Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Q&A with Barbara Mahany


Barbara Mahany is the author of the new book The Stillness of Winter. Her other books include Slowing Time and Motherprayer. A former nurse, she also was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Wilmette, Illinois.


Q: You write, "At heart, this is a book of wonder." Why did you decide to write the book, and what about winter evokes wonder for you?


A: Actually, every season evokes wonder for me; it’s what awakens us, what we see when our curiosities draw us to look deeply and closely, when we open wide all our sensory channels, when we allow ourselves to pay exquisite attention, to ask the next question, to be washed over and alive to the unexpected.


Winter, in particular, is a wonder-filled season for me. I love the coiling-in aspects of winter, the season when we’re called to hunker down, to quiet, to allow our deeper selves to percolate. While the world outside vacillates between the wild and the hushed, indoors we’re blanketed, we’re cranking the oven, throwing logs on the fire, pressing our noses to the windowpanes, keeping close watch.


Sometimes, when we decide to brave it, to throw on our snow boots, and mittens and layers upon layers, the winter world draws us into its particular beauties, its unexplored nooks and crannies. Walking through woods or a garden in winter allows us to see what we’d miss in a leafier season.


The starkness of winter—the silhouette of the tree or the gnarled stems of the sound-asleep garden—exposes us to geometries and underpinnings that sometimes stop us in our tracks, stir whole new layers of contemplation.


And in winter’s wildest exuberances—the blizzard, the ice storm, the deep freeze—we are reminded how small we are against the immensities of nature; it’s a posture of necessary humility, and one that begs us to draw on our resiliencies.


While December is decked out in glittering festivities, I relish the chance to take the countercultural approach and begin my slowing of time, my quieting. I don’t mind the darkness because I find the kindling of lights—be it candles or logs in the fire, or strings of lights outlining my picket fence—to spark a certain soothing beauty.


January is the chance to begin anew. And February, when we’re starting to wear thin and the dreariness begins to feel endless, is the month when it’s up to us to stitch delight into the days—thus, the annual festival of hearts and the onslaught of seed catalogs when we begin to daydream of the seasons ahead. All in all, I find winter the season when I supercharge my soul.


Stillness of Winter was actually an idea birthed by my editors at Abingdon Press. Back in 2014, they’d published my first collection of essays, a book titled Slowing Time, that spiraled through the year, from winter to winter, and my editors wanted to lift the winter season into a book all its own, to make it beautiful, and to offer it as something of a “gift book.”


I’ve discovered over the years that I love the process of weaving together a book, and this one, like Slowing Time, became something of a patchwork of pieces, chockfull of recipes and wonderlists and blessings calendars, as well as more contemplative essays.


I wound up spending a good bit of the winter of 2020 delightedly writing all sorts of new bits and essays for Stillness of Winter, and the designer, a brilliant soul, made it a book that I hope draws you into its pages and into winter’s many, many wonders.


Q: Have you always felt drawn to winter?


A: Admittedly—should I say sheepishly?—I have! I was born at the dawn of the new year, on the third day of January, the nadir of winter, and so I think I come by it most emphatically naturally. Although I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, I’ve spent most of my life in northern climes, with winters pounding hard; nothing stirs my soul so much as a news bulletin that a big snow is heading our way.


Q: The book includes recipes--how did you select the ones to include, and do you have a particular favorite?


A: The selection criteria boils down to three simple things: a.) it’s delicious, b.) it’s a family favorite, and/or c.) it comes with a great story.


At heart, I’m a gatherer of stories, and I’ve spent a lifetime considering the curative powers of heart-and-soul cooking. Much can be spoken by and in and through those things we stir in our kitchens.


When my grandmother, a great cook, died a couple decades ago, after a long life bedazzling us with her kitchen tricks, my aunt and my mom asked me to pick one or two treasures from all her belongings; I picked her banged-up recipe tin and her rolling pin. The relics of her kitchen, they keep her essence alive even now as I stir at my cookstove.


When I was a writer at the Chicago Tribune, I once wrote a story about heirloom recipes, and my editors and I were blown away by the hundreds of readers who shared their treasured family recipes, each one with a story that told volumes about a family’s history, its capacity to make do in hard times, the generational ties as a recipe is passed from kitchen to kitchen.


The recipes in Stillness of Winter trace through the growing-up years of my two boys, from the Welcome-Home brisket that’s greeted them home from their first stints at college or sleep-away camp, to the Cure-All Mac and Cheese I’ve been making for the quarter century since my firstborn’s second-birthday all-family bash.


I cannot pick a single favorite, but at the moment the mere thought of Winter Salad, a still-life of roasted fennel, red onion and orange, is making me hungry. Really hungry. And my boys—whose taste you can trust—would pick the above-mentioned mac-and-cheese and the brisket.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Most of all, a sense that winter is a season to wrap yourself in wonders—quiet ones, often unnoticed ones, ones that promise to capture your imagination, to still your soul and draw you into epiphanies. For some, that might be a radical proposition, one that demands a serious about-face. But if you give winter a chance, it’s a season for refueling, for kindling a deep-down flickering flame.


Stillness is a book that offers not just contemplative moments, but adventures in the winter kitchen, as well as monthly count-your-blessings calendars filled with simple prompts—or what I think of as meditative post-its—for deep-diving into a kaleidoscope of wintry blessings.


I hope readers find in its pages a deep well for quiet contemplation and an awakening to the deeper pulses of the season of stillness.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A meditative book exploring the Book of Nature, an ancient theology centered on the idea that Creation was the first sacred text authored by the Divine. It’s a way of seeing the sacred in the natural world, an understanding subscribed to by thinkers and poets, scholars and mystics through the ages, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Mary Oliver, and Thomas Merton to Meister Eckhart.


After the opening chapters—including ones on the spiritual practice of paying attention, and searching for stillness—it will unfurl into a couple dozen meditations on various “pages” from the Book of Nature; among them, the star-stitched night sky, a summer’s rain, and—back to winter once again—the quiet of the first snowfall.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m equally enthusiastic about springtime, the season of quickening; summer, the season of plenitude; and autumn, the season of awe. But those are stories for another time…


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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