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the book bench at summer’s close

book bench august

as this summer draws to its quiet close, there tiptoes in this latest roundup of books for the soul — from the pages of the chicago tribune, where i cull through a stack of offerings every month. this lands in my mailbox at a moment when i too am feeling quiet. in this old house, we’re sinking back into the sacred rhythm of whispered dawn followed by momentary rustle as that new-to-high-school boy is shuffled out the door. then it’s quiet again. for too-short a spell.

before the pace picks up — or maybe to keep it at bay — i’m headed out to my book bench to soak in the succulence of summer’s end. here’s hoping you, too, have a quiet place to curl into human comma, turning the pages perhaps of a book that fills your soul. here, a few titles you might want to slip into your book bag. or ferry to your favorite reading nook. no matter your choosing, may you be blessed abundantly as we reach the summer’s closing chapter…

from the pages of Printers Row Journal, the Chicago Tribune’s literary supplement…

soul roundup august

Spiritual roundup: ‘Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality’ by Pope Francis, more
By Barbara Mahany

Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality by Pope Francis, Melville House, 167 pages, $14.95

Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, begins her introduction to this particular printing of Pope Francis’ latest encyclical by reminding us “(h)istorians looking back often recognize turning points, but ordinary people living through them rarely do. Sometimes, however, a book catalyzes thought into action.” She goes on to count “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Silent Spring” as two such masterworks. And then she deftly tucks “Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home” onto that same rare call-to-action bookshelf.

As it should be.

This breathtaking amalgam of urgency and poetry mines the spirit and appeals to the moral core. Billed as the pope’s pontifications on the environment, it is in fact a sweeping letter addressing a spectrum of global sins, not the least of which is summed up in Francis’ declaration that “(t)he earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

That a secular publisher, Melville House, chose to print in its entirety the papal document — termed by The Guardian “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years” — bespeaks its relevance beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic Church. Where it stirs the soul, though, is in its majestically crafted sentences that wholly illuminate the understanding that nature is “a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.”

Coupled with the pope’s insistence that pillaging the planet exacts too costly a toll on the world’s poor, this work drills home the plea that we “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, edited by Clare Cavanagh, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 447 pages, $32

 
When awarding Wislawa Szymborska the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, the Nobel commission called her “the Mozart of poetry.” But they didn’t stop the invocation there, adding that her elegant, precise works held “something of the fury of Beethoven.”

All of which is to underline the supreme sadness that one of Europe’s greatest recent poets is not better known this side of the Atlantic. “Map: Collected and Last Poems” could right that.

Here, for the first time, is the English translation of all of the poems of Szymborska’s last Polish collection, including previously unpublished works. In all, “Map” gathers some 250 poems written between 1944 and 2011.

While Szymborska, who died in 2012, focuses her attention on quotidian subjects — an onion, a cat — she plumbs them to probe life’s big questions — love, death, and passing time. And while she might not be as widely read in America as poets Mary Oliver and Mark Strand, her words bore deep into a shared soulful landscape. She is poet serving as spiritual guide.

Consider, for instance, this one stanza from the poem “Nothing Twice”:

“Why do we treat the fleeting day/ with so much needless fear and sorrow?/ It’s in its nature not to stay:/ today is always gone tomorrow.”

Is that not a call to savor the one holy hour that is upon us? To not fritter away a single day?

We can only hope that hers becomes a household name, in any house that believes poetry is direct line to the depths of the human spirit. This tome is the place to begin.

Letters from the Farm by Becca Stevens, Morehouse, 160 pages, $18

“Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life” is one of those quiet books that slips across the transom. You couldn’t predict from its cover — nor from the measure of its page count — just how much it holds inside. You needn’t read too far to realize its heft.

Stevens is an Episcopal priest and the founder of Thistle Farms, a community of women who have survived sex trafficking and addiction. Rooted outside Nashville since 2001, it is in fact a farm, one where herbs and teas and thistle are grown and made into bath and body care products distributed nationally. And it is from this plot that Stevens reaps much wisdom.

Her redemptive truth: “Love heals.” She writes: “I’m not called to change the world. I am called to love it.”

It’s the take-your-breath-away simplicity of Stevens’ letters that makes you take sharp notice. Count her emphatically in the Anne Lamott tradition of unexpectedly walloping you over the head, or in the heart, with a sentence so profoundly wise, so steeped in substance, you could pause and spend a few days burrowing into the truth of it.

Her stories from the farm — and from her travels to Africa and around the United States — are raw and rugged. When she writes of a woman locked in a lightless closet for four months, or mentions another woman who slept in a bathtub, night after night, to avoid “being raped before sunrise,” she stirs a knowing grittiness into what she calls her stack of “love letters to God.” Her prose unsettles in the most profound ways. And that is a very good thing.

Barbara Mahany is the author of “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany
Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

praise be to youyet another lovely edition of the pope’s encyclical arrived post-deadline, but it’s one worth considering. footnotes unspool across the bottom of each page, and, as with the melville house edition, (above), it’s an exact reprinting of the original, pressed between hard-bound covers.

“Praise Be To You: Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home,” by Pope Francis (Ignatius Press, $14.95)

and what might you carry to your book bench?

all’s quiet…sigh.

allsquiet

the last footsteps have trailed out the door, down the walk, and into the alley. it’s barely half past eight. and i am blanketed, as i’ve been the last two days, in a sumptuous, seep-deep-into-my-pores afghan of quiet. it’s not silence, for there’s a clock ticking just inches away, and there’s a pesky mower off in the distance. but not even the wind is whirring. and the hum of the fridge fades into not much notice.

quiet to me is essential, is holy. is where the whispers and dreams slip in, unannounced. where they sift and drift and catch in the eddies of my soul. where they chase away the emptiness that comes from too much too much. quiet is the elemental contemplative bedrock from which my chalice is filled.

and i’ve been waiting for this, waiting for the curative tincture of being home alone, with hours unclaimed, hours unfurled in the timelessness of morning, followed by afternoon — quiet tumbled softly on quiet.

it’s the glorious gift of back-to-school, that cold shock at the end of summer when alarm clocks start clanging before 6 a.m. and the kitchen counter becomes a short-order diner, with PB&J slapped up on one end, and waffles and berries dumped on the other. more often than not, there are exhortations to hurry, and the minute-by-minute bellowing as one of us — that would be me, but of course — broadcasts the unflagging advance of the minute hand, slowing for no one.

i sometimes forget, in that deep down sort of way, how very much i need quiet. depend on it. how it’s neck and neck with oxygen in the shortlist of things that keep me alive.

yet, all of a sudden the other morning, not long after the last shoe walked out the door at 24 minutes past seven, i felt as if i’d just been submerged in a velvety bath, maybe even one spilling with lavender-scented bubbles, and for the first time in months, i felt my deep-down hollows filling in, filling up. you know the hollows, the ones etched and stretched over time, the ones that come without notice, worn down by weeks of helter-skelter not knowing what in the world to expect of a day — who would wake up at noon, who would want breakfast at 2 in the afternoon, and who suddenly needed a ride to the far end of kingdom come. those sorts of upside-down days are the bread-and-butter of mama-hood. it’s all topsy-turvy, all the time. you hang on by a cord, a frayed cord, a cord that just might snap without notice.

you weather the whirl. you look down and see that one foot is galloping (barely) behind the other, trying hard to keep up. you fall in bed at night and wonder why your bones let out a sigh. but since it’s all punctuated with those drippy peaches, and the sand between your toes, and black-eyed susans ad infinitum — the sweet parts of summer — you pay little mind.

and then the quiet comes. it slithers in through the screens still in the windows, it taps you on the shoulder, or more aptly, the heart. and suddenly, for the first time in weeks, you perk up your ears and you hear only the sounds of an old house breathing.

maybe it’s something to do with the light, the molasses-tinged light that drips across the kitchen table this time of year. this holy blessed born-again time of year.

i am, this hushed late-august morning, breathing again. breathing deep. i am savoring, relishing, the rare and blessed gift of soft, slow, deeply quiet time.

and i am whispering — quietly, quietly whispering — my most certain and soulful thanks to the heavens from which all this comes.

i’d thought i might write light of heart this morning; i’d felt that way the past couple days. but then last night something bumpy happened, and my heart doesn’t feel quite so light anymore. time — and quiet — will heal, no worries.

my sweet boy, the one now teaching in a classroom on the fourth floor of an old brick school on the west side of chicago, talks about “catching the slipstream.” it’s a wonderful phrase, a phrase that captures the magic of brainwaves and timing and that ephemeral pulse beat that syncopates writing. i feel like the slipstream slipped past me this morning, which always saddens me, leadens my heart. but there’s a beautiful late-summer morning, just outside my kitchen door. and there’s a garden where bumblebees buzz, and berries ripen on the vines. the pit-pat of my bare toes on the wide planks of this old kitchen floor, as i putter and put things in order, it is all part of the alchemy of healing that i always find here amid the blessing of quiet. may your day, too, restore you, and quench the thirst of your parched parts.

do you, too, need daily doses of quietude?

p.s. as i typed that very last sentence, i heard the cry of the canadian geese, so i walked to the door, and looked to the heavens. sure enough, the chevron of southbound geese, winging their way to where they belong for the winter…

dizzy…in summer’s high tide

anemone bee

it’s a hum and a buzz you might mistake for a gnat — a gnat with a megaphone maybe. there i was, minding my morning’s business, not too far from nodding anemones, and the buzz dazzled past me, caught my attention. i looked up, and saw that i stood amid a whirling flock of zaftig bees. velvet-bellied bees. bees doing what bees do best, bees doing what i too am inclined to do this time of year: wriggling their whole fat selves into the depths of late summer’s bloom, gulping down thirstily, mightily, drunkenly. the bees in my garden are dizzy with late summer’s bloom.

so am i.

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maybe it’s the urgency of catching up. i lost a week or two there in a fog. maybe it’s that summer’s been shaved by two weeks, here in the land where high school can’t wait. all i know is i can’t quite sate my late-summer’s hunger pang.

i stood there watching that bee. watching her rub up her belly, sink down low, into the golden rods of anemone pollen. i too wished i could make like a bee and slather myself in every last speck of summer’s late bloom. there’s an unbridled zest i saw in that bee, a zest that felt familiar. the unbridled part is the part that i longed for. and that’s what i love about being outside. about paying attention to the world in my garden. the bee skittered from one pollen-painted pin cushion to another, and then onto another. her flight path zigged and zagged and bumped into leaves. she didn’t seem to mind, not one little bit, that she was basically flying in circles, delectable circles. circles that filled her belly with the one niblet she lived for: the gold dust of summer’s unquenchable thirst.

for anyone gathering notes, the wide-bellied bee offered instruction: hesitate not, she seemed to insist. the hour is now. the pollen is swelled. the high tide of summer won’t wait. you’d be wise to roll in it now, to lather yourself in every last succulent drop.

point taken.

to study a bee, to chart the shift of a shadow, to tiptoe into the midnight in search of a shooting star, these are the lessons that unfold under heaven’s dome. this is the ancient and timeless curriculum of paying attention. this is poetry lived.

this is the quietly whispered prayer that fills me every time.

and this is my mid-august to-do list (inspired by my velvet-robed instructor):

  • pluck heirloom tomato. sprinkle with kosher salt. sink teeth in. catch drizzle with tongue.
  • ditto peach (minus the salt).
  • snip a morning’s round of black-eyed susans, or whatever the late-summer’s garden is inclined to share today.
  • take a seat in the midnight theatre, with one last showing of perseid’s meteor shower on the playbill tonight.
  • savor the twilight hour, as nightfall tiptoes in sooner by the day, reminding us that sunlight fades, and so too, summer. allow the periwinkle light to peak your knowing that the soft edge of day — of each and every day — is a gift to behold, especially as it wanes.
  • drink in the afternoon buzz of the world’s loudest bug, the Magicicada (mistakenly referred to as “locusts”), a herd with a walloping vibrato that tips the scales at 110 decibels, or about as deafening as a mad-dashing chain saw. oddly, perhaps, the cicada tympani happens to be my favorite song of latter-day summer.
  • curl up, all alone, in an old wicker chair, and, for as long as the day allows, deep-breathe the last of summer’s sweet pause (school — high school, no less — starts bright and early next wednesday; and for the soon-to-be teacher in this old house, it’s monday at 8 bells, when he’s due to glide into the classroom. so long to summer, indeed).

how will you savor your last hours of summer?

and a p.s. for the star gazers among us: i was among those staring into the heavens last night, wishing upon a star that i’d get a glimpse of one of perseid’s meteoric chalk streaks across the night slate. alas, it was not to be. clouds muddied my night watch. august 12 is the height of the late-summer show, when our dot on the globe spins into the whirling nightlights. there’s one last chance tonight, as the curtain falls, to catch the last gasp of the august light show.

p.s.s. correction above: i’d mistakenly launched into typing “he” and “him” in writing of my busy bumblebee, without circling back to check why i’d done that. i was wrong, and i’ve corrected my ways. apologies to the worker bumblebees who are decidedly hard-toiling she’s. 

summer interruptus…

black-eyed susan and queen anne's lace

we now resume our regular programming…

so here we are, back to summer. it seems we were momentarily absconded by creatures from some foreign planet, ones who might as well have hovered down in flying saucer, grabbed us by the ankles and yanked us to some far-off somewhere. or maybe nowhere. there we were merrily minding our own business when suddenly we were besieged by elements that don’t belong to summer: fevers, and aches, and day trips to the ER.

but we’re back now, or on our way anyway, and as we look around and guzzle down the summer sights and sounds, we can’t help but note the galloping percussive undertone, the one that tells us days are fleeting, tomatoes ripen on the vine and we’d best partake in double-time. before we know it, homework will clog the kitchen counter, lunch boxes will be a daily grind, and missing buses will be a morning ritual.

so grab the summer now!

the single glimmer of goodness i’ve unearthed in my fevered summer siege is that as the fog lifts, as sitting down to type doesn’t sound impossible, and a stroll through the grocery store doesn’t seem insurmountable, i’m once again reminded not to take for granted how fresh and fine a clear-eyed vision of the day is. i see quite crisply what a gift it is to have the oomph to cobble a to-do list (because when you’re held hostage by the fever aliens, even a simple one, two, three is beyond your able reach).

so as i sit here on a summer’s morn, the sound of mowers whirring in the distance, the cool whiff of lake breeze tickling at my toes, i marvel at a whole day awaiting me to wrap my arms around it.

we’re overdue for summer here. so i’ll spend the day making up lost time. i’ve nodding black-eyed susans to tuck into my old cracked pitcher. somewhere there’s a fat tomato awaiting shake of salt. a boy i love turns 14 tomorrow, another one blew out birthday candles late last night. today’s the bridge between two birthdays, and it’s a sweet spot in every summer. thank goodness i’m wide-eyed and standing straight, more than ready to pick up where we left off.

seems as fine a time as any, to brush up on summer’s wonders with this cobbled list, clipped from the pages of Slowing Time, the book:

summertime’s Wonderlist

it’s the season of . . .

firefly flicker: the original flash of wonder . . .

fledgling’s first flight, lesson in resilience . . .

cricket chorus, that chirpity blanket tucking in the nighttime, “audible stillness” in the poetry of nathaniel hawthorne . . .

butterfly couplet shimmering across the lazy afternoon . . .

sweet corn, buttered, dripping down your chin . . .

ditto: the peach . . .

putting thumb to the hose: water therapy at its most meditative …

Perseid’s meteoric chalk marks etched across the blackboard of midsummer’s pre-dawn sky . . .

scribble your own here (what summer wonders do you intend to seize before the season flutters by?):

p.s. please forgive the brevity today. that fever clipped our wings….

tables turned…

ice puppet

since tuesday, i’ve had a fever. i’ve been achy all over, and moving slow as slow can be and still qualify as movement.

i’ve even taken to my mattress a couple afternoons, which — around here — is unheard of. but the most amazing thing unfolded one of those afternoons, the first one when i was stretched out and aching and hotter than hot. a young lad came to my bedside and insisted he was the fever fixer. he had a plan, he said, and he set out to execute.

from down the stairs and around the bend, i heard the klunk of ice cubes being procured. i heard the linen closet squeaking open. i heard the old metal tray being pulled from where we store those sorts of things. and then i heard the hobbling sound of my sweet boy — the one with one leg in a brace and one arm in a cast — i heard him climbing the stairs.

he appeared at my bedside on that hot july afternoon bearing a tray that held a dripping wet washcloth, a cup of ice chips and an apple tucked pertly in a white souffle cup. before i could say a word, he slipped his cast-less hand into the puppet of a washcloth, one of those terry-towel hand puppets meant to make bath time for little ones a theater of suds.

this particular washcloth, the one that was always his favorite, happens to be a hippo. so my bedside attendant stretched wide the hippo’s mouth, grabbed two cubes of ice, and proceeded to anoint my forehead in this icy, dripping bath. next, he reached for my wrists, and up and down my arms and legs. “you’ll be okay,” were the only words he whispered the whole long while. over and over, he repeated: “you’ll be okay,” as if the words alone were incantations, as if a prayer aloud.

a few minutes into this anointing of the sick, i finally mustered the breath to ask: “who taught you this?”

his answer: “you.”

i felt a tear roll down my cheek. it’s true, yes, that a wet washcloth applied to fevered brow has long been wielded here for curative effect. and ice chips in a cup, often dripped with honey, has long been an apothecary staple in this old house. but never in my life have i been as gentle, as determined, as tender as that boy was to me. the tenderness he learned from his papa. of that i’m certain. i, too, am learning tenderness — all these years later — from my sweet boy’s papa. it’s a lesson without end.

while the icy rinse didn’t make the fever go away, it decidedly worked wonders. for days now, my sweet boy has attended me with his hippo and his ice cubes. i asked him amid one of the icy rubdowns if he’d ever thought of being a doctor or a nurse, because he certainly had the healer’s touch. nope, said he, explaining, “i don’t like blood, and i’m not good at science.”

the marvel here is that we often think the long nights we’ve spent on bathroom floors with a retching or a fevered child, the midnight hours when we’re the ones knocking ice cubes from the freezer, we think of those, sometimes, as invisible hours, times that heed no notice. what we might not realize is that in that transactional moment, when ice practically sizzles on a fevered brow, when a kid who’s so sick he can barely open his droopy lids lets us slip an ice chip to his tongue, what we’re doing is so much more than knocking back a fever. we are quietly, and without folderol, teaching something sacred to the essence of being human. maybe fevers and flus were invented for the simple purpose of one someone being invited to try to heal another.

the marvel here — the reminder that came in dripping ice cubes this week — is that there is a life-and-death curriculum unfurling here in the quiet of our humdrum little lives. our whole life long we are teaching and learning that most magnificent of golden rules: love as you would be loved.

not a minute is wasted. not a lesson lost. little folk and big folk alike are paying attention, our hearts attuned to those gifts, those moments, that lift us, inch by inch, to a higher plane. we love, and so we are loved in kind.

i remembered this week that i am ever teaching, and lessons are ever being learned, even when i don’t think a single soul notices, nor pays attention. so i’d best try to live as tenderly, as full of heart, as my sweet child is teaching me to be.

that kid and his ice cubes, they more than did their job. in fact, they melted me. and my fever, too.

what lessons in kindness and tenderness have molded you, stretched you, carried you to a higher, sweeter plane?

crushed.

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crushed. not the bone, the bone is merely broken (likely, two bones in two places). it’s the heart that feels crushed.

the doctor who wrapped that arm in plaster yesterday morn, he said it could be there for a long time. twelve weeks. that’s basic math in our house, because we all know that in just less than three weeks the kid now wearing that cast had his heart set on trying out for a soccer team he’s been dreaming about for, probably, a good two years. the kid whose arm is in plaster is about to start high school, a big high school where it can be plenty hard to find your moorings, but being on a team at least gives you a place to begin.

the kid whose arm is in plaster is a goalie. that means he swats at the ball with all his heart and all his might, and tries to keep the other team from rocket-blasting the soccer ball into the wide expanse of tied-together string otherwise known as “the goal.” i’ve seen that kid leap high into the air, i’ve seen him knock away incoming balls as if mosquitoes that deserved a passing swat. i’ve seen him dissolve in the back seat on the long ride home on the days the games don’t go his way. the kid plays with whole heart. in fact, the kid lives with his whole heart. which is part of why i fall in love with him, day after every single day.

what might have me weepiest here this morning is that the whole day-long yesterday he never let out a peep of complaint. not a single word of self pity. not a single “why me?”

while i spent the day choking back tears, he just swallowed the whole of it, and wondered how he’d brush his teeth or eat pancakes with a thumb and a hand that won’t be holding anything till clear into october.

what you can’t see in the picture up above is that that’s only the half of it. the other half looks like this:DSCF1290

that’s his knee. he’s a matched set. the knee will be in that metal-ribbed brace for the next four weeks. with physical therapy twice a week.

what happened is this: smack dab in the thick of our “staycation” last weekend, we had a torrential rain. for the kid in question this has been The Summer of the Self-Propelled Wheels. he and his phalanx of buddies slap on helmets and ride into the wind. and the rain. they go where they need to go all on the power of their feet pushing round the pedals. not long after last saturday’s rain, after coming home to strip off the soaking clothes and put on dry ones, the kid set back out on his bike, to do a good deed for a friend. (you know where this is going….)

not 15 minutes after he’d pedaled off, the sun by then cracking through sodden gray skies, we heard a faint but frantic knock at the back door. there stood the kid, covered in scrapes and cuts, with a right wrist cocked at a truly odd angle. in that microburst of adrenaline that often comes, he’d pedaled himself home after flying over the handle bars, and smacking hard against the concrete sidewalk. the rain from the earlier deluge was still so deep he couldn’t see the curb, so when his bike tire banged up against it — just a few feet from a street that courses heavy traffic all day and into the night — he went flying. he was alone. (you are beginning to get a picture of the scenes that keep flashing through his ol’ mama’s head.)

long story short: he’s banged up. two fractures in the right wrist, one in a bone that takes forever to heal. banged-up knee besides.

and the truth of it in this summer that has been soaked in sad news — brain tumors and breast cancers, long roads of chemo for people i love, some with unthinkable infusions flushed straight to the chest or into the belly — is that i know this is many notches down on the bad news scale. it’s bones and tendons and all will heal. but beneath it — beneath every single bit of not-good news conveyed in the halls of hospitals and doctors offices — there’s a story, a human heart that strains to absorb, to understand, just what it means, what it all means and how in the world you’ll find your way forward.

what it means here is that a kid whose heart was set on being part of a team, on finding a solid place to belong in a school that sometimes feels like it might swallow you alive, he might not find that mooring. not so swiftly anyway. he might miss the whole-team carbo loads the night before games. he’ll miss the morning-after walk through the halls when kids might have been high-fiving him for some crazy miraculous save. he’ll miss whatever are the mysterious winds that blow among players, that weave them into a whole, weavings that come in looks exchanged on the field or words whispered in locker rooms. he’ll even miss the heartbreak of a ball soaring just beyond his reach.

trust me, as i type these words, i realize it’s all just sports. it’s just cleats and a ball and a shared pursuit. but aren’t these the threads of childhood, of growing up, and finding our way, of stitching together the whole of who we are? and don’t all the moments matter, even the ones we cast aside as not quite life or death?

and one other odd-ball thing i thought about: it didn’t take me long to wonder if just maybe this broken wrist was in fact a silver lining, one i couldn’t and might not ever see. maybe, i thought to myself, some guardian angel had swooped down and saved my kid from some truly awful collision of the head or the eyes in some moment in a game that now won’t happen. maybe, i thought, my kid was saved because he won’t be in some moment that otherwise might have been. i’ve heard tales aplenty of goalies knocked unconscious. and a dear friend of mine, one whose sweet boy also lives and breathes to keep balls from sailing into goals, she and i share horror tales, like the one about the kid blinded when he took a cleat to the eye. or the goalie who died on a soccer field not too many miles from here, not too many years ago. mothers of goalies share these horrors in whispers along the sideline. we pray that someone will please issue a ruling that goalies must wear headgear. or eyewear. because, with all our hearts, we don’t want to be the moms who get up after the fact, after the disaster, and beg the crowds to change the rules. while we head home to teach our kids how to get along without the eyes God gave them.

but really what i set out to write this morning is something about the degrees of sadness, the relativity of broken hearts. how, even in a summer when people you love are having brain tumors radiated to smithereens, and other people you love are wrapping their heads around the fact that they’re facing 18 months of chemo, you can’t help but feel crushed when your kid is broken, and something he loves is taken away — at least for awhile, especially at the very start of what you knew would be an uphill climb, the start of new trier high school.

we struggle our whole lives long to make sense of things that catch us off-guard. we muddle through day after day, trying to figure things out, trying to pull up muscle and courage from deep down inside, to take the wobble out of our knees. so much of life comes careering around corners, unseen, un-imagined. sometimes it feels like our whole life long is one big expansion of the heart as we discover just how much we can wrap that muscle around, and just how tenacious we might be. even on the days we feel gut-punched. and dab away the tears.

forgive a sort of weepy post. just woke up that way. i know i’ll find my way. part of this morning’s fogginess is that we were out late last night at an MRI to peer deep into those bones. and my next few weeks just got a bit more complicated. i’ve only started to try to figure out how that right-handed boy will draw triangles in geometry or tackle physics experiments when school starts the middle of next month…

what silver linings have you found in chapters of your life that you’d not seen coming? 

short. sweet. summer.

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the plan had been plotted. we were headed to the heart of the land of lincoln to retrace ol’ abe’s footsteps. but then we glanced at the weather map, and pictured our sweaty selves slogging half-heartedly from log cabin to law office, and even abe couldn’t shake us out of our impending stupor. the only action we took was the big bold decision that this was not the string of days in which to descend into the heat pit known as springfield, illinois, a town where the state capitol these days seems to be on lockdown as legislators and a lonely governor duke it out.

we toyed with the notion of hilly western wisconsin, a lovely swath of landscape known as “driftless wisconsin,” as in never steamrolled by glaciers. its topography — deeply-incised valleys gouged into forested hillsides, cold-water streams meandering through limestone bedrock — is as it’s ever been, a lasting relic from the dawn of creation, perhaps. and that, to me, sounds like it’s worth a drive. but my vote is only one of four, and i never gained much traction in this summer vacation debate.

seems the sleek-muscled metropolis to the south, the one a mere 15 miles away, door-to-door, is the one that’s lured us, but only if we can pretend, for 60 short hours, to be visitors from the other side of earth. and visitors, perhaps, with the inside skinny on all that’s worth a look-see. we do have a rarely-played advantage: the tall bespectacled fellow who calls this old house home. he’s our advance team, and he’s been out scouting the city for months and months (his day job), racking up a list of highlights he thinks we all really need to rub up against: maggie daley park; the brilliantly refurbished chicago athletic association (with its rooftop eatery, where our resident architecture critic promises sky views like we’ve never seen); the latest installations of the river walk that course along the backwards chicago river; and, of course, the 606 trail, chicago’s rail-bed rebuttal to new york city’s high line.

which is a fancy, convoluted way of saying: we’re taking a staycation. (which means sleeping in our own lumpy beds, and not paying a dime for the privilege of doing so. oh, and free access to the fridge, currently so over-packed you need a roadmap to find a simple tub of cottage cheese.)

the challenge is this: for the next two-and-half days can we step outside the veil that’s shadowing this summer, can we try to set aside the weight of worries, the questions without answers, the paths whose stepping stones seem lost in soggy weeds? can we wrap ourselves in that essence of what we all pretend summer is meant to be: unfettered simple joys, the kinds we long ago were told to string on summer’s rosary?

the list is short. my heart lightens, though, to skip along, imagining the rare-found weightlessness this season sometimes divulges.

here’s what sounds like summer’s best to me:

* a wicker basket lugged to the beach at sunrise. a tall thermos of coffee, a ceramic bowl spilling with berries, a slab of just-sliced grainy bread, smeared with something sweet. newspapers. lots and lots of newspapers. oh, and don’t forget the blanket.

* blueberry shortcake, especially when it’s ferried to the screened-in porch we call “the summer house,” a realtor’s hyperbolic term that’s stuck for all these years. it’s summer’s prize: an after-dark dessert illuminated by starlight and the blink of fireflies. and the flickering of drippy candles.

* waking up in my old bed, toes tickled by the summer’s breeze blowing in the open windows.

* carrying home take-out from anywhere delicious. this summer so far has been a blur of dirty dishes being rinsed and scrubbed. seems all i do is scour skillets and pots with gritty bits stuck to the bottom.

* curling up in my old wicker chair, the one i once rescued from the alley, with my summer read, “swann’s way,” volume one of marcel proust’s “remembrance of things past,” this one translated brilliantly by lydia davis. i read a poem a few weeks back, one titled, “the summer you read proust,” by philip terman, and before i got to its third or fourth line i decided this would be the summer i read proust (my unending march toward catching up with long overdue titles, ones that should be notched on my lifer’s list, a literary version of the one that birders tabulate every time they stumble upon never-before-encountered feathers, beak or birdsong).

* tiptoeing to my garden bench, the one that’s soggy wet in the aftermath of last night’s all-night rain, to inhale a sweet short swatch of morning prayer, the surest interlude of every day, the one that sets me solid. because the truest truth is — even on staycation — you do not, will not, cast aside the ones for whom you pray and pray mightily. and at my house right now, there are lots and lots of prayers for folks i dearly love who deeply need them.

what’s on your summer’s short list of sweetest interludes you might stitch into your steamy days?

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when the morning news brings harper lee

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this old house will be a newspaper house as long as fish wrap is dotted with ink. every morning, seven mornings a week, the first sound that reverberates around here — save for the pre-dawn robins who rev up their vocal cords — is the THWOP! of rolled-up papers plopped onto the front stoop (three separate wads each weekday and saturday, two on sundays). twice a year, when the bill comes due, a bill that topples into the hundreds for all that fish wrap, there’s no discussion. we don’t debate the wisdom of rolling out hard-earned cash for an inflow of ink and paper. because you never know what the news will bring. and we couldn’t live without the possibility of getting lost in sentences that swoop our hearts away. or the joy of flipping through a section and discovering a story we otherwise never would have tumbled upon. or the raw eruption of hot tears spilling on the page, as some account of awfulness carries us miles and miles from where we’re reading, and into dingy corners we’d not know were it not for the newspaper’s insistence on wiping out our ignorance and insouciance.

heck, this old house and half the people in it were practically built on the backs of newsprint. were it not for one chicago tribune’s newsroom, i never would have spied — and uncannily fallen hard for — the lanky fellow who became my lifelong paladin, and the father to our children (the two we call our only “double-bylines”).

still, not every morning brings what this one did; these words from the one spooning oat-y Os into his hungry gullet: “you’re gonna go nuts over this one.” and then he shoved before my eyes the front page of the wall street journal’s friday arts-and-culture section.

“the first chapter of harper lee’s new book,” he mumbled between Os, lest i miss the red-hot scoop, the unparalleled capital-e Exclusive, the biggest leak in publishing in plenty a while, the newspaper’s literary splash four days in advance of tuesday’s worldwide release of what’s being called the reclusive ms. lee’s “new novel.”

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actually, it’s harper lee’s old novel, “go set a watchman,” her first go-around with a manuscript, submitted back in 1957, when she was all of 31, to her new york publisher, j.b. lippincott.

as the book-peddling legend goes, ms. lee’s editor back then found the story “lacking,” and advised that the would-be author instead zero in on the flashback scenes, in what would become the searing tale of scout and dill and jem and atticus finch and boo radley, and racial inequity and empathy played out in small-town maycomb, alabama: “to kill a mockingbird,” the pulitzer-prize winner that went on to be named “the 20th-century’s best novel,” according to a vote taken by the nation’s librarians.

and so, before my first sip of coffee this morning, i was riding the rails with jean louise finch, aka the “scout” of mockingbird fame, as she “watched the last of georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.”

i admit to having been among the skeptical when news of this “long-lost discovery” first made headlines. i admit to suspicion when word leaked out that the 89-year-old ms. lee’s not-long-out-of-law-school attorney just happened to find the manuscript tucked away in a safe deposit box, shortly after ms. lee’s 103-year-old sister, lawyer and lifelong protector, alice lee, had died. i worried that the not-altogether-with-it nelle harper lee might have been duped. coerced into publishing something she’d not wanted paraded through the glaring light of day, to say nothing of the folderol and zaniness sure to come after a half-century’s literary silence.

well, i’ve now read every word, every word the wall street journal rolled into print, and i’m here to tell you i’ll be among the ones in line to gobble up the next however many chapters ms. lee has lobbed our way. whoever was that long-ago lippincott editor who found the first-go lacking, i beg to differ. i’d not want to miss the chance to drink in a line like this one: “love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”

or: “she was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way. the easy way out of this would be to marry hank and let him labor for her. after a few years, when the children were waist-high, the man would come along whom she should have married in the first place. there would be searchings of hearts, fevers and frets, long looks at each other on the post office steps, and misery for everybody. the hollering and the high-mindedness over, all that would be left would be another shabby little affair a la birmingham country club set, and a self-constructed private gehenna with the latest westinghouse appliances. hank didn’t deserve that.

“no. for the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood.”

dare you not to race out to add your name to the long list at the library, or order up your own copy from your nearest most beloved bookseller.

i for one will be inhaling every line, on the lookout for a passage equal to the one i just might call the greatest american paragraph ever penned, the one that makes my heart roar every time.

for the sheer joy of retyping its every word, here is one walloping passage from atticus finch’s closing argument in his defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the deep south of the 1930s. page 233 in my first perennial classics edition, printed in 2002:

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

heck, the whole closing argument — from the bottom of page 230, clear through to the fourth to last sentence on 234 — the whole magnificent thing was enough to make me a lifelong believer in the pen of harper lee. and the wall street journal’s gift this morning — slick as it was for the newspaper owned by the same outfit as lee’s new publisher, HarperCollins, to steal first crack at the watchman — twas a mighty fine one.

and an indelible reminder of why i’ll forever be a girl with ink pumping through her veins.

what’s your favorite line, or scene, or passage, from mockingbird? 

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and, for your summer reading’s consideration, here’s how the journal lays out the launch of ms. lee’s latest, under the news headline, “scout comes home”:

“The first chapter of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ introduces Ms. Lee’s beloved character, Scout, as a sexually liberated woman in her twenties, traveling from New York to Alabama to visit her ailing father and weigh a marriage proposal from a childhood friend. It also includes a bombshell about Scout’s brother.”

i’ll let you read for yourself and discover that bombshell…..oh, the joy of a byline we thought we’d never see again, one that bears the name harper lee.

the magic of the tilo tree: the tree that soaks up sunshine and lives and breathes to soothe

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for weeks now, through much of spring and into these early days of summer, i’ve been on high alert, awaiting the precise moment when a certain linden tree growing in a convent garden would at last decide it’s time. time to unfurl its yearly offering and erupt in honey-scented blossom.

i’d never been so blessed before, so blessed to be on linden-flower standby, so blessed to have a dear nun dialing my telephone, leaving dispatches from the nunnery, a trail of progress reports from the distal end of one tree’s branches. my tree-spotting sister friend would call every couple weeks, leave messages like this one: “it’s sister rita, calling about the linden tree. as soon as our tree wants to give us its delightful blossoms, i’ll call you.”

and then, a week or so later: “i just want you to know the little buds are finally on the tree. i’ll let you know when they open.”

it is a most delightful interlude, i tell you, to find yourself awash in messages about the blooming of a tree, a tree a friend of yours is counting on to heal her hurting ways, a tree that through the ages has long been believed to store the warming rays of sunshine in its star-burst blossoms. a tree that lives and breathes, quite purely, to soothe us through and through.

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the linden tree’s honey-scented starbursts

as promised, sister rita wasted not a minute in the spreading of the long-awaited news. she called first thing the other morning. before the clock struck eight. she was on the line bright and early telling me the time had come. the linden tree was at last in bloom, and i needed to come soon, before the sacred blossoms tumbled to the ground, and we’d have to wait another year. the linden tree this year was late, deep into june, nearly july, before it became a froth of honey-dappled sweetness.

i’d be there by two o’clock, i promised. i’d rearrange the day. i’d not let the afternoon’s shadow stretch long across the garden.

the story of the linden tree, and its blessed blossom, traces back to the not-so-long-ago day in april when a dear friend and i ambled through a magic hedge. my friend has cancer, nasty cancer, and we were soaking up the day in the deepest prayerful way. as we ambled through the hedge on that april afternoon and came around a bend, we stumbled into yet another old friend of mine, one who knows his trees. my one friend’s eyes widened as she spied a broad-limbed specimen of tree, one whose branches stretched heavenward and cradled a warbling little bird besides.

upon introduction, both friends began to speak in spanish, words tumbling more and more feverishly. all i could make out was something about a mama, and something called “tilo.” turned out my friend saw the tree and suddenly remembered the one in her backyard when she was a little girl. it was a linden tree, and when she was afraid, or needed calming, her mama gathered up its blossoms and made her little girl a tea. the tea she called “tilo,” linden flower tea, an ancient balm for soothing nerves, and sweating out a fever. my friend these days is sometimes in need of soothing, deep-down soothing, and though her mama’s gone, the branches of the linden tree held out the hope of something she had thought she’d lost.

i’ll not forget her face and how it softened, nearly glowed, as she looked up at that tree, as i saw the pages of her life’s picturebook turn back in time, remembering her mama and the tea that soothed whatever ailed her.

turned out the very next morning — at the very hour my friend was once again submitting to a scan that would peer inside and chart the path of her stubborn cancer — i was visiting an old friend, an icon-painter friend, who flung open the door of her pantry, and asked if i’d like a cup of linden flower tea. now, i tell you, i’d not heard of linden flower tea till just the day before, and suddenly, within the circle of a single day, i’d bumped into it for the second time. i stood there slack-jawed, and stuttered through the story of how my ailing friend had longed for linden flower tea, but had no clue where she might find it, without her mama here to gather up its blooms, and steep the brew just the way she’d always brewed it.

because my icon-painter friend is the sort who knows no end to generosity, the box of linden flower tea was off the shelf and in my hands before i stumbled to the story’s end. i broke out in goosebumps as i glanced at the clock, and realized all this was happening precisely at the moment that the body scan began. i tapped out a message to my friend to say, guess what, i found linden flower tea, and i’m bringing it your way. and then my icon-painter friend told me that, even better than the box of pre-packaged tea, imported from turkey, she knew a convent not too far away where a linden tree spread its branches, and where she knew the nun who each year gathered up its blooms. my icon-painter friend promised me she’d put me and the nun in touch. and so she did (although she placed the call from a 400-year-old silo on a hillside in italy, where she’s gone to spend the summer painting) and that’s how sister rita and i joined in linden-flower watch, keeping vigil on bud to bloom to starburst.

in yet another wrinkle to the story, my friend with cancer hadn’t looked at her phone once she finished the scan that day, the last of april. instead she stopped by the office of a friend, and feeling achy in the belly, told the friend she had to leave to somehow, somewhere in this city, find herself a cup of tilo, the linden-flower tea for which she so suddenly deeply thirsted. it wasn’t too many minutes after that that she finally glanced at her phone and saw the message saying i had a miraculously stumbled upon a box of that very tilo and was driving it to her house.

within the hour, as we stumbled into each other’s arms on the sidewalk in front of her house, i told my friend about sister rita and the linden tree. enchanted, my friend and i have spent the last many weeks awaiting the tilo bloom. we’d planned to amble there together to gather up the blossoms, but the day sister rita called was not such a good day for my friend, so i scurried along alone. and there i met the radiant sister rita, who swiftly grabbed a crook-necked cane and thrust it into the branches thick with bloom. coaxed by sister rita’s gentle tug, the starbursts yielded to our reach. she handed me a scissor, and for the better part of half an hour, we snipped and gathered, and filled a grocery bag.

sister rita "canes" the linden tree

sister rita “canes” the linden tree

sister rita

sister rita

i ferried home our cache, and snipped for hours more. my mama joined in the snipping, as we gathered up the blossoms and left behind the branch and leaves. for days now, the linden bursts have been drying in a flat-bottomed basket, drying into tea. it won’t be long till we put the kettle on, boil up a cup or two of water, toss in a teaspoon of the linden flower offerings, and brew my friend the soothing tea that she’s so deeply longed for.

one last thing: when i sent my dear friend a note, with pictures of the harvest day with sister rita, my friend sent back a little note of her own, with just one question: “isn’t saint rita patron of impossible causes?”

she remembered that her mama always prayed to saint rita, always prayed to her when faced with the impossible. i swallowed back a tear or two, and offered up my own petition to saint rita. may impossibility be shattered, and the possible come shining through.

i cannot wait to inhale the vapors of that holy cup of tilo, and to lift it to heavens.

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if you’ve a linden tree out your window, here’s how to make your tilo, once you gather up and dry your linden-flower blossoms: simply steep one teaspoon of the dried flowers in boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. drink up to three times a day. you’ll be soothed. while it’s been known for centuries to be a calming potion, please be cautious if you’ve a weakened heart. if in doubt, check with someone wise to the herbal apothecary.

if you’re not inclined to sip your soothing brew, you can bathe in it. here’s a recipe for a “relaxing evening linden-flower bath” (the name alone sets me to soothing): simply boil two to three handfuls of dried linden flower blossoms in a quart of water. strain your brew, pour it in the tub, and sink yourself in. 

might you have a magic tale to tell? one with holy vapors? one that stars a tree? do tell….

the blessing of being called to the rescue

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sometimes, mama nature beckons us. she plops her unfinished efforts right before our eyes. she stirs us to dig deep into our tender parts, to pull out all the stops, to tend and nurse and care for whatever it is that has fallen, gone limp, lies broken.

so it was the other afternoon when my little phone made a noise, and there popped a text balloon from my little fellow. he was tumbling out the door to soccer, lacing up his cleats, when suddenly he looked down and saw something amiss. he took me two pictures and typed, without pause for punctuation, apparently: “Hi mom I just saw a baby bird as I was sitting on the porch go look behind the pot of flowers I’m not sure if he is hurt but here are a couple pictures I would take a look”

“When you get home,” he wrote, “we should check to see if it’s ok”

by the time i got home, the one little fledgling had company. now there were two fully-feathered, eyes-still-closed baby birds cowering behind the flower pot on the front stoop, a good seven or eight feet down from the nook behind the front door’s moulding where, every year since we put up the lovely fancy woodwork, those old birds have deigned to birth their young. and this despite the fact that up beneath the eaves of our old house we built the feathered flocks an ample nine-hole aerie for their avian pleasures.

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those birds could live here…

but instead they chose their hatchery here...

but instead they chose their hatchery here, tucked behind the corner just above the dentils…

tis the truth of the month of june, at least on this upper half of the globe, this is the stretch of days when those baby birds have tapped their way out of their itty-bitty eggs, they’ve puffed up on a steady diet of worms and fly parts, filled out a thick armament of feathers, and, after days of perching on the precipice of the nest, dared put wind beneath their wings.

and, often, that first flight tumbles to the ground.

which is, often, where we come in.

we are, if we choose to be, the baby bird worriers. we’re the ones who fret from first spotting till at last the baby birds find their way, their flight.

so it was the other day, and through the long and rainy night at our house.

once we found our pair of nestlings, our tumbled duo in distress. (i imagined that, perhaps, the one birdlet, still safe on high, heard his little feathered brother’s squawks for help from way down below, and there, from the above-the-door hatchery, called out something to the effect of, “fear not, little fellow, i’m coming after you!” at which point bird no. 2 — the more cautious one, the one who knew that first flight wasn’t such a smart idea in the first place — he strapped on his bravery suit, stretched his wings, and promptly tumbled down to where his fallen brethren lay flummoxed and without a plan for updraft.)

that’s when we, the bird worriers extraordinaire, sprung into rescue mode. that’s when we spied the baby birds, stranded inches apart, shivering in fear — or so we imagined. and, indeed, there’s nothing like a fear-quivering baby bird to get a mama’s juices running — even when the mama is of the human species and not the feathered kind. we mamas pay no mind to whose baby is in distress; we’re all for one, and one for all in the mama-rescue department.

we leapt into action, me and the fellow who first eyed the distress. we tried to do what little we could do: a bottle cap from a 2-liter jug of birthday gingerale served as the trough for the one farthest from home, and a yogurt tub, cut down to eighth-inch height, served as the watering hole for the other, with room to boot should they decide to share a drink.

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darkness fell, our worries rose. the soccer-playing rescuer, he worried that a hungry cat might make a midnight feast of our little pair. i chose to worry about the rain. and so, with the first pit-a-pat that soon became a tumult of down-pouring precipitation, i was up and out of bed. i sprung open an umbrella, perched it just so, teetering between the flower pot and the stone wall of our old house, in hopes of keeping feathers dry. i imagined mama bird, up high with all her others, and i did what i thought she might do — short of opening my beak and plopping in a portion of a worm. (we all have our limits, you know.)

by morning light, the pair was gone. nowhere to be seen, though i’m certain i heard them squawking thanks, from back in the nest. my little guy remains unconvinced that they weren’t someone’s tasty snack, but i contend that the lack of feathers is proof that a happy ending was had by all. he tried to counter that they might have gone down in a single swallow, with no feathers to be strewn. i, frankly, couldn’t stomach such demise, so i choose to end the tale with all birdlets safely ensconced back in their duly-ornamented hatchery.

even though this particular rescue was relatively drama-free, and rather swift to boot — and cost little more than a couple hours’ sleep — i am ever grateful for the blessed moments when mama nature opens her book and lays a lesson at our feet. it’s a chance, every time, to exercise our hearts, to put muscle to our empathy machines, to understand more deeply just how much we all depend on each other.

it’s a blessing, every time, to be called to someone’s or something’s rescue. in a world in dire need of tenderness, in a world where we’re pummeled by the atrocious (word just came in of atrocities on three continents), it is a fallen baby bird who might stand a humble chance of returning us to, reminding us of, this lasting truth: to reach beyond the walls of our own hearts is to tap into our surest, truest care-taking selves, wherein we get a glimpse of our immeasurable capacities, and wherein, God willing, we begin to understand that we are called, all of us, to be the first line of this world’s tenderest defense.

and better yet when we can share that lesson with a child who is keeping watch on how deeply we keep that promise.

i’ve not yet mustered the courage to go read the details of what’s unfolded around the globe this sad morning. i heard of a beheading, and felt my knees give out. can we rise up and quash the madness with the few small bits we know: can we love more wildly, more wildly than one mere week ago? can we staunch the hate? can we find a way to rescue the globe in need of love?

what tender acts of mercy have you entered into this week?

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