pull up a chair

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

Month: January, 2022

the kindness project

tagging the word “project” onto just about anything takes it up a notch. makes it sound more determined. not some sloppy mess off in the corner. and so it is that my firstborn and i seem to have stumbled onto a “project,” though he’s the chief engineer and i am merely its occasional scribe.

it was birthed–for me, anyway–in the bowels of manhattan, underground, in the glare of fluorescence that lights up the 23rd street subway station. we were dashing from the bone-trembling cold of madison square park where we’d just been soaking in the opening of hugh hayden’s “brier patch,” a sculptural installation of 100 school desks and tangled tree limbs that speaks, among many things, to educational disparities and injustices (and is just plain beautiful), and that was curated by the glorious woman my husband calls his one and only sister. despite the fact that each of my limbs could not stop shaking from the cold, i will never forget watching her–against the golden halo of the lamp light–as i thought of the mother, the father, and the grandmother who had so profoundly shaped her. tears were falling as i imagined them watching her there in the cold january night, a crowd assembled to listen to her every astute word, to witness her latest public art offering to the metropolis that is manhattan.

hugh hayden’s “brier patch” madison square park conservancy

but back to the kindness project. having scrambled to the bottom of the long flight of subway station stairs, i paused and took in the whole of the whirl of the thousands of lives momentarily all in the very same place at the very same time. i couldn’t help imagining the stories, the struggles, the sufferings, etched into the faces that ran past me, that leapt into train cars that whisked down the tunnels, disappearing into the darkness.

i felt the thrum of humanity at its most percussive pulse point. we were all in this together–whatever “this” is, whatever “this” brings us. and, at the moment, the world is a tough place to inhabit. reports come in from all corners: of wars on the brink, of political revenge, of ugly words rising in senate chambers (and uglier ones spilled in cloakrooms and hallways).

if kindness is antidote to madness, if there lies a paradigm beyond the worldly one of spite and retributions, one where the gospel of empathy reigns, where we’re guided by a command to love as we would be loved, maybe that’s where the healing begins. maybe that’s where we find our salvation. maybe it cloaks us against the cold, maybe it’s how we the people stand one slim chance of turning our backs on all that we find so wretched, so deeply unjust, so just plain vulgar.

maybe we get about the business of seeking living breathing moments of goodness. of nothing less than simple decency, looking out for the stranger, offering hope to the hopeless. maybe, if we pay enough attention, if we gather those moments of kindness like beads on a prayer string, we might begin to gather momentum, to put forth and build a force that just might put a dent in what some days feels like a tidal wave of the ugly.

more and more over the last stretch of years, i’ve found myself pulled deeper and deeper into the realm of the sacred Divine as the world around has gotten more and more vile. to hear the call of a voice eternal and True is to begin to drown out the shouts from the ugliest corners. it’s where and how i find my peace.

and it’s a project worth tallying. a count worth keeping.

and so, on that cold january night, there on the 4 train as it threaded through tunnels, the kindness project catalogued its first unmistakable display: a fellow hunched like a comma on his hard plastic train seat was muttering to himself, when he happened to glance up and i–hanging onto a subway car pole–happened to glance down. this, apparently, was enough to offend, so he let me have it, with a spew of expletives that grew increasingly incensed. at that very moment a woman whose accent gave away her caribbean roots, pointedly tapped hard against the metal subway-car door against which she leaned, and inched herself just enough to make safe harbor for me. with little more than the tap of her finger, and the insistence in her eyes, she’d signaled loud and clear that she was having nothing of the old man’s vitriol and she was keeping me from any harm. the moment passed, the animosity diffused, and i was washed over in the blessing of stranger caring for stranger. i nearly reached out to squeeze her by the arm, a wordless expression of infinite gratitude, but i refrained, not wanting my gesture to be mistaken for any form of crossing the line.

and for the next string of days, as my firstborn and i made our way through the winding lanes of lower lower manhattan, as we fell into joyful conversation with the checker at the grocery, or the lady behind the counter at the lamp repair shop, there grew the sense that we were onto something. new york, new york, is not known widely as the capital of nice, and yet it seems to brim with hardscrabble kindness. and it’s nothing short of miraculous, to find those glimmering shards of straight-up goodness––humanity at its best––among the art-deco towers and the deeply-shadowed corridors of capitalistic commerce.

my firstborn, blessed soul that he is, is all in on the project. called me last night to report his latest finds; in an uzbek barber, and an orthodox watch repairman, in the old wrinkled man behind the counter of a chinese general store, where he found himself invited for new year’s.

the plan is to keep watch, and keep note (tapped out on his phone, or inked into one of his many moleskin notebooks). in a city that never sleeps, in a city not known for tender loving plenitude, take census of kindness and allow its superpowers to alter the landscape.

it’s a mission i’m taking up here, in the heart of the heartland.

one by one, little by little, one act of golden good kindness at a time, we are building a fortress to keep out the ugly, the vile, the deeply unkind.

and, besides, it makes for a million fine yarns.

as i wrote in a note to my firstborn just this morning: “it seems one of our holy tasks is to see the sacred sparks all around, in the souls of kindness you are finding in watch repair shops and chinese general stores. keep at it. the work is never done.” 

would you care to join us? record your findings here.

the tall skinny tower with the beacon on top is home to the sweet boy i so dearly love…

i’m home from my blessed string of six days in new york, unpacking 89 boxes and making a nest for someone i dearly dearly love (my firstborn) on the 34th floor of a grand old art-deco tower at the bottom tip of manhattan. i miss both my boys madly (the other one is back at college), as i’m now home in the quietest of old houses, but i revel in knowing our home-grown law clerk has fallen instantly in love with the place he’s now calling home. while away, i got double whammies of awful bad news from two of my oldest dearest friends in the whole wide world, and i’d so welcome a prayer or two if you’ve a spare: one beloved friend found out she’s up against breast cancer (a second time), and another called to tell me her little sister’s cancer has crept to her brain. life sure is cruel. but as my friend with the very sick sister put it so starkly eloquently, “this is life, it’s full of suffering and ours to endure. our job is to do it with grace.”

in praise of eeyore

in all the annals of children’s literature, there deserves to be a shelf devoted to one gloomy donkey. eeyore is his name, a name derived from a phonetic spelling of the sound the farmyard friend is alleged to make. i say “alleged” because i cannot claim that i’ve leaned against a split-rail fence and listened in for just the way he hees and haws.

i write in praise of this misanthropic fellow, forlorn as the day is long, this chap who ambles through the hundred-acre wood tossing out lines wholly hollowed of all hope––for instance, “it’s not much of a tail, but i’m attached to it,” or, when someone pins a red balloon to where his tail went missing, he sighs, “sure is a cheerful color. guess i’ll have to get used to it”––because just yesterday i felt his every pain, and found myself cheered to be so deeply in his shadow.

ups and downs of EKG

it was an eeyore sort of day, and i was in an eeyore sort of slump (my best, best friend had three biopsies the day before, someone else was positive for covid, and i’ve not shaken the last of my own red-ringed devil although i’m due to board a plane to NYC tomorrow). and it made me think how fine a thing it was and is for a child to have an eeyore on the shelf, to feel some kinship when the world turns gloomy grey and a few good hours of slumping around in self-defined misery is not such a bad thing. it’s part of human nature. etched into the very dips and hollows of any old EKG, for starters. and it made me think that our gloomier angels deserve a moment’s appreciation. so here i am appreciating.

if not for grey, wouldn’t rosy raspberry be just another shade from the far side of the color wheel?

i’ve known souls who never seem to veer off the happy plane, and frankly they worry me. it simply cannot be a fact of nature that optimism is ever present. i like a little deviation in my moods. how on earth can you fully appreciate the good days, if you’ve not felt the uptick from down in the doldrums?

of course, i’m not rooting myself down where misery loves its company. like cloudy skies, it passes. and, after all, by day’s end at least a few of yesterday’s bumps had smoothed (the kid with positive covid PCR–a kid hunkered down in our basement just the night before–took another test and this one proved him negative; and this meant we didn’t need to seal our own college kid in a cellophane wrap, keep him home from college for an extra week, figure out just how to get him off to school without infecting every other passenger in sight).

all i’m saying is that i am grateful that in turning the pages of alan alexander milne’s classic children’s tale, a wee child sodden with sadness might find a kindred shadow in the likes of dear friend eeyore. no one likes to be alone in sorrow. i know very few who would appreciate a swift “get over it” when feeling wearied by the world, with no quick fix in sight.

and so i burrow against the contours of the dreary donkey. i embrace his full expression of how dark it sometimes feels. and, unlike eeyore, i look forward to the dawn when the sky is once again awash in pretty pink.

i can’t quite think of a question, so i offer simply this: if you’re feeling eeyore glum, may you find some tiny shred of solace in knowing you are not alone. one thing to contemplate might be this: what are the few ties to hope that sometimes pull you from the doldrums? do you have any tricks up your sleeve that chase the clouds away?

please pray for my beloved auntie M, as she is known in these parts, and where she has been my number one love angel since the very day she walked into my life—and my heart—my sophomore year of college.

barreling on, gently…

christmas-morning bread pudding, eight days late

it wasn’t the winter break it was supposed to be. or the christmas. or the new years. two of us were behind closed doors for days on end. one of us is still shuffling from armchair to armchair, plopping down for little puffs of air. another one has blotchy red spots on the back of his hands, covid rash they call it. the other two of us strained to keep two steps ahead and out of the path of the red-spiked intruder.

but we barreled on, the four of us. christmas-morning bread pudding finally billowed in the oven on january 2. and ever since we’ve been trying to shove the train back onto the rails, to make the most of these 10 days before flights and calendars dissipate us once again.

it dawned on me in the middle of the night, as i shuffled through the dark to trace my way to the bathroom down the hall, that we were––at that very moment––all four of us safe under one single roof, as is my most settled equation, as is the variable i’ve prayed for, waited for, for two long years. and it hit me just as quickly how the four of us, over the years, have grown to be our own impenetrable force, a circle of loving each other fully and thoroughly through thick and thin and whatever the whims of life hurl our way. 

we’ve worked hard at that. it doesn’t come without determination and practice. it’s a living, breathing exercise in turning the other cheek, in forgiving, in listening, in quietly knocking on a bedroom door and asking, “can i come talk?” it’s long long hours on the long-distance line. it’s jumping in the car and driving hours, if necessary. it’s showing up, again and again. it’s being willing to admit, i blew it. i worry too much. i got scared. (or whatever is the foible of the hour.)

it’s believing in the best of each other. and giving yourself the time to see it. it’s figuring out that if someone else sees the best in me, maybe the best is deep down under there, after all. 

it’s a lifelong practice in practicing. in knowing there will be days when you don’t quite do your best. when your voice comes out in sharper tones than you’d intended. when you wish you lived alone. when tears sting your eyes, and eventually you hold each other tight.

it’s a testament to loving played out in episodes that take your breath away: the time the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, strewn on the bike path; the time your kid called to say he got into the law school of his dreams; the time the brand-new driver slunked in the house and handed over the speeding ticket he’d just gotten on his first friday night out; the time your mom turned to you and said they’d found a tumor, and weeks later your then-little one proposed a hat party to make a little bit of joy out of grammy losing all her hair. 

those are the strands that make a family, that stand a chance of weaving something whole in a world of rampant brokenness. it’s the little asides at the dinner table, or while stirring onions on the cookstove, the gospel spelled out––again and again––in certain truths you dare impart. it’s the notes you slide under the bedroom door. the stories they hear you share at the kitchen counter, or listening in on one of your phone calls. that’s the slow-unfurling whole of who you are, and what you believe, what you stand for, that gets spelled out, inscribed, passed on without a slip of parchment. 

families are made by choice or by birth. both stand strong against the cold winds of history. families take endless work, and infinite joy. at our house, it’s the laughter that is the certain glue. the antics that punctuate the pure delight. sometimes, too, it’s tears, the willingness to cry. always, it’s the listening, and the curiosities that drive the questions. hours and hours of questions. of true and telling replies.

it’s the most important work i’ve ever done. making a family, day after day after blessed loving day. it’s the hardest work, and the work that lifts my soul more than any other aim i’ve reached for. 

my definition of family is nothing like it was when i was little. i used to look to the scrubbed and polished clans who filled the church pew, all in matching hats and coats, lined up like stepping stones in graduated sizes. a lifetime of paying attention clobbered that flimsy facade. now the ones who teach me how it works are the ones who weather heartache, who do not give up, who tell the truth, don’t hide the hard parts.  

i remember in the hours before my firstborn was born, i was sitting all alone at the kitchen table, and i whispered words to God, promised to envelope that sweet child in all the love i could muster, to harbor him from every hurt. i’ve found out over the years that you can’t keep the ones you love from hurt, from heartache. but you can build a mighty shield, you can build an unbreakable ring of love and light, and you can be there to catch ’em when they falter, you can wrap them in your arms, rest their heads against your heartbeat, and you can promise them your love is one inextinguishable force, and your light will always always burn for them. and you can always make ’em laugh. and listen to their secrets, their hopes, their dreams, their prayers. 

and when the days don’t unfold the way you’d wished, the ways you’d dreamed of, well, you can wait till the darkness ends, and you can tuck a new bread pudding in the oven, and you can shuffle to the kitchen table, join hands, squeeze tight, and whisper, thank you God for bringing us this holy, holy moment, and letting us weather all of life––its best, its worst––with each other at our backs, our sides, our wholes

every family is its own story, is a vessel for a hundred thousand stories, some passed down from generations, and it’s hard work to make a tiny community of similar-but-unique human beings coalesce into something whole. how do you get through the hard parts? what’s your one essential ingredient? (questions need only be for your own personal reflection, as is always always the case.)

tis january, a month of new beginnings, and a happy birthday blessing to the one and only MJH, loyal reader, dear friend of this ol’ chair, and to my longtime beloved comrade MBW, whose birthdays are today!