Barbara Mahany writes, “Mothering was my crash course in love. Love of the sort I call Divine. Love in the way we yearn to be loved: Without end. Without question. Without giving in to exhaustion. Love with a big and boundless heart. Love with eyes and ears—and soul—wide open. Love even when it’s not so easy.”
In Motherprayer, Mahany generously shares personal love letters on the mysteries and gifts of mothering, interspersed with family recipes and gentle essays, all offering beautiful lessons in how to love, and how to love well. In her bracingly honest style, she captures the ephemeral moments of motherhood—the hard, the glorious, the laughter, and the tears—and invites readers to pay attention, cradle our loved ones in prayer, and see the sacred lessons in loving.
These stirring meditations bring into sharp focus one essential question: How do we love breathtakingly?
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About the Author
From the front pages of The Chicago Tribune to her revered page-two columns, Barbara Mahany has opened her heart and told her stories and the stories of her family’s life that have drawn in thousands of readers for decades. Bracingly honest and heartachingly daring, she explores the sacred mysteries with a voice recognizable and clear. Barbara is a sought-after speaker, retreat leader, writing teacher, and author of Motherprayer and Slowing Time. She lives with her husband, Blair Kamin, and two sons in Wilmette, Illinois. Learn more about Barbara at BarbaraMahany.com.
Read an Excerpt
Lessons in Loving
By Barbara Mahany
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Barbara Mahany
All rights reserved.
On Birthings and Lessons and Holy Wisdom
One by one, day by day, the moments, the stories, the questions, the lessons appeared.
In the murky first light of dawn, when inky night is blotted at the edge with aubergine before it burns into tangerine, I'd tiptoe down the stairs of my old shingled house, not far from where Lake Michigan laps the shore. I'd click on the desk lamp in the room where I write — a room that once served as one-car garage, then maid's chamber, and now my book-lined typing hole — and I'd sit before the blank screen. By the time I cozied my bum against the hard plank of the chair, I'd surveyed the landscape of my yesterday and felt the zing of whatever moments had most captured my attention, my imagination, my heart. I knew which frame of the passing picture show begged to be plumbed. Nearly every day, there was some fragment of time — words shared, heart pummeled, triumph hard-won — that beckoned to be held up to the light. To be recorded. Questioned. Sifted through. Mined for any lasting lesson.
Sometimes I felt like a butterfly catcher — only my net was woven with words, and what I set out to capture, what I all but jammed in an old glass jelly jar for safekeeping, was as ephemeral as any swallowtail riding the south-erlies: shimmering, brushing past my nose one instant; gone the next.
One by one, day by day, I was flailing at fleeting moments from the script of motherhood — nothing more complicated, nothing less complex than one heart hard up against another, one life literally in the hands of the other, a bond set from the start on a trajectory toward separation — in all its messy, primal, confounding, heartrending permutations. The one biological equation, genetic and soulful inheritance, from which there can be no escape. And therein lie its magnificence and its tug and its pull. And its possibility of infinite wisdom.
From the start, the moments that enveloped me most, the ones out of which the deepest inklings were born, were the moments that felt bigger, much bigger, than me. These were the moments that pulsed with questions that ultimately ask, how do we love? How, truly, do we love? How do we press against the bounds of what we thought our hearts could do and discover, blessedly, the capacity for more?
It was out of those moments and those few timeless questions — asked and examined from countless angles, across the arc of time — that I realized I'd stumbled onto a most essential curriculum.
To mother a child — by birth or by heart, by accident or happenstance or long-held dream — is to encounter love in ways never before beheld. In ways that stretch you, sometimes break you, build you up, and mightily and often demand the best that you can be. Lessons learned in motherhood's ineluctable front lines serve as a paradigm for loving far beyond our lifeblood. To learn to mother — to learn from mothering — is to learn to love in the ways of Jesus and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. and even Louisa May Alcott's Marmee. It is to love as instructed in the Gospel, the Torah, the Qur'an, and every holy book ever inscribed: love as you would be loved.
I'd been a mother for more than a decade when I sat down to capture most of the moments gathered in these pages, ones that unfolded in my old house, in the hours I spent with or thinking about my two boys who happen to have been born eight years apart — a span dictated by years of heartbreak, by loss upon loss, years underpinned by long and bottomless stretches of doubt, and a fairly certain hunch that prayers and dreams "for just one more" might never come true. I'd been a journalist for a quarter century, and before that a pediatric nurse. A pediatric oncology nurse, to be precise. Which means I'd spent a good many years entwined with life and death. With paying attention. With asking and pondering sometimes impossible questions. And being left, too often, without the faintest answer.
It was in the alchemy of those hushed early-morning hours, before the staccato of the day quickened to prestissimo, when those three threads of me — mother, journalist, once and always a nurse — combined in ways I'd not anticipated: I was extracting moments of motherhood to ask the toughest questions, lay bare essential truths, and seize whatever shards of illumination I might have stumbled upon.
Always, my aim, my hope, my prayer, was to stitch tatters back into whole. To untangle. To mend what was broken, rubbed raw. Or to try, anyway.
Along the course of motherhood, I've studied hard the love lessons offered. In those first-light seminars of one, I attended the task with fingers to keyboard. I knew, because I'd practiced the craft in the pages of every day's news, that applying a journalist's steady eye, hard grasp, on the moment, the puzzle, the mystery, the conundrum at hand, it just might lead to epiphany.
I was intent on teaching myself how to love — unconditionally and without waver — in ways I'd longed to love and be loved.
Often, I wasn't too far into my maternal meanderings until I'd find myself tottering, breathless, lost — having arrived at some precipice, propelled by my own wobbly footed perambulations or my knack for getting snarled in cords of my own invention. So I did the one wise thing I know when nothing but abyss lay before me: I unreeled my prayer, set petitions to the wind, counting on those pleas to find the ears, the heart, the soul of Holy Tender God.
I prayed my way home, time after time.
And in the whisperings that stirred my soul and set me on my way, I did learn a thing or two. Learned what it means to love and love deeply. Learned how much it sometimes hurts. Learned just how brave I might be — if pushed, and if my kid's life (or heart or soul) depends on it.
Because I tend to live ad maximum as the ancient Romans would have put it, I've leeched every drop of heart and soul from my adventures in mothering. And my lifelong inclination for putting words to nearly everything that matters has left me with pages and pages of field notes from the trenches.
It was only in poring over those pages — a collection of life lessons that mostly span the decade that began when our older son, Will, was just thirteen, in his last year of grade school, and our younger one, Teddy, was five and new to kindergarten — that I figured out that what I'd culled was a realtime curriculum for loving.
It's one that holds more questions, certainly, than answers. I think aloud. I pray. I fumble and stumble and sometimes skin my knees. I light candles and stir porridge on the stove. I lie awake night after night. And I leap from my bedsheets, determined to muscle on again.
I've wept. And laughed out loud. I've nearly crumbled under the weight of my worry. And through the grace of God, and saints and angels and a phalanx of wise and wonderful compatriots, I've tripped toward the light.
Maybe in thinking hard and deep and ponderously about the lessons that motherhood demands we struggle through, we might look down one day and see that our heart has grown deeper and wider and wiser than we ever imagined. Maybe we're one iota closer to the glorious magnificence we were meant to be.
Maybe we've learned from this one sacred heart — the heart of our child, from whom we can't, and won't, walk away — just how it might be to be fiercely and tenderly and infinitely loved, in that way that I believe we are loved by God almighty. And meant to love, most certainly.
Just maybe, in exploring motherhood, its interior and its borders, in illuminating the ledge where we let go and turn it over to the updraft I call prayer, maybe in imploring, begging, believing in the tender arms that will not let us — or our children — hurtle into the bottomless nothingness, we'll find God in depths and intimacies we've never known. Or imagined. God who loves us as a mother loves. God who hears the cries of our heart, from down the shadowed corridor, in deep of night. God who keeps the watch light burning, and will not abandon the vigil, not until we find our way through the darkness.
It's in knowing this God that we'll wrap ourselves more freely and more fervently in the shawl of prayer, motherprayer, those utterances that come from our most stripped-down essence. In knowing this God who is fluent in a mother's love, aren't we opening a channel that joins our heart to God's?
Motherhood, it seems, has caught me in its everlasting grip. No other instruction — sacred or otherwise — has so captivated, enchanted, or ignited me.
Nor so blessed me.CHAPTER 2
The Cradle That Is Prayer
Prayer, on my good days, is how I breathe. It's listening, as much as whispering. It takes the wobble out of my knees and puts the wallop into my heart's beat. It's woven into the hours, from cock's crow until the moment my eyelids finally flutter closed for the day. It unspools without measure or meter. It might be a geyser. Or merely a murmur.
The other morning, when I was deep in meditation, it came to me that prayer, at its holiest, is a cradle, woven from filaments of wonder and wisdom. Prayer, at its most powerful, perhaps, as transitive verb. Picture yourself swept into arms that hold you, that rock you, that lull you. Prayer, cradling.
Cradle, my dictionary tells me, is "to hold something gently and protectively." Etymologists, those learned folk who poke around in the vaults of centuries past for linguistic DNA, tell me the word has thirteenth-century Old English roots and trace its cognates to Old High German kratto, krezzo, "basket"; and German Krätze, "basket carried on the back."
In the sixteenth century, the noun slipped into its form as a verb, and that's how I like it best. To be cradled. To cradle.
Isn't "to be cradled" to be rocked into sleepy-eyed quietude, to be harbored against harsh winds? Is that not a root of prayer?
And so I am — we are all — being cradled. Each and every day. Even — especially — the days when breathing comes shallow and rapid and hard, even the days when we're mostly holding our breath. We are cradled in great, tender arms that enwrap us. I particularly love the notion from the German Krätze, "basket carried on the back." Breathe that one in for a moment. Might we be the basket carried on God's back? Might our cares, our worries, our rubbed-raw heartaches be hoisted onto shoulders far mightier than our own? "Basket carried on the back." Prayer, cradled.
Right in here — my life of late a blur of days whirling by so swiftly, too swiftly — I sometimes feel a wee bit light-headed, and my heart pounds so hard I worry, as I'm wont to do, that my not-so-ancient ticker just might give up the ghost. So, as if my life depended on it the other morning, I pulled myself out from under the sheets. And I tiptoed out to the holy cathedral just beyond the kitchen door, the one that vaults to the heavens, the one that on that morning was lit by a crescent of moon. Looked to me, more than anything, like one big eye winking at me. God's eye?
All around me, the dawn's soft, cool blanket fluttered, as if on a clothesline. The cardinals, cloaked in scarlet, were up and chirping away — it's fairly hard to beat a cardinal out of bed. The dew glistened. My toes took a bath when I tiptoed across the yard to fill the feeder with seed.
I stood there breathing. Feeling the arms wrap around me. Winking back at the moon. Then, I looked to my old shingled house, melted at the buttery light glowing from the kitchen. Sighed a deep sigh of thanks for the house that never fails to keep me safe.
I stood there for a short little bit, uncoiled my morning vespers, felt the soles of my feet sinking soft into the earth that holds us, always holds us. Then I puttered back toward the kitchen, where a lunch box awaited and, upstairs, a growing boy slept.
As I poured my first mug of coffee, I stopped to drink in a clutch of sunflowers that peeked from an old, chipped milk pitcher. I thought of the blessed, beautiful friend who had scooped up those wide-faced wonders from the farmers market. Then I climbed the stairs to wake the sleeping boy.
I pressed my cheek against his, longer than I usually do. I drank him in, my sweet sleeping child. And, as I'd been doing all morning, I leaned; this time, on him. I leaned on all of these wonders — winking moon, chattering bird, morning's dew pearled, old, blessed friend, and miracle child — and fortified myself for the hours to come.
I was cradled.
The cradle is there, always there. If we're willing to climb to the basket strapped to the back — the glorious, heavenly back — that carries us, even on days when we're dizzy.
Cradled is but one of prayer's verbs. Prayer plays out in a symphony of verbs. Many, many verbs. I've come to believe, over time and across the arc of keeping watch, in prayer of the transitive and intransitive ilk. Prayer in motion. Prayer put to muscle. Or imagination. Or heart. Prayer that deepens us, draws us to our core.
Never more so than motherprayer, a matrix of prayer in all its iterations that animates my every breath, most every rippled thought, and, more often than not, keeps me from plunging overboard.
My prayer today might cradle me. And it might come in the simple act of pressing cheek-to-cheek against my sleeping boy, a prayer of gratitude if ever there was. My prayer might come in counting stars, a prayer of wonder, always. For me, it's all a hodgepodge, no single stream of prayerfulness. No exacting measure. I simply know it's prayer when, as so often happens, I feel the mighty hand of God sprinkle goose bumps down my arms. When my leaden heart is lifted. When the door to the impossible is at long last unlocked, and hope comes rushing in.
The dilemma, though, is this: we live in a world where, too often, prayer — in any form — feels out of reach. Some of us don't have an inkling where or how to begin. The few lines we know, the ones we might have memorized a long, long time ago, fall flat. Miss the mark. And what about the hours when words won't come at all, when language escapes us? When we're enveloped by a hollow silence without end? It's suffocating emptiness, hopelessness defined.
Here, then, is a lifeline: we needn't find our way to the topography of prayer through words alone. In fact, sometimes, I think, we get tangled in the words, and the truest unfettered prayer is the prayer that catapults beyond scripted lines. How will I move into uncharted nooks and crannies of my soul if I merely grope along clinging hard and stubbornly to words?
What's most curious about this notion is that my whole life long — as far back as I can remember, to the days when I curled up on my braided bedroom rug with colored pencils and sheaves of schoolhouse paper and penned myself many-chaptered books, complete with line drawings, whole volumes secreted away in the shadows just beneath my old twin bed — my hungriest appetite has been for words. To this day, I toss back handfuls of words the way some might do with Milk Duds. I can suck on a single word the whole day long: unspool, lollop, stippled, susurration, pick one, any one; each a concoction of syllables as delectable to me as a lemon sour might be to you.
I can't read a book without a pen, underlining, taking notes, scribbling every disinterred noun, every gut-punching verb into my all-purpose lexical repository, a stash known in the world of letters as "the commonplace book." It's a bulging-at-the-binding compendium of musings, scraps, and torn-out bits of wonder, wisdom, and plain old esoterica accumulated through a lifelong habit of hoarding. And it's ever-perched atop my old pine table, here where I do much of my typing. This compendium, you see, is something of a clearinghouse or storage bin, a catchall for ideas and persuasions. And this notion of stuffing wisps of knowledge into bound books is one with roots tracing to antiquity and coursing clear through the Renaissance, the American Revolution, and Y2K, to boot. Among the keepers of the commonplace book through time, you'd find Marcus Aurelius, Sir Walter Raleigh, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, straight up to the newest millennium's Lemony Snicket. (One final digression: Seneca, the first-century Roman Stoic philosopher, likened the commonplace book to "a literary honeycomb," in which each cell — or line on the page — is swelled "with nectar sweet." The nectar, of course, a flow in words, delicious words.)
Words uncork welled-up parts of me, deep inside. Words put wings to my heart and soul, take me soaring. Words move me to tears. Words have been known to crumple me. I might spend the better part of an afternoon contemplating a single string of words, ones deliberately lobbed my way or merely snatched in passing. I daydream words. Pin them side-by-side, affix them as frilly French knots to plainspoken cross-stitched sentences, behold them for their singular capacity to take my breath away or merely tickle one of my fancies.
Excerpted from Motherprayer by Barbara Mahany. Copyright © 2017 Barbara Mahany. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
On Birtbings and Lessons and Holy Wisdom 1
The Cradle That Is Prayer 5
Field Notes on Loving
On Field Notes 13
Nest Building: The Scant Few Bits That Bind 15
Navigating the Landscape of the Heart: On Trial and Error and Love Like No Other 17
"Always an Act of Courage": On the Nonnegotiable Essential 20
Motherprayer: On Sacred Mooring 24
It's All About the -ing: On Mothering, a Verb Belonging to All Who Practice a Particular Art of Laving 27
From the Cookery Files …: Proper Porridge 30
Mourning: When the Nest Is Barren 35
Tea for Two, a Dream in Shards: On Finding Our Way Through Grief 37
Growing a Heart: On Tracing a Timeline of Hope 39
Mama Altar: On Holding Up Our Sisterhood of Sorrows 43
From the Cookery Files … : Teatime Tuffets 46
Hatchling: Tender Soul Awakening 51
Teaching My Firstborn to Pray: On Sacred Whisper at the Heart of Childhood 53
Monster Fighter: On Chasing Away What Makes Us Tremble 56
Heart to Heart: On Quelling Butterflies, and Baby Steps to Prayer 59
The Gospel of the Pillow: On the Holy Wisdom of the Child 62
Worm Rescue: On Teaching Tenderness 64
Four Score and So Many Tears: On Hearing, Really Hearing, the Deep-Down Script of a Child's Heart 67
A Season for Soooooo Sorry: On Forgiveness 70
From the Cookery Files …: Elixir Pudding 73
Brooding: Keeping Close Watch, Savoring All the While 77
Not Too Big: On the Slipping Away of Something You've Loved 79
Cinnamon Toast & Pear Slices: On Soaking Up Joy, Pure and Simple 82
The Hours That Matter the Most: On Listening 85
The Things That Moms Just Know: On the Power of Paying Attention 88
Sacramental Supper: On Holy Communion at the Kitchen Table 92
From the Cookery Files …: Beef Stew Matters 95
Tending the Clutch: The Healing Balms of Motherhood 101
When Baseballs Break a Heart: On Shattered Dreams and the Question of Mending 103
The Sum of Infinites: On the Litany of Loving, No Matter How infinitesimal the Measures 107
Sometimes We Forget the Power of a Hug: On Being Embraced 110
Humpty Dumpty Powder and Other Potions of Motherhood: On Pulling Our Children Together Again 113
Tables Turned: On the Breathtaking Wonder of Discovering That Hearts Have Been Listening, and Lessons Learned 116
From the Cookery Files …: When All Else Fails… Turn to Page 200 119
Nestling: At the Edge of the Nest 123
Waiting: On Learning to Sink into the Downy Comfort of Midnight's Vigil 125
One Thing-Be Safe: On What Matters Most, Ever and Always 128
Sometimes…: On the Hours When You Have No Answers 131
Pushing Buttons: On Watching Life's Frames Unspool 134
Freeze Frame: On Savorino This Holy Script Called Life 137
From the Cookery Files …: Shortcake Season 139
Fledgling: Taking Flight 143
Taped, All Right: On Surrendering to Faith 145
Learning Long Distance: On Being Lost and Finding Our Way 148
Welcome Home, College Freshman. XOXO: On Sweet and Long-Awaited Reunion 151
Never Enough: On the Insatiable Nature of Motherlove 153
Why We Do It: On Falling in Love and Never Looking Back 155
From the Cookery Files …: It's Brisket Weather 159
Almost Empty Nest 163
Joy of One: On Lavishing Love, Without Apology 165
A Mother Was Born: On a Birthing Deep inside 169
Tracks to My Heart: On Childhoods Treasures. Forgotten and Found 172
Coming Home to an Empty House and Other Things That Matter: On Love's Fine-Stitched Sampler and How It Holds Us Together 175
As If a Dream…: On Savoring Every Succulent Moment 178
From the Cookery Files … : Pause. Bow Head. Strike Sullen Pose 181
And in the End: The Wind Beneath My Wings 185
The Holy Thing That Got Me to This Moment: On the Hand That Has Held Me All Along the Way 187
He Gave Us a Year: This Mama Will Never Forget: On Holy Hour, Gift Beyond Measure 190
From the Prayer Files …: How Do the Heavens Know? 194
Afterword: Aloft 197