pull up a chair

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

“can we have a day?”

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hand-in-hand with my firstborn

 

willie and bam making willie brussels sprouts ala christmas 2014

side-by-side with my firstborn, all grown.

if i sound insistent, urgent, imperative today, it’s because i am. 

it couldn’t have come at a more ordinary moment. we’d been motoring about the utilitarian landscape, the backroads of suburbia, past big old houses, and strip malls, threading our way through the tangle of morning rush hour. the other car was in the shop, so i was the designated deliverer. i’d dropped one child at the schoolhouse door, the other was about to dive into a day at the courthouse, where he works twice a week, defending the otherwise undefended. i’d just mentioned that i really didn’t mind driving all over creation. didn’t mind the banal scenes out the window. didn’t mind the cold coffee tucked in the holder beside me.

we’d been laughing since the older one leapt into the car — minutes later than we needed to leave, socks not yet on his feet, his coffee cup sloshing. we’d thought we’d be late, as in the little one marked “tardy.” and for a minute there, we were cranky. or at least i was. but then the sockless one got going, got us laughing. the little one practically spit out his oatmeal, he was laughing so hard.

and so it had been for 25 minutes or so. pure straight driving and laughing, and trying not to spit out mouthfuls of oatmeal.

all i’d said was i didn’t mind driving one bit. didn’t mind clocking a good ten miles in a sliver of time when i could have been curled up with coffee and the morning’s news.

and that’s when my firstborn chimed in: “could we have a day when the two of us just bop around all day? a whole day? we just get in the car and go where we go?”

the sentence shot through the air sealed in that car. shot straight from his mouth to my soul.

the request couldn’t have been simpler, purer.

mom, could we clear a long stretch of hours, just one day’s stretch, and could you and me burrow into that sacred cocoon of time, could we savor the hours together? could we stitch together a plain old ordinary day of doing the things we love — just the two of us, in slow time?

right away, i heard and i felt the whole of that question. the layers and layers. a longing i too had long known — to spend an unbroken stretch of time with someone you dearly and deeply love, hearts sealed not by virtue of itinerary but simply by the gift of no one or nothing else getting in the way. because all you want is to be entwined, to travel across the hours, together. because all that matters, really, is proximity of the most soulful kind. is time, shared.

by the end of the day, the question couldn’t have been more profound.

by the end of the day — not more than a few hours later, really — i’d gotten word that a very dear friend had taken a terrible turn. her cancer was running amok. doctors had told her — with a rapidity that left us all breathless — that there was nothing left to do. they’d stop the chemo, they’d send her home.

or they had hoped to, anyway. now, it hardly looks likely.

and that was yesterday. this morning i am getting back in my old station wagon, and i am driving downtown. to a hospital. i am going to say goodbye to the woman who has long been the bravest traveler i know. she crossed the globe all on her own, in a trek that stitched her shattered heart stronger than ever, in a trek that taught her thousands of lessons i’ll never know. my friend is blond, naturally so, and as she glided through the dirt-packed roads of africa, then india, and china, and bali, she cut the most exotic figure. she laughed, the deepest soulful laugh, whenever she talked about how the children had flocked to her, stroked her hair, this otherworldly creature who’d dropped into their midst. she loved being surrounded by children, my friend who never birthed her own. my friend who stood beside me at my wedding. my friend who drove me to the hospital the night my bleeding would not stop. my friend who over the years learned the ways of indigenous wise women, and who once, on the eve of my own awful surgery, wafted me head to toe, heart to womb, with the smoke and the incense of the bundle of sage she pulled from her satchel, her medicine bag.

this is the second time in six months, i am saying goodbye to a blessed and beloved friend.

i know how both would answer the question: “can we just have a day?”

the answer, the imperative, is this: seize the day. seize it now. make each hour holy. do not allow the hour to fritter away, charred bits of time, lost to petty and insignificant slights.

can we just have a day?

can we just have a day to seal our hearts, to savor the joy, the truth, before it’s tugged away from us? can we revel in each other’s laughter? can we find the delight as we look out at the world passing by? can we taste deliciousness, taste the whole of it? can we dive deep into the well of each other’s company, each other’s undying love?

i can hear my friends now, both reaching up from their hours of shallow and shallower breathing, i can see the look in their eyes, the insistence, the impatience: seize the day, seize the hour or minute. seize the time that is yours. and be guided only by love. pure and simple.

please, take this day. and make it holy, pure and simple.

please whisper prayers for safe-keeping for my beautiful friend. please please, hold her in all the light you can muster……

rx for the end-of-winter blues

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i’d not realized as i ambled through the grocery aisles that i was stumbling on a cure for the end-of-winter blues.

or at least a hearty inoculation against its jagged edge, the one that leaves you nearly flopped over, drained of all vims and vigors.

i filled my cart merrily, madly, picking up speed as i tossed in accoutrements i don’t normally pluck from shelves with such abandon. there were crunchy things in a thousand shapes. there were bottles to be quaffed. there were the makings of icing-slathered cinnamon rolls (those makings, truth be told, came in a tube that is merely slapped against the counter’s edge, disemboweled, tucked in a 9-inch-round, and baked till the morning kitchen fills with heaven-scent of butter, cinnamon, vanilla, the holy trinity of essential deliciousness. and who really minds if those smells emerge from cardboard tube; is not the point simply that somehow they emerge?).

a crew was descending on this old house, a crew of men six-feet-tall and taller, and they are hungry men, young men, twenty-somethings who flew in from three east-coast cities to poke around the middle of the country they’ve, until now, ignored.

they are the best pals of my recent college graduate. and they chose this snowy, cold march weekend to make a slumber party of our house. there were limbs strewn everywhere when i awoke this morning. and not long after, morning groans, the noises young men make when they are hoisting selves from sleep.

i’ve now fed them, quenched their thirsts, and sent them all southbound on the early-morning train. it’s quiet now, but in their wake i realize they’ve all shot me through with just the things i needed: noisy distraction. unbridled merriment. disruption of the old routine.

there is nothing quite as curative as a house that’s filled, a house in which the shower runs for the better part of an hour, as one hops in and one hops out. a house in which the sink is swiftly piled. and even better, all the pillows from the couch are madly strewn.

i once longed for a flock of kids to call my own, but i’ve realized over the years that The One Who Pulls Those Strings must know me better than i do, for truth be told i might collapse under the weight of more than two. so i get my fill in occasional blasts of multiples.

over the years: the gaggle of sleepy-eyed second graders who emerged from sleeping bags to squeeze around the kitchen table, hands flying, syrup spilling, as they pulled their portion from the flapjack stack i’d plopped before their hungry eyes. the nights the basement hit capacity, with every bean bag occupied, and i was tapped from slumber to be the designated driver for the winding roads to half a dozen homes. or the lunchtimes when the backdoor flung open and kid after hungry kid piled in, testing my capacities in the griddle-flinging challenge.

it heals me every time. i get lost in the reverie. of their secret codes. the jokes i only half hear. the kicks under the table i seem to never miss.

i love the mad swirl of company. i love a room where the rafters ring with human hum. i even love a kitchen that seems to have been overtaken by a team of poltergeists. and messy ones at that.

while i might more naturally be a girl who loves her whispered tete-a-tetes, knees huddled under cozy blankets, i can spring to full-throttle animation when the ones i love are surrounded, buoyed, pole-vaulted by the ones they call their nearest and dearest.

the next 60 hours in this old house will rise and fall with the ebb and flow of cacophonous company. i’ll breathe deep, inhale the whole of it. i know, too soon, it will be but a memory, a long tucked-away soundtrack from that one glorious weekend when this old house opened wide its rooms, and invited in a slew of dreams come true.

***

and in other news, dear beloved chairs, i must pass along this bit of blessing: i signed this week a contract, a long-awaited contract, for another book, one that comes from the deepest place in my heart. its title, for now anyway, is motherprayer: lessons in loving, and it’ll be out a year from now. it’s coming from the same publisher as slowing time, although i’ve a new editor for this one, and she is a dreamy dream if ever there was. more details as they emerge. having done this once, it might be even scarier the second time round, but i steady myself with the dear and deep souls who ring this table. it’s all been keeping me tap-tap-tapping away for months now, and it promises to keep me at it.

as the world beyond our tables feels more and more inhospitable, tell me who taught you the fine art of hospitality, and what’s your dream equation for great good company, and the ways you make each and every someone feel deeply much at home?  

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quiet season

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it’s quiet season in my house. in my soul, actually.

it’s odd then, when i tiptoe outside in the dawn and hear the world achatter. the winged choristers — robin and sparrow and cardinal — are having at it, calling out from limb to bough to bush. staking turf. declaring the early hours of starting all over again, survival of the species, the No. 1 task on the vernal to-do list. it’s what happens when the globe tips toward the sun, the angle draws nearer, draws shorter; the light longer, not so thin anymore.

it happens to all of us, one season or another. we’re out of sync with the world beyond our window sill. i’m still deep in the burrows of winter. but the world wants to shake off its slumber, awaken.

i’m not ready yet.

i will be. i have no doubt.

but not yet.

now, i am curled under blankets, turning pages, soaking up the words of other quiet souls. and so, when i cracked open a book of poems the other day, i nearly dissolved into tears, into the mystery of grace, of feeling tapped on the wall of my heart, with sacred whisper.

i was turning slowly through the pages of mary oliver, my patron saint of poetry. i was inhaling her latest infusion of wisdom distilled, of heaven on earth, of sacred scripture rising up from out of the dawn, out of the trail through the woods where the poet keeps pace.

i read, among other words, these:

there are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.

like, telling someone you love them.

or giving your money away, all of it.

 

your heart is beating, isn’t it?

you’re not in chains, are you?

 

there is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own. 

 

then i turned a few pages, and stumbled on this:

 

God, or the gods, are invisible, quiteIMG_7208

understandable. But holiness is visible,

entirely.

i pulled out my pen. the sound of ink scratching along sheaf of paper, the only perceptible noise interrupting the season of silence.

and now i’ve shared my silence with you.

may your week be blessed. silent or not.

mary oliver’s latest slim volume of prayer poem is titled, felicity (penguin press, 2015). the words above, first, from the poem, “moments,” and finally, a few lines from “leaves and blossoms along the way.” 

sometimes when you fly, you land in heavenly places

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sources tell me it’s no secret that i’m a homebody. one of the original give-me-my-old-lumpy-mattress homegirls. so it was with no smidge of trepidation and wishing-it-was-over that i sped off to the airport the other morning, encountered a TSA line sure to make me miss my plane, and nixing all hopes of a hot paper vat of airport coffee.

i flew to music city (aka nashville) where i sang not a note, but i did meet some very very very fine folk. i was there to make a video — five brilliant women + me. i was there in the role of (take your pick) oprah or, my preference, krista tippett. all i had to do was ask questions. the brilliant ones did the stuff that mesmerized me. two of the women are professors, biblical scholars of the old and the new testament, four are preachers. one (the professor/preacher from princeton and yale divinity school) preaches at the oldest black baptist church north of richmond, virginia, a church in alexandria founded in 1806 by the black baptist society whose number swelled when slaves from mount vernon plantation joined in 1815.

that professor-preacher, rev. dr. judy fentress-williams, mentioned to me that she served as senior assistant pastor to rev. dr. howard-john wesley, considered “one of the great orators of this generation” (so claimed by the NAACP, in awarding him one of their most prestigious honors earlier this month). wesley’s sermon, “when the verdict hurts,” preached just 12 hours after the 2013 verdict in the trayvon martin murder trial, was pegged by no less than time magazine as “the best” on the subject of george zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict, in their cover story, “after trayvon,” with the prompt, “if you hear one sermon about america’s trayvon martin moment, let it be this one.”

judy, beyond brilliant in her own right, mentioned to me that i really ought to take a listen. so, of course, i did.

it might have been the holiest thing i heard this week, so rather than prattle on about trivialities, let me turn this week’s table over to the man who left med school to become a preacher, was named a martin luther king, jr., scholar at MLK’s alma mater, boston university, and in whose pews i pray i some day find myself.

pull up a chair, and take a listen: “when the verdict hurts,” july 14, 2013. rev. dr. howard-john wesley, pastor, alfred street baptist church.

what i’d give to be able to go someplace once a week where i was stirred to goosebumps, stirred to action.

made me remember, once again, that when i pull myself away from where i’m most at home, i never fail to be amazed by the wonders always just beyond my doorstep.

who stirs you to goosebumps?

pulled by heart

lunch

the hour hand had just nudged itself past 5. the tableau out the window was black-on-black. the bedsheets, warm, toasty warm. the soft folds of the flannel, pulled snug against my shoulders, invited one last episode of sleep. all i wanted was one more hour. but then i remembered.

the light down the hall was already splintered through the crack under the door. the soft bells of an alarm were faintly chiming. the whoosh of the shower broke the pre-dawn hush of a house just beginning to rouse. i knew my firstborn was up and getting dressed. i knew he’d soon be barreling into the morning’s bitter cold. the headlights of his little black car would shine down the alley, turn toward the city, to the west side, to the streets where just a week ago a bullet pierced the window of the pre-K classroom in the school where he teaches. the bullet shattered glass. sailed across the room, ramrodded a metal pipe, ricocheted. hit no one. thank God. but the cluster of little 4-year-olds, who by the grace of God had been clustered at that instant on the far side of the classroom, away from the bank of sidewalk-level windows, they heard the blast, the ping, and at last the thud of the bullet dropping to the classroom’s hard tile floor. deadly sounds. sounds that shouldn’t be heard in a pre-K classroom. or any classroom anywhere.

a week ago, at 2:46 p.m., i got this text from my firstborn:

There’s been a shooting outside school. We are in lockdown, but I am okay, so are my students. Do not call, I don’t want there to be any noise in my room.

a mother’s heart all but stops when she reads those words.

it would be another hour till he called, till i heard the rush of air i knew as his voice. it was over now, he told me.

the children had all been shepherded into the hands of parents. or grandparents. or some adult who’d get them home. he, too, was headed home, he told me. shaken, so shaken by the news of what happened in the pre-K. shaken by the holes in the metal screen and the pane of glass. shaken by the glass that shattered in what looked like a cobweb of shards. shaken by the long hour’s lockdown, not knowing the whole time — as he tried to keep his sixth graders quiet — whether the shooter was inside or out of the building. shaken by footsteps that ran down the hall, toward his classroom, where the door had been locked. shaken by the news that a mother who’d come to school early to take home her young child had stepped out the school’s front door into the direct line of two men with guns chasing down the sidewalk, shooting. the mother threw her little one to the sidewalk, then threw herself — hard — on top. she waited, she’d told a teacher, lay stone still, not knowing if she’d be hit. fully expecting the thud of a bullet to her back. or worse.

monday, my kid came home with word that 46 kids of 180 kids hadn’t come to school that day. parents kept them home. they’re not used to bullets piercing classroom windows. not even on the west side of chicago. he said, too, that the only two white kids in the school, kids whose parents teach there, they’d been pulled. “a social experiment they weren’t willing to risk any longer,” was how he put it.

and then he said, “mom, if i tell you something, promise not to freak out.”

ooo-kay.

“there’s apparently a turf war in the neighborhood, and (school) is in the middle of it.”

and so as you hear those words, as they barely begin to settle onto your eardrums, onto your heart, you somersault into prayer. your every inhale breathes in prayer. your exhale begins the next, an endless loop of prayer after prayer.

you settle yourself down, slowly. over the course of hours, as you turn round and round the heartache, the insanity of it all, as you sift through the shards, examine from all angles. imagine the worst. consider the kids who call those streets home. who can’t leave.

you pray mightily.

and then, yesterday on the front page of the newspaper, there was a story with eery echoes. it was a story that happened last friday, just five hours after the bullet shattered the window of my kid’s school. it happened three miles due south. a bullet — out of nowhere — pierced the driver’s side window of a parked car where a young 25-year-old woman was sitting, talking on her cellphone to her dad in san diego. suddenly, he told the reporters who had called him, she started to say her head hurt, her head hurt. then the phone went dead. the dad in san diego couldn’t figure out what happened. frantic, he called his daughter’s boyfriend, who called her roommate, who ran out onto the street and down the block where she found the woman slumped, near dead. the woman died from a bullet that “came out of nowhere;” two men chasing down the street with guns. the stray bullet — a bullet not meant for her — killed her.

as i sat there reading the news story, tracing the lines that connected her story to the one i knew from my own kid’s school — same day, same short span of hours, same damn  scenario, guns and chasing and flying bullets — i shuddered at the tragedy, shuddered for the father who now told the story, who now tried to explain how — as she sat in her car on her quiet street on her way home from a job where she’d just gotten a promotion, in a city she loved and had moved to after college — he was now burying his daughter, “the only one in her preschool class who could read, a straight-A high school student, a magna cum laude college graduate,” the father told the reporters.

and so this morning, knowing my kid was getting dressed to go back to the school where the pre-K window is now covered in plywood, while they wait for new glass to come, while they all pray for calm in the streets, i yanked back the sheets, and i planted my wobbly feet on the cold wood floor of my bedroom. i shuffled down the stairs, and i opened the fridge. i piled turkey on slabs of bread. i tossed in an apple. i poured a tall to-go cup of coffee.

not for one minute could i send my kid out into the cold, back to school, back to streets where a gang war wages, and not do the feeble things a mama does: i slathered mustard on bread, i folded slices of deli turkey, i tucked it all in the little brown bag he uses day after day. i prayed the whole while. i prayed mightily.

when he tumbled down the stairs, and saw me standing there with my mustard knife in hand, he looked surprised. “mommo, what are you doing here?”

just packing lunch, was all i said. he knows me well, my kid of 22 years. he knew without me saying so that that sandwich was super-packed. stacked with prayer upon prayer. besides the turkey.

as i closed the door behind him, as i told him i loved him, called out,”be safe,” i traced a sign of the cross onto the back of his thick winter coat. it’s all i could do.

it’s the truth of motherhood, or one of them anyway: we’re armed with so very little. especially when up against a world of flying, piercing, life-taking bullets.

yet we don’t abandon our station: we rise before the dawn, we shuffle down the stairs, we do what little we can. we pack a lunch, with a motherlode of prayer.

we are pulled by heart out of slumber. we are pulled by heart into prayer. deep into prayer.

what will we do? what can we do? is there any way out of this insanity that spills blood on the front seats of cars, on front porches, and playgrounds, and too many sidewalks and streets in this city?

history: lost and found

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four of us, before there were five of us. 

i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).

it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.

i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.

on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)

by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.

there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.

all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.

i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.

i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.

and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.

has anyone gathered the stories at your house?

power of five. five.

and here is the fifth of our five, my forever dream come true.

any hour now

my papa and me, taking a walk.

proper porridge

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i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.

five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.

oats + water + salt.

that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.

oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.

i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.

but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.

while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.

here’s what i read: proper porridge prescription

WELL WORTH THE WAIT

porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.

it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).

and it captured my attention, all right.

deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.

i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.

consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”

which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:

“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”

mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.

snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:

“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing  against the microwave as appliance of oats.

or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):

“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”

and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:

“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”

i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.

but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.

and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.   

but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:

THE RECIPE
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
THE TRICK
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
THE TWIST
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.

and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.

are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats? national oatmeal season

radiant brokenness

cracked plate

someone i love was shattered this week. it shattered me.

and it got me to thinking about kintsugi, the japanese art of repair when a bowl or a vessel is shattered. in this craft as ancient — and poetic — as any still practiced on earth, the crack isn’t simply glued, the pieces reassembled. it isn’t hoped that no one will notice, that the brokenness will be hidden, kept secret.

hardly.

kintsugi

the crack and its repair are illuminated. literally. powdered gold, most often, but sometimes silver or platinum, is sprinkled into lacquer resin. the vessel is veined boldly, radiantly. if a piece of the vessel has been shattered into splinters, the missing piece — the absence or abyss — becomes invitation for abundant gold compound, a gilt vein pooling into eddy or island or pond. golden pond of patching together.

kintsugi plate

it’s a practice that dates back, at least, to the 15th century. and, so the story goes, it may have originated when a powerful japanese shogun by the name of ashikaga yoshimasa broke one of his prized chinese tea bowls, and sent it off to china for repair. what came back was a bowl mended with ugly metal staples. the shogun, somewhat shattered by the ugliness, ordered his craftsmen to come up with a more beautiful means of reassembling, of repair.

kin = golden + tsugi = joinery

kintsugi. golden joinery.

it’s the art of embracing brokenness. it’s craft, yes, but even more so it’s philosophy, a philosophy that draws from the japanese understanding of wabi-sabi, which is to behold the beautiful in imperfection, impermanence.

at heart, it’s a knowing that the fracture doesn’t mark the end of the object’s life, but rather embodies an essential moment in its history. it’s worn because it’s been woven into the fabric of daily life, and daily life offers up bumps and bruises and tears and tatters. the more it’s engaged in the depths of day after day, the more likely it’ll be knocked around, jostled, sometimes even broken.

so, too, the human heart.

“the vicissitudes of existence over Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 7.52.29 PMtime, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. this poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself,” writes christy bartlett in flickwerk: the aesthetics of mended japanese ceramics.

to be engaged in the drama of the human theatre — that place called being alive — is to be exposed to shattering.

yet isn’t the redemption found in the truth — resounding truth — of hemingway’s glorious line from a farewell to arms:

“the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

or, in the infinite wisdom of rumi, the sufi mystic:

“the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

so that, today, is my prayer. that the shards disassembled, strewn and scattered across the plains of life, in those darkest hours known to humankind, are not merely slapped back into some smoothed-over order, some half-baked pass at hiding away the fracture.

but that, as inspired by buddhist wisdom, we come to a deep understanding of the truth of golden joinery. that if perhaps we can find love for the whole of who we are — the broken, the fractured, the piece that’s forever lost — we might discover not simply strength but radiance in the stuff we find to patch ourselves back into a whole.

and in so doing we become all the more beautiful because of where we’ve been broken. and where the Light now finds a way in.

plate cracked

watch this kintsugi master at work (and, yes, it’s without sound): golden joinery video

i know, i know, i promised that proper porridge post. it’s bubbling away on the back burner, i promise. this just wasn’t the week for a clump of oats. although they fortify me many a morning.

have you ever considered the truth that our brokenness makes us more beautiful? have you discovered that, indeed, the Light pours in in those places where once we’d been shattered, that in gathering up the pieces, in patching the whole together, we might begin our repair by sprinkling flecks of radiance? aren’t these the precise fault-lines where God finds His opening, where God infuses the breathtakingly beautiful?

soulful pages: latest edition

roundup jan

i sometimes forget to post my roundups of soulful books here at the table, so this morning i am delivering the latest edition, which will run in this sunday’s printers row journal, the chicago tribune’s literary supplement. you’ll find it online now, right here, but i’m saving you the click, and posting below. and as the spirit moves me, i just might post a second post this morning…..i’ve a hankering to write about proper porridge. stay tuned. (turns out i decided to also post here — way down below — the tribune’s holiday gift guide roundup of what you might say were the six soulful books that most vociferously leapt off my bookshelf last year…) so lots of soulfulness to muse this wintry morning. put the kettle on, grab the fuzzy afghan, and commence the art of curling up with a great good tome….

Spiritual roundup: ‘Sabbaths 2013’ by Wendell Berry, more
Barbara Mahany

Sabbaths 2013 by Wendell Berry, Larkspur, 36 pages, $28wendellberry sabbaths

There are rare few times in the unfolding of our quotidian lives when we hold something in our hands and know, right away, that it’s sacred. To hold “Sabbaths 2013,” a hand-bound volume of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry’s poems in handset type with wood engravings by Wesley Bates, is to behold the sacred.

It’s as all the finest books on our shelves should be — a work of art, of exquisite attention, at every step of the bookmaking process. Larkspur Press in Monterey, Ky., is that rarest of small-press publishing houses. Gray Zeitz, the founder, is described as “bewhiskered, aproned, and ink-smudged.” He sets type by hand on clamshell printing presses, and his place of creation is said to be equal parts library, museum and workshop. Larkspur’s tagline: “Creating fine books one letter at a time.”

Certainly, these poems of Berry deserve to be unspooled with such care. Each of the 20 poems is a meditation, the closest we might come to modern-day Scripture. To encounter these lines is to brush up against the beautiful, the breathtaking, rooted in the everyday — the birthing barn, the generations-worn kitchen table, the old dog with her gray muzzle.

Consider, for instance, just this one line: “The years / have brought him love and grief. / They have taught him that grief / is love clarified, appraised / beyond confusion, affirmed, lifted / out of time.”

Stripped: At the Intersection of Cancer, Culture and Christ by Heather King, Loyola, 224 pages, $14.95

Cancer is hardly the landscape where one might expect soliloquies on prayer. But prayer, the down-on-your-knees, heart-wide-open petitions that spring from the raw fear of dying and death, is what makes “Stripped” (the author originally titled it, “Stripped: Culture, Cancer, and the Cloud of Unknowing”) very much a book for the soul — and not only for those who’ve been excoriated by the words, “You have cancer.”

More than anything, it’s the quality of King’s writing that catapults this book off the shelf. Her words are sharp-edged as any surgeon’s knife, and, as with all the most powerful writing, hers has the capacity to slip in wisdoms and enlightenments without notice. You’re busy laughing, or wiping away a tear, and suddenly you realize you’ve pulled out a pen to underline words to keep for the ages.

This is not a cancer saga you’ve read before, and where King’s faith takes her is a place few might choose. (She submits to surgery, but decides against radiation or chemotherapy — decisions she made 15 years ago now, and she’s still alive to write about it.) It’s the journey, the straight-shooting, no-punches-pulled, intimate cry of her heart, that makes this a most soulful expedition. One you’ll not soon forget.

Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, based on the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted by Yanki Tauber, Meaningful Life Center, 3 volumes, 944 pages, $54.99

It would be shortchanging this three-volume set to call it simply a meditation on time. More apt would be to call it meditations within meditations, a Russian doll of deep thinking on the sacred nature of time and the particulars of the Jewish calendar. What’s found here is a collection of deeply thoughtful essays, exploring the soul of time as defined by the Torah and seen through the lens of Hasidic teaching. You needn’t subscribe to a Lubavitch world view to be enlightened by the epiphanies found in these pages.

At heart, in Volume One, “Time and Its Cycles,” is the notion that Creation wasn’t a divine one-time act, but rather that God creates the world anew in every moment. (Volume Two considers the Jewish calendar from Rosh Hashana to Purim; Volume Three, Passover to Elul.) This notion of perpetual creation, Rabbi Tauber argues, is a powerful antidote to the hopelessness that plagues so much of the modern-day landscape. Most powerful of all, he writes, is the corollary that time is wholly concentrated in the here and the now, inviting a fine-tuned focus on mindfulness.

Consider this instruction, drawn from one of the many charming stories Tauber tells to illustrate his teachings: “We cannot make our days longer, nor can we add additional hours to our nights. But we can maximize our usage of time by regarding each segment of time as a world of its own.”

For the student eager to burrow deep into the great vault of Jewish sacred text, this is a book to hold our attention for a very long time.

Barbara Mahany is the author of “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

p.s. as i’ve spent the last hour riffling through my files to see how very many times i’ve not posted those soulful roundups here, i realize i must have some reticence about taking up space at the table when the roundups are not too hard to find on the tribune website. looks like i’ve only posted five of 10 roundups, or even included a link. oh my! one you might want to look up would be the gift guide, in which i picked the six books that most leapt off the shelf last year, in the soulfulness department. you can find that roundup here. or, on second thought, maybe i should post it here……

Gift guide: Books for the soul
From a book by Pope Francis to an anthology of world religions, these 6 books are ideal for the spiritual-minded.
By Barbara Mahany

It’s a glorious expedition to survey the spiritual landscape of this year’s books for the soul, to pluck the ones with richest deepest resonance. Poets and scholars, a pundit and pope, all rise to the top.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte, Many Rivers, 247 pages, $22

Poet and philosopher David Whyte constructs an alternative dictionary of 52 words — an abecedarian that stretches from “alone” to “vulnerable” — and, in so doing, invites the reader to explore the depths of each entry, beyond the semantic surface, burrowing into the poetic and the profound. It’s a form of prayerfulness, the meditative powers of contemplating a single word. Whyte takes us there in plainspeak, though his is a language that pulses with counterpoints of shadow and illumination. Surely, a certain road to soulfulness is paved with unexpected poetries and luminescence at every bend. Whyte takes you there by heart.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Volume 1 and 2, W.W. Norton, 4,448 pages, $100

Weighing in at 8.4 pounds, a whopping 4,448 pages, and tucked in a tidy two-volume book pack, this massive and monumental Norton Anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Miles, holds inspiration for more than one lifetime. At heart, writes Miles, it’s an invitation “to see others with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will. … In that capacity lies the foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom.” With more than 1,000 primary texts — Volume 1 covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism; Volume 2, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — this is an instant classic.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, Random House, 320 pages, $28

Before diving into modern-day parables in the form of biographies — ranging from Augustine to George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day — David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and opinionator for this oft-imploding globe, pens as fine an exegesis on sin as has been written in recent times. Our sin: “self-satisfied moral mediocrity.” It’s in those character studies of some of history’s greatest thinkers and leaders, 10 in all, that Brooks lays bare what it takes to cultivate deep moral character. And isn’t a moral core, tested in everyday trials, our one best hope at an everlasting soul?

Map by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, HMH, 464 pages, $32

Here, for the first time, is the English translation of all of the poems of Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s last Polish collection, including previously unpublished works. In all, “Map” gathers some 250 poems written between 1944 and 2011. While Szymborska, who died in 2012, focuses her attention on quotidian subjects — an onion, a cat — she plumbs them to probe life’s big questions — love, death, and passing time. And while she might not be as widely read in America as poets Mary Oliver and Mark Strand, her words bore deep. She is poet serving as spiritual guide.

Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis, Melville House, 192 pages, $14.95

This breathtaking amalgam of urgency and poetry mines the spirit and appeals to the moral core. It’s as essential a soul-stirring read as any recent manuscript. Billed as the pope’s pontifications on the environment, it is in fact a sweeping letter addressing a spectrum of global sins. The Guardian termed it “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years,” bespeaking its relevance beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama, Hodder & Stoughton, 192 pages, $23.95

This quiet book of contemplations by Belfast-based poet, theologian and peace worker Padraig O Tuama barely stirred a ripple in the marketplace of books, but where it counts — in the hearts of those blessed to turn its pages — it swiftly became a treasure. More deserve to be stirred by its deep currents. Putting to work poetry and gospel, side by side with story and Celtic spirituality, O Tuama explores ideas of shelter along life’s journey, opening up gentle ways of living well in a troubled world. The reader can’t help but be drawn in, slip-sliding into the harbor of the author’s soulful words.
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

A version of this article appeared in print on November 29, 2015, in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Food for the soul – Poetry and profundity in these true gifts” 

holding her in all the light i can kindle

candles at st. pauls'

i lit candles in every church, chapel, cathedral, abbey. all across london, every hushed chamber into which i walked. every one that offered candle sticks, twopence or a pound. a trail of dripping wax and smoky whiffs.

a trail of prayer.

because sometimes we are left to only words unfurled from lips, from heart. and i learned long long ago that i might supercharge my words if i latch them onto light beams, send them heavenward on the strands of flame that flickers.

i kindled that flotilla of wax and wick because i knew this day was coming, this day in which a woman i love — a sister i dearly love, my youngest brother’s wife — would be in the hands of three surgeons across the arc of eight to 10 hours.

i awoke long before dawn today. i woke in black of deepest night. and i could not stop the prayers. i prayed on my knees. i prayed once i’d climbed back under toasty covers. i prayed, for a short while, straight through my dreams. and now, awake, i am keeping apace my prayer.

she, along with too many others i love, is battling cancer, breast cancer. after six godawful months of chemo, today’s the day the surgeons get to work. it will be a long and intricate day. and miles and miles away, all i’m left to do is pray.

and so, preamble to this day of prayer, knowing well there can never be enough nor too much, i lit candles at st. paul’s cathedral, the domed magnificence of sir christopher wren just north of the river thames. and i lit candles in westminster abbey, where kings and queens are crowned.

westminstercandles

and now home, back at my old maple table, here in the kitchen of this old and drafty house, i’ve lit a candle to burn through all the hours.

candle

those of us who believe in prayer, and who believe in candle power, we partake of incantations, we strike a match to wicks that burst into stars of light and will not be extinguished. not until the prayers have made their way to the heart of God who listens, always listens.

please, God, listen hard to this one….

i’m getting email updates from my brother who sits alone in a cincinnati hospital surgical waiting room. my glorious sister-in-law sent out one last dispatch last night, one that captures her indomitable spirit, spells out how she thoughtfully curated her “off-to-mastectomy” outfit for the day (hot pink cincinnati opera T-shirt, under her lilly pulitzer zip-up), opining “it is important to wear something more than lounging pants to your mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.” my very favorite part of her curated collection: her “f*ck this sh*t” socks (*’s are mine, for the sake of delicacy; her socks spell it wholly out, vowels and consonants un-bleeped), which pretty much suggests her take-no-prisoners stance  toward obliterating every last cancer cell that dared to trespass her sacred boundaries.

please, whisper a prayer or three for her, and anyone else we know and love who is engaged in cancer obliteration. 

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