jewish congregation in los angeles, a rabbi who calls it her life’s work to re-animate religion. oh, that we animate it, this vein in our lives that seems to either be bent to fit particular agendas, or shoved to the side altogether. 

but, writes rabbi brous, there is another way to interpret the plagues, and God’s intent therein (and here’s where i buckle my seatbelt, and begin my own homegrown rocket ride): what if the plagues, the sufferings, are meant not to punish but rather to tender the heart. to grow compassion. to breathe and breed empathies. 

we need turn to the 16th and 17th centuries, to the wisdom of a venetian scholar and rabbi named obadiah ben jacob sforno, to find the seeds of this thinking: sforno argued in his commentary on the text of exodus that the plagues were actually brought to awaken the conscience of the oppressor, “to increase the chances that pharaoh would finally see the light and become a genuine penitent.” 

“in other words,” writes brous, “what God desired was a true change of heart. God wanted pharaoh and his people to take responsibility for the injustices they committed. tell the truth. make amends. offer reparations. chart a new course, together with the israelites.”

in a world as plagued as ours currently is––war and pillage, pandemic and pestilence, fire and flood and drought––in a world where it’s too too easy to turn our backs on the sacred, to point to the suffering and insist there’s no God so hard-hearted to look the other way so therefore there must be no God, in a world as replete with reasons not to believe, what if the radical notion, the one that’s hardest to come by, is the dawning idea that with each and every suffering we grow more and more tender. 

there’s the crux, the hard part: to allow the suffering to tender us, not to harden. not to let horrors metastasize, not to let hurt spread like a cancer, nor turn us into walking, talking cess pools of resentment, to leave us every morning, noon, and night with the afterburn of bitterness there on our tongues. 

imagine ten of your own plagues: the time you were double-crossed; the time you discovered a terrible truth, a truth that was crushing; the dying and death of someone you loved. the remembering and never forgetting of a time you caused the suffering. the lie you let grow. the cruel innuendo that crossed your own lips. count your own ten.

now, consider the pain that you felt. how it awoke you in the night. how it haunted you by the day. how it felt like a nest of hornets let loose in your soul. 

now imagine that the pain didn’t harden. imagine it worked to loosen the loam of your soul. allowed room for new seeds to be planted there. tender sproutlings of purer compassion. how, ever after, you knew what it meant to grieve in a bottomless way. how, ever after, you knew how tempting it was to turn away and never turn back. how, ever after, you knew the muscularity demanded to rise up and out from the darkness. 

consider how those plagues pushed you––not without ache, not without wishing you could wish it away––toward a deeper, broader understanding of and connection with the suffering all around.

imagine if the resonance of your own hours of suffering allowed you to look upon the sins and the suffering all around and find common ground, feel your heart open not close.

imagine if the world’s suffering was meant to do the same. imagine if all this is an exercise in tendering our holiest vessel: the one heart made as a chamber for the sacred to dwell. 

what if, instead of growing bitter and hard over time, we grow softer and sweeter? what if we return to the text––the suffering and crucifixion of the one born to teach and live love, the freeing of an oppressed people made to witness hardship upon hardship, ten plagues in all––what if we return to the text and find, for the very first time, a wisdom to carry us on? into a world that never seems to pause in its inflicting of pain.

what if, in feeling the pain, we are moved to be the agent of balm, of healing, of lifting the other out of a pain we know all too well? tikkun olam. “repair the world.” mend the tatters. reimagine the whole.

there must be wisdom, must be reason we circle again and again to the same lines of text, as if we’re meant to meet it again with whomever we are one year to the next. this year the lines that most drew me in were the ones that ask why in the world would ours be a God who not only allows but inflicts plague upon plague, hurt upon hurt.

my knowing next year might differ. but this year i’ve come to dwell on the thought that no one escapes a life stitched with sufferings. and if the sufferings come, how might they make of us souls that pulse with compassion. communion, after all, is the holiness we seek. oneness. with God, with ourselves, and the whole of humanity circling this earth in this long, dark hour.

what plagues move you to compassion? (a question to answer deep in your soul in these entwined holy hours ahead….)

i cannot let this day pass without remembering my beautiful mother-in-law whom i last saw on this day, her birthday, a year ago. we keep her flame alive, very much alive, in the telling and re-telling of her stories. may they never end…..

*the question of the israelites and the plagues––whether they witnessed them or endured them––was a question that prompted much discussion at dinner last night. one of those rabbit holes into which we fall at our house because one of us––either the jew or the catholic––is always fairly new (or newer) to a story, and wonders about it in ways that have never quite struck the one to whom it is more familiar. i’d assumed––wrongly, it turns out––that to be in egypt at the time of the plagues meant to endure them but a closer read of the story made clear that, according to Exodus, for at least some of the plagues, the israelites were protected. certainly, i knew that the whole point of the “passover” was that Jews were to mark the doorways to their home with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, and the angel of death would know to pass over, sparing the firstborn son. i hadn’t realized––nor had my tablemate––that plagues one through three seem to have been endured by all, and four through ten were endured only by the egyptians, except for those who were penitent and thus spared the wrath.

tick, tick, tick….

snapshot of the writing garage moments after final manuscript submitted

waiting has been the posture of the week here at book-making headquarters. which, for someone wired like me, means clicking my phone every few minutes, checking to see if there’s yet a reply. forcing myself into tasks—say, cleaning the bathtub, sorting the wash––that will keep me and my antsy fingers away from the checking, reminding myself simply to breathe. 

it might come as little surprise––after keeping you in the loop here as i’ve loped toward the publishing finish line––that the reply i am so, so anxiously awaiting is the one from the editor who will, ultimately, thumbs-up or thumbs-down that collection of words i refer to as my latest book. a book whose making has certainly silvered a few more of my hairs. a book i turned in sunday night, with hours to spare before the monday deadline. the first editor, a true godsend with whom i’ve been back-and-forthing for the last four weeks, gave it a solid thumbs up, but the one we now await is the one who a.) moves it along. or b.) asks for more rewrite still. or, i suppose, in the doomsday version (one i’m apt to imagine) c.) she simply throws up her arms and shrieks, “i’ve no clue at all why this was a book i thought worthy of printing!”

over the last few weeks, in this latest batch of dispatches from here in the writing garage (this appendage to our old house began its existence as a place where mid-century cars sputtered fumes, not too distant, i suppose, from its now housing a sputtering writer), i’ve pulled back the curtain a bit on just how it is that thousands of words find their way onto pages soon to be glued, bound, sewn, or whatever is the latest technology for keeping the papers from scattering. (imagine if in buying a book, you were handed an assemblage of pages and told to shuffle them into just the right order before you sat down to read; binding, clearly a nifty invention….)

one of the lists i’ve been making this week is something of a manifesto, of how––should i ever find myself in the editor’s desk––i might try to alleviate the suffering of a writer whose tender self and soul would be under my watch. it’s hardly a stretch to assume that most who assign themselves to the occupation of putting words on the page tend to find their hearts rising and falling in some measure with the way those words are met by editors and loved ones and even anonymous readers. 

i’ve suffered at the hands of all the above. i’ve winced as editors killed my “little darlings,” the newsroom nickname for those snazzy bits of sentence or prose that the writer pretends makes him or her the star of the class, only to find the darling is unceremoniously flung to the cutting room floor, where it lands with an unceremonious thud. i’ve gulped as my father-in-law dialed long distance to suggest i might need a refresher stretch on the therapist’s couch as he thought something i’d penned right here on the chair, after our firstborn sauntered off to college, was far too depressing, and a sure sign that i’d teetered over the edge. and, back in my newspaper days, i had readers pen letters in what used to be a telltale chickeny scratch, often in recycled envelopes (in the digital age, it’s now hard to predict when an incoming email is going to explode with invective), all but insisting i leap from my desk in the tribune tower, run––not walk––three blocks east, and jump in the big cold lake. with stones tied to my ankles.

it can be not so pretty, this audacity to say what you think. or you feel. or what you pray. to put into words the otherwise ineffable. to sometimes see sentences there on the screen that you simply hadn’t realized were in you until they arose, one tap-tap at a time. 

it’s one thing to put words to breath, in conversation over breakfast or lunch or sitting alongside a friend on a bench or a swing, and to know that those words won’t leave a trace––except in the memory of the one to whom they were spoken. to dare to put ink (or pixels on a screen) to those thoughts––sometimes half-baked, sometimes raw, sometimes with too many dashes or commas––is, when you pause to think about it, rather a bold expedition. seatbelts ought be required. 

anyway, my manifesto would begin with one or two basics: don’t forget that the one on the waiting end is likely on needles and pins; offer kind words even when pointing out stumbles and weak spots; and please remember how daunting it is to play at this game. it’s not too much of a stretch to extend my manifesto beyond the wordsmithing game. it’s a very short list that might apply to the wider world as we seem to be slipping deeper and deeper into an age of too-little regard for the human species with whom we share this moment in time. 

it takes so very little.

what would you include on a Manifesto for Minimal Kindness, editorially or otherwise?

note that in the snapshot above, compared to one shared a couple weeks back, the stacks in the writing garage only grew higher and higher as the days ticked by, one after another en route to that finish line...good news is the other writer who lives in this house wandered into the room last night, eyed the bowing shelves, the shelves all but groaning under the weight, eyed the impossible hopscotch of books, and declared: “you need more shelves.” so i guess my disarray just might save me after all.

still plowing…

please excuse the interruption in regular programming here at the chair, i’m barreling toward the latest installment in the Deadline Plan, this one poured in concrete, i’m told. i rounded the bend on the penultimate deadline last sunday, and awaited the first batch of edits, which landed tuesday midday. now awaiting batches two, three, and possibly four. all destined to drop––impeccably and with my whole heart attached––on the editor’s desk by end of business on monday.

if you ever wondered how a book becomes a book, here’s how in one word: persistency.

never looking up from the page. forgetting to eat lunch. thinking of verbs in your sleep. surrendering nearly every last domestic chore to the very kind fellow who stalks these same halls, the one who is making sure i sleep, eat, and drink gallons of water.

i think it will all be worth it. i’m pretty sure there will come a day when i look back on this chapter and––just like labor pains––forget how much it hurt, how much my head pounded, and my heart right along.

as i look at my bookshelves these days, i see not just pages and pages of paper and ink but the accumulated anguish of hundreds of authors over hundreds of years. books do not write themselves. books demand total attention. and day after day of it. for as long as it takes.

and what’s it all for? for the scant hope of communion, for the slim chance that one someone somewhere will be reading along and suddenly hearing a loud pop, down in their heart, or up in their brain. because some faraway someone has just put to words some ineffable thing that they’ve never named. though they’ve long sensed it.

there is much typing still to be done here. and after that, the copy-editing brigade comes over the hills. and then proofing each page, making sure no squiggles or bloops slide into a sentence. making sure each their is a their and not there. same with the its‘s.

once this latest round of incessant typing slows to a ceasefire, i’ll be back to breathing again. it’ll come in waves from then on. this here is the final hard push. just like the time my miracle baby was about to arrive, and the monitor beside me dropped to a gulch. and my doctor looked me in the eyes, and said, “barb, you’re getting this baby out in one push.”

and i did.

and i’ll do it again with this book.

in the meantime, here’s a little amuse bouche for your troubles.

One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.

John Burroughs, naturalist, conservationist, wonder seer

and why not another?

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, political activist

what pithy bits of wisdom or heart stirred you this week?

out of chaos, come pages of quiet

this is the word factory, the chamber where a book is in the making. and if you can’t see the steam rising from the computer screen, imagine it. it’s there. and so too it rises from the fingers wildly skipping about the keyboard, plucking new verbs from out of thin air. making up occasional others.

i’m in the final stretch of a book-making adventure that has been wildly, um, adventurous. early thursday morning i was given the latest in a long series of hurdles, each one daunting, each one prompting me to mutter under my breath, this is impossible, i can’t do this. but then, hours later, after the shakes (and the swears) wear off, i find my stride here on the alphabet keys from which i build so much of my life. i type like there’s no tomorrow, i type into the wee wee hours. my deadline––a full revision of a manuscript: this sunday night, before bedtime.

which is why this one particular friday, there isn’t much chair to pull up to. i’m deep in the 70,359 words that currently comprise The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text, a quiet contemplative book slated for birthing on the vernal equinox of 2023 (that’s march 21st, if you’re wondering). where it will end, is anyone’s guess. i sense a word chopper not too far in the distance. that’s when you’ll hear the telltale welp of the writer watching her words whirl down the drain. a painful interlude in which i try hard to fixate on the words of that guy we know around here as the oak park native and spear-fisherman, one ernest miller hemingway, who might or might not have once insisted “a story is only as good as what’s left on the cutting room floor,” a possibly apocryphal maxim that’s meant to take the sting out of the editor’s slicing and dicing, and by which the writer soothes herself as each “little darling” dies a swift death as it whirls to the cutting-room catch basin. what it means is that you’ve pared your pages of prose of all fat and mouthfuls of gristle, and all you have left is sinew and spine. and now, i’ve mixed enough metaphors in a single paragraph to have each and all editors unbuckling their seatbelts, scrambling for safe exit.

speaking of safe exit, you might be wondering if this room where i type has been deemed an occupational hazard, a danger zone where i could be caught under an avalanche of literary proportion. there is, you might be pleased to know, a single narrow uncluttered trail to the door. and the books that surround me on four of four sides are stacked in utterly intelligible groupings, all of which i can easily reach from here in the chair where i spell out my words, one tap at a time. i pride myself on conservation of effort when it comes to bending and plucking.

before i leap back in, somewhere around the 39,000-word mark, i thought i’d quietly leave a dollop of wisdom from the inimitable novelist george saunders on why it is we write in the first place. may this give you something fat-free, and stripped of all gristle, to chew on:

Literature is a practice that improves a culture and can make it more tender and open.  But its effects lag and are approximate and tend to benefit people already gentle and inclined to caring. 

And yet.

In stories we might catch a glimpse of why people do the things they do, which should prepare us to think about things more incisively and boldly when people do something that is cruel, violent, or inexplicable.  Whatever we are brought to feel, through literature, about love and understanding and sympathy must take this into account: the invasion of a peaceful country by people who have somehow, it would appear, set aside love, understanding, and sympathy, or have twisted these notions into strange shapes amenable to their purpose.

Also, in this world of ours, there be monsters — the workings of whose minds are mysterious, and whose darkness (their apparent indifference to love, understanding. and sympathy) we somehow keep underestimating.

This, too, can be written about. 

But what also can be written about: people fighting and dying for their freedom and the freedom of the people they love.

What do we do when notions dear to us (notions of compromise and kindness and the ultimate goodness of any human being) are mocked by events and made to feel facile? Can our understanding of these notions be expanded so that they are more muscular and useful and don’t have to be set aside or apologized for at moments like this?

George Saunders, Story Club newsletter

or this, from jane hirshfield:

“Poetry’s work

is the clarification

and magnification

of being.”

may this week bring you peace. and a glimmer of peace to this broken, broken world.

and happy blessed most magnificent birthday to two complete loves of my life, who happen to have been born back-to-back: my beloved sweet P, on sunday, and auntie M, on monday the 28th, a day i consider a national treasure.

the room to which i return….

in need of beannacht, i found my way back to an old friend, the irish poet of infinite blessing…

the author photo of John O’Donohue, now fading, but still my bookmark

in search of profound goodness this week, i found my way back to the saint of a gentle soul, a poet with whom i once shared a st. patrick’s day, and who would remain a kindred spirit and friend, with warm and occasional phone calls until 2008, when he died in his sleep on january 3, a day that happens to be my birthday, and two days after his own 52nd birthday.

john o’donohue was a priest and a poet on the day in 1999 when i (a newspaper scribe at the time) pulled up to his hotel in my little brown toyota corolla and spirited him away to one of those ridiculous faux irish pubs that line chicago’s more touristy streets. we landed there, amid faux celtic ruins and an endless loop of tin pipes and ditties, with more than a touch of irony. we talked till the sky beyond us went dark, and the city streetlights turned on. it was one of those newspaper interviews that wound its way into something that never ended. we were there in the wake of his best-selling anam cara‘s american publication (and marking the occasion of what would become his second best-seller, eternal echoes), and we found our own soul friendship. he was and is a rare blessing to me. his mind was voluminous. his heart and his soul even more so.

i found my way back to john, against the drumbeat of this unrelenting savagery in ukraine, because i was looking for words that might comfort. i was trying to be hopeful in hard times (per howard zinn down below, sent to me this week by a beloved friend of the chair.) i’d been collecting a litany of small wondrous moments of human kindness and utter goodness arising from the brokenness in kyiv and kharkiv and mariupol, when i decided to search for words that capture this moment of brokenness, of enormity distilled into poetries, well-chosen words that give us a way in to whatever is true, and beyond our worldly comprehension.

i found john’s beannacht or blessing, a blessing with a tinge of goodbye, “goodbye and God bless,” and whenever i read john’s words, i think of the day — and the story that came of it — back in march of 1999. as i started to read the story under my byline, a story that ran in the chicago tribune on st. patrick’s day of that year, i decided i’d bring my friend here to the table, for all of us. we could all use some comfort. we could all use some john o’donohue.

THE GOOD GREEN POET

By Barbara Mahany

Chicago Tribune

Mar 17, 1999

The poet-philosopher, who lives in solitude in the west of Ireland, leapt the curb and strode into a North Clark Street saloon purporting to be an authentic Irish pub — about a block away from another place purporting to be a rain forest.

The poet-philosopher has experienced the real thing plenty — pubs, that is — and when he looked up and saw, beside the tavern door, faux stone slabs pretending to be ancient Celtic ruins, he jolted up a bit and mumbled something about the Flintstones.

But not wanting to sound impolite, he muffled most of the rest of what he had to say, here in a place in downtown Chicago where the accents on the waiters were so thick he couldn’t believe they came from the country he has called his own for all of his 43 years.

John O’Donohue, a giant of a thinker, and a pretty tall guy, too, folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame onto a carved-wood bench, and did what any self-respecting Irishman would do, caught in such a circumstance. He ordered a pint of Guinness, and a bit of Irish stew to wash it down.

Then, his feet occasionally breaking into an under-the-table tap, in tune with some fine accordion blaring over the speakers, he settled into a long afternoon of conversation — the great art he alternately refers to as “an old blast of ideas” or “the source of luminosity in the Western tradition, going back to Plato’s dialogues.”

Oh, how he laments that discourse is dying, one of the great casualties of postmodern culture. What passes for it these days, he says, is really “just intersecting monologues.”

For a man who spends most of his days hearing only his own thinking, living alone as he does in the wilds of Connemara, O’Donohue–a Catholic scholar, priest and, of late, a best-selling author–is spilling with much to say about everything from how odd it is to refer to coffee as regular, “as distinct from coffee that misbehaves,” to how we should cross the threshold of the millennium in two days of silence, “with a liturgical solemnity in some way.”

He cracks Steven Wright jokes –“I went into a restaurant. It said, `Breakfast Any Time.’ I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” He croons with Sinead O’Connor. He drops the names of philosophers from practically every century dating to ancient Greece. He sprinkles blessings on everything from the car he had just bumped around in, to the table where the afternoon’s conversation unspooled.

And the world is very much starting to listen–even if it’s only to him talking to himself, as he puts it.

In fact, of his pair of best-selling books, both spiritual works laced with Irish lyricism–“Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom,” the No. 1 best seller in Ireland for 18 months until it was bumped from that spot by his new book, “Eternal Echoes,” now shifting between No. 1 and 2 in the country that, after 800 years of colonization, has built an empire of words–he says: “All I’m doing with these two books is allowing, maybe, others to overhear some of my own internal conversations. I’m not sure I’m right at all.”

And some conversations they are.

“He is the finest English-language-speaking spiritual writer of our time,” says Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Irish-Catholic priest and best-selling author of 42 novels, including his newest, “Irish Mist,” in bookstores for St. Patrick’s Day.

“When I started his first book, I said, `Oh, I’ll sit down and read the whole thing.’ Well, I soon realized I’d only read a chapter a day. It got down to a paragraph, at most a page, a day. I’m using the new book for spiritual reading, and the section I’m on now, it’s about a sentence a day.”

It’s not that it’s drudgery. “It’s rich,” says Greeley, who has the heroine of his new book quoting O’Donohue, a sure sign that he’s seeping into popular culture.

No less than Deepak Chopra, the best-selling author, physician and spiritualist, is a fan. He says O’Donohue’s work is “a rare synthesis of philosophy, poetry and spirituality.” He calls it “life-transforming for those who read it.”

Yow.

And how is it that the boy who grew up on a sod farm, whose vision of hell to this day is an endless prairie of turnips that need thinning, who lives an ascetic’s life alone in a cottage with walls held up by books, the nearest human a mile away, how is it that such a lad grew up to be “well on his way to becoming one of the master practitioners of the trade,” in the words of Greeley, the trade being the saving of souls through spiritual writing?

“I was born on a farm in the west of Ireland, and I’m so glad of that because I think one of the finest places to begin acquaintance with the universe is on the land,” says O’Donohue. “The landscape at home is exceptionally dramatic, the Burren region of County Clare, the amazing stonescapes, you know.”

You mean sort of like the stones standing near the door?

“No, not at all,” he says, barely glancing away from his Guinness.

“It was an intimate landscape. Every field had its name. It was a folk world, a world of folk culture. Also, through working the land –cows and cattle, sheep and fowl, sowing crops, cutting hay and turf, it was a full farming life–it meant that you became acquainted with the landscape.”

His favorite chore: Cutting turf in the bog, slicing half-foot slabs of earth, boring deeper and deeper with every slice. The bog, he explains, “is where there was a forest and where it collapsed, and where all the past life is congealed underneath the surface in a fallen way.”

And so, “in a sense, cutting turf is a place where you enter the hidden time of a landscape, where its memory is interred.”

It is those poetic riffs, infused with a passion for the natural world, that are the underpinning of O’Donohue’s vision. It is his Celtic soul oozing out–in conversation or in his books.

He was blessed with a father “with a lovely mind for a farmer. He always had the ability to think. He could go to the horizon with the thoughts.”

And always, turning the hay, cutting the turf, there was conversation.

“At night, too, around the fire at home, the experience of the day is sifted. With all kinds of silence, loads of silence looking into the fire. A lot of old time for integrating experience, digesting, mulling over things.

“It was a lovely way for a young man to grow up. James Hillman (the Jungian analyst) said, `Women relate face to face, but men relate shoulder to shoulder.’ “

It wasn’t long before O’Donohue went off to university, where he studied philosophy and English literature, and where his mind, he says, “really woke up.”

“I always think that thoughts are the most intimate part of humans,” he says. “The way you think is the way you are. Meister Eckehart (a 13th Century German mystic) says our thoughts are our inner senses. Polish them and refine them; the edge of your thinking will determine who you hold yourself to be, what you hold the meaning of life to be and how you will live with yourself in the world.

“I think one of the things that really holds us back and atrophies us and condemns us to live such forsaken lives is the deadness of our thinking, and how we swallow like fast food the public cliches that are given to us, and how we dedicate so much of our precious inner time of the mind to listening to garbage that has nothing to do with anything.”

O’Donohue, in his own humble way, wouldn’t mind turning that around. He doesn’t much like the trappings of celebrity, though. He quips as his picture is being taken, “Rilke says, `Fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that gather around a new name.’ “

He never set out to be the writer of books that have made him a household name back in the old country. And lately he has been crisscrossing America where people line up, sometimes in the hundreds, waiting for a word, and his scrawl on the books they buy, often four or five at a time.

“One of the things that consoles me about all this is that I didn’t go out looking for it at all,” he says.

He was quite satisfied with having completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a dissertation on the philosopher Georg Hegel that won him a summa cum laude in 1990 from the University of Tubingen, near the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. That dissertation, written in German, draws rave reviews — one as recent as last summer in The Review of Metaphysics, a scholarly journal. He’s thinking he should have it published in English.

But back to the, er, more accessible road his writing career has taken.

It just kind of took off on its own, it seems.

Having written poetry since he was 21 and along the way becoming a priest, although not tied to any parish or particular order, O’Donohue had been invited several years ago to share his meditations at a conference in California. Someone made tapes of his talks that were later heard by an agent in New York. The agent got them tucked between covers as “Anam Cara,” which sold like hot cross buns from Dublin to Donegal. In America, sales topped 50,000 in hardcover and 60,000 in paperback, not too shabby for a first book of its ilk.

“I’ve been totally blown away, really amazed, so humbled, by the resonance these books have found,” says O’Donohue, who for long hours every morning sits with a fountain pen in a little room with an open fire, writing a sentence, throwing it out, writing another, tossing it too. “After three hours, you have four miserable sentences,” he says. “For every one of them, you’ve thrown out 100.”

But in the end, when all the sentences add up to a finished work, he whispers one last benediction as he seals the envelope to his publisher. “Always when I’m launching a book,” he confides, “the last line I always say is, `May this book find its way to those who need it.’ “


and here is the beannacht that started my way back to my old poet friend….

written for his mother, Josie; beannacht, in Gaelic, is a word with more nuance than mere blessing, it’s “goodbye and God bless,” so here is a beannacht for the those we have lost, in ireland, in ukraine, here on our very own sod…

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O’Donohue ~

(Echoes of Memory)

if you’d like surround-sound comfort, you can listen to him — and hear that beautiful lilt — here, talking with krista tippett about beauty….

and here is the wonderful wisdom from howard zinn that had me looking for hope….(with huge thanks to PJT, my holy light in D.C.)

where did you find comfort — and hope — this week?

there is no peace

in eastern Ukraine, a woman standing in the ruins of what had been her backyard; photo from lynsey addario for the New York Times

we can’t get away from it, nor should we. as bombs rain from the sky, as hospital wings are mortared, and women in labor carried away, who are we to wonder which can of soup we might open? or which load of laundry to do?

as bodies in masses lie bloodied and dead in the road, escape made folly, how dare we flip through the page of a magazine, looking for words to carry us off? 

as old people, too frail to leave home, are shivering in their now windowless houses, neighbors cutting down trees, building fires for heat and for cooking, boiling snow for buckets of water, who am i to complain about all the times in a week i have to run to the grocery?

those are the questions, some of the questions, that plague us in this war time. war a word that now shrieks from the page. it should have shrieked sooner, shrieked louder, i fear. or maybe i just wasn’t listening, quite closely enough. wars until now have mostly not woken me in the night. but now the war does. 

i’m barely awake in the the murky hours of darkness, and the gnawing dread and the weight of this war are close enough to the thin icy edge of my consciousness that one little stirring brings it all back to mind, to heart. i’m fully awake then, startlingly so. 

i know, because the math now comes without pause, the eight-hour time calculation, i know that in the deep of my night it’s morning in kyiv, and bombs must be pelting again, so how can i go back to the business of sleeping? what if, while i keep my eyes closed, a child is lying cold and afraid––in a half-frozen field, at the back of a church, in a house ripped to shreds along with everyone else who’d been under its roof? except for that one lone child now trapped in the cold grip of terror.

i might sit in an armchair not long after dinner, and it might seem like i’m looking ahead, at the screen where a show rolls along, but i’m not paying attention. i’m wondering what it must feel like to count yourself blessed for crossing a border and leaving all else far, far behind. 

there is no peace on the planet. 

the very words war and peace now carry a weight that expands far beyond what had become almost a throwaway sense. i don’t think i realized before just how much volume they hold. i think i mostly dismissed them. considered them words mostly just holding a place. words with a hint of amnesia. words stripped of their grip on us. 

prayers for peace now hold a meaning that used to escape me. i imagine the day when the bulletin breaks, and we might hear the words, war ends. i pray for that day. i pray mightily. but i am wondering now how prayers in the holocaust felt? 

what prayer do you pray as you count the last seconds you breathe? i pray it’s a good one. and i pray even more that it’s heard on the other end. 

i imagine God is distraught. i know i am. i know nearly every last someone i know is. if they’re paying attention. paying attention to me is a prayer, so i pray it day after day. there are days when i want to turn off my attention. slink off to a safe little cove, wake up when it’s over. when the bulletin comes. 

in the times when my prayers are dried up, when my heart has run out of gas, i try to find someones stronger than me. someones who know how to keep going, how to stare fear in the face, how to not cover their eyes and their ears. i poke around looking for words to sturdy me, to steady my wobbly ways.

there is, so often, no better someone than the gentle-souled farmer who plows his own fields with draft horses and oxen down kentucky way. wendell is his name, wendell berry. and this poem of his––the last poem i read to a friend who was dying––is, like all the best prayers, a quiet wisp of a poem that slips in through the smallest chance it can find. i know this poem by heart, or pretty close anyway. but now, more than in a very long time, it reaches out from the dark and brings a most holy communion. 

i pray that some little child far off in ukraine might be wrapped in the whisper of wing that comes from a wild thing stirring. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

from New Collected Poems (Counterpoint, 2012)

what brings you strength when you’re feeling wobbly, or weak in the knees?


lynsey addario, whose photo is above, is considered one of the greatest war photographers of the 21st century. she’s a fearless photojournalist, who focuses her work on conflict, human rights, and the role of women in traditional societies. she’s unflinching, she runs toward the scene, whatever it is, so we can all see. she was in the news this week because she took the picture of a family––a mother, her two children, and a church volunteer helping them run––dead in the road trying to escape kyiv. the new york times made the brave and important decision to run the photo–big–across its front page. addario, who is 48 and who was named a macarthur “genius” in 2009 , talked this week about making that photo; here’s what she said:

“I’m a mother, and I when I’m working, I try to stay very focused. I try to keep, sort of, the camera to my eye,” she said. “But of course, it was very emotional. First of all, I had just been sprayed with gravel from a mortar round that could have killed us very easily. So I was shaken up, and when we were told that we could run across the street by our security adviser, I ran and I saw this family splayed out and I saw these little moon boots and puffy coat.”

Addario added that, even though she felt it was disrespectful to take the photo, she thought that she had to.

“This is a war crime,” she said. 

and the world needs to see.

a note: i understand that for some it’s too painful to keep too close a watch. and i understand that our words can’t make a dent in the evil. but against the backdrop of suffering of this magnitude, i can’t imagine turning away.

beyond words…

we are waking up to a terrifying morning, reports of ukraine’s nuclear plant seized by the russians, after they spent the night shelling it, setting parts of it on fire, while every nuclear emergency team in the world huddled, prayed, awaited reports of radioactivity. word comes that the diabolical plot is not merely to cut the power grid to turn out the lights, but to freeze out the people.

our lungs are left breathless, our limbs are trembling. what hell has been wrought?

while the morning leaves room only for prayer, for collective mind-meld to beg to stop putin and his evil conspirators, my work of the week––keeping count, compiling a list of break-through moments of radiant light amid the gathering darkness––feels lame. but, because gathering each and any spark of hope and indefatigable humanity just might keep us from teetering, i will leave it here anyway.

i began the week drawn to pray in one of chicago’s breathtakingly ornate ukrainian churches. not a word was in english (though i did recognize “alleluia,” and “kyiv,” and “kharkhiv,” among the many slavic syllables). but no words were needed to read the faces of the deeply devout, hands clasped, making the byzantine sign of the cross over and over and over (tracing the shape of a cross in the air, but touching the right shoulder first before the left; thumb, index, and middle fingers pressed together, an invocation of the holy trinity).

the faithful came in traditional garb, vyshyvanka, the glorious embroidered shirts worn by men and women alike. and they came americanized, in black leather pants and skiwear. fur, in pelts or jackets, was abundant. but it was the faces i’ll never forget: etched in despair, fervent in prayer. the queue to light candles on the side of the altar never let up, each petitioner clutching crumpled dollar bills in his or her fist, clear through the hour-long mass, a choreography of mystery and reverence, faith and fortitude, i’ll not soon forget.

the lighting of candles never let up

as the week wore on, the reports more and more dire, i began making a list, because otherwise we might be engulfed by sorrows. these are the moments i am holding onto with all my heart, when the resilience of human kindness and hope refuses to die:

did you see the ukrainian grandma who walked up to an armed russian soldier, asked him what the (heck) he was doing there, told him he was an invader, an occupier, a fascist, and then handed him a fistful of sunflower seeds, and told him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies sunflowers (the ukrainian national flower) will grow from his corpse? and before she turned away, she let him know that from that moment on, he was cursed?

ukrainian “sunflower” grandma confronting russian soldier

did you see the ukrainian woman with the purple streaks in her hair who gave tea and cakes to a captured russian soldier, a young man with nothing but peach fuzz on his reddened cheeks, and when the purple-haired woman used her phone to call the soldier’s mother, natasha, the soldier broke into tears and blew a kiss to the phone?

did you see the little 8-year-old girl who spent her days in the underground subway station crocheting a tiny pink heart, and then she tapped a stranger on the shoulder, and gave it to him?

did you hear the UN translator’s voice crack as he echoed in english the words of ukraine’s president volodymyr zelenskyy, who called out to the world: “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians. We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”

did you see the ukrainian grandma cradling a cat, giving a very emphatic middle finger to the passing-by russian brigade?

did you see the thousands of romanians, lined up in their cars, waiting at the ukrainian border to welcome the tired, the hungry, the cold, the women and children and babies fleeing for their lives? 

baby born in kyiv subway shelter

did you see the baby born in the subway shelter in kyiv?

or the ukrainian woman who crossed the border into hungary with the phone number of a woman she’d never met and two children who’d been entrusted to her––along with their passports––by a man not allowed to leave, who thrust his children into her arms, and instructed her to call the number once they crossed into safety. and not long after she placed the call, the mother of the two children approached; mission accomplished. mother and children, reunited. (the children’s mother had left ukraine earlier, with two younger children, but once it was clear the older children needed to leave, and the father was not allowed to cross the border, he turned to a stranger, and begged, please get my children to safety; if you call this number you will find their mother. and she did.)

or the holocaust survivors huddled in a bomb shelter in ukraine, with the flags of israel and ukraine limp behind them, voices cracking as they cursed putin and asked for peace?

have you seen the thousands of germans who crowded into the central train station in berlin to offer fleeing ukrainians a place to stay? and they came with hand-penned placards in german, english, and ukrainian, offering welcome. “i was very scared, i had to get out from this hell,” said one ukrainian woman as she stepped off the evacuation train, and fell into the arms of a berliner she had never before seen or known.

the images keep coming, moving us to tears upon tears, bringing flickers of something that every once in a rare while feels like the faintest outline of hope. but they fade away, and we are haunted once again by this horror we cannot stop. 

Lord, have mercy.

what images from ukraine are etched in your heart this terrible morning?

exercise in empathy, another name for prayer

A screenshot of a video released by the Ukrainian Police Department Press Service of military helicopters, apparently Russian, flying over the outskirts of Kyiv, February 24, 2022 

can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams? 

can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?

can you imagine? 

can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off? 

can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border? 

can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?

can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?

imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell. 

imagining is the birthing ground of empathy. 

and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer. 

empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.

empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.

truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.

but it’s the place to begin.

and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh? 

don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders? 

isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.

imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.

we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?

it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.

it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.

i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.

***

i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

–Ellen Bass

how did you learn to pray?

a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.

p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….

in which we return, at long last, to the book-making assembly line…

seeing the sacred in nature isn’t typically quite so literal as this ancient relic in the south of england, St. Luke’s Chapel, Ashley Woods, just beyond Abbotsbury in Dorset.

it’s been just shy of a year since last we dropped in on the so-called word factory here at typewriting headquarters, where at the time the bare bones of a book were chugging along the bookmaker’s assembly line, where the supply chain includes alliterations, prepositional clauses, pithy twists of phrase, and occasional insights, all dropped in as the book-in-the-works rolls down the line.

inside the room where the typewriting happens, all was ablur: alphabet keys clacking away, sunlight and moonlight clocking in for their consecutive shifts as the one at the keyboard clackety-clacked, barely noticing the celestial variation as long as the screen stayed aglow.

back then, a precise 37,226 words had been tallied on the factory’s modern-day abacus, the one that spits out the word count with the click of a single key. and there’d been a hard deadline of june. but round about march, it seemed a draft had been drawn to its natural end. so off went the words (59,324) on the pages (110), in hopes of an early editorial read. a bit of a thumb to the wind, to gauge which way it was blowing. or if it was blowing at all.

not long after, all went silent.

and stayed silent. inexplicably, worryingly, for months.

but now, minus the inexplicable tale of the inexplicable months in between, there’s something akin to hope rising. there’s a title, a cover, and even an editor. and, of course, there’s a deadline (more on that in a minute). nothing in the word-factory world seems to come without deadline.

the title, fairly straightforward: The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text. the cover, still under wraps. the editor, a writer/scholar/author/professor who i think might be a certifiable genius. but even better, for a writer seeking to braid inter-religious threads: she happens to have been raised jewish, converted to orthodox judaism during her freshman year at columbia, and while studying for her master’s at cambridge in england, she converted again––to anglicanism and, in 2011, was ordained an episcopal priest. these days, she’s an associate professor at duke divinity school, and nonfiction section editor at Image, the journal that, per their website, “fosters contemporary art and writing that grapple with the mystery of being human by curating, cultivating, convening, and celebrating work that explores religious faith and faces spiritual questions.”

bottomline: the newly-appointed editor of my next adventure in bookmaking (she edited my first book too) knows her stuff, is more than fluent in dual religions (encyclopedically versed in the history, practice, and wisdoms of judaism and christianity), and should keep me from tripping into any unforeseen landmines, or swimming too far into the deep end. a good editor is just that: part-lifeguard, part-life-rope, part-landmine detector.

so, soon as said editor drops a pile of edits and queries and what-were-you-thinkings and i-don’t-get-its here on the assembly line (delivery promised for monday), i’ll be working night and day and day and night to whittle down the word count, untangle the knots, piece together the puzzles, and liberally sprinkle the whole kittencaboodle with ample heaps of fairy dust, all in the hopes of a book that won’t be a bomb.

it’s a book about seeing the sacred out in the wilds, which turns out to be the beating heart of an ancient theology, a foundational worldview that long, long ago rooted celts and jews, egyptian hermits and wandering t’ang dynasty poets. and it’s never quite been erased, even if little mention is made of it now. (its disciples would count as diverse a flock as henry david thoreau, annie dillard, mary oliver, and thomas merton, to name but a familiar few.) somewhere along history’s timeline––certainly by the middle ages––it was given a name, The Book of Nature, a text without words, a text built on an alphabet of birdsong and moonrise, raindrops and thundering skies. it arises from a belief that God first spoke through all of creation, and millennia later came a second sacred text, the Book of Scripture. the two books––one wordless, one spilling with words (783,137 in the King James Bible)––ever in conversation.

in the beginning, long before books and literacy, how better to divine wisdom, glean sacred knowledge, than to look to the heavens, the seas, and the stirrings of earth? and now, in an age when words are as likely to be cudgels or wedges, in an age of balkanizations and polarizations and endless debate over turns of a phrase or translation, it’s the wordlessness of this text––the wholly immersive sensuality and rhythms and spirals of heaven and earth, its ubiquity, dynamism, and subtlety––that i count as its genius. and its holy and silent way in.

who’s not felt the goosebumps rise on the nape of the neck when the sandhill crane trumpets across the autumn sky, or the monarchs come in like a cloud, or the lightning bolt scythes through the night? it’s as close as i come to feeling the faint hem of God brush up against me, or enfold me and hold me. there’s a divine animator always at work, always in wait, enraptured, seeking our gaze or our notice. read the great book of creation, run your fingers across its pages and lines, inhale its sights and its sounds and its scents, and you will––perhaps––know something of God, the God who longs for nothing so much as our company, for our sure and undivided attention.

while i strap on my seatbelt, buckle in for the long editing weeks ahead (all will be due by the third week in march), i’ll still post bits here on fridays, mostly a montage of bits that over the years have captured my imagination and my enchantments. it’ll be something of a potpourri till i’m back from book-making adventures. but i promise good morsels.

only the west gable-end wall of the 13th-century chapel remains. of historical note is the fact that the couple who discovered the ruins on their property, restored it, and later chose to be buried beneath its altar, played a pivotal role in saving a Jewish family captured (and later released) during Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, the horrific murderous night in November 1938, carried out by the Nazis, who torched synagogues, vandalized homes and shops and schools, and killed close to 100 Jews while sending another 3,000 off to concentration camps.

have you stumbled on anything sacred while out in the wilds?

under the full moon of february, snow moon, consider all this unfolding, unfurling, pushing up toward the deepening light:

Tree sap makes the vertical climb from roots to swell buds, bucks shed their horns, ewes lamb and nannies kid, great  horned owls, bobcats, minks and coyotes mate, and the first northern larks, robins, belted kingfishers, red-wing blackbirds and sand hill cranes return to this northern land I am the current steward of.
–Nance Klehm, ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, permacultural grower, and earth steward

winter worn-thin

the icicles must be considering a strike: one day they’re dripping away, growing into winter’s stalactites, next day they’re on their way to oblivion, drop by splashy drop–an existence tied to the rise and the fall of the mercury. same with the slush. hasn’t a clue what form it should take, though frozen or slop, it’s all shades of gray. gray and grayer.

it’s a postcard of winter worn-thin, only we’re the ones worn to the bone, gasping for hope, muttering foul grunts as we jam our toes into our boots (our boots taking on that february aroma, the one that begs to be cloaked, doused, or disguised under a thin veil of anything gentler on the nose).

i’ve long been convinced that february is the shortest month–interrupted by the national explosion of valentine hearts, and chocolate-doused brownies–for a reason. and the reason is plain old survival. we might throw in the towel if we had to stick with it any longer than 28 days (some wisecracker somehow decided long, long ago to sneak in that make-up 29th, but only every four years, the next being two years from now).

all of that is to say, i sense we might be in need of something akin to spiritual transfusion, a hearty reminder of why it is some of us preach winter as the soulful season. (um, that would be me, i confess.) so as i sit here contemplating ways to make it through to the ides of march, and the onslaught of april, i thought i’d bring in the masters for a little shot of espresso-strength reminder: this is good for the soul, all this dreariness out the window. (and those of you reading under the swaying of palm trees, exercise compassion–in the form of imagining a landscape where trees look like so many uninspired sticks, the earth is covered in gray, and the wrong step on the sidewalk can send you flailing and broken, splat on the ground.)

let us begin with rilke, who insisted this is the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul. or albert camus, who wrote, “in the depths of winter, i finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” (sunscreen and popsicles must be hiding somewhere down in the toes of my snow boots.)

henry david thoreau

but for a wintry vitamin in the form of wisdom, i’m walking into the woods with h.d. thoreau, who left this reminder:

There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill…. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.

This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast, for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveller cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.

–Henry David Thoreau, “A Walk in Winter”

and so, he reminds, here in the deep of winter, summer stirs in the heart. he goes on to declare that “in winter we lead a more inward life. our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends.”

i’m taking that as a challenge, this notion that my heart is puffing up cheery whirls of smoke from its cheery little cottage. in fact, i am marching straight to the stack of blankets there on my couch, surrendering to the notion that a long day’s reading is just what the transcendentalist ordered.

he leaves us with prescription:

We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is in this sense a hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity which I had lost almost the instant that I come [outdoors].

–Thoreau

guess it’s time to slip on my stinky boots and embark into this slushy february day.

how do you re-stoke your wintry hearth come the depth of this shortest month?

**image above is from a page of a children’s book i pulled from our shelves (i will not give up those shelves of books i know by heart, forward and backward), one titled, A Winter Place, by Ruth Yaffe Radin, with illustrations by Mattie Lou O’Kelley.