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Category: finding 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?

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

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 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.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

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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.)

hope patrol

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i’m just in from searching for hope. my boots are a bit muddy. my fingers are cold. and i’m not surprised to report there were no sightings of winter loosening its miserly grip.

sadly, in my corner of the world there is no snow. no drifts of white. no boughs laden with icy meringue. no fat flakes tumbling, tumbling from heaven to earth.

there is, more than anything, drab brown. not even rich brown. drab. drained-of-zing brown. which, perhaps, is apt description for my soul of late. which is why i was out searching.

thank heaven, the heavens responded last night: posted a nearly full moon, a fat moon, a bright moon, a moon that tonight will glow in all its glory. full snow moon. the moon that marks the arrival at sundown of a jewish holiday i’ve come to love. tu b’shevat it’s called, and it marks “the new year of the trees.” in israel, the holy land where all of these blessings begin, it’s the date on the calendar when vernal whisperings begin. when, if you pulled out your magnifying lens, and tiptoed close to the tips of the almond tree’s branches, you’d easily see the evidence: fat buds, fatter by the hour.

the trees are shaking off their slumber. the trees are stirring toward blossom, toward heavenly perfume, toward fruit. (the prescriptions for tu b’shevat i find wholly enchanting, a four-course feast of fruits and wine, so explained by the kabbalists, those deeply spiritual thinkers who believed that we elevate ourselves by the eating of certain fruits on tu b’shevat. if done with holy intention, they taught, sparks of light hidden in the fruit could be broken open from their shells, freed to float up to heaven, to the great divine, completing the circle of the renewal of life. oh my.)

it’s the eternal rhythm of earth and heavens. the inalterable equation of light from above, and richness from deep down inside the earth. it’s carried us forth, a pulsing pull, from the beginning of time. till now. and some winters — some winters inside our soul — we need surrender to the holy earth, to the rhythms that sustain us, move us forward even when we don’t believe we’ve the energy to lift a weary foot.

this winter would be one of those winters. all around the news is drab to worse. we’ve all been holed inside. and around here not even buffeted by snows, by the glory of an icy-painted window pane. we’re worn thin.

so mother earth comes to comfort us. she offers hope. even when we cannot see it.

back before the winter came, my last act of hope came the day i dropped to bent knee, thrust my shovel in the ground, and tucked in dozens and dozens of bulbs. i’d scanned the nursery shelves for blues and whites, the colors of delft, of old willow plates, the colors of sky and cloud. it’s a form of prayer, i’d insist, to tuck hope beneath the earth, to step away, and await the moment when the surge comes, when the tender determined shoot of newborn green comes poking through the earth. declares triumph. offers proof that hope pays off.

it’s too soon for that moment, as my morning’s patrol has made perfectly clear. but i find hope in other ways. i find hope seeping in through the cracks. do you?

i felt hope last night sitting in a circle of prayerful souls. i feel hope as i watch folks far braver and bolder than me pick up the reins and write the truth. i feel hope as all around i see the humblest among us stirred to action. i feel an awakening, even though it’s not yet the one from down beneath the crust of earth, where all the roots are emboldening, the roots we cannot see.

maybe it’s a blessing that we’re all paying attention, maybe it’s a very good thing that we’re being reminded that a democracy is a fragile thing, a living breathing entity that, like the rhythms of the earth and sky, must be carefully attended to. and we must all hold up our corner of its banner. we must all — by little and by little — find our courage, find our voice, think hard, think critically, employ deepest civility, listen with a gentle heart, and wield the purest acts of justice. and not let go — ever — of plain old kindness. the sort that seems to be rising up in some of the loveliest defiance i’ve ever seen.

come to think of it, that all sounds like hope to me. maybe, after all, it’s out there where the winds blow cold, blow certain. maybe my muddy boots led me to the very thing i’m hoping for.

are you sensing any signs of hope? any stories of pure kindness you’d care to share? the more we hear, the more emboldened we become, i do believe….

couple special intentions on this second friday in february. two dear friends of the chair suffered heart-shatterings this week: deepest prayers to pjt, who lost her dearest best friend far far too soon, and pjv, whose sister — last i heard — is on a ventilator and whose hold is fragile at this point. at my house, we are remembering my papa who died this day 36 years ago. i’ve heard from a few of my brothers this morning, who are all mourning his long absence from our every day. 

if you’re curious about tu b’shevat, i wrote about it here a few years back….

this is who we are

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truth is, more days than not i feel like i’m climbing a hill with boots filled with concrete. but then, every rare once in a while, a whiff of hope swizzles by. don’t know about you, but i’m reaching out and grabbing as if my life — all of our lives — depends on it.

last night a friend i love — a friend with a tender heart and fierce magnificent defiance — sent along a link to the sign up above, “hate has no home here.” i’m planting those words — in all those languages and alphabets — squarely in my front yard.

that short declarative sentence captures everything. it gets to the gist of the matter — for me, anyway. it’s the bullying, the hateful tone, and the words and the rulings that pit one against another. that’s what’s draining me, scaring me, making me think i might have a stroke.

“hate has no home here.” hate has no home in my heart.

and, day after day, that’s the epicenter of most of it. i don’t want to live in a country where everyone’s eyeing everyone — are you one of us? we wonder. stopped at a stop sign, tapping our toes in the checkout line. it permeates each and every hour of the day. it’s seeped into the interstitia of all of our minutes. it’s why i stay away from the public square of the new millennia: facebook. i don’t want to marinate my days in the vitriol — from either side of the equation — because harsh words — from any side — serve only to wedge, to divide, to move us farther and farther from the peaceable place where we climb on each other’s shoulders and reach for the heavens.

i was blindsided by the gloating that came along with the win. i hadn’t imagined. i admit that i hadn’t imagined the win in the first place, and shortly after discovered that, for too many, the win gave license to let rip with whatever had been bottled inside. it all came gushing out. and that’s why — months later — i’m still struggling to find my footing.

there’s a house not far from mine where life-size effigies of the former president and first lady were perched on a bench beside the president elect. the former president was dressed in a shiny orange pimp suit. the former first lady, dressed as a whore. it took weeks and weeks for parts of it to finally be taken down (for far too many sickening days, the tableau included a black-faced effigy tied with a noose, dangling from a tree. and ugly yard signs, too). the house is stately, sits on a hill, on a main street that slices this town. i’d have to drive out of my way to avoid it, so i did. i still do. because i couldn’t stand the sight of it. it made me sick every time. i understand that theirs is the right to say whatever they choose; but i wish with all my heart they didn’t find it amusing — maybe delightful — to mock with such vengeance, to jeer, to broadcast what feels to me like plain old hate.

jesus told us never to mock. “blessed are the meek,” is what i learned when i was little, and then learned over and over. “blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart.” that’s what i believed. still believe.

i’m raising my flag and fighting back in the only ways i know: quietly, without folderol and noise.

the other night, driving home through the dark, i was sitting in the back seat when i noticed a car stopped in what seemed like the heart of an intersection, about a block away. i saw the driver get out, and that’s when i noticed something lumpy and dark in front of the car, lying in the road. i didn’t wait for my brain to make sense; i opened the door and i ran. as i got there, i saw that the lump on the ground was a man, just starting to move. he was already bloodied, his face beginning to leak from his nose and his eyes and his forehead. as he strained to lift his head from the ground, the blood poured without pause. the man’s blood spattered me. i cradled him, tried to keep him still. i asked the man his name, praying he’d be able, and he told me. his name was howard. he lived nearby. he had no family, he said. he had no idea what had happened. and that’s when i looked up at the car stopped just inches away, the car whose windshield was shattered as if a boulder had fallen smack onto it.

with all my heart, i tried to keep howard conscious, to keep him from slipping into a place where we’d not get him back. by the time i was asking him to count backwards from 10, my firstborn had leapt too to his side. he helped hold howard still. we both prayed as fiercely as we’d ever prayed. it wasn’t long till a doctor, from out of the blue, ran over too. pulled out his phone, turned on the flashlight, and began to assess the crack that fissured howard’s head.

the one thing i knew most certainly as we all huddled there together, in the dark, in the cold, one man’s blood pouring and pouring: we were all there for each other. life and death is what lay before us, and we were all pulling for life. because we had to. because no matter what’s going on in the world around us, in the end, we are each other’s only hope. and the decency at the heart of every human still breathing is what we’re exercising here. i know that for those few extraordinarily long minutes, it felt to me like we were shouldering all the hope, all the goodness, this world has to muster. we were strangers suddenly entwined in saving one life. and we harbored him with prayer and with love. because isn’t that what all of us hope will be there for us — should there ever be a night that’s dark and cold, a night when our breath is labored, and we’re slipping away?

and in the end, that’s all i know. and it’s the one thing i will not surrender. i will muster every grain of defiance in my heart and my soul, and i will not let hate or hateful words win.

because who we are is all these tiny moments where love wins out, where we rise up out of our comfortable lives, take the reins of what feels right, and do what needs to be done: we march, we make phone calls, we live and breathe kindness as if it’s political protest. these times are begging us to be our best selves. and all around, i see people i love doing just that. they send me yard signs. they raise money for refugee families. they invite those families in for dinner. they listen to their stories. they find love, front and center. and that’s the way we win. that’s what God’s asking. i’m certain.

and i am listening like never before.

what are the moments of love that inspire and embolden you of late? 

as for my friend howard, he is out of ICU, and i hope and pray he’ll be heading home soon. i’ve been keeping watch all week. because howard will forever be in my heart and my prayers. 

as for the sign above, i’m having a few made today. here’s the link, if you too want to print out a poster, a yard sign, a button to pin to your coat (bless them, they’re free for downloading). the magnificent sign was designed right here in chicago by an artist named steven luce. i don’t know him, but i thank him with all of my heart. 

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for the children: an inaugural prayer and a promise

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my heart is heavy today, and when it’s at its most leaden i try mightily to lift it through prayer.

my prayer at the dawn of this day is for the children.

i think in particular of a deep-eyed girl of seven who lives in faraway maine, a little girl who holed herself in her chandelier-lit bedroom on monday, listening all day to the speeches of martin luther king, jr., a little girl who asks questions about how to use her voice — to speak out when she hears a girl teasing her friend on the playground, to speak up for what she believes, without fear that she’ll wind up unloved and pushed aside in the process.

she’s a little girl who is finding her way through the tangled landscape of fairness and justice, who is looking to the grownups around her to find the tools she’ll make her own, the tools that just might allow her to leave this world a little bit more whole — and more healed — than when she arrived.

“she’s struggling with this fear of not being loved if we use our voice and it’s not the same as everyone else’s, if all the voices don’t ring the same,” says her mama, a very wise soul with a very wise voice. “she understands that we can’t give someone else our voice, and we can’t borrow the voice of someone else. so, for her, martin luther king day was all about the power of using our voice for what we believe in, about the conflict of speaking up or keeping quiet even when you know something is wrong.”

my prayer is for that little girl. my prayer is for all the children, the ones waking up, perhaps, on a wobbly cot, under a thin blanket, squeezed tight against the mama who protects them from unthinkable things in the night. i am thinking, too, of the children who wake up not far from me, in bedrooms where walls are covered in papers and paints that cost more per square foot or per gallon than some of us could ever fathom.

i pray for them all.

because children don’t get a say in where they are born, and in whose arms they find themselves cradled. they don’t choose who soothes them; they ask only to be soothed, and fed, and kept warm and kept dry. they beg to be loved.

if they’re blessed, they’re anointed with all of those things. if there are eyes to gaze back at them, a voice to whisper — or sing — to them, if there are arms to scoop them up when they cry, well, then they’ve already won the baby lottery.

children are pure at birth, and not yet thick-skinned. they’re nearly translucent, in matters of heart and soul anyway. their job early on is to pay close attention, the attention of saints and prophets. they’re keeping watch in hopes of figuring out just who it is they want to be, and how they might best find their own circuitous way through the wilds.

i pray for them this newborn morning because i want theirs to be a world where goodness and kindness and gentleness seep in, seep to their core, bathe them through and through in truth and justice and love in purest tincture.

i want the grownups around them, and even the ones far away, to commit, day after day, to trying to show them these few fine things: tenderness, honesty, strength of courage, and moral resolve. i want them enveloped in the very strands at the core of every sacred text ever inscribed.

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Aylan Kurdi, 3, a Syrian refugee who drowned fleeing his war-torn homeland, and washed ashore in Turkey. Photo by Nilufer Demir

i want children to be able to tune into the world beyond their front door and not hear vitriol, not see ugliness. i want them to listen to sharp and curious minds engaged in debate and dialogue, free from jagged edge, free from acid-tinged tone. i pray to God they don’t some day aimlessly change the channel and stumble on images of war-pummeled children, images of children covered in dust and rubble and blood from their wounds; children dumped — or washed ashore — lifeless.

i want them to hear the booming voice of hope, of words that lift the human spirit and set it soaring. i want them to feel wrapped in a message that tingles their spine, because even a child — especially a child — knows beautiful when she or he hears it.

i want each child to know full well that he or she can dream wildly, can be the very someone they choose and work to be. i don’t want them to know the sound of a door slamming in their face, or the screech of a siren carrying them — or someone they dearly love — far, far away. i don’t want a single child to be scared to death, to be breathless with fear. i don’t want hands and arms ripped away from them. i don’t want a child left alone in a classroom or closet or train car, left cowering in a corner.

i want for these children the america that i believe in — one that looks much like the world as God first imagined it: skin in a thousand shades of brown and black and cream. i want a melting pot where everyone gets a fair and solid chance. i want books — gloriously written tomes — to be as close as the nearest library. i want teachers to fill classrooms where learning is rich and intellects are lit on fire. i want leaders with backbone, with the courage to stand up and say, “that’s not right, that’s a lie, that’s unfair, or unjust, or just plain hateful.”

i want a sky that’s uncluttered with smog and poisonous fumes. i want a child to be able to poke his or her head out the window at night and count the stars, connect the dots of heaven’s light, name the constellations. i want the rivers and streams to gurgle and babble and rush and roar. i want children to know the sound of a leaf crunching underfoot, or even a wee little creature scampering by — close enough, perhaps, to muster a fright, an innocent fright, the fright of the woods.

i want children to sit down to a table where there’s food from the earth, wholesome food, unsullied food. food to make the child whole, and strong, and able.

i want children to be strong of body and sinew and bone, yet i know that can’t always be. and for those who are not — not strong, and not able, for children who are sick, or born with terrible burdens, i want them to be able to find a doctor or nurse or healthcare worker who can get to the bottom of the mystery, the quandary, the illness, and work toward a cure. or at least erase the suffering, as much as is humanly possible. i’ll beg God to step in to take care of all the rest, and to ease the worries too — of mama and papa and child, and anyone else who lies awake fretting every dreaded what-if.

i want for all the world’s children all the very same things i want for my own: i want them to know deeply that they are loved. i want them to know there is a heart always willing to listen, to hear every last utterance of their worries or fears or confusions. i want them to know that all around there are great good souls who are gentle and kind and unceasingly fair, souls who do not reach for words as weapons of hurt, or of hate.

i want them to know: when i’ve run out of answers, when i cannot quell the trembles, or chase away the darkness, there is a God who’s always in reach.

i want their prayers to be answered, and mine to be heard.

and i promise, with all my heart on this day, to do all i can to make certain the world i imagine, the world that i want, is the one i work hard to come true. i’ll do my part. starting right now. as the sun rises, again.

what do you pray for the children? what do you pray on this day at the start of a chapter?

“be our best selves,” and other wisdoms gleaned

candle

in which we turn to the wisdom of others to find instruction for the way toward grace…

a precede before we begin: i was trained as a journalist to leave my politics off the table, to keep it out of my writing, and because i’ve worked for almost 10 years to make this a sacred place outside the cacophony of the cruel world that tries to knock us down, i want to put the politics aside here, and frame this as a conversation of all the things we believe in here at the table: looking across the abyss to find the glimmering shards of the divine, renouncing hate and hateful speech. finding courage even when we’re mired in doubt. 

***

when we sat down to dinner the other night, the night after we’d stayed up till the wee hours watching votes roll in, we clasped hands as we always do, maybe a little tighter that night than we sometimes do, and we nodded toward the gentle man at the far end of the table, the man whose moral ballast, whose capacities to anchor my fevered flights, weighed deeply into why i married him. it was his turn to say the prayer. he spoke simply, two sentences perhaps. and the one that’s stuck with me all week, the one i’ve all but sewn to my backbone, to put muscle to my wobbly self, is this: “dear God, let us be our best selves.”

it’s as wise an instruction as any i’ve stumbled upon this week.

what it means, i think, is to double-down on our inclinations to be living-breathing beacons of all that’s good. and by “good” we mean those actions inscribed in every ancient and timeless holy text: love as you would be loved. turn the other cheek. be your brother’s or your sister’s keeper. to name a few (please, name a few that guide you).

when the world around you feels as if the ground’s been shaken, when you’re scared by all the words (and acts) of hate that swirl around, is there any hope in muscling on more deeply attuned to your own code of gentle kindness, in reaching across the darkness in search of the glimmering shard of holiness we’re sure is somewhere out there?

is there any other choice?

we can’t submit to the lowest, harshest impulses wired into the whole of we are.

is it enough to conduct our daily lives in a cone of grace, a willingness to listen, to speak in soft and measured tones, to sometimes muster all the courage in the world to step in and say, i’m sorry, that’s wrong and i will not stand silent?

or might we need, more emphatically than ever, to step beyond our well-worn zones of comfort, carry our best selves into the more public sphere?

i’m rich in questions this morning, short on answers. i’m guided, as always, by my simple code: make each encounter peace-filled, at a minimum. take it up a notch and sow an extra dash of goodness, of compassion. look the stranger in the eye, allow your eyes to sparkle. speak a word of shared communion. make someone laugh. wreak random acts of plain old kindness. shake someone out of complacency by your radical gesture of human decency. put breath to the voice of truth, of healing, of all the wisdom you can muster. don’t be afraid.

i’ve been turning all week for instruction from the wise souls who surround me. my dear friend katelynn carver is a friend i made in a virginia woolf class at harvard divinity school. she’s in scotland now, at st. andrews, writing herself toward a phD in wisdom. she wrote this brilliant essay this week, titled “the opposite of indifference.”

in part, she wrote:

We’re forgetting the most important thing. Because we think we’ve lost love to hate, today. We think we’ve lost kindness to wrath, today. We think we’ve lost the good in what we stand for as a country to violence and hate-mongering and xenophobia and all of the horrible -isms that plague our society and divide us ever further where we need to unite. And I won’t kid you: all those things have been dealt a mighty blow—mightier than many of us have ever seen.

But we’re wrong that we, as a country, lost to hate, today.

she went on to write:

We need to look beyond the superficial, and take nothing for granted, and create dialogue where we’ve long found it easier to turn a deaf-ear. We need to dig in with both hands and do the hard work.

We need to protect each other. We need to recognize what this division has done to our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. We need to reach out and assist immediately with those who are grieving this morning, who are fearful, who are suffering or devoid of all hope, and remind them that they matter, and that there’s light left, and that we’re still here. We need to see the hate and the rage and the vitriol and sit with it a while, so that we can understand where it comes from, so as better to help heal where it stems from. We need to remember that at the end of the day we are all human—and if remembering that is a trial, or a seeming impossibility, we need to work harder. We need to work to figure out how to stop being being so scared that we’re defensive, that we’re ignorant, that we make enemies amongst ourselves and cut rifts that shake our cores. We need to figure out what went wrong that parts of our nation have ever felt that they need walls, physical and metaphorical.

But what we need most, is to remember. We are a nation of many nations. We are a people of many peoples. We are a generation being faced with a challenge, as every generation is, and we are being called to rise to it and shore this nation up at its fractures to be stronger, to be better. We are an experiment, and sometimes experiments don’t go the way we expect, but that’s what makes them groundbreaking—for better or worse.

Where this experiment leads is going to be in our hands, now. And if we remember only one thing as the first step, as the driving force, and the first niggling thought before we remember everything else ahead of us, expected of us, needed from us—we must remember this:

We are not indifferent.

And as long as that remains true, we have a path to forge onward.

no wonder i love katelynn. (please read her whole essay).

and on katelynn’s wisdom, i’ll sign off — with love, and faith that, together, we’ll find our way toward the shining light that cannot be extinguished.

david remnick, a voice i turn to in times of light or dark, wrote in the darkest hours of tuesday night, wednesday morning. he chose these words to end his essay: “…despair is no answer. to combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. that is all there is to do.”

and my burning question: what instruction guides you? where are you finding hope? how do you define, “be our best selves”?

suddenly, pins and needles

pins-and-needles

i got brave yesterday. very brave. and that’s not exactly my natural landscape. i tend to be one of those nesty girls, clinging to the familiar, the known rhythms of day after day. i find comfort there, where for adventure i go deeper and deeper. but not beyond my borders so much. not easily anyway. not without butterflies in my belly. and, suddenly, pins and needles all over.

i was minding my business, typing away. pinning one sentence to the next, feeling it all tumbling from a deep-down place. i was writing about boxing up my firstborn’s bookshelf, considering how deeply the books on his shelf took me back in time, made me remember. i was writing about how achingly hard it was to slide those well-worn pages, those pages rubbed raw, into the hollows of moving boxes, lined up like hungry soldiers awaiting chow.

and, then, i started to think that maybe — just maybe — i should do what writers do: send it off to a place i’ve long dreamed of finding my words. send it off to an Editor, The Editor. before i could convince myself otherwise, i made myself do it. i “thumb-slammed,” in the vernacular of a writer friend of mine who is all about being brave, about sending words to the desks of faraway editors, and doing it with gusto, with thumb slammed to the keyboard, as you hover your cursor over the “send”whutchamahoojie, and suddenly your words, they are soaring, and your courage is slithering out of the drawer, getting a sudden and unexpected workout. a bit of a jolt, certainly.

so, while i wait to hear what’s happening next (The Editor very kindly — and unexpectedly — wrote me back last night to say she was passing along my words to the someone who edits these things), i can’t pin my words up on the clothesline, can’t even leave a few wisps here at the table.

but i can — and i am — thinking about courage. about stepping outside what feels safe, about nudging our tired old selves into the unfamiliar, about stepping up to the plate, as long as we’re here on this planet, and testing our muscles, our dreams, and those rare few bits about us that won’t tiptoe into the universe, become a part of the mix, if we don’t get about the business of finding our courage and shoving them out there.

perhaps it’s all this reading i’ve been reading of late. words from my dear friend, now gone. as i read her passages of hopes and dreams, i’d be a fool for not figuring out that the sharpest edge of the writing — from the perspective of now, after her death — is that those dreams, those hopes, they’ve all evaporated, crumbled away. all the fears and sadness that held her back, it’s gone now. maybe that’s the reason she asked me to be the caretaker of her creativity. maybe she knew there were lessons there that i needed to learn. maybe she wanted me to finally slice and dice the fears, the doubts, that make me think i’m not enough. not good enough to be brave. to stand at the doorway of life, with my few offerings cupped in my hands, to even inquire: “would you like to see this? would you mind if i showed you a thought or two i’ve happened to pull from my soul?”

perhaps i hear the drumbeat of time. perhaps it’s sinking deeper and deeper into my soul: these are the days you’re alive, these are the hours when your hopes and dreams have breath. and the only thing holding you back is your fear. how hard will it be, really, to hear someone say, No? is that any harder than the echo chamber inside your own head, the one that over and over and over cuts you down to size, infinitesimal, insignificant size?

if you believe in the God of the Beautiful, if you believe that each and every one of us had the Beautiful breathed into us once upon our beginning, then it follows — there’s no room, really, for arguing otherwise — that the Beautiful is rumbling around deep inside, just looking for the nearest exit, so it can be birthed, so it can come tumbling wholly and wildly — or quietly and breathtakingly — to life.

all we need some days is a hot blast of courage. and the willingness to live with the pins and needles that are certain to follow.

what holds you back? how wild are your hopes and your dreams? where have you found courage?

p.s. i promise to let you know what happens in the take-a-chance department, and i promise to some day slide the “boxing-up-the-bookshelf” essay here. 

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and God weeps…

garden weeps

we weep, too.

even the garden this morning is wet with tears.

but the dawn came. and the wren still sings.

and, soon, once i brace myself, i will begin again to watch the news. all night, i worried. you can forget, in the crevices of night, how dark it is. but then, when dawn’s light begins to trickle in, when you begin to stir, and thoughts pick up at the end of the ellipses where you left them, you begin to shudder once again. you can’t quite catch your breath.

the world, you fear, is a whirling cauldron of hatred. you wanted to believe this globe has seen the worst. but you are wise enough to know that you’re a fool to hold such cockamamie notions.

we have jobs to do, each one of us. each one who holds a candle, holds a flame, we cannot let the light go out. can’t let love — and hope — and all those things we pray for, we cannot let them extinguish. we cannot be witness to the last burning ember.

late last night, just before we toddled off to sleep, we heard the latest horrors. snipers in dallas. policemen dead. a peaceful protest shattered. dealey plaza. parkland memorial hospital. the echoes of history swept across the screen. i remember being little, very little, watching scenes from dallas play across another screen. it scared me then. it scares me now. then, i had a papa whose big broad chest harbored me. back then, someone tucked me into bed. told me to say my prayers.

last night, after hours staring at the screen, when at last i drifted off to sleep, the man i love held my hand. the last words i heard before the silence drew me under were the ones he whispered in his prayer: “this world needs your light.”

i’d been soaked in sadness all day long, long before the horror from dallas poured across my screen. the news these days is non-stop reel of horrors. we are privy now to a broad swath of unspeakable sorrows. in one single frame of daylight, we watched men die — bleed to death and moan right before our eyes. and before that i’d been reading of rallies where hateful words are spewed. “hang the bitch.” “kill the bitch.” words so vile i can’t even bring myself to type them. such is the language that flows inside what’s framed as political rally. sounds like halls of hate to me. sounds like someone’s tapped into something redolent of sin, the last thread of civility has been snapped. and all hell is breaking loose. is oozing out, the great metastasis of evil.

and then, news of rooftop snipers. officers down. sirens wail. over and over, we hear the cacophony of rapid-fire weaponry. “something of a national emergency,” the tv anchor told us as the clock struck midnight. “civil war,” the headlines shout this morning (i just peeked).

so, we can follow our first instinct: run and hide, cower in the corner.

but then we might consider a second impulse: get up, and brace ourselves. imagine we’re the front line in a pacifist campaign to not let the evil win. because the truth is, we are the front line. each and every one of us. we’re the ones who hold the flame, who keep it burning. who decide in each and every interaction that we’re not giving in. we’re not spewing one syllable of hate. and — here’s a hard one — we’re not backing away when we’re witness to what’s ugly.

we arm ourselves with the same old equation of love that’s ever been. the one espoused by every holy pilgrim everywhere. flame by flame, we gather light. we counter the narrative of hate by stockpiling ones of love, of courage in the face of assault. we enlist a company of  kindred spirits. we embolden each other to not give up. do not surrender.

just this morning, i’m meeting a friend whose lifework is literally curing cancer. she spends her days bent over a laboratory station, keeping watch on chemical equations that fuel pharmaceutical weaponry that just might belittle cancer. there is reason for hope from her lab, she tells me, though it’s not yet clear whether it’s breast or ovarian cancer that will most certainly run into the wall they’re erecting. either one is fine by me.

that’s how i begin my emboldening, that’s how i don’t give up. i gather saints, one by one. i gather stories, deep breathe their notes of courage. i witness tenderness. i try mightily to embody any wisp of it. i pray. i watch. i weep. i dry my tears, dry the tears of those i love. and then i get to work.

the God i love is weeping. i woke up to a world drenched in all God’s tears.

how will you keep the flame burning, even in the darkness?

the wisdom of “it needn’t be correct”

interludes mindful

when you wander through life utterly certain that there are volumes you’ve yet to learn, a certain thing happens. a wonderful thing. you wake up every morning with your eyes, and your ears, and your heart at full alert. you are the ever-scanner, knowing that at any minute, from any crevice, the light might seep in. might flash in. the wisdom, gosh darn it, will come.

by day’s end, by the time you plop that cheek back onto the pillow, by the time you snuggle the sheets up by your chin, tucked back in for one more round of dreams, you’ll have — perhaps — learned a thing or two. gotten just a wee bit wiser. all because the teacher appeared, and you, the eternal student, were ready.

so it was the other afternoon as i was listening along in poetry class, when all of a sudden a fellow, a dancer with the new york city ballet, said something that shocked right through me, that slipped in through the crack, just off to the edge of the frame.

the subject, allegedly, was poetry. emily dickinson’s poetry, specifically. but in this wonderful class that i can’t stop inhaling, all sorts of wise souls wander onto the scene and peel back the layers of emily, of poetry, in ways i’ve not before known.

the discussion at hand was emily’s poem, “i cannot dance opon my toes,” the last poem of the four-week class taught by my beloved professor elisa new. she’d invited damian woetzel, a retired principal dancer with the new york city ballet, and now director of the aspen institute arts programs, to parse emily’s poem. as is professor new’s knack for unlikely pairings in the parsing of poetry, woetzel, a classically-trained ballet dancer, was joined in conversation by charles “l’il buck” riley, a practitioner of a street-dance form known as memphis jookin’ (think breakdance; it’s otherwise known as “gangsta walking”).

as street dance and ballet twirled in conversational tango, woetzel suddenly said this: “when i go to see people dance, it’s not to see them do it correctly. i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want — (his voice faded away). i want to find voice, essentially.”

now, this was nothing short of revolutionary to my little mind. i felt the shock of a chill run through me. (my brilliant friend amy, by the way, just yesterday afternoon defined “chill” to me in this way: “a chill is a current of truth that runs through your body,” when you see beauty, she said, or when you hear flat-out wisdom in a way you’ve never thought it before, i’d add.)

“i’m not that interested in correct.”

i felt the ties that bind snap loose. i felt myself freed from the tethers that, long as i can remember, have bound me. do it right, do it correctly, or don’t even try. that was pretty much the lesson i grew up believing. and while it didn’t stop me from trying, it set a nearly impossible bar. “get it right.” or else.

but here was a brilliant dancer, here was the director of aspen institute arts, for crying out loud, telling me it needn’t be correct. needn’t be perfect. stumbles are okay. bumps and bruises are beautiful.

your whole imperfect self is the most ravishingly beautiful self imaginable.

because it’s about something much deeper. it’s about opening up and saying, “this wobbly old soul, this soul that tries and tries, and sometimes makes it and more often stumbles, this is me.

“and you’re here for the likely chance that our two stumbling fumbling selves will find communion — not in our perfect pirouettes, but in the moments when i trip and you catch me. you brush me off and set me back upon the path, and you point the way forward. or better yet, you take me by the hand. you walk together with me. and you laugh, besides, at the way the two of us, we so often nearly fall off the stage.”

it’s a whole new paradigm: the paradigm of imperfection as aim. because what matters lies deep therein.

“i’m not that interested in correct. i want to be moved. i want to cry. i want to find voice, essentially.”

and voice we all have. and, yes, sometimes it warbles. and sometimes it cracks. but it’s a voice and it’s ours. and it’s how we put words to what rustles around deep inside. it’s where our breath resides. it’s the topography that puts height and depth and nooks and crannies — glorious texture — to all that air flowing in and out of our lungs, air keeping us alive.

all of this is all the more immediately essential because this sunday i am doing something i’ve never done before. something that might have scared me out of my behoozies. i am walking onto a stage, and i am sitting down beside a cellist and a pianist. it’s a spoken word concert, inspired by one that a beloved friend and editor of mine once saw in japan.

i am, for the first time ever, invited into conversations about lighting and stage set, and in the faintest of ways, costume. i’m immersed in the full dimensionality of theatre. and i am discovering what happens when words are lifted from the page. when words are set soaring by the power of cello strings and piano keys, and the alchemies of audible, ephemeral creation.

and, as is my natural inclination, i was scared silly. until two things happened: until damian woetzel taught me that it’s not about correct; correct holds little interest, little tension, scant transparency.

and the other thing that happened is i stepped into the music during rehearsals, and i felt the most astounding flight: cello and piano, cellist and pianist, dove into conversation with the words i was unfurling. and then this, which i’ll preface by saying that many a writer’s whispered prayer is that, in between and through the words, music might come for those reading or listening. and, suddenly, there in the light-filled rehearsal room, i heard it, i felt it. the music did come, did lift and vault and carry the words to places and heights they’d not otherwise have ascended. it comes, the music does, i discovered, when you step onto a stage, and sit down beside a cellist and a pianist who’ve spent their lives deepening their knowledge of the landscape that’s theirs. the power of music, i’ve realized, is the safety net to my trapeze. is what holds me aloft, shooshes away my perpetual fears, is a medium that suddenly felt like coming home, a place where i, at long last, belong. how utterly unlikely.

so sunday afternoon at 1, at the midwest buddhist temple in chicago’s old town, i will be walking out from behind a curtain, all in black with a wrap of fuchsia. i’ll be sitting down in a japanese armchair, a bowl of oranges beside me, a vase spilling with springtime white. the cellist will pick up her bow. the pianist will strike a key. and i will put breath, put voice, to my words.

and i will remember that the wise ones in the room aren’t there to hear “correct,” they’re there to be moved, to cry, to find a voice, essentially.

and that is a truth that sets me soaring.

do you, like me, spend far too many hours of life being worried you won’t get it right? and thus binding yourself in ways that demand houdini-like tricks to set you free? 

that said, here’s an invitation: if you’re near chicago sunday afternoon, find your way to the temple, and plop yourself in a chair. cellist sophie webber and pianist soo young lee, both of fused muse ensemble, will take you places that might take your breath away…..

a few things:

1.) emily’s poem

I cannot dance opon my Toes –
No Man instructed me –
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet Knowledge –
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe –
Or lay a Prima, mad,

And though I had no Gown of Gauze –
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped for Audiences – like Birds –
One Claw opon the air –

Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so –

Nor any know I know the Art
I mention – easy – Here –
Nor any Placard boast me –
It’s full as Opera –

2.) the program for sunday’s “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time”

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.14.22 AM

 

and a post-script:

it’s sunday night, the interludes have ended. it’s quiet now and i’m breathing again. a dear friend snapped this moment of the concert. and i’m enchanted by what appear to be fairy lights wafting across the stage. the cellist is sophie webber, the pianist is soo young lee, both have PhDs in music. both are beautiful. sophie founded fuse muse ensemble, a collective of musicians who dedicate themselves to social causes as well as beautiful music in all forms. i hope this is only a beginning for us….here’s a peek at the magic of “interludes on mindfulness: words and music for slowing time.” thank you, from the bottom of my heart….

SlowingTimeMusic