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

the holy thing that got me to this moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

new trier crew bus to regatta

will and teddy. sigh.

a boy and his pupils....

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tender are the hours of the spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

julie joyner + pumpkin head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

magic day at magic hedge

magic hedge

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

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

she sees everything now.

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

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

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

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

i thought right away of the magic hedge.

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

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

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

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

magic hedge blossom

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

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

we hadn’t guessed how sacred it might be.

it didn’t take long to figure that out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

magichedgecardinal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

we both did.

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

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

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

and we did.

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

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

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

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

the wisdom of “it needn’t be correct”

interludes mindful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“i’m not that interested in correct.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and that is a truth that sets me soaring.

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

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

a few things:

1.) emily’s poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.14.22 AM

 

and a post-script:

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

SlowingTimeMusic

the pages turned…

eric carle page turned

sometimes it’s in the immeasurable glimmer flashing by that we catch notice of the years slipping by.

so it was when i got word that eric carle, he who cut and glued the tissue-paper colors of the first childhood i inhaled by heart, he who wrote the rhymes, and pounded out the rhythms of measured bars of caterpillars and brown bears and grouchy ladybugs who ate the page, he would be among the short list of honorees at my firstborn’s college graduation.

suddenly, i was back in an overstuffed armchair. a navy plaid. one we’d bought when my belly was full and round, one we’d bought — on what for us amounted to a whim — because suddenly i was overtaken with the urge to have a sitting place, a nesting place, for me and my soon-to-be-born. that boy was not a week old before i cradled him in my arms, plopped him on my lap, perched a book before his eyes, and began to turn the page. one ear pressed against his mama’s heartbeat, and through the other ear, his mama’s voice rising and falling in sing-song brown-bear rhythm.

and so it went, through bedtimes and lull times and any time we happened to be curled together on the floor of his room, where a nook carved along the wall cradled all the books of childhood i had gathered for this and any other child.

suddenly, in my mind’s eye, in that tumble of remembering, i was perched atop my firstborn’s hand-me-down four-poster bed. he was nestled beside me, my long-legged boy in his little boy pajamas. i could see his little hand, dimpled hand, his hand that loved to turn the pages — no pages more so than the ones of eric carle.

every child has their natural-born predilection for a certain page. there must be something about the words, the rhyme, the color, or maybe just the humor deep inside. it’s indecipherable, and unpredictable, just what that book, that page, might be. but in the case of our house, our bookshelf, there was no more-loved page-turner than eric carle’s brown bear.

“brown bear, brown bear,” i can begin to recite. and i can take it — still — clear through to red bird, and yellow duck, and blue horse, and green frog, and purple cat. i stumble on white dog, but pick right up with black sheep, and goldfish, and then, skipping right by teacher and children, crescendo comes: in which, in rat-a-tat retelling, we tick through the whole menagerie of curiously-colored critters.

if i read that book once, i read it three million times. it was in these pages, i’m fairly certain, that my sweet boy learned his yellow from his blue. and for some reason, one that might forever escape me, it’s where i heard him laugh on cue, each time we came to that horse of blue. did he know that horses were not blue? is that what struck him silly?

and here we are, the pages barely touched in years. but when i got the news, the news that mr. carle would be presiding, i tumbled up the stairs to the nook in his little brother’s room where the books now stand, forgotten soldiers, stiff-backed, listing, and i pulled out the trinity of carles — hungry caterpillar, grouchy ladybug, and brown bear — and there, i turned the pages, and there i saw the years-old crinkles on a page that once upon a time must have so excited a little page-turner that he up and scrunched that charming goldfish that swims across two pages.

that the author of the cornerstones of my firstborn’s childhood would, all these years later, be there, in the flesh, at his college graduation, the ceremonial whirl that is the close of college, well, it just put a zap to my heart, and melted me. and washed me over in a sudden measure of just how many years have passed. how many pages have been turned. and made me ask, again and again, how did we get here? how did we get to this brink of college graduation, a moment that shimmered in the far-off distance, an indecipherable mirage that felt miles beyond my reach?

and as is my wont to do, i tick back across time, i hold the celluloid frames up to the light. i study one after another. measured bars all unspooling toward this moment of glory-be, he-made-it. i think of the shadowed hours, the ones when darkness descended, the ones when that blessed child bared his deepest fears and worries. i think of the broken hours, when a dream slipped just beyond his fingers’ reach. i think of the occasional glory, when that beautiful boy felt invincible and whole and understood just why it was he was planted on this holy earth.

and so there is symmetry, full circle, weaving together the beginning and the end of this particular chapter, the chapter called school life (even his little brother announced the other afternoon, as if he’d just put two and two together: “gosh, willie is about to be a real adult!”). the beginning and end here seem to have serendipitously been marked by eric carle, a fellow who found his joy, his purpose, in making shapes of brightly-colored tissue paper, and who wrote the score for a childhood measured out in the joy of turning pages, the delight of stumbling on a page that makes you laugh out loud.

i wonder if i might wiggle my way through the crush of all those college kids, and yank the wise man’s sleeve, and whisper my almighty thanks for the animation he stitched into our long ago just-beginning picture-book days?

red bird carle

who wrote the score of your childhood, or a childhood you’ve been blessed to watch up close? which picture books can you close your eyes and still recite, page by page, word by word?

on this particular morning i am particularly tied to my firstborn, who is about to step into the defense of his thesis, his 180-page page-turner. with all my heart and soul i offer up this morning for his prayers and dreams to come tumbling true….

picking up the pieces

picking up pieces

it’s april in the flatlands. and that means twister season. and so it was that yesterday blew across the plains. blew mightily.

for long hours of the day, the sky was charcoal gray, was roiling. every once in a while, the clouds opened wide, let loose a gusher. early in the morning, when i stepped back into the house, after driving my sweet mate to the train amid thundering downpour, i heard what sounded like a shower running.

now, i live with some mighty forgetful folk, but i’ve not lately known them to forget to turn off the shower. so i poked around. more like dashed. followed the sound of splish-splash-splosh till i got to the top of the basement stairs. there i leapt, two stairs at a time, a mighty lope, if i dare say so.

the in-home waterfall — the one i’d not ordered — it was gurgily demonstrating its hydro powers. water fell, all right. poured from the ceiling down the wall, and rolled threateningly toward the electrical outlets where i’d yet to pull the plugs.

i marveled. or maybe it was more like gawked. (you’ve had, perhaps, those elongated seconds where your brain cells and synapses are trying to connect, are trying to understand just why it is the bead-board wall is making like a shower head.) before too many seconds ticked away, i grabbed a stash of towels, a bucket, a mop. heck, i might have grabbed a fly swatter had there been one in sight. (i’m not sure why; i was grabbing anything on a stick, anything long enough to reach and plug the hole. as if i could keep the avalanche from coming.)

in time, the gushing slowed. became laconic drip. but all day i kept vigil, kept my ear tuned for the susurrations of a leaking basement.

by then, the skies darkened, and the weatherman interrupted the broadcast to flash rainbow-colored radar maps onto the TV screen. awful tornadoes tore western and northern illinois to bits. a 50-mile swath, one half-a-mile wide, set new records for hell on earth. gashed the state, and everything in its path, from rockford clear north and east into wisconsin.

out my own windows, the winds picked up. the glass panes rattled. and then the howls and whistles started in, the sound of hurling air in swift pursuit of havoc.

i must have been asleep by the time the worst of it whirled through. i heard nothing but the cat’s meow at 3 a.m. i let him out but i couldn’t see through the dark of night. couldn’t see the fence blown over. couldn’t see the bird house poles that had been plucked up and torpedoed, steep-roofed projectiles, flying arrows through the night.

but once the morning came, once i stepped outside, it was clear, was evident. the yard was not what it had been. something fierce had shattered things.

and, come morning, there was only the picking up of pieces to be done.

it’s uncanny sometimes, the way the outer world aligns with what’s inside. deep down inside. it’s uncanny how, on this becalmed morning after, i roam the soggy grass, i search for shards of wood, and splintered bird house parts. i pick up the pieces of my storm-splattered yard, and deep inside i try to re-assemble shards of my heart that, too, have been shattered in these recent hours.

some days, in the aftermath of storm, it’s the rounds we make, the assessing damage, the gathering of brokenness, that serves to make us whole. whether the brokenness is from the weather’s wrath, or that of someplace deeper.

did you stay safe last night? what are your healing rituals the morning after something’s torn you to pieces?

the eloquence of silence

silence on day that darkens

the sky is gray. as it should be. as my mama long ago told me it would be. had to be. this was the day that jesus hung on the cross. this was the day they call good friday, though i never have, never will, understand that. it’s a friday i nestle into, to be sure. it’s a friday when i will carve out a hollow of silence. i will wrap myself in silence and gray, gray sky.

it’s my practice, because we don’t usually shake off the ways of our earliest days, to contemplate deep and hard these hours when the one who healed the sick, threw out the tax collectors, the one who preached “love your neighbor as yourself,” the one who wept in the garden of gethsemane, he was stripped, and crowned with thorns. he carried the cross of his own dying along the dusty road to golgotha. he fell down. three times. and then, when he came to the place where he was to die, his arms and legs were nailed to limbs of tree, to wooden timbers, and he slowly breathed his last. and before he dropped his head, he called out: “father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.”

and if no other story of the christian narrative compels you, this might be one to contemplate deep and hard all life long.

i never get to the bottom of it. but every year, come this gray, gray friday, i try. i sink deep into what might have been coursing through a holy man on his way to die. i contemplate how it might be to live a life of trying to right the ways of a world that’s side-stepped what matters, that’s lost sight of how to love, of what it means to make peace with enemies, to embrace the cast-aside, the forgotten, the scorned. and then, at the end of that short life, to be condemned to die. to carry the weight of that cross knowing it’s the instrument of your own death.

and all of that i contemplate in silence. it’s one rule from long ago that i try mightily to abide by. my mama made us all be silent. not a word from noon to three, the hours when jesus hung on that cross, the hour when he died. long ago, for all those gray gray fridays, i tiptoed to my bedroom, my one sanctuary in a house of brothers. i sat on my bed, stared out the window at the sky. turned the pages of some evocative telling of those final hours. and waited for the sky to darken, maybe rumble, maybe cleave, at the stroke of three, the hour when jesus died.

and so it is here and now, the silence that will infuse the afternoon, when i will retreat to my room, stare out the window, turn the page of some evocative retelling of this gray gray friday. though i don’t, and haven’t, set that rule in my house, have not made my boys abide (though i do offer it as suggestion, nearly every year). i follow all alone the rule of silence.

there is such eloquence in silence, particularly amid this noisy, cacophonous world. there is wisdom in allowing thoughts to flow, to follow their course deep down to where the inklings come. or the knowing. it’s as if the rivulets of thawing spring find their way to rushing creek, where the bubbling up begins.

it’s rare and it’s a gift, this setting aside an afternoon for silence. for holy thought. for deepening.

and this gray gray friday, there is much to contemplate. to breathe deep and fill my soul.

the wonder of this particular good friday is that as i pull away from the afternoon’s silence, i will turn to passover’s story of exodus. and there i will be gathered at a table and that story will be told and retold. two compelling narratives in one day at our house. so it is, the blessing of being both. last night, at the mass of the last supper, i listened as one reading told the escape-from-egypt story, and the next told how jesus sat down to the seder, the passover feast, the one that we’ll sit down to tonight and tomorrow night. the intermingling of narratives, the points of intersection, they’re not missed by me. and it’s all part, i think, of what makes the good friday story even more compelling. the contemplation of the depths from which it flowed.  

this morning i thought i was going to burrow deep on the subject of silence, but, as so often happens, the sentences took me elsewhere. took me this time into jesus and the hours of this deepening afternoon. i don’t often write overtly about the tenets of my religion, or tell its stories here, but indeed they resonate and deeply draw my attention.

minutes after writing the words above, i sat down with my most beloved haggadah (the book that holds the story of the exodus, and outlines the prescriptions for the seder, the passover retelling and feasting); it’s the new american haggadah, edited by jonathan safran foer, published in 2012, and it’s brilliant. i read these words:

“we are not merely telling a story here. we are being called to a radical act of empathy.

oh, i wish i’d read those words before i started writing this morning. they grabbed me by the throat, and hold me in their grasp. we are being called to a radical act of empathy. jewish or christian, the stories of this holy blessed weekend are calling us to radical acts of empathy. and therein lies the miracle. that we have the capacity to enter.

contemplate the radical act of empathy in how, in our lives, we are called to feel from inside those beyond ourselves.

and my original first question of the morning:

do you, amid your busy days, ever declare interludes of silence, to follow the rivulets of thawing spring to the rushing creek where bubbling comes?

final push

final push. will bam

it’s the promise i made, long long ago. the deepest surest promise i ever made.

before he was even a bump in my belly, before anyone in the world knew he was there. in the moment i first knew, i tumbled out these words: dear God, let me wrap this blessed life in a cocoon of pure, unbroken love. let me be the shield. let this child know only undiluted full-force light.

it wouldn’t be long till i found out how porous that cocoon might be. i couldn’t keep the 105-degree fevers from spiking. couldn’t even take away the sting of the shots he got at 2-months-old, when the nurse turned to me and icily offered: “what are you all nervous for?”

i surely couldn’t keep the chipmunk from darting before his bike’s front wheel on that autumn afternoon when he hurled across the handle bars, and landed in an unconscious heap on the side of the woodsy trail. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking in his neck, on that october day when he was all alone and all of 13. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking straight across his thigh just 10 months after that. nor stop the crushing commentary from the camp counselor who saw his staggered gait as reason for ridicule.

in the nearly 22 and a half years since i whispered that promise (i’d whispered it a full nine months before he was born), i’ve not veered, not lost my most determined grip.

there are rare few promises you make in life that define you. my promise to my firstborn was one.

and now, at the end of his senior year of college, in the final hours before he turns in the more than 150 pages he’s been typing, editing, eating-drinking-sleeping, i am once again putting muscle to my words. his senior thesis, a compendium of deep thinking and determined scholarship, will soon be walked into a white new england house, one with columns stretched across its porch. it’s the poli sci department, and the thesis, a probing examination of the intersection — and entanglement — of law and religion, is due in just five days. at 3 p.m., eastern time. (not that i’m watching the clock.)

i’ll not be breathing much this weekend. the thousand miles between us will, once again, have collapsed into the paper-thin space between two hearts that once beat just micrometers apart.

i’ve realized (because i tend to think that way) this might be the final push of all the school years — from preschool when i nervously watched him try to make a friend in the blocks corner, to third grade when he carried off to school the landmark chicago stadium he’d struggled to build out of cardboard, poster paint and glue (lots and lots of glue), to the junior year of high school with its tension-building, sleep-disrupting 20-page AP-english theme (oh, that seems so innocently succinct, now looking back from the distance of 150-plus footnoted pages), to the long-distance breath-holding as every college semester’s close brought with it a slate of deadlines and exams and will-he-make-it doubts, to now, the mountain climb of all type-written mountain climbs.

and so i’ll enter this final round of breath-holding, of leaping every time the phone rings, of literally falling asleep and awaking with that boy’s welfare on my mind, with all the mama-dedication it deserves.

the truest truth is that as i’ve reached out my hand to guide my boy up steep climbs, through narrow passageways, i’m the one who’s found my way. he’s plunged me into life in ways that, until he came along, i might have skirted. if i’ve lived my life one drop more deeply, more authentically, it’s because he was at my side. he was asking me — without words — to be the best of who i might be. to not flinch. to not be afraid. or even if i was, to walk forward anyway.

that’s what mamas do, after all. that’s the unspoken pact. it’s at the front line of whatever life hurls our child’s way, where we are truly put to the test. it doesn’t mean we’ll keep at bay the brokenness. it doesn’t mean we’ll stanch the tears. it means we’ll wear it all, as if our own. it means we’ll be there on the phone whispering, “i believe” till the cows come home. it means that when we’re dead asleep and the phone jangles us awake, we’ll take the call, shudder off the somnolence and stay on the line till daylight erases darkness.

in this latest round, it means we’ll read and re-read, check for misplaced commas, look up “constitution” in the world book encyclopedia, grasping to understand this free-exercise clause that seems to be absorbing so much of our kid’s attention.

if that’s what it takes. whatever it takes.

day after day, year upon year.

this is the one job for which there’s no check-out clock. our hours on the factory floor do not end.

oh, we might get long spells of reprieve, when all is humming along as you’d hope it would. but then, duty calls. stakes are high, and the fire bell clangs. so you leap into the nearest phone booth, and you whip on your mama cape. you toe the line. you’ve made a vow, and you’re sticking to it. you’re here for the long haul, and the long haul is now.

so much is stitched into every single saga. unspoken volumes. volumes that swell your heart. volumes that teach and re-teach just what it means to love as you would be loved.

it’s holy gospel, this mothering as mountain climb. he’s nearly there, the kid i love. i can see the summit, and so can he. i’ve one last weekend to stay the course. to promise him he’ll make it, and to let out a holy roar when, at last, he does.

bam will hand in hand

that’s me and my sweet boy, walking hand in hand, a long, long time ago. i nearly melt studying the snapshots, the one just above, and the one up high where you can practically feel my straining to implant some sort of mama inoculation on his irish-jewish cheek. it’s what we aim to do, aim most mightily: to embrace, protect, infuse with all that’s good, infuse with the best of what we’ve got and all we didn’t even know we had to offer. 

do you have a tale to tell about someone loving you across the finish line, no matter what the line? 

and happy blessed birthday to two of my life’s dearest oldest friends who today and tomorrow tack on another year. love you, divine miss M, and sweet sweet paula, angel of my dreams….

from the middle ages to me: my voracious appetite for the not-so-edible “salad of many herbs”

799px-Flickr_-_Beinecke_Flickr_Laboratory_-_(Commonplace_Book),_(late_17th_Century)-thumb-615x190-75565

florilegium, or “gathering of flowers,” they’re called. or were called in medieval times.

quaint.

one wealthy 15th-century italian wool merchant declared his zibaldone, or book of hodgepodgery, “the salad of many herbs.” a snip here, a pungent bit there.

it was his self-inscribed anthology of esoterica and knowledge, the pages into which he stuffed everything from recipes to tables of weights and measures to the latest smart something he’d heard rumbling on the florentine sidewalks. decidedly, it was not a journal, no catch-all for memoir, nothing like a diary. nary a rambling of the soul found here, this was strictly the province of accumulated knowledge — and things not to forget.

more commonly known as commonplace books, i’ve just discovered i’ve been keeping one — or four or five, more like it — for years and years. (“commonplace,” you should know, is a translation of the latin term locus communis (from greek tópos koinós), or “common place,” and, according to our friends at harvard university’s library, suggests a storehouse, or clearinghouse — in ink, on paper — of ideas and arguments, easily located for ready application. say, when engaged in verbal jousting at the medieval village pub.)

and i just thought i was a hoarder of the literary kind, demonstrating my rodent-like tendencies for squirreling away little bits and snips of enchantment. of the poetic species.

they live in assuming places, my commonplace books, my cache for what tickles my imagination, delights my word-ly fancy, catches my breath. for years, one lived on my laptop’s desktop, but it grew to be so long, so unwieldy, so likely to bring down my hard drive, i only recently birthed its second generation, both titled, “words and lines worth saving,” iterations I and II.

two more, the kind made of cardboard and paper pressed between covers, they live atop my desk, my actual old pine desk, one to my right and one to my left. as i flip through them now, i see i’ve stuffed inside a post-it note with a german address (in case i visit, i suppose), an advent calendar from 2012, a rosary (still in plastic) from the basilica of holy hill. and as i flip through the left-hand book, one i’ve titled, “notes of wonder,” i see that it’s bulging with snipped-out pages from the new york times book review, notes i scribbled on the back of someone’s eighth-grade essay, and assorted ponderings, including this: “God’s first language, which is silence.”

the one i count among my life’s truest treasures, though, is the unwieldy one on my desktop. there, if you scroll along, you’ll find among its 9,938 words unfurled across 35 pages, the turkish word for “moonlight on water” (gumusservi), the definition of epistemology (after stumbling across the line, “the epistemology of loss,” in a john berryman poem), or this from galway kinnell: “to me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

it’s my digital memory box, the place where i commit the things that take my breath away, stir my soul, make my heart beat double-time. it’s my independent study in the literary arts, and poetry in particular.

little did i know that no less than jonathan swift prescribes one thusly:

“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”
—from “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”

apparently, the practice, with its roots in antiquity, has been unbroken since the middle ages, with a particular up-bump in renaissance times. the idea — brought on with a bang not long after the invention of the gothenburg press, “largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information the printing press had unleashed upon them,” according to alan jacobs, writing in the atlantic — was that particularly pithy or otherwise catchy little thoughts were to be hand-copied and tucked into one’s commonplace book. in arranging topically, it was thought, the literate raconteur would have, at fingertips’ reach, a ready arsenal of neatly tucked-away poetry and argument. need a zippy rejoinder? oh, just wait, it’s right here, on page 23 of my florilegium (the latin name pinned onto the practice by the medievals, who found them particularly handy for stockpiling thought of theological and religious theme. for what little it’s worth, i much prefer to think of mine as that “salad of many herbs”).

why, thomas jefferson was a prodigious keeper of the commonplace (writing in english, latin and greek, of course). as were henry david thoreau and ralph waldo emerson. the british library’s renaissance project boasts a collection of some 50, many penned inside the iron bars of prison cells and locked towers (sir walter raleigh, so imprisoned from 1606 to 1608, filled his penitent hours with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the middle east). in fact, clear through the early 20th century, students and scholars were long required to keep them. and so, if you tiptoe into the bowels of any of the western world’s great libraries, just ask to see the commonplace collections, and you’ll soon stumble on the jottings of john milton, victor hugo, sarah orne jewett, samuel clemens, and john quincy adams, to name but a smattering.

i found out i was such a keeper of the commonplace only by accident. because i happened to ask a dear friend of mine, one who unfurls great lines of poetry at the drop of a hat, how it was that she had such a stockpile at the ready. here’s how my poetic friend, dear amy, replied:

“Yes, I have books and journals filled with favorite quotes, as well a hefty computer file with snippets of words I want to remember. I’ve been a nut about quotes and have collected them all my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that the squirreling away of meaningful quotes is called keeping a commonplace book, a practice that hearkens back to the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson. I just LOVE words of beauty and wisdom, and like a magpie, I love to feather my nest with them, as it were!”

it is the dearest thing to encounter a fellow magpie, both of us flitting through the air with words dangling from our beaks. i’ve long said that if my house began to burn, one of the few things i’d tuck to my bosom would be my long-kept compendium of beauty and breath-taking.

for that, in the end, is what animates so much of my imagination. and puts flight to the task of typing so many hours of my lifetime. there is something deeply holy about tripping upon depths of meaning in thoughts thought before you, in words committed to paper long ago, or just the other afternoon.

i can’t imagine my world without knowing that, at the click of a computer key, i could unlock these lines, copied and pasted long ago, breath-catching beauties from dear virginia woolf:

from “Mrs. Dalloway”: “…she was like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, who blinks at the sun when the leaf moves; starts at the crack of a dry twig.”

on sewing: “…her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to its gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt.”

describing grand houses of London: “….halls laid in black and white lozenges…”

“turning one’s nerves to fiddle strings….”

“long streamers of sunlight…”

on “the compensation of growing old”: “the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, turning it round, slowly, in the light.”

“thunderclaps of fear”

i copy to remember. i paste to never forget. as mr. swift so finely put it: it’s my “supplemental memory,” my “record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.”

excuse me while i amble off to imbibe on my salad of many, many herbs.

do you keep a salad of many herbs, a gathering of flowers, a book of hodgepodgery, otherwise known simply as a commonplace book? and do you not think the practice a wholly invigorating one? a holy one, too?

and, most deliciously, what would be among the herbs you’ve snipped from your literary garden?

finally, happy blessed launch of spring on this day of equal light and darkness, the vernal equinox, when, as my beautiful brother david says, “you can hear the earth breathing.” but only if you listen, of course…..

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