pull up a chair

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

making room for the hallowed

DSCF4868

i know, because the calendar says so, that christmas is coming, christmas is truly upon us. christmas in my heart of hearts is that one whispered pause when i feel the whole world — the stars in the heavens, the murmur from the woods, even the hustle in the marketplace — swell up with the pulse of new birth. i imagine the whole world on its knees, holding its breath, bowed down to welcome the babe birthed in a tangle of straw in the dinge of a barn where sheep and cows and a goat, maybe even a brood of clucking hens, keep up their animal chorus. that’s the christmas i reach for, the one i make room for. the one where the quiet is soaked through with holy, the one where one flickering wick shatters the darkness of night.

only, up till this minute it’s been anything but calm and bright around here.

one kid is home with the freshman-year “crud,” a concoction of germs that has him wheezing and coughing and looking up symptoms of mono on the internet. he’s been writing papers all week, so we’ve mostly been making like we’re one big study hall, with lights on till the wee, wee hours, and fridges raided at two or three in the morning. the other kid is barreling toward his last law school exam of the semester, but he took a detour in an emergency room, and scared the living daylights out of me. (he’s fine; i’m the one still shaking off the “rattles.”) and then, because why not, i decided to have a double-dose (that’s back-to-back, as in two wretched days in a row) doctorly peek at the insides (aka not one but two colonoscopies) last week, and after night no. 2, when they made me drink four liters of drain-o, i thought i might die on the cold bathroom floor. meanwhile the so-called man of the house is trying to save a great american newspaper.

all of which is to say: we need a little christmas. and hanukkah too.

so, today it begins, today i begin to make room for the hallowed to come. i’m off to the butcher in a wee little bit to rustle up my six pounds of hanukkah beast. i’ll crank the oven and fill this old house with the incense that cannot be beat: clove and bayleaf and peppercorn, a splash of red wine, a jar or three of chili sauce, then hours and hours in a 325 oven. next up (soon as the soon-to-be lawyer steps off the plane midday tomorrow), it’s off to the tree yard, where we’ll stroll and peruse and put our critical architectural eye to good use; chances are we’ll snag the same old fraser fir we always seem to snag (one too fat and too tall, and more or less to everyone’s liking).

and then, soon, will come one of the holiest moments of the whole long year: i will be alone in my kitchen on christmas morn, and except for the hiss of the simmering spices on the stove and the old schoolhouse clock incessantly counting the minutes and hours, it will be so quiet i’ll hear the rustle of wings and the squawk of the jay out the window. it’ll be inky dark outside, the first crack of light infusing the eastern sky. a star or three might still be twinkling. and here comes the best part: i’ll know that one flight up the stairs and around the bed, two beds will be filled with the boys who will forever be my heart’s reasons for being.

i’ll remember that it all boils down to the simplest of blessings: as we rub the sleep from our eyes, see first thing the bed-wrinkled faces of the ones we so love, as we block out the noise of the world, inhale the long years of loving that brought us to this holy moment, all else will melt away. we will be wrapped in the true miracle of christmas, the love that’s guided us all along the way. the love learned well by paying attention. the love that began, once upon the ages ago, when a wee blessed babe let out a cry for all the earth, and the whole world listened.

i’ll remember: for christmas to come, i need to make room. need to clear out the noise, wrap my sweet soul in those few fine things that are everything: a love that won’t die, a light that can’t be extinguished, and a belief in the undying hope that peace might be just around the next bend, somehow always in reach.

***

and here’s a christmas-y gift for all of you, a poem from mary karr’s descending theology, that draws me deeply into that holiest first night: 

Descending Theology: The Nativity
Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

DSCF7932

merry blessed Christmas, and happy hanukkah too. may your brisket be mouth-watering and your Christmas dawn be filled with overwhelming peace. xoxox

xiii. (lucky.)

PUAC 13

13. or, if you’re feeling latin, xiii.

according to one of my encyclopedias, “13 (thirteen) is the natural number following 12 and preceding 14.” well, then. it is also the sixth prime number, the smallest emirp (yes, that’s a word, a mathematical word, and it means a prime number that is a different prime number when its digits are reversed, 13/31), and it’s a pair of digits with a whole load of baggage, both good and not-so-good. you’ve heard all about the unlucky; in fact some of you might be holding your breath all day today, seeing as it’s none other than friday the 13th. freighted with fears of misfortune, the number 13 was not used in the indy 500 from 1915 to 2002. nor, to this day, is it ever used in a triathlon.

but we are neither the indy 500 nor a triathlon, and — ta da! — the ol’ chair is 13 today, which in jewish tradition would mean it’s arrived at the age of reason, and in italy — where 13 is abounding with luck, and where fare tredici (literally, “to do 13”) amounts to “hit the jackpot” — it’s reason for joy. i’m going with the jews and italians.

13 for our purposes means we’ve traced the years, the undulations of seasons and soul, round and round and round again, pulling up a chair every friday for all of those, and mondays through thursdays as well for the first year of what was then a daily gathering (this happens to be the 945th chair posting).

13 means that i leapt into this mysterious black hole when my little one was a kindergartener, and tomorrow that same kid is riding a greyhound bus home from his first semester of college, where he will spend the next week writing three final papers. and that means this carved-out sacred space has become the place where i’ve most heartfully recorded his growing up, and his big brother’s as well (though by virtue of the fact that that kid was, hmm, 13 when i started the chair, i kept my musings about him closer to the vest and not nearly as frequent, and, truth be told, i fall to my knees in endless thanks for that miracle of having recorded priceless words and moments of both their lives before they slipped away, forever forgotten).

when i first set out on this adventure i was utterly uncertain where i was going, but i was led by an unshakable sense that the stories that unfolded in the quotidian — in the rare sacred hush, or the cacophony of chaos — were stories worth plumbing. i sensed that eternal questions loomed here where most of us live our lives. i believed that the simple act of rising before the dawn, wrapping myself in the sanctity of a new day beginning, and mining the landscape for moments and questions that begged deeper attention just might reveal a thing or two. a thing or two worth holding up to the light, worth pressing hard against my heart, maybe even pointing a new way forward.

what’s happened is nothing short of holiness, indeed. the circle of faithful readers (aka “the chairs”) has ebbed and flowed and buoyed my heart in a thousand thousand ways. always, always we’ve stayed true to the shared code of kindness, of deep consideration, of illumination through story, wit, or wallops of wisdom. there’ve been plenty of days where i was certain i hadn’t a single illumination to add to the planet, and days when i might have been wiser to say nothing at all. but i kept at it, committed in some deep down place to write to the close of the chapter. and if that chapter was the growing up of my second-born miracle child (there isn’t a child on the planet who isn’t a miracle), well then perhaps that chapter is all but written.

and so it’s uncanny that yesterday — the actual anniversary of the chair, started once upon a time on december 12, 2006 — a most breathtaking serendipity happened. what happened is that my once little one, the kid now in college, he had his very first byline, an op-ed column in his college newspaper. 13 years ago, he was a pink-cheeked sound-asleep angel curled under mounds and mounds of covers the first morning i tiptoed down the stairs to begin telling whatever story most captured my imagination and heart. now, all these stories later, he has a byline and he’s beginning to tell his own.

i can’t imagine waking up on a friday and not sitting down to type. but maybe i’ll be more apt to share the words of wiser more poetic souls i bump into along the way. maybe since i spend so many hours of my life inside the pages of other writers’ books, i’ll use this space as something of a commonplace book, a compendium of wit, wisdom and poetry snipped and culled from wherever it’s found. sometimes the stories might be mine. but maybe, now in certain adolescence, i ought to lean more on the wiser ones who surround us. and maybe i’ll ask the kid with the brand-new byline to bring one of his musings here to the table where at least one of us fell in love with him over and over again every time we put his story to the page.

with my whole heart, thank you to you who never fail to follow along, and those of you who amble by only by chance and only every once in a blue moon. a writer needn’t be read to be a writer, but when it’s a two-way street it’s all the holier. you’ve made this one of the holiest places, a living-breathing prayer in my life.

thanks for sticking around for all these years, and all these soulful meanderings.

much love,

the chair lady

just for the pure joy of it, here’s a series that pretty much captures the little one at the start of the chair. in action with my beloved beloved brother, the magnificent “uncle michael”….

it’s the whispered moments that speak to me…

the shoes of the boys i love, the shoes i’ve always filled before dawn on the sixth of december, the feast of st. nick, those shoes are hundreds of miles away this dawn. likely lined up like straight-back soldiers in one’s law school apartment, and in a dorm room half as far away, i’m guessing they’re jumbled, strewn under a desk or a bed, or a sweatshirt and socks heaped on the floor.

to grow up in this old house was to wake up to foil-wrapped chocolates and oranges and surely a candy cane stuffed in the wide-open maw of your boot or your slipper or sneakers, a pair that grew by the year (all the more room for more chocolates), and always was left by the bedroom door on the night of the fifth.

i’ve always made as much of a folderol over this “little christmas” as i have over the one that’s gotten so noisy.

it’s the quiet moments of christmas, the unexpected kindnesses, the silence on a star-stitched night that stir the holy in me. i enter into the season in whispers. find myself pulled into tide pools of unspoken wonder. thrill like a kid with her nose pressed to the windowpane when i find myself face-to-face with the modern-day version of an elf. if you keep watch, and i’d advise that you do, there are elves all around.

this time of year i do make a list. a list of the out-of-the-blue elves and dollops of kindness that have plopped into my lap:

*the gas station owner who piled his tools into a cardboard box and drove me the three blocks to where my own car wouldn’t start, where he proceeded to ping and tap-tap-tap to try to get the key in the ignition to turn (it would not). he charged not a penny, and did the whole thing with a serious smile and multiple insistences that this was not at all out of his way. (on a sunday morning no less.)

IMG_0681*the college roommate from long, long ago who sent me a shoebox bursting with the itty-bittiest gingerbread babies, each one iced and strewn with cinnamon hearts, each one dangling from a skinny red thread she’d take the time to tie in a loop.

*my brother who’s driving almost two hours (each way) to the snow-covered storybook village where our freshman in college is just about to start his first round of finals. the plan (hatched in the spontaneous joy of the moment) is to fetch the kid after his last exam, bring him back to cleveland for a friday night’s feast and a snooze on an airbed, then tuck him onto a greyhound bus for the long ride home, where he’ll finish his papers in the cozy quiet of home.

*the extraordinarily kind fellow from the birdseed store who’s offered to swing by my house to reconfigure the bird feeders that have suddenly been taken hostage by one wily (and insatiable) squirrel.

my list isn’t done; it’s just getting started. but i know from years and years of paying attention that those catch-you-by-surprise, take-your-breath-away moments are the ones when the christmas seeps in.

it’s something like watching water whirl down a drain; it’s a force you can’t stop, it’s a force you can’t really see. but you feel it. you know it. the moment pulls you right in, a sinkhole of joy, of wonder, of can-you-believe-such-kindness-exists? and suddenly, deep down inside, you’re inside a snow globe of heaven on earth.

christmas comes in certain spoonfuls, best swallowed all along the way, through the quiet you carve out of the noise. by the time the day itself arrives, you’ll already have savored its coming.

merry christmas-is-coming, st. nick is here.

gingerbabies

who are the elves on your list? what dollops of kindness have crept up and tapped you gently, certainly, at the core of your heart?

more and more, the thanks multiply. and deepen.

IMG_0723

the somewhat happy ending to our thanksgiving tale of suspense

i was bent into something of a crouch, flexing all the muscle my not-so-muscular biceps could muster, dodging the oncoming hot winds of 325 degrees, attempting to haul the big bird from the oven, when the phone rang.

it was my firstborn, far far away in new york city. and he wasn’t calling to ask how the turkey was looking. he was trying to catch his breath. he was scared, on highest alert. something was awry with his heart, and he was crouching in the mudroom of the brownstone where he’d just partaken of feasting. usually there’s a doctor in the house at my sister-in-law’s thanksgiving table, but not this year. of course. so i played long-distance nurse. forgot all about turkey and ovens and the kitchen disasters that might have been triggered by the sudden ring of the phone. we counted the number of beats of his heart, minute by minute. the number was high. very high.

in the swirl of that moment, and the many long moments thereafter, all is suspended. nothing else matters. it all boils down to the only thing that ever matters: are the ones i love safe? is anyone i love about to be swallowed whole by forces i can’t keep at bay? when he was just two or three months old, i remember telling a man who came to fix a broken sink that i now knew what it was to love someone so much you’d leap in front of a car or a train or any large object barreling toward him. in an instant. without pausing to think. because that’s what love does. that’s what love means — or this kind of love, anyway. i still remember the way the fix-it man looked at me. i still remember how deeply i meant what i said, how each of those words had never before carried such truth.

twenty-six years later, i still mean it. only the labyrinth has gotten more intricate, and the forces are ones i can’t always stop.

my sweet boy this morning is fine. he’s riding the train back to law school. and will soon be back to his hours and hours of writing. but in the wake of a terrible fright, i’m reminded again how fragile this all is. how perishable. how necessary to cherish. to count our blessings, over and over and over again. to savor each and every moment, each someone we love. before it evaporates.

apt lesson in the wake of the annual pause for the deepest of thanks.

this whole week, with the college kid filling the house with his joys and his whimsy, with a phalanx of shoes piled by the door, and the basement filled till the wee wee hours with kids who’ve not seen each other since long-ago summer, my old heart has been humming its happy tune. this morning that tune is richer than ever, backed by the shimmering truth that all of this is underpinned by improbability, all of this is here for the ephemeral moment.

and we’re wise to press to our heart each of those blessings. while they’re here. while we can.

here’s a litany of gratitude i wrote a few years ago, one that ran on the op-ed page of the chicago tribune back on thanksgiving, 2014:

By Barbara Mahany

In this season when we gather roots from the earth, and fowl from the field, when the slant of the sun drops lower and the light turns molasses, here is the challenge: Be attentive to wonder and wisdom. Stitch the day with blessing. Bow head and whisper, “Thank you.”

In the liminal landscape between asleep and awake, thank you, holy one, for heart still beating, for breath, for first thought, the one that tickles us into consciousness.

Thank you for bed, and blanket. Thank you for the one I love who lies beside me, whose breathing I know by heart.

Thank you for the dawn itself, for the stillest hour when all that moves is the barest breeze that rustles leaves, and far off, the stirrings of the lake that never cease.

Thank you for this old house, with arthritic floorboards that creak at just the same juncture, with just the same footfall. Thank you for whiny old cat there at the door. Thank you for coffee beans and hissing pot, and the old chipped mug that fits snug in my palms.

Dear maker of all that’s blessed, thank you for the sound of those footsteps clomping onto the floorboards above, and the certitude that — so far this day — all is well.

Thank you for the porridge I stir at the cookstove, the alchemy of cooking for those we fuel for the day.

Thank you for clementines, and sugary cinnamon. Thank you for butter, slathered and melted. Thank you for school bus drivers who wait.

Thank you, blanketer of wonder, for the quiet stitched into the morning’s hours, the quiet so thick I can drink in the tick and the tock of a grandfather’s clock. And the squawk of the blue jay, and the chatter of sparrows.

Thank you for work to be done. Thank you for dishes piled in the sink, whose scrubbing and rinsing gives me a moment to think, to ponder the day.

Thank you for wisdom, the sort that comes in unexpected flashes, when only you know you’ve found it as you feel your heart go thumpety-thump, or feel the goose bumps sprout up and down unsuspecting flesh.

Thank you for all that’s poetry — wisdom-steeped or just plain beautiful, breathtaking. And thank you for gospel of any brand — be it birthed from holy child, everyday saint or even the so-called kook who stands on the street corner, proclaiming through a megaphone.

Thank you, yes, for telephones, for that rare sound of a voice that nestles against the tenderest heart. That, within the first breath of the very first syllable, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness.

I might be among the few who salute the cloudy skies of November on my long list of thanks. Ah, but those angora gray skies, they comfort me, harbor me. I’ll take the somnolence, the introspection of a gray day any day. So thank you for cloudy and gray.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how thankful I am for hearts that continue to tick, day in and day out, despite the trials we toss their way, as we worry and fret, then, without notice, shriek in deep joy and excitement. Poor ol’ heart, the one that landed in me anyway, it might not have realized it was signed on for a roller coaster ride of such seismic proportion.

Speaking of ticking, thank you for the schoolhouse clock that does just that, minute by minute, hour upon hour, heartbeat against the wall.

Thank you, too, for windows. And for the flutterings and flashes just beyond the glass, as clouds of gentle creatures take off and land, from sky to limb and back again — each time, lifting just a little bit of my soul.

Thank you for doors, the ones that let in unexpected someones, someones we love. And keep out the wind and the cold.

Thank you for fires that roar and logs that crackle. Thank you for the one that’s turning the so-called sleeping room, across from the kitchen, into a chamber of flickering gold. Thank you for the two lumps under blankets, snoozing by the fire.

Thank you for the dinner hour, and the blessing of slow-simmering stew. Thank you for the bounty of greens from your earth, and spices from pods and seeds and stamens.

Thank you for the trees and the gnarly limbs, and the hummingbird now buried deep in my garden.

Thank you for candlelight. And the lights of your making: moonlight and sunlight and dappled radiance scattered like seed across the landscape. Thank you for twinkling stars and streaking ones, too — chalk marks etched across the slate of the night sky.

Thank you for the blankets we tuck under the chin of our sleeping child.

Thank you for the child. For the breathtaking chance to infuse all that’s good in this world. Thank you for lessons taught while holding a hand, or wiping a tear. Thank you for bandages that quell the hurt, and words that do the same. Thank you for everyone who lifts up our child, the teachers who inspire, the coaches who are kind. And the lady down the block who never fails to plant a fat wet kiss on that child’s pink cheek.

Thank you for the year drawing to a close, and this pause to nod our heads and whisper gratitude. Thank you for crunching leaves, and tumbling snowflakes.

Thank you for love in all its iterations. For birth, and death, and all that animates the interstitial hours. Thank you for those who walk beside us, who put a hand to the small of our back, or reach out to carry us across the bottomless abyss.

Thank you for all of this. And more. So, so much more.

IMG_0720

if you happen by the chair today, or any day ever, feel free to add to the litany of thanks, and make this a communal — and rousing — chorus of gratitude.

and know that among the dearest treasures of my life are those of you who find your way to this old table and chairs. bless you. xoxo love, b.

a particular species of joy: the home-coming

IMG_0676

welcome-home brisket: in the works

if my heart were on x-ray this morning, or hooked up with dozens of wires, the evidence would be undeniable, spelled out in pictures and long strings of numbers: my heart, you would see, is in rarefied state. its walls must be bulging. it’s possibly glowing. and certainly gurgling along at double its usual rat-a-tat-tat.

sans x-rays and wires, you’ll have to take my word for it. my heart, at the moment, is in leap-out-of-its-chest mode. in a matter of hours, i will leap behind the steering wheel, point the nose of the old red wagon toward the world’s busiest airport, and wait for one tousled head to rise up above the crowd packed onto the escalator: my sweet college freshman is on his way home.

my nest will be empty no more. at least for the next stretch of days.

i’ve done my level best with this mostly unoccupied domicile — heck, i’ve gone out to dinner on school nights, whirled through the opera, taken in the occasional lecture (all those things i’m told grownups can and might do). i’ve gotten used to setting merely two forks, two plates, two napkins. and all but forgotten the art of staying awake till the midnight (or later) click at the door, the one that tells me the rascal is safely and soundly home for the night.

ah, but it’s clear — evidently, emphatically, without-a-doubtedly — my cruising speed comes naturally and in exclamation points when i’m surrounded by, clucking over, tending and loving and laughing out loud with the people i love. most especially the people i birthed.

it might be the subtle shifts in the days ahead that thrill me the most: the footsteps overhead, or the ones galloping down the stairs. that midnight click at the door. the shower that runs for what seems like an hour. the piles and piles of shoes coagulated in the front hall. the milk bottle that drains — seemingly all on its own, by magic, and in the blink of the night. or this: to walk past the room at the bend in the stairs, the one i’ve come to know as empty, untouched — as neat and tidy today as the day after he left — and, for the next string of days, to be able to pause there at the doorway and witness the blankets all lumpy and tousled because there’s someone in there!

oh, sure i love the big bangs: the welcome-home dinner, the catching up on every last story. watching him run to the curb when his grammy comes over. squeezing every last one of his home-coming friends. cooking for eight — or fifteen — one of these nights.

but i think the thing i’ll most savor is the hum and the hiccups that tell me, quite simply, he’s home and in reach. and i can bury my nose in his tousle of curls, even while he’s asleep. maybe especially. when he’s off in dreamland, but under my gaze, and i can drink in the joy and the blessing. i can savor these days and these nights when the sweet boy i love is tucked into this nest, and within close and unending undeniable reach.

DSCF7819

this is the kid coming home from college tonight, back in 2011 when he was the little brother welcoming home the one who’d just come back from college…

once upon a time — eight long years ago now — i wrote a homecoming tale when my firstborn was coming home for the very first time. it ran in the tribune, and i tucked it into the pages of Motherprayer, my no. 2 book. here it is

Welcome Home, College Freshman. XOXO

I’ve been imagining the sound for months: his footsteps.

The house has been hollow without them, the thud I came to know as his as he stumbled out of the bed and galloped down the stairs. I can almost feel the gust of the wind as the front door swings open and in pops that curly-haired mop I last buried my nose in on a hot August day when I left him on a leafy college quad a thousand miles away.

But any day now—I could tell you the hours and minutes—we are about to fall into the sweetest of homecomings, the freshman in college coming home for the very first time.

It’s a film loop I’ve played in my mind over and over. Since way back before he was gone. It was, in many ways, a salve to the wound that was growing, deepening as the day of his leaving finally arrived. Nearly swallowed me whole, that widening gash.

I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp, and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply.

This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn.

Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report in to the grown-ups back home.

It took me the better part of a month to get used to the missing sounds in our house. To not wince each night when I laid down three forks, not four. To not leave on the porch light as I climbed up to bed.

Over the months, I’ve learned to steer clear of particular shelves in the grocery store, because they hold his favorites—the turkey jerky, the sharp cheddar, stuff I used to grab without thinking, his stuff.

Curiously, I haven’t spent much time in his room. Except once, when I tackled the closet, folded every last T-shirt, rolled up loose socks, rubbing my hand over the cloth, absorbing the altered equation, that I was now the mother of a faraway child.

And so, I’m looking forward to when the place at the kitchen table will be ours again, the place where we talked until the wee hours, poring over the landscape of his life, refining the art of listening, asking just the right questions.

I leapt out of bed days ago, scribbled a list of all the foods I wanted to buy, to tuck on the pantry shelves, to pack in the fridge. I flipped open a cookbook to a much-spattered page, the recipe for one of his favorites. It’s as if the alchemy of the kitchen will fill places that words cannot.

I can barely contain the tingling that comes with knowing that, any day, he’ll be boarding a plane, crossing the sky, putting his hand on the knob on our door.

My beautiful boy, the boy I’ve missed more than I will ever let on, he’s coming home to the house that’s been aching to hear him again.

may all those you welcome in the days ahead fill your heart to spilling. and happy blessed day of thanksgiving…

oh, p.s., you can find the recipe for welcome-home brisket (pictured above) if you click here

eddies of joy

IMG_0623

for months and months, and especially as august drew near, and september tumbled upon us, as this old house turned quiet and oftentimes hollow, it was a question i fielded over and over and over again: what will you do now that you’re an empty nester? or, the variation: how will you handle this empty nest?  

one friend came to the door with a jumbo-sized carton of kleenex. it was an apt gesture.

the truth about our lives is that, more often than not, it’s a current that’s rushing and there’s little, quite frankly, we can do to alter its course, to slow it or stop it from running down rapids, to re-route the channel it’s gnawed through the earth.

but the thing about rivers is this, a thing that i learned long long ago in the woods where i played on the banks of a creek, tracing the course of the flow with a long pointed stick, or by tossing a log or a leaf or a twig and watching it go, making the invisible visible: sometimes rivers — or even a rain-swollen creek — run fast, and run wild; sometimes, the river runs lazy, its waters scuttled off to the side, caught in a pile of leaves, or tangle of sticks, idling or whirling in some extra-deep groove spooned from the oozy bottom.

in river talk, that’s an eddy.

ed·dy /ˈedē/ noun: a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool.

in life talk, it’s the wholly unexpected moment that seems to come out of the blue, the ones we hadn’t seen coming. in this particular case, at this turn in the bend of my particular river, it’s a dollop of joy. the sudden awareness that, without a whole heckuva lot of planning nor thinking too hard, you find yourself idling in a nook or a cranny you’d not wholly imagined, in a newfound pool of something that soothes you.

turns out that in these vast stretches of days where it’s mostly just dinner for two, where my most frequent companion for hours on end is unbroken silence, the dinner party is my newfound eddy of joy. aside from the fact that our overdue list is long enough to leave me penniless if life was charging fines, i’ve unwittingly found myself delighting in the joy of dinner table equations: mixing and matching various combinations of conversationalists — the deep and quiet listeners, the ones who say not a lot but whose words when they do choose to speak are the ones that rumble for days in your head, the laugh-out-loud storytellers, the ones who lean in and soak up each word, the ones who always know something you’ve never heard of.

i consider the ones to seat around the table, and then i consider just what to concoct for a multi-course feast intent on striking a particular note: autumnal warmth. winter cozy. and i never stop at the food. that’s just a part of the stage set. to me, all of it matters: the crackling logs in the fireplace, the fireworks-worthy explosion of blooms soon as you walk in the door. the candles flickering on the table, yes, but all along the window sills, too. what i’m after is a whole-body immersion, a wrap-it-around-your-shoulders sense that you’re in a house that wholly and emphatically welcomes you. we want you here. we want to hear what stirs you and strikes you. we want you lavished in welcome.

the dinner party — unlike my other most favorite gathering, just the two of us, leaning in over hot mugs of tea, pouring our hearts out — is all about the alchemy of a particular cast of characters. it’s less certain than the tete-a-tete. there’s a sense of adventure, of risk, of putting yourself more on the line (especially if you’re the one practicing prestidigitation at the stove).

and, as i am wiping dry the very last glass or the fork at the wee end of the night, when i awake the very next morning to the afterglow of a leftover-stocked fridge and the lingering echoes of laughter, i am reminded that sometimes the river of life — even when you’ve been nervously cowering on the side of the bank — will carry you into nooks and eddies you’ve been seeking forever and ever.

so here’s a recipe that practically made me jig with joy. a friend who’s a vegetarian was coming for dinner, and this one tickled my fancy. it’s a variation of nigella lawson’s roast stuffed pumpkin. whether you make it for one or two or eight, it’ll carry you to an eddy of joy. that’s a promise.

roasted stuffed pumpkin, ala nigella + me

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 6 1/2- to 7-pound sugar pumpkin, or other pumpkin suitable for eating
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 1 halved
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon 
  • 10 mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large handful spinach leaves
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Fill a kettle with water, and bring to a boil. About an inch below the top of the pumpkin’s ”shoulders,” about where it would be cut to carve a jack-o’-lantern, slice a lid from top of pumpkin, and set it aside. Remove seeds and fibrous flesh from inside.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, toast the walnuts for a minute or two, moving constantly. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  3. Using the same saucepan, heat the oil, and sauté the onion until it is softened. Add 2 minced garlic cloves, and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add mushrooms, and cook for one minute. Stir in the cranberries, and spices. Add the rice, and stir until it is glossy. Pour in stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce heat as low as possible. Cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile rub the inside of pumpkin with cut garlic clove, and rub with some salt to taste.
  4. When rice has cooked for 15 minutes, it will be damp and not very fluffy. Adjust seasoning to taste, and spoon into pumpkin cavity. Press lid firmly on top. It may sit above stuffing a bit like a jaunty cork. Wrap bottom two to three inches of pumpkin in a double layer of foil to protect it from contact with water during baking. Place in a roasting pan, and add about 1 inch of boiling water to pan.
  5. Bake the pumpkin until it is tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 1/2 hours. (If there is resistance when pumpkin is pierced, allow more baking time.) To serve, remove pumpkin from pan, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Discard foil, and place pumpkin on a serving platter. Slice into segments like a cake. Place a wedge of pumpkin on each serving plate, and mound with rice stuffing.

what are your eddies of joy? what are the ones you never saw coming?

 

my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism

IMG_0615

you might have noticed. it’s hard to miss. over the airwaves, on the streets, even at your neighborhood checkout aisle: pugilism is rising to intolerable levels. i blame the bully in chief. have spent months now in my head composing the letter i would like to carry to washington, read on the capitol steps. just little old pewter-haired me, politely hollering at the top of my lungs: stop all the insidious idiocy. stop all the name-calling, the bullying, the devilish tricks. cease with the stomping down hallways and stairs, slinging god-awful descriptors on decent and honorable human beings. stop pummeling this one blessed earth. leave all the children alone, nestled by the sides of their mothers and fathers, where they belong. practice decency. exude kindness. invoke gentle tenderness. start behaving like there might be a tomorrow. imagine your deathbed: these are the moments  you’ll at last call to mind. are you wincing? are these the ways you want to be remembered? a toxic trail in your wake?

it’s toxic, all right. a drip, drip, drip of toxicity. some days, more of a deluge.

my ever practical, commonsensical mother has five words of advice: turn off the damn tv!

i do, more than i used to. first few years of this siege, i admit i was glued to the loud little box. couldn’t take my eyes or my ears off the madness, praying it would end. just kept hoping against hope we could all go back to our quiet neighborly ways. might welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. maybe even pick up the trash that litters the woods and the waterways.

nowadays, worn down to the marrow, i find myself building what amounts to a fort, a tall wall of defense. literally. my house is piled with books. they rise up in teetering towers all over the place: kitchen counter, window seat that looks out on the trees, floor and chair and desk in the itty-bitty room where i write.

i read to escape. but not in the way of bodice-ripped beach reads. i read to remind myself that the way of this world, of this moment, is not the only option. i read the masters: thoreau and merton and hildegard of bingen. rilke and c.s. lewis. i read newfound saints and poetesses: jane hirshfield, margaret renkl, timothy egan. i carry them wherever i go. they are my talismans, my shields against attacks of the soul.

i read lines like these, from anita barrows’ preface to rilke’s book of hours: love poems to God:

…suddenly it occurred to me that God created the world because he was lonely. He needed it — needed the ripeness of autumn, the bright air, the sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk through linden leaves that were yet unfallen. God had created all this, and us as well, to keep him company.

or this, from minnesota’s poet laureate, joyce sutphen, from her brilliant collection carrying water to the field: new and selected poems:

Some Glad Morning

One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
dark as coffee beans.

The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.

It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.

or this, the very first sentences from c.s. lewis’ a grief observed:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

or, finally, this from my brilliant friend mark burrows’ (and jon sweeney’s) meister eckhart’s book of secrets: meditations on letting go and finding freedom:

What do you think?

That God has abandoned you,
especially now?
What person sees a friend
in sorrow, pain, or loneliness
without encouraging,
without being near, present?
Don’t be foolish, my friend,
God is here.

how do you build your wall of defense? what are the bricks in your wall?

(p.s. in part, i included the bit on grief because friends here at this very table are suffering terrible griefs, loves lost and achingly so. please, remember them in your incantations. the whole of c.s. lewis’ classic, grief observed, by the way, is one that goes a very long way toward healing a brokenness, or as lewis’ stepson writes in the introduction, “it will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.'”)

a consideration of saints

Unknown-1

long long ago, when i was a wee little thing falling asleep in my tight twin bed, the hand-sewn squares of quilt pulled up to my nose, i, like many a girl who donned scratchy plaid uniform skirt and buttoned all the way up (no matter how hot or humid outside) my navy blue uniform cardigan each day for holy cross school, i drifted off to dreamland wondering what it would take to become a saint, a little flower of jesus, perhaps, or the patron saint of fallen feathered things. i wouldn’t have minded aspiring to patron saint of bicycle pedals, or patron saint of clearing the table, two fundamentals of life i knew well, fundamentals i could work at — perfect even — if given the hope of a life under halo.

it’s not a bad thing to each and every night pluck from among a roster of heroes, sainted not for their football-field prowess, nor the velocity with which they swung a bat at a ball, but for those more ephemeral, ineffable things: gentle kindness, a selflessness that verged on self-erasure. it’s a good thing i hadn’t yet read too deeply of the tortures some of the saints endured. i might have swerved left from a life of good grace. i’ve utterly no interest in strapping myself to a windmill, going round and round in eternal upchucking dizziness. nor any one of the other tricks from the saintly bag of horrors (too gruesome to type at this early hour).

but — tortures aside — the morning after all-hallowed sugar-high (aka trick-or-treating) dawned onto what might have been the super bowl for saint seekers: november 1 in the catholic vernacular is the day of all saints, a feast day of joyous proportion. and that brings us to today, when with a few decades under my belt, i still awake with a particular zing.

only now, my consideration of saints has been jangled a bit. and moved far beyond ecclesiastical strictures. i’m more inclined to look to the everyday for my roster of saints. i see saints every day. have spent a good chunk of my life keeping watch. worry that we live in an age antithetical to saintliness. no saint seeker ever imagined an instagram reel of a life where every good deed was captured, captioned, and cast to the cybersphere. utter humility, a sense of one’s smallness against the vast majesty and unimaginable genius of the one we call God or Abba or Adonai, that’s non-negotiable, an essential place to begin.

the world we live in — at least the public world — seems to have turned it all on its head. it’s all bombast and braggadocio. when, to my mind, the deepest ripples are those that move through the world with barely a whisper. the gentle soul who considered it his life’s holiest work to show kindness to pigeons, to call them by name, to notice when one of his flock was wounded or lame. the one who knew 100,000 cars each and every day passed by him and the fire hydrant upon which he sat, the one who quietly told me “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude.”

the woman who lives down my alley, who cooks by the gallon and, like a sprite in the night, sprints from house to house, doorknob to doorknob, leaving her wares in large plastic bags dangling from handles and knobs. because to her, to feed is to love, and her heart knows no bounds.

i know saints gather at this very table. saints who seed love, day after day in a thousand unscripted ways: the one who feeds a banquet of fine organic greens to her bevy of hard-shelled centenarians; the one who whispers a prayer into every stitch and tug and pull of her needle and thread; the one who every other weekend flies halfway across the country to sit beside her faraway, struggling son; the ones who day after day visit old friends who no longer remember, who feed them spoonful by spoonful, who read them love letters from long ago in hopes that it just might spark a burst of remembering, of story, of unfettered joy.

on this day for considering saints, and counting the saints among us, i turn to a glorious book i reviewed a few years ago, a book of poetry by susan l. miller titled, communion of saints. it opens with this glorious beauty, “manual for the would-be saint,” and it begins like this:

Manual for the Would-Be Saint

by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.

The second: The air calls us home.

Third, we must fill the bowls of others

before we drain our own wells dry.

The fourth is the dark night; the fifth

a subtle scent of smoke and pine.

The sixth is awareness of our duties,

the burnt offering of our own pride.

Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.

The ninth takes time: it is to discover

what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

…(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…)

please, do yourself an all saint’s day favor, and find it and read to the end. and now, quietly, without even a ripple, i will leave you to your own consideration of saints…

what might be the opening lines of your manual for the would-be saint?

p.s. do you know the saint pictured above? here’s a hint: she was kicked out of the calendar of saints for reasons i will never know, yet she remains in some books as the patron saint of architects. it’s saint babs, aka barbara, as a matter of fact, and isn’t it uncanny that de-sainted though she is, her affinity for architecture is akin to the one to which i’ve wed my life…(a saintly patronage that must have brought my jewish husband so much relief upon discovery!) (st. babs is linked to architecture because her father is said to have locked her in a tower after she rejected an offer of marriage he’d relayed to her. egad. i’m telling you, some of these saintly tales belong in the annals of the absurd. forgive me….) 

this old house is so much more…

 

not long after nine the other morning, an army of painters pulled to the curb and launched what appeared a military-level operation on this old house. ladders upon ladders were hauled from the lid of a van, drop cloths were draped over bush, tree and stoop. brushes were slid from plastic wrapping, buckets of paint shimmied up ropes, dangled from hooks that swayed in the breeze. in all, 15 painters had at it, each with his eye on the darkening skies, the skies that threaten a freeze by daybreak tomorrow.

it’s been 15 years — at least — since this old house was slathered in beechwood semi-transparent stain all across its shingles, its windows and mullions traced in white white, its doors in van deusen blue. that was back in the long-ago days, back before high school and colleges and law school, back before a broken neck and assorted orthopedic adventures, back in the days when a fat cat prowled the so-called acreage. back when we were deep in the grain of making this old house our own.

this old house has harbored much in our short slice of its 78 years. it’s become the place we come home to, the place we miss when we’re away. a few weeks ago, when the tree cracked in half in the dark of the night, both boys — faraway now — wrote home with alarm. they begged for pictures, needed to see for themselves; hauled out the exclamation marks on their keypads. even from a distance — long distance — they did not cozy to the notion that their old house and the tree that harbors it had suffered a blow.

home is like that. home roots us. home is our ballast in the storms — and, oh, there will be storms. we come to consider home — the old house with its particular creaks and moans and recalcitrant sashes — something of a character in the life of our family. its floorplan is the one we trace in our imagination, the narrative throughline of all of our stories. we picture it, no matter how far we roam. sometimes we physically ache to run our palms down its bannister, to click open the door that insists on a shove. sometimes, when we’ve been away a long while, we begin to feel its pull, its true magnetic pull, soon as we come through the underpass, take a left at the smoke house, retrace the leafy lanes, see the place standing, just as we’d left it. sometimes, we can’t get the key in the lock to turn quite fast enough. sometimes we don’t fully breathe till we’re standing there in the old front hall, and we inhale the smell of home again.

there’s a book on one of my shelves titled, a home for the soul: a guide for dwelling with spirit and imagination, by anthony lawlor, who happens to be an architect and author of the acclaimed the temple in the house. in the opening pages of home for the soul, lawlor writes:

from the moment we are born, we seem compelled to travel homeward. in places and people, we seek that elusive feeling of being welcomed. home is the goal of the epic journeys of the human spirit. jesus returns to his heavenly father. moses leads his people to their homeland. buddha reaches the immovable spot of enlightenment beneath the bo tree. 

i like it even more when lawlor turns to a lakota medicine man named Lame Deer who writes of the sacredness right under our noses, a sacredness woven into the everyday fibers of home, yet a sacredness we sometimes forget to see.

writes lame deer:

what do you see here, my friend? just an ordinary old cooking pot, black with soot and full of dents. it is standing on the fire on top of that old wood stove, and the water bubbles and moves the lid as the white steam rises to the ceiling. it doesn’t seem to have a message, that old pot, and i guess you don’t give it a thought. [but] i think about ordinary, common things like this pot. the bubbling water comes from the rain cloud. it represents the sky. the fire comes from the sun, which warms us all. the steam is living breath. it was water; now it goes up to the sky, becomes a cloud again. we sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. we see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life. we try to understand them not with the head but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning.

the painters are gone now. they’ve folded up their drop cloths and hauled them and the ladders away. our old house this morning is redolent of eau de semi-transparent stain. when i wandered out to gather up the newspaper at the curb, i turned to ogle the beechwood shingles and the van deusen blue door in the first light of the day. i’m certain this old house is standing just a little bit snappier today. it’ll be good for at least another chapter, this one that now echoes too often and too loudly with the sound of not quite full.

where do you find the sacred pulse point in the place you call home?

IMG_0582

the painters tied up the bushes so they could paint my window to the world

i missed the moon

missed the moon, so gillson

…not just any moon, the great warrior orb of autumn, the hunter moon. round and orange and overwhelming, like a dreamsicle melting from the night sky. and i missed it.

well, at least i caught a peek, the skinniest sliver of a peek, as i was darting here or there or nowhere.

but it takes some work to miss the moon that bathes the world below in luminescence. i must have been holed up inside a world of worries, of syria and betrayals and beheadings. i must have been nursing the tender spots of a mama who’d just packed up her youngest and dropped him at the jetway that would carry him 300 miles from where i’ve doted over him all these years.

in the house where i grew up to miss a moon — or a cardinal, or a loon, or the frog’s croak rising from the pond across the way — to miss any of the sighs and moans and spectacles of god’s creation was what amounted to a sin. in my mama’s book of rules, anyway.

you daren’t let on that you were too busy with your nose in the news. or worrying about the dustballs under your bed. too distracted to notice was not allowed. or so’s the truth as i absorbed it.

chased in part by guilt (a guilt that unlike the moon never ebbs), but even more so by an unquenchable thirst, a sense that i’d strayed too far from the thin-spun silken thread that ties heaven to earth to what passes for my soul. if i missed the moon, the great wide-cheeked nightbeam of october, i wonder what else i’d missed, what stirrings of the earth that were sure to launch my own deep-down stirrings, remind me of my own still small place beneath the immensities of the one who’d carved us — and all creation — from the depths and heights of divine imagination?

so i strapped on my sturdy walking shoes, and found myself crouched down low amid the grasses that swish and sway against the sand mounds, the ones that catch the wind off the lake, and rustle as do the faithful in the pews when sabbath comes.

i sank low and lower, not to hide so much as to immerse myself in lowliness. to drench myself in the posture of humility, of raw-edged vulnerability so necessary for reverence.

to behold the miracle of heaven above and all around, i find i need to grow small and smaller. ours is a world of oversized ego, oversized hubris, oversized oversize. the bigger the better. except, quite frankly, in matters of the blessed. to be willing to hear the holy whisper. to find satisfaction in steady footfall, one after another. to partake of the arithmetic of saints, by little and by little, by little acts of kindness, of courage, of hope. to relish the infinitesimal, the dew drop of the dawn, the twilight song of the red-bird preacher on highest bough, the flutter of the heartbeat when love swoops down, wipes away the loneliness, the ache of the empty vessel.

i stayed long enough to walk the beach, playing catch-me-if-you-can with rippling waves. i walked and watched the roiling sky. charcoal gray, i find, is supremely lovely up above. it portends drama just ahead. and, indeed, when raindrops came in dime-sized plops, i picked up my pace. ducked beneath a maple tree whose boughs had just been daubed by autumn’s crimson paintbrush.

i inhaled a quart or so of morning vapors. filled my lungs, my heart, my soul with God’s most necessary ingredient: quiescence, the underlay of all the richest risings, the prayers that wend their way past worldly noise, the ones that from the deepest stillest dancepoint of our earthly selves ascend. to there, where prayers are heard, even in their wordlessness. and the One Who Hears echoes in kind the blessing, sating us in ways no other ever will.

how do you drink up all the holiness you crave? where’s your deep down quiet place?

gillson row of trees