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Category: looking back

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.

old blue. sunset

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?

thinking in circles

last night, while i scrubbed the onion burn off the bottom of a pan, i dove in deep in conversation with a mind i have known since delivery, which i think was just the other year.

heck, i can close my eyes and see that brain unborn, an ultrasonic skull, white-on-black on screen, the fuzzy outlines of cerebrum, the big black space i once mistook for lack of brain. until the radiologist talked me off the ceiling. i’ve had my eye on that gray matter since way back, in the beginning.

only last night, suddenly flashed forward, we parsed evil versus harmful. evil, he pointed out, is big picture; harmful is far less sinister in scope. next, he told me why he worries about organized religion; he worries that too many are too judgmental. who do people think they are, he asked, judging other people? it simply makes no sense. the God he knows forgives.

then he tossed out this: “people say you’ve gotta be good because you’ll go to heaven. it’s not about heaven,” he said as if that’s plain as day. “it’s about how you’ll impact other people.
“oy!”

not a heartbeat later, he’d moved onto deep forgiveness and i’d moved onto the pan that steamed asparagus.

he circled the sink and me, the boy who’s walked in circles as he thinks ever since he started thinking, which might have been the original day he lifted foot from ground and placed it back again. nearly 13 years, he’s walked circles ’round me; now, i realized as i grabbed for towel to dab at dripping pan, he thinks circles ’round me too.

when all the pots were clean enough, he and i indulged in sweet dessert—even deeper conversation. we retired to the maple table, we pulled up chairs, an after-dishes tete-a-tete all too rare in the world of over-busy, overburdened children. a tete-a-tete that might be required should anyone ever think to license those who sign certificates of birth.

while he ticked through list of one to twelve, a ranking of degrees of evil, each culled from news reports of recent years, i couldn’t help but note how on the days the news had happened, i’d so fiercely blocked him, little thinker, from this very litany of horrors—columbine, timothy mcveigh, the east texas worse-than-lynching death of james byrd, jr., the black man tied behind a pickup truck and dragged down a country road (my thinker’s pick for evil no. 1), and of course 9-11, which unfolded just minutes after i’d put him, then third grader, on a 12-seat van, newborn in my arms, his first solo ride to school on the far side of the city, a ride that, torturously that september day, coursed him through the shadows of chicago’s tallest towers.

back then, not long ago, i’d not wanted him to know the world could hold such hell.

and now, just minutes later, he was almost-man equipped with mind that studied every shade and shadow of every real-life horror story, probed for what it meant well beyond the news. a mind, i couldn’t help but notice, i could drink like desert water for the rest of all my days.

i shook my head, although he didn’t see me shaking. how, i wondered, did we get to here so fast? how is it that all those bedtime prayers, and all those late-into-the-night conversations, the ones where tears were wiped, the ones where stories told and questions asked sometimes felt like brill-o to my heart, how is it that while i was keeping watch, i swear i was, he had unfolded from little thinker of big thoughts into this mind, this soul, who, as i watch, is sharpening that tool, the way a carver sharpens knives, so he can use it to try to rid the world of what he sees as evil and injustice.

there are not, it seems, too many moments when you freeze the frame, see what’s taking shape before your very eyes. not on-stage moments. not graduations. not holding up a torah, or taking first communion. but right there, at the kitchen sink and just beyond, at the same maple table where you once set your elbows and launched a life of asking big fat questions.

there are a million moments along the road to that maple table and the parsing of degrees of evil that are, simply put, not a lot of fun.

there were fevers when the mercury shot to 105. and back at the beginning, weeks of rocking him beside the tub with the water running hard, something about the rushing sound that soothed (hmm, wonder if that’s why he now takes showers that could go on for hours).

there were schooldays when i heard all about how he’d stood alone on the playground, or perched on the roof of the climbing house, keeping watch on all the other children playing games without him.

and then we up and moved in the middle of fourth grade, and he endured a whole semester as the new kid from the city, the kid who in a town where baseball truly mattered, barely ever got on base, and swung at nearly every ball.

but sitting at that table, watching how he thinks, realizing that i was talking to a soul i couldn’t have designed to be more nourishing to my own soul, i couldn’t stop the warming down my spine: i’d do it all, all over again. in a blink, please sign me up.

it is perhaps the sweetest after-dinner morsel i’ve tasted in a long, long time: half an hour being circled by my firstborn child.

might i mention that it is exceedingly hard to write about how you love your growing-up child. i groped my way through the dark just now. i do it not to say how wonderful he is–that’s not the point at all. i do it to hold up the fact that here we are, some of us, in the very blessed front-row seat, watching the spectacle of true creation. it is almost unspoken, shared perhaps in pillow talk, the truth that what we’re watching takes our breath away. this is, i hope and pray, a place where we can whisper out loud the things not spoken often elsewhere. it is majesty, in rawest form. and though it’s hard as heck to put words to God’s most divine creation, i thought it worth a take. this, after all, is life in roughest draft. as always, i pull in close, i would love to hear your thoughts…

and while you’re at it, please, keep my blessed friend susan and her mama in your prayers. they could use a few today.

before the page turns

before the last page flips over and away, it seems fitting to say, in no particular order…

this was the year my bones got less wobbly thanks to a dancer named donna; my broken-necked boy got rescued, he did, thanks to guardian angels and samaritans, too.

a little girl with a brain tumor reminded me how simple it is, when she nestled next to her mama and proclaimed this lasting truth: “i can read, i can whistle, i have a loose tooth; my life is complete.”

another sweet girl with a brain tumor didn’t make it, but she got up out of her wheelchair and walked across the finish line, she did.

a quartet of builders pounded their hearts into my farmhouse kitchen, and everywhere i look, everything i touch, i see them, i feel them; one blessed builder didn’t live to see the end of this year and for him i will forever ache, and forever be thankful.
a wise editor named ross urged me to tell the whole truth in a tale that finally brought my skeleton out of the closet; an even wiser woman named linda gave me the courage, the backbone, to do so.

a wizened man from ecuador told my sweet will how he walked to this country, would let nothing keep him away; another from mexico told of crossing the desert for three days with nothing but orange peels and hard candy.

a plaza filled with passionate people would not let the world deny nor forget the suffering in darfur, and my boys, thank God, were there to soak in the passion, to add their voice to the outcry.

a college kid with pierced ear and huge heart fell in love with my rambunctious child, offering hope that someone out in the world might see the golden light in his aura.

a golden-haired girl, with a platinum heart, loved that same little kid, and filled his wednesdays with light, every week through the summer.

standing in the emergency room with one trembling 5-year-old, my dear friend and neighbor ran to our rescue, interrupting her birthday to let him leap to her arms and out of the terrifying horrible place.

month after month, our friends at the soup kitchen bathed us in gratitude, humbled us deeply with the simple act of telling us our supper was something.

two soccer coaches, our first taste of the game, cared not about winning; were gentle and sweet as two coaches could possibly, imaginably be.

friends jane, jan and judy, old hands each, took me by the hand, by the elbow, the shoulder, and got me through the great rite of my firstborn’s bar mitzvah.

my blessed magnificent rock of a friend, one from way back in the newsroom, flew here to stand in my kitchen, to be by my side, and teach my sweet will the fine art of ghetto fried rice.

a sweet woman named molly left a shabbat basket on my stoop, melting me thoroughly with her random act of deep kindness.

a man named dorel, who can no longer make words, delighted me endlessly with the gleam in his eye as we went over and over simple sounds, ah, buh and k, kat.

when the going got rough, i stood back and watched a man named pete be the consummate father, showering love on a kid he wouldn’t let get dumped.

on the other end of the line, when i needed him most, my old ER doc friend said the words i most needed to hear, and stayed on the line ’til all was clear.

a farmer named henry, week after week, quietly, wordlessly grew for the world the purest produce that i’ve ever tasted; his sister, the word smith, puts his stories in print, and reminds every one of us of the infinite wisdom buried deep in the earth.

in a million other ways, the friends who i love bathed me in goodness and light, made me laugh, dried my tears, held my hand, held me up. from the ones who brought donuts before dawn to our hospital bedside, to the ones who pushed me off the great blogger ledge, i ask and i beg God to bless them with grace and with all that is good.

it’s been one stunning year, and we’re here at the end. God bless you. God keep you. take a deep breath, take a dive once again…..

if perhaps you have someone who stood out in your year, for their kindness, their goodness, their most amazing grace, tack their tale here. no need to name names, we’ll all get the gist….