pull up a chair

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

if i’d known…

bambkchuppah

a quarter century ago, on a steamy august sunday afternoon, i remember peeking out my bedroom window into the backyard of the house where i grew up. i remember the swiss lace curtains rippling in the breeze, catching in my veil. down below, beneath a canopy of old oaks, oaks whose boughs arced across the yard, a dappled dome of leaves reaching out to oak leaves, tidy rows of white wooden chairs stood sentry. a brass quintet began to play. the chairs filled in.

boysand me weddingmy father wasn’t there, had been gone 10 long years by then, so my brothers, all four of them, took me by the arms. i’d walked down the stairs i’d once tumbled down as a clumsy little girl, the ones where i sat after bee stings, on afternoons when my mama dried my tears. we’d walked out the front door, my brothers and i, arm in arm in arm, the five of us, and threaded through the garden gate. the late august garden was in bloom; my mother had made sure of that. and there, at the dip at the bottom of a sloping lawn, where the chairs gave way to chuppah, was the tall, dark, quite handsome fellow to whom i would wed my life.

BKsyl

we wed — in catholic and jewish, with priest and rabbi, and chuppah and seven blessings and smashing of the glass. we wed under the cathedral of trees, and all the while i worried that my beloved’s 80-something-year-old grandma might cave in from heat and sauna-like steaminess. (i’d prayed for no rain, and my prayers were answered; i forgot to pray for no sauna.) i remember much of that day, frame after frame still tumbles clearly through my memory, because a wise soul had instructed me: freeze-frame the moments, one after another, seal it to your soul.

but now, 25 years after that picture perfect day, i’m afforded a perspective, a longview, that shifts and changes everything. the whole of it is deepened, the colors richer, the lines sharper-edged, even as the pictures in the album begin to fade. it is a portrait of life and love in all its messy, wrenching iterations, and, yes, in all its magnificence. it’s a portrait i take in with breath-catching awe. love does not come easy, but love when it lasts, when it sinks deep down into your marrow, it carries you to places you’d not imagined, places you never thought you’d know. it carries you across unbearable stretches, and delivers you to moments you’ll never forget.

from where i stand now, i can see all that’s unfurled since that august sunday. i can see the light and shadow. i recall the hours when my heart pounded so hard i could hear it thumping sharp against my hollow chest wall. i riffle through the frames, the glories and the tight spots. i can see the night when i nearly howled in sorrow, when my baby girl’s string-bean of a tiny self slipped into my hands, miscarried in the deep of darkness. just beyond the bathroom door was the man i’d wed.

the man i wed is in every single frame of every single story that matters.

when i tick through the litany — the life and death, the anguish, the exhaustion — that we’ve navigated, side-by-side, heart-to-heart, i begin to catch a glimpse of the rootedness of what it means to whisper vows, to seal promise after promise, before a crowd of those you love, of those who’ve known you longest, or best, or most deeply.

we made a promise to be the hand at the small of each other’s back. we made a promise to search always for joy, for hope, and to find and collect sparks of God all along the way.

we could not have known that there would come a day when that meant one of us was staring at her watch in a surgical waiting room outside the chamber where the doctors threaded a wire into the heart of the other one of us, and we both prayed mightily that they’d zap just the right spot, and the awfulness would end.

we could not have known that there would be a day when emergency room doctors would look us in the eye and talk of airlifts and our firstborn’s spinal cord. and, during that longest hour of our lives, we would both pray the very same prayer. and we would both end with signs of the cross (his made backwards, because he’d never before made one, but this moment seemed to beg the unimaginable).

we could not have known of the late-night phone calls, the sleepless nights, the groggy mornings when the bad news wouldn’t lift, and we felt sunk before we even slid from under the covers.

but we do know now. and we know that somehow — together, as much as deep inside the solitude of our own many-chambered souls — we found our way to the clearing, to the place where shafts of light once again dapple the landscape.

we’ve tread together the topography of deeply-held promises. we know the canyons of despair. and we’ve glimpsed our share of beauties from the rises along the trail.

there are particular lessons to be learned in long years entwined. when the one soul you count on — even when you’re without a clue of just how you’ll navigate the latest labyrinth  — is the one who’s watched your hair streak through with silver, and your face grow etched with lines.

we’ve inscribed the pages of our book, the chapters of our life well and deeply loved. we’ve birthed two souls, breathed all we could into their every day and struggle. we’ve made a home, a sacred refuge where the door is always open, an extra place always set. we’ve kept our promises.

if i’d only known. i would walk down that aisle once again. i’d take your hand — and your heart. and i’d whisper all those promises. from this day on, for life.

IMG_7994

what a quarter century has brought me: this huddle of the deepest love

amen.

i know that life journeys come in countless iterations — alone, entwined, shattered by loss. and while i don’t often write of the one to whom i’m married, i couldn’t help being struck by the power of love long-held. love sealed august 25, 1991.

what’s the love that sustains you? or what lessons have you learned across the long haul? 

p.s. prayers for someone i love having hip surgery monday. prayers for everyone at the table — especially one particular mama — weathering heartache. 

empty room, full heart

IMG_8150

this is my little boy’s room. only it’s not his anymore. not officially. not where he plops his head at night, and tumbles into sleep.

he’s moved three steps down and around the bend.

everything at our house shifted this week.

one boy’s heart was broken, his summer days of soccer hollowed, left to wonder — as his friends, all his friends it seems, dash off to practice twice a day — why he couldn’t have grown just another six inches, maybe even 12. or more, if we were being greedy, really greedy. a goalie needs every inch he can get. our goalie has only 63. the other goalies have 77 and 75. the arithmetic of soccer is harsh, makes no allowances for size of heart.

another boy moved out, not too far away, 13.21 miles as the crow flies, to his first grown-up apartment. and the night we dropped him off, said goodbye, the little one’s tears soaked the t-shirt of the one who for the past year — for as far back as he can remember, really — has been his bumper pad and protector from all life’s knocks.

monday morning, while the older one drove his first load off to his apartment, the little one and i drove to the sterile pen where numbers are called, papers are signed, tests taken, and permits issued. we drive at night now, he and i, taking to the broadest swath of uninhabited parking lot we can find.

by wednesday, i was scrubbing, dusting, clearing out the last few bits from drawers. i tend to clean like crazy when my heart is upside down. i hauled this and that down from the attic. shoved a few things up for storing. boy no. 2 moved into what had been the long-time chamber of boy no. 1, a fellow more than likely never coming back, except for a night here or there, a stretch of nights if we’re so blessed.

and while we made a room for a boy who’ll find his way through the halls of a new high school, iIMG_8152 made a room that’s something of a relic of the boyhoods i so loved. the ones where books were tucked in corners, slid from shelves, pages turned. the boyhoods populated by wooden blocks and trains. now, a little chair sits empty. the alphabet rug, the one i once bought for a nursery, it’s off at the cleaners and the rug repair shop. i seem to be preserving a chapter of our lives, pressing it onto the pages of my heart. a little part of me, perhaps, is hoping that some day a new crop of little people will climb the stairs, turn the corner and see the wall of books, and the bins of blocks and puppets. but mostly, i think, i’m making a room for me, the mama who will never ever forget.

a room where when i walk in i hear the echoes of boys from long and not so long ago. where i pull any book off the shelf and turn a page, and suddenly i can picture the little hands and the voices who once begged for me to read that page over and over. and over.

the rooms in a house are like that, when they’re no longer used. one by one, most houses surrender rooms to time. a room once strewn wall-to-wall with elaborate block constructions becomes a room with sweaty socks and inside-out jerseys. years go by when you hardly see the floor. and then, there comes a dawn when the first beams of sunlight fall across hardwood slats that all but glow, so exposed they are, and not a hand puppet nor a book is out of place. when what you find in the morning is exactly as you left it at noon the day before.

but rooms hold memory, hold the rhythm of a heart that will not fade.

as certainly as the wooden soldier stands guard on the window ledge, as welcoming as the old bear now slumped against the wall, that room will harbor me. will wrap me in its particular embrace. will be my tucked-away respite at the top of the stairs.

for the days when i need retreat. for the days when all i want is to step back in time, to remember how it was and how we got here. for the days when nothing soothes my soul so much as the far-off whisperings of the room that grew my sweet, sweet boys. the room that holds my heart.

do you have a nook or a cranny in your house that holds more than a life-size relic of your heart? IMG_8121

when a scone is so much more than delicious

IMG_8069

the other dawn, at the start of a day that had long been circled on the calendar, at the start of a day when a young lad i love was about to strap on his soccer cleats and pour his considerable heart into tryouts for the high school team where he wants — more than anything — to be the goal keeper, i began my mama ministrations, the ones that begin when you drop to your knees at the side of your bed, and whisper a plaintive petition.

you then descend to the kitchen, often the high altar of mama-dom. you pull out the red plate saved for days marked “high alert.” you survey the shelves of the fridge, pull out the juices and the various species of protein. you grab for a balsa-wood basket of super-food berries. and then, if you were me the other morning, you remembered that tucked at the back of the freezer was a zip-top bag of ready-to-bake, made-from-scratch, farmers-market-blueberry scones.

they happen to be scones that come with a story. scones delivered with love and out-of-the-blue kindness, the sort for which the world is so hungry these days.

i happen to be blessed with a friend named amy. she’s an art teacher in the chicago public schools. and she’s hilarious. and she can bake like nobody’s business. she’d once come for a morning’s respite in that sacred space that is our summer porch. as i poured the coffee, she pulled from her satchel the MOST amazing, buttery, crumbly, golden-domed scones i might ever have known. that was a year or two ago. i must have been emphatic in my proclamations of their excellence. because my friend amy remembered.

just a few weeks ago, dear amy was at the farmer’s market and, as one is wont to do, she went overboard at the blueberry stand. not one to waste a fine berry, she hauled out her mixing bowls and her flour and butter and cream so dense you might dollop it out with a spoon. as she mixed and patted and started to cut the butter-lumped dough, she says she suddenly thought of me (was it the buttery lumps, i wonder?).

she remembered how vociferous we were in our proclamations of her scone excellence. so, out of the blue on a summery morning, she pinged me a message, asking if i might be willing to come to the door for a load of just-made-but-not-yet-baked blueberry scone triangles, ones i could pop straight into the freezer so that when the spirit moved me, i could make like i’d been the one stirring and sifting and patting my cakes, and infuse my kitchen with buttery-blueberry olfactory whirls.

at first, i demurred — not wanting my friend who lives 20 minutes away to take such a detour. but she insisted, and i caved — more than delighted to partake once again of her scone excellence. it wasn’t till i cranked the oven, not long after she rang the doorbell and ran, that i was klonked over the head by the fact that this truly was a russian doll of gifts: inside the gift of out-of-the-blue scones, there was the gift of getting to make like i’d made them myself (if plopping the scones on parchment and sliding a baking sheet into and out of the oven amounts to “making them”).

and so this week, at the start of a very steep climb, i pulled the remaining half dozen dough triangles from out of the freezer bag, cranked the oven, and by the time the would-be goalie sauntered into the kitchen, a pedestal of deliciousness awaited. a pedestal of i’d-do-anything-to-help-you-make-this-team. if only i could make you grow six or 12 inches.

instead, i’m confined to buttery lumps of blueberry deliciousness. and the hope that each morsel fuels the pit so deep in his belly.

amy’s scones were merely one thread of the love blanket we’ve been weaving here all week. the young lad’s big brother, who had no reason to awake before dawn, set his alarm for six on the first of three days of twice-a-day tryouts. he climbed groggily into the would-be goalie’s four-poster bed. and there they lay, side by side, the big one whispering brotherly courage into the younger one’s ear. we’ve made it our job to be his bumper pads for this roller-coaster of a week. steaks have been grilled; silence, honored. ben-gay has been rubbed up and down legs, and water bottles have been filled and filled some more. word comes tonight. 

IMG_7937

i’m telling you, friends, these scones are blessed. and that magic of having them at-the-ready, with the bonus of hot-from-the-oven-ness, prompted me to beg my friend amy for the recipe, so i could bring them to you, here at the table. she calls them “life’s a butter dream,” because that’s what her son sam said when he took his first bite. 

Life’s A Butter Dream Scones

provenance: amy manata, baker, art teacher, glorious good and generous soul.

4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 cup fresh blueberries ( or whatever you like, I’ve used apricots, choc. chips, anything)

Directions

-Use the Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix together 4 cups of flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, and salt.
– Add in the cold butter at the lowest speed and mix until the butter is in small pieces.
-Mix the eggs and heavy cream and add them to the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended.
-Add the blueberries, and mix quickly. ( I freeze the blueberries so they don’t smoosh) The dough may be a bit sticky.
-Put the dough out onto a well-floured surface and be sure it is well combined.
-Flour your hands and flatten the dough 3/4-inch thick, and rectangle shape. You should see lumps of butter in the dough.
-Cut into squares and then cut them in half diagonally to make triangles.
-Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
This is when I freeze them on a baking sheet so they don’t stick together.

To Bake:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tops with cream or milk. Sprinkle with “Sugar in the Raw,” and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

because these scones came to me in an act of sublime out-of-the-blue kindness, i’m convinced they beg to be passed along in that very same spirit. so consider them next time you’re in the mood for committing an act of random kindness.

i know that for lots of reasons this was a tough week for chair folk. here, too. sending love and prayers to everyone who faced — and faces still — uphill climbs.  

what’s the latest act of random kindness that’s come your way? and how, precisely, was it pulled off?IMG_8066

road trip reads

IMG_7946

any minute now, we’re piling in the red wagon and pointing it south, straight to louisville, kentucky, the state of grace in which i was born. we’re headed down for a memorial for a beloved uncle who died at 91 earlier this summer. he was known as “secretary of the interior” in blue-grass country, and they didn’t mean affairs of domestic geography so much as affairs of chintz and raw silk and impeccable antiques culled from trips around the world. more than 40 such trips circumnavigating the globe. a lifetime procuring the beautiful, as head of interior design for decades at louisville’s grand old department store.

despite the fact that it’s my beloved architecture critic’s birthday tomorrow, he insisted he was driving my mama and moi and devoting much of his day to interstates and trucks barreling past him, passing as they often do on the left. by sundown tonight, though, we’ll be checking into a sublime historic hotel, the brown hotel, and that alone will make this a trip to remember.

while we’re motoring i thought i’d leave a few books here on the table. i’ve not kept up with posts from my tribune roundups of soulful books. so here, a culled list of favorites from the last two distillations, a potpourri of books i particularly loved.

Buechner 101 by Carl Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99

Maybe once a generation, or once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred in equal measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.

In these collected works, “Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner” — including excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, “The Alphabet of Grace”; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are immersed in the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s gifts.

Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side with C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.” That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages.

This world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that shimmy through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”

And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101.

Our Father by Rainer Oberthür, illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 58 pages, $16

The questions are pure. The questions, profound. From the child’s script, the surest path to heaven. And from the start, “Our Father,” a breathtaking peeling back of a foundational prayer of so many Christian religions, shimmers with a simplicity that can’t help but catapult our sacred questions to the highest heights.

Before beginning a line-by-line, word-by-word, meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s often called, this extraordinary picture book frames the prayer in the context of how it responds to the most essential — and possibly unsettling — questions: Where did the world come from? Why does it exist? Why am I here? Why do people die? What happens afterward?

In a voice that exudes comfort and heart-to-heart closeness the reader is told that these really are questions about God: Where is God? Why can’t I see God? How can I talk to God?

Are these not the very questions pondered by legions of theologians? And yet, the answers found here — in a children’s book from a Grand Rapids, Mich., publishing house with a long tradition of searching the globe for particularly illuminating children’s text and illustration — are perhaps among the clearest ever penned.

Which is what makes this a book for the soul young or old or anywhere in between. Each line — alongside charming illustrations that beg to be studied closely — becomes a prayerful exegesis, unfurled in words that speak to the pure heart of the child. It’s a book that will lull you into the sure and safe cove that is a building block of faith. And, chances are, you’ll never again murmur mindlessly the words of “Our Father.” Instead, you’ll be awakened to the depths of its timelessness and its capacity to enfold the answers to all our deepest questions.

Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson, Wanton Gospeller Press, 182 pages, $16

Blessings, an ancient literary form, “illuminate the link between the sacred and the ordinary,” Jan Richardson writes in her breathtaking “Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.” Often poetic and pulsing with the rhythms of invocation and incantation, blessings “use ordinary language in ways that can become extraordinary, offering words that arrest our attention and awaken us to how the holy is at work in our very midst.”

Before carrying us through the liturgical year, blessing by blessing, Richardson writes in her introduction that a good blessing “shimmers with the mystery that lies at the heart of God.” And then, she unspools “good blessing” upon “good blessing,” one after another shimmering, in ways that might make you weep, so tenderly, so astonishingly, do they slip into the hollows of the soul.

Richardson, a writer, artist and ordained Methodist minister, belongs among the most treasured spiritual lights on the bookshelf. Her words trace that thin line that courses the topography of the soul. She knows the way into the deepest interiority, into the mysteries of life, of grief, of wonder. Your breath will be taken, again and again. And you will return, again and again, to these pages, pulled by the magnetism of her words, her capacity for imbuing the everyday with the sacred.

A blessing, she writes, “is something wild. It leads us where we did not imagine to go, and never in a straight line.” It does so, in Richardson’s hands, by lifting the quotidian hours of our lives — the waiting for night to end, the unimagined grace of coming home — and making abundantly clear a profound holiness.

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett, Penguin Press, 288 pages, $28

If you, like me, read with a pen at the ready, you’ll likely run out of ink on this one. If you measure the worth of a book by the volume of scribbles you pen in the margins, the stars emphatically drawn, and the sentences underlined, Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” — a compendium of wisdom, at once intimate and expansive — stands a serious shot of emerging both splattered and cherished.

Tippett, the Peabody Award-winning radio host and National Humanities Medalist, is a master of what she terms “generous listening,” an act “powered by curiosity,” and a “willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.” Sadly lacking in the modern-day public square, it’s an art Tippett has practiced and honed in her years hosting National Public Radio’s “On Being,” a program and podcast launched in 2003 as “Speaking of Faith,” in which she’s generously listened to — and deeply questioned — some of the most luminous minds on the planet.

From this lifetime of rich conversation, Tippett elicits a poetic inquiry, interwoven with memoir. What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in death? And, in the end, wisdom is what Tippett seeks. “Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself,” she writes.

The book, called “a master class in the art of living,” draws from conversations with poet Elizabeth Alexander, physicist Brian Greene, civil rights veteran John Lewis, physician Rachel Naomi Remen, chef Dan Barber, playwright Eve Ensler, and humanitarian Jean Vanier — to name only a partial roster of her fellow seekers of wisdom.

what titles top your summer reading list? 

riveted

FullSizeRender

night after night, we took our places, however many of us happened to be home. we all had our props, tea mugs or ice cream alongside iterations of screens, small, smaller and smallest. as the night blackened outside the windows, one shared rectangle glowed: for the last two weeks, our portrait of the american family has been the four of us huddled around the modern-day campfire that is the tv blaring the national conventions, both of them. we take religion and politics in two flavors in this house, so we are by definition bi-partisan. because we watch knowing there is more than one brand of lens in this house (it’s the college kid who went off to school emphatically one way, came home another), we train our ears and our minds and our hearts on common ground.

it makes for truly compelling watching. no knee-jerk reactions allowed. and civility, doled out in carefully thought words, honestly asked questions, is the one abiding premise. fact-checking has become a family sport.

what compelled me the most, what i can’t get enough of, can’t stop thinking about was the oration. the power to put breath to words and bellow them across the seas of cheering (or jeering) souls in the seats of the arenas, both the Q in cleveland and the wells fargo center in philly. i found myself as rapt by the voices clearly not used to the national stage as i was by some of the ones whose road to glory and office was paved by the power to put heart and soul into political story.

IMG_7933i admit to tears — tears when the muslim immigrant father pulled his shiny copy of the Constitution from the pocket beneath his impeccably-pressed suit jacket. tears when his hajib-shrouded wife, the gold star mother of their fallen soldier son, stood by his side, without saying a word, looking as if this stage might be the last place in the world she wanted to be, except that deep in her heart she had a son whose story she would not let be silenced. the goosebumps began when the father, in his halting english, tinged with middle-east lilt, recounted how immediately after migrating to the u.s. from the united arab emirates he’d taken his three sons to visit the jefferson memorial. the father recited the words, the ones etched in white Georgia marble, jefferson’s words swearing “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” that so spoke to his son, whose name was Humayun, the son who had grown up to be a soldier and who died in iraq, an army captain who charged into death to save his soldiers. on june 8, 2004, when an explosives-laced taxi barreled through the gate of the army base he was there to protect, Capt. Humayun Khan told his soldiers to hit the dirt while he ran 10 steps toward the taxi, 10 steps before the car bomb exploded. the son, who had dreamed of becoming a military lawyer, is now buried, with bronze star and purple heart, in arlington national cemetery.

in case you missed the father’s words, and the moment he pulled out his pocket-edition of the Constitution, i’ve saved it for you here.

i was covered in a whole other kind of goosebumps when michelle obama took the high road, when she spoke through the lens of a mother, a mother teaching her daughters grace and grit in equal measure, it seems. and joe biden. oh, joe! and the president, as he so often has, had me in tears, streaming-down tears.

night after night, i felt my soul rise, and my heart pick up its pace. the voices and stories, the hands trembling, even the clearing of one history-making throat, all of it drew me in, gave me reason to hope. made me think — in the recounting of deeply intimate stories from mothers of slain sons and daughters, in the rising crescendo of preachers soaked in their own perspiration — that deep in the heart of all of this is a religion not bound by party or nation. it’s the majestic, indomitable, sometimes suffering human spirit, the one that given half a chance will reach for the light, will shimmy toward the crack where the air comes in.

it’s the stories of forgiveness, it’s the stories of wives and children kissing their daddy goodbye one last time, not knowing it was the last, not till later when some terrible knock came to the door, it’s the words pinned to those unforgettable moments, those moments when the human spirit stands to be crushed, but somehow, some way, it’s not. it catches some updraft, finds courage and voice, and rises again. rises to heights it hadn’t imagined.

for the last two weeks, we’ve heard story tumbled atop story. we’ve seen glimpses of the human spirit at its most soaring, and we’ve heard visions that make us tremble in fear. it’s the quadrennial amalgam of hope and awakening. now what we need is plenty of prayer.

which voices, which stories, which moments, are the ones that linger for you? 

(and a point of clarification: the kid who went off to college as president of the new trier young democrats and came home otherwise is not, repeat not, a backer of the republican presidential nominee. the kid is all about reasoned discourse, and deeply held founding principles. his respect is reserved — on both side of the aisle — for those rare few who abide by those immutable pillars of democracy.) 

and, finally, yes i note the irony in just last week saying i don’t write about politics here; i’m trying to thread a very fine needle here, and divine the sacred thread of human triumph and suffering and courage and grace when it’s thrust on a national stage — yes, the national political stage. it’s a belief that beneath the bluster there is something deeply, powerfully human that must be paid serious attention. and i abstain from divisiveness.

photo credits: (top) Josh Haner for the New York Times; (parents of Capt. Humayun Khan) Damon Winter for the New York Times

civility matters

ailes out

i never write about politics here at the chair, and i’m not about to do so now. so let me begin by simply saying that the most hopeful bit of front-page news today was not “above the fold,” as we say in the newspaper biz. rather, it was down below, “below the fold,” in the story you see pictured above.

roger ailes is out at fox news. beneath and beyond that firing there are promises that the culture of that broadcast operation will be examined, and scrubbed. will all the screaming end? will the baseless accusations, the twistings of untruths screech to a halt? i can only hope. but maybe, maybe, it will all be toned down a decibel or five. maybe they’ll find a way to deliver a rightful perspective, a deeply-held position, without resorting to hate mongering and wholesale riddling of heart and soul and reputation.

forge on fox news: call a spade a spade, as you see it. deplore numbers, so long as they’re based on sound study, derived from solid research. express opinion. but, please, employ the art of listening. employ civility.

and stop screaming while you’re at it.

some 10 years ago, perusing the banana aisle in my nearby grocery store, i ran into one of the great newsmen of the day, the former managing editor of the chicago tribune, an ex-marine who wore his shirt sleeves cropped at the biceps, who was known to be more exuberant in his dealings after lunch than before, whose eye for injustice and smarmy dealings was unparalleled (especially when fixed on the dark side of chicago politics). he paused in his own perusal of banana bunches to bark words at me that have stayed with me ever since: “everybody’s talking these days, no one’s listening anymore.”

that’s old news by now, but back when he said it — not long after the explosion of the blogosphere, where anyone who could type could suddenly claim a chunk of cyber-real estate and blather on endlessly — it made me stop and notice. it made me re-up my commitment to the art of listening (back in nursing school, we devoted a whole semester to a course that boiled down to listening, the art thereof.) it made me insist that here at the chair we’d be civil, we’d be kind. and, yes, it made me vow to keep my eye trained on the hearts and souls that are the truth behind even the crustiest of bloviators.

what had always irked me most about fox news wasn’t the point of view, but the gloves-off approach that had one talking head shouting at another. that spewed invective as if cruel words alone would spike the almighty nielsen ratings. and then it wasn’t long till the other cable channels took notice, began to do the same. i can barely watch CNN anymore, for all the shouting, all the overdrive that drowns out half the words.

as cable news fueled the trough, so too did all the divisiveness creep into the u.s. capitol, and statehouses across the land. so too did it creep into online posts and chats, even on pages devoted to common cause or shared geography.

i know, because this isn’t my natural realm, that my words here are too facile, my thoughts not finely chiseled enough, but i’m willing to risk exposure to that criticism to say my heart is crushed — day after day, hour upon hour sometimes — by the rampant disintegration of civility. the swirling down the drain of the art of listening. the understanding that no one wins when we all walk away bruised and bleeding.

if there was one moment in the recent awful primary campaign that broke my heart the most it was the moment i now see played and replayed in one political commercial: the moment where the republican nominee is seen flapping his hands, mocking a reporter with a disability. and doing so in front of a jeering, cheering crowd. have we come to that? and if we have, how much lower can we go?

because i won’t give up on the belief that good outweighs awful, that love can regain ground, i woke up to hope this morning as i heard the news that not only was ailes — a man alleged to have demanded sexual favors in return for job promotion — out as chairman and chief executive, the sons of rupert murdoch (who imagined he’d ever be cast in the hero role?), now at the helm, would be examining the culture ailes had injected, infected into fox, and they’d launch a “wide-ranging overhaul.”

if fox can clean up its act, there’s hope. if just one iota of civility can trickle in, can regain ground…

i’ve been shell-shocked much of these recent weeks. inclined to hole away in my garden. to submit to the song of the wren rather than the bloviations and horrors of the news around me (though my newsier instincts inevitably lure me to the screens, to watch, to read, to try to grasp at least faint outlines). i keep my head down, steer clear of all the tussling and jabbing i find online. i’ve come to think i’m just plain allergic to incivilities.

so if roger ailes is out, it’s one for civility. and decency. and honor. and maybe, just maybe we can regain ground. those of us who fear that all around us toxins fill the air. those of us who will not surrender to incivility, and word by word hold our holy ground.

your thoughts? how do you retrench from incivility? and more essentially how do you sow goodness, kindness, love?

bequest

IMG_7898

bequest n. a legacy bequeathed to someone. 

she bequeathed me a legacy so profound it leaves me breathless, makes my heart pound, and my knees go weak. i’ve yet to cradle it, and carry it home, but yesterday, in a hot apartment that was only sparsely appointed with the artifacts and books she’d spent a lifetime gathering, rooms that stand witness to the dismantling of a life cut short, too short, i sat down with her brother and began to discover a wisp of what awaits my careful curation, my distilling of her wisdom, what will be — i hope and pray — her triumphant valedictory in the form of the book she’d always hoped to write.

she left me, according to the language in her will, her “creative work,” and with it, the sobering responsibility, the hope, to “do her proud,” as my own mama would put it, as my mama did put it, the day my own father was buried and my mother whispered her instruction to their five children huddled at the door, about to step outside and into the long black limousine the funeral home had sent. “do him proud” were the instructions then, to the five children left fatherless and far too young to make much sense of the enormity of the loss. they’re words that have long instructed me, and they instruct me once again: “do her proud.”

we began, my friend’s brother and i, by clicking to her photo album, and there we found the very last photo she had taken, just before she surrendered to the hospital, and, after that, the few short days when she absorbed the unthinkable, that she was dying and would die within the week.

the very last picture, the last time she clicked her camera, was to take a picture of the words you see above, words that read:

“i’m beginning to realise that real happiness isn’t something large and looming on the horizon ahead but something small, numerous and already here. the smile of someone you love. a decent breakfast. the warm sunset. your little everyday joys all lined up in a row.” — beau taplin

i simply stared at first, the intimacy of the moment washing over me.

here i was peeking in on the solitude of her final hours at home, when she was pulled up to her desk, or propped against the pillows on her couch, poring over the internet for words that captured what she knew, what she’d learned and what she’d come to deeply believe. and here, on this one brick wall of wisdom, she’d stopped, pulled out her camera, and clicked. i can’t imagine she imagined it would be only months later when her final frame would be stumbled upon, its every word, one by one, discovered and absorbed. i can’t imagine she imagined that we’d inhale its every breath, its every syllable, as if words — instruction — from beyond.

but that’s what we did.

i read it once, then twice, then i quietly asked her brother if i could take a picture of my friend’s last picture. “of course,” he said.

it will be like this, for weeks and months. maybe even years. i will soon have banker’s boxes filled with her journals, her notes and scribblings. i will have every essay she ever typed and saved. i will retrace the topography of her mind, and travel deeply into her soul. or at least i will find some refracted angle of that soul.

i will extract that which matters most. i will be informed all along the way by an uncanny, unspoken instruction. i will follow as closely as imaginable what i discern is the course she’s laid out for me, for all of us. i know that in her final years she was hellbent on discovering and dispensing the purest path to love, to joy. “a diviner of joy,” were the words that tumbled from my fingers to the screen — my description of her and her life’s work — in the obituary i wrote, at her request, just after she had died.

it would be weeks later till i found out that, in her last will and testament, she’d bequeathed to me that very task: to be the diviner of what she’d found to be the path to joy. to inherit her life’s written work, to pore through it, to extract the shimmering shards of truth and beauty, the ones that will not die. the ones that must be given sunlight and breeze, and lined up, page upon page, for all of us who wonder where to go to find the joy, the peace, the love that we — all of us — so deeply seek.

this morning, once again, the world is weeping. and my task with my dear friend’s truth is more urgent than ever. there is work to do. so much work. and, soon, mine will begin in the stacks and files and boxes and computer that must hold the truth buried deep inside.

bless you, mary ellen, for this gift. i promise here to do you proud, to unearth all that you so carefully laid out for us to find. bless your soul. and thank you.

what’s your path to joy?

and God weeps…

garden weeps

we weep, too.

even the garden this morning is wet with tears.

but the dawn came. and the wren still sings.

and, soon, once i brace myself, i will begin again to watch the news. all night, i worried. you can forget, in the crevices of night, how dark it is. but then, when dawn’s light begins to trickle in, when you begin to stir, and thoughts pick up at the end of the ellipses where you left them, you begin to shudder once again. you can’t quite catch your breath.

the world, you fear, is a whirling cauldron of hatred. you wanted to believe this globe has seen the worst. but you are wise enough to know that you’re a fool to hold such cockamamie notions.

we have jobs to do, each one of us. each one who holds a candle, holds a flame, we cannot let the light go out. can’t let love — and hope — and all those things we pray for, we cannot let them extinguish. we cannot be witness to the last burning ember.

late last night, just before we toddled off to sleep, we heard the latest horrors. snipers in dallas. policemen dead. a peaceful protest shattered. dealey plaza. parkland memorial hospital. the echoes of history swept across the screen. i remember being little, very little, watching scenes from dallas play across another screen. it scared me then. it scares me now. then, i had a papa whose big broad chest harbored me. back then, someone tucked me into bed. told me to say my prayers.

last night, after hours staring at the screen, when at last i drifted off to sleep, the man i love held my hand. the last words i heard before the silence drew me under were the ones he whispered in his prayer: “this world needs your light.”

i’d been soaked in sadness all day long, long before the horror from dallas poured across my screen. the news these days is non-stop reel of horrors. we are privy now to a broad swath of unspeakable sorrows. in one single frame of daylight, we watched men die — bleed to death and moan right before our eyes. and before that i’d been reading of rallies where hateful words are spewed. “hang the bitch.” “kill the bitch.” words so vile i can’t even bring myself to type them. such is the language that flows inside what’s framed as political rally. sounds like halls of hate to me. sounds like someone’s tapped into something redolent of sin, the last thread of civility has been snapped. and all hell is breaking loose. is oozing out, the great metastasis of evil.

and then, news of rooftop snipers. officers down. sirens wail. over and over, we hear the cacophony of rapid-fire weaponry. “something of a national emergency,” the tv anchor told us as the clock struck midnight. “civil war,” the headlines shout this morning (i just peeked).

so, we can follow our first instinct: run and hide, cower in the corner.

but then we might consider a second impulse: get up, and brace ourselves. imagine we’re the front line in a pacifist campaign to not let the evil win. because the truth is, we are the front line. each and every one of us. we’re the ones who hold the flame, who keep it burning. who decide in each and every interaction that we’re not giving in. we’re not spewing one syllable of hate. and — here’s a hard one — we’re not backing away when we’re witness to what’s ugly.

we arm ourselves with the same old equation of love that’s ever been. the one espoused by every holy pilgrim everywhere. flame by flame, we gather light. we counter the narrative of hate by stockpiling ones of love, of courage in the face of assault. we enlist a company of  kindred spirits. we embolden each other to not give up. do not surrender.

just this morning, i’m meeting a friend whose lifework is literally curing cancer. she spends her days bent over a laboratory station, keeping watch on chemical equations that fuel pharmaceutical weaponry that just might belittle cancer. there is reason for hope from her lab, she tells me, though it’s not yet clear whether it’s breast or ovarian cancer that will most certainly run into the wall they’re erecting. either one is fine by me.

that’s how i begin my emboldening, that’s how i don’t give up. i gather saints, one by one. i gather stories, deep breathe their notes of courage. i witness tenderness. i try mightily to embody any wisp of it. i pray. i watch. i weep. i dry my tears, dry the tears of those i love. and then i get to work.

the God i love is weeping. i woke up to a world drenched in all God’s tears.

how will you keep the flame burning, even in the darkness?

finding miss rumphius

miss rumphius

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?

IMG_7816

comings and goings

dining room window

any minute now, the big rumbling moving van will lurch to the curb out front. a flock of muscled men will emerge, the ramp will be erected at a certain angle, and all day long a flurry of boxes and arms and legs and the contents of a life long lived will parade from house to deep dark truck interior, and back again for more.

by day’s end the house will be boxed into cardboard containers, slapped with tape, labeled. it will be hollowed of all but the fading echo of years spent raising boys, three boys, each now a father living far away, soccer cleats and bicycles long emptied from the garage. the tinkling of forks and knives, from all those family dinners, all those dinner parties, silenced. the flickering of candles i watched as recently as last night, snuffed out.

the next door neighbors, after forty-some years, are moving. and in the flow of life, the rhythm of comings and goings, each exit leaves a dent. a carved-out hole. a dimming and a darkness.

while, for the past 14 years, we’ve mostly flowed side-by-side, not been the sort of neighbors where we dash and ring the bell, borrow a cup of sugar here, a splash of merlot there, love grows anyway. the sight of him, bent and shuffling slowly in the yard, puttering with his tomato plants, stooping down to haul away a branch after storms have tossed the trees. the sound of her, warbling in the early morning, when the screens were in the windows, and the windows open, as she warmed her cords, her lungs, her voice, for the church choir, or the swing concert, or just the show tune of the hour. it will all be gone now. moved three miles north, out of sight and out of ear shot. hardly out of heart.

their presence, one i always likened to knowing someone sturdy was pressed against my shoulder, was most days felt when darkness came, and the lights in their kitchen, or the glassed-in study just beyond the picket fence, or those flickering candles at the dining room table, glowed golden against the twilight, against the cloak of night.

there’s a broad-winged window in our dining room, one i see out of the corner of my eye when i’m at the cookstove. i am often at the cookstove toward the end of day, at dinner time, at put-away-the-day time. and that soft burning light through the window panes, through the bramble of bushes, it whispered from next door: we’re home. life is flowing inside our house, too.

i admit to a lifelong imagination animated by the doings inside houses all along the lane, any lane anywhere. i spend time considering the animation of each and every house, of the hours and the duties that bind us, make us more in common than apart. even looking down from clouds, when i fly from here to there, i spy the little towns, especially, and see the lights inside the itty-bitty boxes of the houses, and i wonder who’s inside, who’s stirring sauce at the stove, who’s just getting a phone call that will change everything, who’s all alone.

with the house next door, i didn’t have to imagine too, too much. i knew the players. had come to love the players. over time, you learn things, peel back the stories, allow the bond to build — the new year’s ladies lunch she always hosted; the time we went together to the tracks, put down dollar bills on the horse he assured would win; the day we moved here nearly 14 years ago when she came to the door with a tinfoil-domed platter of the best chocolate chip cookies anyone ate that day, and she looked me in the eye, said, “i think we’ve a lot in common,” and it would be awhile till i realized what she meant was that she, too, was irish catholic, married long ago to a brilliant jewish fellow; they’d trod this interfaith path long before i’d even met the man i would love and marry.

she told me, after years of back and forth at the invisible line that divides our yards out back, about the time her little brother ran in front of the car, and died. right before her eyes. she told me how she up and packed three boys, left behind the house she loved, and moved to england for a time, when her husband was a rising executive and the boss said, “move!”

over time, you learn the heart aches, divine the heroism, the everyday grit that muscles some of us forward, that some days topples others of us. over time, you come to count on the quiet rhythms from the house next door. you learn their ways. how, as soon as the air outside warms to, oh, 78, the air conditioners will begin to hum. and how, come sunday morning, the singer’s warmups will punctuate the chatter of the birds.

over time, their story seeps into yours. you’ve watched her boys come home on weekends to mow the lawn, you’ve watched them marry, and just last night you watched her youngest rock his newborn baby girl to sleep.

life passes while we’re watching. which is why it matters so very much to keep close watch. which is why the practice of paying attention brings riches — and countless wisdoms — to our soul. which is how and why we fall in love, day after day, with those who fill our hours with the hum of their every day.

when we’re watching closely, we get peeks at the human spirit exposed. even when it’s by simple accident of geography that we’re entwined through the light and shadow cast on all the passing hours. when what’s drawn us into each other’s close orbit is the single-digit difference in the address that we call home.

until the big van comes, and we’re left looking into darkness next door.

what are the quiet rhythms of your everyday that you’ve come to count on? who are the ones whose lives have slowly softly seeped into yours, by virtue of geography or habit, the ones whose lives you know through occasional encounters rather than uninterrupted unspoolings, whose presence over time adds up to someone you count on in your own quiet way? what peeks at heroism have you gleaned from those who pass you by on a regular basis? 

and mickey and alicia, we send you off with love. much love….

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 261 other followers