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Category: caretaking

returning the favor

eight years ago, four of us — a soon-to-be fifth grader, a soon-to-be freshman in college, and the two grownups who live in this old house — boarded a plane, then rented a car, taking considerable note of a string of improbable hurricane alerts as we skirted the edge of the berkshires and drove straight to the heart of emily dickinson’s poetic home village.

on the other side of a night when i could not stop the tears, could barely muffle the occasional sob, on the other side of squeezing extra-long-twin sheets round a bumpy old mattress, dodging that rarest of western massachusetts hurricanes, and wandering the greensward that would soon be my firstborn’s faraway home, three of us lined up on the green, tears clouding our eyes, and we hugged the tall one goodbye. whispered last lines of love notes in his ear, blessed him with unspoken incantations, and the little one (for that’s who he was at the time) hugged and hugged and wouldn’t let go.

the kid we left on the college quad, he’s returning the favor. flying home even as i sit here in the lightening dawn. putting aside law books all his own, because eight years later, the one who wouldn’t let go, is going off for his own adventure in college.

in this old house, eight years is our defining narrative. the eight-year-span, our indelible equation. it’s the arc of time between brothers, it’s the second chance i’ve had from the start, to see if — second time around — i just might get it right (or at least a little bit righter).

when you grow up eight years older or younger than the one you declare as your hero, you’re somehow magically stripped of the competitions and jealousies that, ever since cain and abel, seem to get in the way of so many siblings. eight years pretty much erases the dark spots. eight years amplifies and magnifies the essential heart of the matter.

and so, those eight years are drawing him home, the one who this time around will be on the giving end of the goodbye. the one who, on the eve of the start of his own third year of law school (he’ll fly back to new haven just in time to slide into his seat in one of those seminar rooms), he’s coming home to be here for the bumpy days of goodbye.

he’ll be here to tell the soon-to-be college kid what to pack, and what to forget. he’ll be here for those long-and-winding conversations that stretch deep into the folds of the night. heck, i’ve already deputized him, put him in charge of imparting a few things-you-must-know last-minute instructions (given that three times in the last week, i’ve been mistaken for the college kid’s grandma — thank you very much, hairs stripped of original hue, hairs now a shimmering shade of, um, gunmetal grey, or as we like to put it, “pewter” — i figure the 26-year-old stands a far better chance of targeting particular cautions, and speaking the language of post-millennial college).

and then, a week from today, all four of us will clamber into the old red wagon (the one i’ve already packed, swear to god, when my dry run to see if it all fit turned into the what-the-heck, why not leave these sheets and towels and plastic milk crates right where they are, wedged inch-for-inch into the factory-allotted maw at the back of the car). and, this time, barring no middle-of-ohio hurricane warnings, we will point the car in the direction of yet another greensward, this one with a middle path as pretty as any in new england, and we will do what one does when moving a kid into a dorm, and then, at the appointed hour (it’s inscribed in the orientation handout: “1:15 p.m. sunday, family farewell. families leave campus.” p.s. late-breaking update: looks like they’ve gentled the instruction with a simple declarative, “Families, we look forward to seeing you in October for Family Weekend!” in other words, scram!) we will do as we’ve done before, though never in this particular order.

some of us might try to hold back tears (don’t count on me in that bunch), and as promised in the unwritten family code, the biggest brother in the bunch will bestow the final benediction: he’ll reach out his brotherly hand, pull the kid in close, wrap him in one of their signature all-enveloping hugs, whisper words i won’t hear, and then we will inch ourselves away, back to the old red wagon that will be heading home hollowed, and slowly filling with tears….

that’s what we’re doing this week….

do you remember your own college drop off? do you remember the last words imparted before the ones who left you drove off into the distance?

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p.s. photo way above on the right is a placeholder from graduation, when once again the big brother dashed home for a short sweet action-packed weekend. once i click the trophy shot, i’ll swap it out for safe-keeping here. but for now, it’s just perfect. 

the inside-out blessing of the summer fever

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i wouldn’t wish it on anyone. but now that it’s settled into this old house, now that it’s felled the boy whose legs are almost too long to stretch across the couch, the one whose peach fuzz pokes out from under the ice-cold washcloth i lay across his brow, now that it’s given us hours and hours to spend in conversation that flows from idle to silly to whatever’s been corked inside his heart, the summer fever has its advantages.

most especially when it hits on Days 30, 29 and 28 of the countdown to college. in the undulations of fever, when the hours stretch on and the mercury rises again, we’ve burrowed deep into the gift of time spent inches away from each other.

i’ve pulled out all the ministrations he’s come to know by heart, the ones synonymous with being sick in the house where he grew up: the plastic cup filled with ice chips, doused in spoonfuls of honey; the stack of saltines for nibbling, the cold washcloth swirled through the ice-water basin that sits not far from where he lays. he knows the rhythms and sounds of being nursed back to vigor. he asks, from his sickbed, from under the washcloth, “what will i do if i get sick at college?” and i sense it’s one of only dozens of college what-ifs.

the thing about fevers is they take down the walls we wear like armor to get through the highs and lows of the days. fevers strip away the tough stuff, fevers peel away the pretense. fevers let loose what lurks deep inside.

and so these have been the tenderest days. days that wouldn’t have come if the fever hadn’t landed, hadn’t slowed the boy in his i’m-soaking-up-every-hour-with-friends tracks. most days, he’s a blur whirling in and out the front or back door, up the stairs to change from basketball in the sun to dusk at the beach. he’s quite brilliantly making the most of the signature summer, the last one of high school, the last before his tight band of brothers scatters like pool balls across the smooth green velvet that is america’s collegiate landscape.

and because my singular focus these days is soaking up my end of his equation, savoring these hours before it goes silent, before the sheets on his bed are unrumpled for weeks, before i set only two knives and two forks at the dinner table, i’m receiving the summer fever as a gift from the heavens. using the hours to press against his heart the truths i want him to seize: that he’s learned, under our tutelage, just how to fend for himself; that all these years in the crucible of our love is firm foundation for whatever comes his way; that i will always, always be only a phone call away (he actually told me this week he’s going to be calling a lot — this from the kid whose version of a long phone call is three sentences before the dial tone comes).

and, of course, that i will always make house calls.

we’ve even used these hours and days to turn back the clock, to pull from the bookshelf the books he loved as a wee little fellow. he’s curled his hot self beside me as i’ve read and turned pages, followed the antics of poor james and the most giant peach. it’s not a bad thing to take a time-out, to review in real time the idiosyncrasies of how you were loved. in sickness and in health. on good days and days that were not.

it’ll be a long time is my guess till the trusty old washcloth, the one with magical powers, gets pulled from the shelf, and lovingly draped on the very hot brow of the boy i’ve loved through it all.

and now it’s time for the fever to go, and the trusty old washcloth with it….

did you grow up with particular idiosyncrasies on the days you were sick, and someone nursed you back to raring to go?

 

prayer for comings and goings

gyroscope

gy·ro·scope  /’jira-skop/  n. a device used to provide stability or maintain a fixed direction, consisting of a wheel or disk spinning rapidly about an axis that is free to alter in direction. a device for measuring or maintaining orientation and angular velocity. it is a spinning wheel or disc in which the axis of rotation is free to assume any orientation by itself.

“device for maintaining orientation.”

sometimes i think my job is to be the human gyroscope. to keep it all straight. to keep all afloat. at speeds all their own. above all: to maintain orientation.

sometimes, even my own.

today is one of those days when the gyroscope in me is working overtime. before i was even awake i was tracing the map in my head of where people i love — children i love — are scattering today. one is climbing into a van with a van full of friends and a summer’s worth of clothes and rolling from new haven, to new york, to washington, to the rolling hills of virginia, then back to d.c. for a long, hard summer playing like a tv lawyer.

yet another of my kids (there are only two, lest i make it sound as if there are dozens and dozens) is marching into his last friday of high school. then he and the little flock i’ve come to love (as if my own), they are scattering like pool balls all across the country: wisconsin, new york, indiana, michigan, ohio, and, yes, illinois. (how apt that the heartland is draped in these particular boys, a heart-filled flock if ever there was.)

years back, when my firstborn headed off to massachusetts, and i stayed behind in sweet chicago, i got my first taste of this re-mapping that mamas do. i imprinted the hills of western massachusetts, pioneer valley, into my imagination. i knew the streets and inclines he loped day after day. and as i’d talk to him, the pictures in my head traveled along. on days when i wasn’t talking to him, i imagined where he trekked. you learn, when you’re someone who loves faraway, how to plunk yourself far far from where you dwell. the size of the space inside your head, it reaches as far as it needs to stretch. adds a live pulsing dot onto the map of the globe. you find yourself scanning the news for hot spots near any one of your very own dots. but mostly, you unreel a whole new reel of picture shows, one for each faraway someone you love.

i woke up this morning wanting more than anything to do like i’d always done when they were little, and we were about to go on a road trip. we’d pile into the wagon, check all the seatbelts, shuffle the water jug away from their feet, be sure the snack bag was reachable. then, before i shifted the car into reverse, we all paused, bowed our heads and muttered the mixed-up prayer that was our own: “holy garden angels protect us.” (one of us once dropped a syllable in guardian and it’s stuck ever since.)

this morning my prayer would be a bit more complex. it’s been nuanced over the years, textured with shadow, with depth and, yes, patches of darkness. the pleadings are at once as unfettered as ever — please let us land safe and whole wherever it is we’ve set out to go — and far more intricate, taking into account the particular inclines and tight mountain passages that come when the journeys are of the real-world, unchaperoned, higher-altitude ilk.

my instinct — no matter how far from home the journey begins — is always to reach toward the ones i so love, spread my arms and my safe-keeping prayers across and around them. i picture the prayer shawl, the one we draped over their shoulders the day they first chanted the Torah, the one we’ve pulled off the shelf for each of their blessings. all these years and journeys later, it’s the sacred cloth i yearn to lay on their shoulders, to wrap round their backs, as they bow their sweet heads, and my job — my holiest job — is to anoint them with my prayers. and my love.

dear holy God, God of adventure and challenge, God of steep inclines and precipitous drops, dear God, steady their footfall. soften the blows. dial up the everyday triumphs and occasional joys. most of all, bring them home, safe and sound and whole. and, yes, steady me, as i try my hardest to maintain orientation. no matter what comes.

amen. and with love.

what’s your prayer for comings and goings? 

what it takes: an inventory of the heart

a woman i have come to love dearly, a woman as close to human sunshine as might be, birthed an idea a few months back, to gather women on the eve of mothering day, for a special mothers’ mass at the lovely little catholic church in the leafy little town where we live. she asked if i’d write something, and then tiptoe to the altar and read the words, something of a reflection at the end of mass. i said yes, of course.

a handful of the lovely women who were there asked if i would please, please, please give them a copy of what i wrote, because they wanted to give the words to women they loved for mother’s day. of course i said i would, so here they are. 

Long, long ago, so long ago now I can barely remember, but back in the day before there was anyone on the planet who called me his mama, before I was the first one anyone thought to call in the deep dark of the night or the soul, before I was the one who two humans were certain would know where to find any lost object under the sun, get them out of any imaginable jam or tight-spot or pickle, before I was the one who pinch-hit as therapist, philosopher-in-chief, laundress, driver, nursemaid, human alarm clock, short-order chef, in-house theologian, and occasional dispenser of wisdom or knowledge or simply Advil and band-aids, I had no clue how clueless I was in the mothering department. 

I think maybe I thought it was going to be like babysitting. Only without having to peek out the window to see if the grownups were pulling in the driveway. And without having to race around the house — in the two minutes between the crunch of the tires in the drive and the turn of the key in the back door — hiding evidence of the pillow fight and the popcorn disaster and the mess in the bathtub that made the little darlings — oops! — an hour late for bed. 

And, maybe I thought, when it was your turn to be the grownup, your turn to haul in the groceries, hold the keys to the car, give up your window seat on the airplane, at least you got to pick the names of the little rascals you’d be watching — for the next 20 years. And then some.

Nope, no one could have truly clued us in, into this life-leap that catapulted us into motherhood. No one could have sounded loudly enough the early warning system. No one could have made you believe, no matter how many times they whispered it in your ear: This will be the hardest wholesale rewiring of who you thought you were in the world. And it will test your every instinct for survival, for faith, for long-distance endurance.

Fact is, you were hardly alone — though you might have felt you were stranded on a godforsaken island — when, in those early days, you were totally flummoxed by the wee swaddled bundle, the one who weighed in at less than two sacks of flour, for crying out loud (oh, and, yes, it did that too — cried out loud. Till you were certain DCFS — or your mother-in-law — might be called, and you’d be revealed as not-yet-ready-for-licensing in the maternal department). 

Who would have feigned surprise, if, once or twice — or dozens of times a week those first couple weeks — you’d strongly considered returning said bundle to the delivery room that delivered that babe in the first place?

After all, in the deep darkness of those late noisy nights, you’d plotted it out, hatched your escape route: Come the next inky twilight, you’d just mosey back to the maternity ward, drop the squawky bundle at the nurse’s station, attach a Post-it note that read something along these lines: “So sorry. This is way more than I ordered. You really should find someone better suited to the job. I’m afraid I’ll break/scar/ruin (insert your own disaster verb here) the little sweetheart.”

But then, in the next instant, when those matchstick-sized fingers curled into the fleshy folds of your neck, or clung to your breast as if you were the life raft (which you were), or when you inhaled a whiff of that newborn-baby scalp, or marveled at the chubby thigh that was dimpled — and delicious — from the get-go, you surrendered all over again. 

You felt that hot streak of motherlove rise up from deep down inside, and you knew — even though you had not one clue how — that you were in this for the long haul. And there is no turning back. 

No turning back from the toughest job you’ll never get fired from. Even when you swear to your best, best friend that you really blew it this time. 

No turning back from the job that promises to test all the parts of you that you were actually proud of, and all the other ones you’ve always known you were sorely lacking.

No turning back from the closest you might ever come to knowing what it means to be the first-response rescue squad, to save the gosh-darn day (even if all that means is that you find the lost cellphone just before you toss the dirty jeans into the sudsy washtub). To be the one and only who can soothe sobs, make the hurt go away, quell the queazy tummy.

Here’s a little noticed omission: If you flip through the dictionary, and dawdle in the M’s, you’ll find the definition for Motherhood severely lacking. You’ll find no mention of the resilience that’s required, or the capacity for your heart to triple in size, exponentially, year after year. 

You’ll find not a word about the long nights of courage when the little numbers on the thermometer keep rising, and all you can do is walk in circles, draw the bath, climb in and pray. 

You’ll read nowhere about the cavernous hours you spend pacing as the minute hand on the clock ticks round and slowly round, until the click at the door — the one you begged the heavens to hear before your heart pounded through your chest — until the click finally comes.

You won’t see mention of the tossing-turning nights, the ones when you lie awake, playing and replaying the playground scene, the one your little one tearfully spilled into your arms, as you tucked him goodnight and he told you why he can’t go back to school. Ever. 

No, motherhood in all its nooks and crannies can hardly be charted for all its dips and inclines, its shadows and, yes, its radiant graces. 

To be a mother is to sign on for life. To take your seat in the front row of a love affair — a heart-to-heart entanglement — one that unspools from inception, and knows no pause. 

Some days, yes, you’ll be the teacher. But, more often, you’ll be the one who’s soaking up lessons you’d otherwise never have had the guts to tackle. And your little person, so often, will be the one who’s spilling wisdom, speaking truth, and doling out humility by the cupful.

Truth is: You thought you were loving to the outer limits of your heart, then, one dark afternoon you’ll never forget, just after the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, lying on the Green Bay Trail, bloodied and banged up, thrown from his bike, after you’d raced to the ER, prayed every prayer under the sun and the moon and the night stars, you held your breath for one long hour while the doctor read the CT scan that would tell you if your kid’s spinal cord was severed, and during that hellish 60 minutes, you’d already decided, so help you God, that you’d be the one to give him bed baths the rest of his life, and to sit by his pillow reading Hemingway and Twain and Seuss and 101 Dumb Baseball Jokes till the end of time, if that’s what it came to. And when the all’s-clear sign finally came, you dropped to your knees and swore to God you would never, for an instant, take for granted the messy kid who could not, for the life of him, pick up the killer piles off his bedroom floor. And whose beautiful mind is the one piece of him you were not willing to surrender. Not even in your hour of deepest darkness.

And then, too soon, comes the day when you leave that kid on some leafy college quad, or watch her board the flight to boot camp, and your knees will shake, and your heart will feel like its cracking — so much so you’re tempted to drive to the ER, because maybe, you think, this is a real live heart attack, this pain that’s piercing through your chest — and you walk away — from that college quad or that airport terminal — more alone than you ever knew you could feel — and you wonder where all the hours went, and if you taught the kid everything you really should have made sure she knew. And did you tell her often enough: I love you, just the way you are.

And you think back over the fevered nights, and the dawns when the retching at the toilet would not end. And the tears spilled over mean words hurled on the playground. And the countless negotiations you endured — bargaining for one more hour before curfew, one more text before lights out, one more bite of broccoli before you’re allowed up from the table.

And you ask yourself — how in the world did you do it? 

And you take a census of this woman you have grown to be, this mother you’ve become, and you realize who you are is mightier than the fiercest wind, and tenderer than a balmy April’s breeze. You’ve weathered tornadoes of the heart, and sailed on interludes of giggles and long walks squeezing hands.

You’ve stood up to bullies and talked down the coach who tried to cheat your kid. You’ve defended and pleaded and apologized for the wrongs your kid did not intend. You’ve gone woozy when you spied the gash in your kid’s head, and held him down with kisses as they stitched him back together. You’ve melted into tears when the stranger called to thank your kid for sticking up for hers — in front of an entire lunch table, God bless him. 

And you’ve gotten up in this blessed beautiful church to tell anyone who’d listen: The holiest job I’ve ever done, the one that soared my heart to heights that I’d have never known, the job that took my broken self and made me whole, it’s the sacred call to mothering. 

And it is for the strong of heart. And it is all of us. Every blessed one of us. 

So help us, Mother God. Amen.

and so, on the eve of this next round of Mothering Day, blessings to all who mother in all forms of the life-giving verb. especially to my very own Original Mother Nature, and my very own “other mother,” my mother-in-heart, who happens to be mother to the man i love for life….to everyone for whom this day comes with crushing heartache. and for every someone who has found deep inside herself capacities and wonders she’d never have imagined. may we all be blessed. this old world desperately needs a whole lot of mothering. xoxox

tell us your signature tale of motherlove: who taught you, and what were her most lasting lessons?

p.s. photos up above are, left to right, my mama shielding me from raindrops (and everything else) the day we brought sweet Will home from the hospital, and — eight years later — the day sweet Will shielded me from raindrops the day we brought sweet Teddy home from the hospital. 

p.s.s. a few years ago, at the mothers’ mass at old st. pat’s, our little church downtown, i gave a version of these very remarks; my sunshine friend asked me to give the same reflection, but of course i tweaked for this week’s mass. because writing, like mothering, is an endless exercise in revision. 

TK _ WK hug

my sweet boys the day we left the taller one at law school…(almost two years ago)

balm for the late-winter blues

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maybe you, too, feel pummeled. pummeled by the news. pummeled by the daily screech of nasty. the abundance of bully. maybe the unrelenting ice (and the cracks and the creaks in the bones that go with it) has left you gasping.

at our house, there’s a nasty case of shingles, and i’m walking around in a hard plastic splint, thanks to aforementioned ice. i don’t mean to be the human embodiment of eeyore, my favorite misanthropic donkey.

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

but, yeesh, february took a very long time to come to its last gasping breath.

i was gasping, all right.

and of course three-quarters of the pain is self-inflicted, since i’m the one who tuned in early, and never did leave, the shenanigans on capitol hill. the ones where over and over all day wednesday we witnessed displays of ugliness and partisan baloney the likes of which had me muting half the day, and wiping away tears at the end. sometimes the news of the day makes me think we’re back in ancient rome, crammed in the coliseum, watching gladiators tear each other to shreds. tearing us — and the moral fabric of this national experiment in hope and humanity — into tatters as well.

good thing an old, old friend, a friend who is the antithesis of all that is ugly in the world, good thing he was pencilled in for a long, slow overnight visit. the sort of once-in-a-rare-while visit that requires — no, invites — a whole day’s attention to all the arts of the hospitable heart. there were fresh sheets to tuck onto the bed, and sinks to be polished, besides. there was lavender water to spritz onto pillows. and a table to set with old fine blue-willow china. just-opening daffodils were slipped in a vase on the sill of the window in the room where our dear friend will dream. the dinner, slow cooked, will serve as invitation to a long night’s nautilus of deep conversation.

an overnight guest is the chance to step outside our everyday rhythms, while at the same time drawing another into the intimacy of those very quotidian rhythms: kicking off shoes after work, rinsing dishes after dinner, turning out lights for the night. falling asleep, each in our rooms, to the shared lullaby of an old house’s hisses and snorts.

or maybe it’s simply that to open our home — truly open it — is to open our heart. a muscle that demands regular exercise ( and not only of the cardiovascular kind). a vessel that begs to be filled with a good surge of love. the center-point of our soulfulness that, once in a while, does well to be reminded of its capacities.

all i know, at the start of this newly born month, at the end of the longest shortest one, is that it’s balm to my late-winter blues to crank up the flame on the stove, smooth the sheets on the bed, and await the face at the door of the old friend who, time and again, has shown us the best of human connection.

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

and what are the balms you reach for in your soulful apothecary?

book of delights, indeed

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there’s a little book in my stack of books to read, and it’s titled quite honestly, without the usual hyperboles and obscurities that sometimes find their way into titles. the book of delights: essays is its name. unadorned. not hiding its purpose. in most anyone else’s hands it might be too saccharine by doubles. but it’s in the hands of ross gay. and he’s a poet, and someone i wish i could spend a long afternoon with. or a semester. in one of the classes he teaches at indiana university.

IMG_1332professor gay might be one of the most ebullient hearts i’ve read in a very long time. in true poet fashion he sees what most miss. he writes longhand in pen (he tells us, in a line i underlined, that susan sontag once said somewhere something about how “any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use”), and, pen in hand, he notices everything from a church marquee to his predilection for licking driblets of coffee off the edge of his cup. somehow, deep in the landscape of each and every something he notices, he finds room to wend to a place that explodes into joy, or take-your-breath-away revelation about the quirks of being human.

the book of delights is a collection of one-a-day “essayettes,” anywhere from a paragraph to five pages, written from one august-first birthday to the next. professor gay tells us that one delightful day in the month of july a couple years back he decided to write a daily essay about something delightful. he wrote 102. his book (published this month from algonquin) has been called “a joy explosion.” that, from lidia yuknavitch, author of the misfit’s manifesto, no less.

before i pluck out a few things that shimmered for me — and hopefully for you — you should know a few things about the poet-professor. mostly this (at least for now): one of his collections of poetry, catalog of unabashed gratitude, (2015) was the winner of the national book critics circle award, and a finalist for the national book award in poetry in 2015. in his day job, he’s the director of creative writing at indiana. oh, to be a student in bloomington. oh, and he’s a gardener, plucks plenty of wisdoms in the patch of earth he tends.

in fact, catalog of unabashed gratitude has been described as “a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. that is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.” (i’ve already added it to my reading list…)

but here’s the passage from book of delights i wanted to bring to the table today, because in a world sodden with sorrows, every shimmering shard of gentle goodness is a necessary daily multivitamin for me.

listen to this from an essay titled, “the sanctity of trains” (and then we’ll consider it):

I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other. But that’s really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking – holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what’s too high or what’s been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck – at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper. This caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise – always.

“an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking….”

“this caretaking is our default mode, and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise — always.”

that stopped me in my tracks — both of those bursting-out truths. made me begin an inventory of caretaking, one worth making a communal effort.

caretaking:

–how my husband literally never fails to say thank you for dinner. even if all i did was slurp into a pot a tupperware vat of leftover chicken noodle soup that my beloved down-the-alley neighbor sarah left on our doorstep.

–how my cross-the-street neighbor ran out in the ice and cold to hand-deliver half a box of  “ugly” produce — all organic, but too bumped-up to be sold at the store or something. coulda fooled me. those sweet potatoes and zucchini — on a cold winter’s day — were perfect to me.

–how the lady in the parking lot let me go first. how the whole line at the checkout stepped aside to let the woman, clearly in a hurry, with an armload of stuff, go ahead of all of us.

–how my mom shuffles up the walk every tuesday with her blue plastic cooler filled with zip-lock bags of ingredients (a cup of rice, an already-chopped onion) and various cans and a package of meat. because tuesdays have been grammy tuesday for the last 26 years (the night she cooks for us, sits down to eat with us), and she can’t imagine a week without tuesdays.

what ross gay is getting at, though, are the nearly invisible caretakings, the ones hardwired, perhaps, into our DNA. the ones that sometimes rise up into heroic proportion — make us run into the street if someone’s been hurt, or we’ve heard a loud thud or a crash. but more often than not, they’re the gentle empathies — the instinctive “otherness” — that propels us to not always and only be out for ourselves. they’re the random acts of kindness that, collectively, quietly, weave heart into the fabric of the nitty-gritty everyday.

and they matter. more than we often realize.

because ross gay made me pause to consider the nearly invisible art of taking care of each other — strangers, and friends, and dearly loved ones, besides — i’m going to keep watch. and work a little bit harder to do my fair share.

what caretakings have caught you unaware, and melted your heart for even one nearly invisible moment?

this one’s for…

boy with my heart

you. and you. and you.

my world these days is inhabited, certainly, with hearts that are heavy, hearts that are hurting. one is mourning the loss of her mother, her brilliant and vibrant and unforgettable mother. another will never stop mourning the loss of her daughter. one struggles with a diagnosis that week by week makes it harder to hold a pencil, pour juice in a glass, pray on her knees. another is slowly losing her powers to see.

and then there are all the others, who harbor hurts and shoulder unbearable weights.

i walk through the labyrinth, alongside their lives, seeing their pain, imagining the crushing weight of the worry, wishing more than anything that words — the surest thing i know, short of lifting out my heart and wrapping it round them — could do the work of saying, “i remember. i’m watching. i’m here to listen. you’re not all alone.”

in a world where we all whirl, from birth till the end, in our own little amoebas of space and sentience, where the oceans of life bang up against our shores, where we stand and brace ourselves for whatever comes, never knowing what will wash up next, the one holy grace — short of the cord that ties us to heaven — is the grace of soulmates who listen, who put forth their own shoulders to bear a chunk of the load, who dare to sit side-by-side in the dark, to not say a word when silence is best, and who sometimes, rare sometimes, know just the right words. or they try anyway.

if only we all slowed down long enough. if only we all let down our own layers of armor, those impenetrable sheaths we carry into the day to keep ourselves safe from rocks and arrows, not realizing that our efforts to gird against our own hurts make it all the harder to recognize others’.

if only our words could do the work we wish for. if only we could slither inside someone else’s pain, sidle up close by her side, and whisper just the right curative potion.

if only words could work in the way that we hope and we pray: if words had the power to heal. to lift burden. salve the wounds. rinse away the sting.

maybe, sometimes, they do.

which is why i remember a few short phrases spoken to me in hours of dread. or despair. or unbearable grief. i remember a friend insisting, “you got this,” when she and she alone held that certainty. i remember, in the crowded kitchen of the house where i grew up, not even an hour after we’d buried my father, my uncle leaned into me, rested his hands on my shoulders, looked me deep in the eyes, and said: “the depth of the pain is equal to the depth of the love,” and suddenly my immense and immeasurable grief became bearable. because somehow i now had a framework, a balance of scale, to understand the pain as a pure reflection of love, and in that equation i found the muscle to bear what would be months and months and months of heart-crushing pain.

there’s not a morning that i don’t wake up and tick through an inventory of heartaches and griefs all around. i recite the names of people i love, a litany propelled by pure empathy. i pause on each name and each story, sometimes for longer than others. i imagine how hollow or heavy it feels. and i send up a prayer. and then another and, often, another.

the beauty of prayer is that words — those sometimes stumbling, fumbling, ill-fitting sounds that come from our throats — words when spoken in prayer take on powers that come from far beyond our own soul. words spoken in prayer do immeasurable work. they seep in through the cracks, or so i believe. they settle in deep, and maybe just maybe they send up tender resilient shoots, and one day they’ll bloom. into love. into peace. into the breathtaking power to bear whatever it is we know we cannot bear alone.

and so this fine morning, i offer up words for the ones who i love who are hurting. and hollowed. and certain that no one could ever imagine how lonely it is. or how dark.

this one’s for you.

love, b.

what are words whispered to you over the course of your life that made you know you could carry the load, you could go forth, one tender step at a time? 

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

any hour now, the house next door, a house where an old man of 92 has lived alone for a few years, a house the old man has been trying to sell for months and months (with not a single offer), a house where just a few weeks ago the old man told me he feels as if he’s gone before a judge and been sentenced to life in jail only the jail is his home, that house will have some bustle today.

two women will be pulling cans and boxes and thingamajigs from shelves in the cupboards. not because the old man is moving out finally. but because an old friend is moving in. an old friend of mine. a friend i knew to be needing a place to live. a rich and wonderful friend who for a host of reasons is in between houses. and desperately needing a place to call home, a place where she can breathe, and look out the windows at sunlight. or snowflakes. or dawn.

after a week or two of nearly comical round-about “talks,” the two of them have reached a deal that already hints of heart more than wallet. she will be renting what amounts to an upstairs suite, two roomy bedrooms, a bathroom, and closets. he will be gaining the comfort of footsteps up above, the rustling in the kitchen as she whips up one of her amazing effortless feasts.

and that’s not all: my friend drives a car, and the old man next door — his name is george, and i don’t think he’d mind my using it — he lost his old white oldsmobile last summer when it got crunched by another car. george escaped with bumps and bruises, but the lasting blow was the car got towed away, and taken away — for good. as part of “the deal,” my dear friend will be, among many things, george’s newfound wheels. she will drive to the market when he cobbles a list (long a fellow who marketed for himself on the fly, an ad-libber of marketing, he claims to be not so good at list-making and, at 92, is intent on teaching himself this new skill). she will drive him to the doctor. and, as seems to happen every once in a while, she’ll give him a lift to the emergency room.

but here’s the thing about that last point in particular: just a week or two ago, i was sitting with george on a day he’d woken up dizzy. i’d run over after he called, a scene that unfolds not infrequently, and was perched beside him in a hard metal folding chair (he’s cleared the house of nearly every piece of furniture, the saga of trying for months to sell a house that won’t budge), when he told me in something of a whisper that, really, he thought the chest pains and shortness of breath might just be from the stress of living alone, of not being able to sell this house that he loved, a house he built for his beloved late wife who for years and years struggled to breathe, a house he’d filled with countless “upgrades” to make her breathing easier, to make it easier for nurses to come and to go. a house he didn’t want to sell at a bargain-basement price. to george, that feels like an insult. an insult to himself, yes, but more so a slap at the memory of his most beloved wife (in the great room of his house, the only room still with furniture, there are exactly four items: a recliner chair, a metal tv tray table, a big screen tv, and a faded picture of his late wife hanging from the wall). it’s his unwillingness to settle for what he considers an unconscionable price that has shoved him into this jail-cell of a situation, and how he’s come to spend months and months alone in that house, and now months and months without a car, or a way to get around. and all the while the pains in his chest have gotten worse and worse. and the dizziness comes and goes.

and as i sat there listening, wishing like anything i could figure out how to lift his burden, it dawned on me that maybe there was an outside chance of a way.

my old friend had just moved out of her own longtime house into a rented room, a tight-squeezed room in a townhouse where a little dog (not hers) had free rein and hospital pads were scattered about the floors in case the wee dog hadn’t time to do his business outside. even though i knew she’d just unpacked boxes and boxes, even though i knew she’d just signed off on the first month’s rent, i could see the light in her eyes was dimming. i was haunted long after i drove away and left her to squeeze a few files onto her makeshift desk.

it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, my two old friends — one a friend by accident of geography, the other a friend who’s been something of an auntie to my boys, and a lifesaver to me — could make a quirky equation, could be each other’s short-term solution. so i spoke up. i mentioned first to my friend my quirky idea. she paused and considered. then i brought it up to george’s daughter, the one who’s been slumped under the weight of her papa’s affairs, and driving countless miles from her house to his many times a week, and often at the drop of a dime. she too saw the possibility. so i wandered over and asked george myself.

and by the middle of next week the upstairs room with the light that has barely shone in all these years, it will be glowing above the garage. it will be glowing down onto the picket fence that runs between my house and george’s — and, for now, hers, too. my old friend will have a whole upstairs all to herself. she’ll have shelves and shelves for her books. and sunlight or moonlight pouring through the tall, tall windows.

george will have the comfort and joy of being not alone. already, i’ve been told, he pokes his head round the corner when my friend is there (figuring out what will go where), asks if she’d like him to make her a cocoa. (see what i mean about this being more heart than wallet?)

it’s a happy ending in the making, i’m certain. i feel it in my bones. and not because i will now have a dear friend next door, one with whom i can share old new yorkers, and whatever i’ve whipped up for dinner. but because in this old cold world there still exists the possibility of kooky solutions, and hearts can be pulled together tighter than any wallet or real-estate guide might suggest. fact is, the two of ’em — george and my friend — both happen to be among the dearest souls on the planet, and right now both are in tight pinches that neither one deserves.

it all reminds me that we live, all of us do, on the thin membrane of possibility day after day after day. our charge, if we take it, is to live and breathe the belief that 1 + 1 just might = 3, to know that love and light is just beneath the surface, aching for a soft spot, a place to break through.

despite what the naysayers insist, we do not dwell in a zero-sum world. my gain is not your loss, nor vice versa. if we decide to live a life of looking for doors that might be opened, dots connected, threads interwoven, if we believe in looking up and looking out for the other guy’s sweet victory and triumph, well, then isn’t the world one stitched by generosity and not stinginess? isn’t that the way we all win? and doesn’t that tip the globe in the direction of light not shadow?

it’s always boggled me, and heavied my heart, to know that this is not the way of the world. but we can make it be. we can spend our days on the lookout. on the lookout for love, for light. for the arithmetic of unlikely sums.

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

do you have a tale of doors being opened, and love rushing through?

burrowing into december, month of miracles and searching

breakfast in bed

this is the month, they tell us, of miracles. “a miracle happened here.” so say the hanukkah refrains. it’s the month, too, of searching for a room, searching for room in your heart. so say the stories of christmas.

amid the month of darkness, miracles await in the nooks and the crannies. amid the month of december, there’s searching to do. deep-down searching.

here’s a secret: sometimes, you’re wise to approach the days with a deep-down quiet. that’s how you come to hear the whispers, and the cries that haven’t the oomph to rise to deafening decibels. that’s how you just might stumble into a miracle, sometimes find room in the cave of your heart.

the three, it seems, belong together: the quiet, the miracle, the room.

december for plenty of folks is a month of tight passages, and tangled adventures in forward motion. december is a month that grabs some by the ankles, tugs at them, tries to topple them, steepens the climb.

december, when you turn down the noise, unspool the days in whispers, tiptoe rather than race, is when you just might hear the scratch at the door of your heart. you are awake to the muffled cries that come in from the cold. and, often, that’s how you find yourself in the company of miracles, and discover a few extra inches in the capacity of your heart.

in recent days, i’ve tumbled into one or two souls in shadow. souls who couldn’t for the life of them see the light. certainly not their own. i wonder if i’d been racing through the days, a list of to-do’s blaring in my ears, if i would have heard quite how deeply they were hurting.

thank God, i heard.

i paused. i took a breath. shoved aside what the day had intended for me to do. instead, i climbed into the trench where each one found him or herself. i sidled up beside the soul in shadow; i said little. i spoke in actions. because sometimes only in doing can we really truly speak. i made breakfast, plopped it on a tray, ferried it to the someone whose soul was hurting. i unfurled blankets, and we sat side-by-side. i listened, all day.

the magic of loving is this: it works both ways at once. have you ever noticed that in your moments of deeply loving, as you lavish kindness and gentleness, as you exercise dashes of creativity to give your love some oomph, your own heart is growing right alongside the one you’re working so hard to love?

tonight a friend i love is coming for dinner. she’s a friend whose world has shrunk quite dramatically of late. the moment i imagined inviting her for dinner, imagined the candles i’d light, the napkins i’d lay out, imagined the plates piled with deliciousness, imagined the hours of uninterrupted conversation, i felt my own heart grow.

it is in giving love that we find it. that’s neither radical or new. it’s an old recycled truth. but when we live it, especially in the month of december, month of darkness and miracle and making room inside our hearts, it takes on a radiance all its own.

i’ll kindle lights tonight. i’ll aim to kindle light each and every day. i’ll keep my ears tuned for whispers and for cries. i’m making room. i’m tumbling into miracles.

those are the stories, the truths, of december, blessed holy month.

first night candles

how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?

the sharp edge of vulnerability: a hard look at love

OR waiting room

once those double doors swing open, and the last thing you see is the back of the head of the someone you love, flat on a surgical cart, a bag of clear fluids flowing into a tube into a vein in the arm you’ve held a thousand thousand times, it’s impossible not to feel your knees go a little bit weak. as if the wind has just been whooshed out of them.

so it happened this week. when someone i love, someone i will always love and have loved for more than half of my life, was wheeled off to a surgery that would take less than an hour — though time barely enters the equation when love and goodbye and surgical blades are stirred in the mix.

you surrender. submit to the forces of medicine. pray the surgeon had a good night’s sleep, and a sturdy bowl of oatmeal besides. but mostly, i was washed over in a sense of how precious is every last filament and fiber that is the substance of that someone whose voice, whose story, whose dreams and heartaches i know by heart. i was washed over in knowing i would stand in the way of anything — any thing — that stood to hurt that sweet blessed soul. i found myself picturing him as a young child, how tenderly i would have cared for him, long before knowing he’d become the man to whom i’d wed my life. i leapt forward through time, pictured the thousand frames of moments as he and i have carved this long path that is ours now. pictured the hard choices we’ve made. the moments we’ve wept in pure joy. the hours when silence marked the hard negotiation of the heart and the soul, when humility and a willingness to soften might have been the only thing that saved us, allowed us to move forward again, the pas de deux of a promise made, and promise kept, over and over.

surgery does that. the sharp edge of the scalpel soon to be put to this person you love. waiting rooms too. you sit, fueled on old coffee and cable TV, absorbing snippets of anguish and blessed relief all around you. “fatty growth, totally benign,” you hear from two seats away. the surgeon pulling off his blue paper surgical cap, the son — or the husband, or merely a very close friend; biographies are absent here and don’t much matter, not really — collapsing into the not-so-plush back of his chair. “we’re worried,” someone else whispers, loudly enough that you all but nod in unison, a whole chorus of we’re-worried communion. and when at last you get your own good news, the news that it’s over and all is well, a woman with a wrinkled face and tight-curled hair, hollers across the room, “hallelujah!” she beams, rejoicing right with you. then, as you stand up to unlock your knees, grab your coat and your cold coffee, she closes the moment with this benediction, “have a blessed rest of your day.” and so you stop to kneel down beside her. to echo her prayer in your very own whisper.

love is the thing that saturates every cell of who you are, especially when long cold corridors and locked double doors stand between you and the someone you love. you think hard about the fragile hold you have on this thing called your life. you begin to scan the hours, consider how deeply you take it for granted that morning will come, sheets will be thrown back and the rhythms of day after day will begin all over again.

the sharp edge of love is worth pausing to consider. just yesterday, as i was turning pages in a book, i came across this one declarative sentence: “what she did best was love people.” it prompted me to ask, without pause, in our one simple life is it enough to love and love well?

candlelight dinneri thought of that question the whole rest of the day — as i put drops in the eye of the someone i love. as we turned out the lights, and kindled the wicks when dinnertime came, because lights were too bright, lights made it hurt. i thought of that question as i tucked him under the covers, slow-cooked a fine dinner, and snipped and gathered red-berried stems into the old cracked pitcher on the kitchen table. because yesterday i was reminded sharply and in no uncertain terms what a treasure it is to love someone your whole life long, and to love that someone as well as you possibly can.

what does it mean to you to love well? and how did you learn?