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Category: living love

of walls and bridges…

before: when sunlight had a place to play

been thinking a lot about walls and bridges this week, because it seems the only thing to do about a wall is to try to build a bridge. something of a wall––a six-foot-three-inch, solid-cedar wall––was dropped into our little world this week. it’s a wall i’d known was coming. a wall i’d been warned was on the wishlist all of three years ago. that’s a lot of breath-holding, spring to fall to summer, again and again and again. but held it i did. savored every drop of sunlight shafting in. counted my blessings in dapplings and plashes of sunshine’s incandescence, delighted in the way the light danced upon the wicker and the shingled walls of the little room we call “the summer house.” stood there just soaking in the breeze.

after…

it’s gone now.

and once i cried (the day i heard it’d been ordered, paid for, and soon to be arriving), once i dried those tears, i did what mightier folk than me have shown me what to do, and how to do it: how to build a bridge. starts with chin up, and turn the better cheek. if a wall was coming and i couldn’t stop it, i pretty much shrugged my shoulders and decided i’d take it like a grownup, take it with as open a heart as i could muster. and i’ve been mustering. all summer we’ve been gardening side by side, my next-door-neighbor friend and i. i dug up all the plants that wouldn’t grow in the dark at my house, and now they’re growing in the light at hers. on her side of the six-foot-three-inch fence.

since i’ve been at this digging thing for a few decades now, i’ve told her the few secrets and wise things i’ve learned the hard way. fact is, she’s smart as a whip and a whip-crack study, figures things out in a flash. and best of all she’s not afraid to get her hands muddy, or to spend a whole darn day on her hands and knees scrubbing. i’d say there’s grown genuine affection in our weeks of garden talk. we’ve sprouted something even a wall can’t eclipse.

and then this week the fence was no longer something i needed to picture in my head; it’s right outside, the whole long stretch of it. i wish it was a picket. i wish it let even a little dab of light through, but it doesn’t.

once the sun slides low, it gets dark out there. the light no longer plays.

so i got to work digging. dug myself a garden plot where before there’d been an isthmus of grassy lawn that stretched without end, it seemed. my old garden––along the western edge, a patch of peonies, an oak leaf hydrangea, some happy happy ferns––it’s pinched and stunted in mid-sentence it seems. things will need to be moved, and the few i moved already, to escape the metal posts being banged into the ground, they seem to have died in protest.

but i’ve a new garden now. one that will catch the morning sun. one i’ll delight in, once it starts to bloom. once the butterflies come in, and the birds nibble at the seed, and the bumblebees imbibe the succulence. and three years ago i bought myself a fantabulous bird house that will rise up on a bird-house post from somewhere in that garden, and it will be the pretty thing my eye is drawn to, the birds are drawn to. and i intend to come to love what i’ll pretend is my cloister garth. my place to soak in the sacred that animates this holy earth.

it’s not the only bridge i had to build this week, which got me to thinking hard about the ways i want to live my life. i will always always try to be the one to turn the other cheek. to search for the glowing heart of humanity –– or do i mean the sacred? the divinity? –– buried deep down inside, in the shadow of whatever hurts and scars have made it hard to see. i turned to thinking about the long line of blessed radicals, even the one whose name has been so deeply abused by so-called christians. i thought about the good samaritan. i thought about gandhi and martin luther king, jr. i thought about how, in the face of hurling hatreds, they listened only to the sound of love. how they always, always chose the bridge, and broke the walls.

what it really means to practice love is to do it when it’s hard. when things you dearly love are being taken away. when ones you love are sometimes even the ones doing the hurting. whatever are the million things that make it hard to muster, to offer, to model, to practice love.

we all need practice. it’s try and try and try again. stumble, skin your knees, and try again. the question is: will we try, or will we walk away, and leave a trail of hurt and hearts that only serve to harden?

and while i was thinking of all that, i stumbled on these words that fell right in line with all my thinking of walls and bridges…

SOMETIMES

we need a bridge and sometimes we are the
bridge. No one I know has escaped
troubled waters, rough seas and challenging,
scary days. There are times in our lives
when we could use a little help, and other
times when we are given the chance to be
that help for someone else. It really doesn’t
matter where you are right now. What
matters is that you remember we are
stronger together, and taking a hand is
just as important as offering one.

paul boynton

what bridges are begging to be built in your world this week? (a question for quiet contemplation….no self-disclosure needed…)

so far i’ve built a path of limestone stepping stones in what’s now a skinny gangway between garage and fence, but it’ll some day have a picket gate, and i plan to line that stretch of fence with avian residences (aka bird houses) and i need to find wee plants that don’t mind growing in the dark. and today, since my page proofs still aren’t here, i’m headed to the nursery to pluck myself some bushes that will bloom in spring and blossom into berries when the autumn comes. and there’s a long list of perennials i’ve always wished i had a place for, and now i do. so my bridge promises delight even in its earliest iterations.

barreling on, gently…

christmas-morning bread pudding, eight days late

it wasn’t the winter break it was supposed to be. or the christmas. or the new years. two of us were behind closed doors for days on end. one of us is still shuffling from armchair to armchair, plopping down for little puffs of air. another one has blotchy red spots on the back of his hands, covid rash they call it. the other two of us strained to keep two steps ahead and out of the path of the red-spiked intruder.

but we barreled on, the four of us. christmas-morning bread pudding finally billowed in the oven on january 2. and ever since we’ve been trying to shove the train back onto the rails, to make the most of these 10 days before flights and calendars dissipate us once again.

it dawned on me in the middle of the night, as i shuffled through the dark to trace my way to the bathroom down the hall, that we were––at that very moment––all four of us safe under one single roof, as is my most settled equation, as is the variable i’ve prayed for, waited for, for two long years. and it hit me just as quickly how the four of us, over the years, have grown to be our own impenetrable force, a circle of loving each other fully and thoroughly through thick and thin and whatever the whims of life hurl our way. 

we’ve worked hard at that. it doesn’t come without determination and practice. it’s a living, breathing exercise in turning the other cheek, in forgiving, in listening, in quietly knocking on a bedroom door and asking, “can i come talk?” it’s long long hours on the long-distance line. it’s jumping in the car and driving hours, if necessary. it’s showing up, again and again. it’s being willing to admit, i blew it. i worry too much. i got scared. (or whatever is the foible of the hour.)

it’s believing in the best of each other. and giving yourself the time to see it. it’s figuring out that if someone else sees the best in me, maybe the best is deep down under there, after all. 

it’s a lifelong practice in practicing. in knowing there will be days when you don’t quite do your best. when your voice comes out in sharper tones than you’d intended. when you wish you lived alone. when tears sting your eyes, and eventually you hold each other tight.

it’s a testament to loving played out in episodes that take your breath away: the time the stranger called to say she’d found your kid unconscious, strewn on the bike path; the time your kid called to say he got into the law school of his dreams; the time the brand-new driver slunked in the house and handed over the speeding ticket he’d just gotten on his first friday night out; the time your mom turned to you and said they’d found a tumor, and weeks later your then-little one proposed a hat party to make a little bit of joy out of grammy losing all her hair. 

those are the strands that make a family, that stand a chance of weaving something whole in a world of rampant brokenness. it’s the little asides at the dinner table, or while stirring onions on the cookstove, the gospel spelled out––again and again––in certain truths you dare impart. it’s the notes you slide under the bedroom door. the stories they hear you share at the kitchen counter, or listening in on one of your phone calls. that’s the slow-unfurling whole of who you are, and what you believe, what you stand for, that gets spelled out, inscribed, passed on without a slip of parchment. 

families are made by choice or by birth. both stand strong against the cold winds of history. families take endless work, and infinite joy. at our house, it’s the laughter that is the certain glue. the antics that punctuate the pure delight. sometimes, too, it’s tears, the willingness to cry. always, it’s the listening, and the curiosities that drive the questions. hours and hours of questions. of true and telling replies.

it’s the most important work i’ve ever done. making a family, day after day after blessed loving day. it’s the hardest work, and the work that lifts my soul more than any other aim i’ve reached for. 

my definition of family is nothing like it was when i was little. i used to look to the scrubbed and polished clans who filled the church pew, all in matching hats and coats, lined up like stepping stones in graduated sizes. a lifetime of paying attention clobbered that flimsy facade. now the ones who teach me how it works are the ones who weather heartache, who do not give up, who tell the truth, don’t hide the hard parts.  

i remember in the hours before my firstborn was born, i was sitting all alone at the kitchen table, and i whispered words to God, promised to envelope that sweet child in all the love i could muster, to harbor him from every hurt. i’ve found out over the years that you can’t keep the ones you love from hurt, from heartache. but you can build a mighty shield, you can build an unbreakable ring of love and light, and you can be there to catch ’em when they falter, you can wrap them in your arms, rest their heads against your heartbeat, and you can promise them your love is one inextinguishable force, and your light will always always burn for them. and you can always make ’em laugh. and listen to their secrets, their hopes, their dreams, their prayers. 

and when the days don’t unfold the way you’d wished, the ways you’d dreamed of, well, you can wait till the darkness ends, and you can tuck a new bread pudding in the oven, and you can shuffle to the kitchen table, join hands, squeeze tight, and whisper, thank you God for bringing us this holy, holy moment, and letting us weather all of life––its best, its worst––with each other at our backs, our sides, our wholes

every family is its own story, is a vessel for a hundred thousand stories, some passed down from generations, and it’s hard work to make a tiny community of similar-but-unique human beings coalesce into something whole. how do you get through the hard parts? what’s your one essential ingredient? (questions need only be for your own personal reflection, as is always always the case.)

tis january, a month of new beginnings, and a happy birthday blessing to the one and only MJH, loyal reader, dear friend of this ol’ chair, and to my longtime beloved comrade MBW, whose birthdays are today!

“Your love is a verb.”

the letter was addressed: “Dear Wise Matriarch.”

it was written inside a mother’s day card, the sort that might be plucked from a slot in the greeting card aisle of a corner drug store. if you were lucky enough to get to a drug store. or it might have been all that was left in a heap on a metal cart with rickety wheels that rolled past the cell of the north kern state prison where kerry baxter senior, who is serving 66 years to life in prison, convicted of second-degree murder, spends his days and his nights and his years. he never forgets mother’s day, or her birthday, says his mother, anita wills, who spends her life missing him fiercely, who waits for his every 60-second pre-paid collect phone call, and who has devoted her life to proclaiming and proving his innocence.

here’s what kerry wrote in his mother’s day card:

What God has intended for our mothers to embody, you have personified. I’m humbled by your examples of leadership, time after time. Your energy is a wellspring of endeavors to be carried to their accomplishments for the benefit of we who are in compromising conditions. I can attest firsthand that you have demonstrated how a love that is truly unconditional translates in this physical world. Your love is a verb. How precious you are. Thank you, profoundly, for the many lessons you have and do teach.

“that’s from my son. who’s in prison.” says anita looking up from the card, adding that when he was was sentenced in 2003 to 66 years to life that meant “i would never have seen my son as a free man.“ she goes on to say, in a new yorker documentary titled “On Mother’s Day,” that until kerry was sent to prison, family used to come every weekend. “he was our barbecue person. we spent the holidays together, thanksgiving, christmas, birthdays. after he was gone, it seemed like everybody stopped coming. everybody stopped coming after kerry went to jail.” in 2011, when kerry’s own son — anita’s grandson — was murdered, kerry couldn’t go to the funeral, so anita brought new urgencies to her exoneration efforts.

i can’t stop thinking about five words in kerry’s card: “Your love is a verb.”

when love is a verb. isn’t that the point? isn’t that — really — why we live? isn’t that the thing that just might make the difference between taking up oxygen during our stint here — however long that lasts — and bending the arc toward the love we all deep down dream of? 

haven’t there been a hundred hundred days when our eyelids fluttered open in the morning and right away the lead ball in our belly pounded hard against the walls of us, and before we wiggled a toe we were washed over in the weight of whatever it was that worried us, and weren’t the worries twice as heavy when they weren’t about us but rather someone we loved, maybe even someone we birthed, or have loved since right after birth, someone whose time on this great blue marble we’ve felt was ours to protect, to guide, to keep from falling into pitfalls, but when they stumbled or bloodied their knees we might have raced to reach out our hand, to be right there to let them know they didn’t need to climb out or up all alone, but that we’d bear as much of the weight, of the pulling from the depths, as we could bear. however much they were willing to let us pull. 

isn’t love — unfettered, unconstrained by our own agendas, selfless as selfless can be — isn’t love the thing we’re aiming for? the thing we keep trying to get right? like turning the mothership some days. 

don’t we all dream of love the verb? if it’s simply a noun it has no real distinctions, no muscle, no bone. the love that might change things is the love that doesn’t hang out in armchairs (not unless it makes room for someone to snuggle right beside), doesn’t hang out in corners idly hoping its fumes will get the job done. 

it’s a verb in its truest form. it’s the verb that picks up the call. at the oddest of hours, and snaps to attention, full attention soon as your ear canal opens. it’s the verb that grabs the car keys and leaps behind the wheel, and drives as many hours or miles as it takes. to get the job done. the job is being there: being there in heart, in the flesh. at the bedside. when the elevator door glides open. when the curtain of the ER cubicle is pulled back. when eyelids flutter open after emergency surgery.

that’s love at full attention. love when it asks the next question. and the hard question. and the hardest question of all. 

it’s what i try to think about not just on mother’s day. but every day. love is a verb. and it dies without practice. 

i’ve long declared that this day set aside for “mothers” is really a day that should be devoted to “mothering,” another action verb. a synonym for love when it’s a verb. a verb that belongs to no pre-specified quadrant of the population; a verb for all who practice. who day in and day out practice, try to get it right. admit to the fumbles and stumbles, shake the dirt off their knees, get back up and try it again. to mother is to love defiantly, urgently, sometimes as if there’s no tomorrow. to mother is to lavish the golden glorious rule: “love as you would be loved.” whatever it takes. however deep, however hard, however exhausted.

here’s to every someone who puts the verb in “to love.” and especially to those who mother me with all their hearts: to my mama, my mother-in-heart in new jersey, to my best friend who long ago taught me what love can feel like, and to those rare few who let me practice day after day, hour by hour. i love you. happy love-is-a-verb day.

define or describe “your love is a verb” from the person or people who taught you….

here are the two mamas i’m especially loving this day…both have had especially bumpy months and we are loving them dearly….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

where will you begin?

at heart, it’s survival

pickled lime soup.

survival soup: pickled lime, lemon grass, knobs of ginger root, garlic, chili pepper (photo by kalyanee mam)

in this moment of pandemic, amid news reports that make us sometimes want to plug our ears, amid barren calendar pages turned week after week, our everyday tasks are shifted. gone is the dashing here and there (and that’s a very fine thing). gone are the awful tugs and pulls, the guilt strings that tell us we should be doing X,Y, or Z. 

instead, it’s distilled to more of the essence: the few things that really do matter, the ones that matter all the more because all the distraction’s been whittled away. we’re left with essential. and essential is this: exercise your heart, your voluminous, many-chambered heart. use it for its highest purest purpose. use it to love. use it to survive. use it for survival, plain and not so simple. 

or, as my online-college kid put it last night, as he pounded out one of his pile of end-of-semester papers: “corona mom, keep your boys safe. and sane.” (the emphasis on that second sentence, the way he emphatically tacked it onto the first, made it clear that that’s every bit of my job these red-ringed-dodging days. and i couldn’t take it more certainly to heart.)

i’d been thinking a bit about how–in between hours of proofing and re-proofing pages for a new book–my corona days have boiled down to a whole lot of caretaking. how hunting and gathering inform my weekly rhythms (primarily in the form of my hazmat-outfitted grocery-store runs). how feeding is hardly an afterthought. how each night i’m taking time to plot out some serious semblance of dinner, even if, like last night, tearing open bags from the freezer is part of the equation, and it’s hardly all scratch cooking. (though there are days when simmering pots on the stove are as close to incantation as a kitchen might be.) how spritzing pillow cases with lavender water, how scrubbing out the bathtub and sink, how all of it feels essential, verging on straight-up survival. yes, even the scrubbing.

and then, of course, there are the interludes when i’m plopped on the side of someone’s bed, rubbing little circles on someone’s weary forehead. or putting aside those pages of proofs when someone asks, “can you help me with this grilled cheese?”

it is all a part of essential. especially, emphatically, now.

and then i read an essay from a brilliant filmmaker (and lawyer), kalyanee mam, once a cambodian refugee, born during the god-awful khmer rouge regime, one of seven children whose early years were spent in a work camp, before her family escaped through jungle and landmines to a refugee camp on the thai-cambodian border. during the years of the khmer rouge, mam writes that her mother sustained her brood with umami soups, chicken rice, and fried noodles. and that template of nourish-to-survive is the one to which mam has turned in these corona times. she writes:

During these past weeks, I’ve thrown myself into the role of caregiver, as my mother once did. As I soak and sprout beans and rice, chop onions, carrots, and celery, mince and sauté garlic, knead dough, and bake bread, I am finding certainty, meaning, and purpose in preparing and sharing food and conversation with family, friends, and neighbors. In taking care of my loved ones and making sure they are fed, nourished, healthy, and well, I am also being fed. Time has stopped and nothing feels more important.

nothing feels more important.

it’s not every day that we realize that tending to the domesticities of our lives matters at all. most of the time, in the days before corona, that was the almost-disregarded part of what some of us did. those were the chores. the necessities. but maybe, somewhere along the way, we’d come to misunderstand necessity, confused it for meaningless. when, in fact, it’s everything but.

or, as kalyanee mam put it:

care and love are not luxuries: they are necessities, the essence of all life and our survival. in the worst of times and in the face of adversity, care thrives….when our basic human needs are threatened, including our need for certainty, meaning, and purpose, caring emerges to inform us that we are not alone. 

it’s this instinct to care, to take care, to make care, that might make all the difference. that might be the essence of why we’re here at all.

in pondering caring, and what it means to take care, mam writes of the anthropologist margaret mead and her idea of the first sign of civilization. it’s an insight mead long ago revealed in a lecture, and it was retold in a book by the eminent surgeon dr. paul brand, titled, the gift of pain. the revelation, and brand’s take on its meaning, unfolded like this:

“What would you say is the earliest sign of civilization?” Mead asked, naming a few options. A clay pot? Tools made of iron? The first domesticated plants? “These are all early signs,” she continued, “but here is what I believe to be evidence of the earliest true civilization.”

High above her head she held a human femur, the largest bone in the leg, and pointed to a grossly thickened area where the bone had fractured and solidly healed.

“Such signs of healing are never found among the remains of the earliest, fiercest societies. In their skeletons we find violence: a rib pierced by an arrow, a skull crushed by a club. But this healed bone shows that someone must have cared for the injured person—hunted on his behalf, brought him food, served him at personal sacrifice.”

With Margaret Mead, I believe that this quality of shared pain is central to what it means to be a human being.… And the presence of a caring person can have an actual, measurable effect on pain and on healing.

“civilization,” mam concludes, “begins with care.”

and so, we are, all of us, called to care, to share the pain of those we love. to exercise that glorious vessel, the heart. the one anointed and appointed to love and love lavishly. to love as we would be loved. to love as if there’s not a tomorrow. to love with all the urgency of now. as if it might keep us alive. because, truly, it might.

and with that, may your mothering day — a day for all who mother, who care, who love tenderly and fiercely and without end — may it be blessed.

your thoughts on taking care, on the exercise of the heart, and the necessity of love and survival? in any time, but especially now?

stockpiling

IMG_0369

it felt almost like instinct. as the weeks narrowed to days narrowed to hours, i couldn’t keep from stockpiling. soon as the boy — now sleeping just overhead, in the bed by the bend in the stairs — soon as the boy told me he’d found a ride after all, was coming home for a three-day break — fall break, officially — my fill-the-larder instincts kicked in.

lavish him in all the tastes and smells and textures and offerings he could possibly wish for. that seemed to be the propelling mission.

so i stockpiled. stockpiled pumpkin pie from the farmer’s market, grabbed a loaf of banana bread while i was at it. stockpiled cider and raspberry rugelah. ordered up a chicken pot pie from a mama who makes it delicious.

the sheets on his bed hadn’t been touched since the day after he left the room empty as empty could be, the day i scrubbed every last inch of that room, as if preserving something ineffable. the room, more relic than place to hang out these days, barely needed a flick of my wrist. but i vacuumed anyway.

the prodigal papa back in the bible, he wasn’t the only one who knows of the fatted calf. i too might have tossed a beast onto a pyre if chicken pot pie hadn’t been to his liking, the kid who rode six swift hours in the back of a minivan, the kid who all but tumbled onto the street once the four wheels pulled to a stop there at the curb.

we squeezed so tight it’s a miracle all my ribs are still in one piece. i wiped away tears (of course) and then we loped in the house, past the welcome home sign that only made him laugh, because it’s a truth in this house that you can hardly take a trip to the grocery store without finding a welcome home sign upon your return.

inside, once he kicked off his shoes, he too seemed to kick into some instinctual and ancient reflex: he walked room to room to room to see if anything had changed, to make sure all was as he’d left it. then, and only then, did he settle into his most native rite of settling in (be he gone for merely an hour or long weeks on end) as he began to circle the kitchen island in the way he (and his brother; it must be genetic) forever have done, ambulation propelling cognition it seems. story spilling upon story, each one told to the beat of his footfall.

he punctuated his stories with poking around the pantry, inspecting the fridge, and, after all the wind-up, picking a plain old box of make-your-own mac-n-cheese, the kind he’s loved since he was three. and so his first feast at home after seven and a half weeks wasn’t the hoosier mama chicken pot pie, wasn’t the homemade cranberry-studded applesauce, wasn’t the farmer-baked banana bread or the kosher-deli raspberry rugelah. it was the starchy pile of pasta shells swirled with powdery cheese turned into goop. he nearly licked the pot, my boy who’s grown three-quarters of an inch since last he was home (we pulled out the tape measure and measured).

all that spooning into his mouth must have left him exhausted, for the next stop on the homecoming tour was a flop backward onto his bed, and a sigh of pure joy like nothing i’ve heard in a very long while. he mumbled something about how glorious it was to sleep on a mattress that cared for a spine and all its spiky little vertebrae. but then he was off in dreamland, not to be heard from for hours and hours.

it didn’t take me long to realize there’s something (very much something) of the human heart involved in all the stockpiling. it’s almost as if in shopping and shlepping and stocking the shelves (and the fridge and the countertop and the blue willow plate under the cookie dome) we’re giving the blood-pumping muscle a boost. almost as if all the comestibles are edible poetry, are the extensions of our vocabulary. as if they pick up where words cannot go. as if they’ll reach deep into nooks and crannies, as if they’ll saturate every last cell that just might need to be bathed in the notion that someone loves you through and through and through. as if we can’t go the distance all on our own.

it’s almost as if the stockpiling is squeezing every last drop of that thing we call love out of the tired old muscle — the magnificent vessel — that is the human heart. that storehouse deep inside our ribs where all the love is churned, is harbored, is pumped into the ether. almost like it’s a little bitty factory, a production line of loving, that never ever dies. not even when we do, i’m utterly certain.

it all made me wonder if this might be the rhythm from here on in, in these days when the boys i love most dearly are far far from home, and their visits grow less and less frequent: will i learn to stockpile, to fill the larder with all the love i used to lavish day upon day, hour after hour, the barely-noticeable ministrations of the heart — the kiss on the forehead while they’re sleeping, the whiff of their hair while setting a plate at their place at the old maple table, even the occasional deep inhale and sigh when tossing piles of muddy sweaty clothes into the wash? will i store it all up, every last drop of it, and save it for when they come home, when it will all but ooze out of me, when i all but plant myself at the door of his sleeping room, just to watch the rise and fall of his breathing? will i ever not miss the days when i used to wear them, literally strapped into bundles across my chest? the days when their itty-bitty plump-dimpled hands were always reaching up for a lift or a hug or a squeeze round the neck? all our life long, the gestures of love shift and evolve. and while the deep caverns of the mind grow more and more nuanced and brilliant, sometimes it’s the old ways, the skin-to-skin entanglements of mother and child that i miss, that can’t be replaced, can’t be once again, all over again. IMG_0365

so we stockpile. we store it all up, and we ooze it all out for those short few hours and days when they’re close enough that we can hear their breathing, bury our nose in their necks. one deep inhale, one that’s going to need to last for weeks or months on end.

***

it’s been a busy week around here: my first book review for Orion Magazine is online. twas of a beautiful, beautiful memoir, The Salt Path, about an epic journey propelled by unlikely homelessness and a dire diagnosis, one that leads to epiphany, and you can find the review here.

but the bigger news of the week is that the book i’ve been working on for months (years, actually) is officially published and stocked on the amazon bookshelves. it’s my friend mary ellen’s book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude,” a collection of her beautiful breathtaking essays. here’s what i wrote when i posted something of a birthing announcement on facebook yesterday:

When Mary Ellen started her blog, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” on March 2, 2012, she harbored a flickering hope that someday it might lead to a book. She never dreamed she would die just four years and 11 days after “Hummingbird” first took flight. Yet her dream of a book never died. And so, after a few years of culling and sorting and weaving her essays into a whole (a labor of love that became mine when I found out a month after her death that in her will she’d appointed me “custodian of her creative work”), it is with pure joy that Mary Ellen’s family and I announce the birth of her book, “On the Wings of the Hummingbird: A Chronicle of Joy, Grief, and Gratitude.” It’s a distillation of Mary Ellen’s profound wisdom, her unending gratitude, and her unrelenting search for and discovery of joys even amid the shadow of grief and fear as she traversed the uncharted landscape she’d never imagined. It’s slim and it’s elegant and it shimmers with a beauty that was hers alone. Her words, her urgent pleadings, are sure to etch deeply into your heart. It’s available in paperback and e-book, and you’ll find it on Amazon.

two versions of covers, one for the e-book, left, and one for the paperback, right. i was constrained by the strictures of the platform, but tried to make the whole of the book as beautiful as mary ellen’s indelible words…..

how do you stockpile — and lavish — the love in your life?

burrowing into december, month of miracles and searching

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this is the month, they tell us, of miracles. “a miracle happened here.” so say the hanukkah refrains. it’s the month, too, of searching for a room, searching for room in your heart. so say the stories of christmas.

amid the month of darkness, miracles await in the nooks and the crannies. amid the month of december, there’s searching to do. deep-down searching.

here’s a secret: sometimes, you’re wise to approach the days with a deep-down quiet. that’s how you come to hear the whispers, and the cries that haven’t the oomph to rise to deafening decibels. that’s how you just might stumble into a miracle, sometimes find room in the cave of your heart.

the three, it seems, belong together: the quiet, the miracle, the room.

december for plenty of folks is a month of tight passages, and tangled adventures in forward motion. december is a month that grabs some by the ankles, tugs at them, tries to topple them, steepens the climb.

december, when you turn down the noise, unspool the days in whispers, tiptoe rather than race, is when you just might hear the scratch at the door of your heart. you are awake to the muffled cries that come in from the cold. and, often, that’s how you find yourself in the company of miracles, and discover a few extra inches in the capacity of your heart.

in recent days, i’ve tumbled into one or two souls in shadow. souls who couldn’t for the life of them see the light. certainly not their own. i wonder if i’d been racing through the days, a list of to-do’s blaring in my ears, if i would have heard quite how deeply they were hurting.

thank God, i heard.

i paused. i took a breath. shoved aside what the day had intended for me to do. instead, i climbed into the trench where each one found him or herself. i sidled up beside the soul in shadow; i said little. i spoke in actions. because sometimes only in doing can we really truly speak. i made breakfast, plopped it on a tray, ferried it to the someone whose soul was hurting. i unfurled blankets, and we sat side-by-side. i listened, all day.

the magic of loving is this: it works both ways at once. have you ever noticed that in your moments of deeply loving, as you lavish kindness and gentleness, as you exercise dashes of creativity to give your love some oomph, your own heart is growing right alongside the one you’re working so hard to love?

tonight a friend i love is coming for dinner. she’s a friend whose world has shrunk quite dramatically of late. the moment i imagined inviting her for dinner, imagined the candles i’d light, the napkins i’d lay out, imagined the plates piled with deliciousness, imagined the hours of uninterrupted conversation, i felt my own heart grow.

it is in giving love that we find it. that’s neither radical or new. it’s an old recycled truth. but when we live it, especially in the month of december, month of darkness and miracle and making room inside our hearts, it takes on a radiance all its own.

i’ll kindle lights tonight. i’ll aim to kindle light each and every day. i’ll keep my ears tuned for whispers and for cries. i’m making room. i’m tumbling into miracles.

those are the stories, the truths, of december, blessed holy month.

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how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?

the compound interest of love

 

the arithmetic of love cannot be plotted, nor graphed. nor queued in a line. it explodes, scattershot. sometimes it leaks — drip, drip, drip. sometimes, like a mountain rivulet running hard against rock, it carves its own escape route.

at its most glorious, love multiplies with compound interest.

the email began: “Praying it forward haha.” it went on to explain:

Praying it forward haha – I gave a copy of the book to Lisa because I admire her so much as a Mother, friend, caregiver, person.  After meeting her for lunch and giving her the book she shared that she was looking for work she could do at home – we were looking for someone to do our social media and not so surprisingly she had recently received a degree in that!  Of course we hired her.  She prayed it forward by giving 10 of her friends the book and now here you are – Found!  Lets keep the movement.

the email was from my friend susie, who happens to be a saint. she’s opened two cafes for at-risk teens, one mostly for young men who’ve gotten in trouble and are trying now to stay out. the other for young women; teens who are pregnant, or already mothers. susie gave my book to lisa, who also happens to be a saint. lisa was a social worker who became a chicago cop who was so heartbroken by the homelessness she saw in uptown, a tough chicago neighborhood, she started pulling a sandwich-and-coffee-filled red wagon along the sidewalks to feed whomever she bumped into who might be hungry. then, she opened a cafe, inspiration cafe, to feed their spirits as well as their bellies. but then, two years ago, her then-23-year-old son suffered a still-unexplained anoxic brain injury, which means that a kid with a slight fever somehow collapsed, which stopped his heart long enough to cut off the oxygen to his brain. ever since, lisa has been his full-time, round-the-clock caregiver.

and yet, lisa, when given a single copy of motherprayer, and a work-from-home job for my friend susie, “prayed it forward” by buying and sending copies of motherprayer to 10 friends. one of those friends, a fairy-like sweetheart named wini, wrote to me a few weeks ago. in a breathtaking note, she explained that for some reason she’d not tucked motherprayer into her permanent stack of (mostly untouched) bedside books, but rather she’d picked it up and started to read. she said her friend lisa had sent it, and she figured if it came from lisa, there must be a reason to read it. she wondered a.) how i knew lisa (i didn’t, though i’d known of her cafe and her saintly status in this city of big shoulders),  b.) if maybe we could meet, and c.) maybe would i consider coming to a spectacular space (opened by her friend amy, a famed chicago restaurateur) to talk to a circle of spectacular women. she was thinking, she said, of restarting a soulful speaker series she once ran for eight years. she was thinking she’d call this new series, “finding your heart at Found,” (Found is the name of the spectacular eatery, a place that feels like your favorite eccentric aunt’s quirkily appointed parlor). and then she wondered if maybe i’d consider following up that lunchtime talk with a soulful writing workshop at a heavenly place called tumbledown farm, owned by another one of her heavenly friends, yet another lisa.

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a scene from tumbledown farm. (photo by Lisa Moser)

 

if you’ve clicked on all of those links i’ve tucked up above, you can see quite clearly why i was and am pinching myself. kindness led to kindness led to miracle led to long-held-dream-finally-come-true.

i will soon be sitting in a farm kitchen, with the sounds of summer and barnyard blowing in through the windows, and i’ll be encircled by blessed women writing into their depths. we’ll punctuate the morning with walks through meadows, plop down against the trunks of trees, chase after chickens. partake of farm-fresh feasting.

sounds magical to me.

and until the email from susie arrived yesterday, the whole tumble of wonders was shrouded in mystery. how did saintly lisa know of motherprayer? how was it that she sent a copy to wini, a woman schooled in healing arts, a woman with the get-up-and-go to have shepherded eight years of soulful speakers (and we’re talking richard rohr here)? and how was it that after years and years of dreaming of somehow finding my way to the blessing of writing circles, and writing into the depths of the human heart, one door had opened into another, and a farm of my dreams — one with roosters and beehives and a cavernous milking barn — had fallen onto my path?

i looked back at the email from susie, i read and re-read that first line: “Praying it forward haha…”

i knew exactly how i wanted to do that, to pray it forward: i’m starting a writing circle for the teen mamas at susie’s cafe (the pictures above were taken there last night at their monthly community dinner, where susie treats everyone like a queen or a king), and i’m imagining a writing circle-slash-monthly-retreat for mothers who are full-time, round-the-clock caregivers for children with profound challenges. (susie, too, has a sister patty, who i love, and who loves writing, and who is the full-time, round-the-clock caregiver for her daughter who has cerebral palsy.) i am, in my imagination, upholstering the writing retreat with every imaginable pampering: fat bouquets of fresh-from-the-garden bunches of flowers, pitchers of waters swimming with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh mint, sumptuous lunch. crisp, paper-wrapped journals and pens for writing from the heart. a few deep questions, questions meant to uncork all that’s waiting to pour. and more than anything, the holy communion of other mothers who shoulder the same unceasing load of worry and ache and innovation and unstoppable faith. and exhaustion. and a loneliness that’s unfathomable to anyone not bearing the load.

the wheels have already turned, plans are already in the works. because at the heart of this plot are women who heard the holy whisper and made the miracle happen, women who would not and will not be stopped. so neither will i.

it’s the compound interest of love.

“Praying it forward haha..”

there’s your challenge. no need to answer aloud, but maybe, just maybe, let that sweet question settle deep in your heart: how might you pray it forward?

because i know the chairs are soulful folk, i’m thinking that when the time comes i might put out a call for help. perhaps you’ve a few stems from your garden you’d like to share for a fat bouquet. perhaps you make a mean scone. or might dream up some other wonderful way to pamper the mamas for whom a break never comes. (we could make goodie bags, stuffed with pamper-y treats.) i’m thinking i’ll hold the first writing circle for caretaking mamas at my house, in my screened porch this summer. getting away is not easy for these mamas, and going too far is impossible. so we’ll make it short and sweet and close to home. if we wend our way into an irrestistable  bond, maybe we’ll take our circle on the road, and tumble down to tumbledown farm, which is but 45 minutes away. 

p.s. for the fun of it, and to make it easier to follow the trail of good hearts, i bolded the names of each someone who led to another someone in the equation of unbridled love up above. and be sure, while you’re at it, to click on the links (any words underlined and the color of cafe-au-lait) to read layers and layers of goodness from the very good souls up above.

p.s.s. happy blessed birthday tomorrow to slj, an old dear friend of the chair. may your day and your year be filled with compound love.

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a nest on tumbledown farm. reminds me of the cover of a book i know fairly well. be still my heart, most blessed heart…(Photo by Lisa Moser)

this is who we are

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truth is, more days than not i feel like i’m climbing a hill with boots filled with concrete. but then, every rare once in a while, a whiff of hope swizzles by. don’t know about you, but i’m reaching out and grabbing as if my life — all of our lives — depends on it.

last night a friend i love — a friend with a tender heart and fierce magnificent defiance — sent along a link to the sign up above, “hate has no home here.” i’m planting those words — in all those languages and alphabets — squarely in my front yard.

that short declarative sentence captures everything. it gets to the gist of the matter — for me, anyway. it’s the bullying, the hateful tone, and the words and the rulings that pit one against another. that’s what’s draining me, scaring me, making me think i might have a stroke.

“hate has no home here.” hate has no home in my heart.

and, day after day, that’s the epicenter of most of it. i don’t want to live in a country where everyone’s eyeing everyone — are you one of us? we wonder. stopped at a stop sign, tapping our toes in the checkout line. it permeates each and every hour of the day. it’s seeped into the interstitia of all of our minutes. it’s why i stay away from the public square of the new millennia: facebook. i don’t want to marinate my days in the vitriol — from either side of the equation — because harsh words — from any side — serve only to wedge, to divide, to move us farther and farther from the peaceable place where we climb on each other’s shoulders and reach for the heavens.

i was blindsided by the gloating that came along with the win. i hadn’t imagined. i admit that i hadn’t imagined the win in the first place, and shortly after discovered that, for too many, the win gave license to let rip with whatever had been bottled inside. it all came gushing out. and that’s why — months later — i’m still struggling to find my footing.

there’s a house not far from mine where life-size effigies of the former president and first lady were perched on a bench beside the president elect. the former president was dressed in a shiny orange pimp suit. the former first lady, dressed as a whore. it took weeks and weeks for parts of it to finally be taken down (for far too many sickening days, the tableau included a black-faced effigy tied with a noose, dangling from a tree. and ugly yard signs, too). the house is stately, sits on a hill, on a main street that slices this town. i’d have to drive out of my way to avoid it, so i did. i still do. because i couldn’t stand the sight of it. it made me sick every time. i understand that theirs is the right to say whatever they choose; but i wish with all my heart they didn’t find it amusing — maybe delightful — to mock with such vengeance, to jeer, to broadcast what feels to me like plain old hate.

jesus told us never to mock. “blessed are the meek,” is what i learned when i was little, and then learned over and over. “blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart.” that’s what i believed. still believe.

i’m raising my flag and fighting back in the only ways i know: quietly, without folderol and noise.

the other night, driving home through the dark, i was sitting in the back seat when i noticed a car stopped in what seemed like the heart of an intersection, about a block away. i saw the driver get out, and that’s when i noticed something lumpy and dark in front of the car, lying in the road. i didn’t wait for my brain to make sense; i opened the door and i ran. as i got there, i saw that the lump on the ground was a man, just starting to move. he was already bloodied, his face beginning to leak from his nose and his eyes and his forehead. as he strained to lift his head from the ground, the blood poured without pause. the man’s blood spattered me. i cradled him, tried to keep him still. i asked the man his name, praying he’d be able, and he told me. his name was howard. he lived nearby. he had no family, he said. he had no idea what had happened. and that’s when i looked up at the car stopped just inches away, the car whose windshield was shattered as if a boulder had fallen smack onto it.

with all my heart, i tried to keep howard conscious, to keep him from slipping into a place where we’d not get him back. by the time i was asking him to count backwards from 10, my firstborn had leapt too to his side. he helped hold howard still. we both prayed as fiercely as we’d ever prayed. it wasn’t long till a doctor, from out of the blue, ran over too. pulled out his phone, turned on the flashlight, and began to assess the crack that fissured howard’s head.

the one thing i knew most certainly as we all huddled there together, in the dark, in the cold, one man’s blood pouring and pouring: we were all there for each other. life and death is what lay before us, and we were all pulling for life. because we had to. because no matter what’s going on in the world around us, in the end, we are each other’s only hope. and the decency at the heart of every human still breathing is what we’re exercising here. i know that for those few extraordinarily long minutes, it felt to me like we were shouldering all the hope, all the goodness, this world has to muster. we were strangers suddenly entwined in saving one life. and we harbored him with prayer and with love. because isn’t that what all of us hope will be there for us — should there ever be a night that’s dark and cold, a night when our breath is labored, and we’re slipping away?

and in the end, that’s all i know. and it’s the one thing i will not surrender. i will muster every grain of defiance in my heart and my soul, and i will not let hate or hateful words win.

because who we are is all these tiny moments where love wins out, where we rise up out of our comfortable lives, take the reins of what feels right, and do what needs to be done: we march, we make phone calls, we live and breathe kindness as if it’s political protest. these times are begging us to be our best selves. and all around, i see people i love doing just that. they send me yard signs. they raise money for refugee families. they invite those families in for dinner. they listen to their stories. they find love, front and center. and that’s the way we win. that’s what God’s asking. i’m certain.

and i am listening like never before.

what are the moments of love that inspire and embolden you of late? 

as for my friend howard, he is out of ICU, and i hope and pray he’ll be heading home soon. i’ve been keeping watch all week. because howard will forever be in my heart and my prayers. 

as for the sign above, i’m having a few made today. here’s the link, if you too want to print out a poster, a yard sign, a button to pin to your coat (bless them, they’re free for downloading). the magnificent sign was designed right here in chicago by an artist named steven luce. i don’t know him, but i thank him with all of my heart. 

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maybe this will help…

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it’s not even six on the big-faced clock that hangs above the kitchen door, just beside the cookstove. it’s pitch black outside. i couldn’t sleep. again.

that’s how it’s been so many nights of late.

the truth is, i feel broken. deep down inside and all around. it’s the state of the world. the state of domestic affairs (and by that i do mean the nation). and a few other worries besides.

i try not to bring my bundle of knots here to the table. i’ve tried mightily not to be a cry baby. but the truth is, the past few weeks have steamrolled me. maybe you too? as much as i cringe at institutions and norms being turned on their heads, like so many chairs in a tavern strewn after a beer brawl, it’s the oozing of hate, of ugly words, and pent-up outbursts that’s making me quake deep inside. getting to be it’s hard to go a day without bumping into someone spewing some sort of ugly all over the place.

i’m not wired for that. i’m guessing neither are you. when God was making me, i must have been funneled through the light-weight department. i’m of delicate nerve, i suppose. which is why, too often, i shatter. (fear not, God was looking out for me, so i got a double dose of feist, which when in desperate straits i can muster. been known more than once to pull myself up my bootstraps. i’ve taken blows that could have toppled me for good. some day i’ll tell some of those tales. but for now suffice it to say i’m equal parts shatterable and watch-me-pick-up-the-pieces, leaning toward the latter.)

which is where this tried-and-tested old table of friends comes to the rescue. i stumbled into something so good the other day, i had to haul it over here. it’s a book i was reading for work (God bless a job that commands you to read and read deeply). and while i’m not keen on self-help tomes of any kind (truth is — and we’re truth-telling here this dark morning — books that promise salvation-by-baby-step, they make my skin crawl; i’m flat-out allergic), this particular book, which hadn’t set out to fix me or anyone else, more or less set in cement something i’ve always believed: you can find your way out of your brokenness by exercising rampant and wild love beyond measure.

or, as the brilliant ann voskamp writes in her breathtaking new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life:

“we can be the brokers of healing exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”  

or: “God is drawn to broken things — so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

and: “maybe the love gets in easier where the heart’s broke open?” a theory posited by voskamp’s young son.

a canadian wheat farmer’s wife and “the mama of a half dozen crazy exuberant kids,” as she often puts it, voskamp has known grief all her life. ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. it’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and pierce the sharp edge along “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

it’s a grief that led her into the deep well of darkness: “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?”

and yet, out of that brokenness, voskamp, who five years ago wrote the runaway bestseller, One Thousand Gifts, finds a way toward blessing. she comes to understand that operating out of love—a wild, abundant love—wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. in one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. and that’s just the start of it.

she leans into science to back up her scheme, the review of general psychology, in particular, and a study that showed that “those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t.” and here’s why, according to voskamp’s squad of research psychologists: “when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins. acts of kindness reduce anxiety, and strengthen the immune system. five random acts of kindness can increase happiness for up to three months later.”

in this particular instance i’m going with it, abandoning the newsroom adage of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” i’m flat-out buying the science, and the instruction, because frankly anyone got a brighter idea?

i might call it the fireworks rule. do something kind, do something crazily wild driven by love, and don’t tell a soul that you’ve done it, then wait for that tickle, that pop, that night sky of sparkle and light, rising up from deep down inside. it’s the lightning bolt of adrenaline, perhaps, oxytocin oozing all over. it’s God, maybe, tapping you there on the heart, whispering, “hey, sweetheart, high five. that’s what i’m talking about when i talk about love. love and love madly. love with abandon.”

voskamp circles back to her newfangled notion a few chapters later, when she asks: “why hadn’t somebody showed up a long time ago in a three-piece suit to tell me those small acts of intentional love actually trigger the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, the soothing hormone of maternal bonding? that little acts of love actually release dopamine, the hormone associated with positive emotions and a natural high? why hadn’t anyone told me: bend low in small acts of love, and you literally get ‘high’?”

chances are, we knew this already. or at least we had a mighty strong hunch. and chances are, too, we’ve lived it. given it the occasional workout.

but somehow, in this long stretch of feeling quite bulldozed and broken, voskamp’s words and her litany of random, wild abandon loving, it all went a long way toward helping me see the dim light of hope in the distance.

in case you’re inclined to play along, here’s more from the list of crazy wild loving that filled one voskamp day, a day that happened to be voskamp’s own birthday: she filled a mason jar with gladiolas from her garden, and drove them to an old man she knew in a nursing home. but she didn’t stop at just his room, she and her kids ran up and down the halls, leaving a trail of mason-jar glads, room after room. and on their way into town, they drove past a squad car and circled back to leave a box of cookies on the hood, hoping aloud that it wasn’t “mistaken for a bomb.” then, for the joy of it, the whole lot of them grabbed a pie at the market and dropped it off at the town doctor’s office, to “thank him for catching babies.” then, they stopped at a coffee shop, and sprang for the coffees of every single person in line. next up, a dozen donuts dropped off at the town hall. just because.

that’s not all. voskamp wondered aloud what would happen if you walked into a diner, and whispered to the waitress that you’re paying for the dinner of that family over in the corner, a family you’d never before seen, and likely wouldn’t see again. and all that was preamble to the litany i mentioned above: the bubblegum quarters, the windshield parking fees, the cart piled with groceries, paid for in full.

be audacious is the point. love audaciously, the insistence.

“don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake that moves another heart to give,” voskamp writes. “what if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?”

i’m willing to subscribe to the voskamp theory of tremors and earthquakes of kindness. i’m willing to sign my name to the roster of crazies.

it’s the closest i’ve come in the past few weeks to seeing my way toward the light. and i’m lurching toward that flickering flame.

before it goes out.

how bout you? since the whole point is not to divulge your own wild acts of kindness, how bout recounting the times you’ve been so blessed out of the blue? perhaps a litany of blessing, of random kindness exercised madly, is just what the doctor ordered to lift us out of our blues?