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Category: grief

hometown horror

highland park, illinois, a town at half-mast: photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

because i am very much still under the avalanche of proofing pages, and still absorbing the granular stories of the mass horror in highland park, the little town where i grew up (it was the next town over, but it was always way more hip and happening than my sleepy little deerfield where the candy counter in the corner drug store was about the biggest action in town), i am keeping it short here today. i’d wanted to share the cover of my new little book, but that will wait, as i feel no impulse toward turning that page.

i don’t know if i can find words yet for sitting in front of a tv, watching a landscape you’d know with your eyes closed, be rattled with war-grade acoustics, the sound of an assault weapon ringing in the canyon of shops where i bought my first communion dress, where we always went for the buttercream roses on birthday cakes, where Fell Shoes was the place to go for capezio’s, the ballet-like flats i once got in the color of a soft summer sky. 

highland park was where my dad died, and where my littlest brother was born. highland park was where we raced when any one of us fell from a roof (two of us did), our bones broken in bits. highland park was where i went every saturday morning, all through high school, in my red-striped jumper that made me “a candystriper” (a volunteer helper of nurses). and highland park hospital’s emergency room was where the trauma teams raced on the fourth to tend to the grievously wounded, seven of whom have died. i’ve walked those halls, sat in those hard plastic chairs, for nearly every trauma in my growing-up family. 

photo by Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

i now know that you only hear the finest-grain stories, the ones that might never be washed from the wounds, in the hours and days after the news trucks turn out their lights and lumber away. i know that you hear from your across-the-street neighbor about the someone who died right before her friend’s eyes. i know you hear about the sixth-grade teacher of the shooter, who worked all year to get him some help, as she could see then how troubled he was. i know you hear about the four little kids now sleeping in bed with their mama and papa, too afraid to be alone when the lights go out. and how one of those four is literally shaking, a tremor of fear so deep it hasn’t yet gone away.

i now know that the headlines barely brush up against the whole of the horrors, and the horrors play out in terms so deeply human, so shatteringly broken, you know the pieces will never get put together again. 

so how must it feel to live in a place where gunshots ring out all the time, and news trucks never come, and no one even thinks to gather up the stories of the echoes of fear, of brokenness? 

and why aren’t we stopping this madness? why are AK-47s, those very numbers tattooed on the face of the shooter, seen as the farthest thing from the mind of the revolutionary farmers and statesmen who set about to author a nation of freedom, a place where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seemed to be a central proposition? 

there is no happiness in the little town where i grew up. and the freedom to walk without fear––it’s the latest extinction in a land swiftly losing its grip.

if you’ve thoughts or something you need to exhale, exhale here. otherwise, know we’re encircled in the silence of shared communion. see you next week.

in memoriam…

you might want to look away. but the horrors of the last two weeks demand we do more than pause and pick right up again. this week, the place was a school in a small town in texas, a fourth-grade classroom the site of the worst of it. ten days before, it was a supermarket in buffalo, new york.

ever since my second or third day on the job at the chicago tribune, i’ve been writing obits, those few short sentences or maybe a handful of paragraphs in which we try to capture the essence of who someone was. it’s a record for the ages, ones that used to be pasted into the pages of a family album, or carefully scissored out of the paper and tucked in the page of a bedside book or a bible. or a wallet. the ones in wallets always choked me up the most, when years later someone would pull out from their purse or their back pocket a worn leather billfold, and know right where to reach for the newspaper clipping of someone they’d loved. sometimes you found out the words you wrote in a newspaper stuck around for a very long while.

i’m afraid the someones who can change things are looking the other way, too many of them. and i won’t make even a ripple sitting here tapping out postage-stamp-sized obits for each of the 32 souls now departed, now torn from the ones they so dearly loved, the ones they would have clung to, if given half a chance. but to read of the simple quotidian joys, to assemble the notes of how and for what they were remembered, was and is a devotional gesture. it’s a genuflection in short sentences, a way to begin to absorb the hell we have wrought here.

no one should have to worry that running into the store for strawberries for shortcake might be our very last act. or that hiding in the closet of your fourth-grade classroom will be the place where you take your very last breath. something is wrong here. very very very very wrong. something is twisted and cruel and the drip-drip-drip of it all is anesthetizing, a toxic numbing takes hold. you can start to not notice.

the postage-size stories that follow are what i could find on each of the 32 victims, those from uvalde and those from the massacre in buffalo. it’s a long list, and you might not make it to the end. i’m writing it anyway. because to tell even a wisp of their stories is to begin to make real the horror of all that’s lost. their stories are utterly ordinary, a fourth-grader who swooned for a second baseman, a grandpa who ran in a store for a birthday cake.

yesterday’s news snapped into the sharpest focus the dimensions of grief we can’t grasp: the husband of one of the two uvalde teachers died of a massive heart attack in the wake of his wife’s murder. they’d been together for 24 years; high school sweethearts who married, and had four children. that’s what grief can do.

here are their stories, first the children and teachers of texas, and on to buffalo and the ten who died there…

In which, in a posture of reverence, we pause in silence to first hold up each of the 22 blessed ones who died in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas….

Here’s the little we know:

Irma Garcia, 48, a fourth-grade teacher at Robb Elementary, a mother of four, had been married to her high school sweetheart, Joe, for 24 years. Irma died in the slaughter inside the school. Joe died of a fatal heart attack on Thursday. Their four children, two sons and two daughters, range in age from 12 to 23.

Eva Mireles, 44, a fourth-grade teacher who co-taught with Irma Garcia. Her daughter Adalynn posted this on Twitter on Wednesday: “Mom, you are a hero. I keep telling myself that this isn’t real. I just want to hear your voice,” the tribute read. “I want to thank you mom, for being such an inspiration to me. I will forever be so proud to be your daughter. My sweet mommy, I will see you again.”

Amerie Jo Garza had just turned 10. She tried to use her cell phone to call police during the shooting. Her father, Angel Garza, is a medical aide who rushed to the school, and he told this story to CNN: 

After arriving at the scene, he saw a girl covered in blood who told him that someone had shot her best friend. When Garza asked who her best friend was, the girl replied, “Amerie.” His daughter.

“I just want people to know she died trying to save her classmates,” said Amerie’s father. “She just wanted to save everyone.”

Xavier Lopez, who was 10, had just been lauded at the school’s honor roll ceremony. He was funny, never serious, and he had a smile….a smile, his mother said, she would “never forget.”

Uziah Garcia, also 10, and “full of life.” He loved anything with wheels. “The sweetest boy that I’ve ever known,” said Uziah’s grandfather.

Jose Flores Jr., 10, loved baseball, video games, and was “an amazing big brother,” especially to his baby brother. “He would just be like my little shadow,” Jose’s mother, Cynthia, said. “He would just be helping me with the baby. He had a thing with babies, like my friends’ babies. He just had a thing with babies. He was always nice.” His sister, Endrea, was in another fourth-grade classroom. She survived.

Lexi Rubio, 10, made the All-A honor roll. She loved baseball and basketball and wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. “Please let the world know we miss our baby,” said her father through tears. “All I can hope is that she’s just not a number. This is enough. No one else needs to go through this.”

Tess Marie Mata, 10, had been saving her money to go to Disney World, according to her sister, Faith. She loved Ariana Grande, TikTok dances, and the Houston Astros, especially second baseman José Altuve.

Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo was 10. She put a smile on everyone’s face. Navaeh is heaven backwards.

Eliana ‘Ellie’ Garcia was 9, just about to turn 10. She dreamed of becoming a teacher, but in fourth grade she loved the movie “Encanto,” cheerleading, and basketball. She was the second oldest of five girls in her family.

Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez was 10. She died in the same classroom as her cousin, Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares.

Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares, “a little firecracker,” according to her father Jacinto, was “full of love and full of life. She would do anything for anybody.” She was 9, and died in the hospital almost three hours after the shooting.

Eliahana ‘Elijah’ Cruz Torres was 10. “Our baby gained her wings,” said her aunt Leandra Vera.

Jailah Nicole Silguero was remembered as “a bespectacled 10-year-old,” whose mother Veronica Luevanos posted updates to Facebook all through Tuesday night into the wee hours of Wednesday. She’d started posting in the hours when she didn’t know what had happened to her daughter, and she was begging for answers. When Jailah’s mother finally found out, she wrote: “I’m not ready for this,” with an image of a broken heart, and a link to Jailah’s obituary. Just before 3 a.m., Veronica wrote: “I’m so heart broken.” Later she added: “My baby you didn’t deserve this neither did your classmates. R.I.P my beautiful angel.”

Jayce Luevanos, 10, whose cousin Jailah (above) was also killed, lived with his grandfather, and every morning Jayce made his grandpa a pot of coffee. 

Miranda Mathis was 11, and very smart. Her best friend was her brother, who was in another classroom when the gunfire broke out in Miranda’s classroom.

Makenna Lee Elrod was 10. She loved to dance and sing and she “made friends everywhere she went.” She was beautiful, smart, and funny, and her smile “would light up a room.”

Layla Salazar, 10, won six blue ribbons at her school’s field day. Her father, Vincent Salazar, shared a video of his daughter on Facebook; he captioned the video: “Run with the angels baby!”

Alithia Ramirez had just turned 10. When her parents welcomed Beto O’Rourke into their home in the hours after the shooting, birthday balloons and her artwork were still taped to the walls. “They want the world to know what a beautiful, talented, happy girl she was,” O’Rourke wrote.

Maite Rodriguez’s age is unknown at this time, though there is a photo of her proudly holding her honor roll certificate in front of the school banner. Her mom’s cousin, Raquel Silva, wrote on Facebook, on behalf of Maite’s mother, Ana: “It is with a heavy heart I come on here on behalf of my cousin Ana who lost her sweet baby girl in yesterday’s senseless shooting. Our hearts are shattered.”

Rojelio Torres, who was 10, was not identified nor his family notified till almost 12 hours after the shooting. His aunt Precious Perez told a local TV station: “We are devastated and heartbroken. Rojer was a very intelligent, hard-working and helpful person. He will be missed and never forgotten.”

and, just 10 days before, 10 more lives gunned down in the aisles of a grocery store.

Pearl Young, 77, a grandmother to eight, spent every Saturday morning volunteering at a food pantry run by her church. A “strict but loving” mother, she still worked as a high school substitute teacher. She was, her son Damon Young said, “full of joy. She just loved life, and she loved the church.” She’d stopped at the Tops Friendly Markets after going out to breakfast. Her son was going to pick her up, but suddenly her text messages stopped, and Damon’s phone filled instead with news alerts about the hell unfolding inside the store.

Ruth Whitfield, 86, was “a blessing for all those who knew her,” said her son, the retired Buffalo fire commissioner, Garnell Whitfield. Ruth had stopped at the Tops after caring all day for her husband of 68 years in the nursing home where he now resides. She was the mother of four, and doted on her family––especially her husband, constantly cutting his hair, ironing his clothes, dressing him and shaving him. “There’s very few days that she did not spend time with him attending to him,” her son said. “She was his angel.”

Andre Mackniel, 53, went to the Tops to get a birthday cake for his son. He was “selfless and generous,” a loving father and grandfather who used “to check in on everyone.” On Facebook, Mackneil’s fiancee wrote this: “Today my baby was born but today my soul mate was taken. How do I tell my son his daddy’s not coming home? How do I as a mother make it ok? Someone please tell me because I really don’t know,” she wrote.

Katherine ‘Kat’ Massey, 72, “the glue” of her very close family, had stopped at the Tops and asked to be picked up in 45 minutes. When her brother came by to get her, he saw police putting up crime tape. She sometimes wrote for the local newspaper, and one of the topics she was most concerned about: guns.

Celestine Chaney, 65, was described by her son as a “survivor,” who twice had survived brain aneurysms. Her son, Wayne Jones, said that when he was 12, he was twice called out of school to rush to the hospital, where he was told his mother wouldn’t make it through the day. His grandmother, he says, made him “go to the foot of the bed and pray.” She later survived breast cancer, but she didn’t make it out of the grocery store. “She was a beautiful person, a spunky, independent woman,” Jones said of his mom. “The life of the party, just a joy to be around.”

Margus D. Morrison, 52, was a school bus aide, a lovable guy who liked to joke. His younger brother Frederick, who said the two were “tight like best friends,” couldn’t find many words in the wake of the killing. But he did say this: “It hurts me so much right now because I wasn’t expecting to lose him.”

Heyward Patterson, 67, was at the Tops because he often drove members of his church to the store, helping them load their groceries, and then taking them home. “That’s what he did all the time,” his cousin Deborah Patterson said. “That’s what he loved to do.” He was gentlemanly, and sprightly, a “real-life, down-to-earth man.” He was a deacon in his church, and loved to sing. One relative compared him to Smokey Robinson ––“only better.”

Aaron Salter Jr., 55, a retired Buffalo police officer, was described by the Buffalo Police Commissioner as “a hero in our eyes.” He was the security guard on duty at the Tops, and he tried to take down the gunman, to spare any lives. “I’m pretty sure he saved some lives,” the commissioner said. 

Roberta Drury, 32, the youngest of four siblings, had moved from Syracuse to Buffalo to help her older brother who was undergoing treatment for leukemia, and to help care for his children. Once her brother had gotten through the treatment, she’d decided to stay on and help him rehab an old bar he had bought. The Washington Post reported that as an African American child adopted at 18 months into a White family, Roberta (known as Robbie) was “no stranger to racism.” In her family, “race never mattered,” said her sister, Amanda. “So this is just ugly on a level that as a family we can barely wrap our heads around.”

Geraldine Talley, 62, was described as “the sweetest.” An avid baker, her Facebook page was filled with desserts she made for the people she loved: cream cheese apple cinnamon bread pudding, peanut butter pie, strawberry filled cupcakes. She had gone to the Tops with her fiance to get sandwich meat for a picnic down by the waterfront, and she sent him to grab a certain tea. That’s when the shooting started. According to family members, her fiance started calling her name, but didn’t see her, and then hid inside a freezer. The gunman shot the door off the freezer, but the fiance survived, and Geraldine died in the store.

may their memories be a blessing, and may their names and their stories not soon fade into the cavernous silence….

equinox of the heart

My heart is in equinox. Equal parts light and shadow. That’s not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary state of affairs for the human vessel that holds all we feel in a day, in a lifetime. But it’s not usually so amplified, not usually so stark.

On the one hand, I am counting down the hours and minutes till a boy I love, the first one I birthed, comes home for the first real time in years and years. The first time in as long as I can remember when he won’t be squelched by the pressures of (in reverse chronological order) bar exam, law school, admission to law school, wrangling a classroom of hellions for the year he was teaching on the mean streets of Chicago, and before that pushing against the deadline for an honors thesis that somehow stretched to 300-plus pages. He is—in three days and two hours—packing a Portland apartment into a moving van, and one day  and six hours after that he’s boarding a plane, crossing the Rockies, the Great Plains, and the checkerboard of farmland that is preamble to landing at Chicago’s O’Hare International. 

He’ll be here—for the first time in six years—for the Thanksgiving feast. And Christmas, and the turn of the new year. Then he’ll move on, to New York City, where once again he will take up his pen and his law books and clerk for a federal judge. And all that time, all the weeks when he’s here, the first order of business will be simply to breathe. To sleep in the old room at the top of the stairs, to trundle down to this old maple table, to cook by my side, and walk along the lakeshore where we all go to think when our thoughts—and our souls—need every square inch of the infinite sky.

And, on the other hand, the man I married three decades ago, the man whose life has unspooled next to mine for the best of my years, he’s off on the Jersey Shore, in an old quirky-but-endlessly-charming house at the edge of a pond. He is there all alone, except for the movers who are coming in shifts, day after day, to empty the house of every last trace of the long lives lived there. The house will be bulldozed before spring turns to summer. And it’s his job, as the only son, to attend to its final hours. He is packing up the last of the dishes found tucked in a cabinet no one had known, finding nearly lost treasures slipped between books on the shelves (his parents’ ketubah, or marriage “contract,” signed in ink in January of 1955, and almost sent off with a load of donations), taking one last long look out the living room window, watching the sunlight and the swans on the pond. 

It’s a house that has played an anchoring role as a central character in the narrative of the long lives lived there. No one ever imagined it wouldn’t be there, high on the ridge at the top of the slope, peering down on the pond. The footfall of at least a century and a half are pressed into the stairs that twist up to the bedrooms. Sixty-five of those years belonged to my husband’s father and mother—he in his white bucks or his Keds, a gentleman of old-school sartorial splendor; she in her size-10 flats (never heels, for she never wanted to tower too tremendously over the little children she taught, as a woman of considerable height). 

My husband, who has long taken to heart the tenet that architecture shapes lives as lives shape the architecture, is not one to bid farewell to timber and bricks (both of Revolutionary War vintage) without a significant lump in his throat, and a piercing in his chest. I saw how his eyes went dark, the sadness not hidden, when he said to a friend the other day, “It’s like another death.” It’s the last one of its chapter. Six years ago, the sartorial one breathed his last, and just this July, so did the schoolteacher. Each time, my husband and his sister scattered the ashes along the holy ground that is the edge of the pond.

I can barely imagine how hard it will be to turn the key in the door that one last time. To walk down the steps, turn, take one last look. To drive away, down the lane, the white clapboard gardener’s cottage disappearing into the distance. To know, after 64 years, he’ll never come again. 

And so the shadow is thick on the walls of my heart, and the light, too, is dappling, is falling in splotches. The equinox of the heart is not uncharted terrain, but oh it makes for gingerly treading. 

Thank you for listening. It is hard, so hard, to say good-bye.

funny that i wrote this in caps, up till now. i’ve been writing and writing all week, and i guess i’ve fallen back into work mode here on the keyboard. for me caps are like wearing my big-girl shoes, lower case is kicking ’em off, shuffling around in my slippers. i’m letting it stand, as a salute to the ones i love…

photos above by blair kamin, on Shippee’s Pond, fair haven, new jersey.

the boys i love, the one coming home tuesday on the left. standing in the front yard of their grandparents’ house on the day of their grandmother’s funeral.

how often do you live in equinox of the heart, and might it be–in many ways–the natural state of the vessel that contains so very much of our love, and our joy and our hurt? so much of our lives are equal parts light and shadow. how do you find a stillpoint?

all around, a burrowing in…

the shadows crossed the line this week. the equatorial line that cinches the earth’s belly at the waist. those of us on the upside of that line, we’re in shadow now. minute by minute, inch by inch, we’re tipping away from the sunlight, into the deepening, lengthening shadow.

it’s autumn, season of molasses light. season of hauling out the sweaters, putting seed back into the feeders, hauling out cook pots we’ve not seen maybe in months. it’s the season when deep-down parts of me come humming back to attention. everything about it — the scents, the slant of light, the goosebumps of early morning — seems to me a call to begin the in-burrowing.

i was home alone all week so autumn’s call had little distraction. i did as instructed: sifted through the bins of bulbs, cut back the ramshackle runaway garden, plucked the last of the bright orange tomatoes off the vine (it’s a game of where’s waldo, really, rummaging through the tangled vines in search of the ones so certainly orange, i know their time has come). inside, in the kitchen where i ply my alchemies and my otherworldly ministrations, i glugged olive oil, chopped fennel, carmelized onions. i invented things to do with figs.

today i amble to the airport, to fly back to the corner of the jersey shore, tucked between a pond and a river, where my husband is sifting through the decades of his family’s home, the 19th-century house where untold stories are being resurrected every day: a wedding album never seen (not by me or my husband, anyway), a dashiki worn on a south american concert tour, a baseball bat commemorating willie mays’ 600th home run. i am eager to be alone in the house of the woman i am very much missing, while my husband is out attending to the thousands of things on a list when you are closing a chapter of lives fully lived.

my job is to sift through her kitchen, to pull from the shelf the mug she always shared with her husband of sixty years, each one taking a sip of the morning’s coffee, passing the mug back and forth across the maple table, all to the quiet tune of news pages turning. the sort of sacramental moments that unfurl across the span of a lifetime, of a marriage of decades. i will sift, too, through her cookbooks, the ones i hardly think she ever cracked, for cooking to her — a woman who came of age as the feminism of the 1960s was tearing down the eastern seaboard — was pure distraction, and dinner was apt to be a thawed-out Tastee burger (bun and all tossed in the freezer after a run through the drive-in, especially if selling on discount, and i’m told the pickle never really warmed in the toaster oven that served as her main kitchen appliance). i hear there’s a Settlement Cook Book, circa midcentury, i’ll add to my jewish cookery shelf. i’ve reason to believe it will be in pristine condition, not a single splatter of schmaltz (unlike the one already on my shelf; one given to me when i married my jewish beau). there will be pangs that hurt, and moments that make us laugh till we cry. and moments, too, that do both.

all of it — the days home alone, really alone, and the somber-toned trip to new jersey, where a for-sale sign is now staked in the yard — has drawn me deep down more swiftly than in most autumns. i’m finding i need to work a little harder, tread more vigorously, to keep from going under, into the darker shades of the shadow. once again, there’s little to distract me. so i’m listening to the wisdom of the season. i’m surrendering to the call to burrow in, to put the garden to bed, to stock the cellar for winter. to batten the hatches, throw a thicker blanket onto the bed. to not get in the way of the work of the lengthening shadows.

how do you respond to the shadows of autumn?

carmelized onion and fig confit, upon which i rested a chunk of roast salmon with late-season rosemary sprigs from my garden: dinner for one, a la autumn.

on kindness, kerouac, and tolstoy

leo tolstoy

i will be backing into this if i begin by quoting a russian intellectual and novelist. but so i begin.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Leo Tolstoy

the subject, once again and always, is kindness.

it was unknown to me, and perhaps little known more broadly, that at the turn of the 19th century leo tolstoy neared completion of what he considered an imperative life’s work. not anna karenina, not war and peace, not the death of ivan ilych. but rather something he considered more timeless, more lasting: “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” as he described it.

or as cultural critic maria popova once put it, “to be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. to be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.” tolstoy’s book, she wrote, was to be “a reliable springboard for these moral leaps.”

in the middle of his 55th year, in march of 1884, tolstoy had set out to read and reap from a circle of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders who had shed light on what was most crucial in living a good and righteous life. he dug deep across millennia and miles, reading epictetus, marcus aurelius, lao-tzu, buddha, pascal, the new testament — a reading list he deemed “necessary.”

it was to be his florilegium (a compilation of excerpts from other writings, “mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine, or idea,” writes popova. the word comes from the latin for “flower” and “gather;” a bouquet of curated wisdoms). tolstoy saw it as something of a roadmap, daily sign posts pointing the way toward “the Good Way of Life.” in a letter to his assistant, he explained his project thusly:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

he spent 17 years at it, and shortly after the birth of the 20th century, in 1902, he completed his manuscript, under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. two years later, it was published in russian, and nearly a century later, in 1997, it appeared in english translation, all 384 pages of it, under the title A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. for each day of the year, tolstoy plucked, or gathered, quotes by great thinkers, then added his own musings and connective tissue on the subject, with kindness as the sinew and spine of the book’s moral sensibility.

i bought the book yesterday, in the long hours after i had once again dropped my beloved husband at the curb of terminal 3 at o’hare airport, as he set off once again to race to his mother’s bedside, to honor her, to fill the hospice room with his prayer and his unending grace. in the serendipities of a long afternoon that turned into a longer night, maria popova, she of BrainPickings, the cultural compendium and literary candy counter, dropped in (to my email) with her musings on kindness, a heaven-sent subject in the hours of deep vigil i was keeping for my mother-in-law whose signature and lasting memory is exponential kindness.

i read this entry from tolstoy:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

i read this from jack kerouac:

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.

and that’s when i decided i would not merely buy the book but practice it. every day. in honor of my beautiful, blessed mother-in-law who died in the wee hours of this morning, friday, july 2.

her memory will be a perpetual blessing, to me and to all who fall in the radiance of her kindness practiced each and every day.

ginny kamin made lives more beautiful by her practice of perpetual kindness.

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” a life’s instruction, brought to you by leo tolstoy and one ginny kamin….imagine how you might live it today, one kindness at a time….

the marvel of the capacious soul

i’m convinced that one of the reasons we’re down here on this messy planet, this planet that sometimes feels overpopulated with goons and wise guys, is that on occasion, as we mill about among the masses and misfits, we run into the occasional breathtaking specimen from whom we will undoubtedly learn a thing or three.

i bumped into one this week, and once again i scribbled notes into my chunky fat notebook, the one titled, “how to be a better human. volume 61.”

the most accurate way to phrase it, quite honestly, would be to say that i didn’t so much as bump into him — he’s a time zone away, after all — but rather that this gorgeous soul pretty much flung himself onto the skinny little trail i was traipsing through the day. and it took all of a fraction of a second for me to read his words, feel the breath sucked straight out of my lungs (in that marveling sort of a way), and remember why oh why i’ve always adored him, and would like to be like him when i grow up.

he arrived, my old friend did, in an out-of-the-blue email, one announcing that he — whose wife had died just 10 days before, and whom we’d not seen in years and years — was jumping on a plane to chicago, where he and his wife had lived a couple decades ago, back when both of us were starting out in this experiment called “how to birth and raise a child.” we had all succumbed, his wife and i and our respective mates, at just about the same moment in history. they sped off to the birthing room first, and we followed fairly close behind. then, they sped again shortly after us, so we all spent a few years there cradling newborns, trading tales and names of pediatricians. in fact, the day the chicago tribune decided to unveil a room (more like a rehabbed closet) for “lactating reporters,” my friend’s wife and i showed up to pose for pictures with our little guzzlers well attached (clinging to our shoulders, people; all of us fully clothed and covered, merely suggesting that we young mothers might at some point put down notepads and plug into breast pump (i forsook the whole endeavor and worked from home, with nary a pump in sight)).

i digress.

back to this blessed friend who dropped in this week. he wrote this:

Hi guys,

Corey and I have sort of tumbled into a Chicago comfort trip. He’s there already, and I am flying out in a few hours.

It’s exceedingly last minute, but he and I would love to see as many of you as we can in a gathering of some design. I’ve been thinking brunch Saturday or Sunday, at a restaurant or (if one of you has the stomach for it) a home (I’d ecstatically cover the catering).

Let me float the idea of 10 am Saturday or Sunday. Other times will in truth be tougher (I’ll be doing things with/at the theater, etc.).

Maybe we can reply-all in order to see whether this might work?

I adore you all, and thank you for words and sustenance over months, weeks, and years.

Love,

(old friend)

i should mention that this old friend is a professor of shakespeare in new york city, and from the first day i met him he has used the english language in measures that far exceed just about anyone else i’ve ever known. he matches his eloquence with an effusion of the human spirit that is, frankly, a force of nature. something akin to sharing a room with a hurricane of most glorious refinement.

amid a world of ways of mourning, i was bowled over by this friend’s instinct to surround himself — immerse himself, really — with stories, tears, and laughter. to reach out for old, old friends. to throw himself onto a plane to shrink the distance, to not wait to lather himself in the healing balm, to quite emphatically wrap himself in the company of those who’d lived and breathed the chapters before cancer trod his heart, and stole his lifelong love.

it’s why capacious is the word that best fits his soul, his spirit, the magnitude of how he exercises love and life and full-throttle humanity. “having a lot of space inside; roomy,” the pocket OAD tells us. my friend is roomy, all right, and he makes room for the whole whirling wild climate zone of grief and grieving.

i imagine that tomorrow morning, when my kitchen is filled with lox and bagels and stories tumbling atop stories, when the coffee flows endlessly and big bowls spill with the fattest sweetest berries i can find today, it will get messy. there will be rivers of tears. and once or twice someone might laugh so hard they’ll spit strawberry across the table. i’ve been around enough grief to know it’s uncharted.

what i’ve not often seen, and what i love and what finds me marveling, is this old friend’s willingness to plunge right in, to immerse himself in the anguish and the joys that old friends know by heart. almost none of us witnessed up close the past few years of surgery and chemo and the inevitable dying, but we were all there for the thick of what came before — the births, the strollers, the raucous Shabbat dinners, the summer sunsets from their rooftop terrace.

and we have stories in which to wrap him, and tears to bathe his broken heart, and great good laughter on which to lift and carry him.

from deep inside his fog of pain and loss and rudderlessness, he thrust out a hand, and called on an old unbroken circle of the heart. we will hold a shiva here tomorrow. and there will be prayer in the form of story. and the wailing and gnashing of teeth will be shared in the company of those who remember well the days long before the whiff of cancer slid into the room, and took away our old friend’s truest deepest love.

may his capacious ways remind me to never shrink from the confines of the soul so blessedly breathed into each of us at the moment we were first imagined, and sent forth to fill this planet…..

who are some of the ones in your life who teach you how to be? and in what form have some of those lasting lessons come? 

the blessing of friday night dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the words are these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hummingbird wisdom, continued

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six months ago, my dear and longtime friend mary ellen sullivan died. she was a writer, a chronicler of joy, i called her when i sat down to write her obituary, trying to distill her essence into a few short sentences and paragraphs that swept across the arc of a life too short. a month or so after she died, i found out she’d written me into her will, appointed me the keeper of her “creative work.” it’s a mantle i accept with heavy heart. a week ago, on a hot august afternoon, i met her brother in her emptied-out apartment, and he handed me boxes and boxes and boxes, her creative work, in all its iterations. it was perhaps the heaviest load of papers i’ve ever tried to lift. i didn’t wait long to open the lid of one of the boxes, to lift pages, to begin to read, to inhale the story of a life i knew well, a story told this time in mary ellen’s own words. i all but felt her beside me, or sitting across the table. i knew the intonations, the emphases of every single sentence. i knew she’d tiptoe into my dreams. i knew she’d left wisdom that i was to unearth, to not let die along with her.

night after night, i pulled up to the kitchen table, not far from the screen door, where the breeze blew in, not far from the night sounds, the buzzsaw of cicada, the chirp of the crickets. i’d pile a stack of journals and notebooks and paper-clipped papers to my left, papers lifted from the boxes that waited in the dark of another room, the load of mary ellen’s boxes.

it was, i tell you, like sitting down with a dear friend, pulling in close enough to brush knees against knees. it was as if i’d said, “so tell me your story,” and thus she began, in whispers. i’d known these chapters in real time, and here i was, reading, hearing the whole of it in details sometimes so intimate i closed the book and tucked it aside. i promise you my tender heart is guiding me through what’s mine to shepherd to light, and what’s best tucked away.

i read page after page from the writing classes she’d take, from the book about africa she’d long hoped to write, to publish.

and then i picked up this: two stapled pages, curled and yellowed at the edges, typed in a font from computers of long ago, early HP perhaps. i read the first sentence, and started to tremble. i had a hard time reading through tears, but this is what i began to read…

“If I were to die in five minutes, I would miss sleeping, and the warm wood of my apartment floor. I would miss talking to Barbie on the phone on Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee in my hands. I would miss running errands in the neighborhood and going for long hard runs after work when the air is clean and cool and gives you the shivers when your sweat starts to dry. I would miss the ocean most of all. Any ocean, any beach. The feel of wet sand between my toes and the waves breaking over my body and the sand going from warm to cool in the early evening when the sun starts to set and everyone but me and my family leave the beach and we just sit there and talk and read and watch the sand turn purple and the water a deep blue and the sky orange and very beautiful. I will miss running in the water and splashing so much that you might as well go swimming so you do.

“I’ll miss kissing a man for the first time…..”

and then, i tell you, i could barely read, the tears were falling so hard, so fast. (they are now, truth be told….) so i waited, and breathed, and wiped away the tears, and i looked back at the page, the page trembling in my hands by then, and i read the litany of things my friend would miss, if she were to die in five minutes, five minutes from the moment she wrote all those words. in fact, she died on march 13, 2016, far sooner than she’d ever imagined. she never thought the ovarian cancer would kill her. she fully intended to vanquish the cancer. to become someone who had had cancer.

but my friend who died, who wrote this litany in a writing class, an exercise titled, “death is the name,” who wrote this thinking death was the last thing that would ever happen to her (yes, i see the unintended word play, and i’m ignoring it), whose words i now inhaled half a year after she had died, she wrote that she’d miss her down comforter, and staying up late by herself and “the freedom the night gives.” she wrote that she’d miss the first taste of an expensive dinner, and the last gritty drop of a bottle of red wine. she wrote that she’d miss hot baths and getting lost in paperbacks.

her sentences grew more and more beautiful, the deeper she sank into the exercise, wrapping herself in the velvet cloak of worldly magnificence.

i was struck, hard and deep, by the simplicity of the litany. the depth and dimension of each pulsing joy, now taken away.

she made me think hard about how our lives are stitched of thin but mighty threads, glimmering delicate threads, threads we’d be wise to notice, to run our fingers across, again and again, for they’re what’s woven into the beautiful whole.

our lives, she made me realize once again, are a textured tapestry of heartache and joy, of blessing and softness and shadow and light, of everyday wonders that awake us to the moment, so the moments slow to a pause, so we behold each blessed minute of our awareness, our awakeness, so each hour is relished for the gift that it is. so not an hour goes by unnoticed.

“if i were to die in five minutes,” she wrote. and i read those words six months after she did. and thus, each word came to me as if shouted through a megaphone: be awake. pay attention. savor the blessed, the beautiful.

the warmth of the mug you hold in your palms? notice it. bless it. you’ll so miss it when it’s gone, when you’re gone.

a question and a challenge: what would you miss, what blessing upon blessing across the quotidian arc of your day? make a list, compile your litany. and then, pay closest attention today. and tomorrow. and the day after. my friend mary ellen would love you for that.

i titled this “hummingbird wisdom, continued,” because my friend mary ellen was all about the hummingbird. she wrote a blog called, on the wings of the hummingbird. and she once wrote these words explaining her captivation with the hover-winged bird:

“My favorite description of the 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.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

when the gentlest, dearest sounds of your day are gone

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some days when i write, it feels like i need a crane to hoist my heart out of the deep-down depths, to vault to the heights where the words deserve to be. this is one of those days….

it’s been five days now. five days without the sound of his front right paw rubbing against the back-door glass, when every morning at dawn, his shadow etched against the fading darkness of night, he’d be waiting for me, waiting for me to let him back in, our night-prowling cat, to let him get back to the business of roaming this creaky old house as if it all belonged to him, his acreage to do as he pleased, to rustle under the covers here, to climb into the laundry basket, the shopping bag, the shoe box we accidentally forgot to put away. to plop himself squarely onto whatever book or newspaper we were reading, whatever keyboard upon which we were trying to type, shoving aside all distraction with his furry insistence, as if to say, forget that, pay attention to me.

it’s been five days since i’ve heard the faintest trot-trot-trot of his little cat paws, descending the stairs, coming round the bend to where he knew he’d find me, letting out one of his signature meows, the ones we’d learned to read as if particular declarations, and so we’d do as he ordered every time: feed him, scoop him into our arms, open the door to let him out into the garden he guarded so well and so long.

tiger boy and his tiger cat

tiger boy and his tiger cat

it’s been five days since we’ve heard the lap-lap-lapping of his tiny sandpaper tongue, scooping up the droplets of cream with which we indulged him (or, truth be told, the water from the bowl of the toilet he considered his own private pond). and it’s been five days since i’ve heard the sound of his four-pawed leap to the hardwood floor from the very high bed of the boy who’s never known a day without him, the old striped cat, the cat who came from the farm, the cat with more adventures than a conquistador or even huck finn. the cat we called “turkey” for short, the cat whose very long name — turkey baby-meow-meow-choo-choo-hi-cat-bye-cat — won him a contest just this year at a faraway vet school, where the vet students (one of whom used to work at our long-ago animal hospital) were asked to submit the best pet name they’d ever heard — well, sadly, finally, after nearly 19 years, our sweet little cat is no longer.

turkey baby meow-meow etcetera lay down and died on pi day, monday, the 14th of march, 03.14.16. curled up in a ball, face turned to the stars, he quietly softly slipped away, a dignified death for a most dignified fellow.

and it’s the absence of sound — those soft, barely-perceptible sounds, the ones that beg your keenest attention — that is so deafening, that amplifies the ache in all our chests, that defines — at least in small measure — the volume of the hollowed-out hole in each of our hearts.

in the blur that this week has been, here’s what happened: sunday afternoon i found out my dear, dear friend had died, and because i’d been asked to write her obituary, i slipped into that writing zone where i lost focus on nearly everything that wasn’t the words i needed to type to tell the world who she was. i do remember that later that night i scooped up the cat as he meowed at the bottom of the very steep stairs, and i carried him up to the bed of the boy doing homework beside the bedside lamp. as i walked in the room, the boy scooted over, away from the light, clearing a space on the sheets and the pillow. i asked what he was doing, and he matter-of-factly told me, “oh, that’s the side that turkey likes, so i’m getting out of his way.” when i countered that, actually, he — the boy with the hours of homework — was the one who needed the lamplight, he shrugged it off, said, “nope, turkey gets the side he wants.”

that’s the last that anyone remembers.

and then, monday, not long after dinner, when i bent down to scoop up my backpack, to head out the door to drive a carpool to soccer, i eyed the little cat bowl still piled with bits of the food that he crunched whenever he needed a nibble. and that’s when it hit me: i hadn’t seen him all day, or at least i suddenly didn’t think i had, though i couldn’t clearly remember. delaying carpool departure, i zipped through the house, spot-checking each of his usual places, an itinerary i knew by heart: atop the sleeping bag in one bedroom closet, under the bed blankets in the other boy’s bedroom, curled on the heated bathroom floor, snuggled on the bean bag by the back door from which he surveyed his lair. one by one, the spots came up blank. our cat was not in the house. so we took to the alleys, combed them up and down, back and forth till close to midnight. (i managed to squeeze in my carpool duties, worried the whole way, resumed my search with headlights on high beam once back home.)

and then, the next morning, in an early morning volley of email about wholly other matters, i mentioned to my across-the-street guardian angel of a neighbor that “on top of everything, we can’t find turkey.” and that’s when she shot back the news that felt surely heaven-sent: that reminded her, she wrote, that a friend of hers had mentioned seeing a cat who looked sick the day before, and it was somewhere down our very block. i had hardly finished sweeping my eyes across the words when i was out of my seat, and halfway across the room to the old tin bucket where we kept the cat’s mud towel, the one we’ve used a hundred thousand times to wipe off the rain or the snow or the puddles of goop he padded through, on his way to the door where he waited, always waited.

i ran out the door, and down the sidewalk, eyes trained on the distance, murmuring — almost a prayer — no, no, no! and then the lump i’d passed the night before, the lump that in the dark had appeared to be a pile of leaves, it wasn’t leaves in the early morning light; it was dear sweet turkey, curled in a little cat comma, his paw up and over his eyes, his face pointed up toward the half-moon, still fading against the early morning’s soft sunrise.

a whole 18.5 years after he trotted into our lives, he was gone. i wrapped him, and carried him home. my arms shook the whole way. we all huddled in the front hall, at the foot of the steps, and we cried. the little one’s knees went out, as he crumpled onto the stairs, and his face contorted in grief.

not one of us didn’t cry, and cry hard.

and just like that this old house is missing some of its most essential sounds. and surely an immeasurable chunk of its heart.

i heard the boys shouldering each other’s heartache. i heard one say to the other, “he was like our third brother.” they both said, in unison, as i carried him, stiff, into the house, “he was my best friend.” a cat can do that — a cat can be so loyal, so loving, so there when you need him, everyone thinks he or she is his favorite. DSCF6964

the older one, the one who rode out to the farm with me back in october of 1997, back when we were convinced there’d never be another babe in the family, he’s been around for every one of ol’ turk’s big adventures: the time he got stuck in the drug-dealer’s den just down the alley; the time he leapt and then tumbled from the third-floor skylight, and lived to tell about it, staggering along the gangway, dizzied but unharmed except for a droplet of blood that dribbled down his little cat chin; the time he was missing in action for six unbearable days, and then, minutes before the very-sad firstborn was supposed to shuffle off to his very first day of kindergarten, that old cat came bounding up the back steps like he was the hero in a hollywood western, the sheriff who rides to the crest of the hill, bringing on the cavalry, just in time to kill the villain, just before the credits roll and the sun sets on the five-hanky movie.

the little one — only 14 to turkey’s 18 years, six months and 21 days — he had never known a day without that old cat. when we moved to cambridge, mass., for a year, the little one said he was happy to tag along, but he had one non-negotiable caveat: “i’m not going unless turkey comes too.” and so, we tucked that old cat in a nifty little carrier, slid him under the airplane seat, and made him an apartment cat for one (rather miserable, far as he was concerned) year of his long and storied life.

so here we are: bereft beyond words. the reminders are tucked in a thousand places — the cat toy peeking out from the basket, the stacks of cat-food cans on the shelves of the pantry, the old navy bean bag still streaked with clumps of his fur. bit by slow bit, i’ve been subtracting, cleaning the shelf of the cat food, washing out his bowls one last time. i’m trying to think of these awful days as lessons in grief, and the insolubility of death. no matter how hard you wish, you can’t bring back the pit-a-pat paw sounds. can’t muster his face, with the ears perked just so, there at the glass still streaked with his mud prints.

it’s the valley of mirage and phantom echo, the raw and early hours of grief, as you imagine, make-believe — for an instant — you’ve just caught a glimpse, or just heard the sound.

it’s deafening. and deadening.

and i know that time, the sacred balm of all of life’s deepest heartaches, i know time will bring healing. i know the day will come when the thought of that old cat won’t sting quite so piercingly, the way it does now.

and so, for the second time this week, i am writing an obituary. and while the loss of a most blessed friend and the loss of a furry one are in no way comparable, i’ve realized this week that death is death. and “little deaths,” too, loom large, and they hurt sometimes in ways that riddle each hour with excruciating moments of missing.

and, yes, it’s only a cat, but a cat over time, a cat you’ve known and nuzzled and loved across the arc of your entire childhood — across the days when no one else understood your sorrows, and no one else curled across your chest, or slipped warm against your pjs quite the way your cat did — it makes it achingly hard to catch your breath, to steady your knees, to find your way forward without him.

our garden will be so empty this spring. the whole landscape is so empty right now. and it will take a good dose of time till we’re breathing deeply again.

i was thinking i’d write an “ode to one exemplary cat,” but for now i might simply point you toward posts from the past: in chronological order (he’s been a recurring character here at the chair over the years) the hunter (2007); starting the goodbye (2010); when the cat comes limping home (2011); and “will he make it home?” (2013).

if you’ve a furry or a feathered or a slippery or a hard-shelled friend, give him or her an extra squeeze today. and listen close to those sounds that animate your day. the silence will break your heart when those blessed little friends are no longer…..

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dear turk, we loved you dearly. as sweet will said when he kissed you goodbye, “thank you.” thank you so very very much. xoxox happy hunting wherever you are. love, all of us.

and to louisey who insisted we needed the little striped farm kitten so willie wouldn’t grow up alone, and to dr. jane whom we adored and who tried to convince us a roaming cat wasn’t such a good idea in the bustling big city but fixed him every time he got into a fix, and to all the friends who’ve loved him, and not minded — alicia! — when he ambled in your back door, and made himself quite at home, despite your trembling fear of all things furry, thank you and thank you for ever and ever amen.

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…..