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

Month: April, 2009

the quiet of my house

i’ve been cataloging, the last few days, the things i’ll miss.

i’ve been walking through my life keeping watch, and taking silent census.

it’s become, i’ve realized, an inventory of the ordinary made sacred.

i can’t deny, as i roam from room to room, this house of mine, this creaking groaning house, has, in many ways, become the vessel for a prayerful life.

no hallelujah chorus here, no cymbals clanging by the hour.

just the barely-noticed wisps–through the window panes, amid the wind-blown daffodils, cast upon the kitchen table–that launch for me a tapestry of joy and wonder.

a place of simple, daily prayer, is what it is. and what i’ll miss. so very much.

i’ll miss the birdsong all day long, and the doings of the little sparrows who, on the branch outside my window, propagate the species.

i’ll miss my sweet holy viburnum exploding right before my eyes. and my traipsings, not infrequent, to see what’s sprouting, improbably, through the sodden thawing earth.

i’ll miss knowing how the light slants in at noon. or 10. or 2.

i’ll miss being alone.

oh, i’m not going too far, and i’m not going so long, really. just downtown, three days a week.

it’s just that for 16 years almost, i’ve worked from where i live; i’ve lived from where i work. i’ve cleaned the sink, then put in a call to ms. or mr. know-it-all, or, sometimes, just the random hoi polloi.

i’ve dashed to close the windows when the rain came pouring down, and then returned to type a sentence. or several hundred. and all the while soaked up the rat-a-tat of pounding rain as it punctuated and permeated the percussive clicking on the keyboard.

i have, over all these years, found sublime the rhythms of my wholly seamless life, the way i’ve chopped onions while thinking up a verb. or made beds while waiting for the phone to ring. my one job never ends, and neither does my other. and i’ve come to love it that way–to count on it.

but, these days, much is changing. and last week the folks i write for told me i’ll be writing on their turf. not mine. they need me nearby. i understand, of course, but it hardly means that i’m not aching.

i started this experiment in typing lifetimes ago, really. i’d not yet birthed my firstborn, but one hot day in may, i waddled home, dumped my notebooks, and never did go back.

after he was born, i didn’t miss the office, not one day. didn’t give it a thought, not much anyway. not till the weeks turned into months and the unavoidable truth was seeping in: it was nearly time to start to type again. but i couldn’t leave. couldn’t figure out how i’d up and wrench myself away from the little one who owned my heart.

i had a boss back then–and now it seems like once-upon-a-time ago, the stuff of fairy tales–who said this to teary me: “i don’t care if you write from mars, just turn in great stuff.”

and so, from mars, i tried.

along the way, on this planet where i’ve typed, i’ve become a certain sort of mother-writer. and this old house–nearly as much as its inhabitants–has pulled me in, sunk into my bones. but even more, my heart.

these walls i’ve memorized. these creaky floor boards, and the pipes that sing. i know them all. we’ve grown accustomed to our quirky ways. i understand that the pipes are old, and whining now. i know the shower’s got the shakes, at least, that is, when you slam the water off, too swiftly for its feeble constitution.

more than anything, though, what i’ll miss are the ways my house invites the outside in. or, sometimes, how the outside merely barges in, not waiting for a proper beckoning.

it’s in the spilling of the sunlight, or the bird that perches on my sill, that i feel cupped some days in the palm of God.

i’ve grown porous over all these years, and my house has too.

seems i need the blessed stream of birdsong and the dappled light–it’s the holiest of holies here among us–to keep me upright, keep my knees from buckling under.

and it’s the uninterrupted hours alone in this old house and rambly garden that i’ve come to call my peace on earth.
but now, instead, i’ll ride a rumbling train, dodge taxicabs that nearly leap the curb. i’ll sit all day amid a room of metal cubicles, and crusty folk who cuss. an awful lot, i tell you.

it’ll take some getting used to, if i ever truly do.

and when the day is done, when at last i’m bumbling in the door, and safely back where i belong, i do believe i’ll traipse, all right. from room to room. around the so-called grounds.

i’ll wind the clock, perhaps. fluff the pillows that the cat has squished, shake out the bits of fur.

i’ll see what’s bloomed while i’ve been gone.

i’ll poke my nose where the sparrows built their nest.

i’ll search for signs that God stopped by–even if by flashlight, i have to comb for evidence.

oh, lordy, this was hard to write. i started back at half past five this morning, then stopped to do the million things the day demanded. some other day, perhaps, i’ll tell of the very hardest part of all of this–leaving the little one, the one who bounds in each day from school. the one who asked, “but, mommy, what if i come home all sad?”
or perhaps i’ll tell the story of the saint behind the byline, my mama who stepped right up to the plate, said she’d be here after school two days. and fix dinner, besides. i’m blessed. and so so tired. so g’night for now. i’ll be back to clean this up, tomorrow. for now, it’s the best these tired hands could type.

here lies bunn

my friend from the down the alley, the muddiest garden girl i know, came rapping at my kitchen door just the other day. the look on her face–wan, wide-eyed–told me something surely must be wrong.

i was running late that morn, and still in jammies.

can you come, she asked? there’s a bunny who needs a nurse.

thank the lord bunnies in distress do not check for valid nursing licenses. mine, alas, went kerpluey a few years back, the occupational hazard of being distracted by the news.

she explained that she’d just found the little thing; he was tucked up against the house, not moving so very much.

despite her love of all things of the earth, she was not so keen, it seemed, on nursing little bunnies. and besides, she had two cats. two often hungry cats.

oh, dear.

we decided that since i’d be fired if i was late–a fear that might run ironic any hour now, should the telephone ring-a-ling-a-ling–she would take first shift.

i’d be back by 2:15, i said. i’d be there soon as i could be.

indeed, i kept my word, worried all morning long about the bunn in some distress.

figured i’d cook up my wonder potion, the one i’ve used on baby bunns and birds and squirrels, all fallen from the nest. it’s part carnation milk-in-can, part molasses, two parts prayer. you dispense in little drops, lose sleep a night or two.

and any rescue, far as i have known, involves a cardboard box. always. never have i partaken of any garden triage without corrugated cardboard serving as the ICU.

as i loped down the walk, decked out in bunny nursing garb–muddy shoes, holey jeans, a pair of muddy gloves–i saw my muddy friend near-galloping toward me.

come quick, she said, spinning on her garden clogs.

and thus we tiptoed toward the little bunny’s side, the rescue box nested on the way with the softest driest grasses, thrown in in clumps as we passed her rusty wheelbarrow.

as we rounded the bend, we saw the one thing we did not wish to see: the hungry cat, standing much too close, a look of caught-me on its hungry face.

SHOO! we shouted, both at once.

and then dove in to do our mercy work.

the little bunn was there, all right. all fur and ears and just about the size of a golden goose’s egg. still breathing, too, though the up and down of belly fur and diaphragm came rather slow and not-quite-steady, pausing long enough to make you think each breath might have been his last.

and then his little jumping leg, the left one, wiggled just a bit.

so, right away, i dropped all thoughts of dripping droppers through the night. i knew at once, this was hospice care, i was being called to.

and somehow, suddenly, that felt all right. felt sanctified.

every hour of every day, in woods and garden shadows, there are little wisps of life extinguished. and no one’s there to watch, to whisper final benediction.

that’s just how the cycle flows. life to death. death to life again. no usher needed for these trips, it happens all alone, in silent solitude.

and what a holy sacred thing, then, that i, decked out in muddy shoes, would get to tend this dying thing.

isn’t that a blessing, on a chilly sunny april day? to be the caretaker at this precipice where life gives way to death.

my friend reached down and tried to lift the little ball of barely-breathing bunny. she lurched, and stopped, and looked to me. can you do this, she asked?

i gulped. then i dipped deep down, into that place reserved for times like this, when we need to put aside our wobbly selves and reach instead for fibers sure and steady.

we reach across the gulch from i-can’t-do to i-am-needed, and we do the thing we fear. we hold the hand that’s dying. we sop the blood. we wipe the throw-up off the bathroom rug.

we lift the dying bunny.

we pray and hold him up, feel the weightlessness of weeks’-old fur and bones and flesh, now limp and barely pulsing.

i felt the sun beat down, cool sun, april sun. i lay him on the bed of grass. i whispered holy words.

his care belonged to me now, this sacred time was mine to oversee. i knew at once i would lay him thick with flowers from the woods. sprigs of cobalt blue, and washed-out periwinkle. a daffodil or two, the tiny ones, with throats the size of hummingbirds’.

i brought him home, to my summer porch. laid him in a patch of sunlight, where his dying breaths would at least be warmed.

i sat beside him then. watched the breathing slow to almost none. i would not leave his side; wouldn’t let him die unwatched. i’d not want that; why would he?

and then at last, it came. the breath that was his final one.

i sat in utter stillness. and then in time i gathered up more stems and blooms from all around the yard.

my boys came home from school; each paid respects.

i went to grab the shovel.

this is indeed a holy task, the digging of a grave beneath our old tall trees, the laying to rest of woodland creatures, fallen to our care.

it makes a garden more than just a growing place, which it never really solely is, though that truth is sometimes overlooked with all the nodding blossoms and the buzzing bees.

when a bird or bunny’s buried there, it is indeed a plot of holy earth, blessed earth. it’s a sign to those who toil there that all of life is but a circle turning ’round.

and so i dug a hole, sliced blade into the earth, turned out a mound of piney dirt. i laid a nest of soft dried grass. dropped in petals pale, pink and blue and linen white. then, with tender gloves, i laid the bunny down. covered him in daffodils, added softer grasses still. then put back the shovelfuls of dirt, of earth, until it was a mound.

my boys chose not to watch this work, i did it all alone. and that’s all right. i’d taken on this bunny’s care, and i needn’t share its weight.

i rather cherished my long slow minutes under all the pine boughs, the dappled light of nearly-dinner time playing on the spruce’s fallen needles.

one more small bouquet i laid, just to consecrate the spot.

i tiptoed off, left the bunny all alone.

but now my garden’s richer than it was. my holy charge is there, not far away, where i can always keep my eye, and always murmur prayer.

it’s not everyday we’re called upon to tuck a life to everlasting sleep. but in these april days, when all around life is budding, bursting, chirping, it’s a holy thing to know: life, too, must end.

and in the end, we can bury it with grace and holy whispered wings, wafting heaven’s way.

as i type this i await word about big changes at the newspaper. already i’ve heard of heartaches that leave me stunned here in my chair. it’s only just begun, and like a grownup game of musical chairs, i’ve no idea if i’ll be left without a place to sit. i’ve no idea if i arrived at where i set out to write today, but it’s an odd day for storytelling when you have no clue if they’ll let you tell another–at least in the pages you’ve called home for 27 years. alas, we wait…

she’s here: a falling-in-love story

i oughtn’t say a word today: just let you drink her in, gulp after gulp; she’s more than plenty, really.

behold those long, long fingers. check out the little feets. and what of the face so round? and the perfect pink of her complexion? i’m certain she feels like velvet, rare and pricey, the finest bolt there ever was; a creamy smooth you’d not forget.

alas, i’m too far away to let her wrap my finger tight, not just yet anyway. and i ache to kiss those lips. and press her to my heart. so while i wait to flap my wings, and swoop down beside her, i’ll just ramble on a while, tell the story of the girl who came at last.

this is ella’s story, a falling-in-love story. the first of oh-so-many.

* * *
what you need to know, my little love, is i’ve been waiting for you for a very, very long time.

hmm. let’s see. maybe half a century.

and, mind you, i’m that plus two. what i’m thinking, though, is it must have been right around when i was two, maybe before, when i started to wish for a little girl all my own. or even one that i could share.

i was, i am told, a girly-girl from the get-go. i know i carried a purse wherever i went. even into a lake, once. and, always, i clutched a dolly. wrapped her in a blanket, never forgot to feed her from the wee plastic bottle, one with make-believe milk sloshing around inside. dunked her right in the sink, too, whenever she needed it, scrubbed her itsy-bitsy plastic toes.

i was, am, ever will be, a dolly girl.

there are girls who like trucks. and mud. and high-hoppin’ frogs.

and there are dolly girls.

i like mud, all right. and don’t squirm (not too much, anyway) when i pick up a frog. or even a worm.

but give me a baby, put me within yards of a baby, and i, like the mud, get mushy. all oozy-goozy mushy.

i imagine, even though i cannot recall, that growing up i made my babies be the girl kind. all around me, you see, were the boy kinds. one after the other, except for me, my mama kept poppin’ out boys. four in all. your papa is one of them. no. 3 of them, as a matter of fact.

oh, i liked them just fine. climbed trees with them. stayed up late in the night listening to ballgames, there in the dark, curled on the edge of one of their beds, the score and the crowds squawking from the radio.

on occasion, we rescued each other from peas we couldn’t bear to swallow, or tuna casserole. we giggled clear across the country, more than once, stuffed back in the back of the station wagon, bumping all the way. especially across indiana, the state that would never end.

but, oh, how i longed for a girl. ached, even.

at last, when i was 11, and one final time my mama went off to the hospital deep in the night, i lay there holding my breath. i was sure this round my prayer of prayers would be answered, and i’d at last have my very own girl.

i still remember my papa tiptoeing to my bedroom door that early dawn in the winter of 1968. the only one in the house yet awake, i’d been listening for his footsteps, awaiting the good news.

“you have a baby brother,” he told me, beaming, ruffling my hair. i tried hard not to cry, not to let on that, somehow, that wasn’t the something i’d been telling my guardian angel i wanted, the baby sister i swore was due me.

and then i grew up. got told myself, five times, that i was having a baby. once, it was a girl. but she didn’t live to be big enough, and i only held her one time, before we buried her, right atop my papa’s chest in a cemetery where neither one, now, is alone.

i have two boys. and with all my heart i love them. even though, alas and indeed, they’re not girls.

i wasn’t too deterred. bought a dollhouse anyway. collected tea sets. rolled out cookie dough. taught them all the things that make for tender hearts.

but i’ve not had a girl to dress in ruffly underpants. not had a girl to shower in dollies. nor even to plan elaborate teas. (don’t know if anyone’s tried, but a teaparty with boys is mostly about spilling the tea, and gobbling teeny cakes fast as you can, and then, poof, it’s over, and you’re left alone to sop up the mess.)

and, so, when months ago, word came that this blessed child (yup, that would be you) was–at long last–a she who was on her way, well, i was beside myself, tickled pink as pink could be.

so many picture frames clicked in my head: the hand i would hold as we walked through an orchard, the pies we might bake, the frilly skirts i would buy. and the overalls. the baby dolls i’d wrap and send you for christmas–or just because it was, oh, a monday.

utter truth be told, and of course i swear i know this: in a million different ways, it makes no difference that you are a she. not really, anyway. not at all.

you see, long, long ago, your papa and i made a promise, launched a kite of a dream: we would be for each other’s children, every thing we could ever imagine–and then some. we’d hoped to raise you all side-by-side, in a yard with trees without end.

life, though, rewrote passages of that plot.

my babies came first, by years and years.

but, boy oh boy, your papa’s kept up his end of the promise. quite beyond description: he’s built hot-air balloons with my firstborn, trekked to his second-grade classroom to help sculpt a flock of larger-than-life monarch butterflies, baked a saturn cake with spun-sugar rings and sparklers. he’s taught him of plato, and how to ride the “el” all around town.

my littler one, he’s adorned with, among other marvels, a papier-mache elephant head named omar (sculpted out of old clothes, believe it or not). your papa and my little one used to scoot side-by-side, for many blocks, to dine on hot dogs and green river sodas, plopping in the grass when they couldn’t scoot any longer, to watch the clouds change shapes. and your mama one summer spent every wednesday teaching my little one most important things, like how to roll up in aluminum foil, or build cities out of purple-heart scraps from your papa’s woodshop.

when they moved off to maine, your papa and mama, they left behind a glass prism to hang in my little one’s window, so every morning, still, he awakes to rainbows, scattered like thistle seeds, on every wall of his bedroom.

i tell you truly, in the end, girl or boy, it didn’t really matter.

but, well, for a girl who’d always dreamed in shades of pink, this girl news was something to behold. after all these years. i was more than swooning as we counted down the days.

the call came just the other afternoon.

your mama cried when she left the message. her voice cracked as she reported the news, “things are progressing along. and we’re very excited.”

from that moment on, i was suspended. moving through space here, but wholly transported to there. i shopped at the grocery store, but couldn’t tell you what i bought. instead, in my head, i was far off in maine, at your mama’s and papa’s side, putting cool cloths to her brow, holding hands, waiting.

i couldn’t go to bed that night, knowing you were all, at last, at the hospital; knowing you might or might not be coming before the morning. last i’d heard, all had stopped, and you might have paused for a last-minute nap. i knelt down beside my bed, stayed there for a long, long while.

and then, at last, at 1:34 in the morning, the phone rang, woke me from a dream. it was my mama. “she’s here,” she reported, at which, of course, i started to cry.

shaking, and bumping into walls in the dark, i ran down the stairs, dialing.

your papa answered, wrapped me in the story of how you arrived. told me that, at last, when your dark, dark eyes locked in a gaze with his, he was thunderstruck. lost in deep unending love, the kind that hits you with a thud.

and then, yesterday afternoon, i heard what i’d been waiting for, for months and months and 50 years: the undulating coos coming from your lungs and lips, the sound of your most holy gurgles.

i wept, no surprise. keep weeping at the fact that at long last we’ve got our girl. my girl, i try hard not to say. for you are not mine, but ours, no matter how fierce and deep i love you already.

i imagine a lifetime with my b’ella ella. i intend to be the auntie babs of any girl’s dreams. i’ve already written you once, on the day you were born, told you to call anytime. i am ready and listening. standing at attention.

i know already that you’re blessed beyond words with the mama and the papa in whose arms you’ve just landed.

but should i have any little bit to add to your growing up, your becoming, i promise you this: i will be for you what i’ve tried to be for my very own, a source of love unending. a pair of ears, deeply listening. i will take you by the hand, teach you of the garden and the birds and the bumblebees, things your papa and your grandma surely will teach you too.

i will roll out cookie dough by your side, stand you on the stepping stool, let you lick the spoon. teach you the art of the doily, something your great grandma lucille would have wanted you to know. i will read you storybooks. maybe even write you one. i will fly you on a plane, bring you here for days on end. i will tuck you in at night, whisper love songs in your ear. spoil you silly.

we will bite into strawberries at breakfast. go out for lunch. take picnics to the beach. i will kiss your toes. and run the brush through your maybe-curly hair, beautiful like your mother’s.

i will grow old with you. and you will always know that you’re my girl.

the one i waited for, forever.

and now that you’re here, at last, i’m not letting go. not ever. not a chance.

elena benham mahany was born at 1:25, eastern standard time, on the 14th day of april, 2009, in mercy hospital in portland, maine. she is tuesday’s child, full of grace.
her mama–becca, who i love so much–is over-the-moon, and radiant. and so’s her papa, too.
my brother david–furniture maker, master gardener, latin scholar–now adds father to his many gifts.

i am hoping he’ll pen below a few fine words. he writes like no one else.

please welcome her–miss EBM–with words of wisdom, prayers of grace. i rambled on too, too much, but i am spilling over on this perfect april day.

and happy birthday, too, to the mama of the man i love, ginny dearest, who i love so much.

hours of dappled shadow

we sat stretched out in the window, my firstborn and i, our stockinged feet just barely touching, our hearts clearly entwined.

we sat stretched out in the window in the hours of darkness on the afternoon of the day we call good friday. but really it is shadowed friday. friday of dappled afternoon, dark and light, playing as it did on the pages of the words he allowed me to read aloud.

i invited him in, my jewish-souled child, invited him into my room, where always on this very deep friday, i grow quiet, honor the story with my silence and prayer. insist, in a very old way, that the whole house be shrouded, be deep, be filled with silent prayer.

i’ve never been one to push what i believe. rather i offer it out, a wisp, a seed, at a time. gauge the winds, see if it catches.

this friday though, as the hand of the clock swept past twelve, ticked toward three, the hours when the nuns and my mother taught me, so deeply they did, to keep watch on the skies, to watch the darkness roll in, eclipse the sun, remember the sorrow, i started to read.

these words did i read, as i made my way through the way of the cross, the trail of so many tears from the moment jesus is condemned to his death, to his crucifixion, at last to the laying of his body into the tomb:

the first station: jesus is condemned to death

“lord, that i may see!”
give me faith to recognize You in those under my own roof;
in those who are with me, day after day, on the way of the cross,
let me recognize You, not only in saints and martyrs,
in the innocence of children,
in the patience of old people waiting quietly for death,
in the splendor of those who die for others;
but let me also discern Your beauty
through the ugliness of suffering for sin that You have taken upon yourself,
let us know You in those who are outcast, humiliated, ridiculed, shamed;
in the sinner who weeps for sins committed.
let me see You, jesus, condemned to death,
in myself, and in all who are condemned to die.*

it was then, after reading those words, that i realized i wanted to invite him, my firstborn, into my chamber of prayer.

it was then, realizing the whole of my life view was held up in these stanzas and lines–the notion that the Divine dwells within every last one of us, if only we take the time and heart to see, truly to see–that i thought i might cast one of my seeds, see if it caught, if it mattered.

for two nights now we’ve told and re-told the exodus story. i listened, asked questions, paid attention when one wise friend spoke of the power of myth. how verifiable fact isn’t the point, but truth is.

and how myth in the end is all about truth, all about passing on kernels and seeds and endosperm truths. and praying, somehow, maybe it takes, sends out its own tender shoot.

i thought as she spoke of my own dappled years, years of shadow and light, of doubt and belief, of knowing and not.

i thought as i read through these words, warm in the light of the sun pouring in, soft against the pillows and blankets, that these words truly feed me.

and that’s when i thought: let me give him a taste, my child who once asked who tucked in God at the end of the day, when it was time for sleep to come to all who’d toiled all day?

i called to him, invited him in. can i read you the stations, i asked? can i read you the way of the cross, unspooled in modern-day terms?

“oh, sure, i’d love that,” he answered quite quickly.

i admit to a skip in my heart.

and then we sat, he and i, warm under blankets, our toes just barely touching, as page after page, i read this modern and moving interpretation of the way of the cross.

considered how jesus fell three times under the weight of the cross-thatched timbers, considered him stopping to talk to the women along the side of the road, considered veronica wiping his face, read these words from the text:

“drive me by the strength of your tenderness to come close to human pain. give me your hands to tend to the wounds of the body and the wounds of the mind. give me your eyes to discern the beauty of your face, hidden under the world’s sorrow. give me the grace to be a veronica: to wipe away the ugliness of sin from the human face….”

my firstborn listened as i read, and then, when i started to cry, reading the words of jesus’ third fall, considering all the falls of my own, the stumblings, he looked quietly up, compassionate, touching my face with his gaze.

he sighed as i sighed.

and then, after i’d read of the dying on the cross, and the laying in the tomb, we both sat in the dappled light, the shadows crossing the sky, the sky ever-so-faintly turning to gray.

he fell asleep, my firstborn.

and i lay there, praying and wondering, wondering and praying.

that is how i spent the hours of dappled shadow, the hours of knowing that in light and in darkness, i’d found a truth and scattered the seed.

and maybe, just maybe, it took.

* text for prayers by caryll houselander, the way of the cross, st. nicholas church, evanston, illinois

God bless you this holy friday. more overtly religious than usual, this meandering up above, but sometimes it feels like the right thing to do. you’ll understand, i’m sure of that. this is my holy day of days. and these are the holy days for so much of the world, as we wait and watch the laborings of winter’s deep sleep give birth to the soft green newness of a planet bursting to breathe life again.
i wait as i type for that baby who, miles and miles away, is beginning to stir in her mama’s womb, who any day now will fill the arms of my brother and becca, whose sounds will travel the wires, across the miles, and who i will know for the very first time.
i think of these things this good friday.
and what about you?

when purple is more than a color

we all sat in a circle, two moms, the teacher and 20-some second graders.

we were there, i began, to talk about something very important. and there was no one more important to talk about it, i told them, than the little one sitting next to me, one for whom the depth of the story will likely spill out in bits and gushes for the rest of his life.

“the idea,” he began, “is that since my sister died we’re having a fundraiser for all the kids who are sick. you can walk or run. and there’ll be t-shirts and artists and even a band.”

he said he thought maybe the money we were trying to raise would pay for the artists and the band and the t-shirts.
i asked a few questions, and then, when he was all finished, when at last he let out a sigh, and i asked if there was anything else important to say, he shook his head no, and those big soulful eyes of his started to smile.

he had the attention of every one of us in the circle, and he’d gotten to speak from that tender, proud place tucked in his heart.

then it was my turn: i added that what was really beautiful about the family’s idea, this idea to hold a walk-a-thon named for the sister, kira, who died, was that the money was going to pay for an art therapist–someone who draws or does papier mache with sick kids, i explained–someone who would work with the children with cancer at children’s memorial, the place where kira once had been so very sick, and the place where i once had been a nurse with those same kids with cancer.

an art therapist, i told them, is very important when you are a kid who’s sick in a hospital. and pictures and paint and scissors and glue, sometimes, are better than words when you’re sick and afraid and feeling all kinds of very big feelings.

that’s when i looked over and saw the girl in the purple shirt crying. her mama just died in the autumn. her mama had cancer too.

because the teacher in this circle is one of those masterful ones, she’d known, before the talking even began, to slide herself in right next to the girl.

and as the tears slid down the little girl’s cheeks, as her face turned from pink to practically red, as she held in the sobs, so very bravely, the teacher ever so gracefully–in that way that masterful teachers or mamas or papas or any sort of comforting soul knows how to do–draped her arm right around the little one’s shoulders, and drew her in tight. wordlessly, she was the brace that got the heartbroken child through the tears, back to the unfolding circle.

my reason for being there was simple enough: to find out, from the children, what we might bake for the bake sale; what we might sell at the soccer concession stand.

i knew going in that because the brother was there, the brother of kira, the beautiful girl who two and a half years ago died of a tumor lodged in her brain, i knew it could be tight steering, picking just the right words so as not to stir pain for the one sitting just to my right, the one who was 5 when his big sister died.

so worried i was about him, i’d not zeroed in on the two other girls in the class, both of whom had once lost their mamas. and as soon as i saw the one’s tears, it was all i could do to keep on going.

we went on with our meeting, somehow, without even stumbling, the teacher tenderly handling the hard part, me merely taking ideas for what we might bake.

the hands, and the suggestions, came swiftly: brownies, gingerbread, scones, a pie, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, cinnamon rolls.

i then said we might also sell bracelets. mentioned how purple was kira’s most favorite color. and then i asked her little brother, what color purple she liked best.

he answered, i noticed, in the present tense, in that tangle of tenses that so often occurs after a death when you start to swallow the truth that forever more the tense will be past.

“she likes light purple the best,” he informed us, sitting up straighter, more fully as he warmed to his role as the expert, the brother, the youngest of four.

and that was when a hand shot up, a girl who had to blurt out: “when you were talking about purple i had a brainstorm,” she said. “how ‘bout if we do cupcakes and make them purple?”

and then all at once the circle was spouting purple ideas. purple cookies, someone shouted. purple muffins, someone else thought. purple lemonade.

purple tie-dye t-shirts. purple hats. purple friendship bracelets.

we even changed the name of this fundraising team. we had been crowley’s clan; now we added a definitive clause. i explained how a colon is really a punctuation traffic sign that tells you something really important is coming, so i said, how ‘bout if we are crowley’s clan: the purple squad.

so that’s what we are. and that’s what we’ll do. daydream in purple. brainstorm in purple. come up with as many ideas as we can of ways to broadcast kira purple.

even the girl with the purple shirt, her tears now dried, her face back to palest of pink, she was waving her hand. she had an idea: purple cups.

purple napkins, someone else said.

then we voted on what we would bake. cookies won, 8 to 5 to 4, beating out cupcakes and brownies, though we’ll bake those too. purple muffins apparently weren’t too enticing; they got zero hands in the air.

all the while, as all the purple ideas were filling the air, i felt the boy next to me, kept watch on his eyes. he was sparkling now, the one whose sister was gone.

a whole room of children was working together, weaving ideas, stitching a patchwork of comfort.

i felt it, i swear, as his arms and his back and his shoulders were draped in the soft folds of its blanketing cloth.

by the time the meeting wrapped up, as i stood to gather my notes and walk out the door, i marveled again at the power of children. how they explode with ideas, if you give them an ear, how they comfort and care for each other.

how, if we let them, they teach us volumes and volumes about what it means to be our brother’s keeper.

God bless the children.

God bless them and bless them and bless them.

yet another quick little tale, a page snatched from the journal of daily living. some days it seems the most important moments unfold not as i’m doing my job, or chasing the long list of errands, but simply being alive to the very real stuff, the theology of being alive.

i’ll be back on friday, for good friday, the most somber of days, among the most deeply holy. tonight is the start of passover, the story of exodus told year after year. this year, it unfolds right on top of holy week, so in our jewish-catholic house we are steeped in religion and tradition.

what truths have you learned of late from our teachers, the children?

a simple slice

all it took, really, was a trip to the store, three eggs from the fridge, and a chance to play with my still-in-the-box old-fashioned hand mixer.

all i wanted, really, was to hold the real world at bay. buy one more day-pass before the return to non-fiction living.

a yellow cake, i figured, was enough of a ticket.

it was a two-layered salute to the end of so-called vacation, a sugar-tinged slide into the hard weeks ahead. and besides there’s little so dreary as a monday back home, when rain clouds and laundry are piled too high, not far enough in the offing.

thing is, though, given the fact that the mixer was many months old and had yet to see a speck of light from the kitchen, this, clearly, isn’t my forte. the two-step from batter bowl to oven isn’t one my feet know by heart.

i am not, sad to report, much of a baker.

oh, i dream of such things. wish sometimes that i had it in me, that gene that would make me long to be clouded in flour, my cheeks streaked with chocolatey smears, from yet another turn at the stove.

but, alas, i am merely pretender.

oh, if you opened my cupboards, you might see i’m amply equipped. why, i’ve got pans with bottoms that vanish and side-rails that spring. i’ve got cutters of cookies in so many shapes, from simple to odd to odder-than-odd, an architectural replica, among others, of the downtown tower where every tuesday i type. enough bent-metal skyscrapers, in fact, to cut out and bake a whole skyline.

i’ve got aprons, too. and a french wire basket filled to the brim with sugars in colors and all sorts of sizes of crystals, from silky like snowdrifts to chunky like hail. even a stash of those wee silver balls that look just like the beebee my brother once aimed and shot at a window, while my grandma stood back in stunned disbelief and i, truth be told, snickered.

sorry fact is: nearly every time i think about baking–be it a pie, or plain cookies, or surely a cake–well, i give up almost before i begin.

i get tired.

i get sweaty there in the palms.

i think of the mess.

i think of the cake going stale.

i think of the big old beater i used to have to haul off the shelf. how it pained my low back to lug it from pantry to counter. how i’d nearly once crushed the least of my toes–and that was only the bowl tumbling down.

yes, when it comes to the baking department, i am purely illusion. not much crumb to my cake.

and so, when, despite my deep disinclinations, i somehow manage to pull off two layers, with a blanket of fudge in between, well, i just can’t help but stand back and marvel.

can’t but think to myself, “i need to do this more often.”

who knew that cracking three shells, dumping oil and water, watching the twin set of whirly-bird blades whip round and round in two minutes of circles, who knew i could pour, slide, and crank on the timer, and then, poof, in a mere 35 minutes pull out two golden-topped coins that, at least for a moment there, made me appear the very model of domesticity?

why, the whole house let out a whoop, in the form of a cloud of sweet-scented, vanilla perfume.

by the time the little one bound in the door–shouted, he did, did you bake? (incredulously, i’m not too ashamed to admit)–i’d even gone mad with the chocolatey swirls.

as always, i like the frills as much as the substance so i practiced the TV-ready twirls of the knife that made for an ocean of waves all over the top, and right down the sides. then, leaving well enough not alone, i unwrapped a whole flock of kisses, hershey’s that is, and dotted them here and there on my mid-afternoon’s quick-rising escape.

ahh, the sweet holy triumph of a boy home from school staring in wonder at his mama’s hard-won confection.

it’s not every day that i witness such hero-like status. i mean, never before have i seen the boy–nor his big brother, as a matter of fact–stand in awe, drooling, at the way i pile a verb onto a whole string of nouns.

nope, never once has anyone marveled at the skill with which i ditch the drips on the toilet seat. nor the dust on the lampshades. nor how i clean and fluff and fold all the laundry.

not even how i stay up till late, late in the night some nights, sopping up tears, unknotting worries.

but the cake……oh, the cake. it’s two days later and still i am riding the wave of that yellow-crumbed glory.

sure, it’s all turned to hard-crusted bits there on the chocolate-smeared plate.

but i’ve not tossed it out, nor will i.

i’m thinking this kitchen alchemy is one i might want to return to. perhaps i’ll nudge myself a little more often. who knows, there might be a pie crust not far in my future.

it’s a simple truth that these days i ought to employ: in three easy steps, plus 350 degrees, i can bring joy to the table, slice into two-layered heart of the matter.

there is little in life that so simply begins, and so deliciously ends.

i am struck, frankly, by the tangible construction and completion of something utterly swallowable.

i wonder, perhaps, if in our quixotic attempts to bring calm to our homes, and peace to the planet, some of us–me, in particular–might have missed the undeniable dump-stir-’n’-pour virtue of such bliss in a box.

the chance to exercise whimsy, to deliver up double layers of plain ol’-fashioned goodness, i’m starting to realize, is as boundless as the stash of sweet morsels tucked on my shelf.

in these endless months of not knowing our place on the planet, on occasion doubting our worth, so often dreading the morning, it seems that to whip up a cake, perch it high on a pedestal, well, so sweet a triumph it is, maybe i shouldn’t let the ovens stay cold for so long a spell.

it’s rather quite simple, isn’t it then?

sometimes little more is required than the goo it takes to fill up two 8-inch round pans. and the pure honest knowing that what comes to your lips on a fork is, well, much more lasting than the pile of crumbs turned hard on the plate after merely two days.

never did read that on the back of a box of cake mix.

some things you take a while to gulp. but when you do, you grasp forever their infinite wisdom.

do you bake for the joy of it? do you find deep delight in the simple stirring and pouring, letting your imagination and your recipes run wild? what have you baked lately? or brought home from the bakery dept.?