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Category: joy

hummingbird wisdom, continued

h-bird-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My favorite description of the hummingbird magic comes from Ted Andrews, who wrote the seminal book on animal totems called ‘Animal Speak.’ He says, ‘There is something inside the soul of all of us that wants to soar through sunbeams, then dance midair in a delicate mist, then take a simple bath on a leaf. There is something in our souls that wants to hover at beautiful moments in our lives, making them freeze in time. There is something in us that wants to fly backwards and savor once more the beautiful past. Some of us are just hummingbird people.’

“Guilty as charged.” — Mary Ellen Sullivan, May 30, 2012

bequest

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bequest n. a legacy bequeathed to someone. 

she bequeathed me a legacy so profound it leaves me breathless, makes my heart pound, and my knees go weak. i’ve yet to cradle it, and carry it home, but yesterday, in a hot apartment that was only sparsely appointed with the artifacts and books she’d spent a lifetime gathering, rooms that stand witness to the dismantling of a life cut short, too short, i sat down with her brother and began to discover a wisp of what awaits my careful curation, my distilling of her wisdom, what will be — i hope and pray — her triumphant valedictory in the form of the book she’d always hoped to write.

she left me, according to the language in her will, her “creative work,” and with it, the sobering responsibility, the hope, to “do her proud,” as my own mama would put it, as my mama did put it, the day my own father was buried and my mother whispered her instruction to their five children huddled at the door, about to step outside and into the long black limousine the funeral home had sent. “do him proud” were the instructions then, to the five children left fatherless and far too young to make much sense of the enormity of the loss. they’re words that have long instructed me, and they instruct me once again: “do her proud.”

we began, my friend’s brother and i, by clicking to her photo album, and there we found the very last photo she had taken, just before she surrendered to the hospital, and, after that, the few short days when she absorbed the unthinkable, that she was dying and would die within the week.

the very last picture, the last time she clicked her camera, was to take a picture of the words you see above, words that read:

“i’m beginning to realise that real happiness isn’t something large and looming on the horizon ahead but something small, numerous and already here. the smile of someone you love. a decent breakfast. the warm sunset. your little everyday joys all lined up in a row.” — beau taplin

i simply stared at first, the intimacy of the moment washing over me.

here i was peeking in on the solitude of her final hours at home, when she was pulled up to her desk, or propped against the pillows on her couch, poring over the internet for words that captured what she knew, what she’d learned and what she’d come to deeply believe. and here, on this one brick wall of wisdom, she’d stopped, pulled out her camera, and clicked. i can’t imagine she imagined it would be only months later when her final frame would be stumbled upon, its every word, one by one, discovered and absorbed. i can’t imagine she imagined that we’d inhale its every breath, its every syllable, as if words — instruction — from beyond.

but that’s what we did.

i read it once, then twice, then i quietly asked her brother if i could take a picture of my friend’s last picture. “of course,” he said.

it will be like this, for weeks and months. maybe even years. i will soon have banker’s boxes filled with her journals, her notes and scribblings. i will have every essay she ever typed and saved. i will retrace the topography of her mind, and travel deeply into her soul. or at least i will find some refracted angle of that soul.

i will extract that which matters most. i will be informed all along the way by an uncanny, unspoken instruction. i will follow as closely as imaginable what i discern is the course she’s laid out for me, for all of us. i know that in her final years she was hellbent on discovering and dispensing the purest path to love, to joy. “a diviner of joy,” were the words that tumbled from my fingers to the screen — my description of her and her life’s work — in the obituary i wrote, at her request, just after she had died.

it would be weeks later till i found out that, in her last will and testament, she’d bequeathed to me that very task: to be the diviner of what she’d found to be the path to joy. to inherit her life’s written work, to pore through it, to extract the shimmering shards of truth and beauty, the ones that will not die. the ones that must be given sunlight and breeze, and lined up, page upon page, for all of us who wonder where to go to find the joy, the peace, the love that we — all of us — so deeply seek.

this morning, once again, the world is weeping. and my task with my dear friend’s truth is more urgent than ever. there is work to do. so much work. and, soon, mine will begin in the stacks and files and boxes and computer that must hold the truth buried deep inside.

bless you, mary ellen, for this gift. i promise here to do you proud, to unearth all that you so carefully laid out for us to find. bless your soul. and thank you.

what’s your path to joy?

that moment when…(and this summer more than ever…)

summer feets

all week i’ve been feeling it. that moment that best can be likened to the glorious fraction of time when you’ve been out in tippity teetering heels all night, when your toes have been practically yelping in protest and the bones in your feets have been threatening to cut you off at the ankles, when every ounce of you wanted to wriggle out of this unnatural state of constraint, but you had to make like a grownup and prance around in footwear that does its best to topple you, and sometimes makes you chew on your cheek besides. but then, finally, the night and the torture come to an end, and there in the dark, and practically running, you round the bend, you lurch toward the door and you begin the release for which you’ve been throbbing: you scrape the toe of one pointy shoe against the penned-in heel of the other, and you kick the darn foot-clamps clear across the kitchen.

you stand there, for a minute or two, just drinking in the feel of your bones falling back to their pre-ordained order. you listen to the flow of the blood trickling back to the tips of your squeezed-colorless tootsies.

you savor the long-awaited rush of relief. the busting-out-of-whatever-bound-you.

which, pretty much, is how it feels around here. more so than in a very long time. because summer in this old house has arrived with a groundswell of holy hallelujah. boy one is finished with college. boy one is hanging around. boy two just finished with grade school. ergo, this is a summer that comes with a full ladle of finish. and, perhaps, an extra-deep dollop of purest enchantment.

this is, more than any summer that i can recall, one of those moments when the hours make like salvador dali had at them. they warp into stretched-out proportions. they expand, not contract. they breathe. and sometimes, like sunday afternoon when my firstborn and i plopped into old wicker chairs and stayed there for the better part of three hours, they stand perfectly utterly still.

i am, in this seasonal opening act, indulging in time. i am whirling, deep down inside, in the rarest of joy, the feeling that somehow i’ve cupped my hands, sunk them deep in a font of holiest waters, and come up spilling; splattering drop after delectable drop.

i’m not worrying, for heaven’s sake, about what’s for dinner, i’m not looking at clocks. (though i am watching ice boxes magically empty, and i am setting world records for laundry.) i’m feeling the lumpety-thump of my heart when the sound of the footsteps comes down the stairs at times when i’m usually alone and the house is usually silent. like a kid on christmas morning, i’m peeking through cracks in the door at two sleeping boys with no need for hurry.

maybe i love it all the more because i know it won’t last. and not only because i’ve been around the block enough times to know that, soon enough, the days will be so hot and so sticky we’ll all be wishing for igloos. and popsicles will seem a sensible breakfast.

maybe it’s all the sweeter because i never imagined we’d all have one more summer together. i hadn’t pictured four cereal bowls plopped on the table, each one blanketed in warm-from-the-field farmer berries. i hadn’t imagined the windows rolled down in the old station wagon, and me and my boys blaring the radio, wending our way to no particular anywhere. i hadn’t considered boy upon boy curled up on the couch, arms and shoulders entwined, words of brotherly wisdom being imparted in whispers.

for now, it’s one fleeting drink-it-all-in suspension of time.

we’re back to the place, and the moment, when the letting loose rubs you all over. like a terry cloth towel before it’s worn thin. it’s that magical interlude when the season is new, when we’re just on the cusp, and everything is raw and deep and our pores are wide open and we’re guzzling it down. right in here, in this opening act of summer’s production, the season of so few cares, we’re hard at work simply savoring.

and this particular summer it comes with a brand of relish that i’ll never ever forget.

this just might be the summer whose frames i’ll play and replay till the last gasp i breathe on this earth.

well, goodness gracious, i got a wee bit sidetracked — make that a lot sidetracked — here this morning when my ferocious jungle cat (he who seems to be showing off in recent days, proving to any and all that he might be old but he ain’t over yet) carried into the house — into the very middle of the family room’s old persian rug, mind you — a still-wriggling, but-not-for-long critter, clutched in the sharp-toothed grip of said hunter cat. i let out a yelp, as is my usual inclination, and hip-hopped in circles till i got the duo to skitter back through the rip of the old screen door. it set me to quaking for a few minutes there, and then i needed to settle back in to the rhythms above. and, oh goodness, the wonders of summer took on whole new dimensions. 

and in further keeping with this slow-time summer, i’ve just spent the last hour plopped on the post-college kid’s new navajo rug, chatting about his early morning adventures procuring yet another job. normally i fidget till i hit the friday-morning-publish button, but not today. today i know that all’s in due time. and if it unfolds slowly, it’s all the more glorious….

finally, before i go, a most blessed birthday i wish for my beloved friend cecilia and her forever love, gary, who serendipitously and marvelously share the same birthday. this is a big one for ceci, a day of more than usual import. i send love and prayers in double dose.

so before i sign off: what do you savor most at the start of this laid-back season……

welcome to summer

savoring…

savoring fall hydrangea tree

there’s a rare air in my lungs these days. an invigorating air. an air that seems to hold double the oxygen, really. it has me bouncing as if on lunar dust, in those lopey springy boing-boing steps i once watched in black-and-white when mr. armstrong landed on the moon.

if there were a wee spy-cam nailed to the corner of the kitchen ceiling, it would catch me pausing mid-lope and deep deep breathing, filling my itty-bitty air sacs with the holy sparks that charge unseen through the air.

i am savoring.

savoring being home in the finest month — oh, september, i seem to have a crush on you. savoring settling in, deeply in, for the first time in what feels like a very, very long time. savoring the late summer unfolding of my messy old garden as it exudes its last trumpet blast of breathtaking come-rub-against-me seduction (what blooms at summer’s end seems robed in velvet, all the petals putting forth a softness not seen in exuberant spring, or headstrong summer).

i am savoring the days of awe, those prayerful hours of whispering back and forth to God, as the jewish holy days of rosh hashanah unfurl, and i, like the petals in my garden, feel wrapped in velvet prayer shawl.

deepest of all, i am savoring the great relief that comes with having climbed a mountain long in my distance. while i await word from my editor (bless her for telling me to take a couple weeks to rest up, restore, before the editing rounds and rounds begin), i am wearing the weightlessness that comes in having clicked the SEND button, knowing all my heart and soul was stitched into a work of love that now sails of its own velocities. i’d be lying if i didn’t admit to waking up in the occasional cold sweat when i’ve concocted one of my nightmare scenarios. and i’d be a fool if i didn’t keep up the prayer chain that has me turning this one over to the Holiness beyond me.

all the savoring adds up to ears-pitched paying attention. to shards of autumn light. to chill in the morning air. to hummingbird darting here and there, from long-nosed drink to long-nosed drink.

the house is filled with jars and jars of black-eyed Susans, drooping hydrangeas, golden rod and the cobalt blue of some little fellow whose name i can’t for the life of me recall. i can’t bear to keep the garden outside, the permeability of summer’s end begs for windows to be shoved ajar, for doors to let in the cricket chorus, and for the garden’s offerings to be clutched and tucked in tall drinks of water. everywhere i can fit one in.

maybe it’s my so-called irish, or maybe i’ve just been around the calendar enough times to know that this is extra sweet because it won’t last. these weightless days of september will not go on forever. life is at its sweetest because we know the taste of heart ache, of worry without bottom.

there will come the moment when i hear the shattering of glass, when my heart is tugged, torn, leaden.

but right now all i hear is the tick-tock of a grandfather’s clock, the buzz of late-season cicada, and the trill of papa cardinal lording over the feeder.

and right now, that’s all the prayer i need to know. the short sweet trumpet blast of life when you’re savoring.

what are the morsels of your life that you are savoring in these holy days of so much awe?

savoring window

what matters most

what matters most

dispatch from 02139 (in which the script turns from sorrow to triumph, and from across the western hills, the cavalry gallops in, just in the nick of time…)

ever since we got the word way last spring that we were headed to veritas U. for this year of living sumptuously, the bespectacled fellow with whom we live, the one now known as “the professor,” had but one shining dream:

that, on the evening when he was called upon to stand before the crowd and unspool the whole of his lifework, a moment known in nieman vernacular as “the sounding,” his first newspaper hero — his papa, a longtime editor and lifelong newshound — would be in the room.

that his papa would be upfront and center glowing in that way he so often glows. that his deep soulful laugh would echo round the chamber. that the tears that stream so easily from his eyes would, indeed, be streaming. filled with knowing that in his grasp was a life of dreams come true.

it was not to be.

two weeks ago, an ambulance carried our beloved longtime newspaper editor to the hospital. he spent a few days in ICU, and now is growing sturdier. he’ll go home soon.

but not soon enough to take the trip from the jersey shore up to the city nestled along the charles river. not soon enough to be in the room last tuesday night, when “the professor” rose, clipped on the microphone and began to unspool the tale of why he does what he does. why his job as the architecture critic of the chicago tribune, in one of the world’s great architectural meccas, has for all these years held his imagination and his passions, why he lives the life of what he calls an “activist critic,” meaning he tries to avert disaster before it strikes its wrecking ball or sinks its pylons, or, conversely, why he uses his column inches to set an agenda of enlightened civic discourse when it comes to public space and edifice.

alas, there were heavy hearts here in the aerie. we all knew this moment swept by but once.

a videocamera filled in a piece of the gap. but the blank space in the equation could not, in fact, be filled. instead of treating the professor’s mama and papa to a couple nights at the inn on harvard square, instead of introducing them to the bevy of glorious fellows, we had to settle for follow-up phone calls to new jersey to recount the eve. we dispatched photos over the computer wires. and soon enough we will hand over a copy of “the sounding” as recorded on DVD.

but that is not the whole of the story.

other scripts were unspooling as that one stalled to its sorry close.

the professor’s firstborn, a college kid who seems to keep only scant attention on the doings back home,  seemed to divine the significance of the evening, and despite the fact that it was midterm week — and a tuesday night, no less — he and i set about scheming how to get his lanky self two hours east so he could amply fill one of the seats in the room.

while we set about searching bus and train departure and arrival times, the little one in this house set sail a scheme all his own.

he’d long thought it would be a hoot to introduce the chicago architecture critic with a resounding re-enactment of the chicago bulls pyrotechnic theme song, an anthem that shakes the rafters of the united center back in michael jordan’s home cathedral on the near west side of the windy city. what was particularly amusing about that scenario was how counter to the professor’s culture that might be. our beloved professor is not exactly the pyrotechnic type. rather, he might be more instantly equated with a gentle brahms suite, or a soundtrack in which the hushed turning of pages was considered plenty percussive.

as would be the case in any suspense tale worth telling, the college kid could not find bus nor train nor automobile that aligned with his midterm exams. he and i even got to wondering how much it would cost to hire a car. or, might there be a friend — heck, a stranger would suffice — willing to earn cold hard cash, say 100 easy bucks, to drive the kid in for the evening?

as of 10:30 the morning of the talk (aka “the sounding”), there was no such solution to be had. we’d reached the dead end of this scheme. and it was clearer than clear that there’d now be yet another empty seat in that seminar hall.

yet all the while, as the college kid scrounged for rides, the 11-year-old (the one who no longer can justifiably be called “the little one,” much as i’ve come to love that name) busied himself with his self-appointed role in this unfolding family drama.

never mind that just a few years ago no one would have imagined that kid with the gumption to get up in front of a crowd and read hand-crafted words (let alone craft the darn words). he had it in his head that he — and he alone — should be the one to unfurl the red carpet for his papa’s shining moment in the nieman sun.

he wasn’t daunted by size of crowd, nor reputation of those esteemed and mighty nieman fellows. nay, he kept his eyes trained on one and only one sure thing: he loved his papa, and he would usher his papa to the podium in fitting form.

so, wasting no time, he perched himself on his typing chair, and pounded out his script. (a script, i tell you, no  rambling mumbling from the hip.) he closed and locked his bedroom door, and practiced over and over, declaiming to his empty bunk bed. he gave it a run-through. he melted into smile. he liked it, his words of introduction.

but then, the afternoon of the big talk, he hurdled in from the school bus, popped a piece of chewing gum in his mouth (“i like to chew when i’m nervous,” he reported), then plopped back into typing chair, and revised his words. much better, he decided.

with no fanfare, he folded and tucked his script into the front pocket of his jeans. he slipped on his snow coat, and off we headed in the rain.

once inside the white clapboard nieman house, the beehive where all this speechifying was to unfold, we set about the business of transforming the joint into our favorite jewish deli on chicago’s near west side. while setting out the manny’s mustard and the “welcome to chicago. mayor rahm emanuel” signs, the professor’s cell phone jingled.

the next words i heard were these: “willie? where are you? you’re in harvard square?!?”

and so, the cavalry came through. the trumpet sounded from the crest of triumph hill.

at the very last minute, after white flags had been waved, the college kid’s roommate mentioned he was heading into cambridge for the eve, to take in a lecture and dinner just down the block from where all glory — and mounds of chicago brisket, and latkes, and half-sour pickles — would soon be dolloped.

the kid, resplendent in j. press fair isle sweater, barreled through the door and into the grand foyer. his mama let out a yelp that might echo in those halls for years to come. no sweeter sound than the sound of arms enfolding arms, the embrace that will not loosen.

not quite an hour later, the little one, in a magnificent demonstration of the heart that pounds beneath that skinny chest, rose to the microphone, and let loose his poetry of charm and pride and introduction.

said the little one:

“Hi. I’m Teddy.

My Dad is the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. He’s a good guy, and he’s pretty awesome.

But I have to be honest: I don’t always agree with his reviews.

Anyway, my dad and I have lots of fun together.

We play cards. I beat him.

We play basketball. I beat him.

And we always hang out together on weekends.

Okay, so maybe I have a little more fun – just because I beat him pretty much.

But if we had a game on who would have a better sounding, he would win.

I hope you enjoy his bodaciously awesome sounding.”

and with that, the architecture critic took it away.

but all i heard, most of the next two hours, was the sound of my heart thumping as i looked a few inches to my left and right, and saw both our boys circled tight, in hands-squeeze reach.

there are moments in our lives when all that matters, really, is that we breathe in and exhale the very same specks of air. that, in real time, we hear the same sounds at the same moment. that we catch the glimmers in each other’s eyes.

that we know, through and through, we’ve climbed mountains, forded streams, and dodged near bullets — just to be together.

because, as the professor always says, 98 percent of life is just showin’ up. especially when what you’re showing is the full power of your heart.

twas a night to remember, the night the boys came through for papa. and i was right there to be blessed by it all.

why i do what i do sounding

this one’s for the family journal. for my faraway beloved mama and papa-in-law. and for anyone teetering on the brink of should i jump through hoops just to be there….the answer: a resounding yes. 

do you have a tale to tell of a time someone you love made the impossible possible, and came across the horizon to the tune of triumphant trumpet call? or a time when you were the one who decided the impossible must be slayed, and you were going to make it, come heck or high water?

tucked in for the night…

dispatch from 02139 (in which we come in from the cold, light the lamps, and await a river of great good company here in new england, on the brink of the feast of the pilgrim et al)…

already i’m whispering my thank you’s.

oh, of course, it’s not yet the great feast of turkey and brussels sprouts. though, come to think of it, i might be the only one in all the land who celebrates the lowly petit chou fleur, sometimes, oddly, translated not to “little cabbage,” but something more akin to “my little darling.”

and for the record: next time anyone puckers up and calls me a little cabbage, i just might up and pinch ’em in the behind. or the apple dumpling, as a dear kindergarten-teacher friend of mine insists one’s bum be called.

egad, here we are a mere three paragraphs in, and already we’re over-tumbling the market basket, spilling fruit-and-vegetable metaphors with no restraint. and while we’re at it, we’re demonstrating how very swiftly we disassemble our thoughts here, watch them scatter like thistle seed to the winds.

the point is, this year’s long list of merci beaucoups promises to pack quite a wallop. thus, i’ve been gathering steam, and preambling already.

might be simply that this week is supremely better than the blurry one that came just before it, the one when at any minute i was aiming to hoist a battle-worn white flag, dial t-i-c-k-e-t-2-h-o-m-e and hightail it out of this intellectual — and virus-riddled — hotbed.

ah, but the flu flew away, the fever broke. the twisty knot of sinew and sore in my down-low back, well, it up and dissolved (er, mostly it did), and i found myself skipping along the cobbled cambridge lanes counting the days till the end of the academic semester, which astonishingly is just round the bend. (meaning i’ll soon be able to roll out of bed, and steal a book from the shelf, for no reason other than its title — or heck, the juicy splash on its cover — intrigues me.)

but even better than that, i’ve been eyeing this weekend with flat-out delight, for a river of great good folk are due to arrive in round after round of cars, buses, aeroplanes and trains.

first up is the boy who’s riding a mere two hours home from his down-the-road college, for at least a few days holed up here with his doting mama and papa and wee little brother. (then he’ll skedaddle down to NYC, and live it up with his aunt, uncle and cousins, till the back-to-school hour beckons). he’ll buzz the buzzer some time round mid-afternoon on the morrow, and from then on in, it’s non-stop company.

dear friends of the newspaper ilk from back in chicago are flying in for a whirl of a weekend, and some poking around of my new favorite haunts. my best friend from when i was little is coming in from california, for cryin’ out loud, by way of connecticut. an adorable fellow whose mother i love way back home is spending the night, sprawled on our couch. saturday morn, we’re due to rendez-vous under a tent with yet another family we’ve loved since the dawn of time, or so it seems. and i’m sure i’m forgetting someone or something.

no wonder the deep-down thank you’s are rumbling and rolling.

and no wonder this week (thanks also to an all-day friday seminar on “negotiations,” no less, one which commences at 8 bells sharp, and stretches till 3 in the afternoon), i am forced to forgo my early-morning habit of writing here at the table. instead, tis now, with dark of night cloaked round my shoulders. all alone at the kitchen butcher block. just me and my tap-tap-tap. the only sound is the hiss of the heat pipes (hallelujah), and from the room just behind me, the occasional but regular turning of a page.

which reminds me: one of my most lasting gratitudes goes out to ms. j.k. rowling who, with her pen and her brooms and her wands, has lit one whoppin’ bonfire under the reading twigs of my sweet little sixth-grader, who has been known in recent weeks to flick on the reading lamp (when he thinks we’re not looking) at 2 in the gosh-darn morning. that child, once a reluctant reader, has in the last four weeks sucked down — at last count — no fewer than 2,425 pages, like some sorta super-sweet kool-aid.

and yes, even after all these weeks, there are still moments in days when i all but pinch myself, wondering how in the world we got here, in this magical place for this gosh-darn-miraculous interlude.

as i walk along the parade of sycamore trees, those mottled soldiers, that line the bend in the river. as i find in the mailbox a hand-penned letter, page after page, from one of my new contemplative friends, the monks, at saint john the evangelist monastery, a place with the gift of hushing the soul.

or, late most tuesday nights, as i say goodnight to the babysitter who’s become a treasured constant in the whir of our weeks, and whose capacity for kindness gives me faith all over again. as i sit in a circle with some firebrand or thinker i’ve never known before, and find my head swarming with ideas i could chew on forever — and probably will.

as i curl up for hours on end with an afghan under my toes, and virginia woolf in my lap. or dorothy day. or mohandas gandhi. as i soak up first-person accounts, over foamy cups of cappuccino or peppermint tea, of long-ago dinners and late-night phone calls with martin luther king.

for all of these things, i am so deeply, blessedly grateful.

and that’s just the beginning…

i know, oh i know, that these days are not without bumps, not without heartache. and these nights are not stripped of the tossing and turning that comes with old-fashioned worry. but because thanks can never go on too long, i don’t think it’s a chore to begin the compiling. so if you’ve stopped by the table, and if you’ve something to add to the list of deep, down thanksgiving (and, yes, gassy little cabbage-ettes are more than welcome), please feel free to scribble your thoughts…..

and before i go, on this eve of the eve of my mama’s birthday, happy blessed day — and year — to the blessed soul who has taught us all volumes and volumes. so sorry we’re not home for this one, but know we hold you close to our hearts……xoxoxoxo

free books

in all those many days and weeks and months and years of feeling tethered to my telephone, of certainty that bosses were peeking in my office window, taking notes, counting up the sentences i typed per week, awarding or withholding little gold paper stars…

in all the many days and weeks and months and years of bumping down the train tracks, past the el stops where passengers stumbled on, took their seats beside me, sometimes smelling like old fish wrap, sometimes all but vibrating with the hip-hop thumping in their ears and spilling down their tattooed necks, the flow of expletives sky-diving straight to my ears, where i’d spend the ride now listening in (so much for a morning’s meditation)….

in all those many, many moments, i’d not often dawdled, lost in reverie about how, once freed from paycheck certitude, i’d define my liberation in trips to the library, that many-storied treasure trove of circuitous discovery, endless possibility, mindful gorging, and, well, free books.

but so it is, and so it quickly did become.

i was severed from my old life, my newspaper life, for all of 17 hours when i found myself, on a drizzly february saturday morning, strolling straight for what i still call the card catalog, although it’s now a box with keyboard, and you type the title that you’re searching for, or the author, or you spin the roulette wheel and type odd keywords, just to see what might pop up.

once i found the dewey decimals of the book i had in mind, i began my hunt: i descended to the underground of my little village book house, and i played follow the numbers till i got to the proper shelf.

i don’t know about you, but for me, searching for those itty-bitty aforementioned digits is a supreme exercise in attention deficit disorder. and i am mad, crazy mad, for the whole distracted round-about.

oh, look, i think, as i scan the spines, there’s a tome i’ve long meant to read, and here it is standing ever-so-politely, having waited years perhaps for one greedy paw to yank it off the shelf, tuck it to the bosom, haul it home. where, if all goes according to literary plan, its pages will be turned, its story unspooled yet one more time.

i tell you that first trip to the shelves invigorated the whole of me, right down to my once-enslaved soul. i swear i heard a chain link snap. i was free. i was wholly entitled to indulge in any book i wanted, any time. all for the cost of slipping out my library card from the too-tight slot where it lives inside my wallet.

you would have thought i’d downed a dram of revitalizer tonic, the way the pink rosied up my cheeks, the way the boing electrified what had been my sorry shuffle. i strolled out of that library, three or four books tucked tautly under my arms, and i headed home. i had a window seat, and plenty of pages to occupy me for the day.

apparently, it’s addictive, whatever that revitalizing tonic is. i can’t seem to keep away.

why, i’ve become a regular at the check-out desk. so much so, that they now call me by name, and we have marvy conversations about the books, the demise of civilization, the librarian’s surprise 60th birthday fete, complete with mouthwatering description of the teeny carrot cake she baked for her toddler grandson, who wouldn’t be allowed up past bedtime when the big cake was being ignited and sliced into so many slivers.

i tell you the key to civil discourse just might be rediscovered — before it dies its undeserving death — at the faux-maple desk where the due dates get stamped on all the borrowings.

what’s most delicious about this new-found library-bound freedom is that every time the scene’s replayed i feel the same hallelujah chorus rise up from deep inside. it has come to epitomize the full-throttle glory of living by choice instead of whatever was the old way, the these-hours-are-not-mine way, when my time, it seemed, belonged to someone else.

and there is something eternally bracing about realizing, with every pore, that each and every hour is a blessing, is a choice, is a miracle, and that it is our holiest calling to make each one matter.

now, of course, there are dirty clothes to be tossed in the rub-a-dub machine, and there are freezers to be filled with meatballs, bread and broccoli, and there are last night’s pots to scrub.

but if, in the course of any given day, we can put our hands together, make like a bowl with our palms and our fingers pressed tight, if we can sink that fleshy ladle into blessed waters that just might quench us, fill us up in all our parched-dry places, well then don’t we anoint the day, make it all the more sacred, because we live with the knowing that we don’t get two spins around this game board, and today’s the day to be embroidered with the best french knots you know?

and so it is, quite simply, with my increasingly-trod path to the free-book stall.

it’s a super-charged trip, under a mile door-to-door-to-door, that takes my heart, my soul, my whole imagination to places i’ve not been in a long, long while.

and it’s as straightforward as this: my desk nowadays is littered with scraps of paper, on which i scribble titles, authors, books i want to read, books someone’s deemed essential, or books that merely feed my latest fancy.

i tuck the scraps on that little hollow on the dashboard, where long ago, the ashtray was. and then, when i remember, when i’m out motoring on some humdrum course, and i glance down and see my scribble, i start to feel the deep-down tingle: i’m on my own time now, and there is always time to turn toward the three-story temple to ideas big and little.

i slip the old wagon into park, and i feel the spring that resuscitates my step. it’s a bit of abracadabra when the big glass doors slide open, swoop me right in without having to knock or ring the bell. it’s a house that’s mostly open (the shelves do nap at night), and i am welcome to binge, biblio-binge without remorse. i can fill my arms with as many books as i can carry.

in just the last two months, i’ve cleared a shelf of horse books — only because i’d toured my old kentucky bluegrass roots, and i came home curious. and right now, i’m onto e.b. white, one of my all-time heroes, a champion, a charmer, a writer who has made me cry because a spider died, and just the other day, when i read his 1947 essay, “death of a pig,” i cried so hard i spotted-up the nearly-yellowed page.

it’s all for free, which is a mighty fine thing for a girl who knows no paycheck.

but even finer is the truth that a life with room to turn toward the library, on a whim, is a life well lived. and one that convinces me, i am free, free at last.

i have a hunch that this old table is full of folk who wear out their library cards, or who wish they did. two questions: one, what little morsels are now perched on your must-read list, and two, if you were through the powers of magic given a whole day off to do whatever you wished, what might be the places to which you’d go running, and what heaven would you find there?

pointillist of joy

poin’til-lism (pwan’), n. [Fr. pointillisme, from pointiller, to mark with dots.] the method of painting of certain French impressionists, in which a white ground is systematically covered with tiny points of pure color that blend together when seen from a distance, producing a luminous effect.

***
and so, i realized, this season, for me, is a pointillist of joy.

i no longer search for the cymbal crash, the percussive cacophony of big bangs. i have an ear out for the tinkling of glass chimes, blowing in the winter breeze. i listen for the bells, far off, gently. i sigh at the sound of simmering on the stove.

i find the beauty, the luminous beauty, in the accumulation of teeny-tiny sparks of joy. and so, the painter of my own tableau, i have my brush always at the ready, tucked within my pocket. i am searching, dabbing, dropping pure color onto the canvas of my life.

i find pure contentment, bliss, in tiny packages, the moments of my life, wrapped up as with a floppy scarlet satin bow.

i find it all around.

and that, for me, is the abundant gift of this season. if you don’t come rushing at it, if you allow it to open itself up, to reveal the deep stirrings, to pierce the dark with incandescent light.

i find it on the kitchen table, crowded now with candles. the menorah, each night adds another glow. the advent wreath, now fully lit. the everyday tapers, standing sentry, now burn too. one dinner might be powered by the light of 10 candles, and we are barely half way into hanukkah. by the end we’ll be holy ablaze (and have the extinguisher at the ready).

i find my points of joy in the sweet perfume of bay leaf and clove that rose, in impermeable clouds, i tell you, from the oven all last eve, as the six pounds of brisket cooked down into the hanukkah elixir.

i find joy in waking early, in plugging in the christmas lights. in the silence of the early morn, when i’m alone. when carols hum from the radio, a seasonal shift from the abysmal morning’s news.

i find joy in toting my coffee can of seed out to the feeders, where cardinals flit, ignite the morning landscape. just this morning i discovered what looked like a white-headed cardinal. there’s no such thing, i know. i won’t find it in any field guide, so do i have some aberration or did someone’s pet parakeet (an odd breed of one at that) fly the coop, and move into my backyard? it is a joy that will delight me all day long, as i try to unravel the mystery of the albino-headed bird.

i find joy this joyful season in wrapping up berry-studded loaves of holiday bread in white baker’s paper, in hearing the rustle of the sturdy wrap as i bend it round the loaf, as i tie it up in string, red string, as i tiptoe in the dark to all my neighbors’ doors, ring the bell and wish a merry christmas.

i find joy in stashing my bedroom closet with odd-shaped boxes and a few bags, santa’s wardrobe, indeed. as my little one will not let on that he knows who santa is, and so i hide the few fine things that santa’s checked off the list, procured for my sweet believer.

i find joy in red berries tucked around the house. a big fat splurge, at 15 bucks for one fistful of christmas berries. but as someone at the market said, “if you can’t splurge at christmas, then when ever would you splurge?”
splurge on, oh joyful wonders.

i find joy by the sleighful in my still-limping cat, my cat who laps up cream as we tend to him, pamper him, await the full return of his vim and vigor.

i find joy in that little boy of ours, the one not too big to snuggle in our beds, the one who whispered a prayer the other night that his big brother would get home safe, “in two pieces,” he requested. two pieces? i shot back, disturbed by the mental picture of his brother snapped in halves. “yeah,” said the little one, “one piece for him, one piece for his luggage.”

indeed, two pieces.

i found everlasting joy this very morning when at last the phone rang. and it was that very brother, a croaky-voiced version all the same. for the better part of half an hour, which felt like all day, no one could find him. the van that had pulled up to the dorm to take him to the airport, they reported that they “couldn’t find him.” the phone rang and rang and no one answered. you needn’t know me long to know what i can imagine in the flash of an instant, and i imagined all right. was without breath or color in my face for the better part of that half hour. till the campus police knocked on his dorm-room door, and found him, sound asleep with runny nose and barely any sound coming from his swollen, croaky throat.

so when the phone rang, when he was alive and not slumped under some tree (or worse), my heart rang out in everlasting joy. joy that will carry me through christmas, indeed.

yes, oh yes, i’ve realized over recent years, and emphatically in recent weeks and days, that i’ve become a gatherer of tiny points of joy.

i embroider my life with sweet somethings, little somethings. the pure satisfaction of a single moment in time when i am immersed, awash, in somethings beautiful.

when i feel the flutter of a wing, not far above my head in the serviceberry branches.

when i inhale the spicy notes of pine or clove or cinnamon and orange peel.

when i wrap my fingers in the chubby little ones of my sweet little boy, as he lays beside me in his flannel pj’s, as he warms the sheets, as he whispers words of love-drenched hope and prayer.

the equation of my life, of my joy, i’ve come to know is a long string of one plus one plus one.

and it all adds up, quite exuberantly, quite deliciously, and intoxicatingly so, to a canvas that takes my breath away.

so luminescent is the depth of holy sacred joy.

merry everything as we tiptoe into the christmas weekend, as we march along through the eight days of hanukkah, as we await the travelers in our lives. as we gather round the hearts and souls we love, and the ones we miss but feel anyway in that mystical way in which our dearest deepest loves never really leave us, can be felt full force through the powers of the heart.
come back for christmas, if you find the time, for i’ve an essay that i’ll post here, once the tribune posts it first.
sending love. and joy.

the gift that is my counting-down boy

“it’s advent,” he said with a twinkle.

“24 days,” he said two seconds later, not sure that i’d netted his drift.

finally, i found my way along his breadcrumb trail of hints.

“it’ll be up when you get home,” i shot right back, suddenly relieved that we’d awakened to a chandelier dangling by a mere two wires, a heavy chandelier, mind you. an antique of brass and blue-and-white porcelain, one you wouldn’t want crashing to the floor. but because the darn thing was dangling in such a dangerous way, and because there was no contraption we could contrapt to girdle it in place while we waited for the handy shock-and-wires man, i had to stay home all day, typing from my writing room.

which is a long and winding way to say: while he was off at school, and i was home cobbling stories amid chandelier-crash patrol, i tiptoed to the basement, to the box marked “early christmas,” and grabbed the string of red-plaid pockets, the one that every year since he remembers i’ve filled with little chocolates, peppermints and hints of the christmastide to come.

it’s the counting-down string, and he is not too old to count the days to christmas. nor to not want the house the way it’s always been.

and as i tiptoed up the stairs, i filled my heart and lungs with the deepest, purest knowing of just how much i’m blessed, soaked through and through, with the gift of a child who is still little boy enough to want to have that bit of magic dangling at the window. who wants to reach his little hand in there and pull out a surprise.

in these days and months since he’s been home alone, the one little someone among the trees of taller people, he has reminded me again and again just how deep a miracle he is.

oh, not simply that he’s here among us, long after the doctors told me “never.” not that i am nearly 55, and he is merely 10.

no, the real gift of my little bundle of purely answered prayer is that he is rare in the most delicious way.
“pure butter,” i just wrote of him to my beloved portland sister.

he’s a kid who halfway through dinner hops up from his chair and shimmies on the bench beside me. and when i ask (as mamas are wont to do), “why’d you just get up,” he melts me with his answer: “i wanted to sit next to you.”

now don’t think that he’s some mama’s boy. because he’s not. he’s this way with his papa, his grandma, and his big faraway brother.

more than once last week i found him sprawled across his brother’s lap, taking in a rough-and-tumble football game.

doesn’t matter that he’s fierce on a soccer field, or dribbling down a court. his essence, the one i’ve watched since he was born in a shaft of midnight light, is pure molasses gold.

he was the baby who wanted to be nestled, always, right against my chest, to absorb the lullaby of my quickly-ticking heart.

and somehow, some amazing somehow, he’s never lost that deep magnetic pull.

any minute now, i’ll be tossing on my coat and hopping on the train because, at 10 years old, he still wants me on his field trip. could not wait to tell me he saw my name on the chaperone list. could not wait to tell me i got to spend a whole cold and chilly day walking through the outdoor german market.

it is these sparks of innocence, his unfiltered exuberance, his lack of hurry in the growing-up department, that is the gift i hold in my palms as if a fragile robin’s egg.

as a mama, i straddle quite a canyon, the one that finds me taking in the college tales, and the worries that come with it, while with the other foot i am firmly planted in the giggles and the charms of fifth grade.

one night i might watch the little one smear on a slick of underarm deodorant before he tumbles into bed (“i like to smell something good when i first wake up,” he explains, as if anyone should know that), but next morning he’ll ask if i can help him cut his waffles.

it is this blessed holy middle place–not yet big and tough and smelling like a goat, still blithe enough to not mind holding tight my hand as we tiptoe through the night–that makes me whisper my unending thanks.

i am holding each and every frame, savoring the pure undiluted joy of this second round of life that came tumbling from the heavens.

bless you, my counting-down boy.

we all have gifts aplenty. as we count the days toward the longest night, and towards the holy christmas story, what might we find in your red-plaid pocket if you were to pull out but one magic parcel this fine december day?

welcome home, college freshman xoxo

* as published in the Chicago Tribune
(here’s a tale you all know, you who come to the table, pull up a chair. i could barely wait last week to see that boy, now asleep in the room up over my head as i type. so i wrote the essay below. it ran in the newspages. but it belongs here, most of all. you see the boy, trying to sleep, and the little one, who could not pull himself away from that bed. he just stood beside his big brother, soaking it in. so did i.

and, now as we all get ready to crank the stoves, set the table, open the door and welcome the ones we love, here is the welcome home essay, just for you. xoxo)

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been imagining the sound for months: his footsteps.

The house has been hollow without them, the thud I came to know as his as he stumbled out of the bed, the gallop as he loped down the stairs.

I can almost feel the gust of the wind as the front door swings open and in pops that curly haired mop I last buried my nose in on a hot August day when I left him on a leafy college quad, 1,000 miles away.

But any day now — I could tell you the hours and minutes — we are about to fall into the sweetest of homecomings, the freshman in college coming home for the very first time.

It’s a film loop I’ve played in my mind over and over. Since way back before he was gone. It was, in many ways, a salve to the wound that was growing, deepening as the day of his leaving finally arrived. Nearly swallowed me whole, that widening gash.

I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp, and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply.

This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn.

Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report in to the folks back home.

It took me the better part of a month to get used to the missing sounds in our house. To not wince each night when I laid down three forks, not four. To not leave on the porch light as I climbed up to bed.

Over the months, I’ve learned to steer clear of particular shelves in the grocery store, because they hold his favorites — the turkey jerky, the sharp cheddar, stuff I used to grab without thinking, his stuff.

Curiously, I haven’t spent much time in his room. Except once, when I tackled the closet, folded every last T-shirt, rolled up loose socks, rubbing my hand over the cloth, absorbing the altered equation, that I was now the mother of a faraway child.

And so, I’m looking forward to when the place at the kitchen table will be ours again, the place where we talked until the wee hours, poring over the landscape of his life, refining the art of listening, asking just the right questions.

I leapt out of bed days ago, scribbled a list of all the foods I wanted to buy, to tuck on the pantry shelves, to pack in the fridge. I flipped open a cookbook to a much splattered page, the recipe for one his favorites. It’s as if the alchemy of the kitchen will fill places that words cannot.

I can barely contain the tingling that comes with knowing that, any day, he’ll be boarding a plane, crossing the sky, putting his hand on the knob on our door.

My beautiful boy, the boy I’ve missed more than I will ever let on, he’s coming home to the house that’s been aching to hear him again.

Barbara Mahany is a Tribune reporter.

(in case my editors want the link to be floating here…)