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Category: friendship

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

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“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those words, spoken above the din of a crowded downtown aerie, with the city lights twinkling outside, with the clatter of forks against plates, stopped me. startled me. gave me a deep gulp of hope, the deepest in a very long time.

the man who spoke those words knows a thing or two about hearts — not least because he’s an intensive care doctor. not least because he works in hospitals in aleppo, in bomb-rubbled syria. in aleppo where bombs rain down in triplicate, a tactic intended to kill the rescuers as certainly as those in the midst of being pulled from the ruin.

just minutes before, the man who spoke those words — a gentle man with deep brown eyes that bore deeply into me as we spoke, inches away from a table spilling with pigs-in-a-blanket and shrimp and asparagus in long green shafts — had been telling stories to the crowd about being in an underground hospital in aleppo last summer — before it was too dangerous, before death was too certain to stay. he’d been telling stories of a mother of four, who’d been hit by a barrel bomb (a makeshift bomb filled with shrapnel, and chlorine gas), a mother who’d lost her unborn child and two of the three (ages 9, 7 and 5) who’d been huddled beside her.

i listened, rapt, as he told the stories, as he pulled the memories in real-time from inside the vault of tragedies now locked in his mind.

i’d listened a few minutes earlier as another syrian, a therapist who’d come to this country eight years ago, talked about the first months when a family is here in america. how everything — from the alphabet, to bus tickets — is practically indecipherable. how each morning, you awake in something of a daze, in that instant before you remember you’re far far from home. lost in a foreign landscape.

and, here’s the part i remember most, she said that the smallest kindness, the invitation to dinner, the gentle word at the checkout counter, the guiding hand at the bus stop, is never to be forgotten. you will never forget the face of the someone who was kind to you — never, ever.

i wasn’t taking notes; i was listening, so i can’t remember exactly how many syrian families are now living in chicago, forced here by war and unthinkable horrors. i want to say it’s 140. i do know the number is slowing to a trickle, and soon stopping (because of the so-called muslim ban that effectively puts up the “not welcome here” sign). i do know that each of those families, some clustered on chicago’s north side, some in suburbs to the west, have lived through hell, and traveled through hell to get here.

the syrian families who’ve been here longer, since the 1960s and 1970s some of them, when an earlier wave of mostly doctors and engineers packed up their families and moved here, they’re leading the network, the syrian community network.

they’re asking for the simplest list of supplies: rice in 10-pound bags; chickpeas in 28-ounce cans; sugar in four-pound sacks; flour, five pounds; oil in 48-ounce bottles; tomato sauce in cans of 28 ounces; and tea bags, too (no size or amount specified). they’re asking that the foodstuffs be dropped at one of two pantries — saturday, tuesday, and thursday, in glendale heights; saturday, monday and wednesday, on devon avenue on chicago’s north side.**

and they made the nifty card up above, with a whole menu of ways to help: from donating a CTA bus pass, to hosting a dinner. there’s word that someone is organizing an effort — 100 dinners in 100 days — to emphatically urge hospitality, to gather good souls, strangers soon to be friends, at the dinner table. to spend the day cooking, and serving up platters of very fine food. food to fill the belly, but more so the heart.

i’m awaiting word on the dinners. i want my house filled with the sounds of conversation, starting out slow and in delicate tones, and then rising, rising across the arc of a night, into the combustive discourse of joy. of gentleness. of one hand reaching for a water pitcher, or a platter of coriander-spiced lentils, bumping into another. and in that instant of hand bumping up against hand, i want eyes to look up, to look shyly, and then melt in the confidence of newfound friendship.

those are the miracles that unfold at the platter-filled table. those are the joys of a jumble of chairs squeezed round the plank of a dining table. it’s the arc from uncertain handshake at the start of the night, to hug that won’t let go as the guests finally walk out under the starlit dome.

“anyone with a heart can change the world.”

those are the words the doctor spoke to me. those are the words of which he was certain. and his certainty reminded me what i’ve always believed: one little heart, one undeterred heart, it can be more than plenty to begin to change the course of history.

one dollop of love at a time. it’s the only place to begin.

how might you use your heart today to begin to change the world? 

sending much love to my friend A who organized the gathering of syrian friends at her sky-high abode, and who opened the door to infinite hospitality.

** if you’re interested in dropping off groceries at the food pantry, leave a comment below, and i can email you the precise address. 

and in case you’re inclined to help make a home for a syrian family, here’s the list of what’s needed. 

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baking bread: essential communion

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i baked bread a sunday ago. all day. with a beloved friend. and in the rhythms of yeast and friendship — yeast leaping into action, yeast rising, yeast resting, interlaced with the pas de deux of courage instilled, folly shared, revelation of heart — i found an elusive blessing, one necessary, curative, in these steep and shaky times.

it began with the humblest of offerings (as all friendship, all holiness does): wheat milled into flour; grains from the field; seed from the sunflower; honey, the bees’ sweet contribution; and yeast, God’s gift to the belly — and parable, too.

by the time the oven was blasting its gas-fueled insistence, we’d savored the blessing of pushing up old sweater sleeves, one friend reciting instruction, the other (uncertain and seeking conviction) following along, the blessing of slow time, of deep unspooling conversation, and an afternoon in which the slant of light slipped imperceptibly away. all punctuated with a thick slice of grain, slathered in soft salty cheese.

it’s as determined an equation for healing as any i’ve stumbled into of late. it was the gift of the sharing of hours — not a phone call squeezed in between errands, not a text passed in the night — that held the miracle. it was the rare chambered nautilus of friendship, a structure within which we could burrow, nestle into sacred uncharted spaces.

perhaps, too, it was the particular alchemy of shared labor — engaged task — across those hours. we’d started from scratch and were working our way — together — toward shared triumph. it was altogether richer than my usual preferred art of sitting side-by-side or foot-to-foot under blankets, sharing words and stories and mugs of spiced tea.

indeed, the tea kettle would sing before the afternoon ended, before two toothsome loaves would be pulled from the oven. and ever since, each time i pull a slice from the loaf, each time i sit down to lunch, i return, at least a part of me does, to that fine afternoon and the knowledge that i can bake my own bread, leaning all the while on the sturdy friendship of the rarest of companions.

there is something breathtaking about baking with a friend. something in sharing a kitchen, a cookstove, something in finding our way together. i grew up afraid of two things (my inventory here is confined to fears in the kitchen): yeast and pie crust. the former i thought i could kill, a notion that felt murderous to me; and the latter i thought would crumble in my indelicate fingers. so i did what any deep-fearing girl would do: i stayed away. steered clear. bought my bread, more often than not, from the very nice baker who shared not my particular fears.

for me to enter the kitchen, to haul out the mixer with bread hook and paddle, to tear open the packet of yeast, to try not to wince when i submitted said yeast to the bath my friend promised would not kill it, leave it gasping for breath, well, that was, in fact, a small act of courage. and i find i’m in need of courage-building these days. there is a world that needs our voice — our calm and gentle and deeply considered voice. and there is a world that needs our conviction, our conviction put into action.

it came as something of a surprise that my starter class in courage, my beginner’s curriculum, unfolded in the kitchen. yet there i found steadier footing. it all came in the certain embrace of a friend to whom i could bare my uncertainties, my qualms about yeast and life far beyond. it’s friendship that weaves the strong with the faint. none of us come to the kitchen, to the world, with all threads emboldened. we are, each one of us, tapestries; some threads glimmering, some threads too thin, too easily frayed. and in the submission to friendship, the willingness to say aloud, “i’m scared of this” (be it yeast or life or speaking up in the face of opposition), and then dive in anyway, well that’s what finding courage looks like. and courage is the thing we need — in double doses, at least — if we stand half a chance of making a difference, making our one small life matter, of leaving this world more filled with even one drop of grace, of goodness, of kindness, of light.

and so i started with wheat + yeast + the dearest of friends, and i wound up with two fine loaves, and the wisp of knowledge that i’d moved a baby step or two closer to finding my way across the rocky landscape.

in these times that tear at my heart and my soul on a daily or hourly basis (depending on the news of the day), i found something holy, i found essential communion, in the baking of two loaves of power bread. and i did not kill the yeast.

my annotated recipe: power bread from food52
by someone who goes by the name boulangere

makes 2 large loaves

1/2 cup kamut*
1/2 cup buckwheat groats*
1/2 cup pearled barley*
3/4 – 1 1/2 cups tepid water
1 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
2 ounces canola oil
2 ounces honey
1/4 cup chia seeds
1/4 cup golden flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, toasted
1/4 cup polenta

*my dear friend tells me that you needn’t follow precisely the rules (see why i love her); any combination of grain will work, as long as you start with a total of 1-1/2 cups uncooked. i for instance skipped the kamut altogether and then forgot to double the buckwheat, and all ended well anyway.

Place barley, kamut, and buckwheat groats in saucepans with ample water to cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot, and cook until not quite done through. They still want to be a bit toothy when you take them off the heat so that they retain their integrity in the dough. Kamut will take the longest, about 1/2 hour; barley about 15 minutes; and buckwheat groats about 10. When done, strain off water and allow to cool a bit before adding to the dough.

img_8884To mix dough, pour water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. (my dear friend tells me 25 seconds in the microwave gets water to just the right non-murderous temp.) Add yeast and whisk to blend. Add all other ingredients, including slightly cooled grains. Mix on lowest speed until dough comes together and looks homogenous. This will be a sticky and fairly soft dough, but it should generally leave the sides of the bowl, so add some bread flour if necessary; just don’t add so much that it is too firm. (here we have the debate on whether to use the bread hook or the paddle on the super-stand mixer; we tried both, first hook, then paddle, then quickly back to hook.)

When dough comes together, stop the mixer and wrap a piece of plastic wrap around the top of the bowl. Let the dough have an autolyse for 20 minutes. (that’s a scary word to me, but my friend tells me not to be afraid, just let the dough have at it.) This will allow the whole wheat flour to become fully hydrated, and also allow the water in the grains to settle down. If you overknead this dough, you’ll essentially start squeezing water out of the grains.

After the autolyse, remove the plastic and again begin kneading on the lowest speed. Within a few minutes, the dough should come fully together, leaving the sides of the bowl. Knead for 5 minutes, then test for a windowpane. It will not be as thin as what you’d expect from a dough without all the grainy content, but it will form a general windowpane.

Transfer dough to an oiled bowl large enough to contain it as it doubles. (my friend tells me to use the largest possible bowl. i used one that might have bathed a plump tot.) Turn dough over once, then cover bowl with plastic, not a towel. Let it proof at room temperature until doubled in size.

img_8892Flour your work surface – remember, this is a sticky dough! Gently turn dough out onto it. Keep your piece of plastic! Divide dough in half, and shape each as you wish: either shape it for conventional bread pans (my friend says don’t forget to oil your pans), or shape as hearth loaves. Dust the top of each with flour (I love that rustic look!), then drape your piece of plastic over them. While your bread is proofing again (and the second proofing goes faster, so keep an eye on it), preheat oven to 375 degrees.img_8893

Just before putting bread in oven, decoratively slash the tops a good 1/2″ deep. Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating loaves halfway through. This bread is deceptive – it tends to look done before it is. When done, an instant read thermometer inserted in the middle should read 180 degrees. (or, says my friend, who is now your friend, anywhere between 190- to 210-degrees Fahrenheit.)

Remove from oven and cool on a rack. Because of all those great, moist grains, and a touch of honey, this is an excellent keeper, and also freezes just fine. While it is still warm, cut a slice, butter it, maybe add some honey or your favorite preserves, and get ready to power up!

notes from food 52 and boulangere:

Food52 Editors’ Comments: Boulangere’s multi-grain bread is hearty and delicious. The combination of grains and seeds makes the bread both flavorful and texturally appealing. I had to use the upper end of the water amount for my dough to have a good consistency. I was unable to find chia seeds, so substituted millet instead. One of the beauties of this recipe is its ability to accommodate different grains and seeds based on what you have in your pantry. It makes 2 pretty huge loaves of bread. I made mine 2 days ago, and have been nibbling on it ever since. I highly recommend giving this bread a try — you won’t regret it! – hardlikearmour

I developed this bread originally using spent grains from a friend who is a gifted and endlessly creative artisan brewer, along with a mix of seeds, depending on what I had on hand. I never knew exactly what the mix would be, but it always made bread so deeply good that people would call ahead on bake day to reserve loaves of it. I adapted it for the Bulk Bin project to replace the mix of spent grains with some of my other most favorite grains and seeds. I still call it Power Bread for the intrinsically wonderful protein, fiber, and EFA qualities of kamut, buckwheat, pearled barley, chia and golden flax seeds. And I always toss in some uncooked polenta for a bit of crunch in every bite. It makes great toast, and a killer grilled cheese sandwich! As you read through the list of ingredients, if you think the water measurement seems unclear, bear in mind that you’re going to cook the whole grains, and though you’ll also drain them, they contribute a lot of hydration to the dough, depending on how thoroughly you drain them. Don’t press water out of them, in other words. And feel free to add additional water to the dough if need be. – boulangere

and a note from me, not about bread but about the state of the world and what i write about here: dear beloveds, because long ago i set out to make this a sacred place, a place that keeps close watch on the world, and close watch on the soul, i am trying to thread a very fine needle here and keep politics off the table. i know we come from myriad perspectives, and because i want to preserve the sense of shared communion, of a place where we can all breathe deeply and purely, away from the everyday noise and congestion, i am aiming for matters of the soul. you might have gleaned that these are hard times for me, and that would be an accurate assessment. but because i can’t stand the dissolution of conversation i see in so many places, because i can’t stand the sense that division is the math of the moment, i’m trying for inclusion, trying to weave and not tatter, staking my hopes on the deep faith that we have many places in our hearts that spark to the same beauties, crack at the same shatterings. i hope we all speak up for justice and never ever muffle our outcries against what we see as injustice — and i won’t muffle here. i emphatically aim to live a gospel of love, an instruction found in every holy book of every world religion, and, yes, in the books of those who claim no religion but follow a sacred light. as a journalist i have long practiced the art of keeping my politics out of my stories, and so even here, especially here, where my aim is deeper and higher at once, i continue to pray that this is a sacred place, a place for everyone of gentle heart, fierce belief, and carefully considered thought. 

your thoughts? or if you prefer, your bread baking tips? or, perhaps, what you’ve found as the most delicious ways to deepen a friendship. xoxox

pausing for hello

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it’s as old-fashioned a gathering as any i know. the one where — instead of just waving while hauling out the trash, or yelping a how-d’-do as you dash three-bluestones-per-leap up the walk — you let out a holler, a hospitable one, up and down the block, and invite the whole flock to your kitchen, warm mugs palmed in your hands, stories brewing.

i’ve not hauled out my vat of a coffee percolator in a very long time.

but it’s time. we’re long overdue. that’s what we all said, as each and every reply trickled in.

on the block where i live, we used to find ourselves in each others’ kitchens, oh, at least every few months. there was summer theatre in the alley, where the kids, the whole lot of them, sang and danced and sewed, learned their lines, built their stage sets, even rigged up contraptions for flying. there were new year’s day parades, with the tykes all bundled and barely able to shuffle, what with the layers and layers that padded their limbs. there were the occasional no-real-reason gatherings, and the annual swedish extravaganza for santa lucia’s feast day (complete with candlelit caroling and bottomless kettles of svedish meatballs and lutefisk).

we all knew each other as deeply as neighbors might. we thought nothing of calling in the middle of the night if need be, and yes, there were nights when the needs wouldn’t wait for the dawn. all our kids grew up rubbing elbows and shoulders and wits. growing into each other’s hand-me-down pants, and more than one blazer that had barely ever been worn. more than one kid might have had a wee crush on another, learning love over the backyard fence.

but then, one by one, houses changed inhabitants. kids grew up, moved away. every once in a while a kid hit a rough patch, and we all prayed mightily. and then, without a word, we would give the mama room and time to untangle the knots, and drop off dinner once or twice with no need for a thanks.

and not too long ago, the house next door to mine, it welcomed new folks for the first time in 47 years. so, this time, i’m the one plugging in the industrial-sized caffeine machine. and cranking the oven. and slicing the pumpkin-cranberry loaf.

they’re all making their way to my kitchen. only for a short spell of time — a mere couple hours — on a friday morning, as the week draws to a close. but i want my new next-door neighbor to know the good souls who surround her. i want to make sure this circle of mostly old friends takes time to pause, to not only learn her name, but some of her story as well. i want her days to be stitched with the small wonder of a neighbor who drops a sack of just-picked tomatoes onto your doorknob. with the joy that comes when the lady down on her knees in the mud of her garden shouts out something so hysterically funny you find yourself chuckling for the next three hours — or days. want her to know who she can call in the middle of the night should, God forbid, she ever need to.

we’ve tumbled into each other’s lives through accident of geography. because we all found a particular house, a place where we’ve nestled our dreams and fluffed a few pillows besides, on the very same block in the very same village, in the very same era of time.

life does that: throws you together. makes you bump up against each other in the comings and goings of your humdrum day. and, soon enough, once you’ve caught the gleam in someone’s eye, once you’ve licked a spoon of the apple butter they leave at your backdoor, once they’ve cried with you over the death of your cat — or your very best friend, or your mama or papa — or shown up at the hospital just to see if you need anything, you find yourself falling in love. with this one patch of earth that seems to ooze old-fashioned kindness and goodness of heart. and the very good people who grow there.

i’m hoping that by the time my new neighbor strolls home, after a mug or two of high-octane coffee, after a spear of pineapple, and maybe a clementine, chased with a steamy mound of hot-from-the-oven cheesy strata, she’ll know a bit more deeply just how priceless was her real estate find.

so while i dash to the kitchen to chop the pineapple, pile high the clementines, and slice a few loaves of autumnal breads, i’ll leave you with a taste of what i’m pulling from the oven: the recipe for the spinach-cheese strata i’m serving all the mamas of maple avenue, the ones i’ve known for a very long time, and the ones who are new to the brood.

Spinach-Cheese Strata
from Gourmet magazine
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 30 min
Total Time: 10 hr
Ingredients
• 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
• 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
• 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
• 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
• 2 3/4 cups milk
• 9 large eggs
• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Preparation
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cooks’ note:
• Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.

have you paused to make a new friend lately? and, what’s your favorite welcome-to-the-‘hood recipe?

 

comings and goings

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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…..

magic day at magic hedge

magic hedge

we cleared the day, i and the friend i love. i and the friend who these days is measuring her life bar by bar. each interlude of each day, each interlude when she can muster the strength to be up and not down. each interlude when the ravages of beating back cancer don’t hold her in their impossible grip.

my friend is one of the ones, blessed ones, who has slipped behind the screen, the opaque screen that so often keeps all of us from seeing the sacred, breathing the sacred, filling our lungs with all that is holy.

she sees everything now.

she’d written me an email that felt almost like haiku, so spare, so distilled to the essence.

she wrote: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

i listened. with those few words as my prompt, i cleared the day of whatever was due, was demanding, because i knew there was no time to waste; there never is. because i read her message, and the three letters — n – o – w — that deserved their own sentence, i stopped trying to find a way to wedge in a visit between appointments and meetings. i beheld the miracle of an ordinary wednesday. i carved out the most precious gift in the world: time. a few quiet hours stitched into the weave of a week.

because of the words she wrote in her haiku, her insistent plea to be awake to the now, because she mentioned birds and sun, i started to scan for a place that was beautiful, one that offered a strong dose of sunlight and shadow, birdsong and silence. the yin and the yang of the springtime, of life — its dualities so deeply essential.

i thought right away of the magic hedge.

we didn’t know when we met there, in the lull of the carved-out hours, just how magic it might be.

the magic hedge, you should know, is a wisp of meadow and brush and groves of old gnarled trees. its paths rise and bend, so do its grasses, the trunks of its trees. it elbows into the lake, lake michigan, as if an offering, an outpost, to the rivers of birds who, come warm springtime winds, catch the updraft, fly thousands of miles, from way south in central america or mexico or the southern united states, to way up north, to the boreal forests of canada, or, just shy of the border, nestled in woods along the great lakes.

the river of birds — songbirds, nearly all of them — flows along the lake’s edge; the tracing between water and shore an avian navigational guide as ancient as any there ever was. one of the great north american flyways, it’s called, and the magic hedge is something of a bed and breakfast for the long-distance flocks. exhausted, their little throats parched, their wings so tired from flapping, from floating on air, they settle into the trees, into the brush. they partake of the vernal banquet that is the hedge in bloom.

one of the miracles of the magic hedge is that it wasn’t always there. God didn’t put it there. it’s landfill. the leftover earth — the dirt, the rubble — from building a city, from raising a metropolis at the edge of the prairie, and all of it dumped into the lake at montrose point in the 1920s and ’30s. blessedly, chicago is a city that makes no small plans. it was alfred caldwell, a noted prairie-style landscape architect, who plotted the hedge’s undulations and meadows, numbered the trees and the shrubs on his planting list. it’s a mere 6.8 miles from the crosshairs of chicago’s cacophonous epicenter at state and madison, the zero-markers of the straight-lined grid that measures the city, border to border.

magic hedge blossom

yet, to step into the hedge, not half a mile from the rushing roar of lake shore drive — a flow of exhaust-spewing cars and burping, back-firing motorcycles — not a mile from the urban drama and squalors of uptown, a chicago neighborhood that’s long teetered on margins of every kind, to step into the hedge is to be swept, to be wrapped in the birdsong, the branches in bloom, the tender insistent unfurling of the season, whatever the season.

to step into the hedge is to surrender to the sacred.

we hadn’t guessed how sacred it might be.

it didn’t take long to figure that out.

right away i noticed a flock of the two-legged kind, the human kind. most of the flock were sporting long-nozzled lenses, pressed up to their eyes, pointed toward treetops. i tapped one such fellow gently on the shoulder and asked what the flurry was about.

“came here on a text that there was a hooded warbler, but it hasn’t been seen in 20 minutes,” he kindly told me, not bothered at all that i’d asked.

now, a hooded warbler, you should also know, is a wee little thing, one not often seen, apparently. it flies in saffron-colored robes, and for once i’d say the female is even more luminous than the male (but that’s getting ahead of the story). the hooded warbler is enough of a rarity, enough of a gem upholstered in feathers, that busy birders hard at work at their day jobs, drop everything when a text comes in that one, just one, is flitting through the magic hedge.

i felt a quiver of thrill as i leaned against a fence post, awaiting my friend. and that’s when a scarlet flash appeared before my eyes. right there in a branch i could reach out and touch. mind you, papa cardinals in my backyard do not allow visitors. this one, a proud papa, practically begged me to pat down his feathers.

that’s when i first felt the tap on my very own shoulder: magic was settling in for a visit.

not many minutes later, my beautiful friend arrived. a cap pulled tight over her head. wide-lensed glasses shielding her eyes. the cures for cancer are taking their toll.

we stepped into the birdsong, i and the friend i so love. the woods were achatter, aswoop, as spread wings crisscrossed the sky, as Ws made Xs over our heads. we followed a trail. we talked about those things that matter when you are staring down cancer. we talked of surrender, and healing and prayer in multiple tongues. and that’s when yet another cardinal decided to not be afraid. he hopped onto the grasses that spread between the forks in the trail right before us. he hopped closer and closer. this was a hedge alive with very brave birds, alive with a rare sort of courage.

magichedgecardinal

we did what you do when a cardinal befriends you: we crouched down low. we stayed very still. we barely moved a blade of grass. we whispered his name. he hopped closer and closer. and then his life’s mate, not quite so resplendent in her haus-frau feathers of drab brown and washed-out red, she plopped onto a fence post. she must have beckoned him. he darted away, leaving us slack-jawed at just how close he’d dared to come.

we wound this way and that. we paused at a grove of mayapple, one of the woodland’s underthings caught in the act of spreading its umbrella of wide-berth leaves. we marveled at the ruffled furls of the papery bark on a birch tree. and then we came to the flat slabs of rock, the ones that soak up the sun like a hard-shelled tortoise, the ones just inches away from the lap of the lake.

that’s when a kite-flying fellow appeared out of nowhere. one minute no one was there; the next, there came a man spinning his arms around an invisible spool. we couldn’t see at first what he was doing; it looked like some form of tai-chi, the way he swooped his hands and his wrists through the air at the edge of the lake. but then he called to us: “i made that,” he said, nodding toward high in the sky. we peered into the clouds and the sunbeams and that’s when we spied the red dot.

by then, the man with the kite on the string, he’d wandered close to our rock. without prompting he told us: “i wake up every morning, thank God for another day. you never know. i thank God every night, thank God for another day. you only got one life.”

and then, not long after that, he was gone. poof. vanished. lost in some haze. he’d wafted in long enough to tell the two of us to savor the moment, the minute, the hour. each and every interlude.

which was precisely what we’d been doing, were doing, will do. we promise.

once he was gone, had slipped away into the thin air from which he had come, my friend with the cap pulled over her head, she slipped down her dark-lensed glasses, and, looking straight at me, she said: “i think that was an angel.”

we both did.

we stayed on the rocks. we talked about life. we talked of the hard parts. we talked of the parts we so love. we whispered barely a word about cancer; there wasn’t much need to. we sipped mineral waters, ate clementines, dabbled spoons in two tubs of yogurt.

and then we got up, to meander some more. and there was more magic. the details of which i needn’t spell out (for this is getting to be too long a tale, though some tales are worth it). as we got to the edge of the hedge, though, as we got ready to step back into the day, into the bustle, we spied the last two insistent watchers of birds. they were poised in that way that birders are likely to be: lenses to eyes, pointed to limbs and to sky.

and that’s when we saw it, saw them, without any lenses, without any help (of the man-made kind, anyway): the rare and elusive hooded warbler, a pair of them to be precise. first mama, then papa. we watched, from our post alongside a log, as they darted and played in the trees. the afternoon light shone on the saffron-hued robes of mama warbler. she perched at the end of one very high branch, just sat there, practically glowing, making certain we inhaled the whole of her glory.

and we did.

the friend i so love leaned her head on my shoulder. and we stood in the hedge beholding the magic. beholding the love.

rare hooded warbler. with ceci. on magic day at magic hedge....

and that’s the answer to the prayer that comes when you carve out a holy hour or two or three, when you surrender to magic there at the watery edge. can you see mama hooded warbler, all plump-bellied and saffron there on the edge of the bough?

have you carved out holy time lately? and what magic wafted your way, alighted right before your deeply believing eyes?