pull up a chair

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

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”

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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…..

books for the soul: the february roundup

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i know, i know: it’s march already. half way into the month, and i’m finally getting around to hauling over the long-ago promised february roundup of books for the soul. 

as i mentioned a few weeks back, a marvelous new assignment sent my way by my old beloved newspaper, the chicago tribune, is to read and round up a trinity of books for the soul every four to six weeks. since i’ve always believed in coloring outside the lines, my definition of what stirs the soul is a sweeping one.

already, i’ve crept through picture-book shelves, and poetry tomes. i’m perusing the landscape of brilliant nature writing. and don’t be surprised if, one month, you find a book with very few words at all, allowing images — sketched or caught by the lens of a camera — to do all the soulful lifting.

truth is, the soul, i do believe, is stirred far beyond the walls — or pages — of where you might expect to bow your head, bend knee, and offer up a vesper or three.

in fact, it’s in the least-expected nooks and crannies where i’m most likely to find my breath swept away, and my soul most deeply stirred.

stumbling on astonishment, to paraphrase the beloved poet saint mary oliver. 

so, before the march roundup hits the news stands, here are the three titles i found soulful in february.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions, Vols. 1 and 2

Edited by Jack Miles, Wendy Doniger, Donald S. Lopez Jr., James Robson, David Biale, Lawrence S. Cunningham, Jane Dammen McAuliffe, W.W. Norton, 4448 pages, $100

Weighing in at 8.4 pounds, a whopping 4,448 pages, and tucked in a tidy two-volume book pack, this massive and monumental Norton Anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Miles, holds inspiration for more than one lifetime. At heart, writes Miles, it’s an invitation “to see others with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will. … In that capacity lies the foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom.”

Sign me up.

With more than 1,000 primary texts — Volume 1 covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism; Volume 2, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — this instant classic allows readers to discover religions’ common threads, to plumb the sharp-edged distinctions, and to drink from the pure well of original text, not watered down through centuries or millennia of interpretation, clouded or otherwise.

In a world where religion too often divides, this portable library of foundational works is intended “for readers of any religion or none.” Skeptics needn’t stay away. Scholarly texts, buttressed by timelines, glossaries, maps, and handy pronunciation guides, rub up against essays, poems, even hip-hop lyrics, all serving to define, expand and illuminate faith.

Beginning with the brilliant 46-page “poetic prelude” by Miles — a former Jesuit seminarian, now distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, who won his Pulitzer for his biography of God, no less — this foot-crushing tome is worth its weight, and its price tag, in wisdom — and enlightenment, of the truest kind.

Flunking Sainthood Every Day: A Daily Devotional for the Rest of Us

By Jana Riess, Paraclete, 328 pages, $23.99

If you’re inspirationally inclined — meaning you tend to rip wisdom-steeped paragraphs out of whatever your read and pin them prominently wherever they’ll stir you to action (the pantry, the dashboard, tucked under the toothpaste) — this little book has, effectively, hauled out the scissors, mastered the clipping and pasting, and packed a year’s worth of finely curated wisdom into its pages.

And these aren’t your everyday inspirers, the usual host of holy thinkers. Here, you’ll find the likes of Marmee from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” or A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” You’ll find Annie Dillard at her literary best, and St. Augustine of Hippo, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, for a sweep through the centuries. Kathleen Norris and Desmond Tutu are among the enlightened. The index at the back of the book will help you put your finger on thinkers from Angelou, Maya, to Singer, Isaac Bashevis.

It’s a book of daily readings centered on 12 spiritual practices Jana Riess explored in her wry and deeply humble 2011 memoir, “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.” Riess made it abundantly clear back then that trying and failing is more or less the whole point. And in her latest work, she offers day-by-day “courage to laugh at our shortcomings as we pick ourselves up to try, once again, to inch just a little closer to God.”

While it’s written with an eye and an ear to Christianity, this is a book that transcends denominations.

St. Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints

Edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, Ave Maria, 266 pages, $15.95

Cracking open the pages of this collection, you have every reason to suspect you’re about to encounter a churchy gathering of dusty old lives of the saints, in stanza and verse.

You will discover — on the first line of the first poem — you’re blatantly wrong. You find yourself reading about dishes in the sink and bickering. Tumbling along to the book’s next poem, you’re reading about straitjackets and a baby who “screams and / won’t go down.”

And yes, the verse — from poets Mary Karr to Dana Gioia — is interspersed with language lifted straight from prayer, familiar prayer, prayer some of us learned by heart long ago. But the words and images volley so swiftly from the banal, the earthly, to the sacred, the heavenly, that you are ever startled.

And yes, saints are mentioned in many — but not all — of the poems. And not in ways you’ve encountered them before. Thus, it becomes a passing parade of modern-day wise folk with something to teach, a story to tell.

“(T)he lives of the saints cannot be understood unless seen as works of art, as poems,” writes Rev. James Martin, the Jesuit thinker and writer, in the afterword. “The most important truths about God are not reached with definitions and proofs but by poems and stories. And by people: the saints. That is why this book is a treasure. These poets take the lives of the saints as they are meant to be understood: as poems. From human works of art they draw out literary ones.”

Barbara Mahany is the author of “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

i don’t think this will work unless you’re a subscriber to the Tribune’s Sunday literary supplement, Printers Row Journal. but here’s the link, just in case. 

and, please, pass along any titles anywhere if you’ve found they stir your soul. my only stipulation is that the books need to have been recently published, meaning within the last few weeks, or months at most….

i spy: hope

snowdrops

sometimes i wonder how the world knows. how it knows that we’re worn-down ragged, out of breath, slogging.

sometimes i wonder how, just at the very minute and second we need the globe to turn just enough for light to fall at just the right angle, for warmth to rise, thermal watt building on thermal watt, sometimes i wonder how deep in the earth the stirring begins, and as the baby’s head crowning at birth, the tender resilient slips of green, of spring, come nudging their way through sodden leaf and over-stayed winter?

how is this turning earth, this warming, awakening, how is it quite so intricately wired to the stirrings deep down in my heart? how, so often, does it answer the call before breath is put to the words?

winter aconiteah, but here’s the rub: it comes with no more sound, no more folderol, than it takes for a leaf to ease out of the way, for the rubbing-up of shoot against snow crust, against compost in the making. the coming of spring, the turning of season, comes in barely perceptible measure.

you need to crouch down low. you need to step outside with intention, with searching. you need to scan the landscape, not from a distance, but close as your knees will bend.

sometimes, you need to pull your hand from your pocket. you need to brush away the sodden. you need to play peek-a-boo with what’s birthed. winter aconite, the nodding head of yellow, the one just above, it’s coaxed from its slumber by radiant light. light that barely perceptibly turns up the heat. shakes off winter.

grape hyacinthand indoors, too, you begin to get restless. you scamper around tossing out dried snips of winter. you trade up for pots stuffed with bulbs, bulbs with the girth of a garlic clove, bulbs that exist for one purpose: to shoot for the sky, unfurl, offer up color and configuration that befuddles the imagination.

who thinks of these things, you wonder? who stacks bud upon bud, a pinecone-like stacking of color and softest perfume, the one that beckons the bees, brings on procreation of the pollinated kind.

and so it begins again, the circle of life. of bursting forth after months of quiet, of stillness, out in the garden. after snow tumbling upon snow. and cold so cold a two-legged someone could barely survive.

but the growing things grow. the winter does not strike them down, not most of them anyway.

the birds come back on a river of wind. warm wind.

the buds return to the branch.

our hearts give a startle. pump with a two-step again.

just when we think we’re on our last wavering gasp. spring comes. promise again.

hope for another round.

and so is written the script, the one that some of us need year after year, never quite learning its lessons fully enough, lastingly enough. we need to be knocked upside the head — knocked by the crocus and snowdrop and the quiet little aconite. professors masquerading as delicate petals.

“hold on,” they whisper, “just a few breaths longer, just a few breaths past when you think you can’t go on. the awakening will come. the birth breaking out of the bleak.”

even the sticks plonked in the vase of warm water: they’ve wriggled with life, with color, with what seemed impossible. and now blooms:

forsythia open

so the lesson is this: the season that comes after the long hard winter, the season that comes with the light and the slow-rising warmth, it is the moment when impossible surrenders. when we breathe in hope. fill our lungs with believing again. when all around we are stirred to remembering, rebirth will come. in one way or another, in ways expected or not. it’s our job to crouch down low. to inspect with intention. to note the stirrings, and breathe in the possible.

the promise of spring comes on quiet, rustles just barely. it demands our attention, those of us who are taught by the turning of season. soon enough it will rise to crescendo. but now, for those who listen to its opening measure, the spring is whispering the promise of delicate but most certain hope.

some fridays i can barely muster a whisper. this is one of those fridays. i’m leaning on pictures more than words to whisper the miracles unfolding all around. i need to bundle up and inhale me some springtime. we’re just on the verge, but the verge it is here. and it beckons…

have you been out inspecting for springtime’s awakening? and if so, what’s tickled your fancy?

bulbs through earth

 

forced

forsythia snow

it’s come to this:

starved, hungry, every pore of our souls aching for release from the waning soot-sodden days of winter, i slide into sloppy old boots. clippers in hand, clippers that haven’t been shaken from their deep winter slumber in too long a while, i trudge across the ice-crusted snows. crunch-crunch goes the sound of my footfall. i pass bumper crops of pellets, rabbit pellets, i presume, and splashes of blood-orange whose origins i can’t bear to ponder. they’re the scant signs of life here in the tundra that is my back garden.

i’m on a mission. a mission to bring on an awakening, a seasonal awakening. and if i need to indulge in trickery, in prestidigitation with clippers, well then, that’s what i’m signed on to do.

it’s simple enough, this magic trick: trudge to your nearest forsythia bush, snip at the neck, all those long-limbed branches that, at this point in the year, look like little more than so many tangled sticks.

ah, but look and look closely: see the nubs tucked close to the stick, the tiniest hands clasped in prayer? those are the wee little blooms in the making, the sepal and stamen all huddled together, awaiting their cue. their cue of course comes from the sun, its angle and surge. any day now, the globe will have spun far enough, aligned us with just where we need to be for the vernal awakening.

but sometimes you just can’t wait. you need to get out there with clippers and boots and hurry it up, put gas to the seasonal pedal. (even when you preach the gospel of savoring the slow march of time.)

oh, there are signs that springtime is coming. they’re trickling in, a bit more by the day. i’ve heard it in birdsong. the birds aren’t checking their date books, aren’t awaiting the thaw. they’re warbling their vernal love-making hearts out, because that’s what you do when your DNA insists you perpetuate the species. you make it your job to whistle up an egg-laying mate. or at least someone with whom you can coo in the cold. and the light? the light is purer, less blue, more white. it’s straining to gather full steam — or something more zaftig than the pale arctic puff that’s kept us shivering in our cotton-lined boots.

my mama, of course, taught me this trick, and her mother before her, most likely. i might come from a long line of seasonal tricksters, miscreants of natural ilk.

it’s called forcing, and it’s plain old alchemy of life: warmth + water = blossoming. and it goes something like this: trudge. snip. fetch. plunk in water, warm water. wait. bloom. voila, you have forced.

i looked up the word force. it’s not pretty. it cropped up in the 14th century, with roots in old french. forcer, “conquer by violence.” egad. guilty as charged, me and my sharp-toothed clippers. too hungry to wait for the seasonal rotisserie to turn up its offerings in natural rhythm.

no, i had to conquer by violence, if snipping a branch at the neck is deemed a violent act (and if you were a bush you’d certainly say so).

and if dragged into the court of seasonal acceleration, i’d plea for a wee bit of compassion. i’d try to explain that here in the wee days of march, here when we’ve indulged in the season of winter with its depths and certain deprivations, we can’t help but respond to the seasonal tug, the one that pulls us, yanks us, into the next chapter. it’s akin to the itch that sometimes finds us leaping ahead in the steamiest novel, to peek at how the story unfolds, who marries whom in the end, and whose days are numbered.

my winter, you see, has taken a serious turn for the dregs in the last couple weeks. people i love are suffering, are scared, are facing the darkest of days.

i’m so itchy for light i won’t be surprised if i strip down to my bare naked legs and pull out a chair to soak up the lamest, the flimsiest of rays. in my snow-laden yard that would be.

but the light that i seek, truth be told, is the light that shines in the soul. illumination of the deepest kind. i pretty much stumble through days  — from hour to hour — with the words of my pleas and incantations rising up from my lips. there is so much to be prayed for. there’s so much at stake.

and that, in part, is what drew me to clomp through the snows, to clip what the old bush had offered. “here’s your rare chance at the promise of spring,” it whispered. and i answered. with clippers.

forsythia table

dear chairs, are you too going a bit batty by now? are you aching for the stirrings of spring? oh, for the day when the wee slips of green poke their hard heads through the soft crust of earth.

so what might be the seasonal rites and holy vespers you indulge in to beckon the resurgence of soul?

 

life: the one-time offer

images

wise souls have been preaching it, teaching it, imploring, beseeching, practically gluing the words onto billboards tucked by the sides of the busiest highways: “this is your one short life. don’t waste it.”

the original disappearing act; with every day lived your sum is shortened. a beginning with built-in end.

we bow our head, nod along, swear out loud we’ve gotten the message: we’re paying attention.

and then, in the hum and the thrum of empty refrigerator shelves, and school buses that rolled to the corner before you had your shoes tied, in the numbing blurring cacophony of laundry piles, and deadlines, and forms that must be signed and scanned and sent back whence they came, we watch all our promises flitter away, like so many dried paper flakes, antiqued and yellowed and lost over time.

but then, we wake up one monday morning, and we find these words from a friend:

“I have learned one thing that I want to emphasize more strongly than I typically do: Your whole life can change in a moment. One phone call out of the blue, one consult from the doctor, one misjudged stoplight, one thoughtless word, one head turned in the wrong direction and boom. Life as you knew it will never be the same. I know this and I am living it right now.

“So this is my advice:

“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.

“If you are unhappy, figure out why, and put together a plan to change the circumstances causing it.”*

she goes on. brilliantly. and her words shook me to my core. sobered me. so sobered me.

because they slipped right into the crack in my heart that had been wedged wide open. opened because just the day before i’d been sitting at the foot of the couch on which a dear and deeply beloved friend was draped, under blankets, her head propped on pillows. her eyes as animated as they’ve ever been. even though she was recovering from brain surgery. even though she’d gotten news just the week before, news of the sort that does one of two things: crumples you into a ball, or rocket-blasts you into the clearest-eyed vision you’ve ever seen.

my friend went with the latter. she said, as we sat at her feet, that the whole reel of her life had been passing before her eyes, and she’d spent the weekend telling her beautiful children the few things she wanted them always to know. “i was making pronouncements,” she said, making it sound like she was some sort of moses on the mountaintop, bellowing into the lungs, and the hearts, of her kids the few short prescriptions she held for living a deep and meaningful life.

the sorts of words you might whisper as you watch your little girl, suddenly grown and deeply beautiful, slide into her bridal gown. the sorts of things you’d want to say as you cradled your just-born grand baby for the very first time. the very words that would spill from your lips as you watched your firstborn, or your last-born, walk across a stage at graduation. or, perhaps, the sorts of things you might say when you’re simply chopping carrots, side by side on an ordinary tuesday. or as you sit under a star-stitched sky, wondering, wishing, weaving the night with whatever it is that rises up from your heart.

my friend didn’t know anymore if she’d be there, for moments so big or so small. she didn’t know if  she’d make it to those times when you squeeze the hand of someone you love, and proclaim the scant few words that say everything, when each little word is the vessel for volumes: i love you. i am so proud of this flight that you’ve taken, the way you’ve spread your wings, seized the moment, believed in the possible, fought for what’s right and what’s good. i’m so blessed by the whole of who you are. stay steady. go with God. do not surrender.

and then, after that sunday at the foot of my friend’s couch, where she covered the still-raw scar at the back of her head in her brown-hooded sweatshirt, came monday, and the words up above from my friend:

“If you are sleepwalking through your life wake up, before the universe does it for you.”

and then tuesday, late tuesday, came word of another friend. another friend who’d been wheeled into another surgery. the news from that surgery was the sort that wakes up the sleepwalkers. the sort that rattles you, and leaves you gasping for breath. the sort you never expected to hear, or to read as it trickled in in an email, one of those emails sent to a small circle of friends. and you sit there staring at your computer, reading the words over and over. because tears are clouding your eyes.

and so all week, all i could think about was how the universe is hellbent on waking us up. and we’d do best to pay attention. long-lasting attention.

because friends whom you’ve known forever and ever it seems — friends whose newborn babies you’ve cradled, friends whose weddings you’ve danced at, friends whom you’ve held as they buried their mother or their lover, as they’ve struggled to glue back together their own broken hearts, friends you only ever thought of as invincible and unbreakable — those friends are facing the climb of a lifetime. climbs that involve hope upon hope. and unending faith.

and you can’t help but wonder why the universe thinks you need to hear it in double-time. and why, maybe, please, they couldn’t both be spared all the suffering.

and then, because life is ever mysterious and always breath-taking, you stumble across lines in a book you just happen to be reading for work. lines like these:

“teach us to number our days,” cried the psalmist. “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

or, saint augustine: “it is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.”

or annie dillard: “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

and so you pull your weary and broken self off the couch. you rise to the occasion, the occasion called life. you cook and you freeze for your friend. you notice the snowflake tumbling. you fall asleep counting the mercies and wonders the day brought to you. you climb the stairs one more time when your little one calls to you, “mom, can you come talk?”

you live and you breathe, and you lift your friends’ struggles onto your shoulders. you vow to bend over the sickbeds suddenly before you, and moisten parched lips, and drink in pronouncements. you will fight for tight parking spots on the days when you drive them to hospitals. you will walk with those friends for as long as it takes.

and along the way you will make clear to the universe, and to the depths of your very own soul: these hours are precious, are sacred, and with all of my soul, i will fill each and every blessed one with the purest, clear-eyed attention to beauty and wisdom and all that is so deeply holy.

i promise. we promise.

with all of our hearts, amen.

just last night, as i was shuffling off to bed, i got a note from a dear friend of the chair, one whose tenderness is measured in part by the way she strolls the farmers’ market in summer filling bag after bag with organic lettuces and various greens for her decades-old hard-shelled friends, tortoises she’s tended for as long as 40 years (if not longer). and that dear friend, who also has tended lovingly to her aging papa, and to his rose bushes and his plot of home-grown tomatoes, she wrote to say that her papa had died this week. and so, for her, we send love, and deepest sympathies. as she wrote in her note: “it was the day i’d been dreading for 20 years.” 

for everyone — and the someones they love — who is suffering, or struggling, or desperately straining to stay afloat, we hold you up in light and in love. in prayer and petition without end.

* the beautiful wise words above came from my dear friend who writes the beautiful blog, “on the wings of the hummingbird.” the link to her post is above…..

a question hardly seems proper, but knowing it will unearth bounties of wisdom: what woke you from the sleepwalking?

when the past pops out of nowhere: “can you help?” a search for motherlove

baby patrick screenshot

the message popped up out of nowhere late saturday afternoon. this is what it said:

Are you the individual that wrote the article in the Chicago Tribune back on March 10, 1987 – Titled, “Police Hunt Mother of Abandoned Baby”? If so, I wanted to ask you a couple questions. And by the way…, I am that baby!

my heart nearly pounded through my chest. i wracked my brain. i couldn’t for the life of me remember writing the story. how could i not remember? i typed the words into a google search, and sure enough, up popped this:

Police Hunt Mother Of Abandoned Baby
March 10, 1987|By Barbara Mahany.

that was me, all right. so i started to read:

Baby “Patrick Doe,“ oblivious to the stirrings about him, lay docile in his incubator at Central Du Page Hospital Monday, interrupting his sleep only for bottles of baby formula every four hours–or an occasional grimace for one of the many news photographers parading with cameras through the nursery.

Outside the nursery, Glen Ellyn police undertook their first-ever search for “a missing mother,“ said Lt. Dennis W. Jamieson, and the bureaucratic machinery was put in gear to assure safe-keeping for the baby should his mother not be found.

In the western suburb, a team of police investigators was dispatched to track down “a recently pregnant woman, . . . no longer pregnant and without a newborn,“ Jamieson said. Police were distributing flyers with black-and-white photographs of the baby, and a teletype bulletin to neighboring police departments had been sent over the wires.

Baby Patrick, a healthy white infant thought to be 4 or 5 days old and weighing 7 pounds, 10 ounces, was found early Saturday morning lying next to a redwood planter along the driveway of a home in an affluent Glen Ellyn neighborhood.

The baby, wrapped in two nightgowns and a plastic diaper bag, was discovered at 9:37 a.m. by George G. Dickey, of Lorraine Road, in Glen Ellyn. Dickey told police he first saw two plastic bags in his planter at about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, but thought someone had dropped garbage there.

When he went outside three hours later, he saw the baby`s head poking out from one bag. The other bag was filled with five disposable diapers and diaper pins.

Dickey rushed the baby inside, his wife changed it out of its soaked nightgowns. The couple then called the police and the infant was taken by ambulance to Central Du Page.

He was initially considered at risk because his temperature registered below normal, 96 degrees Fahrenheit, but doctors said Monday that Patrick was “in very good health“ and listed him in good condition.

Because the baby`s umbilical cord was tied with a rubber band, hospital officials and police surmise the baby was not born in a hospital, preventing them from tracking down his mother through hospital records or birth certificates.

By mid-morning Monday, calls from prospective adoptive parents were trickling into the hospital in Winfield, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Adoptive Infant Center of Illinois.

“As far as prospective adoptive parents are concerned, this is a dream come true,“ said DCFS spokesman David Schneidman. “But for the poor soul who decided to leave this baby for adoption, this is the biggest tragedy on earth.“

On average, DCFS gets involved in about two abandoned infant cases each month, Schneidman said. But, he added, those babies are rarely Caucasian, and “never before from an affluent suburb like Glen Ellyn.“

Officially, DCFS is now the baby`s legal guardian, Schneidman said, and if the baby`s mother is not found by the time Patrick is discharged from the hospital at the end of the week, DCFS will coordinate foster care and eventually recommend the baby`s adoptive parents. If the mother is found, DCFS will be one of the complainants in a child neglect suit, and if deemed advisable, will assist in counseling the mother.

For now, though, the curly-haired baby is content to lie sucking his baby bottles, lullabyed by a crew of doting nurses. It was one of them who thought “Patrick“ to be the perfect name for a babe born so near the feast day of the Irish patron saint.

nearly 28 years ago.

and, through mysteries and miracles of this cyber-age, the baby, now grown, now wise to the ways of the internet, had found me. he’d been banging on doors, getting no answers. he was trying to find his birth mother.

he found me.

for the next couple hours, a flurry of emails zipped back and forth. he told me what he knew. i leapt into reporter mode. and, most of all, mother mode: i too am a mother now. and i have a boy of my own, two boys, the older of whom is a mere six years younger than “baby Patrick.” i couldn’t imagine my boy trying to find his mother. i couldn’t imagine how achingly dark and lonely it felt, on the cold february night when “baby Patrick” wrote me, to be emailing strangers trying to find a shred of hope, a thread that just might lead back to his mama.

every word i typed to “baby Patrick” i tried to type as if i were a long-lost mother, searching for my long-lost boy. i tried to fill each keystroke, each space in between, with all the love a mother would ooze, if she’d been away for nearly three decades.

in a stroke of sheer miracle by the end of the evening, i found the detective who’d worked the case. he’s retired now, lives not far away. i promised “baby Patrick” i’d call the very next day, sunday, when it wouldn’t be so odd for the phone to ring. when i stood the best chance of squeezing in the words, “former tribune reporter,” the only words that i thought might get my foot in the door, might keep the call from clicking into the hopeless drone of the dial tone, the sound of getting nowhere.

i called, not long after church on sunday. after two or three rings, someone answered. hope rose in my chest. i heard a “hello.” i shot right in with, “Lieutenant Jamieson?” using all my reporter politeness, using all my don’t-hang-up-on-me hope. i figured the lieutenant might warm to being remembered by his rank. i was right.

he warmed, all right. and, as soon as i explained the story, how i’d gotten an email from this blessed kid, this kid searching high and low for his mama, soon as i explained how the kid was getting nowhere, couldn’t get anyone to return his calls, how we had to try to help, and i wondered if maybe he remembered if there’d ever been any leads in the case, had anyone ever gotten a whiff of the mother, the lieutenant wrenched open the file cabinet of his memory, and promptly riffled straight to the folder marked, “baby Patrick, 03/87.”

in piercing detail he told me everything he remembered. how the particular house where the baby was left was one tucked back from the road. but, he explained, there was a planter, a flower pot, he called it, down by the curb. “good place to leave something if you want it to be found,” the lieutenant offered.

but here’s the part where you might wince: the fellow living in the house could see from the window something sticking out of the pot. “he thought it was garbage,” the lieutenant recalled. the fellow walked down the drive — three hours later — saw two plastic bags, and that’s when he saw there was a baby in one. a real live squawking baby.

far as the lieutenant knew, no clues had ever turned up. he was pretty sure he would have known if they’d found the mama, or any hint of the mama. he even mentioned how, over the years, he’d driven his wife by the house, thought of “baby Patrick” every time. and since i asked, since i’d called on a quiet sunday afternoon, made him think back over the decades, he did have ideas of where “baby Patrick,” now all grown up, having been adopted and deeply loved but still in search of whoever it was who dropped him off at the flower pot, the lieutenant had ideas of where “baby Patrick” could turn. in other words, at least a trace more hope.

sure thing, i hopped off the phone and wrote “baby Patrick” as swiftly and furiously as i could get my fingers to type. i drenched each letter of every word with all the love i could muster, with mama love.

i wasn’t his mother, not remotely. heck, i’d barely remembered the story at first — a fact that rinsed me in shame. but in the hour of his darkness, in the hour of his hope beyond hope, i could imagine — piercingly — just how deeply his mama might be typing if she were on the verge of finding her boy.

so i infused every word with mama love. i prayed mightily that that love might — through some wild-eyed, otherworldly, transitive property — flow from his faraway mama’s heart to mine and to his.

we signed off, at the end of 24 hours, with what i hope was a lasting trace of something that felt a wee bit like mother-and-son connection. but, honestly, i worry it might have left him emptier than before.

it hurt to tell him that there’d never been a trace. it hurt to tell him the part about the man in the house seeing what looked like garbage bags. (i couldn’t bear to type those words, “garbage bags,” so i didn’t; i wrote, “i think of how your mama loved you enough to tuck you in what she thought was a safe place..”)

it made me think how in life we never know when we’re called on to be the instruments of love, of stitching together a shattered heart. it made me think about how, in a story i’d not even remembered writing, there was a someone who found in it the one trace of hope he so needed.

it made me think how much it all matters.

i wish like anything i could have helped him find his mama. and, short of that, i’m so deeply grateful that for one short day, and a flurry of a few dozen emails, i could imagine the love and the fear that would have riveted that mama’s heart as she left her newborn curly-haired boy on the side of the road, in a place she was sure he’d be found, with the few bits she could gather — the extra sleeper, the five disposable diapers, and, most of all, the prayer that must have slipped across her lips. and lasted forever in the deep down crannies of her heart.

and that was sunday, the very same day we found out a dear dear friend was in the ER, and would likely be going in for brain surgery. which happened wednesday, her daughter flown home from her first year of college, her highschool-aged son sitting tight, on a hospital couch, pressed against his papa’s side, all through the very long day that stretched into the night. it’s been a week in which all i could do was pray, and pray, and pray. an apt beginning to lent, the season of repentance on the road to redemption.

the reasons for prayer are many this friday morning. and the question to ponder is this: have you ever discovered that you were an unsuspecting player in one of life’s core dramas? and did that discovery make you remember, all over again, how very much it matters that, at every turn, we live a life of pure attention to all that is holy and good and filled up with love?

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