it’s quiet season in my house. in my soul, actually.
it’s odd then, when i tiptoe outside in the dawn and hear the world achatter. the winged choristers — robin and sparrow and cardinal — are having at it, calling out from limb to bough to bush. staking turf. declaring the early hours of starting all over again, survival of the species, the No. 1 task on the vernal to-do list. it’s what happens when the globe tips toward the sun, the angle draws nearer, draws shorter; the light longer, not so thin anymore.
it happens to all of us, one season or another. we’re out of sync with the world beyond our window sill. i’m still deep in the burrows of winter. but the world wants to shake off its slumber, awaken.
i’m not ready yet.
i will be. i have no doubt.
but not yet.
now, i am curled under blankets, turning pages, soaking up the words of other quiet souls. and so, when i cracked open a book of poems the other day, i nearly dissolved into tears, into the mystery of grace, of feeling tapped on the wall of my heart, with sacred whisper.
i was turning slowly through the pages of mary oliver, my patron saint of poetry. i was inhaling her latest infusion of wisdom distilled, of heaven on earth, of sacred scripture rising up from out of the dawn, out of the trail through the woods where the poet keeps pace.
i read, among other words, these:
there are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
like, telling someone you love them.
or giving your money away, all of it.
your heart is beating, isn’t it?
you’re not in chains, are you?
there is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.
then i turned a few pages, and stumbled on this:
God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,
i pulled out my pen. the sound of ink scratching along sheaf of paper, the only perceptible noise interrupting the season of silence.
and now i’ve shared my silence with you.
may your week be blessed. silent or not.
mary oliver’s latest slim volume of prayer poem is titled, felicity (penguin press, 2015). the words above, first, from the poem, “moments,” and finally, a few lines from “leaves and blossoms along the way.”
she asked for a poem, my beautiful friend did. she asked for words. she asked for my voice.
she asked so that “at certain times,” in the dark dark hours that come when you are lying in your bed, or curled on your couch, when the knife-to-the-gut of cancer won’t stop, when you tremble deep down inside, when all you want is to wail but you can’t, she asked “to be soothed” by the sound of the human voice rising and falling and wrapping around letters and lines and syllables and silence and words, each word a vessel of hope, a finger to grasp, the next best thing to morphine. or, maybe, better.
she asked me to pick out a poem, to read it, to record the sound of my voice. “not STAGE PERFORMANCE,” she wrote, just “ntural,”she typed, her fingers fumbling for keys, “poems red by my friends.”
it was a blanket of sound she was stitching together, my friend whose world has always been about sound. she’s gathered sound all around the globe, on nearly every continent. she’s woven sound into story, story that shattered hearts, peeled back truths, shone beacons of light. sound that reached out through the squat little box that sits on the kitchen counter, or the flat rectangular one that blinks red numbers just beside my bed. sound that could draw me to the ends of the earth, or into the depth of someone’s long lonely walk through a mountain pass, or down a dusty country road. it might be the sound of a katydid. or a jackhammer. or maybe the cry of a mother who’s just buried her child. it might be the whistle of wind she records. or the story in spanish of someone who’s been lost for too long.
her life has been a tapestry of sound, one that my friend has pieced together with fierce intelligence, unparalleled heart, and a light in her eyes that will never go out.
so, in her darkest hours, in the hours when the walls seem to be squeezing in from all sides, she asked for more sound. for the sound of the human voice, doing what it most sacredly does: putting breath to the balm that is love, that is tender and dripping with mercy, that heals, always heals, and that just might be the last earthly tie, one heart to another.
it’s no mystery why mamas sing lullabies to their babies. why mamas turn pages of storybooks. why mamas make “mmm” sounds and sigh to their wee little newborns. the human voice is breath + vibration + heart, is sound put to flight. the instrument of that flight might be a screech, or a whisper. it might be vicious and crack in half the heart of the one who hears it. or, in the case of my friend, it might be the best shot for soothing, for wrapping a blanket, a compress, of undying love.
and, yes, it might be a poem. the healing power of the hard-chosen word, words plucked from the star-stitched heavens, beauty and heartbreak distilled. that’s poetry. and, no, it won’t cure cancer, certainly not. but there are ails along the way that poetry — a poem read aloud by someone you love — will always be able to heal.
it will break through the canyon of fear and of emptiness. it will cradle the tired. and, as best as is possible, it just might dull the ragged edge of the pain, and, maybe just maybe, soften the suffering for as long as it takes for the poem to be read and maybe to linger.
i knew right away the poem and the poet to which i would put my breath and my heart: mary oliver. “praying.” it’s the poem i tucked on the very front page of my very first book. it’s a poem about paying attention, about patching together a few simple words, nothing elaborate. it’s about prayer not being a contest, but a doorway into thanks, and “a silence in which another voice may speak.” it’s about stitching together prayer, and it’s something my friend and i have talked about — many times, once while wandering about a wooded magic hedge.
i knew, too, right away, just where i wanted to read it, the poem about prayer — amid my late-summer garden, so the words of mary oliver would be enfolded, would be punctuated, with the sounds of this summer drawing to a close: the few cicada still buzz-sawing, the blue jay who squawks, even the wind rustling through the boughs of the willow.
i whispered a prayer, took a breath, and pushed the little red “record” button.
my friend asked for a poem. i sent her the pulse of my heart, and a sound-swatch of the late summer garden.
here’s how it sounded:
i wanted to quietly lay this on the table because i know that among the chairs circled here, there are hearts intent on finding ways to bring healing to the world, and i thought it the most beautiful quiet creation, the notion of my friend to weave together a patchwork of poems, all in the voices of friends, all for the purpose of soothing. it’s a simple gift, a pattern we can all trace and retrace, should the need arise. it might even be a baby gift, a gift at the launch of life, when you wrap not just a favorite picture book, but the sound of your very own voice reading it, turning the pages. the gift of your voice is one no one else could ever give. and it comes from the depth of your heart. priceless.
because i happen to know that mary oliver doesn’t want anyone printing her poems anywhere without permission (i asked for and received full permission for the epigraph of slowing time), i am honoring mary’s heart and will not print it here, although it is in the photo above. and you can read it yourself if you open the book to just past the dedication page. and, miracle of miracles, i figured out how to drop a line of poetry reading onto this latest meander. wonders never cease.
so here’s the question: if someone you love asked you to read a passage or a poem, what one would you choose?
because i’m motoring up to my college reunion today, here’s an essay i wrote for the summer issue of marquette magazine, in which i realize how that jesuit curriculum was the birthing ground of paying attention, most especially, for me, in the college of nursing…
An Attentive Life
An Essay By Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79
Until I heard my husband’s voice, sounding rattled on the answering machine, it had hardly been a newsworthy morning. I’d been out squishing through the soggy kitchen garden. I’d noticed a few green nubs poking through the thawing earth. I’d watched a mama sparrow dart this way and that with the dried-grass makings of her nest.
And then I scrambled to my email to read the news that had put the tremor in my husband’s throat: A dear friend, one who’d just finished a year of god-awful chemo, a friend who is mother to a 17-year-old who only a week ago had scored the trifecta of Ivy League acceptance letters and to a 13-year-old who’s not too tough to cry when soccer flattens him, had just gotten word that her cancer is back. Back with a vengeance. And her doctors now narrow her hope: only to stretch out her days so, for now, she can pack her daughter’s college trunk and send her son back onto the soccer field for one more season.
The words that won’t stop rattling through my breath, my brain, my every heartbeat are these: The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.
If our days are numbered —and they are, though it sometimes takes the urgency of a day like today to sharpen the edge of that raw truth —we really can’t afford not to notice, not to bristle at the brush strokes of the divine that sweep up against us, leave us with goose bumps, remind us that the holy is all around and that if we listen, really listen, we just might hear the sacred breath that whispers, “Here I am.”
It took me the better part of a half-century to figure it out, but I’ve come to believe that prayer is the practice of paying attention.
Like the chambered nautilus I unearth from the sandy shore, the uncoiling of wholly attentive prayer is at once simple yet intricate. A discipline never easy, nor is it insurmountable. It’s a mindfulness, a sensory awakening that opens all the channels coursing straight to the pulse point deep inside, the one that attunes us to true knowing. It can feel sometimes as if someone is squeezing our hand in the dim darkness of our days or wrapping us in mighty muscled arms that will not let us stumble or turn to run and hide.
At heart, the prayer of paying attention is a deeply human act that ushers in the otherwise unknowable. It’s what fills in the emptiness of our otherwise hollow living-breathing selves.
It comes in many forms. It’s the wide-eyed scanning of sky that prompted me, one late summer’s night while driving home through a leafy woods, to notice the rising cheddar wheel of a moon and drive like a madwoman to the edge of a lake, where I watched that lunar orb ooze tangerine strands across the inky waters, arcing toward the high point of heaven’s dome. Slack-jawed, I marveled all the while.
Or it’s the keen-eared concentration that allowed me not to miss when a man sitting down the row in a shadowy auditorium mentioned that, soon after his wife died, he explained to his young son: “The reason people die is because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”
I can’t imagine the text of my life absent such heaven-sent wonder and wisdom.
Mary Oliver, the poet saint, writes: “Attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the golden-glowing woods or startle to the night song of the spring peepers rising from the wetlands is “learning to be astonished.”
“I want to live my life in epiphany,” says poet and Renaissance scholar Kimberly Johnson. “I want all my pores open.” This way of living at full attention, she says, “is unmediated experience. My antennae are tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.”
It’s why she’d gladly spend a day nestled beside a gurgling brook on a mountain trail. It’s a way to gulp down undiluted holiness, never watered down, not dimmed by the cacophony of a world that seems to be forgetting how to listen.
The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.
Celtic tradition puts a name to the places in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, where the whispers of the divine are most discernible: “Thin places,” the Celts believe, are the places to which we are pulled as if tide pools where we can bathe in that for which we are so parched.
The first time I heard the phrase, I was walking between rows of runner beans with a farmer friend whose firstborn son, a U.S. Marine home on leave from Iraq, had been killed when his old car missed the bend in a country road and he drowned in a pond not five miles from his mother’s central Illinois farm. My farmer friend pointed to the hayloft of the old barn, a gap-toothed slat-roof barn where shafts of light streamed in, a mosaic of illumination and shadow. “That’s my thin place,” she told me. “That’s where I go to cry in the arms of God.”
Curiously, Celts and Jews and Ignatius Loyola, among others, share that pulsing sense that every moment of the day — the most ordinary moments of every day — are vessels of the holy. And all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer.
So for Jews, there are some 100 blessings stitched across the hours of the day, from the blessing for awaking to the one for slipping on undergarments. In Celtic tradition, prayers are whispered for getting up, lighting the fire, milking the cow and on through the day, until the prayer for snuffing out the candles when the house is darkened for the night.
A glorious expression of that Celtic belief in abounding holiness is the insistence that we “learn to play the five-stringed harp,” that being the five senses that will bring us nose to nose, skin to skin, ear to ear with the divine.
In the Ignatian way, the credo is clear: Find God in all things. Not only all good things. All things. The great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “… for Christ plays in ten thousand places … ” Thomas Merton put it: “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”
In a word, it’s “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet. It’s all around, and it’s a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. We’re not tripping over a novel concept here. This is no New Age enlightenment.
“It’s one of the most fundamental spaces in my life, this space where the horizontal, the secular, meets the vertical, the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross,” says Guggenheim Fellow, poet and best-selling author Eliza Griswold, the journalist who wrote The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. “That’s poetry, where everyday time is punctured by the sacred. And my calling is there, the places where sacred and secular meet.”
I’ve long been a student in the great school of God’s world as it surrounds me. I’ve long been hellbent on breaking open the fragile — and the monumental — offered up by the limbs and the leaves and the rippling streams and the star-stitched night sky.
There is metaphor all around. It’s deep and it’s profound, and I am drinking it in as if cool waters through a straw.
And more than in John Muir’s woods or on the banks of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, my ears have perked to the scritch scratch of heaven on earth right here in the dappled sunlight as it pools across the wide pine planks of my old house or plays peekaboo among the tangled vines of my rambunctious secret garden just outside the kitchen door.
I needn’t travel far to find the holy. Though it did take time — the better part of decades — to learn to listen for the sacred murmurings, to let them soak deep down to where I was hungriest, most hollow, to figure out that all along I’d had the fine-boned instrument to draw the music in.
And, recently, it struck me that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of Marquette’s College of Nursing, back at the old college, the one appended to St. Joe’s Hospital. There, in shiny linoleum-tiled classrooms in the fall of 1976, the whole lot of us began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.
My very first assignment, once that white cap had been bobby-pinned to my curly locks, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer whose origin I can’t recall. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath and which limb hurt too much for me to lift.
And on and on the learning went. As I watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of a 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder while he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths. At the crosshairs of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination.
Some three decades ago, because by then I was working in a newspaper newsroom and forgot to pay attention to the paperwork of my life, my nursing license expired. So, short of retaking my boards, I can’t claim to be a registered nurse any longer.
But, the truth is, I needn’t hold a license to practice the exquisite art of paying attention. It’s a hard-won curriculum, indeed. But it’s one that’s dissolved the hard edge between heaven and messy earth. It’s the undercurrent of all my prayer. And it’s what aligns my every breath with all that is most holy.
Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79, once a pediatric oncology nurse, is a freelance journalist and the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), to be published in October 2014.
and how, dear friends, did you learn to pay exquisite attention?
dispatch from 02139 (in which, after weeks of not quite belonging, something deep down inside begins to purr)….
i was riding a motor coach into new hampshire, headed up to eagle pond farm, where the great poet laureate donald hall would usher us into his ancestral white-clapboard home. where we’d poke around the old cow barn, play hide-and-seek with the shafts of late afternoon light spilling onto the cobwebs and a century’s dust. where, in the parlor, in the old house, we’d crowd around the old blue chair that slumped in all the places where hall slumped because he’s been there, by the window, looking out at the barn, at the hills, at the birds, for nearly a lifetime. and he’s 84 now.
because nothing in niemanland idles, little screens had dropped from the lid of the motor coach shortly after we’d pulled from the curb. it was a bill moyers film, a conversation with hall and his late wife, the poet jane kenyon. it was called, simply: “a life together.” and i’d watch it again.
somewhere just across the state line, kenyon, who was wise in a way that makes you pull out your pen and jot notes, was talking about how, when she’d first moved to new hampshire, into the old house filled with hall’s family’s rumblings, how for a time she felt “quite disembodied.”
then she said something that made my pen move in that way that it does when i don’t want the words to escape, to whirl down the drain of my brain, never to be fished out again.
she said, and i scribbled: “someone said that when you move it takes your soul a few weeks to catch up with you.”
[in case you, like me, want to know the rest of that thought, here’s what she said next: “and when we came here, of course, this house is so thoroughly full of don’s family, his ancestors, their belongings, their reverberations, that i — at times i felt almost annihilated by the otherness of it.”]
not long after that motor coach epiphany, another wise woman in my life, one who knows my little one quite thoroughly, she wrote a note from back home, after i’d told her about the serious case of homesick blues that had stricken the little fellow.
“it takes two months,” she declared. two months for a kid and his soul to catch up. two months to not feel, as kenyon poetically put it: “almost annihilated by the otherness of it.”
(well, it had never quite inched toward annihilation, but we all get the point.)
so, for days and weeks, as i scurried along the cobblestone sidewalks, tried hard not to trip, not to turn the wrong way, as i thoroughly drank up the otherness, i held those two thoughts in my head. columns, almost, against which i leaned.
and then i lost track.
just scribbled my lists, day after day. tried to remember to turn in my papers, read all my books. dash to the store for OJ and milk and boxes of cat litter, all those things you can’t be without.
people we love came and went. my brother, my sister (long ago, we ditched the “in-law” disclaimer), my sweet little niece. two dear dear old friends. and my mama. oh, and that boy from the college a ways down route 2.
and then, it turned into this week.
and that’s when i noticed the purring. that deep down contentment. that rare inner rumble when suddenly you take in a breath, and you feel the whole of your lungs expanding, contracting. you know, just because you do, that each and every itty-bitty balloon of your lungs is filled to the brim with pure oxygen.
you are walking along a glistening river, drinking in the endless stand of sycamore trunks, all mottled in two tones of gray, as if they’re afflicted with some sort of melanin disorder, and they can’t quite decide whether to be the color of soot or clouds on a gloomy fall day.
you are, perhaps, sitting in a cafe, sipping your peppermint tea, practically knee-to-knee with a professor who is unspooling tales of his uncanny friendship with martin luther king, jr. yes, that’s what i said: martin luther king, jr.
you are scribbling madly, because you can’t quite fathom that here you are, across the street from the very block where “love story” was filmed, where ali mcgraw and ryan o’neal romped, and you are soaking up stories of phone calls and jail cells and marching for civil rights. and you are nearly in tears when the professor, who’s been talking for more than an hour, tells you he wants to leave you with one last image, because, he says, “my kids love this one.”
so he tells you how the very last time he went to say goodbye to martin, after a trip to memphis where he, your professor, gave a big talk at martin’s request, he knocked at the motel room door. ralph abernathy, a name you might know from your history lessons, opened the door, and turned to get martin.
at this point in the story the professor explains how, after a long day of marching and fighting for rights, king and his cronies loved to shake it all off with nothing more pure than a pillow fight. they loved their pillow fights, your old professor laughs, as if he’s watching one now.
and then he gives you the image you will carry forever: so martin, he says, comes to the door, and his black head of hair is peppered with a crown of itty-bitty wisps of white feathers. a celestial vision, it seems.
martin’s last words: “till next time…”
and my professor, the one who is teaching the course on modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, looks up across the cafe table, and says: “there was no next time. he was killed four days later.”
and later, on the same afternoon, after yet another divinity class in which virginia woolf’s “to the lighthouse,” was the subject of much parsing and digging, you find yourself scurrying down the cobblestone sidewalk to meet your dear friend, to ride on the T to the museum of fine arts, where no less than mary oliver — mary oliver whose words and questions and red birds and mornings have stirred you to trembles, to tears — will for an hour stand and read you — and a whole auditorium of others — a full slate of her poems.
and you will be riding the T into boston, and you will look up and drink in the mottled evening sky, as the T rumbles over the charles river. and you will hear the sound of your friend, your friend who welcomed you to the lane, back weeks ago, with a knock at the door and a tinfoil-blanketed plate of hot oatmeal cookies, and you will think to yourself, “i am purring.”
and you will remember the words of jane kenyon, and the wise woman back home who said it would take two months. and you will know, through and through, that at last your soul caught up with the rest of you.
and now it is softly at home.
in the parts of your life where you’ve up and started anew — be it a house, or a job, or a chapter of living — how long does it take, and how do you know that at last your dear soul has caught up with the rest of you? and what do you with yourself in the days and the weeks where it’s missing in action?
p.s. the snapshot above is boston’s museum of fine arts, where mary oliver was about to take to the podium, and read from her new book — “a thousand mornings” — and other poems of wonder. what i hope is that the canvas of autumn sky and the glowing face of the art hall gives you a glimpse of the feel of this week, “do come in, and make yourself quite at home….”