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

after the feast


if there was one slice of time to slip-slide into a bottle, to save for a rainy day, to relish, it might be that hushed and sumptuous moment when you tiptoe down the stairs and round the bend into the still-dark kitchen, first thing the morning after a very big feast.

the kitchen counters are cleared, the cookstove is sighing a deep sigh of relief, of exhaustion, of having been put through the holiday paces; all burners now still after blasting for hours, the oven now deep in a post-prandial sleep. there might be a bottle tucked off to the side, or the one lonely crescent roll that wasn’t torn into, the odd stack of plates that never got called for duty. open the fridge, though, and the shelves nearly groan, now pressed into service in hopes of preserving just a wee taste of all that was stirred and sautéed and browned and baked and roasted and mashed and pureed and, finally, dolloped over the course of a five-day kitchen maneuver, one mapped out with lists upon lists and timelines and charts and post-its galore.

as i sit snug at the old kitchen table, keeping watch on this blustery drizzle-drenched day, sipping my mug of the one hot liquid that catapults me out from under the covers, i find myself soaked in the grace of a year stitched with sadness, yes, but just as emphatically sewn with a hundred thousand shimmering threads of blessings for which my heart whispers thank you.

i’d start, sure as could be, with the three beds upstairs filled with long lanky boys who come in three sizes — small, long and longer. (while we’re at it, i’d add a long note of thanks for the post-feast delirium that more likely than not will fuel their sweet dreams — and my all-alone quiet — till long past midday.)

it wouldn’t take long — not far from the top of my roster of thanks — till i ticked through the deeply-loved friends who keep me aloft through whatever storms try to yank me down under.

i am thankful, so thankful, for this arthritic old house, and its creaks and its groans. for its doors that won’t close, and the window or two that refuse to budge open. i’m grateful of course for my unruliest garden, the one that paid little mind when i left it (mostly) to its own devices this much abandoned summer. thank God, yes and yes, for my little birds, the ones who buoy my heart with every flap of their wings, each chirp that rises up from their lungs and their throats and their short little beaks. thank you, especially, for the scarlet-robed cardinal i’ve lured back to my roost with scoop upon scoop of sunflower seed.

thank you for the crotchety old cat, the one who decides most nights around 3 in the morn that there is a world beyond this old house through which he must roam; the very old cat, by the way, we’re convinced we’re keeping alive through super-strength doses of love and not a few cans of high-grade tuna.

thank you, heavens above, for brothers strung across the country, and sisters-in-law i could not love more. thank you for mothers, by birth and by heart, ever my back-up squad, at home or afar. thank you for fathers, now resting in heaven. thank you for little niece and adorable nephew, proof that growing up loved is hope for the world.

thank you for books. and thank you for nuggets of time to burrow deep into pages, to contemplate a thought or a word — an old friend of a word or one newly unearthed. garner modern usagethank you, specifically, for my brand-new “garner’s modern american usage,” a genius of a roadmap through the vagaries and tight spaces of vernacular language (the late and ever-brilliant david foster wallace claimed it “eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar“).

and thank you just as deeply for the gem that arrived in the other day’s mail, wendell berry’s “sabbaths 2013,” a small-press edition of 20 poems, signed by the master, and filled with wood engravings now etched into my soul.


thank you for sacred hours in light-dappled woods with a long beloved friend whose hours, we knew, were numbered. thank you, months later, for the minutes i sat at her deathbed. and thank you, yes thank you, for the long hours since, as we grope through the dark, wrapping our hearts around her left-behind beloveds, as we cry with them, make room on the couch, share blankets, pile plates with good eats, and blessedly utter her name amid the swapping of stories and deep belly laughs, and believe — even when they cannot — that the light will someday come again.


my list of thank yous is long. my list of petitions seems to never grow shorter. so before i sign off, the ones that top this season’s beseeching: a friend and a sister i love, both still facing cancer head on. and another friend whose ankle, of late, is shot through with screws and rods and titanium plates, and who finds herself recliner-bound, though she’d never complain, not even a whimper.

lest i linger too long, before i rummage through the fridge, pile my plate with a spoonful of this, a swift taste of that, these are a few of the prayers that rise from my heart, on this, the glorious morn after the feast.

thank you, and bless you, amen and amen.

at my house this morning, one of the somethings left on the counter is a tumble of string from a box from the bakery where my husband bought brownies to stack into a tower in homage to his papa, whose november-25th birthday was often shared with the turkey, always nestled nearby, and always punctuated with thick-frosted brownies, bedecked by my sister-in-law. this year, far from new york and new jersey, my sweet mate stacked the chocolaty tower with architectural precision and not-often-seen tears in his eyes. it was a son’s salute to his bakery-born papa.photo 2photo

happy blessed birthday, dear AZK, among us always in heart — and in teetering chocolate.

what’s cobbled onto your list of thank yous this glorious day after the feast? 

i heard the wind howl

blustery day pooh

i heard the wind howl, that shiver-your-spine whistle of late november, the one that tells you the world is being stirred. the one that always reminds me, always stops me in my tracks, whispers: there’s a force infinitely bigger than you, there’s a force to lean into.

it’s the sound of something’s coming. it’s the sound of batten the hatches. and yesterday afternoon it wasn’t much longer till i heard the words, “snow advisory.” followed by “three to six inches.”

once again, i find my soul pulled by the world around me. i’m just a puppet on a string, i sometimes think, and i let my prayerfulness be defined by slip-sliding myself into the Big Book of Nature, the one all around, the one that whirls and whistles and blossoms and withers, the one that drenches and parches, sometimes stirs not a leaf, and some days makes like we’ve stepped inside the waring blender.

when the whistle begins to blow, when autumn’s shrill cry rattles the window panes, seeps in through the eighth of an inch under the door (old houses don’t know from taut construction), i commence the pulling-in posture. i might take to the couch, i might take to the underside of the afghan. or, just as likely, i might press my nose to the glass. wait. watch. scan the heavens for sign of storm coming.

i suppose it’s a sign of my spiritual weakness, my saintly shortcoming, that i’ll take a dose of drama any old day. gets the juices rolling, i find. shakes me into my senses. heightens my paying-attention antenna. i pretty much dare you to see tree trunks bending in half, posing in downward dog of the woods, and not snap to salute.

but then, once i’m wide-eyed, i begin to go deep and deeper inside. prayers take off. i am grateful for walls, yes, and roof overhead. grateful, so grateful, for that box in the basement that cranks all the heat. i’m grateful for days that don’t demand i leave the house. grateful for 10-quart kettles that simmer with bones and broth and whatever the produce bin has offered up for the cause (the cause, of course, being kitchen-sink soup, a name that i now realize needs some revision).

once those elemental gratefuls are out of the way, i sink deeper still. as i scan the sky for sooty snow clouds, survey the heavens, i begin to survey my own deep-down depths. there is much down there deserving of contemplation, there is much coursing, much that begs to be unearthed, lifted, turned over to the one who stirs the wind.

year after year, it’s the first winter storm that packs the mightiest wallop, the one that throttles us back to our proper perspective: we are defenseless if left to our own devices. we’d be battered without whatever, whomever, blankets us, keeps us safe from the elements.

my second instinct on days when the weather report is written in caps, with long strings of exclamation marks, and maybe even an asterisk or three, is to make like auntie em in the wizard of oz, to head out the door to batten those hatches: anchor the bird houses, strip the landscape of soon-to-be-flying projectiles, slip the old glass bottles off the ledge in the summer porch. and, of course, dump seed for the birds, make sure the water basin is filled, should any one of the soon-to-be-scattered flocks decide a pre-emptive guzzle is in order.

it seems especially apt this year, as the landscape of the world at large and the more private one i know best are both so cloaked in sadness, it’s apt that the wind is calling us out of ourselves, pressing our nose to the glass, stirring the breeze deep inside, rustling up prayer. we’re about to be shaken into our places again.

november’s wind is the call to attention. we’d do best to listen.

and pray.

in searching for an image of winnie-the-pooh and the blustery day, i realized our well-worn copy of a.a. milne’s masterpiece, illustrated by the ever-charming e.h. shepard, has gone missing, which is a terrible thing to discover. so i made do with a frame from the original disney version. and i am so sad for the page that’s missing in action.

what calls you to attention in these blustery days of november?

writing school

writing stack

friday mornings are sacred. friday mornings are when i burrow deep into my soul, poke around, see what’s percolating. i learned a few years ago to pencil in friday mornings, ink them in is more like it. as certainly and solidly as if it’s a trip to the dentist, or a date with the pope, i scribble “write” on my friday morning calendar. that means i’ve devoted the hours to whatever unfolds here. that means it matters — to me, anyway.

but this friday morning i’ve surrendered my sacred time, turned it over to a gaggle of kids — high school kids — who want to learn how to write. how to write from the heart, specifically. so i’m writing this on thursday afternoon. i’m pausing from the making of outlines, the stacking of papers, the pulling tomes from my shelf, so i can lay out the words that will find their way to you come friday morning.

come friday morning, i’ll be at the head of a class — a workshop filled with 78 kids in the first round, and a second session with 32 seats now claimed — and i’ll be trying to impart a few things about the magnificent art of writing. i’ll ask, first, why it matters, why finding and telling the truth is essential to not just the whole lot of us as a republic, a civilization, but why it matters to each of us as living, breathing, heart-pounding human beings. human beings who know what it is to grieve or to doubt; to thrust our arms in the air, expression of joy; to question, to ponder, to stumble toward illumination. at its best, its holiest, writing allows us to slip inside someone else’s story. to understand their loneliness, their heartache, their triumph or tragedy.

we write to lean into communion, to abridge the abyss.

which brings us to craft. to the “how” of the sacred equation. we’ll peek inside the bag of writerly tools, pull out a few, try them on for utility and maybe even capacity for magic.

all week i’ve been pounding away at the keyboard, typing up thoughts; poring through pages and pages, culling the very best musings i could find on the subject of writing, writing straight from the heart. i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the blessing of teaching. of finally reaching the point in a long life of doing one thing with unswerving focus — devotion, defined — day after day, year after year, and finally realizing you do know a thing or two worth turning around and passing along to the folks coming up behind you. i’ve considered the moral imperative. and the miracle of being in a room, strolling up and down the rows of desks, watching the gleam in the eyes begin to turn on, to brighten.

i’ve felt my heart skip a beat at the thought of connecting. of being in a room where the number of years on the planet does not matter. where we connect, writer to writer, because we were born, some of us, with a heart that beats to the rhythm and power of poetry, with a deep-down knowing that story is, after all, the great connective tissue, the one best hope for, well, nothing short of peace on earth, and the particular soul-soothing balm that comes from knowing you’re not all alone in the end.

so while i shuffle off to room 301 at new trier east high school, that storied hall of secondary learning nestled along chicago’s north shore, i’m leaving you perhaps my very favorite of seven handouts, a glorious swatch of thought from the writer Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House). McCann’s “Letter to A Young Writer,” instruction worth etching onto a wall of your house or your heart, is the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, an annual prize for a short-story collection published in english and in the u.s. during a calendar year.

here’s McCann, advice to a writer — young or old or anywhere in between:

“Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.”

what words of wisdom would you impart to a starting-out writer, or starting-out thinker, intent on employing a very big heart?

up above, a few of the books i’m hauling along to writerly school. vivian gornick, donald hall, mary oliver, leslie jamison, and alice laplante, among the bound volumes.

dear sisyphus,


a rare moment’s meditation on the slow road to school and back. before my pal sisyphus pulled the latest from his bag of slick tricks.

yo sis,

forgive the familiarity, but it seems we’ve been on most-familiar terms in the last 24 hours, so it dawned on me that perhaps it wise to befriend you. for reasons that escape me, you seem to have barged in this ol’ house, with nary a knock at the door. just, oomph! blew right in, settled down alongside me, tried to see what havoc you and your up-and-down ways might wreak.

you, my sisyphean interruptor, you must have run out of folks to mess with, so you decided to mess with me. there’s the dinner you burned, the pants you nearly set on fire, and in your latest attempt at folly, you must have decided it would be oh-so-charming if, after staying up till past midnight with the kid whose homework would not end and whose headache wouldn’t stop pounding, you first made him miss the bus. and then, just as i was thinking how much i didn’t mind the morning drive through the woods to the schoolhouse, and how in fact it stitched a dose of meditative calm into my daily rush, you dawned on the big bright idea that it would be hilarious if, when the kid hauled his backpack out of the car at the schoolhouse curb, you tugged at the pencil bag, the one that carries the calculator he needs for the quiz he missed because his headache was so awful. you kept it in hiding, of course, you sly little rock-pusher, you waited till the car was almost home, and then, in a fit of devilishness, you poked the pencil bag’s edge out from under the seat, just far enough so that when i saw it, i could feel that wonderful sense of heart reeling to throat. that’s when i pulled over and texted said kid: “do you need pencil bag?” to which he replied: “of course. why don’t i have it?”

and that’s when i made like, well, you, mr. forth-and-back-forth-and-back-forever-and-ever-amen!

i spun the old wagon back in the direction from which it had just come, and emphatically hit the gas. oops. lest the cops pull me over right here and now, let’s say i “gentled the pedal” that ties to the gas, ever so delicately hightailing from 10 to 40 mph. and that’s when i looked down, and realized that today of all days was the rare and unusual morning when i figured i could head out the door in my jammies, the ones with the tie-dyed dots all over the pants, the ones no fool would wear into that high school where high-cheekboned kids stay up late into the night perusing the latest fashion trends.

so, yes, you pulled a good one there. you must have been doubled over in fits of giggles, as you watched me leap from the car, lope up the steps, and weave through the teen-aged throngs to get to the window where lost and left-behind items are left. far as i know, those adorable kiddies thought i was just another silver-haired mama, decked out in my retrofit tie-dyes, adding to the daily pile of forgetfulness.

and before this goes on much longer, before you decide it would be SO funny to, say, let a chipmunk romp through the house, or bathe the old cat in eau de skunk, i thought i’d dash off this dispatch, this plea for detente, and see if maybe just maybe we could sit down for tea, negotiate a truce.

i need no more tearful outbursts. i’ve had it with smoke-billowing appliances. all i want, mister one-step-forward-two-steps-back, is a calm rest of the day. no speeding tickets. no sprained ankles. no fire department banging down my front door.

in fact, i’ll sweeten the deal: you steer clear of my path for the day, just this one measly day, and i’ll shoulder your load to the top of the hill.

but you’re on your own after that, mr. deja-vu-all-over-again, when per eternal order of the undergods, that nasty old rock bobbles back to the starting line. and you find yourself right back where you were.

much like the drill i’ve come to know as my own. ever since you so rudely barged in.

has sisyphus visited your house of late? 

“don’t be afraid of the dark”


i heard the words, suddenly, as if instruction. it might have been late afternoon, a day or two ago. the details are murky now. i know i was in the kitchen, not far from the window, and i know the dark hadn’t yet rolled in when i heard the words, as if a celestial whisper.

“don’t be afraid of the dark.”

i never am. afraid of the dark, that is. my celtic soul is one of the ones that, most of the time, shimmies into the darkness, as shoulders into a soft-knit sleeve. dark invites mystery. invites deepening. dark is where shadows dance. dark is where faint outlines appear, the chiaroscuro of night.

but somehow, deep down in my soul, maybe i knew this might be different. maybe i knew this year’s season of darkness, as globe turns away from the sun, as our point on the planet lies mostly in shadow, the faint slant of light more diluted than summer’s blaze, maybe i sensed that this year it might be tougher to shoulder.

so the instruction crept in, out of nowhere. the sort of whispered coaxing that might make you look up to the ceiling, to see if it came from above. or, maybe, truly, it might make you pause, put ear to your heart, and know it came from within. the still small voice that whispers. and every once in a while shakes us by the shoulders, says (more or less), “listen here, i’m talking to you, and i don’t want you not paying attention.”

so there you are, about to swing open the door of the fridge, reach for a tub of cottage cheese or some other plebeian foodstuff, when all of the sudden you’re shaking your head, trying to knock off the cobwebs that must be messing with your ear drums, and next thing you know you’re thinking hard about darkness, and how it’s coming, and how you’ve just been instructed not to be afraid.

all right, then. so i won’t be. i’ll try, hard as i can, to peek out the window at four in the afternoon, and look for the beauty in the purpling hour, when the world outside goes violet, awash in sinking sunlight. maybe i’ll crank the stove a bit earlier, a bit more heartily. maybe i’ll stack candles along the window sill, the armament of light from within.

maybe i’ll keep the afghans close at hand. maybe i’ll pencil in night walks. maybe i’ll memorize planets and stars.

there’s an enchanted picture book, a book for children who might be eight or 85, and it’s one i keep close by, on the bookshelf here in the room where i type. it’s titled, “caretakers of wonder,” by cooper edens, the glorious illustrator whose work with the magical publishing house, “green tiger press,” served as my muse through the 1980s, back in a decade when life was walloping me this way and that. back when mr. edens (let us be wholly respectful of this master of brush and charcoal pencil) was a child, his principal sent him home from school (for the year, not the day!), telling his mother he was “too creative.” his mother, wise woman, sat him down for the duration with a set of crayons and stacks and stacks of coloring books. it wasn’t long till he began channeling van gogh and monet, and his works have always swept me away.

IMG_6148he might best be known for the bedtime book, “if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow,” but the one i love best is “caretakers of wonder.”

it begins with these words: “this very night, while you lie quietly in your bed, open your eyes. now, look out the window! for even at this yawning hour, so many of your friends are working to keep the world magical.” (now, turn the page…)

“yes, they are the ones who make new stars and put them up” (illustration of two fine caretakers climbing into the wicker basket of a hot-air balloon — how else to float to the stars?) (turn page again…)

“the ones who light and keep the stars burning.” (and here we see the heart-air balloon, and the extra-long wick that kindles the night stars…)IMG_6149

sometimes all it takes is one reading, one brush of words up against the soul, for whole new paradigms to be born, whole new ways of seeing, of glistening. and so, perhaps, ever since i first brushed up against cooper edens’ whimsy and wonder, i’ve found the night all the more enchanting. to think there are caretakers flitting about with their miles-long wicks, and their night work of wonder….

it must be the make-believe part of me that’s never faded away, the ember that would not extinguish.

and so, this very morning, beginning to reacquaint myself with the wonder of darkness, the darkness that’s coming this very weekend when we turn back the clocks, i tiptoed outside with my dawn-viewing equipment: my slide-in shoes, my fat mug of very hot coffee, my old tin can of birdseed filled to the brim for the birds who were still off nodding at that early hour.

i looked up. that’s all it takes, a simple crank of the neck, chin pointed skyward. and there it was, dawn awaiting. gibbous moon, ringed in a halo of violet and rose and peek-a-boo cloud (one of those early morning mysteries whose science i do not understand, nor do i need to). planets emphatically spotlit (venus, mars, and jupiter pinned to the southeastern sky). stars on the brink of fading away.

it was breathtakingly beautiful, all of it.

and i’m fairly convinced the beauty is ours for the taking, yes, deep in the darkness. if we take in a chest-filling breath, and wrap ourselves in the whole of the long night’s offering, the invitation to burrow deep inside our souls. and bring on the night candles, the flame, and the blankets.

what particular beauties do you find in the darkness? will you steel yourself against its early coming, or welcome it with rapt attention?

the cry of the october garden

october garden

the garden’s been hushed for months now. or maybe i’ve been too distracted to notice.

this week though, with honey-dappled light oozing across its fading, bent, and desiccating boughs and stems, with fronds of fern collapsed, splayed every which way, and nodding heads of hydrangea weighing down the branch, with my own soul ragged, in need of long slow immersion, i heard october’s garden call my name.

i’d been typing — or trying to anyway — when suddenly some drop of golden light, nectar from the heavens, caught my eye. i looked up, pushed out my chair, threw on my muck-about boots and grabbed the clippers on the way.

for a good long soak of an afternoon, i snipped and yanked and piled high the proof. my growing things, most of them at least, were forgiving; i apologized anyway. i’d left them all abandoned through summer’s height and frenzied weeks. they’d waited, as all good gardens do. they knew that, someday, i’d return. i always do.

and, apothecary on slender sturdy stem, the whole plot applied its balm. gentian blue dots, a sure cure for any faded heart, still winked at me. mopheads of hydrangea kept on their color show, turning lime to rose to tinged in plum, all but begging me to snip them at the neck and bring them in for winter. the black-eyed susan, once a perky swath of whimsy, now lay dark, nothing but the black-eyed button, landing pad for hungry songbirds, who peck and fill their bellies.

to be amid a garden in october is to catch up to the end of the story, to pay notice to what happens when the glory fades away, and yet another topography of beautiful is bared.

this is, after all, the wabi-sabi season, so defined by a farmer friend of mine as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, the season that pulses with the poetry of imperfection and impermanence. nothing beautiful lasts forever, my garden whispers, so savor all of it, every drop of it, while you have the chance to reach out and rub your nose, your hands, your heart, in the whole of it.

essential wisdom, far beyond the garden.

i’m fairly certain it was the earthy, tactile element, the dirt under my nails, the pin scratches up and down my arms (october’s thorny roses are no less forgiving than the sturdy stems of june), that soothed me. the being out in golden afternoon, feeling the faintest ray of sun bathe across my sweatered back. there was healing in the garden stain splotting my knees, and surely in the armloads of autumnal offerings i hauled in the house, tucked in old vases.

once my shoulders ached, and my clipper hand throbbed, i kicked off my garden boots, and clambered back inside, content to watch the sunlight fade as i assumed my steady post just beside my chopping board and cookstove. in yet another iteration of surrendering to hands in lieu of cerebration, i turned this week to slicing, stirring, cracking eggs, and cranking up the oven. there was, there is, in the alchemy of the kitchen a sure cure for ails of the deepest-down ilk. stew and soup and pumpkin bars, i made them all this week.

i was drawn by battered heart, and sodden soul, to find my solace where the growing things live and breathe and surrender to the season’s close, and when the air grew chill, i warmed the rest of me — and those i love — by tending to the cookstove.

not a bad prescription, after all. welcome mat

where and how do you practice healing acts or arts?

when all else fails…turn to page 200

mac n cheese

for two decades now, ever since may of 1995 when i was plotting my firstborn’s second birthday fete, and i flipped open the pages of my monthly infusion of delicious, gourmet magazine — before it was ruth reichl’s gourmet magazine, before it was defunct, folded into the crypt of long-gone magazines, magazines that shaped our culture and then withered and died, the sad fate of so much of what’s printed in ink on the page — page 200, the page where the binding is coming unglued, the page crusted with splatters of roux, it’s been my no-fail, last-ditch, best-hope-of-filling-a-hole-in-a-heart-by-way-of-the-belly cookery map.

so it was yesterday, a crisp october day, when the sun poured in as if from a flask of molasses, so it was on a day when the boy who’d loped from the car at the school house curb was a boy with a leaden heart. he had so much homework, was so worried about homework, that he’d decided to skip the end-of-the-season soccer gorge on pasta and pizza. instead of hanging with friends, he’d decided he should come home straight after practice.

to make matters a tad bit worse, i wouldn’t be home when he got there. i try hard to keep my nights away to a serious minimum, but last night was a night i’d promised to be elsewhere, in a dim-lit watering hole and song hall, actually, reading words from a page for a very fine purpose, all to raise funds for a most noble cause.

i’m always torn when tugged away from my boys. and at the end of this week, this week when the lights in the kitchen never went out before midnight, because a young soccer player was trying hard to finish all of his homework, often accompanied by the sadness that lingers in our house, it was especially hard to be away.

so i reached for my holy salvation: the plainly-named “Baked Macaroni and Cheese,” ala page 200. it’s a cheesy-buttery bath stirred round and through tubes of wide-mouthed pasta, each tube filling with ooze as much as being wrapped in it. it vies, in our house, with bread pudding, as the neck-and-neck nos. 1 and 2 comforts on a spoon.

over the years, the making it — for me, anyway — is as soothing as it must be for my boys to polish it off in one sitting. assembling its components — the butter, the cheddar, the flour, the milk, the salt, paprika, bread crumbs, and parmesan shavings to finish it off — i slip into priestess mode. my old black cookstove — an industrial-grade contraption that somehow slipped into this old house in the 1970s, never to be removed — is my altar.

i begin my incantations and prestidigitations right there, where the flame is cranked, and the concoctions in my pots begin to bubble, not unlike vats of heavenly potions. with the oven cranked to 375, the kitchen begins to warm. everything about this kitchen ritual is warming. soon, my old sweater is off, and as i stir i imagine my sweet boy coming home to find the big white ceramic souffle dish perched atop the stove, my hand-scribbled note just to the side.

is there a more certain way to say i love you than to have cooked all afternoon? to have reached for the cookery shelf and pulled out the one thing a kid asks for on those nights when his sleepy head hits the pillow but the worries won’t be extinguished?

because a big old vat of mac n’ cheese wasn’t enough, not on this particular day, in the thick of this particular passage, i pulled out the produce bin and piled a mound of apples atop the cutting board. i chopped honeycrisp and granny smith, i didn’t peel — why bother? — and i tumbled the slices into the pot, added a splash of honeycrisp cider, a shake or two of cinnamon, and once again, applied flame to the equation. wasn’t long till the whole house was swimming in eau de apple and buttery-cheese. even the cat ambled back in from the garden.

then i set the table. is there anything that says i was thinking of you quite so quietly, certainly, as coming home to a kitchen table that awaits you, that has your very own napkin and napkin ring at the place where you always sit?

it’s the rhythms we carve into the grain of the day, of the months and the years — simple rhythms, unadorned rhythms, nothing so fancy as a napkin and fork at a place that is yours, set by someone who thought about how it might be to come home harried, and worried, and tired to the bone — that makes coming home feel as if someone just handed you your oldest, comfiest slippers. and a fuzzy sweater to boot.

i’d left the stove light on, and the mac-and-cheese under a foil dome, as i slipped out the door and turned the key. then, not a block from home, i got a message: the soccer player had decided, after all, to skip coming home. he’d hang out with the soccer team, inhale store-bought pasta and delivery pizza.

such is a mama’s existence.

so much for stirring and chopping, in hot pursuit of healing a tattered heart.

but here’s the holy truth: i was the one whose heart was soothed in the long hours of love at the cookstove.

and, besides, mac-n-cheese cold makes for excellent bedtime snack. when the lights go out at midnight.

what’s your when-all-else-fails cookstove concoction?

catching the elusive slipstream and other hints of holiness


more than once this week, i’ve felt shivers run my spine. more than once this week, i felt myself suspended in some holy sort of hammock. i’ve giggled. and more than once, i’ve wanted to dash to the telephone, to call my blessed friend. and then, stopped cold, i remembered phone lines don’t go to where she is. wherever she is.

my friend died not two weeks ago.

but that didn’t stop me from feeling her as close to me this week as if we were, as we so often were, huddled on the couch, under the buffalo-check blanket that might belong in a horse barn, but kept us warm through many a long winter’s afternoon when, curled up with mugs of tea and bowls of clementines, we coursed across the landscape of our lives, our hearts, our souls.

death when it’s new can be like that. out of the blue you bump into the reality — a cement-block wall, almost — that the someone you want to reach for, the someone you’ve always reached for, isn’t there. it’s as if your mind is playing tricks with you, taunting, teasing, playing hide-and-seek. maybe it’s just me, but i push my imagination as far and deep as it will go, all but see and hear the someone right before my eyes. convince myself one day the phone will ring, and the someone will be there, and at last i’ll hear, “trick’s up. i was only hiding.”

but in moments when i wasn’t playing mind games, when i’ve been going about the business at hand, i’ve suddenly had a certain sense that something, some holy force, had slipped beneath me, inside me, and propelled me or the world around me in inexplicable ways. well, i’ve an explanation, but it defies logic, and laws of physics.

take, for instance, the fact that all summer i’ve been drudgingly tapping keys on my keyboard, slowly uprooting words from deep down underground. i’d type my way to the end of sentences, but really, i was all but lost. form was formless, and all swirled foggily around me. i was trying to find the words, the shape, the essence of some elusive book. i knew what i wanted it to be, but somehow i couldn’t find the path. i’d get distracted, spend long spells away from the keyboard. i started to think nothing would ever come. i thought a bit about my capacities for swirling foam in coffee at the local barista bar. maybe, after all, that was better use of my waking hours.

but then, this week, once again i sat down. opened up a document, one that had no name, and suddenly — slowly at first, but building in speed and force — i’d renamed it “chapter 1.” it’s finished now, and sits waiting on my computer. it’s been followed, swiftly, by chapters 2 and 3, now almost written down to the very last period.

where’d that slipstream come from, i wondered? i didn’t think too hard to pounce upon my answer.

and in another breathtaking moment of serendipity, a fellow i love, a post-college living-in-a-new-city sort of fellow, he was out and about recently, and struck up animated conversation with a lovely lass. they weren’t too deep into conversation before it was revealed that, out of all the souls who inhabit this giant metropolis, they both just happened to share in common a deep love for our beloved friend who had just died. the fellow had known and loved our friend his whole life long, called her his “spiritual godmother”; the lass was one of her devoted students, one of the very few she’d tucked tightly under her wing, imparting the intricacies of her craft even as her cancer spread and spread. the meeting of the two — the fellow and the lass — could not have been more random, impossibly so. and the depth of their first conversation was, apparently, the sort that glimmers on the prairie.

now i can’t claim to be one of those folks who frankly believes that angels have wings and hover over us. but i do believe in souls that never really fade, and i do believe in forces of holiness and miracle. i’ve spent decades trying to figure out just what happens when someone you love dearly dies. what happens after the last breath comes, and stillness fills the room? i promise to let you know when i nail that one. but until then, i’ll side with the folks who believe that holiness is a force of life abundantly present, and animating all the hours of our day. maybe the work to be done is on our side, maybe it’s about opening ourselves through a particular level of prayerfulness, maybe it’s about a soul so porous we’re a filter, a catch basin, for all that’s good and beautiful and buoyant. maybe thinking aloud about all this is the dumbest thing i’ve ever done. or maybe, in putting words to wondering, we might — together — stumble on some truth, some shimmering shard of wonder, of heaven tumbled down to earth.

i can only hope. and pray. and keep watch for the gentle brilliant touch of my beloved slipped-away friend.

as is so often the case, i had no intention to write a word of this. but the words came anyway. so here we are. i’d been thinking that i was so intent on getting back to chapter 3 and 4, i’d just post the latest edition of my chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul. that might have been the safer, wiser bet. or maybe not. a short bit of one of the reviews was cut for space, so i’ll post the link to the latest roundup here, and down below, i’ll include the unedited version of the first review, the glorious, The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviyah Kushner, which i loved.


The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible
By Aviya Kushner, Spiegel & Grau, 272 pages, $27

The highest praise for a book, perhaps, is tucking it into a slot on your bookshelf where you’ll always be able to effortlessly slide it out, lay it across your lap, and soak it up for a minute or a long afternoon’s absorption. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, Aviyah Kushner’s poetic and powerful plumbing of both the Hebrew and English translations of the Bible, now rests in just such an easy-to-grab spot in my library.

In a word, it’s brilliant. And beautiful.

Kushner, a poet and journalist who grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home where dinner-hour debate often pivoted on the meaning of the Bible’s original Hebrew text, went off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the summer of 2002, and found herself in novelist Marilynne Robinson’s class, parsing the Old Testament. Kushner barely recognized the text in English translation.

Therein was launched a trek into language and belief that took Kushner around the globe. She draws on grammarians and lexicographers across the millennia to lay out this roadmap into the depths of sacred text. Not lost is her insistence that much is lost in translation, and even if you’ve no interest in religion, the linguistic excursion here is not to be missed.

Most essentially, Kushner lifts the veil for all of us who don’t know ancient Biblical Hebrew. She pulls us deep inside etymology and history and meaning. And as a Kirkus review so aptly put it, Kushner’s first book is, in the end, “a paean, in a way, to the rigors and frustrations — and ultimate joys — of trying to comprehend the unfathomable.”

how have you brushed up against the holiness of someone you’ve loved, no longer right here among us?

the candle burns


our house is blanketed in sadness. layers and layers of sadness. landscapes of uncharted sadness: a son without the father he adored, grandsons without the grandpa who told them knock-knock jokes and reveled in their every triumph. and all of us — since sunday, when news of one death tumbled atop another — without a lifelong friend who, across the decades, animated our dinner table, our hearts, and taught us fearlessness in the face of whatever life hurled our way.

in five short days, we lost two of the dearest souls in our deepest closest orbit.

and so, at our house, sadness ebbs and flows, one minute casting shadow dark and dense; the next, scuttling off, clearing space for light to fill the room. we are wrapped in varied textures of mourning — we mourn a life lived long, and another one snuffed out far too soon. grief catches us by the heart, not letting go. grief leaves us gasping. grief, as it so often does, so especially when it’s just cracked open once again, plays tricks and mind games; we snap our heads and imagine the voice, the someone we love, tumbling through the door, calling on the telephone, springing back to life inside our nighttime’s tossing and turning.

so the candle burns. it burns till the last one of us tiptoes off to bed, and from the moment one of us shuffles into the pre-dawn kitchen.

in its mystical flickering, no matter the shadow cast or beyond the snuffing out of sunbeam at day’s end, it holds me, presses its light against my heart, and reminds me, hour after hour, moment after moment, that souls burn on. that the essence of who we loved still fills the room, is still here to brush up against, to illuminate and magnify the beautiful and the broken.

i’ve never before had a shiva candle burning in my home. and i have found unexpected comfort, caress, in the faint light it casts, hour after hour.

the minute he tumbled in the door from the airport sunday night, my husband pulled from his pocket a small glass jar that held a candle, a yizkor candle, one his mama had handed him as he kissed her and said goodbye in the old white clapboard house by the pond in new jersey, where we had just been joined in a circle of prayer and poetry and remembering.

the candle was a jewish observance of death my husband intended to observe. he didn’t wait before reaching for the kitchen drawer that holds the matches. he struck the match, lit flame to wick, and began the prayer of mourning, the mourner’s kaddish.

the next day, a gray and misty morning, i called the synagogue to ask if they might have another candle, since this short squat one he’d carried home was only meant to burn for 26 hours. and i knew — in that way you know without words spoken — that my husband wanted longer, wanted flame to burn as long as it might light the darkness.

the synagogue had plenty. and so, with rain spitting down on me, i climbed the synagogue steps and stumbled into the embrace of our rabbi, who could not have been kinder, in handing me the candle, the prayer card, the book for the house of mourning. and, that night, when my husband with the heavy heart came home, we lit the seven-day shiva candle, the one that now is burning, that could be burning round-the-clock (except that we’re afraid — despite rabbinic insistence otherwise — of our house going up in shiva flames).

every time i swirl through the kitchen, there it is. flickering. when i’m alone in early morning darkness, there it is, casting golden glow across the maple table, illuminating one small corner of the room. so, too, after nightfall, when i’m the last one up the stairs, when darkness shrouds us once again.

it’s a simple remembrance, yet profound. once again, a quiet nod to the psyche and the soul. a timeless knowing that with death comes darkness, comes a time when one’s whole landscape shifts, and for a time, you cannot find your way. there is no compass out of grief.

not a night has passed in this long last week when our tenderhearted boy, the younger one, the one who’s never known death to brush so close against his heart, not one night that he’s not shed tears upon tears. he has sobbed. and shaken with sadness. so have i. i find myself awash in tears. out of the blue. unstoppable. there is no compass out of grief. no torch to light the way.

and yet, i catch a glimpse of the soft pure incandescence burning from the shiva candle, and i feel as if some tender soul has brushed up beside me. whispered. squeezed me by the hand.

we are cloaked in shades of sadness. we are re-charting the landscape, finding it filled with deep dark holes, ones we tumble down, ones that catch us breathless. we are reaching for the light. we are remembering. we pore over pictures, over words typed and texted just weeks ago. we riffle through our memories, our hearts.

the absence is vast, is limitless.

the soft glow of flame to wick — reminding us that the soul, like the flame, strives heavenward, brings light to darkness — it is constant, and it does not dim.

nor does our love for the ones we lost. may their memory be a blessing. forever and ever. amen.

i’d wanted so very deeply to write a love letter to my beloved friend now gone. but privacy was everything to her, and privacy i will preserve for her. i will, though, post a few pictures — ones already seared in my mind and my heart. two from years and years ago, the first time she came to meet little teddy, just newly born, and one she sent me just this past summer, from sunrise at the shore of lake michigan, where she’d gone for sunrise salutation. finally, because it’s out in the world, an audio tribute to my beautiful friend, from her dear friend, the brilliant writer, alex kotlowitz. savor these moments with my friend, and if you’ve a spare, offer up a prayer for her dearest tenderest circle, her beloved husband of 21 years today, and their two beautiful children, one of whom is the curly-haired beauty at the elbow of and cradled in his mama’s arms in the photos below.


beholding joy….newborn, unexpected joy….


marveling at the itty-bittiness of a newborn.


sun salutation. illuminated in everlasting light.

in your hours of grief, what lit your way?

we remember them….


a beloved, bespectacled man died this week. my husband’s father. the original mensch. a man i most remember with his face crinkled by the folds of a smile that enveloped from chin to forehead, and, best of all, with a single tear trickling down his cheek from behind his tortoise-rimmed glasses. i see him at the dining room table, holding up a short glass of wine, as we sit down to bless shabbat — the sabbath — and i hear him reciting the Shehecheyanu, the jewish blessing for those rare anointed moments in time, when, as the prayer says, we thank God for enabling us to reach this sacred occasion.

my father-in-law — a man so tender to me you might never have guessed how hard it was for him, early on, that his only son was in love with and marrying a catholic, even an irish catholic — died on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, the day of atonement, of fasting, the day of judgement. a day when jews (and those who love jews) wrap themselves in their deepest prayers, and the prayers are laced with unflinching references to death, to dying, to lives well lived — or not. who shall live and who shall die? who shall perish by water and who by fire? who by sword and who by wild beast? on and on the prayer pulses through the litany of life’s endings, not a one of them softened for easier going down.

the prayers, some of them this year, made the raw ache of this brand-new death even harder. they stung, some of the words, so i squeezed my husband’s hand as tightly as i could, and i kept watch. i watched his face, in profile, through the hours of prayer; kept watch for tears in his eyes, for that faraway look, for the moments when he swallowed hard. i kept watch on the visage of grief, and imagined the landscape inside.

but there came a moment in the day of atonement prayers, toward the end of the day, when the sun was setting, and the shafts of light streamed in from the west, turning the sanctuary from blinding gold to rosy. it’s a part of the day of prayer called the memorial service, and tradition has it that children are kept outside — too sorrowful. the words and the prayers are tinged with mourning, with longing for lives lost. but amid the sadness, there is a prayer i have always loved, a prayer that wraps its words around me like the softest afghan, a prayer that makes me feel the brushstroke of God, quite honestly. it is pure embrace of a prayer. and it has never held me more tightly, nor more tenderly.

it doesn’t seem to have a name, but the refrain is “we remember them,” so you might call it the “remember-them prayer.”

what i love most is that, like so many jewish prayers, it pulses with a deep interiority. it rustles through the soul. it captures the quiet of the human heart. it breathes into the crevices of our consciousness. it understands perfectly how it is to be alone with your grief, with your longing, and to feel your heart swell and spill, as that rising up of love and loss, intermingled, so defines grief. and it grasps for breathtaking pauses in the beauty of the passing year, in the turning of the seasons, and it anoints those moments, those unfoldings, as vessels for remembering, for loving, for stepping bravely into a world without the ones who have defined us from the beginning of our time, or for as long as we have loved them.

i offer here, the “remember them” prayer:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

the truth of today is that i am holding tight to prayer for one other someone i love tenderly and dearly. someone with whom i have shared deeply sacred moments, and hours of animated conversation over the decades. hours curled up on a couch, afghan covering our feet. hours in the kitchen. hours at the dinner table. hours walking in the woods. hours cradling our newborns. hours adoring our growing and nearly-grown children. hours marveling at her energy, her spark, her heart that knows no bounds. she is still here, but already i am remembering. and loving till the end of time. 

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

and this just in, my beloved father-in-law, the son of an immigrant baker who rose to become editor and president of a new jersey newspaper, the one that covered the news of the jersey shore, read the forward, the legendary jewish newspaper every day for years and years (it was originally written in yiddish). so my husband, who wrote a beautiful obituary for his father, rewrote one with a yiddish twist for the forward. and it runs there, as of minutes ago. the headline: Arthur Z. Kamin, Trailblazing New Jersey Journalist, Dies at 84. for my tenderhearted newsman of a father-in-law, this is the much deserved trumpet blast at the close of his most beautiful life.

this day, i send deepest love first to my beautiful beautiful mother in law, and to my blessed sister in law who i will soon be with. their loss is vast and without borders. hold them, and my sweet blair, and will, and especially little teddy whose tears will not be stanched, in your whispered prayerful hearts. 

and here’s the question of the week: what words bring you comfort when you are aching in sorrow?


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