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boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

soulful reads for a week that’s leaking at the seams…

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old faithful: only slightly more emphatic than the geyser at our house this week

it’s been one of those weeks over here: a concussion on sunday (our not-so-big ultimate frisbee kid crashed face- and head-first so hard into other team’s Very Big Kid’s shoulder and biceps that the coach called that night to say he’d never heard such a loud bang between colliding bodies), leaky pipe-turned-geyser on monday, four hours of doctor on tuesday (preceded by an hour on monday). (oh, and did i mention eight hours of plumber squeezed between doctors?) and from there, the week dissolved.

or, more aptly, it flooded. any appliance in the house that could go kaput, did. (yesterday the ice maker seemed to be trying to set world record for cubes, a cascade of frozenness that would have made i-love-lucy escapades pale in contrast. yes, a first world problem, i totally get it!)

so, while i type away toward impending deadline, i’m thankful for a shelf of good reads. i wrote this batch back in february when i was down with strep, flu, bronchitis and eventually pneumonia, but it just appeared in print, in the chicago tribune, yesterday. each book is a gem, but the one i’ll hold onto forever is “dorothy day: the world will be saved by beauty,” the enchanting and bracingly honest biography, written by dorothy’s granddaughter, kate hennessy.

this line, in particular, is worthy of a week’s meditation — at least:

“Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.”

may your week be far less leaky than ours…..

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Appraisals of Dorothy Day, Rumi and St. Francis in this week’s spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Dorothy Day” by Kate Hennessy, Scribner, 384 pages, $27.99

It’s the tag line, six words wafting just above a watery image of a mother and child up to their ankles in ocean, that captures the magic: “An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.” And mind you, this is a biography of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, called “a saint for the Occupy Era,” and now being considered for canonization as one of the 20th century’s great American forces for good.

The brilliance of this devastatingly beautiful work — you can almost hear the grandmotherly whispers, and yet it’s deeply journalistic in its fine-grained and unflinching reporting — by Kate Hennessy, the youngest of Day’s nine grandchildren, is this: Hennessy does not give us hagiography; she explores the depths of Day’s humanity, in all its frailty and shortcomings, and points us toward an indelible truth.

She makes us see that there’s a fine balance, a constant tension, in all of us — even in Day — in which the sinful is at work with the saintly. Yet somehow, in the end, through force of will, or divine grace, the light outshines the darkness. Love reigns, but not without struggle. Maybe we too can find that tipping force.

Hennessy captures that essence in a passage about her own mother, Tamar, Day’s only child: “Maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is a paradox we all live with — this flawed vessel called to holiness.” Dorothy Day answered to holiness.
Her granddaughter’s masterwork belongs as a permanent addition to any literary bookshelf of the best of spiritual biography.

“Rumi’s Secret” by Brad Gooch, Harper, 400 pages, $28.99

In the prologue of “Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love,” the author wanders the Grand Bazaar of Aleppo, Syria, that now bomb-ravaged city of infinite heartache, in search of any lasting trace of one of civilization’s most enduring spiritual guides. In these deeply divisive times, it matters more than ever to deepen our understanding of the roots of sacred Islam, and this deeply researched and highly literary biography of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, is at once prescriptive and enlivening.

Rumi’s poetry, it’s been said, is pure devotion to a “religion of love.” No wonder, eight centuries later, it ranks among the best-selling on the globe. Until now, though, only the barest outlines of Rumi’s life had emerged from behind his poetry.

Brad Gooch, whose earlier biographies of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara were widely praised, traces the life and teachings of the mystic often compared with Shakespeare, for the volumes of his creativity, and St. Francis of Assisi, for his spiritual wisdom.

In an attempt to illuminate Rumi, who preached an “emphasis on ecstasy and love over religions and creeds,” Gooch learned Persian to read the poet’s original works, and retraced 2,500 miles of Central Asia — from Iran to Turkey, Syria to Tajikistan and beyond — exploring the major centers of Muslim culture in Rumi’s journey.

Rumi’s greatest achievement, Gooch writes: “To articulate the sound of one soul speaking: Don’t speak so you can hear those voices/ Not yet turned into words or sound.”

It’s a call to sacred silence — a call this noisy planet needs.

“A Gathering of Larks” by Abigail Carroll, Eerdmans, 108 pages, $12.99

It’s fitting that a book of modern-day letters to St. Francis, the 12th-century friar who called himself “God’s Fool,” would be deeply playful. And so it is.

“A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim,” an epistolary gathering of poems-cum-love letters is indeed sparked with joy and stitched with whimsy. But, too, it’s richly textured — hardly a one-note wonder — and promises to catch the unsuspecting reader off-guard. In fact, that’s where — in lines that pulse with sorrow, in verse that spares no jagged-edged truth — much of its power lies.

For those among us who consider Francis a model of gentility and grace, it’s a wholly charming notion to reach out from our world of big-lot stores to the patron saint said to tame a wolf, preach to larks, and sing to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

The writer of these letters — Abigail Carroll, a Vermont-based author — is very much an inhabitant of the modern-day melee. Yet she reaches beyond — to another time, to another plane of mysticism — and in rubbing together the profane and profound, the secular and sacred, she positions the medieval saint squarely in our midst. And makes us understand why he remains a vital prophet, one imbued with much to teach us on the subjects of natural wonder versus materialism, on beauty, brokenness, simplicity and, above all, on faith of a radical kind.

what’s on your reading list at the moment? any leaks in your week? 

and happy blessed birthday to dear dear jan, beloved longtime friend of the chair. sure are a heap of may birthdays here at the table….

the compound interest of love

 

the arithmetic of love cannot be plotted, nor graphed. nor queued in a line. it explodes, scattershot. sometimes it leaks — drip, drip, drip. sometimes, like a mountain rivulet running hard against rock, it carves its own escape route.

at its most glorious, love multiplies with compound interest.

the email began: “Praying it forward haha.” it went on to explain:

Praying it forward haha – I gave a copy of the book to Lisa because I admire her so much as a Mother, friend, caregiver, person.  After meeting her for lunch and giving her the book she shared that she was looking for work she could do at home – we were looking for someone to do our social media and not so surprisingly she had recently received a degree in that!  Of course we hired her.  She prayed it forward by giving 10 of her friends the book and now here you are – Found!  Lets keep the movement.

the email was from my friend susie, who happens to be a saint. she’s opened two cafes for at-risk teens, one mostly for young men who’ve gotten in trouble and are trying now to stay out. the other for young women; teens who are pregnant, or already mothers. susie gave my book to lisa, who also happens to be a saint. lisa was a social worker who became a chicago cop who was so heartbroken by the homelessness she saw in uptown, a tough chicago neighborhood, she started pulling a sandwich-and-coffee-filled red wagon along the sidewalks to feed whomever she bumped into who might be hungry. then, she opened a cafe, inspiration cafe, to feed their spirits as well as their bellies. but then, two years ago, her then-23-year-old son suffered a still-unexplained anoxic brain injury, which means that a kid with a slight fever somehow collapsed, which stopped his heart long enough to cut off the oxygen to his brain. ever since, lisa has been his full-time, round-the-clock caregiver.

and yet, lisa, when given a single copy of motherprayer, and a work-from-home job for my friend susie, “prayed it forward” by buying and sending copies of motherprayer to 10 friends. one of those friends, a fairy-like sweetheart named wini, wrote to me a few weeks ago. in a breathtaking note, she explained that for some reason she’d not tucked motherprayer into her permanent stack of (mostly untouched) bedside books, but rather she’d picked it up and started to read. she said her friend lisa had sent it, and she figured if it came from lisa, there must be a reason to read it. she wondered a.) how i knew lisa (i didn’t, though i’d known of her cafe and her saintly status in this city of big shoulders),  b.) if maybe we could meet, and c.) maybe would i consider coming to a spectacular space (opened by her friend amy, a famed chicago restaurateur) to talk to a circle of spectacular women. she was thinking, she said, of restarting a soulful speaker series she once ran for eight years. she was thinking she’d call this new series, “finding your heart at Found,” (Found is the name of the spectacular eatery, a place that feels like your favorite eccentric aunt’s quirkily appointed parlor). and then she wondered if maybe i’d consider following up that lunchtime talk with a soulful writing workshop at a heavenly place called tumbledown farm, owned by another one of her heavenly friends, yet another lisa.

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a scene from tumbledown farm. (photo by Lisa Moser)

 

if you’ve clicked on all of those links i’ve tucked up above, you can see quite clearly why i was and am pinching myself. kindness led to kindness led to miracle led to long-held-dream-finally-come-true.

i will soon be sitting in a farm kitchen, with the sounds of summer and barnyard blowing in through the windows, and i’ll be encircled by blessed women writing into their depths. we’ll punctuate the morning with walks through meadows, plop down against the trunks of trees, chase after chickens. partake of farm-fresh feasting.

sounds magical to me.

and until the email from susie arrived yesterday, the whole tumble of wonders was shrouded in mystery. how did saintly lisa know of motherprayer? how was it that she sent a copy to wini, a woman schooled in healing arts, a woman with the get-up-and-go to have shepherded eight years of soulful speakers (and we’re talking richard rohr here)? and how was it that after years and years of dreaming of somehow finding my way to the blessing of writing circles, and writing into the depths of the human heart, one door had opened into another, and a farm of my dreams — one with roosters and beehives and a cavernous milking barn — had fallen onto my path?

i looked back at the email from susie, i read and re-read that first line: “Praying it forward haha…”

i knew exactly how i wanted to do that, to pray it forward: i’m starting a writing circle for the teen mamas at susie’s cafe (the pictures above were taken there last night at their monthly community dinner, where susie treats everyone like a queen or a king), and i’m imagining a writing circle-slash-monthly-retreat for mothers who are full-time, round-the-clock caregivers for children with profound challenges. (susie, too, has a sister patty, who i love, and who loves writing, and who is the full-time, round-the-clock caregiver for her daughter who has cerebral palsy.) i am, in my imagination, upholstering the writing retreat with every imaginable pampering: fat bouquets of fresh-from-the-garden bunches of flowers, pitchers of waters swimming with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh mint, sumptuous lunch. crisp, paper-wrapped journals and pens for writing from the heart. a few deep questions, questions meant to uncork all that’s waiting to pour. and more than anything, the holy communion of other mothers who shoulder the same unceasing load of worry and ache and innovation and unstoppable faith. and exhaustion. and a loneliness that’s unfathomable to anyone not bearing the load.

the wheels have already turned, plans are already in the works. because at the heart of this plot are women who heard the holy whisper and made the miracle happen, women who would not and will not be stopped. so neither will i.

it’s the compound interest of love.

“Praying it forward haha..”

there’s your challenge. no need to answer aloud, but maybe, just maybe, let that sweet question settle deep in your heart: how might you pray it forward?

because i know the chairs are soulful folk, i’m thinking that when the time comes i might put out a call for help. perhaps you’ve a few stems from your garden you’d like to share for a fat bouquet. perhaps you make a mean scone. or might dream up some other wonderful way to pamper the mamas for whom a break never comes. (we could make goodie bags, stuffed with pamper-y treats.) i’m thinking i’ll hold the first writing circle for caretaking mamas at my house, in my screened porch this summer. getting away is not easy for these mamas, and going too far is impossible. so we’ll make it short and sweet and close to home. if we wend our way into an irrestistable  bond, maybe we’ll take our circle on the road, and tumble down to tumbledown farm, which is but 45 minutes away. 

p.s. for the fun of it, and to make it easier to follow the trail of good hearts, i bolded the names of each someone who led to another someone in the equation of unbridled love up above. and be sure, while you’re at it, to click on the links (any words underlined and the color of cafe-au-lait) to read layers and layers of goodness from the very good souls up above.

p.s.s. happy blessed birthday tomorrow to slj, an old dear friend of the chair. may your day and your year be filled with compound love.

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a nest on tumbledown farm. reminds me of the cover of a book i know fairly well. be still my heart, most blessed heart…(Photo by Lisa Moser)

oh, it matters

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a nest that tumbled from my pine trees the other morning, and the speckled egg of the white-crowned sparrow who’d so diligently constructed the breathtaking weave of stick and leaf and, for a dash of birdly pizazz, the cellophane strip.

if there is one thing i know, if there is one thing i’ve been breathing for nearly 24 years, plus the eight months that preceded, the eight months from the moment i saw the little white ultrasound dot blinking and blinking with blessed assurance, it is this: mothering matters. life-and-death matters. whole-or-empty matters.

mothering matters in those hours when someone you love is at the end, the very end, of his or her rope. when that someone is near despondent with hopelessness. or maybe just burning with fever.

mothering matters, too, in all the in-between times. the barely noticed times. the i-remember-you-love-this-jelly-more-than-the-other-kind times. the you-missed-the-bus-again-?-!-! times; oh-sure-i’ll-drive-you times…

to mother, in the way that i mean, is to become the vessel that your child, your someone who loves you, needs. not in a hollowed-out i’m-nothing sort of a way. but in a mighty, i’ll-be-what-you-need, i’ll-be-whatever-you-need sort of a way. or i’ll try anyway.

it is to be living, breathing empathy.

empathy, my etymology friends tell me, is a relatively new word, one coined just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1908, drawn from the german, from Einfühlung, a word coined by a german philosopher, to mean “in + feeling” as a translation of greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from the assimilated form of en “in” + pathos “feeling.”

to mother, my friend the deeply soulful writer katrina kenison says, “is to be fully present for another, in a spiritual sense.”

can you even begin to imagine the job description?

try this: must be willing, for the duration, to cradle against the harshest winds, cruel winds. must be alert to cries in the night. and ones at the end of long-distance phone lines. must have basic first-aid skills (kisses to cuts and bumps, required). must be willing to lie, wide-eyed and heavy-hearted, for long hours, sometimes from midnight till daybreak. might be skilled at celebrating small triumphs, ones that no one else might notice, but you know because you’ve been listening and watching, and you’ve seen how steep was the path your loved one was climbing. must let go — not of the heart, but of the everyday choices. must watch make mistakes. must try not to scold (scolding, a verb i grew up with does nothing but chafe at the soul, nip at the bud of the blossoming beautiful child). must forgive. yourself and your someone you love.

i could go on. i will go on. for the rest of my days as i keep close watch on this masterful, mystical art of mothering.

i’m struck, often, and saddened, at how dismissed mothering can sometimes be. in a world of power suits, apron strings were relegated to the back of the pantry. even though every one of us knows how deep a blessing it is to be mothered by a full-throttle motherer, one who deftly knows when to hit the gas and when to let up — when to be the the hand at the small of the back and when to stand quietly off in the wings (whispering whole-hearted incantations the whole while) — i think we sometimes forget — as a society — the power and magnitude of mothering. we forget, perhaps, how deeply this world needs what we know, what we do, endlessly and tirelessly.

a few weeks ago, i was out and about talking about motherprayer, the book i birthed last month, and a lovely woman, a woman with two grown daughters, raised her hand, and recounted that just that very afternoon, she’d been talking to one of her daughters, and she’d lamented the fact that she’d “never done anything important” with her life. but, then, she said, sitting and listening to what we’d been saying about mothering, it had just dawned on her that maybe, after all, she had done something important. maybe raising two beautiful daughters, who in kind were raising beautiful children, maybe — it dawned on her — she had done something important indeed.

oh my.

it was all i could do to not leap from where i was standing, and enfold her in a hallelujah squeeze of enlightenment. so, instead, i swallowed the lump in my throat, and stood there marveling at what she’d just realized.

and, now on this second friday in may, here we are on the brink of the day when, for one short whirl of the sun, we hold mothering up to the light. my prayer, this day and every day, is that we catch a glimpse, a deep glimpse, of its glories. that we think deep and hard about the difference that motherlove made in our lives, how it allowed us to catch the updraft, how it dried our tears and set us on our way.  how it always, always listened. how maybe it whispered, every once in a while, “you are so beautiful.”

your motherlove might not have come from your mother. but, surely, there was someone somewhere who loved as a mother loves. and you learned, perhaps, to love in that way.

and so it continues, the blessed and glorious love like no other: motherlove, stitched with courage, shimmering with radiant light. brave, raw, messy, ever beautiful.

to every motherer everywhere, may you be wrapped in pure blessing. today, tomorrow, and every day after.

with all my love, b.

what would you add to the job description, the mothering job, i mean?

for the whimsy of it, here’s a little video my beautiful publisher, Abingdon Press, made. it’s me reading an essay from Motherprayer, and it’s the one in which i make the case for celebrating mothering, the verb, and not just mothers per se. it’s making the case that it’s the particular art of loving, one that belongs to anyone who mothers, that is so deeply worthy of a national holiday. It’s All About the -ing

i’m dashing to take my little guy to school, so i’ll check soon as i’m home to make sure all is in working order……

and a happy blessed birthday to one of the most glorious motherers i know, our very own lamcal, who is magnificent and a profile in pure mother courage. 

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little nest, and fallen egg, brought inside for safe keeping. and beholding. and honoring.

 

among the inanities of life, a knock at the door will anchor you firmly

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sometimes it sneaks up behind you. sometimes you find yourself pulling into a narrow driveway, squeezing between tall brick pillars, praying the next sound you hear won’t be the sides of your wagon scraping harsh against brick.

sometimes you are quietly tiptoeing about someone’s front porch, tucking a fat bunch of tulips into a watering can by the door. and as you are bent, your spine a curve of surrender, the door clicks. you look up, and there is your friend, a not-so-old friend, but a friend who these days is navigating through some of the narrowest straits known to humankind. he found out just three months ago that his lungs harbor a “niche” cancer (that’s what he called it, meaning a rare and intricate one, one at the distant edges of medical mapping).

he invites you in. and only because you’re worried about the draft blowing in, the draft of this chilly may afternoon, you do as you’re told.

when standing face-to-face with someone new to the trials of cancer, all else falls away. the words that are spoken carry a weight and a glistening that propels them clear past the usual folderol and fluff of everyday talk. the words come and go from a nuclear core at the heart of human existence.

my friend wasted no time, when i asked, in telling me that the day before, a day of multiple scans and long hours of cell-slaying drugs, he’d walked into the medical center wrought with despair. he’d been imagining the words, “i’m sorry, best to just go home,” over and over again in his head, certain he’d be told that progress was naught, and hope had run out. i felt the weight of his words, of his truth. i felt the trembling; we shared it in that instant, in that way that words, that story, can draw us into the same shared cell.

but then, he said, his face breaking into pure joy, he heard words he’d never imagined: “they were elated,” he told me. “elated,” he said once again, as if to grind in that truth, the one he’d never expected. the cell slayers were doing their job. hope had rushed into the hollows.

he stood there, a man with not a hair, nor an eyelash or brow, beaming a radiant glow. the front hall, not a minute before filled with a draft and a chill, was suddenly swirling with warmth.

i stayed but a few minutes longer. long enough for a hug and a nod to the little kindnesses that carry all of us through the unmoored passages of our lives, the ones when the walls close in, and the darkness comes, and each and every breath is defiance, is courage with air.

all in all it was but a 10-minute pause in my day. but it jostled the whole of it — and the days before and likely many days after — into fine-grained focus.

suddenly, all the tangles and hassles, the computer on the fritz, the rushing and dashing, the too many things to squeeze in a day, they all fell away. shrank back to size.

none of them matter. not really.

and even though we know those things, know them with every bone in our wobbly old bodies, we forget. too too often.

sometimes, we need to stand in a hallway, face to face with a man who quite frankly tells us he feared for the worst, stared despair in the face, and heard the words he’d least expected to hear: here’s hope. it’s yours to keep. now, go forth. and spread the gospel.

you never know who might show up on your stoop. in deep need of the lesson you’re living today.

and that’s my humble tale of the week. what life lessons did you encounter this week, the ones that plant you solidly in your boots? 

the picture above is in honor of this being children’s book week, and this is the page, drawn and water-colored by tasha tudor, that informed the whole of my childhood, that drew me in and never let me go, the doorway to a land of enchantment that was my home of all homes. and since i didn’t take a picture while tucking tulips into a watering can on the front stoop of my friend, i decided to share the enchantment. i once wrote a little bit about this page, in an ode to dear tasha, the morning after i found out that she’d died. i remembered this was children’s book week because my dear friend amy told me. and she wrote a beautiful ode to her favorite childhood book, which you can find here on her breathtaking blog.

may yours be a lovely blessed week. xoxox

lost in the cobwebs…almost.

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it’s been one of those weeks that’s found me sifting through drawers, sifting through history, following threads hither and yon.

there’s a particular drawer, in the old pine writing table across the way from here where i sit, and it might as well be my holy of holies. it’s where i stash particular love letters, and every mass card from every funeral of someone i’ve loved. it’s where, apparently, i’ve stashed the polaroid snapshots of my firstborn lying bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed in the children’s hospital ICU, the day after he flew from his bike and broke his neck. and where i’ve tucked the recording of my then-little one’s long-ago phone machine greeting, a delectable slur of words that always left callers confounded — and me charmed, beyond words.

it’s been one of those weeks where threads seem to be pulling me this way, then that. one question leads to a search. another leads to the creaky old stairs that unfold from the attic.

i’ve been discovering shards and treasures all week. i’ve bumped into more questions than answers. why, oh why, do i have a silver coin from 1909, one with abe lincoln’s buIMG_9236st on the front, and on the back the words, “for merit in an essay on abraham lincoln”? who won this, and where is this prize-winning essay? and how did the coin come to be in my drawer? might it be from my grandmama mae, the irish school teacher who bore my sweet papa? might my love of words flow directly through her bloodline? and might my boys’ love of abe be their genetic inheritance?

these are the questions that keep me awake. and won’t let me rest till i unearth the answers.

long long ago, standing in the kitchen of the house where i grew up, i remember leaning into my father’s shoulder (he was wearing the navy velour pullover he so often wore, and i can conjure the nub of that cloth even today — 36 years after the moment), and my father spoke these words that have echoed ever since: “you have a real sense of history.” it was one of those moments when suddenly something you’d not known appears as the most obvious truth in your life. my father died less than two months later. so the words became prophetic. the words have become my divining rod. i follow history. i sift through old letters and artifacts. i study old photos, the ones now faded. i try to make sense.

and i can’t bear to let history — to let story or love, for that’s what so much of a history is — crumble to dust in a drawer or the attic.

which is why i was a bit frazzled this week when i realized that years of my old newspaper stories are all but lost in the cobwebs. it’s intricately complicated, i found out, to pluck certain stories from the digital archives. without a date and precise headline, it’s nearly impossible. which means a good 20 years of bylines might never again be unearthed. which, mostly, won’t matter. but among those two decades there are stories that poured straight from my heart, and i can’t bear the thought that they’re never to be pulled to daylight again. they were, each one, a love song to or about someone or something that mattered. they were moments in my story that i’m not ready to bury.

which is why i decided that, every once in a while, when i find one, i’m going to lovingly paste it here, a digital scrapbook of bylines gone by.

this is the first, a love letter, really, to the very fine soul who picked up his hammer and built the nooks and crannies of this old house and the one before it, a construction of love beyond what we’d dreamed.

Being graced by the hand — and soul — of Jim
January 04, 2004|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune staff reporter.

At my house, his name is Jim.

I still remember the first time he walked in, walked in to talk about taking down walls, putting up a dormer. One minute, I’d never seen him before, the next minute, I’d known him all my life.

I still remember standing out by the sidewalk, watching the roof come off our old house, leaning against the wrought-iron gate next door, and he told me, in the most matter-of-fact way, “My dad always said to leave behind a footprint wherever you go.”

Jim leaves footprints. In the form of a box-bay window the architects hadn’t drawn, but that he knew was just what we wanted, to make the trees feel like they stretched right into our room, or, rather, to sweep the window seat right out into the limbs, making a treehouse of what might have been simply a room for a bed.

In the form of drawers that glide in and out as if on Rollerblades, making me feel elegant every time I reached inside for a lumpy old sweater.

In the form of bookshelves that wrapped around me in my little room, making me feel hugged and safe and home — very much at home.

It didn’t take long for all of us to fall in love with Jim & Co. The whole summer they were at our house — Jim and Tom and Bri, the musketeers three — my husband couldn’t wait to vault out of bed and dash over to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where he’d return with a box dripping with sugar and round puffy blobs. My little boy took to sitting on the stairs, watching. He had a big red tool kit that he started lugging around. He put on his safety goggles and he built things in the back yard. Boats. A race car. Bigger boats.

That was at our old house.

I didn’t want to leave it behind because I couldn’t bear to leave behind the magic that Jim had pounded into its walls, its windows, its tucked-away secrets.

Jim, you see, is indispensable, and not just because he wields a mean hammer. Jim is indispensable because what he builds goes far beyond the blue lines you see in the drawings. Jim is indispensable because he knows, without words, the poetry of walls and windows and doors, and all they hold for those of us who hatch our dreams at home like eggs in a nest.

So when we moved, it was pretty simple: We brought Jim with us.

In fact, we bought a house that I could see only through the lens of Jim and all that he could do. I saw right past the ugly tile in the kitchen, the tile someone loved so much they glued it right up the wall once they ran out of the floor. I saw right through the bathrooms with the vanities that looked as if they took three oak trees to build them, they were so big and bulky and in the way.

That was almost a year ago. And in that year, slowly, patiently, whenever he had a minute in between building other people’s houses, he’s been pounding magic into this house, as if it really mattered.

And the point here is: It does matter.

Every single day, most likely for the rest of my life, this house, these walls, these windows, will be the ones that shape my every day. It is within these rooms that I will take in my first waking breath each day and every other breath that forms my every word. It is through these windows that I will look out at the world and drink in the fuel of my dreams. These are the nooks I will curl up in. These are the stairs I will climb, every time it really matters, and plenty of times when it really doesn’t.
But the point is, because his hand is here, everywhere I look I feel his soul, and the soul of something much bigger that speaks to me in a soft still voice, in every room.

Where once upon a time there was a single-car garage, and where after that, just before we moved in, there was brown-striped vinyl wallpaper and nubby carpeting all shredded by a yappy dog, there are now floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcases, and two window seats that stretch out beneath the windows. It is nearly a re-creation of the little tiny room of my dreams I had to leave behind in the house that is no longer ours.

Only this one is better, because I get to stay here forever, and because Jim & Crew pretty much built it from memory, trying to mend the heart that got wrenched in the move.

By the time we’re finished, pretty much every room is going to be graced by the hand of Jim. He’s building a corner cabinet for all the books my little boy has yet to read, and I have visions of us curled up for hours there, for years and years to come. He’s already built a wall of bookshelves for my husband, a wall that could only be called majestic, so elegant and mighty as its fine-honed pilasters reach for the ceiling, and hold my husband’s anchor in the world, his library of books about all the ideas he treasures most.

My 2-year-old, who picked out shoes at the shoe store because they look just like Jim’s, took on a refrain this summer that pretty much echoed the truth in all our hearts. He walked around the house, and whenever he noticed anything amiss, he proclaimed matter-of-factly: “Jim fix it.”

Jim, he fixes everything. And not just with his hammer.

and, now, that one is saved, tucked away in my treasure box, here at the table…..

have you ever discovered — in the nick of time — that some treasure of yours was nearly lost? and if so, how did you save it?

“wake up!” shouts the world to its sleepy citizens

perhaps, over the long winter’s months, you dozed into somnolence. sleepy-eyed, you shuffled, as if in your scraggliest house slippers, through the days and the hours. why bow down to sniff the gnarly branches when nothing but snow — and icy cold — bumped into your nose?

ah, but then, as it’s been doing forever and ever — since the dawn of creation, as a matter of fact — the old globe turned on its axis. inch by inch. or galloping yard by galloping yard. whether we notice or not, it keeps on with its celestial work. it’s the job of the earth, for heaven’s sake, to not slow to a crawl, to not stop in its tracks. it’s the job of the earth to carry us all on its curious merry-go-round, a ride for which we don’t need a ticket, needn’t stand in a queue, waiting our turn. we’re on — strapped in or not — for the whole of the whirl.

and so, here we are, back in the part where, if we’re paying attention, we find ourselves in the minute-by-minute explosion of all that’s been quietly waiting out the winter. it’s slow seduction, this day by day, hour by hour, unfurling of all that’s within. mama earth doesn’t give away all her hallelujahs at once. she wants you back, she wants you keeping close watch on her show, so she lures you in, a slo-mo unveiling of all of her secrets.

one day you might notice a nub where the day before there was nothing but stick. and then, should you sashay back to the scene, say by mid-afternoon, you’ll see a bit more of the skin, of the bulging protrusion that is the bloom in the making.

it’s all newborn right now. the leaves, just beginning their term, as if cut from a fat bolt of velvet, pinned onto branches, by the night seamstress, the sorceress of spring, who wisps through the dark delighting our senses, making way for the morning show, when the curtain of dawn rises.

everywhere, the earth is shouting: wake up, you sleepy heads. wipe the goop from your eyes, slip on your galoshes, and come give it a gander.

and lest that all be too subtle for you, lest you miss the whisper of the garden, well, old mr. robin has a wake-up for you. and he starts his warble in the wee, wee hours. not long after three, perhaps. certainly by four. in the morning, i mean. the american robin is no dawdler, sleeping in, taking his sweet holy time. nope, he’s up well before the crack of dawn, and he’s in full throat these past coupla weeks. has he not awakened you?

here, have a listen: mr. robin singing his song.

he’s out there in the dark, poor warbler of night. good thing he’s got a fairly fine song. a clarion call of 10 consecutive notes, the ornithologists tell us. clear whistles. some folk, the ones who try to put words to the script of the birds, they say he’s calling out “cheer up, cheer up.” or “cheerily, cheerily.” i for one can’t quite make out the words, but i do hear the song, i hear it for most of the night, these past few insomniac nights.

my friend tim the birdman tells me it’s all about hormonal overdrive, of course. and the poor robin just can’t sleep when he’s got one and only one thing on his mind: he needs to procreate, plain and simple. so he’s awake at the first lumen of light. and that’s where the problem comes in, says ornithological tim. those peachy-breasted birds are suffering a modern-day plight: the extreme wattage of the world, the herds of high-intensity light poles lining our highways, the bizarre habit of planting floodlights in branches of trees, they’re all doing a number on the chorister of dawn — they’re pushing his start time closer and closer to midnight. some robins, says tim, are singing their lungs out “almost all night long.”

egad.

the over-illumination of our planet — the daylight that stretches from dawn to dawn — it’s mucking up the works in a serious way.

but, back to the lone robin who sings out my window — and likely yours too.

seems to me, he’s all part of the magnificent plot to shake us all out of our stupor, our natural-born inclination to doze at the wheel of this thing called “a life.”

there’s divine wisdom, indeed, in this once-a-year whirl through the explosion of spring. the earth is literally bursting with the beautiful. it’s beckoning, begging: crouch down, pay attention. give a sniff. plop your bum. inhale. watch me unfurl. i’ll give you a wallop, minute by minute. 

in a thousand million mind-spinning ways the whole of creation is clued in to the infinite wisdom: this is your gift, it’s yours for the taking. all you need do is open your eyes, open your ears and your nose, pry open your heart — and your soul while you’re at it — and let in the holiest whisper.

it’s the wake-up call of heaven and earth.

the springs of our lifetime are numbered, they won’t last forever and ever. the beauty is now, go bury your nose in the whole of it.

and whisper a fine hallelujah.

(mr. robin might be pleased to know that you’re adding your notes to his noisy spring chorus.)

if only someone had invented a scratch-n-sniff for the whole of the springtime….

what are the ways the explosion of spring slows you to deepest attention? 

into the depths

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all week in this old house, we’ve been burrowing deep into ancient and timeless stories. the story of the exodus, pesach, the retelling of the jews’ escape from slavery in egypt, a retelling that elie wiesel, the late great nobel laureate and holocaust survivor, called “a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.” it is a retelling stitched with blessing, and question, and story.

its leitmotif, “you were strangers in a strange land,” God’s words to Abram, a call to radical empathy, a call to ever open our hearts to those who are strangers, marginalized, in our midst.

after three nights of seder, of coming to tables filled with people we love, after cups of wine, and reciting of plagues, after singing dayenu (the hebrew word for “enough,” as in God’s love would have been more than enough, in a rising series of praises — “if God had only created the world and not brought us out of egypt, it would have been enough”), we pivot to the holiest hours of holy week — or i do anyway.

i am deep now and deepening. i hear the cry of my soul, being pulled into timelessness, into sacred hours and space. i burrow into the stories of the last supper (the seder of Jesus and his twelve apostles), of gethsemane, of the betrayal by Judas, of the mocking and crowning with thorns, of the bone-crushing cross shouldered by Jesus as he stumbled along the trail to his crucifixion at golgotha, the hill just outside jerusalem, the hill where he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” and then, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” the whole arc of anguish and redemption in two short utterances.

it never fails to draw me deep into the nautilus of prayer.

and so, late yesterday, as the slant of light grew thin and thinner, i was pulled into a jewel box of a medieval stone chapel, its leaded windows a mosaic of cobalt and ruby and aquamarine. i was alone. i had only my prayer and my deepening.

today will be more of the same. the hours of silence, from noon till three, the hour, we’re told, when Jesus let out his final surrender, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” when he breathed his last, and the sun’s light was extinguished, i will do as generations before me have done: utter not a word, follow my prayer to the hushed place within. i will keep my holy vigil for the suffering that once was, and the suffering that goes on to this day, to this hour.

in both the story of exodus and the story of the crucifixion, we are called not only to honor them as ancient and long-ago narratives. we’re to infuse them with the now. to employ them as holy script, as instruction, imperative, to find in their depths the modern-day call to action: search for the stranger, embrace the stranger. set a place at your table, and make it the finest you have. love even your enemy. forgive your enemy.

turn yourself wholly and finally to God.

both stories, a call to radical empathy. both stories, imploring divine surrender.

both stories i’m burrowing into this week. this week of ancient and timeless holiness. this week with wisdom for now.

may your holy days — however they come — be deep and be blessed.

and happy blessed birthday to my beautiful little ella today turning eight, and to my beloved mother-in-law ginny (the chair’s most loyal reader perhaps) whose day is tomorrow. 

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

stitching in the quietude

light coming in at the edges

before this day ends, i will be tucked in a sleeping chamber in an old and timeless seminary. it will be an unadorned cell — a bed, a wood-slabbed floor, maybe a window.

i am driving to the woods — and the great stone seminary, nestled along a lake — to give my soul the air time it so deeply needs. it’s been too long. decades and decades since i slid into a many-chambered monastic place, and stayed the night. since i fell asleep under rough-hewn sheets, listened to the silence all around, heard the whispers of my deepest soul cry out.

i’m long overdue. of that, i’m certain. monasteries and abbeys have been calling out to me for years. please come, they beckon. please rest your weary soul. yet i’ve not obliged. not wholly, anyway.

oh, i’ve popped in from time to time, knelt down, kindled wicks in rows of vigil lights. but not surrendered into the seamless timelessness of true retreat, the respite from everyday cacophony.

when we lived for a year in cambridge, mass., there was a great grey stone monastery, tucked along a bend in the charles river, shadowed behind a stand of sycamores, and i wove it often into my daily meanderings. my hours there were holy. were hushed. the alchemy of candle smoke, infused with incense, infused with long-robed monks chanting morning prayer, it catapulted me toward that place where prayers stir deep and deeper.

and now it’s time for immersion into silence.

that this quiet interlude, one i invited in months ago, is coming now, amid a week of hallelujah mixed with jitters, it’s blessed timing. from sundown to sundown i’ll be washed in quiet. in listening to the prayerful wisdoms of the fine soul who’s convened the gathering, whose lifework is inviting in quietude. reminding us — all of us — that we need equal measures noise and silence. that our hectic lives beg for the punctuated pause. that we etch in time for absorbing, for soaking in the holiness that’s always all around.

it comes just before that swirl of passover and holy week, an intermingling in this house that has us marking ancient story and eternal truth. it comes amid a springtime that’s unfurling abundantly, with blessings all around.

it comes just hours from now.

and i am quieting already…

may you all find at least a spot of quietude this day, this close of another week. 

how do you respond when you’re called into the deep that comes with no noise?

and a magnificent thank you to every blessed chair sister and blessed friend who scaffolded my heart, kept my knees from buckling last night, at the “birthing” of Motherprayer. whether you were there, in the charmed and quirky bookstore, or sending whispers from afar, you somehow propelled me through. it all always begins here, where roots grow deeper by the day. xoxo