pull up a chair

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

Month: March, 2007

the essential shelf

once upon a time, it seemed the end of the week might be a fine time to pull up a chair and ponder the almighty word. relax. get comfy. kick off your workday shoes, plunk your naked toes on table’s edge.

consider the word.

in any form. alone. strung together into something akin to thinking aloud. broken, roughly, into stanza. pressed between the covers of a blessed book. a book you’d grab first thing, should you ever need to dial 9-1-1.

by now, whether you are a regular or a once-in-a-while puller-up of chair, it might have rumbled through your head that, save for clicking on a button, the only real price of admission here is a simple, unadulterated passion for what the linguists call the morpheme. again, standing all alone, a single uttered sound; or strung together, syllable on syllable, root on one of the –fix fraternal twins, pre-fix or suf-fix; or bearing apostrophe or hyphen, the cement of linguists’ possessive and compounding tools.

a word, no matter how you cut it, slice it, tape it back together.

here at the table, words are pretty much our salt and pepper, the very spice, the essence of who we are.

words, it would be safe to say, are the surgeon’s tools with which we poke around deep beneath the skin, pulling back, retracting, examining the places often hidden from ordinary view. words, too, as we’ve suggested in the past, are jungle gym and slide and, yes, the swing set upon which we pump our little legs and point tootsies toward the sky.

i come by love of words quite naturally. words, as much as irish eyes and soulful soul, come to me genetically. from both sides, my papa who typed them for a living, my mama who as often as i can recall was holed away in secluded places, barricaded behind pages of a book that made her laugh out loud, or, sometimes, cry. she claims, though none of us has ever seen, to have a lifelong stash of poetry. free verse. so free it’s captive, under lock and key.

not sated, i married into words. the man to whom i wed my life—son of newspaper editor who, to this day, reads six or seven papers, front page to obituaries, stacks so high i fear the house might soon cave in, and teacher mother who, for 52 years and counting, has championed children struggling to decode long parades of alphabet, turning squiggles into sense, triumphantly ingesting every written line—word by word, we fell in love.

in olden days, before the days of email, we sent surreptitious blurbs of words back and forth across a newsroom. he took my breath away through certain verbs (and, no, not racy ones), left me heart-thumped at the way he furled a sentence. he went on, my wordmate for life, to take home what our 5-year-old at the time called the polish surprise, for the way he cobbled words into thought. thought that at times has left me in tears, the power of its message, the pure poetry of his rock-solid prose.

my life, it seems, is strung together by the syllable.

and some times, oops, i get carried away on winds of words, and ramble on and on, dizzied by the pure delight of watching strings of letters turn to words turn to joy, or, sometimes, crumble into sorrow, right here upon my screen.

my wordly destination today, the place i intended to meander to this morning, is really rather risky. before i even mention where, i must issue a disclaimer: this is fairly off the cuff. you cannot hold me unshakingly to my claims. not forever anyway.

i am proposing that as a gaggle at the table we put forth what we consider the most essential bookshelf. ten authors, ten books, your choice. mix it up. if you only care to offer one or two, that’s fine. we will all set forth with list in hand, and check out the nearest library. we might read and then concur. or we might strongly shout in protest.

i’ll go first. sort of like being the one dared, and dreading, leaping off the dock, into icy waters of the spring-fed lake just before the dawn.

in utterly no order—all right, let’s go with alphabetical—i would stack my shelf with these: dillard, annie; fisher, m.f.k.; heschel, abraham joshua; lamott, annie; maclachlan, patricia; merton, thomas; thoreau, henry david; webster, daniel; and certainly not least, the whites, e.b. and katharine.

dillard for “pilgrim at tinker creek,” and a sentence such as this: “a schedule defends from chaos and whim. it is a net for catching days. it is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

fisher, for making food writing the most essential recipe for life.

heschel for being my guide into the deep rich soul of judaism, and expanding the envelope of what it means to be filled with spirit in any religion.

lamott for making me laugh out loud, laugh ’til my side hurts, and then taking away my breath with a profound irreverent sense of god alive in the darkest hours of our struggling, nearly-broken soul.

maclachlan for “what you know first,” the purest child’s poem–a “grapes of wrath” for tender hearts–that i have ever known.

merton for taking me to the mountaintop, for laying out the poetry of what a catholic soul can sound like, even and especially from inside the silent confines of a monastery named gethsemani.

thoreau, for taking me into the woods like no one else, and for all i’ve yet to learn at the foot of this great teacher.

webster, for being my dearest comrade in the aim to get it right, and for the pure delight of traipsing through his lingual play yard.

the whites, he for charlotte and stuart and just about any canvas to which he brought his richly colored pens; katharine for her views of the garden, for her new england (and new yorker) wit and wisdom, and for being the one who stole the heart of elwyn brooks.

your turn, who’s jumping next?

heartbreak in the hives

it’s not every day we interrupt our homefront meditations to bring you the news, but it’s not every day the honeybee lands on the front page of the newspaper that’s dropped on your front stoop.

sadly, today is that day.

the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is, as you know, or might easily imagine, one of God’s creations that we love best. (see “illumination: bees’ no lesser labor,” 01.24.07)
and the honeybee, it seems, is in distress. serious distress.

suddenly, starting last fall, beekeepers all over the country were opening their hives and finding nothing–no bees, no dead bodies, no obvious culprits, either. “apian ghost towns,” the chicago tribune called it.

hundreds of thousands of colonies–millions and millions of honeybees–dying off, across the map.

at first, the keepers of bees were calling this strange occurrence “fall dwindle,” or “disappearing disease.” but then, underlying and amplifying the alarm, just last month a swarm of bee brains put their heads together in a task force and realized this was not some seasonal decline; they renamed the mysterious and vast wiping out of bees from coast to coast, Colony Collapse Disorder. egad, capital letters.

no one has a clue what’s wreaking all the havoc; the beekeepers, it seems, are truly baffled. it might be pest, or the modern ways some have come to manage hives. it might be, worst of all, some environmental scourge.

to date, 24 states across the country count themselves among the seriously afflicted; illinois has yet to raise its tattered flag. but, beekeepers say, it’s never a good idea to open your hive before the daffodils are in bloom, so in many states they just don’t know what they’ll find when they finally lift the lid.

what’s at stake, according to the bee people and the newspaper that landed on my stoop, is, of course, the $150-million-a-year honey industry, but worse, the honeybees’ pollination of crops across the U.S., valued at $14 billion annually. (what they do, when all is well, is truck in billions of bees in boxes, and let them do their thing among the would-be fruited plains; problem is, all is not now well, and there’s no buzzing in the fields.)

that would mean, my friends, your produce bin, severely done in. and grab your almonds while you can, because almond growers in california haven’t a clue what they’ll do without their bees.

about three decades ago, an apiculturist, that’s someone who studies bees, estimated that one third of what humans eat is a direct result of honeybees’ pollinating labors, the way they nuzzle their nose in the fuzz of every blossom that must be passed from pistil to stamen if bearing fruit is to occur.

the national research council figures three-fourths of all flowering plants require pollination to bear fruit.

far as i’m concerned, though, all this number pinning only begins to lay out the breadth of the disaster.

here’s a dabble into the depth: no economist will put numbers to the loss of wildflowers, but already in the u.k. and the netherlands, scientists have correlated the decline in honeybees and flowers. it’s a vicious cycle: bees rely on certain plants, plants rely on certain bees. what’s lost is the ephemeral wild flower, beacon of fragile beauty, bursting through the earth with reckless and random abandon.

but what else of the noble bee might we stand to lose? the wax, illumination in its early stage; a wonder healer called propolis, believed to cure or stave off everything from the common cold to asthma to festering wound; the colony itself, model of cooperation and getting the job done, even if an autocratic civilization, what with madame queen bee ruling over all her winged minions.

when i am distressed about the bee, or just plain curious about the buzzing creatures, i turn to sue hubbell, who has been described as “a latter-day henry thoreau with a sense of the absurd.” once a beekeeper in the ozarks, she wrote, “a book of bees,” (houghton mifflin, $12) back in 1988, bits of which originally ran in the new yorker. she puts together words that drip like honey from the hive.

i wish i could have called her to get her read on this disaster, but, alas, i could only turn her pages, remind myself of why it is i am so gaga for the bees.

on page 53 she tells us, “beekeeping is farming for intellectuals.” already, i am more than hooked. not that i consider myself any sort of intellectual. but i know that all sentences that follow will send me to the moon. and they did.

she goes on to tell that “the greeks spun tales about the god of beekeeping, aristaeus. pliny wrote about bees. aristotle observed them, puzzled over them and reported his findings. virgil made bees the subject of his fourth georgic, a part of the series of poems with agricultural themes.” classicists, she tells us, insist that virgil’s purposes were political, that he used bees as a vehicle for his clearly political leanings, to prove his civic points, pointing all the while to the workings of the hive.

but isn’t that the very thing that makes us drool at the thought of bees (and not simply their golden honey), the very fact that bees might be a model for whole civilizations?

and then we come back to the wildflowers. there is nothing left but sadness, when considering that the tender and the robust, both and all, would be helpless in the wind if it weren’t for the busy flapping bee, ferrying most essential pollen from one sweet throat to another.

and what would be a world without strawberry? or berry of any sort? or the apple or the peach? would it be a world in which i would want to dwell?

the honeybee it seems is hardly afterthought, although most of the world, save for all those beekeepers and honey lovers, think little of the bee in the course of any day.

it’s curious to note that back in ancient times, there grew a great myth, the myth of aristaeus, that had as its crisis point the wiping out of all the hives.

it makes me wonder if there’s a lesson to be learned, if only we will listen to what’s unfolded in the millennia of long ago.

here’s the story: aristaeus, it’s told, was the son of cyrene, who despised spinning, weaving, “and similar housewifely tasks.” she preferred to hunt wild beasts. apollo, you might remember, once watched her wrestle a lion to the ground and fell so in love with her, he carried her off to africa and built a palace there for her.

after their love child, let’s call him ari for short, was born, apollo ditched cyrene, and cyrene, longing for the wild, in turn ditched poor ari, leaving him to be raised by nymphs who, among other tasks, taught him to raise bees in terra cotta pots.

when grown, aristaeus wandered out of libya, and amid his wanderings stumbled upon eurydice, a wood nymph, who happened to already be taken, the beloved, it seems, of orpheus. (and you thought modern soap operas were twisted? well, hold on, it gets better here…)

not-smart ari, according to the story, tried to rape eurydice, but she ran, through the woods. in her hurry, she did not see a big fat snake right there on the path. don’t you know, this being a greek legend, she tripped right then and there over a tree root. the snake, of course, bit her and she died from the poison. orpheus, heartbroken, grabbed his lyre and started to pluck. hades, god of the underworld, was so moved by the beautiful music, he was going to let eurydice out, but only if orpheus promised not to look at her until she was safely in the sunlight. alas, ol’ orph couldn’t help himself, looked back, and lost her forever.

the other gods, so furious at ari, punished him by killing all his bees. he had no clue–sound familiar?–why all the bees had died, so he went off in search of his mother, mistress of wild things. he found her living under a stream, a fine place for a wild mama. she knew nothing about the bees, but sent him off to proteus, the god of many shapes, who might have a clue. ari ends up having to wrestle proteus to the ground, insisting he hold one shape until he tells what happened to the bees.

to make a too-long-already story a mere tad shorter, suffice it to say that much sacrifice was involved, but at last, the gods relented and a swarm of bees appeared to ari, who promptly stuffed them back in terra cotta pots.

grateful for the forgiveness of the gods, ari and his pots of bees settle down and live a relatively uneventful life, except for when his son gets turned into a stag, then torn to bits by a pack of 50 hounds.

all this is to say that, perhaps, just maybe, the gods are buzzing mad at something that we’ve done. and we, like ari, must do something rather drastic, something sacrificial, should we ever have a hope of once again seeing swarms of honeybees in our terracotta pots.

it’s either that, or a life that might be hades-ruled, a life spelled h-e-double l. i can’t imagine. no strawberries. no beeswax candles. no wildflower tossing in the wind. it makes me shudder.

whither the honeybees?

record your heartbreak here…..

gulping sky

it is best practiced on your back. a blanket comes in handy. you can do it in a chair, or standing like a soldier. only then your neck gets sore.

it is eyes locked on heaven. it is watching celestial shadow games, the sun and clouds the players.

it is what happens, unless you live in a house of skylight after skylight, when cold and snow is ended and you finally step outside. into God’s cathedral.

louis kahn, the architect i love because i love his thoughts though not his buildings, talks about the treasury of the shadows. he writes: “light, the giver of presence, casts its shadow which belongs to light. what is made belongs to light and to desire…”

he writes later: “the structure is a design in light. the vault, the dome, the arch, the column, are structures related to the character of light. natural light gives mood to space by nuances of light in the time of the day and the seasons of the year as it enters and modifies the space.”

and so it is with clouds. clouds, i think, are heaven’s vault and dome and arch and column.

i watched the sunbeams play with clouds the other afternoon. i watched the light play peek-a-boo. first, absence of shadow, all light the same, as sun was captive to the clouds. then, as cloud skittered north and east, the rim shone piercing white, a ruffled edge illuminated from blinding light behind the vapored curtain. then, pop, sunbeam re-emerged and shadows danced again.

on and on it went. i was lost in clouds for the better part of an hour. my boys romped. one with camera, the one who caught the clouds above for me. the other one with sand and hands. each one of us lost in time. each one of us transfixed by light and shadow, sand and lake.

it’s what happens when you surrender to the calling of the blanket. the blanket that made you turn the car, and park, and haul it to the sands.

i am, as always, and as so many, many before me, very much a ready student in the great school of God’s world as it surrounds me. i am, me and my home-bound suburban life, hellbent on breaking out, breaking open the fragile and the monumental offered up by nature. be it clouds and light and shadow, or tender shoots refusing to be barred by crust of earth, i am seeping up the lessons, taking in the truths. there is metaphor all over. it’s deep and it’s profound.

and sometimes, when the clouds and sunbeams do their dance, it’s simply pure delight. it made me draw my breath, gulp the sky. it made me call the boys. “come watch this,” i shouted. “here, lie down.”

so the three of us, three logs in a row, we lay there on the blanket, we played a guessing game. when was sunbeam breaking through? when was shadow coming back?

the little one played his own game. he was playing circus in the sky. he saw a fire-breathing dragon. and then an elephant with trunk that poked the dragon in the bottom.

i particularly loved watching the parade of clouds through the filigree of branches bearing buds. it made the sky seem even more immense, made the clouds more beyond my touch. it made me feel so little.

i think, sometimes, that feeling small, in the face of God’s creation, is an extraordinary blessing.

i only wish i took the time to put my spine to earth, my eyes to sunbeam dance, every single day.

anyone else catch the clouds the other afternoon? anyone make a daily practice of gulping sky as celestial exercise?

photo credit: sweet will, once again. lesson learned: don’t leave home without your lens.

emergency blanket

it dwells, as too many things do, in the back of my old blue station wagon, the one so old it pre-dates the cupholder as standard feature.

it once was a wedding present from a friend i dearly love. for years and years it covered our bed. then the bed of the boys who came two and 10 years after the wedding. then it started getting so holey i thought it might wend its way around the little one’s neck some night, so off the bed it came.

in the back of the car it landed.

which, it turns out, is a most essential thing.

the blanket, now, has a much more important job than keeping arms and legs and little pink toes covered through the night.

the blanket, now, is in charge of instant, spontaneous, unanticipated (have we sufficiently pounded home that point?) taking time out. the blanket, indeed, is for emergencies.

emergencies of most essential non-essential nature.

see, the sad thing about me–or one of them, at least–is that i am not a natural-born heehaw girl. no, no. that would be some other self, a one i’ve never truly caught up with.

i remember long, long ago being home for spring break and being holed in my room for like 10 hours straight, memorizing every blessed function in the human body for a doozie of a physiology exam. i remember my papa, a man known to keep his fingers to the keyboard for sessions that routinely went late into the night, i remember him coming to my room, practically nabbing me by the scruff of the neck, offering forth one of his famous gene-isms: “the wise man says, a nose to the grindstone only leads to one thing, a sharp nose.”

and so he ushered me out the door, down the stairs and off to some silly movie.

i still need prompts. i still need post-its stuck around my life, reminding me that not every hour need be for getting something done.

i still need, basically, someone to grab me by the neck, point me down the stairs, turn me in the direction of silly movies.

my papa’s not around, so i keep my blanket near at hand. you, like many who’ve glanced in the back of my wagon, might wonder why i travel, 12 months a year, with my holey blanket.

well, the reason, one of them anyway, made itself duly apparent yesterday when me and the ol’ wagon and those two boys turned in at the lighthouse parking lot instead of driving by. i lurched the car into park (if you’ve ever driven with me you know i don’t choose these verbs randomly, they are plucked with true precision), slung backpack over shoulders and, while wondering eyes absorbed the shock, i hauled blanket from the back.

“c’mon boys,” i shouted over my shoulder, headed down the hill. “we’re going to the beach.”

mind you, our beach was less than a mile from our house, but we fell into communion with all those around the globe, many of whom started out from here, the town that’s been deserted, stretched out on sands, slathered under sunscreen.

oops. i forgot the sunscreen.

ah well, the blanket, you recall, is prompt for unintended fun. it has no duties in the practical department. that would be another post-it i’ll need to leave around: don’t forget the sunscreen.

before i leave you stranded on the beach, though, my whole point in bringing up my blanket is the most essential grace of stopping time sometimes. hitting the proverbial pause. even if, especially if, you’re not a million miles from home, and you’ve not packed a suitcase.

the zen buddhists teach us well, and muslims too: take time out of your day. carve deep places for quiet contemplation. and don’t forget the prayer of the unplanned picnic.

to gather on a beach, to bury legs in sand. to watch the waters ebb and flow. it can be a holy moment. the sacred sound of laughing with your children, or anyone you love.

there is unending grace, it seems, in allowing an ordinary moment to turn itself inside out, to expose the whimsy of an hour when all that really matters is that you’re not doing the thing you thought you would have been.

so here’s the prompt: be ready in an instant. don’t leave home without your holey blanket.

tomorrow: what happens when you stretch out on holey blankets.
photo credit: my sweet will, armed with camera, whereas i was not, indulged me–and all of you–with the image up above. sumptuous, is it not?
and now, your turn: how do you remind yourselves to take time out for unadulterated joy? are you, unlike me, good at skipping class?

last one out, turn out the lights


so here we are, supremely home alone. whole town, it seems, is up and gone. destinations: distant.

not us. we’re here, hauling in the papers, the mail. feeding home-bound cats. keeping an eye out for wayward packages.

we are the stay-at-home brigade. and we’re rather practiced at it. except for once in four years, when we made an emergency crash landing at my then newly grieving, widowed brother’s, we’re the ones who hold down the block, every spring break.

mind you, it has its advantages. other night, i was the only one in the checkout line at jewel. matter of fact, i was the only one in the store. the checkers were holding a little dance contest when i rolled in, needing strawberries and milk and pretzels stuffed with apples (the finest bedtime snack, made, it turns out, by my pilates buddy kim; we twist like pretzels together, she makes them for a living).

if we wanted to take our pretzels to the street, plunk down in our jammies, with our glasses of milk and our puffy twists, we could do that. no one would honk a horn. we could sit there dunking pretzels for a quarter hour, in the part of the street where the cars zoom back and forth on an ordinary evening. but not this week, oh no. no one, not a single headlight, would come shining down the lane.

i’m telling you, we’re all alone here.

it was quite something, the wind-up to this solitary adventure. first the calls started coming in: could you bring in our mail? could you feed the cats? scoop the cat box? funny, no one even asked if we were leaving; they just assumed, as always, we’d be here.

then the afternoon that school got out for the last time in a week, all these funny trucks started pulling to the curb. trucks with “stay,” blazoned to the side. seems all the mutts on the block were getting escorted to spas for spring break.

wonder if i coulda jumped in? done a little panting? drooling, perhaps? made like i was just another mutt.

ah well. the stay mobiles departed, then black cars arrived. no one, it seems, drives to airports anymore. they let the black cars do the honking. they made no noise on my block, the black cars did not. they quietly opened up their doors, flipped their trunks, then carried off the folks who’d packed up all their sunblock.

i waved, from here on the curb. then i got to making my calculated chart. figured out the rounds, which cat when, which mail where.

but now we’re settled. now we’re having fun. we’ve got the whole movie store to ourself. we can have any flavor we want at the baskin-robbins. and just yesterday after a long family bike ride (yes, the one who once fell off, remounted and rode again, much to his mother’s pounding glee), i dashed inside, poured big mugs of pink lemonade, piled high a basket full of pretzels, carried it outside to where the boys were waiting.

tell me, i began, what bed & breakfast would serve pink lemonade and pretzels in the middle of a sunday afternoon?

with that, the easy rider curled up and took a three-hour nap. there was no noise to wake him. only the sound of his mama being home alone.

and if you’ll excuse me now, the bed & breakfast is serving the boys’ most favorite french toast, and someone around here has to get the griddle going…..

anyone else around this week? or are you tapping in tahiti?

also, i noticed over the weekend, a truly wonderful lacing of comments being added to days past. please, never feel like a subject is closed once the next meander rolls along. the conversation, like a good broth, gets richer for the simmer, the adding of ingredients. take a glance back. add more thoughts. this chair endeavor is best when the thoughts keep building. i am only here to get the broth on the burner. you are the ones who make it worth savoring……and for that, of course, i thank you deeply…

day job: washing windows

it’s an occupational hazard, or at least this week it was. i’ve been spritzing, rubbing, wiping streaks from windows all around.

my glass, egad, so streakless, poor pigeon crashed beak-first into what it thought was sky. (fear not, i went in search of him, poor feather-fallen thing, but he was nowhere to be found, which means i can assume that his neck remained intact; by the way, i promptly scotch-taped cutout bird to prevent another crash. did you know that window crashes kill a billion birds a year? someone counted.)

but back to window wiping.

all this wild-eyed doing away with smudge and splot, the goo that’s left from winter, it has nothing to do with me going nuts with newfound vernal light. and it’s not, i promise, from inhaling ammonia fumes.

no no, you see, in the latest wrinkle of my investigative life, i am testing cleaners. green cleaners to be precise. trying to determine if saving the sweet earth might mean giving up some sheen.

it is, i suppose, spring cleaning under duress.

were it not for story deadline, would i be spritzing up a storm?

truly, probably not. but fact of the matter is i do appreciate the leap on clean that it inspired.

oh no, here we go again. me and my fixation on making messes clean. no no, i do protest, it’s not the messes i detest (though they do get under my skin, make me kind of antsy, remind me i’m a slob at heart, just one pile away from giving in to inner pigpen), it’s the dirt.

ah yes, it’s doing away with dirt that gets my juices bubbling.

i was i love lucy, all except the rag tied ‘round my head, madly sudsing up this house.

the more you ditch the dirt, i find, the more determined you become. what starts out as surface cleaning quickly takes a dive. you find yourself quite suddenly excavating grime. there you are in cracks and shadows mining shmutz of origin unknown.

i was reading of the jewish ritual of cleaning house for passover, the bread-free springtime festival that hovers around easter, and i kid you not the sisterhood recommended toothpicks and q-tips for getting into crevices. that is armament the likes of which this catholic girl has rarely seen.

and then, as if the toothpicks aren’t enough, the night before the eve of passover, the whole family ventures through the house, in search of furtive crumb that might be clinging to a crack. this time armed with feather, spoon and candle, papa leads the way. any crumb that’s confiscated will be burned in ritual offering the next morning. all this spelled out in the holy book.

and that wouldn’t be a guide to springtime cleaning.

though it could be.

what is it, i wonder, that has us as a species so finely wired that when the clock ticks march, we are stirred to shake the rugs? to grab the feather duster? all right, at least to dial up the kleen brigade, and make a date for superkleen with extra wax?

maybe it’s got something to do with all the pure new light, the angle that it slants, how it catches on the dust fields in ways it never did in winter.

or maybe there’s some chemical that surges when the daylight savings time clicks in, and suddenly all over, we feel the need to shake the feathers from our nest.

speaking of feathers, it seems i was not the only one under this shingled roof who got into the nesting groove this week.

seems that mama sparrow has been sizing up my house, looking high and low for a place to call her own. spied herself a little cove, she did, right above the woodwork that surrounds the new front door. the very one, of course, where i’ve been madly cleaning glass.

my mama saw her darting in and out. i saw her picking sticks, like she was bargain hunting in the basement of filene’s, i tell you, sifting through the racks of sticks, deciding just which one. plucking this stick, wiggling it around, dropping stick back to the ground. maybe she didn’t like the way it looked against her feathers.

my mama, ever full of common sense and what lurks around the corner, pointed out that if mrs. sparrow and her brood spend their hatching days right above my door, well, i’ll be wiping lots of springtime goo from panes of glass.

this springtime cleaning thing might take me through to summer.

anyone else out there doing the feather-duster dance?

questions without answers

hands loosely on the wheel, old blue wagon gliding to a stop, i was blankly looking through the rain-splotched windshield when the little voice behind me shot me this:

“mama, when we die, what will happen? will the world start again?”

he barely gave me time to gulp, time to gather thought, compose an honest answer, when the rat-a-tat continued.

“well, will i die?

“will you?

“when will dada die?”

i could not keep my eyes on the road. i turned and locked on his. he was looking up, looking my way, searching me for answers.

i gave him my best shot. told him straight. yes. yes. and, oh, honey, we don’t know.

all three appended with this attempt at reassuring: not for a long, long time.

then i launched into heaven 101.

praying as i went.

how, i ask you, in the middle of a ho-hum drive to home from hockey, did the most essential questions come popping from his mouth? why not something simple, like, mama, can i have macaroni for my lunch?

macaroni, i could handle. knock that sucker, kaboom, clear out of the park.

camus and sartre, hiding under hockey jersey, i could only fumble, hands barely groped at bat.

it is, i swear, the deepest privilege of being a mama or a papa, or a someone who breathes in sync with little people. being the first pair of ears to hear these questions as they leap from child’s soul. to witness from front row the human mind expand, go deeper, gather goods to last a lifetime.

it is self, unedited. it is child’s quintessential work, exploring the unknown. making sense of everything from how the dandelion blows to what happens when i am no longer. asking giant questions of the universe, and aiming them, first shot out, at the original sounding board of life.

in the case of my little boy, that would most often be me, the one who birthed him, nursed him, rocked him through his early, howling bedtime hours. as i’m still the one he’s with the most hours of the day, i’m pretty much the moving target on which he throws his thinking-child darts.

out of the blue, left field, in the middle of a meatloaf, the questions, they come hurling. there is no agenda in a child’s mind, no timetable for when a question comes. in the seamlessness of mind and soul, the question’s posed in the midst of its creation.

you never have a clue, never get a notice, that your very breath might soon be sucked away by the tender beauty, the monumental power, of the unexpected puzzle of the hour.

it is, for all of us who spend the day in striking distance of a child’s heart, the often-unrepeated script. the lost dialogue you can never seize again. it unspools so suddenly, so without ceremony, you can sometimes only hope that you’ll remember. but then the business of the day shoves the thought aside, and no matter how you try, you can’t retrieve the words, or the magic of the moment.

sure, we sometimes hear the silly lines. used to find them tucked in the pages of the reader’s digest. nowadays, they come in fwd emails, alleged collections of the darnedest things that children say. i often laugh then hit delete.

but what about when the script comes tumbling forth in real time, and you’re the only one who hears. you’re the one who gets to fill in blanks, connect the dots, pick a or b or c, all of the above. take a stab at the deepest truths known to humankind.

because the job i do each day, the job besides the ones i do at home, is to scribble madly, gather quotes, listen closely to each and every word and how it’s said, i have a rather unstoppable inclination to reach for pen whenever quotes unfurl.

especially ones that nearly make me wreck the car (although you might argue that scribbling while trying to hold the wheel only enhances the chance of body shop in my offing).

of all the wise souls i have quoted, and i have quoted many, i don’t think that any lines have done as much for stealing breath as the ones i’ve caught while stirring, steering, scrubbing curly hair.

the jottings that i jot, long ago from thinker 1 and now from thinker 2, are in fact a first-hand record of the unfolding of a child’s soul, even when the questions are hard to hear, the answers hard to come by.

lest you misguidedly surmise that all are thick and dense and heavy, here’s the one he lobbed my way, just yesterday, just an hour after heaven 101, spooning—yes, it’s true—macaroni in his hungry mouth.

“mama,” he began his latest theory, “i think when food goes down there’s like a theme park and it goes down a roller coaster.” uh huh, i utter, in the middle of my swallow.

“is there like an exit for the bad food,” he asks, pointing to his neck. “does it go this way or this way?” he wonders further, making motions east and west from just above that hockey jersey.

i am starting to think, now jotting my own thought, that perhaps the recent lack of sleep (see “the trouble with sleep,” 03.21.07) is doing wonders for my budding thinker.

what are the questions without answers at your house?

the trouble with sleep

if we were in the tv listings, it’s not clear whether we’d be pegged as tragedy or comedy. let’s call it the tragi-comedy that wouldn’t quit.

it started, as many prime time episodes often do, innocently enough. the antagonist (that would be me) duly bathed, and read and prayed with sir protagonist (that’s him up above, but that’s getting way ahead of the script).

there was the usual kiss on the head, the “sleep tight,” as sheets were pulled and tucked one last time, the “see you in the morning,” tossed over the shoulder as mama antagonist sauntered out of the room, hit the hall light and thought she’d have, oh, maybe an hour to herself.

she had barely rounded the kitchen corner, barely wrapped her hands on the popcorn she’d be popping, when the first plaintive wail came wending down the stairs.

something about a back rub.

antagonist, being mean, shot back a simple: “go to sleep.”

back rub plea, repeated.

teetering between tenderness and needing to cork the noise, mean mama softens–nay, relents–and ascends for what at best might be termed a 15-second swish of palm to little back.

just enough time for little mastermind to toss his next attempt at barring sleep. this time something about being lonely. needing cheetah. mama rolls her eyes. in the dark, he must have missed that.

she retreats to office. he, apparently, set off to nighttime jungle, where, big hunter he, he procured the big cat of his desires. which is what you see above. the trophy moment, caught on film. marlin perkins couldn’t be more proud.

if memory serves me right (these nighttime dramas make me foggy-headed, they twist and go so long), there were these added bumps in the weary road to sleep: the cheetah, it seems, was not enough. soon all the friends were needed. which, then, precipitated the problem of needing sleeping room for entire mattress menagerie.

at quarter ’til eleven–egad, if i believed in caps, those last three words would have been big and raised–his animals apparently lined neatly in a row, stretched from one end of the bed to the other, young sir protagonist tiptoed in the dark to where i sat typing. he sidled up quite softly, whispered in my ear, so sweet he took my breath away: “i have a little problem. i have a pillow for all my friends, but now there’s no pillow for me.” dropping his whisper even lower, he offered his solution: “i’ll grab a little couch pillow.”

as he wandered out for pillow fetching, he turned to ask me this: “what does cardinal start with? what does st. louis cardinals start with?” the boy is learning letters, and apparently at that late hour, all barricades are lifted, and thoughts just flow like cars cruising late-night streets.

yes, yes, at last, the house was quiet. (but not before two music boxes crashed onto the ground at an hour i won’t disclose, promptly–i assure you–propelling me off my chair and up the stairs to see what the bleep was the matter. what in heaven’s name? was he cranking lullabyes for pillow-hogging critters? alas, i did not ask. i had firm tucking to attend to.)

yes, yes, with that crescendo, our little drama ends. the late night rambler, cat in arms, finally quelled his rambling soles deep beneath the covers.

i never did get mad. it was all too charming, a charm perhaps only a mother could love.

i can hear you shrieking. i might hear you dialing dcfs, the folks in illinois who protect little ones, god bless them deeply.

but before the sirens blare, before they cart me off, might we pause and ponder just why the dark abyss of sleep feels so deep and bottomless to a child who clings to light in any form? why some nights is the settling to bed so agitated an exercise that all are worn and wounded before it winds to its hushed-at-last conclusion?

in my house, both boys come by disdain for sleep, well, rather honestly. naturally, in fact. i would be one who, if she could, would round the clock with nary but a nap. i love early morning. i love late night. that leaves little room for dozing in the middle.

the trouble with sleep, as i see it, is you get so little done. i find every hour has its charms. deep down, i think, i hate to miss a minute of this blessed thing called life.

and so, my little children just might think the same. no wonder i was charmed by the litany of pleas that kept the cheetah hunter prowling deep into the dark of night.

and thank heaven for kindergarten in the afternoon. while he sleeps off his prowl, i get the morning to myself.

pssst….it’s not always so drawn out. this particular protracted bedtime was truly made for tv. sometimes these episodes simply shout to be recorded. and you can always change the channel. though, of course, i hope you’ll stay tuned. in fact, i know there are other bedtime dramas out there. any takers in the fine art of telling bedtime tales?

equal parts: light and dark

seven minutes past seven tonight, chicago time, the sun will slide into absolute right angle, beam its rays straight on the equator. not angled north or south. dead on. bingo. that’ll mean, at long last, no matter how you cut it, it’s spring.

vernal equinox, defined: the planet halved by sun. equal light for all. until tomorrow, when the slant slides north. when south moves into shadow.

spring, the season of exodus and resurrection, of life unfurling, but, too, life falling from the nest. or, sadder yet, getting pushed. it’s death and life all over. to be reborn, the preachers shout, you first must die.

the whole top half of the world is shaking off its winter death. but death, i tell you, comes too in spring. hand in hand with life. this is the season of light and shadow.

it’s seesaw season, yin and yang. it’s stripping off old skin, it’s starting over. it’s tender and it’s green, beginning green. green before the chlorophyll goes gaga.

it’s chirping and it’s warbling. it’s worms being dropped in squawking mouths—life to bird but death to worm. it’s watching mama tend her brood. it’s watching, if you’re lucky, baby owl flap first wings, a sight you won’t forget.

it’s the season of awe. the season of heartbreak. everything feels tender all over. even me, some days.

it’s asparagus thin as pencils. it’s fungi grown in forest shadows. it’s raindrops swelled and pouncing. it’s puddles ripe for rubber boots.

it’s strawberries, so many, you break out in a rash. and then you bite another, dripping red right down your chin. rash, be damned; you drip.

it’s waiting an entire year for star magnolia to explode in cloud of white, perfumed. and then spring wind rips through, stripping branches naked. magnolia tatters piled on the ground. you ache as you pick up pieces. begin the year-long wait again.

it’s holding your breath as heirloom hyacinth bats its smoky lavender lashes, and then you wake up next morning to find the possums had a hoe-down and broke the stalk in two.

it’s going mad with the endless fields of iridescent blue, the siberian squill, that for a few short weeks makes us drylanders think we’re living in the midst of cobalt pools. each nodding head, a mere three inches off the ground. they grow in dappled light and shadow, but only where the earth is long undisturbed. blue ribbon, then, for keeping bulldozer at bay.

the japanese, enlightened, teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom is its evanescence. the very fact that any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they understand the essence of the season. they might, more than most, be keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long. inhale the perfume. rub up against the velvet petal.

the italians have a word, tristesse. “beautiful sorrow,” i was told it meant. knowing what you love won’t last. and so you love more deeply. is this the truth of spring?

if you listen to the change in season, if you hold it to your heart, it unlocks all sorts of lessons ripe for plucking.
here are my promises for spring, the season full of promise…..

i will wake up, not with blaring alarm, but gently, with the beads of first light tapping me on my lids.

i will stretch before the sun, bow down, be humbled.

i will make my first stop each morning beyond the kitchen door, in the garden. i will listen to the morning song of whoever’s beat me to the punch.

i will crouch down, inspect the growing things. take note of miracles that unfold in dark of night and light of day when i’m not looking, hunched inside, tapping at a keyboard.

i will make the bent willow basket on my old lady bike the vehicle of choice for ferrying loaves of bread and jugs of milk. don’t forget the berries, plump and sweet.

i will rescue broken flowers and ferry them to my window sill infirmary, where i’ll apply remedies and potions, or simply watch them fade away in peace.

i will swipe the fuzz from my dryer filter, pile it, and lay it at the foot of my big spruce. i might post a little sign: “fuzz, free for all nest-building birds. help yourself.”

i will cry if blustery afternoons wreak havoc on my blossoms. i’ll do the same in case of ice or pelting sleet. i will nurse the hurt, deep breathing, until the stinging goes away. like my knees when i was little and went skidding from my bike.

i will, some night, dine on nothing but the tender shoots of spring. i’ll wash it down with vernal wine, dry and white and new.

i will, as many mornings as i can, stuff myself with strawberries.

i will slosh through puddles.

i will take my little one by the hand and we will jump. see how high we can make the puddles splash.

i will, if i find a baby bird fallen from the nest, whisper a proper benediction as i perform a proper burial. lay a sprig of springtime flowers. teach my boys to do the same.

i will try to read the night sky.

i will watch the sun come up, thermos of coffee planted in the sand beside me.

i will, if i’m in the mood, wrap eggs in onion skins, and marvel at the marbled shades of creme de caramel.

i will master the shortest shortcake ever. then bury it under avalanche of berries.

i will plot my plantings yet again. tuck them into warming soils. hope. pray. sprinkle incantations. and water, too.

i will marvel at these days of yin and yang. and i will drink deeply from the season’s spring-fed well.

that’ll get me started. how ’bout you?

blue vs. blues

it hit me, as it often does, in the blink between up and sleep. not even fluttering eyes, and already the lunge ball gets me. right in the belly.

the weight of the week just past, the specter of the week ahead. it doesn’t usually collide on the weekend, but this weekend it did. saturday morning felt too much like a monday. a blue monday, most of all.

so i did what makes no sense. i didn’t dive into the taxes, which was but one of the dark clouds looming. i didn’t dive into cleaning, which, check this out, i need to do for work (a journalistic foray into the land of cleaning without toxins).

i did not do a one of the things on my nerve-wracking, energy-sapping, tummy-rumbling list.

nope, i grabbed for old spoons and plates. i found solace in old willow china, chipped around the rim. i found delight in antique silver, worn to dull through decades of thumbs and fingers, lips and tongues, slurping, spooning, licking, lifting.

i ditched the deep red cloths of winter, pulled out the checks of blue and white. laid blue on blue on blue. watched the morning light stream in. it made blue shadows on the wall.

i tossed, at last, a mound of old dead apples, apples that long ago required cpr. i dusted out the wooden bowl in which they spent the winter. tucked it on a shelf.

filled an english pitcher with fists full of daffodils.

all the while, i worked alone.

the gods of sleep, they blessed me. even though they forgot to protect me from the onslaught of waking up with a lead weight in my belly, they kept everyone else in the house in slumber till i woke them at half past ten.

you can imagine, i’m sure, what three unbroken hours of solitude and silence do to soothe a harried mama’s heart.

i found, in setting a springtime table, that i was chasing away the blues. or keeping them at bay, anyways.

i have, since long ago, a little girl keeping watch as my grandma put out silver napkin rings and damask napkins, egg cups and a silver rack for toast that i might have thought would hold up bills and letters, or baby bicycles perhaps, found joy in setting tables.

i’m neither martha stewart, nor minimalist when it comes to tables. you won’t find me glue-gunning little bunnies, nor waxing autumn leaves.

but you will find me sighing as i put out plates given to me long ago, by a man whose house we bought who’s probably no longer still alive. and you will find me thinking all about the friend who gave me old spoons for turning 50.

as i set the table, i gather souls, some of whom i’ve not seen for decades. but who are never farther than the drawers and the cupboards where i keep old things, beautiful things. things sometimes chipped, often worn, but always with a story.

i set stories on my table. weave a half century, now, of history into what you might see as simply plate and spoon and cup. but not me.

i run my fingers over the plate of a gentle man who wept as he left behind the house he’d carved with light. i lift the cobalt glass i first gasped at when i spied it on a shelf at a store that is no longer, a young bride picking the things she’d set on her table till death did they part.

i have no clue if my grandma soothed her jagged nerves unfurling damask cloth, making paper place cards affixed with bunny cut-outs, or jolly santas with rosy cheeks. she would never have let on, if in fact she did.

but i know that by the time my boys tumbled down the stairs and came upon a springtime table, i was less a frazzled mama and more a woman who’d found a balm in bringing stories to my table.

anyone else find solace in the laying of a table? in the textures and the patterns, the colors and the curves? in, most of all, the stories and the souls who are carried to the table?