pull up a chair

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

lost in the cobwebs…almost.

IMG_9234

it’s been one of those weeks that’s found me sifting through drawers, sifting through history, following threads hither and yon.

there’s a particular drawer, in the old pine writing table across the way from here where i sit, and it might as well be my holy of holies. it’s where i stash particular love letters, and every mass card from every funeral of someone i’ve loved. it’s where, apparently, i’ve stashed the polaroid snapshots of my firstborn lying bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed in the children’s hospital ICU, the day after he flew from his bike and broke his neck. and where i’ve tucked the recording of my then-little one’s long-ago phone machine greeting, a delectable slur of words that always left callers confounded — and me charmed, beyond words.

it’s been one of those weeks where threads seem to be pulling me this way, then that. one question leads to a search. another leads to the creaky old stairs that unfold from the attic.

i’ve been discovering shards and treasures all week. i’ve bumped into more questions than answers. why, oh why, do i have a silver coin from 1909, one with abe lincoln’s buIMG_9236st on the front, and on the back the words, “for merit in an essay on abraham lincoln”? who won this, and where is this prize-winning essay? and how did the coin come to be in my drawer? might it be from my grandmama mae, the irish school teacher who bore my sweet papa? might my love of words flow directly through her bloodline? and might my boys’ love of abe be their genetic inheritance?

these are the questions that keep me awake. and won’t let me rest till i unearth the answers.

long long ago, standing in the kitchen of the house where i grew up, i remember leaning into my father’s shoulder (he was wearing the navy velour pullover he so often wore, and i can conjure the nub of that cloth even today — 36 years after the moment), and my father spoke these words that have echoed ever since: “you have a real sense of history.” it was one of those moments when suddenly something you’d not known appears as the most obvious truth in your life. my father died less than two months later. so the words became prophetic. the words have become my divining rod. i follow history. i sift through old letters and artifacts. i study old photos, the ones now faded. i try to make sense.

and i can’t bear to let history — to let story or love, for that’s what so much of a history is — crumble to dust in a drawer or the attic.

which is why i was a bit frazzled this week when i realized that years of my old newspaper stories are all but lost in the cobwebs. it’s intricately complicated, i found out, to pluck certain stories from the digital archives. without a date and precise headline, it’s nearly impossible. which means a good 20 years of bylines might never again be unearthed. which, mostly, won’t matter. but among those two decades there are stories that poured straight from my heart, and i can’t bear the thought that they’re never to be pulled to daylight again. they were, each one, a love song to or about someone or something that mattered. they were moments in my story that i’m not ready to bury.

which is why i decided that, every once in a while, when i find one, i’m going to lovingly paste it here, a digital scrapbook of bylines gone by.

this is the first, a love letter, really, to the very fine soul who picked up his hammer and built the nooks and crannies of this old house and the one before it, a construction of love beyond what we’d dreamed.

Being graced by the hand — and soul — of Jim
January 04, 2004|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune staff reporter.

At my house, his name is Jim.

I still remember the first time he walked in, walked in to talk about taking down walls, putting up a dormer. One minute, I’d never seen him before, the next minute, I’d known him all my life.

I still remember standing out by the sidewalk, watching the roof come off our old house, leaning against the wrought-iron gate next door, and he told me, in the most matter-of-fact way, “My dad always said to leave behind a footprint wherever you go.”

Jim leaves footprints. In the form of a box-bay window the architects hadn’t drawn, but that he knew was just what we wanted, to make the trees feel like they stretched right into our room, or, rather, to sweep the window seat right out into the limbs, making a treehouse of what might have been simply a room for a bed.

In the form of drawers that glide in and out as if on Rollerblades, making me feel elegant every time I reached inside for a lumpy old sweater.

In the form of bookshelves that wrapped around me in my little room, making me feel hugged and safe and home — very much at home.

It didn’t take long for all of us to fall in love with Jim & Co. The whole summer they were at our house — Jim and Tom and Bri, the musketeers three — my husband couldn’t wait to vault out of bed and dash over to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where he’d return with a box dripping with sugar and round puffy blobs. My little boy took to sitting on the stairs, watching. He had a big red tool kit that he started lugging around. He put on his safety goggles and he built things in the back yard. Boats. A race car. Bigger boats.

That was at our old house.

I didn’t want to leave it behind because I couldn’t bear to leave behind the magic that Jim had pounded into its walls, its windows, its tucked-away secrets.

Jim, you see, is indispensable, and not just because he wields a mean hammer. Jim is indispensable because what he builds goes far beyond the blue lines you see in the drawings. Jim is indispensable because he knows, without words, the poetry of walls and windows and doors, and all they hold for those of us who hatch our dreams at home like eggs in a nest.

So when we moved, it was pretty simple: We brought Jim with us.

In fact, we bought a house that I could see only through the lens of Jim and all that he could do. I saw right past the ugly tile in the kitchen, the tile someone loved so much they glued it right up the wall once they ran out of the floor. I saw right through the bathrooms with the vanities that looked as if they took three oak trees to build them, they were so big and bulky and in the way.

That was almost a year ago. And in that year, slowly, patiently, whenever he had a minute in between building other people’s houses, he’s been pounding magic into this house, as if it really mattered.

And the point here is: It does matter.

Every single day, most likely for the rest of my life, this house, these walls, these windows, will be the ones that shape my every day. It is within these rooms that I will take in my first waking breath each day and every other breath that forms my every word. It is through these windows that I will look out at the world and drink in the fuel of my dreams. These are the nooks I will curl up in. These are the stairs I will climb, every time it really matters, and plenty of times when it really doesn’t.
But the point is, because his hand is here, everywhere I look I feel his soul, and the soul of something much bigger that speaks to me in a soft still voice, in every room.

Where once upon a time there was a single-car garage, and where after that, just before we moved in, there was brown-striped vinyl wallpaper and nubby carpeting all shredded by a yappy dog, there are now floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcases, and two window seats that stretch out beneath the windows. It is nearly a re-creation of the little tiny room of my dreams I had to leave behind in the house that is no longer ours.

Only this one is better, because I get to stay here forever, and because Jim & Crew pretty much built it from memory, trying to mend the heart that got wrenched in the move.

By the time we’re finished, pretty much every room is going to be graced by the hand of Jim. He’s building a corner cabinet for all the books my little boy has yet to read, and I have visions of us curled up for hours there, for years and years to come. He’s already built a wall of bookshelves for my husband, a wall that could only be called majestic, so elegant and mighty as its fine-honed pilasters reach for the ceiling, and hold my husband’s anchor in the world, his library of books about all the ideas he treasures most.

My 2-year-old, who picked out shoes at the shoe store because they look just like Jim’s, took on a refrain this summer that pretty much echoed the truth in all our hearts. He walked around the house, and whenever he noticed anything amiss, he proclaimed matter-of-factly: “Jim fix it.”

Jim, he fixes everything. And not just with his hammer.

and, now, that one is saved, tucked away in my treasure box, here at the table…..

have you ever discovered — in the nick of time — that some treasure of yours was nearly lost? and if so, how did you save it?

“wake up!” shouts the world to its sleepy citizens

perhaps, over the long winter’s months, you dozed into somnolence. sleepy-eyed, you shuffled, as if in your scraggliest house slippers, through the days and the hours. why bow down to sniff the gnarly branches when nothing but snow — and icy cold — bumped into your nose?

ah, but then, as it’s been doing forever and ever — since the dawn of creation, as a matter of fact — the old globe turned on its axis. inch by inch. or galloping yard by galloping yard. whether we notice or not, it keeps on with its celestial work. it’s the job of the earth, for heaven’s sake, to not slow to a crawl, to not stop in its tracks. it’s the job of the earth to carry us all on its curious merry-go-round, a ride for which we don’t need a ticket, needn’t stand in a queue, waiting our turn. we’re on — strapped in or not — for the whole of the whirl.

and so, here we are, back in the part where, if we’re paying attention, we find ourselves in the minute-by-minute explosion of all that’s been quietly waiting out the winter. it’s slow seduction, this day by day, hour by hour, unfurling of all that’s within. mama earth doesn’t give away all her hallelujahs at once. she wants you back, she wants you keeping close watch on her show, so she lures you in, a slo-mo unveiling of all of her secrets.

one day you might notice a nub where the day before there was nothing but stick. and then, should you sashay back to the scene, say by mid-afternoon, you’ll see a bit more of the skin, of the bulging protrusion that is the bloom in the making.

it’s all newborn right now. the leaves, just beginning their term, as if cut from a fat bolt of velvet, pinned onto branches, by the night seamstress, the sorceress of spring, who wisps through the dark delighting our senses, making way for the morning show, when the curtain of dawn rises.

everywhere, the earth is shouting: wake up, you sleepy heads. wipe the goop from your eyes, slip on your galoshes, and come give it a gander.

and lest that all be too subtle for you, lest you miss the whisper of the garden, well, old mr. robin has a wake-up for you. and he starts his warble in the wee, wee hours. not long after three, perhaps. certainly by four. in the morning, i mean. the american robin is no dawdler, sleeping in, taking his sweet holy time. nope, he’s up well before the crack of dawn, and he’s in full throat these past coupla weeks. has he not awakened you?

here, have a listen: mr. robin singing his song.

he’s out there in the dark, poor warbler of night. good thing he’s got a fairly fine song. a clarion call of 10 consecutive notes, the ornithologists tell us. clear whistles. some folk, the ones who try to put words to the script of the birds, they say he’s calling out “cheer up, cheer up.” or “cheerily, cheerily.” i for one can’t quite make out the words, but i do hear the song, i hear it for most of the night, these past few insomniac nights.

my friend tim the birdman tells me it’s all about hormonal overdrive, of course. and the poor robin just can’t sleep when he’s got one and only one thing on his mind: he needs to procreate, plain and simple. so he’s awake at the first lumen of light. and that’s where the problem comes in, says ornithological tim. those peachy-breasted birds are suffering a modern-day plight: the extreme wattage of the world, the herds of high-intensity light poles lining our highways, the bizarre habit of planting floodlights in branches of trees, they’re all doing a number on the chorister of dawn — they’re pushing his start time closer and closer to midnight. some robins, says tim, are singing their lungs out “almost all night long.”

egad.

the over-illumination of our planet — the daylight that stretches from dawn to dawn — it’s mucking up the works in a serious way.

but, back to the lone robin who sings out my window — and likely yours too.

seems to me, he’s all part of the magnificent plot to shake us all out of our stupor, our natural-born inclination to doze at the wheel of this thing called “a life.”

there’s divine wisdom, indeed, in this once-a-year whirl through the explosion of spring. the earth is literally bursting with the beautiful. it’s beckoning, begging: crouch down, pay attention. give a sniff. plop your bum. inhale. watch me unfurl. i’ll give you a wallop, minute by minute. 

in a thousand million mind-spinning ways the whole of creation is clued in to the infinite wisdom: this is your gift, it’s yours for the taking. all you need do is open your eyes, open your ears and your nose, pry open your heart — and your soul while you’re at it — and let in the holiest whisper.

it’s the wake-up call of heaven and earth.

the springs of our lifetime are numbered, they won’t last forever and ever. the beauty is now, go bury your nose in the whole of it.

and whisper a fine hallelujah.

(mr. robin might be pleased to know that you’re adding your notes to his noisy spring chorus.)

if only someone had invented a scratch-n-sniff for the whole of the springtime….

what are the ways the explosion of spring slows you to deepest attention? 

into the depths

IMG_9145

all week in this old house, we’ve been burrowing deep into ancient and timeless stories. the story of the exodus, pesach, the retelling of the jews’ escape from slavery in egypt, a retelling that elie wiesel, the late great nobel laureate and holocaust survivor, called “a cry against indifference, a cry for compassion.” it is a retelling stitched with blessing, and question, and story.

its leitmotif, “you were strangers in a strange land,” God’s words to Abram, a call to radical empathy, a call to ever open our hearts to those who are strangers, marginalized, in our midst.

after three nights of seder, of coming to tables filled with people we love, after cups of wine, and reciting of plagues, after singing dayenu (the hebrew word for “enough,” as in God’s love would have been more than enough, in a rising series of praises — “if God had only created the world and not brought us out of egypt, it would have been enough”), we pivot to the holiest hours of holy week — or i do anyway.

i am deep now and deepening. i hear the cry of my soul, being pulled into timelessness, into sacred hours and space. i burrow into the stories of the last supper (the seder of Jesus and his twelve apostles), of gethsemane, of the betrayal by Judas, of the mocking and crowning with thorns, of the bone-crushing cross shouldered by Jesus as he stumbled along the trail to his crucifixion at golgotha, the hill just outside jerusalem, the hill where he cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” and then, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” the whole arc of anguish and redemption in two short utterances.

it never fails to draw me deep into the nautilus of prayer.

and so, late yesterday, as the slant of light grew thin and thinner, i was pulled into a jewel box of a medieval stone chapel, its leaded windows a mosaic of cobalt and ruby and aquamarine. i was alone. i had only my prayer and my deepening.

today will be more of the same. the hours of silence, from noon till three, the hour, we’re told, when Jesus let out his final surrender, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” when he breathed his last, and the sun’s light was extinguished, i will do as generations before me have done: utter not a word, follow my prayer to the hushed place within. i will keep my holy vigil for the suffering that once was, and the suffering that goes on to this day, to this hour.

in both the story of exodus and the story of the crucifixion, we are called not only to honor them as ancient and long-ago narratives. we’re to infuse them with the now. to employ them as holy script, as instruction, imperative, to find in their depths the modern-day call to action: search for the stranger, embrace the stranger. set a place at your table, and make it the finest you have. love even your enemy. forgive your enemy.

turn yourself wholly and finally to God.

both stories, a call to radical empathy. both stories, imploring divine surrender.

both stories i’m burrowing into this week. this week of ancient and timeless holiness. this week with wisdom for now.

may your holy days — however they come — be deep and be blessed.

and happy blessed birthday to my beautiful little ella today turning eight, and to my beloved mother-in-law ginny (the chair’s most loyal reader perhaps) whose day is tomorrow. 

that one brave thing (an update)…

0409-BKS-CriticsTake-blog427

illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

stitching in the quietude

light coming in at the edges

before this day ends, i will be tucked in a sleeping chamber in an old and timeless seminary. it will be an unadorned cell — a bed, a wood-slabbed floor, maybe a window.

i am driving to the woods — and the great stone seminary, nestled along a lake — to give my soul the air time it so deeply needs. it’s been too long. decades and decades since i slid into a many-chambered monastic place, and stayed the night. since i fell asleep under rough-hewn sheets, listened to the silence all around, heard the whispers of my deepest soul cry out.

i’m long overdue. of that, i’m certain. monasteries and abbeys have been calling out to me for years. please come, they beckon. please rest your weary soul. yet i’ve not obliged. not wholly, anyway.

oh, i’ve popped in from time to time, knelt down, kindled wicks in rows of vigil lights. but not surrendered into the seamless timelessness of true retreat, the respite from everyday cacophony.

when we lived for a year in cambridge, mass., there was a great grey stone monastery, tucked along a bend in the charles river, shadowed behind a stand of sycamores, and i wove it often into my daily meanderings. my hours there were holy. were hushed. the alchemy of candle smoke, infused with incense, infused with long-robed monks chanting morning prayer, it catapulted me toward that place where prayers stir deep and deeper.

and now it’s time for immersion into silence.

that this quiet interlude, one i invited in months ago, is coming now, amid a week of hallelujah mixed with jitters, it’s blessed timing. from sundown to sundown i’ll be washed in quiet. in listening to the prayerful wisdoms of the fine soul who’s convened the gathering, whose lifework is inviting in quietude. reminding us — all of us — that we need equal measures noise and silence. that our hectic lives beg for the punctuated pause. that we etch in time for absorbing, for soaking in the holiness that’s always all around.

it comes just before that swirl of passover and holy week, an intermingling in this house that has us marking ancient story and eternal truth. it comes amid a springtime that’s unfurling abundantly, with blessings all around.

it comes just hours from now.

and i am quieting already…

may you all find at least a spot of quietude this day, this close of another week. 

how do you respond when you’re called into the deep that comes with no noise?

and a magnificent thank you to every blessed chair sister and blessed friend who scaffolded my heart, kept my knees from buckling last night, at the “birthing” of Motherprayer. whether you were there, in the charmed and quirky bookstore, or sending whispers from afar, you somehow propelled me through. it all always begins here, where roots grow deeper by the day. xoxo

Motherprayer: birthed

Motherprayer42

a book is born…

it’s just after dawn on a gauzy gray morning. the nubs of springtime are fattening on the branches. a splash of wake-up yellow here, cobalt blue there, as if someone’s dipped into the pots of children’s paints, begun to add zing to the gray and the grayer.

it’s soft outside, the day unfolds gently, as i step beneath the dome of fading stars. i stand still as still can be. i open my heart, unfurl a prayer without end. i’m casting to the breeze, to the morning’s airborne whirl, the whole of my little book. the book my heart insisted i birth.

it’s the deepest work of my mama heart, the one stack of love letters i wanted to leave behind, whenever behind comes along.

it’s a whisper to every motherer everywhere: you do magnificent work, holy work. what you do, day after day after day, long night after long night, year after year, it matters. deeply. you do the work that stands the best hope of healing the wounds and the tatters of this tired old world. the balm — the attention, the love without end — it pours from your heart, if you let it, if you will it. and the world so desperately needs it.

my deepest prayer on my little book’s birthing day is that as its pages are turned, tiny embers of light begin to be sparked, to flicker, to glow, as each and every someone who reads its words begins to unlock a litany of memories, of stories, of beauties, all her or his own.

and may those sparks kindle into flame that lights the way, that reminds you how blessed you are. as frame after frame in your story — your sweet story, your heart-wrenching story — is unspooled, is held up to the incandescence, may you find your heart stirring, remembering, re-living some holy hour. you might be the mother, you might be the one who was mothered. all that matters is that in pausing to pay deepest attention to the heart-work of mothering, you catch a glimpse of how sacred, how vital it is.

that’s my whispered prayer.

may it be so….

here’s an excerpt from Motherprayer, one of its essays, which ran in the Chicago Tribune two Sundays ago. It’s titled “Why We Do It,” something of an anthem to mothering and those who ply its healing, loving arts…

the empty room: gulp.

IMG_9056

it didn’t take long to hit us. once the sun went down, and the stars turned on. once two, not three, places were set at the old kitchen table. once we climbed the stairs and rounded the corner, spied the empty room.

empty, as in the boy who sleeps there was gone for a few days. empty, as in he made the bed before he whirled off to the airport (a sure sign of something unusual astir).

i heard both of us groan, the deep-down guttural sound you make when something feels strange. as we stood side-by-side brushing our teeth, i saw the look on both of our faces in the bathroom mirror: haunted.

we were both glancing into the not-too-distant, just-around-the-bend, two years-and-four-months from now. when the kid, God willing, will be off in college. the sweet boy who every night bounds into our room, in the dark, no matter the hour, whenever he’s finally calling it quits before sleep, and, every blessed night, he plops a kiss on my head, throws his gangly arms around whatever part of my sheets and limbs he can find, there in the dark.

how in the world will we manage, without his sweet animations 24-7? what in the world do you do with a house that’s missing its most precious cargo?

we’ve been at this, the other grownup and i, at this experiment in parenting, for nearly 24 years. had one babe then another fully occupying every inch of this house and our hearts. and last night, for the very first time, we both felt the hollowness up around the bend.

i didn’t quite know when i married the man i love just how much this fathering would melt him, would deepen him, would make him take so seriously the care and instruction of fine men in the making. i should have known — the man i love had perhaps the dearest father known to humankind, a man whose attentions on his children were deep and pure and unfailing.

one of the first clues that the man i married might take on uncharted dimensions was the night, weeks shy of our first labor and delivery, when he rolled my direction and announced to anyone listening: you’re not going to recognize me; i’ll be turning to mush (or something very much along those lines. i was not taking notes in the dark).

and so it’s been. the man practically goes weak in the knees for his boys. and ever since the little one came along, eight years after the first, a good four years after we were told that no more babes would ever come tumbling from the heavens, well, he’s kept his eyes on that prize like nobody’s business.

sometimes, in the thick of growing kids, when every few minutes you’re running this way or that, worrying about fevers and flus, tryouts and tests, you almost forget that some day the chapter will close. those kids’ll up and move out. pack their bags, wave goodbye, and launch their own sweet lives.

it’s not that we’re clueless, and it’s not for lack of evidence — all around us, seeing as we’re on the, um, older end of the parenting scale, folks we know and love are singing the empty nest song. we’ve been told — by reliable sources — that these people we birthed will perhaps marry, have kids of their own, turn us into grandmama and grandpapa. and having sent one off to college, and soon off to law school, we’re somewhat versed in long-distance parenting.

it’s just that — oh, my — it hit us like 10 tons of bricks last night that we could soon be dwelling in a house that’s 10 sizes too big. a house that’ll feel like an old pair of jeans, slid down around our ankles, because they don’t fit anymore. we might need walkie-talkies to holler from one room to the next, since our intermediary messengers will no longer be here to relay the word (as in, “mom says there’s smoke coming out of the oven!”).

thank God we get these limited-edition previews, those signs from the heavens that life is about to change, and change rather dramatically. it sank in with a thud last night, and now that wisp of what’s-to-come might begin to lurch around deep down inside, where we do all our growing, our getting ready for the transformation that’s peeking over the horizon.

he’ll be home sunday night, that sweet kid now romping through cambridge, mass., 02138, his home away from home, the global village where he’s certain he left a chunk of his heart. by then, perhaps, i’ll gather a stash of brochures from the college just down the lane — the one that might break me in slowly to this notion of deep empty nesting.

in the story of your life how did you find a way to adjust to the day-to-day absence of someone you loved? or is it an ache that still hurts?

two housekeepings: i’d thought i might write a blessing today for that soon-to-be-birthed work of my heart, Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, but instead i was walloped by that empty bedroom above — and felt the need to try to capture the moment in words. i’ll likely send out a special blessing on tuesday, the official publication date of the book with the lovely nest on the cover. and an update on bravery: i found out this week that mustering courage, doing the thing that wobbles your knees, sometimes makes your wildest dream come true. details to come in the very near future.  

one brave thing

FullSizeRender

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

i especially hear those whispers when i’m standing at a precipice, about to take a flying leap off a ledge. a ledge like walking into a newsroom as a nurse + 1 year of grad school (as if that gave me any cred to run around the big bad city, with my reporter’s notebook flapping in the wind). a ledge like walking into labor and delivery, knowing the lump in my belly would soon be cradled in my arms and heart forever after. a ledge like writing a book from the deepest place in my heart and being afraid it will be panned.

i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

and here’s the beauty: once you’ve done the single deed, you’re done for the day. no more bravery required. or if you do decide to fling on your bravery cape, you do so with the triumphant knowledge that you’re now in extra-credit land. (i admit to being one of those little kids who always loved the buffer zone of extra credit; more or less the shortcut up the mountainside. or at least a remarkable insurance plan, there in case you need it.)

this one brave thing can work for anyone. no matter what the commodity you’re in search of. it’s just as easily the one-blank-thing plan. say kindness is what you quest; do one kind thing a day, and you’re on your way. maybe it’s patience. same plan. fill in the blank, and tackle it one sure feat at a time.

i used to think — and often still do, truth be told — that courage was black or white, an on or off switch. you have it or you don’t. and i was pretty sure i would never be called up to the courage major leagues. but what i’m working on — trying to teach my thick-headed little self — is that, like muscles, you can build it, drop by drop, layer by layer, bit by bit.

so i’m not looking to turn into the queen of confidence. i’m just trying to start and end the day with one new checkmark in the courage column. i’ve sent off notes — one by one — to  folks whose work i love. i still await reply. but honestly, the replies might not matter as much as figuring out that i can dig down deep and yank out my daily dose of being brave.

one of these days i just might glance in the foggy mirror and see a brave girl looking back at me.

till then, i’m working on it: one brave thing, my humble quota for the day.

we’re all works in progress and isn’t that the place from which our beauty comes? and speaking of courage, top of my mind this morning is a boy i love who is walking into a very big meeting but feeling VERY under the weather. he is being oh so brave. and i am offering up all my courage — and whatever else it takes — for him to glide through that meeting, unscathed. 

no need to answer down below (these are private matters of the heart and soul, after all), but what one thing might you submit to the one-a-day plan? what’s the commodity you long for, and might you find it slowly surely certainly?

a bit of housekeeping: i know some of you have loved “on the wings of the hummingbird,”the blog of my beautiful friend mary ellen sullivan, who died last year. for a few weeks, it’s seemed the hummingbird was lost, but the good news is that it’s forever in the cybersphere, thank you to the great good folk at wordpress.com. and you can find it here. (it’s just a slightly longer url, but it’s all there, beautiful as ever.)

remembering how good “better” feels

daffodil

that’s a revised headline up there. it’s shortened from what i was first going to type. what i really wanted to write was: “sometimes you have to feel awful to remember how good better feels.”

convoluted, yes. a bit dark, perhaps. and plenty long — for a headline, anyway. too long, truth be told. so i nipped off a few words, and gave you the gist.

in its own way, it’s a deeply irish way of putting it. and that’s one of the things i love about being irish. why say it straight on, why shove aside the complexities, when you can get there by way of the meandering footpath that wends across the moor? why go for undiluted sunshine when you can poke around the shadows and emerge from irish mist?

what other people find their way to blessing only by first mucking about in the slop?

and so i defend my curious perspective as one whose genes are firmly rooted in the peat of eire, my homeland of a little isle, plopped amid the crashing, crushing north atlantic. and it’s the thought that came to me after four weeks on the sick list. there were days — and days and days — when every breath hurt just a little bit. when i found myself considering not just my lungs, but all those little bronchioles and air sacs that make exchange of oxygen a certainty, a condition of staying alive. i’d not in a long time spent whole nights mapping my eustachian tube, that little tunnel of the inner ear that goes by unnoticed so many, many years of our lives. but once that little throughway gets flooded, filled with angry waters, hoh boy, you start giving it your attention — and then some.

i could go on — but i won’t — naming the body parts that in recent weeks have screamed for attention. reminded me of their existence. made me think quite a bit about how, most of the time, they just go about their business, paying no mind to anything but the job at hand, not yelping out for assist in any way.

and all of it finds me marveling at the pure and undiluted blessing of being alive. day after day being gifted with this flesh-upholstered machine that bends and stretches, reaches for the stars (or simply the soup can on the highest pantry shelf). while sinew and synapse do their daily chores, we get to exercise our soul. titillate our imaginations. strike our funny bones.

it’s the gift of being sick, of pausing to pay notice. of realizing there’s no guarantee on all these body parts. when we’re oblivious, they’re working well. when they go kaput, we halt to attention, we consider the zillions of taken-for-granteds that keep us going, hour after hour.

as sick as i am of feeling sick, i’m trying to make the most of this personal anatomical inventory. i am trying to hold up to the light all the parts thatpink sky work so hard — so without applause — to do their jobs. a knee that bends. airways that breathe in oxygen, blow out nasty CO2. eyes that make out the shifting shades of pink across a sunset sky. and catch the red bird darting by.

i’ve paused my whole life long to consider a litany of gifts. i’ve a dear dear friend whose daughter couldn’t hear for the first five years she was on this planet, and when my friend catalogued the sounds her daughter had missed, my heart wept. clock ticking. church bells. dawn awakening. the sound of her mother’s heart beating inside her chest. coffee percolating. crickets. raindrops. wind.

when i was in high school, a dear friend of mine was strapped into an electric wheel chair. i plopped beside him on the radiators just outside the cafeteria, and while he was so content to sit and watch the passersby, i remembered what a gift it was that when the lunch bell rang, i could leap off the hot seat and get to class without pushing buttons on my motorized chair.

even now, i have a dear friend whose ankle — and all the tendons and ligaments around it — shattered when she slipped on a river bank, to get a finer look at the moon. she’s been as patient as a saint for the last year and a half. and every time i talk to her, every time i think of how she can no longer traipse through woodlands, poke around for mushroom caps, i look down at my little sometimes-wobbly ankle, and whisper thank you.

i suppose you might say i come to blessings through the back door. or through the mist.

but whatever is my twisty path, i am so relieved i am no longer contemplating my alveoli (those wee little sacs that comprise the lungs). i am simply inhaling straight-up gratitude for the gift of hauling this creaky body through one more whirl around the day.

what would be the gifts on your thank-you list today? and what does it take for you to pause and pay attention to those quiet wonders that make us so alive? 

 

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

IMG_9014

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those words, spoken above the din of a crowded downtown aerie, with the city lights twinkling outside, with the clatter of forks against plates, stopped me. startled me. gave me a deep gulp of hope, the deepest in a very long time.

the man who spoke those words knows a thing or two about hearts — not least because he’s an intensive care doctor. not least because he works in hospitals in aleppo, in bomb-rubbled syria. in aleppo where bombs rain down in triplicate, a tactic intended to kill the rescuers as certainly as those in the midst of being pulled from the ruin.

just minutes before, the man who spoke those words — a gentle man with deep brown eyes that bore deeply into me as we spoke, inches away from a table spilling with pigs-in-a-blanket and shrimp and asparagus in long green shafts — had been telling stories to the crowd about being in an underground hospital in aleppo last summer — before it was too dangerous, before death was too certain to stay. he’d been telling stories of a mother of four, who’d been hit by a barrel bomb (a makeshift bomb filled with shrapnel, and chlorine gas), a mother who’d lost her unborn child and two of the three (ages 9, 7 and 5) who’d been huddled beside her.

i listened, rapt, as he told the stories, as he pulled the memories in real-time from inside the vault of tragedies now locked in his mind.

i’d listened a few minutes earlier as another syrian, a therapist who’d come to this country eight years ago, talked about the first months when a family is here in america. how everything — from the alphabet, to bus tickets — is practically indecipherable. how each morning, you awake in something of a daze, in that instant before you remember you’re far far from home. lost in a foreign landscape.

and, here’s the part i remember most, she said that the smallest kindness, the invitation to dinner, the gentle word at the checkout counter, the guiding hand at the bus stop, is never to be forgotten. you will never forget the face of the someone who was kind to you — never, ever.

i wasn’t taking notes; i was listening, so i can’t remember exactly how many syrian families are now living in chicago, forced here by war and unthinkable horrors. i want to say it’s 140. i do know the number is slowing to a trickle, and soon stopping (because of the so-called muslim ban that effectively puts up the “not welcome here” sign). i do know that each of those families, some clustered on chicago’s north side, some in suburbs to the west, have lived through hell, and traveled through hell to get here.

the syrian families who’ve been here longer, since the 1960s and 1970s some of them, when an earlier wave of mostly doctors and engineers packed up their families and moved here, they’re leading the network, the syrian community network.

they’re asking for the simplest list of supplies: rice in 10-pound bags; chickpeas in 28-ounce cans; sugar in four-pound sacks; flour, five pounds; oil in 48-ounce bottles; tomato sauce in cans of 28 ounces; and tea bags, too (no size or amount specified). they’re asking that the foodstuffs be dropped at one of two pantries — saturday, tuesday, and thursday, in glendale heights; saturday, monday and wednesday, on devon avenue on chicago’s north side.**

and they made the nifty card up above, with a whole menu of ways to help: from donating a CTA bus pass, to hosting a dinner. there’s word that someone is organizing an effort — 100 dinners in 100 days — to emphatically urge hospitality, to gather good souls, strangers soon to be friends, at the dinner table. to spend the day cooking, and serving up platters of very fine food. food to fill the belly, but more so the heart.

i’m awaiting word on the dinners. i want my house filled with the sounds of conversation, starting out slow and in delicate tones, and then rising, rising across the arc of a night, into the combustive discourse of joy. of gentleness. of one hand reaching for a water pitcher, or a platter of coriander-spiced lentils, bumping into another. and in that instant of hand bumping up against hand, i want eyes to look up, to look shyly, and then melt in the confidence of newfound friendship.

those are the miracles that unfold at the platter-filled table. those are the joys of a jumble of chairs squeezed round the plank of a dining table. it’s the arc from uncertain handshake at the start of the night, to hug that won’t let go as the guests finally walk out under the starlit dome.

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those are the words the doctor spoke to me. those are the words of which he was certain. and his certainty reminded me what i’ve always believed: one little heart, one undeterred heart, it can be more than plenty to begin to change the course of history.

one dollop of love at a time. it’s the only place to begin.

how might you use your heart today to begin to change the world? 

sending much love to my friend A who organized the gathering of syrian friends at her sky-high abode, and who opened the door to infinite hospitality.

** if you’re interested in dropping off groceries at the food pantry, leave a comment below, and i can email you the precise address. 

and in case you’re inclined to help make a home for a syrian family, here’s the list of what’s needed. 

IMG_9002