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Category: looking back

the inside-out blessing of the summer fever

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i wouldn’t wish it on anyone. but now that it’s settled into this old house, now that it’s felled the boy whose legs are almost too long to stretch across the couch, the one whose peach fuzz pokes out from under the ice-cold washcloth i lay across his brow, now that it’s given us hours and hours to spend in conversation that flows from idle to silly to whatever’s been corked inside his heart, the summer fever has its advantages.

most especially when it hits on Days 30, 29 and 28 of the countdown to college. in the undulations of fever, when the hours stretch on and the mercury rises again, we’ve burrowed deep into the gift of time spent inches away from each other.

i’ve pulled out all the ministrations he’s come to know by heart, the ones synonymous with being sick in the house where he grew up: the plastic cup filled with ice chips, doused in spoonfuls of honey; the stack of saltines for nibbling, the cold washcloth swirled through the ice-water basin that sits not far from where he lays. he knows the rhythms and sounds of being nursed back to vigor. he asks, from his sickbed, from under the washcloth, “what will i do if i get sick at college?” and i sense it’s one of only dozens of college what-ifs.

the thing about fevers is they take down the walls we wear like armor to get through the highs and lows of the days. fevers strip away the tough stuff, fevers peel away the pretense. fevers let loose what lurks deep inside.

and so these have been the tenderest days. days that wouldn’t have come if the fever hadn’t landed, hadn’t slowed the boy in his i’m-soaking-up-every-hour-with-friends tracks. most days, he’s a blur whirling in and out the front or back door, up the stairs to change from basketball in the sun to dusk at the beach. he’s quite brilliantly making the most of the signature summer, the last one of high school, the last before his tight band of brothers scatters like pool balls across the smooth green velvet that is america’s collegiate landscape.

and because my singular focus these days is soaking up my end of his equation, savoring these hours before it goes silent, before the sheets on his bed are unrumpled for weeks, before i set only two knives and two forks at the dinner table, i’m receiving the summer fever as a gift from the heavens. using the hours to press against his heart the truths i want him to seize: that he’s learned, under our tutelage, just how to fend for himself; that all these years in the crucible of our love is firm foundation for whatever comes his way; that i will always, always be only a phone call away (he actually told me this week he’s going to be calling a lot — this from the kid whose version of a long phone call is three sentences before the dial tone comes).

and, of course, that i will always make house calls.

we’ve even used these hours and days to turn back the clock, to pull from the bookshelf the books he loved as a wee little fellow. he’s curled his hot self beside me as i’ve read and turned pages, followed the antics of poor james and the most giant peach. it’s not a bad thing to take a time-out, to review in real time the idiosyncrasies of how you were loved. in sickness and in health. on good days and days that were not.

it’ll be a long time is my guess till the trusty old washcloth, the one with magical powers, gets pulled from the shelf, and lovingly draped on the very hot brow of the boy i’ve loved through it all.

and now it’s time for the fever to go, and the trusty old washcloth with it….

did you grow up with particular idiosyncrasies on the days you were sick, and someone nursed you back to raring to go?

 

the very last school bell: a litany of thank you, thank you, thank you

 

i’m guessing you thought i might explode by the time today came along — today, the day my once-upon-a-prayer miracle child, the Egg Who Wouldn’t Take No For An Answer, the one who made me an Old Mother in the obstetrical books, born just shy of 9-11, the kid who all but grew up here at the chair (he was new to kindergarten the day this began), today’s the very last day he saunters out the door to high school. the day you might say my front-line duties are downgraded/diluted/shoved to the side, as i move one step back to where i mother from a little bit farther away, from impending long distance, from text and phone call flung from cell phone tower to cell phone tower clear across the heartland, 357 miles kitchen door to college door. 

i actually thought i’d weather it without too much percussion. 

i was wrong. 

somewhere in the last couple days — maybe it was when that sweet boy reached his lanky arms across this old maple table and said the before-dinner prayer the other night, the last Grammy Tuesday of a quarter-plus-century, when he thanked God for a Grammy who was there every step of the way, to take him to toddler gymnastics, most every soccer match he ever played, who pored over spelling books with him, and helped him figure out his math, and then cooked his very favorite orange chicken or her famous 3-4-5 stew, to boot. or maybe it was the night before last when he paused in the dark at the top of the stairs and asked if he could give me an extra-tight hug — it hit me. washed over me like the tidal wave i should have expected. 

all i could think of was thank you. thank you, Universe and heavens above, for this unlikeliest Wonder that i’ll ever know. the one i’ll never ever get over. 

thank you to the whole litany of heroes big and small who have made this adventure in loving and growing a human so very extraordinary. 

thank you — for there’s no finer place to begin — to the mighty big brother who, long ago, declared the impending wonder his “dream come true!” and never once wavered from thinking so. and never once acted as if the late-stage expansion to our little family was an interloper, or any sort of nuisance. (heck, in all these years, i’ve never heard either one yell at, poke, prod, or otherwise seriously incense the other; that eight-year buffer does much to dilute filial rivalry.)

thank you to the five-star teachers, the coaches, the counselors, the school-bus drivers, Other Mothers, and tribal elders who’ve aided, abetted, and leapt into Superhero togs and tights on an as-needed basis. thank you to the dispensers of band-aids and bubble gum, forgotten soccer shoes and sharpened pencils, all along the way. to the school nurses who quelled the queazy tummy and oh-so-calmly called me at home when he got klonked on the playground. thank you, thank you, to the kindergarten teacher who made him giggle each and every day (and whom he declared his “very favorite ever” till well into high school). the first-grade teacher who tucked love notes in his pencil case, and chased away the butterflies. the second-grade teacher who called no attention to the fact that alphabet letters were not lining up into legible words, and certainly not into readable sentences. to the third-grade teacher who never taught him cursive (it’s a lost art, i’m told), but taught volumes on kindness. and on through to the seventh-grade social-studies teacher he wants to grow up to be.

and then there’s high school, where a phalanx of first-rate teachers and stellar human beings — biology, debate, and american studies, in particular — made him love even impossible subjects, and imparted wisdoms far beyond text books. and where anyone willing and brave enough to steer an american teen through the labyrinth — and pitfalls — of modern adolescence is more than a superstar in my little book.

to the brilliant journalist and editor and outside-the-box thinker in cambridge, MA, who invited us all to spend a year of sumptuous thinking in 02139, and gave the kid a chance to live out his never-say-no, “We Need to See the World!” philosophy. one that gave him a flotilla of friends from around the world (and a mighty fine Common App essay for college, besides). 

to the glorious one who, early on, helped him figure out how to tie his shoes, hold a pencil, and cut with a knife, when those dag-nab things confounded him. and who, to this day, has never stopped looking out for him. to the extra-special soul who taught him all about puns, and irony, and the first few chapters of critical thinking, and to whom he owes his very proud (albeit scant) claim to Game of Thrones origins (that glorious teacher’s very own kid just happens to be showrunner, writer, and co-creator of Thrones, and back in the day she regaled us in real time with tales of the curious show in the making — one whose name i never failed to mix up, forever calling it Crown of Thorns, which it was certainly not). 

thank you to the brilliant pediatric nurse practitioner who nursed our boy back from a nasty concussion (or two), and defended his case before the high school’s board of inquisitors. thank you to every single wizard who helped him iron out the kinks of growing up in a deeply digital, over-pressurized world. thank you to those rare and heavenly friends of mine who have always, always, talked to him as if he was their peer. and who dialed up the shine in his eyes. (wink-wink to the one who sent him the many-paged letter of wisdoms he keeps tucked in his bedside drawer, and to the one over whom he now towers and loves with all his heart as she fuels him with big ideas and ways to wrestle injustice in the world.)

thank you for the grandma and grandpa from far away who have sent love notes and trinkets and holiday treats — and countless knock-knock jokes and infinite, infinite love, year after year, phone call after phone call, since the hot august day he was born. thank you for the upper-east-side aunt who is, hands down, the very best giver of ahead-of-the-curve boy gifts that ever there was. thank you to the auntie now in maine who once upon a time, among other weekly adventures, wrapped him in aluminum foil, and led him by the hand into the world of unlimited arts and creation. and to the cincinnati aunt who drives as many hours as it takes to be here for most any special occasion — or plain old sunday brunch. and to the uncles who have loved him up close and long-distance for all of his years. especially the ones who sit down beside him and engage in deep and long-winding conversation (and don’t mind at all being listed as the one to call, God forbid, in any emergency). and make him laugh out loud at their bottomless jokes.

there really aren’t words to capture the love that’s grown between my sweet boy and my mama. it’s one of the breathtakingest loves i’ve ever seen. he simply adores her. takes her by the hand and whirls her in circles, their own imaginary waltzes. sets aside most saturdays for lunch with her, treats her to hot dog and fries and silly conversation. sees in her a tenderness that she might have reserved just for him. 

and thank you, of course and emphatically, to his most beloved band of brothers, the comrades in arms who together have taken on the ups and downs of boyhood, straight through to high school graduation. the antics they try to hide from parents, and the ones we’ve watched wide-eyed — and proud. a boy couldn’t wish for more loyal — or hilarious — or tender sweet, true-to-the-end friends.

thank you to his papa, who has loved him lavishly and wisely. and without whom i’d be lost. (and whose particular thank yous are spelled out in real-time, in words spoken not typed.)

and thank you, most of all, to the God who gave him to us. who gave me one more chance to try out these mothering tricks, to traverse the twists and turns of the tight mountain pass. to test my patience, and melt me all over again. to leave my mark on the world, in the indelible form of the Boy with the Extra-Big Heart. 

watch over him, angels, saints and heaven above. he’s my treasure. and he’s just about ripe for the world.

amen.

forgive my diving into the long and winding particular here. i’d meant to make it more decidedly universal, but got caught along the way, in all the nooks and crannies of remembering. i could have strung together a litany of “chairs” from over the years, monster fighter, reading by the light of double DD, heart to heart. all of which are sealed here — and, some, in the pages of my trio of books. 

my beautiful brave friend robbie died this week. her wisdoms are sealed against my heart. she was so rare, and so very very brave. here’s a bit of her beauty, her capacity for pointing us toward what most mattered….may her memory be a blessing forever.

who are the heroes — especially the unsung ones — in the world that is yours? the ones who might never realize just how much they matter?

waffling

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waffling, as in waffles (and bacon and hash browns and berries, etc., etc.) by the dozens and dozens…

i’m doing my arithmetic. multiplying quarter cups and teaspoons by multiples. i’m firing up the waffle iron. dumping hash browns in a vat. i’m making first-friday, end-of-high-school brunch for however many high school boys decide to swoop through the front door any hour now.

mostly, i’m squeezing every last drop of joy out of this bumper crop of boys i love. boys i’ve known, some of them, since they were wee tots. i’ve watched first days of kindergarten, first school-bus ride, first loose tooth, first sleepover, first at bat and strike out, too. i’ve watched this crop from almost the beginning, the whole lot of them. i’ve been nothing more than a bit player at the margins of their childhoods, but i’ve been keeping close watch, and i’ve been listening. i’ve known of dark shadows haunting some of them, and scary monsters that would not go away.

across the years, i’ve grown to love this brood. i’ve watched as they’ve reached out to weave a tapestry of love, a band of brothers, if ever there was. i’ve watched them surround the boy i love the night he got cut from soccer. i’ve watched them pile out of a van, bearing ice-cream cake and cookies, the night the kid i love got sidelined in the middle of tryouts, after getting kicked in the head in a scramble at the goal, and the trainer could not let a would-be concussion back onto the field. i’ve listened as i drove them mile after mile. remember back to second grade, when one tried to teach the others the intricacies of quadratic equations. heard them race to read 100 books one summer. watched them run around the neighborhood giggling, chasing make-believe superheroes on their phones. and, in the latest interlude, i’ve listened closely as each one reached for college dreams, listened closely as heartaches came and they leapt in to console each other, to bear the hurt together, share the load, shake it off, and laugh the night away after all. they are each other’s front-line rescue squad of heart and soul. theirs is a deep-grained bond, a glorious brand of friendship i wish could be bottled, sold on supermarket shelves. we’d all do well to learn a thing or two from their thick-or-thin inseparability, their faith in each other’s goodness, their forgiveness at ordinary bloopers.

it’s a blessed thing to love not just your own, but a whole flock of little rascals. to blink your eyes and see them not as little rascals shyly coming to the door, but grown men (with shoes twice the size of mine) now looking me in the eye, engaging in nuanced conversation about the politics or the heartache of the day.

i’m going to miss the lot of them — their cacophony rising from the basement where they gather with nothing more risqué than pretzel twists and gatorade, where they drape themselves amoeba-like on arms of chair, on beanbags, on the treadmill track (unplugged and motionless, at least most of the time). i’m going to miss the way they swarm the kitchen, locusts sucking up whatever crumb of carb or sugar they can find. i’m even going to miss the rides to school, where conversation keeps time with NPR, and we engage in everything from venezuela to william barr or the latest bit of drama from the high school halls (i only catch the latter if i’m listening really really closely).

they’re a bunch of boys so good, so unblemished, it gives me hope — a bumper crop of hope — for the world.

missing the whole lot of them might make it a bit more tolerable to imagine missing only one. the one and only who’s been haunting these halls all by his lonesome for the last eight years. ever since the steamy august day we dropped his big brother off at college, and motored down the highway, wiping away the tears that would not end.

we take our goodbyes in sips and bits. makes it far more bearable than one big final gulp. we animate those leave-takings with the wrappings of joy. with one more excuse to fire up the waffle iron, crank the oven, haul out the maple syrup by the gallon.

long ago, when i too was a high school senior and my mom and dad were out of town, i somehow invited every single girl in my class (that would be a few hundred) for may day breakfast before the school bell ring. i somehow thought of that the other day, and thus the invitation for the flock of high school senior boys. thank goodness it’s not the entire class. i’d be neck-deep in waffles, if it were.

i’m getting off easy here this morning. waffles for 20 oughta be a breeze.

what are the rites and rituals of goodbyes that have animated your years? and while we’re at it, anyone have a simple plot for keeping waffles, bacon, sausage and hash browns hot and to the table?

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

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the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

retracing time…

WK cake from video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-30-

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in the newspaper world, -30- means “the end.” at the bottom of every reel of type flying off the typewriter, once upon a time, a big-city scribe tapped four keys to signal the end, so the typesetters knew to move onto the next big story in their end-of-day unreeling of the hot breaking news.

all these years, the -30- stuck. only i grabbed it from my typesetting keys this morning not because of an ending, really, but because a bespectacled scribe i happen to love, one whose flight i’ve witnessed from an up-close unedited perch, he’s been waiting and waiting for today. today is the day he gets his 30-year watch. thirty years of calling himself a “chicago tribune reporter.” thirty years of chasing down just about any I-beam that dared to move in this old town. thirty years of thumbs-up or thumbs-down on wild-eyed architects’ intentions to make no small plans.

but more than what’s beautiful, soaring, inspiring, or not, he sees the way the carved-out hollows and high-rises of a big american city might move the human species into communion, or tear them apart. he understands the nuts and bolts of design, but he’s keen on justice and social equity; he understands the political powers and petty feuds that sometimes stand in the way of what makes a city — and its peoples — work, or not work.

and he’s spent three decades teaching all of us, teaching anyone who turns the pages of every day’s news, to do the same. it’s a way of seeing he’s intent on not keeping to himself.

and ever since the hot august morning of 1987 when he strolled into the chicago tribune newsroom in his navy brooks brothers blazer, white oxford, and khakis — aka “the uniform” — i’ve been watching. took another year till i rose to my rank as “girlfriend,” and then another three years before “wife” was affixed to my status (we had a lot to figure out, mostly in the religion department, during those long should-we-or-shouldn’t-we years).

so i know, more than almost anyone, just how much it means to him to have hit the sweet 3-0. to know that tonight, at the annual bacchanal that is the tribune awards hoopla, he will, at last, get his chicago tribune watch. actually, in a move that is so classily elegant and fair-hearted and loving as to be a signature BK move, he’s getting two tribune watches tonight. he put in an order for a pair, one for each of our boys, so someday, both will have a relic from their papa, one he wrote soooooo many stories to snare, one that in some scant way captures the nights after nights that he kept watch over stories, called in corrections to the desk, gave up a friday night dinner, surrendered a holiday, took yet another call from a “source,” chased a hot tip. because when you’re the son of a newspaper man (and he is) getting the news and getting it right, and never ever backing down from the truth, well, that’s religion to him. and he is devout, if anything.

and that might be the beauty of nights like tonight: they squeeze you into the think-back machine. have a way of making you stop in your tracks, think back across the long arc of your history, sift for those gold nuggets of meaning. (and you know i never ever miss a chance for gazing back over my shoulder, for rubbing my palms against the fine grain of time, squeezing out every succulent drop of “significance.”)

it’s the pause in the plot that always, always holds the possibility of taking life up a notch. that slows us down long enough to realize this isn’t just a race to the finish line, but rather a slow contemplative unspooling that is best lived and best understood, most certainly held up to the radiant light, if we pay close close attention to all the unspoken strands, the subtle and poignant shifts along the way, the moments where we rose up to champion status, where we lived with every ounce of hope and faith with which we were created and dreamt into being, and where we humbly account for our stumbles, realign our compasses and set forth again.

it’s a magnificent reel, this thing called our life, and it’s most closely savored when every once in a while we watch it in slo-mo, stop-gap, how’d-we-get-here, hallelujah style. and then, to anoint the moment, we bend knee, bow head, and whisper a holy thank you.

never, ever, in a million years did i imagine this 30 would bring my bespectacled scribe — and me, and thus W and T (our two and only double-bylines) — along this most blessed road to here.

a billion blessings, BK. and thank you.

-30-

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have you hit the pause button lately, to look back on the road to where you are now? what have you gleaned, and what lessons might you carry forward?

p.s. an emphatic post-script to clarify, clarify, clarify: BK is NOT leaving the tribune, merely collecting his 30-year watch. he will be writing and writing and writing. so sorry for leaving wrong impression. it’s a tribune tradition that you get your watch and get right back to work. so so sorry if i left anyone thinking this was The End…..

ten: a decade of keeping close watch

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a decade is long. a decade is 10, of course. but in this particular case, a decade is the distance between a little boy who was five, and finding his way through kindergarten, and now, a sophomore in high school, a sophomore wishing he was in a faraway high school. a decade is the distance, too, between a boy of 13, an eighth grader who dared his mama to type her way into the dawn (otherwise known by the hardly poetic verb blogging), and the man he is today, 23, and heading to law school.

a decade, too, is the distance i’ve grown since the dawn of december 12, 2006, when i tiptoed into the dim light of my writing room, once the garage of this old house, and sat down to type.

what i wrote that long-ago morning was this:

we are looking for everyday grace. i believe that in quietly choosing a way of being, a way of consciously stitching grace and Beauty into the whole cloth of our days, we can sew love where before there was only one moment passing into another. making the moment count, that’s what it’s about here. inhaling, and filling your lungs and your soul with possibility. learning to breathe again. learning to listen to the quiet, blessed tick and the tock of your heart. filling your soul with great light so that, together, we can shoosh away the darkness that tries always to seep in through the cracks, wherever they might be. please, pull up a chair….

everyday grace, surely, is the shimmering something we’ve found, the holiest thing. it’s there when you look, when you pay close attention. but it’s so easily missed. you need to attend to your post in the watchtower of life. need to be on the lookout, ever on the lookout. you’ve no idea where or when it will come, the everyday grace. it doesn’t arrive with trumpet blast, nor even a rat-a-tat drumroll. true grace is not seeking applause. simply the certain knowledge that it’s just brushed by, grazed against the contours of your heart and your soul. and it leaves you, every time, just a little bit wiser, a little more certain that Holy is all around.

and the quiet we set out to find, it’s infused every square inch of this space. in a world torn at the seams by incivility, in a world where, day after day, tenderness is trampled under the hard boot heels of hate and bullying and a toughen-up attitude, we’ve stayed gentle. we’ve traded in tenderness. we’ve held up a radiant grace, a blessedness that stitches hearts into a whole. and we’ve done it right here on the internet, the mad-dash highway that seems to traffic in all the things that this table is not.

when i think across the arc of years since i first faced the blank black screen (for back in the day, the words here were white against a canvas of black, an inside-out contrast that drove at least one dear friend cockeyed and made her dizzy besides), i tick through this litany: two grade-school graduations, one each from high school and college; a move halfway across the country, and a move back home; a whole presidency, and too many tragedies to begin to count. over the decade, i left my newspaper job, wrote two books, grew a garden, simmered a few stews, stirred countless bowls of porridge, dried even more tears. i’ve kissed goodbye two beloved friends, and a father-in-law like no other. we’ve watched a kid learn to read, another learn to row, nursed and buried a very old cat, counted stars, chased after the moon, sent my mama off to surgery twice, but mostly marveled at her devotion for tuesday night dinners, plied week after week for nearly two dozen years.

in all this sacred time here at the table, i’ve made and deepened friendships. i’ve stood back and watched strangers reach out across the way, find shared communion, grow close in friendships all their own. i’ve listened closely, taken notes, as the two boys i love have wound their way through the landscape of their lives. i’ve loved them in double time as i put their words, their stories, to ink. i’ve netted a moment or two worth savoring, worth holding to the light, worth keeping as long as i’m alive — and then some.

i hadn’t much clue where this typing would go, back on the first day i started. i certainly never dreamed that 10 years later, i’d still be typing, finding my way. i hadn’t a clue that here, in the sacred space of our shared creation, i’d find the holy bliss i’d always been after. i suppose i’ve always been a make-believe girl, and here, at the table, i used the one sure thing i know — words typed into inklings, carved into thoughts, emerged as insights — to claim a space i knew was possible: a place where radiance lights the way, and gentle truth is our guidepost.

on the dawn that marked the first full whirl around the sun (a year that had me writing five days a week, every single weekday), i wrote:

we set out — me and my soul and my fingers — to see where we’d get if we were dropped, one distant december, in the snowiest woods. if we stayed there for a year, groped around, poked under leaves, sat by a babbling brook. looked skyward. counted moonbeams and twinkling stars.

some days, i swear, my ol’ boots, the ones i wear when i’m hiking, meandering about in the woods, they felt like 100-pound weights on each foots.

more often, though, i was barefoot and running through meadows. i was catching a glimpse of the butterfly wing. feeling the gentle fingers of God on my shoulder. hearing the sound of my heart thumping, and thumping some more.

i only kept doing the smartest thing i know if what you want is to get from place A to place Somewhere: i put one foot in front of the other. kept my eyes mighty peeled. my heart too.

and look, here, where we are.

we made it through the woods, all right. but the thing is, along the way, i found a something in the woods that fills my lungs, that makes my blood run quick. that gives me something to think mighty hard about.

i’m thinkin’ maybe the woods is a beautiful place, a place that offers me and my soul just what we need.

with all my heart, thank you and bless you for making this a most beautiful space in the holiest decade of my one sweet life. more to come….

amen.

love, bam xoxox

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what lit your way through the last holy decade? 

old blue rides into the sunset. end of story.

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some time today, a hungry tow truck will roll into the back lot of kenney’s automotive on coates avenue in south deerfield, massachusetts — some 771.668 miles away on the odometer — and the scrunch scrunch scrunch of the metal tooth biting into the rear bumper of an old blue wagon will pierce my heart, all the way from here, inside the old gray house nestled along the alley from which that old car drove away just last summer.

car died a smoky death, rolling into the left turn lane of a country road, near midnight the other night. i found out when the little phone by the side of my hotel bed jangled me awake, and my heart ripped through my chest when i saw the name pop up and heard some degree of alarm as the voice on the other end of the line, a voice i know to be my firstborn’s, yelped: “mom, the car’s smoking. how do you pop the hood?”

he explained, in a bit of a rush: “we’re heading to a diner (at midnight, mind you). and all of a sudden the ‘check engine’ light went on. when i touched the brake, the whole dashboard lit up and smoke started pouring.”

how odd that just the night before, under the halo of a streetlamp in a soggy college parking lot, we’d all made a pilgrimage to that old wagon, paid our last respects — though we didn’t know it at the time — all under the premise that i was applying the $101 village sticker to the windshield and the kid brother, who is sentimental about these things, said he really missed the old car and just wanted to stretch out in the back seat for a minute or two. never mind that the college kid — who’s never been keen on housekeeping — tried to convince us that, really, the car wasn’t in shape for visitors; there were a few remnants strewn around the seats, items the kid brother wasted no time in spying, inquiring about, loudly — in service of his father’s enlightenment and the college kid’s deep chagrin.

i, motherly and not trusting that the job would get done before the old sticker expired, climbed behind the wheel — a wheel i’d climbed behind umpteen million times in the 20 years since we’d bought the sturdy scandinavian vessel — and slapped on the sticker. looked around. climbed back into the pouring rain. the kid in the back seat inhaled — breathing deep of the rare perfume of sweaty rowers who’d made the car into their team shuttle — and then he sighed. he didn’t want to leave the car alone, there in the college lot. fact is, he wanted to take it home.

but we had a big city — boston — to get back to, and a long two-hour’s drive in pouring pouring rain. the car would be home in a few months anyway, when it was motored back for the summer.

when the call came in on sunday night — when whatever it was did whatever it smokily did — my second thought, after telling the midnight caller to be sure not to stand on the side of the road, was “thank god, he didn’t drive into cambridge (the original plan), or this smoky thing would have likely happened while he was alone on a god-awful rainy night along the side of the mass pike where guard rails keep you from driving off what midwesterners would call ‘the cliff.'”

fast forward through a flurry of phone calls, and a keen friendship struck up between me and dear gerry, the massachusetts car mechanic who tells me “the news is bad”: the car we bought before our firstborn’s first birthday has finally bit the dust.

we might get $250 for parts.

now i know it’s little more than a heap of scandinavian steel and a few still tufted cushions, but that old car ferried us clear through two splendid childhoods: drove one little boy to preschool, kindergarten, straight to college. drove the other one home from the hospital, for crying out loud. and every day after. until the car itself went off to college.

at about year three, when we thought there’d never be a little brother and a cat seemed a solid substitute, it drove one mewing striped kitten — stuffed for safe carriage inside the cardboard slot of an ice house beer six-pack — from farm to city house. and it made like an ambulance the bloody afternoon we got the call that the firstborn had somersaulted over the handlebars and was found lying limp on the side of a trail in the woods. from the front seat, that boy whose neck we didn’t yet know was broken, moaned: “mom, am i going to die?” and the little one in the car seat one row back just whimpered and prayed his mighty little prayers, he would later let me know.

it’s the car in which one boy learned to drive. and where i do believe he sealed a first kiss. it lugged groceries by the ton, and broken bikes, and giggling boys. it’s where one or two of us have turned when a good long ride, with the radio on loud, was the surest cure to chase away the blues. it’s carried us through storms and snow and crying jags that would not stop. it always got us home.

it almost hurts to peek at the picture up above, a beauty shot if ever there was. and i can’t bear to imagine the grinding of the gears as the tow truck hoists the wagon to a tilt and rolls it to the burial ground of old, much loved and trusted carriage rides on wheels.

with its bumps and bruises, it’s rolling off in glory. a car that earned its honor. never once did one of us get hurt inside that vessel. it did the job it promised: it rolled two boys, one cat, a mama and a papa safe and sound through all the twists and turns, the hills and downslides of being a happy family that dearly loved what was hoisted on its axels.

i’d planned on telling you about our adventures back in the land of 02139, where for five intoxicating days we inhaled dear friends, cobblestone streets, even a shakespeare class in old harvard hall. but the death knell for the old blue wagon tolled. and i can’t much think beyond it. it’ll be a long sad summer pedaling my bike. my heart will always pine for old blue, the car that turned me gray.

do you have a car you loved? a set of wheels that carried you much farther than mere odometer miles?

going back

i’d not been there in 32 years. even though in so many ways it’s defined who i am. even though my time there resulted in one of the first words you’d read in my bio.

i became a nurse there. and today, armed with laptop and handouts and even an imovie, i went back to the college of nursing that made me a nurse, back to a classroom.

only this time, i was the teacher.

or, more accurately, i was there to inspire the ones who filled the chairs in the room, the ones who have dedicated their lives to the art of nursing, of healing, of listening, of holding hands down long dark lonely corridors, of wiping brows in the night, of handing over a squirmy wet newborn, of pulling up the covers when it’s all finally over, of taking loved ones by the hand and finding a quiet safe room….

i went back to say out loud, and into the hearts of those who would understand, the words i’ve said every time someone has asked me, how does a nurse become a newspaper writer?

the answer is, it’s not so hard really. every thing about being a nurse can make you a wonderful writer.

you know how to walk in a room and soak in everything, i told them, and they knew what i meant. you see, you take in, you absorb in an instant the spoken and the unspoken.

you know to ask questions, elicit story. you put your heart right out there, open it wide. people sidle up to you. they let you take their hand. don’t flinch when you matter-of-factly slide your arm round their shoulder.

you are a master of looking deep in someone’s eyes. you lock gazes like nobody’s business.

you are all heart. all eyes, and all ears.

you gather up stories for a living, as you tend to the brokenness that fills the beds of your hospitals, your clinics, the homes you visit, and, yes, the school nurse’s office.

you are on the frontlines of life at its most triumphant, and its most crushing.

to be witness to all of this, to be the bearer of truth and unforgettable gospel, is, for some of us, a call to be the teller of story, to shine light where there is darkness, to put down words so none of it slips into nothingness.

that’s what i told the beautiful healers, the beautiful writers, who were gathered there in the room of the school that taught me so much. so heavenly much.

a whole semester in listening, among my courseload. how to listen. how to ask question. how to reach out a hand and gather up the whole cloth of someone’s life story.

it’s but one of the tools of the nurse. a part of how she, or he, carries on the art of healing, of making whole.
i loved being a nurse. i loved learning, becoming one.

i don’t don whites to go to work anymore. don’t pass out meds, making my way from room to room, anymore.

but, so help me God, i hope that not for a minute do i wake up and leave my house without donning all that i learned, that i loved, in the college of nursing.

it was a powerful moment to step back into the place that long ago filled my soul.

i pray that those in the chairs today believe what i told them: you have something to say. and you know how to say it.

the world needs the voices of nurses.

we’re listening….

so tired i am, late late at night after a very long day and long week. i’ve a little boy upstairs who wants a back rub, as he settles into sleep the night before yet another big baseball game. i am, as of now, on vacation. i won’t be here next friday, as i always am. but i will meander once i’m home, and then only three fridays till the one in which i take my firstborn to college.
the picture above is one of the frames from my little inspirational imovie. part of my workshop: “writing the heart of nursing.”
little one calling. no more words. just circles on the small of the back of a little about-to-be-dreamy boy….

going back

i went back today. back to the source of so so much.

i walked the halls. found my way past all the touchstones of my long ago. at so many corners, heard the voices from pages long turned.

stood beneath the clock where someone once asked me to join the underground newspaper. walked past the spot just outside the library where my senior english teacher, the monday after homecoming, when i was the queen who broke the beauty-queen mold, asked me if i’d read, “the demise of the homecoming queen.” i gulped, shook my head no, that long ago morning. wondered then, and months later, if she knew something i didn’t yet know.

only later on, months later on, would i understand the clairvoyancy of that question. it all came back again as the 53-year-old me passed over that spot in the much-waxed square-tile floor.

i walked past the radiators that lined the glass walls, just beyond the cafeteria, where all the cool kids and jocks hung out, where if you were a girl who didn’t feel so sure of how she looked when she walked, who worried that maybe they’d whisper, where you held your breath and walked fast as you could.

i went back to high school today, my high school. because the school is turning 50 and they invited us back, back to talk to the kids. back to talk about how the place stamped us, fed into the whole of who we would become.

i found myself surprised by some of the questions, surprised too by my answers.

what did we most regret, they wanted to know.

what one word would we pick to describe our years there?

what’s changed since we walked the halls?

in no particular order i heard myself say that what i learned in high school was how i would be in the world, how i was the kid who ducked and swerved between groups, didn’t see walls, didn’t like cliques, wouldn’t abide them, who looked for the sparks in everyone from the lonely band of misfits to the jocks to the harvard-bound brainiacs, who figured out how to live with a social fluency that all these years later is there in my back pocket, is there when i need to knock on the door of a stranger and ask to hear the hopes and the dreams and the heartbreak, is there when i need to look in the eyes of my little boy’s teacher and get her to understand that we are a team, are together, and setting our sights on the prize that is a little boy’s mind.

i heard myself say that what i regretted was that i didn’t dive more deeply into the books back in those years, when i was aswirl in all that rushed my way, and all that i thought mattered.

i heard myself say that i was blessed back then to be in high school just after the radical ‘60s and what i wanted when i grew up was to save the world. and how, all these years later, i sure hadn’t saved it but i had taken the time to try to understand a few things.

it’s at once humbling and emboldening to go back, to retrace who we once were, to connect the dots from there to here. to stand quietly under a clock that still lives in the frames of my memory. to stand there, at 53, and remember.

my high school years tumbled in on me in the end. my closing days of high school were raw and hard to think about.

it’s why i don’t go back easily.

but all these years later, walking through the halls alone, finding my way… hearing my voice through the microphone, retracing a someone i’d not so distinctly thought about in a long long time, it was a reunion after all.

and the someone i bumped into was my long long ago self.

have you retraced your steps to a place that deeply mattered in the making of who you are? how did you find the journey? and what did you discover along the way?