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

Month: June, 2008

permeable nights

i’ve been known in the dead of winter, to get up out of bed, unsnap the old lock, and shove with all of my might. some nights, i can’t breathe without my house breathing, too.

i don’t mind when the bristles of snow blow in. don’t mind the wisp of the wintry wind. i shiver, and pull my sheets extra tight. but the mix in the air, once the windows are cracked, is, at last, like a dough worth sinking your fist in, worth the trouble of filling my lungs.

i get by on the wisps and the bristles all winter. come spring, the sills shudder some nights. others, they let out a sigh, when the warm currents finally come out from the coves where they hide.

but summer. oh, summer is the season of high permeability. the outside comes in, in great gulping doses. and the inside comes rushing alive, there in the dark, with but a moon, or a flickering street lamp, draping my bedclothes in filigree shadows.

not a night goes by, i don’t crack open those tall panes of glass, and the chance to take in a breath the way breathing was surely intended.

long as there’s no forecast of rain, nor a rumble off in the distance, why, i swing ‘em wide as i can.

then, i lie there and take it all in.

windows in summer make it worth going to bed.

takes me back, if i let it, to the nights of my childhood. back when, there in my tight little bed, i knew the rustle of oak, from the stirring of cottonwood. back when the swiss lace at my windows blew rough against one of my toes, or my cheeks if i put my face to the screen, to inhale the smell of the rain, or to take in the typewriting clack of my papa.

now, in the house where i am the mama, it is the great exhale at the end of the day, the bath without cranking the faucet. just pure air, rushing in, rushing over, soothing and cleansing and settling. the night’s lullabye played out in pure, breathable air.

there’s the tickle of wind off the lake, cooled and sodden some nights. a veritable fog rolling into the bedchamber. other nights, the air barely moves. sticks to your skin. makes it chancy, this keeping the windows ajar. and the unanimous vote is slipping away. you and the air are facing a standstill, one to one, comes the ballot from the far side of the bed, and suddenly, you and the windows are losing.

ah, but there’s the nightsound. the 10:04 train whistling by. the horns and the siren, reminding that all is not still. and down below, out at the curb, the last of the voices trailing from laughter to whisper to well past the corner.

some nights, there are cat fights. and not only once, the spine-chilling warble of a nest of innocents being attacked. primal and raw, and not drowned out by the drone of the daytime.

it all comes in the night. uncensored. unfiltered. the world as it is.

the deeper we get into june the more blinking i see out the screens. the fireflies are powering up, sending signals, making lovenotes, right out my window.

i long for the nightsong of a house with a sizable rippled body of water. no pond nearby, so that means no peepers. and no bullfrogs either, adding their basso profundo, to what stirs in the chorus outside.

i could lie there all night, feeling the dance of the sheet on my toes, hearing the last of the bugs rubbing their wings, and the jostling of leaves settling to sleep.

and best of all, the slow pit-a-pat of a rain trickling down, maybe pounding. a crackle and flash in the night.

then, only then, do i bother to pull in the windows, draw down the sashes.

i try not to fall into sleep, not till the rain goes away. i can’t wait to get back to the windows, to make the most of that sweet summer’s promise: the permeable nights that ooze life into darkness, the balm of the nighttide washing in through the hours of fluttering quiet.

do you believe in throwing windows wide open? if you’re a city sleeper, what’s the nightshow at your house? if you’re out in the country, what flows by your sills? are there limits to your open-window policy? heat? humidity? thunder and lighting? or do you welcome it all?

this little piggy played in the mud…

all my life, my toes’ve wanted to curl up and hide. they are not proud, long wigglers, the sort you see when you flip through the slick glossy magazines, the slicks you might not subscribe to but might maybe flip through as you sit at the doctor’s, waiting your turn to get poked, prodded and measured. to see if, perhaps, you’ve grown any which way–up, down, or sideways–since same time last year.

no, indeedy. my toes are decidedly the sort you would not find in a tight shot in some hollywood movie, where the lens pans the bedsheets, starting down at the wiggly pigglies.

nope, not the toes you would find playing peek-a-boo with the dare-me-to straps of some high-steppin’ manolo blahniks.

in fact, my l’il baby toe pretty much has gotten along curled half in a ball, her sweet little end part (you can’t quite call it a toenail since it’s mostly not there; there’s no room for polish, not even a speck) cowering there under her next-door toe.

(note to self: be sure to ask for a discount, the eight-toe cut-rate, next time at the pedicure palace. note no. 2, this one to you, dear read-along reader: i only get pedicures when my newspaper pays, or i find i’m the bride. thus, the rare recent spell in the vibrating chair. but that’s tiptoeing ahead in this bare-footed epic.)

so help me, last thing i ever thought is some man with a really long lens would come to my house, bang on my door, tell me to take off my socks and my shoes and go stand in the mud.

but, dang, that’s what happened today.

i stood like a stork. he shuttered away. clickclickclickclick.

folks driving by, must really have wondered. (hmm, i just realized, more likely than not they musta figured right off he was a scientist zeroing in on the emerald ash borer or some other tree bug. highly unlikely they wasted a thought thinkin’ my shriveled ol’ toes could be in the cross-hairs of quite such a ruckus. so much for wowing the neighbors.)

ain’t easy, i tell you, bein’ a foot model. there i was ankle-deep in the weeds, mosquitoes flittin’ all over, thinking, most likely, “hey, here’s a sucker, all right. we bite, she wiggles. but, darn thing, she won’t barely budge. just stands there, making like the post of a mail box, only minus the letters.”

that would be me, two denim posts, spilled out to bare naked feets. slathered with mud, for effect.

it was real mud, all right. nothing faux about that. but the whole standing there thing. that was really all just for show, for the picture. for my odd little feets’ short season of fame.

fame, you ask? re-reading the word. thinking surely you must’ve read wrong. mais, non. it’s the relative truth.

here, let me explain: come the week after next, i bare my toes, in no little way. whole spread of a news page, as a matter of fact. my feets quite big enough, thank you, for you to set down your coffee, right there where the little one curls.

i figgered you might like a warning. might wanna hold off the paper that morn, till after you wolf down your eggs, or guzzle your OJ.

so here is the warning: week after sunday, beware of my bare naked toes, all smothered in mud on a page in the news. not hidden inside, but right out in front. on the cover, in fact, of the gardeny section. no namby-pamby, half-footsie under the table, not here anyway. this is bold, skin-struttin’ stuff.

the backstory behind the fame of my feets is basically, straight-forwardly, this: it’s just that i noticed that this here sunshiney season, the one when what grows in the garden calls out your name, well, it’s pretty much the time of the year when really–if you’re inclined toward the garden at all–you’d do best to wear gloves and at least little anklets, whenever you step out of the beds.

this time of the year, it’s one of two things: mud season, or, the dehydrated version, the season of dirt.

if you, like me, can’t stay out of the dirt, well then, you know what i mean: you can’t for the life of you leave the garden behind. it sticks and it clings, in streaked epidermis. gives you away, in great hard-to-ditch globs, for the mudcake you are.

the cringe comes in moments like this: you reach for your wallet to pay for your groceries, and all of a sudden, you notice your arm. looks like maybe you just came from the spa. uh, huh. that’s what you hope the cashier is thinking. that maybe you just had a mud bath. some rare siberian mud, slathered from head to your toe, only the timer went off, and the slatherer missed a few spots, when hosing you down. so you up and you left, still slightly streaked.

only what really happened was this: you got carried away. one weed led to another. and next thing you knew, you, once again, looked like a mud puddle with legs.

remember dear pigpen? the mess who was charlie brown’s friend? the one who, wherever he walked, poofed up fat little clouds of pure uncensored dirt?

well, yes. ‘tis the season, and, as often happens when a wee little thought takes a trip through my brain, i wound up spinning a yarn for my dayjob.

told tales of all sorts of folks with frankenstein shoes, caked with inches of mud. smelling a tad like manure. going all sorts of places–the hair-dye parlor, the grocery, even the diner. not noticing, till they saw all the stares, that they, once again, had succumbed to the filth that is the plight of the everyday gardener.

and so, in that odd-round-about way that is the life of a muck-raking scribe, i got the note in the mail from my boss: would you please bare your toes to the world? show off your mud paws? just stand in the dirt, and make like the mess that you are?

except for the bug bites, ‘twas all rather painless.

and now i know how it feels to get (somewhat) paid to stand there and twiddle my toes.

and here’s the biggest relief: when the man with the lens yelled to take it all off, i had to only obey from the ankles on down. and only to prove that a happy gardener is a muddy one, too.

now i know what you’re thinking. what in tarnation does all this have to do with my life? well, maybe not much. maybe you are pristine in your pruning of weeds. maybe you don’t make like a piglet and roll in the mud. or maybe you too have tales of how you, like me, and my friend with the frankenstein mudboots, forget and forget that what we do in the garden, sticks like ooze to our hide-and-seek parts. what, pray tell, are the tricks up your cuffs or your sleeves, to stay clean as a whistle when plucking the weeds, or simply picking the posies of summer?

joy taken

there it is, the very page that long long ago cocked and wiggled its finger at me, lured me into the spell, into the nestled place of a book, where one page is sewn to the next, where what spills out, pulls you in. enchants you. stirs you. sets you to dreaming.

in my case, it never let go.

as a child, i sat and stared at page 53 in a book now so fingered its cover is crumbling. but, there, on the pages the old book flops open to, there’s thumbelina in her tulip petal canoe, sailing across the porcelain pond. lily-of-the-valley spilling onto the banks at her back. forget-me-not, and bleeding heart taking the splashes on the windward rim.

it was tasha tudor’s hands, and her heart, that so finely drew, and thus drew me in. dabbed a whole paint box of watercolors, colors she matched from her garden, colors and petals she knew so intimately, she made it be real.
real, certainly to a 5-year-old girl who wished more than anything that all of her life could be like the ones in the storybook.

in fact, i stared so hard at that petal-rimmed bowl, i imagined that maybe i too could plant me a barleycorn just like the woman on page 52–the page where the words are–who wanted a little child more than anything in the world. and then, when a green shoot shot up, just like it did in the story, i might kiss the tight-wadded bud, and sprout me a thumb-sized little friend.

i’ve never quite stopped believing.

i’ve always known that far, far away, on a farm in vermont, there was a barefooted painter, one whose garden was as lush as her storybook drawings, who held the key to my heart.

she put me under the spell, and the spell’s never broken.

only today, the 18th of june, i let out a sigh, a very sad sigh, when word came that, after 92 years, tasha tudor has died.

tasha tudor, you see, spent the whole of her life painting and drawing and dreaming for children. pages and pages, book after book. from “pumpkin moonshine,” in 1938, to “the secret garden,” in 1962, right up till just weeks before she put down her paints, tidied her garden and died.

tasha tudor, in my book, is a national treasure. i mean, was. now here we are in that odd and awkward transition, in those hours when our words can’t catch up to the truth, when we fumble with tense, passing from present to thuddingly past.

i found out through a note, sent out by her children. must’ve been sent not long after she breathed her last breath. all i know is she was circled by those who most love her. and she was at home, in the hand-built, timeworn, new england farmhouse on the crest of a very steep hill, a place she called corgi cottage.

and when i read through the words, realized a very rare story had ended, i felt the light in the room suddenly dim, just barely enough to notice. but i noticed, all right. the sun seemed to slip from the sky, shadowed by the death of more than a friend, the death of the one who launched legions of dreams.

oh, i never met her, dear tasha tudor, although i did call her my friend.

i’ve grown her seeds, her very own forget-me-nots, and her blue-eyed morning glories. i’ve baked her buttery cookies, and wished i too could roast a turkey there on what she called “a tin kitchen,” some old-fangled contraption, a fine one, tucked in the hearth.

i’ve turned the pages of whole shelves of her books. i’ve read her christmas stories to my own children. i’ve kindled her beeswax candles, the ones she dipped in long rows of vats, the wax melted from all of her hives every fall.

i’ve corresponded with her grandson and granddaughter-in-law. and i’d been tempted to go out to meet her. to sip tea, maybe. to peek in her barns.

but something stopped me.

i dared not. couldn’t bear for the spell to be broken. preferred to imagine her, wrapped in her cloaks and her 19th-century aprons and skirts whose hems swept the stones of her garden’s walk, brushed ever-so-barely against her lupine and foxglove and the great spans of cobalt delphinium.

all my life long, there’s been a tasha.

and now, there is not.

tonight, in this room with walls the color of freshly-churned butter, in this room where the glow of but one lamp is shining, i sit and spread page 53 in my lap.

i can practically hear the wisp of thumbelina’s cat-whisker oars slapping the water. can breathe in the perfume of the shore-hugging lilies-of-the-valley.

i reach out to the bookshelf, where another one of my tudor treasures is her 1979 christmas book, “take joy!”

a dear friend of mine found it some years ago in a used book store, the best place to find a tasha tudor treasure, except for the few i bought straight from her farm in vermont.

the book, 159 pages of christmas stories and poems and carols, tells just how to bake the christmas cake, hang the stockings, and bring in the tree. she tells, too, how to remember the birds at christmastime, how to make them balls of peanut butter and raisins and nuts that are chopped. and how the pet canary gets a chicory salad in a wee flower pot.

she opens the book–and, forever, my heart–with a letter of fra giovanni, who writes: “….the gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take Joy.”

joy was taken today.

but because i believe in the world carved, painted, seeded, and stitched by one tasha tudor, because the spell, even now, hasn’t been broken, i will do what tasha would wish:

i will take joy.

in the maiden voyage of a tulip leaf across a soup bowl, or in the feasting each christmas of all my little bird friends, in the unfurling of a wide-eyed morning glory, or the stirring of her old stand-by, corgi cottage soup.

take joy, always. before it’s taken away.

if you too have been touched by the magic of tasha tudor, born in boston in 1915, author and illustrator of more than 75 children’s books, beginning with her first, “pumpkin moonshine,” in 1938, please inscribe a few words. i’ll send this along to her family, all of whom, i’m certain, are very much aching this moonlit almost-summer’s night.

and, always, take joy…

if you need just a little more tasha, i wrote more of her here, back in the winter of ‘007.

goodnight, sweet tasha, good night.

postcard from daycamp

dear anybody out there,

it’s me. at camp. oh, i know. i’m not supposed to be here. back in january, when winds were howling and snows blew in through the cracks, when the farthest thing from any right-thinking mind should have been what to do with the long hot summer, back then, when i signed up for this little adventure, i did not check some wee little box, saying i too wanted to come.

nope, this was supposed to be daycamp for l’il campers. not daycamp for mamas. but, in the world that i live in, things don’t always unfold quite like they’re ‘sposed to.


despite the fact that right up till bedtime the night before the first day of camp, all was swell in the i’m-going-to-camp dept., somehow, when curls hit the pillow, something had changed.

suddenly, there was much tossing and turning and calling down stairs. “i feel nervous,” was one of the hollers. “can you come here?” was another. followed by a solemn request to climb out of bed and reach for the box with the little glass hearts, the ones employed back on the night right before the first full day of school. the ones we squeezed back and forth, our own morse sort of code, to make like an invisible wire kept us tied through the long lonely hours of a first day apart.

and so, duly equipped, on day no. 1, my little camper set out with sunscreen and towel, pb & little glass heart.

apparently, the ol’ heart is due for a tune-up. a sad fact that became abundantly clear faster than i could spit out, “sweetheart, how was it?”as he slumped off the bus at the end of the very first day.

the big yellow camp bus had not even coughed up its exiting fumes, nor started to roll out of sight after unloading my little one, when his face, red and splotchy for starters, turned into a miserable mess of sweat, sobs and tears.

“i was homesick all day,” he told me, clutching my hand, nearly collapsing into my side, crying so hard we plopped right down on the sidewalk.

the rest of the night was one long, sniffly attempt to try to decipher the root of the very bad case of mal de chateau, to put a french spin on the global affliction.

if the word p-o-o-l was so much as whispered, the sniffles turned back to the sobs.

seems the pool, according to said camper, was seven feet deep at the shallowest end, and you could and you would sink to the bottom. seems, too, the campers were warned, and spared no gory details, of the imminent dangers of cracked heads and corners of pool.

besides all that drowning and bleeding to death, it was just plain nagging homesickness that ruined the day.

there was no going back for much of the evening. he was, it seemed, on strike for the summer. would rather wither up in his room than have to board that darn yellow bus, romp in the sun, slip on the edge of the pool and succumb to the deathly deep waters.

scrounging for some sort of out here, some sort of way to turn this around–save calling and begging for refund–i asked, squeakily, would it help if i came for the swimming? to which he shook his head yes, in between inhales in between sobs.

and, so, that is how i came to be the only fully-dressed soul on the side of the pool at the next day of camp, which happened to be only just yesterday.

which brings me directly to my reason for writing: life ain’t how you script it, now is it?

so much for breezy, easy summer. so much for scootching the boy onto the bus and spending my worry-free days here at the keyboard.

nope, not once in my wee little memory can i recall something around here unfolding the easy way.

all over america, i assume, there are campers whistling their way onto lumbering buses, signing up gleefully for rope climbing and watersliding. not minding the sun, not even mosquitoes. heck, someone somewhere might even take plain old grape jelly with the ubiquitous smear of peanutty butter.

but not at my house. and maybe not at yours either.

here, i am holding my breath. waiting for the camp nurse to call. wondering and wondering if maybe there’s someone who’s taken a shine to my homesick sweet camper.

i did all i could: stood there and cheered at the side of the pool, come yesterday morn. eyeballed the depth, informed him quite clearly it’s 3 and a half, not seven and change. told him, nope, i could not come every day.

but i could and i did tuck a love note back in his lunch bag this morning. slathered him up, with plenty of sunscreen. promised i’d wait right at the curb for the bus at the end of the very long day. then i waved adios, and started my prayers.

i find myself wondering why it is that for some of us the equation is never so simple, never straight forward. camp + camper does not equal instant attraction.

these things are labored for around here. we soothe and we coax. we dial up camp. we explain, and we ask if maybe we might be an exception, and sort of just lurk by the pool in the midst of our workday. just this once. please.

so much for carefree summer. heck, if this keeps up, i’ll be longing for school days.

and i know i’m not alone. i know a mama who had to walk a sixth grader into the school social worker each day, just to get the child out of the minivan. i know kids who won’t get near a bike. kids who refuse to go on a sleepover.

all i’m saying is there’s so much of growing up that everyone pretends is so easy. only it’s not. not at all for the kids whose hearts ache, and the ones whose tummies are tied up in knots.

i’m just saying summer’s not always a breeze. and some lemonade just can’t be made sweet enough. i’m saying for every 10 kids who take to the ballfield, there’s one–at least–left on the sidelines, shaking in fear.

i’m saying, God bless those children who find it so hard. and God bless the mamas and papas and all of the grownups who pay close attention, who don’t just slap the kid on the back, tell ‘em to buck up or else. turn out the light, let ‘em cry in the dark.

Lord have mercy, is all i ask. and try not to forget, a pool, even a mere three feet of water, can look to very small eyes like enough of a sea to swallow ’em whole.

and for just such a child, there’s no harm, i’d wager, in a grownup stopping the workday, and heading to daycamp. streetclothes and all.

don’t worry ’bout sunscreen. the sun doesn’t shine where a child is homesick.

did you find it harder to grow up than you thought it should be? than it seemed to be for everyone else? do you know little ones–or now big ones–who found every climb up the mountain to be steeper than anyone warned you? who lightened your climb? how have you lightened some homesick daycamper?

shaky all around

the news seeping into my little world isn’t so swell these days. nothin’ at all to do with today being that unlucky friday. phooey, i say to that. that’s ol’ superstition. and superstitious i’m not. not so much, anyway.

i’m talking about the front page of the paper. and, lately, the business page, too. they’re the ones spelling out the downs and the more downs; whole columns of type, sprinkled with words like recession, inflation, and war that won’t end.

oh, and bosses at work being shown to the door. and other ones, new ones, saying they don’t like what we do. and we don’t do enough. and, oh, by the way, they’re cutting the pages, and the numbers of people paid to fill the ones left.

all sorts of talk, all day in the newsroom, about what’s going to happen, and who’s going to leave. anyone left, we all wonder, still reading the news? anyone left who loves turning a page, not knowing just where your fancy might land, soaking up something wholly brand new you might never have known? getting grabbed by a photo, or maybe a headline. seeing a byline, sinking into the words of a friend you’ve not ever met but feel that you’ve known for ever and ever.

it’s all very shaky. and it’s not only newspapers.

here in the village where i now mostly walk, or pedal my bike, to save the gas in my tank, i see houses for sale. hear stories of folks needing to move.

i know my dear friend the breadman isn’t baking so much. because no one is buying quite so much anymore. and cash registers, all over town, seem to be rigged with an odd little button that makes all of the totals twice what they were.

even at home, there are reasons to worry. the tall one is stiff, with a pain in his back. and all of us grownups, on pins and on needles.

so what do i do when it’s shaky all over, when the world at my door gets blurry and buzzes and is all out of sorts?

i crank up the dial on the parts of my life that matter the most.

i pay attention to what i’m cooking for dinner. i set the table with just a little more care. i cut more and more peonies from out in the garden. i tuck them there by the bedside, even in rooms strewn with little boy’s clothes.

i walk to the library. i sit with my sweet little starting-out reader. we pluck books, chapter books now, from shelf after shelf, whole piles too heavy for one of us only. we take turns with each chapter. we take turns with the book bag. sometimes, each one of us takes one of the handles. we lug it together.

i buy pie for no reason. i promise to learn to make my own crust. i snip herbs from the garden, snip with abandon. it’s summertime now and i needn’t be stingy.

i work in the garden. i pull weeds and more weeds. i stand back and admire the one-inch-by-one-inch that‘s finally weedless.

i sit on the stoop. i let ice melt on my tongue. we stuff chocolate-chip cones with mint-chocolate ice cream. then, for no reason, really, except for the joy of redundance, we sprinkle jimmies on top, those bit-lets of bite-able sugar. then we try not to bite, but only to lick. not once have we made it, not once without biting. these are the games that we play when we play for no reason, ’cept for the pure joy of playing at play.

as the world around me feels all very shaky, i sink deeper and deeper into what i love most, on a scale that gets smaller and closer to home, closer to heart.

it’s almost, you might want to think, like whistling in the dark. only that’s not what it is if you look from the soul side. it’s whistling, all right, but with very deep roots.

it’s the whistling of grownups old enough and wise enough, and humble enough, to know that the whole of the world we most likely can’t change.

but we can keep the ones that we love from feeling the bumps and the worries, from noticing that all around the edge of this boat, the waters are sloshing, are getting quite queazy.

we can make this place we call home a fine and true respite. the place we come back to, because it soothes us and calms us. because in a thousand small ways, we can dust off the dirt, and polish the places that just might maybe shine.

we might not steal headlines. we might not cinch deals. we might not be brokers of peace ’round the globe.

but what we do with our days, and our hours and minutes, just might make the difference in just a few blessed lives.

and those lives, some of them, were handed to us, for just a short time, really and truly.

someone wiser and truer than i’ll ever be, someone infinite, someone you maybe call God whispered once upon a time, spoke to each of our hearts. said, this is my beloved, and this is yours, too. i’ve breathed in a life, i’ve sculpted with love. it’s your job, should you so choose, to cradle, to take by the hand, to teach the words and the poems and the stories. to tuck into bed with a prayer, to draw tight the sheets. to kiss sweet blessed heads, and send dreams off to dreamland.

give the gift of your calm. give the gift of your grace. give laughter. give whimsy. give ice cream with sprinkles.
make each hour count.

make it be simple. make it be rich.

and then that Someone reached out and gave us our loves.

a wise friend of mine tallied the world as some of our children have lived it: 9/11, afghanistan, iraq, columbine. then there’s tsunami, new orleans under water, virginia tech, and gas at 4-plus-bucks-a-gallon. and, sure as heck, i’m leaving out a thing or two that’s kept you awake.

now, in grade school and high school, even in pre-school, they practice drills year after year, in case of intruders. our cold-war atomic-bomb scares replaced with very real fears that a classmate, or passing-by kook, could burst through the door, carrying guns.

some nights, as i lie in my bed, whispering prayers, and begging for mercy, i ask for a cloak of untattered peace to fall on my house.

and then i wake up, and give it the whole of my heart: i crank up the oven, i tuck in a pan of cinnamon rolls. i wait for the sound of the feet that i know. the big ones and little ones. even the cat’s.

and i do what i think i do best: with all of my might, i aim to sew even though i can’t thread a needle (not anymore anyway, not without my old-lady glasses). i stitch this old house with gracenotes of beauty, and fumble for even a loose knot of calm. i pay attention to nooks and to crannies no one might notice. i iron out wrinkles. i wring out the worries.

it’s called housework. and mine is of and for the soul.

i owe it, i do. to the ones whose everyday stories are being inscribed at my old kitchen table.

and besides, long long ago, i promised: dear God, bless me with life, and i’ll make it most noble.

how do you make your world a little bit calmer, a little bit richer, when all around it feels like the walls are starting to crumble?

welcome to summer

the half-wheel of moon drooled down on us, peeking through the pines, half-lighting the peonies, bent from the rains. the summer bugs hadn’t yet started their chorus. but it was june. it was a monday. and it was half past nine, and no one was hurrying.

we were just slamming the car doors, trying not to spill cotton-candy blizzard and blue-raspberry arctic-something-or-other anywhere near the insides of the still-smelling-new new car, which was when i glanced at the clock on the dash, saw it was nearly an hour past school bedtime, and sighed.

“i love summer,” i said, tripping over a rock in the pretty-much dark.

to which the little one retorted, “how many times do i have to tell you? it’s spring. this is spring break. it’s not summer until june 21.”

well, doesn’t he know his numbers?

and yes, technically speaking, were i inclined to pluck words based on the alignment of sun and sweet spinning earth, i would be more precise.

i am, however, not.

i am more stirred by the poetics of these unstructured days than i am by the facts of the matter.

in fact, the minute i start swooning about this state of mind that has me wanting to plop up my crocs and do nothing more rigorous than turning the pages of two delicious books i am reading in tandem (“signaling for rescue,” short stories by marianne herrmann; and “mr. gatling’s terrible marvel,” by my genius of a friend julia keller), i am reminded that summer–like a storm that blows in off the lake, with no warning–suddenly can turn into a mad-dash morning where the manchild has only one way to get to his very cool summer gig slinging a camera: me and the old car i am very much driving to some faraway outpost that requires a map and a mantra–”i will not get mad that no one figured this out the night before.”

and, yes, one of these meanders we can devote to the cold hard truth of summer versus the make-believe version, but let’s–just for the whimsy of it–stick here and now to what summer can be.

think: lemonade stands and peach pie oozing with juice. think summer porch and peanut-butter-and-jelly on a blanket, generously dusted with sand.

and think, maybe, about making a pledge.

oh, no, you needn’t start moaning, thinking i mean to get out the girl scout sash, and work toward one of those neat little circles you tried so clumsily to sew on after checking off each one of the itty-bitty boxes in the ol’ girl scout guide.

let us, though, start out this seasonal dash by holding up the rest of june, all of july and a good chunk of august to their fullest possibility, and then maybe proposing to approach this all with a little more vim and vigor this year.

my thinking along these lines got a bit of a jumpstart when i was out strolling by moonlight on the very first night after the schools around here let out their very last whistle, and shooshed all the kiddies away till the end of dear august, which i’ve now come to understand is sooner than you’d care to think.

wandering down one of the leafy, cobbled streets around here, i looked up at a house with a rather broad porch, a porch like a mama wrapping her arms. there, taped on the front door, was a sign: “welcome to summer.”

two strands of crepe paper, by then sagging, squirmed in the wisp of a wind.

i nearly cried, brightened by the fact that i’m not the only kook who approaches these things with the ceremony they deserve.

but also, mostly, by the notion that summer is more than a stack of hot days, one piled on top of another, like wet swimming trunks dumped in a heap in the basement, just daring the mildew to come.

it got me to thinking about how summer offers the chance to break loose of not only the school year’s constraints, but all those unspoken rules that can make one season bleed into the next.

what if, i wondered, what if summer offered a wholesale new way of being?

what if we reveled in this short sweet reprieve, not by packing up and leaving, but turning inside out each and every day, slathering ourselves in summerness the way other mothers (read: better mothers) remember to grease their bare-backed kiddies with great gobs of sunscreen for a day at the pool?

in my head (where i do all my best work), i started a list.

so far, it goes something like this: wake up late/wake up early. head out to the screened-in porch. sip coffee. listen to the birds wake up. watch the sunlight catch on the lipstick-pink petals of the climbing roses.

make blueberry pancakes. enlist the wicker-basketed bike for all errands. rediscover calf muscles. make daily rounds of the growing things in the so-called garden. carry clippers. cut a new bouquet every day. tuck them in odd places, like next to the children’s beds, just to see if anyone notices.

tiptoe back to the summer porch soon as the afternoon sun starts its descent. keep two books within reach, no matter where i go.

make lazy summer dinners. grill. strip tarragon leaves with reckless abandon, stuff inside chicken breasts, lace through mounds and mounds of pasta.

walk to the train, with all available children. pick up daddy, and watch his face light up.

go to the library. often. sign up for summer reading club. invite neighborhood kiddies to read in the summer porch. bake cupcakes, or simply serve pretzels and lemonade, to accompany whatever we’re reading.

visit your neighborhood ice-cream shop. try hard not to spill in the car. make sure that doesn’t happen by walking.

open the windows. turn on the ballgame. let the little one watch till the end of the game, paying no mind to the time on the clock.

steal away while he counts runs and innings. read some more.

go to bed with all windows wide open. wear summer pjs. fall asleep to nightsounds.

wake up, start all over again. only scramble it up. do something brand-new each day. something you always wanted to do, but couldn’t find the time for back in the days when lost mittens had to be located, and snowboots mucked up the hall.

it’s summertime. welcome to all it can be.

what’s your idea of summer? how will you spend your days? remember this here is make-believe, what you wish it could be.
the challenge: to see how close you can come to making it happen. the pledge: to try really loosely to savor the notion of summer.

i’m thinking of a few ideas here: maybe a summer book swap, read something yummy and mail it along. we might all be delighted by what lands in the mailbox. surely, we’ll take turns in the kitchen. if anyone comes up with something soooooooooo easy and so good, we’ll post it. if a wholly serendipitous summer moment lands in your lap, do tell; it might inspire the rest of us.
till then, kick off your shoes, open the windows, crank up the fans. and go freeze some juice in the old ice-cube tray. remember biting into a sort-of crunchy, sort-of slushy kool-aid cube?
p.s. i think this might be rather meandery. but it’s summer, straight lines and clear thinking are not always the surest way to go. thanks for winding along…..

storybook gardener

since the day i moved here, five years ago now, the storybook cottage up above has held me in its spell. oh, i don’t live beneath its shingled roof, don’t know my way from room to room, have never even turned the front-door knob.

i only wander by, and cast my wishes in its woodland garden, where trillium, in spring, bumps up against the jacob’s ladder. where snowdrops are the first to come when winter will not take its graceful leave. and where, in autumn, tall grasses swish, the wind-borne lullabye before the garden slumbers.

i wink sometimes at raggedy ann, peeking out from up beneath the turret’s peak. see her? just a wisp of her, in the upper eastern window where she bathes, each morning, in the dawn’s first-light, as rosy-fingered sky reaches up and over the great blue lake just blocks away?

the raggedy one looks down on a garden as magic as any i have ever known, save maybe for “the secret garden,” frances hodgson burnett’s secret one, of course, which by page 42 of that sinful book (i once pretended to have a fever so i could stay home from church to read on and on) was the first i fell head-over-heels in love with, imagined myself inside of, tiptoeing near the climbing roses, curling up on stony bench, listening for the robin who’d led the orphan mary to the garden’s long-lost key and then, at last, to the ivy-covered door that hadn’t been unlocked in years and years.

there is for me something about a garden, a particular sort of mind-of-its-own garden, not one all clipped and shorn and pedicured, but one that rambles, grows this way and that, that sets me to pretending, spinning yarns to match the garden’s swift enchantment.

a little more than a year and a half ago, the storybook garden that belongs to the storybook cottage that just might belong to raggedy ann, gripped me, shot me through and through with what i feared was a most unhappy ending.
before i tell you what unfolded just the other day, i’ve pasted here the passage i once told. read along, then meet me at the story’s end, so i can fill you in on what we’ll call the epilogue.

the story just below, once was published in the chicago tribune. but i wrote it right here at my old pine desk, before i had a kitchen table where i could share my stories.

here’s what now becomes the prologue, printed first in october of 2006:

I am haunted these days by a fairy tale garden that I fear has lost its gardener.

There is, not far from my house, an enchanted little garden and a storybook house to go with it. The first time I eyed it, I nearly drove up the curb. It is all trellis and turret, and delightfully low to the ground, as if curled in a humble embrace with the growing things that spring all around. It is a house that whispers, not shouts.

At the head of a stepping-stone path there’s a front door an elf might wander through, and all around there are great patches of magic, grasses and flowering vines, birdhouses by the dozens, a place lovingly tended by someone completely in tune with the rhythms of wonder and the unfolding of time, season by season.

A Raggedy Ann, toddler size, sits up in the window of one the turrets, peeking out, keeping an eye on all. More than once, I swore she winked at me. The place, I’m telling you, is bewitching.

To drive by, or to wander by, is to slow the staccato of my every day. It is to breathe in and be reminded that lovingly tending the earth reaps wheelbarrows full of heaven.

The other day, though, the staccato picked up as I was stopped at the stop sign across from the storybook house. I saw streams of finely dressed folk pouring down the sidewalk, into the elfin front door, in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon. This isn’t a holiday, I thought. But then a synapse connected: Those fine clothes were funeral clothes. Oh my goodness, something in the storybook was amiss.

And then, sure as could be, the next morning, flanking both sides of the garden walk, standing sentry for any passerby, were two giant funeral wreaths, one a sumptuous circle of red roses, the other a sheaf of blood-red gladioli.

I am haunted now by the storybook house, and its autumnal garden. Haunted because I am afraid the woman who loved there might be no longer.

Sad thing is, I never met her. Only saw her as a constant stooped figure, bent over her trillium and her scilla in the spring, deadheading her jonquils, cutting back and transplanting through the summer, raking and staking well past the first frost of winter.

I can barely breathe now when I drive by, wondering, worrying. What happens to a garden when a gardener dies? Who will feed the birds that have called her little patch home for decades and decades?

For now, Raggedy Ann keeps an eye on the place. I won’t be able to bear it if she, too, slips away some day when I drive by.

I mourn for the woman who tended the earth with all her heart. I mourn for the trillium and the jonquil and the clematis that will no longer be cajoled and tucked back and talked to, as I often saw her, lips moving as she moved from this to that growing thing. I mourn for all of us who might not have the storybook garden to calm us in the midst of our modern-day madness.

It is a wicked thing when a garden and its gardener do not live happily ever after.

–end of tribune story–

not long after the story ran, i found an email in my tribune mail box. just a few sentences in, my heart caught in my throat. it was an email from the storybook gardener herself.

she’d been stopped, she said, as she turned the sunday pages, drawn in by the drawing of a raggedy ann that ran beside my story, running down two columns. she started to read, and soon knew that this mysterious writer was writing of her very own garden.

she’d not died, she wrote me. but her dear, beloved husband had. suddenly. achingly. without a warning.

and all the bustle i’d come up upon, and the funeral wreaths standing guard by the front door, were indeed for someone loved, now lost.

the garden and the gardener were, oh, yes, deep in mourning. but the words i’d written had not rattled her, so much as soothed her, she wrote. to know that her garden brought so much magic to even one odd passerby.

i should stop by, she wrote. i should visit her in her storybook garden, or inside the magic cottage she now shared with only one limp ragdoll.

for 20 months almost, i’ve kept an eye out. i’ve knocked on that elfin door. i’ve spied evidence of her being there, a just-dropped trowel, a pile of leaves. but not once did i ever see the magic gardener herself.

until just the other dappled afternoon. when the sun played peek-a-boo through her maple leaves, and i saw her slight bent frame, hard at work.

i leapt from my car, i called her name. i tiptoed through her ferny thicket, felt my heart pound hard against my chest. i told her who i was, reminded her that i’d once written of her garden.

she needn’t be reminded. she’d waited, she said, all these months. had wondered why i’d never come.

oh, but i have, i said, a little bashful, a little sad that i’d not maybe tried harder. hadn’t thought to drop a basket or a note, tucked it by the door.

somehow, though, more words–scribbled, folded, left behind–didn’t feel enough, didn’t feel the thing to do. i’d been inclined to meet this soul in person; to know the hands, the eyes, the heart, that made this place call out to me.

here, sit, she said, patting her mud-rubbed palm on just the moss-laced stony bench you’d expect sprouting from her woodland trails.

we talked for the better part of an hour. she offered me anything she grows, to divide and migrate the few blocks south, to my still-getting-off-the-ground patch of earth.

uncannily, time and time again as we talked of achy hips and sudden deaths and how her garden grew, i felt as if i’d known her for a long long while. found myself delighted through and through by just how much our roots, our tales, entwined.

maybe, though, that’s what happens when you’ve imagined yourself in someone’s garden. thought about sipping tea on chilly afternoons, tucked behind her stained-glass kitchen windows.

or maybe, it’s simply magic, long seeded in the hearts of those who share a fondness for a sparrow’s nest tucked under eaves, and ragdolls who nap away the day up in attic windows.

as shadows grew, and i knew my stay might be getting in the way of some dear plant’s undivided attention, i couldn’t help but think how it was that her undying grief had brought us so round-aboutly together, sitting here, side-by-side, in her most enchanted garden.

and how this beauty all around us grew, despite the dappled darkness.

kindred souls discovered where the lilac bloomed, and mayapples nodded in the filtered sunlight.

the story, once imagined, had no happy ending.

but the story, real, i now knew, was like so very much of life: it is shadowed, yes, but only just in spots.

and, here and there and everywhere, new life is pulsing; pushing, bulging, shouldering the clumps of dirt, straining to break through the crusty-shell of earth.

no longer merely make-believe, the storybook gardener and the writer begin that time-worn art of cultivating friendship. drawn together oddly, they carry on as if their story’s meant to be.

which, just maybe, it truly was.

have you made a friend thanks to a garden? or some odd-unfolding circumstance? have you some inkling there’s someone not far from where you live, who just might be your long-lost soulmate, not yet discovered? do tell…