i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.
the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.
certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.
my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.
i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.
and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.
this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.
but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)
so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?
Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen
How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,
and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,
so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention
that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle
the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and
who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki
Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though
your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is Bedtime for Frances and that you picked
up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive
that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them
before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put
on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.
as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.
decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.
then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.
and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.
keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.
i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.
this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.
i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.
there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.
with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?
i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.
and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).
the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.
only it’s not make-believe.
and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
it’s the question that stirs me night and day….
what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)
for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.
it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)
i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.
or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.
what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”
put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”
i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”
or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”
and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.
if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.
what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?
Powerful collection from MLK’s pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books
“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25
Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.
It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”
The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College.
Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.
“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16
How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.
He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.
In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.
“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95
For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.
What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.
“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.
It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.
Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.
i don’t remember what started it. something like a root being tugged deep inside. some primal mama root, an urge that could not, would not, be stopped. i wanted to grab hold of long-ago time, to loop it forward and back, to get lost in the nooks and the crannies. to turn back to the start of the holiest story i’ve ever lived and breathed. the one that over and over has filled me beyond the brim, prompted me to whisper in my deepest, holiest, truest hours, “thank you for this plenty. thank you, and thank you, and thank you.”
and so, a few days ago, i found myself on my knees, tugging hard at the drawer that hasn’t been opened in quite a long while, the drawer that never really wanted to open, a stubborn pine drawer in a stubborn pine chest. but inside was a box, a blue box, with a stack of 27 cassettes, each one smaller than an index card, and each one holding moments for me that have been swirling to life, ever since i plugged in the old clunky video cam, the one i never much knew how to work.
it’s been dizzying, as the moving pictures have swooped and dipped in and out of the frame, and in and out of focus (no one in this house claims cinematography skills). but every once in a while, when the camera held still, i got a glimpse — a whole string of frames — of moments in time that in rewind and from this perch of a quarter century later (my firstborn turns 25 a week from today) are doubly precious to me as i study each one for the first hints of who these boys would become and how deeply, gently, exuberantly, they were loved.
the moments i’m watching, the ones that have me glued to the itty-bitty lens (i don’t know how to hook it up to any bigger screen so i watch on the just-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp-sized screen that flips out from the camera), map in fine detail this journey into the center of my heart.
there is my sweet boys’ papa, holding a four-month-old in his lap, reading page after page in a whole stack of most-loved picture books, reciting in those homespun meters and warbles and trademark whimsies (the ones parents and children invent, putting a signature twist to particular pages of particular children’s adventures in dramatic reading), the ones that laid down the roots — the foundational truth — that joy could be found tucked between the covers of even the cardboardiest book. and there, two years later, is the sweet boy perched at the top of a step stool, leaning over the butcher-block counter, describing to me in glorious detail the train cake (complete, for some reason, with “strawberry garden” just to the side of the tracks) he and our twice-a-week nanny baked for my 39th birthday. and, back to the one-year-and-nine-months version of that breathtaking child, there he is echoing on cue the words his papa whispers: “mommy is beautiful,” then adding his own improvisational “daddy is beautiful.”
it’s now my new favorite activity, the one i squeeze into all the margins of hours, in between chopping or stirring. while awaiting a call or the handy repairman. i pop in a tape, and whirl back in time, never knowing what precious moment is just around the bend, a moment i’ll watch and re-watch (thank goodness for “rewind”). did i mention i watch through tears every time? and sometimes the tears come so hard and so fast, i need to mop up the spills on my cheeks and the cutting board below.
all week, i’ve left the video cam sitting out on the kitchen counter. once or twice (or thrice), i’ve captured my favorite little sequences onto my itty-bitty iPhone. i sent one such bit off to the faraway legal scholar, the one currently working in washington, filing briefs on critical matters. just in case he wanted to watch his nine-month-old self in heart-melting action.
it’s a bit, um, kooky, i know. but through the magic of moments captured on digital tape, i’ve yet another way to pay even closer attention — to time, to the first seeds of the boys who now talk in complete sentences, who no longer get tangled by S’s and diphthongs (those smack-ups of vowels that prove quite a challenge to the tongue just finding its way through the jungle of words on the long road to talking).
i feel my soul reaching back, leaping forward, in time. if someone offered a master’s degree in the study of new-forming children, in the art of raising and teaching a child, of loving day in and day out, and doing so with godly measures of patience and gentility, i’d be the first one in line. there is a good dose of something akin to aching here, of wishing for yet another chance, of wishing i’d realized the first time around just how sacred these hours were, even though i believe that deep down i never lost track of that truth. and in watching, i never lose sight of that critical eye, the one that has me scrutinizing my each and every move. the one that sometimes wonders if i hit the pause button often enough in those early impressionable years, did i slow down the frames to relish each one, did i realize i could never come back to these moments, to the script as it rolled the first and only time through?
i stumbled in so blindly, back at the beginning. led only by heart and a gravitational pull toward loving. as i watch that child, those children (for eventually, eight years after the start, the second sweet boy came along), as i consider who he was, how we loved him, against the backdrop of who i know him to be today, i am washed over in holy gratitude for the raw capacities — the combined graces of the man i married, and the parents who taught him (and me) how to love — that kept us so unmistakably focused on quietly, gently teaching. and, more than anything, bathing him, bathing both blessed boys, in love upon love.
tape after tape after tape, it’s a whole-body immersion in loving and examining love, in resuscitating moments and hearts and the passing of time. these moments, forgotten in the everyday, live deep in the core of who we’ve become, me and the boys i so love. it’s where i’ve been lost — and found — in this past string of days….
on the brink of father’s day, a day when we celebrate the men who’ve loved us and shepherded us through the wilds and pitfalls, i thank the heavens for the one i so loved. and the one who so loves the boys who i birthed. and for all the fathers among us who teach with gentle and certain abundance.
have you gotten lost — in pages or film or videotape — in your past, and what lessons did you extract, and if you could do it all over again, what might be the few things you’d try hard to live with more grace? (no need, of course, to spell that out here; i’m just echoing the question i’ve lived with all week…)
warning: this is bound to contain self-incriminating confessional as i explore the wilds of motherdom, and the root of the many sleepless nights in this old house.
somewhere along the line, the mothering line, perhaps long long ago in the days when a toy train would lose its wheels, or our striped little kitten would get stuck for days and days in some unknown nook or cranny along our graffiti-strewn alley, i seem to have morphed my job description, cobbling in an amendment to my motherly constitution, one that made me in charge of glueing on run-away train wheel, parading the alley for hours on end till said kitten meowed loudly enough for me to detect his latitude and longitude, bang on the door, grab the gang banger (yes, this is true), and get the little rascal loosed from his trappings.
i became the fixer. where i saw shattered parts or hearts, i’d set out to fix ’em.
this is not a task one should take on too lightly. for life, as it’s wont to do, throws steeper and steeper inclines, raises the bar higher and higher. when a backpack grew moldy, i could toss it in the wash. when a favorite sweatshirt somehow got kidnapped between the schoolyard, the little league lot, and the bedroom, i could dial up another one. i cannot count the number of days — and nights — of my life i spent prowling the alleys of chicago’s north side or this leafy little town, tearfully yodeling for our lost little kitten, the one who came home every time, with adventures left wholly unspoken.
truth be told, in the muddle of mothering, of being the self-appointed healer of brokenness, i took a wee bit of shine to this task and this title. if i could fix the runaway train wheel, track down the cat who’d lost his way home, maybe i had quasi-magical powers. maybe i’d found a backwater in life for which i had particular navigational skills. if i could set the world right, after it had been hurled topsy-turvy and helter-skelter, well then i could expunge a whole lot of hurt. i could find a way to nudge us — me and the people i loved — back to ground zero, the tranquil landscape of equanimity. aka, nirvana. or at least the momentary mirage thereof.
it was a job that felt noble and good. and, perhaps i’d fooled myself into thinking, locked in my indispensability.
the problem is that the little people over whose peaceable kingdoms i reigned, they got big and bigger. and so too did the things that need fixing. missing homework might be explained with a note to the teacher. not so much hearts mangled by crushes. or any one of the conundrums that are the daily bread and butter of life in the 21st century.
nowadays, often enough to give me that haggard sheen that comes from long nights tossing and turning and even longer days churning inside, i find myself encountering the worries of ushering one kid through the last few weeks of his junior year of high school, and another one who’s just moved to DC for the summer and found himself sleeping in a dorm room that redefines “spartan” (the exterminator slipped a note under the door just yesterday, and someone saw fit to assure the dormers that the asbestos was confined to the boiler room), and all while juggling a paper or two still due back at law school.
too many things i cannot fix. and, yes, i realize the fallacy. i understand that i shouldn’t, that it’s not my job — nor would it be wise in the long run — to be anyone’s personal fix-it shop. but somehow in my scrambled head, i still ache to be able to wave my magic wand, as i so ingeniously did in the old days. and i can’t quell the yearning — and scrambling — to do so.
maybe it comes from years of not knowing how to fix the things that flummoxed my very own self. the chains that truly bound me. maybe the easy satisfaction of glueing together a toy, of putting clean sheets on the bed of someone i loved, maybe it all gave me an unquenchable glimpse of how it might be to wield prestidigitational powers — the ones i clearly lacked when i was the broken one.
or maybe it’s just what you do when you love. when you remember the day you whispered the promise: “i will shield you, my sweet, will do all in my power to keep you from hurt and from harm. will enfold you in safe holy wings.”
maybe, in the end, the love itself is the thing. maybe the fixing isn’t quite so much the point.
maybe even when we can’t find the missing piece, solve the equation, apply the glue, maybe it’s in the certain openness of our hearts, the willingness to leap into the trenches, or even to listen from afar, maybe it’s the undying sense that we’re in for the forever haul, maybe that’s where the true fixing comes….
maybe that’s the heart of my unending motherprayer…
i’m without answers, and uncertain whether my fixing affliction is shared by many, though i’ve a hunch i’m not alone. do we miss the point — and drive ourselves batty — when we think it’s our job to be the fix-it machine? or is the whole point to station ourselves firmly and squarely beside the hearts we love, so that when they inevitably wobble or break, we are right there to apply love even when we’ve no glue?
it’s pitch black as i sit here at the old maple table. the softest ping-ping-ping syncopates the ticking toward dawn. it’s the sound of rain dripping from the downspout, a sound we’d nearly forgotten, the long parched days washing out the memory, the garden all but shriveled, each leaf clasped, as if in prayer, awaiting benediction from the heavens in the form of holy blessed rain. it’s the ablution this old world needs, the rinsing away, we can only hope, of all our brokenness and sin. the sin of evil, a dust that’s blown in, caked every surface in fine-grained sediment. we might need a long day’s rain, to rinse us, cleanse us, clear away that which dirties this old and broken world.
but this morning brings with it a swelling-up of love, of gratitude. and that, for me, is the lasting ablution, time after time. i woke up early because last night i came to the close of a months-long chapter, a chapter of being out and about with my little book, motherprayer, the one that gathers up quiet little moments from the landscape of mothering, the one that whispers in no uncertain terms: this is holy work, this mothering. this just might be my life’s deepest calling, this curriculum in loving, sacred instruction like no other i have ever lived and breathed or known.
for months now, i’ve done what writers do when they birth a book to the world. they carry it forth, literally. they amble hither and yon, and say a few things about why in the world they sat down to write those words. it scares me every time. scares me something fierce. but then a holy thing begins to happen: people raise their hands, tell their stories. or come up to me, clasp my arm, my hand, and whisper stories, their stories. or send me notes, ones that break me out in goosebumps or find me wiping away yet another tear.
last night i came to the end of the last such outing on my calendar, the last one for awhile anyway. and like every other outing that preceded it, it was stitched with moments and stories i’ll not forget. this love letter — a thank you, really — is for each and every someone who’s raised her hand, whispered her story, who’s added verse and stanza to the motherpoem that will not end….
dear you who raised your hand, you who told your story, you who never said a word but brushed away tear after tear,
thank you. i’ll never forget you. i’ll never forget your story.
the one about how you were one of nine, and you’d all but gotten lost in the noise of your old house, so you wandered down the lane, found motherlove in the old lady who lived alone, but who always made time for you. the one (your “other mother,” you called her) who asked what you wanted for dinner, a question you’d never realized existed, a question you’d never before been asked in the house where you were growing up. the one, the other mother, who taught you love in the way she sat across from you, looked you in the eyes, listened to your words. the one whose house you would have stayed at night and day, and sometimes did, because sometimes no one noticed you were missing from your own.
or, just last night, you with your blessed story about how you had only one child, and you were older when she was born, so surprised, really, to find yourself a mother so late in the game. you knew, you said, that roots and wings were what was asked of you. your job, a mother’s job, you said, was roots and wings. and then you said, so unforgettably, how you were really good at roots, really good. but wings, not so much. you struggled with the wings, you said. you struggled so with letting go. you struggled the whole first year she was away at college. and then, her sophomore year, when she regaled you with college stories, you realized, “she’s never coming home.” and so, you said, under cloak of nightfall, sitting in a football stadium, you needlepointed a pair of wings. you sent them off to her, your beautiful daughter (the one who sat beside you, held your arm as you spoke last night, just home from the cancer doctor). you said she called you “in hysterics.” (we think you meant that she was laughing.) what in the world was with the wings, your daughter asked. you said she wondered if maybe you were telling her it was time for her to fly away. you told her, though, that they were wings for you, the mother who was having a hard time coming up with the requisite pair. and she, your daughter, was to hold onto them so that when she flew (not if), she could give them to you, because you were having a really hard time with the wings part of the mama equation, you were the one who’d need help with all this letting go. and your daughter, who is breathtakingly alive and beautiful, she piped in to tell all of us crowded in the room that all these years later, 38 years later, she had those needlepointed wings hanging in her closet, so each morning when she got dressed, she’d remember that her mama gave her wings.
or the stories you’ve whispered to me about grandbabies who nearly died, who at the brink of death got a liver transplant from a baby two beds away in the pediatric ICU, and how you’ve watched your daughter’s motherlove as she stood guard, stood watch, loved beyond measure. or the stories about kids at college who got so sick, so scared, so you name it, you leapt on planes and stayed for days or weeks or months, depending on the reason you leapt in the first place.
or you, the woman who months ago raised your hand to tell me that just that afternoon you’d lamented to your grown and beautiful daughter that you regretted that you’d “never done anything important with [your] life.” and that after listening to all of us talking about motherlove and motherprayer, you’d started to think that maybe, just maybe, you had done something important with your life, mothering those two lovely daughters who were now, in kind, mothering good and gentle children of their own.
and i’ll never forget the very first mama who reported back that she was reading motherprayer and — an answer to my prayer — she’d filled the end pages with scribbles all her own, as story after story uncorked for her some tale from her own raising of three boys, stories she’d all but forgotten, but now recalled and recorded vividly.
i know i don’t know all your stories, but i do know you have them, tucked away in your heart. i know that every room i’ve been in these last many months has been brimming with stories, told and untold. there is not a motherer among us who is not a profile in courage, who is not an encyclopedia of loving. it all comes with the job. the holiest job that’s ever landed in my lap, my arms, my heart, my whole.
may motherGod anoint you, bless you, and whisper holy words into your heart: you are living breathing blessing, you motherers of the world. however and wherever and to whomever you ply your love, you are putting flesh and sinew to the gospel. love as you would be loved.
and thank you.
i mean it, of course. as trembling as i get before i clutch a podium — as if holding on for dear life — it always erupts in blessing. i open my heart each time i write, and thus i’m endlessly showered in the reciprocal opening of others’ hearts. and i am blessed beyond words. if you’ve not had a chance to raise your hand and tell your own story of motherlove, from any angle, feel free to tell it here. it’s why this old table has so many chairs. we always find room for one more story. who taught you motherlove? what are some of the most powerful lessons you learned, and how? what are the moments when you’ve found it easiest to love beyond the point of exhaustion? and the most challenging? who inspires you? how do you refuel? have you ever considered the motherly capacities of the Divine?
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”?
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 ofanne 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?
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 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?