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Category: heartache

hometown horror

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

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

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

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

photo by Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

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

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

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

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

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

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

there is no peace

in eastern Ukraine, a woman standing in the ruins of what had been her backyard; photo from lynsey addario for the New York Times

we can’t get away from it, nor should we. as bombs rain from the sky, as hospital wings are mortared, and women in labor carried away, who are we to wonder which can of soup we might open? or which load of laundry to do?

as bodies in masses lie bloodied and dead in the road, escape made folly, how dare we flip through the page of a magazine, looking for words to carry us off? 

as old people, too frail to leave home, are shivering in their now windowless houses, neighbors cutting down trees, building fires for heat and for cooking, boiling snow for buckets of water, who am i to complain about all the times in a week i have to run to the grocery?

those are the questions, some of the questions, that plague us in this war time. war a word that now shrieks from the page. it should have shrieked sooner, shrieked louder, i fear. or maybe i just wasn’t listening, quite closely enough. wars until now have mostly not woken me in the night. but now the war does. 

i’m barely awake in the the murky hours of darkness, and the gnawing dread and the weight of this war are close enough to the thin icy edge of my consciousness that one little stirring brings it all back to mind, to heart. i’m fully awake then, startlingly so. 

i know, because the math now comes without pause, the eight-hour time calculation, i know that in the deep of my night it’s morning in kyiv, and bombs must be pelting again, so how can i go back to the business of sleeping? what if, while i keep my eyes closed, a child is lying cold and afraid––in a half-frozen field, at the back of a church, in a house ripped to shreds along with everyone else who’d been under its roof? except for that one lone child now trapped in the cold grip of terror.

i might sit in an armchair not long after dinner, and it might seem like i’m looking ahead, at the screen where a show rolls along, but i’m not paying attention. i’m wondering what it must feel like to count yourself blessed for crossing a border and leaving all else far, far behind. 

there is no peace on the planet. 

the very words war and peace now carry a weight that expands far beyond what had become almost a throwaway sense. i don’t think i realized before just how much volume they hold. i think i mostly dismissed them. considered them words mostly just holding a place. words with a hint of amnesia. words stripped of their grip on us. 

prayers for peace now hold a meaning that used to escape me. i imagine the day when the bulletin breaks, and we might hear the words, war ends. i pray for that day. i pray mightily. but i am wondering now how prayers in the holocaust felt? 

what prayer do you pray as you count the last seconds you breathe? i pray it’s a good one. and i pray even more that it’s heard on the other end. 

i imagine God is distraught. i know i am. i know nearly every last someone i know is. if they’re paying attention. paying attention to me is a prayer, so i pray it day after day. there are days when i want to turn off my attention. slink off to a safe little cove, wake up when it’s over. when the bulletin comes. 

in the times when my prayers are dried up, when my heart has run out of gas, i try to find someones stronger than me. someones who know how to keep going, how to stare fear in the face, how to not cover their eyes and their ears. i poke around looking for words to sturdy me, to steady my wobbly ways.

there is, so often, no better someone than the gentle-souled farmer who plows his own fields with draft horses and oxen down kentucky way. wendell is his name, wendell berry. and this poem of his––the last poem i read to a friend who was dying––is, like all the best prayers, a quiet wisp of a poem that slips in through the smallest chance it can find. i know this poem by heart, or pretty close anyway. but now, more than in a very long time, it reaches out from the dark and brings a most holy communion. 

i pray that some little child far off in ukraine might be wrapped in the whisper of wing that comes from a wild thing stirring. 

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

from New Collected Poems (Counterpoint, 2012)

what brings you strength when you’re feeling wobbly, or weak in the knees?


lynsey addario, whose photo is above, is considered one of the greatest war photographers of the 21st century. she’s a fearless photojournalist, who focuses her work on conflict, human rights, and the role of women in traditional societies. she’s unflinching, she runs toward the scene, whatever it is, so we can all see. she was in the news this week because she took the picture of a family––a mother, her two children, and a church volunteer helping them run––dead in the road trying to escape kyiv. the new york times made the brave and important decision to run the photo–big–across its front page. addario, who is 48 and who was named a macarthur “genius” in 2009 , talked this week about making that photo; here’s what she said:

“I’m a mother, and I when I’m working, I try to stay very focused. I try to keep, sort of, the camera to my eye,” she said. “But of course, it was very emotional. First of all, I had just been sprayed with gravel from a mortar round that could have killed us very easily. So I was shaken up, and when we were told that we could run across the street by our security adviser, I ran and I saw this family splayed out and I saw these little moon boots and puffy coat.”

Addario added that, even though she felt it was disrespectful to take the photo, she thought that she had to.

“This is a war crime,” she said. 

and the world needs to see.

a note: i understand that for some it’s too painful to keep too close a watch. and i understand that our words can’t make a dent in the evil. but against the backdrop of suffering of this magnitude, i can’t imagine turning away.

beyond words…

we are waking up to a terrifying morning, reports of ukraine’s nuclear plant seized by the russians, after they spent the night shelling it, setting parts of it on fire, while every nuclear emergency team in the world huddled, prayed, awaited reports of radioactivity. word comes that the diabolical plot is not merely to cut the power grid to turn out the lights, but to freeze out the people.

our lungs are left breathless, our limbs are trembling. what hell has been wrought?

while the morning leaves room only for prayer, for collective mind-meld to beg to stop putin and his evil conspirators, my work of the week––keeping count, compiling a list of break-through moments of radiant light amid the gathering darkness––feels lame. but, because gathering each and any spark of hope and indefatigable humanity just might keep us from teetering, i will leave it here anyway.

i began the week drawn to pray in one of chicago’s breathtakingly ornate ukrainian churches. not a word was in english (though i did recognize “alleluia,” and “kyiv,” and “kharkhiv,” among the many slavic syllables). but no words were needed to read the faces of the deeply devout, hands clasped, making the byzantine sign of the cross over and over and over (tracing the shape of a cross in the air, but touching the right shoulder first before the left; thumb, index, and middle fingers pressed together, an invocation of the holy trinity).

the faithful came in traditional garb, vyshyvanka, the glorious embroidered shirts worn by men and women alike. and they came americanized, in black leather pants and skiwear. fur, in pelts or jackets, was abundant. but it was the faces i’ll never forget: etched in despair, fervent in prayer. the queue to light candles on the side of the altar never let up, each petitioner clutching crumpled dollar bills in his or her fist, clear through the hour-long mass, a choreography of mystery and reverence, faith and fortitude, i’ll not soon forget.

the lighting of candles never let up

as the week wore on, the reports more and more dire, i began making a list, because otherwise we might be engulfed by sorrows. these are the moments i am holding onto with all my heart, when the resilience of human kindness and hope refuses to die:

did you see the ukrainian grandma who walked up to an armed russian soldier, asked him what the (heck) he was doing there, told him he was an invader, an occupier, a fascist, and then handed him a fistful of sunflower seeds, and told him to put them in his pocket so that when he dies sunflowers (the ukrainian national flower) will grow from his corpse? and before she turned away, she let him know that from that moment on, he was cursed?

ukrainian “sunflower” grandma confronting russian soldier

did you see the ukrainian woman with the purple streaks in her hair who gave tea and cakes to a captured russian soldier, a young man with nothing but peach fuzz on his reddened cheeks, and when the purple-haired woman used her phone to call the soldier’s mother, natasha, the soldier broke into tears and blew a kiss to the phone?

did you see the little 8-year-old girl who spent her days in the underground subway station crocheting a tiny pink heart, and then she tapped a stranger on the shoulder, and gave it to him?

did you hear the UN translator’s voice crack as he echoed in english the words of ukraine’s president volodymyr zelenskyy, who called out to the world: “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians. We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one.”

did you see the ukrainian grandma cradling a cat, giving a very emphatic middle finger to the passing-by russian brigade?

did you see the thousands of romanians, lined up in their cars, waiting at the ukrainian border to welcome the tired, the hungry, the cold, the women and children and babies fleeing for their lives? 

baby born in kyiv subway shelter

did you see the baby born in the subway shelter in kyiv?

or the ukrainian woman who crossed the border into hungary with the phone number of a woman she’d never met and two children who’d been entrusted to her––along with their passports––by a man not allowed to leave, who thrust his children into her arms, and instructed her to call the number once they crossed into safety. and not long after she placed the call, the mother of the two children approached; mission accomplished. mother and children, reunited. (the children’s mother had left ukraine earlier, with two younger children, but once it was clear the older children needed to leave, and the father was not allowed to cross the border, he turned to a stranger, and begged, please get my children to safety; if you call this number you will find their mother. and she did.)

or the holocaust survivors huddled in a bomb shelter in ukraine, with the flags of israel and ukraine limp behind them, voices cracking as they cursed putin and asked for peace?

have you seen the thousands of germans who crowded into the central train station in berlin to offer fleeing ukrainians a place to stay? and they came with hand-penned placards in german, english, and ukrainian, offering welcome. “i was very scared, i had to get out from this hell,” said one ukrainian woman as she stepped off the evacuation train, and fell into the arms of a berliner she had never before seen or known.

the images keep coming, moving us to tears upon tears, bringing flickers of something that every once in a rare while feels like the faintest outline of hope. but they fade away, and we are haunted once again by this horror we cannot stop. 

Lord, have mercy.

what images from ukraine are etched in your heart this terrible morning?

exercise in empathy, another name for prayer

A screenshot of a video released by the Ukrainian Police Department Press Service of military helicopters, apparently Russian, flying over the outskirts of Kyiv, February 24, 2022 

can you imagine? can you imagine waking up with your bedroom windows shaking, a distant thump unmistakably drenching you in dread, even in the liminal fog of your pre-dawn dreams? 

can you imagine lifting your newborn from the crib, cradling him against your breast, and running in the cold to the nearest subway shelter, where you will then spend hours upon endless hours, hearing the faint cacophony of what you know to be bombs exploding on a land you call your own?

can you imagine? 

can you imagine rushing to your kitchen, clearing shelves of whatever might fuel you in the long hours ahead, grabbing your dog, your kids, your passport, and climbing behind the wheel of a car with only a half tank of gas, a tank you meant to fill the day before but one of the kids got cranky so you thought you’d put it off? 

can you imagine if you were due to show up for an MRI to see how far the cancer had spread, how fractured was the tibia, the hip, the wrist, but now the air-raid sirens blare through the dawn and you have to weigh a trip to the hospital or the nearest border? 

can you imagine watching your father fill his duffle bag, turning toward the door, pausing to kiss you on the forehead, watching the tears well up in your mother’s eyes, seeing how her hand now is shaking, how she clutches the sleeve of your father’s coat, and how he pulls himself away, unlocks the door and steps out into darkness? and your mother fills the sudden emptiness with a wail you’ve never heard before?

can you imagine holding a ticket to a flight out in the morning only to awake to find the airports all are closed, bombed in the night, and no air space is safe for flying?

imagining is imperative. imagining is how we weave the invisible threads that make us one united people, that make us begin to know what it is to walk in another’s hell. 

imagining is the birthing ground of empathy. 

and empathy fuels our most selfless urgent prayer. 

empathy––a necessary precondition for loving as you would be loved, the necessity of imagining another someone’s pain or fear or desperation, for sometimes imagining nothing more complicated than cold or hunger or exhaustion so overwhelming you’re sure your heart is on its last full measure––empathy is the exercise that puts form and fuel to prayer, that enfolds its stripped-down architecture in the flesh of humanity. be it agony, or terror. be it frenzy, or dizzying confusion.

empathy is what lifts our prayer out of the trench of numbness, muttering words we memorize but do not mean. empathy fine chisels each and every prayer. catapults us beyond our own self-obsessed borders, across time zone or geography. conjoins our circumstance with that of someone we have never met, someone whose predicament is dire, and is––in fact––beyond our most ignited imagination.

truth is, our empathy cannot take us the whole distance. cannot––despite our deepest straining––plant us in the fiery pit of what it is to be awaking to the bombs, watching the ones we love walk into the inky darkness, not knowing for weeks if they’re dead or alive, maimed or shackled, or someone else’s prisoners of war.

but it’s the place to begin.

and isn’t the whole point of praying to reach across the emptiness, the void, to unfurl the one first filament that might begin to bring us side-by-side, in soul and spirit if not in flesh? 

don’t we sometimes pray as if to hoist another’s leaden burden onto the yoke of our own shoulders? 

isn’t the heart of it to lift us as one? we’re not here as parties of one, churning up our own little worries, butting our place to the front of the God line. we’re here to pay attention. to scan for hurt and humiliation, to go beyond, far beyond, lip service and throw-away lines.

imagination––the exercise of empathy––is a God-given gift, it’s the thing that equips us to love as you would be loved. without it, our every petition is flat. is a waste of our breath, really.

we invoke the hand, the heart of God, yes. but isn’t it our business, our holy business, to get about the work of trying to weave us into true holy communion?

it is our empathies that just might save us as a people, that just might move us toward the place where all our prayers rise in echo, from all corners, nooks, and crannies.

it’s not often we wake up to war. but we did this week. and so we will in the weeks and weeks to come.

i awake now in unending prayer. another name for exercising empathies, to stay awake to the suffering now inflicted on ones we’re meant to love. even if we’ll never know their names.

***

i searched for a prayer for peace, and came circling back to this, from ellen bass; it is a prayer for all, no matter to whom or what or how you pray:

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail,
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your Visa card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

–Ellen Bass

how did you learn to pray?

a note in an age of war: when the first reports started seeping in, when the news broke the other night that shelling had started along the northern, eastern, and southern borders of ukraine, it wasn’t long till i found myself thinking of all of you here at the chair. i knew we would all be huddled on the edge of our armchairs, keeping watch, keeping terrible watch. made me wish that every once in a while we could be together in real time, with our real faces and voices. our hearts and souls come to life. maybe after two years without company, without mornings when i set out mugs and bowls spilling with clementines, i am getting hungrier for human contact. made me wonder if maybe one day soon we should gather in a zoom room. i’ll leave this as a thought. i know we’re a gaggle of rather shy souls, but even us shy ones sometimes hunger for company. true company.

p.s. haven’t heard a peep from any editors so my wait for edits continues….

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