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

Month: November, 2008

dear jim, a thank you story

six years ago tomorrow, we packed the little one and the not-so-little one in the wagon and motored by this house we’d signed up for, but hadn’t yet sealed the deal for–at least not in that way where, wobbily, you slide the check across the table and sign your first, middle and last monikers on the million thousand sheaves they shove before you.

as we sat, motor idling that cold thanksgiving day, the architecture critic in the front seat, the driver’s seat, said nothing. just stared as the silence thickened.

so happens, when you live, day after day, with an architecture critic, you come to know that silence is a very big sound.

even the then-9-year-old knew that sound was not so good.

“so, mr. architecture critic,” the young one began, “what is it you don’t like?”

now mind you, the object of the critic’s silence was the house i’d fallen hard for.

it was a house he hadn’t seen, oh, since the one time we’d first walked through, some five weeks back, before the poor dear critic’s back went kerpluey, and he was hauled swiftly into surgery and then could not be taken for a drive, not even to see the house we had bumpily and not easily decided we’d move to.

mind you one other thing: there is, in the world of architecture, a maxim mouthed by one of the greats–just who it was i can’t recall nor does it matter now–and it goes like this, something about the ivy hiding all the sins of the fool architect.

of course i need to tell you that this house, when we first saw it, was covered thick in ivy. by the time we motored by that silent november day, the autumn’s dropping of the leaves fully finished, the house, like all the trees, was bare, exposed for all its faults.

even i had noticed a few odd spots there on the face of that poor house, but naive one that i am, ever hopeful, i assumed the spring would come and with it, the ivy leaves, and thus, the camouflage that perhaps our new old house required.

that whole long day, a day of wringing hands and walking out the kinks, was spent debating should we forfeit our down payment and ditch the deal, or forge ahead and double-plant the ivy.

in the short term, ivy won.

and, pretty much, it was a package deal: we took the house, as long as you, dear jim–builder, yes, but even more, big brother of a friend–were coming with.

we saw, even through the missing ivy, this old house’s possibility.

and you, strapped with tool belt, were the one tried-and-trusted ticket. long as you were at our side, a lopsided house wasn’t such a scary proposition.

thus began a six-year project that, truth be told, swallowed every extra penny, and all our get-aways besides. summer after summer, winter break after winter break, while all the other folks around jetted off to here or there, we stayed home and listened to the sound of hammers. and circle saws. and hand planes shaving boards.

i tell you, not once did i mind–okay, maybe in the fourth month of washing dishes in the basement, after stumbling, nearly every sudsing, on unavoidable evidence that a little flock of mice had assembled to gobble all the scrapings from the plates.

except for the mouse droppings that i decided–in one panicky spell–that i’d inhaled in noxious amounts, i was purring like a cat. watching room after room be tucked with all the nooks and crannies of my dreams.

granted, the architecture critic, perhaps, was not so much a purring cat. not always anyway. he can’t help it, really, that he believes in the art of the beautiful. and to his fine-trained eye, there’s no shrugging off a line or angle that isn’t where he thinks it ought to be.

trust me, he’s just as hard on calatrava or gehry or that german fellow, mr. jahn. and the ones who penned the sketches for this odd old house did not escape his scrutiny.

so, yes, once in a while–okay, twice in a while–he might have scratched his head, stood silent, and we all knew whatever was the object of his silence, it was coming down, only to be replaced by a something that made his eyes light up. twinkle, if you will.

ah, but here we are, dear jim, and you’ve just pounded in the stakes for the one last thing i’d dreamed of: a picket fence of white, complete with posts that just might be the perch for a birdhouse or two. or three.

it is, in many ways, the row of exclamation points to a job well done. a job drawing finally to the end.

as i walk from room to room, dear jim, you to whom we turned and trusted with this utter transformation, i feel that swelling in my chest that comes, yes, just before the tears spill.

it’s been long, and sometimes hard. but this house, which from the very instant i traipsed its bluestone path, up two steps and through the glass-paned door, has wrapped me in its arms, well, it now does the same to nearly anyone who comes here.

i hear it all the time now: this house soothes. it’s like climbing into someone’s ample lap. it does not, ever, hit you on the head. but, more, it eases out a sigh. shoulders soften, backbones lose their overarch. shoes come off. it’s a barefoot sort of place, a place where legs are curled and bottoms cozied on the couch and fine old chairs.

it’s the one thing, i suppose, that’s essential in a place worthy of the title, home.

i’ve only just realized quite what it was that drew me as we tucked and nipped and painted all those colors. as we pounded into walls, swapped out windows.

i was leaning toward that most sacred of sanctums, the inner chamber of all our hopes and heartaches.

i was leaning, wholly, toward a home that fed and wrapped and stoked and quaffed not only my soul, but that of each and every someone who walks beyond its transom.

home, if you’re really blessed, is the one place on the map where, like the mama or the papa we all yearn for, we can come to be swathed. we slough off our cares, drop down our worries with a thud. we slam the door on all cold winds. and light the logs waiting in the grate. we crank the kettle. open wide the fridge, and forage for that one queer thing we love to spoon straight from the carton.

it’s home, where we set the table, join hands and pray our deepest prayer. it’s where we pull on our socks, knot the tie, and breathe expansively before forging out again.

it’s where some of us could stay all day, and never feel the urge to leave. it’s where some of us stop by only for rest and sustenance–dipping deep if briefly into the well–before tilting at our windmills.

room by room, two-by-four by two-by-four, you, dear jim, you hauled your tools and your lumber piles and your capacity for leaving not a turn or knob ajar or askew or not quite the way you dreamed it ought to be.

you’ve left your handiwork here where i type, in the bookshelves that span the walls, upstairs where a window seat looks out on rising sun and snowfall, and in the kitchen where i glance out at windowbox of herbs or up into the underside of raindrops falling on the skylights’ panes of glass.

there is not a room, not a nook, where you’ve not built and wedged and hammered some grace-filled dream of ours.
and in this season when we gather thanks, when our hearts spill and our souls feel wholly stuffed for all the riches that surround us, that are ours to reach and wrap our arms around, i just want you to know, dear jim, that till my dying day this house to me will always be the finest gift one friend could have built for another.


your friend who never stopped believing that a funny-looking house could someday be a holy blessed home…bless you, builder of our dearest dream

friends, as is always the case here, i write in the particular with the hopes that you can latch your dreams onto my story. so that it becomes our story. down below is where we start to sketch that out, as you tell me what it is–and who it is–who has built for you your deepest wildest dream. maybe yours is not a house. maybe it’s a love. or a family. or a parachute. or a windmill. this is storytelling season, so draw in, if you will, and tell your tale of thanks. and bless you for reading mine….
if all goes as planned i’ll be back tomorrow for a meander of great thanksgiving……

the naked month

i know this makes me something of an eeyore, but i’ve a confession to make: i love gray days. and days and weeks when all the world is stripped of excess, pared back to strictly elemental. when even a smidge of color–save. maybe, for the blood red of a clump of berries–is uncalled for, unnecessary.

i happened to mention that aloud yesterday, in the place where i type on tuesdays, and, oh my, it caused a stir. you might have thought i said something odd, perhaps, something along the lines of, “i like a little gravel in my oatmeal.”

now that gustatory revelation i could see causing a ruckus. but not the fact that the deep soot-to-heather canvas of november is balm to me.

it wraps me, the sunless-ness of these days. it is the woolen blanket of the year lifted from the basket in the corner, draping ’round my shoulders, as i settle deep into my winter chair, my thinking chair.

these are the days when i could be alone for hours on end, but not really alone, as i am out chattering to my birds and squirrel friends. i am out protecting them from cold. tossing corn. pouring water into shallow bowls. smearing peanut butter onto tree bark so they can peck it off, stave off the shivers and the rumbly tummies that i fear for them.

these are the days when the stark poetry of gnarly branch and endless sky open up to me. when all around is naked, bared, stripped of its cloak, exposed.

it is in the few fat fruits–american cranberry, rosehips–left on the bough and thorny stem, and the up-reached arms of oak and serviceberry that i find the combination lock to my imagination–and my most satisfying comfort.

it is jagged silhouette against the charcoal sky that haunts me, rustles me, seeps slowly deeply in.

i look out into tangled labyrinth of branch on branch–interrupted only by unkempt knot of leaves assembled by some squirrel intent on keeping warm–and i understand what november reveals.

we have watched, for weeks now, the slow undressing of the world beyond the sill. there is no hiding in the eleventh month, the one before it gets to be too much, and we battle back the darkness with the kindling of the lights, and the stringing of the branches with all the glitter we can gather.

it is these thirty days, or at least a good long line of them, that beckon us to come inside, to draw in to where the embers burn.

by that, of course, we don’t mean merely shuffling ’cross the mat, settling down at table’s edge.

oh, no.

we mean: do. come. in. take off your shoes. get comfy. now mill about inside your soul. breathe deep. the summer’s done. and so too the autumn, ‘cept for maybe one last spell before the bitterest of cold.

think thoughts that take some time to come to. be not in a hurry, not at all. and don’t be afraid of where the thinking trails.

it’s november. the month when all the world strips down to utter truth. and we, too, might do well to follow suit.

the logs are crackling in the grate, the afternoon is long. the kettle whistles. pages turn. understanding just might be ahead.

make the most of these hours when the light goes dim. make the most of the month when all that matters is undressed, and we are left to study only that which cannot hide.

tinglingly, i find myself coming to deep awakening as the northern world begins its slumber. how about you? what is it about november that captures you, stirs your soul, your thoughts, your deepest hungers?

if not a silo, well, then a bale of hay

for days, i drove around with my little bundle of mowed-up field in the back of my old wagon. i kinda liked pulling into quasi-upscale parking lots with straw spilling from my rear. rear end of my car, i’m talkin’ ’bout. puh-leez, people.

fact is, i liked everything about that country bundle. smelled like farm. made me sneeze like farm. gave me license to make-believe i was steering my stout john deere down row after loam-clumped row, instead of here along the leafy shore where streets are lit by antique lights.

i plunked down seven bills for that bale of hay. a sum that’d make my farmer friends laugh out loud, i do suppose. but this here is no longer farmland. paved over long ago, and now we pay an import tax, or, more aptly, pretender’s fee.

but i, city girl wishing on a star to look out her window and see a farm appear out back, well, i thought that seven bucks was a flat-out steal if it brought me one inch closer to the bucolia for which i long.

perhaps, i sometimes think, i am descended on all sides from farm people. perhaps that cock-a-doodle-doo once woke my great-great-great-great granny. i do know that my very own irish granny, the one i never met, i know she was famed for the way she could wring a chicken’s neck.

i tell you, i swelled up with holy pride the day i heard that tale. never mind all the business ’bout her being the first kentucky miss to graduate from college. give me the backyard chicken yarn, and you’ll see my feathers fluff.

so, the way i frame it, the equation is uncomplicated: if i can’t plow under my quarter acre, can’t bring home a laying hen, or a cow that’d moo me to sleep, well then, at very least, i can claim a bale to call my own.

it’s all part of my compost operation, that hay is. an operation i am milking, quite frankly, like a bulging bovine at sundown, when she’s throbbingly engorged and near spurting from her beet-red teats.

fact is, i read in one of my composting magazines (yes, i sneak off to the library these days to read such earthy slicks) that if the, um, perfume from the bin gets to bother, say, your next door neighbor–or, worse, the ones two doors down–why you just grab a fistful of hay, toss it there atop the rotting apple cores and, voila, the eau de dump is gone. replaced by eau de farm.

only thing is, i’ve yet to haul the hay to where it belongs. it seems stuck right out my tall french doors. i can’t bear to budge it one more inch. and not only because my palms near tore from tugging on the twine that ties it up.

seems it’s stuck because it is my latest bleary-eyed hope. goes a long way, that stash of dried hay does, to deluding me from where it is i really dwell.

oh, it’s not that i don’t like the land of garbage trucks and mailmen who mark their routes on foot.

it’s just that i’d much prefer to live out yonder where the stars and moon are reachable, where seasons are marked by what stands or falls in the fields, and where you eke a living from mama earth by tending her, coaxing her, wholesale depending on her miracles, and those of sky as well.

i know a farmer or two. even blessed to call them friends. and they are among the wisest, most poetic souls i know. they don’t mince words. don’t double talk. don’t do the city soft shoe.

seems they’ve absorbed the hard lessons of the earth and moon, of rain and sun, right through their dirt-stained hands. and worn-down bones, as well.

maybe it’s, more and more with every passing sunrise, i wish my days could be spent, my hours steeped, in what the winds whisper to me, what the clouds roll in, and what the gnarled branches reach for.

in the gospel that beckons me, i sense the turning of the seasons and the slanting of the sun holds something i should know. to live the cycles of the fields and woods, i’ve come to think, is to soak up perhaps the purest truths.

the one preacher i ache to hear is the one whose parables rise up from furrowed earth.

but for now, i’ve only one square of dried-up straw. not even a mound. surely not a silo full.

i’m old enough to know i might never land my dreamed-of farm, my milking barn, my henhouse.

i’ll make do–and more–with that blessed bale right out my window.

for now, as evening wraps the day in purple-gray, i watch a flock of soft brown sparrows, pecking at the hay. they seem to think it’s all part of a vast country buffet. bugs and field bits, on the supper’s menu.

even my old fat cat has taken to perching there like it’s a throne. that cat, born of the farm, seems to sense it’s home that’s come to find him.

i imagine just how he feels. since i believe i feel the same.

and my imaginary hay stack–humble as it is–it’s not going anywhere. except the places it becomes in my imagination.

have you an imaginary life you wish you lived? an apartment in paris, perhaps? a new york city brownstone? a woods all to your lonesome? or a cottage on the shore? what dreamscape speaks to you? or are you utterly content right where you are? anyone else a would-be farmer?

every blessed one of us

every once in a rare wind, we catch that holy knowing that what just blew past us stirred us, changed us, unalterably altered the landscape, before blowing on again.

so it was the first time, four summers ago now, when i heard the voice inside the squawking box call out to all of those crowded into boston’s convention center, and to all the rest of us tuned in as well, to tear down the schisms and the walls and the barbed-wire coils that divided us into red states and blue states, and to live up to becoming the united states.

we could be better than we were, he prodded. we could cast aside the shadows and the darkness that had crept in. we could, perhaps, let in the light.

i put down whatever it was i’d been doing, thinking, being, and i paid attention.

i heard the voice of the rare hero–true definable hero–who spills with courage and conviction to utter words, carve thought, that until now no one else had been brave enough to breathe out loud.

but once the words rolled off his lips, they were unloosed, free, a part of what we breathed. if we chose to. if we inhaled and filled our lungs. let the truth sweep through and all around.

and so, for years now, i’ve been a believer in what i’d not call his brand of politics, for it’s not so much political (though by definition–“concerned with government”–it is that) but rather wholly of the spirit.

and spirit, i’d suggest, is that force of wind and water and earth and flesh and blood that, once unleashed, leaves nothing in its path quite the way it had been.

where there is darkness, there comes light. despair transforms to hope.

it is mystical, yes. indefinable, indeed. but always unmistakable. it alters terrain and sky and soul.

and so it is that these days and weeks of late have been so very very dark. we wake to news that makes us tremble. we grope for some small wisp of promise and find it plainly up and gone.

but then on a tuesday in november, we each of us trooped alone into a curtained box. we tapped a screen or–in the county of cook in illinois, at least–drew a line connecting front and tail of a broken arrow. some 120 million of us exercised a choice, 63 million chose the one who i chose too.

in a moment too deep and big to wholly grasp in one solitary breath, we took in the ka-ching of history. we felt the streaming down of tears–our own, and nearly every face we looked up to see.

as we sat glued to the unfolding news, we could only imagine the storyline unreeling through so many minds. could only barely grasp the pictureshow that until now had never allowed for a frame so filled with what was whirling through the night.

it was late, but phones rang anyway. in swept stories of merry mobs closing streets and dancing down the great boul mich in sweet chicago. in brooklyn, cars honked and mamas and papas, entwined, lifted sleeping babies out of cribs to swirl in circles. in kenya, crowded ’round a village radio, not-so-distant kin danced and sang. the immigrant’s son was lifted high, from grant park to selma to nyang’oma near the shores of lake victoria.

then the dawn came, and with it the rush of morning-after analysis that for once filled the early light and our hearts with hope.

i lay there feeling a holy rumbling deep inside.

we can be a better people, i heard the words come.

we can be a nation inspired by the man we just elected.

we can put down the barbed-wire coils and the barricades.

we can, in our own small way, be brave, be bold, be the breath of hope.

we can be mighty in the extraordinary ordinariness of our everyday.

we might not, all on our own, wave an olive branch to iran or north korea. but we might ring the bell of the old bent man next door who cares night and day for his dying wife. we might fill a plate with what we’ve stirred for dinner and bring it to his door.

we might roll down the windows of our car and shout good morning to the crossing guard, and garbage man, and just a fellow pausing at the light.

we might, next time we hear the ugly growl of gossip, speak up, say, whoa; unkind, unfair, don’t go there.

we might be our better selves so that we might become a better nation.

yes we can, he says again and again. yes we can, he called out into the night in the middle of america in a city park flooded with believers and those who needed to see it for themselves to believe.

yes we can, i thought this morning as i lay there drinking in the news. yes we can, means every blessed one of us.

every blessed one of us need be brave. we need be brave like the man who, because of nothing other than the pigment of his skin, stands at risk every time he stands before a crowd. but not once has he shied from standing there, saying what must be heard.

and so, my bare arms–and my courage–warmed by the sunlight of this bright new day as i strolled out to snatch the morning papers, i grabbed a pen and poster board, and scrawled my humble message:

yes we can means every blessed one of us, i wrote.

and because i’m practicing that very creed–being brave and somewhat unafraid–i grabbed a roll of tape, and stuck my sign onto the other signs posted in my yard.

it’s not so important that anyone stops to read it, as it was essential that i said out loud just what i meant.

the words, once unleashed, are freed. they might become a part of what we breathe. if we so choose.

but if we keep the words, the thought, locked deep inside, they stand no chance.

and neither does the world that might do well should every blessed one of us believe.

after two long nights of no sleep–i couldn’t wait to get to the voting booth one night, and i was too thrilled the next–i am doubtful that a single sentence up above is coherent, much less filled with the power or the poetry i heard in my head hours ago. i’ve long steered clear of politics here at the table, and don’t much consider this anything other than once again looking through the holy lens of how we choose to exercise the divinity that dwells within every blessed one of us….your thoughts?