pull up a chair

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Tag: prayer

in the darkness, it’s the familiar rhythms of the heart that soothe…

As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.

When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.

My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.

He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.

We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.

Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.

In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.

For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.

And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.

While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.

I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.

As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.

So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.

Xox


In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….

Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.

Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?

counting my way: a centenary of thanks in the making, prayer shawl for hard times

a few years ago — i thought it was three, but in fact it was six — i stumbled into the making of a gratitude list and found myself counting to 100, which made it a centenary of thanks. i fell in love with the word, of course, and the notion of reaching toward a number so high it took concentrated attention. simone weil, of course, tells us that attention is the launch pad of prayer. only she says it more poetically. she says this: “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

pádraig Ó tuama, the brilliant north ireland peacemaker and poet, says this about prayer: “i do love praying. like prier from french, ‘to ask.’ and what i love about that word is it doesn’t require belief. it just requires a recognition of need. and i think the recognition of need is something that brings us to a deep, common language about what it means to be human…”

and so, this year especially, when the wounds are deep, and the fears shimmer just below the surface, the sacred act of weaving ourselves and wrapping ourselves in the shawl of a gratitude litany — prayer purled — seems not only wise but necessary. surely an armament against the cold winds that will not abate.

i begin with the woods. i’m drawn there first for its tabernacle of sheltered silence, for the stirrings so faint you can hear tree trunks creaking, as if old bentwood rocking chairs, who let out a bit of a pinched and arthritic cry as they bend in the wind, rub hard against their fallen brethren.

i begin with the light there, the way the shadows play. one day dappling the leafy floor into odd-shaped checkerboard geometries, the next day diffusing the whole — the undulations of rises and hollows, the tangle of vines still holding tight to their berries — in a radiance that might be a kind of mystical halo.

the woods, a grove of old-growth oaks and a tumble of decades-old anonymous stumps, runs along a canal just a short ways from my house. i’ve taken to wandering there, squatting myself on the logs and the stumps that seem like children’s play blocks strewn from a leviathan’s toy chest. i listen and watch. a prayerful pose, if ever there was.

the litany of gratitudes tumble into my notebook, for i always carry a notepad and pen. these days, the woods are just about the holiest place i know. a tabernacle tucked under the trees.

the woods, it seems, are a fine place to sit in a time of pandemic. you might traipse through a meadow. or plunk in the sand and the sharp-bladed grasses along the lakeshore. or perhaps you’ve a river that bends, that offers up its whispering current, that serves as your launch pad for prayer.

these are the places that pay no mind to the cacophonies of the world, to the political banshee cries, to the ungodly images from inside the ICUs where breath itself verges on the impossible.

i turn, in times like these, to those carved-out holy places of God’s making. the opening in the woods, the prayer pew along the river bank or the lake’s soft edge. under the great star-salted dome of the night sky, just beyond my kitchen door.

but i might find holy altars even on the inside of my old house. at the cookstove, most certainly. that place where i stand, stirring, intermingling my incantations with the steam rising from whatever’s bubbling. call me crazy, but for me cooking, cooking for the ones i love, is nothing short of a prayer. sometimes i get lost in the launching of my litanies, and i wind up more or less burning my prayers. i’m rather infamous around here for my long record of burning the broccoli.

all this seems to be a circling around of the centenary itself. i’ve yet to get to the counting here. so perhaps the wisest thing to do is to slow count this year, to make it a week-long practice of paying simone-weil-level attention.

i’ll have an abundance of grist here: a boy i love is coming home from college, clear till the first of february. he and his papa will be motoring across the farmland of the great buckeye state, soon as we get the green light, soon as the precautionary COVID test comes back from the lab, with nary a worry.

the table this year will be sparse. only three of us. with our most essential fourth far beyond the reach of my hand, too far. but blessedly he won’t be alone.

we’ll partake of the traditional thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, only we’ll be stationed outside. on her sidewalk, perhaps. or in the circular drive. and there won’t be any picking away at the turkey platter at her house. nor even the swapping of slices of pie.

but i promise i will make it to 100, cross that prayerful line of demarcation (i wouldn’t want to call it a finish line, as that might imply a stopping, and i’ve no intention of doing so). perhaps you might choose to play along. perhaps you’ll count to 100, too. weave your own centenary. if there are turkey trots galore this time of year, those early-morning chases down pathways and lanes, a preamble calorie burn to make room for more stuffing, there might just as well be a numerical exercise in the petitions department.

i will leave you with the breathtakingness of our friend pádraig Ó tuama who wrote this about prayer, in an essay entitled, “Oremus,” which means, in latin, “let us pray.”

“…let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. let’s lick the earth from our fingers. let us look up and out and around. the world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. let us pray.”

i invite you to pray to one hundred….

blessings and blessings upon us, in these hours of blessing to come….

even if you don’t count to 100, perhaps you’ll pay closer attention to the petitions you hold in your heart in this blessed season of gratitude. but i will see you here next week, with my centenary in hand, or rather at heart…where, and with what, will you begin?

p.s. that tepee above is a little miracle i stumbled upon in the woods yesterday. an architecture of sticks, gathered from the heap pile of fallen limbs. it hadn’t been there before and so it stirred a thousand questions: was it something for a boy scout badge? are there still children who play in the woods? was it some ancestral lodge in the making, a place from which smoky petitions might rise?

oops! i forgot that i was thinking of leaving a little something here. the other night there was a “book launch” for Stillness, and given these pandemic times, that meant a virtual gathering. so, from the cozy confines of my kitchen, we all gathered robustly. AND the wonders of technology made an instant recording, which you can click any time to play along. here’s the key to get in! (just click the word “key” and it’ll magically open the door)

since the beginning, awe

across the years, i’ve been swept into the river of an ancient time. i wear it, almost, like a prayer shawl. wrap myself in its silken threads. inhale the sweet spice rising up from earth’s release, as summer breathes its final breaths and autumn rushes in.

it’s in the morning air, the chill that makes me pull the covers tight round my shoulders; it’s in the thin bronze light that casts its amber shadow, long across the floorboards. it’s in the withering of the garden, the last green tomato clinging, holding on for just another ray of sunlight. will it turn before the freeze?

all around, you can feel the shuddering of season folding into season, of the turning of the prayer book page.

when the new moon, in its indigo darkness, rises tonight, a holy people — the blessed jews — all around the globe will spark the first flames of the new year’s light in the kindling of the rosh hashanah candles. i will strike the match at this old house. and only two of us will bless the light, the wine, the spiraled raisin-studded challah.

we need the new year prayers more than ever, this gasping year. the burned-out brokenness is everywhere, the globe (or vast acres of it anyway) is shrouded in ashes, a more fitting metaphor it’s hard to imagine.

hope though comes in prayer — and, spine-tingly, in the science that tells us there are forest pines whose seeds can only burst new life when exposed to flame. may our prayers be those forest seeds.

prayer, for me, has become something of a force field. we fire up our deep-down jet-pack of incantation; we might, some of us, fall to our knees (a posture sure to super-launch those prayers, to propel with oomph through all the turbulence along the way). we do our part, our lowly simple part. and we realize that the more of us who fire up our prayers, the more fiercely, more mightily we put forth our voices, we just might forge an opening in heaven’s door, and our petitions — our saying we are so so sorry for the state of things, our vow to spend our living, breathing hours in pursuit of all that’s good, that’s holy — might find the way to the heart of the God to whom we are praying. it’s a collective effort, really, an all-out, all-of-us campaign to light the light, to open up the spigot of holy goodness, to let it rain down on this parched and burned-out earth.

there’s an ancient teaching, taught by long-ago rabbis and mystics, that in the beginning the light God made was so blindingly bright, it burst out of its vessel, and the shards, the sparks, the bits of flame sifted down to all creation — not unlike the embers raining down in all the smoldering forests, maybe. and from that shattering of the vessel came the first and holiest instruction, the one to carry all of humankind from that day forward: seek the shards of light, look deep into the souls of each and every someone you meet, look into the morning’s dew and the constellations strewn across the heavens, look where you least expect to find the shard, and in those places where you can’t help but see it.

and when you find it, when you gather up the bits and shards, bring your light harvest to the table, where we will all lay down our gleanings, where we will stand back and marvel. in awe. in awe for what we’ve all done, all on our own and all together. in awe for all the light that’s here to be pulled from the shadows and the darkness. in awe of how luminous it might be.

awe is what these days are called — the holy days of awe — in the great and holy tradition that unfolds at the cusp of the jewish new year. from tonight’s setting of the sun and the rising of the new moon, clear through to ten days from now, on the day of atonement, we stand in awe. we marvel at the light, holy light, that’s mustered from all the cracks and broken places in this still-holy, ever-holy earth.

it’s how we heal the world, how we make it whole — tikkun olum — repair the broken shattered world. it’s God’s command. and we begin to sew it whole with our prayer, our harvest of the light, and our undying awe.

will you join the prayer collective, do your bit to scrounge up shards of light wherever you go today, and tomorrow, and every day after? will you bring your bits of light to the shared table, so we can all of us stitch together the whole cloth of incandescence this broken world so deeply desperately needs?

prayer for comings and goings

gyroscope

gy·ro·scope  /’jira-skop/  n. a device used to provide stability or maintain a fixed direction, consisting of a wheel or disk spinning rapidly about an axis that is free to alter in direction. a device for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. it is a spinning wheel or disc in which the axis of rotation is free to assume any orientation by itself.

“device for maintaining orientation.”

sometimes i think my job is to be the human gyroscope. to keep it all straight. to keep all afloat. at speeds all their own. above all: to maintain orientation.

sometimes, even my own.

today is one of those days when the gyroscope in me is working overtime. before i was even awake i was tracing the map in my head of where people i love — children i love — are scattering today. one is climbing into a van with a van full of friends and a summer’s worth of clothes and rolling from new haven, to new york, to washington, to the rolling hills of virginia, then back to d.c. for a long, hard summer playing like a tv lawyer.

yet another of my kids (there are only two, lest i make it sound as if there are dozens and dozens) is marching into his last friday of high school. then he and the little flock i’ve come to love (as if my own), they are scattering like pool balls all across the country: wisconsin, new york, indiana, michigan, ohio, and, yes, illinois. (how apt that the heartland is draped in these particular boys, a heart-filled flock if ever there was.)

years back, when my firstborn headed off to massachusetts, and i stayed behind in sweet chicago, i got my first taste of this re-mapping that mamas do. i imprinted the hills of western massachusetts, pioneer valley, into my imagination. i knew the streets and inclines he loped day after day. and as i’d talk to him, the pictures in my head traveled along. on days when i wasn’t talking to him, i imagined where he trekked. you learn, when you’re someone who loves faraway, how to plunk yourself far far from where you dwell. the size of the space inside your head, it reaches as far as it needs to stretch. adds a live pulsing dot onto the map of the globe. you find yourself scanning the news for hot spots near any one of your very own dots. but mostly, you unreel a whole new reel of picture shows, one for each faraway someone you love.

i woke up this morning wanting more than anything to do like i’d always done when they were little, and we were about to go on a road trip. we’d pile into the wagon, check all the seatbelts, shuffle the water jug away from their feet, be sure the snack bag was reachable. then, before i shifted the car into reverse, we all paused, bowed our heads and muttered the mixed-up prayer that was our own: “holy garden angels protect us.” (one of us once dropped a syllable in guardian and it’s stuck ever since.)

this morning my prayer would be a bit more complex. it’s been nuanced over the years, textured with shadow, with depth and, yes, patches of darkness. the pleadings are at once as unfettered as ever — please let us land safe and whole wherever it is we’ve set out to go — and far more intricate, taking into account the particular inclines and tight mountain passages that come when the journeys are of the real-world, unchaperoned, higher-altitude ilk.

my instinct — no matter how far from home the journey begins — is always to reach toward the ones i so love, spread my arms and my safe-keeping prayers across and around them. i picture the prayer shawl, the one we draped over their shoulders the day they first chanted the Torah, the one we’ve pulled off the shelf for each of their blessings. all these years and journeys later, it’s the sacred cloth i yearn to lay on their shoulders, to wrap round their backs, as they bow their sweet heads, and my job — my holiest job — is to anoint them with my prayers. and my love.

dear holy God, God of adventure and challenge, God of steep inclines and precipitous drops, dear God, steady their footfall. soften the blows. dial up the everyday triumphs and occasional joys. most of all, bring them home, safe and sound and whole. and, yes, steady me, as i try my hardest to maintain orientation. no matter what comes.

amen. and with love.

what’s your prayer for comings and goings? 

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?

 

prayer for the new year just round the bend

new year sky

it’s almost upon us, here in the hush of the in-between days. new year’s coming. new hopes, new dreams, new promises.

new beginning. old habits. can we shed even one? break one chain that binds us? worry less? hope more? trade in gentle for harsh? can we be kinder, beginning with our sweet old selves? can we sketch out, at last, a plan for moving us closer to the ways we want to be, to live?

i’ve no idea who invented the notion of starting over, but it’s a notion to which i’m deeply indebted. the whole year gets to start all over again. one after another. slate gets wiped — or so we pretend, so we make ourselves believe under the noise of the new year’s whistles and horns.

as i settle in for a quiet turning over of the page, i think of the ones who aren’t with me. the ones who’ve lived their lives large, with abundance. who filled every crevice with courage, with joy, with conviction. i think of the look in their eyes as their hours drew to a close. how they implored: don’t waste this. it’s not lasting forever.

i’m drawing all of them close. each and every one who didn’t live to see 2019. i’m thinking of one magnificent friend who at any hour might breathe her last. i’m poring over the lessons she’s been teaching ever since her cancer came back, ever since she’s been bravely, transparently, hold-nothing-back “nearing the edge.”

i’ve been digging around my old notes, and found a prayer i prayed once upon a new year. if i boiled it all into one single whisper it would be this, i believe: give me the grace, please, to make this as holy a world, as gentle a world, as the one you, God, first imagined when you breathed it all into being.

dear God, help me take it up a notch. and be ready with the band-aids when i fall and skin my knees.*

amen. love, meDSCF0322

*i decided the longer version of my new-year prayer was simply taking up oxygen, so i boiled it down and left only one line standing. the one about band-aids, for the hours and days when we fall from our deepest-held hopes…..

what’s your new year prayer?

awake to awe

awake to awe

two holy things happened in synagogue this week, on the night and the long day of prayer that marked the new year: one, the boy who now towers over me, he grabbed my thumb with his, and inch by inch enfolded his fingers over mine. he wouldn’t let go. he leaned in, so much so that i yielded my head to his shoulder. felt the rise and fall of his breathing against the tide of my own. we sat like that, entwined, silent, for long stretches of prayer. it was the holiest prayer i’ve prayed in a very long time. over and over — it never gets old — i remember how unlikely it was, how impossible it was, that he came to me, to us. that in the midst of our believing it would never be, the unbelievable happened: he happened.

a mother’s deepest prayers, sometimes, are the ones she whispers only to herself. those were the prayers i prayed on the new year. each breath was emboldened with the knowing that a year from now he will not be by my side. i will not feel him pressing against my shoulders. there will be miles and miles between us. and it will ache. i will ache.

the other holy thing, the thing that’s washed over me all week, and will wash and wash for days still, is the notion that we carve these 10 days of awe out of the whole cloth of the year, and do as commanded. we are commanded to be awake to awe, to make each passing moment be a prayer, the prayer of paying attention, the prayer of drinking in all that surrounds us, that buoys us, that lifts us and carries us on a current unattached to the dreck of the everyday.

the prayer in my prayer book is this, and the title of the prayer (composed for the High Holy Days in the early centuries of the Common Era, according to the footnote) happens to be How Do We Sense God’s Holiness? Through Awe. here are the first lines…

And so, in Your holiness,

give all creation the gift of awe.

Turn our fear to reverence;

let us be witnesses of wonder —

perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive….

the prayer goes on, and the leitmotif of paying attention arises again and again through the hours of prayer that are rosh hashanah. it’s as if the prayer found my soul, found the soul that had been waiting for just those words, just that command: “let us be witnesses of wonder — perceiving all nature as a prayer come alive.”

and so i’ve done as commanded ever since i walked out of that sacred space where the prayers and the limbs of the boy wound around me. i’ve opened my eyes and my ears and my soul to the majesty — the breathtaking, trumpet-blasting, cymbal-crashing beauty — that is this stretch of time and season-turning, the enflaming of the planet as the last-blast palette engulfs the trees and the nodding heads atop the stems that bend in autumn breeze.

it’s not just a ho-hum isn’t-this-lovely that punctuates my days, it’s a notch beyond. it’s a command from God. “perceive all nature as a prayer come alive….”

there is a certain holiness imbued. there is a sure clear knowing that the hand that created all of this, all of this fathomless wonder, is the hand of the Creator, the one who breathed first breath into each of us. the one who has tumbled the unbelievable into my life — more than once.

my watch-keeping this week feels anointed. as if God is right there over my shoulder, delighting each time i spy one of the wonders. delighting when i pause to drink it in — slow the car, plop down on a stone, tiptoe out the door to count the stars.

i felt God the morning i drove along a field shimmering in golden rod, and the glowing slant of sun streaked radiance like lightning bolts, set the dew drops shimmering — jewels of the dawn.

i felt God when i glanced toward the night sky through the heavy boughs of trees last night and caught the crescent moon winking at me. bright. certain. daring me to slow my dash and pay attention. stop and marvel, i almost heard it whisper.

i will feel the certain hand of God when i first hear the faraway cry of the geese, crossing sky, crossing miles, crossing half the globe in search of thermal sanctuary. leaving us behind to shiver in the winter’s cold.

i am living in a census of wonder. i am living awake to awe. i am knowing that all of God’s creation is prayer come alive. and i am praying right along.

what moments of wonder have you counted this week? begin the litany here….

(i am dashing to drive my sweet boy to school, and clicking the publish button before my litany is done. but so be it. we weave the rest together…..)

awe bee nuzzling

 

the prayers we pray when we think it’s the end…

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i motored home from the faraway writing festival in an ice storm, the sort that has you white-knuckling the wheel, and praying the prayers that matter most. all along the roadside, as i started toward home, crunched-up cars and parts of cars were strewn like pool balls along the sides of the highway. police lights flashed. stunned passengers staggered from what was left of their cars. the lanes of the highway were shiny and gritty, the detritus of ice piling thicker and sleeker.

i’d felt the ice as i walked across a long parking lot, as the spitting rain began to ping against my face. as it started to sting. as i realized it was no longer rain, but bits of ice in the making. by the time i got to my old red wagon, the ice bits had piled along the edge of the windshield, into the groove where the wipers lie still.IMG_0575

the forecast warned it would only get worse. and i had a house soon filling with people i love — with my beloved brother from maine, and his little girl who was turning nine that very day, who was coming to my house for pink polka dots and sparkling pink lemonade and a hot-pink birthday cake covered with roses and shimmering glitter (not unlike the bits of ice now piled on my windshield). so i turned the key and pointed my car toward chicago.

and what prayer popped front and center? the one that begs for time with my boys. the one that found me telling God, over and over, that my job was not done. the one that had me making deals. the one that mentioned how inconvenient it would be for me and my wheels to join the cascade of crunched metal and glass along the sides of the road, mile after mile after mile. and lest God had forgotten, i made sure to mention that my firstborn was about to start his first-year law school exams, and he could ill afford to come home for my funeral. (i’m fairly certain that was the thing that cinched the deal, don’t you think?) for good measure, i added that the little one, the one i will nearly always refer to as “my little one,” well, he had enough to worry about, i reminded God, without losing his mama on the side of the icy michigan interstate.

of all the words in the world, of all the petitions to which i might have put breath, the ones that flowed from my heart and my lungs were the ones that centered on the two whom i mother with my whole blessed being.

truth is, i suppose, that i will never ever hit my fill of being their mother. of loving them with every ounce of all i am — and more. i will, in my last breath, wish i’d had more. wish i could witness just one more chapter of who and why they are becoming.

is that not the burning furnace at the heart of our deepest, greediest loves? is it even greedy to love beyond the borders of who we are, of our wildest imagination? or is it the living breathing definition of love beyond measure? is it, perhaps, the holiest iteration of loving?

i made it home all right. even made it home, i’d find out the next day, with a nail smashed into the rim of my tire. must have picked it up in the last couple miles, as i drove through a construction zone. it didn’t go flat on that long icy ride home; it waited till the next morning when we pulled out of the garage and felt the telltale galump of a car with one flat tire.

later that night, when i mentioned to a friend how scary the drive had been, and how hard i’d prayed, she told me: “my prayer was always ‘I want to tell my kids I love them one more time.'”

the prayers we pray when we’re staring into the hard stop. the ones that chase away all the distraction, and bore through to the life-and-death essence.

the ones we’ll pray till our last….

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our birthday girl…

what prayer might you pray till your last?

funny how these things decide to write themselves. i thought i was about to spill out my notebook, to share a few fine lines from the festival of faith and writing, which kwame alexander, the newberry-winning author, decided should be called, “festival of faith in writing.” apparently, the prayers won out. 

but before i go, a few favorite lines from the line-up of poets and thinkers who, for three days and one ice storm, made me swoon…

kwame alexander, in a brilliant hilarious keynote, in which one of the stories was about his mother dying: the loss of your mom, he said, is “the most devastating thing any child ever has to go through…” (when mom died) “my star exploded and everything froze.”

poet marie howe: when asked how she found poetry, or perhaps how poetry found her, replied: “I was looking for a language no one else seemed to be talking about.” 

“First time I noticed it was the back cover of Bob Dylan’s first album. Looking for language that speaks to this world within the world and I couldn’t find that.”

in a conversation between marie howe and irish poet padraig o tuama, this:

“poetry can be something of a common heart”

“if poetry does its work, it gets to the heart of the matter.”

padraig: “poetry is the original song of human life. I believe the first poem was the lullaby around the fire, a baby is crying…”

the essayist dinty moore, spewed wisdoms from other writers, including these:

Harry Crews: “writers spend all their time preoccupied with all the things the rest of the world spends all their time avoiding.” 

Mary Oliver: “pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” 

James Tate: “when one is highly alert to language then merely everything begs to be a poem.”

Allen Ginsberg: “catch yourself thinking…”

that’ll do for now, with one more offering from my blessings of motherprayer file.

 

 

 

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? 

december’s whisper

red berry

the december i am drawn to, the one that most emphatically, insistently, invites me in, is the one that beckons in whisper.

the apex of my counterculturalism, perhaps, i take my month of longest night in slow sure sips. timpani belongs to someone else. my december—our december, perhaps, for there is evidence we’ve found each other, kindred spirits here—is one that calls for quiet.

long stretches of hours in which the simmering on the stove, the ticking of the clock, the occasional squawk of the jay at the feeder, those are the preludes, the quarter notes and half notes that i take in.

there will come, i’m certain—because year after year it comes—the one annual carol i play over and over, cranking the dial till the house shakes, and i worry the next-door neighbor might come running to see if all is well. (“mary, did you know?” a leading contender, third year running…)

gingerbabiesand so i’ve spent the week preparing, whisking away autumnal vestige, ushering in soon-to-come winter. i’ve stockpiled seed in 20-pound sacks (several, so far), and vats of ice-melting pellets for the dawn when the ice comes. i’ve piled pumpkins and gourds in the old trough my squirrels and possums (and occasional uninvited skunk) depend on, the autumn’s feast now theirs for winter keeping. i’ve snipped boxwood and spruce, tucked branches of both into window boxes just below the ledges, where jack frost will soon anoint the panes. i’ve strung italian star-lights around and through the posts of my picket fence. when the sun drops down, i won’t be alone in the dark. there is twinkling at the edge of the yard, front and back. and a candle flickers atop the kitchen table.

it is all a part of the coiling in. the nautilus of deepening prayer.

the prayer that fills me most is the prayer that slowly and silently seeps to the tucked-away places, the ones that await the season of stillness, the places unlocked by the smells and the bells of december: pungent clove, star anise, hissing wick, crackling log, twilight’s first star and the night’s last ember at dawn.

it won’t be long till somehow i crank the oven, haul out the canisters, bang my grandma’s old maple rolling pin against the cutting board’s edge. my coterie of cookie cutters each play a role in their own sugarplum suite.

zoupone day this week i hauled a turkey carcass from the fridge, and plunked it in my deepest pot, the vessel for soup-making for a dear dear friend whose newborn is just home from the ICU, and for whom i’ve cooked up all the sustenance i could imagine: brown rice, pulled-from-the-earth plump knotty carrots and fennel and garlic, savory stock, handful of parsley.

i’ll deliver my brew well before sundown, and in return i’ll drink in the newness, the perfection, of a babe just birthed, cradled more tightly and tenderly than ever imagined because ICUs do a mighty fine job of reminding how blessed it is to be finally sent home, untethered from the web of too many tubes and the fright that shakes a new mama and papa—and all those who love them—down to their rickety bones.

(there is, of course, no ailment the balm of day-long simmering kettle won’t cure; even a newborn mama’s terrible tremble is certain to be chased away at the very first shlurp of that omnipotent zoup.)

indeed, these are my december liturgies, day after day. intercessions of prayer, punctuated by plain old worldly deadlines. i attend to my errands and chores and assignments—laundry is folded and ferried, empty shelves of the fridge re-stocked, sentences are typed and essays submitted.

but the work that’s most heavenly, certainly, is the quiet work of the soul come december. the making way, making room at the inn, in the heart.

the grace of december, the gift of december, is in the quieting, the hush of the sacred whisper. the vespers that hallow—make holy—the heart. make room in the heart this quiet december.

i’ve been saving this poem, “winter grace,” for the whispered beginnings of the season of stillness….

Winter Grace
By Patricia Fargnoli

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.

“Winter Grace” by Patricia Fargnoli from Hallowed. © Tupelo Press, 2017.

how do you make room in your heart, in your unspooling of the day, for the whisper come december?