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Month: November, 2007

teaching to see

he rolled out of bed the way he usually does: somersault off the pillow to sprawled on his back at the end of the mattress, head dangling, flopping like some sort of upside-down rag doll, not too far from the ground. a perfect inverted perch, he decided, for keeping watch out the window.

that’s when he called me. “papa is out on the roof. he’s hopping around. i think maybe he’s looking for breakfast.”

papa, for those who’ve not hung in this house maybe so long, is not the little one’s name for the tall guy with tortoise-rimmed glasses. it was not he who was hopping around on the roof, although i too would have come running for that. rather, it was the red bird, papa cardinal, a character here who goes by only one name.

after broadcasting every breath papa was taking, out there on the roof that juts just below the window through which he was watching, the little one reached for the ledge. or maybe i reached there first. the point was, one of us reached for and grabbed the binoculars.

suddenly, the boy hanging there with his curls topsy-turvy, wanted to learn how to look through the little glass circles that, through the wizardry of optics alone, bring the world as close as the end of your nose.

as i tried–it’s clumsier than you would imagine, believe me–to line up the circles, tried to narrow then widen the space in between so it fit the very same space on the face that is his, as he attempted to make it all clear, and not blurry, not too close, not too far, not staring down at the gutter, but trying to get that ol’ bird in his lens, i realized really i was teaching the boy how to see.

how to regard. how to watch. how to take in the world without any words.

how to notice the pinhole there on the side of papa’s small beak. how to study the feathers he fluffs when it’s cold. how to see the ballet of the leaves in the trees as they shudder there in the november wind.

he was, for a while, finding it hard. the bird was nowhere in sight. all he saw were the nail heads there on the shingles.

not quite the subject of choice for intro to looking, a beginner’s class in the fine art of things to do with your eyes.

ah, but once he got papa there in the cross hairs, he didn’t move. didn’t flinch. just froze like a boy with a bird in the palm of his hand. which, almost, it was.

he might still be there now, only the clock nudged us on, the clock and the notion that school had a bell that soon would be ringing.

but, like clockwork, each morning since, he somersaults off the end of the bed, grabs the looking lens from there on the ledge, and begins again to scan the sky, and the trees, and whoever decides to land on the roof.

he’s even tried it at night. though it’s a little bit hard to make out a star with a mere binocular lens. i explained that’s where the telescope comes to the rescue, but that would be the next class in the series, and we’re only just fumbling with this.

last night, drying off from the bath, he explained that really he’d like to see clear to africa. he was hoping perhaps he could raise the lens to his eyes and see faraway.

far, faraway, he explained. he’d like to see maybe a lion or cheetah. and surely a tiger.

“and some day, when i’m 7 or 8,” he informed, “i’m gonna get real binoculars and try to find any sorta kinda nest. so i can look at a fox’s nest, or a bird’s nest, or a squirrel’s nest.

“i would really like it,” he went on, sliding a leg into his red flannel pajamas, “if papa cardinal would just stand there, and didn’t move completely.”

it needn’t be exotic, i’m thinking he knows, for what you see through your lens to be utterly gripping.

i couldn’t be more tickled that he’s taking so deep a fancy to a sense that can take him so far, a sense that will bring more wisdom and glory than he or i or any of us, really, can ever imagine.

to see is to know, is to understand, is to absorb.

to see is to take in, from the thinnest strand of a spider’s web laden with dew to the last dying ember of a star as it streaks through the cosmos, the whole of God’s breath.

and i mean that without the d. although the breadth and the breath aren’t far from the same. but if we consider the whole of creation one deep exhale from the in and the out of something like lungs wholly divine, then really it’s all, well, supremely breathtaking.

and it is not every day that any one of us gets a chance to instruct in using the eyes for all that they’re meant to take in: the way someone fidgets a spoon while making a point at the table. the color of sky as the last beams of the day paint it a pink you’ll never forget. the glint of the moonlight on a pine branch heavy with snow. the gleam in the eye of someone you love.

and, oh, what of the things we can’t teach, the ones we only can pray they learn on their own: how not to miss the twinge of the hurt deep in the heart; the sparkle of love blooming; the look of intent, of paying attention; how to notice a soul draining toward empty.

really so much of it is only just seeing by feeling. it’s braille, after all. so much of the seeing that matters. it comes through the gift of the eyes, but also the touch of the skin and the skip of the heart.

but, alas, in these mornings of teaching to see, i realize i am bound, i am tethered to only the lens bobbing there on the end of the cord that slips over his head.

the rest of the teaching to see i will teach without lenses. i will teach, day after day, for as long as i’m here. i will teach my children to look and look closely.

i will teach them the glory of God is there through the lens. but they must open their hearts, as well as their eyes, to soak in the sights.

it is the often unnoticed to which i must teach them to pay the closest attention.

the five senses, most of the time, come already installed. but not always, and in the absence thereof we notice how much of the world we get or we miss through the eyes and the ears, the palate, the skin and the nose. and even in cases where all senses are up and running, still there is refining and learning sure to be done. if we pay close attention. far as i know, it’s a lifelong dedication. did someone or something teach you, unforgettably, the fine art of seeing, of watching, of looking quite closely? what are some of the fine points of life you’d so miss if not for the grace of your eyes in the first place?

today is the day of the birthday of my sweet cousin julie. and tomorrow, my mother, the one who i realize, so many mornings as i sit to start typing, has informed so much of the way i see through my lenses onto the world. to both, i send the deepest of blessings and prayers for a year just ahead that is filled with great sights. and the knowing, deep in both of their hearts, that you are so loved. happy day of your birth. be full of joy.

one by one


my mama walked in the door, looking a little more pale, a little more drained than she usually does. how are you, we asked, as she lugged in a 20-pound sack of seed for the birds.
“oh, i’ve been better,” she said, just a little bit softly, just a little bit as if the air had been sucked from her lungs.
mind you, this is a mama who mentioned, after washing a tall stack of dishes, after being at my house for nearly an hour one long ago time, that, oh by the way, they found a tumor and it is malignant.
my mama is not, unlike her daughter, inclined toward drama at all.
so when she answered so softly, we all leaned in closely.
“you didn’t get my email?” she asked, this being the age of talking through digital wires.
we had not. so she told us. “al died,” she said.
now al, like don and arthur and rita and ruthie and gracie and jane, is one of the players, one of the first-name-only cast, who populated all of the dramas, all of the stories, the legend, the lore, of our youth.
they were the ones, each of them, slightly larger-than-life in the way that anyone with a mr. or mrs. in front of their name is, when you are a child sent off to bed, to spy from the stairs, to catch only wisps of the deep conversations.
they were the ones who, you could count on, were in on the comings and goings, the giggles, the laughter, of all of our growing-up years.
al was the tall skinny guy, the lawyer by day, but tennis commando by evening and weekend. he’s the one who wouldn’t eat cheese, and loved the cheapest bottle of wine he could find.
don, he was the biochemist with the voice that awakened the sleeping. he, too, was the one who inspired rather grand and cosmic ideas about God. he made a mean egg nog. so mean you needed to run for the sink after sipping, just to spit out whatever small bit you’d inhaled for good show there in his living room, where he urged you, he did, just to try some, really, you’ll like it.
rita was al’s wife. blonde and gorgeous and gracious from the first time i spied her, there in her little white skirt, slapping tennis balls clear across courts at tennaqua, the club with a pool and tennis and the greasiest cheeseburgers you could get for under two bucks.
gracie belonged to don. she was the small-boned irish wit. she could fling big words and twists of the language the way rita flung tennis balls. she flung ‘em best when at the net across from my very own papa. to watch geno and gracie go at it in the language department, the outdo-’em department, was to take a life-lasting lesson in lingual gymnastics and sparring and laughing out loud.
al is gone now. died this week. at 88. don died a few years ago. somewhere up in his 80s.
one by one, a season is passing, an era is closing, a chapter is ending, the pages are turning, one by sorrowful one.
since my papa died first, since my papa died when everyone else was hitting their stride, that hurt in a way that nothing else will ever come close to. his was the death unexpected. wholly, completely, take-your-breath-away news.
not so now.
the folks who made up all of the stories of our youth–the ones signed up for the courts and the burgers on wednesday and saturday nights, the ones whose cigarette butts i could identify there in the ashtray, the trademark strains of their voices seeping in through my window, the one just up from the terrace, where they’d be out sipping their scotch on the rocks, telling their stories over and over again–they are old now, they are white in the hair, and, some of them, slow of the gait.
the news from my mama these days is mostly of life draining away. she brings dinner to friends who are housebound. she sits with her friends as their husbands are dying. one dearest friend can’t remember to come to bridge anymore, first wednesday of every month, same as it’s been for dozens of years, and when she does come, she can’t read the cards.
slowly, a world once bright and seeming to go on forever, is now fading to gray, and, every once in a very sad while, it is pierced with the awful sad news that one of the heroes, one of the ones you could count on for wisdom when you needed it, or wit when you just plain wanted it, they are no longer.
there are holes now all through the story. like pieces of chess there on the board, they are falling. whole canyons of emptiness fill the space in between.
it’s a dull ache now. and a deep seeping sense that life as we knew it, expected it, licked it straight off the plate, is passing.
i can’t imagine the depth of the grief for my mama. my mama who loses not just a friend, a lifelong friend, a friend who she leaned on, a friend who stepped in, who kept her going and laughing and filling her long empty evenings there in her too-many years as a widow, my mama is losing not just the players but the whole story around her.
i imagine it’s starting to feel, there on the stage, that it’s getting quite sparse and the lights in the wings are dimming.
as a once-child who peered up onto the floorboards where all of the players were swirling, were spinning their lines, i get a chill, a draft blows down on my neck, making me shudder. the theater is emptying out.
but i sit keeping watch on the few players left. and i miss all the ones whose lines are now cut.
not that any one of them was a someone to whom i told all my deep and dark secrets. no, not at all. i was merely there in the audience. i didn’t play on their courts. wasn’t down on the terrace. i sat off to the side watching, up in my room listening.
but i always just knew, i believed, they would be there, and now that they’re not, now that they’re leaving, one by one, slowly, i too feel the turning of pages. i too feel the thinning out of the crowd.
before the stage goes to black, i just want to say it’s been one helluva show. and i’m sorry as you are to see it now ending.

have you too shared this sense that the grownup world that once wrapped around you, kept you safe, kept you warm, or at least kept you paying attention, is thinning out? that even though they might have been minor players in the intimacy of your life, they were, out on the big stage, rather looming, and their absence is chilling? do you get news, one sad bit at a time, that reminds you an era is slipping away? who were the players in the cast of your life? what did you learn? did you, like me, love to keep watch? did you like me think it would never end?

that beautiful, haunting photo above is from my sweet will. will kamin would be the cutline. that’s photo shop talk in the big leagues. and i think he can, if he wants to, head for those leagues. he and i talked last night about what sort of photo i was thinking of. he executed and delivered. took my breath away when i opened my email this morning. thank you, sweet will. it is gorgeous.

elixir pudding

excuse me, ahem. we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you the following emergency broadcast announcement: you must, i mean must, go directly to there in your corner, where you keep your bread that is old, that is galloping swiftly toward stale.
you must grab it before it goes furry and green. that is a color not to our liking, not here in the emergency announcement department.
now rip it in bits. big bits are fine, if that’s the bit of your choosing. little bits work as well. so do bits somewhere, sort of, there in the middle.
we are en route, people, to bread pudding, that soft mushy pillow of comfort, the one with the cinnamon-sugary crust, providing just the right edge to your puff. the pudding that one spoon of, turns us all back to babies. yes, cooing and all, it is the original reversion equation.
you’ll have, if you’re so inclined, visions of nurseries and prams, and old english nannies, with considerable bosoms, leading you on with a ladle. if you’re not so inclined, you’ll simply swallow and hum.
either way, people, get rippin’.
the reason we’re rushing is this: the recipe i concocted the day before last seems to have cast a sort of a spell. i think it’s a pudding possessed.
so much so, i tell you, i can’t keep it just to myself. i must proselytize, attempt to persuade you, so hold onto your seats while i tell you the tricks that it played.
the little one, who spooned it up for dessert, then again before bedtime, and then, not 12 hours later, once more for breakfast, looked at me dreamy-eyed from under his curls, and inquired: “will you make it for christmas?”
and the man-child, one not in the groove of sending me love notes, sent this email in the dark of the night, yes, he did: “the pudding was great. i needed it today. i know we get grumpy at each other sometimes, but life wouldn’t be worth living without such a supportive home to come to. i really mean it.
“love, love, love.”
he then signed his name, and sent off his dispatch, down the stairs, round the bend, to here where i found it next morning.
excuse me while i sigh a few sighs.
what i want to know is who mixed the elixir in with the eggs and the butter and bread-on-the-verge-of-bread-crumbing?
i saw no one there in the kitchen, but surely some little elf was messin’ with me and my bits.
what happened is this: there i was minding my start-of-week business on one of the days when i’m not due at the keyboard. the red bird had just flown by the window, and that alone can get me all weak-kneed. the leaves from the trees, all golden and glowing, were raining like stars from above. and the air was unseasonably warm.
suddenly i heard a whisper from there in the corner, from there in the basket where old bread sits before dying.
“come, come,” it called. i swear that it did.
and before i knew it, i was off to the bookshelf, hauling my friend, good old mark bittman, he who claims to know how to cook everything. well, of course, braggart that he is, he was right on the money. right there, page 662, bread pudding, in three easy pieces.
i know, i know, some of you are snickering, thinking now why in the world did she need to look up something as simple as bread-ripping and bathing in butter and milk. well, yeesh, when you hear the bread calling your name, you do what you’re told, and besides, here’s a confession, i’d never before ripped bread into pudding.
i could have vamped, which is my usual style. but this here baking and rising, well it had me thinking there might be a chemistry i’d not want to disturb.
so i followed instructions, then i vamped. i grated some apple into my pudding. i tossed in whole fistfuls of raisins. oh, yum.
and the results, as i mentioned, were utterly stunning. revolutionary. never before seen.
you see, most of my kitchen inventions are heavily vegetable-loaded. and so, i am more used to these sorts of reactions: screwed-up little faces, hiding under the table, lots of “um, i’m fulls,” and, of course, that age-old attempt to forever hide the braised cabbages and all of their cousins there under the fork. it is a sad fact that we have hauled out the napkins, a day or two after a particular meal, only to find semi-mummified broccoli there in the folds of the mouth-wiping cloth.
so to come up with, on a whim really, a something that had my boys starry-eyed, all goo-gooey even. well, heck, that is a red-letter day in my not-so-fat book.
i can see now, why so many bakeries stay in business. there is nothing so sweet as tickling the sweet and the soft spot deep down inside the ones who you love. there is a pull, is there not, to try it again. to concoct the concoction that fills up their bellies, but more than that, stirs oozy thoughts in their heads. it is, for the baker, i tell you, rather addictive.
i come late, i suppose, to the notion of comfort food. i’ve spent so many years denying and fighting with food, i’m only just starting to know, deep inside, that to be fed is to be joined in a holy communion where worries are lifted, at least for a while, like some sort of host held up to the heavens.
the irony there, as i see it, is it’s taken so long to arrive at that knowing, as it applies to feeding myself. all along, my one aim in mothering, in life (the two are somewhat indistinguishable really, at least as i aim to do both), has been to ladle great heaping dollops of something divine into hearts and to souls all around.
now it seems i’ve stumbled on a fine way to fill tummies. and, to stir googoo-eyed looks from the children i live just to baste in a knowing that life, at its best, is mighty delicious.
here, friends, is the sure-fire route to what we now know as elixir pudding. may the coos and the starry eyes at your house be many.

elixir pudding,with a little help from mark bittman
3 cups milk
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, plus some for greasing the pan
11/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar, plus 1 Tbsp.
pinch salt
best old bread you can find. (mr. bittman calls for 8 slices, i went with the remains of a hollowed-out challah)
3 eggs
1 apple grated
fistfuls of raisins, or cranberries, your choice in the dried fruits dept.

1. preheat oven to 350 degrees. over low heat in a saucepan, warm milk, butter, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 cup sugar, and salt, just until butter melts. meanwhile butter 1-1/2 quart baking dish, or 8-inch square pan. cut and tear bread into bite-size bits.
1. place bread in baking dish. pour hot buttery milk over it. sigh as you pour. let milk sit for a bit, occasionally dunking any recalcitrant bits not willing to tread milk. beat the eggs, and stir into bread mixture. add 1 cup grated, drained apple. and raisins. mix remaining cinnamon and sugar, and sprinkle over the top. set the baking dish into a larger baking pan, and pour hot water, into within an inch of the top of the dish.
2. bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until thin-bladed knife comes clean from the center; center should be just a bit wobbly. run under the broiler for about 30 seconds to get that yummy golden brown crust. serve warm or cold. with whipped cream. keeps well for 2 days. but i don’t think it’ll stick around even half that long.

do you have some elixirs tucked in your old recipe files? ones certain to draw out the deep satisfied sighs? do you have someone nibbling out of your palm, following you starry-eyed when you whip up this thing of their dreams? did your mama, or papa, make some sort of elixir for you? or a beloved? do spill the story….

the last, best stories

there is a semi-infamous story of me, told once in a while in the murk of the newsroom. it’s from back when i was a just-off-the-truck nurse-pretending-to-be-newsgirl.
i, like every starter-outer, got assigned to the obits one morning. back then, there were pages to fill and obits to fill them. i was handed a name, told to get digging.
so, dutiful and just a little bit scared, i made rounds of telephone calls, tried not to bother too much the newly bereaved. i dug and i dug. sad truth was, not much newsworthy on the poor chap who died. best i got was: “he was a darn nice guy.”
so that’s what i wrote for the big kaboom of the obit: joe so-and-so, “a darn nice guy,” died blah blah blah.
a crusty old city editor looked over my shoulder, barked in my ear, “you might want to kill that before anyone sees it.”
that’s news talk for: “get out the eraser, sweetheart, your big job’s on the line.”
oops. seems, in their book, darn nice didn’t cut it. didn’t make for an obit to fill up the pages. even back then when the pages had room, and folks simply died to get in.
i didn’t say it’s a hilarious story. it’s just one of those stories they tell to get a big yuck out of me.
but really, i think, when the giggles die down, when we get back to business, it’s the reason i am at my hummingest when i’m writing an obit. the whole lot of them, to my ear, are the nuggets of gold buried there in the news of the day.
the fact of the matter is, there are in a newsroom many stories to tell. we spend our days and our nights and our years telling all sorts of tales.
but right up there, up there where it’s poetry, gospel and epistle, all rolled into one, it’s the obit, high and almighty.
it’s the talking to souls fresh to the news that someone they love, or at least spent some long years with, has just died. the probing beyond all the tears and the heartache back to the glory. back to the stories that capture the essence, the glint, of who someone was.
one of my favorite ways to get at the glint goes like this: close your eyes, i tell them, paint me a picture of the person you see, tell me the story that captures that someone in one single snapshot.
sometimes i hear hemming and hawing. sometimes, a laugh, then a launch into story. time after time, though, i get a picture that neither they nor i will ever forget. i know i won’t.
it’s a job, every time, that gives me the goosebumps. it is, in some ways, like being a nurse, or a doc in an ER. you can’t be blinded or bound by the sorrow there in the room, you must get to work, clear a path, to get to the heart of the story.
the best part is when the ones telling the story forget that you’re there in the first place. they get to laughing, telling stories, remembering one thing that leads to another.
pretty soon, the notebook is full. and so is the room. and not with just tears.
the whole point of the obit, the page some wise guy once cracked was the first thing he checked in the morning, to make sure he wasn’t yet there, so he could get on with his day, is to move beyond death, into the crux of the matter, into the thick of the life.
to mine for the stories that will be remembered, held up like crystal to shafts of the sunlight, forever.
it is to trace back to the forks in the road, to study who and what are the forces that shaped not just one life, but all of the lives that changed, or became, just from that one.
it is to hear, often through tears, the very best that a soul had to offer.
and for the one listening, the one probing, it is, guaranteed, a spine-tingler every time. like so much of life when you’re listening, when you’re paying attention, you wind up there in the desk at the front of the classroom, frantically scribbling some very fine notes.
it is, many a day, the one page of the newspaper that i find worth not only reading but studying rather intently. and not just due to my irish.
mostly, because it’s an exercise in condensing the broth. boiling down to the best of the essence.
if we are, each of us, a composite of molecules, dreams and deep aspirations worth understanding, a great place to start is the lives of the recently died.
it’s why many a funeral, i think, is really an uplifting thing. you gather and listen to what in the world made this one imperfect creature such a show-stopping story.
the point here, of course, is not to drape us in black this fine day, nor to hang us with tangles of crepe.
the point here is that there at the back of the news, there in the lines of tiny gray type, is in fact one of the quietest ways to get wise, to pick up a few tricks that might nudge us along on the path to nirvana.
we are, all of us, lessons in living. we have soft spots and bruises. we’re dinged and we’re messy. but really, deep down inside, we each are that snapshot that won’t be forgotten.
sad thing is, too often, we don’t even know it.
and that’s where the obit comes in. it is the gift of the dearly departed. and i would propose that to partake of that gift is to sift through a life, to mine and collect and absorb. take in, chapter and verse, the story of who we all are at the best of ourselves.
too often, it seems, we don’t realize the whole of the people around us. don’t realize, even, the best of ourselves. don’t understand, not till too late, there are lessons to teach and stories to tell that will change us.
ah, but that need not be so.
the point of an obit, the page of the paper that gathers the dead, is to pause, and to take in the story, before it is buried away.

oh, geez, hope i didn’t just cast a pall on your day. maybe it’s just that i’m thick in the midst of writing an obit, remembering how sacred it is to sift through the whole of a life, and pull out the parts that are lasting. that will make us never forget the ones who once walked among us. the ones whose heroics, the everyday moments that reach for and grab the divine, can shine quite a light on our trails. do you find yourself making a study of what’s there in the obits? or, can you think of stories of someone you didn’t learn, didn’t fully realize, till after that someone was no longer among us? there is of course a fine way to learn before it’s time for the obit, and that is to gather the stories, to look at a someone and think: what is the snapshot id’ carry forever? not a bad way to fill up your back pocket, or your heart for that matter. would you agree that we might do well to practice the art of getting at the best of our essence–and that of those around us–before it’s too late? to live with the snapshot, rather than clutch it after someone we love is no longer?

yards and yards of names

i assure you, when the boy came bounding in the door with a bolt of cotton the color of marigolds, i was intrigued.
what’s that, i wondered, trying to tamp a mother’s too-keen attention on the hard-to-pin-down adventures of a young budding teen.
except for the chest wall of campaign buttons, some now historical relics, and anti-war slogans pinned to his signature fleece, i cannot say that i’ve ever caught a whiff of an interest in what you’d call fashion, not from this boy at least.
oh, it’s for young democrats, he informed, starting to forage for after-school sustenance. settling into some sort of concoction involving triscuits, cheese and a microwave, he circled back to his backpack, pulled out a sheaf of six stapled pages.
we’re draping the courtyard with the names of everyone who’s been killed in the iraq war, he explained.
the boy now had my complete attention.
so did the six pages of names.
he had in his hand 259 names of 259 soldiers and sailors, mostly men, but plenty of women, from the army, the navy, and the marines. a roster of each one who died, in the case of his slice of the list, from jan. 24, 2005, to may 8 of the very same year. may 8 that year just happened to be mother’s day.
i flipped to the last names on the list, the mother’s day names, and i counted. eight. pity the eight mothers who live with the knowing their sons’ very last breaths came on the day just for mothers.
i looked through name after name. i looked at the ages: 21, 22, 24. 24, 20, 26. the oldest, by far, 51. the youngest, 19, again and again.
i was looking, merely, at numbers and letters spilled on a page. it doesn’t take much imagination, though, not much at all, to realize these are lives, were lives. had sweethearts at home, maybe. young children, too, who now go to sleep clinging their pillows, stuffing their cheeks in the folds of the cotton to soak up the tears.
each one of those names had a mother. had maybe a kid brother or sister. had someone for whom they were–forever are now–some kind of a hero. now, they’re a war hero, too.
the one soldier i know who did die, not one on these pages, but one who went off to iraq, one whose story i know, one whose story could be that of any of these combinations of letters and numbers, he was more than a name and a date, and some commas and slashes.
he had a guitar. he played for the men of his company. played and sang there in the desert. made them laugh, made them forget where they were. he had, back home, a cherry red ford mustang, parked now by the side of his ma’s barn. she drove it to his funeral.
the sign still hangs in their farmhouse, welcome home beau, after his first tour had ended. his medal, slipped in his mother’s hand along with the folded-up flag after the funeral, keeps watch from the fireplace mantle.
that story, or a story just like it, i’m sure is repeated and repeated with each of the names.
so what an honor, for us, for my boy who is lifting his pen, printing out in precise 4.65-inch letters, name after name after name.
what an honor to pause for as long as it takes to write all the names, consider the stories of those whose lives would otherwise have wholly escaped every one of us.
but maybe not now.
i am thinking, hoping, that as his wrist starts to ache, as his fingers cramp, from printing the names on yard after yard of marigold cotton, the depth of the truth will sink in, will seep down to a place not normally visited by a boy in a part of the world where not a single kid worries that his day in iraq is coming, is on the horizon.
to make the curve of each letter, to line up the dots over the i, to cross all the t’s, really, is to silently honor the dead and the fallen. it is to etch, one more time, a trace of their existence onto a swatch of the planet.
we don’t know the story. but tracing name after name, date of death, age at death, is to circle in on the outlines of who someone was.
there is a long tradition in this country, in this world, of keeping the list of the names of the dead. it is, for many, a blur of the alphabet. but to be the one scanning the list, feverishly narrowing in on the name of the one who you loved, it is a last shout not to forget, not to go on, leaving the dead unmentioned.
the idea here, to pen all the names and drape the whole courtyard in marigold cotton, to unfurl and to read the names of the ones who are gone, is to prick, maybe, the everyday thoughts of the teens who are, by accident of geography and economy, not so bothered by news from iraq.
the impact alone of the marigold cotton, all over a courtyard of brick and of stone, might jostle a few of their souls. at our house alone, there are 12 yards, that’s 432 inches, to be spun into a roster of heroes.
it is a joint effort of two clubs: young democrats, and young republicans. young kids, either way, who care just a bit about the politics outside those of the lunchroom.
and i, as the mother of one of the ones who will be up in his room, till late in the night, night after night, putting the name of the fallen to fabric the color of marigolds, i got to sit for a while with those names in my hands.
i got to imagine the moments they laughed and they frolicked as children. i got to picture the tears as they shoved off to war. and i imagined the silence after they died.
i too was touched by the names of the dead on the day set aside for remembering.

do you ever pause, as you hear a particular newscast, to think of the circle of rings left in the water, after that pebble is cast? do you know anyone off in iraq, anyone we should remember? hold in our thoughts and our prayers? or should we just try as hard as we can to consider the hell and the heart of those who are off in iraq, and anywhere else in the world, on this day of trying to remember?

dancing by myself

perhaps you should know: no one else was home.

it was an otherwise ordinary morning. the sun was golden, was pouring in in that way that sunbeams, come november, pour like molasses on a tall stack of flapjacks.

the birds, just out the window, were chattering like schoolkids on a bus on a fieldtrip.

i was trying to write. i decided, maybe, a backbeat would help. my brother, one faraway now, one off in maine, came to the rescue, as often he does. he knows music, has a collection as eclectic as any i’ve ever known. global music is his thing, africa, ireland, new orleans, brazil, guinea-bissau, india. water drops pouring through copper pipes, he has made it be music.

i slipped in a disc, one he’d once made. sao paolo ripped through the speakers, and there on the rug, i was twirling, was clapping, was flowing like some sort of teenager who wasn’t afraid, wasn’t ashamed, was lost in the bass and the backbeat, and the forest of sound that came crashing my way.

did i mention that i was alone?

and then as the volume rose, and so too the sense of abandon, it hit me how home–that place that after a while, after we pay some attention, haul in the art work that stirs us, lace it with blankets and pillows and odd sorts of collections that remind us–home is not only four walls and a roof.

not at all.

home is the ultimate intimate relationship we all yearn for. it is the space where we can be naked, and i don’t mean without clothes, although that’s possible too.

what i mean is it’s the place, the rare sanctified place, where we can be the wholeness of who we were made to be. we can pull back the armor, the shields, and the shell. we can be the turtle undressed, if we so choose.

we can rock. we can spin. we can pound on the floors with our toes.

we can slip into skin that feels at once selfish and stripped of the self. we can indulge in the rhythm of being wholly alive, to the point we lose track of our selves.

then, we think, oh my God, please not let there be a reader of meters, who just got a glance in the window.

i’ve seen it, i’ve caught it, with children. tiptoe down in the basement, and there, behind a door that’s half-closed, a 5-year-old boy is pretending he’s there in a stadium. he’s throwing and cheering and running the bases all at one time.

and then, the second he sees you’ve arrived, he flinches and turns into stone.

the magic is dashed. is over. is gone.

it’s back to a dingy old playroom where the heat never comes.

when we’re home, truly home, and no one is watching, we get to try on our very deep selves. not deep, mind you, like some kind of a far-reaching thinker, but deep like down to the place where the wires run straight from our soul. where we are, maybe, as close as we get to the being God once had in mind.

a creature who twirled with all of the rhythm and nuance, and reckless abandon, deserving of a hand-made design. an original, in every which way.

what a magnificent thing then if there is one place in the world where we feel back to the womb. where we allow our home to be more than merely the place where we eat, where we sleep, where we soak in the tub.

how amazing that home is the place where we get to practice. get a taste of the feel of being, well, completely at home. we can dance, we can sing, we can pretend we’re some sort of a hero. we can give speeches, if that’s what we please. we can write, and recite, poems. and we don’t have to wince or to blush.

for that is the gift that, in the end, we’re all seeking. it is eden without all of the apples. it is, i would think, the point of this whole exercise, really.

it’s what we are seeking, time after time, in most every relationship that matters: a place and a space where we don’t have to explain. where we simply can be, can unpeel the layers, and not be embarrassed.

the more we undress, the closer we are to our life’s truest love. and how blessed it is that the place where we live is, in some ways, as close as we get to that place of total abandon.

no wonder we get through the door with a key that unlocks no other place.

it is a sacred thing, i would insist, to come into a space where we can dance with abandon. where we can be not diluted, or half of the plan of the God who imagined us.

but where, with every inch of our skin, and all the room in our heart, we can fill out the shadows and cracks. we can be wholly at home in the soul we were meant to be.

talk about dancing naked. eek. would someone please tell me if this made one ounce of sense. i write with my eyes closed sometimes. pretend i am all alone, which i am. only the minute i hit that gray button, kapow. i’m not so alone with my thoughts anymore. but this whole thing here–the chair, that is–is an experiment, an experiment in exploring the homefront, the near and sometimes the far, searching always for grace in the everyday. we’ve never touched on anything close to the joy of dancing unwatched. for me it’s dancing (the undulations of dance undo me, but i was always afraid of the stage, of moving my body). for some it’s writing poetry. there is a something all of us love, but we’re too bashful, too shy, to indulge with an audience. how blessed that home, like a love that is wholly accepting, that rarest of love, allows us to be our nakedest self. i find that, frankly, exhilarating. how about you? and to connect an even larger dot–isn’t that what it’s supposed to feel like to know you are wholly accepted, loved to your core, by God, most of all? take it and dance, people…..
p.s. i wish i was such a techno-wizard that i could weave in here the same backbeat from sao paolo. so you could dance while your read along…..apologies….

the last of a line

it was a wisp of a thought, really. it came as i stood there stripping leaves off the mint i’d just cut from the garden. i know–because someone once told me, and these are the bits that make up the compendium of all that we know, the vast storehouse of knowledge acquired through a lifetime of listening–that before dunking the stems in the water, i needed to pluck off the leaves at the bottom, or else, sooner than otherwise, the water there in the pitcher will be yuck, will be green verging toward goo, will stink like a not-so-nice pond.
and that very thought, the thought about stripping the leaves, leapt right to a thought that was not such a wisp, really.
it was the notion, the realizing, the gathering of so many wisps into one undeniable ball, that that bit of wisdom might well be lost, disappear, vanish when i do.
you see, i have no daughter. no girl standing right by my side, taking in all that i have maybe to teach her. just as i, over the years, have stood by my mother’s side. by her ironing board. by the place where she folded the clothes. by the edge of the mattress where she taught me the crisp edging and folding known in our house as the hospital corner.
i realized that, yes, i have boys to whom i can and i do teach many things. i teach them the bits that i know about feeding the birds, and catching the firefly. i teach them to look in the eye of each someone who asks for a dollar. i teach them to sit and to listen as long as it takes after dinner. i teach them to pray.
but there is a whole realm, a whole world that was passed from mother to daughter to daughter. and it’s not that i’m gender specific, or pre-disposed in some old-fashioned way.
it’s just that the fact of the matter is they, those two blessed boys, couldn’t care less.
one is trying to gather all the knowledge there is, from all the radical, not-so-conventional thinkers. the other is trying to master the punt.
neither one gives a hoot for the so many things that keep this house ticking, the invisible wad of things that i know, and things that i practice day after day.
for instance: the hospital fold; the rotation of foods in the fridge and the pantry, new to the back, old to the front; the sprinkling of water before ironing; the need to mop under the bed; the cleaning of hair from the hairbrush; the washing of blankets in spring; the keeping of napkins in rings.
and of course, old newspaper, not paper towel, when cleaning a mirror or a window.
these are things that i’d file, if i kept a big alphabetical drawer, under H for housekeeping. or maybe HE, for housekeeping esoterica.
not earth-shattering. not even essential. but not bad to know, and quite rather dear when you can hear in your head the instructor who taught you.
whole tomes, ones stuffed with so much they could break your big toe if they fell there, have been written of late–cheryl mendelson, martha stewart, to name only two–on the care and the tending of home.
perhaps it’s to fill in the holes and the tears in the sheets of a nation whose grownups were quite very busy and not so concerned with transferring knowledge on, say, how to get rid of popsicle when it melts in the rug, or know when the eggs have gone bad, or manage to walk out the door without looking as wrinkled as pants left in the dryer for, oh, close to a week.
it is, in the end, so much ephemera. it is here, and it’s gone. and no one will notice.
it’s not the loss, i suppose, of the knowledge, so much as it’s the end of a line. some of these bits, and some of these home-keeping legends, i’m sure, go back as many generations as there have been girls born to mothers.
in my house, i can trace it, i think, from a wood-sided house on brierhill road, to another, covered with ivy, on north cliff lane high in the hills of old cincinnati, and before that, still cincinnati, to a tall skinny brick place on ludlow.
before that, to a village somewhere in germany, i know nothing. but i’d not be surprised if somewhere, in the unspooling of my housekeeping day, there’s a trace of some hausfrau’s instruction in something i just always do. why? just because, it’s the way i was told that it’s done.
with me, though, it all ends. i’ve no niece. and no sister. and my one little girl, she didn’t make it out of my womb.
it’s the voices that swirl in my head, the ones who are whispering over my shoulder. that’s what will be gone.
there is so much that makes up the whole of our soul, and so many threads, some merely wisps, some fat silken cables, that weave through the self as it spins through a lifetime.
only we know how crowded the highway of thoughts that course through our days and our years and our one blessed crack at this game.
only we hear the chorus, the racket of so many instructors inside us.
and it’s just that as i stood there stripping those leaves i was struck by a thought that has nowhere to go. the last of a line. so many whispers silenced at last.

do you have odd bits of knowledge and wisdom and facts that dictate whole strings of your life? what are some of the things that you do, simply because some voice once told you? can you still hear the voice? or is much of your wisdom now marked, author unknown? i would be curious, because i always am, to hear your housekeeping esoterica. think of this: if we all say it here, it will never be lost. and if you’d like i can try to explain how to execute that hospital corner….

diner’s open

that there bucket, the one with the coffee-can scoop, it’s the back-up for my all-you-can-eat buffet. it’s insurance, i’ll never run out.
might as well be the grease bin, there at some 24-hour joint by the side of the highway. or in the bowels of the city. a sling-em-up, serve-em-up someplace that fuels the folk who deliver the papers, haul out the garbage, criss-cross the country with tables and chairs and wires and widgets. and, of course, always, the cops and the hangers-on at the cop shop. you need buckets of grease when you’re feeding the hungry, the growling, all through the day and the night.
but my all-day diner takes a snooze in the dark. my all-day diner feeds all the chirps in the ’hood. and they go to bed when the night comes. tuck beaks under wings, hum lullabies.
those dozers don’t stir till the dawn. and that’s when i’m at it again. me and the all-day buffet.
i’ve just opened back up for the winter. slowed things down a bit in the summer. didn’t shovel quite so much seed till just now, when the mercury dipped, yes it did, to the wee little lines in the 20s. (that’s all i could make out through the window, where at last–it took only five years–my thermometer hangs; couldn’t get more precise of a reading what with all of the shmutz there on the glass. or maybe it’s only my eyes.)
it feels like old home week, out there at the counter. out where i rustle up grits and sunflower flapjacks for all of my friends. they’re flapping their wings, depositing feathers all over the grass. might be their idea of a tip. sort of a thank you for all of the trouble i go to. scooping the gruel, dumping it out in all the contraptions hung just for them.
all the chains and the hooks, the slides and the wee little holes hung for one purpose: to keep out the fat wily squirrels.
oh, they find their way anyway.
there was one, chowing away, just yesterday noon. i’d looked out the window and there were no birds. only the squirrel. elbows up on the counter, paying no mind that the words on the box promised: no squirrels allowed.
dang. maybe that squirrel can’t read.
so, of course, i put in a call to my very old friend, t.j., the bird man. squawked into the phone: “i’ve got a problem.” no hullo. no how are you. just pure distress.
polite one, he is, he didn’t mind. got right to the source of squawking.
“well, you know, a squirrel has nothing to do all day but plot how to vex you.”
oh, swell. now i have squirrels who are not only hungry, but vexing as well.
so it goes in the seed-flinging business. if i’d wanted no headaches i’d never have put out my shingle. or all of my feeders.
there’s nearly always a nuisance at most every diner. the jack nicholson sort of a character who can’t take his tuna without angling his way through the order. my squirrels are my nicholsons.
ah, but my birds are my devoted, my faithful, my tried and my true. they come year after year. and when they’re around i am whistling. i hear them just now, chirping away.
every once in a while there’s a squawk. the old jay making a fuss. over the eggs, maybe. maybe he wanted them over easy and i overed them a little too hard.
all in all, though, there’s hardly a ruffle of feathers. i sling out the seed. they fill up my limbs with their flutters and all of their chatter. i’ve a whole civilization just out my window. and it’s mine for the price of the seed.
i’ve gotten to know them over the years. the mamas and papas. and all of the youngins. i am soft for the red birds. not so keen on the blue jays (i find them quite stingy and mean, despite the hue of their feathers). the sparrows i love for their humility, pure and simple. a more unadorned bird i’d be hard-pressed to find. and they strut not in pairs, like the show-offy citizens, but come in a flock of 20 to 30. they even take turns, demonstrate manners.
i don’t think i’m wrong, by the way, to think this a two-way acquaintance. i’m fairly certain they know me as well, know i’m the kook who calls out “good morning,” when i step out to flip the seed flapjacks.
my guru, and my guide in these things, ol’ t.j., tells me there’s even a bird, a red-breasted nuthatch, who will nibble right out of my hand. i can stand there, i can, he suggests, like some modern-day frank of assissi. all i need are shelled peanuts and patience. the peanuts i pick up today. and i promise a story, with pictures, if i manage to muster the patience.
not a bad way to limp through the winter. matter of fact, it’s as close as i get to heaven here on the earth. and, unlike the jay, i am not stingy. i do want to spread this here glory.
so i beseech you: if you do nothing at all this long winter, i urge you to open a diner. we could have us a nationwide chain.
all you do is you hook up some seed. maybe a trough. or a wild-eyed contraption to keep out all of the nicholsons. i mean squirrels.
if you want i can give you the number for t.j. fact, here it is: 847-729-4688. he’ll do birds at a distance.
just tell him the squawker, she sent you.

anyone else got the seed slinging? anyone willing to try the nuthatch pose of serenity? sign up if you’re game. and do tell if you’ve got tricks of your own.

dawn’s lace


really, it’s dew caught in the act. each blessed bead, huddled along edge of the leaf, clinging to blade of the grass, a colony of whatever it is that swirls in the morning’s first breath.

when dawn, that great exercise in redemption, lets out its first puff of relief–we made it, we’re risen again, one more chance, start again, try harder, or try not at all–it’s the soft mist that laces what falls in its midst.

the cold of the chill night air, the black ink poured with no warm notes, it snaps it, captures it. holds it tight in its lock. until sun, the keeper of calm, protector of light and of heat, rises, inches up over the bend of the ball that is earth, promises release.

melts away what is hardened, what will sting the skin of your toes, if you, like me, foolishly dash out the door. thinking a quick jaunt to the feeder, where the birds, hungry, half-trained, await the dumping of seed, will be painless.

it is the calling card of autumn turning toward winter. the thing that reminds us that autumn is more than a really fine reason to walk in the woods, collect leaves like medals of honor.

the frost, in restaurant terms, is the ameuse bouche, the delightful first bite, that readies you for all that comes next.

as the original winter baby–not one shussing down slopes, not one who straps on the blades and takes to the iced-over pond, no not that one at all, more like the one who finds poetry in stark limbs stripped of their shimmery summery threads, who thrills to the silence of a woods stilled by the very first snow–the early mornings of frost, of waking up to a world that is barest of white, a world that melts at the touch of a finger to leaf dusted with droplets of dew frozen over, it stirs something akin to a purring deep, deep inside.

it makes me want to reach deep in my closet, pull out my mittens and extra-thick sweaters. makes me eyeball the rich chunks of beef there in the butcher shop window. think of wine in colors of crimson. makes me dig for the roots of the garden, potato and carrot and onion and garlic. they all belong baked in that crimson-tinged heap i call my beef stew.

when the frost drapes over the outside, over the trees and the leaves and the grass, even the rocks cannot dodge the lacing of crystalline mist, i am stirred to grab hold of ends of the blanket. pull tightly.

i feel safer, somehow, in the frost side of the year. i am the proverbial nose pressed against glass, with an etching of artwork of dawn. frozen mid-breath.

it gives me reason to crank up the stove, haul out the woolens. kindle the wicks poking from columns of bee-bundled wax.

light comes from within in the winter, in the season we are lumbering toward. and i cannot wait.

so i take my autumn in big heaping spoonfuls. i start gulping when frost comes.

it is the sugar i heap on my porridge.

time to batten the hatches, bring in the hoses. line the rugs at the door. the frost is the call to attention.

only it comes in a whisper. and it lasts for merely one or two hours.

to catch it, to take in the sweep of its early dawn dusting, you might need to rise from your bed in the just-brightening hours.

it waits not for the laggard. it’s gone, disappeared, if you huddle there under your covers.

it is reward for those who leap, unbracingly, into the day. it is the lace of the autumn, and it unfurls at the dawn, at the hour when dreams are just stirring. when only a fool would roll over and miss the occasion.

did you catch the frost yet? does it stir something in you, too? does it get you to ticking through things that you love about the seasons when ice is among us? or does it depress the heck out of you, summer babies?

catching up

the coffee kept coming. the chocolate pumpkins, finally, were peeled of their shiny aluminum shells. picked at, nibbled till tummies cried ouch.
the breakfast was over, the morning was slow. was going nowhere but right where it was.
it was that most sacred of hours, the time so elusive these days. it was catch-up, pure and simple.
and i’d not seen it coming. wasn’t scheduled, or penned on the calendar. it simply unfolded. and, given the weekdays that bump by in a blur–i’ll be late, pick me up, i have a rehearsal, i need to go early, can you drive me–it felt more than essential. it felt like a beacon of unfiltered light.
it was light, i am certain, that both of us need. it’s how we are wired. it’s a light that opens the heart, sifts through to places that need light to breathe.
with a boy who, by the hour, slips toward a life all his own, with a boy being pulled in so many directions, this catching-up time is the one patch of still water in seas that could rock us apart. i cling to the life rope, i cling to the time that carries us over the waves and the winds and the storms that might brew.
questions are asked, questions that can’t be cobbled on the fly, out the door, with one eye on the pencil solving quadratic equations.
questions that, one after another, sink deeper, mine places that only come out of the shadows there in that unfiltered light.
thoughts come too. new thoughts. dots connected. we are, neither of us, racing to come to conclusions. we are thinking together. and together, sometimes, we stumble on truths, on visions, on notions that would have escaped us had we not been digging together.
it is the difference between a dash through the woods and a meander. you get to the other side, either way, but you might miss the mushrooms there by the trunk of the tree. and you might not catch the glint of the gold as the sun pours through the now-amber leaves.
in some houses i think–and some times of the year, even at ours–the weekends are more of the blur. blur upon blur. no wonder we’re gasping for air.
but i fight back. i pull every trick in the book to keep spaces of time unchained, unclaimed, unbooked. i have no agenda for those hours. don’t know, even, how they’ll be used. but if they’re not there in the first place, there’s no chance for catching-up time. breathing time. no time for connecting the dots of a week, and a world, that desperately need interpretation.
since the invention of time, really, since genesis, since in the beginning, there’s been a knowing that time requires two speeds: the time for creation, the mondays through fridays, do-your-job, make-the-land-and-the-seas, don’t-be-late, carve-the-beasts-of-the-jungle, the-birds-of-the-air, turn-out-the-light, set-the-alarm; and the time for just being, the blessing of sanctified time, sabbath defined.
so what are we doing, so many of us, so much of the time, thinking we can trump all the slow time? take a short cut, a by-pass, speed things up, ignore the moments when nothing much happens.
but really those are the moments when we sink, surely we do, into the core of the matter, when we go into the parts where the being is done. past the mere interstice, the blank spots and hollows, into the organs of thinking and feeling. where sense–and soul–dwell.
i found myself all weekend feeling blessed for the power of catching-up time. that whole notion of daylight savings time, of setting the clocks this way or that. it’s really, all of it, just a reminder that time is a gift.
we can take it and savor it. hold it up to the light. we can sit with the ones who we love, pick apart chocolate pumpkins, decipher the world as we see it, mine deep into each other’s heart.
or we can pant right through all of the hours. check our digital watches. hit the gas. find ourselves at the end of the day, and the week–even our lives, if we don’t watch it–hardly knowing where all the time went.
that’s not the way i want my days to end. not the way i choose to watch time pass me by.

where and how do you find catching-up time? do you shove aside all sorts of obligations and requests and demands? do you say, sorry i’m busy, even when you’re not? just so you can savor the gift of time by yourself, or time with those who need nothing more sacred than to breathe the same air in the very same room? to chew the same thoughts?
today is, by the way, a most sacred day. it is the birthday of the girl i so love. she’s bright light defined. no wonder her name is sweet claire. she is 17. and she is the girl i sometimes pretend is more than a friend, more like the daughter i never did get to hold in my arms. happy blessed day, bright light in so many lives.