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Category: heartache

the fixer

vintage tool kit

warning: this is bound to contain self-incriminating confessional as i explore the wilds of motherdom, and the root of the many sleepless nights in this old house.

somewhere along the line, the mothering line, perhaps long long ago in the days when a toy train would lose its wheels, or our striped little kitten would get stuck for days and days in some unknown nook or cranny along our graffiti-strewn alley, i seem to have morphed my job description, cobbling in an amendment to my motherly constitution, one that made me in charge of glueing on run-away train wheel, parading the alley for hours on end till said kitten meowed loudly enough for me to detect his latitude and longitude, bang on the door, grab the gang banger (yes, this is true), and get the little rascal loosed from his trappings.

i became the fixer. where i saw shattered parts or hearts, i’d set out to fix ’em.

this is not a task one should take on too lightly. for life, as it’s wont to do, throws steeper and steeper inclines, raises the bar higher and higher. when a backpack grew moldy, i could toss it in the wash. when a favorite sweatshirt somehow got kidnapped between the schoolyard, the little league lot, and the bedroom, i could dial up another one. i cannot count the number of days — and nights — of my life i spent prowling the alleys of chicago’s north side or this leafy little town, tearfully yodeling for our lost little kitten, the one who came home every time, with adventures left wholly unspoken.

truth be told, in the muddle of mothering, of being the self-appointed healer of brokenness, i took a wee bit of shine to this task and this title. if i could fix the runaway train wheel, track down the cat who’d lost his way home, maybe i had quasi-magical powers. maybe i’d found a backwater in life for which i had particular navigational skills. if i could set the world right, after it had been hurled topsy-turvy and helter-skelter, well then i could expunge a whole lot of hurt. i could find a way to nudge us — me and the people i loved — back to ground zero, the tranquil landscape of equanimity. aka, nirvana. or at least the momentary mirage thereof.

it was a job that felt noble and good. and, perhaps i’d fooled myself into thinking, locked in my indispensability.

the problem is that the little people over whose peaceable kingdoms i reigned, they got big and bigger. and so too did the things that need fixing. missing homework might be explained with a note to the teacher. not so much hearts mangled by crushes. or any one of the conundrums that are the daily bread and butter of life in the 21st century.

nowadays, often enough to give me that haggard sheen that comes from long nights tossing and turning and even longer days churning inside, i find myself encountering the worries of ushering one kid through the last few weeks of his junior year of high school, and another one who’s just moved to DC for the summer and found himself sleeping in a dorm room that redefines “spartan” (the exterminator slipped a note under the door just yesterday, and someone saw fit to assure the dormers that the asbestos was confined to the boiler room), and all while juggling a paper or two still due back at law school.

too many things i cannot fix. and, yes, i realize the fallacy. i understand that i shouldn’t, that it’s not my job — nor would it be wise in the long run — to be anyone’s personal fix-it shop. but somehow in my scrambled head, i still ache to be able to wave my magic wand, as i so ingeniously did in the old days. and i can’t quell the yearning — and scrambling — to do so.

maybe it comes from years of not knowing how to fix the things that flummoxed my very own self. the chains that truly bound me. maybe the easy satisfaction of glueing together a toy, of putting clean sheets on the bed of someone i loved, maybe it all gave me an unquenchable glimpse of how it might be to wield prestidigitational powers — the ones i clearly lacked when i was the broken one.

or maybe it’s just what you do when you love. when you remember the day you whispered the promise: “i will shield you, my sweet, will do all in my power to keep you from hurt and from harm. will enfold you in safe holy wings.”

maybe, in the end, the love itself is the thing. maybe the fixing isn’t quite so much the point.

maybe even when we can’t find the missing piece, solve the equation, apply the glue, maybe it’s in the certain openness of our hearts, the willingness to leap into the trenches, or even to listen from afar, maybe it’s the undying sense that we’re in for the forever haul, maybe that’s where the true fixing comes….

maybe that’s the heart of my unending motherprayer…

i’m without answers, and uncertain whether my fixing affliction is shared by many, though i’ve a hunch i’m not alone. do we miss the point — and drive ourselves batty — when we think it’s our job to be the fix-it machine? or is the whole point to station ourselves firmly and squarely beside the hearts we love, so that when they inevitably wobble or break, we are right there to apply love even when we’ve no glue?

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? 

once again, resilience

scilla resilient

the Great Book of Creation must understand that i belong in remedial class, the flock for slow learners, the ones who need the lessons over and over (and over) again. all but pounded into our thick Homo sapiens skulls.

take Resilience, the course now being offered in the great outdoors. the course that zips us through the syllabus of rise, bud, pummel, wait to see what happens.

the pressing question, the one the professor whispers in our plugged-up ears: will we surrender hope, throw in the trowel and clomp away, or will we stubbornly, insistently believe that one day the hallelujah will be ours?

let the examination begin:

perhaps your sliver of acreage, like mine, was just beginning to break the thaw. perhaps the itty-bitty wisps of green had risen all around. perhaps their flags of cobalt blue or white or even butter yellow had been hoisted. and then the april rain turned frigid cold, turned to slosh of snow. and the dang beauties, caught in the act, were flash frozen, stopped at half-mast.

and you, zipped inside your fluffy layers, you dashed outside to survey the damage. you stood there, gasping, hands over mouth to stifle cries of pain. anguish of the garden variety. all looked doomed just half a day ago. it looked like spring on ice. as if the waiters dumped the slush buckets on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

but i’m just back in from my morning saunter through the beds, and i am here to tell you that while the little buds are still shivering, all but quaking on their tender stems, they have shaken off the icy bits, raised their heads again, unbent their necks, and — altogether now — they await the rising sun.

while i stand gobsmacked, in awe that they’ve not packed it up and shimmied florida way, i consider the legions of parallels in my own life plot: the heartaches i thought would never end, the friend i thought i’d never hear from again, the days and weeks and months when grief leadened my legs, my gut, my heart.

of all the lessons that unfurl in my earthy plots, the ones of rising up from heartbreak are among the most prolific. to tend a garden, to keep close watch on the rise and fall and rhythms of the earth, is to enter into the frailties and absurdities, the puzzles and conundrums for which there is no rhyme, no reason.

it is to know the sharp pang of brittle brokenness, and to slow-breathe the salve of picking up the pieces, slogging onward. finding holy breath again.

i am among the ones who need all the practice i can get. i need the muscles that a garden grows. and i don’t mean the ones that help me hoist the 20-pound sacks of mushroom compost. i mean the ones that teach me hope. and faith. over and over (and over) again.

and then, sometimes, the hallelujah comes.

i think the reason i settled in these northern parts, not far from the edge of the great lake, might have something to do with the lessons of this particular geography. the ones i clearly need over and over (and over). 

what lessons have you learned from the springtime garden, the one that endures whatever crushing blows the heavens send its way?

goodbyes give me wobbles

WKchicagocorner

my sweet boy on his last official night in chicago: one last walk home.

goodbyes have always been bumpy for me. the first one i remember was me sitting on the concrete stoop in a garage in bloomfield hills, michigan. my papa had just pulled his turquoise blue ford falcon out of the slot where he parked, and was backing down the driveway. i was folded into a crouch on the stoop, swallowing back whole mouthfuls of tears.

i hated sunday nights when he drove away.

but he did so, every sunday night for six months. which, when you’re five, feels like forever and ever. he had a big job in a faraway place — chicago. and we hadn’t moved yet. so the time from sunday to friday night, when he’d pull back into the slot in the garage, open the door and bound into the house with all his dad-ness, it was as hollow a canyon as i’d ever known. on sunday nights, it seemed like we might never get to friday.

that early wiring, deep in the goodbyes department of my brain, it must have set me up for a lifetime of sparks firing, little explosions going off, when goodbyes were in the offing. because i’ve never gotten used to watching the people i love fade into the distance. certainly never gotten good at it.

and here i am smack dab in the middle of a big one. not the biggest ever. not the biggest i could imagine (for heaven’s sake, no one yet has invented a way to send a kid off to mars for ever and ever). but in the big-goodbye department, sending your kid halfway across the country, sending him off to law school, serious law school, knowing he likely won’t be back, not to live anyway, after two sweet sweet years that unfolded practically under your nose, well it’s big enough to give me wobbles.

the moving van is pulling up to his downtown apartment any minute. the texts are pinging at me even as i sit here typing: just took the sheets off the mattress, should i do a quick wash and dry before the movers take the last box? what about the pillows, bring in the car or load on the truck? hangers?

even from 14 miles away, i seem to be the answer mama. (and sure as could be, there’s a certain genre of question that to this day prompts me to dial my mama, certain she’s the repository of those things that mamas just know.)

we’re buffering this goodbye with one last week in which he’ll sleep here again. soon as our beloved friend jani, from germany, moves out, i’ll quick-change the sheets, and in will move the impending lawyer. (funny, even though he’s heading to law school, i’ve never before thought of him as a lawyer. law student, yes, but how in the world could i be old enough to be the mother of a lawyer?) then we’ll all pile in the old wagon, and point it east toward connecticut. which is where we’ll drop him off, help unpack piles and piles of boxes, then drive westward with one hollowed-out seat in the front, and plenty of tears in the back.

this goodbye is different, is sweeter, perhaps, than the one when we dropped him off at college, and he needed to figure out for the very first time who he was in the world without us in the shadows. this time, six years later, he has a pretty good sense of who he is, and a pretty good sense that we’ve figured out just where to stand in his life, close enough to always always listen, but not so close that all the moves aren’t his. he knows he’s stepping onto steep terrain, but i think — i pray — he knows he can make the climb.

he’s decidedly a grownup. moving into his first grownup apartment. complete with umbrella stand, i’ll have you know. a lovely one of blue-and-white porcelain, not unlike the one that stands sentry by our front door, one of several nods he’s making to the house where he grew up. bringing us with him, in some small way, even if only in the pot that will hold his drippy umbrellas.

last night, when i swung by his apartment to pick up one last load being shuffled to here, he decided to hop in the car as well. because, as usual, we were deep in conversation and he didn’t want it to end. and besides, he said, he felt like taking a walk. so we drove about eight miles north, and i dropped him off at an el stop, and he promised he’d only walk half of the way. but at midnight last night he was still walking along chicago’s lakefront, soaking up the city that birthed him, breathing deep all that he’s learned since he arrived on the scene 24 years ago.

he sent me this:

WKcityatnight (1)

that sparkling city along the lake, it will always be his. always, always be home. and we will always, always, always, welcome him back. once we get through this next round of goodbyes.

are goodbyes hard for you? 

and happy blessed bastille day birthday to my beloved across-the-way. xoxoxo

holy ground

IMG_7249

from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

radiant brokenness

cracked plate

someone i love was shattered this week. it shattered me.

and it got me to thinking about kintsugi, the japanese art of repair when a bowl or a vessel is shattered. in this craft as ancient — and poetic — as any still practiced on earth, the crack isn’t simply glued, the pieces reassembled. it isn’t hoped that no one will notice, that the brokenness will be hidden, kept secret.

hardly.

kintsugi

the crack and its repair are illuminated. literally. powdered gold, most often, but sometimes silver or platinum, is sprinkled into lacquer resin. the vessel is veined boldly, radiantly. if a piece of the vessel has been shattered into splinters, the missing piece — the absence or abyss — becomes invitation for abundant gold compound, a gilt vein pooling into eddy or island or pond. golden pond of patching together.

kintsugi plate

it’s a practice that dates back, at least, to the 15th century. and, so the story goes, it may have originated when a powerful japanese shogun by the name of ashikaga yoshimasa broke one of his prized chinese tea bowls, and sent it off to china for repair. what came back was a bowl mended with ugly metal staples. the shogun, somewhat shattered by the ugliness, ordered his craftsmen to come up with a more beautiful means of reassembling, of repair.

kin = golden + tsugi = joinery

kintsugi. golden joinery.

it’s the art of embracing brokenness. it’s craft, yes, but even more so it’s philosophy, a philosophy that draws from the japanese understanding of wabi-sabi, which is to behold the beautiful in imperfection, impermanence.

at heart, it’s a knowing that the fracture doesn’t mark the end of the object’s life, but rather embodies an essential moment in its history. it’s worn because it’s been woven into the fabric of daily life, and daily life offers up bumps and bruises and tears and tatters. the more it’s engaged in the depths of day after day, the more likely it’ll be knocked around, jostled, sometimes even broken.

so, too, the human heart.

“the vicissitudes of existence over Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 7.52.29 PMtime, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. this poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself,” writes christy bartlett in flickwerk: the aesthetics of mended japanese ceramics.

to be engaged in the drama of the human theatre — that place called being alive — is to be exposed to shattering.

yet isn’t the redemption found in the truth — resounding truth — of hemingway’s glorious line from a farewell to arms:

“the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

or, in the infinite wisdom of rumi, the sufi mystic:

“the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

so that, today, is my prayer. that the shards disassembled, strewn and scattered across the plains of life, in those darkest hours known to humankind, are not merely slapped back into some smoothed-over order, some half-baked pass at hiding away the fracture.

but that, as inspired by buddhist wisdom, we come to a deep understanding of the truth of golden joinery. that if perhaps we can find love for the whole of who we are — the broken, the fractured, the piece that’s forever lost — we might discover not simply strength but radiance in the stuff we find to patch ourselves back into a whole.

and in so doing we become all the more beautiful because of where we’ve been broken. and where the Light now finds a way in.

plate cracked

watch this kintsugi master at work (and, yes, it’s without sound): golden joinery video

i know, i know, i promised that proper porridge post. it’s bubbling away on the back burner, i promise. this just wasn’t the week for a clump of oats. although they fortify me many a morning.

have you ever considered the truth that our brokenness makes us more beautiful? have you discovered that, indeed, the Light pours in in those places where once we’d been shattered, that in gathering up the pieces, in patching the whole together, we might begin our repair by sprinkling flecks of radiance? aren’t these the precise fault-lines where God finds His opening, where God infuses the breathtakingly beautiful?

crushed.

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crushed. not the bone, the bone is merely broken (likely, two bones in two places). it’s the heart that feels crushed.

the doctor who wrapped that arm in plaster yesterday morn, he said it could be there for a long time. twelve weeks. that’s basic math in our house, because we all know that in just less than three weeks the kid now wearing that cast had his heart set on trying out for a soccer team he’s been dreaming about for, probably, a good two years. the kid whose arm is in plaster is about to start high school, a big high school where it can be plenty hard to find your moorings, but being on a team at least gives you a place to begin.

the kid whose arm is in plaster is a goalie. that means he swats at the ball with all his heart and all his might, and tries to keep the other team from rocket-blasting the soccer ball into the wide expanse of tied-together string otherwise known as “the goal.” i’ve seen that kid leap high into the air, i’ve seen him knock away incoming balls as if mosquitoes that deserved a passing swat. i’ve seen him dissolve in the back seat on the long ride home on the days the games don’t go his way. the kid plays with whole heart. in fact, the kid lives with his whole heart. which is part of why i fall in love with him, day after every single day.

what might have me weepiest here this morning is that the whole day-long yesterday he never let out a peep of complaint. not a single word of self pity. not a single “why me?”

while i spent the day choking back tears, he just swallowed the whole of it, and wondered how he’d brush his teeth or eat pancakes with a thumb and a hand that won’t be holding anything till clear into october.

what you can’t see in the picture up above is that that’s only the half of it. the other half looks like this:DSCF1290

that’s his knee. he’s a matched set. the knee will be in that metal-ribbed brace for the next four weeks. with physical therapy twice a week.

what happened is this: smack dab in the thick of our “staycation” last weekend, we had a torrential rain. for the kid in question this has been The Summer of the Self-Propelled Wheels. he and his phalanx of buddies slap on helmets and ride into the wind. and the rain. they go where they need to go all on the power of their feet pushing round the pedals. not long after last saturday’s rain, after coming home to strip off the soaking clothes and put on dry ones, the kid set back out on his bike, to do a good deed for a friend. (you know where this is going….)

not 15 minutes after he’d pedaled off, the sun by then cracking through sodden gray skies, we heard a faint but frantic knock at the back door. there stood the kid, covered in scrapes and cuts, with a right wrist cocked at a truly odd angle. in that microburst of adrenaline that often comes, he’d pedaled himself home after flying over the handle bars, and smacking hard against the concrete sidewalk. the rain from the earlier deluge was still so deep he couldn’t see the curb, so when his bike tire banged up against it — just a few feet from a street that courses heavy traffic all day and into the night — he went flying. he was alone. (you are beginning to get a picture of the scenes that keep flashing through his ol’ mama’s head.)

long story short: he’s banged up. two fractures in the right wrist, one in a bone that takes forever to heal. banged-up knee besides.

and the truth of it in this summer that has been soaked in sad news — brain tumors and breast cancers, long roads of chemo for people i love, some with unthinkable infusions flushed straight to the chest or into the belly — is that i know this is many notches down on the bad news scale. it’s bones and tendons and all will heal. but beneath it — beneath every single bit of not-good news conveyed in the halls of hospitals and doctors offices — there’s a story, a human heart that strains to absorb, to understand, just what it means, what it all means and how in the world you’ll find your way forward.

what it means here is that a kid whose heart was set on being part of a team, on finding a solid place to belong in a school that sometimes feels like it might swallow you alive, he might not find that mooring. not so swiftly anyway. he might miss the whole-team carbo loads the night before games. he’ll miss the morning-after walk through the halls when kids might have been high-fiving him for some crazy miraculous save. he’ll miss whatever are the mysterious winds that blow among players, that weave them into a whole, weavings that come in looks exchanged on the field or words whispered in locker rooms. he’ll even miss the heartbreak of a ball soaring just beyond his reach.

trust me, as i type these words, i realize it’s all just sports. it’s just cleats and a ball and a shared pursuit. but aren’t these the threads of childhood, of growing up, and finding our way, of stitching together the whole of who we are? and don’t all the moments matter, even the ones we cast aside as not quite life or death?

and one other odd-ball thing i thought about: it didn’t take me long to wonder if just maybe this broken wrist was in fact a silver lining, one i couldn’t and might not ever see. maybe, i thought to myself, some guardian angel had swooped down and saved my kid from some truly awful collision of the head or the eyes in some moment in a game that now won’t happen. maybe, i thought, my kid was saved because he won’t be in some moment that otherwise might have been. i’ve heard tales aplenty of goalies knocked unconscious. and a dear friend of mine, one whose sweet boy also lives and breathes to keep balls from sailing into goals, she and i share horror tales, like the one about the kid blinded when he took a cleat to the eye. or the goalie who died on a soccer field not too many miles from here, not too many years ago. mothers of goalies share these horrors in whispers along the sideline. we pray that someone will please issue a ruling that goalies must wear headgear. or eyewear. because, with all our hearts, we don’t want to be the moms who get up after the fact, after the disaster, and beg the crowds to change the rules. while we head home to teach our kids how to get along without the eyes God gave them.

but really what i set out to write this morning is something about the degrees of sadness, the relativity of broken hearts. how, even in a summer when people you love are having brain tumors radiated to smithereens, and other people you love are wrapping their heads around the fact that they’re facing 18 months of chemo, you can’t help but feel crushed when your kid is broken, and something he loves is taken away — at least for awhile, especially at the very start of what you knew would be an uphill climb, the start of new trier high school.

we struggle our whole lives long to make sense of things that catch us off-guard. we muddle through day after day, trying to figure things out, trying to pull up muscle and courage from deep down inside, to take the wobble out of our knees. so much of life comes careering around corners, unseen, un-imagined. sometimes it feels like our whole life long is one big expansion of the heart as we discover just how much we can wrap that muscle around, and just how tenacious we might be. even on the days we feel gut-punched. and dab away the tears.

forgive a sort of weepy post. just woke up that way. i know i’ll find my way. part of this morning’s fogginess is that we were out late last night at an MRI to peer deep into those bones. and my next few weeks just got a bit more complicated. i’ve only started to try to figure out how that right-handed boy will draw triangles in geometry or tackle physics experiments when school starts the middle of next month…

what silver linings have you found in chapters of your life that you’d not seen coming? 

the stories we carry close to the heart

coffee cups. stories heart

i was late getting to the old maple table this morning. late, because i was drawn to another kitchen table before i could get to my own. some mornings are like that. some hours are like that.

i was drawn to a table where a mother i love wanted to talk. fueled on fresh-poured coffee, the tears soon enough flowed. the mother to whom i was talking buried her beautiful daughter just 20 months ago. we talked about grief, and the state of the heart after the dying. she talked about her blessing, the blessing of her daughter having had the time to wrestle her demons, and make peace before dying. she talked about another mother’s absence of blessing. a mother whose daughter was knocked dead in the dark of night, at a bitter cold bus stop, when a drunk driver — one who forgot to turn on the headlights of her car when she tumbled out of a tavern and slumped behind the wheel — drove into a tangle of college kids on the snow-piled side of a road, and so the mother of the beautiful girl who died — a “songbird,” my friend called her — never got the chance to have the last conversation you’d have if you knew in your heart this was the last. she worried that the last conversation between the other mother and child might have been more of the sort that mothers and children so often have: “did you remember to make your reservations for spring break?” “don’t forget to check your mailbox, i’m sending the boots you left under your bed.” or, maybe: “oh, sweetie, why don’t you just tell your friends how tired you are, and stay in and catch up on sleep tonight?”

the thing is, if you bumped into my friend in the grocery store, if you watched her tossing bunches of kale into her cart, while tossing rejoinders over her shoulder, witticisms that made anyone in earshot break into giggles (because she is that funny, and most often in high animation), you’d never in a million years guess how much heartache she’s borne. you’d not know that, after four hellish years battling the rarest of cancers, she buried that daughter, and has a son who won’t ever walk, nor utter a word, and whose meals are zipped in a blender and poured in a tube that goes straight to his belly.

my friend is but one of the ones who carries a story, a volume of stories, close to the heart.

she’s not alone. we all have a story. every day, chances are, there is one something weighting us down, bearing against our chest in ways that make it harder to breathe. it’s not always life shattering, but it might be the sort of worry that infuses even your sleep, wakes you up with a start, spares you no break from its drumbeat.

this week, on one particularly extraordinary morning, i found myself amid a circle of women who, one by one, let on that they too carried a story. and that’s what got me to thinking about how many of the myriad souls we bump up against in the course of the day are waging some unspoken battle, the likes of which we’ll never know. never imagine.

and thus, as wise philo of alexandria, the greek-speaking jewish philosopher, instructed: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

there was, first, the woman i’ve known for years, though not too terribly well. i’d once written a newspaper story about the children’s choir she long ago ran with clockwork precision. then, years later, when i wrote about my own mother’s breast-cancer battle, that same woman reached out and wrote how she, too, had been diagnosed the very same week, and knew by heart the battle. when i bumped into her just this week, she was sporting two very black eyes. she’d fallen, she said, changing a light bulb. seems after three bouts with cancer, she’d developed some bizarre syndrome that left her numb from the waist down — and apparently, it hasn’t much slowed her. and it was only in passing that she mentioned something about her son, mentioned for the very first time that he was quadriplegic.

“oh my gosh,” i interjected, “you have a son who is quadriplegic? was it an accident?”

she answered, softly, but hardly a whisper: “failed suicide. he was a freshman in high school. thirty-five years ago.”

i inhaled a very big prayer as i soaked in her words.

and then, just minutes later, after eggs and coffee were served, after i’d turned to my right, continued talking to a lovely woman i’d met three months earlier, this woman mentioned matter-of-factly that her upper chest was sore, and she’d be heading home to ice it. i asked if she’d pulled a muscle. “no,” she said, “i was diagnosed with breast cancer just before christmas. i had a double mastectomy four weeks ago.” and all morning, i’d only been thinking how elegant a figure she cut, with her sleek gold-buttoned black suit, her streaked-blonde bob, and her eloquent animated conversation.

we never know the stories carried close to the heart.

we never know when we’re sitting next to a woman who, day in and day out, worries about a son who can’t move a muscle. and who got there from the depths of unspeakable pain.

we don’t know that from the time we last spoke to someone till the moment we’ve once again bumped into that someone, she’s suffered the full-throttle blow of life turned on its spine: being told she has cancer, weighing the options and outcomes, and being wheeled off to surgery that will forever alter her God-given life-bearing body.

when you’re listening, when you keep your ear to the heart, these stories come and come swiftly. the calls from the doctor. the unexpected email. the squawk from the bedside radio, first thing in the morning. the reminder, over and over and over: these hours are precious, are holy. live as if each moment matters. because, the truth is, it does. and walk in radiant grace because we’ve really no clue who in our path is shattered, and broken, and deeply in need of the life-giving love with which we might bathe their wounds. or embolden their march into battle.

oh, goodness. it was either write about what really stirred me this week, or count up the 50 ways to really, truly tell someone you love them (in light of tomorrow’s feast of love, valentine’s day). seems i went with the truly stirring. forgive the darkness. the point is the light: the instruction to hold each hour, each encounter, each blessed someone, up to the radiance. life will come without pause, without bumpers to soften the blow. the instrument of healing, of love, is ours and ours alone: we can choose to tend with tender loving care. we can choose to be ever aware of who among us might bear more than we can imagine. we can lighten their load, and pray to God the favor’s returned when the load that needs bearing is ours. 

how are you stirred by philo’s instruction: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”? or, alternately, might you tell a bit about the unwitting saints who’ve lightened your load at the very moment when it all seemed unbearable?

love letters lost

love letters lost hands

sifting through the cyber-ashes, gathering up a flake or two of text, pausing long enough to read, to remember, to let the tears fill and fall. feeling the full-throttle pang of if-that’s-what’s-left-how-very-much-was-lost?

i’ve found the snippet dated april 10, 2009, on the eve of a baby’s birth, in which i wrote to the expectant mama and papa: “i am certain that we have entered into holy time….” a beautiful baby girl was born deep in the middle-night four days later. the email marked the beginning of the hardening rhythms of that labor and delivery.

i’ve been scribbling life’s every twist and turn, long as i can remember. i mark time with typed-out missives. short or long or in-between, doesn’t matter. all that matters is that, for me, it’s putting life to paper, etching time with written record.

i’ve found the one i sent hours after delivering our firstborn to his leafy college, in which i wrote: “poor teddy sobbed silently, melted in tears.” august 29, 2011. i’d sent that one off to my mama, who wanted to know how the parting went.

and there’s the one, three months later, when that firstborn came home for the very first time, and at the dawn of that first morning while he slept, back in the bed above where i was typing, i wrote to my brother: “i suddenly feel whole for the first time in three months….”

i even found the email, carefully tucked away in my meticulously organized treasury of emails — a virtual apothecary chest of drawers within drawers, each one labeled and stuffed with cyber-snippets — from november 4, 2008, when one newly-elected barack obama sent out a note letting me (and a few million other cyber-pals) know that we’d just made history and, by the way, he was heading over soon to grant park, a moment in history — a moment in my email trove — that won’t soon be forgotten.

i have been sifting through all week, discovering what was lost and what was saved. i find notes from the mother of a dying child who wrote, “as they say at NASA, failure is not an option.” another to a friend whose husband had just died, and who i tried to fill with comfort in the best way i know — words dispatched from the pulsing place deep inside my heart. yet another to a friend whose unborn baby girl had just died. and another, a note from the intensive care unit where our firstborn lay with a fractured neck bone. and one my little one (nine at the time) wrote to his uncle, “i will love max all my life,” after his uncle’s beloved golden retriever up and died.

it’s birth and death, and all the touch points in between. it’s loss and hearts filled up. it’s history and how i breathe.

i write because words for me are the vessels in which i pour my unharness-able heart. i pay acute attention to nuance and particulars. i make up words to try to stretch the periphery of that place that holds so much. i want the people in my world to know they’re not alone, they’re loved, their murky shadow is pierced by shard of light. there is a hand to squeeze in the darkness, and i offer it in words.

i render communion in banged-out letters on a keyboard.

and when your hard drive fails, and the trusted back-up drive does too, when you fall in the unheard-of 0.5 percent, you lose crucial threads, you lose what matters, you ache and you weep, the tears spilling to the keyboard.

and so it’s been all week, as i sift and sort and flag bits and snippets that piece the long-winding narrative — the story of a love that’s flowed without end for all the years i’ve been typing.

among the many chapters lost: the one of a boy with a broken neck and his triumphant bar mitzvah three weeks later; the story of that boy wending his way through high school and — finally, achingly (for his mother anyway) — heading off to college. i’ve lost all the emails that i sent, at every turn in those early far-from-home days that turned to weeks and months of learning how to be a long-distance mama. i’ve lost the emails i sent to beloved teachers, kindergarten through college. and, to pinpoint yet another now-missing chapter, the emails bandied back and forth between my sweet life mate and moi, as we decided whether to up and leave our house, our life, our humdrum everyday, to move for one short year to cambridge, mass., to go back to college, to dwell beyond our comfort zone.

in the life story of a family, much unfolds over the course of eight years. back when i first started typing on this particular apparatus, one boy had just turned 13, the other was barely five. i was working at a newspaper, longing to work from home. george bush was president. my brother’s first wife had just died. neither my beloved niece nor nephew had yet been imagined. my mother hadn’t been told that she had a tumor growing in her belly.

i recorded it all in the little blasts i type and send nearly every single morning, and through the whole day long.

the nice and very smart geniuses who live in apple-land, they did the best they could. for days and days and hours without end (or so it seemed when our phone calls ticked into sixth straight hour, three days in a row). but the sent emails could not be saved. nor the photo albums, all carefully edited and curated. i got back raw images, some 20,000, and i will sift and sort and delete the blurry ones, as i’d done before, in all those hours now lost. the books i’d made from those images — pictures and text, page after page — all gone.

and so, on this day of hearts and cut-out valentines, when words are scribbled in silly rhymes and riddles, i am left to consider love letters lost. and to hope and pray that the echo of what they meant, and what they tried to hold up to the light, i am left hoping that it lives on where it was birthed — deep inside me, deep inside the soul of a girl who’s been holding tight a pencil all her life, trying again and again to get it on paper, to get it right, this immeasurable, unfathomable force of life, of love, of understanding.

the one that sometimes is spelled out in quiet little emails. ones that arrive with nothing but the ping of a flat black box telling you something from the heart has just landed. please read, and know that you are loved.

forgive me for dwelling one more week on this nasty mess of a cyber-crash. it’s been just awful, the slow dawning realization of chunk after chunk that’s simply gone, vanished, kaput, kerpluey. like so many other losses in life, we console ourselves with the deep down truth that in the end the only thing that can’t be stolen, can’t be crushed, or lost, is the imperceptible and vast catalog of memory, of what’s held in our hearts and souls and minds. 

what love letters do you hold closest to your heart?

the sound of hollowed-out

brother love

when you love someone, when there is a someone in your life who drops in every few months, makes you laugh till you fall off your chair, or plops beside you on your beanbag in the basement, sidles up, takes the whatchamahoojie in his hand, and click-click-clicks right beside you, for hours into the night, as your words weave back and forth, an alchemy of big-brother wisdom and vernacular that wholly escapes your mother, you pretty much come to thinking of that someone as a guy who walks in halo. he’s your own personal savior, patron saint and laugh track.

he’s your big beautiful brother.

and when eight long years fall between your birthdays, when one of you is off gallivanting round leafy college quads, and the other is back home mastering obstacles like combination locks and kickstands and how to juggle soccer balls while holding onto handle bars, what falls between you, the glue that holds you tight, the interstitia of your entwined hearts, it’s pretty much a recipe of two parts magic, one part paying attention, and a good dollop of the long-held family maxim that the two of you are in this world to watch out for each other. because no one will ever do it better.

so, saying goodbye to that big fellow, saying goodbye on the morning when the old family wagon, all spiffed up and tuck-pointed with brand-new spark plugs, brake pads and all the parts that might keep it from going kerpluey on the side of some far-flung highway — somewhere in the godforsaken woods of ohio, new york, or western massachusetts — well, it hollows you from the inside, from way down low to up where the howls come out.

it hurts.

more than anything you’ve ever had to do.

because all summer you’ve been hearing folks joke about how this is the last time your big brother will spend much time hanging around these parts. geez, they’re even bequeathing you his room — bedroom with bath — up at the bend in the stairs. that sure must mean this goodbye is for good. no one scores a sink and shower unless this deal is for keeps. and someone just handed you your big brother’s hand-me-down washcloth, and said, “congrats, you’ve got your own crash pad now.”

so deep in the darkness of the day when the old wagon rolled down the alley, hooked a right, in the direction of the eastern seaboard and that leafy college, you couldn’t help but let the tears fall freely. you couldn’t help the sounds that came from deep down low, where all the sadness dwells.

you couldn’t keep from saying the words your mama will never ever forget, the very definition of love, spelled out in wails and tears:  “he’s the perfect prescription for a tough time.”

he is, indeed.

that big brother, with his kooky mix of tenderheart-slash-rocky-balboa inspirations, and a stable of 96 spot-on accents and impersonations from all around the globe and comedy central’s backstage, he is the perfect prescription.

for plenty of moments in the mixed-up files of a 12-year-old who’s just moved back to a place that looks familiar but in fundamental ways will never be the way it used to be. and who can’t shake the haunting echoes of a place — and people — you came to love and miss each and every day, all banging noisily about your heart.

as you try to find your way, once again.

but there’s one other thing about the sounds your mama heard the other night, a sound she recognized right away, and will not forget: it sounded deep-down hollowed-out, the cry let loose from human hearts standing at the precipice of unfathomable canyons.

canyons that offer two options: find a way to get across, or stand there wailing till the end of time.

it’s a canyon and a sound that she remembers.

she wailed it, night after night, in the long nights after her papa died, when she could not for the life of her figure out how she’d travel forward, find her way through the maze, without her papa’s star light and shoulder to lean on.

indeed, my sweet boy cried out, in that haunting mournful tone that makes the hairs on your neck bristle.  thank God, no one died. but someone left.

and leaving feels awful.

when you’re only 12, and you’ve not had much practice at learning to go forward, to find your way, without the shining light — and secret handshake — of the ones you love the most.

i could have let the picture do the talking here today. says it all, pretty much. a little one whose arms do not want to let go, little one holding tight, and big one giving it one last blast of gusto. we’re doing what we can to keep the little guy afloat. a flotilla of scrambly 7th-graders sure helps. and platters of sparkly cookies, winking out from under glass domes, they help too. this was the year it hit the little guy the hardest. and it’s with his explicit permission, by the way, that i was allowed to try to write this, to put in words a love that shakes me to my core. we’re double-blessed — in the boy department and far beyond. and the little guy will be all right. his heart will grow even wiser as he finds his way, and discovers that miles don’t really get in the way of two hearts that pump to the same beautiful song. 

how have you gotten through your hardest goodbye?