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

Month: February, 2007

the zen of smoothing out wrinkles

ah, yes, so here’s where we throw up the clothes line. on one side, those who consider the iron a fine weight for holding open the door. on the other, those who like nothing so much as driving that hot steaming vessel over their oceans of wrinkles, the whitecaps that emerge from the dryer, beg for a sssssssizzle from the maw of the old iron hunk.

i, the laundry room wimp, straddle the line. on the one hand, i tend toward rumply myself, not overtly, not hit-you-over-head. i am a wisp of a rumple. have been known to pretend i just got that hole in my elbow, my heel, the knee of my jeans. and i definitely married a chap who tends toward the rumpled professor.

on the other hand, in the romantic, theoretic part of my head, i do see the virtue in putting the iron to use as more than a doorstop. i envision the zen.

as a matter of fact, the iron and i go way back. go essentially back. it was, at the foot of my mama’s ironing altar, that, as she sprinkled her water-filled pepsi bottle on the mounds of my father’s handkerchiefs, wrinkled, waiting, my mama in whispered tones told me all about the mysteries, the wonders, of “the most beautiful love that there is.” all while i made rubber of every muscle in my face, and tried to muffle the occasional, “ewwwww.”

it was, after that ironing interlude that we then tiptoed upstairs so my four brothers wouldn’t notice, and with grand ceremony she swung open her closet doors, and unearthed from the shelf a big blue box, from the makers of kotex, who had thoughtfully packed up–just for me?–all the essentials for a girl on the verge of becoming a woman.

so, yes, the iron and its high flat plateau, the ironing board, do figure quite firmly in the fibers of my womanly sense. and i do feel a deep earthly pull to the generations before me who had no choice but to labor for a good chunk of the week at the river’s edge, rock in hand, in the hot sweaty basement wringing the clothes through the old wringer washer, hanging them up to dry, stiffly, in a big metal box heated by coal, or how in the summer, at least where my grandma lived it was only in summer, she hauled out her basket with clothesline and pins and let her undies and sheets flap in the wind, in the wind.

and, if, as the lotus sutra, the fundamental text of teachings from buddha himself, tells us, the four genuine gifts one human can give another are bedding, clothing, food and medicine, then certainly there is reason to consider just what we are doing when we yank the perma-press ball from the mouth of the dryer, fold, tuck and plunk in the basket, so that, sisyphus again, we might carry it up to the drawers where naked people will find what they need.

so it was, the other afternoon, with an orchestra concert awaiting, and a rule for a white button-down shirt impending, that i found myself tiptoeing into the land of the zen ironing maiden. as i steered the hot tip of the iron, the one that dates back to college, beneath the canopy of the teeny white button that holds down the collar, as i sprawled out the sleeve and did away with wave after wave of jumbled-up cotton, it all came flooding back to me.

how my mother, in those early lessons meant to make me feel like i was growing up, becoming someone, taught me the virtues of sprinkling, a washwoman’s benediction before bowing down to do in the wrinkles. how she laid out the little squares of thin cotton, showed me how to get right up to the edge, without singeing my fingers, how somewhere deep in my brain there is a lesson rattling around, telling me that a stiff cuff and collar is a very good thing.

it is, i understand, quite possible to sink into the zen of getting out wrinkles. to drift off into a meditative eyes-open dream, all the while smoothing cloth into calm.

i eased a few books off my shelves, read chapters of thought on the legacy of laundry, the tactile connection of fingers to fiber, each of the tomes penned by smart modern women who had stopped, who had paused, to mine the wisdom buried deep in the laundry basket. by the way, i picked up martha stewart on the subject and tossed her. she is all about rules for folding, for crying out loud. and instructions for how to turn the dining table into an ironing board, in case i soon decide to smooth out some stadium-sized cloth for my bed, for my table, who knows.

no no, that’s not what i wanted. i wanted to read of domestic diaries, passed from mother to daughter for generation after generation. compendiums, really, of struggle and deep satisfaction; invisible work, the kind that can still make us angry, so angry, sometimes. until we realize that, if we so choose, we can find joy, find soul food, in the simple act of preparing the cloth that covers our skin, and the skin of those who we love.

i wanted to read how, not so long ago, the clothesline, whole stretches of backyard and rope after rope, from one end of the block to the other, was where the women gathered, commiserated, sought each other’s good company, eyed the way each hung her clothes, sized up her prowess in this domestic domain by how white were her bedsheets, now pinned and flapping for all to see.
i am, i admit, deeply compelled by this rubbing up point, where the hard work of history butts up against the disdain of feminism, and where, if we press long enough, we might find that smooth unnoticed realm in which we reclaim what it means to make home. how it is not about being a slave to those with whom we live, whom we serve, but about drinking mightily of the soul-quenching nectar that abounds if we sometimes slow down, sometimes make a meditation of the metaphor just under the surface all over the house.

a meditation at the ironing board of smoothing out wrinkles–easing bent threads, unruly rumples, folds that will not be tamed–easing them, soothing them, urging them into tranquility.

or just simply loving nothing so much as sliding into a cloth sprinkled with lavender water, soft and smooth against your bare thirsty skin.

for those who might delight in that note of lavender added to the laundry pile, i offer this, from the book, “the clothesline,” by irene rawlings and andrea vansteenhouse (gibbs smith, $21.95):

a recipe for lavender ironing water
3 ounces 90-proof vodka (and you thought the laundress was boring…)
12 drops lavender essential oil
12 ounces purified water
sterilize a 16-ounce bottle by boiling for 10 minutes or running through the pot-scrubber cycle in your dishwasher. pour the vodka into sterilized bottle, add lavender essential oil. swirl vigorously to mix and let stand for at least 24 hours. add the purified water. pour into a spray bottle and spritz to your heart’s content while you iron. store in the fridge. keeps for 6 weeks. caution: do not use this in a steam iron.

your thoughts, men and women?

stuffing envelopes

in a world in which bank bills and passion, catalogue orders and invites, teacher notes and to-do lists, itineraries and plane tickets all can come into your screen, into your daily agenda, at the click of a button, there is something sublime about succumbing to the slow pace of letters with stamps.

something even richer if you slit open the envelope and consider the vast possibility for what you can stuff deep inside, cast off to the clouds, with little more than the 39 cents that, as of this minute, the mail minions claim is the bottom-line cost of doing the business that will not be stopped by rain, sleet or snow.

you’ve read and you’ve heard, you’ve considered, i’m sure, the rapture of actually picking up pen, choosing ink, choosing paper. putting down thoughts in that old chicken scratch that gets scratchier by the day, i swear, what with the lack of practice, and maybe the eyes that now make it fuzzy, fuzzy all over, oh no.

a letter for no reason. a letter for thank you. or i’m sorry. or i love you. or, god, this is bad, is there something to do to pull you out from the deep dark place you’ve plunged into?

it’s just that once in a while there is something marvelously breath-taking about stopping the flow, taking time out, creating in real time, and stuffing your heart in an envelope.

ah, but here’s where we rip open that envelope. think outside the confines of words penned, flatly, on paper.

here, people, is where we go into the third dimension. here, people, is where we really consider what you can do with the limited room of an envelope.

here’s where we see what we can stuff down the throat of the folded-up paper with the gummy north rim.

i am particularly fond of sending mail-sized surprises, stumbling across some little thing that triggers a thought, makes me think of a someone. and rather than waving goodbye to the thought as it travels along out the distal hole of my head, simply succumbing.

just the other day i was perusing the aisles of a spice house, an amazing, intoxicating shrine of a spice house, filled with all sorts of jewels with fine smells. the furled logs of cinnamon sticks, the shining little stars of anise, peppercorns in pink and green and white, vanilla in long lanky pods you couldn’t wait to rip into, for the soft sweet treasure inside.

well, in my mind, this is just the sort of place for envelope stuffing. imagine the joy of opening an envelope stuffed with, for no reason, a packet of herbes de provence. or slitting the sealed edges of something postmarked to you, and finding three anisey stars spill in your palm. maybe even a recipe napping there, too. let loose your inner marco polo, dispatching spices from hither to yon.

bulbs, too, make for fine winter wonders. even just one tucked in a safe nest of papers. or packets of seeds, beckoning spring, promising summer. imagine the reverie of twirling the seed tree and picking nasturtium or sweet pea, big boy tomato or chocolate bell pepper, or the one i’ll never forget, forget-me-not. a packet of bath flakes. a few bath oil beads, especially the ones in shapes like the moon or the stars or the proverbial rubbery duck.

anything little. anything sweet. anything willing to slide into the confines of a letter-sized, legal-sized, or heck even a manilla-sized lickable post.

these are the sorts of once-in-a-blue-moon surprises i delight in mailing along. packing some wholly unanticipated folly into the folded-up paper that is addressed and sealed with a stamp.

what a sumptuous treat in these drab days of the winter that will not scat, to know that, just a few days after you stuff, lick and stamp, someone you love will reach to pick up the mail, expect nothing so much as more grist for the recyclable mill, and suddenly, unexpectedly, stumble upon you and your envelope whimsy.

suddenly inserting a good dash of joy into the spiceless stew known as a long day in winter.

i know you’re an imaginative lot. so you’ve probably already thought of, and executed, a vast army of marvelous mailings. anyone willing to open the envelope, and divulge the contents inside?

breakfast by myself

i know, all across america right now, folks are guzzling, grabbing, driving-thru for breakfast. they are sloshing little o’s into their mouths, avec kiddies. they are ordering up uber-venti-soy-mocha-latte-blah-blah-blahs. sipping to their heart’s content, there at the dash board.

not me.

i’m slow and solitary when it comes to breakfast on the weekdays. i eat alone. i eat with ceremony, even.

yup. no slap-dash for me. i make a meditation of the morning stop for fuel.

especially on a monday.

like a shepherdess with her lambs, i get the first flock out the door, nudging out of bed, knocking on the bathroom door, reminding that time’s a-tickin’, sometimes shoving on shoes while boy no. 1 desperately tries to shovel in at least a few spoons of gruel. sometimes it’s not so pretty, this sheep herding in the morn. but eventually, i get all parties out to pasture.

mind you, all of the above occurs before the clock strikes seven.

and then, by the grace of a quirky little body clock and afternoon kindergarten, baby rip van winkle snores while the little hand sweeps past 7, 8 and, often 9. i’ve even had to rouse the sleeping mound as late as 10. it’s such a shame to have to tap the tiger that sometimes bites, though he sometimes wakes up purring.

as for me and my breakfast, i find great joy in a.) making it beautiful, and b.) packing it with what might sustain me through the long hours ahead. but best of all is the cloak of quiet in which i wrap that sacred hyphen in my day.

i know souls who meditate, legs crossed and tucked like human pretzels. i know souls who open to the divine through the lighting of a candle. and i know plenty of souls who skip all of the above and just dive, headlong, into the madness of the day.

seems i feed my soul through the careful feeding of my corporal self. at least in the morning, i do.

over the years i’ve gathered a little stack of little plates, plates just big enough for the few things i eat for breakfast. i have blue glass plates, red tin plates, old willow plates and blue-and-white plates with roosters, or the latest, with a whole barnyard scene parading ’round the rim.

i pull a plate off the shelf, and thus the mood for breakfast begins. coffee, always, goes into the big red mugs, one with little white hearts, or the one that curves right into the clutch of my hand. queer as it sounds, i lay out the fruit as if i’m getting ready to paint it, a study in color and contrast, glisten and fertile earth bursting. the bread is bread most often baked by a friend of mine, a gentle man, a man who kneads his longing for simplicity and a life nobly lived into the risen dough each night. i slather on cheese. i snip herbs from my little pots and lay sprigs of green, more life bursting, on the bumpy ridges of my cheese.

i lay all this at the place at the table looking out, looking out my window into the great beyond. i catch the birds in flight. i see squirrels romping. when the spring comes, i’ll watch buds unfolding. and in the deep of summer, i will carry my breakfast to the edge of my garden, and i won’t mind the buzzing bees. in fact if they descend on my portrait-ready pile of fruits, i’ll consider it a compliment and be quite pleased.

but in the cold months, the window is as close to the outdoors as my breakfast gets. so i get as close to the window as i can.

and then, i’m quieter still. i quiet every muscle and every bone, every thought and every worry. i only breathe. i only feel the pumping of my heart. softly. tenderly against the edge of the table, if i’m pushed up that close.

i breathe in deeply. i invite the powers of the universe, of the divine, to fill me. to fill every crevice and abyss. every part of me that aches. every muscle bursting to get on with the day.

and then i eat. trying to keep breathing. in that slow, deliberate way that all great wisdom tries to teach us. inspire. expire. the lungs taking over as the cleansing act of morning.

i hold the quiet. i taste the earth. i am swept up into the divine.

and then, alas, it’s over. i push back the chair, grab the plate, swish it under the faucet. grab one more gulp of coffee. then i’m onto the day. lord only knows what the day ahead will bring. but i’ve consumed so much more than you can see on my little plate.

i am, thanks be to God, fueled for yet another round of this wild thing called living.

so, now you know my little secret, my morning meditation, masquerading as a simple breakfast. i have an inkling i might not be alone in facing the day, fueled by more than pop tarts. anyone willing to divulge a morning ritual, meditative or otherwise? i would be so curious to know if there is a whole circle of us mustering sustenance beyond grams of protein on a plate….anyone else bold enough to admit that they find joy in making it beautiful for the eye, in a way that feeds the soul? however you jumpstart your heart for the day, i send blessings, and a prayer that you’ve found sustenance in the form that feeds you best.

p.s. lazy susan, restocked over the weekend, spins anew. take a gander. there’s the herb-off recipe, david’s hands, a blessing of the week. and even more….

slippers for david

at our house today our hearts are skipping. if you hear a thump in my typing today it’s because my heart it is thumping.

david is coming home. david is coming to our house. david is, pretty much, christmas and new years and birthday and fourth of july, all rolled into one.

david is uncle everything.

he’s the big box under the tree, the confetti, the cake with the candles, the fireworks that light up the night.

he is, to my boys and to me, essential. if oxygen is 02, david is 01. david is the stuff that we breathe. david is life.

and he’s coming home. coming back from his new life in maine, where chairs are the thing that he builds. but a new life is the thing that he’s carving, he and his love, sweet rebecca.

this is the longest he’s been away, and for my boys it’s felt like a lifetime. since he’s been gone, one broke a neck and had a bar mitzvah. the other went off to kindergarten, and learned to pick up a pencil.

we keep in touch, close touch, through the incredible phalanx of options that define ’007.

but still the absence is aching. you can’t feel the rough of his fingers through an email. can’t watch the light dance in his eyes over the phone. can’t inhale how he fills up a room with his remarkable mix of genius and joy. not when you’re 1000-some miles away.

and so, we put out the slippers.

david asked for a day that is given form by the slippers. a day of no strictures, no schedules, no plans, no great expectations.

a day just to be. to be with the boys. to cook. and to eat. to pull up to the table. a day to lie on the floor and stare up at the ceiling. together. a day to tell stories. to laugh. to make silly noises. a day to look for the moon. to marvel at stars. a day to pull out the pillows, make a camp on the floor.

a day for just slippers.

so, of course, we put out our very best slippers. the ones you see up above, waiting just by the door. nothing but the best for our beloved sweet david.

for two weeks now, the little one has been counting as close to backwards as he is able. he asks, fifteen times a day, mama, how long ’til uncle david?

at long last the answer is zero. today is the day that david is coming.

and, boy oh boy, will we ever be ready.

soon as the little one rubs the sleep from his eyes, he’ll be right by the door. waiting. with the slippers.

you see, david was here from the get-go for that little guy. came to the hospital just hours after he was born, and he was born in the middle of night. but david came anyway. david held him. baptized him in a cascade of quiet tears. that little baby was not just a dream come true for me, but testament to many that you can, in the end, cradle your longest-held dream. and my little one came when david needed a dose of that truth. needed to press it close to his heart.

they’ve been joined at the heart ever since.

and my other one, the one i now call the man-child, well, david jumped in six months after delivery day. wasn’t in town ’til the midpoint of year no. 1 for boy no. 1. but when david jumps, stand back for the splashing.

from day numero uno of the days they locked eyes on each other, david gave the now-man-child the absolute whole of his heart.

the litany is long, the litany is rich. here are a few of the highlights: the night he stayed up ’til the dawn, making a life-size aquarium out of a refrigerator box, a work of art, of pastels and passion, if ever there was. the saturn cake he baked for his birthday, the ring of spun sugar, a forest of sparklers scaring the behoozies out of the 5-year-old boy. who loved it, after the sparklers went pfft. the day he showed up at the door with fare for the train, a compass, a map and a grease pencil. the two, uncle david, little man-child (then maybe 6 or 7), spent the day riding the rails, learning the city, but learning forever that you can get wherever you want in this world, and the path uncharted is the one that brings joy you never expected.

the curriculum according to david includes african drumming, purple heart wood, and sushi. victor wooten, the great jazz guitarist. riding a scooter six long blocks to the place that sells extra-choice hot dogs. stopping midway to lie on the grass, and look for shapes in the clouds. a larger-than-life papier-mache elephant head named omar, crafted by david and becca, inspired by a trip to the zoo.

and that’s just the beginning.

the list, i’m sure, will go on as long as there’s air in their lungs. the lessons more lasting the older they grow.

and that’s just the boys.

what he’s taught me is immense.

what he’s taught me the best is that a day rich in slippers is a day to be treasured for life.

may you all have a someone for whom the slippers are waiting. someone you love who fills your heart and your home. we are blessed and we know it. here’s to hearts who come home, and fill every inch of the slippers….

herbs in winter, er, spring

okay, so five minutes ago it was winter. and most likely, another three and it’ll be winter again. last week at this time, out my window, it was the arctic tundra. only thing missing was the mush dogs.

now, it’s a vast ocean of blkkh. isthmuses of scant white surrounded by sog (the ground when it’s turning to sponge). small continents of sooty dirt gray melting inch by inch into more sog.

but the slant of the sun, and the scant touch of warm in its rays, sends message to brain cells: stay alert. there might be an end to the winter.

now i might be an avowed winter baby, love nothing so much as a warm woolen sweater, my nose pressed to the glass, watching the cotton puffs fall from the sky. but even the winteriest among us need a small pharmacopoeia of sorts to get through.

my elixir of choice, the one i take daily, multiple times a day if i can, is the herb. not dried in a bottle. not crumbly inside of a jar. but real and alive, bright green on my sill.

i’m telling you the thing that gets me through winter, the thing that keeps red blood in my veins, is the three pots of herbs that grow just to the west of my faucet.

they keep me, well, green. i snip and i sprinkle all winter. i am plowing deep into faux summer, even if only through the gardeny taste that swirls on my tongue. fresh and just picked, right here in the months of the snows.

i bite into the clean of cilantro. i melt for the tender tendrils of thyme. i spice things up with my ruffly basil.

i make believe it’s my garden. i clip and i water. i turn to the rays of the sun, so my herbs they can be coaxed to trigger the chlorophyll. (or however that works.)

but still, i am sorry to say, with regular regularity, my herb pots they shrivel and die. i might get a few weeks out of the basils. the lavender rarely lasts a few days. and the thyme it takes time before it turns crumbly and brown. not unlike those herbs in the bottles. but eventually it indeed turns to crumbly.

and i, sisyphean in style and psyche, i trod a path right back to the produce patch at my grocery. pluck myself one more pot of basil at $2.29. not a high price for midwinter sanity. if in fact it’s keeping me sane. (those around me might tell you it’s not.)

i do know it’s keeping me pink–pink in the cheek, pink in the heart. i eat them for breakfast and dinner. snip them on cheese on my toast. toss with abandon into the stew. adorn like a madwoman each plate, basil poking from the mashed potatoes, thyme branches strewn like the wreath of a hero atop the breast of the chicken.

and if i manage time for some lunch, i eat them then too. i reach in the drawer for my kitchen shears, pretend that i’m clipping an orchard of espaliered apple when only it’s a 4-inch expanse of basil, or the lone stem of lemony balm.

if you’ve been poking around here awhile you might have noticed a trend: i am a girl who leans heavy on growing things. i am a girl who needs gardens. even in the dark days of winter.

so i strongly advise (and i’m not one for advising) that if you can, if you don’t mind the suggestion, you dash to the store, any old supermarket, and you buy the start of your garden.

these herbs, they have history. it’s not like they’ve just been invented. they’ve been around for a very long time, and they seem to have a solid reputation for making for all sorts of miracles.

a quick run through the herbalist, in alphabetical order:

basil, they gave as house gifts in renaissance england because, well, it kept the house flies away.

bay they once planted to protect from lightning strikes. the caesars were certain it kept conspiracies, hmm, at bay. in the 1700s, in england, it was thought to do in the devil. the priestesses of apollo chewed a wad of the stuff before spewing a prophesy. not long after, wise folk prescribed placing it under your pillow to bring on dreams, prescient in nature.

chervil, a sure cure for hiccups. sipped in a tea, that is. (sipped in a broth on holy thursday, it reminded the sippers of the resurrection of christ. says so right here in a book.)

coriander is one of which to be careful. ol’ pliny, the first-century agrarian, cautioned against too much of the seed, which he found had narcotic tendencies.

dill, diluted in water, is the thing to soothe colicky babies.

lemon balm is a tad schizophrenic. on the one hand, it was recommended to scholars to sharpen their memory; on the other hand, it was doled out to insomniacs who found slumber in its sleep-inducing powers.

marjoram, thought to have been touched by venus, is big in the love potion department. italians bunched it in nosegays and gave it away to banish sadness. how lovely.

mint will whiten your teeth.

oregano is boldly medicinal, prescribed over the ages for everything from toothaches to opium addiction.

parsley was first eaten by romans; the greeks long before them made wreaths for weddings and sports games, but only fed it to horses.

rosemary, get this, was put under the nuptial mattress to a.) increase faithfulness, and b.) keep away insects and mildew. who knew?

tarragon, thought to fight off fatigue, was slipped into shoes in the middle ages just before trodding off on a pilgrimage. a pre-cursor to dr. scholl, i suppose.

lastly comes thyme, an all-purpose herb if ever there was one. athenians made liquors of it, bathed in it, burned it in temples. egyptians embalmed with it. i thought it was good on my cottage cheese.

and so, there you go, an alphabet of herbs for your daily consumption. grow them. sniff them. stuff them under your mattress. not a bad sport for the winter.

now, i was going to share a little herb recipe here. i had oh so many choices. but i swear i’ve run out of room. so i promise, the lazy susan this weekend, will proudly display one of these choices. you get to vote. 1. sage apple cake. 2. baked snapper with onion and balm. 3. simple tomato sauce. all courtesy of “herbs in the kitchen: a celebration of flavor,” by carolyn dille (i’m not making that up) and susan belsinger. vote and vote often. this is chicago, you know…..

mama altar

it started as i drove home from the grocery, my eyes stinging with tears.

i’d gone in to grab some orange juice, a perennial thirst in this house. ran into my friend adreine, who runs the front end, who over the years, as she’s rung up my eggs, shoved my gallons of milk down the beltway, has filled me in on her longing, her longing to please grow a baby. all around her it seems, everyone else is getting good news, getting pregnant. not adreine. she, nearly 40, has had month after month of the no news that is very sad news in the baby department. as we talked, i wiped a tear from right by her eye, her beautiful, beautiful eye.

then i drove home, crying too.

i know what it is to bang on the locked gates of heaven and feel like nobody’s home, nobody’s listening. i know what it is to want, more than anything, the round lump of baby in your so-aching arms.

just a few days before the grocery i’d walked into a quite crowded room but could not miss the lightbeams shining from a friend. a friend who this time, for the first time, wore a billowy top that shouted, without hesitation, “i’m pregnant. i’m waiting.”

the beam on her face reminded me of ones i’d once worn. i couldn’t help–again–my own tear or two, moved by the joy of remembering. but as we talked i found out she too knew what it was to hold her deep breath. she’d lost one little girl, and she was scared, scared to trembling, that she could lose this one too. not that there was any reason she would. just because she’s a mama who’s been there. and once you’re there, it’s terribly hard to not think you’ll land there again.

i’ve been in that place myself. know what it is to wear a miracle ’round your middle. know what it is to hold your breath for nine very long months, so afraid that the miracle could so slip away. i too lost a little girl. once stared at the fuzzy gray lines of a baby stone still in my womb. looked into her face as she slipped through my fingers. left her behind in a little wood box, dug into the earth, on my papa’s own grave, in the drizzly cold of a cemetery, 12 years ago.

i know the dark and the light of fertility. i know its abyss and its mountaintop. i know the breathlessness of the ascent, and the gasping for air when you’re pushed off the trail.

i am forever a woman whose heart was seared by the loss and the triumph of childbirth.

i am, i’m afraid, a card-carrying member of the sisterhood for life.

and you do not abandon your sisters.

you build them an altar. you say a prayer, yes. but, even more, you build a prayer tableau and you take it to the next power.

you gather the makings of your prayerful intentions, the physical manifestation of what it is you are asking. it’s something that women, indigenous wise women, have been doing for ages. my friend mary ellen has taught me. my mother, who builds may altars, has too.

it’s there when you’re not. it’s there when you wander past, reminding. nudging: whisper a prayer. don’t forget. don’t leave those women alone. hold them close in your prayer.

and so, spurred by those faces, one in deep longing, the other in deep hope, i came home and started to gather.

i gathered talismans of hope and believing. of my own dreams that had finally come true. i pulled from my top drawer the little pregnancy test, the one that i’ve kept since the cold afternoon when the plus sign turned pink and my dream that would never come true, started to come. i reached in the drawer by my bed, lifted the armbands of delivery, one for mama, one for baby. i plucked the most blessed mother of all. and a gold-winged angel to boot. i snatched a few tulips from the kitchen, decided blood red was a color quite apt. i even remembered the tiniest prayer book, one that once was my mother’s. and then i laid them all on a rectangle of lace made by the grandma i never knew, the one who, at 40, gave birth to the man i called papa.

i made an altar for the mamas to be. the two that i know and the hundreds and thousands i don’t.

we are a sorority who share a particular pain, often unspoken. sometimes you haven’t a clue who your sisters are.

but once you’ve been where they are, you can never again look into the eyes of a woman afraid, a woman desperately longing for life, and not join her brigade.

you pray, and you pray mightily. you get down on your knees. you beg at the locked gate of heaven. you make deals, if you have to. and you pray to God that you do not hear only the echo of your deep incantation lost in the canyon of No.

you know what it is to hear the sound of your heart cracking. you do not leave a mama abandoned. you do not leave her to tremble, to quiver alone.

you muster the force deep inside you. you envision a babe, safe and asleep, in her arms. and you pray to God that someone is listening, someone comes through for those mamas.

if there is a sorority of promise, you are signed on. for ever, for life. and so i bow down at the altar.

please, whisper a prayer for the mamas. for adreine, for trish, and for all of the ones whose names we don’t even know.

paper trail

tucked in the spine of m.f.k. fisher i find scribblings for how to make brisket. bedded down in virginia woolf i find a love heart once ripped from a reporter’s note pad and wedged onto my windshield. the biography of dorothy day, for some reason, contains a motherlode: a check, uncashed, from long long ago; a construction paper anniversary card, now faded along the edge that peeked from the pages; the fresh-faced first-grade school picture of my firstborn; and jottings that tell the tale of a heartbreak borne long long ago.

apparently, i leave my life scattered in bits, buried in bindings, waiting to be exhumed at the flip of a page.

it is the paper trail of my heart. the dots unconnected. the ephemera of a life recorded in scribbles.

i never know what i’ll unearth, or when i’ll stumble upon, say, the train schedule that captured the breathtaking quote my little one spewed about his new jersey grandpa as we rumbled home in the amtrak sleeper in the fall of ’98.
or, sorry about this, the surgical photos documenting the removal of the womb that carried my children, two born, three heartbreakingly not.

each scribble is a passage, a dispatch, that matters. whatever it is that i jotted, it moved me deeply enough that i grabbed for a pen and put pulse to paper. whatever i’ve tucked in the folds of a book is something i can’t bear to lose. even when it hurts.

maybe it’s because i write for a living. but really, i think, i write to keep breathing. if i put it in ink, some brain cell tells me, i hold onto this moment, this thought, this jumble of words in ways that otherwise would not hold. life slips away, i have learned. what’s once in your fingers is gone.

so i scribble. i tuck. i leave paper crumbs. i save the story in snippets.

one christmas, long long ago, i wrote a letter to my whole family. one of my early opuses. poured out my heart. my father, an irishman who kept feelings furled, said only this: “you have a real sense of history.”

that was the last letter i wrote to my father; ended up being the letter they read at his funeral. my father, as always, was right (though i did not understand at the time): i do have an eye locked on history. i do watch it unfold. it’s almost as if one eye lives in the present, the other dwells in the future when what’s now will be the past.

were it not for the notes that i scribble, i would not however know this:

that on september 26, 1997, when my now big boy was just four, he said this: “mommy, i have to tell you a little lesson. when you get a little huffy, you need to calm down. that’s what daddy’s talking about when he says, ‘freddy, calm down.’ you could say sweetly, ‘willie, i’m feeling huffy. could you go out of the room for a little while?’ because when you’re huffy, i say, what the heck. why is mommy huffy? did i not clean my room or something? it makes me feel like i live in a house with no friends.”

or, how on october 4, 1999, an autumn when the first-grade playground for him was a very lonely place, he said: “my heart is open but no one wants to come in.”

or, how after saying prayers on the night of january 19, 2000, he looked up and said: “God must love it at night. i bet he waits all day for it to be night to hear beautiful music.”

i think, given the scribbles, given the puzzle they’ll all put together, i’ll never give up writing my story in torn bits of paper, tucked in the hushed resting places that wait on the shelves of my heart.

do you keep your story in scribbles? do you go digging for how to make chocolate fudge cake, only to find a phone number from long long ago? do the bits that you tuck in your books, or your pockets, leap out and replay some story long past?

meatballs en masse

first you multiply. then you forage. then you start rolling.

it’s meatballs en masse, the roadmap:

ten pounds of steer. quarter acre tomatoes, chopped, pureed. bag of onions. eggs by the half dozen. breadcrumbs, a handful or two. dried crinkled leaves, ones wearing the nametag sweet basil. garlic, don’t forget the garlic. we decidedly did not.

the garlic, the onions, bathing in oil of olives, that was the point. we didn’t want just to feed our friends at the shelter with a mere plate of food. we wanted to feed them all afternoon with the sounds and the smells of somebody cooking. somebody cooking for them.

we wanted them in on each act of the production, as they stood in the alley, huddled on the stairs, waiting for the man with the key to please let them in from the cold. very cold.

we made meatballs for forty. started hours ahead. we wanted to slow cook. with two hours to go we had a flotilla of balls, all adrift in an ocean of thick, red, tomatoey sauce.

there is an alchemy to cooking on slow that does not happen when you wham-bam the dinner. an alchemy especially rare at a soup kitchen.

but we carved out a whole afternoon for this slow dance, me and my 13-year-old. we chopped, and we poured. we stirred and we seasoned. we wanted a feast for our friends.

and they are our friends. t-bird and papi. robert and eddy. the elegant man in the soup kitchen line with his navy blue blazer and shiny brass buttons. the lady who religiously wraps her plate in cellophane before she puts on the food.

they are, some of them, full of hope. papi, for instance, has a dream that he and his sweet potato pies will some day shove mrs. smith and her apples off the grocery store shelf. and just last night t-bird mentioned how he wanted my friend sherry’s chicken wings-and-sausage-and-meatball recipe, cuz it was going to be the first thing he cooked when he got his apartment. some times they tell you month after month, sometimes for more than a year, that their apartment is coming, any day now.

so every third sunday of the month, we feed them. feed the hungry. feed their tummies, yes. but even more, feed their soul. slow cook for them. put tulips on each table. offer brown bags and a basket brimming with brownies and oranges, strawberries in the deep core of winter. take leftovers and turn it into lunch for the next day.

as my friend elizabeth mentioned last night, it had been a very long day squatting at a sandwich shop from 7 in the morning, an hour after they’re kicked out of the shelter, ‘til 7 at night, when they are allowed back in. “i thought i would lose my mind. i had nowhere to go,” she told me, piling her plate with spaghetti, forgoing all but one of the meatballs. she came back for brownies and pound cake and raspberries three times.

for a very long time i have cared about feeding the hungry. i once criss-crossed america, trying to find out why so many, in so many places, were so hungry. from potato farmers in maine, to salmon fishermen tucked into pacific coast towns in northern california, to old wizened folk in chinatown in the city by the bay. from iowa farmers to out-of-work steelworkers in the sooty hills of west pennsylvania. from the rio grande valley to the high plains of the navajo reservation. from the bare-bottomed children of cottonwood, mississippi, to the big-eyed ones right here in chicago. children going to bed at night with a pain in their bellies. mamas and papas going to the same bed, with the same pain, worried sick. not knowing where in the world they’d find food for tomorrow.

and so, one measly sunday a month, me and my boys we slow cook. the little one, now old enough to scoop, always begs to dish out dessert. then he fills a plate, wanders into the dining room, takes a seat, strikes up a conversation.
there is nothing like watching your children learn what it means to slow cook, to deep feed the hungry.

feed vt. 1. to give food to 2. to provide something necessary for the growth, operation, etc. of 3. to gratify.

some of us spend much of our lives feeding. to consider the act of feeding, the gestalt of it, not merely the chopping and stirring and spooning of x, y and z onto a plate, is to have something to ponder. please, pull up a chair. pour out your thoughts on the transitive verb, to feed, in all of its unspoken definitions…

measuring life in 8 millimeters

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?

urging on the equinox

“hey, lady, what’s with the sticks? what’s with the sticks sticking straight up from the glass?”

i can hear you saying that. hear you thinking, oh my she’s gone mad, here in the unrelenting arctic of winter.

mais, non.

it’s just the latest of my little home experiments to grope for the rope, to pull through this dark tunnel of white, white and more white. and cold. did i mention the cold, barreling once again at us from up where the polar bears roam?

those sticks, friends, are not just any sticks. they are the sticks of the forsythia, a flowering shrub, a cloud of pure lemony yellow, whose very name, it seems, begs us to force, to force spring to bloom.

force me, the forsythia beckons.

and my mama–the true keeper of these sorts of knowledge–she reminded me, tapped me on the shoulder, said, “don’t forget the forsythia.”

february, apparently, is prime time for forsythia. for the forcing of sticks in general. forcing them into bloom, that is. rather than forcing though, i like to think that i’m coaxing, i’m urging, i’m begging a break in the please-bloom-for-me department.

so, intent on seducing some spring from my sticks, i trudged out through the deep drifts of the snows, felco no. 2 pruners in hand. looking like some kind of a nut case–once again–i dodged and i darted, all around the forsythia bush. i clipped a long one here, a not-so-long one over there, going always for the sticks with the big balls of nubs. those would be blooms in the making.

once i made for the house, and dunked them in water, of course.

now, being the daughter of a woman who merely cuts and plunks in warm water, no muss and no fuss, i, decidedly different, decided i needed to research this task.

i consulted a few books, did a little digging online. and these are the 10 commandments i came up with:

1.) do not cut before february 1, the l’il sticks need to slumber on ol’ mama bush. if they haven’t had sufficient sleep, out in the cold, they won’t even think of opening their lids.

2.) when you’re out at the bush, cutting like a madperson, try if you can to cut on an angle. apparently this gives the stick more of a throat for guzzling water–once you and your sticks are inside.

3.) speaking of madpersons, one tome tells to use a hammer (once sticks are cut, obviously), to smash the poor ends of the stick, the last inch or two only, as if this too will give the poor stick more capacity for taking in fluids. eesh.

4.) okay, once in from the snows, try very hard to imagine it’s spring, and then, you creative devil, you, try to recreate it, there in the cold and the drafts of your sweet little house.

5.) for best blooming, do not plunk your sticks straight in the vase, the books tell me, but rather submerge them in a tub of cool water. for 24 hours. (be careful to step around them when you step into the shower, should that be the tub of submersion.) if you haven’t a bath for your sticks, misting, they tell us, will do. mist like a rainforest though. mist with reckless abandon.

6.) once soaked, but not soggy, your sweet little sticks are ready to stand and perform.

7.) find a spot, sunny and warm, but not straight in the glare or the heat of the sun. (the sun, remember, that big yellow star allegedly on the payroll for purposes of keeping us warm? ha.)

8.) change the water every few days. our little sticks do not like drinking water turned mucky.

9.) one final tip: if any blooms start to bloom under water, dispense with those blooms. they are so much fodder for bacteria, the books tell me, and they’ll do in the whole bunch much sooner.

10.) stand back and admire. in less than two weeks, more likely just one, you’ll have a whole shock of spring blooming there on your ledge.

now, here’s the part where i come clean: i broke at least two and a half of those commandments, two venial sins and one half of a mortal one. i did not cut on an angle, i did not hammer the heck out of my sticks, and i did not soak in the tub, not with my sticks i did not. being at least a little bit of my mother’s daughter, i pretty much ran in the house, misted, and dunked. and the misting i only did after the fact, after i culled the whole list of commandments.

but you know what? it’s only been a few short days since i was out nipping away with my pruners. and, truth be told once again, i was a serious doubter. oh, yes, i was willing to play along with this forcing of spring, but i really couldn’t imagine that i had on my hands much besides a nice bunch of sticks in a vase. i was the skeptical queen of the sticks.

well, you can already guess where i’m going here: those sweet little sticks, at three days and counting, are already performing. where once there was brown and more brown, no life in sight, suddenly there is green. the softest, tenderest most vernal green. all up and down. all over those sticks.

the sticks, they are telling me: do not give up. do not lose hope. spring it is coming; it’s clinging and waiting on a stick that’s well within your grasp.

the show is unfolding. i have a sense it’s one i don’t want to miss. and i hope, neither do you.

p.s. not only forsythia are willing to bring on the equinox early; february is the month to beg a few branches of the crab apple, cherry, almond or plum, japanese quince, pussy willow, rhododendron, azalea, and the serviceberry. don’t give up hope. plenty bloom in a mere week or two. cherry, almond and plum should bloom in two to four weeks; japanese quince could take four; rhododendron and azalea might take four to six weeks. but that still beats march 21, the day the world turns to spring.