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Category: caretaking the world

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

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“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….

finding miss rumphius

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“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?

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the day we decided to hatch an egg

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alleys are not where you want to drop your egg. alleys, being back-of-the-way ribbons of potholed pavement, are where kids learn to ride bikes, where cars and pickup trucks rumble along, where trash is dumped into cans (except when the wind blows, and the trash up and escapes from the cans, tuck-pointing the backways in detritus). alleys, too, are the connective tissue between one block and the next. in our alley, we have the occasional gathering. we swap tales of tomatoes. we chase runaway cats and fluffy dogs. we’ve even had summer theatre, right there in the alley.

truth is, the alley is very much a place of everyday business.

and so it was, as i was ambling down the alley the other day, to catch up on neighborhood news, when down i glanced and saw what at first looked like a mushroom. a mushroom sprouted right there on the dark gray asphalt. how very odd. what a curious mushroom. thank goodness, my first impulse wasn’t to kick, but rather to squat and inspect.

the mushroom, i soon realized, was something i’d never before held in my hand. ever. it was a wee tiny egg, a bird’s egg. not cracked, not one little bit. (an astonishing fact, considering it had plopped from the sky to the hard plane of the alley.) it was perfect and whole and, by the relative weight of it, enfolding the start of a little bird life.

right away i looked up, scanned the limbs and the heavens. figured a mama bird must be searching high and low for that egg, that egg i had suddenly, unsuspectingly, come upon. the egg that — i swiftly decided — now depended on me. like that, i scooped up the orb, all spotted with paint dabs of earthy brown. i marveled at the backwash of palest blue, a blue i quickly decided only God would have in God’s paint pot.

and then i ran, cradling that shell that harbored a wee little life. i ran and did what i do whenever there’s a nature emergency: i dialed the original mother nature, my very own mama.

days later, and i am still chuckling about the first words that spilled and the instructions that followed. in the annals of my mama’s story, there will be long litanies of these tales, the times she all but insisted we make like a mama rabbit/bird/squirrel and save the poor darlings. get up through the night. find a small dropper. lay rags in a shoebox, make it all soft.

and so it was with this latest dropping from heaven.

her instruction unfurled without pause. it went nearly verbatim like this: “you’ll have to pretend you’re mama bird. make a nest. get something soft, a rag, a towel, an old shirt. go outside and get some grass. oh! this is exciting! get a lightbulb. it’ll need to stay warm. oh, but will we be able to feed it once it hatches? but, oh, just to watch it happen!”

while i whirled about the house, grabbing soft rags, dispatching the boys to fetch grass by the fistful, my mama got to work identifying said egg. at first, she suspected a brown-headed cowbird. “they don’t build nests,” she informed, “they drop their egg in someone else’s nest.” or in the alley, apparently. then, she revised her hypothesis. decided it was probably a sweet little house finch, as i have droves of those flitting about my yard.

220px-Horton_hatches_the_eggand that’s when the kid who’s 6-foot-3 wondered aloud if he should make like horton, the elephant of dr. seuss fame who faithfully hatches an egg. the elephant tricked into incubatory role when mayzie the mama bird flits off to palm beach, leaving behind a tree-top orphan. horton the elephant who famously intones: “i meant what i said, and i said what i meant. an elephant’s faithful, one hundred per cent!”

alas, we can’t claim 100-percent faithfulness at our house (nor did my firstborn decide to squat on the egg), i am chagrined to admit. we stuck with it for awhile, an admirable while. but then, night fell, and with it, shadow. we couldn’t figure out how to rig up a bulb, without frying said egg, so we’d been skootching the egg, and its makeshift nest, from sun spot to sun spot. i felt my heart drop, more than a wee little bit, when i finally surrendered. when i realized i’d not be the adopted house-finch mama.

and while i now have a beautiful breathtaking wonder tucked on my nature tableau, i also have this: one more lesson from mama nature, the very one who birthed me. the one who all my life has been trying to teach this one holy truth: be vigilant. be undaunted. be the caretaker of wonder. it’s all around. and every once in a while God will tap you on the heart, and ask you to be its midwife.

midwife of wonder, one blessed calling.

what are your favorite tales of times you heeded the call, to be midwife, co-pilot, first lieutenant of wonder? 

never again, we promised

little boy heartbreak

i don’t often bring world news to the table. not because i don’t pay attention to it each and every day. mostly because most of the time the holiest way i know how to live is to saturate the moment, the space before me, with all the heart and soul i can muster.

but there are moments and images that shatter. that land on my kitchen table with the plop of the morning’s newsprint. that stop me cold in my tracks. that propel me to drop to my knees, or tumble me out the door, where i stand beneath heaven’s dome, and i open my heart and my prayers, and i beg for an answer: what can i do? what can we do? how can we gather up this suffering, how can we put balm to the wounds of the world, how can we heal the broken children, broken dreams, broken hearts?

dear God, how can we make a drop of a difference?

so it was when i saw the photo of the turkish policeman lifting the little syrian boy who had drowned in a moonlit sea. drowned when a boat built for 10 had been loaded — overloaded — with 17, too many of them little children. not long after setting out across the aegean sea, escaping from the war-torn hell that is syria, hoping to make it to kos, the island off greece, the little boat capsized, and 12 children, aged nine months to 11 years old, were lost, drowned in the dark, dark waters.

i’d seen the photo the day before of the limp little boy, face pressed against the sand, bare little legs, sensible shoes buckled, still buckled, after he’d washed to shore.

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and then the next morning’s news — on the front page of the wall street journal, a paper held in the hands of decision makers around the U.S., around much of the world — showed the next frame in the story: the turkish policeman lifting, cradling, the little boy. the legs limp, bent at the knee, a little hand folded across the little boy’s tummy.

little boy heartbreak

dead and alone at the edge of the sea, chased away by a war that won’t stop.

little boy, being lifted too late.

and so we need to pay attention, all of us.

amid the first light of dawn, i offered a prayer for the little boy, and all of the others.

truth is, i don’t know what to do, and my prayers feel too hollow. not that they’re not prayed with fiercest urgency. but what i want is to airlift myself to the syrian shore, where throngs of terrified mothers and the children who cling to them are emptying their pockets and purses of whatever currency they can manage to scrounge, climbing into rickety boats, and setting sail under the light of the moon that glistens across the water, and falls, too, across my backyard, falls across my collapsed black-eyed susans and the anemone that nod through the night. (is there not some mystical unifying force — lunar pull — as the beams of the same gibbous moon shine down on all of us, syrian refugees adrift on the sea, and, halfway across the very same globe, our own ramshackle gardens?) i want to walk through the train station of budapest, where babies are cradled against mamas’ chests, tucked under arms, made to sleep on the hard station floor, or out in the city square, where one family — a syrian refugee father, his wife, and their baby — threw themselves across the train tracks in protest, and would not be moved. i want to reach out a hand, offer my home as a place to sleep and eat and be safe, find their bearings in this terrible world that’s chased them from their home, their life, the world as they knew it and loved it.

i’m certain i sound naive, my too-simple solution, my impulse for healing the wounds of the world. but how can we believe in the power of love, the gospel of love, and not believe in trying?

so what will we do, those of us captured by the image of the drowned little boy, haunted all day by the shrieks followed by silence?

there is a river of humanity — women and children and the men who love them — pushed from their homes; rickety boats succumb to roiling seas, and trains refuse to budge, won’t carry the war-torn to safety. the world is watching. we have promised and promised again: we won’t stand back and watch horrors unfold.

horrors are unfolding. voices are crying.

never again, we promised. so how are we keeping our promise?

the question is literal as much as rhetorical, what can we do? what wise response might we muster?

the blessing of being called to the rescue

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sometimes, mama nature beckons us. she plops her unfinished efforts right before our eyes. she stirs us to dig deep into our tender parts, to pull out all the stops, to tend and nurse and care for whatever it is that has fallen, gone limp, lies broken.

so it was the other afternoon when my little phone made a noise, and there popped a text balloon from my little fellow. he was tumbling out the door to soccer, lacing up his cleats, when suddenly he looked down and saw something amiss. he took me two pictures and typed, without pause for punctuation, apparently: “Hi mom I just saw a baby bird as I was sitting on the porch go look behind the pot of flowers I’m not sure if he is hurt but here are a couple pictures I would take a look”

“When you get home,” he wrote, “we should check to see if it’s ok”

by the time i got home, the one little fledgling had company. now there were two fully-feathered, eyes-still-closed baby birds cowering behind the flower pot on the front stoop, a good seven or eight feet down from the nook behind the front door’s moulding where, every year since we put up the lovely fancy woodwork, those old birds have deigned to birth their young. and this despite the fact that up beneath the eaves of our old house we built the feathered flocks an ample nine-hole aerie for their avian pleasures.

bird house

those birds could live here…

but instead they chose their hatchery here...

but instead they chose their hatchery here, tucked behind the corner just above the dentils…

tis the truth of the month of june, at least on this upper half of the globe, this is the stretch of days when those baby birds have tapped their way out of their itty-bitty eggs, they’ve puffed up on a steady diet of worms and fly parts, filled out a thick armament of feathers, and, after days of perching on the precipice of the nest, dared put wind beneath their wings.

and, often, that first flight tumbles to the ground.

which is, often, where we come in.

we are, if we choose to be, the baby bird worriers. we’re the ones who fret from first spotting till at last the baby birds find their way, their flight.

so it was the other day, and through the long and rainy night at our house.

once we found our pair of nestlings, our tumbled duo in distress. (i imagined that, perhaps, the one birdlet, still safe on high, heard his little feathered brother’s squawks for help from way down below, and there, from the above-the-door hatchery, called out something to the effect of, “fear not, little fellow, i’m coming after you!” at which point bird no. 2 — the more cautious one, the one who knew that first flight wasn’t such a smart idea in the first place — he strapped on his bravery suit, stretched his wings, and promptly tumbled down to where his fallen brethren lay flummoxed and without a plan for updraft.)

that’s when we, the bird worriers extraordinaire, sprung into rescue mode. that’s when we spied the baby birds, stranded inches apart, shivering in fear — or so we imagined. and, indeed, there’s nothing like a fear-quivering baby bird to get a mama’s juices running — even when the mama is of the human species and not the feathered kind. we mamas pay no mind to whose baby is in distress; we’re all for one, and one for all in the mama-rescue department.

we leapt into action, me and the fellow who first eyed the distress. we tried to do what little we could do: a bottle cap from a 2-liter jug of birthday gingerale served as the trough for the one farthest from home, and a yogurt tub, cut down to eighth-inch height, served as the watering hole for the other, with room to boot should they decide to share a drink.

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darkness fell, our worries rose. the soccer-playing rescuer, he worried that a hungry cat might make a midnight feast of our little pair. i chose to worry about the rain. and so, with the first pit-a-pat that soon became a tumult of down-pouring precipitation, i was up and out of bed. i sprung open an umbrella, perched it just so, teetering between the flower pot and the stone wall of our old house, in hopes of keeping feathers dry. i imagined mama bird, up high with all her others, and i did what i thought she might do — short of opening my beak and plopping in a portion of a worm. (we all have our limits, you know.)

by morning light, the pair was gone. nowhere to be seen, though i’m certain i heard them squawking thanks, from back in the nest. my little guy remains unconvinced that they weren’t someone’s tasty snack, but i contend that the lack of feathers is proof that a happy ending was had by all. he tried to counter that they might have gone down in a single swallow, with no feathers to be strewn. i, frankly, couldn’t stomach such demise, so i choose to end the tale with all birdlets safely ensconced back in their duly-ornamented hatchery.

even though this particular rescue was relatively drama-free, and rather swift to boot — and cost little more than a couple hours’ sleep — i am ever grateful for the blessed moments when mama nature opens her book and lays a lesson at our feet. it’s a chance, every time, to exercise our hearts, to put muscle to our empathy machines, to understand more deeply just how much we all depend on each other.

it’s a blessing, every time, to be called to someone’s or something’s rescue. in a world in dire need of tenderness, in a world where we’re pummeled by the atrocious (word just came in of atrocities on three continents), it is a fallen baby bird who might stand a humble chance of returning us to, reminding us of, this lasting truth: to reach beyond the walls of our own hearts is to tap into our surest, truest care-taking selves, wherein we get a glimpse of our immeasurable capacities, and wherein, God willing, we begin to understand that we are called, all of us, to be the first line of this world’s tenderest defense.

and better yet when we can share that lesson with a child who is keeping watch on how deeply we keep that promise.

i’ve not yet mustered the courage to go read the details of what’s unfolded around the globe this sad morning. i heard of a beheading, and felt my knees give out. can we rise up and quash the madness with the few small bits we know: can we love more wildly, more wildly than one mere week ago? can we staunch the hate? can we find a way to rescue the globe in need of love?

what tender acts of mercy have you entered into this week?

because in the annals of saints, nurses are among the holiest…

julie joyner + pumpkin head

i went back to my old hospital yesterday. my long-ago, very-much-loved hospital. i went because it’s nurses week, and someone asked if i might wander back and whisper love notes to the nurses. i couldn’t have been more tickled.

DSCF7434even though it’s changed its name — from children’s memorial to lurie children’s — and it’s moved — to the glimmering gold-coast streeterville, in the shadow of the john hancock center, from its old spot at the triangle of lincoln, fullerton and halsted, it’s still the place that’s a beacon to some of the sickest kids on the planet. it’s a place, i’m convinced, where the nurses who work there are nothing short of not-yet-canonized saints.

some of the searingest moments of my life were seared in the chambers of old children’s. i still remember my very first day on the floor where i would work for the better part of three years. there was a six-year-old named pebbles. she had cystic fibrosis, so her lips were blue and her lungs rattled and heaved with every in and out breath. the day i started work at children’s was her birthday, so all the nurses swarmed around her hospital bed, and started to sing. i started to cry. stood at the back of the crowd that ringed her bed, and could not stop the stream of tears as i absorbed the whole of all of it. i was new, was raw, and hadn’t yet figured out how my heart would absorb the inevitable, the heartache, that so often comes when you spend your days keeping kids as alive — for as long — as is possible.

i remember, just as vividly, the moment when the first kid who i’d loved died. his name was joe, joe thornton, and he had one of the cancers of blood — not leukemia, but one of the even more awful ones. i’ve now been present at births and at deaths, and i can tell you that both are equally vaulted moments, moments so sacred you feel the distance all but evaporate between heaven and earth; you dwell, at each end of life, in an in-between space so anointed you can practically feel the breathing of angels at the back of your neck. but joe’s was my very first death, and i didn’t know how it would be. when it came, when his last breath never gave way to another, it was as holy a moment as i’ve ever witnessed, the slow, and silent, and soft-petaled ebbing of life, of heartbeat, of breath. i remember feeling blanketed, as if the softest most blessed space — some new dimension of timelessness — had draped around my shoulders. i remember bathing him, bathing away the last bits of the earthly struggle that had been left behind. i remember the sound of the washcloth swirling through the tub of warm water. i remember the sound of his mama’s wail.

i remember, too, julie joiner, the 14-year-old with the spinal tumor that had left her unable to walk, the sweet girl up above in the black-and-white photo. i remember the moment she called me into her room because she’d been hard at work on a top-secret papier-mache pumpkin head. she’d painted it shamrock green, draped it with orange yarn (aka hair), carved out triangular eye holes, and called it “the irish pumpkin queen.” she made it for me, and she very much wanted me to spend the rest of my workday wearing it. i remember the way she laughed when i first slipped it on. she was a kid who didn’t laugh easily — and who would, with a tumor pressing against your spine, and your mama up and gone for reasons you never knew? reasons that left her papa alone to mind over her and her two other siblings — but she melted like butter once i put that hollow green pumpkin over my head.

children’s was like that. is like that. story after story. heartbreak upon heartbreak. only, they tell me it’s even harder these days to work there because kids are sicker, the socio-economic safety net more unraveled, and medicine, far more complex. the nurses at children’s expend every imaginable super power.

so my heart was triple-timing when i walked in there yesterday. when all the nurses started to trickle into the room. when, one after another, i looked into faces i hadn’t seen in 30-some years. because here’s the most amazing thing i discovered yesterday: as tough as children’s can be on your heart — as many times as a nurse’s heart can be shattered and trampled and left gasping for air — nurses don’t walk away. they stay. for the long haul.

it’s as holy a calling as ever could be.

there are nurses i worked with, side by side, back in 1979 till 1982, and they are still there. still making kids laugh. and burying sobs against their chest. still helping parents decipher very bad news. still carrying home heart loads of worry, and plenty of stories that make you spit out loud laughing. because kids are like that. and sick kids are just like everyone else. only a heck of a lot braver. and more likely to make you go weak at the knees.

and sometimes they’ll say things you’ll never forget.

like the kid whose name i can’t remember, but i do remember this: he was a very sick kid whose mama had finally gone home for a night; she lived far away, in indiana, i think. turned out he took a sharp turn for the worse that very night. he was dying. so his nurse was the one who sat close beside him, who took his hand, and just held it, all through the dark of the very long night. as the little boy’s breaths came shallower and shallower, he started to talk to someone the nurse couldn’t see. said something about how he was ready; he’d take his hand now. then, suddenly, the kid who’d been barely catching each breath, he startled, opened his eyes and said with the most animated, radiant face the nurse had ever seen: “you can let go now, i’m taking God’s hand. i’m going to heaven.”

and then he let go of the hand of his nurse, and he died.

and that’s why i looked those nurses straight in the eye — and the heart — yesterday, and i told them this: “you, nurses, do the holiest work: you heal the wounds of the body, but also the heart and the soul. you listen. you troubleshoot. you make the impossible possible.”

and each and every one belongs in the canon of saints.

if you’re a nurse, what drew you to become one? if you’re not, do you have a story of a time when a nurse pretty much ushered you — or someone you love — into the inner sanctum of all that is holy and hushed?

and happy blessed day of mothering, a definition i believe in because the verb, “to mother,” is all inclusive, and counts anyone who’s doled out the great gifts of nurturing and attending, and loving and doting, that define motherhood.

photo credit to my beloved nursing colleague, claire dassy, photographer and archivist extraordinaire. i never knew that picture existed till a few months ago, when dear claire melted me and sent it my way…..