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December 21 — that’s the day winter officially begins. Yet, somehow (and I can’t be the only one!), I’m already tired of it. If it’s not winter yet, then why is it so cold? Why are we beset with snow and wind and slush and gray skies? Calendars and almanacs may be useful, but they can’t tell us how we feel. Only we know that. And in this Advent, this time of waiting, I am feeling ready for something new. Something wonderful. (P.S. A thank-you to my good friend Marilyn Rausch for the term “hyacinth of the soul”!)

In this winter by another name,
this still-point of seasons,
in trees stripped clean,
in a sky black with grackles,
ground as hard as haters’ hearts:

I am waiting for a hyacinth of the soul:
something fragrant and unexpected.

Something’s coming
with a gift already purchased,
bought in blood, so long ago.
I have only to hold it in my hands
to know it. It feels like the sun,
wobbling weak as a new calf,
standing. Sniffing springtime.
May the light find us ready
to stand awhile and bask.

There is so much good here,
both on and around the table.
Look. Whatever we have today
is bounty because we may not have
it tomorrow. Let us bless one another.
The number of clasped hands matters not;
it is the electricity of love they carry
each to other, love that leaps chasms,
love that lights a path to a doorway
where everyone you know is gathered
and all are glad to see you, even if
this place never appears on this earth.
A blessing on you, on all of you.
Great grows the heart that
knows gratitude for what
is seen; greater, grander
when we envision what could be.

Do you know why St. Therese of Lisieux became known as “The Little Flower”? Because she never saw herself as worthy. No, in God’s garden, she argued, she wasn’t a sweet-scented rose or spotless lily… just an insignificant bloom, hardly noticeable. This was a woman who loved God so fervently, it puts the rest of us to shame. So I ask, what the heck kind of flower does that make me?

Or to put it in avian terms…what kind of bird? Does salvation rest in trying to be eagle when one is actually a wren? Or, just maybe, might it lie in being utterly true to who and what you are…whether you soar like a falcon or waddle like a doomed dodo? In the end, I suspect God loves us all, great and small, roses and sweet peas, hawks and canaries.

God sows seed; we bend our necks, peck.
Wren and peacock, sparrow and falcon,
we feed, fight for crumbs, carry morsels
home to nests heavy with fledglings.
Some nests are mud. Others shine
with tinsel and the feathers of other birds.
When comes the time to raise us, send us soaring
into skies, will even the ostrich take with grace
to unknown air? In that moment of miracle, all
can rise, if the seed you eat is deep belief.
Wide-winged, wondrous, the swan will ascend.
The wren, too, shall be lifted, heart thudding,
wing a-quiver, higher even than hope can go.

Apparently, the poet Rumi visited me in a dream. There can be no other explanation for the words that came to me on waking. But that’s how poetry often happens to me. I start with a blank page (or a blank mind) and the words fill in by themselves. The only question left is what to do with them? And the answer — again as usual — is to pass them on to you.

My beloved stands before a door
holding a heart-shaped key. I ask:
What does it open? He smiles.
Whatever it is that you cannot open
any other way — neither with fine
instruments of logic nor brute strength;
that which will not yield to cajolery or
flattery, nor open to sweet words mouthed,
or prying fingers that seek to clench, contain.
That which only the heart can truly fathom.

And then I see it: the heart-shaped hole
in my beloved. Into it, I fit the key and
twist it. There is a whir, as if wind is
flowing through an open doorway,
and I see my beloved as if after
a thousand years of travel.
And we are one, at last.

It seems as if we’re always waiting for God — to answer our prayers, to point us in a new direction, to give us a sign. But why would God lag behind us? It is ludicrous to contemplate. God, if anything, is way ahead of us. What if the truth is this: God is actually waiting for us — to do something, to hear something, to be something. How would we respond? More importantly, how will we respond when we realize it’s happening right this very minute?

You’d tap your watch if you wore one
to indicate my tardiness, and still
I cannot plumb your intentions.
Whatever sign you sent, I missed:
the alarm too silent for my aging ears,
the town crier lost on the wrong street.
I am left imagining your expression —
mildly amused? Vaguely disgruntled?
Or endlessly patient — that would wound
most, I think, the inference of my neglect.
You’ve given me boards, washers, screws,
but the instructions, I believe, are in Swedish.
Are we building a table? Or a catapult?
Should I pack a suitcase or board up the door?
I know the answer of course, it is there,
hiding behind the author of Hedda Gabler
and the words to every Beatles song.
Just out of reach. Fuzzy, near forgotten.
Only fear keeps me from finding it.
So I will pray for courage.
The courage to be on time.

I worry. I worry about how close the fires in California are coming to friends and family. I worry about my friends’ illnesses. I worry about money, time, schedules. And I pray. I pray so much that I sometimes worry about burnout — not mine, but God’s. With so many intentions, so many voices crying out, how can God possibly handle it all? Luckily for all of us, God has no limits.

When prayers bubble from my lips
in inexhaustible plentitude,
and I fear I have spread God too thin,
like margarine on toast,
suddenly I hear it — child, child.
There is no distance I cannot cover.
I hold the earth in the palm of my hand,
easy as an egg, a pebble, a shell.
Turn out my pockets. Like a mischievous boy
I have filled them: with galaxies, eons, the sighs of
the wistful, the tears of mourners, the muffled heartbeats
of animals in their dens. Each is considered.
Each is held with gravity. All the prayers of all the years
cannot dilute me or hold me back.
I hold my breath a beat.
And at once I know: All is well.

“You know why Jesus had such a tough life?” my husband quips. “He was the only white guy in Israel.” No, my beloved is not being irreverent. He’s referring to the fact that in most depictions — including the statues in our own church — Jesus does not look Jewish. In fact, the entire Holy Family seems to have been Westernized, stripped of ethnicity — whitewashed.

Depicting the Holy Family in realistic ways throws people into tizzies. Take for instance this week’s disturbance at the Vatican. Two vandals threw statues depicting “Our Lady of the Amazon” (given to the Pope in honor of the Amazonian Summit) into a river. They were disgruntled that Mary was depicted as an indigenous Amazonian woman.

And yet: Our Lady of Guadalupe — a Mexican Mary — is the patron saint of the Americas. Our Lady of La Veng is Vietnamese. And so what? People are hung up on appearances. What they fail to remember is that none of us knows what Jesus, Mary or Joseph looked like. But I’ll bet you one thing: They didn’t look like WASPs.

What are we to make of them?
Of their glorious otherness?
It is too much for heart or hand
to hold. And so we shrink them,
squint to fade their margins,
blur the tricky bits. We do not
know a Mary with curves and kinky hair.
A dark-skinned man with a penchant for defiance
would make the neighbors edgy. His radical
proclamation of love, likewise, frightens.
(Ask Dr. King: Such things bring killing,
even today.) We make bland in our mouths
what is too rich to taste. And so they stand,
in churches, in cathedrals, looking like something
out of Central Casting. And we do not know them.

How long does it take to know someone? A month? A year? A lifetime…or maybe even longer? When it comes to seeking God, I’m not sure there’s a limit. To look for God is to look forever. Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that anyone who thinks he can get his arms around God, contain God, package God, speak for God — that person is a liar. God is too big for any of us. Even the statement “God is love” begs the follow-up: What, then, is love? The person who can sum that up in one word— or ten — is a better linguist than I.

I love the idea of getting to know someone over ages and ages of time. It’s like reading a great book that never ends. I suspect I am not alone in this.

I could anagram your name
if I knew it, but you keep coy,
flirt with vagaries like “I am
who am.” Riddles, tricks of the light,
something seized than instantly lost.
We try to limit you to the page,
but you keep writing, in each leaf that furls
from the tree, another sentence,
in an eon perhaps a paragraph.
We cannot turn the pages fast enough.
No matter, you say, and pass a pot
of tea, a blanket. Settle in. Take all the time
you need
. I will take you at your word,
read slowly, mouth each syllable
like a diamond on my tongue.

The weather’s gone bitter cold, winter cold. Autumn in all its burnt ochre, crisp brown, burgundy brightness has seemingly been skipped over. Just thinking about trees — as they drop their leaves precipitously — makes me ponder harvest. Trees do as God intends for them to do: They grow, bear fruit, shed leaves and begin the cycle again. But what about humans? What is God’s intention for each of us and how can we know if we are fulfilling it? It is indeed a puzzle.

Trees we judge by their yield, yet —
what is the measure of mortals?
Not rings to mark time
nor grandeur of height.
Surely nothing as showy as an apple,
dappled, toothsome, sweet.
Making money is not near
as lovely as leaves, less utile
than blade and bud that sustain
whole species over long winters.
What have we to give but kindness
and the consolation of a listening ear?
You cannot put these on a table
or measure yield in bushels.
God alone will part our needles,
tap our trunks, ascertain
whether we have given good home
to those who alight on our branches.

alex-jones-Tq4YjCa2BSc-unsplashGot a problem? “Give it to God,” they say. Only sometimes it’s not that simple. I, for one, tend to be an ambivalent giver. I claim to hand over my trouble, only to take it back obsessively, ruminate on it, rummage through the possibilities, ponder all the “what-ifs.” As if Providence rests in my nervous little hands.

The great and wise Richard Rohr once said, “The opposite of Faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.” It’s a lesson we, like poor Hamlet, learn the hard way. That in the end, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will—….”

And, as we know, “the rest is silence.”

Of what substance
is hardship made
that, in shaping it
with sturdy hands,
it liquefies, slumps,
refuses to hold its shape?
Persists with devilish intensity
to be captured or controlled?
If only we understood:
That in lifting our hands,
in setting free that which
we cannot sculpt to our ends,
the obdurate thing will fly from us,
ascend to one who will form it.
The shape it takes, no wringing of limbs
will change. It is what it will be.
Swallow it, in pieces, as you can.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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