pull up a chair

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

Category: off to college

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?

tumblings from a cambridge notebook…

dispatch from 02139… in which the chair explores the nooks and crannies of this wonderland where at every turn, it seems, there is something to capture the imagination and set it soaring… 

because i’ve somehow managed to decorate my days-long fever with wall-to-wall crimson spots (ever conscious of the college colors), i’ve decided that the wisest dispatch here this morning would be the one in which i merely shake out my reporter’s notebook from this enchanted week in cambridge, one in which we launched deep and wide into orientation at the white clapboard lippmann house where the cottage garden blooms and where already i’ve encountered a slew of amazing souls from all around the world.

it is pinch-me hard to believe, quite often, that i am in fact sitting in a chair in a sun-streamed assembly room, looking up at a wall, where there hangs a banner that reads: “nieman foundation for journalism at harvard.”

but there we sit, eight hours in a day, absorbing all they have to tell us about this year of, as the curator of us all so beautifully put it: “exposure to big and wonderful minds.” not a bad agenda for a year.

among us is a foreign correspondent (whose identity i must keep masked) who tells tales of interviewing terrorists and then being told that if the interviews don’t work out, maybe she could marry one of the ol’ bomb-lobbers. yet another is a woman who has dedicated her life and every waking second of the last two years to documenting every single homicide in washington, d.c.; she has been in court for every hearing and proceeding of every bloody death in the district, she hears from victim’s families and suspects and accusers, along with eyewitnesses, and a host of hangers-on, and she was in tears when she got up to introduce herself and explained that in order to come on the fellowship she had to close down her site, and for the first time in two years, there were murders in d.c. going down undocumented this week, unwatched by her watchful eyes.

the conversation i’ll not ever forget is the one that unfolded the other night, sitting at a picnic table, beside a man from a country i won’t name (for confidentiality reasons), who told me that he is publishing a book on the history of his country, and that when he returned home at the end of this year, “trouble will be waiting.”

when i asked what exactly “trouble” meant, he quietly answered, “prison.”

“how long,” i asked.

he shook his head. he didn’t know. but he had two friends, he told me, who’d been in prison 17 years already.

you don’t engage in conversations like those and not begin to feel a shifting deep inside, as you realize that around the world lives are risked for the work that journalists — hellbent on truth-telling, no matter the cost — do each and every day, recording every bloody uprising, every random gang-bang.

on the other end of an indelible spectrum, i’ve been witness to my little fellow, the one who in recent weeks was scared to death about leaving home, the one who on the morning of our leaving, when i walked into his bedroom at dawn to announce, “it’s time to go,” burst into unbroken sobs. i have been watching him cast aside every doubt and worry and dive into friendships with kids he never knew a week ago. even when they don’t speak a word of english.

the most heavenly of those friendships is the one we’ve come to call the three musketeers: there is my little guy, who speaks barely a word of spanish; there is a little boy from spain who speaks barely a word of english; and, in the middle, there is a little fellow whose parents are from argentina, but who has lived in cambridge his whole life, and who fluidly and fluently is the verbal glue between all three. that and the universal conjunction, the soccer ball, which needs no translation, and which the other night, on the sloping lawn of the lippmann house, steering clear of the butterfly bush and the cosmos, was the magnet that drew some 20 kids, from the diaper-set to the 11-year-old ringleaders, into a game that would not quit, not till well after the last drop of cambridge sunlight had been wrung from the night sky.

in my fevered state, it’s hard to find words for how darn proud i am of that little fellow, who has dug down deep and pulled forth a motherlode of courage and great good wit, to already claim a host of friends from all around the world. glory be to the angels and saints to whom i’ve prayed for months, for this very answer to countless whispered pleadings.

and so this week, more than anything, has been about making friends, peeling back that layer that we all show to the world, and through the simple act of asking questions, and listening carefully to the stories that spill and spill, finding divine connection that will carry us through a short and winding year.

a mother from south africa told me how, through meditation, she came to know she was birthing twins. a radio broadcaster from chile extolled the virtues of a chilean feminist poet who’s been clouded by pablo neruda’s blinding fame; and she and i, now on a shared poetry quest, intend to trek to grolier’s, the oldest poetry-only bookstore in the country, just off harvard square. a food writer from new orleans promised he’d make us gumbo.

and so it goes. all upholstered by my smashing case of spots, in harvard crimson colors.

next up: shopping for classes. on the list? “poetry and religion,” in which we explore the works of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath. or maybe “the science of cooking,” yes, cooking. or perhaps wynton marsalis’ ongoing lecture series. or whatever else tumbles on my hungry path. 

and by the way, oh goodness what a difference a year makes, we take the college boy back to amherst tomorrow morn. it will soon be just the three of us. and already i miss that gorgeous soul who inhabits such an enormous chunk of my heart. 

do you, too, revel in the art of discovering those divine connections that draw us together and hold us forever after? (and how was that for a rhetorical question…)

first things first

dispatch from cambridge (in which the chair up and flaps its wings, plopping down in the land of ZIP code 02139)…

getting to the garden had always been on the list. getting to the garden with scissors and a sense of the possible, a whole new bouquet at my fingertips, petals that didn’t bloom in my faraway garden.

and so, listening to the sound of my heart humming, i snipped and snipped and snipped. black-eyed susans, sunshiney marigolds, a bright-butter-yellow coreopsis or two or three.

fists full, i climbed the back stairs up to the third-floor aerie where all week i’ve been playing house, and while everyone else was out, was away, i added a signature note to the canvas that is our new dwelling.

i knew i was home, really home, when i stuck those thirsty stems into a cobalt-rimmed water glass, plunked the whole lot onto the pine table in the breakfast nook (where blue jays and sparrows come to the feeders there in the windows), stood back  and soaked it all in.

thus has this week unfolded, this first week, this long exhausting week of stuffing the poor old cat into the carrier, watching the taxi pull up to the curb, giving my mama a kiss as she and a gaggle of neighbors (at least one in a house coat) stood at the sidewalk of the house i love, and bowed on bended knee as we pulled away — the little one, the fat scaredy cat, and me.

the trip through airport security was smooth as i might have hoped, save for the news that they were pulling me and the cat (loose in my arms) aside for a paw swipe (mine, not his) to make sure no scant trace of explosive dust was anywhere upon me.

all this as i watched my laptop tumble down the TSA conveyor belt as the suddenly-left-alone 11-year-old tried to grab for the laptop, his backpack, my backpack, the empty cat carrier and whatever else was due to crash to the ground soon as the belt did its dumping. (like i said, this was about as smooth a stumble through security as i might have hoped for….)

then came the plane.

all was swell enough till the part where the plane comes out of the sky, and typically, as we all learned long ago, the descent is an expected — and necessary — part of any flight plan.

up till then, our fat old cat had more or less snoozed in his chic black bag, the one squished under the seat in front of me, the one that made the lady at the end of our row, the lady with the hearts-and-flowers tattoo peeking out from her undies, roll her eyes, while muttering impure thoughts, each and every one of those unkindnesses darted straight at our sorry trinity.

but then, not long after the pilot announced it was seatbelt time and we were headed down, that old cat let out a howl that, long as i’ve known him, means he needs an airbag and he needs it quick.

for the next half hour, my past life as a little-kid nurse came rushing back to me.

the 11-year-old beside me kept shrieking that something was wrong with the cat, the cat was going to pass out, “he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe,” were the words precisely. and i, pretending to be an ocean of calm, prayed mightily, and prepared myself for cat CPR.

to spare you the gory details, i’ll cut to the quick: no CPR ever was needed, but by the time we landed, let’s just say i was covered in decoration i’d not worn when i boarded the plane.

once we’d rustled up our bags (which oddly had come in on another flight, making for a few heart-stopping moments as we all imagined our life’s belongings swirled down some airport drain), we hopped into the little black car and let our driver (that would be the fellow who snared this faraway fellowship in the first place) steer us home.

wisely, he’d picked a route that zipped us right past fenway park at 55 mph, a sight that the kid in the backseat, a kid who considers wrigley field a holy mecca, couldn’t help but up and notice.

then came the exit sign: “cambridge,” was all it said, with an arrow pointing up and to the right. but the deep-down knowledge that that’s where home now was, and this was indeed a road marker in the story of our life, well, it made my heart thump just a little bit harder.

the architecture critic with his hands more or less on the wheel made like he always does whenever he drives: he’s pointing here, there and every which way except for the road, pointing at some built treasure whose whole story we all need to know. (it’s why i feared for my life when, back in chicago, they were building that god-awful soldier field, and he’d be so busy glaring and cussing as we sped past, i was certain the end of our story would come in a fiery crash with the headline: “architecture critic & whole entire family smashed to smithereens on lake shore drive in a final fury of fast-lane drive-by criticism.”

but back to the story of how we made it to home, here on franklin street, and what happened next: i’ll spare you details again, but let’s just say i walked into a lovely place, a perfect place, a place whose windows hadn’t been opened in weeks. it was hot. and, lest you forget, i had in my arms a queazy cat who’d barely escaped in-flight CPR.

i did what any newly-arrived immigrant might do: i dashed into the bathroom, and slammed the door. i had a trembling cat on my hands, a cat who wasted no time slithering beneath the footed tub and cowering in a corner.

i cleaned us all off, and dove into what i’ve come to recognize as my default mode — i made like a 9-year-old version of my little girl self and, just as back in the days when a whole glorious summer could be spent rearranging logs into tables and chairs and whole rooms in the woods, or turning a shoebox into a cozy cottage, i started to play house.

for the next three days i unpacked, i puttered. i pulled blue cobalt bowls from the shelves, and tucked them around the kitchen counters. i made a list or two or three of things we need from the nearest home-supply store. i dusted up cat hair. i talked myself through the first load of laundry in a cobalt-blue front-load washer that looks like it could double as the mars rover (i had visions of “i love lucy” soapy disaster, fearing i’d hit the wrong knob, just as lucy and ethel did back in the black-and-white days, and rivers of suds would cascade into the apartment just below ours).

i’m rather a firm believer in the notion that if we’re all going to spread our wings — and that’s why we’re here in the first place — we need one solid nest from which to fly each morning, and to which we return as the night sky fills with stars.

and so, my job no. 1 here on franklin street, was to turn this place into a home that feels like it’s ours. i’d tucked plenty of tokens from our faraway house into boxes and the back of the car (despite a chorus of eye rolls and protestations).

i knew, because i believe in these things, that the little guy just might need his vuvuzela, that long-necked noisemaker that punctuates soccer games around the globe. i knew his favorite fleece blanket might come in handy, draped at the end of his brand-new bunk bed. and i knew that a pantry filled with birthday peanut butter, and his old jar of honey, just might start the day with a not-to-be-underestimated sense of the familiar.

and so it’s gone here in our first week in cambridge. first things first, i know deep down. take the time to make it home. and who knows just how far and high those flights from the nest will carry you.

unfortunately, the other thing i seem to have packed in my suitcase was a nasty on-again-off-again fever, so some of my sticking close to home has been due to the achy bones that often accompany said elevated temps. i did make it out to harvard yard, and was blown away by the history and stateliness. truth is, i felt my knees wobble just a little as i passed through the brick-and-iron gate, kept wondering when a whistle would blow, when they’d check my passport and send me packing, saying i didn’t really belong. but i’m told by dear friends who did lug their college texts under these leafy arbors, that that’s not so uncommon a feeling here, it’s just that plenty of folks won’t let on to such wobbles.

so began week one. and tell me this: do you too find you must feather your nest before the real work of the heart can begin?

apartment hunting and the hurdle of the three-dot plates

in all the years that we’ve been pulling up chairs, it’s become more than cloudy clear, i’m certain, that i tend to be a nesty girl, a girl who sinks her roots down deep, and doesn’t yank them lightly.

so bear with me while i tell you the tale of why it is i am apartment hunting nowadays, and what in the world three-dot plates have to do with that far-flung adventure.

i suppose the time has come, at last, to let you all in on what had been a secret, but now is seeping out, so it’s not a secret anymore. (i can imagine the pounding in your hearts as you worry where this is going; fear not, no need for worries.)

but let’s begin at the beginning, where most stories do begin, and turn the clock back to a dark december day.

there i was sitting at my typing pad in the newspaper tower, when i heard a ping ring out from the box that was my desk-top computer. i clicked and looked and saw there a missive from my lawful wedded mate.

seems he’d gotten a little email from some folks at a university in cambridge, massachusetts. they were asking him to apply for a fellowship, a journalism fellowship, one that gathers 24 fellows from around the globe, and one that would entail a one-year stint, thus lifting our whole little family out of our cozy chicago life and plopping us onto an unmapped one in cambridge.

kind fellow, decent fellow, my mate, he wrote back right away to say that he was deeply flattered but no thanks; we have a little fellow, a fifth-grade fellow, he explained, who could not be yanked from his life.

as a mere afterthought, this man i married, he sent this all along to me so i could smile and carry on with my otherwise ordinary day. or at least that’s what he thought i’d do.

but i did not.

i shot right back, “whoa, hold your horses there, buster. at least stop and think about it,” i implored. “is this not the manna from heaven that we’ve been praying for? peering skyward day after day, in search of sign of falling crumb?

“let’s at least ask the little guy, see what he has to say,” i begged, all but dropping to my knees.

and so we did: that night at dinner, we asked the 10-year-old lad what he’d think about moving away for just one year, moving, say, to massachusetts, so daddy and mommy might go back to college?

why, that brave old soul, he did not blink, nor flinch. he piped right up: “sounds great. i want to see the world.”

we explained every which way that this would mean he would not be here for sixth grade, nor for soccer on the team he loves, nor for spring baseball, nor friday night skate, his highlight of so many weeks.

no matter what we pitched his way, he batted it all away, stood fast to his determination that it was time to see the world.

so, as i scrubbed the dirty plates that night, it was my turn to come up with excuses why we shouldn’t leave. i wasted no time ticking off a long list of things i could not bear to leave behind: my three-dot plates, for instance. i’ve only four sets, and only scored them after tracking them down at a resale shop, after pining for them for 20 years. they’d been the plates i wanted back when we were getting married, but the architecture critic who would be my mate thought the dots got in the way. in the way of what, i’ve never quite determined. but the dotted plates went the way of the rose-covered bedsheets i’d once admired. one makes compromise when living with a design-steeped fellow, and i long ago realized our peaceful co-existence depended on my occasional surrender to his whims. so these plates, procured a full two decades post betrothal, they are the plates i pluck from the stack whene’er i need a ceramic boost.

and somehow, in that odd way my mind stumbles along, they came to represent the dividing line between the world i’d leave behind, and the one i just might dive into. what if they were cracked and broken while we were away? what if, whilst i was off in pilgrim land, they were accidentally expunged from the cupboard, and, upon return, i’d find myself without the proper spotted saucer to uphold my breakfast toast?

for more than a day or two, i weighed the choices here: go to harvard, play like a pig in mud, taking any class i could stuff into my braincells; or stay here in chicago, in the house i know and love, and eat off three-dot plates till the end of time.

in due time, i realized i was, frankly, an idiot to be debating such obstacles.

i surrendered to the adventure of it all, and cannot over-emphasize how that deep-down sense of grab-it-now-it-might-not-come-again has come to permeate, well, just about everything.

ever since, i’ve been living my days as if each one is a bit of a hallelujah christmas gift, a box wrapped up in shiny paper, with pretty bow and all.

it was, in fact, the rocket-booster oomph behind my thinking it was time to leave behind the newspaper life i had long loved. and right in here, with may and june and summertime swirling deliciously around us, it’s what propels me not to mind spending hours at the kitchen table, or perched on chairs outside, in the dappled light of the pine trees, chewing over a thousand ideas and stories with my college boy, now home for endless days and nights of sweetest-ever summer.

we had no idea, of course, whether embracing the adventure would lead to any sort of happy ending. had no idea, once the long and layered application was turned in, shipped off cambridge way, whether the deciding folks would pick the home-team architecture critic, slot him in the nieman class of journalism fellows for the school year 2012-2013. but, indeed, they did. he is the arts and culture fellow.

so here we are. poring over real estate ads, dialing up massachusetts realtors, searching high and low for a two-bedroom apartment in ZIP code 02138 or 02139. and before we’ve found a place to lay our sleepy heads, we’ve taken care of business and secured a slot on a cambridge soccer team for our little goalie. priorities, after all.

as for this old house we love, we have a beloved friend who will move in, hold down the fort here, watch over the three-dot plates, and the red-and-white checked chair, and the window seat i’ll miss.

and for one extraordinary year, i’ve come to deeply realize, i will make a new nest. i will come to know the rhythms of a new city, an extraordinary city, a city where i have always, always wanted to live. i will sit in classrooms, and stuff my brain with poetry and writing and divinity, and some of america’s great professors. i will tiptoe into the widener library, and deep breathe. i will walk home down cobbled streets, absorb the cacophony of a learned city.

and a week from today, we will board a plane, all four of us in our little adventure troupe, and we will pound the sidewalks, ring doorbells, and peek in cupboards and bathrooms till we find the place that we’ll call home for the next sweet year.

and maybe while away in far-off cambridge, i will stumble into yet another thrift shop, and lying there in stacks, i’ll spy a three-dot plate.

and i will know, through and through, that home is wherever you set the table. pull up a chair. and share your heartfelt stories.

so that’s the news of the week, and, fear not, you’ll all amble along with us on this fine adventure, as the chair will go on, and i’ll impart every week the finest things i’ve learned in all my college lecture halls. congratulations, we’re all going back to college. 

p.s. next week’s trek is merely the apartment-hunting expedition. we don’t pack the wagons and head east till round about early august….

no empty chairs

this is what it looks like at my house at the breakfast table, on the mornings when the chairs are filled. and the bench, too, lined up with little bottoms, squeezed in, squirming in the ways that little boys do.

this is what it looks like when the early-morning whispers wake me, when a bedroom’s filled with little boys, sleepy-eyed boys, boys who can’t help but look little in their waking-up moments, boys who by day are practicing being big. one of them even sports a cell phone. they all use it, communal cell.

they are little boys and they have come to inhabit not only my house, but my heart.

ever since the big one moved on to college, the little one seems to have decided that this is a sharing house, a house where more is better, more is most.

and so, come friday nights, or saturdays, little boys with sleeping bags and pillows (and the occasional cell phone) come stumbling in the door, tumble up the stairs. they play and run and giggle. much giggling.

they are shy, some of them. and polite, all of them. heart-piercingly so. they’ve not read the journals mourning the demise of innocence. they still blush, some of them, when i call them, “sweetie.”

but it’s okay. i’ve not been scolded, not yet anyway, for calling those little boys all sorts of oozy names.

those boys, in ones or twos or threes — and once, so help me God, a four — they animate this house, they lull me off to sleep with their whispers past the midnight hour, and they stir me in the morn when i hear the pillows rumble way before i expect to hear a sound.

a bedroom filled with little boys is a beautiful thing. is a thing i thought i’d never see.

when you’re the mother of two boys who span as many years as mine, you’ve not grown accustomed to the rolling, sprawling, tumbling of double-decker boys. you mostly watch them spin in passing orbits.

so this little one, this little one who springs to life when with his buddies, he seems to have ordered up the very prescription for all our hollowed-out hearts.

he skipped no beats in dialing up that first slumber fest, the first week beyond the college drop-off. nearly every weekend since, this house has doubled or tripled its population of boys.

and i could not purr more contentedly. i could not cluck more cluckily.

best of all is when the morning comes. and i get to mother henning, all right. i crack eggs. pour milk. add dashes of vanilla and cinnamon. i slide bacon in the oven (for we learned that roasted turkey bacon, sprinkled with a dash of brown sugar, maybe rosemary, vulcan salt when the college kid comes back, is not only splatter-free but perfect to the tooth).

i set that table with a vengeance. just like in the old days, before the college boy was gone. i slap down forks, knives, spoons. in multiples. i line up glasses. set out jugs of juice.

and then the footsteps come. less a pitter-patter than a galump down the stairs. and there they are, the sleepy-eyed, pink-cheeked little boys, lined up by the cookstove. taking what i offer. always saying thank you.

sweet boys, these boys.

that’s when the old maple table springs to life. it is crowded, along each edge. arms are grabbing, passing, oops, sometimes spilling. but no worries here.

i know, through and through, that a house where food is good, is plentiful, is a house to which the gaggle will return.
and i want those boys to grow up here. i want to be a seamless part of their unfolding before my very eyes.

i want them to think of me as that nice lady who looks them in the eye, who can’t help but love them. who knows their favorite cookie. who knows who drinks milk and who does not.

i believe with all my heart that mothering extends far beyond the womb, far beyond any particular connection to any particular womb.

mothering is just another name for a certain brand of love. in my book, the most resilient love. the deepest, purest, most unbreakable love there ever was.

mothers don’t give up on their young. they wring their hands, they wrack their brains. but they get up the next morning and they ply it all again.

over the years i’ve heard tales of grown-up folk who found the mothering they needed at someone else’s house. of the certain pair of ears who listened in a way that no one did at home. who loved without sting. who set another place at the table, no matter how late the hour, how empty the fridge.

i know, because i’ve watched one crew grow up, head off to college, that once in a while even the greatest, finest, smartest kids can stumble into tight places and not quite know the way out.

i’ve been the mama who at 2 a.m. drove a car full of kids where they needed to be, to get there safely, no questions asked. no scolding, thank you.

i’ve lived to hear that that middle-of-the-night ride was the single thing that made one kid realize you can grow up without the need to hide the truth, tell lies. and ever since, he’s been a new kind of kid. a kid who still pulls up a stool at my kitchen counter, who still tells me stories he might not tell at home.

and now, with this little gaggle underfoot, still not big enough to cross a busy street without a grownup worrying, still not savvy enough to call a girl and not spit out laughing, i’ve got another chance, another round of kids to love as if my own.

i might not have birthed the 13 or six or even three i longed to mother, but my little one has fixed all that.

he fills my kitchen table most weekend mornings. and i have every intention of being mama to them all. i start now with french toast, and loads of maple syrup.

soon enough, i hope, i pray, i’ll be the house they run to, when there’s no one else to listen.

in my book, there oughta be a nobel prize for mothering. and we’d all win. all of us, and i know throngs, who have discovered deep inside that the one pure hope for civilization, for humankind, is to raise our young–the ones we birth, the ones we don’t–with every reason to believe there will be kindness, and honesty, and undying love just around the corner. the one where some big-hearted mama is just waiting to make it all all right.

who was the big mama in your life? the one who loved you unconditionally, who loved you through and through. (and always threw an extra cookie on your cookie plate…)

season of the mournful cry

it gives you goosebumps when, say, you are meandering down the lane, and suddenly through the leafy canopy above, you hear the song of your heart raining down from the heavens.

what i mean is it’s been happening all week, for a string of weeks. i am out attending to the nooks and crannies of my life, my garden, the here-to-there of chores and errands and putting one foot before the other.

i am likely sifting through the shadows of my heart, my ache, my longing, and there it comes, the piercing. the minor key, the dissonance, the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees.

they punctuate the sky, the gray september sky. they punctuate the flight. and with it, my own mournful song.

this is the season of migration, of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings, and honking siren’s call.

the snow geese, the canadian geese, turn and return, from cold north woods, to far-off warmer climes.

and as they pass on high, they cry out to me. and i in turn return the call–though silent. my mournful song has no melody, and its verse i keep inside. some sorrows, best kept hushed.

i have always, though, found company, found solace, in the geese’s call. it is but one of the dark notes of autumn that draw me in, that take me to a deeper place, the cove of meditation.

and this autumn in particular it is as if my song, my internal cry, is broadcast from the clouds. the geese cry, they call out, and so i listen, i respond. i reply, stopping in my tracks, taking in their celestial signal.

(i wonder if perhaps the cry of the signal goose is why they call it goosebumps. for that is the thing, the spine-tingling, up-and-down-the-arm-tingling, that happens in an instant when that one long note makes its way down, down, spiraling from above to the inner crevice of my heart.)

i hear the lonely goose, and i understand its story. i embrace the mournful cry.

God’s world is at one with me.

and how blessed are we, we who live beneath the arc of flight, to take in the sorrowful song of the V that etches ’cross the sky.

how blessed are we, when, at oddest hours, just beyond the dawn, or in the cloak of nightfall, we hear the trumpet blast rain down.

i am not one to run and hide from shadow, from sadness. i say bring it on, the whole orchestra of heart sound, the light, the bright, and, yes, the dark. i find particular company in the darkness. i find much to explore there.

and this september, as my heart is stretched and pulled, and i redefine the rhythm, the verse of my everyday, i am at one with the crying goose who flaps across my frame of sky.

i turn and crane my neck. i scan in search of all the pitch-black Vs. i hear before i see.

and when at last i catch the flapping geometry, when i match song to sight, i lock my eyes. i follow that acute angle till the dull edge of my horizon.

it is a call to prayer for me, this mystical stirring from beyond the beyond.

and so i send up holy whispers, and so i wrap myself in the sacred folds of their heavensong.

be safe, mournful geese, as you cross the globe. bless your brave determined flight.

i hear you, papa goose, as you and i together sing in minor key, the sound of love trying to find its way.

a short bit of musing on this crisp cool day, when pumpkins tug on the vine, and cinnamon bubbles on my stove. i am haunted in the best way by the cry of the geese. i find such comfort in their mournful melody. who else has heard their flight song? who else is stirred by the power of migration? who else finds full glory in all the colors of the rainbow, the light, the dark, and shadows in between? who else is trying to find the way, this september?

learning long-distance

it is as if someone turned out the lights, left me in a room, and told me to find my way out. only, they littered the path with chairs that were tipped, and piles of clothes, and all sorts of stuff that grabbed at my ankles.

and, before i could grope through the dark, i had to plop myself down in front of a box with dials and knobs and whatchamahoolies and try ever so hard to re-calibrate, to find the fine balance, the delicate line, between that place where the signal’s always been clear, been robust, and the newfound somewhere that i’ve never been before: the place where i mother from afar.

and thank God almighty that this particular gymnastic act–the redefining of my place in the life of my faraway boy–is one that comes with trapeze, the safety net of human understanding and forgiveness, and trying again and again to get it right.

so far, it’s been bumpy. on my end, i mean. i’ve klonked into chairs, tripped over clothes. can’t quite find that fine line where my own brand of embracing meets up with the newfound insistence–his insistence, that is–that the boy live his own life, spread his own wings.

and sometimes it catches me chuckling. (truth be told, sometimes it finds me in tears.)

let’s try a tale from the light-note department (or else i’ll be sniffling again): the other noontime, for instance, on what was for my boy the first day of classes.

as i am wont to do on such an occasion, i felt the magnetic pull of the wide rows of candles, the ones tucked into a cove in any catholic church. the ones guaranteed to yank God by the sleeve, and get his wide-eyed attention. or so i’ve believed forever and ever.

in this case, it was the big downtown cathedral that whispered my name, barely a mile from the place where i type. so i up and departed my typing desk, wandered through the big city, down the leafy side streets, and up through the two-ton doors that harbor the chamber where the cardinal and all of his flocks kneel down to pray.

i looked and looked and could not find the single place in any church that most deeply stirs my soul: the vigil lights, the prayer candles, straight tidy rows of beeswax votives, all queued up beside the offerings box. the place where, with the flick of a match, you strike your intentions and watch the smoke and the prayer rise heavenward.

only there were no candles in the cathedral. none that i could find in any nook or cranny. so i headed to the back where the man in the uniform sat (this is new, a security guard for a gold-washed church). i asked if perhaps they’d done away with old-fashioned vigil lights. he uttered not a word, pointed down the nearby stairs.

in the basement? i thought. in the bowels of the cathedral?

not one to argue, certainly not in a church, i did as instructed (even if the instructions came without words) and down i tiptoed, wary of what i might find there at the bottom.

lo and behold, the shiny stand of candles stood. only they weren’t candles. and there were no matches. this was, after all, the big bad city, and you can’t leave a match unattended. not in the cellar of a church that not long ago suffered a terrible fire.

and so i did what a mama in 2011 would do. i clicked the switch and on popped that battery-operated prayer candle. and, heck, as long as i was going high-tech (and as long as i was alone, down there in the cardinal’s prayer pit), i figured i oughta yank out my blackberry, that squat black box i barely know how to work. i groped till i found the camera icon. then i played along. clicked, and captured the prayer-wafting bulb. long as i was on the high-speed highway, i figured, i might as well send this snapshot off to the boy at the college. and so i did, along with a note that as long as it was tucked in his cellphone, we oughta consider the prayers on active duty.

i laughed as i launched my long-distance prayer light. felt just a wee bit proud of my capacity to bend to circumstances, to adapt. to carry on as i always have. only across area codes, mountain range and ZIP code.

the gulping thing is: the boy was too busy, too deep into college, to let me know that he got it at all. (pretty much, that’s been the case for the whole of the last two weeks. which i’m trying soveryhard to absorb, to roll with, to not let it eat me alive.)

and so i find myself feeling a bit like a schoolgirl, one with a bit of a crush on a boy who’s not paying attention. suddenly, out of the blue, i’m not sure what to say. how often to say it. not inclined to play coy. certainly not with this child i bore, this child i love more than life.

but so downright uncertain. so not wanting to intrude. to ask too much. to bother.

this room that i’m in here, it’s plenty dark. and i find that i’m tripping all over the place.

i am certain, i am, that i’ll find my new rhythm. but right now, right in here, i am learning long-distance. and it is the most uncomfortable patch i’ve known in some time.

it is a truth of life that, as we come round certain bends, we need to re-negotiate even our most heartfelt connections. i had a blurry sense that it might be hard to be so far away from the boy that i love, and i knew his landscape was meant to be one without me. but i hadn’t quite realized there’d be this layer of not knowing how to be, where to be, not wanting to barge in, but not wanting to vanish altogether.

you who’ve been down this road, how did you find your way. you who are along on this journey, do you find it’s a dance for which you’ve got two left feet, as they say? some say it’s as simple as learning how to text. you can send off quick “how you?”s, and get immediate one-word replies. some say it gets better once they come home for a visit and you realize some things never change. but right in here, i feel like i am teetering at the edge of a cliff. and the rumbling in my tummy gives me an ache……

suddenly, one

and thus began a new chapter. one boy stayed behind. one boy climbed in the back seat of the car, buried his head in my lap, and silently sobbed.

off and on for 20 minutes.

till the big basketball rose into the sky.

yes, just off the highway, midway between that college goodbye and the airport that would launch three of us home, there stands what might as well have been a holy mirage in the driest desert: the basketball hall of fame, for cryin’ out loud. a shrine with every michael jordan shoe ever worn by that almighty hoopster. a three-layer cake of hoops and balls and courts and baskets.

if you ever need to salve the broken oozing heart of a young boy who lives to romp the courts, be sure to send your other kid to college just down the lane from the b’ball hall of fame.

indeed, the tears dried, the smile slowly crept across his face, not less than 10 minutes after stepping in the sky-high dome. basketball can do that. so too can video clips of MJ turning every imaginable basketball gymnastic impossibility known to man or gods.

but beyond all the baskets and balls, there was something else that stirred. and right away.

it was sudden, the shift i felt deep down inside, once the four of us, became the three of us. once the car door slammed, and it was just the three of us inside, while the fourth — the blessed fourth — ambled off to inhale his college life.

and ever since, all week, i’ve been washed over — again and again — with the knowing that it’s there, this certain something: it’s as if the little one, the one who could not imagine a world without his brother, it’s as if he got a long deep drink of water, and he is now a sturdy-stemmed flower, basking in the garden of his parents’ pure undivided attentions.

i could almost feel the vacuum seal, the way his heart slid deeper into ours. all week, i’ve watched him move with purpose. he has risen, grown, become the big brother in ways i’d not have guessed. he is taking out the trash, putting plates in sinks. he is 10 minutes early for the school bus. he is sitting down and working hard on homework. he is leading prayers at dinner, holding forth at dinner table conversation.

he’s unfurling right before our eyes.

and we, at last, are undivided. for the first time in this child’s life, he is getting us all to himself. and i have suddenly remembered how it is to be the parent of an only child. we had practice.

for eight long years we were once the parents of just one boy. and early on we figured out how to do that geometry. we did it wholeheartedly, with eye toward making our firstborn’s a family that expanded beyond just our walls. but within our walls we paid deep and pure attention to that child’s heart, his mind, his soul.

rather swiftly this week, i was struck: we might be better parents when we are tending only one. we tend to do it rather intensely, rather purposefully, and this was, after all, the paradigm that we first forged. it’s what we once knew by heart. and maybe it’s never lost.

oh, lord, that’s not to say in any way that we’ve left boy no. 1 stranded on the roadside, there in collegeville.

(of course, he couldn’t have seemed more eager to shake us off, to get to the business of making friends, of immersing himself in college life. he even apologized if it seemed he was in a hurry to say goodbye, “it’s just that i’ve waited my whole life to get here,” he told me, and i wholly understood. and never mind that all week, while friends regale me with tales of kids who text, oh, 100 times a day, we’ve received ONE phone call — and that was “mom, do you know where you put the sewing kit? i just popped a button on my shirt and i need to meet my academic adviser in EIGHT minutes?”)

it’s just that the shift here on the homefront is wholly unexpected, wholly rich, and i can think of no greater calling than to reach deep down inside a little someone’s soul and breathe holy purpose into it.

which is how it feels to once again be tending to a blessed child who has long dwelled on the shadowed edges of his big brother’s size 12 footprint.

so while the realization that the older one is gone sinks down deeper, while each and every dawn the missing him grows more, as i awake and count the days since i’ve seen him, i am at the same time finding my way in the hunger i am here to sate in his little brother.

they say God closes one door and opens a window.

my job as mother to a college boy has barely just begun, and i am certain it will fill whatever crate or carton we must fill, but for now, i am discovering the open window that is my blessed little boy. one who will need his mama at his side for, oh, eight sweet years to come.

we never know, no matter how hard we try to imagine, what’s around the holy bend of this blessing we call life.

and around my bend, i’ve wrapped my arms ‘round a little traveler who’s cuddled up close beside me.

bless us all on this journey….

i know there are other mamas and papas out there finding their way along this unknown path. i know there are mamas and papas who are taking their last child off to college, and as one of those mamas said to me this week: “you think it’s hard taking your first to college, try taking your last.”
i can’t imagine.
but the point of this meander, i suppose, is the wholly unexpected gift of deeper purpose i’ve already discovered in mothering my little one. anyone else ever step into the impossible-to-imagine and discover within something wholly blessed?

“…fasten your seat belts…”

for nearly 19 years (i’m certain i started to wonder nearly the moment i found i was pregnant) i have wondered what this day — this very day when we will lock the house one last time, lug bags down the walk, climb in the car, head off to college — i have tried high and low to figure out what it would feel like. to, um, send my firstborn, my lifeblood, my sweetboy, to college.

this is how it feels:

i awoke at 3 in the morning, just lay there, felt a pain in my chest. for once, though, didn’t think it meant i was having a heart attack. i knew what it was. the beginning of yet another labor. no water bag broke. no squeeze around the middle, from upside the legs. but it is labor nonetheless.

next came the hollowness. hollow. hollow. hollow. that’s how my insides felt.

wasn’t long till i tossed my pillow to the ground, climbed out and knelt there. (a girl needs a kneeler at this ripe ol’ age.)

i whispered every benediction, blessing and vesper i could muster, and a few i couldn’t even put to words.

then i got up. ambled straight to the college-bound bedroom, kissed the forehead i found lying there asleep. made a sign of the cross with my thumb, just the way the bishops taught me to do it long, long ago. that boy fluttered open his eyes, “hullo mommy,” he said, smiling, most likely seeing my tears.

for there were tears.

and there will be more.

right now, though, i find i have a long enough list of things that need to be done.

minutes ago, i was called to the college-bound bedroom. a packing crisis was underway, and the boy asked if instead of typing about his going away, i might just give him a hand. a real one. so i got with the program, and helped the boy re-pack a suitcase of breakable things he thinks he’ll just bring on the plane.

too late for a little mini-lesson on why that’s not so wise.

we’ll just add that to the long list of prayers: “dear God, don’t let the tea mugs and the laptop stand and the book ends bang up and shatter into a zillion pieces, not even when they get crushed by the 23 books the boy decided he can’t leave behind.” (never mind the 42 he already sent in a box.)

i’m not sure, though, if i really want that sorry short prayer taking up space on my God list today.

i might bump it off for one of the others.

like, this one:

“dear God, i noticed on the hurricane watch map, how you’ve plotted a course for that oversized whirling dervish now known as IRENE, and i saw how you’ve got the eye of that ’cane, pencilled right over the wee little town where my boy’s going to college. now, God, i don’t think you pull out this trick very often, the one where the hurricane ditches the seashore, heads inland 100 or so miles, straight through the holyoke mountains. so, God, i was wondering if maybe you’d pull out your big pink eraser, and re-do that line, the hurricane-eye line. i really don’t think it belongs over the college dorm where we will be busy ditching raindrops and hurling branches. because, God, in all of my hours of wondering about sending my kid off to college, i never once dreamed up a hurricane. never ever thought that was something i oughta add to my worries. but here you go, God, trumpin’ me in the creativity department. big time. so i’m just askin’, if you’ve got time today, could you please re-do your hurricane map. or maybe just turn it into a frog. a frog would be fine, God. a nice fat frog hopping around college. just asking. you do what you want. me, i’ve got to get back to packin’ my boy for college.”

and so, that big fat prayer now outa the way, i should move on to trembling. for that’s what it feels like inside when your motor is revving, and your nerves are all jangled. because you really don’t get it, don’t get how for 18 whole years your every night and every day is consumed with watch-keeping.

you watched that baby boy breathing, so long ago. made sure you saw the up and down of his chest when, in those rare moments, he took a long afternoon’s nap. why, you were making sure he was alive right there beside you. for you never, not once, put him down in a crib. you were the kind of mama who LIKED having a babe in your arms most of the time, who slept right beside him, who woke up in the night just to drink in the miracle of skin against skin. (no wonder this leave-taking is hard, you poor old mama, it’s wholly against every cell of your wiring.)

not so many years after that, you kept watch whenever you drove in a car, and you could glance in the rear-view mirror, gauge his mood, how his day went. you’ve been tossing an eyeball his way since as long as you could remember.

and now, no matter how hard you try, no matter what sort of magical spectacles you slip on your face, you won’t see what he’s doing, where he is, what sort of smile he wears, or how much his eyes sparkle.

oh, you’ll imagine. and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll dream. you’ll see him bouncing around in your dreams. i know what it is to fall asleep hoping you dream about someone you miss. i did it for years, hoping to dream of my papa.

right now though, i need to imagine him strong and safe and thriving. i need to picture him in his glory hallelujah. the boy is headed straight to where he belongs (minus the hurricane).

i suspect i’ll ride the waves of this labor all weekend long. till the final push. when someone tells me it’s time. time to go now. time to look straight in his eyes one last time, time to open my heart for one last gulp of pure holy child.
i will whisper these words: “be safe. and soar on the winds. God be with you. know that i love you.”

and like that, i will wrench myself away. turn to the little one who will be sobbing by then. i will walk away from one child, hold tight to the other.

for now, though, there’s a long day of packing. and loving. and loving. and boarding a plane, straight for the path of the hurricane.

this is bound to be a drop-off for the record books.

irene, here we come.

fasten your seat belts…..

the photo up above was taken last night, the last night willie slept in this house before college. his little brother wanted him to climb in bed and read him a story. they picked dr. seuss’ “the butter battle book.” i listened in from the stairs, heard willie tell teddy, “i love you very much.” this morning there was a 5-minute hug in the hall. this parting is downright painful for the little one. if you’ve got a spare prayer, whisper one for him.

and there we go: i decided to write my way through this passage, the college send-off. and so i did. bless you for indulging me. and thank you for your patience. i know i am not the first to do this, nor the last. but in my book, it’s all new, it’s all raw, and it begged to be put on paper. so that’s what i did. i’m sure i’ll write at least once about the quiet that comes once we’re home.

for now, thank you, and bless you, all of you who come to this table, and sop up these stories and tears when they’re spilled. i would love to hear the tales of your heart-achingest partings, however they unfolded, whenever they came…

taped, all right

you would have thought it was an instrument for which i needed a license, the way i wielded it, the way i darn-near steamrolled whatever got in my way. stand back, was the only word of caution uttered.

i had my hands on a certified defense weapon, with sticky side.

all it was, was a roll of Scotch brand shipping tape. heavy duty, specified. i made sure i got the strongest one known to humankind.

i’d bought two rolls (can never have too much). weeks ago. had let them idle beside the pile of dorm essentials tucked in the living room corner, the pile i tried to pretend was not there.

i knew that some day soon the hour would come when it was time to turn the flattened cardboard boxes back into three-dimensional pop-up vessels.

when the fallen trees would be called upon to do their duty: to get my firstborn’s college essentials–the memory foam mattress topper, the shower caddy, the over-the-door towel rods, the extra-long twin sheets (monogrammed, thank you)–to the room where they’d be home.

so there i was, alone in the living room, when at last i lifted the gizmo that unfurls the tape. it’s heavy. it’s plastic- handled. it’s got one sharp cutting edge that can rip the dickens out of your mortal flesh.

i started strapping strips of tape. it hit me right away: i liked the feel of all that sticky gooey plastic holding in the contents of my firstborn’s brand-new life. i strapped and strapped. cut nice long slabs of tape. slapped ‘em, sealed ‘em, ran my palms smooth along the not-sticky side.

suddenly i realized i was taping as if there was no tomorrow. i must have used half a roll of tape. on the first box.

then i got to the second. was overcome with need to tuck in one last love note.

hope that strapping 6-foot-something lad doesn’t mind that i grabbed a sheet of construction paper. pink construction paper. and with my favorite zig-zag scissors, i cut out a little pink heart. wrote, in red, “forever my beloved.” or some such words. it’s all a blur now. i was in a fevered, sticky-taped frenzy when i did it.

all i knew was that suddenly i was aswirl in out-of-body incantation. i was taping each and every box as if mere Scotch brand tape could keep my boy from harm. from any harm.

i wasn’t so much taping to keep the boxes from splitting in the UPS truck. i was taping to keep my boy safe on the side of the mountain he’ll climb in freshman orientation. i was taping to give him strength on the all-nighters i know he’ll pull. i was taping to avert the stern glance of some professor who some day might tell my boy a thing or two about the responsibilities of scholarship, should he dare to blow a due date on some 90-page thesis.

i was taping against the heartache that will come if some day he loves someone who doesn’t love him back. i was taping to keep him afloat in all the rivers, in all the boats, that he will row.

and that’s when i realized, once again, that motherprayer is so much more than words. it’s what we do and breathe.

it’s stirring oatmeal on a winter’s morning, it’s using half a roll of tape to seal shut, to protect, a box of sundries for a college dorm room, as if in simple acts of stirring, sealing, we can wrap our children–even when they’re no longer little ones–in a sacred shield of holy light.

impenetrable, we pray. “be safe,” the final words we whisper every time. words that, now, mean so much more than simply, “i love you.” that’s understood, implicit.

“be safe” is poetry, is vessel, for “i would die if you were hurt, were harmed.”

“be safe” is motherprayer for when you send your child, the fruit of your womb quite frankly, off into the world, a world you can’t control, a world that some days, some dark hours, shatters you.

“be safe” is hope and faith boiled down into two short syllables. “be safe” is the last line of defense, the thin membrane on the other side of which prayer and holy angels pick up the load.

and some late-summer afternoons, when the sun slants in the front-room windows, illuminating your task, as you tape and seal five boxes, there are no words.

only the mad wrapping of a mother who will not let harm come to her child—or his memory foam mattress topper.

so help her, God.

and what are the wordless incantations, the rituals you repeat, as you aim to keep the ones you love from harm in any form?

one week from today, our head-off-to-college date. all this week, mamafriends of mine have been shuttling children to the college campuses where they will spend the year. lots of soggy pillow cases, right in here. lots of feeling lost. back at home, that is. pray to God, not in college dorms. as hard as it is for us, may it not be hard, dear God, for our children who are spreading wings and taking flight…..