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

Month: April, 2007

the case of the pink streaked heap

there, there, don’t you feel better already about your monday morning?
bet you didn’t find a heap like this piled on your basement floor over the weekend. my disaster, friends, is your dodged bullet. i offer up my misery in the aim of making your monday just a little bit, um, rosier.
you can now whistle your way through washday monday, with a wee little laundry chip on your shoulder. you can feel smug even. you can think: dang good thing at my house we know how to do the laundry. good thing at my house we’ve got “no trespassing” signs plastered all over the dryer. no interloper of exotic hue would think of sneaking in the wash at my house. otherwise we’d be left like that pathetic chick who forgot to check the pockets.
here’s the sorry tale:
it started out a saturday with slender shred of hope for turning things around. the rains had stopped. the long, sad week was over. i thought i’d spin a load or two, make sure the little soccer dude was not sans shorts–again. nothin’ to it; i do some hundred loads a week. or so it seems.
i had no inkling what was lurking in the not-so-soggy wash.
until i opened the dryer door, reached my hand in the dark black drum, i was clueless.
oh, how quickly clueless crumbles.
rather like the red crayon that took a ride, round and round and round, in the hot, so-hot-it-could-melt-you-if-you-were-a-crayon dryer insides.
that little crayon must have thought it was at the carnival, don’t you think. squealing, laughing, tossing round and round. must have thought it was really funny as it banged, mightily and often, into the little bundle formerly known as my undies. must have let out quite a scream as it skidded over the now-pink black dog t-shirt, the brooks brothers boxers–tee hee, i can hear it now–the socks, the socks, the sweatshirt and the little gray sweatpants that started it all.
there is a pocket in those size 5-6 sweatpants. a little pocket. not big enough to hold anything much bigger than, well, a half a crayon. a half a red crayon even.
good thing these days i always have a camera at the ready, otherwise i might have wept when i pulled the first handful of dried, caked-on pink with streaks of bloody red from the dryer. the more i pulled, the more my eyes grew wide. then wet. oh lord, i cried, in the middle of an otherwise mild-mannered morning.
you know how your brain doesn’t quite click click click all the time? like, say, when you are holding red-streaked undies, thinking what the heck? but then, this little flicker of a brain wave shakes itself from slumber, shouts in your other ear, yo, mama, remember the other day, when your blessed mother tapped on office door, shoved cupped hand through door ajar, showed off red waxed specimen, said something to effect of, “honey, look what i found in the laundry. that would have been a disaster.”
cluck, cluck. oh, yes, a disaster, you remember saying swiftly, as you turned your eyeballs back to the keyboard before you.
eek. it dawns on you: you are, standing here in cool dark pink-streaked basement, deep in the middle of aforementioned disaster. you stick your head in the dryer, and you see that you now have a pink dryer drum.
you realize that that red crayon you saw the other day was only the half of it. its twin took quite a tumble.
you go berserk. you call your very smart neighbor, thinking maybe she too has tried to dry a crayon. with poor results.
you get, instead, her husband. he’s a guy who spends his life designing something called artificial intelligence. maybe he’s the guy for you. he, intelligent man, artificially intelligent man, tells you to google it. this reminds you that the time you had the bats flying all about your belfry, he and your loyal bat-fighting husband cowered in front of the computer, bike helmets on their heads, tennis rackets at the ready, googling “bats, how to chase away.”
oh well. what’s to lose. you google “crayon in dryer.” poof. you get the word. congratulations, lady, you have just scored one of the top seven laundry disasters.
your computer tells you so.
hmm. they recommend wd-40, which last you checked had something to do with squeaky wheels, or at least you think so, since you’ve never really used it.
you toddle off to the neighborhood hardware store, an old-fashioned place with workers who seem to have faced every disaster in the books and always have a fine idea for how to fix things.
you tell the nice lady behind the counter why you’re there. she shakes her head. she goes to get her brother in the back. he too shakes his head. but he adds this: “horrible. horribly bad.”
he says never mind the wd-40. what you need, lady, is floor stripper.
huh? floor stripper in my all-pink dryer? you think this is slipping fast into the toxic waste dump of your life. you picture yourself descending to the cellar in puffy spacesuit, the kind they wear when clearing noxious poisons in the filmstrips about what to do in case of nuclear spill.
the nice man insists. you, dutiful, take home your stripper. and a pair of pink rubber gloves. going with the color theme, of course.
you are deep inside the dryer drum. the hot dryer drum, mind you, inhaling noxious stripper, rubbing hard, when suddenly you hear little feet stomping up above. the little one and his papa are home from saturday morning t-ball. they let you know that they are back. they ask what you are doing in the basement.
you tell them that a crayon, it seems, crept into the dryer.
the little one, sounding jolly, even proud, shouts back: “that red crayon was mine!”
how, you ask, did it wind up in the laundry?
“oh, it just fell in my pocket,” he says nonchalantly, as if kindergarten is a place where art supplies take flying leaps all day. dive-bomb into pockets, small dark places where mothers on the move might not think to look.
and so, you spend the next two hours stripping crayon out of your dryer drum. because it’s a beautiful saturday morning. and you can think of nowhere you’d rather be than with your head stuck in a dryer, getting dizzy as you rub.
the pink laundry, you soaked and soaked. you sprayed and soaked some more. you ditched the undies. you now own your teenage son’s fine pink black-dog t-shirt. and the boxers? except for lasting bits of crayola red, polka dots to remind you of the day you forgot to check the pockets, they are resting comfortably in the bottom of a drawer.
and you, head cleared, are recommending this: keep on hand a quart of floor stripper, for you never know what lurks at the bottom of a pocket.

moral of the story: hmm, you tell me. or rather, just tell your favorite laundry disaster tale. or perhaps you’d rather talk about 101 ways to put floor stripper to good use. have at it.

a very very special birthday to a little angel turning four.

and it’s monday, check the lazy susan. she spins anew.

in the wings

i wasted little time this week playing out my role as wholly dispensable mama in the wings.
on sunday, a whopping five days before the curtain so much as budged, i stocked up in groceryland, filled my cart with all the things a young thespian would need to stoke his flames. he tagged along, of course, not willing to succumb to my uncharted whims. he edited and amended as we rolled, my 5-11 mop of curls and me, throwing this and thats into the basket, willy-nilly.
ever since, i have been tossing all those duly-carted essentials—the steak, the frappuccino, the calamari, even—right back in the direction of his open gullet.
i am, after all, attending to the care and feeding of a boy about to be a butcher. tonight’s the night he fiddles. on a stage. in the glare of blinding lights. before a wad of strangers, ever-scrutinizing eighth graders, and even, gasp, a girl whom he might consider not only smart, but that’s all i’ll say.
and i, the mama who will be biting nails, slunk low in my cushioned seat, i will be left helpless, more or less. there is nothing, people, for a mama or a papa or anyone to do when it comes to watching one you love take to center stage. no matter what the stage, or what the stage of life.
all week, i have been pondering this latest twist in our equation. it is, like watching little backpack toddle up the giant steps to yellow schoolbus, yet another noodge beyond the nest. mama bird watching fledgling beat wings against the wind, catch the updraft, soar. see the world from vantage seen only when you fly on your own power.
and so, all week, i’ve done a little wing thing all my own: i’ve flapped, all right. flapped plenty. in little ways that no one’s really noticed. but i knew. i was flapping in the hopes that somehow i could build the breeze to keep him from wobbling up on stage.
i have lobbed vitamins by the handful toward his mouth. i have whipped up every dinner that he loves. and splurged on scrambled eggs and cheese tucked in cardboard pocket (he claimed the protein would do him well as he reached long arm deep into the freezer case). i have even—shh, don’t tell a single one of his uber-dude friends—tucked a love note or three in hiding places he was bound to come upon. underneath the toothpaste was one, should you need to know.
just now, as i tiptoed past his door, where on the other side he sleeps, i paused and whispered little prayer. God, give him strength. a mother’s mumbling in the half-light of the early morn. casting vespers as if a safety net. as if that will keep him from tumbling, say, through the stage floor trapdoor.
in the end, of course, it’s all just propping.
he, my not-so-little guy, will be alone on stage, belting out tradition, spouting lines with all the gusto he can muster.
this is all brand new. never before, not counting the piano recital where i held my breath and moved my fingers just as he was trying to do up at the front of the cavernous rented auditorium with really sad acoustics, have i seen him on a stage, alone, moving his mouth.
i have a feeling it won’t be the last.
but now, this time, i am feeling fully the fact that he is off without me, without any earthly anyone for that matter. i cannot hold his hand. oh lord, he would swat me with his glued-on, rubber-banded beard at the very thought. i cannot whisper lines into his ear. and i sure can’t quell the rumblies in his tummy.
i must interject, interrupt my blathering: i am not, not one bit, the stage mama you might make me out to be, despite the whispered mama thoughts that i’m confessing here. i’ve not set foot in the theater, not for weeks and weeks. i just lurch to curb, load in carpool, and meander on my merry way. and it’s not that i’m worried. not yet anyway, not until i’m slunked and peeking through my fingers.
this is all just the mama voodoo that we of certain ilk are wont to do. we all but wiggle our noses in hopes that we can keep the twinkling light from freezing, fizzling there in front of tens of hundreds. or at least a few occupied rows.
be not confused: he will be wholly himself. afloat. at sea upon the waves of his own making. a child turning man, all eyes on him. and, up to now, he is mister cool.
we have all, though, been the mama in the wings. we have all loved someone completely. but not been able to slip inside that someone’s skin. not been able to run the meeting, to take the heat, to grab the mike and lead the national anthem, so help ’em God.
there is a line, there is always a line. it is where life takes finger and runs it through the sand. then stands back and beckons, cross here. be your own person.
you know it’s coming when you’re the one who won’t be crossing, when you’re the one left standing just this side of over there, hands clasped politely right behind the tag on the back of your pants.
but when you are right here, at the edge of that line, you find yourself doing all sorts of silly things: vitamins, as if they’ll make him not forget his verse. delmonico steak (whatever slice of beast that is), in breath-held hope that it will put some pink in his most pinchable butcher’s cheeks. prayers to the patron saint of butterflies, begging for deliverance from that belly-flipping annoyance.
most of all you blink through teary eyes, knowing, praying, hoping, that all the love you’ve breathed into those great big lungs will come belting out in song and verse that tells the world, but most of all the owner of the lungs, “hey, kid, you’ve arrived. you crossed the line. you’re out here on your own. you’re somethin’ else, my friend.”
and then you leap to your feet and wish you could charge the stage. but you won’t. because you’re the one waiting in the wings. it’s not about you, mama. it’s about the boy who, all on his very own, became the butcher.

silly me, i get watery-eyed just thinking about. but what about you? what about the times in your life where you weren’t the one on stage, flying under your own power; you were the one in the wings, crossing fingers, holding breath? how did you breathe air into the lungs that would be expelling on their own? what voodoo did you do? or, if you were the one under glare of lights, how were you propped up by the hands that no one else could see?

any minute now…

i check as many times a day as i can make up reasons for scooting out the side door, traipsing down the narrow blue-stone path. the path so bombarded with branches poking this way and that, you are forced to do a wiggle as you walk. the path that on both sides is flanked by reasons nos. 1 and 2 if you made me step up to the chalkboard to write, 100 times, what i most love about spring. i think.
certainly about the smell. the smell of spring, i mean.
east or west, it doesn’t matter. either way, i will soon be swooning. intoxicated by the heaven scent. lily-of-the-valley to the west. korean spice viburnum, easterly.
and if i do what i really drool to do, thrust myself into the epicenter of the bush, bury myself in its dizzying branches-on-the-verge, it will be viburnum to my north and south and east and west. it will be viburnum all around.
once it blooms, that is.
once those pulsing rosy teats, the ones clustered up above, side of sow without the pig, erupt, explode, divulge the olfactory notes that, right now, are crouching, curled up in the dark, counting down from 10, any second now, 6-5-4, about to, 3-2-1, pounce.
kabaam! in truest comic-book expression, the pheromones that make me crazy will be unleashed upon the world.
i might, if i’m lucky, be bombarded in the morning as i scoop my coffee into that little gold nest that so nicely perks it for me.
or perhaps its fine perfume will wend its way up my nostrils (an image i’m sure you appreciate) while, say, i’m slicing onion later in the day, thus unleashing a full-blown battle inside my nose for sensory supremacy.
boing! crash! splat! the sound of heady viburnum versus smelly onion having at it in my noggin.
oops, distracted once again. carried away, forgive me, by the mental picture of little boxing ring, and ions and electrons laced up in little puffy punching gloves.
what i mean to say is this: it’s all about the waiting. anticipation is the thing that punctuates the spring. with heartbreak on the downbeat.
anticipation defined: hope tearing off its clothes, bare naked, leaping into arms of what might be, what’s promised. pregnant expectation, spelled out in vernal form. everywhere you look, swollen possibility. circling labor room, waiting for delivery. bring on the towels and water. never mind the smelling salts; in that department, we are covered.
it is all about the waiting.
it’s all about the buds clenched tight. skin stretched. splitting open. ho-hum tender green gives way to technicolor.
yes, yes, it’s spring.
and spring, season of joy engorged, joy just about to burst, has lessons bound in tightly-wound anticipation. savor the waiting, it seems to tell us, for in the countdown comes the hurried, bated breath. the heartbeat quickened. the rapture on the edge. don’t miss the miracle, waiting for the blossom. don’t let the twiddling of your thumbs drown out the tick-tock of the now.
wait and wait and wait. and then, kapow, it comes. but, of course, the beauty never lasts. nor the celestial vapors.
it is, i’ve said before, the evanescence that makes it all the more clutched-to-heart, pressed-against-the-bosom.
and, if we pause to catch our breath, the very fleetingness itself might pound home the truth that we should not miss the marvel of the marching toward full-bloom. otherwise it’s over before we fill our lungs.
and, yes, when at last the cargo plane pulls in, hurls back the hatches, drops its aromatic load, do cartwheels on the runway. flip-flops while you’re at it. make a mighty ruckus.
any minute now, my viburnum will turn its blossoms inside out, rosy outer crust peels back, curls out of way, exposing inner softer pink, the tissue where perfume of angels hides.
the lily-of-the-valley, too, pure white bells, nodding, nodding soon. today wrapped tight, green umbrella closed, and then as leaves unsheathe, pirouette, the little nodding heads will brighten under light, and they too will exude their eau de bois.
grab it when it comes, i tell you. it won’t be arrested for public loitering. let loose. go mad with scissors and felco pruners. snip and clip. bring it in to where it freely wafts in a swirl right beneath your nose. give it tall cool drink. inhale with all your might.
it will be a long hard year, ’til once again it’s time to wait for spring to crowd your nasal caverns.

mon dieu, you whisper one to another, it seems our friend the chair lady has been inhaling after all. and maybe not just spring perfume. maybe things hallucinogenic. call it spring fever under wraps too tight. call it vernal madness. but tell me, do, what sweet scents shoot you over the glowing gibbous moon? and here’s the bonus question: what other moments in your life bring on such throbbing anticipation? do you find the magic in the waiting? or would you prefer to tear off the wrappings and the ribbon to get to the buried morsel deep inside?

of lilacs and pillowcases and slow last breaths

the phone rang. through broken words i made out this: “my mom’s gonna die. in the next few days.”

it was my friend susan. it was my friend who has always counted her mother as pretty much her dearest, best-loved friend. except of course for her triplets and her larry. it was my friend who, for months, and especially in the last few weeks, has been inching ever closer to the inconceivable conclusion that i just heard her put to words—sputter, choke through, really—on the other end of the line.

her blessed, tiny mother, the one who, one week away from turning 79, still sold houses, still filled her calendar with lunches and theater and friends upon friends before the cancer, damn cancer, truly demanded center stage, her mother was, at last, unavoidably, in her final holy hours.

moved just the night before into intensive care to try to ease her gasping broken breathing, she was now, they had just decided, being moved out. moved out, said susan, to a room where she would die. untethered. except for the slow drip of morphine, liquid mercy doled out in fractions of a milliliter.

“she’s too brittle to move home,” said susan, who wished for that more than anything.

so did her mother.

“i just want to go home and drink a cold glass of water,” her mother said just the day before, one of the few lucid sentences she spoke the day she couldn’t, for the life of her, catch her breath.

susan, who has stayed dry-eyed and unwobbly through most of this long road, was without words for a heartbeat or two. i heard tears falling. “it’ll be okay. i’ll close the door. it’ll be quiet,” she whispered.

i suddenly saw lilacs.

get lilacs. fill the room. i said the words softly. the words came from my mouth, but really they came from somewhere else. i kept going. make it smell like heaven. get her pillow, a soft pillow. play music. hearing is the last earthly thread to go.

light a candle. no, strike that. oxygen and candles aren’t a good idea. combustion of this sort, you do not need. susan laughed. softly. she has room, bless her, in her heart for laughing.

make a soft nest.

i thought of the womb that carries us into life, the gentle soothing waters. the lub-dub of a mother’s heart. the way it must pound in all-enveloping waves through the almighty contraction that pulses one life through and out of another.

i thought of death. i thought of how i would want to be ushered out in the same soft womb of soothing waters. fill my room with springtime rushing in. lay my cheek on smooth white cotton, french knots and tiny forget-me-nots hand-stitched along the pillowcase’s edge. anoint me with lavender waters. put cold water to my lips. and make it sweet, while you’re at it.

if, that is, we are so blessed to know that we are headed heaven’s way. if we have a little notice. say an hour or a day.

susan whispered yes. yes to hyacinth. yes to going to her mother’s bed, her real one, not the one that’s making do in the ICU, and gathering the pillow that knows the contours of her mother’s cheeks and chin and forehead, the contours, too, of all her mother’s dreams. yes, lastly, to ipod—this is ’007, after all.

since i was already speaking from a place that doesn’t often see the light, i kept on going. there are times in life when all is scraped away, and there is time and room only for the essence. this was such a time.

“susan, death is beautiful. i don’t know if you’ve ever been right there when someone dies. but it will fill you with unimaginable peace. something rushes in the room. you are not afraid. you know that you are not alone. there is something full of grace that holds you.”

susan whispered yes.

and i went off to fill my arms with lilac and hyacinth and the sacred earthly incense that would carry my dear friend’s most blessed mother on her way to heaven.

the phone rang shortly after 3, just after i’d gotten home with hyacinths; too soon for lilacs. it was susan. the hospital had called before she could even get there. her mother died. susan had just gone out to gather hyacinths for her mother’s last slow breaths. “too late,” she said, voice cracking. not so, i pray. their sweet perfume, i’m sure, wrapped over her on her way.
all night i have been listening to the pit-a-pat of rain against the roof, against the panes. is it earth weeping for the loss of yet another dear one? or is it heaven sending healing, blessed waters? shortly before dawn, the rain paused. the pit-a-pat gave way to robin trilling. i live miles north of susan, but i hope she too heard rain give way to robin. i hope she heard the day open up in song.

playing house

a hundred years ago, when i was little, i had a little cabin tucked in the woody part of our backyard. it was just big enough for three windows, and a door. one on each side.
mostly it was big enough for my imagination.
every single night, as i lay my head on my pillow, as i beckoned sleep, i launched into reverie in which little cabin became little house on my prairie. i added little winding stairs and second floor, i put down braided rugs and curtains blowing in the breeze.
every night i arranged and re-arranged. this might go on for the better part of an hour. no wonder i’m not so good at sleep. the dreams with my lids open, i could direct. i could erase and re-roll the tape. i could shuffle all the players for hour after hour.
in fact, by day, my little house was dusty on the floor. the windows had no glass, only breeze. if i squeezed i could slide in a table. maybe a coffee can, upturned, for cookstove.
but that didn’t stop me. i played house by day, i played house by night.
so, no news flash here, when the real estate ad for the house where i now live said some silly thing about a “summer house” out back, i was intrigued.
you gotta love the imaginations of those frustrated fiction writers who pen the real estate ads.
well, there was a rickety old garage, one missing half its downspouts. and, on a sort of room attached to its front end, there were some holey screens pounded all around. on the floor, there was, there is, a dirty green indoor-outdoor carpet, the kind that if it had a rich imagination might think it was the 9th-hole green at pebble beach. but, really, it’s just a dirty, frayed-edge rug.
for the first few years we lived here, it made for a fine indoor-outdoor closet. it stored bikes and bats and balls, and lots and lots of boxes. when we were tearing apart the old skinny, ugly kitchen that got us such a deal on this old house, the indoor-outdoor closet did fine work holding, well, just about everything the builders could stuff in there: the old dishwasher, all the ugly ripped-out cupboards, the old kitchen door, a few spare windows, boards, lots of boards, and a curled giant’s tongue of sheet-metal.
but then, somewhere in there, i was slotted for major surgery, the kind that has you down and out for weeks. i started eyeing that old summer house (once it’s in the vernacular, it’s hard to strip it out), started my old pillow game of imagining, rearranging things, shoving this and that around yet another dusty room.
i saw that the rustic shabby nature of the indoor-outdoor closet might well be put to good use. i could in fact ditch the closet, resurrect the maison d’ete. i could build me a recuperating room. on no budget.
with two cans of paint, my flock of broken birdhouses, a wicker loveseat found in the alley, two wicker chairs and a chaise longue picked up at a second-hand store, i pretty much had me my room. the piece de resistance, the thing that makes me think “cover of shelter magazine,” i plucked from my beloved down-the-block neighbor’s backyard. well, she gave me permission, of course.
it is an old hoosier kitchen cupboard, one she left out in the rain and snow for a whole long winter. one that now is a study in how paint flakes, its archeology of coated color peeling away in a dandruffy cascade of scarlet and cobalt, seafoam and forest green that won’t be stopped. not even with the see-through varnish i slathered on to slow the flaking.
ah well, the flakes don’t matter. what matters is that we now have a room, an outdoor room, that is the very definition of retreat. in fact, it might well be summer house without need for suitcase.
to kick open the stubborn old screen door, to wiggle bottom onto wicker seat, to take deep breath, and then another, is to leave behind the worries of the inside world. the geography of just a little distance, the footsteps from all-year house to pretty-good-weather house, seem to shake off much that weighs us down.
fretting has no room in a room with only screens for walls. and besides, if you brought your worries there, they would only blow away. after all, that’s the point of porches and all their screened-in cousins.
i’ve been firing up the little screened-in get-away in recent days. shook off the cobwebs. vacuumed like a mad lady. went through a whole vacuum cleaner bag, if you care to know the dirty details. even took a chance on fickle weather, and hauled the cushions out of a box in the basement. the cat, now pleased, has a pillowed perch to salivate for birds.
it did well, the little house, the summer of my repose, and ever since, it is, for every one of us, a magic little place.
a place to watch the warblers and the woodpeckers, unnoticed. a place to watch the sun slant in through pine bough in the morning, play peek-a-boo through climbing rose on summer’s afternoon. a place to feel the breeze. a place that’s not the stuffy inside, but not bare-naked outside either.
there is, don’t you think, something to be said for carrying dinner outside on a tray. or even just a tall sweaty pitcher of lemonade.
there is, after all these years, still something magical to me about playing house.

do you have a magic place in which you could while away the hours? somewhere not under your regular roof? a porch? a fire escape? against the trunk of a tree? a place that sets you free, just you, your thoughts, and a long tall glass of lemonade?

perambulation in pairs

it is not long after dawn when the pairs of our feet, one headed north, one south, finally come to rest on the same square of cement sidewalk and pivot, turned at last in the same direction.
we are walking somewhere. we know not where. it doesn’t matter. what matters is that in the whirl and tug and pull of our too-many-things-in-too-few-hours lives, we have carved, and i mean taken power tools and jackhammered, one single uninterrupted hour.
children have been left sleeping in their beds at one house. sadly, at the other, children are already deep into the day. they are left with bleary-eyed father, who is left to fend for cheerios and missing puzzle pieces and answers to complicated questions at this hour shortly after dawn.
not every sunday does it happen. sometimes the too-many-things spills even into the sacred firstlight of early sunday. how dare it. but it does.
the curious thing i notice while out at this most early hour is that by no means are we out alone.
there were pairs of feet paired all over town. pairs on sidewalks, pairs on sandy beach. often, all four shoes were what the shoe folk still refer to quaintly as ladies’ sizes.
sunday morning sole pounding must be the latterday variation on once-upon-a-time’s pillow-propped breakfast in bed. mama’s morning off, complete with perspiration, at least here in the leafy town where i now lace my deeply-cushioned nikes.
another thing i couldn’t help but note: all the ladies towering from those quaintly-sized shoes were so deeply engaged in conversation there was little notice paid to cracks and bumps in sidewalks. i seemed to see quite a bit of stumbling as they talked, the ladies. but no one ever fell. there was always, in the walking heart-to-heart, an elbow or a hand to catch the almost-falling.
it is, in many pairs, as if the pounding of the pavement draws them deep into their own cocoon. i know we were.
we start off, from the minute our toes turn and point the same direction, in the middle of a story that must be told. we diverge and fork so many times someone listening might need a chart. to trace the tributaries of conversation from the mother flow that courses, winds and bends, carries us down muddy waters for the one blessed hour we have claimed as ours and ours alone.
my walking friend, like nearly all my friends, is brilliant. she happens to be particularly good at listening, and listening with intent. she is a master of bringing all meandering streams back to the one from which they trickled, or deluged over the banks. depending on the topic.
in that short sweet hour of our whole-body pounding–soles pound, bones pound, heart pounds–we engage, against the drumbeat of our feet, in ancient and exquisite art of taking turns with words. we listen and we tell our stories. up curbs, across alleys, looking both ways for cars.
it is so much more than walking. the walking merely punctuates the stories. the walking is the sound of hearts in sync.
i have walked with friends for years and years, though now this is my only regularly-scheduled walk. maybe it’s just me, and the friends with whom i walk, but i don’t think so. there is something about stepping forward as you talk that propels the conversation deep and deeper.
over the years my walking talks have covered many, many things: marriages that have caved in on themselves, surgeries probing for ills we prayed weren’t there, the injustices of too much housework ill-distributed among the labor force of a single dwelling, struggles with children who cannot find their way.
not always it is to the bone. sometimes it is the everyday gristle that ties us into too-tight knots. sometimes, just for an hour, we need to spit it out, to have the feet beside us, pick up the pace, slow as needed. we need to know that someone outside the pounding we hear inside our heads is catching the same rhythm.
it is a sorry thing that in the monday-through-saturday treadmill of our lives there is no room on the ever-rolling, going-nowhere, rubber beltway to sidle up to another pair of harried soles. we are, too often, mostly left alone to muddle through, to clock our miles, hold our breath, to wait to tell our stories.
and so, midway through a mighty long week, we pick up the phone. we dial. we ask, without introduction: we walkin’ sunday?
we pray to God the answer is affirmative.
perambulation, no doubt, works best in pairs.

blessed friends, do you have someone who walks in step with you? if not, how in this harried world, do you carve time for telling stories back and forth?

p.s. and yes it’s monday. the lazy susan, restocked over the weekend, is spinning new….

the original mother nature

we didn’t know it, her little brood. we thought everyone’s home movies had pans of tree tops, flashes of scarlet tanager in between the frames of children waddling, waving, being silly for the camera.
coulda fooled us. didn’t every mother teach her hatchlings to hush when an oriole was in the yard? to rush out and scatter halves of oranges, the winged things’ sweet reward for populating her old oaks.
doesn’t everyone get daily, heck, hourly if warranted, phone calls with the up-to-the-minute news of the baby screech owls whose mama pirated the wood duck house, high up in the trees, and taught her babies to fly, right over my mama’s head?
when you grew up with my mama, you took these things for granted. you had no clue how much you’d learned, how much she’d taught you about the world of God’s creation while other children were merely trying to memorize the capitals of algeria, and bolivia, and, perhaps, the republic of congo.
it came slowly to my attention one day sitting in the newsroom, when an extremely intelligent friend of mine, a friend who grew up in queens, was wondering what the red bird was, not the one with the orange belly, she said, but the one that was red all over.
you mean the cardinal? i asked, as if she’d asked which letter followed C.
but you didn’t even look that up in a book, she cried, unnecessarily impressed.
well, no. but my mama is the original mother nature. or at least my original mother nature, my very own earth mama. and some things, you just absorb.
indeed, i and my four fraternal nestlings, each one of us has tales to tell about growing up assuming dinner conversations, even tense ones, would regularly be interrupted for the latest sighting of a flash of scarlet or orange or indigo.
or making the fifteenth round-trip to the nature preserve, far-enough away, little chipmunk bumping along in the back in some towel-cushioned box, because my mother didn’t like what the chipmunks were doing to her poppies, so she moved them, the chipmunks not the poppies, one by one.
my brother david remembers the parish priest pointing to my mother and calling her a pantheist, one who finds God everywhere. hmm. my brother, then and even now, couldn’t tell if the old priest meant that as damnation or salvation. sometimes you just can’t tell with these people of the cloth.
but far as i could tell, the padre could only mean it kindly. for my mother’s reverence for the divine in every romping squirrel, unfurling maiden fern, hopping jenny wren is, well, the very definition of divine.
her whole life, or all the parts i know, is a narrative with nature snapshots glued on every crucial page. the who-what-where is often faded, but the 3-by-5s of heaven here on earth are bright and clear and lasting.
i still remember the hush in her voice, the goosebumps on my spine, when she called, in the aching hollow days just after my father died, to tell me she now knew, because of a hawk, that my father was safe and well, and very much at peace.
seems she’d been out walking dickens, our beloved golden retriever, near a woods, and the hawk, out of nowhere, came swooping from the clouds, nearly brushed her head, circled tightly, and then went on.
as my mother told it, serenely, other-worldly, it was word from my father: she needn’t worry, needn’t be afraid. he was safe, the hawk was saying, she could carry on.
and so, of course, she did.
just days before my first was born, a days-old fawn somehow made it to my mother’s garden and curled up inside a window well, where all day long it waited, as its mama was off chomping leaves and grasses, most likely someone’s garden.
the mama deer, smart lady, knew in that way that nature does, that my mama was safe harbor, and the little fawn would be duly watched all day.
again, my mama took it as a sign that all would be well in my delivery room. and it was.
i will admit that when i was young ( a long, long time ago), i didn’t always love that i had mother nature for a mama. all the other girls had moms who took them out to lunch in malls and shopped for clothes in pink, i swear.
i had a mother wearing mud-splotched wellies and knee-worn jeans. her accessory of choice was the binoculars she roped around her neck. she was panning the heavens for shockingly-painted feathers, while the mothers of my friends were poring over racks of what was new for spring.
but now i am old enough to remember how she took me in the woods as a little, little girl, and taught me sacred awe for the trillium, a rare, endangered three-petaled woodland beauty that returns each spring to those who tiptoe deep enough into the underbrush to discover it once again.
and i am old enough to ask her every question i can think of, knowing, always knowing, there will be an answer. and probably a follow-up phone call, after she has gone to the library or the 1966 world book that leans beside the binoculars or the webster’s unabridged, and looked it up.
i am old enough to know that i must ask it now, before it’s too late. before i’ll be left to go alone to the library or the world book or the webster’s, aching for the answer lady who has taught me most of what i know about the world of God’s creation.

what odd-duck, yet still amazing, gifts has your mother given you?

rainbow room

the cry was more blast-from-mountaintop-when-avalanche-is-coming than just your usual first-thing-in-the-morning, ho-hum, here-comes-another-day.

it was fervent and it was piercing. it would have waken the deeply dead.

“mom! come here! i need you!”

bounding the stairs, out of breath, swinging ’round the doorway, seeing beatific child, bolt upright in his bedded throne, i would have been confounded. but the next words out of his mouth were these: “look! three hundred rainbows.”

indeed, indeed.

scattered, seeds of wonder, tiny splotches of rainbow, cast upon the wall, the lampshade, the pile of blocks, the pillow case, his right foot, the bookshelf, the alphabet rug, his left cheek, the one so round that even from behind you can see him smiling.

a room wholly quivering with rainbows. a room that looked as if someone pried a can of rainbows and poured them every single everywhere.

then this: “mama, look, rainbow jumped on to my foot.”

so began the game of can-you-catch-the-rainbow.

the rainbows that dance on walls, leap from lampshade to cheek to top of foot, come courtesy of a big fat prism, one the size of a teardrop should goliath ever start to cry, that hangs in my little one’s eastern window, the one that catches the first slant of sunbeam shortly after dawn and pours its magic on the scene once the shade is snapped and furled.

that’s when the rainbow circus comes rolling in the room.

and all of that comes courtesy of beloved aunt becca, who was my little one’s heartsong along with uncle david, but who moved away last summer to maine, far, far away.

becc and my little one had shared a year of wednesdays. becc, an art therapist who worked with inner city kids, who made them believe in themselves, who taught them that they had something to say and someone to listen, was in between jobs for a little while. so she made room on wednesdays for a little guy who loved her.

they did crazy things, those two. she had a canvas bag that she slung over her shoulder and every wednesday she brought it filled with some odd, but interesting, assortment that always led to wonder.

there was the roll of aluminum foil that led to a giggle-filled day of wrapping and unwrapping and re-wrapping each other in shiny silver cocoons and trying to walk like tin soldiers, or lie like jiffy-pop before it puffs.

there were the bits and bits of wood chunks, purple heart and birds-eye maple, ash and cherry, all left over from david’s wood shop, and, armed with tanker trunks of glue, my little one built metropolis upon metropolis, whole civilizations that still stand, proudly, amid his daddy’s shelf of architectural wonders. glue-gobbed purple-heart city hall shoved next to taj mahal.

alas, when it came time to leave, to pack an apartment, stuff it in a truck, and drive it through eight states, becc, always reading hearts, lifted her biggest, fattest prism from her window, wrapped it in tender leaves of tissue, and put it in a box.

she tucked the box, the rainbow catcher, in my little one’s open palms on the very last wednesday she came with that blessed canvas bag.

and, ever since, its rainbows have been the things that wake my baby, that tickle his eyelashes come morning, that color the last few frames of his everynightly dreams.

although, he tells me, not always. “not foggy days. not on a rainy day. if it’s a sunshiney day, i can see my rainbows.”

the morning of the 300 rainbows, i asked my little one if the rainbows made him think of becca and david every time.

he closed his eyes. he nodded. he didn’t say a word, but he looked like he might melt at any second. he looked like he might shed a big goliath tear.

he looked, i’m pretty sure, like a rainbow drained of all its color.

i sat beside his rainbow-spotted foot. i stroked indigo, then violet, the distal end of roy g. biv.

finally my little one spilled his rainbow-colored heart: “i miss them. and i love them. i wish they didn’t go move to maine. that’s why i miss them. so much.”

he laid his hand on a rainbow. held it there for just a little while. then he started bouncing around the bed, chasing rainbows with his bare hand.

that’s what rainbows do. rainbows, no need to say it, are magic, pure and simple.

rainbows are that interplay between light and mineral. the plane where heaven and earth join arms and swing. a doh-si-doh with the divine.

and children, bless them, hear the tune. they play along. they catch the rainbows, chase them, net them, put them in a jar. then, pure logic, they look for little leprechauns, one-inch ones, fitting for their little rainbows.

“there is always a leprechaun at the end of every rainbow, with a pot of gold,” my little one said, matter-of-factly, peeking under the bed. someone told him. or he saw it on some silly show. and when it comes to pots of gold, why not believe?

it is that infusion of the unbelievable as it spills into believable that is so essential, so necessary, it seems, in the lives of little children.

it is wonder, caught in little hands.

i remember, early on, watching floating ships of dust in vast oceans of morning light. my older one, then just beginning to put words to life, made a game of it, pointing, pointing to each speck, assigning each one a name and role: “magic.”

“magic,” he said again and again. i stood in awe of magic. magic i might otherwise have missed.

cooper edens, that great green tiger press illustrator and author whose books you would know the instant you saw one, back in 1980 wrote “caretakers of wonder,” a companion of sorts to “if you’re afraid of the dark, remember the night rainbow” (green tiger press, 1979).

in “caretaker,” where page after page peeks behind the curtain to catch men in a hot air balloon putting up the new stars, where others dab them with a paintbrush to keep them lit and shining, and still others spoon feed the moon strawberries , or safety-pin the sky to the horizon, edens ends the whimsy with this:

“now, while you sleep tonight, imagine what you would like to do to help keep the world magical? for you know that one of these nights your friends are going to tap on your window and invite you to become a caretaker of wonder.”

seems that becca heard the tapping, and she brought rainbow seeds to a heart that loves her, a heart she knew would miss her, a heart that might, just maybe, be filled drop by drop, if each morning it could wake in a field of rainbows and try to net them before a little boy toddled down for toaster waffles.

what would you like to do to be a caretaker of wonder?

for rent: pnthouse w/ brd’s-eye vw.

we waited 15 months for someone to move in. at last, it seems, they’ve filled the condo tower. all except for the penthouse, that little hole up at the tippy top of the triangle.
the builders are bewildered. all the other holes, they left unfurnished. but not the penthouse. “a pillow and a recliner for dad,” that’s what they put in there. the builder says so. he was standing there the other morning, beaming. just beaming. he is so proud that he built a birdhouse and they did come, the birds did.
“maybe somebody signed a lease but they’re not moved in,” chirps the other builder, refusing to believe that all his hammering and sawing would be, well, for the birds. that penthouse, he insists, is one fine specimen of three-sided real estate. way he sees it, the birds, if only they’d use their eensy-weensy brains, oughta be takin’ numbers, lining up like little planes, trying to muscle their way into his signature construction.
mind you, this is not some scrawny birdhouse. this mother of all birdhouses measures a full 5-by-4 (and that’s feet, folks, not inches). you don’t even need binoculars to see it. fact is, i’ve seen neighbors walking by, necks twisted nearly 180, gawking. scratching their fool heads. i’ve had folks stop me, is that really a bird house, they wonder?
no, it’s an homage to swiss cheese, i wanna tell them. of course it’s a bird house. what else would you think of putting on the tippy top of the gable of your house?
see the little eggs hanging from underneath? that was the architect’s idea of a joke, an architectural folly, as it were. they get their yucks in funny ways, those architects. (or should i say their “yolks”?)
anyway, i love my birdhouse in the clouds. i couldn’ta cared too much less about how they rejiggered the outside of this old, ill-proportioned house, the one that made my husband, the architecture critic, cringe. but when they came up with the idea for the birdhouse, i got downright giddy.
the architects have a little trick, and, silly them, they think i’ve not caught on. anytime they draw a drawing of our house, they make sure to toss in whole subdivisions of gabled dwellings for the birds. they think i’ll be so distracted tracking flocks of birdish houses i’ll forget to pay attention to whatever else it is they’ve drawn. but i’m no fool. i play along.
truth is, i am a little wingy for the birds.
of course not everyone thought the house of holes was such a bright idea. my mother, ever sensible as you’ve come to know, mentioned just two things as she rolled her eyes: noise, and what the french would call le poop.
so far, neither has been a problem. the birds at my house are polite. matter of fact, i think they rather appreciate their finely-feathered digs. who wouldn’t? it’s warm, it’s safe, it’s high up in the trees—heck, practically in the clouds—and it’s got that bird’s-eye view. and besides, they can listen in on all the rumblings down below, where i sleep soundly.
seems pretty much the folks who’ve moved in are the sparrows, the common house sparrow, a winged thing famous for finding any hole in anything and calling it home sweet home. there’s a teeny tiny hole just above our front door, and don’t you know, the sparrows have moved in. the splattering of grasses and twigs is piling up on the doormat, just in case we need reminding.
now, unless you, like my high-rise birds, have spent your days holed up inside some skyscraping tower and have no clue of the doings of the grassy world, you probably are aware of the fact that this is full-throttle nesting season. yessiree, it is.
which brings us to the part of this meander in which you too can play along.
let’s say, for instance, that you do not have a birdie triangle atop your gable. and that you have little chance of getting one in the next few days. well, that is not to say that you too cannot be a part of something nesty.
yup, it’s time for that ol’ slumber party pastime, the scavenger hunt. gather the kiddies, or gather just your beautiful bountiful self. scrounge around the house.
gather this: clumps of human hair from the hairbrush (or your head; your choice). dog or cat fur, whatever’s lying around. bits of string, cut up into 8- or 9-inch bits. yarn, the more naturally-dyed, the better. raffia.
for the pure joy of it, i love to put out little scraps of fabric. i swear nothing will make your heart skip quite so sweetly as seeing a snippet of your bedroom curtains tucked in mama robin’s nest.
(cotton, by the way, is not the best bit; too water-absorbent, and if mama and papa go off in pursuit of worm, the little hatchlings left behind in soggy cotton could die of cold in the short time they’re without mama or papa’s warm belly resting on their cold bald heads. silk might be quite nice. or, perhaps, a rich brocade.)
now, go grab an onion sack. you know, that little red mesh bag the onions come in. or a golden brown one, if that’s what your store shells out. the color, trust me, doesn’t matter.
take the bag and stuff it with all your nesting offerings. hang it from a bush, a tree, or a nail banged in your fire escape, for cryin’ out loud. if you’re without a bag, fear not, just cast your hairballs to the wind. or, if you wanna be fussy about these things, drape it delicately on the shrubs.
you might post a little sign, if you’re so inspired. something along the lines of this: “free for the pickin’. from our hairy brush to your feathered home.”
do not, as of the latest missive from the audubon society, clean out the lint from your dryer, not if you use those dryer sheets that make your bath towels soft and oh-so-yummy smelling. nasty chemicals lurk in those yummy smells and, over time, they will do in the poor unsuspecting birds.
also, if you really want to muddy things, do this: stir up a little pot of mud—or, here’s a prescription, make a plain old mud puddle–and leave it in your yard. the robins, who line their nest with mud, will love you. they might even land on your window ledge and sing you a special song.
my wonderful bird man, tj, gave me that swell idea.
he says that the birds are born knowing how to nest. says they’ve got the shopping list tucked in their little birdie brains. and believe it or not, he says they remember the nest they were hatched in, and somehow they know to go about building just like their mama and papa did. birds’-nest blueprints buried deep inside. i kinda like that.
right now, says tj, the birds have one and only one burning desire: making baby birds. “their little bodies are bursting with hormones,” he says. “it’s sort of like seasonal puberty.”
and it’s tied, interestingly, to the amount of daylight, not temperature. with every extra minute of sunbeam pouring down, the birds flit here and there, flapping madly in full winged pursuit of that solitary bird preoccupation: the feathered nest that stands between them and those babies, soon arriving in the form of eggs.
the eggs, in the case of sparrows, might already be here. which means the triangle i think of as the avian haute condo, might in fact be an obstetrics wing.
the rest of the birds–the robins, the cardinals, the chickadees, even the red-bellied woodpeckers, won’t be laying eggs ’til at least the end of april, or early may, all the way through july.
but before we get too deep into eggs, we await, any day now, the torrent of returning neo-tropical birds—orioles, tanagers, hummingbirds, cedar waxwings, and all the warblers—all of whom spent the winter sipping little birdie cocktails with pink and orange paper umbrellas down in the jungles and on the beaches of central and south america.
there is much to learn about the care and feeding of the migrant birds. and we will get to all of that.
but first, go grab your hairballs.

any questions, class? yes, you in the pink shirt…

p.s. you probably already noticed, because you are all in accelerated wings here, but did you see the little sparrow sitting on his front porch up there? it took hours to get that picture, so i wouldn’t want you to miss it.

and finally, seriously, many more prayers please for my beloved susan and her mother. it was a long night in surgery last night. bless them abundantly.

uninvited news

sometimes it’s just there at the front door. doesn’t knock. barges in. makes its way to the kitchen table.
you are sitting there, staring it in the face. wholly uninvited company. but there it is, and you deal with it, have to deal with it. have to try to figure out which parts to tell which children, and which parts to shield them from.
it’s the news, of course. bad news. especially horrible bad news.
like the news that came seeping in through the cracks yesterday. the news that i first heard crackling across the car radio. the news that some mad man had boldly strolled into a german class and started shooting. and then left behind the carnage and kept on shooting.
thirty-three dead by the time he killed himself. maybe more to come if the ones who are suffering don’t make it.
it’s the kind of news that makes the hairs on your arms stand on end. that makes you sit bolt upright in the driver’s seat. you are pulled and pushed away from the tv screen. you feel compelled to know, to understand. but then you recoil. think, oh my God, what if. try to imagine being a college kid in a classroom, when all of the sudden there’s a gun, and it’s exploding. or being a parent who’s sent your kid off to school there, and the hell of waiting, wondering.
you think about the lives forever scarred because they watched a campus turn into hell. they watched bodies bloodied, and others rolling out of windows. you wonder how the kids who stood there will ever again stand in a crowd and not be scared out of their wits. you wonder, when you finally lay your head on your pillow, how many nights it will be before they can sleep. and what the hell kind of dreams will populate their broken dozing when finally they collapse and close their lids.
but then, too, because it is the world it is, you connect the dots straight to home. you no longer play, “that could never happen here.” that game, friends, is over. out of touch. archaic. quaint.
the insanity of this age is that it could always happen anywhere. and so the horrible story we see unfolding on the screen is the story we pray to God we never see with our own eyes.
it’s no joke that the one refrain you can count on is the neighbors all lined up, shaking heads, tsk-tsking: “i never thought that would happen here. this is just a normal place.”
well, i know at my house, for two years, i’ve been hearing stories about a kid at school obsessed with guns. a kid who does militaristic drills at lunch every day. a kid now proudly telling anyone who’ll listen how he is into witchcraft, worshipping the devil. this kid—i’ve heard him—is smart. and he’s a loner. he scares some kids around him. he scares a kid i know who’s smart enough to pay attention, to listen, and to connect the dots to what he sees in the world around him.
last night, when i picked up a car of eighth graders from school, from fiddling on the roof, i made sure the radio was off. i told them, gently, it had been a bad day in the world. i’d let them find out the details at home. one already knew the whole story. another had just moved from blacksburg, virginia, where it all happened, a year ago. she’d lived down the block from the athletic center. they swapped the details of the story; i said little. i mostly listened. then, when the last one was out of the car, i turned to the wide-eyed one i love and i told him what i knew. he swallowed hard.
while i was cooking, i turned the tv on, to see what more they knew. before the little one came in from playing swords, i turned it off. cryptically, the three big ones of us said a few things back and forth. the little one wanted to know what was wrong. he insisted. we told him someone had hurt some people at a college. he wanted to know if they were teenagers, like a teenager he knows. then he picked up a tortellini.
all day, the backdrop to my tingling spine was why in the world do i not react this way when the news is from iraq? why can we be barraged with daily stories of 25 dead, 22 dead, in a marketplace, in parliament, inside, outside the green zone, and we do not much pause? do not find ourselves secreting away to catch a minute’s update on the glowing screen? why do some deaths give us chills, make us lie awake? and others merely fade into the rhythm of the day?
why does loss of one human life break our heart, wrench us out of sleep, and loss of dozens of others barely register a blip?
that we could be so numb is the thing that truly shakes me. that it takes hell outside a war zone to finally make us look, lift our eyes from the kitchen sink, see the carnage that the world has wrought.

your thoughts? how did the news come barreling into your house? did you find yourself groping to tell the children in your life what the hell had happened, once again?