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Category: college

footsteps straight to my heart

willie diploma wall

four years ago, it was the sound of his footsteps i knew i would miss more than nearly anything.

the thud of his footfall onto the floor of the room up above, the footfall that signaled to me, down below, that the boy i love had clomped out of bed, or trundled down the stairs, that he soon would be rounding the bend, showing his face, his radiant face, at the old kitchen door.

his footsteps are back.

and my heart couldn’t be more tickled, delighted, dancing its own little jig.

the thud of the footfall is one of those percussive refrains woven into the rhythms of this old house, of any old house, and it’s a sound you might take for granted — it belongs with the particular click of the doorknob, or the way the car door slams off in the distance, and your heart knows before you know that someone you love is now home. you might take it for granted until suddenly, without forethought, it’s silenced, it’s absent. until all you hear is the hollow emptiness of no more footsteps — or door clicks, or car door slamming in the not-so-far distance.

it’s a quiet that crushes you. the unspoken sonic abyss of the someone who’s gone.

and now, with the thuds and the clomps and the rushing of water from the tap in his bathroom once again punctuating the soundtrack of this old house, i find my old heart quickening, picking up its rhythm, pounding just a wee bit harder, as once again — in that way that happens to mothers — i wrap my whole self — body and mind and heart and soul — around this interlude of pure wonder and blessing.

indeed, it’s way more chaotic around here than just one week ago, when this old house contained only three peoples plus a crotchety cat. and the lumbering fellow we’ve added to the equation, once he and his papa pulled down the alley, unloaded the mountains of boxes and lamps and speakers and papers, he’s set this old house percolating once again with his particular cacophonies. yes, there was a hammer pounding a wee bit late into the night. and the avalanche of stuff hauled out of his room and into the upstairs hall, it could tangle you into a knot, and snuff out your breath if you happened to trip and tumble deep down in its clutches.

but a bit of a miracle’s unfolding. i’d call it the answer to a prayer, except that i never dared to pray for it.

the boy i love, the boy who graduated in a cloud of glories at his college on the hill, he moved back to chicago thinking he’d rent a studio apartment, try to pay rent while teaching in an inner-city classroom, before he heads back off to law school and PhD school, before he spends a life trying to right wrongs and carving out justice. but then, as he pulled his duffle bags and moving boxes back into his boyhood room, as he perused the websites of apartment listings, as he realized the rent for a space not much bigger than his room at the bend in the stairs might be tough to afford, he started to rearrange his thinking — and his old room that bore the totems of middle and high school and selves long past.

he pulled posters off DSCF1241the wall, peeled campaign stickers off his closet door. took down the little boy bulletin board i’d bought the day we moved into this old house. he cleared his book shelves of boyhood favorites, took down the hobbit and twain and j.k. rowling; slid in hobbes and kant and aristotle. hung his hard-won college diploma just above his old desk, the desk where he calculated his way through fifth-grade math, and where he typed his junior theme. he must have measured the proximity between the door of his old room and that of his little brother, the one he says he came home to be close to.

he’s decided to stay.

he’s perched his french press coffee pot next to my gurgling electric one. he’s added his paltry few spices onto the shelf next to mine. he’s plugged in his speakers, and asked if we could pull up the old navy carpet so he can stride on the birds-eye maple that’s too long been shrouded. he’s decided, for now, that home will be in the place with a room all his own, and a sprawling kitchen just down the stairs (the commercial-grade six-burner cookstove and his mother’s built-in grocery service might have helped tip the scales in the refueling department).

for now, he’s sticking nearby.

for now, he and i are sitting down to breakfast, lunch and dinner. we’re taking long walks. we’re holding our breath — together  — as he puts muscle to hammer and tries to sink nails into plaster. we’re sitting out in the summer porch, listening to night sounds. we’re backfilling all of the stories that hadn’t had time to be told.

sure, my days are topsy-turvy. and this house feels certain to burst. and the washing machine moans from over-exertion.

but for four long years i could only wish for such chaos. i didn’t dare to hope that the day would come that we’d once again breathe the same air, inhale the same sounds, delight in shared and unscripted hilarities, ones unfolding in real time, and in the same time zone.

i’m practically giddy at the truth that this kid is wise enough, and tender enough of heart, to buck the prevailing post-graduation currents, to simply and humbly move back home, for the sheer gift of deepening the bonds with his little brother, and his grandmother who is now 84, and who every tuesday of his growing up years devoted her days and attentions to him. he is seizing the days before they are gone.

he didn’t take a job in DC, didn’t post himself in the heart of manhattan. all that might come. but for now, he’s taking a pause, taking time for what matters.

back in december he told me that he was looking to do the most meaningful work in the years between college and law school, “and, honestly, mommo,” he said, via long distance, “i can’t think of anything more meaningful than being there for tedd,” his little kid brother, now on the cusp of going off to high school.

as poignant as anything this week, and pulsing too very near the surface, is my knowledge — keen knowledge — that not too many miles away i have a very dear and deeply beloved friend who is in a hospital, suffering unimaginable devastations, and she might be robbed of the chance to whirl in this very dear thing, in her children’s sweet presence, in days that tumble lazily one to the next. please God, i beg, down on my knees, let my beautiful friend and her most blessed children share in this, the holiest dance.

for me — a girl who preaches deep-breathing the blessing of each and every framed moment of time — the unanticipated gift, the knowledge that we might grab a few years we’d not known were coming our way, this feels to me like the gift of a lifetime, this sweet holy homecoming.

and it comes with its very own soundtrack: the sound of a particular footfall, sinking deep and deeper into my heart.

bless you, sweet will, and welcome back home.

DSCF1243

worry not about the tomes slid off the boyhood book shelf, they are safe and sound with me, and will soon find a home on yet another shelf, one of the many that line the walls of this old house. a prayer request: for my beautiful friend in the hospital, for gentle soft hours to come her way.

and a question: what are the sounds of your heart’s dearest soundtrack, the ones that tell you someone you love is heading toward home? or the ones that make your heart tick as mighty as ever could be?

final push

final push. will bam

it’s the promise i made, long long ago. the deepest surest promise i ever made.

before he was even a bump in my belly, before anyone in the world knew he was there. in the moment i first knew, i tumbled out these words: dear God, let me wrap this blessed life in a cocoon of pure, unbroken love. let me be the shield. let this child know only undiluted full-force light.

it wouldn’t be long till i found out how porous that cocoon might be. i couldn’t keep the 105-degree fevers from spiking. couldn’t even take away the sting of the shots he got at 2-months-old, when the nurse turned to me and icily offered: “what are you all nervous for?”

i surely couldn’t keep the chipmunk from darting before his bike’s front wheel on that autumn afternoon when he hurled across the handle bars, and landed in an unconscious heap on the side of the woodsy trail. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking in his neck, on that october day when he was all alone and all of 13. couldn’t keep the bone from cracking straight across his thigh just 10 months after that. nor stop the crushing commentary from the camp counselor who saw his staggered gait as reason for ridicule.

in the nearly 22 and a half years since i whispered that promise (i’d whispered it a full nine months before he was born), i’ve not veered, not lost my most determined grip.

there are rare few promises you make in life that define you. my promise to my firstborn was one.

and now, at the end of his senior year of college, in the final hours before he turns in the more than 150 pages he’s been typing, editing, eating-drinking-sleeping, i am once again putting muscle to my words. his senior thesis, a compendium of deep thinking and determined scholarship, will soon be walked into a white new england house, one with columns stretched across its porch. it’s the poli sci department, and the thesis, a probing examination of the intersection — and entanglement — of law and religion, is due in just five days. at 3 p.m., eastern time. (not that i’m watching the clock.)

i’ll not be breathing much this weekend. the thousand miles between us will, once again, have collapsed into the paper-thin space between two hearts that once beat just micrometers apart.

i’ve realized (because i tend to think that way) this might be the final push of all the school years — from preschool when i nervously watched him try to make a friend in the blocks corner, to third grade when he carried off to school the landmark chicago stadium he’d struggled to build out of cardboard, poster paint and glue (lots and lots of glue), to the junior year of high school with its tension-building, sleep-disrupting 20-page AP-english theme (oh, that seems so innocently succinct, now looking back from the distance of 150-plus footnoted pages), to the long-distance breath-holding as every college semester’s close brought with it a slate of deadlines and exams and will-he-make-it doubts, to now, the mountain climb of all type-written mountain climbs.

and so i’ll enter this final round of breath-holding, of leaping every time the phone rings, of literally falling asleep and awaking with that boy’s welfare on my mind, with all the mama-dedication it deserves.

the truest truth is that as i’ve reached out my hand to guide my boy up steep climbs, through narrow passageways, i’m the one who’s found my way. he’s plunged me into life in ways that, until he came along, i might have skirted. if i’ve lived my life one drop more deeply, more authentically, it’s because he was at my side. he was asking me — without words — to be the best of who i might be. to not flinch. to not be afraid. or even if i was, to walk forward anyway.

that’s what mamas do, after all. that’s the unspoken pact. it’s at the front line of whatever life hurls our child’s way, where we are truly put to the test. it doesn’t mean we’ll keep at bay the brokenness. it doesn’t mean we’ll stanch the tears. it means we’ll wear it all, as if our own. it means we’ll be there on the phone whispering, “i believe” till the cows come home. it means that when we’re dead asleep and the phone jangles us awake, we’ll take the call, shudder off the somnolence and stay on the line till daylight erases darkness.

in this latest round, it means we’ll read and re-read, check for misplaced commas, look up “constitution” in the world book encyclopedia, grasping to understand this free-exercise clause that seems to be absorbing so much of our kid’s attention.

if that’s what it takes. whatever it takes.

day after day, year upon year.

this is the one job for which there’s no check-out clock. our hours on the factory floor do not end.

oh, we might get long spells of reprieve, when all is humming along as you’d hope it would. but then, duty calls. stakes are high, and the fire bell clangs. so you leap into the nearest phone booth, and you whip on your mama cape. you toe the line. you’ve made a vow, and you’re sticking to it. you’re here for the long haul, and the long haul is now.

so much is stitched into every single saga. unspoken volumes. volumes that swell your heart. volumes that teach and re-teach just what it means to love as you would be loved.

it’s holy gospel, this mothering as mountain climb. he’s nearly there, the kid i love. i can see the summit, and so can he. i’ve one last weekend to stay the course. to promise him he’ll make it, and to let out a holy roar when, at last, he does.

bam will hand in hand

that’s me and my sweet boy, walking hand in hand, a long, long time ago. i nearly melt studying the snapshots, the one just above, and the one up high where you can practically feel my straining to implant some sort of mama inoculation on his irish-jewish cheek. it’s what we aim to do, aim most mightily: to embrace, protect, infuse with all that’s good, infuse with the best of what we’ve got and all we didn’t even know we had to offer. 

do you have a tale to tell about someone loving you across the finish line, no matter what the line? 

and happy blessed birthday to two of my life’s dearest oldest friends who today and tomorrow tack on another year. love you, divine miss M, and sweet sweet paula, angel of my dreams….

as if a dream…

as if a dream

the last flicker of red tail light just faded from the alley. i’d pressed my cheek as close to the glass as i could press — short of stepping out into the near frozen morning — straining to see the last dab of red glow fading away.

and, like that, poof, he’s gone.

my little christmas dream, my wish come true, has come to its hollow end. the boy i love is headed back to the college on the faraway hill, where, alone in his dorm room, the light through the window will burn. the green slope between red-brick dorms, one after another all in a square, it will be empty, will echo with the whisper of the few faint footsteps. the kid i love is among the one or two in the college who’ve been granted permission to type straight through the new year.

so christmas here was cut short, cut short by a very long thesis due in two short weeks — or, as i count it, 17 days, six hours and 19 minutes.

christmas this year was condensed. distilled to its short sweet essence.

which, in many ways, made it all the more delectable, all of it tumbled one delicious moment atop another. until last night, as i was clearing the christmas feast dishes, and the lurch in my belly made itself known. he’s leaving again, i remembered. before the dark of the dawn fades, he will be gone, i remembered.

so this morning, i did what mothers too often do: i watched the light fade away, into the too-far distance.

we wait, some sweet homecoming moments, for the light to come in through the distance. and then, on the other end of the dizzying spell of squeezing a hand that’s grown far bigger than ours, and bending low for a kiss to the brow of the sleeping man who’s back in his old twin bed, on the other end of shoulder pressed against shoulder at the cookstove, or plopping on the edge of each other’s bed for one or two thoughts shared in the dark, there comes the hour when the light pulls away, into the darkness again.

and so, in the space in between, we immerse ourselves deep in the holiest way to live: at full and piercing attention. stripping away the parts of ourselves that might otherwise get in our way — the part of ourself that, say, might prefer to do things a particular way; the part of ourself that normally flinches when butter and oil are splattered all over the cookstove (and the wall and the floor), but not this hour when it’s the college kid plying his craft of brussels sprouts bathed in a sizzling skillet of garlic and fat upon fat; the part of ourself that hadn’t planned on going to church on the far end of a one-hour traffic jam, but once we got there, well, i found myself awash in tears at the joy spread across the kid’s face as he remembered the church where he’d once made his first holy communion.

so it goes, when there’s only so much time — and you’re graced with the knowledge that, soon as it begins, it’s tumbling toward the close. you shrug off all the little things that don’t matter. you set your divining rod onto high alert. and you whirl through the short spell — the too-short spell — of 63 hours and change (including sleep time) and you inhale as if through a double-wide straw.

which, from time to time, is a very fine way to practice the art of being alive. as if the edges of your consciousness were bordered with a high-voltage fence. where, if you drifted into unconsciousness, into not paying-attention, a wee little zap to the noggin would jostle you back into full-throttle live-in-the-moment.

i remember how, in the days just before our wedding, a wise someone whispered to me a trick i’ve tried to ply ever since, even though the original instruction was only meant to pertain to the bride’s walk down the aisle: freeze frame the moment, the wise person intoned. take snapshots in your head, all along the way. that way you’ll never forget it.

and so, i attempt to pull that old trick from my toolkit whenever the occasion demands. as it did this christmas. as it did this very short spell when all i wanted was the one thing i found under the tree: both my boys, and their papa, nestled shoulder to shoulder for unbroken hours.

the little guy practically couldn’t let go. we were hunkered down watching a movie, and there were the little one’s arms, draped wholly across his big brother’s chest. loping down a city sidewalk, the big one flopped his very long arm down and around the little one’s cap-covered curly-haired head.

the two of them stayed up late all three nights. i drifted to sleep hearing their hilarity rise up the stairs, around the bend, and into my bed. last night i woke up long enough to hear a line i promised myself i’d memorize, but then, darn it, i woke up and couldn’t quite remember. all i know is it was something about, “you’re the best brother that ever there was.”

which, really, is all i need to remember, to know.

i wished for one thing for christmas. i wished for one thing my whole life long: that through trial and error, and stumble and fall, and mistake after blunder, i might over time figure out how to live and breathe love in a way that was purely contagious, that spread like a rash.

i wished for a womb of love, long long ago. i prayed that the boy i was about to birth would always, always know that love was his beginning and middle and end. i’ve lived and breathed to untangle wires, sandpaper rough spots; to make what unfolds in this house a pure bath of tender-hearted, full-throttle kindness. with a fat dollop of joy.

and this christmas i watched it unfold, one slow frame at a time.

i’ve got the whole roll tucked in my heart.

happy blessed boxing day, and how was your very own christmas?

willie ala brussels sproutsmr. firstborn, ala splattering brussels sprouts, ala christmas feast….

 

poetry school

poetry school

when the school bell rings, i shuffle over to class in my holey-est slippers. and, dating my pedagogical style, i haul out my spiral notebook, my pen, and settle in. click a couple buttons, and poof! poetry school’s in session.

so it goes when you go to college from the comfy confines of your kitchen table. when you’re hauled out on field trips to the lower east side, and south street seaport, without so much as buttoning a sweater.

over the wintry weeks, i’ve grown fond of my professor — she tells us to call her lisa, even though she’s listed as elisa in the course book. (she lets on, in a cozy email, that only strangers call her by her full name, first syllable vowel-prefix attached; she seems to be inferring that we are now admitted to her inner circle — how kind of her, how generous. see why i like her already?)

she tells that to the thousands and thousands of us who click into class from wherever we sit on the globe, and learn a thing or two about poetry in america, and walt whitman, specifically.

thousands and thousands, you ask? yup, if they packed us all in a lecture hall it’d need to be about as big as beijing’s bird’s nest, that iconic steel-strung stadium built for the 2008 summer olympics.

back on the days when we were settling into class, when virtual papers were being passed out, and we were going around the room to introduce ourselves, i tried to scribble down all the countries we come from. i started with ukraine, scribbled india, UK, bangladesh, serbia, south korea, nigeria, netherlands, lebanon, swaziland, kosovo, even togo. i practically ran out of room after packing in itty-bitty letters clear to the bottom of the notebook page, and sideways up the margins. i just counted 49, and i’m sure i missed a few.

we are all huddled round our laptops, our iPads, our clunky desktops for a class called “poetry in america: whitman.”

think not that this is mamby-pamby read-along at home. this is sit-back-while-the-brilliant-professor — from the comfy confines of her book-lined office in the red-brick barker center just off harvard square — waxes-eloquently (and without notes) about the quintessentially american 19th-century poet. and when she wants to show us an original manuscript, she just hauls her video crew over to the rare books vault in harvard’s houghton library and pans the lens up and down the page. and when she wants us to know the streets whitman walked in new york city, she pops up yet another video and walks us up and down the sidewalks, pointing out the print shop where he set type, showing us his newspaper’s proximity to new york’s city hall, and even the back alley where whitman got to know the prostitutes and actresses of mid-19th-century manhattan.

this is hardly a hands-off matter. why, this fine professor insists on “two well-crafted paragraphs,” in open response to questions about the poems. she and her technical wizards have provided a nifty annotation tool, so we — the thousands of students, all of whom speak a thousand different mother tongues — can identify anaphora (repeating the same word at the start of successive lines) and parallelism (repetition of certain structures throughout the poem) and the latest poet-trick of the week, apostrophe (an address or salutation, as in O sun!). and we have to post these things in public manner. so anyone who’s in the class can scroll along and peek over our shoulder and figure out whether we are complete dunces or might be onto something.

in fact, this global classroom comes complete with office hours and TAs. and those brilliant almost-PhD’s actually scroll through the online postings, those “two well-crafted paragraphs,” and comment on our postings.

now, for a timid soul like me, one whose hand might be quaking in an early round of hand-raising in a lecture hall the size of kingdom come, it is scary enough to hit the submit button, and watch your thoughts on walt whitman’s “crossing brooklyn ferry,” or “song of myself” get all but nailed to the village crier’s blackboard. but even i can suffer the possible indignities and disgraces from the loneliness of my kitchen, so imagine how the soul doth swell, when hours later you circle back and find the nice TA has scribbled “you’re really onto something,” there beneath your humble words.

this whole exercise, in fact, might be far more than what i signed up for. i thought it was a vigorous way to dig deeper into the world of poetry that so captivates my imagination. but, slowly and certainly, i am discovering it might just be a brilliant bathtowel-rub of confidence and faith.

we all have a million reasons why we never think we’re good enough. the joke at harvard, we learned last year, is that nearly every freshman shuffling across the yard is peeking over his or her shoulder, wondering who in the admissions office made the mistake and let her or him in. “they must have mixed me up with the brainiac whose name was after mine in the applicant pile,” you can’t help but think — unless, that is, your mother gave you cans of ego-builder for breakfast with your eggs. (mine did not.)

so, i bumbled into this class in the ways i often do. first i wasn’t sure if i was allowed to sign up. (i was; it’s free and open to the public.) then i thought i wouldn’t take it for the nifty certificate that says i passed (i figured i didn’t need any more papers in my rat’s hole of an office, and besides, what if i couldn’t cut it?). and i sure didn’t think i’d ever muster the courage to say a single thing out loud (you could film a video introduction of yourself, or cobble a few penned sentences; i opted for the pen — aka keyboard).

but then, somewhere along the way, i started reading and thinking, and melting under the warmth of this professor with her deep love of poetry and her proclivity for messed-up hair and quirky field trips. and then i wrote what i thought, dug down not too deep — because what i thought had already bubbled up and wanted to be typed — and found myself deeply engaged in conversation with mr. TA and a few other students of poetry, who, for all i know, might be typing from a drafty hovel in azerbaijian or a dim-lit flat in kosovo.

it’s what happens when you go fling yourself into any one of life’s classrooms, the ones that don’t come with comfort guaranteed. you find a two-track curriculum — the one where you absorb the lesson plan, as penned by the professor, and the one that’s more of an independent study, and you find yourself quietly, wholly, learning who you are and who you might become.

walt whitman, i’ve learned, was the son of a carpenter who came of age during america’s building boom. he schooled himself in new york city, first as a newspaperman and, always, a flaneur, a fellow who strolled the city inhaling its street theater and its lessons.

but i’ve learned too that the wobbly-legged just-born thoughts that spill from deep inside, might “really be onto something.” and that’s a gold star i’ll carry closest to my heart.

word of the week, thanks to poetry school: amative — sexually potent. (i learned that whitman might be described as such. you decide for yourself how you choose to apply to your very own self or someone you admire.)

any hour now, i am sliding into my snow boots and riding the clackety el downtown to meet my dear professor in the flesh. yes, indeed, she is coming to the poetry foundation on chicago’s north side — that transparent cube of glass on aptly named west superior street. she is coming for conversation about whitman and gwendolyn brooks, chicago’s own poet wonder. i can’t wait to look into her sparkly eyes — the professor’s, i mean.

learn more about MOOCs (massive open online course) and EdX, in particular, by clicking on those hyperlinks. 

do you have a favorite whitman poem, or better yet, have you flung yourself into any discomfort zone this week, and did you find that you somehow stayed afloat? 

the sound of hollowed-out

brother love

when you love someone, when there is a someone in your life who drops in every few months, makes you laugh till you fall off your chair, or plops beside you on your beanbag in the basement, sidles up, takes the whatchamahoojie in his hand, and click-click-clicks right beside you, for hours into the night, as your words weave back and forth, an alchemy of big-brother wisdom and vernacular that wholly escapes your mother, you pretty much come to thinking of that someone as a guy who walks in halo. he’s your own personal savior, patron saint and laugh track.

he’s your big beautiful brother.

and when eight long years fall between your birthdays, when one of you is off gallivanting round leafy college quads, and the other is back home mastering obstacles like combination locks and kickstands and how to juggle soccer balls while holding onto handle bars, what falls between you, the glue that holds you tight, the interstitia of your entwined hearts, it’s pretty much a recipe of two parts magic, one part paying attention, and a good dollop of the long-held family maxim that the two of you are in this world to watch out for each other. because no one will ever do it better.

so, saying goodbye to that big fellow, saying goodbye on the morning when the old family wagon, all spiffed up and tuck-pointed with brand-new spark plugs, brake pads and all the parts that might keep it from going kerpluey on the side of some far-flung highway — somewhere in the godforsaken woods of ohio, new york, or western massachusetts — well, it hollows you from the inside, from way down low to up where the howls come out.

it hurts.

more than anything you’ve ever had to do.

because all summer you’ve been hearing folks joke about how this is the last time your big brother will spend much time hanging around these parts. geez, they’re even bequeathing you his room — bedroom with bath — up at the bend in the stairs. that sure must mean this goodbye is for good. no one scores a sink and shower unless this deal is for keeps. and someone just handed you your big brother’s hand-me-down washcloth, and said, “congrats, you’ve got your own crash pad now.”

so deep in the darkness of the day when the old wagon rolled down the alley, hooked a right, in the direction of the eastern seaboard and that leafy college, you couldn’t help but let the tears fall freely. you couldn’t help the sounds that came from deep down low, where all the sadness dwells.

you couldn’t keep from saying the words your mama will never ever forget, the very definition of love, spelled out in wails and tears:  “he’s the perfect prescription for a tough time.”

he is, indeed.

that big brother, with his kooky mix of tenderheart-slash-rocky-balboa inspirations, and a stable of 96 spot-on accents and impersonations from all around the globe and comedy central’s backstage, he is the perfect prescription.

for plenty of moments in the mixed-up files of a 12-year-old who’s just moved back to a place that looks familiar but in fundamental ways will never be the way it used to be. and who can’t shake the haunting echoes of a place — and people — you came to love and miss each and every day, all banging noisily about your heart.

as you try to find your way, once again.

but there’s one other thing about the sounds your mama heard the other night, a sound she recognized right away, and will not forget: it sounded deep-down hollowed-out, the cry let loose from human hearts standing at the precipice of unfathomable canyons.

canyons that offer two options: find a way to get across, or stand there wailing till the end of time.

it’s a canyon and a sound that she remembers.

she wailed it, night after night, in the long nights after her papa died, when she could not for the life of her figure out how she’d travel forward, find her way through the maze, without her papa’s star light and shoulder to lean on.

indeed, my sweet boy cried out, in that haunting mournful tone that makes the hairs on your neck bristle.  thank God, no one died. but someone left.

and leaving feels awful.

when you’re only 12, and you’ve not had much practice at learning to go forward, to find your way, without the shining light — and secret handshake — of the ones you love the most.

i could have let the picture do the talking here today. says it all, pretty much. a little one whose arms do not want to let go, little one holding tight, and big one giving it one last blast of gusto. we’re doing what we can to keep the little guy afloat. a flotilla of scrambly 7th-graders sure helps. and platters of sparkly cookies, winking out from under glass domes, they help too. this was the year it hit the little guy the hardest. and it’s with his explicit permission, by the way, that i was allowed to try to write this, to put in words a love that shakes me to my core. we’re double-blessed — in the boy department and far beyond. and the little guy will be all right. his heart will grow even wiser as he finds his way, and discovers that miles don’t really get in the way of two hearts that pump to the same beautiful song. 

how have you gotten through your hardest goodbye?

loopy days

loopy days bedsheet

for three short weeks — one down, only two to go — there’s a new rhythm in this old house. it goes like this: ’round late morning, i hear a swoosh from up above the kitchen ceiling (that’s the bedsheets being whipped aside); then i hear a thud, followed by a parade of thuds, thud-thud-thud down the stairs. as the thuds round the bend, lope into the kitchen, i look up and see a bed-head. my beloved boy.

he begins his morning forage through the fridge. as he piles tubs and cartons on the countertop, he lets out with a “whadda we got for breakfast, mommo?”

that’s my cue to begin the litany, all within the confines of high-protein, low carbs, healthy, delicious, and filling.

hmm. let me know if you’ve got ideas.

it’s at about this point that the eggs are being cracked, he’s begging for mushrooms, and wants to know if i remembered to get the mozzarella at the market. as i watch egg whites whirl toward the kitchen walls, i leap up from my typing to play at being his sous-chef (though really all i am is the wiper-upper of kitchen splats).

he whips up something grand, something delicious, and always spilling over the sides of his plate.

we mosey back to the table. or, well, he moseys, and i finish up the de-splatting. then we sit, and the loopy days begin. we dive deep. quickly.

waste little time on folderol and fluff. we’ve got a year’s worth of college life to pour over (we’ve been known to take in two years at a gulp, retreading over year before last, if pertinent) , and there’s the year ahead to consider, too.

we loop round and round, drop threads, follow new ones, circle back — hours later — to the thread we’d left behind. it goes like this for half the day.

now, not all college kids go off the way mine has. i’ve heard tales of kids who text many times  a day. i’ve even heard stories about college kids who dial phones. call home. to be fair, that happens here too, but not so very often. and, when it happens, it is sometimes very very late at night.

we seem to have birthed a college kid who takes his college full-throttle. unless it’s dire — and on occasion, it’s been vaguely that — we’re pretty much the side show. oh, there are insistent “love you, mommo”s. and there are (astonishingly), “do you remember where you put my sewing kit?”

mostly, i, um, never ever doubt, not for any longer than five or 10 minutes, that he appreciates my unbroken love and care.

but, really, it’s these sacred hours when he’s home, when the two of us are circling in and out of each other’s footspace and quarter-hour time slots, that we make up for lost time, and seal the deal for the long whitespace ahead.

these hours, the ones where he might sink down low inside a bean bag, while i trod for miles on the treadmill, the ones where i sous to his chef, these are the ones that knit us deep and thick and forever at the heart.

love in every house spills out in idiosyncratic ways. and it changes over time.

at my house now, i am licking up these hours of deep and winding conversation as if the ice cream melted on my cake plate.

i am whispering thanks to the heavens above that, right now, for this short interlude, i can do my typing here, not far from where the thuds patter down the stairs. so that i can weave my sentences in between his stories. so i can be here to catch the loop-de-loops of conversation as they unfurl. in slow time. unhurried time. whip-up-omelettes-while-you’re-talking time.

because i’m long practiced in the art of asking questions, allowing long spells for replies, i find this a part of motherhood to which i take a particular shine. play time on the floor, i flunked. so, too, chutes and ladders and monopoly. i wasn’t bad at crayons and paper. but really.

the deepest glue i know is the one that comes from unfurling the whole of the human heart. the nooks and crannies. crests and high plains.

so it’s what we do here. for three short weeks. in the mid-day hours when no one else is home. and my brain’s at full attention. and my work can wait till dark. for these hours are slipping through my fingers. and i am plumbing the depths of each and every one.

loopy days, i find, are the summer’s sweetest offering.

do you practice the art of the slow-unwinding conversation? the one with someone you love that stops and starts and plumbs the depths for days and days on end? and carries you across long dry deserts of barely enough time to really, really talk?

and because i promised a bit of cerebral uplift, i’ll begin what i’m calling the marginalia department, where i scribble in the margins of whatever page i’m turning, where i recount for you the lines i’ve scored and underscored. 

this week from rebecca solnit’s “the faraway nearby,” a line to chew on for a time:

“Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”

or this….

“Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.”

i am especially keen on the first, about difficulty school, and the option of learning from it. it’s a thought that carried me to sleep last night…..and it’s a book that came highly recommended by one of my very favorite reader friends…..

the view from inside one mama’s heart

brothers

i know.  i said i’d take a turn north, explore the cerebrum instead of the vessel that pumps down in the chest. but, so happens, a prodigal child is circling back to his homestead this weekend, for three short weeks, for what might prove to be the last and longest time.

i hadn’t quite realized how hollow this old house feels without him. the first year he went off to college, it was all new. i hadn’t quite grasped that it was the new normal; it still felt like a blip, an oddity. i could hum along and pretend that one day soon it would be back to the way it had always been.

the second year of college, none of us were here. we were tucked in that third-floor aerie that hardly knew him. that felt small enough and tight enough not to miss him quite so much. and besides, he was only two hours away.

now, now that we’re back in the old house with the room at the bend in the stairs, his room, the room he grew up in, the one where he learned to shave, first slid into a tuxedo, the one where he typed his college essays, where his desk lamp stayed burning till too late in the night, too early in the morning, truth be told, i feel the emptiness. this old house feels baggy, like we’ve gone down in size, and the jeans on our hips are sagging, sliding clear to our knees.

it’s quiet. too quiet sometimes. oh, don’t get me wrong. i wrap myself in silence like a soft-knitted afghan. quiet and silence allow thoughts to percolate, ideas to bubble up and thicken, gain depth and nuance, not unlike a balsamic glaze, or a mound of caramelized onion.

but that prize — the silence so rich you can count the tick of the clock — comes at the cost of not hearing the laughter. not standing at the cutting board, come late afternoon, with tears rolling down my cheeks. and not because i’m chopping an onion; because the lanky kid who just strolled in the door is recounting his day, is telling me tales animated in one of the 5,000 accents he’s mastered, an around-the-world whirl from one little mouth. it’s the uncanniest gift, his knack for assembling a whole host of characters, spilling them forth, one tale, one voice, at a time.

there is nothing so sweet as a belly ache that comes from your kid doubling you over in side-splitting, air-gasping guffaws.

that kid is coming home. that kid will fill this old house, once again, with the clomp of his feet, the sound of the shower that drones on for what seems like an hour. i’ll hear the sound of his pawing through the pantry, in search of whatever will fill that bottomless belly. but most of all, i’ll hear the sound of that voice i could pluck from the middle of grand central station, that voice i can hear in my dreams.

i’ll hear the particular way he calls me “mommo!” a collection of soft consonants and one open-mouthed vowel that buckles my knees, kickstarts my heart.

even better than all of that, though, are the sounds that will come from the two who are brothers.

i realize more than ever that eight years apart is a lifetime. one is off, navigating the steep slopes of college. the other is back home, after a long year away, trying to find his way through the forest of middle school. miles and miles lie between them. most of the year, they are no more than apostrophes in each other’s stories. they intersect barely. trade two syllable texts, on occasion.

but, in the rare few weeks they inhabit the very same house, they will be everything i always prayed for: each other’s guidepost and lighthouse. they’ll curl in the beanbags, side by side, down in the basement. they’ll motor off in the old station wagon that now has no fan, no AC or heat. but it does have good tunes, they tell me. and they’ll turn them up loudly. i might even find the little one sprawled on the big one’s twin bed.

there is much catching up to do. the big kid’s learning lessons at considerable pace. the little one is starting to ask much deeper questions, questions best answered not by your mama, but by the very big brother who, in your estimation, knows all there is to know.

in plenty of ways, the two couldn’t be any more different. or at least it had always seemed that way. if i’d had two ovaries, i would have sworn one came from the left and one from the right. but, fact is, i only had one, so they both popped from the same cubic inch of real estate.

and maybe that’s why — deep down — the two of them understand the most essential brotherly truth: they’ve got each other’s backs. they are each other’s deepest allies, and fiercest defenders. it’s the truth that propelled all my prayers, in those long fallow years when month after month brought the sound of my heart shattering.

and so, as the drumbeat quickens, as the march on the calendar moves toward sunday at 5:07 p.m., central standard time, so too does the pace of my pulse. i’ll move into full mama mode as the hours unfold. i’ll do my usual dance: zip around the yard with clippers, tuck stems in a fat old vase and plop it next to his pillow. i’ll cook up a storm. polish the bathroom mirror, change the sheets, vacuum the rug. make like a long-lost traveler is returning to civilization.

if i stop to consider the calendar, if i realize that this really might be his last long stint under this roof, i might park myself at the door of his room, and stop the clock.

nah, on second thought, i wouldn’t want that. i love every inch and ounce of this growing of kids. i love the intricate layers of conversation, as it deepens and deepens, year after year. i love getting the phone calls from far, far away, hearing the stories, the life that he leads that so exceeds the bounds of mine at his age.

i love that he’ll always have us to come home to. and that his room at the bend in the stairs will echo forever the sounds of his bumbling years. the years when he was finding his way, the years when he did that under my watch.

more than ever, i thank the heavens that i’ve the little guy, too. that one more time i can reach out a hand, and help a traveler up the side of very steep hills. this old house would be so very hollow without him.

and for three weeks, three too-swift weeks, this old house will be filled with two boys, and their very big hearts, sloshing and spilling with laughter and stories and, sure as can be, some very fine wisdoms passed from brother to brother….

just as i prayed so long ago….

thank God for the prayers that came true…

the picture above was snapped the night before the big one left for college. he read a pile of books to the little one that night, as the little one didn’t want to turn out the light, didn’t want the morning to come. 

so many mornings have come and gone since then. so many more about to come…..

did you have a big or little sibling who took your hand and guided you through the world? or did you find your pathfinders beyond the bounds of the family you were born into??

home. amid a host of tugs and pulls and squeaks from far corners.

moving boxes...

dispatch from 60091 (in which, except for invasion of colonies of critters with matchstick-sized legs, i attempt to nest in solitude, with a few elephant-sized distractions…)

i’ve waited 18 months for this. to have unpacked the mountain of moving boxes. to have tiptoed room-to-room, inhaling the musty scent of home. to be tucked up against my old maple table, with the morning sun draped across the slabs. my old chipped coffee mug at the ready, inches from the keyboard.

i’ve waited for the tick and tock of our grandpa’s clock. to hear the morning song of birds, my birds, my flocks, rising up and rolling in from the jungle that is my overgrown garden. i’ve waited and waited.

to be home, and going nowhere.

alas, it hasn’t exactly been a week of lolligagging and tossing back bonbons in a tub of bubbles.

the night before i zipped the last of the home-bound suitcases, back in 02139, i got word — make that, news flash — from my hilarious friend who spent the year here holding down the fort. she’d ducked into the wee bathroom off my writing room (the old garage, long ago turned into maid’s quarters, how apt that i now dwell there…), and there, dozing atop a feather bed of nibbled toilet paper bits, a nice fat chipmunk. only it wasn’t sleeping. it was, um, dead. and had chosen a basket filled with toilet paper rolls to be his final resting place.

she spared me pix of the kerplunked critter, and instead sent me a dramatic close-up of just how adept chipmunks are at making bedclothes out of the tissue paper with a purpose.

i considered myself fair-warned.

which is why, once half across the country, once the cat, the boy, the three fat suitcases and i were greeted at the baggage depot by my fair mama and ferried home, i tiptoed with trepidation into that wee room. i scanned for paw prints, wee paw prints, everywhere a furry thing might scamper. i scanned, too, for the caraway-seed-sized deposits they always leave behind.

i found them.

abundantly.

piled high and thick atop the baby blankets i had so neatly folded and tucked into a basket back in the corner. must have seemed the perfect lullaby land for all the baby chipmunks (and judging from the pile, there was a bumper crop of baby chipmunks). i did not scream. i merely long-jumped from the room, slammed the door, and decided to deal with it in the morning.

long story, short: $500 later, my new best friend joe, the jesus-believing critter control apostle, arrived on the scene, armed with coyote urine, ammonia crystals and wheelbarrows of cement. not a poison to be found, bless his benevolent heart. just some serious deterrents for re-entry to the chipmunks’ underground metropolis, the one they dug in vast array beneath the concrete slab upon which the old garage was built.

that’s the story of the first-floor critters. upstairs, in all the drawers where soaps and cottonballs were stored (note the past tense), another branch of the Rodentia family (the ones with long skinny tails and appetite, apparently, for european scrubs) had made themselves quite at home. why, it was a veritable carnival of critters, all with matchstick legs and the itty-bittiest pit-a-pats the world has ever known. they’d run amok undetected for lord knows how many months. (they don’t exactly blow trumpets announcing their arrival.)

and, oh, they served as such a rousing welcome committee. (i was roused, all right!)

but all that, truly, fades in the narrative arc of this long week.

the heart of the matter is that one long dark night this week i sat alone in my long-awaited bed fielding phone calls from my firstborn who was spending the night in an ER 1,000 miles away, getting IV painkillers pumped into his veins (neck and head pains, all tied back to a broken neck in the eighth grade, when he somersaulted over his handlebars swerving from — get this — a chipmunk who’d dashed across his bike trail).

and that’s only the half of it. my little one, the brave one who boarded a plane to germany a mere 48 hours after whirling in the door, a trip he’d long awaited, a trip for which he’d spent the year studying with his german tutor, he’d gotten sick as a dog on the flight across the atlantic, and 24 hours after de-boarding the plane was still upchucking in his new german bathroom. i was getting emails from the teacher, updating me on just what shade of green he was sporting, hour by hour.

when you are 11, and 4,538 miles from home, and you’ve been tummy-rumbling in volcanic proportions for a good 36 hours, you really truly desperately deeply through-and-through want one of two things: a.) to catch the next plane home, or b.) to have your mama sky-dive from the clouds.

thus, you do what any thinking person would do: you pick up the phone, and dial in your request.

and your mother, on the far side of the globe, hearing the whimper in your voice, imagining just how wretched it must feel to have wretched straight across the ocean, she kicks into high mama gear: she drops to her knees, points eyes heavenward, and unfurls the litanies of prayer reserved for just such moments.

she smacks herself upside the head for letting such a little guy go in the first place. she calls on angels, saints, random trumpet players, anyone and anything who might come charging to the rescue, to barrel up the hill and storm the ramparts.

she tries everything she can humanly think of. she pounds out “this i believe” treatises, reminding the little fellow just how brave he is, and just how valiantly he has conquered a host of uphill battles: the sleepover on wrigley field, the two-week summer camp in the deep dark mosquito-infested woods of michigan, the whole dang city of cambridge, massachusetts. heck, he even weathered a whomping case of scarlet fever and pneumonia when he was just a wee young thing.

the boy can do it.

he is, i often remind him, the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer. while all the other eggs could not make it out of the roundhouse and chug up the mountain, that little guy was the one egg who made the climb, who was born in a shaft of pure white light at 3:22 one hot august morning, to a mother who defied logic and medical tomes, clocking into the maternity ward at 44 years, eight months and five days old.

on the off-chance that my sweet boy is tucked under the puffy covers in munster, reading these words from glowing screen, i have five words and a comma for you: you can do it, sweetie.

i love you higher than the moon and wider than the oceans. you have angels, saints, mamas, papas, grandmas and grandpas, uncles, aunts and a big brother all pulling for you. we’ll make sure you are pumped up with dramamine for the swift ride home. and we’ll be waiting at the airport with double-time hearts and wide-open arms. we’ll pull you to our thumping hearts, and keep you home all summer. we’ll even ply you with fresh-squeezed lemonade and oatmeal-raisin cookies. we’ll let you stay up late and sleep till lunchtime, if that’s the way you like it. we’ll whip up a welcome home parade, and make you grand marshal and chief potentate. i won’t even make you pluck your dirty socks off the floor. (not for the first hour, anyway….)

you will have triumphed over the latest in your long litany of championship makers. you are some boy, you glorious sweet soul, you who always says, “yes! i want to see the world!”

it’s right before your eyes. take it in, sweetheart. then hurry home. so we can all chase chipmunks hither and yon and all around the garden, one big happy reunited family. home sweet home, at last. oh, sweet lord, at last.

so that’s the news from the homecoming committee. shoulda known that you can’t go away for 10 long months and not expect a bump or grind upon return. 

question of the week: what words of wisdom would you impart to a wee lad far from home, and weathering a whopper case of travel bugs…..

love letter to the cobbled city by the bend in the river charles…

river walk

dispatch from 02139 (final edition)…

the parabola of time has caught up with me. it’s the morning i couldn’t imagine. the end of the year i could hardly wrap my head around, long long ago when word of it first flickered across my imagination, when i knew i couldn’t say no, but could not figure how i’d say yes.

i turn back into a pumpkin in precisely 23 hours and 49 minutes (as of the moment i typed that calculation), when the big jet plane huffs and puffs and in a somersault of gravity defiance and aeronautical wonder hoists its belly off the runway, pointing toward sky, toward home.

home.

trouble is, i’m leaving a place that’s come to feel like home. when i lope round the bend onto franklin, just past petsi’s pie bakery & cafe, when i spot the curlicues of victorian frou-frou that bedeck our triple-decker at 608, i start fumbling for my keys. i know there’s a place up there, the aerie, where the breeze blows through, where the walls of books whisper sweet somethings in my ear.

true, i am headed home to a place that knows the secret hiding coves of my heart, to the muscled city that dares to rise up from the prairie along the great lake’s ruffled edge, to the creaky stairs of my old house, to my rambling roses now blooming in a tussle all along the white picket fence.

i’m headed home to the place where the walls are covered in black-and-white snaps of people we love, the people who came before us. to the place where two rooms at the top of the stairs are chambers that forever hold the frames of childhood that loop for both of my boys. i’m headed home, oddly enough, to the hand-me-down jug of the jolly quaker oats fellow my papa brought home from work a long, long time ago, and for reasons that could never be charted is way more priceless than old pottery has reason to be.

home is equal parts hodgepodge and heart. it’s quirky and lumpen. it creaks and it groans. sometimes you have to bang on the hot-water spigot just to get it to dribble. home soothes us nonetheless, kneads the knots out of our worn-down spirit at the end of the day.

and that’s what i’m coming home to: the real-deal, deep-soother rendition of that place where we lay down and breathe.

but before i zip the last of my bags, before i slip the key in the door one last time, turn and blow a kiss, i need to riffle through my cantabrigian* memory box one last time, pull out a few of the blessings i’ll never forget, won’t leave behind.

if there’s one frame that will forever spring to mind, it’ll be that meandering walk down by the charles river (the one pictured above), under the london plane trees, past the boat houses that hug the banks, dowagers of the past. it’s the walk that carried me, countless dawns, to my stone-walled monastery, where the monks always welcomed, and the votive candles patiently awaited the matchstick that lit them aflicker. mile after mile, week after week, we’d take to that path, the tall one, the professor, and i. it became our early-morning ritual, mostly on weekends, when we’d have a rare chance to catch up on what each other might have been up to in the long spaces between.

i’ll miss my kaleidoscope of neighbors here on franklin street: white-haired nan, of the caribbean-painted cottage, nan who fell in love with a civil rights compatriot, and wept fresh tears on my stoop just last night, as she clutched a framed photo of the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed gentleman she lost to cancer nearly two years ago, after 40-some years of marriage. nan, who found in cambridge a place where, back in the ’60s, no one looked twice at a white-skinned woman arm-in-arm with the black-skinned love of her life.

i’ll miss sarah, sarah who looks as if she’s just come in from blueberry picking in maine or, truer still, stepped off the pages of a children’s storybook with her sun-kissed hair and faintest freckles and that twinkle that never leaves her eye. sarah who came to the door with a tinfoil-wrapped platter of chocolate-chunk cookies on the day we arrived, and again last night, on the eve of departure. “bookends,” she called them. she is just that sort of across-the-way neighbor. and i will love her till the end of time.

and i’ll miss jane, eighty-something jane, who was born in a double-decker down the block, and has never left, spending her days leaning up against the cyclone fence or shuffling in bedroom slippers and top-knotted headscarf up and down the cobbled slopes of franklin and putnam and bay, the rectangle that defines her life’s landscape.

i’ll miss the harvard book store, and the coop, and the sun-drenched cambridge public library, my holy trinity of literary haunts, where books come curated by brilliant minds who know just which words will swoop deep into a reader’s heart and stir for a good long while.

i’ll miss the polyglot stew that rises up from the round-the-world crowds in harvard square, and the letters from the cambridge public schools that always come translated in at least 10 languages on the backside of every page. because here, in the 02138s and 9s, no one assumes english is the first language.

i’ll miss the intellectual bunsen burner that is 02139 and 02138, the zone the new york times proclaimed “the most opinionated ZIP code in america,” where ideas are the coin of the realm, and the shabbier the khakis, the holey-er the button-down, the better.

i’ll miss the body parts of cambridge that come pierced, stapled, studded, stretched and permanently inked in tattoos that know no end. i’ll miss the leggings in rainbow colors that peek out from underneath shorts that barely stretch across bums. i’ll miss the most eloquent cardboard pleas from the homeless folk who station themselves all along mass avenue.

i’ll miss the eastern seaboard, and the magic in the mist that coaxes rhododendrons and roses and dogwood and lilac to grow to proportions i never knew possible.

i’ll miss the breads of massachusetts and maine, just up the road. “when pigs fly” is my bakery of choice, and don’t be surprised if i lug home a suitcase packed to the brim with raisin-studded whole-grain goodness.

i’ll miss cambridge from dawn till starlight. i’ll miss cambridge when, plonked on an old wicker chair on my summer porch, i look up and catch the moon rising. i’ll know that a mere 1,000 miles away, that same sliver moon shines down on the charles, and the cobbled lanes that rise up from its banks to the hill i called home.

it’s a holy place, the place that opens your heart, that teaches you lessons. most of all the one where you find out that one simple “yes” made it all possible.

bless you, 02139.

quaker oat man

*cantabrigian: a quirky latin-derivative adjective for all things harvardian or cambridge, englandian. took me most of the year to pick up on it, so i’m passing it along, providing the shortcut for you.

so that’s it, chair people. cinderella’s ball is winding down. only cinders by the hearth, come morning. though i couldn’t be more twitterpated at the thought of swooping through the clouds to touch down in sweet home chicago. forgive the cambridge-centric year; twas a promise to mamas who wanted in on every drop. or at least the week’s highlights. we’ll be back to musings from the home front soon as i unpack the 27 boxes now motoring along the massachusetts turnpike. can’t believe i’ll next type from my old pine desk, but tis true.

from the bottom of my heart, bless you and thank you for the solace, the comfort, the wisdom you brought to me here at the table, where each friday i plugged in, and felt zapped with all your goodness. blessings. and love, the chair lady.

sayeth oprah: “ask yourself what makes you come alive…”

oprah better

dispatch from 02139 (in which the glorious “miss winfrey” — as the southern gentleman introduced her to the crowd — comes a-calling to commencement, and sends us forth…hot, sweaty and re-dialing our inner moral GPS…)

since, in all our together-in-chicago years, i’d never managed to amble over to that west loop studio of the glorious O herself, it was mighty considerate of veritas U to ink dear o-o-oprah in as this year’s commencement headliner.

why, with a mere 30,000 of us crammed in that polygon of grass and trees and library steps known in cambridgetown as tercentenary theatre, it was a veritable talk show a la fresco.

madam televangelist even joked, early on in her 29 minutes and 15 seconds of wisdom-spieling, that she’d hoped we might all be able to peek down under our chairs and find — voila! — free masters degrees and PhDs, which by harvard standards stirs a quicker pulse than the keys to any old lexus.

but that, dear friends, is leaping too far ahead into the proceedings of the 362d commencement of the oldest university in all the land.

back to the buzz that buzzed through cambridge, as the bells of harvard yard gonged once, then twice. and all of us, from points all around the square, we came trooping through the opened gates, first line of defense in the march toward harpo studios, 02138 edition.

we submitted to backpack checks, pulled proof-of-merit stubs from our sweaty pockets, and slogged through mud (for the night before the heavens opened wide and noah’s flood near poured). we found chairs that, had they toppled, would have slathered us in harvard ooze.

we sat through the blah-blah-blahs.

heard how the class of 1988 had raised a deficit-busting, all-time-record-setting $115 million (yup, you read that right, that was MILLION) in donations in just the last year, their 25th since graduation. we heard the sublime university president drew faust gilpin downplay her role as mere “warm-up act,” and acknowledge that there was “not a sea but a veritable ocean of anticipation” for the crimson-gowned miss winfrey who sat politely, legs primly crossed at the ankles, just a few feet away, as she awaited her turn at the podium.

and then, in all her splendor, the big O arose.

she belted out a wallop of basso profundo i swear they heard clear back in sweet home chicago: “O. My. Goodness! i’m at haaaaaaaaaarvaaaaaaarddd!”

“not too many little girls from rural mississippi make it all the way here to cambridge,” she began, though before she closed she spoke of khadija williams, one of the graduates of the harvard class of 2013 who had been homeless, attended 12 schools in 12 years, who “lived out of garbage bags,” who bathed in wal-mart restrooms so she could ditch the stench of the streets before walking into high school, and who, blessedly, had never ever veered from her holy path to college.

exuding that oprah-magic that has a way of making every couch potato in the country feel she’s the shoulder we can always lean on, that she’s with us in our skinned knees and our banged-up hearts, she mentioned straight off that she was addressing her remarks “to anybody who’s ever felt inferior, felt disadvantaged, anybody who’s felt screwed by life.”

not quite what you’d expect for a crowd of harvardians.

but, there, people, is the holy gospel. no one — not even harvard phi beta kappas — is immune from feeling less-than, marginalized, shoved to the sometimes sidelines.

and then, dear oprah got to the heart of the matter, what she called a fundamental truth: “it doesn’t matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble. because if you do what we are constantly doing, raising the bar; if you are constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, ” — and here she mentioned that even though she hadn’t gone to the ivy-tangled college, she was simpatico with the type-A harvard-hard-charging personality.

“it’s the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus,” she went on, “that predicts you will at some point fall.

“and when you do, i want you to remember this: there is no such thing as failure. failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

she paused, the wise one did.

then she picked right up, simpatico as ever: “now, when you’re down in the hole, it looks like failure,” she said, sister-to-sister style, as if no podium, no rows of 30,000 chairs stood between her broken heart and ours.

“this past year,” she let on, meaning when clear across the country her OWN network was branded a failure, “i had to spoonfeed those words to myself.”

take time, she advised, to mourn what you think you might have lost. “and here’s the key: learn. from. every. mistake.

“because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.”

step three: figure out the next right move.

to do that, she prescribed what she promised was the key to life: “develop an internal moral emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”

be willing, she all but preached, “to listen to, to be guided by, the still small voice within.”

amen, and hallelujah.

in fact, as soon as those three words — “still small voice” — spilled from oprah’s lips, the tall bespectacled fellow beside me turned and looked my way. we might not have succumbed to the GPS at our house, but we’re both believers in that still small voice within.

should you be so inclined, you can hear the whole of dr. winfrey’s wisdom words right here.

but one more blip of oprah-light before the standing ovation, mud-sunk heels and all:

“theologian howard thurman said it best,” O told us, “when he said…’ask yourself what makes yourself come alive. and go out and do that. because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”

and that, dear friends, will be one of the questions i carry home, as i commence this life ever after, a life — not merely a year — of thinking sumptuously: what is it, i ask and i ask, that makes me come alive?

i ask you too: what makes you come alive?

can you see itty-bitty oprah up above? she’s there i promise. just to the left of the tent pole, reaching down under her seat. might she be checking to see if someone left her a free doctorate degree? in fact they did. dr. winfrey, i presume.