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

Month: August, 2007

binge books

trust me, i know all the tricks: the sniffing out places you can be left all alone. the making up reasons to take the car on long errands. the squirreling away in your room, door closed, flung on the bed. the staying up till all hours. the quiet that blankets the house.
only this time, the binge is a book.
oh my soul, there is little so fine as a book that you cannot put down. a book that creeps into your dreams, takes over your day, erases ambition for anything else. a book that suddenly constantly tugs at your sleeve. like a toddler minus the whining, i guess.
“get back over here,” it insists. “psst, take a peek ’round this bend. i’ll tell you the secrets, tucked deep in the story. even the ending. but you can’t put me down.”
as long as there’re pages, it’s pulling you back. and then when it’s over, you’re empty. you’re spent. you are aching. the after-binge, unlike food, has you hungry for more.
but there’s nothing. you nibble on words, baked, sprinkled with salt, on just about anything. you read flyers, for crying out loud. anything, looking for just the same rush as the book that just drove the binge.
but they’re rare. they come, usually, unawares. without fireworks and marching bands. they wait, politely, silently, straight-backed, there on the bookshelf, just like all of the others, the second-class books that really should be scattered off elsewhere. but libraries are small-d democratic. librarians take an oath: equal rights for all citizens. no hierarchy. no special dormitory for fine books, books that could change your life. certainly add shadow and light where before you never knew it.
you browse down the library aisle. see a title. think, oh, i always wanted to read that. you lift it, cradle it, carry it off to the check-out. nothing compelling there.
but then, you crack open the seal. you glide into the story. you are hooked. you cannot, cannot be sated. you imagine, if you’re me, spending the rest of your life lost in that book, the loop of its plot replaying and playing. you will commit it to memory, unspool every last line for the pure total joy of it.
happened ’round here just this week. happened to two of us at the very same time. we were bingeing in stereo. tiptoeing around. sneaking behind doors. hoping not to get caught. once again, with the book splayed in our lap.
the wounded camper, the one with the knees still twice their regular size, found his joy, his delight, in the last of the books that stretch through most of his life, his reading life anyway. harry potter, the end. he guzzled most of 759 pages in a day. had had a few under his belt from some sleeping-bag reading up in the woods. but mostly he sucked down that story like some kind of cherry juice through the throat of a straw. for a whole day, wherever he moved, the book moved with him.
for me, it was–still is–toni morrison, and sethe and baby suggs and denver and paul d and beloved. sure is, “beloved,” the novel. just now i woke from a dream with sethe right in it.
it’s been years since i was so hungry for words in a book. i started on tape, listened the whole way to the tip of north michigan. got snatches on monday as i drove on long errands, made up faraway places to go. it wasn’t enough. by tuesday i had the book in my hand. from the library. but i know there’s a book store in my immediate future.
this is a kind of the book i love best: this is a book i read with a pen. this is a book i want to make lists from. i want to scribble down every last phrase that sent me to heaven and back, had me swerving there on the highway, hitting the rewind button. just so i could hear that sequence, that stanza, again.
best part here is toni’s reading it to me.
don’t know about you, but i fall in love with a writer like this. imagine bringing her tea, fluffing the pillows under her feet. whatever it might take for me to sit in her presence. dwell there. soak up the wisdom, the poetry that propels her. i could, i think, listen to her for the rest of my days. maybe i could be her gardener.
i want to know how her knowing is so immense. she writes with omniscience. and not just of sethe and suggs. way beyond that. she knows more about life than i think i will ever find out. she makes me feel little. makes my words seem like clay, dumb lumps of it, whereas hers, they belong in museums.
that’s why her voice, hearing her read to me, is rather like curling under a blanket, having your brow stroked. velvetly. until you drift into sleep.
i like hearing the story just as she hears it. like knowing the ways she says her characters’ names. not mangled, like maybe i’d do, if left to my own.
but after a while it wasn’t enough just to listen. i had to see it. i had to take in those words with my eyes. i would have smeared them like butter all over my toast and consumed them, if i could have. they are that delicious. they are that soul-opening.
i thought i knew of the horrors of human nature. thought i knew how hateful white folk–heck, any oppressor–could be. then i listened to page after page of “beloved”; i went weak in my knees, i tell you. even there in my old car’s front seat.
literature does that. we all know that. but to run your fingers over it. watch your heart take off like a kite. put to memory words and scenes you will never forget. well i don’t know if there’s a calling that’s higher.
if story can pull us together. span time and geography. slip us inside of the heart and the soul of some other being. well, then, don’t we go to our death a little more one with all of creation?
isn’t that, in the end, the whole point here?
if that is what comes with a binge, then bring on the next one. bring on the story, the poem laid out in prose. bring on the words that cannot be stopped; once you’re full, you’re still hungry. you cannot be sated. so is the joy of the binge of a book.

have you binged lately? if so, what flavor? what tickled your fancy? do you have a shelf just of books that transformed you? do tell. i’ve got my pen. i’ll take notes.

midsummer night’s squeaks

they come with the nightfall, as if the chirpity blanket that tucks in the darkness. or, maybe, some creaky old rocking chair, the one on summer’s front porch. or, perhaps, it’s the bugs’ busy signal, the one that seeps in through the windows, hides not the fact that they’re deeply engaged. care not a whit that we’re listening. listening in on the lovemaking. if tonight that’s the pulse of their call.

they’re there now, as i type. the light of my desk, the glow maybe that calls them, the beacon.

maybe they think i’m a firefly. maybe they’re chirping for me to scram, to leave them in peace. to sing till they’re sated.

they are the midsummer’s night chorus: the crickets, cicadas and katydids.

they are, in the pantheon of bugs, the ones with the throats–well, you’d not be a fool if you thought that, thought it a throat that’s making that racket, though it’s not.

it’s actually a wing with hard ridges, some 50 to 300 bumps, if you’re counting. and the tip of the other, the plucker. right wing rubbing the left wing. that’s all it is. like a fingernail pinging a comb. or a fiddler picking a whole mess o’ strings.

it’s a hoedown of crickets out yonder. there must be a fine doh-si-doh. or some sort of orthoptera reel.

they’re the bugs who wake up the babies. put the old folk to sleep. the ones who squeak through the night: “it is august. summer is slipping. savor it now while it lasts.”

they are ancient, and so is their song. in china, in the tang and the song and the ming dynasties, they were worshipped. concubines, holed up in palaces, it is said, carried them to their night pillows. kept them locked in gold cages. felt at one with the loneliness of their song. serenader and serenaded, both knowing the ballad of the caged and empty heart.

when not serenading, the crickets were put in a ring and left to fight to the death. poor things were starved before matches, to make them mean and quicker to bite the other dude’s head off. dang. cruel sport.

in 13th-century china, in fact, there was an infamous cricket minister, accused of dereliction of duties due to his obsession with cricket fighting. and two centuries later, the cricket emperor, ming xuan-zhong, whose zeal for the sport prompted all sorts of trouble.

the little bug with the big noise made for hot handling, big bucks, untimely demises–and not only the crickets’.

one chinese scholar writes: “each year, thousands of carefully selected crickets were sent to the capital where many people’s financial fate was placed in the mandibles of these insects.”

he then recounts this sorry cricket tale, as it was written in what’s known as the minor history of the ming dynasty: “when he saw a good cricket, an officer of the local rice granaries exchanged it for his best horse. while he was away, his wife opened the pot to peek at the special cricket which promptly jumped out and was instantly eaten by a cockerel outside. the lady was so scared that she committed suicide. her husband, upon returning and seeing his dead wife along with the missing cricket, also took his life.”

no wonder, when the cultural revolution rolled along under chairman mao in the radical 1960s, the crickets went underground, abandoned as too bourgeoisie. but they’re making a comeback.

heck, if you happen to be in beijing, say tomorrow, feel free to flip through the yellow pages. guaranteed, you’ll find the association for cricket fighting right there in the listings. only you’ll have to look that up in chinese.

when you do, when you call them, they’ll be able to spill you the skinny on the next big cricket match (and i don’t mean the one with the stick and the ball).

stars here are the bugs. and it’s truly high tech. think vegas with bugs. they use zoom cameras, i’m told, to catch every kick and that fateful last bite. they broadcast on super-sized screens, so no one misses the thrill.

frankly, i’d rather watch fly-fishing. but no one’s called me to ask.

think not that china is alone in its cricket fixation. all over the world, the singing night bugs of summer hold particular powers. in brazil, a cricket’s chirp means impending rain, or financial windfall; take your pick. a black cricket in the room, though, bodes illness; gray, money; green, hope.

in northeast brazil, it means death. so a cricket that dares to chirp in the house is, quick, put to the underside of the swatter. a bit south in brazil, along the atlantic, a constantly chirping cricket means someone is pregnant. but one that pauses tells you money is coming.

in barbados, a loud chirp signals the coming of cash. you’d be a fool to quash or evict a cricket in bridgetown. fact is, if you’re a cricket and you can’t keep it down, catch the next plane out of brazil. hightail it off to barbados.

the ol’ bugs, plainly, are mighty amazing. for starters, the inch-long squeakers with the power thighs and the loopy antennae lay eggs in the thousands, a statistic that earns the ol’ girls more than a bit of alpha-girl status out in the bug world.

the katydid, a close cousin, was considered an aphrodisiac of the first order back in the annals of chinese medicine in the 16th century. if you were, um, lacking in that department, you might be instructed to take one katydid and call the good doc in the morning.

and that’s not the least of it: a cricket, without a running start even, can jump 20 to 30 times its body length, three feet in the air.

by day, the noisy things hide–under rocks, clumps of dirt, the tuft of a plant. ah, but when night comes, those boys get to thummin’ their wings. the girls, they simply listen. their ears, by the way, are tucked under their elbows, or more precisely, a tympanic membrane just below the joint on their front legs, which really are arms, thus the term elbow.

people who decipher these things tell us the cricket chirp range is one octave higher than the highest on a piano. and depending on what it’s signaling–love, alarm, fightin’ words–it breaks its call into code, anywhere from five to eight pulses per chirp.

but i think the no. 1 cool cricket thing is the fact that a cricket can play thermometer.

check this out: it’s called dolbear’s law, and it works like this. count the number of cricket chirps in 13 seconds, add 40, and you’ve got you the temperature. if you live in the western u.s., your formula is tweaked ever-so-slightly: you count chirps in 12.5 seconds, then add 38.

the national weather service forecast office will do the work for you. just click here , and you’ll land on their handy-dandy cricket chirp converter.

ah, but enough with the science.

time for a little cricket literature. nathaniel hawthorne called the cricket song “audible stillness,” wrote that, “if moonlight could be heard, it would sound just like that.”

john keats, in “on the grasshopper and cricket,” wrote that “the poetry of earth is never dead.” emily dickinson says that “the crickets sang/and set the sun/and workmen finished one by one/their seam the day upon./and so the night became.”

if i had to vote for the best cricket bound in a book, i think i’d pick chester, from george selden’s “cricket in times square.” chester, who makes his way into the story in a picnic basket, has the amazing capacity to imitate any music he hears on the radio.

imagine a million chesters just outside your window. august, indeed, would be a month of undying delight. instead of just plain squeaky.

all righty, cricket lovers, sign up here with your tales of cricket swooning. your favorite cricket poems, perhaps? whatever moves you, let it rip. and for your listening pleasure, friends, the just-home-from-camp technical committee has dropped in this little cricket chirp for your midsummer’s delight. just click down below. let your heart go. chirp. chirp.

night watch

on a hot summer’s night, a night thick with the heat, thick with the back beat of crickets and car horns, i stepped into a sacred place, a place i’ve long known, for what always amounts to a peeling back of the heart, of the hard places inside, the places that sometimes forget just how blessed they are.
i walked into a children’s hospital. my children’s hospital. the one where i once was a nurse, where still when i drive by, on that busy street corner in the heart of the city, i see in my mind a whole slide show of children i loved, children now lost.
some women i know do face peels, come out shining. i’m more inclined toward these heart peels.
ever since i’ve been a mama, i cannot step in that hospital door without seeing some child, some mama or papa, that pulls the pumping thing straight from my chest.
i go there, i suppose, the way the old mexican ladies used to crawl on their knees up the limestone steps of the great catholic church by my old house, crawl clear up the center aisle. not minding the pain because it pulled them in closer. pulled them in to that oneness with the one who was crucified, yes, but also, i’m thinking, with all of those everywhere who live in a crucible of undying struggle and ache.
i am not some kind of a crazy. please don’t think that. but in this world that we live in, this world where chairs come with cushions, and food turns to rot before we can manage to eat it, it’s easy sometimes to forget.
to forget that the aches and the pains of our everyday are nothing. that we worry about the knees of a child hurt by a hike in the woods. but for crying out loud the kid was off at a camp on an island not easy to get to. money gets you there. privilege does too.
and sometimes we lose a whole day worrying about the invisible wires inside of a box on our desk that now seems to hold all that there is that’s essential. it’s a box, dammit. just a box that holds digits and data.
so on a night in a week when those were the kinds of things i’d been lost in, i stepped into children’s not knowing which room, or which bend would pull me into the place where my heart was peeled back. left open. dripping. realizing that each night, as i tuck my babies in sheets that are clean, that are mine, that hold stories, there are babies strapped onto beds with industrial sheets. there are mamas sitting next to those beds, mamas who would do anything to get up and get the hell out of there.
but they can’t. their babies are sick. their babies are missing whole parts. their babies are dying.
sometimes i think it’s good for my heart, for my soul, to remember.
to walk through the halls, to step into rooms, to remember.
last night, my guide on the walk was a wise soul, a woman, whose job it is to bring that spark of the divine into the world where machines blink and they beep through the night.
she took me, in rather quick order, to the place where my heart peeled wide open. a place i’ll not soon forget.
there in a crib, in the dark of a room lit only by streetlights outside and the lamp of a nurse who read through a chart down a ways, there lay the one i’ll carry with me for days and weeks and months. years, maybe. the one who’ll whisper to me every time, remind me how blessed is my life, how feeble my worries.
she was two. she was sleeping. her hair, brown, pulled up in two pigtails that flopped on her pillow like two spouting fountains. her eyelashes, thick, fell on her fat little cheeks. made her look like a fawn. her chest was bare, i watched her breathe. up and down her little chest rose, and then fell. her tiny fingers curled on the red of an elmo doll. an elmo balloon, catching the glint of the streetlight outside, fluttered over her head.
she had tubes. two on her chest. one in her nose.
she has a brain tumor.
at the beginning of summer she was running and babbling about elmo and big bird. her mama and papa didn’t know there was something not right. not yet, anyway. not back in may. she was starting to fall sometimes. but they didn’t think much about it. toddlers do that, they fall all the time it can seem.
things changed. the news came. there was a growth by her ear, just behind it. they opened her brain. she’d been on a breathing machine ever since, for two-and-a-half months. she was just now, as of hours ago, breathing on her own. but now, i’m told, she no longer talks about elmo. she no longer talks. she can’t.
her mama and papa, he’s a policeman, had just left when i got there. so i stood there beside her trying to catch what was left of my breath. i couldn’t stop crying. i wanted to lift that sweet child, carry her rushing into the street, into wellness. i wanted it all to be a bad dream. make it better.
my guide through these halls, the wise woman, leaned in toward that face i’ll never forget. she was asleep, the little one. but it is never too late for a bedtime prayer.
my guide, the one with the velvet hands, brushed that sweet baby’s brow. “good night, sweetheart,” she whispered, after all of the prayer.
i stood there longer than maybe i should have. but i couldn’t stop the tears spilling down, making my face wet. and i couldn’t leave the side of that baby.
she looked as perfect as perfect could be. but the fact of the matter was, hell grew inside.
i walked into that place to remember. to step back from my life, from my worries. i walked out fervently praying. dear God, have mercy, i’m begging.
hold her and cradle her. rock her and hush her. make it soft, God. and don’t make it hurt.

so now you too had a heart peel. maybe.
just so you know, i was there, in the first place, for my dayjob. i don’t think they’d let me in just for the cleansing of my soul. just to wake up the numb parts, the parts that forget. sometimes it takes what we see on the news. sometimes we’re caught by surprise. sometimes we’re out and we witness, there in a crowd, there on the side of the road, some scene we can’t shake. some scene that reminds us how very blessed we are. sometimes the best prayers that we pray are those for those we don’t know. but whose mercy we beg for. what peels your heart? do you believe in the power of purposely opening your eyes to the heartache around you? or is this the craziest regime you could ever imagine?
the hands up above are those of two of the healers. both are extraordinary women, women with “the touch.” their hands, i am certain, are anointed with the holiest of holies. and they use those hands to heal what medicine cannot. bless those hands. bless those healers. and bless, please, the ones who they labor to heal.

stitch, stitch

some days, when your heart feels unraveled and your seams all feel bursting, it helps to go thread a needle. it helps to pull thread through a cloth, to watch what’s left in your wake.
some days, despite what’s tugging inside, a wobbly row of x’s, all in a line, all in a rainbow of colors, is precisely the stitching you need. you are sewing your self back together.
so it was last night, as i climbed down into a basement. a hot concrete stairway, where the walls and the temperature pressed in, where my skin and the air grew more sticky and sweaty with each step down that i took. where just as i wondered what in the world i was walking into, i pushed back a curtain onto a cool breezy chamber aswirl in color and pattern.
i was, by grace of my dayjob, in a den of delight called the needle shop. i was there for embroidery 101, a class that had tickled my fancy.
oh, goodness, it had been a long, long while since i pressed hoop to cloth, and followed the little blue x’s, traced with my cable of threads (properly known as the floss when the subject is stitching for beauty not function) whatever the blue lines demanded.
like a 6-year-old new to a party, there before me lay a whole pile of presents: my own hoop, my own needles, a hayloft of flosses. even my own tiny scissors.
there were wonderful, whimsical books to flip through, books with all sorts of simple line drawings. you picked what you wanted, cut it out with your scissors and ironed it onto your tea towel.
oh my.
but first, there were stitches to learn. and that’s where i first felt my calm come together.
it had been a bad monday. the kind of monday that makes you want to run from your life, or at least hide under the bed. the kind of monday where you lose things that cannot be lost. where friction seems to seep from the phone lines. where all of your best good intentions seem to swirl down the drain. which, by the way, is so clogged you had better call you a plumber.
so when caitlin the teacher called for a knot at the end of the floss, it was, i think, the first thing all day that i managed to do without fumbling.
we started easy. we started with something called running stitch. nothing so much as hyphens all in a row. i could do it. not pretty, not perfect. but that wasn’t the point. the point was pulling thread through the cloth. accomplishing something. starting at one end, inch-worming toward the other.
sometimes my world is too seamless. without beginning or end. without a trace of my efforts.
sometimes i could run or worry all day. and if you walked in the door you wouldn’t know it. i leave no stitches behind. i leave no bright colors dotting the white of my tea towel.
only, last night, i did. i walked into embroidery 101 to learn a french knot, which i did. i threaded a needle with dreams of making a pillow case, which i might.
but for three hours in the cool of the fan, in the company of women drawn by the needles and thread, i learned i could, if i needed, stitch my frayed threads back together.
and i walked out with the start of my tea towel.

balms are many. balms come with needles and brushes, or even a hammer. balms come, for some, with turning of pages. cutting with scissors. what soothes your frayed threads? and what is it with mondays as the end of summer presses in, as school starts within the shadow of the week? if stitching–or whatever usually soothes in our personal apothecary of balms–lets us down, let’s all hide under the beds together. not come out ’til next april. or maybe october. when the leaves turn, and my best season is upon us, the one that’s up next. if i can manage to get there….

the crooked way home

we turned left, not right. we turned away from straight roads, roads that did the job, connected the dots, got you where you needed to be, did not dilly-dally.

we wanted none of that. we wanted to wiggle our way through the state that pretends it’s a mitten. we wanted nothing of straight angles, straight shots, sensible directions.

i’d waited a month, driven 366 miles, to get to the boy in the woods, the boy i’d been missing. but really, we’d waited for years, for it just to be him and me and a whole day in front of us. years past, all sorts of road blocks got in our way. surgery. a torn-apart kitchen. drivers who preferred the direct route.

not us. and not this time.

we wanted to soak up the joy of being together. and we chose to do that the slow way. we chose the gray squiggly lines on the map. the ones my co-pilot defined thusly: “it’s not gravel, and it’s not dirt, and that’s all i can say about it.”

so only a few times did the pebbles spin out from under our tires, and that was because, once again, we were, oops, getting un-lost, righting our wrongs, needing the side of the road.

nope, for the most part we stuck to two lanes, paved, with the occasional splash of yellow dashing the middle.
the whole point was to meander. to be not in a hurry. not racing toward anywhere or anything. to be driven only by intuition or a whiff in the air that someplace worth seeing might be just down that road over there.

it was to be reminded, more than a few times, that intuition takes you to the end of the road. exactly the opposite of where you thought you were going. but once there, hey, you met really nice folk who gave you a map, turned you around, and offered a big cup of water besides.

after a while we got to calling our route the pie way, for all the pies we seemed to be piling on the car seat behind us. we had cherry, of course. and blueberry too. lattice-top, sprinkled with big chunks of sugar. like the ice storms that swirl through these parts, come november through april some years.

oh, but that wasn’t all. we had tart cherry concentrate, cherry-berry preserves, cherry syrup and black cherry fudge. we had peaches and corn and real-thing tomatoes. blueberries we bought by the quart.

it got to be rather a moveable feast, but then we were, for a while, in hemingway country. hemingway summered at one of the lakes, a crooked old lake called walloon, that happened to be in our path. that’s where we picked up that sweet cherry pie.

with every stop, practically, came a story.

and that was the trip that we wanted.

we wanted nothing of interstates. nothing of billboards and drive-thru fast food.

we wanted, just this once, after years of pouting that we were going home the fast way, not the pretty way, to indulge in the fine art of meandering, a verb that carries some weight in my lexicon.

and, oh, the sights from the gray roads…

for every farm stand where we pulled onto the gravel, there were six others we passed. and one of us sighing, each time. why, we saw a field growing nothing but sunflowers. and, drat, that we didn’t turn back.

but when we came to the squat little joint with the white metal box and the huge hunk of fudge on the roof, well, we screeched and we spun that wheel hard.

if there’d been a show playing we would have turned, too, at the cherry bowl drive-in, where a six-foot aluminum hot dog, one dripping with all of the fixins, marked the concessions.

on our way out of one wrong turn, we rolled through a town where the one blinking light was, we were told, the only one in the county.

it was all the joy of the journey.

there aren’t many days that shake you from sleep, shout wake up, take all the time in the world today. sometimes you have to make those days happen.

you have to fight off the urge to do things the straight way. to get home at a sensible hour.

we came home the crooked way, me and the boy i so love. all in all we drove 455 miles. but that was really only 89 more than the straight way. if you measure in miles.

if you measure in joy, though, it was twice as long, and 10 times as deep. we squeezed hands once or twice and we cried, or at least i did, listening to stories. hearing the knowledge he picked up in the woods, on the trail that “humbled” him, his word. his wisdom.

long as i live i will never forget: taking wrong turns then righting them; meeting the fellow in the fix-it truck who pulled onto the gravel because he saw all the pointing of fingers there at the gas station where we’d stopped for directions, and he figured we were lost, thought he’d offer his part in getting us home.

i’ll not forget the pie lady who laughed, and then blushed, when i asked if she minded my taking a picture, the one up above, of her beautiful, beautiful pies.

i’ll not forget the sound of a car with no radio, no tunes, just the stories from camp from my co-pilot.

i’ll not forget the glow of the sun setting like copper as we drove through the stretch with the steel mills.

i’ll not forget the skip in my sweet boy’s heart when we rounded the bend, well past nightfall, and there at the curb were his papa and sweet baby brother.

i’ll not forget the long sweet embrace that came at the end of the crooked way home. sometimes you just need to get there the long way.

it’s true, and for real. my camper is home sweet home. a bit worn, a bit battered. but safe now. and wiser. lost 14 pounds there on the trails with the 40-pound pack on his back. called the trails “fickle.” wrote, on one page of his journal, that he’d realized “walking is just putting one foot in front of the next.” said, and he meant it, love–pure and simple–carried him home. said if he’d curled up and quit he never would have made it back to the ones he was missing so deeply, so he just kept walking, despite feet and knees that were throbbing. he’s home now, and ben gay is the scent of the day.
now for you: tell stories of times you, too, took the crooked way. what did you bring home from the journey?

wild horses, sore bottoms, not even a skyway

be glad you aren’t my adrenaline.
oh, baby, it’s workin’ doubletime here in the house of the mama fetchin’ her baby.
okay, so he’s not a baby. and promise me you won’t tell him i said that. but he is my baby. and i am going to fetch him today.
you know, the boy in the woods. the one whose voice i can hear in my head, but not in my ear. the one i’ve not seen, except for in snippets of pixels, that new-fangled measure that means not very much, in the occasional group shot slapped on what would have been the camp bulletin board, only now it’s called the website. and it’s been a whole month.
that boy whose last letter to me mentioned something about feet hurting, something about how he didn’t mean to worry me but just taking off socks was, in his unforgettable word choice: “excruciating.”
the one who went on to hike on those feets for the next 14 days, 12 miles a day. at a minimum.
so, get me the car keys, get me the map. i am hitting the highway today.
if i could have, i’d have gone way back on tuesday. just sat there, outside of the camp, on the side of the road maybe. some pathetic poor mother come to pick up her child. the sheriff’s police, i can see it all now, squawking on some fool walkie-talkie about the kook with the book and the sunburn who won’t leave the side of the road ’til the camp opens up, lets out the wounded, the over-hiked hikers.
ah, but beneath my wild-eyed ideas there lurks a rational human (okay, okay, so make that: occasionally, partially, sometimes). and a mother, besides, who a.) had more than the side of the road in her weekly agenda, and b.) would be in big trouble if she staged such a hoopla.
so, no, i whiled away the week. kept an eye on the clock, though. took in the car for a once-over. gathered my audiobooks. mapquested every which way to the camp. hemmed and hawed: would i do this myself? would i do it en masse, hauling along not only a co-pilot but the now-6-year-old brother who tends to not like sitting still, not for hours and hours, and who, besides, might not be ready to give up his month of undiluted parental attention?
i dreaded, still do, the darn skyway that looms between me and my boy. gathered balm for the bones on my bottom, the ones that don’t take to long car rides.
ah, but nothing, not bridges that give me the woozies, not tushies that throb bloody murder, none of it’s keeping me home.
i’ll be brave. i’ll be strong. i’ll keep my eye on the prize at the end of the road: that tall moppy-haired boy, that boy who i love. that boy i would drive to the end of the earth to pick up, if that’s what it took.
this, after all, is a mere eight-something hours. and i’m not going alone, not really.
why, i’ve got henry david thoreau riding along. toni morrison, too. and that ol’ traveling companion, ms. kingsolver. they’ll all be chattering away. i’ll be listening.
i’ll be watching, too. looking for signs off the side of the road: only 373 miles to go, mama. keep truckin’.
you see, there is nothing so sweet–save for that first reach in the delivery room, the first time you feel the weight of that lump laid in your long-waiting arms–nothing so sweet as the sweetest reunion. a jumble of arms and hair in your mouth, and tears, at least yours, anyway, tumbling quite freely.
to feel your heart take a leap, skip a beat, as you spot the head, or the shoulder, or even the elbow, the parts you have memorized–they belong, after all, to the soul who you love, who you drove all this way for.
it’s the scene i will see, i will play and repeat as i cling to the wheel, step on the gas, inch my way over that mile-high bridge, that bridge that climbs higher than i care to climb, held up just by I-beams and concrete and hope. oh, lord, the chances we take, the fears that we conquer, the things that we do to drive to the arms of the boy that we birthed, the boy we so desperately love.

holy garden angels, that’s the prayer that we pray every time we pull from the curb. please keep us safe. if you don’t mind whispering your own home-grown version, i’m sure it would help as i head for the skyway, and then on up the mitten that’s the fine state of michigan. while you’re at it, spill your thoughts on the subject of road trips and sweet reunions. either, or, whatever most moves you. over and out, it’s off to the highway.

knock. knock.

oh, if only they’d come to that door. if only they’d swing it wide open, pull you in in that way that they usually do.
oh, if only you, too, could play at the nelsons.
every street, nay, every childhood, should have one, the nelsons.
a rambling old house where the attic is big, the garage is quite stuffed, but the imagination, oh my, it’s humongous. it can’t be contained. it seeps through the cracks, it sprawls in the yard. it’s piled quite high, can’t be stuffed in the closets.
a house, and a family, where ideas are meant to be steeped, and a little mess only makes it all better.
a house where a boy (one who can’t stay away) can get lost, and his dreams can be found, where they spill from his head like bright bits of confetti.
a house where a boy can spend a whole summer’s day pretending it’s star wars, real live. where pb&js come cut out in stars, where the fruit on the tray is not plain old melon and grapes but canyon fruit, and pea-eyed fruit, too (nothing official, i’m told, just a name with a nice star-warsy ring to it). where the windows are hung, for effect at this lunch, with a star-and-moon pillow case and a star-and-moon sheet. where after lunch, after oreos covered in yellow-goo stars, a movie is served. taken in, but of course, in full anakin skywalker star war regalia.
oh, did i mention this was all the doing of the kiddies? the mama was out running errands.
better than best, this is a house where the children do whole gobs of the thinking. this is a house where the grownups are sparks but the kids take the ride to the stars.
how unheard of in an age where children, too often, are spoon-fed. how divine to be left to your own child-stoked devices.
yes, this is a house where a glue gun is part of the landscape, but that’s just the tip of the work bench. jig saws i’ve seen, and tools that impressed even my builders. it’s all at the ready, all standing by for whatever’s the latest invention.
and with every invention, it seems, costumes come out of the woodwork. this here is a full-service idea factory.
squirreled away in the basement, in what she calls, simply, “the fort,” the mama has all sorts of doodads and drawers stuffed with whatchamacallits. every cool thing you would need to construct whatever it is you sketch out in your head.
the mama, a school teacher, a kindergarten teacher, to be precise, is the heart of this five-member troupe. but she’s backed up with a daughter, sweet 16 but not too big for dress-up and make-believe and stirring the pot of whatever’s put out on the stove of creation.
the papa’s a scientist, known and loved around here as pyro pete, for his leanings toward all things pyrotechnic and sparkling. if it fumes and it fizzes, if it flies and goes pop in the night, chances are, we’ve watched pyro pete do the igniting.
they are the sort of family you thank your lucky stars for. the sort they write books about. even meanders, apparently.
speaking of stars, if there’s one shooting by, you can bet the high-powered scope, the one hauled from the attic, is out on the sidewalk so all passersby can gawk at the heavens.
out back in the alley, come every summer, there is, at the production and direction of ms. sweet 16, a full-scale musical staging, called the garage-in-the-alley theater. this year it’s annie. last year, pippi longstocking. year before, peter pan.
rehearsals begin back in spring. the cast, from every house on the block with a child; she leaves no one out. finds just the right part for each player.
with her own special mix of magic and love, the lovely directress gets even the big kids, the boys teetering on teenage-hood, singing and dancing, stringing up lights, painting boxes for sets, rigging costumes. little ones, ones who struggle to read, she has them tapping their toes, spouting their script, pretending they’re pirates with swords. (no matter the show, she manages, somehow, to make swords a part of the action.)
grown men in the audience, in their chairs in the alley, i’ve seen them weeping, unable to stop.
it’s all part of the nelson equation.
we bumped into the goodness that flows there the very first morning we looked at this house. there on the sidewalk, hand-in-hand with her then-wee-littlest boy, mrs. nelson was out “hobgoblinning,” a never-before-heard-of october ritual in which you ring a doorbell, drop a sack full of goodies, then run like the dickens lest you be spotted mid-action.
with her red hair and freckles, there on that long-ago morning, we were pretty much put under her spell, that mrs. nelson.
she’s never let up. cinnamon rolls on a plate at the door, the day the moving truck rolled to the curb. bags full of goodies, always themed and home-made, for practically every last holiday since.
in the deep of december, when it’s dark and it’s cold, they light up the night as they kindle swedish tradition. put candles on heads, glide through the twilight, santa lucia herself, with her maids and her tomten. come new year’s, there is a rousing kinder parade. children with clangers and banners, ringing the block.
you might think it exhausting–it’s not. it’s some kind of wonderful, really it is.
but it’s the unending stories, the summertime plots, the pretend with a capital p, that’s the thing that is truly so priceless. that’s the thing that all children everywhere, and all grownups too, should not have to grow up without.
the nelsons, they are essential. like iron for blood and milk for your bones, they should be stamped with minimum daily requirements.
i pinch myself, daily, hourly sometimes, wondering how in the world did we get so darn lucky. who knew that this house should have included the listing: “wrld’s bst nabrs: the nlsns, attchd.”

oh my goodness gracious, for an indescribable crew, it seems i did some describing. i am hoping and crossing my fingers that your world, too, or the world of your children, held, holds, some magical wonderful clubhouse where ideas were there at the ready, waiting to be tried on, tested, concocted. is there another block on the planet where the essential neighbor is there, awaiting your knock on the door?

the joy of six

sweet baby boy, this one’s for you….
you don’t know it, because you are asleep now. you haven’t yet opened your eyes, haven’t yet drunk in the fact that your room is awash, as always on double-8 day, with the workings of that little sprite who slips in the window, tap-taps at the pane, checks to see that at last you’ve surrendered to sleep and to dreaming, strewn your room stem to stern, knotted your bed to the door to the bookshelf and back, created an obstacle course, a traffic jam, really, a coagulation of crinkly streamers. balloons, too. your room looks as if it suffers from pox, big, blown-up pustules of air everywhere. and posters besides. posters shouting, in all sorts of ways–ways squiggly and primitive, yes, but bursting with color and most of all heart–we love you.
you don’t know, but maybe you do, because some little clock inside of your head has been counting for months and for weeks, how many days ’til my birthday? we’ve done the subtracting since way back last august. in october we counted. in december too. on christmas, you wondered: how many days ’til my birthday?
just last night, the very last words from your mouth, or at least the last ones i heard, down the stairs, though the hall, around one bend, then two, as i sat in the kitchen twiddling thumbs, waiting–wondering how many hours it might possibly take, before, shhh, i could let in the birthday fairy, but, psst, that there’s a secret–your last words before sleep finally lassoed you, pulled you into its thick molasses-y hold, were, of course: “is it my birthday yet? how many minutes?”
psst. i don’t want to wake you, don’t want to nudge you from that sweet place that holds you right now, but it’s here now, it is your birthday.
you, the boy born in a shaft of light one hot august night. you, who beat all the odds, defied all the books, all the logic, and even the science, from way before birth. you, the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer.
you, the light of my heart. it’s your birthday.
it’s the day for your mama, and a whole host of others, to stand back and marvel and say, oh, so that’s what a miracle looks like. that’s what appears at the end of a prayer and a plea and a not giving up, not deep deep in your heart anyway.
you, child of old lady, child thought to be trotting along at the side of your granny, you with the gusto to take it in stride, you’re just so thrilled to be here. you don’t care a hoot about some old obstetric equation.
you’re ready to leap, head, foot, and then some, into this six thing. this state of being that you’ve been awaiting, been counting toward, doing the math, well, for at least 364 days.
so now you’ve arrived.
this is six.
looks to be big, babe. looks to be real big. you’ve got that wiggly tooth down there in the front. and the alphabet’s coming together. you are cobbling words, cobbling sentences. any day now, you just might take off in the page-turning department.
first grade looms. and you know what that means? lunch, in a crinkled brown bag. one you might lose a few times. but worry not. the cafeteria lady, she has fries. and milk in small cartons.
it’s a big world now, babe. and we’re all behind you. you’ve got rooters in maine. and a love in the high desert mountains. you’ve got that high flyer on the left coast and a not so high one smack in the middle, in ohio, that is. there’s a crew in new york, and a little town in new jersey. you’ve got a grammy who comes every tuesday and thursday. for a young lad of six, you are quite covered, geographically speaking.
but way more than that, you who fights monsters in bed and builds space craft by day, you are covered in all that most deeply matters: you are loved, little boy. you are cherished.
happy day of your birth, happy day of your coming. in classic T style, you scared the behoozies out of us there at the end, on that hot august night when the room got all tense, got all filled, made me think for a minute my bubble would burst.
but, nah, not the boy who intended to be. from the start, from the get-go, you had your mind set: this was a world you were taking by storm. stand back, let him at it. no chance and no way, this boy’s not going down.
not ’til he’s reveled in all that there is. not ’til he’s shone like a bright brilliant light in the deep and the dark of the sky on a mid-summer’s night.
happy most blessed birthday to the boy who’s the light of God’s light.

forgive me. it’s a meander to my little one, but maybe somewhere along the way, it reminded you how precious is someone you love. how precious is six. how precious is the gift of defying the odds. how precious the gift of believing. pull in, cut a slice of that lemony cake, add your thoughts on the subject of precious.

the pedaler

whenever i hop on my old blue bike, i hear the “wizard of oz” bicycle theme in my head. you know, the one with the pedaling witch. the one that goes like this: da-da-da-da-da-daaaah-da. you probably knew what i meant before i spelled it out. and now, oops, sorry, you’ll be singing it all day. one of those mind gnats that won’t go away.
the reason i bring up my old bike, and even better, my old wicker basket, is because it’s the old lady i always wanted to be. the carefree one, the one with time to pedal through the village, collecting her wares. the bread from her breadman, the milk from the farmer at the end of the lane, the tomatoes from the vine in the patch that is mine.
i would, in my blurry-edged vision, stop to chat with a passerby. ferry tomatoes to a neighbor who’s ailing. wear my wide-brimmed hat, the one with the ribbon that ripples as it blows in the breeze back behind me.
i would cast lupine seeds as i pedaled.
erk! screech on the brakes.
i am, you see, getting carried away, pretending i live in a picture book, tucked in the pages where drawings are pretty, where colors come dabbed on the end of a brush. i do that sometimes, get carried away.
and that, here, is the point: my bike and my sweet little basket are follies. they stand for the way i wish life would be. a life that didn’t demand scrounging for keys, racing out doors, bottom-dropping into the front seat, screeching away from the curb, dashing to get somewhere, something, someone before i was late, caught without milk for the children, reported to the department of children and family services for leaving my little one at school overnight.
at least the last of those has not ever happened. i’ve been late plenty. pretended it was breakfast-for-dinner night, made do with orange juice. but not yet, like a friend of mine, did i forget, ‘til the school called her, to pick up a child.
dear lord, what is this gerbil wheel we scamper on? and why is it we run as if the big steam iron in the sky was chasing behind us, ready to press against flesh if we did not get all done on time, if we slacked a wee little?
or maybe it’s just me. maybe i’m the only one cranked up like a cuckoo clock. but, psst, here’s a secret: i’ve been watching, and i dare not think i’m alone. here’s another secret: it’s nuts out there.
domestic tranquility is what happens in the middle of the night when, for once, all bodies are accounted for, and deeply asleep.
the minute one eyeball is opened on but one of those bodies, the chance of teetering into the chaos that is the norm in these times, is, well, you might want to bet your allowance on it.
it seems we are, many of us, overstuffing the sausage that is our fat little roly-poly lives. and so, the old car at the curb, the one that might as well sleep with the motor on, so we could shave seconds from errands that don’t quite fit in the puzzle, that are too far, really, that are too many, for certain, that old car, maybe might be the curse, but it might hold the cure.
what if we lived lives reined in by the pedals on our old under-used bikes? what if we pedaled as far as the village, and not so much farther? what if we filled our old baskets, carried home what we could? what if we were powered by thigh muscles and not fuel sucked from the earth?
what if our wide-brimmed hat, not our keys, hung by the door? what if we stopped to talk to the folks on the sidewalk?
oh, goodness gracious, i know it’s naive. i know it is silly. but all that i’m saying is we’ve got to do something. seems a bike and a basket might make for a swell place to start.
might as well make like the witch on the wizard of oz. put our toes to the pedal. push with all of our might.
give it a whirl.
you know the words: da-da-da-da-da-daaaah-da.

okey doke, folks. your turn. one: do you ever think your life’s out of hand? your days too packed? your errands too many? two: do you have some little folly, some something you keep close at hand just to remind you to slow down, to simplify, to savor the gift of each blessed hour?

odometer blues

sometimes the most important job around the house is getting all the parts over the bumps. even when the bumps come with zeroes attached. which would be the bump at our house today.
one of the parts, one sleeping upstairs, will wake up with a brand new zero this morning. he will lug it around all year, and for a few days here it might take some getting used to. some breaking in. it might feel a bit odd, might cloud the windshield.
i tell you, it sure wasn’t pretty watching it coming. you would have thought someone swallowed a fly around here.
which would be why i–the designated old lady–must step forth and do my part to ease the pain.
so today i speak up in defense of zeroes. especially when they come right after the 9s on the odometer doodad. especially when they mean a new decade is entered.
except for the first three, maybe (and by that, of course, i mean the 00s, the 10s and the 20s), nary a decade comes without at least a bit of a bump. (and come to think of it, i’ve not met a birth that’s bump-free, so let’s whittle it down to the 10s and the 20s that even dare to come easy.)
unless, that is, you are like little old me, who, so far, has not met a decade i didn’t reach out and latch onto.
i, like a snowball, feel little friction rolling along the gritty ol’ landscape of years, picking up layers, taking my digits however they come. it’s either that, or melt under the december sun, the way i see it. and i’d rather not make like a puddle. not yet, anyway.
i say bring on the years. bring on the reasons to breathe, the reasons to hold my breath, too. bring on the tingles of stories too good to be true. and, yes, if i must, i’ll bear also the heartbreak, the life lessons that crack open my soul, teach me new truths, truths surely worth knowing.
it’s what makes for unstoppable reading, this narrative page-turner, this not ever knowing what will come next.
just when we think we’ve imagined the next couple of chapters, kaboom, life knocks on the door, brings in new players, takes some away. adds a twist of a plot, thickens the story.
it is, i think, the thing that makes it worth getting up out of bed in the morning. i never mind a little drama stirred in with my coffee. and believe it or not, i don’t mind, not one little bit, a dab of ho-hum at the end of the day.
while it’s true that i, more than most, live on caffeine and adrenaline, even sans stimulants, this life is a rush.
so bring it on, i say. bring on the zeroes and whatever’s attached. bring on the aches and the blurry ol’ vision. bring on the heart pangs, the throbs and the swoons. bring on the moments so sweet, and so heavenly, not a soul that i know, not one with a pen or a typewriter that is, could possibly, ever, have inked such a glorious, wonder-filled, real-life non-fiction.
ol’ fellow, listen up, please perk up your ears: pay no mind to that round little 0 at the end of your years. just thank the lord, hallelujah, the odometer’s still rollin’.

happy birthday to the boy i love best, the one i linked my whole life to. here’s to chocolate eclairs and ping pong tables we assemble together (all 39 steps, 250 parts and 8 pages). here’s to 8-minute burgers and lemony cakes. here’s to the simple sweet things that you love oh so much. here’s to yet another delicious decade.

anyone out there wanna add to the list? reasons to rejoice at every new zero, a collective of wisdom. who wants to go first?