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Category: life lessons

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?

retracing time…

WK cake from video

i don’t remember what started it. something like a root being tugged deep inside. some primal mama root, an urge that could not, would not, be stopped. i wanted to grab hold of long-ago time, to loop it forward and back, to get lost in the nooks and the crannies. to turn back to the start of the holiest story i’ve ever lived and breathed. the one that over and over has filled me beyond the brim, prompted me to whisper in my deepest, holiest, truest hours, “thank you for this plenty. thank you, and thank you, and thank you.”

and so, a few days ago, i found myself on my knees, tugging hard at the drawer that hasn’t been opened in quite a long while, the drawer that never really wanted to open, a stubborn pine drawer in a stubborn pine chest. but inside was a box, a blue box, with a stack of 27 cassettes, each one smaller than an index card, and each one holding moments for me that have been swirling to life, ever since i plugged in the old clunky video cam, the one i never much knew how to work.

it’s been dizzying, as the moving pictures have swooped and dipped in and out of the frame, and in and out of focus (no one in this house claims cinematography skills). but every once in a while, when the camera held still, i got a glimpse — a whole string of frames — of moments in time that in rewind and from this perch of a quarter century later (my firstborn turns 25 a week from today) are doubly precious to me as i study each one for the first hints of who these boys would become and how deeply, gently, exuberantly, they were loved.

the moments i’m watching, the ones that have me glued to the itty-bitty lens (i don’t know how to hook it up to any bigger screen so i watch on the just-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp-sized screen that flips out from the camera), map in fine detail this journey into the center of my heart.

there is my sweet boys’ papa, holding a four-month-old in his lap, reading page after page in a whole stack of most-loved picture books, reciting in those homespun meters and warbles and trademark whimsies (the ones parents and children invent, putting a signature twist to particular pages of particular children’s adventures in dramatic reading), the ones that laid down the roots — the foundational truth — that joy could be found tucked between the covers of even the cardboardiest book. and there, two years later, is the sweet boy perched at the top of a step stool, leaning over the butcher-block counter, describing to me in glorious detail the train cake (complete, for some reason, with “strawberry garden” just to the side of the tracks) he and our twice-a-week nanny baked for my 39th birthday. and, back to the one-year-and-nine-months version of that breathtaking child, there he is echoing on cue the words his papa whispers: “mommy is beautiful,” then adding his own improvisational “daddy is beautiful.”

it’s now my new favorite activity, the one i squeeze into all the margins of hours, in between chopping or stirring. while awaiting a call or the handy repairman. i pop in a tape, and whirl back in time, never knowing what precious moment is just around the bend, a moment i’ll watch and re-watch (thank goodness for “rewind”). did i mention i watch through tears every time? and sometimes the tears come so hard and so fast, i need to mop up the spills on my cheeks and the cutting board below.

all week, i’ve left the video cam sitting out on the kitchen counter. once or twice (or thrice), i’ve captured my favorite little sequences onto my itty-bitty iPhone. i sent one such bit off to the faraway legal scholar, the one currently working in washington, filing briefs on critical matters. just in case he wanted to watch his nine-month-old self in heart-melting action.

it’s a bit, um, kooky, i know. but through the magic of moments captured on digital tape, i’ve yet another way to pay even closer attention — to time, to the first seeds of the boys who now talk in complete sentences, who no longer get tangled by S’s and diphthongs (those smack-ups of vowels that prove quite a challenge to the tongue just finding its way through the jungle of words on the long road to talking).

i feel my soul reaching back, leaping forward, in time. if someone offered a master’s degree in the study of new-forming children, in the art of raising and teaching a child, of loving day in and day out, and doing so with godly measures of patience and gentility, i’d be the first one in line. there is a good dose of something akin to aching here, of wishing for yet another chance, of wishing i’d realized the first time around just how sacred these hours were, even though i believe that deep down i never lost track of that truth. and in watching, i never lose sight of that critical eye, the one that has me scrutinizing my each and every move. the one that sometimes wonders if i hit the pause button often enough in those early impressionable years, did i slow down the frames to relish each one, did i realize i could never come back to these moments, to the script as it rolled the first and only time through?

i stumbled in so blindly, back at the beginning. led only by heart and a gravitational pull toward loving. as i watch that child, those children (for eventually, eight years after the start, the second sweet boy came along), as i consider who he was, how we loved him, against the backdrop of who i know him to be today, i am washed over in holy gratitude for the raw capacities — the combined graces of the man i married, and the parents who taught him (and me) how to love — that kept us so unmistakably focused on quietly, gently teaching. and, more than anything, bathing him, bathing both blessed boys, in love upon love.

tape after tape after tape, it’s a whole-body immersion in loving and examining love, in resuscitating moments and hearts and the passing of time. these moments, forgotten in the everyday, live deep in the core of who we’ve become, me and the boys i so love. it’s where i’ve been lost — and found — in this past string of days….

on the brink of father’s day, a day when we celebrate the men who’ve loved us and shepherded us through the wilds and pitfalls, i thank the heavens for the one i so loved. and the one who so loves the boys who i birthed. and for all the fathers among us who teach with gentle and certain abundance. 

have you gotten lost — in pages or film or videotape — in your past, and what lessons did you extract, and if you could do it all over again, what might be the few things you’d try hard to live with more grace? (no need, of course, to spell that out here; i’m just echoing the question i’ve lived with all week…)

the ones who direct our attention

Beach Balance Stone Stacked Nature Meditation

sometimes i imagine myself perched in a watchtower amid the thick of the forest. a treehouse on steroids and stilts. i’ve always been keen on small spaces tucked away. secret rooms from which to watch the world. when i was little i had one such room — my little log cabin, tucked in the garden, down where our backyard dipped low. i was sequestered away, where the marsh lilies bloomed. and the queen anne’s lace bowed in the wind. the limbs of the trees brushed up against my walls and my roof. leaves rustled, sometimes poked in the windows.

i could sit there for hours — and in the summers i did. i’d cook — or so i called it — on the upturned coffee tin that served as my “stove.” i gathered berries from the boughs of the honeysuckle (though i promised never to eat them). i harbored books in the corners. i watched without being noticed — a posture, come to think of it, i still warm to.

all these years later, keeping watch is still my natural disposition. there’s a good measure of watching in being a news gatherer. there was a good deal of paying attention, listening closely, in being a nurse. there is immense keeping watch in being a mother.

i seem to be ever on the watch for prophets and wise folk. those supersized souls whose job, it seems, is to point us all in the clearest, surest direction. i understand that without them, without their extraordinary insights and clarion calls, i’d lose my way. fall by the wayside. tumble into the ditch of losing the point.

here’s a little something i’ve noticed: among the populations likeliest to hold prophets and seers, those who are living with dire prognoses — those who’ve sat in the crucible of cold, hard exam rooms, who’ve been strapped and slid into MRI chambers whispering every prayer in the book — they are often the ones whose vision holds the sharpest finest-grain focus, whose words come without filter. time is urgent, the message is crucial. is imperative. all the fluff is chiseled away. we’re down to the bone here.

because life is an ever-surging river of exit and entrance and all points between, i keep being pulled to its banks, to that liminal edge where voices are truest. where, from out of the din, you can’t help but hear the ones with the piercingest truths. the ones whose vision is sharpest, is surest, because they’ve no time to waste.

in the past few weeks one of those prophets, one whose voice is among the piercingest, the bravest, is an old friend, who 20 years ago battled cancer, and ever since has lived as if there were no tomorrow. a month or so ago, completely out of the blue, that cancer came back, came back with a vengeance. and my friend, whose name is robbie klein, and who said i could tell you, has taken to putting her most urgent truths into words. she’s written of the horrors of tumors that make her head feel as if it’s exploding. she’s written of all the evils that come with late-stage cancer. but mostly she’s reached for the high notes, reminded anyone who’s listening, that the miracle is in the now. that we’re all dropped into a stage set of life that’s upholstered with beauties and breathtaking blessing, and we’re wise to plunge in deep, to dance in the moment while the moment is ours.

yesterday, she penned a simple list. a prayer-poem it seemed to me. a litany of paying attentions, of moments that shimmer, that beckon — but might be overlooked, left unconsidered, or forgotten.

it so strikingly focused my eyes and my soul on those not uncommon moments when time itself is suspended, is paused, is nearly bursting with beauty and promise and possibility, i asked robbie if i could share it here. “of course,” she said.

she trains our eyes, our soul, our whole selves, on those ineffable moments of every blessed day. on those moments so rich they deserve, each one, to be held to the light, to be beheld. my friend robbie is intent on slowing down time, on making us notice. on making us see.

a person who sees: prophet. one who carries the wisdom, the urgency, from heaven to earth. one who speaks words that cannot, and must not, be disregarded.

Moments

by Robbie Klein

The space behind the waterfall

The reverberation after a piano key is struck

The second after hanging up with one you love

The instant before the match catches fire

The trace when a cloud covers the sun

The sliver before sleep comes

The first raindrop under a tree canopy

The ebbing of the waves

The lightening of dawn

The space between notes

The bottom of the exhale

The final brushstroke

The first drop on the tongue

The grey before snow falls

The moment before his fingers touch your face

thank you, beautiful blessed robbie…..

please whisper a prayer for robbie and all of the prophets among us. hold her in the light this fine day. send love to where she’s tucked away, on the northern california coast, by the side of her most beloved boy, the love of her life. 

and, please, add to the litany of moments that are distillations of all that is profound and powerful and possible in this blessed whirl called life. what moment might you pay attention to today? one you might otherwise have missed…

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
IMG_0173

of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

the measures of our years: 11

IMG_0224

we mark time, this species Homo sapiens, to measure. to take measure. and so, in the gauzy moonlight of this cold december morning, i think back to that first dark morning, 11 years ago. when i awoke determined. uncharted, to be sure. the night before, a boy i love, a boy to whom i owe volumes of accumulated wisdoms and the double-size of my heart, that boy had been dilly-dallying, putting off homework, as he was wont to do. rather than attending to some eighth-grade math, he decided he’d build me a “website,” whatever that was, on my brand-new hand-me-up laptop (his old one bequeathed to me). i was only toe-deep into this endeavor until he asked me what its name might be, and as with so many of the fine things in life, the words popped out before i’d really had a moment to measure: “pull up a chair.”

i loved the notion, right away, the idea of wise souls and kindred spirits pulling up mismatched wooden chairs to the old scarred maple slab that is my kitchen table, one that holds the hieroglyphics of childhoods (my own amid a flock of five, and, now, my boys’, a pair), i loved the notion of a steamy kitchen, where the kettle always whistled, and the oven always cranked, and where the door was never locked.  i loved the notion of putting out a few simple words each morning, words that served as telescopes and magnifying lenses, as we tried to see and sense and sift for depths and heights otherwise unnoticed in the passing day to day. i particularly loved the notion that this might be a collective, a gathering place for poetry and plainspeak, prayer and commonsense, for wisdom and for joy. a place where heartache always, always found shelter, where shoulders were offered, tears dried, and where we’d hold each other up through whatever darkness came.

i never knew that there might come a day, 11 years down the road, when we’d all sit back on the hind legs of our chairs, tip warmed mugs to our lips, and ponder all that had passed during our close watch. intermittent watch for some, those who’ve come and gone, sometimes come again. at least two — my mother and my mother-in-law — have been — and are — regular as clockwork, sure to stop by, but not too inclined to say a word. sadly, heartbreakingly, some who first gathered at the table are gone now, but their spirits animate each and every day, each and every sentence typed. and in my own small life, two boys have grown — one was five, the other 13, when this all began. so they’ve grown up across these posts. two grade-school graduations, one high school, one college, and if i keep it up for two more years, we’ll rack another high school and law school, too.

the twists and turns and snippets of their lives that i’ve caught here, they’re priceless to me. they’ve been, more often than not, the launch pad for my deepest thoughts, the ones that mattered most to me. they taught me how to love, those two boys did. all of you, the ones who pulled a rickety chair up to the table, who added your hearts, your stories, your poetries and prayers to the mix, you did too. you taught me love. you proved that quiet whispers belong in a world where the shouting never stops.

so here we are, 11 years from the start. a second decade is chugging along. what began as a writing promise — i would write every single weekday for a year, see what sifted by — soon turned into a sacred vessel, an anchor to my heart and soul, a place where i knew i’d find priceless precious company, those tender souls who live and breathe gentle loving care, who might be speechless, or might need to holler out the upstairs window, when the world gets too cockamamie upside-down and twisted. books have been born from this little cranny of my heart. three books, now. (the newest one coming in the spring, just in time for the bursting forth of mama earth after a long winter’s curling deep within.) precious priceless friends have been made here and sealed with love that does not die.

i was scared to trembling the first time i hit the “publish” button, but i did it anyway. life does that. it shakes you to your bones, and then it rises up to scaffold you, to carry you to heights and summits you would not have known, or imagined in quite the depth and texture you now know.

bless each and every one of you for reaching out your hand, your heart, your whole, and whispering in unison: there is a world of tender loving care, a world that looks for poetry and wisdom all along the way. a world that believes in taking time, and paying attention, close attention, exuberant attention. there is a world of everyday devotions. and we are all the richer for the sound of each other’s footsteps marching, together, to the mountaintop.

thank you.

love, bam

IMG_0230because i promised to circle back to the book i’m carrying through this advent, and maybe every advent to come, “All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings,” by Gayle Boss, illustrated by David G. Klein, i thought i’d share just one passage from one of this week’s readings (every day’s is a breathtakingly poetic and poignant parable of woodland creatures in winter, all metaphors for the practice of Advent, the mystery of life that springs forth from what looks like death). 

chickadee (day 4): “As they swirl and hop at my feeder, they seem a flock of St. Francises. Like the saint wed to Lady Poverty, every day the question of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason, like the saint, they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.” 

may your each and every day of deepening darkness be filled with flickerings of light. thank you for the gift of your presence here, week after week, year after year. 

where do you find light in the deepening of december?

front-row seat

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it’s the miracle of being thisclose, ushered to a front-row seat, for the drama of the unfolding human spirit, that more than anything takes my breath away. my whole life long, i’ve found myself perched in watch posts where i could absorb and chart every flinch of the face, every swelling of the human heart, as i learned just how expansive the soul could be.

i’ve watched children bravely take their mama’s hand, as they were rolled into rooms for spinal taps. i’ve watched those unflinching children tell their mamas not to worry, it would all be okay. i’ve watched those children make their mama laugh, as she brushed away a tear, and then found herself doubled over, caught in i-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that, as the kid was rolled away in mickey mouse glasses (pulled out from under the pillow case).

i’ve watched a kid sit down to write a letter to the principal, letting the head of school know that he’d witnessed injustice at the lunch room table, injustice in the name of bigotry because of the way that someone prayed. i watched that kid fold the letter, and send it off, awaiting eighth-grade justice.

this week i’ve been watching a kid i love live and breathe the sort of courage that means everything when you’re a soccer-loving kid, and you’ve been told once already that you don’t belong on the high-school roster. i’ve watched that kid all summer lace up those soccer cleats, lift weights, all but stretch himself with ten-pound discs tied to his ankles as he lay in bed at night. he’d do anything to grow a couple inches. maybe half a foot, if there’s one to spare. i’ve watched him forego cherry pie on his birthday, because he thought the sugar just might shave a chance off his hopes of winning this time round. it’s a three-day test of courage, and we’re not yet at the end.

so all i can do — resigned to supporting role as scrambler of eggs, purveyor of blackberries, filler of water bottle — is stand back and hope and pray like there’s no tomorrow. because, darn it, tryouts end today, and we’ve lived once already through that crushing silence of a kid whose heart is shattered.

for those who think it’s mere cliche to say “my kids are my teachers,” i say this: phooey.

take a seat. open up your playbook. and watch a kid whose shoes you used to lace, to tie in floppy bows, watch that kid hold his head high, step onto the playing field — in the face of all his friends and coaches charting every move — watch him show you how it looks to stare down kids who tower over you in half-foot measures, watch him take the balls at full impact, dive into unforgiving turf, dust off the scrapes up and down his knees and elbows, and rise up again.

watch him hope. watch him hope so hard it hurts.

and you, not nearly so brave as the kid who teaches you, you sometimes get withered by nothing more brutal than a nasty line shot across the internet. from someone you don’t even know. for all you know, it’s nothing but a bot (one of those cyber-ghosts who churn out idiocies and fake news by the megabyte). talk about lessons to be learned.

of all the breathtaking filaments that comprise the growing of a human child, it’s the front-row witness that astounds me most, that leaves me brimming with blueprints for how to be a fuller version of who i thought, who i hoped, i could be.

it’s not just parents, of course, who get the chance to see the inch-by-inch stretching of another’s soul. doctors see it every day. can you imagine looking someone in the eye and delivering the most somber news? watching that someone not crumble, not lash out, not let spew a mighty line of damnation, but instead take the diagnosis with more grace than you swear you could ever muster? can you imagine being the teacher who day after day tries to navigate a kid through vowels and consonants that insist on being muddied, that appear to the kid to be indecipherable hieroglyphics, and then one day, without a drumroll, the kid, who’s never wobbled, suddenly reads straight across a line? and what about the priest or pastor or cop who takes in confession, who looks into the crumbling face of someone who bares his sin? who makes no flimsy excuse, lays no blame, and is crushed by the truth of how much irreparable hurt he’s done?

it’s in those rare uncharted moments when the screen is pulled away, when the screen that stands guard in front of stripped-down soul is erased from the equation, and what you see is unfettered human character. like peeking into the knobs and wires that make an engine run. only in this case, it’s the fibers of courage, of resilience, of this-is-where-i-choose-to-take-the-higher-road.

it takes your breath away — every blessed time. offers you a glimpse of straight-up holiness, the way that God meant for us to be. and, frame by frame, i am taking notes, stockpiling all these lessons. front-row student in the school of courage, of immeasurable blessedness, of grace in action.

and so, i crack and scramble eggs. i keep watch from my post here at home. i wave from the front stoop as the car pulls away. i watch the clock. i pray. and i gird my heart for what may come. and marvel at the gift of watching a very brave kid stare down the very odds that would wither a less determined soul.

dear patron saints of soccer, have mercy.

who are your heroes in the soulful department?

fatherprayer

in which we turn our attention to mothering’s essential compatriot…

it’s become something of a ribbing in this old house. the one who sits across the table from me most nights at dinner, he delights in jiving that he too will pen a deeply intimate account of his side of the domestic story, and he will title it fatherprayer: (subtitle not yet revealed).

it’s a play, of course, on the title of the deeply intimate account of navigating the undulations of mothering that i wrote. the one called motherprayer: lessons in loving. for months now, especially when one lovely reviewer wrote that he barely hovered at the margins (because we have an unspoken pact that i won’t spill ink on his private realm), he’s been itching to tell his version of the tales, my architectural maven whose natural landscape — in the writerly realm — is to size up towers tall or squat, to write with unswerving authority about the public square, whereas my realm is the quieter, tucked-away terrain, the one that unfolds on bed pillows and beside the old cookstove.

while i will leave unpenned his rendition of the homefront (should he ever decide to traipse into the personal), i will encroach only far enough here this morning to offer my own version of a tribute to his indispensable fathering of our two beloved boys — and to consider the role of these men in the care and feeding of our children.

i’m blessed — beyond words — that the father of my children has stuck around all these years. i don’t take that for granted, not when i know and love women for whom that hasn’t happened, through no commission of their own. i watch friends i love shoulder every blessed dilemma and decision, from the kid at college with debilitating strep, to how to scrounge to pay the monthly rent.

the truth is, around here, we both came from houses where forever meant forever. so the occasional rough patch was met not with searching for nearest exit, but knowing we’d stay at it till we found our common ground. i’d be a fool — or big fat liar — if i pretended we’d not hit such skids along the way. it’s been nearly 26 years, after all, and we’re human, and somewhere along the way — in a world where work and home are tenuously balanced at best — there’s bound to be the chapter where one feels pushed aside, while the other shakes his head. or one parent’s idea about the wisest way to steer a kid is pretty much foreign to the other.

but this is not an ode to long-lived marriage (though that’s fertile ground that some day i could be convinced to take on…), so i’ll leave that there, and move on to fathering, and the miracles i’ve witnessed from front row.

the first clue i ever had that the man i married would be quite fine in the fathering department was, i suppose, when i met his own father — the dearest man, a gentle man, a man who could — and did — sit for hours at the Shabbat table (always positioned near the challah, or braided bread, which he’d tear off in little nibbles to punctuate his stories) telling tales, absorbing long answers to well-placed questions. he was a journalist, after all, an editor, and he was fluent in the art of asking and answering questions. the famous tale about my husband’s father is that in the raw first days after he sent his first-born and only son off to college, he was so distraught he whiled away the hours hosing out the garbage cans for days on end, in hopes of keeping his mind off how much he missed the kid. and he sat down and penned a letter — ink on paper — every single day, straight through to thanksgiving of his son’s freshman year, when the kid pulled his father aside, and whispered that maybe he could stop now, the kids in the dorm had caught on to the daily paternal letter-writing. and it was getting a little, um, embarrassing.

the second clue came not too many weeks before our firstborn was born, when, one night before sleep, the father of said child said, out of nowhere, “you’re not gonna recognize me; i’m going to turn to mush.”

and so he did. he cradled that baby as if the whole of the universe rested in his arms, as if one wrong move might crack off a limb or send the little bundle spilling to the floor. every night, when we’d stroll to the el station to greet him after the long day he’d been away, you’d have thought he was welcoming the president of france (or frank lloyd wright, more fittingly) to his company. the poor kid would be smothered in kisses, and questions — even at two-months-old.

if you asked our boys to tick off the top three words that come to mind, they might reel off these: cautious. devoted. old-fashioned in the dearest way.

i might say the same — after all, we’ve all been keeping watch on the very same subject, all three of us from particular vantage points.

i know there are papas aplenty devoted to their children, but in this house, before my very eyes, i’ve watched that word take on layers and layers of truth the likes of which i’d never before witnessed. yes, he’s unswerving when it comes to a few fine truths — no driving on the highway till you’ve proven mastery of side streets and stop signs; no taking cabs home from the airport (at any hour of the day or night) when your papa can just as certainly be waiting for you at the baggage claim — but the core of all of that is how deeply seriously he takes his job as being No. 1 protector of his boys, and all of those he loves.

if my boys have a moral core — oh, they do! — it comes in large measure from their papa, who lives by a code indelibly inscribed, one weighed in the pages of ancient text, one from which there is no dilution. we’ve all witnessed him going to the mat for a principle he believes in (note: see trump v. kamin, a battle spelled out in too-tall, too-showy alphabet letters). but, here in the confines of home sweet home, i’ve watched him insist it’s no big deal to drive 15 hours to watch three minutes of a crew race because no kid should be without cheering squad, even in the B boat of a novice squad for a race they didn’t win. i’ve seen him take a train to a cab to a far-flung soccer field — in a snowstorm, mind you — abiding by the very same 90-percent-of-life-is-showing-up principle.

because he’s a fellow with a predilection for holey T-shirts and shorts a size too big, we rib him fairly endlessly (in part because we take seriously our job to keeper our prize-winner duly humble; but too because he is such a darn good sport, and the basso-profundo of his belly laugh could warm the coldest bone in this old house).

but here’s the undying truth: we know deeply and certainly that he’s a prize beyond all measure. and we’ve two boys who’ve grown up — and grow still — knowing their papa would be there for them upside, downside, no matter what life throws at them. he’s their first and last defense. and no one, nor anything, could get between those boys and the ever-faithful heart of the papa who loves them endlessly and without measure.

happy blessed father’s day, to all who’ve been so blessed.

xoxoxo

what lessons in loving did you learn from your papa? 

among the inanities of life, a knock at the door will anchor you firmly

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sometimes it sneaks up behind you. sometimes you find yourself pulling into a narrow driveway, squeezing between tall brick pillars, praying the next sound you hear won’t be the sides of your wagon scraping harsh against brick.

sometimes you are quietly tiptoeing about someone’s front porch, tucking a fat bunch of tulips into a watering can by the door. and as you are bent, your spine a curve of surrender, the door clicks. you look up, and there is your friend, a not-so-old friend, but a friend who these days is navigating through some of the narrowest straits known to humankind. he found out just three months ago that his lungs harbor a “niche” cancer (that’s what he called it, meaning a rare and intricate one, one at the distant edges of medical mapping).

he invites you in. and only because you’re worried about the draft blowing in, the draft of this chilly may afternoon, you do as you’re told.

when standing face-to-face with someone new to the trials of cancer, all else falls away. the words that are spoken carry a weight and a glistening that propels them clear past the usual folderol and fluff of everyday talk. the words come and go from a nuclear core at the heart of human existence.

my friend wasted no time, when i asked, in telling me that the day before, a day of multiple scans and long hours of cell-slaying drugs, he’d walked into the medical center wrought with despair. he’d been imagining the words, “i’m sorry, best to just go home,” over and over again in his head, certain he’d be told that progress was naught, and hope had run out. i felt the weight of his words, of his truth. i felt the trembling; we shared it in that instant, in that way that words, that story, can draw us into the same shared cell.

but then, he said, his face breaking into pure joy, he heard words he’d never imagined: “they were elated,” he told me. “elated,” he said once again, as if to grind in that truth, the one he’d never expected. the cell slayers were doing their job. hope had rushed into the hollows.

he stood there, a man with not a hair, nor an eyelash or brow, beaming a radiant glow. the front hall, not a minute before filled with a draft and a chill, was suddenly swirling with warmth.

i stayed but a few minutes longer. long enough for a hug and a nod to the little kindnesses that carry all of us through the unmoored passages of our lives, the ones when the walls close in, and the darkness comes, and each and every breath is defiance, is courage with air.

all in all it was but a 10-minute pause in my day. but it jostled the whole of it — and the days before and likely many days after — into fine-grained focus.

suddenly, all the tangles and hassles, the computer on the fritz, the rushing and dashing, the too many things to squeeze in a day, they all fell away. shrank back to size.

none of them matter. not really.

and even though we know those things, know them with every bone in our wobbly old bodies, we forget. too too often.

sometimes, we need to stand in a hallway, face to face with a man who quite frankly tells us he feared for the worst, stared despair in the face, and heard the words he’d least expected to hear: here’s hope. it’s yours to keep. now, go forth. and spread the gospel.

you never know who might show up on your stoop. in deep need of the lesson you’re living today.

and that’s my humble tale of the week. what life lessons did you encounter this week, the ones that plant you solidly in your boots? 

the picture above is in honor of this being children’s book week, and this is the page, drawn and water-colored by tasha tudor, that informed the whole of my childhood, that drew me in and never let me go, the doorway to a land of enchantment that was my home of all homes. and since i didn’t take a picture while tucking tulips into a watering can on the front stoop of my friend, i decided to share the enchantment. i once wrote a little bit about this page, in an ode to dear tasha, the morning after i found out that she’d died. i remembered this was children’s book week because my dear friend amy told me. and she wrote a beautiful ode to her favorite childhood book, which you can find here on her breathtaking blog.

may yours be a lovely blessed week. xoxox

special edition: a little bit of believing

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it’s just baseball. i know that. of course i know that.

but i also know — having suffered through the anguish of loss after loss, in the last inning, the last game of season after season, when it all lay on the line, when we almost could wrap our sweaty palm around a win, but then felt the whoosh and the throb to the heart as it all slipped away once again, having spent night after night of late too scared to watch the screen, too nervous to come out from the dark of the laundry room where i paced in anxious loops or rocked in a creaky chair beside the dryer (true confession; last night) — i also know that, for me anyway, it’s all boiled down to a short course in believing.

baseball, played out on planes of grass and mounds of sand, is a game of hope, counted in balls and strikes. it’s faith, measured in innings.

and after too long a while without a notch in the W column you start to ache deep inside your brain. you start to wonder if the synapses, the ones that shoot off sparks of hope from one dangly neuron to another — not unlike telegraph machines of yore, the ones that tapped out urgent word, dispatched it round the world — you start to wonder if maybe the neural dischargers will dry up and wither away, from lack of positive outcome.

in the middle of some indecipherable moment, when pitches are wild and runners are running and the wrong ones are scoring or being tagged out, you start to think you just might pack up all your hope, and put it away.

you start to wonder if you’ll ever have faith in believing again.

because you can’t remember the last time you snared the happy ending.

and you’re watching so many people you love shuffle off to bed with the heaviest soles in the world. and not a few tears.

over the years, i’ve tucked boys into bed with cheeks streaked wet and heavenly pleadings unmet. i’ve watched boys slump off the couch, so stunned by what they saw on the screen (think 2003, game 6, fan-we-won’t-name reaches out for a fly ball, and 3-0 cubs-marlins lead in the national league championship series whirls down the drain). i’ve watched boys pick up the next morning’s paper as if it were poison, or hot-wired to a bomb that might go off at any minute.

but i’ve seen, too, indelible sketches of faith tucked under a ballcap:

on cold spring nights, with temps hovering in the low 40s at best, i’ve had friends haul sleeping bags to the sidewalk outside wrigley field, keeping vigil all night so they could be among the first in line for season tickets — year after losing year. and we’ve a very dear friend who drove in from upstate new york, overnight, over the weekend, to plop his bum in the season-ticket seat at wrigley he’s held since god-only-knows-when. because he’d never before known a world series game, and he wasn’t about to let a thousand miles get in the way.

the diehards, they never gave up. maybe it was only wimps like me who found ourselves wobbling, who thought our knees might give out, the up-and-down of it all, the cardiac teeter-totter of dizzying hope giving way to crushing what-was-i-thinking.

in moments like those, the best you can do — the best i can do anyway — is what my little guy long ago referred to as “soothe talk,” as i tell myself over and over, it’s just baseball. we’ll all get up in the morning, lace up our shoes, run out of milk once again.

but then, before that thought’s half-baked, you back it up with another one begging the baseball gods for a break.

you tick through the laundry list of heartbreak that’s piled up over the years, and you start to think you might just be on the losing side of this proposition — and not just in baseball. you start to think you might teeter permanently into the camp of those too shattered to ever again believe.

but you can’t imagine how that could be. and you know life’s too sweet to let that be the take-home prize.

and all the while you’re wanting it for everyone you can possibly think of: the 92-year-old blind guy in iowa you read about; the gravestones now decked out in cubs caps, and fly-the-W flags; your very own brothers, schooled in transistor-radio baseball, now grown and scattered but still believers in ernie banks & co.; your own two boys — the ones hauled to wrigley cathedral not long after birth because it was a baptism their father believed in.

i especially wanted it for anyone — and i know deep inside there was someone — lying in a hospital bed somewhere in cubs land, someone i imagined might be waiting to die, refusing to die, till the last out was called, just in case this was the year.

even though at the time of that thought, it wasn’t looking so hopeful.

and then, after a drought of 108 years, the heavens opened, and down came a rain. enough of a rain to cover the field in a blank white prayer shawl.

prayers — everywhere — were whispered, the volume cranked louder and louder.

it wouldn’t be long — not too long, given the very long century-plus leading up to the tenth inning of game 7 of the world series of 2016 — and then, at last, it came, the whoop that found its way to the dark behind the furnace, where by then i was rocking in that old creaky chair (the very image of madame defarge, i imagine).

a young boy called my name, beckoned me to the scene in front of the screen. he couldn’t contain his unbridled joy, my born-again believer. nor could his papa. nor his faithful big brother, connected by text and by heart, across the not-so-many miles.

i breathed once again. i inhaled the heavenly vapors of the happily-ever-after ending. i tucked it away in my heart’s deep-down pocket. whispered, only loud enough for my own self to hear: sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to believe.

faith, newly polished and gleaming again, is what i took home from the end of the drought.

i’ll pull it out whenever it matters. because sometimes the lessons of baseball can’t be contained in dugouts and bleachers.

* i must end with an asterisk, as only a wimp would do, in deepest apologies to the fine and glorious folk of cleveland, ohio, who this morning are wearing the sting of the heart i know so well. i was soothing myself — when it looked like a loss might be in store for our end of the equation — by looking up the stories of various players and reminding myself how each and every one prayed for — and deserved — the happiest ending. baseball doesn’t end in a tie, i am told. which proves that i did not make the rules. so to everyone saddened by this stunning development, my deepest sympathies. there is, of course, always next year.

and in the meantime, i’m shipping this ahead of the usual friday-morning deadline because i’ll be teaching flocks of young students tomorrow (the ones who skip the cubs’ victory parade, anyway). and because, well, this is all very hot off the press, this notion of world series champion cubs. and why not leap into the heat of the moment?

before i go, do tell, what are the lessons you’ve learned about hope, and the blessing of believing? how did life teach those particular truths?

because the chair is always, always about story and heart-filled word, i’m going to gather here a compendium of some of the best writing i’m finding, recapping the game and what this all means: 

here, from my dear dear friend, paul sullivan, known and loved by all of us as “paulie,” the chicago tribune’s great cubs writer. 

and my brother bri found this beauty from espn’s wright thompson, about mourning those who didn’t live to see it.

and i’m waiting for roger angell, the great great writer and chronicler of baseball and this world series in particular, to post his latest at the new yorker. stay tuned for that keeper. in the meantime, he’s a great one on the two magnificent drought-ending managers — joe maddon and terry francona — from the new yorker’s ian crouch