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the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

rapt

rapt

you could bury your nose in it. the honeybees do.

rapt-beewe’re easing into the deep of it. or perhaps it’s that the deep is deepening and we’re being immersed. being wrapped in it. rapt.

rapt would be my posture of late.

rapt /rapt/ adj. 1. completely fascinated and absorbed. 2. literary filled with intense and pleasant emotion.

oh, i am rapt.

i seem to glisten through the days. and the nights. oh, the nights. it’s alive and it’s soft all over. it’s september, once summer surrenders. once the hot air balloon, and the sauna, finally exhale. and the next inhale is crisp, is cooler, and the light now has shifted. the edges, to my eyes anyway, are sharp, exquisitely so. the colors are deeper, more amber, molasses. the bright white of summer has faded. i can make out the fine grain again.

by night, the windows are open, and the hum doesn’t come from air conditioners down the block anymore. they’ve gone quiet — at last. now, the night belongs to the low-simmering song of the cricket, and the rising chorus of dawn. and the breeze. curtains quiver. bedsheets do too. rather than flinging them off, i’m just as apt to pull them taut around my shoulders, up to my chin. and the moon. did you happen to drink that one in? the harvest moon on the rise last night, the one that ignited the blue-black, silver-stitched dome, the one that cast moon shadow every which way. the one that promises even more when it rises tonight, in its fullest wholeness.

and by day, by day i’ve had hummingbirds dancing all week. a trinity of humming hummers, of hovering wings, darting and dodging, and dashing in for a drink, a deep-throated drink. whole chunks of minutes have passed, as i stop and i stare. enraptured. they seem not to mind when i tiptoe quite close. when i stand just under the branch or the wire where they’ve plunked their wee bums, and take my turn at drinking them in.

out my kitchen window, the hydrangea blooms droop. not that they’re withering, or giving up for the season. they’re simply so zaftig they can’t seem to bear their own weight, their heft, their marvelousness. so they sag, this way and that. and all i can see through the panes of the window are the voluptuous blooms that invite in the honeybees and the rare fluttering monarch.

these are the days when to be alive is to be rapt in prayer. i know i am. all day, hour upon hour, i feel the brushstroke of the Divine gentle against the nape of my neck, the small of my back, the bare flesh of my arms. and, surely, it’s prayer that keeps my heart pulsing.

every blessed act of each day — whole strings of the tiniest, mostly unnoticed (tucking a fresh vase of blooms by the side of my little one’s bed, sliding an after-school snack onto the counter, knowing he’ll see it, hoping he’ll know it’s a whispered “i love you” set out in apples and crackers and cheese) — each one is a prayer without words. each one is my heart and my soul offering up the closest i know how to come to turning my hours over to God. to saying thank you for the breath and the heartbeat. thank you for the chance to brush up against the holiness that is this amber-drenched september day, this one latest chance to absorb, yes, to inhale, yes. but even more to put my enrapture to work, to say thank you in my own small acts of paying attention, in my own small acts of love and tender kindness.

because all around me is God’s immeasurable magnificence, a tapestry of jeweled stitches in which i am rapt. so deeply vigorously rapt.

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 are you rapt? and what is stirring your holy rapture? 

p.s. and in case you wondered about those pins and needles of last week: no word yet. 

suddenly, pins and needles

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i got brave yesterday. very brave. and that’s not exactly my natural landscape. i tend to be one of those nesty girls, clinging to the familiar, the known rhythms of day after day. i find comfort there, where for adventure i go deeper and deeper. but not beyond my borders so much. not easily anyway. not without butterflies in my belly. and, suddenly, pins and needles all over.

i was minding my business, typing away. pinning one sentence to the next, feeling it all tumbling from a deep-down place. i was writing about boxing up my firstborn’s bookshelf, considering how deeply the books on his shelf took me back in time, made me remember. i was writing about how achingly hard it was to slide those well-worn pages, those pages rubbed raw, into the hollows of moving boxes, lined up like hungry soldiers awaiting chow.

and, then, i started to think that maybe — just maybe — i should do what writers do: send it off to a place i’ve long dreamed of finding my words. send it off to an Editor, The Editor. before i could convince myself otherwise, i made myself do it. i “thumb-slammed,” in the vernacular of a writer friend of mine who is all about being brave, about sending words to the desks of faraway editors, and doing it with gusto, with thumb slammed to the keyboard, as you hover your cursor over the “send”whutchamahoojie, and suddenly your words, they are soaring, and your courage is slithering out of the drawer, getting a sudden and unexpected workout. a bit of a jolt, certainly.

so, while i wait to hear what’s happening next (The Editor very kindly — and unexpectedly — wrote me back last night to say she was passing along my words to the someone who edits these things), i can’t pin my words up on the clothesline, can’t even leave a few wisps here at the table.

but i can — and i am — thinking about courage. about stepping outside what feels safe, about nudging our tired old selves into the unfamiliar, about stepping up to the plate, as long as we’re here on this planet, and testing our muscles, our dreams, and those rare few bits about us that won’t tiptoe into the universe, become a part of the mix, if we don’t get about the business of finding our courage and shoving them out there.

perhaps it’s all this reading i’ve been reading of late. words from my dear friend, now gone. as i read her passages of hopes and dreams, i’d be a fool for not figuring out that the sharpest edge of the writing — from the perspective of now, after her death — is that those dreams, those hopes, they’ve all evaporated, crumbled away. all the fears and sadness that held her back, it’s gone now. maybe that’s the reason she asked me to be the caretaker of her creativity. maybe she knew there were lessons there that i needed to learn. maybe she wanted me to finally slice and dice the fears, the doubts, that make me think i’m not enough. not good enough to be brave. to stand at the doorway of life, with my few offerings cupped in my hands, to even inquire: “would you like to see this? would you mind if i showed you a thought or two i’ve happened to pull from my soul?”

perhaps i hear the drumbeat of time. perhaps it’s sinking deeper and deeper into my soul: these are the days you’re alive, these are the hours when your hopes and dreams have breath. and the only thing holding you back is your fear. how hard will it be, really, to hear someone say, No? is that any harder than the echo chamber inside your own head, the one that over and over and over cuts you down to size, infinitesimal, insignificant size?

if you believe in the God of the Beautiful, if you believe that each and every one of us had the Beautiful breathed into us once upon our beginning, then it follows — there’s no room, really, for arguing otherwise — that the Beautiful is rumbling around deep inside, just looking for the nearest exit, so it can be birthed, so it can come tumbling wholly and wildly — or quietly and breathtakingly — to life.

all we need some days is a hot blast of courage. and the willingness to live with the pins and needles that are certain to follow.

what holds you back? how wild are your hopes and your dreams? where have you found courage?

p.s. i promise to let you know what happens in the take-a-chance department, and i promise to some day slide the “boxing-up-the-bookshelf” essay here. 

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hummingbird wisdom, continued

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six months ago, my dear and longtime friend mary ellen sullivan died. she was a writer, a chronicler of joy, i called her when i sat down to write her obituary, trying to distill her essence into a few short sentences and paragraphs that swept across the arc of a life too short. a month or so after she died, i found out she’d written me into her will, appointed me the keeper of her “creative work.” it’s a mantle i accept with heavy heart. a week ago, on a hot august afternoon, i met her brother in her emptied-out apartment, and he handed me boxes and boxes and boxes, her creative work, in all its iterations. it was perhaps the heaviest load of papers i’ve ever tried to lift. i didn’t wait long to open the lid of one of the boxes, to lift pages, to begin to read, to inhale the story of a life i knew well, a story told this time in mary ellen’s own words. i all but felt her beside me, or sitting across the table. i knew the intonations, the emphases of every single sentence. i knew she’d tiptoe into my dreams. i knew she’d left wisdom that i was to unearth, to not let die along with her.

night after night, i pulled up to the kitchen table, not far from the screen door, where the breeze blew in, not far from the night sounds, the buzzsaw of cicada, the chirp of the crickets. i’d pile a stack of journals and notebooks and paper-clipped papers to my left, papers lifted from the boxes that waited in the dark of another room, the load of mary ellen’s boxes.

it was, i tell you, like sitting down with a dear friend, pulling in close enough to brush knees against knees. it was as if i’d said, “so tell me your story,” and thus she began, in whispers. i’d known these chapters in real time, and here i was, reading, hearing the whole of it in details sometimes so intimate i closed the book and tucked it aside. i promise you my tender heart is guiding me through what’s mine to shepherd to light, and what’s best tucked away.

i read page after page from the writing classes she’d take, from the book about africa she’d long hoped to write, to publish.

and then i picked up this: two stapled pages, curled and yellowed at the edges, typed in a font from computers of long ago, early HP perhaps. i read the first sentence, and started to tremble. i had a hard time reading through tears, but this is what i began to read…

“If I were to die in five minutes, I would miss sleeping, and the warm wood of my apartment floor. I would miss talking to Barbie on the phone on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee in my hands. I would miss running errands in the neighborhood and going for long hard runs after work when the air is clean and cool and gives you the shivers when your sweat starts to dry. I would miss the ocean most of all. Any ocean, any beach. The feel of wet sand between my toes and the waves breaking over my body and the sand going from warm to cool in the early evening when the sun starts to set and everyone but me and my family leave the beach and we just sit there and talk and read and watch the sand turn purple and the water a deep blue and the sky orange and very beautiful. I will miss running in the water and splashing so much that you might as well go swimming so you do.

“I’ll miss kissing a man for the first time…..”

and then, i tell you, i could barely read, the tears were falling so hard, so fast. (they are now, truth be told….) so i waited, and breathed, and wiped away the tears, and i looked back at the page, the page trembling in my hands by then, and i read the litany of things my friend would miss, if she were to die in five minutes, five minutes from the moment she wrote all those words. in fact, she died on march 13, 2016, far sooner than she’d ever imagined. she never thought the ovarian cancer would kill her. she fully intended to vanquish the cancer. to become someone who had had cancer.

but my friend who died, who wrote this litany in a writing class, an exercise titled, “death is the name,” who wrote this thinking death was the last thing that would ever happen to her (yes, i see the unintended word play, and i’m ignoring it), whose words i now inhaled half a year after she had died, she wrote that she’d miss her down comforter, and staying up late by herself and “the freedom the night gives.” she wrote that she’d miss the first taste of an expensive dinner, and the last gritty drop of a bottle of red wine. she wrote that she’d miss hot baths and getting lost in paperbacks.

her sentences grew more and more beautiful, the deeper she sank into the exercise, wrapping herself in the velvet cloak of worldly magnificence.

i was struck, hard and deep, by the simplicity of the litany. the depth and dimension of each pulsing joy, now taken away.

she made me think hard about how our lives are stitched of thin but mighty threads, glimmering delicate threads, threads we’d be wise to notice, to run our fingers across, again and again, for they’re what’s woven into the beautiful whole.

our lives, she made me realize once again, are a textured tapestry of heartache and joy, of blessing and softness and shadow and light, of everyday wonders that awake us to the moment, so the moments slow to a pause, so we behold each blessed minute of our awareness, our awakeness, so each hour is relished for the gift that it is. so not an hour goes by unnoticed.

“if i were to die in five minutes,” she wrote. and i read those words six months after she did. and thus, each word came to me as if shouted through a megaphone: be awake. pay attention. savor the blessed, the beautiful.

the warmth of the mug you hold in your palms? notice it. bless it. you’ll so miss it when it’s gone, when you’re gone.

a question and a challenge: what would you miss, what blessing upon blessing across the quotidian arc of your day? make a list, compile your litany. and then, pay closest attention today. and tomorrow. and the day after. my friend mary ellen would love you for that.

i titled this “hummingbird wisdom, continued,” because my friend mary ellen was all about the hummingbird. she wrote a blog called, on the wings of the hummingbird. and she once wrote these words explaining her captivation with the hover-winged bird:

“My favorite description of the hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’

“Guilty as charged.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

if i’d known…

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a quarter century ago, on a steamy august sunday afternoon, i remember peeking out my bedroom window into the backyard of the house where i grew up. i remember the swiss lace curtains rippling in the breeze, catching in my veil. down below, beneath a canopy of old oaks, oaks whose boughs arced across the yard, a dappled dome of leaves reaching out to oak leaves, tidy rows of white wooden chairs stood sentry. a brass quintet began to play. the chairs filled in.

boysand me weddingmy father wasn’t there, had been gone 10 long years by then, so my brothers, all four of them, took me by the arms. i’d walked down the stairs i’d once tumbled down as a clumsy little girl, the ones where i sat after bee stings, on afternoons when my mama dried my tears. we’d walked out the front door, my brothers and i, arm in arm in arm, the five of us, and threaded through the garden gate. the late august garden was in bloom; my mother had made sure of that. and there, at the dip at the bottom of a sloping lawn, where the chairs gave way to chuppah, was the tall, dark, quite handsome fellow to whom i would wed my life.

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we wed — in catholic and jewish, with priest and rabbi, and chuppah and seven blessings and smashing of the glass. we wed under the cathedral of trees, and all the while i worried that my beloved’s 80-something-year-old grandma might cave in from heat and sauna-like steaminess. (i’d prayed for no rain, and my prayers were answered; i forgot to pray for no sauna.) i remember much of that day, frame after frame still tumbles clearly through my memory, because a wise soul had instructed me: freeze-frame the moments, one after another, seal it to your soul.

but now, 25 years after that picture perfect day, i’m afforded a perspective, a longview, that shifts and changes everything. the whole of it is deepened, the colors richer, the lines sharper-edged, even as the pictures in the album begin to fade. it is a portrait of life and love in all its messy, wrenching iterations, and, yes, in all its magnificence. it’s a portrait i take in with breath-catching awe. love does not come easy, but love when it lasts, when it sinks deep down into your marrow, it carries you to places you’d not imagined, places you never thought you’d know. it carries you across unbearable stretches, and delivers you to moments you’ll never forget.

from where i stand now, i can see all that’s unfurled since that august sunday. i can see the light and shadow. i recall the hours when my heart pounded so hard i could hear it thumping sharp against my hollow chest wall. i riffle through the frames, the glories and the tight spots. i can see the night when i nearly howled in sorrow, when my baby girl’s string-bean of a tiny self slipped into my hands, miscarried in the deep of darkness. just beyond the bathroom door was the man i’d wed.

the man i wed is in every single frame of every single story that matters.

when i tick through the litany — the life and death, the anguish, the exhaustion — that we’ve navigated, side-by-side, heart-to-heart, i begin to catch a glimpse of the rootedness of what it means to whisper vows, to seal promise after promise, before a crowd of those you love, of those who’ve known you longest, or best, or most deeply.

we made a promise to be the hand at the small of each other’s back. we made a promise to search always for joy, for hope, and to find and collect sparks of God all along the way.

we could not have known that there would come a day when that meant one of us was staring at her watch in a surgical waiting room outside the chamber where the doctors threaded a wire into the heart of the other one of us, and we both prayed mightily that they’d zap just the right spot, and the awfulness would end.

we could not have known that there would be a day when emergency room doctors would look us in the eye and talk of airlifts and our firstborn’s spinal cord. and, during that longest hour of our lives, we would both pray the very same prayer. and we would both end with signs of the cross (his made backwards, because he’d never before made one, but this moment seemed to beg the unimaginable).

we could not have known of the late-night phone calls, the sleepless nights, the groggy mornings when the bad news wouldn’t lift, and we felt sunk before we even slid from under the covers.

but we do know now. and we know that somehow — together, as much as deep inside the solitude of our own many-chambered souls — we found our way to the clearing, to the place where shafts of light once again dapple the landscape.

we’ve tread together the topography of deeply-held promises. we know the canyons of despair. and we’ve glimpsed our share of beauties from the rises along the trail.

there are particular lessons to be learned in long years entwined. when the one soul you count on — even when you’re without a clue of just how you’ll navigate the latest labyrinth  — is the one who’s watched your hair streak through with silver, and your face grow etched with lines.

we’ve inscribed the pages of our book, the chapters of our life well and deeply loved. we’ve birthed two souls, breathed all we could into their every day and struggle. we’ve made a home, a sacred refuge where the door is always open, an extra place always set. we’ve kept our promises.

if i’d only known. i would walk down that aisle once again. i’d take your hand — and your heart. and i’d whisper all those promises. from this day on, for life.

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what a quarter century has brought me: this huddle of the deepest love

amen.

i know that life journeys come in countless iterations — alone, entwined, shattered by loss. and while i don’t often write of the one to whom i’m married, i couldn’t help being struck by the power of love long-held. love sealed august 25, 1991.

what’s the love that sustains you? or what lessons have you learned across the long haul? 

p.s. prayers for someone i love having hip surgery monday. prayers for everyone at the table — especially one particular mama — weathering heartache. 

empty room, full heart

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this is my little boy’s room. only it’s not his anymore. not officially. not where he plops his head at night, and tumbles into sleep.

he’s moved three steps down and around the bend.

everything at our house shifted this week.

one boy’s heart was broken, his summer days of soccer hollowed, left to wonder — as his friends, all his friends it seems, dash off to practice twice a day — why he couldn’t have grown just another six inches, maybe even 12. or more, if we were being greedy, really greedy. a goalie needs every inch he can get. our goalie has only 63. the other goalies have 77 and 75. the arithmetic of soccer is harsh, makes no allowances for size of heart.

another boy moved out, not too far away, 13.21 miles as the crow flies, to his first grown-up apartment. and the night we dropped him off, said goodbye, the little one’s tears soaked the t-shirt of the one who for the past year — for as far back as he can remember, really — has been his bumper pad and protector from all life’s knocks.

monday morning, while the older one drove his first load off to his apartment, the little one and i drove to the sterile pen where numbers are called, papers are signed, tests taken, and permits issued. we drive at night now, he and i, taking to the broadest swath of uninhabited parking lot we can find.

by wednesday, i was scrubbing, dusting, clearing out the last few bits from drawers. i tend to clean like crazy when my heart is upside down. i hauled this and that down from the attic. shoved a few things up for storing. boy no. 2 moved into what had been the long-time chamber of boy no. 1, a fellow more than likely never coming back, except for a night here or there, a stretch of nights if we’re so blessed.

and while we made a room for a boy who’ll find his way through the halls of a new high school, iIMG_8152 made a room that’s something of a relic of the boyhoods i so loved. the ones where books were tucked in corners, slid from shelves, pages turned. the boyhoods populated by wooden blocks and trains. now, a little chair sits empty. the alphabet rug, the one i once bought for a nursery, it’s off at the cleaners and the rug repair shop. i seem to be preserving a chapter of our lives, pressing it onto the pages of my heart. a little part of me, perhaps, is hoping that some day a new crop of little people will climb the stairs, turn the corner and see the wall of books, and the bins of blocks and puppets. but mostly, i think, i’m making a room for me, the mama who will never ever forget.

a room where when i walk in i hear the echoes of boys from long and not so long ago. where i pull any book off the shelf and turn a page, and suddenly i can picture the little hands and the voices who once begged for me to read that page over and over. and over.

the rooms in a house are like that, when they’re no longer used. one by one, most houses surrender rooms to time. a room once strewn wall-to-wall with elaborate block constructions becomes a room with sweaty socks and inside-out jerseys. years go by when you hardly see the floor. and then, there comes a dawn when the first beams of sunlight fall across hardwood slats that all but glow, so exposed they are, and not a hand puppet nor a book is out of place. when what you find in the morning is exactly as you left it at noon the day before.

but rooms hold memory, hold the rhythm of a heart that will not fade.

as certainly as the wooden soldier stands guard on the window ledge, as welcoming as the old bear now slumped against the wall, that room will harbor me. will wrap me in its particular embrace. will be my tucked-away respite at the top of the stairs.

for the days when i need retreat. for the days when all i want is to step back in time, to remember how it was and how we got here. for the days when nothing soothes my soul so much as the far-off whisperings of the room that grew my sweet, sweet boys. the room that holds my heart.

do you have a nook or a cranny in your house that holds more than a life-size relic of your heart? IMG_8121

when a scone is so much more than delicious

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the other dawn, at the start of a day that had long been circled on the calendar, at the start of a day when a young lad i love was about to strap on his soccer cleats and pour his considerable heart into tryouts for the high school team where he wants — more than anything — to be the goal keeper, i began my mama ministrations, the ones that begin when you drop to your knees at the side of your bed, and whisper a plaintive petition.

you then descend to the kitchen, often the high altar of mama-dom. you pull out the red plate saved for days marked “high alert.” you survey the shelves of the fridge, pull out the juices and the various species of protein. you grab for a balsa-wood basket of super-food berries. and then, if you were me the other morning, you remembered that tucked at the back of the freezer was a zip-top bag of ready-to-bake, made-from-scratch, farmers-market-blueberry scones.

they happen to be scones that come with a story. scones delivered with love and out-of-the-blue kindness, the sort for which the world is so hungry these days.

i happen to be blessed with a friend named amy. she’s an art teacher in the chicago public schools. and she’s hilarious. and she can bake like nobody’s business. she’d once come for a morning’s respite in that sacred space that is our summer porch. as i poured the coffee, she pulled from her satchel the MOST amazing, buttery, crumbly, golden-domed scones i might ever have known. that was a year or two ago. i must have been emphatic in my proclamations of their excellence. because my friend amy remembered.

just a few weeks ago, dear amy was at the farmer’s market and, as one is wont to do, she went overboard at the blueberry stand. not one to waste a fine berry, she hauled out her mixing bowls and her flour and butter and cream so dense you might dollop it out with a spoon. as she mixed and patted and started to cut the butter-lumped dough, she says she suddenly thought of me (was it the buttery lumps, i wonder?).

she remembered how vociferous we were in our proclamations of her scone excellence. so, out of the blue on a summery morning, she pinged me a message, asking if i might be willing to come to the door for a load of just-made-but-not-yet-baked blueberry scone triangles, ones i could pop straight into the freezer so that when the spirit moved me, i could make like i’d been the one stirring and sifting and patting my cakes, and infuse my kitchen with buttery-blueberry olfactory whirls.

at first, i demurred — not wanting my friend who lives 20 minutes away to take such a detour. but she insisted, and i caved — more than delighted to partake once again of her scone excellence. it wasn’t till i cranked the oven, not long after she rang the doorbell and ran, that i was klonked over the head by the fact that this truly was a russian doll of gifts: inside the gift of out-of-the-blue scones, there was the gift of getting to make like i’d made them myself (if plopping the scones on parchment and sliding a baking sheet into and out of the oven amounts to “making them”).

and so this week, at the start of a very steep climb, i pulled the remaining half dozen dough triangles from out of the freezer bag, cranked the oven, and by the time the would-be goalie sauntered into the kitchen, a pedestal of deliciousness awaited. a pedestal of i’d-do-anything-to-help-you-make-this-team. if only i could make you grow six or 12 inches.

instead, i’m confined to buttery lumps of blueberry deliciousness. and the hope that each morsel fuels the pit so deep in his belly.

amy’s scones were merely one thread of the love blanket we’ve been weaving here all week. the young lad’s big brother, who had no reason to awake before dawn, set his alarm for six on the first of three days of twice-a-day tryouts. he climbed groggily into the would-be goalie’s four-poster bed. and there they lay, side by side, the big one whispering brotherly courage into the younger one’s ear. we’ve made it our job to be his bumper pads for this roller-coaster of a week. steaks have been grilled; silence, honored. ben-gay has been rubbed up and down legs, and water bottles have been filled and filled some more. word comes tonight. 

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i’m telling you, friends, these scones are blessed. and that magic of having them at-the-ready, with the bonus of hot-from-the-oven-ness, prompted me to beg my friend amy for the recipe, so i could bring them to you, here at the table. she calls them “life’s a butter dream,” because that’s what her son sam said when he took his first bite. 

Life’s A Butter Dream Scones

provenance: amy manata, baker, art teacher, glorious good and generous soul.

4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 cup fresh blueberries ( or whatever you like, I’ve used apricots, choc. chips, anything)

Directions

-Use the Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together 4 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt.
– Add in the cold butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is in small pieces.
-Mix the eggs and heavy cream and add them to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended.
-Add the blueberries, and mix quickly. ( I freeze the blueberries so they don’t smoosh) The dough may be a bit sticky.
-Put the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is well combined.
-Flour your hands and flatten the dough 3/4-inch thick, and rectangle shape. You should see lumps of butter in the dough.
-Cut into squares and then cut them in half diagonally to make triangles.
-Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
This is when I freeze them on a baking sheet so they don’t stick together.

To Bake:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops with cream or milk. Sprinkle with “Sugar in the Raw,” and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

because these scones came to me in an act of sublime out-of-the-blue kindness, i’m convinced they beg to be passed along in that very same spirit. so consider them next time you’re in the mood for committing an act of random kindness.

i know that for lots of reasons this was a tough week for chair folk. here, too. sending love and prayers to everyone who faced — and faces still — uphill climbs.  

what’s the latest act of random kindness that’s come your way? and how, precisely, was it pulled off?IMG_8066

road trip reads

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any minute now, we’re piling in the red wagon and pointing it south, straight to louisville, kentucky, the state of grace in which i was born. we’re headed down for a memorial for a beloved uncle who died at 91 earlier this summer. he was known as “secretary of the interior” in blue-grass country, and they didn’t mean affairs of domestic geography so much as affairs of chintz and raw silk and impeccable antiques culled from trips around the world. more than 40 such trips circumnavigating the globe. a lifetime procuring the beautiful, as head of interior design for decades at louisville’s grand old department store.

despite the fact that it’s my beloved architecture critic’s birthday tomorrow, he insisted he was driving my mama and moi and devoting much of his day to interstates and trucks barreling past him, passing as they often do on the left. by sundown tonight, though, we’ll be checking into a sublime historic hotel, the brown hotel, and that alone will make this a trip to remember.

while we’re motoring i thought i’d leave a few books here on the table. i’ve not kept up with posts from my tribune roundups of soulful books. so here, a culled list of favorites from the last two distillations, a potpourri of books i particularly loved.

Buechner 101 by Carl Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, or once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred in equal measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, “Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner” — including excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, “The Alphabet of Grace”; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are immersed in the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s gifts.

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side with C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.” That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages.

This world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that shimmy through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101.

Our Father by Rainer Oberthür, illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 58 pages, $16

The questions are pure. The questions, profound. From the child’s script, the surest path to heaven. And from the start, “Our Father,” a breathtaking peeling back of a foundational prayer of so many Christian religions, shimmers with a simplicity that can’t help but catapult our sacred questions to the highest heights.

Before beginning a line-by-line, word-by-word, meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s often called, this extraordinary picture book frames the prayer in the context of how it responds to the most essential — and possibly unsettling — questions: Where did the world come from? Why does it exist? Why am I here? Why do people die? What happens afterward?

In a voice that exudes comfort and heart-to-heart closeness the reader is told that these really are questions about God: Where is God? Why can’t I see God? How can I talk to God?

Are these not the very questions pondered by legions of theologians? And yet, the answers found here — in a children’s book from a Grand Rapids, Mich., publishing house with a long tradition of searching the globe for particularly illuminating children’s text and illustration — are perhaps among the clearest ever penned.

Which is what makes this a book for the soul young or old or anywhere in between. Each line — alongside charming illustrations that beg to be studied closely — becomes a prayerful exegesis, unfurled in words that speak to the pure heart of the child. It’s a book that will lull you into the sure and safe cove that is a building block of faith. And, chances are, you’ll never again murmur mindlessly the words of “Our Father.” Instead, you’ll be awakened to the depths of its timelessness and its capacity to enfold the answers to all our deepest questions.

Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson, Wanton Gospeller Press, 182 pages, $16

Blessings, an ancient literary form, “illuminate the link between the sacred and the ordinary,” Jan Richardson writes in her breathtaking “Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.” Often poetic and pulsing with the rhythms of invocation and incantation, blessings “use ordinary language in ways that can become extraordinary, offering words that arrest our attention and awaken us to how the holy is at work in our very midst.”

Before carrying us through the liturgical year, blessing by blessing, Richardson writes in her introduction that a good blessing “shimmers with the mystery that lies at the heart of God.” And then, she unspools “good blessing” upon “good blessing,” one after another shimmering, in ways that might make you weep, so tenderly, so astonishingly, do they slip into the hollows of the soul.

Richardson, a writer, artist and ordained Methodist minister, belongs among the most treasured spiritual lights on the bookshelf. Her words trace that thin line that courses the topography of the soul. She knows the way into the deepest interiority, into the mysteries of life, of grief, of wonder. Your breath will be taken, again and again. And you will return, again and again, to these pages, pulled by the magnetism of her words, her capacity for imbuing the everyday with the sacred.

A blessing, she writes, “is something wild. It leads us where we did not imagine to go, and never in a straight line.” It does so, in Richardson’s hands, by lifting the quotidian hours of our lives — the waiting for night to end, the unimagined grace of coming home — and making abundantly clear a profound holiness.

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett, Penguin Press, 288 pages, $28

If you, like me, read with a pen at the ready, you’ll likely run out of ink on this one. If you measure the worth of a book by the volume of scribbles you pen in the margins, the stars emphatically drawn, and the sentences underlined, Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” — a compendium of wisdom, at once intimate and expansive — stands a serious shot of emerging both splattered and cherished.

Tippett, the Peabody Award-winning radio host and National Humanities Medalist, is a master of what she terms “generous listening,” an act “powered by curiosity,” and a “willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.” Sadly lacking in the modern-day public square, it’s an art Tippett has practiced and honed in her years hosting National Public Radio’s “On Being,” a program and podcast launched in 2003 as “Speaking of Faith,” in which she’s generously listened to — and deeply questioned — some of the most luminous minds on the planet.

From this lifetime of rich conversation, Tippett elicits a poetic inquiry, interwoven with memoir. What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in death? And, in the end, wisdom is what Tippett seeks. “Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself,” she writes.

The book, called “a master class in the art of living,” draws from conversations with poet Elizabeth Alexander, physicist Brian Greene, civil rights veteran John Lewis, physician Rachel Naomi Remen, chef Dan Barber, playwright Eve Ensler, and humanitarian Jean Vanier — to name only a partial roster of her fellow seekers of wisdom.

what titles top your summer reading list? 

riveted

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night after night, we took our places, however many of us happened to be home. we all had our props, tea mugs or ice cream alongside iterations of screens, small, smaller and smallest. as the night blackened outside the windows, one shared rectangle glowed: for the last two weeks, our portrait of the american family has been the four of us huddled around the modern-day campfire that is the tv blaring the national conventions, both of them. we take religion and politics in two flavors in this house, so we are by definition bi-partisan. because we watch knowing there is more than one brand of lens in this house (it’s the college kid who went off to school emphatically one way, came home another), we train our ears and our minds and our hearts on common ground.

it makes for truly compelling watching. no knee-jerk reactions allowed. and civility, doled out in carefully thought words, honestly asked questions, is the one abiding premise. fact-checking has become a family sport.

what compelled me the most, what i can’t get enough of, can’t stop thinking about was the oration. the power to put breath to words and bellow them across the seas of cheering (or jeering) souls in the seats of the arenas, both the Q in cleveland and the wells fargo center in philly. i found myself as rapt by the voices clearly not used to the national stage as i was by some of the ones whose road to glory and office was paved by the power to put heart and soul into political story.

IMG_7933i admit to tears — tears when the muslim immigrant father pulled his shiny copy of the Constitution from the pocket beneath his impeccably-pressed suit jacket. tears when his hajib-shrouded wife, the gold star mother of their fallen soldier son, stood by his side, without saying a word, looking as if this stage might be the last place in the world she wanted to be, except that deep in her heart she had a son whose story she would not let be silenced. the goosebumps began when the father, in his halting english, tinged with middle-east lilt, recounted how immediately after migrating to the u.s. from the united arab emirates he’d taken his three sons to visit the jefferson memorial. the father recited the words, the ones etched in white Georgia marble, jefferson’s words swearing “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” that so spoke to his son, whose name was Humayun, the son who had grown up to be a soldier and who died in iraq, an army captain who charged into death to save his soldiers. on june 8, 2004, when an explosives-laced taxi barreled through the gate of the army base he was there to protect, Capt. Humayun Khan told his soldiers to hit the dirt while he ran 10 steps toward the taxi, 10 steps before the car bomb exploded. the son, who had dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, is now buried, with bronze star and purple heart, in arlington national cemetery.

in case you missed the father’s words, and the moment he pulled out his pocket-edition of the Constitution, i’ve saved it for you here.

i was covered in a whole other kind of goosebumps when michelle obama took the high road, when she spoke through the lens of a mother, a mother teaching her daughters grace and grit in equal measure, it seems. and joe biden. oh, joe! and the president, as he so often has, had me in tears, streaming-down tears.

night after night, i felt my soul rise, and my heart pick up its pace. the voices and stories, the hands trembling, even the clearing of one history-making throat, all of it drew me in, gave me reason to hope. made me think — in the recounting of deeply intimate stories from mothers of slain sons and daughters, in the rising crescendo of preachers soaked in their own perspiration — that deep in the heart of all of this is a religion not bound by party or nation. it’s the majestic, indomitable, sometimes suffering human spirit, the one that given half a chance will reach for the light, will shimmy toward the crack where the air comes in.

it’s the stories of forgiveness, it’s the stories of wives and children kissing their daddy goodbye one last time, not knowing it was the last, not till later when some terrible knock came to the door, it’s the words pinned to those unforgettable moments, those moments when the human spirit stands to be crushed, but somehow, some way, it’s not. it catches some updraft, finds courage and voice, and rises again. rises to heights it hadn’t imagined.

for the last two weeks, we’ve heard story tumbled atop story. we’ve seen glimpses of the human spirit at its most soaring, and we’ve heard visions that make us tremble in fear. it’s the quadrennial amalgam of hope and awakening. now what we need is plenty of prayer.

which voices, which stories, which moments, are the ones that linger for you? 

(and a point of clarification: the kid who went off to college as president of the new trier young democrats and came home otherwise is not, repeat not, a backer of the republican presidential nominee. the kid is all about reasoned discourse, and deeply held founding principles. his respect is reserved — on both side of the aisle — for those rare few who abide by those immutable pillars of democracy.) 

and, finally, yes i note the irony in just last week saying i don’t write about politics here; i’m trying to thread a very fine needle here, and divine the sacred thread of human triumph and suffering and courage and grace when it’s thrust on a national stage — yes, the national political stage. it’s a belief that beneath the bluster there is something deeply, powerfully human that must be paid serious attention. and i abstain from divisiveness.

photo credits: (top) Josh Haner for the New York Times; (parents of Capt. Humayun Khan) Damon Winter for the New York Times

civility matters

ailes out

i never write about politics here at the chair, and i’m not about to do so now. so let me begin by simply saying that the most hopeful bit of front-page news today was not “above the fold,” as we say in the newspaper biz. rather, it was down below, “below the fold,” in the story you see pictured above.

roger ailes is out at fox news. beneath and beyond that firing there are promises that the culture of that broadcast operation will be examined, and scrubbed. will all the screaming end? will the baseless accusations, the twistings of untruths screech to a halt? i can only hope. but maybe, maybe, it will all be toned down a decibel or five. maybe they’ll find a way to deliver a rightful perspective, a deeply-held position, without resorting to hate mongering and wholesale riddling of heart and soul and reputation.

forge on fox news: call a spade a spade, as you see it. deplore numbers, so long as they’re based on sound study, derived from solid research. express opinion. but, please, employ the art of listening. employ civility.

and stop screaming while you’re at it.

some 10 years ago, perusing the banana aisle in my nearby grocery store, i ran into one of the great newsmen of the day, the former managing editor of the chicago tribune, an ex-marine who wore his shirt sleeves cropped at the biceps, who was known to be more exuberant in his dealings after lunch than before, whose eye for injustice and smarmy dealings was unparalleled (especially when fixed on the dark side of chicago politics). he paused in his own perusal of banana bunches to bark words at me that have stayed with me ever since: “everybody’s talking these days, no one’s listening anymore.”

that’s old news by now, but back when he said it — not long after the explosion of the blogosphere, where anyone who could type could suddenly claim a chunk of cyber-real estate and blather on endlessly — it made me stop and notice. it made me re-up my commitment to the art of listening (back in nursing school, we devoted a whole semester to a course that boiled down to listening, the art thereof.) it made me insist that here at the chair we’d be civil, we’d be kind. and, yes, it made me vow to keep my eye trained on the hearts and souls that are the truth behind even the crustiest of bloviators.

what had always irked me most about fox news wasn’t the point of view, but the gloves-off approach that had one talking head shouting at another. that spewed invective as if cruel words alone would spike the almighty nielsen ratings. and then it wasn’t long till the other cable channels took notice, began to do the same. i can barely watch CNN anymore, for all the shouting, all the overdrive that drowns out half the words.

as cable news fueled the trough, so too did all the divisiveness creep into the u.s. capitol, and statehouses across the land. so too did it creep into online posts and chats, even on pages devoted to common cause or shared geography.

i know, because this isn’t my natural realm, that my words here are too facile, my thoughts not finely chiseled enough, but i’m willing to risk exposure to that criticism to say my heart is crushed — day after day, hour upon hour sometimes — by the rampant disintegration of civility. the swirling down the drain of the art of listening. the understanding that no one wins when we all walk away bruised and bleeding.

if there was one moment in the recent awful primary campaign that broke my heart the most it was the moment i now see played and replayed in one political commercial: the moment where the republican nominee is seen flapping his hands, mocking a reporter with a disability. and doing so in front of a jeering, cheering crowd. have we come to that? and if we have, how much lower can we go?

because i won’t give up on the belief that good outweighs awful, that love can regain ground, i woke up to hope this morning as i heard the news that not only was ailes — a man alleged to have demanded sexual favors in return for job promotion — out as chairman and chief executive, the sons of rupert murdoch (who imagined he’d ever be cast in the hero role?), now at the helm, would be examining the culture ailes had injected, infected into fox, and they’d launch a “wide-ranging overhaul.”

if fox can clean up its act, there’s hope. if just one iota of civility can trickle in, can regain ground…

i’ve been shell-shocked much of these recent weeks. inclined to hole away in my garden. to submit to the song of the wren rather than the bloviations and horrors of the news around me (though my newsier instincts inevitably lure me to the screens, to watch, to read, to try to grasp at least faint outlines). i keep my head down, steer clear of all the tussling and jabbing i find online. i’ve come to think i’m just plain allergic to incivilities.

so if roger ailes is out, it’s one for civility. and decency. and honor. and maybe, just maybe we can regain ground. those of us who fear that all around us toxins fill the air. those of us who will not surrender to incivility, and word by word hold our holy ground.

your thoughts? how do you retrench from incivility? and more essentially how do you sow goodness, kindness, love?