pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: friends

the call to come together

the invitation was simple: come for coffee. the invite list was the neighbors who surround me, a few of whom have moved in within the year or last couple years, and who i barely or didn’t even know.

all i did was brew a vat or two of coffee. pull out favorite plates. tuck flowers in vases. vacuum cobwebs out of corners. dump clementines and figs into bowls — bowls given to me over the years by some of those very same neighbors. the things we stack in cupboards — many of them, anyway — tell stories all their own. nearly every single thing in my house tells a story. i collect stories, not things.

it all started because the air turned crisp, and light turned amber — or at least that’s the way it always looks to me. there is a light in september that sometimes feels to me as if the heavens open just a crack, and someone tosses down a holy shaft. a shaft that’s almost a stairway back to whence it came.

the date i picked on the calendar was the date that holds a quiet sort of holiness for me: it’s the day my friend ceci died, three years ago, and the birthdate of my friend mary ellen, who died not long after….

it turned out to be the date dr. christine blasey ford took her terrors and her fears and stepped before the senate judiciary committee to tell her awful story, to peel back the layers of the wound she’d tried so very hard to escape.

for a while there, i thought my timing couldn’t have been worse. i’ve long been something of a news junkie and i didn’t want to miss hearing her words, the tremor in her voice, in real time. it felt like we all, as a nation, needed to encircle her, stand behind her, to say emphatically, “we hear you, and we believe you.” and we are here, as literally as possible, reaching through the screen, with our palms pressed against your back, squeezing your hand, touching you softly on the arm, one last time before you take a breath and begin.

i’d decided that i’d leave the tv on — softly — over in the corner, where it’s tucked inside an old armoire. as it happened, one by one, a few of us circled close to listen. we ebbed and flowed from coffee to nibbles to capitol hill testimony. and then, christine blasey ford cleared her throat, pushed back that swatch of hair that insisted on covering her left eye, and a circle of us moved close. as if by instinct. we leaned in. we held our breath. i noticed that we all had wrapped our arms across our own chests, held ourselves tight. anchored ourselves. the looks on our collective faces was a portrait in pain and empathy i’ll not forget. i don’t know, because we didn’t talk about it, how many of us in that circle had our own version of a christine blasey ford story to tell. and that didn’t matter, because we were there — leaning in, listening — for her. to put the power of our hearts, our intellects, our faith, behind the courage it took for her to stand up to power and softly tell her truth.

if i’d been home alone, i would have been glued in front of that screen all day, all by myself. instead i found myself in the company of women, lovely women, women who’d shown up with scones they baked, and pumpkin dip they’d stirred and poured in antique bowls. we told our own stories — how we got here, who we were, what made our children stir. i watched as clusters leaned in and women whispered. or laughed aloud. i watched the company of women weave together those disparate threads that make a whole cloth out of mismatched parts.

instead of going through the day alone, instead of absorbing the nation’s pain all by ourselves, we gathered in a circle, stood — literally — shoulder to shoulder. as i studied the pain-wrought faces of the women watching, absorbing every word of someone else’s nightmare, another woman’s indelible pain and trauma, i saw — without words — how deeply tied we humans are. how much we suffer in the face of suffering.

in the company of strangers, we can find our deeper truer selves.

it made me wonder if we need to climb more often beyond the walls we build around ourselves and our stories. all it takes, sometimes, is vats of coffee. and the invitation: please come….i’ll not spend this day holed up inside my private woes and worries….

what parts of september 27, 2018, will you not forget? which words or images are etched now across your heart? do you find comfort in company? do you need to give yourself a little nudge to get out from behind the comforts of your solitude?

makes me think we might need the occasional occasion of pulling up chairs in real time, say at my house for those who live within chair-pulling distance?

opening doors…(life on the lookout for light)

always open door

any hour now, the house next door, a house where an old man of 92 has lived alone for a few years, a house the old man has been trying to sell for months and months (with not a single offer), a house where just a few weeks ago the old man told me he feels as if he’s gone before a judge and been sentenced to life in jail only the jail is his home, that house will have some bustle today.

two women will be pulling cans and boxes and thingamajigs from shelves in the cupboards. not because the old man is moving out finally. but because an old friend is moving in. an old friend of mine. a friend i knew to be needing a place to live. a rich and wonderful friend who for a host of reasons is in between houses. and desperately needing a place to call home, a place where she can breathe, and look out the windows at sunlight. or snowflakes. or dawn.

after a week or two of nearly comical round-about “talks,” the two of them have reached a deal that already hints of heart more than wallet. she will be renting what amounts to an upstairs suite, two roomy bedrooms, a bathroom, and closets. he will be gaining the comfort of footsteps up above, the rustling in the kitchen as she whips up one of her amazing effortless feasts.

and that’s not all: my friend drives a car, and the old man next door — his name is george, and i don’t think he’d mind my using it — he lost his old white oldsmobile last summer when it got crunched by another car. george escaped with bumps and bruises, but the lasting blow was the car got towed away, and taken away — for good. as part of “the deal,” my dear friend will be, among many things, george’s newfound wheels. she will drive to the market when he cobbles a list (long a fellow who marketed for himself on the fly, an ad-libber of marketing, he claims to be not so good at list-making and, at 92, is intent on teaching himself this new skill). she will drive him to the doctor. and, as seems to happen every once in a while, she’ll give him a lift to the emergency room.

but here’s the thing about that last point in particular: just a week or two ago, i was sitting with george on a day he’d woken up dizzy. i’d run over after he called, a scene that unfolds not infrequently, and was perched beside him in a hard metal folding chair (he’s cleared the house of nearly every piece of furniture, the saga of trying for months to sell a house that won’t budge), when he told me in something of a whisper that, really, he thought the chest pains and shortness of breath might just be from the stress of living alone, of not being able to sell this house that he loved, a house he built for his beloved late wife who for years and years struggled to breathe, a house he’d filled with countless “upgrades” to make her breathing easier, to make it easier for nurses to come and to go. a house he didn’t want to sell at a bargain-basement price. to george, that feels like an insult. an insult to himself, yes, but more so a slap at the memory of his most beloved wife (in the great room of his house, the only room still with furniture, there are exactly four items: a recliner chair, a metal tv tray table, a big screen tv, and a faded picture of his late wife hanging from the wall). it’s his unwillingness to settle for what he considers an unconscionable price that has shoved him into this jail-cell of a situation, and how he’s come to spend months and months alone in that house, and now months and months without a car, or a way to get around. and all the while the pains in his chest have gotten worse and worse. and the dizziness comes and goes.

and as i sat there listening, wishing like anything i could figure out how to lift his burden, it dawned on me that maybe there was an outside chance of a way.

my old friend had just moved out of her own longtime house into a rented room, a tight-squeezed room in a townhouse where a little dog (not hers) had free rein and hospital pads were scattered about the floors in case the wee dog hadn’t time to do his business outside. even though i knew she’d just unpacked boxes and boxes, even though i knew she’d just signed off on the first month’s rent, i could see the light in her eyes was dimming. i was haunted long after i drove away and left her to squeeze a few files onto her makeshift desk.

it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, my two old friends — one a friend by accident of geography, the other a friend who’s been something of an auntie to my boys, and a lifesaver to me — could make a quirky equation, could be each other’s short-term solution. so i spoke up. i mentioned first to my friend my quirky idea. she paused and considered. then i brought it up to george’s daughter, the one who’s been slumped under the weight of her papa’s affairs, and driving countless miles from her house to his many times a week, and often at the drop of a dime. she too saw the possibility. so i wandered over and asked george myself.

and by the middle of next week the upstairs room with the light that has barely shone in all these years, it will be glowing above the garage. it will be glowing down onto the picket fence that runs between my house and george’s — and, for now, hers, too. my old friend will have a whole upstairs all to herself. she’ll have shelves and shelves for her books. and sunlight or moonlight pouring through the tall, tall windows.

george will have the comfort and joy of being not alone. already, i’ve been told, he pokes his head round the corner when my friend is there (figuring out what will go where), asks if she’d like him to make her a cocoa. (see what i mean about this being more heart than wallet?)

it’s a happy ending in the making, i’m certain. i feel it in my bones. and not because i will now have a dear friend next door, one with whom i can share old new yorkers, and whatever i’ve whipped up for dinner. but because in this old cold world there still exists the possibility of kooky solutions, and hearts can be pulled together tighter than any wallet or real-estate guide might suggest. fact is, the two of ’em — george and my friend — both happen to be among the dearest souls on the planet, and right now both are in tight pinches that neither one deserves.

it all reminds me that we live, all of us do, on the thin membrane of possibility day after day after day. our charge, if we take it, is to live and breathe the belief that 1 + 1 just might = 3, to know that love and light is just beneath the surface, aching for a soft spot, a place to break through.

despite what the naysayers insist, we do not dwell in a zero-sum world. my gain is not your loss, nor vice versa. if we decide to live a life of looking for doors that might be opened, dots connected, threads interwoven, if we believe in looking up and looking out for the other guy’s sweet victory and triumph, well, then isn’t the world one stitched by generosity and not stinginess? isn’t that the way we all win? and doesn’t that tip the globe in the direction of light not shadow?

it’s always boggled me, and heavied my heart, to know that this is not the way of the world. but we can make it be. we can spend our days on the lookout. on the lookout for love, for light. for the arithmetic of unlikely sums.

welcome to the neighborhood, sweet friend. xoxox

do you have a tale of doors being opened, and love rushing through?

comings and goings

dining room window

any minute now, the big rumbling moving van will lurch to the curb out front. a flock of muscled men will emerge, the ramp will be erected at a certain angle, and all day long a flurry of boxes and arms and legs and the contents of a life long lived will parade from house to deep dark truck interior, and back again for more.

by day’s end the house will be boxed into cardboard containers, slapped with tape, labeled. it will be hollowed of all but the fading echo of years spent raising boys, three boys, each now a father living far away, soccer cleats and bicycles long emptied from the garage. the tinkling of forks and knives, from all those family dinners, all those dinner parties, silenced. the flickering of candles i watched as recently as last night, snuffed out.

the next door neighbors, after forty-some years, are moving. and in the flow of life, the rhythm of comings and goings, each exit leaves a dent. a carved-out hole. a dimming and a darkness.

while, for the past 14 years, we’ve mostly flowed side-by-side, not been the sort of neighbors where we dash and ring the bell, borrow a cup of sugar here, a splash of merlot there, love grows anyway. the sight of him, bent and shuffling slowly in the yard, puttering with his tomato plants, stooping down to haul away a branch after storms have tossed the trees. the sound of her, warbling in the early morning, when the screens were in the windows, and the windows open, as she warmed her cords, her lungs, her voice, for the church choir, or the swing concert, or just the show tune of the hour. it will all be gone now. moved three miles north, out of sight and out of ear shot. hardly out of heart.

their presence, one i always likened to knowing someone sturdy was pressed against my shoulder, was most days felt when darkness came, and the lights in their kitchen, or the glassed-in study just beyond the picket fence, or those flickering candles at the dining room table, glowed golden against the twilight, against the cloak of night.

there’s a broad-winged window in our dining room, one i see out of the corner of my eye when i’m at the cookstove. i am often at the cookstove toward the end of day, at dinner time, at put-away-the-day time. and that soft burning light through the window panes, through the bramble of bushes, it whispered from next door: we’re home. life is flowing inside our house, too.

i admit to a lifelong imagination animated by the doings inside houses all along the lane, any lane anywhere. i spend time considering the animation of each and every house, of the hours and the duties that bind us, make us more in common than apart. even looking down from clouds, when i fly from here to there, i spy the little towns, especially, and see the lights inside the itty-bitty boxes of the houses, and i wonder who’s inside, who’s stirring sauce at the stove, who’s just getting a phone call that will change everything, who’s all alone.

with the house next door, i didn’t have to imagine too, too much. i knew the players. had come to love the players. over time, you learn things, peel back the stories, allow the bond to build — the new year’s ladies lunch she always hosted; the time we went together to the tracks, put down dollar bills on the horse he assured would win; the day we moved here nearly 14 years ago when she came to the door with a tinfoil-domed platter of the best chocolate chip cookies anyone ate that day, and she looked me in the eye, said, “i think we’ve a lot in common,” and it would be awhile till i realized what she meant was that she, too, was irish catholic, married long ago to a brilliant jewish fellow; they’d trod this interfaith path long before i’d even met the man i would love and marry.

she told me, after years of back and forth at the invisible line that divides our yards out back, about the time her little brother ran in front of the car, and died. right before her eyes. she told me how she up and packed three boys, left behind the house she loved, and moved to england for a time, when her husband was a rising executive and the boss said, “move!”

over time, you learn the heart aches, divine the heroism, the everyday grit that muscles some of us forward, that some days topples others of us. over time, you come to count on the quiet rhythms from the house next door. you learn their ways. how, as soon as the air outside warms to, oh, 78, the air conditioners will begin to hum. and how, come sunday morning, the singer’s warmups will punctuate the chatter of the birds.

over time, their story seeps into yours. you’ve watched her boys come home on weekends to mow the lawn, you’ve watched them marry, and just last night you watched her youngest rock his newborn baby girl to sleep.

life passes while we’re watching. which is why it matters so very much to keep close watch. which is why the practice of paying attention brings riches — and countless wisdoms — to our soul. which is how and why we fall in love, day after day, with those who fill our hours with the hum of their every day.

when we’re watching closely, we get peeks at the human spirit exposed. even when it’s by simple accident of geography that we’re entwined through the light and shadow cast on all the passing hours. when what’s drawn us into each other’s close orbit is the single-digit difference in the address that we call home.

until the big van comes, and we’re left looking into darkness next door.

what are the quiet rhythms of your everyday that you’ve come to count on? who are the ones whose lives have slowly softly seeped into yours, by virtue of geography or habit, the ones whose lives you know through occasional encounters rather than uninterrupted unspoolings, whose presence over time adds up to someone you count on in your own quiet way? what peeks at heroism have you gleaned from those who pass you by on a regular basis? 

and mickey and alicia, we send you off with love. much love….

 

special edition: mary ellen sullivan & the soul of the hummingbird

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i don’t usually write on wednesday mornings, but this is no ordinary wednesday. my beloved friend, the one to whom i said goodbye on friday, the friend i’d not named here — out of respect, out of privacy — she died on sunday afternoon. her name is mary ellen sullivan, and before she died, she asked that i write her obituary. my knees nearly buckled when i opened the email friday night that held that blessed and soulful and wrenching request. mary ellen was a writer; we met 35 years ago, when i was a nurse learning how to be a journalist, and she was fresh out of boston college, ready to take on the world as a magazine writer and editor. we stayed friends for all the years and all the life that has tumbled by since the summer of 1981. i was in her wedding, she was in mine. i was there, too, when her marriage ended, and for the weeks and months that followed. she drove me to the hospital the bitter-cold night when my first pregnancy was suddenly slipping away. i drove her home from the airport the gray winter’s afternoon when she returned from her six-month trek around the globe all on her own; it was during that car ride that i told her i was again pregnant, this time with the baby who would become my firstborn. when mary ellen started a blog four years ago, i became a careful reader and devoted follower. i knew — because i’d been doing it for five years by then — just how exposed you can feel, just how much it matters that this curious form of writing be held to the very same standards we’d both learned at medill’s school of journalism (i loved it once, not so many months ago, when mary ellen caught a typo in one of my blog posts, and she called to make sure i correct it; i had mis-typed “their” when it should have been “there”). and we both knew that an even higher standard comes into play when you commit to what we do here: you write from the heart, you speak the deepest truth you know, and when you hit the “publish” button you unreel a prayer.

so in the hollow hours of saturday, wholly aware of the weight of the assignment — “write mary ellen’s obit” — i turned to mary ellen’s breathtaking blog, on the wings of the hummingbird. as i pored over her entries, i melted. and i started to smile a very deep smile. i realized that mary ellen had already written much of her obituary. her words were so poetic, so infused with the essence of who she was and ever will be, i simply began to snatch up whole passages, lining them up in what felt like the wisest order. i realized that mary ellen might have had a hunch that i’d figure out the way to write her obit: let her write her obit. and so i did. i stepped out of the way, made hers the voice of the obit.

it is serious business — in my book, perhaps, the most serious business — to write an obit, anyone’s obit. a whole life is distilled. the message of a lifetime is trumpeted, is illuminated. it is daunting to sit down and try to capture the whole, the beauty, the poetry. and so, every time, before i lift a finger, before i put a finger to keyboard, i close my eyes and i pray. 

the answer to my prayer on sunday afternoon, minutes after i learned that mary ellen had died and it was time for me to begin my assignment, is today in the chicago tribune; it’s what’s known as the “lead obit.” mary ellen would love that. and that makes me smile in a week when my heart is sodden with sorrow.

with love, here is a life story i want you to read. mary ellen’s wisdom, her poetry, her clarity — the whole of her — takes my breath away. from today’s chicago tribune:

Mary Ellen Sullivan, who wrote a blog on joy, dies at 56

Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

On the day she was wheeled into surgery for recently diagnosed ovarian cancer, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote words that would become her clarion call, words that ring with the insistent urgency of a prophet: “If you are sleepwalking through your life — wake up — before the universe does it for you.”

She posted the words on her blog, On the Wings of the Hummingbird, a compendium of wisdom and joy, under the title, “A rare piece of hummingbird advice.”

Sullivan, 56, who died of ovarian cancer Sunday at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, wasn’t in the business of giving advice.

She was a writer and traveler, a diviner of joy — joy unexpected, unlikely and against the odds. “In a time of chaos (now righted),” she wrote in March 2012, “on a day in which joy seemed eclipsed by uncertainty, I committed to writing about joy every day. I figured that if I can find joy when I’m in the mud, then maybe I have something to say about joy.”

Sullivan, a longtime Chicago resident, was born in Harlingen, Texas, and, from the beginning, crisscrossed the continent and the globe.

“I grew up a nomad,” she once wrote, “living in 10 different places by the time I was 19 because my father’s corporate job took our family across the country and around the world. Some of it was glamorous — San Francisco in 1969, Europe for my college years — but other parts were, as you might imagine, difficult.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 1981, majoring in English, with philosophy and art history minors. In 1982, she earned a master’s degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Upon graduation, she took a job as a magazine editor at General Learning Corp., a small educational publishing house in Highland Park, and five years later, she moved to Advocate Health Care, in Oak Brook, where she ran the publications department for another five years.

She was putting down roots, falling in love with Chicago, from the lakefront she biked by the mile to the backstreets and blues joints and countless holes in the wall. She explored the city with an adventurer’s eye and a journalist’s curiosity. After a decade, though, she was ready to travel the globe. All on her own.

“On the heels of a short marriage, a grueling divorce and some burning career questions, I took an extended leave of absence from my job to travel around the world by myself,” she once wrote. “I skied the mountains of New Zealand and biked through the Chinese countryside. I bargained for goods at the Bangkok night market, shopped the glittering stores of Hong Kong, touched the crumbling Berlin Wall, swam along the coast of Australia and holed up in Somerset Maugham’s former hotel room in Malaysia to write.

“Mine was nothing less than a spiritual journey in which I peeled off layers of cultural conditioning to get to the essence of my spirit,” she wrote.

Unwilling to return to the corporate world, Sullivan launched a freelance writing career that brought her bylines in the New York Times and various women’s magazines, as well as travel guides, a book about Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” public sculpture exhibit, and liner notes for a jazz record label.

She designed her life, she said, so that she could continue to travel, paradoxically deepening her roots the farther she roamed.

“I spent one winter in South America, another on Tahiti and Easter Island. Along the way I fell in love with Africa and returned to this land of my heart, time and time again. I began studying with the ancient medicine men and women around the world, and found a community here in Chicago of like-minded people who became my tribe.”

While in Chicago, Sullivan convened a writers’ group that influenced a memoir, a novel, a self-help volume and a historical text, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

She might have found her deepest calling, though, as a keeper and chronicler of joy. Her blog, which she started in March 2012, was a reflection of the way she lived her life.

She began by putting a journalist’s sharp eye to the world around her:

“I noticed how unconscious most people were, blind to the joy all around them. They walked with their heads down and their defenses up. They saw without seeing, heard without hearing, spoke without thinking, remembering nothing. It actually hurt my heart to watch. And then, as the economy got worse and the natural disasters quickened, I saw fear, anger and incivility. Drivers became ruder, sales clerks surlier, tempers shorter.”

And so, she set out to right that, recording joy day after day. She named her blog after the hummingbird: “My favorite description of hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’”

“Guilty as charged,” Sullivan added.

And she ended one blog entry with this insistent instruction: “And if you love the life you have, please, please, practice gratitude. Wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. Pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. You won’t regret it.”

Sullivan’s partner of 18 years, Michael Schmitt, died in 2014.

She is survived by her parents, Donal and Martha Sullivan; two brothers, Bill and John; and a sister, Sheila Zimmerman.

Memorial services are pending.

Barbara Mahany is a freelancer reporter.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

blessings, my beautiful friend. blessings upon blessings. and thank you. thank you with all my heart….

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this is the headline that wound up in the newspaper edition of the story. she would love this headline, as do i. oh to be known as a “chronicler of joy”….blessings, my hummingbird friend. i will be watching for you, waiting for the brush of your wings past my brow. and my heart…..

the saddest apology. though never too late….

teddy home umbrella

I still remember the phone call. I had a brand new baby, a baby whose birth had not been without one of those moments where the doctor calls you by first name, slaps you to attention, and with eyes darting between your unblinking gaze and the monitor measuring the baby’s dropping-down heart beat, she tells you this is what you’re going to do: You’re going to get that baby out in the very next push.

And you, knowing the vast canyon of cold chiseled truth nestled into that statement, knowing that she’s telling you you have a few breaths and one push to get this baby out whole and without harm, without your life’s dream whirling into the darkest abyss, you call on all the angels and saints and powers within and without, and you do just what she told you: You birth that baby in one triumphant, I’m-not-losing-him-now force beyond nature.

And then you wait. Wait through unbroken silence, seconds that feel like an hour, the quicksand of time. And then, from the shaft of light slicing through the darkness, his lungs fill with air and you hear him wheeze out a cry. A cry that deepens. A cry that says, without waver, “I am here.”

And from that blessed second on, you cradle that baby like nobody’s business. Not one ounce of his being here was ever expected, he is wholly a miracle.

But the voice on the phone that day, not long after you’d tumbled home from the hospital, she was shattered by your dream come true.

She, too, had wanted a baby. Wanted a baby more than anything. Had undergone more medical twists and turns than you ever thought a doctor would allow. She’d been poked and prodded and shot through with stimulators and repressors and countless variations thereof, all in the hopes of that one impossible moment where egg meets sperm and the dividing begins.

It hadn’t worked, not for her and not for her dream. Not in any of the last many, many, many rounds (I won’t say how many). She, like I, had one baby already. He was in second grade, as was my firstborn at the time and that’s how we met. It was the second baby she wanted. It was the second baby, with no medical wizardry, that I got. And not for one instant did that not feel anointed, feel blessed, feel beyond my grasp.

From the moment I realized there was a heartbeat pumping within, I was washed through with hushed holding my breath. The minute I called my doctor (at home on a Saturday afternoon) to tell her what the little pink stick from the home pregnancy test was telling me, she laid out the cold hard statistics for the “advanced maternal age” of 44 and counting: Odds of Down Syndrome, odds of miscarriage before the first trimester ended. Odds, odds, odds.

Not for a day, not for an hour, on the long road to delivery, did I forget those odds. Nor did I take one moment of any of it as a given.

But the voice on the other end of the phone could only see it through the pain of her bottomless wanting what I’d somehow gotten. And so, she told me, in bitterest words that she could never talk to me again. Never wanted to hear from me again.

I remember cradling the phone, feeling my knees about to give out. We’d not known each other for years and years, but she was big-hearted, huge-hearted, my friend. And we had found some solace in our shared hoping for one more round of mothering a baby. And, besides, she’d smothered my firstborn with her dollops and dollops of tender attentions — not to mention, killer matzah ball soup.

But the road forked — heartbreakingly so — when I found myself with child. I’d tried, oh I tried, to shield her from the pain that I knew would slice through her, in the quarter hour when I pulled her aside, held her hands tightly, and told her I could hardly believe it myself, didn’t know how long — or if — it would last, but my prayers seemed to have been answered.

In using those words, she would tell me in the bitterest phone call, I’d all but told her, she thought, that my prayers were heard, and hers were not, hers were not worthy, she construed it to mean.

From my end of the phone call, I said over and over how sorry I was. How I would give anything for her to have the baby she so deeply, desperately wanted. And I was so sorry the words I had carefully chosen had only made it more awful. She repeated, emphatically, that this would be our last conversation, that she never wanted to speak to me again.

Months earlier, when an adoption agency had called to ask for references, I told the questioner, with all my heart, that I knew my friend would be a magnificent mother, would wrap her very huge heart around anyone blessed to be slipped into her arms.

And once, years later, I wrote her a letter. Told her how many nights I lay there thinking of her, whispering prayers to stitch back together her shattered heart. Asked about her baby girl, the one who’d come — yes — from far, far away.

I never heard back. Never once heard her voice after the terrible, awful heartbreaking phone call.

A few months ago, as would occasionally happen, I started to think of her. Wondered how she was faring, she and her two boys (husband and son), and her beautiful girl, now 12 or 13.

I googled her. I found one of those pages for someone who’s sick, very sick, and is seeking donations. I gasped for breath and clicked “Donate.” Didn’t know if she’d return the donation. Didn’t know. Couldn’t believe.

She was too sick to write but her husband, the gentlest man, wrote a very sweet note. He said thank you.

I knew from one more blast email he’d sent that, by the end of June, she was back in the hospital, back in therapy to try to relieve the slicing-through pain that comes with late-stage cancer. They were hoping, he wrote, that once the pain subsided, once “the numbers” improved, she would begin a science-bending assault on the cancer.

And then I heard nothing. Not till yesterday afternoon, when I clicked on my email, and there was her name, first and last. I opened the email, and I started to read, the words tumbling one on top of the other, not making clear sense.

Here’s what I read:

“I know it has been a very long time and many years needlessly gone by.  I am reaching out to you…I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to contact you at this late date, but I have spent a good part of the last three months reaching out…Trying to mend fences where possible, with the hope of finding some type of closure for everyone involved.  I don’t have any answers as to what happened, nor any great insight. I do know that what transpired was wrong, you were wronged and that I was unable to effect the out come.”

I wrote back:

“i am breathless. i always loved [her]. she was so hurt by the way i told her i was pregnant with T. i only MEANT to shield her from the pain i feared the news would bring. and clearly i bungled it horribly…….and i have been so sorry for so many years. for years i would lay awake at night wondering if i could yet write to her…..”

And then I googled her once again. Up popped her name, first and last, with the final addendum: “obituary.” She had died, back in the summer. I don’t know the date, don’t know the details.

All I know is what came in the last email from her gentle-hearted husband:

“She passed away peacefully in my arms after staring down cancer for seven and a half years. She had been through a heavy ordeal, seven chemo therapies, three major surgeries and two clinical trials.…We were waiting to start [a newfangled] vaccine when she passed unexpectedly, we both thought she had another year or two. We were a couple at the end, I made sure she was not in any pain. She asked me before she passed, what happens now? what happens next? I told her, I don’t know baby, but what ever it is we are going to face it together and then she smiled and closed her eyes. She was not afraid at the end and neither was I as we were together. I have to stop writing now as i cant see through the tears.”

And I sat there, staring and shaking, shaking and staring. All I could think was that it was the saddest apology I’d ever read, the one that wasn’t too late, not at all. Not one minute too late.

I wrote back: “[she] was pure love. she died with me loving her. and i will pray that she knew that…..”

And I will pray. And I do believe that she knew that. And that she knew that I knew she was sorry. And I was, too. I was, I am, so sorry.

For those friendships that shatter. For words never spoken again. For years lived with distance, with silence. For sparks that don’t get to fly between eyes, between hearts.

For all of it, for my dear blessed friend who never met my miracle boy, nor I her miracle girl.

It is the sorriest saddest apology. And it might have come late, but I am so deeply grateful it came.

Rest gently, dear friend. All is at peace where our hearts beat as one.

because this one made me nervous, because i wasn’t quite sure how i could say it and protect my friend, i typed it first in draft form. thus, today’s rare capital letters throughout. it still scares me a bit to write this. but the point is it’s a meditation on forgiveness, on friendship, on heartbreak and stitching those hearts together again. it breaks my heart that as i type this my friend isn’t here to read it, to see it, to know that the love never died. it breaks my heart that all those years, i never heard her voice again. i think i called once and left a message, so she heard mine. the aching all those years. the bittersweet whole truth of life: in my arms, i cradled pure joy. yet it cost me a friend. that’s a steep price. an equation i’d not weigh in a balance. instead, i am offering up all my sadness, my heart, to the friend whom i pray has found, at long last, the peace she so deeply deserves. 

are there apologies in your life that you would wish would be spoken while there is time to stitch together the brokenness?

the blessings of geography

accident of geography

this is the world as i see it out my front door. across the way, perched on a mound of earth (what passes for a hill in these glacier-flattened middlelands), there’s a house of gray, and when the lights are on the whole face glows. sort of like the great good souls who live inside.

some say neighbors are an accident of geography. i say not so. i say they’re a blessing. i say especially now, when so much of how we spend our lives is tucked inside, nose pressed to screen, fingers on keyboards instead of reaching out and lifting a spoon from someone else’s hand, instead of seeing the tear in someone’s eye, instead of softly brushing it away. and, swiftly, pushing away the chair to reach into the pantry to get the box of endless kleenex that we might just use up, on any given morning.

sometimes whole spans of time go by, and you know nothing of your neighbors’ lives except the lights go on at 6 a.m. and flicker off at midnight. you’ve no clue, often, of the fine grain whorl of their lives, of their heartaches. you might not know that someone’s mama is suffering. that there’s a kid who lies awake, unable to forget, afraid to meet the dawn.

but sometimes, some rare and rarer times, by virtue of years lived across the way, and unexpected discoveries — that you bristle at the same world news, that you find depths to mine in the pages of the same poets and thinkers — sometimes, because you’ve learned that there’s one someone who will show up at the ICU when your kid is lying there, or because you’ve had to throw your little ones into that neighbor’s arms when you were speeding to the ER, or because that very someone is the one who showed up on the frigid winter’s night, with hot-from-the-oven chicken pot pie, as you were stumbling in the door from a long day beside your mama’s hospital bed and your kid was hungry and you were tired, sometimes you find yourself slipping inside the fine grain whorl of that someone’s life.

you know, because you spy her sitting on the bench beside her front walk, with her shiny-maned sheepherding pup cradled in her arms, listless, barely breathing, you know that all week long the ones who live in that house are suffering. they are watching their beloved four-legged heartmate die. the pup’s name is edison, “because she lights up the world,” is how they first and always put it.

and because this blessing of geography allows you, sometimes, to sync your day’s rhythms with the ones across the way, you’ve had a chance this week to sit beside your beloved friend, and beloved edison, in the patch of late-september sunshine that, for one glorious interlude, shone down, set the amber-and-snow-white fur of eddie (that’s what they call her) to glow. i might remember that moment as the one when i saw eddie’s halo. and my across-the-way friend’s too.

death claims its own diminuendo. does not abide by any clock that might shed mercy. it can feel cruel in its legato, its slow dripping dying. when all you want is for suffering to end, while at the same time you’re holding on, unwilling to surrender, to let go. to let the moment slip away.

it’s the tug of heart that i’ve been witness to this week. as my blessed beloved friend has shoved aside her crowded list of things she must get done, and devoted her days and nights, long nights, to the midwifery of dying.

it all makes me wonder, makes me think, how much of life do we miss, do we drive by, as we scurry here and there and attend to a zillion things that, in the end, don’t so much matter. will anyone really wobble if the milk goes missing from the fridge? will the kid get kicked off the soccer team if he’s not wearing the right jersey? if it’s streaked with grass stains?

and so, by blessing of geography, this week and all these years, the interstices of parallel lives — mine rooted on my side of the lane, hers across the way — have become not just cross points on the map, but doorways into sacred, blessed interiors, into the light and shadow that fall across the unspooling hours of a life, of any life.

and we’ve chosen to tiptoe in. not to fix or cure or raise the dying (oh, though, if only we could!). but simply to spend a fraction of an hour sitting side by side, stroking the flesh of one fine companion’s final hours. bolstering the weary on a dark cold winter’s night. showing up with steaming platter. offering a seat on the rumpled couch.

exulting in the light and dark that is the script of any life. and which we’re blessed to witness, to enter into, by sheer and infinite blessing of contingent points on the map of life.

who do you count among your blessings of geography? and how, over the years, have you entered into each other’s joys and sufferings? and do you too wonder sometimes how much of life unfolds beyond our reach, and how much we miss in our hurry-scurry to everywhere and nowhere?

please whisper a little prayer for my beloved across-the-ways. they could use a fat dollop of grace right in here….

make-believe b & b

company coffee

if you put your ear to the floorboards around this old house, you might pick up a hum. a particular hum. a hum that’s more like a purr. (it would be found amidst the gnarling and churning that comes with waiting for news, editor news.)

that hum, i’ve come to determine, is the purr of an innkeeper in the making. a girl who makes believe she’s running the best sort of b & b. not one for money, but one for pure love. in recent weeks, we’ve had a long and sumptuous string of company. company of the very best kind: overnight, nestling deep into the morning. sometimes, day upon day.

overnight company affords moments that in-and-out company does not. overnight company affords these things: curling under a blanket, on the couch, as the stars turn on, burn deep into the night; ferrying trays of coffee and cream and wee little vases of wee little blossoms up to the bedroom door; settling in for long conversation that courses through the homework hour, as you practice the fine art of juggling your math tutoring skills along with your conversational curiosities. overnight company makes a wednesday night prestidigitate into the feel of the night before christmas.

overnight company is being wrapped in angora threads, throwing the blanket of friendship across both of your backs — yours and that of your overnight friend — and each of you pulling tight on your end of the threads.

overnight company allows for slow unspooling inspection of every last inch of the heart and the soul. or at least a good hearty guffaw deep in the hours of darkness. and, sometimes, a revelation or three.

because home is the wellspring of my heart, welcoming people i love into these chambers is the highest art in the art known as hospitality, a word with 14th-century roots, one that wends its way through old french and on into latin, where it’s derived from hospes, “guest,” and has come to mean “friendliness to guests,” (or if you mis-read as i first did, friendliness to ghosts. egad).

it’s the french knots and tiny twists embroidered into the course of the stay — be it a mere 18 hours, or as long as five days or even (gasp) two weeks. it’s filling the fridge and the pantry with the very deliciousness a particular friend savors, a secret you know because you’ve spent the years of your friendship paying attention. it’s stacking fluffy towels on the broad-lapped armchair, and punctuating the stack with a dark-chocolate sweet, and a french herbal soap. it’s tucking a water bottle and a vase of bright blooms at the bedside, because you’re aiming for beauty and full-throttle comfort, and stumbling in the dark for a drink in the night is hard on the toes and no fun, besides. it’s planning a dinner that’s at once unassuming and deeply satisfying, one that’s best if slow-cooked and accomplice to the trick of filling the house with wafting clouds of garden-clipped herbs and spices and fruits of the season.

it’s waiting at the train station. or driving into the city to fetch your overnight visitor. it’s clearing the deck for as much or as little conversation as the friend has hours or inclination.

it’s the blessing of hearing the footsteps from overhead as you’re down in the pre-dawn kitchen, slicing pumpkin-y bread, and popping the garnet-jeweled seeds out of the pomegranate’s oozing belly. it’s knowing the next face you see coming round the bend is one you’ll never get enough of. and there, over early morning swirl of caffeine, you begin the day, emboldened by this rare gift of starting the hours together.

over the years i’ve learned that i’m far more inclined toward one-on-one conversation. will take a tete-a-tete over a horde any old day. give me deep. never mind a room that’s buzzing with noise.

i savor a conversation that doesn’t drown out the tick or the tock of a clock in the next room over, a conversation that allows the pauses to speak as robustly, as tellingly, as the pop and the sizzle of the words. i am drawn to burrowing, deep in the heart, as well as under the deep stack of afghans tucked by the fire. and i find it best done in ones and twos.

it’s all the romance — and, really, the architecture — of friendship. of considering each and every sensory vessel a channel into the heart, into the endosperm of why we’re here in the first place: to find our shared thoughts, to hold our visions up to the light, to march in each other’s company, to hear the sound of our footsteps in tandem. to discover we’re not all alone. not always, anyway.

much of it comes, i’m certain, from my years curled up with fairy tales and picture-book pages. i was a dreamer early on, and always will be. maybe it comes from wanting so deeply to be tucked under the covers at night. or maybe it’s simply because the sound of a china teacup tinkling against a saucer or spoon, is a song that sings to my delicate heart. maybe it comes from knowing how enchanted it felt to be ushered into a wise woman’s greenhouse, one tucked at the back of a great gothic castle long long ago, and the crisp-edged memory of being served from a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice and offered a plate of pepperidge farm buttery cookies, all dappled in afternoon sunlight. all whispering into my ear how very welcomed i was — how much i mattered — in that magical envelope of time and place.

or maybe it’s simply that i feel bound, sometimes, by the walls of my heart, and i turn to whole-body expression to tell the ones that i love just how deeply i love them: i cook for them, clean for them, tuck treats onto pillows or trays and carry it all to their door. i can’t always find all the words, so i wrap them in the swirl of all that i love.

it’s a bold hope that they won’t leave this old house without this knowing tucked in their heart: they are loved without bounds, forever and ever. amen.

how did you learn the art of hospitality? who were your shining lights and teachers? and what are the little remembrances — the french knots and tiniest stitches of hospitality — that melted your heart and made you know you were so very welcome in the life of someone you love? 

welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed…

welcome mat

dispatch from 02139 (in which dear old friend rolls beneath the transom, but before she does we whistle while we work, loving the art of red-carpeting for a friend…)

the coq au vin bubbled away. the flannel sheets, unfurled and tucked tightly onto bottom bunk (with nursing-school-acquired hospital corners as far as i could reach). even the bathroom mirror got spritzed with shiny polish.

i hummed the whole day long, from the moment i awoke (at 4 when the cat let out a yowl). till the last stalk of hyacinth was plucked into a vase, an olfactory and faux springtime attempt at masking the inconvenient truth that the kitty-litter bin has nowhere else to hide but alongside the claw-foot tub in the already itty-bitty bathroom, the one just inches away from the living-dining-conviving rooms.

a dear friend was flying into beantown, a friend from long ago and far away (we’ve been close as close since the day she wandered into the tribune newsroom back in 1985, and through the years we’ve weathered many of the bumps that life can bring).

all day long i savored the pure oxygen that is the art of putting out the welcome mat. even when it’s borrowed.

puttering for this particular friend is all the more delicious because a.) i ADORE her, but b.) she too loves the art of red-carpeting for a friend, or making like the keeper of a dreamy b & b, one who wholly grasps the concept that it’s the little details — a fresh pitcher of water by the bed, complete with lemony life rafts floating in the drink; a paperwhite bulb bundled in see-through wrap tied up with string and plunked atop a stack of fluffy towels, a token to take home; the red-wine clouds wafting from the oven — that whisper, “i love you, my friend, and i’ve taken every care to wrap you in the luxuries of deep, long friendship.”

if you’ve ever been taken care of in this particular way — and i hope and pray you have — you know the magic powers of this potion.

perhaps you too have been lulled into dreamy state as someone paved your way with the beautiful. as someone thought two steps ahead, and laid out a fluffy robe, filled a canister with bath salts and rubs. stocked the fridge with icy drinks, or left out a tub of cocoa, fat marshmallows and king leo peppermint sticks.

all in all, made you feel like the cherished guest they’d waited a lifetime to behold.

i’d long been an under-the-radar admirer of these domestic arts. didn’t want to let on (not too loudly, anyway) that i might secretly pine for martha stewart — her actual self, not merely her glossy pages — to be stationed at the back of my pantry. nor that i spent time dilly-dallying over fresh-picked bouquets or tucking lavender sachets between my linens.

but then, some years back, it was this particular friend — one of my most brilliant, certainly among the most widely and deeply read, harvard-educated and bayou-steeped, a newspaper scribe-turned-public radio news hound — who once confided that she was hankering to write a book on, not the influence of castro on miami’s cuban ex-pats and not the cajun roots of zydeco (which i might have guessed), but rather on hospitality, pure and, yes, holy.

it is, of the many nesty arts, one of the most exuberantly selfless.

it is about wrapping the ones you love in the comforts you might only dream about. maybe some of us tend to overthink it because we so deeply wish we were so wrapped. or, to be even more honest, because we wish we had the knack for being kinder and gentler to our very own selves. and so in doing for others we inhale, absorb, deep-breathe whatever afterglow seeps out.

i’ll not ever forget the long-ago weekend i spent tucked inside my radio friend’s coconut grove, florida, tile-roofed house. i can still hear the tumble of the tomato chunks as she poured that evening’s gazpacho from a chilled pitcher into wide-waisted goblets. can still feel the egyptian-thread pillowcases against my cheeks. still hear the jazzy soundtrack that played softly as we curled on the couch, catching up on whatever stories hadn’t fit in all the long-distance phone calls.

and so, two whole decades later, i still indulge in returning the indulgence whenever she comes to visit. and, even after all these years spent on far ends of the continent, she makes a point of doing so at least once every year, even re-routing her itinerary this week from LA (where she lives now) to DC’s inauguration with a stop in cambridge, so we could — together, on a chilly misty day — walk her old stomping ground.

and this time round, with my college-girl budget (meaning the few dollar bills that happened to be in my wallet), i got a bonus round of seeing what i could do without grabbing for the credit card. which somehow made it all the more delightful. the nice man at the flower stall in harvard square let me buy a single hyacinth stem, then threw in — for good measure — a clutch of laurel branches. i scrounged in the stairwell for the leftover bottle of bordeaux someone gave me for my birthday, and that — with a plop of chicken, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms — became my bubbling brew of coq au vin. clean sheets don’t cost a dime, nor do fluffy towels. nor bowls of oatmeal stirred and studded with cranberries and raisins. the fresh snow falling out the window came free too. and the long long hours of unbroken conversation. even the sumptuous global gala at the ambassador’s house, one filled with women peacebuilders from the world’s most war-torn countries (all in town for a one-week women’s peacekeeping colloquium, and with which a few scribes — including me — helped out), it all made for 36 hours of sacred time.

and 36 hours that will forever be tucked in our shared treasury of time magnificently spent.

although i’ll add to those heavenly hours the 12 that came in pre-amble, as i whistled while i worked. and, at every turn, thanked the angels for the gift of this most delicious company, a once-in-a-lifetime friend you forever love through and through and through….

what are some of the welcome tricks you tuck up your sleeve, for i happen to know there are a few masters at the art of hospitality who so benevolently pull up chairs? do tell. a girl can never ever have too many tricks in this divine department….

tumblings from a cambridge notebook…

dispatch from 02139… in which the chair explores the nooks and crannies of this wonderland where at every turn, it seems, there is something to capture the imagination and set it soaring… 

because i’ve somehow managed to decorate my days-long fever with wall-to-wall crimson spots (ever conscious of the college colors), i’ve decided that the wisest dispatch here this morning would be the one in which i merely shake out my reporter’s notebook from this enchanted week in cambridge, one in which we launched deep and wide into orientation at the white clapboard lippmann house where the cottage garden blooms and where already i’ve encountered a slew of amazing souls from all around the world.

it is pinch-me hard to believe, quite often, that i am in fact sitting in a chair in a sun-streamed assembly room, looking up at a wall, where there hangs a banner that reads: “nieman foundation for journalism at harvard.”

but there we sit, eight hours in a day, absorbing all they have to tell us about this year of, as the curator of us all so beautifully put it: “exposure to big and wonderful minds.” not a bad agenda for a year.

among us is a foreign correspondent (whose identity i must keep masked) who tells tales of interviewing terrorists and then being told that if the interviews don’t work out, maybe she could marry one of the ol’ bomb-lobbers. yet another is a woman who has dedicated her life and every waking second of the last two years to documenting every single homicide in washington, d.c.; she has been in court for every hearing and proceeding of every bloody death in the district, she hears from victim’s families and suspects and accusers, along with eyewitnesses, and a host of hangers-on, and she was in tears when she got up to introduce herself and explained that in order to come on the fellowship she had to close down her site, and for the first time in two years, there were murders in d.c. going down undocumented this week, unwatched by her watchful eyes.

the conversation i’ll not ever forget is the one that unfolded the other night, sitting at a picnic table, beside a man from a country i won’t name (for confidentiality reasons), who told me that he is publishing a book on the history of his country, and that when he returned home at the end of this year, “trouble will be waiting.”

when i asked what exactly “trouble” meant, he quietly answered, “prison.”

“how long,” i asked.

he shook his head. he didn’t know. but he had two friends, he told me, who’d been in prison 17 years already.

you don’t engage in conversations like those and not begin to feel a shifting deep inside, as you realize that around the world lives are risked for the work that journalists — hellbent on truth-telling, no matter the cost — do each and every day, recording every bloody uprising, every random gang-bang.

on the other end of an indelible spectrum, i’ve been witness to my little fellow, the one who in recent weeks was scared to death about leaving home, the one who on the morning of our leaving, when i walked into his bedroom at dawn to announce, “it’s time to go,” burst into unbroken sobs. i have been watching him cast aside every doubt and worry and dive into friendships with kids he never knew a week ago. even when they don’t speak a word of english.

the most heavenly of those friendships is the one we’ve come to call the three musketeers: there is my little guy, who speaks barely a word of spanish; there is a little boy from spain who speaks barely a word of english; and, in the middle, there is a little fellow whose parents are from argentina, but who has lived in cambridge his whole life, and who fluidly and fluently is the verbal glue between all three. that and the universal conjunction, the soccer ball, which needs no translation, and which the other night, on the sloping lawn of the lippmann house, steering clear of the butterfly bush and the cosmos, was the magnet that drew some 20 kids, from the diaper-set to the 11-year-old ringleaders, into a game that would not quit, not till well after the last drop of cambridge sunlight had been wrung from the night sky.

in my fevered state, it’s hard to find words for how darn proud i am of that little fellow, who has dug down deep and pulled forth a motherlode of courage and great good wit, to already claim a host of friends from all around the world. glory be to the angels and saints to whom i’ve prayed for months, for this very answer to countless whispered pleadings.

and so this week, more than anything, has been about making friends, peeling back that layer that we all show to the world, and through the simple act of asking questions, and listening carefully to the stories that spill and spill, finding divine connection that will carry us through a short and winding year.

a mother from south africa told me how, through meditation, she came to know she was birthing twins. a radio broadcaster from chile extolled the virtues of a chilean feminist poet who’s been clouded by pablo neruda’s blinding fame; and she and i, now on a shared poetry quest, intend to trek to grolier’s, the oldest poetry-only bookstore in the country, just off harvard square. a food writer from new orleans promised he’d make us gumbo.

and so it goes. all upholstered by my smashing case of spots, in harvard crimson colors.

next up: shopping for classes. on the list? “poetry and religion,” in which we explore the works of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath. or maybe “the science of cooking,” yes, cooking. or perhaps wynton marsalis’ ongoing lecture series. or whatever else tumbles on my hungry path. 

and by the way, oh goodness what a difference a year makes, we take the college boy back to amherst tomorrow morn. it will soon be just the three of us. and already i miss that gorgeous soul who inhabits such an enormous chunk of my heart. 

do you, too, revel in the art of discovering those divine connections that draw us together and hold us forever after? (and how was that for a rhetorical question…)

making time

before the packing begins, before i rifle through the closets, deciding which hanger stays and which comes along, before i pack up the vials of advil and tubes of triple-antibiotic ointment (the potions and goos and whatchamajiggers one needs in a school year far from the roost), before all of that, i’ve been making like a physicist — or maybe simply someone with lessons to learn in the fine art of communion.

i’ve been stretching and squeezing the measured-off hours we think of as “time.” i’ve been deep-diving into the fractions and eddies that lie between minutes. i’ve turned time-keeping on its head and upholstered the day with moments that otherwise would have escaped me —  unduly sacrificed at the altar of holy-cow-there’s-great-gobs-to-get-done.

at the urging and insistence of friends who won’t settle for virtual goodbyes, who won’t do with a storm of adios emails, i’ve been doing what i’m not so naturally good at, i’ve been discovering just how fluid the day can be, even when you feel harnessed by a long list of to-do’s, a russian doll set of to-do’s, with one list begetting another and another and always another (no wonder i wake up at 2 and then 3 and often at 4 in the morning).

i’ve been making time for friends. not just friends on the phone. or friends through strings of typed-out sentences. but friends in the flesh. friends who put down their busy lives, toss their to-do’s into the back seat of cars, click the lock and do not look back.

friends, face to face, side by side, smack dab in the middle of a day, early in the morning, or long after the fireflies turn off their blinkers and head in for the night.

oh, i know it’s not exactly a skill that demands extraordinary finesse. really all it takes is scribbling a name on the calendar, and, poof, a meeting is made.

but, truly, it entails allowing the hours to loosen up their tightly regimented marching step. it requires a bit of a mental leap to sink into the slow tempo, the enveloping gift of time spent together, in the telling of story, in the swapping of secrets and worries and gut-splitting laughter with the great good friends we have gathered, have come to love, over the undulations of years.

it’s been good for me — nay, great for me — this refresher course in friendship, in the stunning and cold-splash-of-water realization that none of us, ever, are really too busy to squeeze in the gift of time with a friend. time and space shared with a friend. whether that space comes in the form of an old wicker chair, or a kitchen stool, or the too-skinny sidewalk that goes on for miles and miles of unbroken conversation and footsteps.

in my gotta-get-it-done internal clock, i tend to picture a day as a blur without pause. truth be told, i leap, never saunter, out of bed every morning. i am often breathless by the time i get to the old butcher block counter, diving into the day as if a whistle’s about to blow, and i’ll get called for failing to make my quota on the factory line of household production, and whatever else screams for my well-honed cross-it-off-the-list skills.

a hundred times a day — or at least twice — i hear myself telling myself that this is no way to live, that really on my deathbed i am not going to be thrilled to have slam-dunked every to-do list put before my eyes. but does that slow me to a somnolent tempo? not often enough, really.

and so these days right in here — with less than two weeks till three of us climb on a plane (the fat cat counts as one in this high-flying equation) while the other two pack themselves and a heap of earthly belongings into the overstuffed car and take to the highways — it’s final exam time, an honest-to-goodness test to see if, amid a forest of calls that must be made, insurance policies switched, dehumidifiers rigged up to hoses, and lord knows what i’m forgetting, i can sink into the featherbed of friendships and do nothing more than savor the rare and wonderful gift of a dear friend’s hilarious stories, or her tears, or the three things keeping her awake through the nights.

making time — despite all the organizational doohickies the people at pottery barn try to sell us, and despite all the digital numbers flashing from our cellphones and microwave clocks — is an art that could be lost, at least when it comes to matters of the heart.

in the last few weeks, as one-by-one i’ve carved out an hour here, or a morning there, as i’ve gathered my friends within arms reach, or the squeeze of a hand, i’ve been reminded how essential it is, and how much more solidly my heart pounds when i see time not as a cage in which i’m bound, but as a deep and bottomless pool in which i can splash to my heart’s pure joy and content.

are you good at making time for what matters? or are you, like me, too hellbent half the time on sprinting through the days with little pause for plain old friend time?