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

“Your love is a verb.”

the letter was addressed: “Dear Wise Matriarch.”

it was written inside a mother’s day card, the sort that might be plucked from a slot in the greeting card aisle of a corner drug store. if you were lucky enough to get to a drug store. or it might have been all that was left in a heap on a metal cart with rickety wheels that rolled past the cell of the north kern state prison where kerry baxter senior, who is serving 66 years to life in prison, convicted of second-degree murder, spends his days and his nights and his years. he never forgets mother’s day, or her birthday, says his mother, anita wills, who spends her life missing him fiercely, who waits for his every 60-second pre-paid collect phone call, and who has devoted her life to proclaiming and proving his innocence.

here’s what kerry wrote in his mother’s day card:

What God has intended for our mothers to embody, you have personified. I’m humbled by your examples of leadership, time after time. Your energy is a wellspring of endeavors to be carried to their accomplishments for the benefit of we who are in compromising conditions. I can attest firsthand that you have demonstrated how a love that is truly unconditional translates in this physical world. Your love is a verb. How precious you are. Thank you, profoundly, for the many lessons you have and do teach.

“that’s from my son. who’s in prison.” says anita looking up from the card, adding that when he was was sentenced in 2003 to 66 years to life that meant “i would never have seen my son as a free man.“ she goes on to say, in a new yorker documentary titled “On Mother’s Day,” that until kerry was sent to prison, family used to come every weekend. “he was our barbecue person. we spent the holidays together, thanksgiving, christmas, birthdays. after he was gone, it seemed like everybody stopped coming. everybody stopped coming after kerry went to jail.” in 2011, when kerry’s own son — anita’s grandson — was murdered, kerry couldn’t go to the funeral, so anita brought new urgencies to her exoneration efforts.

i can’t stop thinking about five words in kerry’s card: “Your love is a verb.”

when love is a verb. isn’t that the point? isn’t that — really — why we live? isn’t that the thing that just might make the difference between taking up oxygen during our stint here — however long that lasts — and bending the arc toward the love we all deep down dream of? 

haven’t there been a hundred hundred days when our eyelids fluttered open in the morning and right away the lead ball in our belly pounded hard against the walls of us, and before we wiggled a toe we were washed over in the weight of whatever it was that worried us, and weren’t the worries twice as heavy when they weren’t about us but rather someone we loved, maybe even someone we birthed, or have loved since right after birth, someone whose time on this great blue marble we’ve felt was ours to protect, to guide, to keep from falling into pitfalls, but when they stumbled or bloodied their knees we might have raced to reach out our hand, to be right there to let them know they didn’t need to climb out or up all alone, but that we’d bear as much of the weight, of the pulling from the depths, as we could bear. however much they were willing to let us pull. 

isn’t love — unfettered, unconstrained by our own agendas, selfless as selfless can be — isn’t love the thing we’re aiming for? the thing we keep trying to get right? like turning the mothership some days. 

don’t we all dream of love the verb? if it’s simply a noun it has no real distinctions, no muscle, no bone. the love that might change things is the love that doesn’t hang out in armchairs (not unless it makes room for someone to snuggle right beside), doesn’t hang out in corners idly hoping its fumes will get the job done. 

it’s a verb in its truest form. it’s the verb that picks up the call. at the oddest of hours, and snaps to attention, full attention soon as your ear canal opens. it’s the verb that grabs the car keys and leaps behind the wheel, and drives as many hours or miles as it takes. to get the job done. the job is being there: being there in heart, in the flesh. at the bedside. when the elevator door glides open. when the curtain of the ER cubicle is pulled back. when eyelids flutter open after emergency surgery.

that’s love at full attention. love when it asks the next question. and the hard question. and the hardest question of all. 

it’s what i try to think about not just on mother’s day. but every day. love is a verb. and it dies without practice. 

i’ve long declared that this day set aside for “mothers” is really a day that should be devoted to “mothering,” another action verb. a synonym for love when it’s a verb. a verb that belongs to no pre-specified quadrant of the population; a verb for all who practice. who day in and day out practice, try to get it right. admit to the fumbles and stumbles, shake the dirt off their knees, get back up and try it again. to mother is to love defiantly, urgently, sometimes as if there’s no tomorrow. to mother is to lavish the golden glorious rule: “love as you would be loved.” whatever it takes. however deep, however hard, however exhausted.

here’s to every someone who puts the verb in “to love.” and especially to those who mother me with all their hearts: to my mama, my mother-in-heart in new jersey, to my best friend who long ago taught me what love can feel like, and to those rare few who let me practice day after day, hour by hour. i love you. happy love-is-a-verb day.

define or describe “your love is a verb” from the person or people who taught you….

here are the two mamas i’m especially loving this day…both have had especially bumpy months and we are loving them dearly….

long time coming: company

except for the plumber and the furnace repair man, not a soul — other than the few of us who sometimes or always sleep here — had breathed inside this house in all these months. certainly, no one besides the usuals had sat down for dinner at the old maple table.

but as the veil lifts on this pandemic siege, as we all now host armies of viral-slashing immunological soldiers coursing through our insides, standing ready to slash and burn any red-ringed invaders (a primitive description that would make my long-ago physiology professors cringe and grimace), we are apt to find ourselves pressed against the kitchen counter, knives raised above the cutting board, elbow engaged in the hammer motion that drives the chopping and mincing often found in the preamble to company.

yes, company. that now cobwebbed notion of people who do not live inside your house being invited and accepting your invitation to sit down in chairs ringed around a table. once there, those people — the so-named “company” — are apt to lift forks and knives, slide morsels into mouths, in between words spoken in conversation. it is an ancient rite, a rite as old as any known to human kind, and for the last 15 months or so, we’ve been stripped of it. had no practice at the art of considering a menu, of gathering stems in a vase, of imagining how the evening might unfold.

but this week i leapt back into gear. i had the best first company a girl might wish for: my beloved brother was driving all across ohio, indiana, and sweet chicago to pull to the curb outside my house, and our beloved mama was safely tucked inside my house, standing at the door in that way she always does when someone she loves is coming. she even hummed the little song she’s always hummed, the coming-home song we all know by heart, because she used to walk us to the corner of the busy street near our house and sing to us while we awaited the arrival of my papa’s car curving round the bend, home — safe and sound — from the 6:35 commuter train that pulled to the station a town away.

all day long on the day of my sweet brother’s arrival, i swirled inside the rites and rituals of the long-shelved joys of backstage dinner-party theater. the trip to the grocery store, plucking favorite this and that off the shelves. the merkt’s cheese my mama loves, the fat bunches of herbs a spring feast demands, the six-pack of beers whose name i know from the expert guzzlers in my life. the composing a litany of all my mama’s favorite foods, the ones she always sneaks in nibbles before they’re even on the table. for she was the guest of honor, after all; my brother’s whole intent in driving here was to be with her, to be her driver for the list of chores and appointments on her to-do list, to be by the side of the mama whose recent dramas have been narrated and reported across long-distance telephone lines. certainly not the proximity of choice when it comes to someone you dearly love.

it was a lovely thing, the whole of it: the vacuuming with purpose, the tucking white tulips in a pitcher on the kitchen table. the fussing for the joy of it. heck, i even cleaned the bathroom.

in all these months, we’ve had no chance to lavish love in that dinner-party way. and i was reminded how very much i love the gathering of deliciousness and the little touches of the beautiful, of grace. i remembered how i love attending to every detail in hope that the whole tableau shouts, “i wanted you to be here. i wanted to indulge in your presence, your conversation, your company.”

it’s the intimacy and the face-to-face conviviality of the dinner conversation that i love the best. i’m not one for crowded rooms, nor for walking into a backyard packed with noise and faces. but give me two or four or six (or one or three or five) infinitely engaging, tale-telling souls, and i will chop and cook for days for the joy and wonder of it all.

bit by little bit we will weave back in those little joys that animate our spirits, that punctuate our lives with the wonder and the magic of close company. we will pull out those tucked-away plates and trays and platters. the cake stand that elevates the store-bought cookies. and, sweeter than ever for its long absence from our lives, we will sit down to a table ringed by faces we have so missed.

welcome in, we’ve missed you more than we ever realized. it feels so glorious to hum and cook and fuss again….

what do you love best about company coming? have you missed it?

the pure power of kindness

i remember learning the lesson. i was squeezed in the back seat of a buick riviera, circa 1965, pulled to the pump at a gas station just outside cincinnati’s coney island, an amusement park to end all amusement parks, where i’d finally grown tall enough to be strapped in a bumper car all on my own. it was a hot cincinnati afternoon. and the six or so cousins squeezed in my grandpa’s regal coach might have had their eyes trained on my grandpa, or maybe they were poking each other in the sides and the shoulders and under the knees. i know i was watching my grandpa, and i watched him greet the man with his fist on the nozzle as if the man was his old lost best friend. it was, needless to say, an indelible moment, the way my grandpa’s eyes sparkled in conversation with this man he’d actually never met before. but they carried on anyway, a good while after the tank was filled. and then my grandpa slid back into the driver’s seat, turned his head to look us in the eye, and announced to whomever was listening (and, believe me, we all were): “always treat everyone with the same kindness you’d wish for yourself.”

if that was the only time i’d sat through that class — kindness 101 — i still think it’d have stuck, but i was taught it over and over and over again. by teachers all along the way — a best friend, an aunt, a gazillion glory-be-to-God they-belong-with-angels friends, strangers whose names i never learned — tender-hearted souls i count as if beads on a rosary. each one inching me closer and closer to that radiance that is momentary heaven here on earth. especially on the days when it feels a little bit like flame-licking hell.

so it comes as welcome blessing but little surprise that the awful hard road of the last couple weeks was paved with gold bricks of kindness that really, truly gave us the little bit of spark we needed to not slump to our knees, to not break down in tears and never stop crying. 

we teach kindness, those of us who still believe in the grace of getting along. we teach kindness sometimes because it’s the thing we think we’re supposed to preach. but sometimes i think we forget just how mighty a force the tiniest kindness can be. how one kindness can drain the sting from any day. how one kindness can be the burst of oxygen that keeps us from keeling to the ground. especially when we’re running on fumes, when we’re hollowed out with despair, when we can’t stand watching the tears run down the cheeks of someone we love. 

kindness literally moves mountains. the mountains deep down inside us that feel immovable. the mountains of worry. the mountains of sadness, of not knowing what’s just around the bend, and having little reason not to fear the worst. 

but then the doorbell rings. or the email pings. or you wake up to find a bushel of pansies waving in the morning’s breeze. or a box arrives, stuffed to the brim with all the things you count as simple treasures, and you scratch your head wondering how in God’s name you could be so blessed to know — to count as a most beloved friend — someone who pays such exquisite attention, who took the time and trouble to gather up a heart-melting litany, beans and bread and birdseed, even the hard-to-find monastery candle that kindles your most sacred hours, and it’s all flown halfway across the country. just in time to make a big ol’ pot of sustenance for the rainy days ahead.

and you remember all over again that you’re powered not simply by your own sweat and heartache and tears, but that the collective might of hearts — hearts that happen to be supercharged at the very moment yours is drained — gives you just enough oomph to take on another day. to shake yourself off, to grab the keys to the car, to drive where you’re needed, to do whatever needs doing: to clean out the wound, to scrub out the sink, to sling on a mask and march into the drug store, to look the doctor in the eye — or the tow yard boss, or the police officer, or the priest — and say what needs to be said. 

because you’re propelled not all on your own, but by the compound goodness and kindness of a thousand little kindnesses. even the slightest bit of kindness — the “how you doing?,” the “hey, i made extra,” the “i’m headed to the store, do you need anything?” — all of it is just enough to tip the scales, to keep you on your feet and in business for another day. amid the arid days of breathlessness and worry, there is no kindness too too small to put the necessary ping in the human heart that pumps on despite it all. 

as i sit and ponder kindness, i almost wish i was some sort of molecular scientist, someone who could pry open the envelope in which kindness arrives, and slide its essence under the microscope to discern just what it is — electrical valence? neurochemical charge? — that literally alters our physiologies, disrupts the sorrow-drenched, worry-stoked synapse, switches tracks from despair to hope. it’s not an illusory thing. it’s as real as real could be. the tiniest seemingly insignificant gesture — the saying without words, i am listening to your heartbeat and it sounds as if the rhythm’s off, a sorrowful syncopation has taken hold and i’m here to try to budge it back on beat — it matters. it’s a seed of life and love that’s planted deep and certainly, and it blooms just as it’s needed. 

and this world needs it in abundance, in bumper crops and without end. it’s not nothing, the barest brush with kindness. 

it’s everything. 

in other words, bless you and thank you each and every someone who offered up a prayer, a thought, a holy card, a kindness seen or unseen. 

love, the barbaras — the Wiser and her offshoot

xoxox

what are the moments of kindness you will never ever forget?

quite simply: asking for prayers.

it dawned on me that after all these years and all the threads woven here at this old table, we’ve something of a prayer shawl, even though there might be more than a few who gather here unbeknownst to me. so i realized i can quietly ask for prayers, even just one or two up the old prayer chimney, for my beautiful mama.

my fiercely independent 90-year-old mama, the Original Mother Nature, Barbara the Wiser, was in a terrible accident driving home from morning Mass on Easter Monday. the day before she’d been hiking in the woods with a friend, looking for bluebirds, scanning the marshland for dogtooth violets and trillium, the wild and tender things of the woodlands.

but on Easter Monday morning, driving from church to home, her car was totaled, and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital where so many important things in our life have unfolded (my beloved little brother was born there, my father died there). in the passenger seat of my mama’s car had been the canvas bag of church altar-cloth laundry that my mama has washed and ironed for years. that canvas bag of church laundry was the only thing my mama carried with her in the ambulance. when i got to the emergency room, there were the LL Bean jeans she’s worn for a couple decades (and i mean the single pair she’s worn, not merely the brand she’s always worn), there was her father’s pale blue golf sweater (the one she wears for an extra layer of comfort, the hug with sleeves), the pink polo shirt, and, laying quietly atop the neat little stack of her “uniform,” the canvas bag of white linen rectangles, each stitched with a simple red cross.

(that still-life, folded and stacked, is now one of the freeze frames of my mother’s life i will forever carry with me….the ambulance, and the instinct to reach first and only for the bag of church laundry. those Sacred Heart nuns certainly drummed in the lessons on devotion, there in the convent on the hill in Cincinnati where my mama grew up.)

my mama is hurting terribly, and i am asking for a prayer. it will help her, and it will help me and my four beautiful, beautiful brothers, all of whom are once again tightly and lovingly woven together, each carrying one corner of the let’s-get-mom-through-this banner.

i wrote of my mama on her 90th birthday last november, and i am going to paste a few of those paragraphs here, just so you know a little bit more of the woman for whom you are praying. during all these months of COVID, the one thing my mama — who until COVID volunteered somewhere (soup kitchen, nature preserve, botanic garden classrooms) six days a week — the one activity she’s kept at (even a little this week with her achy achy body) was knitting prayer shawls for whomever needs to be wrapped in prayer, and blankets for babies in faraway desperate places. someone so good shouldn’t be in such pain — but of course even as i type those words i know that’s not how it works; it’s simply the truths of what i hear myself wishing…..

here are a few bits about Barbara the Wiser, for whom i ask you to offer a prayer….

she has long been our matriarch, our mother, our chief instructor in living a good and simple life. hers is the code attributed to st. francis: “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

in our house, she’s grammy. there’s even a day of the week named in her honor, grammy tuesday, a title she earned by motoring to our house every blessed tuesday since our firstborn was born in june of 1993. she played the role of “nanny” one day a week, when he was a newborn, a toddler, straight through till the day we sent him off to college. when he was eight, and we found out he was getting a brother, grammy doubled her workload. without hesitation or pause, she announced she was coming on thursdays as well. over the years, her nanny equipment expanded to include the blue plastic cooler she filled with the fixings of whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner, one of a rotating cycle of circa 1970s dinners. if you trace back the roots of her cooking you might discern that she was the wife of an ad man, an ad man who counted campbell’s soup among his quiver of clients, and thus my mother might only be bested by mr. warhol when it comes to making the most of a soup can.

because my mother is all action, few words, the scenes that flash in the carousel that plays in my head — just like the home movies that clackety-clacked through the reel of the kodak projector she’d set up in front of the living room fireplace, every once in a sunday — are utterly silent.

watching them now, on the eve of the dawn of her tenth decade, they still take my breath away.

there’s the time at the kitchen door, when the long black limousine from the funeral home idled in our circular drive, and my mother (a widow at 50) in her camel hair church coat gathered the five of us (one girl, four boys in her brood), and intoned: “make your father proud.” she’d meant in the church where we were headed for his funeral, and the cemetery afterward, but i’d always taken it as instruction for life. and i’ve tried, oh i’ve tried. 

there’s another time, in a misty winter’s drizzle, when we were motoring into the cemetery where my father was buried, and we were carrying a tiny wooden box, inlaid with brass. inside was the tiny, tiny baby girl i’d just miscarried. we’d decided to bury her beside my father, and as we drove into st. mary’s cemetery, there was my mother, standing above her husband’s grave, her foot to the lip of the shovel, already digging the hole where we would lay our baby to rest, forever atop her grandfather’s chest. 

there are even — more rarely — silly times: squirting a can of whipped cream into the mouths of my boys. squirting it into her own. when i was little once we stayed up late, my mother and i, making fudge from a box. and then, leaning against the fridge in the dark, we cut out piece after piece in the moonlight. we giggled.

my mother has taught me to fix things myself, to sew on a button, to darn the holes in a sock. my mother gave me ironing lessons there at the board she unfolded in the kitchen, sprinkled with water doused from a recycled 7Up bottle she’d fitted with a hole-pocked cap, the better to moisten your wrinkles. she taught me how to get a sharp enough crease on an oxford cloth shirt, or a pillow case, should you be so inspired. (i’m usually not.) and right there at that ironing board, on a day without school, she taught me all about “the birds and the bees,” (her words) and the womanly cycle certain to come.

my mother taught me to love birds and walks in the woods. my mother woke me up most every school morning trilling lines from robert browning, robert louis stevenson, or emily D, her beloved belle of amherst. my mother taught us, over and over, not to ever let the church get in the way of God. i took it as gospel. when i came home with my jewish boyfriend, my mother who’s gone to morning mass every day of her life, pulled me aside to tell me he was a keeper. she even pinned on him her highest medal of honor, “he’s an old shoe,” she exclaimed, citing the holes in soles of his penny loafers, and the falling-down hem of his seersucker shorts. when our firstborn — the old shoe’s and mine — turned 13, and became a bar mitzvah, my mother spent months carving from wood the yad, or pointer he would use to trace the lines of the hebrew scroll as he read from the Torah. 

my mother, by many measures, has not had it so easy. she’s borne heartache enough to crush a flimsier soul. but my mother — whose daily uniform of baggy, faded denim jeans, sweatshirt, and lace-up thick-soled shoes bespeaks her character — is nothing if not sturdy.

but even the sturdy, sometimes, feel broken. and this morning, that is my mama.

with all my heart, thank you for whispering a prayer for comfort and healing for my sturdy, sturdy mama. she’s the one who needs to be wrapped in the prayer shawl today.

xoxox and bless you for doing so……

we need to get her sturdy again. and for now, my old nursing degree is coming in mighty mighty handy.

the algorithms of life in all its speeds…

some weeks, it feels like the crank on the faucet is wide open and what comes surging forth is akin to fire hydrant velocity. it just keeps coming, the news, bad and good and all in between. this was one of those weeks where i could barely steady myself between one and another. it started with a phone call, early monday morning, from an emergency room. someone i love was calling, crying, needed me and needed me fast. that’s pretty much all that mattered this week. but of course it was only the beginning of the cascade of 1,001 other thoughts, decisions, realities.

somewhere in there good news came too. and somewhere in there i got my second Moderna COVID vaccine.

seems these long months of COVID, of unnatural tethering to dorm rooms and home turf, of worries that you’ve been exposed, of navigating degrees of caution and leniency, it’s worn most of us ragged. i worry most about kids whose lives are disproportionally filled with histories of dark american chapters: kids born in the shadow of 9/11; kids who might never live a valentine’s day without remembering parkland and the unending video of high schoolers with hands over their head filing out from the building once the coast was clear, helicopters ominously hovering just over the school rooftop; kids who’ve now spent two years of college looking over their shoulder, submitting to swabs up their nose every few weeks, kids with no clue of an all-campus party.

sometimes i wish the world would break forth in birdsong, in pastel petal, in tenderly unfurling leaves. sometimes i wish we could breathe all that in, feel steadied, feel braced, feel fresh air in our lungs. isn’t it genius, then, that should we bother to look out the window, should we bother to lace on our shoes, it’s all right there, ready to take our worn-ragged selves and fill us with those quiet healing balms that stitch us together again?

we need this springtime, and the summer that follows, the slow, steady summer, the season of indolence. we all need a break from the rush and the roar of the news and the heartbreak.

we need to all catch our breath. and stockpile joys for a minute or two.

because this poem always rights me, i offer naomi shihab nye’s “kindness”….

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

how do you steady yourself in the weeks when the hydrant is gushing?

the way of sorrows

Palestine Thorn (Zizyphus spina-christi). Illustration (1881) by Edwin W. Rice.

i feel intense need for silence, as is so often my posture on this day of sorrows. no desire to add my voice to the cacophony. i turn instead to the voice of caryll houselander, a mystic and twentieth-century british catholic writer, who referred to herself as a “rocking horse catholic.” the title of her biography, written in 1962 by maisie ward (of the famous publishing house Sheed and Ward), is “that divine eccentric.”

i’ve always found the eccentric to be especially poignant. in the nooks and shadows of their beyond-the-boundaries ways of seeing, it seems the sacred makes itself especially at home. 

houselander might have been eccentric, but she stirs the soul for me. i pull her The Way of the Cross off the shelf every Holy Week. i remember well the first time i stumbled onto her stations of the cross; “the way of sorrows” is how she refers to the long dusty ascent of jesus to the hill upon which he would die. would be nailed to a cross, stripped, speared, shamed. 

her words gripped me so completely that first time, alone in a church on a dark gray Good Friday, and they’ve never ever let go. they bring good friday, the way of sorrows, to life for me, year after year. and it’s a place i choose to go, a dusty trail i am compelled to enter into, to follow footfall by footfall, year after year. 

in the depth of sorrow — so many sorrows — i find an open wound of the heart for the one who stumbled up the hill, the one who fell not once but thrice, the one who called out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” as the last bitter taste of the vinegar, put to him on the end of a stick, swirled over his tongue. 

in reading even more of houselander this year, she makes the point that for most of his life jesus was hidden. little is known of his childhood, little is known of his life before he was 30 and stepped into the public square, where he preached in parable, healed the broken, toppled the hypocrites. she writes how he often dispatched alone into the desert to pray. how even on the eve of his crucifixion, he left behind his closest soulmates, went deep — and alone — into the garden of gethsemane to beg for this cup to be passed from him. 

houselander, a deeply empathetic eccentric, writes how part of the trial — little mentioned but certainly deeply real in that awful moment of time —was how this paradoxically private soul was stripped of his deeply private self.

he was exposed, made public property. stripped naked before the whole world, not only in body but in mind and in soul. to reveal not only his love, but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity. “all his secrets were out,” houselander writes. i think long and hard about that exposure. i am thinking of that as i turn the page and read deeper into the way of sorrows.

she writes: “he is a man of sorrows. he is covered in bruises and stripes. he is made a laughing stock.”

i ask: how many of us have been made laughing stocks?

how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces?

how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt? 

“his face is covered with spittings.”

how many of us have ever been spit upon? 

“he is bound like a dangerous criminal.”

how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal?

“his friends have forsaken Him.”

how many of us have felt a friend do the same?

“the kiss of treason burns on His cheek.”

how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?

i leave you, quietly, with two of caryll houselander’s prayers from The Way of the Cross:

first:

“Lord, that I may see!”

“…Let me recognize You not only in saints and martyrs, in the innocence of children, in the patience of old people waiting quietly for death, in the splendor of those who die for their fellow men; …

“Let me know You in the outcast, in the humiliated, the ridiculed, the shamed; in the sinner who weeps for his sins. …”

and, this, from the moment along the way of sorrows when a woman named veronica, a compassionate woman, burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus, and wiped his face, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was. this is houselander, with her own pleadings inspired by veronica:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

Jesus is mocked” is one of the downloadable Stations of the Cross, by Scott Erickson. featured in Image Journal, for his “Stations in the City” project, posted around the streets of Portland, OR. He writes: “I think the stations are for everyone, no matter your religious affiliation, because they are a meditation on being human, so I wanted people to see them without the hurdle of having to enter a religious space.” 

illustration above: Botanical illustration of the Zizyphus Spina Christi, the thorny bush thought to have been used for the crown of thorns placed on Jesus on that first long-ago day of crucifixion, from A pictorial commentary on the Gospel according to Mark, with the Text of the Authorized and Revised Version, (1881) by Edwin W. Rice.

my questions are in the litany above, the echoes to houselander’s cries….

how many of us have been made laughing stocks? how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces? how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt? how many of us have ever been spit upon? how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal? how many of us have felt forsaken? how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?

i believe, like Erickson, the artist above, that regardless of religious affiliation, the Stations of the Cross in so many ways are a meditation on being human, and into that holy and intimate space, i enter….

it’s get-on-your-knees season

from a distance, that is from this side of the windowpanes, where i tend to stand huddled in layers of wraps, it all looks like a matrix of unenlightened brown sticks. these are the weeks when winter has ground us down to particular dust. the pandemic, too. even with a shot in the arm we’re not exactly lying by the side of the pool, sipping our lemony-ades. the name for this stretch of the year might easily be mistaken for bleak.

but then, as i did this morning, you spy a runaway screen from an upstairs window, one that’s worked itself loose and taken a short hop skip and a jump off the roof and landed in the boughs of the trees. so, you, as i did this morning, you climb into your muck-about clogs, you haul out a ladder and you fetch the runaway part of your house. and while you’re out there, while you’re the wacky neighbor lady out climbing ladders at dawn, chasing after screens in the trees, you begin to notice things.

you notice that, once you’ve hauled out your magnifying lens, it’s not really all bleak. there is gazillions of action out there. why, there are sweet little clasps of leaves, gathered in prayer. and there are frilly umbrellas of green rising up from the detritus of winter.

and, like any self-respecting payee of attention, you start to put two and two together, and you start thinking maybe you could pick up a thing or two from this quiet explosion erupting from dear planet underground. maybe it’s not so bleak after all. maybe this is the season of quiet delight. maybe the starting all over again is kicking into high gear. maybe the same old same old is about to slow to a crawl, and one day soon this will all be but another badge on our we-survived-even-this sash. we’ll be sitting around in our rocking chairs, swapping tales of remember-the-year-we-were-afraid-to-touch-our-groceries? remember the year no one came home for christmas? remember the year we all sat down at our sewing machines and stitched together swatches of cotton or t-shirt, stuffed vacuum cleaner filters into the pockets?

the miracle is we’ve lived, the just-by-chance ones among us who weren’t done in by the terrible, horrible, awful red virus. i wasn’t there on the front lines, where friends of mine who are nurses and doctors faced it head on, walked into the dirge of it, day after day. i hope, for the life of me, we never forget what heroes they were, and how even the checkers at the grocery store had to dig down for a brand of courage they never thought would be part of the job of stacking cans on shelves, or ringing my celery over their scanner. and every time i read a story of someone felled by it, i look around and realize this world has lost one more incredible one-of-a-kind miracle. maybe reading all the obits is in the oddest of ways a reminder that lurking behind the facades of all the anonymous anyones we pass every day, there is inside a story of glorious wonder that might put us all in our places. maybe it’s why, once upon a time, i loved to be asked to write someone’s obit. because each and every someone has a story to tell. a story to make you sit up in your chair and take notice.

it’s not too unlike the scene out my window. from a distance it all looks bleak and windblown and soggy. but when you bend down to the ground, take a close look, you see something utterly beautiful. you see even the dew gathered in drops at the ends of each leaf. and you remember that life asks over and over again: open your eyes, open your heart, beauty abounds.

what’s some of the beauty you’ve noticed? on your knees or otherwise?

and while i’m here, a string of birthdays of aries who’ve twice had to blow out birthday candles during pandemic: happy birthday to two of my most beloveds, tomorrow and sunday, sweet P and auntie M, who i think were born back to back to emphatically wondrously remind me how glorious it is to be alive in the same span of time as the two of them. double blessing squared. and to dear amy’s papa who is turning 96 today. i don’t even know him, but i adore everything i know about him, and oh we are blessed to know of his sweet and everlasting presence here on this earth. xoxoxoxo and huge blessings to a sweet baby boy born in san francisco yesterday, and to his mama who is starting this glorious adventure she has sooooooooooooooo long awaited. blessings abound. xox

prayer list

i remember walking the halls of my high school, tucking a day’s worth of worries into my backpack. i might have bumped into tears in the girls’ bathroom (for that’s what it was called back then). i might have noticed someone slam a fist to a locker. or leaned in to listen while threading my way through the throngs in the halls. i’d sit in my bedroom at night, tucked between the two twin beds, sprawled on my old braided rug, and one by one, i’d scribble a note, cut out a heart from construction paper, try to put words to all of the heartache, and the next morning i’d make like the valentine fairy and deliver each one. it was my earliest rendition of keeping a prayer list.

gathering up the heavy hearts of the day is what it means to live and breathe on this planet. we hoist up each other’s loads, to try to shoulder the ache in the hearts of the people we love. in the aches we just happen to hear about. and we don’t put them down till the darkness has lifted, has shuttled off to the distance.

i’m thinking about prayer lists because once again i found someone’s very big worry this week. and my heart, like hers, is now hurting. i’ve no idea really if taking on worry is something like taking on water. if now two boats are low in the lake, and that’s the whole of it, or if my taking on a bucket or two of hers might actually buoy hers even an inch. i’ll go with the inch. i do know that in my own hours of barely being able to breathe it sure helped to have someone ping me, let me know they were squeezing my hand from afar, reminding me every once in a while to remember to take a deep breath.

in the world where i grew up, prayer lists were as common as the alphabet. you heard about a heartache, you scribbled it onto your list. recited it every night before dinner, and when you dropped to your knees at bedtime. when it was really bad, a gargantuan worry, you called up the rectory and asked the church secretary to please scribble “special intention” onto the list. sometimes it felt like your whole pocket was filled with a long string of beads, one for each worry.

or maybe i was just raised by world-class worriers, and i learned early on that there are certain things that wrinkle your brow, that make you stare into the faraway. and that prompt you to scribble a name on a list, and stick it onto the fridge under a magnet. in the world i grew up in, worries weren’t simply invisible. worries showed up in pencil on paper.

i can’t imagine not worrying. but maybe to worry is another name for “to care.” to bump up against the hard edge of our superpowers, and see there’s a cliff and we can’t go one step farther, not even an inch. which is where the prayers swoop in. which is where we throw up our arms, and look toward the clouds, because a hundred thousand years ago someone might have mentioned that that’s where the angels hang out. but, honestly, truly, those are just motions. the point is we knead into our hearts, into the very core of our breathing, the clear and certain intention of the someone we know, or the someone we love, who is bearing an impossible burden. and life sure would be easier if we were all out pushing each other’s wheelbarrows. if we all gathered round, 1-2-3 hoist!, and did what we could to carry their loads for even a minute.

so, for my faraway friend who i love very much, i turned to one of the saints i met in my life, a very, very tall and glorious soul who once folded himself into the brown-plaid front seat of my little brown toyota corolla. his name was john o’donohue, and at the time he was a priest, a priest with a brogue (the very best sort), and a poet with a soul so big you felt like you could climb right in it. he was in the business of putting words to the flickers and blips of the heart that escape most everyone else on the planet. but he had telepathies and poetries inside him, and he wrote like nobody else’s business.

this is the blessing — the beannacht — he wrote for his mother. it’s nearly famous now, but it’s so very beautiful, and it captures nearly every last drop of the wobbles and soft spots that come when life hits the skids.

this is for my friend who i love, from a poet i call a most blessed friend, an anam cara, or soul friend, a concept my poet friend made a little bit famous because he wrote a book all about it.

a beannacht from john o’donohue, God rest his soul; born on a new year’s day, he died in his sleep the night after january 3, in 2008, just barely 52.

john o’donohue, anam cara, friend of the soul

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.


what are the lines you recite when you are carrying the worries of someone you love?

here’s my long-ago tribune story about the day i spent with the blessed poet, which just so happens to have run in the paper on st. paddy’s day, in 1999. so it’s fitting for this week, 22 years later. egad.

peeking out from under the mushroom cap

out of the blue the other afternoon, an email pinged into my otherwise unbroken hours of writing. the email was “inviting” me to sign up for one of those needles in the arm we’ve all been waiting for for ever, it seems. i played along, clicking the box i was supposed to click, fully expecting i’d land on a page that apologized for being already full, telling me to check again later. after all, i’d been clicking for the past four or more weeks for my 90-year-old mother (hello, vaccine gods, did you read that?!?! i said NINETY…), and getting polite apologies and no appointments every time. so why in the world would my mother’s MUCH younger daughter slip-slide into a slot? well, the universe is sometimes senseless, so i scored a slot, without barely enough time to figure it out.

and, as of 9-something yesterday morning, i am one of the Modernas. and as of about 1 something yesterday afternoon, i started to feel rather, um, vaccinated. as in there was some sort of little army inside me and it was strapping on its combat boots and shaking things up on its way into action. it seems to have been a rather bumpy beginning. i could have climbed out of bed at 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 to type this, as i’ve spent the night watching the little numbers on my clock count uphill.

the getting the shot was truly joyous. the nurse who ushered me into what had been a labor-and-delivery room at the old lake forest hospital (yes, i loved that my COVID vaccine was unfolding a room where generations of patrician little babies first breathed), she was so joyous, waving her arms in the air, tears in her eyes, i asked if i was her very first vaccine. oh, no, she replied, it was just that she’d spent months sticking swabs up noses and “putting out fires,” and she was now beyond thrilled, she reported, to be sticking needles in arms, “keeping the fires from starting.” i stuck out my arm. as i closed my eyes to whisper a prayer, she said one aloud. a really sweet one. one that melted my heart. i would have hugged her before i left but i can’t do that for six more weeks.

which brings us to the big number. six weeks. six weeks till I Day, that’s Immunity Day. six weeks. i feel something like the groundhog who peeks out from his peephole only to discover his shadow, so he leaps back down the hole. after all this time in the hole, i can’t say that i’m charging to climb back out, start running in circles. it’s a curious thing how we humans get used to the status quo, and for some of us, no change comes without a bump in the road.

i know i won’t mind the not being afraid. won’t mind not washing the groceries, as if they’re shrouded in cooties, and should i fail to shake one off, they’ll grow into red-ringed monsters right there in my fridge or my pantry. i won’t mind knowing my boys can live the life i’d sometimes taken for granted, and i mean the quotidian parts, the picturing one of them huddled with teammates on the frisbee field, picturing the other one pulling out a chair at a table in a restaurant that’s new and filled with adventure. i wonder if we can hold onto the relishing, if we can not grow numb once again to life’s unbelievable pleasures: the feel of someone’s head on your shoulders, running into someone’s arms, drying the tears of someone you barely know. simple acts of empathy, the up-close kind, the kind that have been against the rules all these months.

last night the president told us to start dreaming of red, white, and blue. imagine independence day. imagine lemonade stands on the sidewalk, and offering glasses to whomever walks by. imagine the fireworks, of a nation out from under its mushroom caps. imagine the rocket’s red glare when we look in the rear-view mirror at the red-ringed pestilent.

truth is, there are quiet parts of this equation that i’ve relished. and i hope i can hold onto some of that, without checking myself in to the nearest tall-walled monastery. and that’s why the six-week mushroom cap is a very fine thing. a little like waiting for spring for mr. groundhog. i can nestle into my hole here for a little while longer, start thinking about how it’ll be, and how to get used to a world where if i want to, i can take your hand and squeeze it tightly. or throw my arm round your shoulders. or lean in and whisper a secret. and i won’t have to wash down the sack of coffee beans to make you a fine cup of coffee.

bless the ones who worked tirelessly in labs to develop the vaccines. bless the nurses and workers who’ve stationed themselves on the front line this whole awful time. bless the drivers and pilots shipping these itty-bitty lifesaving vials all across the country. and bless every last person who slipped on a mask, kept the distance, and did whatever it took to get us across this great gulch.

housekeeping: ol’ WordPress seems to have switched out the font here this morning, and i have no idea if it’s going to stay that way, or give me back my serifs. if things look different on your end, it’s a mystery to me. and, like most change, it’ll take me some getting used to.

here’s hoping you all get the vaccine, and that it doesn’t keep you awake all night. what might be the one or two things you’re most excited to do once you cross the full-immunity line….

here we are, resilient

when the two feet of snow out my kitchen door melted, these resiliencies awaited. pushed clear through the snow, undaunted.

if you’d sat us all down a year ago, turned allllll the pages of the calendar, past easter, past fourth of july, past thanksgiving, christmas, valentine’s day, and everyone’s birthday; if you’d told us we’d skip our kid’s law school graduation, wouldn’t see where he lived far, far, away, in a city that protests and burns; if you told us that after 26 years of grammy tuesdays, they’d stop on a dime; if you told us one kid would spend a college semester taking in classes from under the quilt of his boyhood; or that the newsroom at the roots of this family would up and get scrubbed; if you told me i’d think twice about going into a grocery store, would hold my breath as long as i could if ever i ran into anyone with a mask slid under their nose or nowhere at all; if you told me i’d have dinner with the same one person every night for 365 dinners (and plenty of lunches, besides), i’d have asked if you were nuts.

and never mind the long months when we lysol-wiped every box of cereal or pasta, every jar of marinara, and carton of milk. and sang the birthday song twice while washing our hands.

that little red-ringed virus has done a number on us, managed to whip us in line (some of us) like nothing ever before.

we’ve made it a year.

we’ve zoomed. we’ve not touched or hugged or kissed. we’ve learned–and mostly forgotten–how long the little rascal of a virus lived on wood, paper, and stainless steel. we’ve parsed the virtues of N95, KN95, and plain old bandana. we’ve canceled plane tickets (or mostly gotten two-year extensions). we’ve learned how long we can drive without pulling over to rest stops. (clear to middle ohio, in the case of my award-winning bladder.)

we made it a year.

on the bright side, we’ve dabbled in sour dough, given names to the blobs bubbling and growing deep in the fridge (and we dumped it ceremoniously and sadly when at last we surrendered in sorry defeat). we’ve taken up star gazing (that lasted not nearly as long as the sour dough). and walking in woods (still ongoing, though the snows are slowing us down). i’ve taken up the book of common prayer, each morning’s quiet beginning. i’ve put down the big book too, searching for something with broader inclusion, something less rote. and i’ve not minded, not one single weekend, not having to worry about too many places to be, and the politics therein.

in a word, it’s gone from surreal at the start, to just plain odd. we’ve recalibrated just about everything.

i can barely stand to imagine how lonely it’s been for everyone who’s bearing this out all alone. i worry to death about kids who don’t know the joy of a play date, let alone running out the door to see who can skip down the sidewalks. or climb trees. or hop on a bike and see where it goes. i worry about kids in high school, and college, stuck in their dorm rooms, wholly unable to romp in the ways we’ve long thought were the essence of going to college.

i worry to death for every small business now shuttered. or shuddering.

i worry to death for the ones who’ve had to get up every single morning, slip on a mask and face the masses: be it ringing up groceries, delivering mail, or answering 9-1-1 calls.

we shouldn’t have to be afraid of standing closer than six feet away from a stranger.

but here we are.

we’ve made it a year.

it’s true, thank God, no bombs were dropping, and boys we love weren’t being shipped overseas, not most of them anyway. it’s hard to imagine how bursting our hearts might be if that was the trial. and at least we can stand under the heavens and breathe. i’ve thought more than maybe ever before about hiroshima, about radioactive fallout, and what it would be like to be unable to go out the door. thank God we can still go outside. thank God it’s the one sure and certain thing we can do, digging in dirt all our own, or stalking the wilds where it’s all common denominator.

it’s hard to make sense of this long last year. but it seems there might be an end off in the distance. i can barely imagine filling my dining room table again. but i think of it often. long for it. want little more than the sound of the doorbell ringing. and voices i love filling the rooms, bouncing off the walls. even doing the stacks of dishes at the end of the night, when the whole night plays over and over in your head, when you laugh out loud all over again, and you’re there at the sink, alone with the suds, and it’s after midnight, but you’re remembering the look on someone’s face, or the line that nearly made you fall from your chair, you were laughing so hard.

it feels like a distant mirage, the dinner table filled with people we love.

but we made it a year.

i keep wondering what parts of all of this we’ll carry forward. will we zoom ever more? will we always remember how blessed it is to run to the store, to hug a friend on the sidewalk, to sit on the seat of a bus or a train?

these are the things i’m thinking about, as this one long year draws to its close….

if you’d told us a year ago, we’d never have signed on the dotted line. turns out, we can do the things we’d never imagine. turns out, we’re resilient after all.

what did you learn this year?