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Category: comfort making

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

stockpiling

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it felt almost like instinct. as the weeks narrowed to days narrowed to hours, i couldn’t keep from stockpiling. soon as the boy — now sleeping just overhead, in the bed by the bend in the stairs — soon as the boy told me he’d found a ride after all, was coming home for a three-day break — fall break, officially — my fill-the-larder instincts kicked in.

lavish him in all the tastes and smells and textures and offerings he could possibly wish for. that seemed to be the propelling mission.

so i stockpiled. stockpiled pumpkin pie from the farmer’s market, grabbed a loaf of banana bread while i was at it. stockpiled cider and raspberry rugelah. ordered up a chicken pot pie from a mama who makes it delicious.

the sheets on his bed hadn’t been touched since the day after he left the room empty as empty could be, the day i scrubbed every last inch of that room, as if preserving something ineffable. the room, more relic than place to hang out these days, barely needed a flick of my wrist. but i vacuumed anyway.

the prodigal papa back in the bible, he wasn’t the only one who knows of the fatted calf. i too might have tossed a beast onto a pyre if chicken pot pie hadn’t been to his liking, the kid who rode six swift hours in the back of a minivan, the kid who all but tumbled onto the street once the four wheels pulled to a stop there at the curb.

we squeezed so tight it’s a miracle all my ribs are still in one piece. i wiped away tears (of course) and then we loped in the house, past the welcome home sign that only made him laugh, because it’s a truth in this house that you can hardly take a trip to the grocery store without finding a welcome home sign upon your return.

inside, once he kicked off his shoes, he too seemed to kick into some instinctual and ancient reflex: he walked room to room to room to see if anything had changed, to make sure all was as he’d left it. then, and only then, did he settle into his most native rite of settling in (be he gone for merely an hour or long weeks on end) as he began to circle the kitchen island in the way he (and his brother; it must be genetic) forever have done, ambulation propelling cognition it seems. story spilling upon story, each one told to the beat of his footfall.

he punctuated his stories with poking around the pantry, inspecting the fridge, and, after all the wind-up, picking a plain old box of make-your-own mac-n-cheese, the kind he’s loved since he was three. and so his first feast at home after seven and a half weeks wasn’t the hoosier mama chicken pot pie, wasn’t the homemade cranberry-studded applesauce, wasn’t the farmer-baked banana bread or the kosher-deli raspberry rugelah. it was the starchy pile of pasta shells swirled with powdery cheese turned into goop. he nearly licked the pot, my boy who’s grown three-quarters of an inch since last he was home (we pulled out the tape measure and measured).

all that spooning into his mouth must have left him exhausted, for the next stop on the homecoming tour was a flop backward onto his bed, and a sigh of pure joy like nothing i’ve heard in a very long while. he mumbled something about how glorious it was to sleep on a mattress that cared for a spine and all its spiky little vertebrae. but then he was off in dreamland, not to be heard from for hours and hours.

it didn’t take me long to realize there’s something (very much something) of the human heart involved in all the stockpiling. it’s almost as if in shopping and shlepping and stocking the shelves (and the fridge and the countertop and the blue willow plate under the cookie dome) we’re giving the blood-pumping muscle a boost. almost as if all the comestibles are edible poetry, are the extensions of our vocabulary. as if they pick up where words cannot go. as if they’ll reach deep into nooks and crannies, as if they’ll saturate every last cell that just might need to be bathed in the notion that someone loves you through and through and through. as if we can’t go the distance all on our own.

it’s almost as if the stockpiling is squeezing every last drop of that thing we call love out of the tired old muscle — the magnificent vessel — that is the human heart. that storehouse deep inside our ribs where all the love is churned, is harbored, is pumped into the ether. almost like it’s a little bitty factory, a production line of loving, that never ever dies. not even when we do, i’m utterly certain.

it all made me wonder if this might be the rhythm from here on in, in these days when the boys i love most dearly are far far from home, and their visits grow less and less frequent: will i learn to stockpile, to fill the larder with all the love i used to lavish day upon day, hour after hour, the barely-noticeable ministrations of the heart — the kiss on the forehead while they’re sleeping, the whiff of their hair while setting a plate at their place at the old maple table, even the occasional deep inhale and sigh when tossing piles of muddy sweaty clothes into the wash? will i store it all up, every last drop of it, and save it for when they come home, when it will all but ooze out of me, when i all but plant myself at the door of his sleeping room, just to watch the rise and fall of his breathing? will i ever not miss the days when i used to wear them, literally strapped into bundles across my chest? the days when their itty-bitty plump-dimpled hands were always reaching up for a lift or a hug or a squeeze round the neck? all our life long, the gestures of love shift and evolve. and while the deep caverns of the mind grow more and more nuanced and brilliant, sometimes it’s the old ways, the skin-to-skin entanglements of mother and child that i miss, that can’t be replaced, can’t be once again, all over again. IMG_0365

so we stockpile. we store it all up, and we ooze it all out for those short few hours and days when they’re close enough that we can hear their breathing, bury our nose in their necks. one deep inhale, one that’s going to need to last for weeks or months on end.

***

it’s been a busy week around here: my first book review for Orion Magazine is online. twas of a beautiful, beautiful memoir, The Salt Path, about an epic journey propelled by unlikely homelessness and a dire diagnosis, one that leads to epiphany, and you can find the review here.

but the bigger news of the week is that the book i’ve been working on for months (years, actually) is officially published and stocked on the amazon bookshelves. it’s my friend mary ellen’s book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude,” a collection of her beautiful breathtaking essays. here’s what i wrote when i posted something of a birthing announcement on facebook yesterday:

When Mary Ellen started her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” on March 2, 2012, she harbored a flickering hope that someday it might lead to a book. She never dreamed she would die just four years and 11 days after “Hummingbird” first took flight. Yet her dream of a book never died. And so, after a few years of culling and sorting and weaving her essays into a whole (a labor of love that became mine when I found out a month after her death that in her will she’d appointed me “custodian of her creative work”), it is with pure joy that Mary Ellen’s family and I announce the birth of her book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude.” It’s a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone. Her words, her urgent pleadings, are sure to etch deeply into your heart. It’s available in paperback and e-book, and you’ll find it on Amazon.

two versions of covers, one for the e-book, left, and one for the paperback, right. i was constrained by the strictures of the platform, but tried to make the whole of the book as beautiful as mary ellen’s indelible words…..

how do you stockpile — and lavish — the love in your life?

balm for the late-winter blues

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

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

eeyore

eeyore, hero of gloom

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

i was gasping, all right.

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

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

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

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

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

may your month bring you the balms you so need…

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

the marvel of the capacious soul

i’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re down here on this messy planet, this planet that sometimes feels overpopulated with goons and wise guys, is that on occasion, as we mill about among the masses and misfits, we run into the occasional breathtaking specimen from whom we will undoubtedly learn a thing or three.

i bumped into one this week, and once again i scribbled notes into my chunky fat notebook, the one titled, “how to be a better human. volume 61.”

the most accurate way to phrase it, quite honestly, would be to say that i didn’t so much as bump into him — he’s a time zone away, after all — but rather that this gorgeous soul pretty much flung himself onto the skinny little trail i was traipsing through the day. and it took all of a fraction of a second for me to read his words, feel the breath sucked straight out of my lungs (in that marveling sort of a way), and remember why oh why i’ve always adored him, and would like to be like him when i grow up.

he arrived, my old friend did, in an out-of-the-blue email, one announcing that he — whose wife had died just 10 days before, and whom we’d not seen in years and years — was jumping on a plane to chicago, where he and his wife had lived a couple decades ago, back when both of us were starting out in this experiment called “how to birth and raise a child.” we had all succumbed, his wife and i and our respective mates, at just about the same moment in history. they sped off to the birthing room first, and we followed fairly close behind. then, they sped again shortly after us, so we all spent a few years there cradling newborns, trading tales and names of pediatricians. in fact, the day the chicago tribune decided to unveil a room (more like a rehabbed closet) for “lactating reporters,” my friend’s wife and i showed up to pose for pictures with our little guzzlers well attached (clinging to our shoulders, people; all of us fully clothed and covered, merely suggesting that we young mothers might at some point put down notepads and plug into breast pump (i forsook the whole endeavor and worked from home, with nary a pump in sight)).

i digress.

back to this blessed friend who dropped in this week. he wrote this:

Hi guys,

Corey and I have sort of tumbled into a Chicago comfort trip. He’s there already, and I am flying out in a few hours.

It’s exceedingly last minute, but he and I would love to see as many of you as we can in a gathering of some design. I’ve been thinking brunch Saturday or Sunday, at a restaurant or (if one of you has the stomach for it) a home (I’d ecstatically cover the catering).

Let me float the idea of 10 am Saturday or Sunday. Other times will in truth be tougher (I’ll be doing things with/at the theater, etc.).

Maybe we can reply-all in order to see whether this might work?

I adore you all, and thank you for words and sustenance over months, weeks, and years.

Love,

(old friend)

i should mention that this old friend is a professor of shakespeare in new york city, and from the first day i met him he has used the english language in measures that far exceed just about anyone else i’ve ever known. he matches his eloquence with an effusion of the human spirit that is, frankly, a force of nature. something akin to sharing a room with a hurricane of most glorious refinement.

amid a world of ways of mourning, i was bowled over by this friend’s instinct to surround himself — immerse himself, really — with stories, tears, and laughter. to reach out for old, old friends. to throw himself onto a plane to shrink the distance, to not wait to lather himself in the healing balm, to quite emphatically wrap himself in the company of those who’d lived and breathed the chapters before cancer trod his heart, and stole his lifelong love.

it’s why capacious is the word that best fits his soul, his spirit, the magnitude of how he exercises love and life and full-throttle humanity. “having a lot of space inside; roomy,” the pocket OAD tells us. my friend is roomy, all right, and he makes room for the whole whirling wild climate zone of grief and grieving.

i imagine that tomorrow morning, when my kitchen is filled with lox and bagels and stories tumbling atop stories, when the coffee flows endlessly and big bowls spill with the fattest sweetest berries i can find today, it will get messy. there will be rivers of tears. and once or twice someone might laugh so hard they’ll spit strawberry across the table. i’ve been around enough grief to know it’s uncharted.

what i’ve not often seen, and what i love and what finds me marveling, is this old friend’s willingness to plunge right in, to immerse himself in the anguish and the joys that old friends know by heart. almost none of us witnessed up close the past few years of surgery and chemo and the inevitable dying, but we were all there for the thick of what came before — the births, the strollers, the raucous Shabbat dinners, the summer sunsets from their rooftop terrace.

and we have stories in which to wrap him, and tears to bathe his broken heart, and great good laughter on which to lift and carry him.

from deep inside his fog of pain and loss and rudderlessness, he thrust out a hand, and called on an old unbroken circle of the heart. we will hold a shiva here tomorrow. and there will be prayer in the form of story. and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be shared in the company of those who remember well the days long before the whiff of cancer slid into the room, and took away our old friend’s truest deepest love.

may his capacious ways remind me to never shrink from the confines of the soul so blessedly breathed into each of us at the moment we were first imagined, and sent forth to fill this planet…..

who are some of the ones in your life who teach you how to be? and in what form have some of those lasting lessons come? 

old sweater: ode to wrap-around-you love

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some mornings, in the swift fractions between bare foot to floorboard, shuffle across the bedroom rug, and tumble into closet, i just know: it’s an old sweater sort of day.

a day when i need to feel my arms slide through the nubby sleeves, feel the wool scratch against me, pull the torso tight around my chest. i need to feel the wrap-around-you love that comes from pulling on an old, old sweater. a sweater that once belonged, and still — if you breathe deep and with all your heart — holds the sweet scent of the someone long ago who wore it. whose chest filled out its threads. whose warmth inhabited. whose whole self animated, in a way that — standing alone in the dark, cold closet — you still can see, as if a picture show before your eyes.

it’s been one of those weeks around here.

every day, an old sweater. truth be told, every day the same old sweater (fashion-forward is not a name you’d put to me, queen of holey jeans and banged-up clogs, and T shirts worn till rags). it’s a navy one, with suede patches on the sleeve. one the maker calls its “shaggy dog.” other than calling it a teddy-bear crew neck (one minus knitted-in images of bears, thank you), i can’t think of a better name for a sweater that fills its particular prescription: dust off the lonely flakes, embolden for the day ahead, stick close and keep the cold at bay. and not necessarily the temperature. more like the draft that comes when you feel all alone, a bit lonely, searching for that particular someone who steadies you, brings ballast to your wobbling hours.

it’s winter here. deep winter. a season i love. but the fellow who inhabits this house with me, the one i married nearly a quarter century ago, he’s been away. so it’s just me and the little one, faring for ourselves. and while i love the quiet hours stitched into each day, i find myself a wee bit lost. i find myself braving winds and cold. i’m without the markers at the start and end of each long day, when usually the door clicks open and in walks the lanky fellow, his glasses frosted up from cold. his cheeks pink from wind. his stories fresh, and filling up the room.

i’ve thought a lot this week about those i love who are missing someone. everyone misses someone sometime. sometimes for the rest of your living breathing days. you can’t go too long in this life before death comes, or leave-taking of some other kind steals the one you love. there are a million algorithms that all wind up with a big fat hollow at the end. there’s a kid i love who’s gone away, simply because he grew up and found a leafy college, far far from here. there’s a dad i loved, with all my heart; he up and died. no goodbye. just a blizzard and a phone call and a doctor standing in the blazing white corridor, saying, oddly, “i’m so sorry.” there’s a grandma, who wasn’t even mine by birth, just by heart. and every time i tumble in my closet, i see her cherry red, gold-buttoned cardigan. i don’t often put it on. but i love knowing that it’s there, in the stack of old sweaters just waiting to do their job: wrap my arms and chest, make like soft-looped armament, a shield that holds me tight, that makes me remember a certain hug, a certain chest against which i leaned and pressed my ear, drinking in a steady heartbeat. a heartbeat that steadied me, that launched me, that served as grounding rod and metronome for the songs i’d yet to let loose from the canyon of my hopes and dreams and wobbles.

sometimes in life we need to grope for tangible knowing that we’re not alone. not deep down, anyway. there are someones from the past, who swirl around us still. who pulse through us. and sometimes simply shoving a fist, an arm, down a narrow sleeve, it’s all the rubbing-up-against-us we need to convince ourselves that, once again, we can face the day. we can march out of the bedroom closet, armed for what the day will bring.

no one can see the someone we’ve tucked into for the day. but we know. we know we’re not alone. and the stack of old, moth-worn, years-stretched sweaters, they’re there to guide us on our ways. to enfold us. to brace us from the chill that’s sure to blow through all the cracks.

what armaments do you reach for when your day begs for emboldening? or your heart just needs an extra layer of fortitude, of resilience, of remembering how deeply it is loved?