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

Month: December, 2012

whispering in the new year…

prayer for new year

might as well call this the front pew of my best church: i am home (as in home home) and sitting at my kitchen table, a pot of paperwhites tumbling its potent perfume, my old blue calico coffee mug a fist’s reach away.

it is hushed here, save for the tick and tock of the old clock i wound the other night when i found it stilled. the world beyond my window panes is blanketed in that rare snowy-morning quiet, so cotton-covered you could hear the flutter of a blue jay’s wing. which i hope to do, any moment now, now that i’ve scattered peanuts in the shell, and suet balls, and corn dried on the cob.

the morning light is bathed in the blue rinse of just past dawn. and dawn, i realize now, comes later here than back in cambridge, where the old faithful orb rising over the atlantic signals to the whole continent that the globe has spun again, and shadows soon will fall again. i slept without alarm and was surprised to wake up and see it was nearly seven bells. i slept in my old bed, between my old sheets, looking out on my nighttime tableau, the one i thought i knew by heart. but a couple mornings here, i’ve been all confused when i awoke. where am i? whose bed is this?

my little one said it best: christmas night all he wanted was a bubbly bath back in the old tub at the top of the stairs. so i went up to help him stir the froth. while he slipped into bathing gear (aka the stark nakedness of a boy), i spied a candy bar wrapper in the bathroom waste basket, and asked (since we’d just finished christmas dinner) if he’d eaten a candy bar before dinner (mothers ask these things, especially when the evidence is blatantly before their eyes).

“yeah,” he said. “i was sad.”

why were you sad? i asked, my breath sucked away by his candor, his capacity for unembellished zing straight to the core of his heart.

“because we’re home but it doesn’t feel like home.”

it’s like that when you sprout roots for a new place, but you come back to the old place. even when the place you come back to is the place you’ve been longing, aching, to be. even when the place you come back to was all dressed up for christmas by the elf who is living here while you’re away.

it takes some wobble time, till you figure out just where you are. till you catch your rhythm once again.

life, when you’re paying attention, isn’t often straight lines. rarely is. is rarely simple, pure, unfettered. it’s textured and shadowed, and full of zigs and zags. and therein lies the glory and the struggle.

that little fellow is far away right now, far away as i sit in my front row pew, keeping watch on the skittering about the backyard, now that squirrel and sparrow have sniffed out the morning’s repast. that little fellow is, for a few sweet days, up in the northwoods of wisconsin with one of his best best buddies, one he’s missed so much.

so i’m home alone with the college kid, and we’ve had long hours for conversations right here in the kitchen where so many have unfolded, going back 10 years (we moved into this old house 10 years ago, yesterday), going back to the heartaches of middle school, and straight on through to college quandaries, puzzles, and lessons learned.

because college kids are in the business of sleeping till dusk (we were scrambling breakfast eggs at 4 the other afternoon, i kid you not), i’ve the whole morning to myself. a holier launch to the new year, i can’t conjure up.

there’s been much that’s unfolded since last i was here, much that still is working its way into the depths of me, that i won’t fully understand for years most likely. you don’t try to catch mouthfuls from a firehose too many times in one sweet life, and when you are standing before the spigot all you do is swallow, swallow, swallow.

so it’s been in cambridge, 02138 and 02139.

now back in 60091, even for this too-short interlude, i’m too much in the midst of it, still asking too many unanswered questions, still finding my way too much to know just how it will all re-shape me. all i know is that it will, it has.

and, open vessel to what comes, i say: bring it on.

but here, on the cusp of this new year, this next chance to whirl around again, i am arms outstretched, head bowed, knees bent. i am walking in a veil of prayer.

i am seeking the unannounced tap on the shoulder, those moments when you realize you’ve just witnessed something holy. you’ve been brushed by the goodness of a stranger — or, better yet, the dearest sort of friend. you’ve felt a window in your mind slide open. you’ve beheld the pure and beautiful.

i am praying for protection, for white light to surround the ones i love, wherever they roam. whatever rivers they barrel down. whatever mountains they climb, or clouds they pierce through, on their way to faraway places.

i am praying, madly, for peace to settle in the turbulent hearts that populate the land. too many lands.

i am beseeching the Holy to plunge once again into the reserves of mercy, to forgive us all our sins and shortcomings, to bolster us in the places where we wobble, can’t catch our breath.

i am promising to marvel, to pay acute attention, and to be gentle — to myself, perhaps, most of all.

and my highest-launched prayer would be the one in which i remember to behold each morning as if a freshly-opened gift, and all day long i aim to stitch it with the majesty due another slice of being here. which simply put means being wholly, intently, alive.

to which i whisper, softly, amen, amen.

what do you pray for as this new year inches toward us? 

comin’ home….

coming home garland

dispatch from 02139 (but not for long as a temporary return to roots is upon us…..)

oh, lordy, i miss that place. miss that ol’ stove. miss the oven that merely vaguely cranks the heat you so politely request.

i miss the creaking old planks at the top of the stairs. i miss the stairs, and the wall of family pictures that always slows my climbing so i can blow a kiss to one of the heroes that hang there in frames.

truth is, i miss everything about it. home, that is. i ache deep inside to be back inside my own four walls, to be under the roof that shelters me, and the skylights that let me in on the ping-ping-ping of the rain, or the hush and the shadow of snow as it drifts.

i’ve had to keep it corked all these months, had to keep it bottled inside, for fear i’d burst open with the heartache of missing a place that is as much a part of me as my right or my left arm, really.

i’m a little bit scared to come home, knowing that it’ll wrench off the nice safe scab that’s grown over the hurt place, the part of me that misses my old familiar house, the one we’ve stitched and embroidered, hammered and tweaked, to make it the very reflection of our deep down insides.

it’ll be hard as heck to leave again, just a few short days after i get there. much as i love it here. much as i’ve come to feel a bit like this, too, is home — of sorts. though it will always be home away from home. not home, the real thing.

i can barely stand to picture my garden trail, and the bench that sits in just the right spot, at just the right angle, so i can keep watch on the kitchen herbs, on the window box, on the hydrangea and fern, and my old-fashioned country mailbox, where i store all my garden tools and a fat ball of twine.

i wonder if my red bird has missed me.

i’ve surely missed him. i’ve not seen a red bird since i got here. score one for the midlands of the country.

anyone who’s rustled around here at the table for any short bit of a while knows that i am pretty much a through-and-through nesty girl. one who’s not so inclined to be yanked at the roots, settle in a thousand miles from home.

oh, this veritas university has its delights. and i’ve sucked the sweet marrow out of each and every one of them. and i’ve made friends i’ll keep for forever. and i’ve swallowed ideas that will spark a lifetime of stretching. so there is not one iota of complaint, not one dash of wishing we’d not taken this sumptuous adventure. it’s just that it’s hard to be away from a place that pumps life in your veins.

i miss my lane, i miss my chock-a-block alley, and the dear souls who dwell there. you find out, when you’re far away, just whom you miss, who pops into your daydreams, who stirs your soul.

i picture myself rolling around on the living room rug. and jumping up and down on the bed, on my knees, a pose that might kill me. or cripple me.

but it does capture the joy, the effervescence of being back home. though just for a little short while.

being an all-or-nothing sort of girl, i’d probably stay here in new england if given my druthers. only because it would be easier, in a deep down sort of a way, to not have to lock up and leave again. i’d rather settle in for good. be home, home at last. and not ever leave.

but my little fellow has been quite a brave soldier all these months, throwing himself headfirst into the glories of cambridge. and he is aching to get back to his dearly beloved sixth-grade pals. he’s already told me that he will spend the days bouncing from house to house, rarely home. i shouldn’t plan on seeing much of his sweet little face, he warned.

and the college fellow, too, he’s itching to be back in his very own room, the one halfway up the stairs. at thanksgiving, when here in the aerie, he mentioned how it was all fine, and a lovely place to sink into, but not really home home.

he, too, is requesting a dose of the real deal.

so it seems i’m tagging along as chief chaperone. their papa is staying behind — here to nestle the cat, but also for a stiff dose of quiet study time, as he has a class to teach come january and a book to write, and nothing serves those masters better than unencumbered, uninterrupted days of pure quiet.

we’ll fly in on christmas morn, a magical inbound flight if ever there was.

i picture my weepy ol’ eyes, craning over the boys who always claim the window seat, peering down on the itty-bitty houses as they come into view, as we soar in over the edge of the lake, as we catch the first glimmer of shimmering stacks rising up from the prairie.

i’ll be scanning the landscape for the dots and the treetops that signal my house.

i’ll be knowing that far down below, christmas unfolds all across the metropolis. and at my old shingled abode, not far from the shore of that great roiling lake, just there under the locust, i’ll imagine the old place warming up, purring again. even though there won’t be a stick of christmas inside.

but it’d better watch out, that unadorned cottage, for the mop-top crew of three homesick hearts just might be tempted to leap from the plane, drop from the sky, and slide down the chimney.

best ho-ho-ho christmas i can deeply imagine.

coming home

so it goes from here on a rainy, windy cambridge morn, as i wait for a bus from collegeville to pull into the station, as i wait to be four of us, instead of just three of us. it hardly feels christmasy here. but maybe back home it’s all frothy and white. 

big news of the week was that my old newspaper, the chicago tribune, asked me to write an essay for christmas, so it’ll be online any hour now, and in the sunday paper. an essay on coming home for christmas. 

so what’s the best ho-ho-ho christmas you can deeply imagine?

the days when we drop to our knees

days when we drop to our knees

dispatch from everywhere, as there are no geographical boundaries today. we are a world united in pain…

there is so little to say today. words escape what we hold in our hearts. if there is anything left in our hearts, anything other than oozing, breath-taking pain.

we ache today. throb.

throb, as we dare not glance at the screen. throb for the children. throb for the ones who love them. loved them.

lord, God, bless them, the ones who are gone now, the ones who watched, who heard, who lived an unimaginable hell.

lord, God, bless every last everyone torn by this terrible moment in time.

i had no notion that i would be writing these words today. i was riding the T this morning, or was it the brink of afternoon, when the first words shot across my pocket-sized screen. “school shooting in connecticut.” the numbers rose each time a new email dropped. 2, then 18, then 20, then 30.

i have flimsy grasp on the details, because i couldn’t bear to look. couldn’t bear to read a word. but i watched the president brush away tears. and that’s more than enough to begin to grasp.

i’ve spent the week with a brilliant three year old, and her brand-new just-unfolding baby brother, a soul-filling interlude that swept me away from the cares of the world, that kept me enchanted inside the glimmering veil of a world without horrors.

i can barely begin to fathom the five-year-olds in that kindergarten, the children’s garden gone ugly, gone utterly wrong.

on a day like today you abandon whatever it is you thought you needed to do.

you need do nothing but inhale the sacred all around you. you need do nothing but tell the ones you love how fiercely you love them.

and when they come home at the end of the day, or however you reach them, you tell your children in no uncertain words that they are your breath and your life, and you’ll do whatever it takes to keep them safe, to shield them. and under your breath, inside your heart, you’ll know that you can’t.

you know that in 20 some bedrooms this morning, mothers or fathers were waking up children. were kissing their heads. were scrubbing their cheeks, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. were putting out breakfast. were trying to get them to hurry along, tie their shoes, change their orange-juice-stained shirt, remember their mittens. dropping them off at the curb. thinking they’d see them again. hear the chatter, again and again, from there in the back, from their car seats. these were children still strapped into car seats.

these were babies. not far from the womb.

the cries and the questions that rise from our hearts, they come without answers…

these are the days when, as much as you possibly can, you erase whatever was on the calendar.

once the cloak of night falls, you gather the ones you love in the tightest circle you can. you kindle lights. you steam up the kitchen windows, with whatever is hot, is delicious, is fumbling toward comfort.

you close your eyes and open your heart in unfiltered prayer.

you pray for this world. you pray for the children, the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters. the ones who are lost now, forever lost.

it’s all we can do.

there are no words. and whatever else we thought mattered, it really doesn’t. not at the end of this very long day.

dear God, bathe us in some shard of light, break through the shadow and fog of despair. deliver us from this evil.

this was not the dispatch i planned to write today, though the one i was going to write would have been called, “the days we don’t tell our children about.” which would have been eerily fitting. sad thing is, the children will know. the horror will seep out in this news-porous world, where headlines can’t be kept from young minds, and tender souls. much happened this week, but it will have to wait for another day. baby milo was born, and i beheld the miracle of watching his mama fall deeply in love all over again. i was there in portland when he arrived, was standing there at the door at just after midnight when my brother and becca waddled out, knowing he was coming. not knowing it would be in less than an hour.

and that’s not the only occasion of this week. the chair turned six on 12.12.12. i marked it by sending a love note to the beautiful boy who first built the chair and the table, who told me i could do it, and left me alone to try. i told him he’d brought me an infinite bundle of the best my life has given me. 

and none of that is what holds our attention as afternoon is shadowed by nightfall. i can’t quite come up with words on a day like today. so i’ll trust, as always, that here at the chair we are joined at heart and in words hurling toward heaven….

how will you hold the ones you love tonight? at our house, it’s shabbat, and the challah awaits. so too the menorah, where tonight all but one candle will burn. 

first semester: fini


dispatch from 02139 (in which, in the blink of an eye, the fall semester has come crashing to a close. and we look back, scratching our head, wondering, where’d that go?)…

seems like mere hours ago i was marching into my first lecture hall here at veritas university. my heart pounding like a kettle drum there in the hollows under my ribs. needing a swallow of water, fast, just to keep my lips and my tongue from sticking together, sandpaper rough against parchment.

then there was the first seminar, one of those too-small tables for grad students only, where each flank of the square was covered by IQs and brain trusts the likes of which i’d rarely encountered. not face-to-face and dissecting literature, anyway. these were kids on their ways to PhDs, for God’s sake. and there was me, old, silver, and with one measly goal: dear God, please let me finish one novel. please.

oh, i got into the swing of it, all right. piled on reams and reams of pressure (my specialty, honed over the years). nearly pulled one all-nighter (went to bed at 2, climbed outa the sheets at 3, typed till sun-up). plotted my weeks by when and where i could squeeze in hundreds of pages of reading. wrote and wrote and wrote, and wrote some more.

people would ask, “but you’re not getting a grade, right?”


then i shot back: “it’s a moral obligation.” if you’re going to sit there taking up space at a table of 12, you’d better cough up some thoughts and make ’em be weighty. or at least original. original, i was (a euphemistic way of saying i was out of the scholarly groove). figured i’d make up in life years, what i lacked in theoretical perspectives. shot my hand in the air, offered up tales from the front. from my days in the newspaper trenches. from life in the 1960s, a good THIRTY years before three-quarters of these kids came to the planet.

most of the time i forgot that i could have birthed any one of these kids. i was that old. they were that fresh-faced.

but now, one by one, i’ve bid goodbye to classes i’ve loved.

nearly cried, honest to God, at the end of “virginia woolf and religion.”

ditto, in global health, when arthur kleinman, the great godfather of the course, mentor to paul farmer, as well as the originator of the academic pursuit of what it means to cure the biosocial ills of the world, grabbed the microphone and bellowed: “i’m 71-1/2 years old. i don’t have to teach this. i do it because this is one of the most important things i do. i want to see you be the best you can be. we believe in this course as the first step in that direction.” and then he hit us with his closing wallop: “if there’s a single piece of wisdom on the art of living that we could give you, it’s this — to the extent that you do for others, you’ll do amazing things for yourself.”

this from a doctor who battles drug-resistant tuberculosis in the prisons of russia, who fights AIDS in the hills of rwanda, and all of the above in the rubble of haiti.

early this morning i turned in my very last paper for my hardest and favorite class: narrative writing. i never knew, till this semester, how damn hard it could be — should be — to craft a beautiful sentence. i’m embarrassed to say that, till now, writing came easy for me. put fingers to keys and they launched down the keyboard. not anymore. every verb is a goldmine, waiting for search light and shovel. nouns demand careful choosing. dispense with adjectives, adverbs and all the rest of the flimsy modifiers. be brave. go bold. choose deliberately, thoughtfully, and with the precision of surgery.

all in all, i’ve realized that it’s a helluva shot in the arm to be smack dab in your middle 50s, to be deeply anchored in the whole of your life, and up and throw yourself into the melee. to cast yourself wholly into the unknown, the unfamiliar, the deeply uncomfortable.

to have to find your way, memorize names, get lost, feel afraid, miss home, marvel, and gulp it all down.

i am, above all, resistant to change. a creature of habit.

well, habit ditched to the hills these past four months. i was awhirl in the world of the new.

and now, with thousands of pages, 11 virginia woolf novels, seven “modern spiritual pioneer” biographies, and lord knows how many typed words under my belt, i am sighing a deep heave of relief. and i am also inhaling. the sweet breath of accomplishment.

i did it. i did what i swore i could not do. i up and moved to a faraway place, a place i’d long inhabited in dreams. but dreams are barely ever even in color. dreams don’t swim through your soul with nuance and lessons. dreams don’t toughen your soft spots, thicken your muscles. dreams don’t sharpen your seeing. fill your head and your heart for the long road before you.

heck, i read a whole novel. at least eight times over. i managed to stick my hand in the air, utter a question. thread together a thought that wasn’t dismissed, not blatantly anyway.

i realized there aren’t so many chances in life to really, deeply, say to yourself: i did it.

it makes you a wee bit less wobbly. it stiffens your purpose. it makes you sit bolt upright and say, okey doke, now i did that. what’s next on the docket?

sometimes i think, for creatures like me, creatures of habit and comfort, we’re not nudged into the woopsy-daisy zone quite often enough.

it’s a cold splash to the soul. a north wind howling down our spine. it’s waking up to this infinite possibility. the one with the timer that will, some day, clang.

it’s the knowledge that these days of our lives spin by but once.

and we’ve the chance to fortify, if we make the right choices.

now that i’m nearly done, now with a mere two classes on monday, and a smattering of nieman encounters left on the 2012 calendar, i’m looking ahead at all of the clear space. the hours and long afternoons when my afghan and tea mug will call me. when the long shelf of books on my desk will finally get cracked. the books i’ve tucked there for months now, deeply longing to read.

there is much to be done, now that i’ve learned: i can do it, we all can. if we ask one simple question — what needs to be done? if we wait for the answer. follow our hearts. and get the job mastered.

it is always an amazing wonder, how these words have a mind of their own. zig when i thought they’d zag. so what was going to be a meander about what i’d do next, now that i have a sacred six weeks for self-plotted journeys. but instead, the words seemed to want to course over the terrain of these last four months, and the refrain of the little engine that could: i think i can, i think i can. i did it. i did it. what mountain climbs in your life have pushed you up and over a particular ridge? and what did you learn once you’d done it? 

p.s. still waiting for baby up portland way. any day now, i KNOW i’ll be motoring to meet him. bless him for letting me finish each of my classes. what a good boy already.