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Category: asking questions

“be our best selves,” and other wisdoms gleaned

candle

in which we turn to the wisdom of others to find instruction for the way toward grace…

a precede before we begin: i was trained as a journalist to leave my politics off the table, to keep it out of my writing, and because i’ve worked for almost 10 years to make this a sacred place outside the cacophony of the cruel world that tries to knock us down, i want to put the politics aside here, and frame this as a conversation of all the things we believe in here at the table: looking across the abyss to find the glimmering shards of the divine, renouncing hate and hateful speech. finding courage even when we’re mired in doubt. 

***

when we sat down to dinner the other night, the night after we’d stayed up till the wee hours watching votes roll in, we clasped hands as we always do, maybe a little tighter that night than we sometimes do, and we nodded toward the gentle man at the far end of the table, the man whose moral ballast, whose capacities to anchor my fevered flights, weighed deeply into why i married him. it was his turn to say the prayer. he spoke simply, two sentences perhaps. and the one that’s stuck with me all week, the one i’ve all but sewn to my backbone, to put muscle to my wobbly self, is this: “dear God, let us be our best selves.”

it’s as wise an instruction as any i’ve stumbled upon this week.

what it means, i think, is to double-down on our inclinations to be living-breathing beacons of all that’s good. and by “good” we mean those actions inscribed in every ancient and timeless holy text: love as you would be loved. turn the other cheek. be your brother’s or your sister’s keeper. to name a few (please, name a few that guide you).

when the world around you feels as if the ground’s been shaken, when you’re scared by all the words (and acts) of hate that swirl around, is there any hope in muscling on more deeply attuned to your own code of gentle kindness, in reaching across the darkness in search of the glimmering shard of holiness we’re sure is somewhere out there?

is there any other choice?

we can’t submit to the lowest, harshest impulses wired into the whole of we are.

is it enough to conduct our daily lives in a cone of grace, a willingness to listen, to speak in soft and measured tones, to sometimes muster all the courage in the world to step in and say, i’m sorry, that’s wrong and i will not stand silent?

or might we need, more emphatically than ever, to step beyond our well-worn zones of comfort, carry our best selves into the more public sphere?

i’m rich in questions this morning, short on answers. i’m guided, as always, by my simple code: make each encounter peace-filled, at a minimum. take it up a notch and sow an extra dash of goodness, of compassion. look the stranger in the eye, allow your eyes to sparkle. speak a word of shared communion. make someone laugh. wreak random acts of plain old kindness. shake someone out of complacency by your radical gesture of human decency. put breath to the voice of truth, of healing, of all the wisdom you can muster. don’t be afraid.

i’ve been turning all week for instruction from the wise souls who surround me. my dear friend katelynn carver is a friend i made in a virginia woolf class at harvard divinity school. she’s in scotland now, at st. andrews, writing herself toward a phD in wisdom. she wrote this brilliant essay this week, titled “the opposite of indifference.”

in part, she wrote:

We’re forgetting the most important thing. Because we think we’ve lost love to hate, today. We think we’ve lost kindness to wrath, today. We think we’ve lost the good in what we stand for as a country to violence and hate-mongering and xenophobia and all of the horrible -isms that plague our society and divide us ever further where we need to unite. And I won’t kid you: all those things have been dealt a mighty blow—mightier than many of us have ever seen.

But we’re wrong that we, as a country, lost to hate, today.

she went on to write:

We need to look beyond the superficial, and take nothing for granted, and create dialogue where we’ve long found it easier to turn a deaf-ear. We need to dig in with both hands and do the hard work.

We need to protect each other. We need to recognize what this division has done to our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. We need to reach out and assist immediately with those who are grieving this morning, who are fearful, who are suffering or devoid of all hope, and remind them that they matter, and that there’s light left, and that we’re still here. We need to see the hate and the rage and the vitriol and sit with it a while, so that we can understand where it comes from, so as better to help heal where it stems from. We need to remember that at the end of the day we are all human—and if remembering that is a trial, or a seeming impossibility, we need to work harder. We need to work to figure out how to stop being being so scared that we’re defensive, that we’re ignorant, that we make enemies amongst ourselves and cut rifts that shake our cores. We need to figure out what went wrong that parts of our nation have ever felt that they need walls, physical and metaphorical.

But what we need most, is to remember. We are a nation of many nations. We are a people of many peoples. We are a generation being faced with a challenge, as every generation is, and we are being called to rise to it and shore this nation up at its fractures to be stronger, to be better. We are an experiment, and sometimes experiments don’t go the way we expect, but that’s what makes them groundbreaking—for better or worse.

Where this experiment leads is going to be in our hands, now. And if we remember only one thing as the first step, as the driving force, and the first niggling thought before we remember everything else ahead of us, expected of us, needed from us—we must remember this:

We are not indifferent.

And as long as that remains true, we have a path to forge onward.

no wonder i love katelynn. (please read her whole essay).

and on katelynn’s wisdom, i’ll sign off — with love, and faith that, together, we’ll find our way toward the shining light that cannot be extinguished.

david remnick, a voice i turn to in times of light or dark, wrote in the darkest hours of tuesday night, wednesday morning. he chose these words to end his essay: “…despair is no answer. to combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. that is all there is to do.”

and my burning question: what instruction guides you? where are you finding hope? how do you define, “be our best selves”?

road trip: words upon words, stopping at the intersection of faith, doubt and ink in between

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before the sun rises over the steel mills of gary, indiana, tomorrow morn, i’ll be motoring toward motor city for a three day festival of words, words and more words. with a fat dash of big questions stirred in for good measure.

i’ll hit the brakes before i hit the outskirts of detroit. in fact, i’ll be stopping mid-mitten, at just about the palm of the hand, to pull into the fine burg of grand rapids. i could roll down the windows and listen for the voice of anne lamott, a faith-filled writer you might have read. but i’m actually a bit more keen on listening closely to uwem akpan, the nigerian catholic priest who penned the haunting “say you’re one of them,” five short stories of african atrocities told through the voices of children; or amy leach, a shy and brilliant essayist whose debut book, “things that are,” is a madcap collection of nature essays encouraging communion with the wild world (she’s been said to be “a descendent of lewis carroll and emily dickinson,” be still my heart — a girl after my very own chambered vessel, indeed).

a clutch of poets will be in the bunch, and i intend to be in the room when mary szybist, the author of “incarnadine,” winner of the 2013 national book award for poetry, tackles “reverence without curtsying.” or when jeanne murray walker, poet and playwright, talks memoir, or okey ndibe, the nigerian poet, novelist, journalist and political commentator,  takes on “negotiating between the visible and invisible: deities and writing.”

i’ll have notebook flapped open and pen perched (for i’m among the last of the pen-and-paper note takers) when guggenheim fellow eliza griswold, best-selling author of “the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam” steps to the podium, or when james mcbride, author of the brilliant “the color of water: a black man’s tribute to his white mother,” and most recently, “good lord bird,” a comedy about the abolitionist john brown, which won the 2013 national book award, settles in for a thursday night’s conversation.

it’s called the “festival of faith & writing,” and who knew that such a gathering of great minds has been convening every other year on the rolling campus of calvin college — smack dab between the literati-littered coasts — since 1990. and that over the years, elie wiesel, john updike, maya angelou, salman rushdie, annie dillard, kathleen norris, and donald hall — to name but a handful — have been putting voice not to unwavering belief but the far more animated living-breathing blurred boundary between doubt and hope.

it’s that very crack in the veneer of faith, the place where shadow seeps, that birthed the festival in the first place.

“because of a long interest in writers between the cracks — writers who struggle with and deal honestly with the challenges of human experience, while writing with skill and poise and quality. these are not people who are easy believers, but that is part of what makes reading such authors worthwhile. we can learn a lot from these folks and their honest portrayals of the human experience,” says dale brown, the former calvin english professor who dreamed up the festival, one literary invitation at a time, and presided over it until he left the college to run the buechner institute in 2007.

it’s a mere 204 miles away, and it’s a landscape i’m learning, one page at a time.

if laptop and lulls allow, i’ll post dispatches from the front. fine thoughts, stirring questions, readings you might want to track down. if not, click on any of the above links and partake in a virtual festival of faith & words, all on your own.

in the meantime, what writers/thinkers/poets might you drive a couple hundred miles to encounter, page to page?

 

tumblings from a cambridge notebook…

dispatch from 02139… in which the chair explores the nooks and crannies of this wonderland where at every turn, it seems, there is something to capture the imagination and set it soaring… 

because i’ve somehow managed to decorate my days-long fever with wall-to-wall crimson spots (ever conscious of the college colors), i’ve decided that the wisest dispatch here this morning would be the one in which i merely shake out my reporter’s notebook from this enchanted week in cambridge, one in which we launched deep and wide into orientation at the white clapboard lippmann house where the cottage garden blooms and where already i’ve encountered a slew of amazing souls from all around the world.

it is pinch-me hard to believe, quite often, that i am in fact sitting in a chair in a sun-streamed assembly room, looking up at a wall, where there hangs a banner that reads: “nieman foundation for journalism at harvard.”

but there we sit, eight hours in a day, absorbing all they have to tell us about this year of, as the curator of us all so beautifully put it: “exposure to big and wonderful minds.” not a bad agenda for a year.

among us is a foreign correspondent (whose identity i must keep masked) who tells tales of interviewing terrorists and then being told that if the interviews don’t work out, maybe she could marry one of the ol’ bomb-lobbers. yet another is a woman who has dedicated her life and every waking second of the last two years to documenting every single homicide in washington, d.c.; she has been in court for every hearing and proceeding of every bloody death in the district, she hears from victim’s families and suspects and accusers, along with eyewitnesses, and a host of hangers-on, and she was in tears when she got up to introduce herself and explained that in order to come on the fellowship she had to close down her site, and for the first time in two years, there were murders in d.c. going down undocumented this week, unwatched by her watchful eyes.

the conversation i’ll not ever forget is the one that unfolded the other night, sitting at a picnic table, beside a man from a country i won’t name (for confidentiality reasons), who told me that he is publishing a book on the history of his country, and that when he returned home at the end of this year, “trouble will be waiting.”

when i asked what exactly “trouble” meant, he quietly answered, “prison.”

“how long,” i asked.

he shook his head. he didn’t know. but he had two friends, he told me, who’d been in prison 17 years already.

you don’t engage in conversations like those and not begin to feel a shifting deep inside, as you realize that around the world lives are risked for the work that journalists — hellbent on truth-telling, no matter the cost — do each and every day, recording every bloody uprising, every random gang-bang.

on the other end of an indelible spectrum, i’ve been witness to my little fellow, the one who in recent weeks was scared to death about leaving home, the one who on the morning of our leaving, when i walked into his bedroom at dawn to announce, “it’s time to go,” burst into unbroken sobs. i have been watching him cast aside every doubt and worry and dive into friendships with kids he never knew a week ago. even when they don’t speak a word of english.

the most heavenly of those friendships is the one we’ve come to call the three musketeers: there is my little guy, who speaks barely a word of spanish; there is a little boy from spain who speaks barely a word of english; and, in the middle, there is a little fellow whose parents are from argentina, but who has lived in cambridge his whole life, and who fluidly and fluently is the verbal glue between all three. that and the universal conjunction, the soccer ball, which needs no translation, and which the other night, on the sloping lawn of the lippmann house, steering clear of the butterfly bush and the cosmos, was the magnet that drew some 20 kids, from the diaper-set to the 11-year-old ringleaders, into a game that would not quit, not till well after the last drop of cambridge sunlight had been wrung from the night sky.

in my fevered state, it’s hard to find words for how darn proud i am of that little fellow, who has dug down deep and pulled forth a motherlode of courage and great good wit, to already claim a host of friends from all around the world. glory be to the angels and saints to whom i’ve prayed for months, for this very answer to countless whispered pleadings.

and so this week, more than anything, has been about making friends, peeling back that layer that we all show to the world, and through the simple act of asking questions, and listening carefully to the stories that spill and spill, finding divine connection that will carry us through a short and winding year.

a mother from south africa told me how, through meditation, she came to know she was birthing twins. a radio broadcaster from chile extolled the virtues of a chilean feminist poet who’s been clouded by pablo neruda’s blinding fame; and she and i, now on a shared poetry quest, intend to trek to grolier’s, the oldest poetry-only bookstore in the country, just off harvard square. a food writer from new orleans promised he’d make us gumbo.

and so it goes. all upholstered by my smashing case of spots, in harvard crimson colors.

next up: shopping for classes. on the list? “poetry and religion,” in which we explore the works of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath. or maybe “the science of cooking,” yes, cooking. or perhaps wynton marsalis’ ongoing lecture series. or whatever else tumbles on my hungry path. 

and by the way, oh goodness what a difference a year makes, we take the college boy back to amherst tomorrow morn. it will soon be just the three of us. and already i miss that gorgeous soul who inhabits such an enormous chunk of my heart. 

do you, too, revel in the art of discovering those divine connections that draw us together and hold us forever after? (and how was that for a rhetorical question…)

the things that moms just know….

the boy with his spoon in the loops mumbled something this morning that sounded like a family of mmm’s had gone out to the carnival, climbed onto the bumper car ride, and rumbled their way through the course.

mmm, mm m mm mmm mmm mm?

“oh,” said i, “you want some orange juice?”

he nodded, then swallowed.

not thinking another thing of it, i opened the fridge, reached for the carton and poured.

he, though, looked up from the page where the sports scores are duly recorded. he had that curious look in his eyes.

and that’s when he did what he so often does; he broke open the ordinary, caused me to stop in my tracks, to pause, to ponder, to pay closer attention.

he said, simply and not simply at all: “i have a question. what are some of the most interesting things that moms just know?”

he fielded the question as if moms were a species unto their own. as if he were there at the zoo, peering in from the far side of the bars, and i was one of the slow meandering mammals, one of those big furry cats, perhaps, pacing purposefully back and forth in my concrete-floor rectangle, looking out at the crowd, plotting somehow, as i always imagine they do, those poor cats, how to break out of that measly four-walled existence.

my little one, the one with the loops back in his spoon, continued on with his morning query: “i mumbled,” he said, “but you knew exactly what i meant,” he explained of the motherly feat that had captured his attention.

“what are some of the really abstract things that you know? the really abstract things that you know about me?”

ah, yes, the mother, Mater omnes sciens, mother all knowing, as the latin scholar would say.

apparently, to the sweet child, it appears that without trying, without elaborate control board and dozens of criss-crossed wires, i mysteriously, and on occasion, pull out my invisible magnifying tool, peer deep into his cerebrum, and divine all sorts of nifty things. say, that it’s breakfast time, he’s been snoring all night in a stuffy little chamber of a room, and he’s developed a thirst for the drink he downs each and every morning, give or take the ones when something more tempting — say, pineapple juice — is there in the fridge. he wants me to pour, voila, a shallow glass of OJ.

to the child, apparently, this appears a motherly trick of pure prestidigitation.

the child, apparently, has no clue that we live and breathe, some of us, to map out the swath of their landscape. they have no clue that as they shovel pasta tubes into their mouth, we are studying their sweet little face, reading between lines, on patrol at all times for sparks that might be smoldering there in the forest. or that we are searching, as they roll through the door after a long day of school, for the slightest telltale flinch, the mere suggestion of a clue that this was a bad day, and we are here, all but tied up in apron strings, the living-breathing emotional-rescue machine.

the child, apparently, has no clue that his entire life long we have been listening, listening intently. we have felt the piercing upon impact of certain words as they simultaneously hit our eardrums, and zing straight to our hearts. they have no clue that we have powers of instant memorization, that we tumble some lines, the occasional shard of a word or words, over and over and over in our minds that don’t cease, don’t know from the pause button.

and thus, whereas we think nothing of reaching for the drink that they drink breakfast after breakfast, or smearing the same old peanut butter onto the bread that he happens to love more than any, there stands a chance, a slim chance, that the child on rare occasion looks up from his daily existence and catches a glimmer of the miracle that is having someone who loves you, someone who knows you so intently, so deeply, that she is able without vowels interrupting the string of consonant sounds, to decipher just what it is you desire.

and, without you even saying a word sometimes, she is able to tiptoe into your bedroom at night, on just the right night, and she knows to slip under the sheets, right beside you, and start making those circles on your forehead, the ones that you love, the ones that make you let down your shoulders, your worries, after a long hard day. and she knows, without you saying a word, just when you need her to ask, “so how was your day, sweetie?” because she might have asked that question a dozen times already, but it’s at bedtime, it’s there in the dark, when the words serve to uncork the deep heart of the matter.

mamas know those things.

they do if they are listening, if they are paying attention. if their own hearts are still enough, if they’ve spent years deep at work practicing the art of those things that mamas do and know and say and understand and feel through and through.

that’s how mamas acquire what to a little boy spooning loops might seem like a list of abstractions. like how a mama knows by the way a boy bites at his lip that he’s just a little bit nervous, or that when he hops a certain way on the ball field it means he is quietly proud of that ball he just caught tight in his mitt, or how she knows — not because it’s abstract so much as highly particular — that he likes his cinnamon sugar sprinkled right up to the edge of the buttered toast, and he doesn’t like the butter in unmelted lumps, thank you.

because, in the end, mothering is all about the particulars.

mothering, at its best, is the art of paying pure attention.

of knowing, for a good long spell of years anyway, the unspoken landscape of the unfolding child. because, after all, we start out this adventure from the very beginning, from before when the words come. so we’ve had years and years of filling in blanks, from reading the particular shrill of a cry, from feeling how the little one kicks his legs against the wall of our womb, and later on watching how he does the same there on the stretched-out blanket.

i like to think it’s my job to be a high-sensory detector. to discern the interior dialogue, the one of his heart, before he’s learned the words to put to that script. if i know to ask the right question, if i can lay out the word choice, the possible phrase, then he can begin to pluck from the choices. he can begin to gain fluency in honoring all the feelings that bottle up inside. i can be his guide in the language of self-expression.

and i can be the one who knows that first thing in the morning, when he needs to race to the bus, a mouthful of OJ is just the drink to sweeten, to douse, his dry little throat.

no miracle there from my perspective. but the miracle is, from his, there is.

and those are just some of the things that mamas just know…..

what are some of the abstract things that you just know about the people you love? and how did you learn them?

when grace comes tumbling down

there are chapters in a life where with all your might you want to pick up the phone, spout out the question, and have a voice on the other end of the line fill in the blank.

tell you what you need to know.

point the way down the long, dark hallway.

heck, shove open the very door you need to walk through.

trouble is, there is no such voice. no human one anyway.

my mama, always wise in such matters, even in her minimalist, straight-to-the-point ways, advised simply: “this is when you pray.”

yesterday morn, rumbling downtown to work on the rickety, rail-swinging el train, i felt myself reaching deep down to what felt like a bottomless pit, and coming up without a clue. so, i did as mama said, i figured, all right then, i’ll shut my mouth and pray.

right there, amid the iPads and the tangle of cords plugged into ears and the starbucks mugs threatening to slosh all over my puffy snowcoat, i clicked my inner-tuner over to the God channel. i coughed up my motherlode of questions. i clung to the cold metal pole that’s there for riders like me, ones holding on for dear life as the train sloshes and slurs along the tracks.

i never did hear a squeaky voice in my ear (besides, i was one of the rare ones, not plugged in to dangly wires). i didn’t even hear a deep low bass.

but i listened with my whole heart.

and by the time i got to the grand avenue station i found myself climbing up the stairs with some measure of conviction. by jove, i began to think, i can do this. i can stare my fears, my trepidations, my full-throttle self doubts right in the eyeballs, and i can say, “move back, busters, i’m comin’ through.”

sometimes, prayer is like that.

sometimes the answer lies deep in the quiet of our oft-shoved-aside soul.

we are deep in big decisions over here at our house, and it’s enough to wear me out.

but — how curious life is — at every turn there seems to be a hand extended, a gentle word, a kleenex when needed. we find there in the dark woods other travelers, asking the same questions, trying to find their way too.
i am so deeply grateful for the grace that’s all around. for the wisdom that seeps in through the cracks beneath the door. for the light that shines from down the block in the deep darkness of the night.

i don’t yet have my roadmap. don’t know which path i’ll claim.

but i do know that i’m not alone. and one way or another, i’ll come through these dark and piney woods.

forgive my veiled words. specifics aren’t the point here. everyone’s life is a puzzle, some passages more than others. the point is that we find our way through our own formula of grace and stumbling. and when we get confused, light comes. dawn after dawn, it’s the promise of the heavens.
how do you find your way when you are lost in the woods?

when baseballs break a heart: a lesson you wish a kid didn’t need to learn

the night before, we laid out the uniform. the spic ‘n’ span white pants, the socks and shirt and hat the color of a rubber ducky.

the mitt, nearly sacramental, was laid on top. the final offering, it seemed, to the gods of baseball. or maybe merely to the patron saints, the ones whose job it was, you’d think, to look down on little diamonds dotted all across america, make sure no hearts were broken. not needlessly anyway.

when it comes to baseball and hearts, the sound of cracking hardly comes from bats alone, biting into balls. plenty of chambers, too, are splintered, emptied out of blood and hopes and dreams.

that’s pretty much the way it went last sunday, when the plumbers took the field. and walked off five innings later thoroughly, well, tanked.

but that’s getting ahead of the ball here.

what happened the other day was, like so much of life, teeter-tottered. one team was made up of little squirts, second graders new at baseball and pitching and hitting without a tee, and the other team was, well, old hands. and huge, by the way. third graders who’d been around the bases plenty of times.

it was the opening game of the pinto season, the league the little kids look up to, the first one where you get to don the catcher’s garb–the caged helmet, the strap between the legs, the padded shield, oh my–and kids, not coaches, get to pitch.

it’s the league of little players’ dreams. and just the day before they’d gathered for as old-fashioned a welcoming ceremony as you could imagine, complete with red-white-and-blue bunting on the outfield fence, 50-cent donut holes, dugouts, and a pledge to “make it fun; above all, make it fun.”

well, before the teams took to the grass and sand-strewn mounds, even a mope like me could tell that somehow something was off-kilter. felt a bit like goldilocks, one team too little, the other too, too big.

but it wasn’t the kids so much as the coaches, who quickly emerged as big bad bears.

there were two, in particular, on the other team. one a beefy guy who wore his Big Ten football jersey beneath his little league t-shirt. the other: lean, in khaki trousers, not smiling.

those two coaches took on this game as if it was some sort of season-ending series, and their life and lungs depended on a win.

from the get-go they were whoopin’ and bellowing. tellin’ one player or another to knock it off. hustle. hustle. CHASE THE BALL, KID, WHAT ARE YA THINKIN’?!?

right off, they encouraged stealing bases. a kid would hit, the little plumbers out in the far-out field would fumble for the ball, chase it half a mile, and all the while the coaches would be spinning round their arm, like some cockeyed windmill, fanning in another run.

didn’t take long for the little ones to take on a dazed sort of expression. reminded me of what cake batter must feel like when the metal whirring beaters are dropped into its midst. poor soupy batter just stands back and takes it, till at last the instructions on the back of the box say to stop, two minutes, up.

inning after inning it went like this: kids from the other team stepped up to the plate, hit, ran, stole, scored. ran through the lineup nearly every time.

scored run after run after run. after run. and that was just the first inning.

then the little guys got a turn. three up, three down. boom, boom, boom. three strikes, yer out. three outs, yer on the field.

pretty soon the score was 20 to nothing.

after an inning or three, we lost count. but the coaches on the other team never let up. they were calling out the batters’ names, four or five at a time, assuming i suppose that they’d bat forever, without a single out.

wasn’t long before the kids on the Big Ten coach’s team picked up on this knuckle-thumping bravado. they’d bellow out the score from time to time, a pathetic count that rose–on one side only, thank you–like mercury on a steamy august day.

alas, inning after inning, the little plumbers stayed stuck at the hollowest of numbers.

“it’s 35 to zero,” one kid from the other team called out, in case anyone was listening. yelled it so loud, made me fairly certain he was making sure kids two towns away would know the score.

the coach said nothing; i couldn’t help myself. i’d been muttering in whispers long enough. it was time to politely make a point.

“how ‘bout some humility,” i mentioned–softly–to no one in particular, in case anyone was listening. i got poked in the ribs by the chap sitting next to me. told me to cool it, he did. and i guess, because he’s the man i married, he was just tryin’ to keep me safe. from coaches and their trounce-announcing players.

oh, it’s a happy place, this sandlot baseball.

worst part, though, was hours later. at bedtime. of course, when all the muddy waters of the day come rushing out, and rinsing needs be done.

the little one, no surprise, couldn’t fall asleep, and soon had called for help.

“i can’t sleep,” he yelled in apt description.

seems the whole darn game, inning after inning, was playing in his head: the fly ball he’d missed, the one that let the batter earn a triple; the strike-out the only time he got to bat; the foul tip that got away.

wasn’t long before the tears came too.

“we lost by 43,” he said, demonstrating second-grade subtraction skills. “that’s half of a hundred,” he said, demonstrating wide-eyed approximation.

demonstrating, too, just how bad it hurt, to be a little kid with giant baseball dreams who’d had them thoroughly, undeniably trampled. rubbed-in like grass stains on his once-white knees.

just the night before, this would-be catcher-slash-center-fielder had had trouble falling asleep with all the home-run pictures in his head. heard the crowd roaring, he did. imagined the coach handing him the little plunger that, each game, goes to the plumbers’ player-of-the-game.

and now, one game later, he’d seen the way it really was: coaches past their prime taking on the task as if a win, at any cost, was all that mattered. paying no mind to pint-sized kids and their first outing on the field. waving in runners twice the size of the little ones fumbling under bushes, trying to throw the ball anywhere in the vicinity of a base.

it hurt, the poor kid said.

he was mad and sad and thoroughly confused: baseball was a game he loved. a game he watched at night, lying beside his papa. a game he read about every morning, slurping statistics along with frosted flakes.

and now, because of baseball, he felt, he said, like someone put their baseball cleat right where his heart goes thump, and then, with all their weight, they’d pushed down that cleated sole.

it hurt, he said.

and then, at last, he fell asleep.

his mitt, that night, was nowhere near his bed. he’d dumped it, soon as he came in the door. his yellow hat, though, hung on the post of his bed; he wasn’t giving up.

just poring over pages in the play book, trying to figure out the game.

when i walked in a little later on, to kiss him one last time, his cheek was soggy still. he’d cried himself to sleep.

some lesson learned on the ballfield that sorry sunday: you can give it all you’ve got and then some, but some beefy guys will run you bloody. and hoot and holler all the way to home.

not why i signed up the kid for baseball.

do you think, perhaps, i could get my money back?

the questions are these: what lessons have you learned on some ball field somewhere, lessons you still don’t think you needed to know? or, conversely, if you’ve found yourself sitting in the stands, or drying tears at bedtime, how did you patch a player’s broken heart?

housekeeping: this is my first friday meander on the new rhythm, and while i ached to write on wednesday, it is something of a treat to wrap up my writing week here, where i can meander to my heart’s content. welcome to the new world, i suppose. maybe fridays will be all right. maybe it makes sense to emphatically end my week, and start the blessed weekend. thanks for adjusting.

and finally, a huge and hearty welcome to a few fine souls who’ve just recently told me that they’ve found the chair. the mama of a boy who long long ago was my patient, a boy with cancer who i, along with a few other heavenly nurses, cared for, and quickly came to love. jeffrey died, but his mama comes here now, one of the miracles of the chair and life. and a lovely writer named julia, who is in 7th grade, and who is going to grow up to knock your socks off with what she writes and the questions she asks. it is the most blushing thing, thoroughly a blessing, to find out that extraordinary souls have tiptoed here and quietly pulled out a chair. it gives me goosebumps every time. bless you each and every one. and welcome.

what if…

what if

i was lurching to a stop, at a light leaping toward red, and that’s when the thought was birthed in my head. oh, it had been pulling at me all morning. i felt the weight of it from the moment my eyes opened, let in the light.

i was having trouble letting go of the great sacred hours of saturday. it had been a day of pure oxygen. i had nowhere to be other than prayer. i did nothing worldly.

i only drove at the end of the day, when the dark came. all day i walked to the place where the prayer was in pews. i walked with my boys; we weren’t in a hurry. the little one filled his pockets with acorns, sat off in a corner when we got there, played games with the corns and their caps. the other boy, wrapped in his prayer shawl, stood beside me, sat beside me, prayed beside me. their papa, this year, was far far away.

we spent enough hours in the place where the prayer was–coming and going all day–that we followed the arc of the sun.

the morning light, white, filtered through glass the color of cafe au lait, poured in from the east, lit my pages of prayers from the top, spilled toward the bottom.

by late afternoon, the light streaming in from the west was golden. some in the pews wore sunglasses. i let the sun in without filter, practically blind me.

when the sun fell, when the light fell, the rabbi lit a bright candle. for a few minutes, it was the only light in the great-ceilinged chamber.

then, it was over and we stepped out into the twilight. walked home one last time.

it was the light and the words, and the pushing away of the everyday, that drew me into a place where i want to return. the rabbi kept saying yom kippur is the one day, the one 25 hours of the year, when we brush up closest to God; we taste paradise, he told us. i believed him. i felt the stirring inside me.

i felt the touch of the fingers of God, up near my temples, up where the prayers settle and launch back into orbit. up where my thoughts rustle like grasses.

i felt time itself transform. it was not a staccato of chock-a-block minutes. but, rather a plane with no beginning or end. it was a mist that carried me. took me deep into a place where the world could not enter. it was sacred and slow and without measure. i had no hunger. other than that of wanting the day to last forever.

and then came the next day. and everything about it, it seemed, was hard. there was breakfast to make and errands to run. and a whole week ahead. i felt the wallop of monday galloping towards me.

i was on my way home from the mall where i’d gone to buy knobs for a door that resisted the ones i’d already bothered to try. that’s when the words came.

what if?

what if we let go, just for a spell, of all the constraints and let time return to its essence? what if we put out our hands and cupped as much as we could? what if these were our very last hours? what if we allowed each minute to sink deep into our soul?

would we be racing to malls? or would we be breathing? filling our lungs with the warmth of a sun that hasn’t gone out yet.

would we know if a monday followed a sunday? would we care? we have lassoed the moments of time, coerced them into ill-fitting forms.

oh, i know, i know. we have lives to lead, jobs to fulfill, mouths to feed.

but might we maybe have gone overboard? gotten so locked into clocks and calendars that we never, only maybe once a year, and only if we must, tell time we’re not paying attention.

we are, instead, wholly indulging in the gift of the light and the breeze. we are sinking our hands and our heart and our soul into the timeless. we are digging holes for a bulb, kneading bread dough, rocking our children. we are watching the waves, holding a butterfly, listening to air flutter the leaves of the trees.

the gift of shabbat and the sabbath offer that very reality. one day of each week. from sundown to sundown. for years now, i’ve said i wanted to follow the laws of the sabbath: not drive, not do any labor. pull into a place that knows no end or beginning. knows only the light of the sun and the stars and the moon.

what if each day we honor one blessed hour, or one blessed chunk of an hour? what if we give time its due? not lock it, and chain it, and wrap it around us.

but rather, allow it to flow through our hands, each sacred drop tasted for all that it is: the closest element in the world to paradise itself.

if we give it a chance.

if we let it sink into our skin, in through our eyes and our ears. if we taste it. if we suck on the marrow of time. if we stop and we marvel. the difference between any one moment and the next might be the difference between life, and life no longer.

each moment is sacred.

if only we notice.

if only we live as if we grasp the whole of that truth…

it’s my job to go out on a limb. it’s my blessing to have a place to do so. to say so. i netted this thought before it floated away. here it is now, you too can enter the thought. it’s ours now to share. to look at, consider. to release or let flap for awhile. do any of you make a practice of releasing time from its trappings? how do you do so? do you long to do it more often? what ways do you strip the world from the worldly? seek just a taste of the divine, the everlasting?

a word of deep sadness: a boy who filled a room with his strength and his sunshine died on saturday afternoon. in his mother’s arms. his name was nick. he had just turned 16. he and i shared tuesdays in a small room where we tried to get our bones stronger. he’d been fighting the ravages of cancer since he was four. but he never let on. my little one loved him. so did i. you couldn’t know nick and not love him. maybe nick is part of why each moment feels sacred today. be at peace, sweet friend. be at peace. your mama, and papa and all those who love you, peace to you too.

and finally, that photo up there. it’s from my will. the boy who’s a manchild these days. i usually don’t tell you his name. but the photo is his. and you should know where it came from. i asked him to go out with his lens, and catch a moment that felt timeless. full of light. inspired. up there is what he brought home. i could stare at that moment all day…thank you, sweet will.

questions without answers

hands loosely on the wheel, old blue wagon gliding to a stop, i was blankly looking through the rain-splotched windshield when the little voice behind me shot me this:

“mama, when we die, what will happen? will the world start again?”

he barely gave me time to gulp, time to gather thought, compose an honest answer, when the rat-a-tat continued.

“well, will i die?

“will you?

“when will dada die?”

i could not keep my eyes on the road. i turned and locked on his. he was looking up, looking my way, searching me for answers.

i gave him my best shot. told him straight. yes. yes. and, oh, honey, we don’t know.

all three appended with this attempt at reassuring: not for a long, long time.

then i launched into heaven 101.

praying as i went.

how, i ask you, in the middle of a ho-hum drive to home from hockey, did the most essential questions come popping from his mouth? why not something simple, like, mama, can i have macaroni for my lunch?

macaroni, i could handle. knock that sucker, kaboom, clear out of the park.

camus and sartre, hiding under hockey jersey, i could only fumble, hands barely groped at bat.

it is, i swear, the deepest privilege of being a mama or a papa, or a someone who breathes in sync with little people. being the first pair of ears to hear these questions as they leap from child’s soul. to witness from front row the human mind expand, go deeper, gather goods to last a lifetime.

it is self, unedited. it is child’s quintessential work, exploring the unknown. making sense of everything from how the dandelion blows to what happens when i am no longer. asking giant questions of the universe, and aiming them, first shot out, at the original sounding board of life.

in the case of my little boy, that would most often be me, the one who birthed him, nursed him, rocked him through his early, howling bedtime hours. as i’m still the one he’s with the most hours of the day, i’m pretty much the moving target on which he throws his thinking-child darts.

out of the blue, left field, in the middle of a meatloaf, the questions, they come hurling. there is no agenda in a child’s mind, no timetable for when a question comes. in the seamlessness of mind and soul, the question’s posed in the midst of its creation.

you never have a clue, never get a notice, that your very breath might soon be sucked away by the tender beauty, the monumental power, of the unexpected puzzle of the hour.

it is, for all of us who spend the day in striking distance of a child’s heart, the often-unrepeated script. the lost dialogue you can never seize again. it unspools so suddenly, so without ceremony, you can sometimes only hope that you’ll remember. but then the business of the day shoves the thought aside, and no matter how you try, you can’t retrieve the words, or the magic of the moment.

sure, we sometimes hear the silly lines. used to find them tucked in the pages of the reader’s digest. nowadays, they come in fwd emails, alleged collections of the darnedest things that children say. i often laugh then hit delete.

but what about when the script comes tumbling forth in real time, and you’re the only one who hears. you’re the one who gets to fill in blanks, connect the dots, pick a or b or c, all of the above. take a stab at the deepest truths known to humankind.

because the job i do each day, the job besides the ones i do at home, is to scribble madly, gather quotes, listen closely to each and every word and how it’s said, i have a rather unstoppable inclination to reach for pen whenever quotes unfurl.

especially ones that nearly make me wreck the car (although you might argue that scribbling while trying to hold the wheel only enhances the chance of body shop in my offing).

of all the wise souls i have quoted, and i have quoted many, i don’t think that any lines have done as much for stealing breath as the ones i’ve caught while stirring, steering, scrubbing curly hair.

the jottings that i jot, long ago from thinker 1 and now from thinker 2, are in fact a first-hand record of the unfolding of a child’s soul, even when the questions are hard to hear, the answers hard to come by.

lest you misguidedly surmise that all are thick and dense and heavy, here’s the one he lobbed my way, just yesterday, just an hour after heaven 101, spooning—yes, it’s true—macaroni in his hungry mouth.

“mama,” he began his latest theory, “i think when food goes down there’s like a theme park and it goes down a roller coaster.” uh huh, i utter, in the middle of my swallow.

“is there like an exit for the bad food,” he asks, pointing to his neck. “does it go this way or this way?” he wonders further, making motions east and west from just above that hockey jersey.

i am starting to think, now jotting my own thought, that perhaps the recent lack of sleep (see “the trouble with sleep,” 03.21.07) is doing wonders for my budding thinker.

what are the questions without answers at your house?

measuring life in 8 millimeters

it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.

it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.

i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.

but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.

mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.

it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?

it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.

if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.

but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.

as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.

as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.

i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.

not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.

in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.

i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.

it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.

but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.

“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.

in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.

a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.

how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?

after-school cookie therapy

the little one had his hand deep in the cookie bag when i walked in.

“hey sweetie,” i said, launching into the kitchen. “hold on. let me make something healthy.”

that’s when he started to cry. words followed tears. tears followed words. “but i had a hard day,” said the boy who is 5.

that’s when i kicked the after-school snack into super high gear. “oh, boy, let me make something special,” i said as i grabbed for the bag and the boy and a red splatterware plate. while i gathered my wares—orange, dried strawberries, banana, and, yes, even reclaimed bag of pepperidge farm brussels–i turned up my ears, cranked open my heart.

“tell me what happened,” i said, slicing orange into juicy-spoked wheels.

something about dominoes, it turned out, was the source of the tears. something about dominoes not being shared.
by now i was sprinkling dried strawberries like rain on orange puddles.

that’s when his big brother walked in. “you need a hug, little buddy? looks like you need a hug.”

as they squeezed, the big brother therapist added this: “the best way to fix a bad day, little bud, is to talk. talking fixes bad days.”

while they wrapped up the squeeze, slid onto chairs at the old kitchen table, i reached into cookie bag, pulled out buttery-crisps that the little one had already determined would sop up the hurt.

laid crisps on the plate, tucked in between orange wheels. making it pretty. some quirk in my brain thinking that pretty sops up hurt better. maybe because really it soars to a place beyond words, says someone cares, cares enough to make the plate pretty. and, sometimes, you’ll do anything—words, pretty, pepperidge farm–to sop up the hurt.

sopping up hurt.

some days that’s what after-school snack is all about. i am an ardent believer in after-school snack, depend heavily on its medicinal powers. i still remember, more clearly i think than any other food of my childhood day, the apples in wedges, the pretzels in twists and stirring the chocolatey powder into deep earthen ooze at the bottom of my green glass of milk. i don’t remember the talking. but i do remember the after-school rite.

and i distinctly remember a smart lawyerly friend, a mother of two in that smartland known around here as hyde park (home to the university of chicago and iq’s off the chart, for you who dwell outside the land of 606-something). i distinctly remember her telling me she worked part-time hours just so she could be there for after-school snack. mind you, this was one tough cookie making time for, well, milk and cookie.

some things stick with you forever. that one sticks with me.

all these years later it defines the minutes from 3:30 on, ’til the talking is done. no matter the stacks on my desk, no matter the deadline, i practically always lift my head long enough for snacks and the news of the school day.

little people have hearts, they have hurts, they have sorrows. some days they have triumphs. or just a good knock-knock that makes them laugh silly.

today it took oranges in wheels, sprinkled with strawberries. then the boy who loves cheerios thought a handful of o’s might make it more better. so we nibbled, we talked, we indeed made it all better. more better, even.

they pushed in their chairs, i rinsed off the plate. we are back to our days now. our tummies are filled, and so are our hearts.

you needn’t be a parent, nor have little birds still in your nest, to partake in the patching together of a broken heart at the end of a long day. this was our story, our story from yesterday. tell us your story of a heart being patched all together again….if you care to, of course. only if you care to…