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

Month: May, 2009

in praise of those who get us through…and raise the kiddies, too

every once in a while, you hear a story, ‘bout some super nanny, just shy of mary poppins maybe, maybe one who doles out only three-quarters of a teaspoon of sugar with every lump of medicine.

regardless of the nitty-gritty, you hear these tales of someone loving and kind and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious who, well, arrives on the doorstep not long after the stork makes its deposit, and then never really leaves.

that extraordinary someone puts up with it all: the babies who howl through dinner time, the little boys who can’t possibly watch enough trains go up and down the tracks (and so they sit trackside watching and whoo-whoo-ing and clapping crazily for hours on end).

why, they are there to teach little ones how to throw a baseball, tie a shoe, and the difference between a butterfly and a moth. out on their daily rounds, the little one and the keepers of the children might make whole flocks of friends. they might come to know the crossing guard by name, and the lady at the bakery who always picks out the oatmeal cookie with the fattest raisins.

these someones seem to have something for every passage, from secret potions to cure a diaper rash to how to make the letter “a” not look as if it’s whirling down a drain, spiraling off the page. even how to execute a K-turn, when it’s t-t-time to teach driving 101.

in my house there is that someone. and curiously, uncannily, she is the same someone who plied these tricks on me, when i was the one with diaper rash, or wouldn’t eat my peas. or crashed the old ford wagon into a bush.
i broke her in, i’m sure she’d tell you. and so did my four brothers.

we must have exercised her like a race horse. thrown every trick in the book in her direction. turned her, unwittingly, into the super-est nanny money could not buy.

she is my lifeboat, my salvation, and my answer-gram, to boot.

yup, she’s my mama. and she’s grammy to my boys.

of late, though, she’s upped her standing here in ways i’d never ever imagined, or dreamed. nor wished for.

you see, i’ve been expunged from my house, more or less. hauled back to the mothership of my old newspaper. told to sit and type where all the other grownups type.

and so, for the first time since birthing children, i am now the absent mother.

i’m not there two days a week when my boys bound in the door (the other workdays i race home in time to beat the schoolbus).

i’m not there when the dishwasher goes kerpluey and makes like a raging waterfall.

and, nope, i’m not there when the one in high school–the one who plays a double bass so big it won’t fit in one of our old cars, not unless you remove the lid (of the car, i mean, not the double bass)–i’m not there when he calls and coyly mentions that he needs a ride home from school at the precise hour that his little brother is being visited by a teacher who has him plucking up and down the ivories.

and this poor supernanny–who is getting darn near 80, for crying out loud–smoothly takes it all in stride. tells the big one to wait. mops up the flood. and when the little one gets to middle C, points him toward the bass-retrieving-mobile.

(she does though ring me on the workphone, drop her voice to a whisper and ask, furtively: “where’s the scotch?”
hmm. note to self: remember to pick up a fifth of scotch for the sitter.)

it’s not merely that she covers the basics. oh, no. we seem to have selected nanny-plus, the premium model.

in just the last few weeks, a stint in which she signed up without a whimper for two not one dinners-per-week, including grocery shopping, she has miraculously nudged our resident picky eater to down these heretofore-untouched morsels: lamb patties, hamburgers, why even mashed potatoes, a form of spud that had never crossed his little lips.

and, by jove, he likes ‘em all.

this nanny should be cloned.

she has melted my heart a time or two when she reported in that she’d picked up child A from point A to deliver to point B, and thought to pack, why, cookies and ice-cold water, so the little dear could sup in leisure and not be forced to gulp and swipe—or go without, had it been not-so-strategic mommy in the driver’s seat.

but that’s not all: this nanny package we seem to have won in the state lottery, why she’s been spotted in recent months teaching grown boys how to iron clothes. imagine that. i walked out the door to work, and came home to a child now fully equipped to zap my wrinkles–or at least the ones on my pants. whether she can prod him to keep up such skills remains, of course, to be seen.

if anyone can whip this house in shape, it seems to be the one who’s stepped in in my stead.

heck, i’ve come home to find my garden rearranged; the lovely big-leafed hosta that suffered regular beatings from wild basketballs–the hosta i’ve been intending to move for, oh, the last five years–she up and popped it from the earth, plopped it down in just the right shady spot.

she even sorts the mail. empties the recycling.

there is nowhere on the planet the brand of love she pours: all-encompassing, all the time. she is clearly heaven sent, and heaven-bound, i guarantee.

she told me once, in a whisper, that when my papa died she’d turned her life to God. her every breath, then on, would be in the service of others. we seem to be among the winners.

there are, in so many houses around the world, souls who keep the walls from falling down. who keep the kiddies scrub-faced, and the mommies from exploding.

at my house, it’s my mama. and with all my heart and soul, and all my achy bones, and my head that pounds some days, i thank her. upside down and sideways. through and through. and then some more. times two, doubled. to the nth power.

my only question now: can she fit us in on the days when i am home? i do need help. clearly.

i’m not the only one i know who has someone to thank for getting me across the finish line each day. or at least on the days when we’re at wit’s very end. i am blessed that i’ve my mama to be the one who’s here for me and my boys.
feel free to write along, and tell the tales of those you love and couldn’t live without. especially when it comes to those who live inside your home. or maybe in your heart…

knit 1, pray 2

the women came the way women often come, filing in in dribs and drabs, once they’d wrapped up the business of their day. obligations out of the way, time now to get down to why we’re really on this planet.

there was among us, one in need. very much so. and we were there, armed with slender wooden sticks and balls of yarn soft as kitten’s fur. and prayer.

oh, yes, skeins of prayer.

these women call themselves “the shawl sisters,” and their task was this: to knit a prayer shawl for a child, a girl of 17, who is off, any day now, to houston where she’ll meet up with a phalanx of oncologists, cancer doctors, who will peer into her liver, and prognosticate the days–and years, God willing–ahead.

she would be wrapped, this girl too young for what had taken hostage her liver, in soft looped stitches. some too tight, some too loose. some missing altogether. but each one noosed and pulled with prayer.

as she lay on hard cold tables, as she leaned against stiff rough hospital sheets, ones washed 10,000 times, she would be cloaked, this child, in the tender labor of tired women who’d do anything to soften the hard blows. insulate the chill. take away the hurt.

the equation was simple, and ancient: women gathered, as they’ve done since there were threads to be pulled through cloth, strands to be woven into squares, crocheted into circles, the geometries of homelife so elemental and everywhere.

cradling sewing baskets and knitting bags, drawn into circles on dusty prairies, or candle-lit cabins–or the well-upholstered dining room in a leafy, tranquil town–women have come to tend the stitches of each other’s lives, to patch together what it is that aims to leave us tattered. or in pieces on the floor.

as the night wore on, as teacups were filled, the cake plate passed, time and tempo were measured in murmured words and click-click-click of wooden needles, slipping through the loops of yarn.

we knit 1, prayed 2. and in between we purled across the rows of our life. the prom dates and all their dramas. the stormy weather just ahead. the recipe for chicken salad.

then at last, late from a meeting, dressed in pointy-toed heels, flush from rushing up the highway, the one among us arrived, the one for whom the knitting started three short months ago.

she came with news: not only need we pray for her second-born, the one who’d soon be wrapped in the shawl, but also her fourth-born, who’d just come home from the hospital himself. a fever, for six nights and six days, that had raised untold fears.

her fourth-born, you see, has leukemia, and a spiking fever is never good.

this mama bears more than any shawl could hold–or so you’d think. until you heard her laugh. until you heard her swear with all her heart that all would be well, dammit.

it had to be.

and then she told us, worst of all, as if all that was preamble, that the need for prayer this night was this: the shocking call that had come at 5 a.m. that morn. a suicide, a cousin, long plagued, had leapt off a bridge, down in tennessee. her beloved aunt, she insisted, was the one who needed prayer.

and so the women dropped their needles, clasped hands and prayed.

it went that way for hours, the seamless intermingling of the prosaic and the prayerful. and so, too, the laughter then the tears.

there is much to pray for, always. but especially so this night, where the women came with petitions, and pieces of a prayer shawl.

it is apt, i realized, that women so often turn to spools of thread, and rolled-up balls of yarn when life seems to be unraveling at the edges. when it seems the strands that hold us together are being tugged at, torn, mercilessly.

“we’re knitting toward the mystery,” said the woman sitting next to me, a beautiful woman, with bare, muscled arms. “the prayerfulness of knitting is a long tradition.”

one by one, stories were told of how knitting had been the occupation of choice at the side of so many death beds.
one woman told how when her husband lay dying he was wrapped first in a jewish prayer shawl, and his tumors went away. and then, months later, she was handed a knitted shawl, knitted by catholic women who’d thought to knit in prayer medallions, and ones of patron saints, and how in desperation she’d flung it ’round her dying husband’s shoulders. she believed, she said, in the power of a prayer shawl. and you knew she meant it.

someone else mentioned that when you are furiously knitting, you need pay some attention, and thus your mind is blocked from thinking all the other things that haunt you in a room where someone’s dying.

but this night, it was all about believing.

why, the yarn was even green, the color of a meadow in the spring, when it’s shaking off the drab of winter, bursting feverishly into life. the earthiest of greens.

and this night, the prayer with every stitch was that the cancer would be nowhere found. vanquished. sent to hell to stay there. the only place where it belonged.

fervently the mama of the shawl child worked those needles. click-click-clicking all the while.

at last, two pieces were complete. no rows, it seemed, were much the same. it was plenty holey here and there. but it was beautiful all right, the handiwork of many hands and hearts.

time to join the ends, the mama declared. her baby’s shawl was nearly ready. all talking lulled while she put her mind to this knitting task–how to make it whole.

and then one knitter in the circle–a doctor, by the way–who’d come with crochet needles, just in case, pulled them from her bag, held them poised. dove in, as if the surgeon.

more clicking followed. breaths were held all around.

and then she held it up, case closed. and the mama flung it round her shoulders. beamed. she’s a believer, this mama.

and she is sure as sure can be that what they’d done, those nights as winter turned to spring and they’d clicked and prayed, and prayed and clicked, what they’d done was knit their way to holy resurrection.

she is counting, as clearly as she counted stitches, on that shawl to keep her child whole and safe from what the cancer aims to do.

may her will be done, Lord, may her will be done.

i was blessed last night, so blessed, to be in this circle. i was entranced by these women so devoted, so devout. i hold up this one most blessed mother, and the women all around who hold up basket loads of heart ache, and don’t much take to stumbling.
have you too marveled at the ways in which women do the holy work of patching whole the world, the world and all the hearts so very often torn and tattered? where would we be without their fervent prayer and the circles that click on late into the night, never giving up where hope might come at the end of the next row?

when baseballs break a heart: a lesson you wish a kid didn’t need to learn

the night before, we laid out the uniform. the spic ‘n’ span white pants, the socks and shirt and hat the color of a rubber ducky.

the mitt, nearly sacramental, was laid on top. the final offering, it seemed, to the gods of baseball. or maybe merely to the patron saints, the ones whose job it was, you’d think, to look down on little diamonds dotted all across america, make sure no hearts were broken. not needlessly anyway.

when it comes to baseball and hearts, the sound of cracking hardly comes from bats alone, biting into balls. plenty of chambers, too, are splintered, emptied out of blood and hopes and dreams.

that’s pretty much the way it went last sunday, when the plumbers took the field. and walked off five innings later thoroughly, well, tanked.

but that’s getting ahead of the ball here.

what happened the other day was, like so much of life, teeter-tottered. one team was made up of little squirts, second graders new at baseball and pitching and hitting without a tee, and the other team was, well, old hands. and huge, by the way. third graders who’d been around the bases plenty of times.

it was the opening game of the pinto season, the league the little kids look up to, the first one where you get to don the catcher’s garb–the caged helmet, the strap between the legs, the padded shield, oh my–and kids, not coaches, get to pitch.

it’s the league of little players’ dreams. and just the day before they’d gathered for as old-fashioned a welcoming ceremony as you could imagine, complete with red-white-and-blue bunting on the outfield fence, 50-cent donut holes, dugouts, and a pledge to “make it fun; above all, make it fun.”

well, before the teams took to the grass and sand-strewn mounds, even a mope like me could tell that somehow something was off-kilter. felt a bit like goldilocks, one team too little, the other too, too big.

but it wasn’t the kids so much as the coaches, who quickly emerged as big bad bears.

there were two, in particular, on the other team. one a beefy guy who wore his Big Ten football jersey beneath his little league t-shirt. the other: lean, in khaki trousers, not smiling.

those two coaches took on this game as if it was some sort of season-ending series, and their life and lungs depended on a win.

from the get-go they were whoopin’ and bellowing. tellin’ one player or another to knock it off. hustle. hustle. CHASE THE BALL, KID, WHAT ARE YA THINKIN’?!?

right off, they encouraged stealing bases. a kid would hit, the little plumbers out in the far-out field would fumble for the ball, chase it half a mile, and all the while the coaches would be spinning round their arm, like some cockeyed windmill, fanning in another run.

didn’t take long for the little ones to take on a dazed sort of expression. reminded me of what cake batter must feel like when the metal whirring beaters are dropped into its midst. poor soupy batter just stands back and takes it, till at last the instructions on the back of the box say to stop, two minutes, up.

inning after inning it went like this: kids from the other team stepped up to the plate, hit, ran, stole, scored. ran through the lineup nearly every time.

scored run after run after run. after run. and that was just the first inning.

then the little guys got a turn. three up, three down. boom, boom, boom. three strikes, yer out. three outs, yer on the field.

pretty soon the score was 20 to nothing.

after an inning or three, we lost count. but the coaches on the other team never let up. they were calling out the batters’ names, four or five at a time, assuming i suppose that they’d bat forever, without a single out.

wasn’t long before the kids on the Big Ten coach’s team picked up on this knuckle-thumping bravado. they’d bellow out the score from time to time, a pathetic count that rose–on one side only, thank you–like mercury on a steamy august day.

alas, inning after inning, the little plumbers stayed stuck at the hollowest of numbers.

“it’s 35 to zero,” one kid from the other team called out, in case anyone was listening. yelled it so loud, made me fairly certain he was making sure kids two towns away would know the score.

the coach said nothing; i couldn’t help myself. i’d been muttering in whispers long enough. it was time to politely make a point.

“how ‘bout some humility,” i mentioned–softly–to no one in particular, in case anyone was listening. i got poked in the ribs by the chap sitting next to me. told me to cool it, he did. and i guess, because he’s the man i married, he was just tryin’ to keep me safe. from coaches and their trounce-announcing players.

oh, it’s a happy place, this sandlot baseball.

worst part, though, was hours later. at bedtime. of course, when all the muddy waters of the day come rushing out, and rinsing needs be done.

the little one, no surprise, couldn’t fall asleep, and soon had called for help.

“i can’t sleep,” he yelled in apt description.

seems the whole darn game, inning after inning, was playing in his head: the fly ball he’d missed, the one that let the batter earn a triple; the strike-out the only time he got to bat; the foul tip that got away.

wasn’t long before the tears came too.

“we lost by 43,” he said, demonstrating second-grade subtraction skills. “that’s half of a hundred,” he said, demonstrating wide-eyed approximation.

demonstrating, too, just how bad it hurt, to be a little kid with giant baseball dreams who’d had them thoroughly, undeniably trampled. rubbed-in like grass stains on his once-white knees.

just the night before, this would-be catcher-slash-center-fielder had had trouble falling asleep with all the home-run pictures in his head. heard the crowd roaring, he did. imagined the coach handing him the little plunger that, each game, goes to the plumbers’ player-of-the-game.

and now, one game later, he’d seen the way it really was: coaches past their prime taking on the task as if a win, at any cost, was all that mattered. paying no mind to pint-sized kids and their first outing on the field. waving in runners twice the size of the little ones fumbling under bushes, trying to throw the ball anywhere in the vicinity of a base.

it hurt, the poor kid said.

he was mad and sad and thoroughly confused: baseball was a game he loved. a game he watched at night, lying beside his papa. a game he read about every morning, slurping statistics along with frosted flakes.

and now, because of baseball, he felt, he said, like someone put their baseball cleat right where his heart goes thump, and then, with all their weight, they’d pushed down that cleated sole.

it hurt, he said.

and then, at last, he fell asleep.

his mitt, that night, was nowhere near his bed. he’d dumped it, soon as he came in the door. his yellow hat, though, hung on the post of his bed; he wasn’t giving up.

just poring over pages in the play book, trying to figure out the game.

when i walked in a little later on, to kiss him one last time, his cheek was soggy still. he’d cried himself to sleep.

some lesson learned on the ballfield that sorry sunday: you can give it all you’ve got and then some, but some beefy guys will run you bloody. and hoot and holler all the way to home.

not why i signed up the kid for baseball.

do you think, perhaps, i could get my money back?

the questions are these: what lessons have you learned on some ball field somewhere, lessons you still don’t think you needed to know? or, conversely, if you’ve found yourself sitting in the stands, or drying tears at bedtime, how did you patch a player’s broken heart?

housekeeping: this is my first friday meander on the new rhythm, and while i ached to write on wednesday, it is something of a treat to wrap up my writing week here, where i can meander to my heart’s content. welcome to the new world, i suppose. maybe fridays will be all right. maybe it makes sense to emphatically end my week, and start the blessed weekend. thanks for adjusting.

and finally, a huge and hearty welcome to a few fine souls who’ve just recently told me that they’ve found the chair. the mama of a boy who long long ago was my patient, a boy with cancer who i, along with a few other heavenly nurses, cared for, and quickly came to love. jeffrey died, but his mama comes here now, one of the miracles of the chair and life. and a lovely writer named julia, who is in 7th grade, and who is going to grow up to knock your socks off with what she writes and the questions she asks. it is the most blushing thing, thoroughly a blessing, to find out that extraordinary souls have tiptoed here and quietly pulled out a chair. it gives me goosebumps every time. bless you each and every one. and welcome.

she’s back, and so’s the rest of the story. now there’s a comfort plot.

hours on end, and well past nightfall, these past few days and eves, i’ve been digging in the dirt. the straight-up way, dirt to skin, the way it oughta be. the way of purists, and desperadoes.

count me among the latter.

ripped off the gloves, i did. sunk my fingers deep. as if clinging to the ledge, come to think of it.

even landed me some worms, a good three or four or five, over the course of my dawn-till-dark, bare-skinned diggin’.

hoisted up those worms, dangled them right before my eyes. tried to stare ’em down, see who’d blink first, the worm or me. but, dang, i never did make out where the worm face was exactly. so i simply transported the little fellows on to browner pastures.

they are worms after all.

and, of late, i’ve been feeling wholly sympathetic to the plight of each and every creepy crawly thing.

and i’ve been more than grateful to all that dwells within my garden’s mounds, the things with legs, or simply gangly roots.

it’s been–as the garden always, always is–my last-ditch, sure-thing salvation.

or at least the place that lets me unknot the kinks inside my soul. and the lumps stuffed down my throat. and the raw parts, wherever they are.

as i find myself being pried away from this holy plot that’s mine, this humble chunk of real estate that somewhere bears my name scritch-scratched on a hundred thousand documents (or so it seemed at that signing long ago), i find myself, more than usual, being called to knead through the tsuris the dirty way. the way that demands a shovel and a trowel. and knees so caked with mud they might never come clean again.

the blessed thing i’ve noted this time around, the lesson worth hauling in the house, is that, while all the world around me seems shaken, seems not the same anymore, the garden picks up where it left off.

it is in many ways a narrative ever spiraling, a plot that comes again and again. at once changed but constant.

like a great good book, one you pick up again and again, knowing just the spot on the page where your heart will race, and then the tears will come. because every time you read it, the words are just the same. only the way you read those words–the power and the message–shifts, falls in and out of shadow, spills suddenly into dappled light.

fact is, i find it wholly reassuring that everywhere i step–beneath the pines, in my squishy sodden some-day meadow, just beyond my star magnolia–i find evidence of what has been, returned again.

as if the whole experiment in birth and death and resurrection is headlined with this promise: “to be continued…”

the truth, of course, of any well-loved garden is that its cycle never ends, doesn’t flag. might wilt. might collapse in august heat. but come the spring, come april’s hope, there it bursts in may, the sweet reward for nothing less than not tossing in the trowel.

why, just beyond my kitchen window, the spicy viburnum, the one that makes me swoon at the turn of every april into may, it’s back again, replaying its intoxicating theme, reminding me of the elixir named anticipation.

and right where i planted them, and where i watched them turn to brown and look for all the world like shriveled death, there come the tips of ferns. and then the fronds, furled tight, like newborn’s fists, not yet splayed, reaching out beyond the womb.

no wonder not even hunger calls me in.

i cannot stop, cannot be sated in my quest to take it in.

everywhere i look, there’s proof: faith pays off. believing is a virtue.

why the bleeding heart, dug up and moved in the heat of july, it’s forgiving me. it’s shaken its summer shock. burst forth in tender profusion. all’s well that blooms in my garden.

how is it that the earth remembers? how is it that it gives and gives again?

who deserves such generosity?

i don’t know those answers, but i do know this: we’ve embarked, my garden and me, on a holy blessed journey. i tend with all my heart. i make mistakes galore. but in the spring, it soothes me. it sticks its neck out here and there and everywhere.

it asks little.

rewards abundantly.

teaches plenty.

so i’ve made a vow. i’ll be there for my garden as often as i can be. i’ll miss it when i’m gone. and i’ll always hurry back.

my garden’s the thing that’s saving me right now.

and i intend to pay it back in rapt attention to its glories.

forgive me, as my garden does. the day’s been long again, and the hour’s late. i might need to shift just one more blessed thing in this the latest chapter of my life: my wednesday meanderings might become my friday meanderings.

i think perhaps the chance to meander on my own slow time might be a finer thing. this downtown-first-thing on wednesdays demands one of two things: getting up at 4 to meander. or typing fast as i can in between making dinner, shuffling little legs to bed, and keeping my own eyeballs from falling closed.
i’m not one to shift my rhythms without a moan and groan. but seems the wiser thing to do, to unloose these hours, and make the end of week a holy place and time. stay tuned to see what next week brings…

so here’s my question: what does your garden whisper to you, when you tiptoe by? if not your garden, then what otherworldly living things call out to you, teach you sacred lessons?