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Category: life lessons

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

suddenly, pins and needles

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i got brave yesterday. very brave. and that’s not exactly my natural landscape. i tend to be one of those nesty girls, clinging to the familiar, the known rhythms of day after day. i find comfort there, where for adventure i go deeper and deeper. but not beyond my borders so much. not easily anyway. not without butterflies in my belly. and, suddenly, pins and needles all over.

i was minding my business, typing away. pinning one sentence to the next, feeling it all tumbling from a deep-down place. i was writing about boxing up my firstborn’s bookshelf, considering how deeply the books on his shelf took me back in time, made me remember. i was writing about how achingly hard it was to slide those well-worn pages, those pages rubbed raw, into the hollows of moving boxes, lined up like hungry soldiers awaiting chow.

and, then, i started to think that maybe — just maybe — i should do what writers do: send it off to a place i’ve long dreamed of finding my words. send it off to an Editor, The Editor. before i could convince myself otherwise, i made myself do it. i “thumb-slammed,” in the vernacular of a writer friend of mine who is all about being brave, about sending words to the desks of faraway editors, and doing it with gusto, with thumb slammed to the keyboard, as you hover your cursor over the “send”whutchamahoojie, and suddenly your words, they are soaring, and your courage is slithering out of the drawer, getting a sudden and unexpected workout. a bit of a jolt, certainly.

so, while i wait to hear what’s happening next (The Editor very kindly — and unexpectedly — wrote me back last night to say she was passing along my words to the someone who edits these things), i can’t pin my words up on the clothesline, can’t even leave a few wisps here at the table.

but i can — and i am — thinking about courage. about stepping outside what feels safe, about nudging our tired old selves into the unfamiliar, about stepping up to the plate, as long as we’re here on this planet, and testing our muscles, our dreams, and those rare few bits about us that won’t tiptoe into the universe, become a part of the mix, if we don’t get about the business of finding our courage and shoving them out there.

perhaps it’s all this reading i’ve been reading of late. words from my dear friend, now gone. as i read her passages of hopes and dreams, i’d be a fool for not figuring out that the sharpest edge of the writing — from the perspective of now, after her death — is that those dreams, those hopes, they’ve all evaporated, crumbled away. all the fears and sadness that held her back, it’s gone now. maybe that’s the reason she asked me to be the caretaker of her creativity. maybe she knew there were lessons there that i needed to learn. maybe she wanted me to finally slice and dice the fears, the doubts, that make me think i’m not enough. not good enough to be brave. to stand at the doorway of life, with my few offerings cupped in my hands, to even inquire: “would you like to see this? would you mind if i showed you a thought or two i’ve happened to pull from my soul?”

perhaps i hear the drumbeat of time. perhaps it’s sinking deeper and deeper into my soul: these are the days you’re alive, these are the hours when your hopes and dreams have breath. and the only thing holding you back is your fear. how hard will it be, really, to hear someone say, No? is that any harder than the echo chamber inside your own head, the one that over and over and over cuts you down to size, infinitesimal, insignificant size?

if you believe in the God of the Beautiful, if you believe that each and every one of us had the Beautiful breathed into us once upon our beginning, then it follows — there’s no room, really, for arguing otherwise — that the Beautiful is rumbling around deep inside, just looking for the nearest exit, so it can be birthed, so it can come tumbling wholly and wildly — or quietly and breathtakingly — to life.

all we need some days is a hot blast of courage. and the willingness to live with the pins and needles that are certain to follow.

what holds you back? how wild are your hopes and your dreams? where have you found courage?

p.s. i promise to let you know what happens in the take-a-chance department, and i promise to some day slide the “boxing-up-the-bookshelf” essay here. 

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hummingbird wisdom, continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bequest

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bequest n. a legacy bequeathed to someone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but that’s what we did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

what’s your path to joy?

finding miss rumphius

miss rumphius

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?

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after the eulogies: the hard part of being human

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it’s been months and weeks now. months since one friend died. weeks since the other. maybe because it’s been one after another, one too-soon death followed by another, i’ve tried mightily to listen to the lessons i’m certain they and the heavens were trying to teach. to pound into my thick hard impenetrable skull.

to make sure i didn’t miss the point: live with all your heart. live now. don’t let waste a precious second. and do not get tangled in all of those snarls that really, truly, could not matter less.

why, then, is the last of those truths — the most certainly human — so impossibly out of our reach, or mine anyway?

oh, i’ve cried plenty across the hours of all these months and weeks. tears poured out of the blue because i heard a voice that reminded me of one of my two friends. because i bumped into an email. or a recipe. or a pine cone tucked into a pocket from the last time we walked in the woods.

in the rawest days following death, your head — your whole being, really — all but quivers with the newness, the wrongness, of this life that seems to have a hole torn in the thick of it. in the hours when the stories are churned, and told and retold, you pay keenest attention. you distill the essence, as if a potion that might just save you. you whisper the hardest truths of a life just lost, and you spin them into incantations, promises to the slipping-away friend that you’ll never forget. you’ll never never forget to be alive in just the way their parting words implored.

“Keep marveling,” wrote my friend who died in september, words she’d sent at the dawn of a summer’s day when she was pulled to watch the sun rise over the lake, and wanted me, too, to never stop marveling. and then, in a text one week before she died, she wrote: “Xxx swirl love swirl love recipe for today” (she’d had no time for punctuation that morning, and i didn’t need it.)

not many months before that very last text, exactly one year ago today, she wrote me an email that felt almost like haiku, or a buddhist koan, wisdom refined to its purest: “blessings, blessings, more blessings. every minute is bonus. sun. birds. now.”

my friend who died in march, she too, left me with instructions. she wrote: “if you love the life you have, please, please, practice gratitude. wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it.”

IMG_7507because i love those words so much, because they wound up being inscribed on the back of the prayer card at my friend’s memorial service two saturdays ago, i’ve tucked them on my kitchen counter, just beneath the window sill, where i keep watch on the wonders in my tucked-away garden. i’ve made them my everyday altar. i perched the card in precisely the spot where i stand when i make my coffee each morning, where i pull a cookie out from under the great glass dome, whenever i’m packing my little one’s lunch. i perched the card at the pulse point of my everyday, where i sometimes pause to stare through the panes, to catch a glimpse of springtime unfolding, to marvel at the flashing-by pair of cardinals, entwirled in the vernal pas de deux of lovebirds.

and here’s the hard part: no matter how deeply you promise, now matter how fully you inhale the one sure thing you know — that the only way to be alive is to be infused with love — the certainties begin to fade. or maybe they only get muddied. it’s the stuff of being human that never fails to knock us at the knees.

we lose track of our promise to live each and every day as if it might be our last, and to ferret out all piddling nuisance and distraction. and it’s not because we’re fatalistic or showing off our celtic obsession with the beyond, but only because it puts the sharpest edge to being alive.

yet, the litany of temptations is as quotidian, as humble, as imaginable. it goes something like this: the guy in the shiny silver SUV who lays on the horn from just behind you, because you’ve decided to heed the red octagon that’s insisting you STOP; the soccer coach who picks the other kid (after months and months of vying) and doesn’t bother to tell you directly, deputizing someone else to deliver the news you know will break your kid’s heart; the email that wasn’t supposed to land in your mailbox, the one sent by mistake, by someone who meant to grouse behind your back, except that she hit reply instead of forward. oops.

yes, truth be told, it’s these insignificant traps that clutch us by the ankles, that totter us from our vows to stick sure-footedly to a life lived beautifully, gently, blessedly. to stay above the fray, as if wafting with angel wings, hovering over the melee.

i try, with all my might, to resist the temptation. to not give in to the bitter impulse. to stay tuned to the wonder, the astonishment. it’s being human that makes it so hard.

which is why i walk around these days with two slips of paper in my pocket, slips i reach for as if prayer beads, whenever i need to fill my lungs — and my heart — with all that is holy, to discharge the everyday demons:

“swirl love swirl love recipe for today,” reads one of those slips.

“wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world,” reads the other.

and so, on the days, in the hollows of hours, when my promises tumble from my heart, and i feel my knees begin to wobble, i reach my hand in my pocket, and i hold on tight to the last best instruction from my two beautiful friends now watching from heaven.

what makes you tumble? and how do you find the strength to right yourself?

love letters lost

love letters lost hands

sifting through the cyber-ashes, gathering up a flake or two of text, pausing long enough to read, to remember, to let the tears fill and fall. feeling the full-throttle pang of if-that’s-what’s-left-how-very-much-was-lost?

i’ve found the snippet dated april 10, 2009, on the eve of a baby’s birth, in which i wrote to the expectant mama and papa: “i am certain that we have entered into holy time….” a beautiful baby girl was born deep in the middle-night four days later. the email marked the beginning of the hardening rhythms of that labor and delivery.

i’ve been scribbling life’s every twist and turn, long as i can remember. i mark time with typed-out missives. short or long or in-between, doesn’t matter. all that matters is that, for me, it’s putting life to paper, etching time with written record.

i’ve found the one i sent hours after delivering our firstborn to his leafy college, in which i wrote: “poor teddy sobbed silently, melted in tears.” august 29, 2011. i’d sent that one off to my mama, who wanted to know how the parting went.

and there’s the one, three months later, when that firstborn came home for the very first time, and at the dawn of that first morning while he slept, back in the bed above where i was typing, i wrote to my brother: “i suddenly feel whole for the first time in three months….”

i even found the email, carefully tucked away in my meticulously organized treasury of emails — a virtual apothecary chest of drawers within drawers, each one labeled and stuffed with cyber-snippets — from november 4, 2008, when one newly-elected barack obama sent out a note letting me (and a few million other cyber-pals) know that we’d just made history and, by the way, he was heading over soon to grant park, a moment in history — a moment in my email trove — that won’t soon be forgotten.

i have been sifting through all week, discovering what was lost and what was saved. i find notes from the mother of a dying child who wrote, “as they say at NASA, failure is not an option.” another to a friend whose husband had just died, and who i tried to fill with comfort in the best way i know — words dispatched from the pulsing place deep inside my heart. yet another to a friend whose unborn baby girl had just died. and another, a note from the intensive care unit where our firstborn lay with a fractured neck bone. and one my little one (nine at the time) wrote to his uncle, “i will love max all my life,” after his uncle’s beloved golden retriever up and died.

it’s birth and death, and all the touch points in between. it’s loss and hearts filled up. it’s history and how i breathe.

i write because words for me are the vessels in which i pour my unharness-able heart. i pay acute attention to nuance and particulars. i make up words to try to stretch the periphery of that place that holds so much. i want the people in my world to know they’re not alone, they’re loved, their murky shadow is pierced by shard of light. there is a hand to squeeze in the darkness, and i offer it in words.

i render communion in banged-out letters on a keyboard.

and when your hard drive fails, and the trusted back-up drive does too, when you fall in the unheard-of 0.5 percent, you lose crucial threads, you lose what matters, you ache and you weep, the tears spilling to the keyboard.

and so it’s been all week, as i sift and sort and flag bits and snippets that piece the long-winding narrative — the story of a love that’s flowed without end for all the years i’ve been typing.

among the many chapters lost: the one of a boy with a broken neck and his triumphant bar mitzvah three weeks later; the story of that boy wending his way through high school and — finally, achingly (for his mother anyway) — heading off to college. i’ve lost all the emails that i sent, at every turn in those early far-from-home days that turned to weeks and months of learning how to be a long-distance mama. i’ve lost the emails i sent to beloved teachers, kindergarten through college. and, to pinpoint yet another now-missing chapter, the emails bandied back and forth between my sweet life mate and moi, as we decided whether to up and leave our house, our life, our humdrum everyday, to move for one short year to cambridge, mass., to go back to college, to dwell beyond our comfort zone.

in the life story of a family, much unfolds over the course of eight years. back when i first started typing on this particular apparatus, one boy had just turned 13, the other was barely five. i was working at a newspaper, longing to work from home. george bush was president. my brother’s first wife had just died. neither my beloved niece nor nephew had yet been imagined. my mother hadn’t been told that she had a tumor growing in her belly.

i recorded it all in the little blasts i type and send nearly every single morning, and through the whole day long.

the nice and very smart geniuses who live in apple-land, they did the best they could. for days and days and hours without end (or so it seemed when our phone calls ticked into sixth straight hour, three days in a row). but the sent emails could not be saved. nor the photo albums, all carefully edited and curated. i got back raw images, some 20,000, and i will sift and sort and delete the blurry ones, as i’d done before, in all those hours now lost. the books i’d made from those images — pictures and text, page after page — all gone.

and so, on this day of hearts and cut-out valentines, when words are scribbled in silly rhymes and riddles, i am left to consider love letters lost. and to hope and pray that the echo of what they meant, and what they tried to hold up to the light, i am left hoping that it lives on where it was birthed — deep inside me, deep inside the soul of a girl who’s been holding tight a pencil all her life, trying again and again to get it on paper, to get it right, this immeasurable, unfathomable force of life, of love, of understanding.

the one that sometimes is spelled out in quiet little emails. ones that arrive with nothing but the ping of a flat black box telling you something from the heart has just landed. please read, and know that you are loved.

forgive me for dwelling one more week on this nasty mess of a cyber-crash. it’s been just awful, the slow dawning realization of chunk after chunk that’s simply gone, vanished, kaput, kerpluey. like so many other losses in life, we console ourselves with the deep down truth that in the end the only thing that can’t be stolen, can’t be crushed, or lost, is the imperceptible and vast catalog of memory, of what’s held in our hearts and souls and minds. 

what love letters do you hold closest to your heart?

tea therapy

tea therapy

against the arctic whistle on the far side of the glass, the shrill siren of the tea kettle is all but marking shift change, with its regular rhythmic blasts. here at the old maple table all week, it signals: “in session.”

it’s the steam-driven bellows of the mugs of teas that punctuate a holy ritual taking place here. almost as if a shingle had been hung, with red neon arrows blinking, pointing up the bluestone walk, past the paned front door in shade of oceanic blue, lighting the way past snow drifts to the tucked-in table where the talk unfolds.

it’s been a blessing of this month of college interlude. my own sweet boy is long gone, now back in classes, but a host of other college kids, kids with heavy hearts and twisted potholed paths, kids who’ve lost their way, they are finding their way here, to this table, to this ample-bellied teapot where the water never empties and the teas are always spiced. my bowl of clementines is at the ready, so too the cookies under glass, where a swift lift of the domed lid offers sweet accompaniment for salty tears.

i find it a whisper of a miracle that kids have figured out they are always welcome here, and that there’s a heart who will listen without judgement, who makes a place for them to dump their worries and their fears. and who lives and breathes the promise that these dark days will end; there’s a grownup — right here in the flesh — who’s known the shadow and the great abyss, and who — with skinned knees all her own — found her way up the side of the steepest trail.

“it’s the 10-minute rule,” one wise tea-sipper intoned. she meant that she’d been taught to take on her overwhelming dread or angst or out-of-this-world anxiety in 10 minute chunks. endure it. know it has an end, and will not swallow you whole. and in a good 10 minutes, something deep inside will shift. or not. and you’ll enter into yet another 10-minute exercise in sheer survival. and soon enough, sure as sure can be, it will pass. the vista will change. and those baby steps — those 10-minute triumphs of straight-up enduring — they will, through simple additive powers, combine into hour- and then hours-long stretches of breathing. curled in a ball, perhaps. or with the self-propelled motivation to pick up a book, climb on a treadmill, call a friend, tiptoe to the kitchen to see if warm company might be found.

i’ve seen the gamut here this week, had kids whisper words, and follow swiftly with, “i hope that doesn’t shock you.” no, it doesn’t shock. no, no. never. it only breaks my heart that smart kids, gorgeous kids, kids with hopes and dreams  are nearly train-wrecked by the vicissitudes of hurdles set too high, of broken promises and betrayals, of a world in which no sin goes un-broadcast and there’s too little wiggle room for the fine art of making honest mistakes.

so while i steep in my own brand of guilt for not raking in freelance assignments, and while my bank account is on the decline and not the rise, i find more than a dose of solace that the pages of my life flipped forward to the chapter i long ago dreamed of: where i’m the old lady at the maple table, the old lady (not yet hunched-over, thanks be to the pharmaceutical gods who give us bone-boosting weekly white horse pills) whose shoulders are wrapped in the woven folds of woolen shawl, and who with lumps of sugar and dollops of milky cream doles out vast acreages of her heart and what scraps of wisdom she’s tucked into her apron pocket all along the way.

at long week’s end, i find myself bowed in prayer for these children, these wide-eyed pilgrims trying so hard to find their way, to find the shafts of light breaking through the tight space between the rocks. and i find myself so deeply grateful that my years of being lost now pay me back in solid company where it matters most: here at the old maple table, where hope is served around the clock.

no need to knock: i promise you, the door is always open. and so’s the heart.

word of the week: i believe i’ve let languish a promise made back in 02139 to bring you a delectable word of the week. well, here’s one for this week — salmagundi (provenance: nigel slater’s “notes from the larder”)  a hodgepodge is what it means, and it comes from a literal mix of chopped meat, eggs, flavored with oil, vinegar, anchovies, and onions. but used freely far beyond the bounds of the kitchen, as in “they were a salmagundi of old and young, wise and fool.”

and before arriving at the query of the week, another bit of poetic thought picked up last week in my online “poetry in america: walt whitman,” class, taught by professor elisa new of harvard college. in her introduction to poetry lecture, she riffed on poetic language, and its powers. i thought you might find it worth pondering, and so i snipped it to bring to the table, though i forgot to leave it here, as last week’s recipe took up so very many lines….here tis, from elisa new, harvard’s powell m. cabot professor of american literature (and wife of former treasury secretary and former harvard university president larry summers):

Poetic language is language worth pausing over. It’s language that slows down time. It’s language that takes us into corners of our experience we might have overlooked. It’s language that is conscious of itself as language. It’s language trying out and expanding and pressing at the borders of what language can do, just as in other media, in painting, painters think about how to use paint in new ways. In the world of music, musicians think about how to use tone and sound in new ways.

Poetry is language curious about language itself. To say that is, in a way, to put poetry at the very center of the humanistic enterprise, since human beings are the creatures who use language. When we study poetry, we think about what it is to be human, the ways in which our existence is mediated and created and advanced and expanded by language.

oh, to be so supremely conscious of the words we choose, and how we push the boundaries of human connectedness….

where do you dish out your best counsel? the kitchen table, the cutting board, the cookstove, the couch, the driver’s seat of your mobile, the bedroom, the work bench, the miles and miles upon which you walk?