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

brace yourself, baby…

waking up to a wind chill of -6, gliding into my fleece-lined yoga pants (yes, they make them!), my chilly thoughts turn to someone i’ve come to love dearly who is, for the first time in her california-girl life, waking up to this subzero shock to the ol’ ticker. she moved to these parts just as the october winds were picking up, and she thought that was cold! best i can think is: at least it’s not an earthquake. but i figured i owe her a welcome-to-deep-freeze, the chicago version of winter.

dear california girl,

um, welcome to february. bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a polar vortex. well, glide open your sliding porch door (if you can dislodge the ice and the snow jamming its tracks), stick out any limb you’re willing to sacrifice, and voila, that’s what the vortex feels like, that’s how cold it can make your blood run.

so, given that this is your first round of the deep freeze we call chicago, the goosebump capital of the midwest, i figured i might pass along the few things that i’ve learned over the years here on the tundra.

first, forget sleek silhouettes. we’re going for bulk here. we like to dress like we’re walking, talking bed pillows. the more layers and fluff we can stuff round our parts, the happier we hum (see “dress union suit” above). extra credit if you can see someone’s eyes. we are big believers in total occlusion of all open face parts. just cover ’em up with whatever might stretch over your head. big socks work in a pinch. but around here, we stock up on headgear with nothing but peep holes. think golf club covers, maybe minus the super-size tassel. COVID masks have nothing on us. we’ve been in the face-blocking business since, well, far back as i can remember. (note: that reminds me, sometimes the cold numbs your brain. just go with it. your gears will warm up again come the fourth of july.)

on the subject of sleeping, we look to the bears and their habits of hibernations. we find it’s important to stock up on lots and lots of berries before gliding into the caves. but instead of berries, plucked off the tangles of bushes, we cruise the grocery-store aisles, foraging wildly for sugars in their un-natural forms. cookies, crackers, whole tubs of häagen-dazs; these all do the trick. we recommend hauling a cardboard box to your bedside; fill to the brim. this way, once you slide under the layers (more on that in a minute) you’ll not have much of a reach should your very cold tummy start to growl like a grizzly.

now, about the bedclothes (see note no. 1: “we’re going for bulk here”). we find it helpful to mound the blankets as if it’s a snow fort, only it’s mohair or wool or your old girl scout sleeping bag. we recommend staying under the covers as long as you can. there’s really no need to expose yourself to the harsh assaults of a cold trip to the bathroom when winds are howling like sirens just out the windows that shake. (note we did not use the Q word — “quake” — because that is a word that belongs to shakier parts of the continent, specifically the state that was yours. again, we pride ourselves on our relative stability here in the land of no nonsense.)

things to do in the arctic: here, we narrow the lens. fact is, there’s a lot you won’t want to do. you will not want to step out the door. so that lobs off a long chunk of the list. you might try turning pages, as long as you’re wearing mittens with lids, a novel invention that allows you to flip back the mitten tops and wiggle your pinkies whenever you must. i’ve heard tell that jigsaw puzzles are fine for a long winter’s nap, but it’s noticeably nettlesome to doze when a runaway piece is lodged under your bum, or stuck down by your toes under the bedsheets. perhaps that’s why some choose to set up their puzzles on a card table shoved next to the bed. daydreaming, i find, tends not to tax. all it involves is pointing your eyes on some wayward spot on the wall, out the window, or up on the ceiling, and then engage in a thought and see where it travels.

should all this well-padded exertion begin to make you hungry for things not stashed in your cave, you might try the polar vortex diet. this involves high-carb fare, mostly smothered in cheese. why do you think the swiss of the alps invented fondue? and look north to wisconsin, where it’s taken as fact that you make it through winter with barrels of cheddar. if you glance over toward iowa (that’s the square of a state just to the west) you’ll discover that they deep-fry whole sticks of butter. again, this makes chicago’s deep-dish pizza (protests late night’s jon stewart, “it’s not pizza, it’s a casserole!”) look svelte and quite chic.

my short list is drawing to a close. fact is, the vortex won’t last forever. and i’ve shared all the basics: wardrobe, fuel, and diversion. mostly, just tough it out. it’s where we here in the middle lands get all our muscle. we’re a somewhat lesser species than those of the arctic circle, and we’d collapse in the tremor of earthquake, but when it comes to facing into the wind howling off the great vast lake, we’re sturdy as they come.

and no richter scale needed.

love, the bundled one

let me know what i’ve missed of the must-know and must-haves in the vortex survival guide. your input, always essential.

just decided to drop a little mac-and-cheese recipe, though the trouble to make it might make you wanna wait till the vortex is lifted. this, from the pages of Stillness of Winter, the beribboned little book i birthed this fall…

Cure-All Mac and Cheese (aka Vortex Survival Fare)

When the bee stings, or the homesick blues need quelling, this oozy spoonful of deliciousness belongs in a mama’s tin of kitchen cure-alls. It’s the ubiquitous remedy at our house for any ailment in the book. (And one or two make-believe ones, besides.) And it’s just what the doctor orders for frosty-cheeked rascals fresh in from the cold.

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995 

Yield: Serves 8 children

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1⁄2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound pasta, tubes or wagon wheels or whatever shape suits your fancy (a tube—penne or rigatoni, among the many—fills with the cheesy sauce and makes a fine, pillowy bite)
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 3/4 cups)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, coarse
1⁄4 cup (or more) Parmesan shavings 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better). 

In a 6-quart pot, bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta. 

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over moderately low heat, and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes; then whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat. 

Stir pasta into pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce, and 2 cups cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of, say, birthday or holiday jollity). 

In a small bowl, toss remaining 3⁄4 cup cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture, topping it all with a downpour of Parmesan shavings (a heavy hand with the cheese is never a bad thing, certainly not at my house where my boys insist I do so, preferring their cheese to supersede bread crumbs). 

Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: dig in.


a new quiet. again.

i sometimes think it will always be stepping into the new again. it will always be let’s-see-how-this-goes. the undulations of life, a whirl of beginnings and endings and all those elevations between.

this week we packed up the joy blast who is our second miracle child, the one who’s been hovering around the dinner table for months now, patiently kindly engaging in hours-long conversation nearly every blessed night. the one who slept till nearly dusk plenty of days, and stayed up watching old films till the wee wee hours. his raccoon-like hours became a rhythm i knew. the house hummed accordingly. but he’s gone now, back at that little college on a hill in smack-dab-middle ohio, and the absence is raw still. still hurts around the edges.

and this time, there’s a new quiet at home. these will be the first new weeks without the rhythms of someone else’s work life. all these red-ringed months, the other writer in this old house got dressed for work even when work was what happened mostly up in his book-lined office across from the top of the stairs. there were deadlines and stories and headlines, too. there was chatter from the so-called newsroom, the one that had been scattered to bedrooms and nooks and crannies all across sweet chicago, wherever a scribe lived, hung his or her reporterly hat. all that has gone hushed now. not even the sound of a keyboard clackety-clacking. he had to turn in the laptop, and the long line at the apple store means you wait weeks and weeks for a board all your own.

we are a people of rhythms, me and the one who shares this old house. so i’m certain we’ll find one again.

i sometimes wonder how we got here, to this moment, so soon. sometimes look in the mirror to see if i can find the self i’ve known since she was so little, had a gap in the space between two front teeth, just enough of a space to wiggle the tip of my tongue through. the gap is long gone now, and so too plenty of other parts, lost along the way. the losses are wins some of the time. though sometimes a loss is a loss, no doubt about it. same thing with the gains. it’s subtraction and addition, all our life long.

so here we are bumbling around in an all-new quiet, a quiet like never before. as a creature of habit, of course, i’d come to count on the people we were in the everyday. and now readjusting is due. old titles are stripped, though the essence is not. it’s starting all over again and again.

good thing i’ve got typing to do, and plenty of it. i figure i’ll wriggle around inside my hours of typing while all the new rhythms appear. while i see how to fit in this new stretch of time. in the meantime, i thought i’d leave two poems here at the table, poems that put a magnifying lens to the blessings of time, of all the moments quotidian and otherwise. one is from raymond carver, you know who he is, the short story writer who happened to turn a mighty fine poem. the other is from a most blessed woman you might not have known. her name is robbie klein, and her birthday would have been yesterday, but she died a year and a half ago, “peacefully, powerfully,” as her obit in the san francisco chronicle quite emphatically put it. her poem took my breath away when she wrote it, and i asked her back then for permission to share it, to which of course she said yes.

consider how each of these beauties concentrates our focus on the blindingly brilliant blessing of the most ordinary moments of time, and how they freeze-frame the essence, so we can’t help but see its full glory.

 At Least
 by Raymond Carver
 I want to get up early one more morning,
 before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
 I want to throw cold water on my face
 and be at my work table
 when the sky lightens and smoke
 begins to rise from the chimneys
 of the other houses.
 I want to see the waves break
 on this rocky beach, not just hear them
 break as I did all night in my sleep.
 I want to see again the ships
 that pass through the Strait from every
 seafaring country in the world—
 old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
 and the swift new cargo vessels
 painted every color under the sun
 that cut the water as they pass.
 I want to keep an eye out for them.
 And for the little boat that plies
 the water between the ships
 and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
 I want to see them take a man off the ship
 and put another up on board.
 I want to spend the day watching this happen
 and reach my own conclusions.
 I hate to seem greedy—I have so much
 to be thankful for already.
 But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
 And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
 Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.
 
 Moments
 by Robbie Klein
 The space behind the waterfall
 The reverberation after a piano key is struck
 The second after hanging up with one you love
 The instant before the match catches fire
 The trace when a cloud covers the sun
 The sliver before sleep comes
 The first raindrop under a tree canopy
 The ebbing of the waves
 The lightening of dawn
 The space between notes
 The bottom of the exhale
 The final brushstroke
 The first drop on the tongue
 The grey before snow falls
 The moment before his fingers touch your face

what prompts you to relish each holy hour?

*photo above is college kid’s room in rare state of clean, only because his teary-eyed mother scrubbed and scrubbed till the sting went away…..

inaugural promise

photo by Jason Andrew/NYT

“we must end this uncivil war…”

as soon as his breath propelled those words across his lips and out into the snow-flecked january cold, i inscribed them on my heart. i hadn’t quite framed it that way, in those four words, so profoundly, so poetically, so imploringly. 

and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the wise old soul whose very fiber has been forged in the white-hot furnace of grief compounded by grief, he all but unbuttoned his coat, pulled back his ribs and showed us what burns in that cavity: “my whole soul is in it,” he said, as if speaking to each and every one of us, as if elbows were plopped on our very kitchen tables, eyeballs gazing at eyeballs, mugs of coffee just off to the side, instead of there in the sunlight and shadow of the nation’s capital. then he all but whispered it again: “my whole soul is in it.” and that’s when i whispered, “mine too.” 

having just witnessed — from the edges of our seats — how close this fragile experiment in democracy came to crashing into splintered bits, having lived under a poisonous cloud of daily assaults on decency, straining to stay steady, to keep from being sucked under in the shifting quicksands of moral decay, of a nation under the false premise that license had been given to spew venom from the checkout line to the capitol steps, i am more certain than ever that this is not a one-person parade. if we stand a chance of shoving this moment in time toward the light we claim, toward the peaceable kingdom we believe is possible, well then every last one of us needs to get to work, to chip in, to put one foot before the other in a slow walk toward mercy and justice for all.

my inaugural promise is this:

i will cloak myself each and every day in humility and gentle spirit, the surest vestment for the hard and holy work ahead. for months now i’ve tiptoed in the darkness to my kitchen table where i’ve lit a candle and whispered the words of confession. “most merciful God…” i begin. “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

i will not reflexively shut my ears, close my heart, turn my cheek the wrong way. i will hear them out, whoever it is. i will try, oh i will try, not to leap in with my insistent retort. not to interrupt. not to wield the sharp sword of assumed superiority, not think that my way is the right way, and all else is wrong. i will try, i will try, to step into the other guy’s shoes. to imagine the hurt, or the fear. to look for a gentle way in, to open just a little bit wider the doorway to some common ground. even if only fraction by fraction.

i will actively step into kindness. into imagining the unexpected waft of goodness that might just turn the tide of someone else’s dark day. i will model the thousands of kindnesses that have come my way — the sacks of apples left on my stoop, the tray brought to my hospital bedside, the steaming hot chicken pot pie once delivered on an arctic cold night, to name just a few. 

i will carve out time even amid the whirlingest of days for whoever taps me on the shoulder, looks me in the eye, and whispers, do you have a minute? 

i will — in some way, shape, or form — seek out foreign terrain, the realm of those who might be quick to dismiss me: too white, too old, too left-leaning. and begin with the light-seeking questions: what keeps you awake at night? what do you dream? what brings you joy? what makes you cry? where does it hurt? who do you consider to be the most heroic human you’ve ever known? and how so? what’s one act of kindness you’ve never forgotten? 

because i realize my impotence for change-making at the structural level, i will pinpoint one not-for-profit effectively working toward solution — be it reuniting children separated from parents at the border, or ferreting out all vestiges of racism and bigotry from the nooks and crannies of america, or protecting wetlands from the ravages of greedy exploitation — and i will commit to shaving off a dollar here, a dollar there from my weekly spending and send off occasional bundles from my consciously set-aside sum.

photo of Amanda Gorman by Patrick Semansky

but even more than dollar bills, the currency i commit to this campaign is the craft i ply each and every day: mine is a calling to words, words as instruments of peace, words as the silken thread that weaves together uncommon hearts, words that open doorways into long-locked corridors. as the beautiful and blessed national youth poet laureate amanda gorman so perfectly put it in the wake of her inaugural poem: “words matter. we’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated.” she sought, and i seek with her, to “reclaim poetry as that site in which we can repurify, resanctify the power of words. and to invest that in the highest office of the land.” to invest that in every office of the land, elected and otherwise. from the humblest foot soldier to the commander in chief. and to that, i say amen, amen. 

we must end this uncivil war. and my whole soul is in it. 

what’s your inaugural promise?

not the end, a love story

Amid the haunting tremors of this national moment, and the bone-chilling worry that something awful could erupt, the dreadful sense that we are teetering at the precipice of something precious being lost, I interrupt the breathlessness, the imploring for peace, mercy, justice and truth, to turn ever so briefly to one of the countless personal narratives that unfurls against this shadowed backdrop. Someone with whom I’ve carved a life is turning the page on one of his most consequential chapters, and, as the family historian and archivist, it must be duly marked. 

This is a love story.

It begins long, long ago, inside a vaulted cacophonous chamber inside a gray stone Gothic tower, one that hugs a river’s edge as it courses toward one great lake, in the crosshairs of the American metropolis that rose defiantly from the endless prairie. 

A tall bespectacled gentleman, cloaked in appropriately puddle-splashed and newsprint-stained London Fog trench coat and holey-bottomed penny loafers, strides with his signature mix of certainty + humility down the newsroom’s center aisle, past desk after factory-assembled desk, each one equipped with typewriter, ancient desktop computer, and, chances are, one of the big-city news hustlers straight out of central casting (half-drained whiskey bottles hide in file drawers, stashed behind the extra pair of brogans down where dustballs grow; ashtrays brim with stubbed-out cigarettes; expletives punctuate the rumble, a slurry mix of ringing phones, clackety-clacking teletype machines, and the endless bark of irascible editors and the copy kids who dart and dodge at every bark before it turns to bite). 

Our protagonist, the bespectacled one, is noticed by a young Irish-American nurse-turned-scribe, one whose presence in that very newsroom is as unlikely as anything in her curiously-scripted life. She especially perks her ears when newsroom talk spreads word that this new fellow — this 6-foot-3 Ivy Leaguer who’s arrived by way of Des Moines, and is reputed to write “like nothing you’ve never seen” — boldly exits the newsroom on Friday evenings at six o’clock sharp (akin to walking out of surgery just before the scalpels dig deep into flesh, as Friday night is when the big bulging Sunday paper is “put to bed,” and all hands usually on deck). Word is that the reason for his unnewsroomly departure is to sprint to synagogue for Friday night service. This unorthodox (for a newsroom) orthodoxy is a.) impossible to miss, and b.) highly impressive to the religiously-intrigued Irish-Catholic ecumenical one. 

(Turns out, don’t you know, he was dashing out to the door not only to bow his head and pray, but also to keep a sideways glance on any nice Jewish girl who might wander into the synagogue’s so-named Singles Shabbat, a mix-and-mingle for the 20-something minyan set. Our unreliable narrator here obviously mistook urge to mate — or at least to J-date — for religious fealty.)

It’s not long into this newsroom tale till she — our narrator — falls for him. It is longer, markedly longer, till he returns the favor. But this is not that love story. 

This is her ode to his third-of-a-century dedication, devotion, middle-of-the-night perseverations to the journalistic craft, to his unswerving eye toward excellence, toward equity and justice for all in the urban grid, from the greenswards to the cloud-poking steel-and-glass arisings. 

Back in the beginning of this Chicago story, he worked the city desk, just like the legions of fresh-faced cub reporters who started out eager and naive to the wily ways of Second City aldermen and crooks (sometimes one in the same), ears trained to the police scanner, ready to leap with hat, coat, and scribbler pad to the scene of the nearest atrocity, disaster, or ambulance chase. 

First time the Irish-Catholic and the new-to-the-newsroom Shabbat devotee found themselves dispatched to the same breaking news was the night ol’ Eddie Vrdolyak, an aldermanic stalwart of Chicago’s famed Democratic Machine, broke loose and turned Republican, stunning his Southeast Side constituents who filed into the Serbian Orthodox church hall with their bundt cakes and their murmured words of world-is-upside-down consternation and congratulations. She soaked up color, ambiance, mood; he stuck with the facts. (A telling distinction, one that in some ways would never really fade.)

From there, the hard core of the city desk, the one who’d studied hard the intricacies of balustrades and board-and-batten, casement windows and Corinthian columns, who’d versed himself in architectural volumes from primitivism to Postmodernism, dutifully bid his time pounding Chicago pavement, but he never took his eye off that glittering ever-shifting skyline. 

In the fall of 1992, a mere five years after slipping on his Chicago Tribune ID badge, he was crowned the title he had long, long yearned for: architecture critic of America’s First City of built masterpieces and no little plans. (Note: For all my wanting to, and with all my years cobbling sentences and spinning yarns, I cannot do justice to his 28 years “on the beat,” as newsroom parlance would put it. Oh, but I shall try.) 

He’s sized up the likes of Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, Jeanne Gang, and the iconoclastic-in-every-way Stanley Tigerman, among the many, many. 

He’s marched into architectural battle with no less than Mayor Richie Daley (e.g., the infamous Meigs Field midnight raid, bulldozing Xs through the runway, among his many go-arounds with Da Mare), Mike McCaskey and the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field brouhaha, or in our critic’s inimitable description, “Starship Enterprise crash-landed on the Parthenon”), the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field, and specifically the Toyota sign planted in the bleachers, a “wart on the face of baseball’s grande dame”), Star Wars director and Hollywood legend George Lucas (a “cartoonish mountain” of a proposed lakefront museum the critic likened the “giant lump” to a “bloated Jabba”), and, of course, the Developer in Chief, Donald John Trump, who first courted then skewered our friend the critic.

Our critic’s story began long before the summer of 1987 when he loped into the Tribune Tower. He’d grown up in a newsroom, starting out at 13 on the night shift — writing obits by night, body surfing on the Jersey Shore by day — in his father’s newsroom, a classic PK, or publisher’s kid, in Red Bank, NJ. He’d interned in newsrooms in Newark, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston. And paused long enough for a masters in environmental design at Yale. This curious chemistry of take-no-guff news hound + aesthete and well-trained critic’s eye proved a formidable match for the rough-and-tumble of Chicago, where not even the arts are shielded from shenanigans and shysters.

This explosive combo, well, exploded. Often. In shouting matches with City Hall, delivered at full throttle and no words minced. The leitmotif (toned down for tender eyes or ears) went something like this: “Don’t give me that [baloney]! Tell me the truth!” It is reported that as these shouting matches unfurled for quarter-hour chunks of time, the heads of young reporters would pop up from behind their screens around the newsroom, “like gophers from their gopher holes,” to ogle the sight and sound of a scribe at top bellow. 

Truth, most often, won out. Which might explain how, along the way, the critic’s sharp eye and voluminous and tireless reporting on the inequities of the city’s bejeweled lakefront — well-appointed and abundant on the North Side, decrepit and inaccessible from poor Black neighborhoods on the South Side — would in time reshape the city map. Bulldozers literally shoved parkland to where before there had been none. And millions once unjustly cut off from the great Lake Michigan shoreline now romp on beach and trail, “forever open, clear and free,” in accord with the 1909 edict of the Illinois Supreme Court that has become the rallying cry for decades of lakefront protection. Hands down, the opening up of the entire swath of lakefront is the critic’s proudest moment. That redrawing of the lakefront came in the wake of his 1998 series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” six parts in all, that won him what a young friend of ours once and indelibly declared, “the Polish Surprise” (sound it out swiftly, and you’ll know what I mean, especially to the tender ears of a 5-year-old child).

Together, after all those decades in the same newsroom, the Irish scribe and the tireless critic (one of the rare perpetual newsroom bondings, wed in 1991) paired their names on only three double-bylines. One, named Will (now 27, and a brand-new lawyer — just yesterday sworn in virtually to the Illinois Bar from a Portland, OR, courthouse), and another, Teddy (19, and trudging through college). And yet a third: The mother of those double-bylines was asked by the critic to tag along when the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened and ready for architectural critique, since after all, the critic pointed out, she was the one who’d pushed out the double-bylined babies in the original hallowed Prentice hospital.

And now, for some undetermined chunk of time, the indefatigable and as-yet-unnamed-here critic (long ago, I made a vow that I would not write of him or our marriage, except for occasional sidekick insertions, as he was something of a public figure who deserved full control over his private life), is hanging up his London Fog, and kicking off those holey loafers. He announced his leave-taking on Twitter the other night (see tweets down below). And with lump in my throat, and tears not only in my eyes but running down my cheeks, I partake of the great newsroom tradition of clapping him out as he exits the building and the beat. 

As he wrote in his own last column in the Tribune, which ran practically hidden in the inside pages of the Business section on Thursday:

When I became the Tribune’s architecture critic in the fall of 1992, there was no Millennium Park, no Museum Campus, no downtown Riverwalk, no Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and no St. Regis Chicago. There were no planter boxes in the middle of Michigan Avenue and few bike paths other than those on the lakefront trail.

Hulking public housing high-rises still stood at Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. State Street was an ugly transit mall. Little planes still landed at Meigs Field. Sears Tower was still Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world.

I am chest-burstingly proud of the brilliant work he’s written under his byline, of the countless midnights when he slunk out of bed to fix a sentence or deepen some particular thought. His devotion must rank among the rarest in the business. His love for his city and his readers kept him writing long after counterforce made quitting the easier option. We’ve seen him trailed by TSA agents at O’Hare who wanted to keep up some architectural conversation, straight to the boarding gate; stood by as he was tapped on the shoulder as far away as London or DC by a reader who recognized him and didn’t want to miss a chance to say thank you, ask an architectural question. It’s that devotion — and infinite unsung kindnesses extended to readers and would-be someday critics — that is perhaps his shiningest prize, the one that comes with no crystal paperweight, and no plaque to hang in a back corner of his book-lined office. 

He’s our beloved Blair Kamin, of whom we are soo soo proud. And who has left an indelible and breathtaking mark on the city he loved, the newspaper for which he wrote for 33 rollercoaster years, and who has written his best and most lasting lines in the narrative that is our blessed little double-bylined family.

But that’s the not end of this love story. Only this latest chapter.

***

Here’s how he broke the news on Twitter last Friday night:

After 33 years at Chicago Tribune, 28 as architecture critic, I’m taking a buyout + leaving the newspaper. It’s been an honor to cover + critique designs in the first city of American architecture + to continue the tradition begun by Paul Gapp, my Pulitzer-winning predecessor.

During these 28 years, I have chronicled an astonishing time of change, both in Chicago and around the world. From the horrors of 9/11 to the joy of Millennium Park, and from Frank Gehry to Jeanne Gang, I have never lacked for gripping subject matter.

Whether or not you agreed with what I wrote was never the point. My aim was to open your eyes to, and raise your expectations for, the inescapable art of architecture, which does more than any other art to shape how we live.

So I treated buildings not simply as architectural objects or technological marvels, but also as vessels of human possibility. Above all, my role was to serve as a watchdog, unafraid to bark and, if necessary, bite, before developers and architects wreaked havoc on the city. 

I am deeply grateful to my newspaper, which has never asked me to pull punches. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with talented editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers. They have been a huge help. Journalism, like architecture, is a team enterprise.

What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.

It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off. Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny. -30-

you’ll note i put aside for this one time my disinclination to hit the shift key and write with capital letters (writing here in lower case is for me something akin to kicking off my shoes and shuffling around in slippers), but for the upstanding critic, i decided to pull out my big-girl keys and give him ups and downs on the keyboard scale. i’ll return to slippers, no doubt, though i do note it makes for easier reading when you can spy the peaks and valleys in each and any sentence.

in the tweets above, you might notice mention of Jon Stewart, the late-night genius, who once saw fit to enter the Chicago architectural fray, a little back-and-forth, you might say, between our hero here, the critic, and the comb-over developer who would go on to rule the Oval Office…watch here the clip of Signfeud, from the Daily Show…

i have now overflowed this space with a kitchen sink of Kamin esoterica and folderol. it is with all the love in the world, and bursting giant heart, that i thank the Chicago Tribune (where, combined, we toiled for 63 years) for bringing me the other half of our double byline. it’s been some rocket ride, and i’ll hold on tight for wherever this takes us next.

much love, BK. i am — in the great Tribune tradition of “clapping out” your final exit from the newsroom — standing and applauding. xoxox

and here’s a final twist for this week’s chair: how bout this, you ask the question this week, and i will try to answer….the annals of the newsroom are now open for the curious…..

looking for the light

maybe the reason i lurch myself out from under the layers of flannel and cotton, and sometimes wool, in the inky hour before the light comes suffusing through the trees off to the east, is so i can tiptoe out under heaven’s dome in the dark, so i can train my eye on the spot where the sky first hints at what’s coming. the spot where we get to the part of the story where it all begins again, where the sun rises and the light creeps up and through the sky, like a wine spill to a white linen napkin.

it’s that first crack of light that always thrills me; the moment right before, when you wonder if really it will come again. and then–so far, anyway–it does. and you can check that worry off the list for the day.

maybe that’s why papa cardinal is always out there too. maybe papa is keeping watch on the sun, making sure it does its job, does what’s expected. maybe papa’s the sentinel of dawn, the one charged with letting us know if there’s ever a day when the sun sleeps in. so far, hasn’t happened. but always good to have someone in the lifeguard chair.

so this business of keeping watch for the light to creep in, it’s a skill that comes in mighty handy. i’d call it essential for the human spirit in dark epochs. which this sure seems to be. if you keep watch on the headlines, anyway. if all you count is the sweeping arc of the narrative, the parts where the death toll mounts day after day, where the holy relics of the “citadel of liberty” were shattered and smashed and carried straight out the door and down the capitol steps, steps that have given me goosebumps every time i’ve so much as pressed the sole of my shoe to their age-worn edges. the part where the soundtrack is so hateful you wonder if you’ve woken up in rome just before the collapse, or vietnam in the middle of an ugly war. or germany. or the boston harbor before the tea went in the drink.

so pretty much the only thing worth doing right now is looking–hard as you can–for the teeniest sliver of light coming in through the cracks in the door.

because i happen to keep close watch on the doings of our nation’s capital, because i sometimes see it as a laboratory of human character–who’s got a spine, who’s got a heart–it tends to be one of the places where i gather my evidence for how much hope might be worth counting on. i promise you i look broadly, across party lines. if i spy decency in human form, if i hear a tale of heroic-level goodness, if i see someone rise amid a sea of protest to say, “i’ve scoured my conscience, and here is the truth, guided by timeless moral code,” i listen up. pay close attention. get ready to take a deep breath and start all over again. rather than collapsing in a moment of utter moral depravity and defeat.

so happens, it was there just yesterday that a little bit of hope came trickling in. well, more than a little. and it wasn’t actually in washington where i spied it. it was off in what’s now become the staging area of a presidency to come. over in delaware, where, on a stage all bedecked in blue, i saw a man who shook himself from his grieving a couple years back because he felt a call to restore the soul of america. and i saw him explaining to a nation (quietly, in not-fancy words) why justice for all matters so much, so deeply fine-grainly much. and then i heard him say who he trusted more than anyone to press his shoulder against the long arc of justice to try to muscle it toward where martin luther king jr. and saint john lewis and barack obama promised us it would bend. and i watched merrick garland, a man who might have spent the last five years with a really bitter taste in his mouth, i watched him quietly, humbly, step to the podium and consent to the task. i watched him agree to step into the arena where the blood stains of injustice are soaked deep into the floorboards, where the pile-up of truths need hours and hours of sorting through, and i saw something like light out of the far corner of my eye.

and that’s not the only place where i look.

i look right here in the nooks and crannies of my little life and i find slivers of light coming in from the oddest angles. i find light where i hear the things my college kid remembers to add to his litany of prayers right before dinner. i find light when a brother i love leaps out of his own sack of worries to bedeck my birthday with nothing short of an explosion of joy. i find light in the pages of old, old books on my shelves. and, sometimes, not so old ones.

these are the lines i’ve recently tucked in my “words and lines worth keeping” file (it’s the third of three such files, because i tend to find many many words worth keeping):

“God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” Martin Buber

“‘When the evening of this life comes,’ says St John of the Cross, ‘you will be judged on love.’ The only question asked about the soul….‘Have you loved well?’”

“Each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.” St. John of the Cross from Daniel Ladinsky. Love Poems from God.

‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

and, because i am feeling a wee bit queazy here this morning, i’d best sign off, and ask where do you find the light creeping in?

turning the page…

before the light on this new year falls, i am bent at the old maple table, prayer unfurling. the incense simmers on the stove, an extra fat star anise tossed amid the tumble in my spice-stocked pot. i am straining to fill the air with those few pure things, those hopes, those determinations that this year — this nother round of possibility — might bring, other than the cinders we’re shooshing out the door.

i’m no fool, been knocked around enough to know that there’s no prestidigitation in all the world that will suddenly wipe clean the slate, cast all sin, open wide the barn doors for all those gentle kind and tender things we espouse.

but i’ve not lost hope, not every shred. and in finding the words of dear alfred lord tennyson on my doorstep here this morning, i am reminded that in the archeologies of time, strife is the stuff of human existence. it’s always been a battle of forces — of evil versus noble, of stingy versus bountiful, of cruel versus the world those gathered here do believe in.

tennyson, deep in grief at the ringing in of the new year after the death of his dearest friend in 1833, wrote these words in his great elegy, In Memoriam (in sum, tennyson’s masterwork is 133 poems — or cantos — in one), beginning canto CVI, or 106, “ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky…” and he went on to implore a rinsing, an ablution that rings eerily in echo of the now:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

and in the last lines of this canto, tennyson implores:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land…

i sign on with tennyson. and believing in simple math — that the smallest increment adds to the aureole of goodness spilling across the undulations of our lives — i commit to baby steps.

sometimes, that’s the hardest truest place to begin. it gets us in the craw of who we are, and muscles up against who it is we aim to be.

so, in part, here goes:

i commit to shrugging off the unkind tone, the odd stumble in a conversation, not garnishing it as ammunition for a cockamamie theory that that someone never liked me in the first place, and thus it’s fair for me to assume defensive posture next time round. i commit to taking a deep-down cleansing breath and resolutely ringing the doorbell of the neighbor who seems to flinch from human contact, delivering without need for words a tin-wrapped loaf of kindness, or whatever seems the wisest gentlest peace-bridging offering. i commit to looking the lost, the hurt, the invisible, in the eye. i commit to picking up the phone, even when i’m dishrag tired. i commit to listening. and i commit to going first when i’m sorry are the words so needed.

if we want a world unlike the one hellbent on taking over, we need be the ones in the trenches. the ones who won’t retreat, relent, surrender.

i’m not talking sweeping social change, or abrupt reverse of course in the global policy department. i’m not so equipped. not steeped in all the necessary tomes for such bold move. i have figured out my place in the chessboard of this life, and i am all the more determined that it’s the fractional advance, the barely perceptible softening of the heart, the extension of the hand, the saying, i see you, i see your pain and i am here for you to lean on, i am here to embolden you, to put courage to your conviction. i am here to sit beside you, for however long it takes.

the daylight is up now, casting faintest shadow on the snow. it’s taken me that long to scroll the annals of my heart, to fix my spot on the map of the new year now upon us. more than anything, as the news pings roll in, as i hold my breath for the days ahead, as i pray the world begins to tilt in the favor of goodness, truth, and, yes, the deepest mercy, i turn to the heavens, i fall to my knees and i echo the good lord tennyson, ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand, dear holy blessed Adonai, ring out the darkness of the land.

light is what we beg for. light is what we need.

let us be the wicks you spark this day. and the next and the next….

what might be the baby steps to which you commit? no need to write them here, but in your hearts, perhaps?

true Christmas morning prayer…

that first Christmas, the one that for millennia we have gazed upon, meditated over, infused into our sugar-spun dreams, was as stripped-down as the ones perhaps unfurling under our own roofs this year.

there was no garland, only straw. no sparkly tree, only the boughs of whatever bush nestled against the flimsy walls of the barn. there were no carolers, only the lowing of the cow, and the clucking of the miserly hen who laid but one egg each dawn. 

what was was a mother in labor, her anguished cries of birth echoed decades later in the anguish of beholding a necessary crucifixion, one ordained by the heavens. one that might have filled an earthly mother with undying rage. certainly the mother who types these words. but in the barn that inky night there was no rage, only cries that shattered pitch-black darkness, only cries of mother and, in time, the child.

what was was the bloody birth, the newborn soaked in waters of the womb. 

what was was the gaze, eternal gaze, between mother and child, mother and the face of God. does not every mother see the face of God in the one pushed from her womb? in the one she calls her own, no matter how the child comes?

and so this Christmas, when all else is stripped away, when there are empty chairs at the table, when the oven holds less than half its usual Yuletide feast, when our arms cannot reach round the shoulders of those we love, when we cannot feel another’s heartbeat pressed against our own, we are flung into the whirl–the holy whirl–of empathies.

this is how Christmas feels to many. this is morning after morning when you awake to wanting. 

and so my prayer this quiet Christmas is first and most for all those whose hearts ache, those who forage in the back alleys of this uncaring world, who go to sleep longing for a hand to hold in the hollow of the night, those who cry for justice from behind bars not of their own making. 

my prayer is for those whose Christmas lullaby is the beep-beep-blip of some machine that keeps them alive. 

my prayer is for the cold, cold of flesh and bone, and cold—so cold—of heart. 

my prayer is for those whose gaze is washed with tears, stinging tears, all-alone tears, tears of please deliver me.

my prayer for each and all is that the blessedness of Christmas—the truth of newborn hope birthed after long hard labor, cradled heart against heart, entwined in love beyond measure from before first breath—my prayer is that the blessedness of Christmas settles deep inside the chambers of your soul, and that you look out upon a day, a world, in which radiance erupts through darkness, dawn after dawn. and all is holy, and holy is all.

merry blessed wonder of true Christmas.

xoxo

a hundred blessings from here at the old maple table. sleep this year is in short supply, as we are spanning time zones from middle america to pacific northwest, filling the hours with as much Christmas as you can pack in itty-bitty phone lines. i wished for phones with smell last night, so my own firstborn–my heart’s pure joy–could inhale whatever was wafting from the oven. he said last night that he couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas without the scents of bread pudding–the cinnamon, the egg + milk, the chunks of orchard apple. nor could i. but here it is. and next Christmas, God willing, it will be all the sweeter for its absence here this morning.

may your day be blessed. how will you make Christmas, true Christmas, come true this year?

image above, way above, is Albrecht Dürer’s The Nativity, 1511; image below is our little Christmas tree: what happens when you’re the last one to the tree lot (cuz you couldn’t bear to buy a tree till all your loves were home, and you finally realized that wasn’t going to happen this year….)

archipelagos of calm amid a roiling sea

ar·chi·pel·a·go /ˌärkəˈpeləˌɡō/ noun

noun: archipelago; plural noun: archipelagoes; plural noun: archipelagos

  1. a group of islands. “the Indonesian archipelago”
  2. a sea or stretch of water containing many islands.

early 16th century: from Italian arcipelago, from Greek arkhi- ‘chief’ + pelagos ‘sea’. The word was originally used as a proper name ( the Archipelago ‘the Aegean Sea’): the general sense arose because the Aegean Sea is notable for its large numbers of islands.

alternative definition: calmus interruptus, in which rocky protruberances, barely discernible in dimension, arise from roiling fluid surface, providing flash of terra firma before which desperate swimmer loses grip, plunges once again into tempestuous sea — alone, afraid, intent on staying afloat. sanctity provided, ephemeral at best.


we turn to the mapmaker’s lexicon — complete with dictionary definition and etymology — because it was the faint and far-between dotted line of rock piles (aka the archipelago) that leapt to mind as the fittingest metaphor for an otherwise nearly indescribable heap of twists and turns, as i tried in vain to keep from keeling over amid this week’s drama of near historic family proportion.  

it went something like this:

round about the middle of tuesday, the geography of my interior life morphed suddenly and without warning from restless squatting on the shores of big-enough occasional islands of calm (the sort where you might slow your breathing for as long as five-minute stretches, and in which you might temporarily put at least a shred of worries to the side) to swimming breathlessly through an archipelago of tiny anxious island dots, each one offering maybe a moment’s lull before the waves kicked up again. before i found myself paddling madly to not go glub-glub-glub.

while awaiting the biopsy results of brother No. 2 (see last week’s news), beloved brother No. 3 up and had a heart attack. a real one, a not-so-small one. oh, lordy. (i only have four brothers, so these odds are getting stiff.)                                                

brother 3 — four years younger than me, the father of two young and glorious children — had called mid-afternoon that day (as ordinary as a tuesday might be when awaiting a second biopsy of someone you dearly love), wondering what to do about a terrible case of heartburn, a dyspepsia he was blaming on the banana pepper and hot sauce he had tucked into his lunch and the preamble pot of coffee that had started his until-then ordinary weekday. next thing we knew — and i mean within minutes — there was an ambulance and ER, swiftly followed by OR and days in ICU, all deeply laced with prayer upon prayer. 

and i mean hard-knees-against-the-floorboards prayer. the highest octane of beseeching known to this prayerful sister. 

as of this writing, brothers 1 and 4 are idly sitting in their homes, where they’ve been instructed to not move, not lift so much as a pair of scissors for fear of fate tap-tapping at their wintry windowpanes. 

quite frankly, i’ve found it hard to breathe at various twists and turns in this wildly unspooling narrative. i was reportedly circling room-to-room-to-room the other afternoon, muttering, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” in more exclamatory than prayerful tones. (and i was not previewing the Christmas story.)

a mere week ago, i was finding episodic solace in simple kitchen tasks — slicing onions, plucking cloves. this week, that all went whirling out the window, and i could not have cared less if we swallowed air for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

there is only so much adrenaline one’s itty-bitty fight-or-flight pump can spurt and swoosh through veins. and i’m about to call a truce, to leave my shaky nerves stranded on some unassuming island. which is where the archipelago — or interrupted line of splintered refuge — comes in. 

cling is the more appropriate verb in describing my posture when, amid hyperventilation or dizzying projections down the pot-holed road ahead, i catch my breath via one of my ever-shrinking litany of soothing balms. (hot bath; hot bath; hot bath.)

we humans do seem to have a godly bottomline default, a trapeze net for those stretches of our lives when all hell seems to be breaking from the quiet room where we try to keep it handcuffed to the chairs. in those rare quiet spells, when i might be sitting in the dark watching the dance of the candle flame, or folding one lone shirt from the dryer, or glancing toward the moon while taking out the trash, i find my inner gyroscope settling still. i manage an in and out breath. i might even think of something that makes me laugh. (gallows humor is a saving grace; brother 3 mentioned in a text from the ICU that, after a weekend conversation about Faulkner, he’d requested “As I Lay Dying,” from his local library. and then he drolly mentioned “it awaits me now,” fully acknowledging said gallows. God bless his never-ceasing wit.)

the reprieves were short, so short, the fractions of a minute when breath was caught, when fog of fear fugaciously lifted. the rocky seas between made it seem i might not ever get there. might be swallowed whole by swirling waters, pulled down by stubborn riptides.

i’ll get through this tight passage, as we always have before. but, oh my, this december at the start of the twenty-first century’s third decade…it’s a doozy. 

here’s hoping we return soon to more quotidian rumblings round the chair. 

i mean not a word of this lightly, and fact is, the palpitations just beneath my ribs have not yet quelled. i seem to have twisted myself into a knot of nerves that, as the author of a tome on stillness, is making me feel a wee bit silly. i am employing all my stillnesses, and for the momentary peace they bring, i am deeply deeply grateful. my brothers and i are deeply blessed to be so close, to march through life (especially of late) arms locked and bent into whatever winds we face.

all i need now is for child No. 2 to turn in the last of his string of finals, to prowl the Christmas tree yard for the humblest branches on the lot, and to await the word that things are taking turns for all that’s good and blessed and ripe with hope.

i wish the same for you.

when you’re at wits end, what wraps you in a cloak of calm?

in the darkness, it’s the familiar rhythms of the heart that soothe…

As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.

When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.

My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.

He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.

We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.

Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.

In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.

For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.

And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.

While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.

I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.

As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.

So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.

Xox


In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….

Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.

Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?

of prophets and poets, and the sacred instruction: let the light be from within

maybe you read the newspaper every morning. maybe you even read the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that birthed most of the most precious threads in my life. but chances are — reading the studies that come, one after a sad other, from the journalism think tanks — you don’t. the sound of the rolled-up sausage of a newspaper landing with a thwop on the front stoop is nearly obsolete. but this week, my old newspaper made room for a little essay i wrote, one birthed in the pages of Stillness, that beribboned little book that seems to be winging its way to armchairs and reading nooks in various vicinities around the countryside this december.

given the unlikelihood that you would have stumbled across this little essay — a variation on the opening essay, “December: Sacred Invitation,” in Stillness — and given that my little laptop has a crack-of-dawn doctor’s appointment at the genius bar, i figured i’d give the essay a whirl here. it comes with the hope that you find all sorts of ways to fill the december darkness with flickering flames, and tongues of fire that leap from the hearth. the ones in your home, or the ones in your heart.

Commentary: In December’s darkness, the prophets and poets guide us toward the light

By BARBARA MAHANY

December’s darkness is coming like never before.

Oh, sure, as the sun arcs into its wintry descent, as the night grows to its longest, and day after day a minute is shaved at the dawn and at dusk, the sunlight ebbs and the shadow grows. There’s that darkness.

But cloaking all of it this year is the darkness of knowing we can’t kindle the light in gathering kinship.

We will be more alone this winter, perhaps, than ever before.

But there is a bright side, or at least a blessed side.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, intellect and imagination.

Celebrate the quietude. The stillness that comes in the hours of solitude, that state of grace sought by the ancient mystics and saints, by Zen priests and the Desert Elders of Egypt, by Hildegard of Bingen and Henry David Thoreau, deep in the woods of Walden Pond, the ones who dialed down the noise and distraction, pressing their ears into the silence, awaiting the murmurings of the still small voice. As Meister Eckhart put it: “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”

The truth is: Stillness and darkness draw out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

Stillness, as all the enlightened have known, in the paradox that might be a Buddhist koan, is the fullness that comes only through emptiness.

This December, both will abound. We’d be wise to welcome them.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we, too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counterculturalism, and do not succumb.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half-hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. Most especially this December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well, bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the great horned owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And she reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I. Maybe, so do you.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who breathed the first breath.

Barbara Mahany, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, is the author of four books; her latest is “The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season.”

so there’s the essay. and here is the question: how might you live sacramentally? how do you lift the ordinary into the sacred; those humdrum quotidian tasks of the everyday, how do you imbue them with intention and attention, raise them into the realm of the holy so that this one pass at december is lived in ways that awake us as never before?