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

Tag: season changing

the light may save us (and a few books, too)


i was minding my dr.-seuss-birthday business yesterday (march 2, the national feast of green eggs and ham, and 113th birthday of theodore geisel), when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention. i mean really caught my attention. i mean made me put down my pen and turn my head sharply in the direction of the beckoning.

i stared, jaw-dropped. it was something not seen in months and months. it was pure and unblinking. it was whiter than white, a color so sharp, so intense, you could practically apply it with paintbrush.

it was the first light of spring, the vernal lifeline cast from the biggest star in the sky, the one that burns through the day, the one that signals “the seasons are turning.” you’re making it — just when you’re thinking you won’t — from winter, on into spring.

i sat and stared at the light. marveled at the way the season comes on unannounced. no clanging and banging, just the world underfoot quietly going about the business of awakening. all around i feel it, the drab of winter dying away to the newborn tenders of spring. from underneath a pile of spruce branches, i discovered snowdrops pushing their slender necks through the crust of winter’s garden. my front walk is flanked on both sides with a pool of lemon-y aconites, their bright shining faces aglow in the hours, especially, when morning sun soaks them in wattage.

all this unfolds as i too shake off the germs that took me hostage for the better part of two weeks. we’re still moving slow as sap here in the house where strep took hold. but there are signs that life insists on moving forward. spring will come. lungs will clear. the intensity of sunlight will creep from a tickle to a surge.

sometimes i remember: if we surrender to the rhythms of the earth, and the heavens above, we will be carried by the divine heart that animates each and every stirring. world without end. amen.

what signs of hope did you spot this week?

and, in case you’re looking for a few soulful books, here’s my latest roundup from the Chicago Tribune.

Religious humor in ‘Sin Bravely’ leads spiritual book roundup
Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

“Sin Bravely” by Maggie Rowe, Soft Skull, 225 pages, $16.95

Admittedly, the “religious humor” section of the bookshelf is markedly sparse. Yet that’s where you’ll find “Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience” from comedy writer Maggie Rowe, a suburban Chicago native who’s written for stage and screen, including scripts for “Arrested Development” and Netflix’s “Flaked.” Since 2002, she’s been performing in and producing the Comedy Central stage show “sit ‘n spin,” Los Angeles’ longest-running spoken-word extravaganza, described as “part theatre, part 12-step meeting, part tent revival.”

Publishers Weekly called “Sin Bravely,” Rowe’s debut memoir, a “born-again version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.'”

Don’t let the funnies fool you: It’s an unflinching examination of the dangers of literalism in the religion department. And while you might be distracted by the sound of your own laughter, it’s a dead-serious message that won’t soon be shaken off.

The plotline goes like this: As early as 6 years old, Rowe found herself obsessed with a fear of going to hell, one so extreme it drove her to become “an outrageously dedicated” born-again Christian. At 19, crippled by her fear, Rowe checked herself into an evangelical psychiatric facility, where pictures of Jesus hung on the walls and a kindly doctor — and a ragtag cast of lovably kooky characters — proved prescriptive.

It’s there that Rowe launches her anti-damnation campaign, finally subscribing to her version of Martin Luther’s admonition: “Sin bravely in order to know the forgiveness of God.” In a scene unlikely to be found anywhere else on the religion bookshelves, she tests her newfound theology in, of all places, a strip club’s amateur night. We’ll let Rowe take it from there, for hers is a storyteller’s inimitable gift.

“Liturgy of the Ordinary” by Tish Harrison Warren, IVP, 184 pages, $16

From the photograph of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the cover, Tish Harrison Warren’s debut work, “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life,” signals that it’s rooted in the quotidian, the humble humdrum of day-after-day existence. This is spiritual guidance for the bed-maker, the teeth-brusher, the traffic-snarled among us. This is one ordinary day turned inside out, its hallowed script revealed, liturgical underpinnings exposed.

Warren, an Anglican priest, campus minister, writer, wife and mother of two, unlocks “a practical theology of the everyday,” and she does so by seamlessly coupling ordinary moments — awaking, brushing teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, sitting in traffic, checking emails, sipping tea, sleeping — with the sacred.

She beautifully ties making the bed to the Creation story, to God’s making beauty from chaos. In a consideration of tooth brushing, she draws us into a meditation on Christianity as an embodied faith, one in which our senses — our physical pleasures — draw us closer, more emphatically to the divine. Even a fight with her husband becomes a platform for seeking shalom.

It’s in the nitty-gritty of daily work where Warren illuminates holiness. She writes of “tiny theophanies,” church-bell moments, that jolt her — and us, her readers — to sacred attention. The purity of her vision, the clarity of her writing, makes effortless work of the notion that the small acts of our everydays are what shape us into the sacred vessels we are meant to be.

As Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And “Liturgy of the Ordinary” unveils the holy way through even the humblest, most fumbling of days.

“Hammer Is the Prayer” by Christian Wiman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $26

It would be unwise — foolish, even — to think that cracking open a book of poetry might take you straightaway to the same high plane as prose that trains its lens on God. Or the Sacred. Or however you define divinity.

What happens in poetry is altogether chancier. You might, one moment, find yourself immersed in the earthly, devoid of anything remotely godly. And then, one poem later, find yourself catapulted to a place you’ve not before felt, so sudden and so certain is your awareness of, your proximity to, what’s holy.

So it is traveling through the pages of Christian Wiman’s “Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems,” a gathering of three decades of poetry from one of America’s foremost poets, one whose poems have been said to “reach out to both heaven and earth.” Wiman, for 10 years editor of Poetry magazine, now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. This is his eighth book.

Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, he’s said that his awareness of God went dormant once he hit college, but then, newly married and diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer in 2005, Wiman and his poetry began to grapple with faith and with God. It’s more of a wrestling, a visceral dance with doubt and belief. An urgency, too, entered his work, and it’s that sharp edge in his poetry that seizes your heart.

To trace the trajectory of God’s absence or presence in Wiman’s poetry is to enter into your own dance with those unrelenting questions.

Here’s one: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?”

Barbara Mahany’s next book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” is due out in April.

(and speaking of that book, the real live actual first copy landed on my stoop this week. and it’s lovelier than i ever imagined. thank you, abingdon press.)


tender is the earth


i am submitting to the tilting of the earth. as the oozy patch of mud that is my very own fraction of acreage leans into the less-diluted rays of the great burning star that is the sun, pivot point of the universe, as adagio quickens, and feathered choristers raise their warbles by decibels upon decibels, i allow myself to be wrapped in the soft skeins of earth unfurling, earth letting loose its tight and clenched long-winter’s grip.

i am brushing up against its tendrils, its newborn threads, as i tiptoe down my bluestone walk. as i plop my bum on bluestone stoop, the one that hasn’t yet released its wintry chill. i crouch down low, and run my fingertips across the frilly tops of fronds, just beginning to poke beyond the crust of earth, just beginning to contemplate the art of opening, sun salutation of the new spring garden.

i can’t get close enough — save for rolling in the dewy grass, smearing fists of mud across my knees and elbows. or climbing up a tree, to discover how it feels to be a bird, warbling across the heavens, toes clinging to the bough.

all in all, my daily pull is to the pulse point where earth and sky entwine, where winter’s hibernation gives way to springtime’s insistent release. i drink in the lessons, the unspoken parable: it’s letting-go time, it’s time to uncoil, time to put aside the winter pose — one born of sorrow, yes, and a hollowed-out sense of quietude — time to practice the gentle nudge, bow down low to the invitation, the one that whispers, “i offer healing, if you lean in close, breathe deep the wholeness, the promise, of the season.”

i allow myself, day upon day, hour after hour, to be soothed by the blessed balm of earth at its tenderest. of earth when heaven first begins to draw forth what’s been tucked inside for all the weeks and months of darkness.

it’s dawned on me, as i make my daily rounds of close inspection, that the truth of springtime is that of revelation, long-held secrets breaking through the cloak that kept them shrouded, not seen, forgotten.

the beautiful, come springtime, is no longer under wraps. those yellow petals clinging to the branch? the tight buds of hyacinth just periscoping through the earth? it’s all creation trumpeting its truths. it’s all been there all along, sacred DNA tightly wadded, awaiting heaven’s cue.

and now it’s come, the call to rise and shine and strut the fresh-born splendor; must have tiptoed in while we were napping. so now, perhaps, it’s time for us to ponder too what’s been hiding deep inside of all of us, while we waited out the winter.

and while i wonder what the days and weeks ahead might bring, what beauties might be on the cusp, i’m savoring this tender interlude, these holy blessed hours when all the earth is gentle invitation, and balm for where the winter wore me raw.

i seem to be transfixed — you might call it “stuck” — by the slow unfolding out my door and windows. day by day, week by week, i’m keeping watch. mesmerized would be the word. drinking deep the healing offered by this holy blessed earth, the one so alive in spring. 

since my offering feels thin today, i’ll add to it with two addenda. the first is a celebration of a blessed angel among us, the cook in the night kitchen of what was once called children’s memorial hospital (and now has someone’s too-long name attached). just last night she wrapped up 50 years on the job. a half century of serving up love and prayer, with a side of oozy grilled cheese. one of my beloved nurse friends let me in on the chapter’s ending, so i dug into my archives and found this story i wrote for the chicago tribune in 2009, when she’d been on the job for a mere 43 years. 

to whet your appetite, perhaps, here are the first few paragraphs of miss bettye tucker’s story: 

One by one, night light by night light, the rooms go dim in the not-so-hushed place where sick children, broken children, dying children, finally fall into sleep.

One by one, room by room, the big people who’ve held little hands, dried tears and rocked fevered babies all day long at Children’s Memorial Hospital surrender for a moment their long night’s watch.

It is time for all the keepers of the children–the parents, the nurses, the doctors, the ones who mop the floors, the ones who keep the respirators breathing in and out–to be fed by the comfort-slinging cook in the night kitchen.

This much-loved healer with a soup pot and a prayer is known to all as, simply, Miss Bettye.

bettye tucker

miss bettye tucker

the other offering is the latest of my roundups of books for the soul, with works that blew my mind from rabbi jonathan sacks, and a patron poet-saint of the chair, dear mary oliver.

what lessons do you learn from keeping watch on early spring?

grape hyacinth

november sky

november sky

the sky wraps me, it signals me, it tells me many things. in ways that never end, it is God’s billboard.

it holds up wonder. hints at danger ’round the bend. whispers: season’s changing, sun is moving on, world turns. shadow’s on its way.

it talks not just to me, it talks to many, many others.

all around, i see the others paying attention. i pay attention, too.

i find myself looking out of windows. looking up. i’m hiking here and there and everywhere, like a lady starved, trying to fill her belly. only what i’m hungry for is sky.

there is something particular about november sky that calls me much more often, much more insistently, than the summer months, or even spring.

november sky is haunting, is gray, is roiling when the winds whip, making froth of clouds. oh, dear Lord, there’s frappuccino up above. we cannot escape.

november sky is vast, is tinted with a wash of winter blue. there is more to see, because less is in the way. just the bare-boned architecture of the trees, stark, sharp against the canvas of the sky. sticks poking into clouds, or so it looks from far away, daring sky to burst.

the disrobing’s over now. it’s limb and bough and twisted trunk. a tree stands alone, telling its solitary story. no encumbrances, no leaves, no frills. just the bending, arching, reaching limbs, and whatever’s fallen too.

we see it all now. we teeter here on the precipice between the autumn and the winter. not yet snow sky, but i get the sense it’s coming any day.

i could watch all day. watch the birds watch the sky. watch the squirrels too. how they know which days to scurry to the feeder, gorge on seed, before the weather does what sky is saying.

the gray sky for me is one big knitted afghan. i draw it ‘round my shoulders. hunker down beneath november sky.

it is signal, mostly, that it’s time for one and all to go deep, pull in, be ready for the cold winds that will come. bulbs are buried. painted turtles sleep along the bank of the lagoon. even little sparrows, long past nesting, have been collecting bits of cloth, flitting off to somewhere where i think they’ve knitted their own afghan for the winter.

i too go deeper in these days. pull in. take my cues from sky. i, too, ready for the winter. put the gardens all to bed. tuck in plants in blankets made of leaves i didn’t rake. i haul out the soup pot. simmer beans and bones, whatever takes the long slow flame, offers up its essence over time, over hours that aren’t hurried. not at all.

but i go deep in other ways.

this is the season, starting now, for introversion. funny, then–odd, even–that it’s the season that the world claims for merriment. hmm. so maybe that’s why, sometimes, for some of us, it’s like climbing through molasses to go out and join the crowds.

maybe if we listened to the sky, we’d be more in keeping with the rhythms deep within.

i believe in seasons. and not because i’m the daughter of ecclesiastises. or the long-lost fourth of peter, paul and mary.

no, not that at all. i believe in seasons because i believe that Wisdom understood the ebb, the flow, the time to plant, the time to harvest under heaven.

and november sky, maybe more than any other sky, tells me things in notes i cannot, do not want, to miss.

wrap up. take shelter. kindle lights in every window. brace for storms to come. feed yourself deeply.

this time, these days, are ripe for inner harvest. while the orchards all are sleeping, while the fields have gone to fallow, sift through the soils of your soul, i hear the sky say.

root around inside. see what’s ripe for picking now. take in wisdom. curl up and take it from the printed page. or lace up your boots, and listen to the forest. or the waves that won’t be stopped for cold. or the grasses of the meadow that can’t help but rustle to the song of winter’s-coming wind.

the grayer that the sky gets, the more i feel my heart beat. it is november, most of all, november almost gone, that stirs me, like a spoon inside the pot, for the broth i’ll sip for months to come.

the reverie of november, november now slipping in its final hours. do you find your soul stirred too, like the jostling building clouds that crowd the sky? do you find this the start of your deepest months? what of the party schedule that demands a mood that might not be in keeping with the call of sky to hunker down? or is it that the dark of deepest winter demands we kindle flame? what of the flame we carry deep within? what if it’s the one we tend in the weeks to come?

molasses light

molasses light

i caught a lick of it just the week before last. seeped through a late afternoon window. oozed in between branches of honeysuckle.

there it was pooled on the dining room table. scattered like seeds on the wall just beyond. it is the light that i live for. it is the light of the autumn, when the globe starts to tilt and the slant of the sun shines more purely, i’m certain.

now, i’m no monet. i know not a thing, not a sciencey thing–or even an art one–about light. how it falls. how it bounces through bits in the air. how our eye knows.

but i do know a thing of the soul. and light, i am certain, unlocks some deep-inside chamber. lets it out. lets it flap like the monarchs that fill the air now. that busy the garden.

and when the fall comes, the light comes right with it. comes before it. knocks on the door, says, excuse me, it’s time for the summer to go. that was the warm-up. far as some of us think.

the real golden days, they are coming. they are autumn. and the light through the window, it tells you. it hints. it gets the pot bubblin’.

it gets me bubblin’, for sure. as long as i’ve lived, as long as i can remember, the fall is the time when my body starts humming. my heart sings along.

the light through the window, the light through the crack in the door, it’s pure gasoline. probably high-octane. i could go round-the-clock when the light turns to autumn.

is it blue light, or white light? or is it molasses?

i can’t quite decide.

i know, though, i’m not alone having noticed. i’ve heard here and there, the snippets of something, the talk of the light. it’s changed. have you seen it? i’ve heard people whisper.

i’m sure deep inside, maybe back of our eyes, there’s a meter. a little widget with dials and buttons. it takes in the light, into a beaker. it measures it. weighs it. marks it as “autumn.” tells the brain. signals the heart. sends a message: dig out the sweaters. start thinking apples. and maybe a simmering stew.

oh, am i jumping the gun? geez, it’s not even september, and here i am woozy for fall. for the “er” months: september, october, november, december. i love them all. some get quite busy, but that’s not here yet. and maybe by then we’ll come up with a plan to avoid the confusion.

right now, we’re just on the brink of what i might call the molasses days. the days when it’s golden. when the light is so straight from the heavens. straight from the heart of what is.

these are the days that make you want to stick out your tongue and just lick it, the light through the window.

these are the days you can taste it. it’s golden and sweet. you could pour it on flapjacks. melt butter.

the light now’s delicious.

it is a most blessed thing to pause for a moment and let it soak in. consider the source.

this here is sacred time, far as i know. far as the jews do too. not too long now, the days they call the days of awe will be here. the highest of high holidays, rosh hashanah, yom kippur.

even though i didn’t grow up knowing those prayers, i do know them now. and now, as i chant them, the light through the windows, i can picture it now, will fall on the pages of prayer books. it will be golden.

it makes me think, long ago, a wise soul or two must have noticed the light. noticed the glow. felt awe drape the days, like some sort of cloak. woven of shimmery threads. told a story that fit the occasion. declared it was blessed.

which it is. the light through the windows, the light in the leaves, it is the light of a God who saved, i am certain, the best for the last.

here it comes now. go out and pluck some. catch it, pour it into a jar. turn the lid tight now. it won’t last. but it’s here now. and it’s ours for the licking.

raise your hand if you’ve noticed. if the change of the light poured through your panes, and hit you right in the heart.

if you happen to know a bit of the science, know what it is that softens and shifts the way it comes in, please do tell. if you, like me, have a light meter, please tell what it does to your engine, this pure filtered light of the fall.

and a molasses-y birthday wish to sweet sandra, who is off in the country, up by the lake, savoring pies and second-hand stores. happy most blessed birthday…..