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Category: a year in cambridge

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?

love letter to the cobbled city by the bend in the river charles…

river walk

dispatch from 02139 (final edition)…

the parabola of time has caught up with me. it’s the morning i couldn’t imagine. the end of the year i could hardly wrap my head around, long long ago when word of it first flickered across my imagination, when i knew i couldn’t say no, but could not figure how i’d say yes.

i turn back into a pumpkin in precisely 23 hours and 49 minutes (as of the moment i typed that calculation), when the big jet plane huffs and puffs and in a somersault of gravity defiance and aeronautical wonder hoists its belly off the runway, pointing toward sky, toward home.

home.

trouble is, i’m leaving a place that’s come to feel like home. when i lope round the bend onto franklin, just past petsi’s pie bakery & cafe, when i spot the curlicues of victorian frou-frou that bedeck our triple-decker at 608, i start fumbling for my keys. i know there’s a place up there, the aerie, where the breeze blows through, where the walls of books whisper sweet somethings in my ear.

true, i am headed home to a place that knows the secret hiding coves of my heart, to the muscled city that dares to rise up from the prairie along the great lake’s ruffled edge, to the creaky stairs of my old house, to my rambling roses now blooming in a tussle all along the white picket fence.

i’m headed home to the place where the walls are covered in black-and-white snaps of people we love, the people who came before us. to the place where two rooms at the top of the stairs are chambers that forever hold the frames of childhood that loop for both of my boys. i’m headed home, oddly enough, to the hand-me-down jug of the jolly quaker oats fellow my papa brought home from work a long, long time ago, and for reasons that could never be charted is way more priceless than old pottery has reason to be.

home is equal parts hodgepodge and heart. it’s quirky and lumpen. it creaks and it groans. sometimes you have to bang on the hot-water spigot just to get it to dribble. home soothes us nonetheless, kneads the knots out of our worn-down spirit at the end of the day.

and that’s what i’m coming home to: the real-deal, deep-soother rendition of that place where we lay down and breathe.

but before i zip the last of my bags, before i slip the key in the door one last time, turn and blow a kiss, i need to riffle through my cantabrigian* memory box one last time, pull out a few of the blessings i’ll never forget, won’t leave behind.

if there’s one frame that will forever spring to mind, it’ll be that meandering walk down by the charles river (the one pictured above), under the london plane trees, past the boat houses that hug the banks, dowagers of the past. it’s the walk that carried me, countless dawns, to my stone-walled monastery, where the monks always welcomed, and the votive candles patiently awaited the matchstick that lit them aflicker. mile after mile, week after week, we’d take to that path, the tall one, the professor, and i. it became our early-morning ritual, mostly on weekends, when we’d have a rare chance to catch up on what each other might have been up to in the long spaces between.

i’ll miss my kaleidoscope of neighbors here on franklin street: white-haired nan, of the caribbean-painted cottage, nan who fell in love with a civil rights compatriot, and wept fresh tears on my stoop just last night, as she clutched a framed photo of the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed gentleman she lost to cancer nearly two years ago, after 40-some years of marriage. nan, who found in cambridge a place where, back in the ’60s, no one looked twice at a white-skinned woman arm-in-arm with the black-skinned love of her life.

i’ll miss sarah, sarah who looks as if she’s just come in from blueberry picking in maine or, truer still, stepped off the pages of a children’s storybook with her sun-kissed hair and faintest freckles and that twinkle that never leaves her eye. sarah who came to the door with a tinfoil-wrapped platter of chocolate-chunk cookies on the day we arrived, and again last night, on the eve of departure. “bookends,” she called them. she is just that sort of across-the-way neighbor. and i will love her till the end of time.

and i’ll miss jane, eighty-something jane, who was born in a double-decker down the block, and has never left, spending her days leaning up against the cyclone fence or shuffling in bedroom slippers and top-knotted headscarf up and down the cobbled slopes of franklin and putnam and bay, the rectangle that defines her life’s landscape.

i’ll miss the harvard book store, and the coop, and the sun-drenched cambridge public library, my holy trinity of literary haunts, where books come curated by brilliant minds who know just which words will swoop deep into a reader’s heart and stir for a good long while.

i’ll miss the polyglot stew that rises up from the round-the-world crowds in harvard square, and the letters from the cambridge public schools that always come translated in at least 10 languages on the backside of every page. because here, in the 02138s and 9s, no one assumes english is the first language.

i’ll miss the intellectual bunsen burner that is 02139 and 02138, the zone the new york times proclaimed “the most opinionated ZIP code in america,” where ideas are the coin of the realm, and the shabbier the khakis, the holey-er the button-down, the better.

i’ll miss the body parts of cambridge that come pierced, stapled, studded, stretched and permanently inked in tattoos that know no end. i’ll miss the leggings in rainbow colors that peek out from underneath shorts that barely stretch across bums. i’ll miss the most eloquent cardboard pleas from the homeless folk who station themselves all along mass avenue.

i’ll miss the eastern seaboard, and the magic in the mist that coaxes rhododendrons and roses and dogwood and lilac to grow to proportions i never knew possible.

i’ll miss the breads of massachusetts and maine, just up the road. “when pigs fly” is my bakery of choice, and don’t be surprised if i lug home a suitcase packed to the brim with raisin-studded whole-grain goodness.

i’ll miss cambridge from dawn till starlight. i’ll miss cambridge when, plonked on an old wicker chair on my summer porch, i look up and catch the moon rising. i’ll know that a mere 1,000 miles away, that same sliver moon shines down on the charles, and the cobbled lanes that rise up from its banks to the hill i called home.

it’s a holy place, the place that opens your heart, that teaches you lessons. most of all the one where you find out that one simple “yes” made it all possible.

bless you, 02139.

quaker oat man

*cantabrigian: a quirky latin-derivative adjective for all things harvardian or cambridge, englandian. took me most of the year to pick up on it, so i’m passing it along, providing the shortcut for you.

so that’s it, chair people. cinderella’s ball is winding down. only cinders by the hearth, come morning. though i couldn’t be more twitterpated at the thought of swooping through the clouds to touch down in sweet home chicago. forgive the cambridge-centric year; twas a promise to mamas who wanted in on every drop. or at least the week’s highlights. we’ll be back to musings from the home front soon as i unpack the 27 boxes now motoring along the massachusetts turnpike. can’t believe i’ll next type from my old pine desk, but tis true.

from the bottom of my heart, bless you and thank you for the solace, the comfort, the wisdom you brought to me here at the table, where each friday i plugged in, and felt zapped with all your goodness. blessings. and love, the chair lady.

love letter to the boy who said “yes!”

love letter to the boy who said yes

dispatch from 02139 (in which the second-to-last cambridge edition of the chair is turned over to the art of love-letter writing…)

dear T,

so here we are — you, me and the fat cat — counting down the days till we stuff said kitty in strappy black bag, sling him over our shoulder and board the big jet plane. soon as we’re strapped in our seatbelts, mr. pilot will turn that plane’s big bulbous nose toward where the sun sets, toward corn fields and great lakes and skyscrapers rising from the prairie. we’ll lift off, you, me and screeching cat (and hope that the whir of the plane drowns out the primal howl rising up from row 32, down yonder under the depths of seat E).

knowing us, we’ll squeeze our fingers tight ’round each other’s as the plane does that hiccup-y burp from runway to sky. knowing us, one of us will swipe away tears, big mama tears. it’s been a long wild ride, sweet boy, and i’m riding home snuggled beside you so we can both soak it all in, gulp after gulp after bottomless gulp.

you’ve been the intrepid scout on this voyage, my friend, and before we go, i just want you to know — here, in little typed letters that you often read in the glow of your itty-bitty screen after bedtime lights are supposed to be dark — that you are the hero, the brave warrior, the tenderheart, to whom we owe this year of thinking and living so deeply sumptuously.

when daddy first discovered that beckoning email in his in-box, some 18 months ago, the one where the nice man asked if he might consider coming to cambridge, daddy wrote right back, said, “gosh, thanks, but we can’t. we’ve a fifth grader who would never in a million years let us wrench him from his cozy little life.”

daddy was wrong, wasn’t he?

that very night at dinner, when we put the question to you, “T, what would you think of up and moving smack-dab in the middle of middle school?” you didn’t blink. just blurted: “sounds great! i need to see the world!”

we asked again and again, from every imaginable angle, prying around to see if a NO was lurking somewhere deep down inside: what about soccer? what about baseball? what about going to cooperstown? what about your non-stop gaggle of friends?

bing, bing, and bing. you never batted an eye. the answer from you, always from you, is yes, yes and yes.

i am not kidding, not one little bit, when i tell you the truth that you were the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer. after years and years of mama eggs that wouldn’t do as we hoped and we prayed, there suddenly — against all odds and despite every medical book on the shelves — sprang from within, one blessed holy egg that only knew YES as the way.

mister yes, you turned into teddy. love of our life. swell in our hearts.

and never more than this year, as you took on cambridge with arms opened wide. and cambridge responded — emphatically, resoundingly — in kind.

watching you these past 10 months, watching you weather a belly-ache of a storm of the homesick blues, but then rebound, and rebound and rebound, has been the sweetest sweet on a long list of delicious.

i’ll never forget you bravely standing at the bus stop that very first morning, backpack slung over your shoulders, headed off — all on your own — to a school where you knew utterly no one.

wasn’t long till we were inviting over your delectable friends. and this saturday night, the living room rug will be wall-to-wall sleeping bags. your last goodbye to your united nations of buddies.

but that’s not all:

when you’d had your heart set on cambridge basketball, you were sick as a dog for 10 days on either side of the tryouts. once the fever was doused, you dragged yourself off the couch, tried out at the Y and played street ball straight through the blizzards of winter. wasn’t plan A in your playbook, but that didn’t bench you. you gave it your all; even twisted your ankle.

ditto, baseball — when you found out there were no spots in the big league, as cambridge baseball recruits early and often and doesn’t leave empty slots on the roster. again, you weathered your drooped heart, and forged on anyway. then, out of the blue, a coach up and called, and now you’re a brave. two, three nights a week, you’re out on the sandlot, under the lights, cracking the bat, snagging at line drives soaring straight at you. how fitting, my friend, that you’re number 1 — at least according to the fat white digit slapped on the back of your jersey. once again, you’re a walking-talking tale of determination, of not giving up when the cards are against you.

but it’s not just the hoops down by the river (where you play pickup with grad students from around the globe), not just the afterschool gym (where you’re the scrappy little white kid out with players who tower above you, who’ve taught you a jive and even a hustle).

i’ll not forget the afternoon you practically climbed on my lap to get an up-close read of our south african friend’s newspaper tale of the 1,841 steps it takes to fetch a bucket of water, two times a day, in the highlands bordering lesotho. or listening to our feminist muslim reporter friend tell her tales of marriage proposals from taliban chiefs, when she’s out in their tents gathering front-line stories. or our truth-teller friend from vietnam predicting he’ll be thrown in prison once he steps back into his homeland, the price of not spewing fiction; but he flies home anyway.

our prayer, daddy’s and mine, is that this year forever opens not only your eyes, but even wider your very big heart.

we want you to know, more than anything, that this is a world where even a drink of water comes with a heck of a toll in some corners of the world. we want you to think twice — or three or four times, at least — about how blessed you are that you had the two quarters — one for yourself, one for your very best friend who had none — when hot chocolate was served in the school cafeteria. we want you to remember the courts where the only shared language is the one bound inside the orange ball that soars through the hoops.

i know you’re ready to fly chicago way, to be back in your squishy red bean bag, to pedal your bike cambridge-style, any and everywhere. i know, too, that leaving these friends is not easy. that, if you could, you’d be a boy of two ZIP codes.

i’m mighty glad that i’ll have a front-row seat, at least for the next few years, on the unfolding of this year’s lessons deep in your heart. i’ve had my own sweet spots here. and daddy, we know, is filled to the brim.

more than anything, it’s all thanks to you, mister yes.

bless you mightily and always. yes, yes, and oh yes.

xox

we’re awash in moving boxes here in the aerie. we’ve just had a visit from new jersey grandma and grandpa; thank goodness they got here in the nick of time and we shared a few spectacular moments. before we dash, we’ve one last round with our beloveds from maine, who are planning to motor down on sunday. i’m barely able to sleep so excited am i to get back in my very own bed, and my creaky old house (where the hot water tap in the kitchen has decided to go kerpluey, but our trusty friend back home is deep on the case)…..there are folks here it breaks my heart to leave, but i’ll be back, i promise, 02139. one more post from the cobbled city, then it’s home to 60091… 

who in your life taught you the beauty of YES?

 

sayeth oprah: “ask yourself what makes you come alive…”

oprah better

dispatch from 02139 (in which the glorious “miss winfrey” — as the southern gentleman introduced her to the crowd — comes a-calling to commencement, and sends us forth…hot, sweaty and re-dialing our inner moral GPS…)

since, in all our together-in-chicago years, i’d never managed to amble over to that west loop studio of the glorious O herself, it was mighty considerate of veritas U to ink dear o-o-oprah in as this year’s commencement headliner.

why, with a mere 30,000 of us crammed in that polygon of grass and trees and library steps known in cambridgetown as tercentenary theatre, it was a veritable talk show a la fresco.

madam televangelist even joked, early on in her 29 minutes and 15 seconds of wisdom-spieling, that she’d hoped we might all be able to peek down under our chairs and find — voila! — free masters degrees and PhDs, which by harvard standards stirs a quicker pulse than the keys to any old lexus.

but that, dear friends, is leaping too far ahead into the proceedings of the 362d commencement of the oldest university in all the land.

back to the buzz that buzzed through cambridge, as the bells of harvard yard gonged once, then twice. and all of us, from points all around the square, we came trooping through the opened gates, first line of defense in the march toward harpo studios, 02138 edition.

we submitted to backpack checks, pulled proof-of-merit stubs from our sweaty pockets, and slogged through mud (for the night before the heavens opened wide and noah’s flood near poured). we found chairs that, had they toppled, would have slathered us in harvard ooze.

we sat through the blah-blah-blahs.

heard how the class of 1988 had raised a deficit-busting, all-time-record-setting $115 million (yup, you read that right, that was MILLION) in donations in just the last year, their 25th since graduation. we heard the sublime university president drew faust gilpin downplay her role as mere “warm-up act,” and acknowledge that there was “not a sea but a veritable ocean of anticipation” for the crimson-gowned miss winfrey who sat politely, legs primly crossed at the ankles, just a few feet away, as she awaited her turn at the podium.

and then, in all her splendor, the big O arose.

she belted out a wallop of basso profundo i swear they heard clear back in sweet home chicago: “O. My. Goodness! i’m at haaaaaaaaaarvaaaaaaarddd!”

“not too many little girls from rural mississippi make it all the way here to cambridge,” she began, though before she closed she spoke of khadija williams, one of the graduates of the harvard class of 2013 who had been homeless, attended 12 schools in 12 years, who “lived out of garbage bags,” who bathed in wal-mart restrooms so she could ditch the stench of the streets before walking into high school, and who, blessedly, had never ever veered from her holy path to college.

exuding that oprah-magic that has a way of making every couch potato in the country feel she’s the shoulder we can always lean on, that she’s with us in our skinned knees and our banged-up hearts, she mentioned straight off that she was addressing her remarks “to anybody who’s ever felt inferior, felt disadvantaged, anybody who’s felt screwed by life.”

not quite what you’d expect for a crowd of harvardians.

but, there, people, is the holy gospel. no one — not even harvard phi beta kappas — is immune from feeling less-than, marginalized, shoved to the sometimes sidelines.

and then, dear oprah got to the heart of the matter, what she called a fundamental truth: “it doesn’t matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble. because if you do what we are constantly doing, raising the bar; if you are constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, ” — and here she mentioned that even though she hadn’t gone to the ivy-tangled college, she was simpatico with the type-A harvard-hard-charging personality.

“it’s the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus,” she went on, “that predicts you will at some point fall.

“and when you do, i want you to remember this: there is no such thing as failure. failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

she paused, the wise one did.

then she picked right up, simpatico as ever: “now, when you’re down in the hole, it looks like failure,” she said, sister-to-sister style, as if no podium, no rows of 30,000 chairs stood between her broken heart and ours.

“this past year,” she let on, meaning when clear across the country her OWN network was branded a failure, “i had to spoonfeed those words to myself.”

take time, she advised, to mourn what you think you might have lost. “and here’s the key: learn. from. every. mistake.

“because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.”

step three: figure out the next right move.

to do that, she prescribed what she promised was the key to life: “develop an internal moral emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”

be willing, she all but preached, “to listen to, to be guided by, the still small voice within.”

amen, and hallelujah.

in fact, as soon as those three words — “still small voice” — spilled from oprah’s lips, the tall bespectacled fellow beside me turned and looked my way. we might not have succumbed to the GPS at our house, but we’re both believers in that still small voice within.

should you be so inclined, you can hear the whole of dr. winfrey’s wisdom words right here.

but one more blip of oprah-light before the standing ovation, mud-sunk heels and all:

“theologian howard thurman said it best,” O told us, “when he said…’ask yourself what makes yourself come alive. and go out and do that. because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”

and that, dear friends, will be one of the questions i carry home, as i commence this life ever after, a life — not merely a year — of thinking sumptuously: what is it, i ask and i ask, that makes me come alive?

i ask you too: what makes you come alive?

can you see itty-bitty oprah up above? she’s there i promise. just to the left of the tent pole, reaching down under her seat. might she be checking to see if someone left her a free doctorate degree? in fact they did. dr. winfrey, i presume. 

muddled at the end…

muddled at the end

dispatch from 02139 (in which this year of thinking sumptuously is slipping through our fingertips, certificates of completion are now collecting dust atop the dresser, and we are due to turn back into pumpkins any minute now….)

so, at last it’s come, and now it’s gone.

may 22. that once-distant spot on the horizon, that date we magically hoped might never come near, the date when all the fellows and their co-vivants would gather one last ceremonial time, circle around the astounding historian and president of veritas U, drew faust gilpin.

she would stand behind the podium, all 5-foot-8 of towering intellect, and she’d sprinkle us with final words of wisdom and blessing, deal out certificates as if a deck of holy cards, and then we’d file out.

finished.

the year of thinking sumptuously come to a sorry close.

if no mortar boards were tossed in the air (the suggestion was nixed, opting instead for dignified closing benediction), there were exhales all around: sighs of relief, whoops of joy. and there were inhales: disbelief. oh-no-what-now? how’d that happen quite so swiftly?

i, for one, am clearly in the camp of the muddled.

so topsy turvy are my insides, are the thoughts rumbling through my brain, it’s a miracle these sentences aren’t flowing out in parabolas and circles.

i am one big gunny sack of contradiction.

i am deeply grateful — and i mean prostrate, belly-flopped, on the cobbled lanes, for crying out loud — for having had this wollop of a whirl drop into our laps in the first place. and i am oh-so-sick that i didn’t lick a few more morsels off my plate, didn’t break out of a few of the ties that bind me, always bind me.

i am more than sated, yes, but hungry for so much more — in the book department, for starters. i am lugging home a 10-pound box of syllabi that i intend to read my way through, even if i need to live to 210 to do so.

i ache for home, for the friends who know me through and through and who understand the hills and valleys of my soul. i ache to be back in my not-so-secret garden, perched on the birdhouse bench tucked along the bluestone path. i imagine tiptoeing down my creaky stairs, turning the corner into my farmhouse kitchen, letting the cat in from his midnight prowl.

and yet, last night at fenway (the final final outing of the year, a trek to the green monster, washed down with a belly-ache of cotton candy, cracker jack, and a triple cracked off the bat of the reigning mr. red sox, dave ortiz), i was looking a few rows down at my beloved friend from south africa and i thought i heard my own heart crack at the thought of being an ocean and a continent away from her.

and what about the great white clapboard clubhouse that’s been the beehive of this blessed bustling nieman year? every time i round the bend, come through that white picket gate (past the nostril-packing lilac and the korean spice viburnum in recent weeks), charge up the brick walk and bound through the brass-knockered front door, i’ve felt more embraced than a girl should be allowed to feel (by the old floorboards and colonial panes of glass, i mean, a place that echoes with three-quarters of a century of journalism heavyweights).

and leaving behind the curator — the great good friend who somehow believed in me this year, even when i was quivering with self-doubt — i cannot stand the thought of not having her in my every day.

can’t stand the thought of days not populated with seminars and masterclasses, with shoptalks and round tables, with spontaneous eruptions of big ideas and wacky antics down in the clubhouse basement where the computers always whir and the fridge is forever stocked with cranberry-lime fizzy water, my emblematic drink of the year.

one marvelous fellow-friend told me yesterday that she felt only one thing the other night, after the certificates and the lovely dinner and the curator’s jaw-dropping act of handing out, one at a time, the perfect book she had deeply picked for each and every one of the 24 fellows. she felt “complete,” my fellow-friend said.

how odd, i thought, that i feel quite the opposite. i feel rather incomplete.

is it some quirk in my wiring that has me looking at this whole thing upside down? or is it simply, as i’ve said all year, that i’ve been catapulted into a somewhere i always imagined was here, but i’d not tread before: i am learning my way through the landscape of slow-acquired wisdom, and i see so long and winding a trail ahead.

there are volumes to be inhaled and boundaries to be toppled. there are trapezes i aim to grab, and training wheels i might take off.

i am, in a million ways, so very much a beginner.

and it’s a slow road, mustering courage and backbone.

and there are miles and miles to go before i finally sleep.

and all along the way, i’ll be whispering my vespers of deep and everlasting thanks…for this most glorious and forever year of thinking so very sumptuously.

photo above is my mate, “the professor,” ambling into loeb house for the lovely and heartfelt final dinner. once the home of the president of veritas U, the brick colonial manse is now reserved for truly special occasions — when funders gather with their pocketbooks, or, in the case of the empty-pocketed nieman fellows, for the final push out of harvard yard.

all things nieman now have ended, but we’ll haunt cambridge for another month as little mr. sixth grader winds up his school year, and we slowly say goodbye to this city where a good chunk of our hearts will forever dwell. 

do you often find endings a whirl of up, down and sideways? 

morning prayer

morning prayer

dispatch from 02139 (in which we troop to the last morning prayer of this year of thinking sumptuously, moi and the long tall fellow who brought me here in the first place….)

he doesn’t often make requests, the tall bespectacled fellow now known around these parts as “the professor.”

but he did last night.

“would you please come to morning prayer,” he asked. “it’s the last of the year.”

i had a million and one things i thought i needed to do this morning, but i (a.) either got them crossed off the list before eight bells, or (b.) shoved them aside till 10 bells.

we loped together, the professor and i, across the cobbled lanes, up the hill, across the fresh-mown yard and up the steps of memorial church, that great steepled block of faith and prayer that looks out over the huddled masses of harvard college.

morning prayer is one of veritas U’s golden secrets.

each day at quarter to 9, the prayer chapel tucked behind the altar, the one with steeped rows of well-worn wooden pews, the one where eastern light pours through a two-story stretch of panes and glass, fills with a hodge-podge of harvardians and everyday cantabridgians (the latin-derived name for cambridge locals).

as the bells way up high in the bell tower clang their final call to prayer, the choir files in, their black and crimson-edged robes flowing. a wise soul steps to the podium, and the prayerful bow their heads and wonder what faith tradition we might draw from on any particular morning.

oh, i’ve heard suni prayers, tibetan chant, and a short story by amy hempel (that would be from the great church of literary fiction). i’ve listened to anglican prayer, and hebrew scripture. i’ve absorbed leviticus and the lord’s prayer.

and, by nine bells when the last hymnal is tucked back into its perch, i always waft out, lifted.

i’ve started many a day at morning prayer, finding deep grace there in the dappled light of a cloudy cambridge morning. or, as this morning, nearly blinded by the blazing rising orb.

i am moved to know that the great minds all around me are humble enough — and enlightened enough — to turn to the pews for truer higher wisdom. i find it sweet that so many professor emeriti shuffle back, as backpacked undergrads stumble in.

there is God at harvard, indeed.

that the man i married — a man whose prayerfulness is not widely broadcast — chose morning prayer as one of the closing rituals of this year of thinking sumptuously was indeed a grace note i’d not let slip away.

as the rev. jonathan walton, a soulful professor of divinity and minister of the memorial church, stepped to the podium and began preaching with a story about his 9-year-old son’s obsessions with greek mythology, and his tendency to pretend he is one of his pantheon of heroes — one day zeus, one day hermes, another day apollo — i caught a glimmer of a tear well up in my professor’s eye.

he is finding this leave-taking among the toughest ever.

and the rev. walton’s words, and the prayers of petition, were precisely what we both needed.

“life comes at you fast,” the reverend reminded. “how will we equip ourselves for the insecurities and anxieties that surely blow with the winds of change?”

he spoke of courage to go forth and to be seen as we are. he encouraged us “not to navigate under a cloak of invisibility, not to pretend what we’re not,” but rather to “wear our vulnerability.” only then, he said, can we own “what God would have us be.”

and then we bowed our heads and prayed for “core courage,” to face whatever lies ahead. and “for hope, to hold our heads up with dignity even in the face of despair; for love, to strengthen and embolden us to love fearlessly even in our vulnerability.”

we all shuffled out, trailing behind the reverend onto the broad front porch, where urns of coffee and baskets of bagels awaited. under the chill breeze of this fine may morning, we huddled in conversation with the wise minister.

my professor, i do believe, had breathed in essential courage.

i know i had.

it’s a breathtaking dollop of wisdom, to hear that we needn’t be fearless to go forward. to look around and realize that all that is asked of us is that we embrace the whole of who we are, and take our humbled, unfinished selves out into the world, beyond the walls of the steepled church, beyond the gated yard and cobbled streets, and get on with the business of making our life’s work whole.

amen to that, and to this holy blessed year. and to “the professor” who brought me here in the first place, and who accompanies me home, forever deepened by what unfolded here….

and to all of you, who came along for the journey, humbling as it was, bless you and bless you. we are off to the berkshires for a weekend’s romp, the last as the class of 2013. and then, come wednesday, it’s closing ceremonies and words of wisdom imparted in one final blessing. 

all in a penultimate week’s delight: pulitzer poet, mama’s milk and t-t-tina brown!

sharonoldsat graylag

dispatch from 02139 (in which we offer up a sampling from a string of days in may, as the year of thinking sumptuously hits its crescendo of pinch-me moment upon pinch-me joy, and conversations begin to be doused with impending dates of departure…)

monday (field trip): if you’ve been merrily playing along here at “the chair” all year, you might recall that long ago and faraway in nieman time, a big old bus pulled up to the curb outside the white clapboard clubhouse where niemans romp. and a field trip’s flock of fellows, each clutching a paper sack of road food, climbed aboard and rode into the wilds of new hampshire, to visit poet laureate donald hall.

donald hall

it was a poetic launch to our nieman year of thinking sumptuously. and it unfolded amid the crisp autumn days of october, when the calendar ahead was ripe with promise.

at the start of this, the penultimate week chock full of nieman adventures, we circled back to that same curb and yet another big old bus that ferried a smaller flock of us again to new hampshire, this time to the stoop of yet another poet, the recently crowned pulitzer prize winner, sharon olds.

while i held my breath and prayed the lumbering bus would not teeter over the edge of the skinny dirt road that cut a path through boulders and woods, sharon olds was putting out platters of donuts and pitchers of lemonade, and pulling back her long gray locks into a rubber band.

she’d opened wide the door of the cabin just up the hill from wild goose pond, tucked into the granite crevices of pittsfield, new hampshire. she’d set a pile of poems on a cedar table in the broad screened porch, set out a ring of creaky wooden rocking chairs, and ushered us in, one wide-eyed nieman at a time.

she loosed her mane from the tight-bound harness, and began to talk about how for so many years she was dismissed by “the academy,” those highbrows who deemed her poems too quotidian. all those years, more than 40, she paid no mind. and kept writing anyway.

“i did have the sense of ordinary stories of parents of young children having the capacity to be art,” said she.

“i felt a little pissed off that people felt it wasn’t worthy of art,” she opined, letting rip a smidge of the saltiness that propelled her all those years (and stirring a silent “whoop!” from me).

she talked about how she’d never had “excessive conscious confidence,” but let on that there must have been a germ of it deep in her bedrock, “because i was writing.”

writing bracingly, and achingly, with an intimacy that might make you blush. or one that might make you sit up and see the artfulness in the everyday — its tragedy or, rarer still, its triumph.

here’s a taste: the poem, “the last hour,” from this year’s pulitzer-prize-winning tome, “stag’s leap,” about the shattering of her 32-year marriage. in 20 lines, she mines the heartbreak of a single frame in space and time.

Suddenly, the last hour/before he took me to the airport, he stood up/bumping the table, and took a step/toward me, and like a figure in an early/science fiction movie he leaned/forward and down, and opened an arm,/knocking my breast, and he tried to take some/hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,/and then we stood, around our core, his/hoarse cry of awe, at the center,/at the end, of our life. Quickly, then,/the worst was over, I could comfort him,/holding his heart in place from the back/and smoothing it from the front, his own/life continuing, and what had/bound him, around his heart — and bound him/to me — now lying on and around us,/ sea-water, rust, light, shards,/the little curls of eros/beaten out straight.

***

katie hinde at nieman

wednesday (seminar): that’s not all this blessed week held. come wednesday twilight, we all pooled at the foot of evolutionary biologist katie hinde, who set off fireworks for some of us, especially those of us who’ve spent good long years of our lives contemplating the liquid gold that is mama’s milk.

yup, katie hinde is one of the world’s foremost scientists on the unique mammalian capacity to “express a fluid for their young that enables them to survive and thrive.”

she is, in fact, harvard’s high priestess and professor of breast milk, proclaiming it, “the most complex biological fluid.”

“mother’s milk is food; mother’s milk is medicine; and mother’s milk is signal,” says hinde, who goes on to explain that there are “thousands of constituents in milk that have an impact on the infant.”

yet we haven’t begun to unlock the secrets — or the power — of all that flows therein, she says, before counting stem cells, immune triggers and fatty-acid brain-builders in the table of contents of what she terms “the magic potion.”

beloved by her students, hinde is a scientist whose passion for her work is downright contagious. her blog, “mammals suck…milk!” is a treasure trove for anyone intent on knowing even just a drop of all there is to know about mama’s milk. her knowledge astounds. her research blows my mind.

take a listen here to see why she sent at least one of us to the moon:

katie hinde: “why mammals suck” @ harvard thinks big 

***

tina brown

friday (shoptalk): still, the week wasn’t tapped to capacity. come friday afternoon, all fellows and co-vivants were huddled in our last shoptalk of the year. and perhaps the great minds and calendar-fillers at nieman saved the most sumptuous for last.

on tap: none other than tina brown — the inimitable, brilliant former editor of vanity fair, the new yorker and newsweek, and currently founder and editor-in-chief of the daily beast.

turns out the whole conversation was off-the-record, that journalistic cone of silence that allows for no-holds-barred opining, thinking aloud and occasional bloviating.

alas, i can’t spill verbatim quotes from the oh-so-smart-and-sassy brit. but i can tell you she wasn’t nearly so daunting as i would have guessed, after all these years of seeing her name and her razor-sharp wit in big bright lights.

i believe it’s safe to mention — without giving broad swaths away — that she endorsed my deeply held conviction that the whole culture of the internet is far too sneering and snarky, a “blood bath,” she termed much of it.

too too many, she said, “mistake snark for wit.”

and it all “creates drive-by shootings” of verbal bullets. “i love wit and wisdom,” she said, making the distinction that both of those are “generous of heart.” whereas snark — a wholly ungenerous stance — seems to have staked a claim as the universal cyber default mode.

all in all, twas a grand second-to-last action-packed week of nieman-ness.

next up, a class trip to the berkshires, and then the day we’ve all been loathing: graduation day, or rather commencement.

when we begin anew, forever changed.

and how, pray tell, was your week?

photo way above: sharon olds at graylag, her 140-acre compound of woods and cabins on wild goose pond in pittsfield, new hampshire.

thumbprint a few inches below sharon: the poet laureate donald hall. next down: katie hinde, she of “mammals suck” blogging fame, and finally, in the wee bottom frame, ms. tina brown in brown leather armchair at lippmann house. 

enter to grow in wisdom

enter wisdom arch

dispatch from 02139 (in which, alas, classes at veritas U have come to an end, and we begin to ponder just how deeply what we’ve learned will forever inform our going forward…)

enter wisdom detail

the words are simple, etched in limestone.

each letter, maybe three inches, top to bottom, but looming, soaring, some 12 feet up, for those who pause to crane their neck, or shift their eyeballs heavenward.

i nearly tripped the first time i spied them.

“enter to grow in wisdom.”

i swallowed, smiled. charmed that old harvard would deign to dollop this inscribed dose of aphorism into its citizens’ daily lives. how quaint, i thought, for such a stiff-collared institution.

but then i found myself traipsing out of my way to duck beneath the hallowed words, as if they’d waft down and dust me with magic powders.

(this curious — and intentional — ambulatory detour, of course, might be traced back to the ancient parts of me that were trained to believe, long long ago, that splashing one’s fingertips in the holy waters perched beside the door of any catholic church was sure to make your soul sparkle with good graces for the day. or until you next committed some venial sin — say, coveting your first-grade neighbor’s frilly toothpicks, and pocketing said pokers in the dark confines of your dungarees, whereupon you’d rediscover them once home and feign total loss as to how in the world they got there.)

“enter to grow in wisdom,” indeed.

the words span across the brick-and-limestone dexter gate, one of the 26 such thresholds that encircle harvard yard, defining the pastoral from the pedestrian, the hoi polloi from the highbrow.

built in 1901, designed by the architectural greats mckim, mead & white, the brick-striped pillars rise from the cobbled sidewalk as a monument from a bereft mother, josephine dexter, whose son, samuel, was president of harvard’s class of 1890, but who died in 1894, just two days after coming down with spinal meningitis.

it’s a two-sided prescriptive. as you sashay in from the honking, screeching cacophony of massachusetts avenue, you read: “enter to grow in wisdom,” and as you bustle out, looking up onto the inner-facing side of the limestone span, you mouth the words: “depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

i can’t shake the incoming directive, “to grow in wisdom.”

can’t decide, is it command or invitation?

and does it matter which?

for me, all i know as i look back on two semesters, tucked in lecture halls, squished in pop-up seats with wobbly writing slabs, is that the words, more than anything, are a beginning without end.

i wish i could inscribe them across the transom of every space through which the human race parades. on the wall of every birthing room: “enter to grow in wisdom.” in the dingy, dim-lit passageways of chicago’s famous “el,” or boston’s “T.” in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, of course.

but why not, across the check-out aisles of the grocery stores, where too often i’ve seen squabbles erupt and nasty words exchanged?

and how about behind the dugout of the little league ballfield? or, above your own kitchen table?

wisdom, for me anyway, is holiness, is path to enlightenment, is how you begin to flush out deeper, broader, more fine-grained empathy, the gift that — when you pay attention, close careful attention — rises up from the pages of history and literature and humankind.

and so, this year, i came to cambridge to spark a hundred thousand wicks of candlelight, of wisdom.

i came, greedily, to soak up all i’d never had a chance to learn, to understand, to know. i came to fill in blanks, connect dots. put words to too many empty pages.

i stayed up late, rose early, because there was so so much i didn’t know.

because i was being offered dorothy day and martin luther king, mahatma gandhi and thich nhat hanh as pathfinders and teachers — and a host of modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, besides.

i swallowed whole the complete works of virginia woolf, of nabokov, of bellow, of zora neale hurston, w.e.b. du bois, frederick douglass, and that living writer-saint isabel wilkerson, whose “the warmth of other suns: the epic story of america’s great migration,” should be required reading across the land.

i listened hard when paul farmer and arthur kleinman, the godfathers of global health and modernday disciples of pure goodness, implored us to not leave behind, not forget, the shadows of the world where medicines don’t flow, and one toilet might be shared by 10,000 refugees.

i cried too often in a semester of african-american history — AAAS 118: from the slave trade to the great migration — as my stomach turned and my heart splintered into shards. i could not fathom lashings nor lynchings, but i was left gasping at the recountings of how these inhuman acts were headlined as spectacle, and thousands of white folk turned out to cheer charred black flesh dangling from a limb. and hoisted children to shoulders, so the little ones could get a closer look.

i could not even muster the ancient christian prayer, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.” that prayer holds no merit here. there is no excuse, no feeble claim for not standing up to cruel injustice. no pretending you don’t know.

and so, with two fifths of my classes this semester spent studying the injustices of white to black, generation upon generation, century upon century, i kept asking myself why i could not tear myself away from the readings, why i was the sole tear-stained silver-hair, amid a sea of smart-as-a-whip undergrads, who filled notebook after notebook with names and dates and stories of those brave souls who rose up to try to stanch the hatred.

it felt as if the answer wasn’t meant to come to me, not yet anyway. and so i sat there, squirming at times, when kids shot hands in the air and spoke bracingly about white privilege, and great-grandparents begat from slavemasters’ rapes of enslaved great-great-grandmothers.

for most of the semester, i thought perhaps i was being readied for a spate of journalism back in chicago’s blood-splattered landscape of racial inequities.

but it’s dawned on me in recent days that — as i sat feeling powerless to turn back the clock and right the wrongs, and wanted to burst out of my (white) skin to stand up to oppression — the task is here and now: our every days are filled with injustice, are filled with small acts of hatefulness for which we can’t afford to turn our heads, to cower in the idleness of our kitchens or our gardens, our leafy enclaves.

maybe it’s the deep-veined jesuit framework upon which my early college days were founded. maybe it’s just the lens through which i’ve always seen the world. but the particular brand of wisdom that’s been birthed in all these months is the one that now springs from a few essential jottings from my notebook:

1.) beware the single story, preached professor kellie carter-jackson, a rising star among african-american historians. “the single story creates stereotype; it’s not untrue, but it’s always incomplete. it robs people of their dignity. we create a single story when we show a people as one thing, as only one thing, and repeat it over and over. the consequence of the single story is that it makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”

2.) search out the voices that have been silenced through history. embrace bottom-up not top-down history; sift through the past to mine the stories of those who fought injustice, even when the price they paid was life itself.

my bookshelves are spilling. my pens, dried of ink. the margins of pages read like constellation guides, so stained with stars i’ve drawn to mark the wisdom there contained.

wisdom.

it all comes back to wisdom.

for me, that’s been a lifelong prayer. i’ve long pictured a frame from the far-end of my life, when i might become the wise old woman, bent and wrapped in shawl. when my kitchen table would be always set, and the teapot hot to pour. when there would be chairs, many chairs, filled with folk of every stripe and color, size and spot.

now, though, that might not be mere wisp of a storybook’s dream.

now, i’ve entered to grow in wisdom, and, for me, there is no departing from that holy sacred path.

Image 1

thank you, All Knowing Light and Wonder, for this great and glorious school year, now winding to a close……

how do you, my chair friends, carry on in your chosen path of wisdom?

(photo credit “depart” arch: blair kamin)

and great and glorious thanks to my most amazing professors: harvey cox, stephanie paulsell, paul farmer, arthur kleinman, paige williams, the kooky  “cooking & science” crew; henry louis gates, lawrence bobo, luke menand, helen vendler, james wood, kellie carter-jackson, and the amazing amazing harvard undergrads and grad students who so generously invited me into their privileged conversations, both in the classroom and beyond, at coffeeshops and lunch counters, in my living room and under shade trees in the yard….God bless you each and every one….

and, most of all, to ann marie lipinski, curator of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard university, for picking my sweet blair for this year of thinking sumptuously. and, i suppose, to blair for picking me so long long ago…

reading night

reading night

dispatch from 02139 (in which we all circle round, and fellows and co-vivantes engage in a nieman rite of spring, one that prompts us to pull from our pockets one choice passage — scribed this year, and picked just for tonight — that, one-by-one, we will read to the gathered masses. it is a nieman literary tradition, and it has one of us shaking in her reading clogs….thus the rosary beads above…)

long ago, in the leafy shade of my writing room back home, i remember sitting at my old pine table typing a promise to all the beloved “chairs.” i promised to bring you along on this year of thinking sumptuously, and i’ve tried mightily to do that.

sometimes, of course, these dispatches have been placeless, as they’ve captured musings i might have mused wherever i was in the world — a mama’s musings, a mama’s heartaches, moments not tied to any ZIP code. sometimes they’ve been particular to the curious case of going back to college when you’re pewter-haired.

i’ve carried you on a field trip to a poet’s farm in new hampshire, and let you peek in at the volumes piled high on my desk. i’ve tiptoed into the monastery, with you right on my shoulder, and i’ve brought you here to the kitchen when i got to stir a cauldron of chili for a boatful of hungry rowers.

this perfect april’s afternoon — with the just-warming breeze whooshing through the screen door, and the merry finches nibbling from the kitchen-window feeder — i am about to bring you along with me to a big moment on the nieman calendar: reading night.

nothing fancy about the name, nothing fancy about the format.

the framework is this: each fellow and co-vivante (a.k.a. the tagalongs who traipse beside their duly-plucked fellows) is encouraged to sign up to step before the crowd and read one written work they’ve created during their time here in niemanland. twenty-one of the pool of 40 (that would be the 24 fellows plus this year’s 16 co-vivantes) have been slotted to read; i am one.

now, you might not know this about me but i turn to wobbles when called upon to stand up and read aloud. perhaps it dates back to some moment in, say, fourth grade, when i was daydreaming out the window, and sister leonora mary called on me to read, but i had no clue where we were, so the giggles around me rose to a roar, and there erupted a flurry of pointing fingers as deskmates right and left tried to foist me back on track — before sister leonora mary’s rubber-tipped stick thwopped me on the knuckles.

and, while i adore my fellow fellows and each and every co-vivante, this is no crowd for shrinking violets. we’ve got editors from the new york times, a pulitzer winner or two, the founder of the daily beast, a writer from the international herald tribune who regales us with her tales of traipsing in and out of tents of taliban poobahs, where she scores globe-gripping stories. and on and on and, oh my goodness, on.

this exercise in verbal undressing — that’s sure as heck how it’ll feel to me, one of a mere three co-vivantes who’ve signed up to read along — commences at seven bells, just as the sun sets in the western massachusetts sky, and that glorious full moon rises to spill its milky glow on all the cobbled lanes.

the piece i’m reading is one i wrote for a class that might have changed my writing life, the longform narrative writing class, in which i discovered once and for all just how darned hard it is to cobble one majestic sentence, let alone one 10,000-word deeply-reported tale.

this particular assignment was one in which we had to narrate a dramatic moment in our life, and exercise the sublime art of dialing back the descriptives so the power of the moment pulsed through, unweighted by a chain of over-wrought modifiers. it’s all about the verb, we learned and learned again.

“verbs act. verbs move. verbs do. verbs strike, soothe, grin, cry, exasperate, decline, fly, hurt, and heal,” writes poet laureate donald hall in his essential text, “writing well” [9th edition, 2007, pearson longman]. “verbs make writing go, and they matter more to our language than any other part of speech.

“verbs give energy, if we use them with energy.”

you’ll see when you read my humble exercise (just below), why it might feel a bit like i’m standing naked before my writerly fellows.

but, in the spirit of clearing my lumpy throat and trying to shake off the shakes, i offer you the trial run of the hastily-titled, “fading.” (it had no title; heck, it was just assignment #9, but the nieman curator insisted i title it, and the first word that popped in my head was “fading,” so fading it is….)

(the beauty of unspooling it here is you can’t see my wobbly knees, and my fingers aren’t yet ratcheted up into their hummingbird tremble)

FADING

by barbara mahany

The gel oozed onto the hard dome of my belly in cold coiled worms. I flinched but not nearly as much as I would have, had I not been distracted by the three-year-old — my doctor’s three-year-old — who’d climbed up beside me to get a better look.

Really, I thought, did she really need to be clambering around like this was some sort of a hospital tot lot? But then again, I reminded myself, it was a Sunday afternoon, and my doctor, already on call, had told me, just 45 minutes before, “Meet me in Labor and Delivery. Let’s see what’s going on in there.”

Click, someone flicked off the lights. The screen blinked, fuzzy at first, like a black-and-white TV, back in the ‘60s, when the thunderbolts in shades of gray squiggled across the screen before settling into, say, the opening credits of “Twilight Zone,” and my dad whispered, “Shh!”

No one whispered a thing in the murky underworld of the ultrasound room. The screen turned white and nobody — not the doctor, not my husband, not the three-year-old — moved. Least of all, me.

I blinked once, twice, then again. Hoping each time that if I squeezed my lids hard enough maybe the black whorl in the middle would come into focus. The black whorl with the fingers like seaweed, swishing open and closed.

Lub-dub-swoosh. Lub-dub-swoosh. It was the song of the embryonic heart, and, for 15 weeks now, it had soothed me.

This time, there was no song. There was no seaweed. Just an empty black hole. And the white, all around, didn’t move.

“I’m sorry,” my doctor said.

My husband, the father of that baby, withered onto me, his curls mopping my cheeks.

And then — maybe to make sure I’d been scraped of all hope, maybe because to a doctor it was just a curious thing — my doctor pointed to the blurred edge of the baby’s outline, at the crown of the head, down at the toes, where the white wasn’t so crisp anymore. Where the white was pocked with gray.

“See right there,” she said, pointing, “Baby died a few days ago. It’s starting to fade.”

That’s why, for the last couple mornings, the coffee didn’t make me wretch quite so much. That’s why, since Tuesday, I’d been holding my breath every time I walked in the bathroom, afraid to pull down my pants, for the streaks, then the splotches, of blood.

I’d been through this before. But never so late in the game. We were past the first trimester. I’d circled the date — September 22 — on the calendar. Drawn a red heart, actually.

But now I just lay there. Absorbing. Staring at the white part that glowed. I memorized the curve of the head, noticed the nose, how much it looked like the baby’s big brother. I tried not to look at the part of my baby that was already fading.

They sent me home, told me to wait. The baby didn’t wait long. Alone in the night, wailing some primal howl, I cupped my hands and caught my rosy-pink stringbean of a baby, that’s how tiny she was, to save her from swirling into the bowl of the toilet.

***

(this is a not-so-common thursday eve posting, as i’ll be trekking to frederick law olmsted’s stomping ground tomorrow early morn, when i tagalong yet again, this time on a field trip with sweet blair’s “history of landscape architecture” class.)

and, yes, we are all re-catching our breath after the horrors of last week. spring unfolds here in slow time, thanks to chill winds that hover near, and keep the blooms unfurled in suspended animation.

lastly, the rosary beads up above will be in my pocket whilst i read. a sure cure for the shakes, i’ve found over the years.

do you get wobbly when you do certain acts in public? if so, what brings on the wobblies, and what, pray tell, are your tried-and-true cures???

surreal city

surreal globe

dispatch from 02139 (in which, amid a thicket of sirens that bleed through the air, we are on lockdown, after long surreal night….)

surreal manhunt

the phone jangled me from sleep last night at 1:48 a.m.

it is a mother’s first instinct, it is my first instinct, to read the clock when i hear phones ringing in the depth of darkness. it is my initial register that something’s wrong.

i stumbled toward the phone, and by the time i got there, i jammed my thumb on the wrong button. i missed the call.

the cell phone, though, picked up the chirp, and by then awake enough — and seeing that the number on the face of the phone was the one belonging to our sweet college kid, my heart pounded through my chest wall — i grabbed the call.

first words i heard: “mommo, are you okay? there are all these bombings and shootings in boston.”

oh lord.

and so it began. the long surreal night of sirens bleeding everywhere. of trying to sustain internet connection so my laptop would clue me in, where TV was slower to respond.

the TV images: SWAT trucks, FBI jackets, men padded in camouflage garb. long-necked assault weapons. a lifeless-looking body lying motionless on the street beside a funeral home that’s not three miles away.

but before that, word that just down massachusetts avenue, at MIT, not a mile away from our third-floor aerie, a cop had been killed. and then a high-speed chase down memorial drive, at the bottom of our hill.

we stayed awake for hours, trying to make sense of what did not make sense. at last, at nearly 4 we tumbled back to try to sleep. we knew little. all we knew was that mayhem had this town on lock-down.

at 6:05 i awoke again. sirens drowned out the birdsong. i found myself alone in bed, nothing but an empty pillow beside me. i tore off the sheets, ran for that lifeline, the laptop. checked for emails, and saw that harvard was closed.

the reason: a massive manhunt for “highly dangerous” suspect. a second suspect, we now learned, was dead.

since i can’t ever work the TV clicker, i clicked around the internet, CNN, the boston globe, twitter feeds. it was a blur of SWAT trucks rumbling through the streets, bomb-sniffing dogs, robots dispatched to detonate explosives hurled at first responders.

the phone rang again, at 6:32. “coded alert,” read the words on the phone. “city of cambridge.”

the automated voice on the other end of the line instructed us to “shelter in place” — do not go outdoors, stay inside your homes — due to the ongoing police advisory. “please stay vigilant,” the voice implored.

oh, we are vigilant all right.

and so grateful that the 11-year-old is sleeping deeply through all of this. he’s been shaken since monday afternoon when the governor and police commissioner got on the television and said to “stay indoors, this is an ongoing police activity,” as reports rolled in of the explosions at the finish line, and an hour and a half later, an explosion at the JFK library. no one knew where the next explosion might blast.

all week, it’s been helicopters thwopping through the sky, and sirens shrieking by — on streets right in front of us, and in layers in the distances.

i’d not be honest, if i did not say that i’ve been scared, felt exposed, never had the sense that this eery chapter was in any way closed.

i steered clear of every metal trash can i passed on massachusetts avenue. i walked in classroom buildings, and thought how odd it was that we were all seamlessly, porously, entering and leaving without a soul asking our intentions. without a single backpack being checked.

my little one told me yesterday as i drove him to soccer that, to him, this is all much worse than sandy hook, at least through his eyes, his heart. the bombers, he said, “stole the sanctuary” of the boston marathon. “it was something glorious,” he reasoned. and in clear daylight, people who came to cheer, to run, to cross the finish line, got shattered, got killed.

as if to make his point in numbers, he asked how many were hurt at the boston marathon, and how many killed at newtown.

they are both horrible, i concurred, knowing you do not debate gradations of horrors.

he has no idea what’s unfolded since the phone rang in the middle of last night.

last night, after a “disturbance call” at MIT, a security guard responding to the scene was shot with multiple gunfire. a black mercedes SUV was carjacked, and the high-speed chase tore along memorial drive, the vast curving roadway just down the hill, the roadway i’ve walked all year for its meditative powers, as it curves along the charles river, the parade of london plane trees marching along its flanks.

as i type, the sirens are picking up in tempo, and decibels. it’s as if the pulse of this city is now being metered out in shrill, and undulating pierces.

now comes word that one suspect might have been a kid at cambridge-rindge high school, the campus i walk through four to six times a day, a mere four blocks away.

as i look out the windows, i see no movement on the cobbled sidewalks below.

just got word that the suspect was last seen on a street a few blocks away. we get these messages in blurts, sometimes beginning, “not to scare anyone.” sometimes, cutting straight to the chase.

i think i am typing to keep calm. i type because it’s what i do on fridays. if i keep typing, i can turn off the news for a few minutes, can build my shield against what unfolds outside, and not too far away.

twice this week i got a call from my college kid; both times the voice i heard held a tremble in its utterances. “mommo, are you okay?”

it’s not supposed to be the college kid worried for his mommo. or his papa. or his little brother.

we are safe, thank god.

it is the horrors that have torn apart this blessed city that are the focus of my prayers. dear God, deliver them from evil amen…..

casting the white light of love all around…..(hitting publish without backread, so if there are typos, i know you’ll let them slide….)