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Category: caretaking the world

healing instinct

healing instinct

the steam tent: steaming hot water + peppermint essential oil + not-so-raggedy towel = deep breathe

if you listen to the news, and i do, if you read the news, and i do, it is hard not feel this old globe is a raw wound right now, gashed with despair, pocked with pure evil.

i am haunted, especially, by a story i read of the atrocities that rained down on rohingya women and mothers and children. babies ripped from their mothers’ arms. babies tossed into infernos. worse and worse and worse. i can barely stand to spread the poison. (it’s here, from yesterday’s new york times, written by jeffrey gettleman, a kid from the town next door, who grew up to win the pulitzer prize for international reporting.)

i am haunted too by the ghostly images coming from northern california. charred silhouettes. hillsides exposed, stubbled with blackened bits of tree trunk and fence post, as if the unshaven cheek of a long-ago miner. sunsets occluded by smoky skies, skies dirty with soot — sometimes even a hundred miles away from unstoppable fires.

and all of this on top of las vegas’ carnage, and puerto rico and houston and the virgin islands and harvey and irma and jose and maria. no wonder we weep and our knees buckle under.

no wonder this week when my sweet boy awoke in the night burning with fever, my healing instincts, which must have been idling just off in the wings — coiled and ready to pounce — surged into action. pressing cool wet washcloths to his forehead, stirring oatmeal, pouring ginger ale over cracked ice, those were the balms i reached for. to heal him, to heal me, to try — somehow, by some far-flung mystical property — to infuse a drop of healing into this sorry sad world.

it’s what we do, it’s all we can do, when we’re feeling the gaping gasp of despair. when the troubles all around pile so high we can barely turn toward the light. some days, we’re certain the lights have been snuffed. flat-out extinguished.

maybe that’s why some of us are drawn into lives as healers, as nurses and doctors and teachers and mothers (to name but a few). maybe we’re all part of some infinite river of hope, the last wall of defense against a world that might otherwise crumble. a world that could go mad, break out in epidemics of hate.

i’m beginning to think i am typing some dystopian trope here. but you know i won’t leave you in the valley of darkness. what i’m looking for is the answer to what can we do? here, under this one dot of roof, surrounded by leafy environs, how in the world can measly old me make a difference? how hard can i pray? how kind must i be? what in the world might i do to begin to teeter the balance back toward the good?

they’re questions, sadly, for which i don’t have an answer. all i have is the deep down sense that the worse it gets, the harder i need to apply the forces of good, of light, of pure unfiltered blessing.

it’s what propelled me to consider the instinct that drove me to crank the flame under the tea kettle, to listen for the whistle, and gather up the mixing bowl, the utility towel, and the essential peppermint oil.

it was the healing-est move of the week: to concoct a steam tent, and fill it — literally — with healing vapors. to instruct my boy to breathe deep and then deeper. to purify, cleanse, and clear out the gunk.

over the course of the last few days, he’s taken a liking to this peppermint whirl, the one that gets him breathing again.

maybe we all need a steam tent. maybe we need to breathe deep. to inhale. to fill our lungs and our souls with tincture of hope. of healing.

i’m cranking the flame under the kettle.

how are you plying your healing? what are you doing to teeter the balance toward goodness, toward wholeness, toward hope?

and here’s our steam tent recipe, taught by our beloved german exchange student, who had a bad cold this summer: get a big mixing bowl. boil water. pour into bowl. add a few drops of peppermint essential oil (as many as you can tolerate, anywhere from two to three to seven or more). drape a big towel over your head. breathe deep. have box of tissue at the ready. feel better. so much better. xoxo

“hope is the last thing to die…”

earthquake

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

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

“hope is the last thing to die….”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chill wind…

first day plate

like that, the rhythm changed in this old house. turn around, they call it in the land of jazz. disambiguation, yet another fancy word for when the two-beat turns to more. or less.

porridge poti call it “the day the little blue pot comes out of hiding,” the porridge pot, the one that starts the day with swirls of spoon and percolating simmer. it so happened that the chill winds blew in just as the school bell rang around here for the first time of the year.

and, like that, with arms now slid into woolen sleeves, but bare toes refusing to submit to leather confines, one season has shuffled off, cowering in the wings; another now pirouettes under klieg lights at center stage. ah, but autumn isn’t like that. autumn — the autumn i love anyway — is quietly robust. doesn’t make much noise. no clanging, rattling. just an elegant sashay into our midst. enveloping in amber light and jewel-toned hues: garnet, copper, gold.

autumn at once speeds up the daily whirl, and weaves in quietude. the morning rush — with school bus not dawdling at the curb, and school books and shoes forever escaping in the night, nowhere to be found by dawn — is not insignificant, enough to make your hairs turn pewter, but that’s followed by the between-the-brackets hush. suddenly, the middle of the day is on its tippy toes, daring not disturb. and those are the thinking hours, the deepening hours, when time invites me into its depths and nestled burrows. when i can type whole sentences, turn pages, wipe a bathroom sink and wander back hours later to find it still glistening. no wonder i love the rhythm of the autumn. it draws me in.

the change of light and tempo is just enough to make us all stand up and pay attention. and that, i think, is the big idea behind the twirl of earth against the sun. as we move from full-on-light to dappled shadow, the world around us — the garden, the woods, the starry night — shifts too. gone is the bold, stand-up-straight of summer. the basil withers on its stem, the dill is nearly toppled. but i, for one, feel little pang for the season fading in the rear-view mirror. not if truth be told. sure, i’ll miss those fat tomatoes — sliced and salted simply — but imagine the zaftig squash roasting in the oven, and the treasure chest of spices — cardamom, cumin, nutmeg — soon to offer up their fine and pungent notes.

give me a long day of concentrated work. give me a chill morning to nip my toes, and a sweater in which to wrap my goose-bumped arms. give me autumn’s golden light. and a sky of roiling off-in-the-distance clouds. i’ll make holy work of it. i promise.

i found it hard to write this morning, what with all the news squawking from the little white box tucked in my kitchen cove. once i clicked on the news, which is often my first move, even before the coffee’s on its way, i stood there frozen, wondering if i’d clicked on some sci-fi station, what with reports of massive earthquake (worst in a century), and yet another killer hurricane barreling through island after island, charging toward the mainland. i get scared, truth be told, worried that the whole universe is convulsing, rising up and telling us to mend our ways, pay attention to our brokenness. be gentle, for God’s sake, i hear the heavens telling us, in no uncertain words. be gentle with this blessed orb of Earth. be gentle with each other. be gentle, i suppose, even with our blessed selves. 

because i care deeply about leaving you with words that just might add a bit of oomph to your friday morning, i’m adding here the rough draft of words i wrote this week when asked to write the intro to a book of women’s stories, women’s stories of reaching across racial, cultural and religious lines to forge deeper understandings out of plain pure friendship. it was an honor to be asked. here’s what i wrote (i’ll wait to tell a bit more about the book till it’s published). may this bring a little something to the whirl of sci-fi all around us…..

much love, and thanks for reading along…..xoxo bam

Day after day I wake up with my chest feeling hollowed. The space in my heart hurts so much, so immeasurably, I can’t fathom how to contain it. I shuffle down the stairs of my old shingled house, look out the windows into the quiet of dawn, into the leafy arbors, and wonder how in the world can I stitch a single thread into the tatters of this world, this oozing brokenness all around?

I walk in a state of grief unlike any I’ve ever known — and I’ve known quite a few. My grief is for the state of this nation, for the body politic, for the sheer goodness and kindness that I see being battered day after day. I shrink from the modern-day public square — social media in all its iterations — because the vitriol is too much, because the divisiveness tears me apart. I don’t believe in a world of us versus them, and yet, every day those lines are drawn more starkly. I cling to the words of wise souls like Father Jim Martin, the Jesuit thinker and author, who writes in his latest book, “For with Jesus, there is no us and them. There is only us.”

But how, I keep wondering, can my one all-alone voice make a dent in the cacophony? How can a whisper be heard? How can I amplify my deep faith in bridging not burning? Where oh where is there a place for a soul who believes so deeply, yet finds herself flailing with so little a footprint?

And then, the stories of this book landed on my desk. This, I knew right away, was where the answer lies: In ordinary extraordinary stories of women who reach across doorways, and hallways, and kitchen counters, who see beyond burkas and veils and prayer beads and venerations. I see and I read and I wrap myself in the stories of human hearts reaching beyond their own private shelters — walls that, always, can go one of two ways: to open into doorways, or seal themselves off, barricades of hard stubborn coldness, otherness, unwilling-to-bend-ness.

Here, in the pages of this book, is the first best draft of humanity moving forward. Here are the blueprints for the great and eternal commandment: Love as you would be loved.

Here is Ayesha, alone and with newborn babe, falling into the bottomless shadow of post-partum depression, who dared to knock on the door across the hall, and found a friend — and earthly salvation — in the form of an elderly widow named Libby. The Indian Muslim new mother befriending the white Christian widow; both finding the solace they sought — in each other. In the simple act of raising a fist to a flat-planed door, and knocking. Knees knocking all the while. The toeholds of courage start small.

Here is Parwin, who recounts the hair-raising story of her escape, at six months pregnant, from war-ravaged Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. With two young children in tow, and determined to keep their escape unnoticed, she and her troupe traveled by truck and by horse and by foot — 150 miles of fear beyond fear. And in the end, when she delivered that baby just across the Pakistan border, when she found her way to America, she devoted her life to justice, compassion, for living the words of the blessed Koran:

…that you may know each other — and not despise each other.

Here is Dolores, who says she was “marinated, battered and deep-fried in religion,” specifically the black Baptist religion of her youth, and who found herself drawn into a host of houses of worship — mosques, synagogues, churches large and loud or not-so-large and not-so-loud. She was drawn, in particular, to the Buddhist practice of silence — a far cry from the joyful noise of her youth. One night, after a long dry spell in the faith department, she dreamed that Jesus introduced her to his best friend Buddha. Ever since, she’s been a practicing Buddhist. And even more so, a living, breathing bridge between two of the world’s great religions.

Story after story, woman after woman, the leitmotif is always: reach beyond what you know. Reach into the unknown, the foreign, the mysterious. Make it yours through words, and gesture, and deep human touch. Defy the divisiveness. Believe in the power of your own still small voice.

I turn to the holy wisdom of Dorothy Day, who learned from Therese of Lisieux: “By little and by little” — by little acts of kindness, by little acts of courage, we can thread the needle that will stitch the tatters back into whole.

We cannot afford to shrink from the task. We cannot afford to think we don’t matter, that we can’t make a difference. Read these stories of oversize courage and unbounded goodness. Read these stories of faith and justice, doled out in everyday measure.

Be the change you believe in. Be the kindness. Be the radiant light.

Go now, and carve out heaven on earth.

dear chair friends who’ve read this far, how will you carve out a little heaven on earth? 

 

if all the world had a sarah…

sarah bd card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if all the world had a sarah….

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

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

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

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

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

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

a cry for holy Earth…

earth from moon, apollo 8 mission. 12.24.68

A historic extraterrestrial sky—the Earth viewed from the Moon, Apollo 8 mission, Lunar orbit, December 24, 1968

a cry for holy Earth…

or might it be a cry from holy Earth?

i’ve been up since the chorus of dawn awoke me. the night, as it faded, grew thick and thicker in cacophony of high notes, the ones that warble from the breath of birds. IMG_9333

i tiptoed down the stairs, and planted myself in the awakening of the day. i watched the sun rays, inch by inch, rise above the fence on the eastern edge of my garden. watched the sunlight wash the stems and leaves in slant of incandescence. watched the shadows come. and the patchwork play: dappled morning proof.

the day’s upon us. and the earth must want to crumple under heaves of tears. the heavens, certainly, are crying.

that blue marbled orb above, the one afloat in sea of darkness, it’s holy Earth, the one small orb upon which souls live and breathe. souls delight. souls mourn. souls hold hands and dance. they collapse in sorrow, too.

that one marble in the universe, it’s ours to keep. it’s where the theatre of life plays on and on. from socrates to shakespeare and beyond. it’s held horrors — horrors beyond divine imagination: the holocaust. the civil war. vietnam. the awful wars — wars I and II.

but, too, and mostly, it’s been the stage for risings up of the human spirit. it’s where Gandhi walked. and the land where Jesus drew lines in sand. it’s where the brave souls of Selma gathered to march across the bridge. it’s where each and every day unnoticed acts of heart play out — the special needs kid charging down the soccer field with the ball, who then notices his little friend off on the sideline, crying for the ball, so he takes a U-turn, runs the ball to his friend and lays it at her feet, so she can score the goal.

every once in a while, the act of goodness is so spectacular, the whole world takes notice. (consider here the three who, on a portland train last week, rose up against anti-muslim racism, laid down their lives in the face of evil, and then the grieving mother of one wrote a letter to the President, writing of her son, “in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.”)

it’s the planet we call home. it’s where our everyday acts of heroism and atrocity play out. it’s ours to keep. to tend. to till. to caretake as it takes care of us. we are its harbor masters and its holy guardians.

for me, it’s not only where i plant my feet, it’s where my soul finds breath, takes flight. it’s my cathedral, the sanctuary that taps me on the heart and whispers, God is here. did you catch the moonlight through the leaves? did you see the mama bird pluck the worm and fly it home to where her babies chirp? and what of the butterfly, the one that alights on the meadow rue? or the monarchs who every spring and autumn, criss-cross half the planet, returning to the very same tree, generation after generation?

those are the everyday wonders, the ones that unfold just beyond my kitchen door. i’m not even talking majesties, the likes of yosemite and china’s nine “most-sacred mountains.” the ones that just might melt me at the knees, leave me gasping to fill my lungs with breath.

there is so much magnificence i’ve not seen, so much i can barely begin to imagine.

but it’s been entrusted to us. all of it.

as i lay under my sheets, listening to early morning’s song, i began to cobble a wonderlist, those sacred blessings of holy earth, the countless wonders that set my soul aloft. for me, they’re all keys unlocking the doorways deep within, inviting in the swirl of heaven here on earth. they’re where God comes in, takes me by the hand, takes me soaring. where prayer and breath are one…

  • the pit-a-pat of rain, against the leaves, the roof, or window panes. no matter. it’s simply the susurrations of element to earth that lull me every time.
  • the roar of wind, or even the gentle tickle, the interplay of air and leaf. i’ve been known to stand stone-still, ears perked, hair awhirl, absorbing every decibel.
  • any day now, firefly flicker, original flash of wonder.
  • the “audible stillness” of the night, as nathaniel hawthorne so finely, so poetically, put it. that prelude to darkness just before the crickets pack away their chirp, or the cardinals offer up their closing notes…
  • butterfly couplets shimmering across a lazy afternoon.
  • moonlight casting midnight’s lace upon the lawn.
  • inflamed twilight sky, rosy-streaked, purple-bruised, ablaze with setting sun.
  • the lonely haunting cry of the unseen geese’s night-crossing.
  • resilient mama bird instructing flight, over and over and over.
  • those mysteries we learn from books: how baby birds memorize the night sky, fix their inner compass to the lone star that never shifts; the barely-conceivable workings of the monarchs’ thousand-mile migration, on wings that weigh less than half a grain of aspirin.

the list goes on and on and on…..i could — and should — keep a life list. in fact, maybe i just will. and in the meantime, i and all of us who know this earthly orb as a one-time gift from the heavens, we will rise up against the counter-tides. we’ll not let the sacred be wiped out by obstinance and ignorance. we’ll stanch the cries of holy blessed earth, apply the few wise balms we know….

please, please, add to the list of wonders brought to us by heaven and earth in their ineffable gloriousness….

and may your first weekend in june be blessed…..

earth from the moon

hang on, holy Earth. we’ll not abandon you….

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

IMG_9014

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those words, spoken above the din of a crowded downtown aerie, with the city lights twinkling outside, with the clatter of forks against plates, stopped me. startled me. gave me a deep gulp of hope, the deepest in a very long time.

the man who spoke those words knows a thing or two about hearts — not least because he’s an intensive care doctor. not least because he works in hospitals in aleppo, in bomb-rubbled syria. in aleppo where bombs rain down in triplicate, a tactic intended to kill the rescuers as certainly as those in the midst of being pulled from the ruin.

just minutes before, the man who spoke those words — a gentle man with deep brown eyes that bore deeply into me as we spoke, inches away from a table spilling with pigs-in-a-blanket and shrimp and asparagus in long green shafts — had been telling stories to the crowd about being in an underground hospital in aleppo last summer — before it was too dangerous, before death was too certain to stay. he’d been telling stories of a mother of four, who’d been hit by a barrel bomb (a makeshift bomb filled with shrapnel, and chlorine gas), a mother who’d lost her unborn child and two of the three (ages 9, 7 and 5) who’d been huddled beside her.

i listened, rapt, as he told the stories, as he pulled the memories in real-time from inside the vault of tragedies now locked in his mind.

i’d listened a few minutes earlier as another syrian, a therapist who’d come to this country eight years ago, talked about the first months when a family is here in america. how everything — from the alphabet, to bus tickets — is practically indecipherable. how each morning, you awake in something of a daze, in that instant before you remember you’re far far from home. lost in a foreign landscape.

and, here’s the part i remember most, she said that the smallest kindness, the invitation to dinner, the gentle word at the checkout counter, the guiding hand at the bus stop, is never to be forgotten. you will never forget the face of the someone who was kind to you — never, ever.

i wasn’t taking notes; i was listening, so i can’t remember exactly how many syrian families are now living in chicago, forced here by war and unthinkable horrors. i want to say it’s 140. i do know the number is slowing to a trickle, and soon stopping (because of the so-called muslim ban that effectively puts up the “not welcome here” sign). i do know that each of those families, some clustered on chicago’s north side, some in suburbs to the west, have lived through hell, and traveled through hell to get here.

the syrian families who’ve been here longer, since the 1960s and 1970s some of them, when an earlier wave of mostly doctors and engineers packed up their families and moved here, they’re leading the network, the syrian community network.

they’re asking for the simplest list of supplies: rice in 10-pound bags; chickpeas in 28-ounce cans; sugar in four-pound sacks; flour, five pounds; oil in 48-ounce bottles; tomato sauce in cans of 28 ounces; and tea bags, too (no size or amount specified). they’re asking that the foodstuffs be dropped at one of two pantries — saturday, tuesday, and thursday, in glendale heights; saturday, monday and wednesday, on devon avenue on chicago’s north side.**

and they made the nifty card up above, with a whole menu of ways to help: from donating a CTA bus pass, to hosting a dinner. there’s word that someone is organizing an effort — 100 dinners in 100 days — to emphatically urge hospitality, to gather good souls, strangers soon to be friends, at the dinner table. to spend the day cooking, and serving up platters of very fine food. food to fill the belly, but more so the heart.

i’m awaiting word on the dinners. i want my house filled with the sounds of conversation, starting out slow and in delicate tones, and then rising, rising across the arc of a night, into the combustive discourse of joy. of gentleness. of one hand reaching for a water pitcher, or a platter of coriander-spiced lentils, bumping into another. and in that instant of hand bumping up against hand, i want eyes to look up, to look shyly, and then melt in the confidence of newfound friendship.

those are the miracles that unfold at the platter-filled table. those are the joys of a jumble of chairs squeezed round the plank of a dining table. it’s the arc from uncertain handshake at the start of the night, to hug that won’t let go as the guests finally walk out under the starlit dome.

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those are the words the doctor spoke to me. those are the words of which he was certain. and his certainty reminded me what i’ve always believed: one little heart, one undeterred heart, it can be more than plenty to begin to change the course of history.

one dollop of love at a time. it’s the only place to begin.

how might you use your heart today to begin to change the world? 

sending much love to my friend A who organized the gathering of syrian friends at her sky-high abode, and who opened the door to infinite hospitality.

** if you’re interested in dropping off groceries at the food pantry, leave a comment below, and i can email you the precise address. 

and in case you’re inclined to help make a home for a syrian family, here’s the list of what’s needed. 

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this is who we are

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truth is, more days than not i feel like i’m climbing a hill with boots filled with concrete. but then, every rare once in a while, a whiff of hope swizzles by. don’t know about you, but i’m reaching out and grabbing as if my life — all of our lives — depends on it.

last night a friend i love — a friend with a tender heart and fierce magnificent defiance — sent along a link to the sign up above, “hate has no home here.” i’m planting those words — in all those languages and alphabets — squarely in my front yard.

that short declarative sentence captures everything. it gets to the gist of the matter — for me, anyway. it’s the bullying, the hateful tone, and the words and the rulings that pit one against another. that’s what’s draining me, scaring me, making me think i might have a stroke.

“hate has no home here.” hate has no home in my heart.

and, day after day, that’s the epicenter of most of it. i don’t want to live in a country where everyone’s eyeing everyone — are you one of us? we wonder. stopped at a stop sign, tapping our toes in the checkout line. it permeates each and every hour of the day. it’s seeped into the interstitia of all of our minutes. it’s why i stay away from the public square of the new millennia: facebook. i don’t want to marinate my days in the vitriol — from either side of the equation — because harsh words — from any side — serve only to wedge, to divide, to move us farther and farther from the peaceable place where we climb on each other’s shoulders and reach for the heavens.

i was blindsided by the gloating that came along with the win. i hadn’t imagined. i admit that i hadn’t imagined the win in the first place, and shortly after discovered that, for too many, the win gave license to let rip with whatever had been bottled inside. it all came gushing out. and that’s why — months later — i’m still struggling to find my footing.

there’s a house not far from mine where life-size effigies of the former president and first lady were perched on a bench beside the president elect. the former president was dressed in a shiny orange pimp suit. the former first lady, dressed as a whore. it took weeks and weeks for parts of it to finally be taken down (for far too many sickening days, the tableau included a black-faced effigy tied with a noose, dangling from a tree. and ugly yard signs, too). the house is stately, sits on a hill, on a main street that slices this town. i’d have to drive out of my way to avoid it, so i did. i still do. because i couldn’t stand the sight of it. it made me sick every time. i understand that theirs is the right to say whatever they choose; but i wish with all my heart they didn’t find it amusing — maybe delightful — to mock with such vengeance, to jeer, to broadcast what feels to me like plain old hate.

jesus told us never to mock. “blessed are the meek,” is what i learned when i was little, and then learned over and over. “blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart.” that’s what i believed. still believe.

i’m raising my flag and fighting back in the only ways i know: quietly, without folderol and noise.

the other night, driving home through the dark, i was sitting in the back seat when i noticed a car stopped in what seemed like the heart of an intersection, about a block away. i saw the driver get out, and that’s when i noticed something lumpy and dark in front of the car, lying in the road. i didn’t wait for my brain to make sense; i opened the door and i ran. as i got there, i saw that the lump on the ground was a man, just starting to move. he was already bloodied, his face beginning to leak from his nose and his eyes and his forehead. as he strained to lift his head from the ground, the blood poured without pause. the man’s blood spattered me. i cradled him, tried to keep him still. i asked the man his name, praying he’d be able, and he told me. his name was howard. he lived nearby. he had no family, he said. he had no idea what had happened. and that’s when i looked up at the car stopped just inches away, the car whose windshield was shattered as if a boulder had fallen smack onto it.

with all my heart, i tried to keep howard conscious, to keep him from slipping into a place where we’d not get him back. by the time i was asking him to count backwards from 10, my firstborn had leapt too to his side. he helped hold howard still. we both prayed as fiercely as we’d ever prayed. it wasn’t long till a doctor, from out of the blue, ran over too. pulled out his phone, turned on the flashlight, and began to assess the crack that fissured howard’s head.

the one thing i knew most certainly as we all huddled there together, in the dark, in the cold, one man’s blood pouring and pouring: we were all there for each other. life and death is what lay before us, and we were all pulling for life. because we had to. because no matter what’s going on in the world around us, in the end, we are each other’s only hope. and the decency at the heart of every human still breathing is what we’re exercising here. i know that for those few extraordinarily long minutes, it felt to me like we were shouldering all the hope, all the goodness, this world has to muster. we were strangers suddenly entwined in saving one life. and we harbored him with prayer and with love. because isn’t that what all of us hope will be there for us — should there ever be a night that’s dark and cold, a night when our breath is labored, and we’re slipping away?

and in the end, that’s all i know. and it’s the one thing i will not surrender. i will muster every grain of defiance in my heart and my soul, and i will not let hate or hateful words win.

because who we are is all these tiny moments where love wins out, where we rise up out of our comfortable lives, take the reins of what feels right, and do what needs to be done: we march, we make phone calls, we live and breathe kindness as if it’s political protest. these times are begging us to be our best selves. and all around, i see people i love doing just that. they send me yard signs. they raise money for refugee families. they invite those families in for dinner. they listen to their stories. they find love, front and center. and that’s the way we win. that’s what God’s asking. i’m certain.

and i am listening like never before.

what are the moments of love that inspire and embolden you of late? 

as for my friend howard, he is out of ICU, and i hope and pray he’ll be heading home soon. i’ve been keeping watch all week. because howard will forever be in my heart and my prayers. 

as for the sign above, i’m having a few made today. here’s the link, if you too want to print out a poster, a yard sign, a button to pin to your coat (bless them, they’re free for downloading). the magnificent sign was designed right here in chicago by an artist named steven luce. i don’t know him, but i thank him with all of my heart. 

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for the children: an inaugural prayer and a promise

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my heart is heavy today, and when it’s at its most leaden i try mightily to lift it through prayer.

my prayer at the dawn of this day is for the children.

i think in particular of a deep-eyed girl of seven who lives in faraway maine, a little girl who holed herself in her chandelier-lit bedroom on monday, listening all day to the speeches of martin luther king, jr., a little girl who asks questions about how to use her voice — to speak out when she hears a girl teasing her friend on the playground, to speak up for what she believes, without fear that she’ll wind up unloved and pushed aside in the process.

she’s a little girl who is finding her way through the tangled landscape of fairness and justice, who is looking to the grownups around her to find the tools she’ll make her own, the tools that just might allow her to leave this world a little bit more whole — and more healed — than when she arrived.

“she’s struggling with this fear of not being loved if we use our voice and it’s not the same as everyone else’s, if all the voices don’t ring the same,” says her mama, a very wise soul with a very wise voice. “she understands that we can’t give someone else our voice, and we can’t borrow the voice of someone else. so, for her, martin luther king day was all about the power of using our voice for what we believe in, about the conflict of speaking up or keeping quiet even when you know something is wrong.”

my prayer is for that little girl. my prayer is for all the children, the ones waking up, perhaps, on a wobbly cot, under a thin blanket, squeezed tight against the mama who protects them from unthinkable things in the night. i am thinking, too, of the children who wake up not far from me, in bedrooms where walls are covered in papers and paints that cost more per square foot or per gallon than some of us could ever fathom.

i pray for them all.

because children don’t get a say in where they are born, and in whose arms they find themselves cradled. they don’t choose who soothes them; they ask only to be soothed, and fed, and kept warm and kept dry. they beg to be loved.

if they’re blessed, they’re anointed with all of those things. if there are eyes to gaze back at them, a voice to whisper — or sing — to them, if there are arms to scoop them up when they cry, well, then they’ve already won the baby lottery.

children are pure at birth, and not yet thick-skinned. they’re nearly translucent, in matters of heart and soul anyway. their job early on is to pay close attention, the attention of saints and prophets. they’re keeping watch in hopes of figuring out just who it is they want to be, and how they might best find their own circuitous way through the wilds.

i pray for them this newborn morning because i want theirs to be a world where goodness and kindness and gentleness seep in, seep to their core, bathe them through and through in truth and justice and love in purest tincture.

i want the grownups around them, and even the ones far away, to commit, day after day, to trying to show them these few fine things: tenderness, honesty, strength of courage, and moral resolve. i want them enveloped in the very strands at the core of every sacred text ever inscribed.

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Aylan Kurdi, 3, a Syrian refugee who drowned fleeing his war-torn homeland, and washed ashore in Turkey. Photo by Nilufer Demir

i want children to be able to tune into the world beyond their front door and not hear vitriol, not see ugliness. i want them to listen to sharp and curious minds engaged in debate and dialogue, free from jagged edge, free from acid-tinged tone. i pray to God they don’t some day aimlessly change the channel and stumble on images of war-pummeled children, images of children covered in dust and rubble and blood from their wounds; children dumped — or washed ashore — lifeless.

i want them to hear the booming voice of hope, of words that lift the human spirit and set it soaring. i want them to feel wrapped in a message that tingles their spine, because even a child — especially a child — knows beautiful when she or he hears it.

i want each child to know full well that he or she can dream wildly, can be the very someone they choose and work to be. i don’t want them to know the sound of a door slamming in their face, or the screech of a siren carrying them — or someone they dearly love — far, far away. i don’t want a single child to be scared to death, to be breathless with fear. i don’t want hands and arms ripped away from them. i don’t want a child left alone in a classroom or closet or train car, left cowering in a corner.

i want for these children the america that i believe in — one that looks much like the world as God first imagined it: skin in a thousand shades of brown and black and cream. i want a melting pot where everyone gets a fair and solid chance. i want books — gloriously written tomes — to be as close as the nearest library. i want teachers to fill classrooms where learning is rich and intellects are lit on fire. i want leaders with backbone, with the courage to stand up and say, “that’s not right, that’s a lie, that’s unfair, or unjust, or just plain hateful.”

i want a sky that’s uncluttered with smog and poisonous fumes. i want a child to be able to poke his or her head out the window at night and count the stars, connect the dots of heaven’s light, name the constellations. i want the rivers and streams to gurgle and babble and rush and roar. i want children to know the sound of a leaf crunching underfoot, or even a wee little creature scampering by — close enough, perhaps, to muster a fright, an innocent fright, the fright of the woods.

i want children to sit down to a table where there’s food from the earth, wholesome food, unsullied food. food to make the child whole, and strong, and able.

i want children to be strong of body and sinew and bone, yet i know that can’t always be. and for those who are not — not strong, and not able, for children who are sick, or born with terrible burdens, i want them to be able to find a doctor or nurse or healthcare worker who can get to the bottom of the mystery, the quandary, the illness, and work toward a cure. or at least erase the suffering, as much as is humanly possible. i’ll beg God to step in to take care of all the rest, and to ease the worries too — of mama and papa and child, and anyone else who lies awake fretting every dreaded what-if.

i want for all the world’s children all the very same things i want for my own: i want them to know deeply that they are loved. i want them to know there is a heart always willing to listen, to hear every last utterance of their worries or fears or confusions. i want them to know that all around there are great good souls who are gentle and kind and unceasingly fair, souls who do not reach for words as weapons of hurt, or of hate.

i want them to know: when i’ve run out of answers, when i cannot quell the trembles, or chase away the darkness, there is a God who’s always in reach.

i want their prayers to be answered, and mine to be heard.

and i promise, with all my heart on this day, to do all i can to make certain the world i imagine, the world that i want, is the one i work hard to come true. i’ll do my part. starting right now. as the sun rises, again.

what do you pray for the children? what do you pray on this day at the start of a chapter?

epiphany’s eve: the midnight whispers

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legends enchant me. stories passed from generation to generation. stories passed from village to village, hearth to hearth. legends are the stuff of story and wisdom. one part enticement and charm, along with a dollop of take-away.

img_8844and so i found myself enchanted when i tumbled upon a legend i’d not heard before. it popped from the pages of strega nona’s gift, a storybook my faraway forever best friend mailed me this week.

as i learned while turning the pages, the month of december is one filled with feasts, all of which insist on stirrings in the kitchen. it begins with st. nick (dec. 6), flows to santa lucia (dec. 13), then it’s Christmas eve’s feast of the seven fishes (dec. 24), followed swiftly by the midnight feast of Christmas (dec. 25), and new year’s eve’s feast of san silvestro (dec. 31) when red underwear, for unknown reasons, is required (note to self: go shopping).

it seems those italians do not stop: they roll the feasting straight into january, which is where this story picks up. according to strega nona, my new guide to january feasting, the eve of epifiana — that’s epiphany, from the greek, “to appear” — once again finds everyone cooking. but this time it’s for the beasts and birds, the wee scamperers and the lumbering furry fellows.

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“there was a legend that at midnight on the eve of epiphany all the animals could speak to each other. it was because the ox and the donkey kept the baby Jesus warm with their breath in the manger.

“so the villagers wanted to give their animals a feast…”

and that’s all the prompt i needed. (although if you read along, you find the motivation is merely to squelch the chance of midnight gossip among the animals, lest they peg you as a stingy old cheapskate who feeds them not. which i’d say squeezes some of the charm out of the equation.)

for years now, my annual feast for the birds is a ritual of the longest night, the winter solstice. i make suet cakes, string cranberries, heap a mound of seed into the feeders. as darkness blankets the hours, i make certain my flocks are fed, and fed amply.

so now i’ve another excuse. and in honor of the ox and the donkey who bowed down, who warmed the newborn babe with their breath (as exquisite a furnace as i’ve ever imagined), i baked more cakes, melted more suet, stirred in plump raisins and nuts and seeds. i tossed with abandon last night, the eve of today’s epiphany. i filled the old bird bath that now serves as my trough. scattered cakes and crumbs near the french doors, so i could peek at the merriment come morning.

and sure enough. not long after dawn, as i wandered out to refill the terra cotta saucer that serves as my birds’ winter bath, there before me was one big fat mama raccoon, holding a cake in both of her nimble long-fingered fists.

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breakfast, interrupted

she glanced up but didn’t flinch. she seemed not to mind that i was trespassing quite near to her breakfast. nor that i was offering a warm drink besides. (alas, she didn’t mutter a single word, nothing close to a thanks for the chow; so much for the midnight whispers. although she might insist i’d missed the chatter by a good six hours.)

and now i’ve a new excuse for spoiling my herds and my flocks (i like to think of them in masses, as it makes me feel like the shepherd i long to be). there is something deeply comforting in imagining that i’m the guardian of my critters, in hoping they can depend on me to keep their bellies full.

it’s a simple notion indeed. but it charms me to no end, and satisfies the tug to be God’s caretaker of all creatures, great and small and in between. in a world that sometimes leaves me gasping for breath, making a feast for my wild things is balm. especially on a morning when it’s 15 below. and the ‘coon at my door comes knocking.

what are the feasts that prompt you to stir in the kitchen? and is epiphany, the feast of the three kings, or wise fellows, among the ones that stir you?

sometimes it’s called little christmas, and for me it’s a quiet pause, the last inhale of merriment, before we return to so-called “ordinary time.” may your epiphany be filled with quiet and wonder, and a bright star in your night sky.

one last legend, in short form: the italians also celebrate epiphany with the story of befana, a soot-splattered old woman, sometimes called “the christmas witch.” in the version i love best, a few days before baby Jesus was born, the wise men stopped to ask befana for directions to the manger where Mary and Joseph and the newborn babe would be found. she hadn’t a clue, but offered the travelers a room for the night. come morning, the trio invited her to come along, to meet the Christ child. she declined, saying she had too much housework (therein lies the learning that one oughtn’t be waylaid by mopping; you never know what you’ll miss). once the kings had gone on their way, the old lady had a change of heart. covered in soot, cloaked in a deep-black shawl, carrying her broomstick, she set out in search for baby Jesus. to this day, the story goes, she’s still searching. and as she travels from house to house, on epiphany, she leaves behind fruits and sweets for the good children, and coal, onions, and garlic for the ones who are naughty.

merry blessed epiphany.

bulb therapy

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the air’s been sodden around here with the sound of buzz saws and grinders and choppers, the sounds of the earth being chewed up and gnawed and spit back out. sawdust abounds.

on one side of this old yard, trees have been succumbing, falling to the ground and hauled away. on the other side of this old yard, a wobbly fence came down and with it years and years of my old vines, vines i’d long ago planted, vines i’d watched creep proudly, robustly, across the cedar planks. my climbing hydrangeas, of late, had grown into tangled, glorious specimens, their canes thick as tree trunks, some of them. but a week ago, they lay limp on the ground, some of them crushing whatever had dared to bloom in the tight space below.

i’d felt as crushed as my garden. those old vines, cascading with dark green leathery leaves, and clusters of lacy white blooms, they’ve served as the backdrop to my secret sacred garden. they were the curtain wall between me and the world beyond. they were the screen that wrapped me and my prayers when i’d sit down to offer up my petitions, or when i’d tiptoe along the bluestone steps, playing peek-a-boo behind the boughs. they were home to cardinal and squawking bluejay. they were landing pad for the occasional monarch butterfly. or the hummingbird who’s been hovering for weeks now, before she flew away south.

because i live in the middle of two houses that have recently sprung “for sale” signs, because good folk with new dreams have moved in, or soon will do so, it’s my job to shift and bend and adjust. it hasn’t been easy. i’ve lay awake plenty of nights pining for an old pine that is no longer. i’ve been out before dawn surveying the damage. i whittled away two whole hours in a dentist’s chair dreaming up the contraption i’d build to try to salvage my vines.

the trees are now piles of wood chips. the old fence replaced with a new one. old ferns have been crushed. old vines looking worse for the wear. they’re withering, some of them, and barely holding on for dear life.

and all this, of course, is backdrop to the real stuff of life: in a spiral of grief that continues to turn, this past week held poignant first-year markings of the deaths of people i loved, my father-in-law, my very dear friend. it just so happened that tuesday was both the birthday of my friend who died in march, and the first-year anniversary of my friend who died last september.

and when you’re aching in that whole-body sort of a way, when you feel sodden with sadness, you find yourself in terrain beyond words. i found myself aching to order up sacks of bulbs, to lift my trowel, to slice into the earth, and tuck away what amounts to hope, faith and promise: to plant myself an autumnal crop of bulbs, all of which will lie unseen through the winter, and then when the thaw comes, when the dregs of winter at last melt away, tender green slips will poke through the earth, will rise and reach for the light, will open in bloom. will whisper: “here’s your reward for believing.” or “here’s what you get when you hold onto hope.”

i have friends who reach for needle and thread. i have friends who click their knitting needles, who unspool their skeins of yarn, who measure their prayer in row after row. i have friends who chop, and sizzle, and stir their pots. i have friends who dab their brushes in paint, splash color across canvas. i’m apt to reach for the healing balms of the trowel, to get down on my knees and coax tender stems, prop fallen blooms, to play out the ministries of the garden. for in tending the earth, i always find healing.

the rain, blessed rain, kept me from digging this week. so i distracted myself with the next best thing: the bulb catalog. specifically, the one from old house gardens, the charmingest purveyors of heirloom bulbs that i’ve ever known, all under the wings of bulbsman scott kunst, a man so dear he scribbles love notes onto each and every order. he’s retiring this year, nearly a quarter-century after deciding to devote his life to keeping alive some of the rarest, breathtakingest bulbs on the planet. so i’ve ordered up my last batch from dear scott, the last time i’ll find one of his love notes on my bill.

i tell you, i was overwhelmed by the pull of the earth, the impulse to get down on my knees, and stitch my garden whole again, one bulb after another.

because, really, it was me i was aching to stitch together again. and i find my balm in the bulbs of september.

where do you find your balms, your holiest balms? 

p.s. a tiny word cloud about old house gardens, where each bulb comes with biography, with the year — or the long-ago century — of its first appearance on the planet (say, “little beeswings,” a dahlia from 1909), and a charmed tale of its origins or its near-extinctions. and the old line-drawings that punctuate the catalog draw a daydreamer in. the delicate blooms found on its pages are pure acts of resistance, of refusing to let the beautiful wither away from this earth. and the secret weapon of nearly each and every one is their heavenly perfume. whereas modern-day hybridized bulbs might have had their scent stripped away, these beauties stir olfactory sense, infusing your garden and your nose with the perfumes of long long ago….