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Category: high school

telling our truest true stories

writing school

for years now, it’s been an annual rite of november — and i don’t mean the rite that stars the plucked and very plump bird. i mean the one where i pile up my books on writing, pore over the pages i find richest and wisest, scribble then type pages of notes, and shlep off to the high school, to try to impart a thing or three about the fine art of writing from the heart, searching for epiphany, making your story reach across the abyss that exists between us, between strangers, and sometimes even bedfellows, to cinch the space, the hollow, to fill it in with the communion of sparked connection. the one that comes when we dare to tell our truest true stories. when our truest true stories are heard, in that way that mysteriously, miraculously, defiantly opens — and channels — two hearts.

it’s litFest at the high school where my sweet boy is now counting down the days toward Triumphant Escape. he’s a senior. and litFest is only for seniors, so later this morning when i plug in my laptop, and fire up my modern-day slide show, i will more than likely be looking out at a sea of faces i’ve known since long before any one of them could read, let alone hold a pencil or squeeze out anything resembling a paragraph. (i’m told that a whole flock of my sweet boy’s best chums — the ones who know me only as the silver-haired marm who long drove the carpool, flipped the french toast, cheered from the side of the soccer field — they are coming to witness the fact that i have a life beyond the care and feeding of two growing boys. and they’re hoping i’ll tell a tale or two about their chum who’s long been my very best muse.)

i’ll be asking each one of them to write one true sentence about themselves. then i’ll ask them to write four more true sentences. and to circle the sentence that would be hardest to write about. to draw a rectangle around the one that most begs to be written about. and to scribble some form of a star next to the one that’s most uniquely their own story to tell, but also most likely to intersect with a story others know as their own. i’ll ask them to think a bit about what keeps them from plucking the sentence that’s circled or rectangled or starred, and plumbing its depths. then i’ll leave them alone with their thoughts while i talk to them about epiphany, and how the one fine thing that lifts a personal essay out of the belly of navel-gazing and into the realm of revelation, of the connectedness that comes between reader and writer, is the courage to tell the truth, to be willing to be vulnerable as you sift through the tangles for some glimmering shard of understanding, a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human — in all our foible and wobble and sorrow, and, yes, our occasional triumph and glory.

or, as the writer vivian gornick puts it: the narrator in personal narrative is “the instrument of illumination,” the “truth speaker.” the writer, she tells us, “is on a voyage of discovery,” comprised of almost equal parts narration, commentary, and analysis.

what makes personal narrative serve the reader, gornick says, is that “[w]e are in the presence…of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows — moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge.”

put simply: the writer is leaning into question, searching for the why that propels the story, the self; not knowing quite what truth might be unearthed, but unearthing anyway. or as e. l. doctorow once explained: “it’s like driving a car at night; you can only see as far ahead as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way.”

i will remind these young writers that we’re using the tens of thousands of words in the dictionary just as the symphony uses its strings and its timpani, and as the painter dips her brush into infinite blendings of color. we are, as john cheever once wrote, trying to reach toward this narrative bar: “a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. it has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty.”

or, as eudora welty once said: “no blur of inexactness, no cloud of vagueness, is allowable in good writing; from the first seeing to the last putting down, there must be steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose.”

and then i will look out to the sea of seniors in high school, this classroom filled with kids who are spending the day immersed in spoken or written word, and i will ask them to put their fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper. i will ask them to pick one of their five sentences — including the one that might be the hardest to write about — and i will ask them to write without stopping — not for pause or punctuation, just push the truth out to the screen or the page — for the next 10 minutes. and then, without revealing a word out loud, i will ask them to look at their words and see if they’ve stumbled on one bit of self-understanding they’d not before known.

if one single one of them ever again remembers to reach for epiphany, or considers the power of telling true stories when the truth is your own, well then i’ll have taught the lesson i set out to learn.

what’s the one true story you’ve found the courage to tell? or for which you might some day muster said courage?

thurman books

** and while we’re at it, here’s the latest chicago tribune roundup of books for the soul, published nov. 1:

Powerful collection from MLK’s pastor — fitting for our current political moment — leads roundup review of spiritual books

“Sermons on the Parables” by Howard Thurman, edited with an introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis, 208 pages, $25

Howard Thurman, pastor to Martin Luther King Jr. and long considered one of the great spiritual thinkers and most powerful preachers of recent times, died in 1981, so his voice no longer shakes the sanctuary walls. But a new collection, “Sermons on the Parables,” is the surest dose of what’s needed in these fraught times: a clear, compelling voice that rises up from the page, illuminating a sacred way toward all that’s good and just.

It’s the closest we might come to counting ourselves among the blessed in his pews. All that’s missing is the rustling of fellow worshippers, shifting in their seats, and the booming decibels of the gifted preacher who aimed in his sermons for nothing less than “the moment when God appeared in the head, heart, and soul of the worshiper.”

The treasure here is not only the 15 previously unpublished sermons on the parables of Jesus (brilliantly retold and examined by Thurman), but the rich commentary that rightly refocuses the spiritual world’s attention on this extraordinary 20th-century luminary. It’s a book born out of conversation between editors David B. Gowler, who holds a chair in religion at Emory University, and Kipton E. Jensen, associate professor of phi­losophy at Morehouse College.

Oh, to have rocked beneath the rafters with Thurman at the pulpit.

“A Lens of Love” by Jonathan L. Walton, Westminster John Knox, 216 pages, $16

How fitting that Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, opens this serious and heartfelt biblical study in the intimacy of his Cambridge dining room, logs crackling in the fireplace nearby, as an eclectic mix of dinner guests steer conversation awkwardly toward the intimidating 66 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Walton, who is beloved in the classroom and at the pulpit, writes that a “silence born of biblical insecurity” among his dinner guests is what stirred him to begin the monthly scriptural study that underpins “A Lens of Love.” And it’s that posture — a certain humility — and approach — a serious sociohistorical analysis (“no text without context”) — that makes Walton’s work so unshakeable.

He brings a critical voice — that of the progressive evangelical, counterpoint to the conservative strain of American Christian evangelicalism — to the table. And he is driven, first, to illuminate the ancient world in which the Bible was produced, to lay bare its timeless teachings, and ultimately to apply those moral imperatives to our own wrestling with “the big questions of contemporary life.” His inquiry is guided at every turn by both a critical mind and sensitive heart.

In these pages, under Walton’s tutelage, we find a God who “sides with those on the underside of power.” Walton never shies from the unbearable questions of how God allows suffering. And he takes head-on his disillusionment with so many public professions of Christian piety in the Age of Trump. In Walton’s hands, the Bible becomes — for all of us, skeptics to die-hards — a tome of fathomless instruction.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, Compendium, 40 pages, $16.95

For this experiment in soul stretching, you might yearn for a young human to plop on your lap, but that’s hardly necessary.

What we have here is a picture book with text penned by a poet fluent in the fine art of paying fine-grained attention. Poets often are the prophets, the seers, among us. The book’s bold, colored-pencil pages — drawn by Madeline Kloepper, a Canadian artist who employs equal parts sweetness and curiosity — will reach out and not let you go.

“Tiny, Perfect Things” wants to slow you — and your optional young reader — to a somnolent amble. Learn to look closely, seems the instruction. Practice here — in the luscious pages of the picture book extolling the wonders of the world all around — and you might learn to apply the technique to the rest of your life. The litany here, as a young girl and her grandfather head out for a walk as day turns to night, is simple enough: a spider’s web that’s caught the light, a snail that’s climbed a fence post, an invincible flower rising from a sidewalk crack, even the magic of shadowplay.

It’s the beholding of the oft-unnoticed that is the blessing. And this is a book that invites you to practice through the slow, simple turning of page after tiny, perfect page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

papa letter

the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

not your mother’s pot roast

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back when i was peeking into the kitchen, the room where my mother ruled, what happened to pot roast happened once every couple weeks. and, seeing as my papa was an ad man in the mad men days of american advertising, a three-piece-suited man who came home on the train with a brief case sometimes spilling with mystery boxes, boxes marked X, boxes we were meant to try, i came to count myself on the front line of the post-industrial-space-age kitchen revolution. which means i was among the first to suspiciously nibble hamburger helper, bundt cake in a box, and — our favorite — space food sticks, those tootsie-roll-like batons sheathed in crinkly silvery paper; “breakfast in a bite.”

is it any wonder my culinary quirks got cross-wired?

back to the pot roast. as best i recall, pot roast meant my mama was ripping open packets of dehydrated onion soup (thank you, NASA), spinning off the lids of cans, exercising her dumping skills. (i’d like to imagine that when no one was looking, she poured in a glop of old red wine, but that was likely the kitchen down the street, where my best friend’s mama was likely to pour a little red wine into, well, her first mug of coffee.) the whole pot-roast caboodle was entombed in aluminum foil, and set in the oven till the 6:30 train pulled into the station, my pa motored home, and we all sat down together to hear the highlights of the day downtown where the ad men re-wrote the national narrative, in 60-second pitches with the catchiest tunes.

another thing about the pot roast: i’m pretty sure we never called it pot roast. i think it had a name that ended in “steak.” when you were feeding five kids, and trying to stick to your weekly grocery budget (those were the days when my ma prided herself on a week’s worth of groceries for seven, paid for with $100 bill — and change to tuck back in her pocket, change that became her “funny money,” money to spend as she darn well pleased), you named whatever you could a name that ended in “steak.”

which is how i came to not really know what in the world a pot roast was. all i knew was that it sounded like something donna reed or dick van dyke’s laura petrie would make.

which is all an even longer-winded way to say i was mighty intrigued when i spied a food52 instructional guide for something called “pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic.” if you ever want to grab my attention, toss in any sort of big number. i’ve always liked playing with numbers, and 40 cloves of garlic had me, truth be told, at 10.

as i count down the dinner hours with my sweet senior in high school, i seem to have slid into an ulterior plan of feeding him in ways he’ll never forget. ways that might seep in as he stands in yet another cafeteria line with a dishwasher-splattered cracked plastic tray, awaiting a ladle of whatever swims in the hot metal bins. (it’s sneaky, i know, but we mothers must out-think our offspring, especially when they grow to be big enough that they don’t like to be smothered with our hugs and our kisses and the little red hearts we used to scribble onto their lunch bags.)

which is where we arrive, at last, and once again, at the pot roast. something about “pot roast” seemed to ping that place in my brain that’s on the prowl for unforgettables. a boy who sits down to dinner on a thursday night, or — back up the clock — a boy who walks into a house where 40 cloves of garlic have been infusing the kitchen, front hall, heck, making their way down the whole dang walk, all backed up with notes of grass-fed beef, and chunks of carrot, onion, and vegetable broth (with a splash of red wine, because i learned watching my best friend’s mama….), well that is a boy who might remember his mama — or at least her pot-roasty roast once in a while.

so i set out on my mission. secured me three pounds of grass-fed beast, peeled garlic till my fingers called for time-out, chopped and seared, and cranked up the oven.

because i never want to keep these little miracles to myself, i am herewith sharing my secrets. this comes from my friends at food52, those geniuses of community recipe gathering, where so many cooks have their fingers in the pot, you’re assured that whatever makes it onto the site is vetted up, down, and sideways. and usually delicious.

pot roast with 40 cloves of garlic

Serves: 6 

Prep time: 30 min 

Cook time: 4 hrs 30 min

Ingredients

2 tablespoons canola (or other neutral) oil
3 pounds boneless beef chuck, patted as dry as possible
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
40 peeled garlic cloves
4 cups vegetable broth

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Set a large Dutch oven on the stove over high heat. While it’s getting good and hot, season the beef all over with salt. When the pan is hot, add the oil. Sear the beef all over—figure 4 minutes per side—until the outside is deeply browned and crusty. Transfer the beef to a plate.
  3. Add the onions and carrots to the pan. Toss in the rendered beef fat and season with a pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, another pinch of salt, and toss. Cook for another 5 minutes.
  4. Nestle the seared beef on top of the vegetables, then pour the broth around the perimeter. It should rise about halfway up the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover the pot and get in the oven.
  5. Roast for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, flipping the meat halfway through. You can start checking the meat at 3 hours—exactly how tender or toothsome you like it is totally personal.
  6. Before serving, remove any butcher’s twine (if it was there, holding the meat together) and use 2 forks to tear and pull the meat into big hunks and shreds. Season with more salt to taste.
  7. Serve with something starchy. This keeps perfectly in the fridge for leftovers all week. I also love freezing portions for pat-on-the-back weeknight dinners down the road.

so there you go. have at it. i can gleefully report that for a minute there last night dinner was silent. silent in that way that the taste of what’s at the end of the fork is so unusually good, the taste buds take over and the vocal cords go mum.

and that’s the story of pot roast. and how i added one notch to the score board, the one marked, “reasons to come home from college. or at least miss my roast-searing mama.”

what’s your secret sure-fire hit to lure those you love back home to your kitchen?

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a sigh like no other

i feel it from deep down inside my lungs. from the bottom of my rapid-beating heart. from the tips of all my limbs. i think i even feel it from my bum.

the sigh of not just summer’s launch, but a sigh that’s never been.

here we are, the clock ticking toward the holy hour when the school bell will last clang, when my fourth grader will leave his little school, the high schooler already no longer a high schooler.

these are the first few hours of pure summer oxygen. when all the cares, at last, are gone. when the summer lies ahead, no need to rush from bed in mornings, no need to turn out lights at 9 or even 10 at night. no need, gosh darn it, to stir and cook and put square meals on plates. we can choose, if we want, to slice a watermelon and call it dinner.

summer is the season of so many choices.

and this summer, this holy blessed summer, is the summer in which i can chart–as if a meteorologist tracking storms or humidity–the pressure lifting like a swiftly-rising puffy cloud, the pressure evaporated, gone.

no college essays due. no dabbling with the SAT study guide. no memorizing state capitals and abbreviations. (it’s darn-near comic, often here, having two boys with feet so far apart, one in elementary world and the other all the way to college.)

and this holy blessed summer, i don’t even have to worry about the bus for camp racing by before we’re ready. camp at our house this summer consists of a company of two: one’s the counselor, one’s the camper.

my college-bound boy will spend the summer days, or at least my work days, on adventures with his little bro. they’ve picked a town-and-country theme (or at least the older one picked it, the little one isn’t big on any theme that’s absent a ball and ballfield). the big boy will teach the little one all the things a boy should know: how to bait a fish hook, how to use a compass, how to travel on the “el” train. he’ll teach him how to cook a hot dog on a stick. and, perhaps, how to bench press, oh, 30 pounds.

i had no forms to fill out for this summer. no tetanus shots come due.

i might as well toss all alarm clocks. and wrist watches while we’re at it.

we are running without rigors of where to be when.

we are, for the first and perhaps the last time, this summer exploring what it means to be without a long list of must-get-dones.

we are letting brothers be brothers. we are letting boys be boys.

we are, so help me, going barefoot. making ice cream. picking berries. watching clouds go passing by.

we’ve earned this respite from the madness. and i am claiming every ounce of it.

so many saturday mornings we’ve been jarred awake by alarms telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we must be dressed, be out the door.

i’ve whispered, sighed, moaned, “this is crazy, this is no way to live.” as i’ve watched myself mad-dash from here to there to everywhere.

and this is the summer when the billboard in my head reads one simple word: SAVOR.

savor slumped shoulders, the load finally slid off, the back-tightening worries, gone.

savor screen door slapping. savor breeze blowing through the porch. savor fireflies. savor whispers on the front stoop till the moon is high above.

savor being together with both boys, the heartbeats of my life, my loves.

savor oars swooshing through the water. savor sand between the toes. savor tomatoes sliced and salted. savor peach juice dripping down my chin.

savor all it took to get us here. savor that we’ve made it. savor two boys who both consider it a blessing to spend the summer bumming ‘round together.

savor nights without homework, and mornings without racing, rushing, panting, shrieking.

savor every blessed drop.

it’s time to sigh the deepest sigh. it won’t last forever.

and just how do you plan to spend your summer’s vacation? what’s on your wish list of summer joys?

my little one (up above) asked last night if he got “special breakfast” since it was the last day of school. why, of course. out came the red “you are special today” plate, and the turkey bacon and the pancakes with sliced peaches and maple syrup. that little guy is playing in the little league world series this weekend. game one’s tonight, unless the rains don’t stop. games two and three come saturday and sunday, all three played out in an idyllic little ballpark here in town, a place that’s a throwback in time, with dugouts and a flagpole and a snack shack where hot dogs are $1.25, and rice krispie treats are just a quarter, and brownies too, all made by a woman with her hair twisted in a bun atop her head, a woman named bonnie who hovers over the place as if a mother hen. it’s a place with an old-time scoreboard just like the one at wrigley field, with tin numbered squares, carted out beyond the cyclone fence by little kids pulling a red radio flyer wagon, who try inning after inning to keep track of all the runs. not a bad way to start the summer, playing it like a scene from some old-fashioned movie, kids on a playlot, slugging, sliding, pitching, catching for the world series trophy. we got lucky this year, and my little slugger found himself on a team with true all-stars, the kinda kids whose names will be whispered around town for years to come. we are going along for the ride. and some ride it is…..some start to summer, indeed.

valedictory

absolutely, and without debate, there has been in our house one recurring theme in the chapter called “high school.”

it would be that phenomenon in which light shines from under the crack of the bedroom door till 3, then 4, and sometimes, ’round 5 (A!M! lest we be unclear), when the first rays of sun begin to dance amid the plugged-in watts of the desk lamp.

and even then there is no clicking off that fool light.

it is a cultural oddity that pulls the grownups out of bed, groggy, at wit’s end, wondering when, oh when, will this cruel and unusual punishment come screeching to an end.

you can stand at said bedroom door, and plea, and scrunch your face, and beg for mercy: “honey, PLEASE, go to bed.”

but no, the typing continues. the boy is hard at work. pounding thoughts, meeting deadlines.

and you, poor grownup, tired grownup, grownup who will wobble through the whole next day under cloak of stupor, you will grow accustomed to this high-school theme: the all-nighter that would not end.

and so, as if a 21-barrel salute to the end of that sweet sad sorry sobering chapter, the boy i love declared somewhere deep inside that he’d go out as he’d carried on all along: all-nighter on the last night of high school.

why, had you thought otherwise? had you fooled yourself into thinking this ONE time that ol’ eight-page paper would be typed, stapled, turned in one sweet minute before the schoolbell clanged time-out, game’s-end?

and so it was, after weeks and weeks of dropping hints (nabokov? checked in with nabokov any time recently?), the dear boy, breaths away from graduation, sat down at 9th hour to begin to type. to see how close he’d come to driving mama over the brink, into the seas of madness saved for those who set expectations foolish high.

and as if to amp the fun, he retreated from his room, settled in full view, just off the kitchen, where i could watch the lines unfold, where i could watch him type his way toward high school conclusion.

look ma, he seemed to type, i can dash off eight pages while you polish off your nighttime bowl of popped and fluffy corn. i can squeak in under the wire, while you witness the whole event.

alas, i could not stay awake past page five. and so i climbed to bed, tossed and drifted to a foggy-not-yet-sleeping place.

i had implored, “wake me at the end, i want to be there for the final period of high school.”

and so, when at 11:53 he wandered by the precipice of my mattress, stood ever still, and whispered, “hey mom,” i barely startled. just rolled over and uttered, “huh?”

could i give it all a read, he wondered, this paper that dissected four plays by nabokov, this paper due third period on the last half day of high school?

without thought or grumble, i ripped back the sheet, pointed my stiff self toward the stairs and down i climbed. i read, i turned small letters into caps, i marveled (or at least i think i did, as sleep was clearly fogging up my eyes and brain).

i slapped the boy upon the back, returned to stairs and up to slumber.

when i awoke this morn, i found the eight pages, printed out, in a folder, tucked one last time in backpack. and off my boy loped, high school all wrapped up in one last all-nighter.

so this is it, the hardest chapter yet, now writ.

the boy who started high school with an undetected fracture straight across his thigh bone, the boy who set out to get straight As, to take the hardest classes offered, he struggled and survived. he learned much, and so did i.

he set out to test his arc of limitations, as emerson once challenged. and hanging on the post beside his bed, five medals, bronze to gold. though the silver that he wanted never came.

he found three close friends, in a sea of 1100. and a boat full of “brothers.”

he has cried in my arms, and raised his fist in triumph.

in the end, there will be no valedictory speech, no fireworks to light the sky.

but in past weeks there have trickled in emails from teachers, tracing back to freshman year, remarking on what a kid he is, and how much he will be missed.

in the end, i’ve realized, it is the typed words from souls who’ve earned his respect over long semesters, over years, that constitute the prize of prizes.

the boy i love, the boy inclined to type all night, he’s triumphed in the end. and i could not be more proud.
nor love him any wilder.

here’s to a summer of no worries, no tests, no papers.

just joy and laughter, and the sweet glory of the journey shared, straight up to the last sure dot on the page.

–the end, sweet will, the end–

this one’s mostly just to record the moment, lest anyone ever debate that the end of high school quietly lulled to closure. there are souls all around this time of year, wrapping up chapters hard and not-so-hard. it is the time of year for looking back, then launching forward. to ends that mark beginnings. tell me what headlines your end of schoolyear, start of summer this time round?

that ol’ nemesis: datebook

it’s not the first time i’ve felt strung up by my datebook. oh no. not even close.

maybe it’s just that it’s worn me down to the rough-sawn bone.

it is a modern mother’s dilemma: you write it all down, to get it all done, but when you look at the page, you get dizzy. short of breath. queazy bellied.

you look at the calculus there on the page, and you realize it’s an equation to stump even the most enlightened.

you don’t set out to cobble together a datebook with squiggles and swirls, and multiple colors of ink. you are not trying to illustrate the madness that is your life at the moment.

you are simply recording who needs to be where, and when.

so how come it makes me so queazy?

how come these last two months of the schoolyear, of high school for one of my two, how come once again it feels like a slammer?

i find myself whispering to myself, as i drive from place one to place two, “God only gives you what you can handle. good thing, babe, you only had two.” i can’t imagine the scene if i’d had the six or four or three i’d long hoped for.

i walked into my editor’s office yesterday, to ask about one of my stories. she asked how it was going, i flipped back, “oh, it’s insane.” she, a solid swede who never gets ruffled, flipped back: “you’re always insane. just don’t let it be.”

i carried those words with me the rest of the day: just don’t let it be.

hmm. and how would i do that? what does that look like?

i have two kids. one does two sports plus fourth grade. shouldn’t be too complicated. i have another who carries a nearly impossible load, including an art class that keeps him up till 5 in the morning, what with all the drilling and glueing, the mounting of beach grass in neat little lines, on a rolled-out base of self-hardening clay. and did i mention peculiarly bent tubes of copper? it’s intricate and beautiful. but it scares me to death. say, when he leaves it to dry on the floor of the kitchen, in the space where we walk from one room to another. besides the art, there’s the fine sport of rowing. and a chamber orchestra load that, for instance, has him awake at 4 in the morning to get on a bus to roll down to orchestra hall, for a recording on stage. and i’m due to idle outside, in the no-parking lane, to rush him from end of recording, to 15 miles away, where a boat of rowers will be waiting on the banks of the river. that’s on the docket for monday. never mind tuesday or wednesday.

did you read that paragraph there? it’s what’s making me nuts.

but my editor says, soundly, “don’t let it.”

so i come to the table, to ask: how is it done? how do we take on these loads and not sink under the weight of it, the here-and-there of it?

maybe i should have been some sort of a monk. holed myself up in a cloistered existence. worried about simple things, like when the chives were about to burst into bloom. or how much my knees hurt, kneeling there on the hard stone slabs at vespers at 3 in the morning.

maybe i was cut out for another life.

maybe being a mother in the 21st century is not my natural habitat. maybe i’m driving everyone nuts with all of my worries. and all of my odd calculations, trying to figure how long i can idle in that no-parking lane before the cop blows his whistle, slaps on a ticket?

it’s that ol’ nemesis datebook, back to bite me again.

i long for the zen. for serenity. for nothing more taxing than gathering blooms from my garden. for snipping fine herbs in my stew.

i need a prescription, i fear, to get through to the end of the school year. (pssst, i don’t mean a white little pill; nor a blue one. just some method to clear all the madness.)

and the sad thing is this: these are the final weeks that my firstborn and i will ride the waves of his everyday life.
i’d better figure it out, before i let these days swirl down the drain.

anyone have an eraser?

i need your counsel and wisdom: how do we take on a jampacked calendar, and not succumb to our worst worried selves? anyone else feel stretched to the point where you hear a snap in your head? anyone know the words to the serenity prayer?

the magic of mexican fried steak

it’s not happened often, but every once in a while, a boy runs out of gas. tank drained. big empty. not one ounce left.

and so, you tuck the boy in bed. even when he’s longer than the old twin bed. even when his past-noon* feets dangle over the edge.

you tuck him in and let him sleep and sleep and sleep.

you worry about his weary self. you check on him, from time to time, just as when he was a dimpled little boy. you touch his brow. and when you’re sure he’s in a deep, deep sleep, you kiss him on the stubbled cheek.

while he dreams the morn away, you wend your way to the butcher shop. you browse the steaks, the marbled slabs of muscle. you pluck one that’s on a bone.

you decide that in the hierarchy of mother’s magic potions, you are well beyond the need for oatmeal, you’ve climbed the charts to up where red meat looms. only cure that’s surer is one involving hypodermic needles. and needles make you queazy, so you stick to steak and its soul-restoring powers.

this is wise, because when you dare to rouse the sleeping man-boy, you have arsenal in your defense. you have new york strip to dangle.

why, you’ve seen the circus trainers do the same: dangle steak in front of cats, big cats, cats with killer teeth, to turn them into docile kittens.

not that any boy i know would growl or snarl or bite my head off. but when awaking worn-out, on-empty man-boy, i find a steak is handy.

and so on the edge of bed i sat, whispered words of red meat. i saw the smile spread across his lovely face. i saw the eyelids flutter open.

“if it’s too much,” i said, “we can go with oatmeal.”

ah, no, he answered rather sprightly. “au contraire. quite the opposite.” a steak, he said, was in his dreams.

but not just any steak: a mexican fried steak, was what he had in mind. so, with the click of that magic phone that coughs up all the answers, he typed in spanish words, came up with the abuela’s path to steak perfection, or in this case milanesas empanizada. that is, mexican fried steak.

with one swift leap, he was out of bed and down the stairs. he was talking bread crumbs, garlic, egg bath. red meat. meat so red i swear it moo’d.

we put our little heads together, he and i: grabbed a loaf of challah. swiped off the shelf the dusty mini-processor, a chopping-blending whiz my adopted jewish grandma gave me once upon a time.

we splitzed in bread. we added cloves of garlic. we inhaled. we sighed aloud.

we cooked our way to cure. we shook in cumin, poured in salt, cracked pepper. for good measure we added a little packet of something called “milwaukee avenue steak seasoning,” a smoky rub named for a windy-city thoroughfare where you can’t help but stumble over steaks of every stripe and cut.

“it’ll be chicago mexican fried steak,” declared the sous chef, smiling down on me.

and so, through that alchemy that is the holy work of kitchens, with a little splitzing, the cracking of two eggs, and the bathing of that steak, first in yolky goop and then in silken challah-garlic-cumin-milwaukee crumbs (that sous chef dabbed on quite a blanket there of crumbs), we turned the noontime into one of pure true joy.

we were cooking side-by-side. we were laughing, leaping out of sizzling oil’s way. for that deeply adorned steak, what with its eggy under-garments, and its crumby top-dressing, it was dropped in pool of hot corn oil, and it was turning into resurrection breakfast, served at 12:15 on what would have been a schoolday, restoring life to the once-nearly lifeless.

i never cease to marvel at the powers that rise from stove or oven. how what goes on there truly fills our pores, our weary bones. and most of all the tickers deep inside.

by lunchtime’s end, as the man-boy rubbed the last red drop of beefy juice right off his plate, as he sipped the last of his orange juice, he was joyful once again. he was ready, one more time, to take a lap on the track called life.

i rinsed the plate. i put away the fixings.

and i whispered a thank-you prayer to the abuela who’d led us to the restoration grotto, where miracles come to those who wield the fry pan.

* “past-noon” referring to the size of a foot is a favorite family expression, coined by a state-street shoe salesman who once measured my husband’s size 13s and declared, “oh, you’re past noon,” meaning higher than 12s. we have loved that phrasing ever since. and now two of three boys around here are past noons. and one is approaching as swiftly as he can…

what foods in your arsenal hold the holy cure? for the days when those you love can barely make it from the bed? and why do you think the kitchen is one room that holds such mystic powers??

oh, because we’d never keep a cure from you, here’s abuela’s milanesas de res empanizadas, as translated from the original.

ingredients:
1 / 2 Kilo of beef for breading Steak (that’s just about a pound, people)


2 eggs 
Bread for breading (we used three-day-old challah)


Ground Pepper 
Salt 
Oil
(we added a dash of cumin, two cloves garlic, and a few shakes of milwaukee avenue steak seasoning, a heavenly smoky rub from the spice house in evanston, ill.)

preparation:
for perfection, you want to toss bread, garlic, and seasonings into mini food processor. splitz, or blend, in pulses till the aroma makes your knees wobble, and you consider stuffing fistfuls straight to your mouth, skipping the steak altogether.

Season the steak with salt and pepper. 

(you’ll want two bowls: one for eggs, one for bread crumbs; this is a two-bowl process, although abuela won’t tell you so.)

The eggs are stirred well with a fork, and the steaks are passed in the egg, then go through the bread crumbs and fry very well on both sides. 

Served and garnished with lettuce, tomato slices, onion slices.

you feel better already, now don’t you?

pulling rabbits out of hats

it is what mothers do. on a rare day, on a day when stars and moons and jupiter and venus all align.

it is what mothers wish they could do every breathing day–make it all all right again. pick up the pieces. clean up the mess. shake off the bits of gravel from there on the sidewalk, where the grit scraped the knee. kiss the hurt, slap on a bandaid. make it all right again.

we know, those of us with half an ounce of living, that more often than not, we can’t right what’s wrong. can’t make the mean girls go away. can’t shift the score of the ballgame. can’t even chase the mean coach into a corner, make him tremble for what he’s done to someone we love.

but, once in a while, when the pile of wrongs piles too high, we swoop into action. we make like houdini. pull rabbits from hats.

and so it was the other morning, when i got to breathe deep of that rare sense of glory, of having triumphed, mended a hole in the day of a kid i happen to love more than life.

here’s the simple story, told only to remind me and you that we really can, every once in awhile, grab onto our britches, dash out the door, and make like a hero for someone we love. and of course it’s not about being the hero, it’s about that rare chance to do as we wish others might do for us, be for us. that rare chance to live the magnificent, luminous goldenest rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

how often have we found our sorry selves at the end of our ropes, and wished upon stars that someone would leap to our rescue? and what a beautiful thing when we find that we can do just that. for no reason other than through-and-through, inside-and-out, plain pure love.

so this boy who i adore–you’ve heard me write of him over the years–he is this week about as neck-deep in plain old unfiltered stress as a senior in high school can be: he is in the thick of tryouts for crew, a sport that has kids pulling on oars till they literally see stars and crash to the floor (don’t get me started); he is also in dress rehearsals for the spring musical; and cranking out not one but six art pieces for AP photo class, with a gallery show opening next week.

and so of course this is the week his phone, a fifth limb if ever there was one, decided to sputter and gasp and utterly die.

now a boy without phone is, i quickly realized, a boy whose life is verging on crumbling.

for one, he had no way to wake up in the morn, as that phone serves to jangle him from deepest of sleep, with its haranguing alarm that wakes the whole house–except, of course, for the intended sleeper.

for two, since the world has been stripped of pay phones, he couldn’t call for a ride, or tell me what time to be where.

and the mere look on his face, the oh-my-god-if-one-more-thing-goes-i’m-going-too, it stirred me to muster some forces.

as i dashed in his room that dreary morning, just after he’d trudged off to school, and suddenly i spied the dead phone stiff on the desk, i charged into supernurse mode. i dialed the phone store (from a phone with a pulse, thank you). i made an appointment. i squeezed in a triage, smack dab in the thick of a workday. the dear man at the store, he pulled out a toothbrush, of all the high-techy tools. he oohed and ahhed at all the gunk that had nestled into the cracks of the phone. and then, in unsparing words, he looked up and declared: “this phone has come to its end.”

he rattled through options. i attached price tags to every last one. but then i thought of that kid, i thought how little he asks and how hard he tries.

i told the man i’d like a replacement, didn’t care much that it’d cost more, by a long shot, than popcorn and movies.

the nice man played a rare card: without my even asking, he rang up the bill, and as he punched in the buttons asked me something about was the battery working. i said i really didn’t know the state of the battery, but then when he showed me the final sum, he’d sliced off a whole $120, because he deemed it a “battery issue.”

then he handed me a brand new phone, and i brushed the tear from my eye, sprouted due to his kindness and the mere fact that not even dollars would keep me from fixing a hole in the skin of my kid.

i walked out of that store as if on a hovercloud, my chest nearly heaving at the rare joy of success, my mood downright giddy. what had felt like a mountain just hours ago, was now whittled down to a clearing. i couldn’t subside the pure joy of lifting the load from my boy. knew, through and through, there’d be more times than not that i’d stand on the sidelines helpless, while the stretchers were rushed on the field. but for now, there was only delight.

and that night, when that tired tall kid strode through the door, expecting to spend yet another long night without phone, he looked at his bedside table, and there, lit up and flashing the time, he spied the fruits of my motherly labors.

he practically rubbed at his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe what he saw: the one thing he wished for that day, the one thing he couldn’t possibly have carved out a minute to do, it was lying there, shiny and new, just waiting for him to pick up and text.

it’s a rare and heady day. but oh how glorious a gift to get to play like a mama magician and make one bumpy life all smooth again.

no old hare ever looked so magnificent, no matter the hat from which it was pulled.

have you yanked any rabbits out of hats lately? anyone pulled one out for you?

sometimes…

sometimes, when you’re a mama, you wish you could fix it all with an apple cut into crescent moons, and an oozy grilled cheese, and a wee ghost mug filled with chocolate-stirred milk.

sometimes, when you’re a mama, it’s nowhere so easy.

sometimes, say the night your firstborn promised the college essays would be done–signed, sealed, delivered–you find yourself checking the status, oh, every half hour. and it’s not too long till you realize this night could unravel right before your eyes.

and soon enough, you feel the weight of the world that bears down on the shoulders of the babe you once birthed to the world.

and as you sit there listening, sopping up heartache–his and, quickly, your own–you see in your mind’s eye the whole picture show of his life.

frame after frame spilling by.

and stunningly, awesomely, you grasp the enormity of the fact that you’ve been there for a front-row seat all the way along. and you cannot think of one other someone you have known so utterly wholly–every night fever and rash, every scuffle and pitfall. the girl who said no to the dance. and the one who this summer said yes.

and, by now slid down against the chair where he is curled, your shoulder against the sides of his thick rower’s legs, you think back to the hours and months before he was born.

you remember when your belly got to the brink of a room, any room, before the rest of you did. and how you loved that belly. how you tried on the clothes that would show it off well before you needed to wear them. because, after waiting a lifetime, you could wait not one minute longer.

you wanted this more than anything ever–before or since.

and you remember, back then, how you promised yourself, promised the unborn babe, promised the universe, and God too, that you would love that sweet not-yet-met someone so wholly and so completely, surround that sweet someone in such an un-pierce-able bubble of love, that babe would never be knocked back by the high waves of doubt and despair that, too often, threatened to topple you over–and did, more than just once.

and you really thought, back then, that committing to love was all it would take.

and so you set out to make it come true.

why, you’d practically wear that babe on your chest, barely put him down, sleep curled right beside him. you’d hardly go out, rarely bring in a sitter. you’d work from home, give up the downtown office–just to be minutes away, always.

you would do everything under the sun, for years and years and years, to keep that child from knowing the heartache that you could not bear to imagine.

the heartache that now seeped into the room, filling it like a hose with a spigot, as you sit there on a cold autumn night, watching him struggle to type in a chair with a screen that resists being filled with his thoughts, with his words, with his sketchpad for college.

you hear a depth of heartache that rips your own right out from your chest. and so, when the talking is done, you cannot walk back to your bed. you cannot leave his room, you realize.

you can’t type the words, can’t pull the thoughts from the utterly drained mind that is his–he’s been at it for days now.

but you can’t sleep down the hall. so you do what mamas do, sometimes. you stay where you feel the pull.

you curl up on the floor. lay your head on the emptied-out backpack, make like it’s the pillow.

and you close your eyes while the typing starts up again. the pads of his fingers tapping their way toward college.

and you feel the tears roll down your cheeks from under your closed eyelids. you taste the salt of the runaway one that rolls over your lips. you wipe it away before it’s noticed.

once upon a time you thought you could love your child free from all this. safe from all of this.

and at every turn along the way, you did what you thought would stoke him with strength, with joy, with lightness of heart.

but then on a dark night at the end of october, when all the colleges begged their assignments, you realized that, sometimes, in the end, all you can do is lie there and pray.

and wait for the dawn, finally, to come.

i write this for all of us, the mothers, the fathers, who keep vigil through these final days and nights, as high school seniors around the country, type out their thoughts and their big ideas for colleges who will or won’t let them in through the gates at the head of the line, the early decision line. and i write this for all those who love children at whatever stage, whenever and wherever and however they stumble and struggle. i know, because i have friends, that ours wasn’t the only house that felt dark last night as all the desklamps burned.

on a much lighter note, i promised a word on breakfast with ina, the barefoot contessa. she is, in a short string of words, everything you would hope she is. and so much more. she oozes goodness. engages in deep conversation. sparks up at a question. wraps it all up with a genuine hug. you get up from the table feeling as if you’ve just made a friend. one you’ve known for a long long time. which in so many ways, i did.

what dark nights have found you keeping vigil, curled up beside the someone you so thoroughly love?

going back

i went back today. back to the source of so so much.

i walked the halls. found my way past all the touchstones of my long ago. at so many corners, heard the voices from pages long turned.

stood beneath the clock where someone once asked me to join the underground newspaper. walked past the spot just outside the library where my senior english teacher, the monday after homecoming, when i was the queen who broke the beauty-queen mold, asked me if i’d read, “the demise of the homecoming queen.” i gulped, shook my head no, that long ago morning. wondered then, and months later, if she knew something i didn’t yet know.

only later on, months later on, would i understand the clairvoyancy of that question. it all came back again as the 53-year-old me passed over that spot in the much-waxed square-tile floor.

i walked past the radiators that lined the glass walls, just beyond the cafeteria, where all the cool kids and jocks hung out, where if you were a girl who didn’t feel so sure of how she looked when she walked, who worried that maybe they’d whisper, where you held your breath and walked fast as you could.

i went back to high school today, my high school. because the school is turning 50 and they invited us back, back to talk to the kids. back to talk about how the place stamped us, fed into the whole of who we would become.

i found myself surprised by some of the questions, surprised too by my answers.

what did we most regret, they wanted to know.

what one word would we pick to describe our years there?

what’s changed since we walked the halls?

in no particular order i heard myself say that what i learned in high school was how i would be in the world, how i was the kid who ducked and swerved between groups, didn’t see walls, didn’t like cliques, wouldn’t abide them, who looked for the sparks in everyone from the lonely band of misfits to the jocks to the harvard-bound brainiacs, who figured out how to live with a social fluency that all these years later is there in my back pocket, is there when i need to knock on the door of a stranger and ask to hear the hopes and the dreams and the heartbreak, is there when i need to look in the eyes of my little boy’s teacher and get her to understand that we are a team, are together, and setting our sights on the prize that is a little boy’s mind.

i heard myself say that what i regretted was that i didn’t dive more deeply into the books back in those years, when i was aswirl in all that rushed my way, and all that i thought mattered.

i heard myself say that i was blessed back then to be in high school just after the radical ‘60s and what i wanted when i grew up was to save the world. and how, all these years later, i sure hadn’t saved it but i had taken the time to try to understand a few things.

it’s at once humbling and emboldening to go back, to retrace who we once were, to connect the dots from there to here. to stand quietly under a clock that still lives in the frames of my memory. to stand there, at 53, and remember.

my high school years tumbled in on me in the end. my closing days of high school were raw and hard to think about.

it’s why i don’t go back easily.

but all these years later, walking through the halls alone, finding my way… hearing my voice through the microphone, retracing a someone i’d not so distinctly thought about in a long long time, it was a reunion after all.

and the someone i bumped into was my long long ago self.

have you retraced your steps to a place that deeply mattered in the making of who you are? how did you find the journey? and what did you discover along the way?