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Category: courage

front-row seat

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it’s the miracle of being thisclose, ushered to a front-row seat, for the drama of the unfolding human spirit, that more than anything takes my breath away. my whole life long, i’ve found myself perched in watch posts where i could absorb and chart every flinch of the face, every swelling of the human heart, as i learned just how expansive the soul could be.

i’ve watched children bravely take their mama’s hand, as they were rolled into rooms for spinal taps. i’ve watched those unflinching children tell their mamas not to worry, it would all be okay. i’ve watched those children make their mama laugh, as she brushed away a tear, and then found herself doubled over, caught in i-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that, as the kid was rolled away in mickey mouse glasses (pulled out from under the pillow case).

i’ve watched a kid sit down to write a letter to the principal, letting the head of school know that he’d witnessed injustice at the lunch room table, injustice in the name of bigotry because of the way that someone prayed. i watched that kid fold the letter, and send it off, awaiting eighth-grade justice.

this week i’ve been watching a kid i love live and breathe the sort of courage that means everything when you’re a soccer-loving kid, and you’ve been told once already that you don’t belong on the high-school roster. i’ve watched that kid all summer lace up those soccer cleats, lift weights, all but stretch himself with ten-pound discs tied to his ankles as he lay in bed at night. he’d do anything to grow a couple inches. maybe half a foot, if there’s one to spare. i’ve watched him forego cherry pie on his birthday, because he thought the sugar just might shave a chance off his hopes of winning this time round. it’s a three-day test of courage, and we’re not yet at the end.

so all i can do — resigned to supporting role as scrambler of eggs, purveyor of blackberries, filler of water bottle — is stand back and hope and pray like there’s no tomorrow. because, darn it, tryouts end today, and we’ve lived once already through that crushing silence of a kid whose heart is shattered.

for those who think it’s mere cliche to say “my kids are my teachers,” i say this: phooey.

take a seat. open up your playbook. and watch a kid whose shoes you used to lace, to tie in floppy bows, watch that kid hold his head high, step onto the playing field — in the face of all his friends and coaches charting every move — watch him show you how it looks to stare down kids who tower over you in half-foot measures, watch him take the balls at full impact, dive into unforgiving turf, dust off the scrapes up and down his knees and elbows, and rise up again.

watch him hope. watch him hope so hard it hurts.

and you, not nearly so brave as the kid who teaches you, you sometimes get withered by nothing more brutal than a nasty line shot across the internet. from someone you don’t even know. for all you know, it’s nothing but a bot (one of those cyber-ghosts who churn out idiocies and fake news by the megabyte). talk about lessons to be learned.

of all the breathtaking filaments that comprise the growing of a human child, it’s the front-row witness that astounds me most, that leaves me brimming with blueprints for how to be a fuller version of who i thought, who i hoped, i could be.

it’s not just parents, of course, who get the chance to see the inch-by-inch stretching of another’s soul. doctors see it every day. can you imagine looking someone in the eye and delivering the most somber news? watching that someone not crumble, not lash out, not let spew a mighty line of damnation, but instead take the diagnosis with more grace than you swear you could ever muster? can you imagine being the teacher who day after day tries to navigate a kid through vowels and consonants that insist on being muddied, that appear to the kid to be indecipherable hieroglyphics, and then one day, without a drumroll, the kid, who’s never wobbled, suddenly reads straight across a line? and what about the priest or pastor or cop who takes in confession, who looks into the crumbling face of someone who bares his sin? who makes no flimsy excuse, lays no blame, and is crushed by the truth of how much irreparable hurt he’s done?

it’s in those rare uncharted moments when the screen is pulled away, when the screen that stands guard in front of stripped-down soul is erased from the equation, and what you see is unfettered human character. like peeking into the knobs and wires that make an engine run. only in this case, it’s the fibers of courage, of resilience, of this-is-where-i-choose-to-take-the-higher-road.

it takes your breath away — every blessed time. offers you a glimpse of straight-up holiness, the way that God meant for us to be. and, frame by frame, i am taking notes, stockpiling all these lessons. front-row student in the school of courage, of immeasurable blessedness, of grace in action.

and so, i crack and scramble eggs. i keep watch from my post here at home. i wave from the front stoop as the car pulls away. i watch the clock. i pray. and i gird my heart for what may come. and marvel at the gift of watching a very brave kid stare down the very odds that would wither a less determined soul.

dear patron saints of soccer, have mercy.

who are your heroes in the soulful department?

one brave thing

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i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

i especially hear those whispers when i’m standing at a precipice, about to take a flying leap off a ledge. a ledge like walking into a newsroom as a nurse + 1 year of grad school (as if that gave me any cred to run around the big bad city, with my reporter’s notebook flapping in the wind). a ledge like walking into labor and delivery, knowing the lump in my belly would soon be cradled in my arms and heart forever after. a ledge like writing a book from the deepest place in my heart and being afraid it will be panned.

i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

and here’s the beauty: once you’ve done the single deed, you’re done for the day. no more bravery required. or if you do decide to fling on your bravery cape, you do so with the triumphant knowledge that you’re now in extra-credit land. (i admit to being one of those little kids who always loved the buffer zone of extra credit; more or less the shortcut up the mountainside. or at least a remarkable insurance plan, there in case you need it.)

this one brave thing can work for anyone. no matter what the commodity you’re in search of. it’s just as easily the one-blank-thing plan. say kindness is what you quest; do one kind thing a day, and you’re on your way. maybe it’s patience. same plan. fill in the blank, and tackle it one sure feat at a time.

i used to think — and often still do, truth be told — that courage was black or white, an on or off switch. you have it or you don’t. and i was pretty sure i would never be called up to the courage major leagues. but what i’m working on — trying to teach my thick-headed little self — is that, like muscles, you can build it, drop by drop, layer by layer, bit by bit.

so i’m not looking to turn into the queen of confidence. i’m just trying to start and end the day with one new checkmark in the courage column. i’ve sent off notes — one by one — to  folks whose work i love. i still await reply. but honestly, the replies might not matter as much as figuring out that i can dig down deep and yank out my daily dose of being brave.

one of these days i just might glance in the foggy mirror and see a brave girl looking back at me.

till then, i’m working on it: one brave thing, my humble quota for the day.

we’re all works in progress and isn’t that the place from which our beauty comes? and speaking of courage, top of my mind this morning is a boy i love who is walking into a very big meeting but feeling VERY under the weather. he is being oh so brave. and i am offering up all my courage — and whatever else it takes — for him to glide through that meeting, unscathed. 

no need to answer down below (these are private matters of the heart and soul, after all), but what one thing might you submit to the one-a-day plan? what’s the commodity you long for, and might you find it slowly surely certainly?

a bit of housekeeping: i know some of you have loved “on the wings of the hummingbird,”the blog of my beautiful friend mary ellen sullivan, who died last year. for a few weeks, it’s seemed the hummingbird was lost, but the good news is that it’s forever in the cybersphere, thank you to the great good folk at wordpress.com. and you can find it here. (it’s just a slightly longer url, but it’s all there, beautiful as ever.)

baking bread: essential communion

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i baked bread a sunday ago. all day. with a beloved friend. and in the rhythms of yeast and friendship — yeast leaping into action, yeast rising, yeast resting, interlaced with the pas de deux of courage instilled, folly shared, revelation of heart — i found an elusive blessing, one necessary, curative, in these steep and shaky times.

it began with the humblest of offerings (as all friendship, all holiness does): wheat milled into flour; grains from the field; seed from the sunflower; honey, the bees’ sweet contribution; and yeast, God’s gift to the belly — and parable, too.

by the time the oven was blasting its gas-fueled insistence, we’d savored the blessing of pushing up old sweater sleeves, one friend reciting instruction, the other (uncertain and seeking conviction) following along, the blessing of slow time, of deep unspooling conversation, and an afternoon in which the slant of light slipped imperceptibly away. all punctuated with a thick slice of grain, slathered in soft salty cheese.

it’s as determined an equation for healing as any i’ve stumbled into of late. it was the gift of the sharing of hours — not a phone call squeezed in between errands, not a text passed in the night — that held the miracle. it was the rare chambered nautilus of friendship, a structure within which we could burrow, nestle into sacred uncharted spaces.

perhaps, too, it was the particular alchemy of shared labor — engaged task — across those hours. we’d started from scratch and were working our way — together — toward shared triumph. it was altogether richer than my usual preferred art of sitting side-by-side or foot-to-foot under blankets, sharing words and stories and mugs of spiced tea.

indeed, the tea kettle would sing before the afternoon ended, before two toothsome loaves would be pulled from the oven. and ever since, each time i pull a slice from the loaf, each time i sit down to lunch, i return, at least a part of me does, to that fine afternoon and the knowledge that i can bake my own bread, leaning all the while on the sturdy friendship of the rarest of companions.

there is something breathtaking about baking with a friend. something in sharing a kitchen, a cookstove, something in finding our way together. i grew up afraid of two things (my inventory here is confined to fears in the kitchen): yeast and pie crust. the former i thought i could kill, a notion that felt murderous to me; and the latter i thought would crumble in my indelicate fingers. so i did what any deep-fearing girl would do: i stayed away. steered clear. bought my bread, more often than not, from the very nice baker who shared not my particular fears.

for me to enter the kitchen, to haul out the mixer with bread hook and paddle, to tear open the packet of yeast, to try not to wince when i submitted said yeast to the bath my friend promised would not kill it, leave it gasping for breath, well, that was, in fact, a small act of courage. and i find i’m in need of courage-building these days. there is a world that needs our voice — our calm and gentle and deeply considered voice. and there is a world that needs our conviction, our conviction put into action.

it came as something of a surprise that my starter class in courage, my beginner’s curriculum, unfolded in the kitchen. yet there i found steadier footing. it all came in the certain embrace of a friend to whom i could bare my uncertainties, my qualms about yeast and life far beyond. it’s friendship that weaves the strong with the faint. none of us come to the kitchen, to the world, with all threads emboldened. we are, each one of us, tapestries; some threads glimmering, some threads too thin, too easily frayed. and in the submission to friendship, the willingness to say aloud, “i’m scared of this” (be it yeast or life or speaking up in the face of opposition), and then dive in anyway, well that’s what finding courage looks like. and courage is the thing we need — in double doses, at least — if we stand half a chance of making a difference, making our one small life matter, of leaving this world more filled with even one drop of grace, of goodness, of kindness, of light.

and so i started with wheat + yeast + the dearest of friends, and i wound up with two fine loaves, and the wisp of knowledge that i’d moved a baby step or two closer to finding my way across the rocky landscape.

in these times that tear at my heart and my soul on a daily or hourly basis (depending on the news of the day), i found something holy, i found essential communion, in the baking of two loaves of power bread. and i did not kill the yeast.

my annotated recipe: power bread from food52
by someone who goes by the name boulangere

makes 2 large loaves

1/2 cup kamut*
1/2 cup buckwheat groats*
1/2 cup pearled barley*
3/4 – 1 1/2 cups tepid water
1 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
2 ounces canola oil
2 ounces honey
1/4 cup chia seeds
1/4 cup golden flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
1/4 cup polenta

*my dear friend tells me that you needn’t follow precisely the rules (see why i love her); any combination of grain will work, as long as you start with a total of 1-1/2 cups uncooked. i for instance skipped the kamut altogether and then forgot to double the buckwheat, and all ended well anyway.

Place barley, kamut, and buckwheat groats in saucepans with ample water to cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until not quite done through. They still want to be a bit toothy when you take them off the heat so that they retain their integrity in the dough. Kamut will take the longest, about 1/2 hour; barley about 15 minutes; and buckwheat groats about 10. When done, strain off water and allow to cool a bit before adding to the dough.

img_8884To mix dough, pour water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. (my dear friend tells me 25 seconds in the microwave gets water to just the right non-murderous temp.) Add yeast and whisk to blend. Add all other ingredients, including slightly cooled grains. Mix on lowest speed until dough comes together and looks homogenous. This will be a sticky and fairly soft dough, but it should generally leave the sides of the bowl, so add some bread flour if necessary; just don’t add so much that it is too firm. (here we have the debate on whether to use the bread hook or the paddle on the super-stand mixer; we tried both, first hook, then paddle, then quickly back to hook.)

When dough comes together, stop the mixer and wrap a piece of plastic wrap around the top of the bowl. Let the dough have an autolyse for 20 minutes. (that’s a scary word to me, but my friend tells me not to be afraid, just let the dough have at it.) This will allow the whole wheat flour to become fully hydrated, and also allow the water in the grains to settle down. If you overknead this dough, you’ll essentially start squeezing water out of the grains.

After the autolyse, remove the plastic and again begin kneading on the lowest speed. Within a few minutes, the dough should come fully together, leaving the sides of the bowl. Knead for 5 minutes, then test for a windowpane. It will not be as thin as what you’d expect from a dough without all the grainy content, but it will form a general windowpane.

Transfer dough to an oiled bowl large enough to contain it as it doubles. (my friend tells me to use the largest possible bowl. i used one that might have bathed a plump tot.) Turn dough over once, then cover bowl with plastic, not a towel. Let it proof at room temperature until doubled in size.

img_8892Flour your work surface – remember, this is a sticky dough! Gently turn dough out onto it. Keep your piece of plastic! Divide dough in half, and shape each as you wish: either shape it for conventional bread pans (my friend says don’t forget to oil your pans), or shape as hearth loaves. Dust the top of each with flour (I love that rustic look!), then drape your piece of plastic over them. While your bread is proofing again (and the second proofing goes faster, so keep an eye on it), preheat oven to 375 degrees.img_8893

Just before putting bread in oven, decoratively slash the tops a good 1/2″ deep. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating loaves halfway through. This bread is deceptive – it tends to look done before it is. When done, an instant read thermometer inserted in the middle should read 180 degrees. (or, says my friend, who is now your friend, anywhere between 190- to 210-degrees Fahrenheit.)

Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Because of all those great, moist grains, and a touch of honey, this is an excellent keeper, and also freezes just fine. While it is still warm, cut a slice, butter it, maybe add some honey or your favorite preserves, and get ready to power up!

notes from food 52 and boulangere:

Food52 Editors’ Comments: Boulangere’s multi-grain bread is hearty and delicious. The combination of grains and seeds makes the bread both flavorful and texturally appealing. I had to use the upper end of the water amount for my dough to have a good consistency. I was unable to find chia seeds, so substituted millet instead. One of the beauties of this recipe is its ability to accommodate different grains and seeds based on what you have in your pantry. It makes 2 pretty huge loaves of bread. I made mine 2 days ago, and have been nibbling on it ever since. I highly recommend giving this bread a try — you won’t regret it! – hardlikearmour

I developed this bread originally using spent grains from a friend who is a gifted and endlessly creative artisan brewer, along with a mix of seeds, depending on what I had on hand. I never knew exactly what the mix would be, but it always made bread so deeply good that people would call ahead on bake day to reserve loaves of it. I adapted it for the Bulk Bin project to replace the mix of spent grains with some of my other most favorite grains and seeds. I still call it Power Bread for the intrinsically wonderful protein, fiber, and EFA qualities of kamut, buckwheat, pearled barley, chia and golden flax seeds. And I always toss in some uncooked polenta for a bit of crunch in every bite. It makes great toast, and a killer grilled cheese sandwich! As you read through the list of ingredients, if you think the water measurement seems unclear, bear in mind that you’re going to cook the whole grains, and though you’ll also drain them, they contribute a lot of hydration to the dough, depending on how thoroughly you drain them. Don’t press water out of them, in other words. And feel free to add additional water to the dough if need be. – boulangere

and a note from me, not about bread but about the state of the world and what i write about here: dear beloveds, because long ago i set out to make this a sacred place, a place that keeps close watch on the world, and close watch on the soul, i am trying to thread a very fine needle here and keep politics off the table. i know we come from myriad perspectives, and because i want to preserve the sense of shared communion, of a place where we can all breathe deeply and purely, away from the everyday noise and congestion, i am aiming for matters of the soul. you might have gleaned that these are hard times for me, and that would be an accurate assessment. but because i can’t stand the dissolution of conversation i see in so many places, because i can’t stand the sense that division is the math of the moment, i’m trying for inclusion, trying to weave and not tatter, staking my hopes on the deep faith that we have many places in our hearts that spark to the same beauties, crack at the same shatterings. i hope we all speak up for justice and never ever muffle our outcries against what we see as injustice — and i won’t muffle here. i emphatically aim to live a gospel of love, an instruction found in every holy book of every world religion, and, yes, in the books of those who claim no religion but follow a sacred light. as a journalist i have long practiced the art of keeping my politics out of my stories, and so even here, especially here, where my aim is deeper and higher at once, i continue to pray that this is a sacred place, a place for everyone of gentle heart, fierce belief, and carefully considered thought. 

your thoughts? or if you prefer, your bread baking tips? or, perhaps, what you’ve found as the most delicious ways to deepen a friendship. xoxox

red bird pie: a recipe of courage

red bird pie before

perhaps its name is misguided, a culinary blunder nearly as stark as the dough with the mind of its own.

perhaps in calling it red bird pie, instead of the more ingredient-precise — say, peeled-granny-smith-with-occasional-appleseed pie — i’ve sent you and your brain cells tumbling down the very wrong path. perhaps you envision a meat pie. a pie filled with bird. i can’t even bring myself to type “red bird” when typing in this particular vein. for that would be a slaughterous pie, and we’ll have none of that here, not in this teetering-on-greens-only house.

it’s all just poetry, the poetry of pie naming. and once i discovered i could play with my pie dough, could press my old tin cutter, a wee red-bird cutter, you see, well, i was suddenly in joyful terrain. i pressed and i lifted and plopped. i was going gaga for the red birds i pressed in my pie top.

and deserving was i of this romp and reckless dough-cutting. for it had been a long way to red bird.

and thus is the story of the red bird of courage.

you see, as long as i’ve been alive i remember the words of my mama: “i’m afraid of pie dough,” she once said (though the minute i type that, i expect the phone to ring and denial to ring out across the land). for the sake of maternal peacemaking, let’s just say that someone once uttered the words, pie dough = fear, and they stuck.

if my forebears in the kitchen were fearful of dough, well, then, i too held ancestral right to be fearful.

so, all these years, i’d never done it. not until the day before yesterday, that is. the day before thanksgiving 2014, the day my dough dread crumbled. and the red bird rose to my rescue, served as my bent-tin medal of courage.

red bird cutter

it so happens that this happens to be my season of conquering fear. and one of the very last bastions was the one splayed across the now flour-streaked pages — clear from page 24 to far yonder 44, a full 20 sheafs of schooling in butter + flour + water! no wonder i shook in my tattered-and-splattered over-head apron!

i’d turned in my hour of fear-mounting to “the hoosier mama book of pie,” a nestled-to-the-bosom book of pie tutelage if ever there was (though ms. paula haney, the hoosier mama herself, does seem to revel in raising the rolling pin higher and higher with each and every pie-baking instruction).

pie page instruction

why, before the day was done — and it was a long one — i would have fumbled my way through these fine kitchen verbs: i macerated. i reduced. and i chilled. i would have pulsed, but the food processor also is among the kitchen wares i dread (or simply hate to haul from the pantry shelf), so i rocked with old-fashioned half-moon pastry cutter. i sprinkled “crust dust” (who knew?). and before i’d so much as frozen the butter, i’d stalked the grocery store shelves in search of tapioca starch. (i went with minute tapioca. oh, well. chalk it up to kitchen transgression.)

apparently, i’m not so good with numbers, either. at least not when it comes to butter. i grabbed two sticks, but promptly forgot that the wee little fraction tucked alongside the 1, there in the ingredient roster, spelled out 3/4 — as in less than a whole, as in fraction of buttery stick. so my virgin voyage of pie dough had an 2 extra Tbsps. of land o’ lakes unsalted butter.

you might wonder why if i started this whole rigamarole at 2 in the afternoon, i didn’t pull that ol’ bird-pocked pie from the oven till half past 10 in the night? well, it seems ms. hoosier mama believes in slow baking. meaning every step was punctuated with full stop — freeze for 20 minutes, rest for 20, macerate at least 25, drain for 25, chill for 20, freeze for yet another 20; 130 full minutes of pause, pause and more pause.

in which, i suppose, the ponderous baker is supposed to deep breathe the wonders of all this mindful attention to butter and flour and water laced with red wine vinegar (the better the chances to shorten the protein strands, ms. haney explains, the ones that make your pie dough tough to the tooth).

seeing as this was my first run-through, i more or less sighed deep sighs of exasperation at each and every prescription to pause. by dinner time, when everyone’s tummy was growling, and i was still pausing to freeze or to drain, i’d gotten to calling this “apple pie interruptus,” for the way i seemed to take two steps fore and one step to the side.

and i flubbed plenty along the way: besides the mistake with my buttery math, and despite the fun i had thwopping the cold ball of dough with the girth of the rolling pin (lest all the rolling toughen it into one hard-bitten bird), my dough circles never did reveal themselves (more like a raggedy-edged oblong was the best i could do).

so i did what any self-respecting virgin pie baker would do: i scrimped. scraped the doodads of dough right off the cutting board. dabbed droplets of water there at the seam, where dough met dough, and i made like a band-aid.

and then, at last, i got to the side note, the one about cutting to vent, and that’s where all my years of flipping glossy pages in foodie tomes came to bear: i plundered my mostly-unused-but-abundant collection of old cookie cutters, and there, at the way bottom of the basket, lay a toppled wee red bird.

and that’s how i wound up reveling in pie dough, just before the 10 o’clock news. i pressed myself a whole flock of dough birds. i had red bird holes in my pie top. and red bird doodads of dough, rising up to a second dough layer. i had so very much fun with my birds i barely noticed the disastrous crimp to my crust. nor did i mind the splotches of dough bandage.

which leads me to think that, as with all acts of courage, the recipe reads something like this: shove up your shirt sleeves, take it one step at a time, don’t flog yourself for dumb mistakes and necessary U-turns, and let rip when it comes to the part where you’re in your glory.

in the end, does anyone other than you give two whits that you’ve mastered the thing that you feared?

but once you find yourself grabbing the hot pads and oven mitts, and you’re yanking your prize from the sizzling oven rack, all you need do is deep breathe the truth that, step by step, blunder upon blunder, you’ve inched your way over and across the very terrain that once made you tremble.

life is like that. pie-baking is too.

red bird pie after

and what fears have you conquered of late? the ones you’ve batted down with rolling pin, or ones of whole other ilk? and how did you muster the courage?

led by a deep, still voice

 

enter to grow wisdom

here is an essay i wrote this week for the nieman storyboard, a writerly nook of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard that explores the craft of longform narrative and storytelling in all its guises. this was an essay that took particular courage. you’ll read why. you can read it below, or see it here on the storyboard, where you might decide to poke around and find a host of marvels and morsels….

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention.

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Don’t flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

It all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

veritas

beef stew matters

beef stew

a confession: all week i’ve been considering the fine points of stew. i’ve pondered the layering of flavorful notes. ruminated over anchovies. weighed root vegetables. detailed the pluses of rutabaga, countered with low points of turnip. i’ve dwelled on umami, that quixotic elixir we’re all after.

i’ve settled at last on a roadmap. any hour now, i’ll be cranking the flame, putting grass-fed beef chunks to the iron-hot scald of my three-thousand-pound cook pot. it’s what you do when you want a fine stew.

now this stew won’t be spooned to anyone’s mouth — not unless you count the teaspoons i’ll taste as i stir and i fiddle — till saturday’s eve. and that’s the whole point. i want the whole universe contained in my pot to cross-pollinate, to send ambassadorial missions from, say, the rings of the leek to the eye of anchovy (do those little squirmers have eyes? i’ll soon know the answer, once i peel back the lid and give them a look-see). i want a marriage — not a divorce — of fine flavor. i want the chunk of the beef to waltz with the dice of the carrot.

why, you might wonder, am i plopping my self into such a pressure-packed cooker? why in the world does this simple potage so very much matter?

take your pick:

a.) a wintry stew, served to a hungry tableau, is the raison d’être of this season of ice and blustery winds and bone-chilling temps that makes us ponder the wisdom of bears who pack it all up and go under cover from, say, the thanksgiving feast till the rising of easter.

b.) i quake in fear of that hushed moment when forks put to mouths lead to the audible verdict. i’ve sat there before when only after a pause does some polite — and half-hearted voice — pipe up with a “oh, this is good.” or, worse: not a word.

truth be told — and we’re truth-tellers here — it’s b more than anything that has me engaged. cooking for me is not just a dalliance, not a way to whittle away a few friday afternoon hours. no, cooking for me is self-taught survival.

i am still, after all these decades, battling away demons you’d maybe not notice. did you know, for instance, how much pride i felt when i typed out the sentence about tasting spoonfuls? i’ve promised myself — as i’ve made so many promises before — that i will taste as i stir. that doesn’t sound one bit scary to you, i imagine. but it does to me. and it’s why that moment of fork-to-mouth, that very first taste at a table of people i love or especially a table of folks i don’t know too well, has at times left me feeling as if the chair’s been pulled out from under me. all these years i’ve cooked by feel, cooked without tasting — a veritable braille at the cookstove — and i don’t know till everyone else does if i’ve over-walloped the salt, or short-changed the wine.

but that was then, and this is now. i am nudging myself into a new chapter. i am filling my table with people i love, and a few who i only scantily know. i am a living-breathing believer in the power of putting ideas to the world, and the best place that i know for birthing fine thought, for bridging frames of reference, is the dinner table.

it’s curious, perhaps, that i invest so much faith in the gathering of great good souls to my table. but the way i see it, the dinner table is merely the classroom, the seminar chamber, set with knives, forks and a battalion of glassware.

so, if you want to bring together great stews of ideas, of stories, of wisdom, of light, you need to stoke the flame with the richest, most sublime assemblage of feast and drink and, yes, a darn lovely haul from the old plate collection.

it’s why i’ve been turning to my panel of master teachers, all lined up on the shelves of my kitchen — and a few who walk and talk and dispense real-life secrets. it’s why i am hurling martha stewart across the room, but sidling up to david tanis, a generous-hearted cook (formerly of chez panisse and a regular in the new york times, for heaven’s sake) endowed with a down-to-earth soul who finds perfection in a simple soft-boiled egg and who writes that the peeling of carrots and onions for a simple stew “can be meditative.”

it’s not about wow-ing. it’s about allowing the feast to speak for the part of my heart and my soul that breathes beyond words.

the equation i’m after, the blueprint i seek, is one that’s infused with humility, yet banks on the notion that dolloping grace and deliciousness — both in measures sublime — onto my table is bound to spiral the talk a notch or two, and kindle the room with a shared sense of the sacred: this table matters, what unfolds here is sacramental; and as the one who’s done the gathering, i’ve infused it with the very best i could muster.

i’m finding my way. even at this late date in the game. and, any moment now, i’ll be feeling my way — and tasting my way — to a beef stew that matters. perhaps, more than it should. but not really, not when you know all that’s infused in its making.

here’s the roadmap i’m more or less following, a revamping from two solid sources: food52, that amazing online kitchen of amanda hesser and friends, and the pioneer woman, who has proven herself to stand on two solid legs when it comes to the cookstove.

My Secret Ingredient Pioneer Woman Saturday Night Beef Stew

Provenance: Food52 + Pioneer Woman. annotations by bam (and remember, this is a work in progress).

Ingredients

STEW:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

3 pounds Beef Stew Meat (chuck Roast Cut Into Chunks)

Salt And Pepper

1 whole Medium Onion, Diced

2 Leeks, sliced

7 cloves Garlic, Minced

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 package (8 oz.) Baby Bella Mushrooms

6 ounces, weight Tomato Paste

2 Anchovies

Dried Porcini Mushrooms (1/2 ounce; Melissa’s packet)

4 cups Low Sodium Beef Stock Or Broth, More If Needed For Thinning

1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar

1 cup canned whole Tomatoes with Juice (or 1 can)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2 Bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

2 whole Carrots, Peeled And Diced

1 whole Turnips, Peeled And Diced

1/2 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

Pearl Onions, frozen; about a cup.

1/3 cup to 2 Tablespoons Minced Fresh Parsley

MASHED POTATOES:

5 pounds Russet Potatoes (peeled)

1 package (8 Ounce) Cream Cheese, Softened

1 stick Butter, Softened

1/2 cup Half-and-Half

Salt And Pepper, to taste

Preparation Instructions:

Pat dry, then salt and pepper stew meat. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Brown 1/3 the stew meat until the outside gets nice and brown, about 2 minutes. (Turn it as it browns.) Remove the meat from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it on a plate. Add the rest of the meat, in thirds, to the pot and brown it, too. Remove it to the same plate. Set the meat aside.

Add the leeks, onion and garlic to the pot, stirring it to coat it in all the brown bits in the bottom of the pot. Cook for two minutes, then add the carrots and mushrooms and again, cook for a few minutes. Add tomato paste AND ANCHOVIES to the pot. Stir it into the alliums and vegetables and let it cook for two more minutes.

Meanwhile soak dried Porcini mushrooms in 1 cup warm water.

Add wine vinegar, tomatoes with juice.

Pour in the beef stock, stirring constantly. Add salt, bay leaf and thyme, bring to boil. Stir in porcini mushrooms; then add beef back to the pot, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, add the diced turnips and carrots AND RUTABAGA AND PARSNIP to the pot. Stir to combine, put the lid back on the pot, and let it simmer for another 45 minutes to 1 hour. The sauce should be very thick, but if it seems overly so, splash in some beef broth until it thins it up enough. Feel free to add beef broth as needed!

When the ROOT VEGETABLES are tender, stir in minced parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate.

When cool, skim off much of the fat from the top. Reheat over low heat, letting the stew simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Serve piping hot in a bowl with mashed potatoes, letting the juice run all over everything. Mix in half of the parsley and garnish with the rest. Sprinkle with extra minced parsley at the end.

MASHED POTATOES:

Cut the potatoes into quarters and cover with water in a large pot. Boil until potatoes are fork tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then put them back into the same pot. With the heat on low, mash the potatoes for 2 to 3 minutes to release as much steam as possible.

Turn off heat, then add cream cheese, butter, cream, seasoned salt, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve potatoes immediately or spread them into a buttered baking dish to be reheated later. To reheat, put them in a 375 degree oven, covered in foil, until hot.

happy tasting, sweet friends.

it’s a scary thing to write as open-heartedly and honestly as i just did. but sometimes when i’m sitting here at the old maple table, i consider the connection we’ve all forged over the years, and i reach for the bottle of truth serum and swallow a spoonful. i feel like i owe it to the chairs, to not just write some mamby-pamby distraction about how i’ve whiled away a week, but rather, if you’re going to take the time to put eyes to these words, you deserve a dose of courage. it’s especially scary to tiptoe into this realm when i know my mothers — my own mama and my mother-in-law whom i adore (along with my father-in-law) — are among the readers. but when you write from the heart, you’ve made a commitment to not pussyfoot around. you straight shoot even when it makes you tremble. if you believe in authenticity — and i do — there’s only one path up the mountain. and it sometimes gives me the shakes. but in the long run, i just might find my way. and look out from that long-awaited vista. 

a multiple choice of questions (take your pick): a.) what makes you quake? or b.) what’s your go-to winter recipe? 

love letter to the boy who said “yes!”

love letter to the boy who said yes

dispatch from 02139 (in which the second-to-last cambridge edition of the chair is turned over to the art of love-letter writing…)

dear T,

so here we are — you, me and the fat cat — counting down the days till we stuff said kitty in strappy black bag, sling him over our shoulder and board the big jet plane. soon as we’re strapped in our seatbelts, mr. pilot will turn that plane’s big bulbous nose toward where the sun sets, toward corn fields and great lakes and skyscrapers rising from the prairie. we’ll lift off, you, me and screeching cat (and hope that the whir of the plane drowns out the primal howl rising up from row 32, down yonder under the depths of seat E).

knowing us, we’ll squeeze our fingers tight ’round each other’s as the plane does that hiccup-y burp from runway to sky. knowing us, one of us will swipe away tears, big mama tears. it’s been a long wild ride, sweet boy, and i’m riding home snuggled beside you so we can both soak it all in, gulp after gulp after bottomless gulp.

you’ve been the intrepid scout on this voyage, my friend, and before we go, i just want you to know — here, in little typed letters that you often read in the glow of your itty-bitty screen after bedtime lights are supposed to be dark — that you are the hero, the brave warrior, the tenderheart, to whom we owe this year of thinking and living so deeply sumptuously.

when daddy first discovered that beckoning email in his in-box, some 18 months ago, the one where the nice man asked if he might consider coming to cambridge, daddy wrote right back, said, “gosh, thanks, but we can’t. we’ve a fifth grader who would never in a million years let us wrench him from his cozy little life.”

daddy was wrong, wasn’t he?

that very night at dinner, when we put the question to you, “T, what would you think of up and moving smack-dab in the middle of middle school?” you didn’t blink. just blurted: “sounds great! i need to see the world!”

we asked again and again, from every imaginable angle, prying around to see if a NO was lurking somewhere deep down inside: what about soccer? what about baseball? what about going to cooperstown? what about your non-stop gaggle of friends?

bing, bing, and bing. you never batted an eye. the answer from you, always from you, is yes, yes and yes.

i am not kidding, not one little bit, when i tell you the truth that you were the egg who wouldn’t take no for an answer. after years and years of mama eggs that wouldn’t do as we hoped and we prayed, there suddenly — against all odds and despite every medical book on the shelves — sprang from within, one blessed holy egg that only knew YES as the way.

mister yes, you turned into teddy. love of our life. swell in our hearts.

and never more than this year, as you took on cambridge with arms opened wide. and cambridge responded — emphatically, resoundingly — in kind.

watching you these past 10 months, watching you weather a belly-ache of a storm of the homesick blues, but then rebound, and rebound and rebound, has been the sweetest sweet on a long list of delicious.

i’ll never forget you bravely standing at the bus stop that very first morning, backpack slung over your shoulders, headed off — all on your own — to a school where you knew utterly no one.

wasn’t long till we were inviting over your delectable friends. and this saturday night, the living room rug will be wall-to-wall sleeping bags. your last goodbye to your united nations of buddies.

but that’s not all:

when you’d had your heart set on cambridge basketball, you were sick as a dog for 10 days on either side of the tryouts. once the fever was doused, you dragged yourself off the couch, tried out at the Y and played street ball straight through the blizzards of winter. wasn’t plan A in your playbook, but that didn’t bench you. you gave it your all; even twisted your ankle.

ditto, baseball — when you found out there were no spots in the big league, as cambridge baseball recruits early and often and doesn’t leave empty slots on the roster. again, you weathered your drooped heart, and forged on anyway. then, out of the blue, a coach up and called, and now you’re a brave. two, three nights a week, you’re out on the sandlot, under the lights, cracking the bat, snagging at line drives soaring straight at you. how fitting, my friend, that you’re number 1 — at least according to the fat white digit slapped on the back of your jersey. once again, you’re a walking-talking tale of determination, of not giving up when the cards are against you.

but it’s not just the hoops down by the river (where you play pickup with grad students from around the globe), not just the afterschool gym (where you’re the scrappy little white kid out with players who tower above you, who’ve taught you a jive and even a hustle).

i’ll not forget the afternoon you practically climbed on my lap to get an up-close read of our south african friend’s newspaper tale of the 1,841 steps it takes to fetch a bucket of water, two times a day, in the highlands bordering lesotho. or listening to our feminist muslim reporter friend tell her tales of marriage proposals from taliban chiefs, when she’s out in their tents gathering front-line stories. or our truth-teller friend from vietnam predicting he’ll be thrown in prison once he steps back into his homeland, the price of not spewing fiction; but he flies home anyway.

our prayer, daddy’s and mine, is that this year forever opens not only your eyes, but even wider your very big heart.

we want you to know, more than anything, that this is a world where even a drink of water comes with a heck of a toll in some corners of the world. we want you to think twice — or three or four times, at least — about how blessed you are that you had the two quarters — one for yourself, one for your very best friend who had none — when hot chocolate was served in the school cafeteria. we want you to remember the courts where the only shared language is the one bound inside the orange ball that soars through the hoops.

i know you’re ready to fly chicago way, to be back in your squishy red bean bag, to pedal your bike cambridge-style, any and everywhere. i know, too, that leaving these friends is not easy. that, if you could, you’d be a boy of two ZIP codes.

i’m mighty glad that i’ll have a front-row seat, at least for the next few years, on the unfolding of this year’s lessons deep in your heart. i’ve had my own sweet spots here. and daddy, we know, is filled to the brim.

more than anything, it’s all thanks to you, mister yes.

bless you mightily and always. yes, yes, and oh yes.

xox

we’re awash in moving boxes here in the aerie. we’ve just had a visit from new jersey grandma and grandpa; thank goodness they got here in the nick of time and we shared a few spectacular moments. before we dash, we’ve one last round with our beloveds from maine, who are planning to motor down on sunday. i’m barely able to sleep so excited am i to get back in my very own bed, and my creaky old house (where the hot water tap in the kitchen has decided to go kerpluey, but our trusty friend back home is deep on the case)…..there are folks here it breaks my heart to leave, but i’ll be back, i promise, 02139. one more post from the cobbled city, then it’s home to 60091… 

who in your life taught you the beauty of YES?

 

humpty dumpty powder and other tricks of motherhood

humpty dumpty had a great fall…all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again….

indeed, and thank goodness, not all the falls that befall our little ones are great ones.

sometimes, they’re bumps.

sometimes brought on by being brave in the woods. sometimes by being brave in the woods for two long weeks you thought might never end. sometimes, they’re stirred by spending the night in a tent on the side of a sand dune, on a night when the thunder and lightning would not cease, when hail pummeled the tent flaps, when the counselors at 3 a.m. shooshed you onto the bus for safekeeping, while they struggled to stake down the flipped-over tents, and all you could manage was to pray for dawn’s first light, and a cure for the ache in your belly.

and so, when you get to the end of that shell-shaking spell in the woods, when your mama pulls up to the dried meadow at the edge of camp, and you leap out of your flip-flops to throw yourself into her arms, you need your mama to reach deep into her bag of mama tricks and pull out the humpty dumpty powder.

you need your mama to put you together again.

that’s what mamas do best. that’s job no. 1 in the old mama bible.

oh, sure we birth those babes back at the launch. but from then on in, it’s our supreme holy calling to be there for bee stings and dog bites and nights without end in the woods.

and it is indeed how i am spending these hours, ever since i picked up my brave little camper there in the woods.

didn’t take long, not more than a minute, to see that this hadn’t quite been a picnic, no mere frolic on the shores of torch lake. and it wasn’t simply the stench coming from his toes, there in the back of the homeward-bound rescue mobile.

there were clues, the sort a mama can read without prompt, that the boy sound asleep for most of the car ride, straight through michigan and half indiana, had utterly and completely tapped out his stay-strong tank.

heck, he’d survived on PB&J for the better part of 13 lunches and 13 dinners. even the night of the all-camp banquet, when ribs and baked alaska highlight the menu, the boy i love filled up on “four ears of corn and candy.” his words, exactly.

no wonder he came home sun-browned and skinny.

so, besides the bottle of bleach and the buckets for multiple pre-soaks (half the loam of the woods came home stuck in our little dude’s socks), we have pulled out all stops here on the home-team recovery squad.

we’ve showered him with kisses, and filled the bathtub with bubbles. we’ve cooked up cherry-filled pancakes, drizzled cherry syrup over slabs of turkey bacon, concocted “torch lake sunrises,” an orange-juice-and-cherry-concentrate breakfast mocktail.

we’ve squeezed triple-antibiotic ointment into oozing blisters on the sides of both feet. we’ve fluffed a pillow, unfurled a blanket and rubbed itty-bitty circles there where the headache pounded.

but the best cure of all was the big brother who’d once roamed the same woods, downed the same baked alaska. he knew the camp songs, the lore, the legend. he got the kid laughing again.

come dinner time, we let the little guy order up a feast of favorites: from-scratch mac-‘n’-cheese, ditto the applesauce, corn on the cob (minus the candy, his mama insisted), all washed down with cherry pie ala mode.

in no time, we suspect, our little camper oughta be back to his usual mostly-unflappable self.

but one of the breath-taking truths of motherhood is that you’ve got a rare, front-row seat on the naked work of growing up and learning to be brave.

i’ll never forget that kid standing at the window, just two weeks ago, the night before we left him at camp. he was staring up to the starlit dome, and, even there in the dark, you could read the prayers spill off his lips, and the way he wrapped it all up with a sign of the cross, and a tip of his palm to the heavens, just like the ballplayers do. he was beside himself with worry, he told us. could not imagine going two weeks without seeing a glimpse of us.

but he made it. he did it.

and that’s what i keep whispering in his ear.

“you did it, sweetheart. you did the very thing you thought you couldn’t.”

and if, for the next coupla days, we need to stoke you with buckets of cherries, and lavish you with kisses, we’ll get you steady on your feet. because we’ve seen you, backlit by the night sky, in your hour of near-despair, and we’ve felt our own lungs swell, at the depth of your courage: you took to the woods, little one, and you found your way home, shaken but not cracked.

tell me your tales of profiles in courage you’ve witnessed up close and personal. humpty dumpty powder not needed.

hero of the woods

in perhaps the bravest move of his nine short years, my little one took to the woods this week. for three days and two nights.

which, to him, felt like forever. or at least that’s how it felt going in, how it’s felt for the last three years. ever since he first heard whisper of this fourth-grade ritual, called outdoor ed.

now, the little one that we love around here, he’s not such an adventurous boy. he prefers his own bed to any bed in all the land. likes to be surrounded, at least upon nightfall and wake-up time, with those he knows and loves.

he has stumbled through a trio of sleepovers in recent months, all in training for the big adventure in the woods.

at long last, december 1 arrived. as dawn peeked through the windows, as the sky shed its indigo nightclothes, pulled on rosy-fingered trousers, from the ankles up to the knees up to the hips, the boy awoke. eyes fluttered. tummy did too.

he showered, dressed in layers, sat down to oatmeal. he was spooning quietly when i looked up and saw his big hazel-brown eyes begin to moisten. then the cheeks wobbled. and, well, the bowl of porridge was soon saltier and wetter than when i’d plopped it from the pot.

kisses from all sides–from mama, papa, and big tall brother–got him o’er the hump. then, bravely, he slung on his duffle bag, zippered up his coat, and stepped out into the frigid morning air.

soon as he and i and the old wagon pulled up to the schoolhouse, we saw the caravan of buses. big buses. open-mouthed buses. buses idling at the curb.

he walked tall, that little one. slid his bag into the bus’s mouth. accepted one swift kiss, and was off.

just like that, i was alone.

motored home, stepped inside an eery quiet empty house.

it’s been that way all week: eery. quiet. empty.

will this be what it feels like next year when the tall boy is off at college? will i live to know how quiet it will be when even the little one is gone?

quiet is among the tonics in my medicine chest. it does me good. soothes me. settles me. brings me back to whole, instead of frazzled, torn, ragged at the edges.

quiet is the door through which i slip into sacred places. it’s when i hear the whisper of the Divine. it’s when my angels talk to me.

even now as i type i am surrounded by a chorus of quiet. so quiet i can hear the gurgling of the chili-sauce-brown-sugar-red-wine-cloves-and-bay-leaves bubbling away in the pan of brisket. so quiet i can count the ticking of the clock. can hear the muffled chirp of the sparrows out the window.

but this week, the lack of footsteps from the room above… the gloves that never moved from the basket by the door… the bed pillow that sat plumped all week…

it was a hollow sort of quiet.

it was a quiet that stirred me in a lonely way. a quiet that made me wonder how that little one was faring. was he feeling lumps and tumbles in his tummy as he lay down to sleep? was he looking up into the same starry canvas that i was, as i wandered home one night, late from work, late from the train, and wished upon a star that it would twinkle down on him? did he know that i was holding him in my heart at every turn all week?

did he remember that i’d whispered in his ear: “dig deep, sweetheart, you can do it. remember, you’re the egg that wouldn’t take no for an answer. you are the blessed child the doctors said we’d never have, but here you are, determined, triumphant.”

it’s friday now. he’s made it. two nights, three days. the call from the woods never came, the one that might have come had he crumbled.

(oh, by the way, after one sleepless night, night before last, the phone did ring, shook us from the bed, at 5:50 a.m. i swore it was the school nurse, calling to say he’d gotten the flu that’s sweeping through this town, or the principal, saying ‘this boy has a bad case of the homesick blues.’ ’twas neither. it was WGN, the radio station in town, calling to see if the little one’s papa would talk on the radio at 6:15 A.M. ((note the not-oft-employed capital letters there, signaling my complete dismay that they would think to call before even the sun was up for work)). oy.)

it’s friday now, and the brisket’s in the oven, as promised to the little one. streamers are strung, a spider’s web of triumph, this way and that up-and-down-and-sideways through the front hall. posters, welcome-home signs, you-made-it signs, line the walls and doorways.

he’s my hero of the woods, and it’s a hero’s welcome.

when, for three years, you’ve been worried sick, but still you fling the bag over your shoulder, feed it to the bus, and march into school, wobbly but undaunted, you deserve a marching band. and latkes. and a mama’s arms who won’t want to let you go, once they’re wrapped again around the little boy with all the courage. who, sure as sure can be, grew up mightily this week.

dear God of the bliss-filled quiet, thank you thank you for watching over that tender heart. and bringing him through the woods.

have you had adventures that scared the behoozies out of you before you left? but then, somehow, you mustered up the courage to make it through the woods?

chair unplugged

brave new world here. scary world. trembly-fingered world.

so, the old computer goes kerpluey, all but sends up sparks, sends me scrambling for the nearest 9-1-1. only, i find out, the firetrucks don’t come when it’s megabytes that smolder.

you are left to fend for your sorry self. you pack up what’s left of the old white box. you haul it off to the resuscitation station– a.k.a., the mall.

once there, you are convinced, by general consensus and the nice man at the apple store, that it’s time to drop the leash, venture forth.

or, in my particular case, time to leave behind the little room and the old pine desk where i’ve typed long as there’s been a chair. and long before, truth be told.

why, there were cobwebs tied up with all the cords that tangled at my feet.

pull the plug, the un-plugged pleaded.

be bold and seize the world, as defined by the flat rectangle that is the laptop. the digital universe no bigger than a magazine, and not a page-y one, either.

now, mind you, i’m not big on shaking up my world. i picture a giant 20-liter bottle, shaken, top unscrewed, and fizzies fizz all over creation. splatter the walls, splot the ceiling. you’re left to spend the day mopping up sugar-fizzing beads.

just now, egad, i discovered that the comments from last week are gone, ka-poof! how dare they. and all the little boxes of the entire history of the chair have turned, like litmus paper, or home pregnancy tests, from blue to red. does that mean that i am just about to erase the entire record of the chair? will this be but memory, and fuzzy one at that?

of course i’ve no technical support team here at chair headquarters. that particular committee up and grew. has left me to fend, again, for myself. he’s off rowing down a river, and here i am, on the banks, waving white flag, red flag, any old hankie i can find bunched up in the backpack that is always dangling from my back.

ah well, back to business: if all goes up in smoke, we’ll bow our heads and whisper words for the departed dream.

i get to be existential about the cybersphere. does it exist, at all, if it can be wiped out with the wrong stroke of a key? does it matter? and if it goes, it was all just words, right? and much much heart.

gulp.

so much for the wobbly part of this equation. the not-so-wobbly part is that here i sit, at the kitchen table in the kitchen i so love. the heartbeat of my make-believe farmhouse. i look out and see the birds–only thing is, today it’s squawky starlings who’ve moved in, taken over the limbs of every bush and tree in sight. i’m thinking alfred hitchcock might be out there somewhere, panning with his lens, remaking his scary horror flick, “the birds.”

for years now, writer friends and not-so-writerly friends have expressed pure shock that i, a would-be writer, was tethered to a plug-in writing pad. you don’t have a laptop, they’d practically gasp.

well, no, i didn’t. not till now.

i have long longed to feel the eastern sunlight streaming in, to be closer to the tick and tock of the old clocks that syncopate this room, to keep watch of the flutterings of the birds as i think and type.

question is, is this the start of a bigger unplugging in my life, as i look at paths ahead, decide which one i might take. i know the spot in the woods i want to get to. but getting there is not without bumps, not without wobbly steps.

maybe this is but the first, maybe it’s practice, dress rehearsal for the play called life.

surely, the day-to-day is smoother when we don’t shake things up. but is it better? is it wise to keep the course as is, when all around we sense it might be time to stir things up, to take the one big giant step? to hold our breath and leap?

as i ponder that, i might just take a deep breath in, push the publish button and see what happens. we’ll all know soon enough. if you see this, the great leap worked. if not…..

time to get out the pen and paper and start all over once again.

what big bold scary steps have you taken lately? and fear not, i will get that comment string back on last week’s meander…….oh dear. wish us luck….