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Category: life lessons

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

the homestead, circa 1957

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

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

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

and everything changed. 

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

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

you get cured right quick of your stockpiling ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

turns out, marie kondo was right after all.

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

on kindness, kerouac, and tolstoy

leo tolstoy

i will be backing into this if i begin by quoting a russian intellectual and novelist. but so i begin.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Leo Tolstoy

the subject, once again and always, is kindness.

it was unknown to me, and perhaps little known more broadly, that at the turn of the 19th century leo tolstoy neared completion of what he considered an imperative life’s work. not anna karenina, not war and peace, not the death of ivan ilych. but rather something he considered more timeless, more lasting: “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” as he described it.

or as cultural critic maria popova once put it, “to be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. to be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.” tolstoy’s book, she wrote, was to be “a reliable springboard for these moral leaps.”

in the middle of his 55th year, in march of 1884, tolstoy had set out to read and reap from a circle of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders who had shed light on what was most crucial in living a good and righteous life. he dug deep across millennia and miles, reading epictetus, marcus aurelius, lao-tzu, buddha, pascal, the new testament — a reading list he deemed “necessary.”

it was to be his florilegium (a compilation of excerpts from other writings, “mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine, or idea,” writes popova. the word comes from the latin for “flower” and “gather;” a bouquet of curated wisdoms). tolstoy saw it as something of a roadmap, daily sign posts pointing the way toward “the Good Way of Life.” in a letter to his assistant, he explained his project thusly:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

he spent 17 years at it, and shortly after the birth of the 20th century, in 1902, he completed his manuscript, under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. two years later, it was published in russian, and nearly a century later, in 1997, it appeared in english translation, all 384 pages of it, under the title A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. for each day of the year, tolstoy plucked, or gathered, quotes by great thinkers, then added his own musings and connective tissue on the subject, with kindness as the sinew and spine of the book’s moral sensibility.

i bought the book yesterday, in the long hours after i had once again dropped my beloved husband at the curb of terminal 3 at o’hare airport, as he set off once again to race to his mother’s bedside, to honor her, to fill the hospice room with his prayer and his unending grace. in the serendipities of a long afternoon that turned into a longer night, maria popova, she of BrainPickings, the cultural compendium and literary candy counter, dropped in (to my email) with her musings on kindness, a heaven-sent subject in the hours of deep vigil i was keeping for my mother-in-law whose signature and lasting memory is exponential kindness.

i read this entry from tolstoy:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

i read this from jack kerouac:

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.

and that’s when i decided i would not merely buy the book but practice it. every day. in honor of my beautiful, blessed mother-in-law who died in the wee hours of this morning, friday, july 2.

her memory will be a perpetual blessing, to me and to all who fall in the radiance of her kindness practiced each and every day.

ginny kamin made lives more beautiful by her practice of perpetual kindness.

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” a life’s instruction, brought to you by leo tolstoy and one ginny kamin….imagine how you might live it today, one kindness at a time….

maybe we do one, just one, bold (but little) thing…

and by bold i mean one something, anything, in the name of bending that stubborn arc of justice. by bold i mean do one certain something today — maybe even within the next hour — that you otherwise wouldn’t have mustered the will or energy or courage to do.

feeling the full weight of what we’re up against in this world that is not letting up in this long hot summer, so many mornings feeling knocked back, feeling impotent, frozen in the face of injustice, in the wake of sirens and spilling blood and streets chaotic, i turn — as i so often do — to the words of dorothy day, who in turn had leaned into the holy wisdom of therese of lisieux, the little saint who preached a spirituality of “the little way,” to mine her everlasting, every day truth:

From Therese, Dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured might ease the burden of others….We could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. It was all a matter of faith.

Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg

it’s a place, and a way to begin, for us little people, the ones of us who know full well the real battlefield that calls us every day is the one not too far from our front door, the quotidian one, the one whose players we might know well or not at all. the strangers within our reach. the ones who might be taken wholly by surprise by a sudden gust of kindness, out-of-nowhere kindness. the ones who might find courage a little bit contagious, who might pick up the pieces and pass it on.

once upon a time, stoked by pictures of starving children from biafra, fueled by the stories in time magazine i’d take to my room to read when no one was watching, i used to dream i’d cure world hunger. i imagined i could lope the globe, fill bellies, spoon unicef gruel into mouths open and hungry, like little birds.

it hurts plenty to shed those dreams, to watch them wither away, to realize you were pie in the almighty sky, and some crazy fool besides. what gets tough, gets real, is to station yourself squarely in the middle of your humdrum life, to look out across the landscape, and seek the moments where you might infuse your own cockeyed brand of dorothy day’s little kindness, little strength, little courage.

this bedraggled world needs every bold (but little) drop.

where will you begin?

this is the part of the story where some of us hit the proverbial wall…

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having now lived 44 days in fear of invisible spiky red-ringed viri that might or might not be lurking on the sides of my milk carton, having grown accustomed to wrapping my face in a variety of shmatas, having mastered the art of bleach spritzing, i think it’s fair to say we all know a thing or two about Life in Pandemic.

the trajectory, i submit, goes something like this: week 1, dizzying nausea at the prospect that we really truly are running low on toilet paper and, for the first time in our lives, we hold little chance of bringing in reinforcements; week 2, full-throttle determination that we will surrender to the new-found wonders of Zoom and the vernal explosions that must be teaching us lessons; week 3, a creeping sense that a calendar can get just as overbooked and exhausting by Zoom as in the Time Before Corona; weeks 4 through 6, a blur. which brings us crashingly to now, the thick of week 7 in which many many of us — for a host of reasons indecipherable and/or clear as the day is long — hit or are soon to hit the proverbial wall.

the signs are these: dinnertime is drowned in tears (note to self: you can omit the salt shaker on the table if the tears are profuse enough). you wake in the night because your left baby toe is throbbing (reason unclear; something to do with knots of nerves wedged between your tootsies, which has something to do with, ahem, aging) and that’s it for the night as a thrashing storm of what-ifs hurl through your noggin, and propel you from bed drenched in a glistening sweat.

all around this week i gathered up evidence to back up this half-baked notion of mine: my best friend in california went to bed the other night worried to death about rising temperatures and the too-real threat of wildfires, awoke to her mattress vibrating under her bum (it was an earthquake, not the latest in west-coast slumber device), and stumbled into the bathroom where she writes that she consoled herself with the somewhat comforting thought that “at least we’ll all die together.” (it might now be obvious why we’ve long been very best friends; we share a disaster-is-looming view of the world.)

she’s not the only one teetering on the pandemic brink. (for quick — and rare, here — current events commentary i might also submit that the present inhabitant of the white house, the one who last night suggested we all guzzle — or inject — lysol as cure for the red-ringed virus, he too might have succumbed to the pressures. but then again…)

even CNN’s media guru, brian stelter, admitted in print that he’d flat out hit the wall, after failing to send out his nightly roundup of all you need to know about news and the news biz.

it can get to be too much: the daily death count, the ever-extending shelter-at-home orders, the shelves that might never again hold toilet paper or lysol (and now that the president is urging ingestion thereof, it might be a public health boon to keep the lysol out of the hands of the american masses).

and, frankly, this is novel to all of us. some days i’m tempted to peek behind the budding leaves of the trees to see if maybe this is a movie set (not too many years ago in this leafy little town they filmed a horror film called “contagion,” and hordes of cute little kids from my then-first grader’s class were cast in roles that had them bleeding to death and being rushed from the schoolhouse on stretchers). maybe if we shake our heads wildly enough, we’ll awake and tumble back into our humdrum life of abundant TP and milk cartons that don’t beg to be run through the lysol bath.

truth is it hit me hard the other day when i found out a beautiful and glorious mom down the block had died, one month after being diagnosed with a cancer. she used to work with me at the tribune. she was one of the brilliant lights on the marketing side of the news biz. she was the mother of three magnificent girls, and she lived and breathed for those girls. they buried her yesterday, after a service held by Zoom.

i can’t shake the sadness of that, can’t stop thinking how the last month of her life — sheltering at home while dying of cancer — must have been unbearably suffocating. or maybe, i pray, there came a clarity — and a calm like my friend in her california bathroom who consoled herself — staring into the razor-sharp truth, holding tight to the few fine things that make it all matter.

some days these are impossible times. some days we can breathe again. some days we weep. and some day, i’m certain, we will once again be able to wash away the tears from the cheeks of the ones we love — from less than six feet away.

i won’t ask if you’ve hit the wall. i will only say that, if so, it’s the truth of the times in the age of pandemic, a subject on which we are now immediate experts. 

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

eddies of joy

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for months and months, and especially as august drew near, and september tumbled upon us, as this old house turned quiet and oftentimes hollow, it was a question i fielded over and over and over again: what will you do now that you’re an empty nester? or, the variation: how will you handle this empty nest?  

one friend came to the door with a jumbo-sized carton of kleenex. it was an apt gesture.

the truth about our lives is that, more often than not, it’s a current that’s rushing and there’s little, quite frankly, we can do to alter its course, to slow it or stop it from running down rapids, to re-route the channel it’s gnawed through the earth.

but the thing about rivers is this, a thing that i learned long long ago in the woods where i played on the banks of a creek, tracing the course of the flow with a long pointed stick, or by tossing a log or a leaf or a twig and watching it go, making the invisible visible: sometimes rivers — or even a rain-swollen creek — run fast, and run wild; sometimes, the river runs lazy, its waters scuttled off to the side, caught in a pile of leaves, or tangle of sticks, idling or whirling in some extra-deep groove spooned from the oozy bottom.

in river talk, that’s an eddy.

ed·dy /ˈedē/ noun: a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool.

in life talk, it’s the wholly unexpected moment that seems to come out of the blue, the ones we hadn’t seen coming. in this particular case, at this turn in the bend of my particular river, it’s a dollop of joy. the sudden awareness that, without a whole heckuva lot of planning nor thinking too hard, you find yourself idling in a nook or a cranny you’d not wholly imagined, in a newfound pool of something that soothes you.

turns out that in these vast stretches of days where it’s mostly just dinner for two, where my most frequent companion for hours on end is unbroken silence, the dinner party is my newfound eddy of joy. aside from the fact that our overdue list is long enough to leave me penniless if life was charging fines, i’ve unwittingly found myself delighting in the joy of dinner table equations: mixing and matching various combinations of conversationalists — the deep and quiet listeners, the ones who say not a lot but whose words when they do choose to speak are the ones that rumble for days in your head, the laugh-out-loud storytellers, the ones who lean in and soak up each word, the ones who always know something you’ve never heard of.

i consider the ones to seat around the table, and then i consider just what to concoct for a multi-course feast intent on striking a particular note: autumnal warmth. winter cozy. and i never stop at the food. that’s just a part of the stage set. to me, all of it matters: the crackling logs in the fireplace, the fireworks-worthy explosion of blooms soon as you walk in the door. the candles flickering on the table, yes, but all along the window sills, too. what i’m after is a whole-body immersion, a wrap-it-around-your-shoulders sense that you’re in a house that wholly and emphatically welcomes you. we want you here. we want to hear what stirs you and strikes you. we want you lavished in welcome.

the dinner party — unlike my other most favorite gathering, just the two of us, leaning in over hot mugs of tea, pouring our hearts out — is all about the alchemy of a particular cast of characters. it’s less certain than the tete-a-tete. there’s a sense of adventure, of risk, of putting yourself more on the line (especially if you’re the one practicing prestidigitation at the stove).

and, as i am wiping dry the very last glass or the fork at the wee end of the night, when i awake the very next morning to the afterglow of a leftover-stocked fridge and the lingering echoes of laughter, i am reminded that sometimes the river of life — even when you’ve been nervously cowering on the side of the bank — will carry you into nooks and eddies you’ve been seeking forever and ever.

so here’s a recipe that practically made me jig with joy. a friend who’s a vegetarian was coming for dinner, and this one tickled my fancy. it’s a variation of nigella lawson’s roast stuffed pumpkin. whether you make it for one or two or eight, it’ll carry you to an eddy of joy. that’s a promise.

roasted stuffed pumpkin, ala nigella + me

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 6 1/2- to 7-pound sugar pumpkin, or other pumpkin suitable for eating
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, 2 minced, 1 halved
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon 
  • 10 mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large handful spinach leaves
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • Salt

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Fill a kettle with water, and bring to a boil. About an inch below the top of the pumpkin’s ”shoulders,” about where it would be cut to carve a jack-o’-lantern, slice a lid from top of pumpkin, and set it aside. Remove seeds and fibrous flesh from inside.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, toast the walnuts for a minute or two, moving constantly. Remove from heat, and set aside.
  3. Using the same saucepan, heat the oil, and sauté the onion until it is softened. Add 2 minced garlic cloves, and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add mushrooms, and cook for one minute. Stir in the cranberries, and spices. Add the rice, and stir until it is glossy. Pour in stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce heat as low as possible. Cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile rub the inside of pumpkin with cut garlic clove, and rub with some salt to taste.
  4. When rice has cooked for 15 minutes, it will be damp and not very fluffy. Adjust seasoning to taste, and spoon into pumpkin cavity. Press lid firmly on top. It may sit above stuffing a bit like a jaunty cork. Wrap bottom two to three inches of pumpkin in a double layer of foil to protect it from contact with water during baking. Place in a roasting pan, and add about 1 inch of boiling water to pan.
  5. Bake the pumpkin until it is tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 1/2 hours. (If there is resistance when pumpkin is pierced, allow more baking time.) To serve, remove pumpkin from pan, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes. Discard foil, and place pumpkin on a serving platter. Slice into segments like a cake. Place a wedge of pumpkin on each serving plate, and mound with rice stuffing.

what are your eddies of joy? what are the ones you never saw coming?

 

things that go bang in the night.

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

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

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

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

oh, lordy.

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

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

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

and now there’s a hole in my sky.

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

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

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

you would have thought an old friend had died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the new hole in my sky

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

the illuminating work of the modern-day manuscript

IMG_0011on the eve of the night before she died, she asked me to write her obituary. and then, a month later, after her brother had read her will, she tapped me on the shoulder (or he did for her, literally, in a jam-packed cafe after her memorial, when he came up from behind, leaned in and whispered the question that made my knees go weak); she asked me to be the custodian, the caretaker, of her creative work.

to peel back the tape from a dozen or so boxes and crates, to lift from layers of dust, old essays, typed and stapled, some typewritten the old-fashioned way, others spewed out from every iteration of computing in the late-20th century. another four years of 21st-century essays, dustlessly tucked away inside her sleek hulk of a computer, one that would be boxed and moved and plugged in at my house, where for weeks i couldn’t bear to click open folders, never knowing if i’d find cold, hard diagnostic reports, chemo spreadsheets, or an essay that would rip my heart out.

my job was to sift and sort, read and re-read, move from pile “yes!” to pile “maybe?” to chisel away at the stack till what was left were those words, those essays that could not, should not, be left to crumble into paper flakes, the ink fading by the year, passwords lost and irretrievable.

but, more than anything, to be the caretaker — to be asked in someone’s last will and testament, for heaven’s sake, not just some passing rumination — is to take to heart the work of seeking light. of lifting up what amounts to someone’s heart and soul and inextinguishable brilliance, and offering it sacramentally to the world, believing wholly that it will find its way to every pair of eyes, to every thirsty soul, to every pathfinder who cannot find her or his way. especially, in this case, anyone who happens to be searching for a path through the tangled woods of cancer, a path my friend mary ellen knew too well. and took on like no one i’ve ever known.

penflor2

admittedly, my drop caps are not quite so frilly…

it’s been three years, with fits and starts, and sudden rushes of momentum. i’m riding a tail wind right now, have been deep in teaching myself the ways of self-publishing. yesterday laid out 71 pages, complete with drop caps (those giant-sized first letters of every essay, a typographic wonder with roots in the illuminated manuscripts of eighth-century British isles, and those bent-over cloistered monks who traced Biblical text with quill of peacock, crow or eagle, and ink from insects, plants, burned bones or bits of gold).

along the way in this modern-day manuscript making, a brilliant friend (formerly a new york times book review editor) was hired as a second pair of eyes in the sorting phase, to add her voice to the hard task of editorial umpiring, calling balls and strikes and the occasional grand slam. a proposal was written, sent to a literary agent and a publisher, both of whom deemed the writing “beautiful” — “smart, reflective, emotionally transparent,” declared the agent — but because publishing in any circumstance is a steep uphill climb, doing so posthumously is even steeper. they pointed us toward doing this on our own: meaning, learning the ways of self-publishing.

in recent weeks, as i puttered about my garden and my life, it began to feel as if my friend mary ellen was traipsing behind me, tap-tapping me on the shoulder once again, getting antsy (as might have been her way), wondering what the heck the bottleneck was all about. and if i’ve learned anything in my decades here on earth, you do not — repeat, not! — ignore the sotto voce whispers of one you’ve loved, now keeping watch from wherever it is those whispers come.

so i got to work. and we’re ready to grab our ISBN (the 13-digit numeric monogram that makes a book a book, gets it entered into the library of congress, for crying out loud; next best thing to tying it up with a frilly bow, baking it a cake).

if writing is holy work, and for some of us it is, burrowing deep inside the wisdoms and epiphanies of someone wise and wiser as her death drew near is among the holiest. and the most blessed. i am blanketed inside the skeins of her sentences. i punctuate paragraph after paragraph with my tears. i hear her voice so loudly, so emphatically, and yet more gently than i’ve ever heard before, i wouldn’t be surprised if she tapped me in a dream, whispered blessings for bringing her holy work across the finish line.

it’s what she dreamed. it’s what she asked. and it’s a task carried not on our shoulders, but in our twinned hearts. where the magic is this: along the way it can sometimes feel impossible, and too heavy a load. but sticking with it — be it this book, or any seemingly unbearable assignment — forgiving the lulls and sabbaticals, carrying it into the light, just might make it the most essential work in a long long while, love’s true labor.

mary ellen, any day now you’ll have your ISBN. and your name forever gracing the cover. and someone, some day, will pull you from the shelf, and your words will be inscribed in countless hearts. which is what you set your sights on from the very beginning…

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Mary Ellen Sullivan, author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: An Invitation to Intentional Joy,” ISBN coming soon. (photos courtesy of Maureen Butler)

have you considered the holiness of the daily work you do? what moments in particular seem shot through with something a bit bigger than the moment at hand? and how might your daily tasks illuminate this too-dark world?

breath, suspended…

teddyhanddrawn heart

i prayed so hard these would be the words i got to write, and so i begin with this, the thank you prayer…

the call came just as i was sitting and reading a story i wrote long ago, a story about my mama’s breast cancer. funny, the tricks the universe plays. i thought little of it when the old phone announced on its screen that “northwestern mem” (the hospital) was calling. i’d had a 3-D mammogram the day before and i figured they were calling to give me the official “all’s clear.”

i was wrong.

it must have been mid-sentence in a sentence that suddenly seemed to be taking far too long to get to the point that i realized this might not be the call i’d wanted. i’m pretty sure i felt my heart slow with a thump. the nice lady — they are always nice on these calls — was telling me something about asymmetries, telling me not one but two spots on both sides looked suspicious. (she might have used a more innocuous word than “suspicious,” but once in the call-back landscape, a girl hears what she hears, and i heard trouble).

that’s when the breath-holding began. call backs in the middle of a long hot summer are not for the faint of heart. i’m pretty quick at sizing up danger, and i sized up this one, all right. first words that leapt from synapse to synapse were these: “oh no, too soon. the boys still need me.” for one, there are two years of law school still to go, and i’ve got my seat at graduation on mental reserve. i intend to be right there, and not wafting as some long-gone memory of a mom-turned-casper-the-friendly-ghost. and for two, the so-called little one still has a year left of high school, and right now he’s in the middle of tryouts for varsity soccer, and i was not about to let a single hiccup get in the way of that already-breath-holding adventure in steep climbs. so i sealed my lips and said not a word. (i only whispered to one or two girlfriends, and of course to that blessed fellow who hears most but not all of the daily headlines from my self-published worry gazette.)

long story short: not a minute went by during those long seven days when i wasn’t weighing the odds, hedging my bets, begging the heavens that this whole thing turned into yet another close call.

the hospital that wanted the second look could not fit me in for a week. my doctor insisted i go straight to second-look central, and not dilly around with one of the satellite operations where maybe, just maybe, the scrutinizing wouldn’t be up to her very high standards. of course, that scared me. i was scared, too, because more often than not i’ve sailed through these annual exercises in getting squished in the chest. i’ve had a call-back or two in the past, but it’s been awhile and nowadays the machines they use are so super-duper and soooooo very fine at peeking into every nook and cranny, i figured that if the darn newfangled machine saw something fishy it was a fish meant to be seen.

the weekend was long. so were monday and tuesday.

at long last, on the day that happened to be my second-born’s 17th birthday, and the first full day of his long-awaited, much-fretted soccer tryouts, i had to dart out in the middle of the day for my unexplained five-hour absence. five hours?!?!, you say. yup. that’s how long the darn poking and peeking around ended up going. they’d called me in for so many rounds of pictures, with varying degrees of specificity and technicians muttering, scrutinizing, apologizing, and then trying hard to hold a poker face, that by four in the afternoon when they sent me from pictures to ultrasound, i figured i was cooked. i’d started imagining how i would look with no hair and no eyebrows, how in the world i would break the news to my beautiful boys. i waste no time in the shallow end of the pool, when i can go straight to the deep end. and deep end was me.

i’d seen six rounds of technicians, and a phalanx of high-vision docs before anyone finally muttered the holiest word i’d heard in a very long while. “we’re not seeing anything worrisome,” said the very very nice doctor in charge, letting loose a week’s worth of stored-up breaths from my lungs. and suddenly, after brushing away the tear or two that couldn’t keep from falling, my whole world turned colored again.

but before the colors washed back in, before i could hope in my head for an extraordinary ordinary weekend, i’d tasted the magic — the most blessed blessing — of savoring even the smallest dab of everyday sacred: the gathering with friends over the weekend, the first sip of prosecco, the sound of the birds through the kitchen window, the sound of my firstborn’s voice on the other end of the long-distance line. not a single frame of being alive was passing by me unnoticed. or un-savored.

there’s a sharp edge to living that comes when you’re scared, when you’re thrust unaware into counting the hours, into marking off life in short-term brackets.

it’s a variation on electro-shock therapy (the sort to the soul, not to the brain): you’re jolted awake and at highest attention when flat-out fear comes to roost. i know it’s not altogether healthy, and not the wisest way to fritter away the days. but i make the most of it. i consider it a trial run, a crash course in counting every last decimal of all of my blessings. i use the siege to sift through my life, to weigh the ways i spend my hours. to crank the dial a notch, and make each moment count in duplicate, even triplicate.

and then, when the whistle blows, when the lifeguards tell me the long wait is over and i can breathe once again, i make more than a mental note. i drop to my knees and promise aloud i’ll not take this — not any of this — for granted. i stand at full-throttle attention, drinking in the ones i love with all of my heart, savoring the dew of the dawn, and the stitches of stars in the dome of the night.

the world is bristling with color this morning. and i am blessing each drop.

thank you, dear God, for this day and this hour. i’ll not waste it, i promise…

what keeps you from wasting a day? 

the curious pull of family history…

Iwo Jima funeral mass

funeral mass on iwo jima for soldiers who died on its soils, april 1, 1945

amid this summer of deep discontent and dyspepsia, i’ve been visited by an almost mythical faraway sprite — a cousin really, a distant cousin — who has opened for me long locked vaults of family history, and drawn before me the not-so-faint outlines of heartbreak and who came before me.

i signed up for a 14-day free trial of ancestry.com. figured i might learn a thing or three about the irish, german, and eastern european roots of my beloved and me, roots that trace directly to our pair of boys. i had no illusions of finding fine-grain stories, of hearing the voices of long ago come reaching out of the depths. i carefully marked my calendar so i’d remember to un-subscribe on day 13, get in and out without much trace.

and then, after i’d pulled the plug and skittered away, paddy shannon found me. paddy is a cousin plenty removed. we share the same great great grandfather, he told me in his first message. if i was willing to share my email, he told me, he had plenty to share.

within a day i had photos of the old family home, a hodgepodge of sod walls and windows and doors built between two bridges in a wee little place on the map not too far from the eternal tide of the atlantic, in county clare in ireland. i scribbled notes, drew diagrams, to try to trace and re-trace these lines and roots. i followed biographical bits — birth, death, burial — struggled to keep one daniel j., one teddy, one patrick straight from all the others (there are multiples of each, a few fine names used over and over and over, ancestral prize to those so christened).

i read once again of mothers who died in childbirth (on christmas day, no less), and filled in narrative. narratives of heartbreak, of loss, and starting over again.

i was particularly struck this time around (for i’ve gone down these roads before, with far less detail, never before guided by my very own ancestral guide) by the heartbreak that visited my grandma mae — how one of her brothers was struck and killed by lightning when he ran for cover in the tobacco barn on their kentucky farm in a rainstorm described in biblical proportions in the front-page news. how the other brother, the one who lifted his brother’s limp body, tried to revive him, how he died years later of cirrhosis of the liver (i couldn’t help but imagine the heartache that drove him, likely, to drink). i read how my grandma married the widower with four young children, and how four years after they married — he 44, she 35 — she gave birth to her one and only child, my papa (i imagined what a treasure he was, the unlikely and long-awaited firstborn).

and then this week i read the most i’ve ever read about the big brother (my uncle) who was like a papa to my papa, a brother named danny whom i’d always been told was destined for some degree of greatness. i knew he’d run one of the great kentucky racing stables, calumet farm, just outside lexington (he’d left university to learn racing from the ground up, literally starting as a stable boy and rising to business manager of the farm that trained whirlaway, a kentucky derby legend). i knew he’d signed up for the army at the height of world war II. but this week i found out that he’d been plucked for an officer’s college at harvard, had written a regular horse racing column in the lexington herald, and when pearl harbor was attacked in december 1941, he’d been on the california coast at the santa anita track, where he’d remain with the horses for months (racing was shut down in the wake of the attack and no transport of horses allowed), and where — my brother wisely hypothesized — his decision to defend these united states might well have been sparked. my uncle danny wrote a stirring anthem on the obligation to serve, one that ran with a grainy black-and-white photo that couldn’t hide the handsome lines of his bespectacled face, in the pages of the sunday herald-leader of lexington, on january 10, 1943, eight months after he himself had enlisted, and 10 months before he set sail for iwo jima.

and then, because my ancestral guide was himself a marine and stirred to understand how an army air corpsman came to be buried in a marine plot in the national cemetery in nicholsville, kentucky, i read the gruesome details of how my uncle danny and 14 others died in a pre-dawn banzai raid on iwo jima, on march 26, 1945, the very last battle of that awful siege of the japanese island. at 4 in the morning, some 300 japanese soldiers — ordered to stage a final suicide attack — rose up out of miles of caves, surrounded the tent camp not far from the beach on the southeast corner of the island, lobbed grenade after grenade and then, one by one, called out “banzai,” before charging into the tents with bayonets that slashed and beheaded.

my uncle, a first lieutenant at his death, was among the ones buried there on the island, in a military grave with a makeshift funeral mass preceding (see photo above). his father, my grandfather, would later have his remains exhumed and moved to kentucky, where he was laid to final rest beneath one of the white granite gravestones that stretch endlessly across the bluegrass he so loved.

it’s all a narrative that had mostly escaped me. my father — who’d been the one who answered the door when the soldiers came bearing the telegram and the news that danny had died — barely ever spoke a word about it. as my third-cousin paddy put it, “I hope this helps in understanding your Uncle “Danny’s” Service and Death and why your Da never spoke of it. It was to say the least a Horrible Place, and Horrible way to die.”

dear blessed paddy, my patron saint of genealogy, was so moved by danny’s story, he sat down and wrote a doggerel, an irish-intoned ode to the life and death of a little-known american soldier.

my own “da” has been gone now for 37 years. but all week, all summer really, i’ve been swirling in the mists of the past, his past. i’ve ached to hear him fill in the details, to fill my ears and my heart and my soul with the depth of the heartache that stilled him to silence.

there is much to mourn in the stories i’ve turned up this summer. and, just as emphatically, there is much to inspire. it’s a history rife with tragedy, and yet — and yet — it’s a story that goes on and on. triumph over loss. rising up from the unbearable.

and in the summer of 2018, when the world all around shatters me, i am holding onto shards of the past and breathing in the will to not be succumbed.

danny headstone

what family stories do you hold, and learn much from?