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Month: February, 2009

papa’s got a whole new song

just in time. just in the sweet holy nick of time.

just when you think the sides of your ribs are going to cave in, what with the hollow feeling inside. just when the gray-upon-gray gets to be downright bleak and not just moody, you walk out the door, maybe for some innocent, nearly archaic little chore–say, plucking the newspaper from down by the curb; who knew how suddenly that would seem quaint, going the way of the milkman, the knife sharpener, the man who sold brushes right at your door?

so there you are, minding your mind, traipsing along, trying to steer the toe of your slipper out of the way of the crash-course of mush that once was snow but now is all crusty and dingy and rather the hue of a staid banker’s trousers.

it’s then, somewhere mid-step, when suddenly the bright morning light is utterly shattered.

it’s papa, the bright crimson cardinal, the savior of so many graces. he is on high, and he’s warbling, all right and almighty.

he is belting out his sweet hallelujah, letting the notes land and melt on your near-frozen heart.

what he’s doing, in fact, is yodeling for chicks. uh-huh, that’s just what it is. it’s high time for hormones out there in the bird world, and just the same as if he was down at a corner on chicago’s boul mich, or smack dab in the thick of new york’s times square, and instead of a placard, front and back, “calling all girls,” he struts out his stuff with the cords in his throat.

he sings, darn it.

he sings so loud and so clear, and so stunningly vernally, you can’t help but spin on your spongey old slippers, and turn your eyes to the highest of heights.

he’s up there somewhere you know. you can hear him, all right. he’s waking the dead, for heavenly sake. or surely the tired, the ones who like you are just about run out of steam, who think just as you did the winter before that the spring never will come.

heck, you’re starting to think even the daffodil is folly, the figment of some fictional mind, and this year perhaps it might not come true, might not break through the crust of the earth after all. merely the stuff of fairy tales and make believe and frogs that turn into princes.

but you hear that bird, darn it. he is speaking to you, as much if not more than to all of the girl birds up in the limbs.

he is shouting down from wherever he is: do not despair, lady. yo, you in the fuzzy, coffee-stained slippers, there is reason for hope. don’t abandon your life raft.

you, the one with the duly-splotched fuzzies, you stand there, not minding one bit that your knees are now knocking from cold, and your arms are covered in goosebumps so big and so juicy it looks like you just stepped out of the pluckery, the place where the feathers are plucked from the hens that would be.

you stand there, you do, letting each one of his high notes, his song of the launch of the season, sink into each of your over-plumped pores.

the cardinal, you know, answers to a much higher light. he’s tied to the slant of the sun, yes he is. and he knows, way before you do, that just beyond this snow-crusted horizon, there is hope rising.

hope in the form of grass that’ll turn easter-grass green again. bulbs underground that’ll shove through the mud, reach for the clouds. maybe even unfurl, spread their petals, for crying out loud.

papa knows all that.

so you, the one who needs once again to remember, you stand there, rapt, paying attention.

you drink up his high notes, his middle notes and any old note in between.

he’s up there–you’ve spotted him now, on the highest darn branch in the landscape–he’s up there announcing the news: all is not this. faith, be not abandoned. you can’t see it at all, but good news is pulling out of the shed, hitchin’ the wagon. any old week now, you might start to feel zippier.

it is these nearly-missed moments, the folded-up notes tucked and dropped on the way, the treasure hunt that is the living of life, gretel’s crumbs in the woods, these are the things that keep us on course.

if we pause. pay attention. drink in the cups that are offered.

we can live by the squawks from the box. or the words on the pages that land on our stoop.

or, if we choose, we can align our ships with a whole other north star.

we can live by sunlight streaming in at a particular angle, little shoots poking through the tired old earth. or papa belting it out from on high.

papa who tells us in so many words: fill your lungs with my song, folks. it’s the song of the season to come. it’s the song that’ll carry you home.

some dreary mornings, it’s a bird on a branch who makes all the difference.

some days writing comes in fits and starts. some days i think it’s time to throw in the towel, take up auto mechanic-ing, maybe. or maybe get a job swirling the foam in someone’s grande skim latte. but then, i wander over here, and roll up my sleeves, and play games on the keyboard. i don’t worry too much ‘bout spinning in circles or darting in and out of the point. if to write is to roll up your pant legs and splash in the puddles, well, then i just got all sloppy wet again. by the day i feel more and more obsolete. just yesterday i sat in a meeting where a very young someone extolled the virtues of a new form of “writing.” well, no one called it writing, and it’s not really. you’re only allowed 140 strokes of the keys. then time’s up. your twitter is done. this, we were told, is the future. and i sat there feeling quite old. obsolete. heck, whatever happened to whole sentences, remember those ones that we’d diagram, with all the chutes and the ladders? so maybe my hours are numbered. maybe the paragraph is a thing of the past. thank you then, if you’ve stopped for a visit, for going along with the future of obsolescence. thank you for reading the winding road of a soul who has always found words the surest cure for what ails me, the only way i know how to pray. thanks for stopping by, here on the day of the red bird’s new song.

have you felt the stirrings of hope on the horizon? do tell.

when outrageous acts of kindness are the only sure thing

seems time, people. for all of us to pull up our chairs, circle in tight, make room for whoever’s there to your left. seems time, people, for an economic summit of the chair kind.

news everywhere we turn is getting drearier, bleaker, less inclined to offer us the reprieve of sweet dreams in the night. why, as one of the smart newsfolk in my newsroom said just yesterday, “it’s like your arm is getting cut off and you have to figure out how to keep on going.”

that sad statement in reference to the 20 fine souls–some of them legends in chicago journalism, which long has been the stuff of legend, of course–summarily fired, out of the blue, late last week. told to turn in their badges and be gone from the building by 5 the next day. oh, and no more insurance besides.

in times like these it seems to me the only thing that’s going to ensure our survival is the one thing i’ve not heard enough of, though i know, yes i know, it’s happening under the radar.

what we need, people, is to begin thinking outside of the box. we need to search for and exercise random and unspoken acts of pure kindness. we need to be each other’s safety net, when the net that’s out there is pocked full of holes.

this, then, is a call to kindness. to get up off our couches, the ones that sop up our sorrows and the runaway kernels of popcorn besides. we need to immunize each other with booster shots of no-reason-really acts of outrageousness. or even just simple delights.

see someone standing there in the rain at the bus stop? pull over. give ‘em a ride. what, you think you’ll get mugged, there in your leafy small town? and for you who dwell in the big bad cities, well, give ‘em a once-over, use your brain, then pull over as long as you don’t smell trouble.

or, perhaps it’s simply that someone you know is extremely down in the dumps. maybe what you need to do is get in your car, steer over there, right now, and knock on the door. and then, just sit there and listen. or bring over a movie. an A-number-one tear-jerker, and then the two of you can sit there, sobbing and blowing your nose, and by the end, by the time the credits are rolling, you’ll feel, oh, 10 pounds lighter, at least. unless of course you brought along milk duds and you look down and see that the box is, hmm, somehow all empty. oh, well.

far as i can tell, we need to start this stimulus right here at the kitchen table. we need to be bold. we need to be daring. we need, most of all, to remember that we too can be the solution. or at least a little smidge of it.

know someone out of a job?

know anyone who might maybe be able to in some way employ that someone? well, then: ask. write a letter. put in a good word. and, heck, maybe a plea. while you’re at it, go back to the someone and remind him or her just how splendid they are. trust me, they’re not feeling so splendid these days.

maybe that out-of-work someone, or anyone else, could use a big fat care package. tucked full of things you sure wouldn’t buy if you were counting out your very last nickels and dimes. i’d put in bubble bath. for certain. and maybe a long skinny vanilla bean. because who doesn’t feel a whole lot better inhaling the tropical pod? i might toss in a sleeve of saltines, because around here lately they’ve been curing all sorts of ails. campbell’s soup, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad idea either. chicken noodle’s great for the slurps, and tomato is known to calm a bad tummy.

what i’m thinking–and remember i’m no engineer, haven’t a clue really what makes a car pull out of the alley–is that it’s all about momentum. we rev up the engine, do our one little random act of pure goodness, next thing we know there’s combustion.

my good thing inspires your good thing. my one thing leads to two things. suddenly, we take off the ground. we’re humming here. good things are flying like rockets.

before long, we expect that that’s the way the world works.

i know, i know. i’m still basically a cock-eyed optimist. thinking, like glinda the goodwitch, all it takes is the shake of a stick, and poof, frogs turn to princes.

well, maybe not quite.

but what’s the choice, people? we sit here wringing our hands, rubbing raw our knuckles with worry. we pace in circles. breathe so rapidly and shallowly we all start falling down on the ground, in sad little heaps?

or, we begin here a catalogue of kindness.

beware, it might be contagious, and it could spread without warning.

so, sign up below. fling forth ideas. each and every one is free for the taking. if you try one out, and it works, report back.

we’re looking to start a revolution here. be not afraid. timid, be not.

get goin’ people, think outa the box. think kindness. and don’t shy away from outrageous.

it’s the only sure thing.

this is a democratic society here. vote once, vote often. the more we catalog, the more chance of getting this off the ground and taking true flight.
your ideas, stories, dispatches…sign in below.

february, framed

ah, yes, there it is, this miserable month at its most exposed: the whole topography of assaults, framed.

you see the snows retreating. the snows we thought would never ever stop. and thus, the detritus of winter, buried there, all those long weeks, is now–thanks to rare warm winds–revealed in all its gritty truths. peeled back. our winter sins laid bare.

my front yard, in fact, has unearthed a burying ground that suggests these things: someone in the neighborhood was havin’ hanky-panky, for they left their box of, um, supplies emptied at the border of my yard (i do not think the old stooped man who lives next door might have tossed it there); further, many, many folks did not think it necessary to scoop behind their pooch; and at least one someone was out there slicing bathroom tile into messy chalky bits (oh, wait, that was us). oops.

now, on top of all the dirt and soggy leaves and beat-up bird seed, there comes a february morning’s rain that’s gone from drizzle to downpour in just a few scant hours.

it is so unrelentingly dreary out there it makes me want to crawl under the bed and not come out till, hmm, how ’bout that far-off, fictive, balmy afternoon when the sun will be golden (not glaringly white, as it is when it dares to show nowadays) and easy like melted butter? when you’d have to be no longer breathing to not notice the uptick in the old earth’s pulse?

until that day that faith (and a little bit of globe-spinning science) tells us will come again, i think i’ll make like the groundhog and head back into my hole under the bushes.

what if we, like grizzlies and chipmunks and even spiders, were allowed to–heck, hard-wired to–spend our winter with our eyes sealed shut, and our snooze buttons scotch-taped temporarily into snooze position?

what if we weren’t expected to endure this annual misfortune, when our eyes want to turn inside out to keep from taking in the gloom? and our souls slink in line and take a number, hoping to be recycled, stuffed inside, say, a villager on the shores of lake batur, conveniently plunked down in the midst of paradisical bali?

instead, alas, we are left to do what we can to keep ourselves from getting pinned to the mat that is winter unrelieved.

now if all was snow and ice, i really don’t think i’d be complaining. i hold not a single grudge against white-on-white, the sin-less tableau. it’s this yanking back and forth, the sudden intrusion of mound-melting warmth that makes for climatological whiplash.

just get it over with, i say. do not dilly-dally here with days so warm the snow gets scared and shrinks into a puddle.

i’m not one to mind a day that’s gray. it’s when the ground is flecked with bits of mushy brown, and chards of black, and specks the color of a sooty chimney, that’s the equation that sets my skin to quivering. like a half-plucked hen, i am. cluckin’ mad and sassy in the henyard. scamperin’ here and there, looking for a hole to get me outa here.

ah, but there’s no escape.

so we are left to endure.

to make the most of these days in the month cut short, thanks to pompous emperor augustus, that roman show-off who highjacked a day from february to stick it onto august, the month so shamelessly named after him.

here’s a short survival list, in hopes we can hobble through till landscapes come in a color we can handle, white or green preferred.

eat strawberries.

or, in a pinch, merely stare at them. your friendly produce chap will sympathize if you simply whisper in his ear, let on as to how desperate you are for a vernal reprieve.

cut out paper valentines.

for extra fun, squiggle them with glue, then shake on glitter and watch it stick. this will get you through at least one long february afternoon.

stare out the window and wait for a plump red cardinal to land in a bush. on second thought, scratch that. you’ll notice the unrelenting gray-on-gray-on-gray and tumble deeply down in the dumps.

pour a fat cup of tea. steal away with the very most delicious book from the stack by your bed, the one that threatens to topple and knock you unconscious while you sleep. hmm, how do you know you’re unconscious when you are sleeping? see, february stirs such puzzles.

ditch it all and slink into the tub. don’t come out till your fingers look like raisins, a trick we love to play around here. anyone know the biochemistry of shriveled fingertips? just curious is all, and i have a little one who put that question to me just the other night.

sneak out to the store and buy a pot of daffodils. not the one-dollar bunch that will die in just days, but a pot–$2.99 at my grocery store–that’ll bloom like a teensy-weensy garden for at least a whole week, moving us that much closer to the next dreary month in the line-up.

pray for snow. but don’t tell your friends, because they might pummel you with snowballs once your wishes come true and it pours forth from the heavens.

lastly, move to new zealand, where february is the height of summer, veering toward autumn, the most flawless season that ever there was.

what gets you through the mucky month of winter exposed?

late-night worries come in all sizes

been burning lots of late-night kilowatts ’round here.

then, when the lights do go out, when the last ooze of lamplight is snuffed from the crack under the bedroom door, is snuffed from the last three steps up to where i try to sleep, i lay awake in the dark, worrying.

oh, don’t pity me, that’s not why i mention it. it’s a mama’s job, after all.

it’s just that what with all the late-night whisperings ’round here these past many days, well, i’ve been thinking an awful lot about this mama business. how it never quite eases. doesn’t let up.

seems the worries get bigger and deeper. what’s at stake matters more.

i remember back to the early days when the only thing keeping me up was the crying that some nights wouldn’t stop. the soft little lips, hungry lips, that nursed till the wee, wee hours.

and then how it was the run-away train, the one that charged through the darkness, came out from the corner, and in through the skylight. scared the wits, yes it did, out of my no-longer-little one, back when he was a boy.

and then, not so long after that, it was rough-and-tumble sorts of ordeals that, when you are the mother of a child with a tender heart, come only with tears. lots of tears.

these days the worries at my house come, at once, in two sets of sizes.

i go from one bedroom where the stories at bedtime are all about the boys who are teasing, singing lyrics ’bout boyfriends and girlfriends. where the whole class laughed along. and the substitute teacher did nothing. and the boy telling the story tells how he was near tears, but no one there noticed. and now, hours and hours after it all, he wants me to know. wants me to come to his rescue.

and i will.

because that’s what mamas do.

and, anyway, all week, he’s been watching me run through the house with my cape. the super-ma cape.

which, when you’re a grownup you know is a cloak of futility, though it looks supercharged, maybe, to a boy who’s gulping back tears. who doesn’t yet know: there’s only so much a mama can do.

though she can try. oh, she can try.

all week, i’ve been putting out fires. and lighting a few. trying to make sure, as best as i could, that a whole school was safe. and a boy i don’t even know. and a boy i call my own. a boy i love with all of my might.

what happened is, just like i said, worries come in all sizes. and last week, a big one arrived. the boy i love, the taller one, walked in the door and told me quite plainly that someone at school didn’t much like him. but that wasn’t all. he’d started a group, a hate group, he called it.

now i don’t know about you, but those there are words that explode in your head. you see great bursts of light. hear popping sounds. feel your arms, your hands start to shake.

you call the school. you tell them, in quite certain terms, that you are worried. and rather afraid.

you find out that, while once upon a time kids sat in classrooms, passed notes back and forth, nowadays they keep tabs on you, without even knowing you, from what you put on your internet page. they don’t like your politics, or your pictures, don’t like how you think? kaboom. they start up a hate group.

i’ve got a bit of a grasp on this now, after all of these days. but i tell you for a night or two there, i was worried as hell. couldn’t stop thinking, seeing scenes in my head. i’d been told a few facts, connected some dots. thought of columbine first. and then laurie dann, the mad gunwoman who burst in a school, killed a child and finally herself. right here on this very shore, north shore. leafy shore. shore that’s all dappled, shadow and light.

as if to hit me hard over the head, in case i’d not gulped the stunning fast-forward from baby-sized worries to ones that alarm every cell in your body, it so happened that the day all this unfolded was the day whole boxes of baby things were due to arrive, boxes from my house to far off in maine. where a baby is coming, where all will be pure, as it should be. as it was.

i couldn’t help thinking all that long day, just how quickly it changes. how one day you are worrying about diapers and colicky tummies, and then, in a blink, you are moving along, now thinking of kids whose scars you barely can fathom, how this is a world, frankly, that too often deals in what i’d call unfettered depravity. the vilest of words and of pictures.

i have a friend whose 7th-grade daughter got a note from a boy. he wanted to rape her, he wrote. this is the language.

just a month or two later, my firstborn comes home. tells me a story, tells me the words that were used. hate group and murder, the ones that alarmed me–and the school–most disturbingly deeply.

some nights when the dark settles in, i tiptoe from door to door of the bedrooms. i put my ear to the frame. i hear the sheets rustling, the pencil marks scratching.

it’s all i can do, really, to keep my two children safe. to stand there and listen and love them and pray.

some nights i wish i could lock all the doors, and keep out the bad guys. they come in all sizes, big ones and little ones.

they shake this house from rafter to rafter.

shake me too.

but i am their mama, so i tie on my cape and i lay there awake. i’ll not let a bad guy shatter the dreams of my children. so i’ll lay there all night, keeping watch on their doors, keeping worries and bad guys and run-away trains far, far away.

so help me, dear God.

are you, too, shocked by the stories our children bring home? are you afraid of so much that comes at them so soon? how in the world can all of us turn back this trash? i am taking a long hard look at what floods the lives of our children, what comes in on the internet, the language, the pictures. i’m lucky, perhaps, i write for a newspaper where i can dig for the truth and lay it out there for readers, in hopes that much comes out from the shadows, and we as grownups can begin to grasp what’s unfolding right under our noses. and what too often we don’t know, till the damage is done. time to wake up, i think. before too many sleepless nights pass us by.