IN THE DEAD of winter across the Northern Hemisphere, where can we hope to find a pathway to spiritual renewal? Those of us in the northern states, overwhelmed by ice and snow, wish we could hibernate! Who would dare to venture outdoors for inspiration?
Barbara Mahany, that’s who.
After decades of writing for the Chicago Tribune, she now is sharing her wonderfully engaging insights with the rest of us in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door. As we have often found at ReadTheSpirit magazine, veteran journalists understand their relationship with readers and have polish their craft until their writing feels like a conversation with a good friend. Just think of Judith Valente, Cathleen Falsani, David Briggs, Ken Chitwood, Suzy Farbman, Bobbie Lewis, Lynne Meredith Golodner—and that’s just to name a few.
If you are already a fan of any of the writers we’ve just listed, then don’t wait—click on one of the links to Slowing Time and order a copy right now. You’re going to love it!
Baby Boomers who fondly recall groundbreaking books like The Whole Earth Catalog—or anyone who likes to leaf through the pages of an Old Farmer’s Almanac will find a kindred spirit in Barbara’s paperback, which is packed with short pieces in a range of genres and formats. At a couple of points, she even tosses in favorite recipes! As you’re reading other passages, you’ll enjoy Barbara’s “field notes,” which run along the edges of many pages. Readers who can recall Whole Earth or are familiar with the Talmud may recognize this pre-Internet form of packing commentary on top of commentary as the pages turn.
The overall effect is a book you want to tuck in your purse or pocket, briefcase or shoulder bag. Keep a copy on the table where you enjoy your breakfast or morning coffee. Or, better yet, place your copy on a window-sill or near a doorway where you can read a bit before stepping outside.
Yes, indeed. The book opens with these lines from poet Mary Oliver …
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Barbara Mahany. Here are ….
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BARBARA MAHANY
ON ‘SLOWING TIME’
DAVID: As a good journalist who understands the diversity of your readers, you include lots of surprising details in these pages. Your book encourages readers to rethink the way they approach the four seasons, beginning with winter, and you start with a reference to Tu Bi’Shvat (or Tu B’Shevat, spellings vary). Most Americans are Christian, but our online magazine covers this ancient Jewish holiday each year in our Holidays & Festivals department. And, this year FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis also has a fascinating piece on the “New Year of the Trees.”
In an opening page of your book, you introduce your section of “Winter” reflections like this: “In the Hebrew calendar, it won’t be long till Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year of the trees, when, in mid-winter in Israel, the almond tree awakes from its winter’s slumber, and 16th-century Jewish mystics taught that we elevate ourselves by partaking of seven new-year fruits. If eaten with holy intention, we’re told, sparks of light hidden inside the fruits’ soft flesh will be broken open and freed to float to heaven, completing the circle of life’s renewal.”
BARBARA: I’m so glad you noticed that and asked about it! Let me explain. I’m a deeply spiritual liberal Catholic and my husband is Jewish. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot from each other. One thing I’ve learned from Judaism is to appreciate the wonderful encouragement to eat new foods with each new season. As you’re preparing these foods and eating them—you are marking the sacred time and you’re thinking about spiritual wisdom. Think about pomegranates. As you’re chopping up your pomegranate to get at the seeds, you’re taught to think about the number of mitzvot, commandments we’re supposed to remember and carry out. The number of seeds in the pomegranate is supposed to remind us of the number of mitzvot.
DAVID: On one page of your book, you tell us about this kind of ancient tradition—then, on the next page, you’re explaining ways that readers could appreciate “the amplitude” of a winter storm. Then, flip a page and you’re reminding us that, as we look out the window or take a wintry walk outside, we could look for the flashing red of a cardinal. And I can testify to the fact that we’ve had several cardinals, this winter, at our backyard bird feeders. You just have to pay attention.
So, I have to ask you: For many years, you tackled tough assignments for the Chicago Tibune. Given your position and your body of work at the Tribune, you rank among the country’s top journalists. In 2013, you were part of the prestigious Harvard-Nieman journalism fellowship with your husband, architecture writer Blair Kamin. He was the fellow and, under the Nieman rules, you fully participated as well. Here’s the question: Given those decades of work in one of the world’s toughest newsrooms, wasn’t it a challenge to write about ways to discover spirituality in one’s back yard?
‘Who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape …’
BARBARA: Yes. The Nieman Storyboard editor asked me to write about the challenges and rewards of a journalist trying to write about spirituality. It was a really tough assignment!
DAVID: We’ll add a link to that Nieman column you wrote. Here’s the part I like best from your essay: “The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?”
I’d describe this challenge another way: In your new book you’ve got an eye for what journalists often call “telling details.” I’ve heard lots of top journalists talk about this principle. I once interviewed Gay Talese about his influence in the 1960s over the movement we called The New Journalism—in magazine pieces he wrote like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire. Talese told me it was all about understanding “telling details”—writing about that precise thing, perhaps even a color or aroma or small object, that tells us a great deal about an experience.
The highest praise I can give your book is that it’s packed with telling details. I can still recall your description of watching a cardinal with your son, weeks after I finished reading that little story in this book.
BARBARA: You’re right. If you’re going to write about spirituality, you have to find the telling details.
It was scary for someone who has been pounding away in the newsroom for a long time to approach a subject like this. I was always known as a writer who had my heart on my sleeve—so it was scary for me to have both heart and soul on my sleeve—to stand up in front of people and say: This is what I believe. To say: I do believe in the ineffable and some really hard-to-describe things.
And, as you say, one of the challenges for a writer, when writing about spirituality, is to fall into soft, gauzy language. As a journalist, I feel that when you step into the landscape of the spiritual, you actually have to raise the bar of your craft. You have to sharpen your language in such a way that it can hold the reader’s attention—and yet can startle the reader as well.
The final challenge was not to flinch. You have to have the courage to go down this pathway and step beyond what you have written before. And you must do this with a discipline that is completely, absolutely the truth. If you’re going to dare to step out there and say, “This is what I believe,” then you have to take this to its very essence.
In this kind of writing, we’re giving voice to our deepest whispers.
‘Meditations spring from absolute ordinariness’
DAVID: And yet, your starting point on nearly every page is the everyday, commonplace stuff of home. You see, and invite us to see with you, the amazing connections that can arise from things on a kitchen counter or a bedroom window.
BARBARA: It’s a very fine needle to thread and I learned to do this through years of writing columns for The Tribune.
I am rooted in everyday experiences. In the story you referred to from this book, I was getting one of my sons out of bed, when the little guy reached for binoculars and we began looking out the window at a cardinal. That’s a very common story—a mother getting her child out of bed—but that story opens up to so much more as the dots connect.
My stories begin in bedrooms, on kitchen counters, in dining rooms. It’s plain talk. It’s everyday talk. I write from the homefront. These are meditations that spring from the absolute ordinariness of our lives.
DAVID: The material in this book feels perfect for a retreat. I hope that some of our readers might be inspired by this interview to go to your website, Barbara, and contact you about leading a retreat.
BARBARA: I would love to do that, if people inquire about it. There are so many different kinds of things in this book from recipes and reflections to field notes and lots of different elements that invite readers to participate and share their own thoughts. I’m trying to help people open up all of their channels—full mind, body and spiritual immersion in the sacred. And I’m saying that you don’t have to do this by trekking off to the Himalayas. It’s all right where you find yourself.
‘Little epiphanies all day long’
DAVID: Another comparison I would make is: The Old Farmers Almanac. Of course, your book isn’t exactly an almanac with all the stuff you’d find in Old Farmers. But there is a day-by-day invitation to discovery as we interact with the natural world around us.
BARBARA: I’m rejoicing. Yes, I love things like the Farmers Almanac. That really touches the epicenter of my world of joy. I was raised by a Mom who quite a nature lover. We can still see it if we pull out the movies she shot on our old Kodak movie camera when we were kids. She’d take some pictures of us outdoors, then you can see it as she suddenly moves the camera up into a tree and captures images of an indigo bunting she’s suddenly spotted. I want people to be open to those kinds of daily discoveries. I love knowing which fish are active in the streams right now, which mushrooms are sprouting. That’s why I added the seasonal field notes running along the pages.
Many Jewish books are designed like that—strips that add text to text. These remind us that life itself is made up of layer upon layer of experience.
DAVID: As I’m talking with you about this, I’m reminded of a story we published the first week of January. I wrote about a surprising note that was sent to me by the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin. In the end, Geri’s point was: “Pay attention!”
BARBARA: Yes, we can have these little epiphanies all day long. It’s like God taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it. If you’ve got your eyes open and your soul open, you’ll know it when you see it!
I agree: Pay attention!