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Month: January, 2008

mama hunger

still happens at least once a day. my baby boy, the one now tipping 50 pounds, climbs aboard. he sinks into my hip, grabs on tight around my neck, washes me in kisses, or simply leans his curly head right against my neck.

it’s often first thing in the morning, when he is drowsy still, hasn’t dusted off the sleepy eyes. but sometimes, like yesterday, as we waited for the snow to fly, it’s simply because we still get hungry for each other’s skin.

oh, goodness, that sentence almost sounds like something you would read someplace far from here. but i trust you know me well enough to know perhaps just what i mean.

it could not be cleaner, this hungriness for skin-to-skin. this mama hunger for the baby who once was. for the baby evaporating right before my eyes.

it will all be gone soon, i know, i know. but now, there are wisps of it around, and i am all but licking it from the spoon.

i ache to think that someday not too far from now i will wake up and the baby will be gone, all gone. perhaps it’s that, that makes me so very hungry now. i am committing the baby bits of him to somewhere deep inside me. it’s a dream, perhaps, that i never want to wake from. but, of course, i know i will, and as i drift awake, as he gets big before my eyes, i hold on tight, i cannot get my fill of his deliciousness.

sometimes, i’m overtaken. i cannot keep my nose, my lips, from nuzzling in his baby cheek. cannot keep my hands from reaching out and swooping him to the hip that can barely keep from caving in under the oh-my-goodness growing weight of him.

oh, he is six, all right. very much a big boy. can’t tie his shoes, not quite yet. still stumbles over syllables, when they come one piled on another.

but if i nuzzle close enough, if i hoist him the way i used to do, pretend that he’s not 50 pounds with legs that dangle to beyond my knees, i can catch one last whiff of baby boy before he slips away.

more and more these days i catch myself drinking in the whole of him. i look down, i see legs still in little blue jeans. almost comical those elastic-waisted jeans, as if trying hard to make like big boy pants while winking at the truth.

i see puffy baby hands. not the muscled ones of big boys, or his papa. these hands, round with one fading dimple yet, still fumble with a fork sometimes. still can’t cut with scissors, not without looking as if a gerbil had at that paper, all ziggy and zaggy with dangling bits of cutting that would not succumb to safety blades.

and the cheek. the cheek, all rosy often. and soft and fuzzy still. not fuzzy like the manchild’s; in fact, i’d call that one prickly now, the cheek of he who puts a razor to it once a month or even twice.

no, this is soft like, well, yes, velvet rub of peach, or underside of kitten’s neck, or petal of a summer’s rose. this is soft, but even more, it is irresistible. once i start to sniff it, kiss it, rub my cheek against it, it takes everything i’ve got to stop and breathe again.

it is, i know because my other one’s a man now, a chapter that will pass me by, any day now. and i’m not ready yet. don’t know if any mama ever really gets her fill.

i think it’s how we’re wired. my baby-making years are gone. i look old and older when i look into the mirror. but still, there is someone soft and little in my house. it’s as if, if i taste the sweetness of his skin, if i memorize his weight against my weary bones, i’ll always have him somewhere deep inside. where, after all, a mama’s babe belongs.

do you hunger for your little one, or for the days when your big ones were little? were you mad for the soft spot at the nape of their neck? or was it their toes that sent you to the moon? do you have a nuzzler? did you? i’m not saying, not at all, that there are fewer merits in the ones who drop their stinky shirts and socks all over their sleeping pits, i’m just saying, of course, that as the little ones slip through our fingers, there stirs a hunger that’s hard to fill. how ‘bout you?

storm’s comin’

i don’t even need to turn on the news to hear the squawkin’ ’bout the weather. don’t really need to turn to the back page of the newspaper, the one with all the arrows and the polka-dotted map and the adjectives to scare the dickens out of any sorry soul who’s lost her woolen mittens.

all’s i have to do is look to where the sky is turning marbled gray, the color of the pigeons who, right now, are gobbling up all the seed that they can wrestle in their beaks.

or, before the pigeons came, shooshed away the cardinals and the jays and all the sparrows, there was the buzz in the grocery line. you can tell a lot about the day looking at what is rolling down the check-out belt.

today there was not a lot of fuss over, say, artichokes or lamb chops. oh, no, this was a milk-by-the-gallon, and orange-juice-too sort of day.

this is a day to batten down the hatches, simmer soup, crank the oven, stock up on sidewalk salt. you can feel it in the cracklin’ that’s making hairs, and fur, and feathers, too, stand on end. you should see the squirrels vacuum-cleaning crumbs and crusty donut bits, as if there’s no tomorrow.

you see, here where arctic winds hurl their bowling balls of snow and ice down the alley called the great lake of michigan, here before the towers–hancock, sears and all the rest–do their muscled best to block the mighty gusts, we stand ready to shiver and shiver hard, as day turns to dusk turns to stormy whirling night.

worst drop in temps in a quarter century–fiercest, fastest downslide, they are saying–is due to hit any hour now, with winds whipping up to 50 miles an hour (“punishing winds,” my weather page tells me). it’s enough, they warn, to turn rush hour into a hefty bowl of blanc-en-blanc potage.

and i, a girl who loves some drama in my winter doldrums, say bring it on.

there’s nothin’ that gets me stirring quite like the hurl of howling winds. snow pelting on the window panes. the whiff of snow day in the air.

i woulda made one fine pioneer, i tell you. i hunker down, i brace for storm, like i am annie oakley’s long-lost sister.

i caught wind of what was brewing early on today. i made my way straight to the store. stocked up, i did, on milk and popcorn kernels, the two staples of extended hibernation.

before i unzipped my coat, flung my mittens to the pile, i was chopping, sauteing, starting me a toothsome corn-and chicken zoup.

i’ll not let my children starve, not let them shiver either. i’ve got blankets at the ready, and muffins in the oven. oh, lord, this day is a day for making like a mama bear bolting for the cave. we will bathe in what is warm and fortifying. we’ll not let the storm, well, take us by storm.

while stirring onions, beans and broth, i mused a bit about this winter blessing. the forecasting of winds and cold that gives us quite a warning.

what of life, though, i thought, that we don’t know, ever, when a storm is just around our bend.

in plain old life–not the life of weather maps and wind chills–we pick up the phone, and poof, there’s a winter storm on the line. we are driving here or there and, kebang, we just skidded off the road.

life gives no warning, unlike arctic rustlings.

and so, in life, we are left to be always stocked deep down inside with whatever it takes to weather whatever life throws our way. be it a broken neck on growing child. or an email baring threats. one day we think we’re basking in the balm of spring, and, kaboom, the next we are chilled and shaking in our wintry boots.

it is resilience, then, that we must line our inner shelves with. and unswerving faith, stored in gallon jugs, that we need on hand to make sure we can ride out any storm.

i’d say we do best with a host of friends, the ones who appear, as if by blessed magic, at our front door, the hospital bedside, or even as they rush our broken, bloodied child to the ambulance.

we need to live, this makes me think, stocked and ready, for what ever roiling winds come our way.

what a blessing, then, that when it’s merely ice and snow, we’ve got all the warning in the world.

oh, there’s the buzzer now. my muffins–chock full of apples and cranberry and a good dose of mother love–are golden brown, and ready to emerge, just before the winter storm starts swirling out the window.

do you like winter storms, or any brewing, bubbling weather as much as i do? and what would you say is essential to keep in the larder of your life, so you can weather winds that blow far harder, far more fiercely sometimes than any arctic puffer?

huff’n’ puff’n’ house

got new lungs around here this week. yup, ’s’true. this old house been wheezin’, coughin’, chillin’ too. so cold you went to bed in blankets, wrapped like wieners in a bun. slid your wiener self between sheets so cold even they had goosebumps.

then you pulled up covers–more and more feather down than on a flock of geese, so help me–and, what with all the layers, and the barely room for mouth, some nights you needed to insert a straw, bend it like a periscope, or maybe a chimney, so you could bellow in and out. or else the whole of you would be as blue as them there tootsy-toes.

well, heck, we just thought that was the way it was, when your house is old and it’s planted in the north. latitude 42, i think. means it is c-c-c-c-c-cold, come january nights.

turns out, our old furnace had gone and turned asthmatic. had cracks, besides, all over its coiled insides. poor thing couldn’t breathe another breath. made it through the coldest weekend yet, but then, come monday, it let out its last sad sigh.

i called the doctor, yes i did. they came and made a house call. (thank heaven, i would hate to be the one to load the furnace in the car, motor off to where the furnace clinic is, where they put up the stethoscope, listen close, then shake their sorry heads–hey lady, this ol’ bellows has breathed its very last).

mr. fix-it scurried down the stairs, black bag and muddy boots, besides, right there to where the gasping wasn’t, in the house’s stone-still underbelly.

and you know it’s not to show you something pretty when they call you down the stairs.

yoo-hoo, ma’am, can you come take a look? was what he said. more or less.

and then he showed me on the scope, five cracks, one bolder than the next.

gulp, said i, watching my tahitian fling go up in smoke and slither out the basement window.

he laid the news down straight and simple: you’ll need a new one, he said pointing to the house’s lungs deflated.

and so, we hemmed and hawed all day–make, model, power, price, they spun so many choices. everything but color (it came in only basic black; we now inhale in utter elegance). i tell you, i know more today about btu’s than i ever knew before.

and then, once they scared the dickens out of me, i tried real hard not to breathe (try that wheezy trick for 24 hours). told me, yes they did, carbon monoxide was surely leaking in the house.

but not to worry, they announced; until you hear the shriek from the alarm, you know it’s not too late. (to which the snide contractor–here to put in basement floor, of course; the timing could not have been much worse–he whispered: “by then it’ll be too late.” and then, i swear, he snickered.)

ahhh, but as i type today, i am nearly warm and toasty. as toasty as you can be when you are not a slice of rye.

we’ve all new lungs breathing in this house. and it is something very fine to know, at long last, that you stand a chance of sleeping through the night without awaking to pour hot water on your toes.

and all at once now, this old house feels rather, well, grownup, feels settled in its skin. as if, at last, we can lay claim to the whole of its pure essence.

you see, we’ve nipped and tucked since we moved in, but never really tinkered with the guts.

a house’s heart, of course, comes from all the ones who live there. its innards are the pipes and how they run, or don’t run. its lungs though–how it breathes–is pretty much the stuff of basic respiration. it’s windows cracked, doors swung open, and in the winter it is all that flows from what would’ve been, in days of old, a fine pot-bellied stove.

the days of stoves, i sadly note, are mostly too long gone. i do know a soul or two who heats her house with only logs. but me, i’ve succumbed to btu’s–i can now precisely tell you, 135,000 in every blessed hour.

like the pair of pillowed puffers buried in our chests, the breathing of our house is not something to which we pay much attention. until it’s no longer breathing in and out. or the breath is labored, cold as ice, i’m here to tell you.

but, as i’ve shivered in the frosty breath this week, i’ve come to know again: it is most essential, the moving in and out of air, the life that comes with oxygen exchanged, hardly noticed, wafting on the breeze.

and on this frigid freezing day, i blow a ring of holy smoke to the breathing all around: to lungs inside my chest, and big black sturdy new one huffin’ and puffin’ down in dingy cellar.

may all who enter here breathe deeply, wholly, warmly, this frosty winter’s day.

just a little tale today. nothin’ deep. unless of course you are stirred by stories of the thermal sort. have you ever been sans heat in the place you call your home sweet home? doesn’t take too long to thank God for simple things, like toes and fingertips that wiggle. by the way, God bless tony and bernie whose blessed hands got us warmth again, and breath-filled house.
p.s. since everyone likes to show their travel slides, i am showing you up above, the only snapshot i’ve got of what would’ve been my tahitian fling. it’s a furnace guaranteed for the next 10 years. come on over and warm your toes with mine. maybe we can play some beach songs and pretend we’re on the sands.

seed scatterer

somehow, the other night, i swallowed wholly one of the truest truths of growing a thinking child from scratch.

mighta been one of the hardest ones to swallow, too.

but in the end, i am convinced, i’m one inch closer to a place that’s wiser. even if the getting there was bumpy going down.

you see, somewhere deep inside my head i think i thought that passing on the flames you hold most deeply, dearly, was a matter simply of holding up the wick, turning to the ones we nurse, we diaper change, we spoon feed, we wipe off, bandage, and shuffle on their way. the ones whose ears we whisper into, the ones whose shoes we tie, the ones whose pencil grip we help to rearrange. the ones whose papers we are no longer asked to read, for they are thinking now wholly on their own.

to pass the flame, i thought, was merely this: we turn and touch our kindled wick to theirs. and, poof, the burning light continues.

only, the other night, deep in thought and conversation at the kitchen table, deep in one of those tete-a-tetes that starts out slow, builds, spirals and suddenly is way up high on some perch where air is thin, and grip is slipping, i realized that not all flames are so easily lit from soul to soul.

not when you have, all your life, raised your child to think, to ask, to sift through what he’s told, to make his own only what sinks deep down to a place where what fits is weighed, is looked at from all sides, is held up to the shadow-casting light.

the subject, more or less, was religion. and in this house that’s a subject that comes with many threads. we weave here. we are braiders. we sift for golden strands, we entwine. we understand that some are shared, and some are wholly different, depending on whose birth threads we are holding.

more than religious, though, i am of the spirit. i find God in the scarlet flash of papa cardinal in the snowy boughs. i feel the shiver of the holy spirit when i watch the moon shadow play upon the window panes, and spill onto the bedclothes that bundle up and over my baby boy.

i whisper the hail mary, but i brush away a tear when lost in prayer on yom kippur. i feel the breath divine in hebrew, latin, or plain-old sidewalk talk. i needn’t be in church to know that holiness is near.

and so, it was the burning flame of spirit that i assumed–no, i counted on–i’d pass to my firstborn.

as clearly as he got my curly hair, the dimple of his father’s cheek, i thought the one most precious breath i have, i’d turn and breathe easily, wholly, into my soulful child.

oh, he had it when he was little. looked up at me one night, when he was all of two, and asked, “who puts God to bed at night?”

he had it, just a year ago, when he stood on the bimah, proclaiming the words of the Torah at his bar mitzvah, brought down the house, i tell you, with his grown-up understanding that nearly made the rabbi’s pale.

but now, now he’s taken history for thinking children, he’s heard word of wars fought in the name of God. and philosophies that stretch his mind into interesting new shapes. he is, right now, in this interlude, not so certain anymore.

and as we talked, i ached as the words he spoke fell upon my ears, sifted down to where my soul does all its breathing.

i tell you, it hurt to swallow, and, yes, to breathe.

but he is mine, and that’s unshakable, and, besides, i believe i’ve glimpsed the outlines of that soul. even if, right now, he calls it something else.

late that night, tossing, turning, in the way a mother sometimes does, it came to me, the image of the seeds.

i realized that what we do, in the long, long years of planting, is we are merely sowers of the seed. we scatter all life long, the bits of truth, of hope, the few scant things we know.

we scatter as we turn the words, in conversation after conversation. we poke a fertile nugget deep into the soil as we take our children by the hand, show them places and faces unlike the ones they would otherwise know.

we sprinkle seed through the books we read them when we pull them on our lap, turn pages. and then, years later, leave tucked beneath their pillow, just in case they find a minute for inhaling thought before they fall to sleep.

and after all the sowing, i realized, we can only stand back. pray for rain and sunlight. keep watch on what’s out where we have laid our lifetime’s crops.

hmm, is that a little bit of green, poking through the loamy soil? is that a tendril, reaching for the sky?

we’ll not know the harvest for some time. but we will trust that all the planting, tending, praying, was not in vain.

some seasons, what comes up is rich, is plenty, fills the bins. some seasons, what you put into the ground, isn’t what comes up at all.

but there will be a reaping. and, God willing, it will be more than you had ever counted on.

that’s the way it is when it comes to growing a thinking child. we’ve no flame to simply light their way, only seeds to scatter on their path, and wait–and hope–for blossoming to come.

what hard lessons has parenting brought your way? what, in life, did you set out thinking would be a cinch, only to find it was not the way you’d naively imagined? how have you made peace when the lessons you hoped to teach didn’t sprout in quite the way you’d planted? for those of you who’ve forged this trail already what were moments when you knew, oh you knew, that raising a thinking child held glories all its own. even when their wisdom caught you by surprise?

and by the by, today’s the blessed day of our resident mountain bird, the one who sings as if a warble-throated mama bird. here’s to sweetness, pure light and heart-melting goodness. in song, in deed. happy blessed day, pjv-az.

i have a dream, too

a year ago, i couldn’t imagine being so bold as to put any words here other than the words of the man to whom this day belongs, martin luther king jr. and so, i excerpted from the speech that moves me to shivers down the spine, and tears down my cheeks. i put a spool of words from the “i have a dream speech” right out on the table, and i let that speak for the day.

well, this year, thinking about this day, i am thinking that we must all be bold–especially when it comes to dreams.
if we don’t reach deep down inside, scout around for that same bold seed, put voice to it, get up and say it out loud, put breath to it, after all, well then, what’s the point in only listening to someone else’s dream.

that dream will not just leap up off the couch, start dancing, doing its thing without some muscle, without us adding to the voices rising, up over the mountaintop, down into the valley on the other side, down to where the shadows fall today. and tomorrow and the morrow after that. if we don’t too dare to be so bold as to raise our hand, say, hmm, i too am dreaming.

a long long time ago now i had a real live, wide-awake dream. a dream i’ve mentioned here, maybe once. but maybe it got lost along the way. today seems a fine day for shaking off the cobwebs of the story of that dream, re-telling it, in case maybe you or you have had a dream, all your own as well.

my dream was in the upstairs chapel of a nunnery, far far away. out where hills rolled and corn reached toward the sky. i was only there for the weekend, for what’s called a silent retreat. which means i ate, i drank, i walked, i prayed in utter, total wordlessness. at least no words that you could hear. there were plenty inside, believe me.

it was a friday night, and i had eaten in silence, tucked my things beneath the hard slab that was serving as my bed. i tiptoed up to the chapel and there i knelt. maybe it was all the silence, or maybe it was something else. but as i knelt and prayed, staring at the crucifix, staring at the long muscled legs of jesus on the cross, fixing on the nail holes in his palms, taking in the beautiful sorrow, and the peacefulness on his handsome jewish face, i saw the start of what turned out to be an endless kodak slide show of faces changing. i saw old faces, white faces, black faces, brown faces, sallow faces, children. i saw a native american, i saw an asian man, an old one. i saw wrinkles, i saw softness. i saw eyes and eyes and eyes. i was, of course, wiping tears from my own eyes, and cheeks, and chin. i can’t imagine seeing such a sight and not being wholly deeply moved. the tears, the transcendence deep inside, is all what comes when you feel, sometimes, as if a hand from heaven has just reached down and tapped you, unwieldingly, on the heart.

i knelt. i squeezed my eyes, then slowly peeked them open, to see if maybe this was all a trick that would just pouf away as fast as it had come. i turned, looked back, and still the faces changed.

i got the message pure and wholly: look for, find, the face of God in every one you meet.

the clincher to this dreamy story is the next afternoon, when i returned, took a seat–near the back, i tell you–in the bigger downstairs chapel. i bravely–through spread fingers–shyly–just a little bit afraid, i tell you–raised my eyes again to the face of jesus on the cross. at first, nothing. phew. safe. that was rather much to ride again. but then, as i softly sank into prayer, i swear to God i saw a smile wash across the face of that there jesus.

now you can hang me up now, press the button and click away. or you can read along, think, like i do, hmm, heaven even comes to ordinary folk. i’m no saint (ask my mother), but i am now among the ones who’ve had a dream. who carry it with us wherever we go from that day forth.

i carried it with me when i criss-crossed this country, once, looking for the faces of those who were poor, were hungry. i carried it, day in and day out, as i poked around the big city where i live and work, where i collected stories of the neediest of needy folk. walked into apartments way up high in dingy highrises and barely made it out alive of one not-so-friendly two-flat where there hadn’t been a speck of heat in weeks, and where someone who huddled there made it abruptly very clear that i was not welcome there.

i carry it, oh boy do i, now, where i live in a place where ironically it’s harder because no one on the surface looks so needy. everyone is cleaned, is polished. children carry ipods. play games on cell phones while they wait for lessons that cost, for half an hour, what some families pay all week for groceries.

the only thing to do if we’ve lived a dream is to wake up every morning and tuck it in our pocket, take it where we go. try every day, to not give up. to not let the phone call go unmade, or the unkind word go uncorrected.

it is the pulse beat really of our every day. it is the undying belief that it is here, at our kitchen tables, that the dream puts on its clothes. leaves behind the wisps of mental images, takes on matter in our every blessed hour.

it is in where we choose to send our children out to play. it is what we cook, and who we choose to feed. it is in the people we invite into our homes, the stories we ask them to tell, so our children can listen, can soak up sparks of wisdom that come from far beyond the walls of our small houses. it is how we look into the eye of the guy behind the gas pump. and where we get our hands dirty. it is in the getting up on sunday morning, and going out to someplace where the lessons come from wiser teachers, instead of staying huddled ‘round the table, sipping cocoa, keeping watch of birds.

it is, day in and day out, saying to yourself: i have a dream. i see a world other than the one before me. i believe it can be changed. it starts, right now, with my next whole breath.

someone else once had a dream. his name was martin. and there is work, still, to be done. he’s no longer here. he needs us to boldly dream in the places where he dreamed.

do you have a dream? how do you make it come to life? some of you, i know, are the very ones who inspire the dreams i set before my children. please, share the outlines of your visions. and bless you all for being filled with dream.

when chill, er, arctic winds blow…

with all its might that mercury is push-push-pushing, trying with every ounce of january muscle to get up to where the one meets the zero, calls itself a brisk ten above.

even the rhododendron leaves, just outside my window, are curled tight into a rod, curled as if their life depends upon it, which in fact it does.

the feathered traffic at the feeder is slow to none, and, mostly, sparrow shiver in the pines. i think they’d like to call for carry-in, or better yet delivery. but the lines, i fear, are iced.

the morning when the world is frozen is a morning when you’d prefer, perhaps, to catch the nearest plane to tahiti. but, dang, that would entail walking to the curb–at least–to catch the taxicab.

so instead, why not do what i love best, and make yourself a list. a list is a beautiful thing. a romantic thing. you sketch your hopes and dreams. tick them off in little snippets. barely even have to finish your thought. you know what you mean. it’s you, for cryin’ out loud, making that there list.

so, then, with no ado–it’s too cold for adoing–here is the way i’d like to spend a ch-ch-chilly day at the end of a long, long, long, long week:

*crank the brand-new tunes my manchild made for me, the soundtrack, perhaps, from “once,” the movie a dear old friend told me months ago would inspire me. he was right. and now i can’t stop mumbling with all the words, my own odd version of pretending i too can sing along. which i can’t. just ask my boys. even the cat took to under the bed.

*fill the troughs, pour hot water into bowls for all the critters. there is nothing so satisfying–for this faux farmer girl–as making sure that all God’s creatures are duly fed and watered. i’d distribute little blankets if i could, but instead i put out extra christmas trees so they could harbor in the branches. more real estate, the better for those birds, way i figure it.

*grab the mcdonald’s coupon books, and drive to where it’s dark and even colder. pass out books to every hungry hand that reaches your direction. give the folks on lower wacker drive a place, and means, for getting in and out from this coldest cold. God bless my mama who gave me those books for just this purpose. God bless the soul who inspired her, whose story we found out only when he died, how he spent his winters doling out hundreds of dollars in vouchers for a hamburger and fries, and a hot, hot coffee that bought a seat where heat was all but guaranteed.

*once back home, grind the beans and get your own hot coffee going. stoke the steel-cut oats, while you’re at it, too. i’ve got the grandest formula these days: scottish steel-cut oats, 1/4 cup; water, 1 cup; sprinkle of salt (don’t ask me why, all i know is it works); flaxseed, 2 tsps.; sprinkling organic raisins, cranberries, apricot, chopped; 1 walnut, 1 almond, chopped; dry milk, 1/3 cup; cinnamon, a good stiff shake or three. now, get the water and the salt a bubblin’, stir and dump the oats, then all the rest. let it simmer half an hour. dump it in your favorite bowl (mine is red with fat white stripe), grab a porridge spoon (mine is wooden, and it sailed in from old vermont). take a seat at the kitchen table, staring out at birds, who might be staring back at you. invite them in, for heaven’s sake. they might love the porridge.

*whisper benediction for the oats, the birds, and all the souls far colder than you have ever been. pray to God that warmth blows in, deep and boldly to their souls. don’t let them die, God, frozen to the city’s underbelly.

*and, besides all that, the best idea for how i’d like to spend an arctic day is invite a house full of folks i love. cook all day the day before, and fill the vases with blooms galore. stack the logs to make a fire. putter here and there, making it a house that shines, and shouts: warmth dwells here. come in, come in. leave your cares outside, where chill winds won’t stop blowing.

peace i wish you at the end of this long week. and warm toes besides.

do you like lists as much as i do? what would you do on a chilly arctic day when the poor old mercury makes it up to 10, then dwindles back to less than zero?

lysol’s got nothin’ on st. babs in a can

i know, i know, now you think i’ve been holding out on you, keeping all my secrets shrouded in the back hall closet. back behind the moldy tennis rackets, and the shoes that lost their strings.

you’ve been wondering–for months and months, i’ll bet–why everything–oh, excuse me, i seem to be coughing–runs so smoothly–no, i’m surely choking–here in the world i call my house. how come the broccoli never burns. and the children never pout.

well, i figured today’s as good as any to pull out all the stops. and while i’m at it, i might as well let you in on my supernatural* domestic secret.

you see, upstairs right now, there is a 6-foot-something creature who is trying hard to sleep. but he’s got finals any hour now, and he is moaning in his dreams. i am not thinking these would be the moans of growing child rolling in whipped cream. these seem to be the utterances of a pupil in distress.

then, over in the next room, the only one with heat, the one that feels a bit like sleeping in an anteroom of hades, is a little one who went to bed last night in tears. he nearly water-logged his pillow telling me that of all the children in his class, he’s the “unsmartest one.” in every single thing.

oh, lord, God almighty. where did i tuck the all-purpose house-protecting spray? it seems i’ve not been keeping up with all the troubles seeping in the cracks.

and, no, people, the spritz for which i grope is not some hyperallergenic thing that will keep away the microbes. phht, on little germs. i’ve no cares for them.

it’s the woopsy-daisy vibes that i intend to spray away.

you thought, perhaps, that all it took was hours on your knees. and perhaps a hundred dollars to the nearest voodoo doc. mais, non, i have an angel friend who came riding to my rescue.

who knew that you could buy a saint and tuck her in a can? complete with aerosol spitzer, no less.

this one, the one in pink who’s pirouetting up above, well, she came to me, as if in a fevered dream. she came to me just as i was blowing out the candles on my latest birthday cake. (51 candles, thank you, is as close to fevered dream as i’m inclined to get.)

so really i’ve not been holding out on you for all that long at all. in fact, i’ve only really just begun to understand her powers*.

what, you ask, is with all the little asterisks, the floating stars every time i mention all her super*celestial magic tricks?

well, i am only being fair, only being forthcoming, for the little tiny print running up the seam of that pink paper label spells out, in no uncertain terms, the limits of her contents: “does not have supernatural powers,” it says, in teensy-weensy caution. just in case you thought maybe you could turn the family frog into something altogether else.

oh, darn. it’s right there, in black-on-pink. my jewish husband saw it, the disclaiming, right away. (hmm, do we think it odd that the back-pedaling had escaped me, little catholic me, completely?)

ah well, the label then informs me–and i, in turn, am informing you, lest we get some lawsuit; what, the saints on high will come down and haul me off to court?–that there is nothing truly sacred about the piney mist that comes splurting from the nozzle.

ha. that’s what they think. unbeknownst to fellow inhabitants of this house (they just thought the christmas tree had gotten old and redolent), i have been unleashing little clouds of holy mist for the past few days, in hopes of keeping bad, bad karma out of doors where it belongs, where it stands a chance of going up in most unholy smoke.

but, given the elevated state of dread around here this morning, i intend to up the ante of my holy showers.

heck, i will spray until we’re in a rainy forest here, if that’s what it takes to rid these walls of all the angst of children up against the rigors of the blackboard.

i have no idea why such a godsend is so hard to find. i’ve no clue why it’s not there on the highest shelf of every single grocery. you would think the world would clamor for sanctified and pressurized protection.

praise God, then, that i’ve got allies with divine connections.

my blessed angel friend, the one whose wings, i swear, are tucked beneath her sweater, she rode miles and miles to drum up my new-year supply of saint babs’ artillery. the spray promises “peace in the home,” the candle is all-purpose, and the parfum i’m guessing is for the girl on the go, just a dab behind the ears and you are covered till you take a shower.

i’m told it all comes in a few saintly flavors: besides ol’ babs (who, by the way, was debunked of her saintliness nearly 40 years ago, but don’t tell the fine souls who make these aromatic vapors), there’s chris (yet another debunked saint–hmm, maybe after all this is the dumping ground for saints no longer). and i’m pretty sure there’s dearest saint theresa, who is forever the little flower.

so, dang, if you don’t find your holy patron among those three, just ask, and i will let you borrow mine.

but first i need to go see if i can shush the nasty smells coming from the boot tray.

bet you didn’t realize you could find such housekeeping secrets here. come back again, and i’ll let you in on how i keep my oven bright and shining. anyone else have a trick divine up their blessed sleeve?

you never know the lessons you teach

bear with me. it might be worth it.

i had no intention of returning here to the pigeon man, but then i walked to my mail box the other day.

it’s not so common anymore for that little box down at the newspaper where i work to be filled with not just junk, but real live letters. oh, there are always a few, often rather sweet. but not like the one i got the other day, not really an epistle, a letter i keep coming back to, a letter i read and re-read because, on so many levels, it calls out to me.

it was written by a man who grew up not far from where the pigeon man–his real name is joe zeman, by the way–had his first newspaper stand. a little wooden shack, basically, at a busy downtown corner. that corner just happened to be near cabrini-green, the infamous public-housing project in chicago, where life could be, well, hellish.

gunshot was a sound that every child knew, knew to duck for cover when it came. elevators had long stopped working in the 15- to 18-story towers, so you ran for your life up stairwells that reeked of urine, or worse, and prayed you didn’t run into someone out looking for trouble.

the man who wrote the letter–his name is dwight taylor–was a kid there, lived there till he was 17, charged with armed robbery and murder, and went to jail. he sat in jail 11 months, he told me, till they finally let him out, not guilty after all.

here’s his letter, dated december 20, 2007:

hello barbara,

my name is dwight taylor. i am a product of the infamous cabrini green housing projects. in the mid 60’s, my friends and i used to walk east on division street to rush street to shine shoes. there was a shack on the northeast corner of the intersection of division & lasalle. a man would always stand outside of that shack and feed the pigeons. there were times we would make fun of that man.

as time progressed, we would walk past that shack and just speak and keep on walking. as i grew older, i began to realize the significance of the man on that corner. i began to think about what he was doing on that corner.

i recall him being swamped with pigeons on just about every part of his body. i then came to the realization that he was not only doing a service for God, he was doing something from his heart. i came to realize his heart was not the size of the average person.

considering the minimal love and affection i was receiving at home, he was a blessing in disguise. mr. zeman will never know what impact he had on my life. as you are probably aware, life in the projects is no joke.

the many times we walked past mr. zeman’s shack, he will never know i grew to really appreciate the presence of him. i began to appreciate the presence of him because of a deficit of love and understanding i never received at home. when i witnessed true love, compassion and generosity being exchanged between mr. zeman and his pigeons, i realized i was truly blessed that God directed me on that path on division street.

my sister called me thursday afternoon to inform me of his demise. when i logged onto your website [the tribune’s], i saw a man i hadn’t seen in many years. nevertheless, it was the same saint i remember many years ago on division & lasalle street.

he will be no stranger to the many wings where he is going. especially considering the many wings he had down here.

dwight taylor

gary, indiana

i called dwight the other day, told him i was deeply touched by his letter. asked if i could share it here, and with the letters to the editor at the tribune. i asked, too, a bit about his life today.

dwight is 52. he has four daughters, the oldest graduated from purdue university, the youngest is a sophomore at the university of notre dame. the middle two are in collge, too; one at indiana university, and the other at southern indiana university.

dwight says he’s had some financial troubles of late, so his email wasn’t working. said he’d graduated from technical school, worked at motorola, in the cellular division. but then, he said, he’d broken his neck in a freak accident–reaching for something up high on a shelf–and had to learn to walk again.

i asked if he was some kind of minister, or pastor, or whether he did some kind of preaching, because his letter sure read like that of someone who could pack a punch before the folks in the pews got one bit wiggly.

he laughed. said he gets asked that all the time. he’s not any kind of pastor, he said, just a man who says what he sees.

dwight’s story is sticking to me. like the best sort of shadow, it’s clinging all throughout the day, even through the weekend.

i couldn’t wait to let you read it too.

gives me goosebumps to think an old man cloaked in feathers could be a beacon of loving kindness to a kid growing up where love was scarce.

and that kid was smart enough to figure out just what the lesson was, and use it, a shaft of light on his murky trail, to escape what might have been.

but he didn’t stop there: he went on to live a life, and spew a brand of wisdom, that made me think he must have been a preacher, for the lesson he was teaching me.

you never know, sometimes, that you bumped into a teacher, until you realize, you just can’t shake the lesson.

dear mr. taylor, thank you oh so deeply. and mr. zeman, too. you’re quite a pair of wise ones, and you’ve shined a mighty light here on my ever-winding trail.

forgive me for a third take on the pigeon man. but i couldn’t not share the letter. i left it out all weekend for my boys to read. maybe in light of the few sad souls (on the tribune’s website last week) who found the pigeon stories worthy of the smallest thoughts, i found dwight’s letter so extraordinary. i am endlessly amazed by everyday saints, mr. taylor among them. your thoughts, friends.

always, an open door

it is, of all the parts of this old house, the one that might just matter the most. it’s the one, surely, that sends the loudest message.

it is the door, the front door. and at our house it is mostly glass, so you can see what bubbles on the inside, and i can see out. so life pulses through the glass.

there is not, decidedly not, one of those little signs the village passes out: no solicitors invited.

oh, it’s not that i like talking about magazine subscriptions that just might send a kid to college. and it’s not that i like it when the doorbell rings just as i am stirring dinner.

but i refuse to have the first thing you see at my door be the sound of words slamming in your face. go away, not interested in strangers. hardly the tone i care to broadcast before you even ring the bell.

and, besides, i do like talking to strangers. especially kids who have ventured beyond the streets that they know well, and are maybe scared to shaking walking here where doors are always slamming.

but the open door i’m thinking about today is the one that is extended far beyond the front stoop. it’s the open door that means i am always at the ready for whoever comes this way, for whoever has a tale to tell, and needs someone to listen.

it is, i think, the highest calling of a house. to be a place of utter comfort. to be a place that oozes, “sit here, tell me all your troubles.”

it is why, in the first place, we stack the logs, put out pillows, make sure that there’s the softest, warmest blanket we can find. it’s why the pantry holds a basket full of teas, and the clementines are plenty.

first and foremost, a house brings peace to those who dwell there. but if that door is never open, if we don’t usher in a stranger, then a house is merely shelter. and not a place of holy respite.

it is the invitation that never ends. my house is your house. without the two of us to dance, the heartbeat fades away, evaporates to lonely.

just today, any hour now, there will be a woman at that door. a woman i barely know. i’ve only met her once. but her heart broke and cracked and shattered recently, and she’s trying to gather up the pieces.

she was pregnant with a baby girl just this summer past. and when they did an ultrasound, the kind they always do, not in search of any trouble, they found that baby girl had a hole where her diaphragm should be. so all her insides, the ones that should be in the belly, were pushed up by her lungs.

the baby girl was born, fighting just to breathe. and one month later, the baby girl died, right before thanksgiving.

her mama, strong and gentle all at once, survived the holidays. she has two little boys, so her hands, she says, are always busy.

but her heart can barely contain the bleeding that comes from burying a baby.

and so she comes, quite simply, to unspool her unending sorrow. she comes to try to ease the clenching in her chest.

it is in the telling of our stories, often, that the healing begins to come. it is in looking up through tears and seeing another face. a pair of eyes, a heart, absorbing all there is to be absorbed.

sometimes we are called upon to be a human swab for all the ache that cannot be bound inside one single heart.

sometimes we need only listen.

sometimes what is shared across a tear-splashed kitchen table is the very blessed act of kindling just a single wick of light where there’d been only darkness.

but if the door is sometimes closed, then how can sorrow enter, and begin to ease toward healing?

the open door, i’m convinced, is most essential for a house to be a holy place where hearts are stitched with hope, and two heartbeats rise in sacred echo–one promising the other that peace will come again.

do you find yourself sometimes across the table from someone who needs to tell their story? do you find it easy to forget that the purpose of a door is to be opened? what rites and rituals do you make a part of your home to make the stranger–or the friend–feel wholly welcome?

red alert

i didn’t notice the first day. and not really the second day. but, by the third day, the third bitter cold day in a row, the third day when the unfurling of scarlet as it darted from pine bough to naked magnolia was decidedly absent, i started to worry.

now, worrying, in case you don’t know, is something i do exceedingly well. comes naturally. like breathing, only in staccato. only in spending the morning with an eye out the window, watching, combing the sky and the branches. on fullest alert.

as i watched without reason to hope, as i thought of the bitterest cold, i remembered the words of my mama telling me how so many birds from her flock had been lost, in the deep snap of cold.

“couldn’t survive,” she declared in that way that she does, unspooling for all of her nestlings all the mysteries of nature, of life and of death. she seems to know things that come from a long life of breathing in sync with the birds and the woods and the clouds.

and so, as the image of a little red bird, fallen somewhere, on the unforgiving crust of the snow, made the hairs on my neck rise, i thought of climbing in boots, commencing a search. imagined the crunch through the snow, pulling back branches, poking through all of the grasses, now frozen and matted and frankly quite knotted, that i’d left in the yard for the winter, for the birds who might savor their seed, or their harbor, on a day not too cold to put wind to their wings.

then i thought of the hawk. the great cooper’s hawk, the one with the tail so big and so thick i once mistook it for an owl–and that was merely the tail. add the head and the wings and the muscle-bound chest under all of those feathers and you’ve got a bird you should fear.

and fear it they do, all my fine feathered friends. one mere swoop of the hawk through the sky, clears all of the branches of birds. they scatter, i swear, when that hawk is a mile away. they know, before i see a thing, that death in the clutches of indiscriminate beak, or in talons the size of a three-penny nail, is a death to avoid.

and then, always, there is the cat. the cat that i feed twice a day. the cat who curls up on my lap, and purrs like a chevy with ’58 fins. that cat, i pretend, knows better than to touch a red bird. if that cat crosses that line, comes home with a dried bit of feathery red there where he does all his licking, that cat will be dispatched to the dungeon. and i like to think–though i’m sure i’m kidding myself–that he’s too tender-hearted to torment me so cruelly, to partake of papa the cardinal.

while all these horrible endings swirled in my head, i ached for the red bird–papa, i call him–who, whenever he darts through my day, brings me a deep knowing that i’ve been touched by a something divine.

i can be pouring a tall dose of coffee, there by my little side window, and, poof, there’s papa, his bright scarlet frock nestled right there in the bushes just inches away.

or, as i haul out the trash, or dash to an errand that should have been started nearly an hour before, there’s papa. cheer-cheering from top of the oak. or playing peek-a-boo in the pines.

wherever he comes, whenever he flashes his colors, my soul breathes a sigh that makes me feel wholly at home. he brings the divine down to the earthliest minute.

now, i know that a bird is not mine. these birds all around me belong to the heavens. and the trees they inhabit, just happen to be near to me and my four-walled nest.

but, over time, a particular possessiveness creeps in the equation. they are mine, i am theirs. together we do a fine dance. a dance i’m not willing to end.

and so, in the hours when i’d noticed his absence, when i raked all the limbs, when i scoured the ground, i felt the depth of that dance in my heart, realized the intricate wiring between me and my red-banner bird.

it is, perhaps, the shock of the color itself, heart-stopping, really, against the bleak gray of the winter undressed, or the white of the winter, fully attired.

it is that sign from above that amid the humdrum, the everyday, there comes, without warning, without siren, the scarlet cloak that whispers, “your day was just touched.”

it is hope when i need it, a charge when i’ll take it. it is, some lonely hours, as if the Holiest One is tapping there at my window, the answer to an unwhispered prayer.

and so it was, when, after three days that felt like three weeks, that flash once again caught me unawares. i was minding my business–i’d forgotten if only for a bit of a while that i needed to worry–when, suddenly, there at the feeder perched papa.

i moved close to the window, as close as i could without startling my too-long-gone friend. close enough to see his little heart pounding, there under the reddest of breasts. my heart pounded as well.

for a minute there, the other day, me and a bird from somewhere on high, we beat the same song with the whole of our hearts. papa was home, was safe, wasn’t buried, stiff in the snow.

his absence now over, i’ve not yet let go of the sense that i–and he–was saved from a terrible sorrow.

sometimes it takes a bit of a scare to remember how blessed we are.

sometimes we don’t feel the depth of a plug in our heart, until it is pulled. until there’s a hole and it’s gaping.

only then, sadly, do we realize that without that something we love, that something we count on, our breathing is not wholly ours. it depends on grace all around us. it depends on the touch under the sheets in the night, on the peck on the cheek in the doorway, or the flash of a wing in the branches.

the red bird out my window taught me that lesson this week. gentle bird, messenger bird. bird in heavenly red. bird that beckons attention.

have you seen a sign lately? a celestial sign? some sign from above that reminds you the earthliest truth? have you come to know, only too late, how deeply you miss some grace note you’d taken for granted? any one else feel a particular kinship to the reddest bird in these parts (save for the tanager who seems too scarce for everyday musings)?