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

Month: May, 2007

rothko musta been here

oh, look, you say. it is a house where they play paint-by-numbers. only, instead of paper, they play with walls.
why slosh paint all over, the way the normal people do? why not toss it just in little splotches?
the checkerboard effect: a dash of argyle here. stockholm down below. oh, look, over there, on the northern end, it’s a blob called scout, for reasons i cannot imagine. a variation of mud. one we all decided looked like something nasty smeared onto the wall.
the little one, not one to curb his words, told us impolitely just what he thought it looked like. the big one giggled. said, i wasn’t going to say so, but he’s right, you know.
which, of course, set me and the household critic back to musing color.
which, of course, set me, the chief supplier of said splotches, back to the little shop where the man sells many colors. so many colors we often get quite cross-eyed. and, eventually, rather color-blind.
who’s to tell the difference between the bluish-gray above and the grayish-blue below? does it really matter? well, yes, when you are married to the architecture critic. it all is scrutinized. it all is deeply thought.
so our house, quite often, looks as though it’s abstract art. looks as though mr. rothko’s been here, aiming opened cans of paint in the direction of our 8 1/2-by-22 plaster canvas.
it is our unique technique for deciding just which way the paint will roll. or, as those architecture people put it: we are eavesdropping on the walls, as they whisper to each other, discerning just who it is they wish to be. what is indeed their truest color? are they feeling blue? or are they deeply gray?
why horse around with little chips of paint, so small they make you squint? why not layer on the paint in splotches magnified, so big you really get the message?
and so it is that the room that once reeked of northwoods cabin, all done up in knotty pine, is now in midst of turning just a tad more uptown, morphing into music chamber where bass and keyboard will be bouncing off the pick-a-color-any-color walls.
and so it is that blue v. gray is once again the subject at the dinner table. no civil war, not here, just deeply-hued domestic debate.
trouble is, we are big on color around here. or at least one of us is.
the other, given his druthers, would paint the walls a minimalist palette. you might have noticed the kitchen walls are white on white on white. you might have gathered that one of us needed much convincing to lock her inner-paintbrush down deep inside where, every white-washed day, it hollers to be freed.
if keeping score, however, (and who would stoop so low?) the pyramid of drippy cans underneath the stairs might suggest that she who’s keen on color is ahead, 9 rooms to 3.
yup. the walls in the house where we live are, variously, schoolbus yellow (it’s not called that, but it might as well be), navy, gray, chinese red (known to the wise-guy architect—the one we pay, not the one we live with—as north shore red, poking not-so-gentle fun at the ubiquity and lack of imagination of those in these here parts who can’t help but ooze their country-club aspirations), and a few splashes of creamy, buttery yellow, besides.
once, not so long ago, in a fit of multi-chromatic fuming, one of the critics around here pooh-poohed someone else around here’s so-called kindergarten taste when it came to coloring on the walls. argued that to walk in here was to stroll through a box of crayola crayons.
at least i didn’t go for the 64-pack.
and so, in attempt to appease the color averse, we are down-hueing the formerly knotty front room. we are ditching sour lemon from surrounding walls. we are going argyle.
or at least that is now the bluish-gray of the western wall. with north, east, and south to follow suit, shortly.
ah, but as long as there are rollers, and painty puddles in which to roll, there stands a chance that we will once again change our mind and change our color.
mark rothko where art thou?

i have long been convinced i might be in a minority in the home-decor-with-hubby dept. (although, truth be told, things here are rather finer for his highly educated eye.) anyone decorate with a mate? anyone have a riotous color war on which to report? anyone else hem and haw over a scant degree of difference in the various hues at hand? go ahead, splash color…

may. madness.

once upon an innocence, i thought may was just another month. a stretch of days, the ligament, joining april to june.
and then i had a baby. and then that baby turned into a schoolboy. and then, poof, like the wizard with his cloud of smoke and falling stars, i got let in on the big fat lurking secret.
may is nuts. may is crazy. may, people, is madness.
in may, the list of verbs is long: you pant, you spin, you lope. it all gets very blurry.
you bake brownies for the teachers, then you whip up lunch, just in case they’re hungry after eating all the brownies.
you take your seats for recitals. but, oops, first you tear apart the house searching high and low for the gotta-have-it, no-excuses, black regulation belt that is holding in the tails of the blue orchestra shirt, keeping the black orchestra pants from falling to the stage.
did i mention that you sign permission slips, you send in envelopes of cash. you buy the teachers presents, because you love them, and because someone sent out an email demanding double bills–or else.
just this week alone, in the sorry story that is our life, we count: one recital, two concerts, one 8th-grade dance, one high school activities night, one sunday school service project, a baby shower, a bridal shower, soup kitchen, soccer practice, soccer game, t-ball game, bass lesson, carpool at 6:45 in the morning.
oh my. and that is totally not counting the other grownup around here who was in and out of town twice, once by train, once by plane, leaving me to fend for my dizzy whirling self.
ah, but as i can hear my straight-talkin’ sans kiddie friends saying, all together in a mighty chorus, “sorry, sweets, this gig you did sign up for. if you wanted bonbons in may, you shoulda skipped the mating game.”
so true.
it’s just that may sneaks up on you. december you expect. it’s the nationally hectic month. no surprises there.
but until they hand you that little wad at the maternity wing, the one they swaddle in a way that you can never do again, and shoosh you out the exit, well, you are clueless.
and you remain clueless (oh, in so many ways) through all the diaper years. but then somewhere around maybe kindergarten, earlier if your sweet thing is precocious, is signed up for every pottery-spinning, folk-tune-humming, shakespeare-at-the-zoo kiddie class under the blazing sun, you find yourself and your calendar slammed in the merry, merry month of end-of-year recitals, start-of-summer sports, and all-purpose winding-down-the-schooldays.
you could run out of ink, trying to keep your calendar appropriately up to snuff.
so there you are, a kindergarten mama, rubbing your sorry brow, trying to make the pounding go away, when you shift your eyes from right to left, make sure the coast is clear, then you lean in, and you whisper to another someone draped in mama-wear.
psst, you ask, by any chance are you spinning in your sleep? is this not the month of never, ever catching breath?
the one in mama-wear, she laughs. she laughs in the way of someone who is clued in, and who realizes that you are not.
she hands you a wad of tissue. she hands you oxygen tank. she slaps you on the angel blade, that little stub where your wing forgot to sprout.
“buck up, mama,” she says, sending you on your way. “june will be here soon. and then it’s only west nile and dehydration you’ll need to fret about. bug spray and water bottles will nip those in the bud.
“it’s just may you must endure.”

before whirling off the chair, diving deep into the day, anyone have a nanosecond to do some typing here? anyone else caught off-guard by the madness that is may? if it would make you feel better, sort of like stripping off the pantyhose that held you in all day, you too can pound your heart out, and tell us every sorry item on your laundry list of things to do. the one with the most things, will win a little prize: a personalized oxygen tank, with a pink nasal cannula. on your mark, get set, start typing…….

unearth-the-trowel date, maybe, if…

according to the number people, according to those who scribble little lines on charts, make dots, connect them, study the rise and fall of inclines, project into the future, anchor their living, breathing, to what the numbers tell them, today is the day you might think about lifting your trowel from its wintry slumber, shaking off the cobwebs and giving it a little aerobic workout.
today, people, is the official last frost date, the date the gardeners circle on their calendars, the date they know as surely as they know the 25th of december, the 15th of april, and, well, the very day they blow out the candles on their cake.
what it means, though, is all rather iffy.
it means that the middle day of may, a.k.a. today, is, if you dug through centuries of archives, if you played statistician, if you studied air masses and cold fronts, if, if, if, this would be the day on which the scales tip in your favor, and you stand a winning chance, should you grab the trowel and fling some dirt today, that you’ll not wake up some morning hence to find your geraniums shivering in their pity pots, decked out in winter white.
unless of course you bring up the subject at your nearby nursery, where the crusty folk who spend their days slinging 4-inch annuals, packing dirt under their nails, slugging back cans of Coke to keep up with the crush at the cash registers, have a decidedly guarded take on the matter.
“ahh, it might be the last day you’ll get a freeze. but the last frost date, i don’t care what they say, is memorial day. unless you live near the lake where it could go either way. i know plenty o’ years we lost plants memorial day,” barked bob, whose neck, from slinging all day long, was red as the aforementioned geraniums, the ones he was loading off a lopsided red wagon onto the plywood counter, tallying up yet another three-digit tab.
indeed, the date is highly amended. modifiers modifying modifiers.
and, yes, if you gathered all the gardeners in a circle, asked each to tell a tale of the latest date a garden ever froze, you would get as many dates as there are stories.
but statistically speaking, people, today’s the date to lift the trowel. if you live in zone 5 b. if you live close enough to the lake, but not so close that chill winds are likely to blow through your backyard. if your last name starts with the letters a-m.
which points, people, to the folly of all these means and medians, averages and statistical best-hopes.
you can garden by the numbers. or you can garden by heart.
i, being a mamby-pamby girl, i do a little bit of both. i keep an eye, at least, on the numbers, but i go with where the warm winds blow. i often jump the gun.
just yesterday, loading up at the ramshackle little nursery that i think i’ll call my own (i’m fickle, floating from nursery to nursery, deciding which one’s got the best characters, the most color–and i don’t mean in the pots), i heard tell that it was way too soon to have my herbs outside.
well, don’t tell the thyme and basil. they’ve been getting along just fine. added just the right touch to the red sauce i made the other night.
as always, the lesson here extends beyond the garden. you can play it by the numbers. live your life the actuarial way. or you can hunker down in your own personal micro-climate, make the most of the way the rays hit you on your cheek. grab for sweaters when the chill winds blow.
’cause you know, when you’ve been replaying this record for a while, that soon as you pin your dreams on some digits on a gridded page, a storm’ll blow in, knock you flat, and you’ll be left scratchin’ your head.
won’t do the window boxes any good to point to the calendar, claim a penalty on the field.
like all life, you plant with all your heart, you take your chances. you add freeze-dried basil to your salad, if you have to.

truth be told, i was at the nursery back in april. trucks weren’t even unloaded. but i was there, at the ready. i know we’ve got folks here who fling dirt far as california, fair london even, and i do believe you’ve been safe for weeks now. months, in the case of sunny southern california. you probably don’t even have a frost date. but you do have earthquakes. which get in the way of a garden. any oops-i-jumped-the-gun stories to be told? in the garden, or beyond? always we keep an eye to the beyond…..

beaking and entering: a cautionary tale

quiescence, as often happens, was rather abruptly interrupted here the other morning. there i was, blah-blah-blahing on the phone, when suddenly, up above my head, i detected something flapping. it was not a butterfly. not a cicada–not yet anyway.
its wings, whatever it was, were making noise. right in my suddenly perked-up ear.
egad, i yelped, as whatever winged thing it was circled me, took off for parts south and west.
it was a bird, all right. a warbler or a wren. forgive me, i know not all my mousy-gray birds, and certainly not when they are diving for my head.
i thought, oh, how sweet. the birds have all been reading this here blog. one day i was yammering about putting out the smucker’s, the jam of choice should you care to bring on the winged things. the next, i was letting on about how i just can’t bear to bring the outside inside, mentioned how a little sharp-edged therapy was loosening the ties that bind.
and then, poof, the l’il bird brain puts two and two together, decides ol’ mrs. smucker lady needs to spend her morning up close and personal with a frantic feathered thing. the outside, rather fully inside.
fact is, i rather liked, for the while that it was here, having a little pet songbird. only problem was, it seemed a bit, um, rattled by the presence of my roof. and so it did was birdies do when they are rattled: it pooped.
oh yes, oh yes. it pooped and flew and flew some more. it was playing on the stairs. up and down. in and out of the bathroom (not politely putting that room’s function to any proper use, now, thank you).
it darted in our bedroom. checked out the bed, where poor cat, now wide awake, thought perhaps he was dreaming. he drooled, the cat did. but the bird did not. the bird kept darting in and out of rooms.
the oddest thing, as if none of the above is odd enough, i swear this house was sealed. the doors were closed. the windows, shut.
which reminded me of the night the bats came in, another night the house was allegedly, purportedly hermetically sealed.
i was home alone that summer’s night. had just come home from l’hopital, as the french would so poetically say it, with a belly stitched stern to bow.
i was sitting in my bed, when once again, flapping overhead. mon dieu, i might have said, keeping with the french, it is a bat.
but then more flapping.
it was not a bat. it was two. turned out a pair of bats were playing follow-the-leader around my bed, around my head.
soon as i dared to inch out from under the pillow, i called a neighbor. she tiptoed in, a blanket on her head. i tried really hard not to laugh. but she was in the foyer yelping for her life. she has a blood-curdling yelp, i discovered that very night.
and there is something about yelps and stitches ’cross your middle: they don’t do well together. not when you are laughing so hard you think the stitches, and what they keep from coming out, will split right open.
she yelped until my big brave warrior returned from the swimming pool. i yelled out the window, from the confines of my bat-protected room (i had closed the door, in the fastest dash you ever did see, ’specially for a lady holding her stitches to keep from splitting).
brave warrior, clued into the home invaders, did a warrior thing: he hauled in the yelping neighbor’s mate. they geared up for the occasion with bike helmets, soggy towels, and tennis rackets. tiptoed in, headed straight for the computer, leaving me alone upstairs, in stitches. quite literally.
while batman and robin googled “bats, how to chase,” i pressed against the bedroom door, ear held close, listening to the flap-flap-flap of bat wings in the hall.
to cut a side-splitting saga short: the racket-wielding boys, i mean men, opened up a window, and we surmised (you spend the night wondering, i assure you) that out the window the little batties flew.
which is where we return to the story of the little bird who came in for coffee the other morning.
at last, after much hide-and-go-seek, the bird and i found ourselves together in a room. poor thing, beak ajar, chest pounding, it was looking rather harried.
i tried to talk it down. it wasn’t listening. rather, it was flitting back and forth. from bed post to perch of closet door. when at last it banged into the window, my little bulb, the one inside my head, clicked on.
(“duh,” i can hear you saying. don’t think this magic computer does not tell me what you’re saying as you merrily read along.)
anyway, i opened the window, just like the bat boys finally did. tried to shoo. tried to point the way. but the birdie wouldn’t have it. stubborn little bird, he was busy polka-dotting. perhaps, i thought, he is waiting for some smucker’s all his own. served on little toasty points, on a silver tray.
oh, phew, at last, our playtime over, out the birdie flew. i saw him (i just have a hunch it was a boy, don’t ask me why), the little bird, land safely in the arbor vitae.
it was all, of course, rather eye-opening in the early morning. and, of course, the little sleeper child slept through every blessed flap-flap-flap.
while he wrapped up his little zzzzzs, i retraced the birdie’s every flap, wad of tissue with me, wiping as i went.
aha, the point of entry, i discovered. a front window, not far from where the nesting’s going on, it was open a crack and a half.
the little bird, it seems, took that as invitation.
this little tale, promised as a cautionary saga, really has no moral, no overarching point.
but in keeping with my promise i would offer only this: put in your screens, do not delay. you never know who might decide to beak and enter on an otherwise uneventful springtime morning.

it’s monday, people. time for wake-up tales of invasionary nature. anyone have a critter-in-the-crawlspace tale to tell?

and of course, just as once upon a time, monday meant washday, here at the chair it means the lazy susan spins afresh.

finally, hope that all of you who mother (and that would be all of you, in one form or another) had a most lovely mothering day. we sure did here…

it’s all about the ing

birds nest

maybe a proclamation would be the thing. although that was done already. maybe just some common-sense yak, yak, yakking would do the trick.

it’s about a little problem i have with what’s coming sunday. far as i can tell there’s a missing syllable.

i would like to make the day not plain old mother’s day, a noun. which by my take is exclusive, too exclusive.

i would like to add an ing. and make it mothering day, a verb. a day for all who mother.

not just those who know what it is to push the burning bulge as if your life depended on it. which, of course, it did, as well as that of another one or two or three or, heaven help you, more heart-pounding little lives, depending on your wide-eyed obstetric state.

and not just those who’ve signed their name on someone’s dotted line. or stepped in without official papers.

all of that is fine. insanely, amazingly, awesomely, only-MotherGod-could-have-invented-this, so very fine.

but there is more—there are so, so many more.

yes, every last someone who has stroked a brow, wiped a tear, dabbed chocolate off a little cheek, fluffed a pillow, tucked in the covers, whispered bedtime prayers, set an extra place at the table, stretched a meatloaf, picked the peas out of the pasta salad, kissed a bloody knee, kept a retching belly from falling in the toilet bowl.

yes, every pair of arms that’s lifted a dead-weight child in the pool, played red rover till the cows came home, bent half-over to push a kid on training wheels around and round the block, turned the pages of good night moon so many times you find yourself chanting good night to the mittens when no one’s in the room.

you get the point.

i have for years squirmed and wriggled when it comes to setting aside a sunday, ordering up loaves and loaves of toast that will be cut in triangles, smeared with jam and honey and cinnamon with sugar, and delivered, teetering, on trays that stand a mighty chance of toppling off of bedsheet-shrouded knees.

not that i have anything against newspapers in bed, or violets clutched in sweaty little fists.

it’s just, gosh darn it, my world, for one, is highly populated with extraordinary motherers who have neither birthed, nor adopted, children of their own. and plenty who simply could not deliver, ever—they are men, for heaven’s sake.

i am all for honoring the art of mothering. and i would make a motion to amend the noun and bow down before the brand-new ending.

the ing, i argue, is where the emphasis should be. it’s a verb, active, pulsing, life-propelling verb.

back long ago, when julia ward howe, the activist who gave us “the battle hymn of the republic,” her anthem against slavery in 1862, back when she unfurled her original mother’s day proclamation it was all about women rising up and demanding end to war.

that i could get in a froth about.

especially the way she put it:

“our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. we women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

so wrote julia in 1870.

but, somewhere, the hallmarks of the world got in the way. the second sunday in may became less about the women of the world exerting their mother-ness on the global family, and more about fluffy slippers, hand-crayoned cards, and leaving whole chunks of the population to ache because, by accident of biology, they’ve not been able to get egg plus sperm to equal zygote, their unborn children never got to take a single breath, they’ve buried a child born from their own womb, laid a lifeless little body to rest, far, far too soon.

aches, all, that never go away. all aches the second sunday in may only serves to jab and pierce so stingingly i know women who barely make it through the day.

or they might be women who exercised their right to choose not to bring another soul into this blessed broken world. or men whose tender caring touch goes uncelebrated, lost in all the hubbub of the third sunday of june when to be a grill meister seems the height of all that matters.

they all mother, if not define themselves as mothers per se. if not their own children, then other people’s children. or the child who dwells in every single someone. have you not been deeply mothered by a friend?

you needn’t be with child, nor even be a woman, to mother, is my point.

i don’t mean to be a grouch. and i hate to throw cold water on all the blessed moments the day will surely bring.

i just feel intent on proclaiming one not-so-little matter: may it be mothering, the art of tender caring, coaxing life, leaving mercy in your wake, the art that knows no gender bounds, no census-taker’s definition, the art the world needs in mighty thronging masses, may it be mothering, and not just mothers, for whom we stand and shout, God bless you each and every motherer.

may the whole world reach out and wrap you in its blessed holy bosom. the very one that you so freely share, the very one in which we bury our tears, clutch our fears, and find the very milk of heaven here on earth. amen.

i’m done proclaiming. your turn to toss it back.

and p.s. a most blessed birthday to susan, who achingly, bravely walks through her first birthday without her mother. xoxox

and p.p.s. the nest above? one i came upon while tromping through a field in winter, during the winter of my aching couldn’t-have-a-baby years. it was lying in a brambles, right before my eyes, as if the universe wanted to remind me: i might be some day someone’s nest. the broken eggs, i collected too. off the ground, crushed. empty. thus, the nest, the eggs above, they tell the whispered story of our motherness. sometimes broken, crushed. but sometimes possibility, hiding in a thorny bush. it belongs to all who mother. with love and honor for all you do to make this world a little softer, a whole lot less thorny. xoxox

outside-in, inside-out

let’s see, that would be quirk no. 313 in the big book of odd notions that are mine, all mine. and it would be filed under O for outside-in, aversion. or maybe P for pluck. to pluck or not to pluck, that is the pressing postulation.
what this alphabetical quandary is all about is this: queer, yes (oh, look, a Q), it seems i am wired with unnatural natural reticence (UNR) to bring the outdoors in. not in winter. not in fall. but, yes, oh, yes, in spring.
i am quite stricken (QS), i must admit, when it comes to displacing blooms from where they bloom. quite stricken, too (QS2), when it comes to bringing them in to where i can, well, A.) gaze upon them as i burn the broccoli (an almost every day occurrence, i am loathe to tell), and, thus, B.) bury my nose in them while scrubbing black off the bottom of said broccoli pot.
quick disclaimer (QD): i have no inhibitions whatsoever when it comes to gathering the garden’s wounded. in fact, the little ledge above my kitchen sink is, every spring and summer, a rather crowded flower infirmary.
the injured, the lame, i line them up, in a hodgepodge of tiny vases and shallow bowls. a drink for this, a splint for that. i love nothing more than to put my nursing skills to good use, rehabilitating broken stems.
a little aspirin, a little love, i patch them all together again. if my triage doesn’t take, i am consoled by the fact that the fallen let out their last gasp in my most heart-felt company.
ahh, but the well ones. that is where i fall.
i know it makes me the lone bulb in the bag, but it is the sturdy blooms that unsteady me. the erect that topple me. the ones perfectly content to stick their necks out, to reach high and mighty, undaunted, truly, for the sky.
who am i, i wonder, to wander by, sharp blades in hand, and snip to heartless heart’s content?
as one who cozies rather close to those whose creed is consume not anything that’s ever had a face, my logic, it seems, follows straight to the garden’s edge. and that is where my sharp-edged dilemma has me rather dammed in this here dirt.
is it, or is it not, cruel fate for flower stem to be felled? to die a sooner death, sucking waters, in the shaded kitchen, than to live out one’s final numbered days soaking in the sun’s undiluted rays, blowing willy-nilly in the breeze?
could it be the perfection of the tidy rows that i dare not dislodge? decidedly, it could not. as the rows are neither rows nor tidy. it is all rather hodge-podge and disheveled in my earthy beds.
could it be some bizarre, as-yet-unnamed, botanical neurosis? oh, great.
perhaps, the fear of rattling mother nature?
could it be i think it stingy to gather up the season’s beauty, steal it from the birds and bees, bring it in for me and me and only me?
was there some trespass in my past, a petunia perhaps, that i poached from mrs. crochet down the block? was i rapped on all my knuckles for the venial sin of coveting someone else’s lily-of-the-valley?
hmmm. a psycho-horticultural conundrum to be sure.
coaching myself through self-constructed 3-step therapy, i decided just the other day to give the other side a try. to do some cutting, and some gathering, to bring some stems in through the door.
it all started without much premeditation. the day was bright. the lingering bouquets, plainly dead.
i gathered steam. i mustered courage. i coached myself at every garden turn.
i reached, first, under the sink. i grabbed for felco no. 2s, the snipper that knows no stem too thick to cut off at the neck.
i decided to dip in easy here. i snipped the viburnum, the one that makes me swoon, the one i would bathe in if given half a chance. bringing in a stalk or two of that was not one bit disturbing, and besides i slithered through the crack in the fence and cut the blooms that crossed the line into my next door neighbor’s airspace anyway. i’m sure they didn’t mind me tidying up my messy bush.
now on a roll, i did in a few stems of virginia bluebells. but, pansy me, i did the dirty deed back behind the boxwood where no one but the wrens, or my hungry cat, could see them in the first place.
then, giving in to inner pang to round out this mass of baby blue and oyster-pink, i tiptoed out to where the daffodils, frozen stiff weeks ago, still lay. poor petals imitating old crepe paper, but yellow through and through. good enough for me, since this was, at best, mere starter therapy.
against all odds, i brought in my newly decapitated blooms. i dumped the old green almost-goo from the cracked milk pitcher, the pitcher that most recently had been holding well-past-expired grocery-store tulips, the ones i now feel guilty buying, but that’s another quirk we’ll not explore today.
i plunked, stood back and gazed.
i must say i was rather charmed by the misshapen stems, the drooping heads, the leaves with little nibble marks. there was something wholly unsterile, un-store-bought, about these blooms that bloomed the natural way.
it made me think: could it be, after all these years of not daring to disturb the grand outdoor’s design, that dear mother earth is, in truth, one indulgent mama, and more than willing to part freely with whole armfuls of her many varied stems?
it made me think that all these years i had been seriously bound by cockamamie notions, all of my own making.
it made me wonder what else is buried deep inside my inner gardener that i might soon dispel with just a little coaching.
and of course my felco pruners, which are more than suited for cutting any ties that bind.
(and filed under F should you need to find them in my alphabetically constrained house.)

okey doke, now you know my latest quirk. anyone else think twice before gathering what blooms and hauling it in the house? am i—no, make that, was i—all alone in my disinclination to disturb what creeps up from deep below? raise your hand if you think you too could use a little felco pruning therapy. in any area of your inner garden…

pass the jelly

“psst,” i can hear them saying, nudging with their wings, “down there,” now pointing with their beaks. “dive-bomb,” one whispers to another. “take a hit. the lady’s cracked open the jelly and the oranges. and not just any jelly, pal. she went for smucker’s. dang.”
it’s pay day for the orioles. the baltimore orioles. and, nope, not the men who run in circles, swing at flying balls, get paid more than you and i will probably ever see.
i mean, of course, the orange ball of feathers that will make you gasp, will make you rouse the children, rouse the dead most likely, when you see one settling down at the oranges and the jelly you’ve left out for them, your diner always open.
the class today, as promised some time back, is migration 101. we are learning together, you and i, so i promise not to get too over-your-head. only so much as to make you swoon, like i am. i am in full swoon over here.
this here, from just the other day ‘til end of may, then trickling into june, is the thickest of the thick.
these are the days when birds are crowding in the clouds, nudging, budging, making way to make their northern nests and spend the summers lolling in the shady woods. sort of like you, perhaps, headed off to your northwoods cabin, except without the fishing poles and the bug spray.
the first, best thing you need, should you decide that swooping orangeballs will set you right this spring, is rather straightforward.
one quick trip to the grocery should do it. you can leave the kiddies in the car, if they’re not of an age that would leave you under lock and key, behind bars, making your quick trip to the grocery not so quick after all.
you’ll dash for just two goodies: a bag of oranges, any sort will do. just so they’re orange, and not greenish-orange. no self-respecting oriole will go for orange of other color.
next, please, traipse (skipping works fine, too, try skipping through the grocery, see what happens when you skip) to the jelly aisle. there, you will pass over all the other concord grape concoctions, you will settle only–finicky, yes, but this is for the orioles, after all–for the smucker’s.
in birdie circles (which we now are in), smucker’s is the whispered, venerated brand for which there is no substitute.
it is, plainly, the opiate of the orioles, if you really want to know. which of course you do.
“the birds go nuts,” says our old friend t.j. , the bird man, the one who teaches much. “some people swear by smucker’s. isn’t that ridiculous?”
to think a beaked thing would be so discriminating. perhaps they ptu-ptu the lesser grapes, spit out mere mortal brands.
but enough with all this high-brow jelly. what you want to do is tuck it into little jelly cups–yes, you read that right–for your little flying friends. pyrex works well, says t.j. and i’m sure they wouldn’t turn up their beaks at spode.
next, slice oranges. leave them on the ground, or lying on your fire escape. if you want to get ahead of the class you could pound a long nail through a 2-by-4, and impale the juicy half. this little trick keeps the ol’ greedy squirrels from making off with your navel. oh my.
in case you wondered: not only are your oranges there for all their juice, they are there as can’t-miss-from-the-clouds fruity billboards, backyard beacons to the sky.
as all the winged things are flap-flap-flapping on their birdie byway, en route, say, from the andes mountains or the yucatan, they’ll zero in on flash of orange and come diving from on high. sort of like the “open” sign flapping on the diner door.
the one last thing you want to make absolutely sure you always have enough of in these dry migration days is water, water, water. can’t have enough. the little birds, just think, have been flapping for miles and miles and miles and their little birdie throats are rather parched, to say the least.
so those, my fine-footed friends, are the to-do’s on your bring-on-the-birds migration list.
here is the why, here is where i swoon:
far far away, in thick jungles and tropical forests, the light of spring begins to change. the days are longer. the light, brighter.
little molecules of light, it seems, poing a little spot in the back of the birds’ brains. that spot, a switch, then lets loose a surge. their little bodies are filled, are flooded, with hormones that tell the birds: go north. build nest. get yourself back to where you and your mama and your mama’s mama once hatched.
and so, at nightfall, when winds are calm, when predators are few, when air is cooler and thus less dehydrating, the winged things take flight. sometimes by the tens and tens of thousands. often, they catch the updraft of a warm front, and come wafting in on southerly winds. no fools, they don’t flutter upstream, like those silly salmon.
my friend t.j. tells me that, true to the book, night before last, whole swarms came in, came in on the warm front that made us wake up without need for sweaters.
and, thus, when my mama called first thing to say. “the warblers arrived overnight,” she was right. my mama who knows the birds the way she knows her breathing, she woke up and knew the warblers came.
time-out to connect a dot: our rabbi, when asked, but how do you know there’s a God if you can’t see God, always comes back with this simple question, have you ever seen the wind?
all the warblers floating in on the warm front makes me think that one night, every may, the answer to that question is, yes, i saw the wind the night the golden-throated warblers, by the thousands, blew in.
t.j. tells me the birds will fly six to eight hours at a stretch, through the night. some birds will burn a quarter of their body fat in a single night.
as night gives way to daylight, as the first scattered rays of sunbeam peek over the horizon, the birds, exhausted, parched, famished, begin their dawn descent.
they look for sumptuous plots of land, a cherry tree frothed in its springtime meringue, an old dead river birch where bugs by the billions will make for a bottomless all-you-can-eat buffet.
they settle into limbs, nod off in birdie naps. but, mostly, intently, they inhale the fuel they need to flap again. for some, this is the byway’s end. your backyard might be their summer cabin. for others, there are miles to go before they finish flapping.
they’ll look for water. and oranges. and if they hit the jelly jackpot, little pyrex cups of smucker’s concord grape jelly.
indeed, it’s thick out there these days. so thick, and so raucous with all the birdsong, crazy people like t.j. and my mama, and now me, can’t get anything done.
we here along lake michigan–and that’s all of chicago–are smack dab in the fast lane of the flyway that stretches from south america to near the north pole. there are four main flyways through the united states: the atlantic, the pacific, the mississippi (that’s us) and the central, which is midway between the mississippi and pacific.
you can actually trace where we are in the migration by what birds are landing in your yard. the day the orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks roll in, you know the great migration has begun. for the next three weeks the trees will be alive with bouncing, bopping birds. the air, dense with flitting, flapping, blue jay swooping, warbler darting.
but best of all, just stand outside and listen. in fact, you needn’t even go outside. just stand still. just listen.
it is the season for keeping open all the doors and windows.
there is the sound of heaven right within your reach. and it will come winging to you for just a little jelly spooned into a cup.
all the more sweetly if you make it smucker’s.

class dismissed. any questions?
p.s. thanks for putting up with my bird-brained madness.

peanut butter and tears

only 18 more pb & j’s to go. only 18 more mornings where i am called to the bed of mister sleepyhead, where i plant his face with kisses. and, slo-mo, we wind into the day.
on hip, or hand-in-hand we make it down the stairs, plunk waffle into toaster, make nest of blankets on the floor. spin the dial. decide just what the day will bring before the yellow school bus lurches to the curb, brings a close to the latest episode of me and little t, the p.m. kindergarten story.
just yesterday, he was one-eyed pirate, and i was hiding buried treasure. he was argh’ing all over the mighty tossing seas. i was swabbing the deck, otherwise known as the stove, splattered from the spitting sauce the night before.
lunch we ate outside, on the deserted island that is the screened-in porch. he astride his two-wheel pirate ship, still with training wheels. me, i was aiming pb triangles toward his open mouth, in between the arghs. he, not willing to put down sword or eagle, which filled in nicely for the parrot we did not have.
we are quite a pair, my little mate and i. and now, 18 days and subtracting, our mornings that i thought would never end, are drawing to a close.
my little kindergartener tells me every day. five weeks, four weeks, soon just three, ’til i’m in first grade, mommy.
no more mornings, he and i. no more no one in the house but he and i, doing whatever it is we fancy.
funny how what once made you wince now makes you ache to let it go.
i remember the afternoon the stripe turned pink, and the dream i’d had the night before, the dream that i, at nearly 44, was, despite all odds, with child in my womb, i remember how the dream turned real and rather sobering right before my very eyes.
and i remember, truth be told, i gasped. not wholly out of joy. partly out of oh-my-god, here i go again.
i felt the shiver up and down my spine. of nursing through the night, here comes another round. of can i do this, can i muster what it takes, can i start this show all over? of needing once again to find a sitter for the days i work. of mornings that would not be mine. of a dream job that i’d just gotten the afternoon before, which now, now that the dream came true, would not be mine after all. oh well.
there were days, i tell you, when i could only imagine a morning to myself. invitations i turned down because i had a little person not always welcome in the land of grownup chatter. doctor’s appointments i couldn’t make because where do you put a very busy two-year-old when they’ve got you up in stirrups.
but now those days are numbered, just two digits and dwindling. and i, once again, find myself milking every morning for all its worth.
i am licking every drop from the bowl that is our breakfast together. i am sucking all the marrow out of our expeditions to unearth the earth worms, study cicadas under magnifying glass, find the alphabet letter on the butterfly’s wings. (he tells me his kindergarten teacher insists every butterfly has a letter on its wing. hmm. so far we’ve not found so much as a single dotted i; but then the joy is thoroughly in the chase when it comes to butterflies.)
oh sure, we’ll have summers, at least the weeks that bracket camp, now that camp is what you do instead of taking to the woods and sidewalks for the summer.
but never again will he and i have our mornings in the way we have them now: peanut butter and jelly for two, please. and we’ll have a long tall milk to boot. and could you seat us in a booth? one of us occasionally still slithers onto the other’s lap.
true, too many mornings i’ve been holed in here away from him, shooshing him off to play because i had a.) a deadline, b.) a phone call, c.) no good reason, really.
just across from where i type i have an old pine writing table, the kind with a slanted lid that opens and closes and holds a writer’s paper at just the right angle so he or she can dash off a missive while standing on two feet, the way it used to be.
there, on the pine lid with the little lip that keeps the paper from gliding to the ground, i keep tucked the hand-made pink paper valentine he sprinkled two years ago with piles of red glitter, tied with a sparkly green ribbon, and onto which his preschool teacher penned the words he dictated: “dear mama and daddy. i like you. i want you to play with me when you’re not busy. i love you.”
ouch. i have kept the scorching truth out for all to see, most especially for me, since the day he slipped it in my hand, when he was merely three and calling it just exactly as he saw it.
it’s been my shameless reminder ever since that these hours are treasures, these days are fleeting, and now the fleeting’s nearly done.
the pb from here on in will be packed and tucked into a paper bag. the mornings i’ll spend all by myself. the only argh’ing this house will hear will be me growling at my lonesome state.
the mornings i thought would never end will now, each one, feel like forever, but only because i’ll be keeping one eye on the clock, wondering what my little mate is up to, far far away in a land where mommies dare not lurk.
excuse me, i’ve got a cheek upstairs that is waiting for a kiss. or at least i’ve got lips that long to plant a wet one (or two or three) on that rosy little cheek. before it goes and turns into a first-grader.

tell your tale of aching as you let go of one whole passage of your life, your child’s life? isn’t it odd how sweet the days become when you know the days are dwindling? people tell me the beauty of sending high schoolers off to college is that seniors have a way of making everyone in the house oh-so-ready for the departure. i can’t imagine.
i know i’m wired oddly, but i thank God i jump the gun when it comes to aching in advance because somehow it makes all the days count for so much more when you feel them slipping through your fingers….don’t you think? or not?

p.s. prayers, please, for a little baby girl from ethiopia, named anna, now living in chicago. anna’s mama asks that we all storm the heavens. her little fighter, who already survived tuberculosis, meningitis and pneumonia while in ethiopia, was just diagnosed with something called infantile spasms, and the neurologist tells the mama the prognosis is not good. i have laid eyes on this sweet baby girl; she is heaven sent.

balloons from heaven

decidedly, they came from heaven. of that, we were unshakably convinced. God must have been wafting by, clutching bright bouquet of nine balloons, decided we needed a little color.
and of course we did.
who doesn’t need just a little bit of magic, a little bit of mystery dropped into an otherwise ordinary morning.
it was, of course, the little one who found them. traipsing down the path, on his way to check out the mountain of dirt that had been delivered just down the alley, he stumbled upon the inflated rubber bonbons, and he did the most natural thing a boy could do: he yelped.
it was the usual, mama, come, quick. but supercharged with sense of urgency.
sounded like something far more interesting than pulling weeds to me, so i loped. well, whaddya know. “oh, my gosh, those must be from God,” i said, playing with my little guy, who is far too innocent and far too trusting to realize i was sort of kidding around.
“do you really think God put them here?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“hmm, either that or some poor little kid was walking down the street, far, far away, and he stooped to look at a bug or maybe a rock, and he forgot that he was holding on to his balloons, so he let go just for a second, and whoosh, the balloons took off, took a little balloon trip, and now they’re tired, so they landed here.”
we both whispered a little prayer for the kid who might have stood there, tears washing down his cheeks, heart in his throat, watching the balloons get farther and farther from his hand, get smaller and smaller against the sky, until finally, tears stopped, specks of color no longer seen, the poor little guy and whoever was the big person with him, might have stopped, maybe for an ice cream, to sop up all the hurt.
and here we were, the ones who found the poor kid’s sorrow twisted, knotted, on the mirror that sticks out from the side of my little boy’s daddy’s car.
sometimes life is like that.
i felt rather convinced that we had stumbled onto some sort of serendipitous sky-shower, and we needed to take extra special care of those wayward balloons. so we brought ’em up close to the house. first we brought ’em in the house. but then we noticed they had a funny smell. we realized those balloons had taken quite a journey. and they might not have had access to a shower. or a good hot meal.
“yuck,” said my little one, as he carried them outdoors, where they spent the night, harbored by our house. free to go if they so chose. but they didn’t budge. except to wiggle in the breeze.
this whole thing made me think of the poor little guy down the block, who had a most beloved stuffed cat. and, one day, a helium-filled balloon.
now this is a kid, the one with the cat and the balloon, who likes nothing so much as a science experiment. or a story oozing with imagination.
so he was in the midst of pretending his little cat was an astronaut, and he tied the balloon onto the most beloved, slept-with-it-every-night cat’s back, and, yes, you know right where this is going. the little cat, the red balloon, both, escaped, went skyward. faster than the little guy could catch it. could leap from launch pad, wrap hands around beloved cat’s tail, clutch him in the nick of time, save him from a dismal end on the wrong end of itinerant balloon.
that’s about when we came upon that sorry scene. experimenter aghast, in tears. mother, father scrambling. trying to get the drift–of what had happened, as well as where the wind was blowing.
we all set out, running, dashing, trying to figure out if we were balloons, carrying a kidnapped cat, which direction we would blow. we covered the neighborhood. we put up signs. someone had the bright idea of launching yet another balloon, this one with a note: “if you find golden-striped cat tied to red balloon, please call….”
as if one balloon would copycat another.
a balloon, i tell you, is apt to get into all sorts of trouble.
i don’t think i’ve ever before been on the finding end of someone’s heartbreak. not balloon or boy, not anything.
and, small as it is, it did add quite a tingling note to the day: something bright and beautiful fell from the sky, and twisted itself into the midst of our ordinary morning. all day, we watched the sleeping balloons, watched over them for the treasure that they are.
and besides, no one told my little guy they might not be from God. so he is under the distinct impression that God, for no good reason, drops bright balloons in your otherwise humdrum day.
which, come to think of it, is pretty good theology for a boy not yet out of kindergarten.
geez, i sure hope no one whispers in his ear that they might just be escapees from some real estate open house a few sorry blocks away. that would sorta take the air right outa this little story, now, wouldn’t it?

friends, forgive the littleness of today’s meander. i was just captivated by these wandering balloons, and swept up by the possibilities of how they landed in our laps. sometimes filling your head with little not-so-important mysteries is a delightful way to while away a few hours. have you ever stumbled upon someone else’s lost treasure? what sort of stories did it trigger in your sweet head? were you able, in any way, to come to the rescue of some broken heart and return the treasure?

as always, ‘tis monday, lazy susan spins afresh.

and, this just in from the international news desk: the table, thank you, is now transcontinental. our fine friend bgt moved to london a little while back, carried us in her trunk, and over the weekend posted on the case of the pink streaked heap, thus, she pulls up a chair across the pond. seems to me yet another treasure landed in our laps…

a voice at the table

growing up, the table at my house was rather crowded. there were five of us little people, four of us bunched every other year, and then, enough years later to surprise the dickens out of me the day we got the news of the impending arrival, the so-called caboose. blessed caboose.
at the head of every dinner table, in the door like clockwork from the 6:20 train and plunked at the south end of the table, a man who made his living with a typewriter that he pounded late into the night, and a microphone that he carried ‘round the globe.
i cannot for the life of me remember much of the chatter. but i do remember that there was plenty. and i seem to recall that it was hard to get a word in edgewise.
i remember plenty of spilled milk. and the occasional night when i was left to contemplate the peas, the peas that i did not want to eat, the peas that i had so artfully—i thought—tucked beneath the rim of the plate. but eagle eyes herself, my mother, didn’t miss that sleight of legume. so there i sat, silent, miserable, convinced i was the only child in the world left to wither overnight staring at my uneaten, unwanted mushy peas.
i remember in high school a few dining room debates with my father. i was on the side of world hunger. he, ad man for mcdonald’s, was going to bat for big mac. how dare they, i wailed, blaming the golden arches for all that was wrong on the starving continents of the world. how dare i, he thundered back. only, come to think of it, i don’t think thunder would be my father’s verb. i think he was, maybe, solid wall of atmospheric front. not budging, firmly stationed. but not too terribly noisy, either. he made his point, in fact, without too much thunder.
mostly, i remember that he was the most amazing tightrope walker i had ever seen. only his tightrope was a string of words. puns, punch lines, quick wit, those were the tricks with which he dazzled while edging along the taut fine cord strung from one end of the table to the other.
if you could play along, he reached out a hand and lifted you too onto the tightrope, the high wire. you too could swing on my papa’s verbal trapeze. but you’d better be quick. better yet, you could shine if you could match him, come back at him, hook your foot to word cord, and do a loopdy-loop.
it was hard sometimes to make it through a meal. you’d be out of breath, just trying to keep up. it was exercise, getting through the word play that was my family dinner.
i got a workout, all right. but it took a long, long time ’til i found i had a voice, a true deep voice, that i could bring to the table.
the first place to which i brought my voice was blank, blue-lined notebook paper. i wrote in pencil, then pen, long before my fingers knew to land on a, s, d, f, over to the left, and p, l, m, n, cascading down the right.
i remember, long ago, realizing i had become a writer because i finally found a voice. i had found it hard, very hard, to speak deeply from my heart at my dinner table, what with all the tightrope walking and debating all-beef patties versus kwashiorkor’s swollen-belly babies.
i remember, vividly, the night i took a seat at my little maple table. and the man on the other end of the table, a man i’d never eaten with before, a man i’d never before offered a chair at my table, asked me what i wanted in my life. i remember leaning back, laughing, thinking, saying, all at once, “i feel like i could talk to you the rest of my life.”
that man, now my husband, still sits across from me nearly every night at dinner. almost 20 years later, i still laugh, say the same thing. we’re still very much talking.
the amazing thing when you marry is that you get a chance to study closely yet another family. one of the first—and most lasting—things i noticed about my husband’s family was, is, how they sit for hours at the table, really talking, really listening.
is it any wonder, i sometimes wonder, that i was drawn so deeply to a man who so easily, so finely, really, brings his voice to the table. and, most of all, makes room for mine.
it is, of all the gifts we give our children, the one i’d pencil in way, way up, seriously high, at practically the sky-scraping top of the list. it is the gift of being heard at the dinner table.
over the years, as a gatherer of newspaper stories, i have interviewed some truly amazing human beings. the refrain, so often–when asked, what was the elmer’s glue that held you together, that made you who you are–was, time and again, something about always sitting down to dinner. as a family. no matter the hour. no matter the menu. what mattered was that everybody had a place and a voice at the table.
now, i am here to tell you that the eight years between boy 1 and boy 2 at our house make for some rough sledding at the dinner table some nights.
while we zero in on boy 1, intent on probing deep into his oh-so-thoughtful soul, boy 2 decides to slide off his chair and play puppy dog, licking at our legs. or, for variety, he might drop spaghetti, strand by strand, onto the floor, until someone notices the heap and, inconveniently, hits the pause button on what had been boy 1’s careful analysis of al gore and his global-warming truths.
and some nights, i kid you not, it all gets messy. and i don’t mean the scraps dropping to the floor. conversation, when it’s real, is not all clean and tidy. and there are nights at our house, when salty tears add flavor to the food.
but we won’t relent. won’t back down. won’t give in to puppy dogs under tables, or spaghetti balls piling higher with every passing sentence. tears are dried. turns are taken.
the little one, up off the floor, gets his turn. he always does. the little one has 12 more years of family dinners, before he heads off to have his dinners elsewhere. God and admissions boards willing, in some college cafeteria. the big one has only four more years.
the one thing i pray for both my boys is that they look back at the maple kitchen table, or the cherry one in the dining room, and they remember that there, at their places along the east and western edges, they might not always have brought clean hands but they always brought their voices. their deep, rich, steady voices.
and at those tables, the voices always had a place, room to stretch out, to try out new ideas from different angles, to practice thinking. to be heard.
yes, most of all, the table was a place where voices, soft or loud, it didn’t matter, were always, always heard.

certainly, it is the essence of pull up a chair. finding a place at the table where you can boldly bring a voice. where you can pour your thoughts, your heart, your soul. what is dinner like at your house? where, at your house, do you find the fine art of conversation most freely unfolds?