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Category: family

the sharp edge of vulnerability: a hard look at love

OR waiting room

once those double doors swing open, and the last thing you see is the back of the head of the someone you love, flat on a surgical cart, a bag of clear fluids flowing into a tube into a vein in the arm you’ve held a thousand thousand times, it’s impossible not to feel your knees go a little bit weak. as if the wind has just been whooshed out of them.

so it happened this week. when someone i love, someone i will always love and have loved for more than half of my life, was wheeled off to a surgery that would take less than an hour — though time barely enters the equation when love and goodbye and surgical blades are stirred in the mix.

you surrender. submit to the forces of medicine. pray the surgeon had a good night’s sleep, and a sturdy bowl of oatmeal besides. but mostly, i was washed over in a sense of how precious is every last filament and fiber that is the substance of that someone whose voice, whose story, whose dreams and heartaches i know by heart. i was washed over in knowing i would stand in the way of anything — any thing — that stood to hurt that sweet blessed soul. i found myself picturing him as a young child, how tenderly i would have cared for him, long before knowing he’d become the man to whom i’d wed my life. i leapt forward through time, pictured the thousand frames of moments as he and i have carved this long path that is ours now. pictured the hard choices we’ve made. the moments we’ve wept in pure joy. the hours when silence marked the hard negotiation of the heart and the soul, when humility and a willingness to soften might have been the only thing that saved us, allowed us to move forward again, the pas de deux of a promise made, and promise kept, over and over.

surgery does that. the sharp edge of the scalpel soon to be put to this person you love. waiting rooms too. you sit, fueled on old coffee and cable TV, absorbing snippets of anguish and blessed relief all around you. “fatty growth, totally benign,” you hear from two seats away. the surgeon pulling off his blue paper surgical cap, the son — or the husband, or merely a very close friend; biographies are absent here and don’t much matter, not really — collapsing into the not-so-plush back of his chair. “we’re worried,” someone else whispers, loudly enough that you all but nod in unison, a whole chorus of we’re-worried communion. and when at last you get your own good news, the news that it’s over and all is well, a woman with a wrinkled face and tight-curled hair, hollers across the room, “hallelujah!” she beams, rejoicing right with you. then, as you stand up to unlock your knees, grab your coat and your cold coffee, she closes the moment with this benediction, “have a blessed rest of your day.” and so you stop to kneel down beside her. to echo her prayer in your very own whisper.

love is the thing that saturates every cell of who you are, especially when long cold corridors and locked double doors stand between you and the someone you love. you think hard about the fragile hold you have on this thing called your life. you begin to scan the hours, consider how deeply you take it for granted that morning will come, sheets will be thrown back and the rhythms of day after day will begin all over again.

the sharp edge of love is worth pausing to consider. just yesterday, as i was turning pages in a book, i came across this one declarative sentence: “what she did best was love people.” it prompted me to ask, without pause, in our one simple life is it enough to love and love well?

candlelight dinneri thought of that question the whole rest of the day — as i put drops in the eye of the someone i love. as we turned out the lights, and kindled the wicks when dinnertime came, because lights were too bright, lights made it hurt. i thought of that question as i tucked him under the covers, slow-cooked a fine dinner, and snipped and gathered red-berried stems into the old cracked pitcher on the kitchen table. because yesterday i was reminded sharply and in no uncertain terms what a treasure it is to love someone your whole life long, and to love that someone as well as you possibly can.

what does it mean to you to love well? and how did you learn?

the sound that soothes

typewriter image

take a listen: typewriter keyboard. tap-tap-tap-ring!

it’s the closest i know to a lullaby. the tap-tap-tap of the typewriter keys, ending every time in a churn and a chime. it’s how i went to sleep nearly every night of my growing-up years. my papa, perched at the kitchen table, his index fingers flying across the keys, a flick of the return arm, the telltale ping, and he was off again, bolting across the very next line.

he wrote, late into the night. i barely ever heard him come up the stairs. my bedtime was infused with words being formed, one sentence strung upon another. whole constructions of idea, unfurled across the page. i heard the whole thing.

my bedroom, just above and tucked at the back of the house, absorbed it all. especially in summer, when the screen door was open, and my window, just above and a smidge to the north, made for acoustic shortcut. every last A-S-D-F-G-H, a melody in pre-tempered steel.

no wonder typewriters soothe me. no wonder the tappity-tap-tap is more than music to my ears; it’s balm to nooks and crannies deep inside.

my papa’s been gone now, 36 years, four months, and 20 days, but i can bring him back, at least in sound, by pounding across a keyboard. oh, to have an old underwood with churn and chime. i make do, i suppose, with apple’s iteration of that soothing sound, the tappity-tap as if in padded slippers, not nearly the decibel of yore, certainly not the grind of how my papa typed. my papa typed in high-grade staccato, in rat-a-tat-tat, with cymbal crash. the whole house shook, i think.

and so this week for me was pure soothe. i too was perched at my old pine table. the one where i too try to build my house of words. where i, like my papa, string letters into words, words into sentence, paragraph into prose, one key at a time.

i was bathed in the lullaby of the alphabet keys. nearest thing, perhaps, to amniotic heart song.

it’s been awhile since a week beckoned with a single assignment: write, and write some more.

i did as instructed. and right away i knew i’d slipped into my old familiar writing groove, the one that comforts me as an old sweater soothes the arms that know it best. the posture that seems to fit me most emphatically is the one when i’m coiled into the keyboard, playing across the keys as if a child’s playground, and i am putting bum to every slide and swing. feeling breeze blow soft against my face. delighting in the pure joy of making words spring to life. prying back the hatch on my heart, and letting all that’s there leap out, and romp.

after days and weeks and months of that other side of writing, the one that pulls you to podiums, or hauls you out in front of crowds, and begs you to put breath to words, to tell the stories behind the pages of a book, i came home this week to the old hard chair that holds me up every time i sit down to write. i came home to days filled with little but the sound of thinking and the tappity-tap of my fingers skipping across the keys.

and that’s when i heard the hum that rises up from deep inside my heart. i am, it seems, most content when wrapped in quiet, when deep in thought, when lollygagging across my laptop swingset.

a writer (or at least this one) is by nature — and job description — one who takes in the world in full alert, and preferably from a lookout station planted firmly at the sidelines, not at center stage. it’s from the margins, the quiet margins, where the art of exploration, of thinking deeply, of taking in the roar and the whisper of the crowd, might best be exercised.

and so i’m home again, here at the quiet keyboard, alone with whatever rises up and spills from that sacred nautilus deep inside.

and to that i whisper a hushed and certain, amen. and thank you.

what sounds soothe you? and where is your most sacred landscape, the one that puts the hum in your heart??

p.s. i got a tad distracted this morning when i tuned into mika and joe, to catch the morning update. i seem to have lost my rhythm, the one that hummed when i awoke. twas a tough choice: take in the news, or type the morning away. i thought i could straddle both. but the revelations from the squawking box, they shook me up a bit (the national enquirer allegedly harassing mika’s teenage daughters, the word that m&j were told by the white house that the impending enquirer story could be spiked if only joe would pick up the phone and apologize to the president).

fatherprayer

in which we turn our attention to mothering’s essential compatriot…

it’s become something of a ribbing in this old house. the one who sits across the table from me most nights at dinner, he delights in jiving that he too will pen a deeply intimate account of his side of the domestic story, and he will title it fatherprayer: (subtitle not yet revealed).

it’s a play, of course, on the title of the deeply intimate account of navigating the undulations of mothering that i wrote. the one called motherprayer: lessons in loving. for months now, especially when one lovely reviewer wrote that he barely hovered at the margins (because we have an unspoken pact that i won’t spill ink on his private realm), he’s been itching to tell his version of the tales, my architectural maven whose natural landscape — in the writerly realm — is to size up towers tall or squat, to write with unswerving authority about the public square, whereas my realm is the quieter, tucked-away terrain, the one that unfolds on bed pillows and beside the old cookstove.

while i will leave unpenned his rendition of the homefront (should he ever decide to traipse into the personal), i will encroach only far enough here this morning to offer my own version of a tribute to his indispensable fathering of our two beloved boys — and to consider the role of these men in the care and feeding of our children.

i’m blessed — beyond words — that the father of my children has stuck around all these years. i don’t take that for granted, not when i know and love women for whom that hasn’t happened, through no commission of their own. i watch friends i love shoulder every blessed dilemma and decision, from the kid at college with debilitating strep, to how to scrounge to pay the monthly rent.

the truth is, around here, we both came from houses where forever meant forever. so the occasional rough patch was met not with searching for nearest exit, but knowing we’d stay at it till we found our common ground. i’d be a fool — or big fat liar — if i pretended we’d not hit such skids along the way. it’s been nearly 26 years, after all, and we’re human, and somewhere along the way — in a world where work and home are tenuously balanced at best — there’s bound to be the chapter where one feels pushed aside, while the other shakes his head. or one parent’s idea about the wisest way to steer a kid is pretty much foreign to the other.

but this is not an ode to long-lived marriage (though that’s fertile ground that some day i could be convinced to take on…), so i’ll leave that there, and move on to fathering, and the miracles i’ve witnessed from front row.

the first clue i ever had that the man i married would be quite fine in the fathering department was, i suppose, when i met his own father — the dearest man, a gentle man, a man who could — and did — sit for hours at the Shabbat table (always positioned near the challah, or braided bread, which he’d tear off in little nibbles to punctuate his stories) telling tales, absorbing long answers to well-placed questions. he was a journalist, after all, an editor, and he was fluent in the art of asking and answering questions. the famous tale about my husband’s father is that in the raw first days after he sent his first-born and only son off to college, he was so distraught he whiled away the hours hosing out the garbage cans for days on end, in hopes of keeping his mind off how much he missed the kid. and he sat down and penned a letter — ink on paper — every single day, straight through to thanksgiving of his son’s freshman year, when the kid pulled his father aside, and whispered that maybe he could stop now, the kids in the dorm had caught on to the daily paternal letter-writing. and it was getting a little, um, embarrassing.

the second clue came not too many weeks before our firstborn was born, when, one night before sleep, the father of said child said, out of nowhere, “you’re not gonna recognize me; i’m going to turn to mush.”

and so he did. he cradled that baby as if the whole of the universe rested in his arms, as if one wrong move might crack off a limb or send the little bundle spilling to the floor. every night, when we’d stroll to the el station to greet him after the long day he’d been away, you’d have thought he was welcoming the president of france (or frank lloyd wright, more fittingly) to his company. the poor kid would be smothered in kisses, and questions — even at two-months-old.

if you asked our boys to tick off the top three words that come to mind, they might reel off these: cautious. devoted. old-fashioned in the dearest way.

i might say the same — after all, we’ve all been keeping watch on the very same subject, all three of us from particular vantage points.

i know there are papas aplenty devoted to their children, but in this house, before my very eyes, i’ve watched that word take on layers and layers of truth the likes of which i’d never before witnessed. yes, he’s unswerving when it comes to a few fine truths — no driving on the highway till you’ve proven mastery of side streets and stop signs; no taking cabs home from the airport (at any hour of the day or night) when your papa can just as certainly be waiting for you at the baggage claim — but the core of all of that is how deeply seriously he takes his job as being No. 1 protector of his boys, and all of those he loves.

if my boys have a moral core — oh, they do! — it comes in large measure from their papa, who lives by a code indelibly inscribed, one weighed in the pages of ancient text, one from which there is no dilution. we’ve all witnessed him going to the mat for a principle he believes in (note: see trump v. kamin, a battle spelled out in too-tall, too-showy alphabet letters). but, here in the confines of home sweet home, i’ve watched him insist it’s no big deal to drive 15 hours to watch three minutes of a crew race because no kid should be without cheering squad, even in the B boat of a novice squad for a race they didn’t win. i’ve seen him take a train to a cab to a far-flung soccer field — in a snowstorm, mind you — abiding by the very same 90-percent-of-life-is-showing-up principle.

because he’s a fellow with a predilection for holey T-shirts and shorts a size too big, we rib him fairly endlessly (in part because we take seriously our job to keeper our prize-winner duly humble; but too because he is such a darn good sport, and the basso-profundo of his belly laugh could warm the coldest bone in this old house).

but here’s the undying truth: we know deeply and certainly that he’s a prize beyond all measure. and we’ve two boys who’ve grown up — and grow still — knowing their papa would be there for them upside, downside, no matter what life throws at them. he’s their first and last defense. and no one, nor anything, could get between those boys and the ever-faithful heart of the papa who loves them endlessly and without measure.

happy blessed father’s day, to all who’ve been so blessed.

xoxoxo

what lessons in loving did you learn from your papa? 

felled by fever

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the view from my pillow

dispatch from the land of aches and pains: it’s day five of fever here. the sort of fever that keeps your head splat atop the pillow, unable to lift it for more than a few minutes, and then only because you’ve run out of reasons to talk yourself out of moving. it’s a whopping case of strep + influenza (which is not to be confused with plain old flu) and it feels like someone poured bottles of toxins down my gullet. i don’t think i’ve ever spent so many hours sleeping in my life, and it’s all i can do to sip a cup of tea. but the fun part is that i’m not alone — my sweet mate is on it too. he started it, in fact. but his stopped at terrible cough and achy all over, and i apparently went for the premium plan, adding strep and full-throttle influenza to the mix. thus, we’ve had a fabulous week of empathy. i moan, and he concurs. i hack my lungs out, and he joins in too. he’s been the very best nurse that ever there was, and i must say there is something deeply blessed about being so so sick you can’t even pretend you’re anything but. all vulnerabilities are exposed. all frailties front and center. and you are so grateful for all kindness, from the way he peels you a clementine in the middle of the night, to the way he presses his back against yours to warm you when your teeth are chattering and you can’t shake the chills. when i think back to the fellow in the newsroom i had a crush on all those 29 years ago, i hadn’t a clue how magnificent he would be when i needed him most. he’s shown me, over and over, this week.

xoxox

sending love from the land of counterpane. and p.s., i got my flu shot, but apparently this year’s batch didn’t do the trick….

have you ever been bowled over by the pure loving compassion of someone whose carried you through some mighty dark hours? 

 

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

we remember them….

AZK

a beloved, bespectacled man died this week. my husband’s father. the original mensch. a man i most remember with his face crinkled by the folds of a smile that enveloped from chin to forehead, and, best of all, with a single tear trickling down his cheek from behind his tortoise-rimmed glasses. i see him at the dining room table, holding up a short glass of wine, as we sit down to bless shabbat — the sabbath — and i hear him reciting the Shehecheyanu, the jewish blessing for those rare anointed moments in time, when, as the prayer says, we thank God for enabling us to reach this sacred occasion.

my father-in-law — a man so tender to me you might never have guessed how hard it was for him, early on, that his only son was in love with and marrying a catholic, even an irish catholic — died on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, the day of atonement, of fasting, the day of judgement. a day when jews (and those who love jews) wrap themselves in their deepest prayers, and the prayers are laced with unflinching references to death, to dying, to lives well lived — or not. who shall live and who shall die? who shall perish by water and who by fire? who by sword and who by wild beast? on and on the prayer pulses through the litany of life’s endings, not a one of them softened for easier going down.

the prayers, some of them this year, made the raw ache of this brand-new death even harder. they stung, some of the words, so i squeezed my husband’s hand as tightly as i could, and i kept watch. i watched his face, in profile, through the hours of prayer; kept watch for tears in his eyes, for that faraway look, for the moments when he swallowed hard. i kept watch on the visage of grief, and imagined the landscape inside.

but there came a moment in the day of atonement prayers, toward the end of the day, when the sun was setting, and the shafts of light streamed in from the west, turning the sanctuary from blinding gold to rosy. it’s a part of the day of prayer called the memorial service, and tradition has it that children are kept outside — too sorrowful. the words and the prayers are tinged with mourning, with longing for lives lost. but amid the sadness, there is a prayer i have always loved, a prayer that wraps its words around me like the softest afghan, a prayer that makes me feel the brushstroke of God, quite honestly. it is pure embrace of a prayer. and it has never held me more tightly, nor more tenderly.

it doesn’t seem to have a name, but the refrain is “we remember them,” so you might call it the “remember-them prayer.”

what i love most is that, like so many jewish prayers, it pulses with a deep interiority. it rustles through the soul. it captures the quiet of the human heart. it breathes into the crevices of our consciousness. it understands perfectly how it is to be alone with your grief, with your longing, and to feel your heart swell and spill, as that rising up of love and loss, intermingled, so defines grief. and it grasps for breathtaking pauses in the beauty of the passing year, in the turning of the seasons, and it anoints those moments, those unfoldings, as vessels for remembering, for loving, for stepping bravely into a world without the ones who have defined us from the beginning of our time, or for as long as we have loved them.

i offer here, the “remember them” prayer:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

grandpa art with first two of five grandsons

the truth of today is that i am holding tight to prayer for one other someone i love tenderly and dearly. someone with whom i have shared deeply sacred moments, and hours of animated conversation over the decades. hours curled up on a couch, afghan covering our feet. hours in the kitchen. hours at the dinner table. hours walking in the woods. hours cradling our newborns. hours adoring our growing and nearly-grown children. hours marveling at her energy, her spark, her heart that knows no bounds. she is still here, but already i am remembering. and loving till the end of time. 

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce

and this just in, my beloved father-in-law, the son of an immigrant baker who rose to become editor and president of a new jersey newspaper, the one that covered the news of the jersey shore, read the forward, the legendary jewish newspaper every day for years and years (it was originally written in yiddish). so my husband, who wrote a beautiful obituary for his father, rewrote one with a yiddish twist for the forward. and it runs there, as of minutes ago. the headline: Arthur Z. Kamin, Trailblazing New Jersey Journalist, Dies at 84. for my tenderhearted newsman of a father-in-law, this is the much deserved trumpet blast at the close of his most beautiful life.

this day, i send deepest love first to my beautiful beautiful mother in law, and to my blessed sister in law who i will soon be with. their loss is vast and without borders. hold them, and my sweet blair, and will, and especially little teddy whose tears will not be stanched, in your whispered prayerful hearts. 

and here’s the question of the week: what words bring you comfort when you are aching in sorrow?

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

a bubbling up of gratitude

giving thanks 2013

any minute now, we’ll be lacing up our hiking boots. it’s take-to-the-woods day here at our house. no malls, no credit cards need apply. we’re decidedly not interested in all things consumer-esque. the only things we care to breathe in today are cold air, wide-open sky, and the sound of our boots crunching dry prairie grasses.

but before we zip the triple-thick parkas and slide into the fattest mittens money can’t buy, it’s the hour of bowing our heads and unfurling gratitude.

i begin this year, and this particular season of life, with deepest thanks for all that’s conspired to take it up a notch. and the notch that matters most around here is the devotion to paying attention. paying supreme attention. in so many ways i’ve taught myself to live in a way that holds most frames of life up to the light. i’ve gotten quite skilled at stopping time, hitting the pause, relishing the breadth and depth: the way the light scatters across my wide-planked kitchen floor, beholding the scarlet flash as papa cardinal settles into the branches just beyond my kitchen door, absorbing the metronome of the schoolhouse clock’s tick and tock, the soft tickle of my little one’s curls against my cheek when he climbs in bed — still — for one last cuddle before i drift into slumber.

but in the past week, as my mama and i have stepped into this new corridor of time and holiness, i’ve noticed something new: it’s as if veils have been lifted, and conversation is purer than it’s often been. stories are unspooling abundantly. there’s a gentleness. forgiveness. it’s as if our hearts have melted toward a common purpose: we are forging into the unknown. we don’t know what’s around the bend. but what’s now is a newborn chance to relish. relish time. relish each other’s gentle company. relish the gift of an afternoon spent rolling out my mama’s mama’s butter-cookie dough, pressing the tin gobbler just so, dotting tail feathers with raisins, and through my mama’s keen invention of spatula and speed, airlifting from cutting board to baking sheet before the doughy gobbler loses half his heft.

it is the velvet underside of uncertainty, of doctor’s diagnoses stirring you from sleep, of waking up with a wobble in your belly, because you don’t know these woods. don’t know quite where the brambles are.

it’s the gift of reawakening. realizing all over again that every blessed hour is a miracle. and that you can choose just how to live it: rush it, or relish every drop.

thank you, Maker of All Holiness, for the noodge to relish.

thank you, too, for the gift of being home. for being back in this anointed old house that seems to know me from the inside out, to soothe me, and some days keep me from toppling. thank you for the red-checked chair with ample arms that invite me in, for the straight-backed sturdiness, across from where the logs crackle and the flames leap high and mesmerizingly.

thank you for the windows. for the flutterings and flashes just beyond the glass, as the clouds of gentle creatures take off and land, from sky to limb and back again — each time, lifting just a little bit of my heart.

thank you for telephones, for the rare sound of a voice that nestles soft against my heart. that, within a syllable, brings joy, brings comfort, collapses miles and aloneness, amplifies the hours spent in coming to this holy bond of deepest knowing.

thank you for the bits of news — of whatever ilk, good or bad or nasty — that percolate the hours of each day, make one slice of time so vastly different from the next, stitch drama to the script of life, offer us the chance to absorb each and every frame from an angle never known before.

thank you for wisdom, the sort that comes in unexpected flashes, when you only know you’ve found it as you feel your heart go thump, and you sit bolt upright, or feel the goosebumps sprout. might come reading along the pages of the news, or in a poem slipped under your transom, or from a stranger passing by. might come in the holy gospel of the wonder child, as you catch one last phrase tossed over a shoulder from the exiting seventh-grader at the schoolhouse door.

thank you for the dawn, that sacred cloak of in-between, when crescent moon dangles just above, but night gives way to morning’s light, and heaven’s dome, at the seam of earth and sky, soaks up scant threads of all-absorbent pink. thank you for the stillest hour when all that moves is barest breeze that rustles leaves, and far off, the stirrings of the lake that never cease.

thank you, most of all, for the deep down knowing that you, Holy Depth and Gentleness, never leave me adrift. never let my quakings take me down. ever bring me light, and tender touches. ever hold me up, against the chilling winds. and bring me to communion with all that’s glorious and bountiful in this rugged, rugged landscape.

so that’s the starter list, the scattershot splats of gratitude. here and there, hither and yon, as my heart and head skip here and there. as always, take up the gift of unfurling whatever makes you deeply grateful….

stack o turkeys

the power of five

power of five. four at zoo

this is us.

power of five. five.

this is the rest of us.

there are five of us. four boys + me. i’m number 2, and these days, the only one living near our center of gravity, our mama.

my mama ran into a little bump a week or so ago. and ever since, the five of us have been circling her like electrons to the proton that started it all. which, scientifically, she more or less is.

my mama, you know, if you’ve been pulling up a chair for a while, is one deep-of-the-earth mama. she’s often reminded me of those heavy-bottomed tipsy toys that never fall over, no matter how hard you push. (and before you go imagining my mama with a big heavy bottom, STOP!, she has nothing of the sort. she always prided herself on how she had to eat a whole pan of fudge to keep some weight on her skinny bones. what i mean is she’s taken more than her share of hits over the years, and she never ever wobbles. it’s rather uncanny.)

i’ll never forget one scene with my mama: it was at the kitchen door of the house where we did most of our growing up. the long black funeral car, the one that would carry us off — the five of us plus our mama — to the funeral home where we’d say one last rosary over my papa, before he was carried off — in a hearse — to the church and then to the cemetery, that funereal car had just pulled into our circle drive. you could hear its somber idling, telling us it was time, time for what we so deeply dreaded. but before she put her hand to the knob, my mama gathered us in a tight little circle. i was sniffling back sobs, and i know i wasn’t the only wet-eyed one in the bunch. but not my mama. she looked us solid in the eyes — mothers of five have a way of looking straight into five pairs of eyes all at once — and she said four words that i’ll never forget: “do your father proud.”

there’s another scene that i can’t help recalling: it was shortly after i’d miscarried my sweet baby girl, and the doctor kindly let me keep her beautiful little self. so i’d tucked her into the most beautiful wood box i could find, and with all the ceremony of yet another funeral, we drove — my husband, my firstborn, and me, clutching the box — into the cemetery, and up to the spot where, in the rain, we spotted my mama, with her foot to the blade of a shovel, standing atop my papa’s grave. she was digging a spot for her unborn granddaughter, right on the chest of my papa. “she’ll always be safe,” my mama whispered. and before we left, she handed me the sack of flower bulbs she’d brought along, thinking we might want to tuck in more beauty, along with our sweet little girl.

those are only two scenes. but they’re pretty much all you need to know about my mama to understand why the five of us — scattered just about as widely as you can be in this country and still be in the same country; from maine on the northeast, to long beach in southern california, from the mountains of northern arizona to the plains of toledo, ohio — tightened our orbit around her, soon as word went out that, in her words, she’d “flunked her physical,” on the eve of her 83d birthday.

somewhere deep inside, without anyone ever saying it, we all know that we are her lifeline (as she has ever been ours), and, marvelously, we all have a job. i’m the nurse, so it’s a good thing i’m closest in miles. i’m in charge of reading all the medical gobbledygook and driving to far-flung diagnostic outposts. brother number 2 is the one who will always always make her laugh, laugh so hard you just might wet your pants, but we won’t talk about that. another brother, the caboose at number 4, is the one we call the encyclopedia. he looks everything up, and knows the answer before the question is asked. and there’s the artist, brother 3, whose depth is immeasurable, and who always has had a connection with our mama that makes me think that in a past life they were strolling the side streets of paris together, ducking into ateliers of painters and thinkers, both of them in their french berets, their gauloises cigarettes dangling from chic cigarette holders. and then there’s the oldest, the one who takes his birth order to heart, and tries mightily to keep us in line. he’s the one who remembers every birthday, and slips in a $20 bill for each of his nephews, harkening a brand of uncle that is increasingly rare — and delectably sweet.

we’re it, the whole of the life squad. and, deep down, we know it. and, despite the miles and difference in time zones, and thanks to the miracles of texting and email, and the occasional phone call, we’ve all felt the centrifugal tug that’s pulled us tightly together. so tightly that before the doctor had even come into the wee little examining room yesterday, brother 4 had looked up and sent a link explaining the funny word i’d spotted on the medical report. by the time the doctor strolled in, i’d swallowed whole the national institutes of health take on this matter.

but the best part flowed in the hours after that appointment, after my mama and i walked out with sheafs of paper, and a date on the calendar. i’d be lying if i didn’t say our hearts felt a few pounds heavier in our chests. i’d be lying if i didn’t say i felt rather alone and a little bit wobbly (i’m still a student in my mama’s wobble-free school), and suddenly december was looking as gray as the snow clouds building in the late november sky.

but then, without asking, brother 4, the one with whom i’ve always shared far more than just that explosive BAM monogram, he announced he’d be here, right at our side. and not too many hours later, brother 3 said he too was mulling flight options.

and suddenly all my aloneness was wiped away, in that miracle that comes when you’re one of a gaggle. when your mama once looked you all in the eye, and admonished: do your father proud.

we will do our papa proud. we will be right there with our mama, as he so tenderly would have been. we will kiss her on the forehead as they roll her through the double doors, and we will try to keep the comedian from making her laugh so hard she tugs at her stitches. we are fully equipped, the five of us, to hold each other up, and most of all, to hold up our rock-solid sweet blessed mama, the one who’s always always there to rush to our rescue.

it’s what life brings when lived to the power of five.

so that’s the news of the week, here at the old maple table. pray for our mama, who will recover and be strong as an ox, as ever. undaunted by the week’s news, she’s joining me tonight in the kitchen of the homeless shelter where we’ll cook for folks whose lives are far more of a struggle than we’ll ever know. that’s how my mama keeps teaching lessons. she’s the tipsy toy that won’t topple, and she’s taught us all to try to live that very way.

when you travel through life’s tight spots, who clenches your hand and carries you forward? do you have brothers and sisters who lighten the load?

what matters most

what matters most

dispatch from 02139 (in which the script turns from sorrow to triumph, and from across the western hills, the cavalry gallops in, just in the nick of time…)

ever since we got the word way last spring that we were headed to veritas U. for this year of living sumptuously, the bespectacled fellow with whom we live, the one now known as “the professor,” had but one shining dream:

that, on the evening when he was called upon to stand before the crowd and unspool the whole of his lifework, a moment known in nieman vernacular as “the sounding,” his first newspaper hero — his papa, a longtime editor and lifelong newshound — would be in the room.

that his papa would be upfront and center glowing in that way he so often glows. that his deep soulful laugh would echo round the chamber. that the tears that stream so easily from his eyes would, indeed, be streaming. filled with knowing that in his grasp was a life of dreams come true.

it was not to be.

two weeks ago, an ambulance carried our beloved longtime newspaper editor to the hospital. he spent a few days in ICU, and now is growing sturdier. he’ll go home soon.

but not soon enough to take the trip from the jersey shore up to the city nestled along the charles river. not soon enough to be in the room last tuesday night, when “the professor” rose, clipped on the microphone and began to unspool the tale of why he does what he does. why his job as the architecture critic of the chicago tribune, in one of the world’s great architectural meccas, has for all these years held his imagination and his passions, why he lives the life of what he calls an “activist critic,” meaning he tries to avert disaster before it strikes its wrecking ball or sinks its pylons, or, conversely, why he uses his column inches to set an agenda of enlightened civic discourse when it comes to public space and edifice.

alas, there were heavy hearts here in the aerie. we all knew this moment swept by but once.

a videocamera filled in a piece of the gap. but the blank space in the equation could not, in fact, be filled. instead of treating the professor’s mama and papa to a couple nights at the inn on harvard square, instead of introducing them to the bevy of glorious fellows, we had to settle for follow-up phone calls to new jersey to recount the eve. we dispatched photos over the computer wires. and soon enough we will hand over a copy of “the sounding” as recorded on DVD.

but that is not the whole of the story.

other scripts were unspooling as that one stalled to its sorry close.

the professor’s firstborn, a college kid who seems to keep only scant attention on the doings back home,  seemed to divine the significance of the evening, and despite the fact that it was midterm week — and a tuesday night, no less — he and i set about scheming how to get his lanky self two hours east so he could amply fill one of the seats in the room.

while we set about searching bus and train departure and arrival times, the little one in this house set sail a scheme all his own.

he’d long thought it would be a hoot to introduce the chicago architecture critic with a resounding re-enactment of the chicago bulls pyrotechnic theme song, an anthem that shakes the rafters of the united center back in michael jordan’s home cathedral on the near west side of the windy city. what was particularly amusing about that scenario was how counter to the professor’s culture that might be. our beloved professor is not exactly the pyrotechnic type. rather, he might be more instantly equated with a gentle brahms suite, or a soundtrack in which the hushed turning of pages was considered plenty percussive.

as would be the case in any suspense tale worth telling, the college kid could not find bus nor train nor automobile that aligned with his midterm exams. he and i even got to wondering how much it would cost to hire a car. or, might there be a friend — heck, a stranger would suffice — willing to earn cold hard cash, say 100 easy bucks, to drive the kid in for the evening?

as of 10:30 the morning of the talk (aka “the sounding”), there was no such solution to be had. we’d reached the dead end of this scheme. and it was clearer than clear that there’d now be yet another empty seat in that seminar hall.

yet all the while, as the college kid scrounged for rides, the 11-year-old (the one who no longer can justifiably be called “the little one,” much as i’ve come to love that name) busied himself with his self-appointed role in this unfolding family drama.

never mind that just a few years ago no one would have imagined that kid with the gumption to get up in front of a crowd and read hand-crafted words (let alone craft the darn words). he had it in his head that he — and he alone — should be the one to unfurl the red carpet for his papa’s shining moment in the nieman sun.

he wasn’t daunted by size of crowd, nor reputation of those esteemed and mighty nieman fellows. nay, he kept his eyes trained on one and only one sure thing: he loved his papa, and he would usher his papa to the podium in fitting form.

so, wasting no time, he perched himself on his typing chair, and pounded out his script. (a script, i tell you, no  rambling mumbling from the hip.) he closed and locked his bedroom door, and practiced over and over, declaiming to his empty bunk bed. he gave it a run-through. he melted into smile. he liked it, his words of introduction.

but then, the afternoon of the big talk, he hurdled in from the school bus, popped a piece of chewing gum in his mouth (“i like to chew when i’m nervous,” he reported), then plopped back into typing chair, and revised his words. much better, he decided.

with no fanfare, he folded and tucked his script into the front pocket of his jeans. he slipped on his snow coat, and off we headed in the rain.

once inside the white clapboard nieman house, the beehive where all this speechifying was to unfold, we set about the business of transforming the joint into our favorite jewish deli on chicago’s near west side. while setting out the manny’s mustard and the “welcome to chicago. mayor rahm emanuel” signs, the professor’s cell phone jingled.

the next words i heard were these: “willie? where are you? you’re in harvard square?!?”

and so, the cavalry came through. the trumpet sounded from the crest of triumph hill.

at the very last minute, after white flags had been waved, the college kid’s roommate mentioned he was heading into cambridge for the eve, to take in a lecture and dinner just down the block from where all glory — and mounds of chicago brisket, and latkes, and half-sour pickles — would soon be dolloped.

the kid, resplendent in j. press fair isle sweater, barreled through the door and into the grand foyer. his mama let out a yelp that might echo in those halls for years to come. no sweeter sound than the sound of arms enfolding arms, the embrace that will not loosen.

not quite an hour later, the little one, in a magnificent demonstration of the heart that pounds beneath that skinny chest, rose to the microphone, and let loose his poetry of charm and pride and introduction.

said the little one:

“Hi. I’m Teddy.

My Dad is the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. He’s a good guy, and he’s pretty awesome.

But I have to be honest: I don’t always agree with his reviews.

Anyway, my dad and I have lots of fun together.

We play cards. I beat him.

We play basketball. I beat him.

And we always hang out together on weekends.

Okay, so maybe I have a little more fun – just because I beat him pretty much.

But if we had a game on who would have a better sounding, he would win.

I hope you enjoy his bodaciously awesome sounding.”

and with that, the architecture critic took it away.

but all i heard, most of the next two hours, was the sound of my heart thumping as i looked a few inches to my left and right, and saw both our boys circled tight, in hands-squeeze reach.

there are moments in our lives when all that matters, really, is that we breathe in and exhale the very same specks of air. that, in real time, we hear the same sounds at the same moment. that we catch the glimmers in each other’s eyes.

that we know, through and through, we’ve climbed mountains, forded streams, and dodged near bullets — just to be together.

because, as the professor always says, 98 percent of life is just showin’ up. especially when what you’re showing is the full power of your heart.

twas a night to remember, the night the boys came through for papa. and i was right there to be blessed by it all.

why i do what i do sounding

this one’s for the family journal. for my faraway beloved mama and papa-in-law. and for anyone teetering on the brink of should i jump through hoops just to be there….the answer: a resounding yes. 

do you have a tale to tell of a time someone you love made the impossible possible, and came across the horizon to the tune of triumphant trumpet call? or a time when you were the one who decided the impossible must be slayed, and you were going to make it, come heck or high water?