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

Month: April, 2007

the key in the door

because we were the last plane out of laguardia and 400 other flights were canceled, because rainfall was being sized in feet, not inches, yesterday, because the mayor and the governor of new york were going on the air telling folks to stock up on cans of beans and bottled water, i decidedly did not think i was getting home.
did not think that we alone had reason to be climbing into cab, driving on fairly empty roadways through pounding rain, checking bags, getting seat assignments.
everywhere around us, the system was caving in under the weight of what someone called the worst storm to pound the eastern seaboard in 25 years. but, blithely, our own personal conveyor belt kept rolling right along.
even a last-minute squawk from the pilot, the kind you hear in your ear when you, like your nosey husband, tune in religiously to what’s happening up in the cabin, even the last minute “alpha-alpha” (whatever that is, it was not a good thing) that made us pull over to the curb (if runways have such things) and seemed to stir the ambulances and fire trucks to pull in ranks along the plane’s left flank, even that did not keep us from lifting off and bumping our way home.
i, the whole time, kept my focus fixed on getting those keys in the door.
and while i bumped along i found myself walking in my mind through my every room, opening doors, hearing sounds, seeing light come in at certain angles.
i have, i realized, memorized my house.
i know it in the dark, i know it with my eyes closed, i know it in a plane, 1000 miles away, 100,000 feet up in the air.
i know just the board that creeks under letters D and J and P on the alphabet rug in my little one’s room. i know which board at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night will broadcast my tiptoeing up to bed, way too late.
i know which drawer needs an extra tug and then a wiggle if i really want to spritz my old rive gauche. i know that the bathtub takes forever to drain, and how to jerk the metal whatchamahoojie to make the dirty water shlurp away a little, little faster. i know which light switches switch to nothing and which turn on lights that seem to have a mind all their own.
it is uncanny the intimacy between self and plank and wire, the way the house seeps into the swirl of your fingertips. or, really, the way we swirl into the woodgrain of our house.
i know every bush and tree, every growing thing–if not each sorry blade of grass–here on the fraction of an acre that has my name on all its papers, the ones that make you rumbly when you sign.
i know the shadow cast by light through every window, where it falls upon the floor and how it moves with every hour. i know my house enough to know when a new wrinkle of sunlight is spilling through the glass.
i know the sound of my house breathing. it does not belch, like the place i was this weekend. it hisses, soft like grasses in the wind. and i would notice if it ever lost its breath. i would run to blow fresh air into its lungs.
i am caretaker of my house; my house, in kind, takes care of me.
as long as there’ve been cave dwellers , and perhaps some creature even before who rustled leaves in a circle that felt soft and safe, certainly safer than without, there’s been some little knot inside the human soul that drives it to build, to know, a harbor against the cold and winds and unrelenting sunlight.
and not just humans. my cat, i know, finds little places. a box under a desk in a corner of the basement, a box i filled with little clothes to give away, a box he worked his way in.
this is the season of the sparrows and the robins all collecting bits, picking sticks, carrying them off to places that they perhaps will memorize too. that they will know, when in they fly some afternoon, and see a stick disturbed.
it is a fact of life that i have come to count on: my house breathes and i breathe with it. even when i’m gone it keeps on breathing.
which is why, when i get home, i walk through every room. i run my hand on things i’ve missed. i wind the clock. i listen to its old familiar tick and tock.
i remember once when my older one was very little, just shy of one, and we’d been gone for the better part of two weeks. as we walked in the door, at last, and put him on the floor, he started crawling madly, like a hungry mouse to all the cheese he’d stashed around the house. he crawled from place to place to place; he’d touch a thing, put it to his mouth–the cheese, perhaps–and then move on. surveying all he knew, making certain it was where he needed it to be.
i remember watching. i knew just exactly how he felt. when you come home, you let out the breath that you’ve been holding, and you inhale a new fresh breath. you are breathing once again, in rhythm with your house.
the house you know by heart.

what little quirks do you know and love about your house? what is it like for you when you turn the key, swing wide the door, and step back inside your house that has been breathing, waiting?

some housekeeping: first, i happened to see (in a hotel computer room in new york) for the very first time what my fancy apple computer typewriter font looks like when it’s not on an apple computer. it looks like blkkkh! i am so sorry for those of you who’ve been looking all this while on internet explorer. it was downright embarrassing. it looked like rudimentary MS-DOS hieroglyphics. so i am running a test. this is a font that in web design is known as a “universal.” i think at last you and i might be seeing the same thing. while i love my old typewriter key font, i might prefer knowing that we are all on the same page, as it were. so let me know if this looks better, all of you, or any of you, on internet explorer.

finally, it’s monday. the lazy susan twirls afresh. take a twirl.

t-t-trying to get out the door

hmm, you might be saying to yourself, that thing up there, the one with little beacon and big fat needle, i swear, you say, it looks just like a machine that sews.
but why? you ask, you smarty pants.
what in heaven’s name, you wonder, does mr. singer’s old invention have to do with getting out the door?
well, everything. when, at 9 o’clock at night, after supremely long, long day, you decide it’s really time to give some thought to the plane you are catching in the morning.
and when, as you finally tear through drawers, stack together all the clothes you need for one of those twice-a-year truly dapper must-be-theres, you notice that either someone cut the cuffs off your little one’s dapper pants or his legs have stretched by four inches since last he wore the now-three-quarter-length, not-so-dapper pants.
so, no fool, you, you move onto plan b, which is where the machine above comes in. you insist little mr. long legs try on the only other pair that’s anywhere near his ankles and you notice, because you see the spaceship underpants peeking out from where a seam should be, that they’re split right up the bottom.
now keep in mind that you are not the queen of sewing needles. in fact somewhere in your medical records is the trip to the emergency room with the needle and lovely salmon-colored thread dangling from the very middle of your pointer finger.
but there you are, in the dark and chilly basement, glasses sliding down your nose, pins pricking your every other finger, hoping to high heaven you can make this work.
or else, you’re sunk.
you will be the only one on the upper east side of manhattan, for mercy’s sake, who lets her little boy go off to synagogue with spaceship underpants making rare, and remarkable, appearance beneath hand-me-down brooks brothers navy blazer.
the chic who populate manhattan will surely spin you ’round and point you back to the farmland where they think that you belong.
oy, as boy no. 1 likes to say.
now once upon a time, you might remember, going out of town meant tossing clothes and brush in bag and locking up the door. that was once upon a time. this is now. this is your rather complicated life. this is your life with people who depend on you to think—and pack—what they might need to wear.
and then they wail when you try to argue that a light saber is a.) not really the accessory for penny loafers and white oxford, and b.) probably going to get you bumped when you try to pass the nice policeman who thinks that mouthwash, for crying out loud, makes for lethal carry-on.
the wailing will not end, so you pull out your biggest gun: go ask daddy.
apparently, daddy already demurred. daddy said to go ask you.
back and forth all night, the poor progeny of indecisive parents could bounce and bounce and bounce.
had i had the camera in the dim light of where the suitcases are dumped, mouths wide open, you would see that somewhere amid the bounce, bounce, bouncing one of the indecisives did decide: a flag it seems was waved, decidedly a white one.
for, right beside the little loafers, there is packed, of course, the doggone saber. “i’ll tell ’em it fights the bad guys on the plane,” the little warrior offered.
swell, you say to self, as you shuffle off to pour your goopy potions into eensy-weensy bottles the plane police get such a kick from.
as i aim and spill, i’ll spare you all the sturm und drang about the nasty storm that’s on its way. the one the weather people bawked about all day yesterday, with flashing warnings, and dire forecasts of 70-mile-an-hour winds. the one we fear might make for a long, long night on the friendly cots of laguardia.
did i mention that i now routinely fly with a guy who would rather have a root canal than have his body lifted off the ground, even if it’s seatbelted into a metal bird that no longer stocks so much as a single salty peanut for all the flapping?
ah, the joys of going away.
i forge on. quite confident that, once there, light saber, unholey pants, husband hooked to 100-percent pure oxygen, it should all be rather grand.
i love going out of town. especially when, before i board the plane, i have to haul out the sewing machine i keep on hand for just such pre-flight emergencies.
oh, and as i wind this up, i now get report from talking head at open door that the suitcase we used to use to carry hanging things, well it broke a while back, could not be fixed, and, oops, we forgot to get a new one.
hmmm, long as i’m on a sewing roll, wonder if i could run that broken thing through the trusty machine now waiting, taunting, down below?
or else, i’ll be wearing all my clothes—chic black suit on top of jeans on top of striped pajamas–as i carry on my light saber.

raise your hand if you too love the calm, the cool, of getting out of town…any strange departure tales you care to tell? in the meantime, beware of little boys bearing sabers. and see you monday, when i’m back with stormy tales.

chapter closed

lord knows i am not the first mama to finally empty the basement, cull through toy chest, sift through little people’s drawers, and send off whole chapters of my life in the back of a delivery truck.
but might we pause to mention that it really hurts, sometimes, to turn the page.
ouch. i’m very much still stinging.
like many things i do in life, i didn’t do this in easy-to-swallow bits. not a box here, a carload there. nope. i filled half a truck, the sort of truck that’s often stuffed with whatever makes a whole apartment tick.
and while i winced with every box, i did not do this all against my will. i was part and parcel of the loading.
it was i myself who lifted up the puppet stage my brothers built one christmas eve, and where many a knight had chased a wolf, and birds burst out of pies.
it was me who hauled up the stairs and out the door the boxes filled with baby clothes and toddler clothes, and the crowning glory, the black-checked baby carrier i wore across my chest, the one we called “the snug.”
i can hardly believe i let it go; i am such a fiend for holding onto things.
especially the snug that made my baby pump his legs whenever he saw it coming. the one i never ever thought i’d get to wear after baby no. 1.
and then the miracle, the leg-pumper who no one thought would be, landed in my oh-so-hungry arms.
hey, wait, i think i’ve got to chase that truck.
oh, lord, i never thought i’d part with half the things i’ve now watched roll away.
the baby stroller first pushed in 1993, on a wobbly walk where one of chicago’s finest leapt from squad car to impart this bit of urban street smarts to parents obviously, despite new italian stroller, inadequately equipped: don’t push the stroller across the alley, the sergeant cautioned, without first stepping out in front to look both ways for cars. to punctuate his well-paved point, he spun a tale of a stroller that got squished, petit enfant inside. advice, ever heeded.
i gave away the whole chronology, the growing of a babe as told through accumulated stuff: the nursing stool, the car seat, the baby monitors, the high chair, the potty seats, the tonka dump trucks, the bed rails, the wooden puzzles, the art table, and, yes, the funny little car that both boys climbed in, got stuck in snow in, and, on hot summer days, doused with garden hose, a drive-under carwash that always made for lots of noise, while boy in bloated diaper scrubbed from bumper to bumper.
for a year or better, that car had been abandoned. these days, my little one has only time for racing scooter, or bike with training wheels.
the car, it seems, along with all the rest, had finally, inarguably, passed its statute of limitations.
and so, i finally surrendered. the chapter, titled birth to 5, has closed. i’ve no business clutching any longer.
it took me years to get here. it took hours of needling from my mother. it’s a sin, she’d tell me, to have too much when some have none. what in the world was i saving it for? she asked a gazillion times.
well, i was clinging for lots of reasons. or, maybe, one or two: i dreamed of passing much of it on to brothers, now far away and still without need for baby carriers or strollers or art tables where little hands will color outside the lines. (psst, don’t tell my mother, and do not let her in the attic, but i’ve got boxes of little tiny clothes and a stack or two of blankets that i am still saving for someone’s someday babies).
as for me and my babies, i’d never thought i’d get a second chance for stroller or snug or car with little wheels, and when i did, i milked it, quite literally, to the final blessed drop.
it was as if, once it all came hurling back to me in the pregnancy that broke the odds, i couldn’t bear to let it go again.
hard-won dreams, i tell you, have a way of nestling deep and solid against the lub-dub of your heart. stingy, maybe, but maybe not so much, not after all the years of banging heaven’s door, pleading for just one more chance to snap on a baby bjorn.
but finally, part cleaning frenzy, part fact that baby 2 is rounding the bend toward six, and large part locked on little children with no chance to sit at little table all their own, or slip a puppet on their hand and tell a mixed-up, wide-eyed story, i did the thing i couldn’t do: i dialed the good souls at a place where i used to rock the babies in the nursery while their mamas tried to find a job, a roof, a life. i gave address, and promised to be home, waiting for the big ol’ truck.
there are lots of ways to mark the growing of your children, the passing of their stages.
there’s the door jamb in our pantry, the one striped with pencil scratches, each one showing which boy, when, had measured what, in ever-rising feet and inches.
there’s the relative ease of getting dressed each morning. boy no. 2, at last, can slip on his own shoes, and actually get left foot in left shoe and not the other way around.
with eight-year lag between the two, we are often slow to inch along, an arithmetic that somewhat dulls the zing, and decelerates the closing of each chapter.
one is toiling to decipher quadratic equations, the other is trying to count to 50 by himself. we’ve not yet put away the abacus.
one might soon start shaving, the other needs help getting toothpaste on his brush. why ditch the stool that gets the spit somewhere near the sink?
i suppose that i should feel a lightened load, what with all the extra room down in the basement. and maybe someday soon i will.
but right now i am thinking of the snug. when no one’s looking i just might sneak into the city, and see if i can spot the mama who clasps it ’round her middle. as she slips her baby’s pumping thighs through those leg holes i could thread, closed eyes, i’ll blow a kiss through cyclone fence, and then, perhaps, i’ll feel much better.
if not, i can always wander home, run my fingers down the door jamb.
or, better yet, grab the one with training wheels, and teach him how to ride.

how do you mark the passing chapters of your lives? when you finally turn a page, does it make you wince? or do you feel freed? and what, of all the treasures you do let slip away, do you decide must stay? it is the things forever tucked away that tell our deepest stories, the archeology of our lives…

thinking in circles

last night, while i scrubbed the onion burn off the bottom of a pan, i dove in deep in conversation with a mind i have known since delivery, which i think was just the other year.

heck, i can close my eyes and see that brain unborn, an ultrasonic skull, white-on-black on screen, the fuzzy outlines of cerebrum, the big black space i once mistook for lack of brain. until the radiologist talked me off the ceiling. i’ve had my eye on that gray matter since way back, in the beginning.

only last night, suddenly flashed forward, we parsed evil versus harmful. evil, he pointed out, is big picture; harmful is far less sinister in scope. next, he told me why he worries about organized religion; he worries that too many are too judgmental. who do people think they are, he asked, judging other people? it simply makes no sense. the God he knows forgives.

then he tossed out this: “people say you’ve gotta be good because you’ll go to heaven. it’s not about heaven,” he said as if that’s plain as day. “it’s about how you’ll impact other people.

not a heartbeat later, he’d moved onto deep forgiveness and i’d moved onto the pan that steamed asparagus.

he circled the sink and me, the boy who’s walked in circles as he thinks ever since he started thinking, which might have been the original day he lifted foot from ground and placed it back again. nearly 13 years, he’s walked circles ’round me; now, i realized as i grabbed for towel to dab at dripping pan, he thinks circles ’round me too.

when all the pots were clean enough, he and i indulged in sweet dessert—even deeper conversation. we retired to the maple table, we pulled up chairs, an after-dishes tete-a-tete all too rare in the world of over-busy, overburdened children. a tete-a-tete that might be required should anyone ever think to license those who sign certificates of birth.

while he ticked through list of one to twelve, a ranking of degrees of evil, each culled from news reports of recent years, i couldn’t help but note how on the days the news had happened, i’d so fiercely blocked him, little thinker, from this very litany of horrors—columbine, timothy mcveigh, the east texas worse-than-lynching death of james byrd, jr., the black man tied behind a pickup truck and dragged down a country road (my thinker’s pick for evil no. 1), and of course 9-11, which unfolded just minutes after i’d put him, then third grader, on a 12-seat van, newborn in my arms, his first solo ride to school on the far side of the city, a ride that, torturously that september day, coursed him through the shadows of chicago’s tallest towers.

back then, not long ago, i’d not wanted him to know the world could hold such hell.

and now, just minutes later, he was almost-man equipped with mind that studied every shade and shadow of every real-life horror story, probed for what it meant well beyond the news. a mind, i couldn’t help but notice, i could drink like desert water for the rest of all my days.

i shook my head, although he didn’t see me shaking. how, i wondered, did we get to here so fast? how is it that all those bedtime prayers, and all those late-into-the-night conversations, the ones where tears were wiped, the ones where stories told and questions asked sometimes felt like brill-o to my heart, how is it that while i was keeping watch, i swear i was, he had unfolded from little thinker of big thoughts into this mind, this soul, who, as i watch, is sharpening that tool, the way a carver sharpens knives, so he can use it to try to rid the world of what he sees as evil and injustice.

there are not, it seems, too many moments when you freeze the frame, see what’s taking shape before your very eyes. not on-stage moments. not graduations. not holding up a torah, or taking first communion. but right there, at the kitchen sink and just beyond, at the same maple table where you once set your elbows and launched a life of asking big fat questions.

there are a million moments along the road to that maple table and the parsing of degrees of evil that are, simply put, not a lot of fun.

there were fevers when the mercury shot to 105. and back at the beginning, weeks of rocking him beside the tub with the water running hard, something about the rushing sound that soothed (hmm, wonder if that’s why he now takes showers that could go on for hours).

there were schooldays when i heard all about how he’d stood alone on the playground, or perched on the roof of the climbing house, keeping watch on all the other children playing games without him.

and then we up and moved in the middle of fourth grade, and he endured a whole semester as the new kid from the city, the kid who in a town where baseball truly mattered, barely ever got on base, and swung at nearly every ball.

but sitting at that table, watching how he thinks, realizing that i was talking to a soul i couldn’t have designed to be more nourishing to my own soul, i couldn’t stop the warming down my spine: i’d do it all, all over again. in a blink, please sign me up.

it is perhaps the sweetest after-dinner morsel i’ve tasted in a long, long time: half an hour being circled by my firstborn child.

might i mention that it is exceedingly hard to write about how you love your growing-up child. i groped my way through the dark just now. i do it not to say how wonderful he is–that’s not the point at all. i do it to hold up the fact that here we are, some of us, in the very blessed front-row seat, watching the spectacle of true creation. it is almost unspoken, shared perhaps in pillow talk, the truth that what we’re watching takes our breath away. this is, i hope and pray, a place where we can whisper out loud the things not spoken often elsewhere. it is majesty, in rawest form. and though it’s hard as heck to put words to God’s most divine creation, i thought it worth a take. this, after all, is life in roughest draft. as always, i pull in close, i would love to hear your thoughts…

and while you’re at it, please, keep my blessed friend susan and her mama in your prayers. they could use a few today.

requiem for the spring that will not be


i cannot let this heartbreak pass without taking time to sing a song of sorrow.

the petaled promise of spring, everywhere, it seems, is bent, is broken, downed by something silent that came under cloak of night, but also in the klieg light glare of high morning, when the sun, at full slant, could not make its way through molecules of cold.

i have walked for miles, i have taken toll. i know now the litany of the dead, the blooms that will not be. star magnolia, petals browned like egg whites under too much butter, too much flame. only this is brown from freezing. daffodils, whole hosts, bowed in cold defeat, heads down, limp in dirt that might as well be burial mounds. bergenia, a woodland beauty sometimes known as pigsqueak, has lost its squeal. exhibit a, up above; the barnyard must be weeping.

i know i am.

barely a week ago, when winds were filling lungs, getting ready to let loose, when the air was balmy 70, we heard the rather mild-mannered news, the short-burst alarm: temperatures might dip. take precaution.

precaution, we presumed, was tossing blankets helter skelter overnight. and lifting in the morning. the danger past, the sun back up, all caution scattered with the noonday wind.

but then, the cold, it stayed. the daffodils, days later, still haven’t raised their heads from deepest dying bow. the magnolia never had a chance. one day, its velvet fingers, gloved in alabaster. but then, the next, all froze, and kept on freezing. there will be no bloom this year. there will only be brown buds falling to the ground, botanic bullets shot through with frozen death.

promise lost before it even had a chance.

which sounds, to the children’s cancer nurse in me, too much like life sometimes. this narrative we know, not only from the garden.

all around, i walk through springtime frozen on the stem; i ask myself just what it means. what lesson is this teaching?

i called a man who knows many things about the garden. he said it’s death on case-by-case basis. depends, he said, on micro-climate. vigor of the plant before the cold winds came. says he’s never seen anything like it, not this much cold, this long, preceded by solar-heated days that coaxed the blooms, coaxed spring, right from the earth, from winter.

way he sees it, he says, it’s just a blip for planet earth. a mere blink of the eye for the globe that’s spun for zillions of millions of revolutions.

buck up, he pretty much says. these growing things grow here because, through the millennia, they’ve done the darwin thing. they’ve got little tricks up their long green sleeves. but there will be no blooms. toast, he boomed, time after time, no matter what i mentioned, full of hope, some growing thing, perhaps, merely suspended in freeze-frame animation.

toast, he cried. toast, toast. i could hear him shake his head; pity the poor lady with skull so thick she’s dense.

at best, the wise man offered, the growing things dig deep inside their little souls, extract a blast of carbohydrate, give it everything they’ve got to unfurl their leaves, take a chance at air and light and a good stiff drink of rain.

it’ll be an iffy proposition from here on out, this season. too little rain, too many pests–oh no, here comes his favorite word–“toast!” he crowed again.

scooching out to the edge of this most precarious limb, i asked the hard-baked gardener if he saw any metaphysics in all this burned botanic bread. “this is nature,” he said, shooing me away to take another call.

well, half the reason i come to class is i’m convinced there is much to learn in the not-so-tidy rows of my struggling garden.

as i tiptoed through the swath where my daffodils once tossed their pretty heads, scissors at the ready, at last surrendered to the notion that there would be no resurrection, i mused long and hard on all this would-not-be.

walking miles, shuffling past the dead and fallen, i rumbled thoughts through head. why death? why so much frozen death?

the singular thing that struck me was how this scourge rolled in without a sound, without a whimper even. this was not destruction with a drum roll, no whipping winds and thunder claps, nor streaks of light that tore the sky in jagged halves.

this was, like so much of life’s unwanted news, completely unannounced.

one minute you’re talking to your papa on the phone; the next you’ve got an operator on the line, interrupting some other silly call, telling you to clear the line, someone must get through, someone needs to tell you it’s very, very bad, you need to get there fast.

one minute you think your firstborn son is out riding his bike on a golden autumn day filled with light and promise; the next, the doctor is leaning against the hard cold wall, telling you it’s a fractured vertebrae in his neck and the spinal cord itself looks to be in trouble.

you think of all the friends you’ve loved, whose news came in fractured syllables: a dark spot on a lung, a blob they couldn’t see through, ’bout the size of a cotton ball, on an unsuspecting breast.

they never knew it was coming. you never knew it was coming. it was suddenly just here. it was the sub-freezing dawn in the middle of your spring.

you too, drooped your head into the dirt. you too forgot to breathe. case-by-case basis, the plant man said. some will make it. others won’t.

you, not willing to go with door no. 2, you dig down deep inside your carbohydrate stores. you give it everything you’ve got.

some will make it.

you swallow deep your sorrow, and plow on into spring. you pray to God warm winds are on their way.

just there, beyond the window, in the hoary morning’s frost, you set your gaze on daffodils, a humbled host, stilled, not breathing at half mast.

you, though, you take a breath. you brace against the chill. you carry on, intrepid, into spring. no one says it doesn’t sting. no one…

anyone care to offer up a line, or stanza, in this song of frozen springtime sorrow? or some sign of resurrection in the field?

into the woods

leave it to the italians. they have a name for today. they call it “pasquetta,” or little easter.

why, they wonder, after all the deprivation and darkness of lent, the shadow that burst, finally, into light, into the unbridled exuberance of easter, why, they wonder, why pack it up like so many leftover baskets, and tuck it on the shelf ’til next year?

mais non, they would say if they were french. but, of course, they say it in italian. dag nab it, is what they mean, though, again, they don’t say it quite that way.

those smart italians, they do a very smart thing: they grab one of those baskets, they pack it with leftover yummy things from easter, and they take to the woods. specifically, they set out in search of a watery place.

water, on pasquetta, is key. there is, depending on your level of gusto for this little easter, some splashing involved.

in fact, all over europe today, there are folks splashing. they are not being mean to each other. as a matter of fact, they are partaking of the little easter blessing.

in hungary, apparently, boys knock on doors. girls answer. boys splash girls. girls invite them inside. they feast. they send boys home with wildly painted easter eggs.

on easter tuesday, the girls return the favor. they knock and splash.

it must be riotous, all this knocking and splashing and heading to the woods with your leftover pink and green eggs.

but, besides the fact that it’s quaint, there is, it seems, something rich about the european approach to little easter. to all of life, perhaps, but certainly to little easter.

it is about taking linear measure of time, peeling back the ordinary, extracting mystery and sacred, raising simple hours into the realm of the extraordinary. it is about pushing away the rock of workday expectation, exploring the cavern of the deep unknown, the unexpected. reveling on a monday.

because a friend i love has been telling me for months i need to, have to, must not sleep until i read, “to dance with God,” (paulist press, $14.95) a poetic, eye-opening 245 pages on family ritual and community celebration written by gertrud mueller nelson, i finally cracked the cover over the weekend.

she is very wise, this deeply jungian, deeply spiritual woman, who in 1986 wrote this book while living in california. she says this of what she calls “holy time out”:

“holes are created in time through the creation of holidays–or, indeed, holy days–where the ordinary and everyday stops and time is set apart and not used. every seventh day (sabbatical) since the story of creation is a day of being, a ‘day of rest.’ that is what a feast is. the feast has its origin and its justification in its dedication to celebrating and worship. it belongs to the gods.”

she goes on to tell us that plato, of all thinkers, put it this way: “the gods, taking pity on mankind, born to work, laid down a succession of recurring feasts to restore them from fatigue and gave them the muses and apollo, their leader, and dionysis, as companions in their feasts–so that, nourishing themselves in festive companionship with the gods, they should stand again upright and erect.”

the feast–or holy day–then, is, “the very act which makes the transition from crawling beasts to the upright and conscious human,” nelson writes, “a transformation which makes what is human equal to and a companion (comrade) of the gods.”

i don’t know about you but we don’t spend a whole lot of time around here even noticing feast days, let alone packing our baskets and heading to the woods.

apparently, gertrud does. she says that on easter monday she always let her children stay home from school. they went off to church early in the morning, but then they took off to the woods, often to a marshy place. through binoculars, they watched the water birds, the mating birds, doing their springlike thing. they inhaled the woods, the little tips of tender green budding on all the branches, turning the gray of winter woods into the lacy green of early spring.

getting wet, she says, was always part of the picnic. back to the baptismal waters, and the holy sprinklings, that are so very much a part of easter.

immediately, i found all of this a notion i could warm to: an excuse for picnic. tromping through the woods. stopping time for one more day. stealing children from the classroom, for the sake of exuberating spring (i know, i know, it’s not a word, but i just made it one, so now it is).

so last night, well past sleeping time, i tiptoed in the dark to the bedside of my almost-man-child, the one who loves the woods and who also had just flicked out the light when he heard me coming up the stairs. i told him my little easter idea. at first, he broke out in a grin (he turned the light back on, that’s how i know that), but then he thought about the school day, and thought, not even for a lunch hour picnic could he leave the load at hand.

oh, well, i sighed. fact is, we might have done our little easter backwards. we had taken to the woods already, on big easter. taken kosher-for-passover-for-easter picnic to the woods, in our glorious mixing of religions. it seemed the place to be, the woods that is. for all the reasons up above.

but still, i think, i might take the little one on a pasquetta picnic. or maybe in the twilight, i’ll take my boys by the hand, and take them off to where the gods urge us to recline. just one more day, a holy day.

a holy day for splashing in the woods. i think i like this little easter.

all right, all you wise people, do some of you already know and do this little easter? have you been splashing away for years without me? and what of the notion of not confining the holiday to one day, but extending exuberance? might we do well to weave more holiness and more exuberance into our ordinary time? are the italians, and all the europeans, not onto something? something much larger than little easter?

photo credit: my sweet will. taken on big easter. we both spotted the moss island amid the marsh; my camera said it was busy reclining and couldn’t be bothered, so will came to my rescue, once again.

p.s. it’s monday, the lazy susan spins afresh…

silence on a day that darkens

today is the day it gets dark. it does, i swear it does. it almost always does. i watched, when i was little, for the darkness to roll in.

God was broken, broken-hearted, on Good Friday. and i, grade-school believer with all my heart, i kept an eye, all afternoon, on the sky. sometimes i’d take to a rock. a thinking rock. i’d sit and watch the sky. i would know, come three o’clock, when the story says that Jesus closed his eyes, sighed his final sigh, and we all drop to our knees, that black clouds would roll in, eclipse the light.

early on, i told my jewish not-yet husband that story. i’ve told my children. i will watch the sky today.

and while i watch, i will be silent. three hours, noon to three. the hours that, by his hands and feet, Jesus hung on that heavy wooden cross. it is, my mother taught me, the least that we can do.

last night i went to church. my very favorite day of the whole church year is holy thursday. the last supper. the washing of the feet. for two hours, the stream of people, humbled, on their knees, feet naked, washed. i was washed, and i washed. a beautiful mother from kenya, her baby on her hip, washed me. i held her baby on my lap so she could wash, yes, between my toes. i washed her toes too.

it is not hard, when you see an old priest walking barefoot, ferrying pitchers and basins of water and clean white towels, to the blind, the wheelchair-bound, the teenage boy with down’s syndrome, the black, the brown, the pink, to picture Jesus doing the same.

while all the washing was going on, while the long lines of people filled with prayer, stood waiting, waiting to be seated in the chair, to lift their naked feet above the bowl, to have the stream of water poured, then lathered, then poured again, then dried and blessed–no half-baked, symbolic washing here, this was real and hygienic as well as full of spirit–while all the washers waited, i thought about the sins of this sorry world.

there is much to be silent for this good, dark, friday. as i sat ticking through a litany of sins, once again, i found myself informed and borrowing from jewish prayer, from yom kippur, the day of atonement, the holiest of holy days when you’re a jew. and if you listen, if you pray along, it is a deeply holy day even if you’re not.

i find myself, every year, filled with awe at the breath-taking jewish admission of the brokenness of the human condition. they do not tick through mamby-pamby sins. no. they get astonishingly real, and very close to the bone, to home. where my mother, again, always taught me charity begins. i think forgiveness might do well to start there, too.

so, in the spirit of atoning on this day in which it feels so right to be considering our sins, especially the sins of the homefront, that place we spend so much time considering here, i borrow from that same frank baring of the soul, i tap into the confessional vein i have found, and been held by, in the jewish prayers of the mahzor, the prayer book for the days of awe.

on this most christian day of awe, i beat fist to breast, i wrap myself in cloak of silence. i look deep within.

there is much, yes, to be silent for…

the sin of being afraid to speak up–even when it is among neighbors, and you hear or see exclusion.

the sin of shouting, singeing tender hearts of children.

the sin of not opening the door–or closing it in too much of a hurry.

the sin of breaking down the beauty of this world, and not repairing that that you’ve left broken behind you.

the sin of not noticing the hurt right in front of your face.

the sin of asking too much of your children.

the sin of wanting too much.

the sin of believing but not taking action.

the sin of standing back, watching injustice eclipse the truth, and doing not enough.

the sin of saying you’re too busy, but you’re not.

the sin of holding back, not fulfilling all that you can be, for being afraid to manifest the seed of genius that, surely, has long been buried deep inside you.

the sin of leaving someone else to reach out a hand to lift up the poor, clothe the naked, give the extra toys in the basement corner to children without any.

the sin of going along with the crowd.

the sin of thinking you needn’t be the one to feed the forgotten on your block.

the sin of going to sleep another night taking for granted there will be a tomorrow morning.

the sin of sending children off to bed without saying, “i love you.”

the sin of not saying i’m sorry–or not being so.

the sin of not feeding yourself–body or soul.

this might be just the beginning. but for each of these, i am so heartily sorry. Father, forgive me, for i know not what i am doing.

i leave you now in prayerful silence. i leave you to this day that just might darken. i’ll be watching. trust me.

feel free, should it mean something, to cast a sin….

being e. bunn

when i signed up for this being-a-mama thing, there are many points i failed to adequately ponder.

(we’ll not dive, not today anyway, into some of those matters that i might wisely have run through the almighty thinker, that mass of cells between my ears, that might better have equipped me for this madre job. we’ll leave that for a less auspicious day. this, after all, is countdown week for judy garland belting song of easter bonnet and said parade.)

certainly, in days b.c. (before child, that would be), i never grasped the charm, the pure delight, of packing joy, delivering it, complete with jelly beans, in a straw-braided basket. the easter basket, of course.

the santa thing, i might have given thought. you know, some winter’s afternoon, as a pouty post-believing child, flung (with requisite drama) upon my bed, legs cocked at the knees and crossed, kicking foot up in the air. thinking: when i grow, i’m going to be one heck of a santa. i’ll not forget the china teaset, the one with tiny painted flowers.

but easter? who spent much time considering the occupational upside of mr. e. bunn, esq.?

the basket, while i do recall a spectacular sponge paint set when i was 5, was, in the house where i grew up, more pure sugar rush, ten grubby little hands racing to the pink-and-purple plastic baskets, inhaling beans, then dashing off to rest of resurrected morning.

i failed to grasp the paschal possibility.

i would say i rather stumbled into the rabbit hole, into the unexpected magic of tiptoeing through the night, leaving trail of cut-out bunny feets, and hiding the basket of just-hatched tenderness in a place that, come morning, little feets would have to find.

there is something, something far beyond charming, about slipping inside these make-believe, oversized, dispatchers of joy, be it the one with wiggly tail or the chap with jiggly belly.

there is something that almost takes your breath away when you realize, poof, you’re all grown up, and you now are the one who, with your brush of many hues, shades and colors the someday stories, the memories, of what it was to grow up in the house where you preside.

it’s up to you, you realize, you who tucks tenderness in a basket, to tenderize the hearts of those who traipse through the land where children romp. at least in your house.

but, indeed, i have discovered, and now, myself, i practically jiggle with the wonder that it brings, that nowadays i get to pack the baskets for those little sparkling eyes, the ones that, certainly, will be up and out from under covers, rubbing, shouting some early-morning merriment, as they stumble down the stairs and round the bend, ultra-sonic easter radar leading them without wrong turn straight to where the sugar, in several forms, awaits.

before we get too far on that sugar thought, let me toss this sad disclaimer, admit this thing that might make you sigh a sigh; say, phew, thank heaven i wasn’t born to that ol’ mama. here’s the sorry truth: i don’t do unending sugar at easter. it’s not about sugar in this house.

it’s about something far, far sweeter.

and that, i think, is why i love it so.

i have a someone, a sandra sweetpea, who taught me how to do easter. instructed me in easter basket 101. like many things she taught me, she hasn’t a clue, really, how deep the lessons she imparted. there was no hand-out. no quiz, or chapter review.

instead there was a little shop, a shop called sweetpea, a shop of natural toys and classic books, a shop where imagination unlocked the door and set the stories spinning. sandra was the shopkeeper. and if you studied the way she gathered things, the tender, earth-spun beauty she gathered in her shop, in baskets, on antique bookshelves, tucked in woodland scenes that you swore the fairies might have visited, then you learned a thing or ten about quietly offering a whole other sort of being a child.

being a child–or a mama or a papa or a someone with child heart–who listens to the rhythms of the season, who understands the gift in playing richly with simple child’s toys, who breathes in the magic of a beautifully spun storybook.

it was like a refuge and a respite from the worldly, that little shop on southport in chicago. i’d pull back the door, a bell would tinkle, and then, surely, sandra would appear from behind a curtain, all sparkling eye and wisdom. quietly, without words sometimes, she’d lead me by the hand to something full of beauty. she would laugh her marvelous grown-up-little-girl laugh, and i would see the magic. then she might spend a minute telling me about the marvelous soul who tromped the woods, carved the elfin house, spun the wool, dyed the cloth from flower petals or vegetable scrapings. i would stand there, spell-bound.

my children’s toy chests were never stuffed. but they were rich in things–an elf’s tree house, rows of books, simple blocks–that will last forever.

and so it was sandra who taught me easter baskets, too. to go to sweetpea for easter, my pilgrimage each holy week, was to come home with a finger-sized bunny so sweet i’d want to carry him to bed with me (or feed him itsy-bitsy carrots). a book or two, the pages splashed with springtime colors. some little pack of seeds, forget-me-not, or carrot. just enough to whisper, the earth is waking up from winter’s slumber. all life is new, rejoice.

and so it was the other day that i wandered back to where sandra now presides. the sweden shop, it’s called, but i like to think of it as the swede pea. for it seems she’s transplanted plenty of her magic there. (her sweetpea, sadly, closed.)

the little bunny smiling from above–sandra, who is quite something with thread and needle, made him. stuffed him first with lavender, real lavender, from someone’s garden. then she stitched him up. when you rub his belly, lightly, with just the press of your finger, the lavender wafts. i bought two. one has little button eyes and nose. of course, i bought a book. a book from green tiger press (collectors of breathtaking, knee-buckling illustrations from days past), a book called, “the truth about easter rabbits.” of course, i bought a pack of carrot seeds. and a big fat orange carrot stuffed with all orange jelly beans.

come saturday night, when all is clear (i can’t promise quiet, since my littlest rabbit has made quite a habit of hopping out of bed in recent weeks), i will make like e. bunny himself, and gather my new-life wares. i will tuck simple magic in a basket. i will smile all the while. it is hard not to melt when tucking easter in a basket.

i will make one basket for each boy in this house, and then i will tiptoe to a hiding place. when all is finally still, i will sprinkle pink construction-paper rabbit feet and baby carrots from edge of beds through the hall, down the stairs where the trail will then diverge, one branch south and one southwest. each boy is on his own to find what easter brings.

and i’ll stand off in a corner, softly soaking in the joy. no one told me how sweet it is to play the easter bunny. and that, perhaps, is the sweetest secret ever. one i’ll not stop, ever, believing wholly in.

oh, if only i could, i’d make a lovely basket for every one of you. the house would be so filled, there’d be lavender wafting everywhere. and plenty of old-fashioned carrot bunches, complete with carrot tops, those leafy greens that are, perhaps, the crowning glory of every bam-made easter basket.
do you, or you, or you, find joy in being a big invisible bunny? and do you have any secret things you always search for in a basket of your own making?

batten the hatches, blanket the garden

no, no, this is not about how to dry your laundry on the line, sans the line. this is not about casting your underthings and old rags upon the garden for the sake of saving turning on the dryer.

no, darn it, this is about fickle spring.

there you are merrily thinking the thaw is underway. all around the place, little things are pushing up, pushing through the crust. not so tentatively, but maybe a little shy, they peek their soft green tips. tenacious tips. they gaze around, they check to see if they’ve got goosebumps, or whether it’s safe to keep on coming.

they come. a tulip sprout here. virginia bluebells there. the poppies, even, send up their fountainhead of leaves that look as if they’ve been cut by giant pinking shears, all ziggy-zaggy around the edge.

and my april prize, my heirloom hyacinths. the antiques of my garden with roots dating back to 1870, the one they call, “the queen of the blues.” she is a soft, soft silvery blue, according to my friends at old house gardens, the ones who rescued her in the first place, and then, for a small price, bequeathed her to me. she’s been in my care and custody for years now. if heaven sold perfume, this might be the no. 2 seller (after the aphrodisiac, korean spice viburnum, which sends me to the moon, and which, if sold at neiman marcus would elbow ol’ dowdy chanel V right off the counter.)

but back to the laundry scattered in the beds.

it seems that just as all the pretty things were hours or maybe days from showing their true colors, someone somewhere decided to pull the switch, hit reverse, and suddenly out there it feels like winter.

the mercury on my truth-telling thermometer is silently sliding south, right now at 32, which, unless i’m losing marbles, i am certain i learned in first-grade science is the point at which fluid water turns to solid ice, a substance nowhere in the primer, “how to grow a flower.”

the weatherperson who lives in my computer tells me it’s getting colder still; and, as is, all living things outside feel as if it’s deep down in the early 20s.

that means, my growing things need coats.

sleeves for tulips can be a little difficult to construct. so i go for the loose look, the draped look. old sheets flung. terry towels as fabric domes to hold in what little heat there is.

did i mention that the winds were whipping through the night? great howling winds. winds that made you think you must have holes right through your floorboards and the winds were whistling west to east, taking shortcuts through the room where you were sleeping. or trying to sleep, at least.

yes, yes, it was a night, it remains a day, for ragtag april garden. i’ve had to do this right up through may: the annual tucking of the beds under bedclothes.

in the city, i lived next door to an equally towel-tossed gardener. our side-to-side gardens on these frosty mornings looked like christo, the fabric artist who has shrouded museums and mountains and even central park, had slipped through the ’hood and done his wrapper thing. on our tulip heads under towels.

these days i dwell in the land where one does not fling mismatched rags on the lawn. once again, i stand in danger of at least a phone call from the appearance review police.

excuse me, madame chair, they would begin, we do not support your nasty habit of littering the leafy shore with those babushkas in your beds. please remove them, or we will revoke your passport and send you shuffling back to the nitty-gritty city.

which is why i do my dirty work, my mission work, really, in the back, where, save for this blaring announcement, no one should notice that i am deep into doing what it takes to get my garden through the cold snap.

if it means secreting out the back door, in dark of night, bundle of slightly tattered sheets in arms, then i will risk my residence here on this north shore. i will, as i unfurl my cotton armaments on my shivering spring shoots, not be stopped.

do not, i tell you, get between a madwoman and the precious beds she must protect, come lawn police or subzero temps that would do in a lesser warrior.

anyone else lie awake fearing for their tender sprouts, as wicked winds whistle taunts all through the night? anyone else cast a quilt of tattered cloths upon the april beds, in hope that may the month will bring a riotous show of life triumphant over freezing cold? anyone else have any other warming tricks up their shivering gardener’s sleeves?

every year, a cast of characters



every year. count on it. there will be characters. they will be many. they will be deeply, richly, crazily creviced, shadowed, colored.

it is as much the order of the seder as the haggadah itself. the table will spill with character. ooze with it. rumble, tumble, jumble, full of characters.

wafting just above, that’s character no. 1. the tall one, that is.

that’s ted. rebbe ted. the one wrapped in japanese prayer robe, tied with obi. the one raising the first of four glasses of vintage manishewitz. the one we drive miles to be with every pesach.

ted, a rabbi and cantor without a congregation these days, is a therapist; spends his working hours trying to screw on people’s heads, or at least screw them on a little less wobbly than when they first wandered in.

but mostly, always, ted is a character. ted’s eyes, i think, must gleam even when he’s sleeping.

at ted’s seder, things are, um, unorthodox. ted reaches in a bag and pulls out yarmulkes from around the world. sometimes he wears his tibetan temple headdress. he always wears his japanese robe.

at ted’s, you do some chanting. you close your eyes and chant the vowels. you do not close your lips when chanting vowels, he tells you, and thus you assume a posture of openness that ted thinks the world truly deeply needs. you chant deeply, ahhhhhhhhh.

at ted’s, you eat sumptuous french hors d‘oeuvres. (and then you find out, oops, they are not kosher for passover; maybe that’s why they tasted so good.)

i tell you the story of ted because in bringing my children to ted each year i bring them to one of the most essential gifts a parent can give a child: the gift of the one who’d never paint by numbers, the iconoclast, the eccentric, the character. the deep and rich and soul-expanding knowledge that life is splashed with vibrant colors.

one of those colors is the color ted.

it brings unending joy to me to bring my children to tables where i know they will hear voices they do not hear at home. home is where the grounding happens. home is where you learn that the parachute has a safety cord, and you can pull it any time.

other people’s launch pads are where you learn to lift your foot off the ledge, set it in mid-air, and feel the fall, but then the updraft, carrying you, lifting you to places you’d never see from the safety of that concrete ledge.

last night we soared with ted. heard his salty brand of politics. took in his dash of new-age mysticism. felt the gestalt of letting go of that by which we’d been enslaved. watched him raise a yale sweatshirt, oy, to teach a lesson on hebrew light and perfection. (right there, spelled out on yale’s emblem, in hebrew letters, who knew? found out that centuries ago, at the founding of yale, patrician of patrician schools, hebrew was required study. ted, by the way, went to yale.)

tonight we congregate again. at another table of eccentrics. they will be the ones with whom we’ve worked for decades. the ones with whom i’ve “sedered” for 25 years, before husband, before children, and every variation since. a cast of newspaper kooks. my boys, all eyes and ears, will learn much that i won’t teach them.

besides the wine glasses filled with jelly beans (the kinder version of fruit of the vine), the flogging each other with scallions, yes, scallions, the pulling out of little plastic plagues, there is the annual putting of passover lyrics to broadway tunes.

we drive home each year, from nights one and two, with bellies aching. not from all the passover matzo kugel. no, no. from laughing ’til our sides feel split in two.

we are blessed. so very blessed.

all my life, far back as i can remember, i have loved the odd ball. the duck who waddled to his or her own drum beat. at my mid-century mark, i survey the landscape of my life and see i’ve assembled quite some cast of characters.

my almost-man-child told me recently that one of the most lasting lessons he learned from his uncle david was when david spoke of a brilliant friend of his, a friend with phD in sanskrit, a friend who studies global drumming and, for a long while, drove a cab in new york city. david, it seems, told my almost-man-child: “he really is a kook.” and my almost-man-child told me that the way he said it, he knew that uncle david meant that to be a kook is a very noble thing. “that’s how i learned i should never march to other people’s drummers,” said my boy who decidedly does not.

my prayer this pesach, my prayer that already has been heard on high, is that all the children, not just my boys, hear a world of many drummers. and come, as often as they can, to a table that spills with kooks and characters and bold eccentrics, a table, every first-night seder, led by rabbi ted.

who, by the way, i love with all my heart. even if he makes me close my eyes and chant the vowels.

do you collect characters? do you see the beauty in those who color outside the lines? do you, if you have children, or love children, or are a child at heart, seek out tables where you know they–and you–will hear voices unlike the ones they–and you–hear at home?