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

Month: May, 2011


absolutely, and without debate, there has been in our house one recurring theme in the chapter called “high school.”

it would be that phenomenon in which light shines from under the crack of the bedroom door till 3, then 4, and sometimes, ’round 5 (A!M! lest we be unclear), when the first rays of sun begin to dance amid the plugged-in watts of the desk lamp.

and even then there is no clicking off that fool light.

it is a cultural oddity that pulls the grownups out of bed, groggy, at wit’s end, wondering when, oh when, will this cruel and unusual punishment come screeching to an end.

you can stand at said bedroom door, and plea, and scrunch your face, and beg for mercy: “honey, PLEASE, go to bed.”

but no, the typing continues. the boy is hard at work. pounding thoughts, meeting deadlines.

and you, poor grownup, tired grownup, grownup who will wobble through the whole next day under cloak of stupor, you will grow accustomed to this high-school theme: the all-nighter that would not end.

and so, as if a 21-barrel salute to the end of that sweet sad sorry sobering chapter, the boy i love declared somewhere deep inside that he’d go out as he’d carried on all along: all-nighter on the last night of high school.

why, had you thought otherwise? had you fooled yourself into thinking this ONE time that ol’ eight-page paper would be typed, stapled, turned in one sweet minute before the schoolbell clanged time-out, game’s-end?

and so it was, after weeks and weeks of dropping hints (nabokov? checked in with nabokov any time recently?), the dear boy, breaths away from graduation, sat down at 9th hour to begin to type. to see how close he’d come to driving mama over the brink, into the seas of madness saved for those who set expectations foolish high.

and as if to amp the fun, he retreated from his room, settled in full view, just off the kitchen, where i could watch the lines unfold, where i could watch him type his way toward high school conclusion.

look ma, he seemed to type, i can dash off eight pages while you polish off your nighttime bowl of popped and fluffy corn. i can squeak in under the wire, while you witness the whole event.

alas, i could not stay awake past page five. and so i climbed to bed, tossed and drifted to a foggy-not-yet-sleeping place.

i had implored, “wake me at the end, i want to be there for the final period of high school.”

and so, when at 11:53 he wandered by the precipice of my mattress, stood ever still, and whispered, “hey mom,” i barely startled. just rolled over and uttered, “huh?”

could i give it all a read, he wondered, this paper that dissected four plays by nabokov, this paper due third period on the last half day of high school?

without thought or grumble, i ripped back the sheet, pointed my stiff self toward the stairs and down i climbed. i read, i turned small letters into caps, i marveled (or at least i think i did, as sleep was clearly fogging up my eyes and brain).

i slapped the boy upon the back, returned to stairs and up to slumber.

when i awoke this morn, i found the eight pages, printed out, in a folder, tucked one last time in backpack. and off my boy loped, high school all wrapped up in one last all-nighter.

so this is it, the hardest chapter yet, now writ.

the boy who started high school with an undetected fracture straight across his thigh bone, the boy who set out to get straight As, to take the hardest classes offered, he struggled and survived. he learned much, and so did i.

he set out to test his arc of limitations, as emerson once challenged. and hanging on the post beside his bed, five medals, bronze to gold. though the silver that he wanted never came.

he found three close friends, in a sea of 1100. and a boat full of “brothers.”

he has cried in my arms, and raised his fist in triumph.

in the end, there will be no valedictory speech, no fireworks to light the sky.

but in past weeks there have trickled in emails from teachers, tracing back to freshman year, remarking on what a kid he is, and how much he will be missed.

in the end, i’ve realized, it is the typed words from souls who’ve earned his respect over long semesters, over years, that constitute the prize of prizes.

the boy i love, the boy inclined to type all night, he’s triumphed in the end. and i could not be more proud.
nor love him any wilder.

here’s to a summer of no worries, no tests, no papers.

just joy and laughter, and the sweet glory of the journey shared, straight up to the last sure dot on the page.

–the end, sweet will, the end–

this one’s mostly just to record the moment, lest anyone ever debate that the end of high school quietly lulled to closure. there are souls all around this time of year, wrapping up chapters hard and not-so-hard. it is the time of year for looking back, then launching forward. to ends that mark beginnings. tell me what headlines your end of schoolyear, start of summer this time round?


just to see what it feels like, i find myself walking past the bedroom beside the landing on the way up the stairs.

i peek in and see the bedclothes unrumpled, just the way he left them. or maybe the way the cat did, as that old striped fellow wriggled out from his No. 1 curled-up napping place.

sometimes, if i’m drawn in, i take a few steps beyond the door, look around, breathe deep of what it will be like.

my firstborn blessed child is away this weekend, will be gone for a whole string of days, and i find i am practicing what it will be like to have him swirling about me, but not here.

like all important acts in life, we practice. try on the costumes. memorize the lines. we stand amid the darkened stage, look out on all the empty rows, imagine our part even when we’re mere supporting player.

in just two weeks my firstborn child, the boy who’s held my heart since long before i held him in my arms, he will walk across the stage and close the page on this chapter called being-at-home. he will move swiftly toward the day we pack the car, lock the latch and drive toward mountains in the east.

and for me that is a rather large bump to get around, so i am already hard at work, imagining my days without him in the deep of my midst.

i am loosening the cords of my heart. i am knowing there will be long strings of days when i don’t feel my arms wrapped ’round his now-broad shoulders. when i don’t see him leaning up against the kitchen counter, filling me with stories, with questions, with laughter from the bottom of my belly.

long ago, i set out to love this child with all the love that i could muster. and i have done just that.

oh, it has not shielded him from the arrows and the sharp knife edges that i had intended to keep from him. and it has not kept his days free from shadows dark and thick and, on occasion, frightening.

but because i set those roots so deep, because i planted him in the richest ripest place within my heart, i will need a little time, a little practice, to right myself, to be steady when he is gone.

so this weekend, then, is rehearsal. is practice. is learning how to be.

just a short while ago, as i futzed around the kitchen here this afternoon, when suddenly i heard a funny beepy noise, i discovered that he was sending me that new-fangled smoke signal known as a “text.” as i groped for my old phone, i found, lo and behold, he’s been sending me poetic texts since last night.

as he rolled, near midnight, through pitch-black kentucky, land from which i hail. and as he rolled this morning into the great smokies, where i lived when i was 3. and he gloried at the hills.

and in that beepy noise just a short while ago, he wrote that he had rowed the course in tennessee — clinch river, its name — where the race will be, come sunday. and the boat “felt really good,” he wrote, then added one last word, the coda to his stanza: “fast.” and i, nearly 600 miles from that river, read plenty into those four letters.

and so i am learning that he can stir me even in typed text on the keypad of a phone. and i will learn, i now know, to pay attention to my phone. to look for telltale signs that he’s dropped in.

if not to the kitchen after school, if not to the side of my bed late at night, on those rare bedtimes when he plops in the armchair, or on the window seat, to unravel his heart… even if not all that, i now know, i am learning, he will still — and always — find ways to stir me.

because when you give birth to love, and you spend years rocking it, and staying up all night with it. and when you walk it into the school house door, and let go of its chubby little hand. and when you sit along the sidelines of the ballfield, and wince, as he strikes out again and again. and when you watch him catch the wind, find friends, think in ways that make the teachers send you notes, when you watch him grow and stretch and never ever shrink from those things that would make you wobble, well, you discover that even when the bedsheets stay unrumpled, and even when the cat is the only one who stirs in that boy-filled bedroom, you cannot help but be stirred by love.

the love that always and forever wears the name of the baby boy whose head you kissed once upon a birthday long ago, as you anointed him with the one word that would forever be his and his alone: will — my sweet, sweet will.

row like the wind, my beautiful boy, while i take a crack at being home without you, without you coming or going as the sun comes up and sinks down low again……

do forgive this long strung-out love parting, as i–like the monarch caterpillar–find myself wriggling out of my skin five whole times before the chrysalis comes, before the stained-glass wings of the butterfly take their shape, soon to catch the wind.

and since i never want this to be about me and me alone, what have been the acts in the story of your life for which you too found yourself rehearsing, so when it came you might know your lines. or at least begin to understand your new part…..

power cord

week after week, i weigh the passing thought that i ought to set my alarm, oh, a good hour earlier than all the rest of the days so that i could slip out from under the sheets (for it is sheet, not cover weather these past few balmy days) and cloak myself in the velvet hours of night giving way to dawn.

so i could slither into my garden, curl up on the creaky bench, not unlike an inchworm in repose, and spy on all the doings of the morn.

i could, perhaps, watch the shrunken globes of dew catch firstlight, cast a hundred itty-bitty rainbows, a daily morning magic show for those who, like the robin and the cardinal, do not waste the dawn in slumber.

i could, if i was lucky, catch the fronds of fern unfurling, as the fiddleheads let loose their clenched-fist grip, give way to warming rays, awaken to the sun.

i might catch the first flash of golden yellow feathers, papa goldfinch, pecking at the thistle seed.

i might even be there to greet the hungry cat as he moseys back from all his midnight mischief, staggering ’round the garden bend, stopping for a slurpy drink from the mossy bowl where robins splash and preen.

the morning hours on a friday are the ones i call religion. oh, yes, i need to pack the lunches, chase the children out the door. there are chores aplenty all day long. but it’s the one day i set aside for meditation, planned meditation.

i might catch a snatch here or there, gazing out the windows of the el train as it rolls past a cemetery. or peering down an alley, watching a teetering old man picking through the garbage. i find time to stitch deep thoughts all throughout my week. but i don’t have unbroken time too often.

and that’s why i call friday mornings my very own three-pronged power cord.

i plug my soul back into the great generator in the sky. that sounds too flip, and i don’t mean it to be. it’s just that i hear the whispers of the divine when i am crouched down low to the earth in all her glory.

when i am wrapped in birdsong. when the saintly soprano of the wren sends shivers down my spine. when i am close enough to holiness itself to hear the rush of the blue jay’s wing as she flutters by.

when i am filling my lungs with the incense that wafts right now from my korean spice viburnum, a sacrament on branches if ever there was one.

some weeks by wednesday i am limping, grabbing hold of counters, trying to find my middle so i’ve half a chance of staying steady till the workday rushing ends, and before the mad-dash of the weekend reaches out to grab me by the throat.

through serendipity and schedules, friday is my sunday. the unfolding of my sabbath, the day when i drink in my strongest dose of why we’re plopped here in the first place.

for all the hurricanes and sirens that seem to whirl around me saturday through thursday, i am at heart a soul who needs a prayer shawl of quietude, to put my ear to the metronome of heaven here on earth.

i don’t want the breathing of the garden to be drowned out by what’s coursing through some squawky earphones. i don’t want to miss one inch of the slender stalks as they shimmy toward the clouds.

i want to be front-row witness to papa cardinal slipping sunflower seeds into mama cardinal’s beak, the closest thing to kissing, surely, in the feathered world of birds. i want to be the one who’s tiptoeing through the garden when the summer’s first monarch alights, the telltale stained-glass wings brushing by my nose.

and so if i don’t get my celestial dose before the house awakens, erupts in rushing-searching-slurping-dashing, i sit in solitude and bliss once the last dish is rinsed and put away, once the grocery list is scribbled, once the last bed is made, the pillow fluffed, the cat pulled out from hiding under someone’s covers.

it’s some cathedral the place in which i cast my prayers. a redbud branch is my domed ceiling. the lilies of the valley fill the choir loft. the wren’s song is my epistle. and it’s the breeze rushing off the lake that this morning carried me to where i meet the heart, the hand of God.

what on earth serves as your power cord? what recharges you? fills you with saintly essence? where did you meet God this week?

“…always an act of courage.”

maybe it happens to you, too, sometimes. you are reading along, and words reach out, like some sort of net strung between trees in a thick jungle. they entangle you, stop you in your tracks, don’t release you, really, for days and days.

so it was, as i was reading along in tina brown’s new newsweek, reading a story about barack obama’s mother, when i stumbled on the words, at the top of a paragraph, nestled inconspicuously into the rest of the black-on-white sentences.

i read: “Motherhood is always an act of courage.”

just like that, it caught me.

as always, the best writing is stitched with wisdom. it catches you unawares. elegant french knots of deep truth tucked in among the narrative.

one minute i was reading that obama’s brave single mother, ann soetoro, a cultural anthropologist by training, was as curious about men as she was perplexed by them, the next i was entangled in a thought that would carry me for days.

“motherhood is always an act of courage.”

indeed it is.

from the moment that seed of life burrows deep into the womb, makes its way to connect to the richness that is a mother’s blood. will feed, will sustain.

from conception on, there is no going back, if God is willing, if prayers are answered.

we move on, one corpuscle tied to the next. we are in this, literally, together. we are forever entwined. though birth will begin the separation, there are separations deep down inside that will never truly be cut with any knife.

from those blurry days of daydreams, before the labor comes, when in hazy fuzzy terms you try hard as you can to imagine this someone, to imagine how it will be.

it will be nothing like those dreams.

it will be nothing like anything you have ever known.

and the one sure thing, the only certainty, is you’d better tap deep into a tank of high-octane courage. no watered-down concoction can take you where you need to go. this trek has no roadmap, and too often, no shortcuts.

it’s courage that will carry you round the skinny mountain passes, where the edge is steep, is precipitous. it’s courage that will carry you through unrelenting passages, when you’d rather turn in swift retreat.

after all, they send you home with this squirming, hungry bundle–and no instructions attached. you shake as you sit in the back seat, the baby’s father driving so cautiously you fear you might be rear-ended, the car behind you not understanding just how deep a journey home this is, this long trip, the maiden voyage.

then, the first morning you are left home alone with this babe, you break out in sweat. or tears. more often, both. the baby squawks, you try to figure out how in the world you will do this. how will you spoon the cereal into your own mouth, so you, in turn, can feed your screaming infant?

courage? oh, mother courage, you came to me, you filled me. shaking, quaking deep inside. uncertain, scared, somehow we carried on.

all along the way, it’s darkness up ahead. we never know what might be around the bend. we simply keep putting one foot out, before the other.

how in the world can you take on the task of mothering if you are not filled up with courage? if you do not gulp it for breakfast, inhale it like undiluted oxygen?

i consider, in a slide show that makes me weep, the moments of courage of mothers i have known:

the mother, just this week, who watched her little girl’s legs be strapped into braces, braces for a year.

the mother who sat outside the OR while oncologists poured hot chemo in her daughter’s belly, a last-ditch hope to stop the unretrenching cancer.

the mother, so many mothers, who bravely steps into the school conference room, where so many minds–and unknown faces–are gathered to map a plan to help the struggling child, the child for whom learning doesn’t come in straight lines, or quickly.

or what of the mother who took the call, from a stranger, who listened to the voice telling her that her bike-riding son had fallen, been found unconscious, limp and bloodied. that mother who drove, trembling, who carried her son to the ER. who listened as the doctor said his vertebrae, high up in his neck, were fractured, one for certain, another most likely. an airlift would be arranged.

and what about the less dramatic, but no less daunting frame: the mother who drops her child off at the classroom door, who hears the cries from in the room, as she cowers in the hallway, barely breathing, wondering, how in the world will he make it–will she, the mother, make it–through the next endless hour?

i think of the mothers i admire most, the ones whose unbroken, unwobbling faith makes me stand straight, breathe deep, reach down and get a grip. i think of those mothers and realize every single one is a profile in pure courage.

you take on life when you bear a child, when you become a mother through birth or love or law.

and when you cradle that child in your arms, rock him or her through the night, on the nights when fevers soar, and cries grow shrill. and you are terrified inside, but you whisper to yourself, “this child needs me, stay strong. don’t waver.”

i’ve been the mother who talked to my knees, instructed, “don’t buckle,” when i thought they would, when i thought my firstborn might be with severed spinal cord. when i needed to wheel his cart down a long lonely hallway, when i could not look into his eyes, for fear of breaking down and falling into pieces. when i saw his life, and mine, pass before my eyes.

“…always an act of courage.”

is it not an act of courage, on any old school morning, when we wave our child down the sidewalk, watch them bravely board the school bus, when we know that there are kids on that school bus who taunt our child, who call him names, who make his schoolday an exercise in humiliation?

and what of the times we pick up the phone, tell the principal in no uncertain terms that we will not let this go on?

when we walk up to the baseball coach, when we tell him what just happened was truly painful, and he had better make it right, for this is no way to model grace under pressure?

even though, deep inside, we are shaking, quaking all the while. not so practiced at this standing up, and being counted. except for when we look around, realize we’re the one who’s being depended on. we’ve become, after all, the grownup. the one who will not let our children out in the rain, to fend for themselves, to march unshielded. we lift our voices, if need be. make decisions. stand taller than we’ve ever stood. because it is our children for whom we are called to be more than we have ever been before.

i think back to my own mother who, at 50, found herself a widow, with five children. who huddled us by the door as we were about to step outside to the long black car sent by the funeral home, who looked each one of us in the eye, who told us, “make him proud,” the father we were burying that morning.

it is courage—the hot wind of heaven that fuels our trembling wings.

it is courage—that makes us reach down deep inside and pull out muscle where we never knew we had it. it’s where the backbone is. it’s where, when we need to, we find the voice that speaks up, that won’t relent, that settles only in solid resolution.

we are charged with much in this lifelong journey called mothering.

the one piece of armament sure to go the distance, is the unfettered, unadorned, magnificent holy breath called mother courage.

how do you spell out mother courage? what profiles fill your bookshelves?

the picture above, curiously, captures my first act of mother courage, and not at the front of the frame, not merely cradling a newborn baby minutes after birth. it’s the nutrition book on the shelf behind; i was so afraid somehow that i would screw up the feeding of my unborn child, i followed along, unwilling to falter one iota. when i laid eyes on his chubby thighs, his thighs with gorgeous folds of fat, i heaved a sigh. i knew my deepest prayers had been answered. which is why i have never thrown out that old nutrition tome. it carried me across a bridge that demanded pure courage.

and, of course, happy blessed mothers day to the mothers among us, in whatever form we find ourselves mothering on this earth….