pull up a chair

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

summer starts here

summer starts here lemonade

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

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

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

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

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

slowing time, the essence of summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pile the grill with farmer’s market bounty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welcome to summer

weeds: necessary diversion, and a wallop of wisdom besides

weeds 2weeds 3weeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

i yanked.

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

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

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

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

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

it’s why i muck in the dirt, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

maya angelou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Daughter,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the truth behind one-handed gardening

one handed gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but then this week happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mothering: The Sum of Infinites

By Barbara Mahany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

strong women: a reflection on mothering

mother's day mass

the church i most call home — old st. pat’s in downtown chicago — the one that long ago told my beloved mate and i — he, jewish, and i, catholic — that “it’s the same God. different language. go for it.” and that has blessed and been home to our two boys, raised at the front lines of the jewish-catholic dialogue in a sunday family school that steeps jewish-catholic children in both their faith traditions. that beloved church asked me to step to the altar last night, at the annual mass for mothers, and speak from the heart, to give the meditation after communion. the theme, simply: strong women.

so pull up a pew, and listen in. this is what i said, huddled behind the lectern, tucked alongside a great tall statue of the blessed virgin mary (who i believe kept my knees from shaking, and whom i nearly knocked over with one of my sweeping broken-arm gestures. egad!), with a barricade of trumpeting potted easter lilies rising in a thicket between me and the flock of gorgeous women who filled the pews. with one deep cleansing breath, here goes:

I think maybe I thought it was going to be like babysitting. Only without having to peek out the window to see if the grownups were pulling in the driveway. And without having to race around the house — in the two minutes between the crunch of the tires in the drive and the turn of the key in the back door — hiding evidence of the pillow fight that made the little darlings — oops! — an hour late for bed.

And, maybe I thought, when it was your turn to be the grownup, at least you got to pick the names of the little rascals you’d be watching.

For the next 20 years. And then some.

Nope, no one could have truly clued you in, into this life leap that catapulted you into motherhood. No one could have sounded loudly enough the early warning system. No one could have made you believe, no matter how many times they whispered it in your ear: This will be the hardest wholesale rewiring of who you thought you were in the world. And it will test your every instinct for survival, for faith, for long-distance endurance.

Fact is, you were hardly alone — though you might have felt you were stranded on a godforsaken island — when, in those early days, you were totally flummoxed by the wee swaddled bundle, the one who weighed in at less than a sack of flour, for crying out loud (oh, and, yes, it did that too — cried out loud. Till you were certain the cops would be called, and you’d be revealed as not-ready-for-licensing in the maternal department).

Who would have feigned surprise, if, once or twice — or 100 times a week those first couple weeks — you’d strongly considered returning said bundle to the delivery room that delivered that babe in the first place?

After all, in the deep darkness of those late noisy nights, you’d figured it out, hatched your escape route: Come the next inky twilight, you’d just mosey back to the maternity ward, drop the squawky bundle at the nurse’s station, attach a post-it note that read something along these lines: “So sorry. This is way more than I ordered. You really should find someone better suited to the job. I’m afraid I’ll break/scar/ruin (insert your own disaster verb here) the little sweetheart.”

But then, in the next instant, when those matchstick-sized fingers curled into the fleshy folds of your neck, or clung to your breast as if you were the life raft (which you were), or when you inhaled a whiff of that newborn baby scalp, or marveled at the chubby thigh that was dimpled — and delicious — from the get-go, you surrendered all over again.

You felt that hot streak of mother love rise up from deep down inside, and you knew — even though you had not one clue how — that you were in this for the long haul.

And: There is no turning back.

No turning back from the toughest job you’ll never get fired from. Even when you swear to your best best friend that you really blew it this time.

No turning back from the job that promises to test all the parts of you that you were proud of, and all the other ones you’ve always known you were sorely lacking.

No turning back from the closest you might ever come to knowing what it means to be the first-response rescue squad, to save the gosh-darn day (even if all that means is that you find the lost cellphone just before you toss the dirty jeans into the sudsy washtub). To be the one and only who can soothe sobs, make the hurt go away, quell the queazy tummy.

Here’s a little noticed omission: If you flip through the dictionary, and dawdle in the M’s, you’ll find the definition for Motherhood severely lacking. You’ll find no mention of the resilience that’s required, or the capacity for your heart to triple in size, exponentially, year after year.

You’ll find not a word about the long nights of courage when the little numbers on the thermometer keep rising, and all you can do is walk in circles, draw the bath, climb in and pray.

You’ll read nowhere about the cavernous hours you spend pacing as the minute hand on the clock ticks round and slowly round, until the click at the door — the one you begged the heavens you’d hear before your heart pounded through your chest — the click finally comes.

You won’t see mention of the tossing-turning nights, the ones when you lie awake, playing and replaying the playground scene, the one your little one tearfully spilled into your arms, as you tucked him goodnight and he told you why he can’t go back to school. Ever.

No, motherhood in all its nooks and crannies can hardly be charted for all its dips and inclines, its shadows and, yes, its radiant graces.

To be a mother is to sign on for life. To take your seat in the front row of a love affair — a heart-to-heart entanglement — that unspools from inception, and knows no pause.

Some days, yes, you’ll be the teacher. But, more often, you’ll be the one who’s soaking up lessons you’d otherwise never have had the guts to tackle. And your little person, so often, will be the one who’s spilling wisdom, speaking truth, and doling out humility by the cupful.

Truth is: You thought you were loving to the outer limits of your heart, then, one dark afternoon you’ll never forget, you held your breath for one long hour while the doctor read the CT scan that would tell you if your kid’s spinal cord was severed, and during that hellish 60 minutes you’d already decided, so help you God, that you’d be the one to give him bed baths the rest of his life, and to sit by his pillow reading Hemingway and Twain and Homer and Joyce till the end of time, if that’s what it came to. And when the all’s-clear sign comes, you drop to your knees and swear to God you will never for an instant take for granted the messy kid who cannot, for the life of him, pick up the killer piles off his bedroom floor. And whose beautiful mind is the one piece of him you were not willing to surrender. Not even in your hour of deepest darkness.

And then, too soon, the day will come when you leave that kid on some leafy college quad, or watch her board the flight to boot camp, and your knees will shake, and your heart will feel like its cracking — so much so you’re tempted to drive to the ER, because maybe, you think, this is a real live heart attack, this pain that’s piercing through your chest — and you walk away — more alone than you ever knew you could feel — and you wonder where all the hours went, and if you taught the kid everything you really should have made sure she knew. And did you tell her often enough: I love you, just the way you are.

And you think back over the fevered nights, and the dawns when the retching at the toilet would not end. And the tears spilled over mean words hurled on the playground. And the countless negotiations you endured — bargaining for one more hour before curfew, one more text before lights out, one more bite of broccoli before you’re allowed up from the table.

And you ask yourself — how in the world you did it?

And you take a census of this woman you have grown to be, and you realize who you are is mightier than the fiercest wind, and tenderer than a balmy April’s breeze. You’ve weathered tornadoes of the heart, and sailed on interludes of giggles and long walks squeezing hands.

You’ve stood up to bullies and talked down the coach who tried to cheat your kid. You’ve defended and pleaded and apologized for the wrongs your kid did not intend. You’ve gone woozy when you spied the gash in your kid’s head, and held him down with kisses as they stitched him back together. You’ve melted into tears when the stranger called to thank your kid for sticking up for hers — in front of an entire lunch table, God bless him.

And you’ve gotten up in this blessed beautiful church to tell anyone who’d listen: The holiest job I’ve ever done, the one that soared my heart to heights that I’d have never known, the job that took my broken self and made me whole, it’s the sacred call to mothering.

And it is for the strong of heart. So help us Mother God. Amen.

the boys above, of course, are the boys i so love — a baker’s-dozen years ago almost….

i bring this to the table on one of those days — there are so many, aren’t there? — when it takes every ounce of every strength we didn’t know we have, to be all that we need to be for the children we so love. blessings to all who mother in all and every form…..

quick note: i just changed the title above (used to be “a reflection for mothers”), because i believe in all my heart in the distinction between mothers, a defined set, and mothering, a verb that includes all who mother in all its many many forms. to me mothering means to nurture, to embrace, to scaffold the ones we love, so they can find the wind beneath their wings. men mother. women mother. women of all ages. i’ve seen little girls mother.

so here’s the question: how would you define mothering? 

dear mama, for all of this…

grammy tedd chess

day after tomorrow, it’s the day when the globe pauses in its spinning so toast can be sprung from the toaster, violets can be clutched by little hands, and college kids can shoot a quick text: “luv u mom.”

otherwise known as children-remember-your-mom day, a wholly artificial slow-down in the whirl so cinnamon-raisin crumbs can be hansel-and-greteled between the bedsheets, violets can suffer strangulation, and mothers can get bleary-eyed at being remembered. or not.

sometimes, though, the day affords much more. it allows us to dig down to where our memories lie, and pull a few good ones out by the roots. that’s the notion at the heart of a breathtaking essay written by a friend i met a few weeks back. my friend is laura lynn brown, and before i met her at a crowded noisy dinner table, i’d read her essay, the one the iowa review printed in its esteemed pages, and the one slated to run on slate, the uber cool website, today.

her essay, “fifty things about my mother,” started out as an experiment in crafting pure-gold sentences, one at a time, in no particular order.

laura, then and now a daily newspaper editor in little rock, arkansas, was getting close to 50, the age at which her mama had died, and she found herself aswirl in rememberings. around that very time, twitter, that 140-character writer’s challenge, was gliding onto the horizon. rather than scoff at such syllabary confines, laura was intrigued by the notion of power-packing a sentence.

you’ll read, as you scroll through her sentences, how magnificently she mastered that challenge. and why no less than susan orlean picked the whole lot of them to win the 2013 iowa review nonfiction award.

what happened next was that laura’s essay caught an editor’s eye, and, lo and behold, a book was born, everything that makes you mom: a bouquet of memories. only five of the original 50 sentences are tucked in the book, and rather than making it a book in which you’d read only laura’s memories of laura’s heavenly-sounding mom, she’s made it a book that tickles the reader’s heart and uproots some of your own most delicious mama memories.

laura brown book

laura wondered if maybe a gaggle of her writerly friends might open the pages of the book and see what happened. i got to page 108, and found my assignment, under the heading “essay question”: “remember when Mom taught you how to write a thank-you note (promptly, saying thank you, naming the gift given, and telling how you will use it or why you appreciate it or why it was a just-right choice)? write your mother a thank-you note now.”

here at the chair, i’ve written over the years what amount to thank-you notes to my mama. the original mother nature is one, and so is grammy tuesday.

but borrowing from my writerly friend laura, i’ll take a crack at crafting a few thank-you sentences to my very own mama, who, at 83.5 and ticking strong, still parks her sleek silver SUV at the curb of our old house every tuesday, ambles up the walk with her blue-plastic cooler of whatever groceries she needs to cook and lay on the table one of her ever-revolving repertoire of the dinners i grew up with: chicken rice grammy, 3-4-5 stew, meatloaf crusted with catsup, and bags and bags of frozen carrots and peas.

dear mama,

for tucking me by your side on the hardwood stairs the summer’s afternoon the hive of yellow jackets shimmied up my skinny little legs, trapped inside my jeans, and stung me mercilessly straight up to my bum. for making like julie andrews and singing into my ear, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when i’m feeling sad, i simply remember my favorite things, and then i don’t feel so bad,” the tune from “the sound of music” that still clicks on auto-play when i find myself inside-out, upside-down or just plain afraid.

for flipping open my bedroom window shades on especially sunlit mornings with robert browning’s song from pippa passes, “the lark’s on the wing/the snail’s on the thorn/God’s in His heaven/all’s right with the world!”

for the image of you in the rainy cemetery i’ll never forget: you with your sturdy sole to the cusp of the garden shovel, slicing into the oozy earth, at the mound of your beloved’s — my papa’s — grave — right above his heart, you whispered to me — digging the hole for the mahogany jewelry box that held our stringbean-sized baby girl, the one stillborn in the hollow of night, the one you helped us lay to rest, tucked snug against her grandpa’s stilled heart “where they’ll both always be safe,” you promised me.

for the 1,048 grammy tuesdays since boy 1 was born, and the 572 grammy thursdays you tacked on once boy 2 arrived. for forging connections to those two boys that are at the bedrock of who they are and always will be. for knowing the instant you met my “old shoe” of a newsroom friend, the one with the holes in his penny loafers and the hanging-down hem on his seersucker shorts, that despite the fact that i was a lifelong catholic and he was a devoted jew, i’d met my soul’s desire. 

an abbreviated list of what you taught me: love like there’s no tomorrow; don’t ever stop; poetry is prayer; 101 things to do with frozen peas; and if you want julie andrews, plop her on the record player.

for all of this, and so very much more, dear mama, thank you and thank you and happy blessed mama’s day. please come for 3-4-5 stew, washed down with slippery buttery baby frozen peas.

what would you write in your thank you note to your mama?

photo above is my mama playing chess just this past tuesday with boy 2, aka teddy. and here is one more thing she taught me to love…

viburnum

korean spice viburnum, blooming just this morning outside my kitchen door, a bouquet for my mama..

and for all my beautiful friends whose mamas are no longer here, a bundle of extra deep hugs. it’s a bottomless loss, stirred all the more painfully on this day when it seems everyone else is bathing in the very thing that brings you heartache. 

of may bugs and the wonder of footsteps above

maybugs and wonder of welcome

he was gone by the time i started bumbling into may bugs. i found them crawling across the old pine hutch, the one i almost burned down one night long ago when a candle took a fancy to the century-old wooden knobs. i found the spotted-back bugs slithering across a chinese bowl in the living room. i found them parked and preening smack dab under the daffodils on the dining room table.

they were but the latest charmed import from the charming fellow who called this old house home for the last two weeks of chilly, drizzly april.

he’s gone now, our dear friend bernd, father to jan luca, the blond-haired lad who two years ago was here and stole my heart as, each day at dawn, he tiptoed down the stairs, splayed his stash of colored pencils and his writing papers across the maple table and sat beside me at the morning bench, crafting yet another page in the latest of his illustrated storybooks. (had i ordered this sweet child from bavarian central casting, i wondered? had he dropped into my heart from a puffy cloud of dreams, one that had wafted across the atlantic and settled down along my lake shore?)

and — in a role we’ll never forget — bernd was also the big-hearted papa who late into the lonely nights last summer sat beside our little world traveler, the one who’d trekked to germany and found himself topsy-turvy. even as the midnight hour came and went, bernd never left our little fellow’s side as he heaved his traveler’s tummy and wanted, more than anything, his faraway (and passport-less) mama to airlift him home sweet home. you don’t forget a man who soothes your child’s tangled heart. who, for days on end, pedals beside him on miles-long bike treks through munster’s leafy arbored tunnels. and buys him ices at the finish line.

it’s a multi-chaptered friendship now, what with all the criss-crossings of sea and sky. and the shared knowledge that we’ve loved each other’s children as if our own, for the few short weeks they’ve been in our care. and this time round, we got to be the ones to unfurl the welcome mat for bernd. to tuck spring beauties by the bedside, wrap the empty mattress in the softest flannel sheets, fill the fridge with meats and cheese and toothsome breads, because we’d been schooled on how to feed a touring deutsche mann.

the bed is empty once again, the footsteps now are stilled. bernd, one of the liveliest minds i’ve encountered in quite some time, has packed his bags and climbed aboard a train, leading his flock of westphalian schoolchildren down to where abe lincoln roamed.

but for the better part of these past two weeks, we shared our house, and felt our hearts wedge ever wider. it’s what comes when welcome lasts for days.

it’s that rarest of alchemies, the one that tiptoes into your very soul, and settles in at the comfiest nook. it’s mixed and poured in the shared pulse beat and the daily rhythms ticking through the hours: the soon-familiar rustle of bare feet on bare floor above. the flushing of the morning drain. the coming to know that the extra coffee mug now queued beside the pot is the one that takes a glug of what you now know to be vollmilch, whole milk.

(you actually manage to pick up a word or three, over the course of your 10-day german immersion, and you thank your lucky stars that your houseguest is the english teacher at the german school in telgte, north rhine-westphalia, and can converse with depth and nuance on any subject you introduce, from the strife in ukraine to acupuncture as a cure for allergy.)

it’s something sacred, i swear, this slow-unspooling tête-à-tête and cœur à cœur that comes only when circling in close proximity over the course of added-up days.

and, like all that matters most in life, it’s an arithmetic of the most elemental units, combining to intricate — and breath-taking — calculus.

when we inhabit the same four walls, when we come to know by heart the waking up and slumber, when we pass a bowl of lumpy potatoes across a table, swap sections of the news, when one conversation circles back and round again, when we are interlaced across the span of sunlight and moonlight, when we share the itty-bitty worries of the day (was any school child lost in the trudge across chicago’s loop?), and when one of us applies the ice to the other one’s purpled and twisted wrist (after a spectacular late-night fall that’s left me typing with one hand), we are more than simply friends.

we are bare-hearted humans who inch closer and closer to a shared vision of the world.

sympatico, “having a fellow feeling;” sym derived from syn (greek, meaning “together with, at the same time”) + pathos (again, greek, for “suffering, feeling,” or “a quality arousing pity;” related to penthos, “grief, sorrow”).

it is what happens, over hours and days, over the pirouette at the refrigerator door when one reaches for juice and the other for cheese, over the turning out of the kitchen light when at last it’s time for bed, over the considerate hauling out of the trash, and the remembering to keep the cat from the allergic guest’s pillow.

it is what’s bound to come — a sort of elmer’s heart glue — that’s applied in drips and dabs across the days. it’s our natural inclination to harbor the wholeness — the light and shadow, the fine-grained and the sweeping brushstroke — of those with whom we share dirty dishes in the sink, whose toilet paper rolls we make certain are plenty, whose soggy socks we whirl through the dryer.

it’s as if we’re erasing, hour by hour, the walls that keep any two humans apart. we realize — because we hear the gurglings of everyday life, we scour the sink of another morning’s whiskers, we laugh out loud at the same wacky lines on SNL — how very much we inhale and exhale the same few molecules.

and, thus, we get that rare peek at the truth: we are all but a bundle of quirks and soft spots, we all get goosebumps when it’s cold, and our tummies growl when they’re empty. and beneath the physiologic kinship, we unfurl the thoughts and ideas that animate our imaginations, we hold our native lands up to the light, and we discover that the globe is a very small orb, and our hearts are at their glorious best when we remember once again how deeply connected we all really, truly are.

to say nothing of the rich parade of chocolate bugs that melt across your tongue, and leave a lingering sweetness that won’t go away anytime soon.

maybugs kitchen counter

the chocolate lady bugs, it turns out, are a may day tradition in germany, when kinder (that’s children) wake up to find a trail of tucked away “may bugs,” all begging to be found. not unlike our easter egg hunt, and similar in spirit to our long-ago may-day tradition of secretly dropping a basket of spring beauties on some unsuspecting someone’s doorstep, it’s a hide-and-seek i’m now adding to my annual repertoire. and every time, my heart — like the milky chocolate — will melt, thinking of dear beloved brilliant bernd. who made our april not dreary at all. despite the temps in the 30s and 40s, and the rains that would not go away.

do you have tales to tell of long-term hospitality, the gift of opening your home and finding a new inhabitant at the tenderest spot of your heart?

 

crouching-down season

crouching down season

for weeks now, i’ve been pausing at my kitchen window, gnawing my lip in gravest consternation, increasingly convinced that all that remained from the long hard winter was a bramble of hollow sticks and empty vines, all dead on arrival at springtime’s doorstep. it seemed their only occupation going forward, this drab tangle in shades of brown, without a hint of pulse, was to poke me in the eye, as i rambled by on my daily constitutional of hope and prayer.

i’d been examining. up close. all but fondling all the nubs and tips, an alchemist and dreamer’s feeble-hearted formula of massage + vesper = resurrection.

alas, morning after morning: blhhhk. nada. nothing. as if the once green-leafed darlings had packed their inner vigors and ditched the premises. (and who could blame them, really? why stick to land of ice and snow, when just a few time zones south, they might employ the verbs of growth: engorge. swell. unfurl. stretch out. pullulate. fructify. climb toward the sun.)

deep inside my heart, i waffled. part of me would not give up. part of me was certain that the weary sticks and naked vines had merely overslept the vernal alarm clock. snoozed straight through weeks one through three of april. but part of me worried: this might have been the winter that did them in, poor over-taxed citizens of middle-american landscape.

i’d begun to plan a mass funeral — shovel and compost bin, key attendants.

ah, but overnight, dear Lord in heaven, they’ve stirred. they’ve greened. they’ve surged beyond the confines of their sticky-ness and taken on the curves and frills of a season that begs you bend your knees, drop your bum, and crouch to down where the dew-drenched blades of grass tickle your behind, and leave you spotted when you rise, go about your ways, not minding what the neighbors think of your moistly speckled derriere.

and so, mad woman that i am when at last the pullulation comes, i can barely contain myself in the early morning’s light. i’m tumbling out the door before the coffee’s gurgled even once. i am drinking in the dawn’s overnight attractions. and in the cloak of morning silence you can all but hear the supple-throated sweethearts — the knobs of peony thrusting from the earth, the butterballs of daffodil shoving off the dirt, the tenderest furls of fern and forget-me-not lining up on stage — you can all but hear them warbling, “look at me, look at me. see how much i’ve grown!”

such show-offs, there in the loamy beds. but wouldn’t you? if you’d survived winds that howled like packs of wolves, and temperatures that flash-froze you into icy blocks of bulb?

and isn’t this, the turning of the season’s page, once again where we’re all but grabbed by the shoulders, and commanded to stand still, to look around, to absorb the lessons of the earth, the sky, and all that flutters in between? isn’t this when metaphor awaits, at the tip of every branch? when mama bird re-teaches patience, and diligence, just in case we’ve lost our place and need remedial tutoring in the truths of seasonal rebirthing?

it’s as if the Grand Designer of the spinning globe, the One who turns us on our axis, knows all too well our abbreviated attention spans, and how, every few months, the lesson plans must be pulled from the pile so we can stumble once again over Seasonal Wisdoms 101.

this year, with winter in third or fourth overtime, and spring in game delay, it seemed the lesson on the chalkboard, the one we were inking over and over in our college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks, was the one that tested faith, the one that made us think long and hard about the fallow spells in our lives when we’ve lost all hope of growth or resurrection. when we’re down to our last fumes, and can’t for the life of us figure a way forward, toward the light behind the clouds.

so here’s the pop quiz: when, week after week, there is no sign of change, not a bare iota’s indication that something deep is stirring — in the earth or in our soul — shall we a.) give up all hope, pack our bags and wave the “i-surrender flag,” or b.) mumble words of flickering devotion, strap on our mukluks, and plop ourselves beneath the climbing hydrangea, certain of its — and our — eventual return to glory?

here’s a peek at the answer sheet:

crouching down climbing vine

and, just in case you need your seasonal wisdoms in living color, here’s what the heirloom hyacinth had to say about hope in the early hours of this morning:

crouching down hyacinths

spelled out in depths of delft blue, and perky furls of newborn green, the truth of course is this: rebirth will surely come, once the long hard work of winter’s deep-down concentration, and intricate re-distillation, is finally, finally utterly and messily complete.

and then the soul-filled springtime comes in gallops. you might get dizzy trying to drink it in.

what, pray tell, is unfolding in your vernal syllabus? or simply in your corner of the globe, where you crouch down to study springtime’s oft-repeated wisdoms?

because yesterday was “poem in your pocket” day, and because a friend i love sent me a poem of wisdom from meister eckhart, i happened to scroll to the bottom of the page, where i found this little morsel, apt for this meander about the slow-unfurling of the springtime….(and of course, eckhart is far more profound in 23 words than i could ever hope to be in nearly 900…)

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
– Anais Nin

hours of sorrows

silence on day that darkens

amid this breathless week of passover seders and holiest hours, amid trying to pack lunches kosher for passover, and waking up early to stir and bake passover coffee cakes (in which it’s the egg white that’s relied upon for alchemy, to lift the leaden matzoh into something that falls on the tongue with delicate bite), amid wondering what to serve our muslim houseguest when she’s here for easter brunch while we’re keeping kosher for passover, today is the day i deep breathe.

today, good friday, holy friday, friday of sorrows at the nadir of the week, this is the day when the noon hour comes, and the sky darkens (at least in my searching imagination it does), and i retreat to my quietude. and my sorrows.

sorrows not my own, but sorrows for the world. sorrows of which there are too, too many. the more you read the newspapers, the more you turn the pages of memoir, the more and more you realize the world is shrouded in darkness. darkness that demands whatever energies we have to battle it back. to insist we’re not letting it win. we’re not standing by in abeyance. we’re not washing our hands, turning and dropping the ball, leaving the dirty work to anyone else.

on this day, in these hours of sorrows, i turn to that ancient and ever-birthing instrument of petition and promise: i pray. i pray on my knees (till my old bones tell me to stop, anyway). i pray curled by my window, my eyes deep in the words on the page. i pray all alone, just me and the God who is listening. listening, i’m certain.

this year, i’m bringing along a wisp of a book, a book originally published in 1955, before i was born, a book i searched for and found this year because its words had so stirred me, sitting in the pews at a church not far away in miles, but legions away in raw earthy truths. it’s a church filled with a few dozen languages and skin from pitch-black to blotchy from tears. it’s a church where i go to feel naked, to feel in communion with the messy stuff of humanity. i’ve seen old women, bent and bowed, rocking with tears, and mumbling half out loud. i’ve seen fat brown-skinned babies dunked in the holy waters. i’ve seen walkers and wheelchairs and crutches and canes. the whole lot of God’s sorrows streaming up to communion.

the book, this book that speaks to me, speaks to all who gather at st. nick’s and beyond, it’s “the way of the cross,” written and illustrated back in 1955 by caryll houselander, and you can find it from liguori publications, down missouri way.

way of the cross

now this caryll houselander, she was a bit of a rabble-rouser (a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing 20th-century british catholic mystic, artist, woodcarver, prolific author, teacher of disturbed children, counselor of the war-traumatized, widely known as “the divine eccentric”).

she liked her religion messy, she liked it to speak from the hollows of the human heart. and she lifted it out of long-ago millennia and into the moment, for me anyway. she puts me there in the dust at the side of the via dolorosa, the quarter-mile road in old jerusalem where jesus carried the cross, falling not once or twice but three times under the weight of those shoulder-crushing timbers. up the hill to calvary, where, upon that cross, he cried out, “father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, with his mother weeping at the foot of the cross, he let out the gurgly rattle of death, and he died.

we all have words in our lives with magical mystical powers, words that unlock some soulful place in us. caryll houselander’s “way of the cross” does it for me.

here she is on veronica, the compassionate woman who burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus. here she is, caryll houselander, with the pleading to God inspired by veronica wiping the face of jesus, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

 

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

quietly, i leave you to enter your own pleadings and sorrows.

may this be a day steeped in the Holy. may your hours of sorrows draw you into a depth of compassion that lifts you beyond your own full deck of worries.

another road into compassion:  a few months back, i mentioned here that i was working on a story about a 20-year-old former star swimmer and water polo player who suffered a brain aneurysm in the fall of his senior year of high school and now lives in the hell called “locked-in syndrome.” the story just came out in marquette magazine, and web wizards masterfully interlaced film clips throughout the words of the story. if you are hungry for a bit of humbling today, you might want to click on patrick stein’s story here, as published in the magazine. 

how will you spend the hours of sorrows? 

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

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