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Category: a year in cambridge

enwrapped, still, with mary O

winter-woods-1418741454w4l

it’s a tundra out there. i’ve just crunched across the hard crust of snow, coffee can of fat black seed in tow. if ever the birds depend on me, the pewter-haired one who clangs around as if the keeper of the flocks, it’s on a dawn like this. even the wind is shivering.

inside this toasty-warm old house, we’re dwelling in the rarest of quiet pauses. the soon-to-be college kid has turned in his last exam, and might sleep till dusk. it’s the first day in eons that there’s not a single essay or snatch of homework for me to pester him about. he has literally zippo, zilch in the to-do pile, which means i, too, am off whatever hook we mothers impale ourselves.

i’m going nowhere on a day as cold as this. and, till nightfall, have every intention of plunking myself right here, at the old maple table, where i keep watch on flash of scarlet at the feeder, in the boughs. i’ve got all i need within reach: a mug that’s warm and filled with morning brew, a stack of books so tall it sometimes teeters.

img_1249all week, i’ve been deep in the pages of mary oliver. one by one, i’ve pulled her books off my shelves, and pored over line after line. i’ve been drawn especially to her prose, the long sentences as stitched with poetry as any of her verse. i inhaled upstream: selected essays, and a poetry handbook, her 1994 master class in the making of a poem.

reminded me — as i scribbled notes on sound (did you know our alphabet is divided into families of sound? and that besides good old vowels and consonants, there are semivowels and mutes? a mute, it seems is most important in the realm of poetry; a mute, mary tells us, “is a consonant that cannot be sounded at all without a vowel, and” — here’s the interesting part, where the little bitty alphabet letter seems to take on menacing character — “suddenly stops the breath.” the mutes are k, p, t, as in ak, ap, at.) — and as i was saying before i interrupted myself, being inside the pages of mary oliver’s masterclass reminded me of the glorious semester i spent studying poetry with helen vendler, the great literary critic and mastermind of poetry, who every monday and wednesday at 1 o’clock on the dot, marched into harvard’s emerson hall, plonked her satchel on the desk and dove in. with nary a hello. we had 60 minutes to squeeze in all there was to know about lyric poetry — from ancient to modern — and she would shave off not a second for distractions such as long-winded greetings. helen vendler was one of those treasures, a lioness of american poetry, whose every poetic utterance you knew was met with full-stop attention far beyond the cambridge city limits, and had she not been such a gentle-souled professor in her sensible shoes, dabbing tissues at her nose in between recitations of pound and eliot and coleridge, you might have shuddered in her presence. but in fact we all sat hushed, even the snotty little harvard first years who hush for almost no one. (i was already pewter-haired, as this was amid our nieman year, our year of living sumptuously, when we all went off to college at the ripe old age of 55.)

and, yes, it’s something of a magic trick, a measure of her writerly powers, that mary oliver could make the pages of a book feel as alive as a living, breathing, whole-semester class.

it was in the fresh wake of her death — just a week ago — that this reading felt almost sacramental. it was a reverential rite, absorbing her wisdoms with a measure of urgency, a sense of hurry-before-she-slips-too-far-away. read against the sharp edge of the final bracket of her life, her words and wisdom felt infused with the prophet’s cry. and, certainly, in her returning over and over to themes of the eternal cycle, life to death to life in newly configured form, there was a peace that rose from the pages, from the knowing. if anyone who’d walked among us was welcoming that last great surrender, it was mary O who all along had seen the glistening beauties in the mystery of death, who lived and breathed the truth of life’s brevity, who asked again and again, how will you live this one wild and precious life?

because i’m reading mary O with an eye toward a talk on thomas merton and the Book of Nature, i took notes, lots and lots of notes.

here are just a few that insisted they make their way into my notebooks — and now, perhaps, yours too:

“Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy, to divine.” So writes Mary O in Upstream, and then she goes on to witness the dawn of day across a 20-acre field in winter: “The sun has not yet risen but is sending its first showers over the mountains, a kind of rehearsal, a slant light with even a golden cast. I do not exaggerate. The light touches every blade of frozen grass….The still-upright weeds have become wands, encased in a temporary shirt of ice and light….It is the performance of this hour only, the dawning of the day, fresh and ever new. This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular.” (“Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world….I will hear some sound of the morning as it settles upward.”)

Later, she writes: “For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water….To the young these materials are still celestial; for every child the garden is re-created. Then the occlusions begin.”

A bird, she writes, “was, of course, a piece of the sky.” “…This is not fact; this is the other part of knowing, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.”

Of a great-horned owl, swooping through the forest, she writes: “When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of mystery….”

Knowledge, she writes, entertained her, shaped her, and ultimately failed her. “Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worthy of my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my spiritual state.”

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family….we are at risk together. We are each other’s destiny.

“For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

and this, the closing lines of poetry handbook, is the one i’ll leave with you to ponder for the day:

 “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” 

—Mary Oliver, “A Poetry Handbook” 

may our own occlusions be swept away by wonder and the telltale tingle of the spine that reminds us we’re in the presence of the holy, the infinite, the ever….

which line above from mary O most stirs you? or which did you unearth this week?

polestar now illuminates the heavens: mary oliver (1935-2019)

Mary Oliver cover closeup

Mary Oliver spoon-feeding tiny feathered friend, close-up from the cover of Oliver’s 2017 “Devotions,” a collection of poems spanning five decades. photo by Molly Malone Cook, Mary’s life partner

Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world, drew a wide following while dividing critics, died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She was 83.

so begins the New York Times obituary for Mary O, polestar of poetry as prayer for some of us, for many of us. for me, most certainly.

as with most every death that shakes you at the marrow, my first response was cloudy, was confused. why, out of the blue yesterday, was a dear friend sending me lines from Mary O poems in the middle of an ordinary afternoon? then i looked again, closely, at the subject line and saw the dates spanned by hyphen, 1935 – 2019, our vernacular shorthand for “death has come.” it sank in slowly, as if my brain cells refused to register.

it’s not everyday that a death in the news so dizzies me, jerks me into momentary disbelief before settling with a thud, one that opens into sorrow. but mary O had long ago burrowed deep inside my soul; i’d made a whole room for her in wherever is that place that holds our heaven-sent synapses and soarings.

mary O had the gift of belonging to each and every one of us who read her, who memorized her lines, who traced our fingertips across the page, all but absorbing the unspoken, the shimmering sacred, she infused between the words, the images. to read a mary oliver poem is, often, to feel “the telltale tingle of the spine,” as nabokov so unforgettably put it. it’s as much what mary oliver doesn’t say, the unspoken, that catapults off the page, that reverberates, that catches in your chest, your throat, your mind, and lies there pulsing while you absorb the holy inference, the Truth.

mary oliver takes us by the hand, and down the trodden path into the woods, along the marsh, the tide pool, the ocean’s noisy shore. we sit beside her on the sodden log. keep watch with her as she keeps watch on the box turtle slithering into the pond. we hear the cry of the owl, the heron, the kingfisher, the red bird, the stirring in the trees. we are right beside her, footsteps behind her, always, when we enter into her poetry.

she was for me — and maybe for you, too — my polestar of prayerful poetry, the poetry of astonishment, the poetry of the Book of Nature. she was my doorway into all those poets — w.s. merwin, david whyte, wendell berry, terry tempest williams (i’ll think of more) — whose critical attention teaches us to see the divine — feel the divine, know the divine — in the stirrings of the earth and sky, those poets who remind us that the holy is all around, and it’s ours to enter any time. all it asks is that we open — even just a crack — the doorways of our soul.

mary O opened those doorways every time.

i met her once. sat in the same room, breathed the same air. shared words, shared silence. listened. laughed. it was heavenly, but i’d dreamed of more. had hoped to trek to cape cod when she was there, and i was in cambridge. hoped to comb the beach with her. walk the woods. then, when she up and moved to florida, i rearranged my dreams. imagined sending her a letter, asking if perhaps she’d meet with one of her disciples. i fully imagined sitting beside her on that log, listening, absorbing. learning.

she was, though, famously, intensely private. and it’s that thin-shelled soul, the porous, almost fragile cell wall of self that i recognize. that i honor with my distance. i’d not dare disturb.

i did though send her a letter. i had to once. i wanted to begin my first book, slowing time, with a mary oliver epigraph, her poem “praying;” these lines especially…

just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

so i wrote her, asked if i could please have permission. her assistant wrote me back. but the letter came from mary O’s writing place, and that was close enough for me. (that and a letter from wendell berry are among the two treasures in the narrow drawer of my writing table.)

i never met her. but she knew me — or so it felt as her words slipped over me, put voice to my heart’s beat, my breath, my prayer, my hope, my faith. and that’s what made her my patron saint of poetry. delicate as the little bird she spoon feeds up above, a close-up from the cover of her last collection, her life’s work, bound. 455 pages.

img_1224devotions, indeed.

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. 

so says the new york times, which goes on to say:

For her abiding communion with nature, Ms. Oliver was often compared to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. For her quiet, measured observations, and for her fiercely private personal mien (she gave many readings but few interviews, saying she wanted her work to speak for itself), she was likened to Emily Dickinson.

Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality, as in the work of the American Transcendentalists or English poets like William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

i say, simply, thank you, mary O. thank you, thank you, thank you.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

bless you, mary O. may astonishment be yours eternally.

what’s your holiest line or poem from mary oliver?

 

footsteps straight to my heart

willie diploma wall

four years ago, it was the sound of his footsteps i knew i would miss more than nearly anything.

the thud of his footfall onto the floor of the room up above, the footfall that signaled to me, down below, that the boy i love had clomped out of bed, or trundled down the stairs, that he soon would be rounding the bend, showing his face, his radiant face, at the old kitchen door.

his footsteps are back.

and my heart couldn’t be more tickled, delighted, dancing its own little jig.

the thud of the footfall is one of those percussive refrains woven into the rhythms of this old house, of any old house, and it’s a sound you might take for granted — it belongs with the particular click of the doorknob, or the way the car door slams off in the distance, and your heart knows before you know that someone you love is now home. you might take it for granted until suddenly, without forethought, it’s silenced, it’s absent. until all you hear is the hollow emptiness of no more footsteps — or door clicks, or car door slamming in the not-so-far distance.

it’s a quiet that crushes you. the unspoken sonic abyss of the someone who’s gone.

and now, with the thuds and the clomps and the rushing of water from the tap in his bathroom once again punctuating the soundtrack of this old house, i find my old heart quickening, picking up its rhythm, pounding just a wee bit harder, as once again — in that way that happens to mothers — i wrap my whole self — body and mind and heart and soul — around this interlude of pure wonder and blessing.

indeed, it’s way more chaotic around here than just one week ago, when this old house contained only three peoples plus a crotchety cat. and the lumbering fellow we’ve added to the equation, once he and his papa pulled down the alley, unloaded the mountains of boxes and lamps and speakers and papers, he’s set this old house percolating once again with his particular cacophonies. yes, there was a hammer pounding a wee bit late into the night. and the avalanche of stuff hauled out of his room and into the upstairs hall, it could tangle you into a knot, and snuff out your breath if you happened to trip and tumble deep down in its clutches.

but a bit of a miracle’s unfolding. i’d call it the answer to a prayer, except that i never dared to pray for it.

the boy i love, the boy who graduated in a cloud of glories at his college on the hill, he moved back to chicago thinking he’d rent a studio apartment, try to pay rent while teaching in an inner-city classroom, before he heads back off to law school and PhD school, before he spends a life trying to right wrongs and carving out justice. but then, as he pulled his duffle bags and moving boxes back into his boyhood room, as he perused the websites of apartment listings, as he realized the rent for a space not much bigger than his room at the bend in the stairs might be tough to afford, he started to rearrange his thinking — and his old room that bore the totems of middle and high school and selves long past.

he pulled posters off DSCF1241the wall, peeled campaign stickers off his closet door. took down the little boy bulletin board i’d bought the day we moved into this old house. he cleared his book shelves of boyhood favorites, took down the hobbit and twain and j.k. rowling; slid in hobbes and kant and aristotle. hung his hard-won college diploma just above his old desk, the desk where he calculated his way through fifth-grade math, and where he typed his junior theme. he must have measured the proximity between the door of his old room and that of his little brother, the one he says he came home to be close to.

he’s decided to stay.

he’s perched his french press coffee pot next to my gurgling electric one. he’s added his paltry few spices onto the shelf next to mine. he’s plugged in his speakers, and asked if we could pull up the old navy carpet so he can stride on the birds-eye maple that’s too long been shrouded. he’s decided, for now, that home will be in the place with a room all his own, and a sprawling kitchen just down the stairs (the commercial-grade six-burner cookstove and his mother’s built-in grocery service might have helped tip the scales in the refueling department).

for now, he’s sticking nearby.

for now, he and i are sitting down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. we’re taking long walks. we’re holding our breath — together  — as he puts muscle to hammer and tries to sink nails into plaster. we’re sitting out in the summer porch, listening to night sounds. we’re backfilling all of the stories that hadn’t had time to be told.

sure, my days are topsy-turvy. and this house feels certain to burst. and the washing machine moans from over-exertion.

but for four long years i could only wish for such chaos. i didn’t dare to hope that the day would come that we’d once again breathe the same air, inhale the same sounds, delight in shared and unscripted hilarities, ones unfolding in real time, and in the same time zone.

i’m practically giddy at the truth that this kid is wise enough, and tender enough of heart, to buck the prevailing post-graduation currents, to simply and humbly move back home, for the sheer gift of deepening the bonds with his little brother, and his grandmother who is now 84, and who every tuesday of his growing up years devoted her days and attentions to him. he is seizing the days before they are gone.

he didn’t take a job in DC, didn’t post himself in the heart of manhattan. all that might come. but for now, he’s taking a pause, taking time for what matters.

back in december he told me that he was looking to do the most meaningful work in the years between college and law school, “and, honestly, mommo,” he said, via long distance, “i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd,” his little kid brother, now on the cusp of going off to high school.

as poignant as anything this week, and pulsing too very near the surface, is my knowledge — keen knowledge — that not too many miles away i have a very dear and deeply beloved friend who is in a hospital, suffering unimaginable devastations, and she might be robbed of the chance to whirl in this very dear thing, in her children’s sweet presence, in days that tumble lazily one to the next. please God, i beg, down on my knees, let my beautiful friend and her most blessed children share in this, the holiest dance.

for me — a girl who preaches deep-breathing the blessing of each and every framed moment of time — the unanticipated gift, the knowledge that we might grab a few years we’d not known were coming our way, this feels to me like the gift of a lifetime, this sweet holy homecoming.

and it comes with its very own soundtrack: the sound of a particular footfall, sinking deep and deeper into my heart.

bless you, sweet will, and welcome back home.

DSCF1243

worry not about the tomes slid off the boyhood book shelf, they are safe and sound with me, and will soon find a home on yet another shelf, one of the many that line the walls of this old house. a prayer request: for my beautiful friend in the hospital, for gentle soft hours to come her way.

and a question: what are the sounds of your heart’s dearest soundtrack, the ones that tell you someone you love is heading toward home? or the ones that make your heart tick as mighty as ever could be?

led by a deep, still voice

 

enter to grow wisdom

here is an essay i wrote this week for the nieman storyboard, a writerly nook of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard that explores the craft of longform narrative and storytelling in all its guises. this was an essay that took particular courage. you’ll read why. you can read it below, or see it here on the storyboard, where you might decide to poke around and find a host of marvels and morsels….

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention.

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Don’t flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

It all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

veritas

crack the books

crack the books

any minute now, i’m hoping, the red truck might pull up to the curb — or what was the curb back before the mountains of charcoal-gray polar crust accumulated there, and eclipsed the sharp edge where front yard meets street.

if all goes as planned, there will be a larger-than-life rectangle poking out from under the blankets that billow, blankets intended to keep the rectangle’s smooth white planks from getting splattered with road salt as the red truck sped down the tollway from the pig barn just this side of the state line. the pig barn is where the planks and the nails and the smooth white baseboard and trim turned into a bookcase, all at the hands of my old friend jim. jim who wields hammer and jigsaw and who for the past 15 years has been building our dreams, one nook and one cranny at a time.

that is all to say that i’m at long last due to get that bookcase today. one i ordered up months and months ago ( i might not splurge on haircuts or pairs of jeans without holes in the knees, but i will fork up the cash to buy me a wall of pressed-tight spines). it’s a bookcase that’s soon to be home to the five unpacked book boxes hauled home from veritas U., and the dozen or so tumbling towers of tomes i plonked on my office floor in those long-ago weeks (two years and counting) when i left my downtown newspaper office and made this old garage my forever writing room.

there’s hope that i’ll be home alone for a good chunk of this weekend, and my fingers are itching to get at those books, to pull each one from the depths and the dark of its shipping box. to flip through the pages and sink back in time, back to the couch in cambridge where i looked over rooftops and scrawled in the margins. made notes. thought with my pen, in ink. where, for one sumptuous year, i tumbled and soared over the landscape of learning — learning of poetry and slave-trading, jim-crow atrocities, abolitionists and everyday saints, as well as the art and craft of narrative writing.

all those books — all those old friends: the poet donald hall; frederick douglas; virginia woolf; zora neale hurston; the list goes on and on — are tucked inside, and pulling them, one-by-one, from the shadow, hoisting them up to a shelf, will be an exercise in remembering, in discovering all over again just why as a civilization we believe in the sealing of words to the page.

it’s testament, all of it, to the power of being shaken to tears, the delight of traipsing upon a brand-new accumulation of letters whirred into a word we’d never imagined, the riveting thought that stirred me to pulling the tip of my pen clear beneath the words, as if to memorize, to absorb, to never forget the electrical force of that particular idea.

i boxed the books by semester, so with each tearing back of the seam, i’ll enter a particular epoch in the year that unlocked channels in my mind and deepened my heart and my soul. you can’t open a book, can’t draw your eyes across line after line and not emerge with new layers of knowing, of wondering, of hungering. not if the book’s worth the ink soaked into the page.

and that’s why it matters that those books emerge from their boxes and their vertical teetering stacks. a book belongs at arm’s reach. a book begs to be pulled from the shelf, to be shared, to be slipped in the hand of someone who might want to know, to discover. or to be sprawled once again across your very own lap, so you can read and repeat and recite. memorize a particular collection of words, and the wisdom for which it’s the key.

they’re overdue, all those tomes, to rise from the floor and climb up the walls. soon as the red truck rolls along, they’ll get on with their reason for being: to offer, over and over, the very words that lead us into the heart of truth, beauty and wisdom.

best done when perched on a shelf, ready for dispatch with determined tug of the spine.

some days writing is sheer exercise. you rumble your fingers in hopes of keeping them limber, and the brain cells to which they’re connected. this was one of those days — with 85 distractions, here, there and everywhere. 

because i can’t bear to leave you with such thin offerings, i am turning to one of the books from another shelf in this old house: abraham joshua heschel’s “i asked for wonder: a spiritual anthology.” the editor, samuel h. dresner, culled heschel’s writings for those passages — “so compelling are his sentences that a paragraph literally chokes from wealth,” dresner writes — that are the heart of the matter.

here’s one titled, “degrees”:

…Awareness of God does not come by degrees from timidity to intellectual temerity; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.

and so i leave you with heschel, and keep my own eye trained out the window. searching and hoping for a sighting of the shiny red truck and the rectangle certain to put my life back in order. or at least some fraction of it, perhaps.

what books do you pull most often from your best-loved shelf?

99 psalms: prayer-poems that “refuse to leave us unattended”

99 psalms

it was nearly 17 months ago, on a hot saturday’s afternoon, with little sleep the night before, that i climbed the stairs of a gray triple-decker (boston vernacular for what chicagoans call the “three-flat”), just down the lane and around the corner from harvard square. there i met a bearded gentle man, a man who presided over an aerie where birds came to the windows, where sunrise poured into the living room, and sunset washed the kitchen in a rose-tinted rinse. cabinets were stacked with pottery, cobalt rough-hewn plates, heavy to the hand; mugs whose handles met the flesh of your palm with solid tenderness. and books, books lined the walls, floor to ceiling, in half the rooms.

the bearded bespectacled man was mark burrows. he was, for 11 months, our landlord. and he will be, for life, my lighthouse keeper and my teacher.

mark (for in this moment i address him as a friend) is a professor of poetry and divinity, a scholar of mysticism, and a historian of medieval christianity. in that first walk-through of the two-bedroom-two-office apartment for rent, as i spied the titles on his desk, i knew i needed to live there. i needed to inhale the essential texts, and the poetry and prayer that breathed there.

almost a year ago, mark, who is now teaching theology and literature at the university of applied sciences in bochum, germany, published the luminous “prayers of a young poet” (paraclete press, 2013), a collection of 67 poems of rainer maria rilke, the great german poet. that book, the first english translation of rilke’s prayers in their original form, evoked for poet jane hirshfield, “leonardo da vinci’s notebooks — it shows the same mix of surety, roughness, genius, and the sense of a precipitous creative speed.”

rilke explores “the poetry of search,” or as burrows writes, “poetry that ponders darkness.”

just weeks ago, my teacher, professor burrows, published another translation of a poet whose work dares to explore the often unexplored landscape — the soul in exile. this time, burrows put his considerable intellect to the work of a poet i’d not ever known, one who goes by the pen name of SAID.

the book is titled, “99 psalms: SAID,” translated from german by mark s. burrows (paraclete press, 2013).

born in tehran, SAID emigrated to germany as an engineering student in 1965, but he abandoned those studies to pursue a writing career, and through the power of his poetry, has become a prominent figure in the german literary scene.

burrows first encountered SAID, he recalls, on a “dreary, rain-soaked night” in munich’s old city hall in may of 2010, at a poetry reading held in conjunction with the second ecumenical Kirchentag, a massive gathering sponsored by the roman catholic church and the protestant church of germany.

as SAID took to the microphone, burrows writes that he noticed the audience leaning forward, the better to absorb what flowed next.

“the psalms he chose…were blunt, vivid, and often startling in their language and imagery. none betrayed any trace of sentimentality…the fierce directness of their language conveyed a marked impatience with intolerance, probing the ambiguities of life with an unflinching honesty in order to remind us — if we had forgotten — that ‘purity isn’t the sister of truth.'”

burrows goes on to write that “these are psalms that cry out against the confidence of zealots, with their claims of righteous authority over others — crusaders, campaigners, and jihadists alike.”

in other words, the exile SAID writes poems of exile, “psalms arising from a ‘no-man’s-land.'” he employs a metaphor of wind as “a hope that reaches beyond religious differences and across the growing disparities between the affluent and poor,” as burrows writes.

in the tradition of the hebrew psalmist, SAID’s works are poems of praise and lament. burrows writes that “the poems we need are often the ones that refuse to leave us unattended.” they remind us “to look beyond what we know, or think we know.”

these poems, writes burrows, “bear witness to the heart’s descent into loneliness and despair, and gesture to the ascents we also know in moments of compassion and generosity.”

as always, poetry does the work of capturing the unspoken, unformed fragments of our heart, of our deepest imagination. the poet, as the butterfly catcher, employs the vessels of language to net, to gather, to collect the flitting-about, untethered, winged idea, the moment.

the poet does the work so we — the reader, the listener, the lonely pilgrim — can stake some claim of understanding in a landscape that until the moment of the poet’s poetry has escaped us.

the poet places us, solidly, in territory at once familiar and foreign. we trip upon the syllables of the imagination, and we find ourselves breathless at the poet’s deep knowing, at the exhilarating moment of loneliness collapsed. we recognize, we understand anew the depths of the human spirit, in wordform before un-uttered.

SAID addresses his psalms to “lord,” though not one bound by any religious tradition. he is certainly a late-modern psalmist, and his prayer poems speak to the complexities of the tangled fractious world in which we live. he explores the human condition with more urgency, perhaps, than he explores the divine. and therein is tension, poetry that refuses to leave us unattended.

one last thing, before i leave you with a psalm or two: about the 99 psalms, the number ninety-nine in the muslim tradition is the precise number of names by which Allah — God — is known. there remains one name — “the last/ the hidden” — that is unknowable, beyond us. so too with the 99 psalms; we are left wondering about the one beyond, the one which, perhaps, is written but not known, or not yet written. what might the unknowable tell us? why are we left not knowing?

here, a pair of SAID psalms that “refuse to leave you unattended”:

[Psalm 35]

lord

pray

that we recognize you

when you come

destroy the go-between gods

with their grand airs and their daily needs

set your seal upon your houses

and don’t be afraid of our nakedness

let the cypresses be your messengers

for they stand upright and whisper

and don’t try to convert the wind

[pause for silence.]

and now, one other, though choosing only one was tough, indeed…

[Psalm 10]

lord

spread wide your arms

and protect us

from the multitudes of your guardians

stand by those who wander

who’ve not lost the gift of hearing

and listen within their solitude

stand by those too

who stay and wait for you

[silence, once again…]

chair friends, i come to you on a wednesday, because in the publishing world these days, blogging about a book is one way to cast wider the net. and today was the day they asked me to write. 

i ask: is there a poem in your life — or especially in your now — that refuses to leave you unattended? and what about the 100th psalm, do you wonder what it asks or says? 

a place to curl in summer

summer seat cushion

it goes back, way back to the summers when i’d find a log — a particular log — in the woods across the lane, or nestled along the green pond, so named for the otherworldly martian-colored skin that magically unfurled across the surface overnight when summers turned hot, turned midwest humid. and the overspill pond went from patched with lily pads to bank-to-bank neon green.

i must have discovered early on the gift of making like a toad, and shrinking way down low, inside the swaying fronds of weeping willow, beneath the rustling of the oak-tree giants as they’d shake arthritic, creaky limbs. i might have taken to a particular rock, another favorite perch, down at the woodsy corner where the stream, after thrashing summer storms, practically roared, as rushing water body-blocked against the boulders that dared to interrupt the get-away.

or maybe it was inside the play house, deep in the grove at the back of our yard, where i made believe i was a pioneer, ala laura ingalls wilder, and it was my little house in the big woods. there, i’d arrange and re-arrange the table and two chairs, the upturned coffee can i pretended was a cookstove. i’d sit and look out the paned windows, i’d tuck wildflowers in jars, set the table for my imaginary children, who’d come for victuals when i clanged the dinner bell.

it might be any one of those wonders — or even my cincinnati grandma’s upper porch, an ivy-screened brick-and-limestone veranda overlooking the sloping woods, and the cattails in the distance, where the woods turned boggy. might have been there that i learned to love the nightcall of the wood frog’s love song, or the late summer buzz-saw of cicada.

whatever the source, it’s never gone away, my inclination to hide behind a scrim of leafy green. make like i’m just another butterfly, or lady bug, landed on a broad green pad. and keep watch on the world that doesn’t know i’m watching.

it’s why i lug my books and pens — and pitchers of lemony water, and plates spilling with whatever’s served up in the summer kitchen — out to what we call the summer house, only really that’s the name bequeathed to us when we bought this place, this old shingled house and the gardens that pay no mind to where they’re told to grow. it’s the screened-in porch, tacked onto the garage, for heaven’s sake. but it’s just about my favorite place to sit and watch the summer, frame by frame.

i’ve been calling it “the office,” and it’s been open for business for weeks now. when anyone comes calling, comes to pay a visit, sit a spell, it’s where i take them for a healthy dose of conversation. for a chance to brush up against the magic of a ceiling fan that whirs, and mama wren chastising the cat, or the rare butterfly fluttering by.

it’s a fine thing to have a summer’s perch, a place from which to watch the sun arc across the sky, to spy the wispy bits float across a sunbeam, to catch the glint of the spider’s web in a flash of early morning. to watch the summer theatre unfold unnoticed, according to heaven’s script, without human interjection.

it’s one of the gifts of this old house that i’ve been relishing this week, as i noted on my calendar that a year ago wednesday, i’d felt my heart all but yanked from my chest, as i boarded a plane for boston and left behind this garden in august, this house when autumn’s light was just around the corner.

because i can’t write with all the relish that i like, here on this friday morning when a deadline is staring me in the face, i thought i’d keep up my end of the bargain, by inviting you into the virtual summer house, and sharing a short stack of good reads (plus one “watch”).

here are a few fine things i’ve stumbled upon this week…rifle through the stack, and see if any float your boat…

holland carter’s magnificent essay in the new york times on how a love of poetry led to a love of art…

a little-known letter from e.b. white on why he wrote charlotte’s web (found in slate)…

watch this: one dream, the trailer for a new documentary telling the behind-the-scenes story of martin luther king’s “i have a dream speech,” a new endeavor from red border films, a project from time magazine..

and finally, from close to home, my dear friend and lifemate, blair kamin, launched his e-book on the gates of harvard yard this week, and you can get a peek here (the book itself can only be viewed on iPad, which i don’t have…..) or, even better, a wonderful Q & A here….

that oughta keep you busy, wherever it is you squat in summer…..

what’s your favorite summer perch, now or long-ago???

the view from inside one mama’s heart

brothers

i know.  i said i’d take a turn north, explore the cerebrum instead of the vessel that pumps down in the chest. but, so happens, a prodigal child is circling back to his homestead this weekend, for three short weeks, for what might prove to be the last and longest time.

i hadn’t quite realized how hollow this old house feels without him. the first year he went off to college, it was all new. i hadn’t quite grasped that it was the new normal; it still felt like a blip, an oddity. i could hum along and pretend that one day soon it would be back to the way it had always been.

the second year of college, none of us were here. we were tucked in that third-floor aerie that hardly knew him. that felt small enough and tight enough not to miss him quite so much. and besides, he was only two hours away.

now, now that we’re back in the old house with the room at the bend in the stairs, his room, the room he grew up in, the one where he learned to shave, first slid into a tuxedo, the one where he typed his college essays, where his desk lamp stayed burning till too late in the night, too early in the morning, truth be told, i feel the emptiness. this old house feels baggy, like we’ve gone down in size, and the jeans on our hips are sagging, sliding clear to our knees.

it’s quiet. too quiet sometimes. oh, don’t get me wrong. i wrap myself in silence like a soft-knitted afghan. quiet and silence allow thoughts to percolate, ideas to bubble up and thicken, gain depth and nuance, not unlike a balsamic glaze, or a mound of caramelized onion.

but that prize — the silence so rich you can count the tick of the clock — comes at the cost of not hearing the laughter. not standing at the cutting board, come late afternoon, with tears rolling down my cheeks. and not because i’m chopping an onion; because the lanky kid who just strolled in the door is recounting his day, is telling me tales animated in one of the 5,000 accents he’s mastered, an around-the-world whirl from one little mouth. it’s the uncanniest gift, his knack for assembling a whole host of characters, spilling them forth, one tale, one voice, at a time.

there is nothing so sweet as a belly ache that comes from your kid doubling you over in side-splitting, air-gasping guffaws.

that kid is coming home. that kid will fill this old house, once again, with the clomp of his feet, the sound of the shower that drones on for what seems like an hour. i’ll hear the sound of his pawing through the pantry, in search of whatever will fill that bottomless belly. but most of all, i’ll hear the sound of that voice i could pluck from the middle of grand central station, that voice i can hear in my dreams.

i’ll hear the particular way he calls me “mommo!” a collection of soft consonants and one open-mouthed vowel that buckles my knees, kickstarts my heart.

even better than all of that, though, are the sounds that will come from the two who are brothers.

i realize more than ever that eight years apart is a lifetime. one is off, navigating the steep slopes of college. the other is back home, after a long year away, trying to find his way through the forest of middle school. miles and miles lie between them. most of the year, they are no more than apostrophes in each other’s stories. they intersect barely. trade two syllable texts, on occasion.

but, in the rare few weeks they inhabit the very same house, they will be everything i always prayed for: each other’s guidepost and lighthouse. they’ll curl in the beanbags, side by side, down in the basement. they’ll motor off in the old station wagon that now has no fan, no AC or heat. but it does have good tunes, they tell me. and they’ll turn them up loudly. i might even find the little one sprawled on the big one’s twin bed.

there is much catching up to do. the big kid’s learning lessons at considerable pace. the little one is starting to ask much deeper questions, questions best answered not by your mama, but by the very big brother who, in your estimation, knows all there is to know.

in plenty of ways, the two couldn’t be any more different. or at least it had always seemed that way. if i’d had two ovaries, i would have sworn one came from the left and one from the right. but, fact is, i only had one, so they both popped from the same cubic inch of real estate.

and maybe that’s why — deep down — the two of them understand the most essential brotherly truth: they’ve got each other’s backs. they are each other’s deepest allies, and fiercest defenders. it’s the truth that propelled all my prayers, in those long fallow years when month after month brought the sound of my heart shattering.

and so, as the drumbeat quickens, as the march on the calendar moves toward sunday at 5:07 p.m., central standard time, so too does the pace of my pulse. i’ll move into full mama mode as the hours unfold. i’ll do my usual dance: zip around the yard with clippers, tuck stems in a fat old vase and plop it next to his pillow. i’ll cook up a storm. polish the bathroom mirror, change the sheets, vacuum the rug. make like a long-lost traveler is returning to civilization.

if i stop to consider the calendar, if i realize that this really might be his last long stint under this roof, i might park myself at the door of his room, and stop the clock.

nah, on second thought, i wouldn’t want that. i love every inch and ounce of this growing of kids. i love the intricate layers of conversation, as it deepens and deepens, year after year. i love getting the phone calls from far, far away, hearing the stories, the life that he leads that so exceeds the bounds of mine at his age.

i love that he’ll always have us to come home to. and that his room at the bend in the stairs will echo forever the sounds of his bumbling years. the years when he was finding his way, the years when he did that under my watch.

more than ever, i thank the heavens that i’ve the little guy, too. that one more time i can reach out a hand, and help a traveler up the side of very steep hills. this old house would be so very hollow without him.

and for three weeks, three too-swift weeks, this old house will be filled with two boys, and their very big hearts, sloshing and spilling with laughter and stories and, sure as can be, some very fine wisdoms passed from brother to brother….

just as i prayed so long ago….

thank God for the prayers that came true…

the picture above was snapped the night before the big one left for college. he read a pile of books to the little one that night, as the little one didn’t want to turn out the light, didn’t want the morning to come. 

so many mornings have come and gone since then. so many more about to come…..

did you have a big or little sibling who took your hand and guided you through the world? or did you find your pathfinders beyond the bounds of the family you were born into??

entering cambridge

entering cambridge kitchen

the “entering cambridge” postcard sits at the foot of my kitchen window, just to the left of the coffeemaker, just to the right of the cake dome, where the blue willow plate offers up the daily special. it’s a point on the domestic map that’s pretty much the epicenter of morning, noon and bedtime.

at the top of the stairs, now nailed to the red wall in The Professor’s study, there hangs another version of the very same sign: “entering cambridge.” only this one is carved out of wood, hand-painted by a new hampshire craftsman.

entering cambridge

both serve as reminders, but more emphatically than that, they’re nudges, sharp elbows into the ribs. insistent “pssssst, you promised”s.

if a sabbatical — a year of thinking sumptuously — is really meant to transform your life, it demands an afterlife. the intent is not simply to pry open your cerebrum, insert wisdom and knowledge, then suture the whole thing shut and send you on your merry way.

the whole point, it seems, is to reshape, reframe, keep those brain cells ever open for business. ever famished.

there’s a beautiful ritual in judaism that at the end of shabbat — the holy interlude from sundown to sundown, friday to saturday — a spice box is passed around as part of havdalah, the candle-lit blessing that seals the sacred time, the end of the otherworldly 25 hours. the box is filled with star anise and clove and cinnamon bark, pungent aromatics. the thinking goes that as you take a whiff, fill your nose down to your lungs with those spicy notes, you’ll so carry the sweetness of shabbat with you into the week. you won’t confine the holy to one short slot of time. you’ll bring the holy with you.

so too sabbatical, a word with roots in sabbath, to rest, yes, but to restore, more emphatically.

it seems that our end of the bargain is that as disciples of the sabbatical, we are duty bound to bring home its truths, its wisdoms, and plant its seeds into our home soil.

thus, the entering cambridge signs, and why you’ll find them at the heart of the two rooms that are the heart of me (light-filled kitchen) and the professor (light-filled study):

i’ve long been charmed by the signs, posted at the entry point of every massachusetts town or burg or city. it might be the simple lines, the white crest, crisp black letters, the unassuming declaration of history in the middle line on each and every sign, “inc. 1635,” for instance, on the one for fine old cambridge, the city incorporated just 15 years after captain bradford planted his waterlogged boot on plymouth rock.

the first sign i carried home, carried home in duplicate, if truth be told, was “entering amherst,” the town where we tucked away our firstborn when he went off to college. the wee signs, in magnet form, were talismans to me. i stuck one in my cubicle at work, tucked one in my wallet, as if bumping into the forms in the thick of a workday, or while slipping out a dollar bill, brought me close, if just for a moment’s time, to my faraway boy.

quite simply, the signs charmed me.

now they inspire me.

here’s the backstory: on massachusetts avenue in cambridge, there sits a fine old map store, tucked between an ethiopian cafe and a funky hair salon. we passed it every time we drove to the little guy’s school. he and i noticed the entering cambridge signs in the window. we had a hunch they were for sale.

the little guy declared, on one of our winter drive-by’s, that we really needed to procure one for the professor, who’d already taken quite a shine to the fair city and whom we guessed might never want to leave.

it became a refrain: we’d drive by on the way to school, on the mornings when the bus didn’t quite happen, and the little guy in the passenger seat would declare we needed to get a sign.

so, at last, the week we were leaving, we did. we wrapped it, and left it beside the professor’s bed. so that, come father’s day morn, the day after we’d flown home, when the professor awoke alone in that third-floor aerie that had been our roost for all those glorious months, he’d find a stack of wrapped and ribboned packages.

unbeknownst to us, the professor had been thinking along the same cambridge lines.

lying on my pillow the last night i lay my head there, there was a postcard. an “entering cambridge” postcard. the very sign we loved, framed on 3-by-5 thick paper.

on the back, written in the wee small script of the man i married nearly 22 years ago, were words that made me cry. in part, he wrote that while it might seem odd to give an “entering cambridge” sign as we were leaving, the point was to make it a promise.

“we can always be ‘entering cambridge,'” he wrote, “always exploring, learning, loving, growing.” while it helps to be in 02139, he implored that we should enter cambridge even back in 60091. especially back in 60091, the leafy little life that’s ours when home sweet home.

it’s become a mantra: “enter cambridge.”

and so it will be.

a few months before packing up the 27 boxes, three suitcases and every inch of otherwise unoccupied space in the little black sedan, i’d started a new mailbox in my computer, one i titled, “back home: soft landings. ideas to make it better.”

in that cyber-cubicle i tucked a host of hyperlinks and emails, all intended to stir brain cells. the poetry foundation (chicago-based) is peppered throughout, as are offerings from northwestern university (just down the lane), the writing center at northwestern, the writer’s theatre, and that stalwart of chicago indie bookstores, women & children first (where one recent summer’s eve, i stood in line with some 300, mostly women, to listen to none other than alice walker read). added just this week, the newberry library, and another fine indie shop, the book cellar, a bibliophile’s dream that offers comestibles along with book clubs. why not a root beer float with your ayn rand, or panini with your proust?

since i’ve been home, i’ve been noodling ideas of ways to oomph the intelligence quotient of my day to day. i’ve considered commencing a reading circle (i’m allergic to book groups, for reasons that partly escape me, but mostly have to do with the inherent exclusivity — who’s in, who’s out — and my lifelong skittishness of circumscribed memberships). i’ve been eyeing one particular list of 100 classics, and thought of starting with no. 1, “jane eyre,” and working to 100, walt whitman’s “leaves of grass.” (this would take a lifetime, i presume, but might as well get started soon….)

a dear friend of mine who returned from a left-coast fellowship a few years back, told me this week that, upon her return to the heartland, she and a gaggle of friends hired a humanities professor from the university of chicago, and for $100 per person per semester, they carried on in her living room several years of dedicated study of the history and literature of significant chapters of civilization.

so here’s where you come in, chair people. because i promise i wouldn’t prattle on if this wasn’t winding back to you.

i’ll be recasting the chair a bit, continuing on the adventure of “entering cambridge,” but finding ways to do it even when 997.5 miles from the vaunted 02139.

rather than rambling just from the heart, i will be more inclined to take us on adventures, introduce characters i meet along my ways. some weeks i’ll simply indulge in what i call “marginalia,” peeking onto pages where we find scribblings in the margins of whatever great reads land before our eyes. other weeks, it could be “yellow highlights,” great lines from literature and longform narrative unspooled here for your reading delights.

it would be grand if the table could become a gathering ground for whatever percolates your mind, your soul, your appetite for wisdom. and i’ve imagined, too, leaping out of the virtual, and having real-live gatherings of the chair, right here at my old maple table. or, better yet, beneath the whirling fan of the summer porch, where lemony waters are always on tap.

over this past year, i carried you all to cambridge in my heart, and in my omnipresent red-flowered marimekko backpack. now i hope to bring you all along as my days of entering cambridge emphatically continue, here along the great lake, the literary home of sandburg and bellow, richard wright and gwendolyn brooks.

start now, posting whatever curiosities and trails you’d like to tack to our explorers’ list…

what are some of your favorite haunts, preferred routes for cerebral exercise in the corner of the world you call home?

heartbeat of this old house

old garland

coming home stirs deep appreciation. seeing through fresh eyes. as i wander about the house, sink back into the rhythms of living here, unfolding my day here, i find myself drawn, day after day, to particular sounds, particular light patterns. i open windows, just to flush the house with outside sounds. the chirping of the cardinals. the trill of someone else. i tiptoe into rooms, stand there, watching the way the sunlight plays through vines that have trespassed across the windows.

but more than anywhere, i am drawn, near suppertime each day, back to the old garland, my not-so-shiny stainless-steel dowager of a cookstove. she feeds us amply. she feeds me deeply.

i think of her, it appears, in the feminine — muscled, un-fancified, generous, forgiving.

weighty, she holds down the kitchen. she offers heat, flame at the turn of a knob. she is this old house’s heartbeat, and not just because of the click-click-click she sputters while the flame prepares to catch.

broad-lapped, with six burners and a grill top, she whispers no pretension. she was anchored here back in the 1970s, long before it dawned on anyone that an industrial-grade stove might belong amid a hungry family.

she was born to feed masses. and masses she did feed. first up, a family of seven, then a family that huddled three generations under this old roof. and for the last decade, merely us. with but two growing boys, i hardly feel deserving of her generous proportion, her capacity to provide. i’d always dreamed of a gaggle. but, as wise people sometimes say, God gives you what you can handle, and i suppose i was cut off after my lucky bookends, my eight-year span of boy.

so i up my ante through invitation. stay for dinner, i tell the little boys who wander by. the little boys with hand under cake dome, come three or four in the afternoon.

in recent afternoons, after long days reading and writing, i find myself stirring as the clock ticks toward five. i start poking around the fridge, seeing what’s available (or more often, what’s on the verge of wilting if i don’t use it maintenant). i eye the cutting board, and hear a beckoning. i’ve room aplenty, near acreage, it seems, after a year in the not-so-sprawling apartment kitchen. i’ve got my drawer of accoutrement again, a gaggle of whatchamahoojies and thingamabobs that help me get the job done. the cucumber peeler, the garlic crusher, the strawberry huller (a new addition, inspired by the little fellow who HATES a leafy cap adorning his juicy fruit and finds it a sport to sink in the hungry teeth of the huller and glide out the nettlesome middleparts).

after a year in which i confined cooking to a rare few nights (otherwise it was more along the lines of dumping trader joe’s oft-frozen magic in a skillet, and calling it dinner), i’ve rediscovered the therapeutic balm of chopping to the tune of NPR’s “all things considered.” although the syrian backbeat to the sauted apples last night proved a wrenching side dish.

i find i hum when cooking for my boys. and my old stove sings right along.

she and i, we’re quite a pair. she steams ahead where i stumble. tries not to scorch when i forget, get wooed away by the ringing telephone, let things blacken on the pot.

last night i was cooking merrily. whipped up all my little one’s favorites. straight through to baby peas in butter sauce, the fancy kind that come tucked inside a see-through pouch, one that bobbed along in boiling vat — deep-sea peas ensconced in thermal safety suit.

and, one by one, i was cooking for no one. the little one called to say he’d been invited out for dinner, and he was so so sorry, he really wished he could be there. then the tall fellow, the one now back to newspapering, he called from the chambers of city hall, whispering that he was elbow-deep in witnessing a landmark debate, and wouldn’t be rolling in till at least the 9 o’clock train.

no worry, no chagrin. i smiled at my cooktop, crowded with pans that were going nowhere. the buttered noodles with my grandma’s butter-bathed bread cubes, they were happily napping off to the right. the apple sausages swimming in cinnamon-spiked apple slices, they dozed. and the baby peas, ala jacques cousteau, they couldn’t have cared less.

by 10, the pots were cleared, their contents tucked in tupperware. no one had been around for the duet, me and my old stove. but that didn’t detract, not one iota, from the joyful percolating deep inside.

i was home, back at lady garland, and she and i twirled splendidly, all alone, entwined again.

what part of your house makes you hum? performs a lively duet with you, day after live-long day?