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Category: caretaking the world

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

miss rumphius

“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.

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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…..

of may bugs and the wonder of footsteps above

maybugs and wonder of welcome

he was gone by the time i started bumbling into may bugs. i found them crawling across the old pine hutch, the one i almost burned down one night long ago when a candle took a fancy to the century-old wooden knobs. i found the spotted-back bugs slithering across a chinese bowl in the living room. i found them parked and preening smack dab under the daffodils on the dining room table.

they were but the latest charmed import from the charming fellow who called this old house home for the last two weeks of chilly, drizzly april.

he’s gone now, our dear friend bernd, father to jan luca, the blond-haired lad who two years ago was here and stole my heart as, each day at dawn, he tiptoed down the stairs, splayed his stash of colored pencils and his writing papers across the maple table and sat beside me at the morning bench, crafting yet another page in the latest of his illustrated storybooks. (had i ordered this sweet child from bavarian central casting, i wondered? had he dropped into my heart from a puffy cloud of dreams, one that had wafted across the atlantic and settled down along my lake shore?)

and — in a role we’ll never forget — bernd was also the big-hearted papa who late into the lonely nights last summer sat beside our little world traveler, the one who’d trekked to germany and found himself topsy-turvy. even as the midnight hour came and went, bernd never left our little fellow’s side as he heaved his traveler’s tummy and wanted, more than anything, his faraway (and passport-less) mama to airlift him home sweet home. you don’t forget a man who soothes your child’s tangled heart. who, for days on end, pedals beside him on miles-long bike treks through munster’s leafy arbored tunnels. and buys him ices at the finish line.

it’s a multi-chaptered friendship now, what with all the criss-crossings of sea and sky. and the shared knowledge that we’ve loved each other’s children as if our own, for the few short weeks they’ve been in our care. and this time round, we got to be the ones to unfurl the welcome mat for bernd. to tuck spring beauties by the bedside, wrap the empty mattress in the softest flannel sheets, fill the fridge with meats and cheese and toothsome breads, because we’d been schooled on how to feed a touring deutsche mann.

the bed is empty once again, the footsteps now are stilled. bernd, one of the liveliest minds i’ve encountered in quite some time, has packed his bags and climbed aboard a train, leading his flock of westphalian schoolchildren down to where abe lincoln roamed.

but for the better part of these past two weeks, we shared our house, and felt our hearts wedge ever wider. it’s what comes when welcome lasts for days.

it’s that rarest of alchemies, the one that tiptoes into your very soul, and settles in at the comfiest nook. it’s mixed and poured in the shared pulse beat and the daily rhythms ticking through the hours: the soon-familiar rustle of bare feet on bare floor above. the flushing of the morning drain. the coming to know that the extra coffee mug now queued beside the pot is the one that takes a glug of what you now know to be vollmilch, whole milk.

(you actually manage to pick up a word or three, over the course of your 10-day german immersion, and you thank your lucky stars that your houseguest is the english teacher at the german school in telgte, north rhine-westphalia, and can converse with depth and nuance on any subject you introduce, from the strife in ukraine to acupuncture as a cure for allergy.)

it’s something sacred, i swear, this slow-unspooling tête-à-tête and cœur à cœur that comes only when circling in close proximity over the course of added-up days.

and, like all that matters most in life, it’s an arithmetic of the most elemental units, combining to intricate — and breath-taking — calculus.

when we inhabit the same four walls, when we come to know by heart the waking up and slumber, when we pass a bowl of lumpy potatoes across a table, swap sections of the news, when one conversation circles back and round again, when we are interlaced across the span of sunlight and moonlight, when we share the itty-bitty worries of the day (was any school child lost in the trudge across chicago’s loop?), and when one of us applies the ice to the other one’s purpled and twisted wrist (after a spectacular late-night fall that’s left me typing with one hand), we are more than simply friends.

we are bare-hearted humans who inch closer and closer to a shared vision of the world.

sympatico, “having a fellow feeling;” sym derived from syn (greek, meaning “together with, at the same time”) + pathos (again, greek, for “suffering, feeling,” or “a quality arousing pity;” related to penthos, “grief, sorrow”).

it is what happens, over hours and days, over the pirouette at the refrigerator door when one reaches for juice and the other for cheese, over the turning out of the kitchen light when at last it’s time for bed, over the considerate hauling out of the trash, and the remembering to keep the cat from the allergic guest’s pillow.

it is what’s bound to come — a sort of elmer’s heart glue — that’s applied in drips and dabs across the days. it’s our natural inclination to harbor the wholeness — the light and shadow, the fine-grained and the sweeping brushstroke — of those with whom we share dirty dishes in the sink, whose toilet paper rolls we make certain are plenty, whose soggy socks we whirl through the dryer.

it’s as if we’re erasing, hour by hour, the walls that keep any two humans apart. we realize — because we hear the gurglings of everyday life, we scour the sink of another morning’s whiskers, we laugh out loud at the same wacky lines on SNL — how very much we inhale and exhale the same few molecules.

and, thus, we get that rare peek at the truth: we are all but a bundle of quirks and soft spots, we all get goosebumps when it’s cold, and our tummies growl when they’re empty. and beneath the physiologic kinship, we unfurl the thoughts and ideas that animate our imaginations, we hold our native lands up to the light, and we discover that the globe is a very small orb, and our hearts are at their glorious best when we remember once again how deeply connected we all really, truly are.

to say nothing of the rich parade of chocolate bugs that melt across your tongue, and leave a lingering sweetness that won’t go away anytime soon.

maybugs kitchen counter

the chocolate lady bugs, it turns out, are a may day tradition in germany, when kinder (that’s children) wake up to find a trail of tucked away “may bugs,” all begging to be found. not unlike our easter egg hunt, and similar in spirit to our long-ago may-day tradition of secretly dropping a basket of spring beauties on some unsuspecting someone’s doorstep, it’s a hide-and-seek i’m now adding to my annual repertoire. and every time, my heart — like the milky chocolate — will melt, thinking of dear beloved brilliant bernd. who made our april not dreary at all. despite the temps in the 30s and 40s, and the rains that would not go away.

do you have tales to tell of long-term hospitality, the gift of opening your home and finding a new inhabitant at the tenderest spot of your heart?

 

tea therapy

tea therapy

against the arctic whistle on the far side of the glass, the shrill siren of the tea kettle is all but marking shift change, with its regular rhythmic blasts. here at the old maple table all week, it signals: “in session.”

it’s the steam-driven bellows of the mugs of teas that punctuate a holy ritual taking place here. almost as if a shingle had been hung, with red neon arrows blinking, pointing up the bluestone walk, past the paned front door in shade of oceanic blue, lighting the way past snow drifts to the tucked-in table where the talk unfolds.

it’s been a blessing of this month of college interlude. my own sweet boy is long gone, now back in classes, but a host of other college kids, kids with heavy hearts and twisted potholed paths, kids who’ve lost their way, they are finding their way here, to this table, to this ample-bellied teapot where the water never empties and the teas are always spiced. my bowl of clementines is at the ready, so too the cookies under glass, where a swift lift of the domed lid offers sweet accompaniment for salty tears.

i find it a whisper of a miracle that kids have figured out they are always welcome here, and that there’s a heart who will listen without judgement, who makes a place for them to dump their worries and their fears. and who lives and breathes the promise that these dark days will end; there’s a grownup — right here in the flesh — who’s known the shadow and the great abyss, and who — with skinned knees all her own — found her way up the side of the steepest trail.

“it’s the 10-minute rule,” one wise tea-sipper intoned. she meant that she’d been taught to take on her overwhelming dread or angst or out-of-this-world anxiety in 10 minute chunks. endure it. know it has an end, and will not swallow you whole. and in a good 10 minutes, something deep inside will shift. or not. and you’ll enter into yet another 10-minute exercise in sheer survival. and soon enough, sure as sure can be, it will pass. the vista will change. and those baby steps — those 10-minute triumphs of straight-up enduring — they will, through simple additive powers, combine into hour- and then hours-long stretches of breathing. curled in a ball, perhaps. or with the self-propelled motivation to pick up a book, climb on a treadmill, call a friend, tiptoe to the kitchen to see if warm company might be found.

i’ve seen the gamut here this week, had kids whisper words, and follow swiftly with, “i hope that doesn’t shock you.” no, it doesn’t shock. no, no. never. it only breaks my heart that smart kids, gorgeous kids, kids with hopes and dreams  are nearly train-wrecked by the vicissitudes of hurdles set too high, of broken promises and betrayals, of a world in which no sin goes un-broadcast and there’s too little wiggle room for the fine art of making honest mistakes.

so while i steep in my own brand of guilt for not raking in freelance assignments, and while my bank account is on the decline and not the rise, i find more than a dose of solace that the pages of my life flipped forward to the chapter i long ago dreamed of: where i’m the old lady at the maple table, the old lady (not yet hunched-over, thanks be to the pharmaceutical gods who give us bone-boosting weekly white horse pills) whose shoulders are wrapped in the woven folds of woolen shawl, and who with lumps of sugar and dollops of milky cream doles out vast acreages of her heart and what scraps of wisdom she’s tucked into her apron pocket all along the way.

at long week’s end, i find myself bowed in prayer for these children, these wide-eyed pilgrims trying so hard to find their way, to find the shafts of light breaking through the tight space between the rocks. and i find myself so deeply grateful that my years of being lost now pay me back in solid company where it matters most: here at the old maple table, where hope is served around the clock.

no need to knock: i promise you, the door is always open. and so’s the heart.

word of the week: i believe i’ve let languish a promise made back in 02139 to bring you a delectable word of the week. well, here’s one for this week — salmagundi (provenance: nigel slater’s “notes from the larder”)  a hodgepodge is what it means, and it comes from a literal mix of chopped meat, eggs, flavored with oil, vinegar, anchovies, and onions. but used freely far beyond the bounds of the kitchen, as in “they were a salmagundi of old and young, wise and fool.”

and before arriving at the query of the week, another bit of poetic thought picked up last week in my online “poetry in america: walt whitman,” class, taught by professor elisa new of harvard college. in her introduction to poetry lecture, she riffed on poetic language, and its powers. i thought you might find it worth pondering, and so i snipped it to bring to the table, though i forgot to leave it here, as last week’s recipe took up so very many lines….here tis, from elisa new, harvard’s powell m. cabot professor of american literature (and wife of former treasury secretary and former harvard university president larry summers):

Poetic language is language worth pausing over. It’s language that slows down time. It’s language that takes us into corners of our experience we might have overlooked. It’s language that is conscious of itself as language. It’s language trying out and expanding and pressing at the borders of what language can do, just as in other media, in painting, painters think about how to use paint in new ways. In the world of music, musicians think about how to use tone and sound in new ways.

Poetry is language curious about language itself. To say that is, in a way, to put poetry at the very center of the humanistic enterprise, since human beings are the creatures who use language. When we study poetry, we think about what it is to be human, the ways in which our existence is mediated and created and advanced and expanded by language.

oh, to be so supremely conscious of the words we choose, and how we push the boundaries of human connectedness….

where do you dish out your best counsel? the kitchen table, the cutting board, the cookstove, the couch, the driver’s seat of your mobile, the bedroom, the work bench, the miles and miles upon which you walk? 

joy of one

joy of one. tedd. 12.

sooner or later, it happens. to anyone who’s assembled a tumbled lot of kids. housed them. fed them. worried through a night or two.

it’s the law of simple arithmetic. subtraction, actually.

x – 1 (to the nth power, depending how many you’ve accumulated) eventually = 1.

for all the momentum you’d once acquired under that one shingled roof, for all the noise once collected over forks and spoons and spilled milk, there comes a day when there’s only one poor child under your sights.

poor child, indeed.

that one and only kid is unshakably under the steady gaze of eyes that have no distraction, that aren’t too often pulled hither or yon.

that poor kid is all alone in the glare of your watchtower.

and in our house, the grownups come in pairs. so in fact, he’s under double glare.

he wakes up some fine mornings to not one but two tall people tickling him from slumber. one’s armed with warm, moist washcloth (the turkish spa treatment, you might rightly think). the other employs soft circles to the hollow between the bumps where angel wings were supposed to sprout.

he saunters downstairs to made-to-order pancakes and bacon. on mornings like this morning, when all that slumber was hard to shake, one of the tall people caves and offers a ride in the little black sedan. complete with concentrated conversation, the rare sort that comes when the interviewer is truly deeply interested in all that lurks deep down inside your soul.

now, you might be retching right about here. thinking, holy lord, what sort of overindulgent parenting is this? where’s the rough-and-tough school of hit the “eject” button, hightail ’em out the door, stuff a granola bar in their pocket, and kick ’em in the pants, with a casual, “have a good one,” tossed over your shoulder as you slam the door behind ’em?

well, there are rare few chances in this boardgame called “a life,” in which to pull out all the stops, to give it everything you’ve got, to score one more chance to do it right, to love with all your heart.

so that seems to be the m. o. over here.

by accident of gestational bumps and broken hearts, we’re in our third chapter of parenting over here. we had the one-and-only round one (a round we thought would never end), the oh-my-gosh-it’s-two (yet another round i seemed to think would never end), and now, thanks to a very far away college quad, we’ve got one-and-mostly-only.

day in and day out, it’s a ratio of 2 to 1.

and perhaps the most beautiful part of being the mama of a 12-year-old when you yourself are 56, barreling toward 57, is that you are wise enough to know: there is no more sacred incubator in this blessed gift of life than the one into which you pour your heart, and whatever accumulated wisdom you’ve scraped up along the way — that holy vessel called a growing, stretching child.

doesn’t matter to me if the child comes by birth or by heart, or simply wanders down the sidewalk and finds a place on my couch. it’s a nasty speed-chase out there, with cars flying into ditches right and left. if the walls within which i dwell happen to offer rare respite, time-out, breathing room, a place where dreams can be launched, and hurts aired out to dry, well then i’m posting a shingle on my doorpost: “time-out offered here.”

even after all these days — and there’ve been 4,420 — since that sweet boy landed in my arms, i consider it a miracle of the first order that he’s here at all. never mind that mop of curls. or the bottomless smile and the matching dimples. or the tender way he takes my hand and gives it a squeeze in the middle of driving from anywhere to anywhere. never mind that, mid-lope out the door, he hits the brakes and circles back for a goodbye hug — one for each grownup.

never mind all that.

it’s just the rare precious miracle of the chance to rocket-launch one more sack of hopes and dreams and heart. to try to pack in all the love and goodness and tender toughness that just might add a shard of light to this sometimes darkening planet.

i’ve always said he seems to know, deep inside his soul, that he was a last-chance baby. the one who beat the odds. the one who left his mama jaw-dropped and quaking at the news. those sterile hens in the bible — sarah (90, when she birthed isaac), rebekah and rachel, to name a few of the so-called “barren” — had nothing on me when it came to being flabbergasted at the revelation (although my shriek came upon seeing the little pregnancy plus sign turn pink, which i don’t think was part of the biblical story).

and so, he seems to indulge us in our over-lavishing. fear not, we try to keep it in check. at least when anyone’s watching. but i happen to have married my teacher in the tenderness department. in patience, too. that man has never once uttered a note in the tone of shrill, a tone i know by heart. used to be i didn’t stop myself till he shot me a withering glance. that stopped me, rattled me back on track.

but over all these years — and there’ve been 20 in the parenting corral — i’ve learned to take his lead, and not auto-leap — well, not every time — into the role of mrs. harsh & overhurried.

once upon a time you would’ve thought the world depended on our getting to the nursery school on time. and i still have trouble reminding myself that a tornado-strewn whirl of clothes heaped on the bedroom floor is NOT the moral equivalent of hauling swine flu into the country, hidden in a clandestine stick of salami.

i think often — expend a bumper crop of brain cells — on the subject of growing kids. it’s religion to me, the holiest sort. it matters more than anything else i will ever do. closest thing to curing cancer. because it boils down to taking the heart and soul you’ve been handed, and tenderly, wisely filling it with light. considering it a stealth missile of planetary illumination. the answer to a peace-prize prayer.

oh sure, the darkness will come. we can’t keep that at bay. but we can give the gift of buoyancy. we can keep the boing in the human spirit. the bounce-back machine that takes the wallops, and rights itself again.

there’s not a creature on the globe who wouldn’t pray to be loved deep and pure and forever after. it’s the highest hope of all creation.

and at our house he only wishes for someone else to please steal our attention. especially when we double-team the launching him from bed.

here, on this crystal clear morning before the day of atonement, at the end of a long week of wondering where my next writing assignment will be, the one bit that bubbled up was my poor outnumbered child. he weathers us well. has a stable of distractions. there are two particular readers, readers on the jersey shore whom i happen to adore, and this one was, in good measure, for them. forgive me for indulging in family lore. i know that nothing matters more to them than knowing their sweet boys — five grandsons — are in good-enough hands. 

what do you consider the holiest work you’ve been asked to do? 

love, bam