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Category: angels among us

it’s the whispered moments that speak to me…

the shoes of the boys i love, the shoes i’ve always filled before dawn on the sixth of december, the feast of st. nick, those shoes are hundreds of miles away this dawn. likely lined up like straight-back soldiers in one’s law school apartment, and in a dorm room half as far away, i’m guessing they’re jumbled, strewn under a desk or a bed, or a sweatshirt and socks heaped on the floor.

to grow up in this old house was to wake up to foil-wrapped chocolates and oranges and surely a candy cane stuffed in the wide-open maw of your boot or your slipper or sneakers, a pair that grew by the year (all the more room for more chocolates), and always was left by the bedroom door on the night of the fifth.

i’ve always made as much of a folderol over this “little christmas” as i have over the one that’s gotten so noisy.

it’s the quiet moments of christmas, the unexpected kindnesses, the silence on a star-stitched night that stir the holy in me. i enter into the season in whispers. find myself pulled into tide pools of unspoken wonder. thrill like a kid with her nose pressed to the windowpane when i find myself face-to-face with the modern-day version of an elf. if you keep watch, and i’d advise that you do, there are elves all around.

this time of year i do make a list. a list of the out-of-the-blue elves and dollops of kindness that have plopped into my lap:

*the gas station owner who piled his tools into a cardboard box and drove me the three blocks to where my own car wouldn’t start, where he proceeded to ping and tap-tap-tap to try to get the key in the ignition to turn (it would not). he charged not a penny, and did the whole thing with a serious smile and multiple insistences that this was not at all out of his way. (on a sunday morning no less.)

IMG_0681*the college roommate from long, long ago who sent me a shoebox bursting with the itty-bittiest gingerbread babies, each one iced and strewn with cinnamon hearts, each one dangling from a skinny red thread she’d take the time to tie in a loop.

*my brother who’s driving almost two hours (each way) to the snow-covered storybook village where our freshman in college is just about to start his first round of finals. the plan (hatched in the spontaneous joy of the moment) is to fetch the kid after his last exam, bring him back to cleveland for a friday night’s feast and a snooze on an airbed, then tuck him onto a greyhound bus for the long ride home, where he’ll finish his papers in the cozy quiet of home.

*the extraordinarily kind fellow from the birdseed store who’s offered to swing by my house to reconfigure the bird feeders that have suddenly been taken hostage by one wily (and insatiable) squirrel.

my list isn’t done; it’s just getting started. but i know from years and years of paying attention that those catch-you-by-surprise, take-your-breath-away moments are the ones when the christmas seeps in.

it’s something like watching water whirl down a drain; it’s a force you can’t stop, it’s a force you can’t really see. but you feel it. you know it. the moment pulls you right in, a sinkhole of joy, of wonder, of can-you-believe-such-kindness-exists? and suddenly, deep down inside, you’re inside a snow globe of heaven on earth.

christmas comes in certain spoonfuls, best swallowed all along the way, through the quiet you carve out of the noise. by the time the day itself arrives, you’ll already have savored its coming.

merry christmas-is-coming, st. nick is here.

gingerbabies

who are the elves on your list? what dollops of kindness have crept up and tapped you gently, certainly, at the core of your heart?

a consideration of saints

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long long ago, when i was a wee little thing falling asleep in my tight twin bed, the hand-sewn squares of quilt pulled up to my nose, i, like many a girl who donned scratchy plaid uniform skirt and buttoned all the way up (no matter how hot or humid outside) my navy blue uniform cardigan each day for holy cross school, i drifted off to dreamland wondering what it would take to become a saint, a little flower of jesus, perhaps, or the patron saint of fallen feathered things. i wouldn’t have minded aspiring to patron saint of bicycle pedals, or patron saint of clearing the table, two fundamentals of life i knew well, fundamentals i could work at — perfect even — if given the hope of a life under halo.

it’s not a bad thing to each and every night pluck from among a roster of heroes, sainted not for their football-field prowess, nor the velocity with which they swung a bat at a ball, but for those more ephemeral, ineffable things: gentle kindness, a selflessness that verged on self-erasure. it’s a good thing i hadn’t yet read too deeply of the tortures some of the saints endured. i might have swerved left from a life of good grace. i’ve utterly no interest in strapping myself to a windmill, going round and round in eternal upchucking dizziness. nor any one of the other tricks from the saintly bag of horrors (too gruesome to type at this early hour).

but — tortures aside — the morning after all-hallowed sugar-high (aka trick-or-treating) dawned onto what might have been the super bowl for saint seekers: november 1 in the catholic vernacular is the day of all saints, a feast day of joyous proportion. and that brings us to today, when with a few decades under my belt, i still awake with a particular zing.

only now, my consideration of saints has been jangled a bit. and moved far beyond ecclesiastical strictures. i’m more inclined to look to the everyday for my roster of saints. i see saints every day. have spent a good chunk of my life keeping watch. worry that we live in an age antithetical to saintliness. no saint seeker ever imagined an instagram reel of a life where every good deed was captured, captioned, and cast to the cybersphere. utter humility, a sense of one’s smallness against the vast majesty and unimaginable genius of the one we call God or Abba or Adonai, that’s non-negotiable, an essential place to begin.

the world we live in — at least the public world — seems to have turned it all on its head. it’s all bombast and braggadocio. when, to my mind, the deepest ripples are those that move through the world with barely a whisper. the gentle soul who considered it his life’s holiest work to show kindness to pigeons, to call them by name, to notice when one of his flock was wounded or lame. the one who knew 100,000 cars each and every day passed by him and the fire hydrant upon which he sat, the one who quietly told me “i’m really advertising to the public how easy it is to be good without an attitude.”

the woman who lives down my alley, who cooks by the gallon and, like a sprite in the night, sprints from house to house, doorknob to doorknob, leaving her wares in large plastic bags dangling from handles and knobs. because to her, to feed is to love, and her heart knows no bounds.

i know saints gather at this very table. saints who seed love, day after day in a thousand unscripted ways: the one who feeds a banquet of fine organic greens to her bevy of hard-shelled centenarians; the one who whispers a prayer into every stitch and tug and pull of her needle and thread; the one who every other weekend flies halfway across the country to sit beside her faraway, struggling son; the ones who day after day visit old friends who no longer remember, who feed them spoonful by spoonful, who read them love letters from long ago in hopes that it just might spark a burst of remembering, of story, of unfettered joy.

on this day for considering saints, and counting the saints among us, i turn to a glorious book i reviewed a few years ago, a book of poetry by susan l. miller titled, communion of saints. it opens with this glorious beauty, “manual for the would-be saint,” and it begins like this:

Manual for the Would-Be Saint

by Susan L. Miller

The first principle: Do no harm.

The second: The air calls us home.

Third, we must fill the bowls of others

before we drain our own wells dry.

The fourth is the dark night; the fifth

a subtle scent of smoke and pine.

The sixth is awareness of our duties,

the burnt offering of our own pride.

Seventh, we learn to pray without ceasing.

Eighth, we learn to sense while praying.

The ninth takes time: it is to discover

what inside the seed makes the seed increase.

…(the poem goes on for 14 more lines…)

please, do yourself an all saint’s day favor, and find it and read to the end. and now, quietly, without even a ripple, i will leave you to your own consideration of saints…

what might be the opening lines of your manual for the would-be saint?

p.s. do you know the saint pictured above? here’s a hint: she was kicked out of the calendar of saints for reasons i will never know, yet she remains in some books as the patron saint of architects. it’s saint babs, aka barbara, as a matter of fact, and isn’t it uncanny that de-sainted though she is, her affinity for architecture is akin to the one to which i’ve wed my life…(a saintly patronage that must have brought my jewish husband so much relief upon discovery!) (st. babs is linked to architecture because her father is said to have locked her in a tower after she rejected an offer of marriage he’d relayed to her. egad. i’m telling you, some of these saintly tales belong in the annals of the absurd. forgive me….) 

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?

 

the ones who direct our attention

Beach Balance Stone Stacked Nature Meditation

sometimes i imagine myself perched in a watchtower amid the thick of the forest. a treehouse on steroids and stilts. i’ve always been keen on small spaces tucked away. secret rooms from which to watch the world. when i was little i had one such room — my little log cabin, tucked in the garden, down where our backyard dipped low. i was sequestered away, where the marsh lilies bloomed. and the queen anne’s lace bowed in the wind. the limbs of the trees brushed up against my walls and my roof. leaves rustled, sometimes poked in the windows.

i could sit there for hours — and in the summers i did. i’d cook — or so i called it — on the upturned coffee tin that served as my “stove.” i gathered berries from the boughs of the honeysuckle (though i promised never to eat them). i harbored books in the corners. i watched without being noticed — a posture, come to think of it, i still warm to.

all these years later, keeping watch is still my natural disposition. there’s a good measure of watching in being a news gatherer. there was a good deal of paying attention, listening closely, in being a nurse. there is immense keeping watch in being a mother.

i seem to be ever on the watch for prophets and wise folk. those supersized souls whose job, it seems, is to point us all in the clearest, surest direction. i understand that without them, without their extraordinary insights and clarion calls, i’d lose my way. fall by the wayside. tumble into the ditch of losing the point.

here’s a little something i’ve noticed: among the populations likeliest to hold prophets and seers, those who are living with dire prognoses — those who’ve sat in the crucible of cold, hard exam rooms, who’ve been strapped and slid into MRI chambers whispering every prayer in the book — they are often the ones whose vision holds the sharpest finest-grain focus, whose words come without filter. time is urgent, the message is crucial. is imperative. all the fluff is chiseled away. we’re down to the bone here.

because life is an ever-surging river of exit and entrance and all points between, i keep being pulled to its banks, to that liminal edge where voices are truest. where, from out of the din, you can’t help but hear the ones with the piercingest truths. the ones whose vision is sharpest, is surest, because they’ve no time to waste.

in the past few weeks one of those prophets, one whose voice is among the piercingest, the bravest, is an old friend, who 20 years ago battled cancer, and ever since has lived as if there were no tomorrow. a month or so ago, completely out of the blue, that cancer came back, came back with a vengeance. and my friend, whose name is robbie klein, and who said i could tell you, has taken to putting her most urgent truths into words. she’s written of the horrors of tumors that make her head feel as if it’s exploding. she’s written of all the evils that come with late-stage cancer. but mostly she’s reached for the high notes, reminded anyone who’s listening, that the miracle is in the now. that we’re all dropped into a stage set of life that’s upholstered with beauties and breathtaking blessing, and we’re wise to plunge in deep, to dance in the moment while the moment is ours.

yesterday, she penned a simple list. a prayer-poem it seemed to me. a litany of paying attentions, of moments that shimmer, that beckon — but might be overlooked, left unconsidered, or forgotten.

it so strikingly focused my eyes and my soul on those not uncommon moments when time itself is suspended, is paused, is nearly bursting with beauty and promise and possibility, i asked robbie if i could share it here. “of course,” she said.

she trains our eyes, our soul, our whole selves, on those ineffable moments of every blessed day. on those moments so rich they deserve, each one, to be held to the light, to be beheld. my friend robbie is intent on slowing down time, on making us notice. on making us see.

a person who sees: prophet. one who carries the wisdom, the urgency, from heaven to earth. one who speaks words that cannot, and must not, be disregarded.

Moments

by Robbie Klein

The space behind the waterfall

The reverberation after a piano key is struck

The second after hanging up with one you love

The instant before the match catches fire

The trace when a cloud covers the sun

The sliver before sleep comes

The first raindrop under a tree canopy

The ebbing of the waves

The lightening of dawn

The space between notes

The bottom of the exhale

The final brushstroke

The first drop on the tongue

The grey before snow falls

The moment before his fingers touch your face

thank you, beautiful blessed robbie…..

please whisper a prayer for robbie and all of the prophets among us. hold her in the light this fine day. send love to where she’s tucked away, on the northern california coast, by the side of her most beloved boy, the love of her life. 

and, please, add to the litany of moments that are distillations of all that is profound and powerful and possible in this blessed whirl called life. what moment might you pay attention to today? one you might otherwise have missed…

the marvel of the capacious soul

i’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re down here on this messy planet, this planet that sometimes feels overpopulated with goons and wise guys, is that on occasion, as we mill about among the masses and misfits, we run into the occasional breathtaking specimen from whom we will undoubtedly learn a thing or three.

i bumped into one this week, and once again i scribbled notes into my chunky fat notebook, the one titled, “how to be a better human. volume 61.”

the most accurate way to phrase it, quite honestly, would be to say that i didn’t so much as bump into him — he’s a time zone away, after all — but rather that this gorgeous soul pretty much flung himself onto the skinny little trail i was traipsing through the day. and it took all of a fraction of a second for me to read his words, feel the breath sucked straight out of my lungs (in that marveling sort of a way), and remember why oh why i’ve always adored him, and would like to be like him when i grow up.

he arrived, my old friend did, in an out-of-the-blue email, one announcing that he — whose wife had died just 10 days before, and whom we’d not seen in years and years — was jumping on a plane to chicago, where he and his wife had lived a couple decades ago, back when both of us were starting out in this experiment called “how to birth and raise a child.” we had all succumbed, his wife and i and our respective mates, at just about the same moment in history. they sped off to the birthing room first, and we followed fairly close behind. then, they sped again shortly after us, so we all spent a few years there cradling newborns, trading tales and names of pediatricians. in fact, the day the chicago tribune decided to unveil a room (more like a rehabbed closet) for “lactating reporters,” my friend’s wife and i showed up to pose for pictures with our little guzzlers well attached (clinging to our shoulders, people; all of us fully clothed and covered, merely suggesting that we young mothers might at some point put down notepads and plug into breast pump (i forsook the whole endeavor and worked from home, with nary a pump in sight)).

i digress.

back to this blessed friend who dropped in this week. he wrote this:

Hi guys,

Corey and I have sort of tumbled into a Chicago comfort trip. He’s there already, and I am flying out in a few hours.

It’s exceedingly last minute, but he and I would love to see as many of you as we can in a gathering of some design. I’ve been thinking brunch Saturday or Sunday, at a restaurant or (if one of you has the stomach for it) a home (I’d ecstatically cover the catering).

Let me float the idea of 10 am Saturday or Sunday. Other times will in truth be tougher (I’ll be doing things with/at the theater, etc.).

Maybe we can reply-all in order to see whether this might work?

I adore you all, and thank you for words and sustenance over months, weeks, and years.

Love,

(old friend)

i should mention that this old friend is a professor of shakespeare in new york city, and from the first day i met him he has used the english language in measures that far exceed just about anyone else i’ve ever known. he matches his eloquence with an effusion of the human spirit that is, frankly, a force of nature. something akin to sharing a room with a hurricane of most glorious refinement.

amid a world of ways of mourning, i was bowled over by this friend’s instinct to surround himself — immerse himself, really — with stories, tears, and laughter. to reach out for old, old friends. to throw himself onto a plane to shrink the distance, to not wait to lather himself in the healing balm, to quite emphatically wrap himself in the company of those who’d lived and breathed the chapters before cancer trod his heart, and stole his lifelong love.

it’s why capacious is the word that best fits his soul, his spirit, the magnitude of how he exercises love and life and full-throttle humanity. “having a lot of space inside; roomy,” the pocket OAD tells us. my friend is roomy, all right, and he makes room for the whole whirling wild climate zone of grief and grieving.

i imagine that tomorrow morning, when my kitchen is filled with lox and bagels and stories tumbling atop stories, when the coffee flows endlessly and big bowls spill with the fattest sweetest berries i can find today, it will get messy. there will be rivers of tears. and once or twice someone might laugh so hard they’ll spit strawberry across the table. i’ve been around enough grief to know it’s uncharted.

what i’ve not often seen, and what i love and what finds me marveling, is this old friend’s willingness to plunge right in, to immerse himself in the anguish and the joys that old friends know by heart. almost none of us witnessed up close the past few years of surgery and chemo and the inevitable dying, but we were all there for the thick of what came before — the births, the strollers, the raucous Shabbat dinners, the summer sunsets from their rooftop terrace.

and we have stories in which to wrap him, and tears to bathe his broken heart, and great good laughter on which to lift and carry him.

from deep inside his fog of pain and loss and rudderlessness, he thrust out a hand, and called on an old unbroken circle of the heart. we will hold a shiva here tomorrow. and there will be prayer in the form of story. and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be shared in the company of those who remember well the days long before the whiff of cancer slid into the room, and took away our old friend’s truest deepest love.

may his capacious ways remind me to never shrink from the confines of the soul so blessedly breathed into each of us at the moment we were first imagined, and sent forth to fill this planet…..

who are some of the ones in your life who teach you how to be? and in what form have some of those lasting lessons come? 

this one’s for…

boy with my heart

you. and you. and you.

my world these days is inhabited, certainly, with hearts that are heavy, hearts that are hurting. one is mourning the loss of her mother, her brilliant and vibrant and unforgettable mother. another will never stop mourning the loss of her daughter. one struggles with a diagnosis that week by week makes it harder to hold a pencil, pour juice in a glass, pray on her knees. another is slowly losing her powers to see.

and then there are all the others, who harbor hurts and shoulder unbearable weights.

i walk through the labyrinth, alongside their lives, seeing their pain, imagining the crushing weight of the worry, wishing more than anything that words — the surest thing i know, short of lifting out my heart and wrapping it round them — could do the work of saying, “i remember. i’m watching. i’m here to listen. you’re not all alone.”

in a world where we all whirl, from birth till the end, in our own little amoebas of space and sentience, where the oceans of life bang up against our shores, where we stand and brace ourselves for whatever comes, never knowing what will wash up next, the one holy grace — short of the cord that ties us to heaven — is the grace of soulmates who listen, who put forth their own shoulders to bear a chunk of the load, who dare to sit side-by-side in the dark, to not say a word when silence is best, and who sometimes, rare sometimes, know just the right words. or they try anyway.

if only we all slowed down long enough. if only we all let down our own layers of armor, those impenetrable sheaths we carry into the day to keep ourselves safe from rocks and arrows, not realizing that our efforts to gird against our own hurts make it all the harder to recognize others’.

if only our words could do the work we wish for. if only we could slither inside someone else’s pain, sidle up close by her side, and whisper just the right curative potion.

if only words could work in the way that we hope and we pray: if words had the power to heal. to lift burden. salve the wounds. rinse away the sting.

maybe, sometimes, they do.

which is why i remember a few short phrases spoken to me in hours of dread. or despair. or unbearable grief. i remember a friend insisting, “you got this,” when she and she alone held that certainty. i remember, in the crowded kitchen of the house where i grew up, not even an hour after we’d buried my father, my uncle leaned into me, rested his hands on my shoulders, looked me deep in the eyes, and said: “the depth of the pain is equal to the depth of the love,” and suddenly my immense and immeasurable grief became bearable. because somehow i now had a framework, a balance of scale, to understand the pain as a pure reflection of love, and in that equation i found the muscle to bear what would be months and months and months of heart-crushing pain.

there’s not a morning that i don’t wake up and tick through an inventory of heartaches and griefs all around. i recite the names of people i love, a litany propelled by pure empathy. i pause on each name and each story, sometimes for longer than others. i imagine how hollow or heavy it feels. and i send up a prayer. and then another and, often, another.

the beauty of prayer is that words — those sometimes stumbling, fumbling, ill-fitting sounds that come from our throats — words when spoken in prayer take on powers that come from far beyond our own soul. words spoken in prayer do immeasurable work. they seep in through the cracks, or so i believe. they settle in deep, and maybe just maybe they send up tender resilient shoots, and one day they’ll bloom. into love. into peace. into the breathtaking power to bear whatever it is we know we cannot bear alone.

and so this fine morning, i offer up words for the ones who i love who are hurting. and hollowed. and certain that no one could ever imagine how lonely it is. or how dark.

this one’s for you.

love, b.

what are words whispered to you over the course of your life that made you know you could carry the load, you could go forth, one tender step at a time? 

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

any hour now, the house next door, a house where an old man of 92 has lived alone for a few years, a house the old man has been trying to sell for months and months (with not a single offer), a house where just a few weeks ago the old man told me he feels as if he’s gone before a judge and been sentenced to life in jail only the jail is his home, that house will have some bustle today.

two women will be pulling cans and boxes and thingamajigs from shelves in the cupboards. not because the old man is moving out finally. but because an old friend is moving in. an old friend of mine. a friend i knew to be needing a place to live. a rich and wonderful friend who for a host of reasons is in between houses. and desperately needing a place to call home, a place where she can breathe, and look out the windows at sunlight. or snowflakes. or dawn.

after a week or two of nearly comical round-about “talks,” the two of them have reached a deal that already hints of heart more than wallet. she will be renting what amounts to an upstairs suite, two roomy bedrooms, a bathroom, and closets. he will be gaining the comfort of footsteps up above, the rustling in the kitchen as she whips up one of her amazing effortless feasts.

and that’s not all: my friend drives a car, and the old man next door — his name is george, and i don’t think he’d mind my using it — he lost his old white oldsmobile last summer when it got crunched by another car. george escaped with bumps and bruises, but the lasting blow was the car got towed away, and taken away — for good. as part of “the deal,” my dear friend will be, among many things, george’s newfound wheels. she will drive to the market when he cobbles a list (long a fellow who marketed for himself on the fly, an ad-libber of marketing, he claims to be not so good at list-making and, at 92, is intent on teaching himself this new skill). she will drive him to the doctor. and, as seems to happen every once in a while, she’ll give him a lift to the emergency room.

but here’s the thing about that last point in particular: just a week or two ago, i was sitting with george on a day he’d woken up dizzy. i’d run over after he called, a scene that unfolds not infrequently, and was perched beside him in a hard metal folding chair (he’s cleared the house of nearly every piece of furniture, the saga of trying for months to sell a house that won’t budge), when he told me in something of a whisper that, really, he thought the chest pains and shortness of breath might just be from the stress of living alone, of not being able to sell this house that he loved, a house he built for his beloved late wife who for years and years struggled to breathe, a house he’d filled with countless “upgrades” to make her breathing easier, to make it easier for nurses to come and to go. a house he didn’t want to sell at a bargain-basement price. to george, that feels like an insult. an insult to himself, yes, but more so a slap at the memory of his most beloved wife (in the great room of his house, the only room still with furniture, there are exactly four items: a recliner chair, a metal tv tray table, a big screen tv, and a faded picture of his late wife hanging from the wall). it’s his unwillingness to settle for what he considers an unconscionable price that has shoved him into this jail-cell of a situation, and how he’s come to spend months and months alone in that house, and now months and months without a car, or a way to get around. and all the while the pains in his chest have gotten worse and worse. and the dizziness comes and goes.

and as i sat there listening, wishing like anything i could figure out how to lift his burden, it dawned on me that maybe there was an outside chance of a way.

my old friend had just moved out of her own longtime house into a rented room, a tight-squeezed room in a townhouse where a little dog (not hers) had free rein and hospital pads were scattered about the floors in case the wee dog hadn’t time to do his business outside. even though i knew she’d just unpacked boxes and boxes, even though i knew she’d just signed off on the first month’s rent, i could see the light in her eyes was dimming. i was haunted long after i drove away and left her to squeeze a few files onto her makeshift desk.

it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, my two old friends — one a friend by accident of geography, the other a friend who’s been something of an auntie to my boys, and a lifesaver to me — could make a quirky equation, could be each other’s short-term solution. so i spoke up. i mentioned first to my friend my quirky idea. she paused and considered. then i brought it up to george’s daughter, the one who’s been slumped under the weight of her papa’s affairs, and driving countless miles from her house to his many times a week, and often at the drop of a dime. she too saw the possibility. so i wandered over and asked george myself.

and by the middle of next week the upstairs room with the light that has barely shone in all these years, it will be glowing above the garage. it will be glowing down onto the picket fence that runs between my house and george’s — and, for now, hers, too. my old friend will have a whole upstairs all to herself. she’ll have shelves and shelves for her books. and sunlight or moonlight pouring through the tall, tall windows.

george will have the comfort and joy of being not alone. already, i’ve been told, he pokes his head round the corner when my friend is there (figuring out what will go where), asks if she’d like him to make her a cocoa. (see what i mean about this being more heart than wallet?)

it’s a happy ending in the making, i’m certain. i feel it in my bones. and not because i will now have a dear friend next door, one with whom i can share old new yorkers, and whatever i’ve whipped up for dinner. but because in this old cold world there still exists the possibility of kooky solutions, and hearts can be pulled together tighter than any wallet or real-estate guide might suggest. fact is, the two of ’em — george and my friend — both happen to be among the dearest souls on the planet, and right now both are in tight pinches that neither one deserves.

it all reminds me that we live, all of us do, on the thin membrane of possibility day after day after day. our charge, if we take it, is to live and breathe the belief that 1 + 1 just might = 3, to know that love and light is just beneath the surface, aching for a soft spot, a place to break through.

despite what the naysayers insist, we do not dwell in a zero-sum world. my gain is not your loss, nor vice versa. if we decide to live a life of looking for doors that might be opened, dots connected, threads interwoven, if we believe in looking up and looking out for the other guy’s sweet victory and triumph, well, then isn’t the world one stitched by generosity and not stinginess? isn’t that the way we all win? and doesn’t that tip the globe in the direction of light not shadow?

it’s always boggled me, and heavied my heart, to know that this is not the way of the world. but we can make it be. we can spend our days on the lookout. on the lookout for love, for light. for the arithmetic of unlikely sums.

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

do you have a tale of doors being opened, and love rushing through?

inscribe this on your heart…

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“I‘ve said it before: the area of dignity and respect is my red line. Let me be clear, it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions.” Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, superintendent US Air Force Academy

it’s not too often these days that we hear, loud and clear, the voice of moral conviction. there is so much noise and distraction, a soul like me might get drawn into the deep and unending quiet of the golden-dappled woods. or behind the thick-stone walls of the monastery, where the drone of the outside world can’t drown out the whisper of the One who pries open the doors of our heart.

we need to hear what it sounds like when one sharply-chiseled soul digs down deep and puts a megaphone to moral courage, to standing up and elucidating in no uncertain words what it means to walk the narrow path of decency. no wobbles allowed. no excuses, period.

there is so much garbage spewed these days — so much back and forth and swirling vitriol — it makes me want to give up some days. to crawl into my hole and stay there.

but then, along marches a rare one, and the words i hear are so clear and so fine-hewn in stone, i sit up and notice. i feel the goosebumps rise up. i feel a wafting cloud of relief rise up from my long-slumped shoulders.

oh, yes, this is what moral courage sounds like. this is conviction spewed forth on human breath, i hear myself thinking, the thoughts practically rising to murmurs as i can barely contain the words.

we are long overdue — amid a moral drought, you might say — nearly forgotten, the sound of true and unmuddled moral conviction.

here’s what happened: five cadets at the US Air Force Academy in colorado springs woke up to the words “go home, [racial epithet],” scrawled on the message boards outside their rooms. the superintendent of the academy, a lieutenant general named silveria, wasted no time, drew a sharp red line in the landscape of human decency. he convened an all-campus assembly, 4,000 students, the entire faculty and staff. he stepped to the podium and launched straight in.

have a listen: lt. gen. jay silveria’s unforgettable five-minute red-line moral-clarity speech. 

and here’s some of what he said:

“So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,” Silveria repeated.

and then the lieutenant general turned on his heels, and left everyone in the cavernous hall — and the country beyond — to stop and think and let that truth sink in. and to remember what it sounds like when a leader is chiseled from the raw stuff of courage and conviction and moral clarity.

i for one am deeply grateful. i for one am so relieved to finally hear someone with the guts to get up and tell it bold and straight and clear, according to the ancient code of decency, the one we should all know and live by heart. every last one of us.

who has been the voice of moral courage in your world this week?

by the time i post this, you might have seen this all over the modern-day public square that is social media, but i am less and less often in that melee these days, having crept toward the quiet of the dappled woods. apologies if this is a repeat for anyone. it’s truly worth a deep sinking in. may your week — and your atoning tonight and tomorrow — be blessed.

“hope is the last thing to die…”

earthquake

some mornings, the news will pummel you. the convulsing state of the world — earthquake, hurricane upon hurricane, hydrogen bomb — it will pummel you.

but then, a voice squawks through the little box tucked hard by the knives on the kitchen counter. it’s a voice coming from thousands of miles away. and, suddenly, it’s as if someone’s tucked a plastic cannula of oxygen straight up your nose. you breathe again. because you just heard the words:

“hope is the last thing to die….”

the words come amid a story seething with hope. a story from the epicenter of mexico city’s rubble, a story that reminds you — emphatically reminds you — that absent all the bureaucracies and hypocrisies and deceptions of politics and government, the human spirit writhes toward goodness. toward reaching out. stranger to stranger; it doesn’t matter. listen to the cries of a child oozing out from under the rubble, and human chains of hope link arms and start digging. hundred pound blocks of concrete, rodded with rebar — watch the woman with matchstick arms hoist it.

with more than 35 buildings pancaked into piles of death and destruction in the mexican capital alone, armies of volunteers arrived. computer analysts, lawyers, an otherwise motley crew of men who grew up playing sandlot football, american football, and put out the call across now-scattered lives to come running — all untrained in the arts and science of hoisting thousands-pound rubble, crawling through slivers of air space, reaching for limbs or the fading breaths of a voice.

“no one is 100-percent prepared for a situation like this,” a lawyer tells the story’s reporter, “but what’s important is that people have come together and haven’t left those who are suffering alone.”

a four-foot-eight woman, known as a “mole,” because she’s been trained to crawl into rubble, searching for bodies, living or dead, adds this: “we mexicans are known for our big hearts, our hard work, and most of all our solidarity.”

those are the words that made me start breathing again. those are the words that reminded me…

human beings are hardwired to rise up against suffering — in the aggregate, yes, but more dramatically, emphatically, in the immediate. in the visceral. in the i’m-looking-into-your-eyes-and-i-see-the-suffering, the anguish.

and that’s the scene unfolding in mexico city right now, where armies of untrained diggers — and water bearers and bandage wrappers and megaphone holders and rubble removers — are showing up and holding the line — holding the line against despair. refusing to leave till the last ember of hope fades into darkness.

and that’s the scene in dominica, one of the pummeled and flooded and left-without-an-electrical-grid caribbean islands. and that’s been the scene this summer in houston and the florida keys and jacksonville and puerto rico and on and on and on where good folk — plain folk, probably even a few ornery folk who haven’t had the chance to shine in a very long time — they all showed up, rolled up their sleeves, slid into thigh-high rubber boots, and showed what the human heart is capable of.

i’ve read story after story of folks who might otherwise barely have grunted as they passed each other on a sidewalk, or raced from driveways into glitzy houses, suddenly trying on superhero capes — barbecuing for a whole neighborhood, turning a washing machine into the community laundry, forming a human chain so a woman in labor could make it through waist-high water from curb to dump truck to get to the hospital to deliver her baby.

the big picture — the rampant bad news — could flatten any one of us, squeeze the last gasp of air out of our lungs. but it’s the tiny droplets, the pixels of deep and undying humanity, that just might put hope to our wings.

in my book, that’s where God moves. in the flesh-to-flesh, hand-to-hand, breath-to-breath bridge of we won’t let you suffer alone. and we’ll hold on — we’ll hold onto hope — for as long as it takes, no matter the impossible odds.

i’m asking today for a litany of whatever fine tales you’ve collected, heard or seen with your very own eyes and ears — stories of blessed beautiful humanity rising up above flood water, hurricane wind, or earth tremoring under our feet. because to know those stories is to believe, is to dig deep into our sorry shaken selves and try to muster the same indomitable life-saving spirit. 

and a blessed new year to all as we wrap ourselves in these holy radiant days of deep awe….

if all the world had a sarah…

sarah bd card

the doorknob, most often, is where i find her. or, rather, the bulging evidence of her having sashayed through the night, traipsing along the alley, lit by the moon and the beam of her iPhone, ferrying bags weighed down with her wares.

on any given midnight run, the wares might be tomatoes, enough to fill a stockpot and feed a small army; soups, bulging from zip-lock sacks; cakes, by whole or by half; marinara sauce, with meat or without; cucumbers in sizes and shapes and colors i never knew they’d invented.

some mornings, i swear the doorknob’s going to crack off its stem. some mornings, a vase of perky zinnias, or a rose clipped from her mama’s bush, or basil by the sinkful stands guard beneath the dangling bags.

used to be my fat cat would be waiting there too. he, too, waited for sarah. she’s the saint of the alley. she feeds a whole flock of us, night after night. the cats, she feeds always. and any stray critter who’s lame, or been bonked by the wilds. us humans she feeds whenever she finds a few extra hours in her kitchen. or when she finds time to get to her wild jungle of a tomato bed, where those red orbs of summer are all but bursting right now.

sarah comes, like santa or tooth fairies, without being seen. she comes in the night, and though i’ve only once or twice caught sight of her flashlight beaming ahead through the bushes, i imagine the gleam in her eye, as she sets out from her house with her arms full of deliciousness.

sarah lives to take care of folk. she moved home a few years ago to be by the side of her mama and papa, as they got old and older. as the steps in their fine old house got steeper and steeper, and the distance from the front door to the sidewalk, where the newspapers were plopped, it got farther and farther.

sarah moved home and in no time, their basement freezer was filled with her wares. (wasn’t long till ours was too.) sarah could open a restaurant. or a bakery. but instead she cooks and she bakes for love and love only.

long ago, she decided my little guy was a guy she could cook for. she knows all his favorite cookies and cakes. now, his friends do too. they come over to see what sarah’s got tucked under the glass cookie dome.

sarah’s birthday was yesterday, and, well, there was no way we could make enough of a fuss to capture the whole of the love in our hearts. but we tried. and the card up above is the one my not-so-little guy stayed up late in the night to draw and to pen with his poetry (that outline of an angel, and the words, “st. sarah”!!!). he left it on the kitchen table, so when i awoke on sarah’s birthday, there was — as there so often is — something that melted my heart. only this time it was for sarah, instead of from sarah. i tucked it into the little bundle of somethings we’d gathered. and i shuffled it down the alley, just like sarah does. i hung my sack on her doorknob, the hardware of the heart in this particular equation.

if all the world had a sarah….

if all the world knew what it was to awake to a fat bulging sack of pure goodness. if all the world was populated with neighbors who put in particular tomatoes, and certain kinds of herbs, just because they know someone nearby likes those particular certain somethings. if all the world had folk shuffling through the night, delivering kindness. dangling it from doorknobs.

i think of houston and the pictures i’ve been watching all week. the pictures of strangers hoisting old men and old ladies, tiny bundles of baby cradled in mamas’ arms. i think maybe there are quite a few sarahs. and maybe when the waters recede, the kindness will keep on rising. maybe…

i started this thinking wouldn’t it be grand if all the world had a sarah, and i’m wrapping it up thinking emphatically this: wouldn’t it be even more grand if we could all try just a little bit harder to be a sarah? to come under cloak of darkness, delivering goodness and kindness, leaving satchels of joy in our wake?

thank you, dear blessed sarah, patron saint of unheralded kindness and great bulging hearts. thank you for teaching my boys the wonder of kindness delivered by doorknob, night after night, with no desire for folderol or hoopla. and thank you too for the world’s best salt-sprinkled sliced tomato on rye.

love, me and t. and all of us who’ve been indulged by your infinite goodness

do you have a sarah in your life, and how has your sarah opened your heart and filled it with unheralded goodness?