pull up a chair

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

Month: February, 2007

coronary care

it’s pretty much the essence around here. the reason we’re in business, you might say. it’s what pull up a chair is really all about. saying i love you. in ways that otherwise fly under the radar.

leave the billboards alongside the highway to someone else, please. never mind airplanes dragging propositions through clouds. giant bouquets of long-stemmed fleurs rouge? they’re fine, but no thank you.

i’d rather do whimsy. tuck love under a napkin. spoon it into the batter. sprinkle it onto the pillow. maybe even into a tub that’s all sudsy.

i’d rather make it a game. give it some thought. tickle the brain.

i like love folded in triangles and slid into lunch bags. i like love scrambled in eggs, eggs dabbled pink for the day. i like love cut in red paper hearts, laid out in a trail from the edge of the bed, down the stairs, through the front hall, past the old stove, right up to the heart-laden table, where love leaps onto your lips when you pucker and bite into a fat, juicy berry in winter.

i’m pretty sure i’ve been a child of hearts ever since i could pick up a pencil and scribble. i like nothing so much as a big stack of construction paper, decidedly pink and red, topped off with a pair of squiggly scissors. i cut to my heart’s content. doesn’t matter if it’s february or not. i do hearts twelve months a year. but the hearts of today, they are perhaps the finest of hearts. they have a little more oomph than some of the others. a little more sparkle, you know.

i’ve been pondering this national feast day of hearts. and i’m thinking that we should start counting. count all the ways that there are to spell out i love you to those whom you love with, well, all of your heart. i’ve already started, dropped little love crumbs, just up above.

so here, counting by numbers, a dozen and two ways to spell love, to say love, to pound out a love tune from your very own heart into the heart of the ones who you love…

1.) quick, grab a scissors. cut as many red hearts as you can possibly cut.

2.) make a paper heart trail from the edge of your little one’s bed (or even the bed of your big love) to some undisclosed location, say, maybe the kitchen, where the whole day unfolds.

3.) set the kitchen table with all things red and pink.

4.) go crazy with doilies. they are the accessory of choice for this festival of frills, morning ‘til night.

5.) sprinkle tiny paper hearts—or, heck, even rose petals—all over the bathroom sink. consider more rose petals for the watery bowl of la toilette. i’m not kidding, they’ll go nuts. especially if they’re boys with good aim.

6.) now, dash back to the kitchen. put out a fat bowl of strawberries. or a bowl of fat strawberries. your choice. (by the way, have you noticed that the strawberry is, drum roll, the original red-heart-shaped fruit?)

7.) whip up some scones in little heart pans. or, easy way out, cut toast with little heart cookie cutters.

8.) scramble eggs. add a few drops of red food dye. keep scrambling. get ready to slide onto plate. (lox added to eggs makes eggs even pinker. the pinker, the better today).

9.) open a jar of the yummiest, reddest strawberry jam you can find. (there must be one jammed at the back of the fridge in case you forgot to stock up). insert spoon. try not to lick straight from the jar.

10.) leave love note under the plate (if you’re truly in luck, you’ll have found one of those cheap plastic red heart plates at the grocery store; it’ll come in quite handy today). while you’re at it, a love note tucked somewhere in the salle de bain also works. under the shaving cream. behind the shampoo. who knows, it just might work wonders.

11.) pour sparkling juice of some kind into a long, tall champagne glass. dunk a fat strawberry into the fizz.

12.) fill sugar bowl with red and pink m&ms.

13.) tuck yet another love note into the belly of a mitten. it’ll be found once your love is out in the cold.

14.) cut peanut butter & jelly into heart shape. drop into brown lunch bag, emblazoned with hearts. add requisite love note, pink m&ms, small bag of fat strawberries. silly pink napkin never hurts.

15.) spend the rest of the day figuring out how to top this for dinner and bedtime.

so there you have it. fourteen ways to say i love you, plus one for good luck.

that’s how i’m spelling love at my house today. how will you spell it at yours? it’s your turn, keep counting…

p.s. and, oh, by the way, from my heart to yours, here’s a big puckery smooch.

snow, when it’s still white

i know. i know. it’s a little raucous out there. a bit like walking into a bowl of vichyssoise, whirring.

and once the world rustles from its dumbfounded look out the window, slams on the snow boots, trudges to the car, or the train, or the bus, it’ll all be so much blkkh. that gray-black mess of crusted-over car dirt, tire rub, city street, all tossed together, tumbled. left to leave us thinking this snow thing is a terrible nuisance, a blight upon the trek to wherever we have to be. end of story.

only this is not about that. this is about snow before the blkkh.

this is about snow when it’s still white. when it’s still.

this is about slipping into your mukluks, and giving snow the due it deserves: step out and just stand there. go nowhere, really. meander aimlessly. pretend its moon dust and tromp through it. crane your neck, watch it swirl toward you.

then do this: drink it in. listen to the snow sound. then listen more closely still, listen with your soul.

the snow, i am convinced, is God’s way of putting finger to lips, pursing, whispering, “shhhhhh.”

snow, if you listen, speaks loudly. but only in a way that the soul is equipped to hear. the snow is telling us to slow. to behold. behold wonder. behold mystery.

behold the miracle of mere air and water and the cold of a cloud, coming together, falling down. tumbling. a 15-minute ride from the sky to the tip of our tongue, if we, like a child, try to catch it. scientists clocked that. i’m not making it up. some day soon we will consider the universe of each little snowflake. apparently, it’s a sport. watching snowflakes. i’ve got a book, right here on my desk, a field guide to snowflakes, and it says so, likens it to bird watching, only colder.

but today is about the blanket of white, the blanket of quiet. the blanket shaken before us, every intricacy of every limb and twig and pine needle shrouded in, swaddled in, white.

to go out in it, to crouch under the bough of a tree, to watch it come down, down onto your eyelash, is to be filled, once again, with the mystery of the heavens coming down to our midst. intermingling, the divine and the utterly earthly.

maybe that’s why young children thrust themselves into it, onto it, prostrate, making snow angels. maybe they understand in a way we forget when we’ve had too many snows under our boots. maybe they sense the godliness in each six-sided flake. if you could dive into the celestial, wouldn’t you want to rub your arms and your legs, your whole being, through the thick of it? once again, look to the children.

albert einstein, a guy smart like the children, wrote this in 1930, in a paper titled, “what i believe:”

“the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. it is the source of all true art and science. he to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

open your eyes, my friends. open your eyes. the snow, falling all around us, is begging us to drink in, to taste, to behold the mysterious. to realize, in one single snowflake, we hold onto the infinite. in a whole world of snowflakes, the infinite holds onto us.

if we open our eyes…

tell a snow story. tell a tale of beholding the wonder of the world of snow when it’s still white. or, if you must, spit it out. tell us how the blkkh got in your way, made you mad. made you sputter. then, once you spew here at the table, you might feel all better. might then be able to slip on your muks, step out the door, sink into the wonder…..

declaration: down day

felled by two fevers, three stuffed heads, and enough coughing to blow out some lungs (and maybe a front tire, to boot) , the mama in charge around here declared a down day. all weekend long.

no errands. no sunday school. no leaving the house, not for the little one at least. instead, we stayed in jammies. ate late breakfast with muffins hot out of the oven. finished leftovers for lunch. made a stew that stewed all day. sprinkled glitter on the last of the valentines. invited grammy for sunday dinner. watched old home movies. made a lincoln log cake. one of us even cleaned out her work closet.

sometimes, it seems, the best thing you can do for yourself is catch a little germ. nothing wretched, mind you. just a little mercury-elevating, nose-clogging, mild-mannered bug.

nothing a little tylenol every six hours won’t shoosh away.

it’s the snow day without snow (although it looks at the moment as if we’ve been doused with plenty of that). it’s hibernation without being a bear in the back of the cave. it’s the traffic cop’s flat palm shoved in the face of a world that won’t brake for yellow lights.

so you grope for the medicine chest, and on the way you hit the pause button. you cough and you sneeze, you wipe your baby’s fevered brow. and for a few blessed hours you get the one thing that should be doled out in minimum daily requirements: peace, quiet, time to catch up.

while some of you are nestled under blankets–in broad daylight, mind you–sipping 7-up, quaffing jell-o, begging for gummy worms (because, silly you, you started a game where you were the mama bird and the sick little baby bird dozed in his fleece-blanket nest, fueled mostly on green wiggly worms made of 200 percent sugar), others of you get to go about business at 33 rpm, instead of the usual 78.

now, i am not recommending you go swabbing up sick houses, incubating bad gunk in your fridge, all in pursuit of a day without places to be.

but i am saying there are worse things than being stuck home with a stuffed-up nose.

maybe it’s that winter by now is getting the best of us. maybe it’s this cold that has chilled us to the very marrow of our old weary bones. maybe it’s as simple as the fact that climbing into and out of big rubber boots, zipping and unzipping eight layers of layering, losing and finding and losing again the warm woolen mittens (and even the backups), is getting to wear a bit thin.

sure a ticket to tahiti would help. but, folks, there is no travel counselor on speed dial at my house.

so instead we slow time the old-fashioned way, the way we learned back in our school days when we savored the day with a thermometer on standby next to our bed, a glass wrapped with a rubber band, so designated as a sick-person glass. it meant that while everyone else was shuffled out of the house in the morning, we got to sink our head back into the pillow. and while everyone else ate lunch out of a brown paper bag at a school desk, we got lucky and had noodle soup in a bowl on a tray carried up to our bed. so long as we didn’t slurp on the sheets, we were queen for a day.

and so it goes. all these years later. a little bit sick means a whole lot heavenly.

oh, if only we were smart enough to slow down without a dumb bug knocking us upside the nose.

at your house what slows you down, gets you to shut out a good dose of the world and the noise? and, by the way, does anyone else wrap a glass with a rubberband, or is that just my sweet mama’s very own brand of germ control? now passed from me to my boys. like a germ, maybe….

moon walk

“hey mom, something’s wrong. the sky is green. no, it’s orange. i have a idea. the sun is probably getting ready to come up.”

this, at half past eight on a night when, as always, the orange glow from the city lights oozes across our evening sky, blurring the edges of day and night, urban and beyond.

and so we set out, me and the boy with the tethoscope. or so he called it. actually he had emerged from the basement with the purple plastic spy binoculars, the better to lead the way. so we trudged, he and i, through the great arctic alleys, past the abominable snow shoveler, down the ice floe of a sidewalk.

“be careful,” he warned, my 5-year-old admiral byrd. “there’s ice underneath the snow. hold my hand,” he insisted, the boy with one hand still on the binoculars, peering ahead into the molasses-thick murk of the night.

“mom, why are you walking so fast,” he asked when my toes got so cold i was scrunching them under, shuffling a little more swiftly than when we’d set out, me and my arctic explorer.

we looked up, the orange glow and the snow clouds stretching a sky screen far as we could see on all sides, blocking the moon, most of the stars. we managed to pick out the north star. groped through the heavens, intent on finding the february trifecta: saturn, the ringed one; venus, the evening star; and mars, the angry planet, i tried to explain.

“why is it mad,” he asked, and i didn’t have much of an answer. maybe because it can’t find the moon either. “mars has a mad face,” he told me, making one. “earth has a gloomy face,” he added. why, i wondered out loud. “because we’re using up all the energy. and the sun is getting too close to it, so the moon is trying to get close to the sun so we don’t all fall asleep and never wake up again.”

hmm. not bad for a sky novice.

we are beginners at this, me and the boy with the purple binoculars. i know a kindergarten where the children keep a chart of the moon. the moon journal, they call it. i swooned when i heard the idea. love the notion of a child connecting the dots up above, of a child figuring how to add and subtract with crescents and quarters of the man in the moon.

of a child learning to marvel.

of a child learning how little he is.

learning to read the heavens seems like a very smart thing for a boy who is struggling to learn u, v and j. those scribblings on paper, they don’t seem to stir his sweet little soul, not yet anyway. so maybe the sparkling on high is the way to go, to entice, to engage, to draw him into the learning.

with our fingertips frozen, the tethoscope threatening to stick to his nose, we bid good night to the sky, dashed back in the house.

thawing, i grabbed for the newspaper, spread out the page that might be one of the best in the bunch: the one with the maps, and the charts and the moon. the only place in the news that reliably reports on the heavens.

look here, i showed him. here’s today and here is the moon. and then i learned something. ohhh, i began, making my mouth like a moon. the moon doesn’t rise ‘til minutes to midnight, i found out, i informed. the news, not good news at all, landed with a thud for the boy who’d set out to lock his lens on the moon.

i promised, as i tucked him in bed, i’d get the moon just for him. and so, like a card-carrying lunatic, i crawled from my bed at 2:43, crept down the stairs, walked into the arctic cold night, me and my red-plaid pajammies. i aimed and i grabbed, i got the moon, all right. but what i got was all black and blur.

undaunted, moonstruck maybe, i went back just before dawn, when the blue of the heavens is first being stirred into the black of before. there was no missing this moon, hanging up there in the limbs of the linden. there is his moon. there is your moon, too. the one shining way up above. one half of the snow moon, on its way toward the worm moon of march.

next moon walk, i teach the moon boy how the moons got their names. i’m pretty sure he’ll howl at all that.

for a heavenly guide to learning the sky, check out http://skytonight.com/observing/ataglance

birthdays in fractions

today is the midpoint, the halfway-there, the get-out-of-the-car-and-stretch-your-toes, the hard cold wall of the pool before the flip and the long lane of strokes back to the other end, back to the finish line.

especially if you’re 5. and it’s lightyears from one cake with candles to the next. and everyone else in your class has been hauling in cupcakes and 6’s for months. and you’re just barely trudging along. waiting. waiting for six.

today is 182.5 days from 5; 182.5 days ‘til 6. today is my little one’s half birthday.

in our house we are perhaps a little bit nuts. we flutter and flap about birthdays in fractions. even the big people around here note their halves. but the little ones, they get the works: the red plate is set out for breakfast, the champagne flute awaits the orange juice. the cupcakes are baked, the menu is set. my little one wants breakfast for dinner; pancakes and french toast and oatmeal for breakfast. and tonight, he has visions of all of us huddled under blankets, hands in the popcorn bowl, once again watching born free. he specified lights out, everyone on the floor, under the same blanket. even the cat.

when you have birthdays in fractions at our house, you get to dream. you get to pick. you get to spin the lazy susan of choices, grab for the one that speaks loudest to you.

it’s all about being cherished.

children, i’m pretty certain, need to feel cherished. and, lord knows, there are plenty of moments when a child does not feel too cherished. truth is, there are plenty of moments when i as the mama do not feel too cherish-y. i might feel dash-out-the-door, throw in the towel, take this job and tank it, i quit, pink slip submitted. but i don’t. i haven’t. by the grace of God, the litany of sins remains, like jimmy carter, impure thoughts, red flags tossed on the field. no play executed. not yet, anyway.

so when a chance for cherish presents itself, i reach out, i grab, i run for the goal post. seize it, i say. pull out the cupcake tins. bring on the candles. give the boy a whole day to bask.

now all of this might have something to do with the fact that the mama around here was born in the absolute armpit of the year. january 3. a day when not a soul in the world has much air left in the lungs for blowing out candles. they have been huffing and puffing their way through the long breeze of holidays, and one more cake, one more round of candles, just does not fit in the picture. one year, when i was little, when i cared a whole lot about my birthday, someone asked me if it was all right if we just skipped the cake that year.

there will be no skipping cakes for my boys. we will blow candles for one-fourth and three-fourths, if we have to. but it seems halves will suffice.

you’ll excuse me while i scoot off to the kitchen; i’ve got oatmeal and pancakes and le pain francais to get cookin’. i’ve got a boy who has reached the mid-mark and we’ve got some cherishing to cherish.

anybody out there have your own brand of birthday indulgence? little ways to raise up the day? sweet somethings that have been born over the years, been passed down from one mama or papa to the next? please, pull up a chair. do tell.

p.s. you oughta see what we do for whole numbers. oy. let’s just say birthday fairies and crepe paper by the roll are key players. but more on that down the road. this is a day for fractions.

the egg lady

doorbell rang the other afternoon. dozen eggs dozing there, asleep in two rows. one, the palest shade of green, laid by a south american mama chicken. all the rest, variations on caramel. or these days, you might say variations on mocha skim latte.

it’s not everyday eggs come rolling to your door. not in the dead of winter. but not everyone knows the egg lady.

seems, apparently, that i do. name’s carol. and she delivers the fruits of the hen. she was out making her rounds. she had a dozen for sophie, the nail lady at some chic little shop. another dozen for marge, who scrubs faces. and a dozen for pablo, who cuts hair. and then there was me.

unannounced, without warning, i was the proud owner of twelve organic, whole-grain-fed eggs.

i am quite sure my heart wouldn’t have pounded harder if ol’ ed mcmahon himself had come to my door, thrust cardboard check in my hand. i mean, i am a girl who dreams of an egg-laying mama with feathers. i even have her a name: lady chanticleer. it’s only the town laws keeping her and her hay from me and my make-believe farm.

i could not get over their beauty, the eggs. ‘specially the green one. so pale it merely whispered of green. didn’t come out and hit you over the head with it. certainly wasn’t the easter-egg green my boys thought that i meant, when at dinner i opened the lid, showed off the twelve apostles, awaited the chorus of oohs and of ahhs.

i’d been told by the egg lady that the yolk was really the thing worth applause. so first thing next morning, i cracked one, two, then three. i applauded, all right. the yolks were like sunrises, all golden, towards orange. round and taut and knowing right where they stood. not the so-so yolks from the grocery store shelf, the ones that wobble and ooze with the softest prick of a fork.

i sizzled the trio in a bath of french butter, nothin’ but the best for these babies. frothed them a bit, gave them time to regroup, then i rolled their new ruffly selves onto a plate. my boys nearly licked it.

well, you don’t go worshipping eggs without knowing a bit about who did the laying, so i put in a call to the egg farmer himself.

denny wettstein’s his name, lives down in carlock, illinois, down in the mackinaw river valley, smack dab in the heart of the heartland. denny and emily, that’s the farmer’s wife, have nine children and about 350 laying hens right here in the middle of winter. they’ve got 500 acres they farm, organically. they’ve got cattle and sheep and goats and pigs, even turkeys until mid-november. until it’s time for the turkeys to lay down their heads for our overstuffed tables. in the spring and the summer, their egg-laying flock grows to 2,000, but that includes plenty of meat birds, as denny puts it, meaning the ones you slather with sauce and toss on your grill.

the egg-layers, they are the lucky ones. they live as long as they lay.

and these hens–rhode island reds, black astrolopes, barred rocks, and the green-laying one, the araucana (a magnificent chilean hybrid with white feathery tufts that shoot from her ears, and look a heck of a lot like the sides of a handlebar mustache)–these hens nibble all day on what must be gourmet chicken feed. whereas the hens that lay the eggs that you can grab off the shelf at the grocery store probably exist on a bland diet of just corn and soybeans, farmer denny is mixing his feed with his very own hands, and he makes for his hens a fine meal of five organic grains–corn, soybean, oats, wheat and this time of year when the pastures are ice, he grinds up hay for his girls. (in the summertime, the hens gulp down plenty of fresh grass, and fresh bugs, too, and denny says a summer egg is even more lip-lickin’ than these in the bug-less days of winter.)

now these hens are not cooped up in some cold crowded apartment. nope. they live in a heated house, thank you, where they can imbibe of warm water and feed 24 hours a day. like an all-night diner.

and denny tells me, the chickens, what with their feathers, don’t mind the cold. but they are rather finicky about snows on their feets.

i asked denny how he likes his eggs best, and he gave me the recipe for egg-and-cheese casserole. when i inquired as to how many eggs i might want to crack for this casserole, he chuckled. told me at his house they use two dozen for breakfast. but then, he reminded, he’s putting eggs in nine little mouths.

you might not need two dozen for your crew.

here’s how denny does breakfast: crack eggs; add cheese, grated; toss in chopped onion, peppers, sausage, potatoes, whatever stirs you; stir. pour into buttered casserole. let sit in fridge overnight. pop in 350-degree oven come sunrise. bake for 40 to 45 minutes, you’ll have to keep an eye on your eggs.

but then, if they’re denny’s, you’ll want to.

the wettstein’s amazing organic eggs are coming to oak park this saturday. they’ll be at the buzz cafe, by the dozen, from 1 to 3 in the afternoon. they’re $4 a dozen when they make the trip up to chicago. but if you want to drive down to carlock, turn in at the farm gate just off u.s. highway 150, and grab a dozen out of the ice box on the wettstein’s front porch, they’re a steal at $2.50 a dozen. the ice box is open six days a week. buzz cafe is at the corner of harrison and lombard, a whole lot closer than carlock. tell denny hullo for me.

p.s. did i mention that the wettstein eggs are, at most, three days from the nest when they slide into the carton, and land on your stoop? the ones you find at the grocery might be as many as 30 days old. oh, what a difference those days make…

grammy tuesday

as long as anyone around here can remember, certainly as long as two of ‘em truly can remember, tuesday is synonymous with only one thing: grammy.

thirteen years. six hundred seventy six tuesdays. give or take only about one or two a year. at the very least, it’s 650 tuesdays.

that’s nearly two solid years of her life (ah, what a math wizard, i am…), utterly completely devoted to the love and tending of her only two grandsons.

from the get-go, grammy tuesdays have had rules different from the rest of the week. she is two parts indulgence, one part old-fashioned mama. there will be elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed. keep your bottom on the chair. comb your hair. tuck in your shirttails. patch the hole in the knee of your jeans.

she keeps us, and our house, in line. she will fix the wobbly neck of the lamp. glue the leg of the chair. rig up a rather impressive concoction to keep the cold air from blowing in under the door. and once she threatened to rebuild the inside of the toilet tank, the part where the water whooshes down into the bowl, does its thing. i told her to stop.

she reminds us to turn out the lights behind us. to not let the water run. to recycle every scrap in the house. she launches into her shpiel about keeping the world fit for her grandsons’ grandsons.

she reminds me i forgot to water the herb garden. forgot to deadhead the daffodils. forgot to haul in the porch furniture.

she thinks it a waste that we still have the little white lights strung on the crabapple. can’t believe i let the little one stay up ’til past nine, on a school night. asks for the umpteenth time if i’ve gone through the toys and the clothes to give to the place where the people have little to none.

oh my.

she is, in many ways, my walking, talking conscience. sometimes i’m sure it makes me crazy, leaping over this should, dodging that.

but you know something: i love her like crazy. she’s my mama. and i know i’m lucky to have one. right here in my house, every tuesday.

my papa died a long time ago, 26 years ago saturday. my mama was my age now when he died. she was 50. ever since, she once told me, she’s turned over her life to making life better for all those around her. a vocation of mercy.

wednesdays are soup kitchen. thursdays, for a long time, were a very poor school in what was once called the slums of the city. the rest of the week she is running a roast chicken to someone, cleaning the trail in the woods for the schoolchildren.

tuesdays, though, she saves for her boys. tuesdays are a day for chef boyardee, that gummy blah pasta in red runny sauce, a something their mama would scorn. tuesdays are a day for cinnamon toast and alphabet letters, all mixed, smack in the mid of the morning. for sitting on laps and reading of eagles. for building train tracks that curve ‘round the room. for going to the zoo. for getting the animal fries.

tuesdays are days for listening to stories while mommy types in the other room. for keeping things calm while mommy pulls out her hair. for making chicken rice grammy, a thing that i loved when i was a girl and now i eat it again, many a tuesday.

she’ll be here any minute, because it’s half an hour ‘til nine. and she is, like clockwork, always too early. maybe she can’t wait to come. maybe she knows that we need her.

glue, paper, scissors

in the thick of a sunday so cold it made my fingertips burn all day, just from filling the bird feeder (without mittens, silly me).

at the end of a week so bitter and cruel it made my heart burn, just from the tumult of too many things.

in the midst of all that, my telephone rang. it was melissa. she wanted me to come on a cold afternoon to cut paper, pour glue, add glitter.

i did. and somewhere deep in construction, maybe during the part where my thumb and my pointer were hooked in the zig-zaggy scissors, my heart started to thaw. my heart started to twinkle.

we were cutting out whimsy, dabbing on love, making wonder from red and from pink. i think maybe valentine was a saint, only because it gives reason for folly deep in the depths of the winter.

now i am not one to pull out paper therapy at the drop  of a hat. but i must confess to a paper obsession. maybe it’s because i put words on them, consider them missile for my missives, the vessel that takes me and my thoughts out into the world, through the mail, from my desk to yours, far away.

maybe because papers set moods. maybe because paper is clasped in your fingers. you hold it. you behold it. it’s not incidental. not always, at least.

playing with paper takes me back to long long ago. i made whole kingdoms from paper. built houses all summer long. played out great paper dramas, this paper doll taking a walk through the forest. that one lying sick in a bed.

it is a smart thing for a grownup in an increasingly paperless world to return to paper. to pull out the scissors, the glue and the stamps.

we gathered, the mamas from the street where i live. the little girls too. we all cut and we chattered. we nibbled, we sipped. we built paper hearts in as many creations as there were souls at the table. to watch women engrossed in making love out of paper is something to soften your heart on a cold winter’s day.

then the little girls, led by an angel among them, started tracing their hands, cutting them out. laid out in a circle, they made a whole wreath of hands, hands poked through with hearts. a circle of love for the little old lady next door. the one who went off in an ambulance in the dark of new year’s night, and hasn’t been home ever since.

i sighed as i saw it. i marveled, i did, at the power of paper on a cold afternoon. cut paper, my friends, snip, snip and snip. there are wonderful curative balms that ooze from the core of the pulp.

vernal whisperings

if you listen, you can hear the first stirrings of winter loosening its grip. yes, the snow moon, that great white orb that cast its full light on the cold cruel landscape of last night, made it hard to see anything that was not white, or bluish white, a color even colder.

but in fact, and despite the wind chill, this is the day when myth and legend begin their vernal whisperings. there’s the old folktale about the ground hog and his shadow. but that doesn’t much catch my fancy.

what does catch it, locks it in its grip, is something i knew little about. until now. it is the jewish festival of tu b’shevat, the new year of the trees.

it is, it seems, all about vernal whisperings, the first hint of promise that all this, the harsh and the cold and the barren, will soon melt away.

as a woman married to a jew, as a woman who embraces spirit and rite and story and all things of the earth, this little holiday seems made for souls like me.

i had had an inkling that the holiday i had a hard time pronouncing (tu-bish-vat, more or less) had something to do with trees or planting trees. in fact, it is said that this is the day when God decides how bountiful the fruit of each tree will be in the coming year.

in israel, this is when the almond tree awakes from its winter sleep, erupting in clouds of tissue-white flowers, the first blossom of spring.

in ancient times, tu b’shevat marked the day of tithing. it clanged the final bell on the fiscal year. all fruits borne before this day, belonged to the harvest of the last year, and must be divided accordingly, a portion to the poor, a portion to the temple in jerusalem.

all of that was lovely enough.

but then i heard something about a special seder of seven fruits.

and that’s when i knew i needed to dig a little deeper. that’s when i discovered the thinking of the 16th-century jewish mystics.

known as the kabbalists, these deeply spiritual thinkers believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life.

oh my.

they go on, these marvelous mystics. they talk not about seven fruits, but ten. they break them into categories corresponding to four levels of creation. there are the fruits that need no protection, and can be wholly eaten; grapes and figs, among them. there are fruits that require protection but only at the heart; olives, dates and persimmons would be among these. then there are the fruits that need full protection, the pomegranate and avocado, both of which hide inside a leathery shell. the fourth realm, purely spiritual, by definition has no fruits: it’s just pure spirit.

the holiness of each fruit or nut is, according to the kabbalists, the soft edible part, the part you can bite into. the pits or inedible parts were thought to be impure. and the shells were the protection of the holiness. (makes you feel kindly toward that ol’ banana peel, eh?)

reciting blessings–there is a particular line from the torah for each fruit or nut, believe it or not–helps to release the holy spark of life flow trapped within them, the kabbalists believed.

ah, but the act of chewing, they tell us, kicks it all into some sort of spiritual overdrive.

get this: chewing is more powerful than reciting blessings, they believed, because humans have 32 teeth, and that is the precise number of times the word “elohim,” or God, appears in the story of creation.

goodness. it is morsels like that that make it so delicious to dig deep into something of which you once knew so little, but deep in your soul feel so drawn to. it’s the marvelous adventure, open to all of us, of cracking deep into the book of religions other than the one we knew first. it’s the weaving and steeping, the absorbing and unfolding, that i swear enriches the broth.

but back to the fruits, and the part that i think is the absolute swooningest.

along with the fruits of the seder, the kabbalists said there must be four glasses of wine at the meal. you begin, they taught, with a white wine. each glass after that adds more and more red wine, so that each glass deepens in color. the first glass represents the cold whiteness of winter, the next, the pale buds of spring, onto the deep rose of the height of summer, and finally the crimson of the autumn leaves before they fall from the trees.

you needn’t be jewish to want to drop to your knees on that one, the breathtaking progression, the resonance of the fruit of the vine with the rhythms of earth, the unfolding. a whole sensory reminding that the changing of season is a blessing beyond blessing.

and this is a day when we pause, when we listen, for the first stirrings of the deep underground.

abraham joshua heschel, the great 20th-century jewish scholar, writes magnificently of the sanctification of time in judaism. here is one thought to ponder:

“judaism teaches us to be attached to the holiness of time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year.”

and so tonight, as i light the shabbat candles, usher in tu b’shevat, a sanctuary i never really knew until now, i will sit down to a feast of the earth’s promise, to fruits and nuts and wine. i will behold the shifting of the seasons, the absolute truth of the returning of life.

yes, now winter is making itself abundantly present. but from the heart of the fruits, will break open great sparks of holiness, wafting toward heaven. from each sip of my ever-blushing wine, the taste of the turning of time.

i will know as i eat and drink that beneath the cold hard snow, the fruits of spring are stirring. are whispering sacred incantations. vernal incantations.

oranges-and-chocolate brigade

i got to thinking about frozen people. got to thinking about folks with no choice about being in the cold.

what got me thinking were the folks i was passing as i made my way through the bone-chilling day. the crews cutting down trees, their limbs barely moving as they hoisted their saws in their orange puffy suits. a guy, red-cheeked, frost-bearded, standing in the middle of the road with a pole, measuring something that couldn’t wait ’til a day with bearable temperatures.

i thought of the mail carriers, the garbage haulers, the firehose aimers. i thought of the crossing guards, the meter readers, the ruptured water main fixers. i thought of my friend who bundles up like an inuit, she says, and walks 20 minutes to work, her cheeks so numb she probably can’t smile when she gets there, not for a good half an hour.

then i really got to thinking about frozen people. i started thinking about dirt man and tax man and refrigerator man. i thought about shorty and squeaky and a guy named everett, who’d built himself a multiplex of boxes up on a platform so the rats couldn’t get in, down in the bowels of the city, down under lower wacker drive.

i met the whole civilization of under-street inhabitants a year or so ago, when i tagged along with two saints, named frank and kay fennell.

frank and kay do an amazing, uncomplicated thing: they flip open the trunk of their car, they fill it with boxes of home-cooked food, and every thursday night, for 17 years now, they drive down to the depths of the city.

they cruise the streets of lower wacker, park, stick their heads around corners, poke behind pillars. they open their trunk, spoon hot food on plates, pour glasses of water. they feed the hungry. and this time of year, they feed the near frozen.

you might have heard all the news bulletins. the city is begging the homeless to come in off the streets, off the sidewalks where they stretch out on a pile of flimsy blankets, inch as close as they can to the heating vents at the bases of shimmering towers.

well, the folks who call the streets home, aren’t much interested in leaving. they’ve got reasons aplenty why they can’t stand the shelters. and if you ask questions, if you listen, you hear the pain, you hear the fear that keeps them locked where they are.

i wrote here the other day that my first instinct when arctic winds hit is to hunker down, to draw into my cave. well, sometimes, i told myself as i thought about frozen people, you need to dig beyond that. sometimes you need to pull up your second instinct.

and that’s when i hatched what you might think is a laughable idea.

but, heck, this world needs something to laugh about almost as much as it needs something else: the courage of plain old anybodys to get up, to get out of their houses, to walk up to a stranger, a cold, hungry stranger, to hand him or her a brown paper bag, a bag filled with oranges and chocolate and the solid conviction that if we don’t notice the cold hungry stranger, if we don’t let him or her know that he or she isn’t forgotten, we might as well pack it up, call it a day, shut out the lights, sign off the planet.

i call it the oranges-and-chocolate brigade.

my guardian angel in these matters, kay fennell, once told me: “we decided it was our job to sustain [these people] for whatever their next step would be. and that might be just to stay alive for the next 24 hours.”

so i went to the store, got oranges and hershey bars, reese’s cups, too. grabbed a stash of brown bags and started to fill. this morning i’m headed down to the bowels of the city, where dirt man and tax man were last seen on the grubby old blankets inside torn cardboard boxes, desperately trying to keep their flesh and their blood at least half alive.

before i even get there, i know, i’ll pass the men who hawk papers in the middle of oncoming lanes. or one of the folks who hover at intersections, dodging green lights, with the signs in their raw, frozen fingers. “homeless, please help.”

it’s not much, oranges and chocolate in a brown paper bag. but it’s fuel in the cold. and it might be something a little more than that.

it might maybe say, in case anyone’s listening, that we will not let the cold and the hungry lay down one more night thinking the world has forgotten, the world has gone cold. that’s a lot to ask of plain oranges and chocolate. but if we don’t ask, who will not wake, frozen, all through?

here’s the plot, simply: take a few lunch bags. toss in oranges and chocolate, anything else that you fancy. haul ‘em into your car. you don’t need to drive to the depths of the city to find cold folk. how ‘bout this: when you see someone out working, someone without much of a choice, roll down your window, stop your car. reach out your arm, get out from behind the wheel, even. put your brown bag in his or her hand. smile. say what you will. then go on your way. or bring ‘em home for a hot home-cooked dinner. your choice. always your choice.

report back…