pull up a chair

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

Month: December, 2008

the number that’s loomed so large

my mama tells me every day’s a blessing. and i know that. of course. usually take my birthdays like a skier takes to snow and mountainsides combined. schuss right down those slopes, delighted. don’t mind the face fulls, nor the frosty air. not one bit.

but not this one. not this birthday that’s about to come. this one i take with murky soup of gulps and trepidation and not a shallow sense of dang, that was way too soon.

you see, i’m turning the age my papa was when he no longer lived.

nearly long as i can remember, 52 was trouble. 52’s a hump. and i can’t quite see to the other side.
it’s a mixed-up thing.

i’ve had my eye on this a long, long time. years and years ago, i figured out just what day would be the day that i’d live longer than my too-young papa did.

i know, to the hour and the minute, just when my life begins past his.

i remember, 28 years ago, all the clucking ‘bout his age. 52? they’d ask. oh, God, that’s way too young. too too young, they’d cluck.

and now, after all these years and years, one tumbled ‘top the other, here i am. just days away from 52.

i’ve a sense i’m not alone.

oh, not in that my birthday’s right around the bend, but that the dread that comes with this one, is a dread shared by all of us who’ve lost a parent way too young.

too suddenly.

when one minute your papa was on his way to a tennis game, and the next minute he was gone. and the doctor mumbled something ‘bout, he’s so sorry. and you had to ask out loud, there in the chilly hospital hallway, you mean he’s dead?

when the undeniable hole in your heart sears you in a way that won’t be shed. never does lose the scab.

when, while you do get on with living, do learn to laugh again, there is forever a piece of you that’s marked.

oh, lord, you’ve walked the aisle, birthed babies, rushed a broken child to the ICU. you’ve done all that without your papa at your side. but you’ve never ever stepped beyond the frame of time that once was his.

it’s a knot that won’t be loosed. it is a truth as deep as any shred of DNA buried down inside you.

your papa lived till 52, how will you live longer?

it’s a piercing sort of question. in some ways, fresh-trod snow. in others, a trapeze without a net.

there is certainly a dash of, is it fair? and lots and lots of thinking, this was almost his very end. did he feel finished? did he feel as new at this as i do?

there are, truth be told, some days when the weight of it feels like a rock dropped on my shoulders.
if i’ve the gift of extra days, how will i live each blessed one?

as i type here, i see a string of question marks.

i suppose, like the brink of any year, what’s to come is all unknown, uncharted, still to emerge from the mist ahead.

it’s only that this year, the year i reach my papa’s end, the questions stir more deeply, and they come in cloak of deep, deep sadness.

more than ever i do know this: my papa didn’t live nearly long enough at all.

forgive the sadness. forgive the shadows. but this table comes with dark and light. and even though the candles burn, they drape their black-lit silhouettes on the slab below. i wonder, those of you who’ve lost a mama or a papa younger than you are, did that one singular birthday pose a steep steep slope? or, for those of you who aren’t there yet, does that one stark number loom larger than the rest?

i wish for christmas

i wish for christmas, for you and for me, i wish that the angel of christmas come tap at your door. or maybe, just maybe, she’ll come to the pane of your window, there where the frost frames the sash.

i wish she slips in when no one is looking, or maybe only just you, maybe you see that she’s come because you find by the sill a feather or two, dropped from her wings, or the fat raggedy satchel she drags close behind, the one she stuffs with all of her blessings.

i wish for you that you know that she’s come because all of a sudden, out of the mist, out of the hustling, the bustling, the forgetting the point, you are suddenly melted with the heart of it all.

i wish for you, and me too, i wish to be bathed and dunked and baptized quite simply in the story of christmas, the story of birth. the story so earthly and holy, at once.

it’s a sweet baby someone, all sticky and wet and covered with blood from his mama’s hard pushing, birthed in the straw of a barn, a barn likely dingy, not swept and not washed.

born amid baa-ing and moos and a hen that was clucking, perhaps.

born by the light of a star and a moon. a birth in the still of the night. a birth that shuddered the world, and stirred wise men, it did, to come on their camels.

it’s a story so pure we tell it again and again.

as the world’s cloaked in darkness, as a chill comes in from the north, we turn to the words of the story. we turn to its undying truth.

and, if the angel of christmas surely does come, if somehow she slips into the room where she’s needed, we suddenly, deeply, feel the whole of the original story.

we make room in the inn of our heart.

we shove aside all of the worries, and all of the noise, maybe for one short window of time, but still we’ve made room.

we usher in the story of birth and a babe and a barn and a heavenly dome of star upon star.

we hunker down in our homes. we leave the troubled old world at the door–just long enough to let the story sink in. to sip from the cup, to break off a chunk of the story that feeds us.

we make christmas within.

we set the table for christmas. put out the plates that come from the shelf just once every year. we pile the clementines into a bowl. we pop out the seeds of the garnet-jeweled fruit, the fat pomegranate that’s waited for christmas.

we kindle the flame, in the tapers of beeswax, in the logs on the grate.

we turn out the lights, except for the ones that are strung on the tree.

we curl in a chair with arms that can hold us.

we let go of all thoughts and all worries and doubts.

we soak, for as long as we can, in the sweet holy syrup of christmas at last.

there is, if we consider the babe, consider the hope born in that barn, much to anoint us in this one star-lit night.

i wish, for you and for me, that this holy christmas, you find the one treasure that came to that manger.

i wish for the great gift of peace–true peace, peace like a pond that only just ripples–i wish for the rare gift of christmas unwrapped to settle quite deep in your heart.

merry blessed day of deep birth.

may it linger and last till the darkness is lifted, and the star shines again in the east, and the north and the south and the west…

godawful bows

i haul them out every year, and every year i wince.

they are my godawful bows. squished. old. tied, perhaps, by someone tipsy–or at least you’d think so, judging from the odd knot there in the middle and the strands that fly like hair in need of hair-goo.

they are my trademark red-plaid bows.

every year, when all the ancient ornaments are hoisted to the bough, when the red-feathered cardinal is twisted to the tippy top, when all the wooden cranberries are strung, i reach for the old stride-rite shoe box. i lift the lid, and there they are: a mash of tipsy bows.

a hundred years ago, just on my own, in a fit of my-first-christmas, i stopped by the nearest ribbon rack and bought a roll or three of red-plaid strands, and another one or two of bright red velvet. i picked up some skinny green wire, too, long as i was at it.

then i sat beside my tree and tied and tied. in fact, i was making up for lack of ornament. when you first start out in the christmas department, you’ve not got a lifetime of ornaments to call your own.

not got the little wooden nurse, the one once given me by a beloved pediatric patient. not got the sequined pine cone dipped in glue and glitter by my once-upon-a-three-year-old. not got the sweet red pocketbook–the size of a dolly’s and clutching a lucky penny–once handed me by my brother’s long-lost girlfriend.

and back then at the beginning, lest i subscribe to some naked christmas club, in which the ol’ evergreen was bare but for all the twinkly lights, i had to fill things out with the gobs and gobs of bows.

year one, it worked. so much so i barely went to bed, if i recall, just sat there all night long, admiring the heck out of my knack for tying knots.

but ever since…well, see…

every year, come, oh, february, when i get around to dismantling that old tree, i unhinge the bows and stuff them back where they belong, in the shoebox that never was quite roomy enough for all that red-plaid overabundance.

this then would be some 29 years later, which means those bows have spent the better part of 319 months utterly squished and rather cramped besides.

problem is, when you’re a bow, no one hears your cries for help, and thus you are simply stranded.

so you do what any self-respecting bow would do: you protest. you get a little cockeyed. you unloose your knot. you decide you’ll do anything but act or look quite like a bow.

you decide, after all those months in darkness, that you’ll subject your captor to a little taste of what she so surely deserves: you will humiliate the heck out of her, should she be so tone-deaf, so tasteless, as to hang you out in public.


you now know, i suspect, why all the trees in the lot cringe when i walk by. you understand, i suppose, why at my house the fir is cowering in the corner.

it’s the godawful bows causing all the trouble.

if only i’d give ‘em up and spring for new ones.

but, geez, don’t they get it: you don’t just up and dump all that history.

why, those bows have seen it all, apartment after apartment, chapter after chapter.

the little house where i was tucked upstairs, with the downstairs landlords who stuffed me in their pickup truck and drove us to a far-off farm so we could chop a spindly tree. never mind that they were all dead, the trees, once we got there.

the old victorian where both my boys were born, where each one–barely old enough to wobble without flopping–got plunked on the couch so i could plug in the lights and watch their eyes go gaga.

heck, those red-plaids even made the move from the gritty city to out here where it’s all leafy and so not-urban.

thus, despite the cries of protest from my boys, the ones who claim they’re ashamed to call that tree their own, the bows come out, year after year after year.

and do not pass this around, but even i’m a tad embarrassed. even i deduce the need for a dash of christmas sprucing.

matter of fact, i was all alone this year when it came time to do the bows. and, even though i didn’t see another soul around, i heard the words, “godawful bows,” come out of someone’s mouth.

so now they, too, know the awful truth.

somehow, though, i find it fitting that mine’s a tree that’s far from picture perfect. and therein lies in truest beauty.

do you have something unsightly that, every year, is part of your tradition? something that perhaps is all the dearer for its odd shapes, and bumps and bruises?

as we move now into “year three, the chair,” i’ve not quite decided just what my routine will be. till i figure that out, i’ll keep writing on wednesdays. but perhaps, i’ll switch to fridays. no matter which, you know the table’s always here, so it doesn’t much matter, most likely.


it’s a pair now. a twinned set. there was one. and now, two.

for two swift years this little black place, with the alphabet in white, it’s been a nook, a cranny, a cove of my heart.

some days it’s the place where i curl up in a ball, but keep typing anyway. some days it’s where i let rip my ball of kite string, and hope to lick the clouds.

two years. day upon day, week upon week, laced together by the ebb and flow of seasons, tumbling leaves, cresting moon, the stars, the birds, the growing child.

life passes, i reach out and grab it by the fistfuls, put it down in words. take snapshots. suddenly, there are volumes, I and II. not bound. not tucked on a shelf. but here to read and read again. to remember.

that’s the point, after all.

to hold up each and every day, each moment, as if the holy blessed communion host on the altar, in the church, when the priest in all his robes takes a simple chunk of bread, of wafer, and with a sweep of arms and silken vestment, raises it up, holds it still, so we the people in the pews can behold it, drink in what it means.

so it is with life. and days. and hours. and incidental moments.

we hold them up in words, in snapshots, so we can gaze and think and study. so we can understand what might not be so evident the first time by.

it is why writers write. we write to think, to feel, to absorb, make real.

and so, two decembers ago, a chilly day, like this one, a bright one, too, i set out to start scratching in the sand. i had an inkling. i was breathing life into each and every syllable the way a kindling log needs bellows to turn to flame.

over time, and with each passing paragraph and page, i found, in part, what i was groping toward: a voice, a whisper, a deep still sense that there are those of us who hear and feel and partake of the same soft stirrings.

we don’t much believe in noise, not for the sake of sound alone. we prefer to stitch our hours and our hearts and our homes with knots of grace. and beauty, too. defined not by magazines, but by eternal spirit. what was and always will be a light divine.

it’s what i look for every day. it’s what i hope to harvest, bring home in little bundles and bushel baskets, maybe.

to each of you who has joined me here, who has pulled up a chair, even only once in a long while, i thank you.

it’s been a lonely year, a long year, in some everlasting ways. but whenever i tiptoe back to the table, and find you’ve been here, left a word, a story, or a simple nod, well, i am filled more than you will ever know.

it is a fine thing in this world to know there is always a safe place to come home to, a gentle place, a place where love surely reigns.

bless you, so very much, for making this humble table so deeply alive. you’d almost think, some times, that it was real. and not just a figment of our computer screens.

being still

curious thing this december, more than ever, it is the stillness that speaks to me. that i seek. that some days i grope toward as if a blind one making my way through the woods on nothing more than the steadiness of my footsteps and the fine-grained whorl of my fingertips rubbing up against the underbrush, telling me i’ve lost my way.

it is as if the deep dark stillness itself is divining me toward home.

which, of course, it is. it always is.

oh, there’s noise all right this december. clanging like a cymbal in my ear, the squawking from the news box, the screeching of the brakes, the sound of plain old money gurgling down the drain.

but i am–in my best moments–pushing it away.

oh, i take it in in stiff long drinks–the news, the noise, the grave distractions–but then i do odd things: i lift the blinds at night so i can watch the snowflakes tumbling. i wind the clock and listen to its mesmerizing tick and tock. i sit, nose pressed to frosty pane of glass, and watch the scarlet papa cardinal peck at berries on the bough.

i am practicing the art of being still.

stillness, when you look for it, is never far away, and not too hard to grasp.

i find, though, it takes a dose of concentration. and sometimes a stern reminder; i mumble to myself, be still now. but then i find my steps determined.

just the other night, my heart most surely trampled, i climbed the ladder to the attic, pulled down the box of christmas treasures, the ones that spark the eyes of my little one, my little one who could not care about bankruptcies and buyouts–though he is sadly quite abreast on both.

it is advent time for my little one, and so it is advent for me. it is the counting-down time, the something-coming time of darkest winter. and, in my good spells, i am deeply, urgently, savoring the getting there.

i am hauling out my usual armament of soothers and elixirs. i simmer spices on the stove. i scatter corn on drifts of snow. i kindle candle flame. crank soulful christmas tunes. tiptoe down the stairs in deep quietude of night, and stumble onto moonlight making magic out of blue-white undulations in the yard.

i am even dropping to my knees, or curling up in bed with incantations on my lips. they carry me to sleep some nights; what better lullabye?

i am ever thankful this december for the one bright side to all the downturn: there will be little shopping this year. no running here to there.

i will simply look the ones i love squarely in the eye. i will tell them how deeply and dearly i depend on their presence in my every blessed day.

and among the ones i love there will be the cheery fellow who drives the bus that hauls my little one to school, the pink-haired checker at the grocery store who always makes me laugh, the neighbors who every time i ask open their door and let my little one come in to play.

there are the voices faraway, the ones who call and calm, the steady ones, the ones who make me laugh. the one who calls merely to “sit with” me on a night when she guesses i just might need some sitting.

it is an advent this year of simple things: there is a ring of candles on the kitchen table, one new one lit each and every week, till at december’s peak there will be a rising cloud of incandescence as we join our hands and pray.

there is a string of red-plaid pockets, each one numbered, 1 to 24, strung from one window to another, and every single morning, my little one rushes down the stairs to find the sweet tucked there inside the number of the day.

it is, as it so often is, my littlest one who softens me, who stirs me back to stillness, who insists we not forget to give the twisty fir its drink. who takes me by the hand so i don’t crash and break. who asks his big wise brother if he too “checked advent,” (meaning did he yet dig out his daily dose of duly-numbered sweet).

it is, nearly as deeply, the thick meringue of snow bending all the branches. it is the flash of scarlet feather at the window. it is the sound of orange peel simmering. and the tinkling of the spoon scraping at the bottom of the cocoa-filled mug.

these are the things that make for stillness, or rather are the keys on the ring that might unlock it after all.

it is, in fact, the heart, the soul, that are the vessels of pure true stillness: those chambers deep inside us that allow for the holy to unfold. the birthing rooms, perhaps, of our most essential stirrings.

to be at one with all that matters. to begin the pulse-beat there where the quiet settles in and the knowing reigns.

it is, yes, in the stillness that the sacred comes.

and this december, more than ever, i am blessed to find it’s that, simply surely that, that is carrying me through this tangled woods.

i type this in the interlude between the madness of this week. and i wonder how you too seek stillness. do you hunger for it? do you find yourself distracted by the worldly buzz? do you get lost in the woods sometimes? or have you forged a steady path to that place that soothes you?
in two days, the chair turns two. i’ll be back to mark the day. as always, bless you for pulling up your chair…

santa letter breakfast

by jove, someone once declared, i think it’s working.

yes, as i struggle here in the little box i call home, as i try in every way to teach my boys an odd way of living, a way in which any breakfast offers chance for falderal and hoopla, it seems the little one has picked up a thing or two.

and thus it was the other morn that he declared a new tradition had been born.

twas santa letter breakfast, he informed, to be marked ever after on the friday morning following the big gold bird’s disgorging from the oven. you know, the feast that oddly marks pilgrim survival and what mighta been billed the first american potluck by picking on the poor dear turkey, pitiable creature that he surely is, with or sans his dusty dirty feathers.

ah, well, back to the birthing of said tradition–the letter-writing one, not the one with all the thanks and stuffing.

while i frittered away the middle-morning hours dissecting clementines, flicking pomegranate seeds here and there in bloody splattering, seems the young one was hard at work inventing his tradition.

we do these things on the fly around here, so i barely noticed when suddenly he was snipping pages from a pad of neatly-lined papers, and laying down one per placemat, along with requisite pen.

ah, but then came the announcement. “we’re having santa letter breakfast,” was precisely how he put it.

“come sit down and have the tradition,” he hollered to the four nearest creatures, including, of course, the cat, who was spared neither page nor pen.

and with that, there splurted the SPLAT in my heart–no, not from pomegranate pellet–that signaled to my brain that told my mouth to let out a sigh.

thusly, i did as ordered: ohhhhhhhhhhh, sighed i.

young lad was promptly rewarded with pluck of puckered lips smack dab on top of pointy sweatshirt hood (we are saving on heating bills around here and have taken to forced layering to fend off pneumonias and other pulmonary ailments, in case you question our sartorial, um, lumpiness).

i tell you, before we could pull out chairs, the young one was deep in what we dubbed the preamble to the list. he got all chatty, yes he did, that pen rambling right along. reintroduced himself first off, lest the big guy forgot him o’er the summer months. politely, he inquired about each and every reindeer. asked what the elf’s name was. and only then did he get into the raison d’etre behind it all: the list, i tell you, the santa list.

(poor child, he never really got too far, as his mama cut him off at a mere three requests, popping this year’s christmas bubble with some diatribe about recessions and the standard, annual, let’s-not-be-greedy–as if ol’ santa ever had a penpal who had to entertain such sobering equations.)

of course, i too penned a missive to the old polar elf, somehow turning mine into a tragic treatise on how squishy the north pole is these days and then wound into how i didn’t want a thing because–sigh–we have everything we could want or dream of. (in my p.s. i added that maybe a dumptruck load of birdseed might not be a bad thing.)

and, soon as he’d wiped his lips of the last of the egg and cheese, the high schooler unspooled a good dose of his droll 15-year-old wit.

exhibit A, for instance: “well, i dunno, what exactly i might want, you know? it’s really tough when your 7-year-old brother spontaneously declares that it’s whole-family-write-santa-letters-all-at-once day….maybe i’ll get back to you…”

once we’d all penned and read aloud our santa letters, i happened to opine that it felt not unlike writing letters to God, this sitting down for our seasonal tete-a-tete with santa dearest.

that somehow made the droll one nearly tumble off his chair in fits of tears and laughter. as he choked i thought i heard him mumble something about how that line would now be immortalized for years and years to come. at my expense, of course.

even so, it made me think how fine a thing it is that somehow we’ve corralled these kiddies into thinking tradition is a fine way to mark the days and weeks that string together to make a year, and not long after, a well-lived life.

we’ve traditions sprinkled throughout so many days, why you need a day-minder to keep it all straight. there is the trail of paper hearts one cold february morn. and the annual rolling pinecones-in-pb-and-seeds for feed-the-birds day, the saturday before christmas. there’s get-up-at-3-a.-m.-for-soup-kitchen on christmas eve, so you can spend the long day bleary eyed as you stir the soup that santa just might slurp.

and now, it seems, there is the annual penning of the santa politeness-as-preamble-to-wishing list while dodging pomegranates.

splendid is it not?

truly it is, to see the twinkle there in the eye of the child. to feel the pride in his heart that he now is old enough, and certain enough of his place on the planet and in our little domestic society that he too can make proclamations and set the agenda for the marking of time and moment.

it’s not a bad thing to imbue an ordinary morning-after breakfast with something meant to put heft to the occasion.

as i’ve done every other year, when no one was looking i folded up the letters, slid them in a drawer.

some day, when he is grown, perhaps in need of child-sized inspiration, i’ll pull them out. so he can read, and remember, that once upon a time, he felt santa himself worthy of a family gathering ‘round, pouring out our hearts before asking for a single something.

merry almost christmas, indeed.

i’ve somehow managed to type this while fanning off a fever and shuttling back and forth between news that more layoffs are unfolding at the place where i work. if somehow this got jostled in the telling, please do understand. it wasn’t exactly a night for telling ho-ho tales, as i set out to do.
but long as we’re here, do tell, do you have traditions birthed by you or a little someone in your life? why do you think they matter, and what do they bring to the house that you call home?