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books for the soul: december edition

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because it’s Christmas and Hanukkah in the days just ahead, this morning is bringing you two posts, and first comes the latest roundup of books for the soul. from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and tucked here for anyone poking around in search of a something special to read… 

Ann Voskamp leads this week’s spiritual roundup 

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

‘The Broken Way’
By Ann Voskamp, Zondervan, 288 pages, $22.99

From the first sentence of “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp, a writer of exquisite capacity, does what she does best: She pierces into a vulnerability that’s rarely explored with such truth-telling and almost never mined for hope. Yet she makes us believe that our deepest blessing is born of our brokenness.

“We can be brokers of healing,” she writes, “exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”

Voskamp, a best-selling author with a devout following (her book “One Thousand Gifts” sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 20 languages), is at her breathtaking best in this exploration that hollows our souls and leaves our hearts in pieces.

“I just know that — old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” she writes in one of her opening, bracing paragraphs.

A wheat farmer’s wife and the mother of seven in Ontario, Canada, Voskamp has known grief ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. It’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and use them to pierce “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

And yet, out of that brokenness, Voskamp finds a way. She comes to understand that operating out of love — a wild, abundant love — wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. In one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, Voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. And that’s just the start of it.

“God is drawn to broken things,” she writes, “so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

‘Light When It Comes’
By Chris Anderson, Eerdmans, 181 pages, $16.99

The clue to reading “Light When It Comes” is nestled in its foreword, where we’re instructed to “pay fierce attention to the holy of everything.” The brilliant essayist Brian Doyle, who penned the foreword, goes on to write that in ancient Irish tradition that’s the task of the seanachies, or story-catchers. Theirs is an imperative calling, he insists, because “stories of grace and courage and humor and love and wild tenderness are compass points and lodestars, and if we don’t catch and share stories that matter, we will have nothing but lies and blood, and can’t we do better than that?”

Chris Anderson, professor of English at Oregon State University, poet and Catholic deacon, is one such story-catcher. And here he writes impressionistically, a pastiche of images, snippets of story, all connected through the singular thread of looking for and stumbling on joy. Stumbling, too, onto the indescribable holy, those moments where we understand at some deep level that we’ve encountered the sacred.

Drawing on the ancient Ignatian prayer tradition of the examen of conscience, a daily practice spurring us to take stock of the joys and sorrows of our every day, Anderson puts words to the practice in these pages that record the fleeting moments of joy.
However small, however ephemeral those moments, he writes, “this is where God is calling us.” It’s a connect-the-dots theology, but in the able hands of Anderson, an evocative writer, a fine-grained observer of light and shadow, the image we see in the end is one that insists God is all around. But we must pay fierce attention to notice.

‘The Paraclete Poetry Anthology’
Edited by Mark S. Burrows, Paraclete, 224 pages, $20

Consider this a short course for the soul. Or, perhaps, the syllabus to last a lifetime. Herein, Mark S. Burrows, a poet, translator and professor of historical theology and literature in Bochum, Germany, becomes one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who illuminates the way into the depths of a subject we’ve never before seen so clearly.
In his introduction, “‘A Sense of Presence’: Poetry and the Education of the Soul,” Burrows makes the case for why poetry is a sure road into the uncharted landscape of the divine.

It is through “the startlements of language” that a poem begins its work, in its capacity to awaken “the sense of wonder by which we discover again and again traces of the beauty that saturates our world,” Burrows writes, drawing fluently from a pantheon of poets. “In moments of surprise, we sense light breaking forth from the dark we carry within us,” the professor writes. Poems attune our minds “through the practice of attention.” And they invite us “to wander into truths often hiding in plain view.”

And then, as if we’ve been invited into a book-lined library, one curated across a lifetime, Burrows lines up a litany of poets and poems illustrating that very thesis.
Gathered here we find selected and new poems from a contemplative monk or three, an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, a protege of Thomas Merton, an Iranian-German poet, a theologian, a flock of English professors, and poets from Ireland, Poland, West Virginia and Tennessee. Tucked amid the poets’ roster, we find Rainer Maria Rilke, considered one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, in new and previous translations by Burrows.

You’ll wear out the pages and the binding before you’re ever ready to put down this book.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

baking en masse: when you need to jumpstart your holiday heart

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the calendar was cajoling. winking, taunting. counting down the days till Christmas. and there i was, slumped in my red-checked armchair, curled in what amounted to the fetal position that even the president (the one still dwelling in the white house) advised was not a wise position (and not because he was worried about my posture or my crooked spine). no matter how hard i tried, i just could not muster the oomph the holidays demand.

so i did the surest thing i know to beat back the mid-december blues: i cranked the oven. i hauled an armload of oranges from the fridge. grabbed the canisters of flour and sugar. soon found myself slamming my grandma’s rolling pin against a sack of walnuts (therapy with a mighty bang!). already, i was starting to feel a little oomph in my kitchen dance. i grated. i measured and dumped. i inhaled the sweet scent of orange. delighted at the garnet bits swimming through the mixing bowl of batter. i was baking my way to Christmas. and on the way, i found my merry heart.

there is something deeply therapeutic about not just baking, but baking en masse. making like you’re a factory of one. i lined up all my baking pans. buttered, floured in one long sweep. i found it much less onerous to tick through required steps in quadruplicate, so much more satisfying than one measly loaf at a time. there was some degree of superpower in seeing my butcher-block counter lined in shiny tins, a whole parade of Christmas possibility. i found a magic in the multiples. in not just joy times one, but joy by the dozen.

i made a list of folks i love, and folks i barely know. folks who might do well to find themselves cradling a still-warm loaf of cranberry-orange-walnut (sometimes pecan) holiday bread. it took hours, of course. because each batch demanded an hour in my crotchety old oven, the one that deals in approximation rather than precision. the one that might respond to Fahrenheit, or might play in Celsius. it seems to change its mind day by day. all the while i cranked the Christmas tunes (truth be told, i played “Mary, Did You Know?” till even my little radio called it quits, fritzed out from all the times i clicked “replay”).

and therein came the joy. the simple act of drumming up a recipe, ticking off the short list of recipients, wishing more than anything i could wander down the lane to souls i love who live miles or time zones away. suspended in a day’s long animation, in the act of making plump golden-domed loaves from scoops of this and pinches of that, it was december’s holy balm.

this seems to be a season, in this particular whirl around the sun, when old tried-and-true rhythms and routines just aren’t working. but scooping your way through a whole sack of flour, grating the zesty peel off a whole orchard of oranges, it held out hope. it nudged me from the dark shadow of ho-hum into the more glimmering terrain of well-it’s-Christmas-after-all. and at every house where i rang the bell, and left behind a loaf, i felt a little thump inside my heart. every once in a while, someone was home, which led to invitation to step inside, to shatter the cloak of isolation that harbors all of us inside our solitude and day-long silence.

it’s a merry tradition, the merriment that’s spread by the baker’s dozen. the simple act of creation — not just for me or mine, but for folks beyond my own front stoop. the simple equation of making to give away. addition through subtraction.

midday i found myself thinking i should take this up for all sorts of holidays, for groundhog day, perhaps, for flag day. for the annual first wednesday in september (a holiday i just declared). point is, sometimes the distance between loneliness and shared company is no farther than the few footsteps from my front door to a door across the way, or down the block. it’s no farther than the mailman’s empty hands once he drops off my daily pile of circulars and bills. no farther than the garbage fellow whose heart-melting smile is carrying me through these days.

it’s not escaping me this year that the deeper i burrow into my own silence, the harder it is to extricate my soul.

and sometimes a simple place to begin the cure is with the canisters that line my kitchen corner. and that cranky oven that lives and breathes to warm my kitchen — and, indeed, my soul.

what’s your recipe out of the doldrums this year? 

and merry almost Christmas to each and every one of you, and happy blessed almost Hanukkah, too. here’s hoping you find scraps of joy, and bundle them into just enough to carry you through these ever-longer, darker nights till the solstice comes, and light creeps in, minute by minute, day by day.

by the way, here’s a link to the cranberry-nut-bread recipe (from gourmet magazine, via epicurious) that got me started. i vamped, as always, from there: more orange zest. more nuts. 

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ten: a decade of keeping close watch

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a decade is long. a decade is 10, of course. but in this particular case, a decade is the distance between a little boy who was five, and finding his way through kindergarten, and now, a sophomore in high school, a sophomore wishing he was in a faraway high school. a decade is the distance, too, between a boy of 13, an eighth grader who dared his mama to type her way into the dawn (otherwise known by the hardly poetic verb blogging), and the man he is today, 23, and heading to law school.

a decade, too, is the distance i’ve grown since the dawn of december 12, 2006, when i tiptoed into the dim light of my writing room, once the garage of this old house, and sat down to type.

what i wrote that long-ago morning was this:

we are looking for everyday grace. i believe that in quietly choosing a way of being, a way of consciously stitching grace and Beauty into the whole cloth of our days, we can sew love where before there was only one moment passing into another. making the moment count, that’s what it’s about here. inhaling, and filling your lungs and your soul with possibility. learning to breathe again. learning to listen to the quiet, blessed tick and the tock of your heart. filling your soul with great light so that, together, we can shoosh away the darkness that tries always to seep in through the cracks, wherever they might be. please, pull up a chair….

everyday grace, surely, is the shimmering something we’ve found, the holiest thing. it’s there when you look, when you pay close attention. but it’s so easily missed. you need to attend to your post in the watchtower of life. need to be on the lookout, ever on the lookout. you’ve no idea where or when it will come, the everyday grace. it doesn’t arrive with trumpet blast, nor even a rat-a-tat drumroll. true grace is not seeking applause. simply the certain knowledge that it’s just brushed by, grazed against the contours of your heart and your soul. and it leaves you, every time, just a little bit wiser, a little more certain that Holy is all around.

and the quiet we set out to find, it’s infused every square inch of this space. in a world torn at the seams by incivility, in a world where, day after day, tenderness is trampled under the hard boot heels of hate and bullying and a toughen-up attitude, we’ve stayed gentle. we’ve traded in tenderness. we’ve held up a radiant grace, a blessedness that stitches hearts into a whole. and we’ve done it right here on the internet, the mad-dash highway that seems to traffic in all the things that this table is not.

when i think across the arc of years since i first faced the blank black screen (for back in the day, the words here were white against a canvas of black, an inside-out contrast that drove at least one dear friend cockeyed and made her dizzy besides), i tick through this litany: two grade-school graduations, one each from high school and college; a move halfway across the country, and a move back home; a whole presidency, and too many tragedies to begin to count. over the decade, i left my newspaper job, wrote two books, grew a garden, simmered a few stews, stirred countless bowls of porridge, dried even more tears. i’ve kissed goodbye two beloved friends, and a father-in-law like no other. we’ve watched a kid learn to read, another learn to row, nursed and buried a very old cat, counted stars, chased after the moon, sent my mama off to surgery twice, but mostly marveled at her devotion for tuesday night dinners, plied week after week for nearly two dozen years.

in all this sacred time here at the table, i’ve made and deepened friendships. i’ve stood back and watched strangers reach out across the way, find shared communion, grow close in friendships all their own. i’ve listened closely, taken notes, as the two boys i love have wound their way through the landscape of their lives. i’ve loved them in double time as i put their words, their stories, to ink. i’ve netted a moment or two worth savoring, worth holding to the light, worth keeping as long as i’m alive — and then some.

i hadn’t much clue where this typing would go, back on the first day i started. i certainly never dreamed that 10 years later, i’d still be typing, finding my way. i hadn’t a clue that here, in the sacred space of our shared creation, i’d find the holy bliss i’d always been after. i suppose i’ve always been a make-believe girl, and here, at the table, i used the one sure thing i know — words typed into inklings, carved into thoughts, emerged as insights — to claim a space i knew was possible: a place where radiance lights the way, and gentle truth is our guidepost.

on the dawn that marked the first full whirl around the sun (a year that had me writing five days a week, every single weekday), i wrote:

we set out — me and my soul and my fingers — to see where we’d get if we were dropped, one distant december, in the snowiest woods. if we stayed there for a year, groped around, poked under leaves, sat by a babbling brook. looked skyward. counted moonbeams and twinkling stars.

some days, i swear, my ol’ boots, the ones i wear when i’m hiking, meandering about in the woods, they felt like 100-pound weights on each foots.

more often, though, i was barefoot and running through meadows. i was catching a glimpse of the butterfly wing. feeling the gentle fingers of God on my shoulder. hearing the sound of my heart thumping, and thumping some more.

i only kept doing the smartest thing i know if what you want is to get from place A to place Somewhere: i put one foot in front of the other. kept my eyes mighty peeled. my heart too.

and look, here, where we are.

we made it through the woods, all right. but the thing is, along the way, i found a something in the woods that fills my lungs, that makes my blood run quick. that gives me something to think mighty hard about.

i’m thinkin’ maybe the woods is a beautiful place, a place that offers me and my soul just what we need.

with all my heart, thank you and bless you for making this a most beautiful space in the holiest decade of my one sweet life. more to come….

amen.

love, bam xoxox

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what lit your way through the last holy decade? 

maybe this will help…

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it’s not even six on the big-faced clock that hangs above the kitchen door, just beside the cookstove. it’s pitch black outside. i couldn’t sleep. again.

that’s how it’s been so many nights of late.

the truth is, i feel broken. deep down inside and all around. it’s the state of the world. the state of domestic affairs (and by that i do mean the nation). and a few other worries besides.

i try not to bring my bundle of knots here to the table. i’ve tried mightily not to be a cry baby. but the truth is, the past few weeks have steamrolled me. maybe you too? as much as i cringe at institutions and norms being turned on their heads, like so many chairs in a tavern strewn after a beer brawl, it’s the oozing of hate, of ugly words, and pent-up outbursts that’s making me quake deep inside. getting to be it’s hard to go a day without bumping into someone spewing some sort of ugly all over the place.

i’m not wired for that. i’m guessing neither are you. when God was making me, i must have been funneled through the light-weight department. i’m of delicate nerve, i suppose. which is why, too often, i shatter. (fear not, God was looking out for me, so i got a double dose of feist, which when in desperate straits i can muster. been known more than once to pull myself up my bootstraps. i’ve taken blows that could have toppled me for good. some day i’ll tell some of those tales. but for now suffice it to say i’m equal parts shatterable and watch-me-pick-up-the-pieces, leaning toward the latter.)

which is where this tried-and-tested old table of friends comes to the rescue. i stumbled into something so good the other day, i had to haul it over here. it’s a book i was reading for work (God bless a job that commands you to read and read deeply). and while i’m not keen on self-help tomes of any kind (truth is — and we’re truth-telling here this dark morning — books that promise salvation-by-baby-step, they make my skin crawl; i’m flat-out allergic), this particular book, which hadn’t set out to fix me or anyone else, more or less set in cement something i’ve always believed: you can find your way out of your brokenness by exercising rampant and wild love beyond measure.

or, as the brilliant ann voskamp writes in her breathtaking new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life:

“we can be the brokers of healing exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”  

or: “God is drawn to broken things — so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

and: “maybe the love gets in easier where the heart’s broke open?” a theory posited by voskamp’s young son.

a canadian wheat farmer’s wife and “the mama of a half dozen crazy exuberant kids,” as she often puts it, voskamp has known grief all her life. ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. it’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and pierce the sharp edge along “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

it’s a grief that led her into the deep well of darkness: “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?”

and yet, out of that brokenness, voskamp, who five years ago wrote the runaway bestseller, One Thousand Gifts, finds a way toward blessing. she comes to understand that operating out of love—a wild, abundant love—wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. in one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. and that’s just the start of it.

she leans into science to back up her scheme, the review of general psychology, in particular, and a study that showed that “those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t.” and here’s why, according to voskamp’s squad of research psychologists: “when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins. acts of kindness reduce anxiety, and strengthen the immune system. five random acts of kindness can increase happiness for up to three months later.”

in this particular instance i’m going with it, abandoning the newsroom adage of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” i’m flat-out buying the science, and the instruction, because frankly anyone got a brighter idea?

i might call it the fireworks rule. do something kind, do something crazily wild driven by love, and don’t tell a soul that you’ve done it, then wait for that tickle, that pop, that night sky of sparkle and light, rising up from deep down inside. it’s the lightning bolt of adrenaline, perhaps, oxytocin oozing all over. it’s God, maybe, tapping you there on the heart, whispering, “hey, sweetheart, high five. that’s what i’m talking about when i talk about love. love and love madly. love with abandon.”

voskamp circles back to her newfangled notion a few chapters later, when she asks: “why hadn’t somebody showed up a long time ago in a three-piece suit to tell me those small acts of intentional love actually trigger the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, the soothing hormone of maternal bonding? that little acts of love actually release dopamine, the hormone associated with positive emotions and a natural high? why hadn’t anyone told me: bend low in small acts of love, and you literally get ‘high’?”

chances are, we knew this already. or at least we had a mighty strong hunch. and chances are, too, we’ve lived it. given it the occasional workout.

but somehow, in this long stretch of feeling quite bulldozed and broken, voskamp’s words and her litany of random, wild abandon loving, it all went a long way toward helping me see the dim light of hope in the distance.

in case you’re inclined to play along, here’s more from the list of crazy wild loving that filled one voskamp day, a day that happened to be voskamp’s own birthday: she filled a mason jar with gladiolas from her garden, and drove them to an old man she knew in a nursing home. but she didn’t stop at just his room, she and her kids ran up and down the halls, leaving a trail of mason-jar glads, room after room. and on their way into town, they drove past a squad car and circled back to leave a box of cookies on the hood, hoping aloud that it wasn’t “mistaken for a bomb.” then, for the joy of it, the whole lot of them grabbed a pie at the market and dropped it off at the town doctor’s office, to “thank him for catching babies.” then, they stopped at a coffee shop, and sprang for the coffees of every single person in line. next up, a dozen donuts dropped off at the town hall. just because.

that’s not all. voskamp wondered aloud what would happen if you walked into a diner, and whispered to the waitress that you’re paying for the dinner of that family over in the corner, a family you’d never before seen, and likely wouldn’t see again. and all that was preamble to the litany i mentioned above: the bubblegum quarters, the windshield parking fees, the cart piled with groceries, paid for in full.

be audacious is the point. love audaciously, the insistence.

“don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake that moves another heart to give,” voskamp writes. “what if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?”

i’m willing to subscribe to the voskamp theory of tremors and earthquakes of kindness. i’m willing to sign my name to the roster of crazies.

it’s the closest i’ve come in the past few weeks to seeing my way toward the light. and i’m lurching toward that flickering flame.

before it goes out.

how bout you? since the whole point is not to divulge your own wild acts of kindness, how bout recounting the times you’ve been so blessed out of the blue? perhaps a litany of blessing, of random kindness exercised madly, is just what the doctor ordered to lift us out of our blues?

blessing, stitch-by-stitch

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but one of the blessings i count…

the dome of heaven, thin veil between earth and sky, is only now daubed with morning’s light. when i tiptoed down the stairs, eager to begin my count of blessings, there was only deep dark shadow, no stars stitched the dawn, not that i could see, constellations occluded by cloud.

i began the day in the hour where i find my deepest prayer: the still-slumbering hours when i alone animate the house. when the creaks in the floorboards come from my soft-fleshed soles pressing against the slabs of oak, when lightbulbs burn — or not — because i flick the switch. when clocks tick unencumbered. when my morning ministrations — scooping seed for the birds, scooping beans for my coffee, cranking the furnace, fetching the papers from the curb — become a liturgy of gratitude, as i lift the curtain on the day, as i sweep my heart in prayer.

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cranberry and pear, under a raw-sugar cloud, before they simmer into relish

and never more so than the dawn that follows thanksgiving, when the refrigerator groans under the weight of turkey carcass, and every inch is strategically occupied with cranberry and cold mashed potato and autumnal roots roasted into surrender. and, because i was on my knees scrubbing last night, with a vat of vinegar and water by my side, the maple slabs by the stove no longer are slick with splattered butter and olive oil.

it’s become something of a tradition on this day when the world screams of one-day-only sales and count-down bargains, and the stories of mobs at the malls are enough to make me break out in hives, i retreat. i take to the woods. to the rustle of brittle grasses under my boots. to the chill against my cheeks. and when i come to a clearing, where a singular oak rises up from the prairie, i trace my gaze heavenward, beyond the bare naked limbs that scrape the late november sky.

the more the world rushes at me, the more certain i’m beating retreat.

but first i wrap myself in prayer, in the count-down of blessing, more emphatic than ever this year as i set out to steady myself in the aftermath of these weeks that have shaken me to my core, as the din all around seems fueled by a hate i can hardly fathom, as the discourse too often appears to have lost its soul.

i bow my head and begin.

before my feet hit the floor beside my bed, i am washed over in the knowing that this morning is especially blessed: all the beds in this old house are filled. the two boys i love, tucked under blankets, their dreams rising up from their pillows. i whisper infinite thanks for these two who, more than anyone, wrote the script of my sacred instruction, who taught me how to be alive, how to love, through their hours of question, and struggle, their shadow and light.

i pause in the closet to stretch a holey old sweater over my head. thank you, dear heavens, for old familiar clothes, the ones that make us feel deeply home, the ones that put on no airs, the ones not afraid to expose their thinnings and raggedy threads.

i find my way down the stairs, passing the wall of so many people i love, ancestral gallery, some in sepia tones, some black-and-white, all framed, all blessed and blessing. not a morning goes by that i don’t pass under their gaze, under their vigilant watch. thank you, all of you who came before, all of you who are wired into our DNA and our souls.

and then i round the bend to the kitchen, the high altar of this old house, really, where pots are stirred, and conversation bubbles up by the hour. where butcher-block counters hold up bottomless vats of talk, of questions and quandaries, as certainly as they bear the weight of my chopping and mincing. thank you, old stained maple block. and thank you, Most Sacred One, for the wisdom that sometimes comes to me, and the holy communion of shared silence in between.

i turn to brew coffee. my hand bumps into an old glass jar stuffed with thyme and oregano snipped from the window box just beyond the sill. thank you, dear God, for thinking to make leaves with a smell and a taste redolent of holiday, or our grandma’s kitchen, or some faraway place on the globe. thank you, too, for star anise and cinnamon stick simmering on the stove, my definition of heavenly vapors.

i tumble out the back door, my old banged-up coffee can spilling with shiny black sunflower seed. in the not-so-distance, i hear the ruffling of feathered wings, and soon as i dump my morning feast, the yard erupts in the darting and dashing of flocks hungry for their sustenance, hungry from the long night’s staving off the freeze. i’ve yet to run out of thanks — nor do i imagine i ever will — for the miracle of the sparrow and the scarlet-coated cardinal and the pair of blue jays who squawk like there’s no tomorrow.

i dash inside, shake off the cold, plop into my old red-checked armchair. i consider the wonder of a chair that wraps its wings around you, and sturdies your spine. thank you, Blessed One, for the hours i spend here, turning pages, inhaling the poetry that life can’t stanch.

and so it goes, our days a litany of blessing. i begin with the tiniest of stitches, a petit point of gratitude that stretches across the vast canvas of my every day.

the more i read, the more i listen, the more deeply i understand that the miracle we’re after, the wonder we seek, the beauty that tingles our spine, it doesn’t come with trumpets blaring, but rather in the accumulated whisper of one small blessing after another. the blessings at once unadorned and majestic. the blessings that make us whole, and fill us when we’re hollowed.

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my blessings, entwined

 

before i ask what blessings fill your day, and your soul, i want to leave a poem i stumbled across yesterday, one that seems to belong here at the table. it’s a meditation on the blessing of a kitchen table. 

Perhaps the World Ends Here
BY JOY HARJO

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo. 

and now, what are the simple unadorned blessings that stitch together your day — and your soul?

books for the soul: just in time

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i often turn to poets and prophets when my heart feels like it’s leaking sadness, and so this latest roundup of books for the soul is an apt offering this fine november morning. i don’t always remember to post these here, though they’re always to be found at the chicago tribune, now tucked inside the arts & entertainment section on thursdays (soulful roundups, the ones i write, appear every five to six weeks). if you’d prefer to find this online, here’s your link. otherwise, read on below. God bless mary oliver, w.s. merwin, and brian mclaren for abundant wisdoms and poetry.

Spiritual Books by Brian D. McLaren, Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“The Great Spiritual Migration” by Brian D. McLaren, Convergent, 288 pages, $21

That Brian McLaren’s roots in conservative Christianity once ran deep, makes his a powerful voice calling for a prompt and wholesale realignment. It’s a religion gone astray, he argues, and it needs a serious fix.

His ultimate challenge, astutely laid out in “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian,” is this: Might Christianity find a way to become more Christian? (Read: More all-inclusive, and, most of all, more loving?)

McLaren, a former pastor, progressive activist and highly respected Christian thinker, minces no words in claiming that Christians by the droves are “fleeing the brand, as the brand is so compromised as to be unrecognizable.” He writes as only an insider can — with rock-solid authority. His thesis: “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”

Whereas the founders of religions — and the denominations thereof — were defined by generosity, vision, creativity and boldness in action and thought, the religions that “ostensibly carry on their work,” McLaren writes, often become “constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundary maintenance, turf battles, and money. Instead of greeting the world with open arms … their successors stand guard with clenched fists.”

McLaren’s argument demands attention; it comes in a time of religious tumult. American society, and the West in general, is rapidly becoming more secular, with the “nones” — the religiously nonaffiliated, including atheists and those who claim to be spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religion — accounting for almost 1 in 4 Americans today.

Pointedly, McLaren asks: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?”

“Upstream” by Mary Oliver, Penguin, 192 pages, $26

When reading Mary Oliver in any form — poetry or prose — you oughtn’t be surprised when suddenly you find yourself at a full stop. When you come across a sentence so arresting in its beauty — its construction, its word choice, its truths — you can’t help but pause, hit “reread,” and await the transformative soaking-in, the awakening of mind and soul that’s sure to settle deeply.

So it is with “Upstream: Selected Essays,” Oliver’s latest collection of writings (19 in all, 16 from previous collections), here twinning the threads of the natural world and her lifelong literary companions. Long considered the high priestess of astonishment, she lays before the reader epistle after epistle from her Book of Nature and the meditations therein.

For Oliver, the natural world — be it a consideration of the snapping turtle or the red-tailed hawk, the cattails swishing at the pond’s edge or “the black-bellied pond” itself — is the channel into the sacred.

Hers is not an explicit religiosity, but rather it’s writing weighted with suggestion, with a gentle nod toward the divine, and every once in a while an explicit salutation. Addressing a gargantuan gassy-breathed snapping turtle, for instance, she asks: “Did He who made the lily make you too?”

She never fails to stir us from whatever is the natural speck before our gaze to the immeasurable heaven’s dome above and beyond.

And as with all the best of Oliver, and her company of contemplatives, her message, her religion, is one that rests on this command: Open your eyes. Pay attention.

“Garden Time” by W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon, 96 pages, $24

“Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar,” Mary Karr, the poet and memoirist, once wrote. And so, for those of us drawn to the liturgical practice of carving out quietude, and cracking open the pages of volumes of poetry, the latest collection from W.S. Merwin, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is prayer of a high order.

The son of a Presbyterian minister who started out writing hymns for his father, Merwin, now a practicing Zen Buddhist, takes on a study of time in this latest collection, “Garden Time,” 61 new poems written late in his life (he’s now in his ninth decade). Merwin’s verse pulses with a longing, a knowing that this moment is blessed — and is slipping away. There’s a reverence here that can only be called sacred, a divine infusion.

While he trains his eye on the natural world, it’s the infinite wisdom tucked within that world that Merwin is mining. His subjects of inquiry (to name but a few): sunset, shadow, silence, the sound of rain when it stops. Considered “an oracular poet” by some literary critics, these poems brim with unanswerable questions; Merwin’s examination of time and memory — looping, spiraling, slipping to and fro — can’t help but spur you to pause, to pay closer attention. To consider your own life’s measure of time, looping and slipping away.

Attention, Mary Oliver says, is the beginning of devotion. And devotion is the high art of the soul. That high art is rarely practiced more ethereally than through the words of William Stanley Merwin.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

while you’re busy reading this, i hope to be typing away on another post for this friday morning, one in which my holy balm was found pushing my wheelbarrow.

“be our best selves,” and other wisdoms gleaned

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in which we turn to the wisdom of others to find instruction for the way toward grace…

a precede before we begin: i was trained as a journalist to leave my politics off the table, to keep it out of my writing, and because i’ve worked for almost 10 years to make this a sacred place outside the cacophony of the cruel world that tries to knock us down, i want to put the politics aside here, and frame this as a conversation of all the things we believe in here at the table: looking across the abyss to find the glimmering shards of the divine, renouncing hate and hateful speech. finding courage even when we’re mired in doubt. 

***

when we sat down to dinner the other night, the night after we’d stayed up till the wee hours watching votes roll in, we clasped hands as we always do, maybe a little tighter that night than we sometimes do, and we nodded toward the gentle man at the far end of the table, the man whose moral ballast, whose capacities to anchor my fevered flights, weighed deeply into why i married him. it was his turn to say the prayer. he spoke simply, two sentences perhaps. and the one that’s stuck with me all week, the one i’ve all but sewn to my backbone, to put muscle to my wobbly self, is this: “dear God, let us be our best selves.”

it’s as wise an instruction as any i’ve stumbled upon this week.

what it means, i think, is to double-down on our inclinations to be living-breathing beacons of all that’s good. and by “good” we mean those actions inscribed in every ancient and timeless holy text: love as you would be loved. turn the other cheek. be your brother’s or your sister’s keeper. to name a few (please, name a few that guide you).

when the world around you feels as if the ground’s been shaken, when you’re scared by all the words (and acts) of hate that swirl around, is there any hope in muscling on more deeply attuned to your own code of gentle kindness, in reaching across the darkness in search of the glimmering shard of holiness we’re sure is somewhere out there?

is there any other choice?

we can’t submit to the lowest, harshest impulses wired into the whole of we are.

is it enough to conduct our daily lives in a cone of grace, a willingness to listen, to speak in soft and measured tones, to sometimes muster all the courage in the world to step in and say, i’m sorry, that’s wrong and i will not stand silent?

or might we need, more emphatically than ever, to step beyond our well-worn zones of comfort, carry our best selves into the more public sphere?

i’m rich in questions this morning, short on answers. i’m guided, as always, by my simple code: make each encounter peace-filled, at a minimum. take it up a notch and sow an extra dash of goodness, of compassion. look the stranger in the eye, allow your eyes to sparkle. speak a word of shared communion. make someone laugh. wreak random acts of plain old kindness. shake someone out of complacency by your radical gesture of human decency. put breath to the voice of truth, of healing, of all the wisdom you can muster. don’t be afraid.

i’ve been turning all week for instruction from the wise souls who surround me. my dear friend katelynn carver is a friend i made in a virginia woolf class at harvard divinity school. she’s in scotland now, at st. andrews, writing herself toward a phD in wisdom. she wrote this brilliant essay this week, titled “the opposite of indifference.”

in part, she wrote:

We’re forgetting the most important thing. Because we think we’ve lost love to hate, today. We think we’ve lost kindness to wrath, today. We think we’ve lost the good in what we stand for as a country to violence and hate-mongering and xenophobia and all of the horrible -isms that plague our society and divide us ever further where we need to unite. And I won’t kid you: all those things have been dealt a mighty blow—mightier than many of us have ever seen.

But we’re wrong that we, as a country, lost to hate, today.

she went on to write:

We need to look beyond the superficial, and take nothing for granted, and create dialogue where we’ve long found it easier to turn a deaf-ear. We need to dig in with both hands and do the hard work.

We need to protect each other. We need to recognize what this division has done to our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. We need to reach out and assist immediately with those who are grieving this morning, who are fearful, who are suffering or devoid of all hope, and remind them that they matter, and that there’s light left, and that we’re still here. We need to see the hate and the rage and the vitriol and sit with it a while, so that we can understand where it comes from, so as better to help heal where it stems from. We need to remember that at the end of the day we are all human—and if remembering that is a trial, or a seeming impossibility, we need to work harder. We need to work to figure out how to stop being being so scared that we’re defensive, that we’re ignorant, that we make enemies amongst ourselves and cut rifts that shake our cores. We need to figure out what went wrong that parts of our nation have ever felt that they need walls, physical and metaphorical.

But what we need most, is to remember. We are a nation of many nations. We are a people of many peoples. We are a generation being faced with a challenge, as every generation is, and we are being called to rise to it and shore this nation up at its fractures to be stronger, to be better. We are an experiment, and sometimes experiments don’t go the way we expect, but that’s what makes them groundbreaking—for better or worse.

Where this experiment leads is going to be in our hands, now. And if we remember only one thing as the first step, as the driving force, and the first niggling thought before we remember everything else ahead of us, expected of us, needed from us—we must remember this:

We are not indifferent.

And as long as that remains true, we have a path to forge onward.

no wonder i love katelynn. (please read her whole essay).

and on katelynn’s wisdom, i’ll sign off — with love, and faith that, together, we’ll find our way toward the shining light that cannot be extinguished.

david remnick, a voice i turn to in times of light or dark, wrote in the darkest hours of tuesday night, wednesday morning. he chose these words to end his essay: “…despair is no answer. to combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. that is all there is to do.”

and my burning question: what instruction guides you? where are you finding hope? how do you define, “be our best selves”?

special edition: a little bit of believing

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it’s just baseball. i know that. of course i know that.

but i also know — having suffered through the anguish of loss after loss, in the last inning, the last game of season after season, when it all lay on the line, when we almost could wrap our sweaty palm around a win, but then felt the whoosh and the throb to the heart as it all slipped away once again, having spent night after night of late too scared to watch the screen, too nervous to come out from the dark of the laundry room where i paced in anxious loops or rocked in a creaky chair beside the dryer (true confession; last night) — i also know that, for me anyway, it’s all boiled down to a short course in believing.

baseball, played out on planes of grass and mounds of sand, is a game of hope, counted in balls and strikes. it’s faith, measured in innings.

and after too long a while without a notch in the W column you start to ache deep inside your brain. you start to wonder if the synapses, the ones that shoot off sparks of hope from one dangly neuron to another — not unlike telegraph machines of yore, the ones that tapped out urgent word, dispatched it round the world — you start to wonder if maybe the neural dischargers will dry up and wither away, from lack of positive outcome.

in the middle of some indecipherable moment, when pitches are wild and runners are running and the wrong ones are scoring or being tagged out, you start to think you just might pack up all your hope, and put it away.

you start to wonder if you’ll ever have faith in believing again.

because you can’t remember the last time you snared the happy ending.

and you’re watching so many people you love shuffle off to bed with the heaviest soles in the world. and not a few tears.

over the years, i’ve tucked boys into bed with cheeks streaked wet and heavenly pleadings unmet. i’ve watched boys slump off the couch, so stunned by what they saw on the screen (think 2003, game 6, fan-we-won’t-name reaches out for a fly ball, and 3-0 cubs-marlins lead in the national league championship series whirls down the drain). i’ve watched boys pick up the next morning’s paper as if it were poison, or hot-wired to a bomb that might go off at any minute.

but i’ve seen, too, indelible sketches of faith tucked under a ballcap:

on cold spring nights, with temps hovering in the low 40s at best, i’ve had friends haul sleeping bags to the sidewalk outside wrigley field, keeping vigil all night so they could be among the first in line for season tickets — year after losing year. and we’ve a very dear friend who drove in from upstate new york, overnight, over the weekend, to plop his bum in the season-ticket seat at wrigley he’s held since god-only-knows-when. because he’d never before known a world series game, and he wasn’t about to let a thousand miles get in the way.

the diehards, they never gave up. maybe it was only wimps like me who found ourselves wobbling, who thought our knees might give out, the up-and-down of it all, the cardiac teeter-totter of dizzying hope giving way to crushing what-was-i-thinking.

in moments like those, the best you can do — the best i can do anyway — is what my little guy long ago referred to as “soothe talk,” as i tell myself over and over, it’s just baseball. we’ll all get up in the morning, lace up our shoes, run out of milk once again.

but then, before that thought’s half-baked, you back it up with another one begging the baseball gods for a break.

you tick through the laundry list of heartbreak that’s piled up over the years, and you start to think you might just be on the losing side of this proposition — and not just in baseball. you start to think you might teeter permanently into the camp of those too shattered to ever again believe.

but you can’t imagine how that could be. and you know life’s too sweet to let that be the take-home prize.

and all the while you’re wanting it for everyone you can possibly think of: the 92-year-old blind guy in iowa you read about; the gravestones now decked out in cubs caps, and fly-the-W flags; your very own brothers, schooled in transistor-radio baseball, now grown and scattered but still believers in ernie banks & co.; your own two boys — the ones hauled to wrigley cathedral not long after birth because it was a baptism their father believed in.

i especially wanted it for anyone — and i know deep inside there was someone — lying in a hospital bed somewhere in cubs land, someone i imagined might be waiting to die, refusing to die, till the last out was called, just in case this was the year.

even though at the time of that thought, it wasn’t looking so hopeful.

and then, after a drought of 108 years, the heavens opened, and down came a rain. enough of a rain to cover the field in a blank white prayer shawl.

prayers — everywhere — were whispered, the volume cranked louder and louder.

it wouldn’t be long — not too long, given the very long century-plus leading up to the tenth inning of game 7 of the world series of 2016 — and then, at last, it came, the whoop that found its way to the dark behind the furnace, where by then i was rocking in that old creaky chair (the very image of madame defarge, i imagine).

a young boy called my name, beckoned me to the scene in front of the screen. he couldn’t contain his unbridled joy, my born-again believer. nor could his papa. nor his faithful big brother, connected by text and by heart, across the not-so-many miles.

i breathed once again. i inhaled the heavenly vapors of the happily-ever-after ending. i tucked it away in my heart’s deep-down pocket. whispered, only loud enough for my own self to hear: sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to believe.

faith, newly polished and gleaming again, is what i took home from the end of the drought.

i’ll pull it out whenever it matters. because sometimes the lessons of baseball can’t be contained in dugouts and bleachers.

* i must end with an asterisk, as only a wimp would do, in deepest apologies to the fine and glorious folk of cleveland, ohio, who this morning are wearing the sting of the heart i know so well. i was soothing myself — when it looked like a loss might be in store for our end of the equation — by looking up the stories of various players and reminding myself how each and every one prayed for — and deserved — the happiest ending. baseball doesn’t end in a tie, i am told. which proves that i did not make the rules. so to everyone saddened by this stunning development, my deepest sympathies. there is, of course, always next year.

and in the meantime, i’m shipping this ahead of the usual friday-morning deadline because i’ll be teaching flocks of young students tomorrow (the ones who skip the cubs’ victory parade, anyway). and because, well, this is all very hot off the press, this notion of world series champion cubs. and why not leap into the heat of the moment?

before i go, do tell, what are the lessons you’ve learned about hope, and the blessing of believing? how did life teach those particular truths?

because the chair is always, always about story and heart-filled word, i’m going to gather here a compendium of some of the best writing i’m finding, recapping the game and what this all means: 

here, from my dear dear friend, paul sullivan, known and loved by all of us as “paulie,” the chicago tribune’s great cubs writer. 

and my brother bri found this beauty from espn’s wright thompson, about mourning those who didn’t live to see it.

and i’m waiting for roger angell, the great great writer and chronicler of baseball and this world series in particular, to post his latest at the new yorker. stay tuned for that keeper. in the meantime, he’s a great one on the two magnificent drought-ending managers — joe maddon and terry francona — from the new yorker’s ian crouch

pausing for hello

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it’s as old-fashioned a gathering as any i know. the one where — instead of just waving while hauling out the trash, or yelping a how-d’-do as you dash three-bluestones-per-leap up the walk — you let out a holler, a hospitable one, up and down the block, and invite the whole flock to your kitchen, warm mugs palmed in your hands, stories brewing.

i’ve not hauled out my vat of a coffee percolator in a very long time.

but it’s time. we’re long overdue. that’s what we all said, as each and every reply trickled in.

on the block where i live, we used to find ourselves in each others’ kitchens, oh, at least every few months. there was summer theatre in the alley, where the kids, the whole lot of them, sang and danced and sewed, learned their lines, built their stage sets, even rigged up contraptions for flying. there were new year’s day parades, with the tykes all bundled and barely able to shuffle, what with the layers and layers that padded their limbs. there were the occasional no-real-reason gatherings, and the annual swedish extravaganza for santa lucia’s feast day (complete with candlelit caroling and bottomless kettles of svedish meatballs and lutefisk).

we all knew each other as deeply as neighbors might. we thought nothing of calling in the middle of the night if need be, and yes, there were nights when the needs wouldn’t wait for the dawn. all our kids grew up rubbing elbows and shoulders and wits. growing into each other’s hand-me-down pants, and more than one blazer that had barely ever been worn. more than one kid might have had a wee crush on another, learning love over the backyard fence.

but then, one by one, houses changed inhabitants. kids grew up, moved away. every once in a while a kid hit a rough patch, and we all prayed mightily. and then, without a word, we would give the mama room and time to untangle the knots, and drop off dinner once or twice with no need for a thanks.

and not too long ago, the house next door to mine, it welcomed new folks for the first time in 47 years. so, this time, i’m the one plugging in the industrial-sized caffeine machine. and cranking the oven. and slicing the pumpkin-cranberry loaf.

they’re all making their way to my kitchen. only for a short spell of time — a mere couple hours — on a friday morning, as the week draws to a close. but i want my new next-door neighbor to know the good souls who surround her. i want to make sure this circle of mostly old friends takes time to pause, to not only learn her name, but some of her story as well. i want her days to be stitched with the small wonder of a neighbor who drops a sack of just-picked tomatoes onto your doorknob. with the joy that comes when the lady down on her knees in the mud of her garden shouts out something so hysterically funny you find yourself chuckling for the next three hours — or days. want her to know who she can call in the middle of the night should, God forbid, she ever need to.

we’ve tumbled into each other’s lives through accident of geography. because we all found a particular house, a place where we’ve nestled our dreams and fluffed a few pillows besides, on the very same block in the very same village, in the very same era of time.

life does that: throws you together. makes you bump up against each other in the comings and goings of your humdrum day. and, soon enough, once you’ve caught the gleam in someone’s eye, once you’ve licked a spoon of the apple butter they leave at your backdoor, once they’ve cried with you over the death of your cat — or your very best friend, or your mama or papa — or shown up at the hospital just to see if you need anything, you find yourself falling in love. with this one patch of earth that seems to ooze old-fashioned kindness and goodness of heart. and the very good people who grow there.

i’m hoping that by the time my new neighbor strolls home, after a mug or two of high-octane coffee, after a spear of pineapple, and maybe a clementine, chased with a steamy mound of hot-from-the-oven cheesy strata, she’ll know a bit more deeply just how priceless was her real estate find.

so while i dash to the kitchen to chop the pineapple, pile high the clementines, and slice a few loaves of autumnal breads, i’ll leave you with a taste of what i’m pulling from the oven: the recipe for the spinach-cheese strata i’m serving all the mamas of maple avenue, the ones i’ve known for a very long time, and the ones who are new to the brood.

Spinach-Cheese Strata
from Gourmet magazine
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 10 hr
Ingredients
• 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
• 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
• 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
• 2 3/4 cups milk
• 9 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preparation
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cooks’ note:
• Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

have you paused to make a new friend lately? and, what’s your favorite welcome-to-the-‘hood recipe?

 

reading for work

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some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)

i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.

my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.

and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.

in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.

as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” —  or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” —  or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.

i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.

and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.

nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”

and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine? 

once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.

and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.