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

Month: August, 2008

honey, just think of all the decomposing we can do now…

at the 17-year mark in a marriage that has every reason to go on for a long, long time, my beloved looked to me the other eve, and murmured, “darling, whatever would enchant you for our impending anniversaire?”

hmm, you say you smell a fish? you careful reader, you. that doesn’t ring quite right? you mutter to yourself.

why, yes, perhaps it is a bold-faced fib. let’s re-roll that scene, clean up the dialogue, veer it closer to the truth. cinema verite, you know….

truth be told, he never once has called me darling. not in the 9 million years since i first laid eyes on his tall and tortoise-rimmed self. and no, not a chance, he is not the sort to volley verbal morsels along the lines of “enchant,” in any form.

more likely, he said, hey, is there something you want for our anniversary? (which in and of itself is not an oft-tossed question in this house, but that’s another story. and i will, despite my inclinations, stick to the tale at hand here. thusly, i’ll pick up right where i once again interrupted my sorry self…ahem, then…)

to which i batted my baby-blue-green-with-a-speck-of- yellows, and replied, “oh, mon sweet, could i please, please, please have a compost bin?”

sadly, pathetically, that whole last line is true. right down to the mon sweet. especially the bit about the compost gizmo.

lest he or you let out a gasp, fear not; i followed right up with this romantic retort: “how fitting to make gold of garbage.”

he might have taken umbrage there, i might have seen him bristle. but i wasted not a heartbeat in clarifying my point (er, digging myself out from the big black hole of unintended trouble i so often stumble into): “i mean, how metaphoric to take what life throws at you, and turn it into that which makes your deepest earthly essence bloom and bulge and burst with, um, life most everlasting.”

since this was not the first time in our many, many years that i left the man wholly muddled, he followed up with the only thing left to wonder: “what’ll it cost me?”

as i grabbed the keys and bounded out the door, i planted a big splashy kiss right on his grizzled cheek.

no more questions asked.

i was off to muck around in the big wide world of compost. i had much to learn, as i’d been longing for a long, long time for a heap o’ weeds and dried-up leaves to call my own. to watch it crawl with worms and creepy multi-legged beings, who’d chew through last night’s scraps and, over time, turn each and every one into just the sustenance my beds were hungry for.

why, i could think of no more life-affirming feat than to feed my plate scrapings to the lilac and the climbing rose, to watch the pure essential elements of life–carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and a splash of H2O–do their decomposing dance, and then, voila, to fill the bellies of the blooms with their God-given outa-the-park potential.

how fine if we could learn to live a life of always making what we need from what is thrown upon the heap we call our day-to-day existence.

as i shopped, and poked around the quaint black sphere they call the internet, i wound up talking to a fine gardener up in vermont. she ticked off a list of things worth not forgetting–ever; and not merely on the topic of chemical breakdown-cum-fertilizer.

she told me not to expect perfection off the bat. it’s a learning thing, she counseled, what’s important here is that you are coming to understand the cycle of life and afterlife.

who knew that the mound of old dead leaves and weeds plucked from they shouldn’t be would lay out for me a lesson so sublimely not only philosophic but theologic too?

and so, i’ve ordered up a bin (or two). carried home my whale harpoon (no big blue on the horizon here; it’s simply that they tell me i’ll be spearing my decaying leaves and table scraps to hurry things along, add a little oxygen to the equation). even have my box of compost fuel at the ready. all i need is the nice mailman to ring the bell and drop the bin on my front stoop.

i’ll take it from there, i promise. i’ve been reading up a storm. know all about the browns and greens (that would be the mix of carbon-stoked old leaves and nitrogen-heavy weeds and bits of freshly mown grass that make up a batch of compost-on-the-make).

in fact, i’ve got the recipe down pat (2 parts dry leaves, 1 part fresh clippings, 1 part food scraps, spread in 4-inch layers, add water as needed, churn, churn, churn. and, presto, you’ve got 100-percent organic goo for your gardens).

any day now, i’ll commence. given the vast family value to be unearthed, i’ll haul my boys out to watch and learn and lend a hand at churning. i will marvel at how i feed my compost heap and it, in turn, decomposes into something pure and black and golden.

as is my style, i’m apt to overdo. i see me late at night, out checking on my compost stew. i imagine how, come winter, i might be tempted to wrap the thing in blankets, in hopes of keeping all those creepy crawly worms from falling into chilly slumber.

and already, i am lusting for the shredder that circumvents the weeks it takes to break down stubborn leaves.
that, though, will have to wait.

until the one i love inquires, “hey, babycakes, what about our 18th?”

now don’t you tell, but you know–because i just told you–i’ve just the thing to celebrate, to mark the speeding up of all that falls apart.

hmm, i wonder if perhaps i’d do better saying not a word when next it’s time to blow out the anniversary candles? or perhaps i’ll simply call it the thing that spits out leaf confetti.

after all these years, i’ve learned a thing or three ‘bout how to ask for what it is i covet.

‘scuse me now, i’m off to wait for mr. mailman and my much-longed-for, deeply-romantic decomposing box.

so many rows to hoe here….do you make black gold out of all your gleanings from the yard and cutting board? what bits and scraps of knowledge would you pass on to a compost novice? do you, like me and my beloved, usually dispatch with the somethings tucked in bow-tied boxes when it comes to ticking off the years, be they of the birthday kind, or since you formed a union? what’s your most hilarious pragmatic-present story, you know the one that made your friends and neighbors squawk, “s/he gave you what?!?!?!??!”

the days and weeks when we hold our breath

it started out, the story of a sprain. a plain old twisted ankle. only drama here, i thought, was that it happened on a hilly winding road along a godforsaken lake the other eve, not long past dusk, when the murky fingers of the night creep in from the woods, make it hard to see and be seen. and when you’re a boy who’s had a bump or two on trails, you know, learned the hard way, that you don’t go out for runs or rides without a way of calling home.

well, he called home, all right, when he went down, when the ankle curled and caved and came screeching to a halt.

only, silly parents, we didn’t get the calls. and there were 12 of them. kept calling me, he did, but i was on the phone with my dear aunt, and didn’t know the incessant beeping noise was something other than a battery winding down, running out of phone-call juice. and his papa, well, he’s not so attached to that little ringing box we call the cell phone, so he’d left his out in the car.

poor kid rang and rang and rang. no one answered. and the murky light got murkier, near dark. and there he was, miles from home, and not even hobbling, and way up north in michigan, where just the summer before he’d ached so bad in the woods it took months and months for him to heal, to heal in ways that don’t involve just muscles.

at last, after turning down 911’s offer for an ambulance (he thought that a bit much to arrive home a la siren for a simple twisted ankle), he got through.

at last, i’d hung up with dear aunt nanc, and heard my little ringing box do its ring dance.

right away i saw the name, his name. looked out the window, saw the dark. thought, oh geez, please no. please just be calling me to say the moon is swell, i oughta get down to the dock and drink it in.

but no.


i heard the tears, the where-in-the-world-have-you-been, the i-am-hurting-and-it’s-dark, mom, and i’m-2.4-miles-down-a-long-and-winding-road, and i-can’t-walk, mom.

i barely touched each step of the stairs as i bounded down. got to the bottom, said, it’s will, he’s hurt, and as we ran we heard the moans coming up from all of us, all three of us, who’d once before picked that boy up off a trail, when he came to us bloodied and broken and asking if he’d die.

your insides don’t forget those days, and they all come rushing back when it is dark and you have just heard tears on the other end of the line.

the little one, especially, gets sick with worry when it comes to his big brother. couldn’t let go of me in the back seat, as his papa drove, like it was some northwoods speedway, the hilly lakeshore-hugging road, and i stayed on the phone, talking the hurting one through each turn and twist and up and down of that old country road. we’re coming, i kept saying. we’ll be right there. we’re coming ’round the bend.

but that’s not why i’m telling you this story.

i’m telling it because i thought it was a story about a twist, and then it became a story with a twist.

we got the boy home, of course. slapped on some ice, popped some anti-swelling pills, and drove back from the lake early the next dawn, racing home for, of all things, dinner with a dear, dear friend who happens to be an ER doc. he’s the one who told us, get an x-ray, there might be something there.

we got the x-ray monday afternoon. i was right there, looking at the screen, because when it’s a kid, they let the mamas tag along.

right away i thought i saw the crack in question. saw a big egg-shaped spot right where the twist had come–or so i thought. even the x-ray tech standing next to me thought the same.

go sit down, they said, someone will come out with the news. so the nice man came. said it wasn’t fractured, just a bad sprain. call the doctor in the morning.

dodged that bullet, we all thought as the lanky one hobbled home. hmm, i swore i saw a crack. oh, well. that’s why i’m a mama now and not an x-ray guru.

tuesday morn, that ol’ ankle was still throbbing some, and the hobbler was due to school in an hour or so, due to take a tour of the big new halls he transfers to as a sophomore. i called the pediatrician. said i was wondering what about the sprain. what should we do to make walking just a little easier?

and that’s when it took a long, long time for the nurse to come on the line. and when she finally came, she apologized. said she’d needed to grab his chart, talk to the doctor. hmm, thought i, for simple instructions about a sprain?

and that’s when she told me that they’d found something not on the leg bone in question, but on the other one. don’t freak out, she told me, but it was one of those words that ends in “oma.” most likely, she told me, it was benign. but we needed to see an orthopedic surgeon right away. and we needed to go straight downtown, not muck around near home.

all signs, in my head, start spinning toward that slot on the dial i’d rather skip over. this is starting to feel, i thought, like a phone call i can’t believe i’m having.

turns out we’re going to see the surgeon they call the “lumps and bumps doc,” the one they lured, the nurses told me proudly, from sloane-kettering in new york, the one i happen to know is mostly a cancer center. and since i used to be a cancer nurse, these are words that start to trespass into territory that’s not where i, the mother, want to be.

since he’s a doc who sees kids only once a week, they are squeezing us right in. but it won’t be for a week, and it will be the first day of school for my second grader, the one who already is asking me if i might stay nearby till lunchtime the first few days, since he already feels so homesick.

so, already, i am feeling torn. but of course, i go with the one going to see the lumps and bumps doc. and the little one rides with his papa in his papa’s new car, which somehow seems to have distracted him–for now–from the fact that i won’t be there, waving at the schoolhouse door.

but all of that, i tell you, is preamble. preamble for the tidal wave of thought that tumbled over me, all day yesterday; still now.

there is every chance in the world that this will all turn out to be a blip, that the doc will take a look and say, let’s watch it. oh, sure he might say, let’s operate. but i will get to that when we get there.

for now i am consumed with how suddenly we find out that what we take for granted is really all a flimsy curtain cascading there before the box with all the switches and the levers.

i am thinking how the halls of hospitals are filled with lovely people who’d been going about the business of their humdrum lives when, suddenly, they were tapped on the shoulder, told that fever in your little boy, it’s leukemia. that tumbly toddler who can’t keep from falling down, it’s a tumor in her brain. your father who you thought was driving home from the movie rental store, well, he got hit; he won’t be coming home.

and so, knowing all of that, feeling that much closer to the far side of the line between the lucky ones and the not so, i will spend this long week ahead looking down at my tall one’s leg. i will pray and pray some more. i will scan his face for signs of wan and ashen color. i will offer up my leg, and both arms too if it will help, just so he gets the all-clear sign.

i think of all the hours in our lives when we are holding our breath, between inhale and exhale, thrust into that netherworld where suddenly everything is more vividly colored.

where we notice the wind, taste the bite of the coffee, behold the grace of a butterfly wing gliding onto the basil that grows just beyond the kitchen sill.

where every unfettered hour feels like a swing on the trapeze. where we understand, finally, thuddingly, that just making a dumb old grocery list–with nothing else to clutter our thoughts–is pure mercy, unfiltered.

it is these days and weeks of breath-holding that put the bas relief into our lives. without the undulation and shadow, it’s all washed-out and blindingly white.

the breath-holding, of course, comes in a zillion forms–waiting for the phone call from the boss, sitting outside the x-ray department, clicking on the computer to see if the email from the college, the boyfriend, the madwoman, has come.

it is the interstitial hours, i believe, that sharpen who we are in the midst of lives we start to take for granted.

it is in the not-breathing when the sharp outlines come, and the blurriness fades away. when we look and see not just a boy who leaves his room a mess more often than i care to discover, but an almost-man whose brilliance, whose sheer force of belief in how he’ll change this world, better it, gives me hope, and, more importantly, faith.

this breath-holding, maybe, is every bit as essential as the breathing.

we would be numb to all the days of making beds and pouring coffee into mugs, of shuffling papers on our desks, and clocking miles on the track, if not for the occasional lapses into holy fear.

when it all comes clear. when we see how close the bullet grazes our heads. when we wake up from our stupor and tingle down our spine at all the ways the spinner falls in our favor.

and yes, mostly, more often than we deserve maybe, at the end of these protracted hours, the great rush of hallelujah, how-narrowly-we-escaped comes. we kiss the ground. we thank the skies, the leaves, the blades of grass. we pay attention to the clouds that day. taste the succulent tomato. douse it all in extra olive oil. what the heck.

we fill our lungs. feel the sweet soft air soak into crevices and dark places that had gone without sustenance for the days of our worry.

we return to living. and, if we’re smart, we carry with us the knowledge that at any minute the nurse can get on the line and tell us there is something growing where it shouldn’t be. and it’s the leg bone of a boy we love, we birthed, at stake here.

it is a recipe of fractions and milliseconds and happenstance, this thing called life.

and if, in between our breathing, we can take in the blessed holy miracle of the ones we love, the rustling of the leaves, or birdsong in the dawn, well then we are making art of the filling of our lungs.

forgive me if i got dark there. blame it on my irish. or on the simple fact that i am old enough and wise enough to understand the roulette of the everyday. my hope, and my intent, was to raise up these hours of fear and examine how it is that they weave what matters most into our very being. have you had chapters of breath-holding? and were you able, in any way, to hold onto a piece of that to make you pay attention to the colors all around?

turned out last week while i was away was another week of breath-holding for all of us at the newspaper where i still happen to work. some 80 souls got phone calls that their time was up; i didn’t get the call, not this this time. for those 80 i send up prayer after prayer. these are breathholding times indeed, and may each of you find your colors once the fog and tears are cleared. we will carry on, those of us still newspapering, and try our damnedest to make you proud for what you started, and did so blessed well.

why in the world would i wanna leave this?

well, actually i don’t. don’t wanna leave, that is. given my eenie-meenie-minie-moe, i’d stay put from now till forever.

i am, hands down, the original homebody. give me a week at home with nothing to do but pull weeds, turn pages, putz around in the kitchen. give me my ol’ comfy pillow, the stairs with the creaks i know by heart. give me the washer, even, the one i know how to set just so, so it doesn’t wiggle and clang like some sort of jalopy on an old bumpy road.

oh, lord, just the thought of it all. the peace and the quiet. the hours and hours to tackle this ol’ house and the interminable infinite to-do list. i tingle at the thought.

but it’s a thought, an enticement, that will have to keep dangling in front of me, for it’s not mine now. not any time in the near or the distant future even. it’s only a wish, pure and simple.

dispatch the boys. stay home alone.

grab the smelling salts, i feel a faint coming on.

oh, well. not this time around…

for now, i am considering packing. will toss the minimum amount of clothes in a bag. grab a few boxes of cereal off the shelf, and head up to where the air is even clearer and the ol’ lake will lull me to sleep for the next few nights.

it’s the house on the lake i grew up mucking about most summers. swam across the lake once. got a sailboat stuck in the muck at the bottom, one other time. gorged on my aunt nancy’s cherry cobbler. played spoons with all of my cousins, and my grandma lucille, who showed her fierce side when the spoons and the cards came out.

’bout five times a day, we managed to walk to the little general store, the one with the screen door that slapped shut behind you, nipped at your heels if you didn’t hurry. pulled out our nickels and pennies, got some sort of five-and-dime summertime treat. went out in the middle of the lake before dawn, a bucket of minnows and the sunrise, all the company i ever needed.

that was back before i had a house, turned into someone’s mama. that was back when all i had to do was endure the back of the station wagon with four brothers and a headache from the sun shining in. back then, it was pure heaven. now, i’m working hard to convince myself the long drive will be worth it.

oh, it’ll be fine, and the boys all want to go. desperately want to go. to get one last gulp of summer before the school bell rings, and i am left home alone, at last. to while away the days. getting things done. but not the things i’d do if i had a whole week.

and not the things i’ll do this coming week.

that’s how it is sometimes when you’re the mama. you do not what you want. but what everyone else really really wants. you wrap your toothbrush, and toss in your old bathing suit, the one you’ve not worn once all summer long.

you lock up the house, wave goodbye to the garden. kiss the cat on the nose. remind him to be good while you’re gone.

you turn and you whisper a prayer. tell the house, the garden, the cat, you’ll be right back. stay put, stay just as you are, and i’ll be right back to fuss over you, make you feel like you’re the one place in the world i always want to be.

which, as i pack up to leave, is the truest truth i can think of.

see you next week. goin’ north to collect a l’il bit of summer vacation. anyone else out there wish like anything for a whole stretch of days, unencumbered in every which way? anyone else know what it is to want to stay home, and call that the best vacation ever?


it started slow. pit. pat. while we all licked our forks out on the porch with the screens. then, pitpitpit. patpatpat. skies opened, all right, without so much as a telltale creak of the trapdoor. heavens flashed off and on, like angels were making a fuss with their flashlights. checking batteries. sending signals. playing flashlight tag, maybe.

nobody minded. the splash from the rain hitting the leaves in the garden just made for a mist. a midsummer‘s shower, while dining on just-plucked corn and sausages burned on the grill. what’s to mind?

we sat there till finally the drumbeat of rain on the roof slowed to a murmur. then we stacked all the plates and we dashed. last one inside is a dripping wet dishrag.

i lost, but only because i was balancing saucers and stopped to notice some lovely something there in the garden.

just as i slid closed the screen, it started up again. mighty fierce. crashing and banging. and lights flashing so steadily up in the clouds, i started to think maybe there’d been a run on double DD batteries. maybe every angel on high, and even a devil or two, was having at it with lightbeams.

always one to heighten the drama whenever, wherever, it comes, i turned out the lights. every last one. oh, there was protest of course, but i didn’t care. this was a lightshow on high, and i wasn’t missing one blessed kilowatt. oh, no.

and that’s when my big brother, one who’s not around these parts very much, well, he started to teach. he was, in the simplest terms, explaining the lightning, something i’d never quite stopped to try to figure out, ’cept that i knew it scared me, and made me run with my face all scrunched-up and my back arched as i dashed through the pounding-down rain and the puddles, certain at any step i’d get cracked on the backside and make like a lighted-up x-ray.

but back to my brother and his lecture on lightning:

“it’s the same as when you rub your feet on the carpet, then touch the top of your head or a doorknob, and, kabam, there’s a spark. static electricity, that’s all it is. as the cold air rubs against the warm air, there’s friction, then, kapow, lightning.”

that’s pretty much, word for word, how my big brother explained it. he went on and on. talked about how there’s three kinds of lightning: cloud to ground, cloud to cloud, and stuck inside a cloud. talked about positive and negative charges. talked about stability and instability, only he was referring to air.

tried to make me see how easy this was: warm air, down low, wants to float up. bangs into the cold stuff way up high, now on its way down, sinking.

laid out a simple equation. warm + cold = friction. when there’s enough of a buildup, when one side is more charged than the other, the electricity has to go somewhere, he tells me. that’s lightning, he says.

oh, i think, i get it, realizing i will now forever picture cold air in slippers, scuffing against warm air, the rug. when the lightning cracks i will forever picture a big doorknob in the sky, and the clouds yelping, ouch, when they get shocked by the frictional sparks.

“nature is always trying to strike a balance,” my brother goes on. water sloshing in a bowl levels out. a windy day, he tells me, is no more than air from a high-pressure pocket swooping into a low-pressure pocket with plenty of room. a melting ice cube in a tumbler of H2O is simply the frozen water chunk surrendering its chill to the room-temperature tap water it’s swimming in, trying to make all things equal, or at least in the same general temperature neighborhood.

he knows this stuff, inside and out, my big brother does.

he specializes in all things off the ground. he has been, since he was old enough to say, “pairpane,” obsessed with all things aeronautic.

he has flown itty-bitty planes onto itty-bitty spits of land in alaska, turned loopdy-loops over the sides of a mountain in montana, and now teaches folks how to fly super-duper jets out in long beach, california.

and while i don’t care much–never have, never will–for bombers, and my heart doesn’t thump even for bi-winged wonders, i did suddenly find myself enthralled by my sky-seeking brother’s knowledge of weather.

actually, mesmerized would be more accurate a term.

i could have listened for hours. i felt myself being swallowed whole by the topic of ebbs and flows and collisions of air. it’s all about cold and warm, and wet and dry, and up and down, and the simple exchange of ions.

the world, when you stop to pay attention to it, is really rather basic. we can, if we try to, understand vast chapters that seem, well, lightyears beyond our reach.

i think deep down i am a science geek. but the more i know about science, the more it makes me a geek of the God kind. i grow speechless, feel infinitesimally small, when i start to consider the fingers of God–or whatever name you put to the force behind the wind and the tide and the spinning of ol’ mama earth.

i marvel so at the great Brilliance that thought to make the tongue of the butterfly just long enough to reach deep into the throat of the trumpet vine. and what of the seasons that give each and every living thing–even those of us who merely stare out the window–a season to curl up and hibernate, after the long, hot summer?

how heavenly the sense that all the bursting of lights the other night was simply air banging into air of the opposite kind, and exploding in celestial hallelujah. and what about the simple falling of the rain that brings with it not only earth-quenching waters but essential nitrogen to make the roots of my new baby plants grow deep?

no wonder some of us sit with our nose pressed to the rain-splattered panes of glass. there is wonder crashing and booming just beyond the sill.

i, for one, don’t want to miss it. especially now that my big brother made it all make such pure and simple, heaven’s sense.

by any chance did you catch the light show the other night? according to the weather people, who track these things, we here in chicagoland got as many lightning strikes in a few short hours as we usually get in a whole half of the year. oh, goodness. good thing i turned out the lights to take in every last crack and flash. i wonder, do you ever stop to consider the weather? either as wholly explainable science, or truly inexplicable marvel?

just happens today is the day of my true love’s original birth. he rarely happens by here, but in case he does, bless you for being my truly inexplicable marvel. you couldn’t have asked for a simpler birthday formula–blueberries and rice chex for breakfast, burgers on the grill for dinner. it’s one of the pure things we love about you. that, and a few hundred others. xoxox
two days from now my baby boy turns 7. could it really be? seems every other day at the launch of this eighth month is the birthday of someone i much love. happy blessed birthdays to the whole parade of you…