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Month: April, 2021

quite simply: asking for prayers.

it dawned on me that after all these years and all the threads woven here at this old table, we’ve something of a prayer shawl, even though there might be more than a few who gather here unbeknownst to me. so i realized i can quietly ask for prayers, even just one or two up the old prayer chimney, for my beautiful mama.

my fiercely independent 90-year-old mama, the Original Mother Nature, Barbara the Wiser, was in a terrible accident driving home from morning Mass on Easter Monday. the day before she’d been hiking in the woods with a friend, looking for bluebirds, scanning the marshland for dogtooth violets and trillium, the wild and tender things of the woodlands.

but on Easter Monday morning, driving from church to home, her car was totaled, and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital where so many important things in our life have unfolded (my beloved little brother was born there, my father died there). in the passenger seat of my mama’s car had been the canvas bag of church altar-cloth laundry that my mama has washed and ironed for years. that canvas bag of church laundry was the only thing my mama carried with her in the ambulance. when i got to the emergency room, there were the LL Bean jeans she’s worn for a couple decades (and i mean the single pair she’s worn, not merely the brand she’s always worn), there was her father’s pale blue golf sweater (the one she wears for an extra layer of comfort, the hug with sleeves), the pink polo shirt, and, laying quietly atop the neat little stack of her “uniform,” the canvas bag of white linen rectangles, each stitched with a simple red cross.

(that still-life, folded and stacked, is now one of the freeze frames of my mother’s life i will forever carry with me….the ambulance, and the instinct to reach first and only for the bag of church laundry. those Sacred Heart nuns certainly drummed in the lessons on devotion, there in the convent on the hill in Cincinnati where my mama grew up.)

my mama is hurting terribly, and i am asking for a prayer. it will help her, and it will help me and my four beautiful, beautiful brothers, all of whom are once again tightly and lovingly woven together, each carrying one corner of the let’s-get-mom-through-this banner.

i wrote of my mama on her 90th birthday last november, and i am going to paste a few of those paragraphs here, just so you know a little bit more of the woman for whom you are praying. during all these months of COVID, the one thing my mama — who until COVID volunteered somewhere (soup kitchen, nature preserve, botanic garden classrooms) six days a week — the one activity she’s kept at (even a little this week with her achy achy body) was knitting prayer shawls for whomever needs to be wrapped in prayer, and blankets for babies in faraway desperate places. someone so good shouldn’t be in such pain — but of course even as i type those words i know that’s not how it works; it’s simply the truths of what i hear myself wishing…..

here are a few bits about Barbara the Wiser, for whom i ask you to offer a prayer….

she has long been our matriarch, our mother, our chief instructor in living a good and simple life. hers is the code attributed to st. francis: “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

in our house, she’s grammy. there’s even a day of the week named in her honor, grammy tuesday, a title she earned by motoring to our house every blessed tuesday since our firstborn was born in june of 1993. she played the role of “nanny” one day a week, when he was a newborn, a toddler, straight through till the day we sent him off to college. when he was eight, and we found out he was getting a brother, grammy doubled her workload. without hesitation or pause, she announced she was coming on thursdays as well. over the years, her nanny equipment expanded to include the blue plastic cooler she filled with the fixings of whatever she’d decided we were having for dinner, one of a rotating cycle of circa 1970s dinners. if you trace back the roots of her cooking you might discern that she was the wife of an ad man, an ad man who counted campbell’s soup among his quiver of clients, and thus my mother might only be bested by mr. warhol when it comes to making the most of a soup can.

because my mother is all action, few words, the scenes that flash in the carousel that plays in my head — just like the home movies that clackety-clacked through the reel of the kodak projector she’d set up in front of the living room fireplace, every once in a sunday — are utterly silent.

watching them now, on the eve of the dawn of her tenth decade, they still take my breath away.

there’s the time at the kitchen door, when the long black limousine from the funeral home idled in our circular drive, and my mother (a widow at 50) in her camel hair church coat gathered the five of us (one girl, four boys in her brood), and intoned: “make your father proud.” she’d meant in the church where we were headed for his funeral, and the cemetery afterward, but i’d always taken it as instruction for life. and i’ve tried, oh i’ve tried. 

there’s another time, in a misty winter’s drizzle, when we were motoring into the cemetery where my father was buried, and we were carrying a tiny wooden box, inlaid with brass. inside was the tiny, tiny baby girl i’d just miscarried. we’d decided to bury her beside my father, and as we drove into st. mary’s cemetery, there was my mother, standing above her husband’s grave, her foot to the lip of the shovel, already digging the hole where we would lay our baby to rest, forever atop her grandfather’s chest. 

there are even — more rarely — silly times: squirting a can of whipped cream into the mouths of my boys. squirting it into her own. when i was little once we stayed up late, my mother and i, making fudge from a box. and then, leaning against the fridge in the dark, we cut out piece after piece in the moonlight. we giggled.

my mother has taught me to fix things myself, to sew on a button, to darn the holes in a sock. my mother gave me ironing lessons there at the board she unfolded in the kitchen, sprinkled with water doused from a recycled 7Up bottle she’d fitted with a hole-pocked cap, the better to moisten your wrinkles. she taught me how to get a sharp enough crease on an oxford cloth shirt, or a pillow case, should you be so inspired. (i’m usually not.) and right there at that ironing board, on a day without school, she taught me all about “the birds and the bees,” (her words) and the womanly cycle certain to come.

my mother taught me to love birds and walks in the woods. my mother woke me up most every school morning trilling lines from robert browning, robert louis stevenson, or emily D, her beloved belle of amherst. my mother taught us, over and over, not to ever let the church get in the way of God. i took it as gospel. when i came home with my jewish boyfriend, my mother who’s gone to morning mass every day of her life, pulled me aside to tell me he was a keeper. she even pinned on him her highest medal of honor, “he’s an old shoe,” she exclaimed, citing the holes in soles of his penny loafers, and the falling-down hem of his seersucker shorts. when our firstborn — the old shoe’s and mine — turned 13, and became a bar mitzvah, my mother spent months carving from wood the yad, or pointer he would use to trace the lines of the hebrew scroll as he read from the Torah. 

my mother, by many measures, has not had it so easy. she’s borne heartache enough to crush a flimsier soul. but my mother — whose daily uniform of baggy, faded denim jeans, sweatshirt, and lace-up thick-soled shoes bespeaks her character — is nothing if not sturdy.

but even the sturdy, sometimes, feel broken. and this morning, that is my mama.

with all my heart, thank you for whispering a prayer for comfort and healing for my sturdy, sturdy mama. she’s the one who needs to be wrapped in the prayer shawl today.

xoxox and bless you for doing so……

we need to get her sturdy again. and for now, my old nursing degree is coming in mighty mighty handy.

the algorithms of life in all its speeds…

some weeks, it feels like the crank on the faucet is wide open and what comes surging forth is akin to fire hydrant velocity. it just keeps coming, the news, bad and good and all in between. this was one of those weeks where i could barely steady myself between one and another. it started with a phone call, early monday morning, from an emergency room. someone i love was calling, crying, needed me and needed me fast. that’s pretty much all that mattered this week. but of course it was only the beginning of the cascade of 1,001 other thoughts, decisions, realities.

somewhere in there good news came too. and somewhere in there i got my second Moderna COVID vaccine.

seems these long months of COVID, of unnatural tethering to dorm rooms and home turf, of worries that you’ve been exposed, of navigating degrees of caution and leniency, it’s worn most of us ragged. i worry most about kids whose lives are disproportionally filled with histories of dark american chapters: kids born in the shadow of 9/11; kids who might never live a valentine’s day without remembering parkland and the unending video of high schoolers with hands over their head filing out from the building once the coast was clear, helicopters ominously hovering just over the school rooftop; kids who’ve now spent two years of college looking over their shoulder, submitting to swabs up their nose every few weeks, kids with no clue of an all-campus party.

sometimes i wish the world would break forth in birdsong, in pastel petal, in tenderly unfurling leaves. sometimes i wish we could breathe all that in, feel steadied, feel braced, feel fresh air in our lungs. isn’t it genius, then, that should we bother to look out the window, should we bother to lace on our shoes, it’s all right there, ready to take our worn-ragged selves and fill us with those quiet healing balms that stitch us together again?

we need this springtime, and the summer that follows, the slow, steady summer, the season of indolence. we all need a break from the rush and the roar of the news and the heartbreak.

we need to all catch our breath. and stockpile joys for a minute or two.

because this poem always rights me, i offer naomi shihab nye’s “kindness”….

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

how do you steady yourself in the weeks when the hydrant is gushing?

the way of sorrows

Palestine Thorn (Zizyphus spina-christi). Illustration (1881) by Edwin W. Rice.

i feel intense need for silence, as is so often my posture on this day of sorrows. no desire to add my voice to the cacophony. i turn instead to the voice of caryll houselander, a mystic and twentieth-century british catholic writer, who referred to herself as a “rocking horse catholic.” the title of her biography, written in 1962 by maisie ward (of the famous publishing house Sheed and Ward), is “that divine eccentric.”

i’ve always found the eccentric to be especially poignant. in the nooks and shadows of their beyond-the-boundaries ways of seeing, it seems the sacred makes itself especially at home. 

houselander might have been eccentric, but she stirs the soul for me. i pull her The Way of the Cross off the shelf every Holy Week. i remember well the first time i stumbled onto her stations of the cross; “the way of sorrows” is how she refers to the long dusty ascent of jesus to the hill upon which he would die. would be nailed to a cross, stripped, speared, shamed. 

her words gripped me so completely that first time, alone in a church on a dark gray Good Friday, and they’ve never ever let go. they bring good friday, the way of sorrows, to life for me, year after year. and it’s a place i choose to go, a dusty trail i am compelled to enter into, to follow footfall by footfall, year after year. 

in the depth of sorrow — so many sorrows — i find an open wound of the heart for the one who stumbled up the hill, the one who fell not once but thrice, the one who called out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” as the last bitter taste of the vinegar, put to him on the end of a stick, swirled over his tongue. 

in reading even more of houselander this year, she makes the point that for most of his life jesus was hidden. little is known of his childhood, little is known of his life before he was 30 and stepped into the public square, where he preached in parable, healed the broken, toppled the hypocrites. she writes how he often dispatched alone into the desert to pray. how even on the eve of his crucifixion, he left behind his closest soulmates, went deep — and alone — into the garden of gethsemane to beg for this cup to be passed from him. 

houselander, a deeply empathetic eccentric, writes how part of the trial — little mentioned but certainly deeply real in that awful moment of time —was how this paradoxically private soul was stripped of his deeply private self.

he was exposed, made public property. stripped naked before the whole world, not only in body but in mind and in soul. to reveal not only his love, but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity. “all his secrets were out,” houselander writes. i think long and hard about that exposure. i am thinking of that as i turn the page and read deeper into the way of sorrows.

she writes: “he is a man of sorrows. he is covered in bruises and stripes. he is made a laughing stock.”

i ask: how many of us have been made laughing stocks?

how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces?

how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt? 

“his face is covered with spittings.”

how many of us have ever been spit upon? 

“he is bound like a dangerous criminal.”

how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal?

“his friends have forsaken Him.”

how many of us have felt a friend do the same?

“the kiss of treason burns on His cheek.”

how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?

i leave you, quietly, with two of caryll houselander’s prayers from The Way of the Cross:

first:

“Lord, that I may see!”

“…Let me recognize You not only in saints and martyrs, in the innocence of children, in the patience of old people waiting quietly for death, in the splendor of those who die for their fellow men; …

“Let me know You in the outcast, in the humiliated, the ridiculed, the shamed; in the sinner who weeps for his sins. …”

and, this, from the moment along the way of sorrows when a woman named veronica, a compassionate woman, burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus, and wiped his face, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was. this is houselander, with her own pleadings inspired by veronica:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

Jesus is mocked” is one of the downloadable Stations of the Cross, by Scott Erickson. featured in Image Journal, for his “Stations in the City” project, posted around the streets of Portland, OR. He writes: “I think the stations are for everyone, no matter your religious affiliation, because they are a meditation on being human, so I wanted people to see them without the hurdle of having to enter a religious space.” 

illustration above: Botanical illustration of the Zizyphus Spina Christi, the thorny bush thought to have been used for the crown of thorns placed on Jesus on that first long-ago day of crucifixion, from A pictorial commentary on the Gospel according to Mark, with the Text of the Authorized and Revised Version, (1881) by Edwin W. Rice.

my questions are in the litany above, the echoes to houselander’s cries….

how many of us have been made laughing stocks? how many of us have felt the red tide of shame rise up and over our faces? how many of us have ever been hit? on purpose? with a hand, or a stick, or a belt? how many of us have ever been spit upon? how many of us have watched the innocent be bound like a criminal? how many of us have felt forsaken? how many of us have been betrayed? and how often by someone to whom we believed we were especially close?

i believe, like Erickson, the artist above, that regardless of religious affiliation, the Stations of the Cross in so many ways are a meditation on being human, and into that holy and intimate space, i enter….