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Tag: power of words

those immutable ballasts

super worm mooon

super worm moon 2020, just when we needed a night light

the other night, back in the days when i was still driving to the train most evenings to ferry home the fellow working downtown, back before the red-ringed virus found its way into the glassy tower where he works, back before they–and the rest of the world–sent everyone home, the moon hovered just over the fence line. the moon—big and whole and bright in a way a screen never will be–it stopped me in my tracks.

the moon made me weep the other night.

the moon wasn’t budging. not a kerfuffle in the world could get in the way of the moon doing what it’s done since the beginning of time. and, somehow, that certainty saved me. gave me just enough breath to fill up my soul and my air sacs.

felt like it all but reached out to tap me on the shoulder (or maybe the heart), to save me, to steady me, to give me the something to lean on i needed.

there it was, at the end of a long blurry day, when schools were closing, and produce aisles were beginning to sound a wee bit risky, there it was, taking up more of the sky than i could remember. it was, to my little mind, as if God–or whatever you call the abiding holiness–had pinned it there. just for all of us to see: it wasn’t going anywhere. it had shined before over terrible times. over atomic bombs, and world wars and crusades. it had shined over riots and the night the cities burned down. the moon, and those forces that hold it in place, they weren’t going anywhere. we could count on that one thing.

next morning, just as the sun was peeking over the same horizon–endless cycle, one rising after another–the woodpecker flew to my feeder. as did the cardinals. and the blue jay. their flutterings were not interrupted; they carried on. and so should i, so should we. all of us. maybe more together than we’ve been in a very long time.

maybe, at long last, the glues that bind will come out of hiding. maybe we’ll realize the one true thing is that nucleus of goodness that lives in our hearts. maybe reaching out (elbow-bump style) will be the thing that not only saves us, but carries us onward and upward.

maybe when we’re a little bit rattled, maybe when we’re scared, we can stop all the posturing and pretending we’re not in it together. maybe it’s taking a germ to shake us free from the ugliness, from the us-versus-them, that’s been choking us. truly been making it harder and harder to breathe. maybe this is the germ to wipe out the toxins. or some of them anyway.

in the last few hours, my virtual mailbox, the one i can open without shuffling down the sidewalk, it’s been filling with words from around the world really, words that just might serve to save us, to remind us how much of a difference a kindness will make.

this from a rabbi: rabbi wisdom

this from my priest:

In this time of pandemic, I am reminded of the parts of our scriptures that speak to people who were facing the most frightening thing imaginable in their time–the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple–apocalyptic scriptures that seem hyperbolic until we too are in a frightening situation and those words of God’s providence and presence amidst crisis are somehow just the thing I was thirsty for but didn’t know it. We couldn’t have predicted that Lent would be a period of unknowing and wilderness in quite this way, but here we are; so we enter in.

right now, when we’re holed inside our houses (or at least that’s where the public health experts hope and pray that we are), when we can’t literally squeeze each other’s hands, words might save us. words are breath put to sinewy cords, words are breath that rises from lungs, from the pit of the soul, really.

words, sometimes, are those intangible tangible ballasts and vessels that break through the barrier, shatter the walls we erect. words put breath to kindness, to empathy, to saying aloud, “i’m just a little bit scared. tell me we’ll all be all right.” words carry joy, carry laughter. words make us laugh out loud–and we can use a good dose of that now. words sometimes make us weep; sometimes in the very best way because they put syllables to the truth of who we are: we’re all alone except for each other, and the one immutable force, the one unconquerable truth is that love wins, love heals, love washes away whatever needs rinsing. love binds. love travels far and wide and without the laws of physics. love is the mightiest breath that ever there was (ask anyone who’s grieving; they’ll tell you the depths of the ache and the anguish, they’ll tell you how sometimes–out of the blue–it’s an updraft that fills them and lifts them again, as if the someone they loved just swept them up by the heart).

so, for the duration of this red-ringed hiatus, let’s put those words to the business of loving. of reaching out. of checking in. of whispering soothing certainties. of making each other laugh out loud. of reminding: the force of our love, collectively, is an immutable, indomitable thing. we might be felled by a fever, but no one, no one can suck the love from our hearts or our souls. together, we rise.

just as the moon and the sun. again and again and again. amen.

if the spirit moves me in these long days ahead, i might post a few extra words here at the chair. maybe down in the comments, maybe in posts that don’t come only on fridays. these are uncharted times, begging uncharted adventures. 

how are you faring, and what are some of the words in days past that have given you hope or joy or a sure sense of belonging to the great and glorious ring of indomitable human family?

public health announcement: the surest equation to “flatten the curve” (that is slow the incline of coronavirus cases) is to minimize contact with those beyond the house where you dwell. this might last for a month; no one can tell us for certain. no need to wipe the grocery shelves clean; no need to hoard (my brother stood in a grocery line behind a woman with a cart filled with new york strip steaks–go figure!). get good sleep. wash your hands. sit in the sun (vitamin D is an immune booster). flush yourself with plain old water; try to keep your mouth from getting dry. the more religiously we can stick to the stay-out-of-crowds plan, the sooner we make it to the days of life after corona….

blessings to my beloved maureen, who sent along the words from the rabbi; to my priest, kat, who is ever wise. blessings to one of our wonderful chair sisters who–egad!–was bitten by a rattlesnake the other day, and is suffering terrible pains (and might be out of the ICU by now). may everyone who wanders by this ol’ table and chairs be safe and well, and surrounded by love. xoxo

this one’s for…

boy with my heart

you. and you. and you.

my world these days is inhabited, certainly, with hearts that are heavy, hearts that are hurting. one is mourning the loss of her mother, her brilliant and vibrant and unforgettable mother. another will never stop mourning the loss of her daughter. one struggles with a diagnosis that week by week makes it harder to hold a pencil, pour juice in a glass, pray on her knees. another is slowly losing her powers to see.

and then there are all the others, who harbor hurts and shoulder unbearable weights.

i walk through the labyrinth, alongside their lives, seeing their pain, imagining the crushing weight of the worry, wishing more than anything that words — the surest thing i know, short of lifting out my heart and wrapping it round them — could do the work of saying, “i remember. i’m watching. i’m here to listen. you’re not all alone.”

in a world where we all whirl, from birth till the end, in our own little amoebas of space and sentience, where the oceans of life bang up against our shores, where we stand and brace ourselves for whatever comes, never knowing what will wash up next, the one holy grace — short of the cord that ties us to heaven — is the grace of soulmates who listen, who put forth their own shoulders to bear a chunk of the load, who dare to sit side-by-side in the dark, to not say a word when silence is best, and who sometimes, rare sometimes, know just the right words. or they try anyway.

if only we all slowed down long enough. if only we all let down our own layers of armor, those impenetrable sheaths we carry into the day to keep ourselves safe from rocks and arrows, not realizing that our efforts to gird against our own hurts make it all the harder to recognize others’.

if only our words could do the work we wish for. if only we could slither inside someone else’s pain, sidle up close by her side, and whisper just the right curative potion.

if only words could work in the way that we hope and we pray: if words had the power to heal. to lift burden. salve the wounds. rinse away the sting.

maybe, sometimes, they do.

which is why i remember a few short phrases spoken to me in hours of dread. or despair. or unbearable grief. i remember a friend insisting, “you got this,” when she and she alone held that certainty. i remember, in the crowded kitchen of the house where i grew up, not even an hour after we’d buried my father, my uncle leaned into me, rested his hands on my shoulders, looked me deep in the eyes, and said: “the depth of the pain is equal to the depth of the love,” and suddenly my immense and immeasurable grief became bearable. because somehow i now had a framework, a balance of scale, to understand the pain as a pure reflection of love, and in that equation i found the muscle to bear what would be months and months and months of heart-crushing pain.

there’s not a morning that i don’t wake up and tick through an inventory of heartaches and griefs all around. i recite the names of people i love, a litany propelled by pure empathy. i pause on each name and each story, sometimes for longer than others. i imagine how hollow or heavy it feels. and i send up a prayer. and then another and, often, another.

the beauty of prayer is that words — those sometimes stumbling, fumbling, ill-fitting sounds that come from our throats — words when spoken in prayer take on powers that come from far beyond our own soul. words spoken in prayer do immeasurable work. they seep in through the cracks, or so i believe. they settle in deep, and maybe just maybe they send up tender resilient shoots, and one day they’ll bloom. into love. into peace. into the breathtaking power to bear whatever it is we know we cannot bear alone.

and so this fine morning, i offer up words for the ones who i love who are hurting. and hollowed. and certain that no one could ever imagine how lonely it is. or how dark.

this one’s for you.

love, b.

what are words whispered to you over the course of your life that made you know you could carry the load, you could go forth, one tender step at a time? 

reading for work

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some days, my workday unfolds like this: i wander over to the books in my stack that teeters as it rises toward the ceiling. i pull out the one that tempts the most. i pour a guzzle of coffee. i reach for a pen, for i don’t know how to read without one (making me a potentially reckless patron of the local library). i cozy my bum on the chair. i study the cover, read the flaps at the front and the back, then i turn to page one. i await the first sentence. first sentences signal plenty: do i want to read on to the second? or is this going to be an obligational exercise? (because i’m an occupational reader, i can’t give up after just one paltry sentence, nor even one that clanks when what i’m after is take-your-breath-away.)

i hum the loudest when i find myself tumbling into the text, when whole chunks of an hour go by, and i am as busy with my scribbling as i am with my inhaling of words, of ideas, of penetrating thoughts.

my job is to read books for the soul. i still can’t quite believe that counts as work, and that — rather than collecting garbage cans, or chopping carrots for vats of soup — i’ve somehow found my way to reading for work. reading soulful books for work.

and by my definition the soul is a broad-canvased endeavor. the soul is without boundaries, stretching from star-stitched night sky to the meadow where queen anne’s lace nods in the breath of morning’s breeze. by my definition the soul is that thing that catches the beauties, the depths, the light and the shadow of life and life beyond our feeble capacities.

in my book, the soul — that thing that i’m reading to stir — is the catch basin of all that is sacred, of all that is dispatched from God. it’s our job, us little people with our creaky knees and our hair that won’t do the right thing, it’s our job — or so i believe — to rumble through life on full-alert, on the lookout for those barely perceptible moments when the shimmer of light on a leaf, or the way the dawn ignites the horizon, signal to us that God is near. no, God is here. and if we listen, say put our ear to the wind, or to the chest of someone we love, or if we simply sit quietly and all alone, we might hear the still small voice that whispers of love, of courage, of bold and emphatic action, of whatever is the holiest thing you needed to hear. because God does that. God wants us to bump up against wonder. God wants us to feel the walls of our heart stretched and stretching. God wants us to rustle under the newness of a thought, or an inkling, that’s never struck us before. or the God i love does, anyway.

as i was reading away this week, reading mary oliver’s newest book, a collection of essays titled, “upstream: selected essays,” as i was reading lines like this one — “I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.” —  or — “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” —  or — ” I can hear that child’s voice…its presence rises, in memory, from the steamy river of dreams….It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.” — as i was reading those lines, i thought about how, for me, religion seeps in most deeply when it seeps in softly, tricklingly, when it’s not klonked over my head, with a two-by-four of this-is-what-you-should-know.

i let that softness, that newness sink in. my God comes at me gently, with a subtle tap to the noggin. or the barest wisp of breath against the nape of my neck.

and then during another part of another workday, when i was gathering notes for a lovely circle i am entering this evening, a circle filled with doctors and nurses and health care workers who believe in, and practice, narrative medicine, the art of gathering the stories of those whose lives will be entrusted to their care, their compassion and their steely intellect, i turned to two of the great thinkers in my lexicon, vladimir nabokov and rebecca solnit. i read, again, their instructions for reading and for writing. and i realized, they too, rooted and root their life’s work in soulful tomes.

nabokov instructs us in how to read: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. it is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

solnit, author of countless brilliant prose passages, instructs us in how to write: “listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes go wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live, wherever it comes from, and hope that your writing can do all those things for other people.”

and so i go, as instructed, to read, to try to write, to capture those fleeting sparks of the divine, to catch them with my soul, and clutch them dearly to my heart.

not so shabby, for a long day’s work.

where do you find the soulful words in your life? and how do you imagine the soul, and its capacities for catching all the passing sparks of the Divine? 

once my latest roundup of soulful books runs in the chicago tribune, where it’s now found on the thursday books page every six weeks or so, i will post it here, of course.

and a note, for anyone who’s curious, about book selection: i’ve chosen to only write about books i find rich or enriching, and i don’t get to write about nearly enough of those, limited to only three per roundup. knowing the courage it takes — the self-exposure — to put any words to the page, i’ve made it my policy that i will not write about a book that i find short on what i’m after. i know how much it hurts to be criticized, and i will not subject another soul to that. life’s too short. and there are too many gloriously good books to read and write about. wonders to behold, indeed.

riveted

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night after night, we took our places, however many of us happened to be home. we all had our props, tea mugs or ice cream alongside iterations of screens, small, smaller and smallest. as the night blackened outside the windows, one shared rectangle glowed: for the last two weeks, our portrait of the american family has been the four of us huddled around the modern-day campfire that is the tv blaring the national conventions, both of them. we take religion and politics in two flavors in this house, so we are by definition bi-partisan. because we watch knowing there is more than one brand of lens in this house (it’s the college kid who went off to school emphatically one way, came home another), we train our ears and our minds and our hearts on common ground.

it makes for truly compelling watching. no knee-jerk reactions allowed. and civility, doled out in carefully thought words, honestly asked questions, is the one abiding premise. fact-checking has become a family sport.

what compelled me the most, what i can’t get enough of, can’t stop thinking about was the oration. the power to put breath to words and bellow them across the seas of cheering (or jeering) souls in the seats of the arenas, both the Q in cleveland and the wells fargo center in philly. i found myself as rapt by the voices clearly not used to the national stage as i was by some of the ones whose road to glory and office was paved by the power to put heart and soul into political story.

IMG_7933i admit to tears — tears when the muslim immigrant father pulled his shiny copy of the Constitution from the pocket beneath his impeccably-pressed suit jacket. tears when his hajib-shrouded wife, the gold star mother of their fallen soldier son, stood by his side, without saying a word, looking as if this stage might be the last place in the world she wanted to be, except that deep in her heart she had a son whose story she would not let be silenced. the goosebumps began when the father, in his halting english, tinged with middle-east lilt, recounted how immediately after migrating to the u.s. from the united arab emirates he’d taken his three sons to visit the jefferson memorial. the father recited the words, the ones etched in white Georgia marble, jefferson’s words swearing “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” that so spoke to his son, whose name was Humayun, the son who had grown up to be a soldier and who died in iraq, an army captain who charged into death to save his soldiers. on june 8, 2004, when an explosives-laced taxi barreled through the gate of the army base he was there to protect, Capt. Humayun Khan told his soldiers to hit the dirt while he ran 10 steps toward the taxi, 10 steps before the car bomb exploded. the son, who had dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, is now buried, with bronze star and purple heart, in arlington national cemetery.

in case you missed the father’s words, and the moment he pulled out his pocket-edition of the Constitution, i’ve saved it for you here.

i was covered in a whole other kind of goosebumps when michelle obama took the high road, when she spoke through the lens of a mother, a mother teaching her daughters grace and grit in equal measure, it seems. and joe biden. oh, joe! and the president, as he so often has, had me in tears, streaming-down tears.

night after night, i felt my soul rise, and my heart pick up its pace. the voices and stories, the hands trembling, even the clearing of one history-making throat, all of it drew me in, gave me reason to hope. made me think — in the recounting of deeply intimate stories from mothers of slain sons and daughters, in the rising crescendo of preachers soaked in their own perspiration — that deep in the heart of all of this is a religion not bound by party or nation. it’s the majestic, indomitable, sometimes suffering human spirit, the one that given half a chance will reach for the light, will shimmy toward the crack where the air comes in.

it’s the stories of forgiveness, it’s the stories of wives and children kissing their daddy goodbye one last time, not knowing it was the last, not till later when some terrible knock came to the door, it’s the words pinned to those unforgettable moments, those moments when the human spirit stands to be crushed, but somehow, some way, it’s not. it catches some updraft, finds courage and voice, and rises again. rises to heights it hadn’t imagined.

for the last two weeks, we’ve heard story tumbled atop story. we’ve seen glimpses of the human spirit at its most soaring, and we’ve heard visions that make us tremble in fear. it’s the quadrennial amalgam of hope and awakening. now what we need is plenty of prayer.

which voices, which stories, which moments, are the ones that linger for you? 

(and a point of clarification: the kid who went off to college as president of the new trier young democrats and came home otherwise is not, repeat not, a backer of the republican presidential nominee. the kid is all about reasoned discourse, and deeply held founding principles. his respect is reserved — on both side of the aisle — for those rare few who abide by those immutable pillars of democracy.) 

and, finally, yes i note the irony in just last week saying i don’t write about politics here; i’m trying to thread a very fine needle here, and divine the sacred thread of human triumph and suffering and courage and grace when it’s thrust on a national stage — yes, the national political stage. it’s a belief that beneath the bluster there is something deeply, powerfully human that must be paid serious attention. and i abstain from divisiveness.

photo credits: (top) Josh Haner for the New York Times; (parents of Capt. Humayun Khan) Damon Winter for the New York Times