pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Category: laughing at myself

dear sisyphus,

driving

a rare moment’s meditation on the slow road to school and back. before my pal sisyphus pulled the latest from his bag of slick tricks.

yo sis,

forgive the familiarity, but it seems we’ve been on most-familiar terms in the last 24 hours, so it dawned on me that perhaps it wise to befriend you. for reasons that escape me, you seem to have barged in this ol’ house, with nary a knock at the door. just, oomph! blew right in, settled down alongside me, tried to see what havoc you and your up-and-down ways might wreak.

you, my sisyphean interruptor, you must have run out of folks to mess with, so you decided to mess with me. there’s the dinner you burned, the pants you nearly set on fire, and in your latest attempt at folly, you must have decided it would be oh-so-charming if, after staying up till past midnight with the kid whose homework would not end and whose headache wouldn’t stop pounding, you first made him miss the bus. and then, just as i was thinking how much i didn’t mind the morning drive through the woods to the schoolhouse, and how in fact it stitched a dose of meditative calm into my daily rush, you dawned on the big bright idea that it would be hilarious if, when the kid hauled his backpack out of the car at the schoolhouse curb, you tugged at the pencil bag, the one that carries the calculator he needs for the quiz he missed because his headache was so awful. you kept it in hiding, of course, you sly little rock-pusher, you waited till the car was almost home, and then, in a fit of devilishness, you poked the pencil bag’s edge out from under the seat, just far enough so that when i saw it, i could feel that wonderful sense of heart reeling to throat. that’s when i pulled over and texted said kid: “do you need pencil bag?” to which he replied: “of course. why don’t i have it?”

and that’s when i made like, well, you, mr. forth-and-back-forth-and-back-forever-and-ever-amen!

i spun the old wagon back in the direction from which it had just come, and emphatically hit the gas. oops. lest the cops pull me over right here and now, let’s say i “gentled the pedal” that ties to the gas, ever so delicately hightailing from 10 to 40 mph. and that’s when i looked down, and realized that today of all days was the rare and unusual morning when i figured i could head out the door in my jammies, the ones with the tie-dyed dots all over the pants, the ones no fool would wear into that high school where high-cheekboned kids stay up late into the night perusing the latest fashion trends.

so, yes, you pulled a good one there. you must have been doubled over in fits of giggles, as you watched me leap from the car, lope up the steps, and weave through the teen-aged throngs to get to the window where lost and left-behind items are left. far as i know, those adorable kiddies thought i was just another silver-haired mama, decked out in my retrofit tie-dyes, adding to the daily pile of forgetfulness.

and before this goes on much longer, before you decide it would be SO funny to, say, let a chipmunk romp through the house, or bathe the old cat in eau de skunk, i thought i’d dash off this dispatch, this plea for detente, and see if maybe just maybe we could sit down for tea, negotiate a truce.

i need no more tearful outbursts. i’ve had it with smoke-billowing appliances. all i want, mister one-step-forward-two-steps-back, is a calm rest of the day. no speeding tickets. no sprained ankles. no fire department banging down my front door.

in fact, i’ll sweeten the deal: you steer clear of my path for the day, just this one measly day, and i’ll shoulder your load to the top of the hill.

but you’re on your own after that, mr. deja-vu-all-over-again, when per eternal order of the undergods, that nasty old rock bobbles back to the starting line. and you find yourself right back where you were.

much like the drill i’ve come to know as my own. ever since you so rudely barged in.

has sisyphus visited your house of late? 

dispatch from the land of dishevelment

willie books

one of us took a tumble the other night. all one of us was trying to do was go to bed. but around here, in these disheveled days, you take your life in your hands any time you try to get from point Q to point Z. the poor tumbled person, he found himself skittering upon a pond of discarded papers. and old bulletin boards. and chin-up bars whose use has expired. and a few old campaign stickers from congressional races that didn’t quite turn out the way some of us had hoped.

it made for a terrible noise. the noise awoke me. and our resident little fellow, just sinking into a short night of sleeps, he went leaping from his bed to see what was the matter, what was the source of the fortissimo clatter. there the source lay. all asprawl. undaunted, or so he insisted. just a scattering of papers and limbs, soon rustled back into order.

i tell this tale because it’s illustrative, you might say, of the tumbled-up order (well, really, dis-order) that is the current state of awry in this house.

you can practically hear the ol’ joint moaning. the floor boards are letting out protest. long-shuttered windows, refusing to budge. nearly every available corner, it seems, is lost, under siege, is crushed by the weight of teetering piles.

we have piles of books from every era of a young boy’s growing-up years. and whole parades of paraphernalia from particular passing obsessions: we begin with trains and move onto baseball, then comes the film-camera chapter, swiftly followed by double bass/sound-recording, onto politics and rowing, then deeper and deeper into political philosophers whose first few sentences i can barely muddle through. if you were inclined toward archeological digs, you could trace the timeline of our firstborn’s obsessions — now on stand-by for storage or discard — as if the strata in metamorphic rock.

all of this to say that it’s NUTS AROUND HERE! (excuse me, i needed to let out a motherly roar!)

i’ve come to realize in the last week plus two days and 20 hours that, for the last four years, we’d existed in an artificially placid world around here (even though i wasn’t enlightened enough to grasp the relative serenity).

back then, when i cleaned the sink before tumbling to bed, it was just as clean in the dawn as it had been at midnight. when i dumped a barrel of apples into the produce bin, i could count its dwindling one-by-one. breakfast hadn’t become a three-pan production. and, heck, when i walked in the door, and lined up three unassuming pairs of shoes, they stood where i’d told them to stay, and never threatened to kill me by wolf-whistling a back-door convention of every imaginable combination of foot wear, all size 13 (or, in the unforgettable words of a long-ago seller of shoes on state street that great street in downtown chicago, a peddler who put measuring tape to the feets of my mate, and yelped, “man, you is past-noon!”).

ah, but that was then. back in the age of kid-off-at-college.

said kid, as you know, is now home. and gone is the calm, the unruffled quietude, that so soothed me. so essentially soothed me.

yes, yes, i love every ounce of the discombobulation. but, oh, it’s discombobulated, right here in these parts. and i’m always a bit slow to get with the program, so i need to untangle the knots and knead out the kinks in my nerves. i need to live in a suspended state of dishevelment, not mind that the only way down the stairs is to thread your way, ever so gingerly, between the piles of books that each hog a step. i need to double my allergy meds, what with the dust storm that’s swirling through room upon room.

it’s what happens when the carpet-ripper-outer arrives. and the painter shows up to slap a new coat of templeton gray onto the mottled walls in the bath. and bookshelves are cleared, and drawers are dumped of their fifth-grade detritus.

what just a week ago was a boy’s room, one decked out with a baseball-bat lamp, and a plush navy carpet, and the overstuffed chair i’d once bought for purposes of nursing a newborn, is now a post-collegiate den. one with splattered-maple floor, college-crest armchair, re-curated bookshelves, and, en route, a 1920s floor lamp procured via etsy — soon to arrive at the downtown greyhound station, where shipping comes at half the cost of door-to-door delivery (making for yet another urban scavenging adventure, i’m certain).

mere moments ago i was interrupted here amid my typing for a conversation that’s emblematic of the way the days are unfolding: said man, the one who lives in what we now refer to as The Studio at 522 (giving the appropriate marketer’s capitalization to even the lowly article, The, making it all seem swanky and swell), he paused by my writing room to display the morning’s dilemma, and to partake of some motherly counsel.

seems his running shoe has half-shed its heel, so he reasoned that rather than leaping out for a jog and risking its loss altogether, he’d try a bit of home repair before hitting the elliptical down in the basement. he was considering super-glu as quik-solve to the runaway shoe part, but then he realized he might spend the rest of his day glued to the round-and-round part of the shape-up machine. which led him to wonder, aloud, if anyone had ever shown up at the ER door with fitness apparatus attached.

all you can do — and i do — is laugh out loud. deeply and often.

it might be a week or so — okay, maybe a month or so — till we wrestle these piles into place. the attic — now stuffed to the gills — dare not collapse. and, sooner or later i’ll figure a way to have groceries by train car delivered.

and somehow (perhaps if i pray to the patron saint of chaos becalmed, or beg for celestial xanax to rain from the clouds) i’ll settle into the hum that surely will come soon as i catch up to the prestissimo that is now the requisite pace in these parts. these most decidedly discombobulated, deeply joy-filled, post-college parts.

some of you — my mother, for certain — might have predicted it wouldn’t take too long till i exclaimed that it sure had gotten noisy and messy around here, now that we’ve expanded the homestead’s population by 25 percent. so i’ve once again been utterly predictable. all i know is that it helps to deep breathe, and maintain a DEEP sense of hilarity. tumbling out the door for garden breaks is also restorative. but best of all is climbing the stairs and knowing that just behind the closed door at the bend in the stairs there dwells the kid i’ve so longed to have home, for even the shortest of whiles. indeed, for as short or as long as this lasts, i really and truly am thrilled beyond thrilled to absorb the oncoming, everyday tumbles and blows here in the land of dishevelment.

what are your tried-and-true measures for weathering the population transitions in your life, when someone comes or someone goes, most especially someone you deeply dearly love who arrives or departs with truckloads and train cars of stuff?

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

muddled at the end…

muddled at the end

dispatch from 02139 (in which this year of thinking sumptuously is slipping through our fingertips, certificates of completion are now collecting dust atop the dresser, and we are due to turn back into pumpkins any minute now….)

so, at last it’s come, and now it’s gone.

may 22. that once-distant spot on the horizon, that date we magically hoped might never come near, the date when all the fellows and their co-vivants would gather one last ceremonial time, circle around the astounding historian and president of veritas U, drew faust gilpin.

she would stand behind the podium, all 5-foot-8 of towering intellect, and she’d sprinkle us with final words of wisdom and blessing, deal out certificates as if a deck of holy cards, and then we’d file out.

finished.

the year of thinking sumptuously come to a sorry close.

if no mortar boards were tossed in the air (the suggestion was nixed, opting instead for dignified closing benediction), there were exhales all around: sighs of relief, whoops of joy. and there were inhales: disbelief. oh-no-what-now? how’d that happen quite so swiftly?

i, for one, am clearly in the camp of the muddled.

so topsy turvy are my insides, are the thoughts rumbling through my brain, it’s a miracle these sentences aren’t flowing out in parabolas and circles.

i am one big gunny sack of contradiction.

i am deeply grateful — and i mean prostrate, belly-flopped, on the cobbled lanes, for crying out loud — for having had this wollop of a whirl drop into our laps in the first place. and i am oh-so-sick that i didn’t lick a few more morsels off my plate, didn’t break out of a few of the ties that bind me, always bind me.

i am more than sated, yes, but hungry for so much more — in the book department, for starters. i am lugging home a 10-pound box of syllabi that i intend to read my way through, even if i need to live to 210 to do so.

i ache for home, for the friends who know me through and through and who understand the hills and valleys of my soul. i ache to be back in my not-so-secret garden, perched on the birdhouse bench tucked along the bluestone path. i imagine tiptoeing down my creaky stairs, turning the corner into my farmhouse kitchen, letting the cat in from his midnight prowl.

and yet, last night at fenway (the final final outing of the year, a trek to the green monster, washed down with a belly-ache of cotton candy, cracker jack, and a triple cracked off the bat of the reigning mr. red sox, dave ortiz), i was looking a few rows down at my beloved friend from south africa and i thought i heard my own heart crack at the thought of being an ocean and a continent away from her.

and what about the great white clapboard clubhouse that’s been the beehive of this blessed bustling nieman year? every time i round the bend, come through that white picket gate (past the nostril-packing lilac and the korean spice viburnum in recent weeks), charge up the brick walk and bound through the brass-knockered front door, i’ve felt more embraced than a girl should be allowed to feel (by the old floorboards and colonial panes of glass, i mean, a place that echoes with three-quarters of a century of journalism heavyweights).

and leaving behind the curator — the great good friend who somehow believed in me this year, even when i was quivering with self-doubt — i cannot stand the thought of not having her in my every day.

can’t stand the thought of days not populated with seminars and masterclasses, with shoptalks and round tables, with spontaneous eruptions of big ideas and wacky antics down in the clubhouse basement where the computers always whir and the fridge is forever stocked with cranberry-lime fizzy water, my emblematic drink of the year.

one marvelous fellow-friend told me yesterday that she felt only one thing the other night, after the certificates and the lovely dinner and the curator’s jaw-dropping act of handing out, one at a time, the perfect book she had deeply picked for each and every one of the 24 fellows. she felt “complete,” my fellow-friend said.

how odd, i thought, that i feel quite the opposite. i feel rather incomplete.

is it some quirk in my wiring that has me looking at this whole thing upside down? or is it simply, as i’ve said all year, that i’ve been catapulted into a somewhere i always imagined was here, but i’d not tread before: i am learning my way through the landscape of slow-acquired wisdom, and i see so long and winding a trail ahead.

there are volumes to be inhaled and boundaries to be toppled. there are trapezes i aim to grab, and training wheels i might take off.

i am, in a million ways, so very much a beginner.

and it’s a slow road, mustering courage and backbone.

and there are miles and miles to go before i finally sleep.

and all along the way, i’ll be whispering my vespers of deep and everlasting thanks…for this most glorious and forever year of thinking so very sumptuously.

photo above is my mate, “the professor,” ambling into loeb house for the lovely and heartfelt final dinner. once the home of the president of veritas U, the brick colonial manse is now reserved for truly special occasions — when funders gather with their pocketbooks, or, in the case of the empty-pocketed nieman fellows, for the final push out of harvard yard.

all things nieman now have ended, but we’ll haunt cambridge for another month as little mr. sixth grader winds up his school year, and we slowly say goodbye to this city where a good chunk of our hearts will forever dwell. 

do you often find endings a whirl of up, down and sideways? 

growing up in a word factory

word factory

dispatch from 02139 (in which every horizontal plane seems buried under sheafs and piles of papers upon papers…)

poor kids.

you wonder — or at least i do, most often when dillydallying before diving in to some writing project that demands utter and undiluted attention — just how it is to grow up in a house where the smoke spewing from chimneys is that of words on fire. where the factory floor is littered not with scraps of leather, shards of porcelain, or snippets of fine cloth (respectable trades, all, the cobbler, the potter, the tailor). but rather everywhere you try to amble, there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.

it’s a veritable word trap here where we dwell.

at this very moment, for instance, the dining room table is awash in a banquet of fist-high papers, with nary an inch for a spoon or a fork. the back office is barred with “do not disturb” tape. only the claw-footed tub might be spared the detritus of the writing biz, the one that seems to be the family obsession, er, occupation.

alas, tis tough having been born a double-byline (we have two), the progeny of two souls who could find nothing more admirable to do with their lives than string words onto clotheslines and call it a day’s toil.

the boys we spawned, that other writer fellow and i, they’ve lived and breathed keyboards since the days they were popped from the womb.

they’ve guzzled mama’s milk to the tip-tap-tap of keys. they’ve drifted off to nap time, lulled by the somnolent shooshing of fingers upon alphabet squares. heck, early on, one of the duo played make-believe with a toy telephone, put receiver to his ear, and promptly proceeded to push aside his mama with a curt, “i can’t talk to you now, i’m talking to my editor.”

he was two.

gulp.

talk about staring your sins in the face.

and so, as i’ve surveyed the landscape around this little aerie this week, i’ve the niggling sense that we might be drowning in words. one of us has hijacked the couch, the afghan, the dining table and all six of the chairs (the better to fan out those vertical files). the other has staked his polar-explorer flag in the icy back office, and, for warmer-upper reprieve, the cozy cove in the kitchen.

which, by my calculations, leaves the poor sixth-grade lad little choice but to hole up on his out-of-reach top bunk when he too decides to partake of the family biz, though in his case he much prefers inhaling to exhaling words. so that’s where we find him these days, when the smoke from the word chimney gets a tad too thick, when he retreats behind his curtainwall of great reads.

is it any wonder the boy is deep-breathing literary wonders at a clip never before clocked in his lifetime? in six short weeks, the once reluctant reader tore through the harry potters (all), then page-turned his way through “the hobbit,” and just this monday and tuesday zoomed through a brilliant tale aptly called “wonder.” (it’s by r.j. palacio, and it’s about a wise-beyond-his-years boy born with a severe facial deformity and his parents’ decision that it’s time to stop homeschooling and, in fifth grade, send him bravely and with much trepidation to ‘mainstream school.’ it’s a book that no less than the wall street journal described as “a beautiful, funny and sometimes sob-making story of quiet transformation”).

which is why one of my best to-do’s of the week was to be the reader lad’s fetcher, to mosey down the lane to the cambridge public library, sidle up to one of the world’s yummiest children’s librarians (and aren’t they all among the yummiest?), pick her brain, and waddle home loaded down with a menu of new word-fattened morsels. (see above.)

in theory, these weeks through here are the january thaw for the brain; in college parlance it’s the stretch known as january term, J term, or inter-term.

only mr. wordsmith and i have decided there’s no time for time-off in our one swift year, so we’re digging in deeper. he is toiling on a book, and writing yet another one in preparation for a class he’ll be teaching for the next two weeks. i am doing what looks like shuffling papers, but really it’s a wee bit more ambitious than that — and a thousand times harder.

so everywhere you go, there are alphabet keys and — shhhhh! — expletives flying. there are pages jamming the printer. and paragraphs clogging the brain.

it’s dense enough around here that i sat down this morning to ask the young lad, the one shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, just how it was to grow up in a house where the family business is words.

said he, “it’s kinda weird.” but then, deeply-versed in the editing process, he asked me to strike that first sentence so he could begin again.

“it’s kind of like everybody’s always picking up the phone cuz they’re on deadline. or running out the door to an interview. or they’re in their office writing like a madman.” [editor’s note: please do note the use of the masculine, madman, not madwoman, proving once and for all that i am not the only off-kilter member of this writing tag team.]

since the lad was on a roll, and had been asked to unfurl a few deep-held words on the matter, he went on with one more complaint before the clock chimed, “STOP, time to chase the school bus.”

that complaint was this: “there’s way too much attention to words. i’m always getting my grammar corrected.”

and so it is, young lad, when you grow up in a house of words, when you’d best not flub your me & him’s, nor your “i choosed the chocolates.” it’s a family sin, and one you’ll not escape unedited.

so sorry you were not born to cobblers. just think, you’d have holey shoes to show for it. instead you’ve nouns and verbs and subjective infinitives pouring from your ears.

poor child.

poor, poor double-byline.

love, your wordy mama

what were the occupational hazards of growing up in the house where you grew up?? 

garden emergency! garden emergency!

it appears that after you’ve dwelled under the same roof as moi for, oh, a few weeks, or, heck, your whole lifetime, you get used to the regular punch of the panic alarm.

might be the smoke billowing up from the stove. might be a critter whimpering by the backdoor, come lookin’ for a spoonful of sugar, or a wrap in a blanket. might be me reading the news, tears rolling down my cheeks. or might be a phone call, one that sets me to frettin’ and gasping.

whatever it is, you learn to take it in holy stride. “oh, that’s mama,” they mutter, “ridin’ one of her heart-yankin’ roller coasters.”

so it was the other afternoon, or honestly, it was inching into the dinner hour.

that’s when i up and shot from my typing room, where i’d been tethered all day, tap-tapping away on the keys. never mind that tummies were growling, the kiddies pining away for a plain simple supper. a cold boiled potato, in fact, might have been all they wished for.

oh, well. chalk one up for the department of children and family services’ checklist: mama abandons her kids, chooses the trowel over the cook pot.

why, with nary a second thought (save for the swift pang of guilt as i jabbed toward the pantry, called out, “how ’bout a pretzel?”), i slipped into my pink rubber garden clogs and shot into the beds.

over my shoulder, i let out a whoop, my way of explaining: “garden emergency! garden emergency!”

the emergency, in case you are starting to wonder, was this: the nice weatherman was forecasting, in no wishy-washy words, one of those hell’s-on-its-way scenarios, in which temperatures would shoot to a shrieking 100-and-something by daybreak, and my latest adoptees from the big-box nursery would be dead in their pots if i did not get them safely into ol’ mother earth, who tends far better than i do to her sweet growing things.

sure enough, when i got to the site of impending doom, where three wee delphiniums sat gasping for water, itching to kick off their hard-plastic pots and let out their roots, i hollered back for assistance. “yo, can i have a pair of hands, please?”

on demand, as i started to dig my delphinium trenches, the tall muscular man-child trod out to quell the commotion.

with nary the skip of a beat, he cranked up the full-throttle mockery, one of his signature charades in which he slips into voice, into character, and makes out like a visiting thespian, or simply an unsuspecting body-snatcher who slithers into the form of my firstborn. this time, he made like he was the surgical assistant, and i was the mad doctor, hooked on plant-booster potions.

all i’d done was ask–all right, it was rather high-pitched and panicky–if he could please pass me the osmocote, those wee little pellets i shake into every plant trench i dig. mere fat yellow bits–think oversized dandruff–they somehow manage to supercharge the roots of the tender green darlings, give them the boost they need to get growing.

as that boy-man stood serving my rat-a-tat pleases and thank-yous, passing me vials of root-booster, taking hold of the trowel when i tossed it his way, he whooped it up big time, mimicking my heightened state of emergency. with the flip of some invisible switch, he’d slipped into a riff in which i was some sort of garden-y addict (all dolled-up in pink shoes and pruners), and osmocote was my hallucinogen of choice.

wasn’t long till we both nearly buckled (or at least i did; he’s pretty good at not breaking face), our knees shaking from laughter, me seeing certain and clear my pure, utter foolishness.

it’s a beautiful thing, the gift of a child who sees through to every last one of your foibles, and loves you anyway. makes you see your quirks and eccentricities as part of the formula that makes you the wall-banger you happen to be.

God love the all-purpose balm that is laughter. God love those with the gift of shoveling it deeply into each and every day.

once the hysteria cleared, though, and my babies were settled in their beds, the rich loamy covers pulled up over their roots, i couldn’t help but notice that i do, in fact, think of my garden as a blanket of bliss that covers my slice of the globe.

i have, in fact, come to tend to each sweet growing thing as if her life depends, to some feeble degree, on my care and attention. and when, for instance, a once-dying fern is up and moved and springs back to life, i can’t help but breathe deep the satisfaction of life finding a way to keep at it anyway.

i don’t mean, really, to abandon my hungry children. it’s just that i’ve come to think of all the trying-to-live things in my life as part of my big moppy crew. and every last one, i hold quite close to my heart.

somehow i doubt i’m the only one with quirks here at the table (and believe me, the ones up above are merely the start of it). do you have one or maybe even two? are there folks in your world who’ve taught you that those silly things you do, you insist on, are really a part of the whole equation, and, like the soft spots in an apple (where the bees bumped into the wee baby fruit) just add to the overall sweetness?

blue patches worth the wait

i am drawn to them the way i stumble to the bathroom sink in deep of night. when my throat is parched, and i am not awake so much, except to feel like i am choking on the dryness. and then the waters come, cool ones, wet ones. and the choking goes away. and back i stumble, into sleep. my throat no longer aching to be soothed.

it’s what it feels like, especially at the close of this long winter, when the patches start to sprout. first, like measles made of blue, the spots come here and there. scattered. hardly connected. a little bit of cobalt. another little bit.

but then, suddenly, it’s spreading. whole pools and puddles, patches. old yards, right now, show their age. in the best way i can imagine. they spread out in blue. as if whole blankets from the attic have been taken down the winding stairs, shaken out of all their accumulated winter’s dust and left to air, where thirsty ones like me can drink them in.

it is the single thing of spring, the scilla, or Siberian squill, that sends me soonest to the moon, has me down and on my belly, taking in the endless waves of nodding heads of blue.

they come, the scilla does, where earth is undisturbed. it is, like gray locks on a wise old lady’s head, a crown of age.

oh, you might tuck a bulb or two into the ground. and, should the squirrels not binge, you might find just one or two breaking through the crust, come spring.

but if it’s a swath of blue you’re after–a river, really, blue on blue on blue, paying no mind to where one yard ends and another starts, barely yielding to the street, popping up again just beyond the curb–then you will have to wait. ten, twenty, fifty years, when, squill by squill, they multiply, take up every inch of old and tired real estate.

i’ve nearly crashed the car in this accidental season. can’t keep my eyes on this here road. i’m always scanning for the scilla pools.

and when i come upon them, it’s not enough to merely notice, and keep along my way. why, no, i’ve been known to pull a U-ey, screech the brakes, drop to hands and knees. it’s why, i think, God gave me a belly, the perfect launching pad for taking in the earth at eyeball level.

you might have seen me, sprawled. you might have thought, oh, that lady’s had a stroke. or perhaps she’s lost a ring, and is making like a snake, turning over leaves in hopes of finding gold.

gold, shmold. i am seeking blue. inhaling it. licking it. basically, consuming it through every pore. getting my annual allotment, and then some. i fill my belly now, or else, i wait.

through may and june, when there are, praise be, distractions to occupy my eyes and nose. through july and august, when all i do is sweat. through the whole of fall, when i make do with swirling leaves and pumpkins, too. to december when the tree lights twinkle, and somehow seem to mesmerize me. back to january. february. on to march, the slow road to mental decline if there ever was one. by early april, without a bit of blue, i am nearly sunk. so blue inside i might as well give up. call 9-1-1, come get me.

but then, as if my inner blue is on the loose, the spots appear before my eyes. at first, i think i’m seeing things. could this be a blue mirage? is someone playing cobalt tricks?

and that, my friends, is why you find me, at the height of april, flattened. on the ground, stretched out. rolling in the scilla. seeing if, perhaps, i can stain my skin the blue i thirst for. so the wait won’t be so anguished.

it is a silly thing, how sometimes these meanders go where i’d not one bit intended. i had set out in one direction, but my fingers on the keys took me elsewhere. oh, well, that’s how it is in spring, this season that we wait and wait for. i’ll be back, i guess, to lolligag my way along some other route some coming day. because it seems the squill took over here. do you have something in the spring that makes you go a little gaga? do you have squill where you live? or what is it that lures you over the fine edge?

the other blog in this ol’ house

maybe it’s because we shared a glass. maybe it has something to do with sleeping on the same sheets for the past 18 months. (oh, i mean i changed the sheets and all, but even when i did our arms and legs were still stretched out on common threads). egad, we might have even touched. our toes, i mean our toes.

what’s happened, though, is most peculiar. i once resided with a fellow who harumphed at the notion of a blog. i still recall him–quite vividly, in fact–with his gray hooded sweatshirt pulled up and past his ears, sitting at the banged-up kitchen table one dreary weekday morn, spooning little Os into his mouth, while i pranced by with camera.

“i will not be blogged,” he bellowed. and i of course demurred. i’ve only once or twice trespassed across that line–and that was to make nice. and he, of course, responded with a mighty grin.

but now, it seems the anti-blogger has come around, crossed over to the dark side. why, even as i type, he is on a train tap-tapping at his keys.

stranger than fiction, truer than truth, we are now a two-blog household.

he of course is blogging boldly, about that thing he loves, the size and shapes of towers, and how we build our cities. i too write of that i love, the little things that unfold around us, our hearts, our souls, our wings, our stumbles.

seems he’s taken rather quickly to this whole new world of laying it on the line (he seems to lay it nearly every hour, on the hour). and seems the world is taking rather quickly, too, to every word he writes.

there is irony aplenty here, so much in fact, i need to scrape it off the walls. but i’ll leave all of that to your imagination.

i’ll offer these few points:

you’ll get a chuckle, yes indeed, at the fact that weeks ago he was moaning–over mashed potatoes, if i recall–that there might come a day when he’d get merely 10,000 to 20,000 hits.

i choked, i really did, nearly spit my spuds across the table. thought of all the mornings i arose before the rooster even crowed. i realized, i did, that in 18 months of all this finger exercise i’d only just barely scraped the 20,000 mark (and half of those i fear, were me simply clicking past the chair, on the way to other places).

in fact, just the other day, his first official day, he clocked a stunning 6,000-something clicks. i did a little checking, flipped through the pages of my calendar, where i confess i scribble all my clicks on the days that i hit “publish.” took me, for example, from aug. 24 to dec. 10–a full 14 weeks, or 76 meanders–to get that many clicks. and his were on the single day he launched, for cryin’ out loud.

oh, not that i’m comparing. not that i’m feeling one bit, um, overshadowed.

just that well, after all of this, i am now the other blog in this ol’ house.

mostly, i sit in pure amazement at the power of the internet, when it knows where to find you. i scratch my head, trying to figure out just why it is you and me might be the only ones who visit here today.

just a week or so ago, i was getting up at my most delicious hour–that would be five bells from the noisy clock downstairs–and the stretched-out someone right beside me, groggily inquired as i rose, “getting up to blog?”

“no, merely writing in obscurity,” i shot back, quite proud of my early morning sense of humor.

it’s not every woman who can a.) take the dismal comparison, and b.) find something still to laugh about.

so there you have it.

fact is, i more than many on the planet understand the yins and yangs of feeding this here blogging beast. i know what it is to worry all the time, to wake up in a sweat, to wonder who might think that you’re a fool, and, worst of worst, what in the world will you do if, at any hour, the computer won’t turn on.

fact is, as always, he is doing a mighty job. i would not be lying if i said that long ago i fell in love, in part, with just how much he cares, and how triumphantly he makes it matter.

i worry of course that once again he works too hard. and frets too much.

of course, i understand the bumps and bruises, and the exhaustion to the point of flopping to the floor.

what i don’t get is how in the world can it be a bad day when you only get 10,000 hits?

dearly beloved loyal readers, bless you–all three of you–who continue to come back for more. ‘twas too tempting a morsel to pass up this chance to poke a little tease at me and my beloved blogger. here’s hoping it is tossed and caught in the same shared jovial spirit. truth is, in these fretful newsprint times, i stand up and applaud anything that draws a reader. and so i wish the hooded one smooth soaring to the highest heights. i’ll be here, holdin’ down the fort. a job i attempt to manage…..
p.s. the photo up above is the smiling picture of the author of
the skyline, the latest blog wholly endorsed by the chicago tribune. they ran a lovely post about it earlier this week. seems they recognize a good thing when it’s in their grasp.

the dinner party

it started with a phone call one cold sunday afternoon, not so long ago. are you free next saturday night, was the plain-and-simple question.

yes, came the answer, after the requisite checking of calendar, double-checking with spouse, most likely checking in with kiddies to make sure they too could pencil it in. or tap it in, or however it is cyber-tots lock in a date these days.

once secured in the affirmative, another phone call was made. same question posed, left there on the recordable secretary.

and so began the cobbling of souls, the making of lists that for me is, well, about the hummingest hum i know.

i am, it seems, never so quick in the pulse as when i am deep in constructing a dinner party.

if given one more day of my life i think, yes, i do, i would call up everyone i love, and plenty of folks i don’t even know but would love to. i’d order up as many leaves for the table as i possibly could, break down the living room wall if i had to, to make room for all of the chairs. and then i would cook, cook, and cook some more.

oh, did i mention i’d borrow plenty of knives? for, darn it, i only have nine. although, somehow, in the spoon and the fork departments, i am swimming. i think when we were married, when slim little boxes came in many-a-day’s mail, there must have been some sort of 2-for-1 sale on all the parts of the place setting, except for the parts that do cutting. which means you might come for soup, and maybe some ice cream, if you come with more than eight of your friends. and surely, hopefully, some day you’ll come.

for, surely, positively, this is the truth: i would if i could spend the rest of my days dreaming up, doing, yes, even drying the dishes from dinner party piled on dinner party here at my drafty old house.

in fact, so nutty am i for le diner that i looked up from my vacuuming the other afternoon to tell my sweet mate the very something i was thinking at that very moment. then i stopped myself. said, “oh no, that’s too irish.”

to which he urged, “no, tell me.”

i hemmed. hawed. then spilled it: “when i die, skip the wake; just do a dinner party.”

to which, of course, he moaned.

and i went right on vacuuming fur balls.

so it was, all day saturday i found myself humming. humming, you should know, is me at my, well, purring-est.

i was, all at once, cooking, setting the table, imagining the conversations. i was deciding who would sit where for maximum conversational flow. oh, and i was putting out proud tall candles, and snipping the stems of tulips. red ones in february.

to lay out a table for a dinner party is to be bold. is to be alive, really. to be filled to brimming with all sorts of possibility.

it is, i realized, as i lifted the lid on the steeping, steaming coq au vin–my idea of the perfect february dinner party dinner–the most sacramental moment, perhaps, in this holy place we call home.

it is gathering friends, and sometimes near strangers. it is paying no mind to color or age, or political side of the table. it is inviting muslim to sit down with jew. it is asking the atheist to join hands as you stop and offer a few words of grace before picking up fork and, well, keep from jabbing.

it is detente over dinner. it is catching a gleam in the eye as you pass down the butter. it is laughing so hard over salad, you wipe the tears from your eye–and not at all from the shallot.

try not feeling fondly toward the one who pours a splash more merlot in your glass.

it is, wholly, the breaking of bread, and all that that means going back to the dawn of civilization.

it is eucharist, small “e,” defined: bread and wine, yes, but really, “the giving of thanks, offering graciously.” leave it to the greeks and the romans to give it a name, to launch it. the french to refine it. you and me to make it our own.

it is unfurling ideas and stories there at the old family table. it is drawing out thoughts from those you’ve asked to pull up a chair. it is listening. it is returning the thought with a question. and maybe another, and another.

it is, before you even get to the table, making the house come alive, igniting its reason for being. kindling lights. cranking the stove. making a fire. putting on mozart. or muddy waters. it is opening the door, with a gust of warm, wine-sodden air that can’t help but sweep in those shivering there on the stoop.

and for the one doing the inviting, it begins long before the bell rings.

it begins, for me, as i pluck from thin air the someones i’m dying to know, or simply to gather again at the edge of my table. the ones who i think will make for fine conversation. whose stories we might not yet know. whose ideas might rub off on my children.

a dinner party with children, i’ll have you know, is the height of my dinner-party definition. oh, i love a gathering of grownups. but i believe in bringing the children, more than once in a very scant while.

it is there, where the art of the napkin is figured out, that life’s lastingest curriculum is spread.

i am not, never have been, one to segregate the little people. i don’t believe in banishing the squirmers off in the kitchen. oh no. let them squirm right here among us. let them learn how to listen. let them learn the art of unspooling the story. let them follow words to a simmer, then rise to almost a boil, but right then, before the lid blows, let them absorb the knack for cooling it down to a slow gentle bubbling again.

and so it was, last saturday night, that i laid out a table for 12. spent the whole day, and part of the one before, toiling away. picking out cremini mushrooms. uncorking bordeaux. mismatching old plates. scribbling names onto red folded cards.

not a minute felt like a chore, or anything close. it was joy, only joy, pure, simple, undiluted.

there is something, i swear, to making a table that sparkles. to filling bowls and baskets and platters to spilling. to stoking the evening to come.

there is dinner. and then there is feasting.

saturday night at my house, we feasted. till our bellies–and hearts–were stuffed near to bursting.

when it was over, the last napkin tossed down the chute, the last bit of cake tucked away, i only had room for a very full sigh.

ever since, i’ve been licking my lips on all that’s leftover. and i don’t mean what’s in the fridge.

do you too love a dinner party? are you daunted sometimes by the notion? or have you mastered the grace of making it seem effortless? like something you do at the drop of any old reason? what are your secret ingredients to a dinner that lingers long after the lights are turned out? do you have a tried-and-true menu that works every time? or do you indulge in experimenting on company? is there a dinner you’ll never forget, and why?

lysol’s got nothin’ on st. babs in a can

i know, i know, now you think i’ve been holding out on you, keeping all my secrets shrouded in the back hall closet. back behind the moldy tennis rackets, and the shoes that lost their strings.

you’ve been wondering–for months and months, i’ll bet–why everything–oh, excuse me, i seem to be coughing–runs so smoothly–no, i’m surely choking–here in the world i call my house. how come the broccoli never burns. and the children never pout.

well, i figured today’s as good as any to pull out all the stops. and while i’m at it, i might as well let you in on my supernatural* domestic secret.

you see, upstairs right now, there is a 6-foot-something creature who is trying hard to sleep. but he’s got finals any hour now, and he is moaning in his dreams. i am not thinking these would be the moans of growing child rolling in whipped cream. these seem to be the utterances of a pupil in distress.

then, over in the next room, the only one with heat, the one that feels a bit like sleeping in an anteroom of hades, is a little one who went to bed last night in tears. he nearly water-logged his pillow telling me that of all the children in his class, he’s the “unsmartest one.” in every single thing.

oh, lord, God almighty. where did i tuck the all-purpose house-protecting spray? it seems i’ve not been keeping up with all the troubles seeping in the cracks.

and, no, people, the spritz for which i grope is not some hyperallergenic thing that will keep away the microbes. phht, on little germs. i’ve no cares for them.

it’s the woopsy-daisy vibes that i intend to spray away.

you thought, perhaps, that all it took was hours on your knees. and perhaps a hundred dollars to the nearest voodoo doc. mais, non, i have an angel friend who came riding to my rescue.

who knew that you could buy a saint and tuck her in a can? complete with aerosol spitzer, no less.

this one, the one in pink who’s pirouetting up above, well, she came to me, as if in a fevered dream. she came to me just as i was blowing out the candles on my latest birthday cake. (51 candles, thank you, is as close to fevered dream as i’m inclined to get.)

so really i’ve not been holding out on you for all that long at all. in fact, i’ve only really just begun to understand her powers*.

what, you ask, is with all the little asterisks, the floating stars every time i mention all her super*celestial magic tricks?

well, i am only being fair, only being forthcoming, for the little tiny print running up the seam of that pink paper label spells out, in no uncertain terms, the limits of her contents: “does not have supernatural powers,” it says, in teensy-weensy caution. just in case you thought maybe you could turn the family frog into something altogether else.

oh, darn. it’s right there, in black-on-pink. my jewish husband saw it, the disclaiming, right away. (hmm, do we think it odd that the back-pedaling had escaped me, little catholic me, completely?)

ah well, the label then informs me–and i, in turn, am informing you, lest we get some lawsuit; what, the saints on high will come down and haul me off to court?–that there is nothing truly sacred about the piney mist that comes splurting from the nozzle.

ha. that’s what they think. unbeknownst to fellow inhabitants of this house (they just thought the christmas tree had gotten old and redolent), i have been unleashing little clouds of holy mist for the past few days, in hopes of keeping bad, bad karma out of doors where it belongs, where it stands a chance of going up in most unholy smoke.

but, given the elevated state of dread around here this morning, i intend to up the ante of my holy showers.

heck, i will spray until we’re in a rainy forest here, if that’s what it takes to rid these walls of all the angst of children up against the rigors of the blackboard.

i have no idea why such a godsend is so hard to find. i’ve no clue why it’s not there on the highest shelf of every single grocery. you would think the world would clamor for sanctified and pressurized protection.

praise God, then, that i’ve got allies with divine connections.

my blessed angel friend, the one whose wings, i swear, are tucked beneath her sweater, she rode miles and miles to drum up my new-year supply of saint babs’ artillery. the spray promises “peace in the home,” the candle is all-purpose, and the parfum i’m guessing is for the girl on the go, just a dab behind the ears and you are covered till you take a shower.

i’m told it all comes in a few saintly flavors: besides ol’ babs (who, by the way, was debunked of her saintliness nearly 40 years ago, but don’t tell the fine souls who make these aromatic vapors), there’s chris (yet another debunked saint–hmm, maybe after all this is the dumping ground for saints no longer). and i’m pretty sure there’s dearest saint theresa, who is forever the little flower.

so, dang, if you don’t find your holy patron among those three, just ask, and i will let you borrow mine.

but first i need to go see if i can shush the nasty smells coming from the boot tray.

bet you didn’t realize you could find such housekeeping secrets here. come back again, and i’ll let you in on how i keep my oven bright and shining. anyone else have a trick divine up their blessed sleeve?