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Tag: art of listening

burrowing into december, month of miracles and searching

breakfast in bed

this is the month, they tell us, of miracles. “a miracle happened here.” so say the hanukkah refrains. it’s the month, too, of searching for a room, searching for room in your heart. so say the stories of christmas.

amid the month of darkness, miracles await in the nooks and the crannies. amid the month of december, there’s searching to do. deep-down searching.

here’s a secret: sometimes, you’re wise to approach the days with a deep-down quiet. that’s how you come to hear the whispers, and the cries that haven’t the oomph to rise to deafening decibels. that’s how you just might stumble into a miracle, sometimes find room in the cave of your heart.

the three, it seems, belong together: the quiet, the miracle, the room.

december for plenty of folks is a month of tight passages, and tangled adventures in forward motion. december is a month that grabs some by the ankles, tugs at them, tries to topple them, steepens the climb.

december, when you turn down the noise, unspool the days in whispers, tiptoe rather than race, is when you just might hear the scratch at the door of your heart. you are awake to the muffled cries that come in from the cold. and, often, that’s how you find yourself in the company of miracles, and discover a few extra inches in the capacity of your heart.

in recent days, i’ve tumbled into one or two souls in shadow. souls who couldn’t for the life of them see the light. certainly not their own. i wonder if i’d been racing through the days, a list of to-do’s blaring in my ears, if i would have heard quite how deeply they were hurting.

thank God, i heard.

i paused. i took a breath. shoved aside what the day had intended for me to do. instead, i climbed into the trench where each one found him or herself. i sidled up beside the soul in shadow; i said little. i spoke in actions. because sometimes only in doing can we really truly speak. i made breakfast, plopped it on a tray, ferried it to the someone whose soul was hurting. i unfurled blankets, and we sat side-by-side. i listened, all day.

the magic of loving is this: it works both ways at once. have you ever noticed that in your moments of deeply loving, as you lavish kindness and gentleness, as you exercise dashes of creativity to give your love some oomph, your own heart is growing right alongside the one you’re working so hard to love?

tonight a friend i love is coming for dinner. she’s a friend whose world has shrunk quite dramatically of late. the moment i imagined inviting her for dinner, imagined the candles i’d light, the napkins i’d lay out, imagined the plates piled with deliciousness, imagined the hours of uninterrupted conversation, i felt my own heart grow.

it is in giving love that we find it. that’s neither radical or new. it’s an old recycled truth. but when we live it, especially in the month of december, month of darkness and miracle and making room inside our hearts, it takes on a radiance all its own.

i’ll kindle lights tonight. i’ll aim to kindle light each and every day. i’ll keep my ears tuned for whispers and for cries. i’m making room. i’m tumbling into miracles.

those are the stories, the truths, of december, blessed holy month.

first night candles

how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?

civility matters

ailes out

i never write about politics here at the chair, and i’m not about to do so now. so let me begin by simply saying that the most hopeful bit of front-page news today was not “above the fold,” as we say in the newspaper biz. rather, it was down below, “below the fold,” in the story you see pictured above.

roger ailes is out at fox news. beneath and beyond that firing there are promises that the culture of that broadcast operation will be examined, and scrubbed. will all the screaming end? will the baseless accusations, the twistings of untruths screech to a halt? i can only hope. but maybe, maybe, it will all be toned down a decibel or five. maybe they’ll find a way to deliver a rightful perspective, a deeply-held position, without resorting to hate mongering and wholesale riddling of heart and soul and reputation.

forge on fox news: call a spade a spade, as you see it. deplore numbers, so long as they’re based on sound study, derived from solid research. express opinion. but, please, employ the art of listening. employ civility.

and stop screaming while you’re at it.

some 10 years ago, perusing the banana aisle in my nearby grocery store, i ran into one of the great newsmen of the day, the former managing editor of the chicago tribune, an ex-marine who wore his shirt sleeves cropped at the biceps, who was known to be more exuberant in his dealings after lunch than before, whose eye for injustice and smarmy dealings was unparalleled (especially when fixed on the dark side of chicago politics). he paused in his own perusal of banana bunches to bark words at me that have stayed with me ever since: “everybody’s talking these days, no one’s listening anymore.”

that’s old news by now, but back when he said it — not long after the explosion of the blogosphere, where anyone who could type could suddenly claim a chunk of cyber-real estate and blather on endlessly — it made me stop and notice. it made me re-up my commitment to the art of listening (back in nursing school, we devoted a whole semester to a course that boiled down to listening, the art thereof.) it made me insist that here at the chair we’d be civil, we’d be kind. and, yes, it made me vow to keep my eye trained on the hearts and souls that are the truth behind even the crustiest of bloviators.

what had always irked me most about fox news wasn’t the point of view, but the gloves-off approach that had one talking head shouting at another. that spewed invective as if cruel words alone would spike the almighty nielsen ratings. and then it wasn’t long till the other cable channels took notice, began to do the same. i can barely watch CNN anymore, for all the shouting, all the overdrive that drowns out half the words.

as cable news fueled the trough, so too did all the divisiveness creep into the u.s. capitol, and statehouses across the land. so too did it creep into online posts and chats, even on pages devoted to common cause or shared geography.

i know, because this isn’t my natural realm, that my words here are too facile, my thoughts not finely chiseled enough, but i’m willing to risk exposure to that criticism to say my heart is crushed — day after day, hour upon hour sometimes — by the rampant disintegration of civility. the swirling down the drain of the art of listening. the understanding that no one wins when we all walk away bruised and bleeding.

if there was one moment in the recent awful primary campaign that broke my heart the most it was the moment i now see played and replayed in one political commercial: the moment where the republican nominee is seen flapping his hands, mocking a reporter with a disability. and doing so in front of a jeering, cheering crowd. have we come to that? and if we have, how much lower can we go?

because i won’t give up on the belief that good outweighs awful, that love can regain ground, i woke up to hope this morning as i heard the news that not only was ailes — a man alleged to have demanded sexual favors in return for job promotion — out as chairman and chief executive, the sons of rupert murdoch (who imagined he’d ever be cast in the hero role?), now at the helm, would be examining the culture ailes had injected, infected into fox, and they’d launch a “wide-ranging overhaul.”

if fox can clean up its act, there’s hope. if just one iota of civility can trickle in, can regain ground…

i’ve been shell-shocked much of these recent weeks. inclined to hole away in my garden. to submit to the song of the wren rather than the bloviations and horrors of the news around me (though my newsier instincts inevitably lure me to the screens, to watch, to read, to try to grasp at least faint outlines). i keep my head down, steer clear of all the tussling and jabbing i find online. i’ve come to think i’m just plain allergic to incivilities.

so if roger ailes is out, it’s one for civility. and decency. and honor. and maybe, just maybe we can regain ground. those of us who fear that all around us toxins fill the air. those of us who will not surrender to incivility, and word by word hold our holy ground.

your thoughts? how do you retrench from incivility? and more essentially how do you sow goodness, kindness, love?

tea therapy

tea therapy

against the arctic whistle on the far side of the glass, the shrill siren of the tea kettle is all but marking shift change, with its regular rhythmic blasts. here at the old maple table all week, it signals: “in session.”

it’s the steam-driven bellows of the mugs of teas that punctuate a holy ritual taking place here. almost as if a shingle had been hung, with red neon arrows blinking, pointing up the bluestone walk, past the paned front door in shade of oceanic blue, lighting the way past snow drifts to the tucked-in table where the talk unfolds.

it’s been a blessing of this month of college interlude. my own sweet boy is long gone, now back in classes, but a host of other college kids, kids with heavy hearts and twisted potholed paths, kids who’ve lost their way, they are finding their way here, to this table, to this ample-bellied teapot where the water never empties and the teas are always spiced. my bowl of clementines is at the ready, so too the cookies under glass, where a swift lift of the domed lid offers sweet accompaniment for salty tears.

i find it a whisper of a miracle that kids have figured out they are always welcome here, and that there’s a heart who will listen without judgement, who makes a place for them to dump their worries and their fears. and who lives and breathes the promise that these dark days will end; there’s a grownup — right here in the flesh — who’s known the shadow and the great abyss, and who — with skinned knees all her own — found her way up the side of the steepest trail.

“it’s the 10-minute rule,” one wise tea-sipper intoned. she meant that she’d been taught to take on her overwhelming dread or angst or out-of-this-world anxiety in 10 minute chunks. endure it. know it has an end, and will not swallow you whole. and in a good 10 minutes, something deep inside will shift. or not. and you’ll enter into yet another 10-minute exercise in sheer survival. and soon enough, sure as sure can be, it will pass. the vista will change. and those baby steps — those 10-minute triumphs of straight-up enduring — they will, through simple additive powers, combine into hour- and then hours-long stretches of breathing. curled in a ball, perhaps. or with the self-propelled motivation to pick up a book, climb on a treadmill, call a friend, tiptoe to the kitchen to see if warm company might be found.

i’ve seen the gamut here this week, had kids whisper words, and follow swiftly with, “i hope that doesn’t shock you.” no, it doesn’t shock. no, no. never. it only breaks my heart that smart kids, gorgeous kids, kids with hopes and dreams  are nearly train-wrecked by the vicissitudes of hurdles set too high, of broken promises and betrayals, of a world in which no sin goes un-broadcast and there’s too little wiggle room for the fine art of making honest mistakes.

so while i steep in my own brand of guilt for not raking in freelance assignments, and while my bank account is on the decline and not the rise, i find more than a dose of solace that the pages of my life flipped forward to the chapter i long ago dreamed of: where i’m the old lady at the maple table, the old lady (not yet hunched-over, thanks be to the pharmaceutical gods who give us bone-boosting weekly white horse pills) whose shoulders are wrapped in the woven folds of woolen shawl, and who with lumps of sugar and dollops of milky cream doles out vast acreages of her heart and what scraps of wisdom she’s tucked into her apron pocket all along the way.

at long week’s end, i find myself bowed in prayer for these children, these wide-eyed pilgrims trying so hard to find their way, to find the shafts of light breaking through the tight space between the rocks. and i find myself so deeply grateful that my years of being lost now pay me back in solid company where it matters most: here at the old maple table, where hope is served around the clock.

no need to knock: i promise you, the door is always open. and so’s the heart.

word of the week: i believe i’ve let languish a promise made back in 02139 to bring you a delectable word of the week. well, here’s one for this week — salmagundi (provenance: nigel slater’s “notes from the larder”)  a hodgepodge is what it means, and it comes from a literal mix of chopped meat, eggs, flavored with oil, vinegar, anchovies, and onions. but used freely far beyond the bounds of the kitchen, as in “they were a salmagundi of old and young, wise and fool.”

and before arriving at the query of the week, another bit of poetic thought picked up last week in my online “poetry in america: walt whitman,” class, taught by professor elisa new of harvard college. in her introduction to poetry lecture, she riffed on poetic language, and its powers. i thought you might find it worth pondering, and so i snipped it to bring to the table, though i forgot to leave it here, as last week’s recipe took up so very many lines….here tis, from elisa new, harvard’s powell m. cabot professor of american literature (and wife of former treasury secretary and former harvard university president larry summers):

Poetic language is language worth pausing over. It’s language that slows down time. It’s language that takes us into corners of our experience we might have overlooked. It’s language that is conscious of itself as language. It’s language trying out and expanding and pressing at the borders of what language can do, just as in other media, in painting, painters think about how to use paint in new ways. In the world of music, musicians think about how to use tone and sound in new ways.

Poetry is language curious about language itself. To say that is, in a way, to put poetry at the very center of the humanistic enterprise, since human beings are the creatures who use language. When we study poetry, we think about what it is to be human, the ways in which our existence is mediated and created and advanced and expanded by language.

oh, to be so supremely conscious of the words we choose, and how we push the boundaries of human connectedness….

where do you dish out your best counsel? the kitchen table, the cutting board, the cookstove, the couch, the driver’s seat of your mobile, the bedroom, the work bench, the miles and miles upon which you walk? 

the hours that matter the most

as i sift through the grains of my week, of my year, of my long stretch of motherhood, i’ve come to know that the grains i hold a bit longer, the grains i hold up to the light, are the fine simple hours that come, often, right after school.

when the boys who i love are bothered, are troubled, are weighed down with the grit of the day.

when suddenly the chairs at the table are pulled. bottoms splot onto cane-woven seats. when tea cups are cradled in palms. when oranges are peeled, piled in sections.

when the talking begins.

of all the scores of things i might do in the course of a week, of a lifetime, nothing perhaps matches the wholeness of those holy hours.

the boys who i love are sifting through their own hearts, laying their troubles there at my chest, at my heart. they are trusting not my mouth but my ears.

just listen, you can hear them hoping.

just hear all my words, spoken and not.

just listening alone will heal, will soothe, go a long way toward fixing.

when days are bad, when hours are bumpy, most of the time we aren’t looking for quick-cures or band-aids. all we want, really, is someone to sop up the hurt. to listen to worries.

all we want, often, are eyes that look deep, look gently. eyes that listen. not words that cut off. not words that dismiss.

just hear me, you can hear the hearts saying. if you listen. just listen.

and so, unscripted, unplanned, the scene plays over and over. one minute we’re there at the sink, i might be chopping or rinsing, a child is circling the kitchen. the talking begins.

the kettle is cranked. the tea bags and cups, pulled from the cupboards. tea kettle whistles. stories are spilling.

i walk to the table, two teacups in hand. chairs are pulled out. each of us sits. i lean in, my chest pressed against the edge of the table, tilting toward the one who is talking.

the quieter i sit, the more wholly i take in the words, the deeper the place from which the words come.

it’s a curious algebra, the one of the heart.

on the surface, perhaps, it appears to be one-way. but in fact, the art of listening is a most active one. you take in, you sift, you turn each morsel of thought, you examine, allow the questions to rise. but you wait. you hold your questions off to the side, in a queue, on hold. patiently waiting their turn.

when it’s time, when the pause comes, you reel out the questions, one, or maybe a string. you sit and you wait.

a question, constructed with care, unspooled on the river of talk, is one that sinks deep, one that says, “i am with you in thought. we are in this together. our heads and our hearts entwined, teamed up. you’re not alone. i wonder, too.”

no solution need come. no answers, plucked from the current.

a deep conversation is not one in which the success of the time in the water is measured by number of fish in your bucket. there’s no scale at the end. no photo of you with your whopper-sized trout.

in fact, it might not be till later that night, or a week or a year down the road, when the one who you talked to realizes that all those hours, strung on a line that never breaks, have woven themselves into a cord that connects. a life-string that keeps you from drowning, from sloshing alone in the deep.

it’s what you hold onto, there with your ears and your heart wide open, and your mouth rather hushed.

you remember how deeply you prayed that someone would listen.

you cradle that cup till the sides grow cold, till the sun sets, and the clock inches along.

you know when it’s time for homework to start, for dinner to simmer along in the pots.

but in that holy interlude where one heart’s ache is offered up, received by another, the weight shared, burden lifted, those are the hours that matter the most.

those are the hours that answer our prayers.

the ones we’ve prayed all our lives.

the image up above, a boy and his cat, on a cold snowy day is one that i cherish. i love how the two of them lean in toward each other, touch forehead to forehead. a good afterschool talk is like that. and yes, one of us purrs.
what holy interludes of listening have you had this week? who taught you how to listen?

always, an open door

it is, of all the parts of this old house, the one that might just matter the most. it’s the one, surely, that sends the loudest message.

it is the door, the front door. and at our house it is mostly glass, so you can see what bubbles on the inside, and i can see out. so life pulses through the glass.

there is not, decidedly not, one of those little signs the village passes out: no solicitors invited.

oh, it’s not that i like talking about magazine subscriptions that just might send a kid to college. and it’s not that i like it when the doorbell rings just as i am stirring dinner.

but i refuse to have the first thing you see at my door be the sound of words slamming in your face. go away, not interested in strangers. hardly the tone i care to broadcast before you even ring the bell.

and, besides, i do like talking to strangers. especially kids who have ventured beyond the streets that they know well, and are maybe scared to shaking walking here where doors are always slamming.

but the open door i’m thinking about today is the one that is extended far beyond the front stoop. it’s the open door that means i am always at the ready for whoever comes this way, for whoever has a tale to tell, and needs someone to listen.

it is, i think, the highest calling of a house. to be a place of utter comfort. to be a place that oozes, “sit here, tell me all your troubles.”

it is why, in the first place, we stack the logs, put out pillows, make sure that there’s the softest, warmest blanket we can find. it’s why the pantry holds a basket full of teas, and the clementines are plenty.

first and foremost, a house brings peace to those who dwell there. but if that door is never open, if we don’t usher in a stranger, then a house is merely shelter. and not a place of holy respite.

it is the invitation that never ends. my house is your house. without the two of us to dance, the heartbeat fades away, evaporates to lonely.

just today, any hour now, there will be a woman at that door. a woman i barely know. i’ve only met her once. but her heart broke and cracked and shattered recently, and she’s trying to gather up the pieces.

she was pregnant with a baby girl just this summer past. and when they did an ultrasound, the kind they always do, not in search of any trouble, they found that baby girl had a hole where her diaphragm should be. so all her insides, the ones that should be in the belly, were pushed up by her lungs.

the baby girl was born, fighting just to breathe. and one month later, the baby girl died, right before thanksgiving.

her mama, strong and gentle all at once, survived the holidays. she has two little boys, so her hands, she says, are always busy.

but her heart can barely contain the bleeding that comes from burying a baby.

and so she comes, quite simply, to unspool her unending sorrow. she comes to try to ease the clenching in her chest.

it is in the telling of our stories, often, that the healing begins to come. it is in looking up through tears and seeing another face. a pair of eyes, a heart, absorbing all there is to be absorbed.

sometimes we are called upon to be a human swab for all the ache that cannot be bound inside one single heart.

sometimes we need only listen.

sometimes what is shared across a tear-splashed kitchen table is the very blessed act of kindling just a single wick of light where there’d been only darkness.

but if the door is sometimes closed, then how can sorrow enter, and begin to ease toward healing?

the open door, i’m convinced, is most essential for a house to be a holy place where hearts are stitched with hope, and two heartbeats rise in sacred echo–one promising the other that peace will come again.

do you find yourself sometimes across the table from someone who needs to tell their story? do you find it easy to forget that the purpose of a door is to be opened? what rites and rituals do you make a part of your home to make the stranger–or the friend–feel wholly welcome?

thinking in circles

last night, while i scrubbed the onion burn off the bottom of a pan, i dove in deep in conversation with a mind i have known since delivery, which i think was just the other year.

heck, i can close my eyes and see that brain unborn, an ultrasonic skull, white-on-black on screen, the fuzzy outlines of cerebrum, the big black space i once mistook for lack of brain. until the radiologist talked me off the ceiling. i’ve had my eye on that gray matter since way back, in the beginning.

only last night, suddenly flashed forward, we parsed evil versus harmful. evil, he pointed out, is big picture; harmful is far less sinister in scope. next, he told me why he worries about organized religion; he worries that too many are too judgmental. who do people think they are, he asked, judging other people? it simply makes no sense. the God he knows forgives.

then he tossed out this: “people say you’ve gotta be good because you’ll go to heaven. it’s not about heaven,” he said as if that’s plain as day. “it’s about how you’ll impact other people.
“oy!”

not a heartbeat later, he’d moved onto deep forgiveness and i’d moved onto the pan that steamed asparagus.

he circled the sink and me, the boy who’s walked in circles as he thinks ever since he started thinking, which might have been the original day he lifted foot from ground and placed it back again. nearly 13 years, he’s walked circles ’round me; now, i realized as i grabbed for towel to dab at dripping pan, he thinks circles ’round me too.

when all the pots were clean enough, he and i indulged in sweet dessert—even deeper conversation. we retired to the maple table, we pulled up chairs, an after-dishes tete-a-tete all too rare in the world of over-busy, overburdened children. a tete-a-tete that might be required should anyone ever think to license those who sign certificates of birth.

while he ticked through list of one to twelve, a ranking of degrees of evil, each culled from news reports of recent years, i couldn’t help but note how on the days the news had happened, i’d so fiercely blocked him, little thinker, from this very litany of horrors—columbine, timothy mcveigh, the east texas worse-than-lynching death of james byrd, jr., the black man tied behind a pickup truck and dragged down a country road (my thinker’s pick for evil no. 1), and of course 9-11, which unfolded just minutes after i’d put him, then third grader, on a 12-seat van, newborn in my arms, his first solo ride to school on the far side of the city, a ride that, torturously that september day, coursed him through the shadows of chicago’s tallest towers.

back then, not long ago, i’d not wanted him to know the world could hold such hell.

and now, just minutes later, he was almost-man equipped with mind that studied every shade and shadow of every real-life horror story, probed for what it meant well beyond the news. a mind, i couldn’t help but notice, i could drink like desert water for the rest of all my days.

i shook my head, although he didn’t see me shaking. how, i wondered, did we get to here so fast? how is it that all those bedtime prayers, and all those late-into-the-night conversations, the ones where tears were wiped, the ones where stories told and questions asked sometimes felt like brill-o to my heart, how is it that while i was keeping watch, i swear i was, he had unfolded from little thinker of big thoughts into this mind, this soul, who, as i watch, is sharpening that tool, the way a carver sharpens knives, so he can use it to try to rid the world of what he sees as evil and injustice.

there are not, it seems, too many moments when you freeze the frame, see what’s taking shape before your very eyes. not on-stage moments. not graduations. not holding up a torah, or taking first communion. but right there, at the kitchen sink and just beyond, at the same maple table where you once set your elbows and launched a life of asking big fat questions.

there are a million moments along the road to that maple table and the parsing of degrees of evil that are, simply put, not a lot of fun.

there were fevers when the mercury shot to 105. and back at the beginning, weeks of rocking him beside the tub with the water running hard, something about the rushing sound that soothed (hmm, wonder if that’s why he now takes showers that could go on for hours).

there were schooldays when i heard all about how he’d stood alone on the playground, or perched on the roof of the climbing house, keeping watch on all the other children playing games without him.

and then we up and moved in the middle of fourth grade, and he endured a whole semester as the new kid from the city, the kid who in a town where baseball truly mattered, barely ever got on base, and swung at nearly every ball.

but sitting at that table, watching how he thinks, realizing that i was talking to a soul i couldn’t have designed to be more nourishing to my own soul, i couldn’t stop the warming down my spine: i’d do it all, all over again. in a blink, please sign me up.

it is perhaps the sweetest after-dinner morsel i’ve tasted in a long, long time: half an hour being circled by my firstborn child.

might i mention that it is exceedingly hard to write about how you love your growing-up child. i groped my way through the dark just now. i do it not to say how wonderful he is–that’s not the point at all. i do it to hold up the fact that here we are, some of us, in the very blessed front-row seat, watching the spectacle of true creation. it is almost unspoken, shared perhaps in pillow talk, the truth that what we’re watching takes our breath away. this is, i hope and pray, a place where we can whisper out loud the things not spoken often elsewhere. it is majesty, in rawest form. and though it’s hard as heck to put words to God’s most divine creation, i thought it worth a take. this, after all, is life in roughest draft. as always, i pull in close, i would love to hear your thoughts…

and while you’re at it, please, keep my blessed friend susan and her mama in your prayers. they could use a few today.