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

she asked for a poem

mary oliver poem

she asked for a poem, my beautiful friend did. she asked for words. she asked for my voice.

she asked so that “at certain times,” in the dark dark hours that come when you are lying in your bed, or curled on your couch, when the knife-to-the-gut of cancer won’t stop, when you tremble deep down inside, when all you want is to wail but you can’t, she asked “to be soothed” by the sound of the human voice rising and falling and wrapping around letters and lines and syllables and silence and words, each word a vessel of hope, a finger to grasp, the next best thing to morphine. or, maybe, better.

she asked me to pick out a poem, to read it, to record the sound of my voice. “not STAGE PERFORMANCE,” she wrote, just “ntural,”she typed, her fingers fumbling for keys, “poems red by my friends.”

it was a blanket of sound she was stitching together, my friend whose world has always been about sound. she’s gathered sound all around the globe, on nearly every continent. she’s woven sound into story, story that shattered hearts, peeled back truths, shone beacons of light. sound that reached out through the squat little box that sits on the kitchen counter, or the flat rectangular one that blinks red numbers just beside my bed. sound that could draw me to the ends of the earth, or into the depth of someone’s long lonely walk through a mountain pass, or down a dusty country road. it might be the sound of a katydid. or a jackhammer. or maybe the cry of a mother who’s just buried her child. it might be the whistle of wind she records. or the story in spanish of someone who’s been lost for too long.

her life has been a tapestry of sound, one that my friend has pieced together with fierce intelligence, unparalleled heart, and a light in her eyes that will never go out.

so, in her darkest hours, in the hours when the walls seem to be squeezing in from all sides, she asked for more sound. for the sound of the human voice, doing what it most sacredly does: putting breath to the balm that is love, that is tender and dripping with mercy, that heals, always heals, and that just might be the last earthly tie, one heart to another.

it’s no mystery why mamas sing lullabies to their babies. why mamas turn pages of storybooks. why mamas make “mmm” sounds and sigh to their wee little newborns. the human voice is breath + vibration + heart, is sound put to flight. the instrument of that flight might be a screech, or a whisper. it might be vicious and crack in half the heart of the one who hears it. or, in the case of my friend, it might be the best shot for soothing, for wrapping a blanket, a compress, of undying love.

and, yes, it might be a poem. the healing power of the hard-chosen word, words plucked from the star-stitched heavens, beauty and heartbreak distilled. that’s poetry. and, no, it won’t cure cancer, certainly not. but there are ails along the way that poetry — a poem read aloud by someone you love — will always be able to heal.

it will break through the canyon of fear and of emptiness. it will cradle the tired. and, as best as is possible, it just might dull the ragged edge of the pain, and, maybe just maybe, soften the suffering for as long as it takes for the poem to be read and maybe to linger.

i knew right away the poem and the poet to which i would put my breath and my heart: mary oliver. “praying.” it’s the poem i tucked on the very front page of my very first book. it’s a poem about paying attention, about patching together a few simple words, nothing elaborate. it’s about prayer not being a contest, but a doorway into thanks, and “a silence in which another voice may speak.” it’s about stitching together prayer, and it’s something my friend and i have talked about — many times, once while wandering about a wooded magic hedge.

i knew, too, right away, just where i wanted to read it, the poem about prayer — amid my late-summer garden, so the words of mary oliver would be enfolded, would be punctuated, with the sounds of this summer drawing to a close: the few cicada still buzz-sawing, the blue jay who squawks, even the wind rustling through the boughs of the willow.

i whispered a prayer, took a breath, and pushed the little red “record” button.

my friend asked for a poem. i sent her the pulse of my heart, and a sound-swatch of the late summer garden.

here’s how it sounded:

i wanted to quietly lay this on the table because i know that among the chairs circled here, there are hearts intent on finding ways to bring healing to the world, and i thought it the most beautiful quiet creation, the notion of my friend to weave together a patchwork of poems, all in the voices of friends, all for the purpose of soothing. it’s a simple gift, a pattern we can all trace and retrace, should the need arise. it might even be a baby gift, a gift at the launch of life, when you wrap not just a favorite picture book, but the sound of your very own voice reading it, turning the pages. the gift of your voice is one no one else could ever give. and it comes from the depth of your heart. priceless.

because i happen to know that mary oliver doesn’t want anyone printing her poems anywhere without permission (i asked for and received full permission for the epigraph of slowing time), i am honoring mary’s heart and will not print it here, although it is in the photo above. and you can read it yourself if you open the book to just past the dedication page. and, miracle of miracles, i figured out how to drop a line of poetry reading onto this latest meander. wonders never cease. 

so here’s the question: if someone you love asked you to read a passage or a poem, what one would you choose?

and now we pause for awe…


the lamb has been ordered. the prayer books, slipped from the shelf. soon, i will slice the pomegranate and begin to count the seeds. are there really precisely 613, the same as the number of mitzvot, or commandments, as the sages taught, as i was told in whispers in a kosher kitchen once upon a time?

i have been curious, asking questions, burrowing into the holiness of the new year, the jewish new year, rosh hashanah, ever since i stumbled on that fine bespectacled fellow in the newsroom so long ago, decades ago now. and because i come to this beginning — this pause to behold the wonder of creation, original creation — with inquisitive heart, because question upon question tumbles before me, because one leads to another and another, i can’t help but be drawn deep into what these days offer: these days offer awe.

they are called, quite precisely, the Days of Awe.

awe, my dictionary tells me, is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

awe, my etymologists* tell me, has deep roots in fear, and traces back to circa 1300, aue, “fear, terror, great reverence,” earlier aghe, circa 1200, from a Scandinavian source, such as Old Norse agi “fright;” from Proto-Germanic *agiz- (cognates: Old English ege “fear,” Old High German agiso “fright, terror,” Gothic agis “fear, anguish”), from PIE *agh-es- (cognates: Greek akhos “pain, grief”), from root *agh- “to be depressed, be afraid” (see ail). the current sense of “dread mixed with admiration or veneration” is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being. To stand in awe (early 15c.) originally was simply to stand awe. Awe-inspiring is recorded from 1814.

in my own dwelling inside these days of awe, i don’t think too much about fear. i tend toward wonder. the God i know and sidle next to is not one who makes me tremble. truth is, i’m most myself when i draw deep into the hollows of God. when i feel myself wrapped in the arms of the one who gave me breath, and question, and proclivities for awe.

because this pause for holiness is at once still new to me, and now familiar, because in many ways it’s always felt as if i’d been waiting for reason to hold up these days, to hold up these autumn’s-coming hours, i walk through them with all pores open. i love the pungent notes that will rise up from the pot on the stove, the one where lamb simmers alongside onion and celery and garlic, before the apples and raisins and cinnamon settle in. i love the way the molasses morning light pours across the page. i love each sentence i find on the page, especially the ones that startle me, give me pause, give me much to think about during the long hours in synagogue, during the long walks that will punctuate the pause, the anointing that makes the days of awe unlike ordinary time.

because i am always, always drawn to the sage of all sages, abraham joshua heschel, i pulled him, too, from the shelf this morning. i’ve been filling the shelves with heschel for a long long time. even before i knew i’d be the one to share my husband’s bookshelves.

this morning i found this from heschel, along with the pages of prayer that we will tuck under our arms and carry to the pews where the prayers will come. because it speaks to all of us who are inclined to turn in, to refuel in the depths of quietude, i share these fine heschel thoughts as something of a blessing for these days when we pause for awe.

here’s heschel, from “On Prayer,” found in the collection, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996):

Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home: the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home. Weary, sobbing, the soul, after wandering through a world festered with aimlessness, falsehoods, and absurdities, seeks a moment in which to gather up its scattered life, in which to divest itself of enforced pretensions and camouflage, in which to simplify complexities, in which to call for help without being a coward. Such a home is prayer. Continuity, permanence, intimacy, authenticity, earnestness are its attributes. For the soul, home is where prayer is.

may you find your way home in this sacred span of time, the one that unfolds across the coming hours, the ones i’ve come to know and love as the holy Days of Awe, when i bow my head, my heart, my soul, and pulse with the wonder of creation, and my one small moment to revel in all its glories.

how do you pause for awe? who is your trail guide across the landscape of prayer?

*my etymologists: online etymology dictionary

never again, we promised

little boy heartbreak

i don’t often bring world news to the table. not because i don’t pay attention to it each and every day. mostly because most of the time the holiest way i know how to live is to saturate the moment, the space before me, with all the heart and soul i can muster.

but there are moments and images that shatter. that land on my kitchen table with the plop of the morning’s newsprint. that stop me cold in my tracks. that propel me to drop to my knees, or tumble me out the door, where i stand beneath heaven’s dome, and i open my heart and my prayers, and i beg for an answer: what can i do? what can we do? how can we gather up this suffering, how can we put balm to the wounds of the world, how can we heal the broken children, broken dreams, broken hearts?

dear God, how can we make a drop of a difference?

so it was when i saw the photo of the turkish policeman lifting the little syrian boy who had drowned in a moonlit sea. drowned when a boat built for 10 had been loaded — overloaded — with 17, too many of them little children. not long after setting out across the aegean sea, escaping from the war-torn hell that is syria, hoping to make it to kos, the island off greece, the little boat capsized, and 12 children, aged nine months to 11 years old, were lost, drowned in the dark, dark waters.

i’d seen the photo the day before of the limp little boy, face pressed against the sand, bare little legs, sensible shoes buckled, still buckled, after he’d washed to shore.


and then the next morning’s news — on the front page of the wall street journal, a paper held in the hands of decision makers around the U.S., around much of the world — showed the next frame in the story: the turkish policeman lifting, cradling, the little boy. the legs limp, bent at the knee, a little hand folded across the little boy’s tummy.

little boy heartbreak

dead and alone at the edge of the sea, chased away by a war that won’t stop.

little boy, being lifted too late.

and so we need to pay attention, all of us.

amid the first light of dawn, i offered a prayer for the little boy, and all of the others.

truth is, i don’t know what to do, and my prayers feel too hollow. not that they’re not prayed with fiercest urgency. but what i want is to airlift myself to the syrian shore, where throngs of terrified mothers and the children who cling to them are emptying their pockets and purses of whatever currency they can manage to scrounge, climbing into rickety boats, and setting sail under the light of the moon that glistens across the water, and falls, too, across my backyard, falls across my collapsed black-eyed susans and the anemone that nod through the night. (is there not some mystical unifying force — lunar pull — as the beams of the same gibbous moon shine down on all of us, syrian refugees adrift on the sea, and, halfway across the very same globe, our own ramshackle gardens?) i want to walk through the train station of budapest, where babies are cradled against mamas’ chests, tucked under arms, made to sleep on the hard station floor, or out in the city square, where one family — a syrian refugee father, his wife, and their baby — threw themselves across the train tracks in protest, and would not be moved. i want to reach out a hand, offer my home as a place to sleep and eat and be safe, find their bearings in this terrible world that’s chased them from their home, their life, the world as they knew it and loved it.

i’m certain i sound naive, my too-simple solution, my impulse for healing the wounds of the world. but how can we believe in the power of love, the gospel of love, and not believe in trying?

so what will we do, those of us captured by the image of the drowned little boy, haunted all day by the shrieks followed by silence?

there is a river of humanity — women and children and the men who love them — pushed from their homes; rickety boats succumb to roiling seas, and trains refuse to budge, won’t carry the war-torn to safety. the world is watching. we have promised and promised again: we won’t stand back and watch horrors unfold.

horrors are unfolding. voices are crying.

never again, we promised. so how are we keeping our promise?

the question is literal as much as rhetorical, what can we do? what wise response might we muster?

the book bench at summer’s close

book bench august

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

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

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

soul roundup august

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

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

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

As it should be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and what might you carry to your book bench?

all’s quiet…sigh.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

do you, too, need daily doses of quietude?

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

dizzy…in summer’s high tide

anemone bee

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

so am i.


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

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

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

point taken.

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

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

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

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

how will you savor your last hours of summer?

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

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

summer interruptus…

black-eyed susan and queen anne's lace

we now resume our regular programming…

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

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

so grab the summer now!

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

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

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

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

summertime’s Wonderlist

it’s the season of . . .

firefly flicker: the original flash of wonder . . .

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

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

butterfly couplet shimmering across the lazy afternoon . . .

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

ditto: the peach . . .

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

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

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

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

tables turned…

ice puppet

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

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

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

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

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

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

his answer: “you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

short. sweet. summer.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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