pull up a chair

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

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

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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?

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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….

 

bee balm

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maybe, in a week like this one, being mesmerized by a bumblebee is not so much distraction as act of mercy. for the broken heart. for the heart that cannot quite absorb the rat-a-tat of horrors. for the narratives that began to emerge from the bathroom stalls of a nightclub in orlando, where the scenes painted in the tellings were nearly impossible to fathom. bodies piled atop bodies. playing dead. being dead. not knowing if the body atop you was a dead one. finding out later, it was.

you can see why bumblebees and old roses and the draw of the garden — nodding heads that begged for air, for sunlight, amid a stranglehold of weeds — you can see, perhaps, why, amid this particular week, the hours and the sunlight and the shadow, all lured me in. i couldn’t seem to keep away. i’d plant myself in front of screens: i’d watch, i’d click, i’d read. i’d gasp and gasp again. and then, while i had no intention of doing so, i’d find my toes sliding into muddy garden clogs, i’d find my fingers curled around the necks of clippers, and next thing i knew i was waist-high amid the weeds, snipping my way to clearer, purer oxygen.

it’s the power of the garden in a week like this one. when the balm of sun and breeze might root out the nettles that settle in our soul. when i begin to imagine sighs of relief rising up from flocks of old baptisia (otherwise known as “wild indigo”), because i’ve finally paid attention to the fact that they were suffocating under boughs of runaway lilac. when i might have heard a soft round of applause from the out-of-control clematis that begged for fortitude in the form of twine on which to climb, to reach for the clouds. i have a habit (you’ve just witnessed) of assigning voice and charm and personality to the growing things in my garden, at least i do when i begin to notice they’re out there, straining against the forces — the inattentions — that threaten to do them in. i suppose, truth be told, i tend to garden in two speeds: que sera, sera (whatever will be, will be); and ferociously. this week, ferocious was the speed.

whole spells of time — a morning here, an afternoon there — seemed to be swallowed up in the odd postures and contortions of gardening (no wonder stinky potions rubbed into achy joints are a gardener’s best ally). i seemed to lose whole portions of the day, and finally, the week, wrestling, lassoing, chasing after trespassers, calling beds to order.IMG_7742

and then, the occasional mama wren darted by. or the cardinals commenced a game of catch-me-if-you-can. and then the bumblebee. the zaftig bee in coat of velvet stripe. the bee that practically flies in freeze-frame slo-mo, hovering mid-breeze, playing eenie-meenie-minie-mo perhaps, deciding which tuffet of rose she’ll nuzzle into next. that old bee feasted on the rambling rose for a quarter of an hour (or that’s as long as i managed to keep watch, anyway).

i couldn’t shake the sense, somehow, that i was out there playing hooky, delicious hooky. why, i had books to read. sentences to type. piles of paper on my desk called to me.

but i couldn’t break the spell. the spell of taking time to sink my toes into the deliciousness of a summer’s day. a hot and sweaty day. or a cool and cloudy day. didn’t matter. it was only in the act of whole-body immersion, of flinging my old self into the elements — thorns that scratch, dirt that worms its way under fingernails and toenails, sun that beckons freckles to come out of hiding — that i was able to find a way to untangle the brokenness of my heart, to put a breath of pure soft air back into my lungs.

of course i know — full well — that it’s all just distraction. but somehow, deep in the ministrations of gardener to garden, of human hands to tender growing things, i found a way to exercise an urge to heal, to fix, to chase away the hurt, the ugliness, that had descended on the planet. day after day, hour upon hour, there comes darkness in forms we can’t imagine. and so we’re left with the scant few things we know, to bring back light. to sow seeds of tenderness and love. of holiness, perhaps.

to lose a day, or a week, upside down or sideways in the garden, is to find a thread that just might stitch us close to whole again. or at least steady us enough to tumble forward. till the next bee buzzes along. and once again we’re swept away by wonder, antidote to that which leaves us broken.

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mrs. bee has at the old and succulent rose.

what’s your healing thread, when you find yourself in tatters? 

summer’s clubhouse

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when i was little, summer commenced when martha hackney and i would take to the woods. or the cardboard box cupboard. a boggy wood stretched between our two houses, complete with babbling brook, and stepping stones, and a pond we named “green,” because it was carpeted in teeny-tiny french knots of muck. if we’d inspected with magnifying spectacle, we’d likely have noticed they were lilliputian lily pads, perches for froglets the size of half your pinkie. once in a while, we’d stretch out on a log and inspect. and try not to plop in (for that would certainly lead to tuberculosis. or worse. so we feared in our nine-year-old minds).

i can’t remember a summer in which martha and i did not devote every waking hour to the construction of one of our clubhouses. the woodsy variety. or the ones where we spent hours upon hours with scissors and glue and snippets of fabric, and leftover rolls of wallpaper, too. and boxes. boxes by the boxload. we upholstered. we carpeted. we strung make-believe lights. we made resplendent rooms for our miniature dolls. we daydreamed the day away, hands smudged with glue.

perhaps those are the roots of my summer-y inclination to tuck away in a spot that’s away from it all. under a willow tree might be ideal. but i’ve no babbling brook near this old shingled house where, more often than not, i’m the one in charge of flipping grilled cheese and stoking the fridge. so the clubhouse i call my own is the one at the end of a short winding walk, a brick walk that leads from the house through the garden to the slapping screen door. there, just inside, is a steep-ceilinged room, one with a fan that undulates the summer’s breeze. and old wicker chairs, ones i once scooped from the alley (yes, i did; rescuing the flock from unseemly demise), tucked to one side, while an old wobbly door, perched on four legs, now makes for a wobbly table.

IMG_7681we call it the summer house, for that’s what the real estate lady once called it. it’s a name with far more pizazz than really it musters. if you don’t mind a rip in your screens, if flaky paint from the chairs doesn’t bother you, if a teetering dinner plate doesn’t ruffle your feathers, well, then, we have a room for you.

IMG_7682this week, in a week that might be labeled “intensive care” (for the task of the week was intensively caring for one un-done heart), it’s the place to which i skittered away. i carried my load of summer reading. i settled my bum in the old wicker seats. and before i could turn a single page, i was wholly absorbed in the magic of that odd little place. a mama wren flitted in and out of the birdhouse (she was tending her thimble-sized brood, delivering wren-sized delectables on a quarter-hourly basis). a cardinal paid me no mind, heralding the dawn, and later, the twilight.

a place to escape is a critical place. a place that, perhaps, no other season so offers. but summer, after all, demands it. promises it. it’s the one time of year when you can stretch out your legs, cross your ankles, and know you’re doing your duty: you’re summering. however you define it.

for me, summering is a verb with pages to turn. it’s sipping slowly from tall sweaty vessels of lemony water. it’s slapping away mosquitoes, and keeping watch for the firefly. it’s taking time out and not feeling guilty. it’s feeling like friday afternoon stretches for days. it’s relishing: a balsa wood baskets of berries; fat spears of asparagus charred from the grill; a book i don’t want to end; daybreak with a hot mug of coffee; mama wren enchanting with her motherly duties; nightfall with a flute of prosecco.

it’s the one time of year that begs us to savor the succulence. to consider the high art of nonchalance and lull without purpose. it’s the deep down knowing that if you’re turning a page, staring into the distance, or keeping watch on a wren, you are more than doing your job. you’re inhaling the whole of the blessing, the one that now is upon us: welcome to summer.

how do you define summering? and what’s your tucked-away spot?

summer starts here lemonade

rail riders

swamp king

“swamp king surveys his realm”

it was one of those ideas that tumbled into place. the two of them — one intrepid, the other more than willing to follow — would set out on uncharted adventure. road trip, in the first iteration. brotherly road trip. but then, suddenly, as was the case long ago in one boy’s history, the rails beckoned. the city of new orleans, in particular beckoned. that’s the name of the rail line, the legendary rail line, as well as the crescent city itself.

a line made famous when steve goodman penned the song, and arlo guthrie, and willie nelson, and john denver covered it. a song that burrows into your brain waves and takes a few days to shake itself out. goodman wrote that “i’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” but really it’s 924, give or take a twist in the tracks, from chicago to nawlins, meandering along the mighty mississippi.

and so, with a few clicks of the computer, tickets were had, bags were stashed with the few things a boy needs, and the days between soccer weekends were suddenly filled with visions of beignet and po’ boy and, because their grammy insisted, praline. old dear friends who know new orleans like the back of their hand, they dispatched guides to the back alleys and tucked-away treasures. and how perfect that a friend we love just happens to be restaurant critic/food writer for the new orleans times-picayune and, occasionally, the new york times, where his prose lures millions, i’m certain, to the eateries of his adopted metropolis.

we set out to union station monday night, where, according to the amtrak website, the dining car, the famed dining car that boasted of jambalaya and red beans and rice, it would welcome sleeping-car riders a full hour before departure. they’d be clinking forks and knives against china plates, sipping from crystal goblets, as soon as the sleek engine lurched out of the station, through the shadows of a city being drained of its daylight. or so they had every reason to think.

until we got to the counter where they check the tickets. and the lady barked, “oh no. not anymore. that website needs update. all they have now is express meals.”she went on to say the meals were “awful,” went on to explain that she was talking about pre-made sandwiches zapped in a microwave. she advised a trip to the train-station food court before boarding. and i saw the glimmer drain out of two pairs of eyes. i saw a jaw drop, i swear. but that lasted only an instant. they were set for adventure, and a boxed set of bread and cold meat couldn’t derail this duo.

we dashed up the escalator to scoop up the last helping of chicken fried rice, as the vendor closed shop for the night, then we grabbed two stale bagels for the price of one, an end-of-day deal at the bake shop. then, kisses all around, and hopes for the best.

the brothers were off.

the mother and father, not used to this absence of children, motored away. worried, if truth be told (and it always is around here). one or two of the boys was showing sign of distress. one with brewing case of heat stroke, a case that only started to surface the nearer we got to the station.

and, as is often the case in these parts, the narrative plot grows thick with unanticipated turns. so much for unadulterated joy ride.

it started out semi-comically enough when the door to their sliver-sized sleeper car decided to lock behind them as they set off for the dome car. took a train engineer, a dining car waitress named joy-ann, a porter, and a crow bar to get the door unlocked — more than half an hour later — amid a chorus of “never saw this before, not in 35 years working the train. door’s not supposed to do that.”

then, as night fell across the central illinois farmland, the heat stroke of the little one — the one who’d been up for soccer at 5 o’clock that morning, and had played two games on a field that shimmered with 100-degree heat — it got worse and worse, and he got sicker and sicker.

and if you think it’s hard to tend to the sick when they’re splayed out on the couch right before your eyes, you can double the duress when they’re on a train headed south, and you’re stuck home, farther and farther away by the minute. yes, there was a midnight phone call. or two. and yes, there were more in the morning. took the whole of a day before the kid could guzzle enough to slow his breathing, quell his tummy, and stop seeing stars.

and all along a brotherly miracle was underway. each one worried about the other, so much so that every time i talked or texted, the only thing they wanted to talk about was their concern for the other guy. and then, not long after hitting rock bottom, things turned around. i don’t yet know all the details, because as i type they’re rolling home through illinois farm fields, having left behind memphis, and mississippi’s delta, and the swamps and bayou of louisiana.

all i know is that they packed in as much as humanly possible in the 24 hours both were upright and breathing. i know there were po’ boys of various renditions, and something called “snoballs” that turned one of their tongues deep midnight blue for the whole of a day and a night, “no matter how many times i brushed my tongue, mom.” i know there were fried oysters, and an old man on a trolley who filled them with stories and a wallop of wisdom. i know they felt something “sacred” at preservation hall, where the jazz wailed deep into the night. and i know they warmed mightily to the slow southern pace. and the charms of the characters they gathered, like souvenirs, all along the way.

and more than anything, i know they got each other through one of those very tight tunnels, the kind where you can’t see the light at the end. and all you can do is hope and pray and wheedle each other forward.

we set them off on the rails in the hopes that they’d seal their holy blessed year with a cajun-steeped hallelujah, of the summery sort. we hadn’t thought one would be nurse to the other. weren’t anywhere near to witness where and how they discovered the magic. all that matters, though, is they figured it out. they fended for each other. one led, and one followed. and then the tables were turned. as is the way on any zydeco dance floor. as is the way in any life well loved.

welcome home, sweet boys. i missed you.

i love that photo above, “swamp king surveys his realm,” snapped by the older one — photo by will kamin, the credit would read — as they rode the rails home. the one in the photo, aka “swamp king,” was feeling infinitely better by then, the magic of nawlins indeed.

have you taken a trip that turned into far more of an adventure than you’d plotted? and what are the life lessons you carried home?

the day we decided to hatch an egg

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alleys are not where you want to drop your egg. alleys, being back-of-the-way ribbons of potholed pavement, are where kids learn to ride bikes, where cars and pickup trucks rumble along, where trash is dumped into cans (except when the wind blows, and the trash up and escapes from the cans, tuck-pointing the backways in detritus). alleys, too, are the connective tissue between one block and the next. in our alley, we have the occasional gathering. we swap tales of tomatoes. we chase runaway cats and fluffy dogs. we’ve even had summer theatre, right there in the alley.

truth is, the alley is very much a place of everyday business.

and so it was, as i was ambling down the alley the other day, to catch up on neighborhood news, when down i glanced and saw what at first looked like a mushroom. a mushroom sprouted right there on the dark gray asphalt. how very odd. what a curious mushroom. thank goodness, my first impulse wasn’t to kick, but rather to squat and inspect.

the mushroom, i soon realized, was something i’d never before held in my hand. ever. it was a wee tiny egg, a bird’s egg. not cracked, not one little bit. (an astonishing fact, considering it had plopped from the sky to the hard plane of the alley.) it was perfect and whole and, by the relative weight of it, enfolding the start of a little bird life.

right away i looked up, scanned the limbs and the heavens. figured a mama bird must be searching high and low for that egg, that egg i had suddenly, unsuspectingly, come upon. the egg that — i swiftly decided — now depended on me. like that, i scooped up the orb, all spotted with paint dabs of earthy brown. i marveled at the backwash of palest blue, a blue i quickly decided only God would have in God’s paint pot.

and then i ran, cradling that shell that harbored a wee little life. i ran and did what i do whenever there’s a nature emergency: i dialed the original mother nature, my very own mama.

days later, and i am still chuckling about the first words that spilled and the instructions that followed. in the annals of my mama’s story, there will be long litanies of these tales, the times she all but insisted we make like a mama rabbit/bird/squirrel and save the poor darlings. get up through the night. find a small dropper. lay rags in a shoebox, make it all soft.

and so it was with this latest dropping from heaven.

her instruction unfurled without pause. it went nearly verbatim like this: “you’ll have to pretend you’re mama bird. make a nest. get something soft, a rag, a towel, an old shirt. go outside and get some grass. oh! this is exciting! get a lightbulb. it’ll need to stay warm. oh, but will we be able to feed it once it hatches? but, oh, just to watch it happen!”

while i whirled about the house, grabbing soft rags, dispatching the boys to fetch grass by the fistful, my mama got to work identifying said egg. at first, she suspected a brown-headed cowbird. “they don’t build nests,” she informed, “they drop their egg in someone else’s nest.” or in the alley, apparently. then, she revised her hypothesis. decided it was probably a sweet little house finch, as i have droves of those flitting about my yard.

220px-Horton_hatches_the_eggand that’s when the kid who’s 6-foot-3 wondered aloud if he should make like horton, the elephant of dr. seuss fame who faithfully hatches an egg. the elephant tricked into incubatory role when mayzie the mama bird flits off to palm beach, leaving behind a tree-top orphan. horton the elephant who famously intones: “i meant what i said, and i said what i meant. an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!”

alas, we can’t claim 100-percent faithfulness at our house (nor did my firstborn decide to squat on the egg), i am chagrined to admit. we stuck with it for awhile, an admirable while. but then, night fell, and with it, shadow. we couldn’t figure out how to rig up a bulb, without frying said egg, so we’d been skootching the egg, and its makeshift nest, from sun spot to sun spot. i felt my heart drop, more than a wee little bit, when i finally surrendered. when i realized i’d not be the adopted house-finch mama.

and while i now have a beautiful breathtaking wonder tucked on my nature tableau, i also have this: one more lesson from mama nature, the very one who birthed me. the one who all my life has been trying to teach this one holy truth: be vigilant. be undaunted. be the caretaker of wonder. it’s all around. and every once in a while God will tap you on the heart, and ask you to be its midwife.

midwife of wonder, one blessed calling.

what are your favorite tales of times you heeded the call, to be midwife, co-pilot, first lieutenant of wonder? 

a prayer for beginnings and endings

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it’s whirling all around me, the beginnings and endings. mostly the endings.

on the leafy lane where i live, house after house has sprouted those signs they post around here, graduation signs. “congratulations 2016 grad!” the signs trumpet. and the kids who live in those houses, they were four, holding their mama’s hand, toddling down the puddled sidewalk, shyly peeking out from under a big yellow rain hat, the day i met the first of the flock. just yesterday, i thought. yet somehow, in the pancaking of time, they’ve learned to read and pedal bicycles, they’ve gripped hands to the wheel, stolen first kisses, broken bones and borne concussions. and now, they’re practicing “pomp and circumstance.” could it be 14 years later?

and in this old house, one will be awake any minute, gulping down one last hour of geometry infusion, taking two more finals today, leaving only one straggler exam for monday. and the big kid, the one who now refers to himself as, “a retired teacher, retired at almost 23,” he’s wrapped up his very last round of trying to teach kids to read. he and i sat side-by-side the other night, pored over the papers he’d hauled home, the ones with the questions he’d asked his kids to answer, in the very last class, before they piled paper plates with flamin’ hot cheetos, and cooled the flames with juice box upon juice box. turned out it was a lesson in all the questions that matter: what’s your favorite memory, what are you most proud of, what does it mean to live a good life, what kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

the answers humbled both of us, the kid who’d wondered all year if he was teaching anything, and me, the mama who always knew he was. what most kids called their favorite memory was “when we were all on the floor, and the school got shot.” (or some variation on that school-shooting theme.) one kid was most proud that he’d “learned to read more better.” and then we got to the humdinger of a last question, the one that asked the kids to dip deep into their souls and pull out the rough draft of a dream.

in answer to the question what does it mean to live a good life, a seventh-grader (one well-versed in the echo of gunshot) wrote: “to be able to live life instead of not living at all.” a kid whose dad is in prison wrote: “i wants to be a wealthy person to provide for his family.” and a kid who’s scored a high-school scholarship and a national champion football ring wrote: “i want to live life with a dream.” a sixth-grader, though, might have said it most clearly: “it’ll be no killing.”

the kindergartener who tells anyone who asks that her daddy and her uncle fell down and died “when they tripped over their legs,” (they must not have told her guns were involved last summer and the summer before when the two were gunned down) she simply wrote: “i love you, mr. k.”

and so, school years are over, whole chapters have ended. careers (that short-lived teaching career) have come to a close. and job interviews lie ahead. so, too, do emails telling of roommates, and dorm assignments, and start dates for jobs. and lots and lots of soggy goodbyes.

so on this birth of a day when so much is ending, i’ll whisper these words, and offer them boldly up to the heavens…

first and always, thank you, dear God, for keeping them — all of them — safe. specifically, for each and every drive back and forth on streets where guns aren’t foreign, aren’t far away, where jersey barriers and plain-clothes cops (guns drawn) have been known to block the route. thank you for steering that bullet clear of anyone’s flesh the day it shattered the  schoolroom window, bounced off a pipe, and dropped to the hard tile floor of the preschool classroom. and thank you, while i’m at it, for inspiring my firstborn to ask those questions that might have given him a peek at the little bit of difference it made for him to stick it out till the end of the year, and not abandon the classroom. not even on the days when a second-grader pushed another clear down the stairs, or the pair of sixth-graders devised a science experiment, the one where they shoved their pinkie fingers straight into the electric socket to see what would happen. and not on the day the fourth-grader called him a name you wouldn’t want a kid to know. and not on the day when the fifth-grader punched him — hard — in the gut.

thank you for the hours when you gave them strength, all of them. the days when the soccer coach picked the other kid, the day when the test they’d hoped to ace came back not even close. the day when the job that somebody wanted was already filled.

thank you for the wisps of kindness that softened their days. thank you for the rare few times when i might have unearthed just the right thing to say. when i answered the phone, drove to the schoolhouse door without grumbling, and knew once in a while that the holiest sound i could make was the silence of listening, just listening.

thank you, too, for the joys. for the love birthed in somebody’s heart, and the delight of watching him tenderly bake her a batch of congratulations cookies. and ice them, to boot. each one inscribed with a word or a phrase that signaled their shared secret script.

thank you for the undeniable fact that they surround themselves with very fine friends. friends there in a pinch. friends whom the little one says, “make me a better person.” and friends who thought nothing of flying in for the weekend, halfway across the country, simply because it’s the place my other kid calls home (or at least this year he does).

thank you for the dinners that left the kitchen looking like a battalion rolled through. and thank you for the quiet dinners for four, especially the ones when no one minded the leftovers. thank you — yes, thank you — for the chance to pack two lunches again. and thank you, mightily, that the last one of the year has been packed. the pb & j, retired for the summer. or at least my spreading knife in it.

thank you for all of this, always. thank you for the blessing of pause. of paying attention to cusps, of beginnings and ends. thank you more than anything for this latest whirl around your radiant sun. i know i’m sated. i’m shining.

and what’s in your prayer for beginnings and endings? 

and happy blessed graduation, birthday, end-of-final-exams, whatever is your beginning or ending of choice on this glorious day in may…..

a p.s. about the little bouquet up above: when i was little, the height of springtime pluckings was the gathering up of plain old violets, and heavenly send-me-to-the-moon lily-of-the-valley. in a bow to those bouquets of long ago, i plucked up a little fistful. if i’d not stumbled on a prayer, i might have mused on those. instead, i simply tucked them atop the prayer. a fitting may altar. 

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