pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: birthdays

we always pause for seaweed: on savoring a day, another year

seaweed salad

maybe it’s because he’s about to leave. maybe it’s because the moving van is scheduled, the boxes piling in a room upstairs.

maybe, though, it’s simply that he wanted to be here, to be among us. an arc of days stitched with all those things he loves.

and so we paused. turned off all the things that ping and beep. clipped roses from the garden. tucked stems in vases. made cards, wrote letters. awaited word from inbound trains.

the birthday boy was coming home, and we were slowing time. we were holding up the hours, sinking deep into the pure and simple gift of being side-by-side.

love is like that. love needs little embellishment. time — hours upon hours stacked together, in one fell swoop — that’s plenty. that’s priceless.

once or twice i heard a whisper from somewhere just beyond my shoulder, or deep inside my head: “he’s turning 24, for heaven’s sake. the clock on this has well run out.” but then i heard another voice, the voice of my heart, and i surrendered. wholly. that voice is the one that will always, always win for me. it said: “doesn’t matter to me how old he is. savoring the day with him will always be the dearest gift of my whole life.”

and so it was. i plucked him from the train, we grabbed a sack of sushi and seaweed salad. always seaweed salad on the first full day of summer, because long ago, in 1993, on the eve of his birth, an obstetrician i loved determined that seaweed applied in particular ways precipitated labor. got things opening, as it were.

we’ve celebrated seaweed ever since.

birthday eve dinner

birthday eve seaweed + sushi

we must have sat for hours at that after-soccer feast, night before last. i know the moon and stars were out before we got up from the table, before we moved deeper into birthday countdown.

there is nothing so fine as falling asleep in a house where every bed is filled. where the sounds of doors closing, sheets being thrown off, odd faucets shushing in unfamiliar rhythms, is lullaby to sleep.

nor is there much finer than tiptoeing down the stairs in the morning, setting the birthday table. opening cards and letters that make you weep as one brother tells the other that he will always be his hero. you can hear the clock ticking toward the day the birthday boy moves away. and so, you hold time, you hold all that fills these hours, as fully and preciously as you know how. you glide through a day savoring. sinking wholly into what’s before you, all around you. you know that soon the distance once again will come. the miles and miles between you. the necessity of phone line. the certainty that law school and life will make these sorts of days just that much more out of reach.

by nightfall, savoring had pulled me in so deeply that i was on a stool reaching to a shelf in the hall closet. i hauled down the old, old, vintage video recorder. i started popping in old tapes. i was mesmerized. i watched my firstborn on his first birthday, not yet walking, barely saying words. i watched my firstborn on his second birthday, all skinny legs and long arms, reaching for a train. calling the train by name. informing all who listened — and we all always listened, believe me — all there was to know about each and every train.

willie yawntalk about binge watching. i could play and replay those tapes from now till law school graduation, i suppose. i ached that i hadn’t been a more committed recorder of the hours. wished i’d spent even one slice of time silently positioning the lens on one ordinary day in the life of that blessed child — not simply the cacophony of a birthday celebration, when so much noise got in the way. wishing perhaps that i could leap back in time, live it once again. inhale more wholly this time the miracle of being mother to this blessed child, who has taken my breath away since the day he was born. and who now, on the cusp of his departure, his moving east, 1,000 miles from where i spend my days, still takes my breath away, still puts the pit-a-pat in my heart that once beat in time with his.

willie shoulder

love you, beautiful will. bless you, today, tomorrow, ever…

an unabashed love note to be sure. i will never run out of words, trying to capture this particular love. it’s the moment that struck me most this week. he leaves any hour now, to catch a train to new mexico, then a plane to martha’s vineyard, then we will all pile in the red wagon and follow the moving van to connecticut, where he’ll move in to his new address. and we’ll drive home, just the three of us, leaving him behind to absorb the law. i’m thinking this move out east will be the one from which there’ll never be a return to the heartland. we’ve trod this ground before, when he went off to college, and i had to learn long-distance. i will do so again. and maybe some day, we’ll be the ones who move — closer to his every day, and the every day of his little brother. i know plenty of you live far from the ones you love. i know distance isn’t measured only in miles. and i’m blessed (beyond measure) that there is no distance in our hearts. 

and with seaweed salad in mind, what are the quirky ways you mark birthdays at your house? 

 

nine.

nine

we mark time to measure something far deeper than the number of days. we mark time to take stock of our soul. to plumb its depths. to trace across its undulations. to peek into the shadowy places, and bask in the patches of pure illumination.

tomorrow, the twelfth day of the twelfth month, this old chair will once again glide across the stretch of shadow and light on which it began. its ninth circle round the sun. nine years of keeping watch, of perking my ears to the faintest of whispers. the whispers of the heart, yes. but just as certainly the wind rustling the leaves. the blue jay’s squawking. the world holding its breath. the pounding of bare soles against hardwood planks, rushing to the door to welcome love home.

at the break of dawn on december 12, 2006, i tiptoed down the stairs to a little nook of a room where a screen glowed, a screen waiting to be filled with words, with pictures, with postcards from the front — the homefront, in this case. the heart and soul of the homefront.

i had no real idea how all of this would unspool. but i knew that i wanted to carve out a hollow of quiet, a tide pool along the rushing river of life, where you and i might plop our bottoms onto a rock, might dip our finger into the current, might watch the light shifting, listen for the crunch of the forest under the wee padded feet of the creatures who call the woods home.

i knew i wanted a sacred someplace. a place where kindness prevailed. a gentle place, a home for tenderness and telling the truth. a place where we could bring our brokenness, or, just as emphatically, our bold claims of hope.

it would be an enchanted someplace. or at least that’s what i prayed.

i’ve long believed in enchantment. long believed in the possible. and the power of divine imagination. you can, sometimes, if you’re spectacularly lucky and a whole lot blessed, will your way to the landscape of which you dream.

when i was little i spent long hours in the woods across the way from the house where i grew up with a motley crew of four brothers. i plunked sticks into the pond where the ancient turtle basked on a log. i splashed across the rocks in the stream where crawfish bobbed from deep down in the dark.

that’s where i learned to believe in so very much of what still matters — the sanctity of silence, the incandescence of heavenly light, the blessing of being alone, the joy of muddy boots.

and maybe, too, that’s where i learned to believe that, fueled by imagination and spiced with a good dash of faith, i just might carve out a holy place.

and if there’s come to be anything holy about this make-believe table, circled with so many old chairs, it’s thanks to the good grace of your company — your day-after-day, week-after-week, year-upon-year coming by to share a few words, or a story, or kindness or wisdom. and ladles of love.

looking back over the nine blessed years — and thanks to the wizards at wordpress who keep track of these things — i can see at a glance just where these 729 posts have taken us, a bit of a roadmap in reverse, a by-the-numbers snapshot of what’s captured our imagination: 39 posts have considered the angels among us, 16 times i’ve laughed at myself (clearly, no one was counting), stillness has been a subject 22 times, motherhood 101, motherlove 44, mother prayer 17. we turned to cooking — for comfort, for joy — 42 times. blessings have been the subject du jour 64 times, paying attention 51 times, worry 11 (yet another serious under-estimate), wisdom only once (egad!). savoring moments, at 89 posts, is solidly a leitmotif.

and in just the last year here at the chair, we’ve traversed death and grief, awe and hope and hearts that are shattered by the most intimate of devastations or those played out on the world stage. we’ve considered quiet and the eloquence of silence. and this year, blessedly, the trumpets blared at the prodigal homecoming of my firstborn. i’ve written of words and books and harper lee. but if i had to pick three posts that will stick with me forever, it would be the prayer of remembering, the day my little one tried his hand at healing the sick, and, more than any other this year, the magic day at the magic hedge, where my most beloved friend and i pressed each sacred hour against our hearts, knowing, too well, the hours — and she — would soon slip away, a hole in my heart will ache till the end of time.

bless you. and thank you. for every kindness. for every dollop of wisdom. for your patience, your faith, and your blessedness. for the times you make me laugh out loud. and for every time you’ve made me wipe away a tear. from my heart to yours, a never-ending embrace.

may we never give up on the promise to infuse this weary old world with all the love and goodness we can possibly muster.

much love, b.  images

the blessing of beginnings

new year sky

i’m just in from my morning rounds, my make-believe that i’m the caretaker of the dawn. the nubs of my fingers are nearly numb, for i stayed out too long. i was breathing in the heavens, breathing in the star-stitched sky, scanning for the disappearing moon, the moon playing peek-a-boo this morning.

the world was just rustling out of its bedsheets — or so it seemed. the trees whispered. off in the distance, a train let out its morning moan. i might have caught the stirring of the cardinal’s wing. or maybe it was a night critter, finally ambling home to bed. something in the bushes moved.

i know no holier way to greet the day, the morning light. i know no holier way to unfurl the carpet for the year that’s new, that’s just beginning. today, the dash between the first and third, the dash between the world’s new year and mine (my birthday is a string of primes: 1.3.57), is wholly a day of quiet rapt attention. i’m crouched down low, tucked off to the side, scanning the year ahead, the days of possibility. i’m considering what might come — what might break my heart, what might take my breath away, what might bowl me over with pure sheer joy.

i’ve come to think that my time-delay birthday is one of the gosh-darn blessings in this life that pretty much dropped down upon me. sort of like the curly hair that i’ve come to realize has saved me zillions of dollars in pink sponge rollers i’ve not had to buy, or hours not spent in the beauty parlor chair where alchemy and goop put curl to other people’s stick-straight locks. i had nothing to do with odd birthday or curly locks — or any of what amounted to my starter package, really. but, along the way, i’ve learned to make the most of it.

so my year comes on tiptoes. my year slinks in around the bend. no crash-bang-boom for me. i take my new year launch in itty-bitty baby steps. i’ve three days to consider the turning of the page.

and there’s little i love as much as a new beginning, a chance to start again. to dust off my knees, inhale a deep and cleansing breath, and make a vow: this time, dear God, i’ll try even harder.

try harder to bite my tongue when the words are bunched up in my throat, just ready to launch a harsh, “will you PLEASE hurry up! will you PLEASE clean your room! will you GET OUT OF BED!”

try harder to breathe deep the mantra of dorothy day and st. therese of lisieux: “by little and by little.” as in, by little acts of kindness, by little courage, by little acts of love in the face of awfulness, we stand our one best chance to take up a notch this life that sometimes scrapes our knees and gives us hives and burns our eyes with stinging tears.

because it’s worth a pause within the pause, here’s a passage from robert ellsberg’s brilliantly edited and annotated, ‘dorothy day: selected writings’:

“simply, it consisted of performing, in the presence and love of God, all the little things that make up our everyday life and contact with others. from therese, dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ. we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. these were the loaves and fishes. we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. it was all a matter of faith.”

i suppose, because i seem to circle back to it every year, it’s becoming my new year prayer. it’s the only way i know — by little and by little — to take the mountain climb.

i’m certain there’s a wise person somewhere who realized the only way to change the world was one baby step at a time. in my scant few moments of insight — when the world before my eyes snaps crystal clear and sharply focused, instead of all a blur and hard to comprehend — i suddenly grasp that most folks who are making a difference, a big fat difference, are doing it with no more magic than you or i possess. they’re simply smart enough — or unfazed enough — to realize that one step firmly planted in front of another, that one phone call made, or one question bravely asked, or one trip across the street or across the ocean (it hardly matters which, sometimes), just might be the one that starts to pile up, to tilt momentum in the direction of holy change, in the difference between a world that is and a world that just might be.

maybe it’s time to steal a play from the smart-people’s play book: the baby-step guide to living. maybe it’s time to line up in the baby-step brigade.

for one thing, there’s less of a realignment when, inevitably, i flub it. taking a deep breath and trying again is a whole heck of a lot easier when all you need do is “take two” in the baby step department. but baby step + baby step = toddler step. and toddler step + toddler step = well, you get the math.

so here’s my prayer for this new and not-yet-scripted year:

dear Holiness, cast your rays of sparkling light — of shaft of sun, and dappled moonbeam — across my pot-holed path.

give me grace to hold my words, to not engage in prattling on about the wacky folk who try to topple me. give me grace — and wisdom, and a dash of far-sightedness — to live each day as if it’s my one last chance to leave a trail of the world as holy as i imagine it could be.

give me one last puff of energy on the evenings when i’m drained, and the phone rings and it’s someone i love who needs to talk it through, whatever is the hell the one i love has just encountered.

give me forgiveness in dollops. give me, please, enough to share it with abandon — most especially on those who try to take me down, who call me names that break my heart, who whisper unkind somethings.

dear God, thank you for bringing me once again to the crest of this next hill. thank you for the chance to look out upon the undulations of years past and days ahead. hold me in your tender palm, and those blessed unshakable arms. be the hand i squeeze when i get scared. and the pure fresh air that fills my lungs.

dear God, help me take it up a notch. and be ready with the band-aids when i fall and skin my knees.

much love, always, b.

dear chair people, can you see the itty bitty dot of light in that picture up above? just above the filigree of tree? that’s the ringed wonder, saturn. and just before dawn it was shining in the southeast sky. now, i have just about the dumbest little camera known to humankind and it never ever takes the dots of light that i’m hoping it will capture. but today, miraculously, it did. well, if you get out your magnifying glass, you’ll see it did. a small wonder like that is enough to start my day with a skip to the heart. so i hope it’s a contagious skip, and you too encounter a star-stitch of wonder today. 

so, what’s your blessing for the new beginning?

morning house

the lesson of eight: follow the whisper

eight. plate

i remember the morning. i remember the dark. i remember the quiver, there in my fingers. i remember the pounding in my heart.

i’d tiptoed out of bed, taken a deep-down breath. and then i started typing, started believing.

i’d pulled up a chair for the very first time. and i’d no clue where that typing would lead. heck, i wasn’t even sure i’d find the end of the very first sentence. but i did. sentence after sentence. so many sentences now — eight years of sentence. of fragment. of shards of my heart.

the words that are tucked away here, in this place that — for me — amounts to a treasure box, an unlocked treasure box, one that holds virtual sheafs of paper, and snapshots i lift from the stack, study as if dust motes floating across a shaft of light, the words here have been my butterfly nets, as i lope and stumble and try — oh, i try — to capture the moments of life passing by.

it’s the closest thing i know to lifting up these holy hours, to etching the words of my boys, of passing strangers, of friends, onto this screen that i pretend is parchment. that i write as a relic of life loved well. life loved deeply.

to write in the dark of the just-dawning day, to write when the sky out the window is first soaking up light, starting out black, turning to blue-tinged haze or cottony gray, depending on clouds, to write when the shadows and shapes of the trees fill in, the birds first rustle the branches, is to write at the cusp of consciousness.

this is the hour when the heart and soul, perhaps, are most porous, so what oozes through is closer to truth than anything else we might know all day.

this is the sacred hour, the hour of stillness.

and so, this hour is the one when i’ve learned to slide into my explorer’s boots, when i’ve hauled my butterfly net from the jam-packed closet, and loped around the premises to see what i catch, what i find.

and then, like a child whose attention is held, is rapt, by a ladybug landed on a leaf, or a fuzzy caterpillar inching along, i crouch down low. i pull out my looking lens, and i examine. i marvel. i wonder.

eight years. eight years today. 12.12, the chair’s birthday.

when this old chair first scratched across the kitchen floor, my little one had just turned five, my older one was nearly 13.5. i only wish i’d started before both boys were born, because then i’d have the whole cloth, and now i’ve got only a portion. priceless portion.

because more than anything this is a stack of love letters to my boys. this is a record of who their mama was, and how she loved them. it’s the surest way i know to give them the gift of my heart. because in my book, words equal heart equal love — exquisite, breathtaking, stumbling and fumbling. love that tries so hard, and yet still blows it. love that aims and misses. love that dusts off her knees and tries it again. love = a work in perpetual progress.

but beyond this place as a keeper of heart, it’s taught me one other thing, if not 100 other things, or 1,000.

it’s taught me to follow the whisper.

back when i first sat down to type, that trembly shadowed morning, i had no idea where i was going. i was typing into the dark. but i believed in the light.

i wasn’t sure where or how i’d find it. but the one thing i knew was that the surest way through the dark was one word at a time. one word quietly, boldly, sometimes trepidatiously following another.

word after word equals sentence. sentence after sentence equals moving toward truth. and in time, whole cloth is unfurled.

this is who i am, the words start to say. this is what i believe.

it’s called finding a voice. but it’s also divining for heart. if you quiet the noise, the distraction. if you muffle the ever-chattering doubt, you just might stumble upon the poetry that breathes at the pulse point of all of us.

we are infused with whisper. that’s where our dreams begin. and when — despite all the back talking we can do to ourselves, all the convincing ourselves we might as well throw in the towel, call it a day, pack up our toys and shuffle off home — when we keep our ear to the whisper, when we go with the heart that’s pushing us forward, the heart that says, over and over, “don’t mind the darkness, just live toward the light,” we’re tracing the course to the deepest-down truth. we’re becoming the blessing we are most meant to be.

maybe your whisper is dance. maybe your whisper is healing the sick. maybe your whisper is pleading: “please lift a paintbrush, tickle it into the azure, the cobalt, the tourmaline, and, please, paint a sunrise or sunset.”

my whisper told me to write. write for the depths and the shadows. examine the light. see the poetry. wrap your words around the breathtaking essence of each and every day.

my whisper said, “just keep writing.”

so i did. and along the way, oh, the beauties i’ve gathered. the beloved friends whose whispers heard mine. the ones who whisper back.

eight years later, and there’s a book in the world, the one being “mullipuffed,” even now as i type. God bless mullipuffs.

i’d long dreamed of armchairs pulled round the hearth. and kitchen tables splattered with crystals of sugar, and cream-stirred rings spilled from mugs of hot coffee. i imagined a world where kindred spirits pulled chairs to a circle, and talked about the holiness that animates their every blessed hour.

i have no clue, not an inkling, how many such tables and chairs are out there right now. but i have a picture i keep in my head, in my heart: i close my eyes and out of the darkness, out of the black velvet cloth that wraps the globe, night after night, dawn after dawn, i see golden lights glowing. dabs of candlelight here and there, all haloed together. a shimmering, glimmering necklace of light. lanterns of flame. old kitchen fixtures. maybe simply the roar of the fire, the logs of the forest offering up their incandescence — blessed sacrifice, indeed.

i typed in the dark, dawn after dawn, for eight blessed years. an octave of typing. i followed the whisper to wherever it led. it led me to here, the place where my heart nestles so soundly.

and, here in the dark, in the shadow of dawn, i’ll keep fumbling for keys and the truth. i’ll keep typing, i promise.

bless you each and every one of you who has ever pulled up a chair. bless you for listening. and following along in the dark.

what is your whisper telling you? 

eight

boy, becoming…

teddy fitting room 13

he is trying it on, my boy in the three-way mirror. trying on what comes next: the gulch between boyhood and manhood. the years when certain nicknames are dropped and stuffed bears get tucked away in shadowed boxes. the years when bedtime comes later and later, long after mama’s in dreamland. the years when testing the fates begins to occur. the years when it all — sometimes — comes crashing deep down inside.

my little one is no longer. he’s 13 today. and while the statute of limitations on that tender name — “little one” — has worn out its welcome, i feel the urge to mark the moment here at the chair with a swift look back at my muse, the one whose moments i captured here where words are the butterfly net, here where the tenderest heart took hold in the cracks between letters.

my little one was all of five when the chair first pulled up to the table. he was a kindergartener who hadn’t quite figured out how to hold onto a pencil. or tie a shoe. or string all the slashes and blobs on the page into what might be called words. he climbed into bed, back in those days, outfitted for battle, slaying monsters with light sabers — all while he slept, apparently.

he went off to first grade here at the chair, armed with red hearts in his little jeans pocket. i kept one, too. mine was in my pocket, and all day long through the torturous hours of school, we squeezed on our wee little hearts, a morse code of the very best kind — “i love you.” “i miss you.” “i’m right here.”– were the messages we squeezed back and forth.

my little one and i went for moon walks. we gazed at the stars. and i captured his wonder.

captured his questions too, his questions without answers. “mama, what will happen when i die? will you die? will daddy die? who will die first?” the rat-a-tat-tat of truth-seeking missiles.

over time, and once he realized the world beyond his doorstep was occasionally reading along, he issued a declaration: i wasn’t allowed to write of his wisdoms and ponderings and wobbles and blips without first submitting draft form before the committee of one — the committee of T. he would read, rule, issue edict: publish or no.

what i’ve found — in that magical playground that is the stringing of alphabet letters into words into sentences into thinking out loud — is that the surest way to discover nooks and crannies in your own heart, and in the heart of the one you attempt to capture in brush strokes and shadings — not unlike the art student sketching the pose of the deftly-draped model in the drawing studio — is to circle back, again and again over the years, to put it to paper, to trace over and over again the outlines, the depths and the illuminations. to stand back over the years, and to see what you’d not seen on first go-around. to hold in your hand the faintest yet sharpest glimpse of the child who populates your hours, your heart, your deepest imagination.

to fall in love all over again is a gift to whomever beholds it. i fell in love, over and over, holding my little one up to the light. and now, my little one is at the brink of something quite big: he’s adding a “teen” to his numbers.

thirteen soft august eighths ago, i was perched in a hospital bed, cradling my very own miracle. the babe who defeated all odds — at every step of the odyssey, from conception to birth canal. i remember how keenly i studied him. his delivery had had a few bumps, the sort that can steal your sweet dream and turn it into a nightmare. in the flash of an instant. in a heartbeat skipped.

prayer — and the mightiest push that ever there was — delivered him. a babe in my arms at 44-and-3/4 years. take that, doctors (and actuarial tables) who swore it would never happen!

all these years, that notion of something outrageous, the blessing of beating the odds, it’s held me tight in its focus. i’ve a gift, we’ve a gift, all of us who melt at the tender words that ooze from that heart, or the way he rubs circles soft on your back. he’s a gift, the boy now crossing the great gulch to manhood. here’s praying we draw on all of our wisdom, and acres of love, to guide him safe to the other side.

bless you, sweet T. happy birthday. and with all of my heart, thank you. thank you for coming along….

one of the blessings of having typed here all these years, is that i’ve managed to capture a string of word snapshots: my boys growing up. and they are among the most precious treasures i know — the boys, certainly, but also the snapshots. i never set out to frame these moments in time, but that’s what’s happened. and it’s why i back-up and back-up. why i wish i could carve these in stone, so no cyber-thief, no computer blow-up, could ever steal these fragments of my heart. 

but since you don’t come to listen to me ooze about my beautiful boy, i thought i’d leave a little birthday present for anyone interested in the art of paying attention. here’s a glorious passage from robert bly, observing a caterpillar. it’s so exquisite in its powers of focus and concentration, i just thought i’d leave it out on the table — a morsel in words — for your delight. savor.

A Caterpillar on the Desk

by Robert Bly

           Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy’s hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily-or perhaps summer’s insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

“A Caterpillar on the Desk” by Robert Bly, from The Morning Glory. © Harper & Row, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

and what such magnificent observations have you made today?

hummingbird birthday

hummingbird cake

with this day of birth tucked amid snow drifts, and clearly beyond the holiday statute of limitations, i long ago taught myself to upholster the day with wee delights, delights all my own, partaken of in modest degrees of solitude.

this birthday, the one my little one tells me is stellar because i am turning the number of the year i was born — that’s ’57 for those keeping track — has been bursting out of its seams and it’s only just a wee bit after dawn as i sit here at the table tapping on keys. keys to my heart, indeed.

there was a hummingbird cake last night, served up with a B of blueberries, all festive and lit, poised upon a one-footed pedestal. there was a fireplace crackling just over my shoulder, and i was nestled on a velvety couch with people i love.

hummingbird wish

and this morning, once i’d trudged through the snow with my old banged-up coffee can of seed for the birds, once i’d read the love notes left on the old maple table by my moppy-topped night-owls (boy 1 and boy 2), once i’d clicked on the christmas tree lights and poured my best blue willow mug with cinnamon-spiked coffee, i discovered this poem of perfection, written by my beloved mary oliver. it’s as if she peeked in my hearts and put words to my fumbles. and it is all we need here for all of us to launch into this holy new year. (but, since birthdays, especially ones that are stellar birthdays, are best done without that level-headed note of restraint, i am going to dig up the receipt (tasha tudor word for recipe) for that hummingbird cake i’ll never forget.)

so, first, mary oliver. followed by a fat slice of hummingbird cake. could there be a more perfect beginning to a year that had me on my knees last night, praying mightily for all good and heavenly blessings?

one last thing: thank you, always, for keeping me company here at the table. you are loved simply for listening. isn’t that all anyone of us wish for, deep down inside? to be heard….

and now…

Mindful
by Mary Oliver

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

“Mindful” by Mary Oliver from Why I Wake Early. © Beacon Press, 2005.

and now, for that hummingbird cake…

it’s a southern cake, one whose name might come from the whimsy that it makes you hum, it’s so heavenly. it’s known to be something of a symbol of sweetness, and it’s so rich it’s best sliced in thin and elegant fractions of the whole. my hummingbird cake baker said she used orange in place of some of the pineapple. and the toasted pecans gave it a hint of southern groves on a cold chicago’s night. here is art smith’s rendition of that south-of-dixie cake….

hummingbird cake, ala one unforgettable and stellar birthday

the recipe notes this: This cake is one of the most requested desserts at Art Smith’s Chicago restaurant, Table Fifty-Two.

Serves 12
Ingredients
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups chopped ripe bananas
1 cup drained crushed pineapple
1 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs , beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped pecans
8 ounces cream cheese , at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter , at room temperature
1 pound confectioners’ sugar (about 4 1/2 cups sifted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions
To make the cake, position racks in the center and bottom third of the oven and preheat to 350°. Lightly butter two 9″ round cake pans, sprinkle evenly with flour and tap out the excess. (If you wish, butter the pans, line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper, then flour the pans and tap out the excess.)

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt into a bowl. In another bowl, stir or whisk the bananas, pineapple, oil, eggs and vanilla until combined. Do not use an electric mixer. Pour into the dry mixture and fold together with a large spatula just until smooth. Do not beat. Fold in the pecans. Spread evenly into the pans.

Bake until the cake springs back when pressed in the center, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the cakes to wire racks and cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks (remove the parchment paper now if using). Turn right side up and cool completely.

To make the icing: Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until combined. On low speed, gradually beat in the sugar, then the vanilla, to make a smooth icing.

Place 1 cake layer, upside down on a serving platter. Spread with about 2/3 cup of the icing. Top with the second layer, right side up. Spread the reaming icing over the top and sides of the cake. The cake can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and stored, uncovered in the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.

that’s it for today. what’s your birthday cake of choice? or your poem for the new year, or your stellar birthday?

well that was going to be it, but then i popped up from the couch to pour more coffee into my mug, and there before my wondering eyes appeared a kitchen table decked out for the broccoli girl’s birthday, with a load of brussels sprouts to boot. do my boys know me, or what? i nearly melted. the biggest boy of all, the one to whom i wed my life, he was puttering about while i sat here typing, not realizing what in the world he was up to, just beyond the cookbook shelves and the old ticking clock. hilarious. and more than worthy of this morning’s frame of glory…..brussels

hummingbird birthday

birthday fairy steps aside

happens every day. all the best of ’em come to that square on the game board called life when they know it’s time to go. hang up the hat. hook the keys on the nail. tiptoe quietly off to the wings.

happened here last night. i swore i heard the swoosh of her wings, the birthday fairy, as she peeked in the window one last time. pressed her delicate pink nose against the glass, blew a kiss, and flew on.

for the first time in 18 years, the blessed balloon-blowing, poster-wielding, crepe-paper-draping fairy of birthdays did not wreak havoc beside the twin bed where my firstborn snoozed. she did not wind ribbons of crinkly crepe round his bedposts and doorknobs, she did not weave and dodge and try to slither out without waking the dozing log of a boy, who year by year got longer and longer, slept more and more soundly.

for the first time since the year he turned 1, she did not romp through the night making merriment.

it was time, she realized, for the big strapping lad to get on with his life without her.

poor thing, she’s probably curled up on some lily pad this lonely morning licking her wounds.

it’s not easy to give up a post you’ve loved, with a boy you long ago tucked tightly under your wing.

oh, if you peeked in his closets you’d find posters counting up every last year. “top 13 reasons you are loved.” “happy 4 we love you.” “why we love you….(continued from ’06)” and on and on it goes. a numerical stair step through childhood. a boy loved beyond words, but not beyond magic markers and poster boards and his very own fairy’s whimsical ways.

all the way to 18, she kept at it. each year needing to schedule her visit later and later, to account for the nocturnal ways of a teen hurdling toward adulthood. she carried him — oh, yes, she did — right through to the ledge, where little boy ways are folded up and tucked into memory boxes, and voting and driving and first sips of scotch slide onto the landscape.

so last night, despite the tugging there at her heart, despite her teetering back and forth, wondering if maybe one last time she might crank up the markers, haul out the rolls of festooning, she thought back over the subtle signs of the last year, the year far away at college, and all the ways she had come to realize, to know through and through, that it was time to honor the grownup in her midst. to let go of what was, and find a whole new way to embrace the whole of him.

so, for the first time, there was no mad-dash scrambling of pens and puns and ways to spell out “i love you” in numbers and words and silly scribblings.

instead, there was a mama who sat down at her typing board, and typed out a letter, every last word of it moistened by the tears that started to fall and would not stop, not till after the two typed pages were paper clipped, folded and slipped into the envelope marked with a hand-drawn red heart.

this time, on the eve of 19, she did not hide behind fairy wings and bright colored markers. nope, she told him the one thing she wanted him to know: that from the beginning till beyond the beyond, she was the one who loved him like nobody’s business. she was the one true place to which he could always turn, no matter what life throws his way. she will forever be the beacon burning on the hill, over the harbor.

then, when dawn broke and the birthday sky brightened, she hopped in the old wagon and drove to the diner with the cheesy hash he so loves. she scooped up a platter to-go, along with a bacon-cheese omelet, and plunked it all down on the bright red birthday plate, the same one she’s set on the table since back on the day he turned 1.

good thing for that sweet old fairy, there is one more lad in this house, snoozing up in his bed. and he is not yet 11.

our fairy, her load might be lessened, but we’re not done with her yet. she’s got miles of markers before she sleeps, miles and miles of markers and streamers and a rare gift of joy that will never ever grow old.

happy, happy birthday, sweet beautiful will. love, your very own fairy.

what are the life markers you’ve had to retire at your house? and what ones do you forever cling to?

“my childhood is over.”

when he was not even 2, he looked up through the skylight as i tucked in the covers, soft by his shoulders. “mommy,” he wondered aloud, “who puts God to bed?”

when he was 3, he looked up from the kitchen table, and asked, “mommy, what is facetious?”

i’ve been side-by-side with this questioning child for 18 years now. i’ve gotten used to the way words unspool from his mouth, from his mind, from that heart deep inside.

but that doesn’t mean i’ve stopped catching my breath, feeling the air stopped in its tracks, when some of the thoughts come.

and so it was, the other night, sitting at dinner alongside a pond in chicago’s lincoln park, that great front yard of the city, looking south on the muscled shoulders of steel and glass that scrape the sky.

we were feasting, had sipped the watermelon, basil and gin cocktail (i don’t drink gin, but this had to do with a newspaper assignment, and that boy beside me, he sure didn’t mind). had scooped the very last drop of asparagus puree from our plate, and duck rillettes from a charcuterie slab.

the little one and his papa had gone off to visit the so-called powder room, when my brand-new 18-year-old took in one of his sighs, the kind where the smile begins with the first uptake of air, and the eyes start to glisten, and i pretty much know that what’s coming next will enchant me.

“you know,” he began, “this is the first time in my life a whole phase of my life has ended. my childhood is over. it’s not like you can reach back into any of the moments and shift it around. it was what it was. and even if i don’t remember one moment, or the one after that, the experience of that moment is all there, is a part of who i am.”

then he just smiled.

or i think so. for my eyes were veiled in a scrim of tears, that holy blessed water that anoints so many moments of life. sanctifies. signals, my heart has been touched here. is pounding. is spilling. cannot be contained.

“my childhood is over.”

i tumbled the words in my head, in my mouth, so many dew drops of wisdom packed in each one, so rich was the taste on my tongue.

“my childhood is over.”

and so it is.

and that, perhaps, is the crux of why 18 matters. not that he can now buy cigarettes; which you know he wouldn’t. not that he can vote, which he can and he will. oh, will he. and not, as he remembered to tell us when ticking off the new-found legalities, that he can now buy playboy magazine. which i would bet he won’t do. (and which prompted the little one to ask, loudly, “what’s playboy?” to which we all shooshed him quite emphatically, as fears raced through our heads that he’d be tossing that just-discovered word around on the fifth-grade playground.)

“my childhood is over.”

the words kept tumbling through my head, and suddenly so many scenes pop-pop-popped.

the summer camps at the zoo, and the planetarium, and that great hall of midwestern pluck and twang, the old town school of folk music.

the little boy in the NASA astronaut suit. the little boy in the blue-striped engineer’s cap. the boy on the baseball team in hyde park; the boy standing in the T-ball outfield, turned away from the pitcher’s mound, pointing toward the sky, hollering, “look, there’s venus.”

the boy sitting on the roof of the playhouse on the playground at lab school, watching–not playing in–the schoolyard games. the big move to the 10-mile-away town where all is leafy, is mown, is too-often manicured, leaving behind the pop and the whir of the city he loved. the el rides, back. the boy who would not leave his city. a boy forever enchanted with urban grid, and thoreau’s wilderness.

the tearful nights in the kitchen. the angst of all-nighters. the company he found in the pages of nabokov and faulkner and emerson. the arc of limitations he tested, wrapping his palms ’round the oars, rowing his heart out, not looking back.

it was all the quilt of his childhood. his childhood stitches now pulled through the cloth, now set.

it was what it was.

forever will be.

and i couldn’t help but think of how very wholly i had poured myself into the work of being his mother, of all the hours and brain cells and blood cells it took. the signing up for this camp or that. the filling out form after form. the driving him long ways, and jam-packed ways, at all hours. the praying. the worrying. the peering in through the classroom door to see that all was well.

mothers do that, knowing or not. we set out to be our child’s field guide and companion. we arrange and re-arrange. we call people we don’t know, speak words that don’t come easy sometimes. we listen 24 hours a day. we carry our children wherever we go, even when the miles between us are many.

even when they’re 18. and beyond.

but for that whole first chapter, the one whose last page has just turned, i was fully awake, fully on board.

i gave that boy the best that i had. i’d made him that promise. so help me God, i did not run away, not on the nights when i had no answers, not on the mornings when worry consumed me. not when, for the 9 millionth time, i walked in his room and witnessed what happens when a cyclone blows through.

i was, forever will be, the mother who plays in his childhood scenes. who will endlessly loop. i’m the one off to the left in so many frames. i am, more than anything, the one who is beaming.

the fact of the matter is this: the greatest gift i’ve ever known is the gift of being that boy’s mother. i have learned volumes. fallen umpteen times. scratched the depths of my soul, so help me God.

i have preached and promised and pleaded. i’ve stirred and baked and spooned in whatever was needed, oatmeal to amoxicillin, i’ve served ’em all.

it’s what we do when we discover our deepest calling is the call to mother a child.

that childhood is over. and my tasks there are laid to rest.

but that boy is riding today, in a car full of 18-year-olds, to a faraway city in the belly of michigan. there’s an interstate between here and there, and 18-wheel rigs that whiz by, hellbent on getting wherever they go in a hurry.

it’s time to let the boy go. his childhood is over. but don’t think for a minute that this day will be easy. his father is tied up in knots. i’m the one soothing, saying, he’ll be fine, when deep in my head i picture terrible things.

my last words as he strode out the door, that strapping tall boy with the duffle slung over his rock-hard shoulder: “come home safe, or i’ll kill you.”

dear Lord, hear my prayer.

the murky picture above is not so murky in my mind. it’s my two boys, after dinner, with the chicago skyline rising up over their shoulders. fireworks were exploding from behind those mounding rainclouds, and at first we thought it was red lightning, making for an unforgettable step into the night, as we left the north pond cafe, where we’d savored an unforgettable feast, an unforgettable marking of age. my camera didn’t do what i wanted, but i love the image anyway. it’s the way memory fades, yellows around the edges.

please forgive my tendency lately to write here as if i am tracking time, the close of my firstborn’s childhood, as he put it. one of the gifts of writing is that it serves as glue, to stick snapshots to the pages of your life, so you capture it, hold it. these stories are for down the road as much as for today. they are for me to read and re-read some day; they are for my boys to tuck in their boxes from childhood. in writing of life’s passage, i hope that each and every one of you finds a spark of your such passage, or the passage of someone you love. a blog is an odd-duck of a thing. a blog of four and a half years, odder still, perhaps.

these are but swatches of my heart. and if they spark something in you, my prayers are answered. do tell: when you hear the words, “my childhood is over. it was what it was….” what sparks to your mind? what are the scenes from your own childhood that have lasted through all the years?

any hour now…

it is, like so many of the lines we draw inside our lives, invisible, undetected from the outside. and yet, for years now, it has loomed, larger and larger. defined me, in many ways.

especially in these last two weeks, i’ve noticed.

if there is a lull in the whirl around me, there it creeps. the voice that whispers, “this is how it looked for him, the parting frames. these were his final days.”

and, now, it’s down to hours.

my papa is the one whose eyes i see the world through right now. especially as i look upon the ones i love so dearly. the ones whose face i study. whose voice, whose laugh, whose footsteps i could pick out of a crowd of hundreds of thousands. the ones whose rhythms, rise and fall, thrum within me.

my little one especially. the one who holds my hand still, as we walk to camp most mornings. the one who, as i tuck him into bed, lets it all spill out in whispers, stored up, saved for that blessed hour at the edge of day and night when the stirrings simmer over. he is young enough, baby enough, to still climb into my lap, to still reach out while getting water from the fridge, and wrap me in a squeeze, unannounced.

i’ve done the math. done it over and over, for years and years. and now it’s come.

my papa died when he was 52 and six months and eight days.

that’s how old i’ll be tomorrow.

and as the hour comes, so too does the drumbeat in my heart. i am, in some ways, coaxing it over the line. don’t give out now, i tell it. don’t take me now.

and as i say those words, i imagine he did too. never would have thought his time was up. shouldn’t have been, damn that it was.

it is the oddest slipping of my self into his self. as if the two of us have, for these shadowed days, blurred, become the oddest form of one. i cannot not see the world through the lens of what must have been his. cannot not count the days, the hours.

i’d think it odd–might be too shy to mention it–if i’d not found out that i am hardly alone.

but months ago, i wrote about how it is to become the age your parent was when he or she died. and by the hundreds, i got letters. i am not the first, nor the last, certainly not the only one who’s done the final calculation. who knows, to the hour, when the line is crossed.

when, God willing, my life’s hours extend beyond the hours that were his.

and so there is a holiness like no other draped across these days. today especially, perhaps. the day ticking toward the last.

if you were told you’d one day left to live, how would you live it?

a cocktail party question, perhaps.

except when it’s not.

and i’d think this might be the closest i could come to taking a pass at that question in real time.

and so, this holy blessed day, i am entering into the hours as if a bride. i am paying supreme attention.

i’ve been in the garden, squished my toes in mud, as the hose rained down. as my delphinium and roses drank their morning’s rejuvenation.

i watched the sun play peek-a-boo with clouds.

i cuddled with the cat.

i let my little one sleep in. no camp today.

today, he and i are playing, the way it should always be. except most days it can’t be. we don’t let it be. most days we let life get in the way of living.

we are holding hands today. walking down the street to a place where the screen door slaps, and the kitchen cloud of frying bacon and coffee perked and pancakes sizzling on the grill wafts out onto the sidewalk.

we aren’t walking by today. we are asking for a table for two, please. three, if his big brother will join us. will make a holy celebration of this day.

they’ll not know why it is their mama seems full to bursting all day long. they’ll not hear the unspooling dialogue inside, the vespers of deep thanksgiving, the holy pleas and promises.

they’ll not know how very merged is the consciousness of their mama and their grandpa geno, as she and he criss-cross the holy line of what was his, and what is hers. and she holds up his final hours, once again, in a sacramental lifting, one last time, of a holiness that for so long has defined her.

her papa’s life cut short. too short. and a long-held prayer that she’d do right by whatever hours came to her.
dear God, be with us all. this most holy day, and every other.

an odd sort of meandering today, perhaps. more like the whispering of my soul. in white-on-black. like trying to catch a cut-glass rainbow, splattered on the wall. trying to wrap in words this inescapable line in the landscape of my soul. it’s an odd, sad mix of fear and hope, of chest-expanding promise and crushing loss. i’ve no choice, really, but to go on a prayer, and plan on being here tomorrow. not just for me, but, especially, for that little one i so love, who still so deeply needs me. as did my brothers need their papa, as did my mother. as did i.
how would you spend your hours if you had some inkling they might be among your last?

birthdays in fractions

today is the midpoint, the halfway-there, the get-out-of-the-car-and-stretch-your-toes, the hard cold wall of the pool before the flip and the long lane of strokes back to the other end, back to the finish line.

especially if you’re 5. and it’s lightyears from one cake with candles to the next. and everyone else in your class has been hauling in cupcakes and 6’s for months. and you’re just barely trudging along. waiting. waiting for six.

today is 182.5 days from 5; 182.5 days ‘til 6. today is my little one’s half birthday.

in our house we are perhaps a little bit nuts. we flutter and flap about birthdays in fractions. even the big people around here note their halves. but the little ones, they get the works: the red plate is set out for breakfast, the champagne flute awaits the orange juice. the cupcakes are baked, the menu is set. my little one wants breakfast for dinner; pancakes and french toast and oatmeal for breakfast. and tonight, he has visions of all of us huddled under blankets, hands in the popcorn bowl, once again watching born free. he specified lights out, everyone on the floor, under the same blanket. even the cat.

when you have birthdays in fractions at our house, you get to dream. you get to pick. you get to spin the lazy susan of choices, grab for the one that speaks loudest to you.

it’s all about being cherished.

children, i’m pretty certain, need to feel cherished. and, lord knows, there are plenty of moments when a child does not feel too cherished. truth is, there are plenty of moments when i as the mama do not feel too cherish-y. i might feel dash-out-the-door, throw in the towel, take this job and tank it, i quit, pink slip submitted. but i don’t. i haven’t. by the grace of God, the litany of sins remains, like jimmy carter, impure thoughts, red flags tossed on the field. no play executed. not yet, anyway.

so when a chance for cherish presents itself, i reach out, i grab, i run for the goal post. seize it, i say. pull out the cupcake tins. bring on the candles. give the boy a whole day to bask.

now all of this might have something to do with the fact that the mama around here was born in the absolute armpit of the year. january 3. a day when not a soul in the world has much air left in the lungs for blowing out candles. they have been huffing and puffing their way through the long breeze of holidays, and one more cake, one more round of candles, just does not fit in the picture. one year, when i was little, when i cared a whole lot about my birthday, someone asked me if it was all right if we just skipped the cake that year.

there will be no skipping cakes for my boys. we will blow candles for one-fourth and three-fourths, if we have to. but it seems halves will suffice.

you’ll excuse me while i scoot off to the kitchen; i’ve got oatmeal and pancakes and le pain francais to get cookin’. i’ve got a boy who has reached the mid-mark and we’ve got some cherishing to cherish.

anybody out there have your own brand of birthday indulgence? little ways to raise up the day? sweet somethings that have been born over the years, been passed down from one mama or papa to the next? please, pull up a chair. do tell.

p.s. you oughta see what we do for whole numbers. oy. let’s just say birthday fairies and crepe paper by the roll are key players. but more on that down the road. this is a day for fractions.