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Category: heartache

the dangers of not letting go. and the dusty path toward redemption.

the homestead, circa 1957

this is not a story about religion. though it’s a subject with zealots and slackers.

marie kondo, the porcelain doll of a declutterer, calls it sparking joy (and swears it can change your life). i call it getting covered with cobwebs. and eye-watering dust. and reminding myself of my proclivities for not letting go of the sentimental. 

but i took a trip to new jersey, to a white-clapboard house that might have been built in the early 19th century, and might have been there (in one form or another) as early as 1789. 

and everything changed. 

inside that old house were dozens and dozens of orifices, each one packed to the brim. to open the door to the attic was to trigger a domestic avalanche, the sort you might find spelled out in the weekly gazette, where some poor soul was buried alive beneath decades-old shoeboxes, crumbly yellowed news magazines, and strings of christmasy lights that might never have burned. 

when your job is to pack up the kitchen, to wrap not only the skinny-necked goblets, but to sift out toothpicks, circa 1960, and mismatched tupperware lids by the dozens, you swiftly absorb an abiding commandment: thou shalt not leave behind a house stuffed with stuff thou hast not had the courage or chutzpah to preemptively toss. 

you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.

marie kondo, whose best-selling tidying book i once was assigned to survey, makes the closet-clearing task sound downright zen-like, as if standing before overstuffed shelves, blithely sorting and chucking and plucking for joy — would that be placing the object in the palm of one’s hand, awaiting the wee bit of voltage that’s the signal for “keep me”? — is the next best thing to a trip to the spa. (no wonder i tossed aside that pretty little spark of a joy-jolting book, the book that sparked little but befuddlement back in my stuff-keeping days.)

the truth is, i found packing up the kitchen of someone i love a hauntingly heart-tugging endeavor. i unearthed the red apple-shaped placemats she must have delighted in setting on her breakfast table, or when a struggling student she lovingly tutored came for after-school cookies and milk. i pulled from a drawer the crystal-handled cake cutter that might have sliced into chocolatey layers on countless occasions, and i heard once again the peals of laughter that echoed through the house’s post-colonial walls. i discovered my mother-in-law’s absolute obsession for all things valentine’s day; heart-shaped candy dishes, red paper doilies, and 101 variations on heart-speckled pink paper napkins. 

it’s as if a life is being unspooled wordlessly, a silent reel of thing upon thing. each one with a story you can only imagine, each one a frame still palpably pulsing, but only just barely. and you feel the slipping away all over again.

i kept picturing my mother-in-law peeking over my shoulder, wincing each time i tossed a tchotchke into a trash bag or pitched some trifle to the give-away pile. i felt guilty. i felt tender of heart. i wiped away dozens of tears. (and i kept those few things that belong in the family treasure heap: a dough cutter (highly likely unused), a trio of age-worn red plates (the ones i ate off dozens of times), the red-plaid apron i long ago sewed for her birthday, and now frayed at the ties.)

but then, stripped of my long-held tossing hesitancies, emboldened to not bequeath such a task to my own two boys, i came home and applied my newfound thick-as-reptilian toughness to the orifices i call my own. all week i’ve been standing akimbo in closets and tucked-away corners, dispatching and discarding with gusto. whole bags have been filled as i’ve scoffed at the millions of times i’ve stashed some odd something away, long deluding myself that some day i might find reason to put into action whatever was the odd esoterica. i now know that someday never comes. 

and my new best allies are the fine fellows at goodwill industries, who handily roll out the big blue bins every time they see my red wagon pulling into the lot. 

it’s hard work for the heart. and i don’t mean the muscle that’s doing the pumping. i mean the ineffable filaments of said organ that cling too mightily to the objects of everyday living. the invisible cords that — in some of us anyway — tug too hard in the attachment department. 

to excavate the closets and cupboards of a life long lived is to sweep across the narrative told in dusty old things. in the story told from the long life i hope is mine, i want the people i leave behind to lift up each object and know it sparked me pure joy. 

but more than that, far more than that, in the now, i want my life to not be buried under the crumpled weight of stuff that niggles at me, taunts, “why on earth are you holding onto me?” why not let go, and be freed from the crushingness of closets that threaten to topple, drawers stashed with missing and misplaced parts, and the generalized sense that i live in a house that might split at the seams? 

i want only the things that conjure a someone or sometime or someplace i loved. i want to live lean and clean and not take up more than my share of the room. i want a house without the ghosts of fibber mcgee. i want a lightness of being.

mostly, i guess, i want to pare it all back to the essence, the true essence of joy — unencumbered.

turns out, marie kondo was right after all.

how do you rate in the declutter department? are you a stasher or trasher? if you told your life story in objects, what might be the most treasured pages?

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….

pins and needles and why it matters…

dear america,

land of the free and the brave. land i want to be home to the kind and the gentle. and the fair and the just. land where truth is the national language, the one we expect to hear and to speak, the one that rings from sea to shining sea. land where we’re blind to the melanin that colors our skin, but not blind to the sins we’ve borne until now. still bear. land where bullies get sent to the principal’s office. and aren’t allowed on the playground, not till they right their ways. land where some big-hearted, big-eared soul sits down to listen, to find out why the bully’s so mean. land of confession. land where we fall to our knees, open our heart, and spill out our sins. where we say we’re sorry, so sorry, and we mean it. where we do right, right our wrongs. make up for the shatters and hurt we’ve left in our wake.

that’s the nation i want to belong to. that’s the world i want to populate, for the short time i get to be here.

it’s all evanescent. we’re not here for long. we’ve one short shot at weaving our one single thread into the tapestry. i aim for my thread to be radiant. too often it’s frayed. falls short. but the thing is, day after day, i clamber out of bed and i set my mind to living the promise: love as you would be loved. reach beyond your own borders. imagine how it feels to live in the other guy’s shoes. to be strapped with the load that he or she was born into, picked up along the way. the stuff that broke and scarred and left scabs that never quite healed.

i reach for the stars, for the heavens. my own personal plot, the one by which i measure my life, is to open the doorway to heaven here on earth. to make it all a little bit kinder, gentler, to love as i would be loved.

the thing is when you grow up knowing hurt, you sometimes decide to dedicate your every blessed hour to doing all you can to not let it happen to anyone else. to be, as blessed st. francis put it, the instrument of peace. to be the consoler. the sower of love. it’s a prayer i pray every day of my life.

i pray for that hope to spread like a rash. once upon a time i believed we could cure the world of the scourge of hunger, fill every last belly. now i’m sinking my hopes into the radical notion that we could all — just for one day, maybe even for longer — stop with the ugliness, put down the guns, dial down the incessant noise. stop seeing the world in us versus them.

for God’s sake: be still. breathe in the deep and calming oxygen of pure unfiltered kindness. imagine forgiveness.

i believe in capital D Decency. i believe in resurrection and redemption. i believe in the hard-rock capital of empathy. i’m willing to hope we can find it again. i’m not certain. but i cast my vote for all the holiness i believe in, the holiness that is the architecture, the underpinning, the spine and the sinew of my every blessed day.

and that’s why i wait, holding my breath, awaking in the night to peek at the numbers, to see if there’s half a chance we might become a more perfect union. one where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is spelled out in three hundred million-plus variations on the theme. but one where justice, and fairness, and truth is the least common denominator. the one we strap on each and every morning, and take it from there. there is so much work to be done….

let us begin.

what are the threads of the world you believe in? the one that deep in your heart waits to be born?

it’s a scary thing to put yourself out there, to lay it all on the line. but this moment demands unfiltered courage in all its iterations. mine lies in saying it aloud, in whispering my heart’s deepest prayers. maybe i’m not alone…

the things we do on terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. or try, anyway.

we all have them.

poor dear alexander had one. alexander, of one of the all-time best-titled tomes in the land of children’s literature. or children’s books, anyway.

poor alexander went to bed with gum in his mouth, and woke up to find it in his hair. he tripped over his skateboard while getting out of bed. and dropped his sweater into the sink — while the water was running. and then when his two best pals found a.) a Corvette Sting Ray car kit, and b.) a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in their breakfast cereal boxes, all alexander found was, well, breakfast cereal.

it was neither gum in my hair, nor skateboards, nor sweaters in sinks — not even the lack of a decoder ring that got in my way. but, it turned into one of those days anyway. like i said, we all have them. there’s not a one of us who skates through a month, or a year, or a lifetime without tumbling into the occasional pothole, or skinning our knees on the rough edges of daily existence.

and, so, i decided to cook.

cooking, following steps from 1 to 2 to 4, seemed like it might be just the thing to soothe me (and maybe the fact that i seem to have skipped right over 3, there in my count, led to the outcome i’m veering toward). hauling out cutting boards and chopping devices, yanking bottles of spice from the shelf, eyeing the crucifers i remembered to buy at the store, it all seemed like the ingredients i needed for a healthy dose of self-soothe.

it was all seeming swell as i gurgled the olive-y oil into the bowl, dumped in coriander seeds, apple cider vinegar, a fine grainy mustard (french, even!). i chopped cabbage into one-inch wedges, as instructed. i sliced a purple onion into rings. but i went clearly awry when i reached in the fridge for the chicken i needed to cook before its due date had passed. i must not have been paying attention (always a downfall), but the chicken i reached for was that swanky somewhat-newish thing in the poultry department, a thin-sliced breast. which translates to slightly-better-than-cardboard. no fat, no skin, no taste. barely any meat to the bonelessness. all the cumin, coriander, salt and pepper, could not make for taste. or anything close.

i swooped on anyway, following closely every step of the rest of the way. i pulled out my silicone pastry brush, slathered my mustardy brew all over the flanks of that cabbage. drizzled olive oil atop the onion circles. bathed my boneless hen in blankets of spice, as called for. i piled it all on a baking sheet (my cooking vessel of choice these days), and awaited the clouds of enticement rising from the cracks in the oven. it smelled mighty fine. and my terrible day was melting away.

but then the old metal timer clanged, and i pulled my tray from the oven. right away, those skinny breasts hollered “failure!” (i’ll even show you the picture; you can judge for yourself–>)

unwilling to surrender, i made a last-minute dash to the “farm,” where the last of the herbs haven’t yet been sheared to the ground. i grabbed a few fine handfuls of flat-leaf parsley, and did what any self-respecting soul in search of salvation would do: i let it rain bitlets of leaves all over my tasteless, rubbery, very thin breasts, the original meat with no point.

all of which is to say there will come days that leave us limp like raggedy dolls. days that, like my chicken, strip us to (or of) the bone.

and it is a good and wise thing to have a coterie of tricks up your sleeve for shoving yourself over the hump. no matter the stumbles and falters.

once upon a time i had no clue, really, how to make the hurt go away. or maybe, truly, it’s that once upon a time i never knew how to sit with the hurt, to let it be, to understand just how strong i could be, to find my way to the clear on the days when the fog was so thick and so dense, and the hurt was so much. it’s taken a lifetime — all the days up till now — to learn the few things that i know.

what i do know is that my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is behind me now. and it’s the next morning. and there’s leftover cumin-bathed slabs chilling in the dark of the fridge. should anyone care to swing by, i’m putting them up for the taking. not even the possums who prowl my back stoop are likely to take me up on my offer.

what’s your cure for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?

p.s. i’m not saying that chopping cabbage gets to the root of whatever it is that afflicts us, all i’m saying is sometimes we need something soothing to get to the other side, where we can begin to see through what hurts or what haunts us….

here’s another something i did this week, to leave you a wisp of the beautiful…..i was trying to hold onto a wee bit of summer’s bounty, by making my own potpourri. (martha stewart said to pluck the petals, strew on baking sheet, oven-dry at 250 for an hour.) it, too, was a flop (bad week for baking sheets at my house), as the glorious marigold and nasturtium and monkshood all turned a strange shade of bllkkh (variations in brown). so i started over, and decided to dry my petals the old-fashioned way: under the sun, strewn on my window sill. a work still in progress….

xoxo

make it stop. please, make it stop.

my voice is only one whisper. my fingers, just one at a time, tap along the rows of these keys without sound. but the lump in my throat is ready to burst. and my heart is too.

stop the ugliness, world. stop the hate. stop the made-up lies and the mudslinging. tear yourself away from the impulse to tromp on the neck of the one you perceive as your enemy.

doesn’t need to be this way. doesn’t need to be a national throw-em-to-the-lions.

the world doesn’t need to wake up every morning searching for the ugliest route to the trail head.

there are moments, plenty of ’em, when i picture myself marching to the steps of the u.s. capitol, unfurling a parchment, invoking a code of radical decency, insisting the ugliness cease and cease now. oh, what i’d give to back some of these fools into a corner, to poke em on the chest, look em in the eye, and ask if really, really, they want to expend their God-given breath on slicing and dicing each other to bits, trampling truth, teaching children the ways of the playground bully.

i got sick of bullies back in first grade. never outgrew my distaste.

all these months i’ve retreated deeper and deeper into a realm where the rules of the world are not the ones with discernible weight. i dwell much of the time in a monastery of my own making. it’s quieter there. and gentler. i take time for the monarch butterfly, leave out saucers of sugar water, scatter seeds for the milkweed that makes for a butterfly landing pad.

in the quietude i wrap all around me, the rules i live by are the ones of an otherworldly iconoclast. the code is the one inscribed by a God who asks only one thing: love without end. love as you would be loved, love every last inch and ounce of creation. behold the wonder. of each other. of the monarch. and the dawn. and every last shimmering light in the night sky.

and, sometimes, to love means to put breath to the words that are stuck in your throat. to march to the capitol steps, to reach for the microphone, to try with every ounce of your might to shake sense into the senseless. the ones dizzy with power, or the pursuit thereof. it’s a sickness and it needs to stop. it’s as contagious, it seems — and as deadly — as this invisible virus, the plague that’s upon us. maybe more so. maybe it’s worse.

because once upon a time i was a nurse, because i’ve stood at the side of a hospital bed in the hours just before a last breath was drawn, i know something of deathbed confessions. i know how, at last, the veils of the everyday are pulled away, and what’s left is the essence. holy essence. how the sins and the glories float to the surface. how one last sweep of the soul, of a lifetime, is what carries us off to whatever comes next.

our time here is fleeting. do the ones breathing fire and lies, do they really want to fritter away the hours allotted? is that churn in their belly the only way they know to crawl from their beds? is bitter the singular taste of the day?

the choice is quite simple: make of your life an instrument of peace, of goodness, of attainable holiness. or let it extinguish in smoke and in flames, in pride and deceit, in ugliness out-of-control.

we make our choice minute by minute, day after day.

what will you choose, world, what will you choose?

if you were writing a code of goodness, decency, and gentle kindness for the world, what would you inscribe? what would constitute breaking the law?

prayer for our little blue marble

blue marble

while inside the walls of this monastery-in-the-making—my humble plot where votives flicker, bells chime on the hour, and a luscious bed of herbs is reaching out its roots—i’ve quieted like never before, quieted in all the nooks and crannies of my soul. my calendar is mostly clear, no longer distracting. i mark time by the shift in light and shadow, burrow into each and every hour for the sacred gift it holds.

and all the while, and especially of late, the cries of the world rage louder and louder. the world it seems is screaming, pleading, breaking down the walls for justice.

there are noises i block out, the noise of protest over masks, the daily idiocy tapped out on twitter or spouted on the west lawn of the people’s house. and there are noises that come raging in, the wail of grief, the undying echo of one man’s last three words, “i can’t breathe.”

i find myself bent low in a necessary posture, the posture of which etty hillesum (the dutch author of confessional letters and diaries of her spiritual awakening who died at auschwitz) once wrote: “a desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling. sometimes in moments of deep gratitude, [sometimes in hours of unceasing grief and supplication,] head deeply bowed, hand before my face.” (words inserted from the original).

the desire to kneel—despite protests from my knees, from all the bendable parts of me it seems—is one that’s struck me more and more achingly these recent days.

this old planet—home to majesties and subtleties, home to fjords and old-growth forests, home to dripping caves and flower-stitched meadows, birthplace to billions and billions, graveyard to them all—it’s aching and convulsing. it’s at once stiller than it’s been in years and seething beyond words.

i wake in the deep of night, and in echo of the ancient monastic practice of keeping prayerful watch through the hours when the world’s asleep, i add my whisper to the angels’ chorus.

dear holy God, save us. dear holy God, make us instruments of your peace. dear holy God, where there is injustice, let us sow the seeds of what will grow toward certain, lasting justice. dear holy God, let us be the makers of your peace. and shake this broken world of each and every speck of vile hate and horror. 

my words feel futile soon as the whisper spills across my lips. but when they rise up from the pit of my heart and soul, especially in the deep dark of night, they’re the surest thing i know. they’re all i’ve got. and so i give them….

what prayer do you pray for this aching planet? 

blue marble from moonscape

on the subject of ephemerality…(and other long-lasting truths)

IMG_1479

in an already cruel april, this seems the cruelest of april’s jokes, this pillow fluff falling from the skies, soft as it is, quick as it is to melt on the tongue (i know; i was just out there with mouth wide open, agasp at the softness, the quiet of this particular snow). this meringue of ice crystals clasping the prayer hands of all the buds just on the verge. the leaden sting of waking up not just to a snow-falling morning, but doing so in the latter weeks of april when the earth has finally, triumphantly, broken through the thawing crust, when the whole globe is aching, is straining, is trying to muster resilience and make it to the other side…

IMG_1476instead, a lesson in ephemerality. the suddenness of slipping away. magnolia? velvety perfumed petals, now on ice. spring beauties, flash-frozen. i dashed out last night, clippers in hand, on a late-night salvation run through the garden. trying to save the soon-to-be stricken.

in any april, a snowfall is crushing. this april, it might knock the last breath of wind out of these tired old lungs. this is the april when we’d already drawn in, drawn quiet. when we were down on our knees, some of us, begging the earth to come to the rescue in the form of easter-egg pastels rising up amid the bursting-forth green synonymous with spring.

when the news pages read apocalyptic — when a zoo in the german town of neumünster is making a sacrifice plan of which animal to feed to another; when krakatoa, the great indonesian volcano, sent “violent puffs” (plumes of smoke and ash and flame) into the skies above the sundra strait, making like some sort of mountainous dragon; when the red-ringed virus crushes our hearts, day after day — we need something akin to a life rope.

the ephemerals of spring carry the whiff of that promise. it’s the evanescence — the now-it’s-here, now-it’s-goneness — that cups the germ of its beauty. the japanese, long wise to this notion in its cherry-blossom iteration, teach this as the truth of the sakura season, in an island nation that maps the bloom from first hint to full blossom.

and, now, it’s all gone. or buried under inches of snow here in the middlelands, here along the lapping shore of lake michigan (where these days it is so very quiet, i could count out the waves by the minute).

so we will need to turn inward again, further and deeper inward. i’ve taken up morning prayer (the serious kind, with flickering candle, the turning of pages, sliding a ribbon from section to section in the book of common prayer). i’ve taken up sourdough baking. and, soon as we can rustle up some plain white rice (the boys protest my usual brown), the homebound college kid and i are honing in on the original nursery confection, from-scratch, stirred-in-a-pot, rice pudding.

braiding sweetgrassamid my red-ringed survival plot, i’ve stumbled into a global book discussion group through my friends at emergence magazine. we’re reading the breathtakingly beautiful robin wall kimmerer’s braiding sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. kimmerer is a mother, scientist, botany professor, and member of the citizen potawatomi nation. each week, these past corona weeks, i find myself in small-group clusters that stretch from bern, switzerland, to tribeca, from the mexican countryside to south portland, maine.

this week we read a chapter titled, “the honorable harvest,” a framework for living centered on the insistent question that arises for kimmerer — and for us, i would argue, as we ache to plot a way forward, out of this corona siege into a recalibrated symbiosis with the world all around — as she pulls fat white bulbs of leek from forest floor:

“if we are fully awake, a moral question arises as we extinguish the other lives around us on behalf of our own. how do we consume in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?” kimmerer asks (italics, for emphasis, are mine). kimmerer, a plant scientist who lives and breathes indigenous wisdom, turns to her ancestral instruction for answers.

“collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest,” she writes, and goes on to say that the guidelines aren’t in fact written down, but rather reinforced in small acts of daily life (the best such codes anyway). if you were to list them, and i will, she writes that they might look something like this (and, again, i’d add that there is here a particular resonance for mutual reciprocities in the age of corona, when hoarding — and stripping bare grocery store shelves — seems an instinct worth batting down):

know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

introduce yourself. be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

ask permission before taking. abide by the answer.

never take the first. never take the last.

take only what you need. 

take only that which is given.

never take more than half. leave some for others. 

harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

use it respectfully. never waste what you have taken.

share.

give thanks for what you have been given. 

give a gift in reciprocity for what you have taken. 

sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

brian doyle long riveri’ve one more morsel for the week, and it’s one worthy of its own post, but i’ll tuck it here instead (if i change my mind, you’ll see so in a subsequent post). my wonderful six-year gig plucking and reading and extolling the wonders of books for the soul for the chicago tribune has come to a close (slashed budgets, new owners, no money for freelancers), and the last of my tribune reviews is, fittingly, a book that deserves a trumpet blast. it’s a collection of breathtaking essays from the late, great brian doyle, and it’s titled, one long river of song: notes on wonder. if you are looking to survive this red-ringed siege with your heart and soul intact, read it. if you’re a high-minded soul and hope to emerge more vibrant and alive than ever, read it.

here’s but a bit of what i wrote:

At turns in “One Long River of Song,“ we discover Doyle the psalmist (singing the wonders of raptors and hummingbirds, otters or three-legged elks), Doyle as God’s acolyte (from the prayers to his unborn children to the one starkly titled, “Last Prayer”), Doyle as run-on sentence humorist (antics with his rambunctious brothers, basketball with toddler teammates). Over and over, his musings are canticles of joy, punctuated with occasional double-shots of heartbreak and humility. It’s the textured layering, the leap from shadow to light, that keeps the reader alert, and ever absorbing.

Always, emphatically, there comes wisdom; it’s a signature move, one you can count on. Have your pens aimed and ready.

It’s gospel of the ordinary, the shoved-aside, the otherwise overlooked. And at the heart of it, that ineffable and necessary unction, a holiness you can all but hold in your palms.

and with that, i will tiptoe away, to spend my day turning pages, stirring puddings, and awaiting the melt of the ephemeral snow…

bless you all. be safe. and be blessed….

since this morning is a bit of potpourri, have at it. leap in with any thoughts about anything corona. about the beauty of evanescence in your life and your world. about the honorable harvest and how you intend to live it….

things that go bang in the night.

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until the rat-a-tat-tat, it had been a silent night. not even the usual tossing and turning. but then the big bang came. sounded like gunfire. or maybe a long string of firecrackers. i did what any night-rousled someone would do: i flung back the sheets and leapt toward the window (not such a smart idea as i look in the rear-view mirror).

peering into the murky darkness, trying to make out shapes against the silhouette of the street lamps, i couldn’t see much. only what looked like lots and lots of leaves.

so i did what any half-witted, mostly-asleep someone would do: i ran outside.

it took a half circle of perambulation, as i walked down the bluestone walk and into the street, to realize what was appearing before my still-blurry eyes: a good third of our giant locust tree had decided to fall to the ground, and on its way down the rat-a-tat i had heard was the sound of the big ol’ locust shaving off half the parkway maple.

oh, lordy.

now i am a girl who loves her trees. i come to befriend them. consider them living, breathing specimens with layers and layers of stories. of history. of keeping wise watch on all that unfolds below and above and within. and this particular tree is the muscular one, the centerstage one that, long as i’ve known this old house, has harbored and shaded the front. it’s as if the big old tree is reaching its arms round the house and all who dwell there. it stands in the way, as if the sentry dead-set on keeping us safe. in fact, i’m certain i fell in love with the tree at the very same instant i fell for the house. likely before, since i had to walk beneath and around that fine lacy-leafed locust on my very first traipse up the walk.

it’s the tree whose branches — in the years when it’s grown inches and inches before we’ve brought in the trimmers — tap against our bedroom window panes, and let us know when a storm is stirring up trouble. it’s the tree whose filagree makes for the lacy dapples of light and shadow in the window seat that’s held me through long hours of long-distance phone calls with the boys i so love, and pages and pages and pages of books (i think of it as my “therapy nook” as emphatically as i call it my book nook). it’s the romping ground of sparrows and woodpeckers, and the high-up perch of the cardinal. it’s where the squirrels, whole generations of squirrels, build their nurseries and stash their winter’s larder.

it’s the tree that has long made my night sky an alchemy of heaven and earth, as the stars play peek-a-boo between the tossing branches and leaves.

and now there’s a hole in my sky.

that night, the night of the big crash-bang-boom, our street looked not unlike a crime scene: the cops rolled right up, set flares glaring into the night, all around the perimeter of the tree now sprawled clear across the street. the guy with the chain saw came too, once he was roused from his sleep, clear up in wisconsin he told me, as i tried to fill his mug with coffee. some of the neighbors came too, all of us decked out in our jammies and various iterations of footwear. (one came in big rubber rain boots, i — stupidly — left my flip-flops behind.)

the next morning, still another big branch came crashing to the ground. (i lost another night’s sleep, tossing and turning over the what-if’s with that one, knowing how often our sidewalk is filled with nannies and babies en route to the park down the lane.) the tree gurus are pretty sure the first fallen chunk of the tree had been holding up the one that fell hours later. and everyone’s certain the big tree is strong as it’s ever been. (last winter an old oak in the yard next door fell to the ground, pulled right up out of the earth, and the tree man told me our big locust likely lost one of its buffers from the wind, and now took all westerlies straight on, thus shaking loose any precarious limbs.)

but the part where the story turned decidedly sweet, the part where it really got me to thinking, was what happened once the sunlight came up, and i sent a note off to my faraway boys, to let them know what had happened during the night.

you would have thought an old friend had died.

both sent notes with lots and lots of exclamations. and not the happy kind. both wanted pictures. both knew exactly how shaken i was — because, suddenly, they were too.

it made me think about home. and how even when you’re no longer there, day after day, night after night, you expect it to stay just as it was. home is defined by a curious set of particulars: the creaks in the stairs, the way the bathroom window always gets stuck. the tree that’s always out front.

and when the picture is changed — even when you’re far far away — it takes a bit of realignment. our world is not right. not right away anyway.

so it is with our living, breathing, hurting and healing selves. in the course of our lives we take a mighty long string of blow after blow. it starts early on. most of us can’t even recall what first set us to tears. we take skinned knee and knocks to the head. we fall off swings, we tumble down stairs. we take hurt after hurt, and each time — miraculously — we heal. or we regain some piece of wholeness again. we learn to live with the bruise, or the scar. we learn to live with our hearts shattered to pieces. somehow, some miraculous how, we are stitched back together again. we might even forget just how much it hurt. or maybe we learn to remember without feeling the whole of the sting. sometimes, we even realize the horrible, unbearable hurt has opened the door to some unimaginable room. when my sweet papa died, i decided not to run off to faraway nursing school. instead i stayed close to home, and learned how to type — and a thing or two about newspaper writing — and there in a newsroom six years later, i met the love of my sweet life. and from that came our beautiful blessed couplet of boys, the ones we call our first and second double-bylines.

the point here might simply be that all our life long we are taking hit after hit, and somehow finding the hope and the faith and the possibility that stitches us back together again: never the same, and maybe just a little bit stronger.

and in the meantime, when i look up into the night sky, from down by the trunk of my big old tree, i see heaven’s dome, more stitched with stars than i’ve ever seen before….

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the new hole in my sky

how have the hurts — and holes — in your life, opened you to wide new starry-stitched vistas? 

home alone — and hearing a cry

it’s just me and the basement crickets here. (i ought to name the whole herd of them since they so noisily, chirpily, send me love songs through the dawn — and the midday — and the late afternoon — and the twilight. deep into the darkness they keep up their chatter.)

the boys i love are faraway. i stayed home because i have a job at the high school, hosting 414 debaters from around the country. feeding each one, breakfast and lunch for the next two days (today we load in provisions). i’d thought i’d write a meditation on being alone. on the luxury of it when you don’t often have it. i know for some it’s a curse; alone bleeds often, bleeds quickly into loneliness. the first syllable — the  a of alone — breaks off, and two new ones cling to the end — loneliness — and suddenly the gift of doing as you please, sleeping with windows open and shades up — because you love the light of night, love even more the dawn’s beginning — all those singular quirks, they can become the humdrum hollowed refrain of a life lived alone not wholly by choice. by grief. by happenstance. by necessity.

but i woke up this morning, and the cavernous cry of this nation — of the countless volumes of women putting breath to the screams they once muffled — it’s echoing inside, rising louder and louder. and i know there’s a vote just hours away. and i know that sitting here listening to the roll, hearing the single syllable rise up, yea or nay, one after another, it’s going to feel something like a gut punch. did you hear her? i will ask, over and over and over.

there will come — for some of us anyway — an unshakeable sense of being kicked aside. of   “ramming this through,” as the senate majority leader himself so unpoetically put it.

there is, though, a gentle breeze of hope this morning. it comes from sweden, from the nobel committee which during our night (their midday) awarded the peace prize to two who’ve dedicated their lives to a fight against sexual violence. one, nadia murad, is a 25-year-old woman, captured, repeatedly raped and tortured by ISIS; she escaped and, ever since, travels the globe speaking out against the atrocities. her inexhaustible journey has left her exhausted, but she refuses to pause, insisting: “i will go back to my life when women in captivity go back to their lives, when my community has a place, when i see people accountable for their crimes.”

time magazine, in their annual centenary of “most influential people,” included nadia in 2016. eve ensler, the playwright and founder of V-Day, a movement to end violence against women, wrote this for the magazine’s roster:

A witness for war’s victims

Nadia Murad stands in a long, invisible history of fierce, indomitable women who rise from the scorched earth of rape during war to break the odious silence and demand justice and freedom for their sisters. At 19 she lost her home, her country, her culture, her mother to murder; witnessed male members of her family murdered in mass killings; and was kidnapped, sold and endlessly raped by members of ISIS. She now travels the world speaking out on the genocide being inflicted on her Yezidi people and demanding release for the more than 3,000 women still held in bondage.

As Europe closes its borders to terrorized refugees in Greece and the U.S. turns its back on the suffering, Nadia is a beacon of light and truth—a reminder that it was the American-led war in Iraq that laid the path for ISIS, that U.S. arms left behind on the battlefield fell into the hands of ISIS and that the U.S. waited too long to intervene in the mass killing and enslavement of the Yezidi people. At 23, Nadia Murad is risking everything to awaken us. I hope we are listening, because we too are responsible.

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i leave you with nadia, with the faint waft of hope. i know, come time for the vote, we will all be standing shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart, promising we will do better for our daughters, our sisters, our sons, and our brothers.

(i do not for a minute want to overlook the second nobel peace prize winner,  dr. denis mukwege, 63, a congolese gynecological surgeon, who campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of congolese women, even after nearly being assassinated a few years ago. working from a bare hospital (often without electricity or enough anesthesia) in the hills of the eastern democratic republic of congo, he has emerged as a champion of the congolese people and a global advocate for gender equality and the elimination of rape in war, traveling to other war-ravaged parts of the world to help create programs for survivors.

“it’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” dr. mukwege once said in an interview. “It’s not an africa problem. in bosnia, syria, liberia, colombia, you have the same thing.”)

may the persistence of justice rise up in all of us today. and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows thereafter. may the fiery determination of nadia and the unrelenting faith of dr. mukwege drive all of us through the fog of despair.

where might you try to carve out space for justice? where might you bring comfort today?

p.s. i’m leaving off a picture up top today, because silence and the sound of a cry are best left unseen….

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?