pull up a chair

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

Category: blessings

a new quiet. again.

i sometimes think it will always be stepping into the new again. it will always be let’s-see-how-this-goes. the undulations of life, a whirl of beginnings and endings and all those elevations between.

this week we packed up the joy blast who is our second miracle child, the one who’s been hovering around the dinner table for months now, patiently kindly engaging in hours-long conversation nearly every blessed night. the one who slept till nearly dusk plenty of days, and stayed up watching old films till the wee wee hours. his raccoon-like hours became a rhythm i knew. the house hummed accordingly. but he’s gone now, back at that little college on a hill in smack-dab-middle ohio, and the absence is raw still. still hurts around the edges.

and this time, there’s a new quiet at home. these will be the first new weeks without the rhythms of someone else’s work life. all these red-ringed months, the other writer in this old house got dressed for work even when work was what happened mostly up in his book-lined office across from the top of the stairs. there were deadlines and stories and headlines, too. there was chatter from the so-called newsroom, the one that had been scattered to bedrooms and nooks and crannies all across sweet chicago, wherever a scribe lived, hung his or her reporterly hat. all that has gone hushed now. not even the sound of a keyboard clackety-clacking. he had to turn in the laptop, and the long line at the apple store means you wait weeks and weeks for a board all your own.

we are a people of rhythms, me and the one who shares this old house. so i’m certain we’ll find one again.

i sometimes wonder how we got here, to this moment, so soon. sometimes look in the mirror to see if i can find the self i’ve known since she was so little, had a gap in the space between two front teeth, just enough of a space to wiggle the tip of my tongue through. the gap is long gone now, and so too plenty of other parts, lost along the way. the losses are wins some of the time. though sometimes a loss is a loss, no doubt about it. same thing with the gains. it’s subtraction and addition, all our life long.

so here we are bumbling around in an all-new quiet, a quiet like never before. as a creature of habit, of course, i’d come to count on the people we were in the everyday. and now readjusting is due. old titles are stripped, though the essence is not. it’s starting all over again and again.

good thing i’ve got typing to do, and plenty of it. i figure i’ll wriggle around inside my hours of typing while all the new rhythms appear. while i see how to fit in this new stretch of time. in the meantime, i thought i’d leave two poems here at the table, poems that put a magnifying lens to the blessings of time, of all the moments quotidian and otherwise. one is from raymond carver, you know who he is, the short story writer who happened to turn a mighty fine poem. the other is from a most blessed woman you might not have known. her name is robbie klein, and her birthday would have been yesterday, but she died a year and a half ago, “peacefully, powerfully,” as her obit in the san francisco chronicle quite emphatically put it. her poem took my breath away when she wrote it, and i asked her back then for permission to share it, to which of course she said yes.

consider how each of these beauties concentrates our focus on the blindingly brilliant blessing of the most ordinary moments of time, and how they freeze-frame the essence, so we can’t help but see its full glory.

 At Least
 by Raymond Carver
 I want to get up early one more morning,
 before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
 I want to throw cold water on my face
 and be at my work table
 when the sky lightens and smoke
 begins to rise from the chimneys
 of the other houses.
 I want to see the waves break
 on this rocky beach, not just hear them
 break as I did all night in my sleep.
 I want to see again the ships
 that pass through the Strait from every
 seafaring country in the world—
 old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
 and the swift new cargo vessels
 painted every color under the sun
 that cut the water as they pass.
 I want to keep an eye out for them.
 And for the little boat that plies
 the water between the ships
 and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
 I want to see them take a man off the ship
 and put another up on board.
 I want to spend the day watching this happen
 and reach my own conclusions.
 I hate to seem greedy—I have so much
 to be thankful for already.
 But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
 And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
 Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.
 
 Moments
 by Robbie Klein
 The space behind the waterfall
 The reverberation after a piano key is struck
 The second after hanging up with one you love
 The instant before the match catches fire
 The trace when a cloud covers the sun
 The sliver before sleep comes
 The first raindrop under a tree canopy
 The ebbing of the waves
 The lightening of dawn
 The space between notes
 The bottom of the exhale
 The final brushstroke
 The first drop on the tongue
 The grey before snow falls
 The moment before his fingers touch your face

what prompts you to relish each holy hour?

*photo above is college kid’s room in rare state of clean, only because his teary-eyed mother scrubbed and scrubbed till the sting went away…..

looking for the light

maybe the reason i lurch myself out from under the layers of flannel and cotton, and sometimes wool, in the inky hour before the light comes suffusing through the trees off to the east, is so i can tiptoe out under heaven’s dome in the dark, so i can train my eye on the spot where the sky first hints at what’s coming. the spot where we get to the part of the story where it all begins again, where the sun rises and the light creeps up and through the sky, like a wine spill to a white linen napkin.

it’s that first crack of light that always thrills me; the moment right before, when you wonder if really it will come again. and then–so far, anyway–it does. and you can check that worry off the list for the day.

maybe that’s why papa cardinal is always out there too. maybe papa is keeping watch on the sun, making sure it does its job, does what’s expected. maybe papa’s the sentinel of dawn, the one charged with letting us know if there’s ever a day when the sun sleeps in. so far, hasn’t happened. but always good to have someone in the lifeguard chair.

so this business of keeping watch for the light to creep in, it’s a skill that comes in mighty handy. i’d call it essential for the human spirit in dark epochs. which this sure seems to be. if you keep watch on the headlines, anyway. if all you count is the sweeping arc of the narrative, the parts where the death toll mounts day after day, where the holy relics of the “citadel of liberty” were shattered and smashed and carried straight out the door and down the capitol steps, steps that have given me goosebumps every time i’ve so much as pressed the sole of my shoe to their age-worn edges. the part where the soundtrack is so hateful you wonder if you’ve woken up in rome just before the collapse, or vietnam in the middle of an ugly war. or germany. or the boston harbor before the tea went in the drink.

so pretty much the only thing worth doing right now is looking–hard as you can–for the teeniest sliver of light coming in through the cracks in the door.

because i happen to keep close watch on the doings of our nation’s capital, because i sometimes see it as a laboratory of human character–who’s got a spine, who’s got a heart–it tends to be one of the places where i gather my evidence for how much hope might be worth counting on. i promise you i look broadly, across party lines. if i spy decency in human form, if i hear a tale of heroic-level goodness, if i see someone rise amid a sea of protest to say, “i’ve scoured my conscience, and here is the truth, guided by timeless moral code,” i listen up. pay close attention. get ready to take a deep breath and start all over again. rather than collapsing in a moment of utter moral depravity and defeat.

so happens, it was there just yesterday that a little bit of hope came trickling in. well, more than a little. and it wasn’t actually in washington where i spied it. it was off in what’s now become the staging area of a presidency to come. over in delaware, where, on a stage all bedecked in blue, i saw a man who shook himself from his grieving a couple years back because he felt a call to restore the soul of america. and i saw him explaining to a nation (quietly, in not-fancy words) why justice for all matters so much, so deeply fine-grainly much. and then i heard him say who he trusted more than anyone to press his shoulder against the long arc of justice to try to muscle it toward where martin luther king jr. and saint john lewis and barack obama promised us it would bend. and i watched merrick garland, a man who might have spent the last five years with a really bitter taste in his mouth, i watched him quietly, humbly, step to the podium and consent to the task. i watched him agree to step into the arena where the blood stains of injustice are soaked deep into the floorboards, where the pile-up of truths need hours and hours of sorting through, and i saw something like light out of the far corner of my eye.

and that’s not the only place where i look.

i look right here in the nooks and crannies of my little life and i find slivers of light coming in from the oddest angles. i find light where i hear the things my college kid remembers to add to his litany of prayers right before dinner. i find light when a brother i love leaps out of his own sack of worries to bedeck my birthday with nothing short of an explosion of joy. i find light in the pages of old, old books on my shelves. and, sometimes, not so old ones.

these are the lines i’ve recently tucked in my “words and lines worth keeping” file (it’s the third of three such files, because i tend to find many many words worth keeping):

“God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” Martin Buber

“‘When the evening of this life comes,’ says St John of the Cross, ‘you will be judged on love.’ The only question asked about the soul….‘Have you loved well?’”

“Each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.” St. John of the Cross from Daniel Ladinsky. Love Poems from God.

‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

and, because i am feeling a wee bit queazy here this morning, i’d best sign off, and ask where do you find the light creeping in?

turning the page…

before the light on this new year falls, i am bent at the old maple table, prayer unfurling. the incense simmers on the stove, an extra fat star anise tossed amid the tumble in my spice-stocked pot. i am straining to fill the air with those few pure things, those hopes, those determinations that this year — this nother round of possibility — might bring, other than the cinders we’re shooshing out the door.

i’m no fool, been knocked around enough to know that there’s no prestidigitation in all the world that will suddenly wipe clean the slate, cast all sin, open wide the barn doors for all those gentle kind and tender things we espouse.

but i’ve not lost hope, not every shred. and in finding the words of dear alfred lord tennyson on my doorstep here this morning, i am reminded that in the archeologies of time, strife is the stuff of human existence. it’s always been a battle of forces — of evil versus noble, of stingy versus bountiful, of cruel versus the world those gathered here do believe in.

tennyson, deep in grief at the ringing in of the new year after the death of his dearest friend in 1833, wrote these words in his great elegy, In Memoriam (in sum, tennyson’s masterwork is 133 poems — or cantos — in one), beginning canto CVI, or 106, “ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky…” and he went on to implore a rinsing, an ablution that rings eerily in echo of the now:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

and in the last lines of this canto, tennyson implores:

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land…

i sign on with tennyson. and believing in simple math — that the smallest increment adds to the aureole of goodness spilling across the undulations of our lives — i commit to baby steps.

sometimes, that’s the hardest truest place to begin. it gets us in the craw of who we are, and muscles up against who it is we aim to be.

so, in part, here goes:

i commit to shrugging off the unkind tone, the odd stumble in a conversation, not garnishing it as ammunition for a cockamamie theory that that someone never liked me in the first place, and thus it’s fair for me to assume defensive posture next time round. i commit to taking a deep-down cleansing breath and resolutely ringing the doorbell of the neighbor who seems to flinch from human contact, delivering without need for words a tin-wrapped loaf of kindness, or whatever seems the wisest gentlest peace-bridging offering. i commit to looking the lost, the hurt, the invisible, in the eye. i commit to picking up the phone, even when i’m dishrag tired. i commit to listening. and i commit to going first when i’m sorry are the words so needed.

if we want a world unlike the one hellbent on taking over, we need be the ones in the trenches. the ones who won’t retreat, relent, surrender.

i’m not talking sweeping social change, or abrupt reverse of course in the global policy department. i’m not so equipped. not steeped in all the necessary tomes for such bold move. i have figured out my place in the chessboard of this life, and i am all the more determined that it’s the fractional advance, the barely perceptible softening of the heart, the extension of the hand, the saying, i see you, i see your pain and i am here for you to lean on, i am here to embolden you, to put courage to your conviction. i am here to sit beside you, for however long it takes.

the daylight is up now, casting faintest shadow on the snow. it’s taken me that long to scroll the annals of my heart, to fix my spot on the map of the new year now upon us. more than anything, as the news pings roll in, as i hold my breath for the days ahead, as i pray the world begins to tilt in the favor of goodness, truth, and, yes, the deepest mercy, i turn to the heavens, i fall to my knees and i echo the good lord tennyson, ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand, dear holy blessed Adonai, ring out the darkness of the land.

light is what we beg for. light is what we need.

let us be the wicks you spark this day. and the next and the next….

what might be the baby steps to which you commit? no need to write them here, but in your hearts, perhaps?

of prophets and poets, and the sacred instruction: let the light be from within

maybe you read the newspaper every morning. maybe you even read the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that birthed most of the most precious threads in my life. but chances are — reading the studies that come, one after a sad other, from the journalism think tanks — you don’t. the sound of the rolled-up sausage of a newspaper landing with a thwop on the front stoop is nearly obsolete. but this week, my old newspaper made room for a little essay i wrote, one birthed in the pages of Stillness, that beribboned little book that seems to be winging its way to armchairs and reading nooks in various vicinities around the countryside this december.

given the unlikelihood that you would have stumbled across this little essay — a variation on the opening essay, “December: Sacred Invitation,” in Stillness — and given that my little laptop has a crack-of-dawn doctor’s appointment at the genius bar, i figured i’d give the essay a whirl here. it comes with the hope that you find all sorts of ways to fill the december darkness with flickering flames, and tongues of fire that leap from the hearth. the ones in your home, or the ones in your heart.

Commentary: In December’s darkness, the prophets and poets guide us toward the light

By BARBARA MAHANY

December’s darkness is coming like never before.

Oh, sure, as the sun arcs into its wintry descent, as the night grows to its longest, and day after day a minute is shaved at the dawn and at dusk, the sunlight ebbs and the shadow grows. There’s that darkness.

But cloaking all of it this year is the darkness of knowing we can’t kindle the light in gathering kinship.

We will be more alone this winter, perhaps, than ever before.

But there is a bright side, or at least a blessed side.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, intellect and imagination.

Celebrate the quietude. The stillness that comes in the hours of solitude, that state of grace sought by the ancient mystics and saints, by Zen priests and the Desert Elders of Egypt, by Hildegard of Bingen and Henry David Thoreau, deep in the woods of Walden Pond, the ones who dialed down the noise and distraction, pressing their ears into the silence, awaiting the murmurings of the still small voice. As Meister Eckhart put it: “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”

The truth is: Stillness and darkness draw out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

Stillness, as all the enlightened have known, in the paradox that might be a Buddhist koan, is the fullness that comes only through emptiness.

This December, both will abound. We’d be wise to welcome them.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we, too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counterculturalism, and do not succumb.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half-hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. Most especially this December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well, bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the great horned owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And she reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I. Maybe, so do you.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who breathed the first breath.

Barbara Mahany, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, is the author of four books; her latest is “The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season.”

so there’s the essay. and here is the question: how might you live sacramentally? how do you lift the ordinary into the sacred; those humdrum quotidian tasks of the everyday, how do you imbue them with intention and attention, raise them into the realm of the holy so that this one pass at december is lived in ways that awake us as never before?

a hundred from-the-heart thank yous…

all week i’ve been counting, gathering my gratitudes by the dozens. by the hundreds, in fact. maybe you’ve played along. done your own counting up to one hundred. it’s an exercise in excavation of the heart, digging up the way-down blessings, the ones we call to mind each and every hour of each and every day, and the ones we stumble upon in some ephemeral flicker of momentary praise-be to wonder. turns out, it’s something of a diary of the year, this whole long COVID-pocked, election-torn year. it’s been a doozy. and, believe it or not, it’s left me filled with gratitudes. a hundred of ’em. here goes…

dear holy God, and giver of all good and glorious things, consoler in hours of deepest sorrow, the one whose hand i reach toward whenever i’m trembling, whose arms i fall into when the long race is finally ended, dear God, find yourself a cozy chair to sink into, cuz i’ve got a list for you. for all this, i say bless you and thank you. oh, thank you…

for Melissa, Queen of the Sick Call Grocery Delivery, the guardian angel of my college kid’s dining hall who went way beyond the call of duty when she whirled off to a miles-away grocery store, shopped like a mama would shop for her own, and showed up at my fevered child’s sickroom door with six bags of infirmary essentials: crackers and soup, 7Up and microwaveable rice, ginger ale and chamomile tea, packets of oatmeal, and on and on and on, when he was sequestered in quarantine with a whopping case of mono. (funny, how the first one to leap to mind this year is a woman i know only through her undeniable goodness, and her going the most extra mile. if love heals, she gets first round of credit for the mostly recuperated kid who sat at my thanksgiving table last night.) 

for election judges, and every single American who stood in hours-long lines, in rain, in sleet, in cold, in undiluted noontime inferno, to put muscle to the great American contract: to slip a single sheaf of X-marked paper into the slit of the ballot box. to make each vote count.

for the two little girls across the way, who have endlessly charmed since the day they moved in, and especially since COVID, as their front yard and driveway have become their play yard and imagination station. sweet little angels (3 and now 5) who dream up goodbye parties for a maple tree that had to be felled, and prance about in their plastic shields as if princesses and warriors from another planet. and for their mama and papa who tag-team their workday to endlessly fill their girls’ COVID-bound days with the old-fashioned sorts of adventures i’d long feared had been lost to obsolescence.

for the big heart of my down-the-block friend who every night goes out into the dark and the cold to feed a duet of stray cats with nowhere else to go.

for the woods where i amble everyday. and the golfballs that — so far — steer clear of my head.

for the moving crew who, despite a few wrong turns, finally found my firstborn’s apartment.

for the law school diploma that now sits on a bookshelf, proving the kid reached the summit of a very steep climb.

for the checkers at my Jewel, the truck drivers, and shelf-stocking crew, the baggers, the cart sanitizers, those blessed frontline workers who never imagined that ringing up groceries would become an act of faith and a stronghold against starvation. as well as the one permissible place to gab beyond the bubble, almost like old times.

for my mailman who never failed. 

for my UPS driver, who this year has more than let my fingers do the walking from the safety of my keyboard, and delivered the most curious assortment of necessities i managed to find online.

certainly, for my younger one’s freshman roommate from China who supplied us with a box of N95s before anyone here in America knew much about the masked wonders.

for the ambulance drivers, and the ER crew in the Buckeye State’s far-from-home hospital, who delivered my second-born child safely and soundly, and quickly discovered his sky-high fever was fueled not by COVID but rather by mono, and a whopping dose of it. 

for the ER crew here at home, who — in Round Two of this unfortunate adventure — were put to the test to quell the fever that would not go down.

for my long-ago college roommate who turned to page 206 in my new little book, and baked, wrapped, and mailed a box of my grandma Lucille’s turkey cookies. complete with raisins for eyes.

for the editor who kept pace with my decidedly accelerated writing speed, the brilliant designer who rounded up a woodland flock of critters to grace most every page, and for whoever decided to go with the place-holding ribbon, a rarity in book publishing these days. and in the end, brought us The Stillness of Winter.

for all the great thinkers and poets and mystics who’ve filled my bookshelves and my imagination this year, especially Henry Beston, Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, Annie Dillard, Joy Harjo, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert MacFarlane, John Phillip Newell, anonymous who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, David George Haskell, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson — all of whom make me reach higher and deeper in quest of words that illumine and thoughts that arouse. 

for Emergence magazine, and Image journal, and Orion, and the EcoTheo Review, whose boundless intellect and inspirations, breathtaking writing and generous spirit ground me to this holy earth, and launch my highest hopes for healing to come to this wounded planet.

for the wise priest, the monk, and the rabbi to whom i bring my insatiable hungers, my curiosities and questions, and the depths of my soul. for evocative prayers and eloquent sermons, especially the ones threaded through with the cloud of witnesses — the writers and thinkers, poets and everyday saints — who propel me to pull books from the shelves, to search for their stories and truths. for the epiphanies that so often come. and the dots so divinely connected.

for those marketing and p.r. mavens who do the parts of book peddling that make me break out in hives.

for the tangle of bittersweet i found in the woods. and the rusty but trusty clippers that brought a few branches home. 

for the occasional news story that infused me with hope again. and the election that tried to.

for the dawn, that light-infused vessel of prayer i step into each morning.

for the ages-old Book of Common Prayer and the crinkling of its tissue-thin pages as i turn them, morning after morning, beginning my day cloaked in holy quietude, in confession of sin, and blessed thanksgiving at the close of each dawn’s intercessions.

for the Cloister Walk candles from St. John’s Abbey, an apothecarial blend of geranium and lily of the valley, sandalwood, patchouli, and cedar that sends me and my prayers wafting toward the heavens.

for cricket song, that hypnotic hum of the ridged-wing critters that seems to rise out of the earth as the late-summer sun begins its daily descent, and the never-seen choristers quite frankly go gangbusters with their nightly rendition of clanging and banging. 

for the way the sunlight streamed in and ignited my summer porch as each day drew to a close. 

for the zillion ZOOM courses, and poetry readings, and retreats, and workshops with writers that drew me into living rooms and studios and aeries all around the globe….

for the college professors who so compassionately gave my sweet boy flexibility on deadlines for papers and projects. dispensations that might come to haunt us, when he’s typing away on the eve of this Christmas.

for the park district work crew who, last summer, taught my second-born seasonal landscaper the wonders of the midday siesta and flautas made on a portable grill.

for the science writers who so clearly explained COVID, and gave us explicit instructions for how to steer clear of the sometimes deadly, always mysterious, and frankly frightening red-ringed mutating virus.

for the bookshop owner who virtually hosted a throng of beloved bibliophiles the night my little book was launched from the cozy confines of my kitchen — and no one knew i was wearing flip flops and yoga pants under my fine woolen shawl.

for the red birds who bring me such joy, and the blue jays who squawk, and the chickadees and nuthatches and even the flock of humdrum sparrows who delight me hour by hour.

for my prayer bench that so generously offers me a place to sit, tucked under the leafy arbor of my so-called secret kitchen garden.

for my brothers (four) and their wives and fiancé for being my front line of defense when life tests from all sides.

for my next door neighbors who have not yet erected the 6-foot-high fence that will forever cut off that holy slant of late afternoon light. 

for my “tird” cousin, Paddy, whose DNA mingles with mine, from back South Kilmo way, at the house by the bridge in County Clare, and who over the year has showered me with everything from the Celtic tunes i play by the hour, to the 20 pounds of basmati rice, and the 18 rolls of toilet paper he had shipped from China, just to be sure i was never without.

for the glorious women in my tribe: my mother, my mother-in-law, my adorable and endlessly effervescent aunt, and all of my sisters by marriage or heart. 

absolutely and without hesitation, for those blessed souls, spoken and unspoken, who gather here at the chair. 

for those friends who, like me, respect the heck out of the red-ringed virus and don the mask, keep the social distance, scrub hands for at least two rounds of happy birthday, and never ever roll their eyes at my nurse-level cautiousness.

for old friends who always, always understand (no matter the matter at hand). and even if they don’t, go on loving anyway. 

for the herbs in my garden (the ones i pluck to this day, adorning my turkey bird just last night with fresh-from-the-farm parsleys and rosemary). and, root of it all, for the brother who insisted i farm, who even tracked down the lumberyard where i could get my 12x2s, and my 24 bags of compost and potting soil.

for the sunrise that never forgot. the stars that always shone. the moon that, month after month, teaches the basics of math: addition, subtraction and the fine art of fractions.

for my window seat, and the hours spent there, curled into the corner where wall meets window.

for bookshelves that bend but do not break.

for that rare string of summer days when each night for two whole weeks, the four of us — a complete set in this house — fell asleep under the same single roof, awoke to the same morning stirrings, and reminded me why this little family i love is the most precious treasure in my whole entire life.

for planes that stayed in the sky, until time to land, for plastic shields and sanitizing gel that did their part to keep my continent-crossing people aloft and free of the virus. 

for the long-distance phone lines that kept us connected through the long and lonely — sometimes scary — hours of sheltering in place.

for the deadlines and bylines that put purpose to my writing life.

for lightbulbs that shine so i can read the page.

for all the orchards near and far that turn blossoms to fruit, so harvests might be picked and i might bite into my daily dose of Jazz, or Envy, or Honeycrisp.

for the pie people — and especially Richard, my pierced-ear pie peddler at the farmer’s market — who keep us stocked in a summer’s worth of pie, and who have stocked my freezer full of six — count ‘em — six Thanksgiving-to-Christmas pumpkin pies….

for the fever that finally went down.

for the prayers that hold me in the great abyss of the night. and propel me out of bed each and every morning. 

for those rare magnanimous souls who forever keep us laughing, cranking joy out of the cracks and crevices of our lives.

for vote tallies that tilted toward justice and truth.

yes, for the uncluttered calendar of this COVID-strange year, for the Saturday nights when we don’t even need to put on our shoes, and no one needs worry about getting lost on a long drive home. 

for the gaggle of boys who’ve grown up at my kitchen table, in carpools, on the soccer fields i watched from the sidelines, the boys who now text me from college, who promise me they’re now immune to COVID and it’s safe for my non-immune boy to join them round backyard campfires, over these long winter months to come…

for the genius microbiologists inventing their way to life-saving, soul-saving vaccines.

for every voice broadcasting the message that masks and social distance are imperative, even when those voices are met with eye-rolls. or worse. 

oh, yes, for the sound of footsteps and creaking floorboards in the room up above, telling me someone is home, safe under his covers…

for not waking up on thanksgiving to a mind racing with mile-long to-do lists, and tables to set and refrigerator 3-D geometries to unpuzzle, for awaking on the national day of over-indulging not worried about cooking for a mere three. to this surreal year, with a light at the end of the long long tunnel…

for the sheer stresslessness of cooking for three, in a house with a roaring fire, the referee whistles of football, and the breast of turkeybird who — after nearly twice the projected cooking time — finally succumbed to golden perfection. and for the prosecco by the glassful that washed it all down.

for Eugene Beals, the sheer genius of the five-member California Turkey Producers Advisory Board, who, back in the early 1970s, invented the little red pop-up turkey thermometer, in hopes of rescuing a hungry nation from the dried-out birds being pulled from ovens from sea to shining sea. 

for the pine trees and maples who laid down their lives to go up in flames in our soot-stained hearth. 

for the God who gives me this breath. and the next — or so i pray. 

for the God who doesn’t so much command my attention but rather taps me gently just behind the ribs, on the wall of that vessel that holds so much, sometimes taking my breath away at the sight of a star-stitched sky, or a mama robin beak-feeding squiggly worms to her babies, or the dawn breaking open the indigo night.

for my holy trinity; my three musketeers; my heart, my soul, my everything: my blair, my will, my teddy…..

for all this, dear holy Maker and Infuser of Breath and Beauty, i drop to my knees, open my heart and whisper a most emphatic blessed be thank you……

(sadly, only two of these three were taken this week; the one on the far right is from way back last Christmas….)

and what might be a few of the things for which you are so deeply grateful?

(depending how i count, i seem to be teetering at about the 118 mark in the litany above. oh well. i am certain i will fling off my sheets in the middle of the night suddenly realizing i’ve forgotten the most important 119, 120, 121…indeed the trials of counting your blessings: you cannot stop once you’ve begun…)

counting my way: a centenary of thanks in the making, prayer shawl for hard times

a few years ago — i thought it was three, but in fact it was six — i stumbled into the making of a gratitude list and found myself counting to 100, which made it a centenary of thanks. i fell in love with the word, of course, and the notion of reaching toward a number so high it took concentrated attention. simone weil, of course, tells us that attention is the launch pad of prayer. only she says it more poetically. she says this: “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

pádraig Ó tuama, the brilliant north ireland peacemaker and poet, says this about prayer: “i do love praying. like prier from french, ‘to ask.’ and what i love about that word is it doesn’t require belief. it just requires a recognition of need. and i think the recognition of need is something that brings us to a deep, common language about what it means to be human…”

and so, this year especially, when the wounds are deep, and the fears shimmer just below the surface, the sacred act of weaving ourselves and wrapping ourselves in the shawl of a gratitude litany — prayer purled — seems not only wise but necessary. surely an armament against the cold winds that will not abate.

i begin with the woods. i’m drawn there first for its tabernacle of sheltered silence, for the stirrings so faint you can hear tree trunks creaking, as if old bentwood rocking chairs, who let out a bit of a pinched and arthritic cry as they bend in the wind, rub hard against their fallen brethren.

i begin with the light there, the way the shadows play. one day dappling the leafy floor into odd-shaped checkerboard geometries, the next day diffusing the whole — the undulations of rises and hollows, the tangle of vines still holding tight to their berries — in a radiance that might be a kind of mystical halo.

the woods, a grove of old-growth oaks and a tumble of decades-old anonymous stumps, runs along a canal just a short ways from my house. i’ve taken to wandering there, squatting myself on the logs and the stumps that seem like children’s play blocks strewn from a leviathan’s toy chest. i listen and watch. a prayerful pose, if ever there was.

the litany of gratitudes tumble into my notebook, for i always carry a notepad and pen. these days, the woods are just about the holiest place i know. a tabernacle tucked under the trees.

the woods, it seems, are a fine place to sit in a time of pandemic. you might traipse through a meadow. or plunk in the sand and the sharp-bladed grasses along the lakeshore. or perhaps you’ve a river that bends, that offers up its whispering current, that serves as your launch pad for prayer.

these are the places that pay no mind to the cacophonies of the world, to the political banshee cries, to the ungodly images from inside the ICUs where breath itself verges on the impossible.

i turn, in times like these, to those carved-out holy places of God’s making. the opening in the woods, the prayer pew along the river bank or the lake’s soft edge. under the great star-salted dome of the night sky, just beyond my kitchen door.

but i might find holy altars even on the inside of my old house. at the cookstove, most certainly. that place where i stand, stirring, intermingling my incantations with the steam rising from whatever’s bubbling. call me crazy, but for me cooking, cooking for the ones i love, is nothing short of a prayer. sometimes i get lost in the launching of my litanies, and i wind up more or less burning my prayers. i’m rather infamous around here for my long record of burning the broccoli.

all this seems to be a circling around of the centenary itself. i’ve yet to get to the counting here. so perhaps the wisest thing to do is to slow count this year, to make it a week-long practice of paying simone-weil-level attention.

i’ll have an abundance of grist here: a boy i love is coming home from college, clear till the first of february. he and his papa will be motoring across the farmland of the great buckeye state, soon as we get the green light, soon as the precautionary COVID test comes back from the lab, with nary a worry.

the table this year will be sparse. only three of us. with our most essential fourth far beyond the reach of my hand, too far. but blessedly he won’t be alone.

we’ll partake of the traditional thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, only we’ll be stationed outside. on her sidewalk, perhaps. or in the circular drive. and there won’t be any picking away at the turkey platter at her house. nor even the swapping of slices of pie.

but i promise i will make it to 100, cross that prayerful line of demarcation (i wouldn’t want to call it a finish line, as that might imply a stopping, and i’ve no intention of doing so). perhaps you might choose to play along. perhaps you’ll count to 100, too. weave your own centenary. if there are turkey trots galore this time of year, those early-morning chases down pathways and lanes, a preamble calorie burn to make room for more stuffing, there might just as well be a numerical exercise in the petitions department.

i will leave you with the breathtakingness of our friend pádraig Ó tuama who wrote this about prayer, in an essay entitled, “Oremus,” which means, in latin, “let us pray.”

“…let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. let’s lick the earth from our fingers. let us look up and out and around. the world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. let us pray.”

i invite you to pray to one hundred….

blessings and blessings upon us, in these hours of blessing to come….

even if you don’t count to 100, perhaps you’ll pay closer attention to the petitions you hold in your heart in this blessed season of gratitude. but i will see you here next week, with my centenary in hand, or rather at heart…where, and with what, will you begin?

p.s. that tepee above is a little miracle i stumbled upon in the woods yesterday. an architecture of sticks, gathered from the heap pile of fallen limbs. it hadn’t been there before and so it stirred a thousand questions: was it something for a boy scout badge? are there still children who play in the woods? was it some ancestral lodge in the making, a place from which smoky petitions might rise?

oops! i forgot that i was thinking of leaving a little something here. the other night there was a “book launch” for Stillness, and given these pandemic times, that meant a virtual gathering. so, from the cozy confines of my kitchen, we all gathered robustly. AND the wonders of technology made an instant recording, which you can click any time to play along. here’s the key to get in! (just click the word “key” and it’ll magically open the door)

praise song for putting to bed a fine summer’s garden

the folks at freeze-warning central don’t talk pretty talk. they’ve no use for adjectives, ditch any hint of gentility. they mean business, scare-the-pants-off-you business.

and so it was that the fine folk from warning central tapped at my laptop yesterday morn. barely bothered to knock. just parachuted in with these dire words:

Freeze Warning issued October 15 at 2:35AM CDT until October 16 at 9:00AM CDT by NWS Chicago IL

  • WHAT…Several hours of sub-freezing temperatures, with lows in
    the upper 20s and low 30s. Some of the coldest locations may
    briefly drop into the mid 20s.
  • WHERE…North central and northeast Illinois away from the
    heart of Chicago and northwest Indiana.
  • WHEN…From 1 AM CDT /2 AM EDT/ to 9 AM CDT /10 AM EDT/ Friday.
  • IMPACTS…Frost and freeze conditions will kill crops, other
    sensitive vegetation and possibly damage unprotected outdoor
    plumbing.

and so, with a sigh, i knew it was time. time to amble out with my many-pocketed vest, time to pluck and harvest as if there was no tomorrow. for, in the land of orange zinger, cherokee purple, big boy, and that saucy san marzano, there was not a tomorrow. this was the end, the coda, the last gasp of summer’s voluptuous bounty.

while i played my last round of what amounts to where’s waldo (the tomato edition), searching in between and under and through the tangles of vine for any plump or lumpen orb with the faintest hint of a color other than green, i whispered a long litany of glory be’s to the incredible edible farm that had burst from the clods of earth out along the potholed alley, in the shadow of the utility pole and the too-tall fence of the neighbor next door.

it had been our virgin voyage in the agricultural realm. my beloved brother in maine, a fellow with know-how oozing from his hands and his heart, he insisted months ago that i get to work building me a plot, one raised from the earth, one that i wrapped in a wee picket fence, one i pampered with thrice-daily (at least!) devotions, once to see what had burst into glory overnight, once to sate its thirsts with a good sweet drink from the hose, once to harvest for salad or dinner. i learned the arts of staking (i’ll need an advanced class on that over the winter, for my vines wound up twisting themselves into tangles and knots of goldbergian proportion). i never bothered with pest control, the farm was there for whoever needed or wanted (only once did i find a critter had ambled in for a midnight picnic of half-chewed tomato).

but all summer, i made like a modern-day hildegard of bingen, she of the great medieval herbarium. i’d planted herbs-to-tomatoes in a 4:1 ratio, an indulgence that had me awash in nightly mounds of tarragon and dill and rosemary, too. and basil and marjoram and oregano — and thyme and chives and cilantro and great wisps of fennel to boot, and every breakfast was sprinkled in spearmint or lemon verbena. the tomatoes, a competitive bunch i discovered, were not to be beat by the delicate herbs. they merely upped their nightshade ante, and burst forth with such gusto i found myself trolling the cookery tomes, searching for ways to roast and sun-dry and stir into sauce and stretch into winter. the resident architecture critic took to dousing his daily mound of lunchtime cottage cheese with handfuls and handfuls of zingers, those orange little morsels the size of a gumball, the 25-cent — not the penny — variety.

and just the other day, the critic himself was leaping into his little-used adjective file, pulling out superlatives, waxing poetic about the wonders of watching your lunch rise out of the earthen mounds. he marveled as much as anyone in this old house at the nightly leaps and bounds of the vines as they reached for the heavens, and escaped up and over the fence.

it’s a beautiful thing, he declared, to witness the miracle of the seed tucked into compost back at the start of the sun-drenching season. to measure the almost-hourly rising, to witness the bloom bulge and birth into fruit, to taste the zing you can’t find in a plastic-wrapped pack from the grocery.

it’ll be a long winter without it, but as i put it to bed with my trowel and my vespers, i’ll unloose a long and loving litany — a canticle even — to the glories and wonder of the vines and the leaves and the delicate blossoms, the tangles and orbs and heaven-sent scents of the plot that fed us all summer.

bless you, and thank you, dear farm on the alley.

what are the blessings of the season past for which you are whispering your thank yous? or for the blessings of now that all but knock you to your knees when they burst open before you?

and a p.s.: just hours before the freeze-alert was due to kick into gear, i looked out my kitchen window and found this glorious morning glory unfurling its last-ditch trumpet call into the world. it’s still there now, alive through the night. the glory of heavenly defiance, not to be done in by the cold….

the last cricket and all those other blessed moments we miss…

we’re ankle-deep in october already, and the woods and the skies and the last vestige of garden are enmeshed in the verbs of autumn: gilding, disrobing, graying, withering.

while the world all around is exulting in the yin and yang of the seasonal shift, lurching from summer to winter, hewing the razor’s edge of autumnal juxtaposition — the last vestige of bone-baking warmth to the goosebumps of dawn’s early chill — while the chipmunks are making like there’s an acorn-stuffing contest, and he with the bulgingest cheeks wins, and the chatter of sparrows rises some days to a deafening chorus, the last of the summer’s songs have vanished.

and i didn’t notice till now.

the blanket of cricket song, a rising crescendo that all but tucked me into bed each summer’s night, it’s stilled. silenced. taken away, tucked on a shelf somewhere, awaiting the heat of next august.

the last of the cicadas’ 24-hour love song for survival. it’s gone too. snuffed out. it too rose to a deafening roar, and then with the flick of a switch that i didn’t bother to witness, it melted away.

now, when you open your windows at night, there’s little to hear save for the possums knocking over the watering can. or the night winds rustling the leaves before they loose from the limbs.

what with all the commotion — of the world, of the news, of the worry — i didn’t notice the absence till i stumbled into the thoughts of someone who’s paying closer attention.

sacred attention, i’d call it, a religion i aim to practice.

i read these words, and felt the ache in my chest:

My intention every year is to listen for the last cricket, the explosion of silence after its ridged wings have struck their final chirp. I imagine it as somehow akin to Bashō’s temple bell whose sound, after the bell has stopped ringing, comes pouring out of the flowers. I have no reason for wanting to mark the occasion other than a poetic temperament and a feeling that the mindfulness required of such a task is its own reward.

The idea usually arrives in September when the crickets are at their most frantic. I toy with the thought of camping out the night it seems likely they’ll stop. I imagine myself keenly attuned to the hypnotic lull, aware that if I fall asleep, even for a moment, I could miss it. The novelty appeals to me. The invention of such an inconsequential drama. It would make no difference to anyone whether I succeeded, or if it took me years to accomplish. The achievement would be mine alone. Sometimes to up the ante, I imagine decades of failed attempts until maybe one night—when I’m an old man, stumbling, bearded, blind, bereft of all hope—a Zen-like oneness with the woods sets in and from nearby, under the bark of a rotten log, I hear the teeth of a cricket wing crackling the air, and listen, knowingly, as the world resolves itself in silence.

Steve Edwards, “The Last Cricket,” Orion Magazine, Autumn 2020

mr. edwards’ elegy to the cricket song made me think of all else that i’d missed. it seemed an exercise that drew me — and maybe you — into a necessary meditation. an exercise in paying attention, for this is our one sweet moment to clasp our gaze, and our listening, on the beauties offered up in this one ephemeral whirl around the blazing star.

it’s a canticle worth our attention.

have you noticed…

*the moon gliding across the sky, still clinging to its post as the sun comes along, both sky lights sharing heaven’s dome?

*the stars turning on, any one particular night?

*the moment when God hauled out his paint set and brushes, and the first leaf turned amber or garnet or the color of pumpkins?

*did you happen to catch the river of monarchs riding the winds, flapping their stained-glass wings as if their life depended on it — because it did?

*did you stare into the indigo darkness, into the etched silhouette of what looked like endless punctuation marks crossing the moon, the night the tens of millions of birdsongs flew overhead, miles and miles into their autumnal sweep southward?

*have you paused in genuflection when the chevron of geese called out from the heavens with their spine-tingling minor-key cries?

*have you watched the sparrows upholstering their wintry homes with blades of dried grasses and tufts of runaway cotton?

*have you found where the cardinal sleeps in winter?

it’s all the wonderment out our window, in the woods, in the world where we’re not looking. and all it asks is that we notice. that we pay quiet and unbroken attention.

it’s all we need some mornings to remind us the world is still intact. to remind us we’re safe in the bosom of this holy and most sacred earth. our ears pressed against its soft chest and the heartbeat of the One who keeps it working.

what wonderments have you noticed, from the autumnal litany above, or from the zillions of moments i’ve not even mentioned?

p.s. my sweet boy is still on the mend. slowly, slowly. tray by tray of home-cooked mac-n-cheese, bread pudding, applesauce and water bottles by the case. slow walks around the block. long interludes of napping in the quiet of leafy suburbia. it’s all aiming to get him back to college before the already abbreviated semester lurches to an end. thank you, so much, for your love and your care, and your prayers. xoxox (p.s.s. i was a wee bit late here this morning, because my friend, the patient, beckoned, and the computer was playing all sorts of tricks….)

p.s. the wholly unsurprising what-came-next (or, can’t quash a mama’s urge to tuck her chicks beneath her wings. certainly not when one is burning up with fever…)

in which we recount the inevitable rescue mission to pluck sick kid from college dorm, and tuck him home where he belongs….

in last week’s episode, we had a sick sophomore in college who’d been quarantined in an old comfort inn somewhere in the vast ohio countryside, a kid who’d been saved from despair and starvation by the glorious graces of one saint melissa, the college catering director who leapt full throttle into the ministrations of a mama hen intent on plying her charge with saltines and gingerale, chicken zoup and instant rice cups, to highlight but a bit of her extraordinary and voluminous six-bag grocery list.

the tale of woe and mono continues…

round about sunday morning, when the fever teetered still at the almost-104 yard-line, when the great ER-doc friend here in chicago endorsed rescue, when the father of said sick kid was jangling the car keys and lacing up his shoes, it was decided that we were pointing the old red wagon straight toward gambier, ohio, and bringing home our ailing one.

which, of course, is where he belonged. six days of round-the-clock FaceTiming — the digital tether now afforded us in this age of iPhone — is at least five days too long. and as much as we didn’t want to interrupt this already surreal semester, perhaps the only one on campus for the sophomores and freshmen this COVID year, we couldn’t bear the thought of him all alone all through the long and fevered nights, unable to shuffle to the fridge for so much as another water bottle.

halfway to ohio, our beloved long-time pediatrician (officially no longer on the case, but again, one of those angels you don’t let go of) dialed in, and ticked off names of ERs he’d trust along our long drive home, should we need to pull over and check in at any one of them. it was, in fact, that scary.

in one of the dozens of text messages i was pinging to our sweet boy, one in which i wrote how sorry i was for having to scoop him up from college, he wrote back, “I cant wait to come home” and then: “It is a prayer answered”

“You just made me cry” i typed through tears, and added: “Daddy says cavalry is coming”

and i tell you, the minute that sweet sick boy was strapped in the station-wagon seat behind us, nestled against his pillow, within arm’s reach, nothing but two surgical masks between us, my heart slowed to a life-sustaining saunter.

synagogue choir, ala YouTube

the holiest part of the night — the part i will never forget — was speeding through the countryside, as the sun dropped low and the stars turned on, and the holiest of jewish holy days, yom kippur, the day of atonement, commenced. in all my husband’s six-plus decades he has never been behind the wheel on yom kippur, a day of reverent prayer and fasting. but ferrying a sick kid to safety suspends the rules — at least the rule about not driving, and so we drove unfettered. and because it’s the year of COVID and all is already upside down, and because we live in the iPhone age and you can dial in from wherever you are, i zoomed into our synagogue’s Kol Nidre service, and the minor-key chords of the cello filled the wagon — and my soul — as the highway rose and dipped, and the field of stars felt so close i might have rolled down the window and grabbed one. i can’t remember feeling so wrapped in heaven’s prayer shawl.

monday morning, as i tiptoed past my sweet boy’s bedroom door, a room all but untouched since summer’s end, a room that’s echoed silence all these weeks, i heard the stuffed-up gurgle of his breathing, and declared it the most soothing sound i could imagine. it’s hard-wiring, i suppose: a mama is best suited to hear in real time her child’s strains, especially when they’re the ones of any sort of struggle. long-distance, sometimes, feels impossible, and wholly against our mama grain.

before the morning ended, we’d checked in to our local emergency room, where they plied the kid with more IVs and megadoses of tylenol. once again, COVID negative, thank god. it’s mono, off the charts.

so here we are, at the end of week two, with another trip to the doctor this morning, and no end in sight (though i know the cure will come, a knowing i do not take for granted).

all i truly know is that i can’t imagine not being the one to be sliding batches of bread pudding in the oven, the sweet scent of cinnamon and eggs and milk — the original nursery-maid’s confection and cure-all — trailing up the stairs and round the bend. nor being the one who’s keeping track of when he’s swallowing which of the five prescriptions now lined up like amber-bottled soldiers on the kitchen counter. nor the one who’s but a few feet away, peeking at his laptop, as he delights in the latest episode of “the british baking show” (his sure-to-soothe show of choice) during the rare few hours when he’s not sound asleep.

there are numbered truths in life, and one of them is that sick, sick kids belong by their mama’s side. or maybe i’ve got that backwards. maybe it’s that mamas belong by the side of their sick, sick kids.

it’s inevitable. it’s imperative. and it’s most certainly a blessing.

just a simple tale, today, of what happened next. and a short consideration of the blessings of proximity when those we love are in some degree of distress. what makes you feel soothed when you are ailing, body or soul?

the angel always comes. often in the darkness.

this angel story begins with a stuffy nose on a sunday evening, five days ago. the nose belongs to my second-born, the one tucked away at college in the age of COVID (on a campus where — wisely, prudently — no one — well, no interlopers, bystanders, or pesky parents — is allowed in or out).

a stuffy nose is barely bothersome, and no one — save for your mother — might notice it. i, though, am said mother. so i noticed it. and mentioned it — in an otherwise matter-of-fact sunday evening phone call. the stuffed-up one all but brushed it off, said he might go to bed a little early. that was about the drama of it. zilch.

next morning, though, the phone rang. early. before 7. which in college time is middle of the night. he’d taken his temp three times, he reported, and it was hovering around 101. to whiz forward in this angel tale, we’ll skip straight to the part where he called midday that day to say the college doctor had stuffed a swab down his throat, taken a COVID test, and was promptly dispatching him to quarantine, at the old comfort inn hotel the college has taken over for the year, for the sequestering of sick kids, COVID kids, to be precise.

until my stuffy-nosed sophomore was proven otherwise, he was stamped, “pending” for COVID. he had one hour to pack two plastic bins with whatever he might need for the next two weeks, and soon found himself in a room with two queen-size beds overlooking an empty parking lot. in the middle of rural ohio.

the stuffy nose was getting out of hand. it was doing fever tricks, making it climb straight up the mercury hill (in the old days, when i went to nursing school, mercury — that slippery silver element — was the thermo-register of choice). the stuffy nose was swelling up his eyes, and making dark circles all around.

by tuesday evening, when the fever crossed the line at 103-point-something, the stuffed-up one called the front desk, and talked to the football coach in charge (yes, two assistant football coaches — sweethearts! — keep watch over the comfort inn, which i now lovingly refer to as “the covid inn.”) the football coach made some calls, and suddenly an ambulance becomes the focus of this too-long-winded tale.

yes, it was decided that an emergency room was on the docket and to get there, an ambulance was called. the mount vernon fire department ambulance. egad. hearing the wail of a siren, coursing through small-town streets, heading straight to where your kid is cowering under the covers, shaking with chills and fever, is a sound you do not want to hear. it’s a sound you won’t forget. especially as it comes closer and closer to the phone on the other end of the line, the line you are clinging to, trying to squeeze yourself through via the itty-bitty invisible wires you’re sure connect you.

since we’re trying to get to the part of the story where the angel comes in, we can boil down the ER part to simply this: they started an IV, zapped him through the x-ray machine, drew lots of tubes of blood, gave him a giant dose of ibuprofen, and declared him a ripe and ready case of mono, as in mononucleosis, an infectious disease that comes in two flavors mostly — mild and wicked. looks like we’re in for wicked.

by 2 in the morning, he was delivered back to the comfort inn, where he slid under the sheets and tried mightily to sleep. the fever though was having none of it. and for the next two days, it teeter-tottered, climbing to the very edge of 104.

we’re almost at the angel part:

all the while, during his days locked in room 229, the college was sending over trays of food from the dining hall a few miles away. (this comfort inn is in the next town over, so the commitment to feeding any far-flung sick kids — ours was the only one in the whole hotel — suddenly entailed a car and driver.) problem was, buffalo chicken sandwiches and breakfast sausage don’t work so well with fever and swollen glands swelling to the size of apricots on either side of your neck.

in trying to zip this story along here, i skipped over the part where the dean of students had called us at home as the ambulance was whisking our fevered child to the county hospital. she was heavenly, and she certainly is among the angels of the week. (there are several; i’m singling out only one for the long-distance-mama’s gold-medal-of-the-week.) early the morning after the ambulance ride, i sent my new friend the dean a little note, and asked if maybe the dining hall could send over those mama staples, the things you always pulled from the pantry when a little one was sick: saltines and gingerale. and maybe a little packet of honey to boot. (ice chips and honey somehow became our cure du jour in this old house.)

well — cue the drum roll — when our sweet fevered boy finally awoke from his long and awful night, he stumbled toward the door of room 229, opened it just a crack, and lo and behold there on the table where they always left his tray, he found not one, not two, not three — but six! — bags of groceries, custom-fit for a fevered kid. it was filled with a veritable wish list of things you might try when you can barely swallow or lift the spoon. there were soups and teas and saltines! and gingerale and 7UP, to boot. there was a teddy-bear squeeze bottle of honey, and cups of instant oatmeal and rice and ramen noodles. someone, some holy blessed someone, had up and left the dining hall, driven 5.7 miles to the kroger super-store, strolled every single aisle, all but filling a cart.

our holy blessed angel’s name is melissa. and as she wrote to me later in a note:

I have a 10 year old son. I cannot fathom him being away from me in a “normal” world let alone in this crazy world we are currently living in. For [T] to be so far away and going through such a terrible time must be excruciating. My heart hurts for you and I wish we could do more! I’m sure it is a constant worry and this is something we can do to take a little of that burden from you. We will do whatever we can to help ease your stress and give [T] a little TLC.

her words — her heart — make me cry, even now, two days later. she lived the holy heart of it all, of every holy book and ancient text ever inscribed.  she literally slipped herself into the holy act of “what would make ME feel better if I was far from home, burning with a fever, all alone and stuck in a hotel a few miles from all my friends?”  the very words i made sure to write, and sent straight up her chain of command, straight to the desk of the college president, so he’d hear firsthand just what a bunch of saints he was shepherding.

so that’s the story, and here’s the holiness: even in a world where every day the headlines tear us apart, and leave us gasping for breath, even in — especially in — those spells of darkness that surely come, right when you’re teetering at the precipice, worried sick and feeling more helpless than in a long long while, the universe always makes room for an angel to squeeze in, to slip in through the cracks. to bring bucketfuls of light. to adorn us with the blessed healing touch. the simple act of reaching beyond the borders of our sorry selves. of going the extra mile. of loving as we would be loved.

melissa, the director of catering at kenyon college, a mom whose job it is to feed the fancy folk and fuel the everyday special occasions, she slipped herself into my scared shoes this week, and she doled out love and saltines in an act of kindness and goodness and through-and-through heaven-ness now seared into our hearts.

angels always seem to come. this world is filled with them, though most often they go about their business without so much as a wink or a nod — and certainly not with trumpet blasts.

but if not for the angels, those messengers of real-live, in-the-flesh blessings, we’d all be piled in the dust. exhausted, hopeless, worried out of our wits.

as i type, my sweet boy is finally asleep. the COVID test finally came back: negative. and today he leaves the quarantine hotel, and gets a ride — via campus security — back to his little cottage in the woods, aka his dorm away from home. if needed, we’ll motor down and bring him home, where i can be like melissa, and ply my boy with whatever his sweet and blessed hurting heart desires.

who are the angels in your week this week?

and, dear melissa, to whom i just might send this, a hundred thousand thank yous till the end of time…..bless you, bless your heart. signed, the mom whose shoes you filled this week.