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

home alone — and hearing a cry

it’s just me and the basement crickets here. (i ought to name the whole herd of them since they so noisily, chirpily, send me love songs through the dawn — and the midday — and the late afternoon — and the twilight. deep into the darkness they keep up their chatter.)

the boys i love are faraway. i stayed home because i have a job at the high school, hosting 414 debaters from around the country. feeding each one, breakfast and lunch for the next two days (today we load in provisions). i’d thought i’d write a meditation on being alone. on the luxury of it when you don’t often have it. i know for some it’s a curse; alone bleeds often, bleeds quickly into loneliness. the first syllable — the  a of alone — breaks off, and two new ones cling to the end — loneliness — and suddenly the gift of doing as you please, sleeping with windows open and shades up — because you love the light of night, love even more the dawn’s beginning — all those singular quirks, they can become the humdrum hollowed refrain of a life lived alone not wholly by choice. by grief. by happenstance. by necessity.

but i woke up this morning, and the cavernous cry of this nation — of the countless volumes of women putting breath to the screams they once muffled — it’s echoing inside, rising louder and louder. and i know there’s a vote just hours away. and i know that sitting here listening to the roll, hearing the single syllable rise up, yea or nay, one after another, it’s going to feel something like a gut punch. did you hear her? i will ask, over and over and over.

there will come — for some of us anyway — an unshakeable sense of being kicked aside. of   “ramming this through,” as the senate majority leader himself so unpoetically put it.

there is, though, a gentle breeze of hope this morning. it comes from sweden, from the nobel committee which during our night (their midday) awarded the peace prize to two who’ve dedicated their lives to a fight against sexual violence. one, nadia murad, is a 25-year-old woman, captured, repeatedly raped and tortured by ISIS; she escaped and, ever since, travels the globe speaking out against the atrocities. her inexhaustible journey has left her exhausted, but she refuses to pause, insisting: “i will go back to my life when women in captivity go back to their lives, when my community has a place, when i see people accountable for their crimes.”

time magazine, in their annual centenary of “most influential people,” included nadia in 2016. eve ensler, the playwright and founder of V-Day, a movement to end violence against women, wrote this for the magazine’s roster:

A witness for war’s victims

Nadia Murad stands in a long, invisible history of fierce, indomitable women who rise from the scorched earth of rape during war to break the odious silence and demand justice and freedom for their sisters. At 19 she lost her home, her country, her culture, her mother to murder; witnessed male members of her family murdered in mass killings; and was kidnapped, sold and endlessly raped by members of ISIS. She now travels the world speaking out on the genocide being inflicted on her Yezidi people and demanding release for the more than 3,000 women still held in bondage.

As Europe closes its borders to terrorized refugees in Greece and the U.S. turns its back on the suffering, Nadia is a beacon of light and truth—a reminder that it was the American-led war in Iraq that laid the path for ISIS, that U.S. arms left behind on the battlefield fell into the hands of ISIS and that the U.S. waited too long to intervene in the mass killing and enslavement of the Yezidi people. At 23, Nadia Murad is risking everything to awaken us. I hope we are listening, because we too are responsible.

time-100-2016-nadia-murad

i leave you with nadia, with the faint waft of hope. i know, come time for the vote, we will all be standing shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart, promising we will do better for our daughters, our sisters, our sons, and our brothers.

(i do not for a minute want to overlook the second nobel peace prize winner,  dr. denis mukwege, 63, a congolese gynecological surgeon, who campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of congolese women, even after nearly being assassinated a few years ago. working from a bare hospital (often without electricity or enough anesthesia) in the hills of the eastern democratic republic of congo, he has emerged as a champion of the congolese people and a global advocate for gender equality and the elimination of rape in war, traveling to other war-ravaged parts of the world to help create programs for survivors.

“it’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” dr. mukwege once said in an interview. “It’s not an africa problem. in bosnia, syria, liberia, colombia, you have the same thing.”)

may the persistence of justice rise up in all of us today. and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows thereafter. may the fiery determination of nadia and the unrelenting faith of dr. mukwege drive all of us through the fog of despair.

where might you try to carve out space for justice? where might you bring comfort today?

p.s. i’m leaving off a picture up top today, because silence and the sound of a cry are best left unseen….

the call to come together

the invitation was simple: come for coffee. the invite list was the neighbors who surround me, a few of whom have moved in within the year or last couple years, and who i barely or didn’t even know.

all i did was brew a vat or two of coffee. pull out favorite plates. tuck flowers in vases. vacuum cobwebs out of corners. dump clementines and figs into bowls — bowls given to me over the years by some of those very same neighbors. the things we stack in cupboards — many of them, anyway — tell stories all their own. nearly every single thing in my house tells a story. i collect stories, not things.

it all started because the air turned crisp, and light turned amber — or at least that’s the way it always looks to me. there is a light in september that sometimes feels to me as if the heavens open just a crack, and someone tosses down a holy shaft. a shaft that’s almost a stairway back to whence it came.

the date i picked on the calendar was the date that holds a quiet sort of holiness for me: it’s the day my friend ceci died, three years ago, and the birthdate of my friend mary ellen, who died not long after….

it turned out to be the date dr. christine blasey ford took her terrors and her fears and stepped before the senate judiciary committee to tell her awful story, to peel back the layers of the wound she’d tried so very hard to escape.

for a while there, i thought my timing couldn’t have been worse. i’ve long been something of a news junkie and i didn’t want to miss hearing her words, the tremor in her voice, in real time. it felt like we all, as a nation, needed to encircle her, stand behind her, to say emphatically, “we hear you, and we believe you.” and we are here, as literally as possible, reaching through the screen, with our palms pressed against your back, squeezing your hand, touching you softly on the arm, one last time before you take a breath and begin.

i’d decided that i’d leave the tv on — softly — over in the corner, where it’s tucked inside an old armoire. as it happened, one by one, a few of us circled close to listen. we ebbed and flowed from coffee to nibbles to capitol hill testimony. and then, christine blasey ford cleared her throat, pushed back that swatch of hair that insisted on covering her left eye, and a circle of us moved close. as if by instinct. we leaned in. we held our breath. i noticed that we all had wrapped our arms across our own chests, held ourselves tight. anchored ourselves. the looks on our collective faces was a portrait in pain and empathy i’ll not forget. i don’t know, because we didn’t talk about it, how many of us in that circle had our own version of a christine blasey ford story to tell. and that didn’t matter, because we were there — leaning in, listening — for her. to put the power of our hearts, our intellects, our faith, behind the courage it took for her to stand up to power and softly tell her truth.

if i’d been home alone, i would have been glued in front of that screen all day, all by myself. instead i found myself in the company of women, lovely women, women who’d shown up with scones they baked, and pumpkin dip they’d stirred and poured in antique bowls. we told our own stories — how we got here, who we were, what made our children stir. i watched as clusters leaned in and women whispered. or laughed aloud. i watched the company of women weave together those disparate threads that make a whole cloth out of mismatched parts.

instead of going through the day alone, instead of absorbing the nation’s pain all by ourselves, we gathered in a circle, stood — literally — shoulder to shoulder. as i studied the pain-wrought faces of the women watching, absorbing every word of someone else’s nightmare, another woman’s indelible pain and trauma, i saw — without words — how deeply tied we humans are. how much we suffer in the face of suffering.

in the company of strangers, we can find our deeper truer selves.

it made me wonder if we need to climb more often beyond the walls we build around ourselves and our stories. all it takes, sometimes, is vats of coffee. and the invitation: please come….i’ll not spend this day holed up inside my private woes and worries….

what parts of september 27, 2018, will you not forget? which words or images are etched now across your heart? do you find comfort in company? do you need to give yourself a little nudge to get out from behind the comforts of your solitude?

makes me think we might need the occasional occasion of pulling up chairs in real time, say at my house for those who live within chair-pulling distance?

mark this day…

IMG_0545

there is something about the crisp edge of things — of a hem, of a book, of a season — that settles the soul of a sometimes frazzled someone. someone like me. it fills me with a sense of something noble — a job well done, completion. prompts me to bend my knee and bow. it’s gratitude and it’s awe.

take summer, for instance. it ends tomorrow, making today the last full dose of it. and before i chase it out the door, before i usher in the amber hours of the season i love best, before i haul in the wheelbarrows of pumpkins, the tins of cinnamon and clove, before i fling myself upon the forest floor, playing peek-a-boo through golden, crimson, and persimmon-shaded boughs, it’s summer’s due to say goodbye to sand and sun unfiltered. to bees that buzzed and blooms that cheered me with their moppy heads, their delicate tendrils, their sweet perfumes that made me sniff around the garden (a pretty picture — me with nose in air, and mud-stained knees — surely not).

the season of about-to-burst tomatoes, and cicada song at night, the months of curtains flapping in the window’s invisible current, the sweater-less months, they draw to a close tomorrow eve at 8:54 p.m. (central time). that’s the equinox hour, when the sun slides into absolute right angle to blessed planet earth, when its beams fall straight onto the equator, that cinch-waist strap around the middle.

and so this last full blast before the season ends, it begs occasion. begs a moment’s pause. a plea to savor just a swatch of time — time filled with the summeriest wonders you can imagine.

my summery moment might be this: a fat tomato (the last one in my wooden bowl) sliced and salted, laid reverentially on whole-grain bread, and ferried to my summer porch, along with a fat book that begs to be begun. bare toes wriggling in the fading shaft of mid-afternoon sun. a moment’s pause to contemplate the butterfly wafting by. a whispered prayer of thanks — for the somnolence of summer. for the deep warmth and gentle breeze. for all that ripened and spilled with juice. for days that slowed, and hours that nearly burst with sumptuous sweet.

thank you, summer, once again…

***

because i’ve once again stumbled in my duties to bring my soulful literary roundups to this page, here’s the “books for the soul” that ran a month ago. oops. three fine picks. i especially loved the first, “learning to speak God from scratch ,” a linguistic exploration, richly written, and sure to make you think….

may your autumn days be filled with good reads…

How to talk about God, and more, addressed in this week’s spiritual book roundup

By Barbara Mahany

“Learning to Speak God from Scratch” by Jonathan Merritt, Convergent, 256 pages, $15.99

Here’s a subject not often found on the religion bookshelf: linguistics. As in “sacred language” or “Godspeak,” the ways we put words to what’s holy and so often ineffable. It’s a language that’s frankly been hijacked by politicians, blasphemed by holier-than-thou hypocritical preachers, and muted by the masses who dare not utter a word construed to be “church-y.”

And it’s into this battle-scarred landscape that “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” bravely proceeds. A few years back, Jonathan Merritt, a religion and culture contributor to The Atlantic, left behind the Bible Belt for New York City and found himself thunderstruck by the stark disconnect (and discomfort) in God talk there in Gotham.

Something of a spelunker in the realm of sacred linguistics, he robustly constructs his argument — one rife with hard data from the sociocultural realm and rich in personal narrative. It’s one that solidly convinces that sacred words are in crisis, and that any lost language leaves a gaping hole in human understanding. He makes the point that when the language at stake is the one that ties us to all that’s divine, it’s our souls that stand to wither.

He opens his case with this assessment: “The way certain groups of people use sacred words gives the rest of us the holy heebie-jeebies.” From there, Merritt takes off, swashbuckling his way through ironclad analysis, poking into curious linguistic and Biblical corners, making us see in a whole new light why it matters to reimagine and reclaim sacred language.

In the book’s second half, Merritt takes on, one by one, a lexicon of 19 words worth learning all over again, from confession to sin to grace. Because Merritt is an elegant and deeply literate writer, he makes his subject one of which we can’t get enough.

“The Way of Kindness,” edited by Michael Leach, James T. Keane, Doris Goodnough, Orbis, 224 pages, $18

It’s the end of summer, and the reading is supposed to be easy. Never hurts when it’s rich too. “The Way of Kindness” is everything you might want when you stretch out in your recliner, long tall refreshment within quick reach. It’s as if your favorite librarian is sitting beside you, whispering, “Read this. And this. And this, too, while you’re at it.”

The roster here is a greatest hits of American writers, not all of whom are regular travelers in the religious or spiritual domain. And that, perhaps, is what makes this a notch above the usual such gathering. To read Jack Kerouac: “Practice kindness all day to everybody/ and you will realize you’re already/ in heaven now.” Or George Saunders implore, “err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

Dorothy Day quotes the Carmelite nun who told her, “It is the crushed heart which is the soft heart, the tender heart.” Even Aldous Huxley chimes in, telling us, “(I)t’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with human problems all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’ ”

While this is a book for quick dips or longer dallies, the curators of this collection — three fine souls in the world of spiritual publishing — have put their collective heft into what unfolds here. Your summer’s day will be all the gentler for having spent time among these literary and spiritual masters.

“Love Without Limits” by Jacqueline A. Bussie, Fortress, 195 pages, $24.99

File this one under “Standing By Your Story.”

Jacqueline A. Bussie, theologian, beloved professor of religion at Minnesota’s Concordia College and award-winning author of “Outlaw Christian,” her 2016 exhortation to find authentic faith by breaking a roster of too-rigid rules, sat down to pen “Love Without Limits,” a deeply personal how-to-guide for no-holds-barred loving. Because her stories arose from the depths of her heart, and the truth of how she lives her life — she calls this latest book “my life’s love letter” — she included chapters on both her Muslim and her LGBT friendships. Then, she turned in her manuscript to the Christian publishing house with whom she’d signed a contract, a book whose subject all along had been exploring God’s radical love.

The publishing house balked, deemed the two chapters “offensive” and “theologically out of bounds,” and ordered Bussie to cut them or they’d cancel her contract (and make her pay back every penny of her advance). Bussie refused, dead-set against being censored. Certainly not in a book about how people of faith — all faiths — “are called to love with no exceptions, asterisks, or limits.”

Mighty fine thing that Fortress Press, a Minneapolis-based Christian publisher with a more progressive bent, saw fit to snatch up Bussie’s much-needed message. In a world as balkanized as the one in which we find ourselves, Bussie’s words light the way toward practicing “a love so deep it subverts the social order, so radical it scandalizes the powerful, so vast that it excludes no one.” A love, it turns out, that couldn’t be censored.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

how will you mark the last full blast of summer? 

awake to awe

awake to awe

two holy things happened in synagogue this week, on the night and the long day of prayer that marked the new year: one, the boy who now towers over me, he grabbed my thumb with his, and inch by inch enfolded his fingers over mine. he wouldn’t let go. he leaned in, so much so that i yielded my head to his shoulder. felt the rise and fall of his breathing against the tide of my own. we sat like that, entwined, silent, for long stretches of prayer. it was the holiest prayer i’ve prayed in a very long time. over and over — it never gets old — i remember how unlikely it was, how impossible it was, that he came to me, to us. that in the midst of our believing it would never be, the unbelievable happened: he happened.

a mother’s deepest prayers, sometimes, are the ones she whispers only to herself. those were the prayers i prayed on the new year. each breath was emboldened with the knowing that a year from now he will not be by my side. i will not feel him pressing against my shoulders. there will be miles and miles between us. and it will ache. i will ache.

the other holy thing, the thing that’s washed over me all week, and will wash and wash for days still, is the notion that we carve these 10 days of awe out of the whole cloth of the year, and do as commanded. we are commanded to be awake to awe, to make each passing moment be a prayer, the prayer of paying attention, the prayer of drinking in all that surrounds us, that buoys us, that lifts us and carries us on a current unattached to the dreck of the everyday.

the prayer in my prayer book is this, and the title of the prayer (composed for the High Holy Days in the early centuries of the Common Era, according to the footnote) happens to be How Do We Sense God’s Holiness? Through Awe. here are the first lines…

And so, in Your holiness,

give all creation the gift of awe.

Turn our fear to reverence;

let us be witnesses of wonder —

perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive….

the prayer goes on, and the leitmotif of paying attention arises again and again through the hours of prayer that are rosh hashanah. it’s as if the prayer found my soul, found the soul that had been waiting for just those words, just that command: “let us be witnesses of wonder — perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive.”

and so i’ve done as commanded ever since i walked out of that sacred space where the prayers and the limbs of the boy wound around me. i’ve opened my eyes and my ears and my soul to the majesty — the breathtaking, trumpet-blasting, cymbal-crashing beauty — that is this stretch of time and season-turning, the enflaming of the planet as the last-blast palette engulfs the trees and the nodding heads atop the stems that bend in autumn breeze.

it’s not just a ho-hum isn’t-this-lovely that punctuates my days, it’s a notch beyond. it’s a command from God. “perceive all nature as a prayer come alive….”

there is a certain holiness imbued. there is a sure clear knowing that the hand that created all of this, all of this fathomless wonder, is the hand of the Creator, the one who breathed first breath into each of us. the one who has tumbled the unbelievable into my life — more than once.

my watch-keeping this week feels anointed. as if God is right there over my shoulder, delighting each time i spy one of the wonders. delighting when i pause to drink it in — slow the car, plop down on a stone, tiptoe out the door to count the stars.

i felt God the morning i drove along a field shimmering in golden rod, and the glowing slant of sun streaked radiance like lightning bolts, set the dew drops shimmering — jewels of the dawn.

i felt God when i glanced toward the night sky through the heavy boughs of trees last night and caught the crescent moon winking at me. bright. certain. daring me to slow my dash and pay attention. stop and marvel, i almost heard it whisper.

i will feel the certain hand of God when i first hear the faraway cry of the geese, crossing sky, crossing miles, crossing half the globe in search of thermal sanctuary. leaving us behind to shiver in the winter’s cold.

i am living in a census of wonder. i am living awake to awe. i am knowing that all of God’s creation is prayer come alive. and i am praying right along.

what moments of wonder have you counted this week? begin the litany here….

(i am dashing to drive my sweet boy to school, and clicking the publish button before my litany is done. but so be it. we weave the rest together…..)

awe bee nuzzling

 

improbably, the prayer shawl

will BK AZk bar mitzvah photo

a triptych of prayer shawls: three generations wrapped in sacred thread

it’s as if the voice calls to me from an ancient canyon, a hallowed space carved through time and history. the history of this perpetually-spinning planet and its holy peoples, and, now, the history that is mine, carved across the years.

i yearn to wrap myself in the folds of the prayer shawl. to cloak my shoulders, burrow my arms, to bend my knees and bow down in the way i have long watched my prayerful beloved. a part of me, yes, aches to be enfolded, to feel the soft threads against my bare skin, but more against my heart. to be swept into the incantations of long ago and forever. to confess and call out to the God who is Avinu Malkeinu, “loving parent, Sovereign of our souls,” in the translation of our synagogue’s new prayer book.

i immerse myself in this span of holy time — the days of awe, rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, through to yom kippur, the day of deepest atonement — as if a tide pool that washes over and through me. it’s at once a cleanse and elevation, a surrender to another key, a frequency and melody and language that carries me to another plane. an otherworldly plane.

and yet, it’s one that comes on and through the worldliest of channels: the trip to the butcher shop, the spice jars pulled from the shelves. the chopping and stirring at the kitchen counter. the strolling through the garden, cutting stems to tuck in wide-mouthed jars and pitchers strewn across the table. the gathering of pomegranates, apples, acorns — sweet fruits of the new year, blessed offerings of the season of sacred bounty.

i have always loved the whole-body immersion of judaism, the ancient call to prayerfulness, the stories set in desert and dry land, the image of the sacred quenching that comes through the oasis, the raining down of sustenance from heaven, the voice that calls out, unseen but deeply heard.

these days i seem to be wrapping myself in all sorts of unfamiliar sacred threads, in threads finer-grained in their unfamiliarity, because their language is new to me, the constructions of sentences, the word choice, the tales they choose to tell. i’ve been going all summer to a just-past-dawn service in an episcopal chapel, one presided over and preached by women. wise women. soulful women. women priests.

it is a soul-stirring thing in the landscape of religion to walk into an unfamiliar place, to listen to the unfolding of an unfamiliar script, to feel each word and gesture as if new (because to me it is new). and thus to feel it so deeply fully.

it’s the element of exposure. the eyes-open willingness to surrender. to submit to that which by definition is foreign, uncharted, able to come up and grasp you, unsuspecting. nothing’s dulled; it’s all bristling, and stands at full alert. you never know what might be around the next bend. and thus you enter wide-eyed, scanning. catching every shift and nuance, passing through the sieve of your soul as if the first rinse.

so it’s always been for me in the folds of judaism, the religion i’ve stepped into because my heart and soul pulled me toward this man who is my beloved, my much-tested companion on this long journey called our married life. i feel it wholly because it’s new to me in so many ways, and now, 30 years after i first stepped — quaking — into my then-beau’s synagogue, its refrains come washing over me with decades of resonance. i find my place, i pull familiar threads round my shoulders, taut against my heart. i am cloaked and covered, kept safe, and free to burrow deep inside, to pore over the holy text, to consider prayers and, most of all, the image of the God who puts pause to the mad dash of the everyday. who awaits our urge to surrender. to bow down and pay attention. to hold high the sanctified blessing of the gifts that abound at the cusp of this new and holy year.

in the cry of the shofar, the coiled ram’s horn that calls out the new year. in the minor chords that rise up from our soul’s deepest depths. in the warm notes of spices saved for now. and in the prayers unfurled in each day of the days to come…..

i find my shelter and my refuge, my call to courage, and the certain whisper of the Most Holy. here, in the soft folds and sacred threads, i pull the prayer shawl round my shoulders. improbably, i tumble toward my heart’s deepest resonance.

l’shanah tovah u’metukah — may it be a good and sweet new year…

have you ventured into a sacred landscape that at first was unfamiliar, and did it sharpen all your senses, and draw you deeper into some universal understanding, some fine-grained sense of holy truths? 

p.s. my friday mornings these days include a drive to the far side of this little town to drop my sweet boy off at the faraway high school campus where he is shepherding the new freshmen into their high school adventures. this puts a bit of a pause in my morning writing, and thus delays its arrival in your mailbox, if you’re one who receives this by e-post. apologies for the delay, but this is my last chance, my last year, of dropping my sweet boy at the schoolhouse door, and i am relishing every drop of it. (even the days when we are running late and i am not quite as “chill” as he wishes me to be….)

aretha + eggplant + me

there oughta be a soundtrack here. because there is in my kitchen these days. i might have found a cure for my MSNBC addiction. i spell it R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

the other morning, not long after a raucous ride to the schoolhouse door, i decided there was no better cure for the late-summer blues than cookin’ up a feast for the boys i love, especially the one whose days at my kitchen table are now in official countdown mode (i’m in the slow lane on these matters, so i make sure i get a long head start, and yes, the countdown is roughly in the 350-and-subtracting stage — and, yes, i realize this puts me squarely in the odd zone). but anyway, back to the kitchen. i decided that one more night of grilled chicken might send the kid bawking from the table, so i upped my ante. i decided lasagna — from scratch and in two modes, meatless and otherwise — was the hurdle i’d leap.

and that’s when i turned to two mavens: the barefoot contessa, who nimbly guided me through my cooking instructions, and the goddess of soul, who every time i plug her in takes my heart and turns it up a notch. or three notches.

30 greatest hitstwo minutes after i heard aretha had died, i turned toward motown and bent not my knees but my finger, the one that clicked on the iTunes. the one that bought me two hours of instant therapy. (since i seem to play it on infinite shuffle, 30 greatest hits over and over and over, i figure it cost me — in the first day alone — less than a dollar an hour.)

i rocked and rolled through “baby, i love you,” and “chain of fools,” and, oh yes, “i say a little prayer” (please, aretha, say one for me…). and all the while i read through ina’s instruction. and then, in keeping with the queen of soul, i began to scat. through my roadmap for roasted vegetable lasagna, with a side (a whole other pan) bursting with plenty of beef.

because i tend not to keep eggplant and whole-milk ricotta on hand, my efforts entailed a trip to the grocery. my simple feast wound up costing me a whopping 45 bucks, by the time i plucked top-of-the-line tomatoes and beef off the shelves. (no one said blues-breakers come without cost.)

and then, for the better part of an afternoon, i amazed myself as i roasted and stirred, chopped and dumped, plucked and sautéed. by four bells, i tell you, i was more than humming….i was wailing right along with the queens…

call me “old-fashioned” (you won’t be the first), but by the end of that long afternoon, when the sweet boy bounded through the door, took a big whiff, and exclaimed, “what in the world are you making?” i smiled a little smile deep down inside.

i’d taken a day — an otherwise unremarkable do-little day — and i’d dialed it up a fine notch. i’d used a bevy of produce — eggplant and zucchini, red pepper and mushrooms and spinach and onions and garlic and basil and parsley galore — and great glops of olive oil. i’d sizzled up beef, and stirred marinara. i’d hot-water-soaked whole-grain lasagna ribbons (a trick of ina’s i might not repeat). and then, come dinnertime, i plopped onto the kitchen table, two 8-by-8 squares of oozy, cheesy deliciousness.

there are plenty of days when words alone can’t say what i want to say: i love you like crazy. i miss you already and it’s not even september. and i fully intend to make the most of this one last hurrah of a year.

this week aretha chimed in, she belted it out for the both of us. we served up a feast, me and the queens. and we finished it off with “baby, i love you.”

should you be inclined to play along, here’s where we started. feel free to scat or to vamp or to add your own notes….(and here’s your soundtrack, to boot!)

gettin started

Roasted Vegetable Lasagna 

(from Barefoot Contessa) SERVES 6-8 

1-1⁄2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick 

3⁄4 pound zucchini, unpeeled, sliced lengthwise 1⁄4 inch thick
2⁄3 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano 

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

10 ounces lasagna noodles, such as De Cecco 

16 ounces fresh whole-milk ricotta 

8 ounces creamy garlic and herb goat cheese, at room temperature 

2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided 

4-1⁄2 cups good bottled marinara sauce, such as Rao’s (40 ounces) 

1 pound lightly salted fresh mozzarella, very thinly sliced 

veggies*bam note: besides the eggplant and zucchini, i decided to sauté onions, red pepper, mushrooms (two kinds) and spinach. i made that yet another layer on top of the eggplant and zucch.

** in my meaty version, i ditched the veggies and sautéed one pound of ground chuck, with onions, garlic, oregano, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. then i added a can of whole tomatoes, a few squeezes of tomato paste, and let it all come to a fine pitch. in the instructions below, i  layered my beefy concoction in place of each veggie layer. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the eggplant and zucchini in single layers on 3 sheet pans lined with parchment paper. Brush them generously with the olive oil on both sides, using all of the oil. Sprinkle with the oregano (I crush it in my hands), 1 tablespoon salt, and 11⁄2 teaspoons pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, sprinkle the garlic evenly on the vegetables, and roast for another 5 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 350 degrees. 

Meanwhile, fill a very large bowl with the hottest tap water and add enough boiling water to bring the temperature to 140 degrees. One at a time, place the noodles in the water and soak them for 15 -minutes, swirling occasionally so they don’t stick together. Drain and slide the noodles around again.  noodles

Combine the ricotta, goat cheese, eggs, basil, 1⁄2 cup of the Parmesan, 11⁄2 teaspoons salt, and 3⁄4 teaspoon pepper in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. 

Spread 1 cup of the marinara in a 9 × 13 × 2-inch baking dish. Arrange a third of the vegetables on top, then a layer of the noodles (cut to fit), a third of the mozzarella, and a third of the ricotta mixture in large dollops between the mozzarella. Repeat twice, starting with the marinara. Spread the last 11⁄2 cups of marinara on top and sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of Parmesan. Place the dish on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, until the lasagna is browned and bubbly. Allow to rest for 10 minutes and serve hot. 

what’s your sure cure for the late-summer blues? and, more emphatically, what’s your soundtrack?

mangia!!!

p.s. so sorry i was a tad late this morning: i had two boys who needed a few hours of my time, and thus the chair had to wait in line. 

one last whirl: a lesson in savoring

kindergarten-bound

the little guy i love heads off to kindergarten (this was actually his “practice” walk to school): summer, 2006

i should have done this a long time ago. years ago. but, like many, many things in my life, i started late. was behind the average. way behind.

according to the centers for disease control, those fine governmental folk who track these things, the average maternal age for a second birth in the U.S. hovers just above 28. i was 44.7. i remember clearly the saturday afternoon when, knees shaking, i called my obstetrician to tell her the little white stick (aka home-pregnancy-checker gizmo) had just turned happy blue — i was, gulp, miraculously and against all odds and medical prognostications, “with child.” without taking a breath, my dear doctor rattled off the dreary stats: risk of miscarriage, 60 percent; risk of down syndrome, 1 in 32; risk of not surviving till the little bugger’s 18th birthday, 5.5 percent. (i’ve got 349 days to go….)

tell all that to the magnificent 8.0-pound baby boy born on august 8, 2001, at 3:22 in the morning, his big brother, father, and a phalanx of doctors and nurses (who’d rushed in the room when things got dicey) all in attendance. he and i plowed through every statistical obstacle strewn along the way. which is why his names, first and middle, mean “God’s gift,” (in greek), and “gift of God” (in hebrew). he was birthed — and named — in prayer upon prayer.

and now, all these stats-defying years later, said child is beginning his last year of high school this coming monday, which means this old house has entered official countdown mode. every step along the way, from now till the day we pack him up and drop him at some dormitory door, will come with modifier: “the last,” “the last,” “the last”….

what that means for me is that i dial up the savor knob, and even in the middle of a humdrum summer’s afternoon — while he’s ensconced in his little room at the turn in the stairs, and i’m chopping in the kitchen — i might just get a hankering to call up the stairs, and remind him for no reason whatsoever that i love him more than life. (to which he might moan “uh-huh” in humdrum reply.) i even find myself plucking inside-out shorts off the floor, smoothing rumpled sheets on his bed, and not minding one little bit because i know — full-well — that a year from now, i’d do anything to be able to pluck evidence of his presence off the bedroom floor.

i’ve lived — for the last seven years — with one foot in faraway-child mode, and one close as close could be. i know full well just how much that distance makes me ache. just the other morning, in faraway connecticut, i dried the tears as the shuttle pulled away from the curb and hauled me to the airport, my second-year law student disappearing behind the cars and trucks and light poles as the van turned the corner and i could see his broad shoulders no more.

like i said, i’m late to this. so late. plenty of my friends — from high school and from college — have long known grandmotherhood. know what it is to have the little rascals come for sleepovers. watch their firstborns cradle firstborns. not me. i’m still penciling in teacher conferences on my own calendar, making sure my rascal’s up and out of bed on the days the school bell rings.

i don’t know from empty nest. ours has not been empty in a quarter century. and we were married 27 years ago tomorrow. we mostly only know “nest accessorized with child.” come college shove-off next august, it’ll be the first time in 26 years that there won’t be another pair of feet clonking around the floorboards up the stairs. won’t be a soul to listen for as i lie there in the dark, awaiting the click of his key in the front door.

so until we get to that eery silence, that absence that’ll make this house an echo chamber, i’ll savor and savor and savor some more. my hunch is that i’ll be less cranky in this year to come. i’ll even relish smelly socks. and empty pie plates left overnight on the kitchen counter.

i know how absence feels. i know what it is to find myself in tears in the grocery aisle, because i’ve just reached for the something that i’d always thrown in the cart — but suddenly there’s no need anymore; the someone who always loved it is being fed by someone else now, someone in a college cafeteria. i remember full well how hard i tried to re-wire my brain, my being, to wrap my head around the notion that some kid i loved now dwelled hundreds of miles away, called home once on sunday nights in those first few months when he, too, was trying to find his place in this new equation called long-distance.

as always, i’m late to this. and i might be the oldest mama in his senior class. but gosh darn it, that only makes me wise enough to hold this year as if it’s the last. because, well, it is.

TK first day of kindergarten

at the schoolhouse door: first day of kindergarten and a boy i love gets a shoulder squeeze from the very fine school principal.

how do you intend to savor this next whirl around the seasons? 

nowhere i’d rather be

dispatch from 06510…

need i say a word? i’m pretty much at the crosshairs of latitude and longitude that most makes my heart zing — the seventh-floor aerie of the law student i love. made myself a promise that grew into a dream i’d not let go of, that pushed me to click the button that bought the ticket for the plane and the little green van that got me to here, 765 miles from the dot on the map that most often is mine.

“can we have a day?,” he’d long ago asked me, a question that became a code to live by. “can we have a day?” to love and to savor? to dilly and dally and do as we please, no rules, no time clocks, no prescribed agendas?

unless the agenda, of course, is the joy of being side-by-side. unscripted. bound only by unbridled, unscripted love and delight. delight in calling across a room — because you’ve just had a thought. or whispering as you walk down the sidewalk. seeing the same sight at the same time and reveling in that one simple joy — because it’s so very rare, the gift of your footsteps in echo.

so why oh why have i awoken with quite a few spots, not of the bug-bite variety? oh, lordy. can i not take an adventure without heaping on a twist and a turn? can a grownup get measles or pox? might i be allergic to new haven air? my plan is as old as the movies: take two aspirin, and dial the doc. whatever this is, i cannot leave it behind. no remnants allowed in the virus department. maybe it’s nothing other than an invisible mosquito, or a rash that can’t connect its own dots.

for now, while those little white aspirin get to work, i intend to live every ounce of our promise: to live this day and the next and the next and the next as if there’s no holier hour than this one that is fully and finally upon us.

if you could just have a day with whom would it be, and how would you spend it?

breath, suspended…

teddyhanddrawn heart

i prayed so hard these would be the words i got to write, and so i begin with this, the thank you prayer…

the call came just as i was sitting and reading a story i wrote long ago, a story about my mama’s breast cancer. funny, the tricks the universe plays. i thought little of it when the old phone announced on its screen that “northwestern mem” (the hospital) was calling. i’d had a 3-D mammogram the day before and i figured they were calling to give me the official “all’s clear.”

i was wrong.

it must have been mid-sentence in a sentence that suddenly seemed to be taking far too long to get to the point that i realized this might not be the call i’d wanted. i’m pretty sure i felt my heart slow with a thump. the nice lady — they are always nice on these calls — was telling me something about asymmetries, telling me not one but two spots on both sides looked suspicious. (she might have used a more innocuous word than “suspicious,” but once in the call-back landscape, a girl hears what she hears, and i heard trouble).

that’s when the breath-holding began. call backs in the middle of a long hot summer are not for the faint of heart. i’m pretty quick at sizing up danger, and i sized up this one, all right. first words that leapt from synapse to synapse were these: “oh no, too soon. the boys still need me.” for one, there are two years of law school still to go, and i’ve got my seat at graduation on mental reserve. i intend to be right there, and not wafting as some long-gone memory of a mom-turned-casper-the-friendly-ghost. and for two, the so-called little one still has a year left of high school, and right now he’s in the middle of tryouts for varsity soccer, and i was not about to let a single hiccup get in the way of that already-breath-holding adventure in steep climbs. so i sealed my lips and said not a word. (i only whispered to one or two girlfriends, and of course to that blessed fellow who hears most but not all of the daily headlines from my self-published worry gazette.)

long story short: not a minute went by during those long seven days when i wasn’t weighing the odds, hedging my bets, begging the heavens that this whole thing turned into yet another close call.

the hospital that wanted the second look could not fit me in for a week. my doctor insisted i go straight to second-look central, and not dilly around with one of the satellite operations where maybe, just maybe, the scrutinizing wouldn’t be up to her very high standards. of course, that scared me. i was scared, too, because more often than not i’ve sailed through these annual exercises in getting squished in the chest. i’ve had a call-back or two in the past, but it’s been awhile and nowadays the machines they use are so super-duper and soooooo very fine at peeking into every nook and cranny, i figured that if the darn newfangled machine saw something fishy it was a fish meant to be seen.

the weekend was long. so were monday and tuesday.

at long last, on the day that happened to be my second-born’s 17th birthday, and the first full day of his long-awaited, much-fretted soccer tryouts, i had to dart out in the middle of the day for my unexplained five-hour absence. five hours?!?!, you say. yup. that’s how long the darn poking and peeking around ended up going. they’d called me in for so many rounds of pictures, with varying degrees of specificity and technicians muttering, scrutinizing, apologizing, and then trying hard to hold a poker face, that by four in the afternoon when they sent me from pictures to ultrasound, i figured i was cooked. i’d started imagining how i would look with no hair and no eyebrows, how in the world i would break the news to my beautiful boys. i waste no time in the shallow end of the pool, when i can go straight to the deep end. and deep end was me.

i’d seen six rounds of technicians, and a phalanx of high-vision docs before anyone finally muttered the holiest word i’d heard in a very long while. “we’re not seeing anything worrisome,” said the very very nice doctor in charge, letting loose a week’s worth of stored-up breaths from my lungs. and suddenly, after brushing away the tear or two that couldn’t keep from falling, my whole world turned colored again.

but before the colors washed back in, before i could hope in my head for an extraordinary ordinary weekend, i’d tasted the magic — the most blessed blessing — of savoring even the smallest dab of everyday sacred: the gathering with friends over the weekend, the first sip of prosecco, the sound of the birds through the kitchen window, the sound of my firstborn’s voice on the other end of the long-distance line. not a single frame of being alive was passing by me unnoticed. or un-savored.

there’s a sharp edge to living that comes when you’re scared, when you’re thrust unaware into counting the hours, into marking off life in short-term brackets.

it’s a variation on electro-shock therapy (the sort to the soul, not to the brain): you’re jolted awake and at highest attention when flat-out fear comes to roost. i know it’s not altogether healthy, and not the wisest way to fritter away the days. but i make the most of it. i consider it a trial run, a crash course in counting every last decimal of all of my blessings. i use the siege to sift through my life, to weigh the ways i spend my hours. to crank the dial a notch, and make each moment count in duplicate, even triplicate.

and then, when the whistle blows, when the lifeguards tell me the long wait is over and i can breathe once again, i make more than a mental note. i drop to my knees and promise aloud i’ll not take this — not any of this — for granted. i stand at full-throttle attention, drinking in the ones i love with all of my heart, savoring the dew of the dawn, and the stitches of stars in the dome of the night.

the world is bristling with color this morning. and i am blessing each drop.

thank you, dear God, for this day and this hour. i’ll not waste it, i promise…

what keeps you from wasting a day? 

piles and piles of books…

soulbooksstack

books around here are slip-sliding into puddles. books are piled on bedside tables, and teetering at the edge of my old pine writing desk. books shove me out of chairs. and books sometimes line the stairs. books come into this old house all on their own. and sometimes, because i shlep them. my little book-lined writing room is becoming my book-stacked obstacle course. can you hop the pile? can you slither through the gulch, the one between two (or three or four) gravity-defying stacks?

i came home from the smoky mountains with but one genre of souvenir: books, and more books. books that all week have called me to the wicker chairs out back. books whose stories hold me from one reading interlude to the next. and then, of course, there are the books for work. lots and lots of books for work. some, i discard right away (voodoo dolls and crystal balls on covers). some i wade a few chapters in before gently laying aside. but every month, on assignment, i find three who shimmy to the top. they’re the ones i round up and claim satisfying soulful reads.

before we get to the latest round of tribune-anointed books, here are a few that might be among the best i’ve read in years:

donald hall’s a carnival of losses: notes nearing ninety.

hall, once the poet laureate of this fine nation, died a few weeks back, but not before his last — perhaps best — collection of essays was published. every single one of these is a gem, a specimen worth study. as the impeccable ann patchett puts it: “donald hall writes about love and loss and art and home in a manner so essential and direct it’s as if he’s put the full force of his life on the page. there are very few perfect books, and a carnival of losses is one of them.”

once upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the distance.

eveningland: stories, by michael knight.

michael knight, a southern writer whose native and literary landscape is mobile, alabama, and who has been likened to o. henry and called “the anton chekhov of mobile bay,” is a writer i’d not known before i took a seat in the old hall at sewanee. from the first sentence, i was glued. reading an untitled story about a father and his son (one i had reason to think might be autobiographical) he couldn’t make it through without pausing to brush away and apologize for tears. that’s enough to make me love a writer. and when we bumped into him the next afternoon (along a leafy shaded path en route to the bookstore), he apologized again, though we insisted it made his reading all the more beautiful. his eveningland traces a few characters who weave in and out of stories, across the arc of life. each one is achingly wrought. and unforgettable.

and, here, because i forgot to post it a few weeks ago when it ran, is the latest roundup of books for the soul, as published in the chicago tribune.

“Faith” by Jimmy Carter, Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25.99

As the early pages of Jimmy Carter’s “Faith: A Journey for All” unspool, it doesn’t take long to get lulled into the front-porch-rocking-chair rhythms and cadences of small-town Southern gentility that is Plains, Ga., circa 1930. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just reading the reflections of a gentleman farmer with his mules and peanut crops, but in fact the remembrances of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States.

Carter begins this bedrock retracing of a life of faith by recounting, in down-to-earth vernacular, a boyhood steeped in Sunday school and church suppers, in farm work and field play with the African-American farm kids next door. Yet in the next sentence, the 39th American president is reaching for his mainstay philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, then quoting activist, preacher and friend William Sloane Coffin, just as seamlessly as he draws from the writings of theologian and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But it’s in quoting Carter’s own works — a 1978 speech to his fellow Southern Baptists, for instance — that the former president inspires most unforgettably (and his words, against the backdrop of the summer of 2018, rise up piercingly):

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

Carter’s book is necessary tonic — and prescriptive — for these fraught times.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi, Harper, 224 pages, $24.99

The inside flap of the book jacket states that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is “lyrical and evocative,” claiming it’s “one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” It is that, all that; and for that, there is little argument.

The argument of critics, though, is that the series of 10 letters addressed to an imagined Palestinian, all written by Yossi Klein Halevi — a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative — boils down to a one-sided correspondence.

That’s the pushback from left-leaning rabbis and thinkers who argue that writing to an unknown, unnamed neighbor, with no give and take, no wrestling of ideas and perspectives, is to leave out the essential other voice in a much-needed debate. (Halevi offers the book in Arabic translation for free download and openly invites Palestinian response; he calls this book the sequel to his earlier “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a search for holiness — and understanding — among Palestinian Muslims and Christians.)

Halevi, an American-born emigre to Israel, writes with a profound and palpable empathy. “We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he laments. His keen observations — deeply human in scale — ache with a longing to reach across “the wall between us,” to make peace, to find a two-state solution.

This epistolary approach evokes a measure of intimacy and illuminates the undeniable complexities of the Israeli history, across the millennia. With one half of the conversation laid out for all to read, the lingering hope is that there comes from Palestine the voice not heard in these pages.

“On the Brink of Everything” by Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler, 240 pages, $19.95

Parker J. Palmer — writer, speaker, activist, community organizer, and one who claims “Quakerish tendencies” — has long earned the title of trusted spiritual guide. Now 79, he takes on the mantle of cherished elder.

His newest book, “On the Brink of Everything,” might be called a meditation on aging, but it’s more than that. In his first sentence, Palmer writes, “We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived.” This is in fact a meditation on living, as we move toward “the brink of everything,” the precipice at the far end of our lives, “a window into heaven,” as he puts it.

Through two dozen essays, a dozen poems and three songs (sung by Parker’s great friend, the soulful folk singer Carrie Newcomer and available for free download at NewcomerPalmer.com), Palmer reminds us not only that aging shouldn’t be feared, but rather that it stands to clarify our vision and deepens our capacity for knowing. Quoting one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano,” he reminds, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

Palmer, then, places us squarely on that edge and points us toward all those truths we’d be wise to see — and to make our own.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

armchairbooks

what are you reading this summer?