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

Tag: counting blessings

hearts opened wide…

cranberry pear

aunt brooke’s cranberry-pear relish in the making. because, why not?

it seems to come more flowingly with every passing year. that’s how it feels anyway.

this year it comes amid news that one friend i love, a friend who’s been the rock of life for countless legions for countless years, as she alone found ways to eke out hilarity despite the rules, (dressing up in yellow rubber boots and raincoats, stringing orange construction-paper duck bills across our mouths, marching clear across campus and into the college president’s office, straight past the military-grade secretary, to trick-or-treat and commandeer his afternoon, among the early antics i recall), she had a heart attack the other day. i sat here wiping away tears when i got the news. heart attacks have always held a certain fear for me, the daughter of a man felled by one at 52. my friend is 61; her heart, a prize that should not ever be attacked. (she’s home now, thank God, but feeling like she was “hit by a truck.”)

it comes as another friend sends breathtakingly beautiful spools of poetry from the brink of death — her own. which she is facing with more grace and majesty and transparency than i have ever witnessed.

it comes amid a world that convulses my heart and soul on what sometimes seems like a quarter-hourly basis. (my mother last night counseled that i should just turn off the damn TV and say a rosary with my spare time. i appreciate her instincts here, but i’m too far gone, i fear, to trade in MSNBC for a string of glory-be’s.)

when i feel the quivers coming on, when the longview across the landscape gets to be too much, i leap into something akin to being my own cinematographer, and i pull back the camera from wide lens to up close and stitch-by-stitch. it’s a lesson learned from the pantheon of saints who populate my brain cells — dorothy day, anne lamott, therese of lisieux. and a host of other holy folk who remind us that there is no more certain route to faith (just another name for knowing the Divine has brushed up beside you, swooped in and tapped you on the noggin, shown you in vivid detail that heaven’s just the other side of the filagree, in holy whisper, in flap of feathered wing, in the way the sunlight pools on crimson maple leaf).

that’s when my litany of gratitudes comes spilling out. when, in tiniest, most obscure details, i can fill up my heart with little joy upon little joy (another name for blessing).

for 12 years now, we’ve huddled here at the table, on the morning after the great day of giving thanks, and cobbled our own litanies of gratitude. we’ve counted to 100, the centenary of thanks. and dialed back to a modest couple dozen. the count, of course, is not the thing. it’s the exercise of scouring the landscape, and plucking the otherwise unnoticed, uncounted, and tallying, one by one, the plus signs that propel us through the day. there is no too-small a joy to lift us breath by breath.

it’s barely eight o’clock, and already i count these:

the twin bed and rumpled quilt mounded around the kid who yesterday morning announced, “mom, this is my last thanksgiving,” delighting in the wince that must wash across my face every time i’m caught in countdown. i am so grateful that come monday morning that bed will still be rumpled, and its primary inhabitant will be running late for the ride to school that i so willingly — if occasionally grumpily — provide, complete with hot breakfast on a plate.

the golden-filtered light streaming in the windows, washing across the treetops, because i got up an hour later than usual, and the color shifts by the minute at the dawn, luminescence seeping into daybreak’s early acts.

the fridge that’s filled so full we practically needed a bungie cord to keep the doors from bulging open. and nothing short of strategic puzzle-solving skills wedged each last leftover safely in its shelter.

the utter lack of shopping on my mind, as we buck the national over-consumptive rite of greedily gobbling up whatever is on the sales-rack shelves.

the friends i love who hold their breath for a child deep in pain. their over-capacity hearts are a marvel to behold. i watch them ride the turbulence, keep the faith, climb on airplanes and into cars, to cross the miles to be by their children’s sides, and i witness motherlove in its most defiant, magnificent, dare-to-stop-me forms. if God loves half as fiercely as these mothers love, we are all saved already. that, i promise you. if you some days despair that there’s a God who’s listening, just scan the crowd for a mother — or a father — keeping vigil in the ICU, at the rehab center, parked outside the county jail (i know all three, and the cumulative power of their love could not be measured on a richter scale); that’s what love beyond our wildest imaginations looks like. i’d posit that’s a fraction of how God loves. and how certainly God is scrunched elbow-to-elbow by our sides, even when we can’t see to the other side of the waiting room door and feel stranded all alone.

some mornings my blessing is no fancier than the feel of my old familiar coffee mug cradled in my palms. somehow the choosing of the morning’s mug has become a rite that sets the joy of the day. for at least that fleeting instant.

scanning back across the year, i think of all the what-ifs that swooped away: the mammogram that turned out clean; the kid i feared had driven in a ditch, gotten mugged, blown the deadline, missed the plane — all worries dissipated.

on and on the blessings come. if i slow down long enough, allow the quiet to seep in, and pay close attention to the fine grain of the holiest of hours: this one we’re living now.

you catch the drift, now add your own to our litany of blessings….

pear-double cranberry-apple lattice

pear-double cranberry-apple lattice pie: my first.

remembering how good “better” feels

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that’s a revised headline up there. it’s shortened from what i was first going to type. what i really wanted to write was: “sometimes you have to feel awful to remember how good better feels.”

convoluted, yes. a bit dark, perhaps. and plenty long — for a headline, anyway. too long, truth be told. so i nipped off a few words, and gave you the gist.

in its own way, it’s a deeply irish way of putting it. and that’s one of the things i love about being irish. why say it straight on, why shove aside the complexities, when you can get there by way of the meandering footpath that wends across the moor? why go for undiluted sunshine when you can poke around the shadows and emerge from irish mist?

what other people find their way to blessing only by first mucking about in the slop?

and so i defend my curious perspective as one whose genes are firmly rooted in the peat of eire, my homeland of a little isle, plopped amid the crashing, crushing north atlantic. and it’s the thought that came to me after four weeks on the sick list. there were days — and days and days — when every breath hurt just a little bit. when i found myself considering not just my lungs, but all those little bronchioles and air sacs that make exchange of oxygen a certainty, a condition of staying alive. i’d not in a long time spent whole nights mapping my eustachian tube, that little tunnel of the inner ear that goes by unnoticed so many, many years of our lives. but once that little throughway gets flooded, filled with angry waters, hoh boy, you start giving it your attention — and then some.

i could go on — but i won’t — naming the body parts that in recent weeks have screamed for attention. reminded me of their existence. made me think quite a bit about how, most of the time, they just go about their business, paying no mind to anything but the job at hand, not yelping out for assist in any way.

and all of it finds me marveling at the pure and undiluted blessing of being alive. day after day being gifted with this flesh-upholstered machine that bends and stretches, reaches for the stars (or simply the soup can on the highest pantry shelf). while sinew and synapse do their daily chores, we get to exercise our soul. titillate our imaginations. strike our funny bones.

it’s the gift of being sick, of pausing to pay notice. of realizing there’s no guarantee on all these body parts. when we’re oblivious, they’re working well. when they go kaput, we halt to attention, we consider the zillions of taken-for-granteds that keep us going, hour after hour.

as sick as i am of feeling sick, i’m trying to make the most of this personal anatomical inventory. i am trying to hold up to the light all the parts thatpink sky work so hard — so without applause — to do their jobs. a knee that bends. airways that breathe in oxygen, blow out nasty CO2. eyes that make out the shifting shades of pink across a sunset sky. and catch the red bird darting by.

i’ve paused my whole life long to consider a litany of gifts. i’ve a dear dear friend whose daughter couldn’t hear for the first five years she was on this planet, and when my friend catalogued the sounds her daughter had missed, my heart wept. clock ticking. church bells. dawn awakening. the sound of her mother’s heart beating inside her chest. coffee percolating. crickets. raindrops. wind.

when i was in high school, a dear friend of mine was strapped into an electric wheel chair. i plopped beside him on the radiators just outside the cafeteria, and while he was so content to sit and watch the passersby, i remembered what a gift it was that when the lunch bell rang, i could leap off the hot seat and get to class without pushing buttons on my motorized chair.

even now, i have a dear friend whose ankle — and all the tendons and ligaments around it — shattered when she slipped on a river bank, to get a finer look at the moon. she’s been as patient as a saint for the last year and a half. and every time i talk to her, every time i think of how she can no longer traipse through woodlands, poke around for mushroom caps, i look down at my little sometimes-wobbly ankle, and whisper thank you.

i suppose you might say i come to blessings through the back door. or through the mist.

but whatever is my twisty path, i am so relieved i am no longer contemplating my alveoli (those wee little sacs that comprise the lungs). i am simply inhaling straight-up gratitude for the gift of hauling this creaky body through one more whirl around the day.

what would be the gifts on your thank-you list today? and what does it take for you to pause and pay attention to those quiet wonders that make us so alive? 

 

blessing, stitch-by-stitch

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but one of the blessings i count…

the dome of heaven, thin veil between earth and sky, is only now daubed with morning’s light. when i tiptoed down the stairs, eager to begin my count of blessings, there was only deep dark shadow, no stars stitched the dawn, not that i could see, constellations occluded by cloud.

i began the day in the hour where i find my deepest prayer: the still-slumbering hours when i alone animate the house. when the creaks in the floorboards come from my soft-fleshed soles pressing against the slabs of oak, when lightbulbs burn — or not — because i flick the switch. when clocks tick unencumbered. when my morning ministrations — scooping seed for the birds, scooping beans for my coffee, cranking the furnace, fetching the papers from the curb — become a liturgy of gratitude, as i lift the curtain on the day, as i sweep my heart in prayer.

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cranberry and pear, under a raw-sugar cloud, before they simmer into relish

and never more so than the dawn that follows thanksgiving, when the refrigerator groans under the weight of turkey carcass, and every inch is strategically occupied with cranberry and cold mashed potato and autumnal roots roasted into surrender. and, because i was on my knees scrubbing last night, with a vat of vinegar and water by my side, the maple slabs by the stove no longer are slick with splattered butter and olive oil.

it’s become something of a tradition on this day when the world screams of one-day-only sales and count-down bargains, and the stories of mobs at the malls are enough to make me break out in hives, i retreat. i take to the woods. to the rustle of brittle grasses under my boots. to the chill against my cheeks. and when i come to a clearing, where a singular oak rises up from the prairie, i trace my gaze heavenward, beyond the bare naked limbs that scrape the late november sky.

the more the world rushes at me, the more certain i’m beating retreat.

but first i wrap myself in prayer, in the count-down of blessing, more emphatic than ever this year as i set out to steady myself in the aftermath of these weeks that have shaken me to my core, as the din all around seems fueled by a hate i can hardly fathom, as the discourse too often appears to have lost its soul.

i bow my head and begin.

before my feet hit the floor beside my bed, i am washed over in the knowing that this morning is especially blessed: all the beds in this old house are filled. the two boys i love, tucked under blankets, their dreams rising up from their pillows. i whisper infinite thanks for these two who, more than anyone, wrote the script of my sacred instruction, who taught me how to be alive, how to love, through their hours of question, and struggle, their shadow and light.

i pause in the closet to stretch a holey old sweater over my head. thank you, dear heavens, for old familiar clothes, the ones that make us feel deeply home, the ones that put on no airs, the ones not afraid to expose their thinnings and raggedy threads.

i find my way down the stairs, passing the wall of so many people i love, ancestral gallery, some in sepia tones, some black-and-white, all framed, all blessed and blessing. not a morning goes by that i don’t pass under their gaze, under their vigilant watch. thank you, all of you who came before, all of you who are wired into our DNA and our souls.

and then i round the bend to the kitchen, the high altar of this old house, really, where pots are stirred, and conversation bubbles up by the hour. where butcher-block counters hold up bottomless vats of talk, of questions and quandaries, as certainly as they bear the weight of my chopping and mincing. thank you, old stained maple block. and thank you, Most Sacred One, for the wisdom that sometimes comes to me, and the holy communion of shared silence in between.

i turn to brew coffee. my hand bumps into an old glass jar stuffed with thyme and oregano snipped from the window box just beyond the sill. thank you, dear God, for thinking to make leaves with a smell and a taste redolent of holiday, or our grandma’s kitchen, or some faraway place on the globe. thank you, too, for star anise and cinnamon stick simmering on the stove, my definition of heavenly vapors.

i tumble out the back door, my old banged-up coffee can spilling with shiny black sunflower seed. in the not-so-distance, i hear the ruffling of feathered wings, and soon as i dump my morning feast, the yard erupts in the darting and dashing of flocks hungry for their sustenance, hungry from the long night’s staving off the freeze. i’ve yet to run out of thanks — nor do i imagine i ever will — for the miracle of the sparrow and the scarlet-coated cardinal and the pair of blue jays who squawk like there’s no tomorrow.

i dash inside, shake off the cold, plop into my old red-checked armchair. i consider the wonder of a chair that wraps its wings around you, and sturdies your spine. thank you, Blessed One, for the hours i spend here, turning pages, inhaling the poetry that life can’t stanch.

and so it goes, our days a litany of blessing. i begin with the tiniest of stitches, a petit point of gratitude that stretches across the vast canvas of my every day.

the more i read, the more i listen, the more deeply i understand that the miracle we’re after, the wonder we seek, the beauty that tingles our spine, it doesn’t come with trumpets blaring, but rather in the accumulated whisper of one small blessing after another. the blessings at once unadorned and majestic. the blessings that make us whole, and fill us when we’re hollowed.

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my blessings, entwined

 

before i ask what blessings fill your day, and your soul, i want to leave a poem i stumbled across yesterday, one that seems to belong here at the table. it’s a meditation on the blessing of a kitchen table. 

Perhaps the World Ends Here
BY JOY HARJO

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo. 

and now, what are the simple unadorned blessings that stitch together your day — and your soul?

a prayer for beginnings and endings

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it’s whirling all around me, the beginnings and endings. mostly the endings.

on the leafy lane where i live, house after house has sprouted those signs they post around here, graduation signs. “congratulations 2016 grad!” the signs trumpet. and the kids who live in those houses, they were four, holding their mama’s hand, toddling down the puddled sidewalk, shyly peeking out from under a big yellow rain hat, the day i met the first of the flock. just yesterday, i thought. yet somehow, in the pancaking of time, they’ve learned to read and pedal bicycles, they’ve gripped hands to the wheel, stolen first kisses, broken bones and borne concussions. and now, they’re practicing “pomp and circumstance.” could it be 14 years later?

and in this old house, one will be awake any minute, gulping down one last hour of geometry infusion, taking two more finals today, leaving only one straggler exam for monday. and the big kid, the one who now refers to himself as, “a retired teacher, retired at almost 23,” he’s wrapped up his very last round of trying to teach kids to read. he and i sat side-by-side the other night, pored over the papers he’d hauled home, the ones with the questions he’d asked his kids to answer, in the very last class, before they piled paper plates with flamin’ hot cheetos, and cooled the flames with juice box upon juice box. turned out it was a lesson in all the questions that matter: what’s your favorite memory, what are you most proud of, what does it mean to live a good life, what kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

the answers humbled both of us, the kid who’d wondered all year if he was teaching anything, and me, the mama who always knew he was. what most kids called their favorite memory was “when we were all on the floor, and the school got shot.” (or some variation on that school-shooting theme.) one kid was most proud that he’d “learned to read more better.” and then we got to the humdinger of a last question, the one that asked the kids to dip deep into their souls and pull out the rough draft of a dream.

in answer to the question what does it mean to live a good life, a seventh-grader (one well-versed in the echo of gunshot) wrote: “to be able to live life instead of not living at all.” a kid whose dad is in prison wrote: “i wants to be a wealthy person to provide for his family.” and a kid who’s scored a high-school scholarship and a national champion football ring wrote: “i want to live life with a dream.” a sixth-grader, though, might have said it most clearly: “it’ll be no killing.”

the kindergartener who tells anyone who asks that her daddy and her uncle fell down and died “when they tripped over their legs,” (they must not have told her guns were involved last summer and the summer before when the two were gunned down) she simply wrote: “i love you, mr. k.”

and so, school years are over, whole chapters have ended. careers (that short-lived teaching career) have come to a close. and job interviews lie ahead. so, too, do emails telling of roommates, and dorm assignments, and start dates for jobs. and lots and lots of soggy goodbyes.

so on this birth of a day when so much is ending, i’ll whisper these words, and offer them boldly up to the heavens…

first and always, thank you, dear God, for keeping them — all of them — safe. specifically, for each and every drive back and forth on streets where guns aren’t foreign, aren’t far away, where jersey barriers and plain-clothes cops (guns drawn) have been known to block the route. thank you for steering that bullet clear of anyone’s flesh the day it shattered the  schoolroom window, bounced off a pipe, and dropped to the hard tile floor of the preschool classroom. and thank you, while i’m at it, for inspiring my firstborn to ask those questions that might have given him a peek at the little bit of difference it made for him to stick it out till the end of the year, and not abandon the classroom. not even on the days when a second-grader pushed another clear down the stairs, or the pair of sixth-graders devised a science experiment, the one where they shoved their pinkie fingers straight into the electric socket to see what would happen. and not on the day the fourth-grader called him a name you wouldn’t want a kid to know. and not on the day when the fifth-grader punched him — hard — in the gut.

thank you for the hours when you gave them strength, all of them. the days when the soccer coach picked the other kid, the day when the test they’d hoped to ace came back not even close. the day when the job that somebody wanted was already filled.

thank you for the wisps of kindness that softened their days. thank you for the rare few times when i might have unearthed just the right thing to say. when i answered the phone, drove to the schoolhouse door without grumbling, and knew once in a while that the holiest sound i could make was the silence of listening, just listening.

thank you, too, for the joys. for the love birthed in somebody’s heart, and the delight of watching him tenderly bake her a batch of congratulations cookies. and ice them, to boot. each one inscribed with a word or a phrase that signaled their shared secret script.

thank you for the undeniable fact that they surround themselves with very fine friends. friends there in a pinch. friends whom the little one says, “make me a better person.” and friends who thought nothing of flying in for the weekend, halfway across the country, simply because it’s the place my other kid calls home (or at least this year he does).

thank you for the dinners that left the kitchen looking like a battalion rolled through. and thank you for the quiet dinners for four, especially the ones when no one minded the leftovers. thank you — yes, thank you — for the chance to pack two lunches again. and thank you, mightily, that the last one of the year has been packed. the pb & j, retired for the summer. or at least my spreading knife in it.

thank you for all of this, always. thank you for the blessing of pause. of paying attention to cusps, of beginnings and ends. thank you more than anything for this latest whirl around your radiant sun. i know i’m sated. i’m shining.

and what’s in your prayer for beginnings and endings? 

and happy blessed graduation, birthday, end-of-final-exams, whatever is your beginning or ending of choice on this glorious day in may…..

a p.s. about the little bouquet up above: when i was little, the height of springtime pluckings was the gathering up of plain old violets, and heavenly send-me-to-the-moon lily-of-the-valley. in a bow to those bouquets of long ago, i plucked up a little fistful. if i’d not stumbled on a prayer, i might have mused on those. instead, i simply tucked them atop the prayer. a fitting may altar.