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Tag: seeking stillness

off to the woods

st. mary lake

i’m off to the woods, soon as i pack the wagon, stash the little library next to the umbrella, make sure i don’t leave behind the binder with the pages and pages of notes and thoughts and scribbles.

i’m doing something i’ve not done before, not for this many days and nights anyway. and i’m doing it in a sacred splotch of woods, a place so quiet you can hear the cardinal talking to the blue jay, and you can hear the bullfrog leaping off a log so wrapped in odd-planed fungi it looks extraterrestrial. i’ve walked these woods before, and the miles and miles of trails that snake around the lake, st. mary lake. it’s all on the grounds of an old seminary, and if you listen closely you can hear the murmurs of years and years — whole decades, a century and three quarters, actually — of prayers unreeled in all these woods.

last time i was there, i was one of the ones who’d gone to be quiet. it was a two-day mostly silent retreat. this time, i’m the one who needs to talk. who needs to weave and wend the soulful into morning, noon, and night. or try, anyway.

i don’t know anyone who will be there. not yet anyway. i’m told 16 soulful women have signed up, packed their bags, and will be looking to me for sustenance of the spiritual kind. oh, lordy. help me. (it’s why i’ve spent weeks reading, thinking, writing, scribbling all those notes.)

i keep wishing it was a chair sisters’ retreat. that all of us were finding our way to the woods, gathering in the kitchen to cook ourselves a feast, kindling logs in the fireplace, taking moon walks under heaven’s star-stitched dome. i wish we were all bringing pages we found soulful. or worthy of deeper study, thoughtful consideration.

maybe this is just the first step. a trial run. to see how i fare across three days, two nights.

i imagine there will be moments of blessing. once i chase away the butterflies. i worry i won’t be “churchy” enough. hope my turning to mary oliver, and celtic poets, to ralph waldo emerson and good ol’ thoreau — my pantheon of poets and shimmering souls — is enough to sate the thirsty.

the idea here — or at least the thread that weaves this all together — is rooted in that old Book of Nature i’m so intent on reading closely. the eruptions and raptures of springtime, this season that explodes right before our eyes (while typing here i spied my first goldfinch of the season, and this morning the redbud that reaches across my backyard is twice as swollen and pink as when the sun set last night) it’s a season rife with lessons and wisdoms and wonder, and we’ll be walking the woods in search of all of it. (snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but i’m going to pretend i didn’t see that.)

we’ll weave in thoughts about the spiritual practice of paying attention, and carving out hours of stillness. and really, truth be told, these are all ideas i could spend a lifetime considering. my deepest attentions are drawn toward the liminal, the thin places and craggy edges where secular and sacred intersect. shimmer radiantly. come unexpected. i like it slant, as dear emily (dickinson) might prescribe.

so i bring my slanted theology to the woods today. and i pray my heart meets each and every one who finds me there. in between the five titled talks, simple shared conversation — over meals, during walks, curled in armchairs in the library — will be where souls are sparked.

and as always, the bookshelf offers hope. here, in the spirit of soulful edification, is the litany of books i’ve gathered and packed and will soon be tossing in the old red wagon.

BOOKS:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher:
Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
The Cloud of Unknowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library); edited by Brooks Atkinson

James Finley:
The Contemplative Heart

Richard Higgins:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees

Pico Iyer:
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Gina Marie Mammano:
Camino Divina: Walking the Divine Way

Thomas Merton:
Literary Essays of Thomas Merton

Mary Oliver:
Devotions
Upstream
Long Life

Christine Valters Paintner:
The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred
Dreaming of Stones: Poems

Jan Richardson:
Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

Joan Sauro, CSJ:
Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, introduction by Kathleen Norris:
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day
gratefulness.org

Simone Weil:
Waiting for God (essays: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with View to the Love of God;” “The Love of God and Affliction”)

may your weekend, wherever it is, and however you spend it, be something of a soulful retreat.

what books might you pack for a string of days and nights of soul stirring?

off to the woods

season of stillness

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not so many years ago, my writing room at this time of year took on north-pole proportions: spools of ribbon, bags of this and that to slip inside other bags or boxes, layers and layers of tissue papers, itty-bitty cards. lists abounded. i was a walking-talking maker and checker of lists.

not so much these days. and not because i’m scrooge.

simply because the sanctity of stillness is what i’m after in this season of deepening darkness. i punctate the night — the shroud of black that grows with every passing whirl around the sun — with my litany of sacramental simplicities.

the dawn is longer, blessedly, giving me more time to stitch those hours with the fine few invitations to bring in what’s hushed, what’s holy. i scoop my old tin coffee can with fat black seed, slide my toes into clunky boots, my arms in puffy sleeves. as the shock of morning cold splashes up against me, i fill my lungs with one quick gulp. then i march across the frozen stiff blades of grass, the mud that’s now succumbed into icy form, and perk my ears to hear the flutter of a wing, the rustling of a bough. i pause to scan the heavens, count the stars, spy the fraction of the moon. i’ve written a thousand times of how i make like i’m a farmer filling my trough, as i pour the seed in the feeder high above my head, stretching my arm far as it will stretch, raising up on tippy-toes, too. i’ve come to realize that the rush of pouring seed must be a call to all the birds, akin to “coffee’s on, come and get it!”

on the stillest mornings, the holiest ones, a cardinal or a junco might flutter in before i’ve stepped away. as if the gentle creature knows we’re in communion here.

perhaps i’ve learned, in my years — now three decades — of braiding jewish threads with catholic ones, to sanctify time, even more than place. abraham joshua heschel, whom i count among my constellation of north stars, writes: “judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” he goes on to draw out that point: “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the romans nor the germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate…”

point, well taken. point, deeply taken.

i consecrate the holy hours — the ones of dawn and dusk and deepest night.

and so, this season is no longer a mad dash, but a countercultural adventure in stitching in stillness. in simply kindling light, one by one, an arithmetic of brightening, night after night, as both menorah and advent wreath burn against the darkness. our house is not filled with shiny boxes. santa’s list is not an annual exercise in accumulation. hanukkah at our house is brisket + latkes + jelly-filled donuts on the first night, candles and dreidels each night after that.

year by year, i dial down the noise, and amplify the hush that ushers in the stillness.

how do you consecrate your holy hours?

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
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of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

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?

proper porridge

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i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.

five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.

oats + water + salt.

that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.

oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.

i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.

but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.

while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.

here’s what i read: proper porridge prescription

WELL WORTH THE WAIT

porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.

it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).

and it captured my attention, all right.

deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.

i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.

consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”

which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:

“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”

mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.

snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:

“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing  against the microwave as appliance of oats.

or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):

“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”

and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:

“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”

i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.

but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.

and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.   

but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:

THE RECIPE
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
THE TRICK
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
THE TWIST
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.

and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.

are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats? national oatmeal season

how do the heavens know?

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i can’t begin to count the number of days it happens.

as the night lifts, as the dawn spreads across the landscape, as i begin to make out the shifting silhouettes of the grasses, of boughs, as a sparrow here, a cardinal there, begin to animate the tableau, i sense the day beginning to blanket me, soothe me, wrap my cold shoulders in what amounts to a shawl. a prayer shawl, more often that not.

so it was, when i awoke this week to a dawn draped in white. snow on the bricks and the sharp blades of grass, just starting to stick. snow on the bough beginning to clump. the world just beyond my window pane, a filigree of shadow and palest of light.

how did the heavens know? how did the Great Beyond know that i needed a morning’s blanket?

i needed stillness to step into.

the night had been long, had been tumbled. it was one of those nights when worry stitches each one of your dreams. you awake, yes, but you wonder if you’ve slept even a wink.

all you need on a morning like that is softness. is quiet. you need a world on its tiptoes, padded tiptoes. you need a morning that, like an old friend, understands without words. sidles up beside you, lays its head on your shoulder. breathes.

the morning needn’t rattle you. needn’t startle.

the morning comes softly. snow tumbles down. in flakes that shift from fat to fatter. you breathe. you inhale blessing, breath after breath, and then you let loose, your morning’s litany, petition tumbling on top of petition.

dear God, watch over him. dear God, protect her. dear God, forgive us; forgive us our endless temptations, our trespasses, too. dear God, forgive this globe that seems to be spinning too close to the edge of madness.

dear God, fill us with grace. give us strength. give us wisdom. and, please, for once, let words fall from our lips with half the sense we’d hoped they would hold.

dear God, blanket us. open our eyes, and our hearts. show us the way. let us startle someone in these hours ahead, with some blast of unheralded goodness. let us be the instrument of your peace. let us pass over temptation, not be the one to whisper the word that would cut to the quick. not turn the cold shoulder.

dear God, steady us. deepen us. let me be the vessel this day that carries you into the midst of the chaos. let me sow love. let me bring pardon. let me, in these hours ahead, scatter faith wherever there’s doubt; hope, in place of despair.

you’ve answered my prayer before i’ve opened my eyes for the day. you’ve laced the dawn in white upon white, you’ve hushed the world out my window. you’ve opened my door into prayer — still heart, deep vow, bold promise.

dear God, i thank you. now let us tiptoe softly into this day…

what prayer did you pray on the quietest morning this week?

the chambered nautilus that is home…

chambered nautilus coffee cup..

like some sort of sea squiggler slithering into my coiled shell, my safe place, nestled among the coral and seaweed, down deep where the waters are dark, are still, i made my way home last night.

in deep-dark murky midnight black, i put one wobbly foot in front of the other (i’d been three hours in the passenger seat), and crept along the meandering brick walk, past the gnarled crabapple fingers that don’t take kindly to passersby (more often than not, they reach out to make you bleed, or snatch the earring clear off your lobe), past the nodding anemones (now naked of bloom), the anemones i’ve not yet tidily clipped, not tucked into bed for their long winter’s slumber.

eons earlier yesterday, when we’d headed out for the very long day (driving one sweet boy to a plane at the airport, motoring across the state line to a charmed bookstore in the dairy state’s capital city, reading and talking, then turning ’round to come home, all in one day), i’d left the back lights on, the ones that cast their soft molasses glow on the steps so i’m less apt to tumble, the glow i always can spot from the alley, calling me home, beacon through fog.

fumbling with keys, with too many somethings stacked in my arms, i turned the brass in the lock, and stepped inside, safe inside. i was home. finally home.

i’d been waiting for that moment — for that deep sigh of “at last” — for what felt like weeks and weeks. and i couldn’t wait to slither back into all that’s familiar, that’s home: the old jammies with holes. the robe that should have been tossed a few tatters ago. the creak in the stairs as i come round the bend, and plant my sole on the arthritic plank, the one that complains every time.

not ready to sleep, i popped a few kernels, enough to fill a bowl. i drank in the tick and the tock of the old grandfather’s clock, the one sighing the midnight hour. i plonked myself down at the old scratched maple table. and i breathed. deep breathed.

and this morning, after the cat rudely awoke me with the sound of his retching at 3 bells past midnight, i tossed and i turned till i finally surrendered. i arose, took a hot shower (the very best balm for a night of few sleeps), slid into my oldest stretchiest muck-about pants, and, just before 5, i tiptoed down the stairs, the ones i know by heart.

even the simple act of coffee poured into a mug — the mug i love best, a chipped old vessel, one that’s red and dimpled with wee tiny white hearts, one that soothes me like no other when cupped in my palms — it’s medicinal in its powers to quell.

and it’s all a part of the rhythm, the song, that cues up our deepest contentment.

it’s this compendium of simplicities, one pure familiarity strung next to another, that serves to weave and re-weave the womb, the nest, the cradle that rocks us back to equilibrium.

we are, some of us, creatures of habit, of the familiar. we set out to upholster our every day in the somethings rubbed smooth from use and re-use. the jeans with holes in the knees. the blanket long ago snagged. the particular chair where our bum snuggles deepest.

oh, i know there are those who live for the new, the exotic, the never-before. and i don’t mind a dash of surprise, eccentricity.

but give me my druthers and i’ll reach for the old, the weathered, the worn through with love upon love. the dog-eared till tender.

even, apparently, in matters of heart-pounding, head-swirling lifelong attraction. upon meeting the man i would eventually marry, my mother heaped upon him the highest praise in her book, declaring him “an old shoe,” the sort who fits like a glove, who knows your rises and planes and sidles up seamlessly. the sort with no pretense. one utterly at home in holey-soled loafers and seersucker shorts with sagging-down hem (his apparel of choice for that maiden encounter with the one who would become his mother-in-law). one who’d not mind a lifetime of pre-wrinkled shirts, warmed-over stews, and a station wagon too often mistaken for heirloom.

and right in here, you see, i’m hungry for all that anchors me, tucks me in to the nooks and the crannies of my own chambered nautilus.

of late, i’ve been out on a bit of a voyage through unfamiliar waters (it’s that wee little book, the time-slowing tome, birthed five short weeks ago). i’ve been trolling farther from home, and in ways a tad beyond my comfort zone.

why, just the other eve, i found myself talking quite plainly — in front of however umpteen many households were tuned to a particular chicago public television channel — about something i’ve not talked about to seven-eighths of my dearest friends, a long ago mystical something, my so-called “miracle,” one that unfolded in the upstairs chapel of a faraway convent when i was all of 16 (see page 35 of said book, if you’re now curious). but there i was, on a sound stage, with cameras rolling, and the words of my heart and my soul being cast across airwaves, scattered like so many seedlings through miles and miles of midwestern heartland. egad.

no wonder i needed my shaggy old pj’s. and my banged-up coffee cup besides. it’s rather a miracle that i’m not wadded up in tattered blankets, burrowing deep beneath some coffee-stained couch pillows.

thank goodness the calendar for a whole stretch of days holds nothing more drastic than rising from bed, and tumbling to sleep. i’ve come at last to a somnolent spell. and i need it.

a home body, a comfort seeker like me, must return to the roost. must deep breathe the old and familiar. it’s in sinking into the rhythms we know best that we are freed to be our unfettered whole. we needn’t peek in the mirror. needn’t quake at the sound of our own voice, echoing clear across a room.

we are home. we are where we belong. we are unadulterated glory in the eyes of the only one who truly sees us, the one who set sublimest design upon us, back at the essential beginning.

when we’re home, when we’re safe in the confines of the golden spiral, the chambered nautilus, that’s when we reclaim our moorings, quiet the shaky insides.

it’s how we guzzle the holy, how we refill the vessel so we’ve got what it takes to return to the seas and conquer new vistas.

dear chair friends, writing on three hours of sleep is not very smart. so please forgive weak spots and tangles above. i’ve got a quiet spell for the next couple weeks, and a boy coming home in less than a week for the very best holiday. i’ll restock the larder. i’ll deep breathe the beautiful. and be ready to roll again.

in the meantime, do tell, what is it you do to anchor your soul, and set your wings back to soaring?

an invitation

an invitation

the invitation is broader and deeper than simply offering you a date and a time and a place. yes, there is that (details below). but the invitation i’m gently laying here at the table, it’s a doorway, an entering in….

the invitation is to slow time, to savor, to pay attention, to carve out quietude in the rush and the whirl of your every day.

we’ve been circling around those notions for years now, here at the chair. and somehow, in a mystical, magical, marvelous way, those quiet ideas have tucked themselves into the pages of a book, a book that might plop onto my front stoop any hour now. while i’ve not yet lifted it out from a box, haven’t felt its weight hard against my palms nor flipped through its pages, haven’t marveled forward and back that words typed here in the murky first light of so many mornings have found their way off the screen and onto the page. spelled out in ink — a newsgirl’s primary intoxicant.

but i’ve seen proof that those pages are finally off the printing press. they’re bound, slipped between covers.

any hour now, i’ll christen those pages with my freshly spilled tears.

so it’s time for the invitation.

for starters, consider the book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 7, 2014), a portable iteration of this old chair. why, you can take it wherever you go. you can bring it to bed, tuck it under your pillow. you can spill it with crumbs (and not have to worry that your keyboard gets jammed with a bit of a cracker). you can climb into a tree, and turn its pages. you can even slink in the bathtub (and not have to worry about glug-glugging your screen under the bubbly suds). it’s the chair unleashed. the chair on the loose. we’ve snipped the cords and numbered the pages.

ah, but there’s something even more enticing than the fact that Slowing Time, the book, can follow you anywhere, can go where’er you go.

and that’s where the invitation begins: my prayer all along has been that what’s tucked in the pages of Slowing Time is simply a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours. my hope is that it might become your whispered companion. a place to begin to contemplate how your life might look and feel and radiate if we dial down the noise, hit pause, and sift through the mess for the shards of the Sacred.

it’s a sketch pad, really, in which the flickers of half-baked ideas clothe themselves in words. and those words become the stepping path into the woods, into the depths. or at least point you in intriguing direction.

professor elisa new, beloved poetry scholar at harvard, talks about how a poem is a “communal resource, a convening space — written in a language we all understand.” it’s a place, she says, “where one human being has tried to make meaning, using a tool — the language we all share — that belongs to all of us. and so, by entering into inquiry, discussion, and interpretation of that poem, we can fully engage in that activity so central to the humanities, that activity of human conversation about what it is really to be human.”

and so, too, with the words you find spilled on the pages of Slowing Time, it’s an invitation to “shared inquiry.” and its words are, at heart, prayer unfurled in plainspoken prose. one someone’s prayer searching, searching for companion — be that gentle journeyer God, or the soulmate you find along your stumbling way, or sitting just inches across from you.

after all, the geometry of the old maple table, and the chairs that are tucked up against it, is the circle. heart linked to heart, hands within squeezing range, eyes close enough together that we can catch the sparkle on a joy-filled day, or the empty hollows in the hours when sadness or grief has eclipsed the light.

it is in those circles of our life — the circles we create out of love, or even when carved by accident of geography — that we find communion. and our own plumbing of the depths becomes shared inquiry, scaffolded exploration. a safe zone, where even our rawest tender spots can be laid before us, with no fear of harm or scorn or raised eyebrow.

still, though, it is in solitude, and in the sanctuaries of time we’ve hollowed out of the day, that the deepest paying attention begins.

as with so many spirit-filled vespers, slowing time — here at the table over the years, most lately every friday morning — has become a practice. practice, as in trying over and over and over to hew closer to the anointed edge at our most blessed core. practice, as in a ritual that surrenders to a rhythm. and, as with all holy acts, the holiness is found burrowing into the nooks and the crannies of a place — an interior, our interior — at once familiar and still to be explored.

it is the nautilus of prayer.

and it is the invitation that pulses at the heart of Slowing Time: use these words, little more than one pilgrim’s prayer, to lead you deeper into your own heart’s vault. settle in. deep breathe. catch the light. embrace the shadow.

and, once you’ve breathed Holiness in and in and in again, lift your eyes, and discover the light of the circle around you, within you. there is Holiness abounding, and it’s ours, radiant with grace.

and here’s the date-time-and-place invitation:

Slowing Time begins here: Reading, Conversation and Book Signing 

Wednesday, September 17 (feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great medieval mystic, composer, writer, visionary)

7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Francis Xavier Warde School at Old St. Patrick’s Church

120 South DesPlaines Avenue, Chicago

(leave it to Old St. Pat’s to prompt the heavens to rain down books before the publication date…)

 

yet another reading, after the actual publication date of Oct. 7, is now inked onto the calendar of a marvelous magical bookshop in Evanston:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation

Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, a magical bookshop tucked in an alley that feels as if it’s popped off the pages of Harry Potter. Co-hosted by Evanston Public Library. To reserve a seat, please contact Bookends and Beginnings at 224-999-7722.

Thursday, Oct. 9

6 to 7:30 p.m.

1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston

bookendsandbeginnings.com

and yet another marvel:

Slowing Time Reading and Conversation and Autumnal Joys

Women & Children First, a Chicago literary landmark in magnificent Andersonville, is hosting a reading, conversation and celebration of autumn, Season of Awe.

Wednesday, Oct. 29

7:30 p.m.

North Clark Street, Chicago, IL

womenandchildrenfirst.com

more readings to come…..stay tuned.

and now a question: how do you slow time? (oh, and what will be your crumb of choice to spill onto the pages and clutter the book binding gulley?)

slowing time cover

quiet time

quiet time

on friday mornings, i click off the radio. it’s quiet time. time for the soul to do it’s percolating. see what bubbles up.

this particular friday — home alone except for the few straggling matchstick-legged friends who seem not to be able to kick the soap-nibbling habit in my upstairs hall drawers — it’s just me and the tick-tock of the clock, the chittering of sparrows out the back door, and a train chugging in the distance.

it’s been quiet here all week. as i’ve succumbed to the rhythms, once again, of this old house. as i’ve felt the deep sigh of once again being home.

it’s almost as if it was a dream, the ambles through cambridge, the unrelenting calendar that day after day demanded full-on attention, that kicked brain cells into high and higher gear. i get missives from my now faraway friends, friends now scattered all across the globe — from turkey’s tear-gas zones, from south africa where a people weeps for their dying national treasure — and i feel something like a piercing in my heart. i love those friends, and miss them all the more for not being in their every day.

rumor has it that The Professor is, at last, pulling up his cambridge stakes tomorrow, filling the trunk, the back seat and the front passenger seat (the one that would have been me, had i not been unable to untether myself from this quiet bliss) and motoring into the sunset. poor sweet soul, he doesn’t really want to leave. he’s re-discovered his love for colonial new england, for the proximities it affords, for the nooks and crannies in its landscapes and its coastline.

so, in my solitude — the longest stretch of alone time i’ve had in 20 years, since my firstborn was plopped into my arms in june of 1993 — i’ve bathed in the whole soul healing waters of allowing thoughts to unspool in their own slow measure. i’ve scribbled to-do lists and actually worked my way toward the bottom of each and every one. satisfaction, defined.

i’ve scrubbed, and dusted away cobwebs. i washed dingy pillows, and hung them out to dry. i’ve clipped and clipped from my old roses, my exuberant welcome-home roses, all of which seem to be thriving without my ministrations, without what must amount to interference from the bumbling gardener.

i’ve settled in, at my old writing table, and picked up where i left off before i packed the boxes back in cambridge. i’ve a project, a book project and a deadline of september 1, so my summer load is piled high. when i was off in cambridge, i followed a serendipitous and holy trail to a luscious and brilliant editor. her name is lil. i first met her at an umbrella table in the shadow of the bell tower of st. paul’s church off harvard square. we sipped gazpacho and whispered about the spirit, the human spirit.

it was the first time in my life an editor breathed holiness, breathed benediction onto the lens through which i see much of the world, the sacred lens. she asked me to write a proposal, a book proposal. gave me till january to get it done. then, a whole committee pored over that literary blueprint, and deemed it a deal. a contract was signed, sealed and delivered.

the working title is Holy Hours, the subtitle is a work in progress. it’s why i’m home alone. to launch back in, to sink deeper into the weaving of threads into whole cloth.

it is such a blessing to be able to reach for the books on the bookshelves i know by heart. to have my whole library and wellspring all around me. to sit at the table where the dappled light filters in through the overgrown ivy. to get up from writing and pedal my old blue bike up and down the lanes. to plunk on the beach, beneath the cottonwoods, amid the dune grasses. to dash across the street to my beloved and wise friend, and fill my belly on her welcome-home feast. to take walks past familiar gardens and front porches. to have old friends ring the bell. to feel their hearts pump against mine in pressing hugs so deeply overdue.

this is what quiet time brings the soul. it feeds hungers, quenches thirst. we are, all of us, so much more than meets the eye. we have soft places deep inside that need sustenance, that are fueled on wisps and prayer and uncharted encounters. that depend on brushstrokes from On High, or wherever you believe Holiness abides.

as i typed that very sentence, i looked up at a frantic chattering out the window. there’s a fledgling wee cardinal in hot pursuit of his papa, the two of them squawking up a storm from two branches, one just above the other. must be an early flight. i missed the nursery hours here. and now, the papa’s flown away, and the little fellow is alone there, wings trembling, barely cheeping. perhaps stuck in mid-flight. left to his own devices. not certain what to do. how to get from point B, back home to where the nest is.

such are the blessings i am home to witness, as i breathe deep the quietude, the abundance that surrounds me, home alone.

i’m inclined to go quiet for awhile, my beloved chair people. to pull up a chair only when it seems there’s something truly to say. i think often of the crusty newspaper editor i bumped into in the produce aisle a few years back. as we picked over the bananas, he groused that “too many people are talking these days; no one’s listening anymore. everyone thinks they’re a columnist.” i feel like i’ve talked too much here this past year as i strained to record the bumps and dips of one sumptuous year, and you’ve all been blessed listeners. since i’m a creature of habit it might be hard to shake my friday morning routine, but i worry that i’ve rambled on too long. 

before i duck back into my quiet zone, tell me: how do you carve out hours — or scant minutes — for your soul? and what feeds you most deeply?

light coming in at the edges

dispatch from 02139…

it struck me, in the middle of a long-strided lope this week, as i race-walked from point A (andover library) to point B (memorial hall), my shoulders weighted down with satchels of notebooks and pens and binders, my breath coming in rapid spurts as i righted my wrong direction and sought internal gyroscope, that i was quickly becoming one of the lemmings.

schedule in hand, spreadsheet at the ready, i’d chalked up six whole classes plus wednesday night seminar plus friday master class plus etched-in-stone 75-year-old nieman tradition, the tuesday night “sounding,” in which each worldly fellow gathers us all at the conference table and pours out the why of his or her journalistic lifework.

geez.

the fact of the matter was i was darting past grolier poetry book shop, inc. (est. 1927). i’d not yet ventured behind the great stone walls of the monastery nestled along the bend in the charles river. i’d barely spent a morning here in the third-floor aerie where the sunlight streams in through lace curtains, where we’ve a whole library of sacred music, dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries, where bookshelves overpopulated with the likes of thomas merton, t.s. eliot, rainier maria rilke, mary oliver and wendell berry call out to me so insistently and incessantly that surely their throats by now are rubbed raw and hoarse as chafing sandpaper.

“but here you are at harvard, fool!” i heard myself chastising myself. “clock’s ticking and you turn back into a pumpkin soon enough. glass slippers will shatter; you’ll be back to your pink rubber crocs quicker than you can say ‘manolo blahnik.’ don’t tarry. don’t stop for breath. inhale. swallow, swallow.”

and then i heard myself choking, sputtering like the tail pipe of some chitty-chitty-bang-bang (a cultural reference that solidly plants me a school-age child of the late 1960s, in which the whole family trooped to a crimson-upholstered downtown movie house to take in the big-screen rendition of roald dahl’s film delight, the one that starred dick van dyke in the role of hapless inventor of flying car).

and that’s when the editing began, the self-editing, the making sense of the morass of these past few days and weeks, in which dizzy heads prevailed, and the intellectual binge began.

no wonder we all looked dazed. it’s what happens when you unloose a troop of would-be thinkers on an ivy-walled institution catapulted off the drawing board back in pilgrim days, a mere hop, skip and a jump from plymouth rock, for cryin’ out loud. with the bona fides to prove it (just stop and read the olde english prose pounded into the limestone slab at johnston gate, at the maw of harvard yard, should you require chiseled veritas).

it wasn’t hard, really, to check my pulse and proclaim it overstrung on overdrive. i could hear it pounding in my head. i could see it in the rosy streaks that had stained my irish cheeks.

the choice, truly, wasn’t complicated: i could a.) keep up the mad-dash, and hyperventilate my way toward christmas. or, b.), grab the pruners, play curator of my own calendar, and try my hand at nips and tucks.

i heard the gong go off — bing! bing! bing! — when numero due, little letter “b” rolled through my brain cells, washed over the gray matter, kicked off its placid powers, settled me into a state of soothe i’d not sensed in, well, months and months, quite frankly.

the whole point of sabbatical, the essence of that latin root, sabbaticus, is, indisputably, “a ceasing.”

in other words, it’s a holy plea to hit the brakes on all the tumult.

“shhhhhhh,” you can hear the big lips in the sky whispering, imploring. dial it down. chill, baby, chill. it’s time to rest now. go to your cubby, and grab your sit-upon, that padded cushion upon which to doze while the teacher turns the pages of the picture book, and you nibble on your grahams and slurp your milk.

see, just the notion of that long-ago rug time, back in the children’s garden when you were five, it makes you all heavy-lidded, doesn’t it? slows your ticker to a sweet adagio.

and so it was when i realized i could ditch a class or two. didn’t need to take in the spectacle of rock-star ethical reasoner michael sandel (heck, i’d been a student of the jesuits, and i’ve yet to stumble upon a living-breathing soul who teaches ethics more solidly than a three-star jebbie). on a gosh-darn roll, i realized, too, i didn’t need to whittle away my thursday afternoons tangled in the algorithms of “science and cooking.”

suddenly, as if cumulus clouds had parted, i saw clear blue stretches in my week, whole blocks of hours unclaimed.

why, i could amble down the cobbled lane, climb the steps to that famed poetry corner, slide a slender volume off the shelf, curl up in a cozy nook, and discover bliss in stanzas.

rather than exist beneath an opaque wall of back-to-back commitments, i could step off to the side of the lemming’s march, pay attention to where the light seeps in around the edges.

isn’t that where holiness presides?

isn’t that the glory that makes this whole endeavor matter?

isn’t that why God invented sabbath, and on the seventh day she wholly rested? plunked her achy tootsy-toes upon the footstool, sat back and sighed?

i am always late to understanding, and i nearly always manage to stumble, bloody-up my knees before i figure out the obvious, but might we come to hear our deepest whispers, quench our deepest thirst, when we stop the noise, quell the fury, and get about the work of purely being alive?

and so it’s been in recent days.

can’t claim i didn’t feel a twinge, a seismic pang of guilt, when i skipped my first “justice” rock-‘n’-roll show. can’t pretend i didn’t wince when, yesterday at 2, i knew full well i was missing out on the physics of sous vide, that chic undercooking mode made famous by the spanish roca brothers (whose lecture i did take in on tuesday afternoon, though i was left barely grasping how you cook filet of sole in a vacuum-sealed pouch on very few degrees for 36 hours, and live to tell about it).

i mustered up all my heaven-sent determination, and — egad, what pray tell is this? — found myself sinking down into a featherbed of slow time, pay-attention time, do-what-matters-to-your-heart time.

i tiptoed out of bed at dawn, and marched down the cobblestones toward the great stone monastery, saint john the evangelist, at the river’s bend. i pushed open the great oak door, and stepped into the candle-lit stone-cave quietude where the monks were deep in morning prayer.

i’d missed the bells, it turned out, because i read the schedule wrong. but, still, i was there for the gospel and the chanting. and i was soon alone, my knees resting on the cobalt-blue velvet cushion, my head bowed before the rows and rows of votive candles, one of which i’d lit, one of which flickered its holy vesper up to where the prayers waft.

and here, on a friday morning where the breeze flutters the lace that drapes the window, i am alone with the tap-tap-tap of the alphabet keys, a somnolent but soulful rhythm if ever there was one.

and i made time this week not for a night class, but rather to visit the book store where a fellow who’s written julia child’s biography, stood and told us tales from the cookstove. recounted how julia’s hors d’oeuvres of choice was nothing so fancy as pepperidge farm goldfish. “by the bowls full,” the scribe informed. “whole mountains of them,” he emphasized, as if letting us in on her long-held kitchen secret.

it just might be that serendipity is the savior of this year. that floating without rudder, dancing unchoreographed, just might be the magic trick.

to live, to breathe, with all your might, just might be to let the hours unspool all on their own, to grasp the sacred when and where you find it.

most especially when you slow down, grow quiet, so much so that you can’t help but pay attention to the sunbeams peeking in from between the shadows.

that’s the harvard book store, up above, where bob spitz, author of “dearie: the remarkable life of julia child,” and the white-shocked pin dot, just to the right of the tv square, was spilling kitchen secrets the other eve. and just below, the candles that burn at saint john the evangelist, a holy place i fully intend to make my home away from home……

oy. and before i lose this entire page, thoroughly upending my new-found calm, i’d ask simply, have you discovered a need to edit the demands of your life, to curate the gallery of what matters most deeply, and what’s dismissible? and what unfolds when you slow to a pensive quiet?