pull up a chair

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

an attentive life

fern attentive life

because i’m motoring up to my college reunion today, here’s an essay i wrote for the summer issue of marquette magazine, in which i realize how that jesuit curriculum was the birthing ground of paying attention, most especially, for me, in the college of nursing…

An Attentive Life

An Essay By Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79

Until I heard my husband’s voice, sounding rattled on the answering machine, it had hardly been a newsworthy morning. I’d been out squishing through the soggy kitchen garden. I’d noticed a few green nubs poking through the thawing earth. I’d watched a mama sparrow dart this way and that with the dried-grass makings of her nest.

And then I scrambled to my email to read the news that had put the tremor in my husband’s throat: A dear friend, one who’d just finished a year of god-awful chemo, a friend who is mother to a 17-year-old who only a week ago had scored the trifecta of Ivy League acceptance letters and to a 13-year-old who’s not too tough to cry when soccer flattens him, had just gotten word that her cancer is back. Back with a vengeance. And her doctors now narrow her hope: only to stretch out her days so, for now, she can pack her daughter’s college trunk and send her son back onto the soccer field for one more season.

The words that won’t stop rattling through my breath, my brain, my every heartbeat are these: The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.

If our days are numbered —and they are, though it sometimes takes the urgency of a day like today to sharpen the edge of that raw truth —we really can’t afford not to notice, not to bristle at the brush strokes of the divine that sweep up against us, leave us with goose bumps, remind us that the holy is all around and that if we listen, really listen, we just might hear the sacred breath that whispers, “Here I am.”

It took me the better part of a half-century to figure it out, but I’ve come to believe that prayer is the practice of paying attention.

Like the chambered nautilus I unearth from the sandy shore, the uncoiling of wholly attentive prayer is at once simple yet intricate. A discipline never easy, nor is it insurmountable. It’s a mindfulness, a sensory awakening that opens all the channels coursing straight to the pulse point deep inside, the one that attunes us to true knowing. It can feel sometimes as if someone is squeezing our hand in the dim darkness of our days or wrapping us in mighty muscled arms that will not let us stumble or turn to run and hide.

At heart, the prayer of paying attention is a deeply human act that ushers in the otherwise unknowable. It’s what fills in the emptiness of our otherwise hollow living-breathing selves.

It comes in many forms. It’s the wide-eyed scanning of sky that prompted me, one late summer’s night while driving home through a leafy woods, to notice the rising cheddar wheel of a moon and drive like a madwoman to the edge of a lake, where I watched that lunar orb ooze tangerine strands across the inky waters, arcing toward the high point of heaven’s dome. Slack-jawed, I marveled all the while.

Or it’s the keen-eared concentration that allowed me not to miss when a man sitting down the row in a shadowy auditorium mentioned that, soon after his wife died, he explained to his young son: “The reason people die is because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

I can’t imagine the text of my life absent such heaven-sent wonder and wisdom.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, writes: “Attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the golden-glowing woods or startle to the night song of the spring peepers rising from the wetlands is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

“I want to live my life in epiphany,” says poet and Renaissance scholar Kimberly Johnson. “I want all my pores open.” This way of living at full attention, she says, “is unmediated experience. My antennae are tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.”

It’s why she’d gladly spend a day nestled beside a gurgling brook on a mountain trail. It’s a way to gulp down undiluted holiness, never watered down, not dimmed by the cacophony of a world that seems to be forgetting how to listen.

The holiest way to live this blessed life is by paying full-throttle attention.

Celtic tradition puts a name to the places in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, where the whispers of the divine are most discernible: “Thin places,” the Celts believe, are the places to which we are pulled as if tide pools where we can bathe in that for which we are so parched.

The first time I heard the phrase, I was walking between rows of runner beans with a farmer friend whose firstborn son, a U.S. Marine home on leave from Iraq, had been killed when his old car missed the bend in a country road and he drowned in a pond not five miles from his mother’s central Illinois farm. My farmer friend pointed to the hayloft of the old barn, a gap-toothed slat-roof barn where shafts of light streamed in, a mosaic of illumination and shadow. “That’s my thin place,” she told me. “That’s where I go to cry in the arms of God.”

Curiously, Celts and Jews and Ignatius Loyola, among others, share that pulsing sense that every moment of the day — the most ordinary moments of every day — are vessels of the holy. And all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer.

So for Jews, there are some 100 blessings stitched across the hours of the day, from the blessing for awaking to the one for slipping on undergarments. In Celtic tradition, prayers are whispered for getting up, lighting the fire, milking the cow and on through the day, until the prayer for snuffing out the candles when the house is darkened for the night.

A glorious expression of that Celtic belief in abounding holiness is the insistence that we “learn to play the five-stringed harp,” that being the five senses that will bring us nose to nose, skin to skin, ear to ear with the divine.

In the Ignatian way, the credo is clear: Find God in all things. Not only all good things. All things. The great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “… for Christ plays in ten thousand places … ” Thomas Merton put it: “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

In a word, it’s “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet. It’s all around, and it’s a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. We’re not tripping over a novel concept here. This is no New Age enlightenment.

“It’s one of the most fundamental spaces in my life, this space where the horizontal, the secular, meets the vertical, the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross,” says Guggenheim Fellow, poet and best-selling author Eliza Griswold, the journalist who wrote The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. “That’s poetry, where everyday time is punctured by the sacred. And my calling is there, the places where sacred and secular meet.”

I’ve long been a student in the great school of God’s world as it surrounds me. I’ve long been hellbent on breaking open the fragile — and the monumental — offered up by the limbs and the leaves and the rippling streams and the star-stitched night sky.

There is metaphor all around. It’s deep and it’s profound, and I am drinking it in as if cool waters through a straw.

And more than in John Muir’s woods or on the banks of Thoreau’s Walden Pond, my ears have perked to the scritch scratch of heaven on earth right here in the dappled sunlight as it pools across the wide pine planks of my old house or plays peekaboo among the tangled vines of my rambunctious secret garden just outside the kitchen door.

I needn’t travel far to find the holy. Though it did take time — the better part of decades — to learn to listen for the sacred murmurings, to let them soak deep down to where I was hungriest, most hollow, to figure out that all along I’d had the fine-boned instrument to draw the music in.

And, recently, it struck me that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of Marquette’s College of Nursing, back at the old college, the one appended to St. Joe’s Hospital. There, in shiny linoleum-tiled classrooms in the fall of 1976, the whole lot of us began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once that white cap had been bobby-pinned to my curly locks, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer whose origin I can’t recall. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath and which limb hurt too much for me to lift.

And on and on the learning went. As I watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of a 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder while he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths. At the crosshairs of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination.

Some three decades ago, because by then I was working in a newspaper newsroom and forgot to pay attention to the paperwork of my life, my nursing license expired. So, short of retaking my boards, I can’t claim to be a registered nurse any longer.

But, the truth is, I needn’t hold a license to practice the exquisite art of paying attention. It’s a hard-won curriculum, indeed. But it’s one that’s dissolved the hard edge between heaven and messy earth. It’s the undercurrent of all my prayer. And it’s what aligns my every breath with all that is most holy.

Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79, once a pediatric oncology nurse, is a freelance journalist and the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), to be published in October 2014.

and how, dear friends, did you learn to pay exquisite attention? 

attentive life MU mag

fat ‘n’ sassy: measuring joy in micrometres

fat and sassy blueberries

it doesn’t take much. never really does. the end-game, though, is everything: the skip in the heart when sweet leaflets of joy come wafting down from the clouds.

and so it was with the blueberry basket. i was paying little mind, going about the motions of putting food to the plate, en route to the mouth, at last to the tummy. i reached in the cold box that keeps these modern conveniences — and here i wonder, are we losing something, relying on refrigeration instead of plucking them straight from the bush? so early, and already so distractible, i am…

anyway, i was mentioning the cold box, the ice box, in my grandma’s vernacular, the one that keeps those little globes of summer from going flat, like old tires on a bicycle that’s not been ridden in months. i reached and grabbed the berry basket, the one hauled home from the store, alas not the farmer’s field.

i started to pour, to dump the blue balls of summer and that’s when i noticed: these were blueberries at their most swollen, blueberries who’d pushed out their skins to the point of near bursting, and then pumped the insides with that delectable potion of sweet-tart-and-pucker. these were blueberries fat ‘n’ sassy and filled with pizazz.

and so it was, at that very moment, that i felt my heart do a bit of a double-beat.

sometimes, that’s all it takes: joy measured in micrometres. a dimension the science books tell me is used in measuring infrared radiation wavelengths, the diameter of wool fibers, and the heft of cells and bacteria. human hair, you might wish to know, measures in at some 90 micrometres (the spelling of the international bureau of weights and measures, as opposed to the ingrained auto-correct that keeps slapping my hand, trying to get me to flip my “r” and my “e,” to do away with this british affectation of science). there’s a fancy abbreviation for micrometre/micrometer, but most keyboards can’t fathom it, so among common folk, the abbreviation is “um,” as in that ungodly pause when we’re fishing for words. a water droplet of fog, for instance — yes, they measure these things (though not necessarily with yardstick) — is sized up at roughly 10 to 15 ums.

but back to the blueberries, near doubled in girth, in micrometres. a measuring tape slapped round their middles right now, at the height of summer’s rising crescendo, when the cicadas start rubbing their parts, their noise-maker parts, and the hum of near august vibrates into the night, it might make a Vaccinium corymbosum (or highbush blueberry) blush with indigo pride. they’re packin’ a wallop right now.

and that’s all it took. that one increment of immeasurable heart tickle, it was all the delight i needed to add a skip to my summery morning. the air out the window was cool, northern-michigan cool. the berries in my bowl were zaftig. the day had nowhere to go but skittering southward. i’d reached the glory spot before my coffee had cooled one joule (dipping back into the annals of science, we pull out the word for a standard measure of heat energy, or thermodynamics).

with all these berries inflated to seasonal highs, i reckon, it must be time to crank the oven and beckon the boy in this house whose favorite page of mark bittman’s how to cook everything: simple recipes for great food (macmillan, 1998) is the one that’s splattered with smeared bits of butter and very old droplets of egg white (more than 10 to 15 ums, i assure you). the boy, now asleep in his bed, dreams day and night of blueberry cobbler, the dish he calls his finest (never mind only) baking hour.

it goes something like this, and it’s more than worthy of those fat sassy globes that define summer at its puckeriest.

blueberry cobbler

yield: 6 to 8 servings

provenance: mark bittman’s dear friend john willoughby, who found it in a southern boardinghouse, so you know it must be lip-smackin’ good.

4 to 6 cups blueberries, washed and well dried.

1 cup sugar, or to taste

8 Tbsps. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for greasing the pan

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch salt

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss fruit with half the sugar, and dump in lightly buttered 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

2. combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in food processor, and pulse once or twice (or, simply mix in a bowl, the old-fashioned way, with big spoon and muscle power). add butter and process for 10 seconds, or old-fashioned way, cut into flour-sugar mixture with pastry cutter or two knives, crisscrossing through the mound. by hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

3. drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes. dollop onto plates. please wait for joules to dissipate, or you’re apt to burn your tongue.

savor under the summer night’s star-stitched sky. or as sweet spot to your morning’s coffee.

cobbler

‘scuse me, while i go rouse the boy, and spin the dial on the oven.

and how do you take your puckery berries?

a wee bit of housekeeping: if you peek up above, to the few bold words under the title “pull up a chair,” you might notice there’s a new line, “the book: slowing time,” which means there’s a new place to poke around here at the table. seeing as this blessed book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, October 2014), is rolling toward the printing press any week now, and seeing as the real live bound galley arrived in a pouch on my front stoop last night, it seems high time to give Slowing Time its very own place to call home here where it all began. you’ll find a few bits of news, some very kind words that have rolled in under the transom in the last week or so, and whatever else you might care to know in the book department. click here to peek.

and may your third full week of july be sweet as a bowl of fat blueberries, cobblered or not….

every morning’s wonder: ululations at dawn

ululations at dawn

it all started because of the cat. the noisy cat who pays no mind to numbers on clocks. the cat who thinks zip of unzipping a yowl at 4:49 in the morning. he had an itch, it would appear, to wend his way down the stairs and into the murky haze of the dawn. and so he let it be known.

which is where i come in.

one quick glance at the glaring red digits, a flip back of the soft summer bed sheet, and before i knew it, my feet hit the floorboards and padded straight toward the light and the door and the dawn.

wasn’t long — no more than the time it takes for one brain wave to leap across the synaptic gulch that comprises the wiring of the waking-up human — till i noticed how noisy it was. all around. coming from every nook and cranny of the great beyond.

it was the ululations of the dawn, and it knocked me upside the head, the wonder of birdsong at its thickest, in that one short interlude when first light is licking the sky, and most of the world — or at least the folks in my neck of the woods — are fast asleep, just beginning to crank up the dreams in that pre-alarm-clock revving of REM, the rapid-eye-movement cycle of slumber when visions are spun, and spun wildly.

there would be no REM for me this day. i blundered into something far more mesmerizing.

i followed the cat straight out the door, me and my flimsy old nightshirt. and there i stood, drinking it in. or trying to anyway. truth is, i could barely swallow a drop of it. i just let is wash over and over me. a blur of glorious sound: cheeps and warbles and trills. vowels banging hard up against consonant blends. (i’m certain audiologists have names for these audio bit-lets, but i call them simply the wonder of dawn measured in decibels.)

i tried, hard as i could, to pick it apart. to pluck one note from one bird that i knew: the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer, the rise and the fall of the wren’s blessed warble. but mostly i just marveled, drank in the whole.

wasn’t long before i imagined the whole of them — the flocks and flocks who must have been darting among the summer’s greenery, or perched at the ends of boughs, filling the dawn with their music — in classic morning silhouette: standing before the bathroom mirror, faces creased from a long night’s slumber, eyelids still at half-mast, warbling away at the dawn. as humans have been known to do as they run the tap, await warm water for the day’s first splash. smear the squiggle of toothpaste clear across the toothy bristles. only i pictured zillions of birds frothing away at the morning sink, clearing their throats, unfurling their dawn song (minus the toothpaste).

that made me laugh. but then i got curious. so, once the groundswell of sound slowed to a trickle (and it didn’t last long, this ephemeral chorus, which only makes it all the more urgent), i pulled a few books off my shelves, and turned a few pages, studying the birdsong of dawn and why it’s so very raucous.

here’s a bit of the wonder that i discovered:

birds do their warbling because their little sound box, called a syrinx, isn’t placed up high in the throat, as is a human’s. rather, their syrinx is down low in the airway, at the juncture of the two bronchi, or tubes that funnel air into and out of the lungs. there, it allows the birds not one but two sources of sound, the air flowing in and out of each of their little bird lungs. and the membranes of each bronchus — think strings of the violin, or holes in a flute — allow separate sounds to be made.

and perhaps you’ve wondered how it is that the wren can yodel for minutes on end without keeling off her branch from sheer lack of oxygen? well, she and all her avian choristers have mastered the art of the mini-breath, each one timed between notes. so you can’t tell she’s filling her lung-lets, but in fact she is.

the burning question for me was this: why are the birds at their operatic noisiest at dawn, and only dawn?

the answer, one of those ones that melts me off my chair, and gives rise to goosebumps at the thought of the Brilliance who dreamed this all up: the birds sing at dawn because it’s when sound travels best. scientists who measure these things determined that sound at the dawn is 20 times as effective as midday sound, when the cacophony of life makes for stiff aural competition.

reason no. 2: other than belting out their tunes, there’s not much else for birds to do at dawn, according to ornithologists who ponder these things too. light intensity is low, so it’s a bit of a chore for a bird to forage for breakfast. because night temperatures drop, the insects — aka breakfast — are hunkered down on the ground, amid the relative warmth of grasses and dirt, and not yet available for plucking. so why not sing a morning tune? let the neighbor birds know you’ve made it through the night, and just might be available for a little daybreak dalliance, if you know what i mean…..(insert bird wink here).

it gets better: birds adapt their songs to whatever will travel best in their native habitat. so, the birds of the forest, where trees are thick and sound bounces off leaves, go for short bursts of aural punctuation. birds of the great plains opt for a buzz that clears across the wide-open canvas of wheat fields and pastures. and if a bird calls home some place near rushing waters, it will dial up its frequency to be heard above the aqueous roar.

before we wend to a close, consider this magnificent passage from british nature writer gareth huw davies, for sir david attenborough’s PBS series, “the life of birds”:

The vocal ability of birds has inspired poets and musicians, from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Handel to Respighi. Birdsong can be a natural phenomenon of intense beauty. But our enjoyment is incidental to the main purpose, which is one bird communicating with others. Birds became the world’s master musicians in order to convey to potential mates, rivals and predators all the important things they have to say, from “Clear off!” to “Come on!”

And their songs have been shaped by their environment, just as the rap musician of New York delivers a different “tune” to the yodeller in the Swiss mountains. The musical detail would have impressed the great composers. The nightingale, for example, holds up to 300 different love songs in his repertoire. The canary may take 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish its air supply. The cowbird uses 40 different notes, some so high we can’t hear them. The chaffinch may sing his song half a million times in a season.

Indeed, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S.Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.

by 5:15, a far-too-brief 26 minutes after i’d stumbled into it, the bird sonata had quelled, and in rolled the soundtrack of civilization — the cars rumbling, trains bellowing, and far too soon, the early-bird lawn mowers coughing and spewing and disturbing the peace.

i miss the morning song already. but i’m betting on my wide-eyed cat to wake me on the morrow, so once again i’ll launch my sunlit hours on the wings of the glorious chorus of daybreak.

however sleepy i’ll be for the rest of the day, it’s so deeply worth it.

if you, too, are curious about birdsong, take a peek at this fine primer. or this guide to north american songbirds, with marvelous lists of birds based on whether they sing one or two or three notes.

and do consider shuffling out of doors at dawn to see what you might hear. know that you won’t be alone. me and my nightshirt will be there too. 

and how do you launch your day with your daily dose of wonder?

summer’s succulence

sky lights

it’s the morning after the night exploded.

it’s gentle out now. the pop and fizzle are long gone, replaced by mama wren singing. and mr. and mrs. cardinal chattering, as they imbibe on the annual inebriating feast of plump purple serviceberries, dangling from the bough.

i’m inhaling all of it, as i try for one short spell to push away the worries, the deadlines, the cobwebs in the corners.

this is what summer is for, the reason it exists: to catch the rhythm of your breath, to notice how it flows in time with tide, with water gurgling toward the lakeshore sands, then rolling out again.

this is a day for slicing watermelon, for scooping little balls of sweetness from soft and juicy flesh. for popping back blueberries by the fistful. for paper napkins catching all that dribbles — because you’d never get the fruity stains out of cotton squares or linen.

this just might be a day for cranking up the oven. and the grill, of course. but one short blast of cake baking just might be what the declaration of independence does declare.

because it’s a holiday, because we’re practicing the art of stepping out of time, and into the hallowed hollows of timelessness, i’m making like this here is a backyard with picket fence, and i’m leaning across the fence to hand you a recipe for the finest chocolate cake this side of the iowa state fair.

a dear college friend drove down from wisconsin a week or so ago, with a sheet pan of devilish deliciousness and the spelled-out recipe to boot. she left the whole darn cake when she packed up to head back north, and my boys declared it the finest chocolate cake they’d ever slipped between their lips.

with no more hoopla, and one sweet promise: here’s a slice of delicious summer’s succulence, brought to you courtesy of judy smith, who was motored here by one maureen haggerty warmuth. they’re two of the treasures i’ve held onto from my college days. and here’s the treasure to tuck inside your banged-up, battered, much-used tin of recipes. (fact is, this is all-season’s succulence, but since we’re at the fever-pitch of summer, we’ll tag it one for summer’s glory. seems just the thing to ferry to the independence day cake stand.)

minnesota chocolate cake

provenance: my friend judy smith’s dear friend tammi baumann

2 cups flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. baking soda

ADD:

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg, slightly beaten

2/3 cup oil

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup coffee brewed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat together your litany of ingredients — batter will be runny.

Pour into greased and floured 9-by-13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

frosting:

In saucepan, dump:

1 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. corn starch

1/2 tsp. salt

4 Tbsp. cocoa

1 cup boiling water

Cook over medium heat while stirring, till thickened.

Remove from heat, and ADD:

1 tsp. vanilla

3 Tbsp. butter

Cool frosting and pour over cake.

grab fork. dig in. declare this a day for summer’s succulent sweetness — in all its many flavors.

p.s. there was a rumor wafting about the kitchen that this chocolate-y deliciousness might have won blue ribbon at one of those fine midwestern country fairs. fact or fiction, it won just such an honor here in our humble kitchen. so pinned by the boys who left not a crumb behind on the cake plate…

and what will you be ferrying to your independence day feast? and what’s your definition of summer’s succulence? how would you spend a holiday away from all that weighs you down?

 

it all snaps into focus

june rambling rose

long ago, at the start of this fog-shrouded day, i thought i was going to type a sentence about waiting for the tow truck.  then, once the tow truck rolled away, and the flat-tire car rolled with it, i wandered back to my little typing hole. i started looking for a social security card that i could not find, which led me to discover that i couldn’t find a passport.

i was twisted in knots about these silly paper trails when an email came in. an email from a friend i adore. from a friend whom i’ve been accompanying to chemo on mondays. i pick her up, we drive to the big hospital downtown. i watch her IVs get started. we sit and talk about important things. sometimes we look out onto the lake, and the vast stretch of sky that you can see when you are tucked inside a high-rise hospital not far from the lake. we talk about not-so-important things sometimes. it’s what you do when you are living a life suddenly overpopulated with cancer, damn cancer. sometimes the talk is deep and clear and the words are truth-seeking missiles, boring straight into the caverns of the heart where all that matters dwells. sometimes they are everyday words, because you can’t swallow a steady diet of life-and-death.

but today my dear friend got back news that she and i and everyone who loves her had prayed she would not get. i pitted red dints into my knees yesterday, kneeling so long and hard as i unfurled my petitions heavenward, while she marched bravely, warily, into her whole-body scan.

she emailed me to tell me what the doctor said. she said she is numb. and she said she is gathering the tiny circle of ones she loves, so they can all be close today.

it’s what you do when news comes. when news is of the most awful kind.

i am trying to type carefully to keep my friend shrouded in privacy. but i’m typing to say what we all know: the lost passports and social security cards of our life, the flat tires and the tow trucks, the long to-do lists, the groceries not yet in the fridge, none of them matter.

it’s perfectly clear as i sit here this awful morning: in the end, it’s all a gift, the chance to wake up, to face another tumbledown of hours, of hearts entwined, of wings that just might set us soaring for a few short interludes of any given day. it’s all a precious, lung-filling gift. it’s ours to behold.

behold the holy hours of this day. behold the ones you love. forgive the petty tangles of the heart. do something that deeply matters today.

this holy hour is the one into which we can stitch the deepest meaning, the most expansive love. the blessing is in the now. make it matter.

amen.

in the whispers of your heart, consider how you might rearrange your day, to embroider the holiest of holies into your otherwise ordinary day. 

turning 21: a mother was born

willie baby with kiss

nothing had ever — has ever — so deeply captured my attention. you can see it in the gaze above, the eyes locked between mother and child. you can see it in the parted lips, my lips, can almost hear the gushing in of breath, of pure and utter undiluted amazement.

deep down, i think, i never really believed it would happen. had so little faith in my body — in the flesh and bones that made me who my vessel was — i gasped when they handed me that bundle. i so distinctly remember drinking in his eyes, whispering, “hullo, my sweet, so here i am, and here you are, answer to my deepest prayers, my dreams come true beginning now.” and then, before i could stop myself, i zeroed in on the thighs. the thighs i am blessed to report were duly “pudged,” rolls of flesh and perfect fat, a fat so deliciously dimpled it nearly melted me off the birthing bed.

i’d been afraid i might grow a baby without the requisite fat. in fact, i doubted my capacities as birthing chamber all along. in one long weekend, after an early set of ultrasounds, i convinced myself my baby had no brain. all you could see inside the skull was black space, blank black space. oh my god, i thought, they’ve not yet broken it to me, but i think my baby might be missing his brain. i even called a radiologist friend — on a sunday — to find out if he’d confirm my fear.

he confirmed it not.

and in fact, on the sultry start-of-summer tuesday when at last that babe was born, he was a whopping eight pounds, nine ounces — a good chunk of that birthweight duly tucked in the cranial cavity, where in the years since he’s proven how undeniably that brain was where it needed to be, doing precisely what it was wired to do.

my beautiful beautiful boy turns 21 on sunday, and while my letter to him will be deeply private, the one i’m writing here is the one in which i proclaim to anyone who pulls up a chair how very deeply his birth birthed the depths of me, allowed at last the core of who i dreamed i could be, who i prayed i could be, to begin to take form, to emerge in light and shadow, to rise from the gauzy netherworld, to be defined in sharp outline and tender spots, and to be forming still.

it just might be most every blessed mother’s story: we stumble upon the best that we can be, sometimes, when living, breathing, squawking, ever-hungry babe is cradled in our arms. our trembling arms, to be sure. our arms that grow stronger, surer, over all the sagas and the chapters and the countless hours of two lives entwined.

when i think back over the 21 years that he and i have been essential factors in each other’s equations, i stand in wide-eyed wonder. i bow down low in deepest gratitude. i wince at my mistakes, moments i’d give anything to do over. and i marvel at the times when i stepped to the edge of the precipice, mustered all my courage, and leapt — that eternal life-saving instinct nestled deep in every mother’s heart, the one that propels us to put form to whatever is the holy vow we take when we’re first told that life stirs within.

it’s unbreakable, the mother bond. it defines our days, puts order to our must-get-done list, sets us off to the ends of the earth, if need be, in search of the essential whatchamahoojie — be that the medical specialist who can peer inside a child’s shattered bone or merely the USB cable that’s gone missing from his laptop at the very hour the paper must be printed and turned in for a full semester’s credit.

and it keeps us awake, long night after long night.

we learn, once motherhood comes upon us, just how long we can go without so much as a spoonful of cereal (it took me a couple weeks to figure out how to inhale breakfast with a baby wailing in the infant seat), and how many consecutive nights we can curl up on the bathroom floor cradling a fevered child or one who’s upchucking till the wee wee hours.

when necessary, we discover we can make the scariest of phone calls, can dial up the mother of the slumber-party bully, can look the teacher in the eye and say, i’m sorry, i don’t think you understand my kid. we can even will our knees not to buckle when the ER doctors start tossing around words like “airlift” and “cervical fracture,” and “severed spinal cord.” we can make promises to God — ones we swear we’ll keep — when, for longer pauses than we ever thought we could endure, we’re begging to be spared a kid who can’t flinch a muscle from his neck down to his fingers and his toes.

in rare sweet moments, we find out how it feels to catch the wind and soar. we turn and see the kid we love dashing down the block to hand a crunched-up dollar bill to the homeless guy he knows by name. we nearly fall in the river as the kid who couldn’t catch a fly ball now rows mightily across the finish line. we read the words his college professors send to us in emails that knock us off our chairs, and leave one of us brushing away the streams of tears.

we hope, we dream, we pray. we reach down deep, deeper than we ever reached before. we listen till the birds of dawn begin to sing, if that’s what it takes some long dark hollow nights.

we find our voice along the years. we exercise our heart. we wrack our brains. we love, and love some more.

and suddenly 21 years have happened. countless picture frames loop before our eyes. words and stories bubble up and fill page upon page. our hearts are 21 times the size they used to be — at least.

we have paid most exquisite attention, to each and every breath and utterance all along the way. we’ve driven ourselves nearly mad. we’ve cared beyond reason. in fact, there’s little room for the rational when it comes to this particular brand of love story.

we were handed a treasure. we owe it to the treasure. we owe it to the bequeathers of the treasure.

i, for certain, was handed the treasure of my life. june 22, 1993. the day the best of me was born.

a work very much in progress. the best work in all my oeuvre.

i love you, sweet will, with all my heart and all my soul and everything that dwells between.

chair people, thanks for indulging me in this morning’s labor of truest deepest love. i found the photo above — my sweet boy’s forehead stamped with a “stork kiss” from my beloved obstetrician, who made it a habit of smearing on bright red lipstick to mark her babies shortly after birth — while working on a little picture project. i’ve been compiling a little something for my sweet boy’s birthday and this frame floated to the top.

feel free to tell what birthed the best of you along the way….

never enough will

 

summer starts here

summer starts here lemonade

across town, the bell will clang one last time. little hearts will cartwheel inside ribcages that hold it all in — too tight — for most of the year. school buses will rumble down the cobbled streets, well before lunchtime. at every corner, kids will bound off, as if a new lease on life.

it’s that rarest of mornings when the exhale is deep and long and the launch pad for unbroken weeks — or at least a few hours — of hassle-free summer.

for the curly-haired wonder in this old house, it means the stacks of seventh-grade homework will finally dwindle. it means no more 6:30 alarms. no more school buses to be missed. it means, any minute now, the front door will burst open and in will tromp a herd of not-so-little feets. big plans have been hatched for stacks of syrupy pancakes at the diner down the lane, where the screen door slaps and the flat-top sizzles, egg after egg after egg scrambled or fried or flipped over easy.

even for the mama, it’s joy undiluted. that moment when summer begins remains enshrined, tucked high on a shelf, safe in a plexiglass cube. it’s the closest thing to carefree i can conjure. all these years later, i remember rushing into my own growing-up kitchen, end-of-year report card in hand. i remember the certain sparkle in the air. i remember my mama, putting down the day’s errands and chores, just long enough to pile us all in the wagon, and take us out for a drive. out for lunch at a formica-topped counter. not unlike the one my own little fellow will wander off to today.

there aren’t so many carefree moments left anymore. so this one, this one that’s caught in the crosshairs of all the counting down, it’s one worth deep-breathing. it’s a moment to savor. it’s a place to begin the fine art of slowing time. sucking each droplet of wonder and joy out of this one sweet morning that spills into afternoon’s adagio. and might even last till tomorrow.

slowing time, the essence of summer.

here’s a short list of ways i might dip my toe in that most essential seasonal wonder:

take off my shoes. tickle my toes in the grass.

sign up for summer reading at the library. or, pick one fat book that’s long overdue on my i-need-to-read-this list and pledge to turn page after page till i get to the end.

keep close watch on the old rambling roses, on the brink of bloom any hour now.

tuck myself in the old screen porch, and drink in the soundtrack of summer — the baby birds out for their first fledgling flights, the wren who calls out her glories from high in the pines, the roar of the lawn mowers that never go quiet.

pile a saucer with juiciest berries. pop into mouth, one sweet succulent shlurp at a time.

unfurl a beach towel across the grass that is my make-believe beach. slather on sunscreen — mostly because it smells the way summer is meant to smell — and bake there till i can’t stand the heat. that oughta last 10 minutes or less.

consider long tall glasses of glistening waters, aswim with plucked-from-the-garden mint and slices of lemon.

pile the grill with farmer’s market bounty.

ferry dinner out to the summer porch. light candles as the sun goes down. sit there, watching, till the firefly show begins. be sure to invite the neighbors, the ones who turn the simplest joys into most cherished hours.

weigh the virtues of sleeping outside. remember the neighborhood skunk. reconsider.

once, just once, head to the beach with a thermos of coffee, a fat sunday paper, and the promise to practice relaxing.

do not promise to slip into a bathing suit and promenade at the village pool.

when summer rains slide into the forecast, prepare to make the best of it: inhale the raindrops’ pit-a-pat from inside the screened porch, or better yet, slip on rubber galoshes and plop around the puddles, making like you’re seven again.

eat so many fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes you’re bound to sprout a canker sore or two. negligible price for summer’s juiciest trophy.

what will you scribble onto your summertime wonder list? and what’s on your summer reading list?

welcome to summer

weeds: necessary diversion, and a wallop of wisdom besides

weeds 2weeds 3weeds

welcome to my weedy world. in which, overnight, the overpopulation of unsolicited, uninvited and unbeckoned trespassers has left the invited assembly of little darlings in my beds gasping for air, shrieking for rights, and without so much as an inch to shake out their gangly roots.

furthermore, it’s left me — the one-armed gardener — at the mercy of the zillions of tensed-up muscle strands that striate my way-down back, the ones over-used to make up for the current lack of pulling power in my left-sided yanker, the limb whose bones are deep at work knitting themselves back into a whole (or so we hope, but that’s a worry for another day…).

which is to say: no one around here is all too tickled at what’s become of springtime’s fragile promise, when the gardens were soft with tender shoots, tight-wadded commas of fern, and unhyphenated stretches of loam as rich and dark as a fine espresso.

the interlopers all slipped in whilst i was otherwise occupied. and then, once i slipped on my nifty little reading lenses (those clear-eyed windows to the world that, more and more, are mandatory lest i choose to take in the view in one big blur), i realized that all the lush foliage upholstering the gardens was not some miracle of my growing skills, but rather the mere recalcitrance of a bumper crop of weeds who took advantage of my oblivion, blew the whistle and let the gallop to the clouds commence.

why, i’ve got itty-bitty maple trees growing smack-dab in the midst of hosta clumps. and ash trees dare to squiggle through the peonies, not yet in bloom. some stinky cousin of wild fennel has set out to overtake the yard, never mind the grass that’s in its way. and dandelions? i might as well call a truce, and snip it by the gallon as i’m told it makes a fine — if bitter — late spring salad.

i was lamenting all this overgrowth when margaret roach — she of martha stewart gardening fame, and author of a weekly newsletter (awaytogarden.com) that plops into my mailbox and bolsters my sagging gardener’s gloves — dropped in to let me know i was hardly alone. she too was moaning about “the shaggies,” the inevitable season of demise when what was tender, was confined, was obeying all your garden visions, suddenly dissolves into mad dishevelment, and you’ve nothing left to do but sit and weep. or start yanking.

i yanked.

and now, hot showers ought to be my hourly balm (alas, i’m afraid of the water bills). were i to do as the doctor ordered, i’d aim the pulsing shower beads bullet-like onto my low back, and wait for the occupational spasming to pass.

in the meantime, my yard is littered with the dehydrating remains of all that threatened to do in my beds. and still there are hours left to wrestle with the tangled roots and stubborn vines, the voluptuous leaves that all but stick a thumb into my fool-gardener eye and taunt, “catch me if you can!”

i’ve mostly been attacking in spurts — for that’s what you do for distraction when you’re pounding away on a keyboard for hours on end, worrying ceaselessly about whether a comma belongs here or there, and trying to drum up a substitute word for one you realize you’ve pushed past its limits.

and during those quarter-hourly sessions, i’ve had plenty of minutes to contemplate the virtues of subtracting from our over-clogged lives whatever it is that tangles our own inner works.

for, in the end, isn’t the zen of gardening all wrapped up in the fact that we extract our life lessons from earthworms and bees, from snapped-in-two stalks and beloved perennials that, after years of sheer joy, suddenly and without notice give up the ghost?

it’s why i muck in the dirt, really.

oh, sure, my heart does a thumpety-thump when at last i awake to the morning when the peony bursts into deep fuchsia bloom. or when the blue of baptisia wafts in the afternoon breeze.

but the truth of the matter is that i pay attention to the beds because i am so deeply hungry for all the wisdom contained there. and i soak it all up like a sunflower guzzling what shoots from the nozzle.

weeds aren’t too complicated (even if obliterating them from the premises verges on the impossible): they threaten the beautiful. they inhale too much oxygen. and drink more than their share of the rain.

so, too, the parts of our life that all on their own might hold merit but in rambunctious abundance distract us from the holy essence. keep us from getting our own best job done. whether that means signing up for so much PTA, we barely have time to curl up with our babies at bedtime. or taking on so many sentences we’re shoving aside the chance to soak up an afternoon’s stroll with a friend who’s in need. or merely surrender our quieted heart for as long as it takes for a blessed whisper to settle in and remind us of the very thing we need to know to go forward.

over the years — truth be told, it’s taken a good half century — i’ve discovered the wisdom of no. of not scribbling my name on every sign-up sheet passed under my nose. of not filling my hours with command performances that wither my soul. of not living my life as if a girl scout going for badge after good-camper badge.

i suppose — after years of trial and error, of skinned knees and bare-truth confessionals — i’ve learned a thing or two about keeping the weeds out of my days.

and now, it’s the ones hijacking my yard that i’m hellbent on yanking.

on the subject of weeds, i ought to pass along this soon-to-be-published encyclopedic compendium, weeds of north america, which dominique browning described thusly in last sunday’s new york times book review: 

“If you’re someone whose idea of perfect bedtime reading is “Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs,” you’re in luck — a bumper crop of excellent reference books is on its way. The encyclopedic WEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA (University of Chicago, paper, $35; available in August), by Richard Dickinson and France Royer, is going to have pride of place on my bedside table for years to come. It covers more than 600 species from 69 plant families at every stage of growth. Royer’s photographs are almost perversely alluring. They make you want to go out and plant weeds. Which, er, actually I do.”

and now the week’s question, which you might answer here or merely in the quiet of your own heart: if you were to weed the messiness out of your life, where might you begin the yanking? 

 

pausing, because that’s what you do when a great light floats into the starry night

maya angelou

if you could rub your palms across the planks of this old kitchen table, if we could all hear the scccrrch of the legs of the chairs scuffing across the floor boards of this old kitchen, if i could pour you all whatever it is you sip, there in the heavy chipped mugs that fit flush against your palms, well surely this morning we’d all be pausing, paying attention to the great light of the poet, the one with the gravelly cadence that made us wish she was our grandmama, or the wise lady who lived down the lane, or the prophet who knew our name.

maya angelou died this week, on wednesday at 86, which you certainly know by now. so we are left to sift through her pages, her words, her rhythms, her heart as she’s sprinkled it across sentences, across years.

a poet’s ashes, holy ashes, are the words she or he leaves behind, words pressed to the page. and we hold the poet to the light by sifting, poring over those everlasting traces of who the poet was, and how she saw the world, how the world filtered through her irreplaceable lens and settled on her soul.

and what you do when someone passes into the heavens is you stop what you were doing, you draw in the deepest breath you possibly can, and, sometimes, you don’t want to let that breath go, afraid to let go of the air that once co-mingled with the air of the someone who’s gone. i remember that breath when my papa died, and for a flash of an instant i wondered if i could hold it forever, not wanting the breath of a world in which he’d dwelled to escape — ever — from the depths of my chest.

but this is about maya, maya angelou, a poet and heart song who made me feel safe, safe in this bone-rattling, rockabye world.

now i can’t say i’m any sort of scholar of maya. only that she’s among the ones — women, many of them — whose words i often read in triplicate, because the words are so breathtaking on the first whirl, my eyes and my heart simply go back to the start of the sentence to read it again. to breathe it again. to catch the updraft and make me go soaring. to delve into the construction, the word choice, to figure it out, to see how she does it. like watching, i suppose, a brilliant hand surgeon reweave the tendons of a woodworker’s thumb. or sitting off to the side of a painter as she daubs her brush in the palette of oily whites and yellows and blues and greens, and puts them just so on the canvas, and suddenly sunlight is dappled where before there was only a montage of paint dabs.

so this dappled morning at the table, we sift through what maya has left us….

here, a few sentences worth reading in triplicate (these from angelou’s 1969 memoir, “i know why the caged bird sings,” which many know as the poem. this, though, is from the less familiar prose):

“Late one day, as we were attending to the pigs, I heard a horse in the front yard (it really should have been called a driveway, except that there was nothing to drive into it), and ran to find out who had come riding up on a Thursday evening…

The used-to-be sheriff sat rakishly astraddle his horse. His nonchalance was meant to convey his authority and power over even dumb animals. How much more capable he would be with Negroes. It went without saying.

His twang jogged in the brittle air. From the side of the store, Bailey and I heard him say to Momma, ‘Annie, tell Willie he better lay low tonight. A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.’ Even after the slow drag of years, I remember the sense of fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air and made my body light.” 

and here, because my mama ran to the library to get it, is the start of maya’s 2008 “letter to my daughter”:

Dear Daughter,

This letter has taken an extraordinary time getting itself together. I have all along known that I wanted to tell you directly of some lessons I have learned and under what conditions I have learned them.

My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still.

There have been people in my life who meant me well, taught me valuable lessons, and others who have meant me ill, and have given me ample notification that my world is not meant to be all peaches and cream.

I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my re- sponsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.

Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.

Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.

I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.

and finally, we close with this, from 1995′s “a brave and startling truth,” the poem maya wrote for the 50th anniversary of the united nations (it’s more than worth reading every last word of the entire poem, but here’s the last stanza):

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

should you choose to read a bit more about maya, the poetry foundation puts it poetically here.

and, now for the best part of our pause, what lines from maya do you bring to the table?

p.s. i hope she wouldn’t mind my calling her maya instead of the more stately ms. angelou. either one would do, and i beg her pardon — or yours — if the familiarity of using her first name suggests anything other than the deepest of dignified respect.

the truth behind one-handed gardening

one handed gardening

it so happens that at long last — and after hours of thinking perhaps the springtime would never come round again — we are at the dizzying height of the garden shaking off her winter slumbers and exploding every which way.

it also so happens that three weeks ago my exhausted stockinged feet — shuffling up to bed, late on a saturday night — smacked into a slick spot on the hardwood slabs of the family room floor, and, before i could muster the faintest of yelps, i went spiraling through mid-air and kerplunked wrist-first on the wide pine planks of the kitchen floor, several yards from the slick spot.

blurry-eyed, and in advance of assessing the twisted architecture of my inside-out-and-spiraled-around left arm-wrist-hand-thumb, i heard a noise i’ll not soon shake off: krrk, krrk, went the sound of my bones, snapping in twos.

springtime’s garden explosion + left arm strapped in a not-so-sexy black velcro-snug number = an exercise in one-armed gardening.

which has its merits. and not only because it gets you out of the hard work of whipping the beds into shape, reminding the dandelions they are not on your growing list, and generally over-taxing the wee little muscles that run up and down the length of your spine.

why, i thought, this here is a very fine thing. an unavoidable doctor’s order to slow down and, well, deep breathe the springtime’s intoxicants.

in my imagination, i’d penned a quiet pensive missive about how one-handed gardening was, hands down, a blessing. how it forced the slowed-down gardener to do a lot less mucking about in the dirt, and more or less straitjacketed her into the often elusive art of paying attention.

try squeezing the felco pruners with but one hand. try tying back the disobedient anything-but-climbing hydrangea.

try anything other than slowly meandering along the garden trail, observing the wee globes of dew as they dangle from furled fronds of fern. inhaling the knock-you-over perfumes of the lily-of-the-valley, bursting in white-bell clouds this week. savoring the soft morning’s warmth in the thick of the flowering crabapple’s vernal effusion.

in my imagination, i’d gathered up notes, and scribbled pithy wisdoms.

but then this week happened.

and because the chair is a place where we pull up honestly or not at all, i can’t quite quiet myself enough to pen that tranquil dispatch from the one-handed gardener.

truth is, this week is about as far from tranquil as a a week can be. i mention this not for sympathy, certainly, and not for worry, oh heavens no (i’m positively allergic to anyone worrying about me, although i manage to do it in spades all the time). but all in service of this being a sacred place where we can be whoever we are in the moment, no excuses necessary.

fact is, the arm that is now in four parts (two bones, now broken in two) has been throbbing. and one morning this week, i had a nice tete-a-tete with the anesthesiologists as they dozed me to sleep for a quick repair of a body part that had managed to spring a leak. add to the mix, the college kid home for a mad flurry of final-paper writing. and the regular line-up of seventh-grade worries and tummy aches and questions that demanded hard answers half an hour past bedtime.

so my thoughtful musings on one-handed gardening will have to wait for another year. or another thwop on the hard kitchen floor.

and instead of lulling you into tranquility, and slowing down long enough to notice the incremental beauties of the vernal thrust through the earth, i will offer this bit of recycled chair, an essay penned a while back, and one which just this week was published in the pages of the chicago tribune.

it was and is titled, “the sum of infinites,” and it goes something like this:

Mothering: The Sum of Infinites

By Barbara Mahany

The last time I’d seen him, when I tucked him into bed, blew a kiss and closed the door, he was fine. Just really tired, he said, worn out by soccer. And very, very hungry.

But next morning, as I walked out of the downtown parking garage, fumbled for the ringing rectangle in my backpack, tried to find a place to plop the coffee mug, so I could walk and talk and think out loud, I heard the words, “Mr. T is not feeling so good. He’s pretty hot, actually. And his throat, he says, is killing him.”

A series of rearrangements were duly rearranged, numbers dialed, summons plead, before I even spied my desk.

Given precise instruction, exact latitude and longitude of where he’d find the white-and-orange-and-azure box on the bathroom shelf, his papa dispensed the first round of fever-queller, tucked him back in bed, then kept finger in the dike till dear Grammy could ride to the rescue.

Miles away, I was but a distant player, so my part had me checking in every chance I got. Or so we’d scripted. Till I got the call mid-afternoon, and a squeaky little voice informed, “I’m dizzy.” Then asked, “When can Mama come home?”

NOW! was pretty much the word that popped into my head, so I cleared my desk and drove. And once through the blue front door, I dropped my keys and lunged and kissed him on the head.

Oh, the look in those empty eyes told me all I needed in the medical-data department. Those of us who’ve tread this ground, need no compass, no thermometer; we know by heart these dark and murky woods, know by gut just how deep we’re in, and how the road out will be a slow and bumpy one.

And thus began, again, the work of one mama tending to her achy, fevered little person.

By rapid – and rough – calculation, I’d guess this might have been the 90th such round, each one with its own odd particulars, since I’d first put on the mama robes, since Boy Number One was born, nearly 17 years before.

And as I spent the long night dispensing care in the ways my boys have grown to know, to count on, I began to contemplate how love, especially motherlove, is the sum of infinites.

Minute, and barely perceptible, although wholly definable and defining, they are the accumulated brushstrokes and palm presses and finger squeezes that imprint, somehow, on the souls of those whose care – whose fevered limbs, swollen glands, fractured bones, woopsy tummies – we cradle.

Until the fever lifts, the gland goes down, the tummy stops its gurgling, we dole out and dispense our ministrations without surrender to our own bodies’begging for unbroken sleep, or just a chair, or even a bowl of oatmeal that’s not gone cold.

It is the umpteen blankets and pillows you’ve piled on the floor, in that certain way you’ve come to call “The Nest.”

It is the 181 washcloths hauled off the shelf, doused under cool water, wrung out, folded and laid on fevered brow.

It is the 99 rubberbands stretched round just as many glasses, each one so marking it, a badge of courage for the sick one, and off-limits besides – lest you hastily find yourself tending a whole flock of fevered lambs.

It’s the way, without a moment’s pause, and no thought given to germs or contagion, you’ve climbed 3,000 times right into bed beside the hot one, so you are there, should there be a whimper in the night, should you need to climb the stairs one time, or ten, to fill a glass with ice, with honey, with 7-up, with gooey purple fever-buster. Or just because the ailing one left a certain pillow on the couch – and cannot sleep without it.

It is the who-knows-how-many baths you’ve drawn at three in the morning, because the fever won’t go down, and the little arms and legs you once marveled at, now barely ever eyeball beneath the sweatshirts and the soccer shinguards, are shaking like a leaf that barely clings to the branch amid October’s bluster.

Next morn, as you hear the doctor speak the words, “Go straight to the ER,”– thank God, you can count (three) the times you’ve heard that command – you realize that your well will never run dry, that you will pierce the microbes with sharp spear, given half a chance. That you will climb on the gurney, slide your own wobbly self through that CT scan, stick out your own arm to take the IV needles, you will wrestle to the mud whatever pokes and prods come your little one’s way, as you wipe away the alligator tears, and kiss the red-hot cheeks, and hold your breath and wait for all-clear whistles from the ER nurse, the one you now worship because she was so tender in her poking of your little soldier’s brave, brave arm.

And you realize, as you count up the hours of the week, and lose count of ice cubes and teaspoons of germ-killer, that the highway to heroics is paved, pretty much, of the same stuff as the potholed backroad.

That in the end, when all these flus and streps and bacterial pneumonias are past, we will have loved our way to triumph, in a race without a ribbon, a contest with no starting gun, an Olympiad we enter with our heart.

It is through the sum of infinitely loving, and infinite signature touches, that the little ones whose flesh and blood and coos and cries we were handed not so long ago, will grow up wholly defining how it is to be ministered to, to be loved, to be – yes – mothered, no matter who the motherer.

And –as you’ve maybe glimpsed once or twice already, when you’re the one who’s down and your little ones begin to mimic all your ways – they in turn will love as you have loved, will fold the same cool cloths, draw the baths, pour the gingerale, stir the chicken-noodle soup.

And thus our unmeasurable infinite acts will go forth into infinity.

A mighty sum – born, simply, out of love.

so that’s the news from my not-so-tranquil garden trail. tell me what unexpected blessings you stumbled on this week. or spill, once again, the infinite sums your mama once plied on you, or that you’ve doled out to your little ones when they were under the weather…

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