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Category: discernment

playing house

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as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.

decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.

then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.

and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.

keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.

i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.

this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.

i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.

there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.

with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?

i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.

and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).

the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.

only it’s not make-believe.

and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

it’s the question that stirs me night and day….

what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)

love story of unlikely plot line

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it all started when the dishwasher broke. well, not the whole story. but this latest installment in the look-back machine.

the little green light on the old reliable dishwasher, the one that’s scrubbed up after graduations (grade school, high school, college) and christmas and bar mitzvahs (twice), the one that’s worked monday through sunday for a good 13 years, it started to blink incessantly. i tried every trick in the book but could not get the blinking to cease. so i looked it up in that all-purpose answer box, the internet, and discovered the blink that won’t stop is short for “call the repairman.” so i did.

when he arrived in the depth of the latest cold snap, the kind man with the toolbox asked for the instruction manual (not so sure it’s a very good sign when the repairman wants to check the manual). that’s what led me to the cobwebby corner of the basement, where one creaky file drawer led to another and suddenly i was staring at a row of neatly filed manila envelopes, each one bearing my scribble. each one with a label of sorts: “bk beginning,” “+BDK msgs,” “memories — BAM/BK.”

this certainly wasn’t the clue to how to work the dishwasher, but i was decidedly sidetracked there in the dark in the basement. i reached for the stash titled “memories,” and out slid a slice of my long-ago past.

the very first thing i found, in a crisply typed envelope addressed to me at the chicago tribune, was a letter from one of the loveliest priests that ever there was. a long lean gray-bearded runner with the gentlest dark-blue eyes, an irishman who walked about the neighborhood in his irish cable-knit sweater, doffing his irish-wool cap and pausing to  listen to all sorts of sidewalk confessions. father fahey was his name, father john fahey, and the letter i held in my hands, the letter he’d typed in april of 1989, it literally, was a letter that would change my life.

not too many weeks before he’d written the letter, that gentle-souled priest had answered the door of the rectory, and ushered in me and the tall bespectacled fellow i’d fallen in love with. the one who was decidedly jewish, and not at all sure what to do with an irish catholic — this one, in particular. we’d knocked on the rectory door because we were looking for answers, looking for a way for a jew and a catholic to begin a journey we never wanted to end. we had an inkling that we’d found in each other something we might have always been looking for. except for the part where i was catholic and he was jewish. that twist in the narrative plot was making it tangled.

we knew father john to be wise, the sort of soft-spoken fellow to whom you could bring your worries and woes. so we climbed the grand winding staircase behind him, and sat ourselves down across from his armchair, up in his study at the top of the stairs. father john listened. and spoke only three words: “follow your bliss,” he told us, as if a buddhist koan we were to decipher. we’d climbed to the top of the priestly stairs to be handed a three-word instruction.

well, then.

we tucked those words snugly into our pockets and chit-chatted just a little bit longer. then we left and, some weeks later, the letter arrived. paper-clipped to the letter was the “business card” of another priest (do priests have business cards? well, in this case, in the case of a priest who always claims “i’m in the god business,” a business card it was).

gentle john the priest wrote that i should “take [my] love for Blair, and [my] search for God into [my] heart, and patiently, prayerfully wait for the answer to come.”

and then, in the very next paragraph, he typed: “God may be responding immediately.”

holy cow! that is some service!

father john then proceeded to tell me that he’d just bumped into a priest who happened to mention that he’d pulled together a group, “jews and catholics, who are living through the religious test which their love presents.”

“i think that some are married,” father john wrote, “some are thinking of marriage. i immediately thought of you, and so i asked for the priest’s card.” call him, he tells me.

and so i do, i do call the priest with the business card, and the tall bespectacled one and i knock on his rectory door. and he, too, ushers us in, and sits us down in chairs, and tells us words we’ll never forget: “i’m in the god business. god is love. you’re in love, so how can i help you?”

we explain; he responds: “there’s one God. you both pray to the same God, but you pray in two different languages.” he paused long enough to shoot us a look that meant he meant business. in short order, he shooshed out the door: “go with God and go in love.”

so we did. the priest with the business card has been there all along the way. and so was a rabbi, the one who two years later would marry us (along with another priest, an old friend of the family). they were both there in our tiny back garden, in the days just after 9-11 when the whole world shuddered, but we cradled a newborn baby, and it was the day for the baby’s blessing, which is like a baptism, but it comes in two religions. they were there at two first communions, and two bar mitzvahs. they’ve been there again and again.

and that was 30 years ago. and 31 years ago tonight, the tall bespectacled one walked into my apartment for the very first time. i can still see him rolling up the sleeves of his white brooks brothers button-down. can still see him taking a seat at my tiny circle of a kitchen table, can remember how while i pulled foil-wrapped salmon packets from out of the oven, he told me of a thai soup he’d eaten the night before and how it “was a symphony of flavors.” i remember my ears perked at the description. i remember how something else perked at the rolling up of the sleeves.

i can’t say i’d spent much time before then considering the notion of love at first sight, but i know i felt a thump in my chest that night, almost the minute he walked in the door. and sitting here now at this old, scratched maple table, listening to him pull the carton of milk from the fridge and the special K from the pantry, i can conjure that thump in a heartbeat.

and i gaze over at that letter, the one father john typed, sealed, and slipped into the mail chute all those years ago. and father john is gone now. (by the way, he too followed his bliss, left the priesthood, married a widow (his best friend’s widow), moved to northern california, and died a few years ago…) but his letter, unearthed just this week from the dark of a drawer in the basement, it’s a treasure.

no wonder i saved it.

it saved me.  and us.

happy 31 years to the bespectacled one, though this day does not mark the day that you fell for me. that would come later, months later. i’m the one who counts this day as the very beginning. i knew what i knew when i knew it. in time, you knew it too. 

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the old maple table dressed up for the day of hearts

will you tell a love story? 

bequest

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bequest n. a legacy bequeathed to someone. 

she bequeathed me a legacy so profound it leaves me breathless, makes my heart pound, and my knees go weak. i’ve yet to cradle it, and carry it home, but yesterday, in a hot apartment that was only sparsely appointed with the artifacts and books she’d spent a lifetime gathering, rooms that stand witness to the dismantling of a life cut short, too short, i sat down with her brother and began to discover a wisp of what awaits my careful curation, my distilling of her wisdom, what will be — i hope and pray — her triumphant valedictory in the form of the book she’d always hoped to write.

she left me, according to the language in her will, her “creative work,” and with it, the sobering responsibility, the hope, to “do her proud,” as my own mama would put it, as my mama did put it, the day my own father was buried and my mother whispered her instruction to their five children huddled at the door, about to step outside and into the long black limousine the funeral home had sent. “do him proud” were the instructions then, to the five children left fatherless and far too young to make much sense of the enormity of the loss. they’re words that have long instructed me, and they instruct me once again: “do her proud.”

we began, my friend’s brother and i, by clicking to her photo album, and there we found the very last photo she had taken, just before she surrendered to the hospital, and, after that, the few short days when she absorbed the unthinkable, that she was dying and would die within the week.

the very last picture, the last time she clicked her camera, was to take a picture of the words you see above, words that read:

“i’m beginning to realise that real happiness isn’t something large and looming on the horizon ahead but something small, numerous and already here. the smile of someone you love. a decent breakfast. the warm sunset. your little everyday joys all lined up in a row.” — beau taplin

i simply stared at first, the intimacy of the moment washing over me.

here i was peeking in on the solitude of her final hours at home, when she was pulled up to her desk, or propped against the pillows on her couch, poring over the internet for words that captured what she knew, what she’d learned and what she’d come to deeply believe. and here, on this one brick wall of wisdom, she’d stopped, pulled out her camera, and clicked. i can’t imagine she imagined it would be only months later when her final frame would be stumbled upon, its every word, one by one, discovered and absorbed. i can’t imagine she imagined that we’d inhale its every breath, its every syllable, as if words — instruction — from beyond.

but that’s what we did.

i read it once, then twice, then i quietly asked her brother if i could take a picture of my friend’s last picture. “of course,” he said.

it will be like this, for weeks and months. maybe even years. i will soon have banker’s boxes filled with her journals, her notes and scribblings. i will have every essay she ever typed and saved. i will retrace the topography of her mind, and travel deeply into her soul. or at least i will find some refracted angle of that soul.

i will extract that which matters most. i will be informed all along the way by an uncanny, unspoken instruction. i will follow as closely as imaginable what i discern is the course she’s laid out for me, for all of us. i know that in her final years she was hellbent on discovering and dispensing the purest path to love, to joy. “a diviner of joy,” were the words that tumbled from my fingers to the screen — my description of her and her life’s work — in the obituary i wrote, at her request, just after she had died.

it would be weeks later till i found out that, in her last will and testament, she’d bequeathed to me that very task: to be the diviner of what she’d found to be the path to joy. to inherit her life’s written work, to pore through it, to extract the shimmering shards of truth and beauty, the ones that will not die. the ones that must be given sunlight and breeze, and lined up, page upon page, for all of us who wonder where to go to find the joy, the peace, the love that we — all of us — so deeply seek.

this morning, once again, the world is weeping. and my task with my dear friend’s truth is more urgent than ever. there is work to do. so much work. and, soon, mine will begin in the stacks and files and boxes and computer that must hold the truth buried deep inside.

bless you, mary ellen, for this gift. i promise here to do you proud, to unearth all that you so carefully laid out for us to find. bless your soul. and thank you.

what’s your path to joy?

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

oprah better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

we sat through the blah-blah-blahs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

she paused, the wise one did.

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

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

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

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

step three: figure out the next right move.

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

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

amen, and hallelujah.

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

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

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

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

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

i ask you too: what makes you come alive?

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

when grace comes tumbling down

there are chapters in a life where with all your might you want to pick up the phone, spout out the question, and have a voice on the other end of the line fill in the blank.

tell you what you need to know.

point the way down the long, dark hallway.

heck, shove open the very door you need to walk through.

trouble is, there is no such voice. no human one anyway.

my mama, always wise in such matters, even in her minimalist, straight-to-the-point ways, advised simply: “this is when you pray.”

yesterday morn, rumbling downtown to work on the rickety, rail-swinging el train, i felt myself reaching deep down to what felt like a bottomless pit, and coming up without a clue. so, i did as mama said, i figured, all right then, i’ll shut my mouth and pray.

right there, amid the iPads and the tangle of cords plugged into ears and the starbucks mugs threatening to slosh all over my puffy snowcoat, i clicked my inner-tuner over to the God channel. i coughed up my motherlode of questions. i clung to the cold metal pole that’s there for riders like me, ones holding on for dear life as the train sloshes and slurs along the tracks.

i never did hear a squeaky voice in my ear (besides, i was one of the rare ones, not plugged in to dangly wires). i didn’t even hear a deep low bass.

but i listened with my whole heart.

and by the time i got to the grand avenue station i found myself climbing up the stairs with some measure of conviction. by jove, i began to think, i can do this. i can stare my fears, my trepidations, my full-throttle self doubts right in the eyeballs, and i can say, “move back, busters, i’m comin’ through.”

sometimes, prayer is like that.

sometimes the answer lies deep in the quiet of our oft-shoved-aside soul.

we are deep in big decisions over here at our house, and it’s enough to wear me out.

but — how curious life is — at every turn there seems to be a hand extended, a gentle word, a kleenex when needed. we find there in the dark woods other travelers, asking the same questions, trying to find their way too.
i am so deeply grateful for the grace that’s all around. for the wisdom that seeps in through the cracks beneath the door. for the light that shines from down the block in the deep darkness of the night.

i don’t yet have my roadmap. don’t know which path i’ll claim.

but i do know that i’m not alone. and one way or another, i’ll come through these dark and piney woods.

forgive my veiled words. specifics aren’t the point here. everyone’s life is a puzzle, some passages more than others. the point is that we find our way through our own formula of grace and stumbling. and when we get confused, light comes. dawn after dawn, it’s the promise of the heavens.
how do you find your way when you are lost in the woods?