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Month: January, 2008

fire-hydrant funeral

fire-hydrant funeral

they came on foot and on wings. one hobbled on a three-pronged cane. one pedaled her pink-and-white old-timer bicycle. a whole flock finally came down from the soupy gray sky.

they all were drawn to the fire hydrant, now empty, now nothing but a bulging spout where firetrucks would hook up their hoses should a fire ever come to the dingy gray block of western avenue, across the way from lincoln’s statue, on chicago’s north side.

but for nearly 10 years that hydrant more or less belonged to joe zeman, the stooped old man best-known as the pigeon man of lincoln square.

nearly three weeks ago, joe died. was killed when a van pulled out of a bank parking lot, and the elderly driver didn’t see the man who so often–when not covered in pigeons–faded into the shadows.

the hydrant belonged, too, to the pigeons, joe’s pigeons, the dozens and dozens who fluttered down, found peace on the sturdy limbs of the man who made like st. francis of a city.

the pigeons roost–then and now–up on the terra-cotta brow of an old boarded-up bank, or down by the corner where the street lights blink all night and day. but they don’t circle down to the hydrant anymore.

some say the pigeons are crying. some say that in the days right after joe died, the pigeons circled, cooed in a way that sounded like wailing, then dropped their heads, flew away. kept watch, but wouldn’t come down to the hydrant.

the sadness that swelled their hearts–people and pigeons, alike–could no longer be contained. nor the yearning for a proper goodbye.

so, on a balmy january sunday, just yesterday, friends and strangers–even the pigeons–came back to the hydrant.

there was no clergy at this fire-hydrant funeral of sorts. and no coffin; joe had been cremated at his family’s request, and they promise to hold a memorial in a few months. communion came in the form of squishy white bread, on sale at the aldi, passed out in single slices to the dozens who wandered by for the better part of an hour.

a city bus pulled to the curb, so the driver–who told me he whispers a prayer every time he rolls by the now-empty hydrant–could pay his respects. another one honked, from across three lanes of traffic.

even a city cop, in her squad car, pulled up to add her blessing. she was the beat cop who’s worked the precinct for the last seven years, and she used to stop by each day to visit with joe. not once, she said, did she respond to one of the callers, the complainers, who wanted joe hassled for feeding the pigeons.

before she drove off, she told me joe died with a copy of a newspaper story clutched in his hand, not tucked in his jewel bag as i’d first imagined when told by the cops he’d died with my story right there.

this whole sidewalk benediction for joe, for joe and all that he stood for, was the idea of tara theobald, a woman who sports a faux-hawk–that is a semi-mohawk, close-cropped on the sides, curly and longer in a stripe on the top–a woman who never once met or even saw zeman, but read of him, and mourned for the hole now in the weave of the city.

“he was an icon,” she told me. “he was someone taking care of the community, the animals, the corner. he showed the neighborhood what it means to care.”

hers was a simple idea. on facebook, no less, she put up a post, asking hundreds of folk to come pay their respects.

“bring bread and/or grain, and any kind words,” she wrote, “to commemorate zeman’s philosophy of charity and consideration he long evoked in the lincoln square neighborhood.”

and so, under a gray sky that seemed to be dripping fine mist, a small knot gathered. the pigeons, nearly a hundred, and the people, no more than seven or eight.

in all, there were nine loaves of bread, a bag of cracked corn, and 200 black-and-white cards that theobald had designed, printed and photocopied. each one showed a photo of joe, covered in pigeons, with the word compassion, defined: “deep awareness of others’ suffering, accompanied by the desire to alleviate it.”

beneath those words, she wrote simply: “joe zeman. 1930-2007. be the change.”

she had no solid plans for the simple sidewalk remembrance. just a loose notion to pass out a single slice of the bread, and a compassion card, to each passerby. hoping to stir up the spirit of joe, there at his hydrant.

for nearly an hour, a stream of folks flowed by. out on a warm gray sunday for a stroll, running an errand, chasing a bus, some stopped, some paused, others kept right on walking.

the sidewalk was slick from the mist. the curb was clogged with charcoal gray slush, the last bits of snow, melting.

crumbs of bread and the scattering of corn soon soaked up the spill from the mist and the snow. the pigeons returned, gobbled up bits, then roosted again.

stories were told. a refugee worker remembered how she passed by joe every morning, how his soft gentle ways infused her, reminded her how she ought to be. a young mother out walking her four-year-old stopped to say how many conversations joe and his birds had inspired. how she used him to teach her little ones how to be in the world they were just learning.

one old lady cried. a grad student, one whose teacher had penned a beautiful poem, a poem entitled, “endangered species,” a poem about joe, cleared her throat, turned toward the pigeons and began to read.

the last line of the poem is the one i can’t forget: “who is to say you cannot collect love?”

it was the city at its slushiest, grittiest, there where the pigeons do and mind all their business.

and it was there that a woman who teaches synagogue sunday school dreamed up this holy sidewalk communion, for the birds and the un-winged friends, all so very much missing an old hunched-over man who tried to teach only this:

“i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude,” he once told me. “it’s just as easy to show decency as it is to hate today.”

don’t forget joe. be the change.

blessed monday, blessed back-to-the-real-world monday. i needed to take you all to the sidewalk to see what i saw, to hear what i heard. i have a similar story in the tribune today, but i couldn’t say there all that i can say here at the table. so this one’s for you.

long as we’re here, i just wanted to say happy blessed day to mbw, another urban saint among us. she’s my kind of hero, used to leave her car unlocked every night so some homeless folk could find shelter and a soft place to sleep. she was my first best boss at children’s. i picked her to be my firstborn’s godmother, cuz hers is a soul and a wisdom any child would be so blessed to absorb.

at our house it was a rocky beginning to the week. hope yours was smoother. and here’s a prayer that all of us find what it takes to return to the real world, but still hold onto the magic of unwrapping mornings, and twinkling nights. the test is now, to find peace in the long list of to-do’s. hope the story of joe, and the hydrant, brings you a bit of what you might need this january monday.

birthday, unwrapped

letting go of a birthday, watching the clock tick toward the end of the one day that, all these years later, still feels wrapped with a ribbon and tied with a bow, well, letting go of all of that still makes me gulp, feel a bit of a woops down in my belly.
but there’s only so much hallelujah you can pour into one 24-hour slice of the cake, only so fine a day you can absorb before thinking your insides might burst in a cloud of pure confetti.
so, as the clock undeniably inches toward 12, both hands clasped in tight prayer at the top of the dial, i know–i’m a big girl now, i’m now, yipes, in the latter half of a century–i know, it’s time to step down. time to take turns, go to the back of the line, let all the others have their huff-’n’-puff at the wobbly candles.
before it’s a wrap, though, before i turn out the lights, shuffle off to my pillow–cinderella back with the mice and the pumpkin–i do need to curl up here, and whisper what amounts to a birthday benediction.
there is much, so much, that fills me to bustin’.
bless the crescent moon, once again, that shone on my awaking, that hung there in the southern sky, that winked at me, when i went out to greet the dawn, to feed my winged friends before the black of night gave way to frozen white of day.
bless the man i married who rose from bed not long after i did, so he could make like a boy scout and figure out a way to rustle a fire from whatever sticks and bits of house he could scrounge into a meager pile out in the garage.
bless the little boy who used all his might, and all his heart, to spell the words and draw the curly-haired mama whom he proclaimed best hugger kisser, and well, that was my blue box from tiffany, all right.
bless the manchild whose eye to the core of my soul never ceases to infuse me. this time in a finely-framed photograph of two outstretched hands–mine and the little one’s, each offering the other a tiny glass heart, and, of course, the unseen promise to hold each other’s real true pulsing heart tenderly, closely through forever.
blown up big and black-and-white, it’s a picture i could hang on every wall of every room in this old house, it touches me so deeply. (you might recall the story behind the hearts, the one of the little school boy trying mightily to net the butterflies that would not let him sleep the night before he shuffled off to first grade, and then found solace in the little heart slipped into his pocket.)
and, since no day–not even a birthday–should be a day without a little drama, bless the cat who chose this day to toss his little kitty cookies all over the blue-and-white-checked couch, at the very moment the little one stormed out of the room, proclaiming boredom through his almost tears, and i was left to unload the groceries, clean the couch, roll my eyes at the dramatic little feets stomping up the stairs, all while mr. boy scout slept off his early-morning fire-starting triumphs.
bless the phone that rang and rang, carrying voices i’ve not heard in quite a while and some i hear each day.
bless the boxes that tumbled through the u.s. postal blender, and somehow landed on the very stoop for which they were intended.
bless the two fine friends who came to keep me company while i cooked the things i love for the people i so love, since not a restaurant in town cares to cook on the third day of the brand-new year. not even for my most beloved peoples.
and, of course, always essential in a litany that spills from the fact of your very existence: bless the mama and the papa, and the breath of pure true light that started me off in the first place. and, so far, have stuck with me all along this woopsy-daisy life of mine. (although one now does so from on high, where perhaps the pulling of the strings and general rooting on my behalf comes with just a tad more ease and more direct connection.)
bless the knowing, deep down in my heart, that this blessed day was really just like all the others. and that the greatest gift of all is stitching each and every hour as if it is a day i’ve waited all my life for.
which, actually, i have.
not a bad bit of wisdom to have unwrapped on this day of once-upon-a-birthing.
and now, past 12, it’s time to shuffle off to sleep. i’ve a whole new day awaiting. and i’ve got thread and needle at the ready. it’s my intent to stitch through all the year.
bless each and all of you who give me sewing lessons, every single brand-new day.

does ending your birthday day make you just a little sad? or am i the only baby in the house? i think of my wise friend sandra who celebrates all fine things in seasons, stretching out the joy and celebration. lifting a whole motherlode of days into something even grander. and, by the way, i rather liked the existential challenge of seeing if i could rise above the momentary angst of messy couch, pouting child, dozing mate who slept right through it all. i like a day that’s got its share of messiness. it made the sweetness of the song and little cakes at dinner, all the sweeter.

a monk’s life

no, people, this is not some new year’s diet prescription. not the bread-and-water plan to a more minimalist you. no, no, not at all.

rather, this is my new year’s confession.

huddle up close, here, and perk up your ears.

what i’ve got to say might befuddle you. might leave you scratching your noggin. or perhaps you, too, share the same yearnings, and you and i shall skip off to behind some walled garden, a place of prayer and bells chiming, of bread and water. and surely some wine.

oh, but that’s getting ahead of the confession.

so, come, come, step here in the little black box, kneel down beside me, and listen in.

the fact of my matter is that beneath all the trappings that make me out to look like just another mama on the leafy shore of chicago–the old swedish wagon, the red-flowered backpack that bops behind me wherever i go, the grocery list that never seems to end, the curly gray curls i keep forgetting to color–well, underneath it all beats the soul of a monk.

i’m convinced, increasingly, and much to the dismay of my boys–the tall one who calls me his wife, and the others who call me their mama–that really i belong in the friary.

i’ve no desire, curiously, to go to the nunnery. somehow i think it more joyful off where the monks do their monking.
i find myself dreaming of days all alone. of unbroken quiet. of tending a small patch of earth. of growing nearly all that i swallow. and milking the rest from a fine little goat. or a cow i might name little flower.

i dream of simple repasts–bread, cheese, a chunky fine soup. salad i’d started from seedlings. and the bread, too, would be made from my hands, my fingers pressed into the slow-rising flesh of the yeast and the flour.

drawn as i am to the dawn, i think i’d adjust quite without ruffle to the prayer of the earliest morn, the one the monks call matins. the one where the night meets the daybreak, at the hour the celts and the seers deem thinnest–or closest, really, to heaven.

i already dress day-after-day as if in a habit. i’m nearly all black, with a little white tee. and if i think of it, i do slip on socks. but often i’m barefoot. (don’t tell my mother, but i’m sockless even in snowboots sometimes.) all i need is a rope round my middle, tied in a long line of knots–one for each prayer i need to remember–and i’ve got the garb for the job.

the best part of being a monk, besides the hours and hours of quiet–oh, and the chanting, the gregorian fly-me-to-the-moon prayers that soar from the old wooden pews to the holy on high–is that a monk’s is a life of quotidian moments and tasks, each and all distinctly imbued with the sacred.

to till the soil is to make way for the seed, to witness the infinite mystery unfolding. to leaven the dough is to consider the miracle of rising again. to kindle the wick of the bee-bundled wax is to bring light to the darkness.

over and over, again and again, from the dawn to the dusk, under sunlight or moon, not an everyday chore is left without purpose divine.

and that, in the end, is a virtue to which i’d turn over the whole of my soul.

now, of course, i’ll not ever discard this life that is mine. this life that is messy, that’s filled with the joys and the sorrows of being a mother, a friend, and a lover in so many ways.

but i do think there always will be a part of my heart that yearns for the life i imagine on the other side of the towering monastic wall.

like all make-believe lives, i pick and i choose the parts i warm up to. i don’t want, not at all, to sleep on a hard slab of oak. nor do i care to be given the cold stare of the no. 1 monk.

no, the abbey i inhabit in my mind’s eye is one that is supremely simple, and utterly warm. the stone floors, i think, are radiantly heated. the garden is bursting with color, and armloads of herbs. the kitchen is steamy all day.

i think really what i am looking for is to make my life in this old creaky house the one i imagine far off in the hills of kentucky, or upstate new york.

it is my task–and maybe yours too–to continue to mine for the heart of the monk here in the midst of my modernday madness.

to find joy in the simplest brushes with heaven above. to fill up my hours with a prayerfulness that never ends. to understand the sanctity of an everyday chore done with pure heart, be it the zen of washing a bowl, or the blessing of changing the sheets for someone whose slumber you pray will be sweet.

it’s a quirky confession, perhaps, but it’s mine. and as this new year unfolds, i enter the most hallowed hours intent on bringing the life of the monk here to a home so utterly earthly.

i wonder, do any of you harbor monastic leanings? any of you spend any time behind the blessed walls of some faraway abbey? any scholars of merton, or friar tuck, or one of the other wise and soulful monks from centuries past?

photo above, courtesy of my sweet will. for the life of me it looks like some ad you might find in the new yorker.

and it is with great joy that i welcome the birth of a beautiful blog that promises to feed our spirits, day in and day out. everyday soup, is the name of dear slj’s blessed repast, now served. please do, give it a taste. you’ll find it, i’m certain, delicious.

by virtue of birth accident, my new year is abundantly a roll-over in every which way. the calendar turns as i too take on another year. my annual summing up, and looking ahead is double-dosed. tomorrow i turn 51. and the gift i just opened is the one of dreaming aloud. bless you, each and every one, for coming here, and letting me do so, day after day.

glories

glory be the cat that meowed an hour or so after the new year breathed its first full lungs of breath.

glory be the mama’s feets that shuffled the stairs, that rounded the bend, that came upon what appeared–through groggy eyes that, of course, had taken in the toll of the midnight bells, and thus had been sleeping not more than an hour when all the cat ruckus occurred–glory be what appeared to be a bush all aglow. a bush with a halo.

a bush with a message to tell: be still. illumination awaits you.

and so i breathed for a while there. stood at the window. breathed in the blanketed birth of the new year. marveled at all of the stillness. the gift of the snow and the absolute silence. not a bird’s wing quivered. not even the wind moved.

only my cat, prancing. lifting paw through the snow drift, headed out for adventure. determined to take in the new year, one deep plunge at a time.

i, well, i tucked a bookmark there in the night, and i tootled back up the stairs to my bed.

i didn’t stay long, though. just long enough.

and then, when a toss or a turn shook me back to my preferred state of being–the state of being wide-eyed awake–i weighed my options: sleep, or savor the dawn.

dawn won, as it always does.

particularly here on a morn when inches of white had transformed the world, had draped a tableau that as long as there have been poets and ice crystals fallen from clouds has made for breath inhaled, held, and let out in long lines of glory.

i tiptoed back down, back to the place i’d left off, there in the deep of the night. same bush, still aglow. but washed now with the blue light of dawn creeping in from the east.

glory be the first footstep laid in the snow, glory be especially when it cuts a straight path to the trough where the birds come. where the birds know the seed will be poured, in abundance.

“g’morning world,” i called out. to whoever was listening. and whoever wasn’t, as well.

glory be the gift of the morning. glory be the newborn year, the chance to begin again.

something inside me stirred me to steep in the wholeness. every pore cried out for attention. i wanted to taste, to smell, to see, to hear, to feel the crisp, full, delectable launch of the day and the year.

i’d plugged in the tree, so two bushes glowed now. one in, and one out.

i’d fed the birds and my four-legged friends; truly, i make like i’m some sort of make-believe farmer, slopping the seed, pouring fresh water all around, outside and in. out, where the birds and the squirrels, even the possum, soothe their parched wintry throats. in, where sometimes the midnight cat slurps.

now it was time to feed my sweet children, the ones dreaming up in their beds, the ones who i hungered to greet with all that was sweet, that was good, that was soft, that would lighten their hearts on the dawn of the blessed fresh start.

i spotted a whole braided bread in the corner. considered milk and butter and eggs. considered cinnamon. eyed a big bowl of apples. considered slicing and sizzling in butter and sugar and spice. cranked up the old oven.

the original mother’s-milk bath–3 cups of milk, half a stick butter, half a cup sugar, pinch salt, a good douse of cinnamon clear from the streets of saigon–steamed in a pot on the stove. the bread i tore into bits, considering wholly the gift of the moment at hand.

tucked in the oven–the bread in the bath of the milk and the eggs and the cinnamon apples and raisins–a wholesome new-year pudding now on the horizon, i slipped on my knee-high wobbly rubber boots, the ones the color of school buses. and i returned to the place of the snow and the silence.

i walked before even a soul had preceded me. the snow was all mine, and if i kept my eye only in front of me, didn’t notice the damage i’d done–the foot step left in the snow–i scored the gift of treading where no one had trod.
and so it was on the glorious dawn of this year so ripe with infinite hope, and a good measure of oh-lord, brace-me for whatever will come.

and so on this start of a new year’s adventure, i thank the maker of snow, and the bringer-on of the sunlight. i thank the hands that kneaded the dough that became the bread that i tore into bits for my boys. i thank the one who spins the words from my head with the prayers of my soul and puts them forth in the snippets i call my word-breathing.

i bow before all the greatness above and before me. i drop to my knees, and beg for the grace and the might to carry on through this mountain called life.

i breathe in in prayer. i breathe out, whispering incantation, sprinkling glory-be wherever i go.

blessed God, fill me so that i might fill those in my path. no matter how steep, no matter how close to the edge, there where the precipice is. there where we inch ever so slowly, hold on for dear life.

for just ’round the next bend, just maybe, you see, there will be sights–and moments, indeed–that will carry our hearts straight up to the heavens. i’m certain.

arm-in-arm, or alone, it’s a path best taken in strides. best taken with lungs teeming with spirited prayer. it’s a path paved in glories, for those daring to see. blessed God, open my eyes. let me breathe in all of your glories, swallow your sorrows. carry on, in ascent ever lasting. most holy amen.

what is your prayer this new year? how did you meet the moment of wonder as the fresh start washed over you? blessed beginning again……