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

special edition: a little bit of believing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pausing for hello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

reading for work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

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

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

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

reshuffling trees

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it’s not something i’d ever done before, not something i’d even imagined. we played a vast game of reshuffling trees the other day, as if our garden were a chessboard and white pine and oak leaf hydrangea were the king and the pawns.

img_8446we moved seven in all, including a willow that might still be weeping, what with all of the yanking and pulling and lynching there at the roots.

i watched from the window, rapt; my nose pressed hard against the glass. i poured coffee, sliced into cakes. you can’t be too fed or too quaffed when you’re wrenching old trees from the depths of the earth.

there are those who rearrange chairs in their living room, slap on a new coat of paint. we, though, are more inclined to what’s beyond the walls, under heaven’s dome (or i am anyway), so we did our shuffling out there, in the place that’s alive. in the place where shadow plays against leaves, and wind comes in whispers or roars. where chipmunks and rabbits have at their everyday’s salad. where whole families of birds have been known to move in their nurseries — and their flight schools.

i’m waiting right now for the christening that comes when the cardinals move in, come back, settle their crimson bums in the boughs, let out a whistle. let all the birds in the ‘hood know that it’s safe to return: the garden’s up and running again.

it was a reclaiming, this vast swoop of trees and shrubs and the bulbs that came along for the ride. our back garden had gotten a bit out of hand over the years, and then in the last few weeks, trees nearby had been felled, leaving big holes in the sky, in the earth, in our hearts.

the man i married, the very fine man who understands how deep these things run in my veins, he wasn’t about to stand back and watch me be felled, too. he ordered up — in a move most magnanimous — a repair, one marking the quarter century we’ve been blessedly married.

until the wheelbarrows and ropes and muscles arrived, i’d never quite realized you could rearrange your patch of earth quite this emphatically. oh, i knew you could move a clump of queen anne’s lace. guessed you might retrain a vine. but who knew whole trees could all but take a walk, shuffle a few yards to the north and the east, settle in against the old screen porch, bend their boughs just where we needed a shadow?

what i love most, perhaps, is that nothing’s been ditched. history has been saved. each tree has a story, and the story’s intact. right now, the whole crop is adjusting. getting used to new digs (literally). i’m left to do my part with the green snake of a hose, and its constant dribble of drink. rains came the other afternoon, not long after the digging and shuffling was done. i felt each and every branch let out a sigh of pure joy. each little leaf did a dance.

the bulbs will come next. i ordered up a delicate batch, in shades of white and deepest blues. i’m fine-stitching my garden, petit point of the earth. and my mama stopped by with a whole sack of birdseed, an apt gesture of welcome indeed.

it’s all sacred equation. with a fair dose of fairy tale, too. i’m one of those quirky old souls who still plays pretend, most of all when it comes to my garden. i see a meadow where you see a clump of old weeds. i make-believe i’m meandering through a secret vale, and all you  behold is a nook you might describe as a threat, with vines on the loose, and canes of old rose that dare to scratch you to shreds.

i hum best when my garden is whole. when i look out a window framed in nodding hydrangea, when a cardinal is perched on the sill. i need to brush up against God’s holy earth, the unending ebb and flow of wonder, of awe. of one season tumbling atop another. i need birdsong to perk up my soul. i need the soft light of dawn or of dusk to know i’m wholly alive.

and thanks to the shuffling of trees, i’m stirring to life again.

what stirs you to life again?

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what a week: new garden. day of atonement. manuscript dispatched to editor. all i need now is a long autumn’s nap.

redlining: when words queue up in the wings

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a peek at the cover…

it’s those two little eggs. they’re what bring me to tears. well, that and the fact that i’ve not slept too much this whole last week. it’s what happens when you’re redlining. which, in the world of books with your name on the cover, means you are weighing every last alphabet letter, typing, trying words on for size. hitting delete (a lot of hitting delete), then typing some more. you’re nearing the end.

i’d been waiting and waiting. for months. and then, with not even a whisper, not even a ping (i was at a funeral, and my phone was turned off), the whole 240-some pages slid in under the so-called transom (as if a laptop came with an office door, an opaque glass door, with your name etched on the face, and a doorknob that creaked when you turned it, as back in the movies and sitcoms of a whole other era).

at first, i was trembling too much to peek. i knew that this round — the one after your words have been wrung through the copy-edit machine, after the production editor puts her very fine eye to every last comma and dash, and all the words in between — this round weighed more than the others in the editing room. the closer you get to the end, the closer you get to the day the big box arrives, when you pull back the tape, and stare at the stacks, the ones with your words, covered and bound, the more it all weighs.

i quelled my butterflies. all but stuffed them back in the jar where they belong, the one with the air holes punched in the lid. and then i dove in.

fullsizerender-2i’m done with round one, the round where you read on the screen. now i move onto round two, the one where you read from pages and pages, actual paper. actual trees, felled for the service of smoothing, and fixing, and hoisting up line after line, as many notches as my brain and my heart and imagination can muster.fullsizerender

which means my brain cells are thirsty for coffee. and my muscles and bones are aching for sleep. and while i practice my finger-stretching exercises, the warmups for another day with the red pen and keyboard, i figured i’d give you a peek at the cover. i’d had no idea it had slid off the art director’s drafting table. certainly no idea it was over on amazon, where, with the click of a button, you too can take a close look.

you can even read how they describe it, those folks who do the describing:

Barbara Mahany writes, “Mothering was my crash course in love. Love of the sort I call Divine. Love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. Love with eyes and ears wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”

In Motherprayer, Mahany generously shares personal love letters on the mysteries and gifts of mothering, interspersed with family recipes and gentle essays, all offering beautiful lessons in how to love, and how to love breathtakingly. In her bracingly honest style, Mahany lifts up the everyday—the hard, the glorious, the laughter, and the tears—and invites readers to pay attention, cradle our loved ones in prayer, and see the sacred lessons in loving.

which is why i’d better get back to the redline. which is why i nearly toppled off my chair the day i stumbled onto those words. i was minding my business, one fine afternoon, just clicking around on the keyboard, in that way that we do now, when suddenly one click led to another, and there it was: my next little book, idling on amazon. awaiting its turn in the racks. the book-peddling racks.

so while i head off to try out some verbs, try to find ones with sinew and heft, i’ll leave you here with a promise: i’ll tuck my whole heart, and all of my soul, into the redlining to come. and the book that comes very soon after. the book that will land just in time for mothering day. the book you’ll find at the bookstore next april.

i’m writing a book for the very best reason: for both of my boys (those two little eggs in the palest of blues up above), so they’ll know, so they can hold in their hands, someday maybe even read, the record of just how deeply they were loved. and the few things i learned along the way.

redlined, of course.

if you wrote a book, what would you put on the cover?

and as long as we’re in the book bin today, why not mention that my first book, Slowing Time, was read aloud back in the spring by a lovely woman in Nashville, and recorded, made into an audible book. i have five copies that i’m happy to give away. if you’d like a book-on-tape, if you’d like Slowing Time, with a wee bit of buttery twang, just plop a comment down below, and the first five someones who raise their sweet hand, will get an audible copy. how’s that for a friday morning adventure in listening? (my dear publisher has wanted me to do this for months, but i’ve, um, been a bit shy.)

because i love to give glories where glories are due, i am leaping off my chair to holler my lungs out in thanks to nancy watkins, the brilliant longtime chicago tribune editor, who was employed to copy edit Motherprayer (and thus made my wildest dreams come true), and the astoundingly fastidious and kind and word-perfect susan cornell, the production editor at Abingdon Press, who is shepherding each and every page to the printing press. there’s a dream team on this book, and page after page, i find myself sighing at their utter perfection. consider me enchanted. blessings to both of you. xoxox

bulb therapy

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the air’s been sodden around here with the sound of buzz saws and grinders and choppers, the sounds of the earth being chewed up and gnawed and spit back out. sawdust abounds.

on one side of this old yard, trees have been succumbing, falling to the ground and hauled away. on the other side of this old yard, a wobbly fence came down and with it years and years of my old vines, vines i’d long ago planted, vines i’d watched creep proudly, robustly, across the cedar planks. my climbing hydrangeas, of late, had grown into tangled, glorious specimens, their canes thick as tree trunks, some of them. but a week ago, they lay limp on the ground, some of them crushing whatever had dared to bloom in the tight space below.

i’d felt as crushed as my garden. those old vines, cascading with dark green leathery leaves, and clusters of lacy white blooms, they’ve served as the backdrop to my secret sacred garden. they were the curtain wall between me and the world beyond. they were the screen that wrapped me and my prayers when i’d sit down to offer up my petitions, or when i’d tiptoe along the bluestone steps, playing peek-a-boo behind the boughs. they were home to cardinal and squawking bluejay. they were landing pad for the occasional monarch butterfly. or the hummingbird who’s been hovering for weeks now, before she flew away south.

because i live in the middle of two houses that have recently sprung “for sale” signs, because good folk with new dreams have moved in, or soon will do so, it’s my job to shift and bend and adjust. it hasn’t been easy. i’ve lay awake plenty of nights pining for an old pine that is no longer. i’ve been out before dawn surveying the damage. i whittled away two whole hours in a dentist’s chair dreaming up the contraption i’d build to try to salvage my vines.

the trees are now piles of wood chips. the old fence replaced with a new one. old ferns have been crushed. old vines looking worse for the wear. they’re withering, some of them, and barely holding on for dear life.

and all this, of course, is backdrop to the real stuff of life: in a spiral of grief that continues to turn, this past week held poignant first-year markings of the deaths of people i loved, my father-in-law, my very dear friend. it just so happened that tuesday was both the birthday of my friend who died in march, and the first-year anniversary of my friend who died last september.

and when you’re aching in that whole-body sort of a way, when you feel sodden with sadness, you find yourself in terrain beyond words. i found myself aching to order up sacks of bulbs, to lift my trowel, to slice into the earth, and tuck away what amounts to hope, faith and promise: to plant myself an autumnal crop of bulbs, all of which will lie unseen through the winter, and then when the thaw comes, when the dregs of winter at last melt away, tender green slips will poke through the earth, will rise and reach for the light, will open in bloom. will whisper: “here’s your reward for believing.” or “here’s what you get when you hold onto hope.”

i have friends who reach for needle and thread. i have friends who click their knitting needles, who unspool their skeins of yarn, who measure their prayer in row after row. i have friends who chop, and sizzle, and stir their pots. i have friends who dab their brushes in paint, splash color across canvas. i’m apt to reach for the healing balms of the trowel, to get down on my knees and coax tender stems, prop fallen blooms, to play out the ministries of the garden. for in tending the earth, i always find healing.

the rain, blessed rain, kept me from digging this week. so i distracted myself with the next best thing: the bulb catalog. specifically, the one from old house gardens, the charmingest purveyors of heirloom bulbs that i’ve ever known, all under the wings of bulbsman scott kunst, a man so dear he scribbles love notes onto each and every order. he’s retiring this year, nearly a quarter-century after deciding to devote his life to keeping alive some of the rarest, breathtakingest bulbs on the planet. so i’ve ordered up my last batch from dear scott, the last time i’ll find one of his love notes on my bill.

i tell you, i was overwhelmed by the pull of the earth, the impulse to get down on my knees, and stitch my garden whole again, one bulb after another.

because, really, it was me i was aching to stitch together again. and i find my balm in the bulbs of september.

where do you find your balms, your holiest balms? 

p.s. a tiny word cloud about old house gardens, where each bulb comes with biography, with the year — or the long-ago century — of its first appearance on the planet (say, “little beeswings,” a dahlia from 1909), and a charmed tale of its origins or its near-extinctions. and the old line-drawings that punctuate the catalog draw a daydreamer in. the delicate blooms found on its pages are pure acts of resistance, of refusing to let the beautiful wither away from this earth. and the secret weapon of nearly each and every one is their heavenly perfume. whereas modern-day hybridized bulbs might have had their scent stripped away, these beauties stir olfactory sense, infusing your garden and your nose with the perfumes of long long ago….

the blessing of friday night dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the words are these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rapt

rapt

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

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

rapt would be my posture of late.

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

oh, i am rapt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rapt-endnote

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

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

suddenly, pins and needles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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hummingbird wisdom, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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