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Category: neighbors

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….

 

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….

glue, paper, scissors

in the thick of a sunday so cold it made my fingertips burn all day, just from filling the bird feeder (without mittens, silly me).

at the end of a week so bitter and cruel it made my heart burn, just from the tumult of too many things.

in the midst of all that, my telephone rang. it was melissa. she wanted me to come on a cold afternoon to cut paper, pour glue, add glitter.

i did. and somewhere deep in construction, maybe during the part where my thumb and my pointer were hooked in the zig-zaggy scissors, my heart started to thaw. my heart started to twinkle.

we were cutting out whimsy, dabbing on love, making wonder from red and from pink. i think maybe valentine was a saint, only because it gives reason for folly deep in the depths of the winter.

now i am not one to pull out paper therapy at the drop  of a hat. but i must confess to a paper obsession. maybe it’s because i put words on them, consider them missile for my missives, the vessel that takes me and my thoughts out into the world, through the mail, from my desk to yours, far away.

maybe because papers set moods. maybe because paper is clasped in your fingers. you hold it. you behold it. it’s not incidental. not always, at least.

playing with paper takes me back to long long ago. i made whole kingdoms from paper. built houses all summer long. played out great paper dramas, this paper doll taking a walk through the forest. that one lying sick in a bed.

it is a smart thing for a grownup in an increasingly paperless world to return to paper. to pull out the scissors, the glue and the stamps.

we gathered, the mamas from the street where i live. the little girls too. we all cut and we chattered. we nibbled, we sipped. we built paper hearts in as many creations as there were souls at the table. to watch women engrossed in making love out of paper is something to soften your heart on a cold winter’s day.

then the little girls, led by an angel among them, started tracing their hands, cutting them out. laid out in a circle, they made a whole wreath of hands, hands poked through with hearts. a circle of love for the little old lady next door. the one who went off in an ambulance in the dark of new year’s night, and hasn’t been home ever since.

i sighed as i saw it. i marveled, i did, at the power of paper on a cold afternoon. cut paper, my friends, snip, snip and snip. there are wonderful curative balms that ooze from the core of the pulp.