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Tag: stillness

day of deep stillness

notredame fire

radiant crucifix: notre-dame in the wake of inferno (photo credit: Philippe Wojazer of Reuters)

the soundlessness must have been haunting. a timber still cracking. a stone falling. ash settling down. the faint few echoes of footfall as one or two tiptoed in, in the first light of dawn, to begin to measure the devastation. the loss.

and there, radiant, rising from out of the billows of smoke, caught in the slant of the beams of light: gold cross glowing.

it refuses to die.

and this is the image i carry forward. this is the image i heave to my shoulder, bring to my landscape of silence, today the day of deep stillness.

the world this week stared in horror. the spire of notre-dame snapped like a pencil, teetered, crashed into the molten sky. tongues of flame, rising inferno. millennia lost, masterpiece burning. but the lasting image, the one i can see with my eyes closed, is the radiant cross — not tinged, not charred, still hanging.

seems to me the world might begin to focus on those rare few things that survive the conflagration, the fire. the dross left in the crucible. those things that can’t be burned. the ones meant to last. radiant cross rising.

seems to me this humble little planet might be wise to consider the sacred acts of starting over. rebuilding. sifting through the ashes and rubble, finding those rare few gems on which to begin again. rising out of destruction.

such is the backdrop to these holy days: the ones that draw us back to the narrative of agony, prayer, betrayal, crucifixion. the ones of exodus, too. escaping the plagues, crossing the red sea, running from slavery.

resurrection. rising. breaking into freedom.

before i get there, though, i have hours to cross in deep silence. it’s always my way on this day of remembering the dying and death on the cross. the hours of darkness, noon till three, till the heavens roil and split wide open, the hour of final surrender, when the one on the cross cried out, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, “father, into thy hands i commend my spirit.”

words i could ponder for hours and days and weeks and years on end. words i will ponder in silence, the posture of monks and poets.

because i’ve been burrowing in the bookshelf of silence, i’ve learned of an ancient practice, one with deep eastern orthodox roots, called hesychia, “a graced depth of inner stillness.”

one of the great monastic wise men, a fellow known as saint joseph the hesychast, wrote, “the aim was hesychia, quiet, the calm through the whole man that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun. to be in true relationship with God, standing before him in every situation—that was the angelic life, the spiritual life, the monastic life, the aim and the way of the monk.”

one of joseph’s fellow monks, abba alonius echoed, “unless a man can say ‘i alone and God are here,’ he will not find the prayer of quiet.”

as we enter into the silence, i will wrap myself in text and verse, the literary nooks and folds that hold me, blanket me. for the last six weeks, all of lent, a priest friend and i led a small circle in readings that drew us deep into the still center of the season — t.s. eliot, wendell berry, mary oliver and mary karr, pauli murray, the great civil rights lawyer and episcopal priest, were all in our lenten lectionary. we ended our weeks together with mark strand’s breathtaking, “poem after the seven last words,” a work originally commissioned to be read between movements of haydn’s opus 51, which happens to be titled “the seven last words of christ.” the performance of strand’s poem and the brentano string quartet’s haydn premiered here in chicago in 2002.

although strand, the u.s. poet laureate and pulitzer-prize winner, didn’t pretend to be religious, he turned to the gospel of thomas to find the seven last lines of jesus on the cross, and masterfully wrote lines that all but pull me onto that cross, into the darkness and depth of the hours of crucifixion. every line is a burrowing deep into the whole-body living of that crucifixion. we taste and see and hear moment after moment. strand positions us on the cross, and carries us through the agonies, through the love (glances from mother to son) and the faith (crying out to the Father), delivering us, spent and exhausted and crushed, to the final commitment, when strand writes: “to that place, to the keeper of that place, i commit myself.”

here, for your own hours of silence, perhaps, is mark strand’s meditative masterwork:

Poem After The Seven Last Words
Mark Strand

1
The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
We tell it and retell it — one word, then another
until it seems that no last word is possible,
that none would be bearable. Thus, when the hero
of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,
‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are
the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea
is not answered, we shall be spared. So the story
continues. So we continue. And the end, once more,
becomes the next, and the next after that.
2
There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns
and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees
that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there;
and those already arrived are happy to be the silken
remains of something they were but cannot recall;
they move to the sound of stars, which is also imagined,
but who cares about that; the polished columns they see
may be no more than shafts of sunlight, but for those
who live on and on in the radiance of their remains
this is of little importance. There is an island
in the dark and you will be there, I promise you, you
shall be with me in paradise, in the single season of being,
in the place of forever, you shall find yourself. And there
the leaves will turn and never fall, there the wind
will sing and be your voice as if for the first time.
3
Someday some one will write a story set
in a place called The Skull, and it will tell,
among other things, of a parting between mother
and son, of how she wandered off, of how he vanished
in air. But before that happens, it will describe
how their faces shone with a feeble light and how
the son was moved to say, ‘Woman, look at your son,’
then to a friend nearby, ‘Son, look at your mother.’
At which point the writer will put down his pen
and imagine that while those words were spoken
something else happened, something unusual like
a purpose revealed, a secret exchanged, a truth
to which they, the mother and son, would be bound,
but what it was no one would know. Not even the writer.
4
These are the days when the sky is filled with
the odor of lilac, when darkness becomes desire,
when there is nothing that does not wish to be born.
These are the days of spring when the fate
of the present is a breezy fullness, when the world’s
great gift for fiction gilds even the dirt we walk on.
On such days we feel we could live forever, yet all
the while we know we cannot. This is the doubleness
in which we dwell. The great master of weather
and everything else, if he wishes, can bring forth
a dark of a different kind, one hidden by darkness
so deep it cannot be seen. No one escapes.
Not even the man who saved others, and believed
he was the chosen son. When the dark came down
even he cried out, ‘Father, father, why have you
forsaken me?’ But to his words no answer came.
5
To be thirsty. To say, ‘I thirst.’ To be given,
instead of water, vinegar, and that to be pressed
from a sponge. To close one’s eyes and see the giant
world that is born each time the eyes are closed.
To see one’s death. To see the darkening clouds
as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning. To be the one
mourned. To open the dictionary of the Beyond and discover
what one suspected, that the only word in it
is nothing. To try to open one’s eyes, but not to be
able to. To feel the mouth burn. To feel the sudden
presence of what, again and again, was not said.
To translate it and have it remain unsaid. To know
at last that nothing is more real than nothing.
6
‘It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it,
the words almost a whisper, then not even that,
but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come
from him, but from elsewhere. This was his moment,
his final moment. “It is finished,” he said into a vastness
that led to an even greater vastness, and yet all of it
within him. He contained it all. That was the miracle,
to be both large and small in the same instant, to be
like us, but more so, then finally to give up the ghost,
which is what happened. And from the storm that swirled
a formal nakedness took shape, the truth of disguise
and the mask of belief were joined forever.
7
Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and the wind
moving through it. And soon the sun’s gray disk,
darkened by clouds, sailing above. And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.

(from Man and Camel: Poems, 2008)

how will you enter into the silence, today or any day soon? how close have you come to that deep, deep stillness, the one the monks describe as “like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun”?

may your Easter weekend and your Passover be blessed…..

aubade: love song to dawn. or, perhaps, salvation.

dawns first light

aubade (o-bad), n. [Fr., from aube, dawn.] love song or poem to dawn, or about lovers separating at dawn; distinguished from serenade, or nocturne, love song to, at, or pertaining to night.

so says the dictionary, that plainspoken repository of meaning and use. but turn to a literary teller of meaning, and you’ll find definition with deeper-grained truths: “welcoming or lamenting the arrival of dawn.” a word given to us by the medieval french (who else would assign a whole category of poetic lament for lovers not wanting to part?), a word adapted from the spanish, alba, for “sunrise,” which borrowed from the latin, alba, the feminine form of albus, meaning “white.” aubade is a word first used in 1678, a word pinned on these particular proliferous poems, of which you will find 44,478 aubades tucked in the files of the poetry foundation. which, of course, is a lot of folks paying attention to the dark edge of daybreak.

i’ve long been drawn to this hour — that interlude when one minute it’s inky and silent, not even a ripple of breeze, as if the world hasn’t yet roused from its sleep, and the very next instant the stars have faded, the light’s seeped in, and the first warbles of bird can be heard.

this week, for reasons having to do with an imagination that would not stop imagining the scene in a synagogue just as the bullets rang out, the heads bowed in prayer in the sacred suspension of time that is shabbat, and for reasons having to do with worries about children applying to college, i woke each morning at 4. and i could not find sleep again.

so i rose. one morning i reached out my arm and instinctively clicked on the radio. right away, before my eyelids had clicked fully to “open,” i heard the radio squawking about opioid addictions and police activity at that ungodly hour. i clicked off the radio; the assault was too early, and i was too raw. the first sounds seeping in needn’t be awful.

so i tiptoed downstairs in the dark. i didn’t flick a single light switch along the way. i headed straight for the back kitchen door. stepped into the chill of that soundless hour, and i looked up and into the heavens. i stood there, soaking in the night’s last offering: the star-stitched canvas above. the moon, all crescent and brilliantly white. i basked in the stillness. the sense that i alone was awake and paying attention. the sense that this time belonged only to me and my soul, and the great breath of God flowing into and out of my whole.

then i partook of my sacrament with seeds: i turned back to the house, reached into my birdseed bin, filled the banged-up coffee can with sunflower seed, and returned to my stash of feeders. there is something holy about making the first act of the day one of tending to others, especially when the others are weightless and feathered and seem to exist only to fill you with song. and the delights of their darting hither and yon.

by then, the goosebumps were cropping up. and my bare feet (for i’ve not yet decided it’s the season for shoes) protested. so into the house i hurried, into the early-morning percolations of a house beginning to wake: furnace starting to hiss, coffee pot gurgling its soon-to-come promise.

in times like these we all need tucked-away coves that shield us and shroud us and keep away the goblins. in times like these — and for centuries it seems, all the way back to the middle ages when the first aubades were inscribed — we humans seem drawn especially to the hours when “the curtain-edges will grow light,” as the poet philip larkin famously wrote, or “the encroaching skyline pecked so clean by raptor night,” as christian wiman even more brilliantly put it.

it’s the margin, the demarcation, the abyss followed by the eternal promise, the rising of the sun. it’s our emptiness quietly, certainly, being filled up again. it’s the hour when we’re quiet enough to hear ourselves breathe, and perhaps, if we’re blessed, to catch one or two whispers from the still small voice that never, ever is quelled.

what’s your sacred hour? and how do you carve out the stillness so necessary for what amounts to salvation?

hibernation station

book corner

reporting from my arctic cocoon, where the mercury hovers at a brisk -3, which the weatherfolk tell me feels something akin to -19, which explains why nary a bird is in sight and the bumps on my flesh are reaching architectural proportion…

if you propped up a camera at my house and did something of a time study, clicking the bulb every five seconds, it might appear that i’ve not moved in five days. the hide of the couch has given way to the rounds of my bum, the blanket lurches off to the side on those rare few occasions when i rise — for a drink or a nibble or a night’s sleep in full recumbent position — awaiting my certain return, where it folds itself just so round my knees and all of those knobby parts that protrude from the human equation. i am the very definition of “to cocoon,” or better yet, “to slither into dormant state where the turning of a page is perhaps the most taxing of movements.”

and so it goes in a week when you’ve intentionally left the calendar unmarked — not a doctor’s appointment or deadline in sight. all you’ve to do is hunker down with the ones you so love, the ones whose appearance by your side becomes rarer and rarer as the years and the miles pull you to faraway points on the map.

just yesterday there was an actual moment — an hour or more — when four of us were all nestled in the very same room, all under blankets of our own choosing, and all turned pages (or, truth be told, clicked through screens), while the logs in the fire crackled and hissed and occasionally whistled. it was — we were — the very picture of post-pioneer home entertainment.

i’ve been hunkering down with three glorious friends — john mcphee, john o’donohue, and my newest friend, robin wall kimmerer, a plant scientist, potawatomi, and poet who is taking my breath away by the paragraph, with her brilliant collection of essays, braiding sweetgrass, a book that’s been lined up in the queue between bookends that sits atop my desk, but only just now shoved its way to the front of the line and into my lap. i take turns with the three of them, as if in deep conversation with friends across the kitchen table. i read mcphee, draft no. 4, a collection of essays on the craft of writing that reads something like a masterclass, for whole chapters at a time; it’s that good that a whole hour can sweep by and i’ve not moved saved for the scritches and scratches and exuberant stars i’ve penned in the margins.

it’s the rarest of times, the depth of the pause that comes in this bend in the year, the days wedged between christmas and new year’s. and, by golly, the weather outside is playing right along. i trudge outside only to dump seeds for my hungry feathered friends, the ones i worry about, especially when there’s barely a flutter of wing and i imagine them barricaded and seed-less in the places they hide to keep out of the cold.

it’s a rare refueling respite. a time to curl away from all that pulls at us, all the other times of the year. it’s what makes these days holy to me. unfettered, unbroken. a time to breathe in the same air as the ones you so love. a time to lay a soft palm on the arm or the shoulder of the one who turns pages beside you. a time for whispers and glances, and  heart-melting meeting of eyes.

it’ll be over today, when the tv roars to a tiger-ish roar, and the football teams clang helmets, and the boys i love — along with a few of their friends — haul in spicy hot food and decibels to match.

perhaps i’ll begin to turn my thoughts toward the cusp of the new year coming, the one about to be birthed, the one i will once again fill with hope and dreams and prayer. i will pray for peace, and for gentle ways to rinse the land. i will remember those who’ve stitched this past year with kindness, defiant kindness, a kindness that refused to submit to the ways of the loudest and most churlish among us. i will count my blessings, one after another, one sweet soul after another. for it is in the sweet souls who surround me that i find those rare shimmering lights, the ones that keep me from slithering into the muck. i’ve needed those lights more than ever in this past soul-tattering year. needed reason to rise above the least common denominator, needed scant outlines of hope that the darkness would pass, the dawn might certainly come.

oh, coming year, come on us gently, come on us with occasional radiant light….

i pray you’ve found quiet or noise in the proportion that best suits you. and i pray for all of us that the year and the days ahead are gentle to the heart and the soul, and that one or two of our dreams come tumbling true. 

for what do you pray in the year just up around the bend?

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?

susurrations: the blessed rinse of a summer morning’s rain

gift of morning rain

it came without throat clearing. no rumble off in the distance. no dark skies, foretelling. in fact, the golden orb of sun was rising through the branches of the pines.

but there it was, just beyond the screen, the back door opened to welcome in the summer morning’s offerings.

a drip. a drop. a plop. another plop, plop, plop.

the susurrations of a summer morning’s rains.

the ping that hit the skylight confirmed it: the heavens had sprung the softest, lulling-est leak.

and all at once, i felt my shoulders sigh. heard a gentle whoof of air bellow out my lips. it felt, once again, as if God almighty had reached long arms through the clouds, applied mighty finger tips to brow, and began to make the little circles on the plane above my eyes, the ones that always, always rinse away the worries.

thank you, i whispered, and whisper still, as the gentle benediction of the summer rain soothes on.

i’d been up early, as i’ve been of late; out from under the sheets once the 5 blinked onto the clock’s face beside my bed. i was fumbling for the coffee beans, had already opened the screen door to let in the morning air and the first dabs of light soaking into the inky dome of waning night.

and that’s when the first plop dropped. and i perked my ears. perked my soul, too. starting feeling not so all alone in the dim light of my kitchen ministrations. i walked to the door, inspected the brick walk, and sure enough, the water spots spread like chicken pox on a baby’s bum.

now, i’m 300-percent certain that my strung-out nerves did not figure into the morning’s celestial weather convocation. no one made a motion to be sure to crank the faucet just above my house, in hopes of dousing the wildfires that threatened to scorch my inner wiring. but there are moments when you discard all reason, and you roll with the whimsy that the rains were meant for you. that someone somehow knew just the meteorological prescription for your morning’s maladies.

so i dodged the raindrops, and wandered out to my summer porch, where the wicker chair offers the best perch for taking in the surround-sound of a morning’s wash. a gentle rumble or two finally did announce that this rain was real, and might linger for awhile.

and instead of worrying about the kid whose mama had called last night to tell me about the whopping case of head critters just discovered at her house and on her kid’s head (a head that had been in close proximity to my own kid’s, just the night before), and instead of worrying about the picture show that might or might not work at my little one’s dance party, and instead of worrying about whether my little guy might collapse into a dead faint as he gets up to chant the Torah (so very terrified is he of this call to the bimah, the Hebrew word for ‘altar’), i sat and soaked up the susurrations of the summer’s rain.

in between the plops, i heard a holy whisper: be not afraid. the heavens surround you, hold you, will not let you wobble.

and then, a final psssst, and this: might not be a bad idea to douse yourself in tea tree oil, the sure combatant for those creepy-crawly things that, at the mere mention of their existence, make your hairs stand on end. 

amen to summer rains, and end-of-august worries, as the school year races toward us, as the long-awaited bar mitzvah is upon us, and our old house fills with beloved people who love us enough to interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to strap on seat belts and fly our way. i figured today might be better than tomorrow, friday, for tap-tapping at the keyboard, and then the rain came and tickled my brain. i’ll be changing sheets, and choreographing airport runs tomorrow morning, and you needn’t listen in on all that noise. next time i type here, one boy will be back to college, and eighth grade will have begun for another. i’ll be home alone, and the to-do list won’t be quite so long. though, just the other side of this bar mitzvah, that blessed book, Slowing Time, promises to demand my attentions.

till then, the only prayer request that matters: dear God, please keep T’s knees from buckling, and may his chanting be heard all the way to new jersey, where his beloved grandpa, who cannot be among the flock who flies here, will be listening with all his blessed heart. 

the necessary pause

the necessary pause

this sacred morning is anointed by quiet. it’s the sound of my soul breathing. which it certainly needs to be doing.

yesterday morning the cacophony came from the squawking of intercoms, and waiting room televisions cranked up to blaring, dialed to odd channels that give you a clue how the rest of the world stays tuned. on top of it all, the hollow sound of footsteps hard against hospital corridor. and the tingling sound of holding your breath.

this morning, the morning of saint nicholas at our house, a wintry sort of morning with half-lit sky and crimson berries still left on the bough (by nightfall my hungry birds might have plucked those branches dry), i am home alone and savoring the holy pause.

right in here, the pause is essential. is necessary. is filling up what’s been draining away.

necessary pause beach

i’ve said it so often i sound like a broken record, a record stuck on pause, on silent. but silence and lull are holy balm to me, are necessary to the going forward of the every day. i am soothed by downy-feathered sounds: the simmering of orange peel and clove, the ticking of my husband’s grandfather’s old dutch clock, the rushing exhale of the furnace that keeps me warm.

oh, i wouldn’t mind the crackle of pine cones on the hearth. or the tinkling of a teaspoon against the porcelain of the hand-me-down blue-willow tea cup.

i wouldn’t mind the poof of air when i punched down the cloud of risen dough in the old bread bowl.

but this morning i am far too lazy for ferrying in the logs, for dumping flour and yeast and melted butter in the bowl.

i am indulging in the lull of nothing more than the tap-tap-tap of keys. and writing, more than anything, is the potion i pull down from my heart’s apothecary.

i’ve been holding my breath for far too many reasons, for far too many days: a kid tromping around vienna (with three papers due by particular midnights; all turned in, all glorious. i should begin to learn to trust the procrastinating child); a mama who next wednesday will face the surgeon’s tool kit; a husband halfway across the globe, so far away, his day is my night, my day, his night.

so this rare morning of words and breath is just what i would wish for my best friend, if my best friend asked what might deeply cure the aching, the worry, the vivid dreams that unspool even when she wakes.

i do feel gathered here, knowing that in due time, and one by one, the chairs will be filled, and the great good souls who’ve woven hearts here, all will settle in, and offer words of tender wisdom, or simply the unspoken squeeze of hand to hand.

we are blessed, those who come here, those who understand the necessary pause. and how essential it becomes to fill our oozing aching heart with whatever balms patch us back together. whatever fortifies and sends us on our way, whole again, and emboldened to begin to ply the ministrations that heal the ones we love and hold together the scattered threads that begin and end at the very depths of our heart.

necessary pause st nick bfst

what are the sacred balms and potions in your heart’s apothecary?

practicing 10: birdsong soup and the astonishments of just after dawn

there is an art to being still, and i am practicing.

the birth of the day, it seems, is the hour that calls me. and, actually, all i’m going for is a mere slice of that hour. ten minutes, for starters. for beginners like me.

there is little hope, i figure, of trying to squeeze it in, in the thick of the day, between all the rushing and dashing and typing and trolling for words.

and, at the end of the day, when the blanket of stars are out and the house is winding down to a hum, i figure my brain has gone blank, in that numb — not that crisp — sort of a way. or, worse, it’s so overstuffed by that hour that all i’d do is churn and re-churn whatever the day had left in its wake. there’d be no stillness within.

it’s hard enough at the dawn. hard enough to keep the tick-tock at bay.

but i’ve begun.

before the first dabs of light are soaking the low-down sky, i am tiptoeing out of my bed, stumbling downstairs, grinding my coffee beans (a wake-up noise, i tell you, that might be essential, at least till i’m through with the whole-bean bag i didn’t fully intend to grab from the grocery shelf). the cat, always hungry, demands his share of my morning attentions — and a scoop from the tin in the fridge.

then, warm mug cupped in my palms, i reach for the door, and step under the holiest dome, the dome of the dawn as it breaks into double-time spring.

and that’s when it hit me, my first morning out: i’d just stepped into a cauldron of birdsong soup. there were so many layers of so many sounds, coming from so many places, my ears — at first — could barely pick it apart.

there were trills and caw-caws and whistles and chatter. short notes and fat notes. and notes that seemed without end, twisting and tumbling and climbing again. notes most insistent, and notes that dribbled off, into ellipses.

it seemed, pretty much, a gymnastics meet of bird sound. all those itty-bitty throats and tongues and lungs thrusting and lunging, spinning and twirling. all that was missing was chalk dust and numbers pinned to their backs.

and it all, all at once, seemed to be moving, whirling around me, as one song took flight, and soared to a nearby limb. or criss-crossed the sky. or merely hopped down the branch, in search of a cozier, noisier perch.

it was surround-sound at its most heavenly, this ever-circling orchestral creation, powered by wings and lungs whose weights would be measured in grams. a whole-bodied chorister not even one ounce.

and all i knew that very first morning was that everywhere i listened, there was a full-throttle sound track not to be missed. one i’d too often slept through. or, sadder, ignored in my packing of lunches, and checking of schedules.

it wasn’t as if this was new, this spanish moss of bird song, dripping from trees.

it’s been there, just beyond the panes of the windows, the other side of the door.

it was only that i’d not carved out the wisp of an hour, made room for the stillness, so that what was there all along could make its way into my eardrums, and down to my soul.

once my head stopped spinning, i did what any student of stillness must do: i planted myself firmly, solidly, on the seat of the bench in my not-so-secret garden, the one that runs along the kitchen, the one that meanders, the one that catches the morning’s first light.

i tried not to think, just to be. one with the birdsong.

and i started to look, not to glance but to study.

it wasn’t hard, what with the week’s thermometer cranked up to summertime, to notice how spring was galloping out of the ground.

i sat and watched chives grow, those early-spring straight-backed soldiers of pungence, the ones i’m already snipping for lox and sprinkling on cream cheese, not unlike bits of newly-mown grass that i bring in for breakfast.

and then, just down the walk, i spied the bleeding heart. overnight, or so it seemed, it had emerged, a jazz ensemble of cut-leaf precision and a green so velvety green, it made me want to pluck it to wear it. wrap it round my bare shoulders, or better yet make it into a slip and let the morning breeze play between it and my skin.

i have to admit, stillness didn’t come easy. wasn’t a natural fit, not for me, anyways.

before my 10 minutes was clocked, i was itching to dig in the dirt. i’d tallied a list that beckoned me and my ministrations: the climbing hydrangea that needed a lifeguard, weeds that might do with a shrill short blast of a whistle, demanding they stop in their trespassing tracks.

but i also noticed this: the longer you sit in rapt silence, utter attention, the deeper you sink into the whole of it, the line between you and the earth and the sky and the dew all but evaporating.

my next morning out, it was chilly. and a soft morning’s rain added its backbeat to the birdsong. so i sat with my stillness on an old wicker chair, inside the porch with the screens. from across the garden, and under the pines, i listened to raindrops measuring time with the ping-ping-ping from the downspouts.

while it’s not yet under my skin, this time-out for the soul, i can feel it working its way to the wellspring, this sacred act of tiptoeing out of bed to catch the morning unaware.

i’ve a sense that sprinklings of wisdom might fall on that place deep inside where the knowing is.

and in the calm of the dawn, i might remember the words to the prayer that, for too long, have been dimmed. and very much missing.

do you practice stillness? how do you weave it into the hustle and bustle of your everyday?

when wonder comes for christmas

By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

When at last the morning comes, I am not unlike the little child at Christmas. Having tossed and turned in anticipation, through all the darkest hours, at first light I throw back the blankets, slide into clogs, slither into a heavy sweater and tiptoe down the stairs.

For days, I’ve been stockpiling for my friends. I’ve corncakes stuffed with cranberries and pine cones wrapped in peanut butter. I’ve suet balls to dangle from the boughs, and little bags of birdseed, just small enough to stuff in all my pockets. I’ve a jug of fresh water for all to drink and splash before it turns to winter’s ice.

It’s time for a Christmas treasure all my own, one I unwrap every year.

My walk of wonder takes me no farther than the patch of earth I call my own, a rather unassuming tangle of hope and dreams and heartache (for what garden doesn’t crack a heart, at least once a season?), in my leafy little village.

I carve out this hour of Christmas morn, before the footsteps slap across the floorboards up the stairs, before I crank the stove, and kindle all the Christmas lights.

It’s my hour of solitude and near silence, as I tug open the back door and step into the black-blue darkness of the minutes just beyond the dawn.

It’s my chance to take in the winter gifts of my rambling, oft-rambunctious garden plots, and all who dwell among them — the birds, the squirrels and fat-cheeked chipmunks, the old mama possum, and, yes, the stinky skunk who sometimes ambles by and sends us dashing in all directions.

And, best of all, it’s my early Christmas moment to reciprocate the many gifts that all the seasons bring me.

I am nearly humming as I make my yuletide rounds: I fill the feeders, scatter seed and stuff an old stone trough with what I call the “critter Christmas cakes.”

At this scant hour, the black-velvet dome above is stitched still with silver threads of sparkling light. And limbs of trees, bare naked in December, don’t block my upward glance at all that heavens offer.

This is where my prayer begins, as I whisper thanks for all the chirps and song, for flapping wings and little paws that scamper — all of nature’s pulse beats that bring endless joy, and teach eternal lessons.

As light brightens in the southeast corner of the sky, the architecture of the wintry bower emerges. The black of branches — some gnarled, others not unlike the bristles of an upturned broom — etch sharp against the ever-bluer sky.

Exposed, the silhouette reveals the secrets of the trees — the oak, the maple and the honey locust that rustles up against my bedroom window.

As I come ’round a bend, gaze up and all around, I cannot miss the nests not seen till late in autumn, when the trees disrobed and shook off their blazing colors.

In murky morning light, the nests appear as inkblots of black among the lacy boughs. Only in winter do we realize how many dot the arbor. There is the contour of the squirrels’ shoddy leaf-upholstered hovel high up in the maple, and, down low in a serviceberry, the robins’ tuck-point masterpiece of twigs.

While in robust and leafy times, the trees did not let on, but in winter’s stripped-down state there’s no hiding the part they play in watching over the nursery, shielding barely feathered broods and not-yet-furry baby squirrels from wind and sleet and pounding rains. Or even too much sun.

This cold morning, all is still. Every nest is empty, every bird house hollow once again. Where the winter birds cower, where they huddle, close their eyes and doze, I cannot figure out. Somewhere, even at this illuminating hour, they’re tucked away in slumber.

It won’t be long till the stirrings come, but for now the only sound is the scritch-scratch of brambles and left-behind leaves as they brush against my legs. I make my way among them, along a bluestone path, past all the shriveled blooms of not-forgotten summer.

The moppy heads of hydrangea, now dried and crisped to brown, are bowed but not surrendered, still clinging, even in the cold. And all that’s left of all the roses are persimmon-colored full-to-bursting hips, a final exhortation, punctuation on the winter page.

By the time the Big Dipper fades from the morning sky, that early riser, papa cardinal, ignites the winterscape with his scarlet coat. Soon follows the red-bellied woodpecker, a nuthatch or two, and, not long after, the choristers of dun-robed sparrows, all a-chatter with Christmas morning news.

I take cover back behind a fir tree, where the crowd at the feeder pays no mind. And where in winter storms, I find the flocks, too, take shelter, the only branches left that promise shield and a place to hunker down. For anyone who wants to hide — too often it’s the hungry hawk — these piney limbs are plenty thick.

Then I get brazen, and toss a handful of peanuts to the bristle-tailed squirrels. These are mere hors d’oeuvres, of course, for that trough now spills with Dickensian plenty — among the larder, bumpy apples no one wanted, and pumpkins plucked from the after-Thanksgiving discount bin.

It is all my way of making real my unending gratitude, of bowing deep and soulfully to Blessed Mama Earth.

and so twas my christmas morning meander in the pages of the chicago tribune, where, yes, i must act all grown up and enter the word of capital letters.

the sound of snow falling

sound of snow falling

it is december’s gift. a world now hushed, now left to whispers. a world caked with white meringue. as if all the eggs, sans yolks, and all the cream of tartar were whisked into the froth that kept on coming.

whole clouds of it fell last night. started with a flake or two, barely noticed, in the gray of afternoon. by dinner time, the limbs, the walks, the feeders for the birds, had lost their definition, were taking on a girth that might have made them groan.

except the world was wordless.

the world, when i slipped on my snow-exploring shoes, zipped up my puffy coat, was so silenced by the spilling from the sky, i could, without straining, make out the sound of snow falling.

it’s a sound, quite truly, that makes your ears perk up. and your soul, too.

unlike the pit-a-pat of rain, it is wholly unexpected. wind we know is noisy. humidity, except for moaning of the ones who find it hard to bear, is not. but that comes as no surprise.

the sound of snow falling, then, is singularly soothing and startling. it is a titillation for the ears, a tickling of the nerves that makes them, well, stand at full attention.

a sound not heard so often, certainly not in months and months, it came like water to a thirsty traveler. and i could not get enough.

i cocked my head. stood still as still can be. i took it in in gulps.

while drinking in the pit-pit-pit of falling bits of icy snow, i opened wide my eyes. without moving a whole muscle–save for the ones that shift my eyeballs–i was a machine in complete and total operation.

except the machine–the hearing, seeing parts–served one function only: the talking to my soul.

there is a stillness in the first of every winter’s snow that feels to me like coming home. it is in that unrippled place, that place where quiet is complete and whole, that i, and maybe you, feel as if the hand of God is reaching down, is showing me the way through snowy woods.

sometimes, too, i think i hear the sound of God, putting gentle finger to soft lips, shushing.

shhhhhhh, i hear God say. be still. be filled with only what is sacred.

what else, i wonder, could slow a world that can’t move fast enough? who else can keep the cars off of the road? the cell phones from incessant baying?

there was not a soul outside last night, not when i was there at least, and i was there for quite a while.

this morning, then, is quiet squared.

not even snow is making sound. it is simply, i suppose, taking in its new perspective on the world. used to be way up high, now it’s down where mortals play. and it looks intent on staying put.

not a bird is anywhere in sight. i think they know what the weather seers know, only without all the supersonic radar. i think all my feathered friends are safely tucked in cozy places. at least i hope so. i would like to think the birds are in their checkered armchairs, nestled by the fire, sipping cocoa, like i intend to do, any minute here.

it is december’s gift, this early snow. it is just in time to serve its highest purpose. to shush a world in full staccato. to make us perk our ears, to see if, this blessed day, we might hear the song of snow falling.

my snow-flaked friends, your thoughts this morn…
as i type now, one boy up and fed and off to school, the world has rustled from its sheets, thrown off the blanket, the world is hardly quiet. dang. that didn’t last nearly long enough. i hear the sound–the dragon mouth–of snow blower somewhere down the street, and the scraping of the shovels against the walks. but i also hear the solitary cheep-cheep-cheep of the scarlet papa cardinal come to scout around.
did anyone else hear the snow falling last night? did you take to your boots, and like papa cardinal himself, do some scouting in your ‘hood?

oh, a word about the magic pictured up above…that’s a gingerbread house just around the corner from me. when we moved here i realized i could see it from my bedroom window. i thought, well, lucky me. if i can’t live there, i can at least spend my life gazing at its cheery face. and if i lived there, i couldn’t keep an eye on it all night or day. the streetlamp, the snowy branches, the ginger cottage strung with little lights….hope you too found it delightful. and caught, perhaps, the sound of which i write….the magic sound of flakes aflight…

snow, when it’s still white

i know. i know. it’s a little raucous out there. a bit like walking into a bowl of vichyssoise, whirring.

and once the world rustles from its dumbfounded look out the window, slams on the snow boots, trudges to the car, or the train, or the bus, it’ll all be so much blkkh. that gray-black mess of crusted-over car dirt, tire rub, city street, all tossed together, tumbled. left to leave us thinking this snow thing is a terrible nuisance, a blight upon the trek to wherever we have to be. end of story.

only this is not about that. this is about snow before the blkkh.

this is about snow when it’s still white. when it’s still.

this is about slipping into your mukluks, and giving snow the due it deserves: step out and just stand there. go nowhere, really. meander aimlessly. pretend its moon dust and tromp through it. crane your neck, watch it swirl toward you.

then do this: drink it in. listen to the snow sound. then listen more closely still, listen with your soul.

the snow, i am convinced, is God’s way of putting finger to lips, pursing, whispering, “shhhhhh.”

snow, if you listen, speaks loudly. but only in a way that the soul is equipped to hear. the snow is telling us to slow. to behold. behold wonder. behold mystery.

behold the miracle of mere air and water and the cold of a cloud, coming together, falling down. tumbling. a 15-minute ride from the sky to the tip of our tongue, if we, like a child, try to catch it. scientists clocked that. i’m not making it up. some day soon we will consider the universe of each little snowflake. apparently, it’s a sport. watching snowflakes. i’ve got a book, right here on my desk, a field guide to snowflakes, and it says so, likens it to bird watching, only colder.

but today is about the blanket of white, the blanket of quiet. the blanket shaken before us, every intricacy of every limb and twig and pine needle shrouded in, swaddled in, white.

to go out in it, to crouch under the bough of a tree, to watch it come down, down onto your eyelash, is to be filled, once again, with the mystery of the heavens coming down to our midst. intermingling, the divine and the utterly earthly.

maybe that’s why young children thrust themselves into it, onto it, prostrate, making snow angels. maybe they understand in a way we forget when we’ve had too many snows under our boots. maybe they sense the godliness in each six-sided flake. if you could dive into the celestial, wouldn’t you want to rub your arms and your legs, your whole being, through the thick of it? once again, look to the children.

albert einstein, a guy smart like the children, wrote this in 1930, in a paper titled, “what i believe:”

“the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. it is the source of all true art and science. he to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

open your eyes, my friends. open your eyes. the snow, falling all around us, is begging us to drink in, to taste, to behold the mysterious. to realize, in one single snowflake, we hold onto the infinite. in a whole world of snowflakes, the infinite holds onto us.

if we open our eyes…

tell a snow story. tell a tale of beholding the wonder of the world of snow when it’s still white. or, if you must, spit it out. tell us how the blkkh got in your way, made you mad. made you sputter. then, once you spew here at the table, you might feel all better. might then be able to slip on your muks, step out the door, sink into the wonder…..