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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

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.

bird house

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?

again and again, our hearts shattered by the echo of the gunshot

church massacre

the morning light spilled across the front pages, across faces bowed and streaked in tears. it didn’t take long till my own tears were added to the morning’s misery. a “lone wolf,” a man who sat for an hour near a pastor leading bible study, in a historic charleston, south carolina church, pulled out a pistol, and, one by one, took aim and fired, riddled the prayerful, felled nine lives, including the church pastor, a revered state senator.

i’d come downstairs in this quiet old house to write of something else, but i picked up the news pages off the stoop, and there it was in all three papers: “deadly church attack;” “scene of carnage has long history of pain, pride and dignity;” “loner held in church killings.” sadly, only in chicago was the story “below the fold,” meaning it got second billing to something else, and in this case the “else” was a silver trophy for men in ice skates.

because i’ve spent more time away from screens in recent days, i’d not heard the news in the wake of its happening. i found out the old-fashioned way: reading the news after it had been gathered, laid out, printed and delivered to my door step. it hit me no less hard for the time delay between occurrence and finding out. in fact, it might have hit me harder, for i absorbed it in the sacred silent cloak of dawn. alone in my kitchen, i pored over the images, the words.

once again, our hearts are shattered by the ravages of mad folk and guns fired.

once again, my first response was to shudder, to find myself in goosebumps, followed swiftly by fury, followed by the image of a single candle flame burning in the dark: we can only light this world, we can only trigger change, by living each and every act of each and every day with as much deep down love, as much empathy towards whomever is in our path, as we can possibly muster.

that the echo of the gunshot rang out and ricocheted off the walls of a historic black church, a church with deepest roots in the march for justice that is the civil rights movement in america, only sickens me more.

i turn back to the image of the woman whose face is streaked in tears.

sometimes in the wake of awfulness like this, i feel the urge to take my children by the hand and huddle with my arms round their shoulders, to keep them safe in a world where the walls between sanity and insanity feel too permeable. where i don’t know who will barge into my grocery store or my children’s school, or my synagogue, for God’s sake, or my church, and ignite the ugliness, the horror.

mostly, i shake that off, and inhale a second breath, one that grounds me more firmly than ever, one that roots me in the deepest conviction and takes me back to the words of my beloved dorothy day: “little by little;” it is only through our little acts of courage, our little acts of love that we stand half a chance of mounting forces that might wither the ugliness, the horror, that intends to roll our way.

on the days when the world’s news rattles me, and it rattles me often, i am left with so very little in my counter-campaign. i have a heart, and i have words. i have imagination, too, thank God. and in my imagination right now, i am traveling to the side of the woman streaked in tears. i am holding her hand, and wrapping my arm around her shoulder. i am dabbing her tears, and i am breathing a promise: i will love more wildly today. i will scatter seeds of all that is good and gentle and heart-opening. yes, even here at my old kitchen table. i will start with love, the fiercest force i know. the one that, like a bullet, can penetrate the heart. can open it. can settle in and make for a peaceable kingdom after all.

where will you begin? 

that moment when…(and this summer more than ever…)

summer feets

all week i’ve been feeling it. that moment that best can be likened to the glorious fraction of time when you’ve been out in tippity teetering heels all night, when your toes have been practically yelping in protest and the bones in your feets have been threatening to cut you off at the ankles, when every ounce of you wanted to wriggle out of this unnatural state of constraint, but you had to make like a grownup and prance around in footwear that does its best to topple you, and sometimes makes you chew on your cheek besides. but then, finally, the night and the torture come to an end, and there in the dark, and practically running, you round the bend, you lurch toward the door and you begin the release for which you’ve been throbbing: you scrape the toe of one pointy shoe against the penned-in heel of the other, and you kick the darn foot-clamps clear across the kitchen.

you stand there, for a minute or two, just drinking in the feel of your bones falling back to their pre-ordained order. you listen to the flow of the blood trickling back to the tips of your squeezed-colorless tootsies.

you savor the long-awaited rush of relief. the busting-out-of-whatever-bound-you.

which, pretty much, is how it feels around here. more so than in a very long time. because summer in this old house has arrived with a groundswell of holy hallelujah. boy one is finished with college. boy one is hanging around. boy two just finished with grade school. ergo, this is a summer that comes with a full ladle of finish. and, perhaps, an extra-deep dollop of purest enchantment.

this is, more than any summer that i can recall, one of those moments when the hours make like salvador dali had at them. they warp into stretched-out proportions. they expand, not contract. they breathe. and sometimes, like sunday afternoon when my firstborn and i plopped into old wicker chairs and stayed there for the better part of three hours, they stand perfectly utterly still.

i am, in this seasonal opening act, indulging in time. i am whirling, deep down inside, in the rarest of joy, the feeling that somehow i’ve cupped my hands, sunk them deep in a font of holiest waters, and come up spilling; splattering drop after delectable drop.

i’m not worrying, for heaven’s sake, about what’s for dinner, i’m not looking at clocks. (though i am watching ice boxes magically empty, and i am setting world records for laundry.) i’m feeling the lumpety-thump of my heart when the sound of the footsteps comes down the stairs at times when i’m usually alone and the house is usually silent. like a kid on christmas morning, i’m peeking through cracks in the door at two sleeping boys with no need for hurry.

maybe i love it all the more because i know it won’t last. and not only because i’ve been around the block enough times to know that, soon enough, the days will be so hot and so sticky we’ll all be wishing for igloos. and popsicles will seem a sensible breakfast.

maybe it’s all the sweeter because i never imagined we’d all have one more summer together. i hadn’t pictured four cereal bowls plopped on the table, each one blanketed in warm-from-the-field farmer berries. i hadn’t imagined the windows rolled down in the old station wagon, and me and my boys blaring the radio, wending our way to no particular anywhere. i hadn’t considered boy upon boy curled up on the couch, arms and shoulders entwined, words of brotherly wisdom being imparted in whispers.

for now, it’s one fleeting drink-it-all-in suspension of time.

we’re back to the place, and the moment, when the letting loose rubs you all over. like a terry cloth towel before it’s worn thin. it’s that magical interlude when the season is new, when we’re just on the cusp, and everything is raw and deep and our pores are wide open and we’re guzzling it down. right in here, in this opening act of summer’s production, the season of so few cares, we’re hard at work simply savoring.

and this particular summer it comes with a brand of relish that i’ll never ever forget.

this just might be the summer whose frames i’ll play and replay till the last gasp i breathe on this earth.

well, goodness gracious, i got a wee bit sidetracked — make that a lot sidetracked — here this morning when my ferocious jungle cat (he who seems to be showing off in recent days, proving to any and all that he might be old but he ain’t over yet) carried into the house — into the very middle of the family room’s old persian rug, mind you — a still-wriggling, but-not-for-long critter, clutched in the sharp-toothed grip of said hunter cat. i let out a yelp, as is my usual inclination, and hip-hopped in circles till i got the duo to skitter back through the rip of the old screen door. it set me to quaking for a few minutes there, and then i needed to settle back in to the rhythms above. and, oh goodness, the wonders of summer took on whole new dimensions. 

and in further keeping with this slow-time summer, i’ve just spent the last hour plopped on the post-college kid’s new navajo rug, chatting about his early morning adventures procuring yet another job. normally i fidget till i hit the friday-morning-publish button, but not today. today i know that all’s in due time. and if it unfolds slowly, it’s all the more glorious….

finally, before i go, a most blessed birthday i wish for my beloved friend cecilia and her forever love, gary, who serendipitously and marvelously share the same birthday. this is a big one for ceci, a day of more than usual import. i send love and prayers in double dose.

so before i sign off: what do you savor most at the start of this laid-back season……

welcome to summer

dispatch from the land of dishevelment

willie books

one of us took a tumble the other night. all one of us was trying to do was go to bed. but around here, in these disheveled days, you take your life in your hands any time you try to get from point Q to point Z. the poor tumbled person, he found himself skittering upon a pond of discarded papers. and old bulletin boards. and chin-up bars whose use has expired. and a few old campaign stickers from congressional races that didn’t quite turn out the way some of us had hoped.

it made for a terrible noise. the noise awoke me. and our resident little fellow, just sinking into a short night of sleeps, he went leaping from his bed to see what was the matter, what was the source of the fortissimo clatter. there the source lay. all asprawl. undaunted, or so he insisted. just a scattering of papers and limbs, soon rustled back into order.

i tell this tale because it’s illustrative, you might say, of the tumbled-up order (well, really, dis-order) that is the current state of awry in this house.

you can practically hear the ol’ joint moaning. the floor boards are letting out protest. long-shuttered windows, refusing to budge. nearly every available corner, it seems, is lost, under siege, is crushed by the weight of teetering piles.

we have piles of books from every era of a young boy’s growing-up years. and whole parades of paraphernalia from particular passing obsessions: we begin with trains and move onto baseball, then comes the film-camera chapter, swiftly followed by double bass/sound-recording, onto politics and rowing, then deeper and deeper into political philosophers whose first few sentences i can barely muddle through. if you were inclined toward archeological digs, you could trace the timeline of our firstborn’s obsessions — now on stand-by for storage or discard — as if the strata in metamorphic rock.

all of this to say that it’s NUTS AROUND HERE! (excuse me, i needed to let out a motherly roar!)

i’ve come to realize in the last week plus two days and 20 hours that, for the last four years, we’d existed in an artificially placid world around here (even though i wasn’t enlightened enough to grasp the relative serenity).

back then, when i cleaned the sink before tumbling to bed, it was just as clean in the dawn as it had been at midnight. when i dumped a barrel of apples into the produce bin, i could count its dwindling one-by-one. breakfast hadn’t become a three-pan production. and, heck, when i walked in the door, and lined up three unassuming pairs of shoes, they stood where i’d told them to stay, and never threatened to kill me by wolf-whistling a back-door convention of every imaginable combination of foot wear, all size 13 (or, in the unforgettable words of a long-ago seller of shoes on state street that great street in downtown chicago, a peddler who put measuring tape to the feets of my mate, and yelped, “man, you is past-noon!”).

ah, but that was then. back in the age of kid-off-at-college.

said kid, as you know, is now home. and gone is the calm, the unruffled quietude, that so soothed me. so essentially soothed me.

yes, yes, i love every ounce of the discombobulation. but, oh, it’s discombobulated, right here in these parts. and i’m always a bit slow to get with the program, so i need to untangle the knots and knead out the kinks in my nerves. i need to live in a suspended state of dishevelment, not mind that the only way down the stairs is to thread your way, ever so gingerly, between the piles of books that each hog a step. i need to double my allergy meds, what with the dust storm that’s swirling through room upon room.

it’s what happens when the carpet-ripper-outer arrives. and the painter shows up to slap a new coat of templeton gray onto the mottled walls in the bath. and bookshelves are cleared, and drawers are dumped of their fifth-grade detritus.

what just a week ago was a boy’s room, one decked out with a baseball-bat lamp, and a plush navy carpet, and the overstuffed chair i’d once bought for purposes of nursing a newborn, is now a post-collegiate den. one with splattered-maple floor, college-crest armchair, re-curated bookshelves, and, en route, a 1920s floor lamp procured via etsy — soon to arrive at the downtown greyhound station, where shipping comes at half the cost of door-to-door delivery (making for yet another urban scavenging adventure, i’m certain).

mere moments ago i was interrupted here amid my typing for a conversation that’s emblematic of the way the days are unfolding: said man, the one who lives in what we now refer to as The Studio at 522 (giving the appropriate marketer’s capitalization to even the lowly article, The, making it all seem swanky and swell), he paused by my writing room to display the morning’s dilemma, and to partake of some motherly counsel.

seems his running shoe has half-shed its heel, so he reasoned that rather than leaping out for a jog and risking its loss altogether, he’d try a bit of home repair before hitting the elliptical down in the basement. he was considering super-glu as quik-solve to the runaway shoe part, but then he realized he might spend the rest of his day glued to the round-and-round part of the shape-up machine. which led him to wonder, aloud, if anyone had ever shown up at the ER door with fitness apparatus attached.

all you can do — and i do — is laugh out loud. deeply and often.

it might be a week or so — okay, maybe a month or so — till we wrestle these piles into place. the attic — now stuffed to the gills — dare not collapse. and, sooner or later i’ll figure a way to have groceries by train car delivered.

and somehow (perhaps if i pray to the patron saint of chaos becalmed, or beg for celestial xanax to rain from the clouds) i’ll settle into the hum that surely will come soon as i catch up to the prestissimo that is now the requisite pace in these parts. these most decidedly discombobulated, deeply joy-filled, post-college parts.

some of you — my mother, for certain — might have predicted it wouldn’t take too long till i exclaimed that it sure had gotten noisy and messy around here, now that we’ve expanded the homestead’s population by 25 percent. so i’ve once again been utterly predictable. all i know is that it helps to deep breathe, and maintain a DEEP sense of hilarity. tumbling out the door for garden breaks is also restorative. but best of all is climbing the stairs and knowing that just behind the closed door at the bend in the stairs there dwells the kid i’ve so longed to have home, for even the shortest of whiles. indeed, for as short or as long as this lasts, i really and truly am thrilled beyond thrilled to absorb the oncoming, everyday tumbles and blows here in the land of dishevelment.

what are your tried-and-true measures for weathering the population transitions in your life, when someone comes or someone goes, most especially someone you deeply dearly love who arrives or departs with truckloads and train cars of stuff?

footsteps straight to my heart

willie diploma wall

four years ago, it was the sound of his footsteps i knew i would miss more than nearly anything.

the thud of his footfall onto the floor of the room up above, the footfall that signaled to me, down below, that the boy i love had clomped out of bed, or trundled down the stairs, that he soon would be rounding the bend, showing his face, his radiant face, at the old kitchen door.

his footsteps are back.

and my heart couldn’t be more tickled, delighted, dancing its own little jig.

the thud of the footfall is one of those percussive refrains woven into the rhythms of this old house, of any old house, and it’s a sound you might take for granted — it belongs with the particular click of the doorknob, or the way the car door slams off in the distance, and your heart knows before you know that someone you love is now home. you might take it for granted until suddenly, without forethought, it’s silenced, it’s absent. until all you hear is the hollow emptiness of no more footsteps — or door clicks, or car door slamming in the not-so-far distance.

it’s a quiet that crushes you. the unspoken sonic abyss of the someone who’s gone.

and now, with the thuds and the clomps and the rushing of water from the tap in his bathroom once again punctuating the soundtrack of this old house, i find my old heart quickening, picking up its rhythm, pounding just a wee bit harder, as once again — in that way that happens to mothers — i wrap my whole self — body and mind and heart and soul — around this interlude of pure wonder and blessing.

indeed, it’s way more chaotic around here than just one week ago, when this old house contained only three peoples plus a crotchety cat. and the lumbering fellow we’ve added to the equation, once he and his papa pulled down the alley, unloaded the mountains of boxes and lamps and speakers and papers, he’s set this old house percolating once again with his particular cacophonies. yes, there was a hammer pounding a wee bit late into the night. and the avalanche of stuff hauled out of his room and into the upstairs hall, it could tangle you into a knot, and snuff out your breath if you happened to trip and tumble deep down in its clutches.

but a bit of a miracle’s unfolding. i’d call it the answer to a prayer, except that i never dared to pray for it.

the boy i love, the boy who graduated in a cloud of glories at his college on the hill, he moved back to chicago thinking he’d rent a studio apartment, try to pay rent while teaching in an inner-city classroom, before he heads back off to law school and PhD school, before he spends a life trying to right wrongs and carving out justice. but then, as he pulled his duffle bags and moving boxes back into his boyhood room, as he perused the websites of apartment listings, as he realized the rent for a space not much bigger than his room at the bend in the stairs might be tough to afford, he started to rearrange his thinking — and his old room that bore the totems of middle and high school and selves long past.

he pulled posters off DSCF1241the wall, peeled campaign stickers off his closet door. took down the little boy bulletin board i’d bought the day we moved into this old house. he cleared his book shelves of boyhood favorites, took down the hobbit and twain and j.k. rowling; slid in hobbes and kant and aristotle. hung his hard-won college diploma just above his old desk, the desk where he calculated his way through fifth-grade math, and where he typed his junior theme. he must have measured the proximity between the door of his old room and that of his little brother, the one he says he came home to be close to.

he’s decided to stay.

he’s perched his french press coffee pot next to my gurgling electric one. he’s added his paltry few spices onto the shelf next to mine. he’s plugged in his speakers, and asked if we could pull up the old navy carpet so he can stride on the birds-eye maple that’s too long been shrouded. he’s decided, for now, that home will be in the place with a room all his own, and a sprawling kitchen just down the stairs (the commercial-grade six-burner cookstove and his mother’s built-in grocery service might have helped tip the scales in the refueling department).

for now, he’s sticking nearby.

for now, he and i are sitting down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. we’re taking long walks. we’re holding our breath — together  — as he puts muscle to hammer and tries to sink nails into plaster. we’re sitting out in the summer porch, listening to night sounds. we’re backfilling all of the stories that hadn’t had time to be told.

sure, my days are topsy-turvy. and this house feels certain to burst. and the washing machine moans from over-exertion.

but for four long years i could only wish for such chaos. i didn’t dare to hope that the day would come that we’d once again breathe the same air, inhale the same sounds, delight in shared and unscripted hilarities, ones unfolding in real time, and in the same time zone.

i’m practically giddy at the truth that this kid is wise enough, and tender enough of heart, to buck the prevailing post-graduation currents, to simply and humbly move back home, for the sheer gift of deepening the bonds with his little brother, and his grandmother who is now 84, and who every tuesday of his growing up years devoted her days and attentions to him. he is seizing the days before they are gone.

he didn’t take a job in DC, didn’t post himself in the heart of manhattan. all that might come. but for now, he’s taking a pause, taking time for what matters.

back in december he told me that he was looking to do the most meaningful work in the years between college and law school, “and, honestly, mommo,” he said, via long distance, “i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd,” his little kid brother, now on the cusp of going off to high school.

as poignant as anything this week, and pulsing too very near the surface, is my knowledge — keen knowledge — that not too many miles away i have a very dear and deeply beloved friend who is in a hospital, suffering unimaginable devastations, and she might be robbed of the chance to whirl in this very dear thing, in her children’s sweet presence, in days that tumble lazily one to the next. please God, i beg, down on my knees, let my beautiful friend and her most blessed children share in this, the holiest dance.

for me — a girl who preaches deep-breathing the blessing of each and every framed moment of time — the unanticipated gift, the knowledge that we might grab a few years we’d not known were coming our way, this feels to me like the gift of a lifetime, this sweet holy homecoming.

and it comes with its very own soundtrack: the sound of a particular footfall, sinking deep and deeper into my heart.

bless you, sweet will, and welcome back home.

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worry not about the tomes slid off the boyhood book shelf, they are safe and sound with me, and will soon find a home on yet another shelf, one of the many that line the walls of this old house. a prayer request: for my beautiful friend in the hospital, for gentle soft hours to come her way.

and a question: what are the sounds of your heart’s dearest soundtrack, the ones that tell you someone you love is heading toward home? or the ones that make your heart tick as mighty as ever could be?

the holy thing that got me to this moment

baby willie kissed by eileen murphy, leaving prentice to home sweet home…

prayers have been answered. and answered and answered. and, then, answered some more.

which pretty much defines the beginning, middle and end of this exercise in human devotion — in birthing and bonding and inevitably separating, though never completely, never every last cord to the heart — on this joyride called parenting. it surely explains what got us here to this holy moment: about to shuffle down a jetway to board a plane to fly through the heavens to land at the doorstep of one college graduation.

the latest prayer answered, the one i whispered as i rustled beneath my sheets yesterday morning, was this: “dear God, thank you for bringing them home safe and sound from their long and certainly liquid weekend at myrtle beach,” that romping ground of late for seniors in college who’ve finished their finals but not yet donned caps and gowns. thank you for keeping their tin can of a car safe on the highway for 14 some hours (each way), for keeping big rigs and 18-wheelers from slamming into their passenger doors or their windshields, or any one of those gory scenes that mothers of children on highways can picture so clearly, so vividly, so goosebumpingly.

the truest truth of parenthood, or at least the truest one for me, is that every stitch along this broadcloth of hope and faith and unwavering trust is one knotted with prayer.

from the instant someone back in that long-ago delivery room handed me that slippery, squirmy, wide-eyed babe, and then, not long after, pointed us toward the door to the big wide scary world beyond the hospital, i gulped and did the surest thing i could think of: i called on superpowers. of the highest elevations. i let rip a mighty prayer. insisted angels and saints, almighty God and Holy Mother Mary in all her maternal glories, swoop down and blanket us, point the everlasting way, whisper answers to my 9 gamillion questions — straight into my heart, the preferred route. and dare not take a coffee break.

because i knew there was no way i could make it all on my own.

if left to my own devices long, long ago — if i’d not had that lifeline of prayer, and the knowledge that in my darkest hours, in the hours when i had no answers, and barely a trace of faith in anything worldly, there was a great and tender palm of a hand (honestly, i’d put in for a whole flock of palms of hands) cradling me and my growing-up child — i’d still be cowering behind that hospital door. i might still be crumpled at the knees wondering how we’d make it out alive.

to parent — to take a fresh-from-the-womb floppy creation and teach him or her the few things you know, and the volumes you cram in along the way — is to stare down every imaginable detour and distraction, to slay the thousand dragons that taunt you in innumerable forms — the playground bully, the out-of-control coach, and the rule that will not bend, to name but three. (i suppose i shouldn’t forget my host of self-doubts and insecurities as perhaps the biggest dragons in the bunch.)

you see, i wouldn’t know how to do that — how to let the air out of ugliness, how to crack at the knees those monsters who romp in the night — without my blessed back-up squad: the angels and saints, the umpteen vigil lights and infinite vespers that are my hotline, my speed-dial, to God and assembled heavenly hosts.

one of the first things i learned when my kid went off to college — a steep climb of a first semester for me, not so for him — was that more than anything we’d stepped into the landscape of prayer. especially when your kid is 1,000 miles from home, and even you — hold-on-tight you — wouldn’t dream of calling him, oh, every hour on the quarter-hour.

i turned quickly to prayer. prayer was my safety net. the tight-woven web that kept me from tumbling into the dark. i remember how, shortly after dropping him off and flying soggily back to chicago, i found myself pulled from the great gothic tower where i typed every day, propelled down the sidewalk of north michigan avenue and into the catacombs of holy name cathedral. there, with the help of a not-so-helpful security guard, i knelt before the flickering expanse of battery-operated (egad!) prayer candles. i lit one right up, and then, in a flash of iPhone wizardry that soon became a habit, i texted a snapshot of the holy flame i’d kindled for my boy. vigil light, by virtue of wi-fi.

i can’t count the number of mornings i launched into daylight with prayers murmured before i flung back the sheets. i can’t tally the times i turned toward the east-northeast to pinpoint my prayers somewhere in the vicinity of the appropriate dot on the compass, and then let fly some litany of invocations, begging the heavens to be kind, to be gentle, to my faraway child.

as much as i prayed through the close-to-home years, i’d say i doubled the volume and depth in the long-distance years, the ones that in these modern-day times are more than likely to be our geographic realities.

the farther you get into motherhood, the less likely your kid will put up with what might be your preferred proximity — tagging along right close to his side. so, once the squirt up and grows, you’re left with a mama’s no. 1 stand-in: the invisible prayers unfurled from your heart and your tongue to the heavens above and beyond.

in the last four years, since that tear-sodden day when we dropped him alone on a green in the land of emily dickinson, it’s what’s gotten the boy i love — or, certainly, his mama — through eight rounds of final exams, umpteen close calls, countless hours rowing the icy connecticut river, one short tip across the atlantic pond, in and out of a few emergency rooms, and through a few late-night phone calls that stretched thinly — desperately — into the dawn.

as we step into the magical whirl of this weekend, when honors will be awarded and diplomas tucked in his once-little hand, as i stand back and marvel at this child who’s now a deeply fine man, as i dab away rivers of tears and a heart that’s frankly astounded, my every breath will be drawn in with a prayer, and let out with another.

i wouldn’t be here, and neither would he, i am certain, if not for the great hand of the glorious and good God who reached down and guides us each and every step of the way.

for this, i drop to my knees, in undying devotion for the one thing that got me to here: my deepest prayers answered.

and here we are, minutes from grabbing bags and dashing out the door. i’ve now put words to screen through every round of this kid’s graduations: eighth grade, high school, and, now, college. there will, god willing, be a law school graduation for my scholar child, the one who dreams of some day being a professor, or a federal judge. (he worked for a glorious such soul in the DC circuit appellate court last summer, and now has modeled his dreams on the eminently wise and humble and good-hearted justice.) i am burstingly filled with joy, with the deep knowledge that we’ve been so graced to arrive at this moment. for all of you who’ve loved us through the tight and narrow passageways, and who’ve whirled with us in the dances of hallelujah, thank you. you are as much a part of this equation as those angels and saints. in fact, you give form to angels here on earth. most especially, his two unwavering grandmas who are among the most devoted…

new trier crew bus to regatta

will and teddy. sigh.

a boy and his pupils....

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

even if you don’t yank your sit-upon from the shelf and plop yourself amid the morning’s deeply sodden garden, you can’t help but notice: the air is soft, is velvet-rippled, faint breath against the skin you’ve dared to bare (we’re talking ankles, maybe toes, nothing racier here, folks).

the boughs froth in springtime meringue, the crabapple’s creamy blossom, the redbud’s tight-stitched knots of tonsillar pink. the lilac waiting in the wings. any branch that’s not in bloom is one that’s a filigree of lace-cut leaf, from afar a mist of just-born green.

and birdsong comes in deep striations, the piercing notes atop a bank of blurred and whirling insistence. they seem to never pause to catch their breath, those choristers of each and every dawn.

but the main attraction of the spring, the one that begs the quietest attention, is what unfurls down low, just inches from the warming earth, where loamy mounds (and giddy earthworms) soak up the benevolence of sunbeams, now lavishing the northern hemisphere with increments of extra minutes, day by passing day.

that’s where the bleeding heart (above) dangles from the stem, so many pantaloons pinned to the clothesline. that’s where the lily-of-the-valley unknots its lilliputian bells. and where cerulean clouds of forget-me-not waft above their heart-scissored leaves.

and after a long night’s rinse, whole brigades of water droplets hold their pose, crystal balls suspended, shot through with morning rainbows in miniature. not far away, more animated drops offer pitter-patter, a metronome of plops. the hollow of a hosta’s broad-leaf tongue makes for a shallow drinking pond for ladybug or spider, or my cat who’s never quenched.

and if you keep closest watch on the whole tableau, if you tune into any sign of fluttering — a branch that leaps, a blossom that seems to shiver — chances are, you’ll catch a feathered glimpse of migration’s many gifts. just this morning what i might have mistaken for a hovering cicada turned out to be a hummingbird, one partaking of viburnum’s spicy cocktail.

tender are the hours of the spring.

and tender is the invitation: bring on your thin-skinned self, your delicate spirit. bathe your soft spots, your raw edges, in this pool of life releasing. not long ago, all was clasped in hard-shell incubation, the protective armament of the season of harsh winds and late freezes. but now’s the hour when the letting down begins. when our fragile selves needn’t shudder.

it’s as if all the world, all that blurs the soft edge between heaven and earth, it’s as if all of it is drawing us tenderly out of ourselves, signaling that it’s safe, offering even our unfurling selves a margin of deep-breathing room.

because i’ll always be a believer that the book of nature was one inscribed with lessons to be learned, with wisdom in which to be steeped, i can’t help but notice how this is the season that begs us to come as we are.

to not worry if we’re feeling a bit exposed, because everything about the spring is tender, too. and while we’re finding our way from winter’s harshest hours, and while we’re not yet inclined toward summer’s bold declarations, this in-between time it’s when we too can find safe harbor in the frilly arbors of the begin-again interlude.

and, right in here, i’m feeling on the verge (a word, i find, with roots in the latin virga, which, curiously, and serendipitously, refers to “a slender green branch,” aka the new growth of spring). in just one week, a boy i love will leave behind his college on the hill, and begin whatever’s next. and any hour now, he’ll be climbing into a back seat and driving hours and hours on the highway, because that’s how college kids these days mark passages, they mark them on sandy beaches far from civilization. and their parents — yes, miles and miles away, but never far in heart and soul — they hold their breath all the while. and other friends i dearly love, they are weathering all sorts of crossroads. and, in sum, i am feeling the fragility of all of life. and the world around me only serves to amplify — and yet, blessedly, benevolently, to cushion — that reality.

from the mewling of the baby birds who’ve made their nest above my doorway, to the tissue-paper petals scattered across my stepping-stone path, i am walking through the living-breathing fragility of newborn spring. the in-between season that understands the truth that sometimes we need soft hours, tender hours, to uncoil from what’s been harsh before we spread our wings, our arms, our souls, and bask in all-enveloping radiant golden light.

do you find springtime a tender time? is this a season for you that begs the soft embrace of all that surrounds us?

because in the annals of saints, nurses are among the holiest…

julie joyner + pumpkin head

i went back to my old hospital yesterday. my long-ago, very-much-loved hospital. i went because it’s nurses week, and someone asked if i might wander back and whisper love notes to the nurses. i couldn’t have been more tickled.

DSCF7434even though it’s changed its name — from children’s memorial to lurie children’s — and it’s moved — to the glimmering gold-coast streeterville, in the shadow of the john hancock center, from its old spot at the triangle of lincoln, fullerton and halsted, it’s still the place that’s a beacon to some of the sickest kids on the planet. it’s a place, i’m convinced, where the nurses who work there are nothing short of not-yet-canonized saints.

some of the searingest moments of my life were seared in the chambers of old children’s. i still remember my very first day on the floor where i would work for the better part of three years. there was a six-year-old named pebbles. she had cystic fibrosis, so her lips were blue and her lungs rattled and heaved with every in and out breath. the day i started work at children’s was her birthday, so all the nurses swarmed around her hospital bed, and started to sing. i started to cry. stood at the back of the crowd that ringed her bed, and could not stop the stream of tears as i absorbed the whole of all of it. i was new, was raw, and hadn’t yet figured out how my heart would absorb the inevitable, the heartache, that so often comes when you spend your days keeping kids as alive — for as long — as is possible.

i remember, just as vividly, the moment when the first kid who i’d loved died. his name was joe, joe thornton, and he had one of the cancers of blood — not leukemia, but one of the even more awful ones. i’ve now been present at births and at deaths, and i can tell you that both are equally vaulted moments, moments so sacred you feel the distance all but evaporate between heaven and earth; you dwell, at each end of life, in an in-between space so anointed you can practically feel the breathing of angels at the back of your neck. but joe’s was my very first death, and i didn’t know how it would be. when it came, when his last breath never gave way to another, it was as holy a moment as i’ve ever witnessed, the slow, and silent, and soft-petaled ebbing of life, of heartbeat, of breath. i remember feeling blanketed, as if the softest most blessed space — some new dimension of timelessness — had draped around my shoulders. i remember bathing him, bathing away the last bits of the earthly struggle that had been left behind. i remember the sound of the washcloth swirling through the tub of warm water. i remember the sound of his mama’s wail.

i remember, too, julie joiner, the 14-year-old with the spinal tumor that had left her unable to walk, the sweet girl up above in the black-and-white photo. i remember the moment she called me into her room because she’d been hard at work on a top-secret papier-mache pumpkin head. she’d painted it shamrock green, draped it with orange yarn (aka hair), carved out triangular eye holes, and called it “the irish pumpkin queen.” she made it for me, and she very much wanted me to spend the rest of my workday wearing it. i remember the way she laughed when i first slipped it on. she was a kid who didn’t laugh easily — and who would, with a tumor pressing against your spine, and your mama up and gone for reasons you never knew? reasons that left her papa alone to mind over her and her two other siblings — but she melted like butter once i put that hollow green pumpkin over my head.

children’s was like that. is like that. story after story. heartbreak upon heartbreak. only, they tell me it’s even harder these days to work there because kids are sicker, the socio-economic safety net more unraveled, and medicine, far more complex. the nurses at children’s expend every imaginable super power.

so my heart was triple-timing when i walked in there yesterday. when all the nurses started to trickle into the room. when, one after another, i looked into faces i hadn’t seen in 30-some years. because here’s the most amazing thing i discovered yesterday: as tough as children’s can be on your heart — as many times as a nurse’s heart can be shattered and trampled and left gasping for air — nurses don’t walk away. they stay. for the long haul.

it’s as holy a calling as ever could be.

there are nurses i worked with, side by side, back in 1979 till 1982, and they are still there. still making kids laugh. and burying sobs against their chest. still helping parents decipher very bad news. still carrying home heart loads of worry, and plenty of stories that make you spit out loud laughing. because kids are like that. and sick kids are just like everyone else. only a heck of a lot braver. and more likely to make you go weak at the knees.

and sometimes they’ll say things you’ll never forget.

like the kid whose name i can’t remember, but i do remember this: he was a very sick kid whose mama had finally gone home for a night; she lived far away, in indiana, i think. turned out he took a sharp turn for the worse that very night. he was dying. so his nurse was the one who sat close beside him, who took his hand, and just held it, all through the dark of the very long night. as the little boy’s breaths came shallower and shallower, he started to talk to someone the nurse couldn’t see. said something about how he was ready; he’d take his hand now. then, suddenly, the kid who’d been barely catching each breath, he startled, opened his eyes and said with the most animated, radiant face the nurse had ever seen: “you can let go now, i’m taking God’s hand. i’m going to heaven.”

and then he let go of the hand of his nurse, and he died.

and that’s why i looked those nurses straight in the eye — and the heart — yesterday, and i told them this: “you, nurses, do the holiest work: you heal the wounds of the body, but also the heart and the soul. you listen. you troubleshoot. you make the impossible possible.”

and each and every one belongs in the canon of saints.

if you’re a nurse, what drew you to become one? if you’re not, do you have a story of a time when a nurse pretty much ushered you — or someone you love — into the inner sanctum of all that is holy and hushed?

and happy blessed day of mothering, a definition i believe in because the verb, “to mother,” is all inclusive, and counts anyone who’s doled out the great gifts of nurturing and attending, and loving and doting, that define motherhood.

photo credit to my beloved nursing colleague, claire dassy, photographer and archivist extraordinaire. i never knew that picture existed till a few months ago, when dear claire melted me and sent it my way…..

magic day at magic hedge

magic hedge

we cleared the day, i and the friend i love. i and the friend who these days is measuring her life bar by bar. each interlude of each day, each interlude when she can muster the strength to be up and not down. each interlude when the ravages of beating back cancer don’t hold her in their impossible grip.

my friend is one of the ones, blessed ones, who has slipped behind the screen, the opaque screen that so often keeps all of us from seeing the sacred, breathing the sacred, filling our lungs with all that is holy.

she sees everything now.

she’d written me an email that felt almost like haiku, so spare, so distilled to the essence.

she wrote: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

i listened. with those few words as my prompt, i cleared the day of whatever was due, was demanding, because i knew there was no time to waste; there never is. because i read her message, and the three letters — n – o – w — that deserved their own sentence, i stopped trying to find a way to wedge in a visit between appointments and meetings. i beheld the miracle of an ordinary wednesday. i carved out the most precious gift in the world: time. a few quiet hours stitched into the weave of a week.

because of the words she wrote in her haiku, her insistent plea to be awake to the now, because she mentioned birds and sun, i started to scan for a place that was beautiful, one that offered a strong dose of sunlight and shadow, birdsong and silence. the yin and the yang of the springtime, of life — its dualities so deeply essential.

i thought right away of the magic hedge.

we didn’t know when we met there, in the lull of the carved-out hours, just how magic it might be.

the magic hedge, you should know, is a wisp of meadow and brush and groves of old gnarled trees. its paths rise and bend, so do its grasses, the trunks of its trees. it elbows into the lake, lake michigan, as if an offering, an outpost, to the rivers of birds who, come warm springtime winds, catch the updraft, fly thousands of miles, from way south in central america or mexico or the southern united states, to way up north, to the boreal forests of canada, or, just shy of the border, nestled in woods along the great lakes.

the river of birds — songbirds, nearly all of them — flows along the lake’s edge; the tracing between water and shore an avian navigational guide as ancient as any there ever was. one of the great north american flyways, it’s called, and the magic hedge is something of a bed and breakfast for the long-distance flocks. exhausted, their little throats parched, their wings so tired from flapping, from floating on air, they settle into the trees, into the brush. they partake of the vernal banquet that is the hedge in bloom.

one of the miracles of the magic hedge is that it wasn’t always there. God didn’t put it there. it’s landfill. the leftover earth — the dirt, the rubble — from building a city, from raising a metropolis at the edge of the prairie, and all of it dumped into the lake at montrose point in the 1920s and ’30s. blessedly, chicago is a city that makes no small plans. it was alfred caldwell, a noted prairie-style landscape architect, who plotted the hedge’s undulations and meadows, numbered the trees and the shrubs on his planting list. it’s a mere 6.8 miles from the crosshairs of chicago’s cacophonous epicenter at state and madison, the zero-markers of the straight-lined grid that measures the city, border to border.

magic hedge blossom

yet, to step into the hedge, not half a mile from the rushing roar of lake shore drive — a flow of exhaust-spewing cars and burping, back-firing motorcycles — not a mile from the urban drama and squalors of uptown, a chicago neighborhood that’s long teetered on margins of every kind, to step into the hedge is to be swept, to be wrapped in the birdsong, the branches in bloom, the tender insistent unfurling of the season, whatever the season.

to step into the hedge is to surrender to the sacred.

we hadn’t guessed how sacred it might be.

it didn’t take long to figure that out.

right away i noticed a flock of the two-legged kind, the human kind. most of the flock were sporting long-nozzled lenses, pressed up to their eyes, pointed toward treetops. i tapped one such fellow gently on the shoulder and asked what the flurry was about.

“came here on a text that there was a hooded warbler, but it hasn’t been seen in 20 minutes,” he kindly told me, not bothered at all that i’d asked.

now, a hooded warbler, you should also know, is a wee little thing, one not often seen, apparently. it flies in saffron-colored robes, and for once i’d say the female is even more luminous than the male (but that’s getting ahead of the story). the hooded warbler is enough of a rarity, enough of a gem upholstered in feathers, that busy birders hard at work at their day jobs, drop everything when a text comes in that one, just one, is flitting through the magic hedge.

i felt a quiver of thrill as i leaned against a fence post, awaiting my friend. and that’s when a scarlet flash appeared before my eyes. right there in a branch i could reach out and touch. mind you, papa cardinals in my backyard do not allow visitors. this one, a proud papa, practically begged me to pat down his feathers.

that’s when i first felt the tap on my very own shoulder: magic was settling in for a visit.

not many minutes later, my beautiful friend arrived. a cap pulled tight over her head. wide-lensed glasses shielding her eyes. the cures for cancer are taking their toll.

we stepped into the birdsong, i and the friend i so love. the woods were achatter, aswoop, as spread wings crisscrossed the sky, as Ws made Xs over our heads. we followed a trail. we talked about those things that matter when you are staring down cancer. we talked of surrender, and healing and prayer in multiple tongues. and that’s when yet another cardinal decided to not be afraid. he hopped onto the grasses that spread between the forks in the trail right before us. he hopped closer and closer. this was a hedge alive with very brave birds, alive with a rare sort of courage.

magichedgecardinal

we did what you do when a cardinal befriends you: we crouched down low. we stayed very still. we barely moved a blade of grass. we whispered his name. he hopped closer and closer. and then his life’s mate, not quite so resplendent in her haus-frau feathers of drab brown and washed-out red, she plopped onto a fence post. she must have beckoned him. he darted away, leaving us slack-jawed at just how close he’d dared to come.

we wound this way and that. we paused at a grove of mayapple, one of the woodland’s underthings caught in the act of spreading its umbrella of wide-berth leaves. we marveled at the ruffled furls of the papery bark on a birch tree. and then we came to the flat slabs of rock, the ones that soak up the sun like a hard-shelled tortoise, the ones just inches away from the lap of the lake.

that’s when a kite-flying fellow appeared out of nowhere. one minute no one was there; the next, there came a man spinning his arms around an invisible spool. we couldn’t see at first what he was doing; it looked like some form of tai-chi, the way he swooped his hands and his wrists through the air at the edge of the lake. but then he called to us: “i made that,” he said, nodding toward high in the sky. we peered into the clouds and the sunbeams and that’s when we spied the red dot.

by then, the man with the kite on the string, he’d wandered close to our rock. without prompting he told us: “i wake up every morning, thank God for another day. you never know. i thank God every night, thank God for another day. you only got one life.”

and then, not long after that, he was gone. poof. vanished. lost in some haze. he’d wafted in long enough to tell the two of us to savor the moment, the minute, the hour. each and every interlude.

which was precisely what we’d been doing, were doing, will do. we promise.

once he was gone, had slipped away into the thin air from which he had come, my friend with the cap pulled over her head, she slipped down her dark-lensed glasses, and, looking straight at me, she said: “i think that was an angel.”

we both did.

we stayed on the rocks. we talked about life. we talked of the hard parts. we talked of the parts we so love. we whispered barely a word about cancer; there wasn’t much need to. we sipped mineral waters, ate clementines, dabbled spoons in two tubs of yogurt.

and then we got up, to meander some more. and there was more magic. the details of which i needn’t spell out (for this is getting to be too long a tale, though some tales are worth it). as we got to the edge of the hedge, though, as we got ready to step back into the day, into the bustle, we spied the last two insistent watchers of birds. they were poised in that way that birders are likely to be: lenses to eyes, pointed to limbs and to sky.

and that’s when we saw it, saw them, without any lenses, without any help (of the man-made kind, anyway): the rare and elusive hooded warbler, a pair of them to be precise. first mama, then papa. we watched, from our post alongside a log, as they darted and played in the trees. the afternoon light shone on the saffron-hued robes of mama warbler. she perched at the end of one very high branch, just sat there, practically glowing, making certain we inhaled the whole of her glory.

and we did.

the friend i so love leaned her head on my shoulder. and we stood in the hedge beholding the magic. beholding the love.

rare hooded warbler. with ceci. on magic day at magic hedge....

and that’s the answer to the prayer that comes when you carve out a holy hour or two or three, when you surrender to magic there at the watery edge. can you see mama hooded warbler, all plump-bellied and saffron there on the edge of the bough?

have you carved out holy time lately? and what magic wafted your way, alighted right before your deeply believing eyes?

the wisdom of “it needn’t be correct”

interludes mindful

when you wander through life utterly certain that there are volumes you’ve yet to learn, a certain thing happens. a wonderful thing. you wake up every morning with your eyes, and your ears, and your heart at full alert. you are the ever-scanner, knowing that at any minute, from any crevice, the light might seep in. might flash in. the wisdom, gosh darn it, will come.

by day’s end, by the time you plop that cheek back onto the pillow, by the time you snuggle the sheets up by your chin, tucked back in for one more round of dreams, you’ll have — perhaps — learned a thing or two. gotten just a wee bit wiser. all because the teacher appeared, and you, the eternal student, were ready.

so it was the other afternoon as i was listening along in poetry class, when all of a sudden a fellow, a dancer with the new york city ballet, said something that shocked right through me, that slipped in through the crack, just off to the edge of the frame.

the subject, allegedly, was poetry. emily dickinson’s poetry, specifically. but in this wonderful class that i can’t stop inhaling, all sorts of wise souls wander onto the scene and peel back the layers of emily, of poetry, in ways i’ve not before known.

the discussion at hand was emily’s poem, “i cannot dance opon my toes,” the last poem of the four-week class taught by my beloved professor elisa new. she’d invited damian woetzel, a retired principal dancer with the new york city ballet, and now director of the aspen institute arts programs, to parse emily’s poem. as is professor new’s knack for unlikely pairings in the parsing of poetry, woetzel, a classically-trained ballet dancer, was joined in conversation by charles “l’il buck” riley, a practitioner of a street-dance form known as memphis jookin’ (think breakdance; it’s otherwise known as “gangsta walking”).

as street dance and ballet twirled in conversational tango, woetzel suddenly said this: “when i go to see people dance, it’s not to see them do it correctly. i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want — (his voice faded away). i want to find voice, essentially.”

now, this was nothing short of revolutionary to my little mind. i felt the shock of a chill run through me. (my brilliant friend amy, by the way, just yesterday afternoon defined “chill” to me in this way: “a chill is a current of truth that runs through your body,” when you see beauty, she said, or when you hear flat-out wisdom in a way you’ve never thought it before, i’d add.)

“i’m not that interested in correct.”

i felt the ties that bind snap loose. i felt myself freed from the tethers that, long as i can remember, have bound me. do it right, do it correctly, or don’t even try. that was pretty much the lesson i grew up believing. and while it didn’t stop me from trying, it set a nearly impossible bar. “get it right.” or else.

but here was a brilliant dancer, here was the director of aspen institute arts, for crying out loud, telling me it needn’t be correct. needn’t be perfect. stumbles are okay. bumps and bruises are beautiful.

your whole imperfect self is the most ravishingly beautiful self imaginable.

because it’s about something much deeper. it’s about opening up and saying, “this wobbly old soul, this soul that tries and tries, and sometimes makes it and more often stumbles, this is me.

“and you’re here for the likely chance that our two stumbling fumbling selves will find communion — not in our perfect pirouettes, but in the moments when i trip and you catch me. you brush me off and set me back upon the path, and you point the way forward. or better yet, you take me by the hand. you walk together with me. and you laugh, besides, at the way the two of us, we so often nearly fall off the stage.”

it’s a whole new paradigm: the paradigm of imperfection as aim. because what matters lies deep therein.

“i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want to find voice, essentially.”

and voice we all have. and, yes, sometimes it warbles. and sometimes it cracks. but it’s a voice and it’s ours. and it’s how we put words to what rustles around deep inside. it’s where our breath resides. it’s the topography that puts height and depth and nooks and crannies — glorious texture — to all that air flowing in and out of our lungs, air keeping us alive.

all of this is all the more immediately essential because this sunday i am doing something i’ve never done before. something that might have scared me out of my behoozies. i am walking onto a stage, and i am sitting down beside a cellist and a pianist. it’s a spoken word concert, inspired by one that a beloved friend and editor of mine once saw in japan.

i am, for the first time ever, invited into conversations about lighting and stage set, and in the faintest of ways, costume. i’m immersed in the full dimensionality of theatre. and i am discovering what happens when words are lifted from the page. when words are set soaring by the power of cello strings and piano keys, and the alchemies of audible, ephemeral creation.

and, as is my natural inclination, i was scared silly. until two things happened: until damian woetzel taught me that it’s not about correct; correct holds little interest, little tension, scant transparency.

and the other thing that happened is i stepped into the music during rehearsals, and i felt the most astounding flight: cello and piano, cellist and pianist, dove into conversation with the words i was unfurling. and then this, which i’ll preface by saying that many a writer’s whispered prayer is that, in between and through the words, music might come for those reading or listening. and, suddenly, there in the light-filled rehearsal room, i heard it, i felt it. the music did come, did lift and vault and carry the words to places and heights they’d not otherwise have ascended. it comes, the music does, i discovered, when you step onto a stage, and sit down beside a cellist and a pianist who’ve spent their lives deepening their knowledge of the landscape that’s theirs. the power of music, i’ve realized, is the safety net to my trapeze. is what holds me aloft, shooshes away my perpetual fears, is a medium that suddenly felt like coming home, a place where i, at long last, belong. how utterly unlikely.

so sunday afternoon at 1, at the midwest buddhist temple in chicago’s old town, i will be walking out from behind a curtain, all in black with a wrap of fuchsia. i’ll be sitting down in a japanese armchair, a bowl of oranges beside me, a vase spilling with springtime white. the cellist will pick up her bow. the pianist will strike a key. and i will put breath, put voice, to my words.

and i will remember that the wise ones in the room aren’t there to hear “correct,” they’re there to be moved, to cry, to find a voice, essentially.

and that is a truth that sets me soaring.

do you, like me, spend far too many hours of life being worried you won’t get it right? and thus binding yourself in ways that demand houdini-like tricks to set you free? 

that said, here’s an invitation: if you’re near chicago sunday afternoon, find your way to the temple, and plop yourself in a chair. cellist sophie webber and pianist soo young lee, both of fused muse ensemble, will take you places that might take your breath away…..

a few things:

1.) emily’s poem

I cannot dance opon my Toes –
No Man instructed me –
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet Knowledge –
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe –
Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze –
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped for Audiences – like Birds –
One Claw opon the air –

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so –

Nor any know I know the Art
I mention – easy – Here –
Nor any Placard boast me –
It’s full as Opera –

2.) the program for sunday’s “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time”

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.14.22 AM

 

and a post-script:

it’s sunday night, the interludes have ended. it’s quiet now and i’m breathing again. a dear friend snapped this moment of the concert. and i’m enchanted by what appear to be fairy lights wafting across the stage. the cellist is sophie webber, the pianist is soo young lee, both have PhDs in music. both are beautiful. sophie founded fuse muse ensemble, a collective of musicians who dedicate themselves to social causes as well as beautiful music in all forms. i hope this is only a beginning for us….here’s a peek at the magic of “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time.” thank you, from the bottom of my heart….

SlowingTimeMusic

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