pull up a chair

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

Tag: emily dickinson

sixteen.

sixteen years old. old enough to drive a car, the chair now is. not quite old enough to vote, but we’ve stayed away from politics all these years; allowing only goodness, grace, to be our guide––even in those rare few times we’ve wandered in the public square, celebrated the election of a president, felt crushed by the words and ways of another.

we’ve stood watch here as the world crushed us (i can still see the image of that precious little two-year-old, the syrian toddler––alan kurdi was his name, the little boy in the bright-red T shirt, the little black sneakers, and scrunched-up navy pants––washed up on the sands of the aegean sea, trying to escape a war’s unimaginable horrors and terrors). we’ve felt the crushings, too, of close-to-home heartaches, the ones not felt much beyond our own intimate borders, but more piercing than all the rest sometimes. 

why do we invite in crushings here? because it’s how i’m wired, i suppose. i’ve always felt hurts so, so deeply (some say too deeply; to them i say not sorry). and i have always wished for a place where tender comforts, heart healings, might occur. where the one who’s hurt could find a featherdown place to curl into. to be tucked under fuzzy afghans. handed warm mugs of tea. and a bowl of clementines, for when the tears paused long enough to give way to nibbling. maybe it’s the nurse in me, the heart of me. i can’t bear to see, to hear, to feel, to imagine hurting. but i will witness every time. for every hurt needs witness. needs bearing. needs extra body parts––shoulders to lean on, hands to squeeze, eyes to gently smile––to bear and share the load.

sometimes, i’ve brought silly here. not because i’ve any proclivity for clowns or clownishness. but because life not seen through comic lens is sometimes too unbearable. to laugh is to lighten the load. to be lifted by the effervescence of a good giggle. or even a guffaw. there’s alchemy and medicine in the sound of joy rising from the lungs.

in sixteen years, we’ve held up to the candlelight life’s beginnings and endings and all in-betweens: goodbyes and homecomings, births and death, and the littlest flickerings of the everyday. 

i’ve uncorked a bit of my soul here, let you see my heart’s wanderings as i moved deeper and deeper, bolder and bolder into saying aloud what i was sometimes plenty timid to whisper. somehow, over the years, the sacred i call God––God, a name that resonates a tenderness to me, a name whose very uttering fills me with a knowing, a hope––has pulsed so palpably through my every day, i now put breath to it without too much trembling. and in words––i hope––that do not close doors. i’m more intent than ever to draw forth the wisdom, the wonder, the light from any path that winds toward God, Allah, Adonai, Divine and Holy Wisdom. i reach for the doorways, have no use for locks on doors.

i’ve brought tinkerings at the cookstove here, too. in part because i will always be trying to find my way back from a dark, dark place when i was just 18, and, for reasons that escaped me at the time, i’d somehow decided i’d see how little food i could swallow in a day. it’s a place that filled me with cringing shames for years, and years. and tangled me in terrible knots. not knowing how to eat, being daunted by and quaking in the face of simple food, is a scourge i’d wish on no one. the question i’d long asked, and which was long asked of me: how does the homecoming queen find herself riding an elevator to a full-blown psych ward? (1975 was back in the day before anyone really knew what anorexia was; and there were no such eating disorder programs as there are today. and the movie “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” had just come out on the very big screen, so it set the stage for a most awful fright.) i can type those sentences now because the years have gentled my shame, and slowly, faithfully, i’ve found my way to a shore of my own. a shore where olive oil doesn’t scare me anymore. and where just last week i drizzled honey (on dorie greenspan’s sweet & smoky roasted carrots*). and it seems that when you’ve struggled so to feed yourself, you find a quiet certain joy in feeding those you love. (and maybe by osmosis you’re hoping to absorb some ease…)

i didn’t intend for this birthday note to grow so confessional. but over all these years, you’re the ones who’ve made this place into the sacred, gentle, quiet space i once dreamed of. and always believed in. you’ve shown me, though your unending kindness, that what i write here is safe here––and i will protect to the end your safety to say here what you will. and, hard as it might be to imagine (given the crude world in which we live), never once in all these years have i found a harsh or mean-spirited comment left here at the so-called “old maple table.” (it would crush me if i found one.) your gentle graces, your heartfelt, heartfelt notes and comments, as well as your incredibly heavenly occasional snail mails, have emboldened me to tell only truth here. life is short, too short, we know. and why waste a day fudging around the edges when what draws us whole––and into each other’s embrace––is saying who we are, and what hurts us, and what makes us giggle? and aren’t we all, in truth, wobbly creatures at the core, only slowly ascending from all the snags and quirks that make us so delightfully who we are? 

so here’s to truth. and sixteen, a number imbued with introspection, and spiritual purity, and a sign of good things to come, according to those who study numbers, find meaning therein. 

may this next whirl around the sun bring blessings to us each and all…

i have an especially lovely birthday present for all of you, one i will leave here on the table (down below). my friends at the SALT project dug it up from wendell berry’s bookshelf, and it’s a beauty like no other. it’s called “the birth (near port william)” and as you’ll see, it’s a nativity poem for all. happy blessed birthing day, for whatever it is you’ll birth today….(the poem is long, so i will leave it at the very bottom here….) (p.s. because the formatting itself is lovely and i can’t get it replicated here, and because you might love the SALT project, i’m leaving the link to their page here.)

one other gift, before i leave you the poem. little alan kurdi’s father, the only one of the family of four who survived the escape in a rubber boat back in the early autumn of 2015, a few years later started a foundation to help children whose lives have been torn apart by war. it’s yet another miracle of the human spirit’s capacity to rise from the deepest, darkest ashes. you can find out more about the kurdi foundation here.

and another treat: the other evening i time-traveled to amherst, mass., for a birthday celebration in the glorious home of emily dickinson, the great butter-yellow house on the hill, known as the homestead, and during that hour and a half of marvelousness, one of curators mentioned that emily’s beloved sister-in-law susan had written emily’s obituary, which was published in the springfield republican on may 18, 1886. immediately curious, i asked for the link, and here tis, with some of the most lovely writing, and most charmed intimacies of emily’s life, written in the immediate wake of emily’s death by the one who perhaps knew her most dearly…. https://www.emilydickinson.it/edobituary.html

here is but one passage i found delectable…

As she passed on in
life, her sensitive nature shrank from
much personal contact with the world,
and more and more turned to her
own large wealth of individual resources
for companionship, sitting thenceforth, as
some one said of her, “In the light of
‘her own fire.” Not disappointed with the
world, not an invalid until within the past two
years, not from any lack of sympathy, not be-
cause she was insufficient of any mental work
or social career – her endowments being so ex-
ceptional – but the “mesh of her soul,” as
Browning calls the body, was too rare, and the
sacred quiet of her own home proved the fit
atmosphere for her worth and work.

and the obit ends thusly:

To
her life was rich, and all aglow with God and
immortality. With no creed, no formulated
faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas,
she walked this life with the gentleness and
reverence of old saints, with the firm step of
martyrs who sing while they suffer. How
better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a
shell of pearl” than by her own words? –

Morns like these, we parted;

Noons like these, she rose;

Fluttering first, then firmer,

To her fair repose.

*oh, and those carrots drizzled with honey? dorie greenspan’s sweet + smoky roasted carrots you’ll thank my sister-in-law, brooke, who sent them my way…

and that, dear friends, is the stack of gifts i have for you this blessed early morn…..(one question, and then wendell berry’s poem…)

so here’s the question: how did you find the chair?

“THE BIRTH (NEAR PORT WILLIAM),” BY WENDELL BERRY

They were into the lambing, up late.
Talking and smoking around their lantern,
they squatted in the barn door, left open
so the quiet of the winter night
diminished what they said. The chill
had begun to sink into their clothes.
Now and then they raised their hands
to breathe on them. The youngest one
yawned and shivered.

                         “Damn,” he said,
“I’d like to be asleep. I’d like to be
curled up in a warm nest like an old
groundhog, and sleep till spring.”

“When I was your age, Billy, it wasn’t
sleep I thought about,” Uncle Stanley said.
“Last few years here I’ve took to sleeping.”

And Raymond said: “To sleep till spring
you’d have to have a trust in things
the way animals do. Been a long time,
I reckon, since people felt safe enough
to sleep more than a night. You might
wake up someplace you didn’t go to sleep at.”

They hushed awhile, as if to let the dark
brood on what they had said. Behind them
a sheep stirred in the bedding and coughed.
It was getting close to midnight.
Later they would move back along the row
of penned ewes, making sure the newborn
lambs were well dried, and had sucked,
and then they would go home cold to bed.
The barn stood between the ridgetop
and the woods along the bluff. Below
was the valley floor and the river
they could not see. They could hear
the wind dragging its underside
through the bare branches of the woods.
And suddenly the wind began to carry
a low singing. They looked across
the lantern at each other’s eyes
and saw they all had heard. They stood,
their huge shadows rising up around them.
The night had changed. They were already
on their way — dry leaves underfoot
and mud under the leaves — to another barn
on down along the woods’ edge,
an old stripping room, where by the light
of the open stove door they saw the man,
and then the woman and the child
lying on a bed of straw on the dirt floor.

“Well, look a there,” the old man said.
“First time this ever happened here.”

And Billy, looking, and looking away,
said: “Howdy. Howdy. Bad night.”

And Raymond said: “There’s a first
time, they say, for everything.”

                                   And that,
he thought, was as reassuring as anything
was likely to be, and as he needed it to be.
They did what they could. Not much.
They brought a piece of rug and some sacks
to ease the hard bed a little, and one
wedged three dollar bills into a crack
in the wall in a noticeable place.
And they stayed on, looking, looking away,
until finally the man said they were well
enough off, and should be left alone.
They went back to their sheep. For a while
longer they squatted by their lantern
and talked, tired, wanting sleep, yet stirred
by wonder — old Stanley too, though he would not
say so.

          “Don’t make no difference,” he said
“They’ll have ’em anywhere. Looks like a man
would have a right to be born in bed, if not
die there, but he don’t.”

                         “But you heard
that singing in the wind,” Billy said.
“What about that?”

                         “Ghosts. They do that way.”

“Not that way.”

                         “Scared him, it did.”
The old man laughed. “We’ll have to hold
his damn hand for him, and lead him home.”

“It don’t even bother you,” Billy said.
“You go right on just the same. But you heard.”

“Now that I’m old I sleep in the dark.
That ain’t what I used to do in it. I heard
something.”

               “You heard a good deal more
than you’ll understand,” Raymond said,
“or him or me either.”

                        They looked at him.
He had, they knew, a talent for unreasonable
belief. He could believe in tomorrow
before it became today — a human enough
failing, and they were tolerant.

                                 He said:
“It’s the old ground trying it again.
Solstice, seeding and birth — it never
gets enough. It wants the birth of a man
to bring together sky and earth, like a stalk
of corn. It’s not death that makes the dead
rise out of the ground, but something alive
straining up, rooted in darkness, like a vine.
That’s what you heard. If you’re in the right mind
when it happens, it can come on you strong;
you might hear music passing on the wind,
or see a light where there wasn’t one before.”

“Well, how do you know if it amounts to anything?”

“You don’t. It usually don’t. It would take
a long long time to ever know.”

                                 But that night
and other nights afterwards, up late,
there was a feeling in them — familiar
to them, but always startling in its strength —
like the thought, on a winter night,
of the lambing ewes dry-bedded and fed,
and the thought of the wild creatures warm
asleep in their nests, deep underground.

Wendell Berry

**sixteen, in case you wondered, is how many years the chair has been this quiet little place where these days we gather every friday morn. or at least that’s when i pull up a chair. you’re welcome to stop by any time, stay as long as you’d like. or, for years and years….’twas launched, the chair was, on 12.12.06, with this little post…

the wisdom of “it needn’t be correct”

interludes mindful

when you wander through life utterly certain that there are volumes you’ve yet to learn, a certain thing happens. a wonderful thing. you wake up every morning with your eyes, and your ears, and your heart at full alert. you are the ever-scanner, knowing that at any minute, from any crevice, the light might seep in. might flash in. the wisdom, gosh darn it, will come.

by day’s end, by the time you plop that cheek back onto the pillow, by the time you snuggle the sheets up by your chin, tucked back in for one more round of dreams, you’ll have — perhaps — learned a thing or two. gotten just a wee bit wiser. all because the teacher appeared, and you, the eternal student, were ready.

so it was the other afternoon as i was listening along in poetry class, when all of a sudden a fellow, a dancer with the new york city ballet, said something that shocked right through me, that slipped in through the crack, just off to the edge of the frame.

the subject, allegedly, was poetry. emily dickinson’s poetry, specifically. but in this wonderful class that i can’t stop inhaling, all sorts of wise souls wander onto the scene and peel back the layers of emily, of poetry, in ways i’ve not before known.

the discussion at hand was emily’s poem, “i cannot dance opon my toes,” the last poem of the four-week class taught by my beloved professor elisa new. she’d invited damian woetzel, a retired principal dancer with the new york city ballet, and now director of the aspen institute arts programs, to parse emily’s poem. as is professor new’s knack for unlikely pairings in the parsing of poetry, woetzel, a classically-trained ballet dancer, was joined in conversation by charles “l’il buck” riley, a practitioner of a street-dance form known as memphis jookin’ (think breakdance; it’s otherwise known as “gangsta walking”).

as street dance and ballet twirled in conversational tango, woetzel suddenly said this: “when i go to see people dance, it’s not to see them do it correctly. i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want — (his voice faded away). i want to find voice, essentially.”

now, this was nothing short of revolutionary to my little mind. i felt the shock of a chill run through me. (my brilliant friend amy, by the way, just yesterday afternoon defined “chill” to me in this way: “a chill is a current of truth that runs through your body,” when you see beauty, she said, or when you hear flat-out wisdom in a way you’ve never thought it before, i’d add.)

“i’m not that interested in correct.”

i felt the ties that bind snap loose. i felt myself freed from the tethers that, long as i can remember, have bound me. do it right, do it correctly, or don’t even try. that was pretty much the lesson i grew up believing. and while it didn’t stop me from trying, it set a nearly impossible bar. “get it right.” or else.

but here was a brilliant dancer, here was the director of aspen institute arts, for crying out loud, telling me it needn’t be correct. needn’t be perfect. stumbles are okay. bumps and bruises are beautiful.

your whole imperfect self is the most ravishingly beautiful self imaginable.

because it’s about something much deeper. it’s about opening up and saying, “this wobbly old soul, this soul that tries and tries, and sometimes makes it and more often stumbles, this is me.

“and you’re here for the likely chance that our two stumbling fumbling selves will find communion — not in our perfect pirouettes, but in the moments when i trip and you catch me. you brush me off and set me back upon the path, and you point the way forward. or better yet, you take me by the hand. you walk together with me. and you laugh, besides, at the way the two of us, we so often nearly fall off the stage.”

it’s a whole new paradigm: the paradigm of imperfection as aim. because what matters lies deep therein.

“i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want to find voice, essentially.”

and voice we all have. and, yes, sometimes it warbles. and sometimes it cracks. but it’s a voice and it’s ours. and it’s how we put words to what rustles around deep inside. it’s where our breath resides. it’s the topography that puts height and depth and nooks and crannies — glorious texture — to all that air flowing in and out of our lungs, air keeping us alive.

all of this is all the more immediately essential because this sunday i am doing something i’ve never done before. something that might have scared me out of my behoozies. i am walking onto a stage, and i am sitting down beside a cellist and a pianist. it’s a spoken word concert, inspired by one that a beloved friend and editor of mine once saw in japan.

i am, for the first time ever, invited into conversations about lighting and stage set, and in the faintest of ways, costume. i’m immersed in the full dimensionality of theatre. and i am discovering what happens when words are lifted from the page. when words are set soaring by the power of cello strings and piano keys, and the alchemies of audible, ephemeral creation.

and, as is my natural inclination, i was scared silly. until two things happened: until damian woetzel taught me that it’s not about correct; correct holds little interest, little tension, scant transparency.

and the other thing that happened is i stepped into the music during rehearsals, and i felt the most astounding flight: cello and piano, cellist and pianist, dove into conversation with the words i was unfurling. and then this, which i’ll preface by saying that many a writer’s whispered prayer is that, in between and through the words, music might come for those reading or listening. and, suddenly, there in the light-filled rehearsal room, i heard it, i felt it. the music did come, did lift and vault and carry the words to places and heights they’d not otherwise have ascended. it comes, the music does, i discovered, when you step onto a stage, and sit down beside a cellist and a pianist who’ve spent their lives deepening their knowledge of the landscape that’s theirs. the power of music, i’ve realized, is the safety net to my trapeze. is what holds me aloft, shooshes away my perpetual fears, is a medium that suddenly felt like coming home, a place where i, at long last, belong. how utterly unlikely.

so sunday afternoon at 1, at the midwest buddhist temple in chicago’s old town, i will be walking out from behind a curtain, all in black with a wrap of fuchsia. i’ll be sitting down in a japanese armchair, a bowl of oranges beside me, a vase spilling with springtime white. the cellist will pick up her bow. the pianist will strike a key. and i will put breath, put voice, to my words.

and i will remember that the wise ones in the room aren’t there to hear “correct,” they’re there to be moved, to cry, to find a voice, essentially.

and that is a truth that sets me soaring.

do you, like me, spend far too many hours of life being worried you won’t get it right? and thus binding yourself in ways that demand houdini-like tricks to set you free? 

that said, here’s an invitation: if you’re near chicago sunday afternoon, find your way to the temple, and plop yourself in a chair. cellist sophie webber and pianist soo young lee, both of fused muse ensemble, will take you places that might take your breath away…..

a few things:

1.) emily’s poem

I cannot dance opon my Toes –
No Man instructed me –
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet Knowledge –
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe –
Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze –
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped for Audiences – like Birds –
One Claw opon the air –

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so –

Nor any know I know the Art
I mention – easy – Here –
Nor any Placard boast me –
It’s full as Opera –

2.) the program for sunday’s “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time”

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.14.22 AM

 

and a post-script:

it’s sunday night, the interludes have ended. it’s quiet now and i’m breathing again. a dear friend snapped this moment of the concert. and i’m enchanted by what appear to be fairy lights wafting across the stage. the cellist is sophie webber, the pianist is soo young lee, both have PhDs in music. both are beautiful. sophie founded fuse muse ensemble, a collective of musicians who dedicate themselves to social causes as well as beautiful music in all forms. i hope this is only a beginning for us….here’s a peek at the magic of “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time.” thank you, from the bottom of my heart….

SlowingTimeMusic

transforming time

this week is holy, my calendar tells me, my church tells me. some wee small voice deep inside me tells me too. i don’t feel so holy of late, though. feel ragged and worn. tangled, too. like the branches that jut from my pine, the one whose trunk i stared up and into, trying to find, maybe, some sign of nesting begun.

the challenge this week, then, is to take time that feels ragged, feels spent, and see if maybe, just maybe, i can start to build holy.

perhaps, like mama bird, out collecting old string, and tatters of cloth, i can take little bits of each day. maybe even each hour, and start to weave something that feels like a soft place for my soul. my soul needs a nest, needs a roosting place. my soul needs somewhere to perch. somewhere to swell, feel full.

i walked myself into church yesterday. felt wholly alone. it wasn’t a church that whispers my name. it’s stone, piled on stone. but it’s not far from home. and it is holy week, so i thought i should be there.

i remembered the words of my mother, perhaps the lastingest words she’s ever uttered: don’t let the church get in the way of God. i gave that a try. i tried, really i did, to pay no attention to the girl next to me, a teen with tight pants and big furry boots, who kept checking her iphone for something. the time maybe. a text from a friend. i didn’t notice till later how her brother must have spent his palm sunday, shredding the palm into bits. leaving it there, in a heap on the floor, where someone not looking might step, might crush it into the slate.

instead, i listened to the story. i wept right along. i thought a lot about suffering. how the dominant metaphor here in my church is a God who suffered in ways no human should know. but i suppose there has always been solace that at least, no thanks to the dark inhuman hours of the passion of Jesus, we are not alone.

still, every year, when i listen, when i hear about thrashing and stripping and mocking, i wince, then i swallow back tears. more often than not, the tears spill anyway. i can’t hold them back. don’t want to. they sting. and shake me down deep.

i think, as i swipe at my wet messy cheeks, about unbearable sins, ones then, and ones now. i cannot stand, either, all the stories i read in the papers, the ones about women and children and men, all put to insufferable deaths, or just barely escaping. and living instead with the frames, endlessly looping, of the horrors that always can come.

it is a sobering start to a week in which we live it again, the betrayal, the trial, the slow march to death on a cross among sinners.

achingly, slowly, we live it again. in vigils that last for hours and hours, late nights in a church where the pews get harder and the air, always, gets thinner and staler, tougher to breathe, till you think you might wobble right down, or give up the ghost.

since i, like emily dickinson, of late, find my church more in the woods than the pews, i will do an odd dance this most holy week. i will step into the place of the candles and incense. i will hear all the stories again. i will kneel and wash the soles and the toes and the calluses, even, of a stranger. i will genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.

but i will try to make holy the hours that shroud all the church time. i will, for this one week especially, try to push back the things of the world that distract me, that pull me away from the point. and the whole heart of the matter.

i will, if i can, stop the worry about runs on the bank, and layoffs at work. i will try to forgive all the slights and cold shoulders. will, if i can, excuse the snapping of tongues, and the mists of unholiness that seep through the cracks in the door and the windows i’ve opened for air.

i will try, for starters this week, to listen for whispers of God all around me. i will look for the pure shafts of light, the ones breaking through branches.

i will collect, as much as i can, the ribbons of cloth and bits of stuffing from pillows. i will build, if i can, a fine nest. a place where my soul, once again, can roost, can give birth once again and again, to the thin-shelled belief that this time all around us–these hours, these minutes, these breaths–all are anointed, are holy.

are ours to inhale, if we just settle down and start breathing. again.

how and where does this holy week find you? i find solace in the partitioning of time, in the marking of days and weeks and seasons as holier, perhaps, than others. the challenge is to find holiness in the everyday. it is always the challenge. particularly, i find it now. how and where do you go to find a breath, a heartbeat, that you know is one that is sacred?