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

Month: February, 2008

supersize-me day

golly gumdrops, is the word that just came to me. this is a day, by jove, for all-out indulgence.

it’s a day tacked on, for no reason i need worry about–sun, moon, aligning, something like that. a day that kneels down and bows to the great american–nay, western (we seem to have exported our greed)–hunger for more, more and, please, pretty please with sugar on top, more.

what’s this, you ask yourself, a day akin to all the shouting and exclaiming on all the rows and rows of cereal boxes, the paper cups at the gas station soda machine, heck even the tacos at taco bell. oh, and don’t forget the next-day installation rugs hawked night and day on cable TV. 33% more!!! buy 1-get 1 free!!!!! all this (arrow pointing from the midline to the tippy-top) extra! don’t forget the bonus pack!!

so it is with the 29th day of the lowly second month, the month so short you’d think napoleon was its patron saint. the month pre-shrunk to get it over in a hurry.

only, folks, i hate to break it to you, so i’ll do it softly (whisper here): this here hoopla day is all about a mere 3.5 percent bonus. i did the math.

yup, it’s true. barely a cost-of-living increase, this 29th of feb-ru-ary.

you take your ordinary february, you got 672 measly hours. you tack on 24 more every four years. wanna know the margin of indulgence? well, just divide the latter by the former, you got .0357142. (i don’t know what it is about numbers, but i just LOVE to roll around in ‘em. there is, isn’t there, something so exact about it all. stokes my number-crunchin’ heart, which for the most part dwells in the shadow of my wordy other half.)

so here we are. rollin’ like little bitty pigs in muddy puddle all for that string of unimpressive digits to the east of that there decimal point.

let us not, then, dilly dally. let’s get on with the fine art of making the most of every blessed bonus minute (there are 1,440 of those, my friends). let us wring each sweet drop from this fine day of leaping forward.

i for one leapt out of bed. i stoked the oven. fueled the birds. i know, i know, nothing extra-ordinary there. i let the boys sleep extra late. we’ll make up the difference come march, which has now been delayed not unlike the planes that can’t get to o’hare, what with all the snow that falls again.

i think soon i’ll peruse the aisles of my grocery store. buy every single thing that comes with more-more-more. if it’s bigger, it’s going in my cart. if it comes with two-for-one, i’ll take it. but only for today. tomorrow, it’s back to getting only what you pay for.

so go crazy, people. embrace the rare indulgence of a day.

it is not every year we get to do this, after all.

and then, just think: if really truly you were being given a whole fresh day to do the things you always longed to, what might unfold this holy blessed day?

funny thing is, i can’t think of much i don’t already do. i’d do it though with all my heart.

i would love my boys. be tender. i would, if not a snowy day, pick fresh berries from my garden. i might milk a cow. i’d paint a billboard, perhaps, tell the world something i think it needs to know. i’d find a little child who doesn’t know that he or she is loved, and bring that child home, surround him or her with what to us is not so revolutionary–a blanket, a cup of something warm, a lap to sit on, pages in a book to turn.

i might, if i got going, call everyone i know who’s sad or lonely. i would tell them why and how i love them. try to stoke the flame again, the one inside that someone’s aching heart.

but now a boy i love, a little one in cowboy pajamas, is at my side, just waking up. i’ve got buns, hot from the oven, all cinnamon and glaze.

and we are going to indulge on this blessed day of golly gumdrops.

what will you do this bonus day?

talking till the wee, wee hours

i’m thinking slumber parties for grownups are the next big swell idea. or, at least they should be, if we give a dang for the continued tick-tock-tick of that ol’ vessel keepin’ time, just beneath our jammies and our frayed and flannel robes.

oh, i don’t mean yakkin’ the night away with whoever it is you’re shacked up with. that’s all well and good (although there are the toothpaste blobs in the sink to contend with, and company seems to know to refrain from that. or at least wipe ’em down with a wad of toilet paper). in fact, some nights when i find me and the tall-guy-with-glasses laughing ourselves silly at 2 in the morning, i really do think marriage–on a good day–is like your mom telling you your best friend can have a sleepover all summer long. and then, poof, the summer never ends.

what i’m talkin’ here–sorry, boys, you can go play all-night poker, or whatever it is that would float your so-called boat–i’m talkin’ havin’ your best girl friends, one at a time is how i like it best, come knockin’ at your door, with jammies, mouthguard, heck, even pimple cream tucked in some little over-the-shoulder satchel.

i’m talkin’ curling up on the couch, armed with bowls of popcorn to punctuate the most important points–you can bite it hard and loud, if you need to, or let it linger on your lips, for effect; it really is the perfect conversational accessory, salted, greased or plain old plain.

i’m talkin’ whispers when the rest of the house is filled with zzzzzzs. i’m talkin’ getting past the ancillary business and boring straight inside the heart.

i’m talkin’ saying things you can’t say out loud to barely any other soul on earth. but you can when you’re with a best friend, because she knows it all already. and she can fill in blanks no one else would every guess.

what makes me think all this is i had a slumber party just the other night.

one of my oldest, dearest, wisest friends was in town from california. she stretched her trip just to spend two nights, one day, with me and my boys. once again, i was humming as i readied her room, blew up the air mattress, put out a little vase of white tea roses in winter, laid yummy soaps and lotions on her tall stack of fluffy towels. i even plunked a toblerone chocolate on her pillow. there is nothin’ like spoiling your best friends.

the first night, after fish soup and black cherry pie, we stayed up for hours, accompanied by the boy i call the manchild. he adores her too. she is pretty much his auntie to the world. she knows more about everything than most anyone i know. she’s hip. she’s cool. she wears her hair in dreadlocks (not a lot of which you see around this leafy shore). and she’s the one who taught him how to take whatever’s in the fridge, add rice, one egg, and call it “ghetto fried rice.” a dish he could eat five times a day, swooning every time.

oh, and besides, she went to the school he’s set his sights on, so he had hours’ worth of questions. right down to subway stops, and profs.

that night, as you might figure, it was all PG, content approved for family audience. (with just a few racy winks and nods, perhaps, since after all, he’s a manchild now, and she was easing him into the club.)

the next night, though, once home from a rousing dinner with old newsroom pals, we paid no mind to the clock telling us–in no uncertain terms–that anyone with sense would be in bed, tucked beneath the puffy covers.

nope. we were two old, old friends who’d had to keep the lid on all the really pressing stuff the night before. so this night, we were all but yankin’ that old clock right off the wall. it ticked, we talked. ignored its insistent gongs, every quarter hour, like a toddler tugging on our sleeve.

we got down to business. we got down to girl talk–and i’ll not spell that out. you’re either of the double-Xs (i’m talkin’ DNA, not ratings, here), and you know of which i speak. or else you’re not, and forgive our exclusionary ways this one time, but there’s no translator in the house.

here, though, are some hints: dreams, drama, heartache; repeat, repeat. how’s that for what it was us girls were digging into, besides the mound of exploded kernels that stoked our late-night talking binge?

oh, yes, there was something to the sleepiness that crept in, as that ol’ clock kept burping up its teeny-tiny numbers. not unlike wine, it made the room all gauzy, almost blurred. i was bleary-eyed, all right, but that only oiled, loosed, the conversation.

like a stream that rushes, sends its waters down and in, rinsing ’round the rocks, bathing every crevice, that late-night hour propelled the words, the thoughts, down deep to all the nooks and crannies of our souls.

we went to places the daylight does not allow. only the long blank slate of night, with dawn the only end in sight, still miles out beyond the eastern sky.

in fact, at one brief synapse, when some wayward thought was trying to take the leap from nerve to nerve, i did think, oh heck, let’s just go all night. let’s watch that rosy-fingered dawn reach out and try to tap us on the noggin.

but at last, when every chamber of our hearts had been unlocked, laid bare, when eyelids were truly slipping, and yawns distorting words, we succumbed.

we did what grownups do: we got off the couch, and sensibly climbed the stairs (if 2:30, maybe 3, has any sense at all, what with a whole sunday just ahead).

we kissed goodnight, for that’s what best friends do.

and then we dreamed. of the next night when we’d unspool our hearts and souls, join hands and sail to places that can only be discovered when it’s dark and quiet and you pay no mind to midnight chimes on busy-body clocks.

have you had a slumber party lately? with your oldest bestest friend? or with, perhaps, the ones who shared your dorm, or house, in college? or, maybe, you lucky duck, you have a sister who brings her jammies for the night…
to mix it up here, do you ever think of being married as the longest lasting slumber party in the world? oh, one other thing, i hated slumber parties as a kid. hated the way it made me feel the morning after. hated being the only one who wanted sleep, and didn’t like to get in trouble, despised the scary movies. did you like ‘em? or were you, like me, more inclined toward the one-on-one, more tame, sleepover?

the bench my brother built

if you meandered up the bluestone walk to my front door, if you peered through the panes of glass, pressed your nose maybe, you would see it.

if i swung wide the door, urged you to come in–here, please, sit down, take a load off your toes–you would see it. you would sit on it. unless of course you opted to plunk down on one of the steps of the creaky oak stairs.

it is, from here on in, the first thing you see when you walk in my house. it says, sit, please. it says, what unfolds in this house is simple, straight-forward, is bent in unending embrace. is authentic.

that’s a big load for a bench. but the bench, built by my faraway brother, can carry it. i know. i’ve known my brother for 40-some years. marveled at every last thing he’s put his well-muscled hands to. and his heart.

this bench, though, is something quite else. is enough to leave me groping for words.

here’s proof: we got it last week; you haven’t heard of it yet.

the bench, conceived and created in maine, rumbled up my snow-covered street in a truck the likes of which usually pulls down to a dock, at some industrial warehouse. not used to a lane where houses, like notes on a scale, mark out the meter of everyday life.

i paid off the driver, a 20 is all, just to help roll the bench in a box–135 pounds–up the snow mounds, down the snow-shoveled walk. then, the driver, he cartwheeled it up the front stoop, into the door. i tried not to look.

and there it sat, for hours. till the men of the house got home, got hammers and knives. had at it. unearthed it from layers and layers. first cardboard, then crate made of wood. then shrink-wrapped, heat-sealed green plastic, then paper, then pliable foam. more sheets of foam. eight layers in all before we finally, finally saw what the fuss was about.

oh my, is all i could say. all the rest came in gasps.

as i took in the cherry smoothed like the cheek of a pearl. caught a glance at the spindles, each one a work of true shaker-esque art. and patience. and love.

yes, my brother, a builder of chairs and dressers and tables in maine, my brother spent hours sanding and waxing and carving and fitting. not a nail on that bench. just wood easing for wood. wood yielding. wood behaving as wood under grace, wood revered, wood respected behaves. this wood was not banged. this wood was coaxed, cooed into place. this wood was crafted, disciplined, seduced into place.

my brother took cherry, took ash. whispered sweet somethings. told it the story, perhaps, of the house where it would spend its long life.

once trees in new england. now a bench not far from chicago, the city that works. the city with very broad shoulders. now a bench in a rather old house. a house on a street simply called maple. cherry meet maple. maple meet ash.

the bench is home now. it came with a letter. penned in brown ink on its underside, but typed and put onto paper besides.

the builder, my brother, wrote this, in part, on the bench:

“beside the doorway to your home, this bench will serve sometimes as a seat for two, but more often as a place for backpacks or grocery sacks, attaches or athletic gear, bundles of herbs or stacks of library books. over time the cherry will darken to its natural patina and nicks, scratches, dents and dings will appear to mark the comings and goings at maple avenue.”

not every bench comes with a story built in. not every bench comes carved from the hands of someone you love.

as my sweet husband said, gushing there on the phone, not long after the whole of the bench had been birthed from its eight-layered womb: “you love it, if you buy it. but you really love it if you know–and love–the person who made it.”

our home, it seems, is being filled with heirlooms in reverse. we do not have armoires and dressers from generations before us. no, we have living breathing heirlooms. heirlooms from the start. ours do not acquire their story after the fact. but rather, they start with a story, and journey from there.

the nicks, the scratches, the dents and the dings, those will be the notches that continue the story.

the story began something like this: far away, in a place where ocean waves crash, far away in the great woods of maine, an uncle and brother with hands that are sculpted, sat down with a pile of cherry and ash.

he carved and he glued, and he rasped, and he varnished. he sanded and sanded, then he rubbed it with wax. he imagined the boys and the bottoms that would make their way to the bench.

he packed it and shipped it off to them all. all those miles and miles and miles away. over rivers and mountains and plains. through star-studded nights and snow-blowing days. till it got to the place of the words and the numbers, scrawled on the side of the very big box.

his sister, then, welcomed it home.

she washed it with tears. she imagined the chapters in the whole of its life.

she would sit there perhaps when her boys went to college. she would sit there to listen the days they came home. there might be sweethearts spooned in that bench. there might be a baby, some day, laid down and wrapped in a soft tight papoose. some day, perhaps, an old lady with tired old bones will sit and drink in her house, and her life, and her very good fortune. some day, once again, the bench will be wrapped, and moved on to its next destination. one of those boys, surely, will make it a very good home. and it will sit, knicked, dented, and dinged, with quite a story to tell.

it’s what happens when someone you love builds you a bench that, at once, is a living, breathing 24-spindled story.

not everyone has a bench-building brother. but all of you might have a something tucked in a corner, something with a story to tell. what is the something? and what is the story? and by the way, if you’re looking this way, thank you, sweet david. it really is something, the bench with the story you built. xoxo

the dinner party

it started with a phone call one cold sunday afternoon, not so long ago. are you free next saturday night, was the plain-and-simple question.

yes, came the answer, after the requisite checking of calendar, double-checking with spouse, most likely checking in with kiddies to make sure they too could pencil it in. or tap it in, or however it is cyber-tots lock in a date these days.

once secured in the affirmative, another phone call was made. same question posed, left there on the recordable secretary.

and so began the cobbling of souls, the making of lists that for me is, well, about the hummingest hum i know.

i am, it seems, never so quick in the pulse as when i am deep in constructing a dinner party.

if given one more day of my life i think, yes, i do, i would call up everyone i love, and plenty of folks i don’t even know but would love to. i’d order up as many leaves for the table as i possibly could, break down the living room wall if i had to, to make room for all of the chairs. and then i would cook, cook, and cook some more.

oh, did i mention i’d borrow plenty of knives? for, darn it, i only have nine. although, somehow, in the spoon and the fork departments, i am swimming. i think when we were married, when slim little boxes came in many-a-day’s mail, there must have been some sort of 2-for-1 sale on all the parts of the place setting, except for the parts that do cutting. which means you might come for soup, and maybe some ice cream, if you come with more than eight of your friends. and surely, hopefully, some day you’ll come.

for, surely, positively, this is the truth: i would if i could spend the rest of my days dreaming up, doing, yes, even drying the dishes from dinner party piled on dinner party here at my drafty old house.

in fact, so nutty am i for le diner that i looked up from my vacuuming the other afternoon to tell my sweet mate the very something i was thinking at that very moment. then i stopped myself. said, “oh no, that’s too irish.”

to which he urged, “no, tell me.”

i hemmed. hawed. then spilled it: “when i die, skip the wake; just do a dinner party.”

to which, of course, he moaned.

and i went right on vacuuming fur balls.

so it was, all day saturday i found myself humming. humming, you should know, is me at my, well, purring-est.

i was, all at once, cooking, setting the table, imagining the conversations. i was deciding who would sit where for maximum conversational flow. oh, and i was putting out proud tall candles, and snipping the stems of tulips. red ones in february.

to lay out a table for a dinner party is to be bold. is to be alive, really. to be filled to brimming with all sorts of possibility.

it is, i realized, as i lifted the lid on the steeping, steaming coq au vin–my idea of the perfect february dinner party dinner–the most sacramental moment, perhaps, in this holy place we call home.

it is gathering friends, and sometimes near strangers. it is paying no mind to color or age, or political side of the table. it is inviting muslim to sit down with jew. it is asking the atheist to join hands as you stop and offer a few words of grace before picking up fork and, well, keep from jabbing.

it is detente over dinner. it is catching a gleam in the eye as you pass down the butter. it is laughing so hard over salad, you wipe the tears from your eye–and not at all from the shallot.

try not feeling fondly toward the one who pours a splash more merlot in your glass.

it is, wholly, the breaking of bread, and all that that means going back to the dawn of civilization.

it is eucharist, small “e,” defined: bread and wine, yes, but really, “the giving of thanks, offering graciously.” leave it to the greeks and the romans to give it a name, to launch it. the french to refine it. you and me to make it our own.

it is unfurling ideas and stories there at the old family table. it is drawing out thoughts from those you’ve asked to pull up a chair. it is listening. it is returning the thought with a question. and maybe another, and another.

it is, before you even get to the table, making the house come alive, igniting its reason for being. kindling lights. cranking the stove. making a fire. putting on mozart. or muddy waters. it is opening the door, with a gust of warm, wine-sodden air that can’t help but sweep in those shivering there on the stoop.

and for the one doing the inviting, it begins long before the bell rings.

it begins, for me, as i pluck from thin air the someones i’m dying to know, or simply to gather again at the edge of my table. the ones who i think will make for fine conversation. whose stories we might not yet know. whose ideas might rub off on my children.

a dinner party with children, i’ll have you know, is the height of my dinner-party definition. oh, i love a gathering of grownups. but i believe in bringing the children, more than once in a very scant while.

it is there, where the art of the napkin is figured out, that life’s lastingest curriculum is spread.

i am not, never have been, one to segregate the little people. i don’t believe in banishing the squirmers off in the kitchen. oh no. let them squirm right here among us. let them learn how to listen. let them learn the art of unspooling the story. let them follow words to a simmer, then rise to almost a boil, but right then, before the lid blows, let them absorb the knack for cooling it down to a slow gentle bubbling again.

and so it was, last saturday night, that i laid out a table for 12. spent the whole day, and part of the one before, toiling away. picking out cremini mushrooms. uncorking bordeaux. mismatching old plates. scribbling names onto red folded cards.

not a minute felt like a chore, or anything close. it was joy, only joy, pure, simple, undiluted.

there is something, i swear, to making a table that sparkles. to filling bowls and baskets and platters to spilling. to stoking the evening to come.

there is dinner. and then there is feasting.

saturday night at my house, we feasted. till our bellies–and hearts–were stuffed near to bursting.

when it was over, the last napkin tossed down the chute, the last bit of cake tucked away, i only had room for a very full sigh.

ever since, i’ve been licking my lips on all that’s leftover. and i don’t mean what’s in the fridge.

do you too love a dinner party? are you daunted sometimes by the notion? or have you mastered the grace of making it seem effortless? like something you do at the drop of any old reason? what are your secret ingredients to a dinner that lingers long after the lights are turned out? do you have a tried-and-true menu that works every time? or do you indulge in experimenting on company? is there a dinner you’ll never forget, and why?

the trouble with valentines

hmm, well, it seems we’re in a pickle, here on the brink of the 24-hour timeout for ooey, gooey, goopy love.

i’ll reel out the dilemma:

the house–thanks to a bodyclock that manages to run on little sleep when a big hour is at hand–is all laid with the trappings of that national feast day of construction paper and glue. oh, and i do mean trappings. nearly slipped down the stairs, i just almost did, when my heel caught and slid on a red paper heart. or was it a pink one? hard to tell in the dark. i’ve got hearts scattered like puddles after a downpour in april.

up to that point in this cupid-pocked tale, there are no protests. not a one from the one particular inhabitant of said house who went to sleep with a fear in his head, and a rumble down in his belly.

nor will there be picketing when it comes to the old maple table, the one now bursting with hearts in pink and in red. the one with hearts that are shimmering. hearts that you’d better not shake for they’re losing their glittery scales like a snake on some sort of diet.

no shouts of protest when breakfast is served in red-plastic heart plates. nor when young hungry folk see that the star of the table is the fat giant cookie their papa brought home from the store, in the cover of darkness, i think, when no one was looking. although i must pause and wonder what the cashier must’ve thought, when she saw a tall man with glasses and puffy old snow coat trying to pay for a chocolate chip cookie the size of a championship frisbee, iced with the words, “kiss me hot stuff.”

hmm. no wonder we’ve got just a bit of a valentine’s problem.

the problem is this:

the little one, the one who loves everything about the day when he wakes up to the paper-heart trail, the one that leads from the edge of his bed, out his room, down the stairs, round the bend, into the kitchen, and straight up to the table where sugar comes in a few extra forms, well, that very little one is adamantly lobbying that he–along with the rest of the first-grade boys–should be excused from school this very fine thursday.

now, why, you ask? why would a boy want to skip out on a day where cupcakes are served, and brown paper bags are hung at the edge of each desk. why would a boy want to miss out on the foil-wrapped chocolates that might get dropped in that bag, along with, say, a valentine?

ahhh, the v-word. that there is the problem.

i’ll let the little one explain, as he did last night at dinner, while popping clementine moons into his mouth, delivering the occasional swift kick under the table to his big brother who could not wipe the giggle off of his lips:
“all the boys don’t want to go to school,” he began, “because they think we’ll get cooties.”

what are cooties, the little one’s mama asked, coolly, without so much as a flinch. (poor child is tied with a long-historied inquisitor for a mama. when it comes to questions, he gets ’em rat-a-tat, till there’s not a thing left to wonder. fear not, the child can take it.)

cooties, he explained, are: “things on your face.”

popping a clementine, he refined his definition: “just like dimples.”

[note to reader: we think he meant pimple, but when you are six, consonants slip-slide all over the place, wind up where they don’t belong all the time. we pay no mind to trespassing consonants. we take them in stride.]

how do you get them, we asked of the dimple/pimple/cooties?

“you know,” came the two-syllable answer, rounded out with a roll of the eyes.

“girls,” came the addendum. delivered with a swift and certain kick to the shin of the big brother, who by then was near bursting with giggles he knew to contain. apparently, he didn’t contain them nearly enough, for the little one, suddenly, out of the blue, teetered on tears.

“only if a girl kisses you,” he explained, unprompted.

and, apparently, the mere thought of a classroom of puckered-up girls pushed him over the edge. there were tears everywhere suddenly.

tears mixed with clementines. tears mixed with what appeared to be punches into the arm of his nearly-choking, trying-so-hard-not-to-laugh big brother’s baggy sweatshirt. and finally, tears buried in the chest of his mother. who, for the record, is not a girl, and was allowed to very much kiss him to try to make the tears go away.

so here we are, right here on the brink of the moment itself. any minute now, that sweet dreamer will awake, will be swept by the hearts at the edge of his bed, down the stairs, and into the insanely overdone table. he will romp with the reckless joy of cookies for breakfast, along with his pink scrambled eggs, and his strawberry floating in orange juice.

but then, the moment will come. he will freeze. mid-bite, probably. he will writhe. he will try, one more time to wriggle his way out of going to school on the day when the cooties could come.

ah, but his mama, being a meanie, she will knowingly, glowingly, send him anyway.

a boy’s got to learn, now doesn’t he, that a little love surely won’t hurt him.

and if he gets a cootie or two, well, he’ll learn about clearasil, too.

big day for six-year-old boys, this day packed with cut-paper hearts and rampant, out-of-control possibility.

to be loved, is the point, is to be at risk for all sorts of troubles. you might be drawn to places you’d not dreamed of.  you might tap into bits of your soul you’d never explored. you might find yourself falling for someone who urges you to become more than you ever knew you could.

not a bad lesson for first-grade.

not a bad lesson, at all.

and my wish for each and every one of you: that you too get into the trouble of being loved. and may this day of hearts and random, lurking cooties bring you unexpected giggles. and even a chocolate or two. or maybe just the biggest fattest juiciest strawberry you ever bit into.
did you ever worry about cooties? do you have a heart’s-day tale to tell? do you, like my friend emb, live to scatter hearts today the way i so often scatter bird seed?

why i won’t give up on february

it is, of all the stretches here of days, the one that, like a testy child, pushes you pretty much to the urge to pack it up, move in to that there closet, turn out the lights and stew a while.

perhaps, like mr. ground hog, you’ll peek out from time to time, catch the gloomy sky, dart back to where the coats dangle, and the boots convene a convention of vacuum-bustin’ dust balls.

perhaps you’ll hear the snow fall, for the umpteen-millionth day in a row, and you’ll want to pull your hairs out.

or, perhaps, you’ll go on cold strike: saunter out to get the paper in just some skimpy little t-shirt, and shorts. forego the knee-high rubber wellies. do strappy sandals instead. show skin. and what you’re made of. give them neighbors ’bout as big a shock as hearts can handle in the month of gooey chocolates stuffed in frilly, foil, heart-shaped boxes.

you can grouse, from now till thaw, about the unrelenting march of spirit-beating weather.

like me when learning how to drive (a stick-shift on busy highway, but that’s a story for another day), the weather here is apt to lurch. might wrench your neck, jerking back and forth from all the scribbles, dots, and dashes on the weather map.

oh, lord, what’s that funnel running through the south? oh, no, what’s with ice in cincinnati, city of the seven hilly hills? and here, in sweet chicago, get your neck brace on: one day cold and snowy. the next day colder still. followed by rain that might as well come down in cubes, for the way it freezes, turns to sheets of call-the-orthopod, i-think-i-broke-my-tailbone.

or, you can still the protest, leave the grumpy room, you can, if you care to, join my club. it’s a club for contrarians. we like what no one else does. cloudy days? we’ll take ’em. thunderstorms? bring on the cracks of lightning, riveting the sky. stirring wonder in the way the trees show up like x-rays there against the stormy night.

i don’t even mind all this: the diamond-dusted world i just woke up to. the way the flakes caught bits of moonlight, shimmered like a thousand million stars, scattered on the folds and folds and mounds and mounds of white.

i don’t mind how papa cardinal, my red-bird joy especially in winter, i don’t mind one bit how he sticks out against the snow. how he catches my breath. fluffed up on branches, trying to beat the cold with his feathers perched at full attention. there he is just now, right outside my window, and the sun is barely up. he is the lone flash of pigment till the valentines begin. and when they’re tucked away, papa still will strut his scarlet, the very heartbeat of promise.

i dare you, i think i do, to catch the flight of fury-feathered cardinal in the thick of falling snow and not to whisper, “oh, dear, there’s the flight from heaven, sent to stir my soul.”

that bird to me is hope on wing. a laugh-out-loud reminder that we are not alone. it can be unrelenting cold and white, and that red of reds shatters the tableau. bursts through the hopelessness, shouts, there is life where you are doubting.

and that, i think, is why i love this month. it’s the month of nearly giving up. of thinking you cannot make it this one last time. the month of thinking you’ll be tied and wrapped before it ever ends.

but then the holy hallelujah comes. the red bird. the pure contentment of mere survival. the steaming bowl of soup when you come in from shoveling, you sisyphean fool.

you think, perhaps, the thinkers were not thinking when they made this month the shortest one? of course they were, they understood. although they were down in rome, where i doubt this month is much too awful. and don’t even pay attention to the fact that this leaping year, we get a one-day extra helping. oh, loathe, you might say.
but not me.

i say, bring it on, this lull when winter settles in, sinks deep, when february mucks around inside my very marrow. proves it’s the boss and we are merely mortals. mortals complete with goosebumps (hey, who took the feathers?).

i like a month that isn’t mamby-pamby. you wanna be a winter month? well, then, act like it.

i take my coffee undiluted. i fill my car with full-strength octane. i’ll take february just the same.

if we have half an ounce of courage, now’s the time to show it. go ahead, take a walk. fill your lungs with frozen air, a composition that defies mere physics.

not one ounce of living worth its weight in ice-devouring rock salt comes without extracting something. matters not if it’s a season’s change, or healing heartbreak. matters not if your long haul is pit-a-pat of feet clocking many miles. or believing in a hard-won dream.

if we long for warmer winds, we’ve two choices: stay locked in closet waiting out the thaw, or step outside, and drink in what the shortest month has to offer–the chance to be wholly wide-awake to sparkling snow, rosy cheeks, and papa cardinal landed on your windowsill. oh my. i’ll take my february.

on ice, if you can spare some.

all right, all right, i understand. some of you just need to get it off your chest. “why i long for april,” a list. get started, you who can’t resist. however, if you, like me, are fine with february, then carry on. you tell us reasons why. and what you like to do when the second month is wholly up upon us……i think it’s black bean soup at our house tonight….hot and spicy and full of steam…

i snapped papa for you amid yesterday’s thick shaking out of snowy clouds. all day, three fine fellows, robed in red, and their mates, a little more in brown, kept me filled with joy, as they spent the hours, from dawn till almost dark, flitting to my bird-seed troughs….

when words spill, finally, from lips

it was the very last thing he told me the other night, as i hugged him extra tight after a flawless and dramatic flashlight reading–his reading, by the way, not mine–of that not-quite-classic “morris has a cold.”

i had tears before he even told me, just huddled there beside him, listening to his intonations, taking in his little asides–“this is really funny,” says he, offering his literary critique in whispers in my ear–hearing him growl when the bear talked in capital letters, shouting when an exclamation mark allowed, encouraged, insisted.

when he got to the end–the outline of a smile stretched from ear to ear across his face, half-lit in flashlight shadow– i couldn’t keep from burying him in arms and heart that couldn’t be contained. (a fine thing that comes with mamahood is, sometimes, you don’t have to keep your hands to yourself.)

i started to tell that blessed child that i knew, oh, boy, i knew, how steep that mountain climb had been, how i knew it was really, really hard to be the almost only one in all his class who could not get the letters to behave, to fall in line, who had not yet found the on-switch inside his brain to make the words spill from his lips.

i told him i was so, so proud because not once did he slam a book. not once did he burst into tears. he just kept trying. sound after sound. word after word. page after page. determination upon determination,
and look, sweetheart, i said, you made it to the mountain top. you are reading now. and you’re not only reading, you are telling me a story. you are making me see and hear that silly moose and goofy bear. you are making me laugh out loud.

that’s when my little mountain climber–the one we always say is “the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer”–that’s when he softly, proudly, said, “i’m not in reading group any more.”

which prompted a not-so-poetic “what?!” from me.

you see, he’s been pulled from class every morning of every school day to try to jumpstart those reading pistons. and it had not escaped him that it marked him as, in his eyes, “not so smart as all the other kids.”

said he, upon my yelping: “mrs. patrick took me in the hall today and we had a little talk. she told me i don’t need reading group anymore so i can stay in my classroom now and not miss morning tally.”

by the light of the flashlight beam i caught the glow coming from his smiling cheeks. he saw my face. he saw my tears and smiled even harder. he’d kept his big fat secret till the lights went out. maybe till the time when dreams click on in sleepy heads.

i was shrieking, calling for his daddy. and that’s when he asked, too, if i would get his brother. “i want to make an announcement.”

we all gathered, yes we did, and circled all around the little boy in bed. he was busy tracing arcs of light across his ceiling. and then, with just a moment’s pause for drama’s sake, he spilled the news.

which, considering just months ago i was wondering if maybe he’d repeat first grade, was, well, sweet and stunning all at once.

we whooped. we hollered. both brothers rolled–all arms and legs and sheets–and giggled. i galloped down the stairs to send a note to mrs. r., the amazing first-grade teacher, to find out if this was true, or simply wishful fiction.

upstairs, surrounded by morris (moose), boris (bear), and a beaming flashlight, the triumphant reader finally fell asleep. bushed, no doubt, from all the reading ruckus.

when morning came, so did word from his amazing teacher. it’s true, she wrote, he got to where he dreamed. he is reading, word for word, with all the rest.

to witness such determination is wholly rather humbling. just weeks ago when buttoning his pajamas, he looked up at me and told me kids often called him “stupid.” he told me more than twice that school was really, really hard.

but he was blessed, that child was, with one or two amazing teachers, both of whom stoked his little reading motor. kept him from being swallowed whole by a big bad sentence. or just a stubborn syllable.

mrs. r., i know, wrote him love notes, tucked them in his desk. pulled him to the side, whispered in his ear. reminded him, time and time again, that he was a hero for all the work, and mighty thinking, he was undertaking.

now, i know that he’s not the only one to whom she said these things. but i also know that hers is the gift of making each and every thinker think that her or his cogitation is rather something special.

and the greatest gift of all: someone, besides his mama and his papa, believed in him when he could have fallen down. she wouldn’t let him. she guarded the ledge. kept him climbing till he got to where the words came tumbling from his lips.

standing back and watching, sitting side by side, night after night, book after book, was to snare a front-row seat on the bumpy flight of a kid who wouldn’t be a quitter.

doesn’t matter to me if it’s a boy and a book, or a guy without a leg who rides a bike. there is, in all of us, the capacity to be inspired by those who won’t back down, won’t stop believing that through sheer determination, and a wingspread wide enough to catch the updraft, there’s no challenge that can’t be conquered.

i know my little boy who learned to read–who now tries to make his way through every word in sight; cereal box, passing street sign, names on back of football jerseys, doesn’t matter how or where the letters fall–i know what he taught me this week: don’t slam the book. don’t walk away. a world of never-ending story is just around the corner.

and it never hurts to have a most amazing teacher in your corner, either.

this one’s for my little one’s new jersey grandma, she who lives to teach to read. and kept close eye on all the chutes and ladders of this reading climb. it’s for his teachers too. the ones who worked one-on-one, nearly every single schoolday. and especially for the one named mrs. r, who never stopped believing that she could get him up the mountain, where he now sees the whole wide world of words. most of all, it’s for him himself. and for you who’ve read along, the saga of the struggling reader, i promise–at least i’ll try–no more reading stories. this is the end. and we’ll all turn pages, happily ever after.
sometimes though don’t you just wish you had a billboard to shout hallelujah when you watch a holy triumph? thank heaven, then, for that billboard called the blog. happy half birthday little reader, just in case you read this…..

pb and promise

it was a simple peanut-butter-and-banana on whole wheat. well, actually it was almond butter but that makes it sound more exotic than i want it to sound. the point is that it is practically standard school-lunch fare for nearly every first grader or beyond. and i just ate my first one in 33 years.

i got the taste for it when a friend, a week ago maybe, mentioned that she’d just been eating almond butter in the car, and she hoped the almond scent wasn’t billowing off her breath. i bought the almond butter, oh, maybe four or five months ago. it was sitting in the fridge waiting for the moment when i got brave.

it came out of nowhere, the urge to make it just yesterday afternoon. i thought, hmm, i could try that. almond butter on whole grain bread. sweetened maybe with slices of banana.

sounds simple, doesn’t it?

i only wish it was.

the long road back from eating disorder to disordered eating to eating that is, well, pure and simple and full of life, is, well, complicated. and hard as hell, besides.

it seems to take a courage and a faith deeper than any i’ve ever had, until maybe now.

i’ve never ever written about it before. only dabbled one big toe in waters here and there, once or twice before. not spelled it out. not so much anyway.

but if my goal here is to bring grace to the everyday, i think i’d better start to try to bring it to myself. in the simple triumph of putting something to my lips that i once thought might knock me over. might do one of two things: propel me to a binge that would not stop, until i fell into a stupor. or simply make me fat.

i’ve been stuck, you see, in both those grooves. so long i cannot remember how i ate before. only that i was always skinny, and, unlike all my friends, had never ever downed a Tab, and claimed it as my so-called diet. or had a pimple. or breasts, for that matter. the three seemed linked, and forever out of reach. i was just a smooth-skinned, flat-chested, skinny girl. unschooled in ways of girls who’d blossomed. stuck in training bras.

until i wasn’t. until i gained a few pounds. got a tummy. and then, one afternoon when my papa held up a magazine, seventeen it was, with a white-on-black image of the classic anorexic, practically an x-ray, she was, what with all the skin and bones. and my papa said, that spring of 1975, don’t try this.

i heard a lightbulb click, so help me God. and i’ve no idea really why–believe me i’ve tried on every theory there ever was–i defied my papa’s wish: i did try, really hard, to be the best anorexic there ever was.

i did pretty good, if i might say so. ate less and less each day. swam more and more. tallied every calorie, down to fractions. lost 30 pounds or more, in maybe two months. landed in the hospital. screwed up my eating for the next few decades, at least.

it is achingly hard to be stumped by the most basic act of being alive, except for breathing, which really involves no deciding at all, so i’m not counting it.

no matter what, you need to eat. that means, every single day when you are someone trying to regain your footing in the world of food, you are faced with choices that catapult you off a cliff. or else you cling, until your knuckles turn to numb and white, dangling by a net of rules that only gets thinner and more frayed–and, oh, so very tired–with every passing year.

do you know how many birthday cakes i’ve pushed away? how many thanksgiving stuffings i’ve not tasted, not sure how to navigate the two breads, three fats, i’m sure would be inside, if i kept count the weight watchers’ way–a way i once knew inside out and upside down, a lifetime loser in the weigh-in club that ruled my every bite.

i’ve not taken trips for fear i would find nothing “safe” to eat. once, in paris, i walked from bistro to bistro, reading menus by the door, trying to find the one that fit my narrow definition of what i knew i could bring myself to swallow.

it long ago stopped being about defiance. it became a trap that was mine and mine alone. didn’t matter if i was surrounded by good friends, or alone locked in my apartment. in fact, i’d prefer to be alone; i could suffer my shame in private.

so why, now, lay it out for all the world to read? well, because i am groping toward a place i’ve dreamed of, more heartily and longingly than i even dreamed of becoming a mother–and if you know me, you know how wholly that dream consumed my heart.

i’ve made bargains up the wazoo: dear God, bring back my papa and i will toss aside my eating fears. dear God, i promise, you make my baby well and i will never again play games with foods that might as well be explosives.

i’ve closed my eyes and imagined eating what i feared. but then i’ve sat and ordered the same old thing. pushed fat to the rim of plate. heard a friend exclaim, “what is wrong with you?” when i passed up a bite of gooey buttered nuts. felt a whole table full of neighbors turn to gawk. wondered what else was said–or whispered–when i left the room.

i have shuddered in the dark. i have wretched when all alone. i have died the thousand deaths.

but, until this afternoon just past, i’ve not tasted almond butter. might i note that it was sweet like nothing i remember, delicious, and, oh yes, satisfying. i chased it down with coffee doused with milk. then sunk my teeth into an apple. ate it to the core, the way i always do.

it is not a triumph anyone would ever notice. not how i should be remembered.

but i know.

i know i felt a rushing in my chest as i lifted up the lid, and sank the knife in a bath of gritty almond bits. i know that i swan-dived off a ledge, as i bit through bread and felt the unknown almond sweetness swirl around my mouth.

i know that i now, at last, have one toe firmly planted in the mountainside, and i only need to plant another and another to make my ascent to a place i’ve had my eye on for a long, long time.

it is time, i think, before i run out of time. before i run out of days that i can say i lived without fear.

we each, every one of us, i think, have a fear that brings us down. or maybe something we can’t, for the life of us, untangle, let go of, kiss adios.

i doubt i’ll run soon into someone else who knows how hard it was to get that almond butter from the fridge. but once i did, once i cracked the door, reached back, took out the see-through plastic tub, the lifting to my lips wasn’t half as hard as i’d imagined. and now i know that i survived what for 33 years has been my definition of impossible, insurmountable, the one small step i couldn’t lift my foot to take.

i tell you this because maybe you too are bound by something awful. something you truly hate.

or maybe it isn’t you. but someone who you love.

i tell you because if i write the words, i turn on the light. and if the light is on, i won’t be groping in the dark.

where it is awful lonely. and i want for no one to be stuck there, whatever is the reason.
care for almond butter, anyone?

not a single sentence up above holds irony that escapes me. trust me, like a camera outside my head, i’ve watched every frame, wincing deep inside while it unfolded. paris, in search of lettuce? paris without a single croissant? the script though i couldn’t seem to escape. until now. and here. there is something graspable here, after all these years. i reach out a hand, you take it, gently. i can tell you, at the table, the story i kept locked inside. it is not a story i like to tell. and i tell it only after time and trust is layered here. i don’t mean for this to be self-help, a phrase diminished before it starts. i do though mean for this to be a place of truth, and trusting. and how can we spread our widest wings, if part of us is limping? i do not ask for you to share your locked-in stories. those come only when the time is ready. and only you know when. i only thank you, then, for absorbing mine in the spirit it was told. bless you. bless and multiply whatever courage you require, to spread your wings, and taste the wind.

mr. crouch’s letter

somewhere out there, maybe you too have a mr. crouch.

my mr. crouch is the one teacher from high school i still carry in my heart. somehow i don’t think he’d be surprised to hear that, but i hope he hears it–once again–nonetheless.

mr. crouch, he with fat gold pinkie ring, and always buttoned navy blazer, he whose tassled loafers i can still hear click-clicking down the halls, coming round the corner on a twirl, brushing back that flop of hair that sometimes animated what he was saying.

oh, and he was animated, all right. sometimes shouted, sometimes dropped his voice down low in a practiced whisper that made you ache to hear the words.

when he shouted, most often it was this: “you north shore cream puffs!” he would yell and needle us, stir us up off our puffy bottoms, implore us to search deeper, think harder to come up with stellar answers to his probing questions.

he taught english, by the way. but he might have taught anything. it wasn’t what he taught but how he taught it that left the mark on me.

there was, there is, i am certain still, a twinkle in his eye. and i, one who sometimes twinkles too, have always been drawn to that like moth to light.

my papa had it too. it was the thing, the meter in my life, that told me i was onto something, or maybe not.

to turn up the light in mr. crouch’s eye–or in my papa’s too–was maybe what it feels like to be a baseball-loving boy when he hits one toward the wall.

and since the playing field in mr. crouch’s class–and at my dinner table–was words and more words, was story, was thesis, was ironic twist, it was a sandlot in which i loved to romp. even when i walked in unequipped. which, in the case of junior english, meant i walked in, more often than i wish, without reading a single word of whatever was assigned. (i was busy in those days taking care of friends.)

oh, that didn’t stop me though from writing mighty essays. i could go on and on about the plot of, say, “zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance,” without a clue of what it was. in fact, some of my best first fiction, i know, was unspooled at mr. crouch’s expense.

he suffered no fools, dear lou crouch did not.

ah, but when i was on, i was very on. and mr. crouch was the first one–besides my papa–who made me understand that rubbing words together made for sparks that made for flames that could light the darkest corners.

mr. crouch, cajoling, jabbing, loving all the while, made me want to live to write.

oh, i took time out, went the way of nursing for a while, the other thing i loved with all my heart. but then, when my papa died, writing found me once again.

once i started writing for chicago’s morning paper, i got the call from mr. crouch year after year. he asked me back to light a fire under the latest batch of cream puffs. for five years, i whirled in that high school, told mr. crouch and all his creamy kids, just how very much i’d learned sitting in those squishy little chairs. and how very much it mattered.

then, mr. crouch retired. and we lost touch. oh, once in a while i’d hear that he was somewhere southwest. but only recently did i get a call from the now retired head of the english department. he was clipping and sending a story with my byline down to mr. crouch. for grading, he told me.

but then, he told me lou was ill. and gave me his address.

i wrote to mr. crouch, told him once again just how very much he meant. and, by the way, i wrote, get a load of these really funny cream puff stories, collected by my north shore manchild.

(my favorite is the one about the kid at lunch eating what my then-fourth grader–newly moved to the leafy shore from the city–thought was fried chicken. my boy, naive to north shore menus, asked if he could have a bite of chicken. the kid across the lunch table looked up, and said, without a note of irony, “it’s not fried chicken, it’s breaded pheasant.”)

in yesterday’s mail, came mr. crouch’s reply. same old handsome cursive, letters big and bold and full of sweep, just like mr. crouch. but then, at the very end, came the sentence i’ll not forget:

“i shall treasure this letter the rest of my life–which may not be too long.”

he signed it, “with love, lou.”

now, for a girl who never got a chance to tell her other writing coach–her papa–how very much he taught her, how she lived to see the light bulb blink on back there behind his eyes, these words are achingly sweet.

it’s not every day you get the chance–before it’s too late–to tell someone who matters how very much they do.

and it’s not every day that someone tells you back, that you spoke the words in the nick of time.

when my papa died before i could make it through the blizzard to his bedside, i made a promise deep inside: i would not let another soul i loved leave me before i’d said what needed to be said.

i told mr. crouch.

and mr. crouch had time to write me back. his is the letter that i will treasure till the very end of time.

and dear lou, too. i will forever treasure you.

with love, one ordinary cream puff

do you have a mr. crouch? a teacher from long ago who stirred you to great things, who propelled you outside the boundaries of your ordinary self? do you have someone in your life who slipped away before you got to tell him or her just how much they mattered? is there someone still who needs to know?

p.s. the collected works of eudora welty are up there on mr. crouch’s letter, because i was told the one thing mr. crouch distinctly remembered about me was that i was the only one in the class who found the story, “why i live at the p.o.” hysterically funny. well, fact is, i had no recollection of a.) the story, b.) reading it, or c.) finding it so very funny. so i pulled it out and re-read it. it is funny. the one who told me the story said it was at that moment, back in junior english, that mr. crouch knew i was destined to be a writer. hmm. glad i found it funny. or else all of this i’d be lacking.

p.s.s. we gots us a snow day here. oh, lordy, there’s at least a foot of puffy white stuff out my window, and far as i can see. i tapped the dozing manchild on the shoulder to give him the very good news, that school was canceled, and oh i wish i’d had a picture of the smile that crossed his face. happy snow day if you got one too. any one for pancakes, the long slow snowy way?