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

Month: April, 2012

free books

in all those many days and weeks and months and years of feeling tethered to my telephone, of certainty that bosses were peeking in my office window, taking notes, counting up the sentences i typed per week, awarding or withholding little gold paper stars…

in all the many days and weeks and months and years of bumping down the train tracks, past the el stops where passengers stumbled on, took their seats beside me, sometimes smelling like old fish wrap, sometimes all but vibrating with the hip-hop thumping in their ears and spilling down their tattooed necks, the flow of expletives sky-diving straight to my ears, where i’d spend the ride now listening in (so much for a morning’s meditation)….

in all those many, many moments, i’d not often dawdled, lost in reverie about how, once freed from paycheck certitude, i’d define my liberation in trips to the library, that many-storied treasure trove of circuitous discovery, endless possibility, mindful gorging, and, well, free books.

but so it is, and so it quickly did become.

i was severed from my old life, my newspaper life, for all of 17 hours when i found myself, on a drizzly february saturday morning, strolling straight for what i still call the card catalog, although it’s now a box with keyboard, and you type the title that you’re searching for, or the author, or you spin the roulette wheel and type odd keywords, just to see what might pop up.

once i found the dewey decimals of the book i had in mind, i began my hunt: i descended to the underground of my little village book house, and i played follow the numbers till i got to the proper shelf.

i don’t know about you, but for me, searching for those itty-bitty aforementioned digits is a supreme exercise in attention deficit disorder. and i am mad, crazy mad, for the whole distracted round-about.

oh, look, i think, as i scan the spines, there’s a tome i’ve long meant to read, and here it is standing ever-so-politely, having waited years perhaps for one greedy paw to yank it off the shelf, tuck it to the bosom, haul it home. where, if all goes according to literary plan, its pages will be turned, its story unspooled yet one more time.

i tell you that first trip to the shelves invigorated the whole of me, right down to my once-enslaved soul. i swear i heard a chain link snap. i was free. i was wholly entitled to indulge in any book i wanted, any time. all for the cost of slipping out my library card from the too-tight slot where it lives inside my wallet.

you would have thought i’d downed a dram of revitalizer tonic, the way the pink rosied up my cheeks, the way the boing electrified what had been my sorry shuffle. i strolled out of that library, three or four books tucked tautly under my arms, and i headed home. i had a window seat, and plenty of pages to occupy me for the day.

apparently, it’s addictive, whatever that revitalizing tonic is. i can’t seem to keep away.

why, i’ve become a regular at the check-out desk. so much so, that they now call me by name, and we have marvy conversations about the books, the demise of civilization, the librarian’s surprise 60th birthday fete, complete with mouthwatering description of the teeny carrot cake she baked for her toddler grandson, who wouldn’t be allowed up past bedtime when the big cake was being ignited and sliced into so many slivers.

i tell you the key to civil discourse just might be rediscovered — before it dies its undeserving death — at the faux-maple desk where the due dates get stamped on all the borrowings.

what’s most delicious about this new-found library-bound freedom is that every time the scene’s replayed i feel the same hallelujah chorus rise up from deep inside. it has come to epitomize the full-throttle glory of living by choice instead of whatever was the old way, the these-hours-are-not-mine way, when my time, it seemed, belonged to someone else.

and there is something eternally bracing about realizing, with every pore, that each and every hour is a blessing, is a choice, is a miracle, and that it is our holiest calling to make each one matter.

now, of course, there are dirty clothes to be tossed in the rub-a-dub machine, and there are freezers to be filled with meatballs, bread and broccoli, and there are last night’s pots to scrub.

but if, in the course of any given day, we can put our hands together, make like a bowl with our palms and our fingers pressed tight, if we can sink that fleshy ladle into blessed waters that just might quench us, fill us up in all our parched-dry places, well then don’t we anoint the day, make it all the more sacred, because we live with the knowing that we don’t get two spins around this game board, and today’s the day to be embroidered with the best french knots you know?

and so it is, quite simply, with my increasingly-trod path to the free-book stall.

it’s a super-charged trip, under a mile door-to-door-to-door, that takes my heart, my soul, my whole imagination to places i’ve not been in a long, long while.

and it’s as straightforward as this: my desk nowadays is littered with scraps of paper, on which i scribble titles, authors, books i want to read, books someone’s deemed essential, or books that merely feed my latest fancy.

i tuck the scraps on that little hollow on the dashboard, where long ago, the ashtray was. and then, when i remember, when i’m out motoring on some humdrum course, and i glance down and see my scribble, i start to feel the deep-down tingle: i’m on my own time now, and there is always time to turn toward the three-story temple to ideas big and little.

i slip the old wagon into park, and i feel the spring that resuscitates my step. it’s a bit of abracadabra when the big glass doors slide open, swoop me right in without having to knock or ring the bell. it’s a house that’s mostly open (the shelves do nap at night), and i am welcome to binge, biblio-binge without remorse. i can fill my arms with as many books as i can carry.

in just the last two months, i’ve cleared a shelf of horse books — only because i’d toured my old kentucky bluegrass roots, and i came home curious. and right now, i’m onto e.b. white, one of my all-time heroes, a champion, a charmer, a writer who has made me cry because a spider died, and just the other day, when i read his 1947 essay, “death of a pig,” i cried so hard i spotted-up the nearly-yellowed page.

it’s all for free, which is a mighty fine thing for a girl who knows no paycheck.

but even finer is the truth that a life with room to turn toward the library, on a whim, is a life well lived. and one that convinces me, i am free, free at last.

i have a hunch that this old table is full of folk who wear out their library cards, or who wish they did. two questions: one, what little morsels are now perched on your must-read list, and two, if you were through the powers of magic given a whole day off to do whatever you wished, what might be the places to which you’d go running, and what heaven would you find there?

hole in my heart

soon, but not too soon, i will take down the welcome sign. i will tuck away all the index cards, our bridge back at the beginning, the guideposts that brought us together, each one a noun in english and german.

soon, but not too soon, i will figure out what to do with the big box of froot loops that now sits in the pantry. and the doritos beside it. the little boy who discovered both of those adventures in american eating, he is gone now.

i just took him to the train. i just cried a stream of tears that would not stop. i just walked back in to the emptiest house. a house that echoes with too much quiet now.

i can’t hear the scritch-scratch of his pencil, as he sat at the table each morning, writing his book, illustrating it. i can’t see the way his cheeks turn to pink when he laughs at me and my clumsy pronunciations. i can’t see his deep blue eyes, eyes like the sky on an april morning. i can’t see his smile, the wordless language that pulled us together. paper cards irrelevant, after all.

it had only been 10 days. but i found out, once again, you can fall in love in an instant.

especially when it’s a child who is in your care, tucked under your wing. especially when you discover, uncannily, the child is very much like you when you were a child.

my little friend from munster in germany carries with him wherever he goes stapled and folded pieces of plain white paper, his “books,” each one exquisitely hand-printed, and illustrated, the first letter of each chapter a postage-stamp-sized work of pencil-drawn art.

he has 20 books in all, so far, at home on his bedroom shelf, and it’s his daily practice to unfold his blue canvas pencil case and put no. 2 lead — in black or in colors — to paper.

“my dream,” he told me in his beautiful little-boy english, “is to be a writer.”

and so, every morning, for the past nine mornings, he and i would sit in bliss-soaked silence at the kitchen table, both of us writing for however many minutes the morning allowed. we carved out sacred time for a dream that both of us share, even though decades and miles and culture and gender might have made us, by ordinary measure, so far apart.

last night, when we took our sweet friend to the pancake house at the top of his must-do list, we asked him what he loved most about his visit to chicago. “your family,” he said, the words tumbling right out, without even a flash of a pause. “and the willis tower,” he said, second. “and the pancake house,” he said, wrapping up the short list.

he is too young, too pure, to have slanted those answers for the sake of diplomacy. i knew when he said it that the words sprang from his heart. and that’s why tears sprang in my eyes. because those words were a peek into his heart, into a heart that is rare, a heart that i came to treasure.

in 10 short days.

it started out, this adventure in trans-atlantic connection, as simply a chance to welcome a kid from far away. we had no clue who might come to our house. all we knew was that he would be german, and that we had an empty bed and a bathroom just for him.

and, now, the adventure behind us, we’ve all discovered, all over again, the miracle of falling in love. we’ve all remembered that love is something that happens without expectation. it’s pure surprise. it’s physical. it’s falling, like body through air. it’s not being able to stop. not planning the fall, not mapping the trajectory.

you just feel your heart opening wide, and kaboom, there you are, with all sorts of sparks and electrical currents surging through that place in your chest — if that’s where it dwells, really. if that’s where the love is tucked away, lined on the shelves, perhaps, wrapped inside itty-bitty boxes, each with a sumptuous bow, each ready to spring open, once the magic is airborne, is launched, once it does its unlocking, and the undiluted love escapes, twirls and whirls all through you, making your head spin, making you melt deep inside.

it’s not common, not something that happens, say, just because you like to laugh with the fellow ringing up your groceries. or because the lady down the block is pleasant when she walks by with her dog on a leash, when she looks up and waves.

love, it seems, is more demanding than that. it requires a plunge, diving deep beneath the surface. it requires exposure, peeling back the tough outer skin, revealing the place deep inside where the pulsing comes, where the dreams flow. where we say who we are, where we listen, where we discover a charm or a trinket, miracle or marvel, that schwoops us — both of our hearts — into a vacuum-sealed lock. one where age or country of origin dissolve into bits, don’t matter. we are merely two living, breathing, dreaming souls who discover that we understand each other in ways we never would have imagined.

and so it was, so it is, with my little friend and i.

and i’d never expected it.

and now, now that there’s no one to gobble the froot loops by the bowlful, now that my little one (the one still asleep in the bed at the top of the stairs) is left to plow through the snack-sized bags of doritos all by himself, i find i’m in need of a needle and thread here.

there is a hole in my heart this morning, one that already misses my sweet little friend at the kitchen table. misses the way he politely announced each night,  at minutes to nine, “i am tired, may i go to bed now?”  and awoke with a smile, and tousled blond hair, then climbed down the stairs awaiting his bowl and his spoon and his froot loops.

i’ve no one to sit with at the kitchen table. no one to write alongside. but now, in that hole in my heart, i’ve a treasure to tuck deep inside: i know there’s a beautiful boy, with writerly dreams, and pencils and papers. and wherever we go, whatever the day, no matter the thousands of miles away, he and i discovered together one of life’s unshakable secrets.

love doesn’t tell you it’s coming, doesn’t announce its destination. it merely up and entwines you, and forever thereafter, it is the thread that keeps you so deeply, unstoppably stitched at the hearts.

so that’s my fumbled attempt at mapping out love and the way it grabs us. how would you describe the fine art of falling in love, and when in your life has it happened?

the picture above is my little friend’s breakfast place, as it awaited him this morning, with a love note penned and perched in his bowl. “thank you for your words,” he said, after reading the love note, before pouring two last mounds of american froot loops.

how you say?

the index card, it turns out, is a benevolent slip of paper. scratch that; make it “essential.” the index card, goshdarnit, is wholly and utterly, upside down and sideways, an essential slip of paper.

singular or plural, the card — all alone, or in a stack — is not merely one hot commodity at our house this week.

it is, they are, three days into this experiment in trans-atlantic comradeship, our deeply-held lifeline, our saving grace, the very bridge between blank stares, jet-lagged silence, flat-out confusion, and bumbled attempts at groping for the missing word.

were it not for those blank-faced 3-by-5’s, we might still be standing by the fridge, the cold air swooshing out, trying to figure out if our little german friend was asking for the milk (Milch) or the juice (Saft). or, perhaps, all he wants is one shiny red apple (glänzender roter Apfel).

see how tangled this might make you?

for months now, ever since the german teacher sent home a note asking if anyone had a spare bedroom, or an extra place at the table, for a little german friend, our new-to-german fifth grader, a boy who just this school year found himself without a brother in the house, has been counting down the days, till his occasional penpal arrived from Deutschland.

and arrive he did the other afternoon, as that great blue-and-golden bird, the lufthansa 747 glided onto the runway, and unfurled our little friend.

he marched through customs, backpack on his slender shoulders, through the swinging doors and straight into our hearts, my little one’s and mine.

he is blond and sweet and oh-so-shy. he is not so certain of his english words, and we are nearly clueless when it comes to german. he giggles and his cheeks turn pink as i try to figure out the words, try hard to use the sounds that he uses when he says what’s what — time and time and time again.

so no wonder, then, that i have grown quite fond of my ever-dwindling stack of index cards, and pen and sticky tape.

before i’ve even bumped into a noun, i am grabbing for my card and pen, scribbling english, and awaiting its german twin.

thus, two tongue-tied boys and i, we’ve turned this house into a veritable post-it board, with white cards dangling from every surface, candlestick and knob. we’ve slapped a name on everything from OJ carton (remember now, that’s the Saft) to the morning’s newspaper (Zeitung).

it is a bit clumsy, of course, and makes for conversation interruptus. but, all in all, it works. and we are getting along, if not smoothly, well then beautifully and bumpily.

it is quite a gift (one that’s landed in our laps), we’ve swiftly discovered, to open up our house to a little lad from far away. it stretches the human heart in ways this world so deeply needs.

i shouldn’t be surprised to find that, yet again, my mama-hen instincts have kicked into high overdrive. i lie awake at night worrying about the little fellow. listening hard for any peep. i dash to the grocery store to fill the bins with everything i’ve figured out he likes (yes, salami, chocolate, and apples; no, to ham, bananas, raisins). and i ask him endlessly if he is tired (müde), hungry (hungrig), and Gut geschlafen (did he sleep well)?

i am, after two nearly sleepless nights, considering a simple cure for all the world’s ills: what if we left it to the mothers to construct a paradigm for peace?

what if we all reached our chubby hands into some global hat, and plucked out the names of other mother’s children? what if we took them in, for a week or two at a time, and felt the thump in our hearts as we worried over them, as we fed them, and smoothed their sheets?

what if we all struggled to not only learn each other’s words, but also to see the world through each other’s eyes? what if, deep in the dark of night, we heard a child whimper, a child who was not our own? what if we tore off our bedsheets and stumbled to where that sound came from, and pulled someone else’s sleepy child’s head into our own tender ample arms?

what if we loved each other’s children as if they were our own?

might that not glue this shattered globe back into the solid whole that it was meant to be?

i am thinking much about that as i stumble my way through these 10 clumsily translated days.

my little one has found a friend, one who doesn’t speak in paragraphs or even sentences at a time. but one who does speak the universal language of the soccer ball and smile.

and i’ve found, i do believe, an ancient and timeless truth: love a child, any child, and the keys to heaven belong to you.

even if that needs be scribbled on a humble index card —  liebe ein Kind, jedes Kind, und die Schlüssel zum Himmel gehöre zu dir.

have you ever found yourself feeling tender of the heart toward someone else’s holy blessed child?

all at once

before i was barely awake, before i’d lifted that first cup of wake-up to my thirsty lips, i was reaching for the red-polka-dot binder that has long been my guide through days like today.

after 20 years — that’s 20 passovers and 20 high holidays, 20 purims and 20 briskets with latkes aplenty — i’ve stuffed so many road guides into one fat pocket, that all i need do is flip to the itty-bitty tag marked “jewish holidays” and a whole chorus of voices rises up, whispers, cajoles, reminds, takes the pan from my hand and shows me the right way, her way, of course.

oh, there’s grandma syl in there, and audrey, my adopted jewish mother. there’s jan’s mom with her working-girl’s-guide-to-making-a-seder. and harlene’s mom with her now famous brisket. why, the whole los angeles times test kitchen is stuffed in that slip, weighing in with their rendition of noodle kugel, though not the one i’ll use today.

i’ve got the rabbi’s wife’s gefilte fish, step-by-step on a yellow legal pad, back from the day i spent at her side in her kitchen, sloshing and dunking those fish balls just the way she instructed. and, scribbled on a paper napkin not too many pages later, i’ve got the matzo balls that ina pinkney, one of chicago’s great jewish mamas, insisted, in her much-above-the-din stage whisper, would keep my hubby happy forever. so far, so good.

they are my chorus, my girls, my back-up squad, there for me every time i, irish catholic as the day is long, tiptoe into the kosher kitchen to make like a bubbe.

and today, the climb is a steep one. i’ve got to crank out a kosher-for-passover kugel for 10, one that calls for farfel, 6 cups, doused and swimming in 6 cups hot water. mind you, i’ve never touched a box of farfel, let alone taken it swimming.

but i’ve got to get it all done, signed, sealed, awaiting delivery, by noon.

because today is an all-at-once day of supreme proportion.

in addition to being the first night of passover, it is the somberest day in my book: it’s good friday, and i am biologically wired for silence from noon to three, when the sky will go dark, will rumble, when the whole world — just watch, i always tell my boys — will weep for the long-ago death of jesus there on the cross.

it’s a full plate today, yes indeed, and right through the weekend, as the holiest of days unfold flat atop the retelling of the exodus, the action-filled story of moses leading his people — our people — out of egypt, across the red sea and on into the promised land.

it’s a story whose retelling for more years than i’ve been married has pulled me to the tables of crowds now synonymous with the seder. i’ll be back at the seat at the tables where i’ve sat single, and newly engaged, where i was a new bride, then a pregnant one, and, for all the years after, the mother of one boy then two who were growing up as i now am: weaving their jewish and catholic stories into one unbreakable braid.

but, far back as i can remember, the first night of passover hasn’t fallen on what we call good friday, a name that always prompts my boys to ask, “why is it good if jesus died?”

good question; one, like so many, that’s hard to answer. but when you raise your children jewish and catholic you get used to that; there are many good questions hard to answer, so you get used to thinking aloud.

fact is, i’ll be scrambling all morning, groping my way through this roadmap of a recipe for johanna’s farfel-soaked noodle kugel. it’s a recipe that melts me into a puddle of kosher-for-passover butter because, without even closing my eyes, i can see my little one, his arms still chubby in that baby-fat way, reaching across the table, grabbing for the spoon, because it was perhaps the first exotic thing he ever loved. and, oh, he loved it. and after so many years of watching him love it, spoon it high onto his plate, and gulp it down, i finally managed to get the recipe from johanna. and today i tiptoe into the land of farfel.

it’ll be out of the oven, if all goes as planned, by the time the clock strikes 12.

that’s when i’ll be up in my window seat, with all my holy books spread around me.

already i am achingly missing my usual companion in that sun-soaked window nook: for all of his high-school years, my firstborn joined me, though it never took long for him to slide down under a blanket and doze, while i drank in the stories, retracing the stations of the cross, jesus’ long cruel walk to calvary.

but we were together, he and i in silence, and even though my open wounds of missing him have healed over plenty, even though i can get through a week without hearing even a syllable of his voice, today, in the silence, i will miss him.

i keep saying  — and it’s true — grief is like that. for long unbroken spells of time, you’re just fine, used to someone you love no longer being around, but then, out of the blue — a sound, a smell, a thought — it hits you like an anvil over the head — or is it the heart? — and there you are oozing in the wide-open emptiness that just might swallow you whole.

might be fitting, come to think of it, that on this day of remembering — remembering the exodus, remembering jesus’ last hours, and most of all his last gasp of holy forgiveness — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” — i should spend a solid few hours aching for my faraway firstborn son, as i absorb once again the afternoon of shadows.

and then, well before sundown, i will slide my farfel-soaked kugel off the counter, and carry it back to the passover table whose story i now know by heart.

it’s the way i’ve come to know it on days like this, all-at-once days, guided as ever, by my chorus of cooks stashed there in the polka-dot binder.

here’s all i managed to scribble, on a pink sheet of paper, marked “Johanna’s Kugel”:

6 cups farfel

6 cups water, soak up &…[i am giving you these notes precisely as i scribbled them, thus you can see the holes in my roadmap]

6 eggs — beat 1st, then add

2/3 c. sugar

2/3 cup brown sugar

3-1/2 t. cinnamon

1-1/2 t. salt

9 Tbsp oil

6 apples

lemon juice

mix. bake 350 degrees. 35-40 minutes.

and now, you too, can swim in the land of waterlogged farfel

how will you spend these holy days?