some weeks, it feels like the crank on the faucet is wide open and what comes surging forth is akin to fire hydrant velocity. it just keeps coming, the news, bad and good and all in between. this was one of those weeks where i could barely steady myself between one and another. it started with a phone call, early monday morning, from an emergency room. someone i love was calling, crying, needed me and needed me fast. that’s pretty much all that mattered this week. but of course it was only the beginning of the cascade of 1,001 other thoughts, decisions, realities.
somewhere in there good news came too. and somewhere in there i got my second Moderna COVID vaccine.
seems these long months of COVID, of unnatural tethering to dorm rooms and home turf, of worries that you’ve been exposed, of navigating degrees of caution and leniency, it’s worn most of us ragged. i worry most about kids whose lives are disproportionally filled with histories of dark american chapters: kids born in the shadow of 9/11; kids who might never live a valentine’s day without remembering parkland and the unending video of high schoolers with hands over their head filing out from the building once the coast was clear, helicopters ominously hovering just over the school rooftop; kids who’ve now spent two years of college looking over their shoulder, submitting to swabs up their nose every few weeks, kids with no clue of an all-campus party.
sometimes i wish the world would break forth in birdsong, in pastel petal, in tenderly unfurling leaves. sometimes i wish we could breathe all that in, feel steadied, feel braced, feel fresh air in our lungs. isn’t it genius, then, that should we bother to look out the window, should we bother to lace on our shoes, it’s all right there, ready to take our worn-ragged selves and fill us with those quiet healing balms that stitch us together again?
we need this springtime, and the summer that follows, the slow, steady summer, the season of indolence. we all need a break from the rush and the roar of the news and the heartbreak.
we need to all catch our breath. and stockpile joys for a minute or two.
because this poem always rights me, i offer naomi shihab nye’s “kindness”….
KINDNESS by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
how do you steady yourself in the weeks when the hydrant is gushing?
i feel intense need for silence, as is so often my posture on this day of sorrows. no desire to add my voice to the cacophony. i turn instead to the voice of caryll houselander, a mystic and twentieth-century british catholic writer, who referred to herself as a “rocking horse catholic.” the title of her biography, written in 1962 by maisie ward (of the famous publishing house Sheed and Ward), is “that divine eccentric.”
i’ve always found the eccentric to be especially poignant. in the nooks and shadows of their beyond-the-boundaries ways of seeing, it seems the sacred makes itself especially at home.
houselander might have been eccentric, but she stirs the soul for me. i pull her The Way of the Cross off the shelf every Holy Week. i remember well the first time i stumbled onto her stations of the cross; “the way of sorrows” is how she refers to the long dusty ascent of jesus to the hill upon which he would die. would be nailed to a cross, stripped, speared, shamed.
her words gripped me so completely that first time, alone in a church on a dark gray Good Friday, and they’ve never ever let go. they bring good friday, the way of sorrows, to life for me, year after year. and it’s a place i choose to go, a dusty trail i am compelled to enter into, to follow footfall by footfall, year after year.
in the depth of sorrow — so many sorrows — i find an open wound of the heart for the one who stumbled up the hill, the one who fell not once but thrice, the one who called out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” as the last bitter taste of the vinegar, put to him on the end of a stick, swirled over his tongue.
in reading even more of houselander this year, she makes the point that for most of his life jesus was hidden. little is known of his childhood, little is known of his life before he was 30 and stepped into the public square, where he preached in parable, healed the broken, toppled the hypocrites. she writes how he often dispatched alone into the desert to pray. how even on the eve of his crucifixion, he left behind his closest soulmates, went deep — and alone — into the garden of gethsemane to beg for this cup to be passed from him.
houselander, a deeply empathetic eccentric, writes how part of the trial — little mentioned but certainly deeply real in that awful moment of time —was how this paradoxically private soul was stripped of his deeply private self.
he was exposed, made public property. stripped naked before the whole world, not only in body but in mind and in soul. to reveal not only his love, but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity. “all his secrets were out,” houselander writes. i think long and hard about that exposure. i am thinking of that as i turn the page and read deeper into the way of sorrows.
she writes: “he is a man of sorrows. he is covered in bruises and stripes. he is made a laughing stock.”
i ask: how many of us have been made laughing stocks?
how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces?
how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt?
“his face is covered with spittings.”
how many of us have ever been spit upon?
“he is bound like a dangerous criminal.”
how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal?
“his friends have forsaken Him.”
how many of us have felt a friend do the same?
“the kiss of treason burns on His cheek.”
how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?
i leave you, quietly, with two of caryll houselander’s prayers from The Way of the Cross:
“Lord, that I may see!”
“…Let me recognize You not only in saints and martyrs, in the innocence of children, in the patience of old people waiting quietly for death, in the splendor of those who die for their fellow men; …
“Let me know You in the outcast, in the humiliated, the ridiculed, the shamed; in the sinner who weeps for his sins. …”
and, this, from the moment along the way of sorrows when a woman named veronica, a compassionate woman, burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus, and wiped his face, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was. this is houselander, with her own pleadings inspired by veronica:
give me Your eyes
to discern the beauty of your face,
hidden under the world’s sorrow.
give me the grace
to be a Veronica;
to wipe away
the ugliness of sin
from the human face,
and to see
Your smile on the mouth of pain,
Your majesty on the face of dereliction,
and in the bound and helpless,
the power of Your infinite love.
Lord take my heart
And give me Yours.
“Jesus is mocked” is one of the downloadable Stations of the Cross, by Scott Erickson. featured in Image Journal, for his “Stations in the City” project, posted around the streets of Portland, OR. He writes: “I think the stations are for everyone, no matter your religious affiliation, because they are a meditation on being human, so I wanted people to see them without the hurdle of having to enter a religious space.”
illustration above: Botanical illustration of the Zizyphus Spina Christi, the thorny bush thought to have been used for the crown of thorns placed on Jesus on that first long-ago day of crucifixion, from A pictorial commentary on the Gospel according to Mark, with the Text of the Authorized and Revised Version, (1881) by Edwin W. Rice.
my questions are in the litany above, the echoes to houselander’s cries….
how many of us have been made laughing stocks? how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces? how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt? how many of us have ever been spit upon? how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal? how many of us have felt forsaken? how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?
i believe, like Erickson, the artist above, that regardless of religious affiliation, the Stations of the Cross in so many ways are a meditation on being human, and into that holy and intimate space, i enter….
from a distance, that is from this side of the windowpanes, where i tend to stand huddled in layers of wraps, it all looks like a matrix of unenlightened brown sticks. these are the weeks when winter has ground us down to particular dust. the pandemic, too. even with a shot in the arm we’re not exactly lying by the side of the pool, sipping our lemony-ades. the name for this stretch of the year might easily be mistaken for bleak.
but then, as i did this morning, you spy a runaway screen from an upstairs window, one that’s worked itself loose and taken a short hop skip and a jump off the roof and landed in the boughs of the trees. so, you, as i did this morning, you climb into your muck-about clogs, you haul out a ladder and you fetch the runaway part of your house. and while you’re out there, while you’re the wacky neighbor lady out climbing ladders at dawn, chasing after screens in the trees, you begin to notice things.
you notice that, once you’ve hauled out your magnifying lens, it’s not really all bleak. there is gazillions of action out there. why, there are sweet little clasps of leaves, gathered in prayer. and there are frilly umbrellas of green rising up from the detritus of winter.
and, like any self-respecting payee of attention, you start to put two and two together, and you start thinking maybe you could pick up a thing or two from this quiet explosion erupting from dear planet underground. maybe it’s not so bleak after all. maybe this is the season of quiet delight. maybe the starting all over again is kicking into high gear. maybe the same old same old is about to slow to a crawl, and one day soon this will all be but another badge on our we-survived-even-this sash. we’ll be sitting around in our rocking chairs, swapping tales of remember-the-year-we-were-afraid-to-touch-our-groceries? remember the year no one came home for christmas? remember the year we all sat down at our sewing machines and stitched together swatches of cotton or t-shirt, stuffed vacuum cleaner filters into the pockets?
the miracle is we’ve lived, the just-by-chance ones among us who weren’t done in by the terrible, horrible, awful red virus. i wasn’t there on the front lines, where friends of mine who are nurses and doctors faced it head on, walked into the dirge of it, day after day. i hope, for the life of me, we never forget what heroes they were, and how even the checkers at the grocery store had to dig down for a brand of courage they never thought would be part of the job of stacking cans on shelves, or ringing my celery over their scanner. and every time i read a story of someone felled by it, i look around and realize this world has lost one more incredible one-of-a-kind miracle. maybe reading all the obits is in the oddest of ways a reminder that lurking behind the facades of all the anonymous anyones we pass every day, there is inside a story of glorious wonder that might put us all in our places. maybe it’s why, once upon a time, i loved to be asked to write someone’s obit. because each and every someone has a story to tell. a story to make you sit up in your chair and take notice.
it’s not too unlike the scene out my window. from a distance it all looks bleak and windblown and soggy. but when you bend down to the ground, take a close look, you see something utterly beautiful. you see even the dew gathered in drops at the ends of each leaf. and you remember that life asks over and over again: open your eyes, open your heart, beauty abounds.
what’s some of the beauty you’ve noticed? on your knees or otherwise?
and while i’m here, a string of birthdays of aries who’ve twice had to blow out birthday candles during pandemic: happy birthday to two of my most beloveds, tomorrow and sunday, sweet P and auntie M, who i think were born back to back to emphatically wondrously remind me how glorious it is to be alive in the same span of time as the two of them. double blessing squared. and to dear amy’s papa who is turning 96 today. i don’t even know him, but i adore everything i know about him, and oh we are blessed to know of his sweet and everlasting presence here on this earth.xoxoxoxoand huge blessings to a sweet baby boy born in san francisco yesterday, and to his mama who is starting this glorious adventure she has sooooooooooooooo long awaited. blessings abound. xox
i remember walking the halls of my high school, tucking a day’s worth of worries into my backpack. i might have bumped into tears in the girls’ bathroom (for that’s what it was called back then). i might have noticed someone slam a fist to a locker. or leaned in to listen while threading my way through the throngs in the halls. i’d sit in my bedroom at night, tucked between the two twin beds, sprawled on my old braided rug, and one by one, i’d scribble a note, cut out a heart from construction paper, try to put words to all of the heartache, and the next morning i’d make like the valentine fairy and deliver each one. it was my earliest rendition of keeping a prayer list.
gathering up the heavy hearts of the day is what it means to live and breathe on this planet. we hoist up each other’s loads, to try to shoulder the ache in the hearts of the people we love. in the aches we just happen to hear about. and we don’t put them down till the darkness has lifted, has shuttled off to the distance.
i’m thinking about prayer lists because once again i found someone’s very big worry this week. and my heart, like hers, is now hurting. i’ve no idea really if taking on worry is something like taking on water. if now two boats are low in the lake, and that’s the whole of it, or if my taking on a bucket or two of hers might actually buoy hers even an inch. i’ll go with the inch. i do know that in my own hours of barely being able to breathe it sure helped to have someone ping me, let me know they were squeezing my hand from afar, reminding me every once in a while to remember to take a deep breath.
in the world where i grew up, prayer lists were as common as the alphabet. you heard about a heartache, you scribbled it onto your list. recited it every night before dinner, and when you dropped to your knees at bedtime. when it was really bad, a gargantuan worry, you called up the rectory and asked the church secretary to please scribble “special intention” onto the list. sometimes it felt like your whole pocket was filled with a long string of beads, one for each worry.
or maybe i was just raised by world-class worriers, and i learned early on that there are certain things that wrinkle your brow, that make you stare into the faraway. and that prompt you to scribble a name on a list, and stick it onto the fridge under a magnet. in the world i grew up in, worries weren’t simply invisible. worries showed up in pencil on paper.
i can’t imagine not worrying. but maybe to worry is another name for “to care.” to bump up against the hard edge of our superpowers, and see there’s a cliff and we can’t go one step farther, not even an inch. which is where the prayers swoop in. which is where we throw up our arms, and look toward the clouds, because a hundred thousand years ago someone might have mentioned that that’s where the angels hang out. but, honestly, truly, those are just motions. the point is we knead into our hearts, into the very core of our breathing, the clear and certain intention of the someone we know, or the someone we love, who is bearing an impossible burden. and life sure would be easier if we were all out pushing each other’s wheelbarrows. if we all gathered round, 1-2-3 hoist!, and did what we could to carry their loads for even a minute.
so, for my faraway friend who i love very much, i turned to one of the saints i met in my life, a very, very tall and glorious soul who once folded himself into the brown-plaid front seat of my little brown toyota corolla. his name was john o’donohue, and at the time he was a priest, a priest with a brogue (the very best sort), and a poet with a soul so big you felt like you could climb right in it. he was in the business of putting words to the flickers and blips of the heart that escape most everyone else on the planet. but he had telepathies and poetries inside him, and he wrote like nobody else’s business.
this is the blessing — the beannacht — he wrote for his mother. it’s nearly famous now, but it’s so very beautiful, and it captures nearly every last drop of the wobbles and soft spots that come when life hits the skids.
this is for my friend who i love, from a poet i call a most blessed friend, an anam cara, or soul friend, a concept my poet friend made a little bit famous because he wrote a book all about it.
a beannacht from john o’donohue, God rest his soul; born on a new year’s day, he died in his sleep the night after january 3, in 2008, just barely 52.
On the day when the weight deadens on your shoulders and you stumble, may the clay dance to balance you.
And when your eyes freeze behind the grey window and the ghost of loss gets into you, may a flock of colours, indigo, red, green and azure blue, come to awaken in you a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays in the currach of thought and a stain of ocean blackens beneath you, may there come across the waters a path of yellow moonlight to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours, may the clarity of light be yours, may the fluency of the ocean be yours, may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life.
what are the lines you recite when you are carrying the worries of someone you love?
here’s my long-ago tribune story about the day i spent with the blessed poet, which just so happens to have run in the paper on st. paddy’s day, in 1999. so it’s fitting for this week, 22 years later. egad.
out of the blue the other afternoon, an email pinged into my otherwise unbroken hours of writing. the email was “inviting” me to sign up for one of those needles in the arm we’ve all been waiting for for ever, it seems. i played along, clicking the box i was supposed to click, fully expecting i’d land on a page that apologized for being already full, telling me to check again later. after all, i’d been clicking for the past four or more weeks for my 90-year-old mother (hello, vaccine gods, did you read that?!?! i said NINETY…), and getting polite apologies and no appointments every time. so why in the world would my mother’s MUCH younger daughter slip-slide into a slot? well, the universe is sometimes senseless, so i scored a slot, without barely enough time to figure it out.
and, as of 9-something yesterday morning, i am one of the Modernas. and as of about 1 something yesterday afternoon, i started to feel rather, um, vaccinated. as in there was some sort of little army inside me and it was strapping on its combat boots and shaking things up on its way into action. it seems to have been a rather bumpy beginning. i could have climbed out of bed at 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 to type this, as i’ve spent the night watching the little numbers on my clock count uphill.
the getting the shot was truly joyous. the nurse who ushered me into what had been a labor-and-delivery room at the old lake forest hospital (yes, i loved that my COVID vaccine was unfolding a room where generations of patrician little babies first breathed), she was so joyous, waving her arms in the air, tears in her eyes, i asked if i was her very first vaccine. oh, no, she replied, it was just that she’d spent months sticking swabs up noses and “putting out fires,” and she was now beyond thrilled, she reported, to be sticking needles in arms, “keeping the fires from starting.” i stuck out my arm. as i closed my eyes to whisper a prayer, she said one aloud. a really sweet one. one that melted my heart. i would have hugged her before i left but i can’t do that for six more weeks.
which brings us to the big number. six weeks. six weeks till I Day, that’s Immunity Day. six weeks. i feel something like the groundhog who peeks out from his peephole only to discover his shadow, so he leaps back down the hole. after all this time in the hole, i can’t say that i’m charging to climb back out, start running in circles. it’s a curious thing how we humans get used to the status quo, and for some of us, no change comes without a bump in the road.
i know i won’t mind the not being afraid. won’t mind not washing the groceries, as if they’re shrouded in cooties, and should i fail to shake one off, they’ll grow into red-ringed monsters right there in my fridge or my pantry. i won’t mind knowing my boys can live the life i’d sometimes taken for granted, and i mean the quotidian parts, the picturing one of them huddled with teammates on the frisbee field, picturing the other one pulling out a chair at a table in a restaurant that’s new and filled with adventure. i wonder if we can hold onto the relishing, if we can not grow numb once again to life’s unbelievable pleasures: the feel of someone’s head on your shoulders, running into someone’s arms, drying the tears of someone you barely know. simple acts of empathy, the up-close kind, the kind that have been against the rules all these months.
last night the president told us to start dreaming of red, white, and blue. imagine independence day. imagine lemonade stands on the sidewalk, and offering glasses to whomever walks by. imagine the fireworks, of a nation out from under its mushroom caps. imagine the rocket’s red glare when we look in the rear-view mirror at the red-ringed pestilent.
truth is, there are quiet parts of this equation that i’ve relished. and i hope i can hold onto some of that, without checking myself in to the nearest tall-walled monastery. and that’s why the six-week mushroom cap is a very fine thing. a little like waiting for spring for mr. groundhog. i can nestle into my hole here for a little while longer, start thinking about how it’ll be, and how to get used to a world where if i want to, i can take your hand and squeeze it tightly. or throw my arm round your shoulders. or lean in and whisper a secret. and i won’t have to wash down the sack of coffee beans to make you a fine cup of coffee.
bless the ones who worked tirelessly in labs to develop the vaccines. bless the nurses and workers who’ve stationed themselves on the front line this whole awful time. bless the drivers and pilots shipping these itty-bitty lifesaving vials all across the country. and bless every last person who slipped on a mask, kept the distance, and did whatever it took to get us across this great gulch.
housekeeping: ol’ WordPress seems to have switched out the font here this morning, and i have no idea if it’s going to stay that way, or give me back my serifs. if things look different on your end, it’s a mystery to me. and, like most change, it’ll take me some getting used to.
here’s hoping you all get the vaccine, and that it doesn’t keep you awake all night. what might be the one or two things you’re most excited to do once you cross the full-immunity line….
if you’d sat us all down a year ago, turned allllll the pages of the calendar, past easter, past fourth of july, past thanksgiving, christmas, valentine’s day, and everyone’s birthday; if you’d told us we’d skip our kid’s law school graduation, wouldn’t see where he lived far, far, away, in a city that protests and burns; if you told us that after 26 years of grammy tuesdays, they’d stop on a dime; if you told us one kid would spend a college semester taking in classes from under the quilt of his boyhood; or that the newsroom at the roots of this family would up and get scrubbed; if you told me i’d think twice about going into a grocery store, would hold my breath as long as i could if ever i ran into anyone with a mask slid under their nose or nowhere at all; if you told me i’d have dinner with the same one person every night for 365 dinners (and plenty of lunches, besides), i’d have asked if you were nuts.
and never mind the long months when we lysol-wiped every box of cereal or pasta, every jar of marinara, and carton of milk. and sang the birthday song twice while washing our hands.
that little red-ringed virus has done a number on us, managed to whip us in line (some of us) like nothing ever before.
we’ve made it a year.
we’ve zoomed. we’ve not touched or hugged or kissed. we’ve learned–and mostly forgotten–how long the little rascal of a virus lived on wood, paper, and stainless steel. we’ve parsed the virtues of N95, KN95, and plain old bandana. we’ve canceled plane tickets (or mostly gotten two-year extensions). we’ve learned how long we can drive without pulling over to rest stops. (clear to middle ohio, in the case of my award-winning bladder.)
we made it a year.
on the bright side, we’ve dabbled in sour dough, given names to the blobs bubbling and growing deep in the fridge (and we dumped it ceremoniously and sadly when at last we surrendered in sorry defeat). we’ve taken up star gazing (that lasted not nearly as long as the sour dough). and walking in woods (still ongoing, though the snows are slowing us down). i’ve taken up the book of common prayer, each morning’s quiet beginning. i’ve put down the big book too, searching for something with broader inclusion, something less rote. and i’ve not minded, not one single weekend, not having to worry about too many places to be, and the politics therein.
in a word, it’s gone from surreal at the start, to just plain odd. we’ve recalibrated just about everything.
i can barely stand to imagine how lonely it’s been for everyone who’s bearing this out all alone. i worry to death about kids who don’t know the joy of a play date, let alone running out the door to see who can skip down the sidewalks. or climb trees. or hop on a bike and see where it goes. i worry about kids in high school, and college, stuck in their dorm rooms, wholly unable to romp in the ways we’ve long thought were the essence of going to college.
i worry to death for every small business now shuttered. or shuddering.
i worry to death for the ones who’ve had to get up every single morning, slip on a mask and face the masses: be it ringing up groceries, delivering mail, or answering 9-1-1 calls.
we shouldn’t have to be afraid of standing closer than six feet away from a stranger.
but here we are.
we’ve made it a year.
it’s true, thank God, no bombs were dropping, and boys we love weren’t being shipped overseas, not most of them anyway. it’s hard to imagine how bursting our hearts might be if that was the trial. and at least we can stand under the heavens and breathe. i’ve thought more than maybe ever before about hiroshima, about radioactive fallout, and what it would be like to be unable to go out the door. thank God we can still go outside. thank God it’s the one sure and certain thing we can do, digging in dirt all our own, or stalking the wilds where it’s all common denominator.
it’s hard to make sense of this long last year. but it seems there might be an end off in the distance. i can barely imagine filling my dining room table again. but i think of it often. long for it. want little more than the sound of the doorbell ringing. and voices i love filling the rooms, bouncing off the walls. even doing the stacks of dishes at the end of the night, when the whole night plays over and over in your head, when you laugh out loud all over again, and you’re there at the sink, alone with the suds, and it’s after midnight, but you’re remembering the look on someone’s face, or the line that nearly made you fall from your chair, you were laughing so hard.
it feels like a distant mirage, the dinner table filled with people we love.
but we made it a year.
i keep wondering what parts of all of this we’ll carry forward. will we zoom ever more? will we always remember how blessed it is to run to the store, to hug a friend on the sidewalk, to sit on the seat of a bus or a train?
these are the things i’m thinking about, as this one long year draws to its close….
if you’d told us a year ago, we’d never have signed on the dotted line. turns out, we can do the things we’d never imagine. turns out, we’re resilient after all.
perhaps you have visions of some victorian chamber, with a velvet tufted fainting couch, at the top of a curving stair. perhaps you imagine, ala virginia woolf, a room of one’s own where even the logs in the fire waft a delicate perfume. that, you might imagine, is the inner chamber of one who strings words into sentences into paragraphs into pages for a living. (well, there’s not much of a living there, but that’s a story for another day, and one i shan’t get near.)
but back to the room of my own. i’ve got one all right. and once upon a time it was the one-car garage, likely a Buick or Olds, that puttered up the drive here in this circa 1940s house, when the war tragically was full-steam ahead, and the doctor who built this old house–a doctor who delivered babies deep in the night–must have been proud of that room for his Buick or Olds.
i park myself in that room. for interminable hours these days. from the dark before dawn till the dark in the night. and, mostly, i love every minute of it. even when it’s hard. even when the words are sputtering out like someone forgot to grease the cogs and the wheels in the word factory.
i thought i’d let you peek at my highly categorized filing shelf (up above), where the alphabet of books i’ve read for this book (did you realize that many, many books are compendiums of many, many books tossed into the word whizzer, where they whirl and they swirl, and they come out the other side a veritable library now distilled and condensed into the one single volume you hold in your hand?) are stored in their hardly sophisticated, but highly utilitarian, toppling strip on the floor. i’m certain a shelf would be a handy thing, but all the shelves in the house are previously occupied, so i was left with only this strip on the hardwood floor of my once-garage.
anyway, these are some of the more than 200 books (i just did my taxes, i now know precisely the number i bought), i’ve read in the note-taking phase of this so-called literary endeavor. it appears that i still write like a newspaper reporter, when it was my job to run about the town, and sometimes the country, asking all sorts of questions of all sorts of people who knew what i wanted to know. only this time around, many of the folks who know what i want to know are, well, dead. many died a long, long time ago. take the desert elders of egypt. they died some 1,800 years ago. but their wisdom was timeless, and i hope to absorb at least a mere pinch of it. moving a bit closer in time, there are the transcendentalists, emerson and thoreau, and in my book they seem rather young, having died not even two full centuries back. you get the point. and not all the geniuses whose words i am scouring are no longer among us. many, many are living and breathing and writing more sentences all their own.
i’ve also realized that a pandemic is the perfect time to write a book. there’s nowhere to go anyway. and each day is a wide-open block on the calendar, with little variation except for the chores that punctuate the morning. there’s water-the-plants day, and haul-in-the-groceries day. the middle of the week + sunday are wind-the-clock days, and in a week as wide open as that, why not plunk yourself down in your word-factory chair and get to work on a book? i realize this is my second such endeavor this pandemic, which, honest to goodness, is not too pathetic.
anyway, since this morning is write-the-chair day, i thought i’d let you peek behind the curtain before i plop back down and start typing some more. after all this time pulling up to the very same table, week after week, month after month, year after year, i figure you’re due a backstage tour.
i’m up to 37,226 words, in case anyone’s counting. and i hope to tack on a few thousand more today. i’m not too far from the end of the rough first draft, and then the hard part begins: reading it all from the start, trying not to wince, or fall off the chair in utter humiliation. round two is where you get serious. and each word is a test; each word, each thought, each big idea needs to be tested for muscle and truth, and, yes, poetry. it’s all due the first of june, which means i’ll be typing straight through the return of the songbirds and the blossoming of the lilac. it’s a very good thing i love the topic–the Book of Nature, by the way, that ancient theology that all of creation is infused with the sacred in all its wisdoms and truths, and that your closest encounter with the one i call God just might come lying under the stars one night, or cradling a broken-winged bird in your palm. what i love most is that it’s a wisdom woven with threads from all sources, ancient and not quite so old. so the books on my floor are books from the Celts and the Choctaw, from ancient Egypt and China, and right here in the Land of the Free, from Walden Pond and Cape Cod and clear out to the Great Salt Lake and the Redwoods Forest. which is all making me feel very Woody Guthrie. (and notice my knack for hitting the upper-case key here? that’s because my day job–there in the word factory–insists we show up with our capitals.)
so that’s the news from the factory floor, where i’m due any minute to be back in my chair and hitting the keys–caps shift and otherwise.
on the topic of books, what are the ones on your must-share list? and why?
excuse me if i sound grumpy today, though i do think it’s fine to know that moods come in all sorts of colors. and my color today is grumpy gray. i might be suffering a slight case of the housebounds, in which we’re more or less stuck in the house thanks to the veritable stalactites of ice that have formed just above our front door.
to enter or exit by way of the ice cave is an obstacle of death-defying proportion. there’s the dripping from way up above, and the stoop where you’d step is a sleek sheet of bone-breaking ice; the buckets we’ve plonked there under the drips seem to fill by the hour. i fear the leaking to come once the layers of snow begin their unrestrained melt—but that’s getting ahead of the worries (a particular knack i’m not proud of).
we’d be utterly stuck in the house if not for the snowman i married, who courageously set out across the tundra to get to the store in his snow boots, trekking down the middle of streets, the only path cleared by the snow plows. he saved the day, yes he did, when he ferried home 10 pounds of ice-melting salt.
after a day of gently and safely making some headway, i decided not to leave well enough alone. i decided to get in on the act, ignoring the fact that my bones are quite thin and quite brittle. and for reasons that now escape me, i decided to bang on the bucket of ice with my fist. one swift thwack and i realized quite clearly my ignorance.
as i sit here typing with ice pack wrapped round my wrist, and a makeshift splint holding it tight, i’m scanning the forecasts for any degrees higher than freezing. since typing makes me wince, and i’d best store up for the pages i’ve yet to type for that book in the works, i shall once again make short of it here, and leave you with a sure cure for the housebound blues (or the grumpy grays, should that be your color of choice).
once upon a healing soak, a do-it-yourself hot-water escape…
try this: fill your tub with the hottest water your naked limbs can take, plop in a few shakes of DIY bath salts, instructions courtesy of an old homesteader below. dawdle there till your skin wrinkles like raisins, or you feel your mood starting to lighten (whichever comes first). if this doesn’t work, play polynesian tunes, and sway in your towel, as if on the beach on a faraway island.
½ cup epsom salts
½ cup sea salt
½ cup baking soda
10-15 drops of essential oils (find variations and formulations below)
mix the epsom salts, sea salt and baking soda together in a bowl. add your essential oils. rule of thumb here is 10 drops per cup of the salt mixture, so in this case you’ll need15 drops of whatever your essential oil. use less if you like things on the milder side.
scoop it into a jar with a lid; any washed-out vessel will do. save the extra for your next gray or blue day.
now, a few essential oil concoctions for your DIY bath salts; take your pick, depending on whatever it is you’re after, a little tranquility, petal-soft skin, or the chance to take a deep cleansing breath:
10 drops lavender oil
5 drops vetiver (the oil of tranquility, apparently)
a blend for petal-soft skin:
5 drops lavender oil
5 drops frankincense
5 drops palmarosa
you could use 10 drops lavender + 5 drops frankincense if you don’t have palmarosa on hand.
10 drops eucalyptus
5 drops tea tree
i could be coming to you next week from an ark, should these bergs start to melt with alacrity. in the meantime, do tell of your cures for the deep-winter blues.
i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?
it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.
because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?
measuring life in 8 millimeters(from 2007)
it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.
it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.
i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.
but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.
mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.
it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?
it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.
if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.
but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.
as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.
as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.
i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.
not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.
in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.
i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.
it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.
but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.
“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.
in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.
a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.
how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?
waking up to a wind chill of -6, gliding into my fleece-lined yoga pants (yes, they make them!), my chilly thoughts turn to someone i’ve come to love dearly who is, for the first time in her california-girl life, waking up to this subzero shock to the ol’ ticker. she moved to these parts just as the october winds were picking up, and she thought that was cold! best i can think is: at least it’s not an earthquake. but i figured i owe her a welcome-to-deep-freeze, the chicago version of winter.
dear california girl,
um, welcome to february. bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a polar vortex. well, glide open your sliding porch door (if you can dislodge the ice and the snow jamming its tracks), stick out any limb you’re willing to sacrifice, and voila, that’s what the vortex feels like, that’s how cold it can make your blood run.
so, given that this is your first round of the deep freeze we call chicago, the goosebump capital of the midwest, i figured i might pass along the few things that i’ve learned over the years here on the tundra.
first, forget sleek silhouettes. we’re going for bulk here. we like to dress like we’re walking, talking bed pillows. the more layers and fluff we can stuff round our parts, the happier we hum (see “dress union suit” above). extra credit if you can see someone’s eyes. we are big believers in total occlusion of all open face parts. just cover ’em up with whatever might stretch over your head. big socks work in a pinch. but around here, we stock up on headgear with nothing but peep holes. think golf club covers, maybe minus the super-size tassel. COVID masks have nothing on us. we’ve been in the face-blocking business since, well, far back as i can remember. (note: that reminds me, sometimes the cold numbs your brain. just go with it. your gears will warm up again come the fourth of july.)
on the subject of sleeping, we look to the bears and their habits of hibernations. we find it’s important to stock up on lots and lots of berries before gliding into the caves. but instead of berries, plucked off the tangles of bushes, we cruise the grocery-store aisles, foraging wildly for sugars in their un-natural forms. cookies, crackers, whole tubs of häagen-dazs; these all do the trick. we recommend hauling a cardboard box to your bedside; fill to the brim. this way, once you slide under the layers (more on that in a minute) you’ll not have much of a reach should your very cold tummy start to growl like a grizzly.
now, about the bedclothes (see note no. 1: “we’re going for bulk here”). we find it helpful to mound the blankets as if it’s a snow fort, only it’s mohair or wool or your old girl scout sleeping bag. we recommend staying under the covers as long as you can. there’s really no need to expose yourself to the harsh assaults of a cold trip to the bathroom when winds are howling like sirens just out the windows that shake. (note we did not use the Q word — “quake” — because that is a word that belongs to shakier parts of the continent, specifically the state that was yours. again, we pride ourselves on our relative stability here in the land of no nonsense.)
things to do in the arctic: here, we narrow the lens. fact is, there’s a lot you won’t want to do. you will not want to step out the door. so that lobs off a long chunk of the list. you might try turning pages, as long as you’re wearing mittens with lids, a novel invention that allows you to flip back the mitten tops and wiggle your pinkies whenever you must. i’ve heard tell that jigsaw puzzles are fine for a long winter’s nap, but it’s noticeably nettlesome to doze when a runaway piece is lodged under your bum, or stuck down by your toes under the bedsheets. perhaps that’s why some choose to set up their puzzles on a card table shoved next to the bed. daydreaming, i find, tends not to tax. all it involves is pointing your eyes on some wayward spot on the wall, out the window, or up on the ceiling, and then engage in a thought and see where it travels.
should all this well-padded exertion begin to make you hungry for things not stashed in your cave, you might try the polar vortex diet. this involves high-carb fare, mostly smothered in cheese. why do you think the swiss of the alps invented fondue? and look north to wisconsin, where it’s taken as fact that you make it through winter with barrels of cheddar. if you glance over toward iowa (that’s the square of a state just to the west) you’ll discover that they deep-fry whole sticks of butter. again, this makes chicago’s deep-dish pizza (protests late night’s jon stewart, “it’s not pizza, it’s a casserole!”) look svelte and quite chic.
my short list is drawing to a close. fact is, the vortex won’t last forever. and i’ve shared all the basics: wardrobe, fuel, and diversion. mostly, just tough it out. it’s where we here in the middle lands get all our muscle. we’re a somewhat lesser species than those of the arctic circle, and we’d collapse in the tremor of earthquake, but when it comes to facing into the wind howling off the great vast lake, we’re sturdy as they come.
and no richter scale needed.
love, the bundled one
let me know what i’ve missed of the must-know and must-haves in the vortex survival guide. your input, always essential.
just decided to drop a little mac-and-cheese recipe, though the trouble to make it might make you wanna wait till the vortex is lifted. this, from the pages of Stillness of Winter, the beribboned little book i birthed this fall…
Cure-All Mac and Cheese (aka Vortex Survival Fare)
When the bee stings, or the homesick blues need quelling, this oozy spoonful of deliciousness belongs in a mama’s tin of kitchen cure-alls. It’s the ubiquitous remedy at our house for any ailment in the book. (And one or two make-believe ones, besides.)And it’s just what the doctor orders for frosty-cheeked rascals fresh in from the cold.
Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995
Yield: Serves 8 children
3 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 1⁄2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1⁄2 teaspoon paprika 3 cups whole milk 1 teaspoon salt 3/4 pound pasta, tubes or wagon wheels or whatever shape suits your fancy (a tube—penne or rigatoni, among the many—fills with the cheesy sauce and makes a fine, pillowy bite) 10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 3/4 cups) 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, coarse 1⁄4 cup (or more) Parmesan shavings
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better).
In a 6-quart pot, bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta.
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over moderately low heat, and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes; then whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat.
Stir pasta into pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce, and 2 cups cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of, say, birthday or holiday jollity).
In a small bowl, toss remaining 3⁄4 cup cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture, topping it all with a downpour of Parmesan shavings (a heavy hand with the cheese is never a bad thing, certainly not at my house where my boys insist I do so, preferring their cheese to supersede bread crumbs).
Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: dig in.