pull up a chair

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

Month: July, 2011

going back

i’d not been there in 32 years. even though in so many ways it’s defined who i am. even though my time there resulted in one of the first words you’d read in my bio.

i became a nurse there. and today, armed with laptop and handouts and even an imovie, i went back to the college of nursing that made me a nurse, back to a classroom.

only this time, i was the teacher.

or, more accurately, i was there to inspire the ones who filled the chairs in the room, the ones who have dedicated their lives to the art of nursing, of healing, of listening, of holding hands down long dark lonely corridors, of wiping brows in the night, of handing over a squirmy wet newborn, of pulling up the covers when it’s all finally over, of taking loved ones by the hand and finding a quiet safe room….

i went back to say out loud, and into the hearts of those who would understand, the words i’ve said every time someone has asked me, how does a nurse become a newspaper writer?

the answer is, it’s not so hard really. every thing about being a nurse can make you a wonderful writer.

you know how to walk in a room and soak in everything, i told them, and they knew what i meant. you see, you take in, you absorb in an instant the spoken and the unspoken.

you know to ask questions, elicit story. you put your heart right out there, open it wide. people sidle up to you. they let you take their hand. don’t flinch when you matter-of-factly slide your arm round their shoulder.

you are a master of looking deep in someone’s eyes. you lock gazes like nobody’s business.

you are all heart. all eyes, and all ears.

you gather up stories for a living, as you tend to the brokenness that fills the beds of your hospitals, your clinics, the homes you visit, and, yes, the school nurse’s office.

you are on the frontlines of life at its most triumphant, and its most crushing.

to be witness to all of this, to be the bearer of truth and unforgettable gospel, is, for some of us, a call to be the teller of story, to shine light where there is darkness, to put down words so none of it slips into nothingness.

that’s what i told the beautiful healers, the beautiful writers, who were gathered there in the room of the school that taught me so much. so heavenly much.

a whole semester in listening, among my courseload. how to listen. how to ask question. how to reach out a hand and gather up the whole cloth of someone’s life story.

it’s but one of the tools of the nurse. a part of how she, or he, carries on the art of healing, of making whole.
i loved being a nurse. i loved learning, becoming one.

i don’t don whites to go to work anymore. don’t pass out meds, making my way from room to room, anymore.

but, so help me God, i hope that not for a minute do i wake up and leave my house without donning all that i learned, that i loved, in the college of nursing.

it was a powerful moment to step back into the place that long ago filled my soul.

i pray that those in the chairs today believe what i told them: you have something to say. and you know how to say it.

the world needs the voices of nurses.

we’re listening….

so tired i am, late late at night after a very long day and long week. i’ve a little boy upstairs who wants a back rub, as he settles into sleep the night before yet another big baseball game. i am, as of now, on vacation. i won’t be here next friday, as i always am. but i will meander once i’m home, and then only three fridays till the one in which i take my firstborn to college.
the picture above is one of the frames from my little inspirational imovie. part of my workshop: “writing the heart of nursing.”
little one calling. no more words. just circles on the small of the back of a little about-to-be-dreamy boy….

the gift of ahhhhh….

the morning around me, at last, is gray. like an old cashmere blanket pulled from a chest, it wraps me.

the dirt in the garden is dark again. puddles pool at the curb. the leaves, nearly every last one of ’em, are beaded, are shimmering, what’s left of the wee-hour rain.

holy respite this morning. as if the whole globe let out a sigh. started to breathe again.

too many days in a row here, even at dawn, it’s been bright white when you awake. the sun, working overtime. as if someone shuffled off to bed, forgot to turn down the thermostat. ol’ sun, just cranked through the night.

when you start out the day dodging the heat, plopping ice in your coffee, mapping your walk to the train by tracing the shadow, sticking close to the side of the street where the shade falls, you know it’s an uphill of a climb.

and now, as with so many sieges, it’s taken a pause. given all of us mortals, or at least the ones who get prickly in heat, a chance to inhale, to shake off the sense we’d entered inferno.

i’ve been holding my breath all week, knowing, trusting, the end would come.

all day yesterday i was tracking the cold front. so much so that the people who type all around me found themselves wholly amused by my weather refrain.

thing is, i grew up with a mama who lived and breathed for that cold front, when the winds took a hook, made a drastic, resuscitating U turn. stopped their unrelenting howl from the south and the west, where, fueled by the desert and infinite dry, dusty plains, they’d reached insufferable digits, and then, without flutter or warning, they’d turn right around, come off the lake, that long lean ever-cool lake that is chicago’s cooling station.

why, my mama would yell, closest thing to a hallelujah i ever heard, “cold front! cold front! open the north windows!”
and we’d all start the cold-front dance, all of her hot little chickadees. we’d bang up the stairs, shove open the double-hung panes on the side of the house nearest the wind-change, then we’d whirl into the yard where we’d stick out our arms, making like bi-wings parked at an airfield, and we’d spin and laugh till the last drop of sweat was absorbed.

then, to polish it off, we might troop back to the kitchen, where we’d plop the last of the frozen kool-aid cubes, the ones poured as bright-colored potion into the clanky old metal ice-cube tray, the ones we had to wait for for hours, the ones that made your tongue and your lips and your chin and your knees (if they dribbled that far) an odd shade of red. a red that wouldn’t go away without scrubbing.

seems me and my brothers just grew up believing in the cold-front refrain. we knew it was coming, sooner or later.
and once it came, all frolic came out.

our house growing up wasn’t necessarily filled with frolic, but that cold off-the-lake air, it made my mama dance. and we leapt right along.

not a bad lesson, when you think about it. knowing full well that the hot air will end. that if you endure it long enough, that sense that someone’s kicking your head, and you’re about to buckle right at the knees, that odd knowing your poor heart is trying so hard to keep ticking, it all up and evaporates.

once the cold front comes. once the winds turn around.

and so it’s been this week. we put up with hell to get here to the reprieve. where gray, and not bright, is a beautiful color.

hey, someone open the windows.

how did you survive the heat siege, which seems to have swept the whole country, ‘cept for marquette michigan where the weathermap tells me, they clocked a measly 78 degrees?
and, speaking of lessons, was there one particular lesson you learned over and over, one drummed in your head when you were a kid, one that comes in handy now that you’re all grown up, and the one now charged with deep understandings of the rhythms of life?

in the dark

no one had a clue it was coming.

then, stumbling through a monday morning’s making of coffee, i heard some chatter on the radio about high winds that had halted two trains, a coupla counties away. i glanced out the window, saw nothing but sunshine, felt the start of another hot day.

hmm, i thought, what station is this, did someone jiggle my dial? there’s no storm for miles around. is this some other state they’re talking about?

then, from the little box that sits by the knives, came word that this so-named “ferocious storm” would be hitting yet another town, a town i knew to be, oh, 30 or 50 miles from the first ones they mentioned, in a mere 10 minutes. i did the map in my head, thought, no way, short of a ramrodding locomotive–or a hellbent tornado–could any winds sweep across that many miles in so few minutes.

and then, just as i was cocking my eyebrows, beginning to gather the message, they mentioned that a mere five minutes after that incredible span, the storm would be rushing the lakefront. and they named the leafy town where i live.

why, we had a boy out on a lagoon at the very instant these words came over the wires. another boy, the little one, had woken up early and helped me dash to click on the TV in time to see a picture, on the national weather channel, mind you, from our very own not-so-far-away airport, where the winds were all whirly and quite smoky gray. egad.

not a minute later our sunshine was swallowed by black clouds. clouds that somehow cast an eery green-yellow, like the rim of a bruise after a day or two, when the deep purple bull’s-eye of the place you got bumped goes the color of neptune, or the mold on your overdue cheese.

before i could yell, “get to the basement,” the winds started howling, the trees bent, nearly snapped. lights flickered once, then twice, then kerpluey, lights out.

for the next 56 hours.

which, when your nice warm refrigerator is turning your larder to ruins, when you cannot open the windows for the stifling heat outside, when you take to the car to crank up the A-C for a short drive to nowhere, is a very long time.

once i’d surrendered the food, either tucked it away in the ice box of my elderly next-door neighbor who happens to have a back-up generator, or the freezer of a dear across-town friend who was lucky enough not to live on our blown-out grid, and chalked up the rest to nature’s merciless toll, i settled into the mystery of this pioneer moment.

made like a girl on a black-out adventure.

i discovered, of course, the beautiful buried beneath all the darkness.

it didn’t take long.

a few hours after the sun finally dropped beyond the horizon, a few hours after my eyes had seen anything bright, i happened to glance up over the tree line. i saw the brightest, most heavenly orb i’d studied in a long, long time.
it was the moon, of course, and i marveled.

realized once again, as i traced its beams across the ruffled leaves of the trees, across the sharp-angled shingles of the roof, and down to the brick path where i stood, just how majestic that moon must have been in a long-ago world where every night brought blanket of darkness.

i whispered benediction, and made a promise i hope isn’t futile. “dear moon, don’t let me take you for granted.”

not long after, i saw that the fireflies were blinking more boldly than in a long, long time.

it’s not often, i realized, that power goes out in the summer. so instead of studying ice crystals by moonlight, i got the gift of the firefly flicker.

quite a pile, the bright lights of darkness.

then, later still, i stepped outside to see if i could catch a breeze. i was chomping a midnight apple, and let my eyes roam all around, drinking in the layers of shadow. i must have looked up right away, because right away i was struck by all the extra stars studding the sky that very dark night.

and on it went.

when i happened to be tiptoeing around, somewhere near 3 o’clock in the morning, i noticed for the first time ever, i think, that fireflies pull all-nighters. they keep up the flicker, it seems, till the dawn shooshes them off to their beds.

and so it went.

all week, it was candlelight and conversation. the first night, in full little-house-on-the-prairie mode, it was lanterns and dinner, and whatever we could salvage from the warming-up fridge.

the next, when the little one and his papa high-tailed it to our freezer friend’s fully-operating telly (the better to take in the all-star game), the college-bound boy and i sat in the dark at the kitchen table and sipped prosecco, our words lit only by one flickering candle and the magic of a whole evening alone, with no blinks or beeps to disturb us.

i drank deeply, i tell you, of that rare gift, knowing full well that all too soon the boy would be off a thousand miles away, and i’d be longing for such a night, alone in the dark with my deep-thinking child, there at the shadowy table. i knew right then the terrible winds had brought me a forever treasure.

in the end i wound up with my fridge purged of bottles and condiments that had long exceeded their statutes of limitation. who needed the maraschino cherries from three summers ago, the ones i’d never quite managed to toss, but now had to?

and once all those overdue jars and bottles were gone, and the milk and the cheeses dumped, sadly, into the garbage, i scrubbed that fridge–and the basement freezer–top to bottom, inside and out.

i am back in business now. lights, once again, go on whenever you flick the magical switch (and i am still marveling, two days later).

the fridge is stocked with whatever we need to get by. the freezer awaiting my generous contributions.

i’ve hauled out the vacuum, and sucked up a week’s worth of grit clomped in on the bottoms of baseball cleats. i caught up on the loads of laundry piled high in the soon-musty basket.

and now my sweet little boy, the one quite bothered by all of the darkness, he’s come down with some germ that is making him all hot and achy.

this very long week has come to an end.

and i’ll not soon forget the beauty i found in the darkness.

were you in the dark this week? where did you find the beauty? and if this week wasn’t one that brought you darkness, where have you found it on the dark days you’ve known?
p.s. i always hate it on days when my writing has to come in bits and spurts. it’s hard to spin lines when nursing a sick little child. so please see through the bumps, and pardon the lack of a flow……

when camper-to-counselor ratio is 1:1

deep down inside, it might be that i’m form-averse. the mounds and piles on my desk, the wee thin lines on those forms that lie there demanding to be filled with endless parades of itty-bitty digits (get one wrong and your claim is denied, your application rejected), they all make me break out in hives.

or maybe it’s that i could not stand the thought of one more season slapping PB onto J just before i stumbled off to bed, brown bag sacks tucked into a long night’s chill in the fridge.

or maybe it’s a long-held opposition to big yellow buses in summer. racing to corners in flip flops and bug spray seems somehow, well, unconstitutional. who needs 8 a.m. pickup when fireflies blink till late in the night?

but really, truly, i think the glimmer of an idea was born one february morning when the weight of the college-bound brother pressed particularly heavy on the heart of the one who’d be left home behind.

and i, mother to both, was left to do something, anything, to somehow untangle this heart-twisting knot.

they say necessity is the mother of invention, but really it’s the squeeze of a child’s heart that jumpstarts a mother to invent, to scramble, to snap-click her fingers and poof up a cloud of pure powdery magic.

what if, were the words out of my mouth, what if we have big-little brother camp, if big brother 1 is the counselor and little brother 2 is the camper? and that’s the whole of the camp?

the idea, unlike most that spew from my brain, was met with immediate, “hey, yeah”s.

within the course of an hour, a theme was struck (town and country, with outings to far-flung netherplaces–or swamps–one day, and downtown to the urban grid the next).

a list was made up, if only in their heads, all the things a boy and his brother might aim to do if given a summer, the keys to the car, and no one else to get in their way (certainly not the mother who would be far from the campgrounds, typing her summer away—at least tuesdays through thursdays, that is).

and so, now three weeks into it, i am here to report that a magical spell has been cast, and the joy of the camp lingers long after the camp bell clangs an end to the camp day.

right away i noticed at dinner how the giggles had grown exponentially. all of a sudden, after so many years and so many school days of traveling in parallel, non-intersecting orbits, they had their own sets of jokes and their own shared secrets of just how they had spent their whole days. (they will not divulge just why the south georgia peanuts baseball coach, who apparently lets loose on an ump in some youtube video, makes them fall off their chairs, from laughing so very hard.)

their itinerary, so far, has been thus: kayaking across a lagoon (with grammy, the intrepid octogenarian, in a boat all her own; not a one of them drowning, thank heaven), baseball catch at the park, hotdogsandfries, a bucket of balls at the golf range (high drama there when the head of the club went flying, a whole 150 yards, along with the ball), friedchicken, squash (the game, not the vegetable, believe it or not, as the big brother attempted to teach the ways of a gentleman sport), burritosandlime-flavoredchips, and that essential of any summer, sunbathing 101 (complete with the fine point of taking off socks to keep from unsightly tan line ringing the ankle).

just last night, as each boy dove into a mound of barbecued wings (the lunchtime hankering delayed till post-baseball dinnertime), i asked about camp, wondered what they had learned as we rolled past the mid-point of their six weeks together.

“how to eat really good food,” piped up the little one, an orange-splattered chicken wing dangling from his lips.

“not like healthy food,” he clarified. “like MAN food,” he said, the emphasis his.

then, because he’s long been known for his tepid tastes at the table, he turned to his brother-slash-counselor, and asked: “here can you taste it? tell me if i’ll like it. you know my taste.”

pretty much, that’s the heart and soul of it. two boys whiling their way through a summer. one knowing the other so well, he can tell what his tastebuds would say. the other, utterly trusting.

it boils down to that little message, re-spun and retold in hundreds and thousands of ways over the course of a june and july.

by august, attention will turn to what’s being stuffed into boxes, labeled and shipped to the holyoke mountains.

by september, what happens today will be just part of the frames that click-click through a little boy’s head as he lays down to sleep, trying to get used to the sound of a house without his big brother’s typing, trying to get used to the dark that’ll come from the room where the light’s always shone.

in a year or 10 or 20, my hunch and my prayer is that those two boys i love with all of my heart, will always look back on the summer of ’11, as the one where they discovered the ins and the outs of each other.

as one taught the other how to pull the oar through the water, and the other taught one how to tell if his wings were too spicy.

it’s a beautiful thing, in the end, when your lazy ol’ mama signs you up for a camp that you’ll carry through all the days of your life: the camp called brotherly love.

the blurry picture up above was snapped as the boys made it home from the wings run, the latest culinary adventure in their summer camp that seems to involve plenty of chowing.

do you have one particular summer you’ll never forget? a brother or sister who showed you the ropes? a camp you’ll hold in your heart forever and ever?

garden emergency! garden emergency!

it appears that after you’ve dwelled under the same roof as moi for, oh, a few weeks, or, heck, your whole lifetime, you get used to the regular punch of the panic alarm.

might be the smoke billowing up from the stove. might be a critter whimpering by the backdoor, come lookin’ for a spoonful of sugar, or a wrap in a blanket. might be me reading the news, tears rolling down my cheeks. or might be a phone call, one that sets me to frettin’ and gasping.

whatever it is, you learn to take it in holy stride. “oh, that’s mama,” they mutter, “ridin’ one of her heart-yankin’ roller coasters.”

so it was the other afternoon, or honestly, it was inching into the dinner hour.

that’s when i up and shot from my typing room, where i’d been tethered all day, tap-tapping away on the keys. never mind that tummies were growling, the kiddies pining away for a plain simple supper. a cold boiled potato, in fact, might have been all they wished for.

oh, well. chalk one up for the department of children and family services’ checklist: mama abandons her kids, chooses the trowel over the cook pot.

why, with nary a second thought (save for the swift pang of guilt as i jabbed toward the pantry, called out, “how ’bout a pretzel?”), i slipped into my pink rubber garden clogs and shot into the beds.

over my shoulder, i let out a whoop, my way of explaining: “garden emergency! garden emergency!”

the emergency, in case you are starting to wonder, was this: the nice weatherman was forecasting, in no wishy-washy words, one of those hell’s-on-its-way scenarios, in which temperatures would shoot to a shrieking 100-and-something by daybreak, and my latest adoptees from the big-box nursery would be dead in their pots if i did not get them safely into ol’ mother earth, who tends far better than i do to her sweet growing things.

sure enough, when i got to the site of impending doom, where three wee delphiniums sat gasping for water, itching to kick off their hard-plastic pots and let out their roots, i hollered back for assistance. “yo, can i have a pair of hands, please?”

on demand, as i started to dig my delphinium trenches, the tall muscular man-child trod out to quell the commotion.

with nary the skip of a beat, he cranked up the full-throttle mockery, one of his signature charades in which he slips into voice, into character, and makes out like a visiting thespian, or simply an unsuspecting body-snatcher who slithers into the form of my firstborn. this time, he made like he was the surgical assistant, and i was the mad doctor, hooked on plant-booster potions.

all i’d done was ask–all right, it was rather high-pitched and panicky–if he could please pass me the osmocote, those wee little pellets i shake into every plant trench i dig. mere fat yellow bits–think oversized dandruff–they somehow manage to supercharge the roots of the tender green darlings, give them the boost they need to get growing.

as that boy-man stood serving my rat-a-tat pleases and thank-yous, passing me vials of root-booster, taking hold of the trowel when i tossed it his way, he whooped it up big time, mimicking my heightened state of emergency. with the flip of some invisible switch, he’d slipped into a riff in which i was some sort of garden-y addict (all dolled-up in pink shoes and pruners), and osmocote was my hallucinogen of choice.

wasn’t long till we both nearly buckled (or at least i did; he’s pretty good at not breaking face), our knees shaking from laughter, me seeing certain and clear my pure, utter foolishness.

it’s a beautiful thing, the gift of a child who sees through to every last one of your foibles, and loves you anyway. makes you see your quirks and eccentricities as part of the formula that makes you the wall-banger you happen to be.

God love the all-purpose balm that is laughter. God love those with the gift of shoveling it deeply into each and every day.

once the hysteria cleared, though, and my babies were settled in their beds, the rich loamy covers pulled up over their roots, i couldn’t help but notice that i do, in fact, think of my garden as a blanket of bliss that covers my slice of the globe.

i have, in fact, come to tend to each sweet growing thing as if her life depends, to some feeble degree, on my care and attention. and when, for instance, a once-dying fern is up and moved and springs back to life, i can’t help but breathe deep the satisfaction of life finding a way to keep at it anyway.

i don’t mean, really, to abandon my hungry children. it’s just that i’ve come to think of all the trying-to-live things in my life as part of my big moppy crew. and every last one, i hold quite close to my heart.

somehow i doubt i’m the only one with quirks here at the table (and believe me, the ones up above are merely the start of it). do you have one or maybe even two? are there folks in your world who’ve taught you that those silly things you do, you insist on, are really a part of the whole equation, and, like the soft spots in an apple (where the bees bumped into the wee baby fruit) just add to the overall sweetness?