pull up a chair

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

Category: childhood

empty nest

once the adrenaline died down, more fire-hydrant surge than all-out combat, once i paused my pounding on the window, realized how close i’d come to thrusting my fist right through the glass, shattering and bleeding sure to pre-empt the rescue i’d attempted, once i took a breath, my first impulse was to think maybe i’d jinxed it.

it must be my fault for letting out their secret. maybe i shouldn’t have extolled the wonders of the nest right before my eyes.

here’s what happened: mama and i were, as we’d been for weeks, co-existing peacefully, she on her side of the glass, blanketing her babies in her downy feathers, me tap-tapping away here on the word-churn machine. it was late saturday afternoon, just one short day and a half after i’d spun the tale of how mama cardinal and i were expectantly working toward our deadlines: mine, a book in the making; hers, a clutch of eggs.

she’d been on the nest 15 days and counting. i delighted at the way she punctuated our shared workspace –– seemingly out of the blue –– by belting out an abbreviated string of song, as if she’d suddenly been overcome by the jubilance of nesting. any day now, i would have heard the wee peep-peep-peeps of nestlings, seen the blur of pointy beaks thrusting skyward for an airdrop of worm.

but then, at nearly six o’clock that fateful evening, without so much as a peep of warning, in those final hours of what eliot so rightly termed “the cruellest month,” there suddenly arose from the bushes such squawking as i’ve never heard. i turned and saw furiously flapping wings — mama and papa both, each on separate branches of the ordinary evergreen that for two weeks now had been the nursery for their nest, the closest i had ever come to northern cardinal observation deck, a broodling in the works. while the two of them squawked and flapped, i noticed the third player in this late-breaking drama. it was furry, brown, and little. its stripe down the back gave it away: a chipmunk. a very hungry and extremely nasty chipmunk, if you don’t mind my editorializing. i leapt into life-guard mode, pounded hard as i could pound from my side of the glass. gave a holler to my own mother, ensconced in her armchair in the other room. as if she could help me here in dire land. at first my pounding seemed to confound the furry one, he turned down the branch, as if in exit. but then, he must have had a second thought, for up he turned, and scampered head-first into the nest. oh, dear god, such horror i’ve not witnessed. this was full-tilt assault. this was nature at its cruelest. and i stood witness. after plumbing the hollow of the nest, the hungry varmint turned and ran. i couldn’t swear to what i saw, but it would not be wrong to think i saw him clutching something in his mouth.

poor mama sat there flapping. her squawks slowing but not quieting. she circled the branch a few lonely times and then resumed her post. we both tried to catch our breath. i tried to convince myself that all was not lost, perhaps the casualty count was one and only one. and, besides, mama stood her post straight through to nightfall, never once lifting her belly from what she surely must be guarding with her life. only then, when darkness eclipsed my keeping watch, did i surrender too; turned off my desk lamp, whispered benediction, and tiptoed off, unsure of what the dark would bring.

alas, when dawn came, i threw off my blankets and hurried down the stairs. no mama. i’d thought i heard a muffled squawk not too too long after dark. i now presume the furry thing returned, finished the deed. the dastardly, dastardly deed.

and so, the nest is empty. quite literally as i have just now hauled a step ladder out the door and, clinging for dear life, i climbed and pulled back branches, and indeed there is not a sign of life. just the artistry of their construction, right down to the shiny cellophane they might have thought to employ as something of a rain guard, what with all the rainy weeks of april.

turns out, the cardinals never had more than a one in three chance at making it out of the nest. despite their predilection for deeply tucking away their vernal constructions — remnants of a summer past, a bricolage of bits, dried grasses, thread-thin sticks, that cellophane wrapper perhaps from someone’s pack of cigarettes — the northern cardinal ranks near the sorry cellar of the nesting-survival charts, a long tumble down from the ash-throated flycatcher who scores the highest chance of flying from the nest, with seven of ten baby flycatchers flying. only the lowly house sparrow (11 percent chance) and the european starling (16 percent) fare worse than the red birds, and both sparrow and starling are invaders, anyway, non-native species snuck in as unintended cargo on some north america-bound vessel.

it hurt to sit here the first few days, the silence pounding in my ear. the absence of mama’s brown and red tail feathers protruding from the tuft of evergreen in which she so adeptly hid her nest.

and then i started to consider my own empty nest, a consideration that comes, of course, as mothering day approaches. i think as much now about mothering as i ever have. though it consumes fewer hours of my focus, and fewer drives hither and yon, my fascination only deepens. i think often of how rare — how blessed — it is to know so fluently the whole makings of any life, let alone these two i love so dearly. day by day, it seems, the adventures pick up pace. the twists and turns in their narratives expand my own sense of being alive, being witness to lives unfurling each according to his own storyline. from my perch here at the old homestead, where i am reliably on watch and ever present, i follow two young men carving out paths that couldn’t be more different and yet entwine in ways that make me see the shared origins loud and clear and undeniably. the little boy who once could stare at a tv screen for interminably long times, he is carving out a path to be the very voices, the very storytellers, he once listened to. and the one who once set up an easel in the living room, encircled the room with every stuffed critter from his toy box, donned suspenders and necktie, scooped up a clutch of alphabet letters, and commenced a lecture on the fine points of S-U-M and Q, he looks toward a life in lecture halls filled with legal scholars in the making. let the record show it was snoopy who got first crack at his fledgling professorial skills.

my job here — simply loving through and through — will never ever be done. they might not need me (not so often anyway) to rouse them from their slumbers, to ferry them to the school house door, to shiver on their sidelines, but i’ve come to understand that my unique brand of loving means i’ll never find a way to lay aside aside my worries and my sometimes overly rambunctious fears. the phone calls these days are farther in between, the texts often unanswered, but my contemplations and my prayers deepen by the month. i’ve started worrying in a whole new way about this world we’re leaving to their keeping. i once held out hope that they could right our many, many wrongs. but now i wonder if we’re too far gone, this world so broken in so many places.

i look to mama bird, and her now hollowed nest. there is stunned silence out my window. no flicker of a sighting of mama now at it once again. she makes me think hard about the seasons of mothering, how some are full to bursting, and others pulse with a kind of aching, a sorrow for the hours out of reach, a longing for the more tactile days when every flinch and whimper was within our watch. her empty nest makes me think hard about the one i call my own, at once emptier and fuller than i can sometimes truly comprehend.

no wonder mothering never ever loosens its holy grip on me.

may your motherings be ever blessed, in whatever ways you love and hold those you count as your dearest rarest treasures.

now empty…

covidian land of counterpane: geography for the new year

counterpane noun

coun·​ter·​pane | \ ˈkau̇n-tər-ˌpān

Definition of counterpane: BEDSPREAD

Origin (from Oxford Languages): early 17th century: alteration of counterpoint, from Old French contrepointe, based on medieval Latin culcitra puncta ‘quilted mattress’ (puncta, literally meaning ‘pricked’, from the verb pungere). The change in the ending was due to association with pane in an obsolete sense ‘cloth’.

***

when i was little, i was oft confined to bed when i got sick. and, as i recall, my childhood was pocked with the sorts of sicknesses for which bedroom doors were closed and meals delivered by metal tray. a dinner bell rested on my mirror-topped vanity, and i jingled it if in need of gingerale on ice, or saltine crackers in wee stacks. clearly, my mother of five was practicing astute infection control lest she find herself in charge of quintuple cases of whatever was my ailment of the hour.

it was all quotidian enough—scarlet fever, chicken pox, mumps, measles, really nasty flu. i twice was sent to hospitals for IVs and a week of restitution, and so, given the spells in bed, i came to think the land of counterpane a most familiar terrain. (maybe, in part, it’s why i was drawn to being a pediatric nurse.) and, of course, i populated the contours of my bedclothes with a well-steeped storybook imagination––hills and vales and undulations, the nooks and crannies of my make-believe lilliputian chambermates: trolls and elves and sprites and sometimes an imaginary baby sister.

among the first poems i memorized was robert louis stevenson’s “the land of counterpane,” a verse i know by heart: 

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

and so, this past stretch of days (now ten), once again behind closed bedroom door with trays duly delivered by the nurse in charge (now, the sweet, sweet man i married long ago), i find myself a-bed, beneath my counterpane, all my toys beside me laying. and (except for the few days when it was a bit of a challenge to catch a breath) it’s not been quite as dreadful as it might sound. 

apocalyptic broccoli, 30-year shelf life

i’ve windows on three sides with golden sunlight streaming in by day; at night, i watch the twinkling lights and street lamps that punctuate the darkness as far as i can see. and the wonders of laptops and itty-bitty phones mean you can stay in touch with even the longest lost compatriots (two friends from nursing school in fact), neighbors who’ve checked in every day, my faraway best friend who has been as close as close could be, and my distant cousin whom i adore who thought to overnight me a barrel of freeze-dried apocalyptic broccoli. and, best of all, i’ve got my covid buddy––my firstborn, the one who fell first––directly across the hall. he escaped solitary confinement at midnight last night, as we’re abiding by the 10-day rule unless a negative antigen test allows early egress (which, in his case, he never got). so he and i have had long hours of crossword puzzles and conversation that might not have unfolded had we both been skittering hither and yon. it’s the younger one i miss the most, as he’s taken to steering as clear as possible of me and my omicron. (the kid’s no dummy.) 

strange to think, a week ago i didn’t yet know what it was that had buckled me at the knees, and it would not be till christmas afternoon that the test result came back in red ink with exclamation mark, dare i miss the point. 

the lesson of this covid tale would be as one wise doctor told me just the other day: assume you’ve got it––and stay in isolation––till proven otherwise. testing is just a mess, and misses far too many positivities till all the contagions are scattered in your wake. i fear for what’s coming in a country shut down by this latest red-ringed mutation. but i enter it now armed with mighty antibodies (or so i hope and pray). and a determined willingness to do all i can to help the next one fallen to make it through with TLC, and all the isolation tips i’ve learned along the way.**

sticking to the rules, i’ll not be sprung from my confinement till the midnight bell tolls tonight, and the year turns as well, allowing me to begin afresh the year of our Lord MMXXII. 

my new year prayer is even more distilled than my christmas prayer a week ago:

dear God, let all of us have someone dear to check in on us, to bring us cups of tea, to care for us in tender ways (and even on the days when we’re not anchored in our lands of counterpane). keep us safe, dear God, and mindful of all that matters most: let us put down the weapons of words, of grudges, of cold hard shoulders. let us snap into focus to see that the path is short, is sometimes rough, and that the best way home is side by side, entwining elbows, and leaning toward the light. let us lock out the rampant toxicities (and i don’t mean the biologically viral ones), bar the doors to discourse that divides us, and strain to find our common common threads. we’re woven of the sacred, after all. it’s buried there, beneath the noise, the bombast, the sure evidence otherwise. the unfettered truth––most clearly realized on long nights when breath comes hard and fevers swirl––is this: life is swift. we’ve no escape from certain end, so let us make each day a living prayer in which we seek and find certain trace of all that’s heaven-sent, and all that hails from You, the One who fuels the light, who preaches love beyond measure and without end, and who gives us our each and every breath—even when it’s labored. blessed be that holy, holy breath, amen.

most of all, i hope and pray you’re well. and staying safe from this nasty bug that’s toppling us like tin soldiers.

what’s your prayer to usher in the new year?

** see isolation tips in comment down below!!!

almost old enough to drive a car…

fifteen years ago, on a cold and dark december dawn, i picked a name, a font, a picture, and i began to type. following the faint outlines of a dream, a vision, a sacred place where the ordinary—the quotidian—was lifted up and plumbed for universal truths and wisdoms and epiphanies. sometimes made sacramental, a transfiguration of domesticity, of the everyday, the plane where most of us live, far from fanfare, from headline, from public debate.

this old chair, pull up a chair—an invitation and a welcome—is now old enough that i nostalgically think back to the beginning, when a kindergartener was asleep upstairs. when the patterings of his pajama-bottomed feets syncopated the rhythms of this house, and when i could—and would—sweep him up in my arms, perch him on a hipbone, and bring him along, my sidekick to whatever was afoot. he’s 20 now. and he shaves.

one whole school year, this old chair (sometimes thought of as the old maple table where elbows and mugs are planted every friday morning) traveled to cambridge, our year of thinking sumptuously in the deep bookshelves and densely-packed lecture halls of harvard college, poking around in the wilds of walden pond, calling it all home sweet home from our third-floor aerie high above franklin avenue and the bells of harvard square.

two boys grew up under my close watch here; their inimitable lines and antics inscribed here. a moon walk, a lesson in the art of seeing (binoculars optional), the adventures of the long and crooked way home. and more and more…

over the years, i’ve marked deaths, and lifted up ones we dearly loved: a grandfather, grandmother, dear dear friends (mary ellen and ceci, to name two). a house, and, yes, even a beloved family cat who went by the name of turkey baby meow meow choo choo. but, too, i’ve captured birth: a niece, and a nephew who’s turning nine today.

we’ve weathered dark days—in our souls and in our one republic under God. we’ve gathered shards of light. so many, so so many.

we’ve ticked off the seasons, savoring each one for its parables, its wisdoms, and its beauties.

four books* have been birthed from here, beyond my wildest, wildest dreams. what matters is not their royalties (enough to buy a donut at the donut shop, perhaps with side of coffee) but their simple quiet existence and their placement on two particular shelves, where some day they might be pulled down, opened, read. and rememberings will come. if i’m blessed, my heart and soul will jump off the pages, and they’ll be wrapped again in my most essential murmurings. they will know, once again, how i loved them. and exactly how i made my mac ’n’ cheese.

i’ve recorded here chapter endings: my leavetaking after almost 30 years at the chicago tribune, the newspages that brought me love, joy, and lasting lessons; the leavetaking just this past year of my very own prize-winning architecture critic. high schools have been graduated from, and college, too (with another one of those now moving squarely onto the horizon). and a law school, to boot.

i’ve watch suns rise and moons illuminate the night. heard cardinals sing. and awaited the viburnum’s deliverance as it punctuates the springtime with its magnificence and its spicy perfume. 

i’ve discovered saints and poets. unfurled poetries. penned ten thousand prayers. made lasting friends. 

you’ve allowed me to be my truest self: quiet, shy in a way that can also be effervescent and effusive. profoundly prayerful, outside the bounds of any walled cathedral. you’ve allowed me to bring my heart’s many aches. and no one once has ever shamed me, a condition i was hard-wired to fear in my growing-up years.

most of all we’ve made this the sacred quiet gentle place we all believed in, and all built together. stories have been told, tears shed, laughter arisen. you’ve made me wiser, made me gasp, and taken my breath away with your wonders, your wisdoms, your ways with words.

for 15 years. almost old enough to drive a car…

bless you and thank you, thank you, thank you, from my old chair here at this most blessed table.

you have made these chairs a holy table. without you, this would be a hollow echo in a long-lost nook or cranny.

xoxox

*a fifth book is coming, and it’ll be the first whose roots are not directly traced to here. it’s my first from-scratch book, and it’s titled: The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text, so clearly its spirit is rooted here…..

where were you in december of 2006? and how did you find the chair?

in the category keepin’-it-humble, i had a spectacular fail last friday when i was giving a zoom talk to some 300 souls, gathered for a virtual First Friday Club of Chicago lunchtime talk, and my laptop first stuttered then died, right in the middle of 50 carefully curated slides and words. some of you might know that i get spectacularly nervous before any talk (which is why i would never ever mention an upcoming talk here), and even though wings seem to carry me most times, this was a doozy. pretty much a zoom nightmare in real time. the good folks in the control room were able to re-record the part where the fail happened, and splice it to the rest. so, thanks to the wizardry of tech geniuses, you can’t quite tell anything was amiss. but i know, and i might have a hard time forgetting. it was a talk titled, In the Stillness of Winter, Stirring Assuredly Comes. it’s about half an hour, and if you want a bit of chair come to life, minus the blooper, here tis.

when magical powers are no longer…

used to be i could fix things. when the lunch box was left at home, i could drive it to the schoolhouse door. the ladies in the office always obliged, and, knowingly nodding, got it delivered. when the mercury on the thermometer soared, or someone’s rosy red cheeks broke out in bumps, i slid open the medicine drawer, pulled out just the right fix-it concoction. when a red crayon snuck into a pocket that went into the dryer, i spent a whole afternoon plucking streaks of red wax from the tumbler. by sundown, you’d never have known. 

there was nary a thing i couldn’t patch back together, couldn’t replace, couldn’t make right by the end of the day.

but then the kids on whom i fixated my fix-it powers, they grew up. and while my doctor just the other morning announced that i’d shrunk by nearly an inch, i think she might have overlooked the fact that my magical powers are no longer. they’ve expired. passed the date on the side of the label. must have let out a gasp like air escaping from tires.

now, when a kid with a heavy heart calls late in the night, all i can do is listen. and mutter a swear word or two. (lest you tsk-tsk, the truth of the matter is that i’ve somehow managed to teach my nonagenarian mother the sheer satisfaction, the gleeful release, of a short swift four-letter word. we swear in unison now, my mother and i. one of our few shared pursuits.)

most of the time — thank the holy heavens — the things that bang up the heart of someone you love aren’t necessarily life or death. sometimes it’s a stupid clerical error that mucks up the works. and triggers hard-to-swallow outcomes. leaves a kid on the sidelines. figuratively or otherwise.

more often than not — knock on wood — the things that shove us into the ditch are things from which we recover. another chance comes along. time passes. someone reminds us to laugh. the sky, one night as the sun sets, paints itself a shade of papaya. 

it’s the immediate wake that’s tripping me up. it’s what comes after you hang up the phone. when you remember the old days, the days when it was your job to be the cleaner-upper, the fixer, the homegrown sorceress who kept all the goblins at bay. 

you realize your heydays are over. you can’t really fly in on your broom anymore, can’t kiss the hurt, and make the sting go away. 

you know — because you’ve read it in books, heard it whispered on benches at playgrounds — that it’s your job now to let your kid figure it out. employ their own fix-it powers. exercise resiliency. suffer the blow.

so you do as instructed. you stand back. feeling the lump in your throat grow bigger and bigger. wondering why your chest hurts so much.

you wish you could pick up the phone. call the college. or the boss. explain the injustice. beg for mercy, like any self-respecting grownup would do. 

but then, once again, you remember there’s another self-respecting grownup these days; it’s the kid you raised to not topple, not go weak in the knees every time life throws a hook. you tried your darnedest not to over-coddle (though coddling, i’d argue, is just another name for fiercely protecting, and i’d made a vow, a heavenly vow — silly as it might seem — to protect to the death the children i bore. i once actually — naively — believed that if i loved them fiercely enough i could keep them from every last hurt. turns out, the joke was on me).

i miss the days when i could all but fling on my cape, swoop in for the rescue. slice an apple in crescents, grab a fistful of pretzels, stir chocolate in milk. snuggle close on the couch. tuck someone in bed, plant a fat wet kiss to the cheeks. make it all better again.

i wish i’d realized back then that those were the days, the sweet days, when what ailed, and what brewed was within my magical powers. and i could turn out the lights knowing that all was, indeed and in fact, better again. the monsters were chased from the room.

it’s what happens when mothers grow up. though not quite as fast nor as sturdily as their beautiful, beautiful now grown and resilient long-ago children.

our magical powers give out, quite before we’re honestly ready. 

*of course i am simplifying here to make a general point, to muse on the achy part of feeling ourselves shoved from one stage to another. certainly there are times when the heavy hearts of my boys demand all i’ve got: not only my listening, but my leaping on planes, tracking down every last possible lead, and whatever else the worry or quandary or setback requires. it’s just that more often than it used to be, i’m merely the backdrop, the listening board, the human sponge for the sadness, dread, disappointment, you name it.

once upon a time, did you too expect that magical powers must be a clause in the motherly job description? did those powers fizzle over time, and what do you do with the ache when you realize your magic wand has given up the ghost?

a new quiet. again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what prompts you to relish each holy hour?

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

amid the chaos, my true song rises

the requisite homecoming appliance: the mixer of countless welcome-home cookie doughs over the decades

the homecoming was delayed. the homecoming was complicated. by COVID, of course. it entailed a long drive, half across the country, nights in borrowed beds, and one in a hotel with a curious chandelier fixation. but, at long last, the station wagon, packed to the gills with the siftings of law school life that won’t be moving to the next chapter, pulled into the garage just as the sun lowered in wednesday night’s sky.

i leapt as soon as i saw the light shining through the garage window, realizing the devoted driver (the one who’d set out across the country simply to shave one airplane ride’s risk from the summer’s complicated travel equation, the one who’d driven 28 hours just to shield his firstborn from the fear of worrying if the guy with the coughing fits two seats away was spreading the dread disease), had picked up the pace on the drive through america’s flatland–ohio, indiana, the surrounds of chicago.

i wish i’d had a picture of the sight i saw next: the graduate in graduation robe, (the tassled-cap had been momentarily misplaced under the heap in the wagon’s rear spaces) with N95 mask strapped round his beard (yes, we know that beards are not optimal tonsorial fare, not in the age of the red-ringed virus), bare legs, and the crumbs of a cross-country car trip. for a pause of a moment we air hugged. but then, i surrendered. if COVID comes roaring this way, i’m going down with the rest of us. and, anyway, it seems biologically impossible to dwell in the same house and avoid rampant exposure. (COVID tests have now been taken, and we await the results, in two to four business days.)

ever since, it’s been decidedly noisier here, and far less monastically choreographed. as i type, two laptops are spread across the kitchen island, conjoined by a wire, as the old one disgorges its contents into the new one. tax returns are piled next to the laptops, leftover business best dealt with with mom and dad’s stamps. the peanut butter jar is curiously emptying, by the giant-sized spoonful. and the pile of laundry is teetering toward the basement rafters.

the most curious thing, or maybe the most complicated, is my heart. i find myself aswim in an aching as i realize just how uncommon, how far-apart-and-few-between these homecomings will be. how we’re not really his home anymore (something i certainly know intellectually–i’ve been sending packages to new haven, connecticut, for the last three years, after all, and before that, for four years, to amherst, massachusetts–but in that way where the heart is at peace with a knowing, is humming along with the whole of it, well that certainty is not yet ground into the walls of this ol’ ticker), and i’m not really ready to swallow that truth. truth is, we feel something like a way-station. a place to store old paintings for a year. a place to tuck the graduation gown into the back of the closet. a place where old stories are the ones that most vividly percolate.

and i find myself yearning–sometimes just a tad, other times with every ounce of my heart–for the old days, when night after night all four of us fell asleep under the same single roof, and every morning was a mad-dash to somewhere, with someone or something inevitably lost, left behind, or stuck in the laundry chute. wishing i’d known then–amid the full-on, high-decibel chaos–just how much and how soon i’d come to miss the whole of it.

i promise i’m savoring the sweetness of now. savoring every blessed drop of it. cooking like there’s no tomorrow (and the way the dinner plates are being piled high, there might be no food for the morrow; the fridge looks to be draining in double-time). throwing my own to-do list to the wind. we are staying up far too late, all of us curled on the couch, trading wit, witticism, and old family barbs as we catch up on netflix.

but the sense of evanescence is inevitable, undeniable. already the flights to oregon have been booked. the lease in downtown portland, soon to be signed. the summer is short. i’m catching my breath.

and, for now, i’m wrapping myself in the strands–tangled and not–of my mothersong, the one that pours from my heart’s truest, deepest stillpoint. the warbles and wobbles, the uncertain off notes, they’re all a part of its beauties. the heart, at its glorious best, is a vessel of many scales, chords, and rhythms.

and i’m finding my way, line after line.

a premise here at the chair is that truth–even when it’s messy–is what we trade in. in the ordinariness of our lives, we pay attention, we alight on illuminations. i teeter here on the brink, the edge between chapters and verse. i write to find my way, to make sense, to reach for understandings.

how do you navigate the in-betweens of your life, those stirrings that animate the not-yet-settled?

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?

 

when summer comes easy: things i wish i’d known

i was watching butter melt into a bath of milk and sugar and cinnamon when it dawned on me: there is something about this summer that there’s never been before. and it’s not just that the kid i love so much is leaving in less than 60 days, though that’s the thing that’s somehow at the root of it all.

watching butter pool across milk, apparently, is a stirring prompt for early-morning philosophizing, for checking one’s soul, and seizing a revelation or two. what i realized, as i whipped up blueberry bread pudding on a wednesday, no less, whipped it up simply because the kid i love loves bread pudding, loves it best in summer when the season’s rotund little berries the color of night are tossed in with abandon, is that somehow this summer’s defining watch word is easy, as in stripped of all the junk — my junk — that usually gets in the way.

easy as in not worrying. not worrying about the clock, or deadlines, or whether he’s home at the stroke of midnight or half an hour later. easy as in surrendering to the whims of the day, plopping onto the couch, finding his hand at the end of my fingers, wrapping mine around his, and then simply sitting there for enough innings to figure out who’s playing who, and who might be ahead, all the while weaving in the sorts of questions and curiosities that come in the lulls of lazy baseball.

i am, for this one short sweet summer, devoting my days and my nights to simply, softly, loving my kid. savoring every single thing about him. i am relishing as if there’s no tomorrow, because in some ways there isn’t. there really isn’t. except for the way tomorrow affords us the joy — the possibility — of trying all over again. each day another chance to love in the ways we hope and dream and know we can love.

i am, this short sweet summer, sinking deep and certainly into one and only one thing: mothering with all my heart. mothering without getting in my own worrisome way. (and truth truly be told, i’m mothering with all my heart because somewhere along the line it’s the one place in my life where i found my deepest wholest holiness, and i am not wanting to let that go…)

makes me think i sure wish i’d known to be this sort of mother at the other end of this equation, when i was just starting out, a quarter-century-plus ago. i remember how, back in the daze of a newborn living, breathing, squalling, hungry-like-clockwork baby, i armed myself with charts — breastfeeding charts and safety pins moved from bra strap to bra strap, my highly-evolved method for tracking which breast for how long, at what intervals — seeking solace in sharp-angled grids and penciled-in numbers. i steeled myself against the uncertainties and vicissitudes of toddlerhood by worrying about whether we were five minutes late to dump ourselves into the station wagon for the short drive to nursery school — as if someone at the schoolhouse door was doling out demerits — for the mothers who failed to make it on time. the soundtrack of my life was worry upon worry upon worry. no wonder firstborns wind up so crazily cross-wired.

i wish, some time before this very last summer of my very last kid (i know there are only two, and the way i phrase it it sounds like there’ve been a good half dozen), in these countdown weeks before he hauls off to college, i wish i’d realized how lovely it is to be, well, carefree. or as close as i’ll ever come, anyway. (someone once told me i was calm like a swan and after thinking, oh, honey, you sure don’t know me, i shot back, “yea, smooth on the surface, but paddling like heck underneath.”)

truth is, the credit for this newfound way of lazy-being goes to the kid himself. he’s intent on one thing this summer: savoring each and every hour of each and every day. savoring it even when he’s flipping burgers and shaking the baskets of fries for long hours at the short-order grill where he picks up a paycheck. savoring the nights with his toes buried in sand, the moon overhead, and the blankets around him filled with his gaggle of friends. savoring the long drives and deep conversations, the kinds best unspooled from behind the wheel, when two or three pile into the old sedan and clock miles up and down the leafy winding road that hugs the shoreline here in chicago. plopping himself on the bench where i sit at the kitchen table, stretching out his long-and-getting-longer legs, and idly clicking his phone while shooting me the occasional question. his mantra: gotta make the most of this. gotta love this summer.

and so i take my cues from the master. delighted to be tutored in the fine points of taking it slow. in savoring. in tossing aside the occasional heart-jabbing worry.

i am finding the succulence of summer. the succulence of mothering at its juiciest essence. i am letting the soft breeze blow across my bare toes. tossing out the to-do lists and time clocks. and making bread pudding on any old wednesday.

i am learning to summer — to mother — on the very last page of the chapter that ends just before one of us shoves off to college. if only i’d known all along.

how did you learn to savor — be it a season, or simply an hour? or is it something you’re still trying to learn? who have been your most unforgettable teachers, and what are the lessons they’ve taught?

p.s. because i didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle, i posted yesterday (a rare thursday post) my latest chicago tribune review of a book for the soul, in this case, the glorious christine valters paintner’s dreaming of stones: poems, a glorious volume of which i wrote (in part): “Paintner is fluent in the lush language of earth and sky as well as the otherworldly, the mysterious beyond. Born and raised in New York City, she is old-soul Celtic, through and through. Her poems rise out of the monastic practice of dwelling in silence, and hers, often, is a churchless god. A god who can’t — and won’t — be confined. A god who belongs to any and all.” 

the very last school bell: a litany of thank you, thank you, thank you

 

i’m guessing you thought i might explode by the time today came along — today, the day my once-upon-a-prayer miracle child, the Egg Who Wouldn’t Take No For An Answer, the one who made me an Old Mother in the obstetrical books, born just shy of 9-11, the kid who all but grew up here at the chair (he was new to kindergarten the day this began), today’s the very last day he saunters out the door to high school. the day you might say my front-line duties are downgraded/diluted/shoved to the side, as i move one step back to where i mother from a little bit farther away, from impending long distance, from text and phone call flung from cell phone tower to cell phone tower clear across the heartland, 357 miles kitchen door to college door. 

i actually thought i’d weather it without too much percussion. 

i was wrong. 

somewhere in the last couple days — maybe it was when that sweet boy reached his lanky arms across this old maple table and said the before-dinner prayer the other night, the last Grammy Tuesday of a quarter-plus-century, when he thanked God for a Grammy who was there every step of the way, to take him to toddler gymnastics, most every soccer match he ever played, who pored over spelling books with him, and helped him figure out his math, and then cooked his very favorite orange chicken or her famous 3-4-5 stew, to boot. or maybe it was the night before last when he paused in the dark at the top of the stairs and asked if he could give me an extra-tight hug — it hit me. washed over me like the tidal wave i should have expected. 

all i could think of was thank you. thank you, Universe and heavens above, for this unlikeliest Wonder that i’ll ever know. the one i’ll never ever get over. 

thank you to the whole litany of heroes big and small who have made this adventure in loving and growing a human so very extraordinary. 

thank you — for there’s no finer place to begin — to the mighty big brother who, long ago, declared the impending wonder his “dream come true!” and never once wavered from thinking so. and never once acted as if the late-stage expansion to our little family was an interloper, or any sort of nuisance. (heck, in all these years, i’ve never heard either one yell at, poke, prod, or otherwise seriously incense the other; that eight-year buffer does much to dilute filial rivalry.)

thank you to the five-star teachers, the coaches, the counselors, the school-bus drivers, Other Mothers, and tribal elders who’ve aided, abetted, and leapt into Superhero togs and tights on an as-needed basis. thank you to the dispensers of band-aids and bubble gum, forgotten soccer shoes and sharpened pencils, all along the way. to the school nurses who quelled the queazy tummy and oh-so-calmly called me at home when he got klonked on the playground. thank you, thank you, to the kindergarten teacher who made him giggle each and every day (and whom he declared his “very favorite ever” till well into high school). the first-grade teacher who tucked love notes in his pencil case, and chased away the butterflies. the second-grade teacher who called no attention to the fact that alphabet letters were not lining up into legible words, and certainly not into readable sentences. to the third-grade teacher who never taught him cursive (it’s a lost art, i’m told), but taught volumes on kindness. and on through to the seventh-grade social-studies teacher he wants to grow up to be.

and then there’s high school, where a phalanx of first-rate teachers and stellar human beings — biology, debate, and american studies, in particular — made him love even impossible subjects, and imparted wisdoms far beyond text books. and where anyone willing and brave enough to steer an american teen through the labyrinth — and pitfalls — of modern adolescence is more than a superstar in my little book.

to the brilliant journalist and editor and outside-the-box thinker in cambridge, MA, who invited us all to spend a year of sumptuous thinking in 02139, and gave the kid a chance to live out his never-say-no, “We Need to See the World!” philosophy. one that gave him a flotilla of friends from around the world (and a mighty fine Common App essay for college, besides). 

to the glorious one who, early on, helped him figure out how to tie his shoes, hold a pencil, and cut with a knife, when those dag-nab things confounded him. and who, to this day, has never stopped looking out for him. to the extra-special soul who taught him all about puns, and irony, and the first few chapters of critical thinking, and to whom he owes his very proud (albeit scant) claim to Game of Thrones origins (that glorious teacher’s very own kid just happens to be showrunner, writer, and co-creator of Thrones, and back in the day she regaled us in real time with tales of the curious show in the making — one whose name i never failed to mix up, forever calling it Crown of Thorns, which it was certainly not). 

thank you to the brilliant pediatric nurse practitioner who nursed our boy back from a nasty concussion (or two), and defended his case before the high school’s board of inquisitors. thank you to every single wizard who helped him iron out the kinks of growing up in a deeply digital, over-pressurized world. thank you to those rare and heavenly friends of mine who have always, always, talked to him as if he was their peer. and who dialed up the shine in his eyes. (wink-wink to the one who sent him the many-paged letter of wisdoms he keeps tucked in his bedside drawer, and to the one over whom he now towers and loves with all his heart as she fuels him with big ideas and ways to wrestle injustice in the world.)

thank you for the grandma and grandpa from far away who have sent love notes and trinkets and holiday treats — and countless knock-knock jokes and infinite, infinite love, year after year, phone call after phone call, since the hot august day he was born. thank you for the upper-east-side aunt who is, hands down, the very best giver of ahead-of-the-curve boy gifts that ever there was. thank you to the auntie now in maine who once upon a time, among other weekly adventures, wrapped him in aluminum foil, and led him by the hand into the world of unlimited arts and creation. and to the cincinnati aunt who drives as many hours as it takes to be here for most any special occasion — or plain old sunday brunch. and to the uncles who have loved him up close and long-distance for all of his years. especially the ones who sit down beside him and engage in deep and long-winding conversation (and don’t mind at all being listed as the one to call, God forbid, in any emergency). and make him laugh out loud at their bottomless jokes.

there really aren’t words to capture the love that’s grown between my sweet boy and my mama. it’s one of the breathtakingest loves i’ve ever seen. he simply adores her. takes her by the hand and whirls her in circles, their own imaginary waltzes. sets aside most saturdays for lunch with her, treats her to hot dog and fries and silly conversation. sees in her a tenderness that she might have reserved just for him. 

and thank you, of course and emphatically, to his most beloved band of brothers, the comrades in arms who together have taken on the ups and downs of boyhood, straight through to high school graduation. the antics they try to hide from parents, and the ones we’ve watched wide-eyed — and proud. a boy couldn’t wish for more loyal — or hilarious — or tender sweet, true-to-the-end friends.

thank you to his papa, who has loved him lavishly and wisely. and without whom i’d be lost. (and whose particular thank yous are spelled out in real-time, in words spoken not typed.)

and thank you, most of all, to the God who gave him to us. who gave me one more chance to try out these mothering tricks, to traverse the twists and turns of the tight mountain pass. to test my patience, and melt me all over again. to leave my mark on the world, in the indelible form of the Boy with the Extra-Big Heart. 

watch over him, angels, saints and heaven above. he’s my treasure. and he’s just about ripe for the world.

amen.

forgive my diving into the long and winding particular here. i’d meant to make it more decidedly universal, but got caught along the way, in all the nooks and crannies of remembering. i could have strung together a litany of “chairs” from over the years, monster fighter, reading by the light of double DD, heart to heart. all of which are sealed here — and, some, in the pages of my trio of books. 

my beautiful brave friend robbie died this week. her wisdoms are sealed against my heart. she was so rare, and so very very brave. here’s a bit of her beauty, her capacity for pointing us toward what most mattered….may her memory be a blessing forever.

who are the heroes — especially the unsung ones — in the world that is yours? the ones who might never realize just how much they matter?

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?